improvising ever since. Rakken was making a lot of money showing the locals how the banking game was played by professionals.

"Are you going to hold me responsible after all for getting you into that situation?" Etion asked humorously.

Sariana flashed him a quick, laughing smile. "Are you kidding? I may complain from time to time, but you know perfectly well I'm grateful to you. If I manage to rescue the Avylyns a lot of things could change in my life."

The amusement in Etion's eyes faded and a bitterness that was usually well-concealed briefly took its place. He took a long swallow from his mug. "You still think that if you prove yourself here you'll be able to go home to Rendezvous and take your place among the rest of your Clan as if nothing had ever happened? You think the folks back home will accept success here in the benighted western provinces as real success? Don't set yourself up for a fall, Sariana. Don't feed yourself a lot of false hopes."

She poured the tea with a steady hand, refusing to let Etion's warnings get to her. "I've decided to reapply to the academy, Etion."

"Nobody gets a second chance at the Academy of Business," Etion said very softly. "No matter how well he does once he's left Rendezvous. As far as the academy is concerned, failure to matriculate directly out of the university levels means it's all over for you. Remember that, Sariana. Accept the fact that you're here in Serendipity for good and learn to live your life as if this was home. Stop dreaming."

"My dreams are all that keep me from going crazy at times, Etion." Sariana sipped her tea and gazed out across the square: "My dreams and your friendship." Determined to change the subject, she indicated one small building across the street. "I think I know where the pastry chef got her ideas for decorating these little cakes. Look at that shop over there. Doesn't the trim on the windows and roof look exactly like the trim on these cakes?"

Etion hesitated and then gave up the lecture he had tried to deliver. His mouth curved as he followed her glance but his eyes were bleak. "You're right. The chef probably looked put the window this morning when she was getting ready to decorate the cakes. Any westerner will tell you that artistic inspiration can come from any source."

Sariana's gaze moved consideringly over the other buildings in the square. "I'll have to admit that the local architecture was somewhat startling at first, but I think I'm almost getting used to it. There is a certain experimental zest to the local buildings and the design of towns. Oh, most of the time it looks overdone," she added quickly. "Too much ornamentation. Too many flowing staircases, too many overwrought facades, too many grand galleries and gardens. But lately I've decided it all has a crazy kind of charm. Back home everything is designed to be functional and utilitarian and dignified. At least the local architecture is never dull."

Etion watched her face as he sipped his ale. "A people's architecture reflect something of their nature. The same applies to clothing, I imagine."

"I know, and I sometimes get exhausted just looking at all the incredible costumes as well as the amazing architecture," Sariana said with a small laugh. "But at other times it occurs to me that Rendezvous could benefit from a small infusion of design from the western provinces." Her eyes sparkled for an instant. "And the west could certainly learn something from us."

"It will be interesting to see where we all are in five or ten or twenty years," Edon remarked. "Well, I for one plan to be back home in Rendezvous managing my clan's trade interests," Sariana said

with conviction. "It's what I was meant to do from the day I was born. What about you, Etion? Will you ever go home?"

"It's too late for me, Sariana," he reminded her with soft bitterness. "I've told you that. I'm good at what I do, but nothing will ever make my clan or my business associates back in Rendezvous forget that financial scandal five years ago. I'm just damn lucky contact with the western provinces had been established by then or I would have had no place to run."

"I suppose I'm lucky, too," Sariana mused. "A few years ago failure to matriculate to the academy would have been the end of the line for me. I would have had to accept a low level position within my own clan or marry into a less important business clan. Last year when everything collapsed around me I

needed a place to run, also."

"The difference between us is that I've accepted my fate. You have yet to come to terms with yours." Etion leaned forward with uncharacteristic intensity. "Remember, Sariana, when you finally do realize that it's better to be a success here than a failure back home, I'll be waiting. You and I have a lot in common. Our skills and training compliment each other perfectly. Together we could become very successful here in Serendipity. We would make a good team. Think about it."

Sariana sat very still. Etion's words would have constituted a marriage proposal back home and they both knew it. She inclined her head in a formal, gracious response. "You honor me, Etion."

"Think about it," he repeated. "That's all I'm asking." He sat back and picked up his mug. He smiled but his dark eyes remained curiously remote. "I know you have to satisfy yourself first. You have to find out if there is any way you can ever go back to Rendezvous on your own terms. I wasted my first three years here trying to find a way back. But while you search for your own magic ticket, think about the possibilities of a future here with me. We could accomplish a great deal together."

"Thank you, Etion," Sariana said gently. "You are very kind."

He grinned unexpectedly. "I'm desperate. If you leave where will I find a sane, intelligent, rational woman with whom I can communicate?"

Sariana laughed and changed the subject.

Thirty minutes later Sariana finished her tea and smiled regretfully. "I must be getting back. I have to see how much further into bankruptcy Lady Avylyn is going to take the Clan with her plans for the ball. Thank you for the tea, Etion. You'll never know how much I needed the break."

She got to her feet. "You will be coming to the Avylyns' party, won't you?" "Wouldn't miss it. You're sure the Avylyns' won't mind?"

"Of course not. They've convinced everyone that having an eastern business manager and an association with a bank run by a financial genius from Rendezvous is very trendy. It puts them at the forefront of fashion and they love it. They've also hinted to everyone that it's a brilliant financial maneuver. Their friends and rivals are all talking about hiring easterners, too. Who knows, Etion? We may be opening up new careers for all the academy rejects from our homeland."