Korandellan té Ortyn, the last King of the Harshini, waited until the end of the concert before he left the natural amphitheater in the center of Sanctuary to return to his apartment. But first, he congratulated the performers. He admired the clever scenery they had devised, which used a mixture of magic and everyday objects, and graciously thanked them for their efforts. He moved among them, smiling and waving, as the glimmering twilight, which was as close to night as it came in this magical place, descended over the valley. Sanctuary's tall, elegant white spires towered over the hidden city, touched with silver as evening closed in. The people were trying so desperately hard to be happy. He did his best to seem happy for them in return.
There was a brittle edge to the serenity of Sanctuary these days. An edge that Korandellan, more than any other Harshini, could feel. The happiness here was fragile; the cheerfulness an illusion. The Harshini were running out of time. Quite literally. Only Korandellan knew how close they were to the end.
Perhaps Shananara suspected. She fell in beside him, dressed in the long loose robes that most of the Harshini favored, which surprised him a little. Shananara had been in and out of Sanctuary a great deal of late, and he was more used to seeing her in Dragon Rider's leathers. His sister had always been more interested in the comings and goings of the human population than he. With the demon child abroad, and the whole world affected by her presence, Shananara was anxious to know what was happening. Slipping her arm companionably through his, she walked withhim back to his quarters, waiting until the doors swung silently shut behind them before she spoke.
"Let me help, Koran."
The king sighed, letting his shoulders slump and his façade of vitality crumble in her presence. He looked haggard.
"No. You cannot help, Shanan," he told her, lowering his tall frame into a delicately carved chair near the open doors that led to the balcony. The tinkling sound of the waterfall drifted through the open windows. The evening, as usual, was balmy and clear. "I need your strength for other matters."
"There won't be any other matters if you falter," she warned. "Let me carry some of the load. Or do you enjoy being a martyr?"
He smiled at her wearily. She had been out visiting the humans again. Her manner of speech always reflected her journeys among the mortals. "No, I do not enjoy being a martyr, sister. But if I fail, our people will need you to guide them. If you help me now, you will certainly ease my burden, but it will weaken you at a time when one of us needs to be strong. Only the demon child can lift the burden from my shoulders completely."
Shananara flung herself into one of the chairs opposite the window. "The demon child? That unreliable, spoilt, half-human atheist brat? If that's who you're relying on to save us, brother, we are doomed."
"You shouldn't speak of her so harshly, my dear. R'shiel will do what she must."
"She will do what suits her, Koran, and not a damned thing more. I doubt if even the gods know if it will be what she was destined for."
"Yet it is on her we must rely."
"Then let me bring her back."
"Here? To Sanctuary? For what purpose?"
"If you won't let me ease your burden, then let R'shiel do it. The gods know she's strong enough. Let me bring her back, Koran. Let her carry the load for a time, enough to let you recover, at least. Then you can take up the burden again and R'shiel can do what she has to."
The king shook his head. "Events unfold as they should, Shananara. We cannot interfere."
"What events?" she scoffed. "Where is it written that you should destroy yourself holding Sanctuary out of time, while the demon child sits on her hands trying to decide if she even believes we exist or not?"
"You did not speak to R'shiel before she left us. She has learned much."
"She doesn't know a fraction of what she needs to know. And who is there to teach her? Brak?"
"I thought you were fond of him."
"I am, but he's hardly the one I would have chosen as the demon child's mentor. He doesn't even like her. And he certainly doesn't trust her."
"She will learn what she needs to know in Hythria."
"But does R'shiel know that? She's just as liable to head in the other direction."
"You worry too much, Shanan. These things have a way of working themselves out. R'shiel will come to accept her destiny and will learn what she needs in due course."
"Before or after the Harshini are destroyed, brother?" Leaning forward, she studied him intently, as if she could see through his skin and into his soul. "Xaphista's minions have control of Medalon. The Defenders have surrendered to Karien. Hythria is on the brink of civil war and Fardohnya is arming for invasion. And you are beginning to weaken. I can see it in your eyes. You tremble constantly and cannot control it. Your eyes burn. Your aura is streaked with black. A flicker, a slight wavering in your hold on the spell that holds Sanctuary out of time, and Xaphista's priests will know where we are. Once that happens, you will be able to count the days on the fingers of one hand before the Kariens are standing at our gates."
"R'shiel will deal with Xaphista before that happens," he assured her.
"I wish I shared your faith in her. But how long do we have, Koran? How long can you keep draining yourself?"
"As long as I need to."
She leaned back with a defeated sigh. "Then I can only pray to the gods that it will be long enough."
"The demon child will do what she must."
Shananara did not look convinced. "You place far too much faith in that uncontrollable halfbreed."
The Harshini king nodded tiredly. "I'm aware of that, Shananara, but unfortunately that uncontrollable halfbreed is our only hope."