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Veranna hopped down from the edge of the stage and stalked for the showground exit. What choice do I have? The weasel. But he’s wrong—how could I ever love someone like him? At least I’ll still have many years to live once he’s in his grave . . .
Something slammed into Veranna’s side and bowled her over. Fingers groped through her hair and wrenched her head back. A fist drove into her teeth, and stars burst across her vision. She kicked and clawed from her attacker’s grasp.
“Oh no you don’t!” a female voice shrieked. The attacker caught hold of the rear panel of Veranna’s skirt. Seams strained and threatened to tear.
Veranna wheeled. Merina. She spat a mouthful of blood.
“Two nights now we’ve made no money on your account, you shameless tramp,” Merina said. “We all know why he keeps you.” She pulled a knife from her belt.
Veranna’s eyes widened. In a quick tug, she jerked her skirt from Merina’s hand, but in the same moment, someone grabbed her from behind and pinned her arms to her sides.
Merina brandished the knife. “Bodini might not be so hot for you if we slit your nostrils. Maybe we’ll cut those pixie-points off your ears too.”
Veranna ducked her chin and thrust her head back, and it connected with her second assailant in a sickening crack of cartilage and bone. The hold on her arms lessened.
“Blast you Merina, you said she couldn’t fight.”
Lucky shot, really. Veranna broke away from the big-boned Shialla, who held a bloody mess of a nose. She staggered left.
Merina lunged and caught her skirt again, and this time, the panel tore clear of Veranna’s belt. She left it behind without a thought and dove between the pavilions.
When she plunged through the flap of Mamá’s tent, the sight of two people inside slammed her to a halt. Veranna skidded to a stop and heaved for breath. Full-body pins and needles erupted across every inch of her skin the moment she passed through the opening in the canvas.
“Mikelos! What happened?” Mamá flew to Veranna. Her eyes froze on Veranna’s ruined skirt. “Oh, no.”
|This is technically cheating, as this image is not|
really from this story...but close.
The dance mistress took a hesitant step forward. “I’m sorry I left you with him, maiden Veranna. I never thought . . .”
Veranna blinked for a moment. “What?” It hurt to move her swollen lips. She glanced down. “Oh, wait. No. He didn’t touch me. Well, he kissed me once, but all this is Merina’s doing. All Master Bodini wanted was to talk.”
Mamá collapsed onto her cushion beside the low dining table. “Thank the muses.” She rubbed her brow. “What did he want to discuss, then?” Mamá narrowed her eyes and tightened her shoulders as if bracing for a known pain.
“It looks to me like perhaps you have an idea,” Veranna said.
Mamá’s lips trembled. “So, he told you he’d take you to wife.”
Devna handed Veranna her chemise, which she pulled on immediately. “Thank you, mistress. But no, Mamá, actually he didn’t. He only asked. He told me I love him but I don’t yet know it.”
Mamá and Devna both laughed, mirthless.
“That swaggering peacock,” Mamá muttered.
Devna stepped away and busied herself gathering garments into a stack.
“But he made no demands. I have to give him credit for that.” Veranna began to shiver. “What can I do? He said he would release you from your debt on the day we wed. What if I gave you my deed, then if I . . .” Veranna forced down a throatful of bile. “If I marry him, you would have enough to—”
“You cannot marry this puppet master.” A man stepped from behind the changing screen. Not a man. A tall, lean, fair-faced vision with straight raven hair that hung past his shoulders, and cheekbones chiseled beyond the beauty of mere men. He was indeed beautiful, beyond handsome in the sense Veranna understood. A silvery cloak that shimmered in the lamplight hung from his shoulders, and beneath it, he wore a delicately embroidered silk waistcoat in a similar shade. Now that his hood lay against his back, Veranna spied long ear points that emerged from his locks. A trim scabbard hung on his belt; the quillons and grip of the weapon were tasteful and lithe.
“You,” Veranna gasped. The needling on her skin intensified. “You were in the audience. Last night and tonight as well. At least I think I saw you.”
He nodded once, slow and deliberate. “Do you believe what I told you?”
Veranna rubbed at her arms, but the gooseflesh across them persisted. “That I can’t marry Bodini?”
The newcomer stepped forward. “The other truth I told you, Veranna.”
The way he sounded both of the n’s in her name, a subtlety that most overlooked in speaking it, and the warm tenor of his voice, struck a deep place in Veranna’s heart. “It was you I heard on stage. In all that chaos, I heard only you.”
“You, and you alone, precious emerald.”
The image of a long-fingered hand holding and almond-sized gem sprang to Veranna’s mind. “Why do you call me that? You and my mother?”
Could he be . . . Veranna squelched the flicker of hope.
“Because that is the translation of your name from my tongue.” The stranger stepped beside Veranna and smoothed her wild curls away from her face. “From the day of your birth—the first and last day I beheld you—I knew you were blessed with priceless gifts. And that is what makes you rare—why you must not wed this snake of a caravan master.”
“But what other way is there?” Veranna’s voice caught. “At least I wouldn’t have to use my gift of dancing for leering strangers anymore.”
“Just a leering husband who should be ashamed of entertaining his lust for a child bride,” he said. “One who has no idea how your gifts could serve a bigger, nobler world than this poisonous den he has built.”
The fierceness in his amber eyes startled Veranna. Now that she could see them clearly, she stared into them. He was the only person she had ever met to have the same color eyes as her own.
Mamá rose, with Devna’s help, from her cushion. “You have your father’s eyes. You see that, don’t you Veranna? Not just the color, but the fire.”
Veranna’s heart thundered. Dare she believe it? “My . . . father’s eyes? You’re really my father?”
He nodded again. “And there is more to your dancing than just beauty of movement, do you not know?”
Veranna continued to gawk mutely.
“I can set you on the path to understand what the Maker has bestowed upon you.” Veranna’s father took her hand in his, and his touch was warm and gentle, but full of underlying strength. “Bodini, he will seek only to warp your talents for gold. If not your dancing, then your foresight, which would be a grievous evil.”
Mamá flinched, but Veranna chose to allow her the dignity of fielding the rebuke unobserved.
“How? I don’t understand what you mean,” Veranna said.
“The road to understanding fully is long, my daughter,” Mamá said. “But you must embark upon it. Tonight. Devna, have you gathered everything?”
The dance mistress brought a stuffed satchel to Mamá. “All that we discussed.”
Veranna’s glance darted between the three adults in the tent. “What are you saying? We’re running away?” A thrill swelled in her chest.
Mamá’s mouth contorted. “Just you, dearest. Ryathil will see you to safety and a better life.”
The thrill turned to a crushing weight. “But . . . I can’t go without you. Bodini will—”
“That is not your concern,” Mamá drove away anguish with sternness, a well-practiced skill. “Where your father takes you, I cannot go. Sarn Celevon will suffer no human within its walls.”
Veranna covered her mouth with her hands. She wheeled toward the stranger just pronounced her parent. Her mother’s lost husband. “Don’t you love her? You can’t just leave her here.”
The elf looked upon her, his brow pinched with compassion. “We made the decision decades ago that when the opportunity arose, this is what we would do. Please allow us to amend what mistakes we have made in what ways remain to us. I have labored many long years to clear a very choked path.”
Outside, the tramp of feet and muffled voices grew in the distance. “She must have come home, the little whore. My nose will never be the same, I’m sure of it.”
Devna threw a cloak over Veranna’s shoulders. “You must go now, Veranna. If Bodini realizes your father is here—”
The angry voices neared. “She’ll wear stripes for this,” a man said. The metallic clink of weaponry mingled with threatening words.
Ryathil took the pack and lifted the rear canvas of the tent. Veranna dug her fingers into her hair.
“Now, oh please, it must be now!” Mamá hugged Veranna. “I love you, my child. I will be all right.”
Veranna beheld the lie in her mother’s tense face. She clutched Mamá fiercely. “If I can find a way to free you too, I will.” She staggered from her mother’s grasp and fled through the exit of her father’s design.