I believe I'm beginning to do more than simply enjoy this writing project. When I'm very tired ordinary despair becomes intense, and then I begin to doubt that we'll ever find a way out of the swamp our lives have become. Doubting is so much easier than hoping and believing, not to mention being completely free of disappointment. That's probably why I do it so often…

But be that as it may, remembering the problems we've already coped with and solved has helped to soothe me. For that reason I eagerly continue this tale, taking it up again at one of the worst points we encountered. How innocent we all were then, to believe that we'd protected ourselves from treachery and betrayal. We actually had no true idea of what the words meant, but we certainly did learn.

It occurs to me that it might be best if I reminded whoever reads this about where that point was, and then I'll take up the narrative again. I know that the others were upset, but for Rion and me it seemed like the end of everything…

CHAPTER ONE

Lorand awoke - to a certain extent. His head ached in a way that he'd never felt before, the pain so intense that he wished he were unconscious again. And there was nothing he could do to stop the pain. Even if he'd been able to work around it - and the blurriness covering his mind - he couldn't seem to figure out where the power was…

"Look, he's tryin' t'wake up!" someone said, sounding alarmed. "He ain't 'sposta try t' wake up!"

"So what if he does?" another voice countered, male like the first voice. "They got him so doped up that he won't even know what day it is. When you feed him later, you'll probably have to keep shaking him to remind him what he's about. But you better not let him start wasting away, or they'll skin you alive."

"Why?" the first voice demanded, a heavy whine to it. "I heared he's prob'ly all kindsa damaged like, 'cause a th' way he got yanked outta that Blendin'. Gettin' yanked out's 'sposta damage 'em real bad, so why'd they still want 'im? An' if he ain't damaged, how'm I 'sposta handle a High?"

"Why do you insist on worrying about things that are none of your business?" the second voice asked, sounding angrily impatient. "Even if he's left with no more than Middle talent, they'll still want to find that out for themselves. They'll be able to use him even like that, but if his talent level remains intact, he'll be much more valuable. They'll dose him with Puredan to make him docile, and then they'll use him until they burn him out. You, personally, have nothing to fear, because they'll transport him to where the army is before they let him come back to himself. Are you satisfied now?"

"Yeah, yeah sure," the first voice muttered, and then there was silence again. But it wasn't silent inside Lorand's head, where fear joined the unending pain. He had no idea what the men were talking about, and couldn't even remember what had happened to him. He lay on something hard in a place with a terrible stench, but he didn't know where the place was. He was supposed to have been doing something, but he couldn't remember what that something was.

All he knew was that someone was going to try to burn out his mind.

A long moan escaped Lorand's lips as he tried to free himself from whatever held him down, but it suddenly came to him that he wasn't chained or even tied. Something insubstantial held him in its grip, but its lack of substance did nothing to limit it. It held him tightly, like the arms of a very strong woman…

A woman. Hadn't there been a woman in his life somewhere? The memory of her hid just out of reach, teasing him with hints and suggestions. Had she been like that, a woman who teased? He'd always wanted to meet a woman who would tease him lovingly and gently…

Gently. That word didn't fit anywhere in his world. He'd tried gently to open his eyes, but they'd refused to work. He'd wanted his head to pound more gently, but he couldn't make it happen. Nothing was working right…

Working … was he working? Had he had an accident? Someone really should have come by to tell him what was going on, it would only have been common decency. Now…

Now he wished he knew where he was … and what had happened … and who was he, anyway…?

* * *

Jovvi felt as though she floated in a heavy sea, she herself heavier than usual. Everything around and about her was heavy, even the air almost too thick to breathe. It was a strain to draw that air into her lungs, and struggling to do it made her head hurt more. But it also seemed to thin the sea a bit, enough so that she could just touch the outer world…

"Well, well, aren't you the adventurous one," a male voice murmured very near to her, and then a hand smoothed her hair. "You're actually trying to wake up, even though it isn't time for you to do that. First we'll find a place to make you nice and comfortable, then we'll wait for the first transport group that's formed, and then you'll take a nice long trip. You'll like that, won't you?"

Jovvi could almost understand the words being spoken to her, but trying harder was out of the question. Even lying wherever she lay was almost too much of an effort, so anything beyond that … except for taking a deeper breath…

"Now, now, just settle down," the voice said, again almost clearly enough to be understood. "I understand that you're probably disappointed, but the lord who is Seated High in your aspect decided that he doesn't want you after all. To look at you, one might easily consider him mad, but then one would have to pause in thought. If a man of his strength doesn't even care to dally with you for a short while, you must be dangerous indeed. I am a man possessed of sufficient courage for all things, yet my sense of discretion usually surpasses the other. They'll make good use of your talents - whatever they may now be - in the place where you're awaited, and I'll find a less adventurous - and adventuresome - woman to do my own dallying with. Rest now, for when you get where they mean to send you, there will be no rest short of death - or burnout, whichever comes first."

Jovvi thought she heard the word "burnout," and agitation began to build inside her. That word … it meant something beyond the ordinary, beyond what most words mean. She had to … do something she hadn't gotten around to … had to remember something specific … find someone important…

Opening her eyes proved to be impossible, as was any sort of movement. And that hand, smoothing her hair … it made her want to rest for a while, to sleep until the sea rolled out and she wasn't so heavy any longer … heavy … sleep…

* * *

"Yes, my darling, that's right," Rion heard, a woman speaking softly and encouragingly. "Try to wake up just a bit, my darling, so that you'll understand what I have to say."

Rion fought to open his eyes, but at first his vision was too blurred to make anything out. Blinking helped to solve the problem to some extent, but it was still necessary to focus. He finally did so, using the face which swam before him as an anchor, and once success was his he immediately wished he'd failed.

"No, no, darling, don't frown so," Mother chided, just as she always used to do. "It will put lines into your face and make you look older, and then people will think I'm older. We certainly can't have that, now can we?"

Rion tried to speak, to tell her just exactly what she would and would not have, but his tongue refused to operate properly. And his head ached so abominably that he winced at the concept of trying to form words into a sentence.

"Of course we can't," she continued with a smile and a pat on his cheek, just as though he'd agreed with her. "Now that you're back beside me again, we won't allow anything into our lives that isn't perfect. No, don't try to speak, you won't be able to do that for some time yet. I'm going to keep you drugged for a bit, you see, to make sure you aren't able to keep yourself from being permanently damaged."

Permanently damaged … the words chilled him, even though he had no idea what they meant. Nothing could have happened … he didn't remember anything happening … but where had that headache come from…?

"Don't you worry about that now, darling," Mother went on, chatting happily. "The physician tells me that you're probably permanently damaged anyway, but there's a chance the damage can be minimized if you're able to work against it. But we don't want it minimized, not when that might let you imagine you can escape me again. You can't, you know, because you're mine and always will be. But please don't think you'll be given an allowance again, I'd hate for you to be disappointed. From now on Mother will control everything, and you'll be her loving, devoted, talentless boy."

Rion fought against it, but the tears rolled down his face anyway. He couldn't even remember what had happened, but he still felt a vast sense of inconsolable loss. It wasn't even possible for him to move, and that seemed to please Mother enormously.

"That's right, my darling, you have a good cry," she said, the expression on her face making him ill. "Cry all you need to and then you'll sleep, and when you awake everything will be the way it was before. Except that I'll never again allow you to leave my side. But then - there won't be any reason for you to leave, will there, my darling?"

Rion let his eyes close again, which did nothing to stop his tears. It seemed as though the crying came from a very small boy inside him … while a grown man tried to rage and fight. But that grown man had no strength … and the mists of sleep were closing in again … and couldn't be avoided even though they would trap him forever…

* * *

I think I became aware of my heart beating first, which struck me as being odd. A person is rarely aware of her own heartbeat, unless fright causes it to quicken or to nearly stop dead. My own heartbeat was more than ordinarily rapid, but I didn't know why…

"I said, lovely child, can you hear me?" a man's voice came, the words answering my previous question. The thud of my heart grew even louder, as I recognized the voice. It belonged to a man whose name I didn't even know, but the vague, unformed memory of his intentions was very unsettling.

"Your muscles have tightened a bit, so I presume you can hear every word despite your lack of verbal response," the man went on. "That suits me well enough for the moment, as I shall speak and you need only listen. Later, of course, you'll also be expected to obey. If you fail to do so, you'll be made to produce a verbal response other than speaking."

He chuckled at that, a sound which made my blood run cold, but for no reason easily understood. Who was this man, and what did he want of me?

"To begin with, I should explain that the pain I'm told you probably feel is the result of your having been damaged," he said. "It's highly unlikely that you'll ever be what you once were, but please don't feel relief just yet. My interest in you remains as high as it was, for you're still perfectly able to serve my purpose."

What purpose? I wanted to say, but the lethargy all through me didn't allow it. I had no idea what he was talking about, but for some reason it still frightened me.

"Now, I mean to keep you quietly sedated for a time," he said, "but not for too long a time. I find I'm truly eager to begin with you, and as soon as the Puredan is brought to me I'll have you drink it. After that you'll no longer need to be sedated, and we'll be able to begin."

He chuckled again. "There's something rather amusing that you should hear. Your father and some crony of his attempted to claim you, actually challenging my right to possess you. I put them off until tomorrow, but only to give myself time to prepare something really special for them. It will be the highlight of my dinner party tomorrow night, and I mean to let you be present to watch. No, don't try to thank me, I've already decided on how I mean to be thanked."

His chuckling really bothered me, especially since I could almost remember something about my father and some friend of his. That memory was just as disturbing, even without any details. I didn't want to hear about any of it, and the best way to escape was in sleep. I felt sleepy anyway … sleepy and frightened … sleepy and miserable … sleepy and very lonely…

* * *

"… know what they could do to me for this?" a thin and trembling male voice demanded. "They could end my career, and then where would I be? Please ask for something else, my dear, I beg of you."

"But there isn't anything else that I want," a female voice responded, one that Vallant seemed to recognize. "You owe me more than one favor, love, and if you don't pay up I'll just have to collect in another way. Would you prefer if I did that?"

"No!" the male voice almost shrieked, and then it quieted again. "No, I would not prefer that other way. You leave me no choice but to do exactly as you wish."

"Stop making it sound like the end of the world," the woman chided with a laugh. "No one will be doing anything with him until it's time to send him on his trip, so he might as well do his waiting here. I have this perfectly lovely little box prepared for him, made out of steel so that nothing will be able to harm him. When he learns to beg properly I'll let him out for a while, but I won't forget to put him back again. That should satisfy your feelings of anxiety, shouldn't it?"

"Perhaps," the male voice allowed grudgingly while Vallant's insides began to twist and burn. He couldn't quite remember why he felt like that, but it had something to do with part of what the woman had said. And his head hurt, for some reason he also couldn't remember. What was going on here - and where in the name of chaos was 'here'?

"Oh, he'll be fine," the woman said with more laughter. "I'm just going to put him to work for a while, and then you can have him back. I'm sure he thought he'd seen the last of me, but a person's power isn't always linked only to her career position. When I decide I want something, I never rest until I get it."

"Well, now you have him," the male voice said, still sounding extremely unhappy. "Just be sure you don't lose or damage him, or we'll both regret it. If I'm blamed for anything, I'll make certain that you're right there beside me."

"Worrier, worrier," the woman laughed, then went on to reassure the man again in different words. Vallant tried to listen, hoping to find out where he was and what was happening, but everything both inside him and out began to lurch. Not sick-making lurch but sleepy lurch … as though he were being rocked in the arms of someone who needed badly for him to be there … even though he couldn't be there … wherever there was … sleepy lurch, back and forth, back and forth … out but not in … please, please, never in