Minds' Link, Hearts' Echo

 

Chapter One

"But I don't even know him!" Rayce cried for the second time in as many minutes. She tried to get a grasp on her frustration and anger, if she was going to get her father to listen to her, she needed to present her views reasonably. "As I have already said, you met..."

"I was four!" She growled. Her father rolled his eyes and sighed.

"You become more and more like your mother every day." Rayce raised her eyebrows at the sudden change of subject. "Sit down, Rayce." Her father gestured at the comfortable chair she had sprung out of when he had first announced her upcoming marriage. Rayce briefly debated with herself whether to be stubborn and remain standing, but then sat, obedience was too much an ingrained habit to resist the half-plea, half-order.

"Now, will you listen, while I explain?" Rayce nodded, but tensed inwardly, it always made her feel rebellious when he used that tone of voice.

"Lord Conala and I have discussed various methods of strengthening the ties between our two Houses. As my only daughter you will be married to his eldest son, Lord Brynn Conala, two weeks hence. Nothing you can possibly say will change this, Raybacenra." Rayce hated it when he used her full name. "It is the law."

"An old law," Rayce interjected.

"Nevertheless," he said, with mock patience, "it is the law, and you will obey it. The eldest son of the Second House, and the daughter of the Fifth House will marry. It is a matter of some prestige. You will become the Lady of a major House, your children will become heirs to Second House." His eyes communicated excitement at his words. Father..."

"I have already told you Raybacenra, there will be no alteration to this," he started to look angry, "you should prepare yourself, and do as I ask, for the good of both the Houses." Rayce resisted the urge to refuse and make a dramatic exit.

"You and Mother were allowed to choose each other, why am I not allowed to choose my husband?" she was aware of the petulant tone to her voice, frustrated by his unwillingness to listen. He glared at her, "I will not argue with you, daughter. The matter is closed." He stood and turned to leave the room.

"No, Father!" Rayce almost shouted the words in her desperation, she had to get him to see reason. When he turned back, his eyes blazed with an icy fire that she would dare defy him.

There will be no further discussion on this matter! He 'sent' the message telepathically, using the full force of his anger to try to force her compliance to his wishes. Rayce took an involuntary step back. While her father's talent was not exactly powerful, the ro'Kai lahn, the family mind link, allowed him to send any message with more power than one not of the family, would receive it. Rayce's talent, though, was a lot more sensitive than her father's was, and the mental blast was so strong that it left her momentarily stunned.

"But, Father...." she tried again, verbally, but he interrupted her.

If you continue in this refusal to comply with my wishes - I will have no choice but to declare you Kai'Natah.

Rayce felt her stomach turn. She thought she would be physically sick. She sank into a chair as the room spun and her legs lost her strength.

"Mind-barred?" she whispered in shock.

Outcast, Kai'Natah her father repeated, and then his face softened slightly, "you understand that I don't want to do that, Rayce. But if you continue to defy me, I will have no choice." Rayce just stared at him in horror. She struggled to regain control over herself, felt tears spring, unwanted, to her eyes.

"Father, please...." she whispered.

"There will be no more discussion of this matter, Raybacenra. You will comply fully with my wishes in this, or..." he left the sentence unfinished and left the room with a swirl of his short cloak. Rayce stared after him.

She sat a long time, just gazing blankly at the door, her mind churning over and over, until anger finally replaced the shock at her father's pronouncement. She reached up a hand to push a stray lock of hair away, and paused as she saw it tremble, a mute witness to her inner turmoil. With a sudden decision, she jumped to her feet, to follow her father and make him listen, getting as far as the door before she changed her mind, recalling how unreasonable he had just been. Turning, she leaned on the window ledge that faced the mountains, pushing the gauzy privacy drapes behind her. Opening both windows she breathed in the spring air. There was still a hint of the chill of winter, and she welcomed it to cool her flaming cheeks. She gripped the window ledge tightly, with both hands, breathing deeply in an attempt to control her anger. She wanted to yell and throw things, but she had been taught for too long, that such behaviour was not acceptable.

"My Lady?" A familiar voice called into the room. She stayed a moment longer to gather her self-control and then turning, she stepped back into the room, "Yes, Kata?" Her maidservant, one-time nurse, then tutor, and most of all her friend and confidant, stood just inside the door. Her hair was still dark with no fleck of telltale grey to betray her age, her beautiful face serene.

"Lord Gwin said that you needed me." Rayce rubbed the bridge of her nose, "He did, did he." Kata raised an eyebrow at the acerbic tone. Stepping into the room she waited until Rayce sat down, before sitting opposite, "Rayce, what is it?"

"My father has just told me that I'm getting married in two weeks." Rayce watched her friend for a reaction.

"You're what!" Kata gaped at Rayce, much as she had when her father had made the announcement.

"He also said," Rayce took a deep breath, "that if I didn't comply with his wishes, then he would declare me Kai'Natah." Her tone was bitter, and the anger that she had managed to control to manageable proportions before, threatened to explode anew. Kata's mouth dropped even further, and then shut with an almost audible snap, anger sparking in her eyes.

"How could he!" she exclaimed, her anger and a wish to protect Rayce warred on her face. Rayce rubbed her eyes wearily, and then blinked to refocus.

"Father has been talking to Lord Conala as to how to strengthen ties between our two Houses, so he said. I think, no, I'm sure there must be something else going on. After all I'm only a Lady of a minor Fifth House, and Dania of First House would surely make a much better match between Houses," she shrugged away the thought. "Anyway, what they came up with was my marriage to Lord Conala's eldest son, Brynn. I haven't even met him, Kata!" Kata was silent taking in the news.

"I'm sure there must be other ways, but all he keeps saying is that it is the law!" Rayce's voice deepened in an unconscious imitation of her father.

"Maybe so," said Kata noncommittally. She was still trying to understand how Lord Gwin could threaten to mind-bar his own, and only, daughter.

"But it's not fair, he was allowed to choose his wife... to fall in love. How can he be so rigidly stuck to the old laws, when his father was so much more progressive?" Rayce gestured wildly in her frustration. Kata hid her inner amusement at the actions that were more like her father's than Rayce would have liked.

"I can't answer that, Rayce," Kata shrugged her shoulders slightly, "but, the law is the law. Maybe he didn't handle it very well...." She let her voice trail away, it wasn't wise to openly insult one's employer. Rayce continued talking, airing her frustrations to the one person she trusted implicitly.

"So, I have to marry someone I don't love, I don't know. We could hate the sight of each other!" "I don't think that's very likely," Kata could see her young mistress was getting more and more agitated, and so spoke quietly in a vain attempt to pacify her.

"The law should have been annulled years ago!" Rayce was stalking about the room, letting her anger out in physical activity. "Maybe so, but it wasn't."

"What can I do? Help me Kata," she pleaded. Kata paused, thinking, and then regretfully shook her head, "Rayce, I can't help you with this, the only advice I have, is to give this your best. You may have no say in who you marry, but you do in how you will be treated by your new husband. If you can't love him, you can at least try to be his friend, and respect him."

"It's not as if I have much choice. Kai'Natah." She dropped back into her chair, anguished hurt showing on her face as she whispered the word, still unable to say it aloud. "I can't believe he would do that, Kata. How could he?" Her eyes begged Kata to have the answer. She didn't have one, and it twisted her heart that she had no comfort for someone who was like a daughter to her.

The main meal that evening was quieter than normal. At the best of times her father did not encourage talk at mealtimes, and this evening the tension was almost palpable. Rayce ate mechanically, she had only a tentative control over her emotions, and to her alarm, now that the initial anger had passed she found herself fighting tears and a continued resentment towards her father that disinclined her to speak to him.

Her father looked up from his perusal of the House accounts and interrupted her thoughts,

"I trust you will have everything prepared in time, Rayce?" Rayce chewed her mouthful of food slowly to give her time to come up with a civil answer.

"Yes, Father."

"And you will of course notify Sensai Jora that you will be unable to continue with your duties." An order. He looked back down at the accounts.

"No, Father. I will not." She kept her voice level with an effort, and watched her father for his reaction. He froze with a forkful of food halfway to his mouth, it made quite a satisfying tableau. He recovered quickly, "I do not believe I heard you correctly, Raybacenra," his voice was icy.

"I am sorry for that Father." Automatically she imitated his formal diction. "I said that I will not inform the Sensai that I shall be terminating my duties." He stared at her. "I shall of course inform her that I may be unavailable for a time, if this marriage takes place." She caught the expression on his face, and rushed on before he could interrupt, "I will need time for preparation and I will have to take the time to get used to running another House." A not-so-subtle reminder that she currently ran this House and still managed to be a Healer. "Unless my new husband has objections, I see no reason why I cannot continue working at the Hall. If he does have any, that is between him and me. As I am now T'Sai, deputy healer, of this region, it would place Lael in an awkward position to just leave the Hall." Rayce, silently blessing the training the healers had to have over their outward emotions, met her father's icy grey eyes calmly.

"Is there a problem, Father?"

"I do not like your tone, daughter." He frowned at her, aware he had lost control of the conversation.

"I am engaged, by your doing, to be married, Father. By the old laws that you seem so determined to follow, that means I am no longer bound to you. Also, I would like to point out that I am past majority, and have been responsible for the smooth running of this House since I was 15. If you would excuse me," she rose smoothly and left the room, before she lost control and did something she would regret.

Up in her chambers, Kata was kneeling, checking the contents of a chest against a list propped in the lid.

"Are you all right? You look very pale."

"Am I?" Rayce came over and knelt next to her, "I was just pointing out to father that under the law I am no longer bound to him. He... wasn't happy about it."

"Rayce!" Half-shocked, Kata stared at her. "Well, it's true. If he's so determined to use the old laws, then so will I." She made an attempt at a grin and took the list from the lid to hide the fact that it didn't quite come off.

"Do you want to call them out and I'll check them off?" Rayce gestured with the list

"I just hope it doesn't cause you problems," mused Kata.

"You mean like arranging my marriage without telling me? Four lengths of Revan lace."

"He is still your father, Rayce. All here."

"Maybe so, but he could at least have discussed it with me, instead of telling me it would happen regardless of my feelings. Instead of telling me that if I didn't...." she felt her throat thicken treacherously, and changed the subject abruptly, "twelve spans of blue silk."

"But you know that isn't his way."

"He could still have talked it over," she insisted stubbornly, and repeated, "twelve spans of blue silk," Kata gave up with a sigh, "yes, here." She agreed with Rayce, but saying so would not be practical. Whatever her relationship with Rayce, she was still a servant in this House. They finished the check on the chest in companionable silence and had got half way through the large cupboards in her sleeping chamber when there was a timid knock on the door. Rayce turned, "Yes?" A young serving maid came in and gave a nervous bow.

"Pardon my Lady, but there is a visitor for you in the Reception room."

"Do you know who it is, Marsa?" Rayce rose smoothly and straightened her dress.

"Lord Conala, my Lady." She gave another nervous bow, deeper than the first. Rayce paused, her hand shook at the announcement, and she quickly rested it against her thigh,

"Older or younger?" She asked.

"I.... I'm sorry, my Lady, I don't know."

"All right, Marsa. Thank you. Would you tell him I'll be down in a moment." With yet another bow, deepest yet, she left.

"Poor girl! I remember being that nervous once." Kata, sharp-eyed, had seen the hesitation, and the tremor, and attempted to lighten the situation.

"A long time ago," teased Rayce weakly, appreciating the attempt. Kata gave her a mock glare.

"Are you going to change?"

"No! Why should I, don't I look all right?"

"You look fine, I just thought..." "He can take me as he finds me," she proclaimed.

"Rayce," exasperated, Kata eyed her, "I thought you were going to give this a chance."

"I am," Rayce smoothed her hair absently, "if he doesn't have the grace to make a time convenient for us to meet, then he'll just have to accept me as I am."

"Do you want me to come?"

"No, no, I can handle him." She grinned mischievously at her friend, "After all, I managed Father!" Kata rolled her eyes.

Rayce paused just outside the Reception room, and smoothed her dress and hair again. She shut her eyes briefly and took a few ragged breaths, pulling her mental shields tighter, so that none of her distress would leak out. She was a lot more nervous about this arrangement than she let on to either her father or Kata. With a polite knock to alert the man inside, she opened the door and stepped into the room. Catching a glimpse of a tall figure, just turning away from the window, she gave a deep bow, her fingers lightly touching her forehead, to show respect to his position in an older House.

Straightening up, she met his eyes just as bowed to her. Much to her surprise, his bow was just as deep, and his fingers also rested on his forehead. Disconcerted, she rubbed the bridge of her nose. Touching the forehead was a gesture generally given from lower to higher House to show loyalty, honour and respect, mind and heart to the Lord or Lady who outranked her. It was an old gesture, rarely used, and Rayce wasn't entirely sure why she had given it.

"My Lady." His voice was a soft, baritone, his dark eyes met hers. A twinkle in their depths confused her even more.

"My Lord," she acknowledged, pausing to get a grip on her confusion, "welcome to Fifth House," she said eventually.

"Thank you. May I sit?" Rayce flushed, "Of course, please forgive my manners." Come on Rayce, get your act together, she berated herself. He smiled at her, and oddly, Rayce felt some of the tension of the day melt a little. She could almost hear Kata's questions now, well, what was he like? And her answer, oh, you know, he had a nice smile.... She realised that he had started talking again, and quickly pushed her thoughts away.

"Actually I am the one who should be apologising. I should have asked for a convenient time for us to meet," Rayce looked away, her mouth twitching with concealed amusement at hearing her words repeated, "but I wanted to do this before my father could stop me. If he had his way we wouldn't have met until the wedding." He had the grace to look chagrined at his deception.

"You are welcome anytime, my Lord," she replied politely. He nodded absently and then, slightly uneasy, he began, "I believe Lord Gwin informed you today of the.... ah.... arrangement?" Rayce watched him warily, aware that his reaction to the news might have been different to hers. She was also constrained by deeply ingrained teachings to remember his was a higher House and a more important station.

"Yes, he told me." The young man looked down and picked a bit of lint off his jacket awkwardly, Rayce watched him and when it appeared he would make no comment,

"Did you know before today?" He looked up at the edge in her voice that she was unable to completely control. She wondered if her knew about her father's threat to name her Kai'Natah, and then rejected the idea.

"Yesterday. My father informed me late afternoon." Rayce bit her lip to stop her immediate reaction of indignation that her father had waited so long to tell her.

Tentatively he began, "I gather you were not pleased?"

"No," she said slowly, she paused and then, "you deserve an honest answer, my Lord. It was a bit of a shock," she took a deep breath, "an unpleasant one," she added quickly before she lost her nerve.

"Mm." Rayce swiftly looked at him. He licked his bottom lip hesitantly, "I rather thought.... hoped..... you would feel that way," he paused and Rayce jumped in,

"You didn't like it either?"

"I don't believe like is a strong enough word," his eyes sparked with remembered emotion, "that is why I came to see you. Father told me that Lord Gwin would be telling you the..... ah...... tidings today," again that same awkwardness with the word marriage, "so I decided to take a chance and come to see you. Against the old laws of course, where it states that I shouldn't see you until the wedding."

"So Lord Conala, your father, doesn't know you are here?" He shook his head, "Neither I believe does yours. I... er.... waited until I saw him leave." He looked abashed at Rayce's obvious startled, but watched her carefully, gauging her reaction.

"So, we do appear to be in a similar situation to each other," he said eventually when she didn't speak, "neither of us wants this, perhaps together we can do what we can't apart."

"My Lord?" Rayce pulled back in astonishment at the remark and the undertones. A knock on the door made them both jump. Rayce leapt to her feet, glad of the distraction from the uncomfortable conversation. "Yes?"

"My Lady." Marsa came in and bowed low, and again to Lord Conala who had also stood and was pacing restlessly at the far end of the room, by the window.

"Do you require refreshments?" Rayce saw the hand of Kata in the request, "Yes, thank you, Marsa, some tea would be nice." The girl bowed again with a curious look in the man's direction, and left. He spoke before she could, turning to face her, but leaving the distance between them.

"I have to ask, is there someone else?" Rayce felt her face grow warm, "N...no," she managed. He nodded into the uncomfortable silence that followed.

"Nor for me," he answered, also a little embarrassed. The room was utterly still for a while after, until Rayce pulled her thoughts back to his previous comments. "My Lord," she began, unsure of how to phrase her next remark, he walked back towards her and they sat down again, "I've had a brief look through some of the laws regarding the old marriage arrangements. I was... am going to look further, but on the surface, I see no way to contest it." He was silent for so long that Rayce became nervous.

"Did I misinterpret your comment earlier?" she queried.

"No, no you didn't. I was just thinking, there may have been no way to contest it. But surely they can't force two people to get married?" It was half-question, half-statement and Rayce recognised the doubt as mirroring her own.

"By the looks of the old records there were no instances when an arrangement was broken."

"Maybe then. It was a different time, but times change, people's attitudes are different. If we both refuse they cannot force us."

"You don't know my father," said Rayce glumly. Another knock on the door and Marsa brought in a tray of drinks and small cakes.

"On the table here please, Marsa."

"Do you want me to serve, my Lady?"

"No thank you. You may go, and please ensure there are no more interruptions." Marsa bowed, "Of course, my Lady."

"Would you like anything?" Rayce gestured at the tray, "Ahh, a drink, whatever is there is fine." As Rayce poured he got up and paced to the window.

"You don't think we have a chance then." His voice was flat, "isn't that being a bit defeatist?" Rayce frowned at the sudden change of mood.

"I didn't say that. If you want to face our respective fathers concerning this, I will of course back you. I have to admit that marriage wasn't high on my list of priorities when my father told me," she smiled in an attempt to lighten his mood. He ran his hand through his hair and sat back down. Taking the cup of herb tea he sipped at it cautiously a few times and then sat back.

"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to snap. I spent most of last night either arguing with my father or tossing restlessly in bed. I didn't sleep well." Rayce smiled reassuringly, "That's all right, I understand," she sighed, "I think you're right, we'll just have to face them," she straightened with resolve.

"All right, when?"

"Now?" She didn't say the rest of what she had in mind, before I lose my nerve.

"Now?" That silenced him for a few seconds, "very well. I know my father is at home. What about yours? I think it might be a good idea to face them both together."

"I'll ask, just one moment." Rayce stood and pulled the chime. Almost immediately there was a brief knock at the door and Kian, the House steward, entered, he bowed, "Lord Conala. My Lady."

"Kian, do you know where my father is?"

"I believe he went to Second House, to speak with Lord Conala, my Lady."

"Thank you Kian, would you please fetch my cloak. Lord Conala and I are going to take a walk." He bowed, "Of course, my Lady."

They went out into the hall, and Kian stepped up, her cloak held out. Brynn moved smoothly up to the steward, took the cloak, and deftly settled it on her shoulders. She glanced up in surprise at the courteous gesture, and then, realising that she was staring, she quickly looked away to fasten the clasp.

An awkward silence prevailed on the walk. Rayce wasn't looking forward to facing her father again, not before she had managed to get some real control over her emotions. It was a relief when they reached the large gates of the Second House. Pulling out a key Lord Conala unlocked a small gate inset into the wall, and stepped aside to let her go through first.

In the house he took her cloak and handed it to the steward, "Where is my father, Ory?"

"In his study, my Lord. He did request no interruptions."

"Is Lord Gwin with him?"

"I believe so."

"Good." Turning to Rayce he gestured the way. At the heavy door to the study he knocked, and without waiting for a response, entered. A swift glance confirmed the identity of his father's visitor and he bowed in greeting, "Pardon the interruption, sirs, but this couldn't wait."

"What is so important, Brynn?" Brynn stepped aside to let Rayce enter the room, and she bowed in greeting. Her father's eyes narrowed as he saw her, but he said nothing.

"An honour to meet you, my Lord," she said politely to Lord Conala. "The honour is mine, Lady Gwin." At her entrance, Lord Conala had stood and he now bowed. Rayce sized him up in a brief look, he and his son looked remarkably alike. They both had dark brown eyes, with that inner sparkle that suggested a sense of humour, both fair-haired, though the older man's had darkened with time. His smooth, graceful movements belied the age that was seemingly written in his face. As Brynn quietly greeted her father, she had the chance to see that sadness and worry had aged his father older than he actually was. She vaguely remembered that his wife had died while in childbirth with their only daughter who had also died a few months later from the viral disease that had swept the continent, taking her own mother and grandparents among the many dead.

"So, you two have met." Lord Conala's voice was deceptively mild. "Yes, Father. While I am aware that under the old laws a man would not meet his wife until the wedding, I decided that the Lady Gwin and I needed to talk."

"You could have asked me." "I thought that you would say no." In the brief pause that followed, Rayce's father took his chance to speak, and also to 'send' his displeasure and anger at her actions.

"And, knowing my thoughts and the law's requirement on this matter, you decided to receive him?" His question was directed at Rayce, who flushed, but Brynn answered for her, his eyes narrowed with an emotion Rayce couldn't define. "I didn't give her much choice, my Lord. Which brings me to why we are here."

"Yes, I would appreciate an explanation." Gwin put in. I do NOT appreciate your actions in this matter, Raybacenra!

Lord Conala regarded the other man, a reminder in his eyes of his position as guest in his house.

"Please," he gestured at the chairs around the fire, "let's discuss this in comfort. My Lady," he courteously showed her to a chair, both him and Brynn waiting until she had seated herself before they did also. Rayce felt warmed by a courtesy that was seldom shown her by her father or his friends.

"Lady Gwin and I have been discussing the arrangement you have made on our behalves."

"I didn't know that there was anything to discuss," Lord Gwin's voice was hard. He continued to 'send' his disapproval, using the ro'Kai lahn, battering at her shields and emotions in his anger.

"With respect, my Lord, we think there is." Brynn matched his coldness. "I know that you were not pleased with my solution, Brynn. Does the Lady Gwin feel the same way?" Lord Conala turned to the young lady, Rayce glanced at her father. Conala privately noted the quick look. "Yes, my Lord, I do."

"There is nothing you can do. The process is in motion, nothing can stop it. Most young people would be glad of having made such an advantageous match." Rayce coloured, embarrassed by her father's lack of manners. Lord Conala raised his eyebrows at the rudeness, but Brynn spoke first, "Lady Gwin and I wanted to discuss this with you both. There must be another way."

Lord Conala said, "Don't you think that we have gone over all the alternatives?" Rayce looked at her father, she rather thought that he would have jumped on this opportunity, whatever problems there were, to marry his daughter off so well.

"Then perhaps you wouldn't mind discussing it with us." Rayce could see her father's indignation and jumped in before he could embarrass her further, "We might be able to offer another solution." It was inelegant, and on the verge of rudeness, but it stopped her father short. Lord Conala had also seen Gwin's reaction and replied before he managed to.

"I appreciate the thought, my Lady. But I had been trying to solve the problem for quite a while before I contacted Lord Gwin. Between us the only viable solution was a marriage between Houses." A tactful remonstrance, but Rayce knew, both that she deserved it and that the other man had seen her father's reaction and prevented him from shaming himself further. Her head was swimming with her own, unresolved, thoughts from the afternoon, and her father's continual 'sending' of his wrath was slowly wearing down her shields. The tension in the room threatened her self-control when she was least able to deal with it.

"But why didn't you discuss it with us. Ask us what we thought. We might have agreed." Brynn exclaimed. The brief exchange had enabled Lord Gwin to get a partial control over himself, "This was a matter discussed and resolved between the heads of two Houses, it is not the business of children!" Rayce flushed furiously, and Brynn turned angrily to respond.

"We are not children!" His father raised a warning hand to stop him from going any further but Brynn ignored it, "Nor will we allow you to take control of our futures in this way." As if in response to Brynn's anger, Lord Gwin had taken an icy control of himself, and gave a small smirk.

"As I have already pointed out there is nothing you can do. Nor will I allow you to." Rayce looked away, close to tears from the charged emotions in the room, her face scarlet from her father's shameful manner. "We can refuse to speak the vows, or allow the link!"

Brynn, please Brynn glanced at his father, astonished at the telepathic communication in company. Lord Conala stood, "Perhaps it would help if we spoke of this with our respective young people, Lord Gwin. Allow ourselves to cool down." Rayce looked up, her eyes glistened perilously but she managed to hold back the tears.

"No," she whispered, and then stronger, "no, I'm sorry. Lord's Conala," she stood and bowed to them both, "there's no point to this," she addressed her remark mainly to Brynn, "they have ways of forcing any link if they think it necessary." She turned to Brynn's father, "I don't know what the problem is, but I believe you are a fair man, and that you want the best for your House, and for your son. It is unfortunate that in this case that can't mean the same thing." She almost ran from the room, just managing not to slam the door in her haste to get away before she disgraced herself by letting the tears flow.

Ignoring the astonished look of the steward she ran out of the door and down the sweep to the gate that was still unlocked.

A shocked silence prevailed in the room after Rayce's words. Then Lord Gwin spoke stiffly, "I apologise for my daughter's unfortunate manner, my Lords. Please be assured that it will not happen again." The older lord looked at him curiously.

"Why, Lord Gwin? It was quite understandable, she is under a lot of pressure. They are both correct, this is a difficult situation that has been handled badly by us. A lot of this could have been avoided had we only discussed it with them, treating them as the adults they are," he turned to his son.

"I apologise for the way I handled this matter, Brynn, it was badly done." Brynn acknowledged the apology with a small, strained nod. Lord Gwin was scarlet,

"Lord Conala!" "I believe Rayce is T'Sai of this region. A great honour for you and your House." The other man carried on smoothly, as if the interruption had never happened. Gwin paused, he rarely thought of that aspect of his daughter's vocation.

"I have been told that Healers are more sensitive empaths than most. It is not surprising that she wanted to leave. The atmosphere was quite.... charged."

"She should not have left like that, she should have had more control." Lord Gwin pronounced rigidly. Brynn had had enough, "My Lords, if you will excuse me." He left without waiting for permission. Lord Conala turned to the other man, letting the anger he had suppressed show clearly, shocking Gwin into silence.

"Get a hold of yourself, man!" He paced around to stand before him, "our children came to us, in all reasonableness, with proper grievances. Your daughter's manner was proper and courteous, while yours...." he tailed away, "In future I would have you remember that you are a guest in my House!" Lord Gwin gaped.

"My.... my Lord." He said finally. Conala shook his head. "Your daughter was right, they can't stop this, and unfortunately I can't afford to. But I want the best for my son, as I am in no doubt you also want the best for Raybacenra. We must give them every chance to make this work. Shouting and laying down the law," he gave a wry smile at the unintentional pun, "will not help them. I respectfully," he emphasised the word, "suggest that we leave tonight's events well alone, and let them sort it out. Do you agree?" There was a dangerous glint in Lord Conala's eyes that suggested doing otherwise would be to the other man's detriment. Gwin swallowed and managed a gracious response.

"Of course, my Lord, very wise."

"Good, then let us have a drink and calm down." He moved over to the tray and poured two large measures for them both.

Rayce walked for an hour in the extensive gardens circling her home. The night air was chill, but her mind was spinning so fast with the words and undertones of the past few hours that she didn't notice the cold. Climbing the gently sloping rise to the top of the gardens, she slipped behind the hedge and climbed the steps that led to the old battlements, the oldest section of the wall surrounding the House. From the top, leaning against the crumbling ramparts, she gazed at the distant mountains, the moon lighting the area with a soft glow. She closed her eyes and tilted her head back, letting the breeze cool her aching head, and dry the tears. Finally, when the cold was making her shiver enough to get through her reverie, she went back down to the house. Inside Kata was coming down the stairs, a worried look on her face.

"Rayce!" a shrewd look sized her up, saw the tearstains and slight flush, "you're frozen, what happened to your cloak? Marsa!" Putting an arm around the younger woman she turned to lead her upstairs. Marsa appeared with a startled look on her face,

"Fetch a warm drink for Lady Rayce. Move girl!" she added as the servant gaped open-mouthed at her mistress.

Up in Rayce's sitting room, Kata sat her in the chair closest to the fire, and wrapped a blanket around her shivering shoulders, talking all the time in her anxiety,

"What was Lord Conala thinking about, I hope you haven't been outside all this time? And why didn't you take a cloak with you? Where is he? I'll give him a piece of my mind next time I see him!" Rayce gave a wan smile at the exclamations that issued in quick succession from her. A timid knock on the door, and Kata moved over to take the tray from the servant, dismissing her briskly. Pushing the warm cup into Rayce's hands she sat opposite, watching while she sipped tentatively at the hot, soothing liquid.

"Do you want to tell me what happened, cala?" Rayce smiled slightly at the baby name, but shook her head, "No, Kata."

"But surely, he didn't leave you alone out there?" Rayce sighed, "No, we went to speak to our fathers about the marriage at Second House. It was... unpleasant." She stood, letting the blanket fall to the chair, and went into her sleeping room, "I just need to be left alone for a while. Please." Kata sighed softly.

When Lord Gwin arrived home, she was talking quietly to Kian in a corner of the large entrance hall. He paused briefly as he passed them, "Is Lady Raybacenra at home?" Kata nodded.

"Yes, my Lord." He nodded sharply, "Good."

"Goodnight, my Lord," Kian said the words to his master's retreating back, he got no response. He shrugged and turned back to Kata.

"I'll retire myself in few moments, I'll just double-check the locks." Kata nodded, turning away, to move up the stairs to her rooms and to hide the smile at the meticulous nature of the House steward.

 

Chapter Two

The next morning, Kata knocked tentatively on the door to Rayce's study. During the night, worried for her young mistress, she had dropped her own shields and activated the light telepathic link she had kept on her mistress since childhood. The storm of upset and anger had stunned her.

Rayce's study was a small room adjoining the main sitting area, it was made smaller by the shelves of books lining the walls from floor to ceiling. In one corner was a large rocking chair, a well worn, patchwork blanket flung over the back. Rayce was curled up on large floor cushions that she had placed in the small alcove under the window. She was wearing the loose trousers and long over-tunic that was normal attire when working or at ease. Kata noticed with a pang that she was pale and drawn, dark rings under her eyes. Rayce looked up from the large book in her lap, and gave Kata a slight smile of welcome.

"Lord Conala is downstairs. He asks if it is a convenient time to speak with you." Rayce was silent for a moment, she had regained some of her composure after last night, mostly at the expense of sleep, she felt exhausted and knew it was reflected in her face. She didn't really want to see anyone, but ingrained manners made her ask, "Which one?"

"The son. You don't have to go if you don't feel like it," Kata watched her closely. Rayce stood and straightened her tunic, if he had found a way to end this miserable charade, she should go down and speak to him. Her gaze lingered thoughtfully on her clothes, wondering whether she should change. Seeing that Kata had caught the momentary indecision, she spoke.

"No, I'll go and speak to him," she hesitated a moment, "give it a few minutes and find an excuse to pull me away, Kata." It was Kata's turn to hesitate, "Are you sure?"

"Yes," she said firmly, and then added, "I don't have to accept it, I just want the option." Kata nodded reluctantly, "As you wish."

Outside the Reception room, Rayce licked her lips and let our her breath slowly. Knocking to warn him, she entered and bowed, as yesterday, fingers to forehead. He was standing by the chair, in one hand he was holding the cloak she had left behind in her rush to leave. His face also bore signs of a bad night's sleep, his brow was drawn, his expression strained. He bowed in return, "Lady Gwin. Thank you for seeing me." Still standing, Rayce began stiffly.

"I would like to apologise for my behaviour yesterday...." he shook his head quickly, preventing her from continuing, "No, you have no reason to apologise." Rayce felt her cheeks warm at the subtle reminder of her father's manners. He ran his free hand through his hair.

"I just came to return your cloak and to see if you were.... if everything was all right after what occurred yesterday." He handed over the cloak, which she took and used the time it took to neatly fold and place it over a chair back to gather her thoughts, "Thank you, for returning it. I'm sorry I left so abruptly, it was just...." her voice faded out, unsure of how to continue.

"No, there's no reason to apologise," he assured her again, a note of finality in his voice. A self-conscious silence as they searched for something more to say. A brief knock on the door saved them both. Kata stepped quietly into the room, bowed to him with a murmured greeting and then addressed Rayce.

"I am sorry for the interruption, my Lady, you are needed in the kitchens." Rayce nodded,

"Thank you, Kata." Turning to Lord Conala, "I'm sorry I have to go." It was an excuse and she saw that he knew it, but bowing swiftly he said, "Of course, I must stop calling in unexpectedly like this, perhaps I could call again, at a more convenient time?" A formal request, necessary to satisfy convention. Rayce hesitated intending to refuse, but looking up to meet his eyes, read the plea there.

"It would be an honour, my Lord," she swallowed, remembering this was the man she might have to marry, "perhaps tomorrow?" He smiled suddenly, lighting up his face, and smoothing the worry lines away, "I would like that very much," he said softly, "do you ride?"

"Ride?"

"Yes, my father has very good stables, perhaps I could show you the estate?"

"All right, yes, I'd like that."

"Good!" Rayce smiled, his enthusiasm was as infectious as it was unexpected. He turned to open the door and leave, and then paused, "I'll see you tomorrow morning then."

"Tomorrow." With a final, quick smile he was gone, leaving Rayce slightly breathless at the speed of the arrangement and his sudden enthusiasm.

Leaving the room, she nearly collided with her father. The expression on his face wiped the smile off hers. "I thought I heard Lord Conala." She nodded, "He came to return my cloak," her voice was stiff matching his manner, she held her returned cloak defensively in front of her. His eyes carried censor for the way she had acted yesterday, but he neither said anything, nor 'sent' his disapproval. Rayce, remembering his thoroughly shameful and embarrassing behaviour, didn't look away. He nodded.

"I hope you will not be conspiring to halt this marriage, Raybacenra."

"Conspiring, Father?" She asked neutrally, holding his gaze, dark blue eyes locked to grey. She watched the march of emotions that passed over his face, as he decided what to reply. Thankfully, though, he had his shields up, and none passed through to her.

"Very well." He said eventually. Unsure of the sudden impulse that prompted her, Rayce said.

"We will be meeting again tomorrow. He is going to show me the estate." He nodded, once, sharply, and repeated, "Very well." She watched him walk back into his study, puzzled by the lack of reaction, Kata came to stand next to her.

"He didn't say anything."

"Maybe he realises that he can't stop you."

"Not even a mention of the law."

"Maybe something of what you said yesterday got through?" Rayce turned towards the kitchens, Kata walking alongside. "I don't know," she said thoughtfully, and then dismissed it to deal with the queries of the Housekeeper.

Later, Rayce went to see Sensai Lael Jora, the chief healer at the Healer Hall, to explain the situation. "Married! Just like that?"

"Possibly," Rayce amended, "if my father gets his way it will be in two weeks time." Lael sat, letting her breath escape in a whoosh, "Well! Not exactly a slow worker your father, is he?" Rayce rubbed her nose.

"There have been words on this subject," she admitted. Lael grinned, "I'll bet there were! Can he just pair you up like that?" "I'm going to look into that after I leave here. Ruwche College has a good library."

"Well if you need any help, I'll throw my weight around for you." Rayce gave a weak grin in reply. "Thanks, Lael. This'll mean that I probably won't be able to come to the Hall very much for a while, if at all. I mean, if it is an emergency I can, but," her voice tailed away, suddenly seeing what this upcoming marriage might mean in terms of her occupation. If her new husband refused to let her go, she would have no choice in the matter, and working at the Hall, helping people to get better, to heal, was one of the things she truly loved.

"I understand, Rayce. I don't expect to see you until after your marriage. We can handle everything here. You'll be busy with preparations and getting to know him." Rayce gave an unhappy smile, Lael stood up and gave her a brief hug.

"You'll be okay, I know it. Of everyone I know, you will be the one to make this work." She hugged her again, hard.

"Just remember, if it gets too mad, I'm here for you."

"Thanks, Lael. I really appreciate it."

They pulled apart, and Rayce left, shoulders slumped in dejection. Lael sat down again and shook her head. She truly valued her young second, not least for her healing Talent. Though young to be the T'Sai in a Healer Hall, Rayce brought both her skills as a gifted healer and a compassion and empathy that set the patients at ease, an inner gentleness that drew them to her, especially the children. She could often be found in the children's play area of the waiting room, using the easy atmosphere to assess her younger patients. Lael sighed again, and started rearranging the roster.

Brynn stepped through the main door into his home.

"Hello, Ory," he greeted the House steward, "My Lord. The Lady Matahn is waiting for you in the garden." Brynn stopped dead, "Dania?" Lord Conala stepped out of his study,

"Ah, Brynn, I thought I heard your voice. I've just seen Lady Dania, she's waiting for you in the garden."

"Yes, Ory just told me." The steward bowed and discreetly moved away.

"I gather you haven't told her?"

"When? I haven't had a chance! Besides, it's none of her business!" As he strode down the hall towards the garden, Lord Conala watched his son thoughtfully. When Rayce had linked the Lady Dania of First House to the eldest son of Second, she had been closer to the truth than she knew. It had been inevitable that the two young people, so close in age and station, having known each other from early childhood, had become friends. Their respective mothers had also privately entertained the hope of a more intimate match.

Dania was wandering along the paths of the formal flower garden where he knew he would find her. He took a moment to look at her while her back was turned and found himself comparing her with Lady Gwin. Dania was taller than Rayce, almost on an eye-level with himself, her hair was long and dark, always left loose to fall to her waist.

Rayce's hair, he remembered, was the colour of autumn leaves, and neatly braided back away from her face, probably fell no longer than her shoulders.

While Dania's figure could only be called womanly, Rayce was slender, and especially at the moment with all the tension, she had looked small and vulnerable. He shook himself out of his thoughts and called out, "Dania!" She turned and gave him a wide smile.

"Brynn! Isn't it a lovely day!" She turned and moved towards him, "Dania...." She interrupted him before he could begin.

"I love these little white flowers, do you think your gardener would give me a cutting?" She held out a small bunch to show him.

"Probably," he answered absently, he tried again, "Dania," "They would look really nice in the white and lilac patch by the big etar tree, don't you think? Maybe some seeds, and then use them as ground cover, I'm still not sure that I like the wood chippings, they look so messy when it rains."

"Dania!"

"Yes?" She turned to him, "Would you shut up and listen for a moment!"

"There's no need to shout." She looked injured. Brynn took a deep breath, "Let's go and sit down. I have something important to tell you."

She let him lead her to a nearby seat, and waited while he spread his cloak on the cold stone before sitting. She made him wait, a subtle rebuke for shouting at her, while she carefully rearranged her skirt, flicked her hair back and placed the little bunch of flowers beside her. When she had finished she looked up with a smile.

"So, what is it you need to tell me?" Brynn paused a moment to collect his thoughts, "I think I'm going to be getting married in two weeks," he began. When no immediate reaction occurred he carried on, explaining the details, and adding finally that they were to meet the next day.

"You think you're getting married?" Dania's tone held disbelief, "surely, if it's happening in two weeks as you said, you should know."

"That's where it gets complicated," Brynn sat down next to her with a sigh.

"Oh? Tell me more," she invited. "Neither of us want this, Dania. The Lady Gwin and I, we tried to talk to our fathers' last night," he paused, wondering how much he should reveal of the night before, "it was not an easy conversation, we didn't get very far."

"Surely they can't force you to do this?"

"I've looked, believe me, I've looked. They're both using the old laws to their own ends."

"I didn't know that they still applied," she said. He shrugged

"They have never been annulled, so they can be used."

"There must be some way to contest this, Brynn. You hardly know her."

"You don't have to tell me that. I've been over and over this, trying to find some way out, there just doesn't seem to be one." He considered briefly whether he should add that he was wondering why his father would agree to this, and then decided against it.

"Do you know her?" he asked.

"Only what I've heard. She's a Healer isn't she? And I've heard.... things about her father, let's hope she doesn't take after him."

"From what I've seen she doesn't," said Brynn, vaguely uncomfortable with the censure.

"Yes, but she's been on her best behaviour with you, hasn't she."

"There's no need to be rude, Dania. You can't just dismiss someone you've never met, on reports of what you've heard about her father."

"Well, there's a way to solve that," she said blithely, "I'll come with you on your ride tomorrow."

"There's no need," he began, he had been hoping to finally spend some time alone with his possible future wife in an effort to get to know her better.

"No, no! It's quite all right. I'll just rearrange a few things and be with you at ten o'clock?"

"We didn't arrange a time, I thought that I would be at the stables all day anyway," he replied dully.

"Don't worry, I'll be there!" she walked off with a brief wave. Brynn glared at her retreating back, furious with himself that he had let her walk all over his carefully laid plans.

"Blast it! Blast it and blast it again!" he muttered as he strode back to the house. His father was standing just inside the door, a bemused look on his face. Brynn sympathised, Dania had that effect on people.

"I gather she's going with you tomorrow."

"Yes," he growled. His father raised his eyebrows, "Sorry. She just got to me. I wanted to be alone with the Lady Gwin, to try and get to know her."

"Why didn't you tell her."

"I tried. But you know Dania."

"Yes," the older man smiled, "I definitely know Dania. Just think of her as a chaperone!"

"Father!"

Rayce pulled the massive law volume down the table towards her. "That's the first volume in a series of thirty, my Lady, it has the contents list at the very front," the assistant said helpfully, "the index list," she put another huge book down with an air of relief, "is in this one." Rayce suppressed a groan, but something of her dismay must have shown on her face, because the young woman opposite her grinned cheerfully.

"Rather you than me, my Lady." Rayce sighed, "Is this, are these," she corrected herself, "the most complete records that you have?"

"These are the ones that are most commonly used by the law and history students, I'll have a look for others, but I think that further back than this, the laws are recorded in the old dialect." Rayce shook her head. While she had done the usual study of the old dialect when she was younger, her grasp only extended as far as she needed for the old healer terms, she definitely did not have the understanding needed to read the old laws in their original script and tongue.

"No thank you, I'll see how I go here first."

"I'll just be at the main desk, if you need any more help, my Lady."

"Thank you."

Rayce eyed the two huge volumes, that more or less covered the table. She could almost see the table legs bending slightly from the weight. She heaved open the cover of the first volume, and quickly realised that logic did not seem to apply to the order of contents. She flicked through the pages in the hope that she would see what she needed, she didn't. Getting up, she walked around to the other side of the table and opened the index volume. There were seventeen entries under marriage that seemed to apply to her, mostly in different volumes. She sighed. Lifting the first volume, she carried it to the main desk. The young assistant looked up, "Not what you wanted?"

"Not this one, unfortunately. I need volumes two, sixteen and seventeen, please." The woman's face fell visibly, and Rayce was hard pressed not to smile.

"I'll help you fetch them, if it's all right."

"I would be grateful, my Lady" she grinned. Rayce was halfway through the records on marriage in the seventeenth volume, before she sat back, rubbing the bridge of her nose wearily. She could just barely understand the legal references, and had the feeling that she might be missing something vital. Leaving the volumes on the table, she made her way to the main desk again, the young assistant looked up, "My Lady?"

"I need something...slightly easier to understand." The assistant looked thoughtful, and then nodded, "It would help if I knew what it was you were looking for, my Lady."

"Anything on marriages, arranged or otherwise and the laws concerning them."

"I'll have a look, and bring anything I find to your table."

"Thank you."

After Dania left, Brynn went into the House's comprehensive library, taking a volume off an upper shelf, he seated himself at the desk under the window. His father's voice made him leap to his feet, "Brynn? Ah, there you are," he caught the expression on his son's face and smiled, "what are you looking so guilty about?" He covered the distance across the room in a few quick steps and glanced at the book on the desk.

"Planning on overthrowing the Council of Elders?"

"I was looking for a way to stop the marriage," he said defensively. Brynn reaching to close the book. His father stopped him.

"You needn't worry, I did expect this. In fact, I would have been disappointed if you hadn't looked." Brynn searched for something to say. His father sighed.

"Come and sit down, Brynn. I need to explain some things to you," when they were seated, he continued, "I probably should have said this before, but you were so upset I judged it better to wait. Maybe that was a mistake."

"Yes, it was."

"We're in financial trouble, Brynn. Deep trouble."

"Money? That's what this is about?" Brynn looked shocked. His father sighed and continued, a little reluctantly, "Your grandfather, your mother's father, was a little," he made a wry noise, "no, very, free with money. He invested badly, he had expensive tastes and started up a number of new projects, none of which really got off the ground. Then," he paused uncomfortable, "your mother, also did not have a very good idea of money management. It was a while before I realised how bad things were, especially since it was ten years before he died and I was given the complete management of Second House. I was able to offset the worst of the debt, and set up repayment schemes to cover the remainder, and I had hoped that from there it would be all right. As of this month, we have managed to repay most of the excesses and I thought the rest would soon follow.

None of this affects your inheritance, fortunately, so there are no worries there. But just recently, one of the creditors has requested an immediate reduction of our debt, siting some clauses in the original contract set up by your grandfather that must have been missed by the law offices. And we do not have the funds to cover it," he stopped, and Brynn saw the strain in his eyes.

"Can't you take some from our inheritance?" The older man shook his head, "Even if I could, I wouldn't do that. When I realised how bad things were, I put a clause into the repayment contract, so if such a situation came up as the one we have now, those funds could not be called into use. It was a surety, and I'm glad I did it."

"But if you can use that money, then you wouldn't have to marry me off to Lady Gwin," Brynn pointed out.

"And leave you and your brothers with nothing for when you marry. The sum is quite large, Brynn. I'm not just talking of reducing the funds you would receive, or selling some property, you and your brothers would receive almost nothing. Second House as we know it, would disappear, every other House moving up in stature."

"I thought there were laws to prevent such a thing happening."

"Your grandfather was an avid law student," said Lord Conala dryly.

"You mean he found ways around it?"

"Oh yes, a simple matter of not letting any other creditor know about the others. He named everything he owned as surety, sometimes twice," some of the older man's bitterness came through, "it sounds cruel but it's a good thing that my parents died early and left me in complete control of their estate. It enabled me to cancel the worst of the debts and at least get a start on repaying the others."

"But how does this relate to my marrying Lady Gwin?"

"She is a very rich young lady, Brynn. When her grandparents died, both maternal and paternal, she was left the sole inheritor of their fortune. Not land, they were of minor Houses and so that went to male relations. Also, she received all that her mother had as well. One thing that can be said for Lord Gwin is that he is extremely astute, he invested her monies well, taking control over it all. The House she marries into will have a substantial amount added to their accounts."

"In this case, to ours," said Brynn, flatly.

"I have arranged with Lord Gwin, that he will pay the sum needed to clear the debt once you are married," he began. Brynn interrupted him, "Hence the short amount of time before the marriage." Lord Conala nodded and continued.

"Yes. The remainder will be included in her dowry."

"You've got it all arranged, haven't you," Brynn stood up and stalked to the window, his voice angry and bitter.

"I tried very hard to find another way, Brynn. I searched all the records, I examined the contracts, and I looked at the land we had, any possible method to deal with this. I," he paused and cleared his throat, "I would like to ask, as a great favour to me, that you do no more to stop this marriage."

"And if I refuse?" Brynn swung back to face his father.

"Then Second House goes under." There was a brief pause as the words sank in, and then Lord Conala spoke again, "She seems a pleasant young woman, Brynn. She's been well brought up, and has an understanding of the old laws and traditions that might make this more bearable. Her mother was one of the best people I knew." Brynn had turned back to the window, his hands clenched over the back of the chair, "And there's no other way?"

"No," was the quiet answer.

"Very well. As you wish it, sir," he bowed and left the room without ever making eye contact.

Rayce wearily stepped into the main hall and handed Kian her cloak.

"Thank you, Kian," she murmured absently. She turned to go up the stairs, when her father's voice stopped her, "Rayce?"

"Yes, Father." She turned to face him after a brief pause, and found herself wondering when she had started to dread talking to him.

"You were not in for midday meal. I had thought that you would not be going to the Healer Hall anymore." Rayce stiffened, but held back her immediate retort, taking a few seconds to collect her thoughts.

"I was at Ruwche College, Father," was all she said. He looked at her, "And what were you doing there?" His tone wasn't exactly challenging, but Rayce felt her stomach clench,

"Studying, Father."

"Oh? May I ask what you were studying?" Rayce swallowed and considered evading the question, "I was studying the old laws and records," she finally said with reluctance.

"Pertaining to marriage, no doubt." Rayce found herself dreading the next few moments,

"I was, yes, Father," she admitted. She tried to tell herself she had no reason to feel guilty, but it was difficult when her father was 'sending' his feelings of betrayal.

"I'm disappointed in you, Rayce. I had thought that you would have had better ways to spend your time before the wedding." Rayce's mouth worked as she tried to find an answer that would not inflame her father, and make him bring up the Kai'Natah again.

"There will be a wedding," her father said, almost gently into the silence. "An advantageous match between two Houses." Rayce could stand it no more, "Advantageous to you, Father?" He looked injured.

"I was thinking only of your best interests. Lord Conala will be able to provide you with everything you need, everything a Lady of your standing should have."

"And you will gain prestige by this as well. Good all round." She couldn't stop the sarcasm from entering the remarks, nor the tears that burned treacherously behind her eyes.

"Rayce," he chided her, in the tone of voice that always made her feel guilty. She turned and fled up the stairs to her rooms before things were said that couldn't be taken back.

Opening the door to her rooms, she saw Kata, standing in the middle of the floor.

"You heard?" Rayce asked, as she shut the door behind her. "You know how sound carries from that hall," said Kata quietly. Rayce gave a small nod, a lift of her chin. She moved to stand by the window.

"So," said Kata, when Rayce made no move to talk, "where did you go?" "The library at Ruwche College," "Did you find what you needed?" Rayce turned to face her, an unhappy look on her face, "Not really. I learnt more than I wanted to know about the old clans, and where the arranged marriages first originated."

"Anything you could use?" "No," she said shortly, and then regretting her brusqueness she added, "most arranged marriages were done when the children were younger, before they reached their majority and could speak for themselves. Usually it was for the benefit of the clan, a marriage between Houses for instance."

"Like this one," said Kata softly. Rayce turned back to the window, smoothing her hand against the wood of the ledge, "It was a different time. Most of the old laws don't even apply anymore. The ironic thing is," she carried on, her voice bitter, "if I had been a healer then, I would have had my choice. Now, my father doesn't even seem to care about it, it's just something to keep me occupied."

"There weren't so many healers then." "There aren't so many gifted as T'Sai, now," Rayce shot the comment back angrily, and then sighed, "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to snap." Kata smiled gently, came up to Rayce to squeeze her hand understandingly.

"Did you find anything that might help you stop this marriage?" "No, I may have missed something, buried in the legalities, but," she shrugged, "I don't think so. I'll probably just have to go through with this."

"Lord Conala doesn't seem to be a bad person. His reputation is good, from what I've heard." Rayce nodded, "I appreciate that, Kata. But right now that doesn't help much. Tomorrow I'm going riding with him. Maybe I'll learn to like him. If not," she shrugged again, "it's a big House, I can be busy."

"Rayce..." Kata stopped, unsure what to say.

"I'll be all right. I'll survive." Rayce turned away, and went into her study.

 

© 1998, 1999 Copyright held by the author.

 

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