"I wish you would not look so dour. You were always the more amusing of my brothers, you know, but at this point I may just have to promote Will. Would it not be a sad day when a man who barely speaks two sentences at a time is more amusing than you?"
"Traitor," the man in question muttered from across the library, where he was sketching his wife as she read by the fire. Will was an accomplished artist, though the majority of his drawings were of his wife. Alys in a field. Alys swimming. Alys laughing. Alys playing with their two small children. And now, Alys in front of the fire, reading. If Will had needed the money, and if he could ever focus his eyes anywhere but on his wife, he might have been able to make a decent living off of his drawings. Unfortunately, he was rich and besotted, so his talent was something cherished by family alone.
"I am in no mood for amusement," Cristi's eldest brother, Rakyr, said quietly. He was sitting beside his sister on the flowered sofa in the middle of the enormous library, though he was not nearly as peaceful as she. Cristi was curled up against one arm with a wonderful book about a handsome nobleman who runs off with a princess and shares adventure upon adventure with her before they fall madly in love, marry, and have lots of babies together. It was Cristi's favorite story. She had read it a hundred times, all the while hoping that someday a vision would reveal that this was her future. Her own mother's romance had been much like a story, so why shouldn't hers? Of course, Cristi was only twenty-two and still had plenty of time to worry about romance, especially with her father so ill, but sometimes she could not help but dream.
Now was not the time for daydreams. Rakyr was clearly agitated—he'd been bouncing his foot for the past half hour and making it impossible for Cristi to focus on her book when it felt like the entire couch was vibrating. He looked like he would spring from the couch at any moment, and they all knew why.
He was waiting for Amy.
Cristi had sent word the day after her cousin's departure about the vision she'd had, a vision that had given her family reason to hope. When her father fell ill one month ago, it was like the happy cloud that had settled warmly around them for the past nine years had suddenly turned gray and stormy. For the first thirteen years of Cristi's life, her family was plagued with the trials of civil war. Will was always off fighting battles and trying to find a way to beat the Viljarmas with brute strength alone. Rakyr was busy trying to hide from his ardent worshippers, for he'd been proclaimed a god upon his birth because of his powers of healing. And Cristi—well, Cristi had always had her own world.
Then Will had brought Alys into their lives, thanks to Cristi's meddling, and everything had changed. Will stopped worrying about the war and focused more on his family. By healing the breach of jealousy that had long kept him from being on friendly terms with Rakyr, he managed to bring the family back together again.
Their mother's greatest concern during the period of peace and prosperity that followed the end of the war had been her eldest son's staunch refusal to marry. He never gave a reason, though Cristi was well aware that there was more to his story than his usual excuse: he had not met a woman he wanted to wed. The problem was that he had met a woman he wanted to wed, and she was now nothing more than another casualty of the civil war.
Now, however, their mother's greatest concern was whether or not the love of her life would still be alive in one month's time. Cristi could almost see her family falling apart again right before her eyes, and she had prayed for weeks and weeks to be granted a vision to help pull them back together again. Her father was the center of all of their lives. Without him, they would fall apart.
And then she had the vision. A plant with spiked leaves. The leaves were green in the center, but outlined in a magnificent purple. In the center, the leaves were clumped together, but they spread out more and more almost like a budding flower. She saw that the plant was in some sort of jungle, and as she knew there were no jungles in Feirtala or Shayark, she quickly realized it must be in the jungle land of Horave in Galatea. Alys had brought a great many books on her homeland for Cristi to read, so she knew a little about the geography of the area. She would have gone with her brother herself to show him the way if Alys hadn't suggested that one of her brothers might be a better guide. They'd lived in Galatea and traveled the countryside before, after all, and seeing firsthand was oftentimes much more helpful than reading in a book.
At least it was something. One would have thought her vision would have helped repair the family bonds, at least temporarily. Unfortunately, now Rakyr was overly anxious to depart and driving them all mad. It had not even been a week since Amy left. What did he expect? A miracle?
But then again, that was what they called him. The Miracle Maker. He had created a miracle in his mother's womb when he healed a life-threatening knife wound on his father. He had created many more miracles as the years passed, using his powers to heal the sick and wounded. But for some reason, his powers could not fix their father's heart. Cristi knew that Rakyr would not be able to rest until their father was well again.
"We have no idea how long it took her to get home," Alys spoke up, her voice soothing a little of the tension in the room. "I am certain she will be here as quickly as she can manage. Amy has always been dependable."
"I know," Rakyr said, his voice laced with frustration. "It is just that every day that slips by is another day that could be spent searching for that plant. We have no idea where in the jungle it is, and…"
"I am sorry my vision was not more specific," Cristi interrupted, her eyes welling up with tears as she realized that while her vision had given them hope, it might not be enough to save their father after all. If Rakyr did not find the plant quickly enough…
"My brothers are very resourceful. We sent word to my family at the same time we sent word to your great-uncle, so I am certain that one, if not both, of my eldest younger brothers will be waiting for you in Shrieven. I imagine they will send Efrem. He has always been good at finding things."
"As long as they are located up a skirt," Will grumbled.
"You aren't helping, William Laith," Alys snapped, utilizing her husband's full name to show her irritation.
"I don't care who they send. I just want to leave," Rakyr said so irritably that for a moment, Cristi almost thought that he was an imposter. Surely it was a different black-haired, green-eyed man sitting beside her, his slender arms crossed sulkily as his legs bounced. Rakyr had always been calm and reposed, with a quiet humor much like their father's. In fact, he was so much like their father that the similarities were often startling. They were about the same height with the same shadowy black hair, the same mannerisms, the same gentle, soothing voice…if not for the telltale signs of age on Kell's face and the difference in their eye colors, the two men could have been twins.
Cristi was searching for something witty to say that would lighten the mood again when there was a brisk knock at the door. Rakyr, like a stick of dynamite, exploded into action. He leapt to his feet and rushed the servant before the poor man could even stammer a proper greeting.
"Is she here?" he demanded.
The servant, looking rather nervous in the presence of such a deranged deity, could think of nothing to do but stammer, "P-princess Amelia Lewellyn, sir." And then he stepped aside so the woman in question could brush past him into the room. She walked with short, hurried strides, stopping just in front of her cousin, her expression all business.
"Are you ready?" she asked him.
"My bags have been packed since the day after you left."
She nodded curtly. "Good. Let's be off then." As Rakyr ran off to gather his belongings, Amy turned to briefly greet the other members of the Thorikell family.
"How has he been?"
"Unbearable!" Cristi exploded. "I am so glad you are here so you can take him away!"
The corner of Amy's lip curled up into a smile. "I was speaking of your father."
"Oh." Cristi grinned sheepishly as Alys took over the answer.
"No better, no worse," she briskly replied. "Not the ideal situation, but at least he is still alive. If it weren't for Mika, I doubt he would be fighting as hard as he is."
"I am sure he wants to live for the rest of his family as well," Amy added charitably.
Will just shrugged in response. "We'll mourn him a great deal, but he knows we'll live without him."
Which meant, as Cristi well knew, that their mother wouldn't.
Rakyr returned just five minutes later with all of his belongings slung over his shoulder in a sack big enough to carry maybe three garments. For a revered deity and future king, he certainly packed light. After saying brief farewells, Amy and Rakyr departed on their quest to save the king of Shayark.
"Do you think they will succeed?" Cristi asked wistfully, her heart clenching in fear at the mere thought of failure.
"If all goes according to plan, then I am sure Rakyr will be back with the plant by the time the month is up. He won't give up, and with my brother's help, he is sure to find the medicine in no time," Alys assured her.
"You are that confident in your sibling's abilities?"
Alys smiled. "My siblings are all well-known for stubbornness. They won't give up until the job is done. And if, as I predict, my parents send Efrem to be his guide, your brother will have the king of all muleheaded males to lead him to victory. Trust me, there is no way they will fail."
Cristi tried to accept her sister-in-laws words, but deep down inside she had a sinking feeling in her gut. It wasn't anything specifically related to her father, persay, but somehow she knew that this mission was not going to go according to plan.
She only hoped that even with a major divergence, they would still return home at the scheduled time. Somewhere in the depths of her foresight, she knew that if her brother did not return in three week's time, their father would dieHer father's life depended on it.
Ilana was quite certain she had just done the most recklessly stupid thing she had ever done in her life. Stupid and potentially dangerous. Unfortunately, she didn't give a damn. She never had. When people scoffed at her for wearing Horavian garb when her skin was as pasty white as the next Galatean, she ignored them. When her siblings laughed at her superstitious nature, a trait inherited from reading too much about the Haravian culture, she shrugged off the sound if ridicule.
No one's opinion mattered but her own, and in her opinion, going to Horave was the one goal in life she was bound and determined to attain. Since the age of four she had been fascinated with Horave after viewing a native man who had come to bring a complaint to her father. Four year old girls are typically more concerned with dolls and toys than things like culture or appearances. Ilana had never quite liked dolls, and she felt that toys were useless and unamusing. But when she saw the tall, handsome, dark-skinned man in her father's throne room, everything about her life suddenly made sense. She didn't enjoy the normal life of a Galatean princess because she was never intended to be a Galatean princess. Instead, she was truly a Horavian native born in the body of a white woman.
A body that was odd enough as it was.
Ilana had been graced with the body of a boy. Her mother had assured her over the years that she would some day develop a figure. The Empress Ariella had not come into her own figure until the ripe age of seventeen, after all. But Ilana was twenty-two and still flat as a board, so she had long ago given up hope for hips or breasts. On top of that, she had inherited red hair. The Light only knew who she inherited it from, as all of her ancestors on her mother's side of the family had blonde hair, and the only non-blonde-haired half of her father's side was of demonic origin. Some said the red hair was the mark of a demon, representative of the flames of Hueres. Ilana insisted it was not nearly so dreadful as that. It was, after all, as blonde as it was red, more like a gentle orange, really. Still, not even her typical Galatean blue eyes could have convinced people she was normal. So it wasn't really much of a surprise when she started acting abnormally.
Her family took her obsession in stride. All of the Galate children had their own oddities, after all. The only normal one in the whole group was Danyl, who was scheduled to ascend to the position of Emperor in a mere month upon the event of his eighteenth birthday.
Unfortunately, they obviously did not seem to understand her obsession. Not one bit. If they had understood her love of Horave, they would not have agreed to send her brother Efrem off to guide some bumbling chap through the jungle instead of her. After all, she knew everything about Horave one could possibly want to know. She'd studied their language, both in written texts and with a Horavian tutor. She'd studied their customs. She'd studied the land. All she needed was to visit the land, and her parents had callously brushed her off when she insisted that whatever mission they had in mind for Efrem, she was far more qualified to undertake it.
She knew little of the intended mission, as she hadn't been present when it was initially discussed. She found out later from Efrem himself when he boasted that he was going to Horave to help some foreigner find a plant. By foreigner he must have meant someone from across the Windless Sea, as every country on their land was a part of the Galatean Empire. No one was a foreigner anymore, not even the dreaded demons of Hueres. He refused to give the man's identity. He said it was 'top secret.' But later she overheard him mentioning to Raul something about 'that green-eyed stiff,' which gave her a rather vague description to go by, but enough to set her plan into motion.
When her parents denied her request to be sent instead of Efrem, she demanded an explanation. Her father gruffly replied that no daughter of his was going traipsing about the Empire, especially not in the company of a man. Her mother insisted that this sort of mission was more suited to someone of Efrem's nature, as it was sort of a scavenger hunt.
Ilana might not be the best hunter, but what would Efrem do in Horave if he needed to ask for directions? He couldn't put two words together in that language!
There was only one thing left for Ilana to do, and that was to take matters into her own hands. So, using a rather handy Horavian plant, she drugged Efrem the night before his departure, hog-tied him, and ran off, all the while hoping she got enough of a head start that she could meet up with the mysterious green-eyed man before her brother caught up with her and ruined all of her fun.
The most difficult part of the adventure was going to be manning the land device Captain Genrey had constructed a few years ago. Based upon the same steam principles his ship used, he'd created a wooden carriage that operated without horses and moved at a much steadier pace. There was no need to rest this carriage. It could go day and night so long as someone kept feeding it coal. Unfortunately, the constant shoveling was tiring for Ilana, who was not much accustomed to hard labor. By the time she was a day from Shrieven, she was about ready to give up.
Then her stubborn Galatean pride kicked in, and she forced herself to keep shoveling.
It might be the stupidest decision she'd ever made, but it would damn well be the highlight of her life. She would not give that up for the world. She just hoped this green-eyed stranger was tolerable, for she didn't much relish the idea of being secluded with a man for days on end if he couldn't even participate in friendly conversation.
Most of all, she hoped she could find him. How many green-eyed men were there in Daten?