Most people thought that he should have followed in his father's footsteps and become a warrior rather than a… well, whatever he was. When she'd first come to Castle Var, she'd thought the same thing when she'd heard rumors about Rabanar's useless second son.
"A layabout," the maid had told her, buckling together the sides of Shazia's leather armor before the banquet dinner. Shazia had dressed herself since she was old enough to walk, but she wasn't about to argue with a woman who could have hidden a small pony under her skirts. "Just be sure to talk to Pelligor seated on your left--he's a decent sort of man, with a son who's just beginning his training." The woman eyed her charge critically. "You're pretty big for your age, aren't you? Suck in a bit, I need to tighten these straps."
The chair on her right was empty when she was escorted to her seat moments later, trying to remember how to breathe in armor that, with the maid's help, was as restrictive as a corset. It wasn't until the first and second course had been served and taken away that the tramp of heavy boots interrupted the quiet conversation flowing through the hall.
"Sorry, sorry," a voice announced loudly behind her as the man reached the vacant chair. "My valet must have gotten the time wrong… again." Up and down the table, small chuckles escaped as, with a flourish, the man pulled back the seat and settled himself comfortably before clapping his hands in a foppish manner. Servants rushed up with the third course before Ibin could cause another disturbance.
Without looking around at his other dining companions, the young man turned to face her. "They must have warned you about me, I expect," he said. "I am a poet, a dreamer and a mischief-maker, no more. No matter what has been said. How may I entertain my lady?"
It was the first time she'd laughed in a month, ever since she'd first learned she was to begin her training at Castle Var.
From that moment on, the unlikely couple had been friends. Ibin justified it as, "I've been forced to keep you company because it keeps me out of trouble."
Often, the opposite was true--he seemed to help get her into trouble. Or, at the very least, to get her into awkward situations which could have turned into trouble if he hadn't also had a flair for defusing those same situations. As her training progressed, she would either turn to him in frustration for his lackadaisical attitude--didn't he take anything seriously?--or in envy. He lived the lifestyle she had turned her back on, and she sometimes wished for a life of luxury, especially when she was covered in fresh bruises after learning a new maneuver on the field.
On her fifteenth birthday, she was surprised to be turned away at the training yard. "Orders are from Rabanar. He's entertaining visitors from the south today." The guard captain shrugged noncommittally. "A groom's waiting at the stables for you."
The "groom" standing in the stable yards turned out to be a laughing Ibin. "Don't worry, I didn't forge my father's note," he'd admitted when she didn't join in the laughter. "He really does have business today. But you, young miss," ignoring her glower, "are now entering adulthood. Since no family member has stepped forward to coach you at this crucial step in life, I have volunteered to sacrifice myself in this duty for the greater good." He thumped his chest dramatically with one fist, then extravagantly waved to an imaginary cheering crowd. "Yes, the self-sacrifice, the burden of such a great duty..."
"Oh, hush," she finally laughed. "You'll scare the real grooms from their duty with such talk." Ibin had been waiting with two saddled horses - the sturdy brown gelding that was "hers" during training and his favorite mare, a dainty side-stepper with a blue-gray coat. She grabbed the reins of her mount from his slack hand and whipped them around the horse's neck as she leapt onto its back. "Are you going to stand there all day?"
"You..." he muttered as he gained his own mount's back. "Race you to the front gate!" he shouted, already kneeing his horse forward. She grinned as she gave her beast its head. They raced, neck and neck, down the path from the stable yards, through the fields where men and women paused in their labors, straightened their backs and raised hands against the glare of the sun to watch the two young people at play. The grain was ripening nearby; the far fields, away from the main road, were reserved for vineyards. Over the undulating hills of yellow, she could see the blue-green dots of the vines in carefully tended rows stretching towards the nearby mountains.
The stone posts of the gate marking the entrance to Rabanar's lands were just on the far side of the next hill. Shazia's gelding was no foal, but it was a much sturdier beast than Ibin's younger, more delicate mare. By the time Shazia slowed at the stone markings, the white mare had already decided it had had enough and had slowed down despite Ibin's loud protests and prodding. It sauntered up to the gate and lowered its head to nibble on a sprig of alfalfa growing by the edge of the dirt path.
"That'll teach me to trust this miserable excuse for a fleabag." He slapped the horse's shoulder in mock-anger. The mare shrugged one shoulder and didn't even lift her head. At the motion, both Ibin and Shazia started to laugh.
"Oh, stop, stop," the young girl gasped. "I have bruised ribs from yesterday--this is killing me!"
"Speaking of killing," Ibin said with a wicked grin. "I have a recipe for fun that's sure to kill you." Shazia wiped away moisture from her eyes and nodded, still winded. "As a young male warrior, your fifteenth birthday would be marked with a centuries-old rite of passage." At her raised eyebrows, he specified, "We'd buy you a whore and a barrel of wine." Shazia's jaw dropped. Ibin cleared his throat in the awkward silence. "Yes, well, that seems inappropriate at this time. So does the rite of passage for a young woman--celebrating your betrothal to some stuffy lord you've never met. So I figured I'd split the difference."
"You're going to buy me a whore and betroth me to her?" Shazia asked innocently.
The shocked silence was broken by his loud laughter. A pair of offended crows rose abruptly from the nearby field and cawed as they settled down again.
"Not exactly the direction I was going, but I'll keep it in mind," he chuckled. "As a warrior, you do need to know how to drink. So I figured I would introduce you to the world of army alcohol--namely, the vilest liquor known to humankind. After that, I have a special surprise for you." He jerked at the reins of his horse and got the lazy white mare moving after a few tugs. He pointed her nose south, towards town. Shazia kneed her mount to follow and they trotted along the road for several seconds, the dull beats of hooves thudding against the hard-packed earth.
"I don't know if I can survive any more of your surprises," Shazia commented dryly into the silence.
"That's the whole point," he replied mysteriously. "Just wait and see."
Shazia blinked, shading her eyes. Ibin had given her a thorough introduction to the finest rotgut in the region, and she wasn't sure if the row of tents in front of them were waving in the breeze or if her vision was waving her, instead.
"I was keeping an eye out for them," Ibin murmured in her ear as she tried to focus on the nearby picture-signs hung in front of each tent. "Peori's traveling band of entertainers. They're normally through here twice a year, once heading north during the summer and again south in the fall." He grabbed her arm and hustled her past the first few tents, finally stopping at the edge of the cleared area. The last tent stood slightly apart from the others, and it was dyed a deep, dark red. "This is the one." Ibin pushed something into her hand, then shoved her through the tent flap before she could think of anything to say.
Either due to the cooler evening air outside or to the small brazier inside, Shazia immediately felt as if she were choking on the hot air of the interior. A small table covered by a crudely dyed red cloth dominated the center of the tent and a middle-aged woman, just on the far side of childbearing years, sat opposite the entrance with her colorful skirts spread around her.
Shazia glanced down into her sweaty palm and saw that Ibin had given her a coin--the first she'd ever handled in her life. The gypsy in front of her gestured to the cushion in front of the table and murmured in a surprisingly deep voice, "Please, be seated. I will tell your fortune for a silver."
Numbly, she knelt on the indicated cushion and held out her hand. Either the alcoholic haze or the simple speed of an offered fare made the coin seem to disappear like magic--one moment, it lay heavy in her hand, the next, the gypsy's cool hands covered hers and Shazia's palm was empty.
"Your friend was correct that this is a good place to find a rite of passage," the woman's deep voice intoned. Shazia closed her eyes to stop the spinning of the room, but it only made her stomach lurch, since she had no place to focus her attention other than the sound of the woman's voice. She opened her eyes again, but a closer look at the gypsy's face showed deep lines and a scar across one brow that looked like a knife had inflicted the original wound. Shazia shivered, despite the heat.
A nursery rhyme from her youth--about gypsy women stealing noblemen's children--buzzed in her head, most of the words a forgotten blur. She could almost hear her mother's voice singing it as she fell asleep--her head jerked as her eyes drooped. The gypsy had thrown a handful of some incense on the brazier, and a scented smoke curled from the edges of the coals across the room. Despite the musty odor, the smell seemed to clear the fuzziness around the edges of her mind. She noticed that the gypsy's eyes were a pale gray, like her own. She felt a stab of homesickness and could almost recall the sound of her mother's singing again.
"You've traveled far from your birthplace, but you have farther you must go." The woman touched Shazia's hands lightly, which she'd rested on the reddened cloth. The patterns of the uneven dye job seemed to move in the smoke-filled atmosphere, like something alive and breathing. The woman flung her hand out in a contemptuous wave--in the meantime, her other hand snuck into the long sleeves she wore and pulled out a deck of large, painted cards. Shazia grimaced at the attempted trickery, and her opinion, never high in the face of supposed magic and sorceries, lowered further.
The gypsy gestured and Shazia dropped her hands to her lap. The entertainer passed her hand over the deck three times in a circle, then shuffled it with a choppy flick of her wrist. The first card laid face up was a man holding a sword in one hand and a white dove in the other. "The soldier," the woman intoned, as if the name would hold meaning for Shazia. The next card: "The traveler," she murmured as a man in a ragged cloak with a jewel-headed walking stick looked up at her. As the gypsy pulled out the third card--three being the holy number of Yrdun, patron of warriors--a fourth card fell also, caught against the edge of the third. "Ahhh--" breathed the gypsy. "This means a choice that you must face. On one side--" the card she had pulled was a black-cloaked figure standing on a pile of corpses, "there is death. On the other--" and the caught card showed a picture of an crowned man on a white horse, with each corner of the rectangle engraved with the image of a book, "there are heroic deeds and a name set in legend. Like most choices, you cannot know which action will lead to which result. But the choice will be presented to you after many years have passed, spurred in part by a plot to control your actions. Since the third card is death and the fourth, or unasked-for, card is fame and glory, you must carefully consider the choices you face and not necessarily take the first path shown."
Shazia's stomach gave a burping sound. Swallowing against the thick feeling in her throat, she challenged, "But what does it mean?"
"Ahhh." The woman smiled. Meant to be mysterious, the gypsy only looked sly. "This is your first time seeking a fortune, then, and you are skeptical. What it means is that the hardest choice you must face is in your future. Right now, your path has been laid, and all you must do is follow it to a place you've already decided to go. You have been wondering at your choices so far, but they have been the choices you were meant to make. The gods have given their favor to your actions."
Shazia would have snorted, but was unsure what such an action would do to her precarious hold on her stomach's contents. "Thank you," she mumbled, standing up at a half-crouch. Standing was a mistake, she decided, as she hurriedly pushed aside the tent flap. Five steps more outside and she found a shrub to serve as a convenient location to settle her stomach in a very abrupt and not-too-pleasing way.
Before she was finished, the familiar sound of laughter drowned out the choking sounds she was making. "That bad of a fortune, eh?" Ibin guffawed.
If she had been feeling just the slightest bit better, she would have smacked him across the head for getting her into this situation. As it was, she suffered his help, since there was no way she was getting back to the castle on her own.
Despite feeling the worst she'd ever felt in her life, by the time she was lying prone in bed and close to passing out, she spared one moment to reflect on what the gypsy had told her.
Rubbish, was her last conscious thought.
When Shazia was young, she would often sneak away from her nursemaid after midday meal to the upper levels of her father's castle.
The south wing of the castle was used only during festivals to house foreign nobles. Most of the year, it stood empty. The inner corridor in the south wing looked out over the training grounds of the warriors.
Shazia would use her stolen time to lean out of the open-air windows to watch the soldiers practicing their craft below. From so far above, the sounds of battle echoed against the walls like ghosts. She would hear random shouted words and the clash of metal on metal in spurts of noise that changed as the wind moved.
One day as she was leaning out the window watching the men practice, Rabanar's voice rang out behind her, causing her to jump and spin to face him. She almost didn't catch herself in time to prevent joining the combatants below in a most unusual manner. He grinned at her.
"Why are you watching the warriors practice? Are you looking for your future husband?"
The shock and panic she felt when she first heard his voice changed to anger with his mocking tone. Fists clenched and her eyes met his. "I want to be a warrior," she replied, a six-year-old girl to a soldier of twenty years or more.
"But why," he asked, "do you want to be a warrior?" His gentle humor at her words grated on her pride.
"To kill the enemies of Eltrand. To serve the god Yrdon. To carry on the noble line of Ishdinar." Her rote answer clearly took him by surprise, because he had no response at first. Then his smile reappeared.
"I will make you a deal," he promised. "Once you pass the age of consent, I will train you at my own castle until you reach the first level of combat. If you want to continue after that, I will leave it in the gods' hands."
The words were so unexpected that she couldn't understand their meaning at first. Then Shazia grinned and clapped her hands together in delight. His responding smile, she was to learn later, was something of which to be wary.
Rabanar's face held many more lines than it had sixteen years before when he had offered to train Shazia to be a warrior. His hair had more grey than seven years before, when Ibin had gotten her drunk and a gypsy had told her a fortune. But it was still the same face, and his smile had not faded. "The Falloyda will see you now," he murmured.
She didn't know whether to take the smile as a good sign or bad. The smile was his trademark. He smiled at all times, including when he killed.
Shazia bowed her head lower. Surprisingly, her peripheral vision saw his palms join and he bowed his head in return. Her breath caught in her chest at his gesture of respect and her head shot up and turned automatically to watch his slow, measuring steps as he walked away. It was only when his path turned to the right and she lost him to sight that she drew a great deal of air into her lungs and faced the council chambers alone.
Her heart was racing. Rabanar had honored her with his gesture. It was the salute of a lower officer to one of higher rank. What did it mean? Did it mean what she hoped?
She cleared her mind of all thoughts, as if she was going into battle. She would find out soon enough.
It was the first time she had ever been in Lisardon, the capital city of Eltrand. The first time she had ever visited the palace. The first time she would see the Falloyda, the princes of the blood. There had not been a king, a true king, in over a century. A monarch, like the nobility, only earned his title in battle. While the royal blood passed from son to son, until a royal was victorious in war, he could not join the line of kings.
Her eyes adjusted to the darkness of the room once she passed from the window-filled hall to the near-blackness of the torch-lit council chamber. Her eyes rolled from side to side to judge the feel of the men and women in the room.
She was the only female in uniform. Lining the walls, like glittering shadows of the men seated in a row in front of them, were the women of court. Their clothing would not survive a single horseback ride and the jewels and coifs of their hair would be blown askew with the slightest breath of wind.
The women stood behind their husbands and lords. But whereas the men refrained from excessive motion or speech, their wives were a sea of movement, every breath they took eliciting a thousand glimmers from their fancy costumes, every flick of fan or glove creating a whirlwind of lace and velvet. The low murmuring of their voices were like wind chimes in a lazy summer breeze.
At the end of the hall stood an empty seat on a raised dais. No one could sit on the dais or on that throne except the king.
With the back legs of their chairs touching the edge of the platform, three men sat waiting for her. She stopped several body-lengths in front of them. The middle man spoke.
"Welcome to the fair capital of Eltrand, Shazia de Laiyer. If you were any other warrior, there would be no question in the minds of the court and council gathered here today. You have been in the arena and have bested all challengers. Quite a few challengers, I might add." The quiet humor in the man's voice almost gave her hope.
"But you are not any other warrior," he continued gravely. "And in all the chronicles of Eltrand, there is no other case such as this one, of a woman joining the highest ranks of the army. If you are thinking of Lissar," and she had been thinking of Lissar, the goddess-queen, who was a shining example of precedence, "you cannot assume that we will take her actions as a case for yours. You are not Lissar. She was an exception, a warrior with divine guidance. Since the gods have not spoken, we judge you have no such divinity to aid you."
She realized her head was sinking lower with each word, as if the cadence of his voice were blows, and consciously halted its decline. A warrior obeyed orders and the commands of her superiors, she reminded herself. Slowly, she raised her head again.
"But..." The man paused. His thin lips turned down at the corners and his teeth bared in an expression that did not resemble a smile. "But more than one noble of the court has spoken on your behalf. And it would be foolish of me to ignore that times are changing more rapidly than ever before.
"You are not the gods-blessed Lissar," he repeated. "But you may be a symbol of her reign. Eltrand has far to go to recapture its golden age. If we do not attempt to regain it now, we may never get a second chance." Shazia saw that the two men flanking the speaker were staring at her with nearly identical smiles. Their expressions were not pleasant. "And so I declare before the council that you have won the title of First Rank of the Armies of Eltrand."
She felt as if her heart had exploded. The breath she had been holding was released in a quiet hiss that only the three men could hear.
The Falloyda's next words rang out in the densely-packed hall: "Come forward, Shazia de Laiyer."
Her feet moved forward without needing her brain's advice. In the Falloyda's hand was a silver pendant made in the shape of a star, a small copy of Yrdun's most holy relic. As she bent so he could place it around her neck, he spoke so only the two men near him and she could hear his words.
"If it was my decision alone, you would have been whipped and sent back to the kitchens long before now." He was in the process of putting the chain around her neck, and his hands were on either side of her throat.
She stiffened, prepared to fend off any attack he might make. Shazia didn't care who he was. But his hands loosened and he pulled them back to his sides. He was still smiling, an expression he held for the court to see.
She stepped back, bowed once more to acknowledge the public honor he had given her. But she was sure he saw the anger in her eyes, for he paled slightly. She could tell, even seated as he was, that he was not a large man. She would tower over him if he were standing. But he gathered himself together to complete the ritual.
"Go from this hall with Yrdun's blessing."
Ibin was waiting for her outside the main doors. How he had managed it, she had no idea. As far as she knew, he was supposed to be back at Castle Var during his father's absence from there.
He threw his arms around her and thumped her heartily on the back. It didn't seem to bother him that he had to reach up to do so, as he had ever since her eighteenth birthday.
"Let me look at you," he said, pulling back. He eyed the star on her breast, identical to the one he wore around his throat. "Looks better on you than me," he said, flicking his pendant disrespectfully with one finger.
"Stop," she said, laughing. "This is serious, you know."
He grinned. "Of course I know. Want to get a drink?"
Her constitution had improved since her fifteenth birthday, but drinking had never topped her list of favorite activities. "Want to spar a few rounds?" she asked, anticipating his groan.
He didn't disappoint her. "That's all you think about, Shaz," he said. "Time to live a little."
"You live too much," she retorted.
"Okay, let's split the difference," he said, slinging an arm around her shoulders, which made him stand on the balls of his feet, and caused her to hunch down to accommodate him. "There's a traveling band of entertainers…"
"Yrdun forbid," she said. "Tell you what--you go out, have a great time in the city, and tell me all about it tomorrow. I'll go back to your family's townhouse and get some sleep before I have to come back here tomorrow morning to get my assignment."
"Spoilsport." But he was grinning as he said it. "All right. I suppose we could do that. Here, let me walk you back."
She eyed him up and down skeptically. "I don't need your protection," she muttered. "I can take care of myself."
"It's not for you!" he exclaimed, dropping his arm and placing a fluttering hand upon his chest. "It's for me. No one would dare accost me if I'm at your side. I feel safer already, knowing you're here."
He had her laughing until she had to hold her sides. "Oh, Ibin, I'm going to miss you. I wish we could be posted together."
He mock-shuddered. "Yrdun forfend," he said. "The day I face border duty is the day you can put an arrow through my eye."
"Deal," she grinned.
The next morning, Rabanar stood at her side outside the council chambers. He said nothing, but it was not his job to make small talk.
When the doors finally opened, she barely noticed the rustling court ladies, the foppish men. She marched straight forward to the three Falloyda and bowed. Rabanar bowed beside her.
When she straightened, though, a spear of doubt twisted into her stomach. While the Falloyda had not been pleasant yesterday and danger had ridden their actions, today they seemed positively gleeful.
"We have sad tidings," the middle man said. "There has been an attack."
Shazia resisted the urge to glance over at Rabanar. She felt, rather than saw, Rabanar stiffen at her side.
"What sort of attack?" he asked.
The Falloyda shook his head, but his lips were turned up at the corners. "A personal attack on one of Yrdun's most faithful followers. I am sorry to inform you, sir, but your son has been killed."
Shazia wondered if Rabanar was wearing his signature grin. It was a mask, she knew. But sometimes masks were helpful. The spear of doubt was twisting inside of her, and she knew that her face had frozen. She couldn't seem to move, not even open her mouth to speak.
"That is sad news," Rabanar said. If he was feeling anything, it did not show in his voice. "Which son of mine?"
"The middle one. What was his name?" The Falloyda turned to his brother seated to the right. The other prince murmured something. "Oh, yes," the middle Falloyda continued in his loud, mocking voice. "Ibin de Rabanar."
Time must have passed. Words must have been exchanged. But the next Shazia knew, she was outside the palace doors with Rabanar by her side.
"They will pay for this," he said coldly.
"They, sir?" Her voice sounded listless to her own ears.
His look was speculative when he turned her. But she did not ask her question again.
Abruptly, he nodded and strode off, leaving her standing by herself on the front steps of the palace.
Aside from the guards, a steady stream of people moved in and out of the wide-open doors. Shazia moved to the side of the traffic flow and leaned against a sharply-ridged pillar. She put her head back and stared up into the clear blue sky.
Ibin is dead.
No, he can't be.
They wouldn't have said it if it isn't true.
How can he be dead? He's my closest friend.
He can't be dead.
But they said he is.
If only I had been there to protect him, he wouldn't be dead…
Her thoughts circled, snarling at one another like rabid dogs. She realized abruptly that she hadn't even heard her posting assignment--she had no idea where she was supposed to go, who she was supposed to see. After hearing that Ibin was gone, there was a blank space, a void.
A day ago, she had stood on these steps and laughed so hard with Ibin that her sides had hurt.
She blinked and turned away. Her feet felt like bricks, but she moved them.
Ibin is dead.
She found herself nodding her head, the echo of Rabanar's words overtaking her thoughts.
They will pay for this.
When she opened the door to Rabanar's townhouse, she didn't know what to expect. Certainly not what she found.
The foyer had been cleared of all furniture except for a table draped in a white cloth. On top of the table was a body.
She covered her face with one palm, turned away. It wasn't until a hand gripped her shoulder that she realized the foyer wasn't empty, hadn't been empty. Instead, it was filled with soldiers.
The hand on her shoulder belonged to Rabanar. "You have a choice," he told her. Her eyes moved beyond him and focused on the faces in the room. "With us or against us."
Past Rabanar's shoulder were ranks upon ranks of officers. Some battle-scarred, some little older than her. Over there was the last First Rank from five years ago, Almarre de Salza. Closer by was Harpett, who was old even when she was young, but now seemed to have reached an indeterminate middle age. There were many more whose faces she didn't recognize or whose names escaped her.
Rabanar must have been planning this for some time. This was not a direct response to his son's death. Ibin was the excuse, not the catalyst.
"Why?" she asked instead.
Rabanar shook his head. "It has been decades since a king has sat on the throne," he said. "And over a century since Lissar, the goddess-queen, led Eltrand to its golden age. It is time for us to return to what we once were."
A new calm descended upon her. "Is that why you agreed to train me?" she asked. "To seize power from the Falloyda?" She nodded her head at Ibin's body, but tried not to look. That unmoving face seemed like sacrilege, more so than anything else she had ever seen or heard. That someone so alive, so vital, should have died so young. "What happened to him? And don't try to tell me it was the Falloyda. Even they wouldn’t be so bold."
Rabanar was grinning, but it was an expression that did nothing to reassure her. "The Falloyda are powerless, but Ibin couldn't see that. He was very vocal in his support of them." Rabanar rested a heavy hand on her shoulder, and she shuddered under his touch and the look in his eyes. "As a symbol, you bring hope. Why do you think so many have joined us? You are a sign of change."
"If the Falloyda didn't kill Ibin--" Her words died in her mouth. Past Rabanar's shoulder, she saw the one person she never thought to see again. "Father," she breathed.
Laiyer nodded his head at her, but didn't speak. When she had left home, he had vowed never to speak to her again.
He still had no words to give her. Even if they were on the same side, even if they fought back to back, he would not break that vow sworn before the gods. She could see that now, that same stubbornness that she carried within her, that had pushed her to become what she had become.
Seeing that, her purpose crystalized. Her mind flashed back, stretched past the death of her closest friend and settled on a moment when she sat in a tent and a gypsy had fumbled a card of fortune.
"I will stand with you," she said clearly. Loudly, so that it carried throughout the room.
And so they told her their plans, and they buried Rabanar's son the next morning. But it would take one more week before they would be able to lead the insurrection, since they waited for their allies to journey from the far reaches of Eltrand to join them in overthrowing the Falloyda.
Right after the funeral, she told Rabanar, "I need some time to clear my head." He nodded, clapped her once more on the shoulder, and let her go.
Shazia had never been to so large a city. Her world had been smaller, had been contained to the manor house where she had been born, and Rabanar's estate. But with Ibin at her side, her world had never felt small.
He had been a traveler, though. He would go on long treks throughout the countryside, sent on various errands by his father. But always he would return, and he would share with her tales of his journeys and the people he had met and the things he had done. Always, he came back.
The Falloyda didn't expect her return. When she strode into the council chambers, there was a rustle of sound that followed the rumble of her boots across the floor.
"What is the meaning of this?" The Falloyda who had given her the star pendant scraped his chair on the floor as he cowered before her.
Again, she saw the cards laid out in front of her from half a dozen years before. Soldier, traveler and death. Or, just maybe, she would find a different path to walk.
"Change is coming," she replied, her voice the odd echo of a traitor. A soldier's death, she understood. Murder--the murder of his son, no less--she never would. Rabanar had lost her forever.
"Change is coming," she repeated. "There are those disloyal to the crown who seek to overthrow you. And you can either be a force of change--with me--or against it."
She took a deep breath. Here was where her path diverged.
"I have made my choice," she said, without regret. "Now, the choice is yours."
©September, 2017 Alison McBain
Alison McBain is an award winning author with over sixty short stories and poems published, including work in Flash Fiction Online, On Spec, and Abyss & Apex. When not writing she is the Book Reviews Editor for the magazine Bewildering Stories, and is a regular contributor and website manager for the international collective Reader's Abode. In her spare time, she blogs about local author events and interviews writers at http://www.alisonmcbain.com/