CHAPTER TWELVE





Josef silently watched as the sun rose. He heard Duncan quietly talking with Christien. Josef doubted Christien had slept much more than an hour the entire night. ‘I shouldn’t be so angry with Christien. But he’s kept this inside him far too long. He’s got to learn to share things.’ Josef knew that he was faced with a hard choice. He glanced over his shoulder as Duncan and Christien approached.

Christien avoided Josef’s eyes and stared towards the mountains. “Hopefully Careen can do something once she returns,” Christien mumbled.

“And if she can’t?” Josef coldly asked.

Duncan casually edged between his friends.

“What do you want me to do, Josef?” Christien kept staring at the mountains. “Artur’s missing, Stefan’s looking for him, and Rik’s got to watch Shi’ar.” He took a deep breath. “You expect me to hand command over to Paolo?”

“Starra and Mikhail can command,” Josef pointed out. “You can’t go without sleep. And you can’t continue this way.” He stared at Christien. “This isn’t just about commanding this garrison, either. It’s also about Elaina.”

“Stay out of it!” Christien angrily whirled around his fists clenching. “You want to do something to help me, Josef? Get that damned Stone out of here! I’ve got two of them to worry about! I don’t need a third!” Before either of his friends could reply, he started down the ladder.

“Duncan, you know we don’t have a choice,” Josef said as they followed.

“I know,” Duncan nodded. “But you don’t have to be so...blunt about it.” At the bottom of the ladder, he called to Christien who hesitated then turned around. Duncan saw Mikhail and Starra approaching and took a deep breath. “Josef’s right even if he’s using a hammer to make his point,” he began. “Why don’t you go to Shi’ar? Our come with me to Woodlands? Just for a while until this all straightens out.”

Even before he finished speaking, Christien was shaking his head. “And what happens here?” he demanded.

Josef loudly swore. Since he rarely did so, he immediately got both Duncan and Christien’s attention. “You don’t have to do everything!” he shouted. “I understand your concerns, Christien! But we’re concerned about you!” He hesitated then glanced at Duncan. “Don’t make me do something I don’t want to do,” he softly said.

“Such as?” Christien stiffened. “You’re not in Rhyane, Josef. You don’t have authority to do anything here.”

“Maybe not,” Josef acknowledged. “But I can make a pretty strong case to those who can.”

“Christien! Christien! Come eat with me!” Paolo suddenly appeared tugging at Christien’s arm.

“Get away from me!” Christien roared as he spun around.

Everyone held their breath as Paolo’s blue eyes painfully widened. He stared up at Christien in shock then slowly backed away in fear.

Christien stared at Paolo as though he’d never seen him before. He slowly realized what he’d done and closed his eyes. When he opened them a moment later, he saw Paolo running towards the stables. “Stay here,” he ordered.

“Why?” Starra blocked his path. “So you can take everything out on a child again?”

“I won’t do that.” Christien shook his head. “Just...stay here.”

Mikhail gave Starra a short nod, and she backed away allowing Christien to follow Paolo. She spun around glaring at Duncan. “What’s going on?” she demanded.

“I’m doing what I can to help him,” Duncan protested. “It’s not my fault he’s so stubborn.” He glanced at Josef. “Or that you have the tactfulness of a rutting boar.”

Josef snorted. “You won’t get anywhere using tact with an Aramis,” he pointedly shot back. He glanced at Starra and Mikhail then began explaining.

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“Paolo?” Christien softly called as he entered the stable. He paused for a moment. “Paolo?”

“Go away.” Paolo’s voice came from the far end where his pony was stabled.

Christien bit his lip as he heard Paolo choking back a sob. “Paolo, I need to talk with you,” he quietly walked forward.

“Go away!” Paolo yelled when he saw Christien approach.

Christien stopped, then stepped back. “I’m sorry,” he gently sighed. Wearily he leaned against a stable door. “I never meant to yell at you. I didn’t even know you were there.” He hesitated. “I was so angry at Josef. He’s right about something, and I don’t want him to be right.”

“Why not?” Paolo petulantly demanded.

“Because if he’s right then I have to do something I don’t want to do,” Christien admitted closing his eyes. “And I’m worried about Uncle Artur. And we may be at war very soon.” He took a deep breath. “But worst of all, a bad man has been trying to impersonate me.”

“What’s that mean?” Paolo slowly peeked around the paddock door.

“It means that he looks like me, acts like me, talks like me.” Christien rubbed his eyes. “He even fooled your mother.”

“He wouldn’t fool me,” Paolo said confidently.

“He uses magic.” Christien glanced over at Paolo. “Levi has magic so I’d really like it if you’d stay close to him. Levi might be able to see through the magic.” Slowly he dropped to one knee. “Paolo, I’m sorry. There’s no excuse for what I did.”

Paolo hesitated then slowly came forward. “You never yelled at me before,” he pouted. “I just wanted you to eat with me.”

Christien started to hug the boy then ruffled his hair. “I know,” he said. He took a deep breath and stood. “Now I have to go take care of some other business.”

“Are you still mad at Josef?” Paolo asked, walking beside him.

“No,” Christien shook his head, automatically shortening his stride so Paolo could keep up with him. “I shouldn’t have been mad at him anyway.”

He saw from Starra and Mikhail’s expressions they’d heard the explanation from Josef and Duncan. “Josef’s right,” he said when he reached them. “I can’t continue.” He hesitated. “Mikhail, you and Starra are in command. The two of can figure out how to divide the responsibilities. One of you need to let Rik know.”

Paolo tugged on Christien’s arm. “Why are you doing that?”

Starra stiffened then relaxed as Christien patted the top of Paolo’s head. “I’m not feeling well, Paolo,” he explained.

“You’re sick?” Paolo frowned, then took Christien’s hand and squeezed it. “Let’s tell Mama. She can make everything better.”

“Why don’t you come with me, Paolo?” Duncan offered seeing Christien stiffen. “We need to find Levi.”

“He was eating,” Paolo confided as he walked away. “He’s always eating.” He glanced over his shoulder at Christien then up at Duncan. “Christien said there’s a bad man who looks like him. That’s why I need to stay with Levi.”

Duncan nodded, a little surprised that Christien had confided in the boy. “Christien’s right,” he agreed. “And you and Levi need to stay where either your mother, Mikhail, or Starra can see you.” He saw the boy frown. “Just until we catch the bad man.”

Slowly Paolo nodded. “I suppose,” he said.

“In fact, Paolo,” Duncan grinned glancing over his shoulder. “I could use your help with something. It’s very special.” He smiled as Paolo quickly nodded grinning widely. “We’ll talk about it before I leave.”

Paolo quickly ran to the table and began eating as soon as they entered. Duncan took Elaina’s arm and pulled her to one side. He quickly explained what had happened. He gripped Elaina’s arm when she paled. “You can’t fall apart now,” he hissed.

“I’m not!” Elaina snapped pulling away.

“Good,” Duncan smiled. “Can you give him something that will make him sleep?”

“Yes,” Elaina nodded. “I’ll make it up now.” She smiled at Duncan. “I’ll stay with him while he sleeps. I just hope Careen can do something about it.”

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Artur shaded his eyes as he slowly brought the horses to a stop.

“What is it?” Adriana quietly asked.

“Riders,” Artur identified.

“Put me on my horse,” Adriana ordered.

“I will not,” Artur shook his head.

“You can’t fight if I’m sitting in front of you,” Adriana pointed out.

“They might not be enemies,” Artur’s eyes narrowed. “Perhaps your grandfather sent someone once that link between the two of you disappeared.”

“They would’ve had to use magic to get here this quickly,” Adriana surmised.

Suddenly, Artur felt the lack of Adriana’s magic. He stroked her arm before pulling out his sword. “You’re staying with me,” he firmly replied. He lay the sword on Adriana’s lap and waited.

Adriana’s fingers found the sharp metal of the blade. She touched it gingerly and took a deep breath. She suddenly felt very helpless and vulnerable. “Tell me what’s going on,” she demanded.

She felt Artur tense behind her. “Wait...wait,” he murmured more to himself than to her. After a minute, she felt Artur relax. “It’s Stefan. With an escort of four men.” He moved the sword away from her. Adriana heard it slide into the sheathe. She slowly exhaled, startled to find herself shaking in reaction. She was surprised when Artur pulled her back against him almost protectively. “And Careen,” he angrily growled.

“I guess Rik overreacted!” Stefan greeted as he reined in next to them.

Artur scowled at seeing Careen who was staring at Adriana. Stefan glanced at the two women curiously.

“We have the Stone,” Adriana said in the direction of Stefan’s voice.

Stefan quickly looked at Artur who scowled in return.

“I’ll let Simon know you’re fine,” Careen said turning her horse away.

“Fine!” Artur exploded.

“She knows,” Adriana wrapped her hand around his fist. “She can tell.”

“Tell what?” Stefan asked his eyes narrowing.

“I’ve lost my both my magic and my sight,” Adriana lightly replied. “Artur is a little upset that I miss the magic more.”

Stefan glanced at his brother’s face and looked unconvinced himself. “I don’t suppose you’re not going to like this either,” he replied.

“What now?” Artur snarled.

“Something’s wrong with Rik and something’s definitely wrong with Christien,” Stefan half-grinned. “Looks like everything is falling on us.” He openly grinned at Artur when he saw Adriana’s hand comfortingly squeezing Artur’s arm. “Have a pleasant trip in the mountains, Artur?”

Artur repressed the urge to knock Stefan from his horse. Instead he glanced over at Careen. “You had to bring her?” he demanded.

Stefan repressed the urge to know Artur from his horse. “Rik thought I might need magic,” he said through gritted teeth.

Artur snorted as his horse moved nervously under him.

“If the two of you are going to start fighting, I’d appreciate it if you’d wait until I get out of your way,” Adriana suddenly snapped.

Artur took a deep breath then lightly squeezed Adriana’s elbow. “Don’t worry,” he smiled coldly at Stefan. “He wouldn’t get even close.”

Stefan snorted then glanced up to see Careen grinning at him. “I told Simon you have the Stone,” she turned to Adriana. “Considering the angry looks these two are giving each other, why don’t you ride with me?” she suggested.

“Adriana rides with me,” Artur said firmly.

“Thank you, Careen,” Adriana ignored him. “I can let you know what happened in the mountains. And Artur and Stefan can discuss...personal matters.”

Artur’s eyes narrowed suspiciously as Stefan helped Adriana onto Careen’s horse. “If things are so bad back in Shi’ar and Elhalyn, perhaps you should use your magic to get us there quicker,” he acidly suggested to Careen.

“There are too many of us,” Careen casually explained. “We’d have to leave some of the group behind since both Rik and Christien insisted on an escort. Who did you plan to leave behind?”

Stefan hid a grin as Artur openly fumed.

Careen calmly met Artur’s glare. “I’ve had to face far more angry and dangerous men than you, Artur Aramis,” Careen softly continued. “I suggest you and I continue this at a more convenient time.”

We’ll discuss it,” Stefan quickly corrected.

“I don’t recall issuing you an invitation, Stefan,” Careen shot back. “I’m perfectly capable of carrying on a private conversation with your brother by myself.”

“Artur has the Stone,” Adriana interrupted quietly. “It must be returned to Dedresia.”

Stefan nodded to the soldiers who formed ranks in front and behind them. “Dedresia gets the Stone?” he laughed. “That’s not going to please Rik.”

“What’s wrong with Rik?” Artur demanded. “And Christien?”

Stefan shrugged his dark eyes narrowing. “Rik wouldn’t say,” he evaded. “And Christien...well, he wanted Careen’s advice about something when we got back.” He grinned at Artur’s expression. “So it can’t be good.”

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Christien smiled as he saw Paolo and Levi following Starra. Paolo was trying to look properly serious about whatever Starra was telling him. Levi gave Duncan a smirking look as he also followed Starra. Christien saw Duncan’s pleased grin and wondered what he had up his sleeve.

Josef and Mikhail were deep in conversation as Duncan waved to Christien before mounting his horse. Josef saw the wave and glanced over his shoulder. He slowly raised his hand in farewell. Christien quickly waved back and Josef seemed to smile in relief.

Reluctantly Christien turned around and walked back to his room. Command of the garrison was out of his hands. Perhaps he should have gone with Josef and Duncan. ‘Maybe I should have gone to Woodlands or Rhyane.’ He looked up frowning when the door opened.

“This will help you relax,” Elaina calmly explained setting a goblet on the trunk next to the bed.

Christien shrugged and turned back to the window.

Elaina hesitated for a moment seeing the tense set of his shoulders. “How long will this lay between us, Christien?” she finally asked.

Slowly Christien looked over his shoulder. “You let me love you when you weren’t sure it was me, Elaina,” he quietly accused. “Next time it might be Lucas.”

“What do you want from me, Christien?” Elaina took a deep breath to control her sudden anger. “What sort of penance are you demanding?”

Christien wearily shook his head. “I don’t know,” he admitted. He slowly walked over to the trunk and reached for the goblet. “All I know is that I would always know it was you.”

Elaina watched as he slowly drained the goblet. “Even now?” she slowly asked. “How are you certain I’m who I’m supposed to be?”

Christien glanced over at her with a half-smile and shrug. “I just am,” he answered. He turned his head suddenly towards the window hearing loud voices outside. Then resolutely he turned away. “Would you please let me know when Stefan and Artur return?” he asked lying down on the bed, his hands folded beneath his head.

“Are you expecting me to beg, Christien?” Elaina stomped her foot. “Because I warn you that I won’t!”

“Of course not.” Christien looked at her in surprise then stared up at the ceiling. “Never mind me, Elaina. I’m obviously not myself and haven’t been lately.”

Elaina slowly walked and knelt by the side of the bed. “You should have told me about your nightmares,” she said. “You stayed awake all those nights, didn’t you?”

Christien shrugged slightly embarrassed.

“Christien, you don’t have to do everything,” Elaina pointed out. Hesitantly, she reached out and brushed his hair back from his face. “You don’t have to live up to anyone’s expectations.”

Christien’s blue eyes narrowed slightly. “Yes, I do,” he answered. “I have to live up to mine.” Slowly he pulled her into bed and held her tightly against him. “Paolo has to go back to Shi’ar,” he decided. “If Lucas can fool you, he can fool Paolo. And he might try to get Paolo away from us. He’d have a harder time in Shi’ar pretending to be me when everyone knows I’m here.”

“Paolo said you told him Levi’s magic would protect him,” Elaina gently stroked Christien’s arm.

“What I said was that Levi’s magic might see though the illusion,” Christien stifled a yawn. “I don’t have any more trust in that mezle’s magic that I do in believing I can sprout wings and fly.” He smiled when Elaina giggled. “I don’t suppose you’ll go with him.”

After a moment’s silence, Elaina quietly answered. “If you think it’s best, I will.” She glanced up to see him looking at her in surprise. “You’ve carried a heavier load than you should have because you tried to protect me,” she explained. “I’ll ignore the fact you shouldn’t have kept it from me to begin with.”

“We’ll talk about it,” Christien felt his eyes closing. “But Paolo should go as soon as possible.” He yawned again. “Wake me if...Starra or Mikhail need anything.”

“I’ll be here,” Elaina promised stroking his arm. She lay quietly as Christien drifted off into a deep sleep.

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“I told you Careen was an ambitious woman.”

“But...how is she doing this?” Devora shook her head. “Why is she doing it to Rik?”

“Because he’s Lord of Shi’ar. You heard him yourself. He brought Careen here and sent Stefan off with her.”

Devora covered her face. She felt the anger rising up inside her as she thought of Careen and Stefan together. And now with Rik’s blessing...“Artur won’t permit it,” she looked up. “He knows it’s wrong.”

“Will Artur really defy Rik for you? Will he defy Stefan? And Christien has allowed Careen to be with Stefan in Elhalyn. Will Artur defy Christien, too?”

“What will become of me?” Devora whispered. “What’s going to happen to me?”

“I can help you. You know I’ll never betray you. But I need your help.”

Devora shivered as warm arms slid around her enveloping her with a sense of protection and love.

“Yes,” she whispered. “I’ll help you.”

----------------------------------------------------------------------

“I apologize if I overstepped my authority,” Josef formally said as he eyed Rik. “But it had to be done.” When Rik didn’t answer, he glanced at Duncan. “Of course, if you feel other measures are necessary...”

“What?” Rik glanced up in surprise then waved his hand. “No, what you did was perfectly correct, Josef. I’m indebted to you.”

“Then we’ll be on our way,” Duncan smiled. “We have a long way to go.”

Rik grinned. “Decided who gets the Topaz of Greed?” he asked.

Duncan flashed a grin at Josef. “We thought about letting our mothers fight over it,” he teased.

Rik roared with laughter. “I don’t know who I’d pick to win,” he admitted.

“It’s going to Woodlands,” Josef smiled tiredly. “It’s further away from Green Hills.”

“Probably a smart decision,” Rik nodded. “I’ll let you know about Christien.”

“Send him to one of us if necessary,” Josef urged. He looked away momentarily. “I didn’t like what I had to do.”

“You’re a good friend,” Rik clapped him on the shoulder. “He knows what you did is for the best.” He chuckled. “If not, he will.” He hesitated. “Give my regards to your parents.”

Duncan hesitated. “I would like permission to speak with you, Lord Rik, about a personal matter once things have settled down,” he requested.

“Of course,” Rik nodded. He looked vaguely curious then shrugged. “At your convenience, Duncan.”

Josef glanced back at Rik as they rode through the main gate. “He doesn’t look well,” he told Duncan.

“You worry too much,” Duncan grumbled although he nodded in agreement. “I think we better hurry. I get the feeling things are moving awfully quickly.”

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Christien heard the hissing of his name. He moaned before he could catch himself. Desperately, he tried to open his eyes when he heard Paolo calling for him. “Run, Paolo!” he yelled.

“Christien! Wake up!”

Christien’s eyes flew open as he suddenly sat up. One quick glance told him he was in his quarters. He took a deep breath and saw Paolo looking at him with wide eyes. The door suddenly flew open and Elaina half ran inside.

Christien forced a smile at her. “I just woke up too quickly,” he explained. He saw Levi peering around her skirts.

“Why should I run, Christien?” Paolo asked.

“I told you not to wake him,” Elaina remonstrated her son.

“He didn’t,” Christien quickly interrupted. He saw Elaina’s concerned look and shook his head. “I just woke up suddenly. That’s all.”

“I woke him up,” Paolo admitted, biting his lip. When Elaina glared at him, he pouted. “I had to. It’s important.”

“Do I smell stew?” Christien half-smiled at Elaina. He glanced outside to see it was almost dark. “I needed to wake up to eat anyway.”

Elaina took a deep breath. “We’ve finished eating,” she told Christien. “I’ll fix you some as soon as I’ve put the food away.” She looked at her son. “We’ll talk later,” she sternly promised Paolo. “Come on, Levi. You can help me.”

Paolo stared down at the floor as the door closed. “I’m in trouble,” he mumbled.

“I’ll see what I can do,” Christien promised. He started to reach out to the boy then sat up in bed. “What did you need, Paolo?”

“I thought you should know what happened today,” Paolo straightened his shoulders. “Just in case Starra or Mikhail don’t see you tonight.”

“I see,” Christien nodded with a serious look. “Why don’t you sit with me while you report.”

Paolo grinned and climbed onto the bed with Christien. “I was very busy today,” he began. “I helped both Starra and Mikhail a lot.”

Christien nodded with a slight smile watching the boy fondly as he told about his deeds of the day. By the time he finished, Christien had the feeling that neither Starra nor Mikhail would voice any objection to Paolo’s returning to Shi’ar. “Sounds like you did have a busy day,” he commented when Paolo finished.

“I’m tired,” Paolo admitted with an aggrieved look.

Christien hesitated. “I need to talk with you, Paolo,” he glanced at the door. “This is between us, you understand.”

Paolo’s eyes brightened. “Ranger to Ranger?” he asked.

“Ranger to Lord of Elhalyn,” Christien smiled.

“I don’t want to be Lord of Elhalyn,” Paolo petulantly shook his head. “I want to be a Ranger. Like you.”

Christien glanced away for a moment. “You are Lord of Elhalyn,” he quietly said after a moment. “But one day Josef will be Lord of Rhyane and one day Duncan will be Lord of Woodlands. And they’ll still be Rangers.”

“I can be both?” Paolo frowned.

“If you want,” Christien hesitated. “You are Lord of Elhalyn by birth, Paolo. You have to earn the right to be a Ranger.”

“I will,” Paolo assured him.

Christien grinned, ruffling his hair. “But for now, I need you and Levi to go to Shi’ar.”

“Why?” Paolo protested. “I want to stay here.”

“I know,” Christien pulled the boy onto his lap. “Paolo, I told you about the bad man.” When Paolo nodded, he continued. “If you’re at Shi’ar, he can’t fool anyone into bringing you to him thinking they’re bringing you to me. You wouldn’t be fooled, but somebody else might.”

“I guess,” Paolo frowned. “Do I have to go?”

“No,” Christien said after a moment. “I won’t make you go. But I think you should.”

“But if I go to Shi’ar, I can’t help Dunc...” Paolo’s eyes widened as he slapped both hands over his mouth.

“Help Duncan?” Christien smiled. “What did Duncan ask you to do?”

”I can’t tell,” Paolo whispered. “I promised.”

“I see,” Christien somberly nodded. “Then, of course, you can’t tell. But if you go to Shi’ar, you could delegate.”

“What’s that?” Paolo asked.

“Something Starra tells me I should do more often,” Christien chuckled. “It means you if you can’t do something, you find someone who can do it for you.”

Paolo thought for a moment. “I guess that wouldn’t be wrong.” He looked over his shoulder at the closed door. “Will you help me?”

“Why don’t you tell me about it?” When Paolo nodded, he pulled the boy back against him. “I really am sorry I yelled at you today.”

“I know,” Paolo snuggled against him. “Mama says I get cranky too when I don’t feel well.”

Christien chuckled, running his hand through Paolo’s hair. “Sometimes your mama forgets you aren’t a little boy,” he suggested.

“I’m not,” Paolo nodded. “I’m a big boy.”

“And I’m proud of you.” Christien leaned back yawning even as Paolo stifled a yawn.

“Really?” Paolo twisted his head to look up at Christien with an angelic smile.

“Yes,” Christien smiled. “Now, how can I help you and Duncan?”

------------------------------------------------------------------

Starra frowned at the folded piece of paper at the foot of her door. She slowly approached it wondering how long it had been there. She was certain it hadn’t been there the night before. She carefully unfolded it. She closed her eyes briefly in mild irritation then read it again.

My angel. Whenever I look upward at night, I think of you and your magical name. For as long the stars twinkle in the dark sky, I will hold you close in my heart. Your devoted servant.

“He’s insane,” Starra mumbled. She read the note a third time then carefully refolded it. She carefully put it away with Duncan’s other note. She was halfway to the dining hall when she wondered how Duncan had put it under her door after he’d left.

------------------------------------------------------------------------

“I did no such thing!” Levi squealed. His short legs helplessly kicked in the air as Starra shook her again.

“Don’t lie to me, little man,” she warned.

“Lie? Me?” Levi looked astonished. “I would never!”

Starra glared at him then dropped him. As he sprawled in the dirt, she glared down at him. “You’d better be telling me the truth,” she warned.

“I don’t know anything about any note!” Levi scrambled to his feet. “As if I’d do Duncan Lorcan any favors!”

“I suppose not.” Starra’s eyes narrowed. She glanced past him and saw Mikhail. Levi took the opportunity to run. “Mikhail!” Starra smiled as she walked forward. “I need to ask you something.”

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Christien stood in the doorway smiling as he watched Mikhail shrug out of Starra’s grasp. He watched for another few seconds as Mikhail argued with her. Then he turned around and closed the door.

“What’s so amusing?” Elaina asked.

“Nothing,” Christien shrugged. He looked around. “Where’s Paolo?”

“Packing,” Elaina smiled to herself as Christien ate another breadcake. “I’m surprised he’s not throwing a fit about going back to Shi’ar. He loves it here.” When Christien shrugged, she put her hands on her hips. “What did you say to him?”

Christien’s eyes twinkled. “We just had a long talk. Man to man.”

Elaina rolled her eyes. “You were both sound asleep when I came back,” she recalled. “In fact, I never did have that talk with him about waking you.”

“Don’t, Elaina,” Christien sat down. “Please?”

“I won’t.” Elaina studied him. “Why don’t you go back to bed?”

“I’m just so damned tired,” Christien irritably shook his head.

“You went so long without rest,” Elaina pointed out. “Your body knows what it needs.”

“The last time I listened to what my body needed, we had a fight,” Christien snapped. Then he suddenly looked up at Elaina. “That’s why you didn’t know it was me, wasn’t it?” When Elaina stared at him, he quickly stood. “Did I hurt you?”

“No, you didn’t hurt me.” Elaina saw the questioning look in his eyes. “You didn’t,” she repeated kissing him lightly on the lips.

“I have things to do!” Paolo yelled as he ran past them.

“Paolo! Did you finish packing?” Elaina called after him.

“Paolo! Find Levi and stay with Starra or Mikhail!” Christien yelled.

“I did! I will!” Paolo managed to yell back before slamming the door behind him.

“He could not have possibly packed in such a short time,” Elaina muttered, heading back to Paolo’s room.

Christien grinned taking another breadcake. He wondered how he would manage to slip outside the next morning without Elaina knowing.

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“But, Mama, you don’t understand!” Paolo protested. “I have to see Christien!”

“You can see him in the morning,” Elaina firmly pushed her son towards his chamber. “He needs to sleep.” When Paolo started to argue, she glared at him. “You heard me, young man. You will not bother him tonight!” She looked around. “Where’s Levi?”

“Eating,” Paolo suddenly smiled. “You know he always helps you clean the table and put away the food.”

“You get right into bed, young man!” Elaina ordered. “I’ll be back in just a few minutes and you’d better be in bed!”

“Yes, Mama,” Paolo muttered with an exaggerated pout. He glared at the closed door and tugged on his boot. He glanced up as the door slightly opened.

Christien looked in with a grin then closed the door quietly behind him. “Your Mama wouldn’t like it if she knew I was here,” he confided. “Now, what’s so important?”

Suddenly Paolo threw his boot at Christien who automatically ducked. “Mama! Christien! Levi!” Paolo began screaming. “He’s here! The bad man!” He threw one of his toys across the room.

“Brat!” Lucas snarled, ducking as the toy soldier came flying his way. He faded away as the door behind him flew open.

“Paolo!” Christien bellowed as he dove across the room. He pulled the boy against him as his hand tightened on his sword.

“He was here!” Paolo pulled away from Christien and jumped onto his bed.

“Paolo!” Elaina cried out rushing into the room followed by Levi.

“I did it!” Paolo jumped up and down on the bed. “I told you he couldn’t fool me!”

“Paolo, calm down,” Elaina pleaded as she tried to take him into her arms.

“He’s gone.” Christien took a deep breath. “Paolo, come here.”

“I told you!” Paolo jumped into Christien’s arms. “He tried to fool me but he couldn’t! I threw my boot at him and my soldier!” He smiled at Elaina. “He called me a brat!”

Elaina took Paolo from Christien and hugged him. “That was very brave of you,” she murmured.

“I was brave, wasn’t I?” Paolo turned to look at Christien.

“Very brave,” Christien nodded as he forced a smile. “But you see why I want you to go to Shi’ar? He might have fooled someone else who wouldn’t believe you.”

Paolo shrugged. “But everyone should believe me.”

“Take him in our room,” Christien told Elaina. “I’d rather we all be in there tonight.”

“Me too!” Levi demanded. “I’m not staying in here by myself.”

“You, too,” Christien agreed with a shrug at Elaina. “Put them in bed with you.”

“Christien, you can’t stay up all night,” Elaina quietly protested putting Paolo down.

“Don’t argue,” Christien advised. “I’ve gotten plenty of sleep. And they’re going in the morning.”

“Did you stop to think this might be what Lucas wants?” Elaina hissed.

“Then I’ll give it to him,” Christien replied coldly. “I said don’t argue with me.”

Elaina angrily whirled around and followed Paolo and Levi to the other bedchamber. Christien caught her just before she entered the room. “Don’t be angry,” he murmured. “I just want him to be safe.”

“I know,” Elaina slowly relaxed. “But I’m worried about you, too.”

Christien kissed her forehead. “Thank you,” he whispered.

------------------------------------------------------------------------

Artur glanced up to see Adriana carefully making her way to him. He quickly stood and walked to meet her. “It’s me,” he quietly told her as he approached. He took her arm and helped her walk to his campfire.

“Do you mind?” Adriana asked as she sat down wrapping a blanket around her. “If you’d rather be alone...”

“I don’t mind,” Artur admitted. “You’ll be much better company than Stefan was last night.”

Adriana slowly smiled. “The two of you did...discuss matters until rather late,” she remarked.

“Discussed!” Artur snorted. “He’s as stubborn...”

“As you?” Adriana glanced towards his voice. After a moment, she turned away. “Let them have whatever time allows them,” she quietly requested. “There may be nothing afterwards.”

“I can’t forget Devora,” Artur shook his head. “A man makes promises. He should keep them...or not make them at all.”

“And suppose promises aren’t asked for?” Adriana leaned closer to the warmth of the fire.

Slowly Artur reached forward and turned her head to face him. He stared into her sightless grey eyes. “Promises aren’t always spoken aloud,” he murmured.

-------------------------------------------------------------------------

Careen stared at the other campfire for a few moments before turning away.

“He’s a fine one to lecture me,” Stefan grumbled.

“He’s not married,” Career curtly pointed out. “You are.” She sat down next to him and stared up at the sky. “I can handle Artur.”

“Is there anything you can’t handle?” Stefan grinned pulling her against him.

Careen suddenly shivered. “A lot of things,” she admitted turning into his embrace. “But I don’t want to find out.”

Stefan ran a finger down her cheek. “No matter what,” he murmured. “I will be with you.”

Careen grinned defiantly. “No matter what,” she promised. “You won’t get rid of me.”

------------------------------------------------------------------------

The sun slowly rose over the horizon. Eldrin breathed the hot air and smiled to himself. It would be a beautiful day, he realized. Just the sort of day that encouraged one to forget any responsibilities and just disappear for the day with his wife and son.

“Eldrin, Eldrin! You frown far too much! You’ll get wrinkles!”

Eldrin grinned as he turned to see Hector coming through the door...literally.

“Uncle Hector, you promised to knock,” Ana smiled reprovingly.

“Oh, I did, didn’t I?” Hector turned around. “Excuse me, dear. I’m so sorry.”

Eldrin grinned as Hector walked through the door...literally. Seconds later, there was a crisp rapping on the door.

Ana choked back a laugh as Eldrin chuckled. “Come in,” she invited.

“Good morning, dear!” Hector greeted as he came through the door...literally. “How are you today?”

“Very well,” Ana gently kissed her uncle’s cheek. “And you?”

“Never better,” Hector beamed. “But Eldrin was frowning again.”

“I was thinking of asking Fawn to go to Shi’ar to check on Lord Rik,” Eldrin glanced at Ana.

“Is he ill?” Hector looked concerned. “Tell Fawn to be careful. We don’t want her getting ill.”

“I’m sure Fawn will take care,” Eldrin assured him. “Is there something you needed, Hector?”

“I was just wondering if I could take Benami for the day,” Hector proposed. “There is so much I’d like to show him.” He lowered his voice to a loud whisper. “And then perhaps you could spend some time with Ana. You don’t want her feeling neglected, after all.”

“Of course not,” Eldrin’s dark eyes twinkled. “Perhaps you should ask Ana. She might have other plans.”

“Other plans?” Hector looked startled. “Ana! Darling! You don’t have other plans, do you?”

“For what, Uncle Hector?” Ana smiled innocently. “I didn’t hear what you and Eldrin were discussing.”

“She doesn’t have other plans,” Hector smugly assured Eldrin. “Now, I’ll take Benami for the day. You know he loves to see all the things I can show him. And the two of you can just loll around and do whatever you want to do.”

“I certainly have no objections,” Eldrin grinned at Ana. “Why don’t the two of you work it out? I’ll go see Fawn and make sure there are no problems.”

“No, no, no!” Hector objected holding onto Eldrin’s arm. “If you do that, you’ll just get busy and not come back.”

“I promise,” Eldrin quickly detached himself. He glanced at Ana. “I do have to see if Fawn will go to Shi’ar.”

“Oh, that’s right,” Hector nodded. He suddenly frowned. “I don’t think Evan will like that. Do you want me to come with you to convince him?”

“No.” Eldrin quickly walked towards the door. “I’m sure I can handle it.”

“If you need me, just call,” Hector encouraged. He looked at Ana. “I do like Evan. But he can be so stubborn sometimes.”

------------------------------------------------------------

“All the Stones are accounted for except the Diamond of Control,” Evan mused. He glanced to where Fawn was packing some of her healing herbs. “That means Leodin won’t wait much longer.”

Eldrin nodded. “I know,” he agreed. “Still, I wish we knew where it would come.”

“With all the emphasis Lucas is placing on Shi’ar and Elhalyn, I’d assume they’d strike there,” Evan’s green eyes narrowed.

“But you don’t think so,” Eldrin stared at his friend.

Evan shrugged. “I know them,” he slowly answered. “I wouldn’t be surprised to see Lucas attack north and Leodin perhaps attack Rhyane from the coast.”

“I think we need to have a meeting,” Eldrin decided. He glanced at Fawn. “Let me know Lord Rik’s condition,” he requested. “Also ask him to get it touch with Elhalyn, Woodlands, and Rhyane about a meeting. I’d like the Lords this time if we can manage it.” When Fawn nodded, he smiled. “Let me know if anything occurs, Evan. I plan to spend the day with Ana.”

Evan grunted as Eldrin left. “How nice,” he half-sneered.

“Don’t be jealous,” Fawn smiled. “He doesn’t spend much time with her as it is.” When Evan grunted again, she lightly kissed him. “Want to come with me?” she asked.

“Call me if you need me,” Evan shook his head. “I have much more important things to do than take the pulse of the Lord of Shi’ar.”



GO TO CHAPTER THIRTEEN



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