Saturday, February 17, 2018

Book Five in the Harrrowbethian Saga


Life’s gonna kick you in the butt;
that’s what it does.
But if you gotta put up with this crap,
the least you can expect
is that your friends will stand by you.

I mean, for crying in the night,
what else are friends for
but to help you make right
what isn’t in life?

                                                                         The Mishmorat

Do not read the following chapters if you have yet to read the first four books in the Harrowbethian Saga. These beginning chapters to book V will reveal more than you want to know if you haven't read the start of Eena's adventures.  
Continue at your own risk if you so choose.  
Don't say I didn't warn you.


Chapter One

Do not read the following chapters if you have yet to read the first four books in the Harrowbethian Saga. It will seriously spoil the story if you have not read the start of Eena's adventures. 
This is your last chance to heed my warning...

The End

A terrified scream carried from down a darkened hall, shrill and piercing enough to penetrate the walls of the house. The cry found its way to the front porch where two protectors turned at the sound. Both Ian and his father halted their argument and raced indoors, flying down the hallway to a back bedroom where the young queen of Harrowbeth was awakening from a nightmare. Ian reached the door first. Yaka was already scratching at the wood, yowling to get access to his mistress. As soon as the doorknob turned, the poor animal hurried around Ian’s legs to reach Eena’s bedside. The men followed directly behind, trailed by Unan’s wife who had been startled awake from her bedroom across the way.
“Eena, you’re okay, it was just a nightmare. I’m here now, you’re okay.” Ian kept his voice soft, hoping to calm his queen as he took a seat on the edge of her bed. He read fear in the wideness of her eyes. Despite a disapproving frown from his father, the young protector wrapped his arms around the frightened girl in hopes of easing her panic. Yaka whined, observing the scene. The animal’s tail beat against the carpet in quick, apprehensive snaps. Trembling, Eena gripped at Ian’s shirt.
“Calm down. You’re okay, I promise.”
Ian closed his eyes to concentrate on the jumble of images running through her mind. He was searching for the cause of her distress. It was a relief for him to be able to read her thoughts at any time, to even visit her dreams when they were both asleep. As her protector, telepathy was one of the gifts he had acquired to assist in keeping her safe.
He could hear the thoughts of others as well, but it took less effort with his queen. Her thoughts came to him as naturally as his own. Only he and she knew of this remarkable ability. It was a secret cherished between best friends. That had not always been the case. Eena’s reaction at first discovering her protector’s gift had been adverse. But over time, his constant mental presence became familiar and comfortable, a kind of security that left her feeling empty during the rare occasions his mind disconnected from hers. At the moment, they were both grateful for Ian’s telepathic talent.
(Anesidora was in your dreams? I don’t understand. How? Pallador took her and Ishtura far away from here. This shouldn’t be happening.)
(Then how is it she’s haunting my dreams again?) Eena shuddered thinking of the ghastly specter. Ian tightened his embrace in response, but she immediately pushed away from him, her pulse thundering. Her next words were heard by everyone in the room.
“We buried him. Oh no, we buried him but he’s still alive!”
Yaka yapped at the urgency in her tone, though no one paid the animal any mind.
“No, no, Eena, you’re wrong,” Ian said, keeping his voice soft and calm. “He was dead. We buried him properly.”
Unan, who had been watching from the foot of the bed with his wife, cut in curiously. “Is she talking about Derian?”
Ian cast a furtive glance at his parents and nodded.
The old man’s next question was directed at his adopted daughter. “Did you dream of Derian, sweetheart?”
Eena answered the question, remaining focused on her protector, clutching tightly at his arms. “I saw him, Ian. I saw Derian in my dream. He’s not dead, he’s alive! We should never have buried his body!”
Speaking her name tenderly, Ian covered her gripping hands with his own and frowned. But before he could say anything more, she blurted out her proof.
“Ian, I saw him! It wasn’t just a dream, he was really there! If you had been in my dream you would have seen…”
She stopped abruptly and bit her lip, hoping it wasn’t too late. Ian’s eyes flickered up at his father while hers dropped to the floor.
(I’m sorry,) she whispered telepathically, feeling sharp remorse for her slip of the tongue.
(He only suspects. He’s not sure what you meant, but he’s wondering…)
Ian was reading his father’s thoughts. While it was common practice for a protector to witness the dreams of his queen, it was a secret vowed never to be shared outside the line of protectors. Recent trials had necessitated Ian participating in Sha Eena’s dreams to save her from a dangerous enemy. Because of the unusual circumstances, she had learned his secret. Since then, Ian had failed to remain hidden on the edge of her subconscious as his father had strictly instructed him to do as a young boy. The two now visited almost nightly in her dreams.
Unan gently dismissed his wife from the room. “Go back to bed, Gaila. It was just a nightmare. Eena will be fine.”
His wife gave him a look of concern, but succumbed to a reassuring smile. Her husband sent her across the hall after a quick kiss on her hair. She called for Yaka to follow, but the animal didn’t budge until Ian patted him on the head. “It’s okay, boy. Go on.”
Unan’s smile vanished the second his wife did. He shut the door quietly and approached the bed.
(Dad wants to ask me,) Ian sighed, standing up from the mattress. (I’m going to tell him.)
(No!) Eena’s eyes grew wide as she jumped up also. She tried to keep her face from Unan’s view. (You can’t tell him; just deny it!)
(I’m not going to lie.)
(Ian, it’s supposed to be a secret! He’ll be angry! Please, please, don’t,) she begged.
(He’s already angry with me for wanting to marry you. I may as well disappoint him entirely.)
Ian moved his queen aside, wanting to face his father full on. Eena attempted to put herself between the two, but her protector shoved her back with one arm. She continued to plead with him in her mind.
(Don’t do this, Ian, please. I’m sorry! I’m sorry I slipped up, but you can cover it! Just tell him it wasn’t what it sounded like. Tell him I’m delusional!)
(I won’t lie.)
Unan met his son’s unwavering gaze with tight, wrinkled features. He attempted an indirect query. “It sounds as if Eena has been dreaming not only of Derian, but of you.”
A mix of bitter amusement and disgust blew across Ian’s lips in the form of a groan. “She knows, father.” That was all he had to say.
The old protector lowered his head in an attempt to hide his fury. It was an impossible feat, and he raised it almost as quickly. He clenched his jaw to keep an incited temper somewhat in check while scolding his son.
“How could you do this? Have you no respect at all for our calling? For our traditions? For our family? Criminy! What in the name of all that is proper and honorable were you thinking?”
“I told Derian too.”
The old man’s voice cracked when it climbed a pitch. “Wh..what?”
“It was necessary. It was the only way to contact her while she was in Gemdorin’s hands. Derian suspected anyway.” Ian stood his ground, his shoulders pulled rigidly back. Not at all his usual slouching pose.
Eena could feel tears forming in her cheeks, threatening to spill over. She wasn’t entirely sure if they were for Ian, Unan, or herself. Perhaps all three. There was a tangible charge in the air circling both men who appeared frozen, locked in a bold staredown. It was as silent as midnight except for the slow, controlled breathing of the old protector.
Hardly able to stand the tension, Eena sobbed aloud, letting her body cave and fall to the bed. She felt her stomach heave at a wave of sorrow. She then realized who the tears were for. Derian.
“He’s not dead,” she cried into her hands. “We buried him, but he’s not dead!”
The men set aside their differences to come to the young Sha’s aid.
“Eena, it’s okay. It’s okay,” Ian kept repeating. But she wasn’t buying it.
Raising her voice, she objected strongly. “No, it’s not okay! He’s still alive, Ian!”
Her head snapped in the opposite direction sensing Unan’s touch on her shoulder. His soft, fatherly tone hit her ears.
“Sweetheart, why do you say that?”
“Because it’s true! I saw him in my dreams, Unan. He is alive!”
With a supportive nod, the old protector asked, “What exactly did you see?”
Eena wiped at her cheeks, nearly choking on her tears. She managed to explain her dream. “I saw Anesidora. She demanded that I help her, but I refused. She persisted, saying I should come find her because she had something I wanted. When she vanished—” Eena raised a finger to point out at nothing in particular. “—Derian was right there, right in front of me!” Her anguished eyes turned to Ian. “He called my name.”
Devastated by the image of her captain, she covered her face and breathed a heartrending sound. Ian rubbed at her trembling back. A few contemplative moments passed before anyone spoke again.
“Eena.” The warmth of Ian’s breath touched her ears. “Eena, Derian’s not alive.”
Her face left her hands, quick to object. “Yes, he…”
“No, he’s not,” Ian cut in, firm but kind. “Anesidora is deceiving you. She knows you would never help her unless she had something you desperately longed for, and she’s using that knowledge to lure you to her. It’s an illusion, Eena.”
“No,” the young queen insisted. Her eyebrows scrunched almost angrily at his words.
Ian responded compassionately, covering her hands with his own. “Do you remember the dream you had after Angelle died? Remember how you saw her standing there, beautiful as could be, calling out your name? And then, like some cruel joke, her image disappeared, leaving Anesidora there smirking at you like an ugly monster? Do you remember that?”
Eena caught how Ian’s voice faltered at the recollection. She nodded, her face a tangled vision of torment.
Ian felt miserable having to be the bearer of disappointment. “I’m sorry, Eena, but this is the same thing. Derian’s gone. Anesidora wants you to free her, so she created this ghostly illusion of him. Derian didn’t survive the separation from his body; he couldn’t have. He was mortal, not like those immortal sisters.”
Of course Ian was right. It made sense. It made perfectly horrible sense. She had simply wanted to believe that her captain could return to her, that there was the slightest—albeit insane—chance his spirit had been preserved in the scarlet gem where Anesidora and Ishtura were forever held captive. Those vile witches were imperishable; nothing could kill them. Not like her virtuous mortal captain. He was dead. Derian was dead. Buried. His life had come to an end months ago after he had heroically stepped in to defend his queen.
Eena slumped over and sobbed into her protector’s chest. Unan didn’t object. It was like mourning her loss all over again. She wasn’t sure when she fell asleep, only that Ian’s dream image soon followed.

“Are you alright?” he asked, standing over her in his typical slouched pose.
She moved her head away from the weeping willow tree that supported it, forcing a bleak smile with her response. “I’m good enough.”
Ian sat himself on the grassy hilltop beside her. They looked out over an Earth scene, the primary dream she and Ian shared most of the time. The sky was darkening by degrees as the final crest of a red sun sank behind distant, sagebrush-covered hills. Farmland that spread out for acres below was tilled into dark, striated squares. Eena imagined planting season was just beginning back on Earth, the planet on which she had been raised for a portion of her youth. A longing for that simpler life gnawed at her chest.
“Father’s pretty upset with me. I think the word ‘traitor’ crossed his mind more than once.”
Eena realized her best friend needed to talk. She turned her eyes on him, wanting to be a good listener. After all, it was her fault Unan felt that way.
Ian seemed to chuckle at his own thoughts. “You know, Father used to be so down on himself for failing as Sha Tashi’s protector, for letting her die the way she did. But now…I think he’s actually more disappointed in me than he ever was in himself.” Again there was an unfitting chuckle.
Eena sighed despondently. “Ian, why did you tell him I knew about you visiting my dreams? What good did it do?”
The young protector frowned and scrunched his eyes at the sunset. “It kept me honest.”
Not knowing what else to say, she slowly shook her head and groaned. “Some birthday this is turning out to be.”
Ian’s head fell forward. “Don’t do that,” he breathed.
“Don’t do what?”
“Make me feel guilty.”
“Guilty? I’m the one who’s guilty. I got you into the worst trouble with your father twice in one night. First kissing you and then blurting out your secret.”
She could hear Ian laugh, so she twisted her neck sideways to question him with a crinkled brow.
“You’re such a martyr, Eena.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Because it was I who kissed you. And I’m the one who informed my father I had divulged our family secret. I hate to ruin your attempt at martyrdom, but you’re honestly guilty of nothing more than being in my miserable company.”
I kissed you, Ian,” she insisted.
“No,” he argued, “I kissed you. It was a birthday present.”
“No, it wasn’t. The pendant was the present. The kiss was my thank you.”
“Nice try.” He leaned in close to her as if he might actually kiss her again. “I had that birthday kiss planned all along. There was no way I was going to send you to bed without kissing you under that full, silver moon on your eighteenth birthday.”
She moved her face closer to him, determination etched deep in her expression. “I was the first one to pucker my lips, Mr. Overprotector. I kissed you in gratitude for the birthday party and for the thoughtful present.”
“You are so delusional, Queenie!”
“Oh, so now you choose to call me delusional? You couldn’t have said that earlier to keep from blurting out the truth to your father?”
“I told you, I wasn’t going to lie.”
“No, instead you got us both in trouble.”
“Yes! Which is exactly what I was trying to tell you in the first place. I’m the guilty one!”
“Fine! Have it your way then,” she huffed, crossing her arms over her chest. “And thanks for ruining my birthday.”
It fell silent for a moment. Eena was beginning to regret her last, bitter remark when she heard Ian grumble something beneath his breath loud enough for her to overhear.
“Well, if you hadn’t been so determined to get kissed in the first place…”
That was enough to make them both burst out laughing. Ian scooted up close to the birthday girl and playfully rubbed a knuckle across her head.
“Happy miserable, stinkin’ birthday, Queenie,” he muttered.
She grabbed his hand and pulled it down over her shoulder, nuzzling in beneath his chin. With a genuine smile on her face she breathed, “Thank you.”

Morning came much too fast.
The bright rays of a winter sunrise shone through the window of Eena’s bedroom, landing without compassion on her sensitive eyelids. Someone had drawn the curtains. The warm tingles on her skin were enough to wake her. She yawned and reached overhead, extending her back in a stretch. She called to Ian first thing.
(Is it safe to get up?)
(For you, it is,) he answered.
(I don’t think I want to,) she murmured, (but they’ve opened my curtains. I think that means…)
(…You’re expected in the council chambers this morning. Mother was hoping the sun would wake you up nicely.)
(Father filled her in last night about my….or our…. intention to marry.)
(Oh crud.)
(Yeah, she’s not exactly thrilled.)
(Oh crud.)
Eena heard Ian chuckle in her head. (It’s really okay. Mother’s determined not to spoil your birthday. She thinks it’s all my fault anyway. That’s the way Father broke it to her.)
(Oh crud.)
(I certainly hope you plan to be more expressive with the council today. You do know it’s your job to break the news to them. I told Mother and Father. The council was your end of the bargain, remember?)
(Oh muddy crud.)
Ian laughed. Eena was sure she heard his actual voice carry down the hallway.
(Get up and go eat. Mom’s not going to breathe a word to you. She would die before spoiling your birthday. She and Father are waiting in the kitchen.)
There was silence for a moment.
(What?) she grumbled.
(Nothing more to say?)
(Crud no.)
She wondered how Ian intended to explain his loud laughter to his parents.
Dressing was a long, drug-out process. Eena killed as much time as possible before reluctantly showing her face to a waiting Gaila and Unan. Her adoptive parents stood up from their chairs the moment she rounded the corner of the living room. Yaka was nowhere to be seen. Eena assumed the animal was keeping Ian company.
Unan said a bright “good morning” with an accompanying smile that didn’t appear at all forced.
“And happy birthday, young lady,” Gaila added just as chipperly. “Take a seat and have some breakfast.”
Eena obeyed, pulling out the closest chair within reach. She sat across the table from Unan who was still smiling pleasantly. Realizing she was biting her lip, she managed a smile in return, casting the same strained expression at Gaila when a warm plate was placed in front of her. French toast with syrup. The sight almost brought her to tears. Ian was immediately in her head.
(Eena, what’s wrong? I thought that was your favorite.)
(It is, it is,) she assured him. Then he saw in her thoughts the memory of Derian serving her a surprise breakfast in the garden on his ship, the Kemeniroc. The captain had made French toast with syrup. It was a cherished memory.
(Oh,) Ian breathed. (I wasn’t aware…)
(Don’t worry about it,) she cut in. (I appreciate the gesture. Thank you.)
“Eena?” Gaila was concerned as to why the birthday girl was quietly staring down at her plate. “Is something the matter?”
Eena quickly looked up, purposefully grinning wide. “No, no, I’m just surprised. I mean…how did you know this was my favorite breakfast?”
Gaila admitted that Ian had told her, grumbling her son’s name to a certain degree. Satisfied that she had done her best to provide an appropriate birthday breakfast, the lady of the house excused herself and stepped back into the kitchen. The clamor of pots and pans resounded louder than usual. Eena jumped at the loud crash of a dropped dish, shifting her eyes to Unan’s fidgeting hands before lowering her gaze onto the French toast in front of her.
(Don’t worry about Mom, she’s just working up a good hot lecture for me. She’s hiding out so she doesn’t slip up and say something to you. Mom’s a firm believer like Ruthy that ‘if you can’t say something nice, you might as well hide in the kitchen.’)
Eena corrected her earthly mother’s favorite adage. (You mean ‘if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.’)
(Yeah, well, Mom can hardly keep from saying something, so she’ll just hide out.)
Eena picked up a napkin and dropped it across her lap. “O-kay,” she breathed uneasily. It seemed like a good idea to fast-forward through the morning meal. While determinedly downing her food, Unan started up conversation.
“Did you sleep well last night?” he asked.
Eena wondered if he honestly thought that was possible given the regrettable happenings. She nodded anyway, her mouth too full to answer.
“No more unpleasant dreams then?”
Her head shook back and forth in quick, tiny wags before another larger bite of French toast entered her mouth.
“Eena, I was wondering…”
Unan seemed to hesitate with whatever was on his mind. The way he leaned forward over the table, lowering his voice, made her nervous. She quickly shoved in another bite of breakfast before swallowing the previous one.
“Sweetheart,” he addressed her again, “did Ian speak with you last night?”
She was certain he meant in her dreams. Her eyes flickered up for a second, catching a look of fatherly concern on Unan’s face. She swallowed before nodding a quick affirmation.
“And this is a common occurrence?” Unan asked. “These are nightly visits?”
Eena cut another big bite of French toast and stabbed it with her fork. She wondered if she should refuse the conversation.
(Go ahead and answer him. I don’t care what he thinks.)
(Knock it off, Ian. You do care what your father thinks.)
Eena nodded in answer to Unan’s question.
The old protector released an audible sigh as his hand went to rub beneath his nose. His knitted eyebrows made her stomach turn, so she cut her remaining portion of breakfast into tinier bites instead of scooping any into her mouth.
Her eyes quickly flickered up. Unan smiled, a feeble attempt. The next portion of their conversation was whispered so no eavesdropping ears could overhear from the kitchen.
“Derian knew about Ian visiting with you…um…in your sleep, and he was okay with this?”
“He accepted it,” she nodded.
“Why?” Unan whispered the word so quietly, she wasn’t sure if he was asking her or wondering to himself. She answered him anyway.
“Derian came to realize how much I need Ian in my dreams,” she explained. Putting down her fork, she leaned forward to say more. “Sometimes I have very bad nightmares. Your son stops them for me. Usually, the bad dreams don’t happen when he’s there, only when he’s absent. Derian knew this. In fact, at one point he ordered Ian to keep my dreams safe from nightmares.”
“What kind of nightmares do you suffer from?” Unan’s concern seemed to shift gears, focusing on her rather than on the inappropriateness of his son’s actions.
“For a while I was haunted by the memory of Gemdorin. His image was frightening. He kept coming after me, after the necklace. I would wake up screaming sometimes.”
Eena watched her adopted father tighten his gaze, his wrinkles forming deeper folds.
“I’ve been haunted by the immortals too, those wicked sisters from Wanyaka Cave as well as the dragons. Ascultone, he’s the worst dragon. He wants me dead.”
“But, sweetheart, these are simply nightmares, aren’t they? Just dreams.”
The young queen shook her head. “No, Unan, they’re real. The immortals have the ability to visit me in my dreams.” Her eyes glanced towards the kitchen to be sure Gaila wasn’t listening. “It’s the same as how your son visits my dreams. It’s all very real, Unan.”
A heavy sigh sounded somewhat skeptical. The old protector’s eyebrows slanted as he admitted, “I witnessed a dragon in your mother’s dreams when she was alive. Sha Tashi seemed to fear him. He had the most severe red eyes, a glowing stone in one. She saw something in it that bothered her.”
Eena nodded affirmatively. “That was Ascultone. He’s the guardian of the dragon’s heart, a red gem that can predict the future….or possible future events. He’s shown me more undesirable visions than I ever cared to see.”
“What might he have shown your mother?”
Eena’s face wilted sadly as she uttered, “Her death.”
Unan gasped. The color drained from his face. With a bowed head he whispered a rueful thought. “If I had known, I might have been able to prevent what happened.”
“Or not,” Eena said, offering the possibility. “I’ve found that Ascultone’s visions often come true regardless of how I attempt to alter them.”
Unan leaned far forward, his face again taut with apprehension. “Are you in any danger?”
A reassuring smile preceded her answer. “No, don’t worry. Between your son’s efforts and my guardian dragon, Naga, there’s really nothing Ascultone can do but loathe me from afar.”
A fatherly hand reached across the table and patted her arm. “Okay, that’s good to hear,” he breathed. She wasn’t sure if he was trying to console her or himself. Just then, Gaila’s figure blocked off a source of lamp light, rounding the kitchen entryway.
“It’s awfully quiet out here,” she remarked. “Is everything okay?” She was looking to her husband for an answer.
Leaning back in his chair, the old protector put on a smile for his wife. “Yes, yes, of course, my dear. Eena was just finishing up her breakfast.”
The older woman shifted her gaze onto the birthday girl.
“The French toast was very good, Gaila. Thank you.” Eena stood up from the table, tossing her napkin onto her plate. She was aware half her breakfast still remained, cut into tiny pieces, but her desire to get out of the house was greater than her appetite.
“I should probably get going. I understand the council wishes to see me this morning.”
“Yes, that’s correct.” Unan rose from his chair and rounded the table, holding out his arm as if ushering her along. “It would be good for us to get on our way. We don’t want to keep Minister Jorban waiting.”
Eena froze for a moment, confused. “What about Ian? Isn’t he supposed to accompany me? He is my protector.” From the corner of her eye she caught Gaila’s pursed frown. Unan, however, remained smiling.
“You’ll have me today, and technically I am a protector too.”
“Ian has things to do.” Unan was doing his best to urge her forward, but she refused to budge.
(Just go, Eena. I’ll catch up with you later.) She thought Ian sounded awfully dismal. His lack of a quick, witty comeback to her thoughts was even more concerning.
(I just need to get through Mother’s lecture. She’s working on a darn good guilt trip for me. I’ve been watching it develop in her head.)
The young queen turned and headed for the front door without any further objection. She could only imagine how unpleasant it would be to hear the negative thoughts of your own mother and then be forced to listen to those critical thoughts expressed out loud—no doubt with a fair amount of hostility.
(I’ll survive, Eena. I’m no martyr—unlike some people I know.)
She couldn’t help but smirk at his remark.
The flight to city hall was short. Unan steered their compact shuttle low, just barely above a neighborhood of two-story housetops that lined the cobblestone streets of Harrowbeth. His passenger was enthralled with the view and what appeared to be crowded, early-morning festivities taking place below.
“The Grotts are here!” Eena pointed down at a small group of giants that stood well above others mingling near the shops. “There’s Master Ravelly and Wahlister!” She beamed wide at the sight.
Unan veered the shuttle towards the grand old tree in the heart of the city.
“I see Braetics….and Hoj y`man….and look—the Icromians too!” She turned to her pilot, thinking about the winged Icromians. “I wonder if Corr Bellon is still upset with me for not healing his mountains sooner.”
“I wouldn’t worry about it,” Unan said. “The Blue Mountains are beautiful and thriving now. Most likely, the director is more concerned with maintaining friendly relations.”
Eena nodded in agreement.
“Hey!” she blurted excitedly, pointing out the window again. “Look, look there! The Mishmorats! And Efren! I see Kira, Kode, Niki, Derna, Kaway Shogo, and Kaway Emas!” She was waving her hand in the window, even though her friends couldn’t see. “Oh my goodness, they’re all here!”
“Everyone’s here,” Unan grinned. “No one would miss the eighteenth birthday celebration of a Sha. It’s a very special occasion.”
Sitting back in her seat, Eena asked the old protector, “So what exactly happens on a Sha’s eighteenth birthday?”
“They sacrifice her to the Gods,” he jested, sounding just like his son.
“That’s not funny, Unan.”
“Okay then, they celebrate from sunrise to sunset, much like they did a few months ago when you returned to Moccobatra.”
“Oh.” She recalled the wonderful time she shared with her friends that day, but then remembered the speech required of her. Worrying aloud, she asked, “Am I supposed to do anything?”
“The council will fill you in, Eena.”
“What do I have to do?” she pressed, wanting to hear the bad news from him rather than from the tetchy councilwoman, Kai Launi. It would probably sound twice as bad coming from that crotchety old woman.
“Well, the truth is…” He seemed to hesitate. “Traditionally, you would address the council first and then the citizens of Harrowbeth.” He stopped there, but his information seemed incomplete.
“And?” She urged him to share whatever he was holding back.
“And, well….by tradition, you would officially announce your intent to marry, and declare a wedding date for some time within the next year. But with Derian’s recent death, that won’t be expected.”
“But the council will want to discuss it, no doubt.” Her eyes were glued on the old protector, reading his nonverbal responses. He merely nodded his head.
“I’m prepared to discuss the issue,” she announced, still watching Unan’s reactions.
His chest rose with a deep inhale before he gave her some advice. “Minister Jorban is a very sensible man, and a well-respected counselor among the citizens of Harrowbeth. He will, of course, hear out anything you have to say, but…” There was a moment of hesitancy as he thought over his words. “Eena, it would be wise for you to follow the advice of your council. They are your elders. And it is your best interests they have at heart.”
She dared a personal question. “Unan? Are tradition and propriety the only reasons you object to Ian and I marrying?”
The old man turned away from her as if he wanted to hide his face. When he spoke, he spoke to the window.
“What I object to, Eena, is my son’s outright disregard for his calling. He knows very well where his place is. And he understands the consequences that accompany neglecting such an important position. Despite this, he has chosen to strive for things that are not proper for him. Things he shouldn’t even be considering. His actions will only serve to hurt his family and you as well, I’m afraid.” Unan turned to his listener before making his next statement.
“Eena, sweetheart, Ian cannot be your husband. There is no way he can carry out the demanding duties of a Shen and at the same time effectively stand beside you as your protector. These are two important callings that require two separate, devoted, honorable men. It is your safety Ian is risking.”
It bothered her how convincing Unan’s argument sounded, but she had grounds on which to object. “I’m probably the safest Sha in the history of all Shas. With the powers of the necklace at my disposal I’m quite capable of protecting myself. I don’t need Ian watching over me constantly.”
The old protector quickly shot down her reasoning. “On the contrary, Eena, you have actually been the most hunted after Sha in Harrowbeth’s history. Vaughndorin; Gemdorin; his Ghengat allies; those persistent immortal sisters, Anesidora and Ishtura; and their brother, Edgarmetheus; not to mention the fierce dragon, Ascultone, which I will add to the list after what you told me earlier….all of them have sought to end your life. It is clear to me that you are in greater need of a dedicated, capable protector than you realize.”
“I’ve survived them all,” she argued.
“Because you had a protector assisting you.”
Her eyes questioned him.
“I killed Vaughndorin before he could get to you as a child. Ian cradled you then and hid with you until things were safe. Ian also helped save you from Gemdorin’s grasp, twice: once when he hid with you in Lacsar Forest, evading your enemy for days, and a second time when he helped track you down on the Mahgshreem. He and Derian were the ones to eventually rescue you from Hrenngen. And just lately, as you were forced to take on Anesidora, wasn’t it Ian who kept her sister, Ishtura, distracted? Had he not been there for you then, had he not done what he did, you would have been outnumbered by your enemy. And isn’t it Ian who you claim protects you even now from Ascultone’s nightmarish visits?
“Eena, Sweetheart, you do need your protector. He must not be distracted from this important calling by the additional duties of a Shen. He needs to keep his focus on you entirely. The welfare of Moccobatra, Harrowbeth, the future line of Shas….all of that depends upon Ian performing his job as expected. I’m sorry, but he cannot be your husband. And I would urge you to reconsider bothering the council with such an inappropriate request. If you do, it will only fare poorly for everyone.”
They landed on the airstrip that bordered one side of city hall’s expansive front yard. The ship’s engines took no time to quiet down. Eena blinked back an onset of tears, her face bowed. She felt her hope wilting at the persuasiveness of Unan’s argument, feeling its strength grab hold and crush her delicate heart. He was right that she needed a vigilant protector. She hadn’t realized how much so until hearing it spelled out so clearly.
With moist eyes she uttered her only defense. “But I love him.”
“You can fall in love with more than one person, Eena. Just as with Derian, someone else will come along to win your heart. You’ll see.”
She watched a few teardrops splash like broken glass on the back of her hands. If this was supposed to be her year of guaranteed happiness as predicted in Arden’s Vision, it certainly didn’t feel like the start of anything joyous. In fact, it felt more like the end of all her dreams. The end of a future with Derian. The end of fresh hopes with Ian. The end of everything worth living for.

Chapter Two

History in the Making

It was quiet in the shuttle for the longest time. Unan seemed lacking for any further words, and even Ian’s telepathic voice was absent. Either her best friend had become wholly immersed in his mother’s primed lecture, or perhaps he had found his father’s arguments regrettably persuasive. No doubt Ian was aware of every point of opposition resounding in her thoughts.
“Sweetheart,” Unan uttered in a soft, apologetic whisper, “I’m sorry. I had no intention of lecturing you today. I truly don’t wish to ruin your birthday.”
The young queen wiped at her moist cheeks, head bowed to hide her face. She didn’t know what to say.
“I understand that Derian’s loss left a painful void in your life. And as comforting and attentive as my son has been towards you, I can understand how easy it is to fill that emptiness with feelings for Ian. But….you’re emotionally vulnerable, Eena. I don’t know that you should trust those feelings just yet.”
“I love him, Unan.” The statement was both sure and sincere. Even though her head remained lowered, her words were adamant enough to stand on their own. “I have loved your son for a very long time, but he refused me because of his promise to Angelle.”
“My son loved Angelle.”
“Yes, I know he did,” Eena agreed. Her eyes finally flickered up to look at the old man. “And I loved Derian with all my heart. I still do. But you’re right, Unan, you absolutely can fall in love with more than one person. I know it because I love Ian too. I’ll admit our love is different. It’s calmer and gentler, founded on friendship and the personal link that exists between us. But it’s real. It’s not something that just recently developed because of Derian’s loss.”
Unan sighed his disappointment. “This is because he intruded in your dreams.”
“No. I had feelings for your son long before he revealed himself to me in my dreams. That only made our friendship stronger.”
The old protector shook his head, his features a tangle of anxiety. “It’s just not a good idea.”
“In all honesty, Unan, I’m not sure I care.”
“Well, you should. Ian needs to concentrate on his calling, which is to protect Moccobatra’s greatest treasure…” It was the same argument, and the young Sha had no desire to hear it repeated.
“Then let someone else do it! Assign me a new guard, or a handful of guards, or an army, I don’t care!”
When her adopted father stopped to stare at her with knitted eyebrows, a pang of guilt made her look away.
“I’m sorry,” she breathed.
Her ears picked up a deep inhale followed by a bleak exhale. Unan stood up from the pilot’s chair. “We should go. The council is waiting for you.”
Eena led the way to the bottom floor of city hall where eight elderly council members—Harrowbeth’s respected governing legislature—were gathered together in a meeting chamber. They were seated around a long, oval table discussing the day’s schedule of events while awaiting their queen.
Unan followed Eena at an arm’s pace as she made her way down twisted corridors inside of city hall. When they arrived at a miniature foyer, she stopped beneath a domed ceiling to stare at the heavy, wooden door ahead. Its dark face was engraved with Harrowbeth’s national crest, a magnificent crioness carrying a seven-pointed star. The crest reminded her of the day she was carried over ocean waters in the talons of one of those great birds. It had been a frightening ordeal—nearly as frightening as what she was currently contemplating.
Nervous about standing alone, she called for Ian in her mind but without any luck. The whole time, Unan waited patiently, never urging his queen forward. When she finally reached for the door handle, the old protector helped pull it open, allowing her to duck inside the room. Minister Jorban, Harrowbeth’s head councilor, stood up from his chair directly.
“Sha Eena,” he bowed. “It is wonderful to see you.”
The seven other councilors rose from their seats as well and offered the same respectful welcome, collectively chiming “Sha Eena.”
“And a happy birthday to you!”
Eena managed a smile and a “thank you” for Mia Rahn before Minister Jorban voiced an observation.
“Ian’s not accompanying you today?”
“No, sir, I’m afraid not.” Her grumbled reply made it clear she wasn’t happy about the fact. Unan piped in at once, offering an explanation.
“My son is assisting his mother and Nischeen with preparations for the afternoon banquet. She was in need of a strong pair of arms.”
“Ah, I see.” Jorban raised a curious eyebrow but didn’t pry further. Eena threw out a comment anyway.
“Ian said he would join me later. I’m sure he will.” She didn’t care if Unan objected or not, she wasn’t about to spend her entire birthday without her best friend.
During this exchange, Jorban made his way to an empty chair at one head of the oval table. He pulled it out, offering the seat to their young queen. She seemed unwilling to budge, having planted her feet just beyond the doorway.
“Is something bothering you, Sha Eena?”
“Well, yes, actually. It just seems there are an awful lot of people gathered in the streets today.”
Jorban smiled. “They are all here in honor of your birthday.”
“My eighteenth birthday,” she clarified.
“Yes,” he nodded.
She noticed an exchange of furtive glances by the other councilors in the room. All had remained standing. Eena dropped her hands to her sides, realizing she was nervously kneading her fingers.
“Moccobatra appears to be very interested in my eighteenth birthday. And that is because…” She left the sentence hanging, hoping someone might finish it for her. Jorban did so without hesitation.
“Because it is a special age. It is customary that a Sha wed within her eighteenth year. Traditionally, it is when a young Sha announces her intent to marry and selects a date on which the grand occasion will occur. In your case, given Derian’s recent passing, there is no such expectation. You needn’t worry.”
Scanning the faces of all eight dignitaries, Eena was touched by a collective show of compassion. Bravely, she went on speaking knowing their expressions would likely turn sour.
“I still plan to marry within the year,” she announced.
There were sounds of surprise mixed with expressions of relief.
“That is good news,” Jorban remarked. “Come, sit. We will discuss the matter further.” The old minister gestured for the council to take their seats as well, which they did.
Eena didn’t budge. She glanced at Unan, now standing dutifully against the wall beside her. His mouth was set in a knowing frown.
(Ian?) she tried again, wishing for his support. There was no response.
Courageously—and perhaps rashly—she blurted out her message before an acute case of nerves could convince her to renege. “I’ve already found someone. We would like to marry soon.”
“Soon? As in….out of necessity?” The wrinkles on Jorban’s forehead creased together in a fretful manner. The other council members assumed similar expressions. It took a moment for the young queen to understand their thinking—a presumption she immediately denied.
“No! No, no we don’t need to marry soon. We just want to get married soon.” She mumbled a line of added information. “It’s sort of an untraditional pairing.”
Kai Launi was the first to react, rising brusquely from her chair. Eena groaned. It wasn’t surprising that Kai Launi would be the one with big enough ears to overhear.
“You will not be marrying a Mishmorat! That is absolutely out of the question! This is exactly what happens when you make friends with wayward women like Kira, that pompous little, nuisance!” The tetchy councilwoman pointed a stern finger at the standing minister, telling him, “I warned you, Jorban. That good-for-nothing, blotch-skinned, troublemaker should have been taken off the streets and locked up for good!”
“Hey!” Eena exclaimed. “There’s nothing wrong with Kira! She’s a wonderful friend and as good to me as any Harrowbethian! And anyway, I don’t want to marry a Mishmorat.”
“You aren’t seriously considering a Viidun?” Maxillium was instantly up beside the still-fuming councilwoman, voicing his guess at what an “untraditional pairing” meant. “Those barbarians are not even from our world!”
“No, I’m not interested in the Viiduns either. It’s no one from outside Moccobatra.”
Kai Luani broke in again before Eena could explain herself. “Oh please tell me you haven’t stooped so low as to consider a Semmian suitor!”
“That’s enough, Kai Launi!” It was Jorban objecting, narrowing his eyes at the insulting suggestion from the lady councilor. The old woman snapped her mouth shut, jutting out her chin at the same time.
Jorban stole a discreet glance at Unan before returning his attention to the young queen. She was certain he had guessed to whom she was referring. Her own quick glimpse at the old protector found him shamefaced and eyeing the floor. It was almost enough to halt her resolve. But the thought of giving up both Derian and Ian was too painful.
“Sha Eena,” Jorban said in a most inviting tone of voice. “Who is it that you desire to marry?”
The room fell silent.
“I uh...” Again, she glanced at the disgruntled form of her adopted father. “Minister Jorban, I know it’s not customary, but….I would like to marry Ian.”
As expected, the room erupted with an array of reactions. It was Jorban’s response that interested Eena most, which made his complete lack of expression troublesome. He seemed capable of hiding his emotions as well as Pallador. Or, perhaps, he had suspected the truth. Ian had said that the old minister did wonder about them.
Voices mingled as the debate grew louder and more heated. Maxillium and Kai Launi were up on their feet objecting as a pair. Zerom had joined them, although it appeared he was arguing, not agreeing, with their opinions. Eena tuned in to the loudest voice in the room—Kai Launi’s, of course.
“Such a thing isn’t even proper to suggest, let alone be granted actual consideration! Ian is a protector, and therefore he cannot be her husband! This is outrageous! It is entirely against Harrowbethian tradition!”
Maxillium threw in his opinion when the complaining councilwoman stopped for a necessary breath. “There are at least a dozen more qualified, available suitors willing to step in as Shen. My youngest son happens to be one of them.”
Zerom groaned at Maxillium’s attempt to throw his offspring into the spotlight. “And I suppose you’re eager to assign your son to the position of Shen, regardless of how our young Sha feels about the man?”
“We are speaking of a very important position here. Shen of Harrowbeth is not a calling to be taken lightly! Ian is just a protector. He hasn’t the training my son has in dealing tactfully with foreign dignitaries.”
Offended by their rudeness, Eena raised her voice to speak over the argument. “Oh, and I suppose your grand display of diplomatic behavior here stems from years of skillful training!”
Both Kai Launi and Maxillium glared daggers at the young lady, although she caught a humored smirk on Zerom’s lips. Mia Rahn took advantage of the momentary break in conversation.
“Sha Eena, what you are asking for is an alteration to centuries of tradition.”
“What I’m asking for is to be allowed to marry the man I love.”
Ander, seated beside Mia Rahn, spoke up next. “I do feel for you, Sha Eena, but you need to understand…” He paused and shook his head uncertainly. “I’m not sure how Harrowbeth would react to such an uncustomary marriage arrangement.”
“Why would they care? It’s my marriage, my husband. Shouldn’t it be my decision?”
“That’s not how these engagements work in Harrowbeth.” It was Jorban who took the reins on the conversation. His hand continued to grip at the chair he had pulled out for the young queen. “Promises are made when we are young. We honor those promises, making the most of the unions decided on by wise and caring parents.”
“Derian was my promised one,” Eena reminded them. “I would gladly marry him, but I can’t. He’s gone.”
“No thanks to you.” A chorus of objectionable gasps followed Kai Launi’s callous remark.
“That is enough!” Jorban warned. He cast a stern glare at the woman.
Eena felt her cheeks burn with a sudden onset of tears. She blinked them back.
Stepping forward to take their young queen by the arm, Jorban tugged gently, urging her to move to the table along with him. He managed to guide her to the waiting chair, speaking softly the entire time.
“Sha Eena, child. I am sure that your feelings for Ian are genuine, and I’m sure his feelings for you are the same. But his position denies him the right to seek your hand in marriage. However, there are many handsome, thoughtful, available suitors already assembled to meet you today.”
Her eyes shot up ready to object, but the old man’s head shook away the notion.
“My dear, the position of Shen and that of protector are two enormously important callings. It is necessary that they be filled by two separate, capable Harrowbethian men. Ian is a wonderful protector and performs his duties remarkably well. He has watched over you since the day you were born and has never let you down. You need him as your protector, Sha Eena. We, as Moccobatrans, need him completely and utterly devoted to the job of protecting our planet’s greatest asset. You. The burdens of a Shen would be far too much to place on top of his already demanding duties.” Jorban patted her hand as he stopped the young Sha beside her chair. “You will fall in love with another. There are many wonderful gentlemen you have yet to meet. No one will pressure you to choose hastily. We will wait.”
“But Jorban,” she uttered, nearly whining.
“Now, now, shush.” He patted her hand again in a tender, fatherly fashion. “Take a seat. This isn’t a matter that must be decided presently.”
She felt defeated. Humiliated. Her eyes refused to meet those of the council. How could she stand the arrogant way in which Kai Launi and Maxillium would stare back at her? Her head hung low as she wondered whether or not to take her chair. It felt as if sinking into the cushion would be the same as giving in. She had expected opposition, but not from Jorban. Not after Ian had told her he had read the minister’s thoughts. Had he not said that Jorban suspected she was growing close to her protector? What happened to Ian’s prediction that the old councilor would feel a desire to grant her what she wanted in return for all she had done to save Harrowbeth? Had he changed his mind that quickly?
(Eena, he just wants to know how badly you really want this.)
(Ian! Where have you been?)
(I’ve been busy with Mother. She’s worse than Kai Launi, if you can imagine that.)
(They won’t listen to me, Ian, I need you.)
(Eena, Jorban’s testing you to see if you’ll give in or if you’ll fight for what you want. He’s trying to find out how serious you are. Look, if you don’t want to marry me, I’ll stand down, I swear. I can sense your reservations to cause any more problems. But if you want this—I mean, if you truly want to marry me—then don’t take a seat. Stand your ground. I love you, you know I do, but I’ll live with whatever you decide.)
(Ian, I need you here now,) she begged. (I don’t know what to say to them.)
(I’m on my way. Just don’t quit arguing, Eena. I know you can do this. You were always good for a heated argument with Derian.)
It was pure conviction that made her head rise. Her hazel eyes constricted in response to Kai Launi’s condescending stare. She stepped away from the chair, causing Jorban to release his hold on her arm. An uneasy inhale proceeded her standby argument.
“I can take care of myself. I don’t need a constant protector.” There was a mix of impatient groans and exasperated huffs that followed.
“This is preposterous!” Maxillium declared.
Kai Launi addressed the head councilman right off. “Jorban, you already put an end to this ridiculous discussion, must we continue this pointless jabbering?”
“Well, apparently we must,” the minister hummed, placing a contemplative finger on his chin. “Our queen seems to have more to say.”
“I do,” Eena insisted. She caught a hint of amusement twitch the corners of Jorban’s lips. Boldly addressing the council, she went on. “I can’t understand what all the fuss is about.”
Maxillium snorted, “We told you, had you been listening, that Ian cannot fill two callings…”
Braga broke in with a louder voice, though more emotionally controlled. “This marriage you seek would destroy centuries of tradition. The same valued tradition your parents gave their lives to defend. Would you dishonor their sacrifice this way?”
Eena stood up taller, her voice strong and adamant. “I am in no way dishonoring my parents. I do honor the traditions of Harrowbeth, but I believe there must be room at times for flexibility. Allowances should be made for unusual circumstances.” Her eyes shifted from one council member to the next as she implored their understanding. “Ian would gladly marry his promised one, Angelle, if she were alive. And I would give anything to marry Derian. We both intended to honor the promises made by our parents in leu of tradition, but the opportunity was stolen from us. Our situation is unusual, and it leaves us both alone without promised mates. What does it matter if the rules are altered slightly for an altered situation?”
“Oh, just marry someone else!” Kai Launi exclaimed impatiently.
“No!” Eena retorted stubbornly.
“Then you don’t truly honor our traditions.”
Angry and bitter, Eena verbally attacked the councilwoman. “If that’s true, then it’s your fault! I was raised to value Earth traditions because you left me on that planet for the majority of my life! If you don’t like the fact that I see the world through alien eyes, then you have only yourselves to blame for it!”
Jorban’s calm voice of authority cut in, urging everyone to settle down. Eena finished her thought with more composure.
“I was raised on Earth in a culture where freedom of choice is highly valued. People there choose who they want to marry. I always believed I would grow up to have that same opportunity. I had no idea that the culture I was raised in—the values I took to heart—were not to be mine forever.”
When her gaze strayed to the others surrounding the table, she noted more somber expressions. Nannock, who had remained silent up to this point, addressed her next.
“Sha Eena, I would like to know…do you intend to pass on these Earth traditions to your posterity?”
The worry in his aged features softened her disposition. “No, sir. I plan to raise my children in the ways of Harrowbeth.”
“And you will promise your children to appropriate suitors?”
“Yes, I intend to.”
“Could we expect an heir soon after your marriage then?” It was Ander daring the delicate question.
Eena could feel the heat of embarrassment prickle her cheeks. It seemed an awfully bold inquiry. She was surprised by an equally bold answer from behind.
“If we were to marry, there would be no reason to wait.”
The young queen twisted her neck to spot Ian entering the chamber. As excited as she was at his arrival, she held back showing it.
(Took you long enough.)
(Sorry. Mother was pretty harsh with me.)
(Unfortunately, you may find this crowd to be just as harsh.)
“Ahh, Ian. You made it.” Minister Jorban walked over to the young man, stealing a glance at Unan in the process. Displeasure was noted on the old protector’s face.
“We have been discussing a request by our queen to marry her protector. Now, I’m sure you are aware that such a union would be highly uncustomary.”
“Yes, sir,” Ian nodded.
“And yet you both insist on pursuing it?”
“If Sha Eena wishes to marry me, then yes, sir.” The young pair swapped the tiniest smile, a gesture caught by every onlooker.
“I am curious, Ian. How did Sha Eena come to this decision? Was it her idea? Or was it…”
“I asked her to marry me.” His bold, unapologetic admission received murmurs of disapproval from members of the council.
“I see,” said Jorban. “I assume this was against your parent’s wishes?” His eyes strayed to Unan for an answer before Ian gave one.
“Yes, sir.”
Kai Launi slapped a hand on the table, grabbing attention from one and all before once again voicing her opinion loud and clear.
“This irreprehensible behavior is deserving of a severe reprimand! To pursue a position of authority in this way, knowing full well our standing traditions on the matter, is a violation of all that is proper and honorable within our laws!”
Mia Rahn stood up for the first time and, for the unusually quiet councilor she was, retorted rather loudly, “A Sha marrying her protector may be unheard of and contrary to our normal customs, but it is not against any established laws, Kai Launi. You cannot justify punishing this young man simply for falling in love. And besides…” She paused momentarily to glance at every member at the table. “I believe we owe our queen for her hand in protecting Moccobatra from the wicked intentions of those immortal beings whom she managed to overpower and defeat in a way no one else in this room could have. Do you not remember how our Sha risked her life to save the world? Or are your memories really that short?”
Mia Rahn sat herself down, arching a daring eyebrow at anyone brave enough to throw her an objectionable look. That’s when Jorban returned to the table and gestured for the council to hush. It was silent during the time it took for him to rummage through his thoughts. Eventually he spoke.
“Traditionally, when a queen makes a request from her acting council, the matter is discussed and a vote is cast. I believe this matter has been discussed adequately.” He scanned the room for any objections. When no one spoke up, he continued. “Then it is time to put it to a vote.”
Jorban started off calling for the votes of which he was certain. First, the Director of Science, Technology, and Education.
“Kai Launi?”
The ill-tempered woman stood up in one swift move and announced her view obdurately. “I am most certainly against this union. Ian is a protector, and protectors cannot be suitors for the Shas. Even if he were not such, I find him to be unfit for the position of Shen due to his blatant disregard for our cherished Harrowbethian traditions. His actions are dishonorable and highly unworthy of a king’s standing.” The councilwoman sat herself down in a huff.
Jorban called for the next vote. “Maxillium?”
Rising from his seat a little less abruptly, Harrowbeth’s Military and Defense Coordinator voiced his opinion strongly. “I stand by Kai Launi. There are plenty of available, worthy suitors willing to fill the role of Shen. If Sha Eena were to take the time to get to know these other men, I’m sure she would find one to her liking. My son is a perfect candidate, being just a couple years Derian’s senior.”
Eena felt disgusted and naturally scrunched her nose. She could only imagine how intolerable it would be to live with a younger version of Maxillium.
The defense coordinator went on with his suggestions. “Jerin, the newest head of our national security, is also an available and well-suited possibility. Is he not a friend of yours?”
“Well, uh, yes, he’s a friend, but Jerin isn’t interested in marriage. He’s still very much in love with his wife.”
“His late wife,” Maxillium corrected. “And I know for a fact he would be more than willing to do the honorable thing for Harrowbeth and accept the position of Shen.”
“I’m not interested in Jerin,” Eena declared.
“He would be good to you, for Derian’s sake.”
“A charity marriage?”
“Do you not care to honor Kahm Derian’s wishes?”
“Yes, I care for Derian’s wishes, but he never wished for me to marry Jerin.”
“Well, I assure you,” Maxillium stated quite emphatically, “that he would be hard pressed to ever wish for you to marry Ian! Those two never got along; everyone knows that.”
“Derian and Ian were good friends,” Eena insisted. “We were all good friends. And Derian would wish for my happiness above anything else. That I do know.”
Maxillium grabbed at the hem of his jacket and yanked the creases straight. He boldly stated, “You are young, na├»ve, impetuous, and above all selfish!”
Jorban chided the councilor, who took his seat while Eena grumbled lowly, “Tell me something I haven’t heard.”
Shifting his attention to the other end of table, the minister called for the next vote. “Mia Rahn, what have you to say?”
The Minister of International Affairs stood up, tapping her fingers lightly on the marbled table. She smiled at the young queen and her protector.
“Sha Eena, I will have you know that I honor the traditions of Harrowbeth, and I respect how strongly your parents felt about defending those traditions. Being a good friend to your mother, I also know for a fact that Sha Tashi wasn’t beyond bending the rules every now and then to accommodate her own desires.” Mia slipped in an impish grin before continuing. “I am certain Sha Tashi and Shen Laynn would be proud of your decision to marry Derian, thus carrying out the promise they arranged when you were an infant. However, considering the impossibility of that now, I believe your parents would wish for your happiness above all else. I’m sure they would feel it appropriate at your age to choose for yourself. If marrying Ian makes you happy, then it seems to me that bending a minor custom is a small thing to ask. Especially given all we owe you.”
Mia Rahn took her seat, and Jorban asked her friend Ander for his vote. The Agricultural Director stood to take his turn.
“I’m in full agreement with Mia Rahn,” he said, his slender frame towering above the others. “And for the record, I believe Ian will make a very fine Shen. He comes from a long line of highly respectable, exceptionally capable men.”
Eena couldn’t help but flicker a glance at Unan. She caught genuine pride in the old protector’s eyes.
Jorban called on the Director of Business, Commerce, and Trade for the next vote. Nonnack took his time getting to his feet. Concern weighed heavily in his features. After clearing his throat, he spoke directly to the young protector.
“Ian, young man, I have nothing against you personally, and I am inclined to want to agree to our Sha’s request. However, it troubles me to know that your acceptance as Shen of Harrowbeth will leave her unprotected at times. Granted, she has pointed out her ability to defend herself quite capably, but…” Nonnack drew in a tentative breath and let it out gradually. His brow pulled taut as he hesitated. “I just believe that the safety of our Sha should overrule all other concerns. I’m sorry, but she needs a watchful protector by her side at all times.”
“I will be there for her,” Ian insisted. “Her safety is my top priority.”
“It is now,” Nonnack agreed, “because it is your only job. I don’t think you realize how often your attention and your presence will be called away from her with the added duties of a Shen.”
Ian came back with an immediate answer. “I will assign guards to look after her in my absence.”
“Rubbish!” Nonnack pursed his lips into a frown, unsatisfied that mere guards were enough.
“Lots and lots of guards,” Ian added, exposing a hint of desperation. Eena looked up at him, worry swimming in her eyes. Then they heard an unexpected voice cut in to offer a better solution.
“I could step in as her protector. That is, if Ian and Sha Eena were to marry.”
The collective attention turned to Unan who stood calmly beside the wall. He met incredulous stares from everyone.
(What is he doing?) Ian questioned, both surprised and skeptical.
Eena’s face brightened as she realized, (He’s offering his help, Ian. He’s supporting us!)
“I am technically still a protector,” Unan reminded everyone, “and I would welcome the opportunity to look after Harrowbeth’s queen once again. It is our family’s calling and our right.”
Nonnack appeared to relax from head to toe as he announced, “Jorban, in light of this new offer, I have decided to fully support our queen’s decision to marry her protector. I mean the first one. The young one. Ian, not Unan. You know what I mean.”
“Yes, Nonnack,” Jorban chuckled. He looked across the table at the Minister of Internal Affairs. “Braga, what is your vote?”
The dark-haired minister stood up slowly, his face deeply troubled. The wrinkled flesh pulled down in puckered lines around his mouth. His speech was low and humble.
“Regardless of my sympathies, I strongly believe that bending our rules, our standards, or our traditions, even if only the slightest bit, threatens the very foundation of our society. These customs which amount to our very way of life have persisted for centuries only because our ancestors allowed no deviation from the set standards that we continue to adhere to today. I don’t feel it would be for the good of all to allow this disregard of propriety. I’m sorry, Sha Eena.” Braga sat himself down quietly.
“Very well,” Jorban acknowledged. He looked to the other side of Mia Rahn and addressed the councilman seated there. “Zerom, you’re next. What are your thoughts?”
“Hmm.” The Minister of Interplanetary Affairs didn’t bother to stand. He sucked in a deep breath before lifting his chin and boldly announcing, “I, for one, say we should be thankful she came to us with a Harrowbethian suitor. Forgive me, Sha Eena, but it would not have surprised me to see you follow in the footsteps of your friend, Jinatta.” His eyes swept across the council as he asked, “Could you imagine the next Sha being half Viidun?”
There was a mix of groans and stifled chuckles.
Zerom continued, leaning back decisively in his chair. “I say we count our blessings and let the girl have her Harrowbethian man.”
It was Jorban’s turn. Eena was fully aware that as Harrowbeth’s Chief Judge, his vote outweighed all others, even in circumstances where the council was unanimous. He had the power to overrule the majority so long as he could back his decision on legal grounds. His vote would be final regardless of who agreed or disagreed.
Itching with anticipation, Eena asked Ian for some insight into the minister’s thoughts. (What has he decided?)
(He hasn’t yet. He’s deliberating in his head; both points of view concern him.)
The young queen opened her mouth to say something before the final vote was cast, something persuasive enough to convey what Ian meant to her. She spoke the minister’s name, but no words took form. Her mind went blank. She found herself uttering what her heart was screaming. “Please, please, Jorban, please.”
It was impossible to tell from the old man’s expression whether her plea moved him or not. Every eye in the room was either resting on the minister, or flickering his way repeatedly for a clue as to his stance on the matter. A long period of agonizing silence slugged by before the head councilman finally said something. When he did, he asked a question.
“Ian, does your mother support your decision to marry Sha Eena?”
The young protector frowned. “No, sir. But I believe she would be supportive if the council agreed to it.”
“Hmm. And you would be prepared to step into a highly-demanding calling? To devote your time and talents learning to perform the functions of a Shen? Harrowbeth expects much from its leaders, as do our surrounding neighbors.”
Ian nodded. “I understand, sir. I would do all that is required. More if necessary.”
“Hmm.” The Jorban's wondering eyes shifted to the queen. “Sha Eena,” he said, pausing, “you realize that an heir is the ultimate goal we all seek.”
Eena squirmed under the minister's serious regard. “Yes, sir.”
“It would be comforting for Harrowbeth to have an heir before long. Another Sha alive and well. A symbol of hope and security for our future. A child who would be raised with respect for proper Harrowbethian tradition.”
“Yes, I understand.”
“And your children will be promised into reputable families when born?”
The young queen found herself nervously looking to Ian who nodded assuredly. “Yes, Jorban, of course.”
“And Unan.” The minister moved a quarter turn towards the wall. “You are prepared to take over as Sha Eena’s protector? A calling that will undoubtedly last for the duration of your lifetime.”
The old protector answered confidently. “Yes, Minister, immediately if necessary.”
“And your wife, Gaila. She will not object to this?”
“I’m sure she will be supportive, sir. Eventually.”
The old minister shifted his attention back on the hopeful pair. He seemed to stare right through them for the longest time, contemplating what was on his mind. Unable to stand the suspense any longer, Eena asked Ian for some insight.
(Tell me what he’s thinking.)
(He’s already made up his mind. What he hasn’t decided is whether or not to announce it today. He’s debating with himself, wondering if he should risk appearing eager by asking us for a marriage date.)
Eena tried not to smile, but, as usual, her emotions were impossible to hide. Jorban’s head inclined, witnessing her sudden joy.
“You have a thought?” he asked the young queen.
“I was just thinking…I mean…” her eyes flashed up at Ian, catching his subtle grin. “If you were to agree to our marriage, we could adhere to eighteenth-birthday customs and announce a date for the wedding at the festivities today. It would keep with established Harrowbethian tradition.”
A deep chuckle sounded in the minister’s throat as he judged suspicious the eagerness grinning before him.
“You assume I’ve chosen to grant your request.”
She bit her lip and admitted, “I’m really hoping so.”
“Well then, Sha Eena, your hope is not in vain.”
There was a background rumble of frustration and delight that mixed with Eena’s happy squeal. She threw her arms around the old minister’s neck, hugging him gratefully before suddenly backing away, realizing her actions were probably inappropriate for the circumstances. Feeling Unan’s presence close by, Eena turned to find the old protector standing in his new position. It was clear he would be taking his calling very seriously. Ian’s arm slipped comfortably around her waist, and she leaned into him for a moment. There were readable reactions to their closeness; only two were openly disapproving.
Moving things along, Jorban pulled out a second chair and set it beside the first at one head of the table. He motioned for the young couple to sit. This time they did. Jorban found his place at the opposite head of the table beside Kai Launi. Eena tried her best not to be drawn to the councilwoman’s bitter glare, concentrating instead on the minister.
Jorban cleared his throat and proceeded with an official start to the meeting. He then brought up the first item of business.
“Regarding the upcoming wedding, if an announcement is to be made today, it would be wise to prepare for a wide range of reactions. Not just from Harrowbeth’s citizens, but from visiting dignitaries as well.” 
Kai Launi promptly grumbled an objection. “A public announcement would be hasty and premature, don’t you think? Even if you have given these…children...permission to wed, I’m not sure boasting about the fact without briefing our allies ahead of time is such a good idea. What you’re suggesting is borderline reckless, Jorban.”
The minister gave a slight nod. “I understand your concerns, Kai Launi. However, it’s not as if those in attendance today have any say in whom Sha Eena marries. And besides, the desire for a new heir is great across the face of all the land. I predict this announcement will generate a widespread sense of reassurance and relief.”
“The whole country will think you foolhardy,” the old woman grumbled.
“Oh, I doubt that,” Jorban said with humor on his lips, “since our young Sha and future Shen will be making the announcement.” Amusement spread across Jorban’s face as his attentive eyes caught Eena’s sudden look of shock. Ian’s lack of readable emotion made the old man raise an impressed eyebrow.
“The two of you can decide together how you wish to reveal to the world your intention to marry, including the date of this history-making event. And rest assured, you do have our support as a collective council.”
It was Ian who readily agreed. “Yes, sir, we will.”
Eena looked at her future husband, realizing Jorban had spoken the truth. This would be the end of a long line of Harrowbethian tradition. Their union would truly qualify as history in the making.