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«Captives», Jean Lorrah

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Prologue

THE LEGEND OF THE FIRST READER

Before there was an Aventine Empire the world was broken up into little kingdoms. In one of those kingdoms lived a young man who had the power to Read-to know what was in other people's minds-but he was the very first to have such power, and he did not know what to do with it, so he remained a poor honest laborer.

In this kingdom the king had no sons, but he had one very beautiful daughter; all men who saw her wanted to marry her. Since she did not know how to choose among her many suitors, she declared a contest: Whoever could give her her heart's desire would have her hand.

So men brought her gold and jewels, fine horses, musicians and dancers to entertain her, perfumes and spices-and always she declared that their gifts were not her heart's desire.

The young Reader, though, was able to Read what was going on in the princess' mind as her suitors displayed their treasures and were rejected. The king grew angrier and angrier as the girl refused one after another of the fine, strong, wealthy men. The Reader knew that the king wanted his daughter to marry a king… but the daughter did not like the powerful men who tried to claim her hand.

Watching the princess each time there was a public ceremony for another suitor, and Reading her true desire, the Reader fell deeply in love with her. At length, despite the fact that he was a common laborer with no property to give her, he decided to risk pressing his suit. When he stepped forward, the people laughed to see a poor man with no troop of servants carrying treasures, marching forward empty-handed to the foot of the throne.

The king, however, was curious enough to allow the Reader to offer his gift. The young man drew himself up, and addressed the princess. "All your life," he said, "you have had gold and jewels, slaves, furs and perfumes, horses and falcons, treasures from all the lands of the world. All these your father can provide for you-yet you say you do not have your heart's desire. Thus it cannot be any worldly treasure that you long for. What you desire is the love of a good man-a man who is not bent on accumulating treasure or making war on his enemies-a man who will place you above all things as the greatest treasure of his heart. This I can give you, as no man else."

Never before had the princess met a man who understood her deepest desires. "Yes!" she cried. "That is my heart's desire! I shall love you above all men!"

But the king, who had thought the young man comical until his daughter's response, was maddened with anger. "You lie!" he roared. "No daughter of mine would be so foolish as to forego power and wealth for such frivolity! You are a liar, young man, and will die for daring to say such a thing about a member of the king's family! And you," he added, turning to his daughter, "will deny what he has said, or I will have you killed, too!"

"But I can prove it!" cried the young Reader. "I can tell you what is in your heart-I can hear any man's thoughts! You are thinking that you want a strong and powerful man to marry your daughter and be king after you-someone who will give her strong sons who will capture many lands and accumulate great treasures. But if you could Read what was in her heart, you would know as I do that these things mean nothing to her."

Now the king knew that the Reader spoke the truth about what he was thinking, but he also thought it nothing but common sense, such as any man ought to think. He had the young man hauled off to the dungeon, threatening to cut his tongue out if he continued to tell lies about the princess. That night, however, another suitor for the princess' hand arrived-a great and powerful warlord from a neighboring land.

Languishing in his dungeon, the Reader Read the plans of the warlord. He had brought with him an army, claiming it was his gift to the princess, for surely it must be strength of arms that was her heart's desire. But he was also prepared for rejection-in which case his army, thus smuggled into the heart of the kingdom, would turn on the people. They would kill the king, and the warlord would take the princess by force and make himself king of all the land.

Knowing this, the Reader begged and pleaded with his guards to arrange an audience for him with the king. As it happened, the king had planned to test the young man's claims, for he could see great value in someone who could tell him his enemies' secrets… if such an impossible claim proved true. So the next morning he had the Reader brought before him, and the Reader told him the plan of the warlord. The king had his own army, disguised as common people, surrounding the warlord's army when he made his offer to-the princess. She rejected him, of course-and he turned and shouted to his men, "To arms!"

Just as quickly, the king's men threw off their disguises, and in a battle at the king's feet they slaughtered their enemies. The Reader was elated-he had proved his value, and was sure the king would change his mind and allow him to marry the princess.

But the king saw only danger in a man who knew what was in people's minds-he immediately envisioned his son-in-law plotting to kill him and take the throne, and no reassurances would make him trust the Reader, nor would the pleadings of the princess mitigate his decision.