Steal the Dragon

Chapter One

The beat of the drum was a familiar companion to her dance: its rhythm gradually consumed her until she became a part of it. She reveled in the euphoria that accompanied her dance; the pain of straining her muscles for the perfection of her art only added to the exhilaration.

Sweat blinded her, but she didn't need her eyes to see -- the floor was sanded and flat and she knew where the music would take her.

The beating drum accelerated, built to a crescendo, then abruptly, it ended. The brief silence pounded at her ears as she collapsed face-down on the floor, fighting for breath. The clapping of a single pair of hands replaced the fading memory of the drum beat.

"Very nice, Little One," said the hated voice.

Rialla sat bolt upright in her bed. Her bedclothes were saturated with the sweat of a dance long past. Automatically her hands went to her neck, but the slave collar had been gone for a long time, and the scar on her face still replaced the hated tattoo.

Trembling, she bowed her head and ran her hands through her fiery hair. She threw the covers back and got out of bed, though the dawn was hours away.

In the maze that was the oldest building in Sianim, Ren, better known as the spymaster of Sianim, settled himself in his chair and looked out the open window at nothing in particular.

The chair had been made for his predecessor, who had been a much larger man. Ren's slight, balding and greying person looked a little absurd sitting in it; like a child playing at grown-up.

No one in the mercenary city-state of Sianim would have called the spymaster absurd: he held more power in his hands than most kings.

Turning his chair away from the window, he propped his feet on top of his crowded desk, ignoring the resultant thump as a pile of papers fell to the floor. He rested his chin on his hands and waited patiently for the arrival of the horse trainer he had summoned.

At last there was a soft tap on the door.

"Who?" He barked.

"Rialla of the horses, as ordered, sir." The voice that answered him was soft and shy. Ren's mouth tightened in annoyance. If she was as meek as she sounded, he might as well send her back home.

Ah, well -- it wasn't the woman's fault that his informant had mislead him. Even if she wouldn't serve his purpose, he could use the information that she could provide.

Making his voice soothing and welcoming, Ren called out, "Come in, Rialla of the horses, I've been expecting you."

The door opened with a sigh and squeaked a protest when the horse trainer shut it behind her. She was taller than he was, but so slender that she appeared fragile. Her red hair was pulled tightly back in a short braid that barely reached her shoulders. He got a quick glimpse of emerald green eyes before she dropped her gaze to the floor.

She waited silently for him to speak, her arms held loosely at her side and her face expressionless. She would have been beautiful if it weren't for the scar that covered most of one cheek.

"Trainer," he greeted her in kindly tones.

The green eyes briefly met his, "Spymaster." There was a slight mocking note in her tone that someone who was less observant would not have caught. He was so fascinated by the inconsistency between the demure mien and the subtle mockery that he let the silence stretch uncomfortably long.

When he didn't reply, she shrugged and turned her back to him to examine a nearby bookcase. The illusion of fragility was shattered with her movement. She moved with the grace of a trained athlete, and sinewy muscle corded her arm as she reached to pull a book out of its shelf.

The spymaster watched her with a tingle of pleasure. This just might work. Experimentally he held his silence. She turned a page and seemed to become engrossed in the book.

Finally, Ren laughed softly and pushed his chair away from his desk and said with a smile, "Aren't you the least bit curious about why I called you here today?"

She replaced the book and turned back to him. "Yes." This time her voice was as meek as it had been at first.

"I spoke with a friend of yours, Laeth, who informed me that you speak native quality Darranian." He turned the statement into a question with an inquiring look.

She shrugged indifferently, but her left hand came up to finger the scar that marred her face and her gaze shifted back to the floor.

Darranian slaves were all elaborately tattooed on the left side of their faces for identification. In Darran, slaves could not be freed; the tattoo marked them for life.

Ren decided to change tactics. "Do you know who Lord Karsten is?" He asked bluntly.

"You mean other than Laeth's brother?" She asked, but continued in indifferent tones without waiting for a reply,"He is one of the Darranian lords pushing to ally the kingdoms of Reth and Darran. I understand that the proposed alliance involves the marriage of King Myr of Reth to the king of Darran's older sister."

Ren nodded his head in agreement. "Lord Karsten is the most influential member of the regency council. With his support the new alliance is a virtual certainty."

The light mockery eased back into Rialla's voice as she spoke for the first time without being prompted, "Sianim wants to prevent the alliance? Maybe an accident for Lord Karsten?"

"Of course not!" replied Ren in a shocked tone, widening his eyes improbably to show his innocent dismay at her suggestion. "My dear young woman, Sianim never interferes with the politics of any government. We are mercenaries, and merely hire ourselves out the highest bidder."

He knew that she caught the satire with which he spouted the official dogma when the corner of her mouth turned up in a reluctant smile.

"So," she said,"tell me. Why is it that Sianim doesn't intend to hinder with the alliance? The feud between Darran and Reth has diverted a steady stream gold into our coffers over the past century or so."

Ren looked at her with the same pleasure that a schoolmaster would regard a favorite pupil who asked a thoughtful question. He rubbed his hands together with satisfaction and began to talk.

"The Great Swamp has long been a barrier between the East and our West." He gestured to her impatiently, "Sit down, girl. This will take a while. Now then . . . the only trading currently done with the East is through the Ynstrahn sailing fleets that dare thread the shoals and reefs in the Southern Sea.

Once there was a road through the Swamp. The magic of the Archmage held back the Uriah, wights and other nasty swamp dwellers. But the seasons changed as did the Archmage, and other matters became more important. The road was overrun and swallowed by the swamp."

He paused and sipped water from a glass that sat on the corner of his desk.

"I have heard that there was once such a road," commented Rialla, "but what does that have to do with Darran? The Swamp is nowhere near Darran." Rialla had cleared off a place for herself on a worn tapestry chair. She sat on the very edge of the seat, though her hands were open and relaxed in her lap.

"Have patience and I'll tell you. Now," Ren fell back into a storyteller's voice, "when I came into office I noticed that we lacked information on anything on the other side of the swamp. An oversight, of course, which I have corrected.

For some time I have been watching the expansion of an eastern empire called Cybelle. Ten years ago Cybelle was a small country and very poor. Its ruler died and left no legitimate heirs. When the ensuing fight for power was over, the man on the throne was a religious fanatic who appeared from nowhere, calling himself "the Voice of Altis."

This man professes to believe, as do his followers, that the ancient god Altis appeared to him and revealed that it was Cybelle's destiny to rule from the eastern sea to the western, from the far Northlands to the Southern Sea. In the relatively short time that "the Voice" has been in power, he has managed to take over most of the countries between the eastern sea and the Great Swamp."

Ren glanced at Rialla to make sure that she was still listening before continuing. "Long ago, after the Wizard Wars, the people of the East rose up in anger against anyone who practiced magic, much as we in the West did. In the East there was no refuge. Without countries like Reth or Southwood to shelter them, the mages disappeared into stories told to entertain children.

The religious revival is spreading even faster than the rule of Cybelle; the last few countries to join the empire have not even put up a fight. I am informed that the Voice of Altis performs miracles. Altis has given him the power to make light where there was only darkness; to make a building burst into flame with a wave of his hand. He can kill with a word. Sound familiar?"

Rialla looked up at his question. "A trained mage has set himself on the throne of Cybelle." Her voice lost all traces of timidity or mockery and was merely thoughtful.

Ren nodded and smiled, pleased that she would turn out to be an adequate tool for his purposes. "He plans to continue through the Great Swamp by clearing the ancient path through it. My sources say that he can do it."

The spymaster's smile dropped from his face and he sat forward intently on his chair. "The Western nations need to face him as allies if we are to have a chance to stand against him. I have been working to patch old hostilities for the last few years. The worst conflict is the persistent fighting between Darran and Reth. Sianim, for all its military fame, is just a small city-state. We need to be able to count on all our neighbors if we are to stop Cybelle."

"So what do you need me for? There are other people who speak Darranian," said Rialla quietly, obviously not stricken with any sudden urge to be of assistance.

"Lord Karsten is the driving force behind the Rethian alliance. There are people who don't want Darran to be tied to Reth; the last outbreak of war between Reth and Darran is still fresh in the minds of many. Reth's traditional link with magic also disturbs Darranians, who view sorcery as something twisted and defiled."

Ren cleared his throat before continuing, "Last week an assassin's arrow killed the horse that Lord Karsten was riding. Karsten was lucky, but I want to know who was behind the attempt so I can have them stopped.

Lord Karsten is sponsoring a week-long celebration of his birthday at his country estate, Westhold. Because of the attempt on his brother's life, Laeth has agreed to attend the celebration and see what he can find out."

Ren leaned forward intently,"But, I need something more: my dear mother used to say,"an unguarded tongue will bring down the stoutest walls." Around Lord Karsten's brother every word will be weighed, measured and carefully doled out.

What I need is a piece of furniture that no one pays attention to. Furniture can't tell me what it hears, but a slave can." Ren watched Rialla closely for her reaction, but not even her eyes gave away her thoughts.

She stared silently at the floor for a moment, then lifted her eyes to meet his. "I would do a great deal for Sianim; but not this. Paint a tattoo on someone else and I will teach them to be a slave, but I will leave Sianim before I would go back to Darran." Her voice was cold and hard, the voice of someone with the courage to cut the skin from the side of her face and cauterize the resultant wound.

Ren sat back undismayed: he still had a carrot to dangle in front of her. "To make the alliance more acceptable to Rethians, Lord Karsten has proposed several changes in Darranian law. Marriages with outsiders will be legal; this is required, of course, to permit the marriage between the princess and King Myr. Trade taxes will be lowered or possibly eliminated." He paused and softened his tone to attract her attention. "The third change is the elimination of slavery within Darranian borders. It is necessary because Reth views slavery as an abomination used only by the most barbaric of people."

He couldn't see if she had gone for his bait yet so he rambled on to give her time to think. "In a strange way, the last change is the one that the Darranians find most objectionable. Though there are not a great number of slaves in Darran, they are integral to Darranian culture. Most of the nobles own several, and are loath to part with them. You, I am sure, have a greater understanding of this than I."

The former slave bowed her head for a moment and then looked back at the spymaster. Ren had been waiting for a reaction and he finally got one. The green eyes that met his were dark as she clenched her hands into fists and said hoarsely, "Do you have any idea what you are asking of me?"

"Yes." He answered. "With your help, it may be possible to eliminate slavery in Darran. Laeth told me that you would be interested in such a mission."

The tension left her body as suddenly as it had come. In a weary voice Rialla said, "Tell me the essentials and give me some time to think it over."

Ren leaned back in his chair, satisfied that his strategy was working. "Most of the powerful nobles in the kingdom will be at Westhold with their entourages. Obviously, they aren't likely to discuss their newest attempt on Lord Karsten's life. I want you to determine who supports the alliance and who resists it, and most importantly -- why. Don't worry if your information seems trivial, I assure you that the most innocent facts are capable of illumination when combined with intuition and intelligence."

Rialla rubbed the scar on her cheek, as if to relieve some persistent ache, and asked, "You are sure that Laeth agreed to this? For all that he has chosen to live in Sianim, he is Darranian. For him to agree to spy, or escort a spy to his brother's home is the worst sort of betrayal."

Ren nodded, "He has agreed only because of the threat to Lord Karsten."

"When would we leave?" Rialla asked neutrally.

"Five days."

She nodded and got to her feet. "I'll give you my answer tomorrow morning." The door shut quietly behind her as she left.

Feeling numb, Rialla made her way through the busy streets to the stables where the war horses, a source of income for Sianim second only to the mercenary services and training, were kept. She slipped under the ancient stone archway that lead into the stables, and allowed the familiar smells and the sounds of the horses moving quietly in their stalls to calm her. It was lunchtime and she had the place to herself.

Ignoring the friendly muzzles that were extended to her over the stall doors, she found a bench that wasn't too cluttered with bits of mending or grooming tools and huddled on it, drawing her legs up beside her and leaning wearily against the wall.

The grey stone was cool against her cheek. She closed her eyes and contemplated what she'd been asked to do. Even the idea of going back to Darran was enough to raise a cold sweat. Darran had stolen her family, her heritage, and a part of herself. In return she'd been given the scars she carried, inside and out.

Perhaps it would have been different for someone born into a more restrictive society, where women had little control over their destiny. Rialla had been born to one of the wandering Trader clans that traveled throughout the south; primarily through Southwood, Ynstrah and the little principalities that made up the Anthran Alliance. In the Trader clans, women were people of power. The women controlled a clan's finances and determined where the clan would travel the next season.

Rialla had learned how to train horses from her father. He'd a fine touch with animals, and often staged exhibitions in which he would take some vicious beast and turn it into a usable animal. The horses he trained were widely sought after. Rialla's clan never had to worry about money, and were free to travel where many other clans were forbidden.

Rialla had been born an empath; able to perceive the feelings and sometimes thoughts of the people and animals around her. It was a rare talent, but not unheard of among her people -- empathy was valued highly by a people who lived on the whims of others. Almost as soon as her ability was recognized, her father had her working with the horses; using her empathy to enhance his training and teaching her to control her gift at the same time.

Because of her value to the Traders, the woman's council and her father contracted an advantageous marriage for her with a wealthier clan. It had been at the betrothal festival that the outlander had come among them.

There was nothing unusual about his presence because everyone was welcome at festivals, even nonclansmen. The only reason that Rialla noticed him at all was that he was one of the few people she'd met that she couldn't use her empathy to read. She felt his eyes on her as she performed a traditional dance for her betrothed.

After the festival, the Trade clans split up to travel again; with the understanding that they would meet at the same place in exactly one year for the marriage as was customary.

Two nights later the slavers attacked her clan, killing the men and the old people -- taking the younger women and children as slaves. It was the outlander from her betrothal who lead the slavers.

She could still feel that first touch of his hand on her face. It was the first time she'd been able to read him with her talent: her first taste of a Darranian slave trainer.

Rialla shuddered heavily against the cold granite, ignoring the tears that ran down her cheek. If she hoped to function as a Darranian slave she would have to cope with the past; so she returned to her memories.

After all these years, the slave trader's face wasn't clear in her memory -- a slave didn't look into her master's face often -- but his voice was in her nightmares.

She learned he was a magician on her third day of captivity. The Archmage, Geoffrey, came to the camp; his name spoken in whispers by the terrified slaves.

Rialla heard he was killed shortly after this visit, Rialla had no sorrow for his death.

Of all of the people that the slave master had taken from her clan, he'd chosen only two or three of the younger girls to share Rialla's fate. The rest of women and children he'd stolen were destined for another use.

She didn't see what the ae'Magi and the slave trainer did to the remaining captives, but she heard their screams and felt their anguish in empathic detail. The pain and terror of her friends and family ravaged her mind so badly that she was left with only a shadow of her former gift. What little empathic ability remained was so erratic it was all but useless.

For a slave, though, it was probably just as well.

Rialla was trained as a dancer for two years and rewarded with the tattoo. Dancers were popular in Darran and she was good, very good. She was treated well and allowed more freedom than most slaves, who were intended for brothels or worse, but she was still a slave.

For five years she danced as her master bade. Finally, there came a day when the opportunity to escape presented itself and she ran.

She killed a man when she escaped. Even the slight remnants of her empathy had been enough that she cried out with the pain of his death. Nevertheless, with shaking hands she searched the dead man and took his knife and what little money he had. She stole a horse from the stables and left.

She escaped over the border to Reth where she used the knife, heated in her campfire until it glowed, to rid herself of the hateful tattoo.

At the next town she traded her horse for an unbroken gelding and a handful of coins. Eventually, she made her way to Sianim where her skill with horses earned her a home.

Now she had the chance to take something from the slavers, if she had the courage to do it.

Safe in the stables of Sianim, Rialla let her hand rub the scar on her cheek. If she agreed to return to Reth she would have to let them tattoo her again, over the scar. The scar would brand her as an escaped slave; as such she would be watched even closer than most. There was always the possibility that something would go wrong; that she would be forced to remain a slave.

The whisper of sound alerted her that she was no longer alone. Painfully aware that it was obvious she had been crying, she wiped her cheeks and turned to see who was there.

The man who stood in the dim light of the stable was average height. He had dark hair, darker eyes, and skin that was tanned by many days out in the sun. His build was slight, but he moved like a warrior.

Rialla raised her chin in an unconscious gesture of defiance that was not lost on the man watching her. "Laeth."

He nodded a greeting and leaned against a stall partition across from the bench she sat on, leaving the width of the aisle between them.

It was virtually unheard of for a Darranian lord to train at Sianim. Though the schools of warcraft at Sianim were famous, Darranians kept to themselves. When Laeth had come to Sianim for training two years ago, Rialla had avoided him. Unfortunately they were assigned the same instructor for hand-to-hand combat.

The instructor didn't speak Darranian and Laeth only knew what little of the common tongue that he'd picked up since he came. Darranians, being an insular people, saw little use in learning languages other than their own.

She watched him struggle for several days before moving next to him and interpreting. It had been a combination of the way that he'd persisted, laughing at himself and trying again; and her refusal to let herself be manipulated into hating all Darranians for what a few had done that made her help him.

He had turned to her, ignoring the betraying scar on her cheek, and thanked her in a quiet voice. The friendship that followed was a surprise to Rialla and, she thought, to him also. She taught him Common in the evenings and he told her a little about himself.

The younger son of a powerful Darranian Lord, he'd amused himself scandalizing his family for most of his life. Then he'd discovered a shy little miss called Marri, whom he'd met at a party given at a local estate. Her family hadn't approved of her marriage to a black sheep, even of so exalted a family; so he'd settled down and persuaded his father to give him a small manor that he worked for a year, preparing it for his intended bride. When he received an invitation to his older brother Karsten's wedding, he decided that the time had come to inform his family that he'd found the girl he intended to marry.

When he returned home for the wedding his family welcomed him, and his brother introduced Laeth to his new bride, Marri. Karsten, it seemed, had decided to marry a local girl.

Laeth had smiled politely at his love's unhappy face, understanding that a Darranian girl of good family could not refuse a marriage arranged by her parents. He'd even congratulated his brother. The next morning, Laeth told his parents that he'd received a message he was needed back at his little farm and couldn't attend the wedding.

His family never knew why he returned to his outrageous behavior; his journey to Sianim was only the most flagrant act of disgrace. Since his brother's wedding he'd only returned to Darran when his father died.

Laeth had his reasons for not wanting to return to Darran. Rialla wondered why he'd chosen to go anyway.

One of the horses butted Laeth impatiently and he scratched its nose. "Are you going come, Rialla?" He asked her softly.

"Yes," she replied. "The Spymaster allowed me little choice."

"I wasn't sure that I should give Ren your name, but knowing him I thought that he probably knew that you spoke Darranian anyway."

She nodded and curved her lips without humor, "I know several other people who can speak Darranian better than I can, and I imagine that he does too. What he needed was someone who could be a Darranian slave. I'm sure that the devious bastard knew everything about me long before he talked to you."

"You're probably right," replied Laeth, visibly relaxing at Rialla's easy tone. "He does have that reputation." He looked around at the quiet stable and then said, "I'll treat you to lunch."

Rialla shot him a skeptical look,"At the Lost Pig?"

"They don't pay mercenaries like they used to. Besides, it's not that bad," said Laeth. "Last week they only had two people get sick."

Rialla obediently groaned at the old joke and held her hands up in mock surrender,"All right, all right. But this time I'm not going to rescue you from the waitress."

Laeth widened his eyes,"Haven't you heard? Letty's decided to try for the tall blonds."

"Who's she after now?" Inquired Rialla, getting up off her bench and following Laeth out the door.

"Afgar, you know, the lieutenant in the Fifty-Seventh."

Rialla thought a moment and came to a halt. "Not the big Southwood man, the one who used to be a tanner?" She asked incredulously.

Laeth nodded, tugging her forward with a light grip on her upper arm. "The one that hides in the corners when a woman comes by. He's so dedicated to avoiding women that I don't think that the two women in his troop have ever seen him. Last night I thought that he was going to choke to death when Letty rubbed up against him. If I weren't so busy being thankful that it's not me anymore, I'd feel sorry for him."

"Ha," snorted Rialla,"You enjoyed it almost as much as she did. You didn't run away so fast she didn't catch you a time or two."

Laeth sent her a meek look and said,"What can I say? I'm only a man. Besides, she got great --" Rialla raised her eyebrows in mock threat,"--teeth."

Rialla laughed and shook her head as they came within sight of the Lost Pig.

The bottom half of the bar was built from old stone blocks set one on top of the other, the top half was made of wooden planks of various sizes and ages. Rialla had heard that fifty or so years ago, the seventy-first troop of a hundred and six men, drunk on victory and alcohol, lifted the wooden half off the stone and set it in the middle of the road on a lark.

They replaced the top after extracting a bargain from the owner. The wooden half was now held down securely by thick rusted chains on all four corners of the building and the seventy-first still got their drinks for half what other people were charged.

Being the source of food and drink nearest to the stables and to the training ground that serviced a number of troops, the Lost Pig was usually busy. Rialla and Laeth were waved at by several acquaintances as they squeezed through in an attempt to find an empty table.

As Rialla slipped too near one of the tables she felt a hand pat her on the hip. Without stopping to see who it was, she grabbed his wrist and caught the leg of his chair with her ankle, sweeping the wooden legs forward as she pushed him back. The man and his chair made a satisfying commotion that rose over the general din that filled the tavern.

More than a little drunk, the man started up with a growl, but Laeth caught his shoulder under the pretext of helping him up. Helpfully, Laeth dusted off the man's coat and generally distracted him, until the drunk's initial hostility subsided into bewilderment at all the attention.

When it became obvious that the stranger was no longer a threat, Laeth said congenially, "She doesn't like it when men pat her butt. You're lucky that she's in a good mood or she'd have just cut your hand off -- that's what she did to the last man who tried it."

A friend of Laeth's leaned over from a nearby table and said sadly,"Poor Jard was never the same."

"Remember what she did to Lothar?" Added another man, shaking his head.

"Took us three days to find all the pieces so that we could bury him," commented one of Laeth's fellow lieutenants, a stocky bald-man with a friendly face. He leaned closer and said softly,"But then, Lothar tried to kiss her."

Rialla was still laughing when they found a small table that was unoccupied. "Did you see his face? That poor man. If I'd have known what you were going to start I'd have let him get away with it."

Laeth grinned cheerfully,"It'll teach him to keep his hands to himself. Speaking of which, did you know that one of the greenies in my troop fancies you?"

"You mean the young Rethian who hides behind the fence and scares the horses I'm working with? The one who offers to take me to dinner every night and has been leaving flowers outside my door? About your height, sandy hair and brown eyes? No, I hadn't noticed him at all," she replied sarcastically

Laeth laughed at her disgruntled expression. "I'm sorry, I didn't know that he was getting to be such a problem. I'll do something about it this afternoon."

"No," gasped Rialla in pseudo-horror,"Not the strange disease that causes impotence with merely a touch. There are still several members of your troop who cross the street when they see me."

"No," agreed Laeth, "I used that one the last time. I'll have to think up something new. It's your fault you know, you could gain a few pounds, or loose them and do something about your hair."

"I'll die it grey tomorrow, or better yet, I'll shave it off," offered Rialla, but there was a thread of seriousness in her voice. The scar didn't seem to harm her looks as far as the mercenaries were concerned. She'd far rather have been plain so she wouldn't attract so much unwanted attention.

Before Laeth could reply, the barmaid, Letty, appeared from the crowded room. How she knew who had ordered and who hadn't in the mass of people in the bar was a mystery that Rialla had never solved.

"What's good, Love?" Asked Laeth.

"Afgar," sighed Letty, expanding her sizable chest.

"To eat," clarified Rialla, then added hastily, "for us. Food."

"Oh," Letty's full lips briefly formed a half-pout for Laeth's benefit, but she said, cheerfully enough, "The bread is fresh and Cook just pulled a honey ham out of the ovens. The beef is a bit over-done and dry."

"Sandwiches then. Two ham?" Laeth looked at Rialla and she nodded. "And two mugs of watered ale as well."

When they were alone Laeth said,"Ren called me in again this morning. He wanted me to see if I could talk you into going."

Rialla shook her head,"He did a good enough job of that himself."

"Why are you going?" Asked Laeth semi-humorously. "I'm going to protect Karsten; but all that I have to face is seeing Marri as his wife and a possible death sentence if anyone discovers that I am spying for Sianim. You have to go back to being a slave."

"Ren says that to get Reth to allow the marriage, Darran will outlaw slavery," said Rialla.

"You are risking a lot for slaves that you don't even know," commented Laeth.

Rialla tossed him a wry smile and fingered her scar,"I'm not doing it for them. Most of them are probably quite comfortable being a slave; in Darran it's not much worse than being a wife most places; maybe even better.

I'm doing it for revenge. The slavers who live in Darran stole something from me, and I'll never get it back. It's my turn to help steal something from them -- from him."

Letty brought their food and accepted several coppers and a kiss from Laeth before she left.

"Aren't you worried?" Asked Laeth quietly, fingering a slice of fresh bread.

Rialla swallowed her bite and sipped from her glass before answering. "About being a slave?" She shrugged,"I wouldn't go with anyone else, if that's what you mean. I know that I can trust you not to leave me there.

For someone not used to it, owning a slave is a heady thing; and I am a dancer -- more valuable than most. If you were to sell me there, I could bring you more gold than most people will see in a lifetime." As she spoke, Rialla could feel her face stiffen into its accustomed mask. Her voice went flat, loosing the animation that characterized it.

"I won't do that," said Laeth softly.

She smiled at him, dropping her slave-face,"I know that. Why do you think I wouldn't go with anyone else? You've owned both slaves and estates, and chose to relinquish them. Even if I didn't know you, I'd rather go with you than a Southwoodsman who has never thought about owning a slave in his life."

Laeth bowed his head in acknowledgement of the compliment of her trust. They ate without speaking for a time, the silence comfortable between two old friends.

"When you talked to Ren did he say what he was going to do about the tattoo?" Rialla touched her cheek lightly.

Laeth nodded and finished swallowing before saying,"He has a magician who can disguise your scar and replace the old tattoo. Ren wants the tattoo has to be same as it was originally in case someone recognizes you. Couldn't it be used to trace your previous owner."

Rialla shook her head,"I've been gone for seven years, after five years a slave doesn't need to be returned to the original owner; though I understand that it's considered proper to do so anyway. As long as Lord Karsten doesn't make a habit of inviting slave trainers to his birthday parties, my former owner won't be present."

"No," answered Laeth, relaxing, "a nobleman would no more invite a slave trainer to a formal occasion than he would invite a swineherd."

"So I thought," agreed Rialla.

"Ren also wanted me to tell you that if something happens, he'll get you out of Darran by fair means or foul; so you don't have to worry about getting stuck as a slave," added Laeth.

Rialla shot him a nasty grin, "After seven years of training in Sianim, I don't think that I'll have to worry much about someone keeping me as a slave."

Laeth returned her smile with one as wicked, as he posed the favorite question of one of the combat instructors, "How many ways are there to kill a person with a knife?"

"Fifty-four. But it only takes one," returned Rialla.

They finished their sandwiches in mutual good humor and left just as a new wave of mercenaries pushed through the door. Laeth stopped her just outside with a hand on her shoulder.

"I've got some things that I have to get taken care of before we go. Ren told you that we leave in four days?"

Rialla nodded.

"I'll see to the supplies for the trip, if you can make sure the horses are ready."

Rialla flashed him a smart salute and smile before heading back to the stables. Ren wasn't the only one who had things to accomplish before they left. She had to find people to take over the horses she was training.

The early morning sun barely lit the sky when Rialla saddled a horse and took it out. She wasn't the only one working horses, but the other riders were using different arenas.

Her stallion's feet thump-thumped rhythmically on the packed sawdust of the enclosure, but his attention was on the mare that was being ridden over the jumps on the other side of the fence. He gathered himself in preparation to dump his rider as he had thrown so many others . . . and got tapped warningly with the short crop his current rider used.

Reminded that he had to obey this upstart who sat on his back, he continued on the path she chose with his ears plastered as flat as he could get them. Rialla laughed at the plodding canter that replaced the stallion's normally buoyant gait.

He really didn't need the workout. She'd found trainers for all the horses she'd been working on. Rialla had taken the stallion out for a last ride, rather than wait around for Laeth and worry about things that she couldn't change; like the gold, black and green tattoo that graced her scarless face once more.

Taking advantage of her momentary distraction, the red-bay stallion threw himself sideways in a move that had tossed more than one of his former owners. Rialla sat it easily. With a disgusted snort the big horse flipped his tail and settled back into his canter, insulted that she hadn't even noticed what he'd done.

Rialla put the horse through his paces until he quit playing and she was tired enough she forgot about what she had agreed to do to herself. The memory lapse didn't last long. When she took the horse in to give it a much-deserved rubdown, Laeth was waiting for her in the stables.

"Are you ready to go?"

Rialla nodded and handed the horse off to one of the other trainers who owed her a favor. "Let me get into costume and grab my stuff and I'll meet you back here."

In her room she changed into the simple grey slave's tunic that she would wear for the journey. She looked at herself in the flat piece of polished copper that she kept on her wall as a mirror, and she couldn't see the person that she'd worked so hard to become.

She saw instead a white-faced slave with a slave's tattoo on her left cheek. A faint whip scar marred the deep tan on one of her arms: the Slave Trainer had killed the servant responsible for marring so valuable a property. Swallowing she raised a hand in a grave salute,"Good luck, slave."

She picked up the small bag that contained a slave's earthly possessions. The door closed quietly as she left.