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Ajoran laughed coolly, counting out a few coins and handing them over to a merchant. "I knew what you meant. Ridahne told me, and honestly? It would be the greatest honor to both of us if you did. Not just because you're Astra-Sol," he said with a note of formality, "though that does add to it. More importantly, you're her sister, and therefore you'll be mine, too. Hadian is the only surviving family Ridahne has left so that means a lot to her to have you. You've been through a lot together, and you've accepted her for who she truly is, gritty history and all. The means very much to her, and it would mean very much indeed for you to marry us. It's really because of you that we can even be doing this," he added. "If it weren't for you, Ridahne wouldn't be alive. And for that I thank you."

___

Ridahne steepled her fingers, touching her forefingers to her lips contemplatively as she studied Harai. She was quiet, her expression stony and unreadable for an excruciatingly long span. She let that tension build for a moment, then, "I think there's more. You may not be hiding it on purpose, but I think you know more. I'll hear it." It was not an ask. Ridahne took the rope still tied around Harai's neck and strung through a pulley on the ceiling and, pinching it delicately between her slim thumb and forefinger, gave it the gentlest little tug. It was only enough to make the noose shift upward a little, a little reminder and nothing more.
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Darin considered that as she finished her treat. It was true that she had taken the name Torzinei. Did that mean if she didn’t do the ceremony that Hadian would do it? Would one of Ajoran’s family members? She wasn’t sure and she didn’t want to ask. This whole marriage things made sense, in a confusing sort of way. She had a feeling that no matter how many questions she asked she might never really understand it, and to be honest she wasn’t sure she wanted to ask more question. She was going to have to though. She was going to have to learn what she was supposed to say in order to do it right. She didn’t want to be the reason why this went wrong.

She looked up at the sky, “In that case I better learn what I’m supposed to do and say during this ceremony. It wouldn’t do to mess it up after all.” She muttered to herself, “That’s the last thing I want.”

Now that Darin was done having fun the rain was starting to peter out. It would still be cloudy for a while and still be considerably cooler than most of Tasen would be used to, but soon they would be able to start drying things out that needed drying out. With any luck the hot desert wind would blow out most of the mostiue in the air before it became to muggy. Muggy was the worst and Darin would take that opinion to her grave even if that grave was hundreds of years from now. She moved to head back towards the Sols’ compound. They could walk and talk, and Darin was eager to get to a kitchen where she could work her apple-based magic. And see Ridahne, but she would keep that to herself for now.

^_^

Harai was frantic, “I don’t know any more! I swear! I only saw him once! I came to Tasen because of rumors that The Seed-Bearer was being helped by an Eija! I wasn’t planning to actually see The Seed-Bearer! I wasn’t planning to cause trouble. Tasen is a dangerous place of Red Hands. Your Sols know no mercy. In fact, I wasn’t supposed to come at all!”

Harai sucked in a gasp of air as he realized what he had just inadvertently confessed to. No one was looking for him. No one would miss him. No one would come looking for him. In fact, if he died and it was found out he died in Tasen many of his fellow Red Hands would say it was his own fault for coming to Tasen. He had come hoping to figure out more about why an Eija would be helping The Seed-Bearer so far from their desert home. He hadn’t expected to finally, finally get a visual of The Seed-Bearer that could be passed to other members of the Red Hand. He wouldn’t get the chance to pass it on if he died here though. He needed to get out of here.

He hung his head and whispered defeatedly, “What more do you want from me? I’ve told you all I know. I promise.”
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Ajoran smiled easily. "You won't mess it up, it's not like if you forget a word or stumble over a part that it's ruined. It's just a ceremony, after all. The ceremony is nice, and it's a way to commemorate our union for sure and to share that moment with the community, but it's not really what binds us together. And anyway, I'll help you. I'll teach it to you while you make this...pie. I am very excited to try it." Ajoran had a relaxed nature when he wasn't facing some kind of threat or was on duty, though when he was, he was sharp, rigid, and highly focused. That was one of the reasons he'd been put forth as a candidate for a taja. But at the moment, it would have been hard for a passerby to believe that this man was an off-duty taja, who often could be identified just from their mannerisms whether they wore the symbols of their office or not.

Ajoran led Darin into the palace through a side entrance, not the main one, and led her down a few halls to the kitchen, which smelled comfortingly of woodsmoke and curry. A few cooks were about the place, each of them receiving barked orders from an absolutely ancient elf woman seated in a chair against one out-of-the-way corner. Her hair was white, though the salt-and-pepper ends suggested it once had been a more customary Azurei black. She was one of the few elves that had deeply carved wrinkles in her brown skin. She caught sight of Ajoran and made a shooing motion with a knobby hand. "Ohhh no, not you again, begone, I have no dainties for you to bring your woman." She spoke bluntly, but there was a warm sparkle in her dark eyes that betrayed her tone.
Ajoran smiled. "Nice to see you too, Iari, as always. But I'm not here for your pastries today. I'd like you to meet someone. Darin, this is Iari, she runs this place. Iari, I'd like you to meet Darin, the Seed Bearer of Astra."
Iari's heavy brows lifted at once. "Ri'atal..." she said softly, almost to herself. "I'm honored to meet you, young one. What brings you to my kitchen, Darin?"

--

For a long moment, Ridahne's face did not change from the stoic, blank expression she held as she listened to her prisoner's panic. She let the silence sit between them like a knife at his throat, looming, threatening, and then a slow and decidedly unkind smile began to touch the corners of her lips. She leaned in close. "Eija-alihn," she corrected softly, voice riddled with implication. Not every outsider knew what the eija-alihn were, or how they differed from a standard eija, but she guessed Harai had spent much time in Azurei and knew the ways of her people well enough to know the meaning of the term.

"I do believe you've told me everything useful that you know. At this point, the only reasonable thing left for me to do is slay you, like any good farmer would slay an animal that has gone mad." Ridahne let an ounce of her own derision surface there. "You and the rest of the Red Hand are like birds that have eaten too many poison berries and can no longer determine which way is up. There is much you do not know or understand, and you seek to meddle in forces you cannot begin to comprehend. I ought to slay you out of pity. I'd like to, personally. I could, too. I could cut off your head and walk out this door and no one would question me. But if I am to be the executioner, I will not also be the judge." Ridahne filled the cup with the last of the water from the pitcher and helped him drink it. "You have been cooperative so far. That will benefit you."

Ridahne opened the door and the diffuse light of cloudy day poured into the dim room like a rush of water. With it came cooler air that even Ridahne was grateful for. She turned to the two men guarding the door. "Douse the brazier. Keep his hands bound but there is no need as of yet to string him up as before. Give him all the water he asks for, and make sure he is fed. But do not release him until further notice."
The two taja nodded curtly. "Yes, Astra-Taja."

Ridahne blinked. Did they mean her? Yes, that made sense...if Darin was Astra-Sol, then that did make her Astra-Taja. She said nothing more to them, but she knew that their sharp, trained eyes would see how she beamed with pride at that thought, even though she tried to hide it. But as she walked away and made her way back towards the palace, her heart sank. She'd learned so many troubling things, and they all weighed upon her heart like anchors. But how was she supposed to tell Darin about her suspicions about this Martin fellow? Perhaps she wouldn't need to speculate, perhaps the mention of him would be enough. She didn't know, and couldn't bear the thought of ruining what had been an otherwise fun day.

Ridahne needed time to think, so she first went to the bathhouse for a long soak. Smelling of juniper, she found dry clothes laid out for her. These were of similar cut to the ones she'd been wearing: a loose uri and a cropped, tight fitting top that seemed to wrap around her and spill loosely over one shoulder. These, however, were black and gold silk. Clean, dry, and dressed, Ridahne stole through the halls until she found her usual way up onto the roof, where she sat for a long time and tried to think of what she'd say to Darin, and what to actually do with the prisoner.
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Darin looked up, startled as the woman said her name instead of calling her Astra-Sol. Why had she done that? Was there a reason or was the human thinking too much into it? The title used, Ri'atal, was one she hadn’t heard for a long time. It brought back memories of a simpler time, or maybe, a younger time. Had her life ever been simple? Now it seemed like it was simpler back then, but at the time it had seem complex. Would there be time when she looked at back at her time in Tasen and think that it had been simpler then? What was with her and the introspective thoughts now? Would she be having them forever? Darin gave her head a shake. Now was not the time for that.

She took the apples from Ajoran’s arms to show the woman, “I was hoping you could teach me how to make fried bread. I want to try putting apple pie filling in it.” She smiled shakily, “Kind of like a blending of culture.” She seemed worried, “If that’s okay. Ms. Iari.”

It seemed to be alright because the older woman lead her around the kitchen. Darin followed the instructions in making fry bread closely but not exactly. Baking was more art than science. Still, after a couple of tries Darin had a better than passable attempt at fry bread. After she was sure that she could recreate it at will Darin moved to teach Iari how to make apple pie filling. Darin had too much fun doing that. The end result was something that made Darin smile. It wasn’t quite an apple dumpling back it was close. It was … apple fry bread.

She smiled as she handed a piece to Ajoran, “What do you think? I like it! We need to share with Ridahne.” Her smile faltered, “Do you know when she’ll be done with what … with what she’s doing?”

Darin wanted to see Ridahne. There was too much to talk about and to be honest Darin had put it off for long enough. Whatever had happened with the man that she had seen in the marketplace was just a starting point. Darin hoped beyond all reason that he wasn’t dead unless it turned out he was a murderer or something like that. If that was the case his death could only be expected. But if he hadn’t done anything wrong, killing him would be murder, not justice. Would Darin be allowed to ask? Okay, that was a dumb question. She was Astra-Sol, The Seed-Bearer. She had a bad feeling that if she went into the Sols and told them to do something over the top or seemingly unnecessary, they would probably do it without question. That was beyond alarming. She would have to try not to abuse the privilege.

^_^

Harai looked up as the Taja he asked for water came and gave him some. Could it make it pass the pair of guards? Probably not, plus it would depend on if he could get loose from his bonds and that seemed completely unlikely. The ones on his wrist were top tight to even wiggle. The Taja had to hold the cup so Harai could drink. He tried not to look at the Elf. He could feel the distain on the warrior’s face. He wasn’t even sure escaping was the best course of action. The Red Hand would kill him, probably. Would The Seed-Bearer have him kill or kill him herself. She had killed. Harai did not want to think about it.
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Iari wheezed in a slow, mirthful cackle, her carven face brightening noticeably. "Child, I haven't been called "Miss" in a few centuries. Ha!" she slapped her thigh with one knobby hand. Darin was no child, but this elf was easily older than any of the Sols, and most creatures that walked the earth were children to her. Iari laboriously rose, leaning heavily on a smooth, use-polished staff of dark wood. Ajoran offered his arm to her and she took it. "Come, child, I'll show you."

The ancient elf guided Darin around the kitchen, more often pointing and telling her where to find something rather than grab it herself. She was not as mobile as she once had been. She taught Darin how to make the fried bread and watched with interest as Darin made her own version with the soft spiced apples and made mental notes about what other fruits or nuts might go well in the fry bread for later.

The end result was delicious. The fry bread exterior had a delicate crisp on the outside and the inside was pillowy soft with the added satisfying gooeyness of the cooked apples. Each one was rolled in cinnamon sugar. Ajoran ate his first one so fast he was already halfway through the second one when Darin asked his opinion. He laughed a little and almost choked on some inhaled sugar, which made him laugh harder. "These are incredible," he said. "Best keep these away from the Sols, they'll want them year round," he joked.

Ajoran's face darkened when Darin asked how long Ridahne would be occupied. He didn't answer right away, and from the contorted lines on his tattooed brow, it was clear he was wrestling with how to answer. Taja did not often speak of their business to non-taja, with the exception of some eija. It wasn't always a rule, and it wasn't always to protect some kind of state secret. More often, it was a kindness to the listener. Azurei had a reputation for training some of the toughest warriors, but that came at a cost. Ajoran looked into Darin's eyes as if measuring her, then away again. He supposed that if this was going to be his sister by marriage, he owed her honesty.

"She'll give it some time, for sure...how much time depends on how cooperative he is...and how heat tolerant he is, too. We learned a long time ago how heat can break even the strongest man in time. Even when his mind is strong, his body will waver and soon will take his mind down with it. The Azurei have perfected the technique of...Baking." He used the literal word, for he wasn't sure what else to call it. "If you want information out of someone, you stick them in a very small room with no windows and only a small vent in the roof. You stoke some coals and let them burn until the room gets unbearably hot. You can imagine that in a place like this, that's not hard to achieve. You wait until all they can think about is thirst and the want of a cool breeze, and you send in an interrogator, fresh from the outdoors. They do not need a weapon. They bring water. Questions answered to satisfaction are rewarded with water. A lack of cooperation or lies, and the interrogator will simply leave and let them bake further until they're ready to comply. In Azurei, we do not beat our prisoners. We find ways to make them uncomfortable enough that they have no choice but to submit. It's an ugly business. It's why she did not want to take you with her. That kind of grim work is her burden to bear for you and is the work required of her station. Ridahne guards not only your body, but your heart, too. Fiercely. We--the eija and taja--do secretly heavy deeds of sweat and blood so that others may never know of them. Normally I would not even speak of this to you so as not to burden you with it, but considering both your station and your place in the family now, you're owed the full answer."

Ajoran stood. "But we can see if she's finished, and where we might find her. Come, bring the fry bread, it will be a welcome treat I guarantee it." Ajoran walked around the halls for a bit, eventually flagging down any other palace servant to ask if they'd seen Ridahne. One said that she'd seen Ridahne go into the baths and so she laid out fresh clothes for her, but had not seen her since. That had been an hour ago. Ajoran thought that information over, then said, "Let's check the roof. The gardens had once been a place of thought and contemplation for her, but it's a troubled place of death, now. A reminder of her past. I'd bet she's on the roof if she hasn't come to find us."

Sure enough, she was. Dressed in black and gold silk, Ridahne stood out against the clay tiles as she sat with her knees drawn up to her chest and her eyes fixed on the sea. Hearing them approach, she turned, and as her eyes fell on Darin, she gave a smile that looked like it had been shot through with an arrow before it reached full bloom; a pained expression. She was happy to see them both, but seeing them made the thoughts churning inside her come uncomfortably to the surface. "Ah, there you are," she said, trying to be cheerful. "Had a good time in the market, I hope?" She caught sight of the fry bread. "And Iari let you into her kitchen, too, I see. What delicacy did you concoct?"
"Apple fry bread...Darin told me of pie and made this to sort of replicate it, they're still warm."
Ridahne took one and ate it, and it seemed to bring a little mirth back to her face. "The apple is just like I pictured it would be from your description, these are incredible Darin." But it was obvious something was eating at Ridahne and she could waste no time in getting it out. She stood and took Ajoran's hands in hers, pulling him close for a kiss. "Ajoran, I love you very much..."
"But you need a moment alone with Darin, don't you?"
Ridahne touched her forehead to his briefly, as if stealing some of his courage or resolve, then pulled away. "Yes, I do."
Ajoran nodded his understanding, though he bent down to pluck another fry bread from the cloth lined basket. "Alright, but I'm taking this with me...Thank you, Darin, it's been a pleasure to have your company today." Ajoran bowed, but playfully, as if emulating a human nobleman wishing a noblelady good night, and slipped through the window and back inside.

Ridahne sat back down like she weighed a thousand pounds, but she wasted no time. "Darin, there's something I feel I ought to tell you, but I don't want to. I don't want to tell you because I'm afraid of being the bearer of bad news, or complicated news or..." she threw up her hands. "I don't know. Seems like you've generally had a nice day and I don't want to ruin it," she said softly. "And the part of me that wants to protect you says I shouldn't say anything at all. But whether it's because you ought to know, or because I am still Seed-Chained and therefore there is a bond laid on me quite different from the bond of guardianship, or because it's eating me up inside and I need to tell someone I trust, I don't know, but I've decided I don't really have the choice not to tell you. I just have to."

It was a long, long time before she spoke again. Where to begin? How could she tell Darin her suspicions without jumping to conclusions? She was quiet for so long that it seemed she'd dropped the thought altogether and begun a new conversation. "I know you don't like talking about it much, but please, tell me about your father, Darin. Who is he?"
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Darin liked Ms. Iari. Somehow when she called the human child it didn’t feel the same was when the Sols called her that. Ms. Iari was so old that to her everyone was a child. Darin had a feeling she even called the Sota-Sol “Child.” Darin almost wanted to see the Sols and this woman interact. She had a feeling that the Sols didn’t try anything funny with this woman. Darin flitted from place to place following the woman’s instructions. This was fun and fulfilling and Darin found herself covered in all sorts of ingredients. To see Ajoran steal more than one lifted her heart and seeing Ms. Iari planned other variations of frybread was just perfection. She had to share with Ridahne so, she eagerly followed Ajoran to the roof for good food and good friends.

Though what happened when they got there was not what Darin was expecting. Here was Ridahne, looking as beautiful as ever in her black silk. As was common Darin felt plain next to her in her cotton and leather. Yet Ridahne seemed exhausted and mentally stretched. Darin was tired but mostly refreshed. What had happened during this “baking?” What had she learned about the Red Hand that would rattle her this much? Darin was almost tempted to have Ajoran stay, but this was what Darin had wanted practically gotten to Tasen. She wasn’t going to be a coward. Yet, she didn’t want to hear that the man was dead. She was still prepared to hear it, so the actual request caught her completely off guard.

Darin stuttered for a moment, “Um. Um. Martin son of Gregory by Alice. There’s not much to say about him. If the stories are to be believed the elders claimed that he had the “wandering blood.” No one thought that he was going to stay in out little village. Then he started to flirt with the prettiest girl in the village. Talia told him that she wasn’t going to be a “roll in the hay,” that she wanted commitment. So, he stayed. They started a farm together. They had me. He left. We mourned. The stories say he was fairly handsome himself. I’m not so sure I believe that. Apparently, I look like him. Brown hair, brown skin, brown eyes.” Her fingers came up to touch the corner of her eye, “Though mine are green now. I imagine that his are still brown. But if I do look like him I doubt he was attractive. I’m not bad looking, but I’m not pretty either. Though maybe these features look better on a male. That might make sense.” Darin thought for a moment, “That man he said something that made you think Martian has a connection to the Red Hand. What was it?”

Suddenly thoughts of telling Ridahne that she was jealous of Ajoran, that she was homesick, that she was questioning what to do next. Darin wanted to feel betrayed by the thought of Martian being part of the Red Hand but couldn’t seem to find it her to care. If he was Red Hand it was just another betrayal. Was it really betrayal if Martian didn’t know his daughter was The Seed-Bearer? Maybe she was betraying her father by being The Seed-Bearer. Though thinking of Martin as her father felt simultaneously wrong and heartbreaking. Was he really her father? Well that was a dumb question. Whether Darin liked it or not she was the daughter of Martin by Talia. Nothing would ever change that. Not the Red Hand, not The Tree or The Seed, not even her own feelings on the matter.
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Ridahne took in a breath as if to answer, but it came out between her lips in a whoosh of air. Martin son of Gregory by Alice. Martin Aliceson. Well, that seemed to confirm her suspicions at least, and Ridahne did feel some peace in bringing all this up for good reason. She'd feel sick if she put ideas in Darin's head that weren't true. But evidently they appeared to be. And whether Darin knew her too well, or if she'd also harbored some secret suspicion, she seemed to guess that Ridahe had learned something of her father relating to the Red Hand.

"Yeah," she said in another sigh. "The prisoner crumbled. Took no time at all and he sang like a bird. I promised it would be worthwhile for him to cooperate, and I think he felt real enough fear that motivated him, too. It's always tricky getting information that way, it's sometimes hard to tell if someone is fabricating information to appear helpful and compliant, or if they're telling the truth. But we tend to gain a good sense for that over the years, and I think at the very least, he believed everything he said. How true those things were is another matter, but he told me what he thought was the truth, at least. He mentioned he'd been recruited by a Siren woman, and she'd been recruited by a Martin Aliceson. I pressed him about Martin, though he didn't have a lot to say. According to him, he's either a founder of the Red Hand or was recruited by the founder. Either way, he appears to be high in the ranks. The prisoner believes that the Red Hand exists because they think one person should not carry the weight of the Seed and eventually, the Tree alone. They believe many people should have control over it, but mark my words when I say 'control'. I mean it. I know those types, and it's control indeed they want. Who knows what other motives they have, but this one's a pretty small fish, so they wouldn't tell him."

Ridahne fiddled with the beaded hem of her black uri. "I can question him further if you like. You could also, if you wanted. I've still got him. I gave instructions for him to be treated decently enough until we decide what to do with him, but it didn't feel right slaying him after making promises that he wouldn't regret cooperating. But that is, tactically speaking, the best and safest thing to do. Slay him and have done with it, lest he do some greater damage once we leave. I just didn't feel right about it without consulting you first." She still looked distraught and burdened, though she knew that she'd done the right thing in divulging all this information to Darin. It still didn't feel good though.
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This was a dilemma. They couldn’t just kill the man after he had cooperated, but they couldn’t let him go back to the Red Hand either. Then there was what he said about the man named Martin Alicceson. Aliceson, son of Alice, Martin son of Gregory by Alice. It seemed to similar to be a coincidence, but all of Darin hoped it was just that. But if it wasn’t that meant things that Darin didn’t even want to think about. Did he leave to join the Red Hand or did that come later? Did she want the answer to that question? Why was she even asking these questions when it was possible it wasn’t the same man at all? The more important question was what was she doing to do with the prisoner now?

She stood and brushed off the seat of her pants, “I want to speak to him before I make any decisions regarding his fate. I owe him that much. Take me to him. Please.”

With that Darin followed Ridahne off the roof and towards a windowless hut guarded by two tajas. The temperature inside was much higher than outside, but it bearable and the human girl could tell that it had significantly decreased. In the center of the small room was a human man with a noose on his neck and his hands bound. He looked tired. He looked up as she entered. Darin fell to sit in front of him with one foot flat against the ground and the other tuck under her. She looked at him and resisted the urge to sigh. His dark eyes held a look of shock before becoming impassive. What was going on in his head.

Her voice was clear, “I am Darin. What is your name?”

^_^

Harai looked up in surprise as a The Seed-Bearer came into the hut. Her eyes were closed as she came in and for a brief moment, he foolishly thought that it was Martin Aliceson.Then her eyes opened to reveal that there were a shocking green color. She sat and Harai decided either he wasn’t remembering what Aliceson looked like properly or The Seed-Bearer and him were related somehow. That would explain why the Taja had been so interested in that name. Harai also thought it was interesting that the woman in front of him looked disheveled, wind-tossed, and salt covered. Almost as if she was pretending to be ordinary or didn’t care how she looked.

Her voice was clear, cool, and reminded the man of robin’s summer song, “I am Darin. What is your name?”

Harai tossed a quick glace at the female Taja behind the human girl before licking his lips and answering, “I am Harai.”

She nodded, “Harai. Tell me about your life?”

That was so far from what he was expecting that it caught him off guard, “What? You don’t want to know about the Red Hand.”

She gestured out with a hand, indicating the other woman, “I’m sure that my Taja questioned you thoroughly about the Red Hand. I’m sure she knows if you spoke truth or lies. I want to know about you. What was your life like before the Red Hand? What is it like now?”

Despite himself Harai found himself speaking about being the only son of a poor miner with six sisters and a mother that died giving birth to the youngest. He spoke about learning how to mine for coal in a mine running dry. He spoke of how the mines always seemed claustrophobic and how his sisters cried when he left, but he left with his family’s and his father’s blessing. That was all he left with as the family didn’t have anything to spare. He spoke of having not seen them for years and missing them, but guilt keeping away. Maybe if he had been there two seasons after he left his father wouldn’t have died in that mine collapse.

He spoke of the Red Hand and how they promised better lives for everyone. He spoke about how alluring it was to have money to send home for doing simple things like wander around and just listen for gossip. He related that the goal was to claim The Seed so more than one person would be in charge of Its safety. He recalled how he saw The Gardener just once, but he looked well feed and put together. How could someone like that ever understand what someone like him, who staved for seasons in a row to make sure his younger sisters had enough to eat, truly needed from The Seed and from society.

He ended his lengthy discussion with a question, “How can you, a person who has never starved a day in your life ever be able to help someone like me? Or is you plan just to help all the nobles and the wealthy?”

There was silence for a moment as The Seed-Bearer considered that. Then she spoke in an almost impossibly soft voice, “When I was fifteen my father left my mother and me in the middle of winter, leaving only enough supplies to last until planting if we rationed it very carefully. My mother lost herself to the heartbreak and vanished somewhere in her mind. And I starved for the rest of winter all the way till the end of harvest so that way my mother wouldn’t. It is not quite the same as siblings, but I do know what it means to starve for another person.” She stood, “You don’t have to like me. You don’t have to respect me. But I don’t know you, so don’t pretend to know me.” She nodded her head, “Good night Harai. I will see you tomorrow.”

Then she left and Harai was left staring at her back. If she was Aliceson’s daughter like he thought what did that say about the man that he would abandon his wife and daughter? He didn’t doubt that what she said was true. There was something about the way she said it that meant he couldn’t doubt it. She knew what it meant to starve. And it she clearly knew a thing or two about heartbreak. And she wasn’t afraid of saying it. She didn’t seem like some high born noble. Actually, the way she had spoken, the questions she had asked about the mines and his family led him to believe that she was ordinary, like him. Could The Seed-Bearer just be ordinary? And what did that mean if she was?

^_^

Darin didn’t know what to do. Harai seemed like a good man who was plagued by guilt and just wanted to help his family. He hadn’t actually committed any crimes and wasn’t attacking her or Ridahne or anybody. Just killing him felt wrong in way that made Darien want to be physically sick. Besides Ridahne and told him that cooperating would be worth it. Did she want to make her sister a promise breaker? That didn’t mean that she could just let him go back to the Red Hand either. She wasn’t sure what to do and she desperately wanted advice. Then with stunning clarity that meant the thought could have only come as inspiration from The Tree Darin knew who she could go to for advice. She let out a groan of frustration. She didn’t want to go to them. That would require the swallowing of pride and perhaps an apology and she didn’t want to. She let out another groan. The woman did lead a country and Darin did need to learn how to do that.

Then she grabbed a passing Taja, “I require a private audience with the Sota-Sol to discuss matters with her. I will be bringing my Taja and ask that she limit herself to one as well.” Darin steeled herself, “I await her invitation, but urge that it come quickly.”
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Ridahne figured that Darin would want to see Harai. It's what she would want to do if someone were tracking her; Ridahne liked to know her enemies personally and see their faces. But even more so when it was a complicated case of figuring out what to do with someone who was just a pawn in a bigger game. Ridahne had gathered Harai was a small fish and no one of great import to the Red Hand. In a way, she pitied him. What lies had he been told to coerce him into the life he was now part of?

Ridahne led Darin to the holding room. The Taja at the door belonged to Hanasa-Sol, and the majority of her Taja had once belonged to Khaltira. Ridahne wasn't sure she liked that idea, but Taja were hard to come by and took a long time to train, so it only made sense to keep a few of the good ones. Ridahne was keenly aware, though, that she was the person who killed their Sol. Not just a Sol, their Sol. She was surprised by how willing they were to follow her direction and how little animosity they felt towards her. Perhaps word had gone around about the full story of Khaltira's death, and perhaps these men had seen some of the same things in their Sol that had alarmed Ridahne.

They found Harai looking exhausted and still stained with sweat, though the rope around his neck was kept slack so that the man could easily sit on the floor. Ridahne guessed he'd even been fed to some degree. The room was still hot and dark, though it was no longer the unbearable inferno it had been when Ridahne had broken Harai. Ridahne let Darin do the talking, though she stood tall as an imposing figure looming above where Darin knelt, a grim reminder that Darin was not alone, and she was not defenseless should Harai decide to try anything. Occasionally, as they spoke together, Ridahne would circle behind Harai like a cat deciding how and when to pounce on wounded prey. Ridahne did not need to speak to be a heavy presence in the room.

When Harai accused Darin of only benefiting the upper crust of society and knowing nothing of hardship, Ridahne actually barked a laugh. She couldn't help it. Clearly, he did not know Darin. Nor did he know herself. Despite Ridahne's rich black and yellow outfit, complete with a Taja's sash and a new uri pin that showed her new sigil, Ridahne had spent the majority of her life in poverty, scraping by for a living for her and her family. This man could not be more wrong about both of them.

They left, though Ridahne lingered behind Darin for just a moment to stare down Harai as a reminder to not get too comfortable in dealing with them. Her eyes echoed her first words to the man that she'd spoken in the marketplace. I am the ghost in the sands. I am the shadow behind every door. I am the chill of a moonless night. I am the blade, and I am death.

Back in the palace, Darin requested a meeting with the Sota-Sol, and Ridahne promised she'd make it happen. She led Darin to a small room with cushions on the floor around a low table and asked her to wait there. Not long after Ridahne left, a young girl who couldn't have been older than sixteen, though by human standards looked to be about twelve, came in bearing a silver tray with four small silver cups filled with a chilled milky tea that was both sweet and spicy with heavy cinnamon flavors. She set the tray down and stole a glance at Darin, nearly choked in surprise when she saw her green eyes and knew at once who she was serving tea for, and gave a quick bow. "This drink is a custom of our people during meetings such as this. M-meetings are best conducted with tea..." she felt like she needed to explain, realizing that this revered person was not of Azurei and did not know its ways. "B-but I can bring you anything else you wish," she remembered she was supposed to say.

__

Ridahne knew where to find the Sota-Sol at this hour. She made her way to the woman's personal quarters and her way was barred by three Taja bearing spears, though each of them also carried a sword. This was expected, they were only doing their job. "The Sota-Sol is not taking visitors..." the man looked Ridahne up and down and added, "Taja Torzinei."
"Astra-Sol seeks a meeting with the Sota-Sol of Azurei. It is not a casual visit she seeks. Tell her Astra-Sol awaits her, and that she asks that she bring only one Taja, as Astra-Sol will also have only one."

One of the Taja broke away to go inside the rooms they were guarding, and a few moments later the Sota-Sol herself emerged, dismissing all but one of the Taja. When Ridahne did not bow to her, she quirked an eyebrow and asked, "You do not bow before your Sota-Sol?"
"With all respect, Sota-Sol, I do not belong to any Sol anymore, not after I was cast away."
The Sota-Sol actually smiled a little. "But you do now, Taja Torzinei. Don't you?"
Ridahne realized with a shock she was right. But she sensed the informality in Amaiera-Sol's tone and allowed herself a little candor. "I...suppose I do. But it's different..."
"I'm certain it is." Ridahne had always known Amaiera-Sol to be aloof and proud, commanding respect from all around her without needing to ask. But since they'd spoken privately in the gardens the night before, she'd been almost...grandmotherly to her, at least in private. It was as if Amaiera-Sol regretted the way she'd handled things in the past and sought to mend the damage she'd done. It made Ridahne respect her even more, though she still had a lot of other feelings towards the woman that would need time to work through.

"Thank you for taking the time to speak with us," Ridahne said as she led her and her Taja to the room where Darin was waiting. Amaiera-Sol noted she said "us" and not "her", meaning Darin. Indeed, when it came to official matters, Ridahne did not consider Darin a separate entity, but they were a bonded pair. Quite literally in Ridahne's case as Seed-Chained. "There is a matter that Darin would like to discuss with you."
"You call your Sol by her name only?" There was not condescension in her tone, but perhaps some level of surprise.
"Always," came Ridahne's firm reply. She'd use Darin's title when speaking to others when required during formal interactions, but never outside of that. "I might belong to my Sol, but I will never again be owned. I will never again be a tool in the hand of another. I am Ridahne. And I serve because I choose to." She kept he voice low, but her tone was adamant and some of her usual fire showed through even her quietly spoken words.
Amaiera-Sol thought on this for a moment, then slowly nodded. "This is as it should be," she agreed. "Privately, I am unused to your methods. You buck tradition in many ways, Taja Torzinei. But I am beginning to see more clearly each time I speak with you that you are indeed doing Azurei proud. Your Sol is fortunate to have you."
Ridahne nearly choked and bit her lip hard to keep from suddenly bursting into tears. She WOULD NOT lose composure in a moment like this, but she was sure that Amaiera-Sol could not have known just what those words would mean to Ridahne. She held her head a little higher after that.

Ridahne opened the door to the room Darin was waiting in and waited until Amaiera-Sol and her Taja were seated before taking a cushion herself beside Darin.
"Greetings, Astra-Sol. Your Taja informs me you wish to speak with me about something. Azurei is pleased to offer service to Astra-Sol. How may I help you?" Amaiera-Sol spoke with high dignity, but as someone speaking to an equal. She considered Darin to be a Sota-Sol herself, just of a different province, and spoke to her as if she were speaking to a human queen or king.

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Darin hadn’t meant for the meeting to happen quite so fast, but it didn’t surprise her in the least when Ridahne immediately moved to make it happen now. She followed without fuss to the comfortable room and took a seat with a sigh. It wasn’t long before a young girl came in with tea. She didn’t seem to realize who Darin was right a way and there was a part of the human that wished she could have not realized at all. But it seemed her eyes gave her away. Even Harai seemed to be taken aback by her eyes the entire time they spoke. She still didn’t understand why they had changed color the way they had.

She smiled at the child, “Tea is fine. You’re doing well.”

The girl left, but Darin wasn’t alone for long. Ridahne returned quickly with the Sota-Sol with her. Darin couldn’t help but observe her for just a moment. Even with less than an hour’s notice the woman had come. Not only that, but she looked completely put together. On the other hand, Darin was a complete mess. She was covered in salt and dried dust. Her hair was doing it’s best to escape the braid she had tied it into. There was flour and sugar staining her clothes. The Sota-Sol looked like a noble born and Darin looked like a ragamuffin. Why had Harai thought she was a noble? Was that something the Red Hand had told him? That The Seed-Bearer would have either noble or royal blood. Why would they do that?

Darin sighed and braced herself, “I know that I have not showed you a great deal of respect in our previous interactions Sota-Sol. And I know that means I have little to no right to ask this of you now, but I find myself in a difficult situation that I see no way out of.” She place the cup down and let go of it for fear that her too tight grip would break it, “So I’ve come to you, a leader of a country, seeking advice, guidance, and wisdom. So, I hope that out past meeting will hold no sway over the conversation we have now.” Darin was looking anywhere but the woman in front of her as she explained the situation, “There is a man connected to the Red Hand being held by some of your Tajas. Ridahne tells me that she believes that he was honest when he answered her questions regarding the Red Hand. I believe he was being honest when he answered my questions. Other than being connected to the Red Hand he has committed no crime.” Darin looked at her fingers as they nervously entangled themselves together, “So, I find myself reluctant to have him killed. For one he is just a man. He is not a warrior attacking us. He is our prisoner and at our mercy. For another killing him would mean I make my sister a promise breaker as she told him that cooperating would be worth it. Yet I can’t let him go either. He would head straight back towards the Red Hand and them all that he had learned, and while I do not believe my identity will remain secret for much longer it seems foolish to just let him depart. Holding him had its own set of difficulties and that is not something I cannot ask you or you people to do.” Darin finally forced herself to look up at her conversation partner, “This is a difficult situation and not one I’ve faced before. My heart says to cut him loose. My head says to end his life. Can you advise me? Do I even have the right to ask you for your guidance?”

Looking at this woman who measured her life in centuries Darin felt so incredible young, younger than she felt in a long time. She had gone to the elders of home before she left with basically the same request. “I know I haven’t been respectful, but this situation is terrifying. I’m so sacred I’ll make the wrong choices. Please, please can you help me.” All of them had calmly, and without ire, had offered both advice and solace. It was advice the young girl had for once in her life taken to heart and tried to act upon. Once again Darin found herself in the same situation, hoping that she hadn’t inadvertently burned the bridge she desperately needed now. She could only hope that the Sota-Sol didn’t just leave. She would take any censure the woman chose to give if that censure came with advice. For now, all Darin could do was wait with her heart pounding in her chest and unwanted apologies on the tip of her tongue.
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The elderly woman's usually neutral expression changed a little when Darin referred to Ridahne as her sister. It was only a little upward pull of one eyebrow, but evidently that was a surprise to her. She'd never heard of a Taja taking their Sol as an adoptive sibling, or was it the other way around? There were no explicit rules against it, but it left her guessing at the power dynamics between the two, and what that looked like. She remembered that Ridahne had been adamant about not calling Darin by her title and now that choice seemed to make more sense.

Amaiera-Sol was silent as Darin spoke, and the only real reactions she had to what was said was a few nods of understanding or acknowledgement along the way. She chose to wait until the younger woman was finished speaking, and then she would consider everything. And consider she did. The Sota-Sol didn't answer right away and instead gave a long, thoughtful sigh. Finally she spoke, looking Darin in the eyes. Amaiera-Sol was a force to be reckoned with, certainly, but she allowed the same gentleness that she'd shown Ridahne in the hall. "The more I speak to you and to your Taja, the more I understand. She is yours, and you are a woman who takes care of what belongs to you. You are protective of her, and no doubt you saw the woman who cast out your Taja as a villain. You cannot be blamed for such a perspective, though I would hope that as you come into your own as Astra-Sol and you gain an appreciation for the complex nature of important decisions, that you also understand the weight of rule and doing what you judge to be best in a moment, even if nuance later proves those decisions to be rash. There is no ill-air between us, Astra-Sol," Amaiera-Sol assured her.

"As for your dillemma...you certainly have the right to ask my assistance, and I am honored you asked. I will do my best to advise you, but in the end you must do what you judge to be right. I assume you have consulted your Taja about this already. Taja Torzinei, what say you in this matter? You have the training for such matters."
Ridahne nodded, sipping her tea. "My training instructs me to slay him. An enemy alive will find you in the dark. A dead enemy allows you to sleep in peace. But...not all enemies are worthy of slaying. A petty thief is a criminal, but it's unjust to slay a man who steals a loaf of bread to survive. I'm inclined not to kill him, but," she added, glancing at Darin, "If it's decided that that's the best course of action, I would not hesitate."
Amaiera-Sol nodded. This seemed to be the answer she expected. "We have made it our policy in Azurei to capture and slay anyone openly with the Red Hand. You might call that cruel, but the message has been clear that we in Azurei support the true Seed-Bearer and do not tolerate those that seek to sow chaos and violence. Other lands have their own methods in dealing with them, but my reports tell me other lands have more trouble with them than we do here since the Sols made that decision. It is both bold and foolish for this one to out himself inside my borders."

Amaiera-Sol took a sip of her own tea, and indicated to her Taja that he was also free to partake if he wished. "I have spent centuries reading other people. I can gather easily enough that neither of you wants to kill him. By law, you could without fault, but it seems neither of you wish to. Then don't."
"But I won't let him go." Ridahne did not ask Darin's thoughts on this, she had her own very strong opinions. The Taja across from her evidently found that scandalous but did not speak. "Not as things are. The Red Hand will find out everything about us eventually. I've encountered one that Saw me in a vision. Not her, but me. I would guess that I might be recognizable enough to the right person, but not Darin. Not yet. That has so far kept us in relative safety, and while a time will come when that safety will end, I think it's unwise to speed forth that day with carelessness. Harai is not much of a threat to me, but he could put someone who is on our trail. I met my match once, I'm not keen to do it again." Ridahne touched the long scar across her side she earned during the fight where she'd almost died.

Amaiera-Sol nodded slowly. "Your Taja raises a good point. As for other options...we can and will hold him if you wish us to. It does not need to be a lifelong sentence. Once you have planted the Seed, grievous harm would come to any who wished to damage your sapling, or to take it from you. There will come a day when the Red Hand is either routed or thwarted, and on that day it would be safe to release him to do as he wished. He would be a prisoner, for a time, though we would treat him with as much care and dignity as you require."
"It's not a bad option to consider..." Ridahne said. "Unless...unless you could bind him in an oath of some sort. Either in an oath of secrecy, where he would not be capable of relaying information about us, or perhaps one in which he is prevented from returning. If you could do that, then I would feel safe releasing him."
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Darin squirmed as the woman in front of her remained silent. Irrationally fearing mocking or dismissal. When she finally did speak a breath of relief flowed out of the human, fears laid to rest as the Sota-Sol claimed being asked for advice was an honor. Darin wasn’t sure that was true, but she was attempting to trust the woman’s word. She hung to every word as if it was vastly important, as if it was a matter of life and death. IN a way it was. Harai’s life depended on her decision and she had no desire to make it rashly. To be honest, she didn’t want to make it at all, but Darin recognized it as a childish wish and discarded that thought almost immediately.

Amaiera-Sol’s offer to hold Harai in comfort if need be for as long as required did not sit right with Darin. Ridahne didn’t know, the Sols certainly didn’t know, but that was a life sentence. War was coming to Astra. Whether via the Red Hand or an as of yet unknown enemy, war was inevitable. Azurei would have to do what was best for its people and that would involve eliminating or containing all potential enemies including any and all members of the Red Hand. If that was the solution than killing him now would save time and resources. But she didn’t want to do that, not if she could help it.

When her sister mentioned an oath, Darin’s nervous fidgeting ceased as she was frozen in shock at that possibility. She hadn’t considered it before. Yet, there wasn’t a single oath that Darin trusted him to keep. He was Red Hand. She had no idea if he had any concept of honor or even courage. She had no idea if he believed the mantras that he gave Ridahne when she questioned him or if it was lip service. He could make a promise today and break it as soon as he left Azurei, and head straight for the Red Hand to make plots to kill her. The only promise that she would trust in this situation was.

NO! She wouldn’t! She couldn’t! Could she? It was a simple enough solution. It was very neat. Darin found her gaze trail to her Taja’s face almost against her will. It was on the other side. She couldn’t see it from where she was sitting. Her fingers came up and then dropped back to her lap. They had discussed this before. Ridahne was the first. She should know that she wouldn’t be the last. Darin hadn’t done it on purpose before though, was reluctant to do that to another the same way she had done it the last time over a year ago. Once again, her hand came up and using her index and middle finger Darin turned Ridahne’s face to look at the mark that both doomed and freed her sister; one to service, the other of doubt.

Her voice was barely a whisper, meant only for Ridahne’s ears, but most certainly heard by everyone in the room as her fingers left the Azurei’s chin to trace the tattoo, “I could Chain him, but what then?”
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Ridahne could feel Darin's eyes on her, searching her, though she was not looking into her eyes, but her face. She was so used to people doing that, being from Azurei, that she didn't even register it as something unusual. But Darin reached out and gently turned Ridahne's face towards her, and then she knew what was on her mind. The tattoo was long since healed, but Ridahne suddenly felt it, or seemed to be keenly aware of where it was on her face. When Darin's hand fell away, Ridahne touched it with her own hand.

Amaiera-Sol felt like speaking would interrupt a moment, but there was something in this that she was missing. "Taja Torzinei, what is that mark? Will you speak of it to me?"
Ridahne nodded slowly. "When Darin and I first met, I was deeply plagued with shame. Not guilt, for I know why I did what I did and stand by it. But shame. I knew I'd done something terrible. I knew I'd betrayed my people, in a way. And I thought that no one could love me. I felt worthless. I was a murderer. One day, Darin finally pried the full story out of me, and I, in my shame, thought that there was no outcome that didn't end with her sending me away, and I would have no choice but to either remain in exile, or to return home and die. Bracing for what I thought would be a certainty, I offered to leave so that she might find a guardian of more worth, but Darin wouldn't have that." Ridahne chuckled. "She rebuked me for even considering the promise I'd made to her. She named me Seed-Chained, forever bound to the fate of the Seed and its bearer, until I'm relieved of duty. It's...not just a title. I am quite literally bound, my personage, my soul is now chained to this entity and by extension, Darin. I could not turn away from this path even if I wanted to."

A heavy silence filled the room as both Amaiera-Sol and her Taja processed that information. She knew Ridahne was dedicated to Darin, but she had not understood to what degree. "You had told me, Taja Torzinei, that you would never again be owned. That you were no longer the blade in someone else's hand. This...bond, then, must require a great deal of trust on your end. Trust that your bond would not be exploited."
Ridahne lifted her chin proudly. "An immense amount of trust. Trust that has not been proven false."
Amaiera-Sol nodded. "Then you have a good Sol at last." She turned to Darin. "You do indeed take care of what belongs to you, Astra-Sol. That is the mark of a good leader. Be encouraged, for while I do not know your full tale of all your deeds, I believe you are doing the previous Gardener proud." Amaiera-Sol had met the Gardener more than once in her centuries as Sota-Sol.

Ridahne offered a small smile to Darin, but then brought her attention back to the subject at hand. "If you Chained him, well...what happens next is up to you. You charged me with holding to my promise of protection and guardianship, a charge I accept with pride. What would you charge him with? In which direction would you send him?" She had a thought and couldn't help a dark chuckle. "If you really wanted to sow some chaos, you could charge him with attacking the Red Hand in whatever way he could--physically or logistically. Or you could bind him to a life of work. Honest work, not slavery, and something that would earn him an honest living. You could bind him to silence regarding your identity and movements. But where it goes from there...? I don't know. I don't think anyone knows what becomes of a Seed-Chained person, not even me. Though it's worth considering that by Chaining him, he would likely have some sense of...of..." she wasn't sure what to call it. "You have powers, a command of Astra's very bones. And while I do not have such command, I am sensitive to it. He would likely gain that as well."
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Darin remained silent as Ridahne explained what she meant. There was nothing to say or add. Ridahne explained the situation perfectly with concise details and a minimum of fuss. She was right too. What happened after was Darin’s choice and hers alone. Ridahne was also correct when she mentioned giving Harai a task. What would that task be? Darin was almost of the notion that she needed to send him home, especially if he had not been back since his father died. But what would she have him do then? Part of Chaining was giving the person a job that they wanted to do. But weren’t sure they were allowed to do. It was supposed to be a burdened that ended with being Honored. Being Seed-Chained was deeper than being Seed-Friend and less painful than being Seed-Cursed.

Maybe Darin could make it a choice. She could tell Harai that he could be Chained to The Seed with a specific task or left in Azurei captive until the end of his days. The problem with that though was she couldn’t Chain all of her enemies or give them. Chaining wasn’t meant to force everybody into servitude. Then again, this was the first person that Darin had thought about Chaining since she had discussed her accident and rashness in Chaining Ridahne. She almost wished that she could have given her the choice. So, that settled it. If she decided that Chaining Harai was a viable option then she would give him the choice between staying in Azurei or being Chained. But what would she Chain him to do?

Darin was too tired to think about this properly. It had been a long day and she had expended a lot of energy playing with Astra and the people of Tasen. She was angry too, but too tired to be angry properly. This had supposed to be a day of fun and play and relaxation and Harai had come to Tasen and ruined it! She was angry at Ridahne too, for going off to work and leaving her alone with Ajoran. She wasn’t as angry at Ridahne as she was at Harai and she wasn’t actually angry because she was tired beyond all reason, but she was still up set that her perfectly nice day was ended by this.

She muttered to herself in the language of home, “This is so not fun at all.” Whe then switched back to Azurein, “Thank you Sota-Sol. For coming to see me and for your advice. I need to discuss this further with Ridahne and I need a bath.” She smiled slightly, “The salt is starting to itch.” She rose from her sitting position, “I’ll take my leave now. I ask that this conversation remain, not secret, but maybe quiet. I appreciate your discretion.”

Then Darin didn’t quite bow, but the nod of her head was certainly more respectful than her actions towards the Sota-Sol had been in the past. She had no doubt that Amaiera-Sol and her Taja would keep her confidence, and it surprised her how little she worried about that. She linked arms with Ridahne to pull the woman from the room and out into the hall. It was an effort not to collapse on to the older woman, and it felt like each step was liftin a mountain. Darin wanted to cry from frustration and exhaustion. She had never wanted this, and she wasn’t going back down that path now. The responsibility of The Seed was hers. She had accepted that a long time ago. There was no point fussing about it now.

She, did however, make a selfish request, one she had wanted to make since they had gotten to Tasen, “Stay with me tonight Ridahne please.” Her voice wobbled and she struggled to keep from breaking out into tears, “Get Ajoran, arranged for baths in the room I’ve been given, and then please” She sounded almost desperate as she stopped in the hallway and turned towards her sister as she kept their arms linked, “Please stay with me tonight. Don’t go off to the dorms of the Eijas and Tajas. Be with me. Don’t leave me alone again.”

Then, despite all efforts to the contrary Darin broke down in tears. The exhaustion of the last few days caught up to her. The weight of the decision regrading Harai crashed into her. The irrational fear that Ridahne would do like her father and mother plagued her. And Darin cried, clinging to her sister, in the middle of the hallway, where anyone who came by could see. The Sota-Sol said she was doing the Gardener proud, but how could that be true when she couldn’t keep from crying the first time her life got hard.

^_^

Harai thought, and then thought some more, and then thought just a little bit further. The Red Hand claimed that The Seed-Bearer was some sort of human noble or rich boy. Why else would he be traveling with an Azurei Eija? The mistake in assume that The Seed-Bearer was a boy was acceptable. Traveling as a boy was safer for just about every woman, especially in today’s uncertain times. But the assumption that she was rich or noble by birth had always seemed rash to Harai. It could be true, but it seemed more likely that the Eija, one of not just Azurei’s but all of Astra’s most skilled and deadly warriors, had been assigned to the child simply because she was The Seed-Bearer now. Harai had seen calluses on her hands as they had talked, and the childhood trauma that she had mentioned had been told too simply, too plainly, to directly, to be anything but truth. The fact of the matter was, was the Red Hand was wrong. The girl was no noble. She was a farmer and in Harai’s opinion, which wasn’t the best since he had been born a miner not farmer but still, who else to give The Seed to but a farmer.

Then there was the fact that she was a child or rather not quite an adult yet. He was willing to bet that she was younger than he was, or at least close to his age. He had seen her in the market yesterday and today. Yesterday she had been an eager student, like a child soaking up every drop of new information on everything that interested them, and that was, it appeared, everything. As for today, she had simply been a child at play. Harai could remember splashing in the puddles when it rained when he was younger just as she had today. Her face had been bright and open and joyful. He couldn’t help the plague of guilt than struck him when he realized he had ended that. Her laughter and good spirits had infected everyone, and he had pulled her companion away. If that woman was simply a Taja then he would eat his boots. He knew family when he saw it.

What would she do with him? She might kill him, but Harai’s mind shied away from that option. Not because he didn’t want to die, but because all the stories of The Seed-Bearer said they only killed as a last resort. She wouldn’t let him go. She couldn’t risk him running back to the Red Hand to tell them what he knew. A lifetime of being Azurei’s prisoner seemed like the best he could hoped for until he either escaped or he suffered a deadly “accident.” Maybe he could promise something, promise to never again associate with the Red Hand. No, that wouldn’t work. The Red Hand grew suspicious if its members didn’t report back often. Maybe he could spy and then report to, well not directly to her, but maybe a Taja, not her Taja, but a Taja she trusted. He worked as a merchant of a company that worked between several ports, Siren, human, and Elf. He could gather a great deal of information and report it whenever her was in Tasen.

Harai was surprised by how fast he warmed to that idea, but the more he thought about it, and he could do nothing but think right now, the more he realized the Red Hand hadn’t been completely honest with him. He had been told The Seed-Bearer was noble born. He had been told that they were hiding and hording The Seed’s gifts, but she wasn’t. She may have been the one that was holding The Seed, btu she wasn’t carrying the burden alone. Discretion made sense since there were people trying to kill her. She had brought rain to this desert town that had desperately needed it! And even after The Seed was Planted, she wasn’t going to care for It alone. The Tree was at the center of The Farm and cared for by hundreds of people that only wanted the best for Astra. The Seed-Bearer was a child! Who needed all the help she could get! Why? By The Tree! Why had he been so foolish to simply accept the rumors fed o him by the Red Hand. He wasn’t getting out without help, but maybe, just maybe, if he offered to spy, the girl who starved for her mother, the girl who played in the morning and conversed with dead men in the evening, might be willing to help him too.
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Amaiera-Sol nodded solemnly. "I will keep this information discreet. If it becomes necessary for me to discuss this with the other Sol, then I will, but it will go no further. I think now, Astra-Sol, you understand how difficult decisions can be heavy, and how easy it is to make a rash choice. May you learn from this and become a better leader for it. And may both of you find rest in these walls." Amaiera-Sol returned the polite nod, and she and her taja left.

Ridahne supported Darin's arm as they walked, and she could feel the tension in Darin's movements. She remained quiet, letting the amicable silence hang between them. Both had a lot to think about, and there was no need to discuss it any further at the moment. Darin surprised her, though, by turning suddenly and crying into Ridahne's chest. Ridahne's muscled arms wrapped around her, holding her tightly as she rested her chin gently on Darin's head. "The barracks are smelly anyway," she said, gently trying a joke to lighten the mood. "I will stay, don't worry. We'll figure out what's next tomorrow. For now, we'll get a bath set up, and," she pulled away, only to cup Darin's face in her hands. Her hold was firm but not forceful. She gently tilted Darin's head up to face hers. "I've got just the thing to help you unwind. Come."

Ridahne led her to their rooms, and she accosted some servants and barked a few orders at them. Not unkindly, but she held a confidence and authority as she spoke. A metal tub was brought in and filled with water, and hot stones fresh from a fire were dropped in to make the water steam. One of the servants brought in a cloth sack full of something heavy, a small dark glass jar, and a bar of soap that had a bit of fine sand mixed in for better scrubbing. Ridahne dumped some of the contents of the sack in the bath; it looked like coarse salt. She poured some oil from the little jar into the water, and suddenly the scent of lavender bloomed in the air. Lastly, a cloth screen framed in wood was brought in for some privacy, along with a wooden platter bearing a soft white cheese, flatbread, and a dark red jam.

Ridahne churned the water around with her arm to dissolve the salt she'd poured in. "This stuff," she said, "Is a special kind of salt. Not the kind that sticks to your skin, not from the sea. Its some other mineral that makes your skin soft but more importantly, helps with sore muscles. That and the lavender, and the heat will loosen you right up, I promise." Ridahne kicked off her shoes with an indulgent sigh and flopped down onto a padded sofa on the opposite side of the screen. "I don't want to discuss business too much, but once we...tie things up here in Tasen, what do you say we head to Atakhara, and you see where I really came from? It's..." Ridahne laughed. "It's not much. But there's a lot of character there. Less ceremony and hierarchy and a lot more dust and fish and grit," she said fondly.
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Darin let Ridahne get her back to the room even though they paused to speak to some people on the way. To the servants’ eternal credit, they did not comment on Darin’s clearly tear stained face or dejected posture. They just hurried to follow Ridahne’s orders. Upon arriving at the assigned room Darin took on look at the bed and had to restrain herself from just falling face down into it. Instead she forced herself to wait for the bath. When it was ready, she finally sank into it and at that moment it was the best feeling in the world. The hot water felt great against her skin and the water smelled amazing. She felt better. She could just melt and sleep in the tub.

Instead she listened to Ridahne suggest leaving Tasen as soon as this thing with Harai was done. That made good logical sense. Originally Darin wanted to spend a week in Tasen, but if this were anywhere else, she would be ready to go by now. She had seen the market. She had learned about the people of Tasen. She had caused just a little bit of trouble. She had rested. There were extra things like Ridahne laying her demons to rest and Darin figuring out public displays of her powers. The only thing left was resupplying, and Darin had a feeling that the Sols would take care of that. Well, she still needed to write her letters to Ravi and her mother. That could be done tomorrow. They could leave the day after tomorrow, bright and early.

Would that be enough time to deal with Harai? Darin wasn’t sure. Actually, no, that was perfect. If Darin didn’t give herself a time limit, she wouldn’t actually solve the problem. She had tomorrow to figure out what to do with the man. That should be plenty of time. She scowled at herself as the water cooled. She didn’t want to think about this now. She wanted to spend time with Ridahne, to get clean, to finally sleep long enough to not feel tired. So, she pushed the thoughts of the Red Hand far from her mind to deal with in the morning and picked up the bar of soap to start scrubbing. It wasn’t long before she was clean and levering herself out of the tub to put on clean clothes that were slightly too big but made out of an impossibly soft cotton. She was ready to sleep.

As she stepped out from behind the screen, she told her sister, “Let’s leave for Atakhara the day after tomorrow. I like the sound of that. It sounds like.” Darin paused as she searched for the right word, “Simplicity. We can see Hadian and meet his wife and plan your wedding and see another part of Azurei. Tomorrow we finish up what we need to do in Tasen.” At long last she fell into the bed, “Is that okay? Do you have anything to do in Tasen that will take longer than a day? Or can you get everything you need for the wedding tomorrow?
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Ridahne nodded as she lay on the sofa, looking up at the ceiling with its clean, smooth grout holding in matte clay tiles. She inhaled a breath of herb-perfumed air from the steam that wafted up from Darin's bath and nibbled a piece of cheese-smeared flatbread. She never got over having access to so much food--good food--and being on the road so long had not done much to change that. Ridahne took advantage of it whenever it was offered to her. There was a familiarity about this place, this palace that held so many mixed emotions for her. It was almost like home, but a lesser home than Atakhara, a briefer and yet more recent chapter in her history. It was fraught with so many complicated memories, grief, anger, pain. And yet those feelings intertwined with a sense of camaraderie she'd never felt anywhere else but with Darin, and the joy that came with having new opportunities. And, Ridahne had to admit, she'd miss Tasen a little when they left it. But as she pictured the sea-pounded shores of her dusty, hot, and somewhat crowded hometown, she felt a new longing, a call home. The visit would be temporary of course, and Ridahne was not wholly convinced she'd survive to see it again. That was part of the reason she wanted to be wed to Ajoran now; if there was any possibility she'd die defending Darin and the Seed, she'd want to go down knowing Ajoran belonged to her.

"Aye, I think we're through with Tasen," she said with a thoughtful sigh. The day had been long and she hadn't spent much time to slow down and rest. Now that she was horizontal, she could feel weariness pulling at her. "There won't be much to prepare for the wedding really. Just some food--there's always food at a wedding. But in Atakhara at least, it's not a very big affair, not compared to other parts of Azurei or elsewhere in Elvish lands. But it is a party," she chuckled. Weddings in poorer regions of Azurei involved a lot less decoration or elaborate, imported food. But there was always some kind of alcohol, and there was always curry and bread to go with it. Grilled fish was also common, and sometimes stewed goat. And there was always a massive bonfire. "Get ready to dance, there'll be a lot of that. Don't worry, it's not the kind of dance you need to learn or know how to do. You just kind of move with the drums," Ridahne explained.
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Darin flopped on to the bed next to her sister and crammed a piece of bread into her mouth. She did swallow before she answered but it was a near miss, “Good. We leave Tasen the day after tomorrow.” She turned on to her side with smile at Ridahne, “I am looking forward to your wedding. I’m imagining something like what we had at The Farm, but let’s skip the fight at the end. I could do without an encore of that, that’s for sure.” She laughed a little before yawning, “We need to talk. I promised you I wouldn’t run and I’ve not been keeping that promise very well these last few days.” She held out a hand for Ridahne to take if she wanted, “I wanted to wait until with left Azurei so I wouldn’t take away any time you might have with Ajoran, but now I’m not sure I can wait that long.” Darin sighed, “Not tonight. I’m tired tonight and I’m cried out and I want to be coherent when we have this talk because it doesn’t really make sense to me anyways. But please, tomorrow or the next day, make sure we talk.”

After receiving Ridahne’s confirmation that they would talk and talk soon Darin drifted off to sleep. She was not visited by The Tree in her dreams which was alarming because Darin had been expecting it. The decision about Harai was a big one. She did wake up with a sense of Rest Well that The Seed-Bearer was sure came from The Tree, but The Tree hadn’t come. Darin could only think of two reasons for this. The first was that The Tree couldn’t come, that It no longer had the strength to come. That thought was enough to make Darin want to crawl back into bed. That meant she was running out of time. The second possible reason was that The Tree had thought Darin didn’t need Its help with Harai. Which was a confident booster, but Darin couldn’t be sure that was the correct reason at all. Honestly, though it made her sick to admit, the first was the most likely.

Darin forced herself to move pas that thought with a shake of her head. First things first, breakfast. Then she would write her letters to Ravi and her mother. Then she needed to deliver her letters to an Eija of Ridahne’s choice to be delivered. Then she needed to tell the Sota-Sol that she stole one of her Eija for letter delivery and asking about resupplying. Then she needed to deal with Harai. In that order. Maybe she would work in talking to Ridahne. Actually, that might be something to do before breakfast. Okay. Talk with Ridahne, breakfast, letters, letter delivery, talk to the Sota-Sol, Harai. In that order. Darin finished retying her hair and looked over to where Ridahne was getting ready for the day. Well, the only way to start the day was to start the day.

She cautiously asked, “Ridhane? Can we … do we have time to talk now? Or do you have things to do for the wedding?”
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