Zaeraiah huddled on the stone step on the landing of the tower, where she had met Korbin only a few days before. Had it really only been a few days? It was a warm summer night but she shivered, and drew her cape tighter around her.
‘Raiah?’ His thoughts reached out to her.
He sat beside her. As she put her face up and squared her shoulders, her cape slid off of her head, exposing her throat. In the light of the full moon, Korbin could see the bruise marks at the center of Zaeraiah’s throat.
“He did this to you?”
She nodded, her eyes locking with his.
“I should have heard you scream.”
“I had no time to scream. His Gift is extraordinary strength. His thumb on my throat was enough to silence me.”
“Zaeraiah! You cannot marry him.”
“I will not marry Lord Jarrad.” She shook her head as she said this, her voice stony and determined.
“He could kill you if you fought back!”
“He could kill me even if I didn’t. Did you know what it felt like to be inches arms, Korbin? It felt like he could kill me with a snap of his fingers.”
“Stop!” He took her in his arms. “I cannot hear this!”
“I am leaving Bast tonight, Korbin.”
He caressed her cheek gently. “Not without me,” Korbin told Zaeraiah.
* * *
They made a plan to leave just before dawn, when the night watch changed. They would wait in Zaeraiah’s chambers, where she could gather her coins and jewelry, things that they could sell along the journey.
When Zaeraiah had packed what she needed to bring she sat wearily on her bed. Korbin noticed how tired she looked.
“Rest a little, Raiah,” he told her. “We have some time before we need to go.”
She nodded, and lay back on her cushion. “And you?”
“I will stand guard by your door.”
“Nonsense,” she said, stretching out her hand. “We both could stand some rest before we go.”
He came and sat by her, putting his arms around her. He leaned back on the cushions as well.
She turned to him and whispered softly, and he had to bring his face right next to hers so he could hear her words.
“Right here and now, with you,” Zaeraiah told Korbin, “is the happiest I’ve been all my life.”
* * *
Zaeraiah and Korbin had not dozed off for more than a few minutes when Dame Oshetta came bursting in with a candle.
“Lady Zaeraiah, I really must wake you. Your lady mother…oh!” She cried, startled at the sight of Korbin.
“Guards, guards!” Dame Oshetta cried out, rushing out of Zaeraiah’s chambers.
Zaeraiah ran to follow her. “Dame Oshetta! No, please…”
But it was too late, the guards had heard Dame Oshetta’s cries and three of them trooped into the room.
“Dame! Stop this at once, please. I can explain everything. Don’t you see that this is Korbin, whom I have known since my earliest youth? And we are both fully dressed, Dame. There is no need for this,” Zaeraiah said, turning to the guards.
Dame Oshetta shook her head sternly. “That is for Lord Jondell to decide. But now you must go to your mother, who has taken a turn for the worse.”
She turned to the guards, “Keep young Meister Korbin here until I come back. Now come along, my Lady.”
On the way to her mother’s bedchamber Zaeraiah kept alternately asking Dame Oshetta about her mother’s condition, and begging for her not to tell Lord Jondell about Korbin in her room.
Dame Oshetta maintained a stony silence, saying only, “You are overwrought, child.”
Zaeraiah found her father at her mother’s bedside. Lady Sonaly’s breathing was labored, and her body was twisted as if in great pain. Her father looked up at Zaeraiah sorrowfully.
“Father,” she told him urgently. “I have the healing Gift. The Crone confirmed this on my sixteenth Name Day. Let me lay my hands on her, please.”
Lord Jondell stepped aside. Zaeraiah knelt by her mother’s bedside, closed her eyes, and put her hand on her mother’s clammy forehead. “By the heavens above I impart my gift,” she whispered.
After a few minutes she felt the familiar heat in her palms, radiating into her fingers, and then slowly, her mother’s breathing went back to normal, and her body straightened out. She opened her eyes, once, and squeezed her daughter’s hand. And then she closed them again.
“She is sleeping normally now,” said Dame Biani.
“By the heavens above,” Lord Jondell said.
“We give our thanks,” Zaeraiah, Dame Oshetta and Dame Biani answered.
“I will thank you to stay with your lady mother tonight, Zaeraiah,” Lord Jondell said.
Zaeraiah nodded, exhausted. She sat by her mother’s side, still holding her hand.
“Would you step outside with me, Lord Jondell?” Dame Oshetta said. “I must have a word with you.”
* * *
An hour later, just as the sun rose, Zaeraiah and Korbin stood before the Council of Elders. Lord Jondell had called them in quietly, not wishing to get the attention of Lord Jarrad and the others from Keat.
It was a trial, there was no other word for it. Both Korbin and Zaeraiah were found guilty.
“Guilty of what?” Zaeraiah cried out. “We did nothing wrong!”
“Young woman, the fact that Korbin was in your room is enough to earn him the punishment of death. But he had your jewels in his pockets, and planned to run away with you.”
Zaeraiah clutched her throat. “This is all my fault. I wanted to run away from my marriage to Lord Jarrad, and Korbin took pity on me and wanted to help me. Please, let him go.”
The Crone shook her head. “He has already confessed to his love for you, my Lady. He is not without fault. That is a transgression of the Ancient Rule.”
Meister Tollin, one of the elders said, “He deserves death by hanging today.”
Lord Jondell said, “No.”
Zaeraiah looked up in hope. Her father continued, “Not today, or else my daughter’s shame shall be known throughout the realm. We wait until after the wedding and Zaeraiah has been transported to Keat. It is only a few days’ time.”
Meister Tollin nodded, “A wise decision, my Lord.”
Zaeraiah begged, “Father, you cannot kill Korbin. You have known his father, Meister Willem, since you were boys. I beg of you. Korbin and I will never see each other again, but please let him live.”
“Then Father, I will not marry Lord Jarrad. He’s nothing but a brute. He could have killed me last night!”
“I will have no more of your nonsense, daughter. Guards! Take her to the north tower. A few days alone will change her mind!”
Korbin watched aghast as the guards began to drag Zaeraiah away.
The Crone began to open her mouth to speak, but she was interrupted by Meister Willem. “Lord Jondell, Council, may I speak?”
The council exchanged glances. Nobody said a word. Finally Lord Jondell said, “Speak, Willem.”
“Thank you, my Lord.” Korbin’s father was pale and was sweating profusely. Zaeraiah saw that his hands were trembling as he grasped the back of the chair in front of him. “If I recall correctly there is one way to escape a death sentence, and that is for the guilty one to go on a Quest. Am I right, Dame Hulde?”
She nodded. “Yes, Meister.”
“Then my son may take that option? He would leave this same day.”
“Dame!” Zaeraiah cried out from the back of the room. “The dragonsblood bloom in the Stone Cliffs. To cure my Lady mother!”
“Take her away now!” Lord Jondell was red in the face with vexation. “What foolishness she talking about, Crone?”
Dame Hulde turned to Lord Jondell. “She speaks rightly. There is a chapter in the Ancient Rule that says illnesses such as Lady Sonaly’s may be cured by the extract of the dragonsblood bloom. And it can only be found at the Stone Cliffs.”
“Has anyone ever come back from the Stone Cliffs?”
“No, my Lord.”
“Have any mere telluric ever come back from a Quest alive?”
“No, my Lord.”
“Therefore this is a death sentence either way.”
Dame Hulde shook her head. “Do not say this, my Lord. There is no telling what young Meister Korbin, with help from the heavens, can do. And if he comes back with the plant he will be able to save my Lady.”
Korbin stepped forward. “I accept the Quest.”
Lord Jondell said, “Very well, Korbin. If you succeed, you make come back and live peacefully in Bast for the rest of your days. And if you fail, we shall never see you again. Perhaps we may never know your fate. Accompany your son to the very gates of the realm, Willem. Be glad that I have allowed you to bid each other goodbye.”