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More Than Money or Gold

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Clarinda sat demurely with her hands on her lap, trying to look interested in what her fiance was talking about. He seemed to be kind, and that was to Clarinda, the most important trait he had. Her aunt valued his financial stability more and while Clarinda certainly didn't despise that aspect of her upcoming marriage, that was not what she appreciated the most. The man was about twenty years older than she and excruciatingly boring. His mother – who was still alive – at least it looked that way – spent the greater part of the visit asleep, snoring. Despite that, Clarinda's aunt made valiant efforts at conversing with the older lady.

It was not that Clarinda wasn't grateful for the match. She was. However, these boring sessions that only lasted an hour or two were nothing compared to the rest of her life that she would be forced to spend with her fiance and future husband. At the moment, she even had trouble remembering his first name. Of course, so far, she was only expected to address him as mr Denaire. Simple enough. He didn't even seem to make an effort to engage his young fiancee in interesting topics of conversation. His main topic of choice was his place of work and his daily tasks there. As far as Clarinda understood, he was an accountant or something along those lines.

After a while of his long monologues, her mind tended to wander. She recalled the time when her parents were still alive and she had had a few friends to play with and many books to read. Even her school days, that she had not appreciated to the full while they lasted, now seemed golden in her mind's eye. The lessons and even the homework – how she had changed in the past ten years – now seemed to her as amusing and fascinating.

She also recalled her favorite and at the same time, least favorite playmates – the infuriating Festinette twins. Playing with the younger boys who were twins and almost completely identical to her eye, had been the height of amusement and excitement, despite the fact that she had been several years older. Then one day, they had played an unfortunate trick on her and she had never forgiven them. She was still upset about it, yet missed those carefree days with them, almost as much as she missed her parents. The thought of the Festinette twins reminded her of the bad news she had recently received. Apparently, they had vanished without a trace, while they took part in the Grand Ellipse.

The words held an irresistible charm in her mind. How she wished that she too had been able to participate. She fancied that if her parents had still been alive, she would have been allowed to go. Not that she would have won, but the adventure in itself would have sustained her for years. In addition, she would not have been forced to marry this pompous old bore if things had been different. Her parents would not have insisted upon it and indeed there would have been no need, because their financial situation had been secure. They could have afforded the dowry necessary for a more appealing match. Besides, she herself might have met some interesting man during her travels.

And thinking of interesting men – she had until the time of the twins' disappearance continued receiving at irregular intervals highly amusing, if somewhat rude letters from them. She had been forced to hide those letters away from her aunt's gaze – but that had been easy, since her aunt had declared that she could not have Clarinda living in her house. Instead, Clarinda was put up in a rented room with an excruciatingly boring, but respectable widow without sons.

The prevailing theory concerning the twins' disappearance was that they had succumbed to the elements in Zuleekistan, where they last had been heard from. She refused to believe that. At her relatively young age of 22 – though she had learned that in terms of marriagebility she was fast getting old – she was of a more optimistic mindset than her elders. Her aunts had claimed that this should be a lesson to her. Frivolous pursuits, undertaken by frivolous people, like the twins, was nothing a respectable young lady – or as it happened – a not so young lady to associate with.

That only made Clarinda more determined to persist. If the twins were not dead, and she wouldn't believe that yet, then surely they could be found and brought back? Though being the butt of their practical joke still stung, she could not forget them. They had been the most exciting acquaintance she had ever made. In fact, they were even quite good looking in their impertinent way. Besides, the very idea of someone she knew and had exchanged letters with and had indeed played with as a child, having disappeared in such an exotic location as Zuleekistan, couldn't fail to occupy her imaginative mind at most times.

Clarinda was brought back to the present by her future mother-in-law coming awake rather loudly. To her relief, this signaled the end of the little tea party that was intended to allow the two parties of the future marriage get to know each other.

Clarinda's aunt never failed to remind her that in the old days – apparently not in her own lifetime, but many years previously – the young ladies of the day had not been allowed to meet their future husbands until the day of the wedding. Since Clarinda had at one time read quite a few books about history, she knew that this lay several hundred years in the past and as such was completely irrelevant, but her aunt clearly saw things differently.

As always she was relieved to see the last of her fiance and future mother-in-law. In fact, it was quite a relief to be allowed to leave for her own little rented room and to be on her own for a while, before bedtime, which seemed to her to be almost as early as it had been while she was still in the nursery. Her rent did not include many candles or much lamp oil, so she was forced to retire to bed quite early.

It was not quite dark when she returned to her room, and the widow had kindly let her have the daily newspaper once she herself had finished reading it. Usually, it only contained rather dull articles about politics and current events, but occasionally there was something more interesting. Today, huge letters announced that there would be a resplendent party at the castle Waterwitch in Lower Hetzia. That was not too far away to visit and Clarinda dearly wished she could be a guest at the ball. The winner of the Grand Ellipse would be celebrated and many of the other participants would also appear.

That night, Clarinda dreamed of walking through the halls of Waterwitch, listening to the dance music and watching the glamorous couples dancing. Somehow, it all felt extremely exciting, not only because of the beautiful gowns and the handsome gentlemen. She had a feeling that something truly interesting would occur. If only she could be there. When she had been forced to leave school, her instructor in modern magic had claimed that she was not talented in the magic arts and it would be a waste of time pursuing her studies anymore. Clarinda thought that perhaps the subject 'modern magic' should have been taught by someone more modern than the old lady who didn't seem to have such great talents a teacher of magic should have. The castle Waterwitch seemed to Clarinda to be truly magical and she was sure that if she was allowed to go there, she would discover something mysterious, exciting and magical.

Towards morning, the dream ended but she did not wake up right away, instead having a sort of extremely vivid vision of her friends the Festinette twins. She had dreamed of her old friends before, but this was so utterly different that she found her dream self being amazed, as she usually never was in a dream. The twins were – when she awoke the memory made her blush – almost completely naked and wearing makeup and in the company of other young, handsome likewise naked or scantily dressed young men. At first that fact alone excited Clarinda enough not to focus overly on the surroundings. However, soon a very fat and ugly old man, wearing opulent, exotic clothing appeared. What he was doing defied Clarinda's comprehension. She was not quite sure she understood, but she could tell that her friends were devastated and crushed by the acts the older man committed against them.

When she came awake, she was quite sure that vision was different from any dream she had previously had. After all, what happened in the vision was something she had never before imagined, indeed still could not quite understand. What she did know was that if this was a true vision – and she found herself inclined to believe it was – her friends were in trouble. Big trouble. And no one was looking for them. No one was trying to save them. Someone should and she was beginning to think that someone had to be her.

The next time she was forced to endure a meeting with her future husband – today his mother had chosen to remain behind with her paid companion – she could not contain herself and found herself chattering on about the ball at castle Waterwitch. To her enormous astonishment, her fiance had the necessary connections to obtain an invitation to the ball for her and would be accompanying her. The latter part was something Clarinda chose to ignore, but the thought of being allowed to attend the ball filled her with excitement such as she hadn't felt since before her parents died.

Even her aunt, who was known to abhor any such events, became relatively enthusiastic about her attendance and with the financial assistance of mr Denaire, a gown would be ordered and made for her. That too, excited Clarinda, though she dreaded the hours of standing still for the measuring of the dress.

Since Clarinda's hair was auburn, the fabric chosen was sea green, which was considered an auspicious shade for a visit to the castle Waterwitch. Clarinda loved the color green so she just demurely thanked her aunt and did not expand on the topic. She had a feeling that if she drew attention to her love for that particular color she might end up with something brown or beige instead. To look 'respectable'.

Every night until the dress was delivered, Clarinda found it hard to go to sleep in the evenings. Her mind was filled with exciting prospects. Once the vision of the twins returned – or to be precise – not the exact same one – but one quite similar. Yet again her childhood friends were subjected to some sort of humiliating and perhaps painful abuse and her heart ached for them. It was enough to almost make her forgive them for their thoughtless prank.

Then at last, the night of the ball arrived. Clarinda even had her hair done by a highly capable though slightly snobbish hairdresser. Even the thought of attending the ball with her boring fiance could not dim the enchantment of the event. However, at the last possible second, her fiance sent a note pleading illness – he had taken a chill rather suddenly and he found himself unable to attend. To her astonishment, she was to go on her own, escorted only by his elderly uncle – a man not far short of a hundred – if Clarinda was any judge of age. The man was surprisingly kind and even far less boring than his nephew. He also seemed intent on allowing his little 'relative' her freedom, partly she sensed, because he did not wish to leave the comfortable armchair he had been able to claim at their arrival to the castle.

”Now you go off and enjoy yourself, my dear. I will be here if you need me. In fact, I shall try to find and keep some sort of chair for you, in case you wish to sit here at any time during the night.”

Clarinda could not even imagine she would like to do so, but she truly appreciated the old man's kindness.

”Thank you so much, dear uncle.”

”Do not mention it, my dear. Now run along.”

She was wondering if he would go to sleep like her future mother-in-law, but noticed that he was already deep into an animated conversation with a man who seemed to be his peer and indeed even looked so much like him he could have been his twin. Clarinda was glad. She could not have borne the thought of the dear old man being bored while she was enjoying herself.

Secure in the knowledge that her kind escort was now in good hands, she hurried away to see all there was to see and meet everyone she might meet.

It was easy to spot the guests of honor, who quite appropriately occupied the seats of honor at the center of the great hall. There was the lady who Clarinda believed had won the Grand Ellipse. Her name was Luzelle Devaire. Clarinda experienced a stab of envy, as she looked at Luzelle. That young lady personified all that she would have aspired to, had her life not been so tragically deprived. Yet the young woman appeared rude and selfish. Not someone Clarinda would have enjoyed spending time with. The lady was escorted by the handsome Marquess Girays v'Alisante. Yet another reason for Clarinda to envy Luzelle.

Another guest of honor was the young, handsome Grewzian Karsler Stornzof. Clarina believed she even preferred Karsler to Girays, but that was a little hard to tell. Both young men were so handsome and looked so fascinating and pleasant she found her enjoyment of the ball slightly dimmed for a few moments. She was alone. If she had been escorted by her fiance, it would not have improved her experience at all. But she was too excited to really let anything dimish her enjoyment of the evening, at least not for long. The whispers in the crowds, told Clarinda that Karsler was or had been the overcommander of the Grewsland army, but in addition to that – which did not impress Clarinda greatly – he was, and this did impress her enormously, knowledgeable in magic. Magic held a fascination for Clarinda that was only matched by her enthusiasm for exotic far away countries – and indeed fascinating young men.

At Karsler's side sat an older man, who bore a certain resemblance to him, but looked – sinister somehow. By listening intently to the whispers and the gossip spread around by the crowds, she learned that this was Karsler's uncle, Grandlandsman and the head and leader of the Stornzof family. Clarinda pitied Karsler for being forced to accompany the older man on such a festive occasion. Indeed, she pitied him for the connection itself.

Somewhat later, while the banquet was being served, Clarinda caught sight of King Miltzin IX of Lower Hetzia. His queen did not attend the banquet, and Clarinda learned that this was because of the King's persistent chasing of other women. She pitied the poor Queen as well, and considered herself lucky that she was seated so far away from the table of honor that the King would never spot her. It might be an honor to be wooed by a King, even a married one, but she did not wish to enjoy that honor and was relieved not to find herself so hampered this evening. She was well aware that she might never again experience anything quite as exciting, so she was determined to make the most of it.

Much later, when the ball had begun, Clarinda found herself relegated to the wallflower seats along the wall. She was subjected to much condescending talk by mothers whose daughters' dance cards were full. Clarinda's own was empty. Looking around at the men who were not already dancing, she reflected that perhaps after all, that might be for the best. The men without partners were invariably elderly, ugly or even truly disgusting in various ways. Yet for some reason, even these desperate men managed to overlook Clarinda.

She kept her eyes firmly glued to Girays and Karsler and was rewarded when the latter left the ballroom in the wake of his unpleasant uncle, then followed by Girays. Trying to leave unobtrusively, she excused herself and discreetly meandered through the crowds, near the walls. By the time she arrived at the exit, the three men were long gone, but somehow, she sensed which direction to go. It was as if she was following a faint trail of something – she hoped it was magic.

Then she found Karsler lying on the floor, pale and limp, a bloodstain spreading across his chest. She heard a noise and instinctively hid herself behind a curtain, and was able to spy Karsler's uncle passing by, not giving his nephew a second glance. It told her he did not care to save his young relative's life and – that had to mean he was the one who had attacked him. As soon as the man had vanished, she approached Karsler, who was by now, with the help of Girays, struggling to get to his feet. Instinctively, Clarinda knew this was a mistake. He was so badly injured, any movement could cause his death.

”No. You do not know me, gentlemen, but I – sense a faint trail leading to the place you need to go. Let me go in your stead, sir. I will help your friend find the hidden room.”

”I thank you, my dear young lady, but I must - ”

Girays looked down on his friend, a look of concern on his handsome face.

”I fear I must agree with our new young friend -”

Clarinda realized Girays was tactfully inquiring about her name and hastily provided the information.

”My name is Clarinda Edelle. Please, do not let your friend overexert himself.”

”Pleased to meet you. I am Girays v'Alisante and this is my friend Karsler Stornzof. And I fear I agree with you. Karsler must not move and I would hate to leave him like this, but -”

”You must go, my friend. Find that mage and – do what needs to be done.”

He had stopped trying to get up, perhaps seeing the impossible in the effort.

Clarinda's heart went out to him and on an impulse, she held out her hand to him. Puzzled, he took it in both his and looked up at her, struggling to remain conscious.

She wished – she wished – that this handsome young man would not die on this evening of enchantment – and suddenly, she felt something – a warmth that moved from her hand to his. His face suddenly regained a little of his normal color and she stumbled and would have fallen, if Girays had not grabbed hold of her arm and kept her on her feet.

”Are you quite well, my dear?”

”Yes, I will be fine. But we must not leave your friend lying here – we must find help. If you would wait just a minute or two for me, I will find a doctor and return to help you find the hidden chamber. Is there time?”

Girays looked concerned, but nodded.

”I believe there is still time, but you must hurry – perhaps I should go with you - ”

Clarinda sensed that his presence might warn Karsler's treacherous uncle that something was afoot and did not wish to be accompanied by the handsome nobleman, no matter how gratifying that might have been under other circumstances.

”No, I will manage.”

She ran off before either of the young men had time to reply. In the ballroom, she recognized a man whose image had been in many newspapers. It was the court physician, dr Arnheltz. He was seated in the Long Gallery, but to her dismay so too was Torvid Stornzof. She would be forced to ask the doctor's help before the very eyes of the man who had caused the injury the doctor was needed to remedy. How would she manage that, without causing even more risk to poor Karsler? An idea occurred to her and since she didn't have time to wait for a better idea, she decided to act on it.

”Doctor, please to come at once, my dearest friend Adelinde has fainted dead away.”

She waved her arms about in imitation of countless airheaded schoolmates and exaggerated her accent to give the impression of a simple girl, unable to think of anything but gowns and hairstyles and makeup.

The doctor politely rose and bowed, then accompanied her away from the Long Gallery and into the winding corridor where she had left Karsler and Girays.

As soon as they had left the crowds, and most importantly, the elder Stornzof behind, she hastened to explain herself.

”Please forgive my deception, doctor, but a young man has been attacked and severely injured. His – attacker was nearby and I thought not to alert him to my attempt to help his victim.”

The doctor's eyes widened as he took another look at the young lady he had previously taken for a vapid little noble lady. Clearly there was more to her than he had given her credit for at first glance.

”I see. Lead me to my patient and I shall do my best.”

They found Girays standing watchfully over his prone friend. When he saw the doctor approaching he stepped back. The doctor bent over Karsler and examined him, then straightened up. He looked from Girays to Clarinda then back again and seemed to come to the conclusion that he might best address his comment to the nobleman.

”I believe we may take the risk of moving this young man to a more appropriate location. Despite the blood loss, the patient appears to be in stable condition.”

At his words, Karsler's gaze sought out Clarinda's and he appeared to acknowledge her help. It struck Clarinda that despite her old teacher's judgment of her magical abilities, she had succeeded in transfering some of her life force to Karsler and – hopefully – thus saved his life.

To avoid drawing attention to the situation, the rather elderly doctor and Girays picked him up as gently as possible and by using a detour, managed to find a room close to the kitchen that was unoccupied and placed Karsler on the sofa. Girays explained that he would need to go and the doctor nodded his understanding.

Clarinda thanked the doctor for his help and ran after Girays. She could still feel the faint trail leading down to the hidden chamber.

”I think we need to go this way.”

Girays watched her wonderingly.

Clarinda smiled.

”I don't know how I know – but – it might be magic. There's something here that feels -”

Girays nodded.

”That's perfectly possible.”

So they continued on their way down a winding staircase, until they did find the hidden chamber and met Nitz Neper, the inventor of Masterfire, the Sentient Fire.

But just as Clarinda thought everything would be alright, Torvid Stornzof was there and a struggle ensued. The Masterfire and Nitz Neper, with Girays' help defeated him, but Clarinda was injured. At that time, she had lost a little of her enthusiasm for magic and wonder, but Girays picked her up and carried her upstairs to the same room where they had left Karsler. To Clarinda he looked a lot better and that helped distract her from her own pain. The doctor turned his attentions to his new patient and gave Clarinda something that made the pain recede.

Two young servants were called in to help carry Clarinda to a room upstairs and there she lost consciousness. A few days later, Girays' carriage came to take her back to her rented room. It was as if all the magic had gone out of her life. This had been her great adventure, but now it was over. However, a few weeks later a message arrived from Girays. It was an invitation to Girays' castle. Clarinda could hardly believe her eyes. She read the message over and over again. It still said the same thing. This was possibly even more magical than the ball at Waterwitch.

Then she remembered that she could not go on her own. As a young unmarried woman she would need to be accompanied by her fiance or a suitable chaperone. She found it hard to believe that mr Denaire would want her to attend Girays' party. So she sat on her bed, not quite as happy as before. She was wondering if she might ignore the rules of propriety and attend anyway. After all, this might be her chance to obtain help in her quest to save the twins. Then she remembered her fiance's uncle, mr Denaire the elder. Perhaps he might like to escort her. As she happened to know where the elder mr Denaire lived, she hastily scribbled down a note asking mr Denaire for his company on the night of the party.

The date of the party was almost three weeks later, and the reply from the elder mr Denaire took its time arriving. Clarinda imagined all sorts of things – that her fiance had taken offence – that his uncle had taken ill – that – perhaps more unlikely – that her note had gone astray. In any case, she was beginning to fear that she would never see the inside of Girays castle. She was now reminded that Girays was a Marquess. His message was signed with all his titles and indeed his full name. She was wondering if Karsler was in good health by now, or if the injury had been more severe than she had been led to believe on that night. There was no reason to believe that she would meet Karsler at Girays' party, or that she would even receive news about him on that night, but somehow she had formed the impression that the two men were friends, perhaps close friends.

Then at last the reply from mr Denaire, the elder, arrived and he professed himself delighted to be allowed to accompany her to the party and that his nephew was likewise delighted that she enjoyed his uncle's companionship so much.

It occurred to Clarinda that her fiance did not enjoy parties and perhaps – this thought was stunning – he did not even enjoy his fiancee's company. Surely that couldn't be true? A man his age, or indeed any man, would not be compelled to marry a woman he did not want, or would he? Was his mother so dominant he had been forced to agree to the union against his will? That did not bode well for the coming marriage – or did it? If he did not wish to spend much time with her, perhaps she would be allowed to spend her time as she wished? As long as she wouldn't be forced to spend all her time sitting at his sleeping mother's side.

Though Clarinda had hoped she might get a new gown for this next party at another castle, it soon became clear that while her aunt reluctantly agreed to her going, she did not feel a new gown was in any way necessary. As she put it - when would she need a party gown fit for a castle, once she was married? Perhaps that was true, but Clarinda still felt chagrined at having to appear before Girays – and perhaps also the lady most people believed to be his fiancee – Luzelle Devaire – in a dress she had already worn to a ball. But since that was her finest dress and she would get no other, she would have to accept the situation and she resolved to enjoy the party anyway.

At last the evening of the party came and she was picked up outside her modest lodgings in a hired carriage by the elder mr Denaire. He had encouraged her to call him uncle Vislay and she had gladly agreed. She wished she had had such a kind, genial uncle herself.

They arrived at Girays' castle, which turned out to be slightly less opulent than Waterwitch, but very beautiful and built in a most pleasant location with a lovely view.

The party was much more intimate than the ball at the other castle. In fact, apart from Clarinda and her 'uncle', only her host, his fiancee, a few other people that Clarinda didn't know and – to her delight, Karsler - would be attending.

There would be no dance, but to Clarinda's relief, Luzelle wore a similar dress as she did, if far more expensive. In addition, Clarinda doubted Luzelle had seen her on the night of the ball and so could not know that it was an old dress. She was hoping that Girays and Karsler would be as many other men, oblivious to what women were wearing. To her relief it seemed that way. Though both Girays and Karsler were polite and attentive to her, they appeared to be mostly focused on each other's company, to the exclusion of Luzelle. That puzzled Clarinda, and it appeared Luzelle was losing interest in her fiance.

During dinner, Clarinda was seated next to Karsler on one side and was delighted to be able to get to know him better. It seemed he shared her enthusiasm.

”My dear -”

”Please call me Clarinda.”

”Clarinda. Then you must call me Karsler.”

”Karsler.”

She bowed her head and smiled.

”Clarinda – I must take this opportunity to thank you. It was – I can't thank you enough for giving me of your lifeforce. If you had not, I would be dead. The doctor tells me it was a very close thing. How did you know to make that transfer? Have you made a study of magic?”

”For a few years in school, that's all. Indeed my teacher told me I did not have much talent for magic.”

”It seems your teacher was wrong. And for that, I am truly grateful.”

”I couldn't bear the thought of someone dying so young. It also struck me as so unfair that -”

She broke off before she had voiced the accusation against Karsler's uncle, but it seemed he had caught her meaning. His face looked grim for a few moments, then he relaxed into a smile.

”You must tell me if there is ever anything I can do to repay you.”

”No repayment is necessary. I'm just glad you seem to be doing so well.”

The evening passed pleasantly and towards the end of it, Clarinda felt she knew Karsler well enough to tell him of her plans. She was hoping he wouldn't find her naive or even stupid. After all, she knew very little beyond the fact that the twins had disappeared in Zuleekistan.

”I believe you have met my old friends the Festinette twins.”

”Yes, I have. We were traveling companions for a while during the Grand Ellipse.”

”I was very upset when I found out that they had vanished without a trace. Up until that time, I had received a few brief letters and cards from them, but when they stopped writing – I was concerned. Then I learned the truth and I was devastated.”

”I, too, was upset when I heard.”

”It seems everyone believes them lost for good – indeed to have perished out there. But how can anyone know that for sure? If no trace of them was found?”

Karsler pondered this in silence for a moment, then nodded.

”You are quite right. We should not have assumed they were lost for good. I feel ashamed to have given up on them. I should have tried to find them. My only excuse is that I owed my uncle and my family – allegiance and their – wish was that I continue the Grand Ellipse. But now I find myself free – not only of my family's demands, but also the war.”

That was news to Clarinda. She had no idea the war had ended. Karsler read her look of surprise correctly and explained further.

”The peace has not been formally proclaimed, but a ceasefire is in effect. It is only a matter of time before the peace treaty is signed.”

”I see.”

”I should very much like to help you find your friends, if it is in my power to do so. If you don't mind, I will discuss this with my friend Girays and we can discuss this further later.”

”Thank you, that's very kind of you.”

”Don't mention it. I should not have abandoned my traveling companions so easily. But I must warn you, Zuleekistan is – notorious for its treacherous terrain, weather and – I'm sorry to say – people. There will be danger involved.”

Clarinda nodded. She had not expected anything else.

When the gentlemen retired to the library, the ladies likewise withdrew to a sitting room a few doors down from the dining room. Clarinda found herself mostly ignored, though Luzelle tried to offer her a few polite words. The other ladies – all older than Clarinda and Luzelle – mainly spoke among themselves.

At last the company was reunited and for a while Clarinda stood at her 'uncle's shoulder, until Karsler and Girays approached her and asked if they might speak to her. Her 'uncle' beamed at her, seemingly fully understanding her delight at being allowed to speak to these gentlemen.

Girays faced her looking grave and serious.

”Karsler has told me that you are a friend of the Festinette twins. I am sorry. You are quite right to be concerned. I – agree – we should not have taken it for granted that they have perished and Karsler and I have decided we will return to Zuleekistan as soon as an expedition can possibly be arranged. I will also make inquiries. Anything I can possibly find out to aid in our search.”

Clarinda couldn't believe they were going to do this just for her old friends. They had been their competitors, not close friends, if she had understood the nature of the Grand Ellipse correctly. Yet both men were willing to help their old competitors, if that was still possible. It was very generous of them. She knew she could not ask for more, but was obsessed with a wish to do more. A young lady like her, should not be forward enough to ask to be included in an expedition of this kind, with only male members. However, she knew she could not bear to be left behind. And perhaps Luzelle would be coming along, and would perhaps even bring a female servant.

”I would like to come along.”

Girays and Karsler stared at her in surprise, then appeared to regain control of themselves and Karsler smiled at her.

”I can understand why, but – I must advice you not to come. As I told you, it will be a risky undertaking.”

”I realize that.”

She was about to add that she was not a child, but knew it would most likely have the opposite effect.

Girays cast her a gaze filled with sympathy.

”Karsler is right, but I understand. You – as the twins' friend, must be beside yourself with worry.”

”I thought perhaps -”

She glanced in the direction of Luzelle, who appeared to be studying a map on the wall.

”Oh. Luzelle will not be accompanying us. She is busy with her own work.”

”Oh.”

She knew that she could not ask her 'uncle' to come along. The journey would be far too tiring for a man his age. Bitterly, she resigned herself to remaining behind, and most likely to enter into her marriage, even if her husband-to-be did not look forward to spending more time with her.

As many times before, she was struck by the hopelessness of her situation, which was the same that of any young woman without independent means, like Luzelle.

To her amazement, Girays next words were nothing she could have imagined.

”But – I can't bear to disappoint you. If you wish to come along and rescue your friends, I would not like to stand in your way. Karsler and I shall do our utmost to guarantee your safety.”

Clarinda was filled with a wild, exultant joy, but she knew her aunt might never give her permission and her fiance – might easily break off the engagement if he felt she was disgracing him by her adventurous behavior – or – if he would like to use it as an excuse to get rid of her.

Despite her misgivings, she knew she would do it. This was her chance to experience a great adventure and that might be the only time such an opportunity came her way. She could not bear to turn it down.

As she had expected, her aunt did not approve. She was subjected to a barrage of scolding. Her aunt predicted that her fiance would break off the engagement, and sure enough, a letter from him arrived within a week. He did break the engagement, but then another letter arrived where his mother listed all Clarinda's shortcomings. All this led to more quarrels with her aunt, but surprisingly, the latter never formally disowned her. Also, a letter arrived a few days later, signed by her 'uncle', where he consoled her and wished her a safe journey. She couldn't help smiling. He was such a nice old man.

By that time Clarinda had come to the conclusion that she would have to prepare for her journey by herself, and experienced some relief when she found that her aunt appeared to have resigned herself to the situation and began to help her pack. She wanted to send along absurd amounts of warm clothing, even though Clarinda assured her that she would not be traveling north and that for most of the journey she would be in a tropical climate. However, the high passes through the mountains of Zuleekistan would undoubtedly be colder than Vonahr.

On the day of her departure, her aunt even came to wave her off. It was with a great deal of relief that Clarinda was bundled into the carriage and watched her aunt and her street grow smaller in the distance as the carriage rolled away. She kept thinking her aunt would change her mind and tell her to get out. In fact, she fancied that her aunt was studying Girays with a speculative glint in her eyes. Surely she didn't believe that a Marquess would be considering marriage to a girl like her?

Girays had taken her participation in the journey very seriously. He had hired a maid for her, a middle-aged widow. In fact, she was more like a paid companion than a maid, but she performed those duties as well. She told Clarinda that she was a former housekeeper but was now going to live with her daughter, who was married to an officer. That meant she would not be coming along on the return journey, but it would be a long time until they reached their destination. Time enough to look for a replacement later.

Clarinda watched the neighboring countries pass by, wide-eyed and curious. Despite the haste with which they traveled, she had time to see some of the sights, at least from a distance and to try the local cuisine. She even managed to buy a few souvenirs, but no matter how much she was enjoying the adventure, she found herself getting restless. It would be at least six weeks more until they reached Zuleekistan and that, she realized was where she wanted to be. She was worried about the twins. There had been no more visions, but she had a sense of foreboding concerning her friends' fate. She did not believe they were dead, did not want to believe that, but she had a feeling they were in trouble.

The closer they got to Zuleekistan, the more exotic their surroundings. Because of the war ending, they found travel much easier, except in a few cases, where Girays told her they had on their previous journey been able to enjoy the aid of the network intended to transport officers. Now they were forced to make arrangements on their own. Fortunately, a nobleman like Girays had independent means and had no trouble even obtaining private means of transport. Part of the way, they traveled by ship and that was by far the most comfortable stretch of the journey. The meals were served in a dining room and the cabins were comfortable. She had one to herself, because the servants traveled below decks. When they disembarked, it was time to say goodbye to her companion, which she did without regrets.

For the final part of their journey, she found that they were going by caravan. To her surprise they would all be walking from then on. There wouldn't even be any beasts of burden to carry their supplies. Local men would be carrying the entire loads on their backs. Fortunately, Clarinda wasn't spoiled and had on numerous occasions been required to walk long distances through the city.

Although the terrain was undeniably rough, she soon learned to adapt. She still couldn't stop rejoicing at her good fortune. The rugged terrain was beautiful but wild and though it was only late August, the first avalanches had already hit the passes. They had to move carefully.

The inquiries Girays had made had so far not yielded any tangible results, but one day a short, wiry man arrived as they were making camp in the evening. He chattered with Girays' guide, then Girays discussed the new information at length with his guide. Finally, he paid the local man and he left. The grim look on Girays face made Clarinda imagine all kinds of things, all bad news.

Girays walked over to her and shared the news with her, even before he told Karsler, which was a kindness she hadn't expected. But she was unsure of what to make of Girays' expression. He looked as if he was debating with himself what to tell her. A stab of pain shot through her. No. They were dead. It was too late. Her friends really were lost for good. In the end, what Girays said confused her and it took a moment for her to decipher the words.

”I have had news about the twins. I – have an idea of where they are being held.”

'Held' suggested being held for ransom, which did make a kind of sense, since the twins were known to be wealthy, perhaps more wealthy than most people could guess. Clarinda herself had no idea, since money had been the last thing on her mind when she had spent time with the twins all those years ago. The fact that her aunt hadn't considered either of the twins as a match might suggest that they were not wealthy or of good enough reputation to make a good match, but Clarinda suspected that it was simply the fact that they were four years younger than her. Normally, no man would consider a bride who was older than him, but she had a feeling that if the twins had ever considered her a match, they would ignore such traditions. The twins always did as they pleased.

”Held for ransom?”

Girays face underwent a series of transformations and the first one appeared to be pity. As if she was being naive. So what – was he going to say?

”Perhaps. The local man told me a name. Een Djasseen. A – Zuleekistani nobleman – at least a man of some power.”

”Oh. I see. And you believe we may be able to ransom the twins and get them home safely?”

Again, Girays appeared to be weighing his words carefully, until in the end, he shook his head.

”No. I'm afraid that if we are to be able to save the twins, it will have to be through force. Once anyone ends up in Een Djasseen's hands – he never lets them go out of his own free will.”

”I see.”

She looked around their small caravan, consisting only of a handful of people from her own country or nearby and the men carrying their supplies. Where would they get the forces to effect such a rescue? It appeared Girays was reading her countenance and could guess what she was thinking.

”We will hire local troops. Mercenaries. A quick strike at his stronghold – while a diversion is created elsewhere -”

She nodded, even if armed struggle was far from her area of expertise. What Girays was saying seemed to make sense.

”Alright. That sounds like a good idea.”

While they had been talking, the bearers had set up camp around them. It was already growing dark, so Clarinda retired to her tent and so, it appeared, did Girays and Karsler – though she noticed that Girays now went to visit Karsler in his tent. She guessed that Girays was about to inform Karsler about what he had been just learned.

That night, Clarinda found it hard to sleep. She was loath to admit it, but the thought of armed combat frightened her and she was worried that in the struggle the twins might, even if they were still safe, be injured or even killed. Even Girays and Karsler might be lost in such a violent confrontation.

Towards dawn, she fell into a restless sleep, but woke soon after and knew she would not sleep more that night. She made her morning toilet, then when it was clear that the sun was up and there would not be any more daylight that day, she went outside. The bearers were hard at work, putting out the fire and collecting all the supplies, including their own tents. Only Girays' and Karsler' tents were still standing, as was hers. Two of the bearers came to pack up her tent and while she was waiting, she went to see if the men were ready to leave.

She peered timidly into the semi-darkness inside. It was a while until her eyes adapted to the gloom and then – what she saw startled her and she almost fell backwards, but was able to control herself, and put a hand to her mouth. Girays was kissing Karsler on the mouth. Kissing him like a lover. Holding him, touching him – and Karsler did not appear to be fighting him. Instead, he returned the kiss every bit as passionately. The sight stunned Clarinda, but did not shock her, as she had believed it would. These two incredibly handsome men looked as if they belonged together. It was a truly beautiful sight to see them together and Clarinda felt her heart flutter, partly in disappoinment, partly in excitement.

She had enough presence of mind to back off silently, and wait by the remains of the fire. The ashes were still warm and it was comfortable to stand there, in the chilly morning air. It wasn't all that long until Girays left Karsler's tent. He looked only slightly disheveled but started when he realized that Clarinda had seen him come out of another man's tent. Then he appeared to collect himself and quite confidently strode over to meet her.

”Good morning. You are up early.”

”Yes, what you told me last night – made it hard to sleep. I slept fitfully and woke up early. But I am fine. I am ready to leave whenever you are.”

”Excellent. We should be ready to leave in just a few minutes, I believe.”

The bearers had already taken down his tent and packed it and now Karsler's was being put through the same routine. Karsler came over and joined the other two by the fire. Even the handsome Grewzian looked unperturbed and unflustered, perhaps because he had not witnessed Clarinda seeing his – lover – leave his tent. As far as she was concerned, it was their business, though she couldn't help experiencing a slight touch of jealousy. Even if Luzelle, the spoiled, privileged Luzelle no longer could lay claim to Girays – or could she? - both men were now completely out of Clarinda's reach. Of course they had always been, particularly Girays, but now she knew – Karsler was also lost to her.

The thought hurt. She realized now that she had perhaps childishly, fallen for the handsome young foreigner. Now she felt like a fool. An immature naive fool. But she wasn't here to find a husband, she was here for the sake of her old friends. It was time she remembered that.

It turned out that Girays wasn't going to waste any time. Within a few hours' time, they came to a village where it soon became clear that Girays was going to hire troops. Clarinda was told that this village was known to be a center for mercenaries, renowned for miles around. To her surprise, it turned out that the 'headman' of the village was actually a woman. She was of an indeterminate age, had strange paintings on her face and wore something that smelled strongly of grease. Her eyes were sharp and merciless. It occurred to Clarinda that she would never like to find herself the enemy of this woman.

After an hour or more of negotiation, during which she, Girays and Karsler were offered a strange-tasting tea, that she at first found hard to swallow, but later grew used to, at least to some extent, Girays returned to them and told them that he had secured the services of a contingent of mercenaries. The men were already gathering on the outskirts of the village. They looked wild and were a motley collection. A few looked familiar to Clarinda and might even be from Vonahr. Others were even more exotic than the Zuleekistani. One was almost completely black, another had slanted eyes. To Clarinda's revulsion, one had something hanging around his shoulders that looked like shrunken heads. Were they trophies from his battles? Yet another was almost naked, in the cold. She could not understand that he wasn't freezing.

Girays was saying something that she missed, but she recovered herself and asked him.

”Excuse me – I'm afraid I couldn't hear -”

Girays laughed and he seemed to Clarinda to be slightly self-conscious.

”It appears our – hostess – believes you to be my daughter.”

Clarinda felt her cheeks take on color. She was younger than Girays, that was true, but only by about ten-fifteen years at the most. Surely not enough for her to be his child? Clearly, Girays did not like the idea any more than she did.

”She wanted to trade for you to give to her son in marriage.”

What? Was Girays joking with her? He had seemed so kind and gentlemanly all this time, but was this his revenge for the misunderstanding? Though it could not be said that she had done anything to deserve such a punishment.

”It's true, I'm afraid, but I told her it was quite out of the question. There is no need for you to concern yourself.”

That was slight consolation, but Clarinda was determined to put up a brave front. It seemed Karsler too, was intent on reassuring her. He was so kind and gentle, she found it hard to reconcile the reality of his personality and behavior with the rumors and invectives normally directed at Grewzians, such as 'cadaver chompers'. With Karsler's past at the Promontory, he only ate a purely vegetable based diet. Like a monk. Indeed, there was something ascetic about the young man. He was also incredibly handsome, but Clarinda wasn't going to dwell on that anymore.

Now that all their mercenaries had gathered, it was time to go. Clarinda found that Eek Djasseen's stronghold was only a two days' march from here and from now on, they would need to be extremely alert and cautious. A guide had promised to lead them through a pass where it was said the enemy would not expect them. All they could do was hope that their guide would not betray them. Or – that no major avalanche would stop them in their tracks or even bury them.

Towards evening, Clarinda learned with some surprise, that all those men, could make camp silently and without disturbing much of the surrounding snow. It was remarkable. She had a feeling that a few of them might even manage to hide their tracks entirely and come upon the enemy quite out of the blue.

By now Clarinda found it even more difficult to go to sleep. She spent the short nights waiting impatiently for morning and during the day, she waited for the day of the confrontation.

At last that day came and it seemed they had not been betrayed. The whole group emerged on the other side of the pass to see a splendid mountain stronghold, lying like an eagle's nest on top of a mountain. Their men overpowered and killed some of Een Djesseen's guards, then managed to break through a side door at the base of the mountain. Most of the mercenaries along with Karsler, who recognized the twins by sight entered the mountain, while Girays and the remaining men waited and kept watch some distance from the entrance. Clarinda was hidden at the back of the group, huddling under an overhang, of outjutting rock. She had an idea that Girays hoped to keep her hidden from the fray in case they were attacked.

Her breath caught in her throat, when she contemplated what might befall her if she fell into the enemy's hands. Their own troops took so long to return, she began to fear they had failed and had all fallen, including Karsler. She was beginning to wonder why the enemy hadn't spilled out through all doors to fall upon them, but not a sound was heard, apart from some birds of prey that circled high above their heads among the highest peaks. Once a bit of snow fell from above and startled everyone, but most of all her.

Clarinda sought out Girays' gaze, but dared not make a sound, lest the enemy overhear them. He nodded encouragingly. It seemed he did not share her grave concern. Perhaps he had a better idea of how long these things might take.

At long last something did happen. Two of the mercenaries burst out of the same door they had entered seemingly hours earlier, closely followed by Karsler and two scantily dressed young men. It took Clarinda several minutes to realize that the made up, half-naked men were her old friends, the twins. They looked like actors in some pantomime or play of a kind her aunt would never let her see. She caught herself thinking virtually at the same time, they will freeze and – how tall and handsome they have grown. The last time she had seen them face to face, they had still been boys, now they were young men.

She cast her mind around to recall if they had anything they might cover the twins with – but it seemed Girays was well ahead of her. He had found a double set of garments suitable for walking in the snow and handed them over to the twins, who wasted no time getting dressed. There was an odd look on their faces. It looked – like shame? But surely that could not be. Surely they were only in shock? Perhaps surprised at the sudden rescue, but not ashamed. But there was no time to wonder. Before the enemy fell upon them, they had to be gone and far away from this place. She noted that several of the mercenaries remained to cover their retreat.

Their guide led them on another twisting trail and into a narrow crack in the mountain side that Clarinda had completely overlooked until they were upon it. One by one they walked as fast as they could. The crack was so narrow, Clarinda found it hard to squeeze herself through, but somehow even the men came through to the other side. Again, they found their way into a narrow opening between the mountains, then inside a cave that continued further and further into the mountain. After a while she became frightened they would be lost forever, but at long last they came through a pass that led to a road that appeared far more traveled than the narrow paths they'd taken on the way up to the stronghold.

Girays put his hand on Clarinda's shoulder and called her attention.

”We've left Zuleekistan. Een Djasseen's men can't follow us here lest the ruler of this land attack them and he will not risk going to war with this man. He is far too strong. In few days' time we will get to a trading post and there we can pay for passage on a river boat. It won't be long until we are back to civilization. We should be completely safe by now.”

She could hardly believe it was true. Were they truly safe so soon? She felt weak with relief. Her gaze sought out the twins, but found that they were still avoiding her eyes and those of the others. They looked – changed. Handsome, that was true, but – by their hunched over postures she could tell that they were miserable, perhaps in shock. Had their captor tortured them? If so, why?

There was something about this that Clarinda knew she was missing. She felt confused and disappointed. This day should have been a day of triumph, of joy, now she began to fear something unknown. Then she angrily shook the gloomy thoughts off. The twins were safe and they were all safely away from the enemy. Soon they would be back in cilivized countries. All would be well, she told herself, but found it hard to believe her own reassurance.

Over the following days and weeks, Clarinda tried unsuccessfully to speak to the twins. They were surprised to see her, that much was clear and also – a little harder to tell – grateful for her part in their rescue. But there was something very odd about their behavior. They avoided meeting her gaze for the most part. Even when the makeup was gone and the odd clothing had vanished and they were wearing conventional clothes, they still looked – beaten. Crushed.

In the end, Clarinda felt she had to ask someone because she couldn't take the worry anymore. By now, they were staying at a luxurious hotel in the lowlands, awaiting passage on a cruise ship. The contrast between their surroundings here and those up in the mountain couldn't have been more striking. Traveling like this was not an adventure, but still an experience, that Clarinda knew she would look back on with wonder, later on. The people were dark skinned and most of them – apart from the servants and the beggars in the streets – were wearing opulent clothing and jewelry. While they waited, Girays and Karsler had politely taken Clarinda to see historic monuments – forts and temples and famed libraries, even once to a tomb that was a marvel of beautiful architecture.

But her concern for her old friends wouldn't leave her alone. So one evening, before dinner, while they were waiting for the gong to sound, Clarinda went to Girays' room and knocked on the door, ignoring the knowledge that her aunt would have a screaming fit if she'd seen her. A young lady could not visit a strange man in his room. But fortunately, her aunt wasn't here.

Girays came to open the door and let her in. She wasn't surprised to notice that Karsler was there, seated at a table, not looking particularly disheveled. Clarinda sternly told herself not to imagine scandalous images about her friends. Surely they had merely been chatting before dinner?

”I'm sorry to disturb you like this, but – I'm concerned about my friends. In all this time, since we left the mountains, I have yet to see either Stefian or Trefian smile. In fact, they have not looked into my eyes even once. They appear – in distress. What is wrong? Were – were they tortured?”

There. She had said it. Perhaps it was not a question a young lady should be asking, but she did not intend to let herself be hindered by old-fashioned ideas. She cared about her friends, despite the unfortunate incident so many years ago. If they were in pain, she needed to know why and – hopefully – how to help them.

Her question was met with a deep silence. A silence that seemed to her to be charged with – unease. Was the answer to her question so – dreadful – it could not be spoken out loud?

She caught Girays and Karsler exchanging a gaze, then Girays appeared to brace himself and faced Clarinda again.

”My dear – what has befallen your friends in their captivity – is not for me to tell you – but – you may at least set your mind at ease. I believe that your friends are well in body if not in mind.”

”What does that mean? And why can't you tell me?”

Girays appeared to be debating the issue with himself, then sighed and faced Clarinda again.

”Very well. This is – not a topic for polite conversation – with a lady – but – you saw what they were wearing when we found them.”

”Yes.”

Clarinda had no idea what Girays was trying to tell her. Surely their clothing had nothing to do with how they were feeling. She could tell that Girays was self-conscious about the conversation. So was Karsler. In fact, his fair complexion could hide no blush and indeed, he was blushing furiously, as if somehow – no, it was useless. Clarinda could not even begin to guess what was going on.

”Clarinda – sometimes – men do not – desire – women. Sometimes – they – turn their attentions to – men. Or young boys.”

She knew that. Hadn't she seen Girays and Karsler themselves – engaged in - Oh. Suddenly, she realized why they were so embarrassed. But she still didn't quite understand – had her old friends too, become like her new friends? She had not seen the man who had abducted them, but surely you would not fall in love with the one who had abducted and kept you captive? It did not make sense. So – her friends had been subjected to – had they been – A chill went over her. So that was why they looked so – devastated. That vile, despicable man had taken them with force. Now she knew and it did not reassure her. Her eyes filled with tears and she turned away from her new friends to collect herself.

”I'm so sorry.”

”Can – can something be done? Or are they -”

She could not force herself to say the words out loud. Would her friends be damaged for life? She knew nothing about these matters, only had a slight idea of how some girls were disgraced. A girl from her school – she had no idea what the truth of the matter was – but the girl had vanished, seemingly without a trace and no one had been allowed to speak of her again. And Clarinda had an idea that the girl had left with the young man of her own free will. No force appeared to have been involved. And that was a girl and a young man, not a man and two young men. If more people knew – she sensed that her old friends might be even more disgraced than her old friend, despite the fact that they could have done nothing to bring such an abomination on themselves.

”My dear, I do not know. I confess this is – beyond anything I have ever heard of or -”

To her surprise, now Karsler spoke up.

”In the war – a few of my men – who had fallen into the hands of the enemy – when we recovered them – a few – were able to – with much care and – what I'm trying to say is that, I believe that some may recover.”

”Some? What happened to the others?”

Karsler appeared unwilling to reply, but in the end, he gave up and faced her again.

”They – took their own lives. But that was war. I believe what my men endured may have been – worse and indeed more akin to torture than – I am guessing that perhaps drugs have been involved here or – it may be that your friends found themselves able to -”

But here, even the kind-hearted Karsler found it impossible to go on. Clarinda never quite saw what he was hinting at, but was hoping he was right. That her friends might somehow at a later time, feel better and might even return almost to normal. She sensed this might just be wishful thinking on her part.

”Very well. I thank you for your honesty, gentlemen.”

The sound of the gong called their attention back to matters more closely at hand. She had no appetite, especially now that her worst fears had taken on a terrifying new reality, but decided to go down anyway. What else was she to do? The twins had never appeared at dinner, preferring to take their meals in their room and she knew they would not welcome her presence.

Girays held out his arms and chivalrously led her down the stairs into the opulent dining room.

A few days later, the boarded the cruise ship and less than two weeks later, they were back home again. The Festinette twins hastily returned to their home and after dropping Clarinda off at her aunt's house, Girays and Karsler returned to Belfaireu. It appeared that Karsler would be staying permanently with Girays from now on. She wondered how the general public would interpret that, but found that it appeared there had been no need to concern herself. People seemed to be of the opinion that it was very kind, and indeed gentlemanly of Girays, to open his home to a former enemy. No one appeared to even guess at the true nature of their relationship.

Her own life had taken a turn for the worse. Even though her dear 'uncle' still sent her a letter now and then and she even met him once at tea party her aunt took her to, it appeared that Clarinda was now officially disgraced for going off with two strange men to faraway uncivilized countries. She was being blamed for the broken engagement, though she had an idea her former fiance had been relieved to find an excuse to remain unmarried.

Her aunt claimed that she could not possibly support a grown niece and so Clarinda was forced to go out and find some kind of employment. That was hard, because not many jobs were considered respectable enough for a young lady from a good, albeit now poor family. In the end, Clarinda found herself working as both an office girl and a shop assistant. The hours were long, the work tiring and many times humiliating, but she couldn't regret going on her life's adventure. Having helped save her friends and having seen all that she had now seen, was worth whatever happened now.

At least she was now allowed to live with her aunt, even if she didn't spend too many hours there, after her long and gruelling hours at work.

To her surprise, she finally received a letter from the twins. It was a strange letter, written in both their very similar hands, and the contents were confusing at best. She thought she detected a note of bitterness that people knew about what they had been through, anger at her knowledge of their ordeal, and a sort of disagreement between the twins. It was clear that she would never receive any thanks for her part in their rescue, but that did not concern her. She was still glad she had dared to go. If she had not, she would never have been able to forgive herself. But she could not even guess what the cause of the disagreement between the twins was.

Eventually, the twins had learned not only that their old friend had been engaged at the time she had learned of their disappearance, but also that she had been cast off, because she went to their rescue. They learned that she was now working as an office girl and a shop assistant! Both trades were equally unthinkable to the still independently wealthy twins, heirs to a copper mine.

Stefian pitied his old friend and wanted to raise her up from this degradation. Trefian could see no reason why they should offer her any compensation.

”But can't you see how she is suffering, because of us?”

”I am suffering.”

”So am I, but that's not Clarinda's fault. She lost everything to help us. Have you forgotten that?”

”She is not the one who has been -”

Stefian bit his lip and looked away. Why did Trefian have to go on and on about what they had been forced to endure in that accursed Zuleekistan? All he wanted was to forget and failing that, at least to leave the painful topic alone. Trefian's anger made that impossible.

”It's my money too, you know. I'm going to send her a sum large enough to save her from the necessity of – working, like a servant. Besides, she had really grown up since we last saw her. Who would have thought she would grow to be so beautiful? I have a good mind to -”

”What?”

”To begin with, I want to go and see her. I need to see her for myself.”

”You're going to leave our home and expose yourself to the spying eyes of the public after -”

”Do you really imagine Girays or Karsler will have told anyone of what -”

Stefian broke off, refusing to even mention the painful ordeal that did not lie far enough in the past to even consider it.

”She must know, isn't that enough?”

Stefian stubbornly refused to budge. Indeed his brother's resistance to his suggestion made him even more determined to go.

”You stay here. I will go on my own. It's much better that way anyway.”

”If you think I'm going to let you go on your own, you need to think again. I'm going too.”

”You do as you please.”

And so they set off in their very expensive, very modern automobile to visit their old friend for the first time since she had been orphaned. The last time, they had been driven in a carriage and accompanied by a tutor, but now they were both of age and could do as they pleased.

When they arrived in the street outside her aunt's house, they found Clarinda sitting on the front steps, as if she had been overcome by fatigue and had just sunk down where she was standing. She did not even notice their arrival.

Stefian was struck by pity for his old friend. He had never seen her so exhausted, yet so lovely. The last of the setting sun's rays caught her auburn hair and made it look like burnished copper. For the first time since his return from Zuleekistan he felt something other than defeat and humiliation.

A sum of money would not do. It would be an insult. No, what was needed was something far more personal.

Trefian too, was beginning to waver. Clarinda was so weary, it appeared she was asleep where she was sitting, slumped down on the front steps. Just like his brother, Trefian was rapidly becoming aware of the change that had occurred in the years since they had last seen her – was it six years already? He had a vague idea that they had subjected her to some sort of prank or practical joke? It had seemed like such a great idea at the time, but it was beginning to dawn on him that a sixteen-year-old girl might not have been nearly as amused and that must explain why she had never come to see them again. They would have to invite her over to their home. To repay her and to thank her properly for her sacrifice. She might have been married now, had it not been for them and their – situation. He opened his mouth to issue the invitation, but to his dismay, he was interrupted by his brother. Stefian always had to -

”Clarinda – will you marry me?”

At first she appeared not to have heard, then she started and came awake. Her eyes began to focus again, but she had a look of confusion on her pale face.

”Stefian – Trefian – you're here. How happy I am to see you at last. Are you – well?”

Stefian decided to ignore the question. Trefian, the annoying fool had been about to say something and Stefian was determined to beat him to it. In these matters there could only be one victor and he intended to be the one.

”Clarinda, will you marry me?”

She was stunned. Was it possible Stefian had just asked her to marry him? Surely not. In all their years together, the twins had never given any indication they saw her as anything other than a playmate. Indeed at times, she had formed the impression that they saw her as another boy, albeit one with clothing less suited for tree climbing and cellar exploration.

”I hate you, Stefian. I want to marry you, Clarinda. Marry me instead.”

”I asked her first. It's your own fault for not thinking of it sooner. I beat you fair and square.”

Trefian was filled with even more anger than he had ever since their return from Zuleekistan. His brother thought he could take his bride and – Why would Stefian always do this to him? Always be the one to beat him to any – He wasn't going to take it. Not this time. So he launched himself at his brother and Stefian was not one to turn the other cheek. To Clarinda's horror, the twins were now rolling around on the pavement beneath her feet, fighting and hurling insults at each other. Just like when they were children.

”Stop it at once.”

To her astonishment they complied immediately. They got to their feet and stood before her, breathing heavily, staring at her, somewhat surprised themselves, it seemed to her. She suspected them of a joke at her expense, but nothing happened, until both began to apologize, sounding truly contrite. What was this? She hardly recognized her old friends, but she liked the change. Could it be that they were beginning to grow up?

”Now will you come and visit us? I was going to invite you over when Stefian -”

”Yes, please come and visit now that you're my fiancee. Because you are going to accept, aren't you?”

”No, wait, don't listen to him. Yes, come and visit, but please don't marry him. Choose me instead.”

Clarinda looked from one of the twins to the other. They appeared perfectly serious. What was she going to do? She realized that she had no objection. Her only problem was how to decide which one to choose. It suddenly struck her that in the past, she had always seen the twins as one, very exciting and amusing playmate, not two individuals.

”I need time to think, but I will come and visit if my aunt can come along as a chaperone.”

”What? No, that would be really boring. We have a housekeeper and our old nurse. Isn't that more than enough? Come on, not your boring old aunt too.”

”Yes, I'm afraid I have to insist. Though you are right, she is boring. It's just the – respectable thing to do.”

Trefian was about to say that surely she had never worried about what was respectable, but realizing that things might be different now, that she was grown up, he closed his mouth again. She had agreed. They would have to accept the aunt too.

”Very well. She can come too.”

Stefian sighed.

”Yes, I suppose so. Since you insist.”

They in their turn insisted on coming inside with Clarinda, to extend the invitation.

Clarinda, despite her fatigue, found her aunt's reaction amusing. It was plain to see how her aunt's mind was working. She detested the annoying, infuriating Festinette twins, but on the other hand, now with her niece disgraced, these wealthy young men were her only chance. So her aunt swallowed her objections and even managed to sound polite and almost pleasant, as pleasant as she ever did, when she thanked the young men for their invitation.

As was their habit, the twins would hear of no delays. They insisted that Clarinda and her aunt leave the following morning and they sent their automobile and a carriage for them and most of their belongings. Stefian was not going to take any chances. For once, Trefian had no objections. Despite her obvious misgivings, Clarinda's aunt gave in and agreed to leave early in the morning.

Clarinda, despite her concern for the twins' state of mind, found herself getting excited. The last time she had stayed with the Festinette family, she had had a wonderful time. Her aunt had agreed that with a proposal from not only one but two wealthy young men, she need no longer work outside the home, indeed it might even be detrimental to her position. As soon as they arrived, she began to write letters to all her friends, and discuss dress making with them. She sent for a trusted dress maker who was known to make lovely dresses for reasonable prices. Clarinda wasn't getting any younger, and though her aunt would much have preferred the Marquess to these – Festinette twins, clearly the Marquess was out of their league and she had to admit, that aside from any personal preferances, the wealthy young men ranked higher than an accountant.

So Clarinda found herself living permanently in the twins' enormous mansion on the outskirts of the city. She and her aunt were given rooms, and indeed almost an entire floor, with a sitting room and other rooms made ready for their exclusive use. To her relief, everything looked respectable, since this was the floor previously occupied by the twins' parents, not the rest of the mansion which contained all boys' gadgets and collectibles and even toys.

The aunt prevailed upon Clarinda to hurry up and accept the proposal of one of them, either one of them. When Clarinda pointed out that Stefian had proposed to her slightly earlier than Trefian, she agreed that it would be most correct to accept the first one. They would be forced to disappoint the other twin. At first Trefian flew into a rage and began to batter his brother with his fists, but at a sharp word from Clarinda, he broke off his attack and even apologized, quite contritely.

”I may still get you to change your mind, before the wedding. And even if you do not – I trust you will still be my friend.”

She was touched by his meekness (but did not trust it completely).

”Of course, Trefian. I still love you dearly as my best friend.”

”And me? Do you not love me best?”

”I will love you both as a husband and as a friend.”

That seemed to satisfy Stefian too. She witnessed no more fights between them, at least not over her hand. There was no denying that this was most satisfying. She used their changed behavior as an excuse to extract a promise. The twins would have to swear never to play any pranks or practical jokes on her ever again. At first they looked as if they couldn't understand why she had even brought the subject up, then it appeared as if they recalled that one occasion.

Stefian struck a dramatic pose and placed his hand over his heart.

”I swear to you, my love, that I will never do that to you again. Indeed I apologize most profusely.”

Trefian was not to be outdone and struck a similar pose with his hand likewise over his heart.

”I, too, swear. It was Stefian's idea, that time.”

Stefian looked outraged.

”You're lying. It was your idea.”

”It was not.”

”It was too.”

Again, Clarinda was forced to raise her voice.

”Stefian, Trefian. Stop.”

They reluctantly broke off their argument.

Stefian bowed politely and Trefian mimicked him.

”Thank you. It doesn't matter whose idea it was, but it must never happen again.”

”And it never will.”

”Never.”

A few weeks after the engagement had been announced, Girays invited them all to Belfaireau. After reluctantly having to ask her aunt for permission, Clarinda was able to accept and they all left for Belfaireau. To Clarinda's delight, her 'uncle' was also invited and it was wonderful to meet him again. He was very encouraging and pleased at her luck. To her intense astonishment, her aunt even seemed to take to him and they were soon engaged in an animated conversation. It even seemed to Clarinda that the two elderly people were growing genuinely fond of each other, to say the least.

She gave the matter no more thought, as she walked away to rejoin her friends Girays and Karsler over by the enormous fireplace. The twins had got into a minor argument but were able to keep their voices down and did not attract undue attention from the other guests.

Girays congratulated her over her engagement and even kissed her hand in a very chivalrous way. Karsler did the same and Clarinda found herself blushing slightly.

”Which one of the two young men is your fiance?”

”It's Stefian. He's the one who is clenching his fists while Trefian, who has always been a little angrier, is waving his around in the air.”

”Oh. I hope you will be very happy.”

”Thank you. And you – how do you feel about living here in our country?”

”I am very happy here. I do miss the Promontory but – I believe my home is here now. Having made such good friends – Also, in my home country, there is some bad feeling about – fraternising with – that is to say, that I find it more convenient to live here. Your country is a very modern, comfortable country to live in. Apart from at the Promontory – my country is more – old-fashioned and – resistant to change.”

”Oh. I'm so glad you're settling in so well.”

She considered asking about Luzelle, but thought better of it, and a few moments later, she caught sight of the other young lady, chatting with a group of young men. A little later, Clarinda discovered that she was surrounded by young adventurers who wished to travel and make new discoveries. It seemed that even if she had lost Girays, she was still in a very favorable situation. Clarinda knew the type from her own school days. Luzelle was the sort of person who always landed on her feet.

It occurred to Clarinda that Luzelle had turned her back on the twins without a second thought and indeed – she had heard that Luzelle had caused an accident to poor Zavune, another participant in the Grand Ellipse, and made him an invalid. It was said that she had paid him an enormous sum of money as compensation, but Clarinda still didn't think that made it right. She would never like the other woman, but then again, there was no reason why she should.

At least the twins were now safe and Karsler too. She was very happy about that and considered herself fortunate that she was treated as a good friend by both Girays and Karsler.

By now, the twins had stopped their argument and seemed for once to be in agreement and in good cheer. They caught sight of her and came over. Stefian claimed her first dance and she agreed. Trefian insisted on the second one and to Clarinda's delight, first Girays and then Karsler asked to be allowed third and fourth dance. She happily agreed.

A year ago, Clarinda had never believed she would end up in such happy circumstances.

To her astonishment, Stefian turned out to be a far better dancer than Clarinda had imagined. Trefian, too, danced much better than she had expected and both Girays and Karsler were perfect. She caught herself wishing she could one day see the two of them dancing together. It would be – exquisite. But of course they didn't even know she had guessed their secret.

After her dance with Karsler, Stefian returned to claim another dance and so it continued for the rest of the evening. They had been invited to stay for the whole weekend and to Clarinda's surprise, her aunt had agreed. Her 'uncle' too, had been invited to stay and had accepted.

They spent the weekend at Belfaireau, going on outings and sitting in the gardens. Clarinda had a wonderful time and she sensed that her aunt had really enjoyed herself too.

A few weeks later, her engagement to mr Denaire, the elder, was announced. Clarinda had never been so astonished in her life, but she was also very pleased. She loved her 'uncle' and it seemed he had a calming effect on her aunt. Clarinda had never seen her aunt so cheerful and friendly before.

Over the next few weeks, Clarinda also saw the twins at their best behavior. They didn't get into one single fight in all that time. Even her aunt had to admit they had grown up really well. They had offered to give her and her new husband a house on their lands, which she had accepted. That delighted both Clarinda and the twins, because it meant they could enjoy themselves without an elderly chaperone looking over their shoulder. In fact, the twins offered to pay for a honeymoon in the mountains or at the seaside, whichever the elderly couple would prefer. By now, Clarinda's aunt knew and trusted both housekeeper and former nurse and agreed that they would do as chaperones for Clarinda until her wedding in the autumn. The older couple preferred to marry as soon as possible, which Clarinda thought made sense.

So before her own wedding, she found herself attending her aunt's wedding. The twins had not spared any expense. Even though the bride and groom were of an advanced age, the party was in every way as it might have been had they been fifty years younger. Girays and Karsler attended too, which lent even more grace to the event. Relatively early in the evening, the couple left in a carriage, and Clarinda, the twins and their guests of honor – Girays and Karsler – waved them off.

As soon as they had seen the last of the carriage, Stefian grabbed Clarinda's arm and called out to the others.

”Finally. Let's get back to the party. I have a surprise for you, Clarinda. Actually, more than one. Come on, all of you.”

”I have a surprise too.”

Trefian was not going to let his brother outdo him even at this.

Clarinda couldn't help smiling. She could hardly believe that this was what her life would be like from now on. Endless fun and – hopefully – love too. She thought the twins were beginning to get back to normal, though since she hadn't met them for six years, she couldn't be completely sure.

Clarinda and Stefian had a small head start, and when they were quite alone in a passageway, Stefian took the opportunity to kiss her. If she had had any doubts before, they were now put to rest. She had never been kissed before, that was true, but the passion took her breath away. No, she would not miss anything in her marriage.

”I'm so glad I finally got you to myself. Trefian never lets me have anything or anyone to myself. For once, this is just for me. I love you, Clarinda.”

”I love you too, Stefian. Before the others come here, I have to tell you that you were always my favorite. A bit more – gentle – than Trefian. Of course, I am very fond of Trefian too. I hope you don't mind.”

Stefian smiled indulgently.

”No, of course not. He is my brother. I'm rather fond of him too, but don't tell him I said that. Now, hurry before they catch up.”

And she followed her fiance back to the party. The others weren't far behind.

Naturally, she enjoyed the life of luxury, but she knew that what she appreciated the most was knowing that her old friends were safe – and she had found true love. She was also happy for Girays and Karsler and very glad she had met such good friends. From now on, she was sure her life would be something she could enjoy. She couldn't wait to see what the future might bring. One thing was certain, life would never be dull with the twins.

FIN