Chapter 33, Part 1

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Nancy and Celestine set dinner out family style. The smells of wood roasted fowl, steamed vegetables, fresh bread, blueberry cobbler, and assorted side dishes, filled the air.

Dixon picked up the bowl of oven roasted potatoes, drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with rosemary and sea salt. He inhaled deeply.

"Everyone pass to your left," he shouted over the din to the diners' delight. He put some on Mara's plate per her direction, as her hands were full with Reigna, before helping himself to a sizeable portion. He turned to Leala to assist her, then excusing himself, handed the bowl to Therese at the old woman's other side.

The group treated the back room that Ezra had provided for their convenience, as a sort of home away from home. They conversed, caught up, shared information, and generally enjoyed one another's company. Fidel and Leala spent significant time with them, as Mara rarely left the inn. The innkeeper joined in whenever his duties allowed.

Mara held Reigna tightly. The girls, having grown considerably, were awake a great deal more and paid more attention to their surroundings. Everyone enjoyed their smiles and coos. Often there was a near battle for who got to hold one of them next. Fortunately, they were both napping now.

Her eyes brimmed with tears. At her insistence, Nina sat with Eden at her other side. From time to time, Mara reached over to touch the child or leaned over to nuzzle her. She'd been nearly inseparable from the twins ever since she and Dixon had returned from Polesk.

He watched her closely. "They're safe," he said quietly as he leaned in. "We'll get what we need here and be on our way before Lilith arrives. Ezra has plenty of men in the field to keep us informed."

"It's not just that. I just don't want to have to leave them again."

"Sometimes it can't be helped. You were right when you insisted on going to Polesk. You're the only one who could have traveled there and back so quickly. And now we know."

"It's just the pain of being separated from them." She swallowed hard.

"Still, sometimes it's good to take a breather. That's why I asked you to go out for a walk with me this evening. What do you say? Come on," he urged, "don't say 'no' this time."

"I don't know."

"The fresh air would do you good. You've been cooped up too long, studying too hard."

She shrugged. "Maybe."

"I'd enjoy it." He nudged her shoulder. He reached out with little touches more and more frequently all the time.

"Yes, I would too. I just . . . I don't know."

"They'll be fine."

"But what of your being out? You might be recognized."

"We'll go after dark and stay away from the crowds. Come on, say you'll join me."

Dixon seemed genuinely concerned about her since their return from Polesk. It was almost frightening. Again and again she thought about her future—about Dixon. She couldn't involve herself with him in light of her oath, but she found it increasingly difficult not to be angry about it.

Was it possible the Good One would have introduced her to the man she would come to love, the man she knew she wanted to spend her future with, just moments after she'd sworn her future to the lives and safety of others, just moments after Rowena's death had released him from his oath?

"Come on, humor me. Tell me I've sufficiently charmed you into agreeing," he whispered.

She smiled wanly. "Very well then, I'm charmed." She looked long into his eyes. "We'll go after the meeting." She glanced over at Eden and once again stroked the infant's face.

Dixon caught Basha's eye. She glanced at Mara and raised a brow, then looked back at him in question. He shrugged in response.

When dinner was complete, Nancy and Celestine removed the dirty dishes. They left behind a few carafes of wine, various finger-sized chocolates, and some tea.

Mara stood. She handed Reigna to Adele, then returned to the middle of the table. The room went quiet. All eyes were upon her as she resumed her seat.

These meetings were intended to be all-inclusive, to encourage everyone to participate, to offer suggestions and to share what they learned in their studies. Mara knew that if she stayed on her feet, the others would be less likely to participate, that conversation would be stilted and cautious. In that event, their cause might suffer. She wanted all ideas on the table at all times.

"Thank you, all." She swallowed hard. "You all mean more to me than I can say."

Everyone watched her closely.

"Leala and Fidel," she said, "to pick up on our earlier conversation, you seem to think that this is a simple matter of my claiming my rightful position as the girls' regent to lead the Council, but—"

"You have that right," Leala interrupted, "and it would thwart Lilith's plans, stop her in her tracks."

"Certainly, she has the right," Basha said, "but forgive me for saying, Leala, that you don't know Lilith. Rest assured, the facts would not interrupt her. Who knows what influence she might already have had with the other Council members? What lies she may have told?" She turned to Therese. "I'm sorry, but I have to tell it like it is."

"No, you're right," Therese said. "I can't let the fact that she's my sister color the truth. If Lilith is willing to do as she's done when she knows full well she's not the rightful leader, then I'm sure she wouldn't let something like Mara's claims stop her. And I agree with you that we can't know what influence she may have had, or may even now be imposing, on the Council."

"I tend to agree," Dixon said. "There are serious repercussions if someone goes to the Council without sufficient evidence of the claims she makes there. What's more, as Mara has consistently pointed out, going to the Council could mean that she would disclose the girls' whereabouts."

"So then, Mara, you think it best to simply leave the city? To seek refuge elsewhere?" Fidel asked.

She nodded.

"What are your plans for now?" Therese asked.

"They haven't changed. We'll still meet up with Lucy when we leave here. But I've been thinking . . ."

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Oathtaker is an award-winner in the 2014 Readers' Favorite International Book Award contest. A completed work, it is currently available in print form at CreateSpace at, in print and for your Kindle on Amazon (see the link) and from Barnes and Noble for your Nook.

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