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A surge told Alodi it was time to break the Circle. She snapped her eyes shut, and immediately her surroundings pressed in on her awareness. She heard the other members of the Circle give little moans as they stretched, heard the bones click as cramps were shaken out of legs and cricks eased out of backs. Alodi kept her eyes closed as she went through the prescribed ritual- neck, shoulders, arms, trunk, hips, thighs, knees, ankles, feet. Down. Push the tension down, away from the head and out of the body. When she was relaxed, she opened her eyes and saw that one of her members, Kilian, had already left. She frowned; he was young and vigorous, yes, but he could not possibly have had time enough to relax properly.
Alodi waited as the other members of her Circle opened their eyes, letting the last bit of awareness flow over them. She watched those eyes; not until the last hint of glaze was gone did she stand up to lead the way to the Dining Hall. Now that they had relaxed, they needed to replenish their energy.
Alodi loaded her plate indiscriminately with food. Energy was energy, and, with three out of her Circle, today had been exhausting.
Vani came up noiselessly beside Alodi's chair and set a plate down beside her. Alodi gave her a nod of greeting, but they waited to speak till their plates were empty. "I was missing two today," Vani offered finally as she sipped her drink, a sweet fruit syrup.
"There were three out of mine." Alodi focused on her stomach. Did she need more food? No, she felt comfortably full.
"Is it the same ones every day?"
"Some more than others."
Vani shook her head slowly. "It's beginning to affect the rest of us. I've caught our concentration wavering several times."
Alodi pursed her lips, but made no answer.
"Why doesn't Orlan do something?"
"It is not for us to tell Orlan how to manage the Dreamers," Alodi said reprovingly.
"I'm sorry," Vani said hurriedly, afraid of giving offense. She was newly a Circle Leader and was not yet secure in the role. "But maybe," she ventured, "maybe Orlan is not totally aware of the extent of the situation."
"And you are?" Alodi said with a slight smile.
"Well, I do hear things, Vani said defiantly.
"Such as?" Alodi's gaze was compelling. As a Senior Circle Leader, she held a great deal of authority.
"Well, I just know that when I was in the ranks, a lot of us were ... tired."
"We're all tired. But we can't stop. Too many people would die." A note of exasperation crept into Alodi's voice. This younger generation of Dreamers just did not see to realize how vital their work was. Where would the Protectorate be if Alodi and the other older Dreamers gave in to the weariness that had been with them for years?
"Of course. I agree with you. But some of them, the younger ones, don't. They feel we should use our power for ourselves, not for the Protectorate."
"I guess it is not easy to be a Dreamer, especially a young one," Alodi allowed. "I was discontent too at first."
"It's different now," Vani insisted. "The young ones actually talk of refusing to go to Circle."
"They say that?" Now this was serious. The Dreamers must stay In Circle.
"Oh, they say it jokingly. You know, 'We ought to just not show up someday and see what happens.' That type of thing. But there is an undercurrent of seriousness there."
Now it was Alodi who sighed, not liking the implication of Vani's words. "I have been too long a Circle Leader. I have not heard anything of this. Is it common?"
"I don't know. I was left out of many things once it became apparent I would be promoted to Leader."
"It appears this may be more serious than any of us have realized." With troubled eyes, Alodi stood up and gathered her tray. "It is easy for us who have been Dreamers for many years to forget how drab this City is, especially to the younger ones. Next time I see Orlan, I will talk to him about it. Till again, Vani."
Alodi arrived at her room half prepared to dismiss Vani's words as imaginative speculation. Vani was still young and fanciful. Yet, Alodi could not ignore the fact that Vani was closer to the younger Dreamers and just might have put her finger onto something.
For the first time in many years, Alodi took a good hard look at her room, trying to see it as though she had just arrived in the City. A cell. That is what it had seemed to her then. Gray walls with no windows; cold, hard floors with only a bed to break the monotony. Now it was a little better; she had added a chair and a blanket. And a kithar, her beloved kithar, without which she would go mad. It was her only link to home on days when she did not have enough energy to visit.
She had been here so long; too long. Could she really have become so out of touch with the younger Dreamers? It wasn't that long in years since she had been young, but time dragged in the City, and she knew she had aged more than the years would indicate. Especially since becoming a Circle Leader. The responsibility lay too heavily upon her; she couldn't remember when was the last time she had gone to the recreation lounge for an evening of relaxation. Looking back, she remembered that when she was a young Dreamer, the older ones had never come to the Lounge. And now, she was an older Dreamer.
There was a recreation lounge at the end of the level. Alodi grabbed her kithar as she headed out the door. Perhaps the younger ones would appreciate an evening of music.
She was startled when she entered. She remembered the lounge as a peaceful place, but as drab as the rest of the City. The furniture had been comfortable, but functional - couches, upholstered chairs, scattered tables. The Dreamers had added their own color with conversation, games, music and laughter. But now the room was radiant with brightly colored lights and carpeted with thick, soft animal fur, while the restful, functional sofas had been replaced with plush cushions of vivid colors. As Alodi entered, the young Dreamers who were draped around the room jumped to their feet. Instantly the room changed back to the barren one she had always known.
Alodi was furious. She forgot that she had come to try and get in touch with these youngsters, forgot that she had come to give them an enjoyable evening of music and song. She looked around, recognizing several faces from her Circle. They lowered their heads in embarrassment, all except one, the powerful young Dreamer named Kilian. Alodi's gaze passed over him and focused on the girl seated next to him. "Malva, you were not In Circle today. I am glad to see you are feeling better."
"Thank you, Leader," Malva mumbled, avoiding Alodi's eyes.
"I will expect to see you, each of you-" Alodi let her gaze rest on each of her Circle members, lingering an especially long time on Kilian's face, "- In Circle tomorrow so don't waste all your energy tonight." She turned and left the room quickly. She was genuinely alarmed. Vani had been right; something needed to be done immediately. How could Orlan have allowed things to degenerate so?
The Overleader was in his room and seemed happy to see Alodi. He invited her in and offered her some fruit juice.
"Please, Alodi, sit down and tell me why you have come. Is this a social call?" He looked at her hopefully.
"No, regretfully," Alodi said with a smile and sat on the room's only chair. "Orlan, I've come to talk to you about the younger Dreamers. I'm concerned at the way they flaunt our rules. We mustn't let it continue."
Orlan patted her hand comfortingly. "Now, Alodi, they're just youngsters. They'll come around. They're restless. It happens every few generations or so."
"I think it is more than that. I stopped by one of the lounges tonight. There were several young Dreamers there, some from my Circle, one who was out today, even. They had decorated the lounge quite extravagantly, but as soon as they saw me, they snapped the vision."
Orlan frowned, "And one who was too sick to be In Circle today was participating?"
"I don't know if the vision was partly hers or not, but she was there. And I fear that some of those who were creating this vision tonight will be too sick to be In Circle tomorrow."
"They were expending energy, energy we need!"
"I still don't think there is anything to worry about, Alodi. Unless," Orlan held up an admonishing finger, "unless you and the other older Dreamers allow yourselves to get so worked up about the younger ones' antics that you are unable to function In Circle yourselves. Then we will have a problem."
Alodi sighed and gritted her teeth. "But-"
"No buts, Alodi. You take care of your Circle. That's your responsibility. I'll take care of the Dreamers. That responsibility is mine."
"Yes, sir," Alodi said wearily. She stood and nodded curtly to Orlan as she left his room. Outside in the hall she stood and clenched and unclenched her fists several times, forcing her anger down out of her body. Orlan was the Overleader. It was not for her to second-guess his leadership.
She returned to her room and flung herself on the bed. "How that man ever got to be Overleader, I'll never know."
Her friend and lover, Silvan, looked up from the tunic he was mending. "Orlan?"
"Who else?" In a few words Alodi told him of her conversation with Vani, the scene in the lounge, and her subsequent conversation with Orlan.
Silvan raised his eyebrows. "Do you really think matters are that serious?"
"Well, we certainly need to take come kind of action. We can't just ignore the problem and hope it will go away. Which," Alodi admitted ruefully, "is exactly what I've been doing."
Silvan put his mending aside and came to massage her shoulders. "Are you visiting tonight?" he asked gently.
Alodi reached a hand up to his. "I don't know. I haven't been for a while." She lowered her head. "He's getting married tomorrow."
"I know." Silvan sat beside her and she rested her head on his shoulder. "Do you mind?"
"Yes, and no. I certainly can't blame him; he's been faithful to me far longer than I was to him." An uncomfortable silence followed. Then Alodi continued softly, "I wish I could be unselfish enough to say that as long as he is happy, I'm happy, but I'm not. It will be hard to see him go to another woman."
"It might be good for Flita, though."
"How do you figure that?"
"It might force her to leave home, to come to us."
"Yes, it might at that." Alodi caught her breath. "Silvan? She will make it, won't she?"
Silvan laughed reassuringly. "I have absolutely no worries on that score. Flita has more power than I've seen in years, more power, in fact, than I've seen since I brought her mother here." He brushed Alodi's hair away from her face. "Now, shall we visit?"
Alodi nodded and together they sent their minds out to a tiny little stone cottage on the outskirts of the Protectorate.
Alric and Flita were seated in their customary spots before the fire. Flita cradled her kithar, a many-sided instrument with several sets of strings, on her lap and strummed idly. Alric stared deeply into the flames of the fire.
"Does Lorola know about me?" As soon as she said it, Flita knew it was a stupid question. If Lorola knew she was a Dreamer, she would not have invited Alric to marry her.
Alric's face clouded. "She knows your mother was a Dreamer, and that does not distress her. I have not told her about you."
"She is bound to find out." Unless, of course, she kicks me out right away, Flita added to herself. Lorola would be perfectly justified in doing so; after all, Flita was nearly an adult. But, Flita resolved, I won't go without a fight! Maybe he'll be her husband, but he's my father. It would be strange, having Lorola as a stepmother. Lorola was only a few years older than Flita. The two of them had even been friends when they were younger.
Alric made no reply, but continued looking into the fire, his eyes filled with sadness.
Flita stroked the strings idly. She played well, as had her mother before her, as her father did still did. Now, as always, Flita found the music soothing. Her father's marriage would change everything. Why couldn't things stay just the way they were? She and her father were so happy together. Lorola would ruin everything. Flita was not sure what had happened to the friendship they had once shared. Lorola, like so many of her friends, had simply stopped coming around after Flita's mother had left.
As the music wove its spell around her, Flita began to dream, painting a vision of lights cartwheeling and weaving around the room. After a while she brought the lights together to form a woman, an image of her mother as she remembered her, thin, pale, with brilliant red hair and warm, gray eyes. Night after night, Flita painted this vision for her father.
Alric gazed at the image with tears in his eyes. He reached out a hand as if to touch his wife, but another figure appeared in front of him- a plumper vision with black hair, green eyes, and large red lips. Alric gave a half cry and the vision of Lorola vanished. "Flita!" he cried reproachfully.
"I'm sorry, Father," Flita said meekly. "I lost control."
Alric grabbed the kithar roughly out of her hands and hung it onto its hook. He then strode to his room without saying another word to her. Flita bit her lip, regretting her mischievous impulse. Now she had made him angry. Oh well, it would serve him right, remarrying like that, abandoning her just as her mother had. Even though she knew in her heart that it wasn't the same thing at all, Flita allowed herself the meager comfort of this self-pitying thought.
Swane stood at attention in front of the great door of the Throne Chamber. Not for the first time, he wondered why such a small room needed such big doors. He could have reached out and touched the Tzeh Cher's throne had he wanted to, but he didn't. That would be blasphemous, even for him, the Tzeh Cher's grandson and heir. Not till he was Tzeh Cher would he be allowed to touch the throne.
A scowl deepened the furrow in his brow. Look at her, he thought. She's getting old; she should be delegating some of her powers to me. But what does she have me do? Guard the door, like a peon.
As Vevine pulled the rope that hung beside her throne, a great whistle blew and the huge doors opened outward. The supplicant backed out of the room hurriedly, eager to be away from Vevine's piercing gaze.
The next person entered and threw himself on the floor, arms above his head, face down. The doors swung closed, and Vevine's voice rang out. "You may rise."
The man scrambled to his feet and stood waiting, his hands clasped behind his back where the guards could see them.
"Dorak." Vevine considered the man's name with her tongue.
"Yes, Tzeh Cher."
Dorak bowed his head. "I cannot deny it, Tzeh Cher, but I did not wish for it."
"No, they seldom do."
A Dreamer! Swane had never seen one at such close quarters. He wasn't quite sure what he had expected a Dreamer to look like, but this man looked fairly normal. Of course, it was the Dreamer's mind that was deformed, not his body. Swane wondered what his grandmother would do, what death she would devise. No death was too horrible for a Dreamer!
"You will, of course, have to leave. Dreamers may not stay within the Protectorate."
"But where else is there to go?" Dorak's voice took on a note of panic.
Swane grinned. A death Outside could be a very horrible one. He could tell Dorak was scared from the way his fists were clenched.
"Tzeh Cher, I cannot survive Outside. No one can."
"You will need to search for a road. It is a road of safety that leads to the Golden City. I know not where it is, that knowledge is lost to history, but I feel sure it still exists. I will give you an air suit to use until you find the Dreamer's Way."
Dorak's shoulders sagged. He had expected death; the Tzeh Cher was being merciful, but exile was almost as bad. "Thank you, Tzeh Cher," he mumbled before backing out of the room.
Swane frowned. He couldn't be hearing right. He had never heard of this Dreamer's Way. Of course, he had been raised with tales of the Golden City and how the Dreamers had long ago kicked the citizens of the Protectorate out and taken over the City for themselves. Even now, the gods were still fighting the Dreamers, trying to reclaim the Golden City for its rightful residents. And now the Tzeh Cher, had just provided aid to a Dreamer, telling him how to get to the golden City so he could join the Dreamers in their fight against the gods.
Excerpted from The Dreamer's Way by MARI ATHERTON Copyright © 2006 by MARI ATHERTON. Excerpted by permission.
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