Chapter 12, Part 3-1

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"Well, I don't know."

"It's perfectly fine by me if you should choose to say nothing further."

"It's just . . . Well . . ."

"Go on," Mara encouraged after a moment of silence.

Therese glanced Nina's way, opened her mouth as though to speak, then stopped.

Mara followed her visitor's gaze. "You may speak freely."

Therese looked embarrassed to have had her thoughts studied. "Very well then. I'll chance you would bear our group no ill will, that you would take no risks with our safety." She paused as she warmed her tea. "Our leader is Lucy," she said as a flash of lightning shone through the curtained window. Shuddering thunder followed.

Mara smiled and turned to Nina. "Would you kindly step out for just a moment?"

The young woman stood, handed Reigna off, then exited.

Mara reached into her pocket and clasped the compact. "This is how Lucy and the rest of you stayed in contact with Rowena," she said as she pulled her hand out and opened her fist.

Therese gasped. "Where did you get that? That belongs to Rowena!"

"'Belonged to Rowena."

"Yes! But where— How did you come to possess it?"

Mara turned the compact in her hands, admiring again the beauty of the workmanship of the object. She returned it to her pocket. "I'd like to invite Nina to return. I only sent her out so that I could respond to your question."

"She doesn't know about it then?"

"No. It seemed best to keep this particular detail to myself—at least for now."

"How did you come by it? It's a most crucial, most secretive, most powerful item!"

"I'm aware of that."

"You've used it?"

"Yes."

"And . . . you've spoken with Lucy?"

"Yes."

"Again I say, 'who are you?'"

"I'm Mara. I'm Oathtaker to this child and also to the other lying just there." She nodded toward Eden.

Therese looked at the infant. "Two charges? I've never heard of such a thing. And pray tell, who are these children?"

Mara took hold of the blanket swaddled around Reigna, then lifted away the portion covering her face.

"Therese," she said as she bowed first at Reigna, then at her visitor, "I would like you to meet your niece, Rowena's daughter, a seventh seventh, Reigna."

The woman's mouth dropped open. "Rowena's daugh— My niece! Oh!"

"But there's more."

"More?"

"Yes. You see, I also need to introduce you to another." Mara placed Reigna on the bed, then crouched down for Eden.

"Therese," she said as she moved the blanket from the child's face, "I'd also like to introduce you to another of your nieces, Eden. She is also Rowena's daughter and—and don't ask me what to call her!"

"I . . . I . . ." Therese stuttered. Her eyes darted from one of the children to the other.

"You seem to be at a loss for words."

"Why," the woman gasped, "I am!" She held her hand to her throat. "When I heard the news of Rowena's death, I guess I just assumed the child hadn't survived. Oh, but this is wonderful! Two babies. How is that even possible? Does Lucy know? How'd you get the compact? Did Rowena tell you of it? How well did you know her? Where did you meet her? When—"

"Stop!" Mara held her hand out. "I told you I'd fill you in, and I will. For now, let's just agree to say nothing further of our means of communicating with Lucy."

"Yes, of course."

"Fine. I'll have Nina return. Then I'll tell you my story—that is, the girls' story."

The Oathtaker invited Nina back into the room, then resumed her seat.

"Oh, they both are so beautiful!" Therese exclaimed.

"Would you like to hold them?"

Therese's eyes glossed with unshed tears. "Oh, may I?"

Mara placed Reigna in her aunt's arms.

Therese touched and petted the child. She inhaled deeply of her fragrance.

Mara then placed Eden into the woman's other arm.

"They are both so lovely!"

"Yes."

"Oh, what I wouldn't do for these little ones! You have my word, Mara, I would do anything to protect them." Therese looked adoringly at the twins. "I swear, I would . . . I would die to protect these girls!"

Just as her words were spoken, the ground shook. The windows rattled and the lamplight flickered.

Her eyes opened wide. "What was that?"


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