Chapter nine


Willbrand didn't know what to do. They had reached Larmonte's house. Apparently Saramis had already spread the word, for Maldor flung the door open as they arrived. A crowd of people quickly surrounded Ktan. Larmonte, Maldor, Saramis, half a dozen other servants among them, forcing Willbrand to fall behind, in spite of his attempts to push his way forward.

They carried Merigan up into the guest room, Willbrand still trailing behind. The room was so full by the time he reached the door he couldn't get in. He craned his neck to see but he couldn't tell what was going on. He was about to try to force his way through when Larmonte's voice suddenly rose above the others.

"Why are you all standing around gawking? Have you never seen someone who was ill before? Go on, back to your duties!"

With nods of their heads the servants reluctantly filed out of the room, until they were all gone, leaving only Larmonte and Merigan's friends. With the crowd greatly diminished, Willbrand entered the room. Saramis sat on a stool near the bed, his eyes rooted on the floor. Jenya stood leaning against the wall, her face grave. Ktan stood over the bed, even his normally stoic face pale. Beside him was a man the young noble had not seen before. He was short, wearing a dark brown robe held close by a simple length of rope. He appeared about Ktan's age, and he was bald. He was leaning forward, standing over Merigan looking down on her with great care.

Willbrand stopped when he reached the edge of the bed, looking down at Merigan. Her eyes were closed, and sweat covered her brow. Her right arm, where the dart had struck, had swelled up to nearly twice its normal size, and had taken on a purplish hue. She was feverish, her eyes darting here and there under the lids, though she did not open them. Occasionally she would moan softly. For a moment Willbrand almost had to turn away. He hadn't really known any of them all that long, yet in the short time he had, he had come to think of them as his friends, especially Merigan. He didn't want anything to happen to her.

"What do you think, Bronan?" Larmonte broke the silence.

It was obvious he was talking to the robed man, but the man did not reply, nor did he give any indication that he had even heard. He remained where he was for some minutes, carefully examining Merigan, and especially the wound on her arm.

Finally he looked up, his face grave.

"It is as I suspected. The poison of the Doona plant. It is unmistakable."

"Can you help her?" Ktan questioned, his words like an arrow shot from a bow.

Bronan looked Ktan over for a moment before replying.

"I must get some herbs. Perhaps they will help, perhaps not. There are poisons that are both deadlier and faster acting than Doona, but few more painful. Whoever did this wanted her to suffer before she died. But perhaps that may be to our benefit. We have some time, at least."

Ktan stepped forward until he stood only inches from the man, staring down at him with palpable menace.

"Will she live?" he snapped.

Bronan hesitated a moment before answering.

"I cannot say. Most do not."

"But some have?" Jenya said hopefully.

Bronan nodded.

"Yes, some have survived, but not without help. I must get the herbs."

He started to walk past Ktan, but the swordsman's hand suddenly reached out to grab the man's arm, the force of it nearly knocking the man backwards. Bronan turned to look at Ktan sharply.

"Help her," Ktan said, his voice almost a hiss. "Make sure she survives, or else..."

"Ktan!" Jenya said, suddenly standing beside him. She reached out and pulled his arm. It resisted a moment, and then he let go and turned away.

"Forgive him," Jenya said to Bronan. "The girl is his daughter."

Bronan looked from one to the other for a moment, then nodded.

"I must hurry," he said, and then quickly left the room.

Jenya stared at Ktan for a moment, but he did not look at her. Finally she sighed and looked at the floor. She was tempted to chastise Ktan further, but decided against it. They were all upset about Merigan. She couldn't really blame him for acting irrational, or for doing anything he could to see that she lived. But it certainly wasn't going to do any good to threaten the man who might be able to save her life.

Merigan cried out in pain.

Willbrand felt his heart tearing. He had seen people die before. He had killed others in their fights. He had seen Garrik, whom he had known much longer than Merigan, die right in front of him. But somehow it wasn't the same. This affected him more. Garrik had died in battle, in an honorable fight. It had been quick and, Willbrand hoped, relatively painless. But this, this was something else entirely. There was no honor in this, in seeing a young girl suffer before his eyes. To know there was nothing that he could do, that he was helpless. She was too young to die, and beautiful.

Beautiful? Where did that thought come from, he wondered. Not that it wasn't true. He had thought her pretty from the moment he had first seen her, rivaling even Shellana, in her own way, but had not given it much thought beyond that since. He had just had too many other things to worry about. Still, so what if she was? It didn't mean anything, now did it?

Besides, her beauty wasn't important now. He didn't care what she looked like. All he knew was that she was his friend and he didn't want her to die.

"Well, I need to talk to some other people to see if I can find anyone else who can help," Larmonte spoke up, sounding apologetic. "There really isn't anything I can do here anyway..."

"Of course," Jenya said when she realized Ktan wasn't going to reply. "Do what you have to do. We understand."

Larmonte walked slowly out of the room. Merigan moaned again. Each time she did Willbrand felt the knot tighten in the pit of his stomach.

"Can't we do anything for the pain?" he questioned.

Willbrand looked at the others, but no one spoke. His eyes finally landed on Saramis, who had said nothing at all since he had first told them what happened.


Saramis did not reply, nor even look up at him.

"He's not a healer," Jenya said slowly.

Willbrand didn't reply. Maybe he wasn't a healer, but he was a magician. It seemed to Willbrand there must be some kind of magic he could use. There had to be something someone could do.

He looked down at the floor, realizing he was being foolish. Whatever Saramis' talents, Willbrand couldn't expect him to do everything. He didn't know much about magicians, having never met one before, but he was sure they must have their limitations. Besides that, Bronan was getting his herbs. When he got back, he could do something for her.

Where was Bronan anyway, he thought abstractly. He seemed to be taking forever.

The room fell into stony silence, broken only by an occasional moan from Merigan. Willbrand considered himself a relatively patient person, but he had to admit this was excruciating. He wondered what would happen if Merigan should die. They obviously couldn't continue on their quest without her. From what Ktan had told them she was the key to everything. They were trying to obtain the Book of Redemption for her. There would be no point in going after it if she were no longer with them. So what would they do then? Where would they go? Would they even stay together? The others had obviously been friends for years. They probably wouldn't part, but who could tell? And what would he do, personally, if they decided to split up? He had no other friends; he had no place to go back to. Whether Merigan was around or not, he was still a heretic. Her death wouldn't change that. The others had been together a long time, but he was a newcomer. Although he got along with them, it was obvious from the beginning it was Merigan that had wanted him in this group, Merigan that he was closest to. Even if the others stayed together after this, would they want him to stay with them as well? Without Merigan, would he be cast out of this group too, just like he had been cast out of Crotasia? Even though he had confidence in himself that he would find a way to survive, he wasn't anxious to be left on his own.

But that was selfish. It was selfish to think of himself now, while Merigan lay dying. Hopefully it wouldn't come to that. Hopefully, she would live.

The sound of approaching footsteps brought his head up. Bronan reentered the room. He walked swiftly over to the young girl. He placed a cloth pouch on the bed, opened it up and began pulling items out and laying them in front of him.

"It will take me a few minutes to prepare," he said, his voice sounding loud after the long silence. "I'll need some hot water."

"I'll get it," Jenya volunteered.

Willbrand tried to observe what Bronan was doing without getting in the way. The healer didn't seem to be doing much, however, just mashing some herbs in a small bowl. He wanted to ask a thousand questions. What was Bronan giving her? Could he do something for the pain? How long would it be before they knew if she was going to survive? But he said not a word. This was no time to interrupt.

After a short time Jenya came back with a pitcher of water. She put it down on the small table beside the bed where Bronan was mixing the herbs and stepped back. Bronan wordlessly picked up the pitcher and poured some water into the mixing bowl, then stirred it up. Almost immediately a sweet honeysucklelike smell filled the air. Willbrand took a deep breath, inhaling the odor. Almost instantly he felt his head clear, his weariness fall away. He looked at Bronan, wondering just what this herb was. He had certainly never felt anything like that in Crotasia.

Bronan stared into the bowl for a few minutes, then carefully lifted it up and brought it to Merigan's lips. The girl moaned again. Bronan put his hand behind her head, lifting it up to meet the lip of the bowl. She choked and most of the liquid ended up on the blanket covering her. But Bronan persisted and eventually got her to drink some of it.

Putting down the bowl he picked up another and started to brew a second concoction. Willbrand keep his eyes on Merigan, but the potion seemed to have no effect. Not that he thought it would that quickly, but he couldn't help himself. He wanted desperately to know that she was going to be all right.

Bronan continued to mash his plants, adding a little water until it was the consistency of a thick paste and the color of dark chocolate. He then took this and applied it directly to the wound on Merigan's arm. He then wrapped her arm from her wrist to her shoulder in a clean bandage. When he was done with this he stood up, still looking at the young girl.

"I've done all I can," he announced. "If she lives to see the light of day, she'll survive."

No one said anything. Saramis did not even look up. Ktan stared at the man gloomily. Jenya nodded. Bronan glanced at them all for a moment, and then left without saying another word.

Merigan lay still on the bed. She had not moaned since Bronan had administered his potion, nor did she seem in pain. In fact, if it weren't for the bandage on her arm and the perspiration on her forehead, Willbrand could believe that she was merely sleeping peacefully. And though this seemed a very good sign, he still wasn't willing to let his hopes rise.

For a long time no one spoke, or even moved. The only motion in the room was the flickering of the lamp on the nearby table. Willbrand found himself wondering how late it was. It had already been late when they had infiltrated Dason's house. He wasn't sure how much time had passed since then but it had to have been hours. He looked at the window, but it was covered with dark curtains. He could see nothing outside. How much longer until dawn?

Jenya stirred. She walked over and put a hand on Saramis' shoulder.

"You look exhausted. Why don't you try to get some rest? We all should, actually. Merigan seems to be comfortable enough, and I don't think it will do any harm to try to get a couple of hours sleep. There's nothing we can do for her at the moment."

She turned and looked at Willbrand.

"You too," she said. "One person can stay with her, and let us know if there's any change."

Willbrand glanced over at Ktan. Jenya didn't have to say who that one person would be.

After a moment Saramis nodded. Still silent he stood up and walked slowly over to the door, Jenya right behind him. When she reached it she stopped and looked at Willbrand.

For a moment he was tempted to decline. He wasn't anxious to leave. Tired or not, he had a feeling he wasn't going to get much sleep tonight. But he was tired physically, and it would feel good to get off his feet, though he didn't think he was going to stay away for long.

He walked over to the door. Jenya turned and looked at Ktan.

"You will let us know if there's any change?"

"Of course."

They filed out of the room. Willbrand looked back once, to see Ktan standing beside the bed, staring at the girl laying on it, his face, outlined in the lamplight, was expressionless but very pale.

They walked down the hallway, Saramis leading the way. When they reached the staircase he stopped and looked around, as if he didn't know where he was. When Jenya went to touch his arm, he jerked suddenly.

"It wasn't your fault," Willbrand heard her say.

"Of course it was," Saramis said thickly. "I'm the expert. I knew the trap was there. I avoided it myself. But I didn't think. I should have been more careful."

Willbrand looked at Saramis in surprise. He had been so concerned about Merigan, he hadn't realized how upset the magician was about what had happened, and the role he had played in it. But Jenya had.

"Saramis, it was just bad luck," Jenya tried again. "It could have happened to any of us."

"No," Saramis said, with a quick toss of his head. "Not any of us. Ktan would have never let it happen. He's always so careful. Nothing ever surprises him. He's so damn perfect..."

"Saramis..." Jenya said slowly.

Saramis bowed his head.

"I'm sorry. That's not how I meant it. I know I can't compare to him, I know it's stupid to do so. We're different people. But if Merigan doesn't make it, I know he'll never forgive me."

"Saramis, that's not true."

But it seemed Saramis was in no mood to listen to comforting words.

"Just leave me alone," he said, without anger, but with resignation. "I'm going to go outside and get some air."

With that he walked quickly down the steps. He was gone in a moment. Jenya stood silently looking down the stairs for a long time after he was gone.

"What a mess," Willbrand said slowly. He wasn't sure what to say, of if he should say anything at all. They all knew each other a lot longer than he had known any of them. Perhaps this had happened before. Perhaps in a couple of days this would all blow over, assuming Merigan survived, of course. But it seemed like right now, what had happened was straining the bonds that held them all together, and Willbrand wasn't pleased with that. These were the only people he had right now.

Jenya's head lifted. She looked down the hallway a moment, and then into the room beside them, which happened to be Larmonte's library.

"I need to sit down," she said.

Willbrand followed her into the library. Larmonte didn't seem much like the scholarly sort, but Willbrand had to admit the room held quite an impressive store of tomes, at least to him. The young noble supposed that in a city like Pantaglia, this might be considered a rather unremarkable collection, but it was easily enough to rival the largest he had ever seen in Crotasia. Willbrand had to wonder whether Larmonte had actually read all these books or just kept them around to impress people.

Jenya sat down in a chair beside a small reading table. There were two more chairs there, and Willbrand took one for himself. They sat there in silence for a while. Again Willbrand was unsure whether to speak. He didn't know Jenya that well. He wasn't sure whether she would prefer silence or if it would be better to talk. But he had to admit there were a few things he was curious about.

"Nothing like this has ever happened before?" he said eventually, his words cutting sharply through the silence.

Jenya shook her head.

"Really?" Willbrand couldn't help but say. "How long have you been running?"

"Seems like forever," Jenya said slowly. "What is it, more than...fifteen years now? That does seem like forever, doesn't it?"

Willbrand shook his head.

"What?" Jenya questioned.

"I don't know. You've been on the run for that long. The crown is determined to hang you, and yet this is the first time someone has been hurt. I mean, badly enough to die. It just seems...strange."

Jenya just looked at him for a moment.

"I don't know what to say," she replied. "I guess we've just been lucky. And Saramis was right about Ktan. He's the most careful person I've ever met. In all the time I've known him I've never seen him let his guard down. He's an extraordinary man."

Willbrand nodded. He was beginning to get the impression all his companions were extraordinary, in their own way. It almost made him feel like he didn't quite measure up. A feeling he was definitely not used to.

He looked over at Jenya. There were so many questions he still had, about Merigan and her past, about the role the others had played in it, and especially about this 'maiden' thing and Queen Irissa. He had figured eventually he'd be able to get the truth from Merigan, but he was pretty sure now that she didn't know much more than he did. Which left the others. Of the three, he had thought Saramis the next likeliest target to weasel information out of. And that might be true, but this certainly wasn't the time. It might not be the time to question Jenya either. In fact, he wasn't even sure whether he should consider such questions appropriate right now. But he couldn't resist the urge to try to delve a little bit into their background. He would judge how far he could take it from her response. Instead of sitting there in silence worrying, it might be better for them both to talk about something else, at least for a little while.

"What happened to Merigan's real parents?"

Jenya leaned back in the chair, tilting her head back until she faced the ceiling, her eyes closed. Willbrand waited patiently for her to speak, or not.

"I don't know," she said finally. "They're probably dead."

"Probably?" Willbrand questioned. He was a little surprised by her answer. Ktan and Merigan had both told him they were dead.

"It was a long time ago. During a war," Jenya continued. "The countryside was ravaged. Many people were killed. No one counted them; no one identified all of them. They lived on a farm before the battle, and they were not seen afterward. Though I never saw the bodies, I don't see that there's much doubt."

Willbrand nodded slowly.

"What war?"

Jenya opened her eyes, letting them fall upon him. Even though they were both very tired, there was still a sharp keenness in them.

"Are you trying to ply me for information?" she questioned.

Willbrand hesitated a moment, not expecting so straightforward a question. Jenya always seemed to be quick to the point. Her and Ktan both. In royal circles, where courtesy and formality were everything, they would have been considered hopelessly blunt.

But they weren't at court now.

"Yes," he said, deciding that there was something to be said for being straightforward.

Jenya hesitated, then nodded, the look on her face showing she appreciated his honesty. But apparently she wasn't appreciative enough to tell him.

"I'm sure Ktan will fill you in on all the details when he decides to," she said.

Willbrand kept himself from frowning. He had to admit he was a little disappointed, however.

"You don't trust me," he couldn't help but say.

She lifted her head and their eyes met. The clear steely look in her eyes might have cowed a lesser person, but Willbrand did not lower his head or turn away. For a long moment they remained that way, each one trying to take the measure of the other. It was Jenya who lowered her eyes first.

"I do trust you," she said. "I trust you not to reveal us...willingly."

If she thought that would appease him, she was wrong.

"I gave my word back in Keesa that I would not give you away," he said, with more than a bit of pride. "I know you may not think that highly of me, but a Stromond is good to his word. I take what I said as an oath, and I would not break it, no matter what."

Again Jenya paused before responding. When she spoke again, her voice was somber.

"Proud words. And I have no doubt you believe them. And if it were ordinary circumstances, I would have no reservations. But the circumstances are far from ordinary. We're not just fighting any enemy here. Don't forget Irissa is the Queen of Mandaria, and the Imperial Knights are her agent, trained in all forms of combat, and everything else needed to further Irissa or the Kings political agenda, including interrogation and torture. If they caught you, you would talk. And please don't take that as an affront to your pride, or leave you to think I'm under the impression you're weak. It's not that. They could get anyone to talk. Believe me. Variman Vashay can..."

Abruptly she fell silent and turned away, a pained look suddenly appearing in her eyes. Willbrand looked at her in surprise.

"Jenya?" he said slowly.

For a moment she didn't move. Then she turned toward him again, but not before he saw her visibly compose herself.

"It's nothing," she said calmly. "As I said before, Ktan can fill you in on these details when he's ready."

Willbrand said nothing. He had hoped to get a few details out of her, something that would answer at least a few of the questions he had. Instead, if anything, he was worse off now. It was obvious that Jenya wasn't telling him something, but that was nothing new, now was it? He had to admit he was getting tired of being kept in the dark. But it was glaringly obvious that Jenya did not want to discuss this matter any further.

He leaned back in his chair. One thing about Larmonte's house, even the library chairs were upholstered and very comfortable. He glanced at Jenya, but she was staring at the wall. He considered trying to get her to talk about something else, but thought better of it. She didn't look like she wanted to talk anymore, and he didn't want her to think he was just talking to her wholly to pry information out of her.

He looked up at the ceiling above him, the dim lamplight barely illuminating it. With his head back he remembered just how late it was, and how tired he felt. It would be easy to fall asleep in one of these chairs. But he couldn't do that. He didn't think he'd be able to sleep until they found out if Merigan was all right.

And yet, somehow, he managed it.

He woke up with a start, his head snapping up at the sound of a scream.

"Merigan!" he exclaimed.

He leaped up, almost knocking the table over. Jenya was not in the room, but he hardly noticed. He raced out of the room and down the hall. He heard the thudding of feet on the stairs, and got a glimpse of Saramis appearing at the top of them before he plunged into Merigan's room.

Inside he came to an abrupt halt. Merigan was still on her bed. Ktan sat beside her, holding her arms, obviously trying to calm her. But it didn't seem to be doing much good. Her arms were shaking violently. Her whole body, in fact, seemed to be twisting wildly. Jenya stood beside the bed, having come in just a few moments before Willbrand.

Merigan screamed again.

Willbrand felt his fear return once again. The way she was acting reminded him of the man at the farmhouse. And he had died. Was this her death throes?

"What's going on?" Saramis shouted as he stumbled into the room.

Ktan was too busy to answer.

Saramis looked at Jenya, but the expression on her face told him she didn't know anything either.

Saramis stared at Merigan for a moment, and then took a slow step back.

"I'll go get Bronan," he said.

Larmonte suddenly appeared in the doorway. Willbrand could see curious servants gathering behind him, but none entered the room.

Ktan did not reply. Jenya just nodded, her face pale. Saramis went to turn around, but abruptly Merigan stopped. Like a rag doll, she collapsed back down on the bed, her limbs going suddenly limp. Willbrand's face when white as a sheet.

"Is she okay?" he cried out.

It took Ktan a moment to realize she wasn't fighting him anymore. When he did he leaned forward and looked at Merigan.

"She's still breathing," he said after a moment.

"Thank the gods," Jenya said softly.

For a moment they were all silent.

"What was that?" Saramis said.

Ktan shook his head. He looked drained.

"I have no idea. Some kind of fit, I guess. One minute she was sleeping peacefully, the next she was writhing like a snake. And now it seems like it never happened."

Jenya looked at Larmonte, who shrugged.

"I don't know. I've never seen someone with Doona poisoning. Someone alive that is. Maybe that's normal," he ventured. "Part of the healing process or something. "

Jenya gave him a sour look.

"Let's hope so."


All their heads snapped toward the sound of that voice. Merigan lay in the bed, soaked in sweat, looking tired and pale, but her eyes were open.

"Merigan!" her three companions said at once.

She looked around, blinking.

"I had such a nightmare," she said slowly. "What...what happened?"

They gathered round the bed, their worries suddenly replaced by a tremendous feeling of relief.

“You were poisoned," Ktan said. "Don't you remember?"

The young girl looked puzzled for a moment.

"Oh yeah," she said finally. "I remember. My arm..."

She tried to lift her arm to look at it, but a look of pain crossed her face and she lowered it.

"Take it easy," Jenya said. "You've been through hell."

Ktan took Merigan's hand in his own.

"Yes you have," he said. "We thought we were going to lose you. Larmonte found a healer, but we weren't sure if his cure would work."

"You're a strong girl," Larmonte added.

Merigan nodded.

"Maybe," she said slowly. "But I feel pretty weak now."

"That's only natural," Jenya said. "But that will pass. We're just all glad you're all right."

Saramis suddenly stepped forward.

"I'm sorry," he blurted out.

Merigan looked at him.

"For what?"

"For letting you get poisoned, of course," he said, his eyes going from Merigan to Ktan and back. "It was all my fault."

"It's all right, Saramis. No one is blaming you," Merigan said.

"But you should," he pressed. "I let my guard down. I failed. I can never make up for that or..."

Ktan's hand on his shoulder stopped him. Saramis looked at him in surprise. For a moment they just looked at one another.

"It's all right," Ktan said.

Nothing more than that, and yet it seemed like enough. Saramis stood there for a moment, then nodded and stepped back.

Willbrand suspected it hadn't only been Merigan's forgiveness Saramis had been looking for, but he said nothing.

Merigan looked at Ktan.

"We didn't get the book, did we?"

Willbrand was surprised. The book had been the last thing on anyone's mind since this had all happened. She'd almost died, and yet she worried about that? He had to admit the girl had a lot of guts.

"No," Ktan said slowly.

"So what are we going to do then?" she inquired.

He looked at her for a moment.

"Get some rest," he replied. "We all exhausted, you especially. None of us are going to think straight now. We'll talk about it again in the morning."

Saramis pointed to the window.

"Too late."

Ktan looked up and saw the first streaks of light peeking through the curtains from outside.

He shrugged.

"Well, later then," he said with a rueful smile.



By midafternoon they were all up again and once more gathered in Merigan's room. All of them had benefited from the rest, but Merigan especially. She was now sitting up in bed. The color had returned to her face, and though her arm still had a large purplish bruise where the dart had wounded her, most of the swelling had gone down.

Willbrand stood by the window, looking over his companions. Saramis, Jenya and Merigan all seemed to be in especially good spirits this morning, probably as a result of Merigan's recovery, he thought. Ktan, however, seemed as gloomy and serious as ever. Willbrand wondered what it would take to actually get the man to smile. Or laugh. Now that would really be something.

They had just finished lunch. Or most of them had. Saramis was still picking. Larmonte had had his servants bring the food up to Merigan's room, as well as a table and chairs for all her friends. With all that furniture the room was crowded, but no one seemed to mind. Merigan ate like she hadn't had anything in a week, even outdoing Saramis, which was saying something. Jenya walked over to the window and looked out. She could make out the harbor in the distant.

"Now that Merigan is all right, what are our plans, Ktan?"

"Since the book was not at the house, I think we can safely assume Dason has it in his keeping," Saramis cut in. "I take it we'll go after him?"

They looked at Ktan, who sat there looking thoughtful for much longer than any of them thought necessary.

"I think not," he said finally.

That got their attention.

"What do you mean?" Jenya said, a puzzled expression on her face. "If we're not going after him, then what are we doing?"

Again Ktan paused for much longer than seemed necessary.

"I thought we might head east," he said finally.

"East?" Saramis said. "But that's the direction we came from. East to where?"

"Well," Ktan replied slowly. "I was thinking of Killdorn."

"Killdorn?" Saramis said. They all looked at him in shocked silence, Willbrand as well. Killdorn was far to the east. So far in fact, that it was beyond the border of Mandaria.

For a moment they all just sat there looking at Ktan.

"You want to leave Mandaria?" Jenya finally found her voice.

Ktan stared at her.

"Isn't that what you wanted?" he said slowly.

"Yes, but you made it pretty plain that wasn't what you wanted," she replied. "I know what happened to Merigan was hard for us all, but that doesn't mean we should give up."

Willbrand just stood there. Of all the things that had happened to them so far, he had to admit this was a shocker. He hadn't been with them that long, but even so, it was obvious from the start that Ktan was driven, was the one who seemed willing to pursue this through thick and thin, not matter what happened.

"Give up on what, exactly?" Ktan replied. "I've thought a lot about what you said the other day, about my reasons for doing this, and you're right. I have been putting my own desires above those of Merigan. I've been so bent on revenge, on my own personal agenda, that I've been blinded to the dangers I'm putting you all through."

“Ktan..." Saramis began.

"No, it's true," Ktan cut him off. "I just haven't been willing to admit it. This isn't supposed to be about me, it's supposed to be about Merigan. How can I say I'm helping her when I nearly got her killed?"

Jenya resisted the urge to tell him it wasn't his fault. She had known Ktan too long for that. As their leader, he was going to take responsibility for everything that happened to them, even if he wasn't there at the time. And it was true, she had suggested he might be doing this for selfish reasons, but she had never thought he'd actually agree with her!

"We all understand that," she said. "But we're all well aware of the dangers involved here, and we're all willing to accept them. Besides, you said yourself, how can we turn around now, now that we finally, after all these years, have something substantial to go on?"

"Yeah," Saramis agreed. "And what about Irissa? What about those premonitions of doom that guy was spouting back at the farmhouse? If we aren't here to try to stop her, who will?"

Ktan frowned at Saramis.

"You mean the darkness that lunatic was babbling about?" he said. "You actually believed that? Irissa has been Queen for what, going on fifteen years now? And has there been any darkness yet? Has Mandaria been taken over by hoards of evil demons? No. They've raised the taxes; they're oppressed or imprisoned those who opposed them. They treat the common folk like dirt. In other words, not much different from any other Kingdom. But other than that, nothing much has happened. There haven't been any disasters. Don't you think, if she was up to something, she'd have done it by now?"

Saramis thought about that for a moment.

"Who knows?" he replied. "Maybe she's just waiting for the right moment. Or maybe she's not ready yet. I would imagine the kind of darkness he was talking about would take some time. It wouldn't be something you can just conjure up over a weekend. Or maybe she's missing something, like the Book of Redemption."

"All the more reason not to pursue it," Ktan replied. "Dason has had it all this time without her finding out about it. If we interfere, we might just draw her attention to it."

"Uh, no offense Ktan, but it seems to me you're thinking with your heart here and not your head," Saramis said, with a good deal of obvious reluctance.

"On the contrary," Ktan replied, appearing to take no offense. "I think for the first time I am using my head. All I've been thinking about all this time was getting revenge, at any cost. But it's not worth it."

"We don't know that," Jenya said. "I don't know about this darkness thing either, but something's going on. Something that's not good for Mandaria. And it's like Saramis said, no one else is going to do anything, so it has to be us. This is my home, and I'm not willing to just abandon it."

Jenya looked at Ktan, but he seemed unfazed. She wasn't even sure what she was saying. Ktan was right, just the other day she had been arguing the case with him for their leaving, and now, somehow, they had reversed positions. She didn't understand why she was even arguing.

"A lot has happened in the last day," Saramis interjected. "Perhaps we just need some time to mull things over. There's no rush, no matter what we do."

"Capt. Fisher said the ship would only be in harbor a couple more days," Jenya contradicted him. "If we're going to be on it, we have to make up our minds soon."

"Well, yeah," Saramis agreed. "But that still leaves us a day or two."

"I don't need a day," Ktan said. "I've made up my mind. As soon as Merigan is well, we head east to Killdorn."

Willbrand looked at Saramis and Jenya, expecting one of them to object, as he knew he would have himself, if he had known them all better, but neither one of them spoke. Ktan had led them all this time, and he had never steered them wrong. They looked on him as their natural leader, and though they might question his judgment, when he made up his mind, they backed him up.

But he was wrong. At least, that was what Willbrand thought. In spite of the fact that he felt it wasn't his place, and the fact that Ktan would probably dismiss anything he had to say, the young noble felt the urge to speak. He didn't have all the facts, they had kept them from him, but he still felt that Saramis was right; that what had happened to Merigan was clouding Ktan's judgment. Someone had to convince him of it, and if the others weren't willing, then it was up to him.

But he was beaten to the punch.


They all turned to look at Merigan, who had spoken for the first time since the argument started.

"Merigan..." Ktan began.

"No," she repeated, cutting him off. "I know you're just trying to protect me, Ktan. But you're wrong. I don't know how I know, or why, but I do. We have to follow through with this. No matter what you might have thought, this isn't about revenge. It never was. There's more to it than that. Deep down inside I know it, and you do too. Maybe there's a darkness coming, and maybe there isn't, but one thing I know for sure, this isn't something I can run from. Someday I'm going to have to face Irissa. It's inevitable. I can feel it. I know I'm not ready now, and if we run, if we try to deny my fate, I'll never be prepared to face her when we do eventually meet. The only way I'm ever going to have a chance, is if we go on."

They all looked at Ktan for his response, but he just shook his head.

"It isn't going to do us much good to get the Book of Redemption if you end up getting killed doing it," he said.

"I could get killed living on a farm too," she replied. "Yes, I know there's less risk of it there, but it's not like we don't know the risks. You may think you failed me, the both of you," she added, looking at Saramis. "But I'm not dead. We made it through this, just like we made it through everything before this. Sure, we cut it a little close this time, but what do you expect? We can't live all these years on the run without some close calls. I'd say we've done remarkably well to have made it this long before anything like this happened. One close call every fifteen years? By the time the next one comes around I'll be thirty, and we'll probably have accomplished our mission by then."

"I would hope so," Saramis said quietly, but the smile that was forming on his lips disappeared immediately at a glance from Ktan.

"The point is, I'm all right," Merigan continued before Ktan could say anything, "and as far as I'm concerned, finding the book is the only course of action open to us."

Ktan just sat there. He had to admit she made a damn good argument. It had surprised him a bit that she had spoken up. He was used to her following his decisions without question. It was one of the reasons they had made it this far. But she wasn't a child anymore, and it seemed he had to remind himself of that more and more lately. He looked hard at her, but she returned his gaze unflinchingly, and it was obvious she was determined to go on. The look in her eye, even more so than the words she spoke, made him have second thoughts.

"Perhaps," he said slowly. "I have to admit what you've said makes sense. But I don't want anyone to have any illusions. You didn't die this time, but you could easily have. And it could happen to any of us. The more we pursue this the more dangerous it will become. There's no guarantee that any of us will come out of this alive."

"We've known that from the very start," Jenya spoke up.

Ktan turned toward her.

"So you wish to go on?"

"That's what I've been saying," she replied.

"Yes, well, just so we're clear," Ktan replied. "Saramis?"

Saramis looked at him with some apprehension. He wasn't used to Ktan looking for a consensus.

"I've said this was insane right from the beginning, but you're not leaving me behind," he replied after a moment.

Ktan turned to look at Willbrand.

The young noble just stood there. Ktan wanted his input as well? That surprised him more than anything that had happened so far. But deep down inside it made him feel good too. Perhaps after all this time he was finally being accepted as one of the group.

"We go on," he said.

"Looks like it's unanimous," Jenya observed.

"Looks that way," Ktan said. "Very well. But from now on, we're going to have to be more careful than ever. Does everyone understand that?"

"Yes," they all replied. Saramis wasn't sure, but he thought Ktan gave him a quick look as he said that.

For a moment they were all silent.

"All right," Ktan said, all business once again. "Merigan, how do you feel?"

"A little weak," she replied. "And my arm is still sore, but I think I'll be on my feet again tomorrow."

"Good," Ktan replied. "Jenya, get down to the ship and tell Capt. Fisher that we'll be ready to ship out tomorrow morning. I think it's time we took a little trip down to the southern islands."