"...Richard S. Tuttle, who I believe is one of this century's leading authors of innovative fantasy tales."

Patricia Spork, eBook Reviews Weekly



Evil Within

Chapter 1 & 2

Chapter 1

The Birth of a King

In the southernmost region of the Land of the Nine Kingdoms sat the gleaming city of Tarent, the capital of the Kingdom of Borunda. The sun was sliding into the waters of the Endless Sea as a retinue of Salacian soldiers passed through the open city gates and made their way towards the Royal Palace of Borunda. The shopkeepers paused in the act of closing their shops to turn and gaze upon the small column of foreign soldiers. Their faces beamed when they saw the Royal Standard of Salacia and realized that King Hector had arrived at last. They waved in welcome and then bowed their heads in respect as the Salacian king passed by. King Hector smiled broadly at the citizens of Tarent and waved as he rode by. When the Salacian entourage reached the palace, the Borundan guards greeted them and held their horses as they dismounted.

"Shall we accompany you inside?" a Salacian officer asked King Hector.

"There is no need," the monarch replied. "Make the men comfortable. We shall be here for a few days, I imagine."

"If we are not already too late," frowned the officer.

"It couldn't be helped," shrugged King Hector as he turned and entered the palace.

A Borundan officer welcomed the Salacian king and escorted him through the empty corridors of the palace, their footsteps loudly echoing in the silence.

"Has the queen given birth yet?" King Hector asked anxiously as they wound through the stone maze.

"Not yet," came a worried reply. "You can tell by the empty corridors. Everyone is in his or her room praying for a safe delivery. When the new prince is born, the whole world will know by the shouts of joy and singing that will ring from this palace."

"So it is to be a male child then?" asked the Salacian king.

"That is what the wisper declared," nodded the officer as he led the way up a flight of stone steps. "The wispers are never wrong about such things."

"No, they aren't," agreed King Hector. "I've never heard a decent explanation of their skills, but you are right; they are never wrong."

"It is magic," shrugged the guard. "Wispers know everything that will happen in the future."

"They do have an ability of magic," smiled King Hector, "but they cannot foretell the future. They have no more sense of what tomorrow will bring than you or I do, but they do have the ability to see within the womb. I wish someone would explain to me how that is done."

The officer suddenly halted and opened a door. He stood to one side to allow the Salacian king to pass into the room beyond. King Hector entered a large room and halted as his eyes took in his surroundings. A long table ran down the center of the room, and it was loaded with plates of food, but no one was sitting at it. Along two of the walls were rows of leather chairs, and more than half of them were filled with men. King Hector recognized some of the faces as belonging to the rulers of the nine kingdoms. He assumed that the others were prominent citizens of Borunda. Most of the men puffed on pipes, and a dense cloud of smoke hovered in the air. Through the haze, he noticed King Eugeon pacing the floor at the far end of the table.

As the officer closed the door behind him, all of the faces in the room turned to gaze upon the new arrival. King Eugeon's face broke into a warm smile, and the Borundan king promptly marched towards the Salacian king. King Hector smiled in return and walked to meet his host.

"I thought you would miss the event," greeted King Eugeon. "Welcome to Tarent."

"I would not miss it for the world," grinned King Hector. "A first born is always an event to be shared by all. I apologize for my tardiness, but my own queen has just gifted me with a daughter. I could not leave until I was sure she was taken care of."

"Understandable," King Eugeon nodded warmly. "That is your third, isn't it?"

"It is," nodded the Salacian king.

"It must be something in the air," chuckled King Eugeon. "Your neighbor, King Caedmon, is also expecting another soon."

"So I have heard," replied King Hector. "His will also be female. It should happen within a fortnight."

"It's those cold winter nights," laughed King Eugeon.

A woman's cry suddenly pierced the air from beyond a doorway at the far end of the room. King Eugeon's face blanched, and his left eye twitched nervously. He looked anxiously towards the door, and King Hector's hand shot out and rested comfortingly on the Borundan king's shoulder.

"Go see what is happening," urged the Salacian king. "I can see to my own needs here."

"Thank you," King Eugeon murmured as he turned and moved quickly towards the far door.

King Hector walked to the table and heaped meat on a plate. He paused to look around the room and saw King Caedmon waving for the Salacian king to sit near him. King Hector nodded and walked over to his friend and neighbor and sat down next to him.

"At least you have your priorities straight," smiled King Caedmon. "Greet your host, stuff your face, and then visit your old friends."

"We must observe protocol," nodded King Hector as he looked back to see the Borundan king pick up his pacing again. "Eugeon is a nervous wreck. I doubt that he will last the night without collapsing."

"He has had a run of bad luck," sighed King Caedmon. "This is Abigal's third attempt. It is as if someone has put a curse on the royal line of Borunda."

"Eugeon is not an only child," frowned King Hector. "I know that he has a sister."

"True, and she is also expecting any day now" shrugged the King of Arin, "but that is two out of seven pregnancies for Eugeon's father. I know of no other royal line that has such troubles, and it extends back for many generations. It seems like the Borundan throne is always in jeopardy of having no heir."

"Perhaps," conceded King Hector, "but the Borundans have always birthed good kings. Remember that it was a Borundan king who ended warfare in the Land of the Nine Kingdoms. We have lived in peace for generations, and it was a Borundan king who brought it about."

"True," chuckled King Caedmon.

"What are you laughing about?" questioned the Salacian king.

"I always find it amusing to hear the phrase Land of the Nine Kingdoms," replied the Arin king. "In fact, there are only eight kingdoms. Lom is ruled by a council, not a king."

"It could be worse," King Hector laughed softly as his eyes darted around the room. "Capri is ruled by a madman, and Hyrem is not much of a kingdom at all. Perhaps it should be called the Land of the Six Kingdoms and Others."

"True," King Caedmon replied solemnly. "King Quanto is deranged, but he is still a decent man. We should not make fun of our fellow monarchs."

"I am only offering up levity to lift the gloom around us," shrugged King Hector. "You know that I stand with all the rulers of the Land of the Nine Kingdoms. Salacia is always among the first to help our neighbors whenever they need it, but that doesn't mean that we should not laugh at ourselves."

Suddenly a baby's cry could be heard from beyond the door at the far end of the room. Everyone's head turned towards the door, and a broad grin spread over King Eugeon's face. Before anyone's smile had a chance to fade, a woman's scream pierced the air. King Eugeon raced to the door and flung it open. The other men in the room rose and began to move towards the door, but King Caedmon rushed across the floor to stand behind King Eugeon and wave the others back to their chairs. The Arin king knew that something was amiss, and he intended to protect King Eugeon from the flood of nosy well-wishers.

King Eugeon entered the room and stared in horror. Flori, the wisper, was cradling the newborn prince, but she was also wailing in grief. The king's eyes moved beyond the wisper to his wife's bed. Queen Abigal's eyes were wide open in a stare of death.

"What have you done?" King Eugeon shouted at the wisper as he raced to the side of the bed and held Abigal's head in his hands. "What have you done?"

"I don't know," blubbered the wisper. "It was a hard birth, but this should not have happened. I don't understand."

"You don't understand?" yelled the king. "You've killed the queen, and you don't understand? Get out of my sight before I have you hung. Get out!"

The wisper's body shook with grief as she moved to leave, but she realized that she still held the child. She looked around helplessly, not knowing what to do. King Caedmon stepped into the room and gently took the child from her arms. As soon as the wisper was free of the child, she ran through the door, across the large room and into the corridor beyond.

Flori ran through the empty corridors of the palace and fled outside. She raced across the grounds and past the gate guards without noticing their questioning glances. Tears flowed from her eyes and clouded her vision. Twice Flori tripped as she dashed to the small home she shared with her sister, Naveena. When she finally reached the house, she ran through the rooms and threw herself down on her bed and cried. Naveena raced to her sister's side and tried to comfort her.

"What is the matter?" asked Naveena. "Why aren't you with the queen? Did the birth go badly?"

Flori nodded, but she continued sobbing without explanation.

"Wispers are not perfect," soothed Naveena. "We have the magical gift to help, but some things are beyond our help. It is not the first child lost to the royal family. Don't be so hard on yourself. The king and queen will try again."

Flori sat up and turned to face her sister. She tried to wipe the tears from her eyes, but she couldn't stop them from flowing freely.

"You don't understand," sobbed Flori. "The prince was born alive, but the queen is dead. I killed the queen."

Naveena's mouth opened in horror at her sister's words. Her eyes closed tightly, and she bit on her lower lip. After a moment, she opened her eyes and inhaled deeply.

"You could no more kill the queen than I could," Naveena declared. "It must be a mistake, a strange disease or something, but it is not your fault. It can't be your fault."

"It is my fault," blubbered Flori. "A wisper's task is to see to the welfare of both the child and the mother. I failed in my duty. I was so focused on the child that I failed to see the mother in distress. I killed the queen. Do you understand what I am saying? I killed the Queen of Borunda. I should be hung for it."

Naveena stared nervously at her sister. As much as she did not want to think that her sister had failed, she recognized the truth in Flori's words. A wisper's magic was in high demand specifically to avoid deaths. In a royal rage, King Eugeon might very well order the execution of Flori. Naveena would not allow that to happen.

"You stay here and sleep," comforted Naveena. "I know whatever happened was not your fault. I will go to the palace and offer my services to the king. As long as the new prince is taken care of, the king will not have cause to harm you."

"I should be hung," Flori shook her head. "I killed the queen."

"Stop it!" shouted Naveena. "Never say that again. If King Eugeon harms one hair on your head, I will make him suffer for it. Sleep. I will be back in the morning."

Naveena left the room and straightened her clothes. She breathed deeply and slowly as she tried to calm herself. She knew that King Eugeon would be in a rage when she arrived at the palace, but she was the only other wisper in the city besides her sister. He would have to let her take care of the new prince, and that meant that he could not afford to harm Flori.

* * *

"Sit, Eugeon," urged King Caedmon. "There is nothing more you can do for your lovely queen. Sit and let your rage subside."

"How can I let go of my rage?" spat King Eugeon. "It is all that I have left after that wisper killed my wife."

"That is hardly true," comforted the Arin king. "You have a son now, and he will need a strong father to raise him. And do not blame the wisper so. I have seen many a wisper in my days, and I have never met one who didn't value the life of her charges over her own. I suspect that whatever happened was beyond the aid of a wisper. Do not blame the woman."

King Eugeon clenched his fists, but he slowly nodded.

"Your advice is sound as always," he said softly. "My brain tells me that your words are wise, but I cannot control the rage I feel inside. I have so wanted a son and heir to the throne, but never at the cost of my Abigal. She was all that ever mattered to me. I do not know what I will do without her."

"You will grieve for her," King Caedmon replied comfortingly, "as all of the Land of the Nine Kingdoms will, but in time you will recover. Perhaps in a few years you will take a new wife, but in the meantime, you are blessed with a son. Do not let your rage consume you, as you know it can. Concentrate on your son's well being."

"I will never remarry," King Eugeon declared adamantly.

"All the more reason to concentrate on your son then," replied King Caedmon. "He is the heir to the Borundan throne now. What will you call him?"

King Eugeon turned and stared at the newborn that had been placed on the bed beside his mother. The king smiled at his son as a tear rolled down his cheek.

"Abigal and I had decided to call him Garrick," stated the Borundan king. "I shall not change that now."

"Should I announce Prince Garrick to the others waiting outside?" asked King Caedmon. "They must be curious."

"This is no time for celebrations," King Eugeon shook his head. "You may tell the others what has transpired, but I will not be joining them this evening. Let them eat or send them to their quarters. I care not whichever they do. Send my advisor in when you leave. I must make arrangements for the care of my son."

The Arin king opened the door and stepped out into the large room. The waiting dignitaries were no longer sitting around the edges of the room, but were standing around the table helping themselves to food. They looked towards him as he exited the small room and spoke softly to the advisor who was waiting next to the door. The advisor stepped through the open door, and King Caedmon moved to the table to explain what had happened to the gathered dignitaries. He did not even notice the young woman who moved across the room and towards the open doorway.

Naveena halted next to the doorway as she tried to summon her courage. She knew that King Eugeon would be in a foul mood, but she also knew that she was the only other wisper in the city, and the king needed a wisper desperately. She was about to boldly enter the small room when she heard the advisor mention her sister's name.

"We really should get Flori back to take care of Garrick," stated the advisor.

"No," snapped the king. "The last thing I need right now is to see her face."

"Then I will summon her sister, Naveena," replied the advisor. "Whatever your feelings about this matter, Prince Garrick must have a wisper available to him, and she is the only other wisper in the city."

"That is not true," retorted the king. "My sister Orenda has the gift of magic. She will be Garrick's wisper."

"The princess?" balked the advisor. "That is impossible. Orenda is due to give birth at any time now. She will have her hands full tending to her own child. This is not a wise decision."

"It is my decision to make," asserted the king. "She can move back into the palace and have her child here."

"With her husband?" questioned the advisor. "I thought you did not care for Zalman?"

"What is there to like about the man?" snapped the king. "He never talks, and he has no respect for the royal family. I don't know what my sister ever saw in him."

"I cannot enlighten you in that regard," replied the advisor, "but I do know that Orenda would never move into the palace without him. He is the reason she chose to move out into the city in the first place. Besides, it is not right for a princess to perform the duties of a wisper, even if she does have the Talent. It just isn't done."

"Well it will be done this time," declared the king. "Send for Orenda. If her husband must come with her, so be it. Now that that is settled, I have some other tasks for you to manage."

Naveena did not wait for the conversation to finish. She turned and hastily made her way across the large room and out of the palace. Now that the king no longer needed her services, she knew that she must get her sister out of the city before he decided to punish Flori. Naveena raced through the city streets and dashed into the home she shared with her sister.

"Get your belongings together," Naveena shouted as she entered the house. "We must leave Tarent immediately."

Naveena had started to gather her most prized possessions when she realized that Flori had never responded to her statement. Thinking that Flori was still sulking, Naveena threw down her clothes in disgust and stormed into Flori's room. As she threw open the door, she screamed in horror. Flori's body was hanging from a ceiling beam, her face blue and her tear-stained eyes shut.

Naveena grabbed a knife and leaped onto the bed. She cut the rope and caught her sister's body as it fell. She placed the body on the bed and removed the rope from around her sister's neck. With tears in her eyes, she hugged Flori.

"You did his work for him," cried Naveena. "Why? I could have gotten you out of the city. We could have lived long lives somewhere else. He would never have found us. I would have protected you like I always have."

As Naveena rocked her sister's dead body, her tears slowly dissipated. In their place a burning rage began to boil.

"He did this to you," spat Naveena. "I will make him pay dearly for this. No, not just King Eugeon, all of Borunda will pay for this crime, all of the Land of Nine Kingdoms. Everyone will lament this day for the rest of eternity. I shall see to that. I promise you."

Naveena gently placed her sister's body on the bed and rose. Steeling her mind with hatred, she stormed out of the house. The daylight had long passed, and the city streets had been empty for hours. The wisper made no effort to avoid being seen as she moved quickly towards the beach where Princess Orenda lived in a small unassuming house.

When she neared the house, she slowed down to think about what she was going to do. The thought caused shivers to race up her spine, but her rage was resolute. Naveena moved stealthily towards the house and slid next to a palm tree. Concentrating her powers as she stared at the small structure, she called forth a spell of fire. Within moments the thatched roof ignited, and the flames danced swiftly in every direction.

"Now there is only one wisper in Tarent," snarled Naveena. "Let's see how your brother handles that."

As she watched the flames grow and start to burn the lower structure, Naveena heard a scream from the ocean side of the house. She raced around the burning structure, her eyes searching for the source of the scream. Standing away from the house on the beach was Princess Orenda and in her arms was a newborn boy. The princess saw Naveena and shouted to her.

"Naveena," yelled the princess, "come here. Hold Zinan while I go wake up Zalman. I fear he will sleep through the fire and perish."

Naveena ran to the princess and accepted the baby. As Orenda raced into the burning building, Naveena called forth another spell of fire. She directed it at the rear of the structure so that Orenda would never escape alive. She smiled inwardly as she heard the princess's deathly scream.

"What is happening?" called a man as he ran along the beach and approached Naveena.

"A fire," the wisper replied blandly without turning away from the flames. "Some woman handed me this child and raced into the building. I don't think she is going to come back out."

"You must be a stranger to our city," remarked the man, "otherwise you would know that that is Princess Orenda's house."

Without turning her face to the man, Naveena bent down and placed the baby on the sand.

"She said his name was Zinan," Naveena called as she stole away from the man before he could get a look at her face.

Conflicting emotions raced through Naveena as she ran back to her home. She had never used her magic to destroy anything before, and it scared her, but it also sent a thrill racing through her body. She had powers that few others had, so why shouldn't she use them to get her revenge? Someone had to pay for Flori's death.

After a few minutes she managed to get her emotions under control. She had claimed a sister for a sister, but it didn't quell her thirst for vengeance. She was sitting in the dark of her room plotting the next step of her revenge when a loud knocking sounded on the door of the house.

"Open up in the name of the king," shouted a man.

Naveena's mind raced as she tried to imagine how they had found out that she had started the fire. As the knocking sounded anew, she quickly reviewed her magic spells and chose the one she would use on the soldier outside.

"Open the door," shouted the man. "The king has need of a wisper."

Naveena frowned in confusion. She suddenly realized that they had not discovered her crime. She moved quickly and partially opened the door to gaze into the face of Lavitor, the king's advisor.

"Naveena," the advisor nodded in recognition, "your services are needed at the palace. Grab some clothes and come with me. You will be moving into the Royal Palace."

"Moving in?" questioned the wisper. "Isn't my sister already there?"

"Flori did not come home?" Lavitor frowned.

"Home?" echoed the wisper. "Why would she?"

"It is too much to go into right now," answered the advisor. "Suffice it to say, you have been chosen to raise Prince Garrick."

"That is quite an honor," smiled Naveena.

"Double the honor," replied the advisor. "You will also raise Prince Zinan."

"Ah, twins?" smiled Naveena. "The royal couple must be thrilled this evening."

"I would not describe the king's mood as thrilled," frowned the advisor. "He has lost his sister and his wife this evening."

"The queen and the princess are both dead?" Naveena responded, her mouth open with horror and her eyes wide with shock.

"Yes," Lavitor sighed heavily. "Now is not the time for me to explain what has happened. You will have the responsibility of raising two newborn boys. It will be quite an honor for you."

"I am sure that it will be," Naveena replied. "Will I be free to engage my sister when she returns from wherever she has gone tonight?"

"I am afraid not," answered the advisor. "At least not until the passing of Queen Abigal fades from the king's memory. I fear that he might associate your sister with her death."

"Preposterous," retorted Naveena. "Still, one does not argue with the crown. How long will my services be required?"

"How long?" echoed the advisor. "You are to raise the children, Naveena. Your services will be required for as long as the children need you. Hurry along, the babies need your attention now."

"You go on ahead," smiled Naveena. "I have a few things to take care of here before I leave. I will be along shortly."

Chapter 2

Sowing Revenge

Lavitor, the head advisor to King Eugeon of Borunda, stood in the dark, empty street of Tarent and watched the door to Naveena's house closely. His final task of a long and dreary night was complete, and he had no reason to hurry back to the palace. His first thought was to wait outside Naveena's home and escort her to the palace, but he dismissed the idea before it could take root. There was no danger of harm coming to the wisper in Tarent. The city was crime-free except for the pettiest of offenses. The gates of the Royal Palace always stood open, and Naveena well knew her way to the palace. She had been invited there many times in the past.

Lavitor turned away from the door and strode aimlessly through the city streets. His thoughts were troubled over the day's events. In the span of a single day, Borunda had gained two princes and lost a queen and a princess. It was a day that would be remembered for generations. As much as he mourned Queen Abigal's death, he could not find it in his heart to place blame on the wisper, Flori. He knew the young woman as one who loved the royal family more than her own life, and he knew that whatever killed the queen, it was not something the wisper could have foreseen. Sometimes life was just cruel, he reasoned.

The noise of a crowd interrupted the advisor's thoughts, and he looked up to find himself approaching the house of Princess Orenda. A wry smile crossed his lips as he realized where his aimless meanderings had brought him. It was fitting that his dark thoughts should lead him to the scene of the harshest of the night's tragedies. He stopped abruptly and stared at the smoldering frame of the small beach house.

Lavitor had loved Orenda, but she had spurned his desires long ago. He thought her rejection was one of rank and status, and that was understandable. Lavitor was, of course, an advisor, not a noble. Had he been able to maintain that illusion, life would have been more bearable for him, but when she married Zalman, Lavitor knew the princess's rejection for what it was.

Zalman was a peasant, the son of peasants, and the grandson of peasants. The man had never seen the inside of a palace, and very likely never would have. For a long time, Lavitor stewed over the marriage of Orenda to such a lowly man, but that ended just a few months ago. The advisor clearly remembered the day that Orenda sought him out at the palace. She had come in an attempt to reconcile with King Eugeon, who had vehemently opposed the marriage, but the visit had been in vain. The Borundan King had refused to meet with Zalman or allow him entry into the palace. Princess Orenda was heartbroken, and she had turned to Lavitor for comfort.

"Do not hold the decision against Eugeon," Lavitor had urged. "It is Abigal who abhors the thought of you marrying a man of no station. She will never relent in her thoughts, and the king is obligated to please her. Go back and talk to Eugeon. He has the power to dissolve your marriage as if it never existed. Things can return to the way they were."

"Never!" Orenda retorted sharply. "I love Zalman, and he means everything to me. I care not a whit about royalty and station. My purpose in coming today was to resolve relations with my brother, not the King of Borunda. I do not care if I ever set foot in the palace again, but I do not want to lose my brother."

Tears flowed from the princess's eyes, and Lavitor reached out and hugged her. His own love for the princess overrode his desire to possess her, and he finally realized that his love demanded that he do what he could to make her happy.

"I will talk to Eugeon," Lavitor said softly. "It will take some months to overcome the queen's objections, but I am sure that you and Zalman will be welcomed in the palace before the end of summer."

The princess lifted her head off of the advisor's shoulder and looked into his eyes. She smiled sincerely and kissed him on the cheek.

"Thank you, Lavitor," she said softly. "I know of your feelings for me, and I know how hard this will be for you, but I do love Zalman. I love him more than life itself."

"As I said," Lavitor smiled, "by the end of summer, you will be back in the palace."

"It is not the palace that I care about," Orenda replied. "Just get Eugeon to come and visit me. That is all that I ask for. By summer I shall give birth, and I would so like to have Eugeon there for the occasion."

"Birth?" echoed the advisor. "Blessed Monarch! Abigal is also due to give birth in early summer. The king will be overjoyed by the news."

"I do not expect him to be joyful of my condition," frowned Orenda. "He detests Zalman, and my pregnancy seals forever my betrothal, but I do want him to accept me as a sister. That is all I ask for."

A tear started to slide down Lavitor's cheek when a shout interrupted his reverie. The advisor looked up to see a soldier running towards him.

"What is it?" the advisor asked a little too gruffly.

"I am not sure what it means," the soldier answered defensively, "but I thought someone should know about it."

"Know about what?" the advisor asked impatiently.

"We were dousing the house with water to make sure the fire did not restart," explained the soldier. "I was going around and checking for hotspots when I noticed something strange. There is a hole in the side of the house."

Lavitor looked past the soldier at the smoldering ruin. Only one wall was standing, attached to a small portion of a connecting wall. The rest of the structure had collapsed and burned to cinders.

"There is barely a side of the house left," scowled Lavitor, "and you think a hole in it is significant?"

"I do," nodded the soldier with a growing sense of concern that he was making a fool of himself. "I have never seen anything like it before, and I have cleaned up after many house fires. Come and take a look. It will take but a moment."

The soldier turned and headed back towards the burnt house without waiting for a reply. Lavitor fumed at having been so discourteously severed from his contemplation to inspect the damage of a burnt house, but he obligingly followed the soldier towards the last remaining wall of the structure.

"So there is a hole in the side of the house," snapped Lavitor. "So what? The princess died in that fire. Now, that is something I care about, but the remains of her house hold no interest for me."

"But maybe she got out of the fire," suggested the soldier. "The only witness to the event was a neighbor, and he said that she did not come back out the back door. Maybe she escaped through the hole in the wall."

"Anything could have caused that hole," Lavitor shook his head. "The fire could have eaten through the wood faster in the middle, or a burning beam from the roof might have smashed through it. The hole means nothing."

"But it is a strange hole," argued the soldier. "Look at the edges where the wood is broken. There are no burn marks at all. In fact, the paint is not even blistered from the heat. I have never seen anything like it, and I know that Princess Orenda held the power within her. She might have escaped."

A brief flicker of hope lit in Lavitor's heart as he moved closer to inspect the hole. Indeed, the edges of the hole were free of any effects of heat or fire. Lavitor reached out and tentatively touched the edges of the wood. He half expected his fingers to burn from the touch, but the wood was as cold as winter ice.

"Get more men out here immediately," Lavitor ordered with renewed hope. "I want ever inch of this house sifted and examined. I want trackers and dogs to see if they can pick up the scent of the princess."

"There are only a few men on duty this late at night," replied the soldier. "I will notify the barracks to get everyone down here in the morning."

"Wake the men up!" shouted Lavitor. "I want every set of eyes out here that I can get. I want a report in my office the moment anything is discovered."

Without waiting for a response, the king's advisor turned and hurried off in the direction of the palace.

* * *

By high sun of the following day, Lavitor was exhausted from a night without sleep. He was sitting at the desk in his office awaiting the next report, when a loud knock hammered the door. He shouted for the person to enter, and the door opened to admit an officer.

"The royal physician has examined the bones from the fire," the officer reported. "He is convinced that they represent the remains of Princess Orenda."

"And what convinces him?" asked the advisor.

"Everything is consistent with his expectations," reported the officer. "He verified the authenticity of the royal ring from her finger. The skeletal remains show proof of prior injuries including a break to her left forearm from when she was a child. He has no doubts that it is the remains of the princess. I am sorry."

"As am I," sighed the advisor. "What about Zalman?"

"No other remains were found in the house," declared the officer. "We cannot even find anyone to verify that the man was in the city at the time of the fire. In fact, few people have ever seen him. He pretty much stayed to himself. The trackers did follow a trail that originated near the standing wall, but they lost it in the surf."

"Lost it in the surf?" echoed the weary advisor. "Are you suggesting that the man marched out to sea and drowned?"

"Certainly not," the officer shook his head. "The trackers searched along the beach for some ways and did not find the tracks coming back on land, but that is not to say the man drowned. I imagine if we expanded the scope of the hunt, we would eventually pick up the trail again. How far do you want us to extend this search? Is Zalman a suspect in the fire?"

"No," sighed Lavitor. "There is no possible reason for Zalman to want the princess dead, still, I would like to know what happened out there last night. Extend the search to the limits of the city, but no further."

"As you wish," saluted the officer.

"One other thing," the advisor said as the officer turned to leave. "Find out what village Zalman came from and send a scout up there to see if he has returned. If he has not, have an artist talk to the villagers and construct a picture of the man. I want the picture spread widely throughout Borunda. The man is not to be considered a criminal, but I want him brought to the palace if he is found."

"And if he resists?" the officer asked with a raised eyebrow.

"I want him brought to the palace," restated the king's advisor.

After the officer left, Lavitor rose from his chair. He could feel the weariness in his bones, and the knowledge that the princess was truly dead drained him emotionally, but he still had duties to attend to.

Lavitor left his office and walked woodenly to the nursery. He eased the door open and saw the two princes sleeping in their cradles. Naveena was immediately on her feet and moved a chair close to the cradles for the king's advisor to sit down in.

"You look tired, Lavitor," smiled Naveena. "Have a seat and gaze upon the future of Borunda."

Lavitor smiled weakly, but he did take the offered chair. As he gazed upon the newborn infants, a smell of lavender pleasantly assaulted him. He turned to look into the smiling face of Naveena, and was immediately struck by how beautiful the woman was. He was amazed that he had never noticed her beauty before.

"All of this dealing with death is not good for you," purred Naveena. "You need to concentrate more on the future and not the past. One of these infants is the future King of Borunda."

"That would be Prince Garrick," smiled Lavitor. "They both appear to be quite happy and well cared for."

"And I shall ensure that they always are," smiled Naveena. "Prince Zinan will constantly be by Garrick's side and will someday be the king's advisor as you now are. You should pay particular attention to him. He could use your tutoring. You have much wisdom to share with him."

"An interesting thought," mused the king's advisor as he decided to sit. "A prince for an advisor?"

"And why not?" replied Naveena. "They will grow up together and be the best of friends. Who better to look after the king's best interests?"

Lavitor's eyes were glued to the wisper, and a strange longing rushed through his body. He barely knew the woman, but Lavitor felt as if he could trust her with his innermost secrets. He smiled boyishly at her.

"How is the investigation going?" the wisper asked casually.

"It is over," the advisor said softly. "Princess Orenda did die in the fire as was originally thought, but it appears that Zalman managed to escape."

A tingle of fear rippled down Naveena's back. She could not afford for Zalman to survive, especially if there was any chance that he could identify her.

"I am sure that your men will track him down," Naveena stated.

"He is of no concern," shrugged the advisor. "His marriage to Orenda was never accepted. If you are worried that he will interfere in Zinan's upbringing, do not be. Even if he managed to survive the fire, he will have no say in the raising of his son. I see no reason to be concerned with his whereabouts."

"You don't?" frowned Naveena. "What if he is the one who set the fire?"

Lavitor's eyes glazed in confusion. "He would have no reason to start the fire," he stated. "If I even thought there might be a single reason to suspect him, I would have him hunted down and executed."

Naveena smiled inwardly as her mind whirled. The opportunity proved to be too good to resist.

"I think the man is highly suspect," frowned the wisper. "I did not want to mention this to you earlier because I did not understand what had happened last night, but do you remember asking about Flori when you came to my house?"

"Of course," nodded the advisor. "I was concerned about her. The king was rather harsh on her earlier in the evening. What do you know that you are not saying?"

"Well," Naveena began hesitantly, "Flori and Zalman were close friends, very close friends. Is it not strange that both of them managed to disappear at exactly the same time?"

"Impossible," scowled the advisor. "How could he possibly reject Orenda?"

Lavitor grew agitated and rose from the chair. He paced the floor in indecision as if torn between two opposing commands.

"It has been going on for some time," Naveena said softly as she clinically observed the king's advisor. "Was there any reason for Zalman to want to see the queen dead?"

Lavitor stopped pacing and turned to face Naveena in horror. Instantly he thought of Zalman's rejection by the royal family, and his mouth hung open in sudden realization.

"Then the queen's death was no accident," swore the advisor. "Oh cursed Zalman! One could not imagine a plot so vile and corrupt. I must advise the king immediately."

"No," Naveena said quickly as she rose from her chair. "Eugeon's mind is confused right now. If you tell him the truth, he will not allow me to tend to the children. You must take care of this problem yourself."

The thought of not informing the king repulsed Lavitor, but his heart understood what Naveena was saying. For some reason, he knew that the wisper was to be trusted, trusted above all others.

"I must remain close to the children," smiled Naveena. "And you," she added as she blinked lovingly. "You can see that, can't you?"

Lavitor was a man raised to respect protocol, and he had never abused his position for any reason, but his next move would have shocked any member of court who might have witnessed it. In three quick strides, he crossed the room and embraced the wisper. He kissed her passionately, and his heart sang loudly as the woman responded to him.

"I love you, Naveena," Lavitor whispered.

"And I love you," Naveena whispered back. "I will protect you against any foe."

"As I shall protect you," promised the king's advisor.

"And what of Zalman and Flori?" questioned the wisper.

"I will have them hunted down and killed," Lavitor replied in a whisper. "They will learn that one does not hurt the royal family and get away with it, but I will also spare the king's fragile mind. There is no need for him to know the details of such a sordid affair."

"Well spoken," grinned Naveena. "Go get some rest. We can talk later when you are refreshed."

Lavitor obediently turned and walked out the door. As the door closed, a broad grin appeared on the wisper's face.

"I never fully understood the power of the Talent," Naveena said to herself as she turned to gaze upon the sleeping infants. "Beware Borunda for your future now lies in my hands. You shall pay a thousand fold for the pain you have brought to me."

* * *

Three days of mourning followed the death of Queen Abigal and Princess Orenda. During those days of mourning, the dignitaries from across the Land of the Nine Kingdoms met among themselves and talked quietly, but King Eugeon was not seen. It was rumored that he had attended a private funeral service for his wife and sister, but he did not make an appearance at the public ceremony. After the proclaimed mourning period had ended, the dignitaries began to take their leave of the Royal Palace in Tarent for the trip home.

"Shall we ride together?" asked King Hector of Salacia as he approached the Arin king.

"It will give us time to discuss what has happened here," nodded King Caedmon.

"What is there to discuss?" shrugged King Hector. "I would prefer to talk about brighter things than the death of royals. The affairs of the living are always preferable over the affairs of the dead."

"Preferable, yes," nodded King Caedmon, "but in this case the affairs of the dead are more important to our future."

"What are you talking about?" frowned the Salacian king.

"The Land of the Nine Kingdoms has benefited from an unusual period of peace and prosperity," answered King Caedmon. "That is all about to change."

"Change?" balked King Hector. "Because of the death of a woman?"

"Two women," corrected King Caedmon. "I am not sure exactly what transpired in Tarent this week, but I am certain that we shall not enjoy the repercussions of it."

"I think you are making too much of it," shrugged King Hector. "While it is a sad occasion for any family to have to bury loved ones, it is nothing that is going to change the relationships of our countries."

"Isn't it?" retorted King Caedmon. "While the queen's death may have been unfortunate, there are indications that the death of the princess was a deliberate act. The murder of a royal has not occurred since the time of peace began. You too quickly forget the fear and suspicions that used to guide our forefathers in their time of leadership."

"Surely, you do not think that King Eugeon suspects a foreign agent of murdering his sister?" gasped King Hector. "Why would any of us desire to do such a thing?"

"I don't think it was foreign in origin," stated the Arin king, "but who knows what King Eugeon believes. The fact that none of us saw him after his wife's death disturbs me greatly. There are certain protocols that any royal family must adhere to, and King Eugeon has abandoned them."

"You are blaming him for not interrupting his mourning to say goodbye to us?" scowled King Hector. "That is incredible. The man has suffered his worst fear, Caedmon. Let him grieve in peace and shove the niceties of office aside. I am surprised by your words."

"I mean no disrespect to the Borundan king," clarified King Caedmon. "In fact, I grieve for him. His loss has been severe by any measure, but ask yourself this question, given the same circumstances, would you have hidden yourself for three days while all the kings of the Land of the Nine Kingdoms awaited you?"

The Salacian king gave serious thought to the question as they walked down the stairs and towards the exit from the palace.

"No," King Hector finally answered. "A ruler's kingdom comes before himself. The death of the queen was not just a loss to Eugeon, but also a loss to the citizens of Borunda, indeed a loss to all of the Land of the Nine Kingdoms. As much as it pained me, I would force myself to observe the public role that was my right and duty. It is an obligation that cannot be forsaken."

"Now you understand," King Caedmon nodded in satisfaction. "King Eugeon has lost the will to lead his country. That will create a power vacuum in Borunda, and the type of people that step into such a void are not the type of people that will want to support peace among the kingdoms. There are harsh times ahead for all of us."

"Surely, the king's advisor can support Eugeon until he is strong enough to resume his duties," suggested King Hector.

"That is another thing that is bothering me," admitted King Caedmon. "I have known Lavitor for a long time. He has always been the epitome of protocol, yet he also appears to be in a fog. He reacted well the night of the terrible events, but since that time he has failed miserably to uphold the dignity of the Royal Palace."

"I did hear that he loved Princess Orenda," shrugged King Hector. "Perhaps he suffers from a similar fate as that of King Eugeon. We should not be so quick to judge others."

"I am not judging them," countered King Caedmon. "At least not in the sense that you are talking about. My heart goes out to both men. I would never want to be in their shoes."

"Then what are you saying?" King Hector asked with an air of frustration.

King Caedmon turned and glanced back along the corridor before answering. "There is foul play afoot here, Hector," the Arin king declared. "I can not put my finger on the source of the troubles, but I am willing to wager that it is magical in nature."

"Magical?" balked the Salacian king. "I pray that you are wrong. Only a fool would use the Talent for nefarious ends. It will consume its wielder completely. Are you suggesting that the wisper, Flori, really killed the queen?"

"I am suggesting nothing of the sort," King Caedmon shook his head. "I am a fairly good judge of character, and that young woman was mortified that the queen had died. I think she would have preferred her own death to that of her patient. No, Hector, I am not accusing the wisper, but wispers are far from the only wielders of the Talent. Wispers are the public face of magic. They are the ones who openly declare their Talents and offer them to those in need. For every declared wisper, there are probably a dozen others who are capable with the Talent. Some hide it out of shame, others out of fear. A few others declare their capabilities but refuse to use the Talent. I presume that a city the size of Tarent might have thirty or more people capable of using the Talent to one degree or another."

"If what you say is true," frowned King Hector, "Eugeon should have them all rounded up until he finds out who is trying to usurp his power."

"King Eugeon is unaware of what is happening," replied the Arin king. "In any event, the one using the Talent would be the last one caught as he would be expecting such a move. I do not know the answer to the problem, Hector, but we can discuss it on our ride home."


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