To begin at the beginning, click on Prologue in the Table of Contents, then on Chapter One, etc.


Queen Juliana absently rubbed at the salt cellar for several moments before turning her troubled blue eyes to her son. “Taraval, your father and I have made a decision. When you come back from Trent, we want you to prepare to make another trip – to Tarnower.”

Taraval nodded, feeling puzzled. The kingdom of Tarnower, a day’s journey down the mountain to the east, was much wealthier than Ilahee, for it was in a valley far more fertile than Ilahee’s arid and rocky heights. Years ago, a former king of Tarnower had courted favor in Ilahee in its more prosperous days. When the tandaril trees died, Ilahee had fallen from grace with Tarnower. Now Tarnovian royalty – King Constantine, his queen, Alicia, and the haughty Princess Gretchen – merely stopped in Ilahee for a convenient overnight stay several times a year, on their way to someplace more important. To them, Ilahee was no more than a wayside inn. Were his parents sending him to beg money or provisions from the imperious King Constantine?

Queen Juliana looked at her son beseechingly, as if hoping he would take up the thread of her thoughts and spare her the task of stating them. But he continued to stand mute before her, looking perplexed.

“Taraval,” she blurted. “Why are you pretending you don’t know what I’m talking about? It would be a very appropriate match. She’s a pretty enough girl. And it would mean that no one in Ilahee would starve, or have to wonder ever again whether they would make it through a hard winter.”

'The facts of his parents’ scheme suddenly exploded in Taraval’s mind. They expected him to marry Gretchen, that simpering girl who smiled at him in front of her parents and then, behind their backs, laughed at him and called him “Rag-Tag, Prince of Patches” because his clothes were worn and mended.

“Oh, surely not that, Mother!” he cried. “Anything but that! I despise her!” He shuddered at the mere thought of touching that insolent, sneering girl. The firm set of his mother’s chin showed him that the intensity of his reaction hadn’t fazed her, so he tried another approach. “She feels the same about me, too,” he said vehemently. “What makes you think she would marry me even if I agreed to it?”

“It has to be, Taraval,” said his mother, ignoring his outburst, “because Tarnower is the only nearby kingdom wealthy enough to do us any good.” She looked down at her work then and asaw that she had been buffing the same part of the salt cellar ever since Taraval had com ein, so she pushed it away and looked him in the eye. “It’s not as if we’re expecting you to marry her instantly, you know. We’re sending you there to court her. Once the two of you have a chance to know each other better, perhaps you will come to like each other.” Her eyes reflected her reluctance to ask him to do something so obviously distasteful, but her voice was firm. “I’m sorry, but you must make the effort, Taraval. You’re the prince and it’s your duty. For Ilahee.”

It seemed to Taraval that the walls of the small room were closing in on him. For the first time in his life, he felt as if his parents were his enemies, and that he must use every bit of logic and cunning he could muster to save himself from their hideous plan. He paced back and forth the length of the table, a scowl on his face, then stopped dead still and exclaimed, “Even supposing I could overcome her disdain for me – and mine for her – why would her parents consent to the marriage? They would never be willing to send her here to be queen of a dying kingdom. The only condition I can even imagine them accepting would be that Tarnower take over Ilahee, and then Father would have to give up his throne.”

The queen spoke very softly. “Your father knows that, Taraval. That will be his sacrifice, and it must be yours as well. It’s for our people.”

Taraval stood silent as the full meaning of his mother’s words struck him like a blow. Two such devastating pronouncements in so short a time were almost too much to bear. He looked at the ring his sister had returned to him and then thrust it back onto his finger. Why did his mother still value the ring, he thought bitterly, if Ilahee was to be swallowed up by Tarnower?

“What about the tapestry, Mother? Are you going to send that to Trent to be sold, too?” He spoke angrily, a bitter challenge in his voice.

“Never!” the queen exclaimed. “It’s all we have left of Orchis, and it means far more to the people of Ilahee than the money it would bring.”

Furious, Taraval held up his hand with the ring gleaming on it. “It’s like the ring, isn’t it, Mother? Some things are important enough to starve for, if we have to. Well, the people of Ilahee are important, but what about the kingdom itself. It’s been here far longer than the tandaril trees or the tapestry.” Taraval paused to catch his breath, then made a point he hoped would sway her. “The kigns of Ilahee have always taken good care of their people, but we don’t know how Constantine would treat them.”

His mother looked at him sadly, but Taraval could see that her determination hadn’t wavered. He pressed his fists into the tabletop and leaned toward her beseechingly, speaking quietly now. “If I do what you’re asking me to do, Mother, there won’t be any more Ilahee, and we can’t just give it away! You refuse to sell the tapestry, and I refuse to marry Gretchen, and it’s all for the same reason.”

Queen Juliana stood up to confront her son, her face contorted with emotion. “But you must do this, Taraval,” she said, her voice breaking. “For if you do not, what is to become of us all?”

“I don’t know, Mother,” Taraval said, turning toward the door. “But I’ll die for Ilahee sooner than I’ll marry Gretchen of Tarnower!” And he strode out, banging the door shut behind him.


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