|The Advocate Prince
Author: CMLee PM
Prince Cinos is feared and reviled as the most treacherous mind in the land of Orillia. He bends the law to his will and twists people into webs of his control, but when the tide of magic swells, one girl will gain the power to end his reign forever.Rated: Fiction T - English - Fantasy - Chapters: 31 - Words: 152,170 - Reviews: 8 - Favs: 7 - Follows: 12 - Updated: 05-15-13 - Published: 10-17-12 - id: 3066268
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Roiling red, orange, and yellow flames crackled all around, engulfing the wooden walls of the cabin in a hazy inferno. Gloria choked on the thick, black smoke as she crawled on the floor, feeling her way to the door. The erratic flickering of light off her copper hair made it look as if she was already on fire. She had been lucky enough to avoid that, though quite narrowly. She burned her hands in a foolish attempt to save the books, and the pages turned to blackened ash even as she recoiled.
=Just get out!= Voice screamed into her mind, half in anger and half in panic.
At least the books were Gloria's only regret. She was alone in the cabin, and she only had herself to save. Of course, if she couldn't save herself, she would regret that quite a lot. Albeit, not for long.
She cringed away from a wall of flames separating her from the cabin's only exit. =The door must have been where the fire started,= Voice informed her. =They want you to burn alive.=
The identity of the "they" Voice kept referring to remained a mystery to Gloria. Voice did not have time to explain, and Gloria could not begin to imagine who would want her to die. But that wasn't really important at the moment.
As Gloria crawled backwards in retreat, a beam of the ceiling cracked overhead and fell behind her. A spray of white-hot embers burst into the air and ignited her already singed dress. Opening her mouth to scream, Gloria only inhaled more smoke, and dizziness gripped her just as fire filled her vision.
The fire behind the grate in Prince Cinos's hearth was burning down to the embers. He flexed his fingers to alleviate the writer's cramp and massaged the tips to bring feeling back into them. Outside the windows of his bed chamber shown an icy white full moon that reflected the temperature inside. Cinos could call a servant to relight the fire, but the servant would likely be loyal to the king and report that Cinos was awake and working. Cinos could hide his papers and even the ink, but he could not erase years of having slept perfectly well in cold rooms. If he was in his bed and under the covers, he would not be cold.
The prince was not sure what his father would do if he found out that his son was still working. Since King Corson had ordered Cinos's study to be chained shut with a guard posted at the doors, Cinos doubted that the result would be a desirable one. He may have inherited the golden hair and blue eyes of his father, but the physical resemblance was all they shared.
Of course, it was no mystery why his father had banished him to idleness. After the role Cinos had played in his mother's prosecution and imprisonment, the prince had expected Corson's retaliation. That was why Cinos had removed all sensitive information and made copies of all his most important documents so that he could continue his work if something should happen to his study. Actually, he had expected all his documents to be burned or ransacked and had been quite surprised at the comparative mildness of the chained door.
Then again, Corson probably knew the value of Cinos's papers for the possible future blackmail of anyone in the court. Cinos often complained that his father was a brute warlord who knew nothing of politics, but the man did know strategy. Perhaps the king was even hoping to blackmail Cinos with the contents of the study. Although, if that was the case, Corson had grossly underestimated his son.
"Don't you tire?" came the plaintive voice from his bed. Cinos did not look behind him at the woman lying under the covers.
"I do not," he replied, dipping his quill into the ink and jabbing at the page once more.
"I am cold," came the lady's voice. Cinos said nothing. Such were the hazards of bedding women from the court. He imagined brothel women were quieter and less demanding, but he could never have borne the humiliation of contracting a brothel disease.
"Do you hear me?"
"Perhaps your husband could warm you," Cinos suggested without pausing in his writing.
There was a creak as the woman slid off of the bed and a rustle as she pulled a coverlet around her. "I did not come here to be warmed by my husband."
Cinos once more chose to not respond, and, for a time, there was nothing but the scratch of his quill.
Sleep did not come easily to the prince. He often chose to take a woman to his bed in hopes of exhausting himself into a dreamless oblivion. It worked sometimes. Unfortunately, the repercussions were that the women would often find their way back to his bed, whether he invited them or not. Tonight he had found Lady Wynne of Winterflock naked and lounging among the pillows when he had opened his canopy's curtains. He could have sent her away, but he had given in to his own arrogance and imagined that he could tire her and then get on with his work. Unfortunately, the woman seemed to be inexhaustible.
The ink suddenly smudged as Wynne grabbed the quill from his hand and backed away. The coverlet dropped onto the floor as she tucked her hands behind her back, and goose bumps formed on her pale flesh in the cool air. Mischief lit her eyes.
Cinos could have ignored her playfulness and cut himself another pen. He took in her naked form, smiled slowly, and rose from the chair. Wynne backed up half a pace in anticipation, not really trying to get away. She held the quill back but received him warmly with the rest of her body. Cinos encircled her waist with his left arm and gently ran the fingers of his right hand from her temple, over the curve of her ear, and then to her lips. Wynne's eyes drifted shut as he traced down her neck and lightly touched his lips to hers. He felt the muscles in her shoulders relax as his fingers drifted slowly over them. She shivered and melted into his embrace as he pressed his lips more firmly against hers. All Wynne's play was forgotten as his fingers lightly skimmed down her arm, circled around her wrist, massaged her knuckles …
… And easily plucked the quill from her hand.
Wynne gasped when Cinos suddenly pulled away with the quill in hand and nodded to her. "Good evening, Madam."
His smile was probably much smugger than it should have been as he sat back down and returned to his papers. But he enjoyed such games too much. Wynne stood frozen with a look of consternation on her face.
Then, with one quick gesture, she grabbed the ink pot from his table, took a step back and flung it full in his face. The impact with his head and burgeoning pain was swiftly followed by the sound of glass shattering on the stone floor. Cinos was still rubbing the ink out of his eyes and swearing after Wynne had thrown on her robe and stormed out of the room.
Gloria woke to the feel of sunlight on her face. She was wrapped in a blanket, but she was not in her bed. Her hand cast out and found long grass instead of the smooth muslin of her sheets. She sat up and saw that she was only a few yards away from the smoldering pile of rubble that had once been her home.
This was unfortunate.
Still, she was alive, and that was the most important thing. Rather than weep for what could not be saved, Gloria took a deep breath as she surveyed the destruction and considered her options. Smoke curled up from the charred wooden skeleton of her home as Gloria stood up unsteadily. Her head swam, and she gave a few hacking coughs as she reached out to steady herself on a nearby boulder.
Someone had saved her. That much was obvious. Who, why, or how was less obvious. She remembered fire filling her vision and then a feeling of being lifted into somebody's arms. She remembered a face made of fire, but that could have been a dream.
Gloria shook her head and decided that immediate survival was more important than her mysterious savior. She could not rebuild the cabin by herself, but she was perfectly capable of rough camping. Flora had seen to that.
Still, Gloria generally thought in straight lines. It was this sort of linear thinking that had led her to name the voice in her head, Voice. At that moment, the straight lines were tracing Gloria's mind from the top of the mountain where she lived down to the valley below where, presumably, she could find Flora.
Her guardian had been gone a fortnight longer than planned, and Flora was never late from her rare trips to the market in the valley. She might have sought out Flora many days ago had Voice not insisted that Gloria must stay on the mountain where she was safe.
"What do you think now?" Gloria seemed to talk to the air. She could talk to Voice in her head, but arguments in her head always made her feel as if Voice was nothing but a mad figment of her imagination. Still, she would only talk out loud to Voice when she was alone.
=You can't stay here, = Voice admitted reluctantly. =The one trying to hurt you has found you.=
"Then I need to find Flora," Gloria reasoned.
=No! If anything, this is proof that you should find somewhere safe!=
Gloria shook her head even as she experienced a rush of vertigo from the movement and wobbled, placing her hand on a nearby boulder. "If I am in danger, then Flora might be in danger too. Why would I forsake the one person in the world who I know would help me? Besides, I don't suppose you could tell me who is trying to kill me."
Voice was silent. Gloria knew better than to press him when he became like this.
Gloria's own voice was a little rough, but it was healing faster than it should have. Her throat also had a numb, cool, and tingling sensation she felt when Flora used her power to heal. Could Flora have come in to save her only to get trapped inside? A rare feeling of panic cracked into Gloria, and she started toward the wreckage.
Then reason set in, and she stopped. Whoever had saved her must have gotten out because Gloria was out. If it had been Flora, she would not have been foolish enough to go back inside. She would have stayed with Gloria.
Still, just to ease her fears, Gloria sifted through the remains of their home. There were a few pots and pans and some scraps of books along with various other odds and ends, but she found no blackened skeletal remains. Gloria breathed a sigh of relief to have confirmed the logical explanation.
She wondered if she should leave a sign to Flora that she had survived. But how would Flora know that a sign was from Gloria and not her would-be murderer? Worse yet, if she was too specific, then her murderer might return and realize that his work was not complete.
Voice was right; she could not stay here. The longer her assassin thought that she had turned to ash in that fire, the longer she had to discover this mysterious "they" and find some way to defend herself.
=You cannot stop them.= Voice was grim. Some of his feelings transferred to her over their link, making her feel sick to her stomach. =You must hide.=
Gloria ignored the sense of foreboding for the moment. If she was doomed, she was going to hunt her attackers, not hide from them. If nothing else, at least she would be doing something instead of being tucked away in some rabbit hole, waiting for the fox to come.
She focused, instead, on equipping herself. The soles of Gloria's feet were quite firm from often walking barefoot, but if she was going to travel down the mountain, she would need shoes. She collected a spare pair of worn, muddy leather boots by the chicken coop, and fashioned an empty grain bag into a crude knapsack to fill with whatever she could salvage.
After she freed the pigs, the goat, and the chickens, Gloria spotted the round blue-gray stone jar that Flora kept tucked in the back of the chicken coop. She had seen Flora open it several times, always before going down to the town. But it struck Gloria on this day that she had never seen inside the jar.
She knelt down to inspect it. The surface was cool to the touch with a design of waves carved into the lid. Flora said the jar had been a gift from her father, and that the waves represented her father's master because they had both crossed the ocean together. Gloria unscrewed the top to find a small shining treasure of gold, silver, and copper coins.
Gloria had never used money before. She had never been allowed to go down to the market or even to leave the mountain. She only knew about money from the studies Flora had forced on her. Gloria had been made to draw up complicated budgets for things she only understood in theory. The math had come easily to Gloria, but the reason for her lessons had always eluded her.
"You will need to know someday," was all Flora would ever say. Gloria had always gotten the sense that a part of Flora hoped that Gloria would never have to understand anything she was taught. Of course, that did not make her guardian any more lax in teaching.
Gloria picked up a gold coin at random and saw the face of a man embossed on one side and a lily on the other.
=You will need money in the town, = Voice said. He seemed to have finally accepted that she was going. =Take it with you.=
Gloria hesitated to take Flora's money. Flora shared all she had with Gloria, but the coins were different. Gloria had never needed them, and so Flora had never offered them. It seemed that Flora had even gone so far as to hide these coins. Could that mean that Gloria was not supposed to have them? Still, it would be better for her to take them than allow them to fall into the hands of whoever had tried to kill her. Her hope was that she would be able to restore them to Flora in due course.
That decided, Gloria pocketed all the coins, rose to her feet, and left the chicken coop. A set of battered practice swords were propped against the outside wall for easy access along with their quarter staffs and the short bow Flora favored for hunting.
In the abstract, Gloria knew that weapons were often used for fighting other people. She had certainly sparred with Flora before. More than simple one-on-one combat skills, Flora insisted that Gloria spend several hours a day studying accounts of ancient battles and then explaining the tactics to Flora. This was another past-time that Gloria enjoyed but could not understand the need for.
Everything had only been practice. They didn't even own any real swords. Nevertheless, even without Voice's guidance, Gloria decided to bring a knife and the short bow with her. She had never favored the quarter staffs. Flora always beat her in practice with them. But a staff did make a fine walking stick, so she brought one along.
The liberated chickens clucked and pecked around her boots as Gloria started down the deer trail, forcing herself not to look back, though she felt as if she was pulling on a string with very little slack. It was one thing to be curious about what lay at the bottom of the mountain, to read books about it, and be told stories by Flora or Voice. Actually going into the world was quite another thing entirely. She had a strange nagging sensation that she had to step outside of herself to continue, to shed bits like snake skin because a part of her could not leave the mountain.
Still, she had not even walked out of sight of the cabin when she heard a rare sound—the rattle of wheels on the rough mountain track. Few people made the arduous trek into the mountains, and no one lived on the peaks. Flora had explained that people thought the mountains were cursed, and Voice had later insisted the mountains were indeed cursed. But Gloria found the idea of a curse completely ridiculous since she had never found anything to fear.
Branches creaked and morning dew dripped onto her face as Gloria cleared through the brush to peer down at the visitor whose wagon was slowly making its way along the road below. Could he have been the one who had tried to kill her? At least, Gloria thought the approaching person was a he. All she could see from her vantage point was a head of wavy brown hair. She assumed this was a man because, in all her sixteen years of life, not one woman had ever come up the mountain road.
Gloria had once wondered who maintained the road since no one lived here. Voice had answered that "the hungry ones" maintained the road, and he had allowed a fleeting image to drift across her mind that had not allowed her to sleep for several nights.
Gloria leaned and squinted down at the figure in the wagon clattering beneath her. Then, the branch she was leaning on snapped, and she toppled through the underwood with a yelp. Twigs and thorns scraped at her, and she was bumped, bruised, poked and scratched before she sprawled ungracefully onto the side of the road.
She heard the snort of a skittish horse, the crush of leaves under the wheels, and then silence as the wagon pulled to a stop. She looked up from the dirt to find the driver of the wagon looking right back down at her. The young man looked around Gloria's age, or possibly older.
The young man's hair was held back from his face with a leather headband like a coronet around his head.
"Are you all right?" he asked.
A rustle of leaves was the only answer to his question as Gloria tried to retreat back into the trees, scooting backwards on her stomach. She had sometimes daydreamed of speaking with someone besides Flora or Voice, but Flora had always told her that it was too dangerous. Sometimes Gloria had doubted Flora, but not after nearly being burned alive.
"Wait!" The young man jumped down from his wagon. "Don't go that way! It's not safe!" Gloria nearly laughed in spite of her fear. He was what was unknown and not safe. She had lived in these mountains all her life. There was no curse. There were no monsters—
A sound between a howl and a hiss erupted from the brush and a sinuous form leapt over Gloria. She saw a flash of red-gold scales and silver-gray fur as the form came to a halt and rounded on her again. A forked tongue lashed out to taste the air. Gloria jumped to her feet, stumbling frantically toward the boy who pushed her onto his wagon. "I told you! Quick, get in!" He snapped the reins, and she had to hold her seat as she was jolted back.
The creature followed them into the woods, but it never left the trees. Why didn't the beast go onto the road?
=The road was made by the hungry ones. Even a dragonwolf fears them.=
"Stay close to the fire," the young man warned Gloria. Despite the warning, she had had no intention of wandering. Her new companion had assured their protection by laying out a circle of dragon scales around their little camp. He insisted that even the unseen "hungry ones" would hesitate to disturb a dragon, and the smell of the larger predator would also work to ward off other animals.
Gloria, however, thought that the young man himself seemed predator enough to deter stray beasts. All his movements were as spare and economical as one who was used to living outdoors. He did not put any more effort into any task than absolutely necessary, just as a hawk does not flail its wings when it can glide or turn with the barest motion. His features were youthful, but his face was careworn and weathered. His brown eyes, which were friendly and warm when addressing her, could just as quickly become penetrating when his gaze turned to the forest. He carried only a long knife sheathed on his belt, but the placement of calluses on his hands attested to an intimate knowledge of the sword and bow.
In spite of the dragon scales and the solidity of her companion, Gloria could not be completely at ease. She was still shaken by the dragonwolf. The thought that something so terrible could have lived so close without her ever knowing mortified her. Once night had fallen, Gloria had seen the forms of dragonwolves in every fallen branch and heard the cry of a "hungry one" in every night bird's call. She could not believe that her own mountains had turned so swiftly against her. To further enhance her gloomy spirits, the crackling of the dry wood made her think of the night before and her poor little cottage. She longed even now to be safely curled up in her bed with Flora in the next room. Although, Gloria supposed she should be thankful at the gallantry of her companion who had offered his bedroll to her and said that he would sleep on the ground with a few extra blankets.
Gloria had been about to point out that that bedroll was certainly big enough for both of them when Voice had given her a mental pinch. =No!= Then after an almost embarrassed pause Voice elaborated. =You have never spent any time among other people, so you will have to trust my word that it would not be proper to share the bedroll.=
Gloria had sighed but ceded to Voice's experience. He had never spoken of it directly, but Gloria had discerned, from various things he told her, that Voice had a body, or once had a body. Whoever Voice was, or had once been, he was now Gloria's staunchest protector after Flora, and right now he seemed determined to be suspicious of Gloria's new acquaintance.
=He could have motives we do not yet know,= Voice said darkly.
Whatever his motives, they are not presently my death, Gloria had countered in her head. Her rescuer threw another stick into the fire, oblivious to her internal conversation. He could have easily left me to be a fine lunch to the dragonwolf if he truly wished me ill.
Gloria felt a peculiar heat in Voice's next brusque remark. =You are a young girl, alone, and not altogether unattractive.=
The last words struck Gloria as strangely random and unrelated to her vulnerable state. "So?" Gloria's perplexity at Voice's implications had made her forget herself and speak aloud.
"What?" The young man looked up sharply from tending the fire.
"Forgive me," Gloria said quickly. "I was merely speaking to myself."
Gloria had only ever spoken of Voice to Flora who had subjected her to a violent rush of power which she said was meant to cure her of "unwanted influences." Voice had not been flushed away by the searing onslaught, but Gloria had thought it better to avoid another treatment by pretending that he had been. Gloria was not sure how another person might react if she told them about Voice. She doubted this young man had Flora's power, but she saw no reason to risk an unfavorable response. If Flora, who loved her, could subject her to such pain, what would a stranger do?
"I fear we have not been properly introduced," the young man smiled and offered his hand. "My name is Balin."
Gloria offered her own hand uncertainly, and Balin clasped it warmly. "I should bow over a woman's hand, but I think that would require both of us to stand, and you look overwrought enough. As such, I hope you will forgive me for greeting you as I would a man."
Gloria could only smile vaguely in answer. She had never been introduced to a man before, but she felt that Balin would find such a revelation too incredible to believe. Normal people, she knew, lived among large groups.
"And what may I call you?" Balin asked after an expectant pause.
"A fine name for an angel of bracken with golden eyes." Balin looked into those same eyes as he reached over to knock out an errant clump of pine needles from Gloria's tangled copper tresses. His open manners put Gloria at ease despite the long nerve-wracking day spent watching the line of trees for a glitter of red-gold scales. "May I also ask what you are doing in the mountains, other than collecting undergrowth in your hair?" Balin added as he tipped some water from a flask into a cup for her.
"I live here," Gloria answered, accepting the cup.
A wordless sense of exclamation from Voice let Gloria know that she had said the wrong thing even as an expression of disbelief formed on Balin's face. "These mountains are too dangerous for a girl by herself!"
"I'm not by myself," Gloria amended quickly, but Balin continued to frown. She felt pressed to add, "At least, I'm not normally alone." She related as much of her situation as she could to Balin with Voice telling her what not to say. She told Balin of Flora and how Flora took care of her, but she did not tell him of Flora's powers. Gloria hardly would have needed Voice's warnings for that. Flora had often explained that other people feared and hated her powers. Gloria had always assumed that was why they lived alone.
"You're an orphan then?" Balin asked once Gloria had finished her explanation.
Gloria hesitated. She knew what "orphan" meant. But the orphans in her books were always alone while she had always had Flora.
Balin mistook the meaning of her silence. "It's nothing to be ashamed of. I'm an orphan as well." His eyes lowered as if part of him was ashamed despite his words. "My uncle raised me."
"Flora is as good as a mother," Gloria asserted as a compromise to her undecided feelings.
"That is just as well," Balin said, and his smile turned momentarily rueful. "I did not know my mother for long, but I do not think I could replace her."
"I never knew my mother," Gloria said easily and without feeling. She had never been able to miss a woman she had never known.
The cloud that settled over Balin's features turned thoughtful as he tore off a chunk of bread from his traveling loaf. "Your accent is far too fine for a farm girl. You don't sound provincial." In spite of his calm, the simple statement was wrought with accusation. He took a bite of the bread but kept his eyes on Gloria as she tried to think of what to say. She was certain Balin was already unraveling her secrets with his bald unwavering stare. Even though Gloria lived on a farm, she had never given much thought as to what a farm girl should sound like. She had never met another farm girl.
=He does not sound like a simple laborer either,= Voice supplied helpfully, and Gloria smiled at being able to catch Balin in his own trap.
"You speak very eloquently yourself."
Balin raised his cup to her and bowed his head. "I come from an aristocratic family who fell from power when I was still a small child. But, in our exile, my uncle has not yet lost his taste for refinement and learning which he has, for the duration of his care, inflicted upon me. What is your explanation?"
"Flora was very severe about my education as well," Gloria replied concisely. Balin set down his cup and leaned forward with his fingers laced as if wordlessly encouraging her to continue. When Gloria did not, he took up a ladle and began to stir the soup he was cooking over the fire.
"So you think your Flora is in town?" The change of subject was brisk, and Gloria sensed that he had not entirely given up the former inquiries, merely laid them to rest for a time.
=It is not natural for him to want to know so much about you,= Voice warned.
Perhaps he suspects me of deceit as much as you suspect him of it, Gloria suggested.
=The important difference is that we know how we are deceiving him but not how he is deceiving us. Do not tell him of the fire.=
Gloria was more than happy to oblige Voice. Even without the need for secrecy, she had no desire to relive the fire.
"I cannot think where else she would be," Gloria admitted.
Balin tasted a chunk of potato from the simmering pot. "Well," he said, carefully chewing around the hot morsel in his mouth, "I can take you as far as town. Still, I think even two women living together in the mountains is an oddity. How can you know so little of the dangers here?"
A wolf howled in the distance, and Gloria jumped and simultaneously reprimanded herself for being startled. How many times had the very same wolf song lulled her to sleep? "I confess I knew nothing of any danger until today," she sighed turning her attention back to the fire.
"I suppose there might yet be some safe places in the mountains," but Balin spoke these words with doubt as he peered into the darkness of the trees.
"If it is so dangerous in the mountains, what are you doing here?"
"A good question." Balin nodded as he spooned some steaming soup into a bowl and offered it to her. "I am here for my uncle. There is an herb by the name of lycieum that grows only among the crags which relieves the pain of severe rheumatism."
"Oh." Gloria knew very little of medicines since Flora never needed to use them, but Balin's explanation seemed plausible enough. It also explained why a handful of other people had dared to brave the mountains before him.
A pleading voice interrupted her thoughts, "Please, a bit of bread."
Just outside of the fire's warm glow stood an exceptionally pretty, pale little girl with blond hair. Her fair skin and wide blue eyes seemed to give off their own illumination. Gloria still had some bread left in her bowl, and she was just starting to hand it to the girl when Balin grabbed her arm. His grip was painfully firm, and his voice tense. "Don't move."
"But—" she began.
"Be silent!" Balin ordered.
The little girl surveyed the two of them with confusion in her liquid blue eyes. She looked from Balin to Gloria and then down at the ring of dragon scales surrounding them. The girl gasped and stepped back from the scales. "Is there a dragon here?" Her voice pitched in panic.
"N—" Gloria managed to get out before Balin covered her mouth with his hand and drew his knife. His other arm formed a choking circle around Gloria's chest and arms, preventing her from drawing her own knife. He seemed intent on killing the little girl, and Gloria wondered if he meant to kill her next. What would stop a man who would kill a little girl from killing her? But why had Balin waited until the little girl appeared before he turned murderous? She tried to consult Voice for help, but he was oddly absent.
The girl took a tentative step forward, apparently hungry enough to risk Balin's knife for the crust of bread. A dark shadow passed over the moon, and the trees above them lashed. Gloria and Balin gaped upward to see a real dragon fly overhead.
Rather than hearing a shriek from the girl, Gloria heard a sickening wet squelch, and she looked down to something shriveled and discarded. She screamed and backed up into Balin when she saw the mask of a face look up at her. Abandoned on the ground, like so much refuse, was the child's skin.
=…Gloria!= Voice's cry came through as if he had been trying to speak with her for some time but had been prevented.
Where were you? Gloria knew better than to be angry with Voice. He would not have abandoned her on purpose. Yet it was difficult to hide her emotions from Voice when she was so upset.
=I was prevented from speaking or seeing by the creature. What happened?= Gloria said nothing in reply. She could not yet relate to Voice what had happened until she understood all of it herself.
Balin held her for a while and seemed to expect her to break down, but Gloria only pressed her lips into a grim line, determined not to become hysterical. Admittedly, her stoic silence was partly to hold back nausea at the sight of the lump of skin lying before her like a pile of used clothes. Gloria was not particularly squeamish since Flora had given her the task of butchering their dinners as soon as Gloria was strong enough to hold down a chicken. But she did not think skinning deer or rabbits could prepare her for this.
The sick feeling in Gloria's stomach only grew with her rising anger. These creatures had invaded her home, but they could not take her ability to think and plan away from her. Only she could give up her senses by dissolving into panic.
First, the most pertinent questions. "Are we still safe here? Should we leave?" Gloria was rather proud of the composure she maintained, but she suspected Balin mistook it for shock and did not release his protective hold around her. Gloria had to admit she was glad for the comfort as much as she wanted to maintain her calm.
"We're as safe here as any place," Balin answered, as if he wished he could offer more comfort, "especially since it now looks as if we truly are the property of a dragon."
"What was that creature?" Gloria asked, her voice flat. Her pulse was still racing, but she was resolved not to allow her voice to tremble.
Balin's arms loosened. "You are not frightened?"
"It seems I must keep all my wits about me to survive. I would appreciate if you answered my question." A sharp cry came from some animal deep in the trees, but Gloria managed to only twitch slightly.
Balin nodded, and she felt he spoke to her as an equal rather than in his original genial fashion. "It was a skin-stealer. One of the hungry ones."
Gloria clenched her hand into a fist as she considered how close she had come to being tricked. She turned to Balin who was sheathing his knife. "Why were you not affected?"
"People who are the purest of heart, or even those who are simply happy, are most susceptible to their thrall. Even if you know of them, and know what to expect, they will always entrance the innocent."
"So I am a fool," Gloria said bitterly, and she felt in some way as if she had failed Flora and her fine education.
Balin's smile turned wry, but his eyes were kind. "Hardly. I fear I cannot be proud of my defense."
Gloria endeavored to take Balin's words to heart. But it was hard not to feel naive and ashamed. Another thought occurred to her. "Why did you not warn me sooner? Surely you must have seen the girl standing there. It would have been the work of a moment to tell me what she really was."
"If I spoke its true name, the creature would have given up all pretense at disguise, and I would not have been able to fight it. The fact that it shed its skin means it is desperate. The skin must have been old, and if not for the dragon, it may have attacked even if it could not eat us, merely to harvest our skins."
"I don't understand why the skin-stealer does not attack outright. Why the deception?"
"Again, it is for the pure hearts. They used to feed off pure fire magic, but there is precious little of that in the Land at this time. These days skin-stealers must get power from feeding off of every better emotion. Strange, really, since fire magic is supposed to slowly burn away emotion. But I do not pretend to understand magic.
"Anyway, fear is not very nourishing to them, so frightening their victims does very little good. They eat every part of you, aside from your skin, and they'll steal the skin of anyone. But they are only truly nourished if your heart is pure."
=In other words, your companion's immunity to the skin-stealers does not serve as a high recommendation of his character.=
He has already confessed as much, Gloria pointed out.
=Confession does not make a clean soul.=
Gloria chose to ignore Voice for the time being. "How did you know I was not one of those monsters?"
Balin's grin returned and he indicated a piece of fern still stuck to her sleeve. "Skin-stealers are always beautiful and immaculate. They use a glamour to make just about anybody look attractive. I admit I was a bit afraid of your golden eyes at first; it is not a common color. But a skin-stealer would never appear as you are now. They may eat goodness, but they will never understand it. They think that beauty and perfection are what inspire kindness."
It was Gloria's turn to smile. "As much as you insist on a tainted heart, you were kind to a girl deformed by shrubbery."
"I cannot say my intentions were entirely noble. I could see that you were not ugly under all the dirt and twigs."
=He admits it!=
Hush, now. Gloria thought back, feeling delighted but not specifically because of the compliment. She knew she was beautiful, at least, that was what Flora and Voice had always told her, and she had no reason to think they would lie since her beauty was simply a fact, like being human or having two arms and two legs. It had never really meant anything before. But now she enjoyed the novelty of Balin's regard. At the same time, she was careful not to be swept away by it. There were clearly still many things she did not know about the world and other people, including Balin. The skin-stealers, she knew, were only the beginning. She would have to stay on her guard.