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FEVER!

A Second Generation Story of Uhr by

David Bruce Bozarth


Fever! is the 12th novel in Bozarth's World of Transits, an original series set on a distant planet of multi-hued humans whose cultures are crossing over from an Industrial Age technology into High Tech—and the associated growth pains thereof. Life on Uhr has always been complicated, but was never more complicated than when the interaction—and sometimes interference—of Earther Transits is involved. Fever! relates events in the life of Princess Rachelle, a daughter of the Earther King. This novel stands on its own. You need not read the prior 11 novels to experience the culture, crisis, grief, love, and hope of these very interesting characters! An adventure romance tale of a different kind! Edited (and condensed) by the author expressly for publication on the Internet.

1.

Thirteen years ago I came to live in this big house with my sister and Tasien, her Chosen. Through the years Elispeth and I planted most of the colorful and fragrant gardens about the main building. We spent many happy hours there, especially Spring and Summer, or when she was pregnant, like now. But this, her fifth pregnancy, was shadowed by uneasiness, for there was a terror on the land which touched even us, here on the quiet, distant Heights above Gizen.

The sweet fragrance of gernica blossoms competed with the stench of fear and uncertainty. The Fever raged everywhere on Uhr. Doctors Beran and Carol ku Greytok called it Transit Influenza, a mysterious disease bringing death and despair to hundreds of thousands world wide. But there were those, like my older sister Elispeth, who could find joy even in the most desperate of times.

Elispeth was glad to be out of bed and into the garden and sunshine. Our walks grew shorter as she neared her term, but, except for inclement weather, we never neglected them. However, I came to enjoy them less; since I, like millions of others on Uhr, dreaded any possible contact with the insidious disease brought to our world by Earther Transits; those multi-hued people arriving from nothingness for uncounted centuries.

There is no explanation why certain Earthers make Transit, or why so many of them are mentally incapacitated; biologically functional but unable to learn more than the most simple of tasks. Some historians claim their vigorous blood line may have preserved our race in prehistoric times, preventing our extinction, but other scholars consider this speculative. Who can say? Even I, a daughter of the most famous of all Earther Transits, have no opinion in this matter.

Not all Transits are mentally deficient. My father says this may be due to an individual's ability to accept an impossible rebirth on an alien world populated by humans with bluish skin. He survived the unknown cosmic mechanism that transports Earthers about to die violent and undesired deaths; though he admits to no memory of the Transit itself. In any event, some Transits are Sane, like my dovenja, Simon Jules Ward, King of Zea, Dovenja of Uhrian Invention, Protector of Freedoms, Arenka'il ku Uhr.

Elispeth and I, and our brothers John and Tresal, have a dual heritage, Zeain and American. We speak two languages, the single common Uhrian tongue and English, one of the many Earther tongues transplanted to Uhr. Our skin is lighter than most for our father is white, with straight brown hair, wiry build and, in this daughter's opinion, very handsome.

Elispeth got her beauty from dovenja and rovenja. Our real mother is a dusky woman of slim perfection, with skin of a deep indigo that shines with an inner light. Elispeth is darker than I and there are times I have envied her smooth coloration. I am pale in comparison, a light violet-hue with green eyes (none of the others in my family have eyes of that color though father says his rovenja's eyes were green), dark-brown hair which shows reddish highlights under bright illumination, small-breasted, too thin, and clumsy.

Elispeth is tall and supple-limbed, and she inherited our Pleasure Trained rovenja's grace where I received none. Even when Elispeth is bloated with child she moves with a fluidity that takes your breath away. Her lips are sweetly formed and presented to best advantage when she smiles, which is frequently because she loves to laugh. Like John and Tresal, our older brothers and the three of them born at a triple birth, Elispeth has dark, lustrous hair, blue eyes and an uncommon elegance. Unlike John and Tresal, however, Elispeth is less adventurous, having accomplished her smaller ambitions early in life. Elispeth's family is all my kyangan'le desires, and I am part of it.

Elispeth Chose her mate long before John and Tresal, moving from the palace when Tasien located a large mansion on the Heights to house his growing business as master instrument maker and craftsman of wood. Tasien, too, is a part of the royal family, though not by blood.

When Simon Jules Ward ascended the Zeain throne at the close of the Great War, many demands were made upon him to protect the war-shattered nation from outside aggression, to rebuild the economy, and provide justice in a land which suffered long under a harsh and brutal regime. I was not yet born and my siblings were only infants. Our mother, Vella, was hard put to care for them and Queen Marsei's child Don. At that time she was, and still remains, a slave in Simon Jules Ward's household.

To ease Vella's burden, and to provide his children with the cultural heritage of his adopted people, father took in three war orphans: Rampart, Joysan and Tasien. They lived in the palace with all the privileges of his own children, playing with them, caring for them, teaching traditions by example, totally unaware of the service they provided. They were given the same love and advantages and in time each brought honor to the House of Ward.

By the time I was born Rampart, Joysan and Tasien were very much a part of the family. I was more than seven years old before I learned the three were not my blood-kin. That changed nothing about my feelings towards them. I loved them, Tasien most of all. I rarely revealed my emotions, though—for I am not like the others, being rather plain and ungifted in most respects and crippled.

I suppose my bitterness with life stems from the deformity which has been mine since birth. My right leg was twisted and useless and by the time I was sixteen I'd silently suffered through twelve operations meant to correct the defect. I could now walk, true, but my leg was a mass of hideous scars kept hidden beneath the long dresses I habitually wore. The leg was bowed out, making it two inches shorter than the other and I walked with a queer rolling gait that made me uncomfortable under the eyes of strangers.

When Elispeth begged me to come stay with her during the birth of her first child, I welcomed the opportunity to leave the palace with its bustle of officials and servants, visitors and delegations. My mothers—Marsei legitimized all of Vella's children at birth, claiming them as her own and was as much our mother as Vella—thought the stay with Elispeth would do me good. They were happy for me and glad Elispeth would not be alone in that big house on the Heights. They never expected I would never return, nor was Joysan happy with my going.

"You're committing emotional suicide," Joysan, my nearest and dearest friend told me thirteen years ago on the night I packed to leave the palace. "You still love Tasien and he can never be yours, Rachelle. Why torture yourself living in the same house with him?"

Only Joysan knew of my inner pain and frustrations regarding my silent affection for Tasien. It always embarrassed me when she reminded me of Elispeth's Choosing and Tasien's Acceptance.

"Elispeth needs me, Joysan."

"But you'll be making yourself miserable!"

"I never would have Petitioned him," I said, continuing to pack.

"Because you're crippled?" Joysan almost laughed as she lifted her skirt to remind me that she had only one leg. The other was lost during the final months of the Great War. She was nine then, soon to be brought into our house as a companion for my older siblings. She, more than John, Tresal, Elispeth, Rampart or Tasien, understood how I felt about my deformity. We were much closer than the others because we shared something in common.

Or did we? Joysan Chose Rampart when she was of age and they left the palace to start a family of their own. Elispeth Chose Tasien, and John and Tresal were hardly around, seeking adventures in school or later in the military and I—I remained home. Most of that time I was bed ridden, recovering from operations to correct major defects in my leg bones, but I missed them all, Tasien above all others.

"What are you thinking about, Rachelle? There's such a dark pout on your face!" Elispeth's arm tightened on mine.

Caught daydreaming, I was embarrassed. "Nothing—you know me. I worry about everything."

"The Fever again?" She gently chided me, using that lovely contralto of hers.

"What else?" I offered a determined smile. "I spoke with Hance Sadis on the phone this morning. He says the travel restrictions between cities and on foreign trade seem to have no effect slowing the spread of Fever. He was worried about us."

"He worries about all of us like he was our own dovenja, Rachelle. You should know that by now. Hance sees shadows in everything, that's why he's head of the National Security Service. Do you mind if we sit down for a little while?"

"Of course, teela," I joined her on the bench Tasien hand-carved for the garden years ago. "Are you getting tired?"

"I am," she admitted, "though you'd think I'd be used to this by now." She laughed with pride and affection as she looked to her hands clasped possessively over her swollen abdomen. She giggled like a little girl. "My fifth child—Herza has well blessed this house!"

"It is a blessing," I agreed, "but to come at such a time—"

Elispeth touched my cheek, her faint smile so reassuring. "We're too far away for the Fever to reach us here, Rachelle. We'll be just fine."

"I'd like to believe that, Elispeth, I truly would, but Hance thinks there's a real danger."

"Here in the Heights? I think not. Father's stopped all the traffic between cities until the Greytoks can find a cure."

"That's the other thing Hance told me. According to him the good doctors are no closer to a solution than they were five months ago."

"I'm sorry to hear that," Elispeth sighed. "The radio is so depressing. We hear nothing good, just the growing number of persons ill or dead. Do you know what I heard at lunch? Morgan's Empire actually fired upon a Tascarian freighter bringing food and medical supplies to them! I can't imagine such pain and fear!"

"You weren't brought up with fear, darling. Neither was I—"

No, dear Elispeth, you know nothing of fear, or even pain...

I can't remember a single day of my life I have not endured pain. Pain is my trusted and constant companion. I learned pain of the body early in life, but there were other pains, pains of the heart which cause me the greatest suffering.

I experienced little of the close relationship between John, Tresal, and Elispeth with Rampart, Joysan and Tasien. I was kept to bed under the constant attention of doctors who tried not to promise too much and, because of my condition, my brothers and sisters were urged to be decorous around me when all I wanted was to run and tumble with them. As they grew older and discovered other interests they moved on and I saw little of them.

Joysan, though, was with me from the first. She was kind-hearted and wise beyond her years (only eleven more than mine) and, like my father, allowed me my independence unless I asked for help. I fondly remember playing with her as a young child. Joysan would impishly remove her artificial leg and we'd be "equals" in our little contests and games—daring each other to greater efforts.

But as Joysan matured she discovered love, and she loved Rampart. I was fourteen when I stood as her witness at the Rites of Choosing. That was a special day in my memory for Doctor Beran ku Greytok had developed a new prosthesis that fit Joysan very well and I was able stand on my own two legs for the first time without crutches. Not long after Joysan and Rampart signed the Great Book in the Gizen Temple of Komos and Herza they moved from the palace to the Heights. Joysan, however, remained a constant visitor to me and the depth of our friendship became truly evident when she named her daughter "Rachelle" in my honor.

Joysan knew my deepest secrets and knew them because she never revealed them to anyone, not even Rampart. Since we were so close, it wasn't difficult for her to discover my love for Tasien. She also sympathized with my heartbreak when Elispeth Petitioned Tasien and he Accepted.

"Rachelle?" I felt Elispeth tugging at my sleeve. "Is something the matter? You look so strange."

I cleared my thoughts of the unalterable past and smiled warmly at Elispeth. "I was just thinking about the first time I came here. You were pregnant with Densil and now we have Olexa, Vaughn, Teri, and this little one," I placed my hand over hers which were still resting over the unborn child.

Elispeth smiled and drew me to her breast. "I don't know what Tasien and I would have done without you."

I felt a flush creeping over my features and smiled with embarrassment. "You would have done quite well, Elispeth. You're a very loving and wonderful mother to the children."

"And so are you, teela," Elispeth kissed me. "Have I told you I love you?"

"You have—" I laughed, basking in her generous warmth "—and have I told you we should be getting back to the house? You know how Teri squalls if his dinner is late."

"When Tasien gets back," she said positively, "I'll have him talk to that child..." The words brought a frown to my sister's lovely face. She clutched at my hand, showing the fear she so bravely hid from the children. "I hope he's well, Rachelle. The Fever is so much worse overseas. They say all shipping has ceased from Secoundous to Fomos. How will Tasien get home?"

"Hance is making every effort to locate him," I tried to reassure her. "He and Chesar Brondle are organizing overseas transportation for Zeain citizens during this emergency. You trust Hance, don't you? I do—He said Tasien will be home before we could start worrying."

"It's a little late for that," Elispeth surprised herself with the joke.

I helped her to her feet. Then, supporting her with an arm about her waist, we took the well-tended path with care, climbing a gentle slope to reach the mansion's entrance.

I made sure Elispeth was comfortably in bed before going downstairs to the kitchen. Densil was besieged by his two younger brothers. Their sister, Olexa, looked on with tight-lipped disgust as Densil defended the pantry from Vaughn's predatory ambitions. I came to his aid by picking the five year old up—giving the child a hard stare then a long hug. I told Densil they could have one yellow fruit apiece and that was all until dinner.

"Yes, karovenja Rachelle." Densil glared at Vaughn, who was laughing with his triumph, holding out his hand for the succulent fruit.

"Vaughn—" I said. When the child looked in my direction I arched my eyebrow, wagging my finger. "It's your turn to help with the dishes tonight." When Densil chuckled, I gave him the same warning. "You want to help, too?"

"No, milady!" Densil's face became sober. "Come Vaughn—Teri—Let's eat outside and not make a mess..."

I held my smile until all three were out of view. Densil could be so good with the younger ones when he wanted, but at times he was so pompous.

Olexa stood leaning with her back to the counter, arms crossed beneath her budding breasts. She is barely a year younger than Densil, who was twelve this summer, but one could never tell that by her face. She had the expression of a old, perpetually-bitter woman. It was no small wonder, considering the oft-times callous treatment she received from Tasien.

In spite of the feelings I have for Tasien, there are certain traits of his character which puzzled or angered me. His harsh demands on Olexa, whose only fault it seems was being born a girl instead of a boy, concerned me. I once tried to talk with her father, but was told in no uncertain terms that it was none of my affair. So I made every effort to avoid disagreements with Tasien while aiding my niece when I could.

"What's the matter, Olexa? You look as if the giva just ate your best friend."

"He might as well have," she sniffed back an angry tear.

I went to the pantry and began gathering the items I intended to prepare for dinner. "Come give me a hand and tell me all about it."

"I can't," she said, helping me without argument, thus I knew she wouldn't speak about it, whatever "it" was. "I'm not very hungry, karovenja. Don't fix much for me."

"You're hungry, Olexa, you just don't know it." We stood at the sink washing zuri tubers. I looked out the window towards the rear of the ten acre grounds and caught a brief glimpse of the young boy whose family owned property on the other side of the hedge border. I sensed Olexa's ill-humor was caused by her desire to be with the boy, but she was afraid to disobey her father's strict rules concerning young men.

"I think it would be nice if we had gernica blossoms on the table this evening, Olexa. Would you pick some for me?"

"I suppose so," she replied without enthusiasm.

"I think the ones down by the hedge behind the workshop are the prettiest. Don't be gone more than thirty minutes..."

Olexa's head jerked up, her eyes on mine. I saw her trying to read my expression which I carefully kept non-committal. "Dovenja doesn't like for me to go there," she stated.

"He shouldn't mind since you're picking flowers for me. And besides," I added the obvious, "he's not here. Just don't be gone too long."

I finally had to reach out with a damp hand and touch the side of her wary face before she responded to my smile. "I was your age once—" I told her.

Olexa grinned hugely, embracing me gratefully then running from the kitchen. I watched her thin, boyish figure racing across the tall grass, arms flying, hair streaming back from her head. I imagined laughter on her lips as she turned the corner of the workshop and disappeared from view.

Olexa was a good girl, starved for the affection her father denied her and Elispeth was unable to give at this time. What Tasien didn't know wouldn't hurt her. With a nod of smug satisfaction, I finished peeling the zuri and put it on to boil.

The utsma was already in the oven, filling the kitchen with a delightful aroma. When Teri waddled in, face and hands covered with sticky fruit pulp, I wished my ruined leg would allow me to kneel easily. Children are less troublesome when they're standing on their own two feet where, if they slip from your grasp, they don't have too far to fall. I had to lift Teri to the counter to wash his face and hands.

"You make such a mess of things, Teri," I scolded the squirming child with a tender laugh. "When are you going to learn to be more careful?"

"Taste good!" the three year old announced as if that were all the explanation needed to justify the juice stains and fruit pulp on his tunic. I cleaned a large enough spot on his left cheek to take my kiss. He put his arms about my neck and kissed me back. "Play gitar after dinner? Please?"

"I'll see, you little imp." I put him to the floor and bent low to kiss his forehead. "Try to stay clean for dinner."

"If you play gitar I won't get dirty."

His promise was delivered with such sincerity that I nodded, knowing full well he'd be just as mussed when the plates were set. I watched him climb into a chair at the large dining table, but when I next looked for him the chair, as I expected, was empty. I was of half a mind to refuse his request, just to teach Teri a lesson, but knew I didn't have the heart to deny him.

I enjoyed playing the six-stringed Earther instrument for the children. I loved my music and I suppose it was the only love I could truly call my own. When I was a little girl, unable to run and play with my brothers and sister, father asked Tasien to make me a gitar. He was still a student of Master Lin Donalson at the time, learning how to craft both Uhrian and Earther musical instruments. Tasien took dovenja's commission with all seriousness, carefully taking measurements and testing woods then finally delivering a beautifully made little gitar.

Father chuckled when Tasien presented the instrument to me on my eighth Naming Day. I remember his crinkle-eyed grin as he rested his hand on Tasien's shoulder. "Now teach her how to play..."

"Me?" Tasien's eyes grew round. "I'm not very good, sir. Let Rampart teach her. He's Master Donalson's best student..."

So it was that my first lessons on the instrument were from Tasien. I wanted to thank my father, not just for the gitar, but for making it possible to spend time with the boy I loved. I couldn't say that, of course because Tasien wasn't interested in me that way and it was too embarrassing to admit my feelings. However, when I was sixteen and Elispeth eighteen, she Chose Tasien and—

"You're not concentrating on dinner, Rachelle," I admonished myself, putting aside old pains and regrets. "You're about to burn the utsma!"

I was thankful of one thing: today was the workers' day off. We usually fixed a mid-day meal for them and had a light repast at the dinner hour since some of them lived quite far from the shop where they copied Tasien's designs or worked under his direct supervision. Though it was Rest Day I seemed to have as little time for cooking as I did under those circumstances. I decided I was too strained, too nervous about the baby and Elispeth—and the Fever that struck the old, the infirm, the very young, and pregnant women.

I needed help...

Three years ago, when Teri was just an infant and Elispeth remained abed for a longer time than usual, I went to Joysan and begged her assistance.

"What makes you think I can help, Rachelle?" Joysan shook her head. "The only way I can help you is to come pack your bags and get you out of that house."

"I don't want that kind of help, Joysan," I was very angry with her. Though at that time I had lived with Elispeth and Tasien for ten years she still thought I was foolish to stay. "If you can't be objective then we have nothing to discuss."

"You're the one who came to my house seeking help, Rachelle, not the other way around. If you want to talk, I'll listen—I always have, teela."

Joysan did listen to me and I loved her for that. Whenever I visited her house, however, my dearest friend never failed to mention something about my leaving Elispeth and Tasien.

How could I tell her I couldn't? Even if I didn't still love Tasien I could never leave because of the children. My sister may have borne them but every child was as much mine as hers and the children felt as strongly for me as they did for their rovenja.

Knowing this made me realize the great love between my parents, all three of them. I never doubted the love my mother has for her master and his Chosen, nor Marsei's love for Vella. One reason my real mother remains a slave is because Marsei and Simon refuse to give her up. As a slave she is publicly accepted in the household, but living as a free woman with them would be scandalous.

Vella was a native Zeain, of course, but she was also a Pleasure Trained slave. For centuries, long before my father became king and abolished slavery in Zea, many thousands of women were trained by calculating and clever slavers who used mind-altering drugs, psychological manipulation and fear of pain to remove emotional inhibitions and destroy personal initiatives—except for those traits which made a slave desirable. The slavers' training made it impossible for a slave to ever be disobedient and only the most physically attractive slaves were given Pleasure Training, that highest of all levels. My mother is a Pleasure Slave.

After the great war a tremendous effort by King Ward's new government began to de-train the poor slaves kept in the Pleasure Gardens in nearly every major city of Zea; however, some slaves failed to respond successfully to the treatment. Thus, by my father's command and his direct patronage, these unfortunate slaves continued in their trained functions under his protection, for if they were not permitted to perform they suffered anxiety, many becoming suicidal or self-destructive. They were carried as "imperial properties" and were well cared for. After their eventual deaths of old age there would be no more Pleasure Slaves in Zea.

When I was very young, I was embittered to learn Vella was a Pleasure slave. Even though Vella was greatly loved by Marsei and Simon it galled me to dream that if Vella had been free when she met dovenja, she would be queen instead of the beautiful Lavecan princess I could not help loving. I thought it was terrible that Vella failed to respond to de-training—all attempts at which occurred before I was born. But as I grew older, I saw the genuine happiness shared between my three parents and came to accept it as natural that I had two wonderful mothers and one loving father.

My real mother, Vella, had the singular distinction of being the last legal slave in Zea. Father couldn't free her without causing embarrassment to himself, Vella and Marsei, or the people of Zea. As long as she was a slave she could warm his bed and give him more children if Herza so blessed them, and Marsei heartily approved. (She often asked Vella to join their bed and never seemed jealous if she wasn't invited, though she usually was. I wasn't supposed to know this, but little girls have their ways of learning what they want to know.) Yes, my family was happy. Why couldn't I be happy as well? I had my children. I had Elispeth.

You don't have Tasien!

I never seriously compared that special relationship between my parents with my relationship with Elispeth and Tasien. There were similarities, of course, but only superficially. The only part that was genuine in all respects was the affection Elispeth and I had for the children of our house. Elispeth is a devoted mother, none could fault her care or love, but she also had obligations in Tasien's business. She helped with sales and orders, entertainment of prospective buyers; even in the designing of custom furniture which was included among Tasien's many woodworking talents.

Elispeth did the weekly marketing and took the children to school. I rarely drove because of my deformity. Some people thought it odd that I, a king's daughter, cheerfully performed labor that, until twenty-three years ago, was done by slaves. Of course there were plenty of people eager to work for a wage, but I enjoyed keeping house for my sister. And, truth be known, Tasien was, in many ways, a frugal man. Perhaps that was why his work commanded such high value: he compromised on nothing, not even his own daughter's happiness.

I found it difficult to understand Tasien's coolness towards Olexa. Her quiet rebellion in response to his unyielding manner was prompted by her desperate need to please her father. She bravely endured frustration in the face of constant rebuffs of her affection. It was difficult for me to understand Tasien's attitude toward Olexa since I never had to work too hard pleasing my father. Simon Jules Ward had my love and respect from the moment I opened my eyes on the world.

My dovenja is king of the greatest, most scientifically advanced, most powerful nation on Uhr. He commands the mightiest military force for peace and is loved by 300,000,000 Zeains. He is respected world wide by millions more, but he is, and always will be, my father. He urged me to do for myself, offering his help only when I asked. He treated me no differently than the rest of his children—my backside felt the force of his strong hand as often as John or Tresal or Don. Elispeth never seemed to need that kind of discipline but the one thing I knew about my father was that he loved me as much as he loved the others.

As a child there were times I fell when walking the palace garden with my father after dinner but he never offered assistance unless I asked. My dovenja taught me well: "If you fall down, girl, you better be prepared to pick yourself up."

I learned my few strengths from my father. My mothers, both real and foster, taught me love. Their hearts embraced us all—their natural children, the adopted, and the war orphans brought into the home. Marsei couldn't have any more children after Don, but she had all the children she could love and her heart seemed to have no limit to affection. She doted on Rampart and Joysan's little Rachelle as much as she did with any of Elispeth's brood. Simon and Vella often accused her of spoiling us terribly, though they were just as guilty in that respect. I suppose that was why I found it so easy to allow Olexa to have her little time away from the house—

I put the salad on the table and started making a tray for Elispeth. This late in her term we usually dined together in her room while Tasien or Densil monitored the table downstairs. I wanted to shake the dark mood of my thoughts, but there was no one to talk with, no one to share my inner despair. I almost heaved a sigh of relief when the phone rang.

Densil was talking into the handset when I entered the hallway. "It's ahdovenja," he said, handing me the phone. Teri, tugging on my dress, wanted to talk to his grandfather but Densil spared me the necessity of saying 'no' by the simple expedient of tucking his brother under his arm and carrying him to the kitchen. As he went down the hall Densil shouted for Vaughn to hurry up and come to the table.

I concealed my smile by turning to the wall and saying hello to father. "How did you know I needed to talk to you?" I asked.

"I'd be damn surprised if you didn't," he teased. "How's my prettiest girl?"

"You always were such a lovable liar, dovenja. How's the family?"

"Your mothers are giving me hell, as usual. Got a letter from Don this morning. Seems he's doing well as our ambassador to Cert. Sends his love. Vella doesn't like the idea of him and Yanis being so far away but that's the way of diplomacy. At least he's keeping up with his electronics studies. He asked for the next series of assignments."

"You think he still wants to come to work for you instead of grooming for the throne?"

"I don't know, teela. Vella doesn't like the idea of him working with such dangerous machines," he chuckled. "Marsei sees no value in the next king's knowledge of electronics and physics."

"What do you think?" I asked.

"I'll tell you what I told Don before I sent him and his new Chosen to Cert: this king-shipping is a pretty chancy thing. It's good to have a second trade. Just in case."

"Oh? And what's yours?"

"That's easy," he laughed. "I dig a mean ditch and have been known to put in some time as a fisherman. Sure would hate to lose this drafty old house, though. I like the elbow room."

"I sure hope you're just teasing and not preparing me for some bad news," I said, well aware there were few men on Uhr who were as intellectually complete as my father. He was, in fact, responsible for the current technological revolution sweeping through the industrialized countries. I know for a fact he authored more than seventy percent of the textbooks used in our national school system—because he tested them on his children first. Some of the texts got pretty tough. I never got as far as Tasien did in algebra and nowhere near to the calculus and tensor mechanics John, Tresal and Don seemed to absorb like sponges.

"Of course I'm teasing you, teela. I intend to be king long after Don's an old man. What's the matter, Sugar? You don't sound like yourself. Or do you like being a Gloomy Gus?"

"It's nothing," I lied, but still smiling at dovenja's love of Earther slang. "We're just worried about Tasien and I—well, I'm so afraid something might happen to Elispeth and the baby. We hear nothing but the Fever everywhere."

"You just do like the medical services advise and you'll be fine, Rachelle. You can't get the Fever unless you come in contact with someone who has it or has been around an infectious case."

"We're taking all the precautions we can, dovenja."

"I know you are. How's Elispeth?"

"Ready to burst and get it over with. I think she'd be a lot easier if we knew when Tasien was coming home."

"That's why I called. Hance just told me Tasien and his men have been located."

I felt a wave of relief flood through me that left me weak in the knees. I sat on the chair beside the phone station. "Elispeth will be glad to hear that. Where are they?"

"Stuck in Hosella, I'm afraid. You know how iffy our political relations are with Brandywine's government. Hosella has placed Tasien's ship under quarantine in Valo Bay. I understand they're being treated well, but the Hosella government has declined to release the ship or passengers from the harbor area. Chesar Brondle is contacting Brandywine's people to see about arranging their release. I suspect it might take a Tenday, but no more than that."

"You sure know how to make a girl happy!"

"If that's all it takes then I've been going about things the wrong way for too many years. I have to go, kitten," I liked it when he called me by Earther nicknames—he had so many of them. "I'll call you if I learn anything new. Or you can call me anytime you like just for the hell of it."

"Wait—do you want to talk to Elispeth?"

"You tell her hello for me, teela. I know how she gets when she's pregnant. She'll cry for happiness and I'm such a coward about those things. Love you. Bye."

I felt like singing when I replaced the handset in the cradle. Simon Jules Ward was a busy man but he never failed to find time for his children. That's one reason why I love him so much.

"Your dovenja has been located—" I entered the kitchen, then stopped short. Densil nursed a small scratch on his arm and Vaughn had tears in his eyes. The table was silent. Teri stared wide-eyed at his older brothers. Olexa quietly filled plates with steaming utsma. There was an amused smile on her lips and she seemed determined to ignore whatever disagreement there was between Vaughn and Densil. I decided to follow her lead, especially when I saw the happy shine in her eyes.

"Are you two through?" I asked, looking at the two older boys. When they nodded, I said "Good. Your dovenja is in Hosella. Chesar Brondle should have him home in a week. No more fighting tonight, your rovenja is tired."

I picked up Elispeth's tray and smiled approvingly, for Olexa had not only placed flowers on the table she'd put a wonderfully fragrant toca blossom on her mother's tray. "They're lovely, Olexa. Make sure Vaughn eats all of his salad before he has a fral cake for dessert."

Vaughn started to protest but I silenced him with a single stern glance. He squirmed uncomfortably, then lowered his eyes to the table. "Yes, karovenja."

Elispeth looked pale propped against her pillows, something quite unusual for one with skin as dark and lovely as hers. She didn't have much appetite, even after I told her the good news. She nibbled the utsma, tasted the salad and sniffed the zuri.

"It's not your cooking, dear," she assured me when I asked. "I think I'm having the baby—now."

"What?" I removed the tray from the bed. I placed it on the dresser and came back. "Why didn't you tell me? When did the contractions start?"

"When we were in the garden. I wanted to make sure. You know how many false alarms we've had the last two weeks..."

Suddenly there wasn't any doubt the child was coming, Elispeth's water burst and I shouted for Densil to call the doctor. For a few moments Elispeth and I were very busy, but we were old practiced hands at this sort of thing and she always had such easy births. I was cuddling an adorable infant girl long before the old doctor arrived.

"I can see Elispeth is in good hands," the doctor said, his voice sounding as tired as he looked. He finished his examination and stepped back. "They're both fine, Rachelle."

"I knew that," I giggled, happy and thrilled with the child. "I tried to call you, to tell you not to come, but you'd already left. I'm sorry you made the trip without reason."

"I had reason enough. It never hurts to be safe. Now be sure and keep her in bed with restricted movement for the next few days."

"I won't have any trouble doing that," I said, escorting him downstairs to the parlor. "Elispeth hasn't been sleeping well."

"Oh? Something the matter?"

"Not anymore. She likes to sleep on her stomach and it's been a bit uncomfortable the last few months."

He chuckled, accepting the hot cup of kla Olexa brought him. "Thank you, child. I can use this—"

Olexa beamed shyly before running upstairs to see the baby. I sat beside the old physician, concerned with his fatigued appearance.

"You look like you could use some sleep yourself," I gently admonished.

"I'm not as young as I used to be, Rachelle. I've been making some late calls to the ranches farther up the Heights. A few broken bones here, a bad ser-monte bite, even treated a man who'd drunk too much ma."

He sighed, leaning back on the couch, closing his eyes momentarily. "Thank Herza our problems aren't as bad as those in the city. I wouldn't be much use there, my dear, that's a job for young people who can go the hours. Speaking of which," he smiled ruefully, draining his kla, "I have to run. There's another baby due sometime tonight and it's a long drive."

I took his cup and walked him to the door. I stood on the porch watching the lights of his car until they were blocked by the tall hedges along the main road. My eyes lingered on the orderly gardens Elispeth and I loved so well. In the moonlight they seemed more beautiful than ever. Perhaps I saw them through my happiness for Elispeth's new child, perhaps I welcomed an increased dependency on my services, perhaps I was thinking Tasien would soon be home.

2.

Elispeth gloried in her ability to sleep comfortably and I had no trouble keeping her in bed as promised to the doctor. My biggest problem was keeping the children in hand so mother and child could rest. Teri, the little imp, was in Elispeth's room so often I looked there first when I couldn't find him.

The days stretched to a week, but Elispeth seemed weaker instead of stronger. My uneasiness increased the afternoon we named the infant. As the old traditions held, the child was Named on her tenth day, but little Rovena was cranky and irritable. She refused her mother's breast at bedtime and even Elispeth seemed weary and abstracted. She worried about Rovena though she was unable to concentrate or do for herself. Densil told me this much later in the evening after I prepared dinner for Tasien's workers. He was concerned with Elispeth's unusual behavior and came to me after Olexa and I finished in the kitchen.

I went to Elispeth and found both my sister and her new-born child in a restless, uneasy sleep. I reached out to brush hair from Elispeth's smooth forehead and jerked my hand back in horror. She was so hot! Rovena was even hotter. It was the Fever! I was positive of this, but how had it come to our house?

I called the doctor. He could not come because he was down with the Fever because that "drunk" the doctor treated at the ranch wasn't an inebriated fool. The ranch hand was a new man hired from the south, and it was he who brought the Fever to the Heights.

My heart pounded in my breast and I wanted to scream, to lash out at that mysterious infection which afflicted my sister and niece. I struggled to control my fears before calling father. He was out but sors-rovenja Marsei took the call.

"It's Elispeth and the baby," I said. "I think they have the Fever."

"Dear Herza!" There was a moment of silence on the line then: "We'll be right out, Rachelle. Don't worry, Vella and I will come."

"You better not," I said, though that was the thing I wished most desperately. "You might get infected."

"We'll see, darling. We love you—"

There was an urgency in her voice which I shared. She hung up and I impatiently waited for mother to call back while I bathed Elispeth and Rovena with cold towels; something the news broadcasts suggested to keep the fever down. Densil stood by the bed looking as helpless as I felt. I had to give him something to occupy his mind, to get him out of the room.

"I'm putting you in charge of your brothers and sister, Densil. You have to keep everyone out of this room."

"But that means I can't be here, too." He seemed ready to defy me in his anguish.

"Please don't fight me, Densil. Maybe we can keep the others from getting sick as well. I'm depending on you."

Densil bit his lip and looked down at his mother, so limp and unmoving. "I'll try..."

"I know you will. Thank you, Densil."

"Is she going to—to—" He choked back the words that terrified him, as they terrified me.

"Not if we have anything to say about it!" I promised him. I rinsed the wet towel and wrung it out. I folded it with trembling hands and put it back on Elispeth's forehead.

It seemed an eternity before Marsei called back. "Rachelle, there's a specialist on his way with a nurse. Your father refused to allow Vella or I to come." I could hear a trembling catch in her voice. I could imagine an argument and both of my mothers losing. She had been crying. "We'll come as soon as we can."

"I'm sure he means well," I said, trying to calm her. "I—"

"It's not because of your mother or me, teela. Yurilla is pregnant, too. You know that. He's afraid we might somehow..." Marsei couldn't finish the words but I clearly understood.

"He's right," I said, wishing dovenja was wrong. I wanted Vella and Marsei with me so desperately. I needed their help and it was impossible for them to come. I must have been crying because Marsei told me to stop blubbering.

"Pick yourself up, child!" She hadn't said that to me since I was five. "Our prayers are with you, daughter, and for Elispeth and Rovena. You take care of them and do what the doctor says. The nurse will do most of the work so you can be with the children. How are they taking this?"

"Only Densil and Olexa know. Teri and Vaughn are in bed. Olexa won't talk to me right now so I don't know how she feels, but Densil is very upset."

"You tell him everything will be all right."

"I won't make promises I can't keep, rovenja."

"I know—call me the moment the doctor is through examining them. Your father is anxious to hear what he has to say."

The doctor was a kind-hearted young man fresh out of Greytok's medical school. All of the new graduates tending fever victims were gaining more experience in short weeks and months than most ever gathered in their first two years. The doctor was reeling with fatigue, but he was patient and answered every single question Densil and I asked. He was not very hopeful.

"They both certainly have it, your highness," he reluctantly told us. "The pathology smears are positive. I wish I could say they'll recover quickly, but we just don't have a cure at this time. We can only treat the symptoms as they occur. Do you understand the instructions I've given you regarding isolation and separate food preparation? If you have any doubts about procedure ask the nurse, that's what she's here for. I wish there was more I could do, Princess Rachelle."

The doctor came to visit every afternoon and he remained as frustrated as I. I could see him raging helplessly against this mysterious Transit Influenza. Father said the disease affects the people of Earth less severely but that was no consolation for the physician facing an invisible, deadly enemy without the proper weapons of battle.

Each day Elispeth and Rovena grew worse. As their conditions declined, I became very concerned that Elispeth would fret over the child, who was having difficulty in breathing because of fluids in her tiny lungs. I moved Rovena out of Elispeth's room to prevent her from upsetting my sister, and because it became more obvious that Rovena was not going to make it.

During one of her too infrequent lucid moments Elispeth asked where Rovena was. I told her she was in my room to make the baby more comfortable and easier for me to nurse her. I believe she knew I lied and beneath it all I sensed her forgiveness. She hardly said anything more until the morning I walked in feeling utterly cold and empty.

I had not slept all night. I had helplessly watched tiny Rovena simply stop breathing. The poor thing never made a sound or movement. I had already cried my tears and I had none left.

"Rachelle—" Elispeth's voice was a fragile whisper. I sat on the bed when she begged with her eyes. "Need to talk—while I can—it's not easy holding a thought—"

"Sleep, Elispeth. Don't over-tax yourself."

"I have to!" Elispeth quietly gathered her remaining strength. "You must listen!" Her eyes blazed with an inner fire which had nothing to do with the fever ravaging her body. Her unblinking gaze commanded my attention, making me hear words I was helpless to deny.

"Our children need you now more than ever. When I'm gone, take them from this house. Take them and don't look back."

"I can't do that, Elispeth! They're Tasien's children, too!"

"I know Tasien better than you. I also know you. He'll never love you the way you love him. If you stay in this house he will destroy all of you."

"What are you saying?" I cried. "You act like I'm in love with—"

"Aren't you? You always have been, you may always be in love with Tasien, but it's not Tasien you love, Rachelle." She closed her eyes momentarily. I wanted to run from the room to hide my shame. She knew!

"Elispeth, I—"

"Hush, sister," she pleaded. Her eyes remained closed, but I felt them as surely as if I could see her deep-blue irises. "It's the thought of being in love that's kept you here too long."

"That's silly. You're just tired and imagining things," I stammered.

The head with the sunken cheeks, the hollowed eyes that looked up at me, made a tiny negative gesture. "Try to fool me if you wish, teela, but don't fool yourself. I've known you loved Tasien from the very beginning and I was very cruel to want you to stay. You see, Rachelle, I loved you so much I couldn't let you go. I knew each day was a torment of self-denial for you and I will probably be damned to the Undertable for my selfishness."

I tried to stop Elispeth's words. I wanted to tell her she was wrong. I failed miserably. I was thankful that only she and I were in the room, the nurse was downstairs having breakfast while I sat with Elispeth. There was no witness to my humiliation.

"Why tell me this now, Elispeth?" I no longer denied her statements. "What have I done to make you so angry with me?"

"I'm not angry, Rachelle. I am begging your forgiveness and, more than anything, I want you to care for my children with all the love you have in your brave little heart."

Her face shimmered before me, distorted by my tears. Her voice had a ring of finality and it tortured me. "You know I will. They are my children too!"

"Of course they are! That's why I couldn't send you away. I would have broken your heart by taking Densil and Olexa and Vaughn and Teri and Rovena away from you..."

Her voice faded. She sounded as if she were listening to a roll-call and, when it was completed, her eyes closed. She was very still, her face smooth and at peace for the first time in days. My sudden fear for Elispeth competed with the shock of my unmasking. I took her thin, fever-wasted body in my arms and held her close.

"Elispeth, you can't die! You can't go!" I pleaded, great stomach-wrenching sobs wracking my body. "I can't raise them by myself. I need your help. Elispeth—please? Please help me!"

When I was little and my brothers and sister and our orphan companions played in the palace garden the boys sometimes knocked me off my crutches when they chased each other. If Elispeth was there, she never asked if I wanted help or waited for me to ask. She always put me on my feet and ran away. Now, as I desperately clung to her still form, I knew my kyangan'le had set me right once again. And just like when we were children she'd run away from me, but this time she wasn't coming back. I was still holding Elispeth when the nurse returned to duty.

We couldn't bury her—emergency epidemic laws decreed the cremation of all Fever victims. Marsei and Vella begged Simon to make an exception, but he wouldn't. I know it hurt him terribly to refuse them. We weren't even allowed to go with her body when the hearse came to take Elispeth away. First Rovena, then Elispeth—my world was filled with such grief. But I couldn't give in to it, nor could I display it openly because of the children. They were lost without their mother and I needed to be strong for them.

The nurse left the day after Elispeth died and the children and I were alone at the house. I had advised Tasien's craftsmen against returning to work when we first learned Elispeth was ill, so I didn't have a regular routine to fall back on. There were things which had to be done and, though I hated to do it, the medical services advised the burning of all contaminated linens and a thorough antiseptic scrub of furniture in contact with the victim. I did this while Densil kept an eye on his brothers.

Olexa was hit hardest by the loss of her rovenja. Elispeth's love and gentle ways had made up for the harshness Tasien often displayed toward his daughter. With Elispeth gone I supposed Olexa wondered if I could intervene on her behalf as her mother had. Olexa became reclusive, staying in her room, coming out only for meals. She wouldn't even talk to her grandparents when they telephoned mornings and evenings. When I tried to speak to her Olexa pleaded to be left alone, and I honored her grief. Some people must withdraw from life just a little to be able to deal with death. I would give Olexa some time, but if she brooded too long I'd do something about it. The poor child had to come to terms with Elispeth's passing in her own way if she could.

Vaughn and Teri, Teri most of all because he was so young, didn't understand why their mother wasn't in her room, why she wasn't there for dinner, why her laughter was missing from their lives. Vaughn finally understood, and it was devastating for him. He ran from the house and Densil and I spent two hours searching the grounds before we finally found him hiding under Elispeth's favorite bench in the garden. By then he was too frightened to hide anymore and he clung to me with a desperation that broke my heart.

I went to bed tired each night, weary of the summer heat, the all-consuming grief which overwhelmed me. It was only when I was alone in my room that Elispeth's shocking words haunted me because the children needed so much of me during the day. I wondered if she were right, that Tasien would never love me, that I was only in love with the idea of love. My dreams were confusing, disturbing...

"Karovenja Rachelle, wake up! Please wake up!"

Densil leaned over my bed, shaking my shoulder. I was glad he woke me, I was having nightmares of trying to explain myself to Elispeth—

"What is it, Densil?" I asked. My throat felt raw and it was hard to swallow.

There was panic in his reply. "It's Teri and Vaughn—they were crying. I went to see what was wrong and they're hot. I think—"

"Oh, Herza!" I cried, coming out of bed without thinking. I saw the stunned look on Densil's face as he saw me in the light of the open doorway. I pulled the sheet back over my nude body as he turned away in embarrassment; not from the nudity I was sure. It was the first time he'd seen my maimed leg and it is a hideous sight even to me, and I've lived with it all these years. I pulled my robe from the foot of the bed and quickly covered myself.

"I'm sorry you saw that, Densil." I said. My arms felt heavy trying to put on the robe, but I eventually managed the sleeves and belted the sash.

He tentatively looked over his shoulder, then turned around, head lowered in shame. "It's part of you and I love you." The boy's voice was so solemn and dignified that I clutched him to my breast.

"I love you, too. Let's go see the children."

I should have heard them crying myself. I was so tired from the sleepless hours of watching over Elispeth then putting the house in order. I must have slept like one dead for I had not heard my children crying in the night. It filled me with a terrible guilt.

Densil led the way to the boys' room, turning on the light when we entered. Both Vaughn and Teri were extremely feverish, restlessly writhing on the sweat-drenched bed sheets. Teri had a rasping in his lungs, horribly reminding me of Elispeth's last hours. I lifted Teri's tiny body and held his limp form close.

Turning to Densil I said, "Go downstairs and see if the nurse left any of that medicine. We have to cool them right now. And call the doctor."

I carried Teri to the bath and ran water into the tub. I dipped him in; my heart stopped momentarily, for the child made no sound of discomfort at the abrupt coolness, but I felt the shallow beating of his little heart beneath my hand and breathed a sigh of relief.

I heard Densil on the phone downstairs, but I also heard someone else moving in the hallway. I looked to the door of the bath and saw Olexa bringing Vaughn in her arms. Without a word she knelt at the side of the tub and supported her younger brother in the cold water. I leaned over and kissed her forehead.

"Thank you, Olexa."

The young girl was embarrassed by my show of affection. "I wish the nurse was still here," she said.

"We'll manage until she can come back." I gave Olexa a weak smile, hoping that the rest of my words were truth. "You and I, we'll do fine."

Olexa burst into tears, sobbing uncontrollably. "Are they going to die, too, karovenja Rachelle?"

"We won't let them! Do you hear me, Olexa? We won't let them!"

I heard pounding on the stairs as Densil ran up. "Karovenja!" he shouted with excitement. "Karovenja, the Greytoks found a cure!" Densil almost slipped on the tile as he came into the bath with his exciting news. "They found a cure! They can help us!"

"That's good," I said, feeling strangely faint. It was warm in the bath. The only part of me that was cool was my hands supporting Teri in the water and my knees pressed against the thin cloth of my robe on the marble tile. "That's very—"

The next thing I remember is a trembling finger frantically trying to force pills down my throat. I opened my eyes. Densil was holding my head in his lap, tears streaking the dusky blue of his worried face.

"You have to take these!" he pleaded. "You've got the Fever!" He was crying so hard I almost didn't understand him.

"Teri?"

"Olexa put them to bed. Can you walk?" he asked after I swallowed the small tablets. He put the pill vial on the edge of the tub, and cursed when it fell into the water. "Damn!" he cried with anguish. He tugged at me, his hands under my arms as he tried to rise. "Can you get up? Can you walk? I can't leave you here."

Densil was as tall as me, but I weighed more, He had trouble lifting me from the floor. I tried to help, but I felt so weak and dizzy. I heard him calling Olexa in a high-pitched voice and I remember thinking I wanted to tell him to be quiet, he'd wake the children.

My head hurt. My eyes ached in my skull when I tried to focus them and I realized I was in bed. I heard whispers in the dimly-lit room and felt something cold touch my forehead. I reached up and Densil took my hand.

"I didn't mean to drop you, karovenja. Are you all right?"

I touched the bump on my temple and tried to smile reassuringly. Olexa was on the other side of the bed, looking lost and frightened. I wanted to stop their tears. Teri and Vaughn were in bed with me, one on each side.

"I didn't mean to drop you," Densil kept saying.

"I know—" I managed to say. My confusion was clearing though I had trouble thinking. "The doctor?"

"He's coming, karovenja Rachelle! He's coming to give you the medicine! Don't die! Please don't die!"

"I'm not going to die," I told him, completely positive of that fact. It was not my time to join the women at Herza's side of the Great Table. How I knew this I cannot say, but I knew that as surely as I loved the children who were so worried about me. I wanted to say more, but I was so tired, so hot...I passed out, lost in a dark fever-dream.

"...bring me clean sheets, Olexa. Densil, you should have called me earlier..."

I recognized that voice, warm, familiar, filled with concern.

"Yes, Joysan!" Olexa's tears were audible. "Densil—help me?"

I was aware of the children leaving the room, but didn't have the strength to turn my head. I saw Joysan looking down at me, wagging her finger as she used to do when I did something foolish and she had to come get me out of trouble. "I suppose you're going to tell me you didn't even know you were sick."

"I didn't," I tried to smile, happy she was there to scold me. "Joysan—"

"You be quiet and rest. The doctor has seen you. He gave you an injection that should help with the Fever. Don't worry about a thing, Rachelle. I'm going to stay here and look after you and the children."

"Tell me—" I reached out. My grip on Joysan's cool hand was so weak it startled me. "Vaughn and Teri? Are they all right?"

Joysan looked away for a moment, and when she turned back, I saw the moisture in her eyes. "If you were someone else I might try to lie, but I can't lie to you, Rachelle. Teri's dead and Vaughn is very ill. The doctor thinks he'll recover with time and plenty of rest."

I wanted to cry, but I was so dehydrated I couldn't even swallow the dust on my tongue. "Are we alone?" I asked, still gripping her hand. Joysan nodded, sitting on the side of the bed, stroking my hair, fighting her own tears.

"Joysan, I'm so confused—Elispeth knew! She knew all along how I felt about Tasien. She asked my forgiveness for wanting me here with her!"

"I know she loved you, Rachelle."

"We all loved her! How could we not? She was so kind and gentle, so warm, so beautiful...but she knew! Do you know what she asked me to do before she died?" I rushed through the words as Joysan daubed my brow with a cooling cloth. I had to get it out before my courage failed. "She wanted me to take care of her children."

"We all will, Rachelle," Joysan promised.

"You don't understand! She wanted me to take them, to leave the house. She told me Tasien could never love me and that he would destroy us all. Those were her words, Joysan. That he would destroy us! What did she mean? She was giving me a warning, Joysan. Why?"

Joysan frowned uneasily. "Why did she wait to tell you what I've already told you or why she asked you to take the children?"

"I don't care which you answer, I just need one!"

Joysan may have answered, but I didn't hear it. I lost consciousness and when I awoke next, I was in a different bed in an unfamiliar room. I was weak, but the fever was gone. I managed to sit up and pour a glass of water from the pitcher beside the bed. With trembling hands I straightened the night clothes I never wore by choice. Cautiously, using any wall or piece of furniture for support, I staggered to the closed door.

While I didn't recognize the room in the faint pre-dawn light filtering through neatly pleated open weave draperies, I knew the hallway and the little boy sitting near the stair landing. The small child quietly played with stack toys, making very little sound to keep from disturbing the sleep shrouded house. Vaughn turned his head at the sound of my door. His face suddenly beamed as he jumped up to embrace my unsteady legs. I grabbed the door jamb to keep from falling. It wouldn't have mattered if I had, I was so happy to see him looking so well.

"Karovenja Rachelle!" he shouted several times, squeezing with all his strength. He woke the rest of the house. Rampart, Densil and Olexa came running.

"You shouldn't be out of bed," Rampart chided me. His strong arms lifted me from the floor. When he turned to take me into the bedroom I pleaded with him.

"I don't want to go back there just yet. Please?"

Joysan, awkwardly hopping towards us on her single whole leg, carried her artificial limb in her right hand. She turned to Densil. "Hold me a minute," she demanded, waiting until he took her by the shoulders. Joysan modestly fumbled beneath her gown, strapping on her prosthesis, then checked the seating of it by giving the leg a thump against the floor.

"Thank you, Densil," Joysan said. She turned to face me with a stern look that suffered severely because of her beaming smile. "Rachelle, you could have at least had the decency to let us know you were getting up. You scared us silly!"

"I wasn't the one shouting in the hallway," I reminded her. "You can put me down, Rampart."

He tossed me gently in his strong arms, shaking his head. "I like holding you. Where to, my princess?"

Joysan answered for me, taking charge. "We'll have breakfast in the garden and it's your turn to cook, Rampart. Will you take Rachelle downstairs while I get her robe?"

Rampart started down the steps, laughing as he carried my light weight. "I'll poison the lot of you!"

"We'll take our chances!" Joysan called out from the bedroom.

Densil ran past Rampart to open the door in the family room which led to the quiet, open garden at the back of the simple, comfortable house. Rampart carefully lowered me into the finely-crafted wooden lounger Tasien gifted to him and Joysan on their last Choosing anniversary. It was one of six pieces they'd received over the years. Joysan brought the robe and made such a fuss over me I became embarrassed from the attention. Rampart pulled a chair closer and asked me question after question and Olexa took it upon herself to do the cooking.

At the tender age of eleven Olexa's batter-dipped toast was barely edible, though it tasted wonderful to me. A few more years experience and she would be a good cook, I hoped. Elispeth never really learned how to cook and, in some ways, Olexa was her mother's daughter. Densil prepared the ger-monte which was a little too spicy for my taste though it was well received by Rampart, who always liked zesty foods.

Vaughn sat in my lap, laughing and crying, and eating at the same time. "I love you," he declared, kissing me with lips stained by a cold berry tart. "Are you going to be sick anymore?"

"No," I told him. "I will get better. Isn't the day wonderful?"

"The sun isn't up yet," Vaughn commented, looking towards the pale-lit underside of the clouds to the east. His astute observation made everyone laugh.

Five days of rest and loving attention gave me enough strength to fend for myself. Though I often had to stop and rest, it felt good to be independently able once again. Joysan and Rampart allowed me to chose my own times to sit in the garden where I would think on what Elispeth said to me. My own feelings were confused and troubled, but I was certain of one thing, I would willingly care for her children as my own, for I loved them with all my heart.

On an afternoon when the bright light of the summer sun was tempered by high white clouds, I lay on the lounger trembling with fatigue. I'd tried to do too much too soon and it felt good to lay down for a moment. I was dozing when angry male voices disturbed me. I looked to the house, starting to rise, when Tasien burst into the garden. He came straight for me, his eyes narrowed, his face twisted with hate. I didn't recognize him, or the voice that shouted my name.

"I want you, Rachelle! You let her die!"

Rampart was immediately on Tasien's heels and laid a heavy hand on the smaller man's shoulder long before Tasien could reach me. I pulled back, drawing in on myself in the face of the anger directed towards me. Rampart spun Tasien about.

"That's enough!" Rampart warned, his voice cold and unbending. "You know you don't mean that. Come into the house, Tasien. We'll have a drink and talk this over..."

"Leave me alone, Rampart! I want the Pleasure slut's bent-leg get to know what she's done! She—ahhh!" Tasien cried out as Rampart expertly twisted the craftmaster's arm behind at an acute angle. He put his hand to the back of Tasien's stiff neck, forcing the smaller man into the house.

Tasien's accusation, his denial of me, raised a guilt within my breast which threatened to choke me. I trembled violently, as if a gust of winter wind had descended over the garden. I felt sick to my stomach when I realized what he called me. I bit my knuckles to keep from crying out.

Joysan rushed from the house. She was shocked at Tasien's vehemence, his unreasoning accusations, however, I could not face her pained sympathy. I buried my face into the lounger cushions, curled into a tight sobbing ball.

"Don't listen to what he said, Rachelle! He's filled with grief. Tasien didn't mean that, believe me!"

I tried. I honestly tried to believe Joysan, but I couldn't get the contempt in Tasien's eyes out of my mind.

3.

Rampart had to forcibly evict Tasien from his home. Elispeth's grief-stricken Chosen left in a towering rage, and he took Densil, Olexa and Vaughn with him. Vaughn understood least of all why he had to leave his karovenja when she wasn't completely well. He cried great tears until Tasien glared him into silence. I watched from Joysan's living room window, hidden behind the bright yellow curtains, as Tasien grabbed painfully gripped Olexa's arm to force his daughter into the sedan's back seat with Vaughn. Densil, almost as tall as his spare-built dovenja, had words with Tasien that caused the older man to attempt a repeat of Olexa's stern handling. Densil, however, was much stronger than he appeared and pulled free, though he eventually entered the car.

I leaned against the window sill as Tasien drove away, feeling suddenly chill, almost as if the Fever again descended upon me. A sense of terrible loss filled me, leaving a weakness in my too-thin, too recently fever-racked body. I sought Joysan's divan and lay back, curled into a sobbing ball.

"He didn't know what he was saying, Rachelle," Joysan's hand, cool and soft, caressed my cheek.

"It's not just that, Joysan," I sniffled, running my nose across the back of my hand as I sat up. "He took the children. I wasn't prepared to argue with him. I'm in no condition to face such bitter accusations."

Joysan said nothing because Rampart came in from outside long enough to say, "I'm going for a walk to cool off. That little sisk has me so—" the words choked him. Rampart scowled, making an angry gesture of dismissal with his strong hands. He slammed the door on his way out.

"Where are you going?" I asked Joysan when she started to get up.

"After Rampart," she said. "I'm going to tell him to go after the children and bring them back."

"You can't do that!" I pleaded. "If Tasien is this upset over Elispeth's death, he would be totally devastated by her last wish. Give him time to absorb things, Joysan."

Joysan frowned, her voice completely unsympathetic. "I happen to believe Elispeth knew what was right, Rachelle. Tasien is in no condition to take care of those children."

I brushed away salty tears, rubbing my eyes. The whole incident was terribly distressing. I tried to make Joysan understand why I had made no effort to prevent Tasien from taking the children. After all, I knew my sister's Chosen better than she or Rampart. "It would be heartlessly cruel to demand the children now, Joysan. He needs them to get through the next few days."

I truly believed that, for I knew how I had needed them. Tasien was their dovenja. He loved them in his way and they loved him, too, as each were able to in their different way. The more I thought of his shock at coming home to bluntly learn Elispeth, Teri and Rovena were dead, the more empathy I had for Tasien's disbelief and anger. "I'm shocked no one told him Elispeth was dead before he arrived home, Joysan." I hugged myself, rocking nervously back and forth. "It's totally inexcusable—"

"I don't know how that unforgivable oversight happened any more than you, Rachelle," Joysan's eyes were red, but probably not as much as mine; I couldn't stop crying. She gripped my hand intently and leaned closer. "But if you intend to do as Elispeth requested, it will be more cruel to wait until later..."

A week later Joysan and I went round to Tasien's to get my things. I intended to take the children then, but Tasien was so angry with me, he wouldn't let us enter the house. He adamantly refused to let me see the children though I heard them moving about upstairs. Vaughn was crying, but they wouldn't come when I called through the open door.

Joysan finally took me away. Joysan had warned me. She told me how hard it would be to get the children back from Tasien. I only wish I'd listened to her earlier. For two days I stayed locked in my bedroom in their home. I wouldn't eat. I refused to speak to anyone. When Rampart eventually broke the lock on the door because Joysan was so worried I realized how selfishly unfair I was and profusely apologized. We talked that night, Joysan and I, until the dawn rose hot and bright.

Elispeth was also right about never going back to the house which had been my home for nearly half my life. Tasien continued to refuse my entrance into his house three weeks after Elispeth's death. It finally took a determined visit from my brothers John and Tresal to pick up the few personal possessions I had accumulated in thirteen years; my clothes, some pictures of the family, and my gitar, the adult-sized instrument Elispeth asked Tasien to make for me in a happier time.

My brothers thought I was crazy. "Why are you staying here? There's nothing but heartache," John said. He was ever the practical one. Tresal put it more bluntly. "Tasien's as foul as ser-monte droppings to you, Rachelle. Let me break his fingers or bust his—"

I didn't tell them why I stayed, or what I hoped would happen. I knew Tasien would never have me back into his house and that hurt almost as much as losing my children, but the time to carry out Elispeth's wishes had passed and it took time to realize that. I'm sure that if I had spoken to father and explained what Elispeth wanted, he could have made Tasien give them to me, but I couldn't bring myself to do it.

My parents wanted me to come home the minute they learned I wasn't welcome at Tasien's. I know I confused them when I said "no." I needed time to work through my pain. Joysan and Rampart let me struggle through without asking questions or wanting to meddle—much. They loved me enough to leave me to myself. I dreaded going "home." Joysan knew when to be there for me and Rampart had musical commitments away from their house and, since their daughter was away at school, I was able to hide from the heartache by locking myself in my small room for days at a time. Where could I hide in the royal palace which had a household of over one-hundred and twenty?

But I could not impose on my friends forever, not when it broke my parents' hearts for me to stay away. My mothers would cry over me, I knew that before I said goodbye to Joysan and let Rampart drive me down to Gizen.

When I was a child Marsei and Vella had hovered over me constantly, showering me with such affection it became stifling at times. Yet, despite my misgivings, when I arrived at the royal palace I felt a great relief to have my dovenja hold me in his arms, and to feel the sweet pressure of Vella's lips on mine, and basking in the warmth of Marsei's encouraging smile.

John and Papke now lived in my old suite and Tresal and Yurilla were also well settled across the hall, so I took Elispeth's old rooms to avoid turning the household upside down. I originally moved in feeling hopeful, but everything in those painfully familiar rooms reminded me of Elispeth's tragic death; of her telling me things I never suspected she knew. Most of all those rooms reminded me of my failure to carry out my sister's last wish.

The apartment was choked with memories of two little girls eager to sample life. Elispeth's suite was exactly like my old one; a parlor, bedroom, bath, and study, though it had never been equipped with the paraphernalia a cripple child needed to move about. I had enjoyed coming to Elispeth's room which was always filled with the scent of flowers and perfumes. I had watched her brush long, silky hair I would gladly kill for; modeling dresses that flattered her graceful figure, and laughing through asking and giving opinions. Though Joysan was always a better friend to me, Elispeth had been the most affectionate. We had been as close as a normal person and a physically twisted younger sister could be. Very little had changed in the suite because dovenja kept it in readiness for Elispeth and Tasien's infrequent visits to Gizen. The only thing which had been added was an extensive bookshelf in the parlor. The divan where my sister and I had curled up and giggled and confided hopes and dreams had been re-covered in soft-brushed barabe leather. It was there Elispeth told me Tasien had Accepted her Petition. The full-length mirror across from the bath was where Elispeth and I practiced our parts for her Rite of Choosing. It was here, at the end of that ceremony, Elispeth and Tasien returned to seal the beginning of their life together between the sheets of the large canopied bed.

The apartment, a place of happy childhood memories, also over-laid with unspoken sibling rivalry and personal disappointments, was now a room of accusations and lies (mine) and failure (mine as well). However painful it was, Elispeth's suite was the only place I could withdraw from the family's bustle. I wasn't ready to blithely resume a life I left behind thirteen years earlier. So I said nothing and tried to settle in but the guilt preyed on me and the nightmares began; dreams of happiness gone sour, tormented by senseless death and hatred, and more death. It was my father who finally made it possible for me to deal with my depression.

We had finished dinner at the usual time. I patiently listened to my brothers John and Tresal argue politics over dessert and kla. Papke and Yurilla offered amused comments when their men got out of hand, the usual high-spirited chatter between family members. After a time, when the kla was gone and the last fral cakes consumed, dovenja put down his napkin and offered his hand to me.

"Shall we a walk in the garden, Rachelle? We always used to walk after dinner."

I looked up to his gentle smile, his warm brown eyes twinkling expectantly. When I was slow in responding, he patted his middle with a chuckle. "I need the exercise, little one. Been sitting behind a desk too long."

John and Tresal respectfully jeered his remark. They both nursed bruises from a ju-jitsu work out with father before dinner.

Yurilla, Tresal's Chosen and most gloriously pregnant with her second child, punched her man's shoulder. "You should show a little deference for your elders," she warned.

Yurilla was nearly twelve years older than Tresal, though she looked younger than me. She still held to the old traditions that children should not mock their parents. I wondered what she'd be like when she was 150 instead of 42. They say brothers and sisters often think alike, I believe it is true because Tresal asked Yurilla the very same question. He received a pretty pout and a girlish tongue thrust in his direction. Father applauded Yurilla's response, winking at Tresal, thoroughly enjoying the close family warmth at his table. He stood behind my chair, leaning down a little to whisper to me.

"Perhaps my invitation was improperly phrased, princess..." He patted his tunic pocket and gave me that boyish wink.

"You don't—" I started to say as he placed my hand over his heart. I felt the hard lump of candy in his pocket. He smiled at me and I blushed.

When I was very small it had taken strong measures to get me out of bed after an operation. Sometimes dovenja appealed to my sweet tooth to take the needed exercise to strengthen my leg. When I got older the candy wasn't needed because the long quiet walks with dovenja were reason enough. I was so touched that he remembered his little bribes that I accepted his arm when he offered it again. I made my excuses to the others and let father escort me through the double glass doors into the courtyard.

I loved the courtyard garden. I had spent a good part of my childhood in it. I was four years old when the Yellowbands had completed the palace construction six years after the war. The land on which the royal residence was built lay near the center of old Gizen; that part which had been completely razed to the ground by Allied bombers. Not a tree, not a blade of grass grew in that desolation for many years until the people returned to rebuild the city. My mothers had personally, with their own hands, designed and planted the lovely flowering beds lining the walks. Father had put in every single tree as seedlings or young plants. The torpals and fenac trees towered now, some reaching as high as the third story. The evening breeze softly rustled the leaves of the trees. Intensely fragrant night-blooming clumps of gernica opened hundreds of tiny white blossoms as the larger daytime varieties—the reds and yellows—closed for the night. Kerhala vine twisted round the sturdy silver-gray trunks of well-sculpted torpals, climbing high to display miniature blue-white flowers glittering like sprays of distant stars captured in the tree canopies.

I had been home for a Tenday. I had not visited the garden in that time and I now regretted that, for it was peaceful and restful and the present company was the very best. I linked my arm through dovenja's, my head upon his shoulder. I felt safe holding to his wiry arm, smelling his familiar scent.

"You should have asked me earlier, dovenja. Why did you let me sit up there in that room all this time? You, better than anyone, always seem to know what I need."

"And when you need it," he softly added. "If I'd asked you last night you'd have said no. And the night before and the night before that. Besides, I had a little trouble finding your brand—" Dovenja patted his pocket, his wink mischievous, his smile gleaming white through his thick, curly beard.

I lowered my eyes to the worn brick which formed the path. "The last time I walked through a gernica garden was the day Rovena was born," I said without knowing I would say it. Once said, however, I knew it was necessary. "The gernica smelled just as sweet, dovenja. Elispeth remarked on the fragrance of our northern gernica in the bed beside the house. Though she couldn't smell it I thought I sensed the odor of fear in the air. I'm so thankful Doctors Greytok found their serum."

Father walked in silence for a few paces, patting my arm linked with his. "We're making the serum available to all nations without recompense, Rachelle. I have every long distance jet on standby. We'll deliver serum and trained medical personnel to any country that will let us help. We'll stamp this thing out before it kills someone else's Elispeth and Rovena and Teri."

The muscles in his arm become rock hard as dovenja made his vow. My father never said anything unless he meant it and he never made promises unless he could deliver. He would inoculate every single person on Uhr if that is what it took to conquer this strange disease that threatened everyone, not just his own family. Now that he had a weapon to fight the disease his resolve was strong. And I could take strength from that.

We walked to the end of the east path and turned south along the balcony wall. There were decorative lights in the garden, placed aesthetically to display the plants and to light the paths without being obtrusive. One could always see the stars or the Dance of the Moons from any point along the garden, even under the artificial lighting. We stopped for a moment to watch Uhr's three tiny satellites performing the second of eight nightly orbits, a celestial game of chase, tag, and chase again.

"It's good to have you home, Rachelle," father's voice was soft as we enjoyed the Dance of the Moons. He took my hand and raised it to his lips. "It's a shame I'm going to have to throw you out."

"What?" I looked up and saw him smiling through his beard, his eyes merry.

"I'm afraid so, darling. Oh," he reached into his pocket and pulled out the piece of candy. "I almost forgot your bribe. Open wide—"

I shook my head. "I really don't want it. Could we just sit and talk? Would you mind explaining what you just said?"

"I've been waiting for you to ask. Here, take the candy anyway. You'll taste better when I give you your goodnight kiss."

I couldn't refuse that request. It was good sour candy, the kind I love best. He took me to a favorite bench, the site of other summer evening conversations. I sat quietly until he was settled. Though I wanted to talk to him I wasn't sure what I wanted to say, or even how to begin. Father started first.

"Kitten, you've been through something I'd give anything to have spared you. I know how close you and Elispeth were. We all loved her."

I started crying and I couldn't stop. Father offered his sleeve handkerchief of which I made immediate and messy use.

Father cleared his throat and leaned forward, elbows to knees. "I was serious when I said I want you to leave, Rachelle. I need Elispeth's old suite for Tresal and Yurilla. She'll be ready to have that baby in a few months and we'll need the extra room for it and Benjamin and the two of them. I could shift everyone about, but I don't really see the need.

"You and Elispeth left home and for years you've had a place of your own, Sugar. I can't conceive of you ever being as happy as you should be living under your mothers' roof."

"Maybe I could," I said, realizing he wasn't teasing me at all. He was truly serious.

"Don't compromise yourself, teela. You already know how difficult it would be to come back home permanently. As big as this old pile is, we're getting crowded..."

"You know me, dovenja," I tried to laugh, "I don't take up much room and I eat very little."

"Too damn little if you ask me, Miss Skin-and-Bones. I could find you a broom closet or a shelf in the bathroom, but would you really want that? Your mother would be all over you every minute and you know it."

"Which one?" I giggled nervously.

"Either, and don't get sassy with me, sugar-britches. Now be quiet and let me get on with this, you're ruining my concentration—bad thing to do to old men and giva hunters."

"Yes, sir."

"Tresal knows how much trouble his expanding family is going to be and set out to do something about it before talking it over with your mothers. He found himself a cute little apartment and took it, then told them. Well, you can imagine how that went over. Vella cried and Marsei said no. She wants that baby born right here in the palace. So—we've got us an apartment without occupants."

"I seem to sense something here," I entered happily into his light-hearted banter. "Are you suggesting I take the place off Tresal's hands?"

"I knew you'd see it my way. Now, about the matter of your livelihood. You will, of course, be given a suitable allowance. A mere pittance, naturally, since I never spoil my children—" he patiently waited until I managed to control my giggles.

"As I was saying," he chuckled, hugging me tight, rocking me gently in his arms, "no member of my family ever takes something for nothing so I suggest you put that musical talent of yours to use and teach children the gitar. School Number Four is only a few blocks away from the apartment. You can walk there in less than ten minutes—and yes I timed it. I had Tresal crawl it on his hands and knees so we'd have a roughly accurate guesstimate of your rather unique method of locomotion."

"You didn't!" I grinned. I could almost see Tresal doing just that. My brother was crazy enough to do it on a dare.

"Stop interrupting, child. You can walk to school every day which will do wonders for keeping yourself from becoming fat and lazy like myself. I will, however, provide you with a car, specially equipped for wonderful little girls like you. You will use it to visit us whenever you like, or you can take a drive to Blene if you've got the cash to pay for the sessium needed for all three-thousand miles. How does it sound so far?"

"You're not fat and lazy," I said, poking a stiffened finger into his lean ribs. "If you can tell one lie, can the rest be true?"

Father laughed. When I didn't join him immediately, he curled the fingers of his left hand into my ribs and tickled. "Don't make sport of your elders, girl," he threatened. "I shall have to go beat Vella for failing to instruct you in proper respect."

"That is the most empty threat I have ever heard in my life." I leaned into him, hugging myself to his warm, wiry strength. "My own place—thank you, dovenja! Thank you."

"I know you've been unhappy here and I know why."

For a chilling moment I was afraid he really knew why, His next words eased that sudden anxiety. "I don't know why I was too thick to see it myself. Yurilla told me she heard you crying in your sleep. I don't suppose it's been easy staying in your sister's suite." He sighed, a remorseful sound that touched me deeply. But he put it away swiftly, determined not to further mar the laughter we'd shared this evening. "I did lie, darling. Tresal found the apartment, but he had no intention of moving out."

"I knew that," I tugged on his beard, leaning close to kiss him. "Yurilla and I talk over kla. She never said anything about moving."

He raised his hands in helpless surrender. "I should have known! Why did you let me carry on like that?"

"I didn't know about the apartment. We just discussed renovating their suite. Your secret is safe."

"Good. My faith is restored. Now, will you do something for me?"

"Anything, father."

"Don't be so hasty, child. This isn't the same as falling down and picking yourself up. Actually, you'll be picking someone else up." He wasn't smiling now. His face was troubled. He seemed hesitant and that was not like Simon Jules Ward, King of Zea.

"What is it, father?"

"This is a little hard for me, half-pint. It hurts to see someone I love change into someone I don't know. We all miss Elispeth, of course, we all feel some anger at the way she was taken from us, but it seems to have affected Tasien so—" he paused, searching for words "—well, he's—"

Father had my undivided attention. "You once told me to get it out fast so it quits making you crazy. What about Tasien?"

"I know how Tasien thinks of you now even though the boy's out of his mind. But he's apparently taken the same attitude toward Olexa. Now you know I try not to interfere with the lives of my children—hold it to a minimum at any rate—but I have to do something about this before someone gets hurt."

I sat up, painfully alert. "What's happened? It's Olexa, isn't it?"

Father took me by the arms to keep me from jumping off the bench. "Hold on and listen before you go running. Last night Olexa was brought to the hospital with various contusions. She wouldn't say what happened to her, just that she fell down the stairs. Densil, however, was quite explicit with the doctor, saying Tasien lost control and beat her. He may have been shouting off his anxiety, but when the doctor questioned him more closely, Densil quickly changed his story."

I covered my mouth, eyes wide with fear. "Dear Herza! I must go to her! Where is she?"

Father patted my arm reassuringly. "She going to be alright, Sugar. Just listen to me for a minute. I think this important. The doctor Densil took her to is a personal friend of Carol Greytok and he called her because Olexa is my granddaughter and Carol is close to me. Densil knows this, of course, and is now denying everything."

"Where is she, dovenja?"

"At my request she's still in the hospital under observation. Your brother John and I went to see Tasien this afternoon and he admitted he got a little out of control while disciplining Olexa for some infraction. He said he was sorry, that it would never happen again. I assured him it wouldn't because Olexa was going to stay with us for a while."

"What did he say?" I asked, feeling relief that my little girl would no longer have to endure her father's cruel abuse.

"Tasien said something that made sense to me, Rachelle. He said no one could love his children more than Elispeth or you. He said if he had to give her up, he wants you to have her. It's up to you, darling. I know you love Olexa as much as we do, but if you'd rather, we'll gladly take her."

"Of course I want her! What did Olexa say about this?"

"I haven't told her. I thought you'd like to. Let me have my good night kiss and scoot. There's a driver and car waiting to take you to the hospital. If you want you can even take her to the apartment, the driver knows where it is. There isn't much there in the way of furnishing yet, we didn't have time to—"

I kissed him long and hard to shut him up. "I'll bring Olexa right back here tonight. Did I ever mention you are the most wonderful dovenja in the world?"

"A couple of thousand times, but who's counting?" He lifted me off the bench and hugged me briefly before gently slapping my backside with the palm of his hand. "You better get going."

I put my arms about dovenja's neck and buried my face against his chest. "I love you, you ornery old coot."

He chuckled, holding me for a moment. "I see you still remember Vella's advanced slang lessons."

"Some of it. I still don't know what it means, but I see it still makes you laugh."

"Depends on how it's used, but from you it's sweet. Run along, Olexa is waiting."

I started toward the garage. Before I turned the path, dovenja called out: "Don't keep my driver out all night, he has to take me to the airport in the morning."

"I won't!" I searched my little girl memory and found the name I used to call him before I thought I grew too old to play at Earther words. "I love you, Pops!"

He smiled, waving. "I love you, too, kitten."

I don't know what an Earther "kitten" is but they must be wonderfully warm and soft because that's how I feel every time dovenja calls me that.


John and Tresal were delighted for an excuse to holiday and help me move into my new apartment. We could have hired the work done, but the Ward Family is never adverse to getting their hands good and dirty at honest work. Four hours after we started I heard Tresal regretfully repeating that tired old joke to Olexa and told her not to believe a word he said.

"If your kadovenja Tresal wasn't adverse to 'honest work' he'd be on that fifty mile hike with the rest of his outfit instead of moving a few little pieces of furniture and drinking my zuri wine."

I grinned as I picked up the decanter and started to pour a glass for myself—and found it empty! "Tresal! You really did drink it all!"

"Wasn't me, Rachelle," Tresal quickly denied. He raised his hands defensively. "John had it last."

"That's an outright lie!" John grinned. He straightened from putting a carton of books by the wall and drew the back of his hand across his sweaty forehead. "There was at least one full glass left."

Olexa tried to look innocent as all eyes turned towards her. She held her chin in the air and crossed her arms. "It was only a little..."

I narrowed my eyes toward the defiant child. In a soft voice I spoke to my brothers. "John, don't you and Tresal have something else left on the truck?"

Tresal frowned, shaking his head. Then John, immensely more experienced and wiser from his ten minutes prior arrival at their joint birth, beckoned Tresal to join him at the door. "Let's get the rest of the stuff in, Tresal. Don't get lazy on me now."

"Yeah," Tresal glanced at Olexa with sympathetic eyes. He knew as well as Olexa what was coming. He dusted his hands on his pants and put his arm around John's shoulder. "Hey! We're almost through, old man."

When they were out the door and down the stairs, I faced Olexa, tapping the side of the wine bottle. "Just because you're here without your brothers, young lady, don't think the rules have changed any."

"I didn't see any harm. Father let me..."

"I didn't say there was any harm done," I sighed. "I just told you the rules were the same. You may have wine with dinner—one glass—but I will not have you drinking at any other time. Is that clear?"

"Dovenja let me."

"If drinking is that important then you better go back home. If you stay here, you have to do things my way—the way your mother would have done them."

There was such anger in the child that I almost relented. Olexa's life wasn't easy before her mother's death, and it had not improved afterwards. For a moment I thought I was too harsh on her until Olexa burst into tears and clung to me.

"I'm sorry, karovenja Rachelle! I won't do it again."

After Olexa calmed down we sat on the couch and talked quietly. Hesitantly she told me about things which had happened to her; the disappointments, the constant nagging, the lack of trust her father gave her. It was heartbreaking to learn how Tasien had terrified his daughter by innuendo, implication, and finally physical threats. Elispeth tried to warn me and now I was beginning to understand what she meant about Tasien, and I learned ugly things I didn't know about him. I was more determined than ever that Olexa would never have to fear her father again.

Perhaps John and Tresal secretly listened at the door, or they just sensed the right moment to return. Whatever the reason for their timing, they arrived at the proper moment to jar Olexa and I out of our unhappy mood. They did not come empty handed, though I was sure my belongings and the things given to me to furnish the apartment were all moved in. They brought several bottles of wine, some ger-monte sausage, a large wedge of sharp barabe cheese, a half-dozen fral cakes, a sack of yellow fruit, and a basket of fried zuri. They set the table with dishes Vella had put together for me out of the palace kitchen. In moments we were ready to eat.

"John cooked as we walked down the street," Tresal chuckled commenting on the heat of the day. "It's hot out there! But it's good to know there's so many restaurants in the neighborhood. You can go out every night and never eat at the same place twice, Rachelle."

"That may be interesting to a lazy man like you, Tresal, but I'm a working girl now. I can't afford such luxuries like you men in the service who are over-paid and under-worked."

"Well, I don't think you'll have any trouble eating this food bought by one of the under-worked."

"I doubt I shall, Tresal. Thank you." I gave him a kiss above his thick, curly beard and allowed him to seat me at the table. John performed the same service for Olexa.

"Table rules?" John inquired since this was my house.

I looked to each of them and picked up my fork. "I think we can suspend them for today."

"Wahoo!" Tresal shouted and reached for the zuri. "Excuse my reach, John."

"Excuse mine," his brother replied.

I winked at Olexa. "You better grab before they get it all."

Olexa was perplexed by her uncles' behavior, but she was quick to emulate their actions. She was on her third sausage when the door shook under a pounding. John opened it and jumped back as Simon, Marsei, Vella, Papke and Yurilla came in. Each had something in their arms which was deposited in any free area in the main room.

"What's all this?" I asked as Vella gave me a hug.

"Mostly clothes for Olexa," Vella winked and nodded towards Marsei. "Your mother insisted on buying a few new things for her."

"I would have—"

"You know how Marsei is, Rachelle. I don't think she'll ever forget those years we lived in Vachon with only two dresses apiece."

"The way I heard it," I whispered in her ear, "you and Marsei weren't in those dresses most of the time."

Vella winked mischievously as she put her arm about my waist and led me to the kitchen where Marsei emptied sacks of groceries Simon abandoned there in favor of the couch and a glass of wine.

"Here's your daughter, Marsei," Vella teased.

"Mine? No thank you. If she's been bad, she's yours."

"I didn't say she was bad." Vella leaned close and whispered to the tall, pale, buxom blonde who contrasted Vella's slim, dark, brunette beauty. From the amused look on Marsei's lovely face I could imagine that my comment was repeated. An instant later I was certain.

Marsei took my arm and smiled. "Your father is still that way. But now I like to have a different dress to get back into. Questions? I won't answer them. Where do you want the stewed ger-monte?"

"I'm open to suggestions..."

"In that case," Marsei looked about, found an apron and pushed the sleeves of her dress above the elbows. "Vella, let's show this little girl how a kitchen should be."

"You didn't like my kitchen on the Heights?" I asked.

For a moment their gaiety had made me forget Elispeth's death, but those few words took smiles from faces, including mine. My real mother was the first to recover and she did it without ever once saying what she felt in her heart. I don't think any of us ever could—we endured.

"Would you look at this cabinet, Marsei? It's smaller than the one at the cabin!"

"Might make a good place for the zuri bin. Right. Let's get the rest of this unloaded, Rachelle, so we can see what we have."

I was so tired by the time everyone left just before midnight that I decided I would clean up the last of the remaining dishes in the morning. Olexa was yawning and I found it contagious.

"Off to bed, Olexa. We have a lot to do tomorrow."

I was already under the covers when Olexa padded naked into my room carrying the night dress Marsei had purchased for her. "Do I have to wear this?" she asked.

"Not if you don't want to."

"Good." She started to the door then stopped, her face framed by the light coming through the high window over my bed. She wanted to ask something else, but hesitated.

"What do you want, Olexa?" I gently prodded.

"May I sleep with you?" she asked, her voice very small.

It had been years since Olexa asked to sleep with me. As a tiny child she did that only when she was frightened, had a bad dream, or was very lonely. I pulled the covers back in invitation which she immediately accepted. Curling up against my side, I put my arms about her and felt the dampness of tears on my breasts.

"Why are you crying, dear?"

"I'm so glad to be home!"

I let her cry while I thought of her words. Could it really be that simple? Home is where you are loved?

4.

In spite of the confidence my father had in me, I was terribly uncertain of my ability to teach music. My only performance experience was playing for Elispeth's children, none of whom seemed to have any desire to be musicians, though they loved music very much. I put off talking to Lin Donalson, the Master of Music at School Number Four, for several weeks before I found the courage to meet with him. I was simply doubtful of my qualifications.

My music background was a odd assortment of lessons given to me by Tasien when I was very young and continued with greater intensity with Rampart when he was Master Donalson's star protege. My "formal" training was copying Rampart's lessons as we grew up. Rampart is fourteen years older than me and is vastly more experienced from years of lessons with Lin Donalson; yet he was kind-hearted enough to share his knowledge with me after Tasien reached his teaching limits. I fondly remember hours spent playing gitar with Rampart, with Joysan watching the two of us, urging me on. Rampart often dared me to repeat a figure he performed and each dare was a lesson, though it never felt like "lessons" with Rampart. These music sessions occurred while he and Joysan lived at the palace after their Choosing, before she was pregnant with Rachelle and they found their house in the Heights. Not long after that Tasien Accepted Elispeth's Petition and they, too, left the palace.

From that time on the only music I studied was with Lin Donalson himself. He and his Chosen, Anne Morgaine, were frequent visitors to the royal household and well welcomed because they were fellow Earthers like dovenja. Lin was from America and Morgaine was a pretty, diminutive German. Father always asked Donalson to bring a gitar because "a house without music is too boring to endure".

I never initiated the music sessions with Lin Donalson because I was in awe of the Earther's tremendous playing ability. He was pleasantly persistent, however, getting me to take up my gitar and play with him every visit. The tall, lanky Earther remained interested in my progress until I moved to the Heights with Elispeth and Tasien which made it nearly impossible for us to see each other. There were times, in the years that followed, that I missed those impromptu lessons from Lin, who headed the classes at School Number 4—called "Royal School" because all the King's children had attended it.

Like my father, Lin was a Sane Transit, and American, and that was part of the attraction which had brought them together in a friendship that began before I was born. Lin Donalson's primary instrument was the gitar. He is credited with making the instrument popular with the public. Lin is also considered the premiere musician of Zea, though some believe his protege Rampart of the Heights not only equaled, but excelled the master.

I eventually talked with Lin, a too-tall, too-thin, sun-browned white man with an engaging grin and love of life and head of the Royal School. He convinced me I was more than capable of taking beginning and intermediate students without further training and, with some additional study which he looked forward to providing, it was possible that I could rise to the rank of an accredited master of the instrument. While I found that prediction hard to accept I was pleased to begin teaching. I felt privileged to work alongside such a well-liked and famous man, but more importantly, Lin Donalson was a close friend of the royal family and I knew him well.

Lin's Chosen, a remarkable woman with flame-red hair and skin as pale as barabe milk, was also a teacher at School Number Four. I had liked her warm smile and generous heart since I was a child. I even took part in the first Naming Day celebration of their son, Lindan, who was now seventeen and getting ready for university. The Donalsons were good people and frequent visitors to the palace when I was growing up and Lin had encouraged my interest in music. I believe that is one reason why I never became too embittered over my deformity because when I play music I do something that is special and beautiful.

Lin Donalson was an important factor in the upbringing of the king's children, both natural and adopted. Rampart eventually graduated from School Number Four and became a prominent musician on his own. Tasien, an early student of Lin's, took another direction, showing a talent for instrument construction instead of performance. John and Tresal have not instrumental talents as such, though Lin trained their rich baritones in the school choir. Elispeth fancied the reed flute and worked diligently; though however much she wanted to play she never advanced beyond the basics. There were times over the years that Elispeth would produce her flute and play duets with me until her embarrassment for not learning more caused her to put it away until the urge came over her again.

Lin Donalson was a dedicated musician and teacher who had taught me. It was very easy for me to start teaching the younger children, armed by Donalson's unfailing support. It was even easier to get used to living in the neighborhood because the Donalson's small home was only four blocks south of the school and they had lived in this part of Gizen since the end of the Great War. They were well liked by everyone—and those who they liked were also made welcome.

Anne Morgaine ku Donalson taught hand-to-hand combat at the school. I once thought this a strange profession for a woman until I watched the semester exhibitions held two months after I started teaching. There is an enthralling grace and beauty in the martial arts that defies description. When two equally talented opponents face each other in combat their movements draw the eye and their control and perfection of form is awe-inspiring.

Morgaine taught a different form of unarmed combat than that favored by my father, but there were similarities in both: the knowledge of killing swiftly, the ability to maim and, most importantly, the refusal of combat. I can't recall the number of times my father said he'd rather be a live coward than a dead hero. Then he would laugh and say "Better yet, a live hero who knows when to be a coward." I may not have said that right, but I understood his meaning.

Morgaine urged me to join her classes simply for the exercise and participation, but I declined. She accepted my refusal graciously. "Not all can follow this path, Rachelle. I respect your decision, but carry a gun."

"I don't think that's necessary," I said. I started to reveal my reason for not participating, but knew she'd never accept my embarrassment at being so awkward as a suitable excuse. But I did disagree with her feelings. "We have laws and men to enforce them."

"But we still have rapes, murders, and assaults," Morgaine pointed out. "If you won't take the whole course, at least learn a few things."

She laughingly kept after me until I gave in to obtain some peace. Anne Morgaine taught me several uncomplicated tactics and worked me until I knew them well. That I would ever find value in her instruction was dramatically demonstrated the next time John mischievously tried to sneak up on me during a family picnic at Pim River Park. When his hands roughly grabbed my waist from behind, without me knowing who grabbed me, I reacted without thought. Startled into the trained response ingrained by Anne Morgaine's instruction left John flat on his back. I almost couldn't wait to tell her how well it worked!

I enrolled Olexa at School Number Four when I started teaching. Olexa was hesitant about the new school. She felt guilty for feeling so relieved to be out from under her father's influence, but there were other reasons which made it difficult to adjust. She missed the few friends she'd known at the Heights school and her noisy brothers.

Whole days passed without conversation between us and these silences became more infrequent as Olexa adjusted to the, for her, strange ways of the city. She rarely mentioned her father and never spoke of Elispeth. By the end of the third Tenday, however, Olexa opened up, displaying a bright, inquisitive personality Tasien had repressed so terribly for so long.

Once she was comfortable within herself Olexa settled into school with a minimum of problems. She seemed determined to do well and I fully supported her. Olexa diligently applied herself though she had difficulty with mathematics and the sciences. I helped her where I could but so much time had elapsed since I studied numbers that much of it was new to me. My inability to explain things caused Olexa to look forward to our weekly Tenth Day visit to my parent's palace across town. Olexa usually brought her assignment books and if she couldn't get father to hold still and explain some mathematical exercise, she'd make her kadovenja John answer her questions. Naval aviators had to hold high scholastic honors to fly the complicated machinery which kept Zea a leading world power. John cheerfully made time to help Olexa but, as the months passed, both dovenja and John often managed to be unavailable for inquiries until after dinner time. When Olexa eventually cornered them, they would entertain a few questions, knowing full well they wouldn't suffer long because we usually left an hour after the meal.

During those first months at the school, Densil often visited us, riding the bus from the Heights to see us on Rest Day. The changes in my nephew went beyond his physical growth, which was quite impressive. I felt he matured too quickly, robbed of childhood by too soon accepting adult responsibilities; yet, he always had a smile for me and kiss for Olexa when he arrived. When he left, however, Densil was usually moody and brooding because he rarely got answers to explain his father's actions—actions which left him confused.

I tried to be helpful to Densil. The best I could do was listen and comment where I had knowledge or something useful to say. Other than that I could only be there for him. Densil's life at home—with Tasien—was one battle after another; without physical blows, Densil assured me (I knew he lied); facing constant, maddening conflicts of will. Tasien wanted Densil and Vaughn to follow his trade. Vaughn was not old enough to defy his father so Densil tried to intercede for his brother.

"I don't mind working in wood," Densil told me late one night after Olexa had gone to bed, "but Vaughn hates it. He wants to fly jets like kadovenja John. I'm not sure he ever will, his school work is terrible, but if he wants to try, dovenja should let him."

"Your father only wants the best for you and Vaughn." I sincerely hoped that was true. It was difficult for me to think of a father having no interest in his children's desires. But I knew that not every child had a father as wonderful and caring as mine.

"In a way I believe that, too, karovenja Rachelle, but there's something missing, something different about him. All he talks about is having Olexa come home. He wants his family back together. At first I thought he was still mad at ahdovenja Simon, but now I don't know. He regrets all the things he said about you. He talks about you all the time. I think he misses having you home. I know I do."

It was not the first time Densil told me this. Each time I heard it the old feelings flooded through me; the house, the children united together, my secret desire for Tasien. When I heard it from Densil's lips that his father felt the same, I could almost believe it was possible to return to the place which had been a major part of my life for so long. However, I knew this was impossible. I also had an obligation to Olexa. I knew from experience that the poor child would wilt under her dovenja's stifling influence. "I can't go back, Densil. I wish I could explain, but I can't."

"I wasn't asking," the boy told me in his man's voice. "But maybe you could visit? He would like to see Olexa..."

"Did Tasien send you here to ask me that, Densil?"

"No. He doesn't even know I'm here tonight. He thinks I'm visiting at the palace. And I will be—tomorrow."


My phone number was no secret, but I was usually surprised when I got a call. One that left me stunned was Tasien's call a few days before the anniversary of Elispeth's death. He was pleasant, though subdued, and asked about Olexa and her progress in school. He inquired about my family and apologized for not being a more frequent visitor when Densil and Vaughn spent their holidays at the palace. He mentioned a few things regarding his work and that was the extent of the conversation.

There was nothing in his words or tone that revealed any resentment towards me. He seemed very like the old Tasien I'd fallen in love with—a little embittered with life, of course, but much the same. In the months that followed he called every other week, nothing rigid or pre-arranged, and all were pleasant conversations. By Fall Break I discovered I began looking forward to Tasien's calls and wondering if Elispeth had been wrong about him after all.

At the end of the school year several things became apparent in my life. I was now an accomplished teacher under Lin Donalson's patient tutelage and a better musician because of Rampart's good natured goading and demonstrations of his more flamboyant approach to the instrument and I discovered a new confidence in myself as a person able to handle her own affairs. The other thing was admitting I still loved Tasien.

I kept that part carefully concealed, even from myself. I shouldn't have such feelings for the man who'd driven Olexa to the brink, or the forced Vaughn to apprentice in the shop. I knew it was ridiculous to love a man who demanded adult responsibilities from his oldest son, who was still a young boy in many ways. But I couldn't help having those secret thoughts about Tasien, especially when I felt a little lonely as I often did at night when the city slept.

I missed my talks with Joysan, but teaching kept me in Gizen most of the time. I saw Rampart more than Joysan because of his concert dates in the city. At Fall Break I accepted an invitation for Olexa and me to have an extended visit with Rampart and Joysan. I was happy to go because Joysan's daughter Rachelle was due home from Tech over the three week holiday period.

A year and a half wrought many changes in Olexa. She was now taller than me and quite pretty. I rarely saw a frown on her face, especially when she was out with Lindan or one of the other young men who called her at the apartment. When first told of my arrangements to visit Joysan, Olexa was reluctant to go until I explained she did not have to see her father if that was her wish. Once Olexa knew she had the choice, the smile returned and she packed with enthusiasm. We went to the Heights together and had fine visit with Joysan, Rampart, and their lovely daughter, but in the end I came back alone. Olexa had a chance meeting with Tasien and after seeing he was once more in control, she decided to return home. To a point it was her choice and I felt happy for her, but I missed her. I cried myself to sleep that first lonely night back in my empty apartment.


For a time Tasien's phone calls stopped. I couldn't help wondering if I'd been used to bring Olexa back to him. I was angry with Tasien for enticing Olexa from me, so hurt in my loneliness that my only relief was work. I pushed my students and myself relentlessly until Lin Donalson was forced to speak to me. He was kind and said he was willing to help me with whatever problem I had, but I must take it easier on the children.

Lin's private talk opened my eyes to what I was doing with my life. I was slowly heading towards self-destruction through bitterness and regret. I had even stopped seeing my family on Tenth Day. From that moment of realization I reexamined my options and, to occupy myself physically, I spent more time in Morgaine's classes, learning the sort of self-discipline that urges objectivity regardless of the situation; consequently, I found a controlled outlet for my repressed anger which would harm no one, including myself.

Lin encouraged my growing confidence as a teacher and gitarist and, at his insistence, I let him talk me into joining him in a few local concert performances. The most important thing I learned while preparing for those performances was a patient understanding of one's lot in life.

This knowledge came from a number of people I loved and trusted. There was the patient father waiting for a daughter to find herself, always available, always loving. Vella's gentle patience was that of wisdom and joy: she could be free, but would that be wise when it would destroy her happiness? Marsei's patience was for her children and I was hers as much as Vella's. She, too, was wise and her genuine affection for Vella transcended any possible jealousy or bitterness. Marsei's patience was that of endurance because there were those in society who thought the king set a poor example not befitting his station.

I even learned patience from John who, as a child, never had any for me. His mate Papke was First Warrior of the Home Islands and she was not like the average woman. She was the official ambassador of her people, which was only one facet of her strong personality. Papke's primitive Great Western Ocean island society refused to credit males with any ability or responsibility. Males were only valued for the seed they carried to make new life and Island men were treated with less respect than slaves were accorded in other countries.

John, who loved Papke deeply, therefore showed great patience when dealing with his willful mate. The Islander, daughter of the current woman ruler of the Home Islands, faithfully observed the laws of her people, remaining an independent citizen who always chose her own path. That her choice was to love a "barbarian" with dark-skin and live with him solely was a sign of her true emotions. John might lose his patience with others, but never with Papke.

The one thing that tied this realization all together was love. Love of family, love of self, love of music—I had two out of three and mutely endured that impossible yearning for the one love I seemed destined never to know.


Summer was approaching when Tasien resumed calling. He never offered an explanation for the hiatus and I was too happy to hear from him to risk asking.

The phone calls became occasional quiet lunches when he was in town to select new woods for his apparently thriving business. I never knew when he would be in Gizen or ask me to lunch so I found myself staying at home more often, just in case he would call. This continued through the summer and into the first of fall.

Joysan made one of her unusual week long trips to Gizen and stayed with me six of the ten days. It was pleasant to have her around, to talk as we did as young girls or when I lived in the Heights and Joysan was only a few minutes away. Joysan loves to cook and I didn't fix dinner once while she was there, though she made me do the dishes. In the evening we'd play dice and gossip. Although I was very happy and carefree, I half-feared something would spoil our visit—and something did.

Tasien called during Joysan's last night at my apartment before moving on to visit the family. I talked with Tasien at length while Joysan looked on disapprovingly. Finally agreeing to have lunch with Tasien the following day, I started to tell him Joysan was with me. She shook her head in such a fashion I said nothing until after I hung up.

"And what is wrong with telling him you're here?" I asked.

Joysan cleared the dice game from the table. She frowned, heaving a sigh of exasperation. "It's a long and depressing story, Rachelle. Let's just say Rampart and Tasien aren't the friends they were in school—or before Elispeth died."

"I know Tasien was out of line when Elispeth—well, he's not like that anymore."

"How long have you been seeing him?" Joysan bluntly asked.

I sensed her cool criticism and that irritated me. "You never liked the thought of Tasien and me together, Joysan. Even when we were children you did everything you could to come between us. Why? I know it can't be because you wanted him because you Petitioned Rampart long before Elispeth Petitioned Tasien. Or is it something more?"

"What are you talking about, Rachelle?"

I couldn't stop myself. I was filled with anger. Father once asked me in passing how I could let Tasien take Olexa from me. John wondered why I didn't help Vaughn after he got a letter from his nephew. I felt closed in, surrounded by disapproval. Then to have Joysan sneer at my meetings with Tasien was too much.

"Are you jealous, Joysan? We both know Tasien never showed any interest in you. Do you suppose he never found you interesting because I have two legs and you have only one?" Why did I say that deliberately cruel thing? To make matters worse, I kept on.

"You know what some people say: you trapped Rampart before he had a chance to meet anyone else. After all, your daughter was born so quickly after the Rites of Choosing. I don't believe you deliberately forced Rampart as the rumors go, but I always wondered why he Accepted—"

Joysan's face clouded with shock and humiliation. "You're so bitter and blind you refuse to see the truth—any truth! I will answer one of your accusations—only one!—then I'm to my bedroom to pack. I kept you and Tasien apart when you were younger because he wasn't careful around you. I don't think you remember how many times Elispeth picked you up whenever he was around."

I did. I swallowed hard, embarrassed. But Joysan wasn't through. She furiously rose from the table, momentarily fighting for balance in that odd manner of hers until the knee joint of the artificial leg locked into place. "I will answer one more—the one I never thought you capable of considering!" Her face was an implacable mask, her voice cold as a winter blizzard. "I've never been jealous of you, teela."

The way she said it made me want to crawl into a sisk hole. Joysan leaned on the table and narrowed her eyes, glaring at me.

"If I felt anything at all, Rachelle, it was pity that you'd never know what it was like to run through the grass until you were so winded you fell down. Before the war I knew what that was like. A Kanpe shell took my leg but it didn't remove my joy of living! It didn't make me cold and bitter! I know you don't have to run to experience life — but where are you running?" Joysan went to her room and slammed the door.

She wouldn't open for me, or answer any of my pleas. She was gone in the morning when I woke. I stayed distraught and distracted all through my morning classes and didn't start feeling well until Tasien picked me up for lunch. He made me laugh with some little pleasantry and, suddenly, everything Joysan said was unimportant.

Before we said goodbye after lunch, I extended an invitation to Tasien. "My students are putting on a recital tomorrow night. I'd like you to see them. Will you come if you're still in town?"

"I'd like that, too, Rachelle. At the school?"

"Yes," I smiled with happy anticipation. "Speaking of which, I'll be late!"

5.

Knowing Tasien was somewhere in the crowd of parents and guests made me as nervous as my first school recital last semester. My children performed well, no thanks to their fumbling teacher, and I could tell they were excited by the applause from the audience.

I stayed backstage with the children after the performance, helping the younger ones pack their instruments, sometimes speaking with a proud parent come to get their child. I looked up every time an adult came through the backstage door but I must have had my attention elsewhere at least once, because Tasien was suddenly at my elbow.

"They were wonderful," he said with an approving smile on his handsome face. "I suspect I'll be making gitars for some of them in the near future."

"Do you really think so?" I asked, pleased with his comment. I had always loved getting compliments from Tasien.

"I thought they were very good, Rachelle." His smile was just for me, warm and inviting. "Do you know how much you've grown in talent since I heard you last?"

I flushed, smiling. "Thank you, Tasien. From you that means a lot."

He bent closer, his lips close to my ear. "How long do you need to stay? I brought a picnic dinner. It's out in the car. I thought we'd drive to the park and dine beneath the moons if you'd like."

"That sounds marvelous!" I remember laughing girlishly, holding to his arm. "I really shouldn't leave until the last student has been picked up." I had a sudden inspiration which left me breathless. "Let me see if Kelian will sit with them. I won't be a moment."

Kelian is the school cook who occasionally served beverages and small cakes or pies at the evening recitals. Kelian listened with a smile as I excitedly explained that a dear friend was in town for the evening and would be leaving in the morning. Would she mind watching the children? Kelian chuckled and assured me it would be no inconvenience.

I almost ran back through the hallways to Tasien. Joysan has said I was running to destruction, but what did she know? I was running toward life and happiness, the love for which I yearned so desperately.

I told Tasien the good news and he smiled. "I see you're still playing the gitar Elispeth had me make for your twenty-third Naming Day. Let me have it, Rachelle. I'll load the car and come back for you."

Kelian arrived before Tasien returned so I went to the car myself, meeting him halfway. I felt light-headed, as if I had drunk too much wine. The night was beautiful and warm, with few clouds to block the late spring evening stars. Tasien quietly drove through the city until we reached the stone-arched entrance of Pim River Park. He turned south, taking the river drive which paralleled the broad waterway shimmering under the Dance of the Moons. We passed a number of cars parked near the shore, moving on until Tasien located a quiet area far from other late evening visitors.

The park itself is a beautiful, peaceful place; a memorial to one of the most bitterly-fought allied battles against the Kanpe forces, a battle which ended on these very shores. The past violence of terrible explosions and death lay concealed by the manicured short grass, a soft, sweet-smelling cushion beneath the blanket Tasien spread under a trio of ancient torpal trees which had somehow escaped shell and bomb during that frightful long ago battle. The torpal leaves, silvered by the Dance of the Moons, whispered in the wind.

I listened to the gentle lap of the water on the bank as Tasien served an elegant basket supper. He produced a bottle of wine and stemmed glasses, pouring generous portions for us both. The warm solitude surrounding us so very like my fantasies that I relaxed very quickly, consuming more wine than normal. A short time later, after nibbling food I could not taste because I was too excited to have much appetite, his voice came, light as the wind, floating from his dark silhouette highlighted by the glistening swath of the river.

"Rachelle, the children and I miss you very, very much. The house seems so empty without you."

"Tasien, I—" I was quite giddy from the wine. My emotions ran riot within, yet I said nothing, did nothing because I was suddenly in new territory. I did not know what to do!

Tasien moved closer, putting his arms about me, pressing his lips to my throat. I shivered under his impulsive caress.

"I was out of my mind when Elispeth died, Rachelle. I said things I—I was crazy with grief. I treated you and the children terribly. I hope I can make it up to you somehow." His breath was hot on my throat, his arms tightening with increasing pressure. "I'm not the same ogre who beat Olexa," he said. "I hope you can believe that..."

I would have believed anything at that moment. His lips burned against my skin and his scent filled my nostrils. His hands touched me in ways I had never been touched. I found it difficult to breathe, my lungs strained for air. My head spun wildly as Tasien's hand slipped under my long skirt and caressed the smooth surface of my normal leg. It was then that I fully understood what Tasien wanted and I was miserably afraid my deformity would disgust him.

"You must stop," I pleaded with a weak voice. I tried, unsuccessfully, to push Tasien away.

Tasien ignored me. His lips covered mine as I was bent backwards to the blanket. "Why stop, Rachelle?" His tongue traced my earlobe. A shiver ran along my spine and that sensation seemed to pool in my stomach, filling me with a warmth I had never known.

I had a hundred different answers to his question, but could voice none as Tasien lifted my skirt and pulled his weight over me. I felt his hand fumbling at his waist for a moment, then felt the warm length of his desire on my bare thigh. His hand touched me intimately and I could not refuse him from that instant on.

I was so inept and naive when Tasien opened me, readied me for his thrust. I thought I knew what to expect but the reality was far different than I had ever imagined. His brutal penetration was all the more painful because of my tumultuous emotions. The pain shocked me. I wanted to make him stop, yet a part of me knew that if I did, I would never see Tasien again.

I felt no enjoyment of his pounding hips against mine, only an aching pain which seemed to last forever. I clung to him, not from any joy but to bury my shame against his shoulder. I cried silent tears, totally filled with horror because this hard-breathing mass of muscle pinning me to the blanket had no thought for my needs or my fears. It was intent on its own gratification which, thank Herza, was quickly sated. Tasien shuddered, slamming hard against me, and I felt the jerking of his organ within, felt the sweat of his brow on my face. Tasien's rough whiskers rasped across my cheek when he went limp, his head beside mine. He gasped for breath, though I could not because he was so heavy. I might have borne the pain and humiliation, even my stupid ignorance, if that had been the end. I could have endured possibly anything except: "Elispeth—I love you—"

A terrible coldness seized me, becoming a lump in my throat so large I thought it would kill me. I desperately wished it would. I wanted to push Tasien off, to run away from this stranger, but I could not do even that.

"Rachelle, darling—"

I could never know who Tasien thought he was with, I would never be sure. Any love I had for this man was gone, shattered in an instant. I wanted to tell Tasien what he said to me after he was spent, after he had what he wanted, but I was so ashamed that all I wanted was to go home.

Tasien finally rolled his weight to one side. He uttered a little pleasure laugh as he restored his clothing to order. I sat up, a painful motion for tender flesh, which made me even more aware of what had happened. I was glad the Dance of the Moons had passed and the night was so dark. I did not want Tasien to see my tears of rage. I quickly straightened the folds of my dress, now wrinkled and damp from his weight and insincere exercise.

"Please take me home," I managed to say.

"Certainly, my darling. You don't know what this means to me."

You're right. I don't and I never will. Do you really know?

Tasien drove me home. At the door he told me he loved me. Tasien kissed me and I let him since it was easier than saying "no" after what happened at the river. He promised to call in the morning. He told me again how much he loved me. I almost believed him.

Tasien never called.


For several days afterward I found it difficult to leave the apartment and walk the streets to school or teach my classes. I felt certain everyone knew my shame, that I wore a sign proclaiming me "whore." Even Pleasure Slaves, those poor unfortunates unable to shake their training after the Great War, had a higher standing than those who sold their charms or gave them without regard. And what had I obtained in return for my services? The cold, hard truth Joysan and Elispeth had warned me about. Maybe Tasien didn't know what he said, but even so, he had shown me more of himself than I ever wanted to know.

The weeks passed and little by little I was able to deal with myself, my despairing remorse. I plunged into my teaching in hopes of finding something that would let me feel whole again. I never went anywhere after school, except to my parents on Tenth Day, on which visits I would arrive for lunch and leave before dinner. The rest of the time I remained in my lonely apartment. I felt as if I had betrayed not only myself, but everyone who loved me. I couldn't face my father's concern and I knew my seemingly aloof manner hurt him terribly, but he had patience with me, never forcing, never demanding.

I had almost regained my lost confidence for allowing Tasien to use me when the horror of my awful shame resurfaced through the most dreadful haunting I could imagine. The hour was well after midnight according to my bedside clock. I was awakened by frantic pounding and a panicked voice calling through my door. I struggled into my robe, wondering who would call so late and with such urgency. When I came out of the bedroom I recognized Densil's anxious voice. I hurried to open the door.

My nephew had Olexa in his arms. The dim bulb of the landing shower her face bloodied, her thin lips hideously swollen. She sobbed in pain, eyes shut, with bruised arms trembling weakly around Densil's neck.

I felt the breath leave my lungs. I reeled as if a hard doubled fist sank into my stomach. "What happened, Densil? Herza, what happened?" I pulled him into the apartment. At my direction Densil carried his sister to my bed. "There's a doctor listed by the phone," I told him, kneeling to gently turn Olexa's battered face for a closer examination. "Call him."

Densil's voice was very soft. "No."

I was stunned by the finality of his refusal. "Olexa is badly hurt, dear. She needs a doctor!" When Densil remained motionless, I rose from the bed. "I'll do it myself!"

Densil moved to block the bedroom door, but it was Olexa's hand gripping mine which stopped me. "Don't call a doctor," she pleaded. "I'll be all right. I've been hurt worse..."

She didn't have the strength to hold me for long. Her eyes closed, but her forlorn voice kept me motionless. "I just want to rest, Karovenja Rachelle. Don't call the doctor. Don't call anyone." She sobbed heartbreakingly for a moment then, the words garbled by labored breathing, she asked, "Will you let me come back and live with you again?"

Her words were filled with such despair she forced a promise I did not wish to make. "I won't call the doctor," I said. "Of course you may stay, Olexa. Rest now and I'll get some bandages and ointments, my sweet little teela..."

Olexa's eyes remained closed. Perhaps she heard me, perhaps not, but it was of no consequence since the one I wanted to talk to was Densil. He made no resistance when I angrily jerked him out of the room. I shut the door and glared at him.

"If you don't tell me what happened right this minute, I'll call the Enforcers and let them handle this. Did Tasien do this to Olexa?"

"He didn't mean to—"

"Mean to? What kind of answer is that? What did she mean when she said she'd been hurt worse? How often? How badly?" I was trembling with rage. It was one thing for Tasien to abuse me, a grown woman, but entirely despicable to abuse a child of fourteen. "Why, Densil?" I demanded harshly. "Why did he do this?"

"Olexa's pregnant. He got furious. He said he kept warning her about boys..." Densil looked guilty, filled with remorse. "I didn't see any harm in her seeing boys, so I guess it's as much my fault as it is hers! I never thought she'd let anyone," his voice choked on him. Densil looked away, his arms moving in helpless gestures. "She doesn't even know whose child it is, Karovenja Rachelle. When she couldn't tell dovenja when he demanded to know he went crazy!"

"Why didn't you stop it?"

"I did, as soon as I found out. I was in the workshop. It started in the house. I heard Olexa scream twice and I ran to the house. I heard only a few seconds of what he was shouting before I shoved dovenja into the pantry and locked the door. I couldn't get him to listen to me and he was about to break the door down. I picked up Olexa and put her in the car."

"Why didn't you take her to the hospital? If she's pregnant she might lose the child, or be hurt inside. Densil, I'm surprised at you. I thought you had more—"

"I didn't have a choice," Densil explained, his eyes lowered. "She wouldn't go! She wanted to come here!" Densil grit his teeth, his jaw muscles jumping from frustration and anger, his anguished fear for Olexa. In that moment he looked so much like Tasien the day he stormed into Rampart's house that I involuntarily drew away.

Densil immediately unclenched his fists and lowered them to his side. Hard, shuddering sobs took over then, the tears he'd held back during the forty minute drive from the Heights. "I didn't know what to do!" he said over and over.

He was only Densil again, a boy shouldering a man's responsibilities. I pulled his head to my breast, stroking his hair. I lifted Densil's chin and tried to offer a reassuring smile. "We'll take care of her. You make some kla and I'll see to Olexa. When I come back we'll talk this over. Agreed?"

"No doctors? No Enforcers?" he pleaded. "Olexa and I will deny he did it. I want you to know that, Karovenja Rachelle. He's our dovenja!"

"I know, Densil, that's what makes it hard to understand why he ever hurt Olexa—or cause you to lie for him."

Olexa didn't want to talk to me as I washed the blood from her nose and mouth. She kept saying she was all right, but she also complained of stomach pains. I became very concerned. After she was bathed and resting as comfortably as I could make her, I left Olexa and went into the living room.

Densil surprised me, then. He was the one to urge me to call the doctor. He'd been at the bedroom door, listening to Olexa's wretched voice.

The doctor was an old friend, a kind hearted man of later years who tended the children at School Number Four. He was used to working with young people, usually scraped knees, small abrasions or sniffles and such, but his voice trembled with repressed anger when he spoke to me after examining Olexa.

"The child has bruised ribs and a slight concussion. I gave her some antibiotics to prevent possible infection in the lacerations on her head and arms. What happened to her?"

Densil was seated at the table, sullenly glaring at me. I put down my cup of kla and returned the boy's stare. "I wasn't there, doctor, I don't know for sure."

The man sighed unhappily. "It looks like your kavenja'le was beaten, your highness. This is very serious business. I'll have to report this."

"I understand," I said. "Please write your report, but I wish you wouldn't file it at this time. Maintain it in your records in case there is a future need—which I can guarantee will never occur. My family and I would greatly appreciate your understanding."

The doctor narrowed his eyes, shaking his head. He looked toward Densil and saw the defiance in my nephew's eyes. "Princess Rachelle, I—" he raised his eyes to mine, gnawing his lip with reservation. "I suppose the young girl has been through enough as it is. She's very lucky to have not lost the child. I will do as you ask, though I wish you'd reconsider and let me put her in the hospital for observation."

"I will if you insist, but I think she'd be more comfortable here."

Densil rose to stand beside me. Under the doctor's unwavering gaze he flushed uneasily. "Karovenja Rachelle can take care of her, doctor. I'll be here, too. Olexa will never be left alone."

The doctor shrugged his shoulders. "There must be a strong reason for you to act contrary to my recommendations, Princess Rachelle. This is against my better judgement, but I'll do as you ask." He reached into his bag and produced two bottles, one a small empty vial and a larger one containing a number of pills. He meticulously transferred six white tablets from the large bottle to the vial and pressed it into my hand.

"If she feels pain give her one of these every four hours. When they are gone I'll be back. Watch her closely for any signs of internal bleeding. If it should start, call me at once. It could mean the difference between life and death for your kavenja'le and her child."

"I will, doctor." I walked him to the door. "Thank you."

"I hope I don't regret this, your highness."

After the kindly man departed I returned to the table and sat down, suddenly fatigued by the late hour and stressful events. Densil joined me, gently pushing my forgotten kla toward me.

"How is she?" he asked.

"You heard the doctor. It isn't good."

Densil hung his head. "I know. Thanks for not telling."

"Don't thank me, Densil! I'm furious with you for putting me in this position! I could cheerfully scratch your eyes out. Olexa should be in the hospital and I let you talk me out of it!" Densil shriveled in his chair, but I wasn't yet through. "Something must be done about your dovenja!"

I wanted to tell Densil how Tasien had used then discarded me but I couldn't do that without demeaning myself in the process. I abruptly realized I would never be objective where Tasien was concerned and, at the same time, I understood why Densil and Olexa were so reluctant to turn their father in to the authorities. If I lacked the strength to denounce Tasien, could I expect children to do more?

I tried to imagine how I would feel if my father turned sour and uncontrollable. I will never believe Simon Jules Ward could change so drastically, but the mere thought of him acting like Tasien made it possible to sympathize with the children's situation. I was the only one who could quietly deal with this without creating too much friction. I knew what my dovenja would do, he would throw Tasien behind bars and that would never solve anything.

"Tomorrow you and I are going to your house," I told Densil. "We'll pick up Olexa's clothes and I'm bringing Vaughn back with me. The last thing your rovenja asked of me was to take you children and I didn't do it. I see now I should have. Well, this abuse is going to stop, Densil, right now! Do you understand what I'm saying? The price of my silence is that you children come live with me."

"You can't take Vaughn," Densil gasped. "That would kill dovenja!"

"I'll take Vaughn before he is killed."

Densil saw the firmness in my eyes and realized I was adamant. He raised his gaze to stare at the wall behind me, but he wasn't looking at anything in the room. "If you take Vaughn," he said, his thoughts far away, "does he have to live with you, Karovenja? Can he have a choice?"

"What kind of choice, Densil?"

"Do you think Kadovenja John would take him? Vaughn has always wanted to be a navy pilot like him. They get along well and Vaughn likes Papke."

"I suppose that depends on John and Papke, Densil. I can't promise for them but I'm rather sure John wouldn't object." I added softly, "I know there is a great deal of affection between John and Vaughn."

"They'll take him," Densil said with sudden conviction. "I know they will. Would you mind if Vaughn lived with them?"

I thought about it because Densil wasn't demanding or being argumentative. He was extremely serious and it showed a growing maturity on his part. What would happen if Vaughn moved in with me, Olexa, and Densil? My apartment would burst at the seams. I'd have to find another place with more room. Densil and Olexa were of the age that they'd soon need rooms of their own.

Densil interrupted my thoughts. "I'll be staying with dovenja. I can't leave him there alone, Karovenja Rachelle."

"That's out of the question, Densil. Tasien can't be trusted and I won't allow it."

Densil shrugged. "You can't make me stay with you. I'll go home every chance I get."

"Don't threaten me, Densil, I won't stand for it."

"Then don't ask me to do something I can't! I have to stay home. Someone needs to learn the business. Someone has to give dovenja a reason to keep on working. I know how he acts, what to expect. I'm older now, almost as big as he is. He doesn't fight with me as much anymore. I can take care of myself. He needs me."

I looked at Densil then, seeing that there was some truth in what he said. He was tall, starting to show the heavy muscle that would flesh out his frame in the years to come. There was no denying the determination he showed. I sighed unhappily, knowing I could never hold Densil against his will. "We'll talk about it later," I said.

Densil heard the resignation in my voice and realized I wouldn't challenge his desire. He was mature enough to avoid pointing this out to me and it only served to convince me further that he may be right about his staying with Tasien. But, and he knew this, it did not alter my feelings about Olexa and Vaughn.

We sat in silence for some time, sipping kla that was too cold. Though Densil manfully tried to stay awake, he was still a boy, over-tired and drained from the evening's nightmare. He yawned, attempting to conceal it behind his hand. Though I would never regret my harsh words concerning his father, there comes a time when such words should cease and be replaced with words of care and loving.

"I want you to go to bed now," I said. "Take Olexa's old room. I'll sleep on the couch so I can be close it she needs me. Just put the stuff on the bed any place and get some sleep."

"I should stay up if she needs me," Densil objected.

"If you do, you won't be any use if you're too tired to help. I'll watch her, Densil."

Densil reluctantly went to bed. I don't know how he slept, but I was still awake and raging when the sun rose. I waited to call Anne Morgaine until I was sure she had risen. When I asked if she would stay with Olexa while I drove out to the Heights she instantly agreed. Like a true friend she asked no questions, even after she saw Olexa's discolored bruises.

Densil and I got ready to leave. "I don't know how long I'll be gone," I told her. "Thank you for coming, Anne Morgaine."

"Trouble?" she asked.

"Why do you ask?" I returned.

She nodded at the pants I wore only in her classes. "Trousers," she said. "Maybe Densil should stay and I go. He can do everything for her I could, which could be to call the doctor if something happens. Please, Rachelle, let me come with you."

When Densil protested that decided me. "You look after your kyangan'le, young sir, and no arguments. We'll be back as soon as we can."

We took my car and made the trip to Tasien's in a half hour. He was already in the shop, standing over Vaughn, who was working alongside a dozen other men. Tasien didn't seem surprised to see me. Anne Morgaine's presence raised an eyebrow, however, though it brought no comment. Tasien even helped carry Olexa's clothes to the car.

"You're welcome to the little slut," he said. For an instant I thought he was talking about me. "I don't want Olexa near this house again."

"She won't ever come back, Tasien. You have my word on that."

"Fine," he actually grinned. "Goodbye."

"We aren't finished here, Tasien," I said. I felt the sweat grease my palms as I looked up into his eyes. It took everything I had to keep from trembling before him. "I'm taking Vaughn, too."

"Like hell you are!" He stepped toward me, fists clenched. I dropped into a defensive crouch, but Anne Morgaine was there before Tasien closed with me. His arm was painfully wrenched behind his back and he struggled for a few seconds then desisted.

His eyes bored into mine, horror stricken. "Why take Vaughn, Rachelle? You've got Densil and Olexa, why take Vaughn?"

"Densil's coming back home after Olexa's better, Tasien. It's his own choice. But I know Vaughn isn't happy here and after what I saw in the workshop just now, I understand why. I also think you'll see the wisdom of letting him come with me now before others have to be involved.:"

"I never thought you'd be spiteful just because I—" he looked over his shoulder at Anne Morgaine and held his tongue.

"This has nothing to do with that," I told only a small lie. What he did to me was less important than Olexa and Vaughn's well-being. "Can we get some clothes together for the boy?"

Tasien's eyes raged at me. His lips compressed tightly and he seemed ready to refuse. His voice was high-pitched and harsh. "You'd twist what happened, wouldn't you? You'd do it—"

Tasien didn't define what I would or would not do, but he was right. I would have named his as a rapist it that's what it took to get my children away from him. He realized this and capitulated.

"All right, Rachelle. We'll do it your way." He turned his head and spat into the bushes. "Bitch!"

Anne Morgaine looked confused when I said, "Let him go. We won't have anymore trouble."

Tasien jerked away from the tiny Earther woman as soon as the painful pressure on his arm eased. He threw open the door to the house and turned away. I heard him stomp through the hallway toward the front door.

I gathered clothes for Vaughn and some for Densil. I packed a few things I knew Vaughn would like to have then went for the child. He looked up from the work bench, puzzled to see me back, then cried for joy when I told him he was coming with me. As we drove away Vaughn's grateful kisses were such that I had to make him sit down and behave before I wrecked the car.

6.

When I started to feel sick in the mornings, I feared the worst. After a visit to the doctor I learned it was true: my first and only time with a man and I was pregnant.

It had taken a world war and the deaths of millions to change centuries of social traditions; specifically expulsion or punishment by society for victim as well as rapist. The Great War left millions of violated women in its wake; so many that families and loved ones refused to observe the unwritten law regarding the victims of rape or those forced to become Pleasure Slaves. Consider those victims in addition to the larger group of young people responding to the natural biological urge to mate in times of great danger and stress and it became impossible to attach any "legal" stigma to sex outside the Rites of Choosing. Thus, while it entertained the gossips in the streets of Gizen, the pregnancies of the King's daughter and granddaughter, in reality there was little impact in our day to day lives.

My father, bless him, held his rage in check until after we had a chance to talk, or rather he talked and I said nothing. He wanted to know the name of the man responsible, but was sensible enough not to play guessing games without more information. I flatly refused to say anything more than: "I was responsible. I let it happen. It is my mistake. I will have to live with it."

I had inherited my dovenja's stubbornness and he knew it. Father eventually stopped pressuring me for the identity of the man, especially when I asked him "If you knew, what actions would you take? I won't Petition him. I have no desire to ever see him again. I certainly will not allow him to have any part in raising my child. Other than satisfying your curiosity, what benefit is there in knowing the father?"

My mothers, real and foster, accepted the pregnancy with even less difficulty. That's not to say I wasn't chastised for my stupidity, my lack of care in the matter. If I had only come to them, they said, they would have told me of precautions I might have taken. I endured their loving remonstrations without resentment. They were, in their way, telling me that no matter what happened, they loved me. This knowledge made it easier for me to sleep at night.

There were hilarious jokes drifting through the city, told mostly by the common folk who enjoyed any little amusement they could find. I heard some of the jokes being passed between my students when they thought I was out of earshot and they were quite good, particularly the one about "contagious pregnancy." But Olexa's and my status as gossip mill celebrities soon faded in the press of international news. We finally returned to a "normal" life.

There were those, however, who did not forget so easily. Rampart was one. I imagine my dear friend put two and two together and came up with Tasien. After all, Morgaine might have mentioned Tasien's thinly veiled suggestion regarding me to Lin after we picked up Vaughn, or Joysan could have said something about Tasien's phone calls and lunches, but whatever his source or the accuracy of his conclusions Rampart did a damn stupid thing.

The first I heard that Rampart had made a complete fool of himself—and me in the process—was the afternoon Joysan came to my apartment after school. As soon as I opened the door she slapped my face. Joysan is not a woman prone to violence and she was instantly shocked and regretful. Joysan tearfully begged for my forgiveness. I sent Olexa to her room then managed to calm Joysan. I got the whole story between crying jags and long pensive silences.

"Rampart got it into his head that Tasien is the father of your child. Before you start denying anything I'm not saying it's true and I'm not asking. I'm just telling you what he thought." Joysan wiped her eyes with the back of her hand and thanked me for the handkerchief I gave her. "You know how Rampart can be at times, single-minded and obstinate. He had to know, Rachelle, so he went to see Tasien."

"I wish he hadn't done that, Joysan."

"He loves you so much, Rachelle. He thought he was doing the right thing. He demanded the truth from Tasien and, of course, Tasien denied it. Rampart's got a short temper, as you know, and he tried to force the answer from Tasien. Tasien fought back and Rampart hit him. It got out of hand and the next thing that happened Tasien shot Rampart!"

"Oh no!" I clutched my breast, unable to breath. "Is he—"

Joysan's hands fluttered nervously. "He's going to be all right, Rachelle. He was shot in the leg. The Enforcers arrived before it got any worse. I was so frightened when they called and told me Rampart was shot. I came here straight from the hospital and I—I didn't mean to hit you. It just all came out at once."

"Are you thinking it would be better if I said who fathered my child?" I put my right hand over my abdomen. I wasn't showing much, yet, but I knew it was there, growing inside me and innocent of guilt.

Joysan shook her head, leaning forward to hug me. "I don't care, Rachelle. I don't need to know if you don't want to say. I can't love you any less than I do now. Can you forgive me for being so foolish?"

"Of course I can!"

My only regret stemming from Joysan's visit was Olexa's near certainty of hearing our conversation. The apartment was small and the walls between the bedrooms and the main room weren't that thick. I never denied or said Tasien was the father, but with Joysan and Rampart as well as the gossips on the street constantly mentioning her father's name, it placed a strain on my relationship with my niece.

Olexa's opinion of me changed subtly and there was a coolness between us for several months. My pregnancy as such didn't disturb her. She, more than most, understood how simple it was to get in that condition. It was the identity of the man who'd been party to the creation of the new life in my womb that distressed her.

I couldn't blame her for having negative thoughts. Olexa probably believed I had betrayed Elispeth, herself, and her brothers which, if the truth were known, is how I felt about it myself. I spent long hours trying to think of a way to open a conversation which would clear the air between us without admitting Tasien was the father, but every opening phrase I conceived only revealed my damnation. I dared not destroy what civility remained between us. Perhaps I judged Olexa's probable reaction too strongly; the young woman recognized her dependency upon me and her desire to remain in my care had not diminished.

We rarely saw Densil during this time though he kept in touch with weekly telephone calls. I listened to his voice very carefully and I could usually tell when he wasn't totally honest with me, but he no longer tried to conceal trouble when it happened. He assured me he was able to handle the difficulties and, the few times he managed to come to my parents' on Tenth Day, he looked well enough; though thinner and prone to reserve his smiles.

Vaughn, on the other hand, flourished at the palace. He was now legally registered as John and Papke's ward, but he "belonged" to everyone. Yurilla bossed him around as much as Papke. Vaughn always appeared happy and cheerful, always in mischief, which was affectionately tolerated by the family.

So at least one of my children was happy. Whenever I saw Vaughn, laughing and running through the palace, I knew Elispeth would have been pleased. There were nights, when restless or uncomfortable from the metabolic changes caused by my pregnancy, that I felt overwhelming guilt for failing Elispeth with Olexa and Densil. Not so much guilt over Densil who was old enough to make his own choices in life, but for Olexa, who was bitter and a bit afraid of life.

As her term approached, Olexa became moody and cross, constantly irritable and irritating. I sincerely hoped I wouldn't react in the same fashion when my time came. Olexa avoided all contact with others, except at school. I told her that if I could teach, big belly and all, I saw no reason for her not to attend.

As our wombs swelled we found our daily activities curtailed by nature. I know Olexa missed her freedom as much as I missed mine. We often had nothing to do in the evenings but stare at each other. She studied her lessons and I practiced my instrument or prepared assignments for my students. I don't know how long we might have continued in silence like cautious strangers if not for the tremendously violent electrical storm that drove Olexa out of her room and into my bed in the early morning hours.

She shivered next to me, getting as close as her swollen belly would allow. I showed prominently and it felt good to have Olexa's trembling arm draped over that swelling of my body.

"It's only a storm, Olexa. Everything will be all right." I stroked her hair, held her tight.

"I know—" she sobbed. "I feel so silly. I cry at everything. I think bad thoughts and I don't mean to."

"It's just because you're pregnant, teela. I'm told by those who should know that it's quite normal."

Olexa raised her head from my shoulder and I saw her face when a streak of lightning flashed nearby. There were tears on her face, glistening like twin rivers of silver on her cheeks. "If I ask you a question, karovenja Rachelle, will you answer truthfully?"

"What is the question?"

"Did you love him?"

"Who, Olexa?"

"Doven—" she stopped herself, embarrassed, "The father of your child, did you love him?"

"I thought I did," I replied honestly. "By the time I discovered what I thought was love was only my desperate desire that it be so, it was too late."

"Then why haven't you named him to ahdovenja?"

"That's a harder one to answer, Olexa, but I'll try." I pushed myself up in bed to rest my shoulders against the wall. I waited until Olexa settled back against my side then continued.

"The man I thought I loved could be very wonderful at times. He's enormously talented and I admired him for that. His desire for me—well, I can't honestly say why it happened, teela. You see, we never talked of such things as love or—" I touched my belly, conscious of Olexa's breathing, which slowed as the tenseness gradually drained from her. I kept my voice a quiet whisper just above the drumming of the rain.

"He was lonely and I was in love the way a little girl is in love. When it happened I was so naive, so confused by his sudden attention, I couldn't say no. Events later proved that what occurred wasn't as important to him as it was to me. My feelings changed. I don't know his feelings, Olexa. We never talked about them—and we never will."

Olexa was silent for a long time as I listened to the distant rumble of thunder. The electrical storm seemed to be heading north, over Lake Atela, but the rain showed no signs of letting up. The roof vibrated from with the heavy downpour, a hypnotic sound which seemed to work on Olexa in that manner.

She snuggled close and whispered softly: "That still doesn't explain why you didn't name him."

"Oh—I thought it did. Then let me say it this way, Olexa. I want his child but I don't want him. Clear enough?"

"You must have reasons..."

"They are my reasons and I'm satisfied with them, teela. I don't have to explain them to anyone. Frankly, I wish people would just forget the mystery and let everything get back to normal. I'm just having a baby. That's all. Happens every day."

"I'm having one, too," my niece sobbed. "I wish I could be as convinced as you that everything will work out."

"I'm not convinced everything will work out, Olexa. The only thing I am convinced of is my pregnancy and my determination to live my life according to my beliefs. I will do whatever is in my power to make my child happy. I'll provide it with love and care, a good home. Families are made of love, darling, not signatures in the Great Book."

"At least you know who the father of your child is," Olexa cried. "I don't!"

Olexa had never spoken of her pregnancy and I had not pressed her. Densil may have known, but what he knew, I usually knew, and it was precious little in this case. For the first time since she had come back to live with me Olexa seemed willing to talk and I listened.

Of her own volition Olexa related the events of her return home. Tasien initially made his daughter welcome and she felt, at last, that he truly did love her. His demonstrations of affection were reserved, though the small gestures he made were a decided improvement over his previous treatment. Olexa had gratefully returned to the Heights school, all her old friends, and thought her troubles were over.

But something happened with Tasien after two months. She never learned the cause of her father's disappointment in her, but it resulted in increasing verbal abuse toward Olexa. As the weeks passed severe restrictions were added and, ultimately, the beatings began, each more ruthless than the last. Yet, every time Tasien struck Olexa he was filled with remorse. He always promised he would never do it again. He seemed so sincere that Densil and Olexa wanted to believe him—until the next time Tasien lost control.

Tasien permitted Olexa's school attendance, but refused to allow the young girl to have friends to the house, especially male friends. One of the worst beatings came after Tasien caught Olexa talking to the boy who lived on the property behind the workshop. Olexa quietly swore to me that she and the boy were innocent; they'd only been talking.

"He was nice, though, karovenja. If I could have had my choice, I'd have given myself to him instead of the others."

Her use of the plural startled me and I was glad it was dark in the room. I wanted to ask that stupid question: How many others? I refrained because I knew she'd go silent if I did. What was important was that she was now talking. That was better than holding it all inside.

Tasien's increasingly harsh restrictions eventually confined Olexa to the house or the workshop. Olexa meekly conformed, fearful of another beating if she failed to comply. She spent unbearable weeks isolated in the house, feeling desperate for any kindness at all. The poor girl, starved for affection of any kind, over-responded when an employee made a sympathetic gesture to her. Olexa claimed she enjoyed that clandestine sexual contact. I envied her, wishing it had been as nice for me as it had been for her. The man's gentle attention filled an empty void in her life and, dangerous as it was, she continued to see him whenever possible. She sought other relationships among the men who worked for her father. Tasien's own restrictions allowed Olexa to be in the workshop and he never seemed to consider his employees as "lustful boys" Olexa "wickedly encouraged."

In the following months Olexa had sexual encounters with several men, four in all. She even told me their names; admitting unhappily that the liaisons were so closely spaced, often over-lapping in time, that she couldn't determine the father of her child. When Olexa realized she'd revealed the names of the men, she pleaded with me not to tell Tasien.

"I don't know what he would do," she shivered. "I think he would kill them. They would lose their jobs at the very least. Two of them have families to support..."

"I won't tell, teela," I promised, hugging the girl tightly.

"I believe you." Olexa sat up, sniffing at her running nose. "I feel so much better having told someone. I know you must think me a whore—"

I lifted her chin from her breast and smiled. "How could I possibly do that, teela? I would have to think the same of myself. Is that why you haven't been friends with me? Do you think of me like that?"

"No!" Olexa emphatically cried, throwing her arms about me, nearly crushing the wind from my lungs with the intensity of her denial. "I thought you didn't love him—that you wanted to hurt him and I—" Olexa suddenly stopped babbling and brought her shining eyes close to mine, the faint glow from the window revealed her love for me. "That's a silly, isn't it? I don't even know who he was..."

I believe Olexa, like Joysan, knew exactly who fathered my baby. But, like Joysan, Olexa never again voiced that opinion to me or anyone else. I looked up to the window over the bed. The pane was streaked with rain, and I saw dense clouds faintly illuminated by the dawn sun hidden above them. I discovered I didn't feel at all tired for having talked half the night. I kissed Olexa, who responded with a smile when I suggested breakfast for four.

"I could eat for three myself, karovenja Rachelle," she declared.

I laughed. "I think we can find room for all of us at the table—"


Speculations concerning the parentage of my daughter resumed after her birth. That bout of gossip, however, was shorter-lived than the first round, and the four of us soon had peace again. Olexa's Aidan was a good-natured boy three months and six days older than my daughter Serena, a name suggested by my dovenja when he saw the two of us together for the very first time. My niece adored her child, regretting every hour she had to be away from him. She hated going to school, not because of the studies—which she enjoyed—but for the time she was unable to spend with Aidan.

I have never seen such a marked change in a person. Olexa blossomed into a beauty in much the same startling manner as the hard, ugly buds of a gernica become the most fragrant and stunningly attractive flowers. She opened up, no longer fearful of criticism. Her ineptness disappeared and the clumsy child was replaced by a graceful young woman. I did not deceive myself into thinking such a change had occurred in me, though it was a pleasant fantasy.

I let Olexa take two weeks from school after Aidan was born and allowed myself the same amount of time when I delivered. It was only a matter of chance that my two weeks occurred right before Fall Break. Olexa swore that I had purposefully planned that five week vacation for myself.

We had a good life, the four of us. After Serena was born and I started teaching again, I truly understood Olexa's impatience with the demands of the school day. I walked just as eagerly to the apartment as my kavenja'le and said all the little things mothers say to their children when they pick them up from the sitter. Olexa and I were fortunate to have a kind and caring mother of four living in our building. The energetic woman constantly assured us that two more weren't any more trouble than her own howling brood. I found no signs that Serena or Aidan suffered from the over-crowding; both were terribly fat and spoiled. By Summer's Eve Aidan was crawling and becoming a handful. Serena could sit on her own and spent most of her time trying to imitate Aidan.

I was feeling quite strong and the joy I felt from my daughter seemed to give me more energy. I let Rampart and Lin talk me into playing a series of concert trios with them around the city. Full-fledged concerts were new experiences for me, quite unlike playing for my classes or performing opening pieces at recitals. I went to the first few with some reservations, very conscious of my appearance and the embarrassing way I rolled drunkenly when I walked on stage; however, the applause, the genuine admiration of the audiences, helped me come to terms with that part of my self-image.

When I wasn't home at feeding time Serena accepted Olexa's breast as readily as mine. I often held both suckling babies on my lap when Olexa finally took my advice and started getting out of the apartment. "You need to see people your own age," I said. Olexa protested at first until I reminded her that people are a product of their environment and did she want to be a mewling brat for the rest of her life?

So, Olexa began to date. I never had cause to doubt her judgement or common sense or the character of the young men who called on her. Olexa was wise beyond her years and her experience with Tasien clearly showed her the kind of man she did not want.

There was one youth in particular who seemed as content to stay at the apartment for a game of dice and playing with the children as taking my niece to the kusti theater or strolling the lake shore in the evenings. Els Haprec had graduated from School #4 the year before Aidan's birth, and worked at odd jobs in the neighborhood. Olexa met him while walking home from the market with Aidan on one hip and a too awkward burden of groceries on the other. Els had offered assistance and, a few days later, met Olexa again at the market. She noticed his leather satchel of tools and asked if he could repair stuck windows (the one in our main room had been frozen shut since we arrived). Els not only carried the groceries to the apartment, he repaired the window, stayed for dinner, and was a frequent visitor from then on.

I liked Els very much. He was an open, easy going young man nearly six feet tall and hard muscled, yet slim with an astonishing grace. He had done above average work in school (of course I looked at his records!) and had never been mischievous. His true talent, however, lay in his hands, which seemed to work magic with plumbing, electrical wiring, carpentry and such. At times he came to our apartment to put in shelves, or fix loose flooring. He patched and painted the walls and shimmed doors until they swung easily. It was some weeks later that I noted Olexa's other callers had ceased to come around and from the way Olexa gazed upon Els Haprec, I had the feeling it wouldn't be long before Serena and I had the apartment to ourselves.

In the middle of her last term of school Olexa, now seventeen and radiant, brought her young man to me. I could tell by the brightness in my kavenja'le's eyes, by the familiar way Els held little Aidan to his shoulder, that this was to be a courtesy request—Olexa was not seeking my permission.

"I have Petitioned Els, karovenja Rachelle." Olexa clutched the nervous workman's arm for support. I do believe she was half uncertain of my response. I quickly set Olexa's mind at ease, smiling at the apprehensive young man.

"I shall speak to Olexa's ahdovenja regarding her dowry, Els Haprec. I'm sure he will be generous..."

Olexa laughed with joy and tried to hug me without waking Serena, who lay sleeping in my lap. She succeeded in the hug and failed in the other. My niece was so happy she took Serena and tossed her in the air, making my daughter laugh.

"Me!" Aidan demanded jealously. Els grinned as he enthusiastically complied.

We had a glass of wine to celebrate, or rather Els and I did—Olexa was on the phone talking to Simon and Marsei. Lin Donalson unexpectedly stopped by with new lesson plans for the remainder of the term and was the first, besides my family, to know of Olexa's Petition of Els. He gladly shared a glass of wine in honor of the occasion and his presence got Olexa off the phone. When it rang a few moments later, I answered it so she could visit with Lin.

"Rachelle, we need to talk—" Tasien spoke quickly as if that would keep me on the line.

"I have nothing to say to you." I hung up the phone. It rang immediately. It was Tasien again. Without a word I disconnected and left the handset off the cradle.

Damn him! Why did he have to call?

I found it difficult to get back into the spirit of the celebration, but I managed.


Olexa wanted to wait and have the Rites after she graduated, but my father persuaded her otherwise. "Marsei and I unfortunately have scheduled an unalterable visit to Laveca at that time, Olexa. We'll be out of the country at least a month and a half. Want to wait until we get back?"

"That long?" Olexa frowned. "I want you and ahrovenja Marsei and ahrovenja Vella to be there. It wouldn't feel right without you there."

"Then let's have this Choosing next month—or tomorrow, if you prefer—I'm free either day," father chuckled.

Yurilla, sitting at the table with us, shook her head exasperatedly. "Dovenja—that's cruel."

I reached across the table, accidentally turning his dice roll in the process, to tug on his beard. "You know you'll make more time than that, father. Don't frighten Olexa with so few choices."

"I suppose so, Rachelle," he shrugged his shoulders, "with the possible exception of the trip to Laveca. We really do have to make that one. However, Olexa," he patted his granddaughter's hand, "If you really love your young man, you won't wait that long. Marsei and I didn't wait for family to be present and it hasn't affected us adversely. But, if you tell me when, I'll try to be there."

Olexa glowed under his warm smile. Her lips rose impishly and she leaned forward. "Tomorrow's too soon, ahdovenja, and since I don't really have a good reason to wait until I graduate, how about next Tenth Day?"

She turned loving eyes toward Els, who was sitting head to head with John and Tresal on the divan. The three men were discussing something so interesting that Aidan was being ignored. Aidan, though, was enjoying himself climbing into Els' lap, then down again, only to climb back up to make faces at Vaughn listening to the radio near my napping daughter.

Simon clapped his hands in approval. "Ten days—I think I can stand the uproar and it won't give your grandmothers enough time to go overboard. Now that that's settled, let's get on with the game. I'd like to enjoy what little free time I so frugally allow myself. What was my roll?"

I told him, though I deliberately lied, making it an impossible point conversion. Yurilla narrowed her eyes, smiling slightly. Olexa kept a straight face, saying nothing.

"Was it that bad, hon?" dovenja asked, frowning thoughtfully.

"You can concede if you like," I said.

"Want to wager I make it?" he asked.

"What kind of wager?"

"If I don't make it I'll pay for those new music stands you want for your class."

"And if you do?" I asked with a raised eyebrow.

"You make me a stack of fral cakes this high." His hand hovered over the polished surface of the table, indicating about six of the thin, sweet desserts. "Plus a fresh pot of kla and," he added with a firm challenge, "scratch my back."

"You can scratch your own back," I said. "But I'll honor the rest."

He shrugged again, nodding. "Accepted. I want a berry compote, too." He rolled.

I looked at the dice three times before I got up and went to the kitchen. Father chuckled hugely as he followed, gloating. He emptied the last of the kla from the pot on the stove and handed the empty brewer to me. He sipped the bitter beverage with an amused smile.

"Little girls shouldn't lie to their fathers—or bet with them."

"I'll remember that," I replied as I mixed flour, cunyio, chopped dried-fruits and whipped it all together with rich barabe cream and ger-monte eggs.

I heard Serena wake from her nap in the family room. How she always managed to sleep through the chaos of Tenth Day at the palace I'll never understand. I looked to my father, who was anticipating his wager paid in full.

"Your granddaughter is calling," I informed him. "Why don't you go give her some advice and let me get this done?"

He drew back, pretending to be offended. "Rachelle—if you can't pay cheerfully, don't play impulsively."

"See?" I told him, pushing away from his strong embrace and the twinkle in his eyes. "You're just full of advice."

"Comes from getting old—" he saw my warning look and hastily added the proper suffix "—er. I know you think I'm just a young man, darling, but I'll never get used to human life spans on Uhr. I'm eighty-nine and look and feel thirty. Marsei and Vella both swear I will be as handsome and vigorous when I'm one-ninety." His voice softened thoughtfully. "On Earth I'd already be dead or have only a handful of years left—"

I shuddered at the thought of my father dying so young. I inadvertently displayed my thought in some manner because he took me in his arms and kissed my forehead.

"I have no intention of accepting an invitation to Komos' Table for at least a hundred years, kitten. You better get used to the idea that I'll still be giving you advice then..."

"I hope so!" I exclaimed. He'd been so serious I almost felt like crying. I squirmed free and pushed him out of the kitchen. "I can't cook and be bothered by you at the same time. Out!"

I welcomed the cooking, for it gave me a chance to recover my good spirits. I made a dozen of the tender cakes so the children could have some. When the kla was ready, I prepared a small tray with father's winnings and returned to the family room.

Yurilla and Olexa took charge of the plate of fral I gave into their keeping; they were suddenly mobbed by Vaughn, Serena, and Aidan. Tresal, passing the table, stopped to sniff with appreciation.

"You mean you didn't make more, Rachelle?" he pouted. "What can I do to get you to make some for me?"

Father put his arm about my waist and held me while he explained the dice game and wager. "If you'd like to try your luck with Rachelle, I'm sure she'd accommodate you, Tresal. Your sister really wants new music stands..."

"She'd win, too," Tresal laughed. He then jerked his thumb in father's direction. "You know he's the luckiest man in the world. Who else could have pulled that off?"

Father waved a disparaging hand. "I count my luck in family, son. All the rest is window dressing."

"Just for that," I said, "you better lean forward."

"Why?" Father looked up over his shoulder.

"I can't scratch your back through the chair." I laughed, wiggling my fingers with the appropriate gesture.


The Rites of Choosing are as simple or as grand as the parties desire. The Rites themselves only take a few moments of public declaration in the Temple of Komos and Herza, and affixing their signatures in the temple's Great Book. It was as easy to undo: one or both of the parties simply returned to the temple and scratched out their name. But there were few crossed-out entries in the many thousands of Great Books across the nation, a Choosing is a promise of loving faith, a desire to bind two lives together.

Olexa originally wanted a small gathering. My mothers, however, kept adding to the guest list. I had to intercede for Olexa a number of times to keep the list below two hundred. Even so, more than three hundred attended.

The reception was at the palace. Vella and Marsei were everywhere, greeting people, accepting Giftings for the young couple. I couldn't move about as freely because of my leg, so I tended Serena and Aidan, who was going to stay with me a few days to give Olexa and Els some time together. Those guests I was unable to greet myself, came to me. Some, like our sitter with her Chosen and children, were awed by an invitation to the palace. Others, like Rampart and Joysan were frequent visitors. Their daughter, my namesake, Rachelle couldn't come to the party—I was so disappointed. Lin, Morgaine, and Lindan were as comfortable at the royal residence as they were in their own and it was a happy, happy day.

It was also very tiring and I was thankful when it was over.

John drove me home and carried Aidan upstairs to bed. My brother didn't stay long, he and Tresal were getting together with some of the young military officers—a few of Els' old classmates—who'd been invited to the Choosing. They planned to keep the party going until dawn. I thanked him for bringing me home and wasted no time in getting ready for bed.

The phone rang as I came out of the shower. I quickly answered it to keep from waking the children. "Hello?"

"Don't hang up. I have to talk to you."

"I have nothing to say to you, Tasien."

"I just wanted to find out if everything went okay at Olexa's Choosing. I stayed away because I know how you feel."

"Me?" I felt anger rising and made no effort to keep it hidden. "What about your daughter? She has feelings, too!"

"What have I done to make you so angry with me? We always seem to be at each other's throat. What happened, Rachelle?"

"If you can't answer that question for yourself, Tasien, then I know we have nothing left to discuss. Please don't call me anymore." I disconnected and left the phone off the hook.

Tasien perplexed and angered me. He was so obviously in love with Elispeth when she was alive. He was always stern and unbending with the children, but he tolerated them with an affection of sorts. He turned completely about after her death, becoming a man I no longer recognized, heartless, cold, calculating. What had brought about this change?

The Fever destroyed many lives and relationships before the Greytok's serum became available. Could Transit Influenza be responsible for the fever in the blood which led me to accept Tasien's invitation to the river? As soon as I thought that, I ruled it out; a bacteria is not capable of influencing the emotions of people. Then why did he turn out the way he had? Was it all Tasien's fault? I struggled with my memories, trying to be objective, hoping to understand his actions since the passing of the Fever.

I must have given Tasien some sign of my feelings or he wouldn't have taken me to the river that night. Was I being unfair to him? Was it only an honest mistake that he called me Elispeth? There's nothing honest about not knowing who you're making love to! I had to admit I had been stupid and naive, and it was also possible Tasien might have been the ruthless aggressor. But why did I feel so guilty? I should have listened to Elispeth and Joysan. They told me no good would come from loving Tasien. How right they were!

I shook my head viciously to drive the gloom from my thoughts. I looked down to my daughter's crib next to my bed and felt my heart bursting with happiness. What had passed between Tasien and I was painful to remember, but Serena was the most precious and best reason for enduring the pain. I hoped Elispeth, if she was at all aware, understood.

7.

I laughed at Serena's attempts to climb onto the sofa with me. The door bell rang and I rose. "You be a good girl," I cautioned my adventurous daughter and answered the door. I giggled when I saw the mass of gold-blonde hair and my adoptive-mother's smile.

"What are you doing here, sors-rovenja?" I asked.

Marsei offered me a pretty pout. "Why? Are you busy? Can't I come see my sors-venja'le whenever I want?"

"Mother—I saw you yester—" I covered my mouth and laughed when I saw the feigned disappointment on Marsei's face. "Of course you can. It just seems that you're always going somewhere."

Marsei looked about the apartment for a second before she walked over and picked up Serena, letting out an exaggerated grunt. "You're eating too well, sweet one. You're beginning to look like Papke's little Alvina." Mother turned and glanced toward the open door of Olexa's old room. "I see she and Els got the rest of their stuff."

"I'm going to move Serena in there," I said, happy/sad to have the young couple out of my apartment. "I think it's time my daughter and I have a little privacy from each other."

"Hmmm—-" I could tell from Marsei's expression that she thought that might not last too long. "Have any kla?" she asked.

"I do—but not made. I'll make some if you'll stay long enough to drink it with me."

"Are you implying that my visits to your house are too short, Rachelle?" Marsei followed me into the kitchen. She had Serena balanced on a well-practiced hip.

"You're always on the way to somewhere else when you stop by," I answered her question. "What else am I supposed to think? You want cunyio with your kla?"

"You know I don't like anything that sweet until after dinner," she replied, watching as I filled the pot. I inserted the boiling net, properly tied, and adjusted the heat. "I am in-between places this time, too," mother said.

"Where to?" I asked, taking two cups to the table. "I don't see how you stay so busy. I get worn out just teaching school."

"Children have a tendency to keep adults running on reserves, darling. I'm sure you're finding that out now." Mother sat down. She propped Serena on the table's edge and blew kisses to my child's bright, laughing face.

Marsei can be so frustrating at times. "I asked 'where are you going?'"

"Not me—you. You and I are going shopping. You need a new wardrobe for the tour."

"What tour? I'm not going on any tour. I'm happy with the clothes I have. I don't want you to buy me anything."

"I promise I won't be extravagant, dear. Is that kla ready?"

Marsei was playing hide and seek as Serena pulled at her hair. I knew I wouldn't get a straight answer from rovenja until she'd used all her techniques of convincing me I was going to do what she wanted before I knew what it was. I checked the kla. It was a bit weak, but acceptable. I brought the pot to the table and filled cups.

"I'm not going anywhere, Marsei. I can't take the time from school and I certainly don't have any intention of hauling Serena around—even if I should go on a tour—which I am not," I hastily added.

"Oh she's not invited," mother said. "She'll stay with Vella and me so we can spoil her without your interference."

"I haven't said I was going," I clenched my teeth, I felt control of the conversation slipping away from me.

"I think four new outfits should be enough if you take that new blue one and that red and green thing your father likes so well. There'll be places to have them cleaned. I certainly don't expect you to take a different outfit for each day."

"If I did, how many outfits would that be, sors-rovenja?" If I couldn't get an answer one way, I was willing to try a different approach.

"Sixteen—"

"Sixteen! Mother, I can't be gone that long! I thought you were talking about something local!"

"You'll love the Auel River Valley, Rachelle. Your father and I never took you there because, well, you know—" I was having the operations on my leg part of the time they did most of their traveling through the south. "It's lovely there and it's been just years and years since Simon and I were there..."

"That's hundreds of miles from here!" I cried with exasperation. "Whose idea was this?"

"Your dovenja's. Actually, Rachelle, he asked Lin and Rampart to make the tour during the Fall Break to promote more interest in the scholastic programs in the rural areas. It was Lin's idea to invite you along. He seems to think it would be good experience for your performance and technique. I don't know what those are, teela—" Marsei grinned girlishly "—I just listen to music."

I sighed, shaking my head, trying to be firm. "Mother, I already told you I'm not going."

"I thought you'd say that. So did your dovenja. That's why I brought your rovenja." Marsei looked at the clock over the table. "Vella stopped to pick up some bubbly pies from the bakery down the street so we wouldn't be shopping on empty stomachs. She ought to be here any minute..."

Marsei was right. Mother walked in with the pies and put them on the table. She took Serena from sors-rovenja without a by-your-leave and asked, "Did Rachelle make kla, mistress?"

Sors-rovenja nodded to the pot on the table and rose. She put her arm around her Chosen's slave and chuckled. "I'll get you a cup, Vella." With a large grin on her lovely, pale-blue face, Marsei jerked her thumb in my direction. "She's going to take some convincing."

Vella sat down. She took a deep breath and, before she could start on me, I cried out with frustration. "It isn't fair when you both gang up on me!"

"If you weren't so much like your father," Vella assured me, "Marsei and I wouldn't have to. What are you feeding this child? She weighs as much as I do!"

"I wish she did." I folded my hands in my lap, feeling a defeat coming on, "Then she could go in my place. I'm not really ready for—"

Vella anticipated one of my excuses. "Master Donalson has a student who will look after your classes during the two days you'll miss. The rest of the tour is on Fall Break and you'll be back in plenty of time to prepare your lessons for next term."

Mother made silly faces at Serena, who laughed. "Has this darling little teela had her dinner yet?" When I shook my head, Vella handed Serena to me. "Better see if she wants a suck. Babies who cry in public are so distracting..."

"There, you see?" I fastened on to my last hope. "I can't go because I have to feed Serena..."

"Did your mother tell you we were keeping her?" Vella looked up as Marsei entered with an abashed grin on her face.

Sors-rovenja leaned down and kissed Serena's chubby cheek. "You have to admit it was a pleasant thought, Vella. I'd love to spoil her..."

"She already is!" I announced with exasperation.

"Of course Serena goes with you," Marsei said firmly. She sat down, poured kla for Vella, and picked up her own cup. "There—it's all settled."

I shook my head and said "No—"

Vella smiled tenderly. "Tell me, Rachelle, how often do you feed Serena? Once before school, mid-morning, lunch, mid-afternoon, dinner, and sometimes during the night? What does she do the rest of the time? Sleep? Get into trouble? Love you?"

"I can't manage a tour and her at the same time," I said, uneasily aware of the direction of mother's remarks. "You know I can't!"

Marsei patted my hand, smiling. "You don't believe that, teela. You know, we weren't always this well off. Remember the cabin at Lake Ehol, Vella? How about that first apartment which wasn't nearly as big as Rachelle's?" She smiled at me. "Vella had triplets and I had Don, dear. We managed—you can, too."

"Mother," I sighed, "we're talking about a musical tour...not some cramped cabin or apartment..."

"I was talking about all the political tours your father made right after he was crowned. The royal family had to make some special appearances at that time. Vella and I had four babies much younger than Serena..."

I didn't like the hanging sentences Marsei frequently used to make me think. It was an unfair tactic, one she used mercilessly. There wasn't any use in trying to go against them. I spread my hands helplessly and surrendered.


When I was five years old my parents took me to Vachon, Quinon for Summer's Eve. Father has a cabin at Lake Ehol which is, I'm told, quite beautiful. I wouldn't know—I was recovering from an operation and my memories of that trip are confused with the pain of physical therapy and travel. That's one reason why I've never counted that 1800 mile trip as the farthest I've ever been from Gizen. That distinction was a solo performance I played at a rural school 60 miles outside the capital—about 20 miles further out than Elispeth and Tasien's home on the Heights. Never having "traveled," the 937 mile first leg of the tour by train was quite an adventure for Serena and me. I spent most of my time by the window gazing at country I knew only from photographs. The first thing that amazed me was the sheer immensity of Zea. It is one thing to read schoolbooks which describe Zea as 2,209 miles north to south and 1,533 miles east to west. It is quite another to experience travel on such a scale. It took twenty hours to reach Keyes, our first stop, which made me realize how much time we would actually spend on trains during the projected round trip of 4,474 miles. Suddenly, I wondered if sixteen days was adequate.

"You worry too much, Rachelle," Rampart chided. He carried our gitars to the waiting cab. I had my hands full with Serena. She was cranky with sleep and not too happy about leaving the warm train for a brisk fall wind a few hours after midnight.

Rampart sought to reassure me by mentioning something less pleasant. "Thank Komos we aren't touring the south coast! The train service is irregular and we'd have to travel by train, car and boat."

"This is excitement enough, Rampart." I shivered on the platform beside the waiting cab. The chill wind frosted my thin cheeks as Lin and the cab driver made sure our luggage was secured on the vehicle's top rack and our instruments were placed inside for protection. I comforted my tired daughter, who had been very good up until then.

Rampart took Serena while I awkwardly entered the back seat. I scooted across the worn cushion until my shoulder pressed against the gitar cases. Rampart folded his massive body beside me, keeping Serena in his lap and pulling his thick barabe jacket around her, until she stopped squirming. Lin sat in front, his long, lean height bent double from the short seat. He gave directions to the driver and we left the station. I was so tired my eyes refused to focus properly and, in the chill dark, there really wasn't much to see of Keyes. When we arrived at the inn my only desire was a hot bath and a warm bed. Fortunately our reservations were in order and less than an hour after leaving the train, Serena and I were asleep.

I was so tired from the trip I might have slept to lunch except Serena's inner clock was on a different schedule than mine. She woke early, hungry and in need of a diaper change. I would have enjoyed a cup of kla while Serena nursed, but I wasn't familiar with the conventions of travel or public inns so I patiently waited for her to finish. Later, as I dressed, I decided to pin Lin Donalson down regarding the matter. Rampart might laugh at me for being so naive.

I stopped by Rampart's room, the one next to mine, and it was empty. My stomach was making embarrassing noises when I discovered Lin's room across the hall was also vacant. Undeterred, I let my nose lead me to the dining hall where I found Lin and Rampart at a table for four, just starting their own breakfasts.

Lin rose and took Serena from me. The chair next to the empty place setting had an infant's seat into which my daughter was securely fastened with knowing care. Rampart grinned as Lin seated me.

"We knew Little Bit would get you up, teela, but Lin was getting worried. He was about to call your room."

I wasn't interested in explanations. I was hungry. "How do I get some of that?" I asked, eyeing Rampart's plate.

"Just wait a moment," he replied. "It's already on the way."

I took a strip of fried ger-monte from Lin's plate (it was closer) and had barely finished it in three bites when my food was served. The portions were generous and the preparation was excellent. To my mind I had not tasted a better breakfast in my life.

"Food always tastes better if you don't have to fix it yourself," Rampart chuckled. "Maybe it tastes better because you're so far from home..."

"It's the water," Lin declared with authority. "Lots of minerals to add a zest to everything. Now, in my opinion, the best breakfast I ever had was in Prit. They make a baked petaja so tender the flesh just floats off the bone..."

Rampart disagreed. "The best petaja is right here in Zea. You don't have to go to an under-developed nation like Prit for fantastic seafood. In fact, the petaja they catch out of Lake Ehol is nothing compared to the ocean variety they serve in Pteni or Tura or any of the south coast cities."

"Let's compare the same things, Rampart. Your ocean petaja has a taste as salty as the ocean itself. You can't compare that tangy flavor with the delicate fresh water variety. Indeed—"

I lost all interest in the conversation. I liked petaja and often fixed it at home. As to whether the fish in Lake Atela were better or worse than the ones under discussion was immaterial to me. I only had to walk six blocks to the fish market near my apartment instead of traveling 2,000 miles. Serena wasn't listening to the men's animated words either. She was watching me, chewing her knuckles.

"Here," I handed her a small piece of toast. "Try this..."

Serena made short work of the whole grain bread and I let her have some more. I refused a third helping because I knew she had to be full and would only waste it. I finished the last of my toast and, when I looked at Serena again, saw she was playing with a piece of bread Rampart had given her from his plate.

"If you keep doing that," I narrowed my eyes and tried to sound stern as I scolded Rampart, "she's going to get as big as a barabe."

With equally seriously non-serious tones Rampart offered a suggestion. "I guess you'll just have to move out of the apartment and buy a small ranch to run her on."

I was searching for the proper response to Rampart's facetious remark when a man in a black Rider's uniform stopped at our table. I recognized him, of course, Falco the Holessa had been a bi-annual visitor to the royal palace since the year I was born. If I had known of the famous Rider's personal involvement with the tour before I made commitments to my father and the two musicians, I would have refused to come. There was something in the man's past which gave me reason to dislike Falco the Holessa most intensely. However, we had never actually spoken before I moved out of the palace and went to live with Elispeth and Tasien, nor had I ever expected to meet him personally.

The Government Rider was a small man, about my own five three, built quite spare. He was wiry like my father, and also wore a beard, thick and black, kept closely trimmed to his lean, triangular jaw. He was what I called a handsome man; eyes bright and intelligent, wide-spaced above a well-formed nose that left one the impression of it having been broken and reset at one time. The Rider's expressive lips were full and free of the grim hardness some men display. I was fascinated by the Holessa's hands; built square shaped with long, conical fingers—strong hands and I knew how capable they were. Those hands, and the mind that directed them, had once trained the most sought after Pleasure Slaves in this hemisphere.

The Rider's rich and powerful tenor was his most striking attribute, so warm and sincere sounding. "I'm sorry I wasn't able to greet you last night as planned, Master Donalson. I hope everything was in readiness for you."

Lin rose, offering his sun-browned hand to the Government Rider's dark indigo grip. "We were well received, Falco. As usual, your preparations were flawless. It's good to see you again. Have you had breakfast?"

"I have," Falco nodded, "but I wouldn't mind a cup of kla to take the chill off the bones. It's still quite cool outside."

"It will probably stay that way all day. We haven't come that far south to find balmy weather." Lin smiled, welcoming the Rider by pulling up an unoccupied chair from the next table and gesturing for Falco the Holessa to join us. Lin turned to me. "The King's Voice will be our host and guide through the Auel River District, Princess Ward and, as I can attest from earlier concert tours, he is very capable in this capacity."

Falco the Holessa made a charming bow. "I am delighted, your highness. As many times as I have visited your dovenja, I have never had the pleasure of speaking to you when you lived at the palace. As I recall you had a number of operations as a child. I hope they were successful. I trust our rustic accommodations are satisfactory. If there is anything you require, please don't hesitate to ask." He smiled then, a disarming gesture of white teeth gleaming through his short, curly beard. "You dovenja claims you are having great success as a teacher."

Was the black-clad Rider merely making polite conversation? I knew father valued Falco the Holessa as a close friend as well as a Government Rider acting under his direct orders. I wasn't surprised when the Rider revealed his knowledge of me; my father always talked about the things he loved the most and that was his children.

Two could dance with words as complexly as the Moons dance in the night sky. I faced the Rider and offered a reserved smile. "I remember your visits, sir, and because of the surgeries it seems we never connected. Father speaks highly of you and I am certain we will benefit from your experience. It is true I have lived away from the palace for the last fifteen years, Rider. I have always regretted not meeting you. My regrets are now at an end." I felt it necessary to be courteous to our "host and guide," so the little lie was valid. I was quite frankly terrified of him. I managed to conceal my uneasiness as Lin introduced my daughter.

"Our youngest member of the troupe, Falco. This lovely lady is Princess Ward's daughter Serena."

"And what instrument does she play?" the Rider joked, bringing a smile to Lin's brown-white face and earning a hearty laugh from Rampart.

Rampart indicated Serena with an affectionate nod. "Serena is our moral support and captive audience. We will not play to an empty house this trip..."

Falco's amusement increased. "I can see you have yet to forgive my scheduling error on your last visit to Patiz, Rampart. I suppose I deserve it, but I believe you enjoyed the two day break and the ser-monte riding on my ranch."

"Memorable days indeed, Falco. You are hence forth forgiven. How is Jara and Breder? Ahh—" Rampart paused to call the sturdy-boned serving woman who was passing by with a steaming pitcher of kla. "More kla all the way around," he instructed. Rampart leaned back, smiling at the pleasant young woman while kla was poured. When the cups were full and the woman moved on to another table, Rampart lifted his kla in salute to the Rider, who sat between me and Lin.

Falco raised his cup and sipped, a smile of satisfaction up-turning his lips as the hot beverage warmed him. The Rider belatedly answered Rampart's question. "Jara is Jara, Rampart. Nothing will change her, thank Komos. Breder is an excellent foreman and I leave the ranch in his capable hands with no regrets."

I was startled to hear the one-time slaver name a Chosen One, the highest deity, Lord of the Table and hand-tied to Herza, She-Who-Breathes-Life. I searched his tone for negligent usage, such as was common in those who used the Names without courtesy or meaning, but I detected no blasphemy in his assertion. Was he a believer? I couldn't say, but hearing His Name from the Rider's lips caused me to look at the man in a different light. These thoughts were only instants of time, of course, and they were mine alone for Rampart had continued to speak without pause.

"Are we scheduled to perform in that old hall at Larbei? I sincerely hope not because of the weather."

"I seem to recall other reasons for that reluctance, Rampart ku Heights—something disparaging about the acoustical qualities of the building."

Rampart chuckled, waving his hand expressively. "They were horrible! I have a bet with Lin regarding that very same thing. He refuses to believe there can be a hall that is worse than that run-down sisk trap in Ovbeine."

"I wouldn't know about that, Rampart, but you might have trouble proving it," Falco said with amusement.

Rampart narrowed his eyes and inclined his head toward the Rider. "Oh?"

Falco shrugged his shoulders apologetically. "The old hall burned to the ground after you left. If I had not seen you to the train personally, I'd have been inclined to think you set it deliberately."

"Me?" Rampart feigned indignation. "I only wish I had! Well, Lin, I suppose that—"

Lin held his hand toward Rampart, above the table, palm up, fingertips whisking together. "I'll collect my winnings now, Rampart."

The younger man glared fiercely. "I will not! The wager is off!"

"Not my fault," Lin replied, undeterred. "Let's have it before you spend it."

"Falco?" Rampart sought the Rider's support, but the man leaned back, spreading his hands in a gesture of neutrality. Rampart then turned to me. "Princess Ward, I appeal to you as a long time friend and hearth-kin. Please tell this disagreeable mercenary that the wager is off due to circumstances beyond my control."

I let a small smile touch my lips as I cleared my throat. "You might as well pay now, Rampart. Lin will win it from you some other way before the trip is over."

Rampart rolled his eyes in defeat. He produced the half-credit piece from his belt pouch and placed it in Lin's waiting hand. Lin set the coin on the table. "We'll leave it for the waitress," he said. "Thank you for your support, Princess Ward."

I had heard 'Princess Ward' from the lips of my friends just once too often. I realized they were only being courteous since I had not given Falco permission to use my name and they did not wish to embarrass him by being familiar when he could not.

"Gentlemen, I hereby request that we dispense with all title and formality. For me this is a welcome vacation as much as a tour and I would like to relax. Is this agreeable?"

Lin nodded and Rampart looked his relief. "I'm glad that's out of the way," he said. "I've been calling you 'Rachelle' since the day you were born."

Falco the Holessa set down his cup. "You are very much like your dovenja, Rachelle. He, too, prefers less formality in small groups."

"Yes," I smiled, thinking of father and the way he sometimes shocked delegates and ambassadors with that request. "He's always said it cuts verbiage in half and leaves more wind for the serious dickering."

"Simon Jules Ward is a wise and good ruler, Rachelle," Falco said. "The people love him."

There was a moment of silence at the table. Mention of my father often had that effect on people. Rampart, I knew, was thinking of those years when he, Joysan, and Tasien—orphans of war—were welcomed into our family. Lin Donalson owed his life to my father's troops. He'd been freed from a Kanpe concentration camp, near dead from starvation and overwork. My father's love of music had led to his patronage of the fellow Earther and eventually awarded Donalson the position of Head of Music when the first schools were opened. I knew what Lin and Rampart thought, but what went through the mind of Falco the Holessa?

Falco the Holessa—what I knew about him was learned in hushed whispers between royal servants, awed children at school hallways, and brief passages in the formal histories of the Great War. As a historical figure Falco the Holessa was famous as an undercover agent for the allies. The books dryly state he was a slave trainer from Hinse, Zea who used special training techniques of his own invention to carefully create Pleasure Slaves who were able to repeat anything a master said—especially Kanpe and IDZ masters intent on world domination. Falco then collected and transmitted the vital information gained from these unorthodox slaves to father's allied command. (With normal training it was impossible for any slave to speak of a master's activities.) At the end of the war Falco the Holessa devoted his extraordinary skills to de-training Pleasure Slaves, enjoying an exceedingly high recovery rate.

What the history books overlook is Falco the Holessa's utter failure to de-train any of his Pleasure Slaves. Considered the finest trainer of Pleasure Slaves, past or present, Falco the Holessa was responsible for destroying the free will in thousands of women and hundreds of men during his years as a slaver. The poor unfortunates who failed to respond to the reversal treatments, along with those of other trainers who could not be saved, were cared for in government controlled Pleasure Gardens and allowed to perform in their trained capacity in lieu of having them go mad, suicide, or retreat into self-abuse because of their unnaturally heightened libidos. The one thing any book dealing with the subject of Falco the Holessa or slavery fails to mention is the incredible ability of an accomplished slave trainer to mold a human being into a totally obedient and subservient property. A man like Falco the Holessa had trained my mother. Had Vella not been degraded in such a manner, or failed to respond to de-training after the war, perhaps she, instead of Marsei, would be queen.

These thoughts (not about Marsei! Herza knows I love her intensely!) were rarely far from my mind. As a child, limited in mobility, I had many hours to spend reading of the world which was not an easy place for one incapacitated like myself. When I was old enough to understand that Vella was a slave and know what that meant, I studied every book on the subject of slave training. When I realized that such things could be—had been done—to millions of unfortunates over the centuries, I felt a great shame. There was a time I hated Vella and hated myself for being her daughter. I felt my deformity was a punishment for her status but that terrible shame could not last in the face of so much love from my mothers and father.

I pitied the nineteen year old Dyetta Velafom who was trained by Egato Dufres of Gizen—as a gift to the Kanpe Butcher, Danile Somers himself. My father's Transit and eventual arrival in Gizen-that-was before the Great War probably saved "Vella's" life. Somers was displeased with her but, instead of punishment which might have been death, the Beast of Gizen solved his displeasure by Gifting Vella to the American Soldier he hoped would improve the technology of war for his envisioned world conquest. Somers was magnanimous that day and Simon Jules Ward accepted the Gifting of three Pleasure Slaves, Vella, Kat'leen, and Shonna. Only Vella was to survive the Great War.

I often wondered why dovenja gave Falco the Holessa the position of Government Rider the third year after the Kanpe defeat and I never understood how he could honor the man who'd enslaved thousands and failed to de-train Vella. It seemed impossible to believe that father was actually pleased to make Falco the King's Voice in the Auel River District—this man who should have been tried, convicted, and executed with the war criminals. Slave trainers, even one who was famous as an allied spy, did not deserve rewards for their hideous profession. I rarely questioned my father's decisions, but this was one of his which I knew was wrong.

"...to see the hall now, Rachelle?"

I was startled from my musing by the richness of the Rider's voice. Why did it have to be so warm and wonderful sounding? "I'm sorry, Falco. What were you saying?"

"I was asking if you're through with breakfast and would like to see the hall where you will be performing."

Rampart butted in. "Don't mind her," he said, displaying an amused vacant mask to illustrate my state of mind. "She does that a lot." He stood up and lifted Serena to his shoulder. "Come on, Little Bit. Time to get bundled up. Race you to your room, Rachelle..."

"Not this morning, Rampart," I felt the beginnings of a smile. "Excuse us, Falco, we won't be long."


Our first performance of the evening went very well. Lin was pleased with my contribution of traditional northern folk songs to the program. He was also very understanding when, while waiting for the hall to fill for our second performance, I massaged my milk-full breasts and announced I was going to feed Serena whether she was hungry or not.

Our schedule was such that we were to leave for the station immediately following the conclusion of our performance. Our next stop was Larbei, on the shores of North Lake, some three hundred miles south of Keyes. Falco, who watched the first show, left during the second to make sure our luggage was delivered to the station.

I was later dismayed to learn that the Rider in black was not only responsible for our accommodations, travel arrangements, and the concert halls, he was actually traveling with us. On the morning of our arrival in Larbei, while we had a moment during rehearsal, I spoke to Lin Donalson. I asked him if it was really necessary for the Rider to spend so much of his personal time with us.

"Your father made the arrangements, Rachelle. I'm glad Falco's along. No tour I've done in Falco's district has ever had a fault."

I knew there was no reason for my uneasiness, after all Falco had been Government Rider of the Auel River Valley for many years, but I could not shake my dislike for the man. To make matters worse, he was so damn likeable!

I did notice, however, the immediate difference in our treatment by the railroad. Falco the Holessa was well known in these parts just north of his district and, where three musicians, one of them a little known princess, might be overlooked by the transport system Falco's presence assured prompt service and attention to detail.

I was tired when we boarded the train after our single night show at Larbei. My friends were eager to discuss our performance so they gathered in my compartment since I would not leave Serena sleeping by herself. My daughter could sleep through anything if she were tired enough and the day had been exhausting.

Lin and Rampart invited Falco to attend our review of the performance since they considered him a part of the tour. I was mildly surprised to discover his keen interest in not only the music, but the specifics of acoustics and proper placement on stage. He made several suggestions which were well received. Even I, who searched for flaws, was forced to admit the validity of his observations.

Rampart could have talked all night, but Falco caught me concealing a yawn and quickly terminated the discussion. "I like sleeping on trains," the Rider said. "I find it restful listening to the wheel rhythm on the tracks. Rachelle is weary, gentlemen, and I'm sure we all could benefit from a good night's sleep." His suggestion held the force of a command, yet it was delivered in such a manner that it was impossible to find anything offensive in the obedience it demanded. Rampart apologized for having gone on so long and left with Lin and Falco close behind.

Perhaps it was because of Falco's suggestion, but I awoke very refreshed the following morning. We met at the dining car and by the time breakfast was over, we had arrived at Kro. Lin was anxious to see the hall so we went there first. Rampart suggested we have our rehearsal early then take the afternoon to see the city before our two performances and another night train south.

Falco competently smoothed our way through the small towns of Zars, Anco, and Bie. The day concerts were a success in each city and never once did Rampart, Lin or I have a complaint about procedures or accommodations. I even managed to become less cool to the Rider—something unintended. He was so pleasant and outgoing that my coolness became an embarrassment, an attitude that evaporated almost entirely the afternoon he saved Serena from serious injury or death.

The stage manager in Cour-khal had not been prepared for our arrival. We were forced to rehearse a new number Lin wanted to add to the program while workers shifted lights and hung new curtains on stage. We managed fairly well despite the activity and noise but Falco, distinctly annoyed with the complication, did not, as usual, stay with our little group in spirit. His eyes watched the workers and Serena sleeping in her pallet travel bed between him and myself.

My first awareness of something wrong was a shout from the side and the shriek of tortured metal. I looked up from the music and saw a twenty foot section of lights falling from the ceiling. Serena was directly underneath. I couldn't move fast enough to save her. My leg collapsed as I tired to rise. I cried out as a black uniform, as silent as a shadow and just as fluid, dove for my daughter, carrying her away as the lights crashed to the stage just inches from Falco's boots.

Serena began to squall because of the fright. I frantically levered myself up from the floor. My heart pounded wildly until Falco sat up, his arms cradling my child. I had previously vowed I would never allow him to touch her, but at that moment I was truly sorry for ever having that thought. Rampart's strong hands went under my arms and easily lifted me upright as Lin ran to Falco, demanding to know if he or my baby was injured by the falling lights.

"No," the Rider replied, giving Serena into my anxious arms, "but I've ruined a good pair of trousers." He looked down with a wry smile, that gesture drawing our eyes. I saw a ragged tear at one knee. "If this occurs at every hall," the man chuckled, his deliberately casual amusement just the right thing to calm me, "I'll be out of pants in five days."

My baby quickly settled down in my arms as I held her to my racing heart. I looked to Falco, not knowing what to say. "Thank you" felt so inadequate. He nodded with mute understanding before turning to have stern words with the apprehensive stage manager.

Considering the terrible fright of the afternoon, the evening's performance went rather well. I no longer objected to Falco holding Serena instead of sitting beside her travel bed. I felt safer knowing he was looking after her. As we had several more performances in Cour-khal the following evening, we weren't forced to rush from the last show to catch the night train. I thankfully went to my room and did something I had promised but not found time to do. I called home.

Marsei and Simon were out at a formal dinner of some sort, but Vella was there and I told her what happened. "I knew I shouldn't have come," I concluded, my heart skipping a beat as I relived that horrible moment. "If it hadn't been for Falco—"

"Darling," mother's patient, sympathetic voice reminded me, "accidents happen. It could have occurred here at home as easily as on the tour. You can only do your best to protect Serena—the rest is in Herza's hands."

"Mother—" I found it hard to say the next thing which had been tormenting me. I told her how I felt about Falco, about slave trainers, and how much I hated him for his past. "But how can I hate him now? Why does he have to be so nice?"

"Rachelle, dear, there are so many things you don't understand because you don't know all that's happened. I wish you had talked to me years ago about your feelings instead of holding that locked within for so long. You wrong Falco without knowing. He is a good man, teela. I will tell you something only your father, your mother Marsei, Falco, and I know. He de-trained me when he de-trained the others after the war. I sometimes have to be very careful what I say or do since I must remain a slave if I am to stay with the family. As you already know, your dovenja may have only one Chosen."

"But—" I was flushed with sudden embarrassment. My rovenja was, yet apparently was not, a slave! The man who freed her from the compulsions to obey was the man who'd saved my daughter's life, but I couldn't accept it as easily as that. "He made slaves, Vella. He—"

"Falco the Holessa only followed in his father's trade without knowing or feeling he was doing something wrong. You cannot blame him for that. Rachelle, you were such a little girl you don't remember how difficult it was for your father to abolish slavery in Zea and you are so grown up now that I sometimes forget you didn't live in the 'old' Zea when slavery was the common way of life."

"He really made you a free woman?"

"Free?" I heard an amused chuckle. "What do you call 'free', teela? I am as much a slave to your father as I was when I was Gifted to him. Your father has always allowed me choice in most things. I chose to be his slave with all my heart. There is a difference in that, teela, having the desire to love and obey, not a compulsion. Falco removed the compulsion but not the desire. That has always been mine. Do you understand?"

"I'm not sure," I said in a quiet voice. "Are you happy being father's slave, Vella?"

"Very!" she quickly replied without hesitation. "Do you believe me, Rachelle?"

"Yes!" I laughed. "When you talk like that I believe you. I just wish it wasn't so easy for me to like Falco. I don't care what you say, he frightens me. I believe he could tell me to do something and I would..."

"There is nothing to be frightened of, child. You like him because that is what made him a good trainer. He has a special talent for understanding and an incredible knowledge of people. I assure you, having been trained as a Pleasure Slave, no harm can come from talking, or even liking him."

"But what if—"

Vella giggled. She could read my thoughts which I had not even truly formed in my own mind. "Falco the Holessa will never enslave another human being. Besides which, darling, the special drugs he would require for training are no longer available. He helped destroy all sources of that mind-altering narcotic. Now stop chasing shadows and get to bed. I'll wire some credits to you at the hotel, this call is costing a fortune!"

"Mother, I love you."

"Me, too. Kiss Serena goodnight for me."

I did, and a dozen more as well.

8.

After thirteen days, the strain of traveling began to tell. I once thought I kept myself physically active with teaching school and raising Serena, but I soon discovered that my leg wasn't used to the prolonged demands I was forced to make. There were several nights on the train the cramps were so severe that I cried myself to sleep. I was glad when we reached Yellow Jahsa since we were to remain there the final three days instead of making stops as often as three times a day at the smaller towns we visited along the rail line.

I looked forward to sitting in my room at the inn, alternately soaking and massaging the twisted knots of muscle in search of relief. I never complained to my companions, nor would I have. Lin and Rampart were as tired and muscle weary as I, perhaps even more so since they never allowed me to help with the set-up for our performances. Lin once asked me how I was and I lied in a most convincing manner. Rampart was not deceived, he knew me too well. But he respected my wishes and said nothing.

We did our evening performance that thirteenth night and I almost couldn't make it back to my room. Falco walked beside me, carrying Serena who seemed to delight in tugging his thick black beard. Though he made no offer to assist me up the stairs, I had the impression that the Rider would have carried me if necessary.

At the door of my room he stopped me with a concerned voice. "Your leg has been troubling you. I have a special oil for muscles and some knowledge. Would you like me to massage it for you?"

"I don't think so. I can manage."

He made no comment as he put Serena in her travel bed then went to the door and bid me good night. I undressed as quickly as I could and ran a tub of scalding water and prayed for release from the pain. The water had cooled by the time I gave up and crawled into bed to beat the knots of spasmodic muscles. I didn't realize I was crying until a soft knock on the door made me aware of the room instead of my frustration.

"Who is it?" I called.

"Falco. May I come in?"

"Can't it wait until morning? I'm already in bed."

"I'm afraid not," he replied. "I'm coming in."

I pulled the sheet over my nakedness and watched the man cross the room. He had a small bottle in one hand and sat on the edge of my bed without invitation. Before I knew what he was about, his hands grasped my leg through the sheet and I felt marvelous relief in seconds. I was so amazed that I couldn't protest for several moments. By then my leg felt almost normal.

"How did you do that?" I asked, flexing the leg under the covers.

"I told you I had some knowledge. After I'm gone rub the oil on your leg. It will finish what I've started. Use it freely and as often as you like." The Rider rose and looked down at me with a concerned smile. "Remember, Rachelle, I am here to make your tour as pleasant as possible. I admire your will and courage, but to endure unnecessary pain when there is relief at hand is not wise. Don't hesitate to call on me." With that simple admonishment he left me.

I tried the oil and discovered it imparted a warmth that seeped into my muscles more deeply than the hot tub. By the time I was through, I was so thoroughly relaxed that I couldn't even reach up to turn off the bedside light. I slept very well that night, I didn't even dream.

Yellow Jahsa was Falco's home. His ranch, eight miles south of the city, was one of the largest and most successful ser-monte operations in Zea. In less than fifteen years he had turned a small twelve head herd into more than six hundred of the finest riding mounts in the world. It seemed that Falco's voluntary retirement from one trade had resulted in the beginning of another, one which did not seriously interfere with his primary duties as the King's Voice as represented by his office as Rider.

At breakfast Falco suggested that we spend the morning at his ranch and possibly do some riding. The day was unusually warm for the fall season, almost like an early spring morning. Lin declined. He had several phone calls to make and wished to get the stage prepared. Rampart decided to help Lin and take Falco up on his offer the next day or the day following.

"But there's no reason why you and Serena can't go," Rampart pushed his empty plate to one side and poured himself another cup of kla. "You've never really been outside Gizen or on a ranch."

"I have too," I said indignantly. "There are a number of ranches on the Heights."

"Those are not ranches, Rachelle," Rampart chuckled. "I'd call them breeding farms. Falco has a real ranch."

I was about to refuse when Lin took up at Rampart's stopping place. "You aren't needed this morning and it might be nice for Serena to get out and away from this fuss and bother. We'd like her back for the afternoon rehearsal, though. Can you manage that, Falco?"

"Serena will be here in plenty of time," the Rider grinned. "Rachelle, too."

The decision was made for me. I wasn't sure I should be angry or pleased as I bundled Serena and myself for the trip.

Falco proved to be a good driver. This was the first time he had chauffeured me and somehow I wasn't surprised at the Rider's competence. He seemed competent at everything.

He carefully maintained his duties as guide by pointing out items of interest, sometimes talking in depth about local history. I enjoyed the drive along the upper edge of the vast Auel Valley. Great forests covered the higher slopes and huge tracts of open meadowland formed the river flats. Serena delightedly pointed at the hundreds of barabe grazing the winter-browned grass in the bright sunshine. Her laughter was contagious and I once caught Falco with a genuine full smile instead of that reserved one he usually displayed.

"It's breath-taking," I said as he took a side road down to the river bottoms. The whole valley was before me, incredibly beautiful in a wild, unfinished sort of way that the populated Pim River Valley near Gizen could not duplicate. "I can see why you speak so highly of this part of the valley."

"Most of this section is Crown Land. I manage it for your dovenja. We allow the barabe to run the open range then have a roundup twice a year. Most of the barabe you eat in Gizen comes from here."

"When will we get to your ranch?"

"We've been on it for the last half-hour." He paused briefly as he negotiated a shallow stream that ran across the road bed. "We'll be at the house soon. Now, let me warn you about Jara, my housekeeper. She'll talk your ears off if you let her, but she's a good-hearted woman and a fine mother of two. I think Serena will find company her own age a pleasant change."

After fording the stream Falco increased speed on the flat. We headed toward an imposing two story ranch house set on a high knoll, surrounded by a number of large, stately torpal trees which produced a high canopy of silver-green leaves, adding a delightful touch of color to the sere winter grasses. On the river bottom below the house were two great barns, several corrals, and another building which seemed to be a barracks or living quarters. I saw three men mounted on the great ser-monte lizards Falco bred. They were working their way up slope. One of them waved at the car. Falco returned the salute. I was startled to see several huge ser-monte, so similar to the much smaller ger-monte lizard which has been domesticated for centuries, walking freely through the yard in front of the house. The great eight hundred to thousand pound lizards hissed with annoyance as they scattered before the car.

Falco smoothly stopped the vehicle and came around to open my door. I didn't get out immediately—I was concerned by the proximity of the ser-monte. They were much larger than I ever imagined. The Rider chuckled, a reassuring smile on his dark, bearded face, and extended his hand. "They're more afraid of you than you are of them. They won't bother you, Rachelle, I promise."

I believed him. It was so easy to believe a man who spoke with such confidence. I let Falco take Serena and I got out of the open-roofed car by myself. He stepped aside to lead me onto the huge porch that would, I thought, be a wonderful place to sit quietly during late summer afternoons. The view from the porch, which ran the full length of the ranch house frontage, was of the valley itself and the blue twisting ribbon of the Auel River. There were similar sights in the Pim River Valley, especially from the Heights, but that more settled land lacked the rawness, the sheer vitality of this country.

"Absolutely breath-taking." I couldn't seem to find another descriptive phrase for what I was feeling.

"I'm glad you like it, Rachelle. I still find myself in awe at times. I never realized how much I disliked cities until your father sent me here. It would be almost impossible for me to leave if he should need me elsewhere."

I don't know why that thought disturbed me. "I'll make sure he never does," I said. "I do have some influence with the powers that be."

"That's very kind of you, Rachelle. I hope I never have to ask that of you."

I knew he would never ask me, or anyone, to speak on his behalf. He wasn't that sort of man. But I decided that when I got back to Gizen I would talk to father, sound him out. If he had plans to move Falco I would speak. If not, I would leave well enough alone. It was the least I could do for his bravery in saving Serena at the hall in Cour-khal.

Falco reached for the latch on the ranch house door, but the heavy torpal panel was flung wide before his hand touched it. A plump dark-skinned woman stood frowning at the two children tugging at her skirts. Before the Rider could greet Jara, she had hustled me and the baby into the house.

"It's about time you got back, Master Falco," she began by taking Serena from the nonplused man. She put my daughter on the floor of the large common room (it was spotless) and removed Serena's jacket. "Tyron," she said to the boy, who was probably six or seven, "you and Quida better play nice."

I was taken by the arm and led away from Serena who was already curiously examining the boy and girl examining her. I looked back over my shoulder and saw Falco grinning as he took off his coat. Jara had my wrap off without me hardly knowing how she accomplished it. I was placed at the impossibly long table lining the west wall near the archway to the kitchen and Jara put a steaming cup of kla into my hands before I could catch my breath. Falco joined me at the table and smiled when Jara put kla and a platter of fral cakes before him. She was telling him about some problem with one of the mares when her son raised his voice in anger.

"She won't let go of my hair!" Tyron wailed.

Jara looked at her son. "What do you want me to do about it?"

"Make her stop!" He screwed his face up in pain when Serena tugged extra hard. I was going to go to her when Falco touched my arm and shook his head.

Jara was of the same opinion. "Fight your own battles, Tyron."

"Like you and dovenja?" the child asked.

"We don't fight," Jara replied with a huff.

"Yes you do and I know how to win!" Tyron grinned. Instead of pulling away or opening Serena's hand by force, he leaned closer and kissed her. Serena let go, to reach for his mouth, but Tyron pulled back with a triumphant smile. "That's how dovenja wins!"

Falco's laugh boomed in the great room. I had never heard him let go and it was a marvelous sound. Jara's merry laughter echoed his and I was giggling. Serena bubbled and was already chasing after Tyron and Quida.

Falco was still chuckling when he spoke to Jara. "It's amazing how smart children are. How are you, Jara?"

"That little imp will embarrass me once too often and I'll put him out with the hatchlings. We're out of cunyio and tozam and if you want your fral cakes sweet and your fried ger-monte zesty, you better order some. We've had two eggs hatch and you better have a word with the men. I don't have time to baby no ugly little lizards right now. I guess I could—if you don't want dinner on the table or the linens washed. How was your trip?"

"I've—"

"When are you going to have that—" Jara ignored the Rider, continuing with her list of importance, completely oblivious of anything the Rider, the King's Voice—a man of power—had to say.

I had the feeling the large woman and the ranch owner were having a conversation (or lack of one) that was both familiar and expected. I couldn't follow half of what Jara said so I sampled one of the delicious cakes and drank kla. I watched my daughter knocking down stack toys Tyron patiently rebuilt. I didn't see Jara's little girl until I located her sitting under the table staring up at me with large, round eyes. She smiled at me and I couldn't resist putting her in my lap. Jara frowned at Quida.

"Don't bother the lady, Quida. I'm sorry, milady. Quida's not always this bashful..."

Falco finally got the woman's attention with a wagging finger. "Jara, this is Princess Ward. She'll be guesting with us."

"Is she staying for lunch?" Jara asked, unimpressed with titles. Who would be impressed when the "princess" was playing baby faces with her daughter? Jara heaved an expansive sigh. "I wish you'd called ahead. I plucked only enough rock hens for the men. You—I was going to give you the left overs." Jara got up from the table and went to the kitchen.

I looked through the huge open arch and saw the woman bending over a cabinet, rummaging through it. "I don't want to be any trouble," I started to say to Falco.

He laughed and spoke in a voice meant to carry. "Jara wouldn't be herself if she didn't have something to complain about. Shall we go riding like I promised, Rachelle?"

"What about Serena?"

"She'll be just fine," Jara announced, smiling. She came to the edge of the archway and looked at the children.

I tended to agree with her. Serena didn't even look up when Falco and I walked by her and the two children playing with the blocks. Falco offered me a short coat instead of the long one I brought from the inn. At his earlier suggestion I had worn trousers, though I had promised myself I would not ride one of his animals.

There were two ser-monte tied in front of the house, saddled and eager for a run. I don't know when Falco ordered the mounts since he was with me at the table from the moment we entered the house, but they were ready and, before I knew it, I was sitting astride what Falco assured me was a gentle mare. He explained the use of the reins for controlling direction then mounted his animal, a sleek stallion whose twenty foot tail quivered with anticipation.

I was terrified of my beast. I had never been this close to any creature larger than a house tagea, yet the animal seemed docile and well-mannered. Falco pressed knees to his mount, turning the stallion's head toward the distant river. Without any direction on my part the ser-monte I rode followed the Rider's. When I discovered the animal would respond to my rein commands, I lost some of my fear and tried to enjoy the ride.

The air, brisk as it was, tasted like fine wine. There was no hint of the city's closeness and it felt wonderful after smelly trains and confining inns. Falco kept the pace restrained until I was accustomed to riding then gradually stretched the animals until we were fairly flying through the swaying bottom grass. At the river he turned north. There were many different types of tree and shrub along the banks which he led me through until we came to a fairly open stretch and slowed the ser-monte to a walk. He stopped to breathe the mounts.

Falco dismounted and helped me down. I might have managed on my own, but I never really know what I can or can't do with my twisted leg until I try it. His hands were strong at my waist and he lifted me as easily as I lifted Serena. His hands did not linger longer than necessary and I hoped he had not sensed that involuntary stiffening of my body. It seemed odd to me that I noticed his hands this time and not when he helped me mount. I suppose I had been more conscious of the ser-monte than Falco at the time.

Falco gathered the reins of both mounts into a single grip and began walking along the river. Here and there along the banks on both sides were fall-blooming gernica which had little fragrance but were just as lovely a flower as the summer and spring varieties. He plucked one from a bush as we walked and offered it to me.

"It's a poor gift for someone as beautiful as you, but I hope you'll accept it."

There was no guile in his words or manner. His smile was open and I found myself responding in turn. "You're too kind, sir. Elispeth was the pretty one, not me."

"There is beauty individual to every woman, Rachelle. You are beautiful."

I was embarrassed, yet pleased with his words. I knew I was not unattractive in my way, but I never thought of myself being beautiful like Vella or Marsei or Elispeth. Even Joysan's regular features were more pleasant to look upon than mine. But I had never met a woman who wasn't pleased to be told she was beautiful, including myself.

"Serena will be just as pretty as you," Falco observed as we walked up the gentle slope of the bank to the grass stretching for miles in all directions.

"She will be even prettier," I said. "She won't have my—my deformity." I don't know why I even mentioned it. I never spoke to anyone about my leg, nor would I have conversation with those who rudely inquired beyond the usual "What happened?" curiosity.

Falco may have sensed my reluctance to discuss myself, or he may actually have not considered it worth discussion. I would never know the truth of that since he soon suggested we continue our ride as there was a special place he wanted to show me before turning back for lunch.

I discovered why I had not remembered his hands. He used one to support the bottom of my foot while the other steadied my knee. I was up, my shortened leg over, and seated in a single smooth motion.

We stayed along the river bank at a trot that covered ground without taxing the mounts. We rode for possibly four or five miles before Falco reined in at a place where the river ran beside a small pool connected to the main body of water by a narrow cut through the bank.

The edges of the pool were lined with great torpal trees, mirrored perfectly in the glass-smooth water. The trees formed living walls with branches that arched over the inlet to transform it into a great outdoor hall that was both magical and more impressive than the throne room of the Gizen palace. A reverent silence lay over the pool, as if nature itself were in awe of such splendor, then I realized that silence was my own.

"It is quite lovely even in winter," Falco observed. "I hope you will come back and see it in the spring when all the flowers are in bloom and the grass is green."

Falco hobbled the mounts then sat down in the shade of one particularly magnificent torpal. He made no offer to assist or even ask if I wanted to sit. I liked that, though I was awkward in duplicating his action.

"Hungry?" he asked, reaching into his jacket to bring out two fral cakes.

"I didn't see you take those...yes. Thank you."

The cake tasted good as I leaned back against the smooth bark of the old tree. A fish jumped out of the water. When it fell back in, the ripples made the reflections dance with a shimmer from the sunlight angling through the trees. I didn't realize how hungry I was until I found myself licking my fingers. Falco chuckled and gave me the rest of his.

"I'm not really hungry," he said. "I'll wait for lunch."

"I am—I don't know why." I forced myself to nibble instead of taking big bites. "This is a wonderful place, Falco."

"It's very special to me. I sometimes come here when I need to think, to get away from life for a moment of rest. I can be objective here. Strange to think that the last major battle of the Great War was fought right here."

"Here?"

"Not this exact spot," he said. "Just a few hundred yards upstream was where the battle lines formed. Some of the old time ranchers told me about that day. The armies fought for six hours—two days after the Kanpe surrender at Bradyville. A lot of good men on both sides died needlessly. Most of the battlefield is covered with new growth, but you can see great areas where bombs, shells and fire took much of the forests. When I first came here three years after that battle, things were still pretty much in chaos. Not only did we have a starving nation and poverty at every level, the Auel Valley was infested with bandits. For hundreds of years there's always been war of one kind or another in this valley. After the war your father sent me here with two men," his voice sounded faraway, distanced in time and memory, his eyes focused on some point that was not within my vision. "They were both killed before the second year was out..." His voice grew harder. "Those were bad times, Rachelle. This valley was neglected too long by any sort of governmental authority and it was a long process to bring peace. I'm glad I had a hand in it, that makes me feel as if I truly accomplished something in this life."

"You talk as if your end were near. You can't be that old."

Falco laughed at himself. "How old do you think I am?"

"I know you have to be at least as old as my father—ninety?"

"—one. Almost sixty years older than you, a mere child."

"And you are still a young man," I tried a shy smile. "Unless you intend to die at ninety-two instead of one-hundred-ninety-two."

"I probably won't be that fortunate," he grinned. "My dovenja was two-hundred-three when Komos called him to the Table."

"There," I smugly announced. "You see? I was right. You're still a young man."

"And you are a wise and beautiful young woman."

"Falco," I felt guilty for his constant compliments. "That's the third time you've said that. Please, don't do it just because I'm the daughter of the king."

The Rider shifted about to face me squarely. "I don't give compliments without reason, nor do I give them because of rank. Is there any one judge qualified to make determinations of beauty? I'm not aware of such, therefore I can only judge for myself." In a softer voice he continued. "You say Elispeth was the pretty one. I saw her at the palace when she visited your parents the year before she died. She was quite beautiful, but in a way that was specifically hers, which has nothing to do with you. I was very sorry to hear she died from the Fever. You were living with her at the time, weren't you?"

"I was."

"It must have been very difficult to lose your sister." His words and manner was so sincere I found myself talking.

"It was, Falco, but I lost more than Elispeth. I lost two children to the fever. I watched another grow bitterly old too soon. Olexa, thank Herza, survived that unhappy time. I even—"

I could not believe myself! I was about to tell him about Tasien! I had never told anyone, not even Joysan. Here I was about to reveal my most horrible secret to a perfect stranger when I couldn't even begin to tell my own father! I must have been insane—or else the Rider had a spell on me!

"Rachelle?" Falco was concerned by the sudden fear in my eyes. "Is something wrong?"

"Nothing!" I denied too quickly. I felt the heat rising to my face. I turned away and looked out over the inlet. I picked up a stone and tossed it into the water, aware that if I had spoken so revealingly to Falco the repercussions would touch everyone I loved just as the ripples spread to cover the surface of the pool. I must never tell, not even now.

"Tasien is Serena's dovenja," Falco's choice of words, his tone of voice, indicated fact not speculation.

I turned helpless eyes toward him. He saw his answer in my expression. I tried to avert my face, but there was something about his eyes that held me in thrall.

Just as softly he said, "Your dovenja thinks so, too. Please do not worry, Rachelle. We'll keep your secret. Just know that you can go to Simon anytime you wish. He will be understanding. Is there anything I can do?"

I swallowed my pride, my embarrassment. "Yes, please take me back now."

"It is getting close to lunch," he said with a sigh. "I'll get the ser-monte."

I pulled myself up with the aid of the tree trunk. "No, Falco. I mean I want to go back to Yellow Jahsa."

"Without lunch?"

"Please—" I had to struggle with myself to keep from crying in front of him. I felt so humiliated. I was filled with pain that my father knew who Serena's father was. I didn't want to be around Falco, or anyone. I just wanted to be alone!

I doubt if I said more than ten words from the time we left the river to the time I shut the door to my room at the inn. I managed a simple thank you to Falco before I lay on the bed and cried until it was time to perform.

I did not play well that night. I was unable to concentrate on the music. All I could think of was the disappointment my father must feel. And Falco—he must think me perfectly horrid, though why that disturbed me was unfathomable. I dreaded returning home, having to face dovenja, to continue to deny what he knew in his heart to be true. I wondered if he knew I had allowed Tasien to—

Falco's words on the river haunted me. His suggestion that I could talk to father implied a cowardly immaturity on my part—and he was so right.

I apologized to Lin and Rampart for my terrible participation at the show and promised to do better at the next. I was somewhat less erratic the following performance as I steeled myself and concentrated on the music and the audience we had come to entertain.

The next day I remained in my room. I explained to Lin and Rampart that I was tired and wished to rest so that I might do better than I had the night before. When Falco stopped by and asked if me to join him in the inn's dining room for the lunch I missed the day before I told him I was resting and using the oil he'd given me. I begged his patience. "Perhaps tomorrow?" I said through the door.

I spent the day crying off and on, feeling lost and confused. I played mechanically that evening and did about the same the following night. We were leaving on the night train and I was thankful I wouldn't have to face Falco for any extended length of time since he was not traveling on our return leg. Falco escorted us to the train. He shook hands with Lin and Rampart. I was the last to board the train. It had not been my intention, yet I found myself speaking to the Rider.

"I must apologize for the way I've been acting, Falco. I hope you won't say anything about—I mean he doesn't know the truth the way you do, does he?"

"There's been enough pain in your life, Rachelle. There will be more before it's over. But you have my word that I will neither confirm or deny whatever it is you're worried about."

"Dare I trust you? You were a slave trainer," I said without thinking. "You taught lies..."

"Perhaps I deserve that, milady. I will not deny what I once was. I had hoped that what I have done since has..." Falco stopped speaking and, with those incredibly strong hands, lifted me from the station platform to the rail car steps. He moved back, sketching a salute. "Goodbye, your highness. I wish you peace and happiness."

Falco turned on his heel and left before I could tell him my words came from my own wretched despair and were not actually directed at him. I would have descended to the platform to catch the departing figure in black if Rampart had not come to see why I was late. He took me by the arm and led me inside as the train pulled out of Yellow Jahsa. I tried to shake free, to tell Rampart I had to speak to Falco, then abruptly realized I would have to explain why, and I was not willing to face that humiliation. At the door of my compartment, where Serena was already going back to sleep, I told Rampart I intended to go to bed. Rampart grinned, apparently unaware of my mood in his happiness to be heading home to Joysan and a well-deserved rest.

"It was a good tour, wasn't it, Rachelle?"

I was much too short with my dear friend. "I thought so," I said. "Goodnight."

Rampart's eyebrow rose slightly, then he smiled, shrugging the way men do when they don't understand what a woman is saying. He kissed my forehead, squeezed my hand, and moved away from my door. I looked through the door as Rampart walked down the car's passageway. I slowly shut the panel, resting my head against the fenac wood vibrating with the rails. In my mind's eye I saw another back walking from me, stiffly rigid from the callous words of a thoughtless woman. I had injured a man who'd shown me nothing but kindness.

I finally released the hot tears pent inside and I hid in my compartment for the entire two day trip back to Gizen.

9.

Tresal, sweet, volatile Tresal, was the one who ended my self-imposed segregation from the family after the tour. He came to my apartment uninvited and practically forced his way inside. My kyangan'il glared at me, displaying a terrible frown.

"We haven't seen you on Tenth Day for more than a month, Rachelle. You've had time to rest and surely you've completed all those important, 'can't wait' lesson plans you just had to get done. Now tell me the truth, teela, why don't you love us anymore?"

"I still love you!" I was ready for any question except that. "How could you say such a thing?"

"You know how imaginations jump to conclusions when there isn't enough data for explanations. You've been cooped up in this apartment like you were hiding from something. What are you afraid of, Rachelle?" As quickly as an electric light his frown disappeared and a look of concern touched his dark face. Tresal reached out and patted my hand.

I felt a flush rising and my guilt caused me to stammer stupidly. "I'm not hiding—"

"Sure," he said, not believing me. "Well," he sighed, looking out the window to the adjoining building which blocked the view to the east, "father said you'd come round when you were ready. Vella said you'd say why when you were ready. And Marsei just smiles and says she loves you. Me—I'm not that patient. I'm not like the others, content to wait until you decide to face whatever the hell is bothering you."

"There's nothing—" I began. Tresal shushed me with a shake of his head and a pushing away gesture of his hands.

"I don't care why you've withdrawn, darling, but I do know it's not natural. You look terrible, Rachelle, and I am here to do something about it."

"Tresal—I have too many things I have to get done. I appreciate your concern but I'm just fine."

"Right," he chuckled, "and the Kanpe were good guys. Get Serena. You're coming with me."

"I'm not going anywhere." I was very firm. This was Tenth Day and I had intended to do—what?

"You are coming with me," Tresal announced with a confident smile. "You're coming if I have to drag you out of here."

"You wouldn't dare!"

"Oh?" He let the question hang and I saw the mischief in his eyes. I knew my brother was prepared to carry out his threat. I tried to reason with him. He brushed all explanation aside. When I finally ran out of words he grinned.

"Whatever is bothering you can't be as important as this, Rachelle. You are coming to the palace with me whether you want to or not. Don't you know what day this is?"

I told him the month, year, and hour. "I am quite aware," I said, annoyed with his insistence.

"Odd—you never seemed to forget what day this is even when you lived on the Heights with Elispeth and Tasien. Today is the anniversary of father's Transit. He wouldn't say anything about you not coming, but I know he'd be disappointed if you didn't show."

I felt a hot flush on my cheeks and realized I'd been so caught in my own regrets that I had actually forgotten this celebration which stood in place of Simon's Naming Day—the only day he allowed the family to fete him with Gifts and happiness for having achieved another year.

"Tresal! I did forget! I have nothing prepared—" I said dismally.

"Bring your gitar and play him a song. That will be gift enough. You, Serena, and a song, teela, he would like that. Now do you go under your own power or do I use force?"

"You've used enough of that already." I tried to smile. "Just let me get Serena and myself beautiful. We'll come along without a fuss."

Tenth Day at the palace was usually a madhouse of children, grandchildren, and the great-grandchildren. But this Tenth Day was even more hectic with the addition of Joysan, Rampart, Lin, Ann Morgaine, Lindan and the young woman he was seeing; Chesar Brondle and his gently insane Earther Chosen Jane who was as loving as she could be; Hance and Drapella Sadis and their son Jemic and his Chosen Celia (she was uncomfortable in the last few weeks of her first pregnancy), and a surprise visit by Simon ku Um'fon ku Ward (dovenja's foster-son) and his family who had traveled all the way from Tascar where he was now a Colonel in the Tascarian Free Forces. Serena and I were a bit overwhelmed with the size of the gathering and seeing people I hadn't seen in years.

Simon—Little Simon—and his Chosen Jane, who was Chesar Brondle's daughter, inadvertently started the celebration before the sun decently cleared the horizon. Little Simon and his family, including two lovely daughters aged three and four, had arrived at the palace unannounced after a sixteen hour flight from Tascar. Their presence woke the entire household and resulted in several hours of happy reunion before the actual time the Naming Day celebration guests were supposed to arrive. There had been so much going on that Tresal had found it easy to disappear and come "force" me to participate.

I think it was Olexa who took Serena from me, but I'm not sure. I greeted so many people that I have only the vaguest recollection. Little Simon's hug threatened to crush my ribs as he swept me off my feet. I was crying with happiness when I embraced Jane, who I hadn't seen in five years. I had to meet her children Cora and Zelma, who were little darlings with the most charming manners. They seemed so well-behaved that for a moment I wondered if they were older than I thought until I later observed them squabbling over a sweetmeat and decided they were children after all.

I had seen father several times, but from a distance. His happy smile of greeting came across the room and was more than sufficient to make my feelings of guilt even more painful. I was trying to make my way to him through the press of laughing, talking, hugging people when Marsei and Vella both took me by the arm and led me out of the hall.

"Where are we going?" I asked. "I haven't had a chance to kiss father—" We turned corners in the corridors and passed children running through the halls.

"You'll see—" Vella enigmatically stated.

"Be patient," Marsei added.

They took me to father's study and put me in the large comfortable chair that faced his desk. They told me to wait and then left me alone in that so familiar room.

I felt uneasy at the mysterious manner by which I was escorted to the study. Since neither of my mothers offered an explanation my mind considered all possibilities. I came to the conclusion that father wanted to talk to me alone and the only thing I could think of which would require this privacy was Tasien. Tasien and me. I felt a flush of anger toward Falco the Holessa. He must have called father. He had not kept his word. I suppose I deserved it considering the contempt I'd shown him when we last talked at the station in Yellow Jahsa.

I didn't have to wait long for dovenja to arrive and therefore did not have the chance to escape. I had considered leaving the palace to avoid this meeting, but it would have taken time to locate Serena and I knew I would be found before I could depart. I steeled myself as father walked in carrying two cups of kla.

"Want some?" he asked, offering one to me. I took it and waited. "Rachelle," he said, eyes twinkling, "the last time you looked like that was when I bawled you out for sneaking out of your room to play with the tagea in the garden."

"I was eight years old," I said, recalling the conversation.

"So you were, Spunky. Even then you were always getting into trouble."

My heart leaped in my breast. I had half-hoped this meeting was for some other reason. But to remind me of the time he spanked me for scaring the hell out of Vella and Marsei—to call me "Spunky"—

"Father, I can explain—"

"You don't have to. I know how it happened. You've got no one to blame but yourself. How soon can you leave?" He smiled, confusing me further.

"Leave?" Had he brought me here to disown me?

"Yes, leave." He sat down behind his desk and pushed some papers to one side to set his kla on the polished surface. "How soon can you get your affairs in order? I'd like you to leave as soon as possible."

"I don't understand."

His brow knit together, frowning. "I thought Chesar told you, Rachelle. I saw you the two of you talking and assumed...." Father sighed apologetically. "Didn't Brondle tell you how much enrollment in the Valley schools increased because of your tour with Lin and Rampart?"

"He didn't mention it," I said, thoroughly bewildered. I remained quiet and let him do the talking.

"I'm sorry, darling. I thought—" he laughed with embarrassment. "No wonder you look so bemused." Father got up and came to sit on the arm of my chair. He bent down to kiss my forehead and put his arm about my shoulders.

"It seems that the young girls who saw you play have goaded their parents into enrolling them in Second School. That means a lot to me. You know I'm hoping to have literacy come to ninety percent by the next generation. That will be hard to accomplish if rural families hold their daughters back after completing the mandatory five year First School course. All because of you has enrollment for Second School increase by sixteen percent. I want you to make another tour. Southern coast this time. What do you think? Interested?"

"That's what you wanted to talk to me about?" I looked up at his tender, smiling face. He nodded. For a moment my head swirled with relief and I found myself answering from the heart. "I think I would like that—but what about my teaching?"

"You'd still be doing that, Rachelle. This isn't a concert tour, though you'll do one or two public performances in each city. The plan is for you to spend about a week at the schools themselves, working with teachers and students. Lin says you have an unusual knack for devising lesson plans that are entertaining as well as educational."

"Sounds like a long trip."

"Twenty cities at the moment. I'll be adding a few more as we go. You just tell me when you've had enough and we'll stop."

"Who else will be going?"

"That's the beauty of it, teela. Just you and Serena. Won't cost me a fortune and you'll get to see Zea as it should be seen, as a private citizen."

"I know you want the people to see us as individuals instead of unapproachable royalty, father, but don't you think I might give the wrong impression? After all I don't speak to people well and I know nothing of politics. I'm also def—" His fingers touched my lips before I could say "deformed".

Father gently smiled. "That's the reason I want to send you, kitten. You're the most believable member of our family. Stop and think about it, Rachelle. Your brother John had to go and discover the Home Islands and fall in love with their First Warrior. Tresal and Little Simon engineered that incredible escape on Secoundous from that renegade bastard Richard DaBonne. Elispeth Chose a world famous maker of musical instruments. You know how the people feel about me and your mothers. They view us as larger than life. This tour isn't about politics and you won't be talking to people. You'll be talking to children and their parents, doing what you do best: teaching. I can only ask you to go, Rachelle, I won't force you. I never have."

"But you'd be disappointed if I refused."

"Not even that," he assured me. "I love you too much to ever be disappointed in anything you do, little one." His eyes were sincere has he emphasized the last few words of his statement.

"Anything?" I asked with a tremulous voice.

He took the cup from my suddenly unsteady fingers and pulled me to his breast, a tender, loving embrace. "Only you have the privilege of being disappointed with yourself. Now stop that blubbering and give me a kiss."

I did and I felt so safe, so warm in his arms. It suddenly didn't matter if he knew the truth about Tasien or not. He had as much said that to me. Wiping tears from my eyes with a timorous gesture I asked, "This tour—it's important to you, isn't it?"

"I'd be lying if I said it wasn't, Rachelle." Dovenja's voice assumed that unconscious tone of authority he used when struggling with the demands of his responsibility. "It isn't socially healthy for one sex to have advantages denied to the other. We know women in the big cities function well in what has always been a male-dominated society. This is not the case in the rural areas or smaller cities and towns. For Zea to continue as a world power there must be a common desire by both sexes to work toward that goal. If parents of rural daughters set them to keeping house until they are Chosen and raising families of their own then Zea will never have a total commitment to the future. Frustration and anger from women who chafe at the restraints of old traditions could conceivably undermine all we have accomplished."

"You make it sound terribly important! I don't think I—"

"Forgive me, little one," father chuckled. "I sometimes get caught up in my dreams and talk like a madman. It is, as you say, terribly important, but changes like this take time. They start with one or two or more people who want this change. It can't be done by writing a law which no one is willing to obey. Laws only state what society will accept. Traditions are society. To make enforceable laws, they must follow tradition. To change tradition, we have to create desire. Your little tour showed us a way of doing this."

"I was only playing music, father."

"True—but it was you who showed that women can make music as well as a man. Other girls want to do the same. Since music is not specifically direct competition with men for jobs or position, the parents can't object." He smiled like the tagea who caught the sisk in the pantry. "But to learn the instrument the children have to be allowed to go to school. That is where we have our chance at changing things."

"I find it hard to believe that I could make such grand things as you envision a reality, father. I'm just one person."

Father looked at me for a moment as if he couldn't believe his hearing. He burst out laughing then hugged me tightly. "Rachelle, you are a gem of gems. Let me ask you this: By how much would I be bragging to say that I alone am responsible for the freedom of half the world?"

"It's the truth! You—" I felt a flush pass over me and meekly smiled. "Yes, I can suddenly see where one person with one idea can make the difference. I will do your tour."

"That's my girl!" Father's warm laughter echoed from the torpal paneling. He pulled me out of the chair and hugged me. "Come, teela, we've been away from the party too long. I'm not exactly fond of the number of these Naming Day celebrations I've had, but I always enjoy the company and wine."


Father's proposed tour required several weeks to organize. I used that time to work with Lin Donalson's best student—his selection—who would take over my classes. I showed the young man the lessons I had prepared and also spent several days going over them with him. He was slightly anxious over the unexpected responsibility, filled with nagging self-doubts.

"I know of no faster way to learn the material," I chuckled the last afternoon we worked together. "You'll learn more just by keeping one step ahead of the questions those children will ask you. Master Donalson is always just down the hall. Don't be afraid to ask him anything—even what you might consider a 'stupid' question. There are no 'stupid' questions, only stupid answers."

"I'll tell you this, Master Rachelle," the young man laughed, "I've certainly learned more sitting in on your classes these last two weeks. I'm sorry to see you go."

"Don't be. And don't worry. I'll be in and out for at least another two weeks. You have my number if you have any questions. Please call—"

"I will. I just hope I don't have to."

"You'll do fine," I said as I walked him to the door of the class room and prepared to leave myself.

Dovenja's tour, an infant idea when we'd talked in his study, became a thirty-one city, forty-three week tour before I began packing for the trip. I was to spend six weeks at Pteni, my first stop, because it was a major urban area with a large number of schools. Kinion would take two weeks, then two at South Port and two at Blene. All the rest of the stops were scheduled for a week each. I didn't count travel time. Some of the cities were within hours of each other, some, like Pteni to Kinion, would take two days by train. I packed accordingly. We were on the down side of winter but cool days were expected, even on the south coast. I made sure father would keep his promise to make an exchange of winter to summer wardrobes before Serena and I left Kinion.

The day of my flight to Pteni was Tenth Day. No train was scheduled for the first leg of my journey and I viewed flying with mixed emotions since I had never been in an airplane before. Father spared no expense to turn the family's traditional gathering into a sensational goodbye party. There were almost as many people there as had been present for his Naming Day, though the gathering was less boisterous without Little Simon and John creating havoc with their sometimes strange practical jokes.

My gitars, I had purchased a spare in case something happened to mine, were already at the airport. When Lin Donalson suggested that Rampart and I join him in playing music, I had to decline until he brought out a beautiful gitar which he said he'd just completed. It was a marvelous instrument and I could see where Tasien had learned much of his workmanship as a student of the long, lean Earther. Tasien had, in many ways, taken the art of construction in a different direction, but the subtle differences were signs of individuality. We played for several hours, entertaining the family and one another, consuming a great deal of zesty zuri wine in the process. As it came time to leave, I asked Lin if I could purchase the gitar. I loved the tonal quality of the instrument though it was a trifle large and uncomfortable to play.

He shook his head regretfully. "It's a special commission, Rachelle. It's promised to another."

"Oh," I said, controlling my disappointment with effort. I really loved the way the gitar sounded. I could see that the other members of my family were just as disappointed, though they said nothing. "Then tell me how much it would cost. I want you to make one for me."

"Some other time," Lin said, his voice gentle. "I can see this gitar isn't quite right for you," he explained, looking at father and Vella, turning to Marsei and John and Tresal, as if he owed them an explanation as well. "The reach across the fret board is just too much for you, Rachelle. I'd have to take measurements and we don't have time before you leave. I'll do it after you get back."

I had to be satisfied with that, for it was the truth, it was nearing time to leave. Toward the end of the afternoon we put the instruments away and had an informal early dinner since my flight departed at the normal dining hour. There were tearful goodbyes from my mothers at the flight gate. My brothers kept winking at me ("Enjoy yourself, Rachelle," Tresal said. "There's a wonderful world out there, little sister," John added.), and father squeezed me so hard I could still feel his strength long after the plane left the ground.

I was terribly ill on the jet to Pteni. My stomach kept twisting in on itself and I was miserable and was never so glad to see the room at the inn. I swore I would never get into an airplane again.

I felt more like myself when Serena and I had breakfast with the music teacher of School 86. I discovered that the children in Pteni were much the same as those in Gizen. They were just as bright and eager to learn and I was pleased to see that there were a number of girls in the class. Before I left to teach at the city's School 87, the music enrollment had increased by ten boys and six girls.

The routine I established over those first few weeks was to visit with the teacher and students the first day, give a concert at the school for parents and children the following day, and to spend time in the classrooms for the rest of the visit. Occasionally I would give two concerts at larger schools and always looked forward to meeting any interested parents and children afterwards.

At Kinion the promised change in clothing was waiting for me at the inn. Serena and I spent a busy day unpacking and then re-packing the heavy garments to send back to Gizen. I truly enjoyed Kinion, a beautiful city on the banks of a placid river where Serena had her very first boat ride. We had time to see the change in seasons since we were there for several weeks then we traveled on to Rutha, Doins, Kynsei, and Wark.

The people were quite friendly for the most part, once they realized I was not unapproachable. There were some who went out of their way to offer help when circumstances arose that made travel difficult for me—one man took me to my next stop in his fishing boat after a storm severely damaged the rail line. In Cobee I stayed with the music teacher and his family because my reserved room at the local inn was unexplainably given to someone else and no others were available. I made many new friends during each stay and, in all that time, met only one person who thought me a terrible disgrace for being a single parent. He was immediately silenced by his peers.

There were towns where I thought I made the positive impression sought by my father, and others where I was politely greeted, applauded for my music and, after I was gone, the people were content to remain as they had been for centuries. Regardless of the prime motive my father used to justify the expense of my tour (which wasn't much—Serena and I had few demands) I did discover that he was right about one thing. There is no other way to learn about one's own country than to travel.

I purposefully avoided thinking of the end of my tour for several reasons. One, I wasn't sure I wanted it to end. Two, the last stop was in Patiz, only twenty miles from Yellow Jahsa.

I was forced to think ahead to the end of the tour the last multiple week that I spent in Blene. The night before I boarded the train for Patiz I considered calling Falco the Holessa. I had never stopped thinking about the man, or my rudeness to him. Even when I was so busy with the tour and fielding questions asked by parents and teachers, I still felt a twinge of guilt for my harsh words to the Rider. I considered a phone call, then vetoed it. If I intended to apologize I would do it in person. Once I made that decision I was able to go to sleep.

Serena, at age three, was quite the experienced traveler. She walked to the train and, with a little help, managed the steps to the car. We left Blene on a very early train, departing before breakfast was served at the inn. Serena knew the way to the dining car and tugged at my hand until I, with a laugh, followed.

The waiter apologized for the lack of an infant seat and improvised with a large pan from the galley. Serena thanked him, her speech very much improved and asked for batter-dipped toast. She had begun to demand my breast less often and I knew it was only a short time before I stopped producing. In a way I would miss nursing her, even though she was now so heavy I was always glad when she was through.

Our week in Patiz reminded me of the three days at Yellow Jahsa two years ago. The land, the quaint dialect of the valley folk, the blue ribbon of the Auel River, all seemed as fresh as the first time I had been there. I took Serena ser-monte riding, holding her in front, listening to her laughter. She was totally unafraid of the huge riding lizards, often begging to pet them without realizing she could be stepped on accidentally and injured.

I was still undecided if I were going to see Falcon until the train leaving Patiz made an unscheduled stop at Yellow Jahsa. I looked out the window to the station platform, ambivalent in my feelings until suddenly I called to the porter and asked him to get my luggage, that I would be getting off the train.

Yellow Jahsa, a much younger town than Patiz, had a rawness which touched the senses with a breathless excitement. There wasn't any such thing as a regular taxi service in the town of eight-thousand, but Serena and I had no problems in getting a lift from a rancher picking up supplies at the station. He dropped us off at the inn where Rampart, Lin and I had stayed two years before. The woman proprietor remembered me. I was the quiet one who stayed in her room. When she asked how long I would be staying, I told her at least a week. I decided to add the school at Yellow Jahsa to the tour. She was pleased, the people had heard that I was in Patiz, some of them making the trip just to hear me play at School 1245.

After I was settled in my room I called the principal of School 1248 and told him of my intention to include his school in my teaching tour instead of immediately returning to Gizen. He was over-joyed with the news and came to visit me less than an hour later.

The arrangements, which had usually been done in advance by letter to the other cities, took a few days to settle so it was my third day in Yellow Jahsa before I had my first class. The music teacher, one of Lin Donalson's graduates, was primarily adept in percussion and reeds. He was barely competent on the gitar and strings and was ecstatic for the help I gave some of his more troubled students.

He later confided in me at lunch. "I feel like I'm not doing all I should. There is an interest for what I teach, but there is more for what you teach. I've been writing to Master Donalson for years, asking him to send a string teacher. Maybe you can talk to him."

"I'll see what I can do," I told him while watching Serena demolish an innocent fral cake with greedy hands. "There certainly seems to be a large number of students interested in the gitar."

"I think that's because of the similarity between the gitar and the old lensi harps. There were few lensi in this valley before the great war and none afterwards. I think the parents long for that old sound. It's not just the children who have expressed an interest in gitar, Master Rachelle. I have one adult who comes for the last class of the day when he can. He's certainly a better player than I, though his knowledge has yet to catch up with his coordination."

"An adult?" I asked, eyebrow raised with interest. "I haven't seen many adults taking courses at school this trip. I wish more of them would take advantage. Perhaps this man might be willing to do some teaching in the future..."

"Possibly," the teacher replied, "but unlikely. His ranch is quite extensive and his other duties make it difficult for him to maintain a steady schedule."

"That's a shame." I noted the time and smiled. "Shall we go? There's two more classes today."

Serena was getting tired by the time the last class came to order. She had learned to occupy herself while I was teaching, but the older she got the more attention she needed. I glanced at my daughter sitting with paper and pencil, drawing pictures that only she understood. It wouldn't be long before she was old enough to be sitting in school as a student.

The teacher introduced me to the children and I noted the vacant seat near the door. Perhaps the adult wasn't coming. The teacher had mentioned he sometimes failed to appear because of other obligations. I felt sure, however, that I would eventually meet him since I had several days of teaching planned.

I began the class with the Hearthing Song. Halfway through the piece the adult arrived. I hesitated briefly before forcing myself to continue. The adult student was Falco the Holessa.

He quietly removed his gitar from the case and joined the students. I had another shock. The gitar in his hands was the one Lin Donalson had let me play the day I left on the tour. I finished the song and took just a moment to recover my wits. I was rescued from appearing like a complete idiot by a question from a young boy in the front row. After I answered him I was able to continue with my lesson plan.

At the conclusion of the class Falco waited while I put my gitar away and had a few words with the teacher before he left. When we were alone, Falco, Serena, and I, he greeted me with that wonderful voice and a welcoming smile.

"It's been some time, Rachelle. You look well."

"So do you, Falco. When did you start playing?"

"I've always wanted to since the first time I heard Lin Donalson ten years ago. Until recently I didn't have the time."

"I saw that gitar in Gizen. It's lovely."

"Yes," he said, looking down at the case he held between his hands. "I ordered a gitar from Lin and he sent this down to me. I had no idea it would be such a fine instrument."

A silence lengthened between us and the words I meant to say to him would not come. The Rider seemed equally uncomfortable. Serena broke the uneasiness when she tugged on my skirt and told me she had to go to the bathroom.

"In a minute, teela. Do you remember Rider Falco?"

Serena looked up, her eyes wide, a smile on her sweet face. After a moment she said, "No. Have to go!"

Falco chuckled. "She's quite like you, Rachelle, very pretty. Are you staying at the inn?"

I nodded. I picked Serena up to keep her from tugging at me. She squirmed and complained. I would have to take her down the hall.

Falco grinned and cupped Serena's face in his palm, briefly brushing my daughter's plump cheek with a gentle thumb. The Rider smiled again as he drew back. "Perhaps we can have lunch some afternoon while you are here, Rachelle."

"I'd like that," I said.

"Well, I must go," he apologized. "It's been nice seeing you and Serena again." Falco left the classroom.

I took Serena to the bathroom and, when we came out, I tried to see if the Rider was still in the building. He wasn't, having left in his jeep. I fought the uncertain feeling that his offer for lunch was a courtesy, not a genuine invitation.

To find Falco among the students was disconcerting, however, it would make it easier for me to proceed with the intentions which caused me to alter my plans for returning home. I waited with almost girlish impatience for the last class of the next day. Falco failed to appear, nor did he show up for the remainder of the week. I became furious. It seemed a deliberate affront and where I had been reluctant to see him, I was more determined than ever to face the man.

I had previously called home to let my parents know I had unofficially extended the tour. I called again the last day of the week to say I would be a few days longer in Yellow Jahsa. I didn't say I meant to see Falco even if I had to go to him. Father told me to take as long as I wished. We talked a while on the tour's success then said goodbye. I had no more than disconnected the line when there was a knock at my door. I found Falco standing in the hall, a warm smile on his face and a single gernica blossom in hand. He bowed gracefully then said, "My apologies for missing classes I so desperately need."

"Where were you?" I asked tight-lipped and angry.

"Emsho—checking on those thefts—" He straightened and saw the hardness in my eyes. He frowned. "Didn't you get my message?"

"What message?" I rudely hissed through clenched teeth.

"I called and left word here at the inn that I was called away and might be gone a few days. You mean no one told you?"

"No."

"I knew I should have left a note!" He narrowed his eyes and excused himself.

"Where are you going?" I detained him with a touch on the arm.

"To find out who didn't do their job correctly. I won't have you think I was avoiding you. I may be guilty of many things in my life, but not that."

"Wait—" I said, opening the door wide and stepping aside. "That won't be necessary. Please, come in. There's no reason to stand here talking at the door."

"Princess Rachelle, I...very well."

I waited until he was inside and took a seat at my insistence. I felt a hot flush of embarrassment on my cheeks as I nervously paced the room. When I realized that only made my peculiar, rolling gait more obvious, I sat down.

"Falco," I began, the words coming hard. "I did believe you were avoiding me. Wait, please let me finish, I have more to say. I have lived with the regret of words I said to you almost two years ago and I must apologize. I said things..."

His voice cut across mine "...you did not mean. I knew that."

"But I did!" I said, denying his generosity. "I meant them—at the time. I'm sorry I ever said them, Falco. I spoke from my own pain and fear and it had nothing to do with you."

"You were troubled. Perhaps my intended kindness injured you more than if I had said nothing at all."

"Or," I added softly, truthfully, "it made me face things as they are and not the way I wish them to be."

Serena woke from her nap and crawled down from the bed. She walked straight to Falco and held up her arms to be picked up. He did so, with a great smile on his face.

"I thought you didn't remember me, little one," he chuckled, bouncing Serena on his knee.

Serena pulled at his uniform and I suddenly laughed. "It's the uniform, Falco. She remembers the black tunic. You weren't wearing it the other day."

"The mystery is solved," he announced. "I hope other things have been too, because I would like to take both of you to dinner."

"I think I would like that."

"Good," he said, putting Serena down and rising. "I'll be back for you in an hour. I have to stop by the Recorder's Office and take care of a few things. Why don't you pack something for you and Serena. I won't be long."

"Pack? For dinner?"

"You don't think I would let you eat the food they serve here, do you? You're coming out to the ranch. You owe me."

"Yes, Falco," I blushed with memory. "We'll be ready." He stepped out with that demure promise bringing a smile to his lips.

I packed a dress, the suggested pair of trousers and blouse for myself and two extra sets of clothes for my daughter. On an impulse, as I let the room to wait for Falco downstairs, I brought my gitar. I stopped at the desk to say I would be gone for the evening and a very embarrassed woman handed me a soiled piece of paper.

"My venja'il has been carrying this around all week, your highness. I hope the delay is not an inconvenience."

I unfolded the paper and read: "Rider Falco called. Going to Emsho a few days. Will call." I had not doubted Falco's sincerity upstairs, but I was very pleased to receive the message, even if it was delivered a week late.

10.

Falco returned from his errands, taking less time than expected. He met us in the lobby of the inn and Serena, standing at my side, ran to meet him. Falco picked her up and walked over to me. "I see you decided to bring your gitar," he nodded approvingly. "Good! I can pick your brains after dinner."

The Rider picked up the instrument while I carried the travel bag with the change of clothes. He carried Serena and the gitar out to the battered, dusty jeep. The canvas roof was missing, but the weather was pleasant and the sun felt good. The gitar was carefully stowed in back along with the small travel bag. Serena giggled as she was playfully dumped to bounce on the wide front bench seat.

Falco entered the vehicle and started the ignition, watching Serena until I was seated. He smoothly pulled away from the curb and drove down the relatively short main street of Yellow Jahsa, turning south onto the narrow valley-rim road. There was little traffic at this time of the day, most ranchers and truckers either at or near their destinations for the evening.

After we left Yellow Jahsa, Falco turned his head to me and said, "I called Jara from the Recorder's Office. She knows you are coming to dinner this time, but I suppose she'll find something to complain about..."

I looked over sharply to see if there was a hidden meaning behind his words and saw his open smile. Then I remembered how his housekeeper Jara had carried on that long ago day I first visited the Holessa's ranch. Thinking of the woman's boundless energy, her sense of organization in the household she managed, I was sure the Rider was correct in his amused assessment. To think of the great Falco the Holessa apprehensive about Jara's possible mood caused me to smile in return.

The Rider's laugh was echoed by Serena. She was fascinated by the open-roofed vehicle. She stood in my lap with her hands on the top of the windshield and giggled at the warm wind in her face. She was so excited by the ride that she jumped up and down on my lap. From time to time her little foot came down on my left thigh, hitting wrong-healed nerves, causing me some pain, but I was used to that as she got older and heavier.

Once, on a particularly rough section of road, Serena almost bounced out of my grip. Falco's strong hand flashed from the wheel and held her by the back of the blouse, dangling Serena mid-air between us. My heart stopped for an instant as I considered the consequences of my child thrown from the jeep, though we were not traveling particularly fast, nor was Falco reckless. To my daughter's intense displeasure and Falco's unvoiced amusement I forced Serena to sit in my lap until we neared the ranch house.

Falco paused on the valley slope at a place where the forest opened and the view of the valley was unimpeded. Below me the distant ribbon of the Auel River shimmered in the late afternoon sun. The whole of Falco's ranch house and immediate grounds was visible. The two story house on the knoll, surrounded by torpal trees probably more ancient than man's presence in this magnificent valley; two huge ser-monte barns where the prime stock was quartered and the hatchlings were raised to size before release onto the range; the great, rambling barracks where the hands lived. Falco pointed them out to me, also answering my question regarding the curious circular bare spots near the river. He identified them as "dust" or "sun" wallows, areas where the huge riding lizards basked in the summer heat. There were other circular depressions in the grass he called "nests" and many of them were filling with open range ser-monte for the evening.

"Herd instinct," he said, "from their natural environment. Lone ser-monte can fight a giva and sometimes win, but that predator never strikes a nest."

I listened with half-attention, my eyes drawn to the subtle pastel shades of greens and browns, the blue-silver of the river, the gray-blue of the far side of the valley through moisture-laden air. I marveled at the high-peaked roofs of the buildings, designed to shed the winter snows which could be quite deep late in the season. The jeep jerked into gear and we descended the twisting road to the ranch house.

It was about an hour before sunset and the last of the ranch hands were either coming in from the range or finishing up at the barn. Some of the great lizards were placed in the corrals, others were released to wander about the yard. Serena wanted to play with the ser-monte and told Falco as much.

"You'll have to wait until after dinner," he said, but that didn't sit well with my daughter.

"Want to go riding!" Serena pouted.

"Have you been riding, little one?" Falco asked, sweeping Serena into his arms. He walked to the wide veranda and smiled down at my daughter's pouting face. He chuckled, looking to me as I mounted the steps. "Have you taken her riding, Rachelle?"

"When we were in Patiz," I said, standing on the porch looking out over the valley lush with late summer greens. "That's all she's talked about ever since. She's really quite unafraid of them."

"Most children are. Well, are you ready? It's not the palace dining room, but I'm sure it will seem as crowded—"

The ranch hands were just sitting down to the table when we entered. They rose again to be introduced to me and I got so many names all at once I knew it would take time to sort them to the proper smiling, weather-beaten faces. Jara took Serena and set her down with her children and two others at a small child-sized table inside the kitchen arch. Apparently children were expected to dine there without interrupting the adults. Serena raised her voice unhappily as Jara left her momentarily but she quieted as soon as the large, kind-faced woman put a bowl in front of her. Once Serena saw food she was no problem.

I soon learned why Falco preferred to dine at home instead of the inn. The food was excellent and in such quantities that one could have thirds if desired. I was hungry and made no effort to curb myself in the face of such abundance.

There was a comforting warmth in the room and the vigorous conversation between the diners touched me deeply. I suddenly understood why Falco's house was so large; the great table was an extension of the work done in the fields and on the range. It was a place where all could meet without formality and share the end of the day, basking in the familiarity of long association.

There was pleasant conversation at the table, though much of it was concerning the ranch. I had difficulty following discussions of range nests, a dispute with the barabe butcher, a patch of apparently toxic weeds located on the northern boundary, or the texture of the latest ser-monte eggs near hatching. I tried to join in the conversation when I heard subjects which seemed familiar and managed to create several minutes of amusement when I asked the dark-skinned, weather-beaten man with one eye why he as having so much trouble with his shirt-tail.

"Not my 'shirt-tail', milady," he said. "My ser-monte—" he brought his palms close together over his plate, demonstrating a measurement. "My ser-monte has a shirt-tail—'shirt'—little..."

"A short tail?" I interpreted.

"That's what I said," the man looked at me strangely. "Shirt!"

My embarrassment at misunderstanding the Valley dialect brought gales of laughter. I had to laugh at myself because rural dialects had given me similar problems during the tour, especially in the deep south. Fortunately I didn't make another mistake through the rest of the meal.

Serena finished her dinner early then made a nuisance of herself until Falco pushed back from his empty plate and took her for a short ser-monte ride around the main yard. I sat on the porch, enjoying the cool of the evening while I fiddled with my gitar. I quietly watched Falco and Serena riding bare-backed on an obviously old and gentle mare, though it was pure excitement for my daughter. He held her before him, attentive to her safety, but willing to let her feel self-sufficient.

I didn't realize I had an audience listening to my idle strumming until young Tyron asked me to play a little louder. I looked to my left, toward his voice, and saw the men and, up from the barracks, a number of women and children, gathered quietly at the end of the veranda. Tyron was sternly reprimanded by his father, Jara's Chosen, who was introduced to me as Breder.

I beckoned for the people to come closer and asked if they had any special songs they would like to hear. I had learned many of the folk tunes of the southern coast and knew quite a number of valley favorites from the tour with Rampart and Lin two years earlier. One man at the rear of the crowd made a hesitant request and I played it for him, even managed to get him to come forward and sing it with me. After that the requests were many.

Falco came out of the ranch house with his gitar. I hadn't noticed when he and Serena had dismounted or even how they had entered the house, though I suspected there was more than one entrance to the large building. He sat next to me, gitar in hand, ear bent to the sound box as he tuned to my playing. The Rider watched everything I did with avid interest. His hands, those wonderfully-shaped, strong hands, mimicked me, swift to copy my every move. He gained confidence with his playing as the evening extended, competent with basic chordings and filled with enthusiasm if not technique. He carried the rhythm well, strong and steady, unfailing in tempo, allowing me to embellish the music with melodic figures and more complicated counter-rhythms. We played and sang until well after dark. I had so much fun with the gay laughter and music that my motherly instincts were unusually blunted. When I belatedly realized the hour, I begged to be excused to see to my daughter.

"Jara put her to bed," a male voice, not Breder's, announced. "Play another song."

"Yes do, Rachelle!" the one-eyed man added. "You play better than Master Falco."

"I want you to remember you said that," Falco chuckled, "when I tie your shirt-tail to your ser-monte's shirt tail..." The Rider's good-natured threat was greatly enjoyed by the ranch hands who laughed at their friend's wry embarrassment.

Though most of the women and nearly all of the children had left for their quarters down below, Falco let the men talk me into playing another half-hour before he reminded them they had range to ride in the morning. He took my gitar and carried it inside for me while I sat on the veranda sipping the glass of zuri wine Jara brought to me some time earlier. The last of the men thanked me and walked towards the barracks down by the huge barns.

Falco returned with a thick, finely-woven red shawl for my shoulders. "Borrowed it from Jara," he said, draping it over my shoulders. "It sometimes gets cool in the evenings, even this late in the summer."

"Thank you," I said, liking the feel of the soft, warm fabric now that I wasn't so active as when playing. I felt a pleasant elation which comes from music well enjoyed. "Thank you for everything, Falco. It's been a memorable evening."

"Just an ordinary dinner," he said quietly, thoughtfully looking out over the valley as the second nightly Dance of the Moons whirled overhead. "An ordinary dinner made extraordinary by your gracious presence."

There was no pretense in his words, no laughter, no hidden meanings. I smiled shyly, flushed. "You do have a way with words, sir. You can turn a girl's head."

For a moment Falco stiffened, probably searching my words as I had examined his, then he laughed at himself. "But not a wise woman like you, eh?"

"Not me," I agreed, though I wasn't at all sure it was true. I changed the subject. "Serena and I came up through the lower part of the valley from Blene and we saw the upper part two years ago. I think this is the prettiest section."

"It's all very special," Falco nodded in the fragrant darkness. The night-blooming kerhala vines climbing the massive torpal trees lining the veranda edge had opened their blossoms, releasing their almost pungent scent to the summer night. Falco cleared his throat self-consciously. "As the Rider I'm not supposed to be partial to any part of the valley, but as a rancher and a man, I do like this area the best."

He sat silently, leaning forward in his chair with his elbows on his knees. His eyes turned to meet my gaze and I detected a faint smile in the cool, scented darkness. The only light on the veranda came from the distorted rectangles on the decking, thrown by interior lights through the windows on each side of the entry. He raised himself erect, his voice a richness made more so by the shadows.

"Would you like to see the valley in the moonlight, Rachelle? I can saddle a couple of mounts if you'd like to go."

"I'd have to change, Falco," I said, looking at the skirt which draped me from waist to ankle.

"You brought something appropriate to wear didn't you?" When I nodded he said, "I'll meet you here in ten minutes."

I watched his straight back moving swiftly away towards the nearest barn. As with his invitation to dinner Falco seemed assumed I would comply. I wasn't sure if I should be angry at such assurance or glad that for once in my life someone was telling me what to do, not asking. Father had a way of telling me to do things for my own good, but they still came out as requests. Falco had asked, then seemed certain I would immediately accept. I was still puzzling over my willingness to accede while I hurried to my room.

Why did I hurry? It could be that his time limit was the prompt, but I failed to deceive myself in that regard. I wanted to go riding with this mysterious man who frightened and fascinated me. This man who could be so polite in voice and manner had made an impact on my life, even before I was born. I had to know him better, know how he could have been responsible for training so many slaves, yet be revered as a national hero, and be recognized by Simon Jules Ward as a dedicated government servant. I felt I owed him this for he had saved my daughter's life and been kind to me when I was in pain. These thoughts were chaotic in my mind when I mounted the ser-monte Falco had tied to the railing of the veranda.

The lights on the ranch house and out-buildings receded behind us as Falco led us north, angling towards the river. I wasn't at all surprised when we eventually stopped at Falco's 'special place', the river-fed pool surrounded by trees and gernica bushes.

Even in the dim light of the three moons, the awe-inspiring wonder of the spot was clear. Night blooming gernica, the southern variety with tiny five-petaled flowers spiraling a whip-thin stem, completely covered the eastern edge of the pool. Even though the wind was out of the southwest and we were on the opposite shore of the inlet, the fragrance of the gernica was incredible, nearly over-powering. Night birds, silenced by our arrival, soon took up their songs and the hum of insects was a pleasant, lulling background.

I walked away from the ser-monte while Falco hobbled them. Something fairly large splashed into the water as I neared the edge, making my heart jump wildly until Falco's laughter assured me it was nothing to be frightened of.

"Probably a vey," he said, coming to my side, saddle bags in hand. "Ever seen one jump before? Insect eaters—and pretty good eating themselves. Shall we sit over by the tree?"

My reply was to walk with him away from the inlet. It was a short distance of perhaps twenty-five feet, though it seemed like a walk down a magnificent hall in an astral king's palace. Unlike the first time I visited this place, Falco offered his hand for my seating and I flushed from the strength of his fingers about mine.

"It's a beautiful night," he said.

"Yes, it is."

To my pleased surprise, Falco produced a bottle of zuri wine and two glasses from the saddle bags. "To you and the success of your tour," he said, raising his glass in salute.

"Thank you, sir." I tasted the wine, it was delicious. "You sound as if you know the reason behind the tour."

Falco sighed contentedly as he leaned back against the bark of the torpal. His voice seemed untroubled when he spoke. "I was in Gizen two weeks ago while you taught at Patiz. Your dovenja is very pleased with what you have accomplished, Rachelle. In his opinion you have done much to further interest in education in the rural and urban areas of Zea."

Shaking with unwanted apprehension, I slowly drew the glass away from my lips. "You saw him?"

Falco stretched out his legs, looking completely at ease on the grass. "I did, your highness," he said with some formality. He released a long, noisy breath before continuing. "Before you ask, we didn't talk about anything other than Rider matters and how your tour was coming along."

My ears burned at his words. My throat seemed to tighten, my breathing became strained. "You seem to anticipate something I was not going to ask. Why should I?"

"Indeed," he said softly, seeing right through me, "but you were going to."

His smug assurance irritated me. I wasn't angry as such, but he seemed so confident. "What makes you so sure you know me that well, Falco? That famous, special talent that made you a great slave trainer?" I tried to harden my voice, to show my disapproval, but the night was too lovely, the day too fine for me to hold it convincingly.

He actually smiled at my comment, taking no offense. "Possibly my years as a trainer offer me some experience, though it wouldn't be too hard for anyone to see you trembling."

"Yes," I admitted, ashamed of the inadvertent betraying reactions. "Anyone could see." I hung my head, unable to face him. He knew me better than I knew myself and that was terrifying. Did he know that I felt as drawn to him as his past repelled me? I hated the nebulous emotions storming through me. They were an indication that I did not know my own mind. I was thinking hard when his gentle question startled me.

"Why are you afraid of me, Rachelle?"

That question was totally unexpected. I had no firm answer so I posed a question of my own. "Why did you ask me here?"

Falco's answer was immediate, his words clear and instant. "I don't know, Rachelle, I wish I did."

Just like his previous question, this reply was unanticipated. He sipped at his wine glass before cradling it between his hands in his lap. I turned my head to look at his profile in the waning light of the Dance of the Moons and the softer, cooler, more steady light of the stars. His eyes were closed, his face relaxed. He did not fit my conception of a confused man.

"Falco, what are you thinking about?" I asked, truly curious, genuinely interested.

The Rider opened his eyes, lips turned upwards in a smile as he watched a night bird skim the smooth surface of the pond. The bird flapped its wings noisily as it rose, a wriggling, elongated fish caught firmly in its beak. I watched the dark shadow of the night flyer disappear over the river. Falco's voice, so rich and wonderful, drifted as gently as the breeze over the gernica bushes.

"I was thinking how pleasant it is sitting here by the river under the stars. It's not often a pretty young girl will indulge an old man. I feel so relaxed."

"You are not an old man," I said disparagingly, gently. "I believe we've had this conversation before."

"Rachelle," he laughed dryly, "to reach the age of ninety-three, you have to live ninety-three years." He smiled ruefully, shrugging his shoulders expressively. "That's a long time to live. And if you've lived like I have—with more happening every two or three years than most see in fifty—you begin to feel like you've lived the lives of any three men. I'm tired."

I was astonished to hear an undercurrent of sadness in his voice. He was not specifically speaking of physical fatigue, though that was part of it, he was talking about his spirit and I couldn't accept that. Like my father who was nearly the same age, Falco's physical appearance and vigor was that of a twenty or thirty year old. He was just entering the prime of his life with sufficient experience to do something truly worthwhile with the century or so remaining to him. I disliked hearing Falco talk that way as much as it disturbed me when Simon Jules Ward made similar remarks.

"You don't have to be old to be tired," I said. "I'm tired, too. The tour was fun, but it was a lot of work. Long hours on trains or boats..." I refilled my glass and poured some into Falco's. I raised my glass and deliberately offered a light-hearted giggle. "A toast to rest for the weary." I saluted with a graceful dip of the glass, touching rims with his.

"To rest—" he replied with a weary sigh.

"Falco—you're not old."

"I suppose not, Rachelle, but tonight I feel old." He closed his eyes and, in the starlight, I watched him breathing slowly, evenly. I listened to the wind, the insects by the river. A vey, or something like it, splashed upstream and I heard a small animal scrambling through the underbrush as a predator chased it. The birds continued their night songs, soft, melodic and we said nothing more as we sat quietly and drank the wine. The moons rose for the Third Dance and I knew the hour was getting late, but I refused to disturb the solitude of the inlet. I found myself thinking of things deliberately suppressed for years.

It was on a warm clear night like this that Tasien took me to a river where, filled with hope, I learned how horrible a man could be. It was a hot summer night when sweet, innocent little Rovena died in her sleep followed by her mother the next morning. Yet those thoughts, usually so depressing to me in the past, seemed to fall into place, to become a part of memory without overwhelming it. I had never really faced those thoughts before, not with the clarity of mind which seemed to possess me in the alive silence of this magnificent natural hall.

Perhaps Falco's quiet presence had something to do with that piercing self-examination. Though I couldn't be sure, a part of me desperately hoped it was not so. I had no wish to be dependent upon anyone, for that was the most direct route to pain and disillusionment.

The moons were setting when Falco packed the glasses and empty bottle and unhobbled our grumbling mounts. It was cool and the great lizards weren't eager for a night run. "We best get heading back," Falco said.

On the way back to the ranch house we rode knee to knee. The wind in my face, the strong silent presence of the man beside me, the sinuous, almost liquid movement of the mare beneath me, brought me out of the dark contemplations from the inlet. I felt an exhilaration from the ride over a deeply shadowed land with only the stars overhead to break the darkness. My heart pounded in tempo with the sure footing of my mount, and the occasional touch of Falco's knee to mine as the animals crossed the whispering grasses.

We came into the ranch yard at a full run for the last three hundred yards and I felt the true strength of the ser-monte in that brief display. I was breathless with excitement when Falco lifted me down. I kept the reins of the mare and walked her beside Falco and his stallion into the barn. I watched while the Rider stripped the riding saddles from the blowing lizards with well-practiced experience. Falco flapped his arms overhead and to his sides several times to shoo the great creatures through the barn and into the holding corral.

"I enjoyed the ride, Rachelle," Falco said, hanging the last saddle, straightening the final snout halter. "When are you planning to go home?"

"I haven't decided," I answered, suddenly aware that since I had arrived in Patiz I had not even considered a return date to Gizen.

Falco sucked air between his teeth, almost nervously, as he closed the doors to the corral. The Rider turned to me, hesitant, chewing his lower lip with indecision. It was both amusing and curious to see Falco behaving in such a manner. He suddenly spoke with an abrupt rush of words. "If you want to take that rest you toasted by the river, you're welcome to stay on. There's plenty of room."

Despite my earlier thoughts, I felt honored by Falco's genuine offer of an extended visit. I thought it over as I watched him check the hatching nest where a great ser-monte mare silently watched us with hooded eyes. He seemed so anxious for me to stay. I looked down at my hands, seemingly interested in the state of my nails. In a quiet voice I said, "It would be nice to see more of the valley before Serena and I go back to Gizen. I don't know when we'd ever have another chance to come here. Thank you, Falco. We'd love to stay a few days."

Falco grinned abruptly, as if he had been unsure of my response until he heard the words from my mouth. His teeth glistened white in the indigo darkness of his face, dimly lit by the night-shuttered electric bulbs inside the barn. He took me by the arm and led me outside. "Tomorrow we'll have your things brought out from the inn."

Falco showed me to the room I would be using. It was one of six bedrooms on the first floor. It had its own bath and the furniture was simple, yet perfectly suited for the accommodations. He asked if I would be comfortable or would I like to see one of the other bedrooms.

"This is fine," I said. "Much better than the inn. Where's Serena?"

"I'm sure Jara put her down with her children. Let's go see."

Serena was sleeping on her stomach between Tyron and Quida. Jara must have heard us because she put her head out of the adjoining room's door. "She's no trouble, Rachelle," the woman said.

I saw no point in waking Serena just to take her to my room to put her back to bed. "Thank you, Jara."

The large woman smiled, her long black hair unbound and wreathing her plump shoulders. "Good night, Rachelle. Good night, Rider."

I followed the Rider back to my room. Falco pointed two doors down the long hall. "That's my room, Rachelle. If you need anything, just call."

"I don't think so," I laughed, feeling weary in every bone. "At least not tonight. I shall sleep like the dead. Thank you for having me out, Falco."

"I'm glad you came, Rachelle."

I almost didn't get my clothes off and into bed before the wine and excitement caught up with me.

11.

Jara found it astonishing that I could have slept through breakfast. Apparently it was a feat which had never been duplicated in this house; the hands who dined in the great room were not known for their decorous manner. She did have; however, a stack of nut-cakes covered with powdered cunyio waiting for me. I ate the entire stack, plus four strips of fried ger-monte, a half yellow-fruit and washed it down with three cups of kla. After that I felt ready for anything.

"Where's Master Falco?" I asked.

"He was called away early this morning. Something about a poacher on the Imperial Lands. He told me to tell you that you were welcome to stay as long as you wish. I hope you take him up on it, Rachelle. We haven't ever had a lady come stay in this house—that is one who came to visit and not buy a ser-monte."

"None?" I found that information surprising.

"Not since I've been house-keeper. Breder and I have been here at the ranch fifteen years and known the Rider over thirty. Most of the time Master Falco rides range with the men, or he's in his study. Sometimes, like now, he has to go out on King's business, but lately that isn't as often since the Recorder Offices are finally established in most of the towns. There might even come a day he won't have to go Riding anymore."

"Where's Serena?" I asked. "I hope she hasn't been any trouble to you."

Jara's merry chuckle told me she thought I said the most amusing things. "She's no trouble at all. She's a good girl and right now she and Tyron are teasing the tagea."

The housekeeper jerked her thumb to the window over the kitchen sink where she was peeling zuri in preparation for the noon day meal. She stepped aside so I could look through the open curtains where I saw Serena holding the tail of a patient old tagea while Tyron practiced throwing a noose over its head, imitating the riders of the ranch.

Jara patted my shoulder, grinning pleasantly. "That should keep them occupied for a while, Rachelle. Why don't you go into town and get your things? Breder's waiting to take you. You'll find him down at the main barn."

"Are you sure you don't mind watching Serena? She certainly does look like she's enjoying herself." I chuckled at my venja'le's bright laughter. "She's been such a sweet child all tour. I know all the travel and different places made her very cross at times though she tried not to show it."

"She ought to be out in the sun, like she is right now," Jara observed. "I'll take care of her, Rachelle. Don't you worry about her and—" she added with a mischievous wink "—Breder is to do whatever you say. If he gives you any trouble, you tell him he'll have to deal with me."

I didn't expect any difficulties, but it was good to know that Jara was on my side; she was a big, strong woman, quite formidable in fact, but she had a heart as warm and open as the great valley in summer. She shooed me out of the house and I went down to the barn.

Breder was repairing a snout halter. He was a small man, thinner than Falco, quite the opposite of his large, genial Chosen. What he lacked in size was offset by a bright smile and high nervous energy. "Good morning, Rachelle," he said in greeting, expecting me. "I hope we didn't keep you playing too long last night."

"I enjoy playing, Breder. It's what I do best." Talking to Breder was as easy and natural as talking to his Chosen. They were a pair, the two of them, gentle yet strong, open and without guile. They were genuine in their interest and one quickly knew where you stood with them. We talked of little things while Breder's sure fingers completed the halter repair. He examined the finished work with a critical eye and nodded his satisfaction.

"Ready to go, Rachelle? Wait here and I'll bring the truck around."

We rode into Yellow Jahsa in a well-used flat-bed truck. Despite the battered exterior, the vehicle ran excellently and was clean. Riding with Breder I found myself seeing the country with a more attentive eye, viewing the broad beauty of the valley with a new appreciation. The other times I'd traveled the unpaved road I'd been with Falco and had been more conscious of the Rider than the stunning panorama which surrounded me.

We drove directly to the inn. I thanked the proprietress for the accommodations and service and settled my bill with a portion of my dwindling credits. Breder carried my things to the truck and asked if I would object to him stopping to pick up things Jara needed. I was agreeable and Breder drove several blocks down the street to park at the general goods outlet. I wandered through the aisles while Breder loaded several large sacks of milled flour, zuri tubers and baskets of fruits and vegetables into the truck. There were other items such as bolts of cloth, a box of canning jars and a case which looked like ammunition.

While Breder and the merchant good-naturedly haggled over prices I started looking at riding boots. I had none of my own. The rancher at Patiz where I'd taken Serena on her first ser-monte ride had suggested I get some if I planned to do any serious riding, ser-monte hide is slightly abrasive and will eventually wear through barabe leather. At the time I had no intention of continued riding but if I stayed longer at Falco's ranch I thought I might pick up a pair since I had come to enjoy riding the supple, graceful lizards. I had to make my own selection as there was no staff of clerks available as there were in the various market places in Gizen. The owner himself was busy with Breder. The lack of assistance was fine with me as I secretly hated for anyone to see my foot which was almost as badly scarred as the leg itself. I usually wore opaque stockings for that very reason. I always had trouble fitting my deformed left foot and this time was no exception. When I found a comfortable boot for the left, the right would not fit. As usual I ended up buying two pair to get one.

Breder talked all the way back to the ranch. He was almost as verbal as Jara, especially when he wasn't having to compete for another's ear when she was around. I found the foreman's stories quite amusing. I most enjoyed the one he told on Falco. Breder had been riding the north boundary last spring and discovered the Rider treed by a giva. Falco was in no real danger as long as he remained aloft, beyond the sharp claws and fangs of the ferocious predator, but that also meant he couldn't get down as long as the carnivore was in the vicinity. Falco's ser-monte had run off, the big lizards have no fondness for giva. The rancher had apparently spent several hours clinging to the twisted fenac limbs when Breder quickly chased off the giva, an animal seen less frequently as the ranches began to dominate the fertile valley. Breder then asked Falco why the Rider hadn't just shot the beast with his pistol.

"Do you know what he said, Rachelle?" Breder chuckled, his smile bright in the sunlight. "Falco forgot to load the pistol after cleaning it the night before. Can you believe that?"

I laughed, but I was puzzled at the same time. "I've never seen him carry a gun. I wouldn't know."

Breder sobered slightly. "Falco's always armed when he goes out as Rider. There was a time he had to use it when the valley was wild with outlaws." Breder smoothly changed the subject, glancing down at the package riding in my lap. "If you'd like to go riding, milady, I'd be glad to saddle a mount for you."

"I just might," I replied. "After lunch, though. I think I could manage it all right."

"Oh? That sounds like you haven't ridden much." At my embarrassed nod he shrugged his shoulders. "I thought you were a rider since Falco said he enjoyed riding with you."

"I didn't know that," I felt a warmth surge through my breast, surprising me. "I like riding with him, too. I must confess, Breder, I've only been on a ser-monte three times."

"Tell you what we'll do," the weathered man grinned. "I'll take you down to the south boundary. I need to check the utsma traps. Would you like that?"

"Riding or fresh baked utsma? The answer is yes to both."

Breder was very patient with me on the ride after lunch. He answered all of my questions, even the stupid ones, with a seriousness that was charming. I wasn't sure how many miles we traveled, but it took several hours. I'm sure Breder could have ridden to the traps and back in far less time if not for me, slowing him down with my uncertain handling of the spirited ser-monte mare. The fine lizard was a more aggressive creature than the other mounts I'd ridden and it was exciting to feel her eagerness to run, the pounding of her great heart beneath the sinuous ribs. Part of me wanted to give the animal its head, to let the mare stretch out in the beautiful gallop of racing ser-monte, but there was a breath of caution which restrained me until I was more accustomed to sitting the saddle.

By the time we returned to the house my feet were complaining from the new boots and I took a long time in the shower, a large chamber faced with glazed black tiles equipped with a built-in bench opposite the spray head. The shower was roomy enough for three people to bathe at the same time; spacious and open like the rest of this large, airy house. The hot water eased muscle strains and soothed my feet. I sat under the luxurious and restoring spray, the scented sand-soap forgotten, until I heard the children shouting at play. I quickly finished my shower and, when I stepped out, I almost felt guilty for taking so long.

I towel-dried my hair and dressed in a light, full-length skirt and short-sleeved blouse. I found Jara in the kitchen. It seemed she was never far from there at any time of the day (I would later learn how untrue that was), but at the moment she wasn't cooking. Jara leaned against the spotless counter with its neatly placed containers and storage jars, sipping kla. She greeted me with a hearty smile.

"Would you like some, Rachelle? It's a little old, I was drinking up the last before I made a fresh pot."

"Good and bitter?" I asked with interest.

"Thick as mud," the woman laughed, pouring a cup.

I took a sip and jerked slightly, it was so hot. "You could grow zuri in this," I remarked, an expression my father had used many times. Saying that made me realize how far Gizen had been from my thoughts over the last week. I decided I should call home soon and let my parents know where I was staying. My pensive mood was shattered, however, by the arrival of three laughing children running through the kitchen from the open back door towards the main room.

Jara deftly reached out and lifted Quida by the scruff of her neck. She looked at the child's dirt-smudged face and shook her head disapprovingly. "How many times have I told you and Tyron to leave the range outside? Hold still, Quida!" The tiny girl's mother expertly cleaned her daughter's face with the dampened hem of her apron.

Serena stopped running when Quida was captured. She watched with interest as her little friend silently endured the face cleaning. My child was just as soiled, just as mussed as Jara's and it looked good on her. I had never been allowed to play with such abandon when I was growing up, with good reason, of course, and I felt a twinge of envy for Serena's opportunity to enjoy the child's life I'd been denied by physical deformity and surgery, but that only made me love her more, and finally roused my delinquent motherhood.

I bent over and picked her up and was pleased when she put her arms around my neck and gave me a dirty kiss. "Put down," she pleaded when Quida ran out of the room. "Want Quida—"

Jara chuckled and put her apron hem to good use, wiping Serena's face for me. "Let her go play, Rachelle. I'll throw the lot of them in the tub before dinner."

It was a reasonable request, greeted with laughter from Serena when I set her down. She was out through the door like the wind. I listened to her carefree shouting for Quida and Tyron.

"I suppose it's foolish for me to worry about the children being trampled by a ser-monte," I said, dusting my blouse free of Serena's unexpected gift of valley soil. "After all, you let your children play in the yard..."

"Those great lizards are too smart to let a worrisome human child pull their tails or climb their legs. Most of the time the ser-monte stay out on the grass or in the sand wallows during the day. It's the hatchlings that can be a little rough because they don't yet have their coordination. What would you like for dinner this evening, Rachelle?"

"Whatever you're fixing is fine with me, Jara," I said. I hadn't expected the question since Jara seemed to have everything under control at all times and adverse to interference. "Don't go to any trouble on account of me."

"I won't," the woman honestly answered, her lips turned upwards in a heart-warming smile. "But it never hurts to have a change of pace. We sometimes get a little narrow in our habits in the summer when the work is so hectic."

I took her at her word and suggested petaja. "I haven't had a good baked petaja since Wark."

Jara frowned thoughtfully for a moment. "We don't often get petaja this far inland but we do have a tasty fish we catch right out of the river. I usually fry it, I could try baking it though."

"Do you have enough to feed everyone?" I asked.

Jara nodded, leading me to the cold-box. She showed me the fish, a long-finned creature that was not as large as a lake petaja though each was more than enough for a single person.

"Gital," she named it. "It has no bones except in the fins. The rest is cartilage."

"How interesting!" I said, picking one of the ice-cold, gutted fish from the storage box. I pried the fish open and saw the smooth white texture of the flesh. "It should bake well, Jara. I'll help you."

"I couldn't allow that, Rachelle. Master Falco would have my—"

"Hush. I won't take 'no' for an answer. I like to cook. I used to keep house myself, Jara, for my sister and her Chosen and four children. It would be nice to fix a big meal again."

Whatever Jara didn't have for my recipe for baked petaja, we improvised and as the afternoon wore on the smells coming from the large oven were delicious. Talking with Jara as we worked on a salad and a batch of fresh bubbly pies for desert filled me with the illusion that the terrible fever epidemic never occurred, that Elispeth was in her room upstairs and Densil was trying to ride rein over his brothers and Olexa was chattering away as we fixed dinner for the family and workers. Of course, I knew I was in Yellow Jahsa at Falco's ranch, but the feelings I had loved and thought lost were still there. I was glad to have them; I needed them for they eased my lingering emptiness, showing me that life not only must go on, it was going on.

I was a bit anxious when the hands came to dinner. I was told by Jara during the afternoon that the dinner guests had been limited the night before, that hands who had taken a new Chosen usually dined at the big table until they were equipped with cooking facilities in the rambling, multi-family barracks down by the barns. I knew there were a large number of people working the ranch and it hadn't occurred to me that meals were served in several locations, or that my presence had caused the hands with young families to accept the generosity of their fellows the previous night. Therefore I was not only anxious about the meal Jara and I had prepared, I was also worried about my reception by those who'd been discomforted the night before.

The table, which had extensions to seat twenty-five, was made ready for the ranch hands and their women. As the people came to the house and sat down, they eyed the baked gital with suspicion until Jara goaded Breder into tasting it. Breder sat quietly, eating with mechanical movements while the others watched him. Finally One-eye asked Breder if it was any good.

"Good enough for me not to tell you," Breder said, his mouthful, his eyes twinkling. "If I said I liked it, there wouldn't be extra for me to eat..." Jara's Chosen barked a great laugh and winked at me. "Best damn gital I've ever tasted, Rachelle. Don't mind them, they're set in their ways, to their eternal misfortune."

A moment later I was besieged by compliments as the diners tried the fish. I felt pleased to give something back to these simple folk who accepted me as a person and not the daughter of King Simon Jules Ward. The respect they offered me was the kind that one human being owes to another regardless of rank and which is often hard to come by.

There were a few who tasted the fish but didn't eat it simply because they didn't care for fish. Jara was prepared for those, however, they were in no danger of starving, because there was plenty of food on the table and it was consumed with relish and pleasant conversation.

After dinner I played gitar while Jara put Serena to bed with Tyron and Quida. The audience I had was larger than the night before since all of the hands' Chosens were there, some with infants, others with children older than Tyron. They came to hear the music after having their separate dinner hour down below. I looked at the faces gathered around the veranda and was surprised to see so many.

I knew Falco had given work to a large number of people because the ranch he tended was so large, but I had no idea that more than forty men, women, and children lived on the ranch. All were part of the larger 'family' which included everyone on the ranch. I saw children of various ages, some I recognized from teaching classes in Yellow Jahsa.

The people would have asked for more if I had been willing to continue, but I took Falco's actions of the night before as my guide and did not play too late. Jara was puttering about the kitchen when I came inside to put my gitar away.

Breder finished his last cup of kla before going to bed. "I'll look in on the children," he told us, then disappeared down the darkened hallway.

I smiled at the foreman's back. Breder had been so patient with me as I learned the few do's and don't's about handling ser-monte on the ride to the southern boundary.

I sat at the table nibbling a fral cake that I didn't really need, but it was hot from the oven and looked too tempting sitting on the cooling rack. I remembered my decision from the afternoon and asked Jara if I could use the telephone. "I need to call home."

"You can use the one down here," she said, "or the phone in Falco's study. It's more private."

"Do you think he would mind?"

"He said you were to have the run of the house, Rachelle. I suppose that means the phone as well. It's upstairs and to the left. Second door."

I located the office without any difficulty. I turned on the light and found the room to be another provocative example of the builder of this large, happy place—I knew the ranch was happy, I could feel it all around me.

The torpal desk was like him, strong in line but spare of clutter. Falco was well organized; it showed in the neatness of the room; the tidy shelves filled with books with such varied titles, often surprising; large inviting chairs placed for visitor comfort; a room designed around the concept of ease and privacy. I couldn't bring myself to sit in the leather chair behind the desk, but I did like the feel of the glossy barabe hide covered chair as I used it for balance while I picked up the phone.

I had timed my call to the palace to coincide with father's normal hour of retiring to make sure I could speak to him. The operator at the palace switchboard offered a cheery hello before ringing Simon's suite. Father picked up the phone after four rings and his voice sounded husky. I thought I could hear feminine giggling in the background.

"If this is a bad time," I chuckled, "I can call back."

"Might be just as bad then," father laughed. He partly covered the mouthpiece and I heard something to the effect "It's your daughter. Be quiet, you two" then his voice came back at regular volume. "How are you, Spunky?"

"Fine. Just thought I'd let you know I'm planning on staying on for a while, but I'm not at the inn."

"Good for you. The valley's beautiful this time of year. Where are you staying?"

"I'm at Falco's ranch. He was very generous to offer a room."

"Make him get some rest, kitten. Falco's been pushing himself too hard. He looked worn out when he was here a few weeks ago."

"He does stay busy." I told father about Falco missing classes and that I thought he was now off chasing a poacher.

"I hope you stay long enough to sit on that old warrior and make him stop to smell the gernica, Rachelle. Tell him I told him to. Need anything from home? No? How's my favorite granddaughter?"

"You don't have any favorites," I laughed. "Serena is having the time of her life. She and Quida are inseparable and they both nag Tyron to death. Do you know Jara's children?"

"Not the new set. I met her oldest once before he was killed in the Semac War. The daughter, I don't remember her name off-hand, is working one of the textile mills in Corbido with her Chosen. I wasn't surprised when Falco told me there were more children about the house. Say—does Jara still talk too much or has she slowed down in her old age?"

I didn't think of Jara as "old". She was just barely twice my age. "If she has," I answered, "you couldn't tell it by me."

Father chuckled. "Anything else, Spunky?"

"I guess not. I just wanted to let you know where I was staying."

"Keep in touch, Sugar. Wait," he sighed with frustration, "your mothers want to talk to you."

"...be so greedy, Simon. Hello, Rachelle! We're so proud of you!"

"Mother," I said with a touch of concern. "You sound hoarse. Are you feeling well?"

Marsei giggled. "Your father is being a beast. He keeps tickling even when we beg him to stop. I just wanted to say hello. Vella and I will get the gossip from Simon. Here's Vella..."

"Marsei might want to wait," mother said, "but I want to know right now. Tell me everyth—" I heard a squawk of indignant protest. I could almost see my mother's full-lipped pout. "You father says 'no', so I will talk to you later. Love you."

"Love you too. Kiss them for me."

"I will, Rachelle. Goodnight."

Father must have been impatient to get back to whatever they were doing because the line disconnected quickly. I hung up, a slight smile on my face. The next time Simon Jules Ward tried to tell me he was getting old I planned to remind him of this conversation.

I was very thoughtful as I walked downstairs to my room. Jara was still up, though she had changed into night clothes. She sat at the big table with the lights down low, holding a cup of kla in one hand. A book lay open before her and I saw that it was a reading primer. Jara was trying to improve herself and I found that to be good. She looked up when I reached the bottom of the stairs and asked if I needed anything. I smiled a thank you and told her I was going to bed.

Jara's voice, nervous and hesitant, stopped me. "Could I ask you something?" she asked.

I walked over and stood beside her chair. "What can I do for you, Jara?"

Jara turned the open page toward me and pointed with a raw-boned finger. "You're an educated woman, Rachelle. What is that word?"

"Multiply," I said. "It means to 'make many'."

"Mul-ti-ply," she carefully repeated, studying the word for a long moment. "Thank you, teela. Sure you don't want a fral cake and kla?"

"I've already had the cake and if I have kla now I won't be able to sleep. Thank you anyway, Jara." I started to my room, then paused to face her. "Please don't let me sleep late again, Jara. That could get to be a very bad habit."

"Do you want to get up when I do, or the children, or the men?"

"Uh—which is later?" I asked.

"Men," she chuckled, "of course!"

"That'll be fine, Jara. Goodnight."

"Pleasant sleep, Rachelle."

I closed the door to my room and sat on the bed, weary from the day. I stretched my arms overhead before undoing the fastening to my blouse. As I put my clothes away, I found it odd not to have Serena in the room with me. We had been constantly together since the beginning of the tour and I missed her. Yet, I found it a pleasant relief not to worry about her. She had new friends her own age, the whole of the Auel River Valley to discover and all the love she could want. I knew she was in capable, loving hands; Jara unsparingly loved children as much as she loved the bedraggled old tagea that had adopted the ranch as home.

I crawled into bed, body weary, but mind unable to sleep. I listened to a couple of ser-monte stallions hissing challenges to each other through the open window. I heard the hum of night insects and the flap of wings as a bird passed. The wind sighed through the grass, the trees, a pleasant, restful sound. The very house had sounds of its own which were peaceful—sleep inducing—yet, I couldn't sleep.

I thought of my parents, all three of them, happy and in love. At this moment they were enjoying something I had often wondered about since the night Tasien had so casually taken my virginity. I knew no joy from that cold coupling, in fact had found it unpleasant and distasteful. Yet too much evidence, too many examples in my family alone, that told me there was something much greater than what I had experienced. I yearned to know that oneness, that joy which seemed denied to me. I had discovered the potential of sensual pleasure through manual stimulation, but usually found it more frustrating to try than not. I had begun to think I was one of the few who could not feel pleasure as did other women. I never dwelled on this fact of my existence, to do so would court insanity, but from time to time I was reminded of my inadequacies and this was such a time. I touched myself, hoping to achieve that partial relief after such an exercise. I let my thoughts clear as I concentrated on the warmth building in my middle. The sensation was stronger than ever and I wondered if it was because I was in Falco's house instead of an impersonal inn. I—

The thought of his name evoked a mental image of the man. A sudden, intense spasm rocked me as my fingers exerted more pressure, more speed. His faced hovered above my closed eyelids and I wondered how it would feel if his strong, wonderfully formed hand were doing as mine. I shuddered as a thrill surged through me that left me gasping breathlessly. I lost myself in a fantasy of Falco, his rich voice, his thin wiry strength...

I moaned with pleasure when I wanted to scream. I shivered uncontrollably as wave after wave erupted from my center, spreading through my body, my mind. The sensations continued until I was completely exhausted. If, I told myself as sleep tugged at my drained senses, this is what it is supposed to be then I hate you Tasien! I hate you!

As I went into a dreamless darkness I thought I heard another voice strangely like mine saying, I love you — Falco.

12.

I woke believing I'd had a very strange and vivid dream until I felt the stickiness of my skin. What I experienced during the night was no dream and that mysterious, elusive, glorious feeling I believed denied to me was mine after all! I rose from the bed, feeling light in spirit and body, a well-being I had never known flooded through me as I went to the bathroom to shower. But, as the hot water ran down my thin, twisted body, a sobering thought plagued me. The face which made that shivering, delicious ecstasy possible was that of Falco the Holessa! How could I be attracted to a man such as he? How could that wonderful feeling have been caused by the thought of his name, the image of his face, the fantasy of his touch? I stood under the hard, hot spray, water splashing against my closed eyes, shaking, trembling with confusion.

It was true the Rider had always been always kind and courteous and I never had reason to doubt his sincerity or respect. But he had also never expressed an interest in me as a woman, or I had not recognized it as such. How was it possible that I—my feelings for his former life still unchanged—could have such an intense interest in him? I obviously did because the rumpled bed sheets were mute evidence of that fact. I needed time to think on this, to clarify my thoughts and feelings.

After breakfast I changed into riding clothes and asked Jara to make a light lunch. I wasn't sure how long I would be gone and it was possible I might miss the noon meal. Breder saddled the mare I began to think as mine. He boosted me to the ser-monte's broad, supple back and, when he asked, I told him the general direction of my ride. I rode out at a fast trot, heading for the forested slopes above the ranch house.

I spent several hours struggling with myself, allowing the powerful beast to chose a trail of its own. I had no clear destination in mind and we crossed through several stands of timber, though I hardly noticed. The mare moved more slowly in the sun than in the shade and when I became conscious of her desire to bask I turned my thoughts away from that numbing climatic moment I had so enjoyed, with Falco's name on my lips.

At noon I reined in, hobbling the ser-monte on the sandy bank of a small creek winding through the edge of the forest. I loosed the saddle cinch and watched the animal wiggle sinuously in the sand, building a depression in the loose earth until it was comfortable. The great eyes closed and a long snort of lazy satisfaction whooshed from the beast's narrow nostrils.

The shallow creek ran out from beneath the trees onto the grassy bottom land and then down to the distant Auel River. It was a quiet place, with only the sounds of birds on the higher slopes to accompany my disquieting thoughts. The whole of the valley lay before me. As I looked back to the south I saw that I had ridden beyond sight of the ranch. At least two or more slopes descending from the valley rim lay in between. I knelt beside the stream under the shade of a wind-twisted tarec tree. The branches were heavy with the small, thin-shelled nuts which Jara used to such advantage in her tasty fral cakes. I stripped a handful of the sweet, succulent nuts from the tree and sat down.

Jara's quickly prepared lunch of bread, cheese and ger-monte sausage was more than adequate. I found it odd that I had an appetite at all and to have such an unusually large one was surprising. I never ate much back home and I suppose that was because I wasn't as active as I had been on both tours and since coming to Falco's ranch. In the past when I had a problem to resolve, food was forgotten until it was settled. Here, in the valley, breathing clear, invigorating air, enjoying bright sunshine under cloudless skies, I did my thinking with my mouth full.

I re-packed what little remained of Jara's generous lunch then watched the sunlight play over the creek's rippling water. It was almost hypnotic, soothing my troubled frame of mind, allowing my thoughts to roam freely, to associate without conscious control. After an hour of silent contemplation I came to the startling conclusion I was in love with Falco the Holessa.

During the ride back to the ranch I tried to determine why this incredible knowledge was not intimately repugnant. That I was in love with the Rider was contrary to my every conscious belief regarding the man. How my heart could feel one way while I thought another was unsettling and distracting. Was it possible I so desperately yearned for the physical sensations—those I experienced in the night—that I was willing to overlook my convictions?

Unhappily I admitted I felt more alive, more of a woman, than I ever had in my life. Yes, I told myself as the mare skirted a clump of short scrub trees, I needed to feel that way. I needed it as much as Serena's arms about my neck, to have her love.

I suddenly chided myself for becoming over-wrought over these unwanted (and undeniable) physical feelings evoked by Falco the Holessa. The solution was simple, I told myself. I could continue to enjoy myself, to have the stunning sensual release, without ever having to deal with the man himself.

"But how can I?" I whispered to the air, warm and filled with the scents of grass, earth, the musk of the ser-monte. "If his image can do this much, what could happen if it were real?"

Yes indeed, what would it be like?

I brooded over the answer to that question long after I returned to the ranch. My thoughts remained disjointed for the rest of the afternoon. The only thing that distracted me was Jara's message that Falco had called while I was out. The Rider had left word he would be away at least two days longer. He suggested I might extend my visit for as long as I desired. He hoped I would. Jara added her own urging as well.

I tried to put in my usual afternoon practice on the gitar to maintain technique and control, but I found it difficult to concentrate. I alternately shifted between the desire to pack and take Serena back to Yellow Jahsa for the next train home or waiting until I could confirm what I half-believed I felt for Falco the Holessa. I decided I would stay. I knew I would forever regret it if I left such an emotional confusion unresolved.

Brooding over my unsettling revelations at dinner; however, was impossible. The men were often at their ribald best in the evenings when they set aside their work and pursued their own interests. Some of the men read, others fashioned intricate carvings with swift, sure strokes of hand-knives. Most of them; however, along with the women and children, looked forward to an evening of music and song. Since Falco was away tending his Rider duties I stood in his place. I took time that evening to get to know the people of Falco's ranch personally. This immense, beautiful place was more than a successful, world-famous breeding ranch. It was home to a large, extended family filled with warm affection. I relished a sense of belonging not felt since Elispeth's death or leaving my father's palace so many years ago.

The women brought their mending to the veranda, quietly working under the yellow-red glow of the overhead light while I played hand-clapping dances or soft, thoughtful pieces which evoked illusions of the slow-moving breadth of the Auel River. These women, so unlike the ones at father's court or those who'd visited Tasien's workshop for instruments or furniture, were simple and direct in their manner. They took no notice of my odd gait or cared that my daughter was born outside the Rites of Choosing. They talked to me as if I were one of them; telling stories, sharing gossip, grumbling about raising inconsiderate children who would too soon learn the world is not a place for play without giving something in return. They made me welcome and I basked in their kind hospitality. Each, in her way, let me know how pleased they were that Master Falco had finally invited a woman to visit his home.

I thought of the implications of their open-hearted words after the music was over and all were abed. Falco the Holessa enjoyed the unalloyed love of his workers and their families. It showed in their hard work and care for his property. But there was something else in their words which illustrated a gentle, human concern that the man they honored so unequivocally had never expressed any interest in a woman beyond the bounds of a business sale and that they thought that was a terrible waste.

Was it possible Falco the Holessa found women unattractive? I ignored that preposterous thought. He was the most excellent trainer of Pleasure Slaves ever known on all Fomos and his world-wide reputation for his carefully created slaves' responsiveness and aptitude was legendary. No, this man knew women in a way that even women could never know. As a consummate trainer he would have made sure his creations were perfect by taking a personal interest and I felt suddenly reassured, then confused by that feeling of relief!

Perhaps he had no desire to know only one woman.

That thought disturbed me terribly for some reason and I had difficulty falling asleep. I had dreams which were filled with a vague uneasiness and left me nervous and on edge when Jara came to wake me just before dawn.

"I'm sorry to disturb you, Rachelle. Master Falco is on the phone. He asked if you were awake. I told him I would come see," she smiled impishly. "Are you awake?"

"Yes, Jara. Thank you for telling me."

"I knew you would want to talk to him. I didn't think you'd mind," she said, walking out and pulling the door shut behind her. I slipped into my robe and went to the downstairs phone in the main room.

"Good morning, Falco," I said, yawning. I had not rested well with the dreams, but now, almost awake, they faded to nothingness. I tried to sound more alert for Falco. "When are you coming back? Breder says there should be a hatching soon."

"I'll be a few days longer, Rachelle," he sounded tired, as if he'd not been to bed. "I just wanted to see how you were getting along. I apologize for being such a poor host."

"You have your duty," I said, accepting his thoughtful apology as it was intended. "Don't worry about me, I'm having a wonderful time. Breder has taken me riding and I've been exploring the ranch. You missed a good dinner night before last. I baked gital for everyone."

I heard him laugh on the other end of the line. "You seem to be doing very well, Rachelle. I feel much better." His tone became sober, reluctant it seemed to have to even mention anything at all. "I'm sorry this has disrupted your visit. I hope to have it finished soon. I'd like to spend some time with you before you must go back to Gizen. We haven't had a chance to visit properly."

"I'm not leaving until you return, Falco." I said that without realizing those exact words, or the apparent eagerness of tone, were on my lips. Once said I made no attempt to change them for they were from my heart. I did try to temper them, however. "It would be the height of rudeness for me to leave before you return. Get some rest, Falco. You sound worn out."

"I can't, Rachelle. I never try to tell you how to play gitar. Please don't tell me how to be a Rider. Now, what else is happening?"

From another man those words might seem to be sharp disapproval, from Falco they were only facts stated for the record, spoken politely. I told him about Breder's success at the utsma traps. He brought four of the gorgeous-plumed wild birds back yesterday. I planned to help Jara bake two and smoke the rest. I told him about the nightly sings and laughingly listened to his warning against letting the men talk me into playing all night. I told him Serena and Quida were missing for an hour yesterday morning while I was riding. They were found in the barn playing near the hatching nest.

"How much longer will you be away?" I asked, sensing his reluctant need to terminate the call.

"It shouldn't be more than a few days," he repeated, voice worn with fatigue. "I know who and where the poacher is. It's just a matter of going in after him."

"Why don't you send a local Recorder? Do you have to go?"

"I've known this man a long time, Rachelle. I have my reasons... Are you sure you're comfortable? Jara and Breder taking good care of you?"

I smiled at his concern. "I can take care of myself, Falco, but yes, I couldn't ask for better. Hurry home."

"I will. Goodbye, Rachelle."

"Get some rest...!" I tried to say, but the line disconnected.

Falco's 'few' days became three, then five. I rode the mare in the mornings, ranging farther from the ranch house as my confidence in the land and the eager mare increased. I tried to take Serena with me at first, but she was too active. I was forced to cut the rides shorter than I wanted. I lacked the confidence of a truly experienced rider to try to handle both my daughter and the mare. After that she stayed at the ranch with Tyron and Quida. Either I or Breder would give Serena a short, bare-back evening ride that was just for her.

Each morning I woke hoping to find Falco to have returned during the night, but the week extended into full Tenday with no news of his return. I tried to contact the local Recorder Officer in the area where Falco said he was working, but the man was unable to give me any information—the Rider had packed food for a week and left on ser-monte back into the high plateau just east of the Auel below Patiz. It was rough country, mostly unexplored with deep canyons and thick forests. I worried that he might have an accident and no one would be able to help him.

I forced my thoughts into other directions, telling myself that Falco the Holessa knew this land better than anyone, that he was more than capable of taking care of himself. He would return unharmed, smiling, confident and again successful.

With too much time to think I tried to convince myself that it might be best if the man did not return. Then I wouldn't have to sort the differences between my heart and mind. I should despise this man, yet he now seemed so irresistibly desirable. I also knew these feelings of mine were unfair to the Rider, more importantly, how could I build such an intense relationship in my mind without knowing how Falco the Holessa felt about it?

I eventually tired of physical idleness and the upsetting conjectures I engaged in during the afternoons. I pestered Jara to let me be more useful. We took to swapping recipes. Every night for a week the hands learned to greet unexpected and exotic dishes with eagerness. I could use a needle with some skill and helped with the mending before the evening sing; repairing shirts, strengthening strained seams, or making new clothes for the children.

I did not confine my interests to accepted womanly pursuits only. I was curious about the general operation of the ranch. I was at the barn as often as in the kitchen. I learned how ser-monte were tamed to the bridle and how that process was started at the moment of hatching.

In the wild, ser-monte are the largest land hunters. Their only competitor and chief rival was the smaller, more vicious giva. Ser-monte do reasonably well with grazing, a staple part of their diet even in the wild, but their high-metabolic appetites are demanding and occasional meat is essential. Ser-monte with the hunting instinct, however, are poor mounts at best. Such beasts are known to turn on their riders, causing injury or death. To prevent the set of hunting instincts hatchlings are not allowed to hunt or taste fresh-blooded meat.

The natural ser-monte diet requires meat to promote strong growth; therefore, hatchlings are fed a special mash of grasses and foliage laced liberally with generous amounts of diced barabe. If the new-born lizard never hunted, Breder told me, it would never develop the aggressive predator instinct which made them potentially dangerous. This new information regarding the care of hatchlings also revealed another fact to me: my presence had severely altered the usual routine of the ranch.

Jara and the women usually fed the hatchlings during their first month out of the great leathery shells. Now that there were three hatchlings all at one time and their voracious appetites had to be attended five times a day if they were to become champions like their parents, Jara had been unable to help with the baby lizards.

When I learned that Jara was instructed to be available to serve my every need, I quickly amended the orders left by Falco. "I want to help, too," I said. "Show me what to do..."

Hatchlings lack the uncanny grace of adult stallions and mares, being all spindly leg and long tail, but they are sensitive to affection, more so than the adults. This trait, common to hatchlings, makes it easy for women and older children to handle them in the beginning. They eagerly take the nutritious mash and demand attention with playful butts of narrow snouts and curiously uncoordinated tails. While men are capable of handling the hatchlings, showing as much affection as a woman for the tiny lizards, women seem more suited to the task and the women of Falco's ranch took their duty seriously. Constant handling by humans is the key first step in taming these great creatures into tractable riding mounts.

Jara warned me to be careful when pushing the mash to a hatchling's snout, they have needle-sharp fangs at birth which blunt with age and a steady diet of the tough grass on which they thrive. She showed me several white-edged scars on the back of her dark blue hand where the hatchling bites had pierced the skin. While the teeth were too short to do deep damage, painful rips could destroy tendons and ligaments for the unwary. I was appropriately cautious when feeding the amusing infant lizards. I had no desire to injure my hands for music. But I took a great satisfaction in doing the chore, sparing Jara and the others a portion of the extra overwork caused by my visit.

Falco had been away from the ranch almost two weeks the morning I decided to lunch at his 'special place'. It was not a long ride compared to some recent ventures of mine so I packed my own lunch, kissed Serena goodbye (she wasn't interested, she and Tyron were planting a 'garden' along side the front porch) and saddled my mount.

The mare was eager for a run and I chuckled as I leaned forward and slapped the scaly, supple neck. "Just a little run," I told her, slapping at her snout when her long tongue flicked out over my face several times. "I missed you too," I laughed.

I loved riding the valley in the morning. For some reason it was easier to rise and greet the sun here than it was in the city. The dew sparkled on grass and leaf and tiny showers of dew from wind-tossed torpals refreshed me as the mare passed beneath them. I followed the river bed to be sure of locating the inlet. Falco had taken me there by two different routes, once at night. The river was my certain route to where the pool lay. The sun rapidly took off the night cool and I slipped off my jacket, riding bare-armed in my sleeveless tunic. My hair was unbound, lying loose on my shoulders, occasionally stirred by the breeze running with the river. The shade of the trees lining the bank was welcome to me but the mare liked the sun and kept looking for a place to lie and bask.

"When we get to the pool I'll hobble you in the sun," I promised.

The inlet had a different character from my two previous visits during the winter and, later, a summer night. An incredible profusion of gernica and kerhala, the brilliant green of the grass, the shimmer of water in the late morning sun was so enchanting I nearly forgot my promise to the mare. Sure that the hobbles would hold her from wandering from the sand and sunlight, I unpacked the saddle and walked the rest of the way to the huge torpal where Falco shared wine with me. Though the lizard found the heat and sun enjoyable I was sweaty from the mid-morning and eager to cool down.

The water looked inviting. I have always loved to swim, growing fond of the exercise when I was going through physical therapy after my many operations. In that element my twisted leg is no handicap. I move with something that approaches true grace. It had been years since I last swam, but with the heat and water and the inlet's beautiful solitude, thought became action. I stripped bare and waded into the quiet inlet.

I don't know how long I had alternately floated or lazily swam the length of the inlet when I heard a sharp ser-monte hiss. I looked to my mare to see if something were wrong and discovered Falco astride his stallion at the water's edge. He looked tired and dusty as he leaned forward on his mount.

He smiled at me. "That looks good..." he said by way of greeting.

"It is," I smiled back, both glad and distressed to see him at the same time. The gladness was knowing he had come to no harm in the wild and that he was back. The distress was the sudden, irrational desire to childishly run away from something I didn't understand. "You look like you could use a bath. Come join me. I also have a lunch."

"Two good ideas in a row? How can I refuse?" the Rider grinned.

I felt a high flush for extending the invitation for a swim. Not since I was thirteen had anyone seen my body except my mothers and Elispeth, and Densil, once. The words came out of my mouth without warning, without thought. To retract the invitation would be insulting and I could not do that to a man who, despite my mental reservations, had shown nothing but consideration toward me. I chewed my lower lip, wading gradually into deeper water, silently watching as Falco dismounted and walked his ser-monte to the sunny grass and sand. My mare raised her dusty head from the ground, watching man and stallion approach without interest. Her head dropped back and the bright eyes closed as the mare heaved a contented sigh in the sun's warmth.

I was slightly embarrassed when Falco silently loosed the mare's saddle cinch. I had forgotten to do that, but he said nothing as he corrected that mistake then carried his pack under the trees. He stripped off his boots and stockings then walked to the shore and quickly shed the rest of his clothes.

I stared in shock as Falco stepped into the water, not because he was naked, I had seen male nudity before, but because of the large, red-white seamed masses of scar tissue on his dark blue chest, back, and sides. This man, so quiet and gentle, was apparently no stranger to violence. I could see by the grim smile of apology he offered that my reaction was noted. He waited until he was in neck-deep water, hiding his scars, before speaking.

"Perhaps I should have warned you, Rachelle. Do you find it too offensive?"

In answer I did something I have never done. I lifted my leg from the sandy bottom to the surface and displayed the horrible, deep-seamed scars distorting the musculature. "I could ask you the same thing, Rider."

Falco inclined his chin with understanding. "Shall we forget I asked?" He dipped his hand into the water and rubbed it across his eyes. "I see you've been doing more riding than I imagined. Those boots show respectable wear." He nodded to the bank, changing subjects so deftly I fought the urge to applaud his cleverness.

"And loving it," I replied, smiling. "I think I could live here forever as long as I had a ser-monte to ride the grass and slopes."

"Why don't you?" he asked, voice serious.

"Why don't I what, Falco? Live here—with you?"

"I wasn't suggesting that," Falco said too quickly. He seemed embarrassed and I was fascinated to see the unexpectedly charming expression on his handsome face. I had never seen that side of him and it made him look like a little boy. He cleared his throat and tried to explain.

"There's plenty of land available in the valley. There's even a few small farms up river on the rim where you and Serena could have all the room you need to run a small herd of ser-monte if you wish. The valley is a nice place to live..."

"What if I don't want a farm or ranch? What if I want to teach music in Yellow Jahsa?"

"You could do that. You could find a house in town. I know the school would love to have you on the staff."

"But what if I want them both, Falco?" I was enjoying myself. He squirmed so deliciously I suddenly lost all fear of what he had been before I was born. "What if I want a ranch and teaching? What then, Falco?"

"I suppose," he said after a moment of hesitation, "you could stay at my ranch." He quickly dipped his head below the surface. He rose sputtering, scrubbing dust from his handsome features.

I waited until the water was out of his eyes then said, fully aware of what I was saying, "Good. I will."

Falco frowned, his head tilted to one side. When he spoke he let me know he thought I had been needlessly cruel. "It would have been a lot simpler if you'd just asked instead of making me go through all that."

"But it wouldn't have been as much fun," I teased, laughing.

"Really?" he reached for me.

I back-stroked away and he plunged after me. When I saw his purpose was to capture me I giggled and strained against the water. The chase took us out of the inlet into the river then beyond until we reached the opposite shore. I found a submerged rock to sit upon and—with chin in hands, elbows on knees—I waited for Falco to finally catch up.

He was blowing hard when he found a similar perch and shook the water from his eyes. "Remind me not to race you in the water, girl. You swim like a goyus!"

"I have to be good at something, Falco." I found it easy to laugh when he was smiling.

Falco glanced at me, saw my amusement, and splashed water in my face. "You should be kind to old men," he admonished cheerfully.

I stopped laughing and reached out to touch the side of his face. I was startled by my boldness, but did not withdraw the caress. "You've been very patient with me, Falco. You've been kind even in the face of my ignorance and stupidity."

Falco's hand rose to touch mine. I saw something in his eyes that made the breath catch in my throat. He saw that he'd revealed a part of himself to me and, in his embarrassment, the next thing I knew my head was pushed underwater. I sputtered noisily when I sat up and pushed wet hair from my eyes.

"It's too pretty a day to be morbid," Falco chuckled. "You said you had lunch?"

"I did," I replied with narrowed eyes and an attempt at being angry. I found I couldn't maintain the facade in the face of his laughter. "I hope I brought enough, I wasn't expecting guests."

"I have something in my pack," Falco said. Amused, he took my arm between his fingers and squeezed pleadingly. "Can we take it a little easier on the way back?"

13.

The swim was pleasant and it increased the appetite. Falco left the water first and offered his hand to me and I, without feeling shame because of my leg for the first time in my life, let him assist me ashore. I looked down at my leg.

"When I get depressed about this," I said, "I think of Joysan. At least I have two legs. She has to strap one on every day."

"My dear little Rachelle," Falco's voice was filled with admiration, "you have discovered one of the many truths in life: there is always someone who is better or worse off than yourself." We started walking toward the trees. "Wait a moment," Falco said, trotting toward his ser-monte. "I've got a blanket on my saddle. Better than sitting on the bare grass..."

Falco spread the blanket as I unpacked the lunch. When the corners were straightened to his satisfaction, I sat cross-legged on the cover without getting dressed. I was still wet from the swim and the breeze felt wonderful on my skin. Falco 'dressed' for the occasion in similar fashion and joined me after building a small fire to heat a tin of ger-monte stew he produced from his pack.

"You better like utsma," I warned as I prepared a plate for him, using the cover of my travel dish for his portion. "I made it myself for last night's dinner."

"Oh?" Falco wisely reserved further comment until he sampled the succulent meat. "It is very good, Rachelle."

My hair kept getting in the way while I worked and I was startled when Falco reached out and deftly twisted it into a loose bun.

"You did that so easily," I said, pouring kla for him out of the thermos. "How did you do that?"

"It's a left over talent. I sometimes had to teach women how to make themselves most beautiful."

"Well?" I asked, raising my chin, giving him a chance to look. "Did it work?"

Falco put his plate to the blanket and leaned back, eyes appraising me. He crossed his arms chest high and stared at me with an intent frown. He took so long in answering that I became impatient.

"Falco, it shouldn't take that long!"

"You misunderstand my hesitancy, Rachelle. It is often difficult to determine if the change has enhanced the already beautiful woman." He chuckled at my disbelieving expression and a moment later I echoed his relaxed laughter.

Falco and I both saved the seeds from the yellow-fruit we shared, Jara wanted to cultivate every seed, hoping to increase the number of orchards in the valley. By the time we consumed everything I had brought from the ranch, the tin of stew was warmed. It was canned and sold locally and tasted delicious regardless of the primitive method by which it was heated.

As we ate, Falco talked and I listened. He would occasionally slip a joke into the conversation and wait to see my reaction. It embarrassed me, of course, when I missed them. When he had done it once too often, I leaned over and yanked on his beard just hard enough to make him yelp.

"Stop that!" I warned.

"Yes, milady," Falco obediently grinned, gathering the utensils.

"You just sit there," I said, taking them from him. "I'll rinse them."

I took the plates, cups, knives and thermos to the water's edge. Falco may have watched me for a time but I didn't know for sure. When I returned to the blanket, he was lying flat with his eyes closed. I called softly but he was asleep.

I looked at the scars on his body, straight-edged and puckered from knives, flowered from bullet holes, ragged from larger objects, perhaps bomb fragments. I felt myself cringing as I considered the violence which had left such visible marks upon his otherwise compact, well-formed body. I looked at his hands, relaxed now, slightly curled. Those hands had killed during the war and after—how many? I sat down by the tree, looking down at him. I refused to believe the mind that occupied that body was as violent as the evidence portrayed. That was a man of a different and more troubled time when war raged across half the world and madness reigned. The man I knew was not of that time.

I thought of waking Falco but he was so tired, so worn, that I saw little harm in letting him rest for a short time. I found a last winter torpal seed pod and brushed my drying, swim-tangled hair. The prickly old torpal pod was as effective as any hair brush and by the time my hair was completely dry I was drowsy from the afternoon heat. I leaned back against the massive torpal, only intending to shut my eyes for a moment.

"Rachelle—wake up, little one."

I didn't want to. I was warm, I was sleeping so well. The movement which awakened me was repeated. I slowly opened my eyes and discovered my head was pillowed on Falco's chest, his left arm about my shoulders. I also learned why I felt warm: I was pressed against his side, my arm across his scarred chest. My back was cool, however, and that was because the sun was near the horizon. I flushed with embarrassment as I sat up.

"I meant to rest my eyes, Falco, not sleep."

"Don't apologize," he said, patting my shoulder. He rose with a fluid motion and gathered my clothes.

We quickly dressed and Falco prepared the ser-monte for the trail while I packed up the luncheon kit and blanket. He led the way back to the ranch house at a speed I would not have dared, being unfamiliar with the route across the valley flats. I was not afraid, however. My beast was sure-footed and I knew Falco would not place me in danger. When I asked the urgency, he told me the men might think me lost if I was out after sundown. They would come looking for me. Indeed, Breder and two other men were in the process of saddling mounts when we raced into the main yard. They were relieved to see me and happy to have Falco home.

"Unless something comes up," Falco assured Breder who took the reins to our blowing mounts, "I should be home for the next six to seven Tendays."

"That's good news, Master Falco. Maybe we can—"

Falco stopped the foreman with a pleading gesture of spread hands. "We can talk after dinner, Breder. Right now all I'm interested in is a hot bath and clean clothes."

Jara had held dinner a half hour thinking I might be coming in at any moment, but when the sun set, she started to serving those who weren't included on the aborted search for me. Falco and I both begged the diners to not wait any longer, that we would join them as soon as we had freshened up.

Falco went to his room, I to mine. I went straight to the shower and luxuriated in the hot water and thick lather which removed the dust and sweat from the hard ride. As much as I disliked appearing with wet hair, I shampooed my thick tresses until they squeaked between my fingers. I vigorously applied the towel then wrapped the absorbent cloth around my hair while I looked in the closet for something to wear. My eyes touched the sleeve of my performance dress, the prettiest thing I had brought with me from Gizen. Though it was beginning to show signs of wear after the long tour, it was just the dress I wanted to wear for Falco.

For him?

I looked at myself in the mirror above the lavatory. As long as I didn't walk I looked as pretty as most and better than some. I smiled when I remembered Falco's words at the river. I brushed my hair and, though it was still damp, decided that I was not as unattractive as I usually thought myself to be. Perhaps I was seeing myself through another's eyes or perhaps I saw myself differently because of the sensual revelation my first night in Falco's house.

I saw a slim woman, almost girlish in appearance. Her hair was dark brown with reddish highlights under the lamp. Her breasts were small, still slightly enlarged from nursing; her waist tiny in comparison. The long fold of the dress concealed the rest. The nose was tilted slightly off-center and the smile made by full lips was made even more inviting by the contrast of even, white teeth against the violet sheen of clear skin. The eyes were unlike any in my family; they were bright green, almost emerald in hue, beneath thick brows that almost joined over the nose that crinkled with the smile.

"Yes," I told the reflection, "she is a pretty girl—and very hungry!"

I was pleased to see that no special consideration was made for me. Dinner was well underway when I took one of the two adjoining vacant seats left at the table. Breder passed a platter of fried zuri which I heaped on my plate before passing it on. Warm rolls were in front of me as well as thick, delicious barabe butter. Jara's aromatic barabe roast, with a thin, spicy gravy, had my mouth watering before the first bite.

I thought I took a long time getting ready for dinner, but Falco was even later than I. By the time he appeared, dressed in civilian clothes, the abundance of Jara's table was seriously depleted. Falco took the vacant chair next to mine and began serving himself. I buttered a roll for him since they were closer to me. He smiled his thanks when I put it on his plate. While he ate Breder and several of the other ser-monte riders took the opportunity to fill Falco in on ranch events and what they considered pressing matters requiring his attention. It was getting close to roundup and Falco's instructions were needed. Falco answered all without letting the conversation deter his attempt to eat everything left on the table—an impossibility.

After dinner Falco declined the habitual zuri wine and poured himself a glass of potent mua. He offered the same to all, a sign of his generous nature, but there were few who accepted the fiery beverage. I was one who did, though I would be careful drinking it. Mua, my father is fond of saying, is "jet fuel disguised as liquor".

As I had every night since my arrival at the ranch I played gitar after dinner. Falco listened instead of joining in and I didn't mind at all. He was so tired, so hemmed by responsibility that I almost saw him as he thought of himself: a worn out old man. I knew in my heart that it was not so. Falco was only over-worked, an unfortunate by-product of his zealous sense of duty. If he would only let someone share the responsibilities he would have more time to pursue his interests without facing constant fatigue.

As the evening wore on the mua seemed to have the opposite effect on Falco than on other people. He became more alert, more out-going, joining in the singing and calling requests as loudly as any. I responded to them all with a glad heart until my fingers were complaining from the effort. A few of the hands were yawning, though none had left for their beds, when I realized I'd played much later than usual. I pleaded fatigue and put my gitar aside.

"Just one more, Rachelle," Falco asked from his chair near mine. "Play the Hearthing Song."

I picked up the gitar and checked the tuning. The listeners were silent as I began the oldest of all songs. The Hearthing Song was known from distant Amauria to far Burs on the other side of the world. The Hearthing Song was one of the Ten Common Songs that are a part of the cultural heritage of every people on Uhr. Where the songs originated, who wrote them, how old they actually were, is unknown, but they were so much a part of our cultural history. The Hearthing Song, the song of families and the land, was the most popular of the Common Songs. I had played it hundreds of times for the children of my classes in Gizen and so often on tour that it was second nature. Though I was tired, I played because Falco had asked. I could not deny Falco's request or the open friendly faces surrounding us.

Only the youngest children weren't present, all being in bed at this time. How I wished my daughter could have heard those voices joined together. It was not musical perfection—Breder was flat and Jara's falsetto was shattering—but it was the song as it should be. I never heard such warmth, such meaning in all the times I had performed the piece. I was crying so hard that I couldn't sing, but I played until the very last verse.

I was not the only one moved by the experience. Breder kissed Jara then patted my hand as he took his Chosen inside the house. The One-eyed man had moisture brightening that eye as he gently bid me good night. One of the younger boys ran to me and gave me a kiss before running down the dark path to the barracks. One by one they each made some gesture of thanks until Falco and I were alone on the veranda.

My glass of mua was empty. Falco's had been refilled several times and was sitting neglected beside his chair. I leaned down and lifted it to my lips and sipped the fiery liquid. I really didn't need any more warmth inside, the song had given me that, but I welcomed the easing of my emotion constricted throat so I could breathe again.

"Forgive me, Falco," I said, embarrassed at my loss of control. "I don't know what came over me."

"You must teach me that little thing you did in the fifth measure, Rachelle. That was a beautiful counter-point to the melody."

"Some other time? I don't think I could bear to play any more tonight."

Falco took my gitar and carried it inside. He came back with the decanter of mua and I belatedly realized I still clutched his glass. When I started to give it to him he shook his head. "I can use yours," he explained, filling the glass.

We sat in silence, watching the moons rise on their first nightly dance. I saw a dozen shapes moving like ghosts across the silver-green river flats. Ser-monte were slowly gathering in sleep knots in their grass nests. I heard a night bird singing in one of the trees surrounding the house. I allowed myself to relax and enjoy the country silence so different from the background noise of the city, or the suburban Heights. I would have been happier if I didn't have the nagging cramp in my left leg. It finally became annoying enough to massage it away.

"Has that been troubling you, Rachelle?" Falco asked. "Would you like for me to rub it for you?"

"This is the first time it's bothered me in weeks. I think it was the swimming. I haven't been swimming in a long time. I think I'll just put some of that oil on it and go to bed."

"As you wish."

I looked at Falco staring at his mua, his face void of expression. I knew he was tired, but I wanted to talk to him. "Is it too late?" I asked.

Falco raised his eyes with a questioning look. "Too late for what, Rachelle?"

I rolled my eyes with embarrassment. "I was thinking and speaking without communicating the whole thought. Can we talk?"

"Oh, I see what you mean, no, it's not too late at night to talk. Right?"

I smiled and then found it hard to begin. Falco was patient and that, more than anything, gave me the courage to speak. "I have been half-afraid of life, Falco. You see I've made such a mess of it. When I thought I loved Tasien I made a foolish mistake, one that caused pain for all I love. I found out I don't love him, perhaps I never loved him—but I'm not truly sorry since I have my daughter and she means the world to me. But—" I could not face him and say the rest. I turned away, my eyes downcast to the neatly kept gernica beds beside the porch. "—I have since discovered I need more, Falco, much more..."

"What do you need, Rachelle?" His voice was a whisper in the darkness.

What did I need? "I don't know for sure, only that I don't have it and I want it desperately. It wasn't very good for me the first time..."

"Your only time?"

I nodded though I couldn't answer with words. Falco patted my hand and sighed. His voice was still soft, his words kind.

"You remember a part of Serena's making, but it's filled you with shame and in that you've lost all the happiness that should be yours from her making." His voice became thoughtful as he stared into space. "The world has changed greatly since my day, Rachelle. Women are no longer shunned because they have relations outside the Rites. The unhappiness you feel is self-recrimination, and a fear that you have lost the love of your family. I can assure you that has not happened."

"It's not just that, though it is a part," I admitted. "Yet—this is not easy for me, Falco."

"Then say it quickly and be done with the anxiety."

"Even if I weren't the daughter of the King and thereby doubly responsible for my behavior, I have this twisted body which can delight no man!" I had done as he said, blurting out the words without really saying what was truly in my heart. But Falco knew what I meant in part and he leaned forward with a disappointed sigh.

"So—an ugly man and an ugly woman? Is that what you wish?"

"I didn't mean that!" I was horrified he drew that conclusion. My hands cupped the side of his face, making him look at me. I pleaded for his understanding. "You are not ugly! You are a gentle, kind man." I knelt before his chair to bring my words, my heart, closer to him. "You are—"

He shook his head, minutely, and said with great effort, "I am in love with you and I dare not be."

His blunt words stopped my tongue. I checked them in my memory and they still sounded the same. I leaned forward and kissed him. For a moment he did not respond, but when he did, his arms drew me upwards until I was in his lap, pressed close to his strength. I pressed a hand to my breast to catch my breath. His hand caressed my hair, stroked my cheek as I looked down into his sad eyes.

"Rachelle, I am three times your age. You should consider what you are asking and what you are really searching for. If you think you're considering to Petition me, don't, I will refuse."

"I wasn't," I said, laying bare my innermost thoughts. "I'm not ready for that kind of commitment. I treasure my independence. I like having charge of my own life, but I want you. I want you..." I put my arms around his neck.

Falco the Holessa gently disengaged. "We better stop this, Rachelle, before it's too late. Nothing but pain and unhappiness for both of us can come of it."

I violently shook my head, denying his practical observation. I buried my face against the curve of his throat. "You're wrong, Falco. There will be more pain if we ignore our feelings. I've always been too reluctant, too afraid, or too cautious. This time I want to run the risk. I want to be alive. I want you. Am I asking too much?" A terrible thought crossed my mind when he remained silent. I sat up, a trembling fear in my voice. "Would you find it too horrible to be with a cripple?"

Falco's eyes narrowed and his voice was sharp. "Rachelle, the only thing crippled about you is your vision of yourself. I never want to hear you speak that way again!"

I wilted under his harsh command, but he wasn't through with me. He continued, though his voice was more subdued. "You haven't thought this out clearly, Rachelle. It cannot work. Forgetting ages which, as you've told me doesn't make any real difference, there is your station and mine. I am the Government Rider. I have obligations to your father, your family. What you are suggesting could ruin us both."

For the first time he had voiced an argument I could refute. I smiled, kissing him, holding his bearded face between my hands. "The daughter of the king should have some special privileges." He tried to protest. I covered his lips with my fingers. "Would it be any different to the gossip-mongers if I stayed as a guest in a separate room, or sharing one with you? I've loved three men in my love, Falco. One is my father. The other was Tasien. And now, you. Each one of those loves has a different quality, but the one I feel for you is the one I want the most."

"I'm afraid for you, Rachelle. Think how you felt when people assumed your relationship with Tasien. There will be no doubt about me—I will not hide or love you in secret."

"I would not want you to, Falco. I am weary of being scared and uncertain; tired of denying what I am, what I want to be. Let them think what they will, they already have. How can I be injured any more? This is my choice, Falco."

"And me, Rachelle?" Falco's hands at my waist shifted my weight to a more comfortable position, but he did not push me away. "Do I have a choice? Why me? Why not some younger man? I know the teacher at Yellow Jahsa adores you. He would be a better choice than a worn out old kejhalen like me. What I don't understand is how can there be that much between us? There are too many years, teela."

"I don't know why it is, Falco, only that I know you feel it, too. As for the years, that's unacceptable as an excuse. You're still a young man."

"And you are too old for your years," Falco sighed, weakening.

He slipped his arm under my legs and tightened his grip about my waist. He rose from the chair and carried me into the house as if I weighed nothing. He gently kicked his bedroom door shut and paused beside the large bed. "This is your last chance to stop this, Rachelle," he said, his lips close to mine.

I kissed him in reply, long and hard. When he drew back there was a faint smile on his face, dimly seen in the filtered celestial light coming through the window. "I must be crazy," he said, gently placing me on the bed. "You're beginning to make sense. I love you, Rachelle."

"I love you, Falco!" I cried softly and welcomed him into my arms.

14.

I was still dreamy-eyed when Serena crawled into bed with us. Soft sunlight filtered through the windows and I saw Tyron standing at the bedside, tugging at my daughter, trying to get her to go outside and play before breakfast. Serena didn't want to go, she wanted to kiss her mother and hug Falco and proceeded to walk across my stomach to get to him. Jara heard the children squabbling and came to investigate. She was mortified that the children had disturbed us, but she was more disappointed to discover that Tyron had failed to keep watch on Serena as instructed.

"I'm sorry, Rachelle," Jara said, standing inside the door shaking her head. "Tyron was supposed to keep her in their room until I had breakfast ready for them..."

"Leave them be, Jara," I said. I straightened the bed clothes over Falco and I as much as possible since we were both naked. "We'll run them off in a minute. What's for breakfast?"

"I haven't decided," the big woman grinned, shrugging her shoulders. She didn't seem surprised to find me in her employer's bed, and her curiosity was even less. "Whatever it is it'll be good—and ready in thirty minutes." She shut the door behind her.

Tyron slowly realized Jara wasn't angry and that Serena wasn't coming with him so he climbed up and pushed her aside so he could hug Falco. Serena refused to let go of the Rider, holding tight with both arms around his neck. Falco gladly accepted both hugs then suddenly hoisted Tyron overhead, holding him suspended at the end of his arms. Tyron squealed with delight, kicking his legs and laughing. Falco looked to me and grinned. He winked and said "I got one, you get one." He dropped Tyron in the middle of my stomach.

"What do we do with them?" I asked, putting my arms about the boy and hugging him. Tyron tried the surprise kiss trick to get away but I wasn't fooled.

Falco chuckled as he mischievously took Serena's pudgy arms in his hands and sat her upright on his chest. "We do this!" he said, raising Serena's blouse. He tickled her bare belly with his beard.

Serena's high-pitched laughter filled the room as she tried to push his face away; her tiny hands bunched in his thick black hair. "Make him stop, rovenja!" Serena cried.

Tyron, the gallant young man, came to her rescue, but he was captured by Falco and given the same treatment. Soon both of the children were begging for help and I laughingly tried to do my best and keep the bedclothes in order at the same time. It was difficult to do. Falco wasn't handicapped by such considerations. For all his small wiry build, Falco was strong. He soon had all three of us pinned down. By the time he let us go, we were so sore from laughing that no one could move for several moments.

Tyron and Serena recovered first. My daughter sat between us, hugging me and running her fingers over his scars. I suddenly realized what she was doing and started to admonish her when Falco silently shook his head. After a few moments Serena's childish curiosity found something else to occupy her: Tyron heading for the door, tired of the sport.

"Me too!" Serena called after the boy. She walked across Falco's stomach and jumped from the bed. She wobbled slightly as she hurried after Tyron.

"Shut the door!" Falco bellowed. Serena immediately stopped in her tracks. She looked to the broad smile on Falco's face with wide eyes then to the door latch. She had to stand on tiptoe to pull the door closed. I heard her bright chatter in the hall as she called for Tyron.

I started to get out of bed but Falco's arm came about my waist and pulled me against his rough scars. "Where are you going?" he demanded.

"Jara is probably setting the table. I'm hungry."

"So am I," Falco said, his lips against my throat, his hands gently, insistently, exploring my body.

I understood that hunger and eagerly joined with him until the pang was assuaged. He was gentle and rough, he was demanding and giving; he was everything I had yearned for in a man and more. He had not laughed at my innocence in the night, my trembling fear, and I loved him all the more for that. He was pleased with what I gave in return and I gave freely from my heart-hunger. He filled the emptiness which ached, filled it until it burst over me like a gossamer wave, warm and enfolding. When my eyes could again focus, I saw his eyes on me, memorizing my face. I felt the pressure of his lips and tasted the salt on his skin. His heart beat strongly, almost in tempo with my own racing pulse. I trembled uncontrollably when his hand caressed my side, teasingly rising to cover my breast. I wondered at his ability to elicit such responses from my body, then realized I had no desire to know how he did it, only that he continue to do it for as long as he wished—as we wished.

"I hate him, you know."

"Who?" Falco asked, his voice husky, his arms strong around me.

"Tasien. It wasn't like this at all. Are you a magician?"

Falco chuckled, kissing me lightly then rolling to one side to sit up on the bed. "It's not magic, Rachelle. Every human being has the capacity to give and receive."

"Really?" I considered his words and realized it was true. It also made me aware of my own short-comings. "I'm sorry I can't give as much in return for what you give me." I felt that I was barely participating because I knew so little.

Falco's eyes twinkled. "If you gave any more, Rachelle, you'd kill me. As far as Tasien is concerned, it was a mistake for both of you. Don't think about it any more. There's no future in past regrets. Take life as it comes. Take what life gives you and never be sorry for the unhappiness you receive along the way, for it only makes the happiness that much sweeter. Do you understand?"

"I understand that I love you and—"

"And what?" he asked when I clamped my lips together.

I lowered my eyes, flushed from our joining, his tender concern. I had said many things to him in the night, voicing my fears, my uncertainties, but I had not told him all. Should I bare myself to this man who excited me in a way that left me breathless and giddy? When I was around him I couldn't think straight and it was distracting.

"You don't have to share it if you don't want to, Rachelle. I understand."

"You don't even know what I'm holding back, Falco. It could be something terrible and you act as if you don't care."

"Is it terrible?" He asked, smiling faintly, getting a rise out of me.

I realized how adroitly I was out-maneuvered. I would have to speak or say nothing and of the two, being silent was the worst choice. "I said I love you. I mean that. What else I meant to say was that I discovered what it means to be a woman and I love that, too. Especially when you—" I dropped my voice to a whisper and told him which of his sweet caresses shattered my senses. "But I suppose you already know that." His silent grin was very revealing. I found myself blushing happily. "But I don't know anything about pleasing you," I said. "I feel like I'm taking and not giving in return."

"Would you like to know what pleases me most?" Falco asked. He lay back, propped on one elbow, leaning over me. When I nodded, he bent lower and whispered in my ear.

"Is that what you like?" I asked.

"I enjoy it all, Rachelle, but that is special in a way."

I pushed my hands against his chest, forcing Falco to his back. He smiled at me, "What are you doing, teela?"

I giggled impishly, kicking the tangled bedsheet from our legs. "I'm going to find out just how special that is for you."

"We'll miss breakfast," Falco weakly protested, then shut up as I proceeded to discover the truth of his confession.

Armed with that small knowledge, I applied myself to pleasing him as he had pleased me during the night and just moments earlier. I found an enjoyment in taking the lead, of giving, and learning in the end, that the pleasure received was as intense; this time, however, I knew I had pleased him.

I lay on Falco's chest, violently trembling from the mind-numbing release, and felt a similar quivering response in his body. I kissed his face, drawing my lips across his throat below his soft beard. I felt complete and, in spite of the physical exertions, I was strangely invigorated. I told him what I was feeling, adding, "If I feel this way now, would it be stronger if we did it again?"

Falco suddenly laughed, his strong hands coming together at my waist. He effortlessly tossed me onto the rumpled bed sheets. "You might find repeated sex a source of physical renewal, Rachelle but I certainly won't. Listen—" he jerked his thumb to the door. I heard the voices from the dining room echoing in the hall. "I'm hungry, little one, even if you aren't. So you will excuse me—"

"Wait for me!" I giggled as he headed to the bathroom.

We showered quickly since Falco expressed concern over the voracious appetites seated at the dining table. Laughingly I chided him, though I fully sympathized; my stomach emitted a number of rude noises as I dressed. I had expected to put on what I'd worn the night before but Jara must have brought the trousers and blouse in while Falco and I were in the shower. After today I wouldn't have that problem, I'd already measured the extent of Falco's closet.

"Ready?" he asked as I used his comb on my hair. His hand hovered over the door latch.

"I will be, after you kiss me." He did that promptly. I was thoroughly kissed into breathlessness.

Falco had no reason to worry about getting a filling breakfast. There was, as usual, more than enough food on the table. Jara had prepared pan-fried ger-monte seasoned with tozam, batter-dipped toast, cunyio preserves and soft boiled ger-monte eggs with lots of thick barabe butter and kla to wash it down with.

I ate like I had not seen food in days and for the first few minutes at the table my attention was fully on my plate. After the edge of hunger was blunted I suddenly became conscious of the voices around me and wondered what the men thought, for they had seen me come out of Falco's room. I kept my eyes lowered and listened and try as I might, I could detect no disapproval in their tone, no hidden meanings in their light-hearted conversation. Where such things less important in the rural areas? Could it be true that nothing would be said regarding the lack of morals exhibited by the daughter of the king? Or was it that fact which kept them from frowning on my behavior? I decided that Falco was right. I couldn't worry about what they thought or I would become paralyzed with anxiety. I just accepted them as they apparently accepted me.

The children had started their meal before the adults and were already impatiently waiting for Jara to release them from their little table. Tyron loudly stated he wanted to go see the hatchlings. Of course Quida and Serena wanted to go as well, which was not allowed since the hatchlings could easily nip a child. Tyron's request was sternly denied until one of the men said he was finished and would keep an eye on the children. Tyron asked Breder again if he could go down to the barn and his father acquiesced, "As long as you pay attention and don't get into trouble. Keep an eye on your sister and Serena."

The other range hands left as they concluded their meals until only Falco, Jara and I were left in the house. The room seemed oddly empty without the loud voices and laughter, yet their spirit remained there, a comfortable feeling.

Falco held his hand over the rim of his cup when Jara tried to pour more kla for him. "I've had enough, Jara." He patted his stomach with appreciation. "Excellent as usual. I've got work that's been neglected too long so I'll be in my office for the next few hours." He rose and pushed his chair under table. Almost as an afterthought he added, "Rachelle will be staying on. If you will, help move her things into my room." Falco looked down for my approval. I smiled, nodding my head.

He caressed my hair with a tender stroke and then faced Jara. "Rachelle might want Serena to sleep in our room, so look and see if there's an infant bed around here. And, well—" he paused, uncertain of how to proceed "—I'm sure you both can work out whatever it is that women have to work out." He said nothing further and climbed the stairs in an unhurried manner.

Jara waited until he'd turned at the landing before sitting down next to me. There was a pleased smile creasing her dark, round face. "I'm so glad you decided to stay. We've been needing a woman around here."

The way she spoke indicated that she was not the woman Falco needed at the ranch. I wanted to correct any misconceptions before they became rooted. "I'm not Petitioning Falco, Jara," I told her. It wouldn't be fair to her or the others if they had that hope built up. I hadn't changed my mind in that regard and Falco wouldn't stand for it. Last night he had again told me he would refuse a Petition if I were so foolish as to offer one. Jara took the information in stride without batting an eye.

"Just the same we're glad you're here. Do you have any commands for me?"

I chuckled. Though I wasn't to be the legal mistress of the house through the Rites of Choosing, Jara was prepared to invest me with the same powers. Seeing the eagerness on her face I knew it would be fruitless to argue that point with her so it was up to me. "There won't be any changes, Jara. I want everything to stay as it is. Please. Now let's get the dishes done."

Jara started to refuse until I gave her such a glare that she held her tongue. By the time we had the kitchen in order Jara and I were back to normal. She talked my ears off and I listened gladly as we took turns sweeping the gray-brick flooring. I helped Jara prepare the mash for the hatchlings.

"I'll be out to help you in a minute," I told Jara at the kitchen door. "I'm going upstairs to see Falco."

When I reached the door to Falco's study I quietly looked in to make sure I wouldn't be disturbing him. His books were opened on the desk and his pen was lying in the crease, but he wasn't working the figures. He sat with left elbow on the edge of the desk, rubbing his forehead. His eyes were narrowed and it looked like he was in pain. His right hand was clenched into a tight fist on the books and from the way his shoulders were hunched together it seemed as if he were fighting against something.

"It's me, isn't it?" I said, coming to the only conclusion that made sense. "I've made life impossible for you and you're already regretting it."

The man jumped in his seat, caught unawares. He looked to me and there was pain in his eyes. I felt my heart stop beating, the blood drain from my face. I felt so ashamed to have forced myself upon this oddly gentle man. I turned to leave, hoping I could hold back the tears.

"Rachelle, it's not what you think. Come here." His voice became louder when I ignored him. "I said come here!"

I stiffened under the words which commanded obedience. For an instant I wondered if all my fears concerning him were true, that he could make me into something I wasn't, but just as quickly I realized I could walk out if I wanted to. I stopped because I didn't want to leave. I turned around and entered the study.

"Close the door, Rachelle," he asked with that soft voice I had come to love. I did as he asked and stood with hands clasped before me, eyes down to the polished wood floor. He remained seated, speaking slowly to avoid misunderstanding.

"What we have is too new for both of us, Rachelle. We don't really know each other, do we? You were just thinking that I regret telling you I loved you, that I shouldn't have asked you to stay. That's not true. I am feeling regrets at the moment, but they have nothing to do with you. I had to do something as the Rider and I'm not proud of what happened. That's the reason I have regrets."

His words were simple and sincere. I walked closer, standing before his desk, looking down into his eyes. "What happened? You never said."

"I wouldn't have said anything at all except you got the wrong impression from the way I was acting."

"You're right, I was sure you didn't want me around. I'm sorry."

"I know how easy it would be for you to feel that, darling. But I assure you I have no regrets in that regard. The only regrets I had were last night before I brought you in the house, the greatest of which was the one that I would feel if I hadn't told you I loved you. I don't usually talk about Rider business because it is Crown matters and it is a part of my life which has nothing to do with the operation of this ranch. But I will tell you so you will understand that there are times my duties might interfere with us in an indirect fashion.

"The poacher was a discharged veteran I've known for years. At the end of the war he took a valley farm under the King's Land Act. He brought his family here, filled with hopes of making a new home for them. His youngest child died from exposure during the first winter because the government power plant failed to come into operation as promised. Three years later his two older sons were murdered by bandits. One day he came home and found his Chosen raped and murdered. He was left with nothing and in every case he came to me for help and I failed him. When I finally apprehended the man who'd done the crimes, it proved to be the man he'd claimed was responsible. He never forgave me for not capturing the man sooner because he'd known the man's identity after his sons were murdered. In effect he believed that I was equally guilty of his Chosen's death."

"But you weren't. I know you. You would have had that man behind bars—"

"If I could have proved it I would have. But I couldn't prove it then," Falco's voice was hollow, filled with old memories. "At any rate this man, the poacher, eventually lost his land when he failed to prove it according to the land agreement. I was forced to evict him. Ever since then he's lived in the forests or the high plateau, bothering no one, wanting nothing to do with anyone. I could overlook his poaching for food, and did for years, until he finally decided it was time to end it. He flagrantly butchered game, fouled water holes, set fire to land—I had to go after him."

Falco's eyes unfocused. He was back in the forest and he was trembling. "What happened out there, Falco?" I asked, suddenly concerned.

"He died," Falco answered in a voice as cold as winter. "It was an accident. I didn't personally kill him, but that's what he felt when I tried to lift the tree he'd rigged to trap me. He was killed in his own trap..."

I came around the desk and pulled his head to my breast, stroking his hair. "You didn't kill him, Falco. You were only doing your duty."

He put his arms about me and pressed his face close. "I know that, teela. But I can have my regrets for being unable to help the man when he needed it most. Do you understand now?"

I turned his face up and kissed him. "Yes. And I'm sorry the man died."

Falco heaved a great long-drawn sigh and shook himself free of his mood. "I just had to sort my thoughts about him, Rachelle. I have more to do, but the worst of it's over." With deliberate determination he turned to other topics. "Everything straight between you and Jara?"

"What was there to straighten out?" I asked, forcing a smile for his benefit. "Nothing's changed as far as I'm concerned, just the sleeping arrangements."

Falco pursed his lips thoughtfully, nodding. "Good." He looked at the open account books and sighed, releasing me. "I have neglected this too long, Rachelle. There's bills that have to be paid."

"I understand that all too well, teela," I gently massaged his shoulders as he turned pages. "I'll leave you to it. Jara and the hatchlings are waiting for me."

Falco looked up from his books. "I'm going into town in a couple of hours," he said. "Do you want to come with me? If you're still serious about teaching in Yellow Jahsa you should see the principal as soon as possible."

"I'd like to, I haven't changed my mind about anything, except that I love you more than I did."

He leaned back in his chair, suddenly smiling. "I'm glad. I love you, too."

"I should call my family and tell them what I've decided to do." I thought of other people to notify and smiled ruefully. "I guess I better tell Lin Donalson he's lost a teacher."

"You know where the phone is," Falco quietly turned his attention back to his books and I left him to his work and his thoughts.

I thought about what Falco had told me on the way to the barn. The man who'd died had affected him deeply. I had already experienced Falco's compassion but I had not considered it would extend so widely. I remembered the books I'd read as a child about his exploits during the war and tried to imagine the man in the upstairs office as a part of that. For all the evidence that he had known violence in his past, it did not seem a facet of his character. And the more I thought of him in that fashion, the more unlikely it seemed that he could ever have been the cruel slave trainer I had envisioned in my youth. Vella told me he was a good man. I knew he could be good to me. I knew the people of the ranch honored his fairness. Now I knew his compassion flowed deep within him and he shared it with all people. I tried to imagine what his Rider duties were like, what he had to do in the king's name. I had thought of all Riders as policemen, a rural Enforcer such as those enforcers who kept the peace in Gizen, but Falco was more than that. He cared for the valley and the people who lived there, even those who walked outside the law.

This man was not a monster who once haunted my troubled little girl dreams, this was a flesh and blood man who could bleed in both body and heart. He was also a patient, considerate man. In the darkness, as he touched me for the first time, he told me when he first knew he wanted me. I was surprised to learn it was the morning he joined Rampart, Lin and I at breakfast in Keyes, the very first time he saw me. When I asked how he was so certain it happened at that very time he tapped his breast with a stiffened finger. "My heart was wounded with love."

"If you were so certain then, why didn't you speak?" I remembered trembling anxiously, waiting for his answer.

"You weren't ready."

"I'm ready now," I had said, opening my arms.

Jara looked at me curiously when I started feeding the hatchling I selected. "Are you all right, Rachelle?"

"I'm fine, Jara," I said, lost in chaotic thoughts of Falco. I mechanically fed the active hatchling and got nipped by the sharp teeth because I was a little slow, and no small wonder after last night and this morning!

Jara chuckled as she checked the extent of the wound. It was only a tiny scratch. "That's the best way for you to learn, Rachelle. Hatchlings don't know any better but we should."

"I'll remember that!" I promised as I sucked at the stinging streak on the back of my hand.

"We all say that," Jara laughed and again showed me the tiny scars cross-hatching the back of her hand. "I didn't get these spanking children or slicing zuri for the pan..."

I was about to agree with her when the hatchling I was feeding butted me for affection. At seven feet length and about ninety pounds, that boisterous gesture set me on my backside. "Heyoo!" I cried, putting my arms about the thin, supple neck and pulled the beast over into the dried grass so I could scratch its belly. "You'll have to learn better manners than that!"

I was still playing with the ser-monte when Falco came out to the barn. There was no trace of his dark mood on his face. He was relaxed and had apparently resolved his problems. He saw me sitting in the man-made nest of grass and shook his head. "I thought you were through wrestling with children."

"I am." I got to my feet, patting the long snout with genuine affection. "Are you ready to go into town?"

"I'm waiting on you."

I brushed the straw from my trousers and quickly ran fingers through my hair. "Do I need more?" I asked.

"I think you look lovely," Falco said.

"She does indeed," Jara agreed, "but you might want to wash some of that musk off your hands, Rachelle, or you'll smell like a rancher."

"I don't mind," I said, but I did dip my hands into the watering trough on the way to the jeep.

Falco took care of his business in Yellow Jahsa first, paying feed and supply bills, then devoted himself to me and an unannounced visit to the school. The head of School 1248 was excited about the prospect of having me teach full-time. When he called the school's music teacher into his office, the principal was so enthusiastic about my becoming part of the staff that the young man thought he'd lost his position. I carefully explained that I had no qualifications for percussion or wind instruments and fully expected to see the music department expanded to cover all aspects of music, which meant his job was secure and that we'd be working together. Once that was settled, the music teacher was all smiles. By the time we left, a new schedule had been determined. I would start full-time beginning the next Tenday.

I asked Falco to stop by the Yellow Jahsa Recorder Office. "I want to use the government telephone line instead of running up expenses on yours."

"There's no need to worry about that, Rachelle."

"I know, but this is my royal privilege and I intend to exercise it. Besides, I might be able to speak to dovenja if I call right now."

Falco didn't argue with me. He drove to the small office located near the center of town. It was a simple building, designed primarily to hold files and telephone communications. The Recorder, who essentially handled census and land records, was also trained as a peace officer. He was an older man who knew Falco quite well. I looked about the office while they talked. The windows were clean, the floors were swept, and a modest-sized photograph of King Simon and Queen Marsei adorned the wall. When Falco introduced me as Princess Rachelle ku Ward, the Recorder was pleased to make the phone connection and offered his private office for my use. I was rather disappointed that I didn't catch dovenja or my rovenjas. I spoke to John, who happened to be the only one home at the time.

"They're out to some luncheon," he said. "What's going on? Need credits?"

"You're horrible, John. Of course I need credits. Wire them to the Yellow Jahsa Recorder's Office."

"Will do. How much do you need?"

"I want to close my account at the Hall of Finance. Can you do that for me?"

"Probably not. You'll have to do that in writing. Would a couple of hundred do you for now? I'll wire that myself."

"It would help."

"So what else is new, Rachelle? Having fun in the valley?"

"I've been enjoying myself," I said, trying to keep from giggling. "I'm staying in Yellow Jahsa, John. I'm going to teach here. Will you tell Lin Donalson for me?"

"Sure, Rachelle, but why Yellow Jahsa? It's so far away."

"Can't be that far,"I chuckled. "I'm talking to you right now. Aren't you going to ask me if I'm out of my mind or something like that?"

"Don't be facetious, dear. It isn't becoming. You know what I meant. How do you think father and mother are going to feel about this?"

"You forgot 'mother'," I teased, then in a sober voice I said, "I hope they will be as happy for me as I feel. Tell Lin to keep an eye out for students from Yellow Jahsa for his advanced seminars."

"I said I would," John sighed.

"Good. You're such a dear and I don't deserve you. Oh, if you need to get in touch with me I'm living with Falco the Holessa."

"As in 'living' or 'staying'?"

"The way that makes me most happy, John," I said without clarification. "I love you. Give my love to our mothers and father."

There was a momentary pause as John digested the information. "As long as you're happy it's fine with me. Love you, too, little sister. You're sure about this?" It was a question of method, not an attempt to influence my decision.

"I've never been more sure of anything in my life, John."

"I'll tell them—and Lin, too. Should I say anything to Joysan and Rampart?"

"Of course! I thought that was understood."

"Well," he chuckled affectionately, "there's some things you tell your best friend directly. I guess this isn't one of those things."

"I'm calling on the Recorder's phone, John. I'm running up a government bill for this call. Don't be so difficult."

"You wouldn't know it was me if I wasn't. I'll wire you some credits. Love you, Rachelle. Good luck."

"I think I've found all the luck I'll ever need, John. Bye."

I thanked the Recorder and left the office feeling more settled. I had intended to terminate my apartment in Gizen by letter and now knew I'd have to handle my bank account the same way. At least the family knew where I was and what I had decided. I hoped this announcement would not adversely affect Falco's standing with father, but, knowing father, I really didn't think Falco's Rider appointment was in jeopardy.

"All set?" Falco asked as we stood on the curb outside the Recorder Office. The sun poured down a glorious golden cascade as busy traffic moved on the street. The summer heat almost rivaled the tingling warmth in my heart.

"They've been told," I said. "The only thing I need now is a few more clothes for Serena and I until I can have the rest sent down. What we've got is beginning to fall apart."

"What kind do you need? Riding, walking?"

"Both!" I giggled, linking my arm through Falco's. I leaned against his side. Falco put his arm about my waist and squeezed me.

"I know just the place," he said. Falco turned, taking me with him. We started up the street.

My common sense caught up with me in a rush of embarrassment. "I don't have many credits left, Falco, and those I do have are at the ranch."

Falco chuckled. "The Government Rider is empowered to assist citizens in distress with financial aid. I'll make out a voucher you can repay when you're able." He grinned then, letting me know it was his pleasure to be of service.

While I enjoyed his gallantry, I am independent and a part of me was not yet ready to give that up. "I have my own account at the Gizen Hall of Finance, Falco. John is wiring me credits today. I do not require your charity."

"Then you can repay the voucher when your draft arrives," he said, unoffended. "Shall we?"

"We better," I lowered my eyes, rueful for over-reacting. I hugged his arm to my breast and laughed. "We better, or I'll be running around naked in a few weeks!"

15.

I took over a portion of Falco's closet and vetoed the installation of a child's bed in our room. My daughter is the dearest thing to my heart, but it was time for us to have a little distance between ourselves. She had new friends and a wonderful room to share with them. Tyron and Quida already accepted Serena as part of their family and they adopted me just as readily. Just as Serena was less demanding of my breast for her well-being, she was now less demanding of my time as she played with Jara's children. Though she was never alone or lacked for children her age while we were on tour, there was never any given morning she could wake up and know there would be someone other than myself she could look to for affection. For the first few days of the new arrangement I almost felt guilty to be spending less time with my daughter, but Serena was happy with Tyron and Quida and never objected to being away from me. I came to accept this while exploring my new relationship with Falco, and was pleased that this was so.

In Gizen I had the use of a specially equipped car for my personal transportation, but there was nothing like that available at the ranch; instead there was something better. Falco gave me the mare which I had ridden since my arrival. It was a gift which I treasured, for the high-spirited animal could take me places no vehicle could go and it was affectionate as well.

I took to riding the mare to School 1248 when I started teaching. The school had an agricultural and ranching program designed to instruct students in the finer aspects of land and animal management. Most of the children were from farms and ranches and nearly all of them took the course. Consequently there was a fairly large stable and barn area where I could leave my mare during the day, knowing it would receive constant and efficient care under the supervision of the Agricultural Master.

I became a familiar figure riding the valley rim road twice a day, seven of ten days a week. The Auel Valley was an odd mixture of traditional and modern transportation, there being nearly as many ser-monte riders on the roads as there were trucks and sedans. I became a chatting acquaintance to a number of the ranchers whose land lay between Falco's vast holding and Yellow Jahsa. Many mornings I was greeted by range riders who would share a thermos of kla and gossip or would accompany me down the road to the boundary of his land. Some had children who attended my music classes and they were like other parents, curious as to their child's progress or pleased with something new they had learned. The only difference between rural and urban parents was the location of a parent/teacher conversation: Bright sunlight with a wind-swept vista of grass and trees, a shimmering ribbon of river winding through the valley below.

With the mare I had a freedom of movement which exceeded any I had ever known. There was no place in the area that was denied to me. I could take my mare into rough country that modern vehicles could not negotiate and I saw sights no road-bound motorist would ever see from a speeding vehicle. I might not have the speed, or the stamina of a fine-tuned engine but I had the clean feel of wind on my face, the sun on my back, the smell of growing things teasing my senses. I greeted each morning with anticipation, for I had learned to love riding, one more reason to love Falco for showing me what I had missed for so long.

I had been house-bound when I lived with Elispeth and Tasien because of the children. I had never had a desire to be in the public eye because my physical awkwardness was often rudely commented on by stare or word. But here, in the valley, none seemed to note my odd gait or the twisted appearance of my leg in loose trousers. There were many who'd been injured in accidents common to the hard life these people led; lost limbs, poorly-healed fractures, unfortunate scarring. Auel Valley folk never judged a person by their appearance, only by their deeds and the goodness of their hearts.

Each morning I left for school knowing Jara was always there for Serena. I also knew Falco felt something for my daughter and the true depth of that feeling became clear as the weeks passed. He obviously spent considerable time with her while I was teaching for she was never far from him in the evenings. He often told stories to the children after dinner which filled Serena and Quida's eager faces with wonder. Serena followed Falco where ever he went, if Tyron and Quida weren't doing something more interesting. She also liked when he put her to bed if Jara or I were busy. There were other times I found her curled up in his lap, sleeping while he sat on the veranda after the day's work was done. This relationship between them was genuine, unforced, and it filled my heart with happiness to see them together.

On non-school days I worked the ranch like everyone else, feeding hatchlings, gathering grass for the egg nests in the barn, checking utsma traps or bringing stock down from the high slopes. Sometimes I was so tired I thought I would never be able to move again, then Falco would come to bed and prove how wrong I was in thinking that.

He healed the pain in my heart, the pain I had endured for so long that it was as familiar, and as often ignored as the pain of my body. I found a comfort in his strong presence which left me feeling secure and I treasured it with every fiber of my being.

Vella, more than Marsei and Simon, understood the changes in my emotional state. When I talked to her on the phone there were informative silences between our words. I could almost see her smiling joyously for me and I think she knew how happy I was for her, how proud I was that she was the last legal slave in Zea. I now knew what it meant to be filled with the desire to obey, to please a man without question or reservation. Though a great distance lay between Yellow Jahsa and Gizen I felt closer to my family than any time since leaving to live with Elispeth. I saw past the once restrictive concern for my physical safety to the real feelings they felt. I was loved, though at one time I had doubted that. Never again would I feel that way and I now regretted allowing my birth defect and years of painful operations to come between our hearts. Now that my heart was open I discovered the love that was patiently waiting to be let into it. Father spoke to me a few weeks after my decision to live with Falco. He was distracted by international affairs, some dispute with President Brandywine of Hosella on distant Secoundous, but he seemed quite happy that I had "become friends" with Falco.

"Now," he had mischievously laughed, "I'm sure Falco will slow down. He's pushed too hard trying to get the last of the Recorder Offices established. Tell him to ease up, Spunky, better yet, make him ease up."

I told him how impossible that request was. "Falco is Falco, Daddy. You know that or you wouldn't have made him Rider for the Auel Valley. Was it really as bad as they say when he first started?"

"It was worse, but that was a long time ago, Rachelle. Falco the Holessa is the man who brought peace to the Auel Valley. That is something which we can only recognize and never repay."

"Do you mind if I try to make partial recompense to him?" I remember chuckling and was a little surprised by my father's sober answer.

"Even that may not be enough for all he's endured for my dream of a nation at peace."

I was thoughtful for days after talking to father. His words hovered near whenever I was with Falco. The Rider was just a man to me, a wonderfully gentle man with an expansive heart and generous nature. He was not some famous historical figure to be admired for his unselfish dedication and sacrifice, but he was also that and I watched closely to see if I could touch that part of Falco the Holessa.

Summer gradually eased into fall and the morning rides became brisk. Part of the credits which I transferred from Gizen were invested in new riding clothes sturdy enough to accept riding wear and the coming cold. I paid my way where I thought I should and otherwise pooled my teaching salary into the ranch account. Falco and I had argued that point for some time before he accepted my determination. He was a sweet man, easily capable of supporting Serena and I, but there was still a part of me which had to remain independent, responsible for my own expenses. I also needed an income from which I could buy little gifts for those I'd come to love.

Usually a Naming Day was a wonderful excuse to suspend operations two hours early. Everyone would bathe and dress in Festival clothes, arriving in mass for a buffet dinner in the great room of the ranch house. Two Naming Days were celebrated after Serena and I arrived, Breder's and Falco's. Jara helped Serena and I select a new pair of boots for Breder's Naming Day and she gave him a new shirt. The celebration was gay and noisy, lasting longer than normal because the next day was Rest Day. On Falco's Naming Day Serena gave the Rider a new writing pen I ordered from a silversmith in Gizen through Yurilla, who knew of such things. The ranch hands all brought something, most of it hand-made and practical for the ranch use, but my real Naming Day gift was given to Falco later that night, behind the closed door of our bedroom.

I had a Naming Day approaching and everyone looked forward to it. My Naming Day had never meant very much to me, being a reminder of the day I came into the world deformed, the daughter of a slave, but as I looked at the anticipation of the riders and their families, I realized it was an event which meant something to them, if only to brighten the hard work and the often overcast days common to the fall season.

As the weeks passed I was surprised to learn it was my brother John who called me more frequently than any other member of my family. I knew father was busy with the Hosella situation overseas; a topic often discussed on the radio when we listened in the evenings.

I enjoyed John's calls but I had expected my mothers to be more curious about my new life than John. I loved John dearly though I really didn't know him. He was a pilot and squadron commander in the naval air force and had had an exciting two year adventure in the Great Western Ocean where he met Papke and forged the alliance between her people and ours. He had been away from Gizen when I lived at the palace, finishing university at the time; and since I rarely went home when I lived on the Heights, we never had the opportunity to become close, yet I came to know John through his phone calls and learned to appreciate his sharp wit. He was a practical joker with long experience and that I knew that well enough, but that he would call just to say hello was perplexing at first, then it didn't matter. He often said things that confused me, or teased me with strange phrases that usually left me laughing. When he said he was going to wing up to the ranch and land in my backyard, I thought he was playing another joke on me.

I shouldn't have been surprised when roaring motors and hissing ser-monte woke Falco and I, but I was. It was just an hour before dawn as Falco stuffed legs into his trousers and started out of our bedroom.

"Wait!" I cried, struggling with my robe. "I'm going with you."

"We don't know who it is, Rachelle. You stay here."

"Help me or I'll do it myself."

The airplane motors had circled the house twice and the pitch had changed.

"All right," Falco put his arm about my waist and opened the door to the bedroom. He half-carried me to the front door of the house. "I wonder who the hell is buzzing us? Wait! He's coming in for a landing."

We weren't the only ones in the yard. All of the hands were there in various states of dress. One of them pointed to the open field west of the house. We saw an oddly configured aircraft silhouetted against the pale dawn sky. Suddenly the aircraft's landing lights snapped on, nearly blinding us.

"It's a damn Quinon Mustang!" Falco cried. He started running, pulling me along. "Haven't seen one of those since the end of the war."

The aircraft, showing full Quinon air force emblems, was a vintage war plane, a Quinon-built Twin Mustang, a derivative Earther form developed by my father and Ben Orkavis during the Great War nearly forty years earlier. The aircraft settled to the field and taxied toward the house until the ground slope was greater than the pilot dared negotiate. The engines stopped and the only sound was the hissing of frightened ser-monte and the gradually slowing swish of the metal propellers coming to a stop. By then we were all close to the twin-boom, twin-engine aircraft.

Falco slowed and my robe ceased to flap about my legs. I don't know which of us was more startled when my brother stepped out of the left cockpit and walked the center span of the wing to help Papke from the right.

John dropped to the ground, Papke behind him, and looked at the crowd with a grin. He saw me, walked over, then held his arms wide. "What's the matter, Rachelle? Don't I get a hug?"

"When you called yesterday and said you had a little surprise coming for me—oh, come here!" I wrapped my arms about his neck and let him twirl me about three times before I begged him to stop. "What are you doing here?"

"Had to try her out," he said, nodding to the aircraft. "What do you think? She's as authentic as the day she was built."

"Who? The aircraft or Papke?"

"Either one," John said without missing a beat. "Hello, Falco." John exchanged kejhalen embrace with the Rider and pounded him on the back. "The ranch sure looks different from the air. I almost missed it."

"Have you been flying all night?" Falco asked. "I'm glad to see you and Papke, but Rachelle's right, what are you doing here?"

John chuckled as he put an arm about me. "I had to test out my plane with a combat load on an unimproved field. So I thought I'd come out to see you and make the test." His grin was infectious. "Actually, Papke and I are on the way to a vintage air meet at Blene."

"When did you get that?" I asked, looking toward the aircraft. "Did you buy it?"

"Of course."

"What are you going to do with an obsolete war plane? How could Marsei and Vella let you do this?"

"They had nothing to say about it," John told me. "Papke saw it and liked it and I did too. I'm going to fly it, dear, what else? Now, can you tell me where I can put my combat weight?"

"What combat weight?" Falco asked, eyes narrowed. He didn't like arms in the valley and with good reason.

John shook his head. "No boom-boom, Falco. We just brought as many of Rachelle's things as we could cram in the side compartments. By the way, little one," he said, squeezing me. "Happy Naming Day."

This was the anniversary date of my birth, but I had not expected such a grand gift. "Seeing you is the best thing you could give me, John!"

"That's not your present, silly." John grinned mysteriously. "Come look."

We followed John under the wing and watched as he pulled a recessed lever and opened a narrow hatch. The twin booms of the aircraft were filled with cases of clothing, books, manuscripts; seemingly my whole apartment, minus furniture, was packed inside.

"For me?" I gasped. "This truly is the best Naming Day gift I ever had!"

"We'll see how you feel about that when I send you the bill for the extra fuel it took to get this off the ground." He laughed when I kissed him again. "Happy, little one?"

"Very, but I think you're crazy."

Papke came up then, hugging me. "I've been telling him that for years, Rachelle. He won't listen to me." Papke was as tall as John, which made her almost a head taller than Falco. I had to catch my breath after her embrace. "How are you, Rachelle?"

"Wonderful! How do you put up with John's insanity?"

"I manage to endure," Papke chuckled. "I have yet to meet a man who isn't—"

John butted in with a smile. "Enough of your Island philosophy, Papke. How about giving me a hand unloading this plane?"

After a breakfast long delayed by John and Papke's unexpected arrival, the ranch began to return to normal. Falco was as obviously enamored with the sleek, silver war plane as my brother. They walked down slope to look at the Mustang while Papke and I retired to the bedroom to put away the items she and John brought to me. Papke was fond of kla, an acquired taste since the dark beans were not common to the islands of the Great Western Ocean. She sipped the brew Jara kept hot by the gallons and gossiped about Gizen and the family as I sorted clothing from the cases.

"It was Joysan's idea," she explained. "John had just gotten his leave when we took delivery of the Mustang. Joysan suggested we bring your things as your Naming gift." She bent over and pulled two small packages from her travel bag. "These are also for you. One is from Rampart, the other is from Simon."

I opened Rampart's first since I had received it in that order. I found a dozen sets of sorely needed gitar strings. I put the package on the dresser. "How thoughtful, I was down to my last two sets."

The second pouch contained five hundred credits. "What's this?" I asked, counting the heavy coins.

"Simon said it was for the music department for whatever supplies you need."

"I wonder if this came from school funding or his own pocket." I replaced the welcome credits back in the pouch and pulled the drawstring tight. "I'll have to remember to ask Simon—after I've spent it all!"

"Simon suggested five credits of candy for Serena, but left the decision up to you."

"You saw her at breakfast, Papke. Candy is the last thing that child needs. Five weeks of Jara's cooking and Serena's bursting at the seams!"

"You should see Alvina," Papke chuckled. There was pride in her smile as she spoke about the daughter who gave her and John so much joy.

Papke came from a society where the maternal instinct was submerged or non-existent. Children were raised by all the members of the tribe—and men were considered lazy and irresponsible. She was the First Warrior, officially the ambassador of the Home Islands to Zea, but it was obvious she did not subscribe to every tradition of her home land; under normal circumstances the love a mother has for her child cannot be denied.

"I do believe," Papke concluded, "Alvina will be taller than John when she grows up."

Papke put her cup down and helped me lift one of the heavier cases to the bed. She dropped her voice to a whisper and told me news that left me momentarily stunned. "Yurilla and I think Vella's pregnant. There hasn't been an official announcement, but she's been to see Doctor Carol. I even caught Marsei looking through a chest of old baby clothes."

"Mother pregnant?" I sat on the bed. "Are you sure?"

Papke shrugged her shoulders. "I never had much experience before Alvina, but Yurilla's convinced. She knew I was pregnant before I did."

There was no reason for me to be surprised, Vella could continue to conceive until she was well over one-hundred-sixty. It was the thought of having a brother or sister thirty-three years younger that startled me. The brief shock passed and I was ecstatic for my parents.

"I hope it's a girl," Papke observed with a wry smile. "Boys are so much trouble."

"I know," I sympathized. I was thinking of Tyron and his mischief. "I suppose John gave you and Joysan a hard time about flying down to Yellow Jahsa."

Papke shook her head, giggling. "No resistance whatsoever, Rachelle. The only discussion was getting him to agree to leave a day later so we could arrive on your Naming Day."

"I hope that didn't interfere with your plans for the air meet," I said.

"Not at all. We'll actually arrive two days early." Papke opened another case as I got down to the bottom of the one I found full of winter dresses, dresses I probably couldn't wear. Serena wasn't the only one gaining weight.

"When we get through," Papke's eyes twinkled with amusement, "I have something in the plane I'm supposed to give to you personally. You'll have to help me get it." She started handing me things without further explanation.

"Well?" I finally asked. "Are you going to tell me what it is?"

"Can't'—"

"Or won't?" I prodded.

"Both," Papke smiled.

I stood there, hands on hips, trying to be stern and failed. Papke was too sweet and the day too special to even play at annoyance. "Don't just stand there chuckling at me. Let's get busy!" I fairly threw the remainder of clothes into closet and drawers.

"There!" I announced, slightly breathless from the exercise. "All done. Now, what is this mysterious thing you have for me?"

"Come with me," Papke said, heading towards the front door.

The wing of the Mustang was not that high off the ground, but I could never have managed with my twisted leg if Papke had not picked me up as easily as I pick up my child. She came up beside me, showing me where to put my feet on the gleaming metal surface, steadying me with her hand. At the open cockpit Papke reached inside and handed me a quite ordinary envelope.

"I had to help with this?" I asked, confused.

"You have to read that first, Rachelle," Papke replied, a smile on her face—one that knew a secret. I opened the letter.

Dearest Rachelle,

It seems like yesterday when you were born, turning tragedy into joy with your spirit and determination. You have never asked, nor expected, favors; giving more than you took. The only thing that seemed impossible for you was to find inner happiness — and those who love you most often despaired for you.

Serena brought you peace and understanding. And your love of children has healed other invisible scars which you have borne in silence. This last tour gave you the strength to be yourself and in celebration of that growth, I was asked what might most tell you of our happiness for you.

Densil, Olexa and Vaughn made a suggestion that others, like Rampart and Joysan, Lin and Morgaine, John and Papke, Tresal and Yurilla, Marsei, Vella, and even gruff old Hance wanted as their gesture to you. They all watched with love as it grew into shape and form and there were so many others that I can't begin to list them all. Papke will give it to you after you read this letter. I know nothing about what is proper or correct in these matters but I do know about the precious loving care which went into producing this gifting to you for your Naming Day.

I am part of this gift to you in spirit only, I have made another gift which will help you establish your classes and your position in Yellow Jahsa, but even then, this is not my true gift to you, darling daughter.

My gift is simply the love and understanding I have for your needs. Be happy with Falco. He is a good man. He has my respect and I trust him with your safety and well-bring—no matter how you choose to accept it. My gift is making no demands, no requirements or suggestions; it is your life, not mine. As long as you are content, I am most happy.

I only ask two things of you, Rachelle. That you visit Gizen when you can and that we can visit you in the same manner.

Love,

Father

I wept so hard the words became blurred before I reached the end of the letter. I leaned against the side of the aircraft, Papke's comforting arm about my shoulders. Her eyes brimmed with moisture as well, but her tears were more in sympathy than understanding—the concept of family is not practiced by those of the Home Islands and she was still new to the reality. I raised my eyes and regretted that thought when I saw the expression on Papke's face. She had been part of our family long enough to know what I felt. Whether she actually understood was immaterial; she was tender and caring and that meant a great deal. Papke reached behind the seat and lifted a gitar case from the storage area. She knelt down and let me use her arm as a support as I joined her. She placed the case on the wing before me and sat back, eyes sparkling.

"Open it," she said. "Lin Donalson helped us make it for you. He showed us how and we carved it, and glued, and he made sure we did it right. It's for you, Rachelle, from all of us."

It was a beautiful instrument with intricate bone inlays on the fret board and around the sound hole. The wood gleamed with a high polish in the sunlight peeking through the open cloud-cover. I touched the strings as I removed an envelope woven between them and was astonished by the instrument's tone quality. My hands trembled as I read Lin Donalson's letter. He described in detail which parts were made by which members of my family or my friends. There was a personal message at the bottom, an expression of love in the form of a demand to hear great things from my students in Yellow Jahsa.

"Aren't you going to try it?" Papke asked, head cocked to one side. "I think it's very pretty. I carved the bone-inlay for the neck."

"It's beautiful, Papke," I said.

I lifted the instrument from the case and tuned it, awed by the resonance of the body. I once thought Tasien was the master craftsman of gitars until I played this instrument made with love and care instead of workmanship and speed for profit. The basses were strong, the trebles rang bright and clear, yet were in perfect balance with each other. I played the song I had written for my daughter and was delighted to hear it ring out as I always imagined it. Papke lowered herself to a prone position and listened raptly, chin propped in her hands. She felt my joy, it showed in the breadth of her smile.

"That was beautiful," Papke finally said when I sat in silence after playing Serena's song. "Play another!"

"This gitar was not made in a few months time, Papke. How long have you and the others been working on it?"

"It's actually the second one, Rachelle. There weren't as many people involved in the first gitar, but it turned out it wasn't quite right for you. You saw it when you left on the tour. That was the gitar Lin Donalson let you play at the goodbye party. We started over and got more people involved. It was supposed to have been last year's Naming Day gift from all of us, but we wanted it to be right."

"It is so very right!" I cried. I put the gitar in the case and hugged Papke with all my strength. For an instant she seemed startled, then put her arms about me and returned the embrace. We sat on the wing in the noonday sun, both in tears. I know I embarrassed her, but she seemed no more eager to break the moment than I. How long we might have remained in that warm embrace is unknown: John and Falco came riding up on ser-monte to remind us that lunch was waiting.

I wouldn't accept the ride back to the house until John had been kissed a dozen times and Falco forced to admire my wonderful gift. I played the Hearthing Song for them before I returned the instrument to the case and climbed up the stallion's foreleg to sit before Falco, holding the gitar securely in my arms.

Papke and I, so busy putting things away then going out to the plane to get the gitar, had not noticed that Falco had suspended all operations in honor of my Naming Day and our special guests. The noon day meal was enchanting: Jara made fral cakes that seemed to melt in your mouth and I have never laughed, or cried, so much at one time. Falco took great joy in my happiness, a wide smile creasing his dark, bearded face every time I looked to him. He brought out his gitar and played music for dancing, doing passably well. I had never danced before, but willingly allowed John to swing me about on the veranda while Falco played one of the new songs he'd learned from me. I felt awkward and clumsy and John half-carried me, but it was simply magical and I never heard music so grand.

The children had the most fun which only increased my pleasure. John took the horde of excited children down to the plane and watched them crawl over, and into, every place he would allow. The smaller children clustered about Papke, curious of her skin, a pale nut-brown, so different from their varying shades of blue, listening to her stories of the distant islands and her nearly-pure Earther-blood people.

During the mid-afternoon chaos the phone rang. Falco grinned mysteriously when he gave me the handset. It was a call from my family in Gizen and I got to thank Marsei and Vella and Yurilla for what they had done. Tresal, they said, had been called to join his army unit for an exercise. They promised to tell him how much I appreciated his work carving the head piece on the gitar. We talked of so many things, so quickly, that it would take time to recall all that was said, but I felt their love and it filled me with a warmth which carried through the afternoon.

Jara didn't try to out-do herself for dinner. We had a simple meal of cold-cuts, fruit, thick-sliced bread, and whipped zuri, plenty of iced juices and wine. It was a help-yourself-or-starve meal that was consumed wherever the people were, veranda, main room, down by the gernica beds.

There was a little rain before sundown and the clouds seemed to be thickening to the north, but that did not dampen the spirits of the celebrators. John had some fun with a few of the ranch hands, Breder in particular, with a strange box which he claimed contained some valuable treasure. He built the suspense with innuendo and asides until it was impossible for Breder to hold back his curiosity. The foreman jerked the top off and jumped back when a long coiled paper snake burst forth, much to his embarrassment and the amusement of the onlookers. I laughed as hard as the rest and Breder finally joined in

My day would not have been complete without John pulling some kind of practical joke and, though it was so childish for a grown man to act that way, I was glad to have seen it received so well. After the evening sing some of the women said goodnight to put their little ones to bed. The older children were allowed to stay up, only if they took their baths and let the adults talk. Serena, including Quida and Tyron by default, felt she was the exception to the rule because her rovenja was the day's honoree. Though their cries of protest nearly broke my heart, I joined Jara in sending my daughter and her children to bed. I intended to help her, but Falco shook his head, telling me to visit with John and Papke now that the party was quieting down and the hands with families were departing. He rose and picked up Serena, tossing her high. Jara laughed as Quida dragged her heels. I got up and kissed the children, Tyron and Quida too, then sat on the divan, eyes red-rimmed from happiness and fatigue, and a little too much wine.

Breder quietly suggested to the remaining ranch hands the party was over and cleared the room. I could have kissed him for giving me some private time with John and Papke. By the time Falco returned from putting the children to bed, we were the only ones left in the main room. John had his arm around me, squeezing affectionately, but had said very little for several minutes. For a moment I thought he was tired and in need of sleep. I looked up to see his eyes on the cadenza radio beneath the front windows.

"Do you mind, Rachelle?" John asked. "I'd like to catch the last government broadcast. They might have something new on Hosella."

"Don't you and father talk about that sort of thing often enough? Do you need to listen to the radio?" I poked his ribs, hoping for a laugh, but his eyes remained pensive and his face held a certain grimness. I felt a cool chill of fear and tried to make light of it. "Do you actually think Brandywine is going to war with us, John?"

"I don't know, darling. That's why I want to keep abreast. You know Tresal's unit was called up..."

"Rovenja—Marsei told me. She sounded worried. But she always does when you or Tresal get called. This has happened before and nothing's come of it. How many times has Hosella been difficult? How many times have the troops been alerted only to stand down a few days later?"

While I quietly pleaded with John, Falco walked across the room and switched on the radio, effectively ending the argument. The local information service was advising of weather changes and the closing of a road for repairs, then the government broadcast from Gizen was tied in for the national news and announcements. I pouted childishly, gnawing the inside of my lip. This was a disappointing way to end the happiest day of my life. But when I noticed Papke listening as intently as John, I felt an uneasy premonition. They were closer to the center of government, more aware of the events which could affect the nation. When I saw Falco's earnest expression while listening to the broadcast, I almost became frightened. The announcer's voice calmly explained the current situation between Hosella and Zea and the information was unsettling. A statement issued from the palace indicated that unless Zeain citizens overseas were not treated with dignity and respect that certain economic reprisals were under consideration. This was polite language from Simon Jules Ward which translated to a favorite expression from his Earther past: "Don't tread on me." After the broadcast was over Falco shut the radio off. He brought new glasses of wine for all of us, exchanging comments with John and Papke. I couldn't find my voice at first and, when I did, it trembled.

"You think there will war? Do you know something you haven't told me?"

John shook himself free of the dark mood holding him during the broadcast. There was a rueful smile on his lips. "I don't know anything substantial, Rachelle. Military Intelligence and the National Security Service have reports of a build up in Hosella. Father is trying to get them verified. As you just heard, another of our merchant ships has been detained in Valo Bay. I fought there once, remember?"

I remembered him going to war and almost dying. Papke remembered it even more strongly than I, for she had been separated from him at the time, half a world away and had thought he was dead. With a gesture that was uncharacteristic for her society of dominate females, she reached out and took John's hand with a worried concern etching her fine features.

I wanted to tell John I didn't want him to go if he was called up. I wanted to stop him, keep him safe. He had come to mean so much to me since I came to Yellow Jahsa that it terrified me if he should go to war and not come back. I needed this new closeness I felt for him. I also realized I could never state my feelings in that regard. If John, brave, sensible John didn't laugh he would surely lecture me on duty and honor. I could bear neither laughter or lecture so I remained silent.

I appreciated the men's mutual consideration to turn the conversation away from distant, though suddenly personal, international problems. John asked questions about the ranch, apparently finishing a conversation started during the morning ride with Falco. Falco returned John's interest by inquiring about my brother's new airplane, a hobby with some practical uses such as being able to land at the ranch without an airfield. Papke and I just listened, sipping wine, until we all generally agreed the hour was late and it was time for bed.

John and Papke rose to go to their room, but I forced him to accept one last kiss of gratitude for his generosity and love. John hugged me fiercely, kissed me gently, patted my head like he used to do when we were children.

"Goodnight, Rachelle. Happy Naming Day."

Falco sat with me in the darkness of the main room for some time after the house became quiet. With his arm about me, my head pillowed on his chest, I felt a returning sense of pleasant warmth and security. I was overcome by the events of the day and I barely remember being carried to bed or his gentle undressing and tucking the sheets about me.

I roused when I heard the shower. Then, later, felt the roughness of his scars alongside my body. I rolled over, clinging to him and laid my head on his shoulder. "Do you know what would make this best of all my Naming days even more perfect?"

Falco pulled me closer, kissing the top of my head before answering. "I have no idea, Rachelle."

"Making love with you."

Falco's chuckle was so tender I found it as stimulating as the zuri wine. He held me tightly when I started to move closer. "Too much perfection can spoil the memory, teela," he warned. "Besides, you're too tired."

"Am I?" I turned my face upwards and sought his lips. I pulled myself higher until I was lying across his slim, hard body. "Am I?" I breathed into his mouth as his hands caressed the curve of my back, sweeping lower beneath the sheets.

Falco rolled over, pinning me beneath him. He whispered softly as his kisses caught fire. "I suppose we'll just have to see, won't we?"

16.

I should have sensed something unusual about myself on my Naming Day when I noticed the clothes John and Papke brought down wouldn't fit. I should have been aware when Falco made some teasing comments about how heavy I was getting. I did sense something a month later when my breasts began to enlarge and my menses skipped for a second time. At first I couldn't believe I was pregnant then laughed at myself. More properly the wonder was that I hadn't gotten pregnant earlier because Falco and I were together so much.

I felt obese, terribly clumsy, and often miserable that last month of my pregnancy. Mother Vella and her new daughter, Quinlan, came down to be with me and from the way Vella hovered over me, one would think I had never experienced child-birth before. I was glad she was there, even if I never said as much or stopped complaining at her persistent helpfulness. If not for her I would have stopped teaching a month earlier because I couldn't ride my ser-monte into town. She drove me to school in the mornings and picked me up afternoons and, as my time neared, stayed the whole school day just in case.

Falco and Vella were old friends who had seen little of each other since his appointment as Rider more than thirty years before. They were friends who liked and respected one another. Their friendship was strengthen by Falco's freeing Vella of her slave-compulsion years earlier, though it was never mentioned. I believe that only Vella, Falco, Marsei, Simon and myself knew she was free. But that little secret was the only thing that wasn't talked about. There was never a lack of conversation about the house, especially in the evenings when Falco joined us at the end of his work day. I learned things about the Great War listening to Falco reminisce with Vella of places and people and things of which they had common personal knowledge. I learned things which the dry impersonal history books had not recorded, or had been deemed unimportant in the shadow of more impassioned remembrances of father, Chesar Brondle, and Hance Sadis. So, though I felt as useless as feathers on a ser-monte, I had no lack of companionship.

Jara and Vella vied for the dubious honor of taking care of me. Each considered herself the final authority on motherhood and I let them have their fun—except when I became too cranky. At which time I went to my room and locked the door.

The final weeks of waiting for Falco's child to be born were sheer boredom. I was accustomed to the active life of the ranch, the freedom of riding my great ser-monte mare. Sitting with pillows at my back and a book in my lap only aggravated the nagging ache of tired feet and complaining back. I could only hold my new baby sister for so long, or listen to my daughter telling me of her day with Tyron and Quida outside the house. I needed to feel useful at something other than taking care of children (though I loved Vella's little Quinlan as much as "my" children) and eventually convinced Falco I could take care of his bookkeeping as well as he. But even this concession wasn't enough to keep me occupied. I counted the minutes with a mixture of eager anticipation and fatalistic resignation. Had I placed the conception date incorrectly? Perhaps the child had no intentions of being born. But when the labor began, I had a surprisingly short time of it.

Jara and Vella stayed with me the whole time, Falco anxiously watched from the side of the room. He wanted to be close, to hold my hand, which I refused for some unfathomable reason, leaving the father of my child feeling helpless. I wasn't too receptive to his frustrations during that time I was swept up by the painful contractions and the effort of taking a full breath. My world narrowed, as it had once before, to a single act, a single purpose, and it coursed through me like a fever, controlling my life until it ran full course.

I wandered between awareness and non-awareness for some time towards the end and when I was released from the pain I gratefully closed my eyes. I opened them when I heard the baby cry. Falco's hand was on my forehead, his eyes filled with concern. I tried to smile for him but it felt like a grimace. He didn't seem to mind, kissing me tenderly.

"It's a boy, Rachelle," he whispered. "A son!"

Though Falco had never expressed a preference in sex, I saw that his heart was near bursting with pride. I was pleased for him-and me! I would have been just as happy with another girl, but I was very glad Falco had his son. Now that it was done, I truly regretted all my grumbling and anxious frustration. I don't know who cried more, Falco or myself, when he held our son for the first time.

Vella watched the grinning Rider carefully, taking the child back after a few short moments. She sent Falco out of the room so she could bathe the baby while Jara bathed me. There was no doubt in my mind that my mother loved the tiny child, it was obvious in the tender way she handed him to me, clean and ready for my breast.

"You should be thankful, Rachelle," Vella sat on the edge of the bed. She took a cooling cloth left by Jara, who went for more water, and mopped my fevered brow. She smiled, laughing, stroking my matted hair.

"I am, rovenja. He's perfect like Serena—"

"I was talking about Falco," Vella chuckled. "He's not clumsy with infants like your father. There were times I despaired any of my children surviving his attentions when you were babies. You should see him with Quinlan. My heart stops every time he picks her up!"

"Mother," I reached up and touched her shining face with a tired, affectionate hand. "You can be such a liar at times."

"If you don't believe me, ask Marsei. It is her opinion that Simon should not be allowed around Quinlan until she's grown enough to bounce off the floor without breaking something." Vella's eyes were merry. "You should get some rest now. I'll bring your dinner later. I've got to call your father and tell him what a handsome grandson he has!"

The child was born in the morning, just after dawn. After I fed him his first meal, I was too tired to keep my eyes open. I slept for several hours, waking when Vella brought a bowl of zuri soup sweetened with cunyio. She insisted on feeding me, though I was strong enough to sit up and do it for myself. In fact I felt so good I told her I wanted to get out of bed and have dinner in the main room.

"You can't do that yet, teela," she said. "You should rest."

"I'm having dinner at the table, rovenja. That's all there is to that. I'm stronger than I've ever been. The ranch and riding and working has been good for me."

If I had only Vella to deal with I might have had my way. Even Jara couldn't dissuade me. Falco came in before dinner and sat with me and said that if I wanted to eat with everyone else, it was fine with him. "You'll just have to wait until I can get a bed set up out there..."

"You wouldn't do that," I challenged, then saw the answer in his determined eyes. "You think I should lie here like a helpless woman? Falco I feel fine. I want to get up."

"Tomorrow."

"Not tonight?" I asked, flirting with him. "Please?" He didn't bend. "Oh, all right! I'll stay in bed until morning but you must let me get up to do just one little thing."

"What?" he asked without making a commitment.

"I need to go in there," I said, pointing to the bathroom. When he started to pick me up I shook my head. "Let me walk! You're worse than Vella!" I was a little light-headed, but strong enough to go by myself. Falco waited outside the door and walked back to the bed with me. He made sure I was comfortably tucked in then bent over the cradle to gaze at his son. There was such a look of fascination on his dark face that it nearly burst my heart.

"Come here," I said, holding my arms wide.

Falco looked up, still kneeling beside the sleeping baby. "He looks like you," he said.

"Oh, I hope not," I told Falco. "I want him to be as handsome as his dovenja. Come here. I want to hold you."

"And be held, too?" Falco grinned.

He took me in his arms. Falco's embrace was restrained, as if I were fragile, and I showed him how wrong he was by squeezing him with all my strength. After I caught my breath from his return embrace Falco filled me in on household events since lunch.

"Vella's been on the phone all day when she wasn't taking care of Quinlan or you. I think we should have taken Simon up on his offer for you to have the baby in Gizen. We'll know how much of the next roundup is dedicated to phone charges after we get the bill."

"I don't care. I wanted our child to be born at home." I looked to the cradle and sighed happily. "He's so beautiful—like his dovenja. I love you, Falco."

He grinned. "You just can't help yourself, woman." He looked to the baby and added, "I glad you're so weak-willed, teela." Falco jumped when I pinched the tight skin over his ribs. "Oh! I love you, too!" he chuckled.

"I know," I smiled, feeling wonderful. "How's Serena taking all this? Has she seen the baby yet?"

"She's more interested in the new hatchling," Falco said. "She and Tyron have been down at the barn all day. Quida saw him when Jara looked in while you were sleeping. She wasn't very impressed."

"What does she know?" I smiled. "She isn't impressed with hatchlings either."

Vella discretely knocked on the door and cautiously opened it. When she saw Falco sitting on the bed and I was awake, she came in, her own baby bubbling in her arms. "Feeling better?" she asked me.

"Well enough to get out of bed, but I won't," I quickly added when they both opened their mouths. "Has Quinlan been a good girl?"

"She's a Ward, does that answer your question?"

"Are the barns are still standing?" I asked with mock concern.

Vella shook her head, displaying some exasperation for my sweet, chubby-cheeked four month old sister. "She pulled the table cloth off the children's table after we got it all ready for dinner. I'm ready to throw her out with the hatchlings where she can't do any damage. Hungry? Ready to eat?"

"I could eat a ser-monte, bones and all, so don't bring me any more soup."

Mother raised an amused eyebrow. "We'll see what we can do, Rachelle. Falco, there's a phone call for you. Do you want to take it or call back?"

"Who is it?"

"The Recorder in Patiz."

Falco gave me a quick peck and got up. "I better take it. See you at dinner, Rachelle."

"Does that mean I can get out of bed?"

"No," he said. "I'll dine with you in here. Humor me, please?"

I nodded and he left. I looked to my mother, who was bouncing her child in her arms, chucking Quinlan's tiny chin with loving fingers. "Rovenja—"

"Yes, Rachelle?" Vella sat down on the bed, shifting Quinlan around to hold the baby in her lap.

"I didn't know it could be like this," I said. I had to search for the words to describe how I felt. "I never felt like this when Serena was born."

"Feel what, teela?"

"How did you feel when dovenja saw Quinlan for the first time?"

"I felt very special," she said without hesitation. "We had made a miracle together from our love. I was thrilled to see the wonder on his face. It never gets old, Rachelle. I've seen that look on his face many times and it touches me every time. I remember it here," she said, touching her heart.

"That's what I am feeling," I said, holding her hand. "I feel it for this child beside me. I feel it for Falco. I love Serena, but I—I was cheated when she was born. I won't have that memory for her." I don't know why I started crying. I suppose I wasn't as strong after child birth as I believed. "I know it sounds stupid, but I won't ever forgive him for taking that from me."

"Forgive who?" Vella gently asked.

I looked up then, suddenly aware of Vella's intent curiosity. I bit my lip, averting my gaze to other parts of the room. I was so filled with anger because of Tasien. I felt sadness for what I had missed at the birth of my daughter and what I had almost told Vella—what she probably had guessed. But even now, despite fully understanding the unequivocal love of my family, I couldn't bring myself to tell mother the name of Serena's father. There was a lingering guilt for making love, rather—having sex—with my sister's Chosen that I could not speak my feelings..

"It isn't important enough to spoil this, mother. Forget I said anything. I think I will stay in bed for the rest of the day." I closed my eyes, opening them when she sympathetically patted my shoulder. I wanted to be alone. "If I should go to sleep, wake me early enough to make myself presentable for Falco. I'd like to look my best for dinner."

Vella silently nodded, putting Quinlan over her shoulder. "I'll come help you when it's time. As for the other, I'm sorry you feel that way and I think I understand why you do..."

She quietly closed the door behind her and I was left alone with my thoughts. I remembered the warm inner glow of seeing Falco view his son and tried to imagine Tasien reacting that way to Serena. Then I suddenly realized that mother was partly right. There was some sorrow in what had been lost, but it was Tasien who'd lost the most. Though I didn't have the glow of happiness of that birth memory for Serena, I had her and I loved her. Tasien had given that all up. I felt pity for him. I thought of Falco and how he loved Serena as though she were his own daughter. It was a simple trick of imagination to transfer a touch of that wonderful feeling to her through him and I found a measure of peace. Vella noticed the difference in me when she served dinner for Falco and I. There was a happy smile on her face knowing that I had resolved whatever had upset me during the afternoon. She never brought it up again.

Falco watched me feed our son after dinner. There was a rapt expression on his face I could not define. It filled me with his love. He would always be there for this child and it made me feel secure. "Stay with me tonight," I pleaded when Falco rose to go to bed. "I want to feel you next to me."

"Are you sure?" he asked.

"Very sure. We can't—well, it's too soon for that—but I need to have you with me."

"I'd like that, Rachelle."

There was a knock on the door and Jara stuck her head in. "The children have been waiting to say goodnight, Rachelle. Can they come in for a minute?"

"Of course, Jara. I've missed them."

Serena wanted to hold the baby, but she was still too young for that, but I did let each one feel the infant grip their fingers, causing much laughter. Tyron looked at the baby with narrowed eyes. He glanced up to Falco sitting on the bed covers then down to me. He shrugged his shoulders. "I don't see it."

"See what, Tyron?" Falco asked, grinning.

Tyron spoke in solemn tones. "Rovenja says he looks like you. Vella says he looks like Rachelle."

"Who do you think he looks like?" I asked, amused.

Tyron shuffled his feet uncomfortably. Jara nudged the back of his head when he didn't answer. "Rachelle asked you a question, Tyron."

The young boy reluctantly responded to his mother's urging. He looked apologetic as he turned to Falco with wide, uncertain eyes. "I think he looks like a tagea pup."

Jara boxed her child's ears until Falco's merry laugh saved Tyron from further chastisement. "I suppose he does look like one, Tyron. Eyes all wrinkled shut, drooling mouth, a little bald, floppy ears—" Falco laughed, his eyes twinkling as he winked at me. All the things he said about our son were true, but I thought he was handsome. Falco gripped Tyron's shoulder, lowering his voice confidentially. "Let's just hope he doesn't grow up that way."

Tyron nodded, realizing Falco was teasing him. He tried to save face by saying, "He does look a little like both of you. Rachelle's nose, your ears."

Falco playfully narrowed his eyes at the boy, "My ears are floppy?" Tyron's mouth popped open apologetically. Falco spared the boy with a grin. "I'm having you on, Tyron. Scoot. Give Rachelle a kiss and then off you go to bed. You, too, Serena. Kiss your rovenja and say goodnight. You next, Quida."

As he named them, each child did as ordered. Falco lifted Quida and Serena from the bed and put them on the floor. Serena, a little confused by the baby and the strange way the adults had been acting all day, hid in Jara's protective skirts. Falco leaned toward her, his voice coaxing. "Aren't you going to give me a kiss, Serena?"

My daughter giggled, stepping forward with her arms held high. "Give two!" she said and left two big wet spots on his cheek. Falco thumped her bottom affectionately and kissed her twice before shooing the children, and Jara, from the room. He closed the door and turned out the lights and came to me. I went to sleep comforted with his presence.

I was sound asleep, my son cradled to my breast, when the roar of John's Mustang shattered the pre-dawn silence. I turned in bed to speak to Falco, but he wasn't there. I got out of bed and went to the bathroom as quickly as possible then got back into bed, wearing a robe. I heard hushed voices in the hallway and tried to make myself presentable before the latch was lifted and the door opened.

I had expected John, of course, but I was momentarily stunned to see father looking in. My squeal of delight would have awakened the house if John's noisy airplane hadn't already accomplished that. "Father!" I held out my arms in welcome. "There's no sense in trying to be quiet now. No one can sleep through the racket John's little toy makes! Come in!"

"Kitten!" father said. He sat on the bed. Simon's embrace was too gentle to suit me. I dug an elbow into his ribs then gasped pleasurably when he held me the way I wanted. He kissed me soundly before releasing me, to hold my hand, his eyes sparkling in the faint dawn light coming through the window.

"Your mother and I rolled the dice last night to see who would come and who would stay. I lost, but she put me on the plane with John anyway."

"Why didn't she come? It would have been cramped, but you could have shared a seat."

"It would be a very tight fit," father chuckled, "but I daresay it could have been managed. However, someone had to stay behind and greet the Ambassador of Cert. Marsei said she could handle him for twelve hours and if I wasn't back by then she'd go to the Temple and cross her name off the Roll of Choosing. How are you, Spunky?"

I heard concern in his voice and giggled. "This is not my first baby, Pops." I let him plump the pillows at my back as I brought my son into the morning light for his inspection. John, at the foot of the bed with Falco, leaned closer, squinting one-eyed and shaking his head.

"You still haven't got it right, Rachelle," John sighed. "You better try again. You need more practice. He's bald!"

"Just like you will be in a minute if you don't come here and kiss me." John knew a serious threat when he heard one. He manfully endured my kiss, then sat beside me, smiling at father.

"I guess he doesn't look too bad at that."

The King of Zea wasn't paying any attention to his facetious son. He leaned down to peer at the tiny face in my arms. I smiled, putting the baby into my dovenja's arms before he could refuse. "If you drop him you'll answer to Vella—after I get through with you."

Simon Jules Ward had never dropped an infant in his life. He was too careful, too loving of children to make that mistake. The oft-told joke had worn thin, but still brought a smile to my father's face as he tested my son's grip with the tip of his finger.

"I shall endeavor to avoid that, kitten." Father rose, taking my child with him. "You look none the worse for wear, teela. Uncle John and I will take this young man for a walk while you get your lazy ass out of bed. Come have breakfast with us." Father paused at the door and glanced meaningfully to John. "Not that she needs it, John. Your sister is getting downright fat."

"I am not!" I told him, as playful as he. "I've just been too skinny all my life."

"Well, if you say so. But no more lap-sitting for you, dear. My tired old legs can't take it."

"I'm sure you can learn to endure, Daddy. I'm not yet ready to give up those privileges." John chuckled at our father's expense. I silenced him. "That goes for you, too, John ku Ward. Now scat so I can take a shower. I'm positively desperate for one."

"Don't take too long, Rachelle," father said. "John and I brought our appetites." He deftly shifted my son's insignificant weight on his knowing arm and closed the door behind John and Falco.

Vella and Jara had sponge bathed me after the baby was born, but I wanted a real shower and took my time about it. When I came out I was mildly surprised to see only family at the table. Simon, John, Vella, Falco, and the children, sitting for breakfast. Falco rose to escort me across the room, quietly telling me the hands decided to breakfast on the veranda for our privacy. I made a note to thank them, each and every one.

I discovered that while John and father had to leave by noon, and though they were determined to keep that schedule, they sat at the table as if they were going to visit for weeks instead of hours. It all seemed so comfortable, men talking, children finishing early and running outside when Jara shooed them from the table. I managed to eat two helpings while feeding my son, who seemed to have an equally large appetite. Between the five of us we consumed a gallon of kla, pounds of ger-monte eggs, eight loaves of Jara's tasty tarec nut bread and, I feared, the last of the berry preserves as well.

Falco was a gracious host, unawed at having the King of Zea cracking terrible jokes over kla at his table. There was much laughter and congratulatory back-thumping. The joyous commotion dropped to silence when my father solemnly offered an un-engraved Naming Bracelet to Falco. "For my grandchild," he said. That simple gesture erased any lingering reservations regarding my father's reception of my chosen lifestyle.

Falco accepted the gift with moisture in his eyes. Too choked for words my beaming lover jumped up from the table and returned with a decanter of wine. He proceeded to fill glasses. "To the king," Falco raised his glass in salute. "May he reign long and in peace."

"I'll accept that, Falco," father grinned. He offered a sly wink to John as he hugged Vella at his side. "But I'd rather be fishing."

John nearly choked on his wine and got up from the table. He came to stand behind me, hands resting on my shoulders. He leaned down and, in a voice meant to carry, said "Don't let him fool you, teela. He loves it."

Father, still grinning, looked toward me. "Is that mewling brat finished with his breakfast? He is? Good." Simon took my son and placed him in Vella's arms., He lifted me to my feet and put his arm about my waist. To Vella he said, "Mother, if you will be so good as to occupy that handsome infant, and if you have no objections, Falco, my daughter and I will take a walk."

As usual Simon Jules Ward waited approximately two seconds for exceptions and, when none were voiced, took me outside. The hands on the veranda started to rise from their impromptu table, but father gestured for them to continue as we descended the steps and walked out into the main yard. Father turned toward the torpal grove down slope of the house and breathed deeply of the valley air. Spring was near and the days had become quite pleasant; the sun a bright yellow that turned winter grass into a sea of gold.

I never really knew what to expect from father. He often acted impulsively in family matters, quite the opposite to his methodical, practical, careful management of the kingdom. The way he almost dragged me out of the house left me a trifle anxious. Had I, in fact, displeased him? Before I could pursue the thought, he put my mind at ease.

"There was a time I would have worried about you, Kitten, but not now. The last time I saw anyone this happy was when Vella had Quinlan. I know that happiness." He turned his head, scanning the distant side of the valley and all that lay between. "I like this valley. I like this ranch. This is a fine place to raise Serena and little whatever his name will be."

"We've discussed naming him after Falco's father. His name would be Dawan. You approve then?" I asked, not about the name.

"I have always approved of happiness, darling."

"For a moment I thought—"

"Thought what?" he prompted when I stopped short of voicing my prior uneasiness.

I tried to refuse to answer, but I've never been able to deny my father much. When he heard me out, his smile was tender, his hug sincere.

"How can I be unhappy for you? You should know I can never be unhappy with you. I have two fine grandchildren from a lovely, loving daughter. That Falco happens to be a man I admire is quite incidental. What's more important is that I now have a valid excuse to find time to visit you here in the Auel Valley. See, Rachelle? It all works out perfectly."

"Can't you ever be serious?" I asked, tugging at his tunic with an impatient hand. "You really haven't said anything."

"I thought I said it all in the letter, Spunky. What do you want from me? Let me ask you this. Suppose I were displeased. Would you change what you have just to suit me? Be honest."

I needed no time to consider my answer. "No. I would change nothing."

"There," he said with a tone of superiority. His voice assumed the same smugness when he fenced with political opponents. "You have answered your own worried concerns. That was a 'what-if' question, Rachelle. I am never displeased with you or your choices in life. It's impossible for me to ever feel that way. As for needing my approval, bear in mind that I am a man first, then a father, then king—all of which are me and not you. You need your own approval, not mine. My happiness is knowing you're happy. Simple."

"Then why did you bring me out here?"

He looked apologetic, tapping a finger against the breast pocket of his tunic. "Go on, take a look."

I giggled when I found the piece of candy. Father frowned for an instant. "Dig deeper." When I did, I was bewildered by the rail-freight receipt.

"What's this?" I asked.

"It is your very own jeep—fitted out just like your old car, which I will keep in Gizen on the off-chance you should need it when you visit."

"This is too extravagant. When I need to go somewhere I saddle a mount or one of the men drives me if Falco's away."

"Okay," he said, taking the stub back.

I snatched the slip of paper from his hands and clutched it to my breast. "You're too easy. I think I will keep it after all. Thank you." I kissed him a dozen times. "You do too much for me, Pops, and I love you for it."

"This is not a gift, teela. You have to pay for it."

"Oh? What's the price?"

"I had a list," he teased, making a mock search of his pockets and turning up nothing. "I think I can remember it. One song, at least two letters a year and all the collect phone calls home you can make."

"I think you're showing favoritism, father. You don't even allow Don that privilege."

"Don is my heir and should show graciousness. Besides, he and Yanis aren't a thousand miles from home, they're sixteen thousand miles away while he finishes his tour as Ambassador to Burs. As for your insolent charge of favoritism, I stand guilty. Any objections?"

"None!"

We walked arm in arm beneath the stately torpal trees for some time, eventually joined by Vella, John and Falco. John reluctantly reminded father they had to leave if they were going to make the formal reception dinner for the Cert ambassador.

My father was reluctant to leave, but Simon Jules Ward, King of Zea, knew his duty. "As much as I'd like to stay on for a few days, Spunky, I really must get back. Take care of yourself, kitten." He hugged me tightly, kissed Vella goodbye, then offered his hand to Falco. "Take care of Rachelle, Rider."

"I will," Falco promised.

Falco put his arm about me and I clung to him, teary-eyed as John and father walked down to the silver twin-engine aircraft. I was too excited, too distraught and too tired to walk down with them, but I had to watch them take off. John circled the house once then turned north, a gleaming streak of silver against the mid-morning sky.

We stopped on the veranda, taking chairs. I put my feet up into Falco's lap and looked to the north, my thoughts going with that vanished speck of light. Falco talked to Vella and, after a time, I became interested in what they were saying. I suddenly remembered the freight stub and showed it to Falco.

"Did you know anything about that, rovenja?" I asked.

Vella shook her head, looking at the receipt. She handed it back to me. "It will certainly make winter travel more comfortable for you, Rachelle. I still don't know how you managed to ride that ser-monte of yours to school everyday in the snow."

"Well, I didn't ride for long after I got pregnant. And yes," I said before she asked, "it was cold and the jeep will be better."

Falco saw a more practical application for the jeep. "You can do the shopping for supplies after school, save Breder a trip into town."

I kicked him for spite. "Don't tell me again how you made this ranch what it is by taking advantage of every opportunity!"

"I won't have to," Falco grinned.

Vella listened with amused patience. "Your dovenja told John he would have to bring Marsei down on the next trip."

"That's wonderful — I think?" I added when I saw the girlish smile on my mother's face. "Is there a problem?"

"John already promised Joysan. The last they were talking about before you came to breakfast was that John said he wasn't going to listen to women chatter over the intercom for four hours and who the hell was going to pay for all the fuel? I think John is beginning to regret buying that aircraft..."

17.

John was unable to bring Marsei and Joysan down in the Mustang as promised. The day after he returned to Gizen his squadron was called to sea duty. I was told his aircraft carrier was taking up station off the coast of Hosella. I remembered the similar situation almost five years earlier which had resulted in a short, intense military action—one which hospitalized John for over two months. I listened to the radio with Falco every night, or talked to the family by phone and felt the same anxiousness they did: would John be so lucky a second time if the worst should occur and fighting break out?

The news remained depressing as the weeks passed and the politicians struggled to come to agreements. President Brandywine, a native Uhrian and not a Transit as his name and title implied, still nursed a grudge against Zea for the five-year old defeat at Valo Bay when John's fleet units and marines retaliated for Hosella's excesses against shipping and its invasion of Harrison's Ranch, the vast personal holding of the Harrison family, as large and politically powerful as any non-industrial nation on the planet.

But this new situation had nothing to do with territorial rights on Secoundous, it was a matter of free sea lanes, guarantees of which Zea was prepared to enter into combat to protect. Falco tried to explain all this to me, but I never really understood the workings of international politics. My interests were more domestic, teaching children, preparing them to enter the world filled with something of me and the rest of the teachers at School 1248.

I stayed home with Dawan three weeks before starting back to school. I took him with me during the day because it was too far to travel back and forth between school and home to feed him and none of the other mothers at the ranch could nurse him at the time, their children being too old for them to still be producing. The children of my classes thought Dawan was wonderful, saying he would grow up to be a great warrior like his dovenja. I knew they were only repeating things said by their parents, but the thought of Dawan one day having to carry a rifle and kill another human being in anger disturbed me.

There were other reasons to be concerned with those events which were so far away from the peaceful quiet of the Auel River Valley. Falco still held a commission in the army. If war broke out he would not wait to be called. My brave Rider would volunteer without hesitation and that frightened me, for then I would be alone and constantly worried.

Mother and Quinlan stayed on after I settled back into teaching. Though I loved having Vella around, it was also nerve wracking. Vella meant well, but there were times her generous intentions did not coincide with the operation of the house. When Falco prepared to make his bi-annual report in Gizen, I suggested he take her along.

Vella argued, saying I wasn't yet ready to be on my own (as if Jara and the other women couldn't pitch in if I really needed help), so it was with some apprehension when I said: "Go home, rovenja. Go home before Quinlan is an old woman and Pops misses the joy of watching her grow up. He needs you now. Things are not good in Gizen."

"I know that, teela," Vella sighed. Her full lips drooped unhappily. "You're right, of course. I just hate leaving you and the children. You will come and see us?"

"The first chance we get," I promised. I helped mother pack for the trip and the next day she was gone.

The house seemed oddly empty without Vella and Quinlan. For all the domestic bickering between them, Jara missed father's slave, too. I kept in touch with Marsei or Vella by phone at least twice a week and one evening, a month after Dawan was Named, Marsei tearfully told me Tresal had a two day leave before shipping out for Motna Island. Zea had an extensive military lease on that Danarian island strategically placed in the Fomosan Sea. Motna Island was located just off the coast of Secoundous—not far from Hosella.

"Is he there?" I asked. "I must speak to Tresal before he goes."

"He's upstairs with Yurilla, Rachelle. She's taking this very hard. So am I." She sniffled in my ear and I wanted to reach out to her. Falco was watching and I covered the mouthpiece and told him about Tresal. He put his book down and came to stand by the phone.

"He'll be fine, sors-rovenja," I said, hoping it was the truth. "Tresal can take care of himself."

"I know that. Yurilla does too. He took care of her when they were kidnaped by Richard DaBonne...but that doesn't make it any easier to bear. First John, now Tresal. There are times I wish someone would shoot that bastard Brandywine!"

She meant that as a mother, for she was as much Tresal's loving parent as Vella who bore him, yet it was the Queen of Zea who corrected herself. "That would not put an end to this; however, there are other considerations involved."

"How's dovenja taking it?"

"Stoically. He was proud when his sons joined the military. He also knew it was possible they would have to fight. He's doing everything he can to prevent that from happening, but if it should, he'll pray for John and Tresal."

"We all will. Is Vella there?"

I heard my mother's voice reply. "I've been listening on the extension," Vella said.

"Why didn't you say anything?"

"Marsei was saying what I was thinking. John and Tresal will come through this without harm. I believe it with all my heart."

"I do, too," Marsei added.

We didn't talk much longer that evening, none of us felt like gossiping and what needed to be said had been communicated. I was nervous and fidgety the rest of the evening and found it difficult to work on my lesson plans.

As the weeks became months the waiting became easier since it began to appear the Zeain military presence had the desired effect, preventing war, though our two nations were not yet in agreement in all matters. Eventually, around Summer's Eve when school was let out for two months, Marsei felt the political situation stable enough to make her trip to Yellow Jahsa, the one John had promised and been unable to make.

Marsei arrived by train and planned to spend most of the summer break with Falco and me. It was good to see her and she just loved Dawan. Serena became a little jealous of the baby because her grandmother didn't pay much attention to her at first. Mother more than made it up to Serena in the weeks that followed. Marsei loved to ride ser-monte. Unlike me, however, she had patience with Serena when mounted, and took her riding during the day.

Falco had to be away from the ranch on two different occasions, once for five days, on Rider business. As usual I never questioned him about his work unless he indicated he wished to talk about it. I knew from local gossip in town that one of his outings was in regard to pilferage of supplies at the government power generating plant. I couldn't even guess what the other was about since there were no rumors and he said nothing.

Mother was determined to have a good time at the ranch. She deliberately limited her calls home to once a week, though she listened to the radio for any changes in the political situation. The only time she broke that schedule was the morning a newscast said one of our ships was attacked by a Hosella jet. She spoke directly to Hance Sadis at the National Security Service and was reassured that no damage or casualties had been sustained by either side. Hosella claimed the rocket firing was accidental, but this may have been a smoke screen since that declaration came after fighter/bombers from three Zeain aircraft carriers gathered over the Hosella capital. Our aircraft were recalled after twenty minutes.

I asked mother if she felt she was needed at home. "Certainly not," she replied. "If your dovenja needs me, he'll call. I haven't had a proper vacation in years and I'm not going to let this spoil it for me. I'm having a wonderful time, Rachelle."

"Don't try to convince me of that, sors-rovenja. Falco and I won't be offended if you have to leave."

"I'm staying, sors-venja'le, unless you want me to go."

I smiled at her, shaking my head. "I won't do that either. You'll have to make the decision. Don't look to me to cut your visit short. I want you to stay."

Marsei stayed until there was another announcement two weeks later of an exchange of fire between patrolling jets. We lost two aircraft and at least six Hosella jets went down. The following morning she announced she was returning to Gizen. John had not been involved in the fighting, but she could stay no longer. She was also worried about Vella and Simon, and Papke and Yurilla, of course, who were probably feeling the strain as greatly as we. Marsei and I cried all the way to the station and promised each other we'd have a real visit when this Hosella crisis was past.

I had memories of pleasant talks with Marsei to sustain me through the end of summer. The news from overseas kept getting darker and we were all certain there would be war before the premature fall was over. Winter promised to bitter this year, my fourth one in the valley. While Falco and I, and the other adults on the ranch, wondered about war the children grew bored with the prolonged waiting. The incredibly brief incidents between ships and planes, none of which sparked the all-out conflict that seemed inevitable, failed to hold their attention. I relaxed somewhat when I learned John's carrier rotated back to Zea for outfitting. He had fifteen days leave and I hoped he might find time to fly down and see us—though the weather was turning bad and snow flurries occasionally dusted the valley grass.

We kept busy on the ranch, building warm-up nests on the range for the ser-monte. Breeding with tropical ser-monte for size and speed had reduced the temperature tolerances of the great Fomosan lizards' natural resistance to cold weather. I had seen harder winters in temperature and snowfall in Gizen, but I came to appreciate the bitterness of winter in open country where the wind could throw a man flat and make even the great ser-monte tremble.

Serena wasn't too happy with other changes which coincided with the coming winter. Tyron was old enough to start First School. In the valley the semester began after the fall roundup and Tyron began to ride with me every morning; father had delivered my jeep as promised. At first he was disappointed over not riding the bus with the other ranch children, but he was a great help to me with Dawan. Rain or shine, snow or mud, Dawan had to be with me and Tyron watched my baby while I drove the eight miles to school. Tyron soon learned to appreciate that help giving when Jara's boy realized he usually got home an hour before his peers.

John called the day before his carrier put to sea. It was the best he could do. The weather had closed in over the valley during his leave making it too dangerous to fly down in his Mustang. I wished my brother luck, sticking that sincere wish between inane chatter about school and the weather and what we were doing to protect the ser-monte from the coming winter. When he hung up I realized I had neglected to tell him I loved him. Falco wouldn't let me call back.

"He knows that, Rachelle. He heard it in your voice. Don't spoil a good memory for a departing soldier by trying to explain everything."

We quietly settled into the winter routine. Falco and the men rode the range, driving ser-monte into the warm-up nests if they had strayed or gotten lost in the snow. Jara served four meals a day instead of three because it got so cold that hot food was needed to thaw tired muscles. Serena and Quida turned to each other since Tyron wasn't there to lure Serena away. They found their own amusements in the room they now shared together. I didn't notice how close the two girls became until Tyron peevishly complained that Serena didn't pester him anymore.

Teaching was my bright spot in the short winter days. Inside the stone-facade school building, no matter how hard the wind blew or how deep the snow piled along foundations and hedges, there were laughing voices and intent curiosity. My music students sang with pure voices, playing their instruments; gitar, lensi lap harp, bass, and bowed strings. Twice a week we'd ensemble with the horns, reeds and percussion and once a month there would be a program in the auditorium for the school. When I was at school I deliberately put my concerns for the ranch aside and I didn't worry about John or Tresal so actively. When I got home, however, the worries returned full force.

Falco left on four Rider tours that winter. Each time he came back news from elsewhere was worse; stock lost to freezing cold, roads blocked by snow, and ponds iced over as fast as the ranchers could break them open. It was hard to maintain a cheerful acceptance that the world revolved on its axis and turned about the sun and that winter would pass. It was easier, however, to accept the harsh realities of winter than the vague uncertainty of the Hosella situation.

There were numbered casualties on both sides during the winter. While we shivered and fought snow, our military men died in tropical rain and heat, or drowned in strange waters; crashing broken aircraft into hills which had unfamiliar outlines. Yet it still wasn't war. According to daily government news releases our ships and aircraft were operating under a 'defensive posture'. When I asked my father what a 'defensive posture' was if it wasn't war he said, "It's desperation, darling. Brandywine is testing my patience. He counting on his alliance with Novisot to hold me in check." His voice was hard as steel. I heard the dark promise in his voice and it made me shiver with fright. My father could be a very terrible man when pushed to extremes.

"Why don't you put a stop to it," I said. "John and Tresal could be killed."

"I know that, kitten," he said, his voice softer. "But if this isn't resolved properly, future travelers will be in danger of losing their lives. I can't allow that to happen. Now, let me worry about Brandywine. Tell me how you are getting along down there. We've got snow drifts six and eight feet in the southern part of the city where the land drops off and the wind passes over without blowing it away. I've got snow trucks working around the clock to keep the roads open."

Simon would often do that when I called, change the subject if I dwelled too long on matters which were beyond my ability to change. I considered changing the subject on him. I had something else on my mind, but I decided to take it up with the person responsible instead of sharing it with father. I did as he asked, speaking briefly of our situation, then said good night and headed for bed.

Falco was already under the covers. The sessium heater, which was turned off during the day to conserve fuel when the room was unoccupied, was making crackling noises as the metal surfaces warmed. I quickly stripped and crawled beneath the covers, curling next to Falco's warmth, rubbing my feet against the cold sheets to generate some friction heat.

He switched off the bed side light and turned to me, filled with a hunger I knew so well. What I had to say to him could wait until after we made love. Our joining still moved me in spite of its now familiar pattern and I gloried in it, taking and giving in return.

"Warmer now?" Falco whispered, his breathing less strained, his heart slowing. "I missed you while I was gone."

"I have happy news for you, Falco." He held me lightly, caressing my breasts with a loving hand. "You and I will have another child."

His hand stopped moving as his head jerked away from the pillow. I could only make out the shape of his head in the darkness, the blue flame of the heater too faint to combat the ebony shadows. "So soon?"

"Yes, Falco. And I will adore it."

"I hear a 'but', Rachelle."

"I once told you I needed my independence. I can't be very independent if I'm always pregnant. Doctor Carol Mason ku Greytok tells me there is a way to prevent pregnancy. I just wanted to tell you I will take those precautions from now on—or until I decide to have another child."

"Why tell me? Do I have a say in the matter?"

"None," I said, shaking my head and cupping his cheek, still moist from our joining.

Falco chuckled and pressed his lips against my throat. "Then why ask? I'm more than content. My happiness is your happiness."

"Why do you make it so easy for me to love you?" I whispered. I had expected a discussion at the very least. He said nothing, accepting fully what I had to say without comment or emotional upset. I felt a relief in having asserted myself and that, plus having missed him for a week, let my inner heat build for a second time. I moved against his body and Falco responded with a gentle roughness as he again pinned me beneath his wiry strength.


Deep winter closed in with a howling vengeance, stifling our life in the valley. I found plenty of time to think about the new life growing inside me. At first I was depressed, regretting the coming months of hampered activity seemingly so soon after Dawan's birth, which led me into investigating Doctor Carol Mason ku Greytok's innovative birth control methods. I chaffed at the thought of another child to feed and clothe, demanding my attention. It frustrated me that Falco had placed me in this condition while he remained free to do as he pleased, go where he wished, whenever he chose.

Those were my thoughts during the first week I was certain of my pregnancy. At the beginning of the second week my attitude softened as a growing excitement of being a part of Vella's "miracle". It filled my heart; remembering mother's words and my gladness for this living sign of the love Falco and I shared, warmed me though bitter-chill nights. The child was part myself, part Falco. It was created through love and I could not help loving it.

When I thought of all the women who wanted children and could never conceive, I realized my great fortune. Sors-rovenja Marsei never actually dwelled on or voiced her frustrated yearning to have another child with Simon, complications at Don's birth had left her barren—but my mother's feelings were quite obvious by the blissful envy she had of Vella's children. My foster mother showered her love and affection on us, Vella's children, genuinely and without reservation, but I knew she would gladly give up her station in life to be able to have another child. Understanding Marsei's desire to have children was only partly influential in softening my early regrets, it was my own love of children which turned me around. I was filled with the happy knowledge that this child's father would love it, care for it, be there in good times and bad. I came to love the child for itself and what it meant. I felt an immense self-worth and importance through my unborn child because children are the legacy of any generation. It has always been so and will always be so. Children who are loved and cherished and guided with gentle understanding will be responsible adults, passing on those special traits to their children.

The weather vacillated between freezing darkness and briskly chill sunshine. The roads were often impassable from snowfall until plow trucks from Yellow Jahsa and Patiz cleared them. There were days school was canceled in the interest of the children's safety; some homes and cabins were completely snowbound. We did the best we could under difficult circumstances, protecting the stock, repairing wind and snow damage, helping those less fortunate than ourselves.

I thought of the school children in class, their bright voices rising in song above the sounds of their instruments. They were so eager, even with the wind howling outside. They attentively performed exercises and assignments. There was always a feeling of sunshine and warmth inside the school. This did much to keep worry and dark thoughts at bay.

Each time Falco left on Rider business I worried for him. The roads were uncertain, and once he had to go in search of a murderer. I slept poorly until he returned home. I later realized how silly my concern was, riding the valley in search of stranded or trapped ser-monte was probably more dangerous than traveling the icy roads, or seeking an armed killer, but I couldn't help myself.

The northern winds gradually lost their blustery force and snow fell less frequently. We began to dig ourselves out in preparation for spring. My pregnancy was showing by then and I found myself slowing down, tiring a little sooner with each passing week. I still managed to drive into Yellow Jahsa to teach, but I cut my daily hours back, combining classes in the process. I also groomed several of my older, more advanced students as substitutes for when I would take leave to have the baby. I hadn't prepared that well when Dawan was born and, though my students understood, they had missed lessons while I was out. I was determined not to let my students down this pregnancy.

Though mail delivery was uncertain during the winter, Olexa sent several chatty letters written with an amusing scrawl. She and Els had followed the construction boom along the shores of the Azbe Inland Sea where Els worked as a stone mason for a time. Now he was an electrical apprentice for a large contractor. Els sometimes added a short note to the bottom or back of Olexa's letters, but he wasn't a writer at heart. My niece's letters were filled with Els and Aidan and their wants out of life. They sounded happy together. It's always nice to know that one's inner feelings about a person are accurate, I had known that Olexa and Els were right for each other and her cheerful letters were proof of that feeling. Olexa sent me a picture of the three of them, demanding one of Serena, Dawan, and myself in return. As soon as I could get one made I would comply for I was proud of my daughter and son and wished for Olexa to see them.

The one aspect of Olexa's letters which touched me the most deeply was their tone; a mature affection and understanding of what I had done for her and her brothers after Elispeth's death. Though it had been nearly four years since I had last seen Olexa it seemed as if we were closer than ever. I cherished her letters, re-reading them when the winter snowscape became too much to bear.

Vaughn wrote me a letter that winter; short, rambling, obviously done under duress with Yurilla standing over him. When I rescued Vaughn from Tasien the child had expressed a desire to live with John and Papke because he wanted to be pilot like his uncle. Vaughn was under their guardianship for a few months, but ultimately he gravitated toward Tresal and Yurilla, making himself a part of their family. My nephew had no lack of guardians, the palace was full of people who loved him, but it was his honor to name Tresal and Yurilla as his foster parents in spite of the way Yurilla rode him to get the best from the young boy. He was apparently happy and thriving and that was all that mattered to me.

Vella shared a story about Vaughn with me in a letter. She wrote of a strange, unscheduled palace fire drill, some missing fral cakes, and a rather cold and slimy amphibian which somehow found its way into the Captain of the King's Own Guard's bed. "He reminds me of your brother John at that age," she wrote. "Always into mischief. At Yurilla's request Simon had a 'talk' with him. It was a good two hours before Vaughn could sit down again. But I suspect there will be other practical jokes before he matures."

When spring finally arrived, we had an unusually warm beginning, clearing the snow very rapidly which swelled the Auel River beyond its usual spring flood stage. We lost more ser-monte in the flooding than all winter long and we weren't the only ranch so affected. To the north of us a ranch house, with everyone inside, fell into the raging river when banks undercut the foundations. Six good people perished and we lost valued friends. Fortunately there were no other deaths reported throughout the valley and, though we had known the unfortunate ranch family personally, Falco expressed a gladness that the weather casualties were so light. Apparently it was normal for ten to fifteen to die in the winter run-off each year.

The weather improved and the days became milder, though military events off the coast of Secoundous heated to a fever-pitch. We heard about a violent sea battle between Zeain and Hosellan ships two days after it occurred. Three Zeain vessels were damaged, none sunk, while the entire Hosella force of eighteen ships were sunk or put out of commission. Within hours of the battle the unscathed Zeain carriers launched a full strike on the Hosella capital, completely destroying the naval yards in Valo Bay and President Brandywine's official seat of government. It was not known if Brandywine was killed or had escaped, but the remaining Hosella authorities took control of the nation and pleaded an unconditional surrender. My parents knew about this as it happened, but they didn't call me until Gizen Radio made the public announcement.

I listened with relief to what news Marsei and Vella had to share. Father couldn't speak to me, he was down stairs in his study dickering with delegates from Hosella. I heard the good news that there would be peace and I heard the great news that John and Tresal were fine.

"I could chew ser-monte shells!" I told Falco when I hung up the phone. "They could have called after it happened!" I was indignant, I was angry. I suddenly turned on him. "Did you know? You're the Rider, after all, and if anybody knew before that broadcast you would."

"I swear to you, Rachelle, I didn't know. I know how worried you've been over John and Tresal. I would have told you if I'd known. It's great they came through without injury."

Falco never lied to me. "It is over, isn't it?" I felt like laughing. "Oh, Falco, it's over and they'll be coming home!" I threw my arms about his neck and hugged him enthusiastically.

He staggered slightly from the abrupt embrace and the extra weight of my pregnancy. Chuckling wryly Falco wrapped his arms about me. "I do know something I haven't told you yet."

"What?"

He looked down at me, eyes twinkling with mischief. "I—no, the time's not right. I'll tell you later."

"Tell me now." I demanded. He shook his head. "Tell me now?" I asked. He smiled, lips sealed. I kissed him, running my hands through the hair at the nape of his neck. "Tell me now?" I pleaded seductively, which was comical coming from a woman as rotundly pregnant as I.

"You've been such a grump recently—"

"I know and I'm sorry," I pouted. "It's not all my fault," I giggled, folding his hands over our unborn child. "The only innocent party in this room is right in here, kicking like a hatchling. Feel that? Now tell me."

Falco's eyes crinkled proudly as he felt the vigorous movements as the baby stretched. "There are times I still can't believe it, teela." Then, without pausing or changing the inflection of his voice he said, "Joysan and Rampart are coming to visit. He's going to do a few spring concerts and she'll be staying here with you. Do you think you can find room for her? I'll be traveling with Rampart..."

"Joysan's coming?" I opened my mouth, stunned. "Rampart, too? When?"

Falco kissed me, walking into the kitchen to pour kla into his empty cup. I followed him breathlessly asking questions, demanding answers. He rolled his eyes, humming softly, teasing me. "If the train is on time, they should be here around lunch time tomorrow."

"Lunch time?" I asked. "Who's going to pick them up at the station?"

"I thought you wouldn't mind doing that since you're going into town to make deposits for the hands."

In his own way mischievous way Falco distinctly ordered me out of the house and to enjoy myself on Rest Day. There was no school, no work (I had stopped heavy lifting weeks earlier) and Jara could manage Dawan for a few hours.

I went by the Yellow Jahsa Hall of Finance a half hour earlier than the train arrival so I could take Rampart and Joysan directly to the ranch without having to stop for business. I knew that train ride well, they would be tired. The sun was brilliant and the air tasted fresh-scrubbed. No clouds marred the vault of blue overhead and the wind blew steadily down from the forested slopes of the valley. Breder had removed the jeep's canvas top before I left the house and I enjoyed sitting in the sun beside the platform.

Children ran the streets, laughing in the welcome sunshine. A few of them stopped to say hello to me, inquiring on how soon I would have the baby. I talked to them until other interests drew their attention and they raced off. I watched them playing hunter-seek between the buildings on the other side of the rail line then succumbed to the gentle early spring heat. I closed my eyes and scooted down into the driver's seat enjoying the pleasant sensation that all was right with the world and my very best of all friends would soon be here.

I dozed a little, awakened by the rumble of the arriving train. Leaning forward over the steering wheel, I watched the passengers descending from the cars, eager for the first glimpse of Joysan and Rampart. I saw the tip of Rampart's gitar case coming through the doorway before I saw them. I pulled myself up, shouting and waving to attract their attention.

Joysan hobbled toward me, somehow looking more graceful than any woman with two good legs. A huge smile creased her face and I heard her laughter over the general noise of the station. For a moment she was hidden by a large crate being off-loaded from a flat car, then she was at the jeep, hugging me and speaking so rapidly it was almost gibberish.

"You look wonderful!" I said, holding her hands in mine. "You cut your hair—I like it."

"And you're so big!" Joysan laughed.

"I'm not as big as I'm going to get," I giggled. "I still have two months to go. I'll be as big as a house." I tried to sound morbid, but Joysan saw right through me.

"You didn't bring Serena?" Rampart's voice caused Joysan and I to jump. He threw the travel bags into the back of the jeep, placed his instrument more carefully, then embraced me until I thought my eyes would pop from their sockets. "I guess I'll just have to settle for you, Rachelle." He looked around, searching the crowd which gathered whenever the train stopped at Yellow Jahsa. "Where's Falco?"

"Back at the ranch. I had to come into town so he decided I could manage it myself. We've got three eggs in the nest right now and they're ready to hatch."

"I've seen a hatching before. Ugly mess..." He grinned, feigning disgust. "Do you mind if I drive, Rachelle? It's not that I don't trust you, I've just been cooped up on that train for so long I'd like some exercise."

I pulled Rampart's face down to kiss him. "If you hadn't volunteered I was going to force you. Joysan and I can't talk if I've got to pay attention to where I'm going. Hold still," I said, grabbing his shoulder for support so I could climb into the back seat.

Rampart expressed a desire to head down to the barn to see Falco when we arrived at the house. Joysan and I had talked non-stop all the way from the station and I was sure he hoped to escape our chatter.

Serena stopped playing with Quida on the veranda as we began to unload the jeep. She came down the steps looking at Rampart curiously until she finally recognized him; Rampart now wore a mustache which I thought looked a little silly since it was such a spare, thin growth, but it seemed to please Joysan. Serena took Quida's hand and pulled Jara's bashful child to the jeep.

"This is Quida," Serena said. "She's my friend. Are you going to play music for us?"

Rampart squatted down to her level. Very seriously he said, "I will play a song for each of you. Hello, Quida, my name is Rampart and this is Joysan. Which one of you is going to show me where Falco is?"

"I will!" Serena said, echoed by Quida. She took Rampart's extended hand and, still holding Quida's, very importantly strutted to the barn.

Joysan shook her head, looking at the bags Rampart had left on the edge of the porch. "Just like a man, move it as little as possible, the women will take care it later."

"How about some kla?" I asked, climbing the steps.

"Maybe a cup or three," Joysan said, following me into the house.

That night, after dinner, Falco brought out his gitar and joined Rampart and I. We had a fine evening of song and dance. I danced with Falco for the first time while Rampart played. Stumbling along on my leg, my balance upset by my bloated belly, it felt wonderfully like floating in the river when I was held in his arms under the beautiful Dance of the Moons.

Since Rampart and Falco were leaving very early in the morning we kept the entertainment short. Joysan and I went into one of the spare rooms to talk, we were too excited to sleep, and it was agreed before we said goodnight to Rampart and Falco that we intended to talk all night long. We very nearly did. Joysan and I talked, seated on the bed, and a few hours before dawn we just pooped out and went to sleep. I woke when I heard Jara making kla in the kitchen for Rampart and Falco before they left. I shook Joysan awake and we stumbled in to have kla and say goodbye.

"Try to get some sleep, Rachelle," Rampart urged. "Joysan's going to be here at least a Tenday, longer if she wants. I know you both have a lot of things to talk about, but try to be reasonable with it..."

I had trouble holding my eyes open but my ears functioned well. "You just don't know how much talking we have to get done. A whole month might not be long enough."

Falco took my chin between his fingers and chuckled. "You can be so intense at times, teela. As far as I'm concerned Joysan can stay until the baby is born, or as long as she wants."

Rampart thumped his hand on the table in approval. "That's a grand idea! Why don't you stay, Joysan? You know you'd like to."

"I'm not sure I should," she replied. "You're too easy, Rampart. With you all alone in the house without me to keep you out of trouble I'm not sure what I'd find when I got back."

Rampart spread his hands helplessly, winking at Falco. "You tried, Falco. I appreciate the effort, but it looks like I'll never get a rest from this clutching, over-bearing, over-possessive nag."

"Clutching?" Joysan feigned indignity. "Over-possessive? When are you ever home, Rampart? When do I have the opportunity to be 'clutching'? Falco, I'm of half a mind to stay!"

Rampart couldn't resist. "What does the other half want to do? Or did you lose it?"

18.

Joysan extended her visit into summer, affectionately meddlesome the whole time just like Vella and Marsei had been when I was pregnant with Dawan. In a way Joysan's interference was very different from the way my mothers had lovingly "managed" my pregnancy with Dawan. Joysan and I had grown up together in the palace. Then later as adults, our friendship had continued closely since we lived near each other on the Heights. Joysan was like a sister to me and we shared secrets known to no one else.

I spent a good part of our first day together making amends for being so distant over recent years. My tours with Lin and Rampart, and later the extended tour which brought me to Yellow Jahsa and Falco, had interfered with our relationship, but these were poor excuses for remaining so distant from Joysan, who understood me better than anyone. There was a closeness between us that even Elispeth and I never enjoyed, though I never doubted my sister's love at any time. I suppose it was possible that Joysan and I felt a common affinity due to our physical imperfections, but I have always believed our mutual fondness went much deeper.

Joysan elected herself my lady-in-waiting the very day Falco and Rampart departed the house for her Chosen's concert tour. She insisted on driving me to school as Vella had those last weeks before Dawan was born. She stayed to watch my classes and to sit with Dawan. She applauded the music, very critically and approving, when my students performed for her. To them she was magical, all laughter and enthusiasm. She answered their questions about her famous Chosen known "everywhere there's an ear"—as one child said. She was a positive disruption in my classes and I enjoyed having her there as much as the children.

Tyron finally got to experience the dubious delights of taking the school bus. After the third day he was ready to resume riding with me in the jeep, but Joysan shook her head. "It's time to change the guard," she told him with a gentle smile. "Being Rachelle's oldest friend I reserve the right to pamper her with my company."

Tyron, wiser by far than his apparent years, offered this telling comment: "Rachelle hates to be pampered."

Joysan's mouth dropped open as, with hands on hips, she watched the young boy jump from the veranda and run toward the barn. She turned to me, eyes narrowed questioningly. "Is that true? Do you hate to be pampered?"

I chuckled. "Let's say that I'm not used to it anymore. I like this active life and I've been known to get my hands dirty a time or two."

"Like the time you and I decided to re-arrange your Rovenjas' gernica beds?"

I felt a flush at the memory. I burst out laughing, reaching out to pull Joysan down to the chair beside me. "I remember I got three more lashes than you because it was my idea."

"I should have known better," Joysan giggled. "You were always getting me into trouble."

"Trouble? My dear, you have never thanked me for leading you into that tight trap between the wall and car while playing Hunter/Seek."

Joysan's eyes unfocused happily as she remembered that fall afternoon at the palace garage. Though she was seventeen at the time and being kind-hearted enough to amuse the King's crippled daughter with a game of Hunter/Seek, she should have realized that she couldn't go places that I could, being so scrawny and small. Caught in the fever of the game Joysan had tried to capture me, but I escaped, only to hear her cry out that she was trapped.

"I should thank you for that?" Joysan pouted, hugging me. "When you tried to pull me out, you took my leg!"

"Which is why you should thank me, teela. I had to get help. I brought Rampart. And don't you dare try to tell me that isn't when you decided you were going to Petition him. I know better."

Joysan chuckled, eyes lowered in the face of the truth. "All right, Rachelle. Thank you!"

"And," I grinned, feeling so carefree in her presence, "you should thank me for little Rachelle. After all—"

"I understand biology, Rachelle. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I wonder if Jara has any kla in the kitchen. Want some?"

"That would be nice—"

"Then get off your backside and bring us both a cup, dear."

I acknowledged Joysan's skillful maneuvering by fetching kla and fral cakes. We sat on the veranda sipping kla, watching Dawan manfully scouring the dust off the solid torpal decking with his clothes. Quida came out of the house and sat with us for a few minutes then decided Dawan needed a bath. She was right in one respect, he was a mess, but her solution, taking him down to the yard so she could dip water from the ser-monte trough near the house, was not met with cheerful cooperation from Dawan.

Joysan held her tongue for several moments, then turned, a little incredulously, to me. "You let Quida do things like that?"

"She's gentle with him," I said. "She and Serena think he's theirs. They take turns dressing and bathing him. If you want to know the truth, Dawan would complain if they left him alone too long."

"Well," she said, unconvinced, "Dawan certainly doesn't appear to be very happy at the moment."

"Why should he?" I asked, laughing. "He spent a good half hour collecting that dirt."

Joysan raised an eyebrow, amused. "So—since you weren't allowed to play in the dirt when you were young, you've decided to let your children run wild?"

"Take a look around you, Joysan." I waved my hand to include the valley and clear cloudless sky. "What kind of rovenja would I be if I denied my children this beautiful wilderness?"

"With electric lights, running water, and indoor plumbing—"

I chuckled. As usual Joysan managed to combine tender sarcasm with reality. "I said I like the active life, Joysan. I didn't say I could forego the necessities."

In the evenings I watched Joysan with the others at the evening sing, a tradition I had gladly maintained since coming to the ranch. She and Jara were of a kind, both had marvelously strong voices and a some what uncertain control of them. They would join arms and sing, drowning out the more timid, urging the braver to greater efforts. At other times around the house they were good to each other, friends from the start.

The thing I cherished most about Jara and Joysan, however, was being present the night Joysan, complaining of a rash, demurely unstrapped her prosthesis to rub her stump through the thin cloth of her dress. The three of us were alone in the main room, the hour was late with Breder and the children already in bed. Jara, always cool and steady, was open-mouthed and speechless until Joysan laughed.

"I couldn't help it, Jara," Joysan said. "I must have gotten into something since I've been here—"

Jara, flushed with embarrassment, apologized. "I didn't mean to stare. I didn't know. I'm very sorry."

"Why?" Joysan asked. "I'm not. Do you have something for a rash?" Joysan started scratching vigorously, eyes squeezed shut. "I can't imagine where this came from!"

Jara went to her cabinet of home remedies, all of which worked surprisingly well, and brought back a small jar with a pungent salve made from rendered barabe lard and various herbs she grew behind the house. Jara had, of course, seen my leg and massaged it a time or two when Falco was away from the house on Rider business and I couldn't manage myself. She offered to help Joysan, but my friend gratefully declined.

"I think it's time Rachelle returned some past favors, Jara. Thank you for the salve."

I gladly returned the "past favors", especially when I saw extensive inflammation covering the scarred flap of skin. I recognized the rash, too. I'd had it before. I looked inside the padding of her prosthesis and found the small black and red insect crushed between the folds.

"You'll get used to looking for these when you dress in the morning, Joysan. It's a zebak. They don't bite, but they have a slimy exudate that causes rashes. Jara's salve will have this right by morning." I picked up her leg when I finished spreading the ointment.

Joysan's eyes grew wide as she looked down at the grease-filmed stump. "It's stopped itching! Tell Jara she's my friend forever! Where are you going with that?" she asked when I started out of the bedroom with her leg.

"The padding needs to be washed before you can wear it or you'll end up with the rash again."

"I can do that—"

"I know," I laughed. "Past favors and all—"

Joysan smiled, sitting on the edge of her bed. She opened her arms, waving me closer. "It's so good to be here with you, Rachelle!" she whispered as we embraced.

"I'm glad to have you here too, teela."

I left before we got maudlin and stayed up talking all night. Jara was good company and I had many wonderful friends among the people at the ranch or in Yellow Jahsa, but Joysan was something special. It was too easy to ignore my sleepy eyes and yawns and sit up chattering until dawn.

I swabbed out the stump cavity in Joysan's artificial leg then changed the padding. Before we both found lives outside the palace, I had often helped her with the maintenance of her prosthesis. It was a familiar action that evoked a joy at being able to give back some of what Joysan had given me over the years. The padding in place, I quietly opened the door to Joysan's darkened room. By the faint hall light I saw that she was already asleep. I left the leg near Joysan's bed and went to my room.

On Rest Day Joysan, Serena, Quida, and I took Dawan on a picnic by the river. Dawan enjoyed himself when we went swimming in warm, shallow water. He cried unhappily when we came out to lunch under the nut-heavy tarec trees on the bank. The girls soon had him giggling as Serena and Quida chased each other in and out of the low bushes flourishing in the thick shade of the tarec trees. We called the girls in when lunch was prepared. After Jara's hearty fried ger-monte sandwiches and zesty cold zuri salad had been consumed, the children settled down in the heat. Dawan fell asleep between Joysan and I while Serena and Quida played in the sand beside the river.

"This is lovely, Rachelle," Joysan sighed, lying back on the blanket to stare up at the triangular dark-green leaves. She suddenly smiled. "Did I tell you about the family picnic at Pim River Park last month?"

"I don't think so, Who was there?"

"Oh, everybody—your parents, your brothers and their families, Hance and Drapella and Chesar and Jane, and Vaughn, of course. John and Tresal were dicing with Chesar in the afternoon. I was talking with Vella at the time and didn't notice anything until Rampart nudged me. He pointed to Vaughn sitting with the men, watching them play. It took a round or two before I noticed what Rampart was laughing about.

"There were a lot of people in the park that afternoon and when someone passed close to the game, the men would pause to watch them pass. When they did, Vaughn very casually changed the dice roll. He must have done it at least five times before John began to complain loudly. From that point on they watched the game closely and Vaughn eventually left."

"The little scamp!" I said.

"He's not that small anymore, Rachelle. Vaughn's really grown. He's always into everything. In fact, John and Tresal eventually decided Vaughn was responsible for the odd dice game. They tossed him in the river. Vaughn denied it straight-faced so Tresal said: 'If you weren't guilty of that, you're bound to be guilty of something, so be quiet.'"

I chuckled, imagining Vaughn four years older. As a small child he'd always been adventurous and reckless. To know that much of his personality had survived his hardships with Tasien after Elispeth's death was gratifying. There wasn't a day which passed that I didn't think of my niece and nephews in some way. Having first hand information of Vaughn soothed that ache in my heart.

By the end of Joysan's first week at the ranch, she was completely settled, a part of our large family. Joysan also acted as a gracious hostess to my personally-selected substitute teachers. They came to the ranch to go over my proposed lesson plans when they took over toward the end of my term.

Joysan's gay gossips brought me news of the "outside" world. Life in the Auel Valley moved at a different pace than in the modern cities of Zea. We were not uninformed, being knowledgeable of national events through radio and Recorder dispatches, but we weren't up on the latest social trends. Vella and Marsei had shared their information of changes in Gizen, but their observations were biased from the royal or government viewpoint, which was slightly foreign to my suburban-trained senses.

Joysan told me of new roads and parks in the Pim River Valley. We talked of people I once knew, or the way the gernica bloomed around her house in the spring. Joysan hoped the girl her son Lindan had escorted for the last two years was getting serious. I tried to remember the young woman but only retained a vague impression of a thin, dark-haired girl who rarely spoke.

"I hope Lindan's not so foolish as to refuse her Petition. She's a lovely girl. You and Falco would be invited, of course."

There were other things which Joysan could share because of her special relationship with the family. She and Rampart were frequent visitors to the palace and always welcome. She remarked on how tense and moody father was all through the Hosella crisis. She told me how sympathetic she had been when Yurilla bravely hid her tears whenever there was bad news.

"It was a bad time, Rachelle. Even Papke, who never shows much, broke down and cried when John and Tresal walked in together. Rampart and I happened to be there because he performed with Lin at a state dinner celebrating the formal agreement between Zea and Hosella. After your brothers came home it seemed as if dark clouds disappeared and sunshine lit the corridors of the palace again."

Falco and Rampart called every evening from whatever city or town a concert was scheduled. Falco always asked about the ranch or how the children were doing. He never came right out and asked how I was doing. I think he was more nervous this time around than when Dawan was born.

As the days passed I found myself vacillating between asking Joysan to stay on until after the baby was born or sending her back when Rampart returned. I was in good hands at the ranch, among people who loved me as much as I loved them, but it would be very special for my very best friend in the world to be with me. We talked, we sat quietly together, she listened while I played gitar, or read to me when I was tired. Joysan was a gentle, caring woman who knew everything about me, a person to whom I could tell anything. But I felt it was asking too much to expect her to stay when her Chosen had to return to Gizen at the end of his tour; yet, I was not ready to release her.

Though I couldn't ride my ser-monte, I walked down to the corral every day to see the great lizard which was mine. Everyday I made sure the mare was groomed properly and that Tyron gave her a good run in the afternoon when he came in from school. Joysan always walked to the corral with me, not from any concern over my condition but because she liked the sun and smell and the sight of the blue river winding through the great, green sea of grass. We did some of our best talking at the corral, the mare's affectionate head leaning over the fence between us.

I was pleased when Joysan announced her intention to stay on at the ranch. Rampart was equally happy, saying it would do us both some good to "wear out those wagging tongues of yours..." Rampart returned to Gizen at the conclusion of his successful tour and the following morning Falco and the entire ranch crew mounted up. They intended to cross the Auel River on a roundup of breeding mares on the western slopes of the valley. He expected to be gone at least three days and was glad that Joysan was there to keep me company in his absence.

I don't know why Joysan waited until Rampart's tour was over before she mentioned anything about Densil. I know she was partly reluctant to speak at all, but I imagined that Rampart would have prevented her if he'd known about it. I supposed he knew Joysan would eventually talk about Densil and his problems, and perhaps that's why he removed himself, to give her the opportunity.

It was a fortuitous circumstance which took Falco away from the house at the same time because it was difficult for Joysan to broach the subject and even more difficult for me to deal with since talking about my troubled nephew involved discussion of Tasien. I was glad Falco was gone when Joysan started talking about Densil. I became upset and I'm sure Falco would have been concerned. Jara certainly didn't understand my mood swing since nothing was explained to her, but she quietly accepted it as a part of my approaching time.

"It's difficult to think of Densil as being the same age as Rampart when he Accepted my Petition," Joysan said after breakfast, a continuation of the distressing conversation before bed the night before. We walked across the sloping ranch yard to the corrals as we had each morning when I went to see my mare.

Talking about Densil was easier at the corral where the sunshine and the vibrant strength of the ser-monte kept the unhappiness from becoming too overpowering for me. The whole troubled story wasn't said in one session, it took several days for Joysan to bring it out.

"At least the beatings have stopped," she said that first morning. "Densil's too big and strong for that kind of handling from Tasien. He fights back now."

"I'm sorry to hear that," I said, eyes burning, tears threatening. Joysan saw that and was quick to reassure me.

"I see Densil at least two or three times a week, Rachelle. He comes by on his way to or from market. He looks good, he has Elispeth's eyes and mouth. He seems to be working hard in the shop. Determined to learn the business you might say."

"When he was little," I sniffled embarrassedly, wiping my nose with the back of my hand, "Densil told me he wanted to go to sea. He wanted to be a sailor like his kadovenja John. He liked that aspect of John's navy career, but it was always Tresal who took him sailing on the lake when we visited at the palace. I guess he'll never have that chance now."

On another day she revealed, "Tasien's drinking heavily now which makes some days worse than others. A few of Tasien's craftsmen have talked about quitting, but Densil's managed to hold things together somehow. I think the men stay on because Densil does. He has their respect. I just don't know why he stays on with Tasien when it's so bad."

"He's loyal, Joysan. Densil's always been very conscious of family. That's why he was such a over-bearing brother to Vaughn and Teri, and so sweet to Olexa."

Joysan sighed, frustrated. "You're right. I know he won't listen to anyone down-grading Tasien. What concerns me more, however, is what Tasien is putting that young man through. In some ways Tasien displays more grief now than when Elispeth died. Densil once told me he's seen Tasien talking to her picture in the bedroom. No one is allowed in that room, not even Densil, and nothing's been changed since Elispeth died. In Rampart's opinion Tasien is a little insane."

On a different day, after the information had time to absorb and the thoughts were less painful from confrontation, she said, "It's nearly seven years since Elispeth died of the Fever. Thanks to your dovenja, and the Doctors Greytok's serum, Transit Influenza has been almost completely eradicated."

"That is something to be grateful for," I said, though I was thinking of the terrible family losses before that serum had been developed. It seemed to me that the Fever was still potent, still destroying the heart-broken left in its wake. Talking of those past days caused introspection and I couldn't contain my curiosity. "Have you talked with Tasien?"

"Rampart sees him more than I do. I run into him on the street from time to time and in spite of what happened between him and Rampart—" she avoided mention of the shooting "—I stop and say hello if he isn't too drunk." Joysan lowered her eyes to the ground, leaning with arms folded across the top corral railing. She sensed that this particular place, this hour of the day, was the only time I could bear talking about the past or the people I once knew.

"He still looks good, Rachelle. Tasien always was so handsome, once he got past gawky adolescence. But there's a brooding darkness in his eyes. Rampart may be right, he may be just a little crazy." Joysan's voice was filled with sorrow. She regarded Tasien as family since hers was killed during the war and the only brothers and sisters she "knew" were the children of the king and the two war orphans who lived with her at the palace.

The mare's snout butted against my shoulder and I patted her with an absent-minded hand. I didn't want to ask the question, but I couldn't help myself. "Does Tasien ever say anything about me?"

Joysan turned away, avoiding my eyes. Reluctantly, she answered, "That's the one constant thing he talks about, Rachelle. He's always apologizing for having hurt you." When I stiffened, she quickly added, "He's sorry he called you names, blaming you for Elispeth's death—but you know that. I think he's sorry about the problems with Olexa and Vaughn, but he doesn't talk about that, he just talks about missing you."

"He still thinks about me?" I shivered, though the air was quite warm and the sun half-way to zenith. I struggled to control my voice, to keep it from trembling. "I'm surprised. I really hurt him when I took Olexa and Vaughn away from him."

"Forget Tasien, Rachelle," Joysan pleaded. Her hands touched my shoulders lightly, pressuring me to face her intent expression. "You did what you had to do. That's where it should stop, Rachelle. You can't worry about Tasien. There's nothing anyone can do for him now. Promise me. Do you hear me, Rachelle? Promise. You have a very wonderful life here with a fine man. Let it go."

She assumed facts that were not in evidence, at least not to her, and that angered me. I don't really know what I felt at the time, confusion mostly because I worried about Densil being alone with a man I no longer understood. But I agreed with Joysan in that I had acted in my sister's children's behalf, fulfilling Elispeth's last request in part. As for the other, that which passed between Tasien and I, that was better forgotten. I had a happy life with Falco and I loved this great, vast ranch. Dwelling on the past meant having no future to look forward to, yet, lying alone in bed, I found myself thinking back to those days when Tasien showed me such kindness before cutting me so cruelly. I compared my feelings of then to what I felt for Falco and saw how shallow that past love had been.

Falco sensed the difference in me when he returned from the roundup. He never said anything directly, but I could tell from the tone of his voice, his manner, when he asked about myself and the baby. I felt unfaithful to Falco for having Tasien so prominently in my thoughts. This "guilt" left me feeling ridiculous. We both had carefully avoided turning our relationship into something more permanent, though we shared respect and love for each other. Conversely; however, that meant the respect must be pure and the love unconditional.

But Falco never asked. He was an oddly patient man, able to wrestle with problems without revealing the struggle, or to methodically take steps to solve them. I'd seen that facet of his personality many times as the Rider, the rancher, the father, my lover. His eyes, usually laughing, could, at times, pierce to the very center of my being. There had been times his silent, questioning eyes had forced confessions from me, little secrets I had wished to keep to myself. It was at those times that I felt the most vulnerable with Falco, remembering his prior trade. There was something very compelling about Falco the Holessa, something which frightened me a little. I loved him dearly, and I loved our son, but there were moments of self-doubt—was our love genuine, or was it something I had been "taught" by the master slave-trainer?

As soon as he kissed me, however, the fear departed as swiftly as it came. I liked the feel of his strong arms about me, the roughness of his beard on my cheek. And, later in the evening when the house was silent, I told him I was upset about Densil, which was the truth. But I didn't tell him how much I'd also been thinking of Tasien, sorrowing for the down-fallen man I'd once known.

The following morning Falco took Joysan and I out in the jeep and showed us the herd brought over from the western side of the valley. We watched the men cutting out the best stock for the breeding pens, others destined for sale, the culls being readied for shipment to the meat packers in Corbido. The day was bright, the air sweet. Joysan's gay laughter from watching sweating men curse agile ser-monte attempting to break herd was infectious. The dark thoughts of night vanished under such conditions and, as the days passed the baby's pending arrival soon filled my every thought. I gladly ran from those painful memories of Tasien.

Joysan went home a few days after Yazuko's Naming Day. She was thoroughly convinced that my new daughter was the prettiest baby ever born. "Three beautiful children, Rachelle," she impishly teased at the station. "You are well blest by Herza. I was the one she joked with—Rachelle towers over me and she's so clumsy! I'm going to miss you, teela." Joysan embraced me tenderly. We were both crying.

"I hate to break this up," Falco said, gently taking Joysan's arm, "but the train will leave without you—" Falco helped Joysan up the passenger car's steps.

"Love you!" Joysan cried, waving as the rail cars jerked then settled to the steady pull of the locomotive.

"Love you, too, Joysan!"

Whenever I got tired, or the ranch and teaching seemed to be too much, I looked back on Joysan's visit with fondness. She came at an intense period in my life, a time when all was so new, so beautiful, so deliciously uncertain. I was in love with a good man, my children growing up unfettered by city life, and I was still afraid it was all a dream. Falco and I worked hard together, learning what was important, what mattered little. At the age of thirty-six I finally came of age over a two year period of self-discovery. I tested my strengths and weaknesses, slowly shedding the confining, reserved shell I had built to protect myself from the world.

I rarely thought of my leg as a "deformity", considering it only when a muscle cramped or I carelessly missed a step; immediately ignoring the clumsiness because it wasn't important any longer. The strenuous range work strengthened my leg. I loved to spend hours riding. Falco and I rode often, but I was happiest riding alone, at one with the valley, the ever-changing beauty, the raw, alive, openness of the land.

The ranch prospered under Falco's ambitious management. He had a dream of making our place the finest breeding ranch in the world. I supported every venture he undertook towards fulfilling that dream. New stock was imported from the jungles of Secoundous; fierce, combative ser-monte from the mysterious Sa-Cor Territory where Tresal and Yurilla had escaped kidnappers so long ago. It would be years before we were certain the new blood improved the lines of the test herd, but it was a start.

One thing pleased me more than all the others: Falco only made three trips as Rider during that last busy year. At Dawan's third Naming Day celebration Falco proudly announced that, barring the unseen, the only time his rider duties would require his absence from the ranch or Yellow Jahsa in the future would be for his bi-annual report to the king.

"There is now a fully-staffed Recorder Office in every city and town in the Auel Valley District!"

He smiled under the cheers and bone-jarring back slaps. It was an accomplishment deserving of recognition and pride, for he had, unselfishly and often at great personal sacrifice, finally completed the assignment given him nearly forty years ago; and the peace in the valley was a living testament to his unswerving dedication.

I was so proud of him. My Falco was the best example of what my father said when he asked me to do the school tour. One man can make a difference. I know Falco did for me.

19.

Serena spent as much time in the kitchen or the hatching barn as she did on a ser-monte. She seemed determined, as she said, to learn how to do all the things her rovenja did. Her fral cakes were usually too thick, the nuts too coarsely chopped, but she worked hard. Her hands were more clever with a throwing rope than a spatula, but her enthusiasm was just as intense.

At nine years of age, she was my heart's delight. She was tall and straight, her mouth crooked into a perpetual smile. Her bluish eyes seemed to gain more flecks of green as she matured. She used them to gaze possessively upon the wide, sun-drenched valley with pride. This was her home. She knew no other, though she'd been to Gizen with Falco twice during the last year when he delivered his Rider report to Simon. She enjoyed those week long visits with my family, but Serena was always eager to return to the Auel Valley.

It was hot in the kitchen and I wiped the hem of my apron across my forehead. I smiled as I watched the intent expression on Serena's face. She was concentrating on chopping tarec nuts with a wide-blade, keen-edged knife. I was suddenly seized from behind and lifted from the floor.

Falco sometimes did this to me, but the hands at my waist weren't his. They were young and strong. I didn't recognize them. "Put me down!" I demanded. I pushed hard at the hands and I was released. I turned around, heated words on my lips, but they died unsaid as I looked at the tall, young man grinning down at me.

"Densil!" I threw my arms wide and hugged back when he picked me up again. Falco leaned against the arch, grinning, nodding his head approvingly.

"I found him wandering out by the road," Falco chuckled, stepping forward to clap a hearty hand on Densil's broad, heavily-muscled shoulders. "Said he was looking for a Zeain princess. He looked hungry so I brought him here."

I was so breathless from Densil's embrace I couldn't speak for a moment. My cheeks bunched high with a smile of welcome. I reached up and touched his smooth-shaven face, seeing the boy within the man and seeing the man for the first time; proud to see how well he'd grown and regretful to have missed a moment of it.

Serena's brow was puckered as she looked on the man who was a stranger to her. She saw a well-formed youth whose nose and chin nearly matched hers in shape and outline. Her tense fist relaxed about the knife hilt when she discovered I was not in danger and that I was glad to see the newcomer. I reached out for Serena's hand. She put down the knife and came to stand beside me, curiously examining the handsome young man.

"Serena, you probably don't remember him, but this is your cousin—" I nearly stumbled over the word because she was actually his half-sister "—Densil. The last time you saw him you were a baby."

Serena dutifully stepped forward and gave Densil a kiss of welcome. "You're Vaughn's kyangan'il. He said you were tall, but he didn't say you were good-looking."

Densil smiled—it was Elispeth's smile—gentle, sincere. "I didn't think there'd be much hope for you when you were a baby, Serena, but you turned out to be pretty like your rovenja. She's lovely, karovenja Rachelle."

Serena blushed, turning her eyes away, then back again. The compliment pleased me as much as it did her. Falco shook his head, nudging my shoulder.

"The man's been walking for miles, Rachelle. Take him in and sit him down with a pot of kla and a stack of Jara's fral cakes. Don't give him any of Serena's or he won't have the strength to get up from the table."

Serena pouted, "You said you liked my fral cakes better than Quida's—"

Falco nodded briskly. "She's a worse cook than you, little one." He pointed to the stove. "Kla—" His affectionate hug made the truth hurt less and Serena cheerfully poked an elbow into his ribs before hurrying to fetch cups and pot to the table.

Densil addressed himself to the cakes so avidly that I asked if he'd had lunch. He shook his head and explained. "Train came in late and I decided to walk on out before it got too dark to find my way."

"Serena, would you like to fix Densil a plate of that left-over ger-monte stew for me?" I was still too weak-kneed from my nephew's unexpected appearance after so many years.

Serena jumped up from the table and rattled the stew pot lid on the counter. While she spooned up a hearty portion to match Densil's size and apparent appetite, I stared at Elispeth's eldest with misty eyes. He looked back with a faint smile on his face, nodding from time to time as if pleased with something.

"So this is where you live," Densil looked around the room. His eyes lingered on the wide bookcases, the shelves with hand-carvings, the locked gun rack near the door. "You could hold a Festival Dance in here," he said, commenting on the generous proportions.

"We have done that on occasion," Falco chuckled. "I think Rachelle has decided we won't do that anymore."

"Oh?" Densil inquired, eyebrow raised. "Why?"

"It was raining last time. Took a week for her and Jara to get the mud mopped up off the floor."

Serena put the plate of stew and the cutting board with a fresh loaf of bread before Densil. Her thumb was hooked rather far over the plate rim and she sucked the rich stew juice from it. "I helped too. So did Quida and—"

Falco held his hands up in surrender. "My apologies, Serena. And I'd like some of your fral cakes, if you intend to cook them." He sniffed the air, nodding to the kitchen.

Serena gasped apologetically. "I forgot and left the barabe butter on the stove!" In her anxiety to reach the kitchen, her leg got tangled in the bench. She fell against Falco, who set her right. He mischievously swatted Serena's backside as she ran to the archway.

Falco stayed at the table long enough to have a cup of kla then excused himself. "We've got a mare laying right now, Densil," he explained. "I need to keep an eye on her. It's her first clutch." He turned to me, smiling regretfully. "I'd like to stay and visit, Rachelle, but I'll be in the barn for a while."

"Come here," I said. When Falco came close I reached up and pulled his face down for a kiss. "Thank you for bringing Densil here."

Falco chuckled, stroking my hair. "I've been guilty of a lot of things, Rachelle," he teased, "but not that. The boy came on his own. See you at dinner, Densil."

Falco gave me a brief kiss then left. I heard Serena back at the chopping board and that left Densil and I alone in the main room. "Go ahead and eat," I prompted him. "We can talk."

We did talk, between his hungry bites of stew and sips of kla. I asked him about his train ride and got the expected answer: long and boring. "What brings you here, Densil? I thought you were managing the shop for Tasien."

"I am. I'm on my way to Blene to look at a shipment of Shiger fenac. It's time I got some purchasing experience."

I sensed both excitement and frustration in his reply. He was obviously excited about traveling and getting to see me, but beneath that there seemed to be a stubborn sense of onerous duty driving him. It didn't show so much in his words or his voice, but I saw it in the way his eyes narrowed slightly; as if pained, an expression which didn't last more than an instant. Densil changed the subject between sips of kla.

"It's pretty down here. There's some fine wood on these slopes. Make some good instruments and furniture." He gestured to the shelves in the main room. "I noticed the carvings. Local?"

"The men on the ranch make them. Usually in the winter when we're snowed in," I laughed. "Did you get your Naming Day present from me?"

Densil reached down to his belt pouch and pulled out the folding knife Falco had helped me select. It was a little too expensive, probably too fancy, but I thought a man who worked with wood would like it. Besides, a twenty-year Naming Day is very important, it is the year a Zeain citizen gains the privilege of voting.

"I carry it all the time, karovenja. Thank you—thank you for remembering."

"I always remember, Densil."

He offered a wry smile as he put the knife away. "Yes, so do I. Vaughn sends his love. I saw Olexa and Els last week, they're doing fine. I think they're planning on relocating to Shalek, though nothing is firm yet. You'd think they'd had enough of moving around, but Olexa doesn't seem to mind the least bit."

"I know, she told me in her last letter it was a way of making new friends with each move." I leaned forward, giggling girlishly. "At the rate they've been following construction work, they must have several thousand friends by now."

Densil's responding smile lacked warmth. "Better to have nodding acquaintances than none at all."

His face clouded as he lowered his bitter gaze to his plate. He looked so lost, so alone that I reached out for his hand lying on the table. For the first time since he entered the house, Densil pulled away from me. I was about to ask him what was bothering him when Yazuko came stumbling out of the hallway, rubbing her eyes. She came toward the table, looking to me, but Densil scooped her into his lap as she passed him.

"What's the matter, Little Bit?" he asked. "Sleepy?"

"She hasn't had her nap yet, Densil. Serena! Come put Yazuko to bed—"

"I'll do it," Densil suddenly offered. Rising to his feet, he looked to me for directions.

"I'll go with you," I said, showing him the way down the hall to the girls' room. I pulled the door closed on Tyron and Dawan's room as we passed—it was a disaster.

Densil saw enough to get a chuckle. "You never let Vaughn and Teri get that messy. Losing your edge, karovenja Rachelle?"

"Not in the least," I said, linking my arm through his as he matched my shorter step. "We just do things a little differently here. When the men go on round up, the boys clean their room. If they want to go on roundup, they have to keep it clean. We just had roundup, therefore—" I laughed.

Densil put Yazuko to bed. Her eyes closed immediately and she was probably asleep before we left the room. When we reached the end of the hall Densil kept going toward the front door. He stopped on the veranda and, after taking a long look at the view, sat down, his back to the sun, looking up slope into the forests above the ranch. I joined him, facing the opposite direction so I could watch the river, which never ceased to fascinate me.

Serena came running out of the house. She paused by my chair. "The fral cakes are done. I promised to meet Tyron at the utsma traps, so will you make the sauce? Mine's always too bitter—"

"Just to the traps and back, Serena. I don't want you out after dark."

Serena frowned, her chin dimpled with disappointment. "We were going to do some vey hunting along the river on the way back if there weren't any utsma in the traps. You can't hunt vey in daylight. Please? There's no school tomorrow."

"Serena—" I began, exasperated. My daughter was getting old enough to have a mind of her own and we often didn't see eye to eye.

"We'll be back before the second Dance of the Moons," she said, stooping so swiftly to kiss me goodbye that her long brown hair whipped across my face. Serena disregarded the steps, jumping over the edge of the veranda and the gernica bed.

"Take your jacket!" I called. "It gets cold this time of year!"

"It's on my saddle!" Serena shouted, running hard for the corral.

I shook my head with apology to Densil. "Her manners are generally a little more refined."

"She's not what I expected, karovenja Rachelle." Densil said. "She's pretty and smart. She's a lot like you."

"Thank you, Densil."

"So's Yazuko," he amended, as if he'd blundered or was embarrassed. "It's just that I came to see you and specifically Serena."

"'Specifically'?" I asked. "What a queer choice of words."

Without preamble he said, "I wanted to see my sister. She doesn't know, does she?"

I almost dropped my kla. I put it down before I spilled it, one hand pressed to my breast as I tried to catch my breath. The moment passed almost as quickly as it came. I understood the reason for some of his odd expressions all afternoon. "I didn't know you knew. And yes, she doesn't. She thinks of Falco as her dovenja though she knows he's not. I hope you won't spoil that for her."

Densil shook his head. "That's not why I came. I would never do that to someone as happy as Serena."

"Then why did you come after all these years?"

"Why haven't you come to see me?" he asked.

I bowed my head, nervously clasping my hands below my breasts. "I think you know the answer to that."

Densil thoughtfully sucked wind between his teeth and leaned back in the chair. He crossed his arms, legs extended before him. "I'm not sure what I know, karovenja Rachelle. Dovenja and I were arguing about the business, as usual—" he sneered "—when he told me that if I didn't like what he was doing, then I could go live with the woman who stole his children.

"I told him that was unfair. He knew it was, too, but then he said, 'I loved Rachelle and she ran from me. She took our daughter and ran.'

"I told him he threw Olexa out of the house and he laughed. 'I'm talking about Rachelle's oldest daughter Serena. She's mine. Go on, abandon me! Leave! You won't be the first!'"

Densil looked directly at me, his eyes curious and bewildered but filled with understanding. "He'd been drinking a little, and we'd been arguing pretty hard. I thought he was just saying things, or getting them mixed up. He's done that, too, recently, mixing things up. He didn't remember any of it the next morning but I couldn't forget. I didn't know who to talk to, who to ask. I finally decided that if anyone would tell me, it would be Joysan."

"What did she say?" I asked, my voice sounding strained.

Densil shrugged his shoulders. "She didn't confirm or deny it. She suggested I talk to you. I knew it was true the minute I saw Serena."

"I'm so sorry you found out this way, Densil. I wouldn't hurt you or the others for anything in the world."

Densil looked puzzled. "You don't have to apologize, Rachelle." He sat up and took my hands between his. He gently pulled them apart, forcing my curled fingers to relax. His hands were warm and sensitive despite the work calluses which hardened his knuckles and palms. "The only one I feel sorrow for is dovenja. He's driven us all away. All but me."

I felt a need to offer sympathy in return. "If you feel that way, Densil, why don't you leave? Is that workshop so important to you?"

"It's a living, Rachelle. I do well enough. I don't have dovenja's eye and my crafting skills are mediocre, but it is something I know how to do. One day it will be all that's left to the family. I intend to keep it for all us."

"That's an admirable sentiment, Densil, but if living a miserable life is the price you have to pay, then it isn't worth the heartache."

"Is Serena worth the heartache, Rachelle? I saw you with her. There's a part of Tasien in her that you can still love. That house is the same for me and Vaughn. We remember what it was like before the Fever. It can be that way again when he's gone."

"Densil, Tasien is a young man not yet fifty. Do you honestly think you can endure one-hundred-and-fifty years of misery for the house to be yours?"

"'A man will endure anything for a good cause'," Densil quoted one of Simon Jules Ward's more popular sayings.

"When Daddy said that, Densil, he was speaking of the soldiers in the Semac War. You don't have to fight Tasien. You can walk away."

"I can't walk away from him any more than you can leave this valley. This is home for you. The house on the Heights is my home."

I couldn't persuade him to change his mind as the sun lowered to the valley rim. The men would soon come up to dinner and I knew I wouldn't have much opportunity to speak to Densil. I felt I owed him an explanation.

"Yes, Serena is your sister. But I didn't leave Tasien. He left me. I still don't understand why. I was very hurt by that and for a long time I hated him. I'm not sure if I still do or not, but I know that if you continue living with your dovenja, you will both ultimately destroy each other."

"What do you know about him, Rachelle? When was the last time you saw dovenja? Have you ever considered that maybe he might have been different if you hadn't just quietly accepted things and let him run? What would have happened if you had Petitioned him?"

"Densil, I can't go back and change things. Not now, I have too much to lose," I said. My voice crackled with astonishment. "That was a long time ago and things are different—"

"I know," he said, holding his head in his hands. He pulled at his short-cropped hair with frustration. "I'm not asking you to do anything. I wouldn't do that. That was a question I shouldn't have asked. It's the same as 'what would have happened if rovenja was still here' or 'what if the Fever never came to Uhr'? There are no answers..."

"Are you angry with me, Densil?"

His head jerked up, eyes round. "Why should I be angry, karovenja? I love you. I blame you for nothing. Not then, not now, not ever."

He went to his knees and came into my open arms. Densil leaned close to my breast, holding me tightly. He was a young man burdened too soon with too much, yet he was still my little Densil. I wasn't conscious of doing it until his eyes met mine with a tender smile. I'd been humming the quiet lullaby I used to sing when I put him to bed as a baby.

Densil planned to stay the night and we were able to talk alone for a while after dinner. I listened to his quiet bitterness over broken dreams and frustrated ambitions, all the time admiring his grim determination to survive. He told me it wasn't all bad working with his dovenja and I believed him. What disturbed me was knowing that if Densil remained in that intolerable situation he would mature into a bitter, disappointed man. I hoped he would reexamine his loyalty to his father and get out before that happened.

Densil rose early and, after a cup of kla, Falco took him to the train station.


I sat easy on the heaving back of the mare. Falco's stallion skittered nervously as we let the animals blow on the hilltop. He looked back over his shoulder, grinning. "So much for challenge races—"

I looked back at the three ser-monte running up the hill toward us. Tyron, shouting his disappointment, was in the lead. Serena, her hair flying behind her, was right behind the tall, man-sized youth. More distant to the rear Quida came on, less adventuresome than my ten year old daughter.

"Don't be so smug," I quietly chided Falco as Tyron reined his mount to a halt near us. I added a prophetic warning. "The way Tyron and Serena are riding, it won't be long before we have the dust in our teeth."

Falco laughed, that warm, rich laugh that still shivered me. "You're beginning to sound like me, Rachelle. Starting to feel old?"

"After three children, and Jara's, and who know knows how many at the ranch and school, I think I'm entitled."

"Well, this is one old man who's very much in love with an old woman." Before I could smile he suggested a family swim in the river.

"I'd love to, Falco, but I promised to go in today. We're having some new instruments built for the school and I'm supposed to meet with the craftsman. Why don't you and the children go on? I'll meet you back at the ranch when I'm done."

Falco leaned between our mounts and kissed me lightly, tenderly. "We'll just do that."

I rode back to the ranch and tended my ser-monte before driving into Yellow Jahsa. I stopped to see if we had anything at the Recorder's Office and then drove to the school. I was a little early for the meeting, the other music teacher hadn't arrived yet and the principal said the craftsman was up in my room waiting, so we walked up together. I was glad the principal was with me because I was totally stunned when the thin, black-haired man in city clothes turned away from the racked instruments he'd been examining.

"Tasien—"

His eyes widened slightly and there was an almost imperceptible flaring of his nostrils. "Rachelle," he said, voice tightly controlled. "I didn't expect to see you, I mean I thought I was meeting the other teacher."

The principal missed everything that passed between us. He said, "He's on his way, sir. However, since we're here, we can get started so we won't delay your return to Gizen."

"Yes," Tasien said, releasing a pent breath. He recovered more swiftly than I, offering a smile to the principal. "I would like to catch the afternoon train if possible."

I barely heard the principal's reply: "We should be through long before that, right Master Rachelle?"

"Certainly," I stammered.

Tasien's eyes bored into mine. I detected a trace of amusement when he said, "Just what is it you need, Master Rachelle?"

I wanted to scream, "It isn't you!" but I couldn't do that. It would be an admission that I actually cared about what had happened between us. It was dead, long dead, as far as I was concerned. Yet—

I went to my desk and located the list of instruments and sizes I needed for my classes. Somehow our hands touched when I gave the sheet of paper to Tasien. I jerked away as if burned, flushed with embarrassment. The principal suddenly remembered the official order forms he had inadvertently left in his office. He went to get them before I could find some excuse to keep the man in the room so I wouldn't be alone with Tasien.

"How long has it been, Rachelle? Nearly eleven years?"

"What are you doing here?" I sat down because my knees felt weak.

Tasien also sat, far enough away that I felt no intrusion. Calmly and composed he answered. "I was taking an order for a formal dining set for a rancher down at Blene. Densil talked to him when he was down there six months ago. When I got ready to leave I called the shop and one of the men told me about a school order in Yellow Jahsa. I decided to pick up the order on the way back to Gizen."

Tasien made it sound so natural, and it was in a business sense, but I also wondered how much Densil told his dovenja of his overnight stay at the ranch. I dismissed that thought immediately, Densil knew how I felt about his father. I found it disturbing to be sitting across from Tasien, feeling as if only a few days had passed since we'd last seen each other, not eleven years. Tasien crossed one knee over the other, resting his hands in his lap, a faint smile on his face.

"I knew you were living in the Auel Valley, Rachelle, your dovenja told me that. But I had no idea you were teaching. You look good. You look very good. This country life must agree with you."

He was pleasant, very personable. He was so different from what I had imagined from Joysan's frequent descriptions in letters or on the phone. Her opinion had not changed at all during the six years after Yazuko was born. She did not like Tasien. Yet, this Tasien was polite, interested, gentlemanly. He was as I had wished him to be all my life. I couldn't look directly at him, astonished I even had that thought. I ruefully hugged myself and my bewildered reply was muffled by the trembling hand I passed over my mouth.

"I've been very happy here, Tasien."

"Before the School Master comes back I wish to apologize to you, Rachelle. I should have done it years ago, but you remember how unreasonable I was. I treated you poorly after all those years you lived with Elispeth and I. I won't ask forgiveness, Rachelle, because I can't ever forgive myself, but I do ask your understanding. No—" he held up his hand, rising to walk to the windows and look out "—there's nothing to say. I'm happy for you. I'm glad you've found a life that obviously suits you so well."

"Tasien—I—" I didn't know what to say to him.

There were nights, before Serena was born, that I had worked out every word, every expression, every ounce of hatred I yearned to fling in Tasien's face. I often regretted saying nothing to him when Morgaine and I went after Vaughn. Later, after the years had distanced the pain, I wanted to calmly and deliberately tell this man what I thought of him. Now the opportunity was here and I couldn't find the words or the strength to say them. The Tasien I once vilified in thought was not standing before me. How could I unload eleven years of hatred and bitterness on a man who seemed genuinely glad my life had turned out so well?

The sound of boots in the corridor prevented me from saying anything and, once the teacher and principal were in the room, the time was past. Tasien quickly concluded his order-taking and left with the teacher, who offered him a ride to the station. Just like that, Tasien was in and out of my life after eleven years.

I was wretchedly distracted and rude when I came home. Falco gently tried to discover why I was upset but I wouldn't speak to him until we were getting ready for bed. I said it directly, bluntly, tired of holding it in. "I saw Tasien this afternoon. He was at the school." Falco said nothing, his face a mask. I searched his eyes, getting no feel of his thoughts. "Say something," I sat on the bed facing him.

"What do you want me to say? How was he?"

I knew that wasn't the question he wanted to ask, but I answered it. "He looked well. He seemed to have accepted things. He was polite."

Falco nodded, taking off his shirt. Without a word he removed his trousers and got into bed. I undressed and turned out the light. Falco's lean body was tense when I curled up next to him.

"I didn't know he would be there," I said a little fearfully. I knew Falco had a temper though I rarely saw it. I thought he was angry with me. "I wouldn't have gone if I'd known," I whispered, feeling guilty for some reason.

"It doesn't matter, Rachelle. Did you get your orders placed?"

"Of course!" I frowned. I don't know what I expected from Falco, but it wasn't this nonchalant acceptance. "He was as surprised to see me as I was to see him."

"Naturally," Falco replied.

"You're angry with me."

"Why should I be angry with you, darling?" He sounded genuinely surprised.

"You haven't said anything, Falco. Why do I feel so guilty? I've been terribly rude all because of a fifteen minute meeting with a man who means nothing to me."

Falco's body unlimbered, he turned to hold me in his arms. "So you saw him. Was it what you expected?"

"Not at all. I thought he'd be breathing fire or climbing walls the way Joysan describes him."

"He's different then?"

"Yes," I answered truthfully. And having said that much, I told him the rest. "He's like I used to want him to be."

"I see," Falco's voice was hollow. I'd hurt him and that unhappiness burned within me.

"No you don't, Falco." I put my hand to his bearded cheek, trembling anxiously. "I'm not the same naive dreamer I was then. It was just so strange to suddenly see him after all these years, unable to hate him because he'd changed. That's all there was to it, Falco."

His arm shifted behind my head. I saw the silhouette of his face over mine. "Is it, Rachelle? Is it all over now?"

"I sure hope it is, Falco. I want it to be over."

"That's all I wanted to hear," he lay back and held me close.

We didn't speak of Tasien again, in fact Falco had rarely ever mentioned the Gizen part of my life in all the years I'd known him. He seemed content to say nothing about my chance meeting with Tasien in Yellow Jahsa. This suited me perfectly for I was just as eager to forget; but it was difficult for me because this new Tasien had mellowed. I found myself thinking of him at the oddest times. If only Tasien had not come! I needed no new complications in my life. My happiness was assured on the big ranch outside Yellow Jahsa. I could gracefully age with the man I loved, seeing my children grow into adulthood. I could continue doing the work I liked the best. I wanted this life with every fiber of my being and was determined that no unexpected meeting with Tasien would destroy it.

20.

I put myself fully into teaching. The recent uncertainty I had felt soon vanished. I realized my preoccupation with the 'what-if' possibilities provoked by Tasien's visit to the school were only normal and made more intense by Densil's previous short visit. In time all would fade from my mind. I deliberately turned my thoughts away from Tasien.

Ultimately Falco's excitement over the very real success of the breeding program he had begun with the Sa-Cor ser-monte took center stage . The hybrid stock running the long grasses of the Auel River Valley displayed many admirable traits. The great beasts were incredibly strong, longer-limbed for greater speed, and showed fine stamina. Both stallions and mares were in demand from various large ranches all over the nation. Falco kept the best for our breeding program but he gladly made the seconds available in the interest of generally improving ser-monte stock everywhere. Falco's ambitious breeding project had sparked interest as far away as Tascar.

The Guardian of Tascar is one of Simon Jules Ward's oldest and dearest friends and Prince Coron ku Roberts also happens to be Marsei's older brother. When I was very, very young "Uncle" Coron worked hard to change Tascar's Lavecan Colony status to full independence. Coron was the son of English Transit Parker Roberts, once the Regent-Elect of Laveca, and he fought side by side with dovenja in the great war. Linked to Zea by political treaties and family alliances through his sister's Choosing, Coron naturally sought my father's assistance in obtaining Tascar's independence and continued to remain close to our family following that historic event.

Coron preferred "Uncle" to "kadovenja" and I fondly remembered his frequent visits to the palace when I was a child. He was a great, huge man with thick shock of blonde hair, a warm smile, and a fine lap for little shut-in girls. Marsei and Simon usually made a visit to Tascar every two years and Uncle Coron reciprocated. I had seen him only a few times after I moved to the Heights and not at all since coming to live with Falco. So, when Coron's agent contacted Falco right before Summer's Eve, I looked forward to seeing the Guardian of Tascar once again.

Falco feigned astonishment to find me eager to go to the capital the night he broached the subject of taking some stock into Gizen for Coron to examine. "You are actually going to go without an argument?"

"I never argue about going home for a visit." I said, blushing for there was an element of truth in his amused words. "I just don't usually have the time. This is the first Summer's Eve I haven't had a concert pre-scheduled since I don't know when."

"You went home five years ago," Falco leaned back on the divan, one eye closed in thought, a pair of strong fingers scratching through his beard. "As I recall I had to drag you kicking and screaming onto the train. Every time I suggest you go see your parents you have some excuse or commitment which makes it impossible."

"Are you trying to talk me out of going with you?" I laughed, tickling his ribs, getting captured for my efforts.

"Not at all. I want you to come. Coron's going to be here such a short time so I have to leave day after tomorrow by train. I'm going down with the stock. Will you come with me then?"

"That soon? I—damn it, Falco. I have final classes before the Summer's Eve Break. I can't leave then."

"I thought you'd say that. I know you have a final music performance at the last assembly. You take care of that and then you'll have time to pack and be ready to fly down with John the following morning. You and I should arrive in Gizen about the same time. It's all been arranged and everyone will be disappointed if you refuse. Coron may not be able to stay very long and we wanted to make sure you had time to visit." Falco saw my reluctance. "If you aren't going take John up on his offer," he said, "call him so he doesn't make a wasted flight."

"You misunderstand, Falco. I'm anxious to go to Gizen. I'm just not sure I want to ride in that old Mustang of John's."

Falco chuckled. "Why should you mind? Papke rides in it all the time. She even flies it herself now. But if you're worried about that 'ancient wreck', don't. John's got clearance to fly you down in a Skyray. He'll wait for you at the commercial airfield in town. He'll have you in Gizen in less than three hours by jet."

"But—"

"I've never asked anything of you, Rachelle. I wouldn't ask this time if Coron had not specifically asked about you. When was the last time you saw him?"

"The year Vaughn was born." I used the only true milestones in my memories, the children I loved. "That was a long time ago. I want to," I bowed my head, bashfully explaining my reluctance, "but I get airsick."

"You've only flown once in your life. It doesn't mean it will happen again. If you are afraid of flying you can take the train. The family was only trying to give you as much time with Coron as possible. His visit will only allow him a few days for personal business."

"I'll have to think about it."

Falco nodded and gave me brief hug. He kissed me lightly then leaned back into the cushions, reading through the Recorder reports submitted to him on a monthly basis. He heaved a sigh as he came to the end of the report and replaced it in the leather brief which contained his Rider business. He looked out the open door, watching the sunset above the valley rim. "I should go down to the barn and see how Breder's coming along with the arrangements." He started to get up.

"Falco?" he stopped, waiting for me to speak. I put down my kla and leaned forward, elbows on knees, and sighed. "I'll go—"

"With me, John, or a later train?"

"With John because I want to see Coron and I can't let my children down at school. But if I get sick—"

He tilted my chin and kissed me. "You won't get sick."

"Promise?"

Falco smiled. "No—but you won't, teela."

Falco and the stock left on time, three stallions and eight mares safely installed in two box cars. My school obligations went smoothly and, the following morning before dawn, Jara drove me to the airport. Serena and Quida came along to see me off.

John's Skyray was easy to spot on the tarmac of the civilian airport, the only place he could land the fighter/bomber short of the military installation sixty miles further north. The Skyray arrogantly stood, gleaming among the civilian aircraft, a silver bird of prey, sleek and deadly—and quite beautiful in form and design.

Father and Ben Orkavis, a Zeain scientist of world-renown, had developed this aircraft design towards the end of the great war. I don't know how many model changes have since been made to the Skyray but it remains the mainstay of the Zeain Air Force. There are other planes faster, or larger, others that perform special functions, but the Skyray was the front-line aircraft and I had never been close to one before. A military jeep was parked beside the aircraft. John, after hugging me and kissing Serena and Quida in greeting, explained the three young uniformed airmen were a ground crew from the military air base. They'd driven down during the night to perform flight service on the jet before it returned to Gizen.

"Doesn't this seem to be a lot of trouble just to pick me up, John? I feel sorry for those young men."

"Don't, little sister, it is part of their job. Besides we periodically test our aircraft on fields of all types. One never knows when fortunes might dictate such changes." Though it sounded ominous in tone, there was a smile on my brother's lips. "In any case, regulations require a ground crew to be present at any military jet's take off. I may know that piece of machinery inside and out, but it takes three men to help me check it over before I fire the jets and throttle up."

It is one thing to see photographs or films of airplanes, it is quite different when you are seated in the navigator's station wrapped in an ill-fitting pressure suit with a glass-visored helmet on your head. My seat was slightly higher than John's, who sat in the pilot station at the front of the back-hinged glass canopy that enclosed both stations. The ground crewman leaned over the cockpit rim and jerked my shoulder straps and seat belt to make sure they were secure. He showed me where I could put my hands and where I must not.

"Especially this red handle, your highness."

"What would happen if I did? Would we crash?"

"Very likely, Princess Rachelle. It transfers all avionics back to your station. You'd have to fly the plane... If you have to eject for any reason, it's this blue handle by your right leg. See it?"

The words were delivered with a cheerful smile and twinkling eyes. I think the sergeant enjoyed himself. "Are you trying to scare me?" I asked.

John grinned, turning his head to look back over his shoulder. "Standard procedure, Rachelle. You could possibly activate the station by accident and it's very hard to explain how to shut it off and re-transfer when we're airborne. Any questions?"

"What time is the next train?" I asked, feeling my palms becoming sweaty inside the stiff leather gloves.

John laughed with the sergeant, who pounded my brother's shoulder with an all-clear gesture. The crewman lowered himself to the ground after closing the face plate on my helmet. The jet vibrated as the twin jets roared into life.

"John," I said, beginning to shake. "John!" I shouted when he didn't respond. The canopy was electrically closing, increasing my anxiety. I belatedly remembered to use the ship intercom. I pressed the throat mike with a trembling hand. "John, I don't think—"

"Falco told me. You'll find a bag at the side of your seat. Remember how to open your face plate?" He eased off the airplane's brakes and the jet slowly moved to the end of the runway. John looked over his shoulder, his voice coming strongly through the headphones. "Show me—that's right. Seal up now. Are you ready?"

We had reached the end of the runway and the Skyray bucked as John increased power to the engines. I felt the power harnessed behind my seat and gulped hard, eyes closed. "I'm as ready as I'll ever be..."

"Good. Hang tight, Rachelle. I have to use full thrust to get off this short runway."

"What does that mean?"

"You'll feel like," he increased power to the whining twin engines, "Serena, Dawan, Yazuko, Falco, and me are sitting on your chest. Won't last long. I promise."

Before I could tell him I wanted out, the Skyray hurtled down the runway and was in the air. John was right. I felt the pressure, my breathing labored, but it quickly eased once he gained flight altitude. He talked to me all the way to 40,000 feet. By the time I had the opportunity to think of being sick, the need was past.

"How are you doing, Rachelle?"

"Fine!" I said with amazement. "It's beautiful!" I looked down at the ground. "I knew the valley was big, but not like this!"

"Want a better look?" John asked.

"What can be better than this?"

He showed me!

"See?" John chuckled as he held the aircraft in inverted flight. "No cockpit edge or wings to impede the view."

I lasted for several heart pounding seconds, filled with the thrill of looking "up" to earth, but I soon begged him to right the plane. John did in an instant and asked if I were still feeling well. "Yes—" I replied, trembling with excitement instead of fear.

"Would you like to see some acrobatics?" he asked. "I'll keep them tame."

"If you promise to stop when I tell you..."

"This is a slow roll—" which made the pit of my stomach giddy "—and a loop—" which stopped my heart "—a short power dive—" that brought a gasp to my lips. The plane returned to level flight. After a moment of silence from John I pressed the mike button.

"Is that all there is?"

"More, Rachelle? Are you sure—that was easy stuff. Combat maneuvers..."

"I understand. What was it like over Valo Bay, John?" John had spoken of that brief, bitterly violent war with reservations and only acknowledged he'd shot down three Hosella aircraft without going into details. "Easier to show than tell," he had once said when pressed to describe what that air war was like. I now asked him to show me. Three minutes later I pleaded with him to stop. I never realized what an aircraft could do in the hands of an accomplished combat pilot.

My head was reeling and I had misplaced my stomach. Surprisingly though, I did not feel sick, only confused and disorientated. "John?"

"Yes, Rachelle?"

"I hope you never have to do anything like that again."

"I do too, darling. What say we pile it on and go home?"

"I'd like that. And—" I wanted to wipe the perspiration from my forehead but the gloved hand hit the plastic face plate "—thank you."

"Thank father. You know how he is when it comes to family. You know how much he respects any wishes Coron makes..."

"I'm not talking about that," I replied, my respiration returning to normal. "I know he'd do anything for us or Uncle Coron, but I was talking about you believing in me."

"Wasn't much of a gamble, little one. You're much stronger than you think, Rachelle. You're probably stronger than all of us put together. It's you who has to learn to believe in yourself, not the other way around. We already believe in you."

When we passed over Hinse, John joined a training formation of Delta 4's for a time. I began to understand his love of flying. The sensation of being suspended in space, the precision of man and machine; I would never again fault his expensive hobby embodied in the antique Quinon Twin-Mustang. I promised myself to ride in it with him one day.

We arrived at Gizen just before lunch. John brought us in at the military airfield six miles outside the city. We left in John's private car after he finished the required paperwork at the terminal. He suggested a quick lunch at a tiny restaurant not far from the base.

"Marsei and dovenja are having a big luncheon for Coron with lots of guests. That means it will be hard to get any serious eating done." He shut down the car motor and got out. He ducked his head to look back through the open door. "They won't expect us for another half hour. We got in earlier than planned. Aren't you hungry?"

"Have you known a time since I moved south that I haven't been?"

"Good—" he jabbed his thumb to the restaurant with a grin "—they have the best tozam-barabe steaks this side of Komos' Table!"

The food was delicious but I cautiously declined seconds since I would be expected to eat something at the luncheon. John, however, decided to take no chances. He ate two portions and had a thick slice of cunyio cake with a glass of mua and a half-pitcher of kla.

"The last time I ate like that," I laughed, shaking my head at the very minute debris left from his meal, "I was pregnant with Yazuko."

John chuckled, wiping his mouth with a satisfied sigh. "I'm eating for Papke. She's pregnant again and not eating right."

"Why didn't you tell me in your letter last month?"

"I didn't know. I found out this morning. Papke likes to time her little surprises when there's nothing I can do or say." John pushed his chair from the table and extended his hand. "We better get going."

John drove to the side entrance of the palace. He, like myself, wanted to have a chance to bathe and dress before meeting the guests called in honor of Prince Coron's visit to Zea. John led the way up the back stairs and whisked me into his and Papke's apartment.

"I'll shower first," John said, stripping off his tunic. He headed for the bath. "Papke got some clothes together for you in case Falco didn't get here in time. He was supposed to get in late this morning. You might look and see if your things are here."

I went into the second bedroom and saw the dresses Papke had left lying on the bed, but I also found the case I'd packed and sent with Falco. I looked at Papke's offerings but decided I would be more comfortable in the plainer, less revealing clothes I wore teaching. John was in and out of the shower in minutes and I welcomed the warm water and scented sand-soap which rinsed the fear-excitement sweat from my skin. I dressed immediately and joined John in the suite's anteroom. I turned before him, the folds of the orange skirt lifting slightly. I smoothed the leather sash at the waist of my yellow blouse and spread my hands in question. "Acceptable for a formal dinner?"

John took my hand and placed it on his arm. "With the exception of Papke, you will be the most beautiful woman in the room."

I blushed. "You and Falco are the two most wonderful liars in the world."

John impishly puckered his brow. "He has trouble with his vision, too?"

"John!" I giggled helplessly.

We descended the stately, curved stairway at the palace entrance then entered the main hall. Except for a few school concerts attended by the public or the open air celebrations at the end of roundup, I had not seen so many adults, nor so gaily dressed, gathered in one place since I left Gizen. The hall was filled with the babble of voices as people opportunely used the dinner to conclude or instigate business alliances or other agreements.

John was taken from my side within moments of our arrival. I watched with amusement as three young navy air officers carried John off between them. I shook my head, waving to him, then made my way towards the main table where my family and the guest of honor would be seated. I saw Falco there, waiting for me, his smile of greeting answered by one of mine. I was halfway through the crowd when a hand touched my arm and a familiar voice stopped me, causing a flush of heat to rise over me.

"Hello, Rachelle—" Tasien held a glass of mua in one hand while the other touched my cheek. "I recognized your distinctive walk. How are you?"

As before, all of the years between us vanished. He had been in my thoughts more than I wished to admit and I was suddenly back to that night at the river. He was so handsome. I felt something which Falco had taught me, a warmth of desire which I desperately denied. How could I feel this way about a man who'd used me and then discarded me? A man who'd driven his family from him because of his unhappiness? What was wrong with me? I loved Falco. He was waiting at the table for me. How could I feel anything for Tasien?

"I've been well," I stammered, flustered. "We received your instruments. They were excellent as expected. And you? How have you fared?" I tried to cover my emotions with small talk. I wanted to run. But how could I? I was fascinated by his presence, his eyes, the way he looked at me.

"I've missed you," Tasien said, taking my arm and escorting me toward the royal table. "Ranching does so agree with you, Rachelle. You look wonderful. Will I be able to see you during your visit?"

I stopped short, nervously chewing my lip. Falco watched us, his face impassive. Dinner guests were beginning to take their seats and I felt like everyone was staring at me and Tasien. "I must be going. The family's waiting."

"I would like to see you, Rachelle—" he quietly repeated.

"I—I'll see—" I turned away, quickly making my way through the tables.

When I came to my chair Falco stopped talking with Vella, who was seated next to him. He silently rose to seat me then resumed his conversation with my mother. I had no idea of his thoughts about seeing Tasien talking with me. He said nothing about it at all. All afternoon I wondered how he felt. He talked of many things with Simon and Coron when we retired to father's study for a proper visit without the formal trappings, but he never mentioned Tasien to me, even when we had a few moments alone. I was so distracted by my worry that my happiness at seeing Coron was marred. Later, after we'd said good night to everyone and gone to bed, I could stand it no longer.

"I saw him."

"I know."

"Well?"

Falco rolled over and propped his head on bent elbow. "We made no promises to each other, Rachelle. You and I have wanted it that way."

That was true. From time to time over the last ten years whenever it sounded serious about making our relationship permanent either Falco or I would terminate the conversation. I suppose I was still uncertain in a way, afraid of making such a commitment. I never really knew why he avoided it but I accepted it. "Do you still want to leave it that way, Falco?"

"Are you Petitioning me, Rachelle?" he asked, eyes narrowed and intent.

"If I were, what would you say?"

"Nothing, until you decide to ask."

Falco refused to reveal himself and I loved him too much to question him unfairly. I also respected him enough to be truthful. "He asked to see me."

"You don't have to ask my permission," Falco said. "I have no say in this Rachelle. That's the way you wanted it to be, free and independent." He leaned down and touched his lips to my puckered forehead and rolled onto his back. "It's been a long day and it will be even longer tomorrow. Coron and I will be up on the Heights where the stock is running on a small ranch. Would you like to come with us?"

"You'll be talking ser-monte," I replied, feeling him withdrawing from me. I felt cold in the pit of my stomach. "I'd only be in the way. I think I'll stay in the city."

"Very well, Rachelle. Goodnight."

Was there a trace of resignation in his voice? Or was it a whisper of finality?

21.

I spent the morning with Vella and Marsei. I played with Quinlan who, at six years of age, was just three months older than Dawan. It seemed odd to have a sister the age of my children with Falco, then again it was common for Uhrian families to span the fertile womb of a woman from age fourteen to one-hundred-sixty. I would probably have more children after Serena, Dawan and Yazuko were having families of their own, if I should elect to stop taking the birth-control powder developed by Doctor Greytok.

By afternoon, however, I found myself unable to whole-heartedly join in the diversions Vella and Marsei had devised for my visit. I excused myself and took a walk about the palace grounds. I instinctively realized a portion of my nervousness was due to the lack of physical activity. I was used to ser-monte riding or working the ranch after school and sitting still was a strain. But that wasn't the only thing which made me restless. I wrestled with what Falco had said in bed: "You don't have to ask my permission."

Like he so pointedly reminded me, that was the way I had wanted things. What was wrong with me? After ten years with a loving man one should certainly know how she felt about him. She wouldn't be confused when someone from her past turned up, would she? For twenty-nine years, except when he was away on buying trips, Tasien had always been near. Certainly after that amount of time one should know how she felt!

I despised what Tasien had done to me, how he had used me, wounded me, left me. I hated what he had done to Olexa and Vaughn and poor, loyal Densil. Tasien was a bad man. Of course he was!

I don't remember getting my car from the garage or leaving the palace. It's a wonder I didn't have an accident and killed myself or some innocent person before I discovered myself on the road to the Heights. I tried to delude myself I must have so anxiously wanted to see Joysan that I did these things unconsciously, but I knew that was a lie. I must see Tasien and resolve this uncertainty before I caused any more unhappiness.

I would never wish to hurt Falco. He had taught me much and brought me out of my reclusive shell. He had healed the pain—but if what I experienced so momentarily with Tasien at the luncheon was actually the way I felt then I could only hurt Falco and myself by denying it. All of my confidence was shaken. I felt precariously balanced on the edge of a dangerous precipice.

The Heights mansion looked much the same, though there weren't as many flowers in the garden and the hedges were less neat. As I steered along the winding drive to the house I saw Tasien sitting on the porch, a decanter of mua on the small table beside his chair. I parked near the walkway leading to the front door. The air was cool in the early evening. I wasn't sure of the time but it was obviously after working hours since there weren't any cars parked by the workshop at the end of the drive. Tasien remained seated as I walked to the house.

"I didn't really expect to see you, Rachelle," he began quietly. "Please sit down. Would you like some mua?"

I took the glass of fiery liquid and downed a large swallow. I hoped it would clear the confusion from my brain. I stared at the colorless liquor remaining in the glass, head down, hands shaking. "You never called me after that night."

He knew which night I referred to. "I was afraid at the time, Rachelle. I was afraid to love again. And then I was angry because you took my children away from me."

"Did I do that or did you drive them away with your grief? I loved Elispeth, too, Tasien. I loved her."

"I know. You also loved me, once. I found that out the hard way when Rampart came. Do you know we haven't really spoken to one another since then?"

"Can you blame him? You shot him, Tasien!"

"I had good reason, Rachelle. Rampart would have killed me. He was always so much better at physical confrontations than I. He was angry and I had no choice. Why didn't you tell me you were pregnant?"

The rapid shift in subjects rattled me. I tried to stammer a reply, but nothing came out.

Tasien answered for me. "Because I never called and you didn't know if I loved you. You were probably right, then. It's not that way now. I think about you all the time. I've been thinking more about you since Yellow Jahsa."

I looked up, the light fading with the setting sun. His dark face leaned forward. He drained his glass and poured another.

"I hated you for a long time, Tasien," I confessed. I was so intent on ridding myself of the feelings locked within for so long that I failed to mark his mood or tone. I started to say something else then caught the shadow of movement by the drive. I turned my eyes and saw one of the workers leaving on foot.

"It's all locked up, sir!" the man called out.

"Thank you!" Tasien shouted back. "See you in the morning!"

We said nothing more while the studiously uncurious worker made his way down the winding drive. The unkempt hedges occasionally shielded him from view but Tasien's eyes followed the man's progress until he reached the fenced boundary at the street and disappeared from sight. I finished my mua and accepted a second during that time, my thoughts chaotically jumbled, my distraction increased by the interruption. As soon as we were again alone, I started to speak to Tasien.

He interrupted, his voice ugly. "I think about you, Rachelle. I think about you with Falco..." He rose from the chair. Tasien stood over me, swaying from the drink. I didn't like the way he looked at me, it was frightening. I should have listened to Joysan. She said he drank too much. But he wasn't drunk the day I saw him at school, or yesterday at the luncheon. "We can talk now, Rachelle," Tasien's laugh chilled me. "There's no one left to interfere now. We're all alone."

"Where's Densil?" I asked, suddenly feeling cold.

"Who cares? You certainly don't. You've taken my children away from me. What is your slave-trainer teaching my daughter?"

"I think I better go—" I put down the glass, realizing how terrible a mistake I'd made.

His hand darted out, painfully twisting my hair, forcing me back into the chair. "You want to be with him, don't you? What has he taught you? You bent-kneed slut!"

"Tasien—" I was instantly, intensely terrified of him. His hand jerked my hair and I tried to raise a knee to his groin. His fist smashed into my face.

"You were mine!" he shouted, fists rocking my head, stunning me. He pulled me from the chair and pushed me over the edge of the porch. I fell into the bushes, scraped cruelly by the thorns on the pink-flowered toca bush. "You were mine and Elispeth's," he cried, dragging me from the bed onto the lawn. "You killed her, Rachelle." He dropped down, straddling me as I futilely tried to escape, to protect my face from his blows. "I forgave you and put my seed in your womb. But you weren't happy! You had to leave me! You took my children! You won't ever leave me again!"

"Tasien!" I sobbed, spitting blood from my mouth. "Don't hurt me!"

Tasien only laughed. "I made no mistake at the river, Rachelle. You were too easy." He tore my clothes. "I wanted you to suffer the way I've suffered. Now you are mine again. You came to me like I knew you would." He drove his knee into my stomach when I wouldn't open myself for him.

When he was through with me I felt every blow, every ache, the horrid burning of his degrading penetrations. He left me, half-naked, on the grass behind the hedges Elispeth and I had planted. "Thirsty work," he laughed crazily. "I'll be back—Elispeth!"

The fragments of my dress hampered me as I crawled to my car. Strips of it caught in the bushes, slowing me. I tried to hurry but something was wrong with my left leg. It wouldn't respond properly and I couldn't stand on it when I reached the car.

My greatest terror was Tasien returning before I could get into the vehicle. Then, once I was seated behind the wheel, I feared I would be unable to drive. I somehow managed the ignition and fumbled with the gearing. The noise brought Tasien out of the house. I saw him in the mirror, waving a gun. His wild shouts that I would never leave him gave me the strength to frantically accelerate the car. I heard a shot and the sound of tortured metal where the bullet hit the rear. There was a second shot, but it must have missed as I turned onto the street and sped away.

One eye, swollen nearly closed from the beating, made it difficult to see. I couldn't drive to the palace. It had been ten years since I lived in this neighborhood and I didn't know who lived nearby any longer. I felt my strength ebbing and I needed help. I could think only of Joysan and Rampart who still lived in their house near Tasien's. I remember pulling into their drive and trying to brake the car. After that, nothing until I recognized the angry male voice filtering through the curtain of pain.

"...has to be Tasien!" Rampart was raging.

Joysan pleaded with him. "Get her out of the car and into the house. For Herza's sake, call an ambulance!"

I felt gentle hands pulling me free of the vehicle and Joysan's fearful cries when she saw injuries I was only dimly aware of. I was carried inside and placed on a bed. Joysan came back with water and cloths. She frantically tended me while Rampart's voice shouted over the telephone. After he hung up I groaned, pleading with Joysan to make Rampart come see me. I was afraid he would leave the house. I was afraid Tasien would kill him.

"I have to talk to him," I gasped, my ribs aching with each shuddering breath.

"Rampart!" Joysan screamed. She washed the blood from my face and neck. The cloth was totally saturated crimson when she pulled it away. "Rampart get in here! Rachelle wants you!" In a softer voice, filled with anguished tears, she said, "Oh, what did he do?"

Rampart knelt beside the bed, taking my hand. "You little fool," he said. "What possessed you?"

"Don't do anything, Rampart. Promise me," I begged. I pulled at his grip to make him understand. "Call Falco. I want to see Falco..."

"The doctor's on his way, Rachelle." There were tears streaming from his eyes, his voice filled with pain and anger. "I'll kill that bastard. I swear I'll kill him!"

"If you do, I'll hate you. Don't make me hate you."

"What?"

"I don't want you to go, Rampart. I don't want Falco or dovenja or anyone else to go for him. Let the Enforcers take — promise me!" I gasped as the pain in my chest increased. "Promise me!"

I didn't hear his answer.


I was brought from the Heights by ambulance and taken directly to the hospital where the Greytoks waited to see me. I slipped in and out of consciousness, my memories disconnected. I remember Falco and my father at the emergency entrance. Falco cried when he saw me, his knees so weak that Simon had to support him.

My next clear thought was of blinding lights and a hard, cool surface beneath my back. I think a half dozen people were in the room with me, but I only remember Doctor Carol Mason ku Greytok's blonde head and concerned eyes. "You have broken ribs, possibly a punctured lung. Your leg has been broken in three places. You were raped. Who did this, Rachelle? Listen to me, teela! Wake up!" Her voice drew me back from the darkness.

My mouth was dry. I didn't want to talk. "Tasien—" I whispered, trying hard to communicate.

"Fine, now we're getting somewhere. You'll have a little trouble talking, you've got a fractured jaw. We're going to have to do surgery on your ribs, Rachelle. While we have you on the table I'm going to do your leg. I've got a new technique which might correct that defect once and for all but it might mean months of painful therapy to stretch the muscles. Do you want me to try?"

I would have laughed if possible. "I don't care." Then, "Where's Falco?"

"Outside with your family. We have to start now, Rachelle."

"Tell him I love him!" I tried to shout, but the mask came over my face and the sharp, acrid anesthetic gas entered my lungs.

I couldn't face anyone but Falco when I came out of the anesthesia and I was too weak to remain awake for long. I did manage to tell him how stupid I was and that I was sorry. At least that is what I intended to say. I really don't know what words I spoke at that time.

When I saw him later, when I was moved into a private room, I was more clear-headed. I was too ashamed of what happened and my foolish part in it that I couldn't speak. He sat beside the bed, eyes filled with pain and regrets and I knew I had hurt him deeply. Falco never accused me of that, but I knew in my heart that he could never love me again. It was his innate kindness that kept him in Gizen. But in time, a month later, he was forced to return to the ranch. I welcomed his absence with dubious relief, seeing him every day only served to reinforce my regrets, the pain of knowing I had wounded him so terribly.

Right after my surgery I had asked if Tasien had been brought in but no one would tell me until I was released from intensive care. Tasien was never brought to justice. That second bullet, the one I thought was intended for me, was turned on himself. The Enforcers found Tasien dead on the lawn, a self-inflicted wound to his temple. I felt cheated because I wanted to pull the trigger!

Father blamed himself for what Tasien had done. After all, he told me during one unhappy visit, it was his decision to bring the young war orphan into the royal household, to raise him like a son. "I stood as Witness when Elispeth took the Rites with Tasien!" Simon berated himself for avoiding his involvement with Elispeth's abused children until after I did and then only from a distance. "I feel responsible, Spunky," he told me.

How could I convince him otherwise? He refused to listen to reason and his heart-breaking regrets pained me so much I almost dreaded his visits. Marsei and Vella realized how upsetting it was to me and they managed to keep Simon's hospital visits short or would usher him out when his depression became too much for me to bear.

There was other news which was withheld ostensibly for my own good, but the reality was that no one wanted to be the one to tell me. Joysan's visits had been fairly cheerful and encouraging after I came out of surgery, but about a week later I noticed a gloom in her manner that was hard to ignore.

"What's the matter with you?" I asked. "I could do with better company than this..."

"Rachelle—Densil's dead."

I was so stunned that for a moment I couldn't feel the pain in my body because my heart hurt so terribly. I couldn't control my breathing, it got rapid and my ribs began to complain. "What?"

"The house," she stammered, tears streaming from her red-rimmed eyes. "They think he deliberately set it on fire then got caught inside. He was so upset when he found out what Tasien had done. He kept muttering about purification but it didn't make any sense until after—after—" she sobbed, filled with remorse. "Rampart and I shouldn't have left him alone in that empty old house!"

"Densil?"

"The fire fighters—he was burned beyond recognition, but they found that special knife you gave him."

"Joysan," I whispered with the last of my strength, "I'd like to be alone."

"Are you sure? I don't mind staying."

"I need to be alone, teela. Please go."

After Joysan left I cried until the tears used me up.

I lay in the hospital for three Tendays waiting for ribs and leg to heal. The Doctors Greytok had done a marvelous job on repairing the damages to my body. I was fortunate in having only one tiny facial scar through my right eyebrow, the other contusions and scrapes healing without a trace. My lung wasn't actually punctured, but the rib was so terribly shattered it had been removed. Three other ribs were also fractured but they healed quickly in comparison to my left leg.

When the coolly efficient nurses bathed me, I stared at my two straight legs. I would have to learn to walk all over again, but somehow, compared to the desperate emptiness in my heart, it no longer seemed important that my deformity was now finally corrected.

Nothing good came of Tasien's brutal violation: Densil was dead; my father blamed himself, Falco hated me, my mothers were stunned and probably ashamed. I couldn't face my brothers, John in particular since he and Falco had become such good friends. How could I ever face my children? Falco tried to call every other day after he got back to the ranch. He put the children on the phone to talk to me. It was unbearably painful to hear them asking when I would be home. "When I'm better," I would say, realizing Falco would probably never have me back in the house again.

Falco offered to bring Serena, Dawan and Yazuko to Gizen so they could stay with my parents and come see me everyday. "I don't want them to see me like this, Falco. I've got physical therapy, water drills—I can't even take care of myself yet. I need more time." I snapped at him unintentionally. "Keep them on the ranch where they belong!" For weeks we talked about everything but what was on our minds and now I felt totally lost since it was obvious he wanted to rid himself of the children of the woman who had turned her back on his love.

I couldn't stand the silences between us. In desperation I forced the issue. "You haven't asked me why I went to see Tasien."

"I never will," Falco replied.

He spoke to me of events at the ranch, said the school children missed me, then apologized for having to disconnect so soon, a Recorder Officer had just arrived, waiting to speak to him. After he hung up I had a hundred things to say to Falco and not one of them fair. I cried myself to sleep.

When I left the hospital I took a suite at dovenja's the palace because it was convenient for the outpatient treatments. My mothers and Yurilla and Papke hovered over me until I was forced to beg for privacy. This was grudgingly granted and, with the exception of trips to the therapist who strengthened the muscles of my leg, I remained to myself. I relished the pain of learning to walk like normal people. The tendons and ligaments fought me and the new lengths of bone graft and plastic upset my balance. The physical pain prevented me from thinking about my foolishness, the things Tasien had done to me, my losing Falco, but the worst pain was in my heart when I realized I had no one to blame but myself. I lay awake nights, alternately reliving the horror of angry fists and violent penetrations or berating myself for not knowing how much I loved Falco until too late. In my heart I knew I had lost his love: Going to see Tasien meant I had not loved the gentle Rider enough.

The therapy required for my leg took months and, in the end, I accepted the regime for the simple reason I grew tired of the patient cajoling of my doctor and family. I put my full effort into strengthening the leg and learning how to walk without the familiar roll which had been my gait since age sixteen.

Joysan alone, of all the people who cared for me, was allowed to be a constant companion. Her happy envy of my rebuilt leg urged me on whenever I flagged behind. She offered her generous support, taking me to therapy, massaging my leg when needed, always willing to listen when I wanted to talk. Joysan quietly believed I would eventually come out of my reclusive retreat. Her love, her cheerful, encouraging smiles, did more to rouse me from apathy than anything else.

"I found a new way to ride ser-monte," she told me one day. "Would you like to go riding with me? I think you'd be amused, Rachelle. You see it's easier if I take my leg off and hook the stump about the saddle. You should see me."

"You take your leg off?" I blinked several times. She may have been teasing me, but she seemed totally serious.

"Yes. Off. Quite comfortable."

"I would have to see that!"

I accepted Joysan's immediate invitation and let her drive me to a ranch not far from her home on the Heights. The rancher, an elderly man with a small number of ser-monte, was glad to see us. "They need a run, miladies. Your regular mount, Lady Joysan?"

"Yes, please." She winked at me. The man's words proved she had been riding for some time, something I hadn't known. "Bring out your meanest one for my friend," Joysan laughed. "She's quite a rider. Lived on Falco the Holessa's ranch for years. Knows these ugly beasts quite well."

"Joysan!" I hissed embarrassedly after the man went to saddle the animals. "You didn't have to say that!"

"You can ride any ser-monte. He might as well get his worst animal exercised."

"I wasn't talking about that."

"What did I say?" Joysan didn't wait for my answer. She went to the barn.

I was half-inclined to leave for I knew she was going to start talking about Falco and the children again, but the sun felt good and my leg needed to be stretched. I suffered from cramps during the night if the leg wasn't exercised properly. I decided to endure her well-intentioned comments and joined Joysan.

I smiled wryly when I mounted the rancher's "worst" beast. The ser-monte stallion was a fine specimen just into his prime, but quite gentle compared to the high-spirited mounts I preferred at Falco's ranch. Thinking of those great lizards and the beautiful valley they ran brought at frown to my face, but it disappeared when I saw Joysan straddle her ser-monte with the artificial leg attached.

"I lied," she told me with a giggle and kneed her mare into the pasture. I smiled with exasperation as I commanded my mount to follow.

Joysan's voice was a pleasant background to the afternoon. I have always loved mid-spring when the temperatures are fairly constant day round and cool in the evenings. In recent weeks I had been out of the palace more because of the pleasant weather than at any time since getting out of the hospital. John and Papke, who was as big as a house with her second child, took me for drives, but a car is not the same as riding a ser-monte. Several times Tresal took me sailing on Lake Atela to the tiny off-shore islands to lie in the sun or swim, but I had not been ser-monte riding since I left the ranch. It felt good to be aside an eager ser-monte. I decided I could forgive Joysan's little lie because of the enjoyment I received, though I warned her against using the same tactics again. "I'd rather you ask instead of tricking me," I said.

"You're not listening to people, teela, so we sometimes have to be a little devious." Joysan slowed the car and looked for a place to pull off the road. She soon found one, a wide turn-out half-way down the long slope which shouldered the Heights. She shut the sedan's sessium engine off.

I sensed a conversation coming, one I probably would find irritating. I looked out the windows to the sprawling expanse of Gizen ringing the shores of Lake Atela—a vast sheet of water so immense it appeared to be the edge of an ocean. Joysan shifted about in her seat, turning to face me. Her lip was sucked between her teeth and her eyes were sad and concerned at the same time. She took a deep breath, let it out slowly, then began to speak.

"Rachelle, what happened to you is too horrible for me to understand. I already know that so don't use that as an excuse to avoid talking to me. I've talked to the therapists, teela. It's all up to you from now on, they've done all they can. It's time for you to get on with your life."

"Joysan, please—I'm tired. Let's get back."

"I have to tell you something, and you're going to listen."

I knew that look, that determined set of her jaw. Her hair was mussed from riding in the brisk winds generated by the thermal currents over Lake Atela. "Can't it wait until after we've had a bath and dinner? You look a mess."

"And you are avoiding me. We're not leaving until we talk, so resign yourself to that," she said. "You must go home."

"I am home, Joysan," I said, feeling the pressure from her. This was not the first time Joysan mentioned a return to Yellow Jahsa either directly or obliquely. She refused to understand that I could never go back, not after what happened.

Joysan released a sigh of frustration. "I swear there are times I don't think you've grown up at all, Rachelle. You're just as stubborn as you were at age six. We'll do it your way. Here..." She produced a letter from her bag and handed it to me. "Are you really home, Rachelle?"

I took the envelope and looked at it. I knew the hand writing, it was Serena's. But it was written to Joysan, not me.

Dear Joysan,

When can I write to rovenja and tell her we want her to come home? I hope she is well. She doesn't talk to us very much when we call. Falco says we have to be patient but we miss her. He tells me to keep my letters happy to her, to not ask when she is coming home, but it is very hard to keep that up. Is something wrong? Have we done something to make her not love us anymore?

I think Falco worries, too. He doesn't talk much. He just sits around after dinner. Or rides the range all day. He's always here for us if we need him, but Tyron says we should leave him alone. Yazuko doesn't understand and it's hard for her and Dawan to understand why rovenja has been gone so long. When will she come back, Joysan? You are her best friend. Will you tell her we need her to come home?

Love,

Serena

Joysan put her hand on my shoulder after I let the letter fall into my lap. "Sweet Rachelle, you have to do something. Your children need you. Falco needs you."

"Joysan, I don't think I could—"

"Ever let a man touch you again? I thought it might be something like that. Have you ever thought that might be the one thing you need most, Rachelle? I can only be sympathetic of your pain, totally inexperienced as I am in your situation, but I do know you must face it. If you don't, how will you ever find any peace?"

"Take me home," I said. I softly amended the request for clarity. "To the palace, Joysan. I'm worn out."

Joysan's disappointment washed over me, then she sighed with defeat. She drove directly to the palace, stopping outside the side entrance. She dropped me off, declining to come inside. I knew she was displeased with me and only wished to avoid further argument. Serena was right, Joysan was my very best friend and she deserved better company than I had become.

I felt the weight of Serena's letter in my pocket all through the afternoon and, when I retired for the night, I pulled it out and wept over it a dozen times.

22.

Serena's letter haunted me, yet I lacked the strength to call or write because nothing I could say would ease her confusion and concern. While it was barely possible I might return to the ranch and somehow endure the shame of Tasien's rape and, at the very least, Falco's contempt, how could I face Serena and tell her that my foolish stupidity was directly responsible for her half-brother's death; a telling further complicated by having to admit that the man who caused all this terrible grief was her own father?

During those pain-filled months I dealt with the healing of my body I could ignore these emotional problems, though nothing ever diminished my imagined torment Densil must have suffered. I knew why he did it; Densil was angry with his father and angry with himself. He destroyed everything Tasien built because it was Densil's only way to atone for his dovenja's crimes. Densil never intended to take his own life, I was certain of that in my heart, and I believed he meant to burn the mansion then disappear, heading for the sea so long denied because loyalty kept him with his father.

Though I could not bring myself to return to Falco, knowing how much he must hate me, I missed the ranch. Joysan's little deception proved that much to me. As my strength improved and when the confines of the palace became too much, I often drove to the small Heights ranch and spent time with the old ser-monte breeder's animals. The only time my thoughts were clear or less troubled was when I bent over the arched, scaly neck of a swift ser-monte at full gallop. But the calming sensation lasted only as long as the run; my troubles returned full force when I drove away in my car.

The longer I remained in Gizen, the more certain I became that Falco truly never wished to see me again. His phone calls were always studiously polite and noncommittal. He deliberately avoided long conversations and never once asked me why I went to see Tasien. It became obvious to me that Falco regretted our past relationship and wished it to end, but he was too much the gentleman to come right out and say it. There were nights I couldn't sleep realizing how much I missed him and the children; yet, it was perfectly clear I was no longer welcome in Yellow Jahsa, regardless of the innuendos in Serena's letter to Joysan.

I took long walks into the city to get away from the sadness in my mothers' eyes. Vella and Marsei, bless them, yearned to hold me, to kiss me, to make the pain go away; yet, they knew it couldn't be done with kisses as when I fell as a child and scraped skin raw. My pains were of the heart and even the marvelous Doctors Carol and Beran Greytok could never invent a serum to cure heartache.

There have been only two times in my life when I felt both happy and secure. When I lived with Falco on the ranch and, earlier, with Elispeth and Tasien. A fever destroyed both of those cherished lives. Transit Influenza took Elispeth and innocent Rovena and poor little Teri. The Fever set in motion the chain of events which destroyed my happiness with Falco and ultimately led to Densil's tragic death. Now my children were lost to me as well. I wouldn't dare take them from the one good man who loved them, who gave them a wonderful home free of the pretense of modern cities.

Why had I always been secretly apprehensive of Falco? In all the years we lived together, I never completely dismissed my fear that he could, in some mysterious way, transform me into a slave. Only his genuine affection made it possible to live with that hidden fear. Now, alone and filled with regrets, I almost wished I was his slave so I could be close to him. A slave's sins are those of her master and Falco was, I realized too late, truly without sin.

Falco was not the only one to pass from my life. Olexa, Els, and Aidan came by the palace to say goodbye. Olexa was very excited about the new opportunity for Els to take permanent work in Shalek. Certified electricians were in demand at the shipyards. While I was happy for them, it was not a happy parting. I think Olexa would have tried to change Els' mind about moving if I had not insisted that she go. "Never risk the happiness of your Choosing, Olexa. I appreciate your concern, but I'll be fine."

"Promise, karovenja? I feel so guilty about leaving again."

I offered a sincere smile as I embraced her at the car. Els was on the other side, shaking hands with John. I whispered gently, smiling, "Olexa, you're not leaving, you're arriving at your happiness. Go with Herza."

John and I stood on the wide marble steps at the side entrance until their sedan passed through the gates. My brother was nervous and excited, Papke was due to deliver their second child any minute and he was beside himself.

"You better take a walk with me to calm down," I said, "or Vella and Marsei will never let you in to see Papke."

"I don't want to take a walk," John said, gesticulating wildly. "I want it over. She's a month overdue as it is. It's been pure hell the last two weeks. I love her dearly, but Papke can be so obnoxious when she's pregnant. I swear this will be the last one."

I listened to his insincere lies with a tender smile. "What do you want? Boy or girl?"

John grinned. "Two arms, two legs, one head, the appropriate assorted digits and accessories. I'm not particular, teela."

We rounded the corner of the building, taking our time on the pebble-surfaced concrete drive that circled the building. John put his arm about me, able to hold me closer after my leg surgery because I didn't roll sideways when I walked. The weather had changed from partly cloudy to threat of rain. I hoped it held off a few days, there'd been a week of rain already and the sunshine was most welcome. As I walked with John, I noticed something hard in his side jacket pocket because it kept hitting my ribs. I patted it with my left hand.

"What have you got in there?"

"Stupid me!" John cried. "I'm so rattled I nearly forgot. It's for you." John produced a paper-wrapped package about five inches long and three inches wide.

"What is it?"

He shrugged his shoulders. "I don't know. One of my officers gave it to me to give to you. He got it from someone else, who apparently got it from another person. The wrapping's pretty worn, it's been handled a lot, but your name's on it. Open it up, I'm curious to see what the navy has for you."

We paused near the main entrance while I worked the heavy twine loose. The paper was several layers thick, the outer section quite fragile and stained from handling and weather. When I reached the inside, I was puzzled. It was a hand-carved wooden boat. There was no message or letter, just the boat. It was fair work done in torpal, well polished and proportioned.

"Why would someone send you a carving of a merchant freighter?" John asked as he examined the model. "Look, it's named No Mystery. Any idea who sent it to you?"

I shook my head, taking the carving back.

"Well, whoever sent it went to a lot of trouble to get it to you. Too bad we'll probably never be able to retrace it. Nice work, though."

"I've seen better," I said, "but the lines are strong and clean. Is there a ship called No Mystery?"

"There's so many ships, Rachelle. Hance Sadis might be able to get his hands on a Registry for you, but it could be named after a Danarian or Tascarian ship, too." John briskly clapped his hands together, startling me. "I can't stand it any longer, Rachelle. Thanks for the walk, teela, but I'm going inside. Papke's bound to burst at any moment."

"I'll be in later," I said when he kissed my cheek. "I need to stretch my leg."

"You're a woman who's had experience in these things," John nodded toward the curtained second floor window that belonged to his apartment. "Why don't you put in a word with She-Who-Breathes-Life and see if we can't get this thing over with?"

"You can't hurry Herza," I chuckled at his anxiousness. "But I'll see what I can do."

I continued with my walk, holding the model between my hands, enjoying the smooth feel of it. I wasn't thinking of anything in particular when Vaughn's loud hello from the entrance turned me around. He came running up, breathless, his eyes wide with excitement.

"Papke's started, karovenja! Ahdovenja thought you'd like to know. What's that?" He asked about the model. I showed it to him.

A puzzled frown crossed Vaughn's features as he examined the ship model. He turned it over in his hands several times, running his fingers over the polished wood as if doing that could tell him more.

"What is it, Vaughn?" I asked.

"Nothing," he said, suddenly distracted by thinking of Papke's baby. He turned toward the palace and nervously shifted his weight from one foot to the other. "I'm going back inside," he said. Vaughn returned the model. When I detained him with a hand on his shoulder, he pointed to the carved wood and added, "For a minute I thought it was something Densil made. He used to carve boats all the time. I've got some upstairs in my room if you'd like to see them."

"Maybe later," I said, a shiver running the length of my spine. "Run along, I'll catch up."

Vaughn sprinted to the entrance at a speed my therapists said I could duplicate if I ever decided to make the final effort with strengthening my leg, but that wasn't the thought uppermost in my mind. I also remembered Densil's little boats carved from scrap found in his father's workshop. None were as nice as the one I held, or as detailed. At the time he carved the little models, he did them by feel and not direct observation of his subjects. I don't recall when he stopped carving them, but it was sometime before Elispeth died.

I looked at the boat again, reading the name No Mystery, and felt a growing conviction that Densil was alive. The more I thought about it, the more certain I became; but if Densil didn't die in the fire, who's body was discovered in the ashes?

No Mystery the boat said. But there was!

I knew of a way to prove the incredible idea which flashed across my brain like lightning in a stormy sky. I also knew I would have to do it alone if my interpretation of No Mystery was correct. I would never be missed in all the excitement generated by Papke's labor.

I went to the garage and entered my car. I drove west of the city to the edge of the Pim River Gorge two miles upstream and a thousand feet above the quiet river park at the edge of the city. There was a large cemetery nestled among the stark, boulder-strewn ridge. I had been to this high, wind-swept place many times to sit in the small mausoleum which sheltered the ashes of Elispeth, Rovena and Teri. Joysan told me Tasien and Densil were also buried there, and I found their stone-lidded marble coffins lining the walls.

I stood beside Densil's, my hand almost touching the cool marble. I wanted to open it, to assure myself there was a body in there and that this crazy thought meant nothing. Then I jerked away from that coffin. I knew there was a body in that one. Joysan had come to both funerals and Densil's was the latest. But what of the other?

I dropped the little boat as I grasped the lip of Tasien's coffin. I didn't want to open it. I was afraid to look upon the man who'd ruined my life. But I couldn't stop myself. It was almost as if a fever raged in my brain, a fever that demanded I know the truth of my theory.

The marble lid was heavy. It took the full strength of my back and both legs to move it a few inches. I stood there, trembling from the exertion and my own unreasoning fears of disappointment. But having come this far, actually opening the coffin, I looked inside. Heart pounding wildly, the hairs on my arms stood erect. It was empty!

I knew Tasien was dead by his own hand. If so, where was his body? Was it lying just a few feet away in Densil's coffin, burned beyond recognition in the inferno? Was Densil sailing the oceans as he always desired? I hoped it was so. He deserved that much from a hard life and years of unhappiness. I pulled the stone back into place. I picked up the little boat and cradled it to my breast. I slowly walked back to my car filled with an irrational hope which sustained me on the drive home.


Father sat at his desk. He rubbed his eyes for, like the rest of the house, he had remained awake long past bedtime, waiting for Papke's little boy to make his lung-blaring entrance into the world. Now that mother and child were resting quietly the family and staff headed for bed. All except my dovenja.

I set the tray of kla on the desk and poured him a cup. I sweetened it with a cunyio root, which was his preference. I liked mine bitter.

He looked up with a tired smile as I handed him the kla. "Where did you get off to this afternoon, Spunky? I missed you."

I felt a flush as I told a partial lie. "I knew Vella and Marsei and the doctor had everything under control. I felt one more person standing around getting in the way would be too much. I took a drive."

Father leaned back in his barabe upholstered chair and grinned. "You probably had the right idea, Rachelle. We sat around staring at each other. Rather boring, actually."

"I don't imagine John thought that way," I chuckled. "I know you were just as frantic when Quinlan was born, sors-rovenja told me."

"An expectant father is expected to climb walls."

"I just saw the baby," I said, deliberately ignoring his playful choice of words. He did so much better when he wasn't so weary.

Simon chuckled. "He's almost big enough to fly his father's airplane. Handsome little brute. I suppose I'll have to put up with his bawling for the next few months."

"You have a wonderful tolerance for little children. You love them and you know it."

"True," Simon said, his voice soft. "So did you at one time."

A slap across the face would have surprised me less than his gentle accusation. I stiffened in the chair, almost spilling the hot cup in my lap. I set it on the tray and angrily walked out of father's study. Dovenja had finally come to terms with the unhappiness the family suffered because of Tasien, but he had not, until this moment, said anything to me. He had never mentioned my children or Falco. He had kept silent, quietly supportive while I was recovering, but recently I had sensed his desire to meddle. He had finally brought it up and I was furious. Was I to never be left alone?

I made it as far as the end of the corridor before I turned and ran back. "Daddy!" I knelt beside his chair, my head in his lap. "I do not know what to do!"

"I know, darling," he tenderly forgave me, stroking my hair. He lifted me into his lap and held me as he had when I was a little girl who'd fallen on the courtyard path. "What have I always told you?" he asked.

"When you fall," I repeated the old ritual between us, "you get up and try again." I burst into tears and buried my face into his hard-muscled shoulder. "I can't do that this time!" I sobbed. "I didn't trip over my feet!"

"Rachelle," his voice was tight with an excess of emotion; filled with empathetic sorrow. "I've never forced to you make a decision before, kitten. I won't start now. We're just concerned. I want you to know we love you."

"I love you, too!" I cried, clinging to him.

"I just wanted you to know that," he said. His arms were comforting. I felt his tears against my cheek and pulled away to kiss them.

He chuckled wryly, wiping at his eyes. "So—what do you think of an overly-sentimental king? Too obviously emotional?"

"Too perfectly wonderful!" I replied and let father rock me in his protective arms.


Papke recovered from her pregnancy much quicker than Yurilla or I. She was like Vella, up and active the same day and none the worse for wear. Papke was restless, now that the baby had come, and three days after the birth of her son—who would be named Jules after dovenja's middle name—the Islander told me she wanted to get out of the palace. "I've been inactive too long."

Papke talked me into taking a flight in John's Mustang. I almost refused until I realized Papke would go with or without me and, though the doctors had cleared Papke for the exercise, I decided to accompany her to act as a conscience.

John was away from the palace leading a training mission for new naval pilots. Papke flew the old war plane whenever she wished and John constantly bragged on Papke's flying sense, her natural skill at the controls of an airplane. The First Warrior had more than six years flying experience and often flew the Twin Mustang at vintage air meets. I had come to love the thrill of flying as well, as John had taken me flying many times after I left the hospital.

"We'll have a little fun," Papke promised as we entered the Twin Mustang. I was in the left cockpit.

Papke was a good mother, but she truly relished her free life at the same time. Her children were raised partly under the influence of her culture, which lacked families in the truest sense, but she had learned familial joy from years at John's side. She knew the benefits of "family" and I never had reason to doubt my Island sister's love for her daughter Alvina. That she needed to get away, to have time doing something she enjoyed after the natural restrictions of a pregnancy, was something I could well understand.

"Are you ready?" Papke asked over the intercom.

I gave her the high sign and the Mustang roared down the runway. We headed south, high, level and fast. I failed to remark on the course until we were an hour out of Gizen and still heading in the same direction. "We better turn back now, Papke."

"Turn back?" She shook her head and smiled at me across the distance between cockpits. "I'm not ready."

"It's getting late," I said. "You'll have to feed the baby soon."

"I've arranged for that," she replied. There was a mischievous expression on her sun-browned face behind the lightly tinted bubble canopy across from mine. "There's another baby waiting for my breast."

"What?"

Papke laughed at my loud confusion. "Jara's new born or there's another—I do not remember the name. One of the ranch hands has a five week baby. I will get relief."

"Jara? Are you flying to Yellow Jahsa?"

"Directly to the ranch, Rachelle."

"Take me back! I won't go!"

"Fine. You fly the airplane."

"I can't!" I cried as Papke took her hands off the controls and the plane began to mush through the air. "Papke!"

"Then be quiet," Papke warned as she brought the Twin Mustang back into trim. The flight smoothed out. Papke glared a warning. "If you argue with me I'll shut off the intercom."

"You're flying the plane. I won't argue, but I want to know why."

"Because you're too proud or foolish to do it for yourself. I am not like your family. I may not understand it all but when I learned to love John I learned that love was all that mattered. You love Falco. I know you do. You should be with him."

"I can't, Papke." I tried to make my voice reasonable. "You don't understand at all."

"What is it I do not understand, Rachelle?" There was a genuine interest in her voice, as if she would immediately turn the plane around if I had a convincing argument she could accept. She was willing to be convinced. All I had to do was explain it properly.

"I—I can't go back, Papke. There's been too much change between us."

"Because Tasien raped you?" Papke laughed and that startled me because I never found anything amusing in that experience. Her next words explained her humorless amusement.

"Tasien raped you once before. The only difference between that first time and the second is that he didn't break your leg."

Her words struck deeply. On the surface they were inaccurate, but there was a truth running through them which left me feeling cold. "What do you know?" I shouted over the intercom.

"Nothing!" she returned, "but I know you cannot live in fear forever. If you stay at the palace you will never deal with your fears. I will tell you about Klio. She was my Second Warrior, a fine woman and brave fighter. She was raped by Night Barbarians raiding our island and she got with child. For a long time she was afraid to leave the village. Then one day she met a barbarian scout on the beach. They fought. He almost overpowered her. But in the end she prevailed because she had to. You must do the same. At least your foe is one who already loves you."

"I can't go back to him, Papke. I hurt him. Falco hates me."

"He is hurt. I have read his letters to John. But his pain is from not understanding why you left him and the children. He has not fought for your love and in that he is as much to blame as you. If it was left up to you or Falco, you would never get together. Your 'family' and 'polite customs' will never heal the hurt, Rachelle, so I, the barbarian, will."

Papke said nothing else for the rest of the remaining four hour flight. The sun rested on the valley rim when we arrived over the ranch. The river bottom grasses were in darkness. Papke switched on the landing lights and buzzed the flat field near the ranch house twice, scattering frightened ser-monte. After the plane was grounded and the propellers were still, Papke cranked back her canopy and walked away, leaving me to fend for myself.

I reached the ground easily enough, but at that point I did not know what to do. "Papke!" I shouted.

She stopped long enough to look back and wave. "I've got babies to feed to ease my breasts. You can do whatever you want, Rachelle." She headed for the lights of the ranch house.

I saw those lights and, even from this distance, could hear the surprised cries of the ranch hands and their families. The air smelled of grass and ser-monte: it smelled of home and I sat down beside the landing gear and buried my face in my hands. I wanted to run, to hide, but what I needed most immediately was to relieve the pressure of my bladder.

I squatted beside the airplane and when a ser-monte came running towards the Mustang, I squeezed out the last and hurriedly pulled my trousers about my waist.

"Yo! John! What brings you here?" the rich, familiar voice shouted in greeting. I heard Falco dismount and come to the airplane. He came directly to me, I being the only person standing in the shadows next to the ship. When he was close enough to see my face in the dim twilight, Falco stopped short. "Rachelle!"

"Hello, Falco," I responded in a tiny voice.

Falco seemed taut with uncertainty and he kept his voice carefully controlled. "Serena will be delighted to see you. She asks about you constantly. So do Dawan and Yazuko. But you know how younger children are, they find other things to do..."

"Like me," I said. "They run away from or ignore things they don't understand." Walking towards him, I changed my direction and patted the arched neck of the ser-monte mare I'd ridden for years. "She looks good. Is Jara still giving her the extra meat?"

"We butcher a barabe a week now. Would you like to ride her?"

"Yes." I mounted the ser-monte who remembered my scent with a harsh, affectionate hiss. I held her in place for a moment then rode her around the aircraft. I pulled the beast up short beside Falco. "Get on," I said.

Falco did, climbing up behind. I turned the mare's head north and put pressure on the side of her neck. I brought the ser-monte to a run, then held her at the proper gait for the greatest speed over the longest distance.

"Where are we going?" Falco asked.

"The river. We need to talk."

Halfway to the inlet Falco asked, "What will John think?"

"Papke brought me and she'll have to do the explaining to John. Yo! Ala!" I leaned forward and urged the beast to greater speed on the river flat.

When we neared the trees, I reined the mare back and slapped her scaled neck with rough affection. The Dance of the Moons lit our way beneath the trees. Falco dismounted and hobbled the ser-monte when we reached the inlet. I walked to our tree and laid a hand on it before I turned and went to the water's edge. I tried to order my thoughts as I watched the shimmer of starlight on the surface.

Falco joined me. "So, what do we talk about?"

"Do you love me?"

"What kind of question is that, Rachelle?"

"Exactly what it sounds like."

"I don't know how to answer you. We had an agreement..."

"And I was wrong. Very wrong. Papke gave me the time to decide that on the way down. I've been thinking about us for months, Falco. Why didn't you say anything to me that night? Why didn't you tell me I shouldn't talk with Tasien?"

"Are you blaming me for what happened to you?" he asked, shocked.

"Yes, damn you, I am!"

"Fine!" he retorted. "I will remind you that you did not want to make a commitment. You wanted your independence." He started to turn away, but I wouldn't let him.

"Was it independence, Falco? You were a slave-trainer, the best in all Zea! You should have known I was being stupid! Why didn't you stop me?" I didn't realize I was beating my fists against his chest until Falco's arms tightened about me so convulsively the wind was driven from my lungs. I collapsed, limp and sobbing. "You should have stopped me!"

"I couldn't, Rachelle, because I wanted you, not some made-to-order slave. I was a good slave-trainer because I took signs of personality and erased them. I didn't want to lose any part of you. I didn't even want to love you, little one. I knew this was wrong from the very beginning. There was still too much of Tasien in you when we first met and it wasn't love. You were filled with rage and desperation of being unable to compete with Elispeth. Don't you understand? There was nothing I could do to make this choice any easier for you, but by the Great One's Beard, I wish I had trained you, if only to spare you this anguish!"

"Let me go!" I demanded, shaking free from his embrace. "I failed you once," I said, shedding my clothes and letting them fall to the bank. "I will never do that again!"

Falco, profiled in the pale illumination of the three moons of Uhr, remained motionless when I stood naked before him. He stared at me for so long I became embarrassed. Had I misjudged him, guided by my own desires and hopes? I knelt for my tunic, tears on my cheeks; wanting to vanish into the sandy bank of the river.

"Rachelle!" Falco's voice roared, freezing me with fear, but his hand was gentle when it touched my arm, bringing me erect to face him. "I know what rape is, teela: it's a necessary part of training Pleasure Slaves, but no love ever comes from rape—only fear and compliance. A good slave is one who fears rape and thereby freely offers herself before it can happen. Please don't offer yourself to me out of fear."

"I—" had to stop and think. Why had I offered myself? Was it as he said, or was there something stronger which supplied that motivation?

"We better go back," Falco started toward the ser-monte. "Your children need to see you."

"I'm not going." I sat on the grass, hugging bent knees to my breast.

Falco came back and knelt beside me. "I can't leave you here. What would your dovenja say?"

"That I was a fool," I said bitterly, feeling like one for having offered myself and then having Falco explain why. Suddenly all the pain and anguish boiled up inside and I screamed to the river, to the sky. A long wordless cry that started in my depths and consumed me.

When I was through with the eternal scream, I saw blood dripping from Falco's nose. His lip was battered and there was a swelling under his left eye.

"Did I do that?" I cried with despair, trying to hold him in my arms and touch his hurts at the same time.

Falco whispered, his eyes brimming with happy tears. "Someone did, but it wasn't you, Rachelle. I think that person is gone now. All I see is the lady I love."

I kissed him and tasted the salty blood and that made me cry again. I cried until I couldn't weep anymore. Falco silently held me, keeping me warm in his gentle embrace. He covered me with my forgotten clothes and held me close.

"I don't want my independence, Falco," I sobbed. "I want to Choose you..."

"Don't!" he tenderly pleaded. "I will refuse you tonight because you need time, Rachelle. You must be certain. We'll talk in the morning."

"Damn you to the Undertable, Falco!" I jerked free and put my weight on his chest and forced him back into the grass. "My worst mistake was not Choosing you in the first place! I let a regretful old man tell a stupid little girl she could make her own decisions. Well, Falco, I have! I, Rachelle ku Ward Petition you, Falco the Holessa, to be my Chosen and the sire of my children. How say you, sir?"

"Do I have a choice in my answer?" Falco asked as I tugged at the hooks on his tunic and breeches. "Are you damn sure, Rachelle?"

"You don't have any choice, Falco, and you should never have allowed me mine. There are three children waiting in our house who need a proper rovenja and dovenja."

I finally opened his trousers and wrapped eager fingers about what I sought. "Do I have to rape you?" I smiled, kissing his bruised lips.

"It might be a change," he laughed, his arms roughly pulling me to his chest, "but you won't have to, and I will never do that to you."

Falco has been true to his promise. He has never raped me.

And I have never thanked Papke.