Again, Basha questioned Dixon with a raised brow. He tipped his head in response, indicating that he didn't know what was troubling Mara.
"Excuse me, Mara," Basha said.
"Yes, I'm . . . sorry."
"Forgive me if I'm speaking out of turn."
Mara looked around at the others, only to find raised brows, pursed lips, and eyes that wouldn't meet her own. "What is it?" she asked. "What's wrong?"
"Actually, that's what I was going to ask you. Something seems to be bothering you. You know, maybe you should take a breather—get out for a bit. The girls would be fine with us for a time. You need some exercise and a change of scenery. Sometimes it's important. It can help you to regain focus."
Once again, Mara glanced around. No one's gaze met her own except those of the Oathtakers in the room: Basha, Dixon, and Ezra. She closed her eyes. "Whewwww," she breathed out heavily. "Actually, that's what's troubling me."
"What's that?" Basha asked.
"Leaving the girls." Mara blinked hard to keep the tears that welled in her eyes from falling. "I feel I have to leave them again for a time and it seems almost too much."
Dixon grasped a carafe of wine. He filled a glass, then lifted the bottle in silent offering to the others. One by one they looked his way, then each shook his head 'no' or quietly waved away the offer. He moved the glass toward Mara. "Here," he said gently, "take this."
She twirled the liquid and breathed in the aroma, then slowly took a drink.
"What's on your mind?"
She took another swallow, then put the glass down. Her hands shook. "You know, we've concentrated on whether to leave the city, when to leave the city, where to go . . . We've discussed the possibility of taking the crown with us for safekeeping . . ."
"Well, Fidel and Leala, you say when I leave the city, I should take the crown."
"That's right," Fidel said. "It belongs to the girls by rights. You should take it to a place of safety."
"And the sword is with Lucy," Mara said, turning to Dixon.
"But the last any of you knew, the scepter was at the palace, yet we've never discussed it." She watched her cohorts shuffle. "You see, don't you? You see that I have to go to there to retrieve it before Lilith goes back there or sends someone there for it—assuming it's still at the palace at all."
"Mara," Basha said, "that could be very dangerous. No doubt Lilith has taken precautions with it. She might have taken it with her. What's more, everyone at the palace believes she's its rightful possessor."
"But she is not."
"No, she is not." Basha hesitated. "So you believe you're to go to the palace in search of it."
"Yes. And you, Basha, are to accompany me."
"Wait a minute!" Dixon exclaimed. "I—"
"No, Dixon," Mara interrupted. "Don't you see? They all think you've done something wrong. They all think Therese is dead and she's better off if they continue to believe that. They don't know anyone else here," she said, gesturing, "except for Adele. And she certainly can't return. Lilith probably told everyone she helped you to escape."
"I don't want to go back," Adele said.
"Don't worry," Nina assured her, "Mara wouldn't make you return to the palace."
"No, Adele, I wouldn't make anyone do anything they thought was not right. What's more, I've other plans for you. It wouldn't make any sense to take you with me. Basha knows her way around the palace and they trust her there."
"She's right," Therese spoke up.
"Therese—" Dixon said.
"What plans for me?" Adele asked.
"She's onto something," Ezra added.
"But what about—" Jules began.
"Stop, everyone!" Mara cried. "I'm sorry. Look, all your opinions are valuable and I want you all to be free to voice them—and also your objections. They're important. But please, one at a time."
"Adele," Mara said, "in response to your question, my plans are that after Basha and I return, assuming we find the scepter, a small group of you will take it to Lucy's for safekeeping. So, you could start preparing things for that trip. The rest of us would follow in due time."
Adele grimaced, but said nothing.
"But, Mara," Dixon said, "I should go with you to the palace. Basha should stay with Therese. And what's this about splitting the group up? Why send the scepter ahead? Then it wouldn't be under your protection."
"No, Dixon, Mara's right. Basha should go," Therese said. "She's the best choice. She came and went from the palace regularly in the past, so it's unlikely anyone would question her return. She could bring Mara in openly, as a guest. Besides, Samuel and Jules are accustomed to assisting me. It all makes perfect sense."
"But that's assuming she should go at all," he argued.
"Dixon, you said it yourself earlier," Mara said, "about my leaving the girls. You said that sometimes it can't be helped, and that I'd been right about returning to Polesk. I believe I'm right about this also."
He patted his knee, thinking. "But before we went to Polesk, you thought the oracle supported that decision."
"And so it does now."
"Oh? And what cryptic message did it leave this time?"
She grinned. "You won't like it."
"Again, it just says, 'Go.'"
"And you take that as confirmation that you should go to the palace?"
"It's the only . . . It's the issue over which I've particularly struggled of late." She tried to banish the other issue she'd also wrestled with, the issue about her feelings for Dixon. "It's the only thing it could mean," she said, perhaps as much to convince herself as the others. But she wondered. Was the oracle actually suggesting she go on without Dixon?
"All right, so you go to the palace and you take Basha along. What's this about sending part of the group away with the scepter, if you get it, after your return?"
She twirled her half empty glass. "It just makes sense. I still need to learn whatever I can from sanctuary resources, but that's going to take time. I don't want to retrieve the crown until I have to. Why risk that when it goes missing, the city becomes subject to the authorities' searches? In the meantime, I might at least get the scepter to safety."
"She's right," Jules said. As per their usual behavior, he and Samuel had been quiet throughout. Perhaps it was their reluctance to offer comment during discussion that gave their conclusions such an air of authority when finally they voiced them.
"I agree," Samuel added.
"Are you sure I can't accompany you?" Dixon asked.
Mara looked at him and smiled. "Thank you, Dixon. I appreciate it. Really, I do. But I'm quite sure that I should take Basha. It makes sense. You have to admit that." She saw that he didn't seem pleased. "You'll just have to forego the pleasure of traveling by magic this time."
"Well, I guess I know when I'm beaten."
***Thank you for taking time with Oathtaker. I sincerely appreciate your votes and welcome your comments.***
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 createspace.com/4767727, in print and for your Kindle on Amazon (see the link) and from Barnes and Noble for your Nook.
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An Oath Sworn. A Struggle Engaged. A Sacrifice Required. When Mara, a trained Oathtaker, is drawn by the scent of the Select to battle underworld beasts summoned by powers of evil to destroy the guardians of life, she swears a life oath for the prot...