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The black-robed mage slipped through the doorway leading to the Queen's chamber. He paused and studied the wan woman propped against the black silk pillows. As he approached the bed, his robes rustled.
The Queen grasped the Black Jewel, symbol of her reign. "Begone, I say. I have no need of you."
"Your time has passed. 'Tis time to cede the Jewel to your successor."
"Not yet." She raised the Black Jewel. Dark rays pulsed in its heart. "Begone and let me be."
He evaded the dark beams. "What of the White?"
She laughed. "Do you think I fear that thing? My sister failed to find the gem. For generations, there has been no sign of its existence. There have been but myths and rumors."
He smiled. "The White stirs. I sought and I found."
"Where?" Her eyes narrowed.
"'Tis where it has always been, waiting for the one who can hold it. But fear not. 'Tis not your battle. Soon you will be gone, and I will have the training of the one who is to follow you. This time there will be no mistakes. As Holder and Chosen, she and I will rule."
"Begone, dark mage." The Queen raised the Black and poured her anger into the gem. Thunder roiled the silent night and a great display of colored lightning brightened the sky above the palace.
From The Lore of the Jewels
In days long past, just after the world was formed and the people rose from the dust, Mother Sun and the Sister Moons beheld what had been wrought and were troubled by what they saw. For as people moved across the lands, chaos rather than harmony ruled.
"We must bring peace and order." Mother Sun spoke to the palereflections of herself.
From her depths, she drew molten elements and fashioned them into Jewels. The icy breath of the Sister Moons cooled the gems. To Earda, they were sent and for each Jewel, there was a purpose.
And from the hearts of the six Jewels, light radiated and coalesced to become the White.
Liara closed the Lore of the Jewels. Everyone knew the ruling Jewel was black. And the tale of how the gems were formed was naught but an interesting fable. Her foster mother had given her the book on her last name day. Tana's insistence that she learn the legends puzzled Liara. What use were these mystical tales to one who might never hold a Jewel?
She heard a disturbance in the courtyard and peered through the open window. Several men dismounted. Their steeds were magnificent beasts with burnished horns. Who were these visitors? They looked to be men of importance.
Tana's maid appeared in the doorway. "Milady Holder bids you remain in hiding until her guests leave."
Liara sighed. Twice this lunar, visitors had arrived to see the Yellow Holder. Both times, she had been bidden to keep her presence a secret. Not that she minded missing lessons, of course. The complicated exercises in visualizing had no practical purpose she could see. What bothered her was not being allowed to sit in company and hear about events beyond the keep and the village.
Curiosity gnawed at her thoughts. In hopes of learning more about these unexpected visitors to the High Sanctuary, she hurried down the back stairs and lingered in the shadows near the postern gate. But the men had gone inside before she could hear what they said.
Excitement fluttered like the jeweled wings of a flitter. She was free, at least for the afternoon. She slipped outside and climbed the path beyond the walls of the massive stone tower. Then she broke into a run, deftly avoiding the roots of the gnarled, wind-shaped balsa trees.
A branch caught her kerchief and her hair tumbled free. Inky black strands whipped around her face. Clutching the scarf in her hand, she reached the end of the path. Clusters of multi-hued silk-sheep browsed among the grass and wildflowers.
After breathing deeply of the scented air, she ran across the meadow to the tumble of rocks at the edge of the cliff. She stared at the distant gray tower and peered at the village where the houses resembled pieces from a child's toy. She turned and gazed at the sea and watched white froths of foam roll across the dark blue expanse to dash against the rocky slope.
Settling on the grass, she using a rock for a backrest. As she soaked in the sun, she braided a necklace of yellow fiolas, Tana's favorite. To the chain, she added blue hearts and red chyrsmas. For health, she thought.
Sadness rose. Her foster mother's health failed with each lunar. Though Tana denied what Liara saw, Liara knew the older woman was dying.
While Liara considered the future without Tana, a million questions arose. The sun moved toward afternoon. Liara sighed. There were no answers, only questions.
Her foster brother's shout set her heart pounding. She dropped the necklace in her skirt, quickly braided her hair and tied the kerchief over the crown of braids. Another puzzle to be solved, she thought. Her head had never been without a covering. Though she'd asked why, Tana had never answered.
She lifted the necklace and hurried toward the path. "I'm on my way."
Brader emerged at the edge of the meadow. "Mother said you would be here. She wants you."
A lock of amber hair fell across his forehead and brushed his lighter eyebrows. Amber eyes studied her intently. She felt his leashed anger. With her or with his mother? These days, she barely knew him.
Since she'd begun her intensive studies with Tana, she and Brader had grown apart. Her lessons, his time with the armsmen, and his excursions to the village tavern left them with little in common.
"Have the visitors left?" she asked.
"Didn't stay for the evening meal. They're on their way to Pala. I begged leave to join them but Mother refused to release me." He shoved his hair from his forehead. "I'm tired of being caged here. There's much of Earda I want to see."
"Did Tana say why she wanted me?" She watched the setting sun stain the ocean whitecaps with streaks of orange. "Not for lessons, I hope."
He shrugged shoulders that had grown broader the past year. "You are to sup in her room. Don't stay long. The visitors tired her."
"When has she listened to me?" Liara held up the floral necklace. "Perhaps this will refresh her."
"Maybe. She's worried about something and she won't tell me what."
Liara clasped his arm. "All will be well."
He laughed. "Have you become a Healer making vague and pretty predictions?" His muscles tensed beneath her hand. "All will be well for you. You'll have her Jewel. Why else has she kept you by her side? I'm so tired of the High Sanctuary and of being the Holder's son."
Liara frowned. When had he grown so resentful? Did Tana know about his discontent?
When they reached the postern gate, the armsman stepped aside so they could enter. Never in all her years had there been armsmen at the gates.
Once inside the massive stone tower, she hurried to her foster mother's rooms. At the door, she paused and tucked stray strands of hair beneath the kerchief. Then she opened the carved wooden door and stepped inside.
Tana was abed. Liara crossed the room and kissed the older woman's flushed cheek, then slipped the floral chain over her foster mother's head.
Tana inhaled the blended fragrances. "Ah, Child, you remembered a bit of the Healer's teachings. Sit and eat. There's much I must tell you."
Liara studied her foster mother. Though flushed, there was a translucent quality to Tana's skin. Sunken cheeks, glazed amber eyes. Liara knew Brader thought his mother was tired, but there was more. The scent of death floated above the aroma of the flowers.
She sat at the table and picked at the slices of roast banta, shredding more than she ate. The open window brought a breeze laden with moisture. Liara cut an appa, ate several crisp slices, then pushed the tray away.
"Come closer. The time grows short." Tana's voice held a whispery quality. Liara sat on the chair beside the bed and took her foster mother's hand. "Perhaps you should rest."
"There will be time for rest later." Tana sucked in a breath. "Just listen. Your mother was twin to the one who holds the Black. Through trickery and deceit, the Jewel was usurped by your aunt. Your mother found the book of lore I gave you. For many years, she searched for the White."
Liara shook her head. "The White is but a tale told by old wives and written in that ancient book. Tell me about my mother."
Tana grasped Liara's hand. "Child, myths are ever based on some truth."
"My mother didn't find this Jewel, did she?"
"Alas, the Queen hounded her. She was chased from every refuge she found. She brought you here and left. Her Chosen was captured by the Guards. His house was destroyed by the mages. One by one, your mother's friends were killed."
Liara studied the bedcoverings. "Why tell me now?"
"The Queen is dying. While she is weak and before her daughter ... your cousin masters the Black, you must find the White. When you do, the lessons I've taught you will help you harness the Jewel's energies. You must succeed. The people of Earda have suffered long enough."
Liara shook her head. She had no desire to leave the High Sanctuary. She had believed one day she would follow Tana and hold the Yellow. Now all had changed. "Do not force me to leave you," she pleaded.
Tana sank against the pillows. "I've been summoned to Pala. Even now, Guards are on the way to act as my escort."
"Will you go?"
"Nay, they will come too late. You must be gone before they arrive lest someone questions who you are. Child, your life is in danger should your aunt discover you still live."
Tears welled in Liara's eyes. "I cannot leave you."
"You have no choice. Brader will go with you."
Liara held back her tears. She'd known no mother other than Tana. "But who will..." She couldn't force herself to finish.
"There will be others who will do what is needed." Tana pulled her Jewel from her neck and wrapped the gem and the chain in amber silk. "I have no daughter to follow me and the Yellow is not for you. I've sent a call to my successor." She will meet you on the way."
A million questions arose but they couldn't push past Liara's rising grief. "Does Brader know how ill you are?" She forced the question past a massive lump. "He'll want to stay. So do I." Her voice broke. She pressed her face against the blankets and let the tears flow.
Tana stroked Liara's arm. "You must go, for you are needed. Take the book and seek the answers. Maps your mother brought are on the table. Memorize them. Once Brader has seen them, they will be destroyed so all traces of your journey will be gone. You must follow your mother's path and succeed where she failed."
Liara wiped her eyes and reached for the maps. She studied them until the images were engraved in her mind. Then she walked to the window and stared at first moon. "I cannot leave you."
"Evil spreads through the land. The Black Jewel. The Queen. The Brotherhood of Mages. Soon Earda will be too polluted by evil to survive. Send Brader to me."
Liara hugged her foster mother and fought another storm of tears. "Farewell, Mother of my heart." She bit her lip and hurried from the room.
In the hall, she pressed her forehead against the rough stone wall. Soon Tana would leave this plane and journey to another. The High Sanctuary would never be home again. Liara gathered her tears inside and went to find Brader.