The dining hall at Toldar Keep was more welcoming than the one in Restal Prime, Marta thought as she looked around. Polished red granite walls, paneled above in rare pale bleached walnut, glowed in the golden light that streamed at a low angle from the tall windows on the far side of the room. A steward lit bronze oil lamps in ornamental brackets on the walls. Several large round tables with chairs stood in no particular order around the room. No head table on a dais separated the "important" from the "unimportant." It was a room designed to make people feel comfortable, not to impress or intimidate as Guardian Roland's hall in Restal had been.
The boy manning the door was as awkward as Marta felt. He blushed as he asked her name, though she knew she was the only Mi'hiru invited for tonight. It was her introduction to Toldar, to Guardian Me'Gerron, and probably at least some of his Councilors. Certainly Altan Me'Gerron, heir and Commander of the Karda Patrol, whom she hadn't met yet. She'd only arrived four days before. They were more prompt to welcome her than had been the case in Restal. She hoped it was indicative of better relations with the Karda. The boy stumbled over his too large feet as he led her to a table at the far side of the room and introduced her.
Guardian Stefan smiled and gave her the traditional greeting, "Welcome to Toldar, Marta. May our table provide you sustenance, may our land provide you work to suit your heart and hands, and may you find safety within our walls in your rest. We are glad to have you." He grasped her forearm. "Our Mi'hiru are too few for the work they have, and we need you."
Tall, broad in the shoulders, with silver-streaked blond hair, laugh lines creased the corners of his eyes. Elegant in an informal crisp linen shirt, fine black wool trousers held by a wide, tooled leather belt with a brass buckle shaped like the head of a deer, and a long vest of heavier wool: He carried a confidence that stated his rule here was in no doubt.
Stefan turned to introduce the tall woman next to him. "This is my bonded, Elena."
Only a hand shorter than the Guardian, Elena's long lighter blond hair was pulled back in a soft twist at the nape of her neck. Her face would have been severe in its classic beauty but for the light in her intelligent eyes. Silver streaked her hair, too. Her simple dress, the same color as Stefan's vest, was long and high necked. It draped elegantly over her shoulders, full sleeves coming to a point on the backs of her hands.
She held out her hand and grasped Marta's forearm in welcome. "I hope to see much of you, Marta. I look forward to getting to know you and Sidhari." At Marta's look of surprise that Elena knew her Karda's name, she said. "I was once a Mi'hiru, and I miss working with the Karda. I spend as much time in the mews as I can spare from my duties."
That's why she looks familiar. I've seen her there.
"Sometimes I think Mother would like to escape all this and go back to her life as Mi'hiru entirely. I'm Altan Me'Gerron."
The young man who appeared behind Elena was tall, with a body and carriage that showed the physical strength and grace of many hours of flying and weapons work. Marta watched as he wrapped an arm around Elena's waist and kissed the top of her head.
"Welcome back, dear," Elena said. "I hope your patrol was uneventful."
"Mostly," he replied, his eyes scanned Marta, his mouth curled into a smile, his eyes flashed appreciation and approval. He wasn’t looking at her face.
Just which part of me is it he approves of? All he knows of me is what he sees. Is he that shallow? That arrogant?
Red blond hair curled softly around his face where short strands slipped from the long tail bound with several bands of silver hanging down his back. His sculpted cheekbones, high forehead, and clear green eyes were a combination of both parents, his mother's beauty, and his father's confident air. He wore clothes similar to his father's, brown trimmed with green braid. Full shirtsleeves didn't mask the strength in his shoulders and arms.
He and Marta clasped forearms a moment too long. An electric shock of power surged up her arm. His eyes widened, and she dropped his arm. She rubbed her tingling hand on her skirt. Her arm was numb, and she moved her fingers with difficulty.
"I'm Altan, their son," he repeated, after a moment. "Welcome."
His polite expression didn’t change. He must not have felt the shock. He waved a hand at the table next to the Guardian's.
"Come sit at my table, please. Away from all the old people here."
"Jessa will be glad to see you are back. She asked when we expected you this morning." Elena said.
"Um," his eyes rolled. He started to take Marta's arm, then just gestured. A brief frown flicked on his forehead.
Maybe he did feel it. It hurt, whatever it was. Yet another strange something from this world to make me think I’m going crazy. If it’s something in the water, maybe I’d better stick to wine and ale. Being drunk all the time couldn’t be any worse. Except for those next mornings.
Altan introduced the group at the table. Commander Jaden, in the dark green uniform of Toldar Guard, sat at her left. They clasped arms, and he smiled his welcome.
A dark-haired beauty in lace embellished green velvet sat next to the empty chair that could only be Altan's. She gave Marta a long, cool look, and didn't offer an arm clasp. Marta felt plain and uninteresting in her burgundy dress uniform with its split skirt, its short, fitted jacket, and neither braid nor embroidery. "I don't know how you can be around those creatures all the time. They look at you like you're cake on a plate." She shuddered and turned a brilliant smile toward Altan. "Welcome home, Altan."
Altan nodded with a half-smile and continued introducing Marta. The young woman, Jessa Me'Nowyk, flushed and turned to her opposite dinner partner, Ashlyn, a petite girl with wispy brown hair and a sharp face.
Amused, Marta concentrated on remembering the rest of the introductions. Mostly young people, in fact, mostly young women, she noted. Five of them, all daughters of holders in Toldar. Mistra, a short and very young girl, with a round face, kept her head down and picked at her cuticles. Cori, bland, blond, and bored. Andra, whose brown eyes never stopped moving, flicking from face to face, teeth chewing at her lip as if she were frantically trying to think of something to say. And Staci, whose face was too red, whose laugh was too loud, whose pale blue silk and velvet dress was loose where it should be tight and tight where it should be loose.
Six females and only three males: the oh-so-way-too-handsome Altan, Commander Jaden, with thinning hair and shoulders almost as broad as he was tall. Across from where Altan was seating Marta, Counselor Jeffreys, a slight young man with pale grey eyes in a sharp, thin face was trying to talk to Mistra, his expression patient. Altan introduced him as the counselor from Toldar's coastal holding. Jessa's father's holding. The heir's table seemed very popular among the younger female set. There were none anywhere else in the room.
She glanced at Altan, then away quickly when she found him watching her, a puzzled twist in his expression. She could hear Kayne's voice in her head. "Use your sex, Marta."
But I can't. I just can’t. The thought was ugly. She picked up her glass of wine, staring down into the clear amber liquid for a moment, then drank. I wish I could just have another glass and then another and forget about what Kayne expects of me. She looked up and met Altan's eyes for too long. He turned away to Cori and murmured in her ear. She almost lost her studied blandness. I’ll concentrate on your arrogance. Ignore the rest of you. Playing with women is something you enjoy maybe more than you should. I can play, too.
A quartet of musicians entered, carrying stringed and wind instruments. A fifth followed with a small hand drum swinging from one hand. They set up without fuss at the north end of the large room. The soft music they began to play muted the sound of silver on fine china and the clink of crystal glasses.
Stewards moved silently between the tables carrying large platters and bowls, serving small stuffed birds Marta recognized as a cross between quail and a native bird she couldn't remember the name of, orange potatoes with caramelized onions, and chopped spinach in a creamy, nutmeg flavored sauce. The smell from a basket of warm bread permeated the air as a server set it in the center of the table with a china bowl of pale yellow butter. Marta was hard put not to start right in and tear the bird apart with her fingers.
The four days since she and Sidhari had arrived had been long busy days—getting to know her way around the mews, familiarizing herself with the Karda, the various Karda Patrollers, and the Mi'hiru—and she was hungry. She ate every bite on her plate and two thick slices of nut bread generously smeared with butter. She saw Jessa glance at her empty plate and sniff, brows raised, mouth twisted with satisfaction as if she could dismiss Marta as a threat. Apparently, Marta's appetite was too hearty to be correct. She noticed Jessa's plate was lightly touched as were those of most of the other young women, except for bland, blond Cori.
Between bites, she and Commander Jaden discussed the Karda serving Toldar, with Altan adding a few words from across the table. Altan's and Jaden's knowledge about the individual Karda impressed her. In fact, they gave her useful information about some she had met and several she hadn't. Whose feet needed more attention. What patrollers certain Karda preferred and vice versa. Whose rigging required checking more often because their turns were sharper and hard on the straps holding the rider secure.
Altan paid close attention to her conversations, glancing her way often. His intensity made her uncomfortable. Especially as she was aware of the tension from the distaff guests at the table every time he spoke to her despite her tight shields. Mainly from Jessa, next to him playing the part of his very own queen bee. Marta watched Altan's banter with the women. He was skillful at steering his attentions evenly, though Jessa tried to dominate the conversations, touching him often with a proprietary air. Marta felt his amusement. He'd do better to be alarmed. If he isn't careful, she'll have him caught before he even knows there’s a trap.
But the longer she watched, the more she noticed the skill with which he handled the flirting. He was very practiced, never paid more attention to any one person than the others. He wasn't about to fall prey to one of them, especially someone as predatory as Jessa. Marta pointedly ignored her relief at that.
"How is the harvest in Restal, Mi'hiru?" Counselor Jeffreys asked her, speaking across the table. "How welcome will trade for Toldar's surplus be to them this year?"
Young for a counselor, eyes that sparkled with wit and intelligence behind wire-rimmed glasses, lit his narrow face. He watched the interplay between Altan and the five young women at the table as well, amusement adding savor to his dinner.
"I know little about that," she informed him, though she did know more than she wanted to admit, glad to have something take her attention away from the flirting before it drowned her. "Just that their land is rough and poor in most places so their harvest can't be substantial enough for the population. Don't you usually trade with them for the foodstuffs they can't raise?"
"Yes, and it would be helpful to know just how much they’ll need this year. It's difficult to find out and knowing would make bargaining much easier." He smiled. "We'd have an edge if we knew how needy they are. It's difficult to find out before the negotiations begin."
That surprised her until Jaden explained in his deep baritone, seeing her confusion. "Our people are seldom welcomed across their borders. Too many of their slaves cross our borders for freedom. And we don't send them back or allow their hunters to cross when we can stop them."
Dessert arrived, cherry apple tarts laced with a potent brandy sauce. Servers removed the dishes and platters, and the music grew louder, increasing in tempo. Jaden stood and held his hand out to Marta, smiling.
"May I have this dance, Marta? It would be an honor to be the first to dance with our newest Mi'hiru."
She saw Jessa stiffen. Marta wondered if the haughty young woman expected to be the first to be asked. "No, the honor and pleasure would be mine. Thank you." And they moved out into the open space on the west side of the room where a group was forming. Marta loved the dancing popular in this culture. Old fashioned waltzes, slow and intimate, mixed with more prevalent group dances she thought copied ancient country dances, moves called by one of the musicians. Couples came together and moved apart in fast, breath-stealing swirls.
It surprised her that the guardian was not the first on the floor. In Restal no one dared ask another to dance until the guardian and his sons took the floor. It was more informal here. Altan leaned across the table in furious friendly debate with Jeffries, moving implements and glasses around the table to illustrate. Jessa glared at the counselor.
When Jaden returned her to the table, Altan appeared at her elbow before she took her seat. "Could I share my first dance with our guest of honor?" he asked, his mouth curved up on one side in a slight smile. The music started. Her stomach clenched. Oh, no. It's a waltz.
Marta felt Jessa's glare hot on her back and glanced around at her. If she isn't careful, her face is going to get stuck that way. Oops. It already has. "Guest of honor?" She was surprised.
"Of course. We always honor new Mi'hiru with a dinner when they rotate in. You're important to Toldar. We want you to know that."
He took her arm, and again a surge of energy shocked her, just short of painful. His green eyes lingered on her face an instant too long, and a frown flashed so quick she wasn't sure she even saw it. His expression gave no hint that he felt anything. He took his arm away and bowed slightly gesturing her toward the dance floor. They moved seamlessly together, their bodies seeming to coordinate each movement with only the slightest pressure on her waist from his firm hand as they circled the floor to the ancient music. The strange energy dissipated.
The tune was slow, almost dreamy, and Marta caught herself wishing he would pull her closer so she could rest her head there in the hollow where his neck met his broad shoulder. His arms tightened around her, and she relaxed against him. Then she realized what she was doing and pushed away, the movement abrupt. He stiffened and loosened his hold, looking down at her, confused. She looked away. This relationship would be professional—Mi'hiru to heir, like her casual friendship with Daryl. That would be close enough. Kayne would have to be satisfied with that. She looked up at Altan, ignoring the pull of those green eyes and asked him about his Karda, Kibrath. "I've been told you were chosen. Men aren't favored that often."
"Not so, Mi'hiru."
His voice was cool. Apparently, a professional relationship was what he wanted, too. He made no effort to flirt as he had with the others. "Some Holders and most Guardians are chosen. There are several female Holders but only one female Guardian now, so, yes, men are sometimes favored. Restal's Armsmaster Krager is bonded also."
Bonded, chosen, favored--a litany of words to describe this relationship I have with Sidhari. And they don't help me at all to understand what it is.
For the whole dance, Jessa glared at them from the arms of Counselor Jeffreys, whose clamped lips failed to hide his grin. I must be poaching in her territory. She pulled herself back together, and they talked about the Karda and her stay in Restal. He spoke with surprising insight about the Karda.
"You seem to know the Karda very well," she said.
He looked down at her, head tilted. "Well of course. I'm Commander of the Karda Patrol."
"Oh! Yes, of course." She flushed. She knew that.
"I guess that shows you how important everyone thinks I am. No one thought to mention it." He laughed.
She grinned up at him. "They take you for granted, do they? That must be hard on the ego."
"You can't imagine. I suffer from it daily." He tightened his hold slightly, then loosened it, as if he'd just noticed how close he held her and changed the subject. "What have you seen of the Circles of Disorder in Restal? I've heard from several traders that they are growing almost unchecked."
Marta didn't quite know what to say. She still didn't understand about the circles. "I did notice that they are bigger than the ones I saw in Toldar as I flew over, or rather around them. Much bigger. And there aren't as many new plantings there as here. Well, actually, none that I saw. That's all I know. And Sidhari refused to fly over any of them, there as well as here."
Altan looked surprised. "Of course she would."
Marta stiffened slightly. Once again I put my boot in my mouth, and the polish tastes terrible. What in the world are those circles?
"They never do," he said.
"I've always wondered why?" said Marta, trying to recover from her gaffe.
"Don't you know? You're a Mi'hiru; you're supposed to know everything there is to know about Karda." He raised an eyebrow at her, and the corner of his mouth tilted up again.
"Oh, yes," she retorted. "I do. Just not that."
"Or where they come from or why they consent to let us ride them or where they go when they disappear."
"That too." She laughed. He's so easy to talk to. Then she realized he was holding her closer again; her head could rest in that spot between his neck and shoulders if she let it. She pulled away slightly, and he let her after a moment. A bemused look flicked across his face. He doesn't realize we're dancing too close. Marta glanced around to see if anyone noticed. Jessa glared at them from the arms of Counselor Jeffreys, who watched her, looking amused. Uh oh. She noticed. I'm in trouble here if I don't stop this immediately. She started asking him about Toldar's traditions for celebrating the upcoming Harvest Festival.
"I'm usually exhausted by the time it comes around. The harvest is hard work, but the Festival is great fun, even for the tired and weary. And sore. We work hard, and we pay for it." He smiled down at her.
"You work the harvest yourself?" Marta was surprised. She didn't think either Daryl or Readen had ever done that in Restal. She couldn't imagine Readen laboring in the fields and raising a sweat.
"Of course. We sometimes have to rush to get it in when there's a break in the weather. It takes all of us. When you're free, you'll probably be called out to help, too." He quirked a brow and looked down at her. "Are you up to that?"
"I think I could handle it. It'll be like going home again." They just looked at each other for a long time. Then she lowered her head. Her false history left an acrid taste on her tongue. She avoided his eyes for the rest of the dance. He did the same. Their graceful and too intimate coordination made it difficult.
The music ended on a soft note, and they stood, holding each other for just a moment too long. Not touching, they walked quickly back. Counselor Jeffreys stood immediately and came around to ask her for the next dance. She looked at Altan as he thanked her for the dance. A strange expression pulled at his face. Hers probably matched it. She was so confused. "I enjoyed that," she said, her words soft.
Three tendays later Altan walked through the streets of Toldar Prime, a pack slung over each shoulder. He hardly noticed the people he passed, nodded without thinking when someone spoke to him, dodged bicycles, horses, hawker's carts. He walked past the shop he was headed for and had to turn back. Stepping up the worn stones of the entrance, he greeted the shopkeeper, "Hey, Eiryk. Kibrath and I need trail grub for about three days. We'll be gone for a tenday or so, but we'll hunt for most of what we need. Just in case," he grinned, "we still ought to have some supplies. I don't want to dig for tubers like Kibrath does. They taste like old straw. What have you got for me?"
Eiryk grinned back at him. "Hey to you, too, Altan. Good hunting weather now. And the weather watchers say the rain may hold off for a few days. Where you headed? It'll be snow soon in the mountains." He began packaging slabs of dried meat in two evenly divided large packets.
"Up the Crescent River to a small valley below Adjuna Mountain. The valleys and canyons up there are good hunting. The young barla should be a perfect size by now. And they are good eating. About right for a meal or two for Kibrath and me."
"And not easy to hunt. Summer's long gone, all too short, and we're well enough into fall for early storms. Hope you packed warm clothes. That's pretty far into the mountains. I don't know anyone else who ventures in that far." He added several packets of dried vegetables. "Be careful. I wonder if we'll ever know what the interior of the mountains is like, inaccessible as it is. I've heard the Karda won't fly over them."
"Sometimes we see Karda there from a distance, but Kibrath won't talk about it. None of the other Karda either." Altan tossed a couple of bags of dried fruit onto the pile collecting on the counter.
"What are you going to do besides spend most of your time chasing those goats and casting seed?"
"Barla taste a lot better than goat, Eiryk and hopefully there'll be deer. I'm going to hunt and think. I started building a small cot below Adjuna mountain when I got old enough for my parents to let me go out on my own." He laughed. "I didn't tell my parents about it until last year. I don't think they'd have let us fly so far if they knew. My first efforts were pretty pitiful, and it fell down as fast as I could put it up. It's habitable now. A great place for thinking."
"Now what do you have to think about, young Altan? Women, probably. You should be thinking about marriage. Starting a family." Eiryk looked over his shoulder and waggled his eyebrows as he stretched to reach packets of tea from a high shelf.
Altan caught the packets he tossed. "I'm too young for a family."
Eiryk cocked a fist on his hip and looked at him. "You're old enough. You just don't want to be. You'd have to slow down and get caught."
"I'm still raising myself. I don't need to be worrying about raising young ones yet. And there are too many pretty women to settle on one."
There was silence for a few minutes. Altan stuffed purchases into his pack. Eiryk turned away from the shelf with soup packets, holding on to them when Altan reached out. "You need to think about letting one of them catch you. You are the only heir to the guardianship. No one wants a talent fight between holders if something happens to you and your father. Look what the last one did for Restal. They never recovered, and you know what their current Guardian is like." He let go the packets and turned back to find something else.
Altan winced. Rumors were already rife about the number of holders with daughters visiting in the last few months. And several guardians with marriageable daughters had happened to mention them to his father in their correspondence about the upcoming Assembly in Rashiba Prime. He didn't need to encourage them. Just enjoy them. He ignored a twinge of guilt and picked up two containers of clarified butter, matches, four sleeves of travel biscuits and a bundle of small candles for his travel lantern. Eiryk helped him stow everything in his two large packs, already heavy with seed for the tough mountain grasses he would scatter.
"Four argents and three coppers. Do you want me to put it on the Keep account?"
"Thanks, Eiryk. My personal account will do."
"If you want to sell the hides when you get back, let me know. There's always a demand for barla hides."
"Thanks, but I need new winter riding gear. I'll take them straight to Rodrig myself."
Eiryk laughed. "Good hunting, Altan."
Altan hefted the packs, headed out the door and down the cobbled street, dodging carts, wagons, bicycles, and horses, the crowd of shoppers, and kids darting every which way between them. Even the occasional beggar. As he neared the edge of the town away from the market, the crowds thinned. Here were residential houses, compact buildings of two and three stories with red sandstone walls decorated with narrow courses of dark yellow or red-orange brick, arched windows and doors—even an occasional squat tower rose above gabled roofs. The first settlers to Adalta had included several consummate, inventive masons, and the skills had been handed down in their families for centuries. Wood was long gone when they landed, and the planted forests were still considered a precious asset. Building was always with stone or adobe, slate or clay tile for roofs, iron and metal salvaged from the Ark Ship for gates and supports.
Small gardens behind the short front walls, straw and compost mulch covered harvested rows of vegetables and berry bushes. Espaliered fruit trees spread against the side fences. The occasional withered cherry apple still hid on a branch here and there. A few fall-bearing bushes drooped with not quite ripe berries. He hoped he could find wild ones, but it was probably too high for them this late in the season.
He made his way through the outskirts of town to the small gate beside the Women's Guild House that led to the Karda Mews. Kibrath waited for him in his roomy stall, head looming high over the sides.
Altan reached up and scratched the bronze head of the giant Karda."Someday you'll have to tell me how you always know to meet me when we're going to fly out." He ran his hands over the huge copper and brown wings, down the slender legs, and checked for cracks or nicks in the long, sharp black talons and the horny pads of landing mode. He found a currycomb in the tack cabinet on the wall of the stall and began to untangle Kibrath's mane. "How do you get so tangled from one time to the next? You look like you've been rolling in thistles."
~I work hard at it. If you didn't have to brush me occasionally you'd get in even more trouble than you already do.~ Kibrath telepathed to him. He made sharp clicking noises with his vicious beak, crooned with content, and leaned into the brush when Altan started on his shoulders.
Sober and distracted Altan didn't answer Kibrath's jibe. He looked up. Marta worked on the other side of the aisle. He stared at her, her body leaning into the Karda she was grooming, occasionally brushing her long mahogany hair from her face with the back of her hand. She stopped for a moment to pull a clasp from her pocket and gathered her hair into it, her body arching as she reached back. His breath caught. His fingers itched to catch in her hair. He wanted her to turn and smile at him with the warm, open smile she directed at others. She bent over to check the horny hoof pads on Sidhari's feet. He jerked his attention back when she glared over at him as if she could read his mind. Uh, Oh. I'm caught. He looked back at her, keeping his expression bland. If you think I'm having prurient thoughts, you're right. But that's all it is. All thought, no action. Don't get your hopes up.
The big Karda nudged Altan with his head, half knocking him off his feet. ~Pay attention to what you're doing, not the girl who won't have you.~
Altan laughed and brushed harder, ~Hey, now. Be nice. We're almost done here,~ he replied silently to Kibrath's pathing voice in his head, He finished the grooming and pulled the saddle rig from its stand and began strapping it on. Kibrath held his wings out from his body as Altan pulled the cinches and straps around his powerful breast and shoulders. ~It's just that she's new,~ he pathed to Kibrath. ~I'll get over it.~
~Of course you will,~ Kibrath pathed back and butted him with his head. ~Get over what?~ And Altan could feel him shake with laughter.