Chapter nineteen


"How are you feeling?"

"Fine actually," Alios replied.

He was sitting in a chair by the fire, his feet propped up on a large cushion. He had been staring out the open shutters into the street in front of him deep in thought when Jenya had come up beside him.

"How is your leg doing?" she asked.

"Quite well," he replied, looking down at the limb in question. It had been three days since he had sustained the wound and he could get around well enough, albeit with a slight limp.

"I have to change the dressing," she told him.

Alios nodded.

"Very well, although you might be able to remove it completely. It seems to have healed quite well and doesn't hurt at all anymore."

"I don't think it's quite ready for that," Jenya replied as she unwrapped the dressing and inspected the wound. “It's healing well, I will say that, but it still needs attention. The herbs in the dressing help to mask the pain, but that doesn't mean it's healed completely. If we take the dressing off too soon, it could fester."

Alios sat quietly, watching Jenya work.

"You know, you didn't help it any by riding into battle with us against that caravan," she said to him. "You should have stayed out of it."

"Perhaps," he replied. "But how could I ask my people to fight if I wasn't going to be alongside them?"

She nodded, understanding perfectly. She would have felt the same way.

"I'm surprised you didn't go back with them," she said.

"Back to Norvell Wood? Yes, I was tempted, I'll tell you that. I already miss the great trees, and seeing the open sky and the stars above my head at night. It was something I'd gotten quite... used to."

She could tell by the wistful tone of his voice that he did indeed miss his home.

Home. It was strange that such a simple concept could be so alien to her. She had spent almost half her life now running, not having a home. She had gotten so used to it she didn't even think about what it had been like before all this. A home was a comforting thing. No matter what your station in life it was the one place you considered all your own, the one place you were safe.

Of course, that wasn't really true. The world was a dangerous place. Thieves, brigands, not to mention the King's soldiers, could all invade your home for one reason or another. You were safer there than on the street of course, but there was no place you were really safe. Not really.

Still, even if a home wasn't completely safe, it was safer than just about anywhere else, and it certainly gave you the illusion of being safe, and that was a comforting thing.

Sometimes she missed it, she had to admit. Being permanently on the run exerted a pressure on you. Knowing you were never really safe, you could never really relax. There was always that unease in the back of your mind. It never disappeared, never went away. It was never something you really got completely used to.

Not for the first time she wondered if this was all worth it. In all their years of running, what had they ever really accomplished? For the last fifteen years of her life, her only goal had been to not get caught, to survive. How much longer could they go on like that? What kind of life was it?

She didn't know. More than once she'd entertained the thought of leaving Mandaria. It was funny. She knew Ktan would be dead set against that, and the one time he had considered it, after Merigan had been poisoned, she had helped talk him out of it!

More than once she had thought about leaving the group, heading out on her own. The Queen wasn't after her, not specifically. There wasn't anything remarkable about her appearance. By herself, most people would consider her just an ordinary woman. She was sure she could make up some plausible tale about her past, something no one would question. She could find a place somewhere in one of the small towns of Mandaria and just fade into the background. It wouldn't be difficult.

The thought had come to her once or twice, but she had never acted on it, and she knew she never would. She would never leave her friends, even for the chance to have a home again. When you didn't have much the things you did have became that much more valuable to you. Throughout all these years her friends had been the only constant in her life, the only thing of real value that she still possessed. They were the only things that made her life bearable and she would never abandon them, for any reason.

Still, she couldn't help but feel a bit envious of Alios.

"So why haven't you gone back?" she asked.

"I don't know," he answered. "I suppose I wanted to see how your young friends fared. I mean, I was only with them a few days, but I admit I had grown quite fond of them."

Jenya nodded. She had known Merigan since the young girl was an infant. Had watched her grow up into quite a young lady. Remarkable herself, in many ways, and though she hadn't known Willbrand for long, he seemed like he would fit quite well into their little group.

"How did you learn to treat wounds like this?" Alios asked, shifting to another subject.

"Just something I picked up," Jenya replied modestly. "During the war, after battles, we would take the wounded to the shelters where they would be tended. No matter who was fighting, there always seemed to be too few healers. So I would help out where I could. At first of course, I didn't know anything and just did what I was told, but after a while you learn things. No one complained, most of the healers were just happy for the help. Besides they were used to having the women assist them. The shelters were the only place where you would ordinarily see women near the battlefield. I think quite a few of the men thought that was where I actually belonged."

She finished putting on the new dressing and stood up, pushing a lock of her hair away from her face.

"It was funny..."

"What was?" Alios asked.

"You had to stay pretty far away from the shelters not to hear the screams of the injured but a lot of men did just that. I saw many strong dangerous men, men who were fearless in battle, who didn't seem to have any qualms about inflicting damage, who wouldn't go anywhere near the shelters where the wounded were kept, who didn't seem to want to have anything to do with the consequences of their actions."

Alios nodded.

"It's difficult to see people in pain when you know you can't help them."

"There were a lot of people who we couldn't," Jenya told him.

Alios did not reply to that, just sat there looking at her. Even though he had seen Jenya fight in the battle with the caravan, he had to admit it was hard for him to... well, not believe it, he had seen it with his own eyes. Accepting it was something else, however. He had never seen a woman fight before, not like that, in a battle. It had been quite a surprise to him, yet she had fought as well as anyone. Looking at her now, though, treating his wounds so tenderly, it was almost like seeing two different people. He still wasn't sure quite what to make of her, and that, frankly, intrigued him greatly.

She must have noticed him looking at her, for she suddenly lifted her head.

"Why are you looking at me like that?"

He shifted his leg to a more comfortable position.

"You are a very remarkable woman."

Jenya just looked at him for a moment, wondering what had caused him to say such a thing. She opened her mouth to ask him that very question, but for some reason she did not speak. Instead she turned away from him, gathering up her supplies, feeling somewhat embarrassed. She wasn't used to people saying such things to her, true or not.

Not sure how to reply, she ended up saying nothing at all.

The tread of feet and the creaking of the front door opening interrupted their conversation, such as it was. They turned to the entrance as Saramis walked in. From the look on his face it was apparent he didn't have any good news to report, yet Jenya felt compelled to ask anyway.

"Did you find out anything?"

"Yes," Saramis replied, walking over to a chair and flopping down in it. "I found out that there are sixteen dead end roads in this city. I found out that the man who runs the mill has six fingers on each hand, that the summer festival starts tomorrow, that a pint of ale is two coin down at the tavern, that they say the old Romey place is filled with evil spirits and that the blacksmith's oldest daughter has her eye on the weaver's son. If you want to know, however, if I found out anything about Merigan and Willbrand, the answer is no."

Jenya gave him a sour look. He knew full well that was exactly what she had been referring to.

"One thing I can tell you at least with almost complete assurance is that they are no longer in this city," Saramis continued. "The problem is, beyond that, we just don't have enough information. The biggest question, I should think, is whether they are in hiding or have been captured."

"I hate to be a pessimist, but if they were still free, wouldn't they have tried to contact you by now?" Alios asked.

"Yes, that would seem to be the logical thing for them to do," Saramis replied. "We have a lot of friends living in the cities around here. You would think that if they were hiding they'd have left word with someone, even if they couldn't get in touch with us directly. The fact that they haven't done so is a cause for concern. On the other hand, I can think of a number of reasons why they may not have gotten in touch with anyone, most of them bad, admittedly, but not necessarily as bad as their being caught."

"Maybe Ktan will have some news when he returns," Alios ventured. They had asked around and a few people remembered seeing two young people on a horse ride out of the city heading north. Ktan had left two days ago for Winsor, hoping to find them or at least find out for sure if they had actually gone that way. "Perhaps he'll even have them with him."

"I hope so, but we don't even know for sure if Willbrand and Merigan went that way," Jenya said. "I don't like the idea of just sitting around here waiting."

"Nor do I," Saramis agreed. "Which is why, of course, we've been scouring the city for information. I don't think that's enough though. I think one of us should go to Dramon."

Jenya didn't respond to that.

"Actually, I think I should go to Dramon," Saramis corrected.

"Why's that?" Jenya questioned.

"Because you need to stay here to tend to Alios. Besides, I have something else in mind for you."

"Oh really?" Jenya questioned, for some reason, not at all sure she was going to like what she was about to hear. "And what might that be?"

"As I mentioned before," Saramis went on, "the city’s summer festival starts tomorrow. It's a big to do around here, and to kick it off, Baron Triandor, the King's highest ranking official in the city, is having a ball tomorrow night. Anyone who's anyone in the city will be there. If our two young friends have indeed been captured, or if someone knows anything about them at all, they'll be there."

"That's fine, but I don't imagine they'd let just anyone in to something like that," Alios stated.

"No, but that's never stopped us before," Saramis replied with a sly smile. "I've already spoken to Ferdinand and he's pretty sure he can arrange for the two of you to crash the party. That is, if Alio’s leg will permit it."

"Me?" Alios questioned, surprised. "You want me to go to a ball? Hobnob with all those nobles? Why? I'm not really the type, Saramis. I've been living out in the woods too long. I wouldn't have the slightest idea how to act."

"His leg is almost healed,” Jenya said. “I don’t think that will be a problem as long as he doesn’t overdo it. Much as I hate to say it though, I think Alios might be right, this seems to be more down your alley, don't you think? You're the one who likes all that kind of stuff."

"Perhaps," Saramis replied. "But I think it's important that one of us go to Dramon and look around there. It's the closest city to Donelan after all."

"But we were told they were headed north," Jenya pointed out.

"So we were told but people have been known to be mistaken. Besides, they might have started out heading north and circled around back south, especially if they thought they might be followed. Obviously Alios, because of his wound, can't go to Dramon, and since a single person going to a party like this would stand out, it makes sense for me to go to Dramon and you two to go to the ball. Normally I would go with Merigan, but of course, that's not possible in this case. Don't worry, Alios, Jenya will show you how to act."

Jenya didn't reply, but she wasn't really all that thrilled with this idea. There were a number of things about it that she didn't like. As she had said to Saramis already, subterfuge was not her forte. Oh she could do it well enough when she had to, but this wasn't just walking into a bar to ply some soldier for information. This was a party at the royal palace, and she wasn't exactly a party person. The place would be filled with stuffed shirts and dandys and people of that ilk, just the kind of people she hated to associate with. Important people and, more annoying, people who just thought they were important. Jenya wracked her brain for a good excuse for her not to go, but unfortunately she came up empty.

"Well, I suppose," she eventually conceded. "But you realize of course that I have nothing to wear to something like that."

"Don't worry," Saramis replied. "We'll go out and get you something. We'll fix you up so that you fit right in. You'll be the belle of the ball."

Jenya just looked at him for a moment, not sure if he was being sarcastic or not. Then she shook her head and leaned back against the wall.

"Great," she muttered.



Few people took notice of the silver haired horseman as he rode into Zalan. The town was used to seeing strangers. Far up on the slopes of the Capar Mountains, with no other town within three days travel, Zalan was a stopping point for all manner of adventurer, explorer or rogue. Most of the travelers who passed through were miners, headed farther up into the hills in search of the gold and silver that was said to lay hidden up there somewhere. Most came back with nothing, some didn't come back at all, but a few did in fact return with such treasure, enough to spark the dreams of others, to keep the endless parade marching.

Ktan cared nothing for this. He wasn't here in search of treasure, though he wasn't averse to letting people think that if that was their wish. He was here, of course, in search of Merigan and Willbrand, and so far he hadn't had much more luck than the majority of the treasure hunters.

They had been to Winsor. Of that he was sure. The descriptions he had gotten of the couple that had passed through town a few days before he arrived left him with no doubt, nor had it been difficult to find out their next destination, since nearly everyone he asked had been questioned by them as to how to get to Zalan. Ktan had to just shake his head at their non-existent attempts to hide any of these facts from the general populace. They may as well have just left a sign that said Merigan and Willbrand were here.

It made it easy for him to track them, but by the same token, of course, it made it easy for anyone else as well. He wished they were a bit more prudent, even if that made it more difficult for him, especially since the townsfolk in Winsor had told him a red caped man had passed through town asking about the pair a day after they had left. Their enemy was tracking the two, and he was in the lead.

He had ridden hard, through the mountains, up the trail that led to Zalan. He had learned that the two had sold their horse. That put them at a distinct disadvantage. The man following them still had his, and, he had realized with a sinking feeling, it would be easy to catch up with them on the winding trails between Winsor and Zalan. Given the start the man had, it was quite likely he had already found them.

Of course, there had been nothing to do but go on. He hadn't seen any sign of them on the trail, not the two kids nor their pursuer. He had tried to track them but that proved impossible. He was competent as a tracker but no expert. The ground was hard and left few clues, and they weren't the only one's that used the trail. The tracks soon grew confused and unreadable and he had been anxious to press ahead to get to Zalan.

He hoped it had been the same for their pursuer.

So he reached Zalan knowing little. They had intended to come here when they had left Winsor. At least, that's what they had told the people there. There was a slight possibility they had just said that to lay a false trail, but he didn't think they were crafty enough to do that. Besides, they had little choice. The only other option was to head east, back to the great north road, and even they would know that way would be watched, or strike out into the wilderness, heading away from all civilization, but they didn't have the woodcraft for that.

No, there were only two real choices. They were here, having somehow gotten here ahead of both him and their pursuer, or the man had caught up with them somewhere along the trail, had come upon them, and had taken them.

And yet, though Ktan did not know, both of these premises turned out to be quite wrong.

He stopped his horse in front of a two story building  of reddish colored stone with a sign that proclaimed it the Hunters Inn. Zalan wasn't that big a town. Larger than Keesa, but, Ktan suspected, not for long. There was a finite limit to how many people the area could sustain. They were in the middle of the mountains, and as such, farmland was at a premium. Most of the peasants working the fields had to deal with steep slopes in which they had to cut step like wedges in which to plant their crops. He could see them now, reaching up the slopes beyond the town like steps up the mountain for some long lost giant. The main occupation of most of the people here was hunting, but hunting alone couldn't support a large and growing population. No, for that you needed agriculture. Zalan just could not grow very large with its lack of arable land.

Not that that was any concern of Ktan's.

Ktan slid off his horse, tying it to the hitch, and walked into the Inn. The most peculiar thing about Zalan, and what set it apart from every other town in Mandaria was that all of buildings were cut of the native rock of the mountainside. Inside the structures was more like being in a cave then an actual building. If one had never seen it before it did take a bit of getting used to but Ktan didn’t really pay any attention. The room he entered now was small, just big enough to hold the counter that a slim man who was obviously the proprietor to stand behind, a small table by the open window cut in the wall and enough room for people to pass through. An open doorway on the man's left led into a larger room which held the eating area, and a stairway on the man's right led up to the rooms.

The man looked up as Ktan stepped in front of him.

"Have you seen a young man and a girl pass through here in the last day or two?" Ktan asked before the man could say anything.

Getting no reply, Ktan continued.

"The boy had blonde hair, rather long, the girl's hair was raven black and she had blue eyes. They were on foot and wearing traveling clothes."

The man looked thoughtful for a moment, then shook his head.

"Ain't seen anyone like that come by," he replied.

"Are you sure?"

The man hesitated a moment, a bit put off that Ktan would doubt his word. Still, there was something about the man in front of him, the cold look in his chalk grey eyes, the way his hand rested on the hilt of his sword, that made the sharp reply die in his throat.

"Yes," he said. "There are plenty of strangers in town but I ain't seen no one like that. Maybe someone else seen them. There's a lot of people in the common room that see more than I do around town. You plannin' on staying the night?"

Ktan thought for a moment. He had been riding hard since he had left Winsor, with nary a break except to give the horse a rest. It was already almost dusk. Even if he didn't find Merigan and Willbrand here he could hardly continue looking today.

"Yes," he replied. "And I have a horse that needs to be tended to."

"I'll see to it," the man replied. "It's ten coin per night and five for the horse. There's a stable in the back, you can bring it around there. There's a vacant room upstairs, second on the left. You can eat and quench your thirst in the common room, over there." He waved his hand in the direction of the doorway on his left. "Ask your questions in there but don't cause a ruckus."

Ktan made no reply, just paid the man his coin and turned away, walking back outside. A horse neighed nearby, causing Ktan's head to turn in that direction.

Thus saving Brohan's life.

The witch hunter was walking down the road from the opposite direction, heading for the Inn himself. The fall down the slope after his encounter with Willbrand and Merigan had left him badly hurt. His ankle had been twisted from the fall, among more minor wounds, and he had been unable to get back up the slope until he had used his healing skills and rested. It wasn't until the next day that he had been able to climb back up the hill and by then his prey was long gone. He had found his horse again and headed for Zalan. He had no choice. He was still injured, and would need some supplies from the town and some time to heal before he could resume his pursuit. As far as he could tell, that was where the two were headed anyway.

He had gotten here the previous day, but there was no sign of Willbrand and Merigan. Thinking that, since he was mounted, he might have gotten ahead of them, he had decided to wait a day or two to see if they showed up, but so far nothing. His wound was pretty much healed now and he was pretty sure they would be here by now if this was indeed where they were going. He was, in fact, contemplating heading back down the trail again when he spotted Ktan come out of the Inn.

He knew who Ktan was. Irrissa had filled him in. In Donelan when he had been with the Imperial Knights and they had been closing in on that bowman, he had seen Ktan ride to the man's rescue. As soon as the warrior had appeared he had faded into the background. Open battle was not his forte, at least, not with someone like Ktan. Yes, he had faced Willbrand in the wilderness but that was a far cry from facing the legendary lieutenant of the Sacred Knights. He knew his martial arts skills would be no match against such a seasoned warrior.

It seemed strange to Brohan that such a well known man could be able to elude capture by the Crown through all these years. He supposed it was a tribute to the man's cautious nature, or to the fact that he had so many friends among the general populace.

Ktan didn't know Brohan by sight, but the crimson cape he worn was a sure sign of a witch hunter, a man most people held in awe. Seeing that cape could get people to tell you things they never would tell anyone else, get you in places you could never get to without it. If Ktan had seen him in it, however, it would have been a death sentence.

Brohan stepped to the side, in a nearby doorway, out of Ktan's sight. It was a private residence. He tested the door, but it was latched. If Ktan came this way, he would be right out in the open.

He waited a few minutes that seemed to last much longer, before risking taking a look out into the street again. When he did, he saw Ktan disappearing around the corner of the Inn, leading a horse.

Brohan walked out in the street again, turning quickly in the opposite direction. This complicated things. It was obvious he would have to get out of town as quickly as possible. Not only that, but with Ktan so close, he could easily interfere with Brohan's pursuit, might even find the witch before him. That would be a major blow. There was no way he would be able to face them by himself if that happened. He had left the Imperial Knights to their fate back in Donelan, had been glad to get rid of their interference, in fact. Yet, he had to admit a little bit of muscle would come in handy right about now. He couldn't afford to leave Ktan at his back while he pursued the others.

Fortunately there was an option open to him. For the right price, you could find just about any kind of person in Zalan, including a scoundrel or two willing to dispose of someone with no questions asked. He wasn't certain they could succeed in this case. Ktan couldn't have survived this long if he wasn't cautious. He hoped he could at least delay Ktan with this tactic, and who knows, if he got lucky perhaps the man could be permanently removed from the equation. He continued down the street, determined to find his scoundrel.

Ktan spent the rest of the day asking questions, all, apparently, to no avail. No one had heard of them, no one had seen them. By the time he finally gave up, well after dark, when most people had retired to their homes for the night, his spirits had sunk. They weren't here. They hadn't been here. It was starting to seem quite likely to him now that he might be too late, that they had already been captured by the man hunting them.

Still, there was nothing to do but keep searching, even if it was in vain. Tomorrow he'd head back down the trail, back the way he came. Going much slower this time, he might be able to pick up their trail somewhere along the way. He wasn't all that hopeful but there wasn't much else he could do.

Having exhausted all his options for the day he retired to his room. There were no locks on the doors, merely a latch on the inside. Not uncommon in the poorer areas of Mandaria and something he was quite used to. Removing his sword, he lay down on his bed. Perhaps tomorrow he would find something that might give him some hope.



It was well after midnight when the small dirk slipped through the crack in Ktan's door, lifting up the latch with only the slightest of sounds. A moment later the door opened and two men stepped stealthily into the darkened room. The window was shuttered, but enough light filtered into the room from the hallway beyond for the two infiltrators to see well enough. Their quarry lay in bed. He appeared fully clothed, except for his boots which lay at the foot of the bed. The man in the lead looked cautiously. He could see a scabbard on the table that stood near the bed. He could make out the hilt of a sword within it. It appeared too far away from the man to do him much good.

The two moved forward, more sure of themselves now, their daggers rising in their hands. The man on bed stirred.

And suddenly two feet of cold steel was poised at the neck of the first intruder.

"If I were you, I wouldn't do anything... imprudent," Ktan said.

Neither of the men moved for a moment, then the man in the rear began to back away slowly.

Ktan was on his feet in a moment, and for second, the man in front thought he was dead. But when Ktan's sword shot it, it hit the door and not the man's jugular, slapping it closed. Ktan turned and lifted his dagger from the scabbard where he had secreted it after taking his sword out and laying it beside him before going to bed.

"You were so anxious to get in here and now you want to leave?" he questioned. "Drop your weapons."

For a moment the two men just looked at him, perhaps wondering why they weren't dead already. There were two of them, but all they had was daggers, while the man in front of them held a sword and his own dagger, and looked quite capable of using either one. Since they weren't dead yet, perhaps the man could be reasoned with, perhaps there was something he wanted from them. He obeyed Ktan's request, and a moment later, so did his companion.

"Let's not be hasty here," he said slowly. "We merely came in to lift the purse of an unsuspecting outlander. We meant you no harm, I assure you."

"Oh really?" Ktan replied neutrally. Perhaps that was true, but given his nature, and the fact that he knew that the person perusing his young friends couldn't be far away made him rather skeptical of that statement. "It's a shame then. If you're just common thieves, I'm afraid I don't have much use for you."

His sword came up to the man's neck once again.

"Whoa, whoa, let's not get carried away here now," the man responded. "Maybe, just maybe there's more to it than that."

Ktan did not move.

"I'm waiting," he said.

The man lifted his finger, tentatively, up to the blade by his neck, then gently pushed it away.

"I may have some information that could prove useful to you. Unfortunately we are very poor. I'm afraid our employer was not very free with his coin. He drove a very hard bargain, and of course it will be a total loss for us if we come back with out task uncompleted. If perhaps you could find it in your heart to recompense us for our efforts, I suspect our loyalty to our former employer would, shall we say, be less than wholehearted."

Ktan did not move for a moment. In truth, he almost had to laugh at the man's audacity.

"A rather bold request from someone with a sword to his neck."

The man just grinned at him.

"Very well," Ktan said. "If you tell me what you know, I'll reward you."

The response sounded rather vague, but the man figured it was the best he could hope for. Better in fact. Anything that didn't leave him skewered was good.

"A man hired us to kill you," he said. "We don't know who he is. He came into town a couple of days ago, I believe. He had hurt his leg, but it seems to have healed since. He was looking for a young man and a girl, but I don't think he found them. He's bald, like some kind of monk or something, and he wears a red cape."

Ktan gave no response. The intruder stood in front of him, looking at the sword that still stood poised much too close to his neck for comfort. Even though Ktan didn't show it, this was good news to him indeed. It meant that the witch hunter hadn't found his companions, that they were still free, though if that were so, he could not figure out where they could be. If the man had been hurt, he might have had a confrontation with them, and that might have tipped them off to his presence. Willbrand wasn't an expert with his sword, though he certainly had shown promise. Had they fought the man off?

"Do you know where the man is staying?"

"Right here in the Inn. I don't know what room though."

Ktan nodded. If the witch hunter had sent men in here to attempt an assassination, he obviously knew Ktan was here, so it didn't seem likely he'd be sticking around. That information was probably useless, but the rest of what they had told him was very useful indeed.

Ktan lowered his sword.

"Very well. How much was the man going to pay you?"

"Umm, three hundred coin?"

The sword came up again.

"I don't flatter myself to think that any man would pay a King's ransom for my death, except perhaps for the King himself!"

"All right, all right. Fifty coin. It was fifty coin."

A bit on the cheap side, but considering the two in front of him, the witch hunter had gotten what he'd paid for.

"Very well," Ktan said. "Take the coin, and if I see you lurking around here again, you will not be so lucky!"




The bowman turned, hearing Jenya call him. He stood in the parlor of Ferdinand's house, and for the last few minutes had been fidgeting with his clothes, feeling ridiculously uncomfortable after putting them on a few minutes ago. His shirt was of the finest silk from... well, he wasn't sure where it was from. Saramis had mentioned where it had come from, but he didn't remember. Some far away place with a very impressive sounding name and the rest of his clothes were equally impressive. He had never been so uncomfortable in his entire life.

He walked over to the open doorway that led into one of the bedrooms. A bedroom Jenya stood in the center of, her hands twisted around behind her back, fiddling with something on her dress.

She stopped, looking at Alios as he stood in the doorway. Then her hands fell to her sides with a heavy sigh.

"Could you tie this?" she asked. "I swear, I don't know why I ever let Saramis talk me into getting a dress that laces up in the back."

Alios just stood there, staring at her. To this point, he had only seen her in her traveling gear, in simple tunic and linen breeches, that was, when she doffed her armor. Now, however, it was hard to believe he was looking at the same woman. Her dress was midnight blue, falling to her ankles, open at the neck and loose in the sleeves, which flared at the end. Gold piping ran along the neckline and sleeves, which had a loop that went around her second finger. She wore a thin gold chain suspended on her neck. Jenya might not have understood why Saramis had chosen that dress for her, but looking at her, Alios certainly could. The difference was... remarkable. She looked... well, the only word he could think of that would do was stunning.

"Can you help?" she asked, seeing him just standing in the doorway, and apparently oblivious to his stare.

"Uh, yes, of course," he responded, her words pulling him out of his daze.

He walked over to her, coming up behind her. She tilted her head forward restlessly. She had no patience for this sort of thing.

She felt him tugging at the laces, then a moment later a snap.

"Damn," Alios muttered.


"It broke."

"The lace?"

"Yes. I'm sorry."

Jenya sighed yet again. The thing was brand new. Apparently it wasn't as well made as Saramis had thought, or perhaps Saramis had been more interested in appearance than quality.

"Great," she muttered.

"Don't worry, it's not that bad," Alios said, feeling somewhat bad, as if it was his fault. "It's only a little shorter now. I think I can still use it, but I have to relace it."

Jenya didn't reply to that. Alios began to undo the lacing.


Alios stopped, surprised at the sharpness in her voice. He looked at her, but of course, she was facing away from him.

"What?" he said after a moment.

She didn't reply for a long time. He frowned. Looking at her it seemed as if she was struggling with something, struggling to make up her mind.

"All right, go ahead," she said, finally, and obviously reluctantly.

Alios paused for a moment, wondering what was going on, why she would be so reluctant. It wasn't like he was going to see anything but her back. She wasn't from around here. Did she have some kind of moral code against that sort of thing?

If she did, he'd never heard of anything like that before.

He continued with the unlacing. He hadn't gotten very far when he paused, a frown forming on his face. Jenya just stood there, not saying a word, not even seeming to breathe. Slowly, his fingers suddenly trembling, Alios removed the last of the lacing, until the dress parted in the back to reveal the rest of what he had seen.


Her back was crisscrossed with scars. Every inch seemed to be covered with them. He had seen the mark of someone who had been under the lash before, but never as bad as this.

"Jenya," he said slowly.

Her shoulders shuddered at the sound of her name, but she said nothing.

He stepped around in front of her, to look at her face. Her hands were clasped in front of her, as if in prayer, pressed against her chest to prevent her garment from falling down. Her eyes were downcast but he could see a haunted look on her face.

"Jenya?" he said again, softly. Gently.

"Don't ask."

It was barely a whisper. Her voice was strained, pleading. Even though he had only known her a short time, it sounded so unlike her, the strong, confident woman, the fighter, that he could hardly believe it had come from her lips.

He didn't know what to say. Of course, he was extremely curious to know, to hear how this had happened to her, and, surprisingly, also a bit angry, angry that someone would do something so horrible to her, yet there was no way he could ignore her request.

Without another word he walked around behind her again. He relaced the dress, tightening it up when he was done, being careful to not break the lace a second time. The whole time she stood there in silence. When he was done he put a hand on her shoulder, feeling the need to offer some kind of solace, any kind, even if she didn't want it.

"All right, all set," he said.

She stood there for a moment, then took a deep breath, lifting her head once more. When she turned around to face him now there was no sign of any sorrow or guilt in her eyes. She was once more the Jenya he had come to know.

"Okay then," she said. "I guess we're ready to go."