BOOK 11 DESTINY'S DESIGN
Zan, with his right hand Rath, had been touring the regional seats for over six months, meeting the Governors and aristocracy in each province. They had visited nine of the ten provinces, holding council and addressing the problems and concerns of each area. Zan, finally out from under his father's heavy hand, had begun to discover himself and had become more confident and sure. He felt at ease with the people that he would one-day rule, and began to think of the Kingship as an honor and not a distasteful duty.
He and Rath made an excellent team, each complimenting the other's strengths and weaknesses. They had grown closer than ever and Zan resolved to appoint Rath to the permanent position as his second in command when they returned to the palace. It would mean a promotion, making Rath a General. It was a prestigious position for someone so young, but Rath had earned it.
The tour had also allowed Zan to become acquainted with the common people. At the palace he'd had no interaction with them, but without his father to keep them away, Zan had discovered their plight. The people had no representation in the government and their problems often went unheard. The aristocracy claimed to represent their interests but he had seen people with not enough to eat, people who lived in hovels, and people who were unfairly, even cruelly treated by the noblemen who where supposed to care for them. Surely his father could not know of the injustices or he would work to change them. Zan vowed to make the problems known to his father immediately upon his return.
Rath drew Zan's attention back to the present by reminding him that they would arrive in the final province of Telos in a matter of minutes. Zan checked his notes. The province had been stewarded by distant relatives of the Tageonants, the Telnada family for generations. The current administrator was the Royal Governor, Duke Hortos Telnada.
The Governor was awaiting their arrival and rushed to greet them as they stepped off the transport. "Welcome to my humble manor, your Highness," he addressed Zan with a deep formal bow. "I am Duke Hortos Telnada, Governor of Telos. Your presence honors my house."
"It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Sir." Zan answered. "I am looking forward to knowing you better."
"Thank you, your Highness."
Zan indicated Rath who was standing next to him. "Governor Telnada this is Sir Alarath Varros, first son and heir of Duke Varros," he introduced Rath using his formal title.
"Sir Varros, it is a pleasure to meet you," the Governor said with a formal bow. "I was at school with your father for a time."
Rath gave a short bow. "Thank you for inviting us into your home, Sir."
The Governor beamed with pleasure. "You must be weary from your journey, please allow my man to show you to your rooms. Dinner will be served in two hours and afterward I have arranged a ball to welcome you."
"We look forward to it, Sir," Zan automatically replied.
Rath waited until they were out of the Governor's hearing. "I can't believe there is another ball," he said rolling his eyes. "How many of these things can we attend? It's all your fault, you know," he teased, punching Zan on the arm.
"Yeah, every one of these nobles wants to trot out their daughters for your inspection, hoping that you will choose one of them to be the future Queen."
"I don't know," said Zan thoughtfully. "Maybe some of them are hoping to catch the eye of a future Duke."
"Yeah," Rath snorted, "and maybe the sea will turn blue."
The dinner, according to custom, was only attended by the men. They talked mostly politics, some seeking solutions to problems and others just wanting to be recognized by the crown. Zan was impressed by the Governor's quick wit and grasp of complex situations. The Governorship was passed down through the family line and many were ineffectual bureaucrats but Governor Telnada was a good administrator.
After dinner, the men went into the formal ballroom and introductions were made to the Prince, starting with the lesser noblemen. Zan listened attentively and tried to remember as many of the names as possible, even the silly giggling girls who were presented to him. He knew he would have to dance with a few of them before the night was over or everyone would be disappointed.
Zan was just introducing a blonde beauty to Rath when a flash of blue drew his attention to the opposite door. Entering the room was the most beautiful girl he had ever seen. She was small of frame, almost delicate, with long, rich brown hair, and she glided across the floor in a deep blue gown with the grace of a dancer. Zan couldn't take his eyes off of her. She walked to a woman near the dais and Zan noted that she was in the line to be introduced to him.
He scarcely heard the names of the people to whom he was introduced afterward because his senses were full of her. He waited impatiently for her to come to him and it seemed an eternity, the time drawing slower and slower as she approached. Finally she, and a woman he took to be her mother, were before him.
The Governor continued with the introductions. "And finally your Highness, may I present my wife, the Duchess Celyn Telnada and my daughter Lady Avalynd," he said, indicating them with a sweep of his hand. "My dears, this is his Highness, Prince Zantor Tageonant."
Zan greeted the Duchess formally and turned to her daughter, and from the first moment Avalynd's beautiful, dark eyes met his, Zan knew he was in love.
Vilondra arrived at Khivar's mansion as planned. She was using Chanya as a cover, as she had done so many times before, telling her father they were attending a party. The two of them would leave the palace and part company, Chanya would attend the party, using her powers to make sure that people remembered seeing the Princess there, while Vilondra met Khivar. Afterward they would meet again and return to the palace together.
Vilondra was shown into Khivar's sitting room, but the smile she had for her lover died on her lips when she saw who was there instead. She recovered quickly but not before he had seen her reaction. General Nicaron had disturbed her from the first time they had been introduced. Khivar's right hand, stood to one side of the room and arrogantly allowed his eyes to roam over her. His behavior was always proper but she had the feeling he was thinking improper things about her.
Calles Nicaron was very handsome and young to be in such a responsible position and there were many rumors about him at court. It was said that he was very powerful and ruthless, and those attributes had helped him rise quickly through the ranks. Many of Vilondra's friends were enraptured with his rugged face and dark piercing eyes, but Vilondra had been wary of him from their first meeting. In his handsome face she saw a hard ruthlessness and in his direct gaze she saw cruelty, emptiness and death.
"General Nicaron," she said with more bravado than she felt, "how nice to see you."
"It is always a pleasure to see you Princess," he said, his eyes holding hers, his voice softer and more intimate than it should have been.
"I am meeting Khivar," she said, using his Lord's name to remind him of his place.
"Yes," he said, moving deliberately closer to her with every word. "Khivar asked me to tell you that he has been delayed, but will join you as soon as possible." He stopped only inches from her. "Would you care for a refreshment while you wait."
She took a step back and then cursed herself for letting the man disturb her. "No, thank you."
"Very well," he said with a knowing smile. "I have duties to which I must attend. Simply ring for a servant if you," he paused, placing emphasis on the word, "desire... anything."
Vilondra's reaction to his parting words brought a chuckle to Nicaron's lips. She had looked almost shocked, but he knew better. She was an excellent actress and she knew how to play the game to keep a man interested.
Nicaron was considered a ladies-man and he could boast of having almost any woman that he desired. Almost. But the one woman he desired the most was sitting in another room waiting the arrival of his master. Vilondra, Princess of Antar, the most beautiful jewel in the King's possession, it had often been remarked. Many men desired her and according to the court gossip many men had partaken of her offered charms.
Khivar thought he loved Vilondra and perhaps he did. Nicaron had always considered it a wasted emotion. And it was only because of his master that he did not actively pursue Vilondra himself. But she did desire him, of that he was sure. He had caught her looking at him sometimes and he had promised himself that she would be his when Khivar had finished with her. But for now he would have to satisfy himself with playing the game.
Khivar strode into the entryway and Nicaron greeted him. "Sir, your father is on his deathbed. He is growing weaker by the day and will be dead in a matter of weeks. The doctor you requested has been attending him and it is too late for an antidote. He will die."
"Excellent," said Khivar with a satisfied smile. "Allow no one but his servant to see him and all orders are to go through me. Proceed with the plan and let me know immediately when he is dead."
Zan used excuse after excuse to lengthen his stay in Telos and he and Rath had been there for over a month. In that time he had fallen so deeply in love with Ava that he could not imagine being parted from her. Zan would have simply have married Ava and faced his parent's wrath in cheating them out of a public ceremony but she was not yet of age to marry according to Antarian tradition.
At first her youth had caused him to proceed cautiously, but she was wise beyond her years from extensive study and social interaction and wasn't frightened by him in the least. From their first meeting she had treated him like a friend and without the formality that was the custom for someone of his rank. They spent as much time as possible together, just content to be in one another’s company, not able to get enough of each other. As they became acquainted, they discovered similarities on almost every topic, and the more Zan discovered about Ava the more deeply he loved her.
Ava was an only child and could have been petulant and spoiled, but Zan discovered that she was kind and generous to everyone she met. She was intelligent, with a quick wit and vivacity and would laughingly argue her opinion on everything from Art to Politics. And most importantly, she loved him in return, with all of her heart.
The connection between them had grown so gradually that at first neither of them had noticed it. Each could sense the other's moods and emotions but it had been dismissed by both of them because they knew one another so well. But as they spent more time together it had become evident that their connection ran much deeper. Even though they had not been intimate, they could not only feel one another's feelings but also speak in one another's minds. They knew such connections were rare but it seemed so natural to both of them to be linked in that way that it didn't surprise either of them. They both thought it was as it should be. It was simply an extension of their love for one another.
The King had been insisting for more than a week that Zan return home, and after dinner that evening Zan received a message ordering him to leave for Tageonon at daybreak. Zan didn't want to be parted from Ava but he could not ignore a direct command from his father and King. Zan arranged for his belongings to be packed and went in search of the Ava, not wanting leave without having things settled between them.
He found Ava in her suite of rooms. "I know it's late but I need to speak with you."
Ava allowed him into her sitting room. She had felt his unease and had been expecting him. "You're upset. What is wrong?"
"My father has ordered me to return to the palace and I must leave at first light." Zan took her hand and pressed it to his mouth. "Ava, you know I don't want to leave you but I must."
She nodded stoically, attempting to keep her sudden tears at bay.
"Before I leave though I wanted to make sure you know how I feel. I wanted you to know I love you, have always loved you, will always love you."
Ava smiled. "I know. I can feel your love surrounding me, Zan. I could never doubt it."
"Yes, but I want to make it official," he said, kneeling with both of her hands grasped in his. "I know it's not in the formal manner and I'm not properly prepared, but I love you with all of my heart and soul and I never want to be parted from you. Lady Avalynd Telnada will you consent to be my bride?"
"Oh yes Zan," she exclaimed, her eyes overflowing with tears of happiness. "I love you so much, I will count the minutes until we are united."
Zan leapt up, grasped her by the waist and twirled them around before lowering her to the floor, laughing with joy. "Ava you have made me so happy I want to shout it out of your window. I am marrying the most sweet, beautiful woman on Antar."
"And I am marrying the most handsome, wonderful man."
"I don't have a proper ring to give you now but will you accept my signet? It is too large to wear on your delicate hands, I could make it smaller or perhaps you would prefer to wear it on a chain around your neck."
"I will proudly wear it on the correct finger to let the world know I belong with you."
Zan placed the signet solemnly on her finger and with a wave of his hand, sized it to fit. He lifted her hand to his mouth and sealed the ring and his promise with a kiss.
With tears streaming down her cheeks, she lifted her face to his. "I love you with everything I am."
Zan cupped her face in his hands and gently kissed the tears from her cheeks. "I will ask my father to issue an invitation to your parents to visit the palace, immediately upon my return. I must formally request your hand, and even though we have to wait a year until you are of age, my family will want to become acquainted with my future wife as soon as possible."
"What if they don't approve of me?" she asked, suddenly fearful.
Zan shook his head. "It doesn't matter. I love you. I will marry you."
"But your family . . "
He cut her off by placing his finger against her mouth. "My family will love you too."
Zan pulled her gently to him and replaced his finger with his lips, drinking in her essence, and their connection immediately opened. They held nothing back from one another and Zan pulled her closer wanting to memorize her intoxicating taste and sweet smell as if he would never see her again. He could feel her love pouring through the connection and sent back all of the emotions running through him.
After a moment, he reluctantly ended the kiss. "I love you and we will be together soon."
"I love you too Zan."
(King's conference room)
"Zan I called you home because there has been unrest on the border again." The King slammed his fist onto the table. "I don't know what the Duke is planning but we need to put a stop to it immediately. It's as if he wants to start a war." He looked at Zan across the table. "I have summoned the Duke's son Khivar here this evening. Perhaps he can shed some light on his father's motives and then we will decide on a course of action."
"Yes I agree we must get control of this situation quickly. It could easily escalate into a war and the loss of innocents."
The King looked at his son with pride. "Zan, I have never heard you speak so decisively. Your time away seems to have agreed with you."
"Yes father. I learned a great deal about myself and the duties of a leader." Zan paused and smiled. "I have also met the woman I intend to marry."
His father was thunderstruck and Zan couldn't help but laugh, he had never seen his father look so surprised. "Perhaps father, you thought I would never marry?" he teased.
"No," the King said, a smile lighting his face. "It's just so sudden." His eyes suddenly became calculated. "Who is this girl?"
"She is Governor Telnada's daughter, Avalynd."
His father nodded approvingly. "Duke Telnada is a good man, although I don't remember meeting his daughter."
"She is too young to have been presented at court, father. Ava has another year until she is of age but I wish to announce the engagement formally now."
"You love this girl?"
"With all of my heart."
"And she has agreed to marry you?"
"Yes, and I have given her my signet until I could present her with a proper token."
"Very well, I will issue an invitation to the Governor and his family to come to the palace for the betrothal."
"Thank you father."
The King rose from the table and embraced Zan. “All I have ever wanted for you Zan is your happiness."
"Khivar," the King roared, "tell me what the Duke means to accomplish with his actions!"
"Your Majesty, my father has been in poor health for years and I believe it has affected his mind. He sees enemies from all sides and believes his life is in danger. I thought he was getting well but if he has started attacking the border again I fear his condition may be deteriorating. I will return to the south immediately and convince him to stop the attacks."
"Are you sure you can accomplish this?"
"Yes, your Majesty, my father will heed my counsel."
"Khivar if you can stop the attacks without a forcing us into war I will be in your debt."
"Thank you, your Majesty," Khivar said with a formal bow.
(Roistar family palace - southern region)
Khivar arrived at his family palace just after dawn and was met by Nicaron at the door. "General, tell me the news."
"As you instructed, no one knows of your father's death except you, me, the doctor and your father's servant. The servant is being kept quiet for now with promises of riches but I will dispose of him when your father's death is formally announced. The attacks are proceeding as scheduled."
"Excellent. Announce that I have arrived and my father's health is deteriorating rapidly. Then leak the information that he will most likely be dead before sunset. Continue the attacks for another two hours and then pull the troops back to the palace. Dispose of the doctor as soon as he announces of the Duke's cause of death."
General Nicaron smiled. "As you wish, my Lord."
One month later the palace was overflowing with well-wishers for the ball celebrating the Prince's betrothal, and for once Zan was eager to attend a party.
"Is the color of my coat appropriate?" Zan asked Larek. "Perhaps I should change it."
Larek laughed. "I have never seen you worried about your attire before."
"I know," Zan sighed. "I just want the evening to be perfect."
"Relax," his friend soothed, "it will be."
"I know you're right,” Zan said. “I just want Ava to be as happy as I am."
Larek clapped his old friend on the shoulder. "Ava is beaming with happiness. Her joy illuminates her aura making it practically incandescent."
His friend's words captured Zan's attention, and for a moment he was almost jealous that Larek could see something in Ava he couldn’t. "Tell me about her aura."
"It is the purest gold, warm and welcoming like Ava herself and it shines with purity and goodness like the rays of light from the stars."
"Like she the heavenly creature she is," Zan said softly.
Larek smiled at the dreamy look on his friend's face. "It is time to go Zan and I guarantee this is one party you won't want to leave early. There is peace, you are betrothed to the woman you love and the whole kingdom is here to celebrate. What could possibly go wrong?"
Chanya watched the formal ceremony declaring Zan's betrothal with growing disgust. Ava was simply a mousy child, how had she been able to capture Zan's attention so quickly and so completely?
Chanya had planned to use her position in the palace to slowly draw Zan to her again, but he had returned from his trip with his head already full of the other girl. Chanya knew that she would have to bide her time. Zan would soon grow tired of the younger girl and she would be there when he did.
(The Palace Banquet Room)
Rath concealed himself in the shadows near the door, as he watched Zan and Ava. They were seated in a corner, holding hands and talking only to one another. It was as if they were in a world of their own, perfectly happy to just be together.
He allowed his eyes to gently trace the delicate planes and curves of Ava's face as he considered what might have been if she hadn't fallen for Zan. Then he quickly gulped down his drink as he forced himself to stop. He was only torturing himself with thoughts of her. Ava loved his best friend and Zan loved her. They were perfect together, even Rath thought so, but he still couldn't help loving her himself.
Rath grabbed another drink from a passing servant and swallowed the fiery liquid with a quick toss of his head. With a last glance at Ava, he slipped out the door and walked determinedly down the corridor toward the command center. He would never be with Ava and he was determined he wouldn't spend his life pining over her. She would be his Queen and he would serve her, and it would have to be enough. The only other thing he could do for her was keep his feelings to himself. He vowed that neither she nor Zan would ever know.
As Khivar's hands encircled her waist, Vilondra moved her body closer to his, both of them swaying to the rhythm of the music. Vilondra sighed with contentment. Since Khivar’s father had died and Khivar had stopped the attacks on the southern border, he had been in favor with her father. They had been able to bring their relationship into the public eye and rumors spread throughout the kingdom of their star-crossed romance.
As the music ended, Khivar turned to her with a formal bow. "Thank you for the dance, Princess."
She curtsied in return. "It was my pleasure, Duke Roistar."
"Would you accompany me on a turn through the gardens?"
"I would be honored, my Lord."
He took her hand in the formal manner and they walked sedately out the doors leading into the garden. And as soon as they were away from the other guests, Khivar pulled her to him for an eager, burning kiss.
"Vilondra," he breathed, reluctantly breaking away from her sweet lips. "It has been too long since we have been together."
"I know, almost a week. I had no idea that your duties as Duke would consume so much of your time."
"Not for much longer," he said, his hand caressing her face. "I have been putting together a group of administrators whom I trust to take care of the small matters and then we will have more time together." He pulled her to him for another kiss.
But they parted quickly as they heard someone approach.
Khivar spoke as if they had been in conversation. "So what do you think of your sister-to-be?"
"I really haven't spent much time with her," Vilondra said with a conversational tone. "She is young but everyone is impressed with her intelligence and beauty. Zan has also told me she has remarkable talent as an empath."
"Really?” Khivar asked. “I have never met an actual empath. How does her power manifest?"
"Apparently she can feel the emotions of those around her and she even has some pre-cognitive abilities."
Khivar was truly interested now. "She can foretell the future?"
"No," Vilondra laughed, "nothing as concrete as that, it's more fleeting, like a premonition. Sometimes she can sense that things will happen. She can usually tell if it will be good or bad but she can't tell precisely what will be."
"Interesting," he said dismissively, "but hardly useful."
"Yes, well Zan is happy and that is all that matters."
"And what about your happiness Vilondra? That matters."
"I am happy when I am with you," she said, wiggling closer to him.
Khivar smiled. "Then we will have to make it official."
"What?" she asked stunned.
Khivar cupped her face in his hand, "I mean I intend to marry you."
"Oh Khivar, I want nothing more than to be with you." Vilondra threw her arms around his neck. "When will you talk to my father?"
"I think we should wait a couple of months for propriety sake. After all, my father just died and we wouldn't want to intrude on your brother's announcement."
"Yes, you are right. We should wait. But while we are waiting, we will have to spend a lot of time together," a teasing note entered her voice, "to get my father used to us as a couple."
"That is the best idea I have heard all evening Princess," he said as he pulled her into another kiss.
Finally Zan had been able to get Ava alone. He was concerned because she had not seemed herself the entire evening and she had been shielding her feelings from him. He took her face gently in his hands, "Ava tell me what is wrong." She was not able to mask her surprise with a smile quickly enough for Zan to miss it. "Ava, you can't hide from me. I know you better than I know myself. You have been upset all evening, please tell me what it is."
When she opened her senses to him, she could feel the concern pouring off of him. She had wished to wait and tell him of her feelings tomorrow, not wanting to mar the day for either of them but it was already too late for that. "I've had this feeling all evening that something dreadful will happen soon. I don't know what it is and I have been pushing to try and learn more, but nothing is coming to me. Usually I can at least get a general idea..." she trailed off softly, suddenly introspective, "but it's just dark."
Zan gathered her shivering form into his arms. "I won't let anything happen to you."
Ava wrapped her arms around him. "I know. But it’s not me I am concerned about, it's you."
The next morning in the Council, under heightened security at Zan's insistence, the King collapsed. Zan raced to his father's side and searched for an injury but it was already too late. The healers later declared that the King had suffered from an undiagnosed genetic irregularity, causing a seizure and almost instant death.
The King was interred in the family vault, and the next day in a public but subdued ceremony, Prince Zantor Tageonant was crowned King.
The newly appointed General and the King's second, Rath, took on as many tasks as he could, but there were endless duties that required the King's attention.
For Zan, the days seemed to pass in a blur, but throughout the whole ordeal Ava was a stabilizing force at his side. Zan sometimes thought that her quiet strength and support were the only things keeping him together and moving forward.
Queen Nedra could see the calming effect Ava had on her son and suggested the wedding be moved up. It was agreed by both families, even though Ava was not of age, the wedding would take place in a month's time.
Khivar shook his head. "General, I still cannot believe our luck. The King drops dead of natural causes."
Nicaron agreed. "It is quite fortuitous. We can proceed with the plan sooner than we had hoped."
"Yes,” Khivar agreed, “put everything into motion immediately. We could be ready in a year if we are lucky. This tragedy could even work to our advantage. Zan is young and even though he was groomed from birth to take the position of King, he is bound to make mistakes. We need to watch him closely and use what we can against him. But for now, we’ll start with the next phase of the plan."
"By your command, my Lord,” Nicaron said. “And what of your marriage to the Princess? Will the boy King oppose it?"
Khivar shook his head. "Of course we will wait until after Zan has married, and then we will announce our engagement. Vilondra has assured me Zan will not interfere. He is only concerned for her happiness."
Solemn vows were spoken, tokens of love exchanged and two soul mates were blissfully united. Everyone who attended the ceremony could see the love that bound the two together. The joyous occasion was dampened somewhat by the King's recent death but it comforted Zan that his father had met Ava, grown to know and love her, and wholeheartedly welcomed her into their family.
Chanya had carefully kept her feelings about Zan and his marriage to Ava to herself and had even helped in the wedding preparations. But in unguarded moments, she cursed Ava and carefully watched her with Zan for any signs of weakness in their bond that she could exploit.
She watched them exchange vows of love and scoffed at the hypocrisy of it all. Only she loved Zan. This child whom he was marrying could not have one-tenth of the passion and devotion Chanya felt for him. But she waited, knowing Ava's spell enraptured Zan too overwhelming to alter yet. Chanya's time would come.
Unbeknownst to her, Chanya's face betrayed her every feeling, and for someone who watched her closely it was easy to tell what was on her mind. Khivar interestedly noted her reactions and carefully stored the information away.
"Senator, you have expressed your opinion on the subject more that once and I know how you stand," said Zan soothingly, "but changes in the governmental structure are needed. There are people without enough to eat, who live in hovels, and whose children are doomed to the same fate. We as the ruling class are duty bound to protect and care for all of the people, not just the wealthy."
"Yes,” the Senator said. “I agree that more could be done to enrich the lives of these unfortunates, but I don't see why we need to give them a voice in the government. They have never had it before," he argued.
Another voice was heard from the Council. "Your Majesty, we know you feel for these people, but giving them power weakens us."
"Yes," a chorus of voices agreed.
The first Senator continued, "Your Majesty, when your ancestors set up this Council they did not simply choose the most wealthy families, they choose the families who were the most psychically powerful. These people, these commoners, that you wish to allow in the Council, are just that, common. They have no psychic abilities to speak of, their bloodlines are weak. What could they possibly bring to this assembly?"
"Senators," Zan said more forcefully, letting his full authority creep into his tone, "I don't need your permission to restructure this Council. I am the King, I have the ultimate power. However," his tone softened and became more conciliatory, "I would like your cooperation. Please think about what I have said, and next month I will listen to any suggestions you have about how to smooth the transition."
Vilondra had sat in the back of the Council, listening to her brother speak. She had been in the Council many times over the years and she knew the senators did not easily accept change. And she worried what the consequences of her brother's pronouncements would be.
And later as she waited in Khivar's rooms for him, she tried to come up with a way to get her brother to back down. She knew he could be incredibly stubborn. Perhaps she could appeal to Larek. Zan had always respected his opinion, maybe he would listen to his friend's counsel.
Vilondra checked the timepiece. Khivar was late. She craved him so much that it scared her sometimes, but no matter how much they were together, it was never enough. She tentatively reached out with her mind attempting to connect with him. He was speaking with someone. She quickly pulled back, not wanting to intrude, but the words she fleetingly heard in Khivar's mind started to solidify. "Zan is playing right into our hands. Proceed with the plan."
Perhaps she had not heard correctly, she tried to rationalize, but she knew what he had said. Khivar, her lover, her love. What was he planning, and what did it have to do with her brother?
Vilondra was still trying to work it out a few minutes later when Khivar strode into the room and pulled her eagerly into his arms. She considered questioning him about what she had heard, but she knew he must have shielded it from her all of this time, and for the first time she doubted whether he would tell her the truth.
She waited until he slept and then cautiously ventured into his mind. She could see his all-consuming love for her and his desire for power, and as she lingered his plan unfolded to her. His people were creating public unrest to discredit Zan and when the time came, the army he had secretly built would attack. He would kill Zan and take the throne with her by his side.
Vilondra quickly pulled out of his mind and ran into the washroom to be sick. The man she loved more than almost anything was planning to kill her brother. If she kept the information to herself, she would have to watch her brother die, and if she told Zan of Khivar's plan, he would be executed as a traitor. She huddled, weeping on the floor, trying desperately not to wake Khivar sleeping in the next room. She would have to choose between them but she didn't know how.
Chanya took in the sight of his sleek, muscled body as he slipped into her room. Derkan was similar in appearance to Zan, the same height, same build, and same expressive eyes, but Chanya immediately started the mind-warp to give her lover the face of her beloved. "Come to me my love," she purred, "I have been waiting for you."
A deep rumbling voice answered her. "You need wait no longer."
The smile on Chanya's face faltered. The voice didn't match the form. She concentrated harder on her mind-warp, changing the timber of his voice. "Tell me you love me."
"Of course I love you Chanya," he said, as he slipped into the bed with her.
Chanya sighed. The voice was now correct. She could pretend more easily when it was. She allowed her eyes to roam over Zan's borrowed face and moved her body closer to his. "Then show me that you love me."
(Khivar's Mansion in Tageonon)
"The boy King does have some interesting ideas," Nicaron intoned blandly. "His interest in new technology is certainly a popular issue with the people, promising new jobs and a better life. And by opening the old trade routes he has increased commerce and strengthened the whole system's economy. The aristocracy certainly can't fault him for making them even wealthier."
"No they don't fault him for that," Khivar laughed. "But he has several of the more powerful families worried about their futures. He is trying to force them to give up the political power that they have fought and maneuvered to gain for generations. Zan's actions couldn't be more perfect for us. If the aristocracy were presented with another choice for leader, they would be sorely tempted to oust Zan, and with a bit more pressure they will be calling for his abdication." He suddenly became more serious and switched topics. "Tell me General, how is the training progressing?"
"I am very pleased with the results, my Lord. The recruits are eager to test their mettle."
"Excellent,” Khivar said. “They should have the opportunity in the near future."
"Zan, the uprisings are getting worse," Rath reported. "The commoners in Tothes are rioting because they have no food. Bandits raided the incoming food transports and the greedy Governor reports that he can spare no food from his stores until another transport comes."
"Send food from our stores with troops,” Zan ordered, “and distribute it directly to the people. And deliver a personal message from me. Tell them I am sorry it has come to this but soon they will have a voice in the government. I want the people to know I am working to stop these injustices."
"Every time we put down one riot another crops up in a different town," Rath noted. "It's almost as if someone were planning this."
Vilondra watched quietly as Rath made his report. She was still no closer to a decision but she knew it would have to be soon. Events were moving quickly and if she didn't act soon, the choice would be taken away from her.
Zan continued. "I don't think there is any sinister master plan behind these riots," he said dismissively. "The common people have little or no powers and it the responsibility of those of us who do to make their lives better. This Governor, along with the others, continue to betray their duty to their people."
Zan's word sliced through her heart. Betray. By not telling Zan what Khivar was planning she was betraying her brother and her family. She opened her mouth to tell Zan of Khivar's treachery but the words wouldn't come.
Her brother or her love. How could such a cruel choice be forced upon her?
(Zan and Ava's Bedchamber)
Zan pulled Ava's sleeping form closer to him and gently traced the edge of her beautiful face with his fingers. Ava, his love, his life, his soul mate, his Queen. Each day she surprised him and each day he discovered one more thing about her to love. She had embraced his plan to make life better for the common people and had wholeheartedly thrown herself into the cause, using her position and influence to set up education and medical programs. She had also convinced the noble ladies to volunteer their time and donate money to help fund them.
Zan was in awe of Ava and somehow felt that he didn't deserve her. He loved Ava so desperately, so completely and he knew he would not be able to survive if she were taken from him.
They were bound together with a connection so strong he knew they would never be parted. Since their marriage, their bond had strengthened and grown so that the connection was always there between them. They could sense each other at all times and strong emotions were automatically sent to the other. And when they concentrated on strengthening the link, they could telepathically communicate with a clarity that surpassed verbal communication, because the subtleties of their feelings and emotions were also passed through the bond.
Ava's presence always calmed Zan, no matter how terrible the events of the day, and he started taking her everywhere with him, including the typically male Council. At first her presence had been commented on as a curiosity but soon her gentle manner and soft opinions were accepted, even welcomed, and Zan grew to depend on her insights, her empathy guiding them unerringly.
Zan brushed a wayward strand of hair out of her face. Ava slept so peacefully and he envied her that. She trusted him completely and knew he would make everything work out. Zan wished he had that much confidence in himself.
He was becoming increasingly worried about the unrest among the people. Rath spent almost all of his time, away from the palace, calming one escalating situation after another. The last riot had caused the deaths of 20 people and Zan could feel their loss as if they were his own family. In a way they were. As King he was responsible for all of the people he ruled and their unhappiness was due to his failure. He determined to redouble his efforts and push through the restructuring of the Council no matter how many toes he had to step on. What were the feelings of a few senators compared with the higher good of ending hunger, poverty and death?
In the next Council session Zan would, with Ava's help, convince the senators to stop resisting. He would ensure there was peace.
It had been almost six months since the horrible night when Vilondra had discovered Khivar's plan. She had continued to see him, working hard to keep him from discovering her knowledge when they were together. She had thought they shared everything with each other, completely open and trusting. But now she knew that he was hiding a piece of himself from her, and she had been able to detect the place in his mind where he kept his plan carefully protected.
It seemed to her as if the secret between them was a dark, malignant cancer that pulsed and grew. And every time they were together, it was taking them over bit-by-bit, slowly covering the beautiful bond they shared, choking and threatening to sever it. Vilondra knew that something had to be done. The secret was intruding on her love for Khivar and the longer she waited, the worse the situation in the kingdom was becoming.
She loved Khivar and couldn't imagine betraying him to her brother, so she decided her best course of action was to confront him and try to dissuade him from his plan.
There was a risk, though. Vilondra's thoughts automatically turned to Khivar's emotionless right hand. She had no illusions about General Nicaron. If he determined her to be a threat, he would kill her without a thought. But she knew that Khivar's love for her was strong and she counted on their bond to help persuade him to spare her brother.
Vilondra went to Khivar's mansion as planned that evening and she waited until they were alone to confront him. As the doors shut behind the last servant and Khivar pulled her into her arms, she evaded his kiss and stated simply, "I know."
Khivar made no attempt at subterfuge, or protest of innocence, he simply smiled. "I knew it was only a matter of time before you discovered it, my love. With powers as great as yours, it was inevitable."
"Khivar," she attempted only to be cut off as his lips met hers.
When he pulled back, he continued, "Your father was a fool for not recognizing you for what you are. Imagine what we could accomplish together. No one, not even your formidable brother would be a match for us. We could rule the system together, side by side."
Vilondra shivered with reaction to his words. "Khivar, you can't ask me to choose between you and Zan. I can't do it. I have known what you intended for almost six months and I can't do it."
Khivar pulled her closer and placed a gentle kiss on her brow. "You have known all of this time and you never said a word to me or your brother?"
"No, I couldn't betray either of you, so I have done nothing."
"But you came here tonight, having made a decision."
"Yes. I came to ask you, beg you to spare Zan."
Khivar looked at her for a long time before answering. "I would grant you almost anything you ask, but unfortunately your brother is between me and the one thing I wish to obtain, the throne."
Khivar's words deflated her hopes for a peaceful solution. "But you could force him to abdicate. He never really wanted to be King. He..."
Khivar's face reflected his resolution. "Poor Vilondra," he said softly, cupping her face, "you know it would never work. The throne will be mine and there is nothing that will save your brother."
Vilondra stepped away from him, distancing herself physically as she was not yet able to do emotionally. "I c-can't just let you kill him. I will fight you."
Khivar nodded. "Fight me if you must, but know this, we belong together, we are one, and no matter what you do that will never change." He continued arrogantly, "In the end your brother will die and you will return to me."
"I have to try," she said stubbornly.
Khivar smiled. "My lovely Vilondra, I would expect nothing less from you. But for tonight let's end this discussion. It may be the last night we have together for some time, and I wish to spend it in more pleasant pursuits. Tonight I will be completely open with you and who knows, perhaps I will change your mind." He laughed as she tried unsuccessfully to evade his arms.
"Khivar, this won't change anything," she gasped as he kissed her throat.
"Or perhaps," he purred, "you will persuade me."