Shadows gathered in the corners of the room. Dian rolled to her side and tried to sit.
“Good. You are awake. I must prepare you for the Prince’s visit, but first you can eat.” The woman’s pale eyes shone with sympathy and concern.
“Who are you?”
“Binet, once of a house of healing. Now I am but a slave. ‘Twas an evil day when the gray priests followed the invaders to this nome.”
Her words touched a flood of memories. Dian recalled the day the enemy had swept into the village where she lived with her mother, a skilled weaver. The soldiers had taken the cloth and one of the under-officers had moved into her mother’s house and claimed her as his woman.
A year ago, he’d refused to pay Dian’s tax for she had no skills at the loom. She’d been slated for the pens, but her mother had sent her into the forest. For weeks, she’d wandered until she encountered a band of those who honored the Mistress as warriors.
Tears trickled from her eyes. “Why did this happen?” she cried.
Binet walked to the door. “’Tis bad to remember what was. You must learn to endure.”
How, Dian wondered. I must escape.
Seek the Place of Choosing.
She looked around to see who had spoken. Binet had left and there was no other in the room. What and where was this choosing place?
A short time later Binet returned with a tray. Dian ate the stew, bread and fruit. The food filled the hollow in her stomach, but added nothing to her confused thoughts.
As she drank a cup of tea, Quanta arrived. She motioned to Binet. “Remove the tray. Genrai comes.”
Sammi entered and crossed to the cot. “Did you eat?”
Before Dian could answer, a tall man with the broad shoulders of a swordsman strode into the room. Russet hair framed his face and touched his shoulders. He pulled the sheet away.
Dian tried to grab the covering. Quanta grasped Dian’s arm. “Do not fight. He is your owner.”
Dian closed her eyes to hide her anger. She wasn’t a slave. She was a warrior in training. If she had a sword, she would challenge this man. She flinched away from his touch.
“He won’t hurt you,” Sammi said. “Father, are you pleased?”
“Very much so. You’ve accomplished what your uncle, the great physician, deemed impossible.
You’ll be rewarded. I’ve plans for this one.”
Dian opened her eyes. “I can’t stay here.”
He laughed. “A slave does as she’s bid.”
“Can I have her as my attendant?” Sammi asked.
Quanta glared. “Will you take her to your bed?”
He chuckled. “She’s for
Quanta bowed her head. “You are wise, my prince.”
Sammi clapped her hands. “Dian, how wonderful is your lot. You will be my brother’s first woman. Though you can never be first woman in his inner court, you’ll have a special place with him.”
Dian shook her head. “You cannot keep me here.”
Prince Genrai snorted. “Do you expect that ragtag band of women to invade and extract you from my stronghold. Very unlikely. You will do as I order and be thankful.”
Once they left, Dian pulled the sheet around her. “I must escape.”
Binet bowed her head. “There is no way.”
“I need to be away from here. There is a place I must reach.”
“Did the blow to your head and the wound fever destroy your memories of what has happened? The Three are dead. The Mistress was defeated.”
“As long as we believe in Her, the Mistress lives.”
Binet stared at the floor. “I am shamed. Blessed be.”
Dian lay back. “What do you know about this
The older woman frowned. “Since I was brought from the pens, he hasn’t been home. He’s been with the priests studying their ways of war.”
“I pray he refuses me.”
Binet shuddered. “If he won’t take you, the prince will give you to his soldiers or send you to the pens of the Gladius. ‘Tis not a good place to be.”
Dian slid to the edge of the cot. “Hear me. I must escape.” She traced the symbol and watched
Binet’s eyes widen at the red glow. “Where is the Place of Choosing?”
“North and west in the
“Then help me exercise.”
Binet helped Dian from the cot. For a moment, she felt dizzy. The furniture seemed to tilt. She sucked in a breath and waited for her vision to clear. Then holding Binet’s arm, she took a step. “Tell me how I can leave this place.”
“There is no way. ‘Tis a prison,” Binet said. “The door into the hall leads past the bathing room and into the common room of the inner court. The only way to escape is to be summoned to a man’s bed.”
There must be a way, Dian thought. I won’t remain a prisoner. I won’t fail the Mistress.
For the rest of the day and at regular intervals during the night, she walked about the room and performed exercises to strengthen the muscles grown flaccid from inactivity. Soon after sunrise she wrapped a sheet around herself and ventured from the room. The dimly lit corridor led in but one direction. She passed the arched doorway into the bathing room. As she strode across the stone floor, she heard children’s laughter. The aromas of food made her stomach rumble.
She entered the large room at the end of the hall. Low tables were scattered around the area. Heaps of pillows in many colors brightened the dull brown walls. The stones of the floor were warm and she wondered how they were heated. Children pelted each other with pillows. Their laughter made her smile. Quanta appeared from behind a beaded curtain and clapped her hands. The children dropped to the pillows and bowed their heads. Other women arrived with platters of food and pitchers of fragrant liquid.
The early morning sunlight streamed through narrow windows on one of the side walls. On the other, glass blocks formed a wall and a door opened into a small garden. Though she wore no shoes and the hand of winter chilled the air, Dian stepped outside.
High stone walls enclosed the area. She ran her fingers over the rough surface. If she found no other way, she could climb the wall and creep across the room. First, she’d have to find clothes and boots.
* * * *