Attempting to escape the past can have devastating consequences…
Ask Tavin Sylvain, who is trying to forget all about the abuse he suffered at the hands of the trolls six months earlier.
Ask Kitiara, who would like to escape her sordid past in Kartonn, where she was known as the Princess of Pleasure.
Or ask King Jansson van Tannen, who would like nothing better than to keep his family intact and not have to face the possibility of losing one of his own beloved children to fate.
When the past rears its ugly head, all three are thrown into turmoil. Tavin, Brann and Kitiara are lost in Karsaba, without magic, without direction, without hope. And in the middle of a troll invasion. In a race against time, King Jansson and King Kyel gather their closest friends and allies to find the children before the trolls find them first.
GENRE: Fantasy/Young Adult ISBN: 978-1-921636-30-1 ASIN: B0043M6M44 Word Count: 94, 943
Fourteen-year-old Prince Brann van Tannen burst into the palace foyer and pounded up the marble stairs, his mop of brown curls bouncing about his shoulders. He gained the landing and spun to the next stairway, colliding with a servant girl just coming down.
Freshly pressed linens flew into the air and rained down around him, as the young woman grabbed for a handhold to check her fall. Her fingers closed on Brann’s sun-browned arm and she toppled with him to the floor, coming to rest with her face pressed against his bare chest. She quickly scrambled to her feet, cheeks flaming.
“Y…Your Highness,” she stammered, bowing. “My apologies! I…I didn’t hear you coming. I’m so sorry.”
Brann picked himself up, but took no time for niceties. He scooped up the linens and deposited them in a wrinkled heap into her arms, then bolted up the stairs.
He burst into the bedroom without knocking, startling the young brown-skinned elf who stood near a high wardrobe. “Tavin!” he cried, relief rushing through him. “You’re still here! Thank the gods! I thought I would miss you.”
Tavin Sylvain eyed him with question. “Miss me? What are you talking about?”
“I just heard the news!” Brann retorted. “About the Bardic Training Facility! You’ve been accepted! Why didn’t you tell me? I had to hear it from your sister.”
Tavin sighed and pushed away from him. “Figures. She can’t seem to keep her mouth quiet about anything. Even when it’s not her business.”
Brann winced, his excitement snuffed out by Tavin’s bitter tone. He knew exactly what Tavin referred to. Janna had been the one to tell Kyel about the atrocities Tavin had endured, about the abuse he had suffered at the hands of the Rendars six months earlier, but Brann was sure she had shared it with no one else. And he had kept his promise to Tavin as well. He had told no one. Still, the word had somehow managed to get out, and somehow managed to get distorted as rumors often did. Brann knew that part of that problem was because of Tavin’s look, the finely chiseled features, the exquisite green eyes set in skin the color of creamed coffee. And part of the problem was his voice, clear, sweet and angelically beautiful in song. But a majority of the problem was Tavin’s close friendship with Brann. He was six months younger to the day, and he and Brann had been inseparable companions since birth. It was now said, amongst royalty and commoner alike, that Prince Tavin Sylvain, son of King Kyel, was Jodau. And that Prince Brann of Odora Dava was his lover.
Yet, Brann had remained steadfastly by Tavin’s side, refusing to let rumors and gossip affect their friendship. Now, he perched on the side of the wide bed and watched Tavin methodically pack his bags. “Don’t you want to go?” he ventured.
Tavin shrugged. “It doesn’t matter what I want, does it? Father’s made the decision and that’s the way it’ll be. Just send the family embarrassment away.” He shoved the tunic into his pack and turned to the wardrobe for another.
Brann rose and joined Tavin at the mahogany armoire. “Tav,” he said gently, “that’s not why your father is sending you. He knows you’re not Jodau and, even if you were, it wouldn’t matter to him. Look at Galen and Avenal, or Elvy and Renny. They’re Jodau and your father doesn’t treat them any differently than anyone else.”
“They’re not his son,” Tavin retorted, yanking another tunic out. He brushed past Brann, started to fold the tunic, then hurled it onto the bed. “Why is he doing this to me?” he cried, whirling to face Brann. “I don’t want to go back to Kartonn. I can’t stand the thought of setting foot in that wretched place again. It makes me sick just thinking about it!”
“The Rendars are gone, Tavin. Grandpapa Elek saw to that, remember? Besides, it’s not as if you’ll be traveling through the countryside. Grandpapa’s taking you to the Facility by magic. Tav,” he took his friend by the arm, repeating the words he had rehearsed on the way to the palace, the words that supposedly would drive back his own panic at having Tavin so far away. “This is a wonderful opportunity for you. You have a gift, a wondrous gift of bardic healing. Don’t let it go to waste.”
Tavin gazed at him for a moment, then sighed. “Right.” He closed the wardrobe with tight, mechanical movements, then cast his gaze about the room, as if committing it to memory.
Brann frowned, his gaze shifting to the pack, then back to Tavin. “Are…are you leaving soon then?”
“Tomorrow afternoon,” Tavin mumbled.
Brann couldn’t stop his sigh of relief, then he frowned. “Then why are you packing now?”
“I like to be prepared. You know that.”
Brann hesitated before continuing. “Tav, have you told your father how you feel? That you don’t want to go?”
“Yes, and he said the same thing you did. It’s a wonderful opportunity.” He grimaced, then snatched up his riding leathers. “Why are you half-naked anyway? Are you trying to put truth to the rumors?”
“I don’t care what people think,” Brann retorted. “And I’m half-naked because it’s hotter than cook’s oven outside. Much too hot to go riding. Why don’t you come to the lake with Tia and me?”
Tavin shook his head. “No, you two want to be alone.”
Brann snorted. “What we want and what papa will allow are two different things. He watches me like a hawk, as if I’m going to pounce on her the moment we’re alone.” He paused, then, with a sly smile, added, “Not that I haven’t thought about it.”
Tavin shook his head, a small smile touching at his lips. “You’re something else, Brann. Thank you for being my friend. I mean, through all of this…unpleasantness.”
Brann grimaced. “That sounded an awful lot like a goodbye.”
Tavin shrugged. “I guess it was. I am leaving, after all. Look, I’m going to go riding. You go on to the lake with Kitiara. I’ll see you both later.”
“Tavin,” Brann said, stopping him, “what if I go to Kartonn with you? I probably could. I haven’t been accepted for study but –”
“No, Brann,” Tavin interrupted. “Your father wouldn’t allow it. You have your studies here.” He crossed the room and stepped into the hallway, Brann trailing.
Two young pages stood at the end of the long hallway. They glanced up, then hurriedly hid their snickers behind their hands. Tavin flushed, stopping in mid stride. “I told you before that you shouldn’t come into my room,” he mumbled to Brann. “Especially undressed like you are.”
For the first time in five months, anger at the allegations surged through Brann. “You there!” he snapped at the pages. “Come here!”
“Brann, don’t,” Tavin whispered. “Just leave it be.”
“No! I’m sick of this,” Brann retorted as the pages shuffled forward and bowed before him. “What was so funny just now?” Brann demanded, as Tavin sagged against the wall.
“N…nothing, Your Highness,” one of the boys stammered, keeping his gaze averted.
“Strange that you should find ‘nothing’ so highly amusing,” Brann seethed. “Would you also find it highly amusing to be shipped back to your fathers?”
The boys looked up at him in alarm. “M…M’lord, please,” one of them stammered, “we…we’re sorry.”
“It’s not me you need to be apologizing to,” Brann snapped. “It’s Prince Tavin.”
“Brann!” Tavin cried. “Just drop it! For gods’ sakes, just drop it!” He spun and bolted down the stairs.
Brann stared after him in surprise, then whirled on the pages, his rage out of control. “Consider yourselves released!” he snarled and ran after Tavin.
He caught up with the elf in the stables, where Tavin was furiously bridling his horse.
“Tavin, wait!” Brann cried. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to embarrass you.”
“It doesn’t matter!” Tavin retorted hotly.
“It does matter,” Brann said. “You’re my friend, my brother. I love you.”
“Careful what you say,” Tavin warned, his voice tight and charged with fury. He swung astride his horse. “Who knows who might hear you!”
Brann grabbed at the bridle. “I don’t care who hears me, Tavin. I know the truth about you.”
“The truth?” Tavin repeated, his voice catching. He danced his stallion away from Brann. “The truth is whatever the majority believes. And the majority believes I’m Jodau. So be it! I’m Jodau!” he screamed, tears streaming down his face. “I’m Jodau! I wanted the Rendars to rape me! I asked for it! I enjoyed it! There! Did everyone hear me? Is everyone satisfied now?” He jabbed his heels into the stallion’s side and thundered from the stables.
Brann raced to the stable doors. “Tavin!” he screamed. “Tavin! Come back!”
* * *
Kyel stared into his wine glass, then ran one hand wearily across his face. “Am I doing the right thing here, Jansson? Sending him back to Kartonn? It doesn’t feel right.”
King Jansson van Tannen exhaled slowly and rose from his desk. He was a copy of his son, Brann, with the same slight build, the same mop of unruly brown curls, the same large, innocent brown eyes. That he was the ruler of a country and father to nine had not changed his boyish good looks, or his exuberance for life. What it had done was teach him new lessons, such as listening to the advice of those more experienced than he. Still, there were times when he questioned that advice, when he trusted his gut and heart more. This was one of those times.
He crossed the study and poured himself a glass of wine from the crystal decanter on the sideboard, then turned to Kyel. “I know what the healers have recommended,” he said slowly, “and I know they have far more experience in this sort of thing than I do, but I don’t agree with them this time. I don’t think sending Tavin to Kartonn is a good idea. A bardic training facility any other place, yes, but not Kartonn.”
Kyel sighed, relaxing into his chair. “Thank you, Jans. I guess I just needed to hear it from someone else.” He took a sip of his wine. “But how do I help him? What do I do? This whole thing about him being Jodau…” He broke off with a shake of his head.
“I know. Brann’s talked to me about it, but there’s not a lot I can do for Tavin if he won’t let me. Have you thought about Webb?”
“I have. In fact, I’ve been trying to reach Elek to see about taking Tavin to the Caves of Challenge to see Webb. It’s just incredibly hard to keep track of a sorcerer who can’t stay in one place for more than a week’s time. He seems to be making up for those fifteen years he went without his magic.”
Jansson smiled. “Don’t tell Treyas that. He’ll beat himself with guilt.” Jansson had been close friends with the elfin crown prince since their meeting some twenty-two years earlier. He knew full well that Elek Beckering had willingly forsaken his sorcery magic for the fifteen years he was Treyas’ guardian and father figure. Even now, with the truth about Treyas’ mother and father revealed and his royal heritage uncovered, Elek was considered father to Treyas and grandfather to his eleven children. In fact, he was also called grandpapa by the children in both Jansson’s and Kyel’s families, as well as those closely associated with the three royal families.
Jansson was always amazed at the diversity reflected in those he called family. There were elves, brownies, nymphs and humans from all manner of countries. About the only race not yet represented was troll and Jansson had no doubt that would happen sooner than later.
For the last five months, relationships between Odora Dava and the tribe of valley trolls at Patrin had been exceptionally good. Thanks to Brann and Tavin, and their little escapade in Kartonn. Not that Jansson wanted to relive that emotionally and physically grueling week. In fact, just the idea reaffirmed his earlier thought.
“Kartonn is not the place. I think Webb would be every bit as effective with a lot less trauma.”
Kyel nodded absently and set his half-empty glass down on the side table. Jansson did likewise and reached for his lap-harp, which he kept in the room. He ran his fingers across the strings gently, releasing a series of notes sweet enough to rob sugar of its taste. Kyel closed his blue eyes and leaned back in the richly upholstered chair. As Jansson expected, he began to talk.
“I admit I still have a lot of anger,” the elf said quietly. “I wanted revenge, Jans. For the first time in my life I wanted revenge. Now I know how Treyas felt all of those times with Pepin. That’s not to say, Jans, that I wasn’t furious with what the trolls did to you years ago. Or what Irida did. But this…I can’t explain what happened to Tavin, I can’t rationalize it. It seemed to serve no purpose other than to humiliate him.”
“Perhaps that was its purpose,” Jansson said, as he continued to play, drawing and feeding bardic magic into his music.
“I suppose,” Kyel agreed. “Still, it angers me that I could do nothing to prevent it, to change it, or to avenge it. In some way, I feel that I let Tavin down. Just as I let you down so many years ago.”
Jansson wanted to dispute that fact, but said nothing. If it hadn’t been for Kyel, he might well have died in the mountains at the hands of the troll, Whit. He certainly hadn’t felt that Kyel had let him down. And he knew Tavin didn’t feel that way either. But it wasn’t important what either he or Tavin felt. It was important what Kyel felt. And so he played on, letting Kyel talk.
“Treyas killed the Rendars in Tamson, Elek took care of the rest of them in Kartonn. I never came face to face with the ones responsible for Tavin’s attack. I don’t know who they are, or how they feel about what they’ve done.” He paused, then added thoughtfully, “For that matter, I never came face to face with Whit either. Still, I can guess at his motives, his reasonings. I cannot guess at why the Rendars –”
“Papa!” Brann burst into the study, his breath coming hard, his face flushed and sweaty.
“Brann!” Jansson snapped, stopping his music in startlement. “You know better than this! When my door is closed, you knock!”
“But, Papa,” Brann gasped. “It’s Tavin!”
Kyel rose swiftly. “What’s happened?”
“He…he went wild,” Brann replied, taking deep breaths to calm himself. “Some pages teased him. He ran to the stables and tore off on his horse. Papa, he’s really upset. I’ve never seen him like this before.” He whirled to Kyel. “Grandpapa, don’t send him away! Please. He can’t go back to Kartonn. Not now.”
“I agree,” Kyel said tightly. “I’ve changed my mind. We were just discussing it. Jans, I need to find Willow. We’ll continue this later.”
Jansson nodded and watched him leave, then replaced his harp and turned to his son.
“I’m sorry, Papa,” Brann said quietly. “I didn’t mean to interrupt. It’s just…Tavin really scared me. He was enraged, screaming. He thinks Grandpapa is sending him away because he’s embarrassed of him. Of what happened. Of the fact that everyone thinks he’s Jodau. I tried to convince him otherwise but it’s like talking to a rock. Gods, Papa, he can’t keep on like this. It’s tearing him up inside. Can’t you help him? Can’t you do something?”
Jansson sighed, frustrated with his own inabilities to get Tavin to talk about his ordeal. It reminded him of a similar situation with Treyas’ son Vantann. It was, in both instances, a case of being too close emotionally to the patient. Vantann had run away rather than face the prospect of being sent to another bardic healer. Now, it seemed Tavin was of the same mindset.
Jansson patted Brann’s shoulder. “I am going to do something about it, Brann. I’m going to find Elek and see about taking Tavin to Bard Webb.”
“In the Caves?” Brann murmured, then clutched his father’s hand. “Can I come? Please? Tavin needs me.”
Jansson studied him a moment, then squeezed his hand. “Of course.”
Brann sighed and moved to stare out the window, his back to Jansson. His voice shook when he spoke. “Papa, do you think Tavin will be all right? Do you think he’ll ever be able to deal with what happened to him in Kartonn?”
Jansson hesitated, then joined his son at the window. “We’ll help him deal with it, Brann. You just keep being the friend that you’ve been. Tavin leans on you, I know that. We just have to watch that he doesn’t lean too hard. You’re a child yourself.”
“Oh, Papa,” Brann wrinkled his nose. “I’m almost fifteen. That’s not a child. When you were fifteen, you –”
“I don’t want to relive my youth,” Jansson interrupted. “I did some fairly stupid things when I was fifteen, Brann. Maybe not as stupid as taking an unauthorized float trip into Kartonn, but…”
Brann glanced up at him with a small smile. “Grandpapa Elek told me you and Uncle Treyas once sneaked away to the Devils’ Hold. That wasn’t stupid?”
Jansson hid his grin. “Of course not. That was adventure.”
“Adventure?” A familiar voice came from the open door and both Jansson and Brann turned as King Darosenim Quartermane stepped into the room. “Are we speaking of your past rash acts of stupidity?”
He was a sturdy, good-looking man with flaming red hair that fell to his shoulders, a well-groomed red beard and blue eyes that sparkled with mischief. He was dressed in a comfortable linen tunic but wore leggings chopped off just above the knee. His feet were bare and Jansson laughed, ignoring the jibe.
“What do you call that?” he asked, pointing to Darosenim’s bare legs.
“I call that, staying cool,” the mage answered. “It’s unbearable in Karsaba. And it doesn’t feel much better here. I’m seriously considering moving my desk to the coast for the next month. Do you think Quinlin would mind?”
“Mind? He just might mistake those hairy legs for a llamaca and shear you,” Jansson teased.
“Who would?” Another voice came from the hallway and Treyas Merripen joined them. He chuckled at Darosenim’s attire, his mismatched blue and green eyes appraising him thoughtfully. “Perhaps we should move this meeting to Lidgerwood. It’s not near as hot there.”
“Meeting?” Jansson looked at them both in puzzlement.
Darosenim waved a fistful of rolled parchments in the air. “The valley troll land use treaty,” he said. “Remember?”
Jansson clapped his forehead. “Oh, gods, I forgot.”
“Well, you’d better remember right quick,” Darosenim said. “King Isham and family are due in Karsaba next week.”
“Finally,” Brann put in. “I haven’t seen Carao, Rosmer and Quillin for five months.”
“Are you sure you want Carao to visit?” Jansson asked, his brown eyes teasing. “Seems to me you were plenty worried about Kitiara’s affections for him.”
Brann went red, his gaze darting over the three men before him. “I think Tia and I have resolved that issue,” he mumbled. “I better go. I’m going to find Kitiara and maybe go look for Tavin.”
“Tavin?” Treyas tossed a questioning glance at Jansson but before he could respond, Jansson’s wife, Zira, stepped into the study.
She was a striking woman, with smooth alabaster skin and a halo of wild, dark curls. Despite having given birth to eight children in almost twenty years of marriage to Jansson, she was still lean and firm, a tribute to her clan heritage. Only her protruding belly gave hint of another babe on the way. Her dark gaze flitted over those before her, amusement registering at Darosenim’s shortened leggings, before coming to rest on Brann.
“Ye, sir, have work to do,” she said.
Brann frowned, puzzled. “What work? There are no lessons today.”
“Just the lesson of responsibility,” Zira told him. “Gayla spent all morning pressing and folding those linens, only to have ye send them flying all over the stairs. Now, ye can spend the afternoon re-doing them. Come along.”
“But, Mama, it’s too hot to work with irons,” Brann protested, wondering how his mother had found out about the linens. He didn’t think Gayla would tattle on him, and guessed it was one of his siblings who had seen the encounter. He would have to find out which one and deal with them soundly. His words came out a bit more terse than he’d anticipated. “I promised Tia that we would go to the lake today.”
Jansson looked over at him. “Really? I hadn’t heard of that.”
Brann cringed under the double assault. “I was going to tell you.”
“Tell me? Don’t you mean ask?”
“Yes,” Brann said quickly. “Ask you. And … and I was going to suggest Ziv as a chaperone.”
“Well, no matter,” Zira said, propelling him forward. “Ye’ll be too busy for the lake now.”
Brann groaned and Jansson watched them leave with a slight smile, before returning his attention on his friends. “Well, I suppose we should get to work ourselves.”
“What’s this about Tavin?” Treyas asked as they took their seats around the desk.
“According to Brann, he had a bit of an emotional upset,” Jansson said. “Kyel and Willow are trying to reach him right now. I may need to cut this meeting short to work with him for a bit, for all the good it will do.”
“He’s still not talking then?” Treyas asked.
“No, and he’s too talented with his magic for me to break through his shields. Kyel and I were considering taking him to see Webb. Maybe away from elfin magic, someone can get through to him.”
“I certainly hope so,” Treyas said quietly. “Just don’t forget Kyel and Willow. I know first hand how they feel right now. I couldn’t have gotten through Vantann’s ordeal without your help, Jans. Don’t let Kyel harbor his emotions.”
Jansson sighed. “So far, he’s been very talkative. I’m praying that won’t change. If he decides otherwise, there’s not a bard on earth who could get through.” He glanced up at a soft tap on the still open door. His head servant stood in the doorway, a distraught look on his lean face.
“Your Majesty, excuse the intrusion,” he said with a bow. “I have a small crisis on my hands regarding Lord Mander’s and Lord Craylon’s sons. Apparently they’ve been released from page service?”
“Not that I was aware of,” Jansson replied.
“Prince Brann ordered their –”
“Wait,” Jansson interrupted, Brann’s words returning to him. “I think I know what happened. The boys have not been released, but I will be speaking to them both later. Until then, assign them to kitchen duty. I believe Nelda has some copper and silver to polish.”
“Yes, Your Majesty.” The servant bowed again and left.
Jansson rubbed at his face. “This whole thing with Tavin has gotten out of hand. It’s no wonder he ran off. I would have, too. Well,” he shook his head to clear his thoughts, “let’s get down to business, shall we?”
* * *
Brann sighed, wiped the sweat from his brow and reached for the hot iron.
“Brann?” A small voice piped up, startling him.
He yelped as one hand touched the sizzling hot metal, then quickly popped his injured finger into his mouth, glaring at the intruder. “What do you want, Xyza?” he demanded, his words muffled by his finger.
The little girl looked up at him through clear brown eyes. She was a beautiful child, resembling Zira though she was not blood related. Jansson and Zira had adopted her as an infant from the Caves of Challenge some eight years earlier and, since then, she seemed to make tormenting Brann her number one priority. Or, at least, that was the way Brann saw it.
True, she did have one talent that sufficiently impressed him. She was able to draw fireflies to her. Not just one or two, but hundreds. It was an impressive sight and awe-inspiring to Brann, though he would never tell her so. And he had learned long ago to leave the bugs alone. Once he had accidentally killed one of them while trying to catch it, and Xyza had run screaming hysterically to Zira. Brann still remembered the punishment and lecture he’d gotten for that act. He reached again for the hot iron, as she perched on a tall stool next to him.
“You burned your finger,” she said.
“Thanks to you,” he mumbled. “Firesass! It hurts, too!” He turned toward the sink to pump some cold water, but Xyza caught at his hand.
“I’ll fix it,” she said softly and touched the rising blister with one small finger.
Brann stared in astonishment as the pain fled and the swelling receded. “How’d you do that?” he breathed.
Xyza shrugged. “Kitiara is looking for you. She’s in the stables.”
“Damn,” Brann muttered, glancing at the stack of still wrinkled linens.
“I’ll finish this,” Xyza said. “You go.”
Brann gaped at her, then narrowed his eyes suspiciously. “Why?”
“She needs you,” the little girl returned. “Besides, I do a much better job at pressing then you.”
“Right, and then you’ll tell Mama that I made you do it and I’ll be in more trouble. No, thank you.” He picked up the iron, then looked again at his finger. “How did you do that?”
Xyza sighed, rolled her dark eyes, spoke two soft words, then plucked the iron from his grasp. “What are you doing here, Brann?” she asked.
“I…I’m…” Brann frowned, puzzled. He glanced at the linens, at the iron, at his sister. He couldn’t remember.
“I thought you were going to the stables to talk to Kitiara,” Xyza said.
Brann nodded slowly. “I am,” he mumbled. “I am.” He eyed her in confusion, then slowly left the kitchen and headed to the stables. It didn’t take him long to get there and by the time he had, he’d already forgotten about the ironing and Xyza’s healing.
“Tia?” he called, letting his eyes adjust to the dim interior of the large building. Several stableboys bowed to him as he entered, then returned to their work. He heard a shuffling sound from the loft and bits of hay floated down from the open door. “Tia?” Brann’s call was softer and he hesitantly climbed the ladder to the loft.
Kitiara sat hunched up in the hay, her face hidden in the cross of her arms where they rested on her knees. Her coppery hair fell forward, glowing in the thin rays of sunlight that stole through the open airvents above her. “Go away, Brann,” she whispered.
Brann paused, hearing the tears in her voice. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing. I…I just want to be alone.”
Brann sat down on the edge of the doorway, letting his gaze travel along the empty horse stalls. “How long have you been up here?” he asked.
“Long enough.” She raised a tear-stained face. “I’d heard the rumors but I never believed them. Until now. Why didn’t you tell me the truth about what happened to Tavin?”
Brann sagged. “He didn’t want me to. He didn’t want anyone to know the truth, but after today I doubt there will be anyone who won’t.”
“Has he come back yet?”
“I don’t think so. I imagine his parents know where he is though. I have a pretty good idea myself.”
“In the caves out by the lake. We … he goes there a lot to be alone.”
“You never told me about the caves,” she said, her tone accusatory.
“I haven’t had the chance.”
“I’ve been here for five months,” she reminded him. “That seems plenty of time. Maybe you just didn’t want to share them.”
“That’s not true, Tia.”
“You know what I think, Brann? I think you’re still not sure about me.”
Brann sighed. “That’s not true. I’d marry you tomorrow if my father would let me.” He swung his legs around and stood up.
“That’s convenient isn’t it? Letting your father take responsibility for your uncertainty.”
“That’s not fair,” Brann said, his stomach churning uneasily. “Besides, I’m … too young.” He was unwilling to admit, even to himself, that she was very close to the truth. As hard as he tried to forget her tainted past, it kept asserting itself, taunting him, wreaking havoc with his emotions. He knew he loved her, yet was terrified of making a commitment. He kept hoping that one day, miraculously, all of the moral judgments he’d leveled against her would simply disappear. So far, it hadn’t happened, and Kitiara was bright enough to know that. He reached out his hands to her but she got to her feet.
“Do you know what I think, Brann?” she said, her voice catching. “I think you still view me as the whore of Kartonn.”
“Tia, stop it! I don’t think you’re a whore. I never have.”
“But I am, Brann,” she replied, moving toward the ladder. Her voice dripped with sarcasm and pain, and she scrubbed viciously at her wet cheeks. “I lost track of the number of times I sold myself. In fact, I probably could have stopped Tavin’s rape had I been there. I was well known to the Rendars, Brann. I was their favorite.”
“Stop it!” Brann snapped. “Just stop it! I don’t want to hear about it. It’s in the past. Leave it there.”
“I can’t, Brann!” Kitiara screamed, her tears beginning anew. “I can’t. Anymore than Tavin can. It’s part of our lives, who we are. If you can’t accept me the way I am, with everything that’s happened to me, then we don’t belong together. Gods! I don’t know what I was thinking anyway. I don’t belong here. I never will!” She started down the ladder.
“Tia, wait!” Brann made a grab for her arm, snagging her by the wrist.
“Let go!” She yanked away in anger, lost her balance and fell backward to the hard floor far below.
Brann gasped and scrambled down the ladder to her side. “Tia! Are you all right?”
She stared up at him as a sheen of sweat covered her face. Her eyelids fluttered and for a moment her eyes closed. Horrified, Brann screamed at the stablehands to fetch his father, then collapsed by her side. She opened her eyes, wet with tears. Her words surprised him. She made absolutely no reference to any pain resulting from her fall. It was almost as if she had resigned herself to whatever happened to her.
“I hate myself, Brann,” she whispered. “I hate the person I allowed myself to be. I thought I was helping, doing the right thing. But it was all for nothing. Arley and Gillie were still beaten, Raelle and Simen are dead, and Izette and Tavin …gods! It’ll never go away, Brann, never.” She began to sob, then gave a little shriek of pain. Her whole body trembled violently, her face going ashen, her eyes glazing over. Her voice was barely above a whisper. “I want to die, Brann. I want to be with my babe. My … my beautiful baby … so beautiful … so beautiful…”
“What happened?” Jansson demanded, reaching them breathlessly. He dropped to the ground beside Kitiara.
“She … she fell…” Brann stammered, then rose, backing away as Kitiara’s words registered. Baby? She’d had a child? He had never even thought of that. Had never even considered what her past in the streets might have produced. The words carved deep into his heart, and he stumbled back even farther, then spun as Darosenim pounded up, Treyas close behind. The mage’s magic washed through the air and he turned a grim face toward Jansson, before touching lightly at Kitiara’s abdomen. Her scream set Brann’s teeth on edge.
“Wha…what’s wrong with her?” he managed, but the men ignored him. He felt his father pull strong bardic magic to soothe the girl, while Darosenim began the process of healing what damage the fall had done. Treyas reached out to touch Brann’s arm, startling him.
“Brann, why don’t you and I go–”
“No!” Brann cried. “No, I…I have to go!” He whirled away from them and bolted from the stables, Treyas’ cry of alarm following him.