Shadow DancersShadow Dancers

Shadow Dancers
Book 3, the Sabazel series

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ISBN: 978-1463585464

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What if an Amazon queen had a love affair with Alexander the Great? What if their son had to defend his lands from the Mongol Horde? What if his sister was the priestess of a bull-cult on Crete? What if her son started the Trojan War -- between India and Persia?

In a world rooted in Mediterranean history and mythology, armies clash, magicks compete, and the gods set their pawns onto the game board. The emperor Andrion thinks his empire is secure. But no. He has no heir from an arranged marriage, and mysterious figures are turning his allies against him. When his wife is kidnapped, he must set aside his crown and travel to the island of Minras, where young men and women are sacrificed in the bull-dance. There Andrion and his companions, Tembujin of Khazyaristan and Dana of Sabazel, face a demon-possessed queen, his own precocious nephew, and two gods who are dueling to the death and destruction of all.


 
Reviews

"Carl is an author to watch, for those who like their fantasy strongly seasoned with history."
--Roland Green

"...fantasy that is woven intricately upon a weft of solid classical knowledge, yet is also colored by a creative imagination of great scope and power. The novel has the power and delicate precision of the best poetry. Tantalizing glimpses of our own antique world, interestingly altered and yet recognizable, give the story an extra dimension that feels like true history. Anyone who believes that fantasy must contain magic and elves has never read the work of Mary Renault...in Lillian Carl we have found another who can offer her readers an alternate reality that will live inside the mind long after the book has been finished."
--Ardath Mayhar, Thrust, Summer 1988

"...a world full of allusions to our own history...magical struggles with treachery as an important element...the main struggle could be called love vs. hate. These books are interesting works of fantasy...a fine series which shows a good historical background with an awareness of the importance of logistics. Whatever one thinks of Amazons as a concept, they are certainly well-done here. Even the villains are complex, well-fleshed out characters."
--Timothy Lane, Fosfax, November 1988


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Excerpt

NOTE: Note: This book was inspired by the stories of Theseus and the labyrinth on the island of Crete.


Chapter One

The sword Solifrax flickered in the darkness like the distant lightning of the approaching storm. Andrion gazed narrowly at the blade. It had not shone like this, revealing its latent power, for six peaceful years.

He frowned. He was king of Sardis, Emperor, named Beloved of the Gods, but he had never been able to interpret the omens of the ancient and capricious deities who haunted him. The wind sighed against his face, carrying a tang of something overripe, almost spoiled. Summer waned and a storm gathered in the north. The friends he awaited did not come.

Impatiently Andrion tapped Solifrax across the stone of the parapet, eyeing the spiraling roughness that marred its crystalline blade. He had been only eighteen that night when, enspelled, he had thrown himself against the sword and etched it with the path of his own blood. Now he was twenty-five, and could spare a shake of the head for that distant youth. The desire and the duty that had driven that youth to win sword and Empire made the man who now bore them straighten, set his shoulders, and release a grim smile.

Poets sang that he was born from the mating of sun and moon, melted in the crucible of the gods and poured into the fleshly armor he now wore, an alloy of his father’s courage and his mother’s integrity. Fine metaphor, he thought, but which of my mothers do they name?

This evening the sun had set early, a blood-red orb consumed by cloud. The night was as dark as a tomb; no stars penetrated the blue-black shroud of the sky, and the waning moon hid its sickly face.

Andrion peered once again from the rooftop garden into the city, dried leaves shifting about his feet. Iksandarun, too, was haunted tonight. The streets were runnels of shadow, the occasional cressets only struggling wraiths of light. Most of them had not been lit. Gods, an emperor should not have to deal with details as petty as the proper lighting of the streets!

Somewhere a brief strain of music sounded, an eerie melody of flute and pipes; then a door slammed, blotting it out. The hoofbeats of unshod steppe ponies pattered along the cobbled avenue. We fought the Khazyari, Andrion told himself with a sigh, when they invaded the Empire; debatable, who was victor and who vanquished, when their prince now rides freely through the streets of Iksandarun. But then, I bought his allegiance with honor and with blood.

There he was. Two dim horse-and-man shapes walked along the avenue toward the palace gates, at one moment garishly defined in torchlight, at the next blots of nothingness in shadow. And behind them . . . Andrion squinted. Indistinct shapes, clotted darkness, crept from alleys to gather like silent storm clouds behind the riders. The streets had been darkened on purpose.

“Harus!” Andrion swore. The name of the god stirred the wind uneasily. He thrust the sword hissing into its snakeskin sheath and sprinted across the garden. In the darkness that pulsed around him he knew what happened to his friends in the street as surely as if he were with them.

Tembujin, Khan of the Crimson Horde, ruler of the imperial province of Khazyaristan, glanced warily from side to side. His tip-tilted eyes glinted like black onyx; the tail of sable hair bound at the back of his head shifted with suspicion.

Thunder rumbled like distant battle, and the wind purred as if mocking the khan and the plaque of the lion he wore on his chest. The young boy he held before him piped, “Father?”

Tembujin soothed him with a touch. “Never mind, Ethan. We are almost there.” The great gate of the palace loomed out of the shadows, torches shedding a thick brass light that barely touched the dimness of the avenue. The sentries dozed, leaning upon their spears, as motionless as statues.

Andrion sped past the guards who waited in the garden door, calling to them to follow. His oddly supernal vision shivered his mind into facets of dread, anger, calculation—an attack on the khan must be a warning for me—of whom, of what—hurry, hurry!

The huge warrior who rode behind the khan and his son heard the scrabble in an alleyway, the sudden yowl of a cat. Tembujin set his hand on his long dagger, shrugged his bow farther up his shoulder, clasped the child and urged the pony to leap ahead through the murk into light.

A rush from the darkness. Hands seizing the bridle of the pony. It reared, whinnying in terror as hands dragged Tembujin and Ethan from its back. The khan shouted. His dagger flashed and someone cried out.

The bodyguard attacked. Bodies flew and lay crumpled on the street, but others swarmed forward. Knives flared and fell. The warrior went down beneath them.

In the moment’s distraction Tembujin thrust the child behind him, against a wall in the thin light of a sputtering cresset. The boy found himself clutching his father’s dagger. Eyes wide, small mouth set, he brandished it before him. In one supple motion Tembujin slipped the bow from his shoulder and set an arrow to it. The assassins shifted uneasily, feinting this way and that. The body of the guard did not stir.

“Cowards,” said the khan’s lightly accented voice. “Cowards, to sneak in the darkness like rats. Come into the light, I dare you.”

The assassins surged around their prey. The string sang, and the foremost went down. The bow was strung again without Tembujin’s hand seeming to move.

The wind carried the sounds of battle to the palace. The guards started. One ran inside. One ran forward, counted his opponents, hesitated. Andrion swept by them, playing his clear voice like a herald’s trumpet, “Come! Follow me!” The guards steadied in his wake. Others rushed from inside the gates. The avenue filled with a metallic cascade.

A bolt of lightning split the night, cast not from the sky but from the street itself; Solifrax drawn in battle. Tembujin’s eyes fired with recognition and relief.

With a cry of outrage Andrion fell upon the assassins. His black cloak snapped behind him like the wings of an avenging god. Solifrax blazed, setting the shadows to dancing. Its threat alone scattered the dark forms in panicked flight.

“Follow them,” Andrion snapped. His guards split, some running after the assassins, some forming a cordon around the Emperor and the khan. “Scum! How dare they attack you, Tembujin, here under my very eyes?” The gold diadem on his brow sparked, and his dark hair gleamed with auburn highlights, embers stirred.

The khan still stood poised, bow bent. “This is the third attack within five days, Andrion. I thought I would be safe here, but your eyes do not see overmuch, do they?”

“You were once an enemy,” Andrion replied. “Some have not forgotten.”

“Have you forgotten?” The quiet voice was a whiplash of challenge.

Andrion’s nostrils flared. “Yes.”

Tembujin straightened, letting the bow fall, and bent over his guard. “Rats,” he breathed, “to kill him here like this.”

“He saved your life and Ethan’s. A good man; I am sorry . . .” Condolences were meaningless to a Khazyari schooled in revenge. Mouth tight, Andrion extended his hand to the child. The boy crept from the wall, trying to saunter bravely, but his cheeks were pale beneath the bronze of his skin. The dagger fell from his hands and clattered upon the cobblestones. Andrion clasped him against his side. “You did well, Ethan.”

Ethan, uncertain, said nothing. The glow of the sword was reflected in his dark eyes; he blinked, dazzled. Andrion caressed the child’s smooth hair, thinking. Yes, the sword is tantalizing. How well I know.

Tembujin stood with a muffled curse, reclaimed his dagger, saw his son in Andrion’s arm and pulled him away.

“He is my sister’s child,” Andrion said softly. “No matter what you did to her, I would not harm him.”

Tembujin opened his mouth. He realized that soldiers clustered around him, their ears gaping even as their faces feigned indifference. He shut his mouth and tossed his head. The black fringe of hair framing his forehead and temples rippled like a banner in the wind. The wind was suddenly cold, but no less rotten.

Several guards returned, dragging two bodies and one wounded man. Andrion inspected their faces but did not know them. They were no doubt simple ruffians hired to do the dirty work by someone too powerful to do it himself. Someone who must be powerful indeed to throw down such a challenge. . . . Andrion’s stomach tightened, a soft creature contracting so that only its hard shell is exposed, its mortal belly protected.

The prisoner would have crumpled to the pavement if soldiers had not held him erect. Blood from an arrow in his side was only a dark stain on his garments. Andrion grasped the man’s hair, jerking his face up.

“Kill him,” said Tembujin.

“Then we shall discover nothing,” Andrion returned. He set the blade at the man’s throat and asked with perilous calm, “Who paid you to do this treachery?”

The pale light of the sword scoured the man’s features of color and definition. His widely dilated eyes were bottomless pits in a face tightened to the bone. “Who?” Andrion commanded.

The man quaked. A sour, sickly odor clung to him, sweat and dirt and something else, something subtly familiar. Solifrax muttered threats against his flesh. His tongue stammered nonsense.

His eyes were as vacant as a dead man’s. Nightshade, Andrion realized, and perhaps hashish. The man was drugged, and more . . . “By the talons of the god!” Andrion spat under his breath, recoiling. The back of his neck tightened, the soft creature inside him cramped cruelly.

“Sorcery,” hissed Tembujin, holding the child away. “I have not sensed sorcery since the witch my father’s wife died almost seven years ago.”

Sorcery, yes; the memory of that odor was seared on Andrion’s mind. Who now dared to use such arts, and to what end? He straightened to his full height, half a head taller than any man near him. His rich brown eyes were depth upon depth of light and substance; his face was stern, frost rimming fire. Solifrax hummed in his hand, but he saw only the empty streets, and his own soldiers gazing raptly at him, and shadows discouraged by the light of the sword.

In a few terse words he gave his orders. He spun about. Tembujin and Ethan hurried not behind, but beside him. They strode through the pool of light at the gate and gained the palace.

The corridors streamed like fragments of a fever dream. Lamps were sudden pinwheels against shadows writhing in the corners of Andrion’s eyes. If men are shadows dancing at the whim of the gods, he asked himself, and the gods are shadows given substance by man’s naming of them, then who truly rules this world?

Is the plot only against Tembujin? Or, as is much more likely, is it a plot against me? And its goal? Not difficult; the lust for power corrupts, and breeds treachery, and the allegiance of the Empire has always gone to the strongest.

Andrion returned the salute of a sentry and thrust Solifrax away. Thunder quivered in the ancient stones of the palace. Lightning flared, and a dim garden leaped into sudden color, asters as red as blood nodding in a gusty wind. Andrion’s black cloak fluttered, encompassing Tembujin. Tembujin thrust it away.

Another sentry, another salute, and the broad wooden doors of the first wife’s antechamber slammed open. The wide, well-lit room was scattered with tables, chairs, and bright faces turning toward the doorway, expectant and wary both.

Two women sat on either side of a tapestry frame, needles frozen in midair, bits of bright yarn dangling. Tembujin’s wife Valeria gulped at her husband’s expression, cornflower-blue eyes frightened. “Another attack,” she stated under her breath.

“Ursbei is dead,” Tembujin returned, flat.

Instinctively Valeria gathered her children, three high-planed bronze faces; Ethan ran across the room and threw himself into her lap, sending a ripple through his siblings. The mound of Valeria’s belly concealed Tembujin’s fifth child.

Andrion’s wife Sumitra looked up. Her fine black brows rose in silent query, but did not try to breach his shell. She set her needle aside and clasped her hands in her lap, waiting with patient dignity. Always waiting.

“Damn you, Tembujin,” Andrion said. He released the falcon-winged brooch he wore and threw his cloak down, standing braced in chiton and belt and sword.

Tembujin, sworn at often enough, leaned against a table, crossed his trousered legs, crossed his arms before him and scowled. “Yes, certainly I staged an attack on myself!”

“By Ashtar’s golden tresses, man, I believe nothing of the sort! What I do believe is that there are those who think your influence too great. Who resent your having sons . . .” He cast a quick glance toward Sumitra. Her lips thinned, but she did not flinch.

Go ahead, say it. “I offered in the council six days ago to make Ethan my heir; he is my half-sister Sarasvati’s son and the grandson of Bellasteros my father, who freed the Empire from the corrupt dynasty that had ruled it. But Ethan is illegitimate, they said. He looks like a Khazyari, they said. He lives with you, they said.”

“And I have contaminated him with my barbarian ways?”

Andrion made a sharp, swift gesture, a sword thrust of denial, and looked away from the accusing face.

On the tapestry before him was stitched the face of his father Marcos Bellasteros, the Sardian conqueror, and the face of his mother Danica, Queen of Sabazel, engaged in some heroic quest. And yet his official mother was Chryse, the gentle sparrow who had been Bellasteros’s first wife, who had raised his children by other women after her own daughter Chrysais had married far away.

A proper tangle for the genealogists, he thought. As was Tembujin’s family, for Valeria nurtured her husband’s two sons by other women as well as her own: Ethan, Sarasvati’s son; and Zefric, the son of Dana of man-forbidden Sabazel.

Dana. The name was a razor slicing Andrion’s senses. From birth I have been beguiled by the daughters of Ashtar; my only child is Dana’s, a girl, the heir of Sabazel, not the Empire. My wife sits, her hands clasped in her lap, holding nothing. A petty issue. A vital one.

Who to blame? Tembujin? Sumitra? The gods? Or myself? he asked. And answered, no; anger and hatred are strong liquors that in the end rot what they touch. He inhaled deeply, damping his frustration. And yet his sinews still prickled with the sour odor of sorcery.

Tembujin shook back his tail of hair. “Can you not control your rabble and protect your sworn ally? What must I do to prove fealty?”

Dryly, Andrion replied, “Call me; ‘My lord’?”

Tembujin’s eye glinted, not without humor.

“Do you mistrust me so easily?” Andrion retorted. “We passed too many tests of loyalty in the war to doubt each other now.”

Tembujin looked down at his felt boots, discomfited.

“Did I not defend you,” Andrion continued remorselessly, “when some said your half-brother died from poison?”

“Kem, my only legal son, would be my heir in any event.”

Yes, Andrion thought, we make our children our pawns. Valeria laid her cheek against Kem’s head and looked ruefully up at him. Jeweled necklaces clanked on her bodice as the visible signs of Tembujin’s power. No, Andrion could not blame her either.

    He raised Sumitra’s hand and kissed its satin warmth, drawing her eyes to his. They were dark, ebony dusted with cinnamon and gold. They were deep, summoning. . . .

A knock at the door. Andrion straightened, stifling another oath. Tembujin lounged against the table, sending petitions and maps scuffling backward, and with elaborate indifference began to toy with a malachite paperweight.

A sentry announced, “The high priest of Harus, my lord.”

Well, Andrion thought with a sigh, one cannot know a god by his minions. Fortunately so, for some call me a god. He set his face in affable lines, and when the fat little man bustled in, sweeping an acolyte in his train, he nodded with all the courtesy due a priest of the falcon deity.

Bonifacio settled his robes, bowed deeply, bent over backward to look Andrion in the face. “I heard of the attack, my lord, and came as quickly as I could. Surely these evildoers have not injured our beloved emperor?”

“I am not the one who was attacked.”

“No, no, of course, my lord, it was your vassal, who lives by your generosity upon our northern moors—”

The paperweight fell with a crash and shattered, sending green splinters skittering across the floor. Bonifacio jumped. Tembujin glanced down, blandly surprised. Andrion cleared his throat. The acolyte stood stiff and silent.

“Surely, my lord, this year you should go to Farsahn, the winter capital,” burbled Bonifacio. “Or perhaps, my lord, to Sardis itself. Surely our beloved emperor would be safer in the north, away from imperial plotting.”

Tembujin’s refusal to use his title was really quite refreshing. “You know of a plot?” Andrion asked.

The priest’s plump cheeks reddened with agitation. “No, no, my lord, but it is only to be expected of these devious imperials; it was an imperial chamberlain who betrayed your father, glorious Bellasteros, may he rest in peace, and we can only assume—”

Andrion said briskly, “We can assume nothing. The Empire and Sardis were joined on the day of my birth, and few resented it. Perhaps the assassin was some disaffected follower of the khan’s, and the attack had nothing to do with me.”

Bonifacio’s earnest gaze fell upon Tembujin. “If the khan would allow me to teach him the catechism of Harus of Sardis, I am sure the god would protect him.”

“I bow to Harus,” said Tembujin, “and to Ashtar, the gods who guard the emperor.”

“But, but . . .” Bonifacio squirmed. “Ashtar is a woman’s god, named by Bellasteros only out of courtesy to his vassal Danica.”

Andrion’s jaw tightened. Vassal indeed; Harus rested on Ashtar’s arm, consort of the sacred mother. But very few Sardians had ever crossed the borders of Sabazel.

His glance fell upon the acolyte. An odd face, with the pointed chin and large liquid eyes of a fox. The man, sensing the emperor’s gaze upon him, stepped back into shadow.

Bonifacio gargled faintly and bounced up and down, trying to earn a response from the emperor. Andrion condescended to look down at him again, and cursed himself for his condescension. Unworthy of a king, to treat a man as a fool even when he was.

“Journey,” insisted Bonifacio. “I shall begin to make the arrangements, my lord, if you would permit such a humble servant . . .”

“Yes,” said Andrion. “Begin our move north.”

“And if the emperor’s respected lady—” Bonifacio turned with a low fluttering bow to Sumitra “—may her virtue be rewarded, would be too wearied by such a journey, she would be well cared for here.”

Pompous ass, Andrion thought. He spun about, found himself facing the table, unrolled a map. His hand crimped the papyrus. Only yesterday Bonifacio had urged him to abjure Sumitra as a barren wife. As soon as I am alone, Andrion thought, you will parade every pretty girl in Farsahn and Sardis before me, noblemen’s daughters offered like cattle at market. I will notice them, yes, how could I not be stirred by sparkling eyes and round breasts and smooth flanks? But if I have learned nothing else from the implacable beauty of Dana, of Ashtar herself, I have learned the demands and limits of love, and the compromises of the flesh.

Andrion glanced in silent apology at Sumitra. She was unruffled, a serene surface over unplumbed depths of sorrow. Of guilt. By all the gods, Andrion thought, I shall not let Bonifacio or anyone make her feel guilty. The map rolled up with a snap.

With a few tentative drops rain began to fall outside. A damp breeze stirred the draperies with a cool clean scent, and the odor of rot faded. Good. Bonifacio would have to walk back to the temple compound in the rain. Perhaps that would cool his rhetoric. “I shall send for you tomorrow,” Andrion told the priest, “and we shall discuss the matter then.”

“Yes, my lord.” The priest bobbed up and down like a feeding duck. “Indeed, my lord, as I was telling Rowan here—”

Andrion gently but firmly ushered Bonifacio and Rowan out, shut the door behind them and stood with his back against the panels.

Tembujin grimaced as if he had a bad taste in his mouth. Valeria rolled her eyes. Sumitra exhaled between pursed lips. The older children, released from good manners, swirled out of their mother’s arms and scattered across the marble floor playing some spontaneous game with the shards of malachite. The youngest, a girl, toddled into her father’s arms, and when he lifted her, tangled her tiny hands in his long hair.

“Could he be plotting against you?” asked the khan, patiently suffering the child’s attentions. “Against us?”

“You saw his subtlety toward Sumitra,” Andrion replied. “The man could not plot his way out of a market basket. No, I fear . . .”

For the first time Sumitra spoke. “What do you fear, my lord?”

In her quiet, resonant voice the honorific was a caress. Andrion’s face softened in response. “It was not carelessness, my lady, that staged the attack on my doorstep. An attempt to sever me from my ally, perhaps; a signal to me, probably; a challenge, certainly. I think that, strange as it seems, Bonifacio is right. We must journey north for the winter.”

“Run away?” asked Tembujin caustically.

“Of course not.” The diadem sparked. “To see if the attacks follow us.”

“Ah, I see. These last few days may be only the tip of the spear.”

Sumitra turned to Valeria. “Would you care to come with us, instead of wintering in Khazyaristan this year?”

How could anyone refuse a request made with those lush lips? Valeria, with a sideways glance at her husband, said, “I am a child of Sardis, not of the steppes, and I would prefer to bear this babe in my father Patros’s house.”

“I daresay my nuryans can watch the flocks,” Tembujin said with a shrug of assent. His eye gleamed briefly in a private, somewhat reluctant, but perfectly honest message.

So then, Andrion thought, needing to say nothing, you will not apologize for your doubts, but you will reaffirm your allegiance. Good. I would rather have allegiance than apology. When the khan and his family took their leave and went to their own quarters in the palace, his hand remained warm from Tembujin’s strong clasp.

He shut the door and turned to his wife with a grimace; one of the hazards of ruling was a lack of privacy. Sumitra’s face was hidden as she picked up her sharp, shining needle and turned it in her hand like a warrior considering his—or her—blade.

Again Andrion’s thought shivered; he saw other female hands, light, strong bones and taut flesh, raising sword and shield and bow. Danica his mother. Ilanit her daughter. Dana Ilanit’s daughter, his own . . . He bent and picked up a shard of the malachite paperweight. Dana’s eyes were as green, and often as brittle.

The damp wind had something in it of asphodel, the lily of love and death, and the anemone, the wind flower. Suddenly, with a yearning so strong it dizzied him, Andrion wanted Sabazel. Sardis was forty day’s journey to the north and east; a detour of only a few more days would bring him to Sabazel’s embrace in time for the autumn equinox and the fall rites. The water in Ashtar’s bronze basin, the shining star-shield on his half-sister Ilanit’s arm—surely they held omens for him. He was the only living son of Sabazel, and yet he had not made offering for two mortal years. No wonder the gods tested him again, this time with uncertainty.

Sumitra’s needle stabbed the fabric. Andrion started, collected himself, and went to her side. Her long, graceful fingers were wrapped with gold thread. Beneath them an image of Solifrax gleamed in Bellasteros’s hand and an image of the shield stone in Danica’s. The real sword hummed faintly against Andrion’s thigh. The sword of power, given by the gods to he who deserved it, the heroes Daimion, Bellasteros, Andrion.

He touched his necklace, a gold crescent moon with a gold star at its tip, the symbol of sword and shield united in more than temporal power. Who am I, Andrion said to himself, to fear shadows?

Sumitra said, “Surely your councilors would not dare to plot against you. Against Tembujin perhaps, against me, certainly . . .”

Andrion set his fingertip on her lips, stopping her. Always she accepted the indignities of living. He never had to explain, never had to justify, never had to apologize for courting her love after marriage, not before. For coming to her virgin bed when his body, his heart, his soul had already been taken—but never kept—by another.

“Is it sorcery you sense?” she said against his flesh.

“Yes.”

She laid down the thread, stood, touched his necklace. Her eyes stirred with decision, doubt surpassed by hope. “Go to Sabazel, Andrion. Pray to the goddess who protects us for guidance. And for children.”

“Sumi,” he sighed, almost shamed by the generosity of her perception. “Sumi, my lady wife.”

Her head, with its sleek sable hair smoothed back in two wings, came only to his shoulder. Her skin was shining mahogany, gilded by the lamplight. The tiny ruby in the side of her nose glinted. Andrion’s nostrils filled with the elusive scent of jasmine. It charred the senses as surely as asphodel and anemone.

In her eyes was the serenity of deep water, only the surface rippled by wind. He saw himself there as she saw him: a lean and well-proportioned body, stiffly guarding against any hint of weakness; a square jaw, clean-shaven, revealing a tenacity that might in the less tolerant be called stubbornness; an incised mouth which would be tender if it were not tight with the necessity of command. A mouth that had never known caprice.

Sumitra smiled, accepting him, it seemed, as much for his contradictions as in spite of them. “Rest, my lord; let me play for you.”

Andrion let her go, but his hands seemed empty without her between them. “Rest?”

She picked up her zamtak and sat, testing the seventeen strings with one sweep of her fingertips. The answering trill repeated the murmuring swish of the rain.

“Rest?” He shook his head. The table was loaded with papers, stacked by his scribes in tidy piles which only emphasized their quantity. Plans to rebuild lands that had lain devastated for centuries under the tyranny of the old Empire. Plans for the nomadic Khazyari to begin a semi-permanent settlement. Petitions, accounts, orders. Letters from councilors and village heads, from Proconsul Nikander in Farsahn and Governor-General Patros in Sardis; at those names he smiled.

Then he saw the reports of bandits infesting the wilderness along the Royal Road to the north, of pirates harassing the sea lanes from Sardis’s port of Pirestia out to Rhodope and even to distant Minras. His smile curdled into a frown.

And there was a letter from Minras itself, from his sister Chrysais, announcing the death of her husband King Gath. The news had taken almost three months to arrive. Anything could have happened in three months. He set the letter aside with a sigh. How could he respond, except with banal courtesies; he could not remember ever having met Chrysais, the child of his father’s youth. If Sabazel was at the rim of this world, Minras was surely another world entirely.

The music stirred the shadows. Each note was a drop of water, rain upon parched Iksandarun after a summer’s drought; rain falling upon Cylandra, Sabazel’s guardian mountain, streaming into the bronze basin on its flank.

Andrion drifted upon the music into Sumitra’s glistening eyes. She was too proud to offer what might be refused; she was too honest to conceal her consuming need. Her hand stilled the strings, but the music of the rain continued.

Andrion removed the diadem, unbuckled Solifrax, laid the weight of both among the papers. If neither could quell the dread slithering through his mind, he could at least defer dread and power alike until the morrow.

He took his wife’s hand, kissed her lips as soft and sweet and moist as apricots, and led her toward the bedchamber. The rainsong smoothed but did not quite mend the frayed edges of his soul.

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