Haste necessitated only a brief visit to the court of King Myda. Still, brief as their visit was, Devony was much impressed with the vast quantities of gold and jewels covering all the walls of his palace.
Thaven whistled, clearly eager to enter the palace and see what wonders he might obtain there.
"Cheap imitations of fairy wealth," Ifirta spat.
King Myda was introduced with much ado to the entire party, and for once, Devony felt entirely unintimidated by his grandeur. She felt as if she had seen the greatest of everything, beauty, money, power… and nothing this mortal king could throw at her could be of any account. He was quite pompous in his bearing, and obviously thought himself completely equal to his company, even speaking briskly, though a little bit fearfully to Ifirta.
A luncheon was the least of requisite actions that they could possibly get away with, and so the entire party was escorted into a dining hall with walls of solid gold. For food they were served only slightly stale bread, but it was brought to the table upon plates of solid gold.
"King Myda is not a reasonable person," Adan explained with an ironic smile, "While his kingdom suffers and his own table wants decent food he constantly struggles to obtain more and more gold."
Devony rolled her eyes, "Why are there such fools in the world?"
"I know not. But, you are sure to meet many more before this world is through," Thaven said grimly.
"Including yourself," Kasand added. "How much wealth will you carry away with you, Thaven?"
The thief only scowled darkly and continued to pocket gold utensils from the table.
After the requisite courtesy gestures had been satisfactorily completed, though only to the bare minimum, they party made haste to depart. Devony, for the first time, could tangibly feel the pull of the imminent, and new that her long awaited fate was drawing near. The closing of the circle was too near for her to find any comfort in transience. She was sure that Adan felt the same pull. There would be no rest for either of them until the threat against the world had been eliminated.
All of Devony's concerns over Mirabella's strange behavior, and Ifirta's stubbornness were overshadowed by the feeling of being drawn toward the inevitable. Every step she took was a fulfillment of this need, and yet the urge to continue only grew stronger and stronger.
Ifirta felt it too. Even her complaints expressed a desire to continue onward, and to not be delayed.
The mortals in the party were oblivious to this driving forced, seeing only the haste in their ancient companions. Kasand found this fascinating, but no more than the thousands of fascinating things he had already beheld on this journey. Thaven searched for motives and examined every move of the ancients thoroughly. Lynia was baffled. The two elves, Simuri and Claris, passed off this behavior as the obscure wiles of immortals. Only Mirabella, completely enveloped in her sudden adoration of Devony, and little Clancy seemed completely unaware of the odd behavior of the ancients.
It was late in the night before the ancients finally yielded to the pleas of the rest of the party to find shelter. Not having heeded the requests of Kasand to seek shelter in a town, Adan led the group to an obscure mountainous pass, where the wind whistled off the surrounding cliffs menacingly. Devony anticipated another unpleasant camping experience. She had grown much more used to sleeping in the outdoors than when she had begun her journey.
"There is a monastery, in a cave not far from here. They worship Dioys above all and shall certainly welcome us for the night," he explained.
"Do they sleep on rocks?" Clancy asked in a worried voice.
"Certainly not," Adan assured him. "I think you will be content with their accommodations, although they do not place as much value in gold as does King Myda."
Thaven looked quite disappointed but everyone else looked a little relieved at the prospect of having beds to sleep in.
"Fancy," Simuri mused, "having all that gold and not a bit of brains. Can't keep food on his own table, yet the table itself is 24 carat all the way through!"
"Well, there was something spectacular about him, you must admit. His dishes alone were worth more than any mortal among us can claim to own," Thaven begrudged.
Mirabella's eyes lit up for a moment, as if she was about to retort, but then went dim and fixed themselves upon the floor once more. "Domna Araviette, my humble person does beg implore you to call upon me to serve you in any way that I might. Would you like me to carry your bag, greatest one?" she asked.
Devony wrinkled her nose in distaste. Mirabella had been speaking to her in such a way all day. It was embarrassing and very frustrating.
"I want nothing from you Mirabella, save for you to stop with the 'greatest one' trash and to act in your usual manner."
"Forgiveness, greatest one," Mirabella begged, falling to the ground.
"Get up," Devony hissed, trying to ignore the stares directed at them from the others.
Clancy giggled. "What is Mirabella doing?" he asked Devony softly.
"Being an idiot," Devony responded.
After much examination of rocks and tapping on boulders, Adan reached what he proclaimed was a door into a cliff. He removed a pebble from the rock face and slid it into a small opening in the rock. Rumbling, the rock began to crack down the middle and split to reveal an opening large enough for the group to pass through in single file into the interior of the cliff.
Adan went first and Devony followed him into the dark, unafraid but slightly entranced by the romance and mystery of the location. It felt strange to be walking into the stone, as if she was walking into the center of the earth. The place had the feeling of waiting, as if it had been long anticipating their arrival.
The dark grew complete. They walked on, silently, each listening to the sounds of muffled footsteps and steady breathing. Then, there was light. It was so bright, at first, that it overwhelmed the senses. It took a few moments for each traveler to register that the stone passage had opened into a brightly lit cavern.
"Who goes there?" called a voice speaking in the tongue of the ancients.
"We are tired travelers all, seeking a place to rest," Adan answered.
"Ah, tired travelers. Well, this is the monastery of the rocks. The lots of tired travelers are not of our concern. We speak only to the Gods and to the highest creatures of the high. Go away and leave us to our lofty pursuits," the voice answered.
"Certainly you good monks engage in lofty pursuits, but, you must certainly remember that the roots of all great things lie in the earth. Descending to help beings so lowly as ourselves can not hamper your faith, but rather must strengthen it," Adan responded.
"Yes… yes… it is philosophy sound enough for a lowly being as yourself, but not for the high minded. What know you of the gods? Nothing, sure enough. By Dioys and Aravena, by Bydan and Cherdin, by Firia and Trystus and Elstys and Naori, by Alani and Kyrribus and Teviander and by Carnus himself, please go away, rough beings, you know not what you disrupt!"
"What, pray I ask, do we disrupt? " Devony asked suddenly, annoyed.
"The ritual! You interrupt the ritual. The ritual has occurred since the beginning of time and until the end. It shall continue for millenniums yet until the coming of Araviette and the closing of the circle. Lofty things, lofty and far off. Lowly beings such as yourselves cannot comprehend the significance of what we do. The ritual assures that they not be hampered in the closing of the circle, that the world may remain into the next age. Take leave from your betters before you meet with our wrath! For if you must know, it has been ordained, millenniums ago, that we have a role to play in the coming of the ancients."
"What role?" Thaven asked with a laugh.
"Do not jest. This is a grave matter. At the beginning of the age, years and years ago, the great Dioys descended to our ancestor and instilled him with the sacred duty of preparing ten beds for ten travelers, among whom should be three ancients. Among those three ancients should be Dioran, Ifirta and Araviette herself. So we wait, and keep this cavern lighted in our ritual of constant readiness for that distant day when such great guests must us visit. And there is more, much more weighty holy matters which Dioys did impart, regarding instructions we must pass down to these great guests. Now, lowly travelers, you have been rewarded with knowledge beyond your due. Leave this place immediately so the lofty ritual not be interrupted. It will continue thus long after you and I have gone from this earth."
Adan laughed. "Be reasonable oh, wise monk. We are travelers ten. What if us the lowly be those you seek."
"This is blasphemy sir!" The monk cried, "To speak such is to defame these pure walls. We wait for Araviette. The time shall not come within my lifetime or yours. Leave, fowl travelers! Seek shelter with your own filthy kind!"
"At your word we shall go," Adan said. "But, perhaps, Araviette has already come. Perhaps, she stands before you right now. Perhaps she seeks shelter for herself and for her companions, so that the circle may close. Perhaps your time has come to fulfill your duties."
"Preposterous! Who are you to dare make such a claim!"
The lights went out and then Adan appeared, his body illuminated as if from within. "I am Dioran, the first of the Ancients. I bring with me Araviette, the last. She stands before you here," he motioned, "beside Ifirta, who's name you earlier called upon. With us are Simuri and Claris, representatives of Desael, Kasand of Centralia, Lydia and Clancy of the Empire, Mirabella, dancer of She'Lont and Thaven, Sixth Prince of Atashi. We have come, as Dioys has foretold."
Devony had not time to wonder much at Thaven being proclaimed the Prince of Atashi, before she beheld the look of terror apparent on the monk's face.
Several moments of silence passed in which the monk's face turned from horrified to bewildered and finally back to horrified.
"Have you fit lodgings for our party, or not?" Adan asked coldly.
"Well… yes, sir," the monk answered and continued to stare stupidly.
Devony thought she detected a strand of drool sliding from the corner of the monk's mouth.
"So, will you show us the way or are you too much of a blubbering idiot?" Ifirta finally asked.
For once, nobody in the party seemed even slightly offended by Ifirta's rudeness. It seemed to act as a stimulant upon the poor monk, who, drawn out of his stupor, hustled to the back shouting inarticulately in a loud voice.
There was much shouting and arguing evident in the background. A few minutes later, they were escorted, by a group of incredulous, but completely subservient monks. Whatever the first monk had told them, he seemed to have made an impression.
With much bowing and praise, the monks guided them down a narrow passageway, opening one at a time heavy marble doors. Inside each door was a room, filled with lit candles, elaborate gold statues and luxuries of all kinds.
"These, your most magnanimous greatnesses, are the lesser chambers. This will do for the intelligent young boy and his doting, innocent mother, I think. The next, for the brave elves. The third room is for the beautiful dancer. The Ambassador must have the fourth. Thaven, Great Prince of Atashi, your bounteous highness may have the fifth. And our most honored ancient, Ifirta will have the first grand chamber. The last is reserved for the two grandiose and magnificent ancients who will close the circle!" the monk announced as they walked.
Ifirta muttered angrily about how offensively she was treated, to have only the second best room, but was silenced upon viewing the splendor within her marble door.
"We have kept the rooms in a state of constant readiness for over three thousand years," the monk explained. "A hot bath has been drawn up and hot food is ready for you. The candles are fresh and the beds soft and clean."
Devony thought it a little preposterous that they should have wasted three thousand years worth of water, food and candles to keep these rooms prepared, but said nothing. She was glad to be sharing a room with Adan, for once, rather than with the suddenly subservient Mirabella, or the ever frustrating Ifirta.
When the monk opened the final door, Devony was astounded at the lushness that lay within. The room was covered in green plant life. Colorful flowers hung from the ceiling, and sprouted from all around. Against one wall was a fresco of Dioran and Araviette holding hands and looking adoringly into each others eyes. Devony stopped and stared at this painting. The resemblance of the two painted faces to Adan's and her own was surreal and slightly terrifying, like she was somehow outside of herself.
There was, indeed, a hot bath drawn in the center of the room, filled with huge, foamy bubbles. Devony walked by it and ran a finger over the water. It smelled like warm vanilla and the warm water felt so good on her fingers that she wanted very badly to get in the water immediately. The tub was huge, large enough for her to swim laps in and the surface covered in white rose petals.
"Do you wish me to leave, so you can bathe?" Adan asked.
She shook her head. "There is no need."
Smiling at him, she pulled a thin, gold plated screen between the tub, and Adan. Over the top, she could just see his face.
"It's big enough. You can even join me if you want," she said boldly, turning so he couldn't see her blush.
She stripped and entered the water quickly, feeling the heat was over her body pleasantly. Beneath the bubbles, she was sure that nothing was visible.
"I may have to take you up on that offer," Adan said quietly, rounding the screen.
She blushed again, and looked away as he took of his clothes, noticing a bar of fragrant soap beside her. Trying to distract herself from his, now naked presence, as he climbed into the tub, she wetted the soap and began to her arms and neck. Painfully aware that he was watching her, she stopped at the shoulders and set the bar down.
"I didn't think very well of the monks at first," she said, to break the loaded silence. "But, you must admit the hospitality is fantastic. Imagine keeping a vat containing this much water hot for three-thousand years! The bubbles are fresh, and everything!"
He laughed, not at all fooled by her babble.
"Do I make you uncomfortable?" he asked directly.
She shrugged, and blushed.
"You shouldn't make me feel uncomfortable at all! But, you do, sitting across from me and just looking at me like that."
"Would you rather I came closer?" he asked, still smiling.
As she blushed furiously, Devony had the strange desire to sink under the bubbles and not resurface until Adan had gone.
"I… I… yes… I mean, no… I don't know!"
He leaned back and didn't move. "I love you, Devony."
She laughed, suddenly at the absurdity of the scene. "I love you."
So, doing the only logical thing, she glided through the deep water and, drawing herself close to him, she kissed him deeply on the lips.
This time, her head did not go underwater, but when the broke apart she was just as dizzy and breathless as that first water kiss. She was painfully aware that she was straddling his lap and that a certain part of his anatomy was reacting to this compromising position. They were coming dangerously near breaking their agreement to wait until the closing of the circle.
"We won't… I promise," he said, sensing her nervousness.
She shifted slightly and gasped at the pleasure of his body against hers and pulled away, swimming back to her side of the tub, flustered and not really wanting to leave his side. Following behind her, Adan placed a hand on her bare back. With the soap in one hand, he washed her slowly, noticing the way her breathing grew labored. Devony let out a little moan as Adan reached her lower back. Using only his hands, he rubbed the soap into her skin, moving around her hips to the front of her body, massaging her hips, and moving upward to the level of her breasts. She leaned back against his chest to steady herself. His hands moved lower, past her stomach and into a place that made her gasp, kissing the back of her neck and her shoulders as he moved downward.
Half-an-hour later she lay wrapped in a thick robe, resting on the soft bed with her head against Adan's bare chest. Absentmindedly, he stroked her wet hair.
"That was amazing," she murmured. "We should do that more often…"
"Mmm," he answered in agreement.
Exhaustion slipped over her and Devony fell into a deep and peaceful sleep.
The morning came early. Adan woke her with a gentle kiss on the forehead.
"It's time to leave, my love," he whispered.
She moaned slightly and opened her eyes, the previous night flooding back. "I can't wait until the wedding, Dioran!" she complained quietly.
He laughed. "We're waiting. Last night was just a preview, Araviette."
"Don't call me that name."
"You called me Dioran this morning… and last night."
"It's not. Araviette is your name. Dioran is mine. But you were right to call me that. We should begin to use our true names, the day is fast approaching that they will be our only names."
She shivered. "Why can't time just hold still?"
"I thought you couldn't wait until the wedding night."
She blushed, again, and punched him in the arm. "You know what I meant. Don't twist my words."
Once Devony could be persuaded to get out of bed, they dressed quickly, and she pulled her tangled curls into a sloppy up-do. Reluctant to leave her peaceful haven, she sighed loudly before entering the hall to meet her other, more troublesome companions. The thought of trying to figure out Mirabella's strange change of heart made her feel sick. Something was very wrong with the way that the dancer had been acting. Devony wanted her old, slightly sadistic and oftentimes cruel, friend back.
The monks sent the travelers off with fine horses and gifts. Devony never had thought she would enjoy riding a horse, but after so many days on foot, it was quite a relief to be carried once again. She even opted to ride without a saddle, as she had gotten used to it in the past and it really felt quite comfortable.
With equine aid, the pace increased dramatically. Devony's urge to make haste was even stronger than the night before.
"Do you feel it?" she asked Adan.
He nodded. "The Hall of the Ancients calls. We are very close, only days away."
"Where first?" Kasand asked.
Adan answered him quickly. "Tomorrow we shall enter the realm of the wise animals, the forest of Advadru. That will be our final layover en route to our destination. The Closing of the Circle approaches. We must make haste."
They rode fast through the morning. Devony rode at the front of the group, urging her horse onward. She was filled with an urgent desire to speed toward her fate, and yet, part of her wished to postpone it. Another part of her wanted very much to avoid encounters with both Mirabella and with Ifirta. Adan's presence, too, tended to throw her into fits of stupor, and so she tried to escape him as well, hoping to find a little peace.
When they stopped for lunch, she deserted the group, finding a quiet spot to sit and eat. She was halfway through her lunch when she heard someone approaching. Severely disappointed, she turned and saw, to her surprise, Thaven walking toward her.
The thief sat beside her with only a brief nod in greeting.
"Have you come to teach me more of the secret hand language?" she asked in a playful voice, relieved at having such uncomplicated company. Her relationship with Thaven seemed to be one simple constant in her crazy existence.
"No," he answered tersely. "I have come to ask you what you have done to Mirabella?"
Groaning with disappointment, she collapsed onto her back in the grass. Even the thief had been corrupted with a need to complicate things.
"Oh, nothing. Really, I don't know! We were fighting, with daggers, and I stabbed her. Then, as she was about to die, I healed her. She wasn't too pleased, so I left her. Apparently she had some divine vision in which Aravena apprehended her, and now… Well, you have seen her."
Thaven shrugged. "Yeah, I have. Well, fix her!"
"How do you suggest I do that?" she replied, somewhat defensively.
"I don't know. You are the Ancient. Just use some of your gifts of the Atirin or hit her in the head with a rock or even just talk to her; just do something!"
"Do you think I haven't tried to get through to her? Every time I try, she just gets upset that she is not pleasing me and actually gets worse! Nothing I do helps," Devony hissed, irritated that he was blaming her for the dancer's strange behavior.
"Or," Thaven growled, "Maybe, you just like the attention. She's willing to do your bidding, isn't that just what you want?"
"How dare you?" Devony asked, offended. "I do not want a delusional servant to stumble around after me, always calling me ridiculous names! Do you really think I am that conceited and self-centered? You are the one who is a slimy thief! Go away, if you are just going to insult me."
"Wait, I apologize. I do not believe you so horrible as that. Please, I just feel as if someone I liked very much has died, or regressed, or disappeared and left some blubbering imbecile in her place. Please, Araviette…"
"Don't call me that!" she shouted.
"Devony, just help me figure out how to get her back."
She looked at him carefully, detecting something unexpected in his dejected expression.
"Thaven, you really like Mirabella!" she exclaimed.
He looked away from her quickly and proceeded to examine his fingernails with an intensely absorbed level of interest.
"Perhaps," he said noncommittally. "But, as she was. I have no love for your sniveling admirer."
"Love?" Devony asked, incredulous.
"I never said that!"
Glancing at him slyly, she smiled and then laughed. Seeing his embarrassment, she kissed him on the cheek affectionately, and then burst into wild laughter.
"Is that really necessary?" he asked, furious.
"Yes! You love Mirabella! Mirabella, who cut me with a dull knife, who burnt me on a daily basis, who draws daggers at you when you even talk to her! Does she even know?"
He shrugged. "She might have an idea of it, I suppose."
Devony quieted her laughter, understanding that the dancer had no idea of the thief's affection and also that the thief was quite aware of it.
"She has no clue. Oh, Thaven! That is so sweet. Once you get past her cold exterior, and her daggers, sharp and dull, I know that she will feel the same way. She understands these things. I mean, she practically threw me at Dioran. Somewhere within her there must be a capacity for romance. You should tell her, right away!"
"And what would that do?" he said. "She isn't exactly in her right mind. Are you sure you didn't addle her brains when you stabbed her with the dagger?"
Unfortunately, they had no more time to discuss the situation, because of the approach of Kasand, who advised them that the rest of the party was preparing to depart. Devony promised Thaven to help him think of a way to revive the dancer, hoping desperately to further Thaven's happiness, and to regain her friend.
With this goal in mind, she summoned the courage to approach Mirabella. Despite her best attempts, the dancer persisted in her annoying adoration, and Devony made absolutely no progress at convincing her to act otherwise. The girl seemed completely devoid of her former personality. It really was as if she had regressed into someone completely ridiculous and very annoying.
Baffled, Devony sped her horse once again and maintained pace with Thaven who was proving to be a very good companion. She confided in him her sadness at not being able to train as a dancer, and her worry about her role as an ancient. He listened more than he spoke, and she found him a refreshing change from Adan, who always had advice to dispense. She loved Adan, but desperately needed another friend to confide in who wouldn't turn everything into a reason to improve her education.
When they ran out of material for conversation Thaven renewed his lessons in the secret hand language, and Devony was eager to learn. She was at the point of being capable of basic communications with the language, but was far from being skilled. Luckily, languages had always come very naturally to her, and she absorbed the signs quickly, learning many new words. The two tried to converse while galloping their horses, which was more difficult that Devony would have guessed. By the end of the night, they had nearly perfected the language on horseback, which Thaven assured her was a rare skill.
They camped that night under a grove of leafy orange trees. Devony tolerated Mirabella's annoying pleas to let her serve, and even managed to block out Ifirta's furious fits. She kissed Adan only once, quite tamely, before falling asleep instantly.
In the morning, she was quite distracted from all personal drama, as Adan announced that they were about to enter the realm of the wise beasts, in the infamous forest of Advadru.