The question rang in Sydli’s thoughts and brought a gust of fear. Sydli. She answered before she decided whether the voice belonged to a friend of an enemy. Quickly she slammed the barrier her mother had taught her to muffle her mind.
Sydli sank on a chair and covered her face with her hands. Though she had given her name to a stranger she had kept her location secret. Cautiously she opened the bond to her twin. Emli be careful at dinner tonight. We don’t want Mandir to know one of us can hear his thoughts.
Emli grinned. He is fun to confuse but I don’t like or trust him. He makes me feel itchy.
You’re right to feel that way. I have listened to him when he sits at Father’s side. He constantly speaks of Wesren and how wealthy that princedom has become. He hints the reason is because no female or halfling can be the ruler. He also argues that as Father’s oldest child, though his mother was never a spouse, he should be named heir.
Emli frowned. Father was pleased when Mandir returned. What will we do if he is named heir?
Sydli grasped her twin’s hands. We will pray spouses for us are found in another princedom.
If he does we will be separated.
Sydli caught a hint of eagerness in her twin’s thoughts. Did Emli want to have a life apart? The possibility troubled Sydli. Before their mother’s death Sydli had been asked to protect her twin. The promise had been made. We could have twin spouses.
Emli laughed. How many high ranking sets of twins are there? I know of no others. She rose. “Let me be the friendly one tonight. Do you think Mandir knows which of us is the true heir?
Sydli shook her head. “Doubtful. Prepare to be charming. I will be nasty.” She finished braiding her hair. They had inherited their pale hair and green eyes from their mother. Their copper-hued skin was like their father’s. Being halflings had held them apart from the people of Soutren.
The summoning bell chimed. Emli went to the door. “We should hurry.”
They scurried along the corridor toward the throne room. Sydli paused at the door to catch her breath and to read who was inside. Emli reached fro the handle. Sydli’s forehead wrinkled. “Mandir is here. Father’s thoughts show he is pleased. What has Mandir told him.”
Emli made a face. “Who knows?”
“I could learn.” Sydli felt a brush across her thoughts. Beware. Shield. There’s a stranger in there who can read thoughts.
My blocks are tight. Could this man be our half-brother’s friend?
Emli opened the door. “Father, we are here.”
When Sydli saw the tall man whose fair hair hung in a braid down his back her skin prickled. She pulled her barriers so tight she could barely hear the spoken words.
The stranger rose. His black leather clothes made his skin appear as pale as newly fallen snow. His coloring and manner meant he was from the highlands. Was he a relative of her mother? A miasma of evil surrounded him. Sydli knew he was no friend.
The man turned to her father. Pedron, your daughters are as lovely as I’ve heard.”
His intense glare made Sydli’s shoulders tense. She clasped Emli’s hand. They crossed the room and curtseyed to their father.
Prince Pedron smiled. “You may rise. Dom Senet, they are Sydli and Emli.”
Sydli kept her gaze lowered. As she rose she caught a glimpse of Mandir’s sly smile. In that instant she knew the dom was her half-brother’s ally. Take care. She sent the message on the twin bond.
The prince offered Emli his hand. “The evening meal awaits.”
The dom held his arm for Sydli. She touched the tips of her fingers to his sleeve. As they walked toward the great hall she felt his attempts to penetrate the barrier over her thoughts. Small needles stabbed. She wanted to push him away but she dare not show she knew of his intentions.
In the great hall Dom Senet held her chair. “I knew your mother. She was one of my students. Did she ever tell you how she was brought to your father’s attention?”
Sydli shook her head. “I know she came to heal him after Mandir’s mother tried to poison him.”
“I brought her,” Dom Senet said.
He lied but why? “I don’t understand. Mother said Doma Jandia sent her here.”
The quick freezing of his expression made her wish she could read his thoughts. She dare not lower her barriers for an instant while in her presence. Did he think her mother would have kept her romance a secret from her daughters? Once dinner ended she planned to use the hidden ways to spy on him. The dom could be one of the men her mother had warned her daughters not to trust?
All during the many courses of the meal Sydli felt subtle brushes against her barriers. When the last course arrived she managed to gain Emli’s attention. Has he tried to break through your barriers?
Once or twice. What does he want?
I don’t know but I will learn.
He frightens me.
When the courtiers and their ladies gathered in clusters Sydli and Emli slipped from the room. Though Sydli wished they could use the inner ways the presence of so many people in the halls prevented this escape. Once they reached their suite she bolted the door.
Emli slumped on a chair. “Mandir was smug. Told me he believes I will make a good spouse for his half-brother.”
Sydli pulled her dress over her head. “And me?”
“Actually he said which ever one of us the dom doesn’t claim will become Lodar’s spouse.”
“I’ll flee before either happens.” Sydli dressed in a tunic and divided skirt. “I caught several of Mandir’s thoughts. He believes the dom will help him become heir.”
Emli grimaced. “We have to know how they plan to achieve this. Should I come with you?”
“Not this time. Stay here in case someone comes to check on us.”
“What should I tell them.”
“That I went to the stillroom. You need a potion for a headache.”
“If the dom is allied with Mandir and helps him become heir what will happen to Father?”
“I don’t know.” She would worry about their father once she knew her twin was safe. “I won’t be long.”
“Always. We’re the only ones who know of the inner ways. Remember what our mother said. The passages were created when the highlanders helped build the palace.”
Emli nodded. “Do you think the dom knows about them? He is from the highlands.”
“I pray not.” Sydli stepped into the wardrobe and opened the door into a dark passage. Emli handed her a lit candle.”
As Sydli hurried along the narrow passage she hoped Dom Senet knew nothing about the hidden ways. She moved forward and listened for voices. Loud ones arose from Mandir’s suite. She peered through the small viewing hold and swallowed a gasp. The dom was there. Cautiously she extended her talent to hear both their spoken and their silent words.
“I should end your life,” Dom Senet said. “When you shattered the gem you and your brother killed Alizand. I had a use for him.” Though his voice remained calm his inner thoughts churned with rage. Death will be your lot when you complete the task I set.
“He got in our way,” Mandir said. “We just wanted to kill the war steed.” Does he think he scares me?
“And that gave you permission to attempt to kill Alizand?” Dom Senet raised his hand. A spurt of flame caressed Mandir’s cheek. “I can mark you or I can destroy you.” But not until your usefulness ends.
Mandir backed away. Fear scrambled his thoughts. “Wasn’t me. Lodar is to blame.”
The question in the dom’s voice increased the fear Sydli read in Mandir’s thoughts.
“We didn’t know he would die. We wanted to kill the steed and own the red jewel.”
The flame died. “Fools. Did you not know the gem would become gray and dull if one of you touched it?”
Mandir laughed. “You’re wrong. Our mother had a necklace of red jewels.”
“That were nothing like the one Alizand wore. No matter. You will pay for that action by obedience. This time you will heed my instructions.”
Mandir nodded. “I promise.”
“Spend time with your half-sisters. One of them has an affinity for one of the elements. I want to know which one.”
“Why?” Mandir’s thoughts raced with ways to turn the order to his advantage.
“Not for you to know.”
“How do I learn what you want to know?”
“By skillful questions. By observation. When you have the answer report to me.”
“What are these affinities?”
Dom Senet laughed. “You have seen me and Alizand use Fire. Air pulls thoughts from a person’s head. Water senses emotions. Earth makes plants grow.”
“How do I report to you? You’re leaving in the morning.”
With a sudden movement the dom placed his hands on Mandir’s heads. Commands came too fast for Sydli to hear them all. She feared if she probed deeper Dom Senet would discover her. As she closed her mind, she heard a voice.
Seek the Rovers. They will help.
Dom Senet spoke again. “Not the Rovers, you fool. There are two doms living in town. Seek them.”
Sydli stepped back and managed to avoid hitting the wall. The voice giving the command hadn’t sounded like Dom Sener’s but she had no idea if the speaker was friend or foe. She and Emli were in danger. Plans for escape were essential. Where could they go? She knew nothing about any place except Norla and little about the town except the palace and the market. Could she and Emli find safety with the Rovers?