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Alerian

Blurb

Want to do some rewrites on this and add more detail to Erich's life.

Excerpt

"Mother, must we always hide what we are? There’s no harm in our magic, and you know it as well as I do." Neva didn't often question her mother, but for the last several months she’d begun to feel the strictures were wrong. Lately, there were many things she questioned.

"Neva, you must pay careful attention to your lessons." Verna's quiet voice prompted Neva to straighten in her seat. "As long as the priests of Terta remain in power, it will be this way, Neva. You know the use of magic is forbidden."

Verna appeared to be an older version of Neva though her fine, light brown hair and placid features showed no real signs of age. However, Neva towered over her mother, having inherited her father's height.

"Yes," Neva's tone took on an impatient edge. "But why? It makes no sense."

"I never said it made sense, but that is the law. The priests fear others more powerful might arise to challenge them." A wry smile twisted Verna's lips. "They cling to their power by forcing those around them to obey their laws."

"I found your book about Alerian, mother. Nothing I've read matches the rumors of the land. Have you ever been there?" Neva had read the book with a great deal of curiosity. Alerian, the land of dragons, was the only kingdom that refused to obey the laws of Thais.

"I will answer you, but you must never speak of it. Yes, I have been there. A very long time ago when I was young, my mother took me on a journey to Alerian. It is a wondrous place, Neva. They have stood strong against the rule of the nine kingdoms, and they still do."

With her cheek propped in her hand she listened carefully to her mother before she asked more questions. "Is it true they allow men and women to mate? That the dragons live freely with ones like us? That their land is magical?"

Before Neva could ask another question, her mother chuckled as she answered her. "Yes to all of your questions. The dragons protect the borders of Alerian and none of the other kingdoms have been able to destroy them."

"Can we go to Alerian?"

"I would love to take you there, Neva. But there is no way I can. As it is, I risk much in teaching you the old ways. Not even your father's power would protect us if the truth became known. I bring you to our country retreat to practice away from the prying eyes of their servants in the city."

Verna shook her head sadly. "Our time here is almost up. Go ahead and take in some fresh air while I put everything away and prepare to return to Aeaci."

After she gave her mother a quick hug she headed outside. The heat of the mid afternoon sun warmed the air and carried the fragrant odors of the blossoming flowers in the garden. She really didn't want to return to the city, but they didn't have a choice.

Her father expected them back later this evening. No doubt Juor planned for them to attend one of the more important social gatherings. Neva found them a great bore, and whenever she could she made up excuses not to go. Occasionally her mother allowed her to get away with it, but not always. Since Juor would probably be in a bad mood because of his wife's absence, it wasn't likely Neva would get out of it.

Making the most of her little time of freedom, Neva sat in the grass and opened the Alerian book she’d found. Rather than worry, Neva preferred to dwell on thoughts of the dragon kingdom. She'd never quite believed the tales of the unnatural happenings; claims of sacrificing babies to appease the Dark Lords, and dragons using mortals as slaves had never rung quite true to her. What she had read in her mother's book and what Verna had said had proven Neva right.

Crouching down, she carefully tended to several of the smaller plants in the garden. Neva had a strong ability to grow things, as well as heal. Although she couldn't do this in the city, out here she had relatively little care of who might be around. They were too isolated for most people‘s taste. She gently smoothed over the tender young sprout of a rose, coaxing it to blossom as she focused her concentration in it. She admitted it was selfish, but she wanted to enjoy the fragrance before they had to leave. The green leaves around the bud unfurled, revealing the delicate pink veined flower. It required no real effort on her part to bring it to full bloom.

When she heard the sounds of a coach coming down the lane toward the small cottage, Neva plucked the rose then stood.

"Neva, it's time to leave." Her mother walked out of the front door, calling to her.

"I see the coach coming this way, mother." Brushing off the front of her dress, she walked back to the door and handed the flower to her mother, smiling.

***

The windows along all three walls and the glass panels of the ceilings gave tantalizing glimpses of the garden outside. Neva stood near one of the partially open window, hoping to catch the slightest breeze that might come into the stifling, hot room. The high-pitched laughter and chatter around her had begun to give her a headache.

Maia, a close friend of Neva's, ascended the short, white stone staircase to join Neva near the window. Though younger than Neva by a few cycles, Maia has always been somewhat close to Neva. Golden curls danced across her shoulders as she moved gracefully toward Neva, her gray eyes lit with good humor. Even though Maia had only been out in public society for a short time, she'd made quite an impression on others.

Neva had once been like that, only the lack of any discernible depth to all of this had begun to bother her. It was always the same. Her gaze swept over the assembled crowd a few short steps below her. How could they stand it? Surely some were as bored as her.

Neva gave Maia a small smile and repressed her own sigh. A ripple of interest ran through those present as Vioda and his sister, Vica, entered the packed room. The high priest and priestess of Terta turned heads wherever they went. All of the women around Neva turned to stare at Vica. Their male counterparts were just as avidly watching Vioda. Excited whispers rose in the room as did the hopes and dreams of quite a few.

It appeared many had high ambitions in that direction. To be chosen as the lover of the high priest or priestess insured a life of luxury for the chosen. The cool beauty of the golden twins always caused a stir when they showed up. Both of their features were delicately carved, making their appearance stand out among everyone else. They had curly, silver-white hair, a shade possessed only by their line, and their red robes tightly swathed their bodies, but left a good portion revealed as well. Unlike most male Belions, Vioda preferred to be clean shaven. While it was unusual, it certainly didn’t deter from the man's good looks. Neva was no more immune to the allure of the twins than anyone else was, but she preferred to stay in the background.

Neva noticed Maia had her eye on Vioda and an infatuated smile plastered on her lips. At least one in the group was as different as Neva was, and it was a part of what made Maia her friend.

She could also see her father, making his way through the crowd to her. Now what did he want? A broad smile curled his lips as he stilled in front of her. His easy going nature was evident in his open expression and smiling green eyes, his black beard and moustache carefully trimmed. "Come, daughter. Vioda and Vica wish to see you."

“Come on, Maia.” On a whim, Neva took hold of Maia's hand and dragged the girl with her as she moved to the gold railing then down the stairs. With her best, politely social look pinned on her face, Neva caught up with her father as he greeted Vioda and Vica. Both turned a look of interest on her as she tugged at Maia to get the girl to stand beside her.

Momentarily flustered, all poor Maia could was stare at them. With a smile, Vioda took Neva's hand and brought it to his lips, pressing a kiss to the back of it. "I am delighted to see you again, Lady Neva. Your father has spoken well of you."

Neva resisted the urge to look at her father, wondering what he could have possibly told the high priest. Instead of saying what she wanted to, she murmured politely, "Thank you, high priest."

He kept her hand a touch too long, and as undeniably handsome as he was, something about him made her the tiniest bit uneasy yet she couldn't explain why. As his sister took hold of Neva's hand and repeated the action, the same feeling prickled over Neva's skin.

At the moment, they were the center of focus for the entire room, and apparently Neva was the focal point for Vioda and Vica. Not a position Neva much appreciated. Her father could barely contain his gleeful grin.

"And who is your friend, Lady Neva?" Vica asked as she turned to look at Maia. A flicker of interest showed in her pale lavender eyes.

"This is Lady Maia, daughter of Lord Philon, high priestess." Neva answered her promptly.

Maia smiled hesitantly at Vica as the high priestess took her hand and kissed it. "It's a pleasure to see such a sweet, young face."

Neva noticed the look passing between the twins as Vioda took Maia's other hand and kissed the back. "I would agree, dear sister. Perhaps it is time we invite Philon to the temple."

Maia looked flustered and honored at the same time, and Neva hid her dismay. That hadn't been her intention, but then Maia didn't seem to mind a bit. She could only hope it was Vioda who took more of an interest than Vica since Maia had betrayed the early interest in him. Because they weren't bound to the laws like most of the citizens of Belion, both the high priest and priestess could have their choice of male or female lovers.

Vioda released Maia's hand then moved to take Juor's arm. "I would like to speak with you in private, Juor. Join me in my study."

The words weren't a request, they were a command. Before Vioda walked away, Vica told him. "I will speak to Philon."

Neva had a very bad feeling but couldn't pinpoint its source, other than the disturbing sense she received from the twins. Gratefully, she stepped back as everybody went in their own directions.

Neva's mother walked up behind her, whispering in her ear. "Something is bothering you, daughter?"

"I don't know, mother. Just something is off, I think."

She turned to face Verna and kept her voice to a low whisper, "I can't explain the odd feeling. Perhaps it's just my headache."

Her mother glanced toward the door where her husband and the high priest had disappeared. "Don't worry about it, dearest."

"Can we go home, mother? My head already hurts, and I'm getting tired."

Verna slipped her arm around her daughter and pulled her toward the white stairs leading to the outside. "We'll send the carriage back for your father. I'm sure he'll remain with Vioda for as long as he can."

The prestige alone would guarantee Juor would make the most of it. Silently, the two women walked outside to where their coachman waited patiently for their return. When he saw them, Sine jumped forward to open the door for them. Once they settled inside, he climbed up on his perch and guided the horses down the lane.

Neva tried not to let the nagging worry get to her that she might have put Maia in a situation she didn't want to be in. Though her friend did seem nervous, it had also been clear she'd been flattered by Vica's company.

"Something troubles you, Neva?"

She met the shrewd sea green gaze and shook her head slightly. "I hope Maia doesn't get in over her head. I'm the one that dragged her along when father wanted me to talk with Vioda and Vica."

"Somehow I doubt if Maia will ever get in over her head unless she wants to. Her mother is much the same. They are both very strong willed women."

The words helped Neva to relax and let go of the worry. Neva had always felt odd in a way she couldn't fully explain whenever she was too close to the exceptionally beautiful pair. It was a great boon to her father's position to be seen with them, and Juor exploited it every chance he got. The rest of the way back to their house, the two women remained silent, each lost in their own thoughts.

After the coach stopped, the coachman helped them out as a servant opened the front door of the house for them. Once inside, Verna turned to her daughter, embracing her in a hug. "Go rest, darling. I'll have Carlia bring you a tisane for your head."

"Thank you, mother." She pressed a soft kiss to her mother's cheek before she pulled away and headed up the stairs. When she reached her room, she opened the door and stepped inside. Carlia had already laid out Neva's nightgown, and Neva decided to undress before her maid returned to the room.

The buttons at the back of her dress were hard to reach, but she got the dress off and laid it on the dressing table. Picking up the nightgown, Neva put it on over her head and let it settle around her body. All she wanted was a good night's sleep. It had been bad enough to have to attend the party. Maybe next time she could wheedle her way out of it. There'd been a time when Neva had enjoyed the gay whirl of the parties, but lately she'd become more and more restless. She couldn't fully understand why.

As Neva turned down the covers and sat on the edge of the bed, her door opened and Carlia came in. "Lady Verna wanted me to bring this to you."

She bustled toward Neva with a faintly concerned air and handed her the small cup of steaming liquid. Neva took it from her and lifted it, taking a deep breath of the delicious aroma.

"Thank you, Carlia." Neva smiled gratefully at her then took a small sip of the soothing brew.

"You should have waited for me to tuck you into bed, Lady Neva." The elderly woman fussed around her, tucking Neva's legs beneath the covers as she drank her tea. Sometimes Carlia simply refused to acknowledge Neva had grown up and still treated her as a young child.

Carlia took the cup from Neva when she finished, then pressed Neva back into the bed. "You need your rest. Now close your eyes and sleep."

A wry smile creased Neva's lips as she closed her eyes. Thankfully Carlia didn't see it as she pulled up the covers and tucked them around Neva.

"Good night, Carlia."

"Blessed dreams, Lady Neva." Before she left the room, Carlia turned out the lights then quietly shut the door behind her.

As much as Neva loved Carlia, her fussing was a little too much at times. Rolling to her side, she opened her eyes and watched the play of moonlight dancing on the wall near her. Branches from the tree near her window swayed and creaked from an occasional breeze.

Neva could almost make out the form of a dragon within the light and dark patterns, and it made her smile. The idea of dragons had fascinated her ever since she'd found out they existed. Not the evil ones men spoke of in the temples, but the true dragons, ones she knew protected Alerian.

None of the tales she'd heard told had bothered her. Somehow she'd known they weren't true. Many times she'd been tempted to argue with those who repeated the rumors, but Neva realized it would do no good. Most of the people of Belion were no more than sheep, blindly following all the priests of Terta told them.

She had yet to meet another like herself who believed differently, other than her mother. Verna had told her there were others, but they remained as secretive as Verna and Neva had to be. She finally closed her eyes and images swiftly filled her thoughts. Some dreams would wait until her thoughts had slipped fully into unconsciousness, but this was one meant to be remembered. By the very vividness of the colors and clarity around her, Neva knew it was more a vision sent to her.

In the sky above her, dark shapes flew gracefully through the air. She couldn't quite make them out, they were too distant to her. A path revealed itself through the mist, and she began walking along it. In a blur, everything changed around her. She recognized the golden arrows and black background of the flag of Helusu flying from one of the strongholds in a valley to the left of her. Neva wasn't certain what the kingdom near Belion had to do with her dream, but she continued along the path as the mist cleared in front of her feet.

A plume of gold smoke suddenly rose in the air in front of Neva, and she stopped. It didn't scare her as she watched it with a great deal of curiosity. A dark shape began to form within the haze. Suddenly sharp cries filled the air, and when Neva looked up the sky was filled with dragons of every shape, size and color.

She held her breath, afraid any movement would disturb the magnificently beautiful aerial display above her. A burst of warm breath heated her face, and she looked back down to the incredible sight of a golden dragon near her. It stood right in front of her, dark blue eyes (?) staring at her just as curiously as she gazed at him. Several times larger than her, its scales gleamed iridescently with its movement.

A moment later blackness descended and the vision was gone.

***

As she leaned against the railing of her balcony, Neva listened to the amplified sound of the high priest's voice and watched the magical broadcast displayed just above her head. She found the use of magic and the priest's excuses for it rather ironic, but the populace never questioned it.

"We have kept the balance necessary. For the citizens of Belion, we offer grateful prayer to Terta, the most blessed of Thais. All of the kingdoms of Thais uphold the accord except for Alerian. The blasphemers will be punished." In the silence following his pronouncement, a cheer rose from the multitude milling beneath the high priest's second story balcony.

When Lord Vioda held his hand for quiet, the crowd immediately obeyed. "The execution of those unwilling to follow the law will commence when the sun rises over Cheusi Mountains. We have found seven men and seven women guilty of the blasphemous act of sexual intercourse. One child was born not of the natural order."

Failure in the strict breeding programs of Thais wasn't unknown. Some now argued against the necessity of outlawing the breeding of men and women to only a select few. During the time of the Black Starvation, death had run rampant over the land; it decimated millions and left the population of Thais teetering on the brink. The last of those who remembered the Black Starvation had gone to their grave many years ago, but the images, painted on the temple walls, were a stark reminder to every citizen who saw them.

When the population rose from the ashes, many had feared a repeat. It was a fear that had echoed through nine of the ten kingdoms. Where once war and greed had the kingdoms at each other's throat, the sole need to survive banded nine of them together, and as the level of the populace began to swell, the kingdoms quickly formulated plans to control their people.

Outlawing sexual relationships between men and women had been the first order of business; only sanctioned coupling and births were allowed, and the priests of Terta completely controlled every aspect. Any who disobeyed were executed.

Neva wasn't certain she fully agreed with the practices of her own land. The voices opposing Terta had grown louder and were constantly met with the violent repercussions from the priests.

"Lady Neva, your father wishes to speak with you."

"Any chance of avoiding this one, Carlia?"

"He's in a jubilant mood about something so you might want to talk to him." Carlia headed to the huge armoire, opening it. She pulled out one of Neva's dresses and placed it out on the nearby bed.

"Jaim isn't going to be happy if I miss my lessons." Neva made a face as she entered the room and closed the balcony doors behind her. She stripped out of her robe and gown and tossed them to Carlia before she picked up the dress.

"Something has the master in an unusually good mood. If it were me, I'd want to know what's going on."

Neva couldn't argue with Carlia's wisdom. Juor, besides being an ambitious megalomaniac, had more than enough money to carry out way too many of his own selfish desires. One example of her father's power had been his marriage to her mother, and Neva's subsequent birth. However, Juor's lack of success in getting Neva mated to a male of the species had been a sore point with him.

Carlia moved up behind her and began to fasten the back of her dress.

"Did you tell mother yet?"

"Bea is attending to her. No doubt the mistress will want you in her chambers after you've spoken to him."

"Tell Jaim I'll attend my lessons as soon as possible." Jaim took Neva's weapons and self defense training as seriously as she did. Neva had trained passed the normal three cycle of turns required by the Belion government. She loved her workouts, and her father had never objected to the continuation.

She opened the door then closed it behind her. Several servants scurried across the entryway below as she descended the steps. Whatever her father had planned had them on their toes. Neva had the feeling all of this had something to do with her. Given his supposedly jubilant mood and summoning of her presence, Juor might have managed to gain permission from Lord Vioda to have her married. Neva's thoughts on the matter were neither happy nor unhappy. If what Juor planned suited her, she would have no problem with it. If it didn't fit in with what she wanted, she would have to deal with it in her own way.

As she entered the study, her father immediately looked over at her. "Neva, I have the most excellent news. Lord Vioda will be joining us for lunch."

"Have you finally gotten what you wanted from him, father?" She stilled in front of his desk and folded her hands in front of her, leveling a bland look on her father.

"I have managed way beyond what I originally set out to accomplish." Rubbing his hands together in a suspiciously gleeful manner, he beamed at his daughter. No wonder the servants were alarmed. "You have a new dress being delivered. I want you to wear that."

Her brow quirked and she regarded him questioningly. "Am I to be married, father?"

"Oh, more than that, dear child. Very much more than that." He looked extremely pleased with himself and settled back in his seat completely relaxed.

Puzzled, Neva had no real clue as to what he meant. While her marriage had been a long held ambition of Juor's, his behavior far exceeded a normal reaction from him. Rather than argue with him or pry for further detail, Neva simply bowed her head and turned to leave the study.

Neva headed back upstairs to her mother's room to avoid the frenzied pace of the servants still running and back forth. She knocked lightly at the door then waited until she heard Verna's voice. "Come in, Neva."

Inside the room she saw her mother and Bea comfortably ensconced on the settee. As Neva joined them, she muttered, "No wonder everybody is in such an uproar."

"Has he told you what is going on, Neva?" Verna patted the seat next to her, directing an inquiring look at her daughter.

"Nothing other than Lord Vioda is joining us for lunch, and I'm to wear a special dress that is being delivered."

"Then we shall have to find out what is going on." With a wave of Verna's hand, a white mist formed in front of them. Even though the use of magic had been strictly prohibited, it had never stopped Verna from practicing it, or from teaching the ability to her daughter. When the murky depths of the mist cleared, the hazy vision of a gold dragon appeared. A frown marred her mother's brow. "This has nothing to do with whatever Juor is planning, yet it is relevant to you, daughter."

While the meaning wasn't clear, Neva still smiled. "It is a symbol of freedom, mother. I dreamed of him last night."

"Somehow I doubt freedom is what your father has in mind."

Neva responded with a laugh. "Are you really worried, mother? If I am in agreement with his plans, everything will be fine. If not, we will take care of it when the time comes."

Neva didn't feel unduly worried. Something told her that whatever the future brought would be of her own design, and nothing could shake her belief in the knowledge.

"Both of us need to get ready. It wouldn't do to be late for lunch."

"You worry more than grandmother ever did."

"And sometimes you don't worry enough, daughter." After returning the embrace, Verna released her. "Now go get ready."

Neva had a form of confidence all of her own. It didn't set well with the male population of Belion. Convinced of their own superiority over women, the majority of men had no problem acting as though they were. She was comfortable with herself and her abilities and ignored the posturing. Something which had made her disliked by quite a few. She wasn't sure whom her father had managed to find that would agree to marry her, but she would find out soon enough.

When she returned to her room, Carlia already had the dress laid out on her bed. The moment Neva saw the golden material, a feeling of dismay settled in her stomach. The distinct ornamentation of the dress displayed the symbols of the high priest of Terta. Carlia's neutral gaze met her own, but beneath Neva saw the flicker of unease. It matched hers.

Neva undressed and let Carlia slip the gown over her head. The material clung to her form and covered her entire body in shimmering gold. Its design was meant for her to be seen, yet not be seen.

When Carlia reached inside the box still on the bed and drew out a small headdress, Neva's vague feeling of discomfort gave way to full blown dread. The golden crown represented a smaller facsimile of the crown Vioda wore. All of this seemed to be a definite display on the high priest's part of what would belong to him.

"He couldn't have." Neva muttered as she reached for the crown. Unfortunately, it did explain the overbearing attitude of her father in managing to achieve the pinnacle of political power.

Carlia took it from her, placed it carefully on Neva's hair to pin it in place, and stepped back without a word.

To be chosen as the high priestess of Terta bordered on an incredible honor. Something Neva wasn't sure she wanted. With a heavy sigh, she left the room to join her family in the dining hall.

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