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The girl stepped an involuntary pace forward, fascinated in spite of herself. Her eyes were bright with mingled fear and excitement, and her curly hair damp with nervous sweat. Alara looked straight into her eyes, and thrust a bony finger at her.
‘Hear the words of the Prophecy!’ she shrieked, as the girl jumped back. ‘Hear them and heed them!’
‘Jena! What’s going on down there?’ a deep female voice scolded from the top of the staircase.
Young Jena jumped again, and went pale and frightened. ‘N-nothing!’ she called back.
‘Then who the hell are you talking to?’
‘I – uh –’ The girl looked at Alara in confusion; Alara remained silent and statue-still.
‘Get your rump up here now, girl!’
Jena looked helplessly at Alara, and scampered up the stairs as fast as her legs could carry her.
But when she came back down, trembling with fear, the kitchen overseer behind her, there was no sign of a mysterious old woman. In fact, there was no sign of anyone at all.
But there was one extra wine cask, if anyone had bothered to count …
And shortly thereafter, twenty or thirty witnesses, including two elven overseers, saw a Great Kite launch itself from the roof of the manor. It rose into a bloody sunset, wings blotting out the sun itself, screaming doom down upon the Clan of V’Larn.
That was fun, Alara decided, even if the rest of the Lair would have had a fit about the shaman risking herself like that.
The elven lords suppressed the Prophecy and those who spread it whenever they could – but the best way to spread something is to try to outlaw it, as they found to their frustration. It was hard to do anything about it when it was being spread by old men and women who vanished into thin air – and the more they punished those who had listened to the forbidden words, the more others wanted to hear what was so dangerous.
It was just one more way to make the lives of elvenkind a little more uncomfortable. The elves hated and feared the Prophecy, not the least of which because there was a germ of truth in it.
It was not commonly known, but elves and humans were cross-fertile. The offspring were relatively rare, even when contraceptive measures were not being taken, but there had been halfblood children in the past. And those children, like many hybrids, had gifts that surpassed those of their parents.
That was why the elves controlled the fertility of their slaves through contraceptive measures in the very food they ate. Breeding was permitted only under the eyes of the overseers.
Humans had magic of the mind; speaking mind-to-mind across vast distances, reading the thoughts of others, seeing things at a far distance, or in the past or future, or manipulating and moving things without the use of their hands. Elves had magic as the dragons understood the concept, for dragons had the magic of shape-shifting and a few other, minor abilities. Those who became shamans tended to have the ability to read thoughts, but not to the extent that talented humans or halfbloods could.
But the children of mixed blood had both human and elven magics, and the human mental gifts tended to amplify their abilities as magicians.
‘Wizards,’ the elves called the halfbloods, and attempted to use them in their own never-ending feuds with each other. But the wizards were not helpless creatures like the human slaves, and used their own magic to win free of their masters.
Right then the elven lords should have welcomed the wizards into their own ranks, Alara thought cynically. That’s what I’d have done. There’s nothing like a life of luxury to make thoughts of revolution melt away like snow in the sun.
But the elves didn’t; instead, they panicked, and tried to destroy their halfblooded offspring.
So the Wizard War began, with the wizards ranged on one side, and the elven lords and their slave armies on the other.
The dragons entered the world before the Wizard War and the defeat and destruction of the wizards, but for the most part were too busy with their own establishment to pay much attention to the goings-on across the desert. Later, they became aware of at least some of what had happened through faulty, faltering, human word-of-mouth and through elven history, and through the memory of those few of the Kin who did pay attention to the elves’ troubles – most notably, Father Dragon.
As a result of that War, halfbreeds were hated and feared, and if by accident a human woman were bearing an elven lord’s child, she and the child would be put to death as soon as it was known.
Alara wasn’t sure where the Prophecy came from, if it had been created by the Kin or was something one of the Kin picked up and decided to use, but it certainly kept the elves nervous …
And by now, between the disappearance of his ‘bride,’ the re-emergence of the Prophecy among his slaves, and the Great Kite appearing as an omen of disaster, Lord Rathekrel was probably paralyzed with rage. That had been several months ago, long enough for word to spread among the other elven lords and give them time to complete plans of their own for him. And meanwhile, a dozen of the other power brokers were undoubtedly jockeying for position, hoping he’d fall.
It was about time for a Council session. If he was thrown out of his Council seat for incompetence, that would upset the balance of power. The elves would all be too busy trying to find a compromise candidate to pay any attention to what went on out on the borders, which should make it safer to hunt this way for a while, and those rumors that Rathekrel had seen dragons were going to be completely discredited –
Which was what she would tell the others if they ever found out what she was doing. But she would have done it all anyway. Elves deserved to have trouble visited on them, the hateful creatures.
Still, none of this had anything to do with the meditation she was supposed to be doing. In fact, she’d actually been distracted enough that she had shifted form a little, allowing her tail to move a claw-length. She gave herself a mental shake, and tried to settle down again.
But something had entered the immediate vicinity, something that was not a dragon. She felt its – her – presence.
She abandoned all thought of mischief, and all pretense at meditation, as a human female staggered from behind the wall and fell against her side.
Alara shifted back quickly, all but a very thin veneer of her surface. She still looked like a rock, but now she had eyes and ears, and she employed both cautiously.
The woman, heavily pregnant, moaned and got to her hands and knees, crawling towards the water. This was not the sort of desert traveler Alara would have expected; the woman was young, unscarred, burned red and blistered by the sun, and the clothing she wore was of delicate silk, fit for a boudoir, but hardly for desert travail. Her long red hair had been looped up in a series of elaborate braids; now half of her coiffure hung down in her face, and the rest was a tangled mess. Her feet were bare, the soles burned and cut, but she seemed oblivious, so delirious she was beyond pain. Even as Alara watched, she fell again, but not before she had reached the pool.
She dragged herself to the water’s edge, put her face down into the water, and lapped at the cool liquid like an animal. And the moment she touched the water, there was a sharp click.
The woman clawed at her neck, and an elaborately jeweled slave-collar came away in her hand. She dropped it unheeded beside her, and sank back on the stones, exhausted.
Alara’s attention was caught and held by the sunlight winking on the gems of the neckpiece. All humans wore slave-collars, but she had never seen one this ornate. Easily a thumb-length wide, it seemed to be made of solid gold, with emeralds, sapphires and rubies arranged in a series of geometrical patterns all around it. Her acquisitive soul hungered for it; no dragon ever had enough gems for its hoard, and this bit of jewelry drew her as nothing before ever had. She wanted it, not only to possess it, but to wear it.
And that anomaly warned her off, before she shifted fully back to draconic form in order to seize the thing. Suddenly alarmed, she eyed the collar carefully. Sure enough, there, among the gems, just over the point where the collar fastened, were three tiny, inconspicuous elf-stones. She knew the type, and the setting of the stones. One to hold the collar locked onto the slave’s neck, one negating any mind-magic the slave might have, and one, evidently still active, holding a spell of glamorie that made anyone who saw the collar want to wear it. A safe way to ensure that no slave ever abandoned his collar willingly.
Suddenly the collar no longer seemed quite so desirable.
Then, like a shout, a voice cried inside Alara’s mind. :Ah, gods –!:
Alara had one moment of surprise before she found herself pulled into the woman’s mind.
Serina Daeth. Not ‘the woman.’ Alara was just barely able to hold on to her own identity, caught in the desperate grip of Serina’s mind.
Serina was too fevered to actually build coherent thoughts; Alara found herself overwhelmed by memories, feelings, emotions, all tumbled together, out of sequence.
Alara pulled herself free of the woman’s mind with a gut-wrenching effort, and lay for a moment with her head pounding and a terrible pain between her eyes.
She’s a concubine, the dragon thought, amazed. She had never even gotten near enough to one of them to really see them well, much less listen to their thoughts. Lord Dyran – that must be V’Kass Dyran Lord Hernalth. He was an elder; practically chief in Council. But how did a High Lord’s concubine end up in the desert?
She reached out a little cautious mental finger, and touched the edges of the woman’s mind as lightly as she could manage.
With patient sifting, she gleaned a few facts; Serina had been the favorite of the harem, proud of her position, status, and her ability to ride out her Lord’s arbitrary nature. That is, until a new girl had been given to Lord Dyran by an underling who specialized in the breeding of beautiful human concubines, male and female. Leyda Shaybrel was just as beautiful as her owner had advertised, and as ruthless as she was beautiful.
When Leyda failed to oust Serina as favorite, and realized that Lord Dyran had no intention of replacing Serina, she turned to sabotage.
That had been several months ago, just before Lord Dyran went off to Council – which, due to the havoc and the feuding caused by Alara’s meddling, would last a record eight months. Lord Dyran left before Serina realized she was pregnant.
As soon as she knew, she must have been in a panic. That’s death – even if Dyran didn’t kill her, he’d cast her off. Alara was fascinated. This was a glimpse into the humans’ world she’d never had before. I wonder if I can get into her memory? This could be so useful –
Maybe if I just nudge her a little –
Chapter 3 (#ulink_b1193f61-a299-50be-9659-8c338dc98fe5)
Amazing, Alara thought, pulling delicately out of the memory. She found it very hard to believe what she had just seen: the greed, the selfishness, the completely self-centered personality. Even at their worst, the Kin stood together!
The woman was only interested in her own promotion, not in anything that happened to any of the other girls. She went to her Lord, not only willingly, but eagerly. All of them did.
As far as Alara could tell, the concubines were all like her. There wasn’t a single sign of rebellion or unity there.
Alara blinked dazedly. In the past few heartbeats she’d learned more about humans and elvenkind than she had in years. The woman’s memories were so strong – and the pull of her mind well-nigh irresistible. But the temptation to allow herself to be pulled back in was too much; there was so much she was learning about classes of the humans that the Kin had never been able to approach, like the concubines and the gladiators.
The woman was a treasure trove of information; with what Alara was gleaning from her, the Kin would be able to infiltrate elven society in the form, not of other elves, which was chancy and sometimes dangerous, but in the forms of the invisibles –
Best of all would be if they could learn enough to fit in as guards, fighters, duelists –
Her father trained gladiators, Alara remembered suddenly. There was that short memory of the duel in the arena, but there were probably more. She’d have to go look –
Serina half fell into the water, hardly recognizing it for what it was until her arms went under the surface. She plunged her face into the blessed coolness, drinking until she could hold no more, crying tears of relief at the feel of the cold water down her throat, and on the parched and burned skin of her arms and face.
When she could no longer drink another drop, she lay beside the pool, her arms trailing into the water, too weak to move. Too weak even to think.
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