Too much later, the Kardenel delegation was packed and mounted and ready to go. As they joined the Aravene lines, Jonnah wove Diamond through the sea of green and gold to join the crown prince of Kardenel. The man these last nine weeks had all been for.

A prettier ornament there’d never been, but hard riding had wilted Bastyen. His clothes—the height of Kardenel fashion—were wrinkled and discolored from life on the road; white may have been an excellent choice for comfort in the heat, but it showed dirt even worse than the Aravene black. Bastyen’s auburn hair, once perfectly sculpted, now spread in sweaty strings across his forehead.

Despite the heat, the dust, the discomfort, Bastyen welcomed Jonnah with an open smile and twisted in his saddle to hold out his hands. “Jonnah ian Jenshen, I’m so glad you agreed to join me.”

Jonnah grasped Basten’s hands only as long as politeness dictated, then inclined his head. “I was honored by the invitation, your highness.” He eased Diamond around so he’d be riding alongside Bastyen, in the midst of the prince’s retinue.

At the front of the line, Anison lifted, then dropped his fist and the column started to move. Just at a walk, at first, as the horses warmed up, but they’d soon move up to a faster pace. Which meant time for Jonnah to get to work. “Excuse me a moment,” he said to Bastyen, then he slid the metal circlet off his arm and settled it onto his head.

By now, he was used to the initial wash of disorientation as the hidden mechanisms inside the circlet activated, resonating in some inexplicable way with his brain to boost his gifts far beyond any natural strength. As his mind opened up, the world around him changed.

Every living creature shone with bright energy. The rhythms of their bodies pulsed against his own—breathing, hoofbeats, heartbeats—Jonnah gasped through a familiar few seconds as his body struggled to re-assert its own cadence. Once he’d found his breath and his heart had settled back into its natural tempo, Jonnah opened his eyes again.

To find Bastyen staring. “What’s it like? The booster?”

“Surely you’ve seen one in use before.”

“Never. Kardenel has so few.” Bastyen sounded wistful, but not resentful. “Those are all kept at the front lines, where they’re needed the most.” Bastyen tilted his head, thoughtful, then brightened. “Once there’s peace, that won’t be true anymore, will it?” As though the thought had only just now occurred.

And this was the person King Darius sent to be his negotiator? “I suppose not, your highness.”

Meanwhile, in the back of his mind, Jonnah’s awareness of the bodies around him built.

The next step went easier the less he paid attention to what he was doing. This stage of the work was all about feel, but it was a tricky sort of thing. He had to wait until he found the right resonance, the healing gestalt that would tie the group into one organism he could feed with the energy to sustain their travel. Trouble was, as his sense for the energy of the column grew, so did the distractions.

A growing clamor of whispering voices pressed into his mind—the sendings of those around him. Other gifts in use—Bastyen’s own healer riding behind the prince, a scattering of kinetics maintaining the shields that became second nature to soldiers with that gift. But it was the sending—the loud and constant mental chatter—that was the most distracting.

This was an area in which Aravene discipline had fallen off just as fast as Kardenel. People were supposed to keep mind-silent until the gestalt kicked in, but this was the last day on the road and everyone was punchy. None of the officers would tolerate chattiness out loud, but tight, shielded sending was hardly noticeable, unless a person were boosted, like Jonnah.

Two-hundred people surrounded Jonnah, and of those, only two weren’t flaring their gifts in distracting ways: The General, because he wouldn’t, and Bastyen, because he couldn’t.

“When will we come in sight of the palace?” Bastyen asked, oblivious to Jonnah’s inner struggle.

Fortunately, that was an easy question to answer. “Another hour or so. The first good view comes about thirty miles out. You’d be able to see it from farther if it weren’t for the hills.”

“I can’t even imagine.” Bastyen stood in his stirrups, as though trying to see over the hilltops. His horse—a showy, but sedate chestnut gelding, continued to match its pace with Diamond, oblivious to its fidgety rider.

Giftless blanks like Bastyen were rare, and most people assumed a mind disabled in one way must be weak in all ways. Jonnah had never personally subscribed to that belief, but Bastyen wasn’t doing any favors for the cause. “You’ll see it soon, but perhaps his highness would sit down for now? It’s easier for me to—“

“Oh, yes, of course. Your….” Bastyen waved a hand at Jonnah’s head and the circlet and dropped back into his saddle. “Forgive me.”

And there it was, the rippling wave of synergy as, for an instant, the entire column breathed as one. Jonnah’s mind grasped at the unified field and fed it back through himself and out again. His connection solidified and power flowed through every being, two-legged or four.

With the gestalt in place, Jonnah could relax. Except Bastyen wasn’t going to let him. “I’m sorry we haven’t had any chance to talk before now, but I didn’t want to get in the way of your work. Abram,” Bastyen nodded back at the Kardenel healer, “Tells me it takes a lot of effort to manage this many. Even with the booster.”

Had Abram ever even touched a booster? Jonnah didn’t imagine so if the man was spouting crap like that. “Once I get started, it manages itself for the most part. But I appreciate the thoughtfulness.”

“Teyn Miyelle is such an important member of my father’s court, I’m so happy to get to meet her son.”

Diamond sidestepped as Jonnah’s muscles clenched at the mention of his mother.

Bastyen continued on, oblivious. “To me, you’re the living embodiment of the spirit of this treaty. Proof that our two nations are capable of getting along. As Miyelle is a loyal subject of Kardenel, you serve Aravene, a trusted confidant of the royal family and decorated officer in direct service to General Anison himself. It’s remarkable, don’t you think?”

If not for the vapid, naive emptiness in Bastyen’s gaze, Jonnah might have believed the prince was trying to provoke him. Even still, it took him a moment to frame a courteous response. “It’s your highness, not I, who will be the example. Once you and Alie—once you and Princess Alydia have married.”

That brought a smile to Bastyen’s face, a smile that quickly faded. “If we marry. If Queen Yinicof and I can come to an agreement on the details of the treaty.”

Based on what he’d seen, Yinicof was going to eat Bastyen alive. “I’m certain you’ll be able to work things out.”

The road stretched on and the worn cliff walls around them showed no sign of ending. Jonnah estimated an hour, at least, before they came out of the twisting pass and in sight of the palace for the last leg of their journey. The last thing he wanted to do was field conversation about his mother or the Aravene royal family all that time. “I must confess, I have been every bit as curious about your highness.” When he had to, Jonnah lied like a pro. “And about what life is like in Kardenel. We hear stories, but all second-hand.”

“Really?” Bastyen’s eyebrows shot up. “I would have thought, with your mother—“

“We don’t talk much.” No reason to spoil Bastyen’s idyllic delusion of Jonnah’s happy family life. “And I’d welcome your perspective.”

Bastyen smiled and sat up straighter and launched into exactly what Jonnah had been hoping for: light, fluffy gossip that Jonnah could milk into hours of conversation that wasn’t anything to do with him. He summoned up his own smile and fixed his eyes on the road ahead.

A note from Barbara J Webb

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About the author

Barbara J Webb


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