Chapter Thirty-Two

Lia spent several hours in the library for the next few days, carefully reading the books and scrolls her sister gave to her. Most of them concerned the history and past deeds of the dragonpeople, but some contained facts about elves as well as their history. During the evenings, she practised various types of stitches on pieces of blank canvas. It didn't take her long to get the hang of them, but she had to take care that the long pieces of wool did not become knotted or tangled up. She progressed to small, individual patterns on the third evening.

"Did you do a tapestry of Cirze?" Lia asked Siera one afternoon while they were clearing up after a light lunch. Cirze and Rusalka waited patiently near the door.

"Yes. It took me several months and working out the design took time as well, but it was worth it. Do you fancy doing one of Rusalka, or of a pattern?"

"One of Rusalka, I think." Lia put a pile of clean plates in the kitchen cupboard. "Will it be the same size as the ones on the wall?"

"Of course it will be; it would look out of place if it was smaller. The size of the dragon doesn't matter as far as a tapestry is concerned."

Elaine entered the kitchen. "Are you nearly finished?"

"I think so." Lia shut the cupboard door. "I'm going back to the library."

"No, don't go just yet. I need to talk to you about something, and it might as well be done with Siera present as it concerns her too. Lia, you might have noticed that I've given you a few books about elves. I thought it might be a good idea for you to read about them because there's going to be a festival in the Eternal Forest soon. Siera and I have been invited, along with our dragons. Would you like to come with us?"

"Come with you? I...would Rusalka and I be welcome?"

"I think you would. Did you think we were going to keep you cooped up in Mayathrin until your eighteenth birthday? You need to be properly introduced to the elves anyway - what better way to do it than at a social gathering?"

"Besides," added Siera, "they would welcome you for your mother's sake, if not for Elaine's."

Lia looked over at Rusalka. "What do you think? Should we go?"

The water dragon put her head on one side. After a moment, she padded towards Lia and entwined herself around the girl's calves.

"Yes, please," Lia said, looking at her sister. "I'd love to go."

Elaine smiled. "Oh, I forgot to tell you - a package arrived for you this morning. It's from Eadair Hall."

Lia's breath hitched in her throat. "What's...what's inside?"

"I don't know. I didn't open it."

"It'll probably be my clothes," Lia said, in a tone that was supposed to be nonchalant.

"Not all of them. Remember, you're going to be measured for new clothes - in fact, the seamstresses will be coming tomorrow morning."

"I'll go and unwrap the package." Lia picked up Rusalka and hurried out of the kitchen.

"She does not seem very enthusiastic about going to the Eternal Forest," commented Siera as soon as Lia was out of earshot.

"Neither was I the first time I went there. You remember how nervous I was, don't you?"

"Of course I do. I wasn't any different, and Lia won't be either. Do you think she will be able to resist wandering off on her own?"

"My sister's favourite pastime at Eadair Hall was to walk alone in the forest." Elaine folded her arms. "Of course she's going to wander off; I'd be surprised if she didn't. The elves won't let her go into the Forest unaccompanied, though."

xxx

Lia sat on the bed and, with shaking hands, unwrapped the package. In it she found her three formal dresses: the plum velvet, the ice-blue and the short blue one Elaine had given her. They were all carefully folded.

Lia took hold of the ice-blue and shook it open; with a small clatter, something fell onto the floor. It was a tangle of silver strands.

They put my necklaces in the dresses.

Lia quickly retrieved her moonstone necklace, amethyst pendant, and silver torque from the floor. A quick examination of the other two dressed revealed nothing in the plum and a tiny white package hidden inside the short blue.

Lia opened the smaller parcel. A thin silver chain lay inside, with a gemstone pendant. Picking up the pendant, Lia studied it closely. The gemstone was light blue; when turned from side to side, it seemed to have a green shimmer on the inside.

Lia was about to scrunch up the small piece of paper when she noticed there was writing on the inside.

"Dear Lia,

This was going to be a gift for your eighteenth birthday. It seems only fair that you should have it now.

Mac."

"It's beautiful," Lia whispered. "Thank you, Mac."

She fastened the chain around her neck, picked up her dresses and folded them over her arm. Carrying the dresses over to the wardrobe, she hung them up one by one. As she shut the doors it suddenly occurred to her that if the wrapping around the necklace contained a message, the main wrapping might as well. Lia hurried back to the bed and saw that Rusalka was sniffing at the larger piece of wrapping. Just as the water dragon was about to pounce and tear the paper to shreds, Lia picked up the smaller piece of paper, rolled it up and tossed it in the air in the hope that it would attract Rusalka's attention. She dropped it onto the floor, and Rusalka eagerly hopped down after it.

There was writing on the inside of the paper: three paragraphs, clearly written by different hands. That section of the paper had been concealed underneath the folded dresses.

"By the time you read this, we will have left Eadair Hall. We are going to stay with my cousin Eithna Moycort; she has agreed to open her home to us. Marielle and Ervan are aware that we are moving, but they do not know where we are going. I have asked Jena and Finola not to tell them. It may be months or even years before we see you again - if that is the case, then I want you to know that I will protect your foster-sisters as best I can. Please remember what I said to you before you left. If you were my own daughter, you could not be more precious to me. Mac.

If I had known that morning that you were going to be spirited away like that, there are so many things I would have said to you. I'm sorry that I didn't tell you about my half-brothers and sister before you pleaded for them. I wonder if you would have pleaded even if you had known. Mac says you'll be taken care of at Mayathrin - at least you'll have a member of your blood family with you. I never did thank you for helping mine, did I? Thank you - and I am very sorry for the trouble you've gone through because of that. I miss you. Jena.

I miss you so much. We all do. You've always been a sister to me, and I know I'll see you again. Please don't worry about us, Lia - we're going to be all right. Tell Elaine that if she doesn't look after you, she'll have me to deal with. I love you. Finola."

The black writing blurred into the paper as Lia's eyes spilled over. For a moment, she allowed the tears to fall - but then determinedly wiped them away.

I shouldn't cry like this.

Rusalka looked up at her, making an anxious crooning sound.

"I'm all right," Lia said, reaching down and stroking the small blue head. "I'm fine."

xxx

Much to Lia's disgust, the seamstresses who came to measure her the next morning were the same ones who had measured Jena for a betrothal gown. Martha undoubtedly recognised her; on seeing Lia, she appeared taken aback for a moment - but then changed her expression to polite neutrality. She didn't say anything to her that wasn't on the subject of clothes, however.

Elaine remained in the room and watched as her sister was measured. Lia noticed that the seamstresses were more deferential to the dragonwomen than they had been to Eric Dagov.

"When can we expect the clothes to be ready?" asked Elaine as soon as they were finished.

"They should be done in about two weeks, I should think. She'll have to try them on in case any adjustments need to be made."

After the seamstresses had left, Elaine told Lia that she would still have to borrow some of her clothes until the new ones arrived.

"Will my dresses be suitable for the festival?" Lia asked.

"I don't think the short one will - at least, for this festival - but the two others should do nicely."

xxx

Since the day was warm, Lia ventured into the garden with Rusalka. She wondered if she should pick some flowers - but then this was a garden that had been carefully and lovingly tended, and not a clearing in the forest.

There was a small stone bench at the far end of the garden; Lia sat down on it with Rusalka on her lap. They remained where they were for a few minutes in silence, just enjoying the sunshine.

Jesse and Calaurin emerged from the main Mayathrin building. Catching sight of Lia and Rusalka, they began to walk towards them. Jesse's hair was thrown back behind his shoulders and he looked completely at ease.

Lia couldn't help but smile as he drew nearer. She felt several small butterflies inside her began to flutter their wings.

"May we join you?" Jesse asked.

"Of course."

He sat beside her. "Elaine said that you're going with her and Siera to the Eternal Forest."

"Yes. I'm rather nervous. But I suppose it is natural to be a little nervous of what you don't understand," Lia said lightly.

"That's not necessarily true," Jesse replied. "I don't understand you, but I'm not nervous of you."

"I wouldn't want you to be nervous of me," Lia answered, her voice quiet.

"You were of Oren and I when we arrived at Eadair Hall."

"I was, but that was mainly because we didn't get many guests at Eadair Hall - or at least guests that myself and my foster-sisters talked to. It was always Mac they came to see, not us."

"You led a very sheltered life at Eadair Hall, didn't you?"

Lia nodded. "I was happy that way."

"Are...are you happy here?

"Yes, I think I am. And besides, as Elaine said, it's only until I turn eighteen. What I meant was, I never questioned why we were so secluded until Mac told me about Jena. It seemed perfectly natural, and I liked it."

"It's good that your sister's going to be with you," said Jesse. A few strands of black hair had fallen over his face. Lia barely stopped herself from reaching up and brushing them behind his ear.

"Did Oren accompany you on your first trip into the Eternal Forest?"

"He did. Newcomers are traditionally introduced to the elves by other dragonpeople. Alvas went with us too." Jesse tucked the erring strands firmly into place. "Alvas would have been a good dragon knight, I think. Zarien is large enough. But Alvas' choices are his own."

"Is the size of the dragon important? Is that why you and Oren chose not to become knights?"

"I chose to be a dragonman because my brother was one. Oren wasn't given a choice - the knights refused him."

"Refused him?"

"Well, to be honest, it wasn't Oren they were reluctant to take on. Do you remember what he said about male bloodstone dragons?"

"Yes - were they worried that Nelyan would fight with their dragons?"

Jesse didn't answer her for a moment. Then he said: "Did you ever see a scar on my brother's left arm?"

"Only once, while he was bathing your forehead." Slowly, the implications sank in. "Jesse, you don't mean Nelyan did that?"

"He is the most likely culprit. And even if he wasn't, Oren won't say who or what it was. He's lucky he wasn't killed!" Jesse nearly shouted the last few words. He closed his eyes and inhaled deeply.

Lia didn't know what to say, so she kept her mouth shut.

Jesse changed the conversation subject very quickly. "It's important to develop friendships with the elves - possibly even more than with the noble families of Khairis. It might be easier in your case."

"Why is that?"

Jesse's forehead creased in a frown. "You can't have forgotten that you interceded for the children of someone who was possibly one of the most hated men in Khairis? Your actions won't be easy for people to forget. I know that you wouldn't have done it if Jenefa hadn't asked you, but didn't you ever think about what her motives were? You can't afford to be that naive any more."

Lia had to admit that he was right. There were people who wouldn't think twice about taking advantage of a new dragonwoman.

Knowing from experience with Mac that it was wise to let an angry person simmer down, Lia refrained from talking for several minutes. Instead, she and Jesse sat side by side in silence. Rusalka and Calaurin kept perfectly still; not even the tips of their tails moved.

Eventually Lia spoke. "You were correct about Mac. He has moved out of Eadair Hall and he's taken my foster-sisters with him. They're staying with a relative of Mac's."

"Have you ever met this relative?"

"No. I don't remember him even mentioning her before. Maybe there was no need to. His message was written inside a package I received today."

Jesse put a hand on her arm; his touch sent tingles throughout Lia's body. "That's not the only thing troubling you. What is it, Lia?"

"While you were staying with us, did you meet Marielle and Ervan?"

"Do you mean the lady who prepared the meals? No, I didn't actually meet her. Who's Ervan?"

"Her husband. Mac said in his message that they knew about the move, but not the location."

"He wouldn't reveal the location to someone he didn't trust."

"But that's it - he does trust them. He told us once that he knew them before we were born. If Mac was going to tell anyone about the new home, it would be Marielle and Ervan. He said he asked Finola and Jena not to say anything either. I don't understand it." The words bubbled out of Lia's lips like a mountain spring.

Jesse kept his hand where it was. "Maybe this is something you don't have to understand."

Lia suddenly wanted to rest her head on his shoulder. ...No. I mustn't. As much as I may want to, I mustn't.

She heard Calaurin and Rusalka begin to purr softly.

To be continued. Reviews are very welcome.