Daine sighed in relief as she and Kadder made their way down the path which, he had assured her, led the way to a large forest replica.

Ozorne, he informed her, recently had built it to house rare animals which had not thrived well in captivity.

Not that she could blame them.

She rubbed her face tiredly; any forest with real trees and real animals would be a nice change from the sun and sand of Carthak.

Anything to remind her of home.

 Her mind wandered back to the mess they had just left, to the Graveyard Hag and her interferences.

Gods.

 They just cant let be, always having to stick their nose in where it isn't wanted.

She scowled; couldn't they see more was at stake here than their pride? They made a mistake when they chose Carthaks' Emperor, fine, but why did they have to pick now when the peace of the realms depended on Tortall having a treaty signed to fix their mistake?

And involving her in it all; she was supposed to be behaving herself! It was difficult to behave with gods showing up and dumping powers on her right and left.

She glanced at the Prince to realize he was staring at her with amusement. "What?" she demanded; embarrassed.

 He smiled "Watching your face is almost as good as hearing you speak. I've never seen anyone pull such faces while thinking."

 She blushed "Numair often tells me the same thing." she admitted. "I s'pose living here you can't really afford to show what's on your mind", she remarked, looking at him thoughtfully. She shuddered at the thought of being constantly on guard in your own home. She'd only been here a few days and already it was grating on her nerves.

He smiled sourly, "You noticed."

They continued along their path until it opened up to reveal a slope leading down to a running river with magnificent forest surrounding it. Daine halted in her tracks and breathed in the beauty of it. The dusk light filtered in through the cracks in the branches and she heard the songs of birds as they hopped from tree to tree.

She sighed and her eyes glowed in wonder.

"This is beautiful; if I didn't know better I would swear it was a forest from back home."

The prince chuckled dryly, "It ought to be for how much the mages who created it charged my Uncle. But when it comes to his animals, no expense is spared."

"I'd noticed" the girl replied, her tone equally dry.

They followed the rivers path as it led them through glorious oaks and willows which Daine couldn't help rubbing her hands on and breathing in their fresh, familiar scent.

They eventually found themselves climbing up a rocky slope which flattened off to form a sort of jagged plate.

Daine went to the edge and glanced down. A ways down the rocky crevasse, the river flowed to form a pond, of sorts. A closer look showed her swans gliding over the pond and she called out a greeting. Startled, they flapped their wings and honked, staring at her.

Knowing their vanity through previous dealings Daine exclaimed in admiration of their fine feathers and necks. They warmed to her immediately.

 Come down and look at us more closely if you wish, one of them offered eagerly.

 Daine covered a smile with her hand, Thankyou, I think I will.

 The girl sat down and slid out to get a footing on the steep, rocky slope, wishing she had changed from the twilight blue gown she had worn to supper.

She heard a yelp behind her and twisted her torso around to see the prince rush towards her. He seized her around waist.

 "What on earth do you think you're doing?" he cried angrily "Trying to get yourself killed!"

"No" she answered in annoyance, "I am going to see the swans"

He stared at her. "See the…… why do you have to climb down a cliff to see swans?"

"Do you see another way of getting down?" She glared at him. "Let me go please, you stay here so you don't break your royal neck; that would definitely affect the peace-treaty."

She squirmed out of his grasp and carefully made her way down. Once at the bottom she shed her dainty slippers and tucked her delicately embroidered dress above her knee to save it being spoiled. She sat at the waters edge; her legs emerged in the water as the swans one by one moved towards her so they could glide up right between and around her legs to gently nibble her face and hair.

She wasn't aware of the prince who watched her in awe; until then he didn't think he had ever known what natural beauty meant. But her, this girl, she had no need of face paint or jewellery to brighten her. She had it in her eyes and in her sensitivity. The setting sun spun her wild tangle of curls into blazing halo and lighted on her cream skin and slender figure. He sighed. He wished Daine could stay; when she was around he changed into someone he liked. Someone more real, without airs and graces. And she seemed to like him for his real self- not as a Prince.

 He was so captivated with the scene before him that he didn't notice as raiders came up behind him signalling each other to remain silent.

**************

Numair looked at the faces of the people seated around him on the great table.

 He sighed.

 They practically mirrored each other; mulish, angry and restless.

Peace-talks were not going well.

His suspicions to him seemed all but confirmed; Ozorne was simply not interested in peace. His expectation that Kalasyin would wed the Prince Kaddar was, well….. unreasonable to say the least.

So if it wasn't peace Ozorne was after, the mage mused studying his one-time friend under long lashes, what was it he did want?

He had an idea, which was why he had made the necessary preparations. It was a very good simulacra. Good enough to fool Ozorne if it came to that. He hoped it wouldn't.

Where was Daine, he wondered suddenly. Ah yes, with the prince. His face darkened, he did not like the amount of time Daine was in that boys care. He knew she could fend for herself, but she was in a strange country, a dangerous country, and she was very young. Despite her independence he also knew she was extremely vulnerable.

If Kaddar knew what was good for him he would not take advantage and interfere with her while she was here. He was roused from his reverie by the mention of his students' name.

 His brows snapped together as Ozorne continued. "Her presence pleases us greatly; We had not imagined her healing would be so affective. Our birds' recovery is quite amazing. We wish her to remain with Us, here in Our Empire, if of course she is so inclined. She would be given her own estates, slaves, whatever she requires."

Ozornes tone was warm, innocent. Numair felt himself stiffen with anger, Daine, here? Slaves?

He was about to vent his anger when Duke Gareth the older noticed, and shot him a warning glance. "Your Imperial Majesty, Tortall greatly values their Wildmage and would hate to see her leave the Kingdom of Tortall, but she is her own person and will do as she pleases. I cannot speak for her." Duke Gareth finished speaking and bowed his head respectively.

"We understand this, of course. If she did choose to remain here however, We could perhaps rethink Our stance on the purchase of silks regarding Tortall. Also of her Highness Princess Kalasins' marriage to Our heir, that could be reviewed."

A murmur spread throughout the delegates. Numair had to clench his jaw to stop him saying something rash which he would later regret. How dare Ozorne use his magelet as a…… a bargaining tool! This was getting out of control. Ozorne was truly insane. Numair stared at him in open outrage and for a moment he was sure Ozorne met his gaze smugly, as he had when they were young and Ozorne had bested him at something. Numair let a breath out slowly to calm himself.

So this was what it had come to. A competition, as it had always been between them. He would die before he let harm come to Daine and this was one thing that Ozorne could never comprehend. Loyalty, love, these things meant nothing to Ozorne. He would have to watch Daine very carefully from now on; she must have no time spent alone with this madman. Preferably no time at all but he knew that would be difficult with social customs and if they were not to cause offence. He knew Ozorne could be charming, manipulative, and he shuddered to think of his young friend in the hands of someone as scrupless as Ozorne.

He wouldn't be happy until they were on a boat out of this god-forsaken city. Ozorne was looking at him again. He didn't like his expression. The Imperial Emperor raised a hand for silence, "We wish to see how Veralidaine is faring in Our beautiful city while she is not thought to be being watched. It would be greatly helpful while discussing her future residence." Ozorne performed a complex inscription in the air over the great table and, sweat forming on his upper lip and brow; he whispered a word only Numair recognised. Before Numair could react to cancel the scrying spell (the thought of everyone seated at this table spying on his student while she was unaware sickened him) a scene appeared over the table where Ozorne had performed the spell.

It was of Daine struggling against two raiders who held her captive; one behind her to pin her arms to her sides, one in front to taunt her while she screamed insults, her face screwed in anger. The raider stopped his taunts as something Daine had goaded him with hit home. He reached his hand out, slowly, menacingly, and traced a line from her cheek, down her face, her throat and let his fingers rest where flesh met fabric, just beneath her collar-bone. "A bitch like you who knows such vile language is no lady, and is not worthy of such a fine garment. I will have to remove it from you." Daine paled slightly, and then spat in his face. "Eat my loincloth!"    

Abruptly she took a deep breath and ceased to struggle; her eyes lost focus. The raiders crowed their victory. They were cut off by hundreds of birds, who swooped them, pecking and clawing until the raiders, swearing and shouting, ran for their lives. Daine called her birds off and thanked them softly. Her head lifted suddenly; she was staring at something. Moving silently, she scooped a rock from the ground and advanced on a figure the persons watching couldn't make out. Then they came into view. Kaddar, Prince Kaddar, was being held against a wall and beaten by a third raider who had begun to edge him to the cliff overhanging the water. Daine moved behind the raider and in one strong movement belted him with her rock on the back of his head. He fell, unconscious, to the ground. Kaddar, beaten almost to fainting, now was left unsupported. He swayed a moment, and then fell from the cliff into the water below. Daine grabbed too late and ended up with handfuls of air. She peered over the edge and saw the prince floating beneath the surface. If she wanted to stop him drowning, she would have to act soon.

**************************

Daine made a decision and shed her heavy, elegant gown to prevent from being weighed down and was left in her shift.

She heard a soft noise behind her, the raider she had hit was coming around. No time for that now, she took a deep breath and dived in.

The coldness and speed with which she hit the water surface bit into her but she ignored the pain and scanned around for Kaddar.

There! She spotted his richly decorated clothes and kicking her legs reached......... She had him. Her fingers twined in his tunic, she kicked to the surface.

Gasping for breath she coughed and spluttered up the water she had inhaled and rolled the prince onto his back, her arms around his torso to keep him from slipping back underneath the surface. He wasn't breathing.

She struggled to shore, and reaching it, she rolled the prince onto his side, applying pressure to his back as she had often seen the riders do to those who had not yet learned the thing called an "undertow" which dragged you out to sea if you were not careful.

 He gasped and vomited up the liquid which had been clogging his lungs though he remained unconscious.

Daine thought hard, no doubt the raiders would be back soon with reinforcements, but how to get out of here? She couldn't carry the prince, not all the way back to the palace. She nibbled her thumbnail.

A horse whinnied nearby. I may be of service, it offered. Daine studied the creature carefully, an enormous black stallion, prob'ly never been ridden in his life. Have you? She asked him silently. He shook his mane Never, what man could hope to ride me? Still, I will allow it from you, and your friend if you must.

 Daine considered; if he went wild she wouldn't be able to physically contain him. But what choice did she really have?  Thankyou, you are very kind. Could you come a bit closer please? He's very heavy.

 Agreeably the horse trotted closer and even bent his front legs so Daine could more easily pile Kaddar onto his back. That done she hopped up herself. The stallion fidgeted restlessly but calmed under her soothing hand and words.

Take us that way if you please. She heard a raider trumpet closer than she would have liked and paled. Quickly she urged her mount. He snorted and broke into a gallop. Daine clutched the prince to keep him fall falling off with one hand and the stallions' mane with the other to keep herself falling off. The speed was incredible.

Suddenly Daine felt a dizzy nausea grip her. What the..? She thought as she fought down a mouthful of bile. She felt a sharp pain in her upper thigh and stared at the long, ill-coloured green gash there. When on Earth did I get that? Then she remembered, just when she had dived off the cliff after the prince she had felt a pain there, but had not registered anything else about it. The third raider! He must have cut her with something, she thought he was unconscious!

 It must have had some type of poison on it, whatever he used, to be hurting her like this. Her dizziness turned black around the edges of her vision and she swayed……. and fell.

The stallion, not realizing she had left her position on his back, raced on with the prince to the castle. Daine opened her eyes and vomited. The nausea didn't stop but threatened to engulf her once again. She dug her fingernails into her palm, no, she thought fiercely. She heard the raiders trumpet sound once again, not so close this time, but it did nothing to make her feel secure. She blearily gazed around trying to recognize different objects and saw a tree. A hollow tree.

Hide.

 She needed to hide and she could hide in there. Good. She crawled weakly to the opening in the trunk, dragging her body one agonizing inch after the other. She tucked herself into the mouldy, dank-smelling inside of the trunk and when she was satisfied she was hidden from view she allowed herself to rest.

The blackness swallowed her up.

***************************************

As soon as Numair had seen what was taking place he did not stick around for the ending. Jumping to his feet he gestured to the apparition of Daine and said frantically "Where is that forest?"

 Alanna stood and walked over to him, putting a soothing hand on his arm, though she herself glowed with anger. "Numair, clam down. Daine can take care of herself. We'll all go and sort these bullies out as soon as we get sorted. Its foolish to go alone, you don't know what weapons they have and I've heard it's common for this kind to keep a mage or two handy."

 Numair stared at her angrily and addressed all present that were from Carthak "Tell me now, the directions to that forest. If she gets harmed whilst I stand here talking to you someone will pay."  His voice was deadly soft.

A Carthki clerk stepped forward and piped up "It's a good twenty minute run, Master Numair, but if you keep going east it can't be missed." Numair nodded his thanks and ran out the door. As he passed Ozorne he glanced at his face to try and decipher his reaction to what was taking place. The Emperors expression was a carefully schooled blank.

And how long have there been raiders hanging about the Emperors forests? What raiders would dare? Numair thought furiously; this all just felt wrong. Numairs feet pumped rhythmically on the dry, hard ground. A staged show, but to what result? What could Ozorne gain from that little performance?

He covered the distance remarkably quickly with his enormous strides and soon entered the shady undergrowth of the forest. He paused, taking in his surroundings. He then followed the same trampled path Daine and Kaddar had walked earlier. Before he had reached the pond where Daine had been in the spell he slowed and stopped dead.

 He thought he had heard a noise; a soft moan. He tensed himself for an attack. It didn't come.

 The creature that made the noise was obviously in no condition to fight him, but was it alone? He would have to take the chance; if it was necessary, he could handle the raiders alone, but he would prefer not to. He needed all his energy to find Daine. He heard a soft rustle as something shifted in the trees.

It was eerily quiet, the animals were silent. Silent so he could better hear Daine? He sighed, he wouldn't be surprised. His students' gifts reached beyond even his wildest expectations. Now she had been given a gift he had thought that only the Gods were granted. And only a very few Gods at that. He worried for her. Her magic was taking her in dangerous directions, especially now that she was here. Even without the knowledge of this particular power in her Ozorne seemed intent on caging her. He didn't even want to imagine what lengths the power-hungry maniac would go to, to control her if he found out.

 He crouched to the forest floor and listened intently. "Hello?" he whispered softly, "Daine is that you?" He heard an answering whimper and something moved again. The sound of dry leaves crunching together. Uh-ha! He spotted a tree whose trunk had rotted out to form a hollow. A perfect place of concealment.

He edged forward, careful not to make any sudden noises to startle her. He eased himself partially into the dank-smelling opening and saw his magelet.

Her face was glistening with perspiration and her skin had an unhealthy, chalky texture. Her breath came in short, laboured little gasps. Her damp shift as her only covering he could see the shivers that shook her body in small tremors.

He was shocked at her appearance. What on earth could they have done to her to cause her to fall so ill in such a short amount of time?

He burned with anger, he could feel heat rise up underneath his skin and he tingled with the power of it. Daines' eyes opened partially, they were unfocused and fluid. She moaned weakly again and murmured incoherently. Numair was snapped back to reality and the situation. "Good girl", he murmured softly, "come on now, that's my magelet."

 He eased his arms underneath her and, cradling her, lifted her out into the open. She lolled in his arms, appearing to have no strength to even lift her head. He laid her flat on her back against the forest floor and examined her more closely, looking for wounds which could have inflicted this sickness.

There. A gash on her right leg, above the knee. It was oozing a green fluid and, bent forward to examine the wound, he pulled back in horror. "Gourd?" he whispered feverishly. He fumbled at his carry belt and produced a small, light blue vile. Uncorking it, he held Daines leg still with one large hand and sprinkled the liquid in the vile over the wound.

Gourd was a poison used on rabid animals, to put them painlessly to sleep. On humans it had the same outcome if not immediately counteracted, but in a far more painful, prolonged way. He had used Thyme to slow, hopefully stop the poison, but she needed medical attention and she needed it now.

 Daine had cried out at the touch of Thyme on her wound; he had expected this, it was an extremely painful counteractive agent, literally burning the Gourd from her body. But he had no painless alternative and soothed her cries, talking gently as he had so often seen her do to animals in pain. He had been one of them; she had nursed him back to health as a hawk.

He performed a speaking spell and as soon as he was aware of Alanna at the other end he spoke "Alanna get here now. We need you, some creature cut her and used gourd on the weapon." Alanna heard the panic and fury in his tone and kept it short, "I'm coming." "Quickly", Numair whispered roughly. He cut the spell.

He wasn't sticking around to wait for her to reach him. He scooped Daine up carefully, not bumping her injury. He wrapped her in her cloak to stop her catching fever on top of it all and began a jog to meet Alanna. He could scarcely breathe for fear, but he didn't want to think about it.

What if…….?

He cut himself off angrily. That was no use right now; he had to concentrate on getting Daine to a healer. What beast would have used Gourd on his student? When he found out he would make that person regret ever being born.

Finally, Alanna came into his view and he called to her his voice cracking in urgency. She wasn't alone. Clerks carrying a stretcher appeared behind her and Numair laid Daine down gently on it. Despite his cloak she was still shaking. Alanna quickly assessed the girls' condition there. "I have put Thyme on the wound to slow the poison", Numair said hurriedly, his words running together. "I see", Alanna murmured, feeling the girls' forehead, "quick thinking." "Take her to the palace", she ordered the clerks, "to the medical room, I can't treat her out here." The clerks moved hastily, both of them were friends of Daines, with Alanna and Numair following.

***************************************************************************************

Hurt, she hurt all over, it burned, where was her Ma to make it all stop? She would drink twenty of her evil messes just so long as this pain went away.

A hand smoothed her curls, comforting, familiar. "Ma?" she asked weakly. "What happened?"

 A warm male voice- definitely not her Ma's- replied, "You were poisoned sweet, but you're getting better and you're going to be fine."

She scowled feebly. "This is getting better? I would have hated to see me while I was really sick then."

Numair- she realized it was- chuckled, "I'm glad to see you've kept you're sense of humour, my little Magelet. Only imagine the fear I would be feeling right now if that had disappeared."

She opened her eyes and squinted up at him. His face blurred, twisted and then came slightly into focus.

"Why do I hurt so? Poisoned you said. What poison?"

She heard him sigh. "One of the raiders stabbed you with a poison called Gourd. Have you heard of it?"

She shook her head, feeling nausea eat on her nerves as she did so.

"We can discuss it fully when you are feeling much, much, better. However, I am on strict instructions to ensure you drink down every last drop of this tea, try to be cooperative please."

 Daine grumbled but was compliant enough as he gently helped her into a sitting position. Supporting her back and arms he held the cup to her lips as she sipped. "Goddess, that's vile," she whispered.

 Numair smiled wickedly at her, "Indeed. I have had the pleasure of Alannas' messes once or twice over the years and it's a great thing for my student to finally share in the unhappy experience."

Daine snorted. "So kind.

I do feel a little better I s'pose", she admitted grudgingly. "Where is Alanna?" 

He carefully eased her back down on the bed. "She's asleep. She has been caring for you almost without rest the past few days."

 "Past few days?" Daine looked at him in shock, "How long have I been sick?"

 Her teacher tucked her blankets up around her and smoothed the covers. "Nearly a week. You gave us all quite a fright, Magelet. I don't want you to ever do anything like that again." 

She frowned at him, "It's not like I asked those filthy raiders to attack me 'n Kaddar." She suddenly remembered Kaddar galloping off on the stallions back. "Hey, where is

Kaddar? Did he make it back to the palace?"

 Numair sighed, "I know you don't ask for trouble, Daine but you do seem to have a knack for finding it, and for giving me heart-attacks," he smiled at her but his eyes were shadowed, "The Prince made it safely back to the castle, thanks to you and," He scowled "is anxious to see you."

Daine yawned. "Go to sleep,"

Numair told her softly, "you're still no way near fully recovered. You have to rest."

 "Yessir," Daine mumbled, eyes closing. Numair looked at her a moment. "You have no idea how worried I was Magelet, I'm so glad you're finally getting well," he whispered as the girl drifted off to sleep.

She groped for his hand and tucked hers into it, smiling softly in slumber.   

************************************************

With the knowledge that Daine was asleep and on the mend Numair felt an enormous weight lift from him.

Now they could hurry up and leave this place. 

He wandered down the corridor with the vague idea of telling Alanna that Daine was past her delirium.

The very day they were known to be in the forest Carthaki soldiers had rounded up all the raiders; there were fifteen in total.

While Numair would dearly have liked to teach a few of them a lesson of his own, he had to allow them to be prosecuted to Carthaki custom.

Ozorne, to all appearances, had been overjoyed with Daine and her rescue of his heir. He had supplied everything he could think of to ensure her speedy recovery, though

Alanna was the only healer permitted to work on her.

After Daine had saved the Prince Kaddar the Peace-talks had changed their tone. Things were leaning in their favour.

All Numair wanted was to get himself and his student away from here as soon as possible. 

He recalled their conversation of a few days ago and smiled crookedly. He had been sitting watch next to Daine while Alanna went to her rooms to eat and rest. Glancing down at her he realized she was awake. He had reached down to cup her cheek and ask how she was.

Though still delirious, she had recognised him for himself and had suddenly asked, "Do you like Varice more than me?"

 He was surprised, to say the least, and oddly touched by her question. "Varice? Daine, you're my student and one of my dearest friends. You know how much you mean to me. What makes you ask such a thing?"

She gazed up at him, still paler than he would have liked, but out of real danger. Her voice was scratchy with sleep and weakness. "I wanted to ask you before, but I was afraid you would laugh at me." Her voice held the dreamy quality of someone feverish.

 He carefully tucked a stray curl behind her ear. "You know you can always talk to me about anything. I wouldn't laugh if it was important."

 "You're not going to get married are you?" Her gaze drifted from him to the ceiling. "That would be fair awful."

He had to hide a grin behind his hand. "Magelet, I very much doubt Varice Kingsford and Me will get married. We are much too… contrasting. Since coming back I've realized how different we are." He sighed.

She looked at him again, her gaze slightly unfocused, "Don't you love her?"

Numair studied his student. Lowered his tone he said quietly, "No I don't think I do love her. I like her, she's a good woman, but we just don't connect."

Daine frowned, "When I bed a man I hope I love him."

Numair blushed and looked at her, startled. He couldn't remember ever having a conversation with his student about this particular matter. She was growing up though; soon she would be a young woman. It was to be expected she would start thinking along this line. The idea of her having lovers, maybe even getting married, within the next few years was a painful one. It bothered him more than he would like to admit, even to himself. Its not that he wished to see her alone all her life; he didn't. He just wanted to remain a main presence in her life, as she was in his.

And he would not allow her to be… toyed with. He knew he embarrassed her occasionally when he made this known to the young men she consorted with, but she was young, and lovely. Despite her power she also had a vulnerability that some would not hesitate to take advantage of. She thought him over-protective, he knew, but he had her best interests at heart.

Realizing he had not responded, feeling slightly ashamed of his reputation, he told her, "When both people want it to happen, even if they're not in love, it's not a bad thing."

Daine sighed. "I know. Men back in Snowsdale who Ma didn't love still bedded her. And boys back home always tell me that. Maybe I'm just odd."

Numair squeezed her hand and said sternly, "You are not odd for wanting to wait until you're in love. If anyone tells you different, point them out to me and I'll set them straight. You're still so young Daine; don't let anybody rush you into something you don't want to do."

She was already asleep.

He frowned now, thinking. He didn't know his relationships with women bothered her, or she was even aware of them at all. She had certainly given him food for thought. 

********************************************************************

Finding Alanna asleep, Numair decided to go back and check on Daine once more. Entering the room, he stopped dead and caught his breath in surprise and anger.

Ozorne was leaning over his sleeping student, a gilded hand outstretched to touch her cheek. At Numairs entrance, the richly decorated figure did not start in surprise; he merely removed his hand from Daine and turned to face Numair, gold braids clacking, and a look of annoyance on his painted face. "Couldn't bear to be away from her for a moment Draper?" He asked mockingly, his tone not so loud as to disturb Daine. "I understand naturally. You miss her from your bed, and she is very lovely in sleep."

Numairs fists clenched so hard he felt his nails cut into his palm. He glanced at Daine to make sure Ozorne had not harmed her at all; she slept on peacefully.

"Get out," he told Ozorne in a low voice. He had to fight to keep his tone even. "Get out before I do something rash."

Ozornes amber eyes glinted with anger and amusement, "Of course, we wouldn't want the great black-robe mage to be rash now, would we? I was merely checking Our patients' recovery. Her bravery has earned much of Our personal attention." He sat gracefully on the seat next to Daines bed. His eyes moved over the curves of her figure under the thin sheet, "Strong, isn't she?" he murmured softly.

Numair drew a deep breath. His face was a thundercloud. Lightning danced behind his eyes. His hands remained clenched; he had no wish to fight Ozorne in the same room as Daine. In battles where magic got involved, innocent bystanders were sometimes injured. Sometimes intentionally, sometimes not.

"Ozorne, don't think I will let the peace-treaties act as an excuse for you to harm my student, in any way. She requires none of your personal attention, none, and if I hear of you so much as talking to her outside of my sight, and I will know if you do, peace-treaties or no, I will hurt you. Your interference with her will act as a breach on the peace records and the Empires will all unite to destroy you." His voice was soft, deadly and a man less brave, or less mad, than Ozorne would have fled at the sound of it.

And from the expression on his face.

Ozorne stood slowly, his handsome face twisted with anger. "You dare threaten me in my own castle, you street slug?" He stopped himself suddenly, and smiled.

"Well it was fun, Draper, unfortunately I must be off." He made his way to the door, slowing as he passed Numair and said quietly, "Now you may perform the act you no doubt came here to do. She may not even have to wake for it. Not that I can blame you, as I have said she is lovely."

 Before Numair could think his hand had unclenched and lashed out at the Emperor. Ozorne reacted, a second too late and the shielding spell came after Numairs hand had connected with Ozornes cheekbone. The force of the blow knocked Ozorne against the doorframe and he stood there, stunned, a hand clutched to his cheek.

 His face was a very dangerous shade and his eyes snapped unspeakable shame and fury. "You'll live to regret that Arram," he spoke quietly and left.

Numair stood still a moment, rubbing his hand which smarted sorely. Anger still burned throughout his body but he was beginning to regret his actions. All Ozorne needed was another reason to take revenge out on him. And it seemed Ozorne would not stop at using people he loved to act out that revenge. He took a deep, calming breath and caught a trace of the overpowering scent Ozorne carried with him. He shuddered and went to shut the door.

He sat on the seat Ozorne had just left and looked at Daine. "It seems I can't leave you alone for a minute here my dear," he told her sleeping form. Her hair had fallen across her face but he made no move to smooth it back. He still hurt from Ozornes crude interpretations of his relationship with Daine. Despite the fact he had never, once, made an advance on his student and he never would take advantage of her like that, he felt a burning shame at Ozornes words. He frowned fiercely; he would not allow Ozorne to corrupt their relationship with.

The Emperors words were poison; he would simply have to disregard them, as hard as it was to shut out that haughty, smooth tone.

The door flung open and he looked up apprehensively.

Alanna burst in, "Numair, I just saw His Imperial Highness out in the corridor. What in the name of the great gods happened?"

Numair sighed blackly; it was going to be a long day.

***************************************************

Daine glanced self-consciously around the brightly lit room.

 Everywhere people in rich, expensive outfits sipped wine and made polite conversation. She made a face.

That was one of the good things about being sick; she hadn't had to go to any of these fine parties. Until now. After ten days of lying in bed with Numair and Alanna feeding her evil-tasting messes, they had decided she was well enough to go out again. She sighed, after laying around with nothing to do for so long she had hoped even this might be a welcome change.

She was wrong. The story of her and Prince Kaddar had travelled around the palace and it seemed she couldn't escape the looks and whispers of all these counts and countesses, dukes and duchesses.  Her head was spinning after five minutes.

Numair came up behind her to rest a gentle hand on her back.

"How are you feeling?" he asked her quietly. "You look a bit overwhelmed." 

She smiled shakily at him. "I feel fine." Not quite the truth but she was not downing another nasty-tasting mixture if it could be avoided. "Do I have to be here?" She asked him, large eyes pleading, "I could just go to my rooms to read, or outside. I won't wander I promise. Its just they all stare so."

He sighed regretfully and squeezed her shoulder. "I know and I'm sorry. I'm happier with you here where I can keep an eye on you."

She scowled at him, "You could trust me not to get into trouble, you know."

He held her gaze with his own and at the expression in his eyes she felt all annoyance vanish. "I know I can magelet. Its not you I don't trust."

She was about to ask him what he meant when Duke Gareth the younger and Alanna joined them.

 Daine smiled at Alanna and then timidly at Gareth. She had met him several times and spent some time in his company, but she wasn't sure she liked him, or he her.

Almost as if he could read her thoughts he spoke to her, "It's good to see you on your feet again. Nice work with the prince. You know, since we've got here its you that's given us our main leg-up whilst bargaining with these Carthakis."  Daine stared at him, blushing red, speechless.

He didn't appear to notice and wandered off to speak to his father.

Alanna slipped an arm around Daines shoulders, "It's true you know. One of the smartest things Jons' ever done was to add you to the list of delegates."

Daine, still blushing, smiled shyly at her friend whispered, "Thanks."

"Don't thank me, thank yourself." The Lioness gave her a last squeeze and walked off to join Gareth after discussing something with Numair.

Daine turned to ask Numair when she could leave when she saw his face darken. Surprised, she opened her mouth to ask him what was wrong when Kaddar appeared by her side.

She shot her teacher a wry glance as the prince spoke, "Daine, finally I have a chance to talk to you. They wouldn't let me see you while you were recovering. I hope your feeling in good health?" 

She gave him a small smile, "Much better than I was thank-you, Your Highness. And yourself? Are you recovered? "

"Yes, of course. It was just a few bumps really." Daine raised her eyebrows in disbelief.

"Daine," he leaned towards her and lowered his voice; "I don't know how to thank you for what you did. I would be dead right now if it were not for you."

She waved his thanks away but he caught onto her hand. "I'm serious. Name your reward. If I can manage you will have it." He caught her eyes, his were earnest.

She sighed, why did all these royals think all she wanted was a reward? Didn't they see sometimes the action itself was reward enough?

"Kaddar, I don't want anything. Anybody in my place would have done the same."

He straightened, his red silks rustling. She noted he wore no eye-make-up today and studied closely the difference it made to his face. He looked nicer.

"Nonsense, very few people would have done what you did."

Daine sighed- she could see it would be no good arguing with him- and looked around to see where Numair had got to.

He was pretending to study one of the light globes which had sparked her interest their first night here. Any fool could see he was eavesdropping on their conversation.

Realizing her attention was on him he blushed slightly and walked back over to her and the prince. "Heated crystal" he mumbled as he reached them, "clever."

She gave him a light punch and he looked sheepishly at her.

Kaddar sighed, "Well at least promise me you'll consider my offer then?"

Daine looked at him in vexation, "I'll do no such thing, if you please your highness. I have no interest what-so-ever in a reward!"

Kaddar scowled at her, then smiled and reached out to tweak her nose. "You're a funny little thing," he informed her.

She poked her tongue out at him and he laughed.

Numairs warm voice reached her ears, "Whats going on now?"

She turned to see what he was looking at.

The Emperor had appeared on the floor; he was dressed brilliantly in green and gold though it hurt Daines eyes to look at him too long. He raised his hand, though the room

was already silent, and began "Doubtless many of you have heard the tale which has now gripped Our Kingdom."

 Oh no, Daine thought silently.

"A most extraordinary young woman has shown remarkable bravery and strength of character"

Daine squeezed her eyes shut in apprehension.

"We wish to honour her excellence tonight. Lady Veralidaine? If you would be so kind as to come here?"

Daine, bright red with embarrassment, reluctantly walked upto the Emperor and spreading her flame red gown skirts, curtsied elegantly to the source of her embarrassment.

"You blush, my dear, "he murmured to her softly, "I'm very sorry to have caused embarrassment. You should be proud of what you did." 

He produced a necklace from thin air. "I had this made for you to try and suit you taste. I would have offered you a larger reward, but I did not think you would accept."

"Oh your Imperial Majesty, honest, I don't need a reward. Its not why I-" He cut her off, "Which is why you must have one all the more," he said firmly.

"Turn please, so I can put it on to see how it fits." Daine reluctantly obeyed.

 The Emperor softly swept her cascade of curls up to clasp the jewellery around her throat. His fingers lingered on the back of her neck and she felt her skin prickle at his

touch. His hands were cool.

"There!" He exclaimed. Daine tucked her chin to her chest to try and see. A smile tugged the Emperors lips as he clicked his fingers. A slave rushed forward and held a mirror up so she could see her reflection.

It was a beautiful necklace. It was almost like embroidery, woven with silver and gold. It was quite large, coming partway up her throat and finishing just an inch or two before her gown neckline, on her collarbone. If she looked closely she could see birds woven into the pattern.

She fingered it uncertainly. She didn't want gifts from this man.

"What's the matter?" The Emperor reached out a hand to perfect the settlement of the piece on her neck, his fingers touching flesh here and there.

She shivered. "Does it not please you?" The Emperor asked, frowning. "Another could be made, one to your liking."

"No," Daine protested, "this is beautiful, and....... thankyou, it's just, you didn't have to that's all."

"Ah," he smiled sweetly at her, "It is because I didn't have to that I wanted to."

As Daine smiled hesitantly she felt a figure move beside her. Numair. He put a protective arm around her shoulder.

She leaned slightly on him in relief and Ozorne looked at the two of them.

His eyes shone with an emotion she couldn't interpret and he said softly, "Ah, your devoted Master."

Daine could sense Numair was about to speak and she stepped on his foot; hard.

He glared at her but, thankfully, kept his mouth shut as Ozorne dismissed them. He steered her to a couch and pressed her into it.

She didn't need any encouragement; her legs felt as wobbly as overcooked noodles.

He sat next to her, "Are you alright?" he said softly. She nodded and he frowned and cupped her cheek to study her face.

"You don't look alright. What did he say to you?" Daine shook her head, even if she could remember it all it wasn't of any interest.

"Numair," she whispered, gripping his hand, "you have to be careful here. Promise me you won't go upsetting Emperor Ozorne, he already has enough reasons to hate you

now, without you going to add to them."

 Numair smiled crookedly, hadn't he himself thought the same thing a few days ago?  He caught the look of worry on Daines face and squeezed her hand in comfort.

"I'm the last person here who wants to see The Emperor upset. I know something about his temper. You needn't worry about me."

She scowled at him, "Well someone around here has to seeing as you never do!"

He laughed. "I don't know what would become of me if you weren't around my dear," he said, tweaking a curl.

She smiled at him, "I do. And it's not pretty."

This got another laugh and she grinned, feeling better. His laugh always had that affect on her; deep-throated and rich, it was fun and comforting at the same time.

Daines awareness was brought back to the hanging finery at her throat. It was surprisingly light, for all its grandness, but she felt uncomfortable in it. She would have taken it off then and there if she hadn't thought it would cause offence.

 Numair must have seen her squirm uncomfortably because he said, "I think we've put in enough of an appearance, don't you? I'll take you back to your rooms now, if you've had enough."

Daine jumped up eagerly and followed him out.

When they reached her rooms she bid him a goodnight and went into her bedchamber, leaning against the door with a grateful sigh. She removed the necklace and flung it across the room. With that gone she slid out of her delicate gown, hanging it up, and too tired to change into her bedclothes jumped into bed in her shift.

She was asleep as soon as her head hit the pillows.