Chapter 12, Part 2-1

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"Therese, you say?"

"Yes, that's right."

Mara's guest, moving with extraordinary grace, took a single step inside. Her dark mink brown hair was burnished with highlights of copper. Her skin, creamy with a hint of rose, was flawless, but for a small jagged scar across her forehead. She stood with her hands loose at her sides, exhibiting no fear.

Mara could still smell and taste, faintly, the colors purple, yellow, and blue. The lingering scents reminded her of cooking smells left hanging in a kitchen hours after a meal had been prepared therein. As they dissipated, she made out another—it was the one she'd earlier identified as delicate. It was a soft combination of water lily, apricot, amber, apple, guava, mandarin, wild tuberose, vanilla, tiare flowers and—yes, very vaguely—dark chocolate. It was the woman's scent of the Select.

In a glance, Therese's eyes took in the details of the room.

Again, Mara noticed something vaguely familiar about her.

The two young men remained at Therese's sides. They might at first glance have been mistaken for twins, due to their similar size and coloring. On closer examination, their features actually shared little in common.

The woman gestured to her right. "This is Jules."

He nodded. His sandy blond hair was cut short around his ears and was squared off at his neck. He sported a square jaw, a broad nose, and eyes the green of a peacock feather.

"And this is Samuel." She nodded to her left.

Samuel's deep brown eyes were flecked with gold. Like Jules, he wore his hair clipped short. His muscles tense, his jaw set, he nodded at Mara, then at Nina.

"What can I do for you, Therese?"

"I wondered if I might speak with you."

Mara hesitated. Meeting the woman's gaze, she said, "Go on, then."

"Jules, Samuel, I'll find you back at our rooms shortly. I think this young woman may feel more at ease without you in attendance, and I'm perfectly safe with her."

After a moment's hesitation, they left. Therese closed the door behind them, then turned back.

Mara gestured toward a chair. "May I interest you in a glass of wine?"

"Thank you, no. Not just now."

"So . . . you'd like to speak with me?"

"Yes."

"What's on your mind then?" Mara didn't intend to be impolite, but the woman made her uncomfortable.

"I noticed you and your companion," Therese said as she looked toward Nina, "and the infants," she continued as her eyes shifted toward the girls, "in the dining room this evening."

"Yes?"

The woman sat forward, elbows on the table, touching together the tips of her fingers. She tilted her head to the side. "I thought you might be a trained Oathtaker when I noticed how carefully you surveyed the room—how aware of everyone you seemed."

"Yes?"

"And," Therese hesitated, "I noticed your reaction to the news of Dixon Townsend." She paused, then leaned in. "Tell me. How is he?"

A knock came at the door. The chambermaid inquired whether there was anything further they would require for the evening.

"Would you mind asking for a fresh pot of tea?" Mara asked Nina.

"Not at all." Nina spoke with the maid. "It'll be sent over directly," she then said as she resumed her place on the edge of the bed.

"And your name is?" Therese asked Mara. "And hers?" she gestured toward Nina. "And the infants' names?"

"It seems to me, Therese, that your seeking me out is rather unusual. I understand you are Select, and you've rightly identified me as an Oathtaker, so you're aware I'm no threat to you. But that doesn't mean that I can trust you—or that I do trust you."

Mara placed her hands on the arms of her chair. "So, before I answer any of your questions, I have a few of my own."

"Fair enough."

"You say your name is Therese."

"That's right."

A sudden recollection of a dream from the night before startled Mara. It had seemed so real—the darkness of a woods, the mist from a waterfall, a skittering hare, hushed voices she could just make out from what felt like a hiding place behind a nearby tree, the almost tangible feel of danger. She'd thought little of it when she'd awakened. But now she closed her eyes for a moment, drawing forth the details. Then she looked back at her visitor.

"Tell me, Therese, where is your Oathtaker? I take it you are not the charge of either Jules or Samuel. They are bodyguards. Yes? Not Oathtakers."

The woman fidgeted.

"No, wait, I'll tell you," Mara continued as she held her hand up, palm out. "Basha is your Oathtaker," she whispered. "Currently she is at the palace in Shimeron, and she believes you to be dead."

Therese's mouth dropped open. She closed it, then pursed her lips.

"Rowena is—that is she was—your sister. You rather look like her, actually."

Therese said nothing.

"How am I doing so far?"

"How do you know these things?"

Mara held her hand up again. "Stop. First, would you care to explain why you'd leave Basha in the dark like this?"

Nina rose as the attendant called out that their order had arrived. She took the tray, closed the door, and then set the tea and fixings on the table. Then she poured three cups. The apple-like scent of chamomile filled the air. She gestured toward Therese, inviting the woman to help herself to the small cakes.

"It's a long story," Therese said.

"Yes, I imagine it is."

"How do you— How do you know about Basha?"

The Oathtaker shrugged. "Let's just say I have my sources. If your story rings true to what I know, then perhaps I can answer some of your questions."

If her dream had been true in the details Therese had just confirmed, then perhaps it was true in other respects as well. It had been so vivid, so real. It was less like Mara had summoned the thoughts while sleeping, and more like she'd physically experienced the place and events.

Therese tasted her tea, then added a spoonful of sugar. She stirred it in slowly. Tasting again, she nodded her approval.

"Well, you know some of the story. I'm Therese, a third. My Oathtaker was—I mean is—Basha." Her eyes locked on Mara's. "I miss her. She's been more than merely Oathtaker to me. She's family, sister, friend. I want to be with her, but . . . I can't just now."

"And why is that?" Mara blew gently on her tea to speed its cooling, watching her visitor over the edge of her cup.

"It's a long story, and a bit complicated."

The Oathtaker placed her cup back on its saucer. "I've got time." When Reigna stirred, she picked her up and placed her in Nina's arms. She never took her eyes from Therese.

"Is that your child?"

"No. No. No." Mara held her finger up, moving it back and forth with each word she spoke. "No questions from you as yet. I've given you the rules of our engagement. If you want answers from me, I'll first require answers from you."

"Sorry."

"So, you were saying?"


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