Chapter 10, Part 2-1

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Darkness descended as palace residents and guests gathered for dinner, all dressed grandly for the occasion. Lilith had left the staff with orders to seat Dixon at her left, Edmond to her right.

Dixon was disappointed that Marshall would occupy the position directly across the table, as he would like to have spoken with the man. Now he couldn't do so without speaking before Lilith.

Farther down the table, Rowena's sisters, Sally and Janine, sat near their Oathtakers, Ronald and Gisele. A number of other palace regulars filled the remaining places.

Dixon had had no time to himself all day. Edmond, with him unceasingly, suggested one activity after another: a hike, target shooting, even ales before dinner. Dixon was getting the uneasy feeling that Lilith had called upon his friend to keep an eye on him. He knew Edmond was concerned for his welfare, but felt it insincere of him to do Lilith's bidding without first apprising him of the details. And if all that wasn't enough, now he had to sit through a stuffy, pretentious dinner.

Lilith had sent out a public notice earlier providing that the rank of leader of the first family had reverted back to Rowena's siblings. More specifically, it had reverted to her. Accordingly, she was to be last to enter the dining room.

Only a few empty seats remained. In his frustration, Dixon leaned back and closed his eyes. He kept his hands clasped behind his head. He tried to breathe easily and to remain calm, but it was difficult, knowing that Lilith was taking Rowena's place, and of course, he could tell no one the truth—that Lilith was not the ranking member of the first family—without also disclosing the truth about Reigna and Eden.

Minutes later, Lilith arrived. Guests pushed back their chairs, got to their feet and quietly applauded. Dixon huffed, then joined them. He didn't care that he was the last to do so. He clapped once . . . twice.

She stood in the doorway, her right arm resting on Marshall's, her left cuddled around Pompom. Her red dress—for Lilith always wore red—made her look as though she'd bathed in someone's blood. It shone in the lamplight, spraying sparkles around the room. Cut to expose a great deal of flesh, it hugged her body like a second skin.

She sauntered toward the dining table, stopping momentarily to hand her pet off to an attendant. Pompom barked her discontent.

When Lilith arrived at her seat, she simply stood. The applause died away.

A moment passed.

Another moment passed.

Then, suddenly and simultaneously, both Dixon and Edmond rushed to pull out her chair. Edmond won the tug of war. He assisted Lilith, then remained standing until both she and Dixon sat.

The Oathtaker scowled. His frustration building, he remained silent. He was tired of Lilith's games. He was tired of the band on his arm and the physical discomfort it caused by cutting him off from his magic. Strange how much more vivid something is when it's absent. But most of all, he was tired of his inability to leave the palace and return to Mara's side.

He wondered if his being cooperative and malleable was the right approach. It only seemed to encourage Lilith. Perhaps being surly would work better. He had nothing to lose in trying.

He glanced around the table. "Basha!" he exclaimed, surprised at finding a familiar face. "What are you doing here?" Apparently she, seated diagonally across from him, had arrived just moments before Lilith, while he'd been ignoring everyone.

Basha had changed some since he'd last seen her, although she still looked like she was in her late twenties or so. As an Oathtaker, she'd held her physical age for all the years Dixon had known her. But she seemed to have aged in some other way—spiritually perhaps, or maybe emotionally. It was as though her cares were too burdensome.

Her traditionally slim athletic build was somewhat rounder than when he'd last seen her. She wore her hair as always, cut straight around, just below her ears. It glittered like gold. Notwithstanding a difference in her countenance from days gone by, some overall sadness, her eyes still shone with the same genuineness and friendliness that he remembered from the past.

She looked him fully in the eyes. "Dixon, it is so very good to see you." Her voice was low, soft and comforting, like the sound of an old favored melody.

A waiter moved over Dixon's shoulder, filling his wine glass for the first course. Another followed behind with a crystal pitcher, to fill his water glass.

As the Oathtaker allowed the wait staff room to maneuver, his gaze held Basha's. He lifted his glass and tasted. Though not a great wine enthusiast, he could appreciate a good vintage at least as well as most. "It does my heart good to see you, Basha. What has it been? Four? Five years?"

"Nearly five."

He looked down at the table, as did she. She cleared her throat, then looked back up, again meeting his eyes.

"Tell me, Basha, have you found the pain lessen any?"

She shrugged, then blinked repeatedly, as though holding tears at bay. "Some. Not entirely." She smiled weakly.

"That has been my experience as well." He raised his brow. "Even after the years that have passed, there just are no words, are there? I am so very sorry."

He remembered the day Basha had lost her charge as though it was yesterday. The first family of the Select, Rowena, Lilith, Sally, Janine, Therese, Dianna and Eve, along with Rowena's husband, Grant, Dianna's husband, Michael, and Eve's husband, Newland, were on an outing on the grounds far out from the palace. Their Oathtakers, Dixon, Marshall, Ronald, Gisele, Basha, Kenneth, and Marcel, accompanied them.

Assassinations of the Select in the surrounding communities had been increasing, but everyone believed they were safe on palace grounds. Even so, their children were not in attendance. Their parents had already sent them away to various places for their safety.

After an early hunt, the family made its way to a favorite picnic area near a cliff above the Mando River. The day had started with a fresh rain, but then gradually warmed, leaving the verdant green grasses begging for company. It was an appeal the family was all too happy to grant. They relaxed and visited, enjoying one another's company and freedom from duty for the day.

No one knew who shot the arrows that suddenly intruded upon their tranquility. When they realized they were under attack, Dixon and Marshall ran toward the source. The remaining Oathtakers surrounded the first family.

Basha and her charge, Therese, stood at the edge of a cliff a short distance from the others, overlooking a waterfall. When they heard screams over the surging water, Basha quickly calculated the risks of rushing her charge to safety with the others.

It was then that Therese staggered and fell down the cliff and into the water. Basha tried to catch her, but was a step too far away. No one knew if an arrow had hit Therese, but even if not, the likelihood of her surviving the fall was slim. Still, Basha demanded that a full guard accompany her to search the area and then to explore further downstream for several miles.

The hunt stretched out for days, but they never recovered Therese's body. She was the first of the first family to meet her demise. The event seemed to cause the family to start to unravel, stitch by stitch. All of Rowena's earlier work to bring them together, which had appeared to be taking hold, was coming apart.

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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 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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