Diana Santee #11: Absar



Chapter One

The cell was beginning to annoy me. I sat cross-legged on the floor near the bed, watching the girl come through the door to collect my tray. Thandin's guardsmen stood just outside the door, watching me carefully even though I was fully relaxed. I didn't know this particular bunch of guardsmen, but they must have heard stories about me to be that cautious. I was in a lousy mood, but I had no intention of jumping anyone.

"My lady, you have eaten nothing again!" the girl exclaimed as she stopped reaching for the tray. "I had best leave the food longer, so that you may - "

"Get the food out of here, and don't bother bringing anything else," I interrupted her offer flatly. "When I have an appetite I'll let someone know."

"But you have eaten nothing since you were put in this place," the girl protested, wringing her hands. "What will His Majesty say? What will His Highness say?"

"I don't give a damn what they say," I growled, rising to my feet in one fluid motion that riveted the guards' attention to me. "Take the tray and get out."

The girl's eyes were twice the size of the rest of her as she looked at me, and she backed nervously toward the door and then out. Considering the fact that I was more than a head taller than the girl I couldn't blame her for her nervousness, but I had no designs of any kind on her no doubt nubile body.

To prove the point I walked over and grabbed the tray from the small table near the door, swung it back, then heaved it out into the corridor. The girl and the guardsmen all ducked and then the cell door slid shut again, cutting off the clatter and splash of my latest meal.

I walked back to my spot on the floor and sank down again, not feeling any sort of relief from the ravaging emotions that had been tearing at me since I'd been put in this cell the day before. Every time I thought about Thandin I felt like baring my teeth, and thoughts about Val weren't much more pleasant.

Thandin and Val, with Thandin being the worst of the two. I'd stolen a ship and I'd committed assault, and I had no excuse for those actions that I cared to press. I'd already had my say, and Thandin had dismissed every word of it as completely unimportant and totally unacceptable. I felt prepared to take whatever came because of what I'd done, but Thandin's attitude was something I would not take.

His Majesty King Thandin of Aysanne… Val's father had been trying to force me to do things his way since the first day we'd met, and he considered it a personal affront when I insisted on living my life according to my own beliefs. If Val hadn't been Thandin's son and Aysanne's crown prince, I would never have come within parsecs of the world. If I knew Thandin, he would try to use the current situation to pen me up right here at Praedylar where he thought I belonged. But as I'd already told the mighty king, Praedylar was a place I would happily walk away from at the first opportunity.

I lit one of the cigarettes from the carton I'd had brought to me, then stretched out sideways on the carpet. The jumpsuit I wore was the same one I'd been wearing, and I'd have to wash it soon. They'd tried to bring me one of my gowns to take the place of the jumpsuit, and had refused to bring a different jumpsuit. So I'd refused to change clothes, and would continue to refuse.

Thinking about clothes hadn't done well to keep me from thinking about more important things, in point of fact the most important. Val's actions had been the most painful disappointment, and I still found them hard to believe. I knew he'd been crown prince a lot longer than he'd been my husband, but I'd really expected him to stand with me the day before when I'd faced his father.

Instead Val had left me to go and take his place near Thandin, just as if he were also judging me. He should have known I would take what was coming to me for his sake, and also how much his walking away would hurt. If I'd been the only one involved in this mess, I never would have come back to Aysanne at all.

The cell door suddenly slid open again, and Folsayr came striding in without an invitation. The clinician was tall and clear-featured like most Aysanni, but somehow he managed to look messier than the rest of them. He was also a bigger pest than any other clinician in the House.

"Diana, I care little for what was just told me," he said as he stopped a few feet away. "I have ordered another meal for you, and you will eat it as soon as it has been brought."

"Folsayr, take my advice and back off," I told the man very softly. "I'm in no mood to take orders from the men of Aysanne, so just go back where you came from."

"My lady, you must be reasonable," Folsayr stated, his own reasonable attitude rubbing like a file along my nerves. "There is now more than just yourself to consider, you know. The child - "

"My child will be fine," I interrupted, my voice more of a growl than it had been. "Neither one of us is your concern, so get the hell out of here and leave me alone."

"You most certainly are my concern," Folsayr countered as he folded his arms, ignoring the growl. "I have been appointed as your personal clinician by your husband, Prince Valdon, which appointment includes seeing to the well-being of your unborn child. You therefore cannot - "

"I can do any damn thing I please," I interrupted again, then took a last drag on my cigarette before putting it out. "And I won't repeat myself a third time. Do you leave on your own, or do I help you along?"

"Do you wish me to inform His Highness of your actions?" Folsayr asked, even more sober now. "Prince Valdon's displeasure will be far greater than my own, you may be certain of that."

"I don't care if you paint a speech on a billboard," I stated, then got to my feet. "Goodbye, Folsayr."

"I feel sorely tempted to see if you would indeed harm me," Folsayr mused, studying me with no fear in his eyes. "I will, however, restrain the urge out of deference to your condition - as well as sympathy for your humor. I go now to speak with His Highness."

Folsayr bowed to me the way he often did, then turned and went out the door that opened for him. I sat down on the floor again, glad that I hadn't had to show Folsayr that my "condition" wouldn't have kept me from bouncing him after that tray - but a bit more gently. The man was right in thinking that I would never really hurt him. I was much too fond of the pest…

I lit another cigarette and went back to brooding, primarily because there was very little else to do. I'd spent some time exercising earlier in the day, but exercising can also get boring. I might normally have occupied myself with putting together escape plans, but right now I had no interest in escape plans.

The cell was two rooms, the one I sat in and the adjoining bathing room. This main part of the cell had a double bed, a couch, a chair, and a small table by the door that opened only with the permission of the computer-overseer of the detention area. The floor was carpeted, but the walls and ceiling were bare of any sort of openings whatsoever. Breaking out of here would have been a prime challenge to my abilities, but I refused to even consider escape. I'd walk out when the door opened for me, or I'd stay in here and rot. Right now I didn't really care which happened.

Folsayr was as good as his word. Not fifteen minutes after he'd left, the computer-overseer spoke to me.

"You have a visitor in the person of Prince Valdon," the Monitor-like voice announced calmly. "Are you willing for him to enter?"

"No," I answered, stretching out on my back on the floor. "Inform Prince Valdon that I'm too busy to want any interruptions."

"As you wish," the Monitor-voice agreed, but in another minute it added, "His Highness demands that he be allowed to enter. He claims it as his right as your husband."

"Does he have the right to demand entry?" I asked, leaning up on one elbow. "I thought I was allowed to refuse visitors if that was what I wanted."

"Your thought was correct," the computer told me. "The sole exceptions to the wishes of the prisoner are members of the medical staff and bearers of sustenance. All others must have permission."

"Then he doesn't have permission," I said, lying back down. "Tell him, in just these words, to go roll his hoop. If he doesn't understand the message, I'll be glad to rephrase it."

"As you wish," the voice agreed, and then there was silence. I decided that rephrasing wasn't going to be necessary, and lapsed back into my dark black mood.

It couldn't have been more than another twenty minutes or so before my door was put to use again. This time it was another contingent of Thandin's guardsmen, and the captain in charge of them stepped forward to bow.

"My lady, your presence has been requested," the captain told me. "I have here the order placing you in our temporary custody. Please come with us."

He held the paper out to me as I got to my feet, but I ignored the thing and just brushed past him to the corridor. If Thandin was calling me back to the throne room he'd seen me in last time, he would heartily regret it.

We paced the corridor back to the part of the House I was more familiar with. Praedylar was a true palace, in size as well as in luxurious furnishings, but I wasn't especially impressed. I care more about who lives in a place than about what sort of place they live in. We headed away from the direction of the throne room, though, and eventually came to the door of Thandin's informal study.

"You are directed to enter and wait," the captain told me with another bow as he opened the door. "We are to remain out here - and at the other exit as well."

"You can relax, Captain," I told him, glancing at his blue-green uniform with distaste. "I have no intentions of trying to escape."

The captain bowed again, with something like relief, I thought, then waited until I stepped inside the study to close the door behind me. The large room was empty with nothing but the couches, chairs, paintings, and other furnishings to keep me company. I'd expected Thandin to be here, but he must have been waiting to make an entrance.

I headed for one of the couches, expecting the wait to be a long one, but I didn't get more than three steps on the way before the room's other door opened and Val came in. He closed the door behind him, making it fairly obvious that Thandin wasn't with him, so I turned on my heel and went back toward the door I'd come in by.

"Don't bother," Val said as I twisted the doorknob without getting anywhere. "The door is locked, so just come back here and sit down."

I let go of the doorknob, but I stayed where I was at the door. Right now I didn't even want to look at Val.

"I said, come back here and sit down!" Val repeated in a harder voice. "I don't have much patience left with you, Diana, so I advise you not to push me."

"Let me out of here," I said without turning. "When Thandin gets around to it, I'll talk to him. I won't waste time with underlings."

"Underlings?" he snarled. I heard his footsteps behind me, then I was suddenly pulled around to face him. His big hands held my arms tight, and I looked up into his blazing black eyes. "This feud between you and my father has gone far enough!" he shouted as he shook me. "It's going to stop now, and you're the one who's going to see to it. You will not - repeat, will not - antagonize my father any further. Do you understand me?"

"I have no interest in understanding you," I snarled back, easily as furious as he was. "I will give your father exactly the same amount of courtesy that I get from him, no more, no less. You were wise to stay out of the argument yesterday, and I suggest that you continue on that course. This situation is definitely out of your league."

"So it's out of my league," he said very flatly, still giving me that hard stare. "What the hell would you know about it? And what's this garbage I hear from Folsayr? Are you still a child that you stop eating when you don't get your way? Does our baby have to suffer because his mother gives in to the urge to act like an infant brat? There's another tray on its way here, and you'll finish every bite on it before you go back to the cell."

"Will I really," I said very softly, staring him straight in the eye. "So in your opinion all that's happening is that I'm being childish. How I'm being treated as a human being doesn't matter at all as long as I eat at least three meals a day. Well, for your information my appetite matches up with my freedom: they both disappear together."

"You talked yourself into that one," he countered, pointing a finger at me. "Did you expect my father to just sit there and take it when you accused him of keeping you here as a prisoner? The only thing he was trying to do, the only thing he ever tries to do, is keep you from running out and getting yourself killed. He put you in that detention cell to show you what being a prisoner is really like."

"I've had a lot of experience at being a prisoner," I told Val coldly as I folded my arms. "When I'm not free to come and go as I please, I'm a prisoner no matter what part of the House I'm living in. As an agent, I've learned to resent any sort of imprisonment."

"Agent nothing," he growled, giving me that look of his full strength. "You are not a Special Agent any longer, and I don't even want to hear you referring to what you used to be. You're a wife, my wife, and the mother of my children as well as a princess of Aysanne. Nothing more."

"You can't stop me from being a Special Agent just by saying so," I growled back. "When I stop being a Special Agent I will also stop being me, and I refuse to stop being me. And I'm not any sort of idiotic princess, so don't call me that."

"As my wife you're a princess," he said in exasperation. "Are you also going to try denying that you're my wife?"

I stared at him for a moment, then turned away. Being Val's wife was one subject I couldn't discuss without losing control.

"Diana, I know that this is hard on you," he said softly, putting his hands gently on my arms from behind. "We have a serious problem, but I can straighten it out if I don't have to worry about you as well. Can't you give me some support? How am I supposed to think straight if I have to worry about the baby not getting proper nourishment?"

"Val, I'm not even two months pregnant," I answered, ignoring the softness. "Nothing is going to happen to the baby, and you ought to know it. But speaking of support, it would have been nice if you had supported me yesterday. But I suppose it was too much to expect you to go against your father."

"What are you talking about?" he asked, and I could hear his frown. "When was it that I didn't support you?"

"You know very well when," I told him, turning back to look at him, but that was as far as I got. We were interrupted by the opening of the door he'd come in by, and a girl edged into the room. The girl was carrying a tray, and she was having trouble keeping the tray upright while at the same time trying to bow to Thandin, who walked behind her.

The girl didn't quite manage the bow, and when she turned again she saw Val. She gave a small groan, hurried to a table and put the tray down, then was able to turn again to bow to Thandin, Val, and even to me. She smiled shyly at the chuckling Thandin and Val produced then quickly left the room, shutting the door behind her.

"Amusing," Thandin commented when the girl was gone, looking at Val. "For whom was the tray requested, Valdon?"

"For Diana," Val answered, walking over to mess with whatever the tray held. "Her last meal ended up on the floor, so I had her brought here for the meal to be replaced. You can start with this, Diana."

He held out the plate he'd just filled, but I ignored both him and the plate and turned to stare at Thandin. Thandin noticed my stare and frowned at me.

"For what reason do you thus look upon me, dhana?" he asked. "We will discuss your past actions when your meal is done. For now your husband has directed your actions, therefore are you to seat yourself and eat."

"I believe in business first," I told Thandin, my tone not terribly friendly. "I'd like to hear where we stand with each other, King, and then we can worry about my appetite."

"Your beliefs are due for a severe shaking up," Val interrupted, coming over to wrap his hand around the back of my neck. "True Aysanne wives obey their husbands, and it's time you learned that. Now get over here and eat."

He started to haul me to a couch, but unfortunately for him he was still holding the plate in his left hand. I managed to trip against him, and in grabbing for balance I "accidentally" knocked the plate out of his hand. The plate and its contents landed face down on the floor with a satisfying splat, which made Val stop short to stare down at the mess before he transferred the stare to me.

"Looks like the meal is destined to wait," I commented into his stare. "Too bad you didn't take my advice, but done is done. Now, Thandin, let's get back to what we were discussing - Hey!"

Val's expression had tightened - along with his hand on the back of my neck. I was very unceremoniously dragged the rest of the way to the couch, then pushed down onto it.

"The meal is not destined to wait," Val growled, leaning down toward me as I started to get up again. "Diana, you've already had your last chance."

"What the hell is that supposed to mean?" I demanded, struggling to get past him and upright. Instead of just standing there he shifted his weight without warning, and suddenly he was seated next to me. His right arm went around my back, his left hand grabbed my wrists, and before I knew it I was face down across his lap. With Val, being face down isn't the bad part. The bad part is being rump up.

"Now then," Val said comfortably, his right hand resting on my backside. "You were saying?"

"You wouldn't dare," I muttered, struggling to get my wrists loose. "You can't make me believe that you would spank me now."

"Why not?" he countered. "According to you it's too soon to worry about harming the baby, so what's to stop me? Having to stand at a meal or two should do you all sorts of good."

I struggled really hard without answering him, but still didn't get anywhere. Val is just about the only man I'd ever met who can make me feel small and helpless simply by holding me down across his knees. He'd spanked me often in the time I'd known him, and contrary to the beliefs of a large number of people none of the times had been enjoyable. The sort of job I'd worked at so long tends to preclude the consideration of pain as pleasure.

I saw Thandin's feet stop near me, and didn't bother to look up into what I was sure would be his grinning face.

"You seem far less vocal now than you were earlier, dhana," Thandin said, amusement clear in his voice. "Perhaps you are concerned with disobedience - and it's consequences. A woman would do well to heed the wishes of her husband."

"A woman would do even better off Aysanne," I snarled, furious with Thandin for enjoying my humiliation. "Then she'd - Ouch!"

"Choose a different tone of voice," Val directed while my bottom still stung from the smack he'd given me. "I don't like the one you were using."

I swallowed a comment I was much too vulnerable to make, knowing that Thandin's amusement had to have increased.

"Tell me, dhana," Thandin said as if we were engaged in a normal conversation. "When Valdon punishes you in such a manner, does he punish you gently or soundly?"

I opened my mouth to put both feet in as I usually do, but feeling Val's hand lift warningly off my bottom convinced me to say only a single word.

"Soundly." There wasn't any warmth or friendliness in the word, but it also wasn't a snarl.

"Then there should be no confusion," Thandin concluded in the most reasonable of voices. "If Valdon punishes you soundly and you wish to avoid punishment, you need only obey him. Unless, of course, you wish to petition the Board. That option is also open to you."

That suggestion stopped me cold, and I do mean cold. Thandin had just reminded me that I didn't have to stay Val's wife, I could always ask the Board for a divorce. The process was simple, without cost, and never challenged. If a woman asked for a divorce she got one immediately. But she could never remarry the man she'd divorced, not on Aysanne. Curiously enough, the number of women who petitioned for divorce was almost negligible.

"I hear no answer to my suggestion, dhana," Thandin prodded gently. "Do you mean to make petition to the Board once your child has been born?"

Thandin was obviously waiting for an answer, but I couldn't speak. There was a vast emptiness inside me, caused by much more than the lack of food. For me, life without Val simply wasn't, and no matter how much I fought with him I could no longer consider going on alone. If Val wasn't there, there was nothing to go on for.

It suddenly came to me that my wrists were no longer being held, so I turned in Val's lap and reached for him. His arms were waiting to pull me close, and he held me as tightly as I held him.

"That's the answer I was hoping for," Val said softly as he kissed my forehead. "It's the same answer I would have given."

"An eminently sensible answer," Thandin said with clear approval. "It delights me to see reason return to you, dhana."

"This time reason is going to stay with her," Val said, brushing some hair out of my eyes. "She's going to forget about losing her temper, and she's going to do everything I tell her to do. Right, Diana?"

I looked up at him, my emotions still running riot, and didn't even get the chance to say the words I meant to.

"No buts," he told me even before he heard the objection aloud. "Yes or no?"

I closed my eyes for a minute and groaned on the inside. It was obvious to everyone in the known universe that I wasn't about to walk away from Val, so the remainder of my choices were extremely limited. Either I said yes and did everything he told me to do, or I said no and got my bottom whacked good. Judging by past experience a sore bottom would do a lot to change my no to a yes, and I would have been lying to myself if I hadn't admitted the fact. If getting spanked wasn't so damned embarrassing, the pain would be a lot easier to take.

"Yes," I said with a sigh of defeat. Val's face broke out in a delighted smile, and he hugged me again.

"First things first," he said, lifting me out of his lap so he could stand. "First we get some food into you, and then we'll tackle our problem."

Val went to the tray and quickly filled another plate of food, then came back and handed me the plate. He watched for a moment to make sure I'd begun to eat, and then he drew Thandin with him to the other side of the room where they began to talk quietly.

I ate without paying attention to the food, instead studying Val and Thandin where they stood. They were so much alike, those two, with their black hair and eyes. Thandin was just as handsome as Val, even if the king was a good deal older, but age wasn't the main difference between them. Val had always been easier to reason with than his father, one of the things that kept me beside him. I really needed someone reasonable on the world of Aysanne, and Val knew it.

The two men started back toward me, and I looked down at the plate I held to find that it was empty. I hadn't been in the kind of mood that promotes a healthy appetite, but apparently my body didn't agree and took care of the matter without my noticing. Well, that just made things easier since the empty plate would avoid another argument. I put the plate aside and waited for the two to reach me.

"Now then," Val opened when he and Thandin were in front of me. "The biggest part of the problem we face is the assault charge. Prince Leferan was annoyed over losing his yacht, but he was all smiles when our Family replaced the ship and also paid him for the yacht that was taken. Since he, as owner of the ship, was the only one who could press the charge of theft, he let the matter go by transferring ownership of the yacht to our Family."

"Yet the assault charge still remains," Thandin put in with a hint of worry in his eyes. "Paldrin could not be allowed to drop such a charge even though the man was most anxious to do so. Property is easily replaced and paid for, but a man's honor is not so easily bought."

"That's the part I'm bothered about," I said, stretching the point only a little. "I tried to be as gentle as possible with Paldrin, but he did end up unconscious. I think you two would be better off letting the law take its course. There's no sense in trying to play games over the matter."

"That would be entirely unacceptable, as well as impossible to work with," Thandin denied with a sharp shake of his head. "I will not have my son and heir imprisoned if that end can be honorably avoided. It surprises me that you would feel otherwise, dhana."

"I think you lost me around that last bend," I said, feeling as if a page had been torn out of the book I was reading. "Why in the world would Val be locked up?"

"If Paldrin's honor cannot be equitably cleansed, Valdon must be imprisoned," Thandin said, obviously believing that he was explaining things. "Surely you could not have thought that the matter would be ignored merely because of my son's position as High Prince?"

"Right at this moment I'm wondering why you've suddenly switched languages on me," I said, shaking my head in an effort to clear it. "What has Val got to do with any of this? I'm the one who committed the assault, and Val wasn't even on the continent at the time."

"Wait a minute," Val put in, interrupting whatever Thandin had been about to say. "Diana, you don't think that you're the one who goes on trial for this, do you?"

"Who else?" I asked, looking back and forth between the two of them. "Unless you plan to tell everyone that the dirty deed was done by my evil twin?"

Val wearily put his hand over his eyes, but Thandin turned instantly scandalized.

"Mother of Life, does the woman think us barbarians?" Thandin roared. "Valdon, has she learned nothing in the time she has been with us? How is she able to believe that a woman may be punished other than by the hand of her husband or father?"

"Father, she has only her own experiences to go by," Val told the bigger man in a soothing voice. "In the Federation, women stand trial themselves for what they do. I assumed that she knew how we do things here, but obviously she doesn't."

"I find it difficult to accept that others may act so differently, but I know of myself that such is so," Thandin said with his own headshake. "Dhana, understand that this is but the other side of the coin, so to speak. Just as a woman is bound to obey her husband in all matters, so is her husband liable should she act contrary to the well-being of others. His right over her is balanced by his responsibility for her behavior. Is this clear?"

"Oh, sure," I said with a nod. "About as clear as navigation through a dust nebula. I have never heard of anything more ridiculous, not even something that comes close. What happens if a woman kills somebody just to be rid of an unwanted husband the easy way?"

"If such should ever occur, the man would deserve to be executed for not having sought the aid of a psychiatric clinician for his wife," Thandin answered with more patience than I was expecting. "A woman so distorted that she would take the life of another instead of appealing to the Board for release could not be accidentally overlooked. Her husband would have to be aware of the distortion, and responsibility for not having seen to her treatment would be his alone."

"This is all too much," I said weakly, leaning back on the couch. "You're all too much. How was I supposed to know that Val would get nailed for something I did? If I'd known I could have planned for it and covered my trail, but as it stands now…"

"Diana, don't worry about it," Val said with an odd kind of smile. "At least now the question of who isn't supporting whom is straightened out. We'll just - "

"How can you stand there being grammatical at a time like this?" I demanded, getting to my feet to face him. "It isn't fair to hold you responsible for something that happened while you were thousands of miles away. I'm going to demand that I be the one who - "

"You're going to demand nothing!" Val said with sudden anger as he pushed me back down onto the couch. "You're going to sit there and behave yourself, and do only what you're told to do like any other Aysanne wife."

"But - " I started, finding it impossible not to argue, but he obviously had no interest in hearing what I had to say.

"No buts!" he thundered, leaning down closer to point a finger at me. "You've given your word to obey me, and you're damned well going to do it for longer than five minutes! If you so much as open your mouth again without permission, I'll have you confined to that detention cell for a month. With a daily tutoring in proper manners thrown in."

I closed my mouth again without adding to what I'd already said. I wouldn't put it past Val to do exactly as he'd threatened, and I didn't need precognition to know what a disaster that would be.

"To return to the charge of assault," Thandin said, clearly dismissing my ideas on the subject. "I must know, Valdon, the extent of your willingness to balance Paldrin's honor. Your promise alone of punishment to be given your dhana will not suffice."

"I know," Val answered while I suddenly wondered how I was to be punished. "I'm prepared to do whatever is necessary, though, so the Board you appoint should be satisfied. Paldrin now knows why Diana did what she did, so hopefully he won't be too unreasonable."

"The why of a matter is often the deciding factor, although I, myself, cannot condone her actions," Thandin said with a nod. "A man must always heed the call of the responsibilities of honor, but a woman's first responsibility is to her husband and children. Your dhana should have requested that others go in her stead."

I hmfed at that comment and folded my arms, but didn't say a word. The only reason I'd gotten official sanction to go after Jeff on Restin was because I knew Ringer so well and had had a lot of practice manipulating him. No one Thandin would have sent could have gotten to first base.

"There's no sense in arguing the point because it's already done," Val said with an extremely unfriendly glance in my direction. "But Diana's been told that nothing like that had better ever even be dreamed about again. Aside from the fact that her boss Ringer has given me his word that she will never receive another assignment from him, if something of the same should ever happen again she will not be as pleased as she was to see me. On that she has my word."

I didn't shift where I sat from the way Val now looked at me, but only because I have quite a lot of self control. Val wasn't letting himself get really mad at me for going after Jeff, but not because he didn't want to. He understood about the ties between Jeff and me and was close enough to Jeff in his own right to also have gone to help.

But Val had made it clear that I was permanently retired from now on, and that I'd need the help of the Mother of All Life Herself if I ever tried to go back to work again. There was absolutely no doubt in my mind that Val meant every word.

"We may hope that your dhana understands the point clearly," Thandin said dryly as he glanced at me. "As stringent as her punishment will be, it will be as nothing to the punishment for a second offense. You must know, dhana, that the memory of what Valdon must do to assuage Paldrin's injured pride will aid Valdon in taking much of the pleasure from your life. All things strive for balance, and your actions will be fully balanced by their consequences."

I looked away from Thandin to Val, finding that Val also stared at me. I'd always accepted the consequences of my actions without complaint, but this time wasn't quite the same as the others. My actions had been the result of someone else's narrow-mindedness, necessary actions under the circumstances. But now that someone else would get off scot-free, while two other people paid for his blind spots. That didn't strike me as particularly fair, but Val knew the truth so I knew that he, at least, would do the right thing. Under Aysanne law Val could do almost anything he pleased to me, but I knew he would be fair.

"I'm going to take Diana back to her cell now," Val told Thandin. "I don't think a little more confinement will do her any harm, and I have a few things to do. Will you need my help later, Father?"

"I think not," Thandin decided aloud after considering the question for a moment. "Your brother Laeros toils well in your stead, and you must prepare yourself for the Hearing. Though I preside there, I will be able to offer neither assistance nor council, my son."

"I know that, Father," Val said with a smile as he put his right hand on Thandin's right shoulder. "Don't worry, it will all work out."

Thandin nodded and slapped Val's shoulder a couple of times, and the two of them separated. Val gestured to me and started toward the door I'd come in by, but he had to move to one side fast in order to avoid stepping in the plate of food he'd dropped earlier. He stopped to stare down at the mess for a minute, then his stare came back to me again.

"On second thought, we won't be leaving quite yet," Val said to Thandin, who was almost to the other door. "Diana has a chore to do first."

Val's decision didn't come as a crushing surprise, not when he was still kind of mad at me. I was already on my feet, so in order to strike back fast I slumped a little where I stood and looked down at my hands.

"Whatever you say, Val," I answered with a sigh. "I guess cleaning up after you is the least I can do in the name of fairness. I don't really mind."

I tried to look as woebegone as humanly possible, and Thandin took the baited hook cleanly.

"Valdon, the floor may be cleaned by the servants," Val's father said gruffly. "There is no need for your dhana to be put to such work, and perhaps it would be best if she were returned to your apartments. The anger she caused in me which first put her in confinement is long since gone."

"Maybe you're right," Val conceded, coming over to stand in front of me. "After all, I was the one who dropped the plate."

His hand came to my chin to raise my face, and I had to work to keep a sense of victory out of my eyes. It didn't come to me that there was something else I should also have been doing until I saw the victory in his eyes.

"That's what I thought," he said in satisfaction, adding a nod. "Your expression shouldn't be neutral, Diana, not when you'd 'decided to be fair' and the opportunity was about to be taken away from you. The very least you should have done was try to argue the way you usually do. I knew that your meek act was too good to be true, so I also knew it was a con. Get that mess cleaned up and don't take all day doing it. Your cell is still waiting for you."

Well, I'd given it a shot and it hadn't worked. I wasn't as disappointed as Val obviously expected me to be, not when the try had been more reflex than determined decision. I had been the one to make the mess, and although Val didn't seem to know that it was still only fair if I cleaned it up. I shrugged a little with another sigh, then went for the linen napkins piled on the tray.

When the last trace of the spillage was cleaned up enough to satisfy Val, he let me stand up again. My hands were almost as sticky as the piece of carpet I'd been cleaning, and I was no longer as unconcerned as I'd been. Val had stood over me every minute I'd worked, his very presence forcing me to do the job to his satisfaction. I hated to feel like a slave under the watchful eye of her overseer, not when I wasn't able to do anything to regain my freedom.

Once I was on my feet I glanced at Val, then looked at him more closely. The expression in his black eyes said he knew exactly how I felt, but there was no compassionate understanding along with the knowledge. Instead I saw a lot of heavy satisfaction, just as though he didn't really know I was being treated unfairly. But that couldn't be, not with Val, so when he gestured to me I followed him to the door.

The guardsmen unlocked the door to Val's knock, and we both walked out of the room. Thandin had already left by the other door, but not before staring down at me wordlessly as I cleaned the ruined food from the floor. Our eyes had met for a brief moment, him standing tall and straight, me down on my knees, and a look of genuine compassion had flickered across his face.

Thandin had turned and left then, shutting the door behind him without looking back. I had the impression that he didn't like seeing me on my knees as much as he'd thought he would, and that was a real pity. Since he was the one who had caused all this following nonsense, he really should have been able to enjoy the results. Well, I had confidence in the man. He'd pull out of whatever was bothering him and get back fast to the enjoyment.

Val and the guardsmen walked me back to my cell, but Val paused just outside the door to examine the area where the first tray of food had landed. The area had already been cleaned up, and I could see Val's disappointment over that fact when he gestured me into the cell.

"I'll be back later," Val said along with the gesture, giving me a strange look. "When I'm announced, tell the Monitor to let me in. If you make me go for another temporary custody order, you won't enjoy what happens afterward."

I shrugged a little and nodded, then stepped into the cell. Val stared at me until the closing door cut off his view, and I tried to read that stare while I could and then went to wash my hands. There suddenly seemed to be something … different about Val, a something I could quite pin down. It was almost as if he'd forgotten that what I'd done hadn't really been my choice or my fault, but that couldn't be. Val would be fair about this, I knew he would be fair…

I gloomed around, smoking and fretting and shifting from chair to couch back to chair again, telling myself that I'd been imagining any changes in Val. I just about had myself convinced when the cell computer announced that Val was back. I gave my permission for him to enter, then watched him come in followed by the girl with another tray of food. The girl put the tray down near the door, bowed quickly to Val and me, then hurried out of the cell. The door slid closed behind her, and Val and I were alone.

"I'll be eating with you," he told me in what was really a very distant voice as he looked around. The couch seemed to be what he was looking for, and he tossed the folder he carried onto it before turning back to the tray. "Come over here and take your plate."

I went over to him without comment, took the plate when it was filled, then carried the food to the cell's only chair. I somehow had the feeling that Val didn't want me on the couch with him, and for once I wasn't in the mood for an argument. I sat and watched Val take his own plate to the couch, then he surprised me by looking over at me and gesturing.

"Come and sit over here, Diana," he directed, still in that strange tone of voice. "I want you closer to me."

Despite the odd tone I felt really relieved and quickly left the chair, but Val stopped me when I was about to sit down next to him.

"Not on the couch," he said, a stranger looking out of those black eyes. "Sit right there on the floor."

He pointed to a spot near his feet and I stared at him, certain that he had to be joking, but there was no humor anywhere in him. The expression in his eyes was flat and unwilling to compromise, making those the eyes of someone I didn't know. The relief I'd felt a minute ago was replaced with an emptiness, and I sat down where he'd pointed.

The meal was a very silent one, but I could feel Val's attention on me the entire time. I was hungry enough to eat everything he'd given me, but I didn't taste any of it. Val, on the other hand, seemed to eat with a good appetite, and when he'd finished he handed me his plate.

"I have a report to go through," he said, reaching for the folder he'd brought. "Put the plates on the tray and come back."

He opened the report as I rose to my feet, and he didn't look up again until I was back in the same spot on the floor. Then he glanced at me, possibly to check my position, and a moment later was back to being absorbed. I looked down at the floor I sat on, then closed my eyes. I'd also been sitting on the floor earlier today, but the two things weren't the same. Earlier today my being on the floor hadn't been Val's idea…

Val interrupted his report-reading only once, when the girl came to get the tray. He turned and told her to leave the flav, and her acknowledgment of the order sounded a bit shaky. I didn't really know what was bothering her, not when I made no effort to look up. A moment later she was gone, so I went back to sitting and floor-staring.

I knew when Val finished the report even though I wasn't looking at him. He tossed the folder back onto the couch, stretched hard, then stood up.

"I think I'll get to bed early tonight," he commented, nothing personal or warm in his voice. "Get undressed."

I actually hesitated a moment before getting to my feet and heading for the bathing room. I'd almost asked Val if he was enjoying having me locked up and unable to leave when I wanted to, but the question would have been a waste of breath. His enjoyment was there for anyone to see, and had to be the reason why he'd decided to spend the night in my cell. He wasn't even speaking to me any longer, just giving orders.

Val was already undressed and stretched out on my bed when I left the bathing room. The bed was fairly small for a double and Val was taking up more than his half. I stopped by the bed, wondering if he would tell me to sleep on the floor too, but that apparently wasn't what he had in mind, He put his hands on my waist and lifted me over him to the section of bed near the wall, then followed by rolling toward me. His hands left my waist for my breasts, and it was like being in bed with a total stranger.

He wasn't brutal, but there are some things almost as bad. He held me gently in his arms, but I wasn't being loved I was being used. I tried to respond to him, tried with a sense of shock that I had to try, but I just couldn't do it. In desperation I put my arms around his neck and clung to him.

"Val, I'm sorry," I whispered, apologizing for the only thing I could think of. "I didn't know that you'd be hanged for my sheep."

"That's the trouble with you, Diana," he answered in a horribly even voice. "You're always sorry for the wrong things. You're not sorry about what you did, only that you got caught. Before I'm through, you'll regret both."

He went on with using me, my arms sliding from his neck without his noticing. Then I closed my eyes and didn't open them again for the rest of the night.