Wings of PowerWings of Power

Wings of Power
Book 4, the Sabazel series

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ISBN: 978-1463588656

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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, Persian, and Indian history and mythology, armies clash, magicks compete, and the gods set their pawns onto the game board. Andrion’s nephew Gard, now an adult, is only too aware that the blood of both gods and demons runs in his veins. When he steps over the line once too often, he is sent into exile, where a mad monk and a beautiful slave force him to accept his latent magical abilities. But when Gard sets out to exploit his skills in the rich valley of the Mohan, he starts a war that changes his world and that of his hosts forever.


 
Reviews

"...an intense tale...a complex and fascinating plot...resonances between adolescent lust and mature love, between interior and exterior beauty, and between faith and skepticism underlie the story with a steely webwork of reality...an elegant thread of eroticism woven with delicacy and wit through the story...the prose is crafted with a jeweler's precision and the use of imagery is masterful. Carl may well be the finest stylist working in fantasy today."
--Ardath Mayhar, Thrust

"An interesting re-telling of an old legend. The ending is full of twists, unpredictable."
--Timothy Lane


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Excerpt

NOTE: In this book I've gotten a long way from the original two characters of Sabazel--Gard is the third generation. About halfway through Wings of Power you'll catch the myth that inspired it, a simple little story about a war between the Greeks and the Trojans....


Chapter One

He ran, gasping and sliding, but the beast followed him. Not that he could see it—he could never see it—but he knew it was there. Its hooves drummed the rock, deafening him. Its breath, foul with sulfur and decayed flesh, lashed the back of his neck. The beat of its mighty wings threatened to sweep his feet from under him.

He ran. The dark caverns through which he struggled twisted like entrails spread across an altar, an altar draped with blood-red amaranth. The winged bull was almost upon him, and he was lost . . .

“Gard!”

A voice—a soft, warm, clear voice. He stumbled toward it. Light, a lavender and silver dawn unfurling outside the window. It was morning. He had survived another night. But where was he?

Oh yes! How pleasant it was to wake in a woman’s arms! It was when he did not sleep in a woman’s arms that he feared he would never wake at all. The vision stalking him struck without warning.

“You were moaning,” Raisa said. “A nightmare?”

With an effort he quelled the thunder of his heart, caught his breath, managed a diffident shrug. “Maybe I ate too many savories at the banquet last night.”

“Maybe you drank too much wine.” She smiled and nestled close beside him, arranging the coverlet over them both. Was that how it had finally happened? Gard’s brows tightened for a moment, trying to remember clearly. The banquet. The Emperor presiding with his usual easy grace. One rhyton of red Sardian wine, or two or three; no, it had been Raisa’s sparkling black eyes that had intoxicated him. For years they had intoxicated him, and for years he had nobly confined himself to teasing her with stolen kisses, eagerly returned.

Well, she was sixteen now, and now knew what a woman meant to a man.

Her body was warm, her skin smooth against his, dissipating the lingering chill of his nightmare. Her fingertips flirted delicately across his belly. “I cannot imagine,” she murmured into his throat, “why my old nurse told me it would hurt. You did not hurt me, Gard. You would never hurt me, would you?”

“Of course not,” he returned, blowing the long strands of her sable hair from his face. His own hair was chestnut, and had not darkened with age as everyone had once predicted. Crimson and black, he thought. Like some heraldic emblem.

The day lightened. A lark caroled across the sky. The city beneath the palace window awoke. Muffled hoofbeats and cheerful shouts and the tantalizing odors of cooking bread floated upon the breeze that raised goose flesh on Gard’s perspiring back.

Ah, Raisa! He rocked as peacefully upon her body as a ship upon the halcyon swells of the sea, raining kisses and endearments like prismatic water drops across her upturned face. Even though the affectionate phrases were well-practiced, they were not lies. He had never lied to gain a woman’s favors. He had never needed to.

Gard basked; surely he had found bliss at last. The sun was warm, and the sea glassy-still, and Raisa’s silk and saffron skin encompassed him. Pigeons cooed on the windowsill. He could sift the fragile morning shadows through his fingers, shaping them to his will. And he willed that this moment would go on forever, that he would never have to decide how best not to hurt her.

The steady tread of a sentry echoed in the corridor outside the room. Was it not daring. Gard thought drowsily, to take Raisa here in the palace, in her own bed, under the very eye of the soldier detailed to protect her, and two doors from her parents’ indulgent gaze?

On the distant horizon of his senses the black clouds of a squall line gathered. A gust of conscience rippled his sails. Ignoring them, he closed his eyes and turned his face into Raisa’s hair. She murmured contentedly to the coppery stubble on his cheek and he answered. Such harmonies were all the more sublime after the dissonance of nightmare.

The door slammed. Gard had time to think but not vocalize a wailing No! before a hand as harsh as a talon grasped his hair and flung him sprawling onto the cold marble floor.

The pigeons fled, wings beating. Raisa gasped and muffled her shriek of dismay in her pillow. A princess does not blame, does not plead for, does not dally with a beggar who does not know his place.

“How dare you!” shouted her father, Tembujin.

Gard looked warily up at the supple figure clad only in breeches, face contorted, fists clenched. Interesting, how in moments of outrage the civilized man dropped away and left Tembujin the barbarian he had once been, his black eyes smoldering like a pillaged city.

Gard grappled with his wits. If I stand, he will knock me down. If I stay here, he will think me a supplicant. He stood, and fixed Tembujin with a placating gaze. His clear, burnished gray eyes were like lanterns suddenly opened.

Tembujin’s fists kneaded his hips. He snarled, “She might as well be your sister!”

“She is not, is she?” Gard might try an innocent smile at this point, but that would be lying.

“Filthy bastard!”

“True, my parents were not wed when I was born.” Intriguing; Tembujin’s invective was usually more imaginative. Shock, probably. At least he had not interrupted them earlier. This was embarrassing enough.

“How dare you!” Tembujin shouted.

He really wants to know, Gard realized. His thought spattered from one slightly blurred image to the next: Raisa sitting up, clutching the bedclothes to her breasts—lovely breasts, nice handfuls—her face glazed, not with regret but sorrow; her mother, who had been a mother to him, hovering protectively over her daughter and casting glances at Gard that were more bewildered than baleful; Raisa’s maidservant, her eyes huge, her hands knotted before her. Aha! It had been she, no doubt, who had peeked in to wake her mistress and who had dutifully, if uncharitably, raised the alarm.

One of Raisa’s brothers forced his way past the servants and guards gawking in the doorway. There was that barbarian face again, responding with rage instead of hurt.

Gard said with a bitter laugh, “Rather a challenge, you see.” And he added to himself, the only power I have is over women.

Gods, did Raisa’s face crumple at that? No, she could not believe she was only a challenge to him! His gaze faltered and fell, but could not, somehow, reach out to her. Had it been only moments ago that he had promised her he would never hurt her?

Tembujin, with an incoherent growl, hit him.

Gard saw the blow coming, felt the fist like a bronze mace strike his mouth, heard the flat, ugly sound. The floor jerked up beneath him and struck him again. A wave of pain dashed against his skull and his teeth rattled. He tasted blood. His for Raisa’s, that was fair enough.

Thank the gods that Tembujin had not been holding a dagger. “Really,” Gard said thickly, struggling to regain his footing, “It is much too early in the morning for such unpleasantness. Can we discuss this after breakfast?”

Tembujin coiled as if around a mortal wound. Raisa’s face was a mask; her mother’s was hidden by her hands. The faces in the doorway, angry, shocked, amused, parted like the sea before the prow of a ship. The Emperor stood in the doorway, his sheathed sword in his hand. It was the dark depths of his eyes that sparked like a drawn blade.

He needed no explanation. His superhuman perception rarely did. With a gesture he dispersed the watchers. With a word he soothed Tembujin. And he looked at Gard in an agonized despair more harrowing than any anger, any physical injury, could be.

Gard turned away, wrapping his arms about his own cold, raw flesh. Why is it, he demanded of himself, that every time I touch gold it turns to lead?

He had been shaded from birth by the outspread wings of power. The slow beat of those pennons mocked his every waking moment and haunted even his hours of rest.

That was not much of an answer, but it was the only one he had.

* * * * *

Gard stood in the center of the throne room like an island in the midst of a marble sea. He glanced from side to side, half expecting to see sharks’ fins furrowing the smooth expanse of stone. But he was alone, without even predators for company.

The Emperor, Andrion Bellasteros, seated himself on his throne. He leaned back, sighed wearily, fixed his nephew with the steady gaze and perilous silence that reduced scribes and governors, legionaries and generals, to stammering idiocy. The naked blade of his sword rested across his knees, muttering to itself in quick rippling licks of light, driving back the shadow.

Gard tightened his hands clasped behind his back. He dropped his gaze to the floor and eyed his toes flexing and loosing beneath their binding strips of leather. He tongued his swollen lip. Say something, he mutely ordered the Emperor. Shout at me. Beat me.

But his uncle had never beaten him for his misdeeds, even as an orphan rescued from the storm his parents had created. Andrion had always been supernaturally patient with the son of his half-sister Chrysais and the demon Eldrafel, as if by his patience he could atone for their evils.

Not all of us have supernatural powers, Gard thought with an uneasy mingling of relief and resentment. The room was so quiet he could hear the faint shimmer of light in the blade of the sword and the furtive steps of eavesdroppers lurking in the corridor outside the doorway. Palace gossip, as usual, buzzed about him as bees about honeysuckle. But it was autumn, and the honeysuckle was long gone.

Tembujin, Khan of the province of Khazyaristan, Gard’s adoptive father, stood in his habitually casual pose at Andrion’s right hand.

No, he only appeared casual. His body was as taut as the string of the bow he wore over his shoulder, his mouth was as thin as an arrowhead, and his black eyes were hooded, choosing to reveal nothing instead of revealing too much. His fingers tapped upon the arm of the throne like the fusillade of hoof beats of messengers bearing bad news.

“Say something!” Gard ordered Tembujin, raising his own eyes.

The Khan scowled at that limpid gray gaze. “I have. When I found you with my daughter this morning. What else do you want to hear?”

Go ahead, tell me that I betrayed you, and Andrion, and your care of me these thirteen years. Somewhere in the back of Gard’s mouth a sense between taste and smell recalled Raisa and her scent like fresh lemon-grass. It could not have been wrong to have seduced her. Wrong to have been caught, yes, but not wrong to expressed his affection for her.

It hardly mattered. He could not undo what he had done any more than he could change his ancestry. His skill with women was an innate faculty, nothing he had deliberately cultivated—that certain half-smile, a quirk of the brow, a careless, as if accidental, caress. He wondered suddenly, irrelevantly, if magic were like that—visualization into reality as casual as a kiss. Or as searing.

Andrion stared at him, no doubt interpreting his reverie as stubborn cockiness. The Emperor wore that unnerving all-knowing gravity he usually reserved for council meetings and audiences. Gard had never been able to decide how much of that expression was an act, and how much real perception. Now, with himself as its focus, he did not want to know.

He tried inspecting the tapestries behind the throne, stitched stories of his ancestors’ heroism; he found no help there, just more accusing glances. What did you expect, he asked the thread-painted features of his grandfather Marcos Bellasteros, the god-king, what could you possibly expect of me when my other grandfather was a demon, and destroyed my island, my home, my inheritance in one convulsion of infernal spite?

A breeze tickled the tapestry, and the cloth rippled with a distant sound of wings. The strong feathered wings of the falcon god Harus of Sardis, Bellasteros’ father. The fetid leather wings of dead Tenebrio, the shadow lord of Minras. The stern but hardly humorless face of the conqueror seemed to smile; Bellasteros had had his moments of caprice, Gard told himself. Always, of course, redeemed by honor.

“Gard,” said Andrion, and for a moment the miscreant thought it was the image that had spoken. “Gard,” Andrion said. “King of Minras.”

“Do not taunt me, Uncle.”

“When have I ever taunted you with your title?”

“An empty title.”

“Your kingship burns in your heart.”

“My kingship was extinguished when Minras was destroyed, in the battle of the dark gods my father raised and drove mad.”

“Is that your fault?” Andrion demanded. “Is it mine?”

“Blame it on the gods,” answered Gard. “They take pleasure in tormenting the men who crawl like lice in their robes.”

Oddly, Andrion smiled. “Yes, let us blame the gods for the mingled dark and light in our own souls, and then we shall not have to choose which to follow.”

Gard looked again at his feet, trying not to squirm. Get the lecture finished. Get onto the punishment. Outside, asters and heart’s-ease bloomed beneath a brilliant sky, a vast canopy of sapphire over the city. Outside, the sunlight was as thickly golden as the gilded wings of angels in miniature paintings of the Mohan. Outside, the air was green wine, cool and tart and brisk, like Raisa’s kisses.

No doubt they were already dosing her with herbs; a pregnancy would never do, would it? A bastard child of a bastard child of a demon. Inside, clouds gathered like the ash that had billowed above dying Minras, or chittering flocks of bats pouring from the dank labyrinthine cavern-temples through which Gard, it seemed, was doomed to eternally wander.

“Why,” asked Tembujin caustically, “when no one rests your parents’ crimes upon your head, do you try so hard to commit crimes of your own?”

“Crimes?” Gard muttered to his feet. “Pranks, yes, but I have never murdered anyone.”

Andrion winced, and his eye dimmed for a moment. Yes, Gard’s mother Chrysais had paid for her crimes, killed by the same hands that had used her. Eldrafel, Gard told himself. My father.

The breeze eddied again about the room. The wind, the breath of the goddess Ashtar, Andrion’s other divine ancestor. Even though I have none of her blood, thought Gard, even though I worship at her shine, she teases me with the beauty of women, like sounding a trumpet call before a war horse.

The Khan cleared his throat. “I would ask Andrion to marry you to Raisa, but she has long been promised to my chief nuryan. And he will take her still, he says, for he would affirm his allegiance to me.”

“He is an old man!” Gard protested.

“Twice your age,” said Andrion dryly, “but hardly old.”

Marriage was for men with names. “How generous,” Gard said. “It could not be, by any chance, that he has five children by his late first wife? And his concubines grow restless without a wife to rule them? And you would not marry a Khazyari princess to a beggar whose only legacy is darkness?”

Tembujin spun away from the throne, hands gripping the horn and wood of his bow rather than, perhaps, gripping Gard’s throat. Andrion’s brows arched almost to the short fringe of dark auburn hair framing his face. He turned his most relentless glance upon his nephew. “When I was your age, Gard . . .” he began.

“You had been Emperor for two years,” the young man replied, obscurely pleased that Andrion’s patience was at last wearing thin.

The Emperor exhaled and slapped the sword across his lap. Its light rippled through the room, making the chamber seem for a moment like a submarine grotto. He said in the voice that brought legions to a halt between one tread and the next, “When I only a little younger than you, I, too, pitied myself, and scorned the game that I thought the gods played with me. But in the end we choose for ourselves. Gard, which gods to follow, and which games to play.”

He was right. Of course he was right. He was always right. Gard sealed his lips over his teeth. Did the man never grow tired of being right?

Apparently not. “When you were eighteen,” Andrion went on remorselessly, “I set you to study with my secretaries, hoping to make of you a scribe and then a governor, but you already knew how to read and write and recite the catechisms of Harus and Ashtar, and preferred spending your allowance on racing horses and courtesans.

“When you were nineteen I sent you to the temple of Harus in Sardis, where you performed the duties of an acolyte¾only, it seemed, to explore beneath the veils of the women who came to the temple to worship. Until the governor asked me to bring you back here to Iksandarun before the men of Sardis trussed you and threw you into the river as they used to sacrifice bulls in my father’s youth.”

Yes, Gard thought, bulls were sacrificed in my youth, too. And people. Many people.

Andrion, as usual, sensed his nephew’s thought. His expression softened, anger eroded by regret. Tembujin tapped his bow against the side of the throne, clinging to his anger by pretending, presumably, that he had merely stumbled upon an academic discussion between dried-up scholars. But his features, too, struggled less with fury than with a dull and gnawing sorrow. These men are more my fathers than Eldrafel ever was, Gard thought glumly. They love me, and in return I put thorns in their boots.

Andrion said, “When you were twenty I made you a centurion with the Second Legion. You gambled and drank with your men, and during the campaign you rushed into battle without them, so that they had to protect you instead of fighting the bandits. Now you are twenty-one. Now what?”

Gard groped after contrition. No, he thought, I have accomplished nothing except to embarrass Andrion, who gave me this life I am wasting. Peasants tell stories about me in the marketplace, amusing stories for the most part, but none of them link my name with the duty and integrity and honor that follow Andrion the way sheep follow a shepherd.

Still the footsteps padded up and down the corridor. An aggrieved husband, perhaps, enjoying Gard’s humiliation. Because humiliation was coming; he sensed it as surely as he could sense a thunderstorm building on a summer’s afternoon. He should have paid long since for his misdeeds, but always Andrion had protected him. Until at last he had gone too far.

And he realized, as that sudden squall swamped and sank his small pleasure boat, they meant for him never to see Raisa again. His heart sank and abruptly he retrieved it.

All right then. Commit justice—it is a rare enough commodity.

Andrion had pulled something from behind his belt. No, not a weapon, more’s the pity; a silk purse bulging with coins. Gold solidi, if Gard knew Andrion. The Emperor’s dark eyes fixed on the purse he held just as surely as if he contemplated an executioner’s sword. But Andrion had not looked that sad when he had with his own hands executed Eldrafel. Gard shuddered. Tembujin shivered as if brushed by a chill breeze.

Andrion looked up. “Gard,” he said, his voice husky with emotion.

“Is it to be exile, then?”

“Let us say rather a chance to find your own path.”

“As long as it is outside the borders of the Empire?”

“If that is where you wish to go.”

Gard slowly raised his hand, palm open and empty. Andrion placed the purse in it. The coins were heavy and cold against his skin. On the whole, he would rather have had Raisa in his hands; she was much warmer than gold.

Someone stepped from the doorway, shedding the cool, translucent shadows of the corridor like water. Gard started; more old sins, coming back to haunt him?

Yes and no. It was Sumitra, Andrion’s first—and only—wife. Another face struggling for reason beneath the flood of his own irrationality. Her brows, like firm brush strokes above her eyes, were knitted in concern; her plump chin looked as if it might break, so tenaciously did she hold it steady. “Gard,” said her turtledove’s voice, “I have written a letter of introduction to my father, the Rajah Jamshid of Ferangipur in the valley of the Mohan. If you choose to go there.”

Where should he go, then? North, to Sabazel, the kingdom of women? No, they would only admit him for the equinoctial rites, laughing both contemptuously and indulgently at his enthusiasm, but he could not make their land his. Northeast, to Sardis? No, he had already worn out his welcome there. Beyond, to the island province of Rhodope? A chill, sulfurous breath clogged his nostrils; no, that was too close to the blackened reef that had been Minras. Inland, he was both stifled and protected by the expanse of earth around him. The sea was as beautiful as it was deadly, he mused. No wonder sailors called it “she”.

“There is unrest in the Mohan now,” Sumitra said, “with the rise of the Apsuri Alliance.”

Oh? He fidgeted under her gold and cinnamon gaze which disconcertingly never condemned and never pitied. He knew that she saw much more than other women saw. To her his gray eyes were genuine, because his father’s gray eyes had been tarnished counterfeit. His red hair, the legacy of the god Harus to Bellasteros’ descendants, was particularly smooth and trim compared to his mother’s elaborate curls. And if Sumitra saw his lean and well-knit body as a shorter version of Andrion’s, she also saw its fluid movement as Eldrafel’s devilish grace reined in by uncertainty. He should, he supposed, be grateful for that uncertainty. Otherwise they would have thrown him out long since.

“There is opportunity in the Mohan,” said Sumitra, “for a young man of considerable daring.”

In spite of himself, Gard smiled. West to the Mohan; if Sumitra came from there, it could not be too bad a place. A place where no one would know him or his ancestry, and would expect nothing of him, good or ill. Although he would be damned before he would ask her father or anyone else for charity. He was no longer a child. He would make his own place in the world, and show them all what a man was. He took the proffered letter from her hand and thrust it behind his belt, where it crackled teasingly at every breath.

He turned away from the eyes of his adoptive parents, and saw whose steps had been pacing the hallway. Tembujin’s three sons, Raisa’s brothers, Gard’s adoptive brothers, more eyes filled with anger and chagrin and pain. Gods, but he had played out many scrapes with the boys those men had once been. They had filched food from the palace kitchens, and raced ponies in the Khazyari camp, and wrestled and hunted rabbits and flirted with farmers’ daughters.

A slightly smaller shape stood just behind the triptych of Khazyari faces; Marcos, Andrion’s son, who followed the older boys like an appealing puppy. He already wore, like his father, a certain quiet assertion—the numinous cloak of the god-touched, not god-haunted.

Marcos’ ears were wagging, no doubt, although his as yet unmolded face was more confused than condemnatory. At thirteen, he, too, was beginning to fall under the spell of women. But as heir of the Empire he had his choice of any woman, to use or to wed.

Choices. Gard’s smile dried into parody. He had made one choice in his life, at the age of eight; he had betrayed Eldrafel for Andrion. And for choosing good over evil, Furies followed him. Perhaps, just perhaps, their claws could not reach as far as the Mohan.

He looked back to the Emperor, Sumitra, and Tembujin, and whispered, finding his throat closed, “Thank you for your care of me.”

Andrion sank back upon the throne, somehow deflated, and, for just a moment, old. If you had never had sons, Gard asked him silently, and I were your heir . . .

He turned away. The faint song of a lark drifted through the room, carried upon the breeze. But song and breeze were only daydreams, and it was the heaviness in his hand, in his heart, that was real.

“No apologies?” asked Tembujin, so quietly Gard almost did not hear him.

Gard could see the dark face, the sardonic eyes, without looking around. “No apologies,” he said.

He heard the several breaths sigh as one, as if responding to some poignant rite. He heard the string snap as Tembujin released it from the bow. He heard Andrion’s sword slide with a reluctant hiss into its sheath. Its reflected light winked out. The shadows, no longer discouraged, flocked forward.

“May the wings of Harus protect you,” said Andrion. “May Ashtar smile upon you.”

Annoying, how everyone kept invoking those gods. “No,” Gard whispered, his breath breaking over his teeth like waves against a rocky beach, “No apologies.”

He turned and strode from the room, the rhythmic stamp of his feet shattering the silence.

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