In the midst of pulling his boat above the tide line, Gavin Hawkforte straightened and glanced around. On a deserted shore, miles from any habitation, he was struck by the sense that someone was watching him, a sudden awareness that put his instincts on alert and sent his hand to the hilt of the short sword at his waist. Yet there was no one in sight, not in either direction along the strand of beach glittering in the midday sun.
Bare-chested, wearing only the pleated white kilt of an Akoran warrior, he finished securing the boat and stood to stretch, letting out the kinks of the long row over from the neighboring island. There was no wind this day. The air hung still and heavy on Deimatos and beyond it over Akora, the Fortress Kingdom wreathed in legend and mystery. Home to him for all that he was heir to a great title in England.
Thoughts for another time. The beach was a curve of gold, lapped by the azure waters of the Inland Sea. Palm trees were separated by low scrub grass and bushes bursting with scarlet hibiscus flowers. It was a pretty sight, belying the fearful history of the place.
Barefoot, carrying the canvas bag that held his equipment and a pair of wooden poles too large to fit in the bag, Gavin moved up the beach. At the tree line, he paused to put on his sandals, then continued. The ground quickly turned rocky, dotted by outcroppings of coarse black stone that looked as though it had been poured directly from the earth, as indeed it had.
He turned briefly, hazel eyes scanning the beach. The shore of Phobos, from which he had come, was just visible in the distance, and beyond it he could make out the vague thickness along the horizon that was the island of Tarbos. The three small islands of the Inland Sea were all that remained of the drowned heart of Akora, remnant of the night of fire and terror thousands of years before, when a volcanic explosion ripped the island apart.
A disaster and a tragedy, yet from it had come the world he knew and loved. The world beneath his feet, within the grasp of his hand. The world he feared to lose.
Again the strange, disquieting sensation of being watched swept over him. He paused and looked around, but saw nothing. Annoyance drove out unease. He was worried, had been for several months, but that was no excuse for his mind playing tricks on him. The sooner he got to work, the better.
If the map was right, the closest entrance to the caves lay along the overgrown path ahead of him. It looked as though no one had used it in years, which did not surprise him. Deimatos was uninhabited. No one had a reason to go there, at least not until now.
Caves were common on Deimatos, but many were no longer accessible, the entrances to them destroyed in the conflict that had raged there a quarter-century before. His parents and others of his family had been involved in that struggle and were lucky to have survived it. If his information was right, only a handful of entrances remained usable. He had to hope he was headed for one of them.
A little farther along, the path diverged, a fork cutting away sharply to the west. He glanced down the side path but kept going in his original direction, only to stop suddenly and turn back.
The grass growing over the fork of the path showed evidence of having been trampled. It had rained three days before, great bands of water and wind sweeping out of the west. Whatever he was looking at must be fresher than that.
An animal? He bent down, seeking any hoof or paw prints that might be present, but if they were, he could not make them out. Perhaps he should have paid better attention to the men in warrior training who were master trackers, instead of spending all his time wrestling and building siege engines.
Mindful that there might be something fairly large and not necessarily friendly on the island, Gavin went on. He was well armed and confident of his ability to see to his own safety. It was the safety of others--many, many others--that worried him.
Near the entrance to the caves, he stopped and set down his equipment. Drawing out his instruments, he placed them one by one on the level ground beside him, all the while keeping his attention alert for any sound, a hint of motion, anything that could explain what he was feeling.
The bag was unpacked when he heard a rustle behind him and to the left. Had there been wind, he would have thought it the cause. But there was none, not a breath.
He kept his back to the sound, but eased the blade of his sword from its scabbard. If it was an animal waiting for a moment to pounce, the beast was in for a nasty surprise.
When no attack came, he turned and surveyed the area around the cave. He saw nothing, but did note several large boulders and trees that could offer concealment.
Replacing his sword, he returned to work, but kept a careful watch. His measurements, he decided, would begin directly in front of the cave. Setting up the poles, the height of each known to him precisely, he stepped back, adjusted the sextant he had brought, and took a careful reading to the top of the hill above the cave. He noted the measurement in a notebook, then took it again to be sure.
He was adjusting the poles when a flicker of movement caught his attention. He saw--what? Very little, for the sun was shining directly into his eyes. All he could make out was a form that appeared to be human--slim, swift, seeming to appear and disappear in the same instant.
Not an animal, then, a person. A boy perhaps, judging by his size. What would a boy be doing on Deimatos?
Gavin set the poles down and put the sextant--precious instrument that it was--away carefully in the bag. That done, he called out, "I know you're here. Declare yourself."
When there was no response, he added sternly, "It is dishonorable to skulk in the grass."
Still nothing. Once more he spoke, and this time with a note of warning. "Do you wish me to think you an enemy?"
For a moment he thought this, too, would be ignored, but then, some thirty feet in front of him, a figure emerged from behind a rock outcropping. He shaded his eyes but still could make out only that the interloper was a few inches shorter than six feet, slim, wearing a tunic, and carrying a bow. Was he also clever enough to have positioned himself with his back to the sun? If he was old enough for warrior training, as his height suggested, he would know such tactics. But why use them against a fellow Akoran?
The boy stepped forward, head high, showing no sign of fear. "Who are you? What are you doing here?" he demanded.
Gavin frowned. The voice was at odds with what he thought he was seeing, belonging to a much younger boy who could not possibly have attained such height or, for that matter, such assurance.
A younger boy or . . .
"Take off your sword." There was no mistaking it this time; he was dealing with a woman, for all that what she said made no sense. No man would allow a woman to disarm him.
The bow was raised, that much he could see. He had to presume it held an arrow.
"Take off your sword," the stranger said again. She spoke clearly and firmly, with no hint of fear.
He damn well would not. Indeed, it was all he could do not to draw his blade. He had to remind himself that she was a woman, never to be harmed according to the most sacred of all Akoran creeds. Summoning patience, Gavin said, "What are you going to do if I don't--shoot me?"
The arrow whooshed past his shoulder, missing him by no more than inches before striking the ground. She had another notched and ready in less than a heartbeat. "Understand," she said, "I do not miss. That was a demonstration. Take off your sword."
"This is ridiculous." He was genuinely angry now, and in that anger, he began walking toward her. "Unless you're a mad woman, you're not going to murder me in cold blood." Of course, there was always a possibility that she was mad, in which case he might be enjoying his last few moments in this world. For a man with a reputation for being unfailingly calm and controlled, it would be supremely ironic to die because of a fit of temper.
All the same, he truly was angry, and his mood was not improved when he moved close enough to see her more clearly. She wore not the ankle-length tunic of a woman, but the short tunic of a man, ending above her knees. Her hair was golden brown, braided, and tightly coiled around her head. Her skin was deeply tanned, suggesting she lived much of her life outside. She was slender, but her bare arms, holding the bow, were sleekly muscled. Her eyes were large and thickly fringed, her nose surprisingly pert, and her mouth--
Her mouth was full, lush, and positively enticing, for all that it was drawn in a hard line.
He was still staring at that mouth when she said, "I am not mad."
"I am infinitely relieved to hear it."
"If you come in peace, why do you need a sword?"
"Well . . . the truth of that is a little embarrassing." As he spoke, he continued closing in on her. "When I put on this kilt this morning, I realized it was missing a clasp. I was in a hurry, and I figured my sword belt would hold it up fine. But now you want me to take the sword off and I'm thinking that if I do that, my kilt's going with it, and the fact is, I'm not wearing anything under--"
Her eyes were growing saucer-wide. They were, he saw, a deep, rich brown lit by fragments of gold. Rather more to the point, she was startled and distracted just long enough for him to close the remaining distance between them, take hold of both her arms, and twist the bow from her grasp.
"Damn you!" she cried out, struggling fiercely.
Gavin let her go at once, partly so as not to hurt her, but also mindful that she might very well feel no similar prohibition where he was concerned. All the same, the brief contact was enough to inform him that for all her dressing as a man and acting as one, she was most definitely a woman, lithe and slim, but perfectly rounded where it mattered most.
Kicking the bow beyond her reach at the same time he tried to dispense with such unwonted thoughts, he said, "The first lesson of warrior training is that you do not draw a weapon on an opponent for any reason other than to kill."
She watched him warily but still showed no sign of fear, as he duly noted. Indeed, disarmed, she held her ground with courage and spirit. "Are you saying I should have shot you?"
"I'm saying we should both behave like civilized people." This despite the fact that the feelings she provoked in him were anything but civilized. First anger and now something altogether different, for all that it was no less hot and raw. That was absurd. He was a gentleman--cultured, educated, a man of science and reason. Women were marvelous creatures, to be sure, and passion was one of Creation's great gifts--but in the proper place and at the proper time, always properly controlled.
He was not feeling controlled now--far from it. With an effort that should not have been necessary, he said, "My name is Gavin Hawkforte and yours is--?"
At the mention of his name, she drew back a little farther. Did he imagine it or did she pale slightly? Looking at him, she said, "Your mother is the Princess Kassandra of the House of Atreides and your father is the Hawk Lord, is that not so?"
This recitation of his lineage caught him off guard. He understood that he and his family were public figures, not only on Akora but also in England and elsewhere. Even so, the degree of awareness about them invariably took him by surprise. "He is called that here. In England he is the Earl of Hawkforte."
Her eyes flitted to the bow, but to her credit she did not attempt to reach for it. Returning her gaze fully to him, she asked, "Why have you come here?"
"In due time. I have told you my name. Now what is yours?"
She hesitated, but after a moment said, "I am called Persephone."
It was a strange name for anyone to give a child, recalling as it did the legend of the daughter of the Earth stolen away to the underworld. All the same, Gavin merely nodded. "Persephone . . . what brings you to Deimatos?"
"I was about to ask you that. I saw what you were doing. What need have you for surveying instruments?"
There was no mistaking the challenge of her words. Even so, he answered calmly. "I'm just taking a few measurements."
She frowned, and again glanced toward her bow, but still held her ground. "Do the Atreides intend to build on Deimatos?"
"Build? Of course not."
"The question is not so foolish as you would make it sound. What reason is there for surveying unless one intends to build?"
"There is no such intention. I'm merely following up on an earlier survey, doing some measurements for purposes of comparison. That's all."
Her laugh was dry and scoffing. "A prince of the House of Atreides doing the task of an artisan? That is difficult to believe."
"Why would it be? My brother, cousins, all of us do all sorts of tasks. Even so, I have told you why I am here. Now I ask you the same." And woe betide her if she failed to answer. Lovely she might be, for all her unusual garb and manner, not to mention her decidedly unorthodox behavior. And lovelier she might seem with each passing moment. All the same, he would have his due, which meant courtesy and no more nonsense.
She was silent long enough for him to think she truly did not mean to answer, and for him to consider what he really could do about that. Finally, she said, "I live here. Deimatos is my home."
Excerpted from Fountain of Secrets by Josie Litton. Copyright © 2003 by Josie Litton. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.