Chapter 8, Part 1-1

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Mara opened the door to a gentle knocking. "Come on in if you like while I get the last of my things together."

"Nina," Dixon said as he stepped inside, "good morning. You're looking well today."

"The babies make me very happy."

"Good." He paused. "You know, I was thinking, it would help us tremendously if we knew your story. For safety sake, I mean. What with your having escaped from Chiran, it could prove difficult if someone came looking for you."

Nina's smiled dropped away. Her face turned ashen.

"Dixon," Mara chided. "Do you really think this is necessary? And now? The poor girl has been through so much."

"Please, sir," Nina said, "don't make me speak of Chiran." Her eyes welled with tears.

"Nina, of course we won't make you tell us anything you don't want to," Mara assured her.

The young Chiranian brushed away her tears. "I understand the girls are special Select so I'll tell you anything that could help you to keep them safe."

The Oathtakers looked at one another in surprise.

"I've seen the girls' signs," Nina offered by way of explanation.

"But how is it you're familiar with the signs of the Select?" Dixon asked.

"Many years ago, my mother worked for a family of Select. That was before things changed in Chiran—before Zarek." She closed her eyes, as though reliving the memories in her mind's eye. "When I was just a child, she told me how to identify one. 'Look for the sign they each wear,' she said. You know, like the girls have."

"It's imperative you keep silent about this," Dixon said. "If word gets out, the girls could be in grave danger." He shook his head and frowned. "Actually, I suppose it's really only fair we tell that even now, danger pursues us. Perhaps we should have told you all of this up front, but—"

She looked at Mara.

"I'm sorry, Nina, we should have told you earlier, but it's true. We're looking for a safe place to take the girls. Our mission is very dangerous."

"It wouldn't have made any difference. I think I've known all along, what with the way you two have behaved. But I don't care. I accept it as the price of being close to the girls. I won't say or do anything that could harm them."

Gently, the young woman stroked Eden's cheek, then reassembled her bodice and removed the blanket she'd used to maintain her modesty while nursing. She turned her attention back to the Oathtakers. "I swear, Mara, I would . . . give my life for these girls."

At that very moment, the earth shook.

Mara's eyes opened wide. She stumbled, then dropped onto the nearby bed as trinkets on the table and shelves rattled, and dust rained down from the ceiling. "Gracious Good One!" she cried.

Dixon stumbled, then regained his balance with a hand to the wall.

"What is it? What's happening?" Nina cried.

The floor stilled. The rattle of knickknacks and trinkets stopped.

"Nina, you're an Oathtaker!" Mara exclaimed.

"No! What's going on? I meant no harm, I swear!" The young woman's hands jittered. "Here, take her!" she exclaimed, handing Eden off. She returned to the edge of the bed and sat with her arms held tightly around herself, her knees up, in a sort of quasi-fetal position.

Ted called from down the stairs.

"I'll see to Ted and Faith," Dixon said.

"It's all right, Nina, you haven't done anything wrong. We just . . . Well, as you no doubt figured out, Dixon and I are Oathtakers." Mara knelt down and gently pressed Eden back into the young woman's arms. "When you swore to protect the girls, the earth shook much as it does when an Oathtaker accepts his charge." She searched Nina's face. "Did you feel anything else?"

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