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Aiden’s War, Chapter Six – A Race South

You can find Chapters 1-5 in the tab up top, Aiden’s War – http://jm-harrison.com/aidens-war

Chapter Six – A race south

The tracks hugged the wood-line south. Numerous horse hooves, too many to distinguish their exact number, left sharp imprints in the soft ground. It had only just rained a few days ago and in the shade of the forest, the ground hadn’t dried yet.

Aiden raced on. Setting his pace at a little more than an easy jog. He would run until he couldn’t see the soft marks anymore when night came. The rill ran not too far off on his right. There were reeds and dried grasses. He could make a torch without too much difficulty. He had flint to strike a spark. Even without a torch, his night sight was almost as sharp as in daylight. They would stop, he felt sure. He would not.

He ran and didn’t pause or even slow, except a few times when he found the track running along the rill. He paused to drink, maybe as they had paused to water the horses, before he went on. He ignored the growing pain in his legs, the sweat that soon sheathed his body and dampened his clothes. He kept his breath as even as he could and kept going even after it felt like his lungs might burst.

The day started to dwindle as evening settled over the land and cast lengthening shadows into the wood. Overhead, a swoop and chitter of birds flew along with him. He realized he couldn’t hear them over the noise of him gasping for air. He pounded to a halt and leaned on his knees. That didn’t last as the ground caught him as he fell. Black spots swam before his eyes. His heart pounded in his chest, but he dragged to his feet and started walking. He forced slow, measured gasps of air in and out in an attempt to recover his senses.

He became aware of the sound of hooves striking the ground some distance behind him and off to his left. Someone was riding at the tree line, more than one it sounded like, coming on fairly fast. The trees were thin where he was now, few and not one of them large enough to hide behind. He had to find cover quickly. The bank of the rill was the only alternative. He grabbed a protruding root and slid down the muddy sides and stopped just shy of the water’s edge, trying hard to catch his breath. He needed to know who was following him and pulled himself up to peer over a clump of reeds.

He couldn’t believe it when he saw her, the flaming red hair leaving no doubt that his sister had come after him. Aiden turned around, his back pressed into the embankment, swearing as he stared at the sky in disbelief. He saw at a glance that she had both horses and had to wonder how she’d gotten off the farm with them.

He swore under his breath again. She was nearly abreast of his hiding place and would ride right by him if he let her. For a moment, he thought he should. Surely, after a day of not finding him, she’d give up. The risk that she might catch up to Jaelith’s captors and end up in trouble herself put a quick stop to that thought. He was still swearing when he called her name.

“Krysta!”

She pulled to a stop, reining her mount down by turning him in a tight circle. The animal danced around the other as she searched the wood. Her eyes closed in relief when she saw him.

“I can’t believe you!”

“Did you really think—”

“You’re not coming with me,” he said, grabbing Flash’s rein from her. “You can’t. It’s too dangerous. Mother and Father need you at home.”

“I talked to Father. He wanted me to—”

“I’m not going back,” Aiden said.

“Neither am I,” Krysta said and wouldn’t listen to reason from that moment forward.

Nothing his said changed her mind. The passage of the day beat against his thoughts. The delay she was causing him was infuriating. The longer he stood there arguing with her, the larger the gap grew between he and those he pursued. There wasn’t anything to do for it except go on. She wouldn’t go home. He couldn’t leave her. He pulled himself up onto Flash and with Krysta beside him, set off after the trail.

He made better time riding. The tracks in the soft ground soon showed signs of more recent passage, but still Jaelith’s kidnappers remained ahead of him. Hours later, light left the sky. With the horses, it wasn’t possible to keep going and Aiden resented it, even though he had to admit that he couldn’t see the tracks left by the troop. If he kept going, he could miss it if they turned. He told himself that they had the same restrictions of movement. Their horses would tire and need the same rest.  Not that a pack of men capable of kidnapping an innocent woman would care so much.

A cold knot of dread centered in his chest over the choice he had to make. He reined to a halt, thinking over his options while Krysta drew up beside him.  She started looking around the area, dense forest surrounded them with cutting rocks strewn across the forest floor. Bramble weeds covered everything else. This wouldn’t make a comfortable campsite.

Or a safe one, Aiden thought, nodding to his sister. He turned his horse for the bank of the rill, careful to guide the animal across hard packed ground less likely to take marks. He didn’t want to be found. They crossed the rill and backtracked to a clearing where the horses could eat grass. Aiden strung a rope around the trees, making a pen. Before it was fully dark, they had the camp set and the horses tended.

Krysta solved another problem by pulling from her pack a ration of dried meat, along with a few carrots from the garden. None of it needed flame to be eaten, which was good, since Aiden didn’t intend to start a fire. They ate in silence. He was too preoccupied with what tomorrow might bring and too terrified of what Jaelith might be enduring at the hands of her captors.

“We’ll find her,” Krysta said.

He turned and saw through the dark the glint of her eyes as she watched him. She leaned against her saddle, one arm under her head. He wanted to believe her. “Why would anyone even take her?”

Krysta pulled in a breath as if to answer, but she looked away and shook her head, making him think for a moment that she knew something. “They probably mean to sell her.”

That was a common enough occurrence, as horrible as it was. That was the way of the world, but he didn’t think it was so in this case, even when he had nothing more than instinct to tell him differently. He supposed it didn’t matter why.

“Get some sleep,” he said. “As soon as it’s light, we’re moving.”

“You should do the same.”

“I will. In a little while.”

She didn’t answer to that and it was too dark to see anymore. Silence deepened. Even the night sounds of the forest were strangely quiet. There was on the air the sense of a predator nearby, but the only danger that revealed itself was time and the pressing dark.

~*~

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King, Chapter 6

King, Chapters 1-5 are here:

http://jm-harrison.com/8-king-chronicle-8-sample-chapter/

~Chapter 6~

Dynan leaned back in his chair at the King’s desk, reading as Gaden explained that he couldn’t find Marc. Yes, his receiver was working, but he wasn’t in the Palace or Rianamar. The only time they lost track of him was when he shifted outside the Palace, or changed form. “I don’t know where he is. His family is going to pull in the front gate any minute. I don’t know what to tell them.”

“Get Shalis down here and—no, don’t get Shalis. Get Bronwyn. Have her come down and take care of getting the Talryns settled upstairs. Don’t tell them anything. Don’t tell anyone anything. Did you talk to Drake?”

“Yes. He sent word to Trea. Everything is taken care of from that end.”

“All right. The story we’re going to put out is that Aldridge abducted the Talryns a few days ago, and then brought them here to use as a trap for Marc. Aldridge won’t be alive to confirm or deny. That’ll work long enough until they have a chance to learn a little about us.”

“For seven days it ought to work,” Gaden said, then looked down at the floor. “After that, I kind of doubt they’ll want to stay here anyway. Put them on a ship and send them home.”

Dynan nodded when he didn’t want to. “Welcome to Cobalt,” he said. “Your son is going to die to save us all. Thanks for stopping by. Now that you know what happened, you can go home.” He pushed himself to his feet and collected his comboard. “Whose justice brought them here? I’m going to try and find Marc. I’ll be in the arbor.”

The gardens looked and smelled more beautiful than he ever remembered them. Deceptively peaceful, he thought. An oasis of calm in the midst of chaos.

That calm was abruptly shattered by the appearance of Jamis, the Master Gardener, coming around the far bend in the walk. He was old and hobbling, but he held Garan firmly by the arm in one hand, and Durnin Mardon with the other. Durnin’s eyes were saucers, but as Garan was pulled along, he kept staring back over his shoulder. Jamis saw Dynan and brought the two truants straight to him.

A string of complaints followed, which Dynan finally cut off after reading the long rant. “Jamis, I’ll see to it that they aren’t allowed in here until this play area is complete. Lt. Grist, I want a guard on all the doors at all times. I want to know who was supposed to be watching these two and how they got away. For now, I want them escorted back to their respective parents. Garan, didn’t your father tell you to stay out of here?”

“Yes, Uncle Dynan, but—”

“Durnin did you know that Prince Garan wasn’t supposed to come down here?”

“Yes, Your Highness.”

“Lt. Grist is going to see to it that your parents are aware of that fact and the two of you suitably punished. Durnin, go wait at the door. I’m not going to have this anymore, Garan,” he said after the other had gone. “This is your last warning. Straighten up. Start doing what you’re told, or you’re going to spend the rest of your life in your room. You’re going to go with one of these guards right now. If you try and get away from him, I’ll be the one coming after you next. Not your mother. Not your father. Understand?”

Garan was only capable of nodding. He glanced back again. “I saw something…someone,” he said, and Dynan thought he knew. “There was something bad about them, and I felt like I needed to hide. Grandsir Roth always told me that was what I should do if I was scared of someone. That’s why we went into the playground. We were only going to look at it.”

Dynan forgot about being mad as he read. “Who did you see?”

“Lady Liselle.”

It wasn’t too hard to guess that he got his opinion about her from his father. “Who else?”

“I don’t know her name. I think she’s one of Queen Alexia’s ladies.”

“Lady Alvuen?” he asked, and nodded. A chill shook through him, of anticipation and uncertainty, neither of which had anything to do with Garan. Dynan wondered if the little boy would tell Dain. He stooped down, softening his tone. “Listen, you can’t go off without your guard.”

“I’m not allowed to do anything.”

Dynan had to nod to that too. “For now, Garan, it isn’t safe.”

“He’ll just kill them,” he said, and wouldn’t look up. Dynan remembered easily enough how many people had died at Maralt’s hand right in front of the boy.

“They’ll call for help,” Dynan said. “Most of them have been shielded, so Maralt can’t hurt them. The ones who are supposed to keep track of you have been. I know you don’t want anyone to be in danger. Neither do I, but Garan, that’s their job.” He took him by both arms. “You know I’ll get to you, don’t you? And your father – both of them, and Marc, too. All of us, against one of him. We’ll get to him first. Can you believe that?”

Garan almost shook his head, but then he nodded. “I’m sorry.”

“All right. You still have to go to your room, and you still have to tell your mother and father about this. You’re supposed to be in class right now, aren’t you?”

“It’s really boring. They’re talking about things I already know.”

Dynan couldn’t help but laugh. “I want you to tell your Grandsir Ambrose that. Those exact words. Your father too. Go on, now.”

Dynan sent him on his way, mollified Jamis again and finally sat down to do what he’d come to the Arbor to do. Except he couldn’t. When he concentrated, he couldn’t find Marc at all. Dynan looked in the places he knew to look, and he thought he knew them all.

“Why do you even bother, Prince,” Maralt’s voice erupted in his mind, and startled him to his feet.

Maralt hadn’t changed since Dynan last saw him, despite the ethereal existence he was consigned to. He wore the same leering grin. His eyes were black to match his soul. He was taller than Dynan, though not by much. Facing him was still just as difficult. Memories of past tortures flooded through him, but he tried not to show any of that.

Messel and the other guards all moved in, until Dynan stopped them. Messel was shielded but the others weren’t. “That’s right,” Maralt said. “I can’t do anything to you, but these others…Marc can’t protect you all, or even himself. Beliel owns him, Dynan. You should have left him there. For your own sake. But this is a fact you’ll soon discover. In the days to come, he’ll betray your misplaced trust, fool that you are. You always were too trusting. No one dared tell you though. Maybe you’ll have the courage to thank me later, but I doubt it. Don’t say you haven’t been warned. Even your precious brothers will turn against you. All because of your ill found faith in Marc Talryn.”

“What’s your point, Maralt? That I should trust you? Thanks, but I think I’ll take my chances with Marc. Even though you did your best to subvert him, it didn’t work. You think he means to betray me? Why now, when he’s had so many opportunities before? He’s never touched me. Not once. You talk about faith and trust when you have no concept of what they mean. Did your master send you here? His weakling attempt to make me question my belief in Marc won’t work. Why don’t you run along and tell him that? Tell your precious demon that his plans are failing. Tell him no matter what he does, no matter how many creatures from his rotting pit he sends against me, he’ll fail. He will always fail because I have someone more powerful to stop him at every turn. I have Marc Talryn. He’ll never turn to you. He’ll never accept what you offer. Go Maralt. I’m done with you. Run to your Master.”

Maralt only smirked at him. “I assure you, he’s not done with you. He’ll be visiting you in your dreams tonight. Have a nice day, Your Highness.”

Dynan waited until he’d vanished before he sat down again. “Won’t be any different from last night,” he said and laid back in the grass, glancing up at Messel. “I can’t find Marc. I don’t know what to tell his parents. I want to crawl into a hole somewhere and never come out.”

Messel nodded, relaxing only slightly with Maralt’s departure. “I don’t think there’s a hole deep enough, Your Highness.”

Dynan grunted at that, and tossed aside his comboard, effectively cutting off his ability to communicate. He wondered if Aldridge was dead yet, and if Dain killed him. Dynan understood his desire for revenge, but didn’t think his brother realized the hollow consequences he would be faced with. An order signed. Another life taken. Dynan wondered if it would ever stop.

He rolled onto his stomach, and studied the grass knoll he was on to forget about it all. A small speck of an ant caught his attention and he watched while it struggled with a clipping of grass, hauling it down the green blade it had been cut from. He watched its progress, wondering where it would take the morsel.

“My advice,” he whispered, “is to stop while you can and eat it now.” The ant kept on, and was almost down when the hem of a blue gown brushed it off its careful perch and it was gone. “Told you,” he said and rolled over to find Liselle standing over him before she arranged her gown and joined him.

“Told who what?” she asked when he’d retrieved his comboard.

“The ant you just mashed. Never mind,” he said when she looked at him strangely. When he sat up, he saw Lady Alvuen walking away from them. “Strolling with the enemy?”

“It’s called being polite, Your Highness.”

“Since when are you polite?” He smiled at her imperious glare.

“That’s not a very nice thing to say to someone you coerced into attending the Ball with you.”

He rolled back onto his stomach, searching the grass beside her gown for the ant. “I didn’t coerce you. If you don’t want to go, don’t. With what you have planned, maybe it’s a better idea.” He used the optic function on the comboard to read in the next thing he asked. “How is all that going, anyway?”

“As expected,” Liselle read back to him and then she deleted the lines.

Dynan grumbled under his breath, which made the comboard run an error.

“What’s wrong?” Liselle asked.

“You mean besides that I can’t hear a word you’re saying, and I have more problems than any man has the right to have? Absolutely nothing. Nothing is wrong with me.”

“If you’re looking for sympathy then you’re going about it the wrong way.” She leaned down beside him, looking into the grass. “Look at all the things you can be thankful for. You can’t hear, but you can read well enough and therefore communicate. Your father is alive. You have two brothers instead of the one you started out with. That one has me jumping for joy. And you have the love of the woman you want to marry.”

He smiled because he hadn’t really been serious anyway. “Thanks for the sermon. I’ll try to remember all that next time Maralt shows up, or something worse.”

“You mean he was just here?”

“Yes. Had a lovely talk too. I always enjoy trading threats with him. Gives me a headache every time.” He glanced at her then, saw that she was frowning over something and asked her why.

“Nothing really,” she said but the quizzical frown remained for a moment longer. Then she smiled. “If you have a headache, I have the cure. Come over here. No, don’t argue. Just do what you’re told for a change. You’ll feel better when I’m finished with you, I promise.”

He relented after a brief hesitation, deciding that there wasn’t any harm in it. Besides, one of Liselle’s massages was guaranteed to make him feel better. That, he knew from memory. He made himself comfortable with his head resting in her lap. He smiled at the cool touch of her fingertips on his face, closed his eyes and let his mind wander.

~*~

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King, Chapter 3

Chapters 1 & 2 are here: http://jm-harrison.com/8-king-chronicle-8-sample-chapter/ 

~Chapter 3~

Queen Marella Mardon arrived at the Palace amidst a celebration rarely afforded a sovereign from a different System, and she brought with her all the remaining exiles from the Trillian Base. She also brought a remarkable gift from Trea. Marc listened while Drake explained to Ambrose how he had set aside a small portion of each year’s budget from nearly every branch of the System’s operation. He’d slowly built on that sum each year, saving a sizeable amount, even through the financial difficulties he’d had this past year. He smiled happily as he handed the promissory note to the former King.

“It’s not as much as I’d like, but it will help Dynan through these first years,” Drake said. Standing next to Ambrose, the King of Trea was shorter, but no less a man who was used to wielding a great deal of power. Both men exuded authority. He wore his dusty brown hair short, and his dark eyes were equally discerning.

“You’ve done more than enough to help him,” Ambrose said, “more than he’ll ever be able to repay you. For myself, all I can say is thank you. I’m indebted to you.”

Ambrose Telaerin was a tall man and physically fit for someone already dead. His sons took after him, having light blue eyes that missed very little. His blond hair had darkened somewhat with age. He was forty-nine. The same age as when his life had ended almost seven years ago.

“Nonsense.” Marella smiled easily. She had been forewarned of Ambrose’s resurrection, but Marc noticed how closely she watched him, occasionally shaking her head in wonder. She was as beautiful as ever, even more so than Marc remembered, and wore her dark hair netted in a cascade of glinting diamonds and pearls that matched her silver and white gown. “His safe return is payment enough. Is he all right?”

“He’s waiting for you upstairs,” Marc said, gesturing to the grand stair as he took Shalis’ hand.

“Is Dain with him? Both of them?”

“Yes, Your Majesty.”

She commented on how difficult it was to imagine two of them, a sentiment Marc understood all too well. The Queen then turned to Loren to thank her for the reception.  She stood as tall as Marella and carried herself with the same regal grace. Sometimes Marc wondered how everyone didn’t know that she was every bit a Princess. It remained the dominating focus of Dynan’s entire being to have her crowned Queen. Marc watched her while she straightened the line of her pale blue gown, her sea green eyes alight with happiness at seeing Marella again. Like Shalis, she wore a pin in her hair, a stone the color of light amber that matched her hair that she wore lose around her shoulders.

Loren had asked earlier if she could use the Lord Chancellor’s quarters for the Queen’s reception, the wider space affording more comfort than the Royal sitting room, and Marc had agreed. She had them set up in the small ballroom, and he was amazed at the transformation from this morning when her servants were only getting started. Great swags of colorful fabric hung from the ceiling. A large fountain bubbled gently from the center of the dance floor, surrounded by a lush, blooming garden of blue roses. What Marc could only describe as dancing lights floated throughout the room. A quartet of musicians played softly from a corner. Marc glanced up at the bobbing glass balls, grouped in threes that revolved around each other slowly.

“Ask Trevan,” Loren whispered as she moved by him.

Trevan Golyin, who was Dynan’s Chief of Technologies, and maybe the smartest man on the planet, wasn’t there, but out to the first Approachment Guildhall as part of the advance team to make sure all their security precautions were being met. Ralion Blaise, Cobalt’s First Minister, was supposed to have gone instead. While both he and Trevan were still suffering from their experience at the Temple, coming so close to the pervasive evil of the demon, the First Minister was having a harder time getting back on his feet and staying that way. Gaden Ahreld, just recently returned from his brother’s funeral, would accompany Dynan. Marc had initially hesitated at having most of the senior staff out of the Palace for what would essentially be six days, but didn’t want to leave Dynan’s safety solely in the hands of Palace Guards either. Especially in the condition he was in.

Marc watched him struggle to stand to greet Marella. The Queen promptly made him sit back down, and greeted Dain and Dain Ardin. She spent a fairly long time with her arms around Dain, whispering to them both about how happy she was that he, they, were all right, to the point that Drake rolled his eyes over it. She finally let them go and took her seat.

Marc moved to stand behind Dynan, motioning Dain over to join him. “How do you feel?”

“Like I’m about to feel worse?”

Marc nodded, and touched he and Dynan at the same time. Both of them started, and Dain would have fallen had Dain Ardin not caught him. “Sorry,” Marc said quickly. “I didn’t mean for that to happen.”

“You could have warned me,” Dain said, shirking off Dain Ardin’s help a little more roughly than he probably intended.

“I did warn you.”

“Next time, I’ll let you hit the floor,” Dain Ardin said, and Dain turned on him, eyes flashing.

Ambrose joined them then, stepping between his sons. He took them by the back of the neck, yanked them apart and a step out of the immediate gathering. “I understand you two have been fighting.”

Marc smiled at the sudden change that came over both of them. “Fighting?” Dain asked, suddenly all innocence.

“Why would we do that?”

“That’s what I heard,” Ambrose said, jerking them both again. “But I’m glad to know it isn’t true, because if it were, I’m sure that the stable hands would appreciate all that excess energy being put to better use.”

“You can’t—” Dain Ardin started but Ambrose cut him off.

“Can’t what? Your order giving capacity stopped the moment you put me in charge. Besides that, I’m still your father, and if I ever hear of this kind of ridiculous behavior again, I’ll have you out in the stables the next dawn. Am I understood?”

“Yes, sir.”

Ambrose nodded and let them go, suggesting that they use this time to be together and work out their differences. His tone left little room for argument, so they agreed, though with a good bit of reluctance.

Alexia, Danetha and Creal arrived with their usual contingent of servants and the reception went on until Dynan didn’t look like he could stand much more of it. For a change, Alexia didn’t need to be asked to leave, and her concern seemed genuine. Danetha spent the entire time watching Dynan, a worried look on her face, a fact that wasn’t lost on Loren, nor were Dynan’s assurances to the Princess that he would be all right. Dynan didn’t speak to Loren the entire visit and hardly looked at her at all. When Marc glanced around for her as Alexia made ready to depart, he couldn’t find her. The Queen had spent some time observing her, and the sense Marc had increased, that Dynan’s plan to trick the Queen into believing he meant to marry her daughter wasn’t working.

He noticed Juleta Gurrell watching, too, and frowned at that. The same uneasy feeling remained about her that resurfaced anytime he was around her. He hadn’t had time yet to check her background again, and he’d meant to.

He slipped out after Alexia had gone, and went to his study, bringing up the files they had on Juleta. He’d only just started reading when Ambrose came back with Marella and Drake. He was showing them to the private parlor where they could rest before dinner in quiet comfort and perhaps get reacquainted. Marella had a look in her eyes that said as much. Drake too. The Queen drew Marc along with them. “I meant to congratulate you on your rather meteoric rise to authority,” she said. “You’ll make Dynan a great Lord Chancellor, Marc.”

“Thank you, Your Majesty. I’m doing the best I can.” He smiled even when he knew that Drake would likely tell her what was happening. Marc wished he wouldn’t. “I won’t be joining you for dinner this evening. Dain Ardin either. We have something we have to take care of, so I’ll wish you a good night now.”

“Another hunting expedition?” Ambrose asked.

“Yes. I think we’ll catch the thing tonight.”

“I’ll explain later,” Drake said to Marella. “Goodnight Marc.”

He bowed to them and left. He stopped in his study to continue what he’d started, but realized it was getting late. He went to find Dynan instead, and found Dain and his counterpart getting their brother into one of the many spare beds the Lord Chancellor’s quarters provided. He was mostly asleep already and difficult to manage. They were arguing about how to go about it, too, while they struggled to make Dynan comfortable.

“Careful.”

“Why don’t you shut up and go away. I don’t need your help.”

Dain Ardin didn’t respond for a moment. “I never said you did. I was only trying to be nice to you, which I see is a total waste of time and effort. Since we have to live together, I thought trying to get along with you would be a smart thing to do, but you keep proving me wrong at every turn. I can’t help my own existence. I didn’t ask for it. I didn’t have any control over it. They never gave me much say in what they did to me in the first place, but I always did what I could to help you, whether they liked it or not. Yes, you. Why should that surprise you? You’re part of me. I can’t believe you’re treating me like this. I never did anything to you to deserve it, except be here. You keep talking about how unjust all of this is. How fair is it for you to act like you hate me, or that you can’t stand to be near me? What brand of justice is that?”

The crackle of the fire, feeding on a newly tossed log, filled the room, then settled. A long silence followed. “I don’t know,” Dain finally said in a barely distinguishable whisper. “I don’t know anything anymore. All I do know is that I don’t like having you around, and I can’t help it anymore than you can help being here. Any time I’m anywhere near you, it makes my skin crawl. It feels like…like death waiting just around the corner, or that I’m on the verge of being taken.”

Marc frowned at that and moved to the doorway, startling them both. He held up a hand when they turned on him, angry at him for listening. “Are you still shielded from him?” he asked Dain Ardin.

“Yes, I’d have to be.”

“But he isn’t shielded from you.”

“That shouldn’t make any difference as long as one of us is.”

“I don’t think so,” Marc said. “Your shield keeps you from joining him and repels him at the same time in a way that no one likely anticipated. Whether he wants to admit it or not, there’s a natural inclination that makes him want to be near you, but it makes him feel bad when he is. An imbalance is set up. It’s an incongruity that doesn’t affect you, because you’re already shielded. Come here, Dain. I think I can solve at least part of this problem.”

Marc touched his forehead and built a shield around him that would prevent Dain Ardin from ever taking him. Dain’s eyes widened. “It’s gone.”

Marc turned to the other and removed his shield for just a moment so he would understand what it felt like. Dain Ardin took a step back and his face paled. “You see?”

“Yes. Put it back.” Dain Ardin shook his head when the shield was restored. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”

“No, that’s all right,” Dain said hesitantly.

“Can you talk to each other? I mean, telepathically?”

“We haven’t tried,” they said and eyed each other.

Marc smiled at the identical expressions, then felt himself suddenly ignored when they concentrated. What he’d intended as a quick test, turned into a long conversation exclusive to them alone. Marc smiled again, relieved for Dain. A simple cure to a complex problem that might afford him the peace he deserved. Marc smiled at his own ingenuity this time, rather pleased with himself that he’d thought of it.

Marc cleared his throat to get their attention, but that didn’t provide enough of a distraction. He watched them smiling over some memory, their eyes only half focused as they slowly went about making their brother more comfortable. “It’s getting on toward dark, and I’m going to go get ready for our hunting expedition. I’m not waiting either.”

He left them, wondering if that would do it. He found Shalis and the others still in the ballroom. He realized that he would have to delay, yet again, dealing with Juleta Gurrell. He didn’t have time now.

“I’m off,” he said, and kissed Shalis’ hand. “If the Dains come running out here, send them down to the front lawn.”

“Both of them?” she asked.

“I’ve a feeling they won’t have it any other way. Dynan is down for the night. Kyle, see that he isn’t disturbed. How’s our security look?”

“Double what we had last night, and armed with lasers.”

“Did you tell them to be careful what they shoot at?”

“Dragons are exempt from the shoot to kill order, my Lord.”

Marc grunted at that. “There’s always one idiot who doesn’t get the word. I’ll be back later. Someone save me some dinner.”

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