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By Gail Dayton

“Halt. Stand and identify yourself and your business.”

Kallista Varyl, Captain Naitan of the Reinine’s own, just recalled from extended leave, somehow managed to refrain from swearing. The guard at the Mountain Gate leading into Arikon was only doing his duty. He couldn’t know the urgency riding her.

She saluted, snapped off her name and command. “I’ve been ordered to Arikon by the Reinine herself.” She handed over a copy of her orders.

The guard’s eyes widened when he saw the seals and signatures on the paper, but still he blocked her path.

Harnesses jangled as another in Kallista’s party pushed her way forward and saluted. “Courier Viyelle Torvyll, Prinsipella of Shaluine.” The courier began formally, then switched to a familiar, friendly tone as she addressed the guard. “You know me, Daltrey. You were standing duty here when I rode out to fetch the naitan back. This is Captain Varyl. These are her iliasti. I can swear to their identity. I know them all from the last time they were in the city, at court. The captain has urgent business. Do you honestly want to delay them?”

Kallista remembered the prinsipella from last year as well, and not fondly. The young woman had been a useless, annoying, mischief-making blot on Adaran society, and that was before the quarrelsome magic had got hold of her. Still, she seemed to have found something better to do with herself since then, joining the courier corps.

The prinsipella-courier had brought the Reinine’s orders to Kallista along with a warning of the rebellion stirring down on the plains. Viyelle had traveled back to the capital with Kallista’s party, fought through rebel ambushes with them, and at this moment, Kallista was liking the courier more and more.

“I’m sure you can, Prinsipella.” The guard, who had to be nearing the end of his military service, which would make him all of twenty-two, blushed under Viyelle’s attention, but he did not budge. “But rules are rules and with this rebellion on, it’s worth my head if I break them. The captain must be identified by an officer she served under previously.” He signaled to another footguard.

“I’ll go for you,” Viyelle said. “It’s on my way, and I’m mounted. I’ll be faster. My orders were to get the captain here, but she’s not here till she’s reported in, is she?” She turned to Kallista. “I’ll leave your horse in the palace stables so you can find it later.”

“Yes, fine, go.” Kallista waved a hand and the courier clattered off at the best speed she could make. Perhaps she did mean to make amends for last year’s calamities, as she said. Kallista decided to reserve judgment, watch and see how things unfolded. This guard, however...

Kallista glared at him, thinking hot and angry thoughts. He cleared his throat, stiffened to even more rigid attention, and didn’t move.

“Don’t twist yourself into a knot,” Torchay murmured from beside her, trying to calm her temper when it didn’t want to be calmed.

Sergeant Torchay Omvir had been doing that sort of thing for the past ten years, first as her assigned military bodyguard, and for the past year as her ilias—one of her temple-bound mates. He was an exception to the old saying that redheads have fiery tempers. Kallista’s temper was many times hotter than his, but her hair was so dark a brown as to be almost black, while Torchay’s hair was a deep, pure, true dark red that curled wildly when not confined ruthlessly in a military queue as it was now.

“Look around you,” he said. “Have you ever seen this many people at the Mountain Gate? Something’s happened.”

She wanted to let her anger rage, but Torchay’s murmur reached her, despite all. She looked.

Here on the north side of the city, where Arikon backed up into the sharp beginnings of the Shieldback Mountains, the walls didn’t rise so high as those facing the valley to the east and south. The mountain itself gave protection to Arikon. Fewer people lived in the mountain valleys than down in the vast eastern plains, and those who lived in the mountains beyond the Shieldbacks found it easier and quicker to come through the Heldring Gap to the plains and thus to Arikon, though the distance might be greater. In all the times Kallista had been in Adara’s capital city, the Mountain Gate had never seen more than a few dozen individuals seeking admittance, even on the busiest days.

Today, merchants driving carts laden with household goods were lined up behind farmers driving livestock before them, and they stood behind craftsmen bearing the looms or anvils or hammers and saws of their trade, all waiting for access to the city. Old people rested by the side of the road. Children chased each other, playing loud games with best friends just met while their parents tried to keep track of them. Kallista had been vaguely aware of the crowds as this half of their ilian approached the gate, but she hadn’t truly seen them.

Guards searched baggage, and one by one, those wanting into the city filed up to a table set before an army colonel with a single row of red ribbons fluttering fore-and-aft from her shoulders and a male naitan dressed in North magic blue. He looked weary, as if he’d been working magic for hours on end.

The next in line came up to the table and laid her hands flat on the rough wooden top. The naitan covered both her hands with his, and the colonel began asking her questions. A few minutes later, the naitan nodded, the woman gathered up her goods, joined the family waiting near the gate and together, they entered the city.

“Truthsayer?” Kallista spoke her thought aloud, not seeking an answer. No wonder the man looked tired, if he had to verify every person wanting to enter the city. She shivered with a sudden chill. “You’re right, Torchay. Something has happened. Something bad.”

And the rest of their ilian was on the road alone, traveling to the northern edges of Adara and Torchay’s family, away from the rebellion disturbing the eastern plain. Her babies—twin daughters—were so small, only ninety days old. Not even three months yet. How could she have left them? What kind of mother was she, to be here, instead of there, with her children?

“Obed should have gone with them.” Her voice was bitter, angry, quiet. “You should have gone with them. How can they travel safely all the way to Korbin Prinsipality with only one able-bodied fighter? We sent him alone to guard a pregnant woman, a blind man, a healer and two tiny babies.”

She whirled her horse to ride north and find them, keep them safe. The two with her—the best fighters in their ilian—would never leave her.

Torchay threw himself at her reins and missed, landing hard in the lingering puddles on the rocky road. Kallista called for speed and her mount did its best, but there were too many people crowded in the road and she wasn’t—quite—willing to sacrifice someone else’s child to save her own. Obed caught up with her easily, wresting the reins from her hands.

Kallista fought for the reins, for control of her horse. Confused and frightened, the animal reared. Obed caught her around her waist and pulled her onto the saddle in front of him. Kallista’s fear flashed into anger and she turned it on Obed, her fury rising as he accepted her blows without expression, without reaction, simply allowing her to rain them down on him.

“Damn you,” she raged. “Don’t you care about anything?” She wanted to mark him, to cut him open and see if he would bleed. Her beautiful, exotic Southron ilias with his black hair, brown skin and the tattoos of his devotion to the One God written on his face and body was beyond anything in Kallista’s experience. She didn’t know how to deal with him. And just now, that infuriated her.

Like the rest of their ilian, he’d been marked by the One and bound by that godstruck magic into a whole as unlike other iliani as a military troop was from the rabble of a mob. But since her daughters’ birth, Obed had been pulling back, withdrawing into himself until he seemed a stone carving, rather than a man. And she didn’t know why.

His behavior worried her, for more reasons than the personal. It drove cracks through their ilian, because much as she tried to hide her hurt at Obed’s actions, she couldn’t quite, and that made the others angry for her sake.

Torchay pushed his way into the space around the restive horses, limping slightly. Kallista refused the rising guilt, but it seeped inside her anyway. She’d caused that limp. Obed released her into Torchay’s arms and he pulled her from the saddle, holding her tight when she would have turned her anger on him. He wouldn’t let her strike him.

“You don’t want to cause any more of a scene. Not here.” He spoke into her ear, holding her head still with one long-fingered hand planted on the back of her skull. “Think, Kallista. If you ride out of here, you’re more likely to lead the danger to them. You’re the godstruck. You’re the one the rebels will watch, if they’re watching any of us. You don’t know for certain that there is any danger at all, do you?”

Gradually, his words sank in and made sense. She did not want to make anything worse than it already was. She stopped struggling and Torchay loosened his hold. He didn’t let go of her entirely—he knew her too well for that—but he would know she was listening now.

“You have to trust in the plan.” He led her back toward their place near the gate where his well-trained horse waited, calmly cropping grass. Obed followed, leading Kallista’s mount.

“They’re my daughters too, remember?” Torchay said. “Blood or no, Lorynda and Rozite are both mine. Don’t you think I want to be there myself, watching over them, as much as you do? But this was the plan. To draw attention our way, make anyone interested come after us. And for that, we need Obed here.

“If we’re drawing attention to you, I want our best fighters protecting you, and that’s Obed and me. I won’t risk you, too. We fought through rebels more than once on our way here, and more than once, it was Obed who made the difference. Trust the plan. Trust Stone and Fox and Merinda to keep them safe.”

“Fox is blind, and Merinda’s a healer, not a fighter.”

“You know as well as I do that Fox’s blindness doesn’t make any difference in his ability to fight. That extra sense of knowing he has from your magic gives him eyes in the back of his head. You’ve seen it. You know it. And a healer’s exactly what they need right now with Aisse so close to her time. You brought Merinda into the ilian. She’ll watch over the girls and Aisse like they were her own.”

The durissas rites weren’t used much in the cities any more, but in the countryside, in the mountains and plains, they were still fairly common. During a crisis a person could be temporarily made ilias, or two iliani could bind themselves into one, swearing to guard the others—especially the children—as their own.

Merinda had come out from the capital, a cheerful, comfortable, tabbycat of a woman, to help with the twins’ birth and wait for Aisse’s baby, so she had been present and available when Courier Torvyll had brought word of the emergency. Merinda had accepted Kallista’s offer, taken the bracelet from Kallista’s own arm bound together with the band from Torchay’s ankle, and become part of their ilian just before they’d left on their separate journeys.

Usually a durissas bond lasted only as long as the crisis, though sometimes it became permanent, if a child resulted or the parties agreed. In this instance, Kallista didn’t care much which way it went, as long as Merinda took care of those who needed her. Kallista couldn’t do it, and it was ripping her apart.

At the gate again, Torchay looped an arm around her neck for a rough hug. “They’ll be all right.”

“How do you know?” Kallista couldn’t stop the retort, her fears eating holes in her. “You don’t have any idea how they’re faring.”

“But you do.”

Did she? She should. At the least, she ought to be able to find out. Kallista took a deep breath, fighting for calm. Could she do it?

Turning her back on the city, she faced North and opened herself. There, that was the sound of all the people dammed up before the gate, talking, laughing, complaining. She named it and set it aside, letting it fade from her consciousness. And that was the horses, and those noises belonged to the other animals—cows, chickens, dogs, cats. Kallista closed them from her mind as well.

She shut out the sound of the wind whipping the flags atop the city walls and making the trees whisper to each other. One at a time, she identified and eliminated the sounds falling on her physical ears. With everything that was in her, she listened for more. And she heard nothing.

No hum from the mountains. No whisper from the sun. No joyous song of magic.