Chapter 6 (part 3 of 3)

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The stranger came to their table. He took her arm, and poured her mug of drinking water over the skin where the dronon had touched her, then began to sponge it with a cloth napkin. "I don't know where you are from," he whispered, "but you obviously know nothing of the dronon. I envy that." He sponged her face and scalp. "The first lesson you must learn is that the dronon's exoskeleton produces a weak acid. They come from a dry world, and the acid coating is an effective addition to their immune system. But if they touch you, you must wipe off the acid to avoid getting burned."

He set down the napkin and peered into her face, ignoring Orick. The stranger had a strong jaw, penetrating brown eyes. Up under his black hood, he wore a silver headdress, much like the one Everynne had worn. Long silver chains dangled from it with hundreds of small triangles, like some metallic wig. She wondered why he would hide this beautiful headdress under a cloak, but did not ask.

"So," the stranger said, "my name is Karthenor, Lord of the Aberlains."

"I ... I saw you watching me earlier," Maggie said.

"Forgive my inquisitiveness," Karthenor said. "I did not mean to offend you. But I have never seen anyone dressed like you, nor have I ever seen anyone like your friend." Karthenor glanced at Orick and said with a tone of dismissal as if Orick were a child, "I recognize the species. He is a bear."

"A black bear!" Orick grumbled.

"Excuse me," Karthenor said, raising a brow. He looked at Orick with a new degree of respect. "He is a genetically enhanced black bear." He addressed Orick, "I am pleased to make your acquaintance."

Karthenor pulled up a chair. Maggie could sense an eagerness in him, an expectancy she associated with traders who wanted to sell something. "You and your friend have been watching us, too. I suspect that you find us to be as strange as we find you. Am I right?"

Maggie studied his golden face. She could not think of a lie. In fact, she didn't know if she should tell one. She knew only that she wanted an ally, and Karthenor offered help. Gallen's brief mention that another man dressed like this had saved his life inspired her to a degree of confidence that was perhaps dangerous, but on impulse she said, "We came here through the World Gate. Yes, we do find it strange."

Karthenor leaned back in surprise, his voice so neutral that Maggie could not guess what he might be thinking. "You came through a World Gate? What is your name? Where are you from?"

"My name is Maggie Flynn—from the town of Clere."

Karthenor looked at her impassively, then bowed deeply. "I am honored to meet you, Maggie Flynn from the town of Clere. I ... hope that I am not being too inquisitive, but may I ask what world you hail from?"

"Earth," Maggie answered.

The stranger seemed perplexed. He stared at Maggie and Orick with a bemused expression, rested his elbows on the table, and touched a gloved finger to his lips. "Which Earth are you referring to? You obviously speak English, so you've been genetically engineered to remember our language. Yet you speak it with an odd accent, one I've never heard."

"Earth," Maggie said. "Where I live."

The stranger turned his head to the side, thinking. "What continent are you from on this Earth of yours?"

"Tihrglas," Maggie said.

"Ah, that Earth!" The stranger smiled. He folded his hands, looked at Maggie and Orick appraisingly. "Surely you did not find a gate key just lying around on Tihrglas? How did you come by it?"

Maggie felt inexplicably frightened. It had nothing to do with Karthenor's mannerisms. He seemed kindly, hospitable. But Maggie froze, not letting the stranger prod her further.

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