Vendalia led the way down, around boulders and thin trees. Roots ran across the trail. Tall grass hid bugs, snakes, jackrabbits, and deer. Above them birds began their morning songs. Vendalia took patient steps, her altered state of mind allowed for the perceptibility of heightened senses. Every sound was a solid note in an orchestra, all colors one part of a magnificent panoramic painting made by Dia, Herself. A cold rush, a smell of life’s ingredients in late spring, swept up the hill.

“Do you enjoy being apri?” Vendalia asked.

“I’ve never smoked erba,” Arnam said.

“Never?”

“Not once, m’lady. I wash down my meals with the Queen’s Ale. But I’ve seen what erba does to a person.”

Vendalia walked in silence. She tripped over a root but caught herself before falling.

“What comes after, you mean?” she asked.

“Yes, m’lady.”

“That’s why you just keep smoking.”

“Eventually it catches up with you, m’lady.”

“Careful, Arnam. You could lose the spot as my favorite.”

To be apri was to feel everything. However, it’s equal reaction was chi, which was to feel nothing. Chi lasted half as long as apri, but was twice as harsh as apri was enjoyable.

Vendalia stopped when she saw a deer on the path. The doe stood broadside. Arnam stopped one pace behind Vendalia. The doe had not looked up from her breakfast of tall glass.

“She’s alone,” Vendalia said.

“She’s young. Just now on her own. In a year’s time she will have a fawn with her, if no hunter, or disease, befalls her.”

The doe looked up at the sound of Arnam’s deep voice. For a moment all the animals, the whole forest, stood still. Vendalia stared into the doe’s large black eyes. The doe nodded, seemed to understand, and walked off the path into the grass. Vendalia waited another breath, and then continued down the trail.

“My mother would consider it dangerous for me to be alone out here. Do you agree, guardsman?”

“I am not to question my queen’s wishes,” Arnam said. 

“But you question mine.”

“I am still learning your…boldness. It is just hesitation, m’lady

“Boldness! You are quick. Do you think that doe to be a danger to me?”

“No, m’lady.”

“Then why are you here?”

“To protect you from unknown threats, m’lady.”

“From myself.”

“I do as the Queen commands.”

The trail opened up into a wide field. Boulders dotted the rolling shorter grass. A stream cut down the hill and along the border of the field. Vendalia could see her horse looking up the trail, near the edge of the clearing. Near it were three other horses, looking in no general direction. Smoke rose in the low trees. 

“What are they doing?” Vendalia asked.

“Knowing them, making breakfast,” Arnam said.

“Dia damn them.”

Vendalia picked up her pace. Arnam followed. She walked up to her horse, untethering it from an old oak, and mounted.

“Guardsmen,” Vendalia said from her perch.

Two men were sitting around a small campfire, a small iron skillet with sizzling sausage and gold eggs. The men were wearing the same tunic as Arnam, swords at their belts. They stood but didn’t move further.

“We’re to visit the governor. Try to keep up.” Vendalia spurred her horse, leaving behind her guardsmen.

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