Diana Santee #12: Gralling

Chapter One

Valdon, former crown prince of Aysanne, paced back and forth across the floor of the relatively small apartment. He'd been given the small apartment for a reason, and at the time he hadn't argued. Now that all his plans had come to nothing he wondered if he should have argued.

"Valdon, you're going to turn into a raving lunatic if you don't find some way to calm down," his visitor advised from where he sat in a chair. "You also can't make any lucid plans with your mind flying in all directions."

Valdon stopped to stare at his visitor, who happened to be his distant cousin. The man was tall with dark red hair and hazel eyes, and also happened to be Emperor Warrion II. Warrion stared back calmly, much too calmly to suit Valdon's mood.

"How do you expect me to calm down when my last lucid plan fell apart like wet tissue?" Valdon countered, trying to remember what being calm actually felt like. "I would have stayed as Reystin Largile forever if being someone else had also let me stay close to the woman I love, but somehow Diana figured out that it was me. Are you absolutely certain you didn't say anything to her?"

"After everything Diana did for me, do you think I would have admitted that I was helping you if I hadn't been caught flat?" Warrion returned with a sound of scorn. "Owning up before it was absolutely necessary was in no way an option. I knew I'd feel terrible if she ever found out who you were, but I didn't know exactly how terrible."

Valdon watched his cousin use one hand to rub his eyes, perfectly well aware of how guilty Warrion felt. He himself felt almost as bad, but not because of Diana's talent for invoking the twinges of guilt.

"Warri, you weren't just trying to help me," Valdon said gently, using the nickname for his cousin that he hadn't used since their childhood. "You were trying to help Diana too, trying to ease the devastation she's been going through. If you think you feel terrible, try being the one who caused her that pointless agony."

"You didn't do that on purpose," Warrion immediately returned, lowering his hand in order to look at Valdon. "Part of your mind was sick, and that kind of sickness has no judgment and no awareness of what honor means. If you'd consciously understood what you were doing, you would have stopped doing it."

"I've already tried telling myself the same thing, but it doesn't do any good," Valdon said, the bleakness in his voice so thick he had no trouble hearing it himself. "It doesn't matter why I did what I did, only that I did do it. I tried to use the woman I love in order to get out of a situation I couldn't live with and couldn't walk away from, and I got what I wanted. But in the process I also lost that woman, and that's much too high a price to pay for success. If it meant getting her back I'd even bury myself alive again in a job I hated, but the irony is that that great a sacrifice on my part would accomplish just the opposite."

"Maybe you should have told her what you just told me," Warrion suggested, his tone gentle with compassion. "If she knew just exactly how serious you are about getting her back - "

"She'd probably run away twice as fast as she's doing now," Valdon interrupted, finishing Warrion's sentence with truth rather than wishful thinking. "Before she met me, Diana never let herself fall in love with anyone. She also trusted almost no one, mostly because she'd been betrayed so many times. Now that she knows I tried to use her, she'll never believe anything I have to say again. If I tell her how far I'm willing to go to get her back, all she'll see is a plot to get her back to a world she's come to loathe and despise. I have to do something to get through to her, but I'm damned if I know what that something can be."

"The first part of that something has to be to leave her alone for a while," Warrion said, a repeat of the same thing he'd said more than once before. "Right now her anger and hurt are fresh in her mind, and she can't bear the thought of having you near her. Give her some time to get over what she's feeling, Valdon, and then you ought to be able to approach her without running the risk of being killed."

"I don't care about the risk, but even that seems to be working against me," Valdon muttered, back to pacing without remembering when the movement had started again. "She probably thinks I still expect her to hold back the way she's always done, always except for when I first got here and tried to take her back to Aysanne. I still can't believe she did all that to me with just two kicks."

"You have no idea how angry she was, and how lucky you were that she didn't kill you," Warrion said, a sigh behind the words. "I could almost see her forcibly holding herself back from following to where you lay and finishing you off. She's an incredible woman, but she's also incredibly dangerous. She wasn't lying when she said she would kill you if you came near her again."

"I know she wasn't lying," Valdon said, closing his eyes for a moment. "She never says these things just for the effect, she says exactly what she means. But I can't stop trying to get her back, Warri, I simply can't. I've left her alone for three days now, and maybe that will be enough. If you hadn't threatened to have me arrested again I wouldn't have let this much time go by, but I can't stand it any longer. I have to go and see her, talk to her, and then maybe I'll be able to think of something to make her believe me."

"I spoke to Gallen Rhile, the psychiatric clinician who helped you get over your trouble," Warrion said, giving Valdon the impression that the emperor was changing the subject. And for some reason Warrion was no longer looking at him… "Rhile told me that your pressing Diana right now is the worst thing you can possibly do, and I tend to agree with him. The woman needs time to get over the feelings of rage and betrayal that are currently twisting her around, and that won't happen in only three days."

"But what might be happening in three days is her drinking problem getting worse," Valdon countered, staring at Warrion from where he stood. "Or don't you understand just how serious her drinking is? She can't seem to control the problem, and doesn't even seem to want to. She was never like that before, Warrion, and if she doesn't stop drinking it could kill her. You keep telling me she's doing fine without me. Does that also go for the drinking?"

"Whether or not she stops drinking has to be her own decision," Warrion said, an evasion Valdon didn't care for even a little. "Rhile thinks that she'll get control of herself again once she's back in the Federation if not once she's on the way, and again I agree. She needs the time you're begrudging her, Valdon, so you have to - "

"I'm not begrudging her anything, Warrion, I want to help her!" Valdon said slowly and forcefully, trying to make his cousin understand. "Since I'm the one who brought her the pain, it's only right if I help get rid of it. I'm going over to her apartment, and I'll appreciate it if you don't try to stop me."

Valdon headed for the door with that, but Warrion's voice stopped him only a step or two on the way.

"Valdon, you'll be wasting your time going to an apartment she's no longer in," Warrion said, causing Valdon to turn quickly to look at the man. "If you don't believe I'm telling the truth, feel free to go and see for yourself."

"You moved her to another apartment?" Valdon asked, shaking his head as he walked back. "Even after I gave you my word that I'd stay away from her as long as possible? I didn't realize that you considered my word to be so worthless."

"What I did had nothing to do with considering your word worthless," Warrion said with a sigh as he got to his feet. "You're not able to think rationally in this situation, cousin, and I'd hate to see you come to the point of disaster. Diana needs time away from you and you need time away from her, if for no other reason than to force yourself to think rationally. Will you promise me you'll do that?"

"Before I make any promises, tell me where her new apartment is," Valdon said, fighting to keep control of his thundering emotions. "I'll even change myself to look like someone else entirely, but I have to see her again just for a minute."

"Valdon, you can't see her," Warrion said, his voice filled with painful compassion. "She left the planet two days ago on her way back to the Federation. If you want to blame someone for not telling you, you can blame me. For some strange reason I'd really hate to see you dead…"

By that time Valdon was out of the small apartment, running as fast as he could. He had no real need of the few things he'd left behind, and if he'd stayed to collect his possessions he would certainly have said or done something he and Warrion would both have regretted. Guilt had made Warrion compensate for what he considered his betrayal of Diana, and now the cursed woman was gone without the man she hated being right behind her.

"Warrion, you and your psychiatric clinician are fools," Valdon muttered as the lift took him down to the ground floor. "You didn't see what I did, and you don't know her as well as I do…"

And that comment made Valdon race even faster across the lobby floor to the door leading to where he'd parked his ground vehicle. He'd come to Absar in a small ship that might not be adequately provisioned for a trip to the Federation, and if he had to stop to lay in supplies he'd be a raving lunatic even before he got under way. But his dying of starvation half way to his destination would do Diana no good at all, so the delay would have to be lived with. Even though any delay at all could well mean Diana's life…

Valdon got into the vehicle and turned it on, then flipped the switch that made the entire top of the vehicle glow faintly. The glow would tell people that he was on the emperor's business, and that would let him move as fast as humanly possible without getting stopped for recklessness. Even though it had been Warrion who had really acted recklessly. Diana had guarded the emperor's escape during the attack in the challenge hall, all right, but there had been something … missing from her efforts. It had taken Valdon some thinking time to pinpoint what his feelings really meant, and then he'd gotten frantic.

Diana had fought hard until Warrion was safe, but once her obligation to protect the emperor was taken care of she hadn't fought just as hard to protect her own life. If he hadn't come along to do the protecting, Diana would probably be dead now - the way she seemed to want to be.

Valdon felt an overwhelming urge to bury his face in his hands and cry, but with his vehicle rushing along the highway at a considerable speed he had to ignore the urge. His literal insanity had gotten him out of the smothering bind he'd been in, but in the process that madness had started to destroy the only woman Valdon would ever love. He had to find a way to make Diana believe that his love wasn't a lie, but he couldn't think of a way to accomplish that.

The fact that the port wasn't far from the palace was probably the only thing that kept Valdon out of a bad accident. He had to stop at the gate to show his papers, and he'd even had the foresight to change his features to those of Reystin Largile to match the paperwork. The gate guard raised the barrier and waved him through, so he was able to drive to the parking area closest to where he'd left his ship before changing back. He took the imprinted parking slip and the vehicle keys to the nearest attendant, gave instructions to have the slip and keys sent to the palace, then left the attendant's booth to go to his ship.

Only five steps later he noticed that the ship wasn't where he'd left it.

"No," Valdon growled, fighting to keep from screaming and raging. If Warrion had had the ship moved to keep Valdon from "bothering" Diana, Valdon knew he would kill the emperor with his bare hands. More tragedy was brought about by people trying to "help" than from all the evil intentions in the universe. Valdon now knew that for a fact as he turned abruptly with the intention of reclaiming his vehicle keys from the attendant - and only just stopped himself from crashing into the figure who was so close behind him.

"Sorry," Valdon muttered, starting to move around the figure, but an abrupt arm in his way stopped him. He looked up in more than annoyance, then blinked as his distracted mind finally recognized the man in front of him.

"Val, are you all right?" Jeff said, inspecting him with narrowed eyes. "What are you doing?"

"I'm trying to find the ship I came here in," Valdon answered, returning the stare. "What are you doing here? The last I knew, you were still on Aysanne."

"Your father was worried about you and Diana," Jeff answered, a small headshake saying that Valdon should have known without asking. "He supplied that big ship we used to come back here from the Federation, and then he asked for volunteers to help out. We heard some of what went on here, but not all of it. Where's Diana?"

"Jeff, she's already on her way back to the Federation, and we've got to catch up to her," Valdon said, the words intense with relief as impossible delays melted away from his path. "Where did you leave the ship - and how did you find me?"

"I found you because the ship's monitor is attuned to you and became aware of your approach to the port through the shuttle's instrumentation," Jeff answered, his expression saying he should have known that answer as well. "I was guided in this direction because the computer decided that this was where you were going, and it wasn't wrong. I didn't know your ships could do this kind of thing, but I'm glad they can. The ability saved me from a wasted trip to the palace."

"The ability saved more than that," Valdon answered, forcing himself not to lose control to the insane impatience twisting him around. "Now I won't end up killing a man I've liked since we were boys. We've got to get to the ship as fast as possible, Jeff, or Diana could die. Tell me where the lander is."

"It's only a two minute walk in this direction," Jeff answered, immediately starting to lead the way. "What do you mean, Diana could die? What's been going on here?"

"Let's get to the lander first, and then I'll tell you all about it," Valdon answered, increasing his pace as Jeff did the same. "The story is more than a little involved."

Rather than insist on having his questions answered immediately, Jeff simply nodded and led the way to the lander at a speed just under outright running. Valdon realized again how pleasant it was to deal with people who didn't consider it their place in life to cause unnecessary delays and question everything they were told. Unlike too many of the people working in his father's governmental offices…

Valdon followed Jeff into the lander, and then had to figuratively sit on his hands to keep from taking over the controls. Jeff knew the orbit of the ship they were going to, so Jeff had to be the one to get them off the ground. There was no sense in his doing it, and then having to waste time matching orbits that weren't in sync. Jeff went through the routine checks quickly and then requested permission to lift, and a moment later they had that permission. An instant after that they were on their way, and Jeff gave all his attention to piloting without asking questions that would do nothing more than distract him.

It wasn't long before the lander was entering its berthing lock in the big ship. By the time all controls were off there was air in the berth, and Jeff joined Valdon in standing up.

"Let's hold off on that story until we're on our way," Jeff said, just about taking the words out of Valdon's mouth. "Once we're moving in the right direction we can sit down and relax, and there are a few others who will want to hear what you have to say."

Valdon wasn't sure who those others would be, but that was another question to be answered later. As soon as he stepped out of the lander he used a speaker in the nearby wall to contact the bridge and give them their orders. He also directed them to send his thanks to his father along with the information that he was heading back to the Federation, and then he and Jeff left the lander berth and went to Valdon's usual cabin.

It took no more than two steps into the reception room before Valdon stopped short in surprise. Waiting in the room was Jeff's wife Arlie with their baby son, showing that Jeff had expected his chore to be more than a short trip. But along with Arlie was Xedri and Valdon's own baby son, loyal Raenad who was now bound to Xedri, and the clinician Folsayr. Valdon hadn't expected to see these last three people, and the sight of them caused an immediate churning in his insides.

"I hadn't realized that you were aboard," Valdon said to the three, firmly holding down the disturbance. "I'll have the captain return to orbit around Absar, and you can take one of the landers. I got to the planet in a small ship, and I'll send a message to the emperor to let you use that ship to go back to Aysanne."

"Highness, wait," Raenad said in his usual rumble, stopping Valdon from turning away. "Returning to Absar won't be necessary, because we aren't going back to Aysanne. Xedri and I discussed the matter, and we decided that we want to go wherever you and your lady do. Folsayr feels the same way, so we're here to stay if you'll have us."

"Indeed," Folsayr agreed with a hidden smile, probably because of whatever Valdon's expression must look like. "To remain behind on Aysanne would likely bring me insanity due to extreme boredom, an occurrence unlikely to obtain in the company of you and your lady. And as we now speak of it, where is the lady Diana?"

"She's already on her way back to the Federation, which is why we're doing the same," Valdon answered, then he gave them all the best smile he was able to produce. "Thank you, my friends, for being such good friends. And now you need to hear the whole story."

Valdon walked to a chair and sat down, then took the cup of flav that Xedri had poured for him, with a nod of thanks. Xedri answered with a smile of compassion for the fact that his own smile had disappeared, and then she joined the others in finding a place to sit. The two small boys were busy with the toys they'd been surrounded with, so Valdon started the story once the others were settled.

"… and that's why I acted the way I did with Diana," Valdon finished up, no longer looking at the people who listened to him. "The psychiatric clinician tried to explain all that to her, but she refused to hear him. She wants nothing more to do with me, not and give me another chance to betray her. The last time I saw her she said she'd kill me if I came near her again, and she wasn't joking. I can't leave things like this, but I have no idea what I'll do once I catch up to her. Except, probably, get broken up again."

"You are lucky she didn't kill you the first time," Jeff said quietly into the general silence. "Diana usually keeps emotion out of her fights, which is why she can control herself so well, but this is an entirely different matter. If she's feeling betrayed, and I don't think it's possible to argue the contention, then the next time she might not be able to control herself. She might not want to control herself, and if that happens…"

"Then I'm a dead man," Valdon finished when Jeff's voice simply trailed off. "But without her I'm the living dead anyway, so I don't consider myself as having anything to lose. Do any of you have even the smallest idea about what I can do to change things around? I'm desperate enough to listen to anything, even ridiculous ideas."

"Give me a chance to think about this," Jeff said, taking his turn at looking distracted. "I've known Diana longer than you have and I doubt if there's anyone I know better, but right now I'm stumped. But while I'm thinking I'd like an answer to the question I put when we first ran into each other. You said something about Diana's life being in danger, and I'd like to know from what."

"Her life is at risk from two things, one less direct than the other," Valdon answered after sipping the flav he'd almost forgotten about. "The first, less direct thing is the way she's been drinking, heavier than I've ever seen except for a single time when she deliberately set out to get drunk. She seems to have been saving the drinking for nighttime, but once she starts she doesn't want to stop."

"And heavy drinking destroys your reflexes along with your insides," Jeff said with disturbance behind his nod. "And you think that that's the lesser of the dangers? Then what's the other?"

Valdon felt a great reluctance to speak, the thought that putting his fear into words would make it more real twisting his guts into knots. He leaned his head against the back of his chair and put a hand over his eyes, the soothing dark helping just enough to overcome his reluctance.

"I … think Diana wants to die," he all but whispered, knowing that he was responsible for such a horror almost more than he could bear. "I've seen her in attack situations any number of times, so I know how she should behave. It wasn't the same a few days ago, and if I hadn't been there she would have died. She doesn't want to live any longer and it's all my fault."

If Valdon had been expecting anyone to disagree with his statement he would have been disappointed, but empty assurances weren't what real friends gave you. They gave their support even in a situation where you'd made a really bad blunder, offering help to undo the mistake rather than excuses as to why you didn't do what you surely had.

"That's not good at all, but I think we've caught a break," Jeff said after a moment, a sigh behind his words. "Diana has a two month trip ahead of her during which she'll have the chance to pull herself together, and time has a way of dulling even the worst pain. Once the wound inside her isn't raw and bleeding anymore, she ought to go back to doing what she has to in order to survive."

"She ought to," Arlie echoed, her ragged voice making her sound as bad as Valdon felt. "She's so strong it's hard to picture her not being able to cope with something, but what about that drinking? What if she keeps on with it and doesn't do what she ought to?"

"Then we might get there in time to attend her funeral," Jeff answered, bleakness sharp in his tone. "But I have faith in my soul sister, so I'm going to hope for the best instead of fearing the worst. Does anyone feel like disagreeing with me?"

No one spoke up to offer that disagreement, but Valdon barely noticed. If he intended to be of any use to Diana he had to push away all the guilt and self-pity weighing him down, but that chore was for later. Right now there was only one thing he felt able to handle, so he put his hands to his face and just let himself cry.