Chapter 10, Part 3-1

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"Bernard! You startled me."

"Sorry, Dixon." The doorman entered with slow shuffling steps. He placed a stack of clean towels on the bureau. "Be careful," he said quietly as he made his way back to the door, opened it, then looked down the hall.

"Sure thing, Bernard. Thanks."

"See you in the morning then."

"Right. Good night. Thanks for the fresh towels."

The doorman waited, as though considering whether to say more, then softly made his way out.

If anyone was listening in, Dixon might have company on his trip. He didn't want to take that risk. He went to the balcony. A branch from a nearby oak reached toward his room, as though in invitation. He decided he would accept.

Rummaging through his backpack, he removed a rope, then confirmed that his Oathtaker's blade, Verity, was in its sheath. Its power wouldn't work while the band blocked his attendant magic, but it could still serve as a useful weapon.

He grabbed hold of the tree branch, then made his way to the ground. Guards at the gates to the east walked their beat. When the way was clear, he sprinted across the lawn, finding refuge behind statuary, trees, and shrubs, along the way. Upon reaching the south end of the lawn, he surveyed the area once again. Finding it clear, he dashed into the night.

Though he knew the palace grounds well, it was always riskier to move speedily in muted light. Fortunately, the sky was overcast, softening and spreading out the light of the two current moons. Still, his jaunt would have been much easier if the band didn't restrict his magic. Without it he had to move more slowly and use greater care.

When he reached the area near where Basha had instructed him to go, he slowed. He moved out from behind a tree. There she is. He raised his hand to catch her attention.

She placed a finger over her pursed lips, cautioning him to silence. Then she motioned him forward. When he reached her side, she clasped his arm and walked toward the falls.

Shortly, they came upon a pile of smooth boulders hidden among the branches of a willow. They sat. The rush of the falls thundered off to the side.

"Did anyone see you leave?"

"I don't think so."

"Good. I don't want anyone to overhear us. I chose this place with background noise so any magic that might enhance someone's hearing would be of little use."

He nodded. "Are you all right, Basha? Lilith said some terrible things at dinner."

"Welcome home, Dixon," she joked.

He laughed easily.

She pursed her lips in thought. "Dixon, things are amiss at the palace."

"You think?"

The two shared another laugh before her demeanor became serious. "Dixon, there are so many things I need to tell you. So many questions I have. I'm troubled and I'm confused. Thank you for speaking with me. I'm so grateful to have found a friend here." Just as when Therese had fallen from the cliff, Basha seemed visibly shaken.

"What is it?"

She stood and paced a couple steps forward, then a couple back. Sitting back down, she grasped his hands. "Dixon, I fear for you. Lilith is . . . She is—"

"Not right?"

"Yes." Basha smiled. "Oh, how I've missed your easy ways. Even in the midst of trouble you can always make me laugh!"

"I guess it's just my charm, huh?"

She laughed wholeheartedly. "Oh, Dixon," she said as her voice softened, "I know this is a sad thing losing Rowena, and likely you're not ready to think about this now, but . . . Well, after your grieving, you might find you want to share your life with someone. Perhaps she's out there, even now, looking for you. Who knows? Maybe she's already found you and you just don't know it yet."

He chuckled. "Oh, I rather doubt that." He hung his head and shook it, still smiling. "You remember, huh?"

"Remember! How could I forget? What a funny story."

"And to think my own mother told you."

"Yes. So funny! She told me you were such a moody teenager, always cranky and scowling. She could never get you to ease up. 'One day, I told him,' she said to me, 'one day I told him that if he ever finds a woman who thinks he's charming, he'll be sure to know he's found his future wife!' Goodness, it's still just as funny today as it was back then."

"Yes, well it became a habit for me, you know? Before I took my first oath, I told every engaging woman I met that I had the gift of charm. None of them seemed to believe me!" He grinned, then became serious. "Maybe that's why I found it so easy to swear an oath first for Judith, and later for Rowena." He paused. "Figured no one else would have me."

"Not true, Dixon." Basha shook her head. "Not true at all." She smiled at him. "Why there will be many women who would be honored to know that in you they've found a man willing to swear an oath—a man who's shown himself able to live up to what it means." She paused. "Why, if I were a few years younger myself . . ."

He caught her eye and together they laughed again.

"Really, you might consider starting to ask the question again."

He smirked, but then became somber. What was it that had prompted him to tell Mara that he had the gift of charm? It was ridiculous. She had a charge. Even though he was now free, she was not. It was absurd, really. He turned to Basha. "Why don't you tell me what's going on? Why are you at the palace? I thought you'd gone back to—"

"I had—gone back to my hometown in Anka—yes," she interrupted, "but I missed the palace so. And . . . oh, never mind. You'll think I'm crazy." She turned away.

He placed his hand on her back. "I could never think you're crazy. Believe me. I've seen crazy. I've met crazy!" He paused for effect and then said, "Her name is Lilith."

Basha chuckled.

"Really, why do you say I would think badly of you? What's going on?"


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