The Harpist and her Dragon (1/2)

There was a storm outside, and it made me nervous. I hated thunder, and the constant applause of the rain was just annoying. After I’d gone through my accounts, which had taken twice as long as usual with the distraction of the summer shower all around me, I lay down on my bed and closed my eyes. There was no chance of sleep with that noise outside, but it was good to rest. Eventually, though, I became sick of inactivity and rose again. Taking my harp from the wall, I sat by the window, with my back to the storm, and played something softly. It was, I believe, the ballad of Sorril and Mai. As I watched the harpstrings ripple under my touch, I began to feel a familiar light-headedness creeping over me, like a thread of silver in my thoughts. I did not resist, only let the flashback take me.

“I raise horses, Sati, not dragons.” I was leaning against the shaft of my pitchfork, its prongs buried in the fragrant hay under my feet, returning her placid, violet-eyed gaze with a slightly exasperated look. Clad in soiled trousers and a tunic, my hair tied into a sloppy bun at my neck, I was sweating from the effort I’d been making before my neighbor arrived. “Where’d you get a Shoer-blasted dragon from anyway?”

“I told you,” she replied patiently. “The parents are from Sharaani and can’t get back; they have a nest but no clan to raise the hatchlings, and I’m trying to find homes for all the eggs.”

I shook my head at the name, inadvertently loosing several clumps of hair into my face. “Sati, the wizards at Chul don’t understand Sharaani. I certainly don’t want any part of it.”

“But Tix,” she pleaded, her eyes getting larger as she gazed up at me, “these babies won’t grow up right without individual attention!”

“I can’t afford a dragon,” I said, but of course it was a lie: I’d been planning for some time to add two Schic’qer geldings to my stock and build add-ons for them. If I could afford that, I could certainly keep a dragon. She knew all about my plans, and merely gave me a crooked-mouthed look. “Besides,” I said, weakening, “I wouldn’t know what to feed it.”

She grinned. “Come down here and I’ll tell you.”

With a sigh I slid down the haystack and stood beside her. A gust of early fall wind into her face blew her orchid-colored hair dramatically back behind her and undid the rest of my pathetic bun. “First tell me all about these parents. I mean, are you sure they’re from Sharaani?”

“Of course I’m sure; they told me.”

“Since when do you speak dragon?”

“They’re telepathic.”

“Oh.” I was one of the few who knew about Sati’s mental talents. “So what’s the story?”

“I thought Arran could tell you better,” she said cautiously.

“Arran…” There was suspicion in my voice. “Who’s… Sati, you didn’t bring a dragon here, did you?” She was looking past me. I swiveled and slapped a hand to my face. “Shades of Roneraat, girl! One whiff of him and my whole stable’ll be antsy all night!”

“Arran says hello,” said Sati.

The dragon was about four and a half feet tall and shaped structurally like a cat, except for his long neck and angular head. He sat before me on crouched hind legs, a lizard-like tail curled around him. His front claws were more hand-like that I would have expected, and his wings looked a bit small to hold his weight, but, then, what do I know? One of these was tied up in a sling of sorts. His pointed scales were green, and his huge eyes were bright and yellow. As creatures went he wasn’t particularly ugly, nor was he very attractive. “Hello,” I said, giving myself up to fate. There was something about my odd neighbor that did not let me argue with her for long, even in a friendly way. “Let’s hear this story.”

“Arran says: my mate’s name is Gwen, and we lived until recently in Sharaani, in the human kingdom of Flosho. We were headed skyborn for the nesting-grounds of my people in order for her to lay her eggs when a rift in space opened before us and we came through to your world. When we landed in a forest” — Sati extrapolated that he meant the Roshwood — “my wing was broken and Gwen and I were forced to remain where we were. She laid her eggs there. Now, knowing that the only dragons here are far away and not friendly with humans, we have no way to raise our babies, since to do so requires a clan. Thus Sati has taken it upon herself to find homes for all our hatchlings.” She smiled as she spoke of herself in third person, translating the dragon’s thought-speech for me. “And you really should take one, Tixi. Once it gets older, it’ll be a great watcher for you.”

“I have dogs,” I said in a last-ditch effort to keep a dragon out of my home. We both knew it was futile.

“I know how friendly your dogs are. They’ll welcome another pet.”

“Very well,” I said at last with a long breath. “I’ll take one.”

“Great!” she said. “I’ll bring the egg over today!”

And that was how I got my dragon. It was strange even to think about having a dragon. Of course the dragons of Raharsaa are huge, bigger than buildings even, and live in the Drashier Mountains in the south where they feed on people’s flocks and burn down towns just for fun. There aren’t very many of them. But in Sharaani, our parallel world, dragons are smaller and much more common, like birds almost. I suppose I should explain Sharaani as well, since I’ve come this far. I was going to make this a nice dramatic account and follow all the rules I learned in school for grabbing the reader’s attention and not dumping all the information on them at once, but I guess that’s just not going to happen. You’ll just have to get used to the Tixi Pax style.

Sharaani is also called the Exchange because that’s what it does with us. Every now and then some stranger will appear in a tavern somewhere completely lost and ask for the way to Rholsat or Aanris or some other town no one’s ever heard of. They’ll ask him some questions and eventually figure out that he’s from Sharaani and got here when he saw what looked like a giant black rip in the air and accidentally stepped into it. Then one of our people will disappear, and the next person who comes from Sharaani will bring news of him or her. Nobody knew at the time I got my dragon why these random rips in space occurred, and the wizards had found no way to duplicate them. Thus, rather needless to say, the chances of someone seeing two in a lifetime were fairly small, and those who were carried off to Sharaani, or brought here to Raharsaa, never got back home again. So you can see why I was slightly worried about taking in a dragon from Sharaani. You never knew what might suddenly trigger a rift and pull me away, forever, from everything I knew.

She did come back later that day. Sati, I mean. I could always tell when she was coming, for she was one of the few people I knew for whom my dogs would give their happy-bark, and the only person I knew who had brilliant white skin and black-streaked purple hair. She looked ethereal, almost. I opened the door and called my dogs away, beating my flour-covered hands on my apron as I did. I’d just recently given my cook the bag since I’d caught her in my wine cellar less-than-lucid, and so was stuck with the extra chore of cooking dinner for the hired men. I was so overworked it wasn’t even funny. And here I was adopting a dragon, for Shoer’s sake! Shoer is the capital of the kingdom, by the way, and if you wonder why I swear by it, don’t ask because I don’t know. The kingdom’s name is Kopier.

Anyway, Sati was coming up the walk to the front door of Thesar carrying a large brown egg, spotted with off-white. I sighed and smiled at her. “So this is my baby dragon,” I called, then shouted at the dogs again. They were excited by the smell of the egg, I guessed, and thought Sati was bringing them food.

“Actually, this is an egg,” said Sati with a laugh, which is just what I had expected. “It won’t hatch until tomorrow.”

“And what will I feed this small thing?” I asked, worrying momentarily what I’d gotten myself into: having forgotten to inquire farther about a dragon’s eating habits earlier, I had never discovered whether or not the thing would need special food or something.

“Give it whatever you feed your dogs until it can fly,” said Sati as I prohibited the entrance of those particular animals with my foot and shut the door behind her. “Then it’ll find its own food. Wild rabbits and such,” she added as she saw the worried look on my face. I have a pig and a few chickens.

“Did you find homes for all the other eggs?” I asked, wondering: what effect would a set of baby dragons have on her trade?

“All but two.”

“How many were there?”

“Eight.”

“Mailiw’s ghost! How did you find that many people?”

“I’ve been looking for a few weeks,” she said. “You were the last.”

I gave her a mock-accusatory look. “Sati, your own neighbor!”

“Well, I knew you’d be the easiest to convince, so I saved you.”

“Unh!” I put my hands on my hips and gazed around the cluttered room. I hadn’t tidied up in a while, with all the extra things I’d been doing lately.

“I don’t suppose you need any help around here, do you?” she asked as she followed my indifferent gaze around the room.

“Not really,” I said affably. “I complain ’bout the extra stuff, but I’m going to hire another housekeeper as soon as I can. Thanks, though.”

“Cause if you need help, I can always come over. Gwen and Arran can take care of two babies just fine.”

I waved her inquiry away. “No, thanks,” I said, and meant it. She had things to do just as much as I did.

“Well, here’s your egg. Put it on some cloth by a fire. You’re going to hate this, but it’ll have to be turned once an hour.”

I swore with an oath slightly more serious than naming the capital or calling on the dead king Roneraat or queen Mailiw. “Every hour?” She smiled innocently, eyes glowing. “All right.” I took the egg, which was a great deal heavier than it looked. “Wow, this thing’s going to be big.”

“Thanks, Tix,” she said sincerely. “I really appreciate this. So do Arran and Gwen.”

“Well, you know how I love surprises,” I said dryly. “I’ll take good care of… it. When it hatches. Is it likely to stay with me forever, or run off once it’s full grown?”

“I’m not sure about that,” she said, brow furrowing. “I’ll have to ask Arran.”

Suddenly I remembered my quiche in the kitchen and balked. “Oh, my idiotic meal,” I gasped. “I hate cooking.”

“I’ll leave now,” she said with another smile. She smiled a lot.

“Sorry to be rude,” I apologized. Though Sati and I had never been best friends, I liked her all the same and didn’t want to offend her. Though I never had heard of Sati being offended by anything.

“‘S all right,” she said, and walked to the door. “Remember, if you need any help or anything, I’m just down the lane.”

I nodded. “I will.”

“Thanks again,” she said.

“Ma’am! Mistress Pax!” I shook myself, realizing the memory had receded. Standing shakily, I reeled towards the bedroom door.

“What is it, Luiti?”

“Ma’am, Isolia won’t come when I call her.”

“I’ll get her,” I said. Luiti was always a bit too passive when it came to bellowing pet-names into the rain. I headed for the front door, smoothing my wrinkled tunic as I went and untwisting the chain around my neck to right the silver and green amulet. I opened the door and got a gust of wet air in my face. I stepped outside to avoid soaking the front hall. “Isolia!” I called at the top of my lungs. “Come inside! Isolia!” There was no response, and I could not see three feet through the rain. With a snort of annoyance I went back in. “Get my cloak,” I told the worried housekeeper as I pulled my boots on.

Stepping into that mess of swirling rain took a bit of courage, but once I was there it was not so bad. Not so bad as some things I’d done, anyway, but it was up with them on the list. So I picked my way along the muddy path to where it turned into the stable yards, thinking Isolia might have hidden from the storm with the horses. Not good for the horses. Suddenly the rain began to weave together into one silver sheet of confusion, and the fence post before me became very real. Why in the name of Roneraat did I bring this Shoer-slighted harp? I wondered as I clutched at it. I struggled to remain standing while the dizziness swept over me and I had another flashback.

Standing upright, I added the newest honeysuckle to my bouquet. I didn’t know why I was in such a flowery mood, but wasn’t about to argue with silly urges when my only witnesses were horses and a dragon. All I needed now was a flowing dress and long wavy hair to billow and spread behind me in the wind. But ranchers don’t wear dresses and my hair is straight as a board. I looked around, smiling: it was a beautiful day, and the horses were certainly enjoying their romp around the flower-filled meadow. It was near the center of the Roshwood and quite a trek

After the egg had hatched — a singularly unpleasant experience for my callow self — the dogs had wanted first to baby and then to play with the little lizard-like creature, blue-eyed, with which I now had to deal. After I’d had Sati confirm the dragonette’s sex, I named her Isolia and tried to hire another housekeeper. It had not been particularly easy to find one who was willing to work in a house with a dragon from Sharaani, but you know what people will do for money.

Then for the next half year Isolia had grown, and grown, and grown, until she was almost fully grown. The dogs loved her, the horses withstood their terror in her presence with much coaxing. I liked her, I must admit. She followed me everywhere.

It was this that made me wonder what was going on when she suddenly disappeared into the trees, looking almost wild with excitement. Perhaps she saw a deer, I thought. Tucking my bouquet into my belt, I followed her leisurely, though with a certain amount of caution: the Roshwood has around it a number of odd legends which I’d never believed until I found myself in possession of a dragon from Sharaani. Not to say that I really believed them now; but I did feel more ready to admit them the causes of the undeniably strange things that periodically occurred in the area.

I followed the crunchy sounds of Isolia’s passage into deeper and deeper brush, the forest growing twilight-dim around me with the thickening trees. Annoyed, I called out my dragon’s name and ordered her to come back; but she seemed always to run faster. After several more minutes of this, I stopped. Let the little weasel come back in her own good time, I thought. The crashing noises before me also stopped. As a matter of fact, all sound in front of me had ceased entirely. Behind, faintly, I heard the rustling of leaves in the wind and the chirping of birds and crickets. But ahead all was silent, unless it was for, perhaps, a hint of voices as if from far off. I also became conscious at that moment of the light that bathed the forest around — a strange purple tint that seemed to glow from some point ahead, turning the enforced dusk into eerie, artificial day. I pushed forward through the dense trees and came into the light, if you will. Sharaani, was my only thought.

A novelist once write a book about Sharaani called The Rip in the World, and she was right. It was this black tear shining purple at the edges, looking for all the worlds like a place where reality had just been torn away. It seemed to suck sound into it as well, though now standing before it I thought I could hear from its depths forest sounds, soft, similar to those that should have surrounded me. I also heard voices, far-off and nearly inaudible, so indistinct that I could make out no words.

I had no doubt — no doubt whatsoever — that Isolia had gone straight through this doorway into whatever lay beyond.

I stood there glumly for a while. I really was going to miss my stupid dragon, though Sharanni was where she belonged. After several moments the thought hit me that someone should be told about this portal; perhaps something could be done. I looked around, realizing I had no idea in which part of the Roshwood I was. Suddenly, a shout issued from the rip and startled me half to death. Of course, it didn’t even reach normal speaking level on my side, but the pained surprise in the woman’s voice left little room for debate as to its volume over there.

I think it must have been the surrealism of my situation combined with the vague familiarity of the voice and my nerves already on end that drove me in; but whyever in Mailiw’s name I did it, it was done: the moment I head that pleading voice I darted forward, hands outstretched, and plunged into the unknown.

I was in a forest, very like the one I’d just left. Stumbling into a tree before I caught myself — I’d expected more resistance in the portal, but it had really been like walking through a doorway — I looked around after a moment for the rift. It was not there, but the voices were much closer now. Shouts and grunts met my ears as if a fight were going on nearby. That voice was there, too — it had to be… whoever she was — and I was determined to help. My heart still beating rapidly from the excitement of this entire business, I moved towards the sounds.

Now, I’ve had my share of fistfights. Being the youngest of six, all brothers except me, taught me early to defend myself from what was for them good-natured play-fighting but which was for me somewhat dangerous. Then, too, I’ve had to deal with the occasional highwayman seeking a couple of nice horses and thinking I was an easy target. This is not to say I’m the be-all-end-all in a slugfest, but I certainly can hold my own; every good rancher can fight, my father used to say.

This situation didn’t look too bad: two thin, scruffy men against a very nicely-dressed, quick-moving woman with dark hair. She was the voice, I knew — a rich traveler, perhaps, set upon by these bandits — but there was something familiar about her. I tried to catch a glimpse of her face as she dodged and ducked her way around the other two, but she was moving too quickly. I darted out and knocked one of her dirty attackers soundly on the back of the head, sucking in my breath at the pain of fist meeting skull. The man turned in surprise and took a swing at me, which I barely managed to dodge. I aimed a blow at his shoulder and got a kick in the knee before I hit him, losing all the force from my arm.

Stumbling backwards, I regained my balance in time to meet the bandit’s charge with a heavy punch to his chest. I sidestepped his flying fist and watched as he stumbled just as I had. My next hit was better aimed. Before I connected with his face, though, I caught a glimpse of Isolia behind him and smiled. She whipped her tail forward, even as my balled hand met the man’s cheekbone with a crack, and rapped the man’s ankles out from under him. He fell with a look of pain and surprise as Isolia darted out of the way, and I looked around for the woman I was defending. My eyes met her back, but then my left knee gave way. The bandit Isolia and I had knocked over was on me in an instant, wrenching my arm up behind me as far as it would go (which was, incidentally, pretty far; I’m rather flexible) and punching me repeatedly in the back. I struggled to get up, but soon his blows found the more sensitive areas at the base of my skull, and my struggles stopped.

The rain awakened me… …no, that was just the storm. The flashback had ended, and I was on my knees beside a fencepost holding a harp to my bosom as if it were the most priceless thing in existence. Climbing to my feet, the rainwater and mud running down my already-soaked leggings, I attempted once more to pierce the rain with my not-so-superior night vision. Clambering carefully over the rain-streaked slats of the fence, I headed for my original destination, the stable, fervently hoping no more flashbacks would take me before I found Isolia.

“Isohhhhhlia!” I called into the horse-smelling darkness, squelching the urge to calm my frightened animals. Stepping fully into the building I closed the door behind me, desiring peace for just a moment. The rain’s irritating drum on the roof and walls was certainly provoking still, but at least for the moment it was not drumming on me. Isolia was obviously not in here; rain and thunder would alarm horses this much, a dragon much more. With a sigh, I shook the rainwater off my harp — a futile gesture, I know — and stepped back into the storm. Running the length of the stableyard, and luckily only slipping two or three times in the rain-churned mud, I found the fence at the other side that separates the yard from a cropped-grassy embankment sloping down to the lane. As I switched the harp from one hand to another, I accidentally drew my fingers across the strings, rippling a wave of storm-drowned sound inaudibly into the chaotic night. I swore loudly, though my voice was nearly lost in the after-rumblings of a thunderclap. If the previous events of this evening were any indication, I was particularly susceptible to flashbacks tonight. Strumming the harp would only bring on more. I determined to wait it out here rather than risk going out into the lane and possibly collapsing under someone’s carriage wheels. But I stood against the fence for so long, enduring the uncomfortable torrents as best I could, I began to think I was done with flashbacks for now at any rate. Slowly I pulled myself up onto the fence, and then of course it came. Frantically I tried to climb down before I was gone completely, but my body was falling too fast. I felt my hands’ grip relax and then the memory took me.

I lay on my back securely bound, bare wrists already chafing in the tight ropes. The light to which I opened my eyes gave me a sudden, pounding headache, and a pang of hunger twisted my stomach. “Roneraat and Mailiw,” I groaned, regardless of who might hear, squeezing my eyes shut and attempting to hold still.

“What did you say?” she gasped from behind me. It was the voice, the rich stranger to whom I’d been so useless. Pain or not, I had to see her face. She was only just behind me, to judge from the sound, so I struggled into a sitting position and scrabbled myself around to look at her. My next oath is not repeatable, for my fellow prisoner, stripped of her rich clothing and clad now in rough, dirty linen; bruised, broken, bound as tightly as I; the woman I’d left my world, come to Sharaani, to protect — the woman beside me was none other than Haering of Chul, crown princess and heir to the throne of Kopier.

I choked out, “Your hiiieee!” and ended in a shriek as she kicked my ankle sharply.

“Quiet!” came a savage command from nearby, and turning I saw a bandit, apparently our guard, reclining against a tree with a knife at his side. I glared at the princess.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered harshly, “but you realize what they’ll do if you call me that?”

Still annoyed with her for my stinging ankle, I responded, somewhat surly. “All right. Haering.” She nodded her pretty head with its mussed dark auburn hair, and I looked away; she had a black eye. I took the time, rather than speak again in anger, to look around at what was apparently a camp. We lay a little way off from the large fire pit in the center of an oblong clearing. Around the edges were perhaps twelve tents, square, many with their front flaps rolled up to revealed raised wooden slat platforms holding a couple of padded cots and often a chest or two. At one end of the clearing, near where our anything-but-alert-looking guard rested, stood a wooden shed-like hut, weather-worn and sturdy. Gazing upward, I guessed it must be about noon, for the sun was directly overhead. Above to either side were the impossibly steep, tree-covered sides of the narrow ravine in which these brigands obviously felt themselves perfectly safe. Turning back to the princess, I whispered, “You are the last person I thought to meet here.”

“I didn’t exactly expect to find myself here,” she responded. “Who are you?”

“Tixina Pax, from Lottingdell-Roshwood. I’m a horse rancher.”

“Pax? I know your brother, then.”

I nodded briefly; Saquell, the second oldest, was at Chul studying to be a wizard. Though the Wizards’ Academy and Kopier University are technically two different institutes, they are in the same set of buildings; so it was no surprise that the school-going princess should be acquainted with my wizard initiate brother. “So what do we do now?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” she responded glumly. “These fellows are slave traders and bandits of the worst kind.”

“How do you know?” I asked, shocked.

“They failed to knock me out,” she replied. “I kept fighting after you were struck down, until more of them arrived and subdued me. I’ve had to listen to their vulgar jaw since last night. Most of them are gone off now, to do whatever they do during the day; they’ll be back tonight, no doubt.”

I sighed. “So how do we get away?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” she said again. “I’ve no idea.”

“Does the guard ever change?” I asked.

“He has not moved more than twice all morning,” Haering said.

“Well, do they go to sleep at night?” I asked.

“They leave a guard out at night as well,” she responded.

“Well, don’t you have any ideas?” I asked, frustrated.

“About what exactly should I have an idea?” she demanded. She was apparently very frightened, more than was I, and I determined not to ask her anything more.

“Don’t worry, I’ll think of something,” I said. However, long monotonous hours passed and not an idea had come to my mind. The day dragged on, darkening immediately a few hours after noon when the sun fell beyond the lip of the ravine, with the occasional brigand coming and going, and I began to rethink the opinion of our guard. Though he remained fairly lazy-looking throughout the day, there was a wariness to him I had not observed at first, and he never went to sleep or left the camp. No hope there, then. I would have to see what the night guard was like.

Haering didn’t speak much, and I became more and more convinced that she was terribly frightened. I suppose the thought of being a slave was even more repulsive to a rather pampered royal university student than it was to me. I decided to try to lighten the mood a bit. Looking around, I commented on the first thing I saw — whispering, of course. “This ravine’s pretty, isn’t it?” As soon as the words were out of my mouth I wished I could take them back: I doubted the princess would be able to see the beauty in the area of her captivity. But she surprised me by saying immediately,

“Yes. The way the shadows fall into it and make the trees on the sides seem, by their shadows, to be double — that is lovely.”

I lowered my brows. I certainly hadn’t observed the tree-shadows, at least not like that, and admitted as much.

She sighed. “I enjoy painting,” she said. “I notice things like that.”

“Do they let you study such things at KU?” I asked curiously.

“Yes, we have art instructors there. Saquell paints better than I do, however. Sometimes I suspect him of using magic for it.”

I laughed softly. “Of course. He probably just wants to show you up. He couldn’t care less about art.”

“And you?”

I shrugged. “I like music. I’ve never really tried my hand at painting.” We fell silent, but I thought the tension had been loosened.

When the darkness became serious, our guard lit the fire. Brigands began returning to the camp in earnest, one at a time mostly, occasionally bearing chests or backpacks. One set up a large pot by the fire, not throwing us a glance like the rest of them, and began to cook something that smelled sickeningly good. I was becoming frustrated with the entire situation: no one so much as looked at us, and my back was tired from sitting up with my legs to the side. The princess had not said a word all day, and I guessed she was still frightened out of her wits. That’s what came from being a college girl, and a royal one at that: never fought a man before yesterday in her life, probably, and certainly had never had to deal with wolves or coyotes trying to get at her horses or chickens. She was beautiful, though.

A man came striding through the camp then, clad in mail unlike his patchworked group. The sword hanging at his belt was longer than the short blades of the rest of his people, and the sheath appeared actually to match the weapon. He stopped just in front of us and looked down. “Somebody come feed these,” he ordered. “Kelvin do it.” That was all. No greeting for us, no insults. Better than it could have been, and worse. With that level of disinterest, I didn’t think I was in danger of rape any time soon, but if they would talk to us we might find some weakness we could use to escape. But nobody spoke a word to us. At least, not until Kelvin arrived.

“Hello,” he said, crouching. “I’ll bet you’re hungry.” Looking over his shoulder he shouted. “Tiner! Vasey! Get over here and help me!” He addressed us again. “Now, I’ll untie your hands so you can eat, as long as you don’t try to escape. If you do, Tiner and Vasey’ll stick you.” He had a gentle voice, and his face in the firelight looked more refined than that of anyone we’d seen so far, especially the two great men that appeared at his back. Without a word they took their places at either side of us, short swords drawn. Kelvin knelt behind me and I felt practiced fingers loosing the ropes that bound my poor wrists. Shaking my hands out in front of me at last, I tried to rid them of the odd tingling that came from bad circulation, then rubbed my sore arms that had been pulled behind me all day.

“Thank you,” I said inadvertently, realizing the next moment that being polite to my captors might not be the best idea in the world.

“You’re welcome,” Kelvin said as he untied the princess. I looked at him more closely. He had high cheekbones and wispy blonde hair, and his face was bruised multiple times as if he were often struck. I wondered what his status among the brigands was. “I’ll get you some stew and bread — we don’t starve prisoners who are destined to be slaves, after all.” I imagined that as he spoke the word ‘slaves,’ his lip curled up into an expression of disdain. At what this emotion was directed I could not tell, but I stored the gesture away for future reference.

Haering sat up, rubbing her wrists and glancing apprehensively at Tiner and Vasey. “Still alive, Tixina?” she asked, somewhat less despondently than I might have expected.

I grimaced. “Tixi,” I said firmly. “Looks like we get to eat after all.”

“Shut up,” said one of out watchers — whether Tiner or Vasey, I could not tell — and kicked me. I almost fell over, hip smarting, and took a deep breath before sitting up fully again. No use mouthing off to someone who could so easily kill me.

Kelvin came back with a large bowl of stew and a small loaf of hard bread. It smelled so good I thought I’d die if he didn’t hurry. “Here you go,” he said, “and don’t fight over it.”

There were two wooden spoons in the bowl, and the bread was easily broken in slightly uneven halves. I gave the princess the large portion, and set to on the stew with a vengeance. It took me a moment to realize that her highness was not eating, but was staring at the food with a blank, slightly dismayed expression.

“You’re not going to do yourself any good if you don’t eat,” I hissed at her. She nodded, and with a look of distaste at the bowl joined me in my efforts at emptying it. So that’s her problem, I thought: the food’s not good enough for her. Well, at least she’s not complaining. She rose a great deal in my esteem, just for that.

When we had finished eating, Kelvin returned to take our dishes. “I’m sorry,” he said jovially, “but I’ll have to retie you.”

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