Well into the evening hours, the travelers neared Shimeron. Miles halted the group, then turned to Dixon. "It's time to take your place in the carriage."
Dixon dismounted, handed over Sherman's reins, then made his way to the carriage and stepped inside. As he settled in, the entourage proceeded.
Soon, from outside, came shouting. He couldn't make out the words. He turned to Lilith and broke his silence. "What's going on?"
"Oh, you'll see soon enough," she replied, her lips pursed.
From out of the darkness, the shouting became clearer. He looked out the window. A few dozen people stood near the gates to the palace grounds. Some marched. Their voices grew louder as the carriage approached. "Death to the Select!" they called out. Then, "Kill the Select!"
His mouth dropped open. He turned back to Lilith, who sat stone-faced. "What is going on here?"
"Well, Dixon," she responded, condescension dripping, "if you and Rowena had stayed here where you were needed, perhaps this wouldn't be happening."
"I don't understand. What is happening?"
Some of the protesters carried torches. Others carried signs hastily scrawled upon in letters of red, as though in blood, bearing slogans: "Down with the Select!" "The Select are Trouble!" "We didn't Select them!" They pressed in toward the travelers. "Death to the Select!" they shouted.
Something hit the carriage door, then came a thud overhead. Dixon flinched, even as the guardsmen closed in tightly around the carriage. Steel rang in the night air as they drew their swords. They pushed the crowd back with their threats of steel.
A scream rent the air.
"Back! Back, or you'll be next!" a guard ordered.
Dixon feared the carriage wouldn't make it to the gates before the guards harmed more members of the crowd.
After more scuffling and shouting, the carriage halted. Lilith sat, braced in her seat, Marshall at her side, his face expressionless. He held a sword in one hand, his Oathtaker's blade in the other.
"What has been going on here since we've been away?" Dixon asked of no one in particular.
Lilith held Pompom close to her heaving breast. "It's just the local rebels. Nothing to concern yourself about," she spat. "The Good One knows you haven't concerned yourself until now."
"That's ridiculous. Rowena was not responsible for this, nor am I. I don't know what's going on here, Lilith, but I won't allow you to press the blame that belongs to others, on me."
Men approached from the direction of the palace to open the gates. Shortly afterward, the procession advanced. Once inside, the guards escorted the carriage to the front of the white marble palace. It glistened in the moonlight. Wide steps rose up to the front doors. The flags topping the turrets flapped in the evening breeze.
Marshall rose as the carriage door opened. He stepped out, then turned to assist Lilith. She made her way to the ground and then with a nod, dismissed her escort.
Stable boys helped the guards with their mounts.
The carriage, of light pearl gray, with a variety of intricate painted designs depicting leaves and vines set forth in greens and yellows, was festooned with the remains of what the crowd had thrown: eggs, tomatoes, and other rotting goods unidentifiable by sight or by their nausea inducing intermingled odors. Assistants arrived to clean and inspect it.
Dixon hadn't missed anything about the palace. He dreaded its endless protocol. Walking just behind Lilith and Marshall, he felt like a prisoner. I am a prisoner, banded like this.
Up the long staircase they climbed as a staff member lit torches along the way. Flowerpots cast in designs of birds and animals flanked the edges of the steps. In the middle of the landing at the top, sat a fountain. Around it was room to lounge, provided one did not mind getting damp from the mist in the air. When they reached it, Dixon called out, "I'll see you tomorrow."
"Dixon, do come in. It's late, and that crowd can't be trusted," Lilith said. "You're a guest here and you'll soon discover that those discontents out there don't hold to finding any differences between the Select and other palace visitors—including Oathtakers."
He held up his banded forearm and glared. "A guest, you say? Banded? More like a prisoner. Or what, Lilith, a criminal?"
She frowned. "Don't be ridiculous. It's for your own protection."
"Let me get this straight. You band me, and in doing so shut me from the very powers I would use to protect myself or others. Then with a straight face, you tell me it's for my own good." He shook his head. "Really, if you can't be honest with yourself, you could at least be honest with me."
"Like I said, you're being ridiculous. There are plenty of people who might not think too kindly of you, what with Rowena's death and all."
"Judging by the welcome of the crowd out there," he said, pointing toward the gate, "you've managed to please the locals so well that I'd be considered a hero if they believed me responsible for her death."
Lilith huffed. "Come in now."
"I'll be in shortly."
She didn't want to leave him unattended. She tried to convince Marshall to stay behind, but he refused with a curt shake of his head; his duty was to her. In a flurry, she proceeded to the front door as someone opened it from within. So perfect was the timing of the palace staff that she didn't miss a beat with her steps.
***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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