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Bertrice Small

Lara

The first book in the World of Hetar series, 2005

For Ethan Ellenberg with thanks.

Prologue

SHE WAS NAKED. The girl reached up to touch the thin gold chain that she had always worn about her slender neck. It was still there. Her fingers gently wrapped about the delicate crystal star that hung from the necklace. It also remained, and relief flooded through her. She lifted the star to her sight, and whispered silently, “Are you there?”

A tiny golden flame flickered within the star. “Of course I am here,” the familiar voice murmured as silently back to her. “Where else would I be?”

“I am afraid,” the girl said.

“The unknown can frequently be frightening, but you need not be fearful,” the voice reassured her. “All will be well. This is but the beginning.”

“The beginning of what?” the girl wanted to know. She simply could not keep her eyes open a moment longer. They were closing in spite of her efforts to stay awake.

“Your journey,” came the reply as the flame within the star flickered again and died, dropping from the girl’s fingers as she fell into a deep and dreamless sleep.

Chapter 1

“WE MUST SELL Lara, husband. There is simply no other choice if you are to have your chance,” Susanna, wife of John Swiftsword, said quietly. She was uncomfortable with this matter, but sometimes her husband would not face simple facts. And the simple fact was that John had a beautiful daughter for whom he could no longer provide. But that same daughter could provide for them all, given the opportunity.

“I cannot,” her husband replied, but his voice was filled with the desperation that came from knowing she was right. Lara was all he had left of his brief union with the faerie woman, Ilona. The faerie had loved him for a brief time, given him their daughter whom she had named Lara-shining one, in her tongue-and then disappeared from his life as easily as she had entered into it that midsummer’s night so long ago. He had not married until two years ago, and while he loved his Susanna, the memory of Ilona would remain with him forever.

“Listen to me, husband,” Susanna’s voice penetrated his thoughts. “Have you considered what is to become of Lara? We are poor people. There is no dowry for her. How can there be, given your situation? Many fear her faerie beauty and her faerie blood. Who will wed a dowerless girl like that? And if she is not married, what will happen to her? All your life you have wanted but one thing-to become a member of the Order of Crusader Knights. You have served as a mercenary soldier since you were fifteen, and your reputation as a great swordsman is known throughout the land. But you know as well as I do that your poverty prevents you from attaining your greatest desire. The tournament for entry into the ranks of the Order of Crusader Knights is to be held in just a few months, husband. It will not be held again for another three years.” Could he not see, or understand? Why did she have to be the one to point out these things? She very much liked her stepdaughter, but John needed to advance, and she wanted a better life for their son. There was but one way to achieve their goals.

“But to sell my daughter into slavery,” John Swiftsword protested weakly.

Susanna sighed. “I know, husband, how much you love this child, but she is all we have that is of any value. She is so beautiful that it almost hurts the eyes to look upon her. I have grown to love her, too. Still, think of what little we have, and consider the son I gave you but six months ago. What will happen to Mikhail? The hovel we live in is yours only by virtue of your service to the Guild of Mercenaries. Your sword gives us food and small necessities, but nothing else. What clothing we possess is ours, but when your sword is no longer useful, where will we go? How many of your kind have deliberately allowed themselves to be killed in battle rather than face a homeless old age? And how many of their women roam as beggars without sons to provide for them?”

“But if Lara is sold into slavery what will happen to her?” John Swiftsword asked his wife. His gray eyes were troubled, and he ran a nervous hand through his brown hair.

“She will most likely be bought and trained to be a Pleasure Woman for one of the great Pleasure Houses here in the City,” Susanna said. “It will be a good life for her, and in all likelihood some magnate will eventually purchase her from the Pleasure House to be his own personal Pleasure Woman. She will enjoy a life of luxury, husband, which is a far better future than we can offer her.” Susanna put a comforting hand on her husband’s sinewy arm. He was a good man, but like many men he needed to be led in the right direction. Such was a wife’s duty.

“How can you be certain that she will be so fortunate in her fate?” he demanded.

“I have already gone to Gaius Prospero, husband,” Susanna answered honestly.

“You went to the Master of the Merchants of the Midlands, and he saw you?” John Swiftsword was astounded by her admission.

“The Master of the Merchants holds an open audience once each month for any who would come to proffer him something of value. I took Lara with me several days ago that he might see what we had to offer him. Gaius Prospero is who he is because he is a clever man, and always eager for profit. He has told me what he will pay for Lara. It is a more than generous sum. With it I can purchase the finest materials to make your application garments. With it you can order up the best suit of armor, new weapons, and the best warhorse bred, for whom I will sew the most beautiful caparisons that you may be proud of yourself, your talent with the sword and your perfect appearance. I have already alerted the armorer and the swordsmith. They are eager to service you, husband, because they know that if you enter this tournament you will win your place among the Crusader Knights, thus burnishing their own reputations. Gaius Prospero was particularly pleased when I told him why we were selling Lara. Your skill as a great swordsman precedes you, husband.” She spoke strongly. He must be convinced that this was the right thing for all.

“Susanna…”

“Think, husband!” She interrupted him. “When you gain your rightful place we will be given a house in the Garden District where all the Crusader Knights and their families reside. Oh, it will be small at first, I know, for until you have made your mark among the knights in battle you will not merit a large home, but one day we shall have one, I know. And even the lowest of the Crusader Knights is given a servant. I will have someone to help me. Our son, Mikhail, will be raised as a knight’s son with an automatic place within their ranks should he merit it, but if he is not the warrior his father is, he will receive an education that will keep him in the upper strata of our society. Selling Lara to Gaius Prospero will benefit us all. She will live a life of luxury, and we will climb into the ranks of the elite. You will have your dream. Our son will have more opportunities than even we can imagine. There is no honor or advancement in poverty, husband. There is only the certainty of death.” Her eyes suddenly filled with tears.

John Swiftsword nodded. Susanna was absolutely right in this matter. This was an opportunity that would not come again for him. His daughter was exquisitely beautiful even as her faerie mother had been. But he could not provide Lara the kind of life to which she was entitled. And of late, the Mercenary Guild had not been as active as

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