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At the end of a hot, humid day, shreds of mist were beginning to rise from the lake. While the men settled the weary horses for the night, the women moved gracefully from one campfire to another and sang softly as they prepared the evening meal. A blond-haired child played tag with his older brother until they rattled into the side of one of the wagons and earned a chiding 'Hush' from their mother.
"Hey, Thulia." It was their father, with two buckets of water in his hands. "Children, take these and stop tearing the place up." The two small boys took one of the heavy buckets between them and didn't slop it too much.
Roman chuckled as he watched his sons wrestle their burden over to the wagon. "A smart one, your youngest, but he'll never have the muscles Mik does."
Thulia's brows knotted. "Maybe not but Reina's teaching him to read and write. He's learning the cards too."
Roman brushed a russet curl from her shoulder, then twisted it lightly around his finger. "And what did the cards say today, my love?"
"Reina wouldn't tell. I drew and she laid them out as usual. After she turned the first one over, she looked at it and put them away."
It was Roman's turn to frown. "What was the card?"
"I didn't see. She's been in her wagon ever since. Doing spells, she says."
"Why? I see nothing to threaten us here."
"Reina's getting old and she sees ghosts behind every tree. She says there's something in the air and that we should pack up and leave tonight."
"There's something in the air, all right. The sound of gold and I'll not go from here before I heft it in my hand."
"You don't mean...?"
"Aye, Princess. The lord of this estate will be here within the hour. He saw the black colt as we came through the gates and sent his steward to ask the price."
"The black colt. Oh, Roman. Do you really think...?"
"T'would set us up for the rest of the year. We could rest here for the winter without any need to seek new earnings, and by spring we should have another foal or two."
Thulia caressed her belly. "More than just a foal. You're a potent man, my king, but we have enough sons. This one will be a girl. Children, that's enough. Go wash your faces and get ready for supper."
The pair entered the camp so silently even the dogs didn't notice them. When they did, instead of barking the dogs shrank away and hid under the wagons. In their jackets and boots of gilded leather and with gauntleted gloves on their slender hands, they looked so alike Roman found it hard to determine which was the father and which the son. A pair of chilly blue eyes met his. "My steward tells me you won't deal in Synod credits."
"No, my lord. Only gold."
"I see. This horse is a gift for my son. You have the colt's provenance, I assume."
Roman whipped a document from his pocket. "Right here, my lord. His bloodline stretches directly back to the horse of the Prophet."
The nobleman's lip curled slightly. "The way you people tell it, every horse you sell is a blood descendant from that legendary steed. Why should this colt be any different?"
Roman half smiled. "In this case, it's true. I have proof."
The youngest child crept closer, and watched and listened in his father's shadow, a nervous thumb in his mouth.
"I had a vet do tests. He made pictures of the colt's blood and compared them. Cost me more than a few coins. But I needed to know."
"He registered the colt with your central authority. See, here is the proof. He called it a certificate. There's his signature."
While the noble frowned at the document, his son's eyes swept over the child. Then they roved further across the camp, stopping finally on the waiting colt. The noble looked up. Catching his glance, Roman turned his head to see Thulia on the steps of the wagon. She turned quickly and went inside. The noble's son was halfway across the camp and had his hand on the colt's halter when his father spoke. "I'm satisfied. I'll leave you to name him."
The youth nodded. After watching his father count out the gold coins into Roman's waiting hands, he gentled the colt. Then he led him away from the camp to where their horses were tethered.
Halfway back to the house, the nobleman said, "There's something I forgot to ask the Romany. Go on and I'll catch up."
Something flared in the youth's eyes but his soft tone belied his angry look. "I'll wish you a pleasant evening, then."
"I intend it to be." The noble turned his horse and began wending his way back to the Romany camp through the deepening fog.
Copyright © 2003 Kate Saundby