This is the last chapter I will post. I am frantically working on getting the books up and running for publication next month.
It’s spring here, finally, and I’ve been working outside, planting all my pots with begonias, geraniums, petunias, sweet potato vine—did you know there are black sweet potato vines?
My one small pot of herbs is doing great already. The sage plant is getting old and woody. The pot is slowly crumbling—I dare not move it. It's been in the same place on the porch there are violets growing out from under where it sits on the concrete. So next year I may have to plant a new sage. The chives, the thyme, the oregano I can repot, but the sage—not so much. Yesterday it was 95 degrees outside, and I had the top down on my car with the AC running. Today is cooler, but yes, summer heat approaches. We’ve had about three days of spring. It would be nice if summer could be cool, too. But—it’s Oklahoma. Probably not much chance of that.
Enjoy this chapter and look for Karda and Hunter—Vol II soon.
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Here’s Chapter 14. Enjoy
"Readen has assured me that there are no groups of marauders sheltering inside our borders." Roland looked to Readen. "Tell Altan what you found when you took the Mounted Patrol out there." He looked back at Altan. "He spent two tendays in the most deplorable conditions." His steward entered the room and stood behind him with a handful of papers. Roland flapped his hand at Readen in a come-on-tell-all motion and started going through the papers, carrying on a sotto-voce conversation with the steward.
Altan sucked a long, hard breath through his nose and held it until he had to let it out. But slowly. Two days of trade conversations with Roland, Daryl, and Readen eroded his patience to a thin layer. But at least there'd been progress on the exchange of Toldar's grain and cotton for the wine, wool, and iron and copper ore produced in Restal. He even managed to talk them out of some of the rare waterproof wool that formed a flexible armor when woven with spider silk. He could take that back to his father with pride. They touched lightly, and gingerly, several times on the issue they were attempting to finalize this afternoon—the bands of raiders.
All three of the Restal men were lined up in a row on the other side of the table from him. He tried unsuccessfully to change the seating each day. They outnumbered him and made him feel more petitioner than participant. He could only be grateful Roland hadn't raised their seats so they could peer down on him.
Readen leaned forward, forearms flat on the table in front of him, slender fingers laced together, his expression radiating patience and goodwill. Practiced patience and goodwill. "Although I didn't cross the borders with my troop,,," Readen paused his slow, deliberate delivery. "Of course, Altan, it is much easier to pay attention to borders when you are on the ground. Flying allows you much more latitude." He looked back and forth between Altan and Daryl as if they violated borders every day on their Karda, but he would forgive them. "I spent a great deal of time in the villages, particularly the villages that had been hit by the marauders. Altan, every place I stopped, the story was the same. These bands are coming from your side of the border, Altan."
"What do you base that on, Readen? That's not the conclusion my father and I have come to." In fact, it's the very opposite, thought Altan, struggling not to show the anger threatening like a flash flood about to hit a beaver dam.
Readen shook his head—his expression changed to concern. "Riding between villages all along our border, I saw no evidence of any encampments, Altan. No hidden caves, no secret deep canyons, where such bands could have set themselves up a permanent camp. On the other hand, Altan, I saw plenty of clear evidence of mounted men coming from your side of the border where they crossed into Restal."
Altan interrupted him. "I'm afraid we're going to have to agree to disagree." I think if I charge him every time he says my name, I can pay for this frustrating trip, the condescending,,,
Then Readen began listing villages near where he'd found evidence of raiders crossing from Toldar. Villages on the Toldar side of the border, which according to him, had no problems with raiding bands and villages in Restal which, again according to him, had suffered attacks. Altan started counting every time Readen used his name. He stopped at eight.
When Readen finished, Altan kept the tone of his voice even, the pace of his words steady as he answered. "Which direction are they coming and going from, Readen? How many raiders did you see? Did you find tracks leaving Toldar overlapped by tracks coming back? Or the reverse? Readen."
Anger flashed across Readen's face and disappeared so fast Altan wasn't sure he'd seen it.
"It rained too often, Altan, during the time we were out there, for us to be certain. The trails were a mess. But I am convinced they are coming into Restal from Toldar, Altan. And so were the villagers I talked to." Readen's slow, too-quiet voice shouted patience. His head tilted as if to say: I'm truly sorry to have to tell you these things but...
Altan looked at Daryl. Why is he not saying anything about this? Dalt tells me his Karda Patrollers say he is out with them all the time. He has to have seen something. "Daryl, what have you seen when you fly your patrols along the border. What of the fourteen villages attacked on our side of the border? Did you see smoke from at least some of them on your overflights? Have you seen no evidence of the bandits crossing from Restal, as our villagers report to us? The village we came upon during an attack as we flew here was definitely invaded by men crossing from your side of the border. The holder where we stayed sent men out to backtrack them, and those tracks led to Restal. They weren't the first he'd seen in his holding."
Daryl straightened in his chair, looking slightly embarrassed. "Readen and his Mounted Patrol are the ones who police that part of the quadrant. The Karda Patrol's territory is the central part where most of our population is. Readen says our side of the border is not populated enough to waste Karda time on patrols there, so I'm afraid I can't add much to this conversation. And he keeps track of what goes on in the North as his holding and mines are there."
He abdicates his responsibility to Readen. He doesn't even consider it a dereliction of his duty. And I wonder whose idea it was to separate their areas like this. Readen's holding is where the mines are. And he is the one patrolling their southern border with us where it's apparently not a waste of time to send their Mounted Patrol. Hmmm. Altan gave up. Readen wasn't going to admit the raiders were Restalans.
Altan looked from Daryl to Readen. "There was some unfamiliar long-distance weapon used in that village that caused wounds I've never seen before. It did far more damage than the strongest crossbow. The people who witnessed its use described it as a long stick-like thing that the user simply pointed, and it killed, silently, with no arrow or bolt. The headman of the village called it a talent weapon. I've never heard of anything like that. Have you had any reports?"
"Altan, I'd be the last person to ask about a talent weapon." Readen's smile was the most twisted and insincere smile Altan had ever seen.
Daryl bit his lip, looking back and forth between the two of them.
Oops, I forgot. Father told me and told me. Never mention talent anywhere near Readen. Or Roland. Readen is the only person he's ever heard of who has no talent at all. Altan looked at Roland who was gathering his papers together and handing them to the steward. And Father claims Roland is misusing his so egregiously he is weakening it all over Restal. From the look of the countryside, I don't think he's mistaken.
Roland slapped both hands on the table, and all three of the others jumped. "Well, I think we've had some fruitful discussions these past two days. Now it's time to enjoy ourselves. You three amuse yourselves this afternoon, and I'll see you tonight at the dinner honoring our visitors from the South. I look forward to it. My steward and I have just been going over the menu, and I think you'll be very pleased with the wine selection alone. We've produced some excellent vintages in the last few years, and as a special treat for you and your party, Altan, I've told him to bring up one of the fine vintages from six years ago. If you like it, Altan, I'll be happy to send some back with you for your father."
Altan had to work hard to keep his shoulders from slumping. I guess we're finished talking about border incidents. On this issue, Readen has produced more fertilizer than fruit, but it seems that's all we're going to get. I'll have to be satisfied with the trade agreements. I think I won there. I hope Father agrees.
Marta sat on the dais overlooking the large hall of Restal Prime, uncomfortable in her floor-length, low-cut dress of embroidered green silk, her auburn hair in loose curls down her back. She fiddled with one earring, pulling at it, realized what she was doing, and dropped her hand. This was their last night in Restal. As Altan's Mi'hiru she was treated with the courtesy and respect due her as his peer, unlike the few times she had attended when she was posted here. It was not a position she was comfortable with, especially wearing this too-revealing dress. Though she had liked the look in Altan's eyes when he'd seen her. There was nothing wrong with feeling pleased about being noticed.
She sat at Altan's right and Altan to the right of Guardian Roland. On her other side the guardian's elder son, Readen, kept her in conversation. Daryl sat to the left of Roland. Altan was icily polite, dancing with her once to satisfy protocol, then all but ignoring her for the rest of the evening, except for the occasional cutting remark. She sensed his stiff displeasure through her shields, and it made her furious. Her behavior was fine. Certainly no discredit to either the Mi'hiru or to Toldar. She started to pull at her earring again and dropped her hand to her lap.
Readen was a good distraction. She tightened her shields further. Whatever it was about Readen that was pushing against them, she refused to acknowledge. She was uncomfortable enough with block-of-burning-ice-Altan behind her. He tilted his chair back, legs stretched in front of him, shoulder length hair brushed back from his high forehead. He swirled dark red wine around in the bowl of his cut crystal wine glass. She had to turn her back to Altan to talk to him, which was fine with her.
"I shall provide you with a map of who is who tonight so you won't get lost. Or caught by someone tedious, which would be worse." He lifted his glass to a woman across the room, who lifted hers back with a bright smile. "That's Easily Eleanna. Of course, I never call her that to her face. Or at least since she married Battering Baylee, who earned that name in the early days of their marriage." Readen's solemn tone mocked that of a pedantic professor. "And the tall man at the table next to them with non-existent muscles is Garrulous Gardner to whom I shall not introduce you as it would take the rest of the evening. The small but rotund woman he's talking to, or at, is Querulous Corra. I think their names, as well as their shapes, make them well suited for each other, don't you? I expect good news from them any day now. He shall tell me about it with verve, volume, and verbosity, and she shall be petty, petulant, and, well, not pretty, is she?"
He tapped a cheek with his finger. "Let's see. Over in the corner, cornering someone I can't see as he takes up so much space, physically as well as verbally, is Jocular Joseph. Wetly, too, as he tends to spray with enthusiasm as he talks."
"How do you think of these names?" Marta was finding it hard to breathe, trying to keep from laughing too loudly, afraid if she took a sip of wine she'd spray it wetly across the table.
I think I'm getting hysterical. Cool, insouciant Readen on one side and Altan-I-am-a-volcano-about-to-blow scorching the other would make anyone want to scream. Then she saw the man he had so lightly named Garrulous Gardner walk away from Corra, devastation naked on his face and in the sharp slope of his shoulders, and her laughter wilted. She raised her glass and drank to cover her sudden mood change.
"I pass the time at these interminable dinners—dinner with you, of course, will not be long enough—by making up names to suit each one in the room. It's so easy I often wonder if their parents chose their names to suit their personalities."
"I'm afraid to ask what name you have for me."
"Madly Marta, of course, as I am fast falling madly in love with you and intend to take you away from Ardent Altan, who is gloriously glaring at me."
"Ah, and I shall call you Riotous Readen. I think you've earned it." She turned her head slightly to glance at Altan, and yes, he was glaring.
"And now, I am afraid I am called to duty." He glanced around her at Roland, who was gesturing insistently toward the dancers on the floor, and pulled his face into a pout. "Father is pointedly pointing me to Angelic Angela, who is twice my age and whose wings have become slightly tarnished. But Father likes to keep her happy. He has been trying to get her to give him a cutting of one of the few roses he doesn't already have, and they are in the middle of some very delicate negotiations. I shall return wearing her halo." And Readen stood, leaning close, and murmured in her ear, promising to send her tens of tens of roses if he succeeded. He flicked her earring and left the dais.
Marta turned to Altan, but he ignored her, purposefully leaning around Guardian Roland to say something to Daryl she didn't catch. She sucked in her breath angrily and turned away, looking out over the hall. A movement at the entrance opposite her caught her attention. A tall blond man stood in the doorway, looking startled at the festivities. It was Galen Morel. She looked away in confusion and saw Readen notice him, also. His sudden fury blazed like fire even from across the room and was just as suddenly extinguished.
She dropped her gaze just as he looked from Galen to her. She took a sip of wine and ate a small savory to cover her confusion, pulling at her earring. I have to break this habit. My ear is getting sore, and it let’s people know when I’m nervous. Not a good thing. What is Galen doing here again? Restal's far from his assigned territory. Agents were always notified when someone changed from one section to another. She could see no reason for him to be here in her territory twice. Galen jerked his head at Readen and walked away. Marta didn't know if he'd seen her. What should she do? Make herself known to him, or not? Providing she could find him. I can't leap up from the table and go chasing down the hall after him.
Readen returned and leaned over her shoulder, his face so close she could feel the heat from his cheek. His long hair brushed her neck. He tugged at her earring again. "If you don't leave this pretty ring alone you'll pull it out of your ear. Please excuse me, Marta, something has come up I must attend to. I hope to see you again before you leave on the morrow, but if I am not able, it has been a pleasure, and I am sure we will meet again before much longer."
He touched her shoulder, the gesture uncomfortably intimate, and left. It was too much coincidence to think that Readen's sudden need to see to something was unconnected with Galen Morel's sudden appearance.
Altan interrupted her thoughts. "So, your friend has abandoned you, has he?" With a raised eyebrow and a mocking smile, he invited her to dance.
"My friend, as you call him, had something to attend to more important than dancing, but yes, I would like to dance." She smiled back at him as sweet and innocent a smile as she could manage.
Dancing with Altan was uncomfortable. As hard as she tried, she couldn't build her walls thick enough, and his irritation leaked through. Though she couldn't imagine why he was irritated. Her body was so stiff it was difficult not to stumble, and he seemed the same.
"I'll be glad to be in the air tomorrow and on our way back," he finally said by way of some kind of conversation.
"Yes, I have missed Sidhari. It is difficult to be away from her for so long."
"I thought you tended our Karda every morning?"
"A few minutes in the mornings are not enough. I especially miss the young ones we left in Toldar. I hated leaving them for so long."
He looked down at her, his face softened, and he pulled her slightly closer. "Me too."
Silence settled between them, and the dance ended with a little less tension.