Lora by Rachel Rossano

Monday, August 14, 2006

Chapter Ten

The next morning dawned bright and sunny. Lora pushed herself up in bed and blinked her eyes into focus. Leaning against footboard of her bed was a worn set of sturdy crutches. They were a bit beaten up and when she pulled them up onto her lap to examine them, she found they had been recently adjusted to her height. Assuming Seth had given Ian permission to give them to her, Lora put them beneath her shoulders and practiced taking a turn about the room. With their help, she was able to dress and freshen up without assistance. She was still cautious, though, to obey Seth’s instructions not to put weight on her foot. Eager to try the limits of her new freedom, Lora left her room and ventured out into the hall.

“Ah, I see you have discovered the crutches,” Danica exclaimed when she spotted Lora. “Ian had me try them out so that they would be the right height for you. As you probably noticed, I never had to use them. You are the first female to need them.”

“You never used them?” Lora found that fact hard to believe.

“Nope,” Danica replied. “The boys were always the ones spraining ankles and knees and breaking bones. I just managed to always get the bumps and bruises.”

“Momma!” A young voice came from one of the far bedrooms. “Kosh, I told you not to do that! Patri was playing with that.” A sharp wail that Lora guessed was Patri voicing his anger was followed by a yell and then Jonas’ voice rose above the ruckus. “Momma, Kosh is teasing Patri.”

Danica rolled her eyes and with a sigh hurried in the direction of the noise. Lora listened for a moment, but Danica seemed to have everything under control. Turning toward the stairs, Lora made her way toward them. Her stomach was reminding her that she hadn’t eaten much of her dinner the night before.

The stairs weren’t much of a problem. A seasoned veteran of sprains and other injuries, Lora managed to make a steady, but slow progress downstairs and reached the bottom without mishap. She swung herself around and thumped her way toward the kitchen. The smells of cooking pancakes and blueberry preserve filled air. She pushed open the door to the kitchen and came to an abrupt stop.

Sitting at the table before a heaping plate of pancakes and preserves was a vastly different looking Seth. It took her a moment to realize it was him for his skin was a brown as Quinn and Lachine’s. In fact, if she hadn’t known that he wasn’t Ratharian, she would have never guessed he was anything but.

“Good morning, Lora,” Eve greeted her with a smile as she passed the doorway. She caught Lora’s eye with a wink and a smile. “How many pancakes would you like?” she asked.

“Four please,” Lora answered as she watched Eve cross to the stove. “Dinner was wonderful last night, but I didn’t manage to eat much.”

“Nerves,” Eve said with an understanding nod. “Seth is the same when he gets a new assignment.”

Lora maneuvered her way around the door and into the middle of the room. As she approached the table, she glanced over at Seth and found him glowering at her. He had been intimidating as his normal self, but with the addition of darker skin, he really was daunting. “I thought I told Ian not to give you those.”

“I assumed you had,” she told him. “They were leaning against the end of my bed this morning.” He rose to pull out a chair for her.

“Are you keeping off your ankle?” he asked as he watched her maneuver the crutches aside and slide into the seat without resting her weight on the injured limb.

“Don’t worry. I have had my share of injuries. I have been on crutches before.”

Moving the crutches out of the walkway, he reclaimed his seat. “I guess it is alright as long as you promise to stay off the foot.”

“I promise,” she replied.

Seth began cutting his food. “I talked to Ian earlier this morning. He says he can arrange passage on one of his ships the day after tomorrow. That means we are going to have to leave very early tomorrow morning and ride all day to reach Jumare in time to board in the morning the next day. Quinn and Lachine are already gathering supplies and I am going to busy getting our papers in order. If you don’t mind, I asked Elana and mother to help you pack. Elana pointed out to me that you will probably also need a brief course in the culture of Ratharia before we leave. So, after breakfast, you should find her and start right away.” Lora nodded and he started eating just as Eve set a full plate in front of her.

After preparing her own food with butter and blueberries, Lora glanced over to watch Seth’s work on his own. It was strange to see his dark hands wielding the fork as he cut another bite. “How did you do it?” she asked.

He looked up in surprise. “Do what?”

“How did you darken your skin?”

“Oh.” He smiled; his teeth looking very white against the darkness of his skin. “There are berries that grow on the western sides of the mountains that if you brew them with the right herbs, it makes a harmless stain that darkens skin and hair. I keep a supply with me at all times for emergencies. Mother keeps a supply too.”

“Does it wear off?” she asked.

Nodding, Seth said, “I am going to be taking a large supply with me to keep the tone. I used it the whole time I was in Ratharia last time.”

“Yes, I didn’t know he had been using it and when I saw him, I didn’t recognize him,” Eve said as she set a mug of tea in front of Lora’s plate.

“That was delicious as usual,” Seth said as he pushed his empty plate away. “Lachine is a decent cook and Lora here is excellent, but only you are the best. If I stayed any longer, I would never be able to go back to work. Your good cooking would make me too slow.”

Eve laughed. “Nonsense, you would burn it off somehow. You never stop long enough to bother worrying about slowing down.” Moving toward the stove, she checked on the pancakes in the pan.

“I have a lot of work to do,” Seth told Lora. “Make sure to find Elana once you have finished. There is a great deal to learn before we leave. If you have any questions she cannot answer, come find me. I will most likely be in the library.” With that, he rose. Walking to the door, he paused before going through it. “Lora, remember to keep off that foot. Once we reach the Jumare, you are going to have to walk without the crutches.” Then he was gone, the door swinging close in his wake.

Lora systematically finished her breakfast and tea. With the assistance of Eve, she managed to gain her crutches again; Seth had set them out of her reach. Then she left in search of Elana.

Although she knew the next few hours were going to be full and hectic, Lora enjoyed the anticipation of a new place. She had always wanted to travel and now she was going to be going to Ratharia. If she ever found her brothers, they were going to be very jealous. Thoughts of her brothers reminded her to ask Labren if he could maybe help her locate them after she returned from Ratharia. Seth’s father might know how to find the school where her aunt had enrolled them.

Lora found Elana in the hall outside Ian and her bedroom. She was coming out with a box in her arms. “Ah, you are up,” she said upon seeing Lora. “Have you had breakfast?”

Nodding, Lora returned the beautiful woman’s smile. “I also saw Seth and he said you were going to help me pack and teach me what I need to know about Ratharia.”

Elana’s smile broadened. “So you are ready to begin?” She led the way to Lora’s bedroom and held the door for her. “Seth emphasized that you stay off your ankle, but some of the things I need to teach you will require you to walk a little. I will save those for last. So, sit,” she said waving an elegant hand in the direction of a chair. “Where is your trunk?”

When Lora informed her that she had left her trunk in Anavrea, Elana shook her head and clicked her tongue. “Here read this.” She took a book from her box. Then after handing it to Lora, she disappeared out the door.

The book was thin and simply bound with worn leather. When Lora carefully opened the cover to find it filled with elegantly formed Ratharian letters. ‘The diary of Listhira Yarentis’ was carefully scribed across the first page. As she read, Lora quickly became aware of the magnitude of what she had to learn. By the time Elana returned with Ian and trunk in tow, Lora was halfway through the volume. Ian obediently placed the small trunk where Elana instructed. He winked at Lora as he quickly exited again.

“Eve is coming up soon to help,” Elana informed her as she began folding the garments she had given Lora the day before. The first one to be folded was the purple one Lora had found breathtaking. She watched the way Elana folded the long tunic and the loose pants called inkos. The whole time she folded the outfits, the woman talked.

Lora learned that slaves were sold into slavery for a limited numbers of reasons in Ratharia. First, one sold oneself or one’s family members to get money to pay off debt. Second, one was a spoil of war. Thirdly, one was born of two slave parents who were enslaved for life. She also learned that as a slave, she was always to walk three paces behind Seth’s left shoulder and do nothing unless he bids her. To do otherwise would be an insult to Seth’s authority and she would be worthy of punishment as Seth desired. As a slave, Lora’s place in the household would be beneath both Quinn and Lachine since they were free men. Elana mentioned that Lora might be hassled, if she left the company of Seth, Quinn, and Lachine, so for her own protection she must be sure to be in one of their company whenever she left the house.

“Now,” Elana declared as she laid the last of the clothing in the trunk. “Now it is time for your first lesson in managing your clothing.” Crossing to the box she had carried in with her, Elana drew out a long black shroud. It looked just like the other wraps she had just packed into Lora’s trunk. “Stand up,” she instructed.

Obediently, Lora rose and stood silently as Elana carefully draped the material around her. Lora made note of the tucks and where the material was supposed to drape and how, but she wasn’t sure she was going to be able to duplicate it. Stepping back after she finished, Elana looked her over with a critical eye. “Lower your chin,” Elana ordered, “You are no longer a proud free woman. You are a slave. Show humility. You dread being noticed, because notice brings pain.”

Lora lowered her chin and lowered her eyes.

“Good.” Elana circled her once. “Now walk across the room as best as you can.”

Lora had taken only a few steps when Elana exclaimed, “No, no. See. Watch.” Lora turned to watch as Elana crossed the room. Her steps were short and swift so that she glided across the floor while barely stirring the hem of her dress. It took an hour of painful practice before Lora was able to mimic Elana well enough to suit the young woman. “You are not native born; so, no one will expect you to be able to do it perfectly, but Seth doesn’t need the complication of you showing your ankles to the world and shocking the community.”

Instructing Lora that she had to wear the karbarka, which is what Elana called the black wrap, the rest of the day, Elana began to work on the rules of serving food and drink. The hours passed and before Lora was ready, the clock in the dormitory tower struck noon. Sighing, Elana looked over at Lora with a weak smile. “Lunch,” she said in relief. Then laughing, she said, “Don’t worry, you are doing very well. You are a wonderful student and I am sure you will learn enough by tonight. Come, let us go down.”

Lora wasn’t as convinced. Her head was swimming with all the new information and rules she was trying to remember, not to mention practice. Only practice was going to make the new movements stick. She quickly discovered that she was not going to manage the crutches while wearing the karbarka. Elana helped her remove it and they went down for the meal.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Seth watched Lora’s smooth progress as she descended the staircase. She did handle the crutches like a veteran. Both she and Elana looked tired. For the fiftieth time, he wondered if taking Lora with them was a wise decision. It was true that there was much he could gain from having her with him, but there was much she could lose. Ratharia was a difficult country to live in when you weren’t born to it. It had taken him years to understand and function within the complex and structured society. As a female, she was going to have an even more difficult time. Hidden from the world of men, women were treated as possessions. Valuable possessions, if they were rich and married influential men, or things to used and abused, if they were born poor or of the slaves. Either way, they were treated as less than human. He was taking her to live in such a world. He frowned. At least her collar with its identifying signs would keep her safe, unless, of course, something happened to him. He was going to have to be extra cautious that nothing happened to him.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

After the meal, Lora and Elana returned to the lessons. Lora practiced with the karbarka until she could no longer stand on her ankle without tears coming to her eyes. Elana, seeing her wincing, ordered her to remove the garment and they resumed with the etiquette and culture lessons. The dinner bell rang and Lora began the process of maneuvering herself from the bed onto the crutches. Ian appeared at the door and asked for Elana’s assistance with finding a clean shirt. The one he had worn for the afternoon ramble with his nephews was covered in mud and grass stains and he needed a new one to wear to dinner.

“He never can find anything,” Elana commented to Lora before leaving to help her husband. “I am surprised he never lost a ship considering the things he manages to lose. Are you sure you can manage to make downstairs on your own?” she asked with a searching look at Lora’s face. Lora nodded just as a crash of something falling and Ian’s muffled exclamation caused Elana to hurry from the room.

Easing her injured foot over the edge of the bed, she set it down gingerly on the floor with a grimace. She had over done it. Hoisting herself up with all her weight on good foot, she rose and adjusted the crutches under her arms.

“I see you were disobeyed my orders.” Seth’s voice suddenly came from the direction of the hall.

Lora jumped and bumped her heel against the side of the bed. Biting her lip against a yelp of pain, she blinked furiously to stop the instant tears welled into her eyes. She didn’t look up. She knew what she would see, Seth standing in the doorway looking forbidding and angry. He had every right to be. She had disobeyed his orders, but with good reason, the deadline for her course was the next morning.

Then suddenly a large warm hand caught her chin and gently forced her to raise her face and meet Seth’s strange colored eyes. He was standing close, looking down at her, and blocking all chance of escape with his broad shoulders. As she expected, his expression was hard, but at the sight of her face, it softened. Raising his other hand, he brushed away the tears that had escaped her eyes.

“I am sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you.” He frowned. “Are you alright?”

Lora attempted to swallow the lump in her throat. It wouldn’t budge; so, she nodded instead.

The response that flickered in Seth’s eyes made it clear he did not believe her. “Leave the crutches here. I will carry you down to dinner. I have to speak with you afterwards anyway. At least this way I know you won’t go wandering off before I can catch you.” He smiled down at her. Lora felt her heart beat faster. Then he lifted her up and just like the evening before, he carefully avoided striking her feet on the doorjamb and carried her down the stairs.

The family had completely gathered by then and was waiting for them when they arrived. As soon as Seth had deposited her in her chair and taken his own place, the meal commenced. Jonas was full of the events of Ian’s afternoon with the nephews. Rynan and Labren immediately began discussing the upcoming school schedules and Elana asked Seth about his new appearance.

Lora found herself only half heartedly listening to the different conversations around her. After a few bites, she suddenly found herself no longer hungry. Her eyes remained on her plate, however. It was as if she couldn’t muster the energy to move them unless there was a good reason. Beneath the table, her ankle was throbbing painfully. Just the thought of walking on it tomorrow tightened her chest.

“Why didn’t you have Lora stain her skin, too,” Ian asked suddenly.

Curious because she had wondered the same thing herself, Lora found the strength to look up and across the table to Seth’s place. He was sitting back in his chair with his large, long fingered hands resting on either side of his half empty plate. As she raised her eyes to his face, she was startled to find him watching her.

Without dropping his gaze, he answered his brother. “She will get more latitude as a foreign slave. As a native slave, she would be expected to know all the cultural requirements and rules of a woman’s role in Ratharian society. This way if Elana or I have forgotten something in educating her, her mistake will be in character, not a revealing flaw in her portrayal of her role.”

“Besides, she will get more respect and better treatment as a foreign slave,” Elana added.

Ian seemed satisfied with this explanation. Nobody protested when Seth rose and announced that he had a great deal of work to finish before morning. He kissed Elana’s cheek while murmuring that he was please to meet his brother’s new wife. Understanding that she should make her goodbyes now, Lora turned to find Ian on her other side. He knelt so that he could meet her eyes at a level.

“If Seth never gets around to confessing his feelings to you before you return, I will personally seek him out and pound some sense into his thick skull,” he declared in a whisper. As Lora opened her mouth to protest, he raised his hand. “I know what you are about to say, but you don’t need to say it. You have handled my teasing with patience and I admire that. You are a rare find, Lora Guinia, and if I wasn’t happily married, I would give Seth some competition. I am still hopeful that I will be able to content myself with being your brother-in-law. Regardless, take good care of Seth.” He extended her an open hand. When she offered her own, he took it gently in his and bringing it to his face, brushed her fingers with his lips. Then just as suddenly as he had appeared he was gone and Eve was leaning down to envelope Lora in a warm hug.

“Come back to us,” she said. “No matter what, you will always have a home with us.” Lora’s heart was suddenly full. How wonderful it would be to stay. Eve could replace the mother she had never really had an opportunity to know and Danica and Elana were already quickly becoming like sisters. Somehow Lora knew if she returned, she was never going to be able to tear herself away again. Danica and Elana’s goodbyes were rushed hugs, but they both echoed Eve’s offer. By the time Seth appeared at her side to carry her upstairs, Lora was again blinking back tears. Irritated at herself for being so soft, she tried desperately to hold them at bay. Thankfully Seth didn’t pause to check her emotional state before picking her up. He said a final goodbye and left the room, striding swiftly toward the main foyer and the stairs to the second floor.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Lora was exhausted. Seth had read it in her eyes and her blank observation of her half eaten dinner. He had hoped to talk with her more tonight, but he didn’t have the heart to force her to assimilate any more new information. He saw the tears in her eyes as he bent to raise her into his arms and felt a twinge of guilt. He could still insist she stay, but his head reminded him of all the plans that were already made and the plans already in motion. It was too late to turn back now.

As they entered the foyer, her head lowered and she rested her forehead against the base of his neck. He wondered if she could hear the increase in his heartbeat at her closeness. By the time he reached the first floor, she was beginning to fall asleep. He could feel her muscles relaxing as she gave into unconsciousness. Reaching her door, he eased it open with his foot. He looked down at her limp form. He gently lowered her onto the bed and taking the quilt that lay folded at the end, he covered her. She sighed in her sleep. He waited, but she didn’t wake.

Not trusting himself a moment longer, he left the room shutting the door softly behind him. He would have Danica or Elana check in on her later and make her more comfortable. Yawning, he climbed the stairs to the third floor. He had a long night yet to go. Stifling a yawn, he groaned. Now he was going to be counting the hours until departure, then, and only then, would he allow himself to sleep. Thankfully, he had never had any difficulty sleeping in a carriage.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Lora woke to the sound of someone calling her name. She opened her eyes to blurry dimness. The sun was not up yet.

“Are you awake?” a hushed male voice demanded. Turning her head, she focused on Seth’s face in the flicker of candlelight. “It is time for you to get up and dress. Lachine is loading the carriage and we leave in a few moments. Put this on before I return to get you,” he said, laying a dark colored tunic, inkos, and karbarka on the bedclothes. “Do you understand?” He asked as he brought the candle to shine light on her face.

Nodding her understanding, Lora began pushing herself up from the pillows. Before she was fully seated, Seth was gone and all that remained of his coming was the candle on the nightstand and the attire on the bed at her feet. Sleepily, Lora forced herself to widen her eyes and begin the process of climbing out of bed.

It took some careful negotiations, but she managed to get into all the clothing except the karbarka. Putting any pressure on her injured ankle caused great pain and her uninjured ankle was irritated from doing the job of two the day before. Finally, she managed to get to the chair with the karbarka in her lap lest it was forgotten in the rush of leaving and set both her bound and naked foot on the matching footstool. Elana had given her two pairs of leather shoes to wear with her new garments and a pair of sandals for when she was working around the house, but they had all been packed. Only then, as she was vaguely contemplating her cold feet, did she notice the pair of shoes lying next to the end of the bed. She just sat and looked at them. A hazy idea about getting up and fetching them flickered across her mind, but it was gone before she could fully grasp it. Then her head eased back and the oblivion of sleep claimed her.

* * *

Copyright 2006 by Rachel Rossano.
Do not reproduce without express written permission of the author.

Monday, July 31, 2006

Chapter Nine


Seth looked down at Lora as the rain roared around them. She looked vulnerable and small standing there in the shadow of the great tree holding up the bottom end of a huge umbrella. The tip of the umbrella rested in the quickly softening dirt at her feet. Her damp hair hanging about her face and the uncertainty in her brown eyes, pulled at his heart.

Gone was the creature he beheld in the boat calmly and steadfastly doing what she believed to be right by refusing to repeat his brother’s words. He recalled the determined look in her eye as she raised her chin in a movement he now found familiar and the firm decision in her face as she answered him. She had been strong and confident in her choice. Yet now, that same woman stood before him looking lost and hesitant.

“Ian is an expert at teasing,” Seth told her as he reached for the umbrella. She willingly allowed him to take the monstrosity.

The umbrella was initially made to attach to the cart and shelter the occupants within. There were two of them and Seth could only guess that the other was gone with the cart. Ian had chosen well. The pole of the structure was as thick as one of Lora’s wrists, came up to her chin and the bulky canvas at the end was heavy.

“And he never gives up,” Seth said as he raised the canvas roof over his head and settled the pole against his shoulder. Motioning for her to come beneath the shelter, he frowned. “The trail down is going to be slippery, so take care.” He took her hand in his and started forward into the rain.

As he expected, the way down was tricky. Rain flattened the grass and turned the earth to mud. Rocks that offered a foothold on the trip up were now slick with running water. Seth was thankful for the heavy boots he had put on that morning. They were sturdy and well soled for this type of climbing. With their help, he moved a little ahead of Lora and found the safest way down the trickier parts.

The cart trail was a river of muddy rivulets to be avoided by climbing down the side of the rise. He was climbing down a particularly bad section of the rise with Lora above him so her feet were at eye level. He checked on her progress and then his eye caught sight of a stocking covered foot as she sought out the next foothold. She found a good spot and as he watched, her other foot appeared, shod with a mud encrusted shoe. She reached down yet again and stepped down into the circle of his arms with her face to the side of the hill.

“Why didn’t you tell me you had lost a shoe?” he demanded.

She started slightly at his voice. “Why have you stopped?”

“I asked first,” he replied, raising his voice to be heard over the increased noise of the rain drumming the canvas of the umbrella.

“It wasn’t important, now please move. My grip is slipping.”

Reluctantly he did move, but Seth didn’t waste time readdressing the issue once his feet were firmly on the level ground. Putting down the umbrella, he caught Lora around the waist. Lifting her down the last few feet, he turned her around to face him. She seemed to wince as he set her down on the grass, but he ignored it. “When did you lose it?” he demanded.

Blinking as she looked up at him through the rain, Lora frowned back at him. “It doesn’t matter. I have gone barefoot most of my life. A trudging through the rain barefoot isn’t going to harm me.”

“You should have told me,” he insisted. “Those stockings are not going to help your climbing.”

“What would you have done?” she asked. “You would hardly be able to carry me over that.” She gestured toward the incline they had just climbed down. “I lost the shoe on the first hill. I figured if I told you that I had lost it, you would insist that we go back to the trees and wait out the storm which would have given Ian even more encouragement.”

“I would have at least paid more attention to your progress. You could have fallen and I wouldn’t have been prepared to catch you. I wouldn’t have let you fall so far back.”

A strange look passed across her face. “I suppose you would also like to know how I lost it. I twisted my ankle. Now are you going to get upset with me about that too?” She looked up at him and suddenly Seth realized that there were tears mingling with the rain on her face.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Lora was so angry with herself. Not just because she was silly enough to lose the stinking shoe and twist her ankle doing it, but because she was crying. She hated it when she cried. It was such a female thing to do; something her brothers had always jeered at her about when they were children. She had been okay until Seth had aggravated the ankle by stopping while she was resting most of her weight on it moments ago and now setting her down so abruptly on the grass. The tears had come regardless of her efforts to stop them and now she could see in his face that he saw them too. Closing her eyes against the throb of her ankle and the anger in his face, she willed the tears to stop.

Suddenly without a word, he lifted her up into his strong arms as if she weighed next to nothing. Carrying her over to the shelter of a nearby tree, he set her down gently on the grass. He then knelt in the grass and held out a hand.

“Your foot,” he demanded. The stern look on his face made it clear he intended her to obey immediately, which she did by sticking the throbbing foot out from beneath her skirts. Bending over it, Seth closed his hands gently around it and with gentle fingers, felt his way slowly up it from toes toward the ankle. The tenderness in his fingers made the tears flow even faster. He isn’t for me, she repeatedly told herself as she tried to draw her attention from the warmth of his hands on her cold foot.

Then his fingers touched the swollen ankle and Lora could not catch the soft cry of pain that slipped from her lips. Seth looked up at her with concern in his eyes.

“I want to make sure it isn’t broken,” he told her. “This is going to hurt, but I will try to do it as quickly as I can. Are you ready?” The warmth and concern in his eyes surprised her. Only moments ago he had been so angry.

Taking a deep breath, Lora nodded that she was ready.

He rotated her foot while holding her ankle. Biting her lip, Lora managed to not cry out. Then he straightened it again. “I don’t think it is broken, but you have definitely made the sprain worse by walking on it.” He met her eyes seriously. “I am not going to let you walk on this any more. Thankfully the worst is over and I think I will be able to manage to carry you the rest of the way.” Rising, he strode to the umbrella that still remained where he had dropped it. He closed it and brought it back to set it against the trunk of the tree.

“Put your arms around my neck,” he instructed. He crouched down to lift her. Lora obeyed as he brought her up against him. Immediately he started walking through the grass and mud. The rain slowed and the wind died down making the going easier. Still it was a few minutes before either one of them spoke.

“I need you to promise that you will tell me right away next time you injure yourself.” Seth’s breath was shortened with his work, but the firm set to his face, which was now only inches from her own made his seriousness clear to Lora. “I ask this not because you are a woman, but because you are part of my team. Right now it doesn’t matter much, but once we are in the middle of an operation you communicating with me that you are injured is going to be essential. Then it will be a matter of life or death for you and others. Do you understand me?” He turned his head to meet her eyes.

As understanding of what he was saying sunk into Lora’s fogged mind, a heavy feeling of guilt followed. Yet again she felt the pressure of unshed tears in back of her throat and a subdued sob tightening her chest. She was not prepared for the intensity of his gaze as his grey-green gaze locked with hers. Whatever he saw in her face made him pause.

“Are you alright?” he asked as his face softened. “We will be at the house in a few minutes. Then Mother will get you some warm dry clothing and I will make a compress for that ankle. Then, if you like, I will track down Ian and have it out with him. After all it is his fault you got stuck in this situation in the first place.”

She shook her head. “Don’t hurt Ian. He is just trying to help you toward what he believes will make you happy.”

Something intense crossed Seth’s face. He turned away and started walking even more quickly than before. Lora was beginning to think that she might have offended him, when he suddenly spoke. “I won’t touch Ian, but I am going to give him a talking to. I don’t care what his motives are; he shouldn’t be giving you such a hard time.”

They lapsed into silence again. Lulled by the movement of Seth’s strides, Lora felt her eyes growing heavy. He was warm and his body heat was spreading through her making her limbs feel leaden. She was comfortable despite the steady throb of her ankle. Without thinking about it, she let her head fall against Seth’s shoulder and gradually fell asleep.

“Lora, you are going to have to let go.” Seth’s voice broke through her slumber. Suddenly opening her eyes, she found Seth’s face only inches from her own. “You need to release my shirt,” he informed her with a twinkle in his eye. Lora promptly relaxed her fingers and Seth straightened.

She was lying on a bed and Eve was going through the little clothing she had. “I don’t see another clean dress anywhere,” she announced. “I guess we will have to put her in one of the outfits Elana gave her.”

“Whatever you want to do, Mother,” Seth replied. “Just let me know when you are done; I will go change and make that compress for her ankle. Don’t let her put any weight on it.”

Eve frowned dramatically at her son. “I know how to treat a twisted ankle, Son. Who do you think taught you how to treat one?” She waved her hand in his direction. “Go get changed or you will catch a cold.” Seth exited the room and Eve began helping Lora out of her wet clothing. With little fuss and impressive economy, Eve had Lora in dry clothing and back on the bed.

The moment Eve closed the door behind her, Lora dropped off to sleep. She woke to someone wrapping her foot in something moist and warm. She looked to the end of the bed to find Seth bent over her ankle as he carefully wrapped a cloth around it. His hair was mussed as if he had just rubbed it with a towel without combing it yet.

“How does it look?” she asked.

Seth met her eyes and smiled slowly. A dark curl fell down over his forehead between his eyes giving him a boyish look. “It is better than earlier. If you keep being good and resting, I might let you come down to dinner. I have assured everyone that you were going to be fine, but they are all eager to see for themselves. Ian dug out a set of our old crutches for you to use, but I am not sure I am going to allow you to use them yet.”

“You want to make Ian suffer a little longer?” she asked.

“That is a good idea, but no.” He eyed her seriously. “Considering your behavior earlier today, I am not sure I trust you to not put pressure on it.” Returning his attention to the compress, he finished wrapping it and placed her foot gently on the bed. “Now go back to sleep. I will return in time to carry you down for dinner.”

He rose and picked up the bowl he had apparently used to carry the compress. Coming to the side of the bed he looked down at her for a moment. The intense look that had crossed his face before burned in his eyes again. Then suddenly it was gone. “I will return,” he said as he turned away. She watched as he exited, closing the door behind him with a soft click of the latch.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Seth came down from the library to fetch Lora. He still had not sorted out the mess in his head, but he felt less shaken than when he had left her room a few hours ago. This vacation was not turning out how he expected. Instead of feeling rested and relaxed, he felt tense and bothered, more than he had in years. Taking a deep breath, he let it out slowly before knocking on Lora’s door.

Hearing a muffled summons, Seth opened and stepped into the room. Glancing toward the bed, where expected her to be, he was surprised to find it empty.

“I am over here,” Lora informed him, drawing his attention to the chair next to the door. “Before you ask,” she continued, “I didn’t put any weight on my ankle.” She looked up at him with a smile. “I have twisted my ankle this badly before and I know how to get around a little.”

“So, are you hungry?” he asked as he examined her face. The pain was gone from her eyes and she had tidied her hair. Seth found himself wishing she had not. He liked the sight of her hair hanging about her face in soft curls.

“Starving,” she replied.

Leaning down, he scooped her into his arms. Without prompting, she slipped her arm around his neck. Cautious of striking her feet against the doorway, he turned and exited the bedroom.

They were at the head of the staircase to the first floor when the bell rang at the front door. Seth stopped and turned. Walking along the balcony overlooking the foyer, he moved to where he could see the man standing outside the door. At the sight of the green and gold livery, he felt his stomach turn. A vacation with tension was still a vacation and he wasn’t ready to end it. The arrival of a man dressed in the Anavrean Royal House’s colors most likely was signaling the end of his break.

“Who is it?” Lora asked. He turned his head slightly to find her watching his face with concern.

“A messenger from my uncle, if I don’t miss my guess.”

Just then, Ian was crossing the foyer to answer the door. He glanced up at them as he set his hand on the handle, but didn’t say anything. Opening the door, he greeted the new arrival.

“A message from His Majesty Ireic Theodoric King of Anavrea for Jorthta Ethan,” the man announced.

“I will see that he gets it,” Ian said as he extended his hand.

“I have instructions to deliver it into his hands only and await a reply.”

Seth frowned. It was serious if Ireic wanted an immediate reply. Ian looked up and met his gaze questioningly. Seth nodded. Turning back to the stairs with Lora still in his arms, he quickly descended. Upon reaching the first floor, he crossed to the door.

“I am Jorthta Ethan,” Seth informed the messenger. The man’s eyes widened as he took in Seth’s relaxed attire and Lora, who was still in his arms. “If you would just hand the envelope to Lora here, I will have an answer for you to take within the hour. Ian will escort you to the kitchens so you might have something to eat while you wait.”

Looking uncertain, the young man hesitated, but finally relinquished the message into Lora’s outstretched hand. As soon as he withdrew his hand, Seth turned to Ian. “Tell them, I will not be joining them for dinner so they should begin without me.”

“What about Lora?” Ian asked.

Looking down at her, he said, “Have something brought in for her. If this is what I think it is, we will need to talk. We will be in the study.”

Ian nodded and ushered the messenger in the direction of the kitchen. Seth carried Lora into a room right off the main hall that led back to the dining room. He kicked the door closed behind him and set Lora on a soft overstuffed chair. Taking the letter from her, he walked across the thick carpet that covered the center of the floor. Picking up the letter opener from the desk, he broke the seal and unfolded the thick packet of papers. He then scanned the contents with growing unease.

As he expected, the Raijia’s health had taken a turn for the worse and his uncle was ordering him to leave for Ratharia as soon as possible. What he hadn’t expected was the news that all the contacts that still remained were disappearing. The network was being eliminated man by man. Seth frowned. If someone was killing off agents, he was going to have to be more cautious that he was planning already. Either someone was anti-Anavrean enough to kill and they knew how to identify the contacts or the contacts were getting messy and forgetting to be discreet.

“Was it what you expected?” Lora asked. He turned to find her watching him with concern.

“Worse,” he told her as he flipped through the sheets. Traveling papers for all of them, including Lora, were enclosed. The only information missing from the documents was name, occupation, and purpose of travel. The orders were clearly spelled out with the each objective outlined in detail. As Seth had dreaded, one of his assignments was to establish a reliable system for gathering and retrieving data. He closed his eyes. A long and difficult journey lay ahead. The challenges and intrigue that this opportunity offered should have made him eager to rise to the task, but he found himself thinking of how long he was going to be away from home.

Frowning, he crossed to the chair across from Lora’s and sat with a sigh. “We are going to be leaving for Ratharia in two days at the latest, sooner if I can arrange it.” He met her eyes. “I need to know if you wish to go with us,” he said. She opened her mouth, but he raised his hand to stop her from speaking. “Before you tell me your answer, you need to know some things. First, you will be going as my slave girl. It will be easier for you to keep your nationality that way. You won’t truly be a slave, but for purposes of the mission, that is the only way to not arouse suspicion. Your duties will be to keep house and cook. The three of us will guide you a little, but for cultural reasons, while in public, we will ignore you.

“I will be expecting you to keep your eyes and ears open. Each evening you will report to me everything you have observed during that day. If you have an opportunity to make friends, make them. You job will be to be accepted as a slave girl and collect gossip and news items as they pass through the slave and servant world. It will be dangerous work and difficult. Are you still interested in coming with us?”

He watched her face as she promptly replied, “Yes.”

“You don’t have to go,” he clarified. “You can remain right here. My parents would welcome you as one of the family. They are growing very fond of you.”

She shook her head. “I wish to go to Ratharia.”

“All right, then let us start working out the details.” A knock on the door interrupted him. It was Quinn with a tray of food.

“There is a messenger from the king in the kitchen. Did he bring orders?”

“Yes,” Seth replied.

Quinn nodded solemnly. “Lachine and I suspected as much. Do you wish me to fetch him?”

“Yes, do.” Seth rose to take the tray. “Also, please tell the messenger to come here after he has finished his meal. I will have a written answer for him by then.”

Quinn nodded and disappeared out the door. Setting the tray on the desk, Seth served Lora. His mother, as usual, sent in another place setting for him, but he ignored it. He didn’t have time. Crossing back to the desk, he set the tray aside; taking out a sheet of parchment and the uncapping the ink well, he began the process of wording his acceptance of the commission and communicating his plans and needs.

He finished by the time Quinn returned with Lachine in tow. Sealing the missive, Seth set it aside and pulled his plate toward him. He would eat while they planned.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Lora listened with fascination as Seth, Quinn, and Lachine flushed out every detail of their journey from the Academy to where in the capital city of Ratharia they were going to rent a house. The men worked together with the seamlessness of long acquaintance and friendship.

It was late when they finally began to wind down the conversation and Lachine rose to leave. Smiling down at Lora, he slipped quietly out into the dark hallway. Quinn and Seth sat for a few moments in silence before Quinn spoke.

“You realize that the neighbors are going to assume that she is your concubine.” Seth met his friend’s gaze. Weariness pulled at Seth’s features and the stress line around his eyes and mouth that had lightened over the past few days were deepening again.

“Do you know of another role for her? I cannot think of a way to make it seem otherwise.”

Quinn nodded slowly in understanding. “I just wanted to make sure you had thought about that aspect.”

“We are going to need her. There is no other way to keep a finger on the gossip and what is going on in the homes of our neighbors.”

Quinn nodded again.

Seth rubbed his temples. “I am sorry I couldn’t manage a longer break.”

“You needed it more than we did.” Rising, Quinn laid a hand briefly on Seth’s shoulder as he crossed to the door. He reached for the handle and then looked over to Lora, sitting in the same chair that Seth had placed her in hours before. He stood silently, meeting her gaze for a few moments with his unreadable dark eyes. “Get some sleep. We all have a long day ahead of us tomorrow,” he said and then left.

Silence descended over the room. Lora watched Seth as he rested his head on his hands. His broad shoulders were bowed as if he carried a heavy load. From her angle, all she could see was the top of his dark head and his fingers threaded through the almost black strands of his hair. His face was hidden in the shadows. After a few minutes, she began to wonder if he had forgotten her presence. Then he sighed and straightened.

“Are you still sure you wish to go with us?” he asked suddenly. The heavy tone in his voice made her wonder if he expected her to change her mind.

“My answer is the same,” she told him, meeting his gray-green gaze.

He nodded without looking away. Then he rose. Crossing to her chair, he looked down at her and his eyes darkened. Then without a word, he lifted her into his arms. Lora felt suddenly light headed. Leaning into his shoulder and tightening her grip on the back of his neck, she willed her heart to stop its sudden pounding.

In silence, he carried her up to her room and set her gently on the bed. “Rest well,” he said and then was gone, closing the door behind him.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Copyright 2006 by Rachel Rossano
Do not reproduce without express written permission of the author.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Chapter Eight


The morning of the picnic, Lora opened her eyes to find a gray hazy light coming through her window and filling her room with muted tones. Even before she pulled back the curtains, she knew what she would see. The cloudy sky gave everything a heavy dull look. Even the trees in the orchard, which had looked so bright and cheerful the day before, were looking limp and depressed this morning.

I doubt we are still going to have our picnic. She even as she realized that the plans would have to be changed, she felt a little less cheerful. The picnic place sounded beautiful and she had been looking forward to seeing the tree house that Jonas and Kosh raved about the day before. It would have been an opportunity to spend some time with Seth, Quinn, and Lachine too. She had not seen them at all the day before and she was realizing she missed their company.

She had been too busy to notice the missing men at first. Her morning had been very full. There were children to bathe and feed. Elana and Eve insisted she spend time with them so both of them could make progress toward being able to communicate. Lora found working with the mother and daughter-in-law enlightening. Even as Eve and Elana were beginning to get to know each other, Lora was growing to like them both.

Eve was so warm and accepting, she made everyone about her comfortable. Lora found herself drawn to the woman. When she reflected upon the overwhelming response in herself to being near Eve, Lora began to wonder if it was because she never really related to her own mother this way.

Elana was like the sister she had never had. Once Elana heard that Seth was taking her with him to Ratharia, she immediately asked, “Do you have clothes?”

Puzzled, Lora replied, “I have dresses.”

Dramatically shaking her head, Elana laughed. “No, you must not wear dresses like that.” She pointed to the worn, but still presentable dress Lora was wearing. “You will need to dress like the locals otherwise, Seth will be fined for indecently exposing you.” Seeing Lora’s look of surprise and worry as she tried to figure out how she was going to manage to find such items, Elana touched her hand and smiled. “Don’t worry. I will look into it after lunch.”

When lunch arrived, look to it she did. Cornering Seth before he got to the table, she quizzed him on where they would be traveling, what arrangements he had already made, and what Lora’s duties would be. Promptly after lunch, she took Lora up to her room and they spent the afternoon planning clothing for the trip.

Even now, in the dreary light of the morning, Lora was still in awe of the beauty of the clothing Elana had picked out. After she dressed in her only clean dress, a simple dark green piece, she paused to let her fingertips graze the silken material of the purple over tunic of the fanciest outfit. Lora had never worn anything so beautiful; in fact, she felt uncomfortable about the thought of wearing the flowing garment in public. She was certain she would ruin it by accident, certain that Elana had been wrong in assuring her that she would need it in Ratharia, she turned toward the door. After all she was only Seth’s housekeeper, not his wife.

The hall was empty and surprisingly quiet. As she walked across the wood floor toward the stairs, Lora began to wonder if she had over slept or under slept. Then a crash from the front hall drew her attention. Running to the banister, she glanced down to find Lachine looking over a scattered pile of folded umbrellas and muttering to himself.

By the time she reached the first floor, he had begun collecting them again. His arms were full and he was trying to set them aside so he could pick up the last two, when he spotted Lora.

“Could you grab those two for me and carry them for me?” he asked, jutting his chin toward the two smaller umbrellas lying at her feet.

Picking them up, she asked, “Where are you taking them?”

“Eve wants them in the dining room, so they can be loaded on the cart for the picnic.”

“But it is going to rain,” she protested as Lach started toward the back of the house. She followed carrying the last two umbrellas.

“Apparently, that is what they want these for,” Lach replied as they entered the dining room to find the table laden with baskets and blankets. He began to maneuver his burden into a position so he could set it on the floor, when Ian entered through the back door.

“Ah, just what we were waiting for. Lach, why don’t you just carry those out and put them in the cart? Father knows where he wants them.” Crossing to Lora, he took the two she carried. “You better scoot into the kitchen, Mother was about to send the children up to wake you. We are packing up and will be ready to start the walk in less than a half hour.” He smiled and winked at her before turning to open the door for Lach.

Obediently entering the kitchen, she found Seth and Danica arguing over what was an acceptable age to begin teaching boys self defense while Eve attempted to pack the last of their lunch around them. Stepping in to help Eve by placing bundles and dishes into the open basket on the table, Lora listened to the siblings argue.

“I still say the earlier the better,” Seth told his sister as he leaned against the wall and crossed his arms over his chest. He looked forbidding as he frowned across at Danica who was spoon-feeding Asha. “Father gave me my first lesson when I was seven, after Toniah Jarone pounded me for my share of the taffy from the taffy pull party. Toniah never tried it again after I returned the favor when he tried to take my gingerbread.”

“Yeah, but you used that same skill to torment Ian and me when we didn’t do what you wanted.” Danica waved the empty spoon in her daughter’s direction. “I don’t want to come across the boys doing the same to Asha.”

“Then teach her, too.”

“What?” Danica raised her eyebrows at her brother. “I am going to have enough trouble as it is with her being a tomboy running after her brothers and learning their bad habits. I am not going to have her learning such a boyish thing.”

“So, what are you going to do, Danica, when you find her crying a corner, because one of her brothers took her dolls and beheaded them? You remember what you did when Ian did that to yours?”

Danica paused and a glimmer of pride passed across her face before she contained it. Turning back to her daughter with a determined frown, she said, “That does not count.”

“What did she do?” Lora couldn’t help asking.

Seth smiled, looking pleased that he had made his point. “She gave him a black eye.” Pushing off from the wall, he crossed to lean on the table at his sister’s side. “Asha will turn out just fine, Danica. Just look at Lora. She grew up with four older brothers without a mother to protect her femininity and she turned out just fine.”

Lora looked up in surprise to find Seth looking at her. Something flickered in his eyes. Winking, he asked, “So, Lora when did you learn to fight back and hold your own?”

Dropping her eyes, she turned her attention to the packing and tried to ignore the warming of her face. Seth did not take the hint.

“Come on, Lora. I know you held your own because Quinn and Lach don’t scare you. I don’t even scare you and I have been known to intimidating.”

You are intimidating. Lora frowned. Then closing the basket lid, she finally said, “I got in a fight with Braun because he broke my doll’s head by throwing it across the room. He won, but I gave him a bloody nose.” Homesickness for her brothers caused moisture to build up behind her eyes.

“See, Danica,” Seth said, turning back to his sister. “I am telling you. I think you should let Rynan teach Jonas to defend himself before these older school students make it necessary. He has the right idea and I am sure he will impress upon Jonas the importance of only using force when necessary.”

Dancia remained silent, but Seth smiled down at her. Turning to Eve, he asked, “Is the last basket ready, Mother?”

Eve looked up from the napkins she was pulling out of a drawer. “You can take it out to the cart, but be careful. There are breakable and spillable items in this one. Be sure to tell Labren that this is the fragile one.”

Nodding, Seth turned toward Lora. “I know you agree with me, Lora,” he said as he lifted the basket from the table. “Try to convince her for Asha’s sake. I would hate to see that girl at the mercy of three older brothers. Danica barely survived and she only had me and Ian.” With that, he exited through the door into the dining room. Eve followed right behind him with her arms full of linens.

“I hate it when he is right,” Danica declared as she wiped Asha’s laughing face. Even being spoon fed the girl had managed to get food all over her face, hands, and the highchair. Lora watched as Danica extracted Ash’s thumb from her mouth long enough to wash the arm. Asha immediately stuck it back in and started sucking on it fiercely. Picking the baby up, Danica turned in her seat to face Lora. “Was it really that bad?” she asked.

Lora smiled in spite of the dull ache in her chest. “It wasn’t bad, just difficult. Father wasn’t the one who taught me to fight. It was Kaled, my oldest brother. He saw how Braun was constantly picking on me, so he took me aside one day and taught me how to fight with my fists. Then the next day, Braun broke my only doll. I hit him so fast he didn’t react in time to defend himself. I was aiming for his eye, but I hit his nose. He got so mad that he slapped me. Father walked in, just in time to see that. I promised I would never punch anyone again and Braun got a severe lecture on not hitting girls.”

“You miss them,” Danica observed.

Lora swallowed the lump in her throat and nodded.

Danica smiled warmly. “Well you are part of my family now and we will try to fill that hole until Seth and Father find them. Come hold Asha. She is such a happy baby, she will make you smile.”

Lora willingly accepted the giggling baby. Asha promptly reached out her slobbered hand and patted the side of Lora’s face. Chattering to herself in her baby language, she smiled happily up at Lora and Lora found she could not help smiling back. She followed Danica outside and waited while she climbed into the wagon By the time she handed the baby to her mother, Lora did feel better.

Turning to catch up with the others walking through the orchard in the direction of the picnic site, Lora spotted Lach. Soon she was falling into step with him as they passed through the orchard gate and started the gradual climb toward the trees. Within minutes the cart passed them and they were the last of the group to be walking to the picnic.

“So, what do you think of Seth’s family?”

Lora looked over at Lach to find him smiling knowingly at her. “Oh no, not you, too,” she protested.

“What do you mean, not me, too?” he asked.

“You aren’t going to start trying to pair Seth and me up?” One glance at his face answered her question. He had been thinking just that.

“Why shouldn’t you set your eyes on Seth?” he asked. She stopped and stared at him a moment. He turned and meeting her eyes, raised his eyebrows questioningly. “He is a handsome and honorable man and you could do a lot worse. I am sure your brothers would approve of him. I am like a brother and I approve of it.”

She frowned at him. “It isn’t his character that bothers me,” she admitted as she realized that the others were drawing away. Continuing up the hill, she walked past him.

“Then what?” he asked as he fell into step with her.

“You aren’t going to give up are you?”

“No, so you better tell me.”

“We come from different classes. I am a poor professor’s daughter with no dowry or money. He is a titled man with power and prestige. He is the nephew of the King of Anavrea.” She shook her head. “No, he is not for me. Besides, he is married to his work.”

Lach also shook his head and frowned. “Those things don’t matter to him. You should know that by now.”

Lora didn’t answer his comment. Instead, she picked up her pace. Lach matched it. They were gaining on the group among the trees when a thought occurred to her. “Why doesn’t anyone assume you and I are a pair? You pay more attention to me than he does.”

“Maybe it is because you remind me of the sister I left behind in Ratharia,” he offered her with a smile. “I can remember her playing with dolls and getting into scrapes, but while I was away in the infantry, I missed her growing up. When I returned, she was married and had children pulling at her skirts. I couldn’t get to know her then. It was too late; her days were full of cooking, cleaning, and pleasing her husband.”

He grinned at her. “Then you showed up. Someone has to see that you don’t get yourself hurt and look after you until you find a husband of your own. I figure with your brothers gone, I should step in and keep an eye on you.”

She looked at him in disbelief. “And what might you get out of all this work?”

“I am hoping you will let me be an uncle to your little ones,” he suggested.

She laughed. “You are just as bad as the rest of them. I am going to have to go walk with Quinn. At least he won’t tease me.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Seth watched as Lach and Lora climbed the trail. She was laughing, her head thrown back and her eyes dancing. Lach helped her over a steep part of the trail and Seth frowned.

“You aren’t getting jealous, are you?” Ian asked from his place slightly higher on the trail.

“Hush,” he told his brother.

“Come on, Seth,” Ian said as he came to stand beside him. “I am telling you that you should reconsider your future. There is a lot that can be said in favor of settling down with a wife and starting to think about a family.”

Seth shoved his brother away. “I told you I didn’t want to talk about it.”

“Fine,” Ian said, stepping back and spreading his hands slightly to the side, “but you are thinking about it and that is a start.”

Seth strode in the direction of the picnic site. As much as he hated it, his brother was right, he was thinking about it. Try as he might, he could not make the thoughts stay out of his mind.

“Uncle Seth,” Jonas cried as Seth emerged from the trees into the clearing. Jumping over the baskets, the boy ran over to Seth and grabbed his hand. “Come up in the tree house with me. I want to show you what I did.”

“Be careful,” Danica reminded them as Jonas pulled at Seth’s hand in the direction of the ladder. “Make sure he doesn’t fall,” she added before turning back to spreading the blankets on the grass. Seth allowed his nephew to tug him across the grass to the base of the tree.

“Father and I added the railing,” Jonas informed him. Seth only half-listened as his nephew talked about how he and his father had improved the tree house. Improved it they had. When Seth had last been up in it the ‘house’ had only been a wooden platform propped into the branches of the large oak with long boards. Now it was more secure in its placement and a sturdy looking banister ringed the outside edge. Rynan had begun to attach wooden slats to the outside to that they ran from the floor to a little past the top of the railing. Eventually the sides would be covered with the slats, making it possible to hide completely from sight, but the work had only covered one side.

“Jonas, come down.” Danica’s voice rang clearly across the clearing.

Obediently, Jonas scrambled to the ladder and soon the top of his head disappeared beneath the floor. Lying flat on his back, Seth stared up into the branches. The light was dim and the leaves rustled restlessly as the breeze picked up. Breathing deeply of the heavy air, he felt himself relaxing for the first time in ages. Closing his eyes, he let his mind wander.

The details of the mission ahead marched across his brain, but he pushed them aside. He and his father had taken care of the last of those items yesterday. He had wanted to get them out of the way so he wouldn’t have to worry about them. Now that they were dealt with, he could truly escape from the stress of his work.

“So this is where you went.” Ian’s voice cut through his thoughts. “Jonas and I are organizing a little game and I thought you should join us.”

“Can’t you see I am resting? Go away and leave me be,” he said without opening his eyes.

“Fine, but I can’t promise I will behave,” Ian told him smugly in a low voice. “Then who will defend Lora, if you aren’t there.”

Suddenly rolling over, Seth opened his eyes and reached for the source of his brother’s voice. Ian ducked and Seth’s fingers grasped at the air where his head had been. Back on his back, he frowned up at the leaves. Ian was not going to let him have a moment’s peace unless he showed Lora some attention.

Thankful he had clarified things with her already, he reluctantly sat up and moved toward the hole for the ladder. If he joined them now and showed her some friendly attention, Ian would be satisfied and leave him alone for a time. At least he hoped his brother would.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“Come.”

Lora looked up from the napkin in her lap to find Seth standing over her looking grim. She frowned up at him, but taking the hand he offered her, she allowed him to pull her to her feet. Drawing her with him, he headed toward the rowboat tied to a short pier on the edge of the water.

“Where are we going?” she asked.

“I promised I would take you out on the water in the boat. Ian is starting to hatch another idea to get us together, so I thought now was a good time to take you.” He glanced back at her.

Ian’s attempts at keeping her and Seth together were painfully obvious. Every game they had played had been pair oriented and since all the other adults were married, she and Seth were thrown together. She didn’t mind having him for a partner. In fact, she enjoyed his company. He was good at everything they tried and compensated for her lack of knowledge or skill. She found herself enjoying him, but Seth’s darkening mood had given her the impression that he, on the other hand, did not appreciate being on her team.

She followed him to the water, though he didn’t give her a choice. He didn’t release her hand until they reached the edge and he needed both hands to draw the boat alongside the dock.

“Put your hand on my shoulder and step in,” he instructed as he held the edge of the boat.

She laid her hand on his broad shoulder and stepped down into the bobbing boat. As soon as she was seated, he followed and sat down at the oars. With a firm shove, he pushed the craft away from the dock and out onto the water. Bending to the oars, he rowed them out into the center of the water before lifting the oars out of the water and letting the boat float placidly.

Lora felt her heart constrict in fear when she looked up to find him watching her expectantly. He was intimidating. His keen eyes studied her face as if he could read what he wanted to know if he just looked hard enough. It didn’t help that he frowned at her as he reached for her hands. Considering the dark look on his face, Lora half expected his touch to be rough, but he took her hands gently in his.

Lowering his eyes, he said, “I was just speaking with Elana. She said Ian refuses to tell her what he said to you during dinner the day we arrived.” His thumbs caressed the back of her hands and she began to feel warm. “I know you don’t want to tell me about it, but I am beginning to think you should.” He raised his eyes and met hers. “Ian has been known to go beyond the rules of propriety to make his point. The years at sea with a crew of all men has only encouraged his rebellious nature. Add in the fact he has been a captain accustomed to his word being law and he can get downright obnoxious at times. If he has done so with you, I wish to confront him on it.”

Lora felt the warmth creeping to her face as it always did when she thought of Ian’s suggestions that day. Even as she lowered her eyes and wished that Seth would release her hands, she was certain she was not going to be able to repeat Ian’s words, not just because she was embarrassed by the words themselves but by the reaction that they had drawn out of her. Despite all her denials to the contrary, she knew she was attracted to Seth.

She liked the comfortable friendship that they were developing. Bringing the possibility of more up before they were ready for it would kill the friendship and make them both awkward with each other.

Carefully she shook her head.

“No, he did not act inappropriately or no, you aren’t going to tell me?” Seth asked.

Lifting her head and meeting his darkened eyes, she said, “Both.”

His eyes held hers for a few moments before he seemed satisfied. “You will tell me if he bothers you?” he asked.

Nodding, Lora agreed. “So, what did you want to show me about the swimming hole?” she asked to make it clear that she wished to change the topic.

He smiled slowly in understanding. Then turning to scan the far end of the pond, he pulled out the oars and began to maneuver the craft in that direction. The sky above darkened so that just as they reached the right spot, it began to rain. “I will have to show you another time,” he said as the rain started to increase. Bending to the oars, he turned the dingy once again in the direction of the dock.

By the time Seth tied the boat up and helped her out, the rest of the family had packed up the cart with gear, children, and leftover food. Loaded heavily, it was already making its way down the beginning of the trail, when Lora reached the shelter of the trees. Ian was handing out the last of the umbrellas for the walk to the house. “The last one,” he informed Lora as she approached. Handing her a heavy pole with yards of canvas, he then turned to open his own. “You and Seth are going to have to share.” He winked and taking his own portable shelter, headed for the trail.

Lora frowned down at the cumbersome umbrella he had handed her. Certain she was not going to manage carrying it all the way back, she was beginning to consider walking on her own and leaving it for Seth.

“He did it again, didn’t he?” She looked up to find Seth standing over her looking soaked to the skin already, his dark hair plastered to his head. Beyond their meager shelter, the water poured down in sheets.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Copyright 2006 by Rachel Rossano
Do not reproduce without express written permission of the author.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Chapter Seven


Seth spent his afternoon wandering about and visiting his old haunts. He spotted Lachine and Quinn talking with Horan, the groundskeeper, when he passed the vegetable gardens. He encountered Danica and Lora mid-tour at least twice. Danica’s cheerful voice echoed in the empty rooms of the dormitories and Seth had no trouble avoiding them. He also almost walked in on Ian and Elana having an intense discussion in rapid Ratharian in the front room. They had paused for a moment, but as Seth’s hand was on the knob, Ian started to apologize. Seth quickly turned and walked back the way he had come.

The sky was growing red, when he found himself standing outside the old library. Located at the top of the main house, it was once the library for the whole school when the Academy was confined to the main house. Now it was still a library, but Father used it as a study and during the school year students could be found haunting the chairs and couches. Easing the heavy oak doors open, he slipped into the welcoming atmosphere of his favorite room in the house.

Tall windows lined the opposite wall making bands of red-gold light on the carpets. Bookshelves laden with heavy volumes lined the walls. Across the room, sitting with his back to the window, was Seth’s father. Since Seth could remember, he could find his father in just this position, at his desk reading or writing with his head bent over his work.

Silver, more than the last time he had found him thus, highlighted Labren’s temples. It stood out against his dark brown hair. What concerned Seth more, though, was the presence of the intricately carved walking stick leaning against the edge of the desk. It meant that his father’s old injuries were causing trouble again.

As he approached, Labren looked up from the letter he was writing. Leaning back in his chair, he greeted his son with a smile that brightened his whole face and made his laugh lines deepen. “As I said before, it is good to see you home, Seth.”

Seth nodded as he sank into a nearby chair. “I am very glad to be home. It has been too long.”

“Ireic works you hard I am sure.” Labren sighed as he ran his hands through his hair. “He always works his men hard.”

“No harder than he works himself,” Seth pointed out.

His father nodded in agreement.

Meeting his father’s deep blue gaze from across the desk, Seth frowned. “I came to seek your advice and your help.”

“What is the trouble?”

“Uncle Ireic is sending me to Ratharia.” Seth watched as his father’s face darkened slightly with concern. “He wants me to defend Anavrea’s interest in the coming transition of power. The contacts I set up during my time over there before have broken down. He wants more complete and reliable information in all the usual areas.”

Leaning back, Labren crossed his arms and began studying the air. “Are you planning on using Quinn and Lachine?”

“Yes,” Seth agreed, “Both of them are ready and willing. Lora also appears interested. She would give me an avenue into some areas I have not been able to enter before, but I am reluctant to use her openly. I have been initially planning on her just keeping her eyes and ears open as she performs the usual duties of a housekeeper and cook. Her being there will also free up Lachine for other duties.

“My main point of concern is getting within the walls of the Raijia’s palace. Uncle Ireic can’t just give me clearance as ambassador because it would ruin my cover as a merchant and close more doors than it would open. I know you have contacts in the Raijia’s service; is it possible one of them could get me in?”

Slowly Labren nodded. “I believe I know of someone you can contact. He was once a student here. In fact, I can give you two names. Randare Portis is the right hand man of Tritarn, the Raijia’s nephew and Arickan Laroris is the Raijia’s Sharid.” The Sharid was a hereditary title of the Raijia’s Prime Minister. “Both were once students here. Arickan graduated right before you were born and Randare left us when you were four.”

Labren sighed and continued. “You probably recall the big uproar about five years ago when the current Sharid made his nephew his heir instead of his son.”

Seth vaguely recalled hearing about the incident. Many of the Raijia’s opponents had raised questions, especially when it was discovered that the heir apparent, Arickan Laroris, had been educated outside of Ratharia. The Ratharians were very proud of their education system for their young men. The fact that the second highest position in the country was going to be given to a young man who had been educated in Braulyn by foreigners caused quite a fuss. As was the usual way of things in the Ratharian court, a new issue drew the court’s attention a month later and the Sharid position was forgotten for the time being.

“How long has he been Sharid now?” Seth asked.

“About three years,” Labren answered. “He has been showing great potential as a statesman. He would be a valuable ally for you to have.”

Seth nodded agreement. “Would you mind writing to him this week? I am planning on setting up shop and house as a native merchant returning from Braulyn. If you would introduce me as such and request that I be able to meet with him after I arrive, that would be perfect. I haven’t begun making the arrangements yet, but I am hoping to set up house in the capital city.”

His father leaned forward and picking up his pen, scribbled a note on one of the loose sheets of paper on his desk. “Consider it done,” he told Seth. “I will work on it tomorrow morning before the first of the teachers arrive.”

“The other matter that I was hoping you could help me with is concerning Lora.” Seth watched his father’s eyebrows raised and found himself frowning in response. “It isn’t as I know you are hoping, Father,” he clarified. “I know you and mother are hoping I will settle down with a nice wife and give you more grandchildren. The fact I have brought Lora along with me has brought all those desires to the surface. I want to make it clear that I am not planning on marrying anytime in the near future. Anavrea and Uncle Ireic need me and I have sworn to serve.”

“That was not what I was thinking, Son.”

Seth looked up in surprise.

“Well, not completely what I was thinking,” he clarified. “I do hope for all those things you have just accused me of hoping for, but I am not blind. I see that you do not care for Lora that way, yet.” He leaned forward and continued.

“I know and understand how you feel toward Ireic and Anavrea. I felt the same way and still feel the same way, but I have made my choices and do not regret them. The time will come, however, that you will care for someone enough to wish you hadn’t sworn the oath of service. When that time comes, I want you to remember one thing. Anavrea and your Uncle Ireic will always need you, but that doesn’t mean you always have to be the one to step forward. There are others who will take your place when you decide the happiness of a woman is more important than the security of a country.”

Seth wasn’t sure he agreed with his father on this one, but he respected his father’s age and wisdom. He had heard of how and why his father had made the choices he had. His father, then called Trahern, the name he had been given at birth, had been the heir apparent of the throne of Anavrea. A scandal and betrayal caused him to fall from his father’s grace and forced him to run for his life. Ireic, Labren’s younger, half-brother, was proclaimed heir. After their father’s death, Ireic tried to give the crown to Labren, but because of his marriage to Eve and her pregnancy, Labren turned it down.

Growing up, Seth had been thankful for that choice. He saw how his cousins were forced to carry a much heavier burden than he was given. As an adult, Seth chose to serve Anavrea, yet his cousins were never given a choice. They had been born into the duty.

“So, now that we have clarified our positions,” Labren said, drawing Seth’s attention back to the present. “What was the favor you wanted to ask regarding Lora?”

Seth leaned back in his chair. “She has four brothers, Kaled, Waren, Jerat, and Braun. When their father died, they were sent to a boarding school to finish their education to become healers. Lora’s Aunt Roalalt, her mother’s sister, dropped her at my door to apply for the place of housekeeper and promptly left without seeing if she obtained the position. I would hate to think what would have happened if I hadn’t accepted her.

“Anyway, I have told Lora I would try to locate her brothers for her. I am suspicious of how the aunt handled things and suspect the boys have been dumped in an inferior school to save money. I know if I can locate them and help them, they will be more than willing to take care of Lora. From what she has told me they are of the age to support themselves and their sister. I think that her aunt has purposefully arranged their estate for her convenience and possibly her personal profit.” Seth looked over to find his father watching his face carefully.

“I will write inquiries to all the schools I know of and find out if her brothers are in any of them. It will take some time, but I am sure that if they are in a school with in Braulyn and Anavrea, I will find them.” Labren leaned forward and added to his note on the desk. Without setting down the pen, he asked, “How long do I have?”

Seth shrugged. “I have no idea how long we will be in Ratharia, possibly years, but I would be willing to send Lora back if she desires after you have found them.”

His father raised his eyebrows. “So, Ireic didn’t give you a time frame for this trip?”

“No he hasn’t,” Seth confirmed. “It concerns me, too. I am reluctant to return as it is, but having it so open ended makes me wonder if he ever expects me to return. I am there for the transition period between Raijias at the least. I will also be setting up a new network, but I have no idea how long that will take. What Ireic really needs is a reliable native contact with loyalties to Anavrea. Considering how nearly impossible that is going to be to find, I might be over there indefinitely.”

Labren nodded.

“Of course,” Seth said, “If I could get Quinn interested in doing it on his own, Uncle Ireic wouldn’t have anything to worry about.”

“Quinn won’t do that,” Labren pointed out. “He is too attached to you, Son. Do you know how angry he was with me and your uncle for letting you enlist in the Ratharian military? He demanded to be allowed to follow you.”

Seth’s eyes widened in surprise. “So that was why he suddenly showed up when he did.”

His father laughed. “You mean he never told you?”

“No. He just showed up one day on the sidelines while we were drilling. I missed a step when I saw him. He never spoke directly to me, but he kept showing up in the oddest places.” Seth smiled. “You should have seen his face when I introduced Lachine. I have never seen him look so suspicious in my life.”

“You mean he wasn’t suspicious of Lora?”

Seth paused to think back. “Not really. I would have expected him to be more guarded, but he wasn’t.”

Just then a bell rang. Both men lifted their heads and smiled. “Dinner,” Labren said as he pushed his chair back and reached for his cane. Catching the look of concern on Seth’s face, he laughed. “Don’t look so anxious, Seth. I am fine. I am just getting older. I can no longer do all the things I used to without it. Don’t go worrying that I have one foot in the grave.”

The frown did not leave Seth’s face though. “I know you told me that one day you would have to use it all the time, but I always thought that day was far in the future.” He rose.

Putting a hand on his son’s shoulder, Labren squeezed it firmly. “Old injuries return to haunt you in your old age, but they are worth the pain if you succeeded in making them count. This,” he said lifting his weaker leg, “Is how I met your mother. Without it, you would not be standing here with me today. The results are well worth the pain, Son. Now let us see if Elana has convinced Ian to apologize and behave himself.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Lora’s mind was still trying to process all the information that Danica had exposed to her during the tour. Even as she helped Patri stack his wooden blocks into neat towers, she wondered if she was going to be able to keep it all straight.

“’ora, not there!” the three year old protested. A small hand pointed emphatically at the tallest tower. “There!” Patri instructed. “B’ock goes there.”

“Are you sure? It looks like it is going to fall over.”

“B’ock there,” he insisted with a nod of his head.

“Okay.” Lora reached out and gingerly set the block on top of the tilting tower. As predicted, the pile crashed to the floor.

Patri jumped up with a squeal. “Fa’ down,” he announced with hands extended dramatically. Then falling to the rug in an imitation of the blocks, he lay still for a moment. Jumping up again, he smiled over at Lora. “Do again?” he asked.

“Certainly,” Lora agreed and they both bent to the task of gathering the blocks again.

“Can I interrupt?”

Lora looked up to find Ian standing over them. He towered above their position on the floor. Instantly his words at the noon meal jumped into her mind. She firmly pushed them back.

“Unc’e Ian!” Patri jumped up and threw his arms around Ian’s leg. “Horse,” he asked, looking up at his uncle with pleading blue eyes.

“Not until after dinner,” Ian replied. “I will help you build the tower again instead.”

Patri immediately agreed. Releasing his uncle’s leg and started piling blocks once again.

“I have come to apologize,” Ian said as he folded his long legs. Reaching for the nearest block, he added it to Patri’s pile straightening it as he did. “My behavior at lunch was unacceptable and I won’t tease you at the table that way again.”

Straightening, Lora looked over at him in time to catch the glimmer of mischief in his eye before he turned to watch his nephew. As she studied him, she realized that Seth had been correct. Ian was not going to be easy to convince that she and Seth were nothing more than friends. After she had been watching him a moment, he met her gaze. “You don’t believe me, do you?” His dark eyes challenged her. Unlike Seth’s gray-green, his eyes were brown.

“I accept your apology, but I wouldn’t be surprised if you teased me again at dinner. You put enough qualifiers on that statement to get around it. Did you tell Elana the same thing?”

Ian laughed. “I promised her not to whisper disturbing things in your ear again. So, I shall not be doing that again, at the table or otherwise.” He flashed her a mischievous wink and placed another block on the tower.

“Did you tell her what you said?”

“No,” he grinned, but did not meet her eyes. “Did you tell Seth?”

Lora felt her cheeks warm, but she did not drop her eyes. “No.”

Ian raised his eyebrows as he glanced over at her. “Hm…I guess I am going to have to make the suggestions to him and see what he does.”

Her cheeks grew warmer and she dropped her eyes. “He doesn’t think of me that way,” she stated firmly. “He is my employer.” When she finally looked up, he was watching her face carefully.

“Ian, are you tormenting the poor girl again?” Danica asked as she came into the room. Noting Lora’s flushed face and lowered eyes, she frowned down at her brother. “Leave her alone. As if you haven’t done enough at lunch,” she said as she picked up her son. “Dinner is ready and you better behave, or I believe Seth will wallop you,” she warned Ian. “From what I heard, he was pretty upset with you after lunch.”

“He has calmed down,” Ian told her.

“I hope so. I don’t want to have to explain to the boys that brawling at the table isn’t acceptable even though their uncles do it.”

Ian rose and offered Lora a hand. She accepted it reluctantly, allowing him to help her to her feet. As they followed Danica out into the foyer, Seth and Labren were just reaching the bottom of the stairs. Seth immediately upon seeing his brother and her flushed face, shot Ian an annoyed look. He might have moved to offer Lora an arm, but his father beat him to it.

“Is my son behaving himself?” Labren asked as he extended an arm to Lora.

Lora took it gratefully. She didn’t feel particularly comfortable with either of the brothers at the moment. She didn’t trust Ian to behave and the look on Seth’s face made it clear that he was not in a good mood.

Noticing her hesitation in answering, Labren smiled down at her reassuringly.

“So, what do you think of the Academy?”

“The buildings and grounds are beautiful. There is so much space and roaming room.”

“Yes, it is big. Remember that when the children get here. They will make the place seem small, at least the buildings.” He smiled down at her.

Labren Theodoric was a handsome man. Tall and commanding, she could see where his sons got their dark hair and unique presence. Yet, unlike his sons, he had a calming manner about him. There were no secrets hiding behind his eyes or a mischievous streak like she had noticed in both Seth and Ian. He reminded her of her father, steady and trustworthy.

They entered the dining room and he led her to her seat. The seating was the same as it was for lunch, except for one minor change. Elana and Ian switched places, putting Elana next to Lora.

The meal passed very pleasantly. Lora was able to ask Elana all kinds of questions about Ratharia and Elana showed a great interest in Lora’s childhood. Periodically, when she looked up, Lora would find Seth or Labren watching her. When she met Labren’s eyes, he would frequently smile and return to his meal. She got the impression that he was listening to their conversation. Seth, however, would usually study her face for a moment without responding to her smile. It was as if he was monitoring her emotional or mental state.

After dinner, the family moved to the front room, Quinn and Lachine disappeared and Elana insisted that she come along. “I need an interpreter,” she said, “Please.” Reluctantly Lora agreed. Following Elana into the room, she sat down with her on the settee.

“Horse,” Patri yelled as he hurled himself at his Uncle Ian’s legs the moment he entered the room. “You promise.”

Ian looked down at the little boy with amusement. “What did you just call me?”

Patri grinned and squirmed in anticipation. “Horse,” he proclaimed loudly.

“What are you teaching our nephews, Danica,” he asked his sister. “Your son just called me a horse.”

“What is the magic word?” Danica asked absentmindedly as she tried to straighten her daughter’s dress.

“Horse, p’ease,” Patri begged.

“Oh, just do it,” Seth said shoving Ian gently on the shoulder. Ian turned to protest, but Jonas and Kosh galloped into the room and immediately started begging for horse rides too. In moments, both men had surrendered and the boys’ father was ensnared too.

Elana laughed at the sight of three men crawling about the floor with children on their backs. “My father would have never done this for me,” she told Lora. “That is what attracted me to Ian; how different he was from my father.”

“What was your father like that made you not want your husband to be the same?” Lora asked before thinking about how offensive her question could be.

Elana’s face sobered and Lora was concerned she had tread on a forbidden topic. Catching sight of Lora’s face, Elana smiled reassuringly. “Don’t look so worried. I loved my father, but it just makes me sad that he is gone and I will never be able to tell him that. He died right before we left Ratharia.”

“I am sorry,” Lora said, though the words sounded inadequate as they came from her lips.

Elana smiled as she watched the boys argue over whose mount would go through the doorway first. “He was so distant with his children. He traveled a lot and when he was home, mother was the only one he wanted to see. The first time I saw Ian, he was lecturing his cabin boy. He was obviously upset with him, but when he finished speaking, he ruffled the boy’s hair and smiled at him.” She paused as if lost in her memory. “My father never did that. I knew he was the one I wanted to buy me.”

“You were for sale?” Lora couldn’t believe her ears. The beautiful young woman sitting next to her looked as if she came from a wealthy family. The Theodoric family were also obviously wealthy and in addition to that, noble. Labren, Seth’s father, was the brother of the King of Anavrea.

“Yes,” Elana answered with a frown. “Father had died and left us with nothing. My brothers would support Mother, but not me. They sold me with the other household items they did not want.” Tears glistened in her eyes as she continued. “Ian bought me with some of the other goods. Once we were on the ship and had left the port, he told me I was a free woman again.”

She laughed. “It seems to run in the family, this freeing of women from slavery and then marrying them.” Then seeing Lora’s confusion, she frowned. “You didn’t know about Labren and Eve? Eve was a slave before she married Labren. He married her to free her.”

Lora glanced over at Seth’s parents sitting together on the far side of the room watching their sons and grandsons romping on the floor. Labren’s arm was around Eve’s shoulders and her hand rested on his thigh. Every nuance of their manner showed their obvious affection for each other. It was hard to believe that theirs had begun as a marriage of convenience.

“I have been blessed by finding this family,” Elana said.

Lora found herself nodded in agreement. Seth’s family was definitely different than she had expected.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Copyright 2006 by Rachel Rossano

Do not reproduce without express written permission of the author.