Please read the reasonably short author's note before you continue to the rest of the story!


Dear Readers,

1) This story will continue to be updated periodically. I promise. However, it will probably be sporadic for the next couple of years, because school is eating my brain. Since it will be so infrequent, I recommend you add it as an Author Alert or a Story Alert, and continue to ignore it until you get emails about it. That way, I can try to find out exactly how many are even interested in my story, and I won't lose readers in the long space between chapters. If you're someone I sent a message to in order to alert you about the update, I don't intend to do it again, so if you want to know, I definitely recommend the Story Alert.

2) If you're so inclined, read my other (short! complete!) stories, which can be found in my profile. Please review anything you read, and please especially give me feedback on Gone and Strength and Duty. Those are the two I'm most worried about.

3) I typically try not to post anything until I have a good 20 pages written past the point I'm posting to. That is not the case this time. Since it's been so long since I updated, I'm giving you everything I have typed up to this point. Lucky you! I do have more that's handwritten, and I have the basic plot for the entire thing, but it will take time to get it posted here. Just don't give up on me! It will continue to be updated, but I wanted to be honest with you about the timeline.

4) Please review this chapter! I really need the feedback. I'm trying to get honest reactions, so if you'll please, please, PLEASE give it to me. I'm not asking for them to be selfish. I just really need feedback if I ever want to publish. Because, of course, I think it's really close to perfect, or I wouldn't post it, but I know I'm too biased to give an honest opinion to myself.

Nathan sat at the desk in the tent Keith had appointed as his study, shuffling the daily reports in his hands. There was nothing he could deal with right now. At least, nothing he needed to deal with. Well, nothing he wanted to deal with, anyway. One of the lamps hanging overhead flickered as he set the reports down. It really was too dark to be working in here. Poor light was bad for the eyes.

Without thinking about it, he stood, intending to summon a servant to bring more lamps. He was almost to the door before he thought again. It really wasn't that dark. His study was the brightest place in the camp, most likely. Besides, light wasn't really what was important. He crossed the tent again and sat back down. The chair was rather hard. Perhaps he should send for a cushion of some sort.

He forced himself to focus his mind back on the reports. There had been a few that needed immediate attention. Picking up the papers, he shuffled through them again, mentally counting the number that required attention tonight. A lamp flickered again, and he lost count. Frustrated, he set them down on the desk once more and let his fingers massage his temples. Maybe he should send for a servant to do that for him.

Firmly, he focused his mind once more. He counted the reports again, but lost count as a pair of footsteps passed outside. He willed the person to come inside, to interrupt the monotony of the reports, but whoever it was passed without pausing. He stood up abruptly, irritated at his own lack of focus. Pacing in the cramped space around the desk, he tried to put a finger on what made him so edgy. No one had really made him angry recently; the tent, while slightly warm, wasn't too hot to be bearable; he'd only finished supper an hour ago, so he wasn't hungry; he'd slept well the night before. Even the girl and the negotiation didn't weigh too heavily on his mind, though they did cross it more often than he could wish. If Keith said she was worth it—and if she really was worth it, when all was said and done—he didn't really care how much he'd paid.

He sighed and sat back down again. Travel. It had to be the travel, the stress of what to do with one hundred men parading around doing little more than standing, while the Palace could be in a shambles and news of it wouldn't reach him for a week at the least. Well, that wasn't true, but it was close enough to true. At least, it could happen. He'd left Mikhail in charge, and while the man was a competent leader, Nathan wasn't sure he could handle the situation if Richard decided to be difficult. Nathan frowned. Richard. The name, and the face that came to mind with the name, brought a flare of anger to Nathan. Nathan was sure the man was planning something, but he couldn't figure out what, and Richard had enough power that Nathan couldn't accuse him without proof.

Fingering the reports, Nathan tried to focus again, but Richard came back to his mind. The fact that Richard had enough power that Nathan couldn't accuse him of anything ought to be enough proof as it was that Richard was up to no good. Richard lusted after power like other men lusted after women and money and fame. He wanted to be Lord High Guard; Nathan knew that. He'd wanted it ever since . . . well, ever since Nathan could remember, but it had become most apparent when Nathan's father, Nathiel, had been assassinated and Nathan had been raised to Lord High Guard. Nathan had been barely nineteen, and Richard had actively fought to prevent him from being raised on account of his age. Naturally, Richard had put himself forward as a suitable substitute, "Until young Lord Nathan was old enough to be given such responsibility," or so he said. Nathan remembered the event with a shudder.

He had called the meeting of the Tetonyan Council only to be officially raised, but had found Richard in opposition. For eight agonizing days, the Council had argued and Richard had campaigned against him, until on the eighth day, the Council had held a vote. Nathan won, but by only a small majority, and that had angered him. Since Naton had been raised as the first Lord High Guard, the Lord High Guardship had passed from father to son without question.

The end of the Tetonya Councilors' three-year terms came several months after the vote, and Nathan sent out agents to make sure most of those who had been against him were not reelected. Richard himself, though, Nathan could do nothing about. He was one of a very few who had managed to be reelected almost every term since he had run for the position. In truth, Richard's family line since Rikord, in the early days of the Sanctuary, had managed to keep someone in the Tetonya Council most terms since Naton had been appointed.

After the vote—Nathan spat the word in his mind as though it were a curse—Nathan had become almost positive that Richard had been the one who had arranged for his father's assassination, if not the one who had done the killing himself, and he had taken measures against the same happening to him. Seth was an orphan, and had been since birth, which was something Nathan was looking for in an heir. An orphan would have no family loyalties, no ties to the world but those that Nathan gave him from inside the Palace. The caretakers at the Tetonyan Home for Orphaned and Abandoned Boys, where Seth had lived his entire life, said that he was a natural leader among the boys, and so Nathan had sent Keith to observe for a week. Seth was everything they said and more, besides which he was one month away from turning sixteen, at which age he would be evicted from the Home and sent to work in the normal world. On his sixteenth birthday, Nathan sent Keith to bring Seth directly from the Home to the Palace.

Seth really was a natural leader, and he was doing well under Nathan's tutelage, with Keith's assistance. Keith himself would have made a perfect heir, but it was a little more complicated than that. Keith's father, Keiten, had been the Commander of the Guards during Nathiel's reign as Lord High Guard, and both men had been murdered at the same time. It was unlikely that the same would happen again, but it had happened once, and if it happened again, and Nathan didn't have a proper heir, chaos would ensue, most probably ending with Richard as Lord High Guard. That, in and of itself, would be a disaster.

But besides that, the heir was required by definition to be a Lord, which would mean making the Commander of the Guards the Lord Commander of the Guards, which was more trouble than it was worth. Keith had never complained, and had been instrumental in training Seth as an heir and strengthening Nathan's own rule, but . . . well, that was another matter. Keiten had trained Keith to be the Commander of the Guards since he was old enough to understand what a Commander of the Guards was, just as Nathiel had trained Nathan to be the Lord High Guard, and Nathan thought he and Keith worked together as the perfect Lord High Guard/Commander of the Guards team.

Nathan thought about Seth. The boy had technically been of legal age to rule since he had been brought to the Palace, and Nathan grew more confident about his ability to rule every day, but without someone to help him, support him as Keith had yesterday, Nathan wasn't sure he was ready. He hoped he and Keith truly weren't murdered at the same time, as their fathers had been. If Nathan was dead and Seth was ruling right now, Keith was the only one Nathan wanted standing behind Seth. If Seth ever got the chance to rule at all.

Yes, that was yet another problem. Seth was growing so quickly, and Nathan didn't feel as though he himself was getting any older. When he was nineteen, just raised, and Seth was sixteen, the difference in age had seemed ample enough. But now, with two years since Nathiel had been murdered and no hint of threat since, Nathan worried about the tiny interval between him and his successor. If Nathan died of old age, as his grandfather and great-grandfather both had, Seth would have only a few years of life left himself. Nathan had watched the boy closely: if he had come to the same conclusion, Seth was showing no signs of it.

Nathan sighed. Work. He had to get something done. He sat back down behind the desk and picked up his pile of papers. Still holding them, he sat back in his chair and stared somewhere into space. No, he had to work. If he couldn't even show self discipline in the confines of his own study, how could he expect to be able to discipline the men he ruled? With that thought, he determinedly started separated the reports into three piles: those he needed to deal with without delay, those that could wait, and those that could be delegated to Seth.

As he set the last paper in the pile that could wait, a Guard named David came in to announce Seth. Yes, a Guard standing around just waiting to tell Nathan that Seth was here to see him. More likely two or three were doing the exact same thing just outside the tent. One hundred Guards waiting around, doing something between little and nothing, calling it protecting their Lord High Guard. And with all the power and influence he had, Nathan could do nothing about it.

He had barely nodded to David, when Seth bounded in practically on top of the man, bouncing with excitement. Another nod and a tiny wave dismissed the Guard, but Seth only waited until the man had bowed and turned to leave before he started speaking, "Nathan," Seth began before David was out the door, "come see what Keith brought!"

It took only a moment for Nathan to figure out what he was talking about. The girl, Tanika, yet another problem he had to solve. "I'm very busy right now, Seth. I'll see her later."

"You haven't touched one thing on your desk for the last half an hour. You might as well come."

Nathan wanted to protest—he most certainly had touched those reports—but the point was well taken. He hadn't really done any significant work for an hour or more. "That is exactly why I must stay here and get something done," he answered curtly.

"You're not going to get anything else done tonight, and you know it," Seth replied, ignoring the frustration in Nathan's voice. Nathan frowned, but didn't answer. "Besides," Seth continued, "she's going to be yours, and you haven't even seen her."

"I'll see her every day. Why go look now?" Nathan turned his focus back to the reports in the pile that needed immediate attention.

"Why wait?" Seth insisted. "She's gorgeous, she needs to get used to you, and she's—"

Nathan waited, but when Seth didn't continue, he prompted, "And she's?"

"Well, she's fighting with Keith at the moment."

Nathan very nearly snorted, except that was the kind of thing Lord High Guards couldn't do. "If Keith can't handle that himself," he said dryly, "he should not be the Commander of my Guards." In truth, Keith could probably handle it just as well or better than Nathan, simply because it was the kind of thing Nathan usually left to him to deal with.

"Of course he can, but you should go see. It'll give you a chance to get to know her a little when she's not behaving, which I'm sure is invaluable, although I don't know why. But I'm sure you could tell me. Besides, maybe a break will do you good. Maybe you'll get something done afterward."

Nathan sighed. He'd been about to get something done just now, but he was sure Seth wouldn't leave him alone until he went. Maybe it wouldn't hurt. "Very well. But let's be quick about it."

Seth smiled a smile that was a little too knowing for Nathan's taste before he led the way out of the tent. The boy didn't know as much as he thought he did. Nathan was about to get something done. When they walked out of the tent, there was a mass of men swarming about the entrance. For a brief moment, Nathan wanted to wonder what they wanted, but the moment was gone all too soon. Keith hadn't left just two or three Guards to announce people coming into Nathan's tent, he had left a whole squad. Ten Guards, standing around, waiting to protect him from his own Raccran servants, or some other such nonsense. Didn't they have anything better to do? Couldn't Keith find something else to do with about nine of them?

All the Guards stepped out of the way for Nathan and Seth to pass by, all of them saluting with a fist pressed to their chests and bowing over it, as Keith did. As the two Lords walked past, Guards fell into step behind them, and Nathan realized that it was not just his squad of ten following them. Seth must have had another squad assigned to escort him, as well.

Nathan desperately wanted to send them all away, but that was not considered proper, not to mention that Keith would throw a fit, so he ground his teeth together and accepted it. Almost accepted, anyway. Why did he pay men to follow him around? They never did anything else. They had never proved their usefulness by actually protecting him from something. They just marched about as though it was a bloody parade! And who was forced to carry the baton? He was! It really was a ridiculous plight.

"You're scowling, Nathan," Seth muttered under his breath, interrupting Nathan's stream of thoughts. "You're scaring people." Nathan watched as a young serving girl jumped out of their way and took another route to her destination, glancing fearfully over her shoulder, before he smoothed his face.

Nathan knew he'd been irritable and on edge since they'd left the Palace, but he hadn't thought he was letting it show. No wonder Keith had been so diffident lately. Nathan had always been slightly annoyed by Keith's overprotectiveness, just enough to think about it when he wasn't in the best of moods, but he had never really been quite so ornery about it. Keith was right about the need for both protection and appearance, and both men knew it. Nathan just had to tolerate it, and he did, for the most part. The Guards didn't really annoy him that much, except now, when there wasn't a person with magic within one hundred miles that could possibly think of harming him. If the very Guards who had come to protect him in the Raccran wilderness were potential enemies, having them here with him wouldn't do much to protect him, and if he couldn't defend himself from a Raccran without the aid of a squad of Guards at his back, he shouldn't be the Lord High Guard in the first place.

Nathan forced himself to close his mind to the thoughts, and focused for a moment on the girl. What in the world was he supposed to do with her? He really didn't want to meet her at all, but it had to happen sooner or later, and apparently Seth wanted it to be sooner rather than later.

Keith's tent really wasn't very far from the study, and was right next to Nathan's personal tent and Seth's personal tent. The camp was centered around the three tents, but left ample space between them and the next row of tents for privacy. Also near the center were the general mess tent and a smaller, private dining tent for Nathan, Seth, Keith, and a select few higher-ranking officers. Nathan was glad to see a few Guards patrolling the grounds. At least Keith found a use for some of the Guards.

Seth led the way to Keith's tent, though Nathan knew it as well as Seth did. The tent was black in color, as most of the tents in camp were, trimmed with dark blue and silver. It wasn't as ornate or as large as Nathan's or Seth's, but it was much larger and more elaborate than anyone else's besides theirs. As they approached Keith's tent, Nathan could hear a woman's shouts coming from inside. He couldn't distinguish everything that was being said, but he could tell it was about the girl's sister, Natasha. Keith was replying calmly whenever she stopped to draw breath, and then she raged on. This was hardly the kind of thing Nathan wanted to deal with right now.

When they stepped to the door of the tent, they found the flaps tied shut. Without thought, Nathan reached through with his magic and unfastened them, which alerted Keith to his presence. When Tanika next drew breath, Nathan heard Keith say tersely, "Perhaps you can speak to the Lord High Guard about it yourself. I suggest, however, that you choose a more respectful tone of voice for him than you have for me."

Nathan sent a Guard ahead of them to announce the two Lords, and then he and Seth proceeded inside the tent. 'Proceeded' was certainly the word. About eight of the Guards followed them inside, quite crowding the tent. Nathan immediately sent all of them out, despite the disapproving look Keith was giving him. Keith wouldn't say anything in front of the new servant, so Nathan didn't worry about it.

"What seems to be the problem here?" Nathan asked wearily. He didn't want to deal with this right now. It had been a mistake to come here.

He expected Keith to answer, simply because it was the proper procedure, but the girl beat him to it. "How dare you buy my sister!" she didn't quite shout, but her voice was harsh and ragged. "It's bad enough that you have bought me, to take me away to your slave camps, but you cannot have my sister. She has a good, loving home here, and she doesn't deserve to be corrupted by your evil ways. Take her back!"

Nathan wanted to sigh and walk out—a good, loving home?—but he stayed to answer. "And what answer has my Commander given?" he asked patiently. Tanika turned, glaring bitterly at Keith, but she let him answer.

Keith addressed Nathan rather than Tanika. "Neither Natasha nor Tanika are being taken to slave camps, as Tanika very well knows. Rather, they are being taken away from an abusive home," Keith stressed the word, "They are going to the Tetonya Palace, where Tanika will be . . . a servant, and Natasha will be raised with children her own age in a loving environment, a proper education, and more privilege than she could ever experience anywhere else in the Raccra Sanctuary."

"That is my answer," Nathan said when Keith had finished. There was a little more to it than that, but Keith's explanation was an adequate preliminary answer. "Truly, the Tetonya Palace is the best possible place in the Sanctuary for a child to be raised. Is there anything else you think needs to be addressed?"

"You haven't addressed anything! Neither has he!" She glared at Keith again. "I want some answers, some negotiation!"

"Tanika," Nathan began, once again patiently, "when the Sanctuary and the Palace were first established, the Raccran Council made a law that essentially says children have no rights until they turn eighteen. It was intended as a protection for the parents of these children, but its weakness lies in the fact that children do indeed have brains before they come of age. You are right to wish to have a say over your own future, but the laws of your people insist that you abide by your parents' decisions, whether or not you like them. Unfortunately, you don't have the privilege of deciding for yourself whether or not you want to be my servant, or of negotiating terms for yourself or for Natasha. The decision has been made for you, and for her. However, I believe that everyone has a right to whatever answers are relevant to their case, and as such, I will give you those I deem necessary and appropriate for the moment."

The speech was meant to have a calming effect, but to Nathan's surprise, Tanika launched herself at him in a fit of rage. Apparently, she knew the law altogether too well. Keith caught her before she got to him and forced her to her knees, her hands pinned behind her back. Nathan continued. "Unless, of course, you don't want any answers from me, in which case I'll leave right now." He tried to keep the tightness of anger out of his voice. There were so many better things he could do with his time than play games with this wretched child.

"You bloody ba—" she began angrily, but cut off with a shriek as Keith twisted her arm.

"You will watch your language and your tone with the Lord High Guard," he hissed in her ear, and gave another sharp jerk.

Tanika moaned quietly and leaned back into Keith, suggesting he was pulling a little harder than he should. A stern look from Nathan was all it took for Keith to loosen his grip. Nathan stepped forward and looked down at the girl on her knees. It wasn't exactly the way he liked his girls, and he hated to admit that Seth hadn't exaggerated even a little, but she really was beautiful. He took her chin in his hand and brought her head up to face him. The posture she took suggested humility, but her eyes burned with anger, reminding him of what he felt at the moment. Why didn't he stay in his study, safe from torrents of Guards and burning eyes? He pushed her face away more roughly than he had intended and continued his original thought. "But I think you'll get more answers from me than from the Commander."

The tent was silent for several moments, everything frozen in time until Tanika spoke. Nathan could hear suppressed sobs in her voice as she whispered, "Why did you have to take Natasha, too?"

"Let her go, Commander," Nathan commanded, ignoring her question for the moment.

"My lord?" Keith sounded surprised. No doubt he was. The Lord High Guard could not possibly be in the presence of a girl—a Raccran girl, no less—who had, in a fit of rage, attempted to attack him, without her being restrained.

"You heard me. Let her go." Nathan's voice was tighter than he would have liked, but it seemed to have the desired effect on Keith. He released his grip on her and stepped back a step or two. "You and the Lord Heir may wait outside."

"My lord!" Rather than a question, Keith voiced this as a protest.

"Outside," Nathan said slowly, raising his chin a fraction of an inch to give authority to the command. He caught Keith's eye to make sure he would not protest again. Keith tensed, his whole body quivering with the effort, but his jaw especially tight with an effort not to argue. His eyes burned just as Tanika's did, but after a few carefully regulated breaths, he left the tent without speaking. Nathan did not often refuse Keith's insistence upon extra precautions, but when he did, he knew that Keith would obey without question. Well, without much question. He would obey, but he would try to make Nathan see sense first, if circumstance permitted. And today, circumstance did not permit.

As soon as Keith and Seth were out of the tent, Nathan put up shields against eavesdropping. Keith was sure to post Guards all the way around the tent, to prevent anyone entering by means other than the door, and Nathan didn't want any Guard accidentally hearing what happened inside. Keith would be irritated at the extra precaution, because if something went wrong, he wouldn't be able to hear it, but there was nothing he could do about it now. It wasn't really that he wanted privacy, but Keith would insist on proper protocol if he was in the tent, and Nathan wanted a few minutes of natural interaction. If Keith heard the girl screaming at the Lord High Guard, he would be livid. But what he couldn't hear couldn't hurt him.

Though he remembered Tanika's question, he continued to ignore it. "What is it about Tetonyans that frightens you so much?" he asked gently, trying to put off the commanding tone he usually used.

"You're evil," she answered immediately, her voice quiet, but intensely earnest. "Tetonyans are evil to the core of their very beings."

"Do I appear evil to you?" Nathan asked, taking nearly the same tactic he had with Natasha.

"Of course not," she hissed. "It's your magic that makes you evil. Tetonya itself is corrupt, and corrupts those who wield it. It's not natural, and it's not right. Tetonyans appear good because Tetonya's purpose is to deceive, but it has filled you so full of deceit that you don't even realize you've been deceived. To your very core, you know nothing except the deception and lies Tetonya has forced you to believe. But Tetonya lies in wait to fulfill its evil purpose, and Tetonyans will be the instruments it uses."

Nathan was a little taken aback by her answer. He had never heard a Raccran so precisely describe why Raccrans feared Tetonyans. He had asked many of the Palace servants the same question, and they could go on for hours without really pinning down what they meant, but this child knew why she hated Tetonyans. It wasn't true, of course, but she could pinpoint what she believed. He did not tell her that, though. Instead, he said, "Your father was Tetonyan. Was your own father evil?"

Her answer was simple, short, and sharp. "Yes."

"Then what does that imply about you?"

He expected her to say something about Tetonya not touching her, so she wasn't corrupt like the Tetonyans, as pointedly as she had answered about her father, but she lowered her eyes and hesitated. "I . . . I am offspring of a Tetonyan, and so I am also influenced, but not like one who uses Tetonya consistently."

Nathan wasn't sure what to say to that. It was one thing for her to tell him that he was evil, because she was Raccran and he was Tetonyan, and that sort of thing was expected, but it was completely another thing for her to tell him that she was evil, too. Finally, he sat down on the one chair in the tent and said, "I've traveled to many parts of the Raccra Sanctuary, both the richest and the poorest, and I have yet to see the quality of life I have found present in the Tetonya Palace. So although many may have qualms about selling their children, and even more have qualms about buying such children, I buy any offered to me because I can give them a better life in the Palace than anyone, rich or poor, can give them outside of it. Your mother insisted that I buy Natasha, because I had already bought you, and she didn't want to have to care for the girl herself. I don't know how much you know about your parents' relationship . . ." Nathan didn't particularly want to tell Tanika the situation if she didn't already know, but she answered immediately.

"My mother hates my father," she said coldly. "She wants to leave, but has to care for the children."

Nathan was surprised by her directness, but continued. "Yes. So you understand her desire to rid herself of the youngest. As soon as she can get the others independent of her, she can leave whenever she wants, correct?"

"So she believes. I have no doubt that my father will find another way to tie her to him, though I can't understand why he loves her so much or bothers to keep her around in the first place."

Nathan was again startled by the directness of her statements. "You seem to have no love for your family, and yet you would rather both you and Natasha be at their mercy than at mine?"

"You wield an evil power, and are therefore unpredictable. At least I know what will happen to us if we stay with my family."

"I hope we can eventually change your mind about Tetonya." As far as Nathan could tell, the conversation was over, or at least he wanted it to be, so he turned to leave the tent.

"Wait," she pleaded, and continued as Nathan turned to her. "What is going to happen to us?"

"I am an unpredictable Tetonyan," he raised his eyebrows at her, "and you want answers from me anyway?"

"It is better to know a lie than to wonder about the truth."

Well, that's all you get for now. That's not exactly where I had intended to leave this scene, but it's all I've finished typing for now. Enjoy!

Please, Please, PLEASE review. Even if it's just short, even if you have nothing to say. Although, if you could try to think of something to say, that would be even better. Oh, and just for my records, please either leave a signed review, or if you don't feel like signing in, leave your Pen Name. It's another way I can keep track of who's reading my story.