Chapter 12, Part 1-1

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Rain fell, pit, pat, drip, drop. Guests ran inside as it grew heavier. The flash of far off lightning momentarily shone through the window, then abruptly died away.

"So Erin didn't make it?"

Nina shook her head. A tear fell down her check. "No. I had to get away for the sake of my child, so I went without her—and I'll never be able to forgive myself for that."

Mara shook her head. "It's not your fault."

"I guess it doesn't matter much. I escaped, then lost my child anyway."

"You did the right thing. You sought your freedom—and you got it."

"All right."

"No, I mean it. You have a purpose—with me now. With us. Reigna and Eden need you."

Nina pulled herself up from the softness of the goose down bed and made her way to the window. She pulled the curtain aside and peeked out. The rain came down in a torrent.

"I had no use for the jewels, so I left them, but I took about half the coins, leaving the others for Krippet," she said. "I reasoned that if he should return to Zarek's palace with another load on another day, and if Erin could steal away with him, he still would have been paid handsomely for his help. If not, he was certainly well paid for mine."

She dropped the curtain and turned back. "I knew he was headed toward Mansk. At least that was nearer the border with Oosa, not further inward. I thought he might get curious when he was far enough from the palace to see what the purse held, so I wrapped the remaining coins up tightly, moved to the back of the wagon, and awaited a good time to make my escape."

Reigna started to fuss. Nina lifted the infant and breathed in deeply of her heady fragrance. It was a complicated, consuming scent.

"When the wagon slowed sufficiently, I meant to jump," she said as she sat back down, "but I was six months pregnant. I couldn't jump far or run terribly fast. Some time later, Krippet stopped at a small inn in Mansk. When I heard him making his way down, I quickly made my escape. I don't believe he ever saw me, and I never looked back."

"You must have been very frightened."

"Actually, 'petrified' would be a more accurate word." The young woman smiled tenuously. "There isn't much else. I used the coins for a change of clothing and foodstuffs, then purchased rides on carts moving through the countryside when I could.

"As I got closer to the border of Oosa, I discovered more soldiers, so I hiked the remaining distance, keeping hidden. My journey took me nearly six weeks."

She cuddled Reigna closely. The infant buried her face into her breast, communicating her hunger, which Nina was ready and able to assuage.

"As you know, the Nix River and mountain range border parts of Chiran and Oosa. It was just after I crossed the mountains, on the last leg of my journey, that I lost my child."

"I'm so sorry."

"Stillborn." Nina looked away. "She was stillborn."

A flash of lightning peeked through the curtains. Thunder now mingled with it, rather than following several heartbeats behind.

Neither of the women spoke for several minutes.

Mara stood and stretched, then took in a deep cleansing breath. She cocked her head. "What is that?"


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