Chapter seven


Willbrand watched uneasily as Merigan made her way to the gate. Even though he was aware of Merigan's abilities, he was still uncomfortable putting the young girl in danger. He glanced back at the others, who were talking quietly amongst themselves, apparently unconcerned.

"Are you sure this is a good idea?" he muttered.

Ktan turned toward him and understood what he was referring to.

"She'll be fine," he said.

But the statement did not make Willbrand feel any better.

"But what if something goes wrong?" he questioned. "There's no way we'll be able to help her. She's just a girl and..."

"What's that supposed to mean?" Jenya said sharply.

Willbrand shook his head. He had not meant it to come out like that.

"You know what I mean," he said, flustered. He liked Jenya. After their initial altercation she had seemed to readily accept him as one of them. He didn't want to get on her bad side. "She's just an ordinary girl. She has no weapon, no armor; she's not trained to fight. I just..."

"Merigan is no ordinary girl," Ktan reminded him. "I've raised her since she was an infant. If there were any chance she couldn't do this, I wouldn't have let her go."

Willbrand could only nod in agreement, the thousand arguments against the idea falling silently by the wayside. He knew what they were saying was true. He knew that these people were not like everyone he had known back in Crotasia. He knew he had to change his thinking.

But that didn't make it easy. He had grown up, spent his whole life, being taught that women needed to be protected, that they didn't do this sort of thing, that they were weak. That mindset wasn't going to change in a day, or a week, or perhaps not ever.

He fell silent. There wasn't any point in talking about it. He would just make a fool of himself. But he couldn't help but watch her as she approached the gate, his right hand by his side, right next to his sword hilt. Not that there was really anything he could do if she did get caught.

She was almost there now. In moments they would be able to see her. She disappeared into a small group of shrubs, the last cover before the open plain in front of the wall.

And never came back out.

Or at least, he didn't see her. For a moment, he thought she had stopped, but as time dragged on he realized she must have done whatever it was that she did, and was now invisible. At least, that was what he assumed, although he still had a hard time convincing himself that not seeing is believing.

The minutes dragged on. Willbrand fidgeted impatiently. There was nothing they could do now but wait, and he wasn't very good at that sort of thing. He kept thinking about all the things that could go wrong. She must be in the city by now. But getting past the men guarding the gate didn't mean the danger was over. Saramis had told her who to get in contact with, a merchant by the name of Larmonte. But how did they know they could trust the man? Sure, Saramis knew him, but even he admitted it had been a long time ago. Who knows what might have happened in the intervening time. Who knew if he could still be trusted.

The truth was Willbrand thought Saramis to be a bit on the boastful side, and he wasn't sure they could take him at his word.

Willbrand kept looking up at the sun, trying to judge just how much time had gone by. He looked over at the others once more, wondering when they were going to decide that it had been too long and something had gone wrong, but they still appeared unworried. He sighed silently. They were probably right. It most likely hadn't been as long as he thought. He was sure it would take her some time to accomplish her task. He just wished he had something to keep him occupied instead of just sitting here thinking about it.

He looked at Jenya.

"Are there others like you?" he questioned hesitantly, not sure if she would take offense.

She frowned.

"Like me? What do you mean?"

"Other knights," he replied. "Other female knights. I'm sorry. I know I haven't seen much of the world. But of all the places I've been, of all the tales I've heard, I've never heard of a woman becoming a knight."

Jenya did not reply for a moment, but he noticed at least that she did not look mad. Who knows, maybe where she came from it was common practice. Maybe there was a whole city full of female knights. It seemed ridiculous, but nothing would surprise him anymore.

"There are no others," Ktan stated. "Jenya is one of a kind."

She gave him a rueful smile.

"It's a big world," she spoke. "I can't say there aren't any others, but I've never met one."

"So how did you become one then?" Willbrand questioned.

Jenya shrugged. She seemed disinclined to talk about herself.

"Her father was Morgan Dulance," Ktan interrupted again. "You might have heard of him."

"Morgan Dulance," Willbrand said slowly. "The Captain of the Kings guard during the Fifty Years War?"

"The same," Ktan replied.

Willbrand nodded. Even he had heard of the famous knight Morgan Dulance. It was said he had single-handedly won the war for Galias.

"Jenya was his only child," Ktan continued. "He had no male offspring to pass on his skills to."

"I see," Willbrand said slowly. She certainly had the pedigree. "But still, even as Morgan Dulance's daughter, I still can't see you being accepted, unless they're much more liberal with their rules where you came from."

"They most certainly were not," Ktan continued, monopolizing the conversation. "At first no one was willing to accept her. In fact, she was laughed at. That is, until she challenged the captain of the guard to a fight and beat him."

"I got lucky," Jenya replied modestly.

"You certainly did!" Ktan agreed. "The only reason you won was because Talamar was overconfident. He didn't think you had a chance."

"Neither did any of you," Jenya replied.

"And you wouldn't have, if it had been me," Ktan replied. "I wouldn't have underestimated you."

"Oh really?" she said, her tone conveying her disagreement. "I find that unlikely. But you weren't anyway, so the question is moot.

"And besides, I'm glad it wasn't me," Ktan replied. "Because then you would never have become a knight, and we'd all be poorer for it. Besides, on the off chance you might have got lucky against me as well and won, I wouldn't have wanted to suffer the indignity."

"Yes," she agreed. "It was a bit embarrassing for him. For a moment there, I thought he was going to fall on his sword."

"Yeah, it took him a long time to get over that," Ktan stated. "Until our first battle. When you showed them all it wasn't a fluke"

"But where did all this take place?" Willbrand asked. "Ktan said you were from Keesa, but that's just a frontier town. They don't have any knights there. And as far as I know, they never did."

"No, I left Keesa when I was eleven," Jenya replied. "This was in Donalan."

"Donalan," Willbrand said slowly. Again he was reminded of something. He had heard something about Donalan before. A tale about Donalan, and...witches.

"There's something happening at the gate," Saramis spoke up.

They turned to look in that direction, the interruption scattering Willbrand's train of thought.

A wagon rode through the gate. The guards stepped out of the way to let it through. They didn't question anyone leaving the city. Willbrand could make out two people riding in the front. A tall man and a much smaller figure beside him. Though they were still too far away to pick out details, he was pretty sure the smaller one was Merigan.

The wagon rode rapidly away from the gate, pulled by two horses. They cantered down the road, and soon Willbrand could hear the creak of the wheels as it approached. Closer now, Willbrand could see that his guess was correct. It was Merigan sitting beside the man, though she was now dressed in a hooded cloak.

The wagon came to a stop soon after it was out of eyesight of the gate. Ktan and the others walked over to it.

Merigan rose up to meet them.

"Get in," she said. "Conceal yourselves under the blankets in the back."

They climbed aboard the wagon. Strewn in the back were various crates and thick burlap mats. Ktan pulled one up and they crawled under. Merigan turned and pushed the blanket over one of Saramis' feet that had been sticking out. She looked at her handiwork for a moment, then, satisfied that they were completely concealed, spoke to the man beside her.

The man snapped the reins and they were in motion. Willbrand could tell they were turning around, he could see the sky through the weave in the fabric. The mats covering them were made of burlap, and smelled badly, a dull musty smell mixed with the scent of horses, but he wasn't about to complain. Instead he had another question.

"We're going back to the gate?"

"Of course," Ktan said sharply. "Where else would we be going?"

"But the wagon just came out," Willbrand pointed out. "Aren't the guards going to be suspicious to see a wagon leave and then come back five minutes later?"

Apparently the man up front could hear what they were saying.

"They'll think we're bringing in slaves," he said. "It's common practice around here. Although technically the slave trade is illegal in this city, there's a huge underground business built around it, and since it brings in so much profit, Baron Valtare pretty much turns a blind eye to it. We just pay the guards a small monthly bribe and they leave us alone."

Willbrand frowned but said nothing more. Another new thing for him to learn. He couldn't imagine anyone from Crotasia ignoring the edicts of the land. And to think that the guards would accept bribes, well, it was just unheard of where he came from.

"We're getting close, so be quiet now," the driver said. "Your voices might give you away."

Willbrand lay still. The wagon continued to bounce along the road, jarring them uncomfortably, and Willbrand began to wonder if the thing had square wheels. The bouncing made the burlap rub against the bare skin on arms and face, causing an almost uncontrollable itch. He wondered if it were all right to move, or whether the guards would question that as well.

The weave of the burlap was wide enough for him to see through to some extent. He could make out the back of the wagon and the line of trees behind them. Turning his head to the front, he could also see the back of the driver and Merigan's head, and beyond that, suddenly looming up, the walls of the city.

Suddenly the wagon stopped.

"A fair day to you, Sergeant Lune," they heard the driver say.

"You too, Maldor," came the reply. "Having trouble with the wagon?"

"Yes, as a matter of fact," Maldor replied. "It seems to be yawing to the right. I think one of the wheels may be cracked."

"Well, you better go and have it checked then," the guard replied. "No need to look through your things. You were only gone a few minutes."

"Thank you kindly," Maldor replied. "And a good day to you."

"You too," Willbrand heard as the wagon creaked to life again.

They rode on for a few moments more before the driver spoke again.

"All right, you can come out now, its safe."

They quickly tossed the burlap mats off, all of them with a sigh of relief.

"Thank god," Saramis exclaimed, rubbing his arms furiously. "It I had to stay under that infernal thing another minute, I think I would have screamed. And how can I stop this itching?"

"We have some balm you can use on it," the driver replied. "But you have to wait til we get to the house."

Saramis growled an unintelligible response.

Willbrand didn't feel any better about it than Saramis. But he looked at Ktan and Jenya, who were sitting beside them stoically ignoring the annoyance, and forced himself to do the same. Instead he tried to take his mind off the itch by looking around him.

Pantaglia was the largest city in the northern portion of the kingdom of Mandaria, and also its greatest seaport. Although it paled in comparison to the capital city of Galias, it was still by far the largest city Willbrand had ever seen. In Crotasia, only the castle and the mill had been built of stone, and only the castle had been more than one story. Yet here, every building was made of brick and mortar, and every one of them towered up over his head, two, three, four stories or more. Huge white towers shot up into the sky near the center of the city, but Willbrand found his eye drawn farther down, to the deep blue waters of the ocean. The city was built on a gentle hillside that sloped slowly down to the sea, completely enclosing the natural harbor at the bottom, a harbor that seemed almost completely filled with the billowing white cloth of sailing vessels. Even from this distance he could see people, hundreds, perhaps thousands of them, working along the docks and in the ships, loading and unloading cargo brought in or being sent out to the far corners of the kingdom and beyond. Willbrand had thought Keesa a bustling town, with its bars and riverboats, but this put that to shame. So many buildings, so many ships, so many people. The young noble had never seen anything like it.

The wagon suddenly lurched to a halt. They had stopped in front of a nondescript two story building made of white stone. The driver hopped off the wagon, followed closely by Merigan. In the back, the others piled out.

"Go right in," Maldor stated. "Larmonte is waiting for you."

Ktan gave a curt nod in reply and they followed Saramis as he led them up a short flight of steps and into the building. Inside they found themselves in a wide foyer, furnished in a fashion more extravagant than any Willbrand has seen in Crotasia, even in the castle itself. A large man, taller and considerably heavier than Ktan, with a dark mustache and beard, stood waiting for them.

"Ah, my friend Saramis," he greeted them warmly, coming over and giving the magician a bear like hug. "It's good to see you again. It's been so long, I was beginning to think you were avoiding me. Now, where is the coin you owe me?"

"Lamonte!," Saramis said warmly. "You know that coin was an investment. It's a growth thing. It's going to take some time to see a return on it."

"All is well, I hope?" the man replied. "It's already been two years. Just how long do you expect me to wait?"

"Things are very well," Saramis answered. "And you? How are the wives? What is it, three now?"

"Four," Lamonte replied.

"I see. You're a better man than I am. You know you must be patient if you want to see the most profit. The timing of these things has to be just right."

"It is a sacrifice sometimes. But what can I say, I'm just too soft when it comes to love. I just can't seem to say no. And I believe you gave me that same patience line the last time we talked. Can't you come up with something better than that?"

Larmonte suddenly turned to the others.

"But I'm forgetting my manners. Ktan, Jenya, Merigan. Good to see you all again, though I don't understand why you continue to hang around with this silk tongued thief. And who's this young man?"

"My name is Willbrand," the young noble said before Saramis could open his mouth.

"He's a friend of ours," Ktan said quietly.

Larmonte nodded.

"Another mysterious traveler. Well, if you want to be mysterious, you've fallen in with the right group. But it's none of my business. My name is Larmonte Debushay, in case Saramis didn't bother to tell you. Come, all of you, sit down, make yourselves at home, and you can tell me your story. The young lady claims you are looking for Dason Walcroft."

Larmonte waved them over to some cushions that covered the floor on one side of the room. All except Ktan sat down.

"Is he here?" Ktan questioned.

"Who?" Larmonte inquired.

"Dason Walcroft."

"Oh, no, actually, no he is not."

Ktan frowned.

"He's gone, out to sea aboard his ship, the Red Eagle," Larmonte continued. "As I understand it he's headed for the southern islands. Probably there by now, actually. He brings them foodstuff in exchange for spices and coffee. He left, oh, about three weeks ago, and is usually gone a few months."

"A few months," Saramis said sourly.

Larmonte nodded.

"I'm afraid so."

"I don't suppose he'd leave it behind," Jenya questioned.

Ktan pondered this for a moment, then shook his head.

"There's no way to tell."

Larmonte looked from one to the other.

"I don't suppose you could enlighten me on just what you are looking for?" he questioned.

"No we can't," Ktan said before anyone else could speak.

"I understand," he replied. "I have a large network of spies, and we could probably find out just about anything you wanted, but they'd have to know what to look for, of course. I'm afraid I won't be of much use to you without that information. If you insist on being secretive, you'll be on your own. But I will assist you in any way I can. You can stay here as long as you like, of course. My home is yours."

"Thank you," Ktan said.

Larmonte got up.

"Well, I'd love to sit and chat, but I'm afraid I have some business that needs attending. Feel free to ask Maldor for anything you want. And as for you," he turned and looked at Saramis. "I'm sure we'll have some time to discuss our little monetary arrangement again before you leave."

Saramis didn't say a word.

"Thank you," Jenya spoke up. Larmonte waved it off as he disappeared out the door.

"So he's not here," Jenya said disappointedly.

"Right," Saramis concurred. "So now the question is, do we go after him or not?"

"We can't do much until we find out if the book is here or with him," Ktan replied. "Jenya, go down to the docks and inquire about booking passage on a ship going to the southern islands. Might as well get a head start on that, if it becomes necessary. Meanwhile we'll have to see what we can do about getting a look around. Dason Walcroft's place has to be at the top of our priority list, and I've a feeling that's not going to be easy. Saramis, Merigan..."

He looked over at them and stopped. Merigan was sound asleep on the cushion.

Saramis looked over at her.

"Guess she was kinda tired," he observed.

Ktan frowned.

"You know how much doing what she does takes out of her," Jenya came to her defense. "It's been a long trip, and we're all exhausted. It's a wonder she didn't keel over sooner."

Ktan stood there for a moment, then his face softened and he nodded.

"We can probably all use a rest," he stated. "I don't suppose it would hurt if we started out early tomorrow."

"Right, just not too early," Saramis commented.

Willbrand looked out the window. The sun was low in the sky, but still visible, hanging just over the water on the horizon. He had a view of most of the city below them. A city he was just itching to take a closer look at.

"Well, I'm not tired," he spoke up. "If you don't mind, I'd like to go take a look around."

That caught Ktan's attention.

"I don't think that's a good idea," he snapped. A statement that did not surprise Willbrand in the least.

"I'm not going to get in any trouble," Willbrand reassured him.

"Are you kidding? I've never met anyone as good at it, except maybe Saramis," Ktan replied.

"Hey.." Saramis protested.

"I'll be fine!" Willbrand said with a tinge of anger. Ktan might not care, but he had had responsibilities in Crotasia. Everyone had looked up to him, depended on him. He was a responsible person. He wasn't a child, and he was starting to get sick of being treated like one. "I'm just going to go look around. I'm not going to do anything stupid. I can do what I want."

Ktan took a step toward him, his face dark with anger.

"I wouldn't be too sure about that," he said menacingly.

"You can't stop me," Willbrand said defiantly.

“Oh?" Ktan replied.

"Stop it you two," Jenya interrupted, standing up as well. "We've got enough problems; we don't need to be fighting amongst ourselves."

"I'm not going to let him go out there when he doesn't know anything about the city," Ktan said flatly.

"I know how to stay out of trouble," Willbrand insisted.

"It's probably not a good idea for any of us to wander around alone here," Jenya stated. "Why don't you just let one of us come with you."

"I don't need a babysitter!" Willbrand said angrily.

"You could have fooled me," Ktan snapped.

Jenya stepped between them.

"Cut it out or I'll kick both your asses!" she exclaimed.

Ktan and Willbrand both feel silent, just staring at one another.

Saramis raised a finger.

"If I may try to impose some rationality in all this? We've had a long trip. You may not be tired, but you are probably hungry and want to freshen up before you go out. I know I smell worse than a horse and I can tell you that none of you are any better. By the time you are done with that, perhaps Merigan will be awake as she can accompany you. Jenya is right; it is dangerous for any of us to be wandering around here alone. If one of us coming along makes it feel like babysitting, surely you wouldn't object to her."

They all looked at him for a moment.

"You can tell things have really gotten out of hand when Saramis is the reasonable one," Jenya muttered.

She looked at Ktan.

"Well, do you have any objection to that?"

Ktan looked at her sourly, then gave a curt shake of his head.

"And you?" she said, looking at Willbrand.

"No," Willbrand said even though he looked no more thrilled about it than Ktan.

"All right then," Saramis said. "Let's eat!"

No matter what Larmonte's relationship with Saramis actually was, the man was a good host. Maldor made sure they were well fed and provided them with everything they needed. They ate to their hearts content. Though Willbrand had been reluctant to stay at first, after he had peeled off his clothes and eased himself into a real marble bath, finally relieved of well over a weeks worth of dirt and grime, as well as that annoying itch, he had to admit it wasn't such a bad idea after all.

As it turned out, Merigan was awake again once he came out of the bath, and she agreed to accompany him outside after she had cleaned herself up as well. By the time they walked out the door and started down the street, night had fallen.

"Have you ever been here before?" Willbrand asked.

Merigan nodded.

"Yes but not for quite some time," she answered.

He looked at her for a moment. He was a noble, given the best training, the best schooling, the best teachers, the best of everything really. She was younger than he was. She was a heretic, an outlaw, yet she had seen so much more than he. While he had been training in his little town, thinking he was someone important she had been traveling all over the entire kingdom. With all his schooling she probably knew more about the world than he did. It almost didn't seem fair, somehow.

"So where would you like to go first?" she asked.

"Down to the docks," he replied immediately. "I've never seen the ocean before."

She gave just a hint of surprise, then nodded. They continued downhill, threading their way through a maze of streets. The roads seemed to run haphazardly, with no particular plan or pattern. But eventually they reached a broad thoroughfare that ran right along the seaside. The area was well lit and, as the docks in Keesa, was bustling with activity, even at this late hour. The wharf was lined with ships, ships larger than any Willbrand had ever seen. Their masts filled the night sky like the upraised pikes of an advancing army.

They walked slowly along the docks in silence, Willbrand just taking in all the sights, all the newness. So many vessels. For some reason, ever since he was a child, he had always wanted to sail on a ship. He remembered tales he had been told of brave men sailing off into the unknown, exploring where no one had gone, discovering new lands.

And now the ships were right in front of him. In fact, if they had to go after Dason Walcroft, in a few days he might actually be sailing out of this harbor on one of those boats. True, they wouldn't be searching for new lands, but still he felt his pulse quicken at the thought. Though it would make their quest more difficult, he half hoped that Dason Walcroft had not left the book behind.

A soft wind blew past them, bringing the pungent scent of salt air. Willbrand walked over to edge of the dock and looked down at the dark water below. It didn't seem any different from the river in Keesa. He lifted his head, looking beyond the ships, out into the darkness. Lights shone in the harbor, from vessels tied up there, or making their way to or from the docks. Beyond them he could see only darkness, but he knew the sea went on, farther than the eye could see, farther than any man knew. Had any man ever reached the end? Was there an end? The possibility that it went on forever was hard for him to accept, yet it could very well be true. And could there be other lands out there, so far away no man had ever reached them? Of perhaps they were populated too, by people who didn't know this land existed. Perhaps there was someone standing on a shore far away, looking out towards the ocean, wondering the same thing he was?

He shook his head. It was too mind boggling to think about.

"Is there some place we can go where I can get a better view of the ocean?" he asked.

"Yes," Merigan replied. "C'mon."

She led him a short way along the thoroughfare, then turned and headed into the narrow streets again. They were now headed away from the water once more, but Willbrand did not question their direction. Merigan seemed to know where she was going, and he had already seen that the pattern of the roads here didn't seem to make much sense.

The lights of the dock faded away behind them. Now the streets were darker, only lit by an occasional torch burning on a long pole at the street corners, casting a flickering light on the road around them, but not penetrating very far into the darkness. They were in what looked like a residential district now. Willbrand could see flickering lights through the cracks in the shutters of some of the windows, but that cast no light on the street. Merigan turned left. Willbrand followed her along a street that dipped downward and turned back toward the water, as far as he could tell. The crowds had thinned out as soon as they had left the docks, and now the streets around them were deserted.

In spite of the fact that he felt he could take care of himself, the darkness around them was beginning to make him a little uneasy, and he wondered how much farther they were going to go. After all his complaints about not needing a babysitter, and about how he wouldn't get into any trouble, there was no getting around the fact that he was new to the city. Although no one had bothered them, just like any city, there had to be thieves and scoundrels wandering around looking for an easy mark. If something happened to them, he knew Ktan would never trust him again.

He was toying with the idea of suggesting they go back, when they came around another turn and the road ended. Before them was a narrow beach of fine sand, and beyond that, Willbrand could hear the gentle lapping of waves upon the shore.

They walked slowly out onto the beach. It was completely dark here. But Willbrand's eyes had had plenty of time to adjust. He could still see the lights of the docks, but now they were off to the left, across a stretch of the harbor. Far enough away so their light did not ruin his night vision.

They walked right up until they stood at the waters edge. Willbrand could see it more clearly now. He looked out over the harbor once more. He could see the dark shapes of the hills surrounding the harbor, sinking slowly down until they disappeared, leaving a narrow gap that led out to the sea, and the world beyond.

Merigan kicked off her shoes and stepped into the water. She walked out until it was up to her knees, pulling her dress up to keep it out of the water. She turned to look at him.

"The water is warm," her voice floated to him.

He looked at the water a moment more. Then sat down and pulled his shoes off as well. Getting up he followed her in. It wasn't quite that warm, but still comfortable. The bottom was covered with fine sand. His feet sank into it a little, and though it was not unpleasant, it took him a moment to get used to it. He walked out until he standing beside Merigan. He reached down and touched his hand to the water, then brought it up to his lips, tasting experimentally.

"How strange," he muttered at t he salty taste.

"It's bit different from the river, eh?" Merigan said beside him.

He nodded.

"So much water," he said slowly, looking around. "I'd heard tales of it, but they don't do it justice. Have you ever been out there? On a ship?"

"Yes," she replied. "A few times. The last time about two years ago. From Hadell to Winsor."

Willbrand turned to look at her.

"Is there anyplace you haven't been?"

She looked at him with a slightly puzzled expression.

"Yes," she replied. "A few. It hasn't been easy you know. When you're an outlaw, no place is safe. You can't stay too long anywhere because you're always afraid someone is going to recognize you."

Willbrand was silent for a moment.

"Yeah, I guess," he said finally. It was stupid to be jealous. She had seen a lot more of the world than he had, but only because she had no choice. Of course, neither did he now.

"Become a heretic and see the world," he muttered.

She smiled.

"Think that would draw more people to our cause?" she asked.

"I don't know," he said, shaking his head.

They started walking slowly through the water, parallel to the beach. The night was clear. There was no moon, but the stars shone with a fierce brightness above them.

They were quiet for some time before Willbrand broke the silence.

"So have you thought about what I said?"

"About what?" she questioned.

"Do you think it's really a good idea to go after this book?"

"What do you mean?" she asked.

"Just what I said," he replied.

"That's what Ktan wants to do," she replied.

"Yeah, I know," he returned. "You've known him since you were a child right? He brought you up?"

"Yes," she replied.

"And all this time, you've done what he told you to do. You've done everything he's asked. But let me ask you, in all the time you've known him, has he ever once asked you what you wanted to do?"

Merigan looked at him for a moment, her eyes dark spheres in the shadows of her face. Then she lowered her head.

"It doesn't matter," she said softly.

"Yes it does!" Willbrand stated. "Wouldn't you like to live in peace?"

"Sure," she answered. "But that's not easy for a heretic."

Willbrand just looked at her for a moment. "You've been all over the kingdom, but have you ever left the kingdom?"

Merigan shook her head.


"Why is that?" he asked. "You would think that would be the logical thing for a heretic to do. In another kingdom they wouldn't be after you. They would never find you."

"I'm not so sure about that," she said dubiously.

"Perhaps," he agreed, "But you have to admit it would be a lot safer. Have you thought about what you're doing here? I mean, really thought about it. Just attempting to get this book is going to be dangerous. Not only are we going have to deal with the Admiral of the Imperial Fleet, but there's also a chance that finding the book will put the Queen hot on your trail. And what happens then? What's Ktan's plan? To have you confront the Queen? And do what? She's got an army to back her up. We're five people. Is this magic you're talking about strong enough to defeat an army?"

"I...I don't know," Merigan said hesitantly, still looking at the water. "I don't think so. It doesn't work that way."

"So then what's the point?" Willbrand questioned. "It seems to me you'd be better off getting out of this kingdom as fast as possible."

Merigan sighed.

Willbrand stopped and looked at her.

"Am I wrong?"

She stopped as well.

"I don't know," she replied. "That's what makes this so difficult. There's so much I don't know. I can't divine the correct path. I don't know what the future holds, and it may be that no path leads to a happy ending for me. But I trust Ktan. I know he can be stubborn as a mule sometimes, I know he does things that don't make sense, but I still trust him. He saved my life; he brought me up when there was no one for me. I don't know exactly what he has in mind, but I know he'll do all he can to keep me safe, if it's at all possible. Yes, we probably could run, we probably could go to another kingdom and start a farm somewhere, or something, and forget all about Queen Irissa and the Book of Redemption. But I think there's more to it than that. I think the Queen is up to something, something evil. I think she's got plans that will hurt everyone in Mandaria, and I think I might be the only one with a chance to stop her."

She lifted her head, looking into his eyes.

"I could run, but that would be the easy way. I know I'm a heretic, but I still love Mandaria. It's my home, and I don't want to see anything happen to it. No, I'm not exactly sure why, but I have to see this through. So you see, it doesn't matter what I want. Some of us are born to do as we please, to make our own course in life. Others seem to have the course laid out for them beforehand. And easy or difficult they have to follow it. It's not fair, but that's the way it is. I have to follow my course."

For a long time they just stood there, looking at each other. Suddenly she looked so alone, and so sad, and that sadness in her eyes melted his heart, making him want to take her in his arms, to reassure her that everything would be all right, that it would all work out.

"I understand," he said finally. "I just...well, you know how Ktan is. It just seemed to me that he was taking you in a direction that maybe you didn't want to go."

"It's all right," she said, patting his arm. "Ktan takes a little getting used to. But to tell you the truth, I think he likes you."

"What?" Willbrand said, truly surprised.

"He's never been this nice to anyone else we've met," she said.

Willbrand just looked at her, finding that hard to believe.

"If the way he's acted toward me is nice, I'd hate to see how he treated everyone else!" he exclaimed.

She gave him a rueful smile.

"No you don't," she said.

"Yeah, I guess that's..." He began.

Suddenly she jumped and grabbed hold of his arm, turning to look down at the water.

"What?" he snapped.

"I don't know!" she said. "Something...something touched my leg."

In an instant his sword was out, poised above the water, thinking back to the river, and all the stories he had heard of monsters inhabiting the ocean. For a moment he half expected some huge serpent to rise out of the water in front of them.

After a moment Merigan spoke again.

"It was probably just a fish," she said. "I'm just being jumpy."

"Maybe," he said slowly. "C'mon, I think we've been in here long enough."

He took her hand, still holding his sword in the other, and walked back to shore. The water was around their ankles when her hand tightened on his and she stopped.

"Again?" he questioned, looking down at the water.

"No," she said. "Not in the water. There's someone here."

He turned to look, just as a number of figures appeared out of the darkness in front of them.