The Rose and the Flame
by Cecilia Dominic
Alanna, Grand High Telepath of the Royal House of Dionis, projected soothing feelings to calm the new mother’s rage at being told that, even after the effort of delivering twins, she needed one more push for the afterbirth.
The Comtesse gritted her teeth, and the matter was expelled. The midwife cut the umbilical cords and placed the cleaned babes in their mother’s arms. Alanna turned away, the rapture of a new mother seeing her babies for the first time a private moment. This set would be identical, too, with their mother’s jet-black hair and their father’s pointed chin. She made the necessary notations on the chart and signed the statement that both children were emotionally healthy and without any psychic trauma other than that to be expected from the birth process. She handed the folder to the nurse and turned to go.
“Wait… Grand High Telepath?”
Alanna looked over her shoulder. “Yes, milady?”
“You can call me Inalla,” the Comtesse said. “Thank you for your help. And congratulations on your new position.”
Alanna smiled over clenched teeth and left.
The midwife followed her out. “Glad it’s over?”
“That particular birth, or my tenure here at the hospital?”
“Both. I know neither was easy for you.”
Alanna put her hand on the older woman’s shoulder. Kreshin, although not a trained telepath, saw and understood far more than many who were.
“I’m glad to be taking over the position I’ve been trained for my entire life, but I’ll miss working with you.”
“And I you.”
“You and the queen are the closest thing I’ve got to family, Kresh.”
“Your sibs died to make you who you are. You know it’s unlucky for triplets to live.”
Once again, the old ache twisted Alanna’s heart. Her two birthmates had died in the womb, their deaths and the rare triplet situation signs of a strong telepath. On the planet, 99.99 percent of births were double, and the child who had no birth — and therefore no soul — companion experienced ridicule and isolation. She had friends but lacked the relationship the rest of the population seemed to take for granted.
“Well, I guess this is goodbye.”
“You’ll do great things, my dear. Just trust your gut.”
Alanna saw the pride and tears in Kreshin’s eyes as they embraced. Her new position wouldn’t leave her much time for visiting the hospital. Kreshin left to attend to another birth, a commoner so Alanna’s services weren’t required, and the telepath changed out of the scrubs and into royal blue robes, the sleeves edged with gold to signify her newly attained position. The heels of her high-heeled blue suede boots clicked against the smooth tile floor of the hospital, and then the cobblestones of the streets outside. She pulled the hood of her robe over her head. A royal messenger caught up with her.
“Grand High Telepath, the queen would like a word with you. She says she’ll meet you in her private chambers at your earliest convenience.”
She nodded and gave the page a coin for his troubles. He bowed and ran back the other way. Sighing, Alanna turned around and moved toward the palace in the center of the city. “At your earliest convenience” meant right away, or the queen would be displeased. Alanna always took great pains to avoid royal wrath, even if it was unavoidable for Queen Deanna’s closest counselor.
The crowds parted as Alanna’s blue-robed figure passed. None spoke to her, and a few made signs against the evil eye as if she would curse them with her “strange and mystical powers.” Telepathy was a relatively new branch of the medical school, and many still held the fear that those talented to do so could rearrange thoughts, feelings, and memories at their whims.
If only it were that easy.
The palace perched on a high bluff in the center of town. Its silver-white walls appeared dull beneath the leaden sky, and even the gold parapets seemed depressed. When Alanna arrived within half a mile, she sensed a heaviness in the air – conflict – and quickened her steps. She slowed to a more dignified pace when she passed the guards at the gate, but once inside, hurried again. The telepath found her way through the maze of corridors to the queen’s private chambers. The royal bedchamber servants, their relief at seeing her palpable, let her in. She passed through the antechamber, office, and sleeping chamber, all decorated in royal purple and crimson, to the white marble bathroom and the source of tumultuous emotion.
Queen Deanna of the Royal House of Dionis stood stark naked in her bath and emanated fury from every pore. Her honey-blonde hair hung in dripping ringlets to her slender waist and outlined her small, well-defined breasts. A faint scar showed between them but didn’t diminish her beauty. Her golden eyes blazed, and her entire body vibrated with emotion. When the telepath entered, Deanna snatched up a purple robe edged in fur and threw it around herself. Alanna bowed low and used the motion to locate the object of the queen’s fury.
Drake, the queen’s lover and private dirigible pilot, lounged against the linen closet doorframe and examined his fingernails. When Alanna caught his eye, he set his square jaw and ran a hand through his short, wavy brown hair. He wore his customary khaki trousers and loose white shirt under a leather jacket even though the steam from the queen’s bath clogged the air with moisture.
“You summoned me, your majesty?” Alanna asked.
“Rise, Telepath,” Deanna replied, so Alanna stood up and folded her hands in her robe. “And take off your hood. You look like a monk.”
The telepath shook the hood off her head and met the queen’s eyes. “How may I be of assistance?”
Deanna motioned to one of her servants, who had crept in behind Alanna. “Show the Royal High Telepath the message,” the queen snapped. The man’s hand trembled as he handed over a scroll.
“I received this message this morning from my sister on Clonus,” Deanna said. “I am thinking of acceding to her request, and I would appreciate your counsel.” She arched an eyebrow at Drake. The telepath scanned the message quickly, then read it again in more depth just to make sure her eyes had not deceived her.
“Majesty…?” she asked.
Queen Deanna walked to a chair, plopped down, and swung her legs over the arm. The robe parted to show a portion of the alabaster skin of her thigh.
“My sister, Joanna, on Clonus cannot carry an heir,” Deanna clarified. “The only way her people will accept a surrogate mother is if she is of royal blood. Since we are our parents’ only surviving children, it’s obviously going to have to be me.”
“Tell her she’s nuts,” Drake interjected. “It’s too risky. Hell, even the trip over there is too dangerous.”
“What does your majesty’s personal physician say?” Alanna asked.
Deanna shrugged. “He says I am physically capable of carrying the children and having a normal and safe delivery and recovery.” She glared at Drake again.
“Alanna, can’t you sense something dangerous in all this?” Drake pleaded, his concern for his lover’s welfare so urgent it almost overwhelmed the sensitive telepath.
“If there is malicious intent to her majesty from the person who scripted the message, I wouldn’t be able to feel it through the paper,” she reminded him. “I have to be there to read the atmosphere.” The queen lifted her chin in a “so there!” expression.
Drake turned and stormed out. Both women winced as the door slammed shut behind the irate pilot.
“He’s trying to protect you,” Alanna remarked.
“I know, I know,” Deanna sighed. She shook her head, her long silky tresses spraying droplets of water everywhere. She looked at the dripping tendrils, then at her advisor and closest friend. “Alanna, help me dress like you did when we were young.”
Alanna’s feet hurt and she needed food, but she couldn’t refuse the wistful request. She helped the queen select a crimson silk gown with golden flame markings around the skirt and edges of the long, loose sleeves. To this they added a dark purple belt and boots. Alanna braided Deanna’s hair in one simple, long braid and placed a slender gold circlet with a single ruby in the center on the queen’s head.
“Majesty?” Alanna asked.
“Deanna when we’re alone. You know that. What?”
“I know you said you saw the castle physician, but if your twin isn’t able to bear children, are you sure you can?”
Deanna sighed again. “I’ve been checked and re-checked not only by him, but by the specialists at the hospital.” She wrinkled her nose at the memory.
“Never a pleasant experience,” Alanna agreed. “And they all said you were normal?”
“He said it’s amazing I haven’t conceived a child by Drake yet.”
Alanna coughed to hide her laugh. She had often wondered the same.
“Oh, you can laugh.” Deanna smirked. “I think he thinks there’s something wrong with him.” She seemed on the verge of saying something else, but she frowned as she checked the timepiece on the wall over the mirror. “I should be going. The old fogies, I mean the Council of Elders, is meeting right now, and I’m going to bring the matter up to them.”
The queen stood, and the gilt frame of the mirror reflected both women’s faces. The contrast struck Alanna. The queen, tawny and tanned, with amber eyes and honey blonde hair, almost outshone the telepath completely. Not that this was unusual — Deanna had that effect wherever she went. Alanna, on the other hand, had dark auburn curls, grey eyes, and eyelashes so golden as to be almost invisible. Others described her as striking, the queen beautiful.
Deanna smiled, the small feminine victory won. Alanna bowed so her sovereign could leave ahead of her, then pulled her hood back over her head and exited.
Instead of turning toward her new chambers in the palace, Alanna headed along an old, dusty hallway toward a part of the castle all but a few had forgotten. When she reached the end of the hall, an apparent dead end, she looked around and pressed a brick. The wall rotated and allowed her to slip into a dark hallway. Her hands found a torch, and she turned the dial until the flame caught behind the glass lens.
Even if she hadn’t had the torch, Alanna could have found her way through the dusty ancient passages to the chamber she sought. She stopped at a wooden door and rapped softly.
“Friend or foe?” called a vibrant elderly voice from within.
“Alanna,” the girl whispered and telepathically transmitted her likeness. For some reason, she pictured the recent image of herself and the queen in the mirror.
“Come in, Rose.”
Alanna pushed the door open. “Rose? That’s a new one.”
The old man sat behind a giant mahogany desk. The drab, grey clouds outside the high window silhouetted his head of scraggly white hair and matching beard. His nose leaned to one side as though he’d been a boxer long ago, and his deep-set black eyes sparkled like jagged obsidian. Indeed, in his day, they had impaled many opponents with a piercing stare, but now they twinkled with amusement.
“Your mental image, child. You and the queen, a flame and a rose. She draws the eye, but you charm the heart.”
“Is that a prophecy, Benjamin?” Alanna moved a pile of books from a faded burgundy leather chair and sat.
The old man laughed. “It might be, but that’s for you to decide, m’dear. Of all the old arts, prognostication was the first to go. Ah, well, what news of outside?”
Alanna related the day’s happenings to her mentor. She pitied the old man, stuck in his chambers all day with no direct contact with anyone but her, but such was the price of his powers. Unless they married one of their kind to draw their focus and give them balance, telepaths became increasingly sensitive with age until they couldn’t bear to be in the outside world anymore. Benjamin was Alanna’s predecessor as Grand High Telepath, and he had chosen this remote part of the palace for his retirement. He was far enough from people so his mental space wouldn’t be crowded with everyday chaos, but close enough those whom he wanted to see could find him.
Alanna related the day’s events without censoring the accompanying mental images. The birth of the twin girls, her pang of jealousy, the queen, Drake’s tantrum… Ben shook his head. He had advised the queen against becoming involved with the “pretty fly-boy,” even if he was of noble blood, but she had chosen her course in that as in so many other things. When Alanna finished, Ben sat back and steepled his fingers.
“So the queen wants to just flit off somewhere for a year to have her sister’s children? Has all the rain addled her mind?”
Alanna sighed. “I sensed a feeling of obligation, an old debt being paid, and, on top of it, a burning desire to get it over with.”
Ben nodded. “Now you have achieved the position of Grand High Telepath, you may know the story of the queen’s birth. She is only four or five years older than you are, but by the time you were born, the story had died away to become a murmur amongst the castle servants…”
“It was a quarter of a century ago, child, and already I had served the king for the previous quarter century. The transdimensional gate had been discovered a decade earlier, and once travel was made possible between the two worlds, our explorers found a planet with similar problems to ours: growing genetic uniformity among the ruling class, and a royal family with but one surviving child and no hope of a suitable match for marriage. A treaty was crafted between the two worlds, and the emperor and empress, as they called them there, sent their daughter through to wed our king. She was a bright, winsome lass of about sixteen, and though she was much younger than our middle aged king, she took well enough to royal life here. In time, she became pregnant, and both realms rejoiced, sure she would deliver twins because it is the way of their planet as well.
“You remember the king, Alanna? At that time, he was tall and dark with ebony black hair and eyes. His twin had been identical to him and had been killed in a hunting accident. Afterward, our king was overprotective of those closest to him, and the queen was no exception. During her last trimester, the poor child was sequestered away from all but the king, the doctors, and myself. She was as fair and beautiful as the sunbeams in the royal gardens. She most often sought my company because she knew I understood her loneliness and homesickness through my empathy. She told me of her native planet and her friends. We would spend many hours sitting in the shade, her hands clasped over her stomach which seemed to grow bigger by the day, if not by the hour.
“‘Can you sense the two big, strong boys I’m growing for His Highness?’ she would ask me and laugh. ‘The doctor hears two heartbeats, nice strong ones, and says they’re doing fine!’
“‘And you, your majesty?’ I would ask.
“‘Oh,’ she’d wave her hand, ‘Getting along.’
“I became worried when I sensed not two, but three consciousnesses in the womb, one quite strong, but the physician swore he only detected two heartbeats. This caused no little friction between us, and he denounced me as a charlatan.
“The queen was confined to bed in her final month because she was so gravid she could hardly move. Finally, the physicians took pity on her, induced labor, and performed a caesaerian section. I was present at the birth, and the first babe brought forth from the womb was a boy-child, perfect in every way except he was on the small side, even for a twin birth. The next delivery proved both the physician and I had been right, though I wish it hadn’t been so. Twin girls, one dark and one fair, both perfect except for one flaw: they were joined and shared just one heart. The eggs had fused, and they grew like Siamese twins even though they were not identical.”
“So that explains the scar.” Alanna frowned. “She’s never told me where it came from. I always assumed it was from an accident.”
The old man sighed and bowed his head for a moment, lost in the memory, then resumed his tale.
“The whole palace was in a state over it. The queen just sat and held her baby boy as the doctors rushed out with the little girls. We all knew one tiny heart could not sustain both children, but which to choose? It was believed to be bad luck to separate Siamese twins, even worse if they were members of triplets. Finally, the surgeons gave the heart to the one it was closest to, our queen, and to her sister, a false heart. It was touchy for a while, but the child lived and thrived and has a clockwork heart.”
“A clockwork heart?” Alanna had been at the hospital long enough she was sure she would have heard of such a device.
“It is a false heart, essentially a mechanical blood pumping device. The dial sticks through her chest so her physicians can see how it’s running. However, it’s not strong enough to sustain the Empress Joanna during pregnancy.”
“That explains the sense of obligation,” Alanna remarked.
“Yes. Deanna does not have to go, but their bond is a strange one. Deanna feels she owes her sister something for taking the heart, even though the choice wasn’t hers.”
“What of the prince?” asked Alanna. This was the first she had heard of Deanna’s brother.
“That, my dear, is the mystery,” replied Benjamin. “When it became apparent Joanna would live, the rulers and their advisors met to discuss what would be done about who would inherit what throne, because two planets could not be divided between three children. The original plan was to give Colin, the boy, one planet, and the girls the other, but they were afraid of war breaking out between the two sisters, who, truth be told, never got along very well. One night, at the height of the debate, the young prince disappeared from the castle, and he was never seen nor heard from again.”
“I remember that. What happened to him?” She held her breath, certain the old man must know the answer to the mystery that had consumed the entire planet.
Benjamin placed a finger alongside his nose. “He had remarkable telepathic potential, and my private theory is that he was spirited away to train with the Erudini monks on Clonus. It broke his mother’s heart because he was her favorite, at least one of the strong sons she had promised the king. The king never held it against her, but she died from an illness about five years after the prince’s disappearance, when the girls were ten. Some speculated her broken heart killed her. You were brought to us after that, Alanna, to train with me, but everything had settled by then.”
Alanna nodded. She knew the rest of the story, how Deanna had succeeded her father after a wasting illness had claimed his life five years before, and Joanna inherited her grandparents’ throne the year after. She’d heard whispers of the scandal, of course, and recalled when the prince disappeared, but this was the first time she’d gotten the whole story.
Benjamin nodded, too, the two telepaths joined in thought.
“Go now, child,” Ben broke the silence. “Unless I mistake the time, dinner will soon be served, and it doesn’t take a telepath to know you skipped lunch again. Your growling stomach is giving you away.”
“Would you like me to bring you something?” she asked, her cheeks hot.
“No, no, let an old man feast on his memories.”
Alanna rose and kissed the old man’s bald crown. “Thank you, Ben. Everything is much clearer now.”
“That’s what I’m here for.” He waved her out.
Alanna felt the tension flowing through the palace as she rushed to her chambers to change. She found a note on her dressing table from the council moderator, a fellow telepath, that the vote was evenly split. The older generation who remembered the circumstances surrounding the queen’s birth favored her going while the younger councilors opposed it on the grounds the risk was too great. If an agreement couldn’t be reached, it would be the queen’s prerogative. Alanna found the great hall in heated argument.
The queen waved to Alanna and gestured to the empty chair to her right at the head table, Drake’s customary place. Alanna slid in beside her and took a bite of the appetizer, a fried crustacean in spicy sauce.
“Can you believe the old fogeys are on my side?” the queen laughed. “Now if you could just project right…”
“You know I can’t do that,” Alanna replied. “The moderator would sense my intervention and declare the vote meaningless.”
“I know, I know,” sighed Deanna. She regarded the telepath shrewdly. “You’ve been to see old Ben, I presume?”
“You presume correctly.”
“And he told you the whole story?”
“Pretty much.” Alanna glanced down at Deanna’s scar. “You never told me.”
Deanna shrugged. “Didn’t seem relevant. Well, now that you know, what are your thoughts? You are my principle advisor, you know.”
Alanna nodded. She had pondered the question since she left Ben’s rooms.
“I don’t know,” she replied. “You know my history clouds my judgment when it comes to family affairs.”
“Your one weakness, unfortunately,” the queen replied and waved to the head steward to start the soup course.
Alanna shrugged. “I’m working on it.”
“Speaking of family, how was the Comtesse’s delivery? It must have gone well because her husband is here. He arrived just after the first vote.”
“Everything went fine. The babies were healthy.”
“For now,” snorted the queen. “He’s a lecher, and she’s a shrew.”
Alanna stifled a laugh. “You should be more careful about what you say in public. You never know who may be listening.”
“And you shouldn’t correct your queen in public. It’s bad form.” But Deanna smiled. “Ben didn’t say anything about my brother, did he?”
“Just that no one knows where he is.”
Deanna nodded. “I don’t remember much about him except he had the same dark hair and eyes as my father. I’d always wondered if maybe Ben had something to do with Colin’s disappearance, y’know, to calm down the inheritance debate and give him the chance to become a trained telepath.”
“He seemed as bewildered by it as you.”
“Okay, then… Oh, wait, it looks like they’re going to do something.”
The council moderator, a short thin man with a bass voice, stood up and announced, “The council has come to a decision. They have voted thirty-six to thirty-five to allow the queen to make her journey provided she brings a personal bodyguard and the Grand High Telepath to Clonus for her own personal protection and appoints sufficient provisional personnel to govern the planet in the meantime.”
“Wow…” whispered Deanna, almost shocked into silence. “I wonder who cast the deciding vote.”
The telepath looked around the room, and her grey eyes met the cold, steely ones of the Comte de Barbarossa. She realized whose the pivotal vote had been, and her heart skipped a beat. She tried to tease out the meaning of this gut reaction, but the queen recovered her voice and made an impassioned speech of gratitude about honor and old debts, and the strength of her feelings clouded the others.
The day of the departure dawned clear and bright, the winter sky cloudless.
“Sun? In winter?” Alanna peeked out the window of the carriage. “That has to be a good sign, right?”
The gas envelope that formed the dirigible’s “balloon” part was dyed to look like the flag of Dionus: a red background with purple semicircle on one half and purple background with red semicircle on the other. The two semicircles formed a whole to signify the union of the two planets across the dimensional gate.
Rudolph, the first officer and ship’s kinetic telepath, opened the door, handed her out, and carried her luggage to the craft. Whereas Alanna’s specialty was reading people, his was navigating and sensing weather and magnetic patterns. He regarded Alanna with prominent blue eyes set in a round face framed with short-cropped curly brown hair.
“Have you ever flown through the Gate before?” he asked her as he showed her to her seat and helped her stow her luggage.
“Never. I’m not even sure how it opens.”
“I will form a mind link with a telepath on the other side, which will provide a channel through the magnetic barrier between the dimensions along which the pilot, Captain Drake, can steer the vessel.”
“Is that all?”
“All? All?” Rudolph sputtered. “If the channel isn’t clear, the ship could be lost in the outer dimensions forever!”
“Oh, I see,” Alanna replied in a meek voice.
“Forgive me, Grand High Telepath,” he said, recovering his composure. “I forgot myself.”
Alanna laughed. “I sensed it was your training talking rather than yourself.”
“Thank you.” He sighed with relief, and Alanna wondered what his stake in the mission was.
“I would be honored if you would join me in the mind link. The more strength we have, the easier it will be.”
“I would love to.”
“Good, I’ll call for you when it’s time.” He bowed and left Alanna alone with her thoughts. Her gaze wandered out the small shuttle window to where the queen made a farewell speech to the crowd. The triumvirate of council-members whom she had left in command stood to one side and looked uncomfortable as the queen extolled their virtues. Alanna shifted in her seat. An undercurrent of anxiety flowed through the air, and she looked at the gondola’s timepiece. Deanna could only speak for five more minutes, or they’d miss the angle of the sun and two moons most amenable to opening the transdimensional gate.
The queen finished with two minutes to spare, boarded the gondola, and settled herself. “That went well!”
“They weren’t convinced,” Alanna muttered.
“What?” Deanna looked at her advisor sharply.
“Nothing.” Alanna turned back toward the window and watched the temporary rulers process away. The dignitaries on the platform followed, and she caught the Comte de Barbarossa’s smug smile. Again, she felt a sinking feeling in her stomach like she had made a terrible mistake, but they’d left the government in good hands with Ben back in the court as telepath. She hoped.
After what seemed like an eternity, the area cleared, and the shuttle lifted off the runway with Drake at the helm and Rudolph beside him. The queen and Alanna sat in the chamber behind the cockpit, each belted on her own couch. The queen’s personal guard, twelve burly men in royal uniform, sat ranged behind them on passenger chairs. Alanna could feel the tension and anxiety emanating from them all, including Captain Hamish, their commander.
“How long until we go through the gate?” the queen asked.
“About four hours,” Alanna replied. “We need to get to an unpopulated point on the planet before we can safely open.”
“’We?’” asked the queen. “So you’ll be helping?”
“The kinetic telepath asked me to.”
“Good.” Deanna closed her eyes and went to sleep. Alanna imagined the queen would be exhausted from last-minute preparations that had lasted into the night. She also knew the queen and Drake had been arguing about her decision to go, and she hoped Drake’s piloting the dirigible indicated they had reconciled.
Alanna studied the landscape passing beneath them. As she opened her sensitivity to its fullest range, she noted the mood of the planet became more neutral the farther they flew from the capital. She wondered if those in the outlying communities even knew their queen was leaving. Signs of habitation faded into the dark green of tropical jungle. Drake angled the dirigible toward the sun, and the front window glass tinted to save them from being blinded by the glare. Alanna gazed at the two moons framing it.
“Grand High Telepath?” Rudolph’s voice crackled over the radio. “We’re ready.”
Alanna unbelted herself and slipped past the sleeping queen to the cockpit, which was cramped with three people. Rudolph scooted over to make room for her on the bench beside him, and she belted herself in.
“Are you ready?” Rudolph asked. Alanna nodded. They made eye contact to link minds, and Rudolph guided both their consciousnesses along invisible paths until a third mind met and merged with theirs. As Drake and Rudolph set the course, the moons appeared to whirl, then shoot past like comets with tails of rainbow lights. Alanna felt like she spiraled down a tube. The only force that kept her from being lost forever was the presence of the other two minds, both of them lending stability and borrowing from her strength. Privately, Alanna took the measure of the third mind and decided it was powerful, possibly equal to her own. After an indeterminate length of time, the stars stopped spinning, and another landscape resolved into view beneath them.
“Wow,” she breathed and rubbed her fingers in circles at her temples to ease her headache. “That was something.”
Rudolph gave her a vial of clear yellow liquid. “Drink this, you’ll feel better. It’s always painful the first time.”
“Don’t you need it?”
Rudolph shook his head, so she downed it in one gulp, and her muscles loosened.
“I would’ve needed it if you hadn’t linked with us,” Rudolph told her, “but with you here… I hope we didn’t drain you too much. Your mind strength is amazing.”
“I’m glad I helped. I can’t wait to meet the person on the other side.”
“Me, neither. He’s different from the one who guides the message carriers in.”
Alanna braced herself as the shuttle shuddered, and she pushed away the thought that the planet’s atmosphere tried to push them back. In contrast to Dionis’s lush, wet scenery, Clonus appeared to be a dry, almost desert-like planet. One main river flowed through the land, and the narrow green shores gave way to dry grasslands and desert after a short distance. As they flew away from the equator of the planet in a northeasterly direction, Alanna noticed sporadic farming establishments with what appeared from the air to be intricate irrigation systems. She squinted at the glare from the sand until it threatened to give her a headache.
“I’m going to check on the queen,” she said, and Drake nodded, his face unreadable behind darkly tinted glasses. Rudolph didn’t respond, as he concentrated on sensing and entering data on wind stream patterns on his console so Drake could avoid further turbulence. Alanna made her way back to the passenger compartment and found the queen deep in conversation with Captain Hamish as to what security arrangements would be needed for the dirigible. Though her function was part of the security force, the talk of how many men would be needed and where they should be positioned bored Alanna, and her attention drifted out the window. The tinted glass of the passenger windows blocked the worst of the glare, so she looked for settlements and attempted to gauge the mood of the planet.
They flew over a mountain range, and Alanna noticed a large fortress a top a plateau by a large lake. When she tried to mentally probe it to see if it was inhabited, her mind was repelled by a cohesive mental force. She caught her breath and realized the fortress must belong to the Erudini monks. She hoped she had not caused some interplanetary incident by attempting to sense them out. In the next breath, she realized she could have been seriously injured, so it was just a warning. Had they planted a message when they repelled her? She resolved to find out more about the mysterious Order after she landed.
The shuttle had just passed over the last of the foothills when Drake announced they were within sight of the City.
As on Dionis, the capital city had grown around the palace, which sat on a hill. The castle gleamed golden in the sunlight, and its yellow sandstone walls and towers sparkled. Alanna thought she could see the glint of a telescope watching them from a window. The buildings of the City were constructed of the same tawny stone. Tiny people scurried along wide avenues and congregated in several places that appeared to be parks with grass and trees.
“What do you think?” asked the queen.
“No, I mean about the atmosphere down there. Is it hostile?”
Alanna tried to sense it out, but she could not detect any emotions below. Then she caught a rainbow glimmer above the ground like that of a bubble and noticed the whole City appeared to be under some sort of clear dome composed entirely of aether energy.
“It’s shielded,” she told the queen. “I can’t sense anything.”
“Shielded? Whatever for? Their last war was hundreds of years ago, and my sister said nothing about potential alien invasions.”
“I don’t know, your majesty, but we’re going to have to be extra alert,” interjected Hamish. “I don’t trust that mind stuff. Begging your pardon, Grand High Telepath.”
Alanna, the dread feeling back in the pit of her stomach, nodded. “Sometimes I don’t either, Captain Hamish.”
“We’re approaching the landing field,” Drake told them over the intercom. “Be sure to buckle up.”
Alanna heard Rudolph’s yell just before a loud noise sounded to their right. Acrid smoke and the sound of screeching metal invaded the passenger compartment.
“Hang on!” they heard Drake yell. The gondola listed to one side as he maneuvered the craft away from the area of the explosion. They were all thrown to that side, but the belts held as they bumped to a hard stop.
“What the flame was that?” yelled the queen.
“Runway crew is coming…” the intercom crackled. “Explosive device on the runway, shredded the bottom of the gondola… Anyone hurt back there?”
“No!” called Alanna. The interdimensional dirigibles were sturdy, but if the balloon had been punctured and the gas set aflame… She unbelted herself, winced as pain shot through her neck, and stumbled up to the cockpit.
“They mean us no harm,” she told Drake, nodding to the runway crew who sprayed foam on the dirigible’s balloon to keep it from catching fire.
“Someone sure as flame did,” he muttered, but he released the door lock. Smoke and acrid smells of burned rubber and foam flowed in. The runway crew moved portable steps to the side of the shuttle, and one man ran up and looked into the shuttle cockpit.
“Is anyone hurt?” he asked with a clipped accent.
“No.” Alanna grimaced as her neck twinged.
“Your majesty?” the ground crewman asked and looked at Alanna.
“No, she’s back there,” Alanna replied just as the queen came forward.
“What is the meaning of this?” Deanna demanded. “I hardly consider this a warm welcome.”
“My apologies, Majesty,” the man replied, bowing low. “I don’t know how the explosive got on the runway, but the Empress is expecting you.”
“I’m sure she is,” Deanna muttered. “Is there a vehicle to take us to the City?” She looked at Alanna, who still rubbed her neck. “And a medic to attend to my Telepath and security personnel? The stop jarred all of us.”
The man looked with admiration at Drake. “Aye, but if he hadn’t hopped like he did, the whole thing might have exploded. That was quick thinking, Admiral.”
“Captain, actually,” Drake replied and blushed.
“If you please, Majesty,” the man said as he gestured out the window, “the train is here to take you to the palace. I will make sure your dirigible is taken for repairs.”
Deanna nodded, and, preceded by half the guard and followed by the other half, the queen, Alanna, Drake, and Rudolph, exited the shuttle. The hot, dry air made Alanna swallow and wish for a glass of water.
The Empress’ envoys, a security officer in tan uniform and a man in a black robe with silver edgings, met them on the ground. The security officer, his square stubborn face framed by a fringe of white-blond hair, studied them with icy blue eyes. The odd thing was that neither of them projected any emotion, not even concern.
Alanna rubbed her neck and turned her attention to the man in the black robe. There was something familiar about him. He was of medium height with curly dark hair, black eyes, pale skin, and features that were classic but not quite handsome. He returned her stare, and she blushed and looked away, her discomfort multilayered. Why didn’t they have emotions?
“I am Captain Olaf of the Palace security guard,” the uniformed man introduced himself. “And this is Zinder, the telepath who guided your shuttle here.”
“I am Queen Deanna D’Or of the Royal House of Dionis,” Deanna returned the introductions. “This is Captain Drake, my pilot, Grand High Telepath Alanna, Telekinetic Rudolph, Captain Hamish, and my personal guard. It appears as though I have more need of them than I had thought, or are visiting dignitaries always afforded this kind of welcome?”
Alanna noted Deanna seethed under her icy manner and projected soothing feelings. A royal temper tantrum would not increase their chances of reaching safety, and the lack of feelings from the natives made her feel extra exposed. But she couldn’t figure out a discreet way to tell the queen, and she didn’t think the guard needed to be told to be extra alert.
“A formal reception was planned at the port,” Olaf bowed and told them, “but due to this outrage to your craft, the empress decided it would be safer to have you brought to the palace and welcome you there.”
“I see,” the queen replied. “Will this be our transportation?” She gestured to the sleek white train car with the royal insignia, a silver J on a circular field of royal blue edged with black, painted on the side alongside a flag. Their flag had the same pattern as Dionis’ but in blue and black.
“Yes, your highness. This is the empress’ private train and car. Inside you will find it to be cool, and there are refreshments for you.”
Deanna nodded and led her party into the train. They found it well-appointed with plush seating, but no one ate anything. Once the baggage had been unloaded from the damaged gondola and on to the train, they departed. The queen and the telepath took advantage of the engine noise to discuss the developments.
“What do you think?” Deanna whispered.
“It’s quite suspicious. The ground crewman wasn’t telling us something, but I couldn’t read what.” Alanna clenched her fists and winced when pain stabbed through her neck. “I couldn’t read anything.”
Deanna’s eyes widened. “Is it because you’re hurt? You’re rubbing your neck a lot.”
Alanna shook her head, then regretted doing so. “Not seriously, but I think the painkiller Rudolph gave me after the mind link is still working. Oh, maybe that’s why, but it shouldn’t affect my abilities.” Should she have noticed the threat? But explosives didn’t give off emotions. “Not that we’ll be going anywhere any time soon. The dirigible looked bad. I still can’t believe it didn’t explode.”
Deanna frowned. “Do you think it was intentional, then?”
“Someone tried to kill us.” Drake, who sat with his arm around the queen, broke in. “The tower crew should have noticed the explosive on the runway. Even if we hadn’t landed on top of it, we would have been near enough for it to cause some serious damage.”
The queen looked at Alanna. “Can you read the city?”
The telepath paused. “No, this thing is shielded.” Both Olaf and Zinder had remained silent up to then. Zinder turned his head as if to look out the window, and Alanna saw a strange-looking device with tiny gears clipped to his ear.
“They’re wearing shields,” she told Deanna and Drake. “I can’t read anyone!” Curiosity as to why Zinder would have given her knowledge of the devices warred with uneasiness about their safety. She had not realized until they landed how much she depended on her unique abilities and felt like someone had stuffed her ears. She wished she could send a message to Benjamin, but she did not know when the next courier would leave or even if it was safe to contact him.
The train pulled into the palace gates, which opened at a signal from the driver. Elaborate gardens, empty of people, flanked the long drive. The spray of fountains glimmered through the trees, shrubbery, and flora. As it was high summer, the hibiscus and roses were in full bloom and filled the air with a sweet fragrance that crept through the vents in the train.
“Amazing,” Deanna commented and added, “Amazing that on such a dry world, they would waste water on flowers and fountains.”
The train pulled into a courtyard where an array of dignitaries in pastel-colored robes stood. Liveried servants opened the door. Deanna sent her guard ahead of her, took Drake’s arm, and descended, followed by the telepaths. The dignitaries broke into applause and processed behind them as Olaf led the way through thick-carpeted hallways to the throne room. There, Alanna saw Deanna’s fraternal twin, the Empress Joanna.
Joanna favored their father rather than their mother. Whereas Deanna was tawny with tanned skin and blonde hair, Joanna had milk-white skin and black hair worn in an elaborate style piled on top of her head. She, too, was slender, but without Deanna’s inherent robustness to prevent her from appearing frail. She wore a platinum circlet on her brow with a single sapphire set in the middle. The only feature the two sisters shared was darkly lashed amber eyes. They presented quite a contrast in dress as well, with Deanna dressed in her favorite color, crimson, and Joanna in a long gown of sky blue. The visiting party stood out in their jewel-toned clothing against the drab earth tones and pastels of the natives.
Alanna’s eyes were immediately drawn to the clockwork device nestled in Joanna’s cleavage. It had three dials, all of which whirred and spun. She wondered how the empress could sleep at night with all the noise and activity.
When the visitors reached the foot of the dais upon which the throne sat, Joanna descended, curtseyed low to her sister, and said, “Your Highness, I am honored by your visit.”
Deanna also curtseyed and replied, “Empress, I am delighted by the invitation and the chance to pay back an old debt.” At this moment, the rest of her party also curtseyed or bowed according to gender. Alanna, felt a chill on her spine, and she looked for the source as she rose from her curtsey. A swarthy young man dressed in black came around the dais, took the Empress’ hand, and kissed it.
“This is my consort, Duke Orion,” she said. “And the future father of my children.” The look the Duke gave Deanna as he brushed her hand with his lips made Alanna feel vicariously dirtied. She saw Drake tense, but she poked him in the back before he could say anything.
“This is my consort, Captain Drake,” Deanna told her sister. Drake gave the Empress a firm handshake. A smile of disdain curled the Empress’ lips.
“A pilot? How quaint,” she exclaimed.
“He’s the younger son of a duke, Joanna.” Deanna’s tone implied that she wanted to speak no more of it. Joanna thankfully didn’t press and instead invited the visitors to the reception hall for refreshments. The two queens led the line followed by the consorts and telepaths. The personal guard, rather than eat, took posts along the walls and watched for any sign of danger. Alanna found a place where she could observe as she nibbled on the hors d’oeuvres and scanned the crowd in her own manner. She could not detect any open hostility to the visitors, just curiosity, but she felt the presence of a subtle danger, like a black thread in a silver cloth.
“Grand High Telepath?” The sudden voice at her elbow startled her. She turned and saw Zinder standing beside her.
“Yes… Telepath Zinder?” She wasn’t sure what his official title or capacity was.
“You can call me Zinder, though my full title is Brother Superior of the Rose Sect of the Order of Erudini.”
“And you may call me Alanna. You’re an Erudini monk?”
“That I am, hence the robes, though it seems on your planet, all telepaths wear such costume. I serve as representative of my order to the court.”
“Oh?” Alanna felt as though he had cut himself off mid-sentence.
“Yes, we may further discuss my particular situation at another time.”
Alanna discerned he was very interested in her for some reason. As he turned to set down his plate, she noticed he no longer wore the shielding device.
“If I may be so bold,” he said to her, “may I inquire as to whether you were part of the mind link that brought you here?”
“Yes, actually, I was,” she replied. “You have impressive mind strength.”
“As do you,” he smiled, and she couldn’t help but smile back. She wondered if his life had been as lonely as hers.
“I lost my two birthmates at a young age,” he told her, as if reading her thoughts. She regarded him with surprise.
“From what I understand, that makes for a strong telepath,” he said. “I’m sorry, did I say something too personal?”
“No, not at all,” she replied. “Now, would you mind if I asked you a question? It pertains to my queen’s safety and my function here.”
“I am at your disposal.”
“As we flew in, I noticed the city is shielded, and when we drove from the shuttle port, I noticed you and Olaf were wearing personal shields.” She didn’t ask why he’d shown her. “Why all the caution? Is there a conflict we should know about?”
Zinder sighed. “I was hoping to delay this conversation until a more convenient time, but I’ll give you the short version. There is a great suspicion of telepaths in general and of the Erudini in particular. They call us ‘mind-readers’ and don’t accept that we have a strict ethical code. The nobility are particularly wary of my order, and so I am required to wear a shield at all times when I am beyond the palace walls. Orion, the empress’ consort, is especially mistrustful of us.”
Alanna nodded. She guessed the duke would prefer for others not to see his flawed character, although it was apparent to anyone within the first few minutes of meeting him. She wondered what Joanna saw in him, then reminded herself not to let personal opinions interfere with her task.
“So the City is shielded against the Order, the palace vehicles are shielded, and you have a personal shield… Is the palace shielded within the city as well? It must wreak havoc with your duties if they are in any way similar to mine.”
Zinder nodded. He straightened up and drew away from her as the queen and empress approached.
“Well, Zinder,” the empress said with a smile, “I assume you’ve told our young guest about the regulations on telepaths.”
“We were just discussing them, Empress,” Zinder told her. “I assume Alanna will be fitted with her shield as soon as possible.”
Joanna nodded, but Deanna touched her arm.
“Sister, I believe that in light of recent events, it would be in my best interest for my telepath to be unhampered.”
Joanna frowned. “I’m afraid I must insist she at least wear a shield beyond the palace walls, or at least not be recognizable as a telepath. Though I suspect that even if she were to change her dress, her manner would give her away, and I would not want her to be the victim of a riot.”
Alanna sensed her death in a riot would suit the empress and was about to speak in her defense when a mental nudge from Zinder made her bite her tongue.
“I’ll make sure she is properly equipped, Empress,” he said, and Alanna caught the double meaning. Had he figured out how to make the shields allow for reception but block projection? Deanna looked at her to ask whether she should argue further, and Alanna shook her head. The reception soon broke up, and liveried servants showed the visitors to their rooms. Alanna and Deanna were given adjoining suites, the queen’s much nicer, but both equipped with every luxury.
Alanna stood at her window and admired a view of the gardens when Drake knocked at the door which joined her suite to the queen’s.
“Say, Alanna, would you mind if I closed this?” he asked with a wink. “I think Deanna wants to, ah, thank me for saving all our lives this morning.”
Alanna laughed. “I’d like to thank you, too, but it’ll be verbal. Go ahead and close it. Since she’s with you, I’ll prowl about for a bit.”
“Be careful,” Drake admonished, and with a wide grin and a bow, pulled the double door shut. Alanna went into the hall and had Hamish station two guards at her door as well as the queen’s.
Alanna found the castle was very similar to that of Dionis in architecture and layout, and she found her way to the grand hall, the kitchens, the offices, and back to the guest suites. As she wandered through the high-ceilinged hallways and arched doors, she received curious looks from the palace staff, but no one challenged her. She pondered her conversation with Zinder, and she concluded, in spite of their formality, she had felt very comfortable talking to him. She smiled as she remembered how close he had leaned in to speak with her, then shook her head.
“I can’t let my attraction to him cloud my judgment,” she told herself.
It didn’t require her to use her abilities to tell the queen and Drake were still enjoying each other’s company, and she considered what to do next when someone tapped on her shoulder. She turned around to find Zinder and Rudolph standing beside her.
“Do you always have to startle me like that?” she snapped before she caught herself. Zinder appeared more amused than insulted, and she realized he had tried to catch her off guard. Rudolph’s expression wavered between amusement and disapproval.
“I was looking for you,” Zinder told her, “to fit the two of you with your shields.” He turned and led the way to his office.
“I figured Rudolph wouldn’t need one,” Alanna commented, “since he’s a kinetic telepath, not an empathic one.”
“It’s the empress’ orders. Actually, the Duke’s.”
“Yes, you were telling me about that at the reception, but I felt you wanted to say more.”
“Is this our place to inquire, Alanna?” asked Rudolph. “It seems our objective here is not to become involved in intra-planetary politics.”
“It is if it doesn’t interfere with what we were sent here to do,” Alanna couldn’t keep the angry edge out of her voice. “I’m finding these rules to be very restrictive.”
“As I do,” Zinder interjected. “Now that you’re here away from prying ears and eyes, I can tell you the whole story.”
“Are you sure it’s safe?” Alanna knew palace security guards sometimes planted listening devices in the offices of people suspected of treasonous activities.
“Rudolph can tell you it is. That’s the real reason for shielding him in the city, to prevent him from knowing too much about what the government is doing here.”
“Why are you telling us all this?” asked Rudolph. “It’s true there are no hidden listening devices in here, but it seems to me you’re being very trusting of two people you don’t know very well.”
“Perhaps after I tell my story, you will understand. It begins thousands of years ago at the inception of the Erudini order. At the time, it was a scientific society for the investigation of interesting phenomena, and as it grew, it focused on extraordinary hidden human abilities such as ours. When it was found such individuals could be quite powerful, the government began to persecute us, and the Order, as it was later called, moved out of the city into a safe haven in the mountains. The government is still unsure of its precise location because only those with measurable psychic ability can see it, as I’m sure the two of you did when you flew over it.”
Alanna wondered if he knew she had probed it.
“Before they left the City, the leaders gave the Emperor at the time a promise, some say a prophecy. They told him when the flame and the rose came to the City, a time of great change would be at hand, and only by the joining of the rose with the thorn would balance be restored to the two spheres and the gate opened permanently. Alanna, what is it? Have I said something?”
Alanna shook her head to bring the color back to her face. Ben’s comment may have been a coincidence, but she kept the thought to herself.
“That still doesn’t explain about the shields,” Rudolph said.
“I’m getting to that.” He ran his hands through his hair. “Anyway, the superiors of the Order felt a movement in the cosmic balance, and they sent me to the City to act as an advisor to the Emperor and Empress, who were still alive. The royal pair welcomed me, and I remained in favor until the Empress Joanna took the throne and Orion became her consort. Orion is a greedy man, and his family became rich under the old order, so he influenced Joanna against us. They fear the Erudini too much to exile me from the City, but they make it difficult for me to act as a telepath, and the shields keep the Erudini from gleaning more about the situation than they do from my written communications, which, I’m sure, are censored.”
“What will you gain from telling us all this?” Rudolph persisted. “All this nonsense about prophecy. What does it have to do with us?”
“Think about it. Think of the Empress and the Queen. They could be the rose and the flame. Just picture them. But who would the thorn be?”
“That’s a good question.” Alanna frowned. “And what two spheres? The planets? Or the City and the Erudini?”
“Until our job is done and our queen home,” Rudolph reminded her, “these are puzzles to be pondered over in our spare time and nothing more. And now the shields, Zinder?”
Zinder nodded, his lips in a tight line. Alanna sensed his frustration at not being taken seriously. She had an uncomfortable sense she may be involved, but she decided to keep her secrets until she was sure she wasn’t way over her head. Zinder sighed and presented them each with a personal shield.
“I’ve fixed them so the sending block still works, but the receiving block is disabled,” he said. “Alanna, it should make your job much easier – you can detect any hostility toward the queen or yourself now.”
“Thanks,” she told him and suppressed the urge to hug him.
The medical procedures progressed without any delay, as Deanna’s eagerness to return to her planet matched Joanna’s desire to have an heir. Neither Alanna nor Drake felt comfortable with any egg fertilized with the Duke’s seed inside of Deanna, but the queen bore it with good grace. On the most fertile day of the queen’s next cycle, the royal surgeon placed eight fertilized eggs in Deanna’s womb.
Alanna found herself in the company of either Rudolph or Zinder as she watched over the queen. While she became quite friendly with both men, she found she preferred Zinder’s company and his fascinating stories about the Erudini.
“I’m not sure what’s wrong with me,” Alanna complained to him one day in mid-autumn while they walked around the gardens, her hand around his arm as gallantry required. “Deanna looks radiant at the end of her first trimester, Joanna seems pleased, and yet I still feel like there’s something sinister going on.”
“There’s nothing wrong with you,” Zinder told her. “You’re so conscientious about your duties and so afraid of making a mistake that you worry because it’s all going too well!”
Alanna punched him on the arm. “You’re the only one besides Deanna who could say something like that to me and get away with it. And it’s more I know something is going wrong, but I don’t know what.”
“You look tired. Why don’t we rest for a bit?”
They sat on a bench under an arbor with fragrant, purple-flowered vines, a secluded spot off the main path. Alanna liked to go there when she became weary of her duties and the queen was safe with Drake or Captain Hamish. A fountain trickled nearby and provided a pleasant background for conversation or reading. As they sat, Zinder did not release her hand but pressed it between his.
“Your hand is cold,” he said. “Are you chilled?”
“No, I’m fine. Here, the other is warm.”
He took both hands in hers to compare their temperatures, and Alanna became aware their pose looked quite intimate.
“Have you solved your riddle yet?” she asked him to change the subject from her hands, but though she pulled away, he would not release them.
“Not yet,” he replied with a sigh. “If I could, it would solve all our problems.”
“I’m sure you will, in time.”
“Thank you for your confidence. It means more to me than I can say.”
Alanna opened her mouth to tell him about Ben’s comment, but he leaned over and kissed her. For a moment, she forgot to kiss him back, but once she did, she realized how much she had longed for someone to do just that. The longer they kissed, the more ardent their embrace became. Zinder laid her down on the bench and leaned over her. She closed her eyes and opened herself to him, body and soul.
“Alanna! Are you here?” Rudolph called her, his urgency palpable.
They broke apart, and straightened their robes with guilty, shaking hands.
“The fool.” Zinder composed his facial features to be cold and distant. He bowed to Alanna and said, “Forgive me, madam, I forgot myself.”
Before she could reply, Rudolph burst into the clearing.
“What news, Rudolph?” asked Alanna. She hoped the shade hid her flush. The kinetic telepath seemed out of breath as though he had run from one end of the gardens to the other.
“Drake and I have just been to see to the dirigible,” he panted. “I wanted to tell you before you saw the queen. She’ll be furious! They just patched it up to make it look like they’d fixed it. I knew immediately, but Drake didn’t need me to tell him when he powered it up and heard it himself. I think the man has some of his own kinetic ability. Oh!” — he broke off — “Did I interrupt something?”
“Nothing that didn’t need interrupting,” Zinder replied and stalked off.
“What’s with him?” asked Rudolph as he sat beside Alanna. She scooted over to give him more room.
“I wish I knew,” she replied. She sighed and guessed he was right. She shouldn’t be consorting with the enemy, after all, and with the news of the dirigible, it seemed like they were in a very precarious position.
“I should go to the queen,” Alanna said. “She will need my advice.”
“Alanna?” Rudolph asked.
“Yes?” she replied.
“Take this.” He took a deep breath and held out a message tube. “A courier came in today from Dionis with messages for me and the queen. Keep this one in a safe place.”
He hesitated before he pushed it into her hands. Alanna studied him and tucked it into her robe. As she turned away, she noticed his turbulent emotions, but her urgent duty to the queen kept her from pausing to ask.
“Pack your bags, we’re leaving immediately,” Deanna told Alanna when the telepath reached her suite.
“Yes, your highness,” Alanna replied. Before she could leave, Joanna arrived with an armed guard of twenty men and the Duke.
“Where are you going, sister,” Joanna asked sweetly, “with my children?”
“I’m going home,” Deanna replied. “And as for your children, they can stay or go as they please.”
Joanna crossed her arms and shook her head. “The mental stress would be too much for the fetuses. And you have no craft. Going through the Gate would be dangerous for all of you.”
“As could leaving this room?” asked Drake, who had pushed his way in through Alanna’s suite.
“As you wish, Captain,” the Empress smiled.
Alanna signaled for Drake to calm down. She sensed the Empress’ desperation.
“What is it you want, Empress?” asked the telepath. “More than just to have heirs, I think.”
“Aren’t you the clever one?” responded the Empress. “I would have thought your friend Zinder would have told you.”
“Ah.” Alanna sat on the bed. “You want Deanna to help you exterminate the Erudini, and you need her telepaths to do it since you have not encouraged any of your own past the kinetics.”
“Alanna, why didn’t you tell me any of this?” demanded the queen.
“I just realized it.” Alanna put her face in her hands.
“But why this enmity?” asked Deanna. “We have all found Zinder to be amiable.”
“They are an abomination,” cried Duke Orion. “They encourage inhuman talents and upset the social order by welcoming young men of all social classes into their ranks. They are a grave danger to both planets, can’t you see? They’re building their forces to take over first our government, then the use of the gate, then your planet.”
“Hush, Orion,” commanded the empress. “We have upset our guests enough. Deanna, I will leave you to think on it.”
“I have no need to think, Joanna. I will discharge my duty as it stands and will not interfere further in the affairs of your planet.”
“I accept your decision, then, dear sister,” responded Joanna, “but remember it puts your planet in peril as well.”
The Empress turned and left, followed by the soldiers. Drake had an “I told you so” expression on his face, but he didn’t say it.
“She’s still not telling us something,” Alanna said. “Something big. I wish I could read minds like Rudolph reads weather. Why try to kill us if she wants our help?”
“There’s nothing we can do for now,” said the queen. “I wish I had listened to Hamish and brought three times as many men.”
Alanna left the queen to Drake’s consolation and returned to her own suite to think. When she opened the door, she remembered the message tube Rudolph had given her. She opened it and pushed the button so the clockwork device spit out a message paper. Rudolph had already unlocked it.
“My dear confederate,” was the greeting, followed by, “Everything has gone according to plan. The triumvirate has been overthrown, and all those loyal to the queen now reside in prison. The planet is quite in chaos, and not even Ben can calm it. In fact, the old man has disappeared to some hiding place or other in the palace. The enslavement of the telepaths has begun, and soon, only those who swear loyalty to the new rule will remain.
“I remain your obedient servant, Comte de Barbarossa.”
Alanna’s hand shook as she set down the message.
“To whom could it be addressed on this planet?” she wondered. “The Empress? The Duke? Flames, we may not be able to return to our own planet even if we leave this one alive.” She recalled Rudolph had been upset, and yet the message hadn’t been extracted. So how did he know? She decided to find him.
Alanna searched through the palace, and, finding no trace of the kinetic telepath there, went into the gardens. She reasoned the first place to search would be where she left him, and there she found him, stretched out on the bench on his stomach, possibly worn out by the afternoon’s exertions and taking a nap. Dusk had fallen over the castle, and so she could not see the blood stains on his robe when she went to shake him awake. He did not stir, and she was horrified to see her hand covered in blood when she drew it away.
Her mental and physical scream brought the entire castle to the spot, or so it seemed.
Zinder was the first to reach her. “What is it? Alanna, darling, what is it?” he asked with no trace of his former coldness. She collapsed in tears on his shoulder.
“He’s dead,” she sobbed. “Look, look at my hand.” He couldn’t with her holding on to him so tightly. By that time, others had come, including the castle physician.
“Stabbed in the back,” was his verdict, “right through the heart. The knife is still there.”
“Don’t touch it,” cautioned another palace servant. “They need to see whose prints are on it.”
“A ghastly crime,” observed the third. “Murdered in cold blood from behind.”
Castle guards, led by Olaf, took the body away.
“Are you going to be all right?” asked Zinder. Alanna still trembled in his arms. A servant in gardener’s overalls hovered nearby, and when Alanna nodded, the man stepped up and touched her on the arm.
“Pardon, ma’am, but I need you to come with me. Captain Olaf says he needs to ask you some questions. You, too, sir.”
“Castle formality,” Zinder explained to Alanna. “It shouldn’t take too long.”
With steps shaky from shock and fury, Alanna followed the servant through several long corridors to the palace security office. Olaf and the duke waited for them. Orion sneered.
“It seems as though you telepaths are unable to protect your own.”
“It’s not our job, Orion,” Zinder snapped. “Can’t we just get this over with? The Lady Alanna is tired.”
“Ah, yes, the lady Alanna.” Orion gave her a look that made her blush. “Perhaps you two would like to explain what you were doing in the garden when Zinder found you this afternoon?”
“Talking, nothing more,” Alanna, her voice trembling, spoke up. She felt overwhelmed by the hostility flowing from the two officials.
“Olaf, our witness?”
Olaf gestured to the palace servant who had brought the two telepaths to the office. The little man moved forward.
“Groundsman Morey, I presume?”
“Aye, sir, your Grace.” He bobbed his head at the two interrogators.
“Would you please tell these two people what you told us? And remember, tell the truth, because they’ll know if you’re lying.”
“I was in the gardens this afternoon, sirs and ma’am, fixing one of the fountains near the arbor with the purple flowers, and I heard the tall one,” the man gulped, “the dead one, call out for Lady Alanna. Then I heard that one,” he jerked his head toward Zinder, “yell, ‘that fool!’ and then he walked away, angry like.”
“Then what happened?” Orion prompted.
“Then she,” he pointed to Alanna, “followed right after, and she was all flushed-like. So my mates and I figured the tall one had interrupted them at something.”
“Thank you, Groundsman Morey.”
“So?” asked Zinder. “I have no argument with it, except I wasn’t angry at Rudolph, but at myself.”
“Really?” Orion arched an eyebrow. “That’s not all, Brother Zinder. Olaf found something very interesting on the murder weapon, the knife I lost today in the gardens while taking my morning walk.”
“Impossible,” Zinder shouted as Alanna yelled, “Liar!”
“Oh, no,” Orion sneered. “You are the liars. Rudolph interrupted a little lover’s tryst, tried to make love to Alanna, and was killed out of jealousy.”
Two burly men in palace guard uniform took hold of Zinder’s arms.
“It’s off to the dungeon for you, mind-reader,” Orion hissed. “Good riddance.”
“No.” Alanna looked at them. “You’re lying, both of you.”
“You have no proof, telepath. Now toddle off to your queen and be a good girl, or you’ll be next.” He didn’t specify whether she was in danger of the dungeon or the knife, and she didn’t wait to find out. She followed the guards to where they tossed Zinder into a cell like a sack of grain.
“I’ll figure something out,” she promised. He stuck a hand through the bars and wiped a tear from her cheek.
“They’ve won, Alanna darling. Forget about me. Protect your queen.” He kissed her hand and turned and curled up on the dirty straw in the corner of his cell. Alanna thought about arguing, but she knew she couldn’t change his mind. If they needed proof, she would find it.
Late that night, Alanna stood by her window and gazed at the stars, so different from those of home. She listened to the inhabitants of the castle and felt their sleepiness, then slumber, but she could not sleep. She battled her old nemeses of fear, anger, and loneliness.
“What do I do?” Kreshin had told her to trust her gut. She hadn’t thus far, and look where it got her. Alanna closed her eyes and reached deep into her soul for the answer. The thought struck her. Not all relationships between family members, not even twins, were perfect. Hadn’t Ben said they never got along? Joanna had a motive to take Deanna’s life, and Alanna had the intuition the answer lay with the missing prince. But where was he? She thought back to her conversation with Ben and the story of the triplets. She realized if Colin had become an Erudini monk, Zinder might know him, or at least his whereabouts.
“Well, then, it looks like I’ll have to rescue Zinder.”
Alanna waited until she knew the queen and Drake were asleep and crept out of her room. She used her telepathic ability to avoid being noticed by any of the guards in the hall and crept down to the dungeon. Once there, she found Zinder’s cell. He slept.
“Zinder, psst. Wake up!”
“Alanna, darling, is it you?”
“Yes, love,” she caressed his cheek through the bars. He had one black eye, as though the guards had returned and beaten him. “It’s me. Are you okay? Did they hurt you?”
“No, nothing that won’t be gone in a few days. What are you doing down here? You could be in grave danger.”
“Stretching my abilities. Being near you seems to augment them. If a guard were to come by, I would be invisible.”
“You shouldn’t risk yourself! Seriously, what are you doing here?”
“Rescuing you, of course.” Alanna used a simple kinetic spell to open the lock, and the door swung open with a slight creak.
“I’m glad you did it; my vows prevent me from performing kinetics.”
Unhampered by the bars, he took her in his arms. “I’m sorry for pushing you away earlier, love,” he said. “It’s just that I have certain, ah, considerations, that make a union between the two of us impossible.”
“We can sort it out later,” Alanna told him. “We have to go. But first I have a question for you.”
“What? Shouldn’t we be escaping?”
“No, listen, this is important.” She looked deep into his eyes. “I need to know where Prince Colin is.”
“What?” Zinder’s face turned ashen. “What about Colin?”
“Is he an Erudini monk?”
“What if he is?”
“You’re not helping. I need to know, Zinder, I need to talk to him.” Tears crept into her eyes. “The life of my queen depends on it. If you love me, you’ll tell me where he is.”
“He is an Erudini monk.” Zinder spoke softly, his voice barely audible. “But Colin isn’t who he was. If you need to talk to him, I can arrange it.”
“Thank you.” This time she did hug him. They kissed and sank to the straw in the cell, their lips fixed together. Again, their embraces became more ardent, each longing for the closeness that had been denied them throughout their lives.
“Considerations be damned,” Zinder muttered. Neither of them heeded the dirty straw as they joined in body and mind.
They lay together afterward and looked at each other in wonder.
Alanna asked him, “How did I not know?”
“We have all the pieces to our puzzle now,” Zinder replied as he nuzzled her neck. “And the solutions to our problems.”
“Except for one.”
“You’re right. Except for one.
The next morning, Alanna, Zinder, and Deanna met in front of the Empress’ quarters.
“Why do these things always have to happen in the bathroom?” Alanna asked. The others shushed her.
The servants ran the bath and left the room to give the Empress her privacy. She had just stepped into the tub and settled down under the bubbles when the curtain around the bath was drawn back.
“Who dares disturb my bath? Orion, that better not be you. I saw you with that serving wench last night.”
“It’s not Orion,” said Zinder as he perched on the edge of the tub.
“You?” The Empress’ face contorted with outrage. “You’re supposed to be in the dungeon. Guards!”
“They won’t hear you, Joanna,” said Deanna as she drew back the curtain on the other side and also sat. Her slender figure bulged with the pregnancy.
“I believe you owe us some answers,” said Alanna as she drew back the final curtain and surrounded the Empress.
“Answers?” Joanna asked, her voice high-pitched with panic. “I have no answers.”
“Oh, but you do,” stated Deanna. “We just have to ask the right questions. Mine first: what is the real reason for your enmity toward the Erudini?”
“I’ve told you, they’re dangerous,” sputtered Joanna. “Why are you wasting time with these games?”
“They’re dangerous?” asked Alanna. “Or do you mean to say you are afraid of one of them?”
“Of course I’m afraid of one of them. That one!” She pointed at Zinder. “He killed your kinetic telepath.”
“No, wrong answer, try again,” said Zinder. “Remember, Alanna and I can tell you’re lying.”
“Might this have something to do with our brother?” asked Deanna sweetly. “The one no one has seen since he disappeared on our fifth birthday?”
“Oh, all right. You appear to know the truth already, so I give up. Yes, I’m afraid our brother will want the throne, and with his Erudini powers, he will be able to take it from me. Our grandparents almost gave it to him, even though they hadn’t ever seen him, but they were fascinated by the Erudini. That’s why they let him come to court.” She sneered at Zinder. “And then there was the prophecy about the flame, the rose, the thorn and the gate. If there’s a thorn, it’s been our brother, unseen, but sticking me all the while, even since childhood, when he was our mother’s favorite.”
“Have you considered your brother may not want the throne?” asked Alanna.
“Why should he not?” responded Joanna. “Every other person of noble blood on this planet does.”
“You’re not telling us the whole story,” remarked Alanna. “You’re holding something back.” Then her eyes grew wide as hostility erupted from Joanna. The Empress had picked up some tricks from the Erudini if she had been able to hide all that from the telepaths until now. No wonder she wanted them all shielded.
“You’re too clever for your own good, telepath.”
“You want to rule both planets,” accused Zinder. “You were going to let her have your children, kill your sister during the delivery or the shuttle flight back, and set one of your children up on her throne under a guardian who would do your bidding.”
“Joanna, is this true?” asked Deanna, her eyes filling with tears. “Why? What did I ever do to you?”
“You took my heart, just as our brother took our mother’s love. You know he was her favorite.”
“And him being alive put a fatal flaw in your plot to dominate both planets, because the people would never accept a ruler from the next generation when the question of his whereabouts was still unresolved.” Alanna looked at Zinder, and he nodded. Now they could both sense the psychic flaw that had been hidden under layers of gentility.
“I have another question,” Deanna stated softly. “Who, in our party, was working with you to overthrow my government?”
“Don’t protest innocence,” Alanna told the Empress. “I have the letter from Barbarossa to the confederate, the one Orion stabbed poor Rudolph for.”
“‘Poor’ Rudolph?” asked Joanna. “He was getting very rich off our little arrangement. If he hadn’t been charmed by you, he would have never betrayed us and our cause. In the end, his telepathic code of ethics made him back out.”
Alanna blinked the tears away. Rudolph had been the betrayer?
“I have one more question,” said Zinder. “Where is your brother?”
Joanna looked blankly from one to the other. “How should I know? I told you, I haven’t seen him since he was a child.”
“Are you sure?” asked Deanna.
“She is,” replied Alanna. “Though I’m not.” She smiled at Zinder.
“Where do you think he is, Zinder?”
“Why, Alanna, I think he’s sitting right here on the edge of her bathtub.”
Deanna shrieked, leapt up, and hugged Zinder so hard he almost fell in. Joanna stared in disbelief. Alanna just sat and enjoyed the one’s consternation and the other’s joy.
“All right, now that’s settled,” said Deanna, wiping tears from her eyes, “What about the prophecy?”
“Well, before we left, Ben said something about you being a flame and me being a rose,” Alanna explained. “Zin, er, Colin is the thorn.”
“You still can’t go home,” sneered Joanna, almost recovered. “You have no kinetic telepath to guide the shuttle, and no receiving one to bring it home.”
“We don’t need one,” stated Alanna. “The gate is opened. Traffic can go from one world to the other now without telepathic guidance.”
Alanna and Colin smiled at each other, and Alanna placed a hand on her stomach, where the physical result of their union grew. “That’s our little secret.”
Alanna looked at the sun streaming through the window, its golden rays illuminating an arch on the tiled sandstone floor.
“It’s a beautiful day, Deanna,” she said as she turned toward the bed canopied in crimson and edged with gold.
Deanna, her face still showing the strains of childbirth, smiled back. “That it is, telepath. And you say the babes are healthy?”
Alanna looked at the twin cradle in which the newborn girls slept. “Physically and mentally, in spite of all they went through to get here. I still can’t believe Drake bribed the surgeon to make sure the fertilized eggs were yours and his.”
“He’s more clever than people give him credit for. And you say you can sense yours?” Deanna nodded toward Alanna’s gravid belly, just barely showing beneath her loose royal blue robe.
“They’re both strong boys I’m growing.”
“Now where have I heard that before?” said a voice from the other side of the room.
“Ben, you made it!”
The old man strode through the door, then paused to admire the infants.
“So you and the fly-boy managed to do something right, Deanna.”
The queen laughed. “Their names are Jodie and Corinne.”
“And how are you doing, my dear?” he asked Alanna as he hugged her.
“Never better. Everything straightened out on Dionis?”
“Those Erudini can put up a fight when they want to. All dissidents are gone, and it is safe for you to go back to your throne, Deanna.”
“I can’t wait.” Although she still looked youthful, the events of the past few months, particularly the betrayal and then suicide of her sister, had given her the maturity she had lacked. “And what about yours, Rose?” Ben asked Alanna. “What are the names of your babes? Boys, from what I can tell. Two strong consciousnesses they are, too.”
“Colin and I have decided to call them Benjamin and Rudolph.” Alanna grinned. “With your permission, of course.”
“Of course,” harrumphed Ben. Alanna could feel his surge of emotion. With a pang, she wondered what Rudolph would have thought and hoped somewhere, wherever he was, he knew how much she appreciated what he’d done for all of them.
“Speaking of roses and all,” Deanna broke in. “Did you know about that prophecy, Ben, the one about the Rose and the Flame?”
Ben smiled. “Why waste your energy trying to disentangle the ways of magic, child? Just appreciate it, and maybe it will happen more often. Maybe this means the old art of prognostication isn’t gone entirely.”
“Alanna,” Colin called from the hallway.
“Coming,” she responded. She turned with a broad smile to Deanna and Ben. “I must go, my emperor awaits, and it’s time for his, er, our coronation by the council.”
“Go, we’ll be fine.” Ben waved her off.
“I’ve never seen her so happy,” Deanna whispered through tears as she watched Alanna go. “I’ll miss her.”
Ben squeezed her hand. “Now the gate is open, there will be plenty of opportunity for visits. You’ll be returning home soon, won’t you?”
Deanna nodded. “I think I’ll marry Drake, let him make an honest woman of me. Would you perform the ceremony, Ben?”
“Of course I will, child. Now, let me go to my chambers. An old man needs his rest.”
In the council chamber below, Alanna watched as the Grand Vizier placed a crown on Colin’s dark head and bowed for him to place one on hers. She wished once again that she had a twin to share the news with, but as she rose and met Colin’s eyes, she realized that she had something much, much better, and, indeed, had had it all along: a best friend, a mentor, and now a husband and family. She turned to the applause of the council, but the smile that passed between her and Colin was theirs alone.
Thank you for reading, and I hope you enjoyed The Rose and the Flame. It was one of my first long short stories. This is another one I’m thinking about including in a collection, so please leave any feedback below or respond to the email where you got this link.