Handling the Talent
It was a sunny spring morning, and the Borundan general whistled merrily as
he rounded the corner of the stables. He halted at the sight of blood running
across the cobblestones, and his eyes followed the flow back to its origin. His
smile faded rapidly as he hurried over to stand next to the body of a dead
horse. General Wikner looked at the remains of the horse and felt his stomach
churn. The animal's carcass appeared as if it had exploded from the inside out.
He turned his head away from the grisly scene and closed his eyes. The sounds of
soldiers milling around quickly brought him back to reality. He opened his eyes
and saw the stableman standing near the side of the building.
"Get a detail and clean this mess up," the general ordered the
soldiers as he marched over to where the stableman stood.
He noticed that the man had emptied his stomach on the ground and shook his
head in sympathy.
"What happened to that animal?" he asked.
"It was Prince Zinan, sir," the man replied. "I don't know
what he done, but I know he done it. He was right angry with the beast. The
animal was just hungry is all. I offered to get him another horse, but he was
angry and refused. When the animal wouldn't obey his commands, he jumped off and
glared at it. Next thing I knows there is blood and guts spraying all over the
place. It was the most gruesome thing I ever saw."
"Go clean up," the general said softly, trying to control his
anger, "and mention this to no one."
"What will I say?" frowned the stableman. "Everyone's going to
ask me about it."
"Tell them the truth," instructed the general. "Tell them you
don't exactly know what happened, and then say nothing more about it."
The general spun and marched towards the palace. He walked through the door
and headed directly to General Ortega's office. General Ortega was not in, but
as General Wikner turned to leave, General Ortega appeared walking along the
"We need to talk," General Wikner said conspiratorially.
"Is this about the horse incident?" asked General Ortega.
"You know about it already?" gasped General Wikner. "Who else
"I am not sure who else knows," sighed General Ortega. "I saw
it happen from a window upstairs."
"The men are not going to like this," declared General Wikner.
"We have to speak to King Garrick about it."
"Are you daft?" frowned General Ortega. "Don't you think the
king already knows all about his cousin and the evil magic that spews from him?
I am certainly not going to be the one that brings it up to him."
"But the prince's wrath grows stranger every day," argued General
Wikner. "It is only a matter of time before he does that to one of us. The
king must put a stop to it."
"Good luck to you," General Ortega shook his head. "I will not
be the next one destroyed. Prince Zinan knows everything that goes on in this
palace. The day after you complain about him to the king, you better make sure
that you are far away from Tarent."
"He wouldn't?" scowled General Wikner.
"You haven't seen her spouting off lately have you?" General Ortega
nodded in the direction of Naveena who was approaching along the corridor.
"She was the king's advisor until Prince Zinan wanted the spot. He gets
whatever he wants. I would forget the whole thing if I were you. I know that I
have already forgotten it."
General Ortega pushed past General Wikner and entered his office, and
promptly closed the door. General Wikner stood in the corridor speechless as
Naveena passed by.
The advisor to the king's advisor barely glanced at the general as she passed
by him. She strode purposefully around the corner of the corridor and up the
stairs to the office of the king's advisor. She entered the room and shut the
door behind her.
"Have you gone mad?" she snarled at Prince Zinan.
"Do not yell at me," the prince snapped. "I have a
"I am sure you do," Naveena replied softly as she walked around the
desk and placed her hands on the prince's head and massaged it. "Zinan, you
can't go around making such displays of your power, and I can't always be there
to cover up for you."
"Cover up?" balked the prince. "Why should I have to cover up?
Is the opinion of some stableman so important now? Perhaps I should have killed
him instead of that foul beast."
"Do you think that the stableman is the only one who noticed?"
Naveena asked. "You did it in the courtyard. There were probably dozens of
people who witnessed your rage. King Garrick will know by the evening
"Let him know," spat Prince Zinan. "I have had an awful day,
and I don't care who knows about it."
"You need to care," retorted Naveena. "The king can order you
hung, and there are scores of men who would step forward to do the job. You may
think that you rule Borunda, but that is not yet the case. Thousands of men owe
their allegiance to King Garrick, and they will do whatever he says."
"Maybe that needs to change," snarled Prince Zinan. "You
always said that I needed him to build the armies. Well, the armies are built
now. Why do we need my cousin around any more?"
"Building the armies is only the first step," replied Naveena.
"You said yourself that your spies are reporting a buildup in both Arin and
Salacia. We are not ready to conquer them. The other countries must be brought
over to our side first. Garrick can be more successful at doing that than you
"We do not need allies," balked Prince Zinan. "Our armies are
already large enough to crush both Arin and Salacia."
"I do believe you are right," nodded Naveena, "but think past
those battles and victories. If we lose most of our army defeating Arin and
Salacia, who will be left to defend our lands? We will have destroyed the Great
Peace, giving freedom to Odessia, Caroom, and Vineland to attack us. We would
also have three times the territory to defend. It can't work that way. The other
countries would see our weakness and seize the opportunity. You remember the
lessons of history. Open your eyes and see the truth."
"All right," Prince Zinan sighed as he waved Naveena away from him.
"The headache is gone now. I will give Garrick more time to set things up,
but if he even thinks about harming me, I will act whether our plan is ready or
"Understandable," nodded Naveena as she frowned at the searing pain
inside her head. "While we are talking about your cousin, I think he is
getting too close to Princess Belinda."
"The Vinelanders are still here?" asked the dark prince.
"For another day at least," replied Naveena. "Garrick plans to
take King Gregory hunting tomorrow."
"Well," smiled Prince Zinan, "isn't that opportune?"
"No," Naveena almost shouted. "You will not kill her. You
cannot just kill everyone who displeases you. Just find a way to keep Garrick
occupied until they leave."
* * *
Audric placed the small pebble on top of one of the large sea rocks that
framed the horseshoe bay. The pebble was as smooth and round as a large pearl.
The top of the giant sea rock was square, but its surface curved downward,
slightly at first, but increasingly vertical towards the edges.
"This pebble is like the Talent," the old man instructed his
students. "It exists in harmony with all things around it. It seeks neither
to rise nor fall; it merely remains. When the Talent is used, there is a
reaction to its essence. A beneficial use of the Talent seeks to raise the
pebble higher, while an evil use will draw it downward."
"You want me to try to raise the pebble?" asked Jared.
"I want you to stop it from falling," smiled Audric.
"But it is not in danger of falling," frowned Jared.
"The pebble is always in danger of falling," declared Audric.
"Act now or it will disappear between the sea rocks."
Jared concentrated his will on the small pebble, but nothing happened. Audric
winked at Prince Antion and stepped around to the other side of the rock. He
also focused his will on the pebble, and it began to slowly roll down the face
of the large sea rock. Jared's brow creased in concentration as he tried to
force the pebble to return to its starting position, but he was unable to.
For many long minutes the duel continued. Jared's body began to quake, and
sweat formed on his brow, while Audric remained quite at ease. Eventually,
Audric reached out and snared the pebble with his hand.
"You were working against me," frowned Jared. "I do not
"I had evil intent," shrugged the old man, "theoretically
speaking. With a bare minimum of force, I was able to halt your drive to place
the pebble back where you thought it belonged. Such is how the Talent
Audric placed the pebble back at its starting position and then handed a
cloth to Jared to wipe the sweat from his face.
"There sits the Talent," lectured Audric. "It sits in
equilibrium right now, but just the tiniest shove will start it on a downward
slope to oblivion. You could do a thousand good deeds with the Talent, and it
would never rise higher than it is right now, but one single use with evil
intent, and it would start to roll downward. Each successive ill use of the
Talent would result in an even steeper decline until eventually, it is beyond
all hope of ever returning to equilibrium."
"But I was able to halt its slide," Jared pointed out.
"Indeed," agreed Audric, "as long as you kept constant
concentration on it. What would have happened if you stopped for a moment?"
"The pebble would have been lost in the sea," answered Jared.
"Correct," nodded the old man. "Did you also notice that the
lower the pebble was, the greater the effort required by you to halt its
"Very much so," replied Jared.
"Thus it is with the Talent," declared Audric. "The men and
women who wield the Talent are not prefect specimens of humanity. They make
mistakes as all people do. A single infraction might be repairable, perhaps even
two or three, but the more uses with evil intent, the greater the effort
required to return to equilibrium, until there is no chance of return."
"And you cannot count all the good deeds before the original evil
one," remarked Prince Antion, "because there is nothing higher than
"Quite correct," smiled Audric. "You cannot store up good
deeds as it were. Therefore, one must always be on guard to never use the Talent
with ill intent."
"Is it truly the intent that makes a difference?" questioned the
Arin prince. "I mean, isn't a foul deed a foul deed no matter what one's
"An act in itself is seldom good or bad," explained Audric.
"Take for example the ability to change one's appearance. If I were to
change my appearance to get by guards to steal the king's jewels, would that be
"It would," nodded Prince Antion.
"Suppose I changed my appearance to protect my own jewels from a
thief?" asked Audric. "Would that also be evil?"
"It would," answered Jared. "It doesn't matter about the
secondary reason for the deception. What matters is that you sought to
"Not true," Audric shook his head. "In the second case you
meant no harm to anyone. In fact, your altered appearance would cause no
distress to anyone at all. You merely sought to protect yourself, and there is
nothing evil about that."
"Can the same be said for killing someone?" frowned Prince Antion.
"Can you kill to save the life of another?"
"Murder by its nature is a foul deed," answered Audric, "but
the answer to your question is yes. One must be particularly careful in such
areas though, because you are indeed causing harm to another. One should seek
every other possibility before resorting to killing, but if it is the only way
to save an innocent life, then there really is no evil intent."
"That doesn't seem right," frowned Jared. "How can killing
ever be without evil intent? You are wishing a person dead."
"Are you?" posed Audric. "Wouldn't you have wished the
murderer not to attack? Wouldn't you only wound the assailant and not kill him
if that was all that was needed to save the life of the innocent? I said one had
to be careful here. It must be the only path available to you, before it can be
done without retribution. I would strongly suggest avoiding such a
"I have to dwell on that," Jared shook his head.
"It is an important question to dwell upon," Prince Antion stated.
"There may come a day when taking someone's life might be the difference
between the world as we know it, and a world of evil and oppression."
Audric stared at the Arin prince as if he were looking deep within his mind.
Prince Antion turned his head from Jared and locked eyes with the master.
"I have felt that feeling before," Prince Antion said sternly.
"Doesn't that start your pebble rolling?"
"No," Audric blinked. "I apologize if I have offended you, but
I assure you that there was no evil intent on my part. You are a creature such
as I have never seen before, Prince Antion. We have learned that you are like a
well of the Talent, which is to be used by others, but I have this feeling that
you are much, much more. Why do you think Jared will be called upon to kill
"I don't know that he will be," replied the Arin prince, "but
I am sure that he must resolve that question before we leave here. We have
enemies, Audric, enemies that seek our lives."
"Who are these enemies," asked Audric, "and why do they want
"I would prefer not to answer the who," replied Prince Antion,
"but they want me dead because they sensed the Talent inside me, and they
"If it were ever to be used against them," remarked the old man,
"there is good reason for them to fear it. You are a walking wealth of the
Talent. You must guard that no one ever uses you for evil."
"I will try to guard against that," promised Prince Antion.
"I mean it," pressed Audric. "One thing we have not covered
yet, and that is the comparative strengths of the Talent. Just as the pebble
gains momentum on its downward slope, the use of the Talent with an evil intent
is much more powerful than a like Talent of good intent."
"Are you saying that two people, evenly matched in ability with the
Talent, would be unequal opponents if one was evil?" questioned the prince.
"That is precisely what I am saying," nodded Audric. "The
Talent warps as it takes hold of its wielder. It becomes stronger as it becomes
"Then one who is close to oblivion would be the most powerful of
all?" asked Prince Antion.
"Sad, isn't it?" nodded Audric. "If only it were the other way
around. My teachers spoke of it as the nature of the Talent, but I see it as a
flaw in a grand design. For a force that seeks equilibrium, how can it mutate in
such a way as to force such inequality?"
"It is odd," nodded Prince Antion. "You would think such a
power would find a way to adjust for such a flaw."
"It has," Jared said softly.
Audric and Prince Antion turned to stare at Jared.
"That is why you are what you are," Jared declared. "You are
the adjustment, Prince Antion."
"Of course," exclaimed Audric. "You are right, Jared. I should
have realized that sooner. Now we must figure out why an adjustment is needed at
this particular time. There is no great evil in the world that I know of, so why
are you here Prince Antion? Why have you been filled with the Talent?"
"I don't know," answered the prince. "The only evil that I
know of could easily be killed by an arrow or a sword. It would not take some
mysterious force to fill me to accomplish that task. It would only take the
"Tell me of the evil you know," urged the old man.
"I am only speaking of the coming war," replied the Arin prince.
"King Garrick of Borunda is raising armies and will soon start attacking
his neighbors. It will not take the Talent to stop him."
"Borunda," mused the old man. "The Talent runs in the royal
family there. I once tutored a princess from Borunda. She was extremely
"That was my mother," Jared said sadly. "I never knew
"Princess Orenda was your mother?" asked Audric. "That
explains a great deal."
"What do you mean?" asked Prince Antion.
"Jared's capabilities are strong," answered Audric. "Most with
the ability are only fair, but once in a while a strain of exceptional Talent
seeps into mankind. Princess Orenda was such a creature. How is it that you have
never known her, Jared?"
"She died the night I was born," replied Jared. "My father
Audric nodded solemnly as his brow crinkled in thought.
"Zalman," the old man said. "Is that your father's name?"
"It is," nodded Jared.
"A good man," smiled Audric. "We used to spend some hours
together while your mother was meditating. I am sorry for your loss, Jared.
Orenda was a very fine woman."
"You do not seem to keep up with the affairs of the world,"
commented Prince Antion. "The princess died over fifteen years ago."
"I do not care what happens beyond my little realm," shrugged
Audric. "In my youth I was the light of numerous courts, but I found their
constant bickering and devious political games tiring. Life is not about who is
on top at the moment. Life is understanding the mysteries around us, or at least
trying to unravel them."
"Fair enough," Prince Antion nodded with understanding.
"Is this King Garrick filled with the Talent as well?" Audric
"He is not," Prince Antion shook his head, "at least not that
I am aware of, but the king's advisor is."
"A king's advisor with the Talent?" Audric cocked an eyebrow.
"That would have been quite unusual in my younger days. Most kings had a
healthy fear of giving power to anyone who wielded the Talent. It was too
"Too dangerous?" echoed the prince.
"Because of the nature of the Talent," explained Audric, "one
who wields it should always remain aloof from the trappings of power. Remember
that the Talent has a natural draw to the evil side. That is counteracted in
most cases by the overriding desire to serve others in a helpful way, such as
the wispers do, but dangle power in front of such a person, and the draw becomes
magnified. Let us hope that this king's advisor is weak in the Talent."
"I doubt that," frowned Prince Antion.
"Coming from someone who did not know a few months ago that the Talent
manifested itself in varying degrees of ability," shrugged Audric,
"your doubts mean little to this conversation. You just were not in a
position to judge such a thing for yourself."
"I will not argue that point," retorted Prince Antion, "but
you just said that you were not surprised that Jared was Princess Orenda's son
because he is so powerful. You indicated that such great power ran in the
"Of course," nodded Audric, "but I was taking about Jared, not
some king's advisor to King Garrick."
"Prince Zinan is Jared's brother," declared Prince Antion,
"his twin brother."
The old man's jaw fell open, and his red eyes widened as he stared at Jared.
He closed his eyes momentarily and then looked back at Prince Antion.
"Do you know if this Prince Zinan is using the Talent with evil
intent?" asked Audric.
"I cannot say," Prince Antion replied. "I do believe him to be
an evil person, but my knowledge of his use of the Talent is limited. I know
that he tried to probe my mind as you did a short while ago, but you claimed no
evil intent in doing so."
"And I meant it," replied the old man. "How do you know that
he is evil?"
"He killed men in an attempt to learn my identity," answered the
Arin prince. "I also know that he has traveled around the world setting up
spies in each major city, but the major reason I know that he is evil is because
he is willfully carrying out King Garrick's plans for war, and needlessly
causing the deaths of thousands cannot be anything but evil."
"I think I know why you are filled with the Talent, young man,"
Audric stated, "and why you have formed a bond with Jared."
"Because of the dark prince?" asked Prince Antion.
"An apt name for him," nodded Audric. "You would be wisely
counseled to consider Prince Zinan as your main opponent, not King Garrick.
Someone of Jared's capabilities with an evil bent is most assuredly pulling the
king's strings. Prince Zinan is not doing King Garrick's dirty work. It is the
other way around."
"How can you be so sure?" asked the Arin prince.
"His capabilities alone would overwhelm whatever defenses King Garrick
might have," replied Audric. "The only chance there is of my being
wrong about this is if Prince Zinan has never been tutored as Jared has not
"The dark prince was raised by a wisper," Prince Antion shook his
head. "In fact, Naveena was the regent for King Garrick for a short
Audric sighed heavily and leaned on the large sea rock as he stared out at
the bay. As he digested the words or Prince Antion, his arm nudged the pebble.
It rolled along the face of the rock and dropped into the sea. The old man
turned at the sound of it rolling away from him and shook his head.
"Times are grave indeed," Audric stated as he turned away from the
rock. "Jared must confront his brother, and you must stand by his side when
he does. I can only hope that he is strong enough to overcome the advantage of
"Confront?" questioned the Arin prince. "What do you mean? I
thought the Talent would not allow the dark prince to listen to reason."
"You thought correctly," nodded Audric. "There will be no
reasoning during the confrontation. It will be a battle to the death for one of
"No!" shouted Jared. "I will not use my power to kill anyone,
especially not my brother."
"You must, Jared," sighed Audric. "You are the world's only
"I will not do it," yelled Jared, "and neither of you can make
me do it."
Jared turned and ran off towards the cave. Prince Antion turned to run after
him, but Audric grabbed is arm.
"Let him cry about it," Audric said sadly. "He will be
repulsed by the thought for a while, but he will learn to understand that he
must do what is necessary to restore the equilibrium of the Talent. You must
guide him, and you must be there to help him. Without your reservoir of power,
Jared will not stand a chance of defeating Zinan."
The summer sun bore down on the dark prince as he rode through the city gates
of Tarent. He was dirty, tired, and drenched in perspiration. He wanted
desperately to bathe and change his clothes, but he was more anxious to solve
the riddle that had been revealed to him over the past two months.
Prince Zinan passed through the gates of the palace and dismounted by the
door, leaving his horse to be taken care of by someone else. He stormed into the
palace, demanding a meeting of the king's advisors from the first soldier he
passed. He ignored the polite bows of the servants until he reached his chambers
and demanded that a bath be drawn immediately. Setting his notes aside, the dark
prince stripped off his clothes and climbed into the tub before it was
completely filled. The servants sloshed water all over the floor as they hurried
to finish filling the tub, but Prince Zinan was unaware of the mistake that
would normally have raised his ire. Instead he sat with his eyes closed as
servants washed his body and mopped the floor.
By the time the prince was dried and dressed, the meeting chamber was already
full of the king's advisors. Prince Zinan strode into the room and sat at the
head of the table, which was usually reserved for the king. Everyone in the room
noticed the slip, but none dared to mention it.
"Someone is trying to impersonate me," Prince Zinan began. "I
want to know who it is."
The room fell silent as the dark prince gazed around at the assembled
advisors, searching each of their faces for some sign of treachery.
"How do you know someone is trying to impersonate you?" Naveena
asked calmly after no one else had chosen to speak.
"Because my spies report seeing me all over the world," scowled
Prince Zinan. "I want to know who is behind this."
"But you have been all over the world," Naveena pointed out.
"Why is it unusual for people to have noticed you?"
"It is not me that they noticed," Prince Zinan shot back. "I
am not foolish enough to reveal myself when I travel to foreign lands. It is
someone else trying to pretend that they are me."
Naveena could tell that the dark prince was upset, and she worried about his
having one of his episodes in front of the entire council.
"Tell us where and when your double was sighted," Naveena urged
calmly. "Perhaps we can piece the puzzle together."
Prince Zinan spread his notes out on the table and began staring at them.
"Kyland and Anatar last summer," the dark prince began. "Koar,
and Laborg in the fall.
"I seem to recall mention of someone seeing you in Tarent last
fall," offered General Ortega. "It was when we were investigating the
escape of King Caedmon. We dismissed the report as inaccurate because you were
not in the city when that happened."
"I was in Capri," nodded the dark prince. "Who saw me and
"I do not remember exactly," admitted the general, "but I read
it in one of the reports of the investigation of foreigners in the city inns. I
could send for those reports if you wish."
"Do so," nodded Prince Zinan.
Confusion spread over Naveena's face as the general's comments gave some
credence to the prince's concern. Until then, she had assumed that the Talent
had been warping his perception of reality, and his insistence that someone was
impersonating him was complete fiction.
"May I see your notes?" she asked.
Prince Zinan shoved the papers towards Naveena and continued to scan the
quiet faces in the room. Naveena looked at the notes quickly, passing over
everything but the mention of Prince Zinan, but when she got to the notes from
Anatar, her face paled.
"What is it?" asked Prince Zinan. "You see something that
"It is Zalman," answered Naveena. "No wonder our soldiers
could never find him. He is in Anatar."
"Zalman?" frowned Prince Zinan. "Who is he, and why do we care
where he is?"
"He is wanted for killing Princess Orenda," declared Naveena.
"We have hunted for him for over fifteen years."
"He is your father," interjected General Wikner.
Naveena glared at the general and opened her mouth to lash out at him, but
Prince Zinan spoke before she could form the words.
"My father?" scowled the dark prince. "Why does Borunda care
about him? He was not royalty, and he never wielded the Talent. He is nothing. I
want to know about this person who is impersonating me."
A soldier entered the room and handed some papers to General Ortega. Everyone
watched as the general looked through the papers and pulled one out of the pile.
"Here it is," he said as read the paper. "Three rooms were
rented at the Royal Palm Inn by a merchant. The rooms were rented for three
days, and there were eight men total sharing the rooms. It says that one of them
was Prince Zinan, while another was a giant of a man."
"A giant of a man?" frowned Prince Zinan. "What was the name
of this merchant?"
"Kerzi," replied the general. "Do you know him?"
"I know of him," nodded the dark prince. "Refresh my memory,
"Kerzi is a merchant who purchased nuts in Tarent and delivered them to
Dulga," replied the general. "He came under suspicion because we found
nuts by the side of the road where one of my patrols was ambushed. When he was
questioned in Dulga, he only had two warriors with him. One of them was a giant
of a man. As we were looking for a much larger party, Kerzi was allowed to leave
with a load of cork. He was bound for Laborg."
"Only later did we discover that Kerzi had camped not far from the
ambush site with nine warriors," nodded Prince Zinan. "They split up
the following morning. The warriors managed to escape into Odessia. Isn't that
right, General Ortega?"
"It is," the general nodded as he frowned. "We lost a lot of
men following those six warriors, plus none of the scorpions ever
"So this person that looks like you is traveling with the people who
rescued King Caedmon?" asked Naveena.
"So it would appear," nodded Prince Zinan. "I was suspecting
someone here in the palace of trying to betray me, but I think the reality is
more sinister than I thought. The Arinites are behind this, but what do they
hope to gain by impersonating me?"
"They could reek havoc with our soldiers and officers," General
Ortega said with alarm. "Imagine if you walked into the heat of battle and
ordered a surrender."
"That is not likely to occur," smirked the dark prince, "but
your point is well taken. The problem is, no one has mentioned anything about
any attempts to influence the army with the use of this impersonator. All I have
are sightings, and they have all been in public places, usually inns."
"That does not sound like an impersonator," mused General Ortega.
"It sounds more like someone who just happens to look like you. Such
mistakes probably happen a lot. How many of the people who reported these
sightings are really that familiar with your appearance?"
"It is more than a coincidence," General Wikner shook his head.
"If all we had were Prince Zinan's reports from afar, I might buy the
coincidence theory, but when we place this man with the party that helped King
Caedmon, it becomes something entirely different and more sinister."
"I agree," stated Naveena. "In the very least, the imposter
was brought to Tarent to portray you, possibly to help with the escape, and this
points right back to Arin."
"Could it be some distant relative of the prince?" asked one of the
"There are no relatives," Naveena replied.
General Wikner's face clouded with thought. He rose and whispered to a
waiting soldier and returned to his seat. The soldier dashed off and everyone
looked at the general with an expectation of an explanation.
"I just sent for another file," the general explained. "There
is something tickling my memory, and I want to verify my thoughts before I speak
"What do we know about the others in this party?" asked General
Ortega. "Can we identify any of them? The report from the inn describes
"Let me see the report," ordered the dark prince.
The report was sent along the table to the prince, and he studied it in
silence for a few minutes.
"There are names here," shrugged the prince, "but I doubt that
they are real names."
"Even if they are not real names," interjected Naveena, "it is
worth knowing them. After all, Kerzi used the same name in several places."
"True," agreed the prince. "Kerzi is the only who registered
with the innkeeper, but he picked up several names from conversations they had
in the common room over the three days. Gunnar, Horst, and Kenra, he is sure
about. They all wore beards, and the others seemed to speak about them a
"Not much to go on," sighed General Ortega. "None of them mean
anything to me."
The soldier returned and handed two piles of papers to General Wikner. He
leafed through the first stack until he found what he was looking for. He placed
that paper on the top of the first pile and began looking through the second
"What are you looking for?" asked Prince Zinan.
General Wikner took the top paper from the first stack and passed it along
the table. The prince picked it up and started reading it.
"What is this?" he scowled. "I thought I dismissed this from
our conversation. We are not concerned with Zalman."
Naveena reached over and tore the paper from the hands of the dark prince.
"Someone mentioned the possibility of a distant relative," General
Wikner said. "Seeing as your father is still alive, I began thinking that
he might have sired another son, but somewhere in the back of my mind, that
report popped up. I decided to take a look at it."
"This is rubbish," snapped Naveena. "This person was not there
that night. How can anyone take this report seriously?"
"What am I missing?" asked General Ortega. "Would someone tell
the rest of us what is being discussed?"
"The night Princess Orenda was killed," explained General Wikner,
"Zalman fled from the house. We hunted all over the city for him and
questioned just about everyone. One person reported seeing him running along the
shore cradling a newborn in his arms."
"Wouldn't that be prince Zinan?" asked General Ortega.
"No," general Wikner shook his head. "Prince Zinan was already
safely in the hands of our soldiers."
"A twin?" gasped General Ortega. "That would explain the
impersonator, but where has he been all these years?"
"The report is trash," insisted Naveena. "The woman was
probably hysterical. She was not even there that night. How could she possibly
"That is the second time that you mentioned that she could not have been
there that night," Prince Zinan said with suspicion. "How do you know
that, Naveena? Were you there when my mother died?"
Naveena swallowed hard and quickly shook her head. "No. I just remember
that night very well. It was a terrible night for me."
"Here we go," General Wikner said triumphantly. "These are
reports of sightings of Zalman over the years. In more than one of them, they
state that he had a young boy with him. The boy is not mentioned in every
report, but through the years, the boy has been sighted on many occasions, and
his age kept increasing, which leads one to believe that it is the same boy over
"A brother?" Prince Zinan said with confusion in his eyes. "Is
"No," Naveena shook her head. "It is preposterous."
"I guess the only person who would know for sure," commented
General Ortega, "would be Zalman himself. It's a pity that the Arinites
"Perhaps I should go ask him," mused the dark prince.
"You must not," shouted Naveena. "Zalman must be killed on
Prince Zinan stared at his advisor with wonder. He stood up and waved his
"The meeting is over," the prince announced. "All of you
leave. I need to speak with Naveena alone."
The advisors rose and shuffled out of the room. The dark prince glanced at
the door, and it slammed shut.
"You will explain your outburst," commanded Prince Zinan as he
placed his hands on her shoulders. "Why must Zalman die before I speak to
him? Are you hiding some dirty, dark secret that you need to keep even from
"No," Naveena shook her head vigorously. "Don't you
understand? The whole idea is foolish, but it is dangerous to even consider it.
You must never allow the thought of a twin to take hold in this palace. Don't
you understand what that could lead to? Do you really want a contender for the
throne when King Garrick dies?"
Prince Zinan's eyebrows rose in consideration of her words. He nodded slowly
as he released his grip on her.
"Now I understand your concern," sighed the dark prince. "For
a moment I thought your motives were more sinister. Rest easily. My brother, if
he does exist, will die as soon as I find him. As for Zalman, he will not die
until after I have learned his secrets."
"You mustn't go to Anatar," warned Naveena. "It is too
dangerous. Traveling about the world may end up getting you killed, but that is
especially so in Arin. After we held King Caedmon, they would think nothing of
"My dear wisper," smiled Prince Zinan. "I can travel anywhere
I want. No one is going to kill me. I am invincible."
"No one is invincible," retorted Naveena.
"For once," grinned the dark prince, "you are wrong. A blade
would melt before it entered my body. An arrow would merely fall to the ground.
Go ahead and try. I give you my permission. Take that knife you keep hidden in
your boot and plunge it into my heart. Do it!"
"No," Naveena shook her head. "I could never hurt you. You
"Sometimes I wonder," replied the dark prince. "You have a new
task, Naveena. I want you to identify everyone who has traveled with Kerzi. Use
whatever resources you need, but identify them all. Their actions have marked
them as my enemies, and I want them destroyed."
* * *
Audric came out of the bushes carrying a small bowl of bright red berries. He
looked to where Jared was practicing drawing the Talent out of Prince Antion and
smiled with pride. He walked over to the two men and sat cross-legged on the
"Come sit by me," he said. "I have another lesson for both of
you to ponder."
Prince Antion and Jared turned and sat down facing their master. The old man
handed the bowl of berries to Prince Antion.
"Eat these," instructed Audric.
"But these are…" objected Prince Antion.
"Trust in me," interrupted Audric. "Do this for Jared. Eat the
Prince Antion stared at the old man for a long time before he complied. He
picked a berry out of the bowl and ate it.
"Do not play with your food," scowled Audric. "Eat them all
and be quick about it."
"Do you know what these berries are?" asked the Arin prince.
"I know perfectly well what they are," replied Audric. "Eat
Prince Antion inhaled sharply and slowly exhaled. He grabbed a handful of
berries and stuffed them into his mouth. He grabbed another handful and almost
had them to his mouth when his body was shook with spasms. The prince's face
contorted in pain and he keeled over, his body shuddering violently.
"What is wrong with him?" Jared cried in alarm.
"He has eaten poisoned fruit," Audric said calmly.
"Poisoned?" frowned Jared. "I do not understand. Why would you
give him poisoned fruit?"
"To teach you a lesson," replied Audric. "You can remove the
poison from his body by using the Talent, but in doing so you will become
poisoned. What will you do?"
"Will the poison go away?" asked Jared.
"No," replied the old man. "If the poison is not removed from
his body within several minutes, he will die."
"How could you do such a thing?" cried Jared. "You are evil,
and the Talent will destroy you for this."
"Perhaps," shrugged the old man, "but that does nothing to
solve the current problem. You have the ability to save Prince Antion. I wonder
what you will do about it?"
For Jared the choice was clear. He focused the Talent on Prince Antion. He
could feel the poison running through his friend's blood, and the feeling
revolted him. He placed his hand on Prince Antion's quivering leg and closed his
eyes. Jared could actually feel the poison flowing into his own body, and he
began to swoon, but he refused to succumb. He concentrated on drawing every last
bit of the poison out of Prince Antion's body, and then he collapsed on the
Audric opened his pouch and removed several green leaves. He placed the
leaves in his mouth and began chewing them as he placed a hand on Jared's head.
He began drawing the poison out of Jared and into his body. In a few minutes he
was done. He sat quietly waiting for the others to recover. Prince Antion was
the first to sit up. He stared at the old man and his mouth opened to form a
question. Audric held up his hand for silence, and the prince obeyed. A moment
later, Jared sat up. His eyes were dark with anger, but he said nothing.
"There are several important lessons in today's demonstration,"
Audric said calmly. "Do you know what they are?"
"Never eat poisonous fruit?" Prince Antion answered sarcastically.
Audric did not respond to the prince's joke. He sat patiently waiting for a
"The Talent can remove poisons from a body?" asked the prince.
"That is correct," nodded Audric, "but the Talent did not
destroy the poisons, did it?"
"No," answered Jared. "The poisons were merely transferred to
me. Why are you not having convulsions?"
"I ate leaves that counteract the poison," answered Audric.
"It would hardly do for us to keep passing it back and forth. What else
have we learned?"
"That Jared would forfeit his life to save mine," declared Prince
"Good," Audric nodded vigorously. "And you were willing to
risk your life for his benefit as well. You both have come to understand how
very important each of you is. That was a necessary thing for both of you to
learn. Without each other, neither of you can do much to halt what is
"What about you?" asked Jared. "You used evil intent when you
gave the berries to Prince Antion. How will you ever return to
"I never left equilibrium," smiled Audric. "I did not use the
Talent with evil intent. One can have evil intent all day long as long as one
does not use the Talent to achieve one's goals. I didn't use the Talent on
Prince Antion. I gave him a bowl of berries and told him to eat them."
"So it is all right to be evil?" frowned Jared.
"Do not learn what I did not teach," Audric shook his head.
"My evil intent did not affect my equilibrium because I did not use the
Talent to achieve my goal, but that is not to say that being evil is all right.
One should never seek to be evil."
"I am not sure of the real purpose of the lesson," frowned Prince
Antion. "You did not poison me to show Jared that he can extract poison out
of my body, so why did you do it?"
"You are perceptive, Prince Antion," grinned the old man.
"Jared is as pure as the winter snow. As I have taught him this past half
year, a growing concern has grown within me. I fear that Jared may take it upon
himself to try to draw the dark side of the Talent out of others in an attempt
to help them achieve equilibrium. He must never do that. As the demonstration
with the poison shows, the dark Talent would invade his own body, and he would
become that which he sought to cure. The difference is, there are no magic green
leaves as an antidote for the Talent. You must remember this lesson all of your
days, Jared. Never try to bring another to equilibrium. You will destroy
"I understand," nodded Prince Antion. "A powerful lesson it
is. If you don't mind, though, I would prefer a less lethal one for
"No lesson is as important as this one," replied the old man.
"I will never endanger your lives again."
"I will hold you to your word," frowned Jared.
"As you should," nodded Audric. "I saw you both earlier
working in cooperation. I want you to know how proud I am of both of you. From
the first day you arrived here, you both have given every moment to your
studies. You have devoured my teaching at a pace that far surpasses any other
students that I have ever had, including your mother, Jared."
"A great deal is riding on what we can learn," offered Prince
Antion. "We would be fools to waste this opportunity."
"Quite true," agreed the old man, "but it still requires a
great deal of devotion, and you have given it. Sadly, there is little more that
I can teach you. By the time the leaves begin to fall, you will have learned all
that I am capable of teaching. What will you do then?"
"I don't know," shrugged Prince Antion. "A lot will depend
upon the state of the world when we finish. I must admit that I grow anxious not
knowing what is going on outside this cove."
"I will want to visit my father," answered Jared. "You have
shared much of my mother's time here, and my father's, and I yearn to see him
again. I think I shall look at him differently now."
"In what way?" asked Audric.
"I have always loved my father," replied Jared, "but I guess I
never knew him. I always suspected that he was a criminal of sorts, but I was
always afraid to mention it for fear of hurting his feelings. Now I know the
truth and it is quite different from what I believed. I want to tell him how
much I love him and thank him for what he did for me. I only hope that I will
find the words to express my feelings to him."
"Then it is settled," smiled Prince Antion. "We will return to
Anatar when we are done here."
"Now that we have those thoughts out of the way," smiled Audric,
"let's get back to our lessons. I still have much to teach both of
"We are ready to learn," offered Jared.
"I want to talk about sensing the Talent," Audric began. "As
you have become more attuned to the Talent, you must have noticed your ability
to sense when I am approaching. Is that correct?"
"I suppose it is," Jared nodded after a moment of thought. "I
have not actually thought about that much, but now that you mention it, it does
seem that I always know when you are around. Is the Talent supposed to work like
"If you are strong in your ability," nodded Audric, "and you
are strong. We are going to try an experiment. I want you to cover your eyes.
Prince Antion and I are going to roam around the cove. I want you to call out
each time you sense one of us. You are to estimate the direction and the
distance as best you can."