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Authors: Marilyn Haddrill

Ten Crescent Moons (Moonquest) (3 page)

BOOK: Ten Crescent Moons (Moonquest)
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"No,"
Adalginza said. "It was a disease. From the water we drank along the trail
during our move here."

"Parasites,"
Redolo said sadly. "If only the Fifth House believed more in scholars. You
could have prevented the tragedy."

"Now, Mother.
You do not know that as truth," Kalos scolded.

"Of
course it's true."

Kalos shook
his head. "I will not argue. I am too tired. Besides, this poor lady has
been trying to state her business for quite some time. Lady Adalginza. Please.
Proceed. Be assured that this time we are prepared to listen."

At last.

Adalginza
turned to Bruna, and gestured for her to bring forth from a nearby cart the
ceramic tray with its contents protected under a thin, sratskin wrapping.

Bruna played
her role perfectly, stepping forward subserviently as she removed the wrapping
to display an array of tiny caps each filled with the liquid of a variety of
sweet berries. Thin wafers made of grain and sweets were ceremoniously stacked
in patterns.

Bruna moved
into the center of the circle, keeping her eyes downcast as she held forth the
tray.

Only Zartos
regarded the offerings with the proper enthusiasm. His eyes lit up hungrily,
but he held back for a signal from the adults. Unfortunately, both Redolo and
Kalos looked openly pained.

"I see,"
Kalos responded, without interest. "The Ceremony of Welcoming. I suppose
this means tonight?"

"Of
course," Adalginza said, trying to hide her dismay.

"We don't
have to eat or drink her offerings, which will commit us," Redolo pointed
out. "Then we can enjoy our new abode instead. Unpack. Rest."

"Mother.
Please. You are again being rude to the lady, who has gone to such trouble."

"Oh, I
see now. My son's eyes are on the woman, not on her offerings."

In their
bantering, both mother and son failed to notice that Adalginza was blushing.

"Not
entirely so," Kalos replied. "The lady is no mental match for me. She
is from a House that keeps their women chained to ignorance."

Kalos
suddenly seemed to remember that Adalginza was listening, and hastily turned to
face her.

"With
my apologies, of course. Your beauty is beyond reproach. Then again, I would
expect no less from the House of the Fifth Crescent. Consider yourself honored
by my compliment."

"You
refuse the offering?" Adalginza asked, amazed.

"That
is our right," Kalos said reasonably.

"But — "

"Yes, I
know. By the refusal of First Offering, we cannot meet again socially. Except
by accident. My loss, I'm sure. But, dear lovely lady, I am certain that in
this frontier you have many offerings from many knights. Like my mother, I am
shocked that you are not yet taken."

"There
are no other unescorted ladies of knights in Sola Re," Adalginza argued
lamely.

"So
much more the loss," Kalos said. He allowed himself a moment to regard her
as she had expected from the first sight of him. As a man in want of a woman. "Indigo
eyes. Such a rare delight."

"Kalos,
guard your loins," his mother interrupted sharply. "Need I remind you
that you are almost betrothed? Besides, I am eager to see our new dwelling. Let
us proceed."

The three of
them muttered the formal, ritualistic goodbyes and then turned to walk back to
their wagons and mounts.

Adalginza was
left not knowing what else to do.

She stared
helplessly at Bruna, who kept her head bent over the tray of neglected
offerings. Only the tight working of her jaw betrayed her silent anger.

If Adalginza
was unable to attract the attention of the new captain of knights even in a
first meeting, then her purpose in Sola Re was now abruptly ended.

The mission
was over.

Many seasons
of planning had gone into the foundation of these plans. How would Adalginza be
able to explain such failure to her beloved brother, Benfaaro? Or to her
people?

"We
must kill this new captain," Bruna whispered, barely moving her lips. "Start
anew."

"Another
death of a captain? This would bring great suspicion."

"Then
the Sola Re Revolt must start sooner than planned. Before this man has a chance
to assert his leadership. He is dangerous, this one. Much more so than the
last."

"He is
at that." Adalginza's words carried unexpected admiration.

Captain
Kalos was a worthy foe, but one who must inevitably die. Along with his family
and all of royal blood among the Crescent Houses.

The head
of the snake must be cut first so that the rest of its body writhed helplessly.

Adalginza's
mind was churning, looking for answers, when at that moment a delegation of
three men and two women approached from the boardwalk across the street.

They were
adorned in the formal dress of town patrons, with multi-colored sashes declaring
the office each one held. They chattered excitedly among themselves.

Most
significantly, the man in front wore the designation of town leader.

Three female
slaves, each wearing snakeskins and bearing trays of food and drink, followed
behind them. Kalos, Redolo, and Zartos froze, all of them exchanging worried glances.

"See
what's coming?" Kalos said in a low aside to his mother. "And they
are bringing trays of offerings for First Welcome."

"We
cannot refuse a First Offering from the town patrons," Redolo groaned. "They
are your employers."

"But
look at all the food!" Zartos observed, with relish.

Kalos
ignored him, continuing to direct his remarks to Redolo. "The town leader.
Look at his sash. He is from the House of the Second Crescent."

"Dreary
bores. All of them," she replied. "We will be at his mercy until the
next morn. I cannot endure the thought."

Adalginza
quickly stepped to Bruna's side, and took her arm in a silent signal to follow
with the tray.

Then the
lady of the Fifth House moved slyly to the captain's side. "If you accept
my offering right now, sir, then you will be bound to refuse theirs."

"Excellent
observation," Kalos said. He turned to his mother. "Shall we?"

In the sight
of the approaching town delegation, the three newcomers reached for the caps of
juice and began munching the wafers.

Adalginza
joined them, barely noticing the sweet red substance that tickled her tongue.

The taste of
victory was sweeter by far.

 

2

 

Adalginza
donned a plain, fiber coverall to help Bruna with a last-minute, frantic
cleansing of the abode to make it more presentable for guests.

She took one
last swipe at a fingerprint-smudged metal vase, then raced up the stone
stairway to the second level sleep room. There, Bruna drew Adalginza's bath and
helped her scrub clean her long locks of glistening black hair.

"Why
was there not better intelligence about Captain Kalos and his preferences?"
Adalginza demanded. "If I had known more about him, we would have done
this differently. I could have posed as a member of a different Crescent House.
I could have been a woman he would respect."

She stepped,
dripping and naked, from the silver oval basin into the thick cloth wrap that
Bruna held ready for her.

"No
one expected the new captain of the knights to be from the House of the Ninth
Crescent Moon," Bruna replied sullenly. "Dry your hair, and I will
braid it for you. Hurry. There is not much time left before the welcoming meal
begins."

"I
have never met anyone from the Ninth House before." Adalgniza furiously
ran the cloth through her hair. "I know nothing about these people. Tell
me. Why are they so ill-mannered?"

Bruna
shrugged. "They are mainly scholars. This is all I know."

"Then why
are these people in the frontier? It is dangerous for them here."

"I
don't know. Our spies have never mentioned any prominent officers of the
Knights of the Crescent Sword originating from the Ninth House."

"It is
most distressing to lack adequate information." Adalginza sat on a wooden
stool, and winced as Bruna began yanking on her hair. "This plan was ill
conceived."

 "It
was
my
plan, and I saw no reason to send spies to the Ninth House,"
Bruna answered defensively. "Warrior leaders from the Prime Continent are
almost always from the Fifth House. This is why we chose this identity for you.
Besides, the captain originally designated for this post in Sola Re was from
the Fifth House. Plans must have changed."

"Then why
did we not know of this change in plans?" Adalginza demanded.

"You
heard what Captain Kalos said. He requested this assignment, and so he was sent
instead. It happened without our knowledge."

"Most
infuriating. Ow!" Adalginza grabbed Bruna's hand briefly to halt her rough
braiding. "Gentle now."

"Had
Captain Kalos been from the Fifth House, you would have instantly been claimed
as a prize and bedded by now," Bruna muttered. "Captain Kalos should
have claimed you anyway, no matter what House he was from."

"It is
not my fault!" Adalginza now was the one who sounded defensive. As well as
childish. "You saw what happened. I had to force him to accept my
invitation. So now what do I do?"

Bruna went
silent for a moment, before speaking thoughtfully.

"He is about
to be betrothed, but not yet bonded to a woman. I do know this much. With men
of the Ninth House, bonding is usually permanent. Not betrothal, though. So you
still have a chance."

"Maybe.
But this captain is different. He seems a — man of his word."

"No
Knight of the Crescent Sword can possibly be a man of his word."

From the
nearby dressing table, Bruna selected a translucent purple bottle with an
attached spray. She aimed it like a weapon in Adalginza's direction, and held
down her forefinger.

A powerful,
musky mist doused Adalginza, who responded with a choking cough.

"Are
you trying to kill me?"

"The
musk scent is irresistible."

"Nevertheless,
dear Bruna, the captain seems ever so capable of resisting me."

Adalginza
tried to keep the hurt from her voice, as she pulled a silken purple wrap gown
around her and tied it under her slender left shoulder.

"Perhaps
it is simply you he detests," Bruna said mockingly.

"No. Kalos
clearly dislikes women of the Fifth House."

"Does
it bother you then that your beauty has so little effect on this one?"

Adalginza
glanced up sharply, catching Bruna's smirk in the reflection of the dressing
table mirror.

"Do not
be so anxious for me to fail. For if I fail, Benfaaro fails. Surely this cannot
give you pleasure."

Bruna
merely lifted her thin, drooped shoulders in a shrugging non-answer.

"Finish
getting ready. Apply your own masque. I must finish preparing the meal."

"What
must I do after they arrive?"

"Stay
upstairs, until I summon you to greet them. They must be left unattended, but
fed well, until the sun dips completely below the horizon. When it is fully
dark, the host of First Welcome appears to greet the guests."

"But…why?"

"It makes
little sense to me. But we must follow the custom of the Crescent Houses, or
they will be suspicious. I must go now."

"Bruna
— " Adalginza's sharp voice caused the woman to hesitate, and turn back.

"Do
nothing to our food. Hear me?"

It was
better that Bruna not smile, for the grimace on her lips held only rancor.

"You
have nothing to fear from my potions, little one. I pledged to Benfaaro that I
would protect you. So I will not harm the sister of my mate's own blood. Even
though half of your blood is tainted."

"Through
no fault of my own. But do not divert me from the matter before us. You will do
nothing to their food, either. To anyone's food. Agreed?"

Bruna
hesitated for a moment, then gave a short nod.

"For
now."

"For
as long as I say."

"I do
not follow your orders."

Adalginza
angrily slammed two clenched fists down on the table before her, causing
several vials filled with lotions and scents to tip over in tinkling protest.

"I tell
you again, it was unwise of you to poison Captain Trelos. We were graced by the
moon gods that the source was not discovered. It easily could have been traced
to the social gathering we had here."

"Our
safety was assured." Bruna's expression grew sullen. "I knew the
delay would be long enough. And I knew these ignorant fools would blame his
death on disease."

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