"I shall never be a Ja'hanna," Dayree whispered.
She turned, head tipped back, studying the forest canopy high overhead. No reaction from the forest that seemed more a friend than her yearmates nowadays. Solitude enclosed her like a shield, an invisibility that felt comforting, compared to the sense of fading away a little more every day inside the Clan House. Perhaps, in the grand scheme of things, her monumental failure didn't truly matter?
A moment later, she knew the answer. Her lack of Talent, her betrayal of the hopes of her bloodline and the entire Taksearhe Clan, would only not matter if she stayed here in the forest. Oddly, she felt safer here than anywhere else, even knowing that the Tobrizz raiders grew bolder with every moon that passed. What did it matter if they broke through the energy fences surrounding Taksearhe Clan lands and found her here? They wouldn't want her any more than her own clan did.
The forest was the safest place she could be--perhaps because everyone who taunted and teased her wouldn't follow her out here. After all, if Dayree had no Talent, no worth in the Clan, that meant she would be a coward as well. Why would they expect her to go into the forest where there was danger? After all, if she had no Talent, then she wouldn't be able to ward off wild animals that might consider her a threat and attack. She wouldn't be able to sense poisonous plants and might be foolish enough to eat something that could kill her, or make a dozen other foolish mistakes--and lacking Talent, be unable to call for help or heal herself.
Why was it that the lack of discernable Talent equated a total lack of common sense in the minds of the Talented? How did the common folk survive without Talents?
Such thoughts were a waste of time. She wouldn't be able to ask those questions, because they would hurt the people who loved her and earn more scorn from those who despised--or worse, pitied--her.
Dayree turned, surveying the clearing, and took a deep breath to say it again. Louder. Maybe she would even shout it. Only cowards refused to face the painful truth.
A twig snapped.
She held her breath, feeling the sudden silence in the clearing, the sensation of the forest holding its breath.
Strangers had come. People the animals weren't used to, like they were used to her.
This stone-still, held-breath, tense-to-the-point-of-flight silence grated on her.
Someone didn't want her to see them. Who would sneak through the shadows, creeping up behind her?
Cold filled her belly. An ache pressed at the backs of her eyes. She could guess who moved among the trees. Dayree was sick to death of fighting tears and feeling that everyone watched her and whispered as she passed by. Ostracizing her wasn't enough anymore, she supposed. Mocking her to her face was about to begin.
Dayree kept turning, until she faced back the way she had come through the forest. She walked slowly, pretending she hadn't heard that twig snap. All she had to do was reach the main trail through the forest, then she would run. All the way back to the gates of the formal gardens. She could outrun almost anyone, even with the awkwardness of adolescence to slow her. She had her swiftness, if nothing else.
Her body always seemed to betray her lately. At twelve years of age, adolescence seemed to be taking forever. She was small for her age, but no longer a dainty doll. Tolik no longer became jealous when boys asked to dance with her. He had stopped teasing her to grow up so they could be betrothed.
Another stick snapped. Leaves rustled. Her hunter was clumsy. Her cousin, Kedrin, said the overconfidence of one's opponents was often the best weapon to turn against them.
Branches rustled, off to her left. Between her and the trail. She paused and pretended to examine a skinny, prickly little plant with one long stem, one blossom and only four leaves.
In that pause, only six or seven seconds at the most, she heard more movement. Branches rustling, the scratching sound of thorns on cloth, twigs snapping underfoot. When the faint, almost non-existent breeze died for a few seconds, she even heard breathing.
More than one person followed her, making clumsy attempts at stealth. They were all together in one place. No one had thought to separate to surround her.
She was too far from the gates to call for help. Dayree whispered a prayer to D'hune and straightened from her pretend examination of the plant. She stretched her arms to the sky and forced a yawn. Let them think she was tired and not paying attention.
Too bad the stealth games her cousins taught her had to be used against her own clan, rather than the Tobrizz or other enemies.
Nodding, she resumed walking. In twenty steps, she would reach the main trail through the forest. Once her feet were on it, she could run. All the way to the forest gate.
Fifteen, fourteen. Dayree prayed her unseen enemies didn't see she lengthened her stride. Eight, seven. More branches rustled behind her. Too loud. They no longer cared about stealth.
Dayree leaped into flight like the deer that played among the shadows.
Three voices raised in cries of dismay and anger. Dayree recognized the voices and nearly stumbled. Neelian, her brother, Noris and their cousin, Miklan. Only last summer, they had been her playmates.
Last fall, Neelian had discovered her gift to Skip. Skipping was almost as good as the full Taksearhe gift of Stepping to other lands and worlds. The power of her mind took her from one place to another in the blink of an eye.
Neelian had complained that Dayree hadn't discovered her Talent yet, so they couldn't even try to pair into a team. Her grumbles had turned to teasing, and now had graduated into malice.
Three more steps. Dayree could see the path.
"Ha!" Neelian shrieked, as she popped out of thin air onto the gravel of the trail. She lunged, off balance and disoriented for a precious two seconds.
Dayree spun sharply left, when common sense said to turn right and leap onto the trail.
Neelian fell to her knees on the place where Dayree should have been. Her triumphant cry turned to a yelp of pain.
Dayree's skin tingled on her left arm. She turned, sensing power at work like when her father created an illusion solid enough to hold in her hands. Neelian appeared only three steps away. Dayree twisted back toward the trail, putting all her strength into her legs. Neelian let out a shriek, echoed by her brother and cousin as they stumbled onto the gravel path and lunged at Dayree.
She leaped out of their way and threw herself straight at Neelian.
Dayree wished she could Skip, just once. Anywhere away from here. To her parents' suite. To the Council's chamber, to prove to them she did have Talent. To the forest gate. Even twenty steps away, to startle her enemies and give her time to flee.
Neelian yelped and her arms automatically closed around Dayree as their chests collided.
The world went blank for a heartbeat, then reappeared, with the sunlight at a different angle and brighter. The smells were no longer of green, moldering forest life but flowers and stone baking in the hot afternoon sunlight.
Neelian collapsed to the grass, retching, shaking, her wheat-toned skin like alabaster. Dayree staggered backwards a few steps, straining to find Noris and Miklan before they attacked.
Her hand touched iron bars. She turned, stumbling, and stared at the forest gate.
Ten steps into the outer gardens, Dayree could think clearly enough to wonder how that had happened. The forest gate was nearly ten minutes' walk from the spot on the trail where the three had ambushed her. Neelian had only enough strength and control to Skip from one floor to the next in the Clan House, and that effort left her breathless and dizzy for a good ten-count. How had they Skipped so far?
Dayree supposed she had startled the other girl into it when she attacked her. Some Clan elders, especially the Seekers who tested for Talents, resorted to shocking youngsters who had difficulty breaking through the last barrier to their Talents. Maybe she had shocked Neelian into taking a Skip five times farther than normal. No one expected their prey to turn around and face them, instead of fleeing.
She would have to remember that tactic in the future.
If she didn't get in trouble for draining Neelian, maybe even hurting her.
Dayree feared no one but her parents, Jo'am and Kadrina and their son, Kedrin, maybe Cousin Bayl, would be on her side. She was a failure in the eyes of so many in the Clan. The only child of one of the most powerfully Talented couples in the Clan, cousin to the Alcaradan, had not a shred of Talent. All her age-mates had shown some sign of Talent, no matter how small, but the daughter of Davlan the Illusion Master and Ayleen the Dreamwalker--not a glimmer.
Blinded by sudden tears, she stumbled down the first branch of the pathway through the formal gardens surrounding the Clan House. She gave in to her need to run, even knowing she couldn't put this trouble behind her--like a dog with clattering junk tied to its tail, forever running to free itself and forever dragging its torment with it.
"Careful!" a mellow tenor voice called.
Dayree almost didn't recognize Tolik's voice as she stumbled aside to avoid careening into him. It seemed like forever that his voice had been changing, cracking and squeaking and rumbling like gravel under carriage wheels.
But she hadn't actually talked to him in several moons. They had danced a little at the Midwinter Festival and he had asked how her studies were doing, congratulating her on studying with Mospil, who only took the most mature and intelligent students.
That was eight moons ago. No wonder she didn't recognize Tolik's voice now that it had settled into maturity. It struck her with a pang that until then, they had always been best of friends. She adored him and he had always been her defender.
Not anymore, Dayree realized, as she looked up into Tolik's dark eyes and saw disdain twist his heavy mouth and tighten the muscles in his square, fleshy jaw. She reached for him, physically and emotionally wobbling.
"Even if you're still a child, Dayree, you shouldn't run around the gardens like a hoyden. Have some dignity. Think of your parents." He shrugged off her hand. "Think of the Clan, if you have any pity at all."
"Tolik, please, Neelian--" Dayree's tongue tangled and she gestured back toward the open forest gate.
The other girl was just pulling herself up to a sitting position, visibly wobbling even from so far away.
"That is the last blow. It's bad enough you're useless to the Clan, but now you attack your playmates out of jealousy?"
"I didn't do anything to her! She was hunting me!" She didn't care if she shrieked and stomped her foot like a brat. She was the victim here. Didn't anyone care about her feelings? Was it her fault she didn't have even a shred of Taksearhe gifts?
"Hunting you? Why would anyone waste their time?" Tolik glared at her and stomped down the path. He had too much self-dignity to actually run, but Dayree could see his concern for Neelian in the stiff set of his back, the long strides he took.
He cared about Neelian simply because she could Skip. It was a useful Talent.
Tolik used to give Dayree sweets and flowers at every festival, and grew angry when other boys gave them to her as well. She could see clearly he despised her now.
Dayree sniffled, trying to fight back the tears that filled her eyes and burned. She turned and stumbled down the path. The warm summer day felt unbearably cold and she saw no sunshine, just icy shadows reaching to snatch at her and drag her into eternal darkness.
"I didn't do anything," she muttered, and knuckled the tears from her eyes.
More tears replaced them. She didn't see the long, knee-high ledge of the swan fountain until she banged her legs against it. She collapsed onto the wide seat around the square fountain and huddled, tucking her legs up under her overshirt. Her heart thudded and she wished Jo'am were here, so she could beg him to take her far away to another world and leave her there. Some world where no one had mind-gifts and nothing was expected of her except to be a little girl.
Her heart thudded so loud, she didn't hear the footsteps on the gravel until Miklan grabbed her arm and yanked her off the fountain's edge. Dayree let out a shriek and twisted free. She opened her eyes to see Noris snarl at her. His fist suddenly filled her vision before slamming into her mouth. She twisted aside enough he gave her only a glancing blow. His fingers tangled in her long, loose curls. She twisted her head and bit his arm before he could withdraw. He yelped, shock widening his eyes and wiping away his anger for a heartbeat. Hot, clawing fury rose up in her like a geyser. She flung herself at the two bullies and kicked and screamed and punched.
They ran and she chased them.
Straight into the arms of two men walking down the garden pathway through rose arches. They caught the two boys, nearly lifting them off their feet to make them stop. Dayree slid to a stop on the pathway and watched, gasping, not hearing a single word the boys said, just their frantic voices.
One man burst out laughing and she recognized her cousin Kedrin's voice; Jo'am's only son, a Taksearhe of the Taksearhe like his father.
"Little Dayree gave you a black eye?" Kedrin said between chuckles. "And tore your shirt? You expect me to believe that? A lady like Dayree, beat up on two strong, dirty, nasty monsters like you?" His laughter faded into something grim as he and his companion put the boys down and held them in place with big hands on their shoulders.
The other man looked around, and Dayree saw it was Bayl, her cousin on her father's side. Bayl's square, cinnamon brown face wore grimmer lines than Kedrin's--but then, he had scars on cheek and forehead from an aborted Tobrizz attack when he was nine. The pain and fear had shocked his Talents as a Firetouch into maturity, several years ahead of schedule.
Dayree wished her troubles today had shocked her Talents into life. She supposed this was even further proof she had none.
"Dayree, are you all right?" Bayl asked.
"Dayree?" Kedrin gave Noris a shake before he released the boy and hurried down the path toward her. More tears touched her eyes and she smiled. At least someone hurried for her sake today. "Are you all right, chiya? Your mouth--what happened?"
"I was out walking--Neelian and Noris and Miklan ambushed me and I ran--Neelian kept Skipping to head me off, so I grabbed her instead and she Skipped farther than she should have. She collapsed. She hurt herself trying to hurt me!" she finished, her voice cracking. The injustice of it all seemed to slam her with the force and weight of a stone wall.
"They'll be disciplined."
The two boys let out yelps of dismay. Miklan opened his mouth to protest. Dayree could see it in his snarl and the fire in his pale blue eyes. Bayl turned sharply on them.
"Three against one, using Talents to hurt someone smaller than you, inside the Clan boundaries," he growled, towering over both boys until they cringed. "Do you expect us to believe Dayree did anything wrong? Do you want to argue with us before the Council?"
"I didn't do anything wrong," Dayree whispered. Her lips trembled as Kedrin bent and put an arm around her shoulders.
"No, you didn't," her cousin agreed in tones as soothing as milk candy.
"Except get born Taksearhe without being a Taksearhe."
She nearly smiled when Kedrin couldn't find the words to respond to that. She was right, wasn't she?
Davlan and Ayleen appeared around the far side of the hedge maze as Kedrin walked Dayree back to the main Clan House. He had used his slight healing Talents to soothe away the bruises around her mouth and gave her his clean kerchief so she could sop up water from the fountain to wash tears and blood from her face. Bayl had escorted Miklan and Noris away only moments before.
Dayree swallowed her moan of dismay as she saw her parents come running to meet her. Of course they would know something was wrong. The parent-child bond was still strong between them. She had always found comfort in it, able to sense her parents' presence, their caring and support through her childhood nightmares and her nervous moments as she graduated through different levels of Clan society. It had always been strengthening and sweet to know they were there in spirit to share her every fear and triumph and pleasure. But now?
The parent-child bond faded with every moon now that she had reached adolescence. Dayree nearly burst into tears--why did this have to be one of the last memories of their link?
"Shall I stay with you?" Kedrin asked, his voice pitched so only Dayree could hear. "I could tell them, if you wish."
For a moment, Dayree did wish. Then she shook her head and tugged her hand free of his strong, calloused grip. Her parents caught her between them then, her father resting both hands on her head to scan her while her mother held her close and enveloped her in a healing field, taking care of the small cut inside her mouth.
"Chiya, what happened?" Ayleen asked, her musical voice almost ragged with her worry.
"Kinsman?" Davlan said, turning to follow Kedrin's path as the young man backed away from them.
"Dayree doesn't need my presence," the young man said, punctuating his words with a bow. He winked at her. "You should consider guard duty, little cousin. Your swift feet, deadly fists and sharp senses would make you invaluable."
A tiny snort turned into a giggle. Dayree managed a smile for him, even as her parents led her to one of the benches set along the path that circled the hedge maze.
"Dayree?" Ayleen sat so their eyes were on the same level and rested both hands on her daughter's shoulders. "You were terrified, and then furious and then... for a moment you weren't there."
"I jumped at Neelian when she was about to Skip, to ambush me. I shocked her into Skipping beyond her range." Dayree tried to shrug. She looked at her sturdy walking boots to avoid her parents' searching gazes.
"It wasn't just Neelian, was it?" Davlan asked. He sighed when she shook her head, and he settled down onto the bench next to his wife. "Heartlight, what happened?"
Dayree told them, as simply and quickly as she could. Her voice faltered a little when she told them what Tolik had said. His reaction sealed what she had sensed happening around her. Scorn gathered, from all the people who had deferred to her because of who her parents were and the possible future Talents waiting to blossom in her.
"They never were my friends, were they?" she whispered, as she repeated her thoughts to her parents. Ayleen reached out and took hold of both her hands. "I'm never going to have any Talents am I? Let alone be a Taksearhe of Taksearhe, like Cousin Jo'am?"
Dayree took a deep breath as she raised her head and stiffened her neck, to look her father in the eye. She had his copper-colored eyes and her mother's red-gold hair, but she hadn't inherited either of their Talents. After what had happened today, how could she keep hoping? It was dishonest and dishonorable.
"Am I?" she continued, lowering her voice to keep it from cracking into tears. For something to do, to concentrate on, she tugged on the blue lace trimming the narrow cuff of her silky overshirt.
She didn't fear her parents, but she feared hurting them. Embarrassing them. Not from anything she had done, but from something that had been lacking in her since birth and which she could not control or affect.
Betraying her parents' hopes and pride in her was perhaps the hardest part of all this. She adored them and wished only to make them proud--and to be like them, rich in love and oneness. Though they had been married nearly twenty years, they still held hands and her mother still blushed when her father stole kisses in public.
They were tandeer. Soul-mates. Dayree wondered if she would ever have a tandeer or if she would have to trust to kind destiny to find a husband who would choose to love her, whom she would choose to love. In tandeer, everything was assured, because the partners always knew each other's soul and hurts and dreams.
"You're only twelve. My Talents didn't stabilize until my voice had finished changing," Davlan said.
He didn't give her his usual charming, lopsided smile. The one he used when he comforted her from nightmares or the ordinary fears of little girls venturing out into the sometimes confusing, sometimes overwhelming, fascinating world of Rehdonna.
"Yes, but you knew your Talent since you were ten. I have been a woman three moons now, Father," Dayree said. She almost smiled when her father cast a questioning glance at her mother. Ayleen nodded, a slight flush touching her cheeks. "I think it is time I be tested. I should stop wasting time in preparation classes, and focus my life on something else."
"They grow up too quickly," Davlan whispered. He took a deep breath and nodded. "Very well. Let me inquire of whoever is on duty in the Council chamber, and see what they say." He stood and held out his hand to her. Dayree gladly put her small hand into his grip, not least because she started shaking.
With relief, or with reaction shock to everything that had happened in such a short time? She wasn't sure. She was glad to lean on her parents, though. Ayleen walked on her other side and held her other hand, as they had done since Dayree first learned to walk.
As they went back into the Clan House, Dayree was all too aware of her slight stature against their regal height. She wished she had chosen to wear a dress today instead of her usual long overshirt and vest, blousy trousers and sturdy boots. She had stayed clean and neat for most of her rambles through the forest, but she still felt grubby all in dark blue, against the gold and rose of her mother's hair and flowing gown, and the understated elegance of her father's silvery-gray vest coat and pleated trousers and the gray-green of his shirt. Would she always feel like a misfit, a mistake, even among those who loved her best?
If only her brother had lived, taking away the pressure of being an only child, considered the firstborn, with all the attendant hopes and dreams.
If only her parents had produced more children.
If only her parents weren't such strong Talents that they wore the title of Ja'hanna and Ja'han almost from the moment their Talents appeared.
If only Dayree weren't of the direct bloodline of the leading family of the Clan.
Anyone else would be permitted to be a quiet failure, given a position where she could be useful, in the background, no embarrassment for the Clan. Being who she was, Dayree suspected she would be exiled from the Taksearhe Clan House, sent to one of the far islands, moons of sailing away from the main continent, where no one would know her. Where she would not be an embarrassment to the Taksearhe. Where even the Tobrizz wouldn't bother her.
A Taksearhe had to be desperately useless, Dayree reflected, if the Tobrizz wouldn't bother her.
When Davlan contacted the Council to request testing for Dayree, he did not receive the usual advice to wait and let nature take its course, as other anxious parents did. In less than an hour, the family received a summons to the inner chambers.
Davlan and Ayleen stayed at the doors of the room while Dayree sat on a low stool facing the horseshoe-shaped Council table. The only Council members present were two Seekers, Clan Speaker Shaleen and Dayree's teacher, Mospil. She fought tears when she saw the regret in his big green eyes.
Dayree refused to look around the room paneled in elegant red-toned oak, hung with royal blue curtains. She hated her proximity to the vast curving table made of gold and blue marble, and the ponderous, blue-cushioned chairs like thrones. What was the glory in coming here for testing to prove she was a misfit? She had hoped to stand here proudly one day, to proclaim the discovery of her Talent.
"Before we subject you to a Seeking, Dayree y'hai Ayleen, you should know that the parents of your opponents have tried to lodge a complaint against you," Shaleen began slowly, her gaze focused on her steepled hands rather than the girl sitting before her. "Tried," she repeated, and a tiny, heartening smile caught one corner of her mouth. "Bayl y'hai Belleris and Kedrin y'hai Jo'am have already presented what they witnessed. I am surprised your parents did not come to lodge a complaint against the three."
"It would be foolish to punish children for acting on what they heard their parents say," Dayree responded. A thousand more bitter words wanted to escape her throat, but she clenched her fingers into the cushion of the stool and blinked back threatening tears. "People who were forced to be kind to me in the past are now taking their revenge."
"Hmm. Perhaps. That is a most mature and...unfortunately, astute observation. You are a credit to your parents and teachers," the woman said after a long moment studying her carefully composed expression. "Those with the Talents of adults must act as adults. All three are old enough to know better, yet they attacked you like street beggars. They claimed they were trying to shock you into revealing your Talent."
"Much as Dayree shocked Neelian into extending her range," Mospil added with a snort and a wink for the girl.
"They heard their parents speaking of the need to shock our daughter?" Ayleen guessed.
"Yes, and we have already informed both sets of parents that such decisions belong in the hands of Seekers. They were wrong to discuss such things in front of their children, let alone give the impression that anyone had the freedom to try. It is an invasion of young Dayree's rights, her body and her mind."
Shaleen stood and stepped around the table. She went to her knees in front of Dayree and took hold of the girl's hands. Up close, she looked tired. Dayree felt a flicker of guilt that she had added to the Clan Speaker's burdens.
"We commend you," Shaleen continued. "You show great maturity in facing your fears and requesting this testing, instead of making us come to you. I wish greatly that others, more obviously Talented, would show such maturity."
The Speaker's rueful smile made Dayree wonder if she referred to Tolik, her son and heir. Surely the woman knew he had been marginally involved in today's episode. Miklan and Noris would have had to pass him on their way to attack Dayree. Davlan had reported everything Dayree told him, and she had known better than to leave out her encounter with Tolik, since he had gone to Neelian's aid. What did Shaleen think of her son's behavior?
"Are you ready, Lady Dayree?" Seeker Arlon said as he took his place behind her.
"Ready, sir," Dayree whispered.
It took all her control not to whimper at the address. Until now, 'Lady' had been merely a sign of immaturity, a signal that her Talents had not appeared. As the years passed, addressing her as 'Lady' would signal she had been consigned to the status of the Talentless noble bloods. She would never have a chance to earn the title of Ja'hanna, lady of great Talent. Just a lady.
"Not without me, you aren't," a vibrant baritone voice called from the doorway as the heavy panels banged open.