It was a beautiful day. Merick smiled as she sat up in bed and looked out the window at the birds singing in the trees. The sun was high in the sky and she had no twinges in her stomach. The high sickness seemed to have passed. Nadia, the royal midwife, had said it would once she was well into her pass. The babe would be born well into the winter and she couldn't wait. The leaves on the trees were only now beginning to change their hue, signalling that the winter snows were coming soon. That meant she'd hold her babe in her arms soon. She smiled again as she thought of holding her little prince or princess in her arms.

Then she frowned. She'd thought of her abilities again and they scared her now. She'd been raised by powerful parents, very gifted with psionics. She had reached the level of Master at the University in Kitanna. It was there in the university that she'd met Prince Rowan. Her gifts had always dealt with the elements and manipulating them to her will. Prince Rowan, her husband's gifts dealt with the mind and also the elements. He was very gifted and thought to be one of the most powerful Psions in the world.

Merick had been manifesting new abilities since just before her pregnancy was confirmed by Nadia. The first happened when she had first awoke on May Day. She'd been sitting up in bed and then suddenly her room was gone. In it's place had been another room with another young woman sitting at what looked like a table with a mirror and many paints and creams. She'd watched in horror as the woman painted her face like a lady of the night. She called out to her and the spell was broken.

She'd at first thought that a mage had cast an illusion, but that was silly. There were no mages living in the royal city. Kitanna was a Psion City. Then it happened again while Nadia was fussing over her after they ascertained that she was in fact pregnant. She was even more afraid that time. She'd been in Nadia's apartments in the palace, but what she'd seen was not the soft green marble walls and beautiful Chintese rugs. She saw an expansion of trees and brush. It was as if she were standing in a forest.

When she'd gasped out what she'd seen to both Nadia and Rowan a few moments after the vision had been dispelled, Rowan said that she was probably manifesting a new psionic ability. He'd been sure of it, but he wasn't at all clear on what that ability would be. For what psionic ability let the Psion see things that were impossible?

Then there were the voices. Everywhere she went for an entire day it was as if she were hearing the silent thoughts of everyone around her. She'd spent that day in the palace, had lunch with the king and queen and then returned to the manor house that she shared with Rowan and told him that her father had been thinking about taking over a province in Shantori, a neighboring nation.

"My father said those words?" he'd demanded, leaning forward in his chair.

They'd been sitting in the dining room having dinner when she'd told him what she'd thought she heard. She'd told him all about the servants thinking about the rumors that were floating around the city; that the Council of Nine had been infiltrated by mages and they would eventually take over the ten nations. She'd told him about members of the Royal Guard thinking about leaving their posts, but it was what his father had thought about that had caught his attention.

"You've not listened close," she'd explained. "Your father never said those words to me or anyone at the table, Rowan. I heard his thoughts. I heard everyone's thoughts. It only stopped just before I came home."

"You're telling me that you heard my father's thoughts and he's thinking of taking over a province in Shantori?" he asked.

"Rowan, please listen," she said again. "I'm telling you that I heard much more than that. Members of the Royal Guard are thinking of abandoning the crown, the servants believe that mages have infiltrated the Council of Nine."

"But you heard my father's thoughts," he said, looking at the plate of food in front of him in wonder. "Your abilities are growing much more quickly than I'd have thought possible, Merick."

The next morning he'd discussed it with his father. Both of them had come to the manor to talk to her about her new abilities and how important that it was that she not reveal what she'd heard in the thoughts of others. King Ashlar had told her not to talk about what she'd heard in his head, but she was still confused. How was it that she was developing these new abilities? Psions didn't develop new abilities after University. It was there, in the towers, that they were supposed to develop all of their abilities and study with Masters to hone their abilities so that they could be as strong as was possible.

They'd had no answers for her, but Nadia had suggested to her that perhaps she was picking up on her unborn child's abilities. She'd held fast to that idea. It explained everything and made her fear for her child at the same time. That he or she would be a Psion was an absolute. Both Rowan and she were powerful Psions. Any child they sired would be a Psion, but for her to be picking up on the unborn child's abilities meant that her child would be a very powerful Psion. Psionic abilities didn't manifest until the teen years. If the unborn child was already manifesting abilities then he or she would be extremely powerful.

"Come now," said Nadia as she came into the bedroom. "We can't have the Crystal Princess lying about all day. You're not feeling ill?"

"No," she said, smiling. "I'm good this morning, Nadia, thank you."

"Then let's get up," she said. She stood next to the bed, smiling down at Merick.

Nadia had been serving the royal family since before Rowan was born. She was a tall woman with a sturdy build. Her steel gray hair was always pulled back in a tight bun behind her head, her brown eyes were kind and she was always smiling. She was dressed on this day in a wool dress the shade of the morning sky with her perpetual white apron over that.

Merick allowed the midwife to help her out of bed and into the personal room. She'd already filled the large tub with hot water, and the powder that Merick loved so much was sitting on the stool beside the tub next to the long brush for her back. She poured the powder into the hot water in the tub as Merick undressed. Once she was sitting in the tub with the brush and the cake of soap in her hand, Nadia left to get her dress ready.

As she soaked in the water she thought about the things she'd heard in the minds of the servants. Mages taking over the Council of Nine? Was it even possible? Psions were stronger than mages in almost every area. For one thing, a Psion's abilities were triggered by thought. Of course, certain things needed to be present for specific abilities to be useful, but the majority of the Psion's abilities could be triggered by nothing more than thought. A Mage had to cast a spell or use a magical item. Psions were quick to detect a magical item and most of the time they could neutralize its effects rather quickly.

The Council of Nine had been formed to oversee the Universities and the psionic community. Kings and Queens ruled their nations and the people living in their nations, but The Council of Nine housed many psionic objects, investigated crimes thought to be committed by psionics and basically kept all Psions in line. They controlled weather at times, and they were in charge of relations with the Andi. There was so much that the Council of Nine were responsible for that it was impossible for Merick to believe that mages could infiltrate and take over.

It was true that the number of Psions was dwindling with each new generation. It was inevitable with Psions marrying Mundanes. The mixing of the bloodlines had muddled the psionic line considerably, but it wasn't as if there were enough Psions for true psionic couplings. Then there were those who were born with psionic potential but never realized it or it was so weak that it never manifested at all. All of that was true, but would the mages really be able to overthrow the Psions? She shivered as she thought of it. A life under the rule of mages would be unlivable.

She stepped out of the bath when Nadia returned with the towels. She'd been married to Rowan for two years and she still wasn't used to being pampered the way that she was now. Marrying the Crystal Prince had turned her life upside down. She'd been the daughter of a farmer and lived most of her life on the farm in Telia. She'd grown up with two sisters whom she had to share everything she had with, which wasn't much. Her family didn't have wealth. They lived on their crop and the crop depended on the weather. With no Psion proficient in the elemental abilities to manipulate the weather they were forced to accept what came. Often than meant ruined tobacco, and the soil in Kandori wasn't suitable for many other crops.

Trading for the crops went up and down a lot as well, so she was always used to living on bread and things like that. It wasn't until she past her thirteenth name day that she left Telia for the University in Zandi. Life in the University Tower was very strange for her. Where before she'd had second hand clothing and shoes she suddenly had new dresses. Of course, initiates of the University all wore the silver dresses, but they were new. Each had been bought specifically for her and she still owned them, though she never wore them anymore. No Master of a University would ever wear the silver dress of an initiate.

She'd been at the university for a week when she met Prince Rowan for the first time. Her roommate, a girl named Tianna, who also had the longest silver blonde hair she'd ever seen before, told her that the Crystal Price was studying at the university and would be returning from his holiday with his parents that day. She'd told Merick that Prince Rowan was easily the most attractive boy she'd ever seen in her life. It wasn't long before Merick found that Tianna was correct.

She knew who he was as soon as she walked into the initiate's dining room that morning for breakfast. She saw a group of boys cluttered around the most attractive boy she'd ever seen at the far table. He was standing there with one foot on the bench as he talked to his friends about his holiday. His baggy pants were black and appeared to be silk. The tails of his heavily embroidered sky blue coat hung nearly to his calves, and she could just see the lacy ruffles of his white shirt. His raven hair was tied back and lay curling over his shoulder.

She watched him as she followed Tianna to the food line to get her bowl of oats and fruit. One of his friends must had said something amusing, because he threw his head back and laughed. She was struck by the pleasant timbre of his voice as well as the way the curls in his hair seemed to bounce in time with his shoulders as he laughed. She stopped to watch with her bowl in her hand and Tianna bumped into her. They smiled at each other and then walked over to the table next to where the prince stood with his friends and sat down. They were joined almost immediately by a group of three other girls that Merick paid no attention to. She only had eyes for the prince.

"And Father says that he's going to petition the Andi to build a house for me on the palace lawn," he said to his friends. "I won't have to live in the palace after I leave university."

Then, out of pure chance, he turned and his icy blue eyes connected with hers. She was struck breathless by him in that instant. She took in his prominent brow, his perfect lips and his slight smile as he looked at her. Her heart beat faster and her palms began to sweat. Prince Rowan held her gaze for a long moment before nodding slightly and then turning back to his friends. In that long moment, Merick felt as if she were the only girl in the entire world.

Much to her roommate's chagrin the prince sought her out shortly after breakfast. They were making their way back to the girls' tower when he stepped in front of them, flashing a dazzling smile at them. Tianna gripped Merick's hand as they waited for him to speak. Merick just couldn't take her eyes off his smile.

"Pardon the interruption," he said in a silky voice. "I was wondering if you might accompany me on a walk around the lake this afternoon."

There was no question who he was talking to. Tianna let go of her hand as soon as she figured out that the prince hadn't looked at her once. Merick couldn't believe it. She'd have thought it a joke if he hadn't been looking at her with that sincere expression on his handsome face. Her heart beat faster again and her palms were once again sweaty.

"Certainly, Your Highness," she replied, bowing her head slightly.

"Come now," he said, smiling wider. "None of that. My name is Rowan, and if I may be so bold as to ask your name?"

"Merick," she replied.

Her heart fluttered as he reached for her hand and brought it to his lips. "A pleasure," he said. "Merick. I'll wait for you in the great hall at half day. No need to worry about lunch. It will be provided."

With that he bowed slightly to her and turned on his heel. She watched him walk away in silence.

She thought of how jealous Tianna had been as she ate her breakfast. Rowan was off with his father already. She rarely got to eat with him. Her husband had many responsibilities. She sat, eating her oats and fruit and thought back to that first walk around the lake with the Prince of Kandori and smiled.

She'd been so nervous as she fussed with her hair. She'd just left Mistress Anin who had given her that day's lesson on working with metal. She'd been working with water for a week and was very good at manipulating it. Mistress Anin warned her that metal was the most difficult element to manipulate and she'd proven correct. She'd only managed to bend the slag metal slightly before the hour was up.

Now she sat before the mirror in the room she shared with Tianna. She suspected her roommate was still in her lesson with Master Walt. He'd been teaching her to heal wounded animals. Her abilities were amazing to Merick, but it seemed that Tianna was destined for a life as a healer. She'd heard that healers led very dangerous lives. Her eldest sister had told her about the healer in Jaffa who'd been killed by the man she was supposed to be healing. Merick had no idea why anyone would want to kill the healer who was trying to help them, but her sister had told her that it was common. She didn't envy Tianna.

She thought of what she'd wanted to do since she'd found out that she was an Elemental as she stared into her reflected sky blue eyes. What she wanted was to reach the level of Psion Mistress and return to her family's farm and help make the crops grow. She knew her father hoped for that as well. That's when she thought again of Prince Rowan and her date to walk around the lake.

Prince Rowan might be interested in getting to know her, but he wouldn't fancy her long. Once he found out that she was a commoner, far below his station, he'd decide that she wasn't worth his time. She wondered for a second as she brushed her long raven hair if she should even go on this date when it was bound to end badly. She nodded to her reflection as she thought that a little bit of special was better than a lifetime of nothing. She gave her natural rosy cheeks one final glance and then stood, smoothing her silver dress once again.

He was waiting for her in the great hall with a basket on his arm. He looked even more striking in his silver tunic with it's black belt. The belt was black to signify that he was a powerful psionic initiate. She smiled when he looked at her and thought again as she noticed that he seemed struck that this would end badly for her. She'd decided to go through with it however, so she took his arm and walked through the huge double doors and out of the building.

They talked and talked as they walked down the hill to the lake. She noticed again how beautiful the grounds of the university were with all of the lush flowers. They were planted in such a way that it appeared the colors rippled from red to blue to purple to pink and back to red again. There were any number of species of flower planted in rows in front of the main building, and she inhaled their sweet mixed perfumes as they walked and listened to him describe life in the palace in Kitanna, interactions with other princes and princesses and how haughty and arrogant they all were.

"Half the nobility in the capital city can be so snobbish at times that I long for the days to pass quickly so that I can return here to my friends," he was saying as they sat on one of the wooden benches.

"You don't have any friends at home?" she asked, thinking that a life without friends would be impossible to deal with.

"I have one or two," he said, smiling. "There's also my little brother and my older sister."

"Does your sister attend the university as well?" she asked, wondering if she'd ever crossed paths with the princess.

"She does, but she's rarely here," he explained. "She's usually off with Master Eris. She's attempting to learn to make psionic objects like Master Eris."

"That would be very difficult," she said. "I've seen the collection of his rings and wands in the great hall. It amazes me that each one does something psionic."

"Yes, well he lectured a group of us last week about how it's all knowing how much of which kind of energy to imbue in the item," he said, smiling a dazzling smile at her. "I'm sure I don't have the patience. Besides, I've been too busy learning politics and maps to really concentrate on psionic creation."

"Don't your sister and brother have to learn those things as well?" she asked as she nibbled at the bread and cheese he'd handed her.

"Certainly not," he laughed. "My little brother wants to be the most powerful Physical Psionic in the nation. I've told you where my sister's interest lies. No, neither of them will ever have the crown. Well, I suppose my brother could take the crown if I were to die without having sired a son of my own, but baring that he'll be happy to go about his own way."

"I see," she said, not knowing what the right reply to what he'd said would be.

"Oh," he said, suddenly looking concerned. His brow furrowed as he looked at her. "Forgive me for speaking so rudely about the stations of my brother and sister. I've obviously said enough about myself." He smiled, transforming his face and making her knees go weak. "Tell me about you. What is your home life like?"

This was what she'd been dreading. How could she tell him that she'd grown up on a farm that was only meeting half of its potential in good months? She was so happy sitting there with him and didn't want to spoil it by revealing the truth about her own station. He was looking at her expectantly however so she decided to brace herself for the inevitable and tell him the truth.

"Well, my family is large," she said slowly. "My uncle and his wife and two sons live with us on the farm. We all work the land, but with the crazy weather we've had the last year the farm's suffered. It was a lucky day when I tested and found that I was strong enough to come to university. I was even more pleased when I learned that I'm to be an Elemental Psion. That means I can return to the farm and help in a different way."

She waited for what seemed a vast eternity for him to respond. He was still smiling at her, and she thought he was waiting, respectfully to be sure that she'd finished speaking before he replied. She believed that he was merely trying to formulate his rejection of her with tact. She wasn't prepared for what he said when he did speak.

"That's fascinating," he said, his smile widening. "Honest labor is something my father would appreciate. He's very concerned about farms and the like. We've been talking of the weather a lot as well. It's been uncommonly hot for the last year. Of course, my brother suspects the mages are behind it." He continued to look at her while she was silent for a full moment. "What?" he asked when she still hadn't spoken after several moments.

"You don't care that I'm a commoner?" she asked, wide eyed. "I mean, I'm just a farmer's daughter."

"Why should that matter?" he asked, his brow furrowing again. "Am I to surmise that you think me arrogant?"

"Of course not," she said quickly. "I just didn't expect you to accept me."

"Well let me relieve you of the belief that all royalty are so self absorbed," he chuckled. "I think it charming that you help on the farm, and I'm delighted that you're so happy to learn that you're an Elemental so that you can return to your family's farm and help with your abilities. Miss Merick, I'm enthralled by you."

She couldn't remember a thing they'd talked about after that moment. All she could remember was the earnest tone of his silky voice and the determined look in his icy blue eyes as he'd leaned toward her and told her he was enthralled by her. News traveled through the university very quickly. People she'd never spoken to were talking to her as if they'd known her for years. She wasn't sure she liked the attention, but Rowan told her to smile and nod like a princess when she'd mentioned it to him.

Their dates continued for the rest of the year. They went on walks around the lake and through the flower garden. They walked together through the village of Kari where he bought her jorka berry tea and pastries. They traveled to the city of Zandi together for dinner in an inn named The Fighting Knight where he used his status as the Crystal Prince to upgrade from jorka berry tea to the jorka berry wine. That turned several heads of the Masters and Mistresses at the university, but no rules were broken. As the crowned prince, Rowan could get away with much.

By the time the spring holidays had come around Merick was so besotted with the prince that when he left for his annual holiday with his father she was adrift and lonely as she walked around the university. She also noticed that the other girls who couldn't afford to return to their homes for the holiday found it quite fun to whisper about how she'd finally remembered her station when they thought she wasn't listening to them. Those were the most miserable weeks she'd ever spent in the university.

When the others returned from the holidays three days after May Day, Rowan was not among them. It was two more days before he returned to the university and two things came with him. The first was his younger brother, Lord Tylan. Tylan Mandrogan was nothing like his older brother. He was taller and more filled out than Rowan with light brown hair and darker blue eyes. He had strong shoulders and filled out his ruffled shirt much more than Rowan.

The second thing that returned to the university with Prince Rowan was placed around her neck that very night. A necklace of fine hammered silver with bright red fire stones set in tiny rosebuds made her gasp and feel warm all over as soon as he'd clasped it around her neck. She'd touched the rosebuds with her fingers lightly as she stared at him with an open mouth.

"A token of my feelings for you," he said, bowing his head to her slightly.

"Oh, Rowan," she said, tears in her eyes. "I can't accept a gift so expensive. It must have cost more gold then my father's farm produces in two seasons!"

"Now you'll stamp on my feelings if you refuse to accept this gift, Merick," he said earnestly. "It is from the heart. I swear this to you."

The necklace made her the talk of the university. The other girls were openly jealous and Tianna was nearly hostile. Merick was starting to realize that Tianna wasn't a nice person. She was with her in Master Eris's classroom when she learned exactly what her necklace was and the girl smiled evilly when Merick was asked to remove the necklace.

Eris was a tall man with dark hair that was silver at the temples. His facial features were strong and his dark eyes were intense. He was intimidating in size and appearance and even more so when one realized that Eris was the maker of the strongest psionic objects in the world. His class met only twice a month to learn how to use psionic objects. Merick's heart pounded as he stood before her in the large classroom.

"I see that young Prince Rowan has given you the circle he bought from me," he said, smiling at her. "As it is a very powerful Mental Psionic Object, I'm afraid I have to ask that you not wear it in any class, Merick," he said. "See me after class, and I'll tell you exactly what your necklace does."

"Yes, Master Eris," she said, reaching behind her neck to unclasp the necklace. She sat it on the table before her and saw that Tianna looked smug.

She'd had no idea that Rowan had given her a psionic object. That made the necklace more valuable and probably infinitely more expensive. She worried over what it meant that he'd spent so much gold on her as Master Eris explained the Door to Yesterday. She listened closely as he told them that the door would allow anyone who walked through it to see the past through the eyes of an ancestor. He warned against walking through the door more than once and counseled that the door was meant to bring perspective to the user. He talked about the door for the entire two hours they were in his class. When the class was over the initiates mumbled to each other about the door as they left the classroom. Merick was happy that, for the moment, they seemed to have forgotten her necklace.

Master Eris hadn't forgotten however. He told her that her necklace was made very recently and that he'd infused the firestones with psionic fire. The necklace was very powerful and would amplify her ability to manipulate and create fire considerably. He told her that he'd heard from other Masters and Mistresses that she was already quite skilled with, and very powerful in, the manipulation and creation of fire. He said the necklace would make her more powerful than she could imagine. Then he counseled that when she wasn't at university she should wear the necklace almost always.

Rowan smiled when she told him that Master Eris had told her that her necklace was a psionic object. He admitted that he'd heard about her talent for fire and thought of that when he purchased the necklace from Eris over the holiday. He insisted that she wear the necklace any time they left the university. When she protested he simply smiled at her and asked that she do it for him. That had ended her protesting. She was secretly thrilled to have the necklace both for its power and the fact that Rowan had given it to her.

He gave her many things during their time at university, but the necklace was the item she cherished. Their time at university wasn't as long as most initiates spent there. They were both very powerful Psions and High Master Tou told them both that there was no further instruction for them at the start of the spring holiday just two years later. It seemed that the prince would return to his palace and she would return to the small farm house on the other side of the nation.

"We'll see each other soon," promised Rowan. "I won't let you get away from me that easily."

She was still pondering the meaning of that statement as she stood, watching the Royal Coach start off away from the river. She and Tianna were both on the boat. Tianna lived in Cade which was several hundred miles away from the village of Telia where her family's farm was located. They shared a cabin on the ship that would take them down river to the city of Raja where they would board separate coaches to get to their homes.

"Well of course you knew it couldn't last," Tianna said when they were sitting in their cabin after the ship had set sail. "I mean everyone knows that royalty and the common do not mix. He may have said he cared for you, but we both know he was only interested in you while we were in university. He'll no doubt go home and meet his future princess in Kitanna."

"I've held no illusions since the day he asked me for that first walk around the lake," Merick said honestly.

She'd long since learned to dislike Tianna. The girl was guilty of exactly what she was accusing Rowan of. She was only interested in being Merick's friend as long as the prince was interested in her. She knew full well that Tianna's parents were of the court. Tianna made it known to anyone who would listen. She was to be known on her sixteenth name day as Lady Tianna Wirding. She'd made comments to other girls at the university that Merick was nothing more than the most common of commoners. She made fun of the farm that Merick came from and told the others that she would die and old maid on that farm sooner than marry the Crystal Prince.

"That's as well, Merick," she said haughtily. "Why, I've more chance of marrying Prince Rowan that you, dear."

"Actually, he was rather clear on the fact that he dislikes you," replied Merick sweetly as she got up and left the cabin.

It was a very uncomfortable journey after that. Tianna made every attempt to make Merick feel miserable about the fact that she was a commoner. Merick took to spending her time on the deck of the ship during the day, even eating there. She only returned to the cabin she shared with Tianna at night to sleep. Once she'd scrubbed and dressed in the morning she made her way to the deck where Tianna had learned quickly not to talk ill of commoners. She'd come up to the deck to further needle Merick, but she hadn't thought about the fact that the ship was full of commoners and that she was the only one on board with status. The captain of the ship, an overweight mundane man with bushy dark hair and a matching bushy beard had threatened to dock at the next village and put her off the ship with her trunks and forget the Lady Wirding had ever graced his ship.

The coach ride from Raja to Telia was lonely, but she was so happy to be free of Tianna that she didn't care. She basked in the knowledge that she would never have to see Tianna Wirding ever again. For what member of the court would seek out a commoner who lived on a second rate farm? She laughed at that so hard that the driver had asked if she was ill.

She was happy to be home again when her father's wagon pulled up to the front of their farm house. Her sisters were there waiting to hear all about university. It would be a few years before either of them could be tested for university and they were full of questions. Merick didn't mention her outings with the prince. She didn't think her sisters would believe her and she was sure her father would not approve even though she was old enough to marry.

She was happy that everyone was so wrapped up in the planning of the May Day festival that no one noticed that she was becoming melancholy. She hated to admit it but she was starting to believe what Tianna had said about the prince finding his princess in Kitanna. She threw herself into the planning for the festival and baked cakes and pies to take to the village that day. She'd decided to wear her necklace to the festival even though she knew that it would spark a lot of questions from her father.

The day of the festival dawned bright. The sun was high in the sky and the morning was quite warm. Merick dressed in the yellow dress that Master Eris had bought for her. It was traditional that each Psion female that reached Mistress level was bought an expensive dress. For most it was the only expensive item of clothing they would ever own save for the satin silver initiate dresses.

The dress was yellow cotton with red rosebuds embroidered into the bodice. The firestone necklace went very well with the dress. She even pulled her long raven hair back and pinned it up so that the necklace was sure to be noticed. It was noticed as soon as she left her room to sit at the breakfast table with her family. She quickly told them that it was a psionic object that amplified her abilities. Her father beamed at her after that. He was still very excited to have an Elemental Psion in the family. She just didn't tell him that the only ability the necklace amplified was fire.

Her father allowed her to ride on the seat with him, leaving her sisters and cousins to watch over the pies and cakes. She enjoyed the ride immensely. Her father kept a constant conversation going about how beautiful she was and how proud of her he was. She smiled for the entire journey, but she still missed Rowan.

When they arrived in Telia, there were people everywhere. The village seemed to be in an uproar over something. The main field was set up for the May Day festival, but no one was on the field. They were crowded around a house were a mundane family lived. Merick wondered what had happened. Then they passed The Golden Hammer inn and she saw the royal coach in front of it. Her heart began to pound. Had he come for her?

Her father demanded that the pies and cakes be taken into the inn before any of them went to investigate the source of the excitement. Merick carried pies and tried to keep herself from rushing to the mundane home. Telia had never had a Steward House, which was a house that was compensated heavily for hosting the royal family, before. She also remembered that every member of a Steward Family would be given Court status as well.

It had happened so fast that she had been slightly dizzy and dazed for the rest of the day. Prince Rowan had come out of the Steward House as she had returned to the wagon to meet up with her family. When they saw each other they both smiled wide at each other. She noticed her father watching her and her cheeks colored. She didn't care though. Tianna had been wrong. He'd come to Telia to see her!

He was dressed in almost the same outfit he'd worn the first time she'd seen him at the university. This time the jacket was violet and the silk trousers were dark gray. The ruffled white shirt was still white and his long raven hair was pulled back and tied with a violet ribbon. His icy blue eyes were shining as he crossed the dirt road to stand before her and her father. Her heart raced as she clutched the skirt of her dress in anticipation.

"Master Jinae," said Rowan in a respectful voice. "Your daughter has become very dear to me throughout our time together at the university in Zandi. I've come to love her, Master Jinae. I love your daughter more than I've ever loved anything in my life, and by a happy miracle she loves me, too. It would make me the happiest man in the world if you would give me your blessing in asking for her hand in marriage."

She didn't even hear her father's answer. All she could do was listen to her heart pound as she looked at the man she loved. Her heart filled with love for him and she nearly cried out with happiness when he took her hand a moment later. They walked over to the bailed hay that had been lined up to form seating for the people who'd come for the festival and sat down.

"Oh, Rowan," she breathed as he put his arm around her waist and pulled her close.

"We'll be married just as soon as I can get you back to Kitanna," he said, beaming at her. "Father has already written the proclamation. It will be sent out as soon as I give him confirmation that you've said yes." His brow furrowed as he looked at her. "You will say yes, won't you?"

"Yes, Rowan," she said as tears spilled from her eyes. "A thousand times yes."

Then he was kissing her as she'd never been kissed before. His arms were around her, crushing him to her and she wrapped her arms around his neck and pulled him against her as well. The kiss seemed to touch her deep within her soul and all she could think of was that she had her prince. He loved her back and they would be married.

Her head continued to spin as the day went on. The festival began with the traditional circle dance, and Merick had to join the other young women of the village in the dance as Rowan sat with her father to watch with a huge smile on his face. She danced, holding fast to the hands of the girls on either side of them, fully aware that they were both shooting angry looks at her and not caring one bit.

The dance was a simple one. They traveled in a circle while placing one foot directly in front of the other for ten steps and then they turned, switched the hands they were holding and did the same in the opposite direction. It went on as the owner of the inn played the flute while his wife played the harp and his eldest son played a small drum.

When the dance was over more musicians joined them, adding more sounds as they played a slow melodious tune. Rowan was on his feet as the dance ended and before she knew what was happening his arms were around her and they were dancing to the slow music. She couldn't stop smiling. She was happy to see that he was smiling as well. They held each other close and danced through three songs before he led her to the tables of pies and cakes. They selected portions of a jorka berry pie and returned the hay seats.

"You're going to be the most beautiful princess in the world, Merick," he said, looking at her with a smile on his face. "You've made me so happy."

"You can't be as happy as I by half," she replied, smiling wide.

The festival went on around them as they sat and talked about the palace and the mansion his father had built for him. He told her that she would decorate it any way she chose as the pies and cakes were judged by the village Magister. Merick was only half as excited to hear that her tinterberry pie had won first place in the pie judging. Her younger sister's cake won first place in the cake judging. Rowan cheered loudly as she accepted her ribbon and large box of tinterberries from Magister Cane.

Before she knew it the evening was over and it was time for her to return to the farm with her father and sisters. She didn't want to leave Rowan, but of course she knew it wasn't proper for him to spend the night in the house with her. After all, the Steward House had already been chosen, and her father wouldn't allow it. People would talk no matter what Rowan's stations was.

"We'll see each other in less than twelve hours, Merick," he said smiling at her when they were saying their goodbye while her father waited in his seat at the front of the wagon, holding the reins tight to keep the horses from taking off without her. "I'll come to you as soon as the sun is high in the sky."

"I'll not sleep a nit," she breathed. She still couldn't stop smiling.

"Go," he laughed. "Try to sleep, my love. We'll be together soon."

All the way back to the farm her sisters were talking about the prince. They giggled and whispered a lot, but their whispering was loud enough that Merick could hear it over the noise the wagon made on the dirt roads. Her father told them to quiet down twice, which made Merick smile to herself. She was also thinking about what it would be like to be married to Rowan. What would being a princess be like? She couldn't imagine it.

Yet over the next few days they packed as many of their belongings as they could. Rowan had told them all to pack for a long visit to the capital city. Her family would be housed in the palace while Rowan and Merick went on a tour of the cities of Kandori. She was nervous about that but tried hard not to think about it as she helped her sister, Irisa pack her dresses and then helped her sister, Kimma pack hers as well.

A large covered wagon arrived the morning of their departure and men packed the wagon with their trunks and bags. She rode in the back with her family as the wagon followed behind the royal coach. When they got to Raja, a ferry carried both the wagon and the coach across the High River. Then they were back to dirt roads that wound and turned this way and that. They stopped to rest the horses every night. Traveling at night was dangerous enough, even in Kandori, without injuring the horses.

They slept in the wagon while Prince Rowan slept on the coach. Her uncle pitched a tent and helped the royal guardsman build a fire. She and Rowan took walks every night with the guardsmen behind them at a respectful distance. She was happy when they reached the village of Kari and slept in real beds and ate a real meal of stewed meat with cheese and crusty bread with jorka berry wine in the common room of an inn called The Badger's Tail. The guardsmen told Rowan not to walk around the village at night because he was too well known there.

They received the same warning in the city of Zandi, but they were so close to the university that they decided to visit. Master Eris was so happy to hear of their engagement that he hugged them both and gave Merick a gift. He asked her to wear the seastone hair combs on her wedding day. They were very beautiful, and she had only to touch them to know that they were psionic. The blue seastones were encrusted in what looked like pearl and the teeth were hard bone.

"They'll amplify your ability with water," he explained as she gazed at them. "You're very powerful with water, Merick. These will help you create wonders with your gift."

She'd thanked him over and over again and hugged him tight before they returned to the inn. The Psion's Shelter was a three story inn with a private dining room where they took their meals. The entire building was constructed of gleaming white stone, and Rowan told her that it had been built by the Andi. She'd never seen an Andi before, but she knew that they were legendary builders. Half the buildings in Zandi had been built by the Andi as well as the university.

To her surprise they were greeted by Tianna Finn when they were sitting in the common room of The Fighting Knight Inn in the village of Japi. Tianna was now living with cousins in the village while she worked with the local Magister to find criminal element. She was also positively green with envy when she learned that Merick was engaged to the prince she'd so recently told her would find his princess in Kitanna and forget about her. Merick was pleasant to the woman but secretly she was smug as she watched the pained expression on the woman's face whenever she was in the presence of the prince. She knew very well that Tianna had wanted him for herself.

When they finally reached the walls of Kitanna, the capital city, they were stopped at the gate by guards who quickly opened the gates to allow the royal coach and wagon to enter the city. It was like nothing Merick had ever seen before. Zandi had been a magnificent city, but Kitanna was more beautiful by far. The buildings had two and three stories while some had even four! They were all gleaming white with dark shudders and very dark roofs. People were everywhere, dressed in finery. Women gathered in front of shops in a row while men talked while standing in the red brick streets. Children played in front gardens while their mothers beat rugs over wire stretched between large poles in the earth.

Wagons were going this way and that on the criss-crossing streets while men in orange jackets cleaned up after horses everywhere. There was so much activity that she couldn't take it all in. Then she saw the shining walls of the palace. The huge drawbridge was open and men and women dressed in more beautiful finery than those in the streets walked in and out of the palace. Trumpets sounded as they approached the entrance to the palace, and a loud voice called out, "His Royal Highness, Prince Rowan Mandrogan has returned!"

The people stopped and cheered. Some called out his name as they passed. Children sat on their parents' shoulders to watch them pass. It was clear that the people of the city loved him. She got a warm feeling in her stomach as she thought about it. She watched them all as they rode through the shimmering white archway and onto the palace lawn.

Directly in front of the drawbridge was a rectangular building with the same shimmering white walls as the walls around the palace lawn and the palace itself. There were members of the Royal Guard standing in front of the large black double-doors in the building, and she could see more of them inside the opened doors. She thought it had to be some kind of guard station.

They went around the guard building and she saw the mansion that King Ashlar had built his son. It was magnificent with the same shimmering white walls, dark shudders and dark roof as the houses in the city, but it was much larger than any of the houses. She could see that it was four stories tall with windows all across each floor. They didn't stop there however. They pulled on toward the huge shimmering palace.

They climbed down out of the wagon and Rowan took her hand as soon as she was on the ground. Her family followed them into the palace with guards all around them. She was amazed at the sheer size of the palace. The walls inside the huge dark wooden doors were the same shimmering white as the outside, but inside there were dark wood beams framing the windows and in the corners. The floor was white marble with the silver crystal shield in the center of the room under the huge chandelier filled with burning candles.

A woman she didn't know came through the archway and into the room with a smile on her face. She looked so much like Rowan that she'd at first thought it was his mother, but he'd told her that his mother was dead. It was something they had in common. This woman was also much too young to be his mother. She knew that after using their psionic abilities for so long they would appear to stop aging, but this woman didn't look as if she'd stopped aging. She looked positively ageless.

"Rowan!" she cried as she wrapped her arms around him. "It's so good to have you home."

"Sister," he said as he embraced her. "Father can send out the proclamation. She's accepted."

"I gathered that," she said, beaming at Merick. "You must be our future princess. I'm Willa, Rowan's sister." She shook Merick's hand and then laughed when Merick bowed her head slightly. "Come now. Don't do that. We're family now. Soon you'll be royalty, dear."

They introduced her family to Willa and then followed her through the archway and deeper into the palace. The walls were the same in every room they passed through. Finally they were inside a huge room with a dome shaped ceiling. The two crystal thrones sat on a raised dais at the far end of the room. She was amazed to find that they really were carved from huge crystals.

King Ashlar sat in the King's throne with his crown on his head. It too was crystal. Rowan's crown was silver with crystal points standing around it while this one was pure crystal with sharp points in the center. The one in the very center was larger than the others. She wondered what hers would look like. These and many more thoughts ran through her nervous mind as she beheld the Crystal King. He had long raven hair like his son that curled over his shoulders. His features were sharp angles, not softened like Rowan's. His brow was more pronounced than his son's, and she could see his other son in his face. Yes, Tylan got at least a few of his looks from his father. She imagined that Rowan's looks had come from his mother. The huge painting of the woman above the empty throne beside the king had to be his mother. She looked so much like him and his sister.

The king began to speak and she tried really hard to pay attention to more than the feeling of Rowan's hand in hers. She answered in all the right places as did her family, but she couldn't remember when they left the room what was said. She just followed Rowan through the palace and to the grand marble staircase that wound up the wall to the second floor of the palace. Once they were upstairs she saw that a matching staircase would take them up another floor, but they turned and walked down the hall away from the stairs to a suite of rooms.

"This is where you'll stay until the wedding," Rowan said as he opened the door.

The bedroom was enormous. She thought her entire house would have easily fit in this room as she turned in a circle to take in the huge dark wood-framed bed with its four posts and the soft and fluffy yellow blanket covering it. Two fat feather pillows sat on top of the blanket, against the oval headboard. There were small tables on either side of the bed. A gas lamp stood on one and a yellow marble water basin and pitcher stood on the other.

A huge double-door wardrobe stood along the opposite wall with doors on either side that led to two other rooms. One she surmised was a closet, but when she stepped through the door she saw another room with a rack around the entire room. Dresses of every different color and fabric hung from the racks with shoes lined on the floor under them. Rowan stepped inside the room and directed her attention to the chests that stood against the left wall. She opened the top drawer of the one closest to her and saw jewellery so exquisite that she gasped.

When Rowan opened the double-doors of the second chest her breath caught. Here was the very crown she'd wondered about in front of the king. It was silver, like Rowan's with the same crystal points that stood around it, only these were thinner and longer. There were pearls between each one, giving them the shimmering effect that the walls of the palace possessed. This was the crown of the Crystal Princess.

After showing her the bathroom, and letting her marvel over the indoor plumbing, he left her to change for dinner. She selected a blue dress with sliver leaves embroidered into the bodice. She put the combs in her hair and took off the necklace. She didn't dare touch any of the jewellery in the chests. She was just coming out of the dressing room when there was a knock at her door. She opened it to meet Nadia for the first time.

"My name is Nadia, dear," she said, smiling at her. "I'll be your maid from now on. I've come to tell you that it's time to come to the dining room. I'll show you where it is."

Merick followed her, but the rest of the evening, in fact the next year, was such a blur that she could scarcely recall details. She dined with her family as well as Willa, Rowan and King Ashlar. She remembered that they'd talked about her family's farm and they were told that once the marriage had taken place her father and sisters would be given Court status. She remembered being really happy about that.

Then she was ushered to the garden by Rowan for a bit of private time, though "private" was a relative term with Rowan's First Defender standing not three feet from where they sat on a marble bench surrounded by roses of every different color. He told her that they would be married in a week, and they'd had a long discussion about her family being elevated in status. Then he'd kissed her and everything else had left her mind again. Before she knew it she was being helped out of her dress by Nadia and into a night dress. Then she was in bed and before the lights had been extinguished she was asleep.

The week leading up to the wedding was a blur. She'd been introduced during a ball as the Princess in Waiting. She'd met so many of the Lords and Ladies of the Court and couldn't remember any of them. She'd spent a lot of time that week with Willa, and she loved her dearly by the end of that week. Then Nadia and Willa were helping her into her wedding dress.

The wedding was held in the grand hall of the palace. Every Lord and Lady of the Court were there. Her father had walked her down the staircase and into the hall and placed her hand in Rowan's with a smile before stepping back. King Ashlar performed the ceremony himself, but she could barely remember his words about love, life and duty to the crown. The party afterward was very long, and she'd been so tired. She danced with Rowan for the entire night, only leaving his arms three times. The first was to dance with her father who'd looked so amazing in his dark trousers, jacket and white ruffled shirt. He'd looked like a Lord. The second was to dance with Tylan who had come home for the wedding, and then she was dancing with High Lord Bran Hellers, cousin of the king. He'd looked so much like his cousin that she'd thought for a moment that she was dancing with the King in disguise.

After a wondrous wedding night, half of which was spent with Rowan trying to convince her that she really was the Crystal Princess of Kandori now, she said goodbye to her family and embarked on the tour of the cities so that the people could meet their newly crowned princess. They traveled to the furthest end of Kandori to the city of Riva first. There'd been a parade through the city before they'd been ensconced in their rooms at the inn she couldn't remember the name of. From Riva they traveled north, crossing the Eld River to Kitz and then down the river to the village of Ham where there was only a parade as they moved through the village.

They traveled west to the city of Yoke, where the people swarmed the inn, making their departure from the city the next morning very late. From there they traveled southwest to her home village where she'd been so nervous she'd nearly fallen from the wagon that carried them through the crowded streets. By the end of that year she'd been ready for the tour to end. She'd missed her family dearly and was tired of inns and tents.

They'd returned to Kitanna to a grand gathering to welcome them home. A ball was thrown for the Ladies and Lords of Court, and she was thrilled to see her father and sisters there. Tylan was home to stay and he introduced her to Anika, a beautiful young woman with long blonde hair and eyes the color of the Stalt Sea. She was shocked to learn that Anika was not a Psion but a mage, but Tylan told her they were in love.

Her father and sisters were living on a farm in Kitanna now. Her uncle and cousins had returned to the farm outside Telia. So her father had been with her when she'd announced to the Court that she was pregnant. There'd been another ball to celebrate that. This time Merick's jorka berry wine was switched to jorka berry tea of course.

She sat there with her breakfast bowls empty as she thought about how happy Rowan had been when he'd learned that she was carrying his child. She smiled as she thought back to just how joyous he'd been then and continued to be even to that very morning when he'd kissed her before heading off to practice the sword with Tevin Grandi, his First Defender. She was just thinking of getting up from the table and returning to the sitting room to work on the blanket she'd been weaving for her baby when Tevin thundered into the dining room, looking more afraid than she'd ever seen him before. His gray eyes were stormy as he looked at her.

"Princess, you must come with me now," he said, grabbing her hand and pulling her up from her seat. "It's urgent that you come. King Ashlar is dead. The mages are killing everyone in the royal family. High Lady Willa is dead as well."

"Where is Rowan?" she demanded as she followed him out of the dining room, through the sitting room and out the front door of the mansion.

"He is well," replied Tevin. "He is with High Lord Tylan and his bride."

"Take me to him, Tevin," she hissed.

"We're going to him now, Princess," replied the man as he started to run.

There were people running and screaming every which way as they ran for the guard's barracks. She saw flames flying from the hands of Psion's and magical bolts of lightning shooting from the hands of mages as she ran. She clutched her stomach as a woman was consumed by the lightning right in front of her. Tevin pulled her along and inside the building before the mage that had killed the woman could recognize who she was. Then before she knew what was happening she was in Rowan's arms.

"Merick," he said, kissing her face again and again. "I thought I'd lost you."

"Rowan, your father," she sobbed.

"Shh," he said, kissing her again. "Don't think of it, my love. We'll be safe if we can get out of here alive."

Then she noticed that Tylan and Anika were standing in the small room with them. There was another man there that she didn't know. He was tall and very muscular with very short dark hair and brown eyes. There was a scar running from his left eyebrow to the left corner of his mouth. When he smiled at her, she shivered.

"My Queen," he said, bowing to her and confusing her.

"Queen?" she gasped in confusion, looking from the stranger to her husband and back.

"My father is dead, Merick," Rowan said quickly. "That makes me King. You're my wife, so that makes you Queen."

"It isn't going to matter who's King and Queen now, Rowan," said Tylan, demanding their attention. "Anika's plan is the only way. You know it."

"Then we'll do it," said Rowan, turning back to Merick and nodding at the stranger. "His name is Shan. He's an animorph, and he's here to help us."

Animorphs were very powerful physical psionics. She'd learned about them at the university. She'd also learned that they were extremely rare among Psions. They could transform into animals at will. She'd never thought she'd meet one in her life time. He smiled at her and she shivered again. She wondered what sort of animal he was when he transformed and how he could help them.

She had no time to ponder it though. Anika began to mumble something, gripping a long, thin crystal rod in her hand and then Rowan transformed in front of her. She gasped at what she saw. He was no longer her Rowan. He looked so different. His long raven hair was ratted and tangled. His eyes were a dull brown color and his face had a chiseled look to it. She gasped again as she took in the sight of Tylan. He looked drastically different now, too. He looked a lot like Rowan now, and Anika looked shorter and rather plump. Her blonde hair was now red and her sea green eyes were now blue.

"You've changed, too, Merick," said Rowan, reading her expression. "This is our way out of here."

Then she noticed the huge black wolf in front of her. As she gazed at the wolf she noticed that it wasn't exactly a wolf. It looked like one of the hounds that used to attack the animals on her father's farm. This had to be Shan transformed. She didn't have long to think about this either, because Rowan grabbed her arm and they were running out of the barracks to a covered wagon. Her stomach lurched as she realized that this was the very covered wagon she'd arrived in Kitanna inside before she'd married Rowan.

There was no time to worry about that now. They climbed onto the wagon and Tylan yelled for the horses to move, and move they did. She lay against Rowan, sobbing in fear for her family as the wagon made its way through the palace lawn and over the drawbridge into the city. She could still hear the people screaming and shut her eyes.

They rode for days, stopping only to switch off between Tylan and Rowan. Even Anika took a turn at the reins but Rowan refused to let Merick. Shan transformed back into his human form and had to borrow clothing before taking a turn at the reins himself. They finally stopped after what seemed like years but was probably a lot less time in a village Tylan informed them was named Kinter in the state of Canta. They were on the shores of the Crandid Ocean. Then they were on a ship, and Anika used magic to speed the ship on until they were docked on the largest of the Islands of the Andi.

She was shocked to find many other humans on the island. They'd gathered in a small section of the city of Al' Tara. She didn't see any of the Andi in this part of the city, and Rowan cautioned her to stay in their rooms and rest. This went on for months. She was getting closer and closer to her time. She told Rowan that she'd have the baby any day.

Finally she could rest no longer. She got up and went down the stairs with Anika's help. Outside she savored the sunlight and fresh air as they stood on the front porch of the inn. Then she saw something that made her breath catch in her throat. A silver door frame stood unsupported across the dirt road from where they were standing. She knew what it was as soon as she saw it. This was the Door of Wisdom that would let anyone see the future through the eyes of a descendant!

After arguing with Anika for a small eternity she made her way across the street to the door frame and stepped through. When she returned she was sobbing. Rowan was there, and when she first looked into his altered eyes she saw anger. That quickly changed to concern and fear. He was holding her and trying to get her to tell him what she saw but she continued to sob. She was frantic a moment later when he walked through the door frame himself.

When he came back she expected him to be upset, but he wasn't. He quickly looked around on the ground until he found a large flat stone. She realized then that they were standing in front of a mason's workshop. She gasped as she saw him use his Psionic Earth Ability in the open. Then she saw the words on the tablet. It read: "In another place the lost ones roam, seeking the way home. In the power one stands strong to bring the lost ones together and set right was has gone wrong so the high magician will fall forever."

Then there was yelling. Men in dark cloaks and wooden masks were running toward them, and Anika was thrusting her long crystal into Merick's hand. She was saying something that Merick didn't understand at first, but then she heard her.

"It gives magical powers," she was saying. "Just hold it and you can cast spells. It doesn't matter if you know them or not. Just say words that rhyme in one way or another and what you want will happen. Go, Merick. Save yourself!"

She grabbed Rowan's hand and started to run. They ran around the inn and into the woods behind it. Shan had transformed into the dog again and was right behind them. They continued to run into the woods as the sun set, leaving them in near darkness. She almost didn't see the wooden shelter in the darkness. As she saw what it was her first contraction hit her and nearly brought her down. Sticky warm wetness flowed down her legs and she cursed the animal hide she was wearing for sticking to her legs as she ran.

"Rowan! The baby is coming!" she cried as they reached the shelter. When he turned to look at her she saw that his looks were back. He was her Rowan again!

They burst into the shelter and she collapsed on the floor. She put her hands to her stomach and wailed. Rowan was in front of her in seconds as the dog sat between them and the door. He faced the door and stood sentry.

"I feel it," she cried as sweat ran down her face.

"I can feel them coming, Merick," Rowan replied. "We've got to get out of here."

"The baby!" she cried, pushing against the pain and almost sitting up. She gritted her teeth and sat up further as another pain gripped her. When it released she fell back against the straw behind her with a panting breath.

"Almost," Rowan said from between her legs. He smiled up at her, though his eyes were panicked. "Merick, I can see the head!"

Then Shan began to growl. She knew what it meant, but she was powerless to do anything about it. They'd arrived. They would kill them all for sure. She pushed against the pain again and then fell back when it released.

"Oh no!" cried Rowan as Shan began to bark loudly.

"Rowan, I can't stop!" she cried, pushing against the pain again. She growled at the pain much like Shan had growled.

She lay back as the door burst open and the mages came into the shelter. She gasped, but Rowan turned on his knee and raised both hands. A brilliant white light shot from the palms of his hands and struck the mages, making them scream as a hissing sound filled the small shelter. Then the light was gone and so were the mages. She screamed and nearly sat up completely as she felt something push through her pelvis.

"A boy," Rowan beamed as he turned and caught the baby in his hands. "A healthy baby boy."

"The mages?" she asked as she sat up to reach for her son.

"Dead," he replied quickly. "But more will come."

"They can't have him, Rowan," she said, pulling her son out of his arms. "They can't have my Javen!"

"Remember what Eris told us?" he said, wiping sweat from his brow. "About the veils?"

"I remember," she said, thinking of what he'd said. Veils were more Earths. The "could have beens". He'd said that some had to be populated.

"Merick, say a spell to take us to one of those places," he said. "Use the crystal."

"How will I know which one?" she asked, afraid.

"Say the spell to get you to the right one," he said.

She gripped the crystal in her hand and began to mumble words. Then there was a bright light and they were gone.

 


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