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Exile

Neve has spent her life in the shelter of the Crystal Keep, developing her talent for magic and preparing to inherit from her father the Guardianship of this mysterious world.

With this post comes the remarkable magic of the Nexus. But control of the Nexus is an awesome and dangerous responsibility, and to prove that she is capable of manipulating its formidable energies, Neve must journey through the outside world to the home of the Keep's creator.

Along the way, she will meet a handsome young sailor whose love and guidance are essential to her survival.

And, in this brutal foreign land, she must confront the dark side of the Nexus ... to claim the power that is her birthright.

Book 2 of the Guardian's Key series

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Anne Logston

Anne Logston: An Icon of the Creative Universe—A Master of Science Fiction and Fantasy Quill—Paver of Past, Present, and Future. Each of best-selling author Anne Logston's books have their own story, but can all be described as all highly character-driven with a lot of action. Her characters, especially Shadow, often have a touch of whimsy and sly humor. While still maintaining a light touch, she talks about the consequences of racism, defining your own identity, and what happens when magic becomes mixed up in everyday lives.

"I was born February 15, 1962 in Indianapolis, Indiana and grew up there and in the country in southern Indiana. I started to write fiction as soon as I could put intelligible words on paper. I quickly learned to type so I could put intelligible and LEGIBLE words on paper. I graduated from the University of Indianapolis in 1984 with an Associate's degree in computer sciences, for which I had no talent, and a Bachelor of Arts degree in English literature, for which I had no practical use.

"After college, I spent six years masquerading by day as a bad-tempered but sane legal secretary, then coming home at night to assume my secret identity as a bad-tempered and mildly demented writer. After significant bootsole-to-buttocks encouragement from my best friend, Mary Bischoff, I reluctantly sent off my first manuscript and was blessed with a remarkably short search for a publisher. My first novel, SHADOW, saw print in 1991, and two years later I abandoned my "normal" life and descended completely into fantasy.

"I have a remarkably patient husband, Paul, who supplies the sanity in our marriage. Together we are owned by three cats, two dogs, and one snake. In my infrequent leisure time, I like to grow and/or cook strange and spicy things, and I am an avid collector of anything about vampires."


Chronological Order of the Shadow Series

Greendaughter (Prequel—Book 6)
Wild Blood (Prequel—Book 7)
Shadow (Book 1)
Shadow Hunt (Book 2)
Shadow Dance (Book 3)
Dagger's Edge (Sequel—Book 4)
Dagger's Point (Sequel—Book 5)

Reviews

5 Stars

Neve has lived her entire life in the shelter of the Crystal Keep preparing to inherit the Guardianship of this mysterious world from her father. But when she tries to create living dragons and ends up creating a colossal mess instead, her parents decide that she needs to leave the Crystal Keep and learn about the outside world. She is told to take a dangerous journey to prove herself worthy of inheriting the power of the Nexus.

Anne Logston has written an exciting, fast-paced story about a young woman’s journey to find her true destiny. Neve is a complex character, a bit spoiled, definitely stubborn, courageous, but at times terrified, and I really liked her. She is totally unaware of regular human life, and so it is easy for her to be taken advantage of, but she learns fast. She meets a young sailor named Ash who is as different from the normal humans as she is and together they work to conquer a series of trials.

The settings for this story are richly drawn in complete detail so I really felt as if I were in the middle of the action, dodging blows, fighting my way through jungles, sailing through storms, and trying to manage magic. I enjoyed the relationship between Neve and Ash as they each tried to figure the other out. Both of them are different and both have had to learn to cope with their differences. It was wonderful to see how their friendship and trust develops through their many trials and tribulations.

This is a very exciting book with a number of twists and turns in the plot which keeps the suspense building until the very end. I found that I was unable to put the book down and I read it in one sitting. I think fantasy readers will find Exile to be an excellent choice for a thoughtful and at the same time rivetingly exciting adventure. I look forward to reading more works by this author

CompletedReviews -- Long and Short Reviews
Excerpt

Chapter One

Neve spent an idle morning killing dragons. Well, to be quite fair, most of them died on their own with no help from her. She’d seen dragons aplenty, but she really had no idea how they worked on the inside, and therefore how they should be put together. Some simply dropped dead the moment she made them.

Others took longer.

At dinnertime Neve’s mother, Dara shook her head dis­approvingly.

“It’s horrible,” she said. “I’ve told you about this sort of thing before, Neve. It’s wrong.”

“They aren’t real dragons,” Neve protested. “At least they weren’t real until I made them.”

“I don’t care,” Dara said flatly. “It’s cruel. They feel pain, Neve, whether you made them or not. And look at the mess you’re making on the beach. The one that exploded is splattered everywhere.”

“There, you see?” Neve said, glancing at her father. “I need the practice.”

Her father raised his eyebrows.

‘‘Well, at least you made that one correctly up to the point of its fire-belching system,” he conceded. “But you’ve got to let it vent the flammable gas, or—well, you saw. If you—’’

“Vanian,” Dara exploded, scowling.

The Guardian of the Crystal Keep sighed irritably.

“Oh, very well,” he said. “No more dragons, Neve. Your mother’s right; you are making an awful mess, anyway. Do you have any idea how that beach is going to stink while those carcasses rot?”

Neve mumbled something into her lamb pie and Vanian looked at her sharply.

“What did you say?” he said, and Neve winced a little at his tone. Now she’d done it.

“I said,” Neve said, sighing resignedly, “it wouldn’t stink if you’d just make them all go away.”

“You see?” Dara said pointedly. “Do you see what she’s becoming, Vanian? Is that what you want ruling the Keep in your stead?”

This time it was Neve’s mother who’d gone too far; Vanian’s eyes went cold and he abruptly vanished from the table. Dara scowled darkly and vanished just as abruptly, leaving Neve alone at the table. Neve returned to her lamb pie, torn between chagrin and amusement. Her father wouldn’t get off that easily; Dara could track him to the far corners of the Keep, and she’d do it, too. On the other hand, Neve wouldn’t get off that easily either. When her parents finally came back, no matter how angry they were at each other, they’d be twice as angry at her for starting the whole thing. And it was so unfair. It wasn’t as if either of them had forbidden her to make dragons, after all, and she did need the practice. How would she ever make a proper Guardian if she couldn’t create things?

Neve finished her pie, picked up another, and slid it into her pocket. Best to get away while she could. If her mother and father returned, they’d finish their argument all the faster without her presence; then, if matters followed their usual pattern, they’d go upstairs and make up in the bedroom with the door locked. Then they’d both be in a much better mood to confront their errant daughter. And there was one way Neve could sweeten their mood a little more...

Neve jumped back to the dragon-strewn beach and sighed, munching her lamb pie thoughtfully. Mother was right; it was a nasty mess, and this was the section of beach where they generally went swimming, too. Well, she’d think of some­thing. She’d have to; the sight was absolutely ruining her appetite, and the smell was even worse.

Neve was still contemplating her problem at sunset. Bring­ing in all the gulls to gobble up the scattered bits had been the easiest part; getting rid of the large chunks and the whole carcasses was much more difficult. She’d tried pulling the tide in early, but even so the water was too shallow and the force insufficient to float the dragons away. She’d tried draw­ing in the water dragons to eat their kin, but the water was too shallow for them, too. There weren’t any land predators in this pocket world large enough to haul the dragons away or push them deeper into the water. Father could have simply brought the dead dragons back to life, or made them vanish, or even made the corpses get up and walk themselves into the sea, but Neve had no idea how to do either. She could recede the shoreline, make the dragons simply tumble into the water, but her father would be livid if she tried world-scaping. Maybe if she—

“You’re making it complicated.”

Neve glanced over her shoulder at her father sitting on a rock. Her mother still jumped out of her skin every time somebody appeared unexpectedly (to Neve and her father’s great amusement), but Neve had lived in the Crystal Keep her whole life and was utterly sanguine about such occur­rences. Neve was relieved to see that her father wore a more mellow expression, and he’d newly combed and braided his straight black hair into a single plait down his back; that meant he and Dara had gotten past the argument and the sex.

“What do you mean?” she asked. “I thought about open­ing up the ground, but it’s all sand, and it’s too wet. It’d just cave right in.”

Vanian shook his head.

“You can’t seem to get away from large-scale creation and destruction,” he said. “That’s your problem. There’s any number of simple solutions that you’re completely ignoring. Come here.” He patted the rock beside him.

Disgruntled, Neve sat down. Her father had a way of mak­ing her feel like an utter fool.

“Your problem is that you’re thinking of them as drag­ons,” Vanian said. “Contrary to your mother’s tenderhearted opinion, they’re not—not now, anyway. They’re bundles of water and chemicals, the same things that go into anything else—trees, dirt, birds, thunderclouds. You should know that from the homunculi you’ve created. Transform the carcasses into something else, hopefully something that won’t putrefy. Make them smaller and roll them down the beach. Take all the water out of them and they’ll crumble into dust and blow away. Stop making it so difficult. It’s always easier to work from the inside out.”

Neve flushed with shame and realization. She concentrated for a moment and the dragons dissolved in a cascade of spar­kling red, blue, and green gemstones onto the sand.

Vanian hopped down from his perch and picked up a handful of stones, examining a few critically.

“Not bad,” he admitted, tossing the stones back to the sand. “The rubies are especially good. Of course, it’s going to become hard to have a private swim here once the mortals hear about a beach littered with precious gems, isn’t it?”

Neve flushed again.

“Most of them will wash out with the next high tide,” she said. “Or I could turn them into sand.”

“No, leave it.” Vanian chuckled. “It’ll make things in­teresting.” Then he gave Neve a sharper glance. “Where did you get so much experience with gemstones?”

Neve shrugged.

“I ran into a traveler in one of the pocket worlds,” she said. “He wanted the largest diamond ever known. So I gave him one the size of a horse.” She laughed. “Too bad he didn’t think of wishing for a way to get it home with him, or something hard enough to break it up.”

Vanian laughed, too, raising his eyebrows.

“And what did he trade you for it?”

Neve tried to imitate her father’s mysterious-but-pleased expression.

“What I wanted,” she said.

Vanian’s smile turned to a grimace and he shook his head.

“Neveling, that’s hardly equal value,” he chided. “A beautiful girl like you, he should’ve been offering you jewels. Besides, do you have any idea what your mother would say about that sort of thing?”

“Oh, by the Nexus.” Neve sighed. “Mother never said I couldn’t have lovers, she’s never complained about any of the lovers I’ve made.”

Vanian shook his head again.

‘‘Homunculi conjured up out of clouds or flower petals or spring rain aren’t at all the same as seducing mortal travel­ers,” he said sternly. “I don’t suppose it occurred to you that the fellow might have done you some harm?’’

“Hah!” Neve lifted her chin. “I’d like to see one try. I’d feed him to the fell-beasts—after I turned him into a squirrel, that is.” At least once she’d figured out how to make a squir­rel...

Vanian sighed irritably, simply gazing at Neve.

Neve sighed, too.

“All right,” she said. “How bad is it?”

“From now on,” the Guardian said sternly, “You’ll not attempt to create anything living again without supervision, not until we decide you can do it competently. And for three days you’ll stay at the house, prepare our meals, and clean. No magic whatsoever.”

Neve grimaced, not asking whose idea that had been. She knew one of her mother’s punishments when she heard it.

“Not a word,” Vanian warned when Neve would have protested. “Your mother said a week. I reduced it because you cleaned up after yourself. Now go home. Walking. The sooner you start your three days, the sooner it’ll be over.”

Neve hesitated.

“Are you coming?” she asked, hoping he’d say yes. If he’d unilaterally reduced her sentence, she’d far rather he be the one to tell Mother.

Vanian, however, apparently realized her ploy.

“No, thank you,” he said. “I’ve borne quite enough of your mother’s temper on your account today. And like you, I have responsibilities to attend to.”

He vanished.

Neve sighed and started her long walk home. Once she left the beach, there was still the seemingly interminable dis­tance down the long single hall of the Crystal Keep, past the doors that opened onto other worlds. How many were there now? Even her father wasn’t certain. And new ones were being created all the time—each time a mortal entered the Keep, whether to seek answers of the Oracle or to beg a wish from the Guardian or to discover the secrets of the mysteri­ous place or to prove themselves clever or strong enough to survive the place, whether they succeeded and left or whether they failed and stayed in the Keep or died, there would be a new door for each of them, a door leading to a new pocket world created from that mortal’s memories or dreams, a world within a world. Sometimes, Neve suspected, the Nexus popped in another world just for the joy of it.

But no door for Neve, because she’d never come; she sim­ply was. And because there was every likelihood that she wasn’t mortal at all.

When Neve’s mother had come to the Keep, it had taken her days (at least as far as time in the Keep could be mea­sured) to walk from the entrance to the last door, the door that her own presence in the Keep had created.

But although the number of doors had increased greatly since then, it wouldn’t take Neve nearly as long to traverse that same hallway.

She closed her eyes, finding the stillness inside her, the silent place. And within that—The Nexus.

It wasn’t cheating, not truly, the doors flashing by her like dry leaves in a windstorm. She wasn’t using magic. The Nexus was simply ... helping her. Because it liked her.

Because it recognized its own.

Neve stopped at the proper door without hesitation, al­though it looked like every door before it and every door after it. Like it or not, this little pocket world was home. It was unmistakable.

Inescapable.

The house was the same as always, simple and welcoming and surrounded by goats and chickens, dogs and cats, lines with drying clothes. Neve could smell bread baking in the outdoor summer oven, the hot yeasty aroma almost covering the less lovely odor of the animals and the garbage heap out back.

Dara stepped into sight at the kitchen door, drying her hands.

“There you are,” she said. “What did you do, walk back?”

Neve nodded resignedly, picking her way through the yard. Before her three-day punishment was over she’d have droppings aplenty stinking up her boots, but she planned to put it off as long as she could.

“Don’t make such a face,” Dara said, patting Neve on the shoulder. “Keep busy and the week will pass before you know it.”

“Three days,” Neve said quickly. “Father said three days.” She saw the storm cloud gathering in her mother’s eyes and added hastily, “It was because I cleaned up the dragons.”

Dara scowled and sighed exasperatedly.

“Remind me to thank him,” she said, “for making that decision without me.” She glanced at Neve rather sharply. “Did he tell you anything else?”

Neve shrugged.

“No more making live things without supervision,” she said.

Dara’s scowl deepened a little.

“That wasn’t what I—never mind.” She sighed again. “I see he left me that delightful task, too. All right, come help me with dinner and we’ll talk.”

Neve resignedly chopped turnips, carrots, and parsnips, trying to remember to be careful with the knife. She hated working in the kitchen; it was hard to remember that things like knives and fires could actually hurt her, and she was forever burning herself or chopping off the tips of her fin­gers—and it hurt like blazes until Mother or Father grew them back. When she was finished with the vegetables she went out to the ovens and took out the finished bread, pop­ping in the second batch, while her mother seasoned the roast.

“I don’t suppose it occurred to either you or your father,” Dara said, glancing over her shoulder, “to save some of that abundance of dragon meat? Most people roast it with a spicy sauce, but it makes a lovely hearty stew, too.”

Neve thought of that gory beach and her stomach turned.

“I didn’t save any,” she said. “Anyway, the meat prob­ably wouldn’t have been right. The dragons certainly weren’t.”

She turned to her mother. “Why don’t you just make it?” she said. “For that matter, why don’t you just make the stew, if that’s what you want?”

Dara sighed again, putting down the ladle with which she’d been basting the roast.

“Fine,” she said. “So you wave your hand and have stew and all the trimmings, and bread and wine and dessert and everything else you could ever possibly want. Then what?”

“What do you mean, then what?” Neve said. “Then I eat it.”

“That’s not what I meant,” Dara said patiently. “What I mean is, what do you do with your time, your life, that has any meaning? If everything’s yours for the wishing, what’s the point in anything? What gives your life purpose? What is there to want, to strive for, to dream of?”

Neve grimaced.

“I don’t know,” she retorted, “but I know it wouldn’t be chopping vegetables and scrubbing dirty dishes. Even watch­ing butterflies or just walking on the beach is better than this.”

“Is it?” Dara cut a slice of warm bread, spread it thickly with butter, and handed it to Neve.

“I made that bread and churned that butter with my own two hands,” she said. “I spent my time and my labor making tasty food to nourish and comfort the people I love. Every minute I spent kneading and churning and washing dishes I was telling you and your father how much I love you both. You’ll live and grow strong on the food I prepared for you with so much love. So tell me, what good comes from your beach walking?”

Neve ground her teeth.

“I learned things,” she said irritably, “that I bet you and your bread don’t know. I learned that tiny crabs escape pred­ators because they’re exactly the same color as the seaweed or the rocks they live in. I learned that seawater is made up almost exactly the same as blood. I learned that there’s lots and lots of creatures in the sea that make themselves look like stones or seaweed or beautiful flowers so that when fish swim close to admire them, they gobble the fish right down. I learned that the tides aren’t made by the fluttering of a huge sea dragon’s gills at all; they come from a strange power that pulls from the moon like a lodestone pulls iron shavings. I learned that pearls are valuable to people, but to an oyster they’re just trash. Did you know those things?”

Dara frowned at the outburst, but she took a deep breath before answering.

“No,” she admitted. “I didn’t. All right, I’m glad to see you’ve tried to make your time useful. But what are you going to do with all those marvelous, strange facts you’ve learned? You’ve learned more about how things work, how they’re made. All right, maybe that lets you use your magic more effectively. More magic, more free time, more walks along the beaches, more strange new knowledge so you can make more magic, which leaves you more free time, and so on. In the end it’s just a circle that traps you inside, just as your father was trapped.”

“He’s not trapped,” Neve protested. “He’s the Guardian. He can do anything, have anything he wants.”

“He could do anything but leave his huge, wonderful prison,” Dara corrected. “He could have anything except everything he wanted most. In time, Neve, enough power— the power of the Nexus, I mean—and loneliness and impris­onment and despair will make a monster out of anyone. It almost made a monster out of your father. And we’re afraid—both of us—that sooner or later that power and that imprisonment will make a monster out of you.”

“My father’s not a monster!” Neve said hotly. “And nei­ther am I.”

“No, you’re not,” Dara said softly. “Neither of you is. But, Neveling, it took your father’s love for me, and mine for him, to pull him back from the edge. And because of the way you were born, you’ve always been close to the Nexus. A part of it, in a way, just as it’s part of you. Someday when we’re gone and the Keep becomes your responsibility, what—or who—will pull you back from that edge?”

“And chopping turnips and scrubbing pots will keep me from falling over that edge?’’ Neve retorted irritably. ‘‘Any­way, who’s to say I’ll need pulling back? If I’m part of the Nexus and it’s part of me, maybe that’s what I was meant for all along. My destiny.”

Dara was silent for a long moment.

“That’s what Vanian believes,” she said at last, sighing. “I don’t know that I agree with him. But whether he’s right or I’m right, the answer’s the same. We’re sending you to visit an expert.”

That got Neve’s attention; she hunkered down pensively beside the hearth.

“An expert?” she said slowly. “What, an expert about the Nexus?”

Dara nodded.

“Kelara, the elf who opened the Nexus and created the Crystal Keep from its energies,” she said. “And her mate Yaga, who was Guardian for most of the Keep’s existence, before your father. We’re sending you to visit them.”

Kelara and Yaga. Neve remembered the names; she’d read about them in the histories her father had spent the last few years writing for her about the Keep. She’d seen some of that history in her father’s magical mirror, too, even the ac­tual creation of the Keep.

“But they’re—” Neve swallowed. “They’re gone. They’re outside.

Dara chuckled a little wearily.

“That doesn’t mean they’ve dropped off the edge of the world,” she said. “They left the Keep not long after I met your father—you’ve seen that story in the mirror, I know— and went south, to the edge of the great southern sea. Yaga developed a fondness for those hot southern jungles while he was a dragon.” Dara grimaced. “Well, there’s no accounting for taste. Anyway, we’ve looked in on them from time to time through your father’s mirror, even consulted them for advice once in a while. Such as when you were conceived.” She glanced almost guiltily at Neve. “Between the four of us, we’ve made a simple enough map for you to follow when you—”

But Neve had heard enough. Before her mother could say another word, she bolted—not with her feet, but instinctively, with her mind. She didn’t choose a destination, but some­thing within her chose one for her. There was no door for Neve in the Keep, no place created particularly for her. But she had a special place where she went to be alone, to think, and it was there she found herself, sitting on sparkling white sand in a cave of purest crystal. In glistening crystal she saw herself reflected a hundred times, a thousand—straight black hair like her father’s hanging loose over her shoulders, her father’s pale skin (never browning even on the beaches), sharp angular features now set stubbornly, long black eyes cold and angry and rebellious. She’d come here a hundred times, a thousand, for this—the feeling of being surrounded only by the reflection of herself, no intrusions, no distrac­tions. The only sounds here were the quiet drip of water, the gentle whisper of a breeze through the passages. It was a place of stillness, of clarity, of profound solitude and peace.

But there was no peace for Neve here now.

Outside. Her parents wanted to send her outside.

She wouldn’t go. She couldn’t. Every bone in her body, every drop of her blood rebelled against such a notion. She couldn’t leave the Keep any more than she could stop breathing on a whim. The Nexus was a part of her, like her heart, her eyes. She couldn’t simply walk away from it— could she?

She could feel the Nexus now as always, hovering on the edge of her awareness. With only the slightest effort she could reach out and touch it, feel—

In a desert pocket world two glorious gleaming-scaled dragons (Will I EVER get it right?) mated in a coupling only slightly less savage than combat, claws and teeth drawing blood, wings thundering

Dara finished punching down her fourth batch of bread dough and wiped her hands on her apron, glancing out the window and swearing softly under her breath

See—

A mortal visitor slogged through the swamp, cursing more loudly and openly (Oh, boy, he’s headed right toward the fell-beasts. Should I—Father would kill me butthere, ripple the water just a little, let him take the warning or not)—

Fauns danced in a forest, cloven hooves striking the hard-packed earth precisely in patterns, in a ritual no living mor­tal had ever witnessed; they drew their small knives and fell upon their sacrifice, a young boar, blood spurting over an altar made of gold and human skulls

Hear—

Rare blood orchids singing on a mountain peak, sweet siren song that would lull any mortal hearing it to sleep, never to wake as hair-thin roots slowly insinuated themselves through his flesh and into his veins to nourish the plants on his blood

Mermaids whistling victory as they converged on the wounded shark, then attacked all at once, sunlight glistening on their slippery skins, their teeth gleaming white, then red as they savagely tore the thrashing creature to pieces

“I knew you’d come here.”

This time Neve didn’t turn when she heard her father’s voice, although it shocked her abruptly out of her commun­ion with the Nexus; she resented his presence too bitterly to acknowledge him. This was her place. The Nexus hadn’t made it for her, but she had claimed it for her own and nobody had ever contested the claim. Father had a place created for him. So did Mother. It was only fair that Neve should have one place all her own. Only right.

“I was just—” She stopped. Her father hated it when she messed with the Nexus.

“I know what you were doing.” Vanian said it flatly, emotionlessly, and he was silent for a long moment. Then: “Do you know why you come here?”

“To be alone,” Neve said bitterly, and left it at that. Her father didn’t take the hint, however; when Neve wouldn’t turn to face him, he walked—walked!—around Neve and sat down in front of her.

“You come here,” Vanian said patiently, “because this place feels special to you. And it feels special to you because this is the place where you were conceived—or created, if you prefer. Or both. Your mother always liked this cave, too, which is why we chose it. She thought it was romantic.”

Neve said nothing, gazing at her father steadily. His words had somehow tainted her private place. She bitterly resented the idea that her mother and father spent time in her cave, that it could be special to them, but she’d make no sign of that resentment. She knew her father’s games. She’d show him that she could play them as well as he—if not better.

“Your mother wanted a child very much,” Vanian said. “I myself doubted it was possible. Even in the admittedly short time since she’d come here, Dara didn’t age. She never experienced a woman’s moon days. Even staying in her own pocket world, day and night came but the season never changed, not for the world, not for her. Time wasn’t time here. And even lacking that, I was the Guardian, steeped for centuries in the magic of the Nexus. Once upon a time I’d been as human as Dara, but if I had any old portraits of myself, you could plainly see how much I’d been changed. There was every chance that I simply wasn’t human enough anymore to father a child with her. Still, we hoped; it’s said that sometimes even elves and humans can crossbreed.

“We tried for some time,” Vanian said, shrugging. “The usual way. Of course, nothing happened. So we consulted Kelara and Yaga. They agreed with my concerns but thought there was a way it might be done—with what consequences, nobody knew.”

He met Neve’s gaze squarely.

“I used the magic of the Nexus to quicken my seed in your mother’s body,” he said. “I wove some of the Nexus’s power into your very being. And because that magic an­swered my will, you could grow as a baby would grow inside its mother, be born, age as a child would age. But I knew there was a price; there’s always a price. One day your own will would grow strong enough that that part of the Nexus within you—and possibly someday, through it, the Nexus itself—would answer to you instead of me. That time is ap­proaching, as your mother and I knew it would. So we prepared for it as best we could.”

Vanian sighed.

“When I came to the Keep, and later, your mother came, too,” he said slowly, “we didn’t understand how time passed outside as compared to within the Keep. That passage of time deprived us both of”—he closed his eyes briefly—“certain choices in the direction of our lives. Your mother didn’t want you to have to face a world changed by time beyond all we knew. So together—she and I and the Nexus—we brought the Keep back inside time. We don’t age, your mother and I and those who dwell here. We don’t die. The seasons don’t change in the pocket worlds. But one day inside the Keep is one day outside, and so it’s been since you were conceived. It was the most difficult thing I’ve ever tried to do.” Vanian shook his head, then grinned wryly. “But it’s a good change. Before, sometimes it seemed that mortals invaded the place constantly. That wasn’t true, of course; outside, years might pass, or even decades, between visitors. Now visitors seem much rarer, although that’s only an illusion, too. But we did it for you, knowing that one day you’d have to make this journey.”

“Nobody told me anything about any journey,” Neve said sullenly.

Vanian shrugged.

“We decided not to mention it,” he said negligently. “It might never have been necessary. Someone else might have become Guardian. You might have had no interest in the job or no talent for manipulating the Nexus. Your mother and I might have decided to take you and live outside, as Kelara and Yaga chose to leave. At one point we considered it se­riously, especially your mother. There was a time Dara wanted that very much—a life with other people around her, friends, maybe more children.”

Neve had never heard that before; somehow it disturbed her.

“Why didn’t you, then?” she asked.

Vanian grimaced.

“I can’t leave the Keep unless another takes my place as Guardian,” he said. “Visitors came more seldom—at least in relationship to the passage of time inside—and none of them who might have wanted the job were fit to take it. I couldn’t leave the power of the Nexus to just anyone. Be­sides”—he hesitated—“I wasn’t so certain I could give it up anymore. Or even that I wanted to. The world outside has changed too much; everything that ever meant anything to me outside is gone, and I’ve changed too much, too. I didn’t think—and still don’t—that a normal mortal life outside would ever be right for me again, not after what I’ve seen, done, known here. I began to wonder whether I’d ever really want to step down. And then it became apparent that you had every intention of becoming the next Guardian.” He fell silent.

“Well, what’s wrong with that?” Neve demanded. “If I was born to hold the power of the Nexus, then that’s what I’m meant to do. What I should do. What’s the matter with that? Other than the fact that now you’ve changed your mind and you don’t want to give it up, that is.”

Vanian sighed irritably.

“You haven’t been listening,” he said impatiently. “Neveling, in many respects your mother and I never had a choice in the direction of our lives; it was chosen for us—by others, or by chance or circumstance or birth. We were determined that you would have more of a choice than we did.”

Neve scowled.

“It doesn’t sound like that to me,” she said. “It doesn’t sound like you’re giving me any choice at all.”

“Ignorance isn’t a choice,” Vanian said pointedly. “If a baby bird doesn’t break the shell of the egg that contains it, it dies never knowing that it could have soared on the wind. You can’t decide that the world outside the Keep holds noth­ing for you until you’ve seen it, experienced it. And your mother and I can’t protect you from life forever. If you’re old enough to take charge of your own destiny, then you must do it.”

He sighed, and to Neve’s amazement, for a moment he looked almost old.

“You’re right. I’m not certain I want to give up the Nexus now,” he said. “I’m not certain I’d want to live here under another Guardian, even—or maybe especially—my own child. I’m even less certain I want to live outside as a mortal. But if you’re truly ready, and the Nexus was meant for you, then that’s two to my one, and I’ll step down. When Kelara gets to know you, she’ll know the answer.”

“Alone?” Neve said in a small voice. “You’re sending me outside alone?”

Vanian gazed at her soberly.

“I can’t leave the Keep,” he said quietly. “Your mother could go with you, or we could make you an escort to protect you, but—” He hesitated. “Is that what you want?”

Neve swallowed. The idea of going outside, finding her way across the mortal lands to seek out two elves she’d never met—it was terrifying. But her mother had made such a jour­ney all alone, and her mother had been a simple serving maid with no magic and no special talents. And after all, this was to prove that Neve was ready to become the Guardian of the Crystal Keep, fit to wield the incredible power of the Nexus. What kind of Guardian couldn’t make a simple journey with­out someone along to hold her hand?

And in a way, it made a sort of sense. Nothing in the Keep came for free; value given for value received, that was the law. If she wanted the Nexus, she’d have to earn it. And if this journey was the price, the task the Guardian set her...

“All right,” she said, as steadily as she could. “I’ll go. Alone.”

“You won’t be entirely unprepared,” Vanian said almost absently, as if he spoke to reassure himself more than her. “You’ve learned a great deal about the outside world watch­ing in my mirror, and through what Dara and mortal visitors have told you. And no matter how you’ve disliked it, the skills Dara’s taught you will help you survive outside. You’ll have supplies and money and maps; it’s more than your mother had when she made her long journey here.”

Then he smiled rather grimly.

“There’s never been much of your mother in you, not to look at you, but you’re like her in one way at least. You’re an utterly determined, incredibly stubborn little creature.” He glanced at her sideways. “If the Guardian of the Crystal Keep couldn’t stand against such an iron will, I shudder to think what the outside world has in store for it.”

Despite her father’s words, Neve was angry, and that anger carried her through the next days. Completely ignoring the rules of her supposed punishment, Neve spent her time in a frenzy of creation—clothing, supplies, weapons, most of which were utter failures because she’d simply never both­ered trying to make such serviceable goods before, but she was too furious at her father to ask for help.

At last, however, it was Dara who came to her room with a sack and a peace offering of Neve’s favorite cinnamon cakes and whipped honey butter, and she looked over Neve’s creations with neither the disdain nor annoyance Neve had expected.

“These aren’t too bad for a first try,” Dara said gently. “But they wouldn’t last you long outside. Tell me what you want and we’ll work on it together. But—” She glanced at the pile again. “That’s far too much to carry, you know.”

“I was planning to take a horse, only I’m not allowed to make one,” Neve said, trying to suppress her annoyance. Like it or not, she was going outside. She needed all the help she could get, little as she wanted to admit it.

“A horse is a good idea,” Dara said, unperturbed. “And perhaps a pack mule as well. You’ll be traveling through civilized land for the most part, so there should be good roads all the way down to the coast. I’d advise you to join a car­avan; it’s slower, but safer from highwaymen, and you’ll eat better—won’t have to catch your food, at least.”

Neve sniffed.

“I’m not taking the roads down,” she said. “I’m taking the river.”

“The river?” Dara raised her eyebrows, her lips pursing.

“One of the visitors told me about it,” Neve said, smiling inwardly. So much for her mother knowing everything. “Barges come up the Little Brother to trade as far north as Selwaer, and that’s only a few days’ ride from the Keep. I can take a trade barge south to Kent, where the Little Brother meets the Dezarin, and then buy passage on a ship all the way down the Dezarin to the sea. Other ships sail west along the coast to Zaravelle, and Kelara and Yaga live not too far from there. Father showed me on the map.” Neve tapped the unrolled skin where she’d marked her route. “It’s ever so much faster than traveling overland. I can be in Zaravelle in just a few weeks at the most. It’d take months by land.”

“Well!” Dara took a deep breath, surveying the map. “I can see you’ve given this some thought. I admit I hadn’t thought of boats.” She laughed a little weakly. “I’ve never been on a boat in my life. I couldn’t have afforded it anyway. And you’re right, it should be faster and more comfortable, and probably safer—at least from highwaymen. A boat on the open sea, though—”

Dara shook her head, her brow furrowing, and Neve felt a momentary flash of satisfaction. Good. Let her parents worry about sea dragons and sirens and whirlpools and pi­rates. This whole trip wasn’t her idea.

“Well!” Dara said again, as if at a loss for words. “After seeing all the planning you’ve done, I don’t know whether this will be of any use to you or not, but here it is anyway.” She pulled a thick leather-bound book out of the sack and handed it to Neve.

Neve opened the book, flipping through the pages idly.

“It’s a grimoire,” Dara said. She sighed. “More precisely, one I claimed when I first came to the Keep. It’s very basic but has a good range of spells.”

“Spells,” Neve repeated. She glanced at her mother. “I don’t use spells.”

“You don’t use spells here,” Dara corrected. “Outside the Keep you can’t simply make anything you want happen just by thinking about it. Magic doesn’t work that way out­side. You should know that. I’m assuming—”

Dara cleared her throat and, to Neve’s astonishment, blushed. In all the years of her life, Neve had never seen her mother blush except with anger, usually when arguing with Father.

“I’m assuming,” Dara repeated, “that you’ll still have the ability to work magic when you leave the Keep. If that’s the case, perhaps you’ll find the grimoire useful. Or perhaps not.” She hesitated. “You’ve had no real training in the sort of magic practiced outside. I thought you should learn it, but your father—he thought it best that you simply develop at your own pace and in your own way. Perhaps he’s right. Training might have pushed you toward the Nexus too quickly. I don’t know. Now I wonder whether we did you a disservice in that way.”

Neve kept her mouth shut; her mother wouldn’t much care to hear Neve’s opinion on what disservices they’d done her.

“In any event, you’ve certainly taught yourself concentra­tion and focus,” Dara said hurriedly, as if to cover her earlier doubts. “You should be able to work your way through the spells if you start simply. And if you can’t—well, you won’t be any worse off than I was.”

She turned back to Neve.

“Neveling, I wanted to ask—your father’s mirror—”

Neve fought back a grimace.

“Don’t watch me,” she said. “Don’t. I’d hate that, know­ing you were watching me. And even if I was in trouble, there wouldn’t be anything you could do, not if I’d gotten very far from the Keep, that is.” She knew there was some cruelty in her request, but so be it. If she was going to be forced to make this journey, at least she wanted the satisfac­tion of knowing her parents had no idea—and no control, either—of what she was doing.

Dara sighed.

“I knew you’d say that,” she said tiredly. “We’ll try, Neve. That’s all I can promise. We’ll try not to look.”

Which meant, Neve knew, that they’d look—her father would have done as he pleased anyway, despite whatever Neve or her mother said. Well, no matter. As she’d pointed out, she’d be well beyond their reach anyway. That thought was as reassuring in one way as it was frightening in another.

In the end Dara was right; a pack mule was a necessity, and Vanian agreed to supply the horse and mule. Neve was loaded with clothes, supplies, bedding, pots, her mother’s grimoire—and a few secrets.

While Neve was checking the load one last time, Dara had come to give her a battered-looking leather purse.

“Your father and I made this together,” she said. “When­ever you open it it’ll contain ten silver pieces—Caistran coin­age, that’s the only one I really know. That’s from your father and me. This is just from me.” She clasped Neve’s hands tightly, and Neve felt a warm tingling sensation flow through her fingers.

“I’ve taught you cookery,” Dara said almost embarrassedly, “but many people can do that. Now you’ll have a true talent for it. Should anything—well, if you lose the purse, at least you’ll have a way to earn a living. With the talent I gave you, you should be able to get a position even in a High Lord’s house if you need to.”

Then she grimaced as if at a none-too-pleasant memory of her serving-maid years.

“But try not to lose the purse,” she added wryly.

Neve had thanked her mother and tucked the purse into her tunic; she’d no sooner returned to her inspection than her father appeared.

“Ready to go, I see,” he said cheerfully. “Did your mother give you the purse?”

Neve patted her tunic, nodding.

“Good. Don’t tie it on your belt, especially in the cities and towns, or someone will steal it,” Vanian said. “But you’ll need something else in your travels.”

He clasped his hands loosely around Neve’s throat; Neve felt a slight tingling, as she had when her mother had taken her hands.

“Ever since I became Guardian,” Vanian said slowly, “there’s never been a man nor woman enter the Keep whose language I couldn’t understand and speak. The Nexus does that, I think. Your mother didn’t receive that gift, but some­how you did. Maybe it’s because—well, I wasn’t certain it would last outside the Keep. What I just did will make sure it does.” He hesitated. “But sometimes words aren’t enough.”

He handed Neve a dagger. Like the purse, it was old and battered looking; it even looked dull, but when Neve started to test the edge Vanian snatched her hand away sharply.

“No!” he snapped. Then he flushed. “Never touch the edge or point. It’s not a normal blade. It will kill anyone it cuts. You must always be very careful with it.”

He shrugged rather sheepishly.

“Your mother and I never taught you much about defend­ing yourself,” he said, sighing. “That was probably a mis­take, but you didn’t seem to need it here. Outside it’s different. You may not be able to rely on your own magic. But that knife—one cut is all you’ll need. And if—hope­fully—you never need it to defend yourself, it may at least come in handy hunting.”

Neve took a deep breath and sheathed the dagger very, very carefully; forcing what she hoped was a grateful smile. Now she wondered whether she’d ever dare wear the thing. Maybe she could just bury it somewhere in the wilderness.

“Your mother would probably use that thing on me if she had any notion I’d made it for you,” Vanian said wryly. “I can’t even imagine what she’d do if she knew about this.” He opened his other hand, displaying a shining crystal the size of Neve’s thumbnail.

“A diamond?” Neve said, taking the crystal, suddenly thinking of the pouch of rubies she’d surreptitiously tucked into her spare stockings. But as soon as she touched the hard stone, a shock of pure recognition ran up her arm, and she knew it was no ordinary diamond she held.

“A small fragment of the Nexus itself,” Vanian said. He grimaced. “You have no idea how much it hurt to create that for you. Hopefully it will let you retain some of the magic you’ve learned to use here. I don’t know that it will. But there’s no harm in trying, I suppose.”

Then he scowled.

“Now, where to put it—”

“A necklace?” Neve suggested. “I can wear it inside my tunic, where nobody can see.”

She well understood her father’s concern. The Nexus was an incredible, immeasurable power; not only that, but her father—and Neve herself—were tied very, very closely to the Nexus. She couldn’t imagine what might happen to either or both of them should that small fragment fall into someone else’s hands or be destroyed.

“No, no,” Vanian said, shaking his head. “Somebody might steal it.” Then he sighed. “Sit down.”

He pulled off Neve’s boot, then unlaced the bottom of her trousers, pushing them up. He ripped open Neve’s stocking behind her right knee.

“What are you doing?” Neve asked cautiously.

“Would you rather take your trousers and stockings off?” Vanian asked practically, raising one eyebrow. “I thought not.”

He pressed the crystal against Neve’s leg, behind and just above her knee; when he took his hand away it was empty. Neve reached behind her knee and felt; there was a crystal-sized hard lump there under her skin. Vanian ran his finger down the tear in her stocking and it closed seamlessly, but he left her to lace her trousers and replace her boot herself, sitting back on the bench.

“If you should happen to be robbed,’’ Vanian said wryly, “the back of the knee isn’t a place where an attractive young woman would generally be searched. But I don’t know what will happen when you take a part of the Nexus out of the Keep. If it should cause you trouble, you might have to cut it out, so I didn’t want to implant it too deeply, or anywhere vital.” He grinned. “And do be careful which knife you’d use to cut it out!”

Suddenly Neve felt a pang of conscience. Her father hadn’t even speculated what effect it might have on him—the Guardian sending a piece of the Nexus outside the Keep. It must be a great deal like tearing off a piece of himself.

“Maybe you shouldn’t—” Neve said slowly.

Vanian raised his eyebrows.

“Nonsense,” he said, waving negligently. “I think of it as a necessary experiment. If that fragment of the Nexus serves you, and if your mother and I leave here someday, I may want to take a piece of the Nexus myself. I’ve become rather accustomed to all the conveniences here, you know, and I was no mage at all outside.”

Neve didn’t believe a word of it, but the deed was done and she knew her father better than to believe she could change his mind. His comments about her mother notwith­standing, she knew where the other half of her own stub­bornness came from, and it wasn’t the Nexus.

To Neve’s gratitude, there was no teary farewell at the door, only her mother handing her a satchel with still-hot meat rolls and fruit pies and Father standing at the door tapping his toe impatiently. Neve said nothing; leading the horse and mule her father had made, she simply took a deep breath and stepped over the threshold—and out of her world.