Chapter 1 Betrayal
Queen Challan stood in the center of the refurbished throne room supervising the hanging of a bridal banner. The towering height of the room seemed to swallow up every effort she made to decorate the scene of the coming nuptials between her son, Prince Carnat and her niece Ayarlan.
Her irritation at the amount of time she had spent away from her workroom mounted. She could only trust Ayarlan to help her and the silly girl pestered her to proceed with the wedding plans.
Challan had yet to discover how to make Selan addictive and the chance to ensnare the potential guests for the wedding had been the purpose of the marriage. It had seemed such a simple and elegant scheme more than twenty years before when she had decided to marry Eliat of Saadena..
The germ of her idea had been born when she first visited the city in company with her father. Few Watchers would leave their towers for the time it took to travel as far as Saadena, but her father had hired mercenaries to guard his watchtower before taking his favorite wife and her pampered only daughter along in a caravan loaded with the jewels of the sea and bound servants for the brothels and taverns of Jama.
The harvesters of Saadena fascinated Challan. Although King Eranat pretended that his harvesters were much like other farmers, Challan recognized the signs that their will and reason had been sapped by constant exposure to the potent drug selan. She knew selan's properties as a pain killer and febrifuge made it nearly invaluable to healers throughout Okishdu but the potential it offered to control the will of others seemed its most valuable property. The control of such a drug seemed to promise endless power.
Entranced by the prospect, she told her father to arrange a marriage with the prince. Prince Eliat had been entranced by her eyes above the veil she wore and it had been easy to convince him that she loved him. King Eracat had offered some resistance but Eliat pleaded that his happiness hung on marrying Challan.
Their nuptials had been celebrated with all the pomp due her father's fat purse and her in-laws exalted lineage. Among the guests were members of the ruling families of all the great cities. It would have been a simple thing to drug the wine and food and thus, in one clever move, gain power over all the rulers of Okishdu. With the Peace of Tagun recently in effect, trade and commerce between the various clans made for prosperity and Challan intended that in time she would restore the long lost primacy of Saadena as she took her place as empress of Okishdu.
Since that day she had set her course. Her mother had taught Challan by example to eliminate any who stood in her way. King Eracat died of a mysterious ailment a month following the wedding with two of his trusted councilors dying soon afterwards. No one suspected Eliat's demure young wife of the murders. Jaman drug traders or Janakan renegades were presumed to bear the guilt.
With the birth of her son, Carnat, Challan gave up all pretense of tolerating her husband. She did not kill him, he had his use as a link to his ancestral tight of rule. He was so easily kept in a dazed and compliant state with daily doses of Selan. Unfortunately, children were not subject to selan and she had been forced to wait until Carnat was a young man before subduing him with the drug. It was then that she had found a fitting ally and aide in Ayarlan, her brother's daughter.
Challan had welcomed the young woman and made her an apprentice in the art of combining selan with other drugs to achieve various effects. They had successfully refined and combined selan and dass into a drug that produced obedience to every command. One barrier to her ambitions remained. The substance must be made addictive. Without addiction, the effect would wear off and she would only arouse the suspicions and resentment of her victims.
She had been certain that she had addicted two men to her latest formulation and had yielded to Ayarlan's pressure for the marriage to proceed. But recently one of the men had died. He had been in pain from a killing tumor. His apparent addiction had been the desperation of pain.
She had become suspicious of the other man and only this morning she had learned of his dealings with a Jaman agent. He was growing rich by selling the doped wine she gave him and feigning his addiction. His body had been buried in the dungeons after questioning by Challan's steward, Jargin. She realized her mistake had been to trust a subject she could not supervise. Neither man had been kept for observation in the prison behind her workroom where she usually tested her drugs.
She felt deeply frustrated that she could not risk trying her combination of dass and selan when the nuptials of her son and niece would bring a gathering of the elect and exalted of Okishdu together. Challan wanted to delay the nuptials until she could be certain of success, but Ayarlan argued that years that had passed while she was forced to wait to marry.
It was not unusual among the great houses of Orenon and Jama to wed those who had barely passed their fifteenth year. Ayarlan was a few years older than Carnat and felt that her youth was fading. Her foolish display with a Mareklan who hd visited the city two months before was not the first time she had risked scorn with her behavior. It was past time to get the girl married to Carnat and started on her breeding. There would be other occasions to follow through with the scheme. The birth of a new heir to the throne might be one of them.
Challan's mind churned with worry and self debate. Fortunately none of the invitations to the nuptials had yet been inscribed. She might be able to delay long enough to gain proof of the efficacy of her drugs. On the other hand, it had taken years to arrive at the current formulation and might take more years to find an addictive variation.
If only she could trust others beside herself and Ayarlan to conduct the experiments, but such a secret was too dangerous and powerful to share. Even the steward she relied on to carry out her orders in the palace and city might yield to the temptation to sell her secrets or use them to his own aim. She had promised him that she would provide him and the other house servants with untainted food and wine, but that was the only hint she was willing to share of the potency of her experiments.
A craftsmen who was repairing the carved frieze high on the wall dropped a chisel and it narrowly missed chipping a notch in the newly refurbished throne. Challan scowled and reached for a docil root. It was the only ordinary vice she allowed herself, and that only when her nerves were strung tight. She needed to be in her workshop and instead she was supervising a hundred details in aid of a marriage with no immediate benefit.
Dramnine continued to assure her that the wedding would be well attended. Recently Challan had begun to doubt that any but the like of the courtiers who already fed off her larder would honor the event. Furthermore, there were disquieting reports from her steward who disclosed shortages in food and drink that hinted that someone in the palace had been stealing her supplies. Every drop of wine and water, every ounce of meat and bread and fruit was carefully accounted for by Jargin. Count Thuskan or his valet were the most likely suspects. The barrel shaped Janakan often complained of hunger. He had been seen in the halls near the kitchen with a joint of meat in his hand.
Challan had tolerated Thuskan because Dramnine assured her that he had important connections in Zedekla. The Tedakan crone had once been married to a Janakan baron and claimed close ties to the Pontic of Jama, but Challan had begun to suspect that most of the courtiers who thronged her palace and dined at her expense would prove no asset in earning her a place among the powerful rulers of Okishdu's cities.
Unfortunately, she had virtually no experience in courtly politics, having eliminated any who might have instructed her early in her marriage. Not long after the death of King Eracat and his councilors, the nobility who had supported Saadena's court had made a discreet withdrawal to Saadenan enclaves in Zedekla and Taleeka.
Dramnine had appeared not long afterward with a flowery introduction from the Pontic of Jama. She had flattered and cajoled in a way that disarmed Challan when she was still young and insecure of acceptance. She had come to rely on Dramnine for information about the manners and practices that would give her legitimacy in the eyes of other rulers and high councilors. The baroness insisted on the necessity of maintaining appearances by supporting the pretensions of a court, but Challan had long ago tired of the expense of feeding the courtiers who had no use but to preen and brag about their lineage and associations with the truly powerful and well-bred.
Challan took another stick of docil and sat on a bench near a window that looked out over the city. It always calmed her to her to see the selan harvesters going about their endless task. It had been a brilliant stroke to limit their food to nothing more than a bare minimum of water and the residue of selan. Jargin reported that the only apparent effects had been an upturn in the harvest and a downturn in fertility. Both benefits.
More Saadenan brats would only add to the unruly mob of unsupervised children who lurked in the city. Until they reached maturity they were beyond control except by the army. "Brat catching" had become a sport much enjoyed by General Supruk's men. Once caught, if they survived, the smaller children were usually released, but the older ones were used as servants if there was a need, otherwise, she did not inquire about their fate. Enough of them survived the rough sport to add a steady supply of new workers when they reached maturity and became subject to the effect of selan fumes.
While Challan pondered the problem of Carnat's wedding to Ayarlan, the workman she had put in charge of cleaning and repairing the disused palace chapel entered and reported that his work was nearly finished. His presence reminded Challan that she had not yet spoken to her chaplain about details of the ceremony. She dispatched a servant to fetch him.
When Fedder appeared in response to her summons, she glared at the ragged robes and spotted vest that belied his royal office. The docil root was having its effect and she did not immediately rebuke him. Challan could feel her muscles relaxing, her mind clearing of irritation even though normally she barely tolerated the presence of this chubby little man who reminded her so much of her futile husband Eliat
"Do you remember how to conduct the marriage ritual?" she asked with a skeptical look at his scruffy attire.
Fedder hesitated guiltily. He had hoped to conceal the mischief of Carnat's marriage until Challan had invited the guests to Ayarlan's grand wedding. How delicious it would have been to see her humiliated before so many witnesses.
Then he realized that her anger would be proportionate to her shame and he would be the likely target of her wrath. He bowed. "I knew it well enough when I conducted a marriage a few weeks ago."
Challan stiffened. She usually ignored the priest, but she considered him to be the personal chaplain of the royal family. As such, she had commanded him to refuse any others who sought his services. If the harvesters of selan chose to pair off and beget children without the benefit of ritual, it was no concern to her. "Who dared call on you to marry them?" she demanded in a voice slowed to a hoarse drawl by the drug.
"It was Prince Carnat when he married the Mareklan woman," Fedder said. As soon as he finished his astounding announcement he whirled around and hurried away in a movement that sent his ragged robes flying behind him.
As Challan realized the import of his words, her anger built and fought through the calming influence of the docil root. She moved across the room waving her arms like a huge moth and cursing slowly, but her sedated muscles could not give her the release her rage demanded.
Hoarse cries and muddled curses finally erupted from her sluggish tongue. Ayarlan ran into the room from an alcove where she had been supervising the placement of a tapestry. "What happened?" she cried when she saw her aunt struggling with slow movements to rip the royal betrothal banner from over the throne.
"There will be no wedding," Challan shouted. "After all my hopes and work and plans, he tricked me. I should have strangled him at birth. He is a thief who steals from his own mother."
"What are you talking about?" Ayarlan asked as suspicion about the meaning of the queen's nearly incoherent words began to dawn on her.
Challan forced her mouth to respond and slowly drawled, "Carnat has married a Mareklan. She must have sneaked into the valley with their caravan two months ago."
Ayarlan paled. She had never admitted to Carnat that she looked forward to the nuptials that would make her queen of Saadena someday. She coveted the power that would be hers, and knew that her aunt was the source of that power, but secretly she craved becoming the wife of the prince. She admired the natural elegance of his tall, graceful body. She had mimicked the disdain of her aunt for Carnat, but she yearned for him. The extremes of her daring mode of dress and face paint, the deliberate flirting with other men had all been planned with the aim of drawing his attention to her, of inspiring jealousy.
"What are we going to do?" Ayarlan cried, tears starting from her eyes while her hands began to tear at the fragile cloth of her dress.
Challan turned a look of surprise on her niece. Pain filled her voice. She knew Ayarlan had been impatient for the marriage, but she had assumed that the position and power were all she coveted. Challan turned away and slowly paced the long room, her mind working to find some way to use Carnat's deceit to her advantage.
"Surely he cannot be truly married," Ayarlan said. "It would take the presence of the priest and two witnesses above the age of accountability to make the vows binding. Demand that Fedder show you the marriage contractt. If it was witnessed by selan harvesters, then your own laws have declared that they can never be held legally responsible. If some of the courtiers or your soldiers were foolish enough to set their mark to the contract, then bribe them to deny their witness."
Challan nodded. She blamed the docil that she hadn't thought of these things herself. She sat on the throne and gestured Ayarlan to join her. "Send a servant to fetch the chaplain and tell him to bring the document that proves the marriage. If he cannot produce it, then there is no marriage. If he can show it, then your reasoning still holds. Keep this secret from the courtiers."
Ayarlan nodded. "It is fortunate that none of them have bothered to wake and see you fuddled with docil and in a panic over nothing." She knew her words were over-bold but Challan did not rebuke her. Instead, the queen reached for the casket of docil root and looked at it with revulsion.
"I will not make this mistake again," she vowed. "Take this away, then fetch the priest so that we may explode his claim."
When Fedder returned he bore the soapstone tablet on which the contract had been inscribed. He held back a smirk of triumph when he handed it to the queen. She scanned the lines with growing irritation and summoned Ayarlan to her side. "Look here and here, the witnesses are both unquestionably valid and incorruptible."
Ayarlan studied the document with a stormy expression. It was the same elegant stone that had been ordered inscribed for her own nuptials. Fedder had labored for weeks to carve the stone of the compact in his best hand. Leaves and flowers were etched along the edges and the heraldic symbol of the House of Elianin centered the top margin. The name of Carnat with his house and lineage took up most of the first paragraph, but where her name would have appeared, inscribed by her own hand as part of the ceremony, there was the name of a stranger: Neril GaNeragon.
She vaguely remembered the stern trek leader who had frowned at her innocent flirtation with Geran. So this intruder was that puritan's daughter. She almost felt sympathy for one raised under the eyes of such a rigid morality. It was easy enough to treat the issue lightly. Surely Challan was wrong about the witnesses. Ayarlan had never heard of the women Mirin BeChiat and Nara GeChiat although it was evident from their names that they were mother and daughter. "Fetch the witnesses and order them to deny their witness." she advised.
"It is not so simple," Challan explained. "I suffer Mirin and her brats because they are necessary. Where do you think I obtain the selan spores that I refine in my workshop? She is the overseer who supervises the barrel rooms where the herbs are crushed and shaken to remove the spores. She is the one who adds the correct salts and water and boils the residue that remains after the spores are removed. Her hand counts out the rations to the harvesters. She is also the medicine woman who keeps the harvesters healthy enough to continue working. I had her husband killed for his insolence although he was the best steward who ever served me, but I cannot risk losing Mirin's services."
Ayarlan laughed derisively. "I cannot believe that you would let yourself be held hostage to this spurious document. You, who have a knowledge of poisons and drugs beyond any in Okishdu will not disturb the comfort of a mere medicine woman for the sake of her fumbling craft."
Challan stared at Ayarlan. "You are a fool. Would you replace her at the task of keeping the harvesters productive and the refinery working? I can trust none other. I have a knowledge that will someday make me ruler of all the cities of Okishdu, but I am not a midwife or a bone-setter or a surgeon. I have no knowledge of healing, only of control and submission. What I know will make slaves. What Mirin has mastered saves lives and her daughters are her apprentices. I cannot meddle with any of them. She will not retract her witness at my request or bribe. Even if we destroy this contractt, she will support its truth. I cannot break her oath with others or she might feel herself free to break her oath with me. Carnat is legally married. Our plans must change. But Carnat will not avoid my revenge."
Ayarlan swept the compact from Challan's hand, expecting it to break when it hit the stone floor. At least she could knock a corner from its pristine elegance, but instead of chipping when it hit the floor, the stone fell flat and skidded to the feet of the priest who had stayed to witness her humiliation. She glared at him and he hesitated only a moment before scooping up the contract of marriage and scuttling from the room to warn Carnat.
Challan called for Jargin, her steward, and told him to send servants to find her son. She seethed with frustration when all of them reported reported failure. The palace was vast, and though she had lived within its rambling walls for more than twenty years, there were still large areas that remained a mystery to her.
Days passed as her fury, now undulled by docil, sought in vain to find outlet in the punishment she planned for her son. She was not quite settled on the form it would take. He had somehow evaded being drugged although she had been certain he drank the wine she prepared for him. Now she recalled the way he played with his food, never quite cleaning his plate, yet he had given every evidence of the same docile dullness that Eliat displayed.
For two long months he had somehow managed to conceal the presence of the Mareklan he had married. Even more astonishing, he had apparently planned her abduction. Perhaps it had not been an abduction after all. It was far easier to believe that the woman had initiated the action. Challan's eyes narrowed as she considered the possibility that Carnat had remained a puppet, manipulated by another clever woman who had seized the opportunity to make herself a queen someday.
The thought of an able rival worried her. Ayarlan had been coming along nicely, her talents for perfidy tamed and her loyalty to Challan unquestionable. If the Mareklan planned a coup on the basis of marrying Carnat, she must be stopped before she discovered Challan's plans and the means she had developed of making those plans reality.
Challan remembered the rumors that a girl had come to Saadena with the Marekla caravan and been taken by Orquians. She had dismissed the gossip as more of the idle chatter so precious to Dramnine who thrived on every breath of scandal. She ordered one of her servants to summon the courtier.
Dramnine's bowed to the ground before entering the room. "What errand do you have for me, your highness, most gracious and beneficent?" the crone cooed.
"What do you know of the abduction of a Mareklan maiden?" Challan asked.
"You have ordered me to cease talking about it," Dramnine reminded her mistress.
"Now I order you to talk," Challan explained with a spurious sweetness that warned Dramnine that she walked a thin line.
Dramnine summoned the encyclopedic memory that stored and examined every idle tale that came to her ears. All she suspected or knew was put in new perspective by the queen's sudden interest in the subject and she dared to lay out the matter whole with certain additions that were nothing more than clever speculation.
"I have heard that the Mareklan maiden was an intimate of royalty and a heroine accepted as a guest by Doka of Tedaka and Manchek of Zedekla. She is a beauty betrothed to Geran, the young man who gave your niece such a painful rebuff. The Mareklans believe she was abducted by priests of the demon who had followed them from Timora where Orquians laid siege to the Mareklan Enclave and were taken captive by Peace Guardians under Anget."
Challan's eyes threatened to glaze over under the weight of Dramnine's recital and she wondered how the woman had come by such inclusive detail. She was tempted to order the gossip to shorten her narrative, but she had already made the mistake of ordering her to silence on the subject when she should have taken heed. It was disturbing to hear of the wide connections and rumored ability of the Mareklan woman. Surely most of it was a product of Dramnine's imagination.
Dramnine continued:"You may have noticed that your son snatches food from the table after meals rather than finish what is on his plate and I have seen him surreptitiously dumping the contents of his wine cup through a crack in the floor of the dining room. There is a purple stain on the roof of the storage room below. If you had hoped to keep him in submission like his father, you have probably failed. On the evening the Mareklans dined with you, Carnat was absent for far longer than it would have taken for him to visit the privy. Someone wearing fine boots and the robes of a harvester met the Mareklans with the news that Orquians had been seen in their camp, but no one knows who this was, we can only suspect it was Carnat himself. After the Mareklans departed, Carnat summoned the priest Fedder and the medicine woman, Mirin, and her older daughter. Since that time he has seldom appeared in his old haunts. He has increased his depredations on the leftovers and the larder and the servants are complaining that their own rights to scavenge have been usurped. I suspect he has taken the Mareklan prisoner, and, given the presence of both Priest and sufficient witnesses, I suspect he has contracted a marriage with her."
Dramnine waited for the explosive denial that must follow her final words. Certainly it would be unacceptable for the queen to find that her son had married another instead of her protege, Ayarlan. But Dramnine was disappointed in her expectation of a tantrum from the queen. Challan stared at her as if waiting for more information, but she had told everything she knew or suspected.
"Why did you not tell me this before now?" Challan finally challenged. "Why did you let me continue the expense of energy and funds for Carnat's marriage to Ayarlan if you knew he had already contracted a legal marriage." Her voice rose from a hissing whisper to an angry scream as she roared out the last accusation.
"I knew nothing. I only suspected, and when I tried to tell you of my suspicions you forbade me to say anything more on the subject," Dramnine cried as she cowered away from Challan.
"From henceforth you will tell me of your suspicions or you will be denied both food and housing. I will not shelter a traitor," Challan said. Dramnine nodded and bowed and backed out of the room.
Now that Dramnine had opened her eyes to his behavior, Challan remembered that Carnat had been spending less time in the court than usual. She summoned Ayarlan to help her solve the puzzle. "I have heard a curious tale from Dramnine. What do you know of Carnat's recent behavior?"
Ayarlan paused to collect her thoughts. "We have both been too busy with our various concerns to take much note of him, but I recall the morning when he appeared in a wrinkled, dirty tunic that bore the stains of crushed grass. He seemed distracted and I wondered what he was hiding in his hands," Ayarlan reminisced.
Challan sat up in the chair where she had slumped in brooding silence while Ayarlan talked almost wistfully about Carnat. "Crushed grass? Where would he have encountered crushed grass." Ignoring her son had become a habit to the queen but now that Ayarlan reminded her she recalled the scene and wondered how she could have disregarded the bit of torn leaf caught in Carnat's russet curls. The green fragment of plant life should have been impossible in the water-starved city where every drop was kept in Challan's cisterns before being carefully measured and doled out. There were gardens kept for the production of fruit and vegetables for the royal table, but only servants were allowed in the walled enclosures.
Grass and leaves where none should exist betrayed a greater secret even than the abduction and marriage her son had managed. Challan's eyes lit with greed. In Orenon, fresh water was a prize that inspired feuds and murder. Her childhood had given her a lust for control of water that had continued unabated until now. She would find Carnat eventually and when she did, she would have some gain from this disaster after all. The Mareklan could not be as clever as Dramnine had indicated or she would have kept Carnat by her side and exploited her knowledge of an undiscovered water source.
Fedder managed to warn Carnat about his interview with the queen and the prince was more cautious than ever. He stayed in the garden with Neril until they had nearly exhausted their food. He finally stole forth when all should have been sleeping but the night guards who were always easy to evade. It seemed nothing in their routine had changed when he neared the palace. He could hear snores coming from the guard tower and the mumbles of the watch who were enjoying a flask of wine.
Reassured that his errand would not be interrupted, he made his way to the lower floors where the kitchen and larder were located. The larder was locked with a new device that he could not open, his first hint that Challan had taken steps to frustrate his pilfering.
He hesitated, but he had no choice but to enter the kitchen. He needed to find something for Neril to eat. He entered the kitchen without a sound. The room was dark except for the coals in the hearth. The smell of baking reassured him. Challan liked Orenese hard bread. Her cook left the loaves in the oven overnight at low heat.
As he rolled the door stone away from the bread hearth, a bulky servant grabbed him and wrenched his hand up behind his back until it nearly touched his nape. The pain stopped his struggling and he subsided when the servant led him to Jargin. "Your mother, the queen, will be happy to see we have found you," the steward said.
"She won't be happy if you disturb her sleep," Carnat warned Jargin, but the man ignored him and pounded on the door. In a moment it was opened by his mother. He straightened his back when the servant released his painful grip, and tried to summon courage as he faced Challan.
To his surprise, her manner was mild. She even ventured a smile when she saw who it was who had disturbed her sleep. The rictus of delight on her face frightened him. It was not what he expected when he finally faced her.
Fedder had warned that she would be angry and take some unimaginable revenge. He had pondered what form her retribution would take. His greatest fear involved an image of Neril, bleeding out her life like his tiny hop rat, crushed beneath his mother's foot. He knew the image was an illusion born in fear, but Challan had other ways of destroying life.
"I understand you have forestalled my efforts to give you a suitable bride," Challan said in a soft voice as she fingered the Orenese jewel she always wore at her throat. It was a large black baroque pearl, enhanced by a jeweler to emphasize its resemblance to a squid.
"I would like to meet your chosen wife," she purred like a cat with cream on her lips.
Her calm words took him by surprise. He had expected one of her famous rages or at least an insult and the demand for his immediate apology. He raised nervous eyes from the repellent jewel to study her face. She still bore faint marks of the dove-eyed beauty that had once entranced his father to take her as a bride but the will that worked within her had given her eyes an intensity that he struggled against without avail.
Carnat dropped his eyes from Challan's compelling gaze and considered his choices. If he didn't immediately bring Neril to his mother, she would have him watched until she found out where he went when he took supplies to his captive. Yes, his captive, he admitted. He had deceived himself that Neril was like another of the flowers in his secret garden, a beautiful living thing created for his pleasure. Now he faced the truth. He had enslaved her and now she was the target of his mother's wrath. For the first time since he had shut the door of the garden and trapped Neril, true regret ran acrid through his soul.
"I will bring her to you when she wakes," he promised.
"I will have you watched to make certain you do as you have said," she warned him with a glance at the burly steward who waited for her gesture to take hold of him again. Carnat straightened his back and looked straight into his mother's eyes. "You have ridiculed me for being too much like my father, but in one way I am proud to imitate him. I give my word as the heir of the house of Elianin that I will bring my bride to the throne room as soon as she has breakfast in the morning."
Challan nodded her head, "Yes, you do have a sense of honor, however much you have tarnished it with your lying and skulking and sneaking about behind my back. I will expect you tomorrow, with your....lady." She nodded her dismissal to the steward. "I will accept his parole." Then she swung the door shut with a thud that gave the only indication of her anger. The steward turned his back on Carnat and walked away. Carnat glanced along the dark corridor where only a few torches guttered in the night.
He hurried to his room and gathered a change of clothing. He didn't believe his mother would leave him unguarded, but he would take a path that would frustrate efforts to have him followed. He didn't use the secret door behind the tapestry in his room. That would be his last resort, but there were other ways to evade pursuit.
He opened the door of his room and checked to make certain that no one lingered to follow him but he didn't notice the slightly open door further down the corridor where Ayarlan had crouched to watch and listen to his midnight interview with his mother. She seethed with anger at the queen's mild words. She had stayed awake and watched for Carnat's capture with the sole aim of watching Challan vent her rage on him. As his fiance she had both power and status. Now she had been reduced to a position of servility little better than the fawning courtiers.
Carnat satisfied himself that there were none to observe when he slipped from his room and ran lightly down the corridor toward the stairs, but Ayarlan was quick and young and full of bitterness that aided the stealthy speed of her steps. She stayed just close enough to follow him without raising his suspicions. When he paused to listen, turning his head and searching the dark corners for Challan's spies, Ayarlan crouched just out of sight.
Finally she watched with a twisted smile while he worked the secret latch that released the door to the garden. She returned to report to Challan and then went to her bed, finding true and restful sleep for the first time since she heard that Carnat had married another. Her dreams were dark and full of vengeance. They lacked only the face of her enemy, the Mareklan usurper, to give her full surcease.
The next morning she joined Challan in the throne room and waited impatiently for Carnat to appear as he had promised. At last there were steps in the corridor leading to the room and she stared at the arched opening.
Carnat entered the chamber leading a crippled girl clad in a wrinkled gown that was far too large for her. All Ayarlan noticed about her rival was the lurching step of her right leg. If he had deliberately set out to insult Ayarlan, Carnat could not have chosen better. She had a horror of physical impairment and would not be attended by any servant who walked with a limp or had crooked limbs.
Her eyes went to Carnat and she suffered another shock. In the darkness of the preceding night he had only been a shadow. Now as he stood before them with the slender Mareklan at his side, she could see that his shoulders were broader, his legs still elegant but powerful with muscles that were clearly visible beneath the short tunic. Instead of the slender, skulking youth she had pretended to scorn, he had become a princely man who stood resolutely by the side of his wife, something in his stance demonstrated his determination that she would not come to harm. Ayarlan's hands knotted in her skirts as she moved her gaze away from his stalwart form and stared at the opposite wall.
Queen Challan had been prepared to see the perfect profile and shining hair of her son's Mareklan bride. She had heard the legends of Mareklan beauty. She noted the circlet of fresh blossoms that decked the girl's brow, a conceit that would end today.
She was not prepared for the crippled leg or the naive gaze when the girl turned her head to examine the vaulted room, her mouth slightly open in wonder. Challan had noticed the limp as Carnat led Neril across the wide expanse of the throne room. Like Ayarlan, she could not conceive of her son remaining content with such imperfection. In Orenon, any child born with less than perfect limbs was left on the shore at the mercy of tides and scavengers or taken to the shrine above the cliff by those too weak to see the necessity of infanticide.
Once they stood before her, Challan gave Neril a feral smile and Neril smiled back with sunny innocence. "Carnat said he was bringing me to meet the queen. Queen Kemila has kind eyes, but you have very nice hair," she said in a naive tone that set Challan's teeth on edge.
For a moment Carnat worried that Challan would guess that Neril was drugged but it was soon evident she hadn't discovered his intrusions into her hidden supply. She leaned back against the throne and studied Neril. "I hope we can expect more favorable trade arrangements from your people now that you are a member of our family," she mused.
"My people are Mareklans, did you know I visited Timora?" Neril asked. She giggled nervously.
"I want you to stay quiet," Challan said in a hard voice. "I have little patience with fools or children." In truth she was delighted to find that she had nothing to fear from her son's bride. This simple-minded cripple would be no threat or rival.
Neril nodded submissively. She didn't like Carnat's mother. The queen's eyes reminded her of something. When the errant memory suddenly sprang to mind she exclaimed aloud, "The snake. You have eyes like the snake."
"Take her away and teach her I will not tolerate such outbursts," Challan warned Carnat with a voice like escaping steam. Then, seeing the rebellion in his eyes, she relented. The revelation that he had chosen a fool was balm to her fear of usurpation. "Your room is too small to accommodate the two of you. You may use the apartments I was preparing for your bridal year."
Ayarlan gasped with dismay when she heard Challan's offer. She had carefully supervised the furnishing of the apartment for her marriage to Carnat. It was one of the choicest in the palace. Challan stared at her niece with a glare that kept her silent until after Carnat led Neril away.
"I am surprised at you Ayarlan," the queen said. "Your day has been delayed by a little while, but you are still my chosen successor. Carnat will tire of the stupid little cripple before long, and we have means to insure that she will not impair our plans. I will end this foolish waste of effort on planning a wedding this year. I still have time to perfect my formula before you are married with all the pomp I promised. The only difference will be that your groom will be a widower."
Ayarlan flinched when she heard her hopes and plans dismissed so casually. For some reason the queen was willing to let Carnat go without the punishment he deserved. Then Ayarlan thought of the secret she had shared with the queen and smiled. Carnat would never again be able to loll on a grassy knoll or pick blossoms to deck the Mareklan's empty head. Perhaps for now that would be punishment enough. "Carnat's wife will make a good test subject for our mixtures."
"Exactly," Challan laughed. "My son dared to try and deceive me, but he will pay. We will soon have the secret of making men our pawns and Saadena will regain her power. We've wasted our time and resources on trivialities but henceforth you and I will focus all our time and effort on the workshop until we have perfected the formula that will make us rulers of all Okishdu. I can hardly wait to have Farek and Tagun and even Neril's friend, Doka, Headman of Tedaka, waiting on our will."
Carnat was loathe to return to the garden while Challan's servants were on guard in every passage. He led Neril to the upper rooms that had been prepared for his marriage year. Ayarlan had worked to good effect. The garish taste that made her clothing a mockery had not infected her choice of furnishings and hangings. He mused that she might have studied what would please him. The thought surprised him.
Ayarlan had always seemed to share his mother's disdain but the soft greens and golds, the antique but intact tapestries of hunting scenes and forest glades seemed to betray more sympathy for his preferences than he would have guessed. Neril exclaimed with delight at the sumptuous furnishings of the bridal apartment.
Carnat heard the sound of rumbling wheels. He walked to one of the windows and watched as three men pushed a cart toward the wall that enclosed the secret garden.
The cart contained shovels and picks and lengths of clay pipe. His heart lurched when they paused at the wall and worked the mechanism that opened the door to the garden. Now he understood why his mother had restrained her temper and seemed so willing to accept Neril. Her appetite for control of all the water in Saadena had finally been realized. He shut his eyes against the sight and turned away from the ruin of his garden retreat.
Neril ran her hand over the plush nap of the bed covering and smiled, "This is nice, but I like our garden better. Can we go there now?" When he didn't reply she came up beside him and twined her hand around his waist. She reached up and touched a tear that had rolled from the corner of his eye.
"The garden is gone," he told her. "We must stay here now."
She began to weep and he held her closer. "I'm sorry the garden is gone."
"I'm not crying about the garden. I'm crying because you are sad," she said."It will be a garden for us here. All we really need is the two of us."
Her gentle words eased his pain of loss but increased his sense of guilt. He had reduced her world so far that now he was all she had. Once he had gloried in that thought. Now it was a bitter reproach.
Carnat put Neril gently away from him and considered what he could do. His musings were interrupted by a circumspect knock on the panel of the sturdy door. Challan had sent a servant with a demand that they dine with her. Carnat considered rebelling against the order. Then he reconsidered. It would do no good to anger his mother any further. He told the servant they would appear in the dining hall within the appointed time and shut and locked the door.
A chest in the dressing closet revealed a stock of gowns laid aside for Ayarlan. Neril still wore the weathered gown he had provided for their wedding. Although he had provided other clothing during her long stay in the garden, she still preferred the dress.
"Come, we must let them see that you are worthy of any court," he encouraged her when she hesitated over choosing one of the dresses. When she made her choice reluctantly, he realized the source of her indecision. All of Ayarlan's gowns were overburdened with decoration.
The dress was much improved when he ripped away a gaudy drape of gilt brocade. On Neril, the neckline that would have gaped open over Ayarlan's skinny chest was appropriately demure. He appreciated the effect for a moment before tucking a shawl around her shoulders and attaching it near her chin with his own jeweled brooch.
"You must not speak to the queen," he warned Neril as he led her down the corridor toward the dining hall.
"I will be quiet as a hop rat," she promised with a little smile. Carnat remembered his mangled pet and shivered. He knew how cruel Challan could be. He hoped the destruction of the garden would satisfy her vengeance until he could find some way to escape from Saadena with Neril.
When they entered the dining hall, Neril kept her promise to avoid speaking to the Queen, a feat made easier by the reaction of the others. Neither his cousin nor his mother spoke directly to his wife. The courtiers, followed the queen's example although the sight of a Mareklan maiden was unusual even without the news that she was Carnat's wife.
It seemed the prince would also be excluded from their conversation but finally Challan turned to him. "Carnat, I know you were taught to read by Fedder and sometimes use the library. I have some questions about the other cities of Okishdu. I need to know more than I do about their history and relationships to one another. I had hoped some of the courtiers I have been supporting could help me, but they are a pack of fools." She glanced around the table with a sneer and none of those she insulted dared meet the challenge of her eyes. "Meet with me tomorrow morning and I'll tell you what I want you to find in the library."
He was tempted to turn down her demand, but fear tempered his rebellion lest she would decide to wreak her vengeance on Neril. Perhaps if he made himself useful to her and kept from making her angry again, she would accept his wife. "Very well, I will do as you say," he said after a brief hesitation.
"Was I quiet enough?" Neril asked him timidly after they returned to their rooms. Her question reminded him that she had maintained silence throughout the long meal, just as his father had done. He remembered his arrogant condemnation of Eliat for failing to escape the domination of Challan.
At that moment he resolved to set Neril free from the drug. He took her in his arms and set his cheek against her fragrant hair. What would she do when her reason and memory returned in full measure? How could she stay when she realized what he had done? He shut his eyes and held her closer still.
Usually they were left to eat alone with each other in their rooms and Carnat made certain that the food and drink served to her was free of taint. When they dined with Challan, he watched to see that Neril partook only of the dishes offered to the queen and Ayarlan. While he carried out the research his mother had ordered, he locked the door to their rooms and left Neril alone for most of the day.
She spent her time altering the dresses in the chest to fit her and keeping the apartment tidy without any complaint at his absence. He watched her for signs of her inevitable rebellion when she regained her mental powers. To his relief, she seemed docile long after the effect of the drug should have ended. At first he was happy that she seemed content and unquestioning. Then, as the days passed, she grew listless and spent hours at the window staring out at the hills surrounding the arid city.
When they dined with the queen, Neril was not merely quiet, but seemed almost numb. Ayarlan watched her rival avidly with burning hatred gleaming in her eyes, but she followed Challan's example and never spoke to Carnat's bride. The flirtatious glances she had once turned on other men were cast at him. She simpered and fluttered her lashes at him without shame at the snickers of the courtiers who seemed to enjoy her game.
Knowing Neril would be unimpressed with the glittering baubles Ayarlan craved, Carnat brought her simple things that caught his interest. One day he presented her with a glistening round shell he found in a dry water course. The next day he picked the tiny, tender blossoms of a desert plant that had sprung forth after a rare shower. Her eyes lit with subdued delight at the gifts but there was no vitality in her.
He wanted to make pictures to amuse her but his sketch materials had been left in the garden that now stood sere under the harsh light of the sun. He went to search for them. The fountain had been diverted to grow selan. Only one of the plants that had filled the garden with precious verdure survived. The notched leaves of the stand of spearleaf mocked him. As he searched for the soapstone tablets his hand brushed against a leaf of the plant. The pain was intense and he forgot the object of his visit as he hurried to find Mirin and asked her to treat the injury.
"You should destroy that dangerous growth of spearleaf," she advised him. "This isn't the first injury I've treated. Now that the door to the garden remains open, the children are tempted by the green of the leaves."
"I'll lock the door to the garden until I can find someone willing to uproot the plant," he promised.
A few days later he approached Fedder, hoping the priest could give him some advice. "I'm worried about Neril. She seems to be fading away, like a flower plucked from its roots."
"I've wanted to have a chance to speak to her," Fedder said. "Bring her to visit me this evening and I'll share my rations with you."
When Carnat told Neril the priest wanted to talk to her she ducked her head and stammered, "Will you be jealous if another man talks to me? Geran was jealous. He had a fight with Sergon. Did I tell you about Sergon?"
"Yes," he replied patiently as he put his arm around her fragile shoulders, she seemed only a shadow of the healthy woman he had captured months before. "Fedder has invited us to dine with him tonight. You don't have to be quiet with him. He will be kind."
"I'd like that," she said.
The changes in Neril shocked Fedder. The glowing skin and hair that had made her beautiful even when she lay injured had faded and dried. She had lost weight until she was like a wraith. Her great eyes, seeming even larger in her wasted face, stared at him with shy fear.
"Welcome Prince Carnat and Princess Neril. You honor me," he said with a gesture to the inside of his unkempt room. He had made an effort to tidy the space, but piles of scrolls and tablets were stacked on most of the surfaces. He had barely made room for three places at the large table that was the room's most prominent furnishing.
After they had shared a simple meal of matla and meat Fedder began to question Neril. "Carnat told me that you wanted to find something for the Seers of Timora. When did you meet them?"
"Tomak was there. He said he didn't break the soldiers," Neril smiled at the fragment of memory.
"Tomak?" Fedder asked. "Do you mean Prince Tomak?"
"Yes," Neril gave a little giggle. "I remember now. There was Tomak and Kemila and Manchek and some very old people who said I should find something." She frowned and turned to Carnat. "Did I lose something? I lost the garden. Can we find the garden."
Carnat shook his head, not daring to speak because he knew that he would weep. When Neril saw tears on his cheeks she always wept in sympathy.
Fedder tried again. "What can you tell me about the Seers."
Neril frowned and sucked on her lip like a child. "They didn't stay to eat, but I liked them. Did you know they used to be the king and queen of Zedekla and now they are holy. I think all kings and queens should be holy," Neril said with a shy smile. Her attention was diverted by a mote of dust that caught a beam of light from the small window of the chapel. She stood and followed it as it danced away on the faint breeze raised by her rising hand.
"Has she always been like this?" the old priest asked Carnat.
"No, when I first captured her she was quick and alert. I don't think the Mareklan merchants would risk bringing her on trek if she had been like this."
Fedder looked up at the dusty orb that represented the Radiance and down at the stained floor but his eyes saw only a puzzle. The girl had suffered a nasty knock on the head when she fell, but she had been able to respond to his questions during the wedding ritual. Her shy, shatter-minded behavior reminded him of someone. Then he realized that she behaved much like Eliat as she wandered around his room, giving her attention to every small decoration, like an inquisitive child.
"You drugged her to ease the pain while Mirin set her leg. How long did you continue the dosage?" Fedder asked Carnat. The prince would not meet his eyes when he answered.
"I-I was afraid that she would find some way to leave me if I let her regain full awareness. As long as we were in the garden I continued giving her selan, but I haven't drugged her since my mother discovered I had married. I must leave Neril alone while I work in the library, but I've made certain that everything I let her eat is free of the drug. She should have recovered by now."
"Neril, what do you eat and drink when Carnat is not with you?" Fedder asked Neril.
"The queen sends a servant to me each day while Carnat is away. She brings me bread and fruit juice and watches while I eat them. When I said I didn't want them, she yelled at me," Neril frowned at the memory. "She said that Carnat wanted me to eat the things she brought. So I obeyed her."
"I think your mother has been using selan as a seasoning on the food she sends to Neril, just as she has tainted your father's food," the priest said.
"I'm certain of it," Carnat answered with a grimace of disgust for his stupidity. He had never thought to question Neril about the hours she spent alone. "My mother will never stop trying to defeat me. She is dangerous. We must leave Saadena."
"You cannot leave until Neril has recovered and I should find out what the Seers said to her. You've kept yourself from being drugged. Help Neril. I'll give you food if you need it. Above all, never leave her alone with your mother or her servants again."
"I'll do anything I can to help Neril find herself, even if it means she leaves me," Carnat promised.
"I would never leave you my love," said Neril. She had wandered back toward the table and heard what he said. There was something in the tone of her voice that gave him hope.
On the day after their visit with the priest, Carnat defied his mother's order that he spend most of each day in the library researching Saadena's history. He stayed with Neril and took care that she ate only the things he provided. When he heard the sound of the servant coming along the corridor, he concealed himself behind a tapestry.
The woman opened the door with a key and entered with a tray of bread and wine. Carnat waited until she leaned over a table to set down the tray and leaped from his hiding place to close the door.
Startled by the sound of the slamming door, the servant turned toward him. Her mouth opened with surprise but he grabbed her arm and held his hand over her mouth to stop her scream. Neril sat on the bed and watched with puzzled eyes while he ripped the key from the belt at her waist. He reached for the wine cup and held it to the servant's lips. "Drink," he ordered.
She twisted her face away from the tainted wine giving evidence that she knew that it contained a drug. "Go and tell the queen that you are no longer welcome in my wife's rooms," he taunted her. He held her captive with one hand while he retrieved the tray of food and shoved it into her hands before opening the door and pushing her into the corridor. She scurried away as soon as he released her.
Carnat now had two keys to the room but he was sure there must be other copies. There was a heavy latch built into the door but the strip of bronze that closed it was missing. After instructing Neril to open the door to none but himself, he ventured stealthily into the rude forge in the barracks where weapons were mended. The sometimes smith was a sloppy worker and there were plenty of metal pieces kicked into the corners of the room. Carnat carried several of them back to his apartments.
All that day he worked to shape and attach the new strap for the latch and mended other locks while he waited for Neril to break free of the thrall of the drug. Although she seemed a little livelier and had a good appetite for the meal Fedder provided in the evening, she showed no signs of anger or rejection. When night fell she turned to him with her usual shy welcome.
Chapter 2 Awakening
Neril woke by the side of Carnat and looked up at the carved ceiling of the chamber that rose high above. She felt as if she were emerging from a hazy tunnel, like the darkness that led from Marekla to the outside world. The long, lean body of her husband nestled against her and she reflexively cuddled back into his arms. Then nagging memories began to sharpen and became coherent. Dream and reality separated and she stiffened when she remembered being trapped by Carnat in the garden and her futile search for escape. The memory of her pain remained blessedly distant, but she could remember the days that had followed. A flush came to her cheeks when she remembered how Carnat had made her his wife in name and deed while she remained unable to make a conscious choice.
She stealthily eased her way out of his sleeping embrace and stood by the side of the bed. She was wild with anger that he should have treated her so, but there was another, undeniable emotion glowing steady beneath the rage. Whatever he had done to her, his was the face that had haunted her dreams long before she entered Saadena. For months he had been the only human she had seen or talked to other than brief glimpses of Fedder and Mirin. In that time he had treated her tenderly, but he had also kept her a witless puppet with the drugged wine he gave her whenever she began to question or worry.
She felt unclean when she recalled their nights together. Hatred and desire swirled through her until she wanted to scream. She knew she must leave but her belt and tunic were gone. She must plan but she knew she was beyond making a rational decision until she had time to calm herself.
Neril looked around for a basin of water to refresh herself and saw the packet of scented sand that had replaced water in the sparse amenities of Saadena's palace. The odor of nop leaves and roses, one of her favorite blends, recalled her memories of the trek. She dressed quickly and quietly but before she was fulled clothed, Carnat opened his eyes and smiled at her. She smiled back without thinking and saw hope spring alive in his golden eyes, broadening his smile and waking the dimples in his cheeks. Another surge of conflicting feelings ran through her. She wanted to kiss him. She wanted to kill him. She despised what he had done to her but she hid her rage behind the sleeve of her dress and schooled her features so that he would not suspect the emotions that surged in her heart.
"I'm very hungry and I don't think there's anything to eat," she managed to say with a normal voice while she looked meekly down at her hands to hide the expression in her eyes.
"I'll go and bring our breakfast," he said. "Don't forget, keep the door locked and only open it for me." He swung his long legs to the floor and reached for a tunic. He stood by the side of the bed as he pulled a tunic over his head. Her rage protected her from the insidious feelings of desire.
She nodded and moved to the door to open it for him. She couldn't avoid the quick kiss he gave her before he hurried through. Latching the door after him, she began to pace the apartment as thoughts whirled in her mind. Now could be the moment to make her escape. She knew it would be difficult when her lurching limp reminded her of her futile effort to escape from the garden, but she was confident that she could succeed.
The lessons she had learned as a Mareklan trekker would overcome the handicap of her weakened leg. The scraps of Carnat's labors to improvise a latch were piled in the corner. Several of them gave promise of providing a rude knife.
She needed to gather a supply of water and food before she could risk the rigors of the desert. Perhaps it would be best to linger a little longer in Saadena and make adequate preparations for her escape. She was still confused about her course of action when she heard crockery rattling as Carnat returned with their breakfast. She ran to the door and made sure the latch was firmly in place. There was a covered grid at the top of the door and she opened it to see him.
He knocked at the door and Neril answered with a tart demand for him to identify himself. "I am your husband," he replied with a hesitant laugh.
"I don't remember agreeing to marry anyone," she asserted through the grid that separated them.
"You didn't agree to marry me. I wanted to marry you --and you didn't object," he explained as his heart fell. She had remembered and she had rejected him.
"If I didn't agree, then I'm not really married," she concluded with anger sparkling in her eyes. She gave him a telling glare before slamming the covering over the grid. She stalked to the window, ignoring his urgent efforts to open the door between them. It was a sturdy barrier, well hung from bronze hinges that matched the heavy latch. It would take more than one man to batter his way in.
Finally he realized the futility of his actions and began to plead. "Please, let me talk to you," he urged. "I love you Neril, you're the only thing I've ever really loved. Without you, my life is useless."
She did not reply. He kept speaking, his voice growing hoarse as he tried to reason with her silence. Finally, she heard his footsteps retreating along the corridor and down the stairwell.
She opened the door and retrieved the tray of food. It might be her last meal for a long time as she planned her escape. She kept some of the bread aside and hurriedly ate the rest of the meal. Then she returned to her pacing.
It had been easier to maintain her cold reserve while he pleaded. In his absence, her thoughts began to churn again. It seemed she was fragmenting into separate selves, each arguing with different purpose. She was deeply offended that he had captured her and used her for his pleasure. She blotted out the memory, only to discover other traitor thoughts. Her eyes fell on the tiny dry remnants of the desert flowers and the tenderness that welled up in her heart at the sight of the humble gift undermined her resolve to hate him.
She returned to the window and deliberately gazed out over the dry valley below. The sight of enslaved selan harvesters should reinforce her decision to escape from the valley. A curious mist seemed to glisten in the air and instead of the scene of wraith-like harvesters that reality presented in the harsh light of the brazen sun, she saw another scene.
The jumbled ruins transmuted into sturdy homes and neat gardens. The people working and talking in the streets were healthy and well-dressed. Their faces were the most curious thing in her vision. They were neither Saadenan or Mareklan, but a blend, as if they were descendants of both lines. Instead of a rocky gorge, a sparkling river ran through the midst of the city.
Neril blinked and the illusion faded, but it left a tingle of energy that told her that she had been given a glimpse of truth. Was it a vision of Saadena before the parting of the rivers? The vision reminded her of the dream she had in Timora when she had first dreamed of Carnat's face. Surely Saadena was the vale of death the Seeress had described. She was engaged in the destiny the seers had envisioned. Other images from the dream now made sense in the context of her recent experience.
She remembered the face of the child she had dreamed about, the tiny sweet face surrounded by russet curls, a child with a Saadenan parent. Her body rebelled at the thought that her child's father could be any than Carnat but the thought of beginning a child while she was a mindless captive revolted her reason.
She began to weep with distress as her mind skipped and whirled between alternatives. If she left Saadena, she could return to Marekla, but if she returned to her home she would have to marry Geran. She was certain that her marriage to Carnat would not be recognized if she had not given consent. Her reason argued that Geran was a fine looking youth. He had her father's approval. She had disliked the idea of living with his slatternly mother, Gidkil, but in contrast to the evil Challan, Gidkil was only a slightly shrewish housewife.
Even as she considered the possibility of escaping from Saadena and marrying Geran, her entire being, mind and body, protested. She grimaced and rejected the notion of ever taking Geran as her husband. It was doubtful he would accept her as a wife even if she were to return to Marekla.
Perhaps she should return to Tedaka where Placine and Doka were certain to welcome her. It would be easy to find a home among the industrious Tedakans. She remembered the charming bachelors who had admired her on the night of the banquet and found the memory curiously stale.
She knew her skills as a jeweler would bring easy success in one of the great cities, but the curiosity and excitement that had once given luster to the names Zedekla and Janaka had dulled. For several hours she tried to set a firm course and make a coherent plan. When she left Saadena she must have a destination that would make the privations of the trail worthwhile.
She fell to her knees and began to plead in earnest prayer, "Please, show me the way. Let me know the choice I must make. Where should I go when I leave Saadena?"
Her thoughts remained jumbled and confused. There was no sweet comfort and ready answer, only sore knees and an aching back. Finally she stood and went to lie down on the bench near the far wall. She would not rest on the bed she had shared with Carnat. Her mind shouted its rejection even as her body yearned to curve into the familiar hollows of the mattress.
Sleep came quickly. No dreams comforted her, but the deep sleep provided restoring rest, and calm. She resisted waking even when hunger gnawed. The day passed and finally the light from the window changed to pink as the sun began its descent.
Carnat wandered aimlessly about the palace for several hours after leaving his angry, rejecting wife. Could he still call her wife? She had insisted that witout her willful assent the marriage had no meaning and he had to believe her words. He had known he was doing wrong to marry her when she had no choice, but his selfishness had overcome his feeble conscience.
He hated every vault and niche, every stone and brick of the ancient palace that had always been his home. It seemed nothing more than an elaborate cage in which he had trapped Neril. He had never been beyond the sterile valley of his birth, and when a woman full of life and beauty came, he had stripped her of her sanity and made her captive. He bruised his hands against the stones as he cursed himself for his selfish folly.
Fedder went to the chapel to perform the essential but lonely office of the evening ritual. He found Carnat kneeling against a bench beneath the dusty globe of light. The prince's eyes were red from weeping. The old priest walked up and put his hand on the young man's shoulder in a gesture of comfort and stood in silence until his bunions began to burn in protest.
Finally he sat down with a grunt. "Tell me what happened," he pleaded. "Has she left you?"
Carnat accepted the offered handkerchief to wipe his eyes and blow his nose. He realized with a start that the simple comfort relieved him more than he would have believed. "She may be gone by now."
"You should check on her. I imagine she was angry when she began to remember what we did to her," Fedder said.
"What we did to her?" Carnat challenged. "You are blameless. I am the one who drugged her and kept her captive."
"But I knew it was wrong. All I wanted was to embarrass Challan. I taunted her with your disobedience when she commanded my presence," Fedder said. "I should have kept you from marrying Neril that first day. I should have set Mirin to guard her and heal her. We are both guilty Carnat, I more than you, because I knew better. You must go and tend to her. She is still unwell and weak from the drugs your mother gave her."
"If I go to her, she will only reject me again," Carnat said.
"I'll send Mirin to see how she is. Meanwhile, why don't you continue praying," the priest advised.
"I wasn't praying. I can't remember how to pray. I stumbled and fell against the bench when I entered the chapel," the prince admitted. His words were a rebuke to the priest. Fedder's guilt for performing the false marriage was compounded by his failure in his most basic duty as a chaplain. He had escaped into the solace of his studies, abandoning his young patron to the influences of an evil mother and careless servants.
"It's not too late to learn," Fedder said before guilt undermined his will again. "Just stay as you are and focus on asking forgiveness for what you have done. Ask the Radiance to help you do those things that would be best for everyone. It wouldn't hurt if you promised to try a lot harder to do the best thing for Neril. I'll go get Mirin while you begin."
Carnat heard the priest shuffle off and bowed his head to his folded hands that rested on the bench where he knelt. He reached out with his mind and heard every tiny noise made by a mouse rustling around in the priest's wardrobe near the door. Black and red patterns swirled against his closed eye lids. Time passed but he could not focus on anything but his misery.
Finally the sharp edges of his senses began to blur and he found another focus. For a time he rested and explored the new realm that opened to him. Words were difficult to find until need welled up in him and sorrow opened his mouth. "Please forgive me for the evil I have done. Please bless me to help Neril, whatever must be done. Please bless her to accept my help."
The words were raw and edged with pain. He waited for some answer, but no words or images came into his mind. Instead, a sense of peace slowly soothed his hurting soul. He remained kneeling against the rock of the prayer bench and tried to hold the feeling of solace within him. A loud crash startled him and broke his mood. He turned around and found Fedder, red-faced with embarrassment, trying to pick up the pieces of a pottery bowl that dripped steaming liquid.
"I've been keeping as quiet as I could, but the soup was hot and my hands slipped," the priest said with a gesture at the mess that had splashed at his feet. "I thought you would be hungry when you finished here."
Carnat glanced up at the high window and discovered that night had fallen. It had been late afternoon when he started his experiment of praying. Had he really been on his knees for hours? The idea disconcerted him. He tried to stand and his aching knees bore witness to the length of his attempt at prayer.
"What did Mirin find when she went to our rooms?" he asked, dreading the answer.
"She said the door is still locked and there are no noises from within," Fedder replied. "The windows are too far up from the ground for Neril to have tried to escape from them, and why would she do that since she was the one in control of the lock? She must be hungry by now, but Mareklans practice cleansing fasts and she could go for several days before she asks for food. I fear that if she fasts, she will lose what fragile strength she has."
Carnat hesitated. He feared her rejection, but he felt impelled to try again to explain how he had come to value her; enough to free her. Fedder saw his yearning look toward the tower where Neril rested.
"You should try to speak to her again," the priest advised.
"But she can never forgive me," Carnat said.
"She's more than you imagine," Fedder scoffed. "You base your estimation of her character on your experience, and what has that been? Everyone you have ever known has been either weak or evil. Only Mirin and her daughters, of all the inhabitants of Saadena, merit the right to converse with Neril. I do not excuse myself. You have no measure for the woman she is. Neril is capable of forgiving you, but you must prove that you are worth the effort."
Neril woke and looked around her. Long shadows reached across the floor, betraying the lateness of the hour. For a moment she wondered where Carnat had gone. Then she remembered again and the thoughts were as painful as they had been when she first discovered his perfidy.
As she felt rage well up, the sight of the colllection of simple gifts on the table near the bed caught her attention. Once again, two personalities seemed to fight for control of her mind. One lingered over fond memories of the time she had spent loving Carnat. It craved forgiveness of wrongdoing by the prince. It recalled every tender moment, every shy glance they had exchanged.
The other was driven by righteous indignation and offended honor. It demanded action and reprisal. The pouch containing her knife was gone, but there was a sharp shard of bronze in the pile of metal left over when Carnat repaired the latch.
She picked up the keen blade and stared at it. It was not a real knife, but the flesh of a man would not stop its bite. She dropped the knife with a cry of horror. How could she think of taking the life of Carnat. No more could she take her own life as a means of escape from her turmoil.
The moment of murderous impulse sobered her. She recognized the danger of dwelling on thoughts of revenge. He had risked her anger by choosing to restore her will. Carnat's affront to her dignity and modesty had been satisfied by his decision to release her. He had taken her freedom, but he had returned it to her. He had dared the wrath of his mother and done everything he could to protect her.
Carnat had taken her captive, but she was already a captive to the conventions of Marekla, bound to Geran against her will because her father's fear had overcome his initial resistance to accepting her suitor. Instead of being kept in Saadena, subject to the will of Carnat, she would have been kept in the Homeplace, forced to marry a man she disliked. At least now she was the prisoner of her beloved.
Her beloved? The thought brought her pacing to a halt. It was true. Whatever Carnat had done, she had come to love him. She had spent her early youth blessed by the example of sweet affection between her parents. After the death of her mother she had lived with her grandparents and seen how love looked after decades of use. She recognized that the roots of devotion to Carnat were already planted in her heart.
Now she saw Carnat's crime in a new light. It might have been easier to forgive him if he hadn't set his mark indelibly on her soul. There would be no question of her course of action if she truly hated him. She would already be well on her way out of the vale of Saadena. That she was no longer a maiden was not as significant as the entanglement of her emotions. She doubted that any other man could earn her love now that Carnat had stolen her heart.
She got up and began to repair of the ravages of her anger and grief. She dressed in her best dress and combed her hair. She was rubbing scented sand over her cheeks to remove the traces of her tears when she heard steps in the corridor beyond her door. Her heart leaped at the sound of Carnat's voice.
Neril tried to define the source of the emotion that made her pulse beat faster. Carnat was handsome, intelligent, and his sad face lighted wonderfully when he smiled, but none of those things could explain the mystery. The thought troubled her and the stern resolve that she must leave him returned again.
She looked toward the door where Carnat humbly begged her to speak to him. "Just tell me you are all right and I'll go away and send someone to help you.".
"Who is it?" she asked in a voice that trembled with emotion.
"Your husband," he answered.
"I told you before, I have no husband," she cried in an anguished voice as her chest burned with hurt. Why had she responded in a way that let him know how she ached within. She should have had the strength to act with cool dignity and reason. Love had weakened her self control as certainly as the drug that had allowed the insidious emotion to take root.
Something in her mind mocked her rigid thinking. She had a vision of her father's face reproving her for speaking to her friends once his fear had overcome his reason and he had begun to support Geran's suit.
What would Sergon think of her? The thought of the elder was like a life line. She tried to view the things that had happened to her through the perspective of the elder's eyes. It helped to stand a little apart and use a touch of skepticism. It didn't hurt so much when her mind's eye viewed her actions as if someone else had experienced the pleasure and pain, the betrayal and trust that had left her twisting like a netted fish between love and hate, desire and outrage.
She broke her fast with a cup of water and several matlas. She had slept a long time, but the excesses of emotion had left her tired again. After using the privy and washing her hands with the last of the water, she lay down on the bench and slept.
Carnat slumped against the stone of the corridor wall and slowly slid to the floor until he sat. He folded his arms on his knees and considered the closed door in front of him. What could he say? What could he do? His head fell forward onto his arms in dejection.
She had denied him again. He had to honor the justice of her decision. Now he could see that his abduction and marriage to Neril had been of the same order of evil as the things he despised in his mother and cousin. In caring for her when she lay helpless the vestige of decency that remained in him had grown and flourished. He now had a sturdy conscience that would give him no relief.
The pain of his outraged integrity was greater than the despair of losing his love. He could imagine nothing worse than seeing Neril leave him, but he almost welcomed her desertion as a fit punishment for his despicable actions.
Darkness welled as the torch that lit the hallway guttered out. As he had countless times in his childhood when he was shut out of his mother's presence, he huddled in loneliness on the stone floor. That old rejection no longer had the power to hurt him. The pain of Neril's denial was as keen as the sting of spearleaf. He touched the tip of his thumb to the finger that had been stung by the leaf. A small knot of scar tissue was all that remained. He wondered if there would ever come a day when his heart would scar over and the pain of loving and losing Neril would finally dull.
Neril woke when the sky framed by the window above her began to glow with the promise of dawn. She ached from sleeping on the cramped bench but she moved quickly about the room making preparations for escape. She made a bundle containing her needles and thread, the knife, several lengths of cloth, and spare sets of sandals. It would take more than one pair to see her through her journey. She had fasted both food and water for the three days preceding her rites of womanhood and she knew the location of a water hole less than two days journey from Saadena.
She looked around the room to see if there was anything else that might be useful. The first ray of the dawning sun fell on the white shell Carnat had brought her. The small round disk glowed like the symbol of the Radiance that focused the prayers of worshipers. Neril dropped to her knees at the reminder. "Forgive me for my pride. Help me to find the right way."
She took up the bundle she had made and opened the door. She saw Carnat huddled against the stony floor, softly snoring. She closed the door again and stood against it. Her heart beat wildly. He had been there all night.
He hadn't disturbed her sleep with demands or tried to break down her door. He had only waited. Tears welled in her eyes. She opened the lid of the small grating that shielded her and studied him. The marks of tears still stained his cheeks with salty silver trails.
"Carnat, wake up!" she called.
He woke suddenly and glanced toward the door, as if he thought he dreamed the sound of her voice. He saw that the grill was open and struggled to his feet, clumsy from his long hours on the chilly stone. "Neril, you said I wasn't your husband," he said haltingly. "You were right. I made a mockery of the vows you should have been able to give willingly. I won't hold you here. What can I do to help?"
She heard the earnest tone of his voice. She remembered the first dream when she had seen his face, arrogant against the background of ruined Saadena. She needed to tell him what she required to make her journey, but it was difficult to speak. Finally she broke the silence between them by clearing her throat with a small cough.
"You could ask me to marry you," Neril said, surprising herself as much as him.
Hope lit his face. Then he shut his eyes and grimaced, perhaps he still dreamed. He opened his eyes and touched his fingertips to the place where her hand rested against the grill. Her breath warmed his cheeks as he leaned close and whispered, "Please Neril, will you marry me."
She turned from the sight of his hopeful face and began to pace the floor, wondering at her unbidden words. Anger and resentment began to seethe again but she stifled them and felt joy and hope swelling to take their place. She stopped her pacing and went to the door, touching her fingers to his with the metal bars of the grill between them.
"Yes, I will marry you. Bring Fedder and ask Mirin and her daughters to act as witnesses." Lurking anger roughened voice. He gazed at her as if still unsure that he had heard her right. "Go." She commanded.
She watched Carnat run down the corridor and felt a thrill of tenderness and desire when she saw him leap down the stairs, eager to complete the instructions she had given him. When she turned away to make preparations for his return she saw the shard of metal she had briefly planned to use as a knife against him and shuddered in reaction.
The rage that had impelled her dire toughts was easily recognized as a response to his affront to her pride. The only way she could hold on to her joy and love was with the help of humility. She turned away from the troubling emotions that tried to ruin her forgiveness and set her heart on making a true marriage.
Carnat's breath ran short and he panted after running down two long flights of steps from the locked room and up another flight to the library after finding the chapel empty. Fedder could hardly understand his breathless words when he burst into the library where the old priest bent over an ancient scroll.
"Neril is still angry, but she insisted that I ask her to marry me and she demands that I bring you to perform the ceremony. Get your robes while I fetch Mirin and her daughters. Neril wants them for witnesses."
Fedder was delighted at the news. He had begun to despair of learning more of Neril's errand from the Seers. When he entered his room and opened the clothing chest, he was glad Challan had refurbished his robes. The dingy clothing spotted with evidence of careless eating was set aside and he felt more priestly when he donned the pristine white and blue of his office. His toe no longer poked through his mended slipper when he prepared again to perform nuptials for the prince.
The stone that had originally recorded the marriage contract slipped from a stack of tablets and hit Fedder on the knee. He grasped it before it could fall to the floor. Amusement quirked his brow when he realized that the date would require only one small cross stroke with a stylus to record the marriage as happening this day. It seemed a happy omen.
Carnat began to have doubts about Neril's change of heart. Perhaps she had asked him to bring the priest and witnesses only to have an audience for her final rejection. It was the kind of thing he would expect from his mother or Ayarlan. He reminded himself that Neril was nothing like either of them.
When he returned to the locked door of his apartment with the Fedder and Mirin's family, Neril opened the door and welcomed them with a serene smile. She had dressed in a simple, pale gown, the least ornamented of those she had found in the chest left by Ayarlan. The color in her cheeks and the sparkle in her eyes was ornament enough for Carnat. Anger had vanished from her eyes. She had regained herself and she still wanted him as a husband. The knowledge bloomed within him and he wanted to shout his joy.
Fedder repeated the holy words of joining and Neril and Carnat made their vows. Both of them felt truly wed for the first time. When Mirin and Nara incised a mark beside their names on the marriage contract, Fedder felt a tear slide down his nose and saw it land with a little splash under the tiny alteration he had made to the date.
"We must have a wedding supper," Mirin said. "I have matlas made from the seeds of chand and a bit of smoked lizard I would like to share with you."
"I have some dried snake I purchased from the Mareklan merchants. I've saved it for a special occasion. I'll donate that to the feast," Fedder decided.
The mention of the snake reminded Neril of the escape from Timora and the variety of new sights and foods she had enjoyed. She recalled the delicious succulence of spearleaf. "I doubt there is anything left of the stand of spearleaf that grew in your garden, Carnat," Neril said wistfully.
"When my mother diverted the water from the garden most of the plants and bushes died but there is still a patch of spearleaf." he told her. He glanced toward Mirin with a grimace of apology. It had been some time since he had promised her he would order the encroaching growth destroyed.
"If only I could find my belt pouch, I could give all of us a meal to remember," Neril said.
"I kept your tunic and belt after you fell," Mirin said. "I could send Kana to run and fetch it for you now. Nara, go with her and bring the matlas and lizard I had prepared for our supper."
"She can get it while we are on our way to the garden. It is there we will find the best part of the feast," Neril promised with a dimpled glance at the puzzled wedding party.
Kana and Nara's swift young legs brought them to the door of the garden in time to meet the others before they opened the door. They entered the garden together. While the others spread a cloth on the ground and distributed their offerings, Neril removed her knife from her pouch and peeled enough spearleaf cores for all to enjoy.
Neril told them the story behind the snake meat that Fedder had purchased from Sergon and watched the others delight in the succulent peeled Spearleaf. The matlas and lizard that Mirin had contributed went well with a bottle of nuka juice that Carnat had saved from a raid on the larder weeks before.
While the others chatted and enjoyed the meal, Neril took a few pieces of cloth from the pocket of her gown and the packet of needles and thread she had intended as part of her survival bundle. She made a couple of tiny figures.
Kana and Nara watched her transform a few scraps into tiny dolls wearing replicas of the Mareklan cape Neril had worn when she entered the valley. Kana laughed with joy when Neril handed her one of the figures and Nara was still enough of a child to smile happily when Neril gave her the other doll.
Carnat leaned back on the hummock of dry grass that was all that was left of the other green plants of his hidden garden. He watched his bride's face, lit by the glow of returning health as she entertained them with tales of her trek. He smiled at her animation and felt that he could ask for no greater thing than to have her always by his side.
He remembered the months when he had been satisfied to keep her dulled and helpless so that she would not try to escape him. His heart seemed to twist painfully in his chest and tears escaped his eyes as he acknowledged the wrong he had done. Neril stopped her story and turned to him when she realized he had begun to weep, his broad shoulders shuddering.
"What troubles you my love?" she asked.
He shook his head, unable to express his sorrow.
Fedder got up and asked Mirin to accompany him to his chapel. "I have a plan for teaching your daughters to read."
Mirin glanced Neril and Carnat. "Thank you for the wonderful meal. I doubt that anyone in Saadena dined better today. Kana and Nara, come with me."
Before they left the garden the old priest turned to Neril. "Take care of him my dear. He has come further than I could have thought, but he has far to go. You may be the only cure for what has sickened him."
Chapter 3 The Steward's Plan
Challan expected Carnat to tire of the crippled Mareklan whose mind and will weakened daily. It had been a stroke of luck to find such a convenient subject for studying the various concentrations and effects of her work with dass and selan. The prisoners in the cells near her workshop had already ruined themselves with wine and drugs. Challan wanted to know if the girl had showed any signs of addiction. She summoned the servant who had been put in charge of making certain the Mareklan received drugs daily.
The woman could not be found. Several hours passed while Jargin and the other servants searched for her. Finally she was found cowering behind the cot of a soldier who had promised her his protection. When she was dragged before the queen she shuddered with fear.
"Why have you hidden from me?" Challan demanded. "I trusted you with an important post and easy work."
"When I took the Mareklan her food one day the Prince was there. He took the key and sent me away."
Challan flushed with anger, "You should have told me when it first happened."
The servant cowered away from challa's scowl. It would be futile to remind the queen that she had left orders that she was never to be disturbed when she was in her workshop.
She cried out for mercy when Jargin stepped forward to lead her away but those in the employ of Challan had often seen what happened to any who failed at their posts. They were given a choice between a living death in Challan's workshop or being taken to a small door in the south wall of the palace. Beyond the door lay a narrow ledge, two paces wide. Beneath the ledge, a steep and dangerous slope led to the desert. On either side the sheer stone of wall and cliff made an impassable barrier. There was no way to return to the city without braving the desert which burned like an oven below.
"What will you do now?" Ayarlan whined. "You said Carnat would tire of the crippled Mareklan, but he shows no sign of turning from her. It will be more difficult to rid ourselves of her presence now that he has discovered your scheme to poison her.
"I will wait," Challan sniffed. "Carnat will tire of watching after her. She is a stupid, flawed child and even without the drugs, she will fade and perish. Carnat is not capable of caring for her. In time I will find the secret of making selan addictive, then nothing can prevent my triumph."
She whirled around and left the room with a gesture to Ayarlan to follow. "Tell Jargin to give orders to the servants that Dramnine and her mob of layabouts will no longer be fed and housed at my expense, unless, of course, they are willing to live in the workshop wing."
Ayarlan found Jargin near the small door in the south wall. The stocky servant was just locking the door against the wails of the woman who had failed Challan.
"The queen orders you to withhold food and water from the courtiers," Ayarlan said. "Dramnine and her cronies have stretched her patience for far too long."
"What of General Supruk? He is not merely a courtier, he is the general of the queen's army, such as it is."
"Surely General Supruk should receive support," Ayarlan said. "We require an army to remain secure against the threat of invaders and to keep the harvesters from rebellion."
"The courtiers are less wasteful than Supruk's inflated corps of fools," Jargin said. "They do nothing but harass the harvesters and decorate the corridors of the palace with their ornate uniforms. If Challan finally realized how wasteful it is to support the courtiers, now would be the time to rid herself of Supruk."
"Is he not your cousin."
Jargin snorted with disdain. "He is no cousin of mine, although we grew up on the south bank of the river in Zedekla. I doubt your realize what that means. Supruk took service at a young age with a Janakan war lord but the Peace of Kagun ended his career as a regular soldier and he became a mercenary. I find it unlikely he had ever held true rank but that seemed less important to your aunt than his ability to order other fools to follow orders."
Ayarlan's prominent eyes widened with surprise. "I will tell the queen what you have said about the army. But perhaps she would take it better coming from you."
He shook his head. "You have a way with her. I trust you to make her see the way things are."
Ayarlan was curious to see what would happen to Jargin when she told Challan about his suggestion. She hurried back to the dining hall where the Queen was eating with her courtiers. The glitter in her eyes gave evidence that she savored the idea that all of them would be groveling for food and shelter by nightfall.
Count Thruskan leaned forward across the table and speared a succulent serving of roast bacal. He hesitated for a moment and looked toward Challan who had sometimes criticized his gluttony, but she only gave him a chilling little smile that showed her flat ivory teeth. Dramnine droned on in a elaborate retelling of stale gossip and Challan actually leaned a little closer to her chattering lips. She seemed intent on encouraging the folly that had finally opened her eyes to the fatuity of her court attendants.
She looked up when Ayarlan entered the dining hall. Her niece shook her head in answer to her raised brow. Challan frowned and stood up. "The meal is ended," she announced. She gestured to her servants to clear the table and left the room amid the shocked protests of more than thirty men and women who had not yet learned the folly of complaining.
Challan grasped Ayarlan's arm and led her into a small conference room near the dining hall. "Why are you shaking your head? Did Jargin refuse to do as I said?" she demanded.
Ayarlan shook off her aunt's hand and backed away. "He told me several things. You say he lacks imagination, but he seems far more fanciful than you think. He approves of sending the courtiers on their way, but he also advises that you should do the same with the army. I think he has run mad."
"Where is he now?" Challan asked.
"I am here," Jargin answered. He entered the room through another door where he had been waiting. Challan had ordered him to kill his predecessor when the man showed compassion for the harvesters. He had reason to fear displeasing her.
"What have you to say?" Challan demanded.
"I told Ayarlan that if you rid yourself of the courtiers, you must decide what to do with Supruk."
"Supruk is not merely a courtier. He is cousin to King Kagun of Janaka and has connections to Zedekla's royal family as well," Challan said.
"His only connection with Zedekla is a hut in the slums south of the river. His brother married my aunt who still lives there," Jargin said.
"Dramnine vouched for him," Ayarlan protested.
Challan scowled. "Dramnine would vouch for a mongrel dog if she were paid enough for the lie. What do you know about him Jargin?"
"I recognized Supruk when I entered your service as a footman. I knew him as a child. I realized he would not welcome recognition from such as me. I should have told you before now, but until you appointed me as your steward, I feared you would take his word over anything I could say."
"And what do you advise?" Challan asked. "Supruk may have come from a slum but he is a competent commander. His troops are well disciplined and we must have an army to control the harvesters and repel invasion."
"Most of the men in your army are useless drones. What Dramnine did for your court, Supruk has done to your army. Among mercenaries, Saadena is a joke. It is the equivalent of a pension for those who have outlived their wits."
Challan shook her head, "I can't believe you. If they are so poorly regarded we would have been invaded long since."
"You have only one asset, selan, and you and your oath woman Mirin are the only ones with the knowledge of how to prepare it successfully. You are ensconced in the greatest fortress ever built. With the cisterns full of water and the stores of food you have secured, you could withstand a siege for over a year. Who would risk the desert only to die outside your gates without food or water. I could maintain this palace with fewer than thirty able men, and the stores would last longer because we wouldn't have the others to feed and provide for."
"What about the harvesters?" she challenged.
"The harvesters are not capable of rebelling against you," Jargin said. Their fertility has been reduced from eating nothing but rations made from the byproducts of producing selan. If the army continues hunting their children, who will replace the harvesters who die of accident or old age. Ask Mirin if you doubt me."
Ayarlan glanced from the queen to her steward. He had never raised a question about any of the queen's directions or ventured an idea of his own. The things he said made sense, but would Challan's pride permit her to listen. The army had been one of her symbols of authority. It was one of the things that declared she was a queen and not merely a jumped up servant seller's daughter.
Challan paced and grimaced while the others waited for her decision. "What would we do to keep bandits away?" she asked. "One of the duties of the army is to keep watch for intruders into the valley."
"If we built a tower near the north wall of the palace, one tall enough to overlook the approaches to the city, we would need only a few watchmen instead of fifty," Jargin said.
"A tower?" Challan asked. Her eyes gleamed at the suggestion. "In Orenon the Watcher towers designate rank. I have often felt this palace would be improved with a tall tower."
"A family of Arquan masons could construct a tower as tall as you need in a few months. It need not be ornate or particularly strong," Jargin explained. "It must only be tall enough."
"A watchtower. Will it be the tallest watchtower in Okishdu?" she asked.
Jargin doubted it could be. He had grown up in view of Zedekla's gleaming towers and he had seen the towers of Janaka soaring into the sky over the mountain palace of King Kagun, but Challan was watching him with an avid expression that gave him a clue to her meaning. "It will be taller than any watchtower in Orenon," he promised her.
"Then make it so," she said. "Did Ayarlan give you my orders regarding the courtiers?"
"Yes, but I think it would be more politic to drive them away by attrition. Cut their rations and turn a few of the more annoying ones out through the south door or give them the choice of proving your drugs. The others will make haste to quit your court."
"And what about the army. Are all the soldiers useless?" she asked.
"I will bring you one of the few you should keep. His name is Arcat, Sergeant Arcat. I recommend you let him choose which should stay and which should go. I also recommend that General Supruk should be shown to the south door before you make any other changes."
"But first you must do something about Carnat and his cripple!" Ayarlan protested.
Challan waved her hand dismissively. "I will leave Carnat to his own devices for now. The cripple will fade away and soon enough you will have the chance to provide me with an heir of the royal blood."
She turned back to Jargin. "Bring Sergeant Arcat to me tonight and stay while I interview him. How long before you can arrange to build the tower?"
"Once you have rid yourself of Supruk and put Arcat in charge of the troops I will leave for Jama. The Pontic has been improving his residence. The last time I visited Jama the masons had nearly finished the main hall. They will probably welcome the commission to build a tower."
"You seem to have it all arranged," Ayarlan sneered. "I wonder at your convenient plans. What is in it for you?"
Jargin acknowledged her comment with a slightly subservient nod but Challan dismissed her concern. "Be glad he came to us. He could have used the same information on behalf of Carnat or his addled father Eliat." With that she turned away and left the room.
Ayarlan frowned after her aunt. "I can see that further argument would be fruitless," She muttered."
Jargin bowed to her. Challan was queen, but he recognized the same qualities of resolution and ruthlessness in the younger woman. It would not be wise to alienate her. "Your role is as important as any. You must never forget that you are the true heir of Saadena. Your aunt has chosen you and shared all her secrets with you. No other is so near her heart. When you tell me to do something, I will treat it as an order from her own lips."
Ayarlan stared at the steward for a moment, then she gave a twisted grin. "I will return the compliment. I will trust that whatever you recommend will be in our best interests."
It seemed there should have been some oath or ceremony to seal their agreement but Dramnine entered the room searching for Challan to impart the end of the story she had been telling at dinner. She glanced at Ayarlan and Jargin and looked around to see Challan entering the room again and raced up to the queen with a breathless air.
"General Supruk told me that it wasn't Count Thruskan who told him about the scandal in Jama, it was the Pontic himself. I thought you would want to know the truth of the matter."
"Thank you for your concern, Baroness Dramnine," Challan said with exaggerated courtesy. "I will remember that detail. It is late. Surely you must retire before you forget the gossip you learned today." Both Jargin and Ayarlan had taken the opportunity to slip from the room and Challan followed their example, leaving Dramnine to make her protestations to empty air.
That evening Challan waited in her private audience hall for Jargin to bring Sergeant Arcat. Her thoughts ran over other economies that could be made when the courtiers were gone. The servants needed to maintain the palace could be drastically reduced. They were hereditary servants of the House of Elianin, and as proud of their positions as any courtier, but she felt no loyalty to their claims. Let them find positions in Jama or join the harvesters. There would be an all around savings in food and water that grew increasingly impressive as she added the sums.
When Jargin entered followed by a man of medium height and grizzled appearance. He had not the height to be one of the ceremonial guard who wore ornate uniforms at all the major posts. When shown into the presence of the queen, his eyes surveyed her with an almost insolent expression.
"Jargin said you want to see me. I know Captain Gelaso's been making charges against me again, but you can't trust anything that windbag tells you. Kill me or shove me out the south door. It doesn't matter anymore. I am tired of playing soldier in this human muck heap."
"Do you think you could do a better job of commanding my army than Supruk?" Challan asked.
"I could do a better job with a squad of good men than Supruk can do with this collection of drones you call your army," he replied irreverently.
"Then do so. Jargin tells me you are the best man for the job," Challan replied.
For the first time in a long time, Arcat felt surprised. Her reply left him wordless. He looked from Jargin to the queen and back again. Finally he realized she was serious. "There are only about seven men in this army of over a hundred that I would retain if you give me command. The problem will be how to deal with the deadwood. If you discharge them all, they could combine and mutiny."
"What would you suggest?" Challan asked, knowing his answer would be his first and most important test of fitness for command.
"Get rid of Supruk and elevate Captain Gelaso to the post of commander. He is the most punctilious of the guard officers. Within a week half of the men will desert. The men I want to keep would be among the first to leave so I request permission to let them in on the new order of things."
"Granted," Challan said. " Jargin will be leaving for Jama as soon as you feel you have things under control. He plans to build a watchtower and employ a small force of mercenaries to replace those who leave."
Arcat laughed. "They will leave. One of the men I have on my list is in charge of their food. With Gelaso chivying their every move and a diet that would choke a hop rat, most of them will desert by the end of the week."
Challan nodded. "I like your way of thinking. I hear that Supruk's origins are little better than the servants my father bought and sold. It grates my nerves to think how he insisted that I treat him with deference." She gestured that the audience was ended.
Challan watched Jargin follow Arcat out of the room and gave a small sniff of disgust. "Come back here for a moment Jargin. I pay you well enough, yet your clothing is threadbare. Do you gamble on your visits to Jama, or is there some other addiction that could lead you into folly?"
"I am not oath-bound like Mirin, but our interests run in parallel," he said. "Put a guard on me if you feel that you can't trust me."
"I'm certain you are clever enough to evade a guard," She said. "Do as you will, but keep your livery decent and stay out of my sight when you feel inclined to dress in rags."
When Supruk was summoned to meet the queen in the south corridor the next morning he dressed in his most ornate uniform. It was part of his persona to always appear dignified and well groomed. Challan stood with a couple of men Supruk recognized, the insubordinate Sergeant Arcat and her steward Jargin.
He grinned. "Has Jargin finally earned banishment your majesty? I hope it isn't Arcat that you mean to escort from the palace. I have found him useful."
Challan gestured for Supruk to join her while Jargin opened the door. He stepped forward and felt himself being propelled forward out of the palace into the searing heat of the desert. There was a narrow ledge beyond the door and Supruk turned to plead his case. The door slammed before he could speak.
He had seen many men and women shown through the south door. It had been understood that it was worse than a sentence of death. At least it was better than the alternative, to be used as one of Challan's experiments. With that thought, he decided not to linger near the door lest she changed her mind.
He studied the situation. He would be able to make his way down the steep sides of the precipice if he moved carefully. The sun would be his greatest enemy for the next eight hours. He stripped away the layers of finery that defined his office, keeping only those baubles and medals that were made of precious metals and jewels. They amounted to a modest fortune.
His symbols of office either cast aside or secured in the pouch at his belt, he wore only a light tunic and his boots. His cape, divested of gold braid and medals, came in handy as a head cloth.
Supruk had been lazy and self-important as commander of Saadena's army, but he had risen to his present post through cunning. The skills he had learned as a mud grubber in Zedekla and the foul ranks of Jagga's army were useful assets now.
He considered his choices. Challan, Arcat and Jargin were a formidable combination. He could never return to the city. His only hope for survival lay in braving the desert. The bones and remnants of cloth that marked the fate of those who had preceded him through the south door littered the slope beneath him. The pattern they made indicated that many had been too despairing to brave the desert. They had chosen the easy death of jumping from the ledge. He scrambled downwards to the foot of the steep slope and found shelter in a niche that gave him some relief from the sun.
A lizard crawled from beneath a stone nearby and provided Supruk with his first meal in his new existence. He lifted his cape over his head and waited for the day to pass. The moon would be full tonight. He would wait until then to move.
The rumor of Supruk's banishment circulated among the courtiers and officers. No one knew who had witnessed the deed but none doubted it was true. Captain Gelaso had longed for an opportunity to whip Saadena's army into shape. He had been employed by the Pontic of Jama as a protocol officer before an unfortunate run-in with the imperious wife of the Pontic had sent him to Saadena.
He dismissed complaints by the other officers that the quality of their rations had drastically declined. As a member of Challan's court, he dined with her and was not subjected to the special menus improvised by Arcat's confidant. The number of men sent to the whip for infractions of minor points of discipline increased dramatically. Arcat arranged for water and journey rations to be easily obtained with very little effort from a seemingly careless supervision of the mess.
More than half the army had deserted within a week. The morale among the surviving troops became abysmal with a few notable exceptions. Arcat indicated to Jargin that it was time for him to make his journey to Jama.
Jargin made a show of announcing his upcoming expedition to the queen where Dramnine would easily overhear their exchange. After suffering through ever more stringent rations of food and wine, the gossip was among first to approach him with request to lead her out of Saadena. He agreed to do so for a price. Before he had completed his preparations, his caravan had swollen until it included all but the oldest and most feeble of the once proud courtiers.
With the authority of Challan to insure Gelaso's compliance, Jargin conscripted a troop of soldiers to help him complete the task. For most of them, this was an opportunity to make their escape from General Gelaso. The new commandant found himself with a quarter of the force his predecessor had commanded only two weeks before. He told the queen that Jargin should bring more men from Jama and she was quick to grant his request.
When Jargin made a circuit of the refugees on the night before he planned to leave, he told them that they would have to carry everything they wanted to keep. There would be no porters to convey their wardrobes and collections of antiques across the desert. It was high summer, no time to cling to furs and brocades. Most of them chose to abandon fine clothing and bedding in favor of their portable wealth.
Challan watched with amusement and relief as the motley caravan mounted the trail that lead to the northern pass. A small chill could have been the slight breeze that had sprung up as a warning that summer was ending, or it could have been a wary warning from her suspicious mind that Jargin had been far too clever for her own good. She preferred to blame the weather.
Jargin had known that he took on a wearying task when he accepted the role of guide to the refugees from Challan's court but his nerves were nearly worn through when he finally brought the motley troop of outcasts to the Jama road. He was a stern taskmaster, inured to the most piteous pleas for moderating the pace of the march, but he felt real relief that he sent the pathetic refugees on their way.
Most of the soldiers had been lured away by the courtiers who offered generous wages to those willing to serve as porters. Of a force of twenty men who had left Saadena as a military support group, only three were left to continue into Jama with Jargin. They gave loyalty to Challan as their reason for resisting the blandishments of the courtiers and Jargin decided to retain them for his army. While he could not understand their curious devotion to Challan, he knew that such men often formed the core of a ruler's bodyguards. These would be the men to make up the queen's personal guard.
He gave them water and rations and directed them to return to Saadena and report directly to Sergeant Arcat. "Tell him you are part of Challan's select force. Don't tell General Gelaso about your new assignment."
Rid of all his human cargo, Jargin continued on to Jama and took a private room in an inn. He acted as if Challan were having him watched. He would have done so in her place. He sent a runner to the jail with the message for Bodun, the chief jailer, that he had come to Jama to review the current crop of inmates and invited Bodun to join him for the evening meal at a nearby tavern.
Jama had no police force, only a foul and miserable jail where miscreants could be kept in cells or even chains by those who were willing to pay the cost of the confinement. Most of the inmates had committed no greater crime than destroying a few chairs in a tavern brawl or failing to pay a gambling debt to one of the many gambling dens. It was common for the friends or family of the incarcerated to bribe the jailers to release prisoners on guarantee of good behavior or disappearance.
It was among mercenaries who were between jobs and who had no other hope of rescue that Jargin expected to find his troop of men. He doubted there was a threat of revolt from the benumbed Saadenan harvesters. Invasion was equally unlikely in a time of general peace. He needed a small troop of hired bullies who would be loyal to their paymaster and turn a cold eye to the suffering of the harvesters.
When he received a positive reply to his invitation from the jailer, Jargin spoke of the appointment to the inn keeper. If anyone had been assigned to keep track of his movements they would have this evidence of how he had spent his evening. He prepared to spend an hour with Bodun, but the rest of the evening would be his own.
Jargin arrived at the tavern for his meeting with Bodun little ahead of the time he had arranged and had a private word with one of the prettier waitresses. She accepted his offer and the gold that guaranteed her a profitable evening. Jargin did not intend to spend the entire evening listening to Bodun's stories. The jailer was inclined to linger over a meal, prolonging the time with gory tales.
When Bodun appeared for their appointment, Jargin welcomed him and ordered the spiced meat and broth served with Orenese hard bread that he knew the jailer favored. He did not betray any impatience as Bodun settled back and prepared to enjoy a lengthy gossip. As he had intended, the tavern girl soon appeared at the table and began to flirt with the jailer. She was far above the usual run of Jama's easy women. Her hair was clean and her face unmarked with either elaborate make-up or the pox. Bodun made no objections when Jargin stood and excused himself.
Once Jargin had returned to his room at the inn, over-priced for the sake of privacy, he dressed in sober dark clothing and made his way into the streets. Something in his manner kept the harlots and shills from clinging to him. Soon he entered a quiet neighborhood secluded from the vice dens of the city by a sturdy wall.
The modest home he approached was marked by an air of order and cleanliness. He paused and considered the dim light behind the high window. He reached into his belt pouch and pulled out a nut shell, something large enough to make an noise against the window, but not dense enough to break it.
It had been too long since he had visited this house and the treasure that it held; his wife and three small children. He visited only rarely lest the queen find out and use them as hostages.
The window didn't open but after a moment the front door opened and his wife greeted him with a shy smile and a warm embrace. He followed her into the cozy comfort of the house and for the first time in a long time he relaxed. He was introduced again to the three small children who sometimes forgot the face of their father in the long intervals between his visits. He reviewed the household accounts and was happy to see that the money he had left with her had been put to good use with the surplus invested in a small shop. It pleased him that his wife was a thrifty manager.
Impulsively, he entrusted her with the small fortune in bribes he had collected from the refugees. She would manage it better and more faithfully than any banker. When tempted to consider the plight of Saadena's people, he thought of the family who relied on his continued good standing with Challan and stifled his regret.
He yearned to be able to spend more than one night and stay to breakfast with his family, but for their sakes, he must slip away in the early hours of the morning, leaving his wife to sleep on alone so that he might seem to have spent the night in the room he had hired at the inn. Perhaps Challan had not set watch on him, but he suspected his increased importance in the palace that sprung from his recent recommendations would soon result in a more careful surveillance of his activities.
He ate little, knowing that he would have difficulty keeping even that small amount down when he entered the regions around the jail. The stench reached him well before he turned onto the street dominated by the gray facade of the shabby building.
Years before he had spent a week as a prisoner there, cast into jail by the owner of a gambling den when he had objected to the fiddled game. With no friend or family he had despaired, but the confinement was merely admonitory. The gambling den owner was willing to make an example of him, but unwilling to pay for more than a week in jail.
The jailers themselves were conscious that today's prisoner could be a magnate in due time with sufficient sponsorship or stealth. They avoided making enemies by treating all with uniform lack of respect and care. Be he prince or pauper, a prisoner in Jama was miserable by means of foul food, cruelly limited space in jug-like cells that restricted movement, and virtually no provisions for disposal of body wastes other than a tiny drain. Once a prisoner was released, another took his place with no attempt to clean the cell.
A leather loop on each wall provided a means of escape for those who had lost all hope of rescue and whose enemies were determined to pay enough to keep them imprisoned. Those who chose suicide were profitable to the jailers who were paid a set amount for a set period of time whether the prisoner were living or dead. Beyond the misery of the physical confinement they provided, the jailers were not unduly cruel. There were no beatings or other punishment.
Bodun welcomed Jargin who spent an hour reviewing possible candidates for employment before the stench of the jail drove him away. He selected seven men and paid the jailer for their being washed and clothed and kept in parole quarters. "I will return tomorrow for others."
He wished he dared return to his wife to spend the rest of the day and night, but it was a luxury that might endanger her. Instead, he walked toward the new tower that marked the Pontic's residence. The masons were busy removing scaffolding. They had finished working on the tower.
Jargin took a wide detour around the residence, avoiding the official entrance and the watchful eyes of the Pontic's retainers. He approached the tower from the south where the tents of the masons had been erected near the work site. It seemed ironic that men who spent their lives cutting and erecting stone should live in tents, but they were itinerants who preferred the continuity of their own living quarters rather than the temporary quarters of varied quality that their employers might provide.
A man whitened from head to toe with the dust of his craft waited to be sluiced clean beneath a makeshift shower. Other men were waiting but they deferred to the first man while a comely young woman poured several buckets full of water into a larger bucket and then tipped the entire quantity over his head.
Jargin approached him while he toweled his face dry. "I have admired your work for the Pontic," the steward began. "I have a commission for you when you are finished here, if you will take it. The work must be completed swiftly but you work so rapidly I'm certain you are the man for me."
The chief mason studied Jargin. "A commission would be welcome if we can complete it before the family travels to Zedekla for the winter. Tents are fine for summer work, but once the cold wind sweeps from the steppes, we prefer inside work in familiar surroundings."
Jargin nodded. "I have seen your family working on the palace of Zedekla. It must provide a steady source of winter employment repairing and extending the apartments.
The man nodded and indicated a stool near the door of the largest tent. "We will negotiate a fee."
Jargin nodded. "I represent Challan, queen of Saadena. She is taken with the idea of having a tower that would top the driftwood construction of any Watcher in Orenon."
The head mason did not move his lips, but amusement crinkled the corners of his eyes. "That should be easy enough to accomplish before the cold of winter drives us west. We need another month to finish up the Pontic's tower. Will we need to import stone?"
"A recent excavation for a new cistern has produced a pile of stone you should find suitable. If not, there is the quarry where the stone for the New Palace was obtained not far from the city." He had a sample of the stone ready in his belt pouch.
The mason squinted at it, tasted it, knocked it against the stool several times and nodded. "It should do."
Jargin's had only his selection of the mercenaries to complete before returning to Saadena. Resisting the ever present temptation to visit his family for the evening, he returned to his inn and went to bed early. The following morning he selected fifteen more men. In one more day his errand would be finished.
He spent the afternoon purchasing provisions for the return trip to Saadena. Challan had provided him with generous funds for the enterprise. He knew which merchants would give him a discount on the food and clothing he needed and provide a double set of receipts. Challan had seldom challenged his spending, but better to be prepared than detected in carelessness. The difference could be invested for his family. It had been a worthwhile trip.
He knew that some of the men he had chosen for the palace guard would not last long in the desert city. He had looked for men who were not so young that they lacked the cynicism necessary to any who worked for Challan, yet not so world-weary that they would resent and resist orders. Petty thieves and those incarcerated for indebtedness were not on his list. He looked for a certain attitude that was easier to identify than it was to describe. Janakan mercenaries were his first preference.
He dared a visit to his home on the last night he would spend in Saadena. The door was locked and bolted but his wife was quick to open the door when he gave the signal they had agreed upon. Relief and welcome lit her face. "I had not thought to see you again until the next visit," she explained. "I was frightened that you had been followed and whoever it is you fear had come after us."
"I never warned you to be wary, but I am pleased to see that you noticed my precautions have been noted. Never open to anyone but me. If I cannot return, you will have to fend for yourself and our children. Do not trust any who claim to come in my stead."
For the first time in their marriage, he spent the entire night with her until the sun rose and they could eat breakfast with their children. He gave her the deeds to two houses that would provide a rental income before leaving with reluctance.
As he entered the jail he heard a dispute between the head jailer and two men. At first he was irritated with the delay to his own plans but his interest was piqued by the contestants. One of them was the same gambling den owner who had given him his first taste of jail years before. The other was a young man who smiled as he argued.
"I will pay you to jail this man for a week," the young man said. "I will pay you twice what he has offered you to jail me."
"I am a well known citizen of this town. My claims must come first," the gambler shouted. "You have offended my honor by accusing me of running a dishonest game."
"Your honor is no blushing maiden to be so easily upset," the younger man chuckled. He tossed trade chits in his hands as if they were mere stones.
"I will jail both of you and take the rent. Let your friends buy your freedom," the jailer decided.
"I am my own best friend," the young man proclaimed. "I will buy my freedom now and buy this man a month of jail." It was a bold move and unheard of before. The gambler had chosen his victim poorly. He glanced around and saw that many had been drawn to the street outside the jail and not a few were men he had consigned to a week of foulness for daring to question his games.
Jargin decided at that moment that he would offer the daring rogue who had challenged the gambler a post of responsibility in Challan's guard. He had the wrong attitude, he was too cocky and might cause trouble, but for someone who had suffered the humiliation and misery of being confined to the jail by the gambler, he was a hero.
"I would speak to the young man," Jargin said, stepping forward to end the impasse. The gambler tried to sneak away but too many were calling for the jailer to accept the bribe for him to be let free. This was, after all, the way the jail worked to keep order. Those who abused the system, as the gambler had done, were bound to fall under the weight of their offenses. The crowd cheered when the jailer led the gambler away. He would probably spend only a few hours in the filthy cell before his partners redeemed him, but those few hours would be pure misery.
The young man paid the keep for the gambler with an extra bribe that might keep him in jail for several days before his partners could match the price. Jargin noticed that the trade chits he so generously distributed looked a little too new. He would not have accepted them himself, but the jailer who had accepted them would encounter no difficulty passing them along.
The impudent rogue turned to Jargin. "You said you wanted to speak to me."
"I am Jargin, steward to Queen Challan of Saadena. I am recruiting men for the palace guard. The pay is more than you could expect to make in the employ of other monarchs, and I will ask no questions about where you come from or what you might have been driven to do to keep food in your stomach and clothing on your back."
"I am Zadak, and I accept your offer of employment," the young rogue laughed again. Today had brought a run of good fortune. He had been fearful that the forgeries of Zedeklan trade chits would be detected before he left Jama, but he had jeered the cheating gambler before he had passed any of the chits. Now the forgeries were in the hands of the jailer and he would be unlikely to reveal their dubious nature before passing them off on some other dupe.
Zadak's goal had been to find a way to travel to Saadena where it seemed the Mareklan maiden had last been seen. He would find a way to make her his woman. It was the one prerogative he could obtain for himself of all that had been denied him because of Sergon.
"Where should I meet you?" the exiled prince asked the steward. "I won't stay in this stench any longer."
"I plan to bring my other recruits to the inn on the old Imperial Road before noon. Go there and order the owner to provide for thirty men. This should cover the cost," Jargin handed Zadak a suitable amount of money.
"You don't even know me, but you have given me enough to take the road as far as Janaka and stay in the best inns," Zadak said.
"If you are so inclined, then I am well out of a bad bargain," Jargin said with a shrug.
The burly steward had a look about him that warned it would be dangerous to cheat him. Zadak found his way to the inn after fetching his pack. He stopped to buy a luck amulet from a vendor of charms and made a gesture of sealing the spell. It seemed his luck had turned, it was overdue.
In the months since his failure to obtain the Mareklan girl he had wandered widely. After being driven from Taleeka by an angry mob of miners who objected to his way with weighted Droka pieces, he had made a fruitless trip to Janaka and a fracas that had introduced him to the more unpleasant aspects of the Janakan justice system. The story of quick profit to be made on bacal pelts had lured him into the grasslands of Kumnor. The welts on his back from an encounter with a Kumnoran bolika master were now healed, but the shame still smarted.
When he first reached Jama, Zadak had been waylaid by Doplik and his remaining brothers and beaten severely. He had recovered from the beating in a low inn where his scanty mat was shared with a wide assortment of stinging creatures. As soon as he recovered from his wounds, he set about seeking news of the Mareklans. There was a dubious tale about a Mareklan taken hostage by an Orenese crone after having stunned himself with wine and docil, but he heard of none who had seen a Mareklan maiden until he eavesdropped on two travel worn fops who had recently quit Saadena. His interview with Jargin had been good fortune indeed.
There was The sycophants who had depended on Challan for maintenance had no loyalty among them. They soon went their separate ways once they found their way to Jama with the help of Jargin and the absconding soldiers of Challan's army. Dramnine joined a caravan carrying corum leather to Tedaka. After paying for the escort with a small packet of selan that she had purloined, she made her way to the house of Doka and Placine and sought refuge, basing the privilege on a shared second cousin.
One of Placine's servants told her a woman waited in the foyer who had come from Saadena and claimed family ties. Placine rose quickly from her desk and went to meet the visitor.
She felt keen regret when she saw that it was Dramnine. It had been several years since the woman had found it necessary to visit Tedaka. Usually she found maintenance among the dubious hangers on of pretentious courts. When last heard of, she had been a companion of the wife of Jama's Pontic.
Placine had heard more than she really wanted to know about Baroness Dramnine. She was used as a bad example by the mothers and governesses of Tedaka. The woman must have fallen on hard times to be willing to return to the city where her very name was a byword. Placine felt a cool pity for the baroness, but the information that Dramnine had arrived from Saadena caught her interest.
Dramnine fell on Placine with dramatic protestations of kinship. "My sweet young cousin, I have suffered such indignity and despite in the court of Saadena that I refused to stay any longer. 'Go home' a voice from my heart said, and I came," she swept an exaggerated curtsy to Placine that was the height of bad taste in democratic Tedaka.
"I'm sorry to hear that you were offended by the Saadenans. I've heard that Queen Challan is not an easy woman to please," Placine said. "Some time ago we hosted a group of Mareklans who intended to visit Saadena. I wonder if Challan sent them on their way with no result for their effort and making the journey."
"The queen has changed since Prince Carnat married the Mareklan woman," Dramnine said, unwittingly answering Placine's unvoiced concern. "She was difficult before, now she is impossible. The guests of her court were refused even the most minimal courtesies. The prince and his wife are no better. I once thought Carnat was a cipher, but he stole the march on his mother when he married the Mareklan. Princess Ayarlan is furious. As I told you, a voice in my heart said I must leave."
Placine suspected that the voice had come from the woman's stomach. She restrained a cynical response and offered Dramnine a plate of savory meat rolls.
"Tell me more about Carnat's wife," Placine said as the painted crone took a handful of the sweetmeats.
"I liked her at first. She was silly and a little vague, but she gave no offense and is much prettier than Ayarlan," Dramnine said.
Her words shocked Placine. Silly and vague were not words that fit the Mareklan girl she knew. But surely Neril was the only possible candidate for Carnat's mysterious bride.
"Suddenly our amenable little princess became a different woman. She refused me when I suggested that she and the prince should repair the courtesies the queen had neglected," Dramnine sniffed before taking another savory.
Placine knew it might take several days to get the full story from the Baroness. She resigned herself to a long visit with Dramnine.
"Perhaps I could prevail on you to be my guest until Tadenight," she suggested.
Dramnine tried to remember which items had excited Placine's interest.
"Have Ayarlan and the queen always been such good friends?" Placine asked.
"You would think the girl is her own child. Carnat was ignored when Challan decided to bring her niece from Orenon to live with her. Carnat is a true heir of the Saadenan Imperial line. Even before he became a man you could see that he would be handsome. If I had a child like him, I wouldn't have wasted my time on a skinny cat like Ayarlan."
"What of King Eliat?" Placine asked. "What part does he play in the Saadenan court?"
"He is a pathetic pawn of his wife," Dramnine said with a knowing nod. "I've heard that their marriage was arranged by his parents in a vain attempt to consolidate what little remained of Saadenan influence. Challan is avid to grow selan, even to the extent of diverting most of the small supply of water to that purpose."
Desta and Deka had entered the room and Placine excused herself and went to her sons. "Lady Dramnine, these are my children, Deka and Desta. They thought you might be a friend of theirs.
"Elora is waiting for you in the garden," she told her sons. After they left the room she returned to her seat opposite the Baroness.
"If conditions are so awful, why don't the people rebel or leave?" Placine asked.
"The residue of selan keeps the workers quiet and even if they had the will to leave, the desert imprisons them. There is no water available to make the journey across the waste. It was only my foresight that led me to listen to Challan's secret conversations and learn what I needed. I warned the others so they could leave when the conditions at court became unbearable."
Placine had heard rumors of the awful life of the Saadenan people. She was ashamed of her complacency as she listened to Dramnine's account of her escape from the valley.
"Several of my companions were unable to make the trip and I do not know what became of them. Perhaps they were reduced to becoming selan harvesters. Mintek is second cousin to the steward of King Farek in Zedekla. Perhaps I should go to Zedekla and inform the man of his duty to rescue his cousin," Dramnine mused.
While she listened, Placine saw Dramnine pause and raise her eyebrows. When she resumed her narrative it became evident that the Baroness had suddenly found a new avenue of gaining entry to the homes of the wealthy and influential. "My eyes are blinded with tears when I think of the many dear friends who have been reduced to menial circumstance," the old woman sobbed, wiping away the copious tears and a good deal of black eye paint with the corner of her handkerchief.
"Yes, I can see you've discovered a calling," Placine said impatiently. "Perhaps the Mareklans will be happy to rescue their countrywoman. Her lot can't be comfortable."
Dramnine shook her head vigorously and pins scattered across the neat carpet as her graying hair fell out of its careful coils into a style more fitting to her new persona. "I don't think Princess Neril would welcome rescue. I expected her to leave Carnat when she regained her senses, but the two of them are besotted with each other. If they had the decency to restore the position of the courtiers I would welcome their infatuation and rejoice with them. But they spend their time with the old priest Fedder or some servants who ingratiated themselves with the prince before any of us knew the queen would abandon us."
In one quick statement Dramnine had answered all of Placine's questions. If Dramnine's words could be trusted, Neril was loved and in love with the man she had married. It was a puzzle to Placine. She didn't think Neril's father Neragon had given his consent for the marriage. The report of Neril's apparently drugged state when Dramnine first met her boded ill for the methods used to insure her complacency.
Over the succeeding days Dramnine completed her transformation from a giddy, over-age courtier to an benign angel of mercy to her former companions among the diminished court of Saadena. Placine gathered other tidbits of information about Neril's condition. Several days before Tadenight arrived and the entire city of Tedaka went temporarily mad in celebration of the Founding, she was happy to sponsor the transformed woman with a group of pilgrims leaving for Zedekla. She suspected she wouldn't be the first to donate something to Dramnine, more to get rid of her than through sympathy for her cause.
Scrubbed free of makeup and dressed in becoming robes of soft gray, the faded beauty had embraced her new vocation with vociferous zeal. Placine watched the group of pilgrims turn a corner and felt hearty relief.
"Is she gone for sure?" a hopeful query came from Desta who had conspired with his brother to avoid Dramnine throughout her visit.
"I hope so," Placine admitted, "But while she was here, my mind was set at ease about Neril."
"When will Neril visit again?" Deka asked wistfully.
"I don't know if she will," Placine answered. She had kept Doka informed of the information she was gleaning from her unwelcome guest. He made a habit of finding urgent business that kept him away from home when he might encounter Dramnine. She had begun to petition his financial support for her new cause, the restitution of the hangers-on of Saadena.
That evening as Doka relaxed with Placine and talked of the day's events, she expressed her concern. "From everything I can glean, Neril is in love with Carnat, but the conditions in Saadena are appalling. The people are virtual slaves to Queen Challan. She keeps them from leaving by rationing water. I can't believe that Neril is happy with the situation."
"I share your concern for the people of Saadena, but there is little I can do. I'm limited by the Accords of the Alliance of Cities. Perhaps the fate of the Saadena rests in the hands of Neril. Someday she will replace Challan as queen," Doka assured her.
"But it could take years before Neril is queen, and meantime there are people suffering!" Placine cried.
"I'll send a message to the Marekla enclave in Timora and let them know what has become of Neril. Meantime, we will see what can be done about sending a trade mission into Saadena to provide food for her people. When summer comes we will visit Neril."
Placine felt reassured. "Thank you Doka. It seems to me that there would be fewer threats to general peace if the alliance ensured that its members ruled wisely."
"Yes, that is a dream of mine as well," he said, "but rulers are nervous of their prerogatives and resent interference. In Tedaka we have no kings, but we resist the idea that outsiders should have anything to do with our laws. If we were to have one law and rule for all Okishdu, who is to say which would prevail?"
Placine put down her hand work and stared at her husband. "But there is one law and rule that should prevail. Otherwise, why do we study the Law and the Compacts and make certain they are inscribed in every shrine."
Doka hummed and huffed and tried to find a comfortable answer to her challenge. It was a puzzle how a woman who could make him so comfortable could also make him feel so inadequate when she punctured his complacency. "These are issues that are best left in the hands of those who are wise enough to make decisions," he said. Placine gave a snort but then she saw how truly dismayed he was and put out her hand to reassure him.
Chapter 4 The Watchman
Jargin assembled the mercenaries after their first day on the trail from Jama and told them the bare facts of the situation in the former imperial capital. "We take our orders from Queen Challan. Her husband is a cipher and her son is a fool. He was set to marry Challan's niece, but instead, he secretly married a Mareklan girl who took his fancy a few months ago. Now Challan is angry with both of them. You will guard the queen's privacy and make certain that no thieves or other mercenaries enter the valley. All of you have experience in arms." With that statement he shot a look at Zadak who was the only man he had employed who had not given him some history of mercenary employment. Zadak gave an almost imperceptible nod to reassure him.
Jargin walked a few paces along the line of men and studied them before continuing his speech. "There is no threat of revolt from the harvesters. They are not to be meddled with. Save your lust for your leaves in Jama. If any man sees another fraternizing with the women or abusing the children, report him and you will be well rewarded. When you first arrive in Saadena, you will be overtly under the authority of General Gelaso, but you may safely ignore his more ridiculous orders. You will eat in a separate mess from the other troops. If you have any questions, consult Sergeant Arcat."
Zadak nearly turned back to Jama when he learned that the Mareklan girl had married Prince Carnat, but the thought of the jailer, Bodun, who must by now have discovered that the fine had been paid with counterfeit vouchers, made him reconsider his first impulsive reaction to Jargin's news. Neril's marital status made no real difference to his plan. Few women could resist his charm. It was unlikely that the Mareklan would prove any different. If she could not be his wife, she could still be his woman, and he would have her, whatever the risk.
For some reason the steward had taken a liking to him. Remaining in favor with Jargin could provide the means of gaining access to the royal family. With that goal in mind, he kept himself separate from the other mercenaries and sought out the steward, giving him respect above what the other men were willing to show.
When they arrive in Saadena, he betrayed none of his contempt for the ruined city and the ruling family that still had pretensions to imperial glory. After being raised in the refined and wealthy court of Zedekla as the imminent heir, all other cities were pitiable. Even the glittering towers of Janaka's palace seemed merely gaudy.
Gelaso met Jargin with a small troop of the remaining army and took command of the replacements for those who had fled with the courtiers. Blind to everything but their weathered clothing and lack of spit and polish, he harangued them with a list of rules and demands. Knowing that he was only a temporary burden, they did not grumble but accompanied him to the quarters where they were rewarded for their patience with approval from Arcat who soon put them in the true picture of the way things were managed in Saadena.
The Arquaan stone masons arrived in Saadena to begin work on the watchtower a few weeks after the mercenaries came to the palace. They found ample material for their construction in the pile of stone cast up by the excavation of Challan's newest cistern. The chief mason was led to an audience with Challan and submitted a design for the tower that would blend with the lines of the existing structure, but Challan had her own ideas. The drift wood towers of Orenese Watchers had been her childhood symbol of power and prestige. She had prepared a sketch of a Watcher tower and told the chief mason that it was her desire to have her new watchtower come as close as he could to the same shape using stone. When the head mason seemed to hesitate over the ungainly design, Jargin jabbed him in the back with his finger and the man bowed and mumbled his agreement.
As soon as they left the queen Jargin turned to the mason. "I promise you a bonus over and above what we agreed if you swallow your objections and build the tower as the queen demands."
The mason shrugged. "Marnat's designs are only rivaled by Challan's. Promise me that you will not tell others that we built this strange excrescence."
The tower would be built just inside the northern wall of the palace where the army parade ground had been located before Arcat trimmed the ranks. The location gave the most comprehensive view over the city and the northern approach. The southern slopes at the other side of the palace were blocked from the view of the tower, but no incursions were expected over the steep, virtually impassable terrain in that direction.
The masons brought their families with them. From the children who carried rubble in small baskets to the young men and women who cut and carried stone to be carved and set by the older men and women, almost every member of the clan had a job to do. They sang as they worked, their voices keeping rhythm with the mallets that shaped the stone. In the evening their camp resounded with the sound of laughter and merriment. The harvester children drew near in the darkness and yearned for the sight and sound of the mason families.
The Saadenan children were not the only ones attracted by the vivacious mason women. The men of the guard, banned from consorting with harvester women and facing a harsh journey to reach the loose women of Jama, tried to find comfort with the merry-eyed women of the mason clan. Their gifts were disregarded and their attempts to set up trysts ignored.
One of the mercenaries lay in wait to catch the pretty dark-eyed daughter of the chief mason alone. He forced her into an empty room of the palace and tried to take what she did not offer.
She did not scream when he began to grab, but her knife was ready to speak for her. The next morning his big toe was found in the center of his abandoned bunk. The head mason lodged a protest against the attack on the girl with the steward, but no apology was made for the missing guard.
"The masons are fierce in protecting their females," Jargin quietly observed to Arcat while Captain Gelaso was busy checking the shine on the boots of the remaining guards.
Arcat gave a cough that hid his initial chuckle. "The masons have no need to protect their females. They learn at an early age to protect themselves. Elira and her sisters must live in whatever city or town has found the funds to employ her family. Her bridal price is high."
The grizzled soldier rubbed his chin and gave a crooked grin. "She demonstrated her vigilance to protect her future husband's rights. It is a grisly habit to be sure, but none but her husband will know her."
"Make sure the other men are informed of the dangers of forcing their attentions on her sisters and cousins," Jargin replied.
Arcat nodded. He made sure the story circulated. It was a warning Zadak did not need. He was not promiscuous. Although he had never married, most of his flirts lasted until he moved on to other scenes. From the moment he saw Neril his ardor centered on her. He caught a few glimpses of her, but only from a distance. His frustration grew as the weeks passed.
When the tower was finished, only one man would have the responsibility of serving as the watchman. Janak was the only member of Jargin's motley assortment of mercenaries who had no ties or friendships with any of the others. It meant there was no one to watch his back, but it also meant he had nothing to lose by reporting the missteps and insubordination of the other men.
The other mercenaries hated him, but Jargin began to trust him above any of the others. He played no favorites and had no loyalties except to his duty.
Zadak was doing his turn at guard duty along the eastern wall of the palace when he saw the flash of colors worn only by the foppish commander, Gelaso. Any other of the guards might have been reluctant to interfere with an officer, but Zadak still retained the unconscious arrogance that came with being raised as royalty. He sidled closer and discovered that Gelaso had pulled a harvester woman into a niche between two of the ruined buildings. The woman was incapable of raising an alarm but her eyes were wide with incomprehension and fear.
Zadak knew he must act quickly to do the most damage to the officer's reputation. He hurried back to the guard house and found Arcat and Jargin conferring together. "Come quickly. Commander Gelaso has taken a harvester woman."
No other words were necessary. The men arrived back at the scene just in time but the evidence of intent was undeniable. Arcat and Jargin collared the officer and marched him back toward the palace between them. Zadak stayed behind to help the woman to her feet and arranged her pitiful rags to cover her. He couldn't understand how Gelaso could bring himself to want such a sorry female. She was hardly human.
Zadak had not tried to be popular, but his action against Gelaso won the respect of the other guards. It proved to be the key to ridding the army of the rigidly correct officer who had been known for his petty tyranny, making the lives of the guards miserable over minor infractions of dress and protocol. There was universal approval when Gelaso was brought before the queen and sentenced to exile through the south door.
General Supruk had taken his exile with stalwart determination to survive the desert. Faced with the same bleak landscape, Gelaso took the coward's escape. After pounding at the door and sobbing his regret to no avail, he cringed against the ground and waited for death. When Challan opened the door and welcomed him in as her guest, he asked no questions, but followed her to the workroom where he became a new subject for her experiments.
Arcat became the official head of the military wing of Jargin's new force. The event coincided with the completion of the tower. The discontent of the masons with being forced to build the ungainly object was smoothed over with a generous payment and they left for Zedekla before the cold closed in.
When Jargin chose Zadak as the watchman, there were no complaints. It was a lonely post and shunned by the other men who preferred performing drills or gambling with each other in the barracks. It was understood by one and all that he would report any infractions that he could see without favoritism.
He reported the few men who had approached him with bribes to overlook their infractions. It was natural that the men would associate with fellow clan members or others from the same city, but none knew where the solitary stranger came from. There were rumors that he might be a disgraced Mareklan, but his lack of skill with a staff argued against that supposition.
Soon the other mercenaries ignored his presence on the tower. They had discovered the few places in the city which could not be seen from the tower and they kept their misbehavior to those areas. Somehow the harvester women learned to keep their distance from the hidden places where a guard might lurk and the men were forced to keep their appetites in check. There was little to do in Saadena and boredom began to erode the ranks of mercenaries Jargin had hired.
Zadak saw Neril from a distance when she walked the ramparts with her husband in the evening. The sight tantalized him and he began to spend his hours on the tower planning her abduction in detail. He would prepare a room where he could keep her until the chase grew cold after she disappeared.
With that in mind, he left his post at nightfall and began to explore the palace. It was easy to find his way about in the deserted halls.
Zadak's first object was to locate the rooms where Neril lived with Carnat. He found that she was kept in a locked room at all times when Carnat was not with her. He studied the door and reluctantly concluded that it was proof against his entry without a key or a troop of men with a battering ram. When he returned to the barracks he avoided asking questions about her. It would be unwise to leave any clues of unusual interest when he carried out his plan of abduction. No one would suspect him because he would not alter his routine.
It took several weeks of clandestine exploration before Zadak found a cellar room located in the oldest section of the palace that fit his purpose. There was evidence that it had been used as a root cellar but it was roomy and had no windows through which his captive could call for help. His explorations gave evidence that it would be a simple matter to find furnishings for the room.
He couldn't predict how long he must keep her in seclusion. There he had no doubt that she would eventually succumb to his charms and play a willing part in leaving Saadena behind. Food that could be stored without spoiling and water and wine were also needed. His eagerness to abduct Neril became sublimated into his efforts to gather all that was needed to make the abduction a success.
In Saadena the season turned and chilling cold replaced the searing heat of summer. Oiled parchment sealed the window openings of the apartment Neril shared with Carnat. A tripod fire dish vented through a niche provided warmth. Each morning Carnat would leave Neril to her tasks of mending and preparing meals and listened while she locked the sturdy door behind him. He continued working in the library because he found challenge and purpose in the work rather than because he wanted to cater to his mother's demand.
Carnat had pleaded with Neril to stay safe behind the locked doors of their rooms when he wasn't with her, but there was little to do while he was gone once her simple tasks were finished. She had long since altered the dresses intended for Ayarlan, finding beauty beneath garish trimmings, and she had used the picked out thread to sew a tapestry, but time hung heavy in the long hours when she was alone.
As her health and vigor returned with pure food and untainted water, she grew restless with the confinement. Although the translucent window covering in their rooms kept Neril from seeing the city during the day, she caught glimpses of the selan harvesters when she walked along the ramparts with Carnat in the evening. The workers went about their labors on the coldest days clad in rags and shivering.
Neril shivered in sympathy even though Carnat had brought robes of fur and wool that covered her from nape to ankle. She rubbed her hands over the warm fabric and turned to her husband. "Where did you find these robes for me?" she asked.
"There are storage areas heaped with clothes," he said. "Our climate has few virtues, but it preserves fabrics and leather."
"Then why are your people so poorly dressed?" she asked.
Carnat looked out at the shambling workers and frowned. It had always been thus as long as he could remember. He had never thought to question the ways of the harvesters and how they found clothing and food. He knew his mother bitterly resented every drop of water they required and kept the amount strictly rationed. He remembered the justification she had given when she diverted the fountain of ritual washing in the Shrine to her storage cisterns. "They don't feel the cold because of the selan fumes they breathe," he replied.
Neril shook her head. She couldn't accept his excuse, but she began working on a plan for alleviating the misery of the workers that would require her to venture beyond the locked door of their apartment. She knew Carnat would object because of his fear that his mother would find a way to hurt her. Neril refused to let fear of Challan and her minions make her captive when there might be something she could do for the pathetic citizen slaves.
When Carnat left their room the next morning, Neril finished a few housekeeping tasks then picked up the sturdy broom Carnat had provided for her use. He had offered to ask one of Mirin's daughters to sweep and sew for her but she had rejected the thought that the medicine woman or one of her daughters should take time from their many duties to act as her servant.
The broom handle wasn't as long as her staff, or as well-balanced, but after a few minutes of practice she felt that she could deal with anyone who tried to waylay her. Her leg was still painful and awkward, but a skilled staff fighter knew how to fight almost as well on one leg as two.
She took a confident grip on the broomstick and put a packet of matlas and a bottle of water in her pocket before she unlocked the door. She didn't know how long it would take her to locate the storage areas in the vast palace, but she was willing to search through the noon meal and went prepared to meet and repel any opposition.
She began her exploration with the rooms at the foot of the stairs that led up to the her own apartment. In a few minutes she discovered that the rooms below were heaped with clothes and bedding discarded by Challan's courtiers when the queen withdrew her support. Most of the clothing only needed airing.
She carried several armfuls of the clothing out to the side of the garbage heap which had been sited in a blind corner between two towers where it would not offend the noses and eyes of royalty. One evening while she walked the ramparts with Carnat she had seen children scavenging through the garbage with pitifully scant results while their parents worked. The servants of the palace made sure that any food fit to eat was kept for themselves.
She knew the children were watching her from hiding places among the tumbled stones near the pit and she spread the clothing out on stones so that it could be seen that it was whole and fairly clean. After she had covered most of the ground near the pit with salvaged clothing, she returned to the palace and watched from a tower window, standing near the edge so she couldn't be seen.
The children crept forward and looked at the clothing with yearning eyes but they seemed to suspect that the offering was a trap. They hesitated for so long that she began to fear her effort had been futile when one brave boy darted forward and snatched up an armful of clothing and hurried back into hiding. When there was no rebuke or sound of pursuit, the other children took courage and ran forward to grab up the garments. The area was soon clear of clothing as they hurried away with their booty.
She contrasted the quick movements and sly ways of these little ones with the dulled will of their parents. None of the little scavengers was above the age that Carnat had been when his mother had tried to drug him.
She knew that the healers among her people did not use selan on children. She had believed the drug too costly to displace the well know and easily obtained remedies that could be made from native plants. Now she suspected that selan was not an effective anodyne for anyone under the age of adolescence. This meant that there was no relief for them from the pangs of cold and hunger.
Perhaps the children of Saadena were free of the numbing influence of the miasma of selan now, but they would sink into witless slavery as they grew older. Neril felt a tear run down her cheek then lifted her chin with determination. It would be easy to turn her back in the face of so much misery, but she decided to do what she could to make their lives better while they could still feel cold and pain and hunger.
Perhaps there was even a way she could prevent them from losing their will and freedom as they grew older. Her memory of the message given by the Seeress and her dreams convinced her that she had been brought to Saadena and kept in the city for a purpose. Somehow, she would find ways to ease the burdens of her adopted people.
In the watchtower Zadak had watched Neril's movements with annoyance and concern. Spreading clothing over the ground near the offal pit seemed the act of a madwoman. He had heard the gossip of her witless ways in the months following her capture. Perhaps she was still a lack-wit.
Had he wasted so much time and care on plans to abduct a mad woman? When the children carried away the clothing he began to suspect that her actions had been performed with that exact result in mind. Under the orders he had been given by Jargin, he should report Neril's attempt to help the children. He decided to watch and wait.
Over the following days, Carnat was reassured by Neril's attitude. She seemed to glow with vitality. When he kissed her goodbye each morning she seemed even more affectionate and he was often tempted to linger but she laughed and sent him on his way. He didn't know that she could hardly wait for him to leave so she could be about her labor of finding usable clothing and bedding.
She exhausted the contents of the rooms nearby, but there were still many harvesters who were barely clad. She took a firm grip on her broomstick and extended her explorations. The long corridors of the palace seemed to echo with every sound, but she had learned to move noiselessly in her soft Mareklan boots, now restored to her along with the precious knife and medicine packet. Sometimes she wondered what had become of her staff and the jeweled ball Sergon had entrusted to her, but her errand of mercy kept her from losing herself in memory and vain regret.
It was easy to evade the few servants who still made a superficial effort to maintain the east wing of the vast palace. The guards hired by the steward never intruded into the living areas beyond the barracks. Challan retired to the workshops with Ayarlan for most of the day and her staff of retainers stayed to the warmer areas of the palace near the queen's apartments. Most of the rooms Neril explored held nothing more than dust, but attics and storerooms were more rewarding.
Centuries of hoarding had produced an immense supply of cast-offs. Neril aired them out and mended tears before taking them to the edge of the offal heap. After a few days, the children no longer hid from her, but were waiting when she appeared. They never spoke, but she saw a shining trust in their eyes that humbled her. Before long, her evening walks with Carnat revealed that her efforts had clothed the harvesters. Someone, probably the older children, had removed the rich trim and dulled the colors of the robes their parents wore. It betrayed a worthy intelligence that knew that bright colors and elegant trimming, however antique, could not fail to bring unwanted notice. Dust and ragged edges concealed the weather worthiness of the garments the workers now wore against the cold.
Their bodies were protected from the cold and the harvester's faces seemed to reflect that they had enough to eat, but their children were still gaunt with hunger. Neril wished she could help but there was no food to spare in the small supplies she and Carnat shared with Fedder. It was a challenge that gnawed at her conscience every time she ate a meal.
When Neril had first stepped into the clearing near the rubbish heap and began to strew clothing on the ground, Zadak's determination to make her his captive had retreated before the evidence of her irrational behavior. Then he saw the children dart forward to pick up the clothing. In the days that followed, he ignored his duty of surveying the northern horizon and studied the scene at the rubbish pit, waiting for Neril's appearance. Several days passed and every day she appeared with an armful of clothing and blankets. She never spoke to the children, but as if by prior signal, they appeared soon after she came from the palace. With stealthy scurrying movements, they gathered all the things she left for them and carried them away.
Zadak was amused and touched by the strange relationship between the wild children and the Mareklan woman. He had often felt the sting of winter since leaving his own protected position in Zedekla and he could appreciate the welcome with which the children met her gifts. It was not something he would have done, but it made her even more attractive as a potential mate. Such a woman would earn the loyalty and love of those he conquered as he built his new kingdom in the wilderness.
He knew the children kept watch on Neril and although she was quite consistent in the time she appeared, it often coincided with Jargin's regular hails when he called up to Zadak, expecting a report. Zadak decided not to waylay her before she had distributed the goods she took to the children. Now that she no longer spent her days locked behind a sturdy door, he was certain he would soon have an opportunity to find her alone and proceed with his plan for an abduction.
He felt omniscient watching her from his tower. He had furnished the cellar room and stocked it with food, drink and bedding. Drapes of zilka cloth and fine twined woolen blankets decorated the walls and covered the purloined furniture. They made the room almost pleasant. A few small luxuries should make her more receptive to him when he captured her.
One day Jargin called Zadak to him. "I leave for Jama at dawn tomorrow. The men grow weary and stale if they are kept too long in this place where they have none of their usual pleasures. A few days among the gamblers and women of Jama freshens them for duty. I will provide a substitute for your post and you may join us. Arcat will be here to keep the remaining men in order."
"The drabs and cheats of Jama have lost their appeal for me," Zadak replied. "I will save my wages for a real city when I take my leave." In truth, he knew that his concealment of Neril's activities would come to light if another took his post. With Jargin away in Jama, Arcat would still be on hand to maintain discipline, but the officer of the guards was not as careful to keep watch on the watchman. The time had come to abduct Neril.
He freshened the bedding on the wide, carved bed he had found in one of the storage rooms. It was made of nop wood and gave a faint fragrance to the cellar room that almost overcame the dank smell of the damp walls. He had stocked a carved Tedakan clothes chest with fine clothing that he thought would fittingly frame her beauty. It had amused him that Neril had retraced his own steps when she gathered bedding and clothing for the harvesters. He had been there before her, choosing the best to furnish the covert apartment.
She had appeared with her offerings at a regular time each day so it was easy to plan his ambush. He watched Jargin and the few men he was taking to Jama wind their way across the desert, then he watched Neril with eyes that savored her every move. Anticipation for the next morning filled his chest with a strange energy. He paced and planned. Only one thing might interfere with his plans for the abduction. Arcat must somehow be diverted to make certain he did not notice the absence of the watchman. Zadak worried at the problem and still had no firm plan as the sun began to set and the end of his watch approached.
Automatically, he continued to go through the motions of his watch. His eyes scanned the horizon to the north and west. Then, as the last flare of sunlight lit the sky, he gave a crow, half warning, half jubilation. There was no need to divert Arcat while he carried out his abduction. Fate seemed to favor his plan.
A band of armed men appeared in the northern desert heading toward the city. He watched them for a few minutes, straining his eyes to take a tally of their number and make sure it was not Jargin and the men he had taken to Jama, somehow returning early, then he warbled a warning cry.
The sun set and he hurried down the long flight of stairs that led up through the inside of the tower. Arcat waited for him, curious to hear why he had given such a shout.
"I saw men approaching from the north. They dodged and tried to hide, but I counted them and it is a small band, one your troop should easily defeat. They must have seen Jargin in Jama and thought he left the city without defense."
"I will march out at first light once you have given me the bearing of their attack," Arcat said.
"I would like to come with you," Zadak said, knowing that his offer would be rejected.
"No, I need you here. While I am gone, you will be in charge of the servants in the palace who ordinarily would answer to Jargin. I know you are disappointed to be deprived of the chance to fight, but each must serve where he can do the most good."
Zadak silently rejoiced at Arcat's words. Not only would he be free of worry that any of the guards would oversee his abduction of Neril, but he could send orders to the servants that would keep them from seeing or interfering with his actions.
"You should send a message back to Jama with some of our men, along with the heads of the bandits you kill," Zadak suggested. "It is time for the petty thieves of Okishdu to learn that Saadena is not a profitable target for plunder."
The next morning Zadak rose and used his privilege as one of the queen's favored few to order a bath brought to his quarters. He cleansed himself of the dust and sweat of months of desert dwelling and put on fresh clothing that smelled only of the nop chest where he stored them. He combed his hair and plucked his beard. He would offer Neril a princely appearance that should sooth her fears when he surprised her.
He had taken an hour over his preparations, but he was still on the top of the tower as the first light of the sun lit the desert and illuminated the slinking figures of the band of thieves. He leaned over the edge of the tower and called out to Arcat who was waiting with his men in the courtyard of the palace. "I see them. They must have spent the night in the old river course and now they are climbing the banks and taking cover in the large growth of oil weed not far from the last marker."
"We will go," Arcat shouted. His men took up their weapons and began to chant a song to warm their bodies and give courage for the battle. Arcat watched them for a few minutes, then held his hands high above his head. The men fell silent. When Arcat started up the trail in an easy lope that would bring them to the battle before noon, they followed behind him in neat array. Zadak stood and watched them with admiration for the tidy troop Arcat had built from a motley assortment of mercenaries. Between their travel to the scene of their confrontation with the bandits, the battle, and their return to the city, they would not be back before the sun set.
Zadak raised his head and inhaled until his chest filled near bursting. Exultation filled him. Today he would be the one who truly ruled in Saadena. Queen Challan and Ayarlan were immersed in their smelly business somewhere below him, heedless of what happened to anyone as long as they succeeded in cooking up another batch of selan. He had heard that Gelaso had chosen to become a guest of their workshop and its associated prison. Zadak would die before submitting himself to such a fate.
It was hard to pass the hours he must wait before he could take Neril, but there were things he must do in the meantime. As soon as Arcat and his men were well away, he hurried down the steps and found a servant. "I have been left in charge of the palace while Arcat and Jargin are away," he said. "From where I stand on the watchtower, I have noticed many neglected tasks. Summon all who are not in immediate service to the Queen and assemble them in the servant's common for my instructions."
The man scurried away. Within the hour, Zadak stood before all but two of the servants of the palace. They were not an impressive assembly. Fear of Challan and lack of a way to escape her service without joining the harvesters or becoming inmates of the workshop prison were the bounds of their life. They seemed to quake before him, none daring to meet his eye.
"I mean no criticism of Jargin or Arcat when I say there is much neglect in the palace. They do not have the same vantage point that I enjoy. The courtyard behind the great gates of the palace, the most impressive space that has ever been created in any palace in Okisdu, is a disgrace. There is filth and debris piled in every hidden corner. If you doubt, I will show you. When Arcat returns this evening, I expect to present him with your accomplishments: a clean and worthy approach to the palace. Do not fail me."
"But I must cook the meals and make an inventory of the larder," the cook protested.
"I did not mean that those who have important duties that guarantee the comfort of Queen Challan should neglect their posts," Zadak said with a significant nod of his head that gratified the cook. "Other than the cook, her two main assistants, and the kennel boy, I expect the rest of you to bring brooms and buckets and cleaning sand to the courtyard before another hour has passed."
He turned his back and left the commons room but he heard the scurrying feet of the servants hastening to carry out his orders. By the time he had returned to the top of the watchtower, the first of them had appeared in the courtyard below. It was satisfying to reflect that the task he had set them truly needed to be done. His eyes, trained to appreciate the refined elegance of Zedekla's royal residence, had avoided the painful sight of the neglect of Saadena's former grandeur.
He made a head count of the servants he could see. Other than those he had excused, all the servants were busy below. Some of them glanced upwards at first and quickly ducked their heads to their work when they saw his glaring frown. After those first tentative looks, none dared check on him again. He smiled and relaxed against the low parapet.
He imagined that by now Neril would have waked and dressed. He hoped she had chosen to wear the blue dress. It was his favorite of those he had seen her wear. Before the hour had passed, Carnat would leave their apartment to go to the library and she would set out to gather her booty for the harvester children. For a moment he was tempted to leave his post and take her as soon as she left her room, then caution prevailed over his mounting excitement.
The path he would take if he met her in the tower room she shared with Carnat led past the workroom of Challan. It would be better to avoid any chance of meeting the queen.
Zadak leaned over the side of the tower that gave a view of the courtyard. Some progress was being made in cleaning away the neglect of years of careless keeping, but it would be near time for Arcat to return before the servants finished.
Zadak ran lightly down the steep stairway after climbing down the ladder to the first landing of the watchtower. The guard house was empty, no guards had been spared from the expedition against the bandits. He slid from shadow to column past the opening where one of the busy servants in the courtyard might see him and raced along the hall that led into the heart of the old section of the palace. He had never been in this region before, but it held no surprises.
The florid grandeur that Marnat had imposed on the New Palace was missing in these more ancient halls. The ceiling was only two man heights above his head and traces of beautiful mosaics, set with lapis and carnelian, jasper and jade, gleamed in the faint light. The garish colors Challan preferred were absent here where semi-precious gems instead of Jaman glass were used to decorate the walls.
He almost stopped to study an exquisite study of birds and lilies, but the blue of the sky in the small relief reminded him of Neril's blue dress and he shut his mind against temptation to linger and enjoy mere artistry. A greater beauty than anything man could create would soon be his to savor and enjoy.
He knew that by now Neril would be outside the small door that led to the refuse heap. It had once been the emperor's private garden. The door was carved of fine grained ligna wood, the wall through which it led set round about with more of the subtle artistry that decorated the hall. It was ironic that Challan had ordered the refuse heap to be located where fountains and trellised walls had once framed flowers and trees.
Zadak concealed himself behind one of the columns that supported the lintel of the door. He would wait until Neril had shut the door behind her before he moved out into the corridor and disarmed her of the broomstick she carried. He savored thoughts of her reaction and planned what he would do if she resisted him.
He carried lengths of soft cloth to bind her mouth and hands and legs. He hoped she would be convinced to accept him quickly, but he was prepared to wait a little while.
Neril and Carnat lingered in their rooms. She had no feeling of urgency this morning. The supplies of clothing and bedding she had taken to the refuse heap had been sufficient. Now she must find a way to provide food. It seemed a hopeless task. Carnat, happy that she had not hurried him away with a brisk kiss, watched her as she dressed.
As she raised her arms to pull her blue dress over her head, her legs were the only thing not hidden by the skirt and he took notice of the white scar over her knee. He reached out and touched it, stroking the finger length scar and drawing her attention. "It must have hurt dreadfully when you were stung here by spearleaf. I have only a tiny scar, but it brought tears to my eyes before Mirin cut away the sting and eased the pain with a balm. At least it gives us a common bond. We have both tasted the sting of spearleaf."
After she smoothed her skirt into place, he picked up her hand and guided her touch over the small scar on his finger. "I remembered your tale of your first encounter with the weed."
She examined the white mark on his finger. "How were you scarred?"
"I was careless one day when I was in the garden," he said. "I was stung by spearleaf but Mirin was able to heal the welt. She advised me to destroy the patch because the harvester children had found a way into the abandoned garden and some of them were stung. I told her I would see to digging out the dangerous weed, but I'm afraid I have left it too long. I enjoyed tasting the spear leaf on the day we married but I fear that the harvester children have paid a high price for my delay. The last time I looked, the growth had spread. If I don't do something soon, it will completely overrun the garden."
He wondered why she seemed suddenly distracted. She stood and walked back and forth, her face intent with thought. When she stopped pacing and turned to him, a broad smile lit her face. "I have prayed for a way to solve the lack of food. Thank you for reminding me of the spear leaf."
Before he could ask Neril why she seemed to happy to find out that the patch of weed had survived when all the lovely flowers of the hidden garden were gone, she had kissed him and bid him a good day as she gently hustled him out of the room.
Neril nearly asked for Carnat's help then and there, but her labors to improve the lot of his people were still secret. She did not want his fear to stop her before she could pursue the possibility his reminder had provided.
She gathered her supplies for an expedition into the walled garden. Carnat had provided her with a sturdy bronze knife, but it was inferior to the obsidian knife that she had won from Thalon. The razor sharp blade would be a better tool for harvesting the cores. The toxins that provided the sting were less potent if the leaves were swiftly excised from the stem of the plant.
She had knotted several net bags in the days when she spent many hours with nothing to do. Now they would serve a purpose.
Instead of heading toward the door to the refuse heap, Neril made her way to the entrance Carnat had used when he had kept her in the garden. She glanced around and then up and saw that the top of the watchtower was hidden from her sight by the walls on either side of the path that led to the garden. Carnat had closed the door of the garden but she knew where to find the carved blossom that served as key. Any increase in the small stand of spear leaf would be an encouraging sight.
When she opened the door in the wall, she was surprised to see that the growth nearly filled the walled garden. Instead of dying when the fountain was diverted, the plants seemed to thrive in the arid waste. She recalled Sergon's words about the deep roots that provided the water the plant required in its native state. She wondered if those roots had worked their way into the pipes that Challan's workers had laid to divert the water into the queen's cisterns.
Working quickly, Neril cut several leaves and stripped the thin but potent skin away before putting them into the net bag She closed the door of the garden behind her and walked down the hill into the ruined city. A collapsed wall provided an elevation she could easily scale. She knew she would be watched by the curious children when she sat down and opened the net.
It was not difficult to mime her enjoyment of the succulent spear leaf cores. She savored the fresh, slightly sweet flavor that flooded her mind with happy memories as it satisfied both hunger and thirst.
She smiled and licked her lips and fingers to show how much she enjoyed eating one of the leaves. She was tempted to make another demonstration but it would be too easy to eat all of the leaf cores and that would defeat her plan. She stood up and left the bag of spearleaf cores on the wall and returned to the palace. She hoped the harvester's children would trust her enough to accept the gift she had offered them.
Although a wall of the garden would have blocked Zadak's view of the of Neril's harvest, if he had been at his post on the watchtower, he would have seen her when she demonstrated her enjoyment of the cores and left them for the children.
After waiting for much longer than he had expected in the shadowed passage near the refuse heap, he finally lost patience. He approached the door and took the risk of being seen by one of the harvesters by opening the door. He ventured out into the sun and looked around. There was no sign of either Neril or the wild children. There was no cloth spread to attract the scavengers.
He climbed over the ruined wall and ventured a little way down the slope. A group of harvesters were scraping at the walls of a hill of rubble below. The only sound he could hear was the rasp of their harvest blades.
Zadak dared go no further. A few steps would take him within view of the courtyard where he knew the servants would still be hard at work, convinced that he lurked just out of sight in the tower that loomed over them. He returned to the palace and studied the floor of the passageway.
Tracking had been one of the skills taught to the princes of Zedekla and he was very good. He cursed himself that he had not thought to examine the floor before waiting for nearly an hour for Neril to return to the palace. His were the only fresh footprints in the dust laid down by the wind the night before.
Perhaps Neril had fallen ill. He would find her and take her to the hidden room and provide her with medicines and care. Then surely she would look on him with kindness. He could not believe that her affection for Carnat was sufficient to arm her against both gratitude and dependency. He took the risk of passing the door to Challan's workshop and hurried up the stairs that led to the apartment that Neril shared with the prince.
The door was slightly open and he heard someone moving within. His heart gave a leap and he moved forward, prepared to push the door open and surprise Neril. Then he heard a snatch of song, sung in a sweet soprano and knew a moment of joy before the tune was repeated by a tenor voice. The door swung shut and was latched before he could break out of his stunned disappointment.
Zadak could hear the couple within as they talked and laughed together. He had not spared much thought for Carnat but now jealousy filled him with a wave of hatred.
He hurried away from the scene of his defeat, filled with rage and frustration. He had been so close, so seemingly favored by fortune, and then his triumph was ripped away in a manner that reminded him of what he had lost.
He returned to his post on the watchtower and brooded over the failure of his scheme. When the troop of guards returned at nightfall he was forced to feign interest while he listened to their tale of battle with the bandits. There had been a brief skirmish, and three of the guards bore shallow wounds, but the bandits had all died and their heads had been sent back to Jama along with a warning.
While the other men celebrated, Zadak brooded. Arcat decided that the watchman was disappointed with being cheated of a part in the battle. It made him like the haughty guard a little better.
When Jargin returned he was impressed with the work of the servants that had brought back a memory of the beauty of the courtyard. He had not suspected that Zadak had such a talent for organization and intimidation. It made him respect the watchman even more and he was also a little afraid of what might happen if Zadak grew tired of being a watchman and aspired to become a steward. His nervousness over the matter made him more punctilious in making sure that everyone within his domain, including Zadak, performed well.
Every two hours or so Jargin walked into the forecourt of the palace that gave a good view of the tower and exchanging a signal with Zadak. It would have been easy to evade the steward and take time to find out where Neril spent her days, if Jargin had kept to a regular schedule, but Zadak was never certain when the steward would appear. Jargin would be certain to notice any lengthy absence.
Zadak regretted the impulse that had let the days go by while Neril provided clothing for the brats of the harvesters. He had been warned that helping the harvesters in any way was dangerous. By letting her activities go unreported, he had put himself in jeopardy. He could not tell Jargin that he had let her charity proceed for days without putting his own position in question.
Zadak brooded over his failure. The visit of a caravan from Jama gave him a new direction for his thoughts. He had reported the sight of a line of laden corums to Jargin when he first saw them.
Unlike the band of thieves, they made no attempt to hide their approach which spoke of forthright intent. Jargin went out with a troop of guards led by Arcat and returned as escort to a Jaman drug merchant. The man brought goods and gold to trade for selan.
Zadak had discovered the web of servant's corridors that wove through the walls of the palace. With Jargin engaged in serving the queen, it was a simple thing to slip away from his post and find a place where he could secretly observe Challan's dealings with the merchant. He was surprised when she requested docil root and dass as part of the price for parting with some of her precious hoard of selan.
The merchant expressed his regret that he had not anticipated her desires but assured her that he would soon return with more gold and the drugs she requested. When they had reached an acceptable exchange, Jargin accompanied the queen and the drug merchant to the storage vaults after locking the room on the gold and goods brought for trade.
Zadak judged nicely how much of the piled gold he could remove without having the loss noted. He carried it to the room he had furnished for Neril and concealed it beneath the wide bed. It was a comfortable sum, but the success of his venture made him ambitious to obtain more. He would bend his efforts to discovering the location of Challan's hidden treasury.
The queen, cautious to the point of mania and not willing to trust even her steward with the location of her private hoard, kept only a token part of her gold and treasures in the palace treasure room.
Zadak began to dream of leaving Saadena, not only with the woman he desired, but with a treasure that would buy a city. If Neril did not yield to his personal charm, surely she would be impressed with a treasure. It should be easy to convince her that it was better to be the kept woman of a wealthy man than the wife of an impoverished prince.
Indeed, although he could not claim the ancient lineage of the Elianin, the royalty of Zedekla were not to be dismissed. Perhaps even his own hated brother, Farek, would welcome him once he had a kingdom of his own to rule.
Once Zadak located the gold Challan was stockpiling, he could make gradual withdrawals from her hoard and hide them in the same cellar room he had prepared for Neril. Better yet, he might find a way to remove some of the precious selan that was worth far more by weight than gold.
The return of the drug merchant gave Zadak the chance to discover Challan's secret hoard. Fortunately the private meeting took place in the evening when he would not need to worry about manning his post on the tower. Jargin and the guards were used to leaving him to his own devices when his work was done at nightfall. He made certain no one observed him when he entered the palace and slipped through a door concealed behind a column.
The servant passage was low and narrow and the drift of undisturbed dust on the floor assured him that it was seldom used. He waited in silence while the trader struck his bargain with Challan and left the room with her to retrieve the promised selan.
This time, instead of creeping out of concealment and skimming off a paltry sum, Zadak stayed in hiding until the queen returned to the room and locked the door behind her. She glanced around her in a furtive manner, then she went to the wall opposite to Zadak's hiding place and lifted a tapestry to reveal a low passage.
Working steadily, she removed most of the gold and drugs over the following hour by making several trips with as much as she could carry. Finally, she unlocked the door of the chamber and summoned her steward to take the remaining gold and goods to the palace treasury.
The following evening Zadak waited until just after the servant on watch had passed the entrance to the audience chamber before he slipped into the room and closed the door behind him. He lit a lamp and made his way across the chamber to the tapestry and followed the narrow passage it concealed.
It led to steps that curled steeply downward to the cellars. The queen's foot prints were clear in the dust on the floor but she had made several trips. Zadak doubted that she would notice his prints. His feet were not much larger than hers and he had taken care to wear low-heeled sandals instead of the boots that would have left a more distinctive mark.
Zadak was surprised at the depth of the stairwell. The room at the bottom appeared to have been used as a wine cellar at some time in the distant past but the shelves were empty of anything but the piles of gold and jewelry that Challan hoarded.
Because she trusted none of her servants to help her, the treasure lay in disarray with no attempt at careful storage. Zadak laughed aloud. It would be simple to substitute rocks and wood at the bottom of the larger piles and conceal his depredations. The only difficulty he could foresee was the exchange of dross for gold. He might risk one or two trips through the queen's audience chamber, but Jargin had learned the value of a random schedule for the servants who kept watch over the queen's quarters and state rooms. There was no way of calculating when it would be safe to make the exchange.
He looked around the chamber to find another exit. It was deep in the cellar region and there were no windows. It seemed the room could only be entered by way of the long, narrow stairwell that led back to Challan's audience hall, but Zadak was familiar with the plans of palaces and suspected he could find another entrance.
He looked for a false panel in the stone walls without success. Then he laughed at his own naivete when his eyes fell on a large, crude mosaic partially concealed by one of the piles of treasure. Amidst the heaps of Orenese pearls and Janakan coins, the mosaic seemed out of place.
It was a crude depiction of earthly delights. Great haunches of roasted meat and heaped fruits crowded the panel next to chests spilling gold and jewels. The crudity of execution, the roughness of the frame, would ensure that none who saw the mosaic would be tempted to remove it to the upper chambers of the palace. It was, of course, a door.
The passageway beyond the panel led to the same stairway Zadak used to access his own secret retreat. It would be a simple thing to dig stones from the wall and floor of one room and replace them with treasure from Challan's hoard. Soon the room he had furnished for Neril would hold most of the treasure.
He would take his time with the theft. It would be unwise to leave any hint of his activities until he was ready to carry out his abduction of Neril. He would need to arrange for a team of dalas and a teamster to help carry away his booty.
He would have to wait until the season turned and the weather improved before he could make the journey. Everything pointed to a long delay, but the possibility of leaving Saadena with a fortune eased his disappointment.
His plans to abduct Neril were set aside until he could finish his preparations. He had learned of the queen's experiments and observed the behavior of the harvesters. When the time came to capture Neril, he would use selan to insure that she accepted him as her new master.
Chapter 5 The Lost Scroll
The day after she first brought food to the children, Neril left the palace and started toward the walled garden. Mirin intercepted her before she stepped beyond the shadow of the palace walls and indicated with a gesture that she wanted Neril to follow her.
Neril wrapped her warm cape closer around her shoulders and followed Mirin past the great stone pillars that framed the eastern gate of the palace. When they were in the shadow of a tower without windows or arrow slits, Mirin glanced around and up to make sure they were unobserved.
Finally she spoke, "The king once tried to send food from the palace to the workers. Queen Challan punished him by withholding water from him until he fainted from thirst. When the harvesters eat anything other than the residue of selan, her hold on them diminishes."
"You have already taken a risk by helping them replace their rags with warm clothing. Fortunately the queen is so secure of her control that she no longer keeps servants on watch over them or your efforts would have brought punishment to all who accepted your gifts."
"I cannot understand why the watchman has not alerted her to your doings, but I have seen him watching you. Perhaps he is not an evil man and is reluctant to report what you have done. But the cook and her assistants are zealous in keeping track of the stores. If you persist, you will be caught."
"The clothing and bedding I gave them will not be missed," Neril assured Mirin. "The queen's servants have been reduced in number and they have more than they can handle since Challan no longer cares to make a facade of royal splendor. The courtiers she banished were unable to carry away all they had accumulated. After I used up all their cast-offs, I found more clothing in chests that must have been packed away before Challan ever came to Saadena."
Mirin nodded. "I guessed as much. But the servants won't so easily overlook your gift of food. Challan's minions count out every drop and morsel. No food must leave the palace or all will suffer."
"The food I offered them didn't come from the palace," Neril assured Mirin. "It was peeled spear leaf. Remember, I shared some with you when we celebrated my true marriage to Carnat. The spear leaf has thrived since our picnic in the garden and now there is enough to alleviate the hunger of the harvesters, especially the children."
She took Mirin's hand and urged her to follow her. "Come with me. The garden where we held our wedding meal is nearly full of spearleaf. Soon the laborers of Saadena will dine better than her rulers."
"The garden is too near the palace for us to go there now," Mirin said with a glance toward the wall, full lit by the morning sun. "I will meet you there this evening when the shadows fall on that side of the path and we won't be noticed."
She turned to go but Neril caught her elbow. "I would like to consult you about my health."
The medicine woman raised her brows in surprise. "I have never seen you look so well. Is your leg bothering you? I'm sorry I couldn't do a better job of setting it, but you are fortunate it healed enough for you to walk. I had expected you to be a cripple but you hardly limp at all."
"My leg does not concern me," Neril quickly explained. "When I left Marekla my grandmother gave me an herb that would suppress my moon cycle while I was on trek. I haven't taken it since arriving in Saadena but my cycle has not returned. I suspect that I might be carrying Carnat's child."
Mirin nodded. "Come to my home and I'll examine you. Selan would have the effect of suppressing your fertility, and I suspect Challan adds ingredients such as dass to her mixtures. The concentrated drugs you were given probably had the same effect as the herb your grandmother gave you. Have you had any other symptoms such as nausea in the morning or feelings of faintness?"
"No, I feel well," Neril replied, "but I've noticed changes in my body." The interview proceeded as they walked along the edge of the valley, passing the flat area where the Marekla Merchants had set up their camp.
Neril had been as far as the arched opening of the grotto where Mirin made her home but she had never been inside. When the medicine woman welcomed her to enter and the curtain made from an old hanging fell back across the door, Neril looked around at the cozy home Mirin had made for herself and her two daughters. The pungent odor of burning grease bush came from a rough hearth.
Mirin glanced around with humility in her face but Neril smiled and waved her hand to indicate the cushioned benches and walls that had been smoothed and decorated with colorful designs. "This reminds me of the home of Doka of Tedaka and his wife Placine. You have done much to make it attractive."
Mirin shook her head. "You are kind to say so, but it can hardly equal your apartment in the palace."
Neril laughed. "I spent a month of my life in trail camps, don't apologize for your home. I have lived in palaces and visited villas, but I've found that true comfort comes only with welcome and good will. I know how you work to ease the lot of your people and I will feel honored if you consider me your friend."
Mirin stammered her thanks and Neril realized that the woman was embarrassed by the praise. She changed the subject with a question. "How did you come to find a place above the city where the fumes of selan don't affect you?"
"My husband, Chiat, was Challan's steward until he dared to question her policy of denying the rites of Renewal to the harvesters." Mirin explained. "I can't prove that she had him murdered, but he died and soon another was set in his place. I am allowed to stay here because I am useful. Challan put me under an oath to serve her, and in echange she offered me protection for my cildren, I dare not renege."
"Once a week I supervise the first refining that removes the spores from the selan that has been gathered. With all her pretense to knowledge, Queen Challan can't birth a child or set a bone. She tolerates me because I am a healer and must keep a clear head for the times when I'm needed."
"You were right to warn me when you thought I would bring unwonted notice to the harvesters," Neril said. "It would jeopardize what little they have left."
Mirin gestured to a bench set near the fire. Please sit down and I will find if your hopes are justified."
Mirin proceeded with a deft examination. Then she looked up and smiled. "You will have a child late in summer. There should be no difficulty."
Neril hugged Mirin and laughed with joy. The date the healer had set for the birth of her child assured Neril that the conception had taken place when she was free of the drugs that had sapped her reason and will. This would be a child of her love, not her captivity.
When she left Mirin's home and returned to the palace, Neril felt the wonder of carrying new life. The bitter wind couldn't quench her glowing mood. The looming stone walls of the palace held no fear for her because they were her home.
When she got to the apartment she shared with Carnat, she studied the arrangement of furniture and decided there would be ample room for a cradle next to the bed if Carnat moved it a few feet nearer the window. She had seen a suitable cradle in one of the storerooms she had raided for clothing.
She was busy with plans for providing for their child when Carnat came back to their room for their midday meal together. He had seen Neril leaving the palace with Mirin earlier that morning and was worried about her errand beyond the confines of their locked apartment.
"Have you been ill?" he asked Neril anxiously when he shut the door behind him. She shook her head and he turned away and began to pace. "It is your leg. I thought it was getting better and that you were limping less. Does it trouble you?"
"Is it safe to speak here?" she asked, remembering Mirin's warning about being overheard by Challan's servants.
"The chambers below were used by the courtiers who have fled. As far as I know, they are empty. Why are you suddenly so wary?" he asked.
"When Mirin visited me, she warned that there may be spies set to report to your mother. If there is any need for caution, I want to know," Neril explained.
"Don't worry. I took steps to make certain our privacy is guarded. When I was young, I explored the palace at will. I discovered an old document that showed the floor plan of the palace among the tablets in the library. My mother's spies are no threat to us. If I cared to, I could spy on Challan and Ayarlan in their secret workroom, but the stink of their experiments keeps me away."
"Then we can speak and not be overheard?" she asked.
"What is it you want to tell me that requires such secrecy?" he asked anxiously.
"I am with child," Neril said, her face alight with joy.
His eyes grew wide with mixed emotion. He took her in his arms and tenderly held her. He knew she expected him to rejoice with her, but her news meant there was no escape for them. Her leg seemed much better but he doubted she would risk the rigors of the trip across the desert while she carried their child.
She confirmed his fears with her next words. "I cannot risk leaving Saadena now. I know the hazards of the trails through the desert better than most. We can leave after our child is born and I have regained my strength."
Carnat tried to think of some alternative to walking out of the valley, but it had been centuries since the great river that once served as a highway for Saadena had become nothing more than a rocky gorge. If only there were another he could trust to help them.
He had no appetite to eat the lunch Neril prepared. He forced himself to assume a cheerful face even though he could not stop worrying about the responsibilities he would face with the birth of a child.
It was more important than ever that he guard Neril from harm. He feared the evil that festered in the mind of his mother and her crony. It was frightful to think of what they might do if they suspected that Neril carried the seed of another generation.
Carnat urged her to join him in the library where he had been making an attempt to catalog the materials acquired by his ancestors. "You will be bored and stifled by the dust that has settled on everything, but I am afraid to leave you here alone."
"I thought you avoided asking me to go with you because you thought I would interfere with your work," Neril said. "I have longed to visit your library. I was denied the chance to read the sacred and secular chronicles when we visited the library in Timora because we learned of the Orquian plot."
Once again Neril had surprised Carnat. He locked their door behind them and led her to the vast room where shelves and bins stored the random literary collections of generations of Saadena's rulers. The library occupied three stories in the wing of the palace that had escaped damage by the earthquake. The garish grandeur of Marnat's reconstruction had not reached this ancient room. Sinuous reliefs set with subtle shades of onyx decorated the walls above tall shelves.
"I'm afraid it was greed more than scholarship that inspired this accumulation," Carnat said. "I've been learning as I go." He indicated the product of his labors in a few nearby shelves that held neatly stacked and labeled scrolls. "I found scrolls and tablets that originated before the earthquake. They are written in the old script. I have tried to decipher them with little success."
"I have some familiarity with the ancient script, but I cannot claim to be a competent translator. I think Fedder might help you," Neril speculated. "The scrolls and tablets of scripture I saw in the library in Timora were written in ancient script and it is part of the training of those who are chaplains to read and copy the scrolls. Fedder must have been trained in Timora."
"Yes, I believe he was, and I'm almost certain he knows the archaic script. He spends most of his time studying some ancient scrolls that were stored in the chapel. Perhaps I should ask him to join us," Carnat said.
Neril had seldom seen him display such enthusiasm about anything but their love for each other. It seemed that he was truly a scholar. He turned and hurried from the library. He had been so eager to fetch Fedder that he forgot his fears for her safety and left her unguarded.
Neril fingered the sheath of her bronze knife and walked confidently through the library, looking around with wonder at the wealth of history and literature that lay in random piles. She did not disturb the piled documents, but as she walked among them and read the fading labels on the scroll cases, she appreciated the scope of Carnat's task.
She was leaning over a stack of tablets to study the inscriptions when she heard a scuffling movement behind her. She turned and saw King Eliat cowering in a corner, hugging several tablets to his chest. She had not seen her father-in-law for months and she was dismayed by the fearful reaction her presence created in the cringing king.
"I only took a few," he explained in a quavering voice.
"This is your library. Surely no one could question your right to come here," she said. He nodded and began to sidle out of the corner.
"Challan warned me not to leave my room. I come here when I see Carnat leave and none of Challan's servants are watching, but I'm very careful. Please don't tell her," he implored.
"I have not seen the queen for a long time and even if I did, I would not tell her you were visiting the library." Neril said. Her reassurance lifted the corners of the king's lips in a shy smile. He moved closer to her and showed her the tablets he was carrying. They contained an account of the myth of Algire, the Wizard Smith.
Neril was fascinated to learn more about the legendary smith who had crafted the star points that Mareklan elders used when overcast skies denied them the sight of the stars they used to find their way.
"Algire is a myth," Eliat sighed, "but the story of his bravery in approaching the star stone and forging the metal into six magic swords is one of my favorite tales."
"Algire existed," Neril told him. "I know nothing about the swords, but I have seen one of the star points he made from the remnant of the star stone. It points the way to the ladle of Withna when clouds hide the sky."
"Not a myth?" Eliat whispered. "Are there truly those who are brave enough to venture into the presence of destruction and death because of a dream?"
"Yes, there are those who dare," Neril said with a smile.
When Carnat returned with Fedder, he was surprised to find his father and Neril in close conversation over a stack of inscribed tablets. When he approached them, the king looked up with fear and scurried toward the corner.
"Come back Eliat, your son intends you no ill," Fedder said as he gently approached the cringing king.
"I'm surprised I haven't seen you in here before," Carnat said when he saw the tablets his father clutched to his chest.
"I've seen you but I always waited until you were gone. I was afraid you'd tell your mother," Eliat murmured. "Before I married, my parents let me go to Timora and study at the sacred library. I wanted to organize this collection, but Challan was jealous of my interest in the scrolls and tablets. She hasn't cared for my company for years, but once she sets a rule, she makes sure it is kept."
Eliat seemed to realize he was safe with the others. He relaxed his hold on the tablets he had clutched to his chest and sat on one of the dusty benches that lined a long table.
"You are King of Saadena and have the right to set the rules," Fedder explained.
Eliat stared up at the priest with apprehensive eyes while he considered his words. "Challan has a will that saps my own," he finally explained. Then he bent his head under the burden of his abdication.
Neril glanced at Carnat and the look of empathy in his eyes as he looked at his father made her realize that he agreed with Eliat. Yet he had rebelled against his mother's control when he had married her. Perhaps in time he would realize that there was really nothing to fear if he claimed his privilege of rule.
It had to come from him. She couldn't give him the strength of character required to face his mother and restrain her arrogant commands. Perhaps in time her own example would help him overcome a life of fear and domination by Challan's powerful personality. For now it would be good to see the father and son reconciled.
"You could help Carnat catalog the contents of the library. I'm sure he would welcome your help," Neril assured Eliat. "I'll be here as well. We could all work together."
Carnat quickly agreed. "I wish I had known you had an interest in scrolls and tablets Neril. Are you sure you are willing to spend your days in the musty air of the library? "
"I'm only sorry I didn't insist on coming with you earlier when I had so much time alone and so little to do with myself," she admitted.
The misunderstanding had cost them weeks of companionship and for a moment she was sorry they hadn't spoken before about their daily separation. Then Neril recalled the work she had accomplished among the workers and decided not to repent the lost time.
"I'm certain that all of us working together can bring some order to this chaos," Fedder said as he gestured to the piled writings. "While Neril and Carnat catalog the more recent documents, Eliat and I can work with the old script."
The afternoon went quickly and they shared a quiet joy as they worked together to bring order to the vast collection. Fedder returned to his rectory to fetch a modest meal for his companions. It was late afternoon before the light from the high windows grew dim and they were forced to quit for the day. Eliat was pale with exhaustion, but Carnat had never seen his father so happy.
"It could take years to complete the task of cataloging this collection," Fedder said with relish when they retired from the chamber and Carnat locked the door behind them.
"Challan will soon end her experiments and I must dine with her," Eliat said. "Fortunately, I won't have to eat what she feeds me. I'll meet you here tomorrow morning." The king smiled with glee as he hurried toward the stairs, his tattered finery flying behind him.
When they returned to their rooms, Neril remembered her appointment to meet Mirin and decided to tell Carnat about her plan to help the people by sharing the secret of spear leaf. "The patch of spearleaf in the garden has expanded until it nearly fills the enclosure. I've arranged to meet Mirin there this evening and show her how to harvest the leaves without being stung."
"I asked you to stay in our room when I wasn't near to protect you," he reproved her when he realized the import of her words.
"I have been leaving our rooms everyday after you go to the library," She said. "How could I cower behind locked doors when I can help our people?'
"They don't know their own misery. Selan dulls the edge of the cold," he argued.
"Yes, I know the power of selan to dull the edges of awareness," she said cooly. "But the children are aware of the cold and hunger. Did you never ask yourself why your mother only attempted to drug you after you had reached the end of your childhood? I wonder that you haven't noticed that the harvesters no longer work in rags. I've managed to clothe them, but they are still hungry. Spear leaf could change that. Sergon told me that efforts to cultivate it have failed in the past, yet it grows in your garden."
Her reminder of her first-hand experience of the effects of selan drained away his anger. He had no answer to her accusation that he had ignored his people. Instead offered his help. "The garden was created by an ancestor of mine, and rare plants were brought from every corner of Okishdu. Selan and spear leaf were some of the successful transplants."
"I hope you know how she cultivated spear leaf," Neril said. "If the people can plant it in out of the way places where Challan and her minions won't notice, they would no longer be forced to eat the residue of selan that keeps them enslaved."
"Do you still have the scroll of flower illustrations I gave you while you lived in the garden?" Carnat asked.
Neril thought for a moment, then nodded. "I couldn't read it when I was drugged but I kept it with me. I have been so busy with my work for the harvesters that I forgot about it. Let me fetch it."
She found the scroll in a collection of gifts Carnat had brought to her, on a shelf beneath the moon shaped shell. When she unrolled it she saw that it was a description of the garden with detailed drawings of the various flowers and plants. She soon located the reference to spear leaf.
"Attempts to plant the seeds of this unusual growth have failed and transplant is also difficult. Cuttings of the plant must be dried until limp, then folded in a damp cloth. After five days, small roots will develop which can be planted in finger deep holes in dry soil into which a small amount of water has been placed. The plant grows best where there are underground streams." There were diagrams illustrating the method.
"I will copy the reference for you," Carnat volunteered. He fetched his stylus and a soapstone tablet but his face wore a look of gravity that told her he had been reminded of his sins against her.
She put her hand on his shoulder and applied gentle pressure. "I don't mean to rack your soul with references to my imprisonment, but you must understand that I cannot let fear rule my actions."
He nodded, then caught her hand with his own and lifted it to his lips. The smooth skin was marked with calluses from staff and broom and he was reminded of her adventures on the trek. "I pretend the strength to protect you, but you are the one who shows true courage. Would you like me to come with you when you meet Mirin?"
At his words, she looked up at him and nodded with a smile that restored his spirit.
Mirin was waiting for Neril near the door to the garden. She was surprised to see Carnat. 'Why did he come," she asked Neril with a frown.
"He wants to help," Neril said. "He copied the information that tells how to grow spear leaf. It can be cultivated." Neril showed Mirin the diagrams on the tablet. Mirin studied the pictures and listened to Neril. At last she nodded.
"Take some peeled leaves with you and tell those you trust what we have told you," Neril encouraged her.
"I will do as you say," Mirin said. "The children have suffered hunger and thirst for too long. If this can help them, we will bless your name." Then she looked about her at the ominous field of notched leaves and had second thoughts. "Even if we are successful in growing the plant, there will always be a risk of injury when we harvest them. We have few knives sharp enough to peel the leaves other than those I must reserve for my surgery."
Neril showed her how to harvest and strip the leaves, taking care to avoid the poisonous edges. The knife Neril had won from Thalon so many months before was far superior to the dull, soft metal of Mirin's knife. Neril rubbed her thumb along the familiar folds of the leather handle. Then she handed the knife and the packet of spare blades to the other woman. "You will need this for your work," she said with a bite of regret for losing one of the last mementos of her trek. The result of her lesson was a harvest of spear leaf core that she divided with Mirin.
As Carnat walked back to the palace with Neril he gazed around him at the harvesters who were working at their endless tasks of scraping selan from the ruins. He stumbled and nearly fell. "I can never repay--" he gasped.
Neril stopped and supported him to a seat on a low wall. "What is it my love?" she asked
"These people, their lives-- how could I have ignored them?" he murmured.
Neril glanced around and realized what had happened. "Today you have made a start on freeing them. When they have something to eat other than the residue of selan I'm certain they will be better off than they are now. Remember how quickly I regained my reason and will after you made certain I was no longer drugged? Perhaps what we have done today will create a revolution that will ultimately cost you all that you now possess. Are you willing to face that loss?"
Carnat nodded. "There is nothing I value but your love and good opinion. If I have gained your approval by helping feed these men and women, than anything else is well lost."
Neril approved the sentiment behind his words, but she knew that only time would prove how much he would grieve the loss of position and privilege if the workers rebelled and rejected the rule of the sons of Elianin.
"Come, there is much to do tomorrow and I am eager to make a meal of these spear leaves I harvested before they sour." She knew that if Carnat became too deeply sunk in regret it might poison his will to work for a better future. He had still not suggested that there was anything he could or should do about confronting his mother and ending her authority. There were practical reasons to work in secret.
Mirin had warned her that Challan had surrounded herself with a troop of guards recruited from the lowest ranks of Janakan mercenaries and Jaman gangs. They were tough and conscienceless men who had loyalty only to the person who paid them. Neril's merchant mind had noted the amount of selan that was produced and the occasional presence of Jaman and Orenese traders. The queen was hoarding gold along with enough selan to keep her wealthy for a hundred years. It would be impossible to alienate her servants with fine sentiments and moral arguments.
The right to rule in Saadena was based on nothing more than the power of Challan's purse. It was a fat one by now. For now their only recourse was to work in secret and avoid confrontation. Someday the harvesters might have the will and means to reject their ruler, but Neril found herself dreading the scenes of bloodshed and sacrifice that must follow such a rebellion.
Challan's army had been much reduced, but it seemed more efficient than before. They would not easily be overcome by the harvesters who had only their dull selan scrapers to use as weapons. There had to be some other answer than rebellion and confrontation.
Neril and Carnat made a good meal of spearleaf once they returned to the palace and secured their door against the servants who might be sent by Challan, The succulence of the fresh leaf cores meant there was no need for drink. Neril had abstained from wine as soon as she regained her will and Carnat, convinced that it was the easiest means for Challan to introduce the drug into their diet, had followed her example.
So far he had still been able to obtain food from the larders but there was a risk that the food might be doped in secret by servants who had guessed his habits.
"We should continue to eat spear leaf and find other sources of food that can't be contaminated by my mother's minions." Carnat told Neril after they finished eating.
"Yes, I have wondered how long it would take for your mother to make certain we were both under her control again. Before you told me about the spread of spear leaf I had no idea of what we could do and I didn't want to worry you. Now we must provide safe food for your father as well, the challenge is urgent." Neril leaned back and considered what she knew about Saadena.
Carnat guessed her thoughts. "The food served to Challan and her servants is either imported or grown in walled gardens. With her monopoly on the water supply, my mother has a powerful means of limiting access to anything other than the residue of selan harvest or whatever desert plants and animals are able to survive in the wastes that surrounded the city."
"Do you remember the smoked lizard and chand seed matlas that Mirin shared with us at our wedding feast?" Neril asked him. "The dried snake shared by Fedder came from his trade with the Mareklans, but snakes are a hazard in Saadena that might be turned to an asset. I remember how my friends prepared the dried snake."
Sleep came slowly to Neril that night as she continued to consider the resources offered by the desert. She woke Carnat early the next morning and they made a detour to the garden of spear leaf with a knife and a net before making their way to the library. They found Eliat and Fedder bent over a pile of fragments in a friendly argument. Carnat had gathered the fragments in preparation to discard them but the King insisted that they could be pieced together with sufficient time and knowledge. Fedder was skeptical. He thought it would be more productive to spend their time on intact tablets.
"Have either of you bothered to break your fast this morning?" Neril asked with a smile when she saw how much alike the king and chaplain looked with their balding silvered heads and ragged cloaks. When they looked up in distracted surprise at the question, she burst into laughter.
A corner of one of the long library tables served for the impromptu meal. When they had eaten, Carnat organized the work for the morning. Neril saw that her husband had an instinct for leadership and organization that had been sadly wasted during the neglected years of his youth.
Eliat seemed so eager to proceed with the task of matching the fragments of broken tablets that Carnat granted him a few hours to pursue his desires. "If you make progress, then you may continue your quest, but if nothing can be accomplished, it would be better for you to help Fedder catalog the ancient scrolls and tablets that are still intact."
Eliat nodded his willingness to follow his son's directions and set to work. The lively intelligence in his face demonstrated that he was already recovering much of his will and wit and it gave Neril hope that her efforts with the harvesters would be rewarded.
Selan dulled and delayed but it did not utterly destroy the will of Challan's victims. Once the drug was withdrawn, as she knew well from her own experience, its effects were quickly banished. She had worried that longer exposure might prove more damaging, but Eliat's example calmed her fears.
Carnat discovered another surprise about his wife. He had known of her courage and ingenuity. He had not known she was capable of long hours of grueling scholarship.
They worked well together once he was willing to swallow his pride and admit that in some ways she was his superior in understanding. It was gratifying when she complimented him on his grasp of the subtle differences in nomenclature between the clans of Janaka. He had been well tutored by Fedder in the years before Challan's jealousy had separated them and Neril was a product of Marekla's excellent schools which may have denied her some important facts about the world outside the hidden valley, but which insisted that all students were provided a good grounding in the languages and dialects of Okishdu.
Their breakfast of spear leaf had given them the stamina to work through the noon hour. It was not until someone knocked at the locked door that they looked up from their labors and started with fear and surprise. Neril and Eliat joined Fedder in the narrow niche where the king was accustomed to hiding and they waited for Carnat to open the door.
To their relief it was Mirin and not one of Challan's servants who stood in the corridor. "I came to find if Fedder is free to give Nara and Kana their lessons today," the medicine woman told Carnat. "I couldn't find him in the chapel or his quarters and I knew that sometimes he comes to the library. I'm sorry I disturbed you."
Fedder hurried out of the hiding place and gestured her into the room. "I lost track of the hour Mirin," he explained once the door was shut and locked behind her. Neril and Eliat stepped out of hiding and Mirin's eyes grew large with surprise.
"I can see I have intruded into an important meeting," she stammered.
"No, not at all. We are trying to make some order to this vast heap of scrolls and tablets, but it will take many months. I will come with you to give the children their lessons," Fedder said.
Neril heard the resignation in his voice and stepped forward. "I remember now that Mirin had asked you about teaching her daughters. I'm happy to know you have made a beginning. I would like to help you with their lessons, but I'm afraid Carnat won't permit me to venture out of the library without him while the servants of Challan are prowling the palace."
Carnat nodded. "I can't allow Neril to continue to risk herself. Now that she is carrying a child we must be more careful than ever before."
Eliat turned to his son with surprise and joy in his face. "This is a happiness I had never thought to have. Not only have you defeated your mother's plans to marry you to her Ayarlan, but you have had the good sense to choose Neril as the mother of your child. Come, I will show you a passageway that others do not know."
The King led his son to a sturdy cupboard that held piled scrolls. He removed one of the large drawers in the base and revealed a tunnel. "It connects to the corridor beyond your old apartment."
"I thought I knew all of the secret passages in the palace, but I never suspected this one." Carnat said after he knelt to examine the passage. "Thank you Father."
None of the others realized the significance of the short phrase, but it was the first time Carnat had addressed the king as a parent. "You can show Mirin how to navigate the passageway and I will show her how to make her way from my old apartment to the alleys north of the palace where she will not be seen from the watchtower. She could bring the children here for their lessons from Neril with little risk of discovery."
Carnat and Eliat left to show Mirin the passages that would lead her safely from the library to the outside of the palace. Neril asked Fedder to show her what he had been teaching Kana and Nara.
They found a corner of the library where Carnat had already cataloged the books and scrolls and there was no need to clear the benches and table of piled documents. As Neril reviewed the lessons the priest had prepared for the girls, she found that he had neglected mathematics and the study of nature, but he had given them a good foundation in literature and history. In some ways they had learned more than Neril herself had done from the carefully edited lessons she had been taught in Marekla.
When the girls and their mother appeared in the library the next day, Neril greeted them with open arms and a wide smile. "Your mother can bring you here for your lessons every afternoon now that she knows the way. If you know of others who might be willing to learn, bring them with you," she offered.
When Mirin tried to express her thanks Neril made a request. "We must ensure that our food supply remains safe. I will teach any of the harvester children who are willing to catch snakes and lizards and harvest chand seeds as tuition."
Carnat was surprised at her requirement. "We owe the children knowledge. If they are willing to come, we should offer the lessons without payment."
Mirin shook her head. "Your wife is right Carnat. Those who show enough enterprise to provide tuition will work harder at the lessons. I can take the seeds and meat they gather and provide safe food for all of us. It is a worthy exchange."
The next afternoon brought not only Nara and Kana, but four of the harvester children to study with Neril. They greeted her with shy smiles and set to work eagerly to learn the mysteries of reading and writing. Nara and Kana were much advanced over the others and Fedder volunteered to teach the new students the rudiments of writing while Neril taught mathematics to Mirin's daughters.
Mirin appeared alone the next day. "There are too many children for me to bring safely into the palace. I have set Nara and Kana to teach them their writing, but we must find some other place to set up a school for them."
Neril turned to Carnat. "Do you know of any place where it would be safe to gather for lessons?"
"The only other building of any size that is still intact in Saadena is the Shrine of the Radiance," Carnat replied. "My mother diverted the fountain that fed the waters of Renewal, but even she has not been bold enough to pull down the Shrine. It is made of white marble quarried in Janaka and selan will not grow on it. Fedder knows better than I if there are proscriptions against using the Shrine for a school."
Fedder nodded. "It would suit. The Council in Timora settled the problem many years ago. Where there are no other suitable spaces, schools may be held in shrines. Irilik said, "The seeds of wisdom are nourished with the water of knowledge.'"
Neril approved the idea. "In the afternoons I will teach Nara and Kana and the four children who came with them the first day. In turn, they will teach the others in the Shrine each morning. Once a week Fedder and I will go to the Shrine and examine them in what they have learned."
"It is a good plan," Fedder said. "As Nara and Kana teach the others, they will reinforce the lessons they have learned. It seems such a simple and obvious scheme. I wonder why I never thought of it."
"I will come with you to make sure you are safe when you go to the Shrine," Carnat offered after a brief, silent argument with his reservations and fears.
The days that followed were filled with quiet joy for the conspirators. Eliat seemed a different man now that his wife no longer controlled his food and drink. His project of piecing together broken tablets had borne fruit in several ways. Those fragments which were found to be without consequence were sent to the Shrine to be used by the harvester children in their studies. Among the tablets he pieced together were some of great antiquity and value. Fedder carried them to the chapel for storage until they could be bonded together by a skilled craftsman.
Zadak caught tantalizing glimpses of Neril as she went to the Shrine each week. He had seen the children of the harvesters going in and out of the shrine and thought they were only finding the one place in Saadena that was allowed to them where there was some order and beauty. It was not surprising if they were also taking the opportunity to worship with the chaplain. Although he had long since lost his own childish faith, he remembered the sweet smell of incense and the glow of the globe that represented the presence of the Radiance in Zedekla's royal chapel.
If he reported their activities to Jargin it might raise questions about the other omissions he had made in his reports. He savored the irony that in his position as watchman, he was able to protect the harvester children from detection.
Neril was always accompanied by her husband and the chaplain. Zadak might have dared to take her if only one of the men had been with her and they had otherwise been alone, but as soon as she appeared with her companions on either side, some of the children came to the door of the Shrine and watched her.
He had experienced worse situations during the years that he had wandered after leaving Zedekla. At least the food and drink provided by Jargin was ample and the pay was good while he waited for his chance to take Neril. His hidden fortune, purloined from Challan, mounted steadily. He was confident that in time the others who watched over Neril would relax their guard and at last his patience would be rewarded.
Unaware of the threat that hung over them, Carnat and Neril were content. It was a time of joy and growth for both of them. Neril spent time each afternoon teaching. Her students loved and trusted her. She taught them about the world beyond their city and the love of the Radiance who had led her to them. They in turn taught the other children who were always eager to demonstrate what they had learned when Fedder and Neril met with them for weekly examination.
One of the children scavenged broken glass that had been thrown out on the garbage pit. Following the pattern of the obsidian blades that Neril had given Mirin, he crafted the shards of glass into more knives for the harvest of spear leaf.
Those of the children who had no knives snared lizards and other small animals on the verges of the desert. The food they gathered was shared among all those who came to study.
The Shrine itself provided a constant source of study in the copies of the scrolls of Law and Compact that were inscribed in shallow alcoves in the stone wall of the chapel. There was a third alcove that should have been carved with a copy of the History. Whenever Neril saw it she was taunted with a memory of the words of the seeress. What had become of the lost Scroll of History?
As her child grew and began to move in her, the love between Carnat and Neril, expressed in glances and touches whenever they were near, acted like a tonic on those around them. The king displayed a dry wit that often made the others chuckle as they worked together.
"You are fortunate that your wife is as virtuous and wise as she is pretty," he told Carnat one day while they waited for Fedder and Neril to join them in a meal on the terrace adjoining the library. "Your mother wore veils when I first met her, but her eyes seemed mysterious and beautiful. I was besotted with her. I told my parents I wanted to marry her when her father suggested the match. It was an advantageous match for both families. Her father was a wealthy Orenese with pretensions to status and we were an imperial family with no funds. Challan seemed cold toward me at first, but after a few days, she seemed eager for the marriage."
Eliat frowned as he remembered the days of his courtship. "Now I realize that she had observed the effects of selan fumes on the harvesters. She must have realized the possibility of concentrating and using the drug to bend others to her will. I was her first experiment."
"Do you still feel anything for her?" Carnat asked.
Eliat looked at his son and a blank expression was his only answer for a moment, then he shuddered and dropped his eyes in shame. "I fear her," he admitted in a low voice. "I can't comprehend her." Carnat nodded. He looked around with a fear that his mother's spies might even then be taking note of the things they said.
As Neril worked to help organize the library, she noticed that the oldest scrolls in the collection were usually in better condition than more recent writings. The craftsmanship and ink were superior, and the scroll cloth used in centuries past seemed even more finely woven than the best the Mareklans now produced.
One day, as she worked to catalog a pile of scrolls, she picked up a scroll and tried to read the label. It had been defaced until it was impossible to read. She carried the scroll to an empty table and carefully unrolled it. A faded message scrawled in the margin near the top of the scroll caught her eye. It was not in archaic script, but it was difficult to decipher.. She studied it, then read it aloud: "The three are no longer one. I, Marnat, Master of the World have become Master of All Things."
The others glanced up and listened. Eliat came closer and studied the scrawled message. "Marnat was the emperor of Saadena when the earthquake divided the Comor and destroyed the city," he said after examining the writing. "He argued with the High Priest over the pilgrimages to Timora and the Offerings of Consecration. He claimed that as supreme ruler of the descendants of Irilik and his disciples, he should be exempt. He also claimed the right to appoint priests and pay them according to his own whim."
"What became of him?" Carnat asked.
"He seemed to yield to the demands of the High Council in Timora and made a pilgrimage. During his visit, the scroll containing the History of Irilik was lost," Eliat said.
Neril listened to the story with a growing sense of excitement. She leaned closer to the scroll and examined the archaic symbols inscribed in a distinctive style that tantalized her memory. Her knowledge of archaic writing was limited recognized some of the names. The words of the Seeress, so cryptic when uttered, suddenly made sense to her. "I believe this is the lost scroll, the History and Prophecies of Irilik."
"The lost scroll is only a legend," Fedder protested. "If it ever existed, it has been nearly four hundred years since anyone claims to have seen it." He seemed to withdraw against the high shelves where he had been working. The expression in his eyes was a compound of disbelief and hope.
Neril hurried over to him and took hold of his arm. "I know it is hard for you to believe that a novice would find the scroll you have overlooked for decades, but perhaps you were not meant to find it. Come closer and see for yourself. You've seen the other Scrolls of Irilik in the library at Timora. I was there last year and I was deeply impressed by the writing on them even though I didn't know the exact meanings of all the ancient words. This scroll is written by the same hand. I think this is what the Seeress meant when she told me that through me the lost would be found."
Fedder yielded to her urging. He leaned over the well wrought script and examined it carefully. The phrases seemed half-familiar. Then he nodded. "I felt something in my spirit stir when Carnat told me you had been singled out by the Seers of Timora."
His fingers hovered over the scroll as he read more of the half familiar phrases that had been preserved in fragmentary form by those who had recorded what they remembered after the Scroll of History and Prophecy was lost.
He looked up at Carnat and Eliat who were waiting on his decision. "I agree with Neril, Now that I examine the scroll I can see that this was written by the same hand that wrote the other sacred scrolls. This must be the lost scroll."
Eliat's hands were raised in a prayer of thanks and praise to the Radiance. He reverently bent over the scroll to decipher some of the phrases and read them aloud: "Without the Law and the Compacts, the people have no rule wherewith to measure. Without the History and Prophecy they lose the purpose of the measure." His words rang in the quiet room like a vindication of Neril's claim.
Eliat nodded. "I have no doubt that this is the History and Prophecy of Irilik. It has rested here for four hundred years, lost in the welter of tablets and scrolls but preserved as well as it might have been in a vault in Timora. Even I have overlooked it."
"It belongs in Timora with the other scrolls of Irilik," Neril said. "The people need to be reminded of what was seen and done by the Prophet. It must be known as history and not merely legends passed along without vindication or reference."
Eliat nodded. "I must repair the wrong my ancestor wrought. This scroll will be returned to its rightful place."
"Who will take it to Timora?" Carnat asked. "I would go, but I fear what my mother and Ayarlan might do if I am not here to guard Neril. Fedder is too old. Is there anyone we can trust?"
"I will go," Eliat said. "I still have the capacity to travel. It was my ancestor who did this evil. I will leave with the next caravan of merchants that comes to Saadena. Challan must not suspect my intention or she will try to stop me."
The king had lost the woeful, weakened look that had made him seem so old. As he made his vow, he straightened his back and lifted his head. Neril was certain that he could do as he intended if he could stay free of Challan's influence.
Carnat looked at the scroll and nodded. "This is a treasure that must not fall into the hands of my mother or any of her minions. We must take an oath that we will tell no one of its existence." The others agreed. Fedder intoned a suitably solemn sounding covenant for them to repeat and they swore that none should know of the existence of the scroll until it had left the valley of Saadena.
Fedder took the scroll to the chapel for study until Eliat could undertake his errand. Neril asked Carnat to accompany her to the chapel and she studied with the chaplain each evening while her husband made a catalogue of the scrolls and tablets Fedder had stored in his quarters. The doctrine and history revealed in the Scroll of History were like food for her soul. Questionable points that had been debated for centuries were settled by this part of the writings of Irilik. The Scroll was like a lens, illuminating and clarifying the teachings found in the other two scrolls written by the first prophet.
"Why weren't copies made of the Scrolls of Irilik before this was stolen," she asked one day. "The scrolls of the Compact and the Law have been copied in new script and can be found in every Shrine."
"When Irilik died, there was a division among his followers," Fedder said. "Some said the scrolls containing his writings should be copied and the copies distributed widely. Others said that the Scrolls of Irilik should be placed in a library where all could come on pilgrimage to study them. They feared copies might be adulterated by men with evil intent. After the Scroll of History was stolen, the guardians saw that only by making many copies of the remaining scrolls could complete loss be prevented."
"Then shouldn't we make a copy of this one in case Eliat fails in his mission?" Neril asked.
"There may not be enough time to copy it before Eliat takes it to Timora," Fedder explained.
"Would it not be better if a fragment is preserved than if the entire scroll is lost again. If you teach me the old script I can help you," she offered.
"I can see the wisdom of your suggestion," Fedder admitted.
The next day he searched through the library and found a scroll that listed the repairs made on the west wing under the reign of Gelt, Marnat's son-in-law. The scroll itself was in good condition but the ink was almost illegible, faded to pale brown. "I wish I had the craft of making suitable scroll cloth," Fedder fussed. He cleaned away the faded ink and buffed the surface of the scroll with pumice in preparation for making the copy. His love of documents made him mourn the loss of even this small matter of bricks and roof tiles.
He made a dense black ink from bits of boiled parchment and burnt bone. Soon he forgot the loss of the list as he bent to the task of reproducing the sacred scroll.
Neril practiced until she could read the ancient script. Soon she began taking turns with the chaplain, one writing, the other reading. The ground for her curiosity had been tilled by Sergon's stories. The scroll revealed many of the answers she had pondered.
"In the first decade of our settlement in Timora, our women were fruitful and we saw that soon there would be no more place in the vale. I held council with the elders who had come with me from Kishdu. We divided the land into places of inheritance.
Janak led his seven sons and those who chose to join his clan to the mountains of the north where the hills yielded up metals and gems. Saaden chose the fork of the Comor for his people and the sons of Elianin. Tedak claimed the valleys and forests of the snow range. Taleek settled the low hills north of Timora. Wild corums led Kumnor to claim the pastures of the north east. Zedek and his people claimed the central coast of the Western sea. Sandin chose the islands for his clan. Safe harbor on the coast served for a new Taliafa.
The broad plains of the Comor were to be divided between the sons of Virda and the people of Garad; but Tagnet rebelled and fled with his people to the desert coasts of the Eastern Sea. They remembered Renon, seat of the tyrant Algunagada, and called their home Orenon.
Some said, 'the prophet has kept the fair vale of Timora for his children.' The vale is not for my sons and daughters, but for all. Timora shall be ruled by a sacred council with each of the clans represented. There will always be children of Irilik in the sacred city, but only as servants to the Radiance. I have been shown the destiny of my children. They will not find their home until the lost has been found and the river returns."
Neril had often wondered how her people had become merchants and why they were accepted as pilgrims in Timora even without the blue and white worn by others. Now she had the answer.
It was wonderful to have the answer to her questions, but others deserved to know what the Scroll could teach. She stood and stretched. "I have grown tired of sitting and I told the children that I would teach them about their heritage when we visit them in the Shrine tomorrow. I promised that I would tell no one about the scroll, but the teachings are too precious to withhold from these innocent victims of Marnat's wickedness."
The others agreed "It would be a good thing to teach them some of the things we read." Fedder said.
Neril put down her work and went her way to share her insights with her students. She found that whenever she told them about her own adventures or the history of the other cities of Okishdu they were eager to hear more.
One day Fedder approached her with a suggestion. "You have given the children a good foundation in faith by telling them about Sergon and your experiences with the Seers. Now they are asking about the sacred ordinances mentioned in the Scroll. I want to ask the children who are approaching adulthood if they are willing to take the Rites of Renewal."
"It would be a wonderful thing if it could be done, but there is no water for the holy fountain. It was drained into Challan's cisterns," Neril reminded him. Fedder nodded.
"Yes, I stood by and let Challan steal the water that was dedicated to the Radiance. For that I have wept enough tears to fill the fountain. But I no longer need to weep. I have been hoarding water since your friend Sergon asked me about the empty fountain. There is now enough to perform Washing for any who care to share the ritual."
"I'll tell Nara and Kana what you have said. When we go to the chapel I'll bring the older children to you. It is a sorry thing that their parents are incapable of accepting the Renewal rite."
The next afternoon after she finished their lessons, Neril asked Nara and Kana to tell the other children what Fedder planned to offer them. "Bring your mother when you come."
When Mirin entered with her daughters she looked toward Neril. "Why have you brought us here? There is no holy fountain, only a dry basin full of dust."
"Come, look," Neril said. She showed Mirin the basin that she had cleaned and burnished with sand so that the bronze showed back the reflection of the high windows that were glowing with evening light. It was filled with a few feet of water, barely enough for one of the children to lie down in and be covered. "I have taught your children something about the rituals and promises expected of those who follow the Radiance. Now Fedder has made it possible for them to make the vows, if you agree.".
Mirin shut her eyes, and when she opened them there were tears wetting her lashes. "I never thought this would be possible. My mother taught me about the importance of Renewal Washing when I was just a child. It was the best day of my youth when I took my vows to the Radiance, I was beginning to teach Nara the lessons when Challan ordered Fedder to divert the water that filled the fountain. To see my daughters begin their womanhood in this holy rite is a sight I had never thought to see."
Clad in a loincloth and breast band for the sake of modesty, Nara lowered herself until she was covered completely with water. Then Fedder lifted her to her feet and pronounced the ritual prayer. She slicked the water from her body and clothing to preserve the precious moisture and took a tunic from Neril who stood nearby. One by one the older children followed her example. Finally the level of the water dropped too low to cover the youngest candidate for the ritual.
"Each of us can bring a cup of water from our homes," Chivin, one of Neril's pupils volunteered.
Mirin nodded. "Tomorrow you can fast to make up the difference and I will bring Spear leaf to the Shrine in the evening to ease your sacrifice. The transplants have begun to flourish and we can begin our harvest."
Within a few minutes the level of water in the fountain was sufficient to perform the final ceremony. The children who had given of their water ration smiled widely as the last of them received the holy rite.
Mirin stepped closer to Neril and embraced her. "You have given us clothing and food, and now you give us back our God. How can we repay you."
Neril was embarrassed. It seemed she had done so little. The oldest of the children would soon fall prey to the same dull-minded obedience to Challan's rule that afflicted their parents. Kana and Nara would be spared because they lived above the level of the fumes, but her eyes went to Miyan, another of her pupils.
The graceful girl already showed signs of developing into a woman. Would her bright eyes dull and her mind grow weak before the day that should celebrate her coming of age? She lived in the lowest part of the city where the fumes were never disturbed by the breezes and winds that gave relief to higher elevations.
After that day when the children met to study at the Shrine each morning, they shared speargrass cores as a refreshing treat after an hour of study. Each afternoon during the lessons in the library, Neril would look toward Miyan, waiting anxiously for the first signs that the girl had fallen under the influence of selan.
Two weeks passed with no change in the girl's happy enthusiasm and quick questions. She kept Fedder on his mettle at the weekly examinations. One day she appeared wearing a bright red sash and a few sprigs of desert bloom in her auburn curls. It was a sign she had become a woman, but her eyes had lost none of their intelligent luster and she made a quick and pointed joke that set the other children laughing.
Neril told Mirin about her observations when the medicine woman visited her to make sure the child within her was growing properly. "I was waiting for Miyan to become like the other adult harvesters, but she is still as bright as ever. What has made the difference?"
Mirin nodded. "I have noticed that Obrat and Cigna have begun to grow beards, but they are also free of the signs of selan poisoning. Yesterday Obrat came to me in pain. He had bruised his leg in a fall. When I gave him a medicinal dose of selan, it had no effect. The only thing that is different between him and his older brother, who shows all the signs of selan poisoning, is the Spear leaf he eats when he studies with the others at the Shrine."
Joy expanded in Neril's soul until she felt she could float. It was too soon to know for certain, but perhaps in giving Spear leaf to the children of Saadena, she had given them back the ownership of their souls. She was cautious about sharing her knowledge with her companions in the library. Eliat was still too much under the shadow of Challan and might inadvertently reveal the secret. Carnat seemed cautious about involving himself in the fate of the harvesters.
Whenever she tried to talk to him about the spear leaf project he would grow solemn and try to distract her to another topic. She remembered the day when he first noticed that his subjects were real, suffering humans. It had overwhelmed him. For now, the secret of spear leaf would remain between her and Mirin.
Eliat and Carnat concentrated their efforts on cataloging and organizing the library but now and then they helped Fedder and Neril in translating and copying the Scroll of History. The time the priest and Neril spent in teaching meant that the routine of their days was changed, but the four continued to eat their breakfast and noon meals with each other while the older men shared their insights, gained from years of study and suffering.
Chapter 6 The Visitor
Neril and Carnat often sat up late and talked together after their day was done. They considered what they would do after their child was born. Carnat argued that they must leave Saadena as soon as Neril and the babe were capable of traveling. Neril was not so certain that they should leave the city. She had found a vital purpose in her work with the harvester children. She wondered how Carnat would fare beyond the city walls.
She did not want discord to come between them so she did not argue. The love they shared increased daily by the companionship they discovered. Neril was so absorbed in her happy tasks that she hardly noticed as the months passed and her body grew larger and more awkward to accommodate the growing child.
The season turned and the heat of the sun meant that everyone, including the harvesters, wore lighter clothing. There was no risk that Zadak's failure to report the warmer clothing worn by the harvesters during the winter would be noticed. He had made a considerable inroad on Challan's treasure. The problem of transporting the princess and his treasure was on the way to being solved. One of the teamsters who handled the corums used by Jama's drug merchants had accepted a bribe to provide a string of pack animals at Zadak's pleasure.
Zadak noticed the changes in Neril's body when she first appeared without a cloak. He felt betrayed by the evidence of her swollen belly and was tempted to take her now, before she bore the child of the Saadenan prince. He had dreamed of her body growing big with his sons after he had carried her far away from Carnat.
Somehow, weeks and then the months had passed away while he plotted to leave Saadena with a share of Challan's treasure and the woman he coveted. All day long after that first sight of the changes that promised an heir for Carnat, Zadak waited in vain for an opportunity to find her alone and take her to the hidden room he had prepared.
His fury and disappointment made him careless and he drank himself into insensibility the night following his first sight of her burdened body. He woke to a fierce headache and the realization that he was nearly late for his duties in the tower. It would not take many such mistakes to convince Jargin that he needed an assistant. Zadak reconsidered his rash decision to take Neril captive as soon as he found an opportunity.
It would be senseless to abduct a pregnant woman. His plans must be delayed until her child was born. The only sop to his disappointment was the knowledge that Challan would be presented with a grandchild who would further alienate her plans to put her niece in power.
He hated the arrogant queen. She was a mongrel; the daughter of a servant seller and the Jaman he had married. Gossip about her antecedents was a favorite sport among the mercenaries when their commander was busy elsewhere. Zadak was especially offended that such a woman should rule the city in which he served as no more than a hired bully.
While his comrades complained to each other that nothing changed in Saadena, that the harvesters were sub-human and the prince and king were idiots beneath contempt, Zadak saw a far different picture from his post atop the watchtower. He had lost his opportunity to earn a reward for reporting on the activities of the Prince and the Chaplain who continued to meet with the harvester children.
When Jargin proposed a change in the posting he managed to divert the steward to another subject. The changes he had observed from his perch above the city would be evident to anyone with experience of the former wild state of Saadena's children. They took care to maintain a ragged appearance, but it was a facade that would hardly hide their healthy bodies and eager eyes from an informed observer. In spite of himself, he enjoyed the sense that he had in some small way been responsible for their improved state.
Eliat still attended the evening meal with his wife every night, but he had long since become a cipher to her and she didn't notice when he fed his dinner to the large, ever more somnolent hound that lolled at his feet. He assured Carnat that Challan had become so obsessed with her research that she seldom thought of anything else. Ayarlan sometimes studied him with suspicion, but he had long years of practice in appearing vacantly naive.
Challan treated Ayarlan worse than a servant when they worked together, demanding and complaining and rebuking her harshly for any small error. Their experiments had produced a drug that brought a quick response of docile compliance, but if the dosage was not repeated regularly, the victim recovered both memory and will. "It is virtually useless to our plans until it is addictive," Challan scowled one afternoon. "Fetch that casket of docil root I told you to hide."
Ayarlan remembered where she had concealed the casket in a cabinet near the throne room, but she resented being sent on the errand into the dank older parts of the palace. The west wing where she and Challan had their workshops was in better repair and gained comfort from the wall hangings and rugs that softened the stone walls.
Grumbling with anger and shivering with the chill that emanated from the ancient stones of the passageway, she hurried past the corridor that led to the chapel. Suddenly she stopped and gazed toward the nearby stairs. There was the sound of singing, the voice of the singer familiar even though it had been months since she had heard it.
Ayarlan hid herself in a corner and watched as Neril came down the stairs toward her. The Mareklan hardly limped, but more significant, the gown she had altered from one intended for Ayarlan's bridal year stretched across her body, revealing that she was carrying a child. Ayarlan was surprised that the girl was no longer sequestered in her room, constantly guarded by Carnat
She tasted the gall of jealousy and disappointment. The appearance of Fedder in the hallway ahead stopped Ayarlan from leaping out and attacking the Mareklan interloper. She watched Neril enter the chapel and greet the priest before the door closed behind her. Ayarlan stared toward the chapel for a few moments before recalling her errand. Tears welled in her eyes but she knew that delaying her return would only cause more of Challan's caustic comments on her laziness.
When Ayarlan searched the cabinet for the casket of docil root her hands encountered a small stack of scrolls that had been concealed behind the box. Curious, she drew them forth. A quick glance at the titles tantalized her and she carried the scrolls back to her room before taking the root to Challan.
As she had expected, the queen chided her for the delay. "How long did you have to search for this? I thought you said you recalled where you put it. Bring that mortar and pestle and grind two roots to a powder."
Ayarlan listened to the queen with sullen impatience and thought of withholding her report that Carnat's wife was no longer so carefully guarded. An impatient scowl from the queen brought her anger and disappointment boiling up and she shouted: "The Mareklan is great with Carnat's child. When the brat is born, my chances of winning him away from her will be gone. We must do something."
Challan laughed derisively, "What would you have me do? Until we have perfected the formula and can ensure that our victims will seek the means of their own enslavement Carnat and his cronies can be left to their foolish pursuits in the library without further concern. When we have the means of ensuring their willing captivity, I will make certain you supplant Neril, no matter how many brats she breeds."
It was not an answer that satisfied Ayarlan but she dared do nothing without Challan's support. The band of bullies controlled by Jargin could easily be turned against her by a word from the queen. She bowed her head to hide the rebellion in her eyes and followed Challan's instructions.
Although the guards ate in the barracks and kept clear of all but casual contact with the inhabitants of the palace, one of them usually accompanied Jargin when he gave the queen his reports. Now and then there had been incursions by miserable gangs of bandits, fallen so low that they dared the desert and tried to find a way into the palace.
From his post on the tower, Zadak invariably detected them before they reached the edge of the city. He became a favorite with the steward and was in turn brought to the attention of Challan. He was regularly invited to dine with her. Zadak cared little for the opportunity to consort with Saadena's royal mistress. He was contemptuous of the queen who usually had a stink of charred drugs hanging about her person.
His desperate life had not erased the ease of manner and comely appearance that went with his upbringing and lineage. Challan showed no interest in him, but Ayarlan was more vulnerable. The scrolls of poetry she had found with the docil root had fired her imagination. Her fantasies began to center on the handsome watchman.
Zadak had resigned himself to wait until Neril bore her child and he could abduct her. The steward offered to provide a relief while he made a trip to Jama, but Zadak refused. He could not risk betraying the many activities he had concealed from the notice of Jargin. The harvester women held no appeal for him. He noticed that Ayarlan had begun to flirt with him. She was not to his taste, but she was young and clean. There was also a good possibility that she would help him gain access to supplies of selan.
One morning when Zadak was on the way to the watch tower, Ayarlan stepped into his path and pulled him aside into a small storage room. She reached into her belt pouch and brought forth a beautiful belt of blue wirra hide worked with patterns of gold. "I noticed your belt was frayed. I brought this for you."
Zadak accepted the belt and ran his fingers over the rich embroidery. It was very much like one he had worn as a youth. After he removed his old belt and replaced it with the gift his eyes lifted from the fastening to the face of the Ayarlan.
She reached up to the shelf near his head and brought down a flask of Jaman wine. "I brought this for you the other day but I didn't have the courage to stop you then," she whispered.
He pushed her away and held the flask to catch the light from a high window. For a moment he played with the idea of demanding more while he watched Ayarlan's face through the deep amber of the potent brew. "What do you want in exchange for these gifts?" he finally asked.
"I have watched you," she admitted. "You are not like the other servants of the queen. You are young and clean and not as crude."
Zadak almost laughed aloud at her awkward approach. "I have noticed you watching me," he replied. He dropped his tone consciously to produce a caressing voice.
"We must meet. I have been reading-- a scroll of poetry," Ayarlan's voice broke and her cheeks were fiery with embarrassment. He said nothing but waited for her to get up the courage to continue her offer. He touched her cheek in encouragement. He wondered how far she would go. She gasped at the contact and shut her eyes.
Then she stared at the door while she finished her speech. "You are the only one I dare approach." The girl's hands shook as they gripped his shoulders. It was evident that she was overcome with what she had read and Zadak almost laughed. The Jaman dress and flirting ways of the queen's niece were an open joke among the guards who wagered she had never known a man's embrace.
Zadak let her wonder what he would say for a few moments while he considered the offer. It could be dangerous to involve himself with another woman when all his attention had been given to abducting Neril. On the other hand, it would be months before he could carry out his plan. He resented the long delay. Ayarlan would provide amusement while he waited. He was eager to see what it had been written in the scrolls of poetry that was so powerful that it had destroyed Ayarlan's usual air of remote pride and brought her to this pass.
He put the flask aside and took her in his arms. The feel of her bony ribs brought him to his senses. It would be folly to risk dallying with Ayarlan.
When he pushed her away from him, her face was distraught. "I forgot myself," he said. "I must go."
He left the flask of wine when he left the room and had to return to fetch it. The diversion made him late in arriving at his post. Only a moment later Jargin appeared in the courtyard below to make sure Zadak was on duty. He gave the signal that all was well, but his delay had prevented him from seeing the arrival of a lone wanderer.
By the time Zadak began to make a survey of the northern rim of valley from which the trail descended into the city, Sergon had reached the bottom of the trail and was lost to the view of the watchman behind the first piles of rubble that marked the edge of the ruined city of Saadena.
Sergon walked slowly and made a thorough survey of the surrounding ruins as he passed through them. He had come to Saadena to visit Neril, but he had other reasons to be concerned with events in the ancient imperial capitol.
He had heard that Challan was still firmly in control of Saadena. Her dealings with Jama's drug dealers were open knowledge. It was said she was interested in importing dass and docil. Sergon pondered the problem. Surely there was no appetite for the drugs among the harvesters. The former courtiers of Challan's court were long gone.
Shortly before he left Jama he had visited an inn where some of the guards employed by Jargin stayed when they took leave. He invited one of them to share a meal. His careful questions yielded no better information than what he had learned from casual gossip. The man was all too willing to tell him that although the queen fed and housed her guards well enough, there was little to entertain them or interest them when their work was done. The Mareklan wondered what became of the quantities of addictive substances imported by the queen.
While he continued on his way through the city toward the palace he noticed many subtle changes. The harvesters still slogged wearily and dull-eyed about their numbing task of scraping crude selan from the rocks of fallen Saadena, but their physical appearance was different. They seemed cleaner and better groomed, as if someone who loved them was combing their hair and cleaning dust from their dull features. Their clothing was not so ragged. Tears were mended and here and there a bright bit of embroidery flashed.
When he approached the Shrine he noticed that the steps were swept and the debris cleaned from the forecourt. Had Neril done all this? She must be exhausted if she had taken on the care of the poor inhabitants of the entire city.
He entered the chapel cautiously but instead of the forlorn emptiness that had been so painful to him on his previous visit, the great prayer room was nearly filled with children of all ages. Babes barely old enough to toddle laughed over the shapes of letters that had been carved into blocks of stone and stained with earth colors.
The teachers were barely older than children themselves, and most amazing, because surely they were Saadenans, evident from the dark russet of their hair, they were not the numbed and stumbling harvesters he was used to seeing. He stayed in the shadowed alcove and observed the teaching that was going forward.
He had seen many schools, but never one where there was such an intense dedication to learning. There was an air of joy about both students and teachers that made Sergon's smile break into a grin. It was a holy joy. The children began to chant a set of verses that puzzled and thrilled him. Where had they learned the words? They had the cadence distinctive to the writings of Irilik, but Sergon knew the laws and compacts by heart and these were none of those.
"There was a princess in Kishdu who saw the light of truth.
Algunagada sought her for a bride and her parents sold her to the tyrant.
But Elianin fled with her servant and her dowry
She followed the beacon that only the righteous could see.
Thus she came to follow the Prophet and join with the house of Saaden
Her sons will build an empire with wisdom and all men shall wonder,
Then pride shall sour their hearts and their towers will fall.
Elianin's tears will bathe heaven until the return of the Scroll"
Sergon was entranced. Was this a fragment of prophecy that had somehow eluded him? How had it come to be repeated in Saadena where its sentiments were certainly treasonous? He needed more than ever to talk to Neril.
He waited in the alcove while the children concluded their schooling and skipped toward the exits from the chapel. Then, before they went forth into the city, they wiped the smiles from their faces, slowed their steps to the sluggish pace more characteristic of harvesters and went out into the harsh sunlight.
One of the young teachers had not been so intent on her teaching that she had missed the presence of a stranger in the Shrine. At first Kana thought he was a vision, an unearthly being sent as a messenger. His white robes and silver hair and beard enhanced the illusion. She approached him reverently and bowed her head.
"Could you tell me where I might find the lady Neril?" he asked.
The question surprised her. "She is in the palace library this morning. Surely such as you must know the habits of ordinary mortals?"
Sergon was startled. He gave a laugh that quickly destroyed the illusion of his unearthly state. "Nay, I cannot see through stone walls or know the thoughts of mortal men. I am only a pilgrim and a friend of Neril. My name is Sergon."
Kana could not have been more pleased and surprised if the being in front of her had admitted to being an angel. "Oh! You are the hero of the Janakan Ambush, the true friend of our lady Neril. Welcome!"
She drew him into the small room behind the chapel that would ordinarily be used for a robing room. Now it held soapstone tablets and flint scribing tools on benches along the walls. She asked him to take a seat and brought a bowl of pale green spear leaf cores for him to eat.
"Today Neril will come to the Shrine with Fedder to examine us in what we have learned. It is not wise for you to go to the palace. I'm surprised you were able to enter the valley without being seen by the watchman."
"Sometimes the Radiance blesses our ways. How is it that you have spear leaf to offer me? I would prefer that you keep it to feed the children."
Kana laughed, "Never fear that I have made them go hungry for your sake. This small bowl is all that remains of their breakfast. I have eaten my fill and had begun to fear I would have to discard these cores before they fermented. Even now the children are harvesting fresh spear leaf for the meal we will take with Fedder and Neril."
"I noticed that the harvesters are better clad than they were before," he said.
"All you see is the work of Lady Neril. She brought clothing and bedding from the palace and put them near the refuse heap where the children were used to scavenge. In that way she could not be accused of giving them to us. Helping the harvesters is a fatal offense in Saadena. Later she introduced us to the uses and cultivation of spear leaf. When they are not in school, most of the children are busy expanding the plantations of spear leaf or hunting the small animals that live in the desert."
Sergon was reassured when he learned that although Neril had set in motion the changes taking place, she was ably assisted by such as this eager young school mistress. "Are all the children of Saadena involved in this revolution?"
Kana shook her head. "Selan is not addictive, but there are those, both old and young, who fear change more than they value knowledge and freedom. They reject the spear leaf we offer and refuse to be taught. In time, they will fall to the stink of selan that enslaves their parents."
"You mentioned that Fedder is coming to instruct you along with Neril. When I was here last he was a tool of the queen and denied any responsibility for the harvesters."
"He has become different since Lady Neril came," Kana said. "He teaches us and he saved enough water from his own ration to hold a ceremony of Renewal. He stands just behind Lady Neril in our esteem."
"And what of Prince Carnat?" the Mareklan asked.
"He knows what is being done and does nothing to interfere, neither does he help teach us. He often comes with Neril and Fedder to the Shrine, but he spends his time studying the carvings of the Laws and the Compacts or cleaning and repairing the Shrine." Kana stopped and considered her words. They seemed to condemn the Prince and she did not want Sergon to judge him ill. "He shows courage by permitting his wife to come to us. I know he would like to keep her locked safely away where his mother and her bullies could never harm her. We are grateful that he permits her to give us her time and care."
"I would like to surprise her this afternoon," Sergon said. "I will wait in the same alcove where I stood while you were teaching. I will introduce myself when the time is right." He winked and Kana giggled at the thought of how pleased and surprised Neril would be.
"I won't betray your friendly ambush," she promised with a smile.
Sergon retreated into the alcove and rested on a bench, his white clothing and hair giving him a natural camouflage against the pale stone. He bowed his head and meditated. When he prayed and meditated about Neril he was always affected by strong conflicting impressions. The feeling that Neril was a pivotal character, possibly as important to the future as Irilik had been to the past, resonated with holy conviction, but he continued to feel that she was in danger. Lately that feeling had grown ever more urgent.
He prayed while he waited for Neril and Fedder to meet with the children, but he found more answers than he wanted. There was no clear course. As her friend, he should warn Neril and urge her to leave the valley with him. But there was a deeper, wider destiny involved that he could not ignore. Perhaps his answers would be made clear when he spoke to her.
Kana gave no hint of his presence as the children assembled again to await the weekly visit of Fedder and Neril. At his first glimpse of Neril and Carnat, Sergon made two discoveries. Neril was carrying her husband's child and she had no regrets for her marriage. Their hands rested together in the trusting small embrace that only occurs where love or friendship exists in full measure. When they entered the Shrine, Fedder bustled ahead and was greeted by the children and their youthful teachers but Carnat drew Neril into the alcove that faced the one in which Sergon had concealed himself.
The prince looked down at his wife with such love and devotion that Sergon was suddenly, painfully reminded of the great love of his life. Kemila had never guessed that he was anything but a friend and before he could summon the courage to declare himself, events had forced him to renounce all hope of having her. In the face of events that fostered her marriage to the Zedeklan prince, Manchek, Sergon had tried to banish the pain and restore the feelings of good fellowship that had marked their relationship from childhood.
The radiant adoration in Carnat's gaze when he looked at Neril brought back Sergon's memory of lost love so clearly that an ache started in his chest and he nearly betrayed himself with a sigh. Neril looked up at her husband with a look that mirrored his love. Carnat touched her hair with his fingers and her cheek with his lips, then reluctantly, he pushed her forward towards the waiting children and went into another part of the chapel.
The children turned from Fedder whom they had greeted fondly, almost teasingly. They approached Neril in a way that reflected reverence approaching adulation. She quickly made a small joke that broke the mood of worshipful attention. Sergon had seen the way she related to Tomak, the small but imperious Zedeklan prince, and to Doka's younger sons, but he hadn't guessed she was such a natural teacher. It was evidently her example that had taught the young apprentice teachers to maintain an atmosphere of joyful learning in their classes.
Although there were more than a hundred children, all received a word of praise or gentle encouragement and correction from Neril as she examined their tablets and asked questions about what they had studied the previous week. She finished the session by teaching them a few verses that seemed to be scriptural in tone but followed no book Sergon had ever read.
"There is no darkness in the Light of the Radiance, but there is a darkness that infects the hearts of my people. When one would rule all and the voice of the people is stilled, this is a sign of darkness. When my people follow their lusts and love dies, this is a sign of darkness. When humility is shunned and my people become vain with proud display and the face of a neighbor is ground in the dust for gain, this is a sign of darkness."
"There will be war and famine and the earth itself shall struggle to cast off the evil that infests its surface. In those days my words will be lost. But a child of Irilik shall come and in the Vale of Death will serve me. The lost will be restored. The children of Irilik will join with the sons of Elianin and theirs will be a joint inheritance when once again the river flows."
Neril repeated the verses slowly and Sergon could see that the children were trying to memorize them. The young teachers were copying the words on their tablets. Sergon's curiosity was piqued as it had been earlier with the verses Kana had taught. The library of Saadena was legendary. Some of the emperors had been scholars with enough wealth to indulge their appetite for whatever scrolls or tablets they desired. In past ages some of them had bequeathed parts of their collections to the library in Timora as a sign of devotion. Since the reign of Marnat and the earthquake that had broken the back of the empire, little had been heard of the library. Perhaps it was time to take notice.
Kana sensed that Neril was prepared to end the session of examination and instruction. She stepped forward. "We have a visitor. He is someone you have all heard of, Sergon, Neril's friend."
Sergon watched Neril's face light with joy when he stood and acknowledged Kana's introduction. In moments he was swamped with eager children who had heard many tales that featured the Mareklan elder. "Was the snake you and Lady Neril killed really a monster?" one small boy challenged with a dubious look at the robed elder.
"It was big enough to swallow me if Neril had not stopped it," Sergon assured the boy with slight exaggeration.
Neril laughed and made her way to the front of the crowd. "Welcome dear friend. What brings you here. I had heard that no Mareklan is allowed to trade with Saadena since I was abducted by the prince."
"I am a priest, not a merchant on trek. I am no longer bound by the rules of Marekla's council," Sergon told her. "As for your other friends, we will speak of them when there are not so many eager ears."
Neril nodded. She let the children ask questions and enjoy the presence of the hero for a while. It would do them good to remember such a man and pass his stories on to their own children in time. They had a need of heroes. At last she firmly ended the session. "I would like to speak to Sergon alone. If he tells me any more of his adventures, I will tell them to you next week."
It was a tribute to her popularity and skill that none of the youngsters resisted or complained. They looked back wistfully as Kana and her sister Nara herded them into end of the hall near the robing room for their afternoon meal of spear leaf cores.
"I hardly need to ask you how you are, you look radiant," Sergon said when they were alone.
"I have never felt so well, or so awkward. I think women must welcome the release of childbirth enough to bear the pain. I can hardly wait to carry my child in my arms instead of jutting forward like a great melon," she admitted with a rueful glance at her protruding middle.
"You were a girl when last I saw you," Sergon said. "Now you are fully a woman. I feared I might have made a mistake when I didn't tell your father that I suspected the prince had abducted you. Do you forgive me for withholding the knowledge?" he asked.
Neril looked at her sandals, then at the wall. Tears welled in her eyes. "There was a day when I would have cursed your name if I had guessed that you left me here, knowing that I had been captured by Carnat. He drugged me and went through with a mock marriage that lacked nothing but the willing consent of the bride. When he finally gave me back my will and reason, I nearly went mad with the realization of what had happened to me. On that day I was faced with the emotions of hate and love in raging conflict."
"I am sorry," Sergon said.
"I accept your sorrow, and I absolve you. What would have happened if you had spoken to my father? Surely he would have returned to Saadena and forced Carnat to reveal my presence. You would have had to deal with a hopeless cripple, unable to wake up without crying for a drug to dull the pain. Surely you noticed my limp? I suffered a badly broken leg. If you had carried me out of the valley, it might never have healed. Only the long, careful healing carried out by Mirin, the medicine woman, and Carnat, could have restored my mobility."
Sergon nodded. "Geran would have insisted that you be carried away from Saadena, whatever the damage to your health and Neragon would have agreed. But that is no longer a threat. They hate each other. When Neragon returned to Marekla he was disgraced because of your loss. Geran and his cronies had plenty of time to spread their poison. Belil divorced your father and married Geran."
Sergon saw Neril's lips lift in a small smile when he mentioned the divorce. She had never liked or trusted the woman her father had married.
"Belil whipped up gossip among the women and drew the widows of the men who died in the ambush into her net," Sergon continued. "Geran and Belil hold power in the council, more through gossip and rumor than through honest popularity. They urged that your father be restricted to the valley. He may use his knowledge to lead the caravans through the caverns to the trail head, but he may not set foot on the trail itself. Your name has been blotted out of the records kept in the Shrine. You are called 'the nameless one' and girl children are warned against being over bold. The policy of excluding women from trek has become law. No Mareklan woman will ever leave the valley again."
Neril lowered her head for a moment and then lifted it to face him. "I rejoice to hear that Belil and Geran have married. It is mean of me to wish such a mating. The marriage of a shrew and a bully can bring joy to neither. If my father no longer has the freedom of the trek, he has the freedom of his heart and mind. There are other women who will see his true worth and make him happy. As for the law that binds women within the vale, it cannot last forever. You heard the verses I taught the children?" Sergon nodded.
"I have seen it in a vision," Neril said. "The people of Irilik, those we call Mareklans, and the people of Saadena, will join as one in the valley of Saadena, the river will once again bring fertility and beauty to this land. This will be the true Homeplace of which you spoke every evening when you gave the evening ritual."
Sergon did not doubt her words. "When will this happen?"
She shook her head and smiled. "I cannot say, but I know that among them will be my children's children. You are a visionary yourself Sergon. You know how visions come, so clearly full of truth and yet so woefully lacking in the kind of information we think we need as humans. Time seems less important to the Radiance than it is to us. He waited four hundred years before sending a foolish maiden on a quest after a legend. You may have wondered why I didn't resist and escape from Carnat when he first appeared at the tent and abducted me, but I was caught by his face. I had seen him again and again in dreams and visions."
Neril paused as if listening and shook her head again. She felt she could confide in Sergon that they had found the lost scroll, but she had given her oath to Eliat, Fedder and Carnat. Until they released her from the promise, she could not tell her friend that the promise of the Seeress was being fulfilled and soon Irilik's Scroll of Prophecy would be returned to Timora.
Sergon noticed her hesitation but he acknowledged what she said; "Yes, I am a visionary, more so lately than ever before. The ball I gave you in Timora is called 'the Lantern' and it belongs by right to the heirs of Irilik. It is said that the Radiance gave the prophet a stone that glowed like a beacon but only in the eyes of the righteous. Irilik used it to gather those who were fit to follow him to a new land free of the tyranny of Algunagada. The lantern was crafted by Irilik so that when night came and his followers needed rest, the light could be concealed. When one of my ancestors had the choice, he chose the lantern instead of the stone. I believe that the Stone of Truth is part of the heritage of Zedekla's kings, but I digress."
Neril nodded. "You are the heir to the High Priest of Okishdu and that is why you carried the lantern. Did you recover it from my possessions along with my staff?"
Sergon shook his head. "Your father took everything that belonged to you and kept it safe. He hoped we would rescue you alive and willing to return to Marekla as a dutiful child. The lantern ball is now only a symbol of a forgotten tale, not an important ritual object. It is also a key for those to need to know the way, but there are enough who know our trails that it is not important. I am no longer in retreat from my responsibilities. I am unlikely to succeed to the formal title or the seer-ship since I am unmarried, but I am bound for Timora and a seat on the council."
"You will not always be a widower," Neril promised with an impish smile. Then she frowned. She had liked and admired Manchek. The brief insight that flashed before her eyes showed her a vision of Sergon and his future wife. It was Kemila. She knew that only death would part the former queen from her husband. She would never marry another man as long as Manchek lived. Sergon felt her hesitation.
"Is there something you think I should know?" he asked.
"Would such as I advise you?" she teased. Sergon recognized her diversion. She reached out and took his hand. "We both know that our mortal life is only a part of a greater existence. Something has given the two of us the ability to see both forward and back along the tangled skein of what is and was and will be, but only at odd moments and with narrow understanding. Let me keep my secret and anticipate your joy and sorrow without betraying the exact content of my foresight."
"I did not come to consult you about my future," Sergon chuckled ruefully. "I will take what comes and enjoy the surprises, or laugh at the absurdities. The Radiance sometimes seems to have a deplorable sense of humor. You may keep your secrets, I came to offer you escape from Saadena."
"You can see that I am unable to travel," Neril said with a gesture at her swollen figure.
"You could easily be carried out of Saadena to safety in Tedaka with the help of a litter and two strong men. Your husband could help. He is not the slender youth I met last year when he abducted you. He has matured and put on weight and muscle."
"Yes, when I was crippled he cared for me. He carried me to my bath and wherever I wanted to be moved. His life now has purpose and he works at restoring the Shrine whenever we are here. In the library he is the one who carries the piles of stone tablets wherever his father dictates."
"His father?" Sergon said with a raised eyebrow. "I thought King Eliat was completely under the thrall of his wife, Challan."
"He was more afraid of her than anything. He pretends to others that he is still a slave to her drugs, but for months he has been helping his son bring order to the library. I wish you could go there with me. It surely rivals the library in Timora in the wealth of scholarship and history that was piled so heedlessly within its walls," Neril said.
Sergon nodded. "I wondered where you got the verses you were sharing with the children. It has the sound of prophecy, but none I have read."
Neril once again felt a strong temptation to reveal the presence of the scroll of Prophecy to Sergon but again she was prompted to change the subject. "I am certain Carnat would be all too willing to help you carry me out of Saadena, and that is why I want you to promise that you won't ask him. He worries about me, but I know that this is my place." Neril replied.
"I feel that you are in danger. There is a miasma of threat about the palace. Someone there intends evil to you," Sergon warned.
Neril laughed. "That is a fancy way to say someone hates me. My mother-in-law, Challan, and her niece, Ayarlan, are my enemies, but they are so taken up with their drugs and mixtures that they seldom cross my path. They think me a foolish, weak-willed cripple. It is a most convenient fiction. Whatever I do seems mere eccentricity. I doubt I present enough of a threat to either of them to endanger my life."
"No, I recognize their antipathy, but there is someone else who threatens your happiness," Sergon advised.
"Have you actually seen anything?" Neril asked.
He hesitated. "I feel strongly that if I am your friend, I will take you from Saadena."
"I could go out of this valley and find friends and success," Neril admitted. "But Carnat is unfit for any useful labor. He is a scholar, but his focus is narrow and concerns only the collection of history and literature made by his ancestors. He has an inborn haughtiness that would alienate others who have no regard for his ancient lineage. He struggles with his natural sympathy for the harvesters. All his life he was taught to disregard them as less than human. Now he is often overcome with guilt for the slavery his ancestors imposed on the people they should have cared for and succored. Someday he will come into his own and rule well and justly. You have seen the way the children turn to me. How will they go on if I abandon them?"
Sergon shook his head. "If you stay you may die. Would you rather be a martyr than abandon them?"
Neril stared at him with surprise at his blunt words, then her mouth turned up in an ironic smile. "You and I both know that life is only a temporary state in a greater existence. I will bear my child, I know that. Beyond that, I cannot see what my own life will be. Of course I wish for years of love and life with my husband and child. But whatever comes, I know I cannot leave Saadena now. If you honor me, do not offer Carnat the chance to carry me away."
Sergon bowed his head and so signaled his resignation to her will. He recognized her power. If she was martyred, she would become a saint and perhaps be even more powerful in the work of transformation of the Saadenan people. He had not failed to notice that the young men and women who acted as teachers and assisted the others had somehow escaped the dulling, drugging influence of the musky air. "How did you keep your young acolytes from becoming victims of selan?" he asked.
"You are the father of that miracle," she said with a smile. "If you had not shown me the uses of spear leaf I would never have shared it with them. One of Carnat's ancestors was able to culture the plant, but she was a hobbyist who saw no use for her collections except as a garden for her pleasure. Challan discovered the garden and took away the water. That only encouraged the growth of a small patch of spear leaf. Soon it had taken over the garden and now it is flourishing in hidden patches all over Saadena. When the children eat it, they develop a resistance to both the evils and the benefits of selan. They can no longer use it to dull pain, nor does it dull their minds."
"I am happy if I helped, but I see all you have accomplished and I am humbled," Sergon admitted.
Carnat was shocked when he returned to the chapel with some stones to replace a broken step and saw Neril in deep conversation with Sergon. He remembered the lies he had told the Mareklan elder when he had abducted his bride. Then he realized that this might be his key to freeing Neril from Saadena. He approached the elder hopefully.
Sergon remembered the glimpse of Carnat's bright hair that had betrayed the prince's presence on his last visit to Saadena. He wanted to speak to him alone. Neril had confirmed his insight that the prince had taken her captive and redeemed that foul act by marrying her. It was evident the marriage was a happy one and Neril seemed content with her lot.
He gave Neril a look that told her he gave his reluctant promise that he would not encourage Carnat in any schemes to take her from the valley and held out his hand to the prince. "I have come to visit Neril before I continue on to Timora," he said.
"I hope you will be able to wait here until our child is born and then help us leave Saadena," Carnat said.
Sergon saw Neril shake her head just enough to warn him. "I will return in a few months and visit you. Perhaps we can arrange something then," Sergon offered.
Carnat's strained frown dissolved in a charming smile. "I will plan for the day. My father has an errand to perform and he will join us when we leave Saadena."
Neril guessed that Sergon wanted to talk to Carnat privately and she found an excuse to leave them alone together. "I must go and make sure that no spear leaf cores have been left out to ferment," she said.
After she left the room, a few moments of silence passed while the two men surveyed each other. Carnat was glad that this formidable man was not a rival for Neril's affections. She loved the elder, that was evident in the way she spoke of him, but it was the love of a disciple or student for a teacher. There were Orenese watchers who took young girls to wife long after their hair turned gray. His mother's father was such a man, but Sergon was evidently a bachelor of long standing. Neril had said that he was widowed, but it was hard to believe he had ever been domesticated enough to be a husband.
"She loves you," Sergon said. "You have won a rare thing. I hope you will prove yourself worthy of what she has given you."
"I only recently learned to pray," Carnat admitted. "But the burden of every prayer I say is a plea that I not fail her. I caught her carelessly and selfishly as a child catches a butterfly. I hurt her and insulted her in ways I am only beginning to comprehend. I apologize to you and all who love her. All I can say is that nothing will ever mean more to me than the happiness of Neril."
Sergon nodded almost wearily. The youth before him was full of hope and promise but he still had no comprehension of Neril's nature. "She is one who calls the attention of Seers and moves history. I think the Radiance will preserve her life until she has performed the task she was sent to do. Sometimes he loves his saints too well to let them suffer mortal life for long. There is a shadow over her. It emanates from the palace. Never leave her unguarded."
Carnat nodded, "Sometimes I sense someone watching us. My mother and Ayarlan no longer seem to be a threat, but the watchman who mans the high tower lurks about. I have seen him in the corridor outside our room and I think he has tried the door. I would challenge him, but if I did so, he might defeat me and Neril would have only women and children, and old Fedder as her protectors."
Sergon glanced through a high window that gave a view of the top of the watchtower. A brawny figure sat on the battlement. There was something familiar about the man, even at this distance, and for a moment Sergon was reminded of Manchek in his youth. He had tried to discover what had become of Zadak after the attempted abduction but only a few rumors hinted at the truth. What strange tangle of fate made Kemila's wayward son the man who threatened Neril's happiness?
"I will pray for guidance. I do not think I need fear a confrontation with your watchman," Sergon assured Carnat. "Please find Neril so that I may bid farewell."
"I have a gift for you before you leave," Carnat said. He found Neril and told her that Sergon was waiting for her. Then he hurried to another part of the Shrine where he had stored the soapstone tablets that he had used to amuse Neril when she was his prisoner in the garden. When he returned there were smiles on the faces of Neril and Sergon, but there were also tears in their eyes. Carnat dared not ask what had brought the air of solemnity that seemed to shimmer between them.
He handed one of the tablets to Sergon. It was a sketch of Neril reaching for a butterfly that hovered just above her face. The elder was pleased and impressed. "You have a talent. It is a living likeness and executed with elegant simplicity. I underestimated you."
"Goodbye you old rascal," Neril said. "If we linger much longer I fear you will have my husband trying to catch a likeness of you. But what would he show? Would you like to be portrayed as the swaggering bachelor, the simpering Zedeklan widow, or the happily married patriarch?"
Her words puzzled Carnat but Sergon chuckled. "If you will speak the name of the woman with whom I will share my old age, I will choose that pose."
"Trickster!" she reproved with a laugh. "You will know only too soon who it will be. Treat her as well as you have enjoined Carnat he should treat me and always remember she is a gift you cannot regret even though the price is too high for all of us."
"Come away Neril before you bend my mind with your riddles," Carnat said with a nervous smile. "The two of you are a potent combination."
Neril gave Sergon a hug as hearty as her condition allowed and said a last farewell. Then she walked away, once again hand in hand with her husband. Fedder scurried out of the small book room of the chapel and nervously approached Sergon. "I am trying to do what you told me to do," he assured the elder.
"You are doing better than I could have hoped, but you had good assistance. No matter what happens, do not lose hope. Remember, there is a thin veil between death and life. Those we have loved will be mindful of us always."
Fedder looked at Sergon with surprise and when the elder realized what his own mouth had uttered, he paled. "You should join the others. I must pray."
He did not know how long he knelt in the Shrine trying to find some hope in the words that had been put in his mouth by some will beyond his own. He did not truly pray, rather he struggled to deny the vision that attempted to open to his inner sight. He reviewed his conversations with Neril and was disquieted by the memory.
He had no fear of death for himself, he was a man who had surprised himself with living harder and doing more than he could ever have expected when he was a callow boy venturing out of the vale on his first trek. There had been many times when he had thought his life was forfeit, but he had survived more than half a century with only a few scars to tell of his many narrow escapes. He pleaded that if there must be a sacrifice that he would be the one to pay the price. After a long period of prayer and meditation, he decided what he must do.
Zadak wished it could have been Neril instead of Ayarlan he was meeting when his watch concluded. If he had been named the heir of his father, Manchek, a woman such as Neril would have been his bride. He thought of his brother's, wife, a Mareklan from the port of Arqua. It was reputed that she was a beauty.
He was certain that she could have been no lovelier than the stalwart young woman he watched as she defied the queen by clothing and consorting with the harvester children. He liked her defiance and subtlety. He was amused by the broomstick she always carried. It seemed such a pathetic weapon, but if she had been taught to use the staff by such as Sergon, it could prove dangerous.
If another of the servants or guards confronted her on her errands, they might rue the meeting. He would easily disarm her of her makeshift weapon when he was ready to abduct her, even though he guessed she would leave wounds on him. He anticipated the day when he could take her to the room he had furnished with pilfered luxuries. It was a pity there could be no window, but he could not risk having others overhear her. Zadak lifted the flask of Jaman wine that Ayarlan had given him and took another draft.
As if his thoughts had summoned her, Neril appeared in the courtyard below with the old priest and Carnat. They were coming from the Shrine. He had seen them earlier when they went for their weekly visit with the children. It seemed they had stayed longer today. He idly wondered what they did in the hours they spent and decided it was only a pathetic attempt to proselyte for the superstitions of their kind. He could not believe in the nonsense taught by the priests of Orqu, but neither did he believe there was any supernatural being waiting to judge and punish after death.
Neril waddled under the burden of Carnat's child and Zadak felt a surge of jealousy against the queen's ineffectual son. Why should Neril be carrying the child of the heir of ruined Saadena when she was fit to be the mate of Zedeklan royalty.
For a moment his anger tempted him to betray Neril to Challan. He lowered the flask of wine and realized that his mind was becoming slightly fuddled by the potent liquor. He watched Neril avidly while she walked toward the palace. He had long since ceased to think of her as crippled because she lived her life so fearlessly. For a moment, before she was lost to view, while his mind and heart were filled with admiration and caring that overshadowed and subdued his anger, she looked upward at the top of the tower.
Neril had often sensed the Watchman gazing down on her from his tower. At first she had shared the concerns of Nara and had feared his looming presence. As time passed, and he made no report of her activities among the harvesters, she began to regard him with trust. Surely he was protecting their secret or they would have long since felt Challan's wrathful revenge.
Neril had never looked directly at Zadak, but some tension in the air drew her eyes upward and she saw him staring at her. It was too far to see the exact expression of his eyes, but she sensed a sorrow and longing that found a response in her heart. A brief prayer of thanks for his sympathy ended the glancing encounter of their eyes.
Zadak continued to think about her as he idly surveyed the trail that led into the valley. When she had looked up at him, it seemed that a bright arrow of empathy shot between them. Emotions he had no name for expanded his chest and there was a sting of unaccustomed tears at the corners of his eyes. He began to regret the appointment he had made with Ayarlan. Even the contemplation of a future with Neril seemed better than time wasted with the queen's bony niece.
As hours passed and Zadak continued drinking, the memory of the incandescent moment he had shared with Neril faded. One of the house servants appeared with a meal. Zadak left the servant to watch while he went below and used the privy. When he returned to his post he idly signaled to Jargin and made another survey of the rim of the valley, then his eyes were distracted to the door of the Shrine by a movement of something white.
Several hours had passed since Neril and the others had left the Shrine. Zadak focused on the person who had ventured alone out of the arched doorway and memory stirred. The man carried a Mareklan staff, but only Sergon wore the straggly beard that other Mareklans plucked out or shaved.
He should report the arrival of Sergon to Jargin, the steward, and let him deal with the intruder, but he discarded the thought. Sergon had been his enemy for too long to turn his punishment over to lesser men. Zadak wondered how he would get the Mareklan alone but Sergon solved his problem by heading directly for the palace, evidently coming straight to him. He looked around and considered the space he had occupied every day for months.
He had never considered it from the point of view of an armed confrontation. The tower was slender but fanned out near the top, the floor wide enough to provide a fair arena. If the Mareklan intended to confront Zadak on his own ground, he could ambush him easily, removing the old meddler's head before he even knew he was in danger. Zadak rejected such an easy death for Sergon. He should die painfully. He should know who was killing him and why he was dying.
Zadak hefted the heavy sword he had taken from a man he had murdered in Kumnor. It was not Tharek Oc Baroka, the sword his brother wore, but it was fine Janakan bronze with an edge he kept sharp enough to shave with. He rested his hand on the hilt of the dagger he had purchased after leaving his own behind in the Mareklan camp near Tedaka after his first attempt to abduct Neril. Perhaps Sergon would be wearing the lost dagger. If so, he would take it from him and use it to give the killing blow.
He grew impatient when Sergon lingered on his way through the city. At one point he nearly leaned over the breastwork and hailed the old man. When Sergon looked up and continued forward. Zadak all that filled his mind was the vulnerability of that lone figure, his nemesis, the man who had cost him a crown and caused him to become a vagabond.
The pall of threat sharpened in Sergon's perception whenever he looked toward the figure at the top of the watchtower. His previous visits to Saadena had given him a good idea of the layout of the fortifications. The new watchtower could probably be reached from a passage leading from the guard house.
There was a sound of weapons clashing from the courtyard beyond the entrance, but no one challenged Sergon when he slipped past the door of the guard house and hurried along the passage. His sense of danger grew as he approached the base of the stairs that spiraled up the inside of the tower.
When Sergon stepped through the opening onto the platform at the top of the tower he met the manic gaze of Zadak. The prince of Zedekla had been a comely youth, but profligate living and evil acts had robbed him of all but superficial resemblance his twin, the handsome young king of Zedekla.
Sorrow and pity welled up in Sergon's heart even as faultless instinct brought his staff into attack position. Years of experience gave him insight into the tactical strengths and weaknesses of the top of the tower with a glance. He caught a glimpse of the hidden sword and the shadow over Neril was made manifest. It was with real reluctance that he determined that only one of them could leave the top of the tower alive.
Zadak had expected to see fear in Sergon's eyes but the pity that met his gaze infuriated him. He circled to get Sergon to move away from the entrance. The ploy seemed to work. He slapped the cover of the trap door shut as he passed it, trapping both of them on the roof of the tower. Zadak knew he had the advantage of youth and armament. The Mareklan carried only a scarred staff with a nearly invisible network of incised lines and triangles. Zadak had heard rumors that the staffs were magic, but Zadak held no brief for such superstitions.
He feinted with his dagger and Sergon drew back further toward the low breastwork. Zadak grasped his sword and waited an instant for the expected fear to come into Sergon's face, but the old man remained curiously placid.
"Are you now so holy that you are prepared to die?" Zadak taunted.
"I hope I am always prepared to die. I am not prepared to have you kill me," Sergon said with an ironic smile. He did not falter from the position he had taken. Zadak leaped forward, his intent more to frighten than to cut. The dagger he had lost was suddenly in one of Sergon's hands.
"Are you trying to regain your lost property?" the Mareklan gibed. "Here, take it." He tossed the dagger toward Zadak, not blade first as if to wound, but hilt first as if he meant his words. Zadak instinctively let loose the clumsy dagger and leaped forward to grab his own knife.
"Leave here now, go far away and forget Neril and I will do nothing more to you," Sergon said. It was such an impudent demand that Zadak laughed.
"Old man, you deprived me of a kingdom and the chance to honestly marry one of your kinswomen. I cannot regain the kingdom, but I have resolved to have Neril. Unfortunately, she is married, still worse, she carries the seed of Saadena's prince, but I will take her when she is no longer burdened by the brat. I hope you take that thought with you into death."
They moved about the circular floor as they spoke. Sergon knew the worth of his weapon. The staff he carried had gone with him to Janaka and made him a hero. It would be tricky to evade being wounded by the dagger and he regretted the act of bravado that had given it into Zadak's hand.
The men assessed each other. Zadak did not make the mistake of underestimating his opponent. Although Geran had dismissed the tale of Sergon's role in the Janakan Ambush, the prince had been raised on stories of the Mareklan's heroism. He recognized the quality of mind and muscle that would make this a real contest even though he had no real doubt of the outcome.
He had rigorously practiced the drills and exercises that had been drummed into him by Zedekla's royal arms master. He had learned more than a few tricks from the vagabond actors and tumblers with whom he had spent his first year after fleeing the palace. He owed his life to trained reflexes and hard muscles. While the other guards lounged, he continued the exercises that kept his body supple and hard.
Zadak feinted with his dagger and smiled when the Mareklan stood his ground. "Beware old man. I had planned to kill you slowly, to watch the floor grow slippery with your blood before I gave you the grace of finally dying, but I have grown tired of you."
He feinted again with the knife and slashed with the sword in a neat move Sergon would have admired if he had the room to leap back out of the way. As it was, he had to duck and roll and his bones were old enough to protest the sudden strain. He came up from the roll with his staff in defense position.
"Why do you hate me so?" Sergon gasped.
"You conspired with my brother and father to deny me my right to rule," Zadak accused.
"The test you failed is a secret that no one thought to share with me," Sergon protested. "All I know is that it seems to be effective at selecting good men for Zedekla's throne. Why should I have conspired to keep you from your inheritance?"
"You resented me for sending my servant to fetch the trumpery jewel you refused to give me," Zadak said.
"Ah, so it was you. Surely I had already given enough to honor your coming of age," Sergon said. "I made the hilt of the dagger you hold in your hand. Did they not tell you that it was from me?"
Zadak was surprised by the revelation. He had been presented with many gifts and as the steward droned on with the list of contributors he had not given much attention to the names.
"You must be lying." Zadak hissed. If the test was real, if the dagger had been a gift from the man he had hated for so long, if his hatred had been a hollow thing--NO!!! To admit the idea would be to accept that it was his own fault that he had forfeited a kingdom. The thought was unbearable. He would silence the mouth that dared to utter such lies.
Zadak leaped forward, his dagger slashing to drive the Mareklan toward the battlement, his sword swinging up behind his head to gain impetus for the final, killing blow. His face flushed with anger and wine. Sergon ducked and slithered away like a snake. Zadak's sword sliced down onto the stone and split. The curved end broke away but there was still a length of blade with razor edges. He had killed with less to work with.
Sergon was reluctant to kill Zadak. He was the son of two friends, the brother of another. His nurse had ventured into the marketplace on the day the prince had failed the test of fitness and launched a shrill verbal attack on the merchant. He had never understood the gist of her words until now. Could Zadak be brought to see the truth? Could he be redeemed from a wastrel life before he harmed Neril? Sergon studied the problem as he feinted and ducked without attacking.
At first he easily defended himself from the prince's impassioned assault. In time the younger man should tire and begin to falter. Perhaps a glancing blow on his skull, enough to daze him, would do the trick. Sergon saw his chance and leaped forward, his staff aimed exactly to knock Zadak senseless. Zadak's foot caught on the edge of the trapdoor and he stumbled out of range of the blow.
Sergon moved aside out of the way while his opponent recovered his balance. The gesture brought no gratitude from the increasingly enraged Zadak. He began to stalk Sergon, feinting with his dagger and the broken sword. On the circular roof there were no corners he could drive him into. "I have heard much of the skill of Mareklan staff fighters," he mocked. "Is that feeble thrust the worst you can offer?"
Sergon was no longer certain which of them would tire first. He had avoided combat of any kind since putting on the priestly robe after his final visit to Marekla Now the death or life of either of them had come down to a match of stamina. For the first time since the Janakan ambush nearly forty years before, he wondered if he could best his opponent. It would have been easy enough if he intended death.
Zadak seemed to feed on the doubt in Sergon's eyes. He threw away all caution and rushed across the narrow space, his knife and truncated sword held aloft. Sergon surprised him again, spinning away but catching Zadak a hard blow on his hip with his staff. He spun again, lowering the staff to trip his opponent.
Zadak stumbled and fell. He was up again almost without pause, tirelessly returning to the attack. He blamed the wine Ayarlan had given him for dulling his edge. Otherwise he was certain he would have wounded Sergon by now.
The Mareklan retired to rest against the battlement and didn't anticipate the sudden charge. He seemed to move in slow motion, his aging muscles and bones refusing to rise to the challenge of the raging young man. He raised his staff defensively but it was too low and too late. Somehow even though his warrior heart knew he faced death, a crystalline serenity enveloped him.
Only a few feet from Sergon, Zadak's foot skidded on the dagger he had discarded when he reclaimed his own from the Mareklan. He began to fall but recovered himself enough to continue his forward momentum. It gave Sergon the time he needed to drive his staff against the rogue prince's knees. Zadak staggered past the elder to the edge of the tower.
All his grace and training could not compensate for the low battlement that destroyed his balance. If he had let go of his weapons he might have recovered, but his mind, fuddled by wine and fixed on revenge, would not allow his fingers to loosen their grasp. He fell to the roof of the palace below with no cry of fear. Even as he fell he told himself the contest was still undecided.
Sergon shut his eyes against the thought of what he would see when he looked over the edge of the battlement. Finally he gathered the will to look and saw Zadak's body sprawled near the edge of the inner part of the roof where openings had been made to let light into inner chambers.. He had fallen on the dagger and then rolled on the steep roof so that he lay face up, His chest spilling blood like a scarlet banner over the gray stone of the roof tiles.
Zadak's face had been wiped of the anger and lust that marred it during the battle. Now it almost seemed that it was Farek who lay there, his dark eyes staring sightless at the sky. A rictus of grief twisted Sergon's face. He wanted to howl at the cruel fate that had brought him here to end the life of Kemila's oldest son. He forced his jaw to relax and bent his head. If not Zadak, then Neril would have paid the price of the young man's obsession.
Sergon knew it would be folly to run or draw attention to himself. He glanced around the courtyard below and saw no witnesses to the battle. A door slammed and the voice of the steward was raised in angry conflict with one of the guards. Sergon made his way down through the tower and met no one coming to investigate. Something seemed to whisper that he would be safe if he kept to the older part of the palace as he tried to find an exit that would not lead him past the quarreling steward.
Somewhere in these halls Neril and her husband were preparing for their evening meal or studying with Eliat and Fedder. He would like to warn her that Zadak had died and suspicion might fall upon them. If he had known where to find the library he might have risked the danger of stumbling into another of the queen's hired bullies, but if he were caught, it could be even worse for Neril.
Sergon felt a leaden dullness in his chest. He would never again lift his staff against another, not even in self-defense. His life was not his own now that he wore the white and blue of one sworn to serve the Radiance. He pondered what he would tell Kemila and Manchek when he saw them in Timora. In a mood of resigned sorrow he found his way to a small door between high windows that hinted at a safe exit. When he opened it he found himself near the edge of a precipice. The afternoon sun revealed that he was on the southern side of Saadena.
The sound of singing came faintly from the steep incline below. It stopped abruptly when he began to make his way down the rocky slope. Then it rang forth again when the small spy who had whistled a signal to quiet the others recognized the intruder. "Her blade will cleave the bonds of her people. Her blade will shine in the light of the Radiance, when once again the river flows." The children of Saadena, their faces bright in the light of twilight, stopped singing. They smiled and gestured toward the spear leaf that grew in profusion all over the slope where they were harvesting the leaves for their evening meal. Sergon had heard of Challan's cisterns where she hoarded the water of Saadena. They must lie under the palace. If so, the seepage would nurture the roots of these thriving plantations. Sergon's lip lifted in a familiar wry smile. The queen's notorious greed had worked against her
Before he continued his journey, he stopped and looked back at the ramparts of the palace. The steep southern slope was hidden from the watchtower by a high wall that shielded the palace from the heat of the sun. Only the high, narrow windows on either side of the exit door pierced the wall. When next he came to Saadena he would come this way.
He raised his hands and bowed his head in the posture of prayer. The ominous threat that had loomed over Neril before he had confronted Zadak seemed to have faded. He still sensed that she was in danger. He called upon the Radiance to protect her until her task had been completed and he could return to take her to safety. Surely she would not be taken until she had fulfilled the prophecy pronounced by the Seeress. The snatch of song he had overheard haunted Sergon long after he left Saadena behind him.
Chapter 7 Revenge
Ayarlan scurried away from the small room where she had given Zadak, the watchman a flask of wine. High windows along the corridor let in the brazen glare of a desert dawn. She was usually in the workroom before the sun rose, preparing for her aunt to arrive, but the tryst with Zadak had been worth the risk of arousing Challan's ire.
Her nose warned her that she was late. Challan had already started the fires under the retorts where she concentrated raw selan for combination with other drugs. The stink of toasting docil root and the reek of boiling dass permeated the air.
Before entering the room, Ayarlan paused and straightened her bodice. The pungent steam that issued from the doorway stung her eyes. Fires and more fires, Ayarlan thought rebelliously. It was Shrinesday, but there was no pause in the endless round that Challan had set once plans for the wedding were foiled.
Ayarlan ducked her head in a show of humility when she entered the workroom, avoiding Challan's eyes. She shrugged out of the embroidered vest she had worn to catch Zadak's eye. "I was delayed by one of the servants," she muttered.
She turned her head to hide her smirk. Zadak's promise to meet her had given her good reason to smile. The hours seemed to crawl. The construction of the watch tower had closed off the windows, leaving only a narrow light well let into the high ceiling. Ayarlan glanced up toward the light well. A ray of light crawled along crude lines that marked the passage of the hours.
Her imagination, fired by Pezril's poetry and anticipation of the meeting with Zadak, distracted her from her work. Her mind wandered while she was grating a block of raw selan. She grated her knuckle and bit back her cry of pain.
Challan's back was turned and she didn't see Ayarlan pat some of the grated selan powder over the wound. In moments the anodyne drug took the pain away. Ayarlan shook the bowl and the dark drops of blood and pale shreds of skin were buried beneath the grated drug. Challan need never know of her carelessness.
An odd thought struck Ayarlan and she nearly laughed aloud. What if this mixture was the one that proved successful in producing an addictive form of selan. Challan would never be able to replicate it. "But I will know," Ayarlan muttered.
"Speak up," Challan reproved her. "If you have something worthwhile to say, say it loud enough so I can hear you."
"It was nothing, Aunt," Ayarlan replied. "I was counting out the measure."
The day crept on with little change to the dreary routine of mixing, measuring, and heating compounds based on selan. Some were ordinaries, mixtures for which Challan had already identified a use, but most of the time was devoted to finding the form of the drug Challan would need to carry out her plans to rule Okishdu.
When her aunt had first shared her vision of a world brought under Saadenan domination, with herself as virtual heiress, Ayarlan had been dedicated to doing whatever Challan required. She had not dreamed that it would involve such drudgery, and now, with her cousin, Prince Carnat, married to another, such hopeless drudgery.
Challan had a new supply of assorted herbs and poisons to label and store and she was frequently away from the workroom, but never long enough for Ayarlan to snatch a moment for herself. The ray of sunlight that came through the light well crept closer to the mid-day mark. She would find a reason to excuse herself while her aunt took her noon meal. Zadak might be lounging near the breastwork of the tower where he kept watch and she could catch a glimpse of him from the forecourt of the palace.
The thought set her mind awry again and she dropped a block of raw selan onto the floor. Challan, just entering the room with a basket of socrel leaves, screamed at her. "Fool! It took five hundred of my harvesters a week to produce the block of selan you just wasted. It will have to be returned to the storeroom to be sold to the Jaman drug merchants, and you must fetch another."
Ayarlan's dreaming mood was shattered by her aunt's fury. She picked up the dusty block of selan and rubbed away the surface dirt with her skirt. A smear of the oily spores that formed the block came loose and stained the fabric. Ayarlan began to frown, then decided that it didn't matter. The blue dress had already served its purpose in attracting the watchman's notice. She had chests full of dresses that she would probably never wear.
Challan gave an impatient grunt that reminded Ayarlan of her errand. She hurried from the workroom, grateful that she could escape from the foul smells of her aunt's experiments for a few minutes.
She ran down the flight of steps that led from the workroom and sped down the corridor toward the door at the base of the watchtower. The door of the steward's office was open and she earned a startled glance from Jargin, the queen's steward.
She quickly assumed a more decorous pace. Nosy fool! Ayarlan sneered at the thought of his raised eyebrows. Once he had been as submissive to her whims as any other servant, but since Carnat's marriage to another had been revealed, the steward had often disregarded Ayarlan's demands. She hurried her pace as soon as she was beyond his sight and opened the small door that led to the base of the tower. After taking several paces into the courtyard, she looked up.
Her breath caught when she saw Zadak. He was bent over with his elbows resting on the low breastwork of the tower, his chin cupped in one hand. The pose drew his tunic tight over his broad shoulders. A breeze lifted a lock of his dusky hair. He stood and stretched, revealing the supple muscles of his back with the gesture.
She willed him to turn and look down, but he walked away toward the other side of the tower and she lost sight of him. She would have lingered, hoping for another glimpse, but Jargin came out of the main door of the palace and Ayarlan backed into a shadow. She could not risk being seen watching the watchman. Challan would not approve of the liaison.
She opened the narrow side door that led back through the base of the watchtower and shut it behind her with stealthy caution. Then she ran again to make up for the time she had spent trying to catch a glimpse of Zadak. When she finally reached the storeroom where selan was kept, her haste made her fumble with the complex locks of the door before she managed to open them. The musty smell of the drug permeated the room. She took a fresh block and set the soiled one on a higher shelf by itself so that it would be at hand when next the Jamans came to trade.
When Ayarlan returned to the workroom, Challan was gone and she breathed a sigh of relief that her aunt was not there to notice the length of her absence. She set to work weighing out dass and docil root and recording the amount she put in the stone mortar. A few drops of wine bound the ingredients as she ground them together with a pestle into a sticky mass. The stink of the mixture gave credibility to the tale that dass was nothing more than the dung of wild corums who had eaten the plant containing the drug. She picked up the fresh block of selan and grated it warily, not willing to make a habit of adding her own flesh and blood to the mix.
She jumped when Challan, followed by Jargin, stormed into the room from the hall outside rather than the cells where Ayarlan thought she had been dosing her prisoners.
"Ayarlan, what have you been up to?"
Ayarlan stuttered, "I-I have been d-doing what you asked me to do." Jargin stood just behind her aunt, a smirk on his face. Had he followed her to the courtyard? Had he watched her yearning after the watchman? She wondered what he had told Challan and prepared to counter his accusations. It was a pity the steward was so in favor with in her aunt. It would be difficult to defend herself against his words.
"I'll send you back to your father's miserable harem if you keep acting the fumbling fool," Challan warned. It was a frequent threat that Ayarlan seldom heeded. After all, who else could Challan trust to carry out her duties in the workshop. Who else would be so quick to run errands for the Queen? Until a year ago Challan had treated her more like a daughter than a niece.
Now she was now little more than a servant herself. It was the fault of sneaking, conniving Carnat, and the crippled Mareklan he had married. Challan's harangue continued, but Ayarlan's brooding memory shut out the angry words.
Challan kept promising that Carnat would grow tired of his wife, or let down his guard so that something could be slipped into her food, but more than a year had passed since the covert marriage and nothing had changed. Ayarlan had often plotted ways to end Neril's life, but Carnat's bride was seldom alone. Prince Carnat, Mirin, the medicine woman, the bumbling old Palace chaplain, Fedder, and possibly even Challan's husband, King Eliat, were more loyal to Neril than to the Queen.
Ayarlan's attention returned to her mentor suddenly when Challan slapped a stone pestle on the thick limestone counter top. The crack of stone on stone made her jump.
"Stop staring at your feet and bring the oil lamp over to my work bench," Challan growled. "And next time I send you to the storeroom, don't wander off and make a fool of yourself where the servants can see you." Ayarlan lifted reproachful eyes, but Jargin had slipped away in the midst of Challan's tirade.
Ayarlan's hands shook with apprehension as she fetched the lamp. She peered nervously at the rigid face of her aunt and wondered what Jargin had told her.
Had he seen her looking up at Zadak the game might be up. Would they suspect the meeting Zadak had promised her? Had they been searching her room and found the poetry that had driven her to seek out the watchman?
The questions tormented her as the day wore on. A servant brought their meals, and the light from the hole in the ceiling crawled slowly across the lines that marked the hours. Ayarlan glanced toward her aunt. How could she excuse herself in time to prepare for Zadak's promised visit. Often they worked late into the night until Challan grew blind with fatigue and gave up the quest. Ayarlan yearned for some excuse to leave the workroom and tell Zadak that she might be late.
Challan gave a curse when the clatter and thud of something falling on the roof of the workroom shook her concentration and she spilled a valuable packet of poison. "Go see what made such a racket," she commanded Ayarlan.
Hiding her smile of glee at the chance to leave the room, Ayarlan hurried to the watch tower. A narrow window halfway up the stairs inside the tower overlooked the roof of the workroom. After seeing what had caused the disturbance, she could climb to the top of the tower and make other arrangements with Zadak.
When she looked out of the window, the grin of anticipation on Ayarlan's face froze into a gape of horror. The body of a man lay in a heap near the light well that opened into the workroom. A scarlet smear of blood stained the tiles near his chest. The bright blue belt that had been her gift to Zadak that morning turned purple with gore.
As soon as she recognized Zadak, Ayarlan was incoherent with fear. All she could think of was that he had been murdered by order of the queen. Had Challan ordered the slaying? Had Jargin wielded the weapon that killed Zadak? Or had some other hand destroyed him?
She wanted to run and hide, but perhaps he was still alive. She eased herself out onto the roof and slithered down the tiles. The gash in his chest betrayed the cause of death. He must have been stabbed and pushed from the watchtower that loomed above. Her immediate impulse was to scream and summon guards to remove him. Then she thought of Jargin's knowing leer.
If she gave a signal, they might accuse her of the crime. Fear for herself scattered her thoughts and she huddled near Zadak's body, afraid to even give voice to the keening wails that struggled to leave her throat. She bit her lips and clamped her hands over her mouth.
Finally she began to recover her wits. If Jargin knew about Zadak's murder he might reveal himself by something he did or said. It would be best to watch him and see if he betrayed his guilt. She would conceal the crime and see what came of it.
She grasped Zadak's leg and slowly eased the body away from the opening of the light well. She paused to wipe away the tears that blinded her and tried to think of where to hide him. The eaves of several gables met nearby to form a low crevice. She rolled the body to the shelter, using the slope of the roof to aid her effort to hide him from carrion birds until he could be buried.
Shivering with shock and fear, she crawled slowly across the steep roof toward the window and pulled herself through. When she looked back she realized that the rapidly darkening stain of crimson near the light well was not the only evidence of what had happened.
A flash of gold caught her eye. It came from the hilt of a dagger that had fallen at the edge of the light well where she had overlooked it. She was certain it was the blade that had killed Zadak. It might provide a clue to the identity of the killer. She braced herself to climb out of the window again and made her way to the dagger. It slid away under the urgent press of her fingers and hovered on the edge of the light well.
Ayarlan shuddered at the thought of the dagger falling through the hole and into the vat of simmering dass on the brazier below. She reached out and hooked her fingernails around the blade. Slowly she drew the dagger closer until she could grasp the hilt. It was still wet with Zadak's blood and she touched the bloody blade to the open wound on her finger, swearing an oath that she would avenge his death.
There was no time and this was no place to examine the knife. She shoved it into her sash pouch and crawled back across the slippery tiles toward the window. Suddenly a tile broke loose and skittered away under her foot. She slid backwards, scrabbling wildly to catch hold of a line of lead caulk that tied the tiles together. Her fingers found purchase and she made her way warily to the window, vowing that she would never again risk clambering over the steep roofs of the palace.
Challan was not waiting in the workroom to ask her what she had seen, or chide her for taking so long, but Ayarlan saw that the door that led to the workroom cells was ajar. She crept along the corridor, following her aunt. Sturdy doors with heavy latches closed off each of the small rooms that had once been servants' quarters. There were grates in the doors but none of the prisoners looked up or tried to hail Ayarlan. Those few who still retained wit and will to speak knew they could expect no mercy from Challan's niece.
She found Challan in Gelaso's cell. The former commander of the Queen's army was talking to the queen with careful diction, still acting the part of a punctilious officer even with his hands secured behind him. "You are useless for my work," Challan snarled.
Ayarlan stepped back when Challan swept from the narrow room. The foppish officer looked at Ayarlan with a loose-lipped grin. "Someday you will taste her temper," he gloated. "Those who would serve Challan take on a thankless task."
Ayarlan wondered if Gelaso had overheard Jargin and Challan plotting. She leaned closer to him, "What did you hear?" He gave her a smirk and beckoned her near with his chin.
Challan returned with a cup of dark liquid before he could tell Ayarlan any more. "This will give you an easier death than you deserve," she told the prisoner, forcing it to his lips. Gelaso did not fight against her demand. He sipped, then slid slowly down in his seat, his eyes rolling up and dimming as he gave up the last sorry fragments of his life.
"Find Jargin and tell him to put Gelaso on the offal heap. I should have kept General Supruk for my experiments instead of turning him out into the desert."
Ayarlan followed her aunt back into the workroom, expecting at any moment to be called to account, but when she lingered, Challan growled at her. "You heard what I said. I want Gelaso out of there. You can clean the cell out tomorrow morning."
Challan did not question Ayarlan about the cause of the noise on the roof. This only confirmed her conviction that her meeting with Zadak had been detected and Challan had sent one of her minions to make certain it proceeded no further.
She found Jargin at the bottom of the stairs to the watchtower. The steward gave her a sneering half-smile and looked insolently at her stained and rumpled skirt. "The watchman is not here."
She wanted to attack him with the knife concealed in her pouch, but Jargin was no mean foe. She would only hurt herself if she acted so precipitously. Until she knew what part her aunt had played in the death of Zadak, she would have to school her rage. "The queen wants you to come to the workroom," she said through gritted teeth.
"You might as well come with me," Jargin said. "The one you seek is gone."
Did he mock her with his words? They seemed to betray his guilt. Did he not realize that she had access to poisons that would bring him a horrible death? She was tempted to rebuke him with a reminder of what she knew, but she must have proof before she took revenge.
They returned to the workroom and she watched him carry out Gelaso's limp body. If her suspicions were proved, it might soon be his corpse that moldered on the offal heap. The thought was a sop to her outraged emotions.
A servant appeared with a tray and Ayarlan realized that Challan seemed set to work all night. Small lamps and the fires beneath retorts and crucibles gave the only light in the huge chamber. Evening had cooled the valley, but here in Challan's sanctum, the heat grew more stifling.
The memory of Zadak's grey face and sightless, staring eyes haunted Ayarlan. She had seen the face of death many times while working with the queen, but none of the hapless victims had meant anything to her. If her suspicions were true, would she be next, or would Challan confine her in one of her cells as a test subject for her drugs. Her hands shook so badly that she dropped a pot of steaming dass. The reeking hot fluid splashed over her clothing. She would have to discard everything she was wearing.
She broke into tears when Challan sneered at her clumsiness. "Go to bed if you are no longer fit to perform a simple task without fouling the floor."
She returned to her room and began to undress. When she put her hand to her waist to untie her sash she remembered the dagger. She took it from her belt pouch and examined it. The steward had never worn this elegant weapon. If it didn't belong to Jargin, it might be something one of the palace guards had stolen before coming to Saadena.
The blade was of fine Janakan bronze with the mark of widowsmith Clartira on a raised boss near the hand guard. The hilt was of Mareklan craft. Ayarlan had always had a fondness for good weapons. Her father had an extensive collection of swords and knives but she had never seen the equal of this one. She traced the intricate gold inlay on the horn hilt with the tip of her finger and discovered that part of the design was raised. She held it closer to the lamp and found a symbol hidden in the arabesque. Ayarlan realized that it stood for Zadak's name in ceremonial script. A small scrolled line under the symbol held surprising significance. She recognized it from the wedding compact Fedder had carved for her marriage to Carnat, the mark of the prince of a royal house.
She knew that Farek, the young king of Zedekla, had a twin. Old Dramnine, the banished courtier who had earned her way with gossip, said he should have been chosen as the heir, but he had been driven from his home and became a wanderer.
Ayarlan stared at the dagger, tilting it so that the subtle symbol stood out in the light from the lamp. Her breath rushed out in a scream of outrage that wracked her throat. She fell to the floor as the blood rushed from her head and she nearly fainted with the emotions that battered her.
She remembered how Zadak had walked and carried his head so that he always seemed to be looking down his nose. There had been a natural arrogance about him that set him apart from the other palace guards. It was that air of disdain that had drawn her more surely than the breadth of his shoulders or his perfect profile.
Zadak had been the exiled prince of the great city of Zedekla. On virtually the eve of Ayarlan's wedding to Carnat, he had been stolen by the plotting of a Mareklan cripple. Now another prince had been taken from her only hours before.
Challan had promised that Carnat would tire of the Mareklan girl, but now she was carrying his child. Not once, but twice, Ayarlan had been deprived of a prince. She began to weep with acrid tears that stung her eyes. Blindly, she stumbled to her bed. Wailing and pounding her pillow, she vowed that she would never forgive Challan for her part in killing Zadak. All the loyalty to Challan that years of service and dependence had drummed into her was washed away in the flood of her self pity.
Sprawled on her bed, she fell into an uneasy sleep, haunted by scenes that somehow mixed Zadak with Carnat. The revelation that Zadak was of royal birth had come too late for her. She woke in the middle of the night to the consciousness that she was still wrapped in the soiled bedding and filthy skirts that she had forgotten to change earlier. Anger mingled with disgust as she stripped and piled her clothing with the bedding.
Wrapping herself in a robe, she sneaked along the corridor. A lamp flickered in the workroom and she knew the queen would still be at work. Ayarlan ignored Challan's prohibition against bathing for any but herself and invaded the queen's bathing room. The steaming water removed the stink of dass from her skin but the thought that such a luxury was denied her without such stealth fueled her resentment.
She returned to her room past the workroom door where Challan could be heard muttering to herself. Ayarlan had never before questioned Challan's obsessions. They had seemed the only way to reclaim Saadena's lost power. Now her disappointment and rage seemed to clear her sight. What purpose was served by denying the simple luxury of a cleansing bath to her closest associate? Why was Carnat spared the weight of his mother's full displeasure when he openly defied Challan by marrying Neril?
Ayarlan fastened Zadak's knife close to her bosom when she dressed. She heard Challan returning to her room as the last shades of night gave way before the rising sun. She would have several hours alone in the workroom before the queen returned to work. There might be something to indicate the collusion that had led to Zadak's death.
Challan had left a shambles for Ayarlan to clean up. With her new sensitivity to her own servitude, it fired Ayarlan's resentment. She set to work sweeping and mopping the floor. Instead of carefully measuring each drop of water as the queen expected, she used the hoarded liquid lavishly, sluicing away the dass that remained from her accident the day before.
As she stacked away the scattered ingredients, she searched the shelves and cupboards. She knew it was foolish to hope for some neglected evidence that would confirm her certainty that Challan had ordered Zadak's murder, but the cold blade of his knife, held close by her sash, nudged against her ribs and drove her forward.
When Challan entered the workroom she looked around and nodded. "Excellent! You have finally learned to do a decent job of cleaning. Fetch me something to eat and light the fires."
A pot of black spider ointment stood on the shelf next to Ayarlan and for a moment she was tempted to wipe her fingers through the faint gloss of a drip on the side of the pot and anoint the queen's cup. Death would be swift, too swift.
Ayarlan ducked her head to hide the hatred gleaming in her eyes and did Challan's bidding. Without the queen, she was less than a lackey. As long as Challan believed she was amenable, she would have her protection. She would be wise and choose her moment for revenge.
Five days passed without any change in their routine of work. Ayarlan found it suspicious that there was no discussion of the missing watchman. Was she the only one who detected the gradually worsening odor that seeped into the room from the light well?
Finally, even the stench of the workroom could not mask the reek from the roof. Ayarlan was running an errand when Challan summoned Jargin to the workroom.
"Why is this stink permitted to continue?" she gestured toward the ceiling of the room where fumes had blackened the rafters.
Jargin raised his brows to indicate that the reek was part and parcel of the experiments she conducted, but then he noticed the sickly sweet odor of decay. "Something must have died on the roof," he said.
"Then send the watchman to investigate," Challan ordered.
"I will take care of it myself," Jargin said. He had not reported the watchman's absence. It was past time that Zadak accepted the offer of a few days of leave in Jama. It had been brazen for the man to leave without notifying the steward, but he expected him to slink back and apologize when his revels were over. Jargin mounted the steps of the watchtower and looked out over the roof from the narrow window that gave a view of the light well. At first he saw nothing but a dark blotch on the tiles, then the squawking of a pair of carrion birds drew his eyes to an area lower on the roof where several eaves joined. The number of winged scavengers that fought to gain purchase on something hidden there aroused his suspicion.
The dark birds haunted the offal heap where the failed results of the queen's experiments were often dumped, but they seldom ventured to this side of the castle. He hurried down the steps and into the armory to consult with Arcat.
One of the guards was sent to investigate. Jargin watched him crawl out over the roof with his hand clinging to a rope to keep him from falling. The birds whirled up in an angry feathered cloud when the man approached and shooed them with his pike. He spent only a moment to make sure of what he had found and turned to Jargin at the window. "It's the watchman. Play out some more rope and I'll pull him out of there and lower him."
Even for a man inured to death and battlefield corruption, it was not a welcome task. Soon Zadak's remains were laid out for Arcat and Jargin to make an assessment.
When Jargin returned to the workroom the door was open to provide some relief from the stench. He saw Ayarlan cleaning a crucible with sand while Challan poured hot wax over small stone jars, sealing them. He coughed to get the queen's attention. When she looked up he bowed "We found a dead man on the roof. It is Zadak, the watchman. Carrion birds have destroyed any evidence that might have provided a cause of death. An empty flask was found on top of the watchtower along with his broken sword. It appears that Zadak stumbled and fell while intoxicated."
Ayarlan glared at Jargin. "He was killed!" She protested.
It was then Challan remembered the errand she had given her niece when there had been a racket on the roof overhead. She turned and began to berate her. "You said nothing about seeing the watchman on the roof, even though you must have known what would happen when his body rotted. All you had to do was summon the steward when you first discovered the corpse."
"He lived long enough to find shelter under the eaves." Jargin prompted Ayarlan. "He might have survived if you had come to tell us of what you saw."
"I have never seen a murdered man before," Ayarlan said, her gaze intent on Challan's face when she named the crime. Of course she did not count the many victims of Challan's experiments. They had been criminals, guilty of everything from insubordination to thievery.
Challan dismissed her claim. "Nonsense. He was merely a bully hired by Jargin, not really a man at all. I am going up to my chamber until you have banished the stench. Ayarlan, fetch me a beaker of wine."
Challan's rude words confirmed Ayarlan's suspicions that her aunt had been behind Zadak's death. Jargin's claim that the watchman had stumbled and fallen from the top of the watchtower was a poor cover for their perfidy.
Ayarlan looked at the cube of selan she had been shredding into yet another blend of drugs in Challan's endless quest for control of others. The Queen had given up every grace and luxury to devote herself to her goal to find an addictive mixture of the drug. The secret had eluded her, but perhaps it was the quality of her test subjects that had been the cause of failure. It would be interesting to see how the drugs worked on a strong-willed woman. Ayarlan's mouth twisted as her mind explored the implications of her vagrant thought.
The retort still held the latest mixture of drugs, waiting to be tested on another of the denizens of the Queen's private prison. Perhaps it was time for Challan to take some of her own medicine. Ayarlan brewed the wine her aunt had requested with fragrant herbs to conceal the musk of selan and carried it up to the Queen's chambers.
"This is excellent," Challan murmured after taking a long swallow of the warm wine. "You are my favorite Ayarlan. Never fear. Someday Carnat will be free to marry again and you will be queen."
"You taught me well," Ayarlan smirked. She saw Challan's eyes widen in terror as she recognized the symptoms that begin to affect her mind.
"Ayarlan, no--." The queen slumped back against her chair, a vacant stare betraying her loss of will. Ayarlan picked up the cup that had spilled the last few drops of wine across the rich pattern of the Jaman rug. She lifted the Orenese jewel from Challan's neck and placed it over her own head. The monstrous pearl that had been set to resemble a squid glowed darkly from her bosom when she glanced into the mirror near Challan's bed.
Ayarlan stared at her image and clutched the jewel in her hand. It was the symbol of power in Saadena, power that would be hers as long as she controlled her former mistress. It was not enough. Somehow, she would eliminate her rival and Carnat would be hers. She remembered Challan's last words before she realized her fate. "Yes, I will be queen."
Her actions had been impulsive, but the act of taking power over the queen gave Ayarlan a surge of satisfaction. She ordered Challan to stand and return to the workroom. In petty revenge she ordered her to clean Gelaso's filthy cell, then scrub the floor of the workroom and clean the counter tops. She reveled in using Challan as a servant. Since she had first come to Saadena as a young girl, she had been consigned to such tasks herself. Challan used the excuse that the servants could not be trusted with the secrets of the workroom.
It was late when she ordered the stumbling woman to take another dose of the drug and return to her bedroom. "Do not let anyone come into your room but me," she warned. She knew the dose would last for several hours into the morning, time enough to renew it after they returned to the workroom.
Ayarlan questioned the queen about the records she would need to continue their research as soon as she woke the morning after giving her the drug. "No one will find my records. They are hidden where none can find them." Challan answered.
The reply puzzled Ayarlan. She raged and threatened and received an even more enigmatic reply, "I know, but I cannot lead you. If you destroy me, you will never find the answer." If Challan had not been beyond resisting her will, Ayarlan might have thought she was being deliberately obscure. She could not ignore Challan's threat. She could not afford to rid herself of the queen until she recovered the records.
The palace was vast, but Challan had rarely ventured beyond the new wings. Night after night, when others slept, Ayarlan searched for some sign of the books where the Queen had recorded her experiments. During the day she supervised Challan in the workshop. It was almost disillusioning to see how easy it was to command obedience from Challan. It was not so easy to handle other aspects of her new responsibilities. She had to use care that none of Challan's upper servants noticed the change.
Challan's maid, Petrin, brought her concerns to Ayarlan after being barred from her mistress's room several morning in succession. "The queen refuses to let me in her room. How can I clean the room and care for her if I cannot enter?"
"I will take care of her," Ayarlan said. "She is growing old, and the things she works with have made her mind wander."
Petrin nodded with understanding. If the queen's niece was willing to take on yet more duties, she would not complain.
Ayarlan could not deal so easily with Jargin, the steward, and Arcat, the commander of the guards. They were both canny men who might soon question the changed demeanor of the queen, but it was Challan's habit to meet with them regularly to receive their reports. Four days after the body of Zadak was found, they came to the audience hall for their regular meeting with the queen.
The audience could not be delayed without arousing their suspicions, but it would be even worse to expose them to a subdued Challan. Ayarlan called her own maid to summon Petrin. "You must go to the audience room and tell the steward and captain that my aunt is ill and that I will meet with them as her intermediary," she told Petrin.
Petrin knew the value of demure obsequiousness. As she bowed her way from Ayarlan's presence, she kept her mind from dwelling on the implications of what was taking place.
Ayarlan tried to judge how long she should wait until she followed Petrin. It would not do to follow too soon, but they must not have time for a long consultation about Challan's alleged illness. Until she was able to learn Challan's secrets and eliminate the Mareklan, she would have to maintain the illusion that the queen was still in charge. By herself, she had no legal claim to rule Saadena.
The two men were beginning to shift in their seats, but not yet speaking together when Ayarlan swept into the room, carried on a wave of bravado. Her first meeting with the steward and the captain could be precarious. Suspecting Jargin of collusion in Zadak's death, she found it difficult to speak to him without anger. Fortunately, she caught sight of herself in a polished shield that hung behind the steward's head. She saw that her stiff posture actually enhanced her authority. She turned to the two men with a distant smile on her face and began to question them about their responsibilities.
Arcat said there was nothing particular to report. The paring down and tightening of the queen's small army had been proceeding with good results. Jargin, on the other hand, reported that he felt a need to recruit a few new watchmen from Jama. He did not trust a watchman who was elevated from among his brother soldiers. Far better to have a couple of men to share the duties Zadak had handled by himself. "And no more drinking, that's for sure," he said with a wry smile.
Ayarlan stared at him for a moment. How could he joke about such a thing. Did he really have no thought that Zadak had been murdered. Had she been wrong to suspect him in the plot? She turned her face away and said she would mention his plan to Challan, then dismissed the men.
King Eliat noticed that Challan no longer chivvied and derided him when they met for the evening meal. She seemed oddly deferential to Ayarlan, but he dismissed the change. Ayarlan and Challan were so much alike that they had long since assumed a unity in his mind. Ayarlan picked up where Challan grew more remote. Her eyes glittered with active dislike as she hissed her criticism of his clothing and pastimes. Her comments were like the buzzing of angry bees in the background of his mind that retreated to the far more pleasant thoughts of his work in the library and the other scrolls that he had not yet mentioned to his son or Fedder.
He smiled with the thought of what they would say when he showed them his other collection, culled during years of retreating to the library to escape from his dreadful wife. Ayarlan noticed the way he sometimes smiled, when he should have been cringing with humility at her words and she dismissed him as even more of a fool than before.
He forgot to mention the change to Carnat because his mind was busy with plans and pondering the translation of the scroll of Irilik. He had long since developed the habit of fleeing from thoughts of his wife. He was the rightful ruler of Saadena, but Challan had held him in the thrall of fear for so long that he shied from thinking of her.
After searching without avail for Challan's records of her experiments, Ayarlan finally lost patience. "Where have you hidden the records?" she raged at Challan.
"They are here," Challan murmured, ducking her head and shaking it.
"Where!" Ayarlan screeched. "I've looked in every cupboard and drawer."
"Where I am, the records will be," Challan smirked. "Where I am not, the records are not."
Ayarlan picked up a broom and raised it threateningly over the queen's head. "I will smash your skull if you don't tell me what you know."
"You will destroy the records," Challan replied. "All of it is here," Challan muttered, pointing to her forehead.
Ayarlan stared at her former mentor. How had the answer evaded her for so long? She knew how easily Challan recalled the slightest detail of events that took place. With relief for finding the answer at last, and dread for the task it would entail, she realized that her aunt had kept everything in her remarkable memory.
She had never questioned the Queen's habit of briefly reviewing the notes Ayarlan took when she measured out ingredients. She had assumed that Challan remembered whatever she had read long enough to record the information elsewhere. Now she realized the truth, the Queen kept no other ledger than her own mind.
Given a date and time, Challan could recall the details of any experiment, however long ago it had occurred. Unfortunately for Ayarlan, each memory came complete with a story detailing how Challan had decided to use certain ingredients, how she had obtained the ingredients, what had happened to each experimental subject, who the subject was, how they had come into her hands, and other trivia of dubious significance.
Any question, whether it managed to solicit the information required or not, brought an avalanche of other memories. As much as anything, this convinced Ayarlan that Challan had kept no written records, and that it would take a long time to recapitulate the experiments the Queen had conducted.
Day after day Ayarlan spent the morning questioning Challan. The details poured forth while Ayarlan kept careful ledgers. It had been more than a month since Zadak's death. Ayarlan was reminded of the day when she caught sight of one of the new watchmen, a stubby, hairy man with no beauty. Outrage and grief swamped her and when she met her aunt, she began with the question that had haunted her.
"Why did you have Zadak killed?" she asked.
Challan stared at her blankly. For once there was no answer. Then Challan began one of her relentless recollections in a monotone voice: "Zadak was the name of one of Jargin's bullies. He acted in unseemly ways. He stared at me and met my eyes as if he were himself a royal person. He dared to lure you with his false charm. He got drunk and fell from the tower."
Ayarlan stared at Challan when she finished her litany. The queen must believe it was true, she had no will for deception. The answer absolved her of conspiring to kill Zadak, but it was too late to return Challan to her normal senses.
Ayarlan was still convinced that Zadak had been murdered, but now she had no real idea of who could have performed the deed. She doubted Jargin would have acted without Challan's orders, but who else could carry out such a plot?
Who would gain from silencing Zadak? The answer leaped into her mind. Zadak was the watchman who kept his eyes on the city and the surrounding wilderness. It would be easy for him to make a secret covenant with bandits or merchants who wanted to enter the city without the knowledge of the queen or her steward. If he betrayed his treachery, out of loyalty, new-found, to Ayarlan, his enemies would be ruthless. There must be a spy among the men Jargin had hired in Jama.
Someone had observed her tryst with Zadak and acted to silence the watchman before he could betray their plot. Ayarlan fumed at her sense of futility. With so much wealth and power so nearly in her grasp, she was held impotent by a lack of trustworthy confederates.
Now that she could absolve Challan and Jargin of the crime, she decided to cultivate a better relationship with the steward. He had served her aunt well, and furthermore, he had not displayed any undue suspicion at the change of routine.
When next she met with the steward, she relaxed her attitude and inquired after his welfare. The steward hid his dismay at her questions. Had she discovered something about the family he kept hidden in Jama. Was she planning to move against him? Jargin was wary of Ayarlan's change of demeanor. He had resigned himself to the change of routine. After several weeks had gone by with no sign of the queen, he suspected that Challan had fallen victim to her own experiments. Was it his duty to find a way to rescue her, or should he put his lot fully into Ayarlan's hands. The younger woman was every bit as vicious as her aunt. He kept a bland face and finished the conference with Ayarlan. He was repelled by her attempts to be friendly and suspicious of her motives, but he dared not move against her.
In the midst of his attempt to balance on the narrow blade of his responsibilities, Jargin received disturbing reports from the new watchmen. The harvester children had been seen coming and going from the Shrine of the Radiance. An occasional report of children slinking about the ancient building was normal, but the watchmen reported that it happened every morning. There were a large number of children involved which indicated some organization. For several succeeding weeks on Shrineday, the priest, the prince and his crippled wife had been seen entering the Shrine while a crowd of children were inside the building.
When the steward reviewed the reports, he was troubled. It had been his recommendation that had ended the regular harassment of the harvester children by the Queen's army. He had noticed that the children now seemed healthier and better cared for. If he told Ayarlan about the clandestine meetings of the prince and his wife with the children, she would probably blame him for reducing the army and ending the oppressive days when soldiers hunted and tortured the wild harvester brats. The sight of the hunted children had touched the secret softness in his heart that he normally reserved for the family he kept hidden in Jama.
If he reported the activity around the Shrine, Ayarlan might order him to do something to stop the meetings. He tried to think of how such a thing could be done without using military force or imprisonment. The children were expected to live off the land and the remains of their parents' rations. Imprisonment would mean they would have to be fed and given water at the Queen's expense, or worse, Ayarlan would reduce the already subsistence rations the harvesters received and send it to keep their children alive in her dungeons. Neither action appealed to the steward. If nothing else, it would mean that the future generation of harvesters would be greatly diminished.
He decided to consult with Arcat, the commander of the palace guard, before taking any report to Ayarlan. The man he had selected to head the guard was a wily man with wide experience. Between the two of them they should be able to avoid Ayarlan's wrath.
He found Arcat in the office that he had set up in what had been the armory of the guard tower. Jargin looked around with approval at the neat apartment. Weapons were polished and racked in orderly array near the door where they could easily be reached if the need should arise but where the officer could keep them under his eye.
Each of the guards in his command had a sword and a knife. The bows and spears that might give the advantage of distance to a man with mischief in mind were kept under Arcat's control. It eliminated the need for a separate armory. Arcat knew only too well that many of the miscreants who had come to serve in Saadena were not to be trusted with long range weapons.
Arcat looked up with an inpatient glance when he heard the step of an intruder at his door. A grin of welcome split his weathered face when he saw Jargin. "Have you come to spy on me?" he teased. It was Jargin who had raised him from a long-suffering sergeant in an unwieldy army to the commander of a well regulated and efficient company of palace guards.
"I trust you," Jargin assured him. "It seems my trust was not misplaced. I have come to you with a problem. I might have consulted Queen Challan on the matter, but she has not been available for several weeks and I am unsure of Ayarlan's temper. Have your men noticed any unusual activity among the harvester children?"
Arcat squinted his eyes as he consulted his memory. Then he shook his head. "Rather they have reported less mischief that usual. It was a good plan you had to restrict the soldiers from treating the young ones unkindly. I am a rough man, but I couldn't like the bullies who chased down the starving mites and used them ill. Have you any reason to doubt your policy?"
"The new watchman reported that the harvester children gather at the Shrine each day," Jargin said. "The priest and others from the palace have been seen entering and leaving. I fear they may be plotting against the queen."
Arcat shook his head and chuckled. "I noticed the gatherings and spied on them long before that fool Zadak got drunk and lost his footing on the tower. You have nothing to fear. They are listening to sermons and learning to read and write. It is a fool's errand the old priest is pursuing. As soon as they reach adulthood, the children will become slaves of selan like their parents. Let them have a little time of hope before they lose their wills. It keeps them out of mischief."
Jargin nodded. "It is well I consulted you before taking this matter any further."
He was making more independent decisions lately, uneasy with the way things had changed. A suspicion lingered in the back of his mind but he refused to consider it seriously. What good would it do Ayarlan to drug the queen? No, there must be some other explanation. Perhaps Challan was ill. She had driven herself relentlessly. Even the strongest constitution must falter under such a strain. And if Ayarlan had taken control? He had no alternative but to serve her until he made other provisions.
Under the pressure of her new concerns, Ayarlan might have continued ignoring Carnat and Neril but one morning she realized that she had run low on her supply of selan from the storehouse. She was unwilling to trust the keys to any of the servants and decided she must run her own errand. She gave Challan a heavy dose of drugs and locked her in an empty cell of the workroom prison where not even the most inquisitive would dare to seek her.
When she turned a corner of the hallway, the broad shouldered silhouette of a man appeared in the corridor in front of her. A gasp of terror and hope drove the breath from her body. He carried himself with royal arrogance and for a moment she thought it must be the ghost of Zadak. Then the man walked further away along the corridor and the light from a window fell on his hair.
She recognized the fiery locks of Prince Carnat. She stood concealed until he turned into another corridor. Her pulse ran high and she felt heat rising in her cheeks. She had forgotten that Carnat had become such a sturdy, virile man.
Her old infatuation for her cousin was fanned into a lively flame. Zadak was dead and it was time to forget him. Carnat could be hers if she could find some way to remove his wife. She must be subtle. It must seem to be an accident. Poisons and drugs would not work. She knew that Carnat was careful of every morsel he and his wife ate since months before when he had discovered Challan was drugging Neril.
Ayarlan lingered and watched Carnat enter the library. He stopped at the threshold of the room and spoke to someone. His words were too soft to be heard, but the gentle, loving tone of his voice was enough to tell Ayarlan that he spoke honeyed words to Neril. The door swung close with a creak and Ayarlan paused for a moment more to regain the breath that whistled from her in an outraged gasp.
The wound of Carnat's betrayal of their betrothal had been deepened by the death of Zadak. Her hand went out to a nearby bench for support while she fought to recover her composure. The door to the library creaked again, warning her to remain concealed. She saw her hated rival leave the library and hurry toward the stairs that led to the chapel. Neril still moved with grace in spite of a limp and a belly swollen with child. Ayarlan wanted to rush forward and push the Mareklan down the flight of stone steps, but she could not do so without being discovered by Carnat.
He had become a worthy opponent. To act too precipitously would endanger her plans. He was, after all, a son of Elianin, heir of the Saadenan throne. The steward and others might well obey him if they thought Challan no longer capable of commanding them.
Ayarlan hurried away, bent on finding some way of eliminating the woman who had taken Carnat from her. She must act before the child was born, putting yet another between herself and legitimate control of Saadena.
Chapter 8 The Child
Neril left the library where she had shared breakfast with Carnat and Eliat. Her step was heavy with the changes her pregnancy had made, but her heart was light. She hurried toward the chapel where she would join Fedder in copying the final pages of the Scroll of the History of Irilik. It seemed certain that when Eliat returned the scroll to its rightful place in the sacred library in the shine city of Timora, a complete and accurate transcription would remain in Saadena.
Her mind was caught up in memories: the mysterious warning and promise of the Seeress in Timora who had set her on the path to finding the Lost Scroll, the discovery that it had been stolen by Marnat, Emperor of Saadena at its zenith.
It often amazed her that it had lain unread, unheeded for four hundred years in the vast and cluttered library of the palace until she had casually picked it up while looking through the scattered scrolls and recognized the ancient script that she had seen on the scrolls of The Law and The Compacts in the sacred library of Timora.
Neril took the route between the library and the chapel so often that she had grown heedless of her path along the stone floor. Suddenly she tripped and lost her footing at the top of the long flight of stairs that led to the chapel. Curling instinctively around the precious burden of her womb, she tumbled to the landing.
Ayarlan had hidden behind a pillar while she waited for Neril to trip on her snare and fall. The sound of her rival's scream and her tumbling fall brought a twisted grin to Ayarlan's mouth. She darted out of hiding and took one quick look at the crumpled body at the base of the stairs. Neril lay silent. A narrow band of scarlet had begun to creep across the floor from under the dark mass of hair that hid her face.
Fearing that Neril's final wail would bring her cronies, Ayarlan fled, forgetting the evidence of her snare that dangled from the top of the stairs. She hurried back to her workroom, stifling the yell of triumph that rose in her throat.
Fedder was waiting for Neril in an alcove of the chapel and heard her scream as she fell. He rushed forward and cried out with fear when he saw her lying at the foot of the stairs. Cigna, one of his students ran to join him as he hurried to the heaped clothing that marked her landing place. He heard a faint moan as he approached her and his steps quickened. Her injuries were severe, but a quick examination assured him that the child still moved within her.
"Bring the pallet from my quarters and help me carry her into the chapel," he directed the young man. Neril's eyes opened and she looked at the priest with agony in her gaze. She moaned, but didn't cry out at the inevitable jostling as they lifted her onto the makeshift litter and carried her the few steps to the chapel.
Her hands moved to cup her womb and she felt the child move with a rolling motion that eased her worst fears. When the pallet was lowered to the wide bench in front of the alter her face was livid and there were marks on her lower lip where her teeth had bitten down to restrain her cries.
"Bring Prince Carnat," Fedder urged the youth. "You should find him in the library."
Without questioning the student when he ran into the library and gasped out the news that Neril had fallen on the stairs, Carnat hurried along the hall with King Eliat until they came to the head of the stairway where Neril had fallen. He noticed the tell-tale smear of grease and saw the broken strands of the twine that Ayarlan had used in her snare.
"Look, Father," Carnat said with an angry gesture at the evidence of evil intent. "It could only have been Challan or one of her minions who laid this snare. I could kill them." He turned toward the door that led to the Queen's quarters but Eliat caught his arm and restrained him.
"Go to your wife," Eliat pleaded. "She needs you now. Let your revenge wait until Neril is taken care of."
Carnat hesitated. He knew he might lack the will to carry out retribution against Ayarlan and Challan if he waited. Only the anger of the moment gave him the courage to confront them. Then he looked down toward the chapel and saw Fedder's frantic gesture for him to hurry. With a last harried look toward the corridor that led to Challan's workroom, Carnat ran down the stairs to the chaplain's apartment.
Eliat stayed behind. He was chilled by the realization that Challan and her protege' could so coldly plan the death of Carnat's wife. It bore on his mind that he was responsible for letting Challan go unrestrained. Even after regaining his own mind, he had taken no action to end her evil domination of the people of Saadena. Instead of joining Carnat at Neril's bedside, he walked down the corridor and out of the front gates of the palace.
He wandered through the city of Saadena and looked upon his kingdom. The harvesters paused at their labors at the sight of the old man who walked, weeping, among them. His ragged hose and tattered tunic gave no hint of his station and the only crown he wore was a silvered cloud of hair. Mirin, hurrying on her errands of healing, was the only one who recognized the king.
"What has happened, did you come for me?" she asked urgently, fearing for Neril who was only a month from bearing her child.
He stared at her through eyes made bleary by tears, then he nodded and the energy returned to his step and face. "Neril tripped and fell down a flight of stairs. The chaplain took her to the chapel. You are needed."
"What about the child?" she asked anxiously. She hurried along beside him as he retraced his steps to the palace with renewed vigor.
"Fedder says the child is still moving, but you are the only one qualified to make that judgment," he said. "Come, I will take you to her."
After she had examined Neril, Mirin turned to the three men who hovered, anxiously waiting for her verdict. "Her injuries are grave and she must not be moved until the child is born," Mirin said. "You must be more careful than ever that she eats and drinks only those things which cannot harm her or the child, and never again leave her alone."
After Mirin left the palace, Carnat turned to Fedder and his father. "I saw the evidence that a trap was laid for Neril. I should have guarded her better. I knew she was in danger from my mother and Ayarlan."
"We will bring them to account for their deeds," Eliat promised. "But first the scroll of Irilik's history must be returned to Timora. I am certain that Neril would want the completion of our task to take precedence over revenge."
"We have almost finished making a copy. If you help me, I am certain the transcription can be completed soon and you can begin your journey," Fedder assured the king.
In the following days none of them ventured out of the chaplain's quarters except to obtain fresh food or to sleep.
Fedder and two of his students arranged pallets on the floor of the chapel where they could sleep. One of them was always awake and watchful.
Mirin came daily to attend to Neril. She watched as the spiritual energy of her patient rose to the test. She suspected that Neril's ribs were cracked and there was an indication that one of the broken ribs was in danger of puncturing Neril's lung. Mirin could not bind the ribs because of the child.
Neril never spoke of pain or indicated the suffering that was her daily companion. Instead, her face began to glow as if a lamp had been lit within as she listened to the translation that was being carried out on the table near her head. She felt nourished by the holy words that Eliat dictated to Fedder:
"There is no darkness in the Light of the Radiance, but darkness infects the hearts of my people.
When one would rule all and the voice of the people is stilled, this is a sign of darkness.
When my people follow their lusts and love dies, this is a sign of darkness.
When humility is shunned and my people become vain with proud display and the face of a neighbor is ground in the dust for gain, this is a sign of darkness."
In his Covenant with me, Saaden promised that his children and their children, for generations hence, would maintain the pilgrimage roads and let all pass who followed the errand of pilgrimage. When the covenant is broken, Saaden's blessings will end.
The scraping of Fedder's quill was the only other sound in the chamber.
King Eliat looked up, his face grim, "I know why my ancestor Marnat tried to suppress this scroll. Its very existence was a threat to his claim of supremacy."
Fedder merely nodded. He was unwilling to begin a discussion of the wrongs done by Marnat and his successors while there was still work to be done on the translation. Eliat tended to sink into depression when he remembered the evils committed by his ancestors.
The king turned back to the scroll and began to read again: "There will be war and famine and the earth itself shall struggle to cast off the evil that pollutes its surface. In those days my words will be lost, but a child of Irilik shall come from Timora and in the Vale of Death will serve me. The lost will be restored. The children of Irilik will join with the sons of Elianin. Saadena will be a joint inheritance when once again the river flows."
As the verses of the scripture were read, Neril recalled the vision she had seen when she struggled with love and hatred after Carnat had finally released her from the grip of selan. She held up her hand and caught Fedder's eye. "I have seen it, the people of Irilik and Saadena joined as one in the valley of Saadena, the river flowing again," she whispered. She thought about the words of the Seeress of Timora. It seemed she was again in the pleasant rooms of the Zekeklan court in Timora hearing them for the first time and wondering at their import.
Mirin approached her after they had eaten their evening meal. "The children are praying for you. Will you see Kana and Nara?"
Neril nodded. When they entered the room, the two girls approached her shyly, their eyes wide with anxiety. She reached out her hand and beckoned them near. "Are you able to teach the others?" she asked. They smiled and nodded. Neril took two fine chains from around her neck. They were hung with pendants made by her grandfather. One depicted Irilik, the first Prophet of Okishdu. The other was a smooth disk of moonstone that seemed to gleam with gathered light. "Wear these as tokens of my trust and show them to the children. Tell them that what you say is what I would have said if I could meet with them. Make sure they don't forget what they have learned."
Neril closed her eyes and seemed to gather strength to say her next words in a firm, unwavering voice. "Whatever happens, the Radiance will lead you to reap a harvest of joy if you are faithful."
Carnat frowned. He didn't like the import of her words. He stepped forward and touched their arms, "She needs to rest now. You can see her later, after the baby is born." He guided them out of the room and returned to sit by Neril.
She reached up and took his hand. The will with which she had conquered pain and stretched her energy far enough to protect her child seemed to grow and envelop her. She felt a curious new sensation, a tightening and pressure centered in her womb. She signaled Carnat with her hand. He leaned closer and she whispered, "Bring Mirin."
He sat dumbfounded for several seconds, unprepared. Finally he surged to his feet and rushed from the room. Eliat and Fedder, caught up in the task of proof reading the final portion of the copy of the Scroll of History, hardly noticed his exit.
They seemed surprised when Mirin hastened into the room and told them briskly that they should carry their work into the library. Fedder caught a glimpse of Neril's face and he wanted to draw closer to her. The brightness of her countenance was like a light in the dim room and he knew that she was in communion with the Radiance.
He would have lingered but Mirin thrust him from the room in the wake of Eliat. She had seen a look such as the one on Neril's face when her mother had died after defying the queen by feeding the harvesters. Mirin resolved to fight with all her skill to banish that beautiful but terrible shining and bring Neril back to mother her child.
Although Mirin encouraged her patient to take wine or dass to ease the pain of childbirth, Neril shook her head. "I won't taint my child," she murmured.
Hours passed in near silence. Fedder prayed and Carnat paced as they waited for some news. The prince confronted his failure to seek out Challan and Ayarlan in the days that had passed since Neril was injured. Although Eliat had restrained him from his first angry urge to take revenge, he had no excuse for his long delay.
Perhaps if Neril had been strong enough to be moved from her bed in Fedder's quarters to their own apartment, he might have gained strength from her, but she was too weak to be moved and he spent the nights alone, haunted. Whispers about Challan's magic powers and demonic allies that had been gossip among his nurses rose from the buried memories of his childhood like fetid odors from a grave.
Somehow he evaded taking any action as the days passed. When his fledgling conscience bothered him, he had reassured himself that he was too busy helping Mirin care for Neril. He was not above performing any menial task as long as it kept him from paying attention to his duty as a prince. He made sure that whatever he did, it kept him in the palace where he would not be confronted with the evidence of his failure to act.
When Fedder invited him to come to the Shrine with him to help examine the children, he found some task that would keep him from going. As he delayed, the problem seemed to take on greater dimensions. His fear grew as he evaded confrontation. Self-disgust fed on his fear.
Now Neril was bearing her child into the same circumstances that had nearly killed her and he had done nothing to eliminate the threat. Carnat longed for the anodyne of sleep, but he could not sleep until he knew that Neril had survived the birth.
Dawn was breaking when Mirin called them to come into the room. Neril had finally given birth to a little girl. The child's body was plump and perfect, showing no harm from the injuries her mother had sustained. Her gasping cry was brief, but gave welcome proof to Mirin that her lungs were clear. A basin of warm water and soft clothes were close at hand and Mirin cleaned the child and handed her to her mother. After examining her infant to make certain that each tiny toe and fingernail was perfect, Neril took the last reminder of her life in Marekla, the embroidered cloth made by her grandmother, and wrapped her child tenderly in the soft fabric.
Carnat drew near with Fedder who had brought a ewer of oil to give the new mother a blessing of healing. The tiny curly haired child by Neril's side caught the prince's gaze and he saw in her perfect small face a blending of the beauty of her mother and the proud visage of Saadena's rulers. He extended his finger to touch the petal-soft cheek and felt tiny fingers twine around it. He looked into his child's midnight eyes and felt that she looked into his soul. Carnat shrank from her silent witness. Guilt tangled painfully with his joy. He had sworn to protect Neril, but he had failed.
"She is an unusual child," Fedder said quietly. "She cried but once, but now she coos to her mother. Look there, surely that is a smile!"
Neril saw the tiny dimple that flickered in the cheek of the newborn and she chuckled and smiled back. "You have wise eyes, my little Caril," she whispered. Then she looked up into her husband's distraught face.
She felt a painful blending of love and sorrow as she recognized all he could be, and what he was not. Their months together after she had conquered her affront had been sweet and he had grown from a selfish, fearful youth into a man, but he was not yet strong. He still hesitated at taking the reins of rule that belonged to him and had failed to put an end to the evil his mother had wrought.
"Promise me that you will find a safe place for our child if I die," Neril whispered. "I know you would love her and try to care for her, but Challan and Ayarlan are dangerous. Caril stands in the way of their lust for power."
"I will," Carnat said, but his heart failed him when he saw the weakened state of his wife. Mirin, standing nearby, saw that Neril had used her last bit of strength to gain Carnat's oath. She moved forward and laid a cautionary hand on the prince's arm. He looked up at her and nodded. Wordlessly, he leaned over Neril and kissed her cheek. He stood and touched the child's cheek as she eagerly nursed.
For a moment he felt a flash of resentment that the hungry mite seemed to be draining the last bit of energy from his beloved wife. Then Caril lifted her tiny hand and latched onto his finger again. All his resentment was swallowed in a great flash of love and care and sorrow. He stood there for a moment, watching as the two who had taught him to love began to sleep. Caril's mouth and hand relaxed and Mirin lifted her away from her mother and covered Neril so that she could rest peacefully.
Carnat followed Fedder from the room, pausing on the threshold for one last yearning look. Away from the immediate presence of Neril, the strength he had summoned to give her his oath ebbed away. He remembered the power of selan to bury pain of body and spirit. The chaplain saw the distracted look on the prince's face and caught his hand. "Neril will not live long. You must keep a clear head until you have fulfilled your promise. Don't waste any of the time you still have together."
Carnat bowed his head and acknowledged the priest's rebuke. "Can nothing be done for her?" he asked, his voice hoarse with the effort of restraining a sob.
"She is in the hands of the Radiance," Fedder answered. "I have taught you to pray, but you know that prayer is not always answered as we wish. What do you plan to do about those who have brought about this evil?"
Carnat could not answer at first. He turned from Fedder and looked toward the wing where the workroom lay. He knew that it was within his authority to wrest control of Saadena from his mother and end the oppression of the harvesters. Eliat would back him. "I will confront my mother and her minions. I must make plans."
He left Fedder and went to his rooms. He had not eaten since near noon the previous day when Neril had sent him to fetch Mirin. It was hard to distinguish his hunger from the emptiness he felt in his soul as he flinched from the prospect of seeking out Challan. So much of his life had been spent evading her that a change in that habit seemed beyond his strength. He yearned for the rage that had filled him with thoughts of revenge when Neril had first been injured. At Eliat's request he had denied himself that satisfaction until the urge had been dulled. He sought out his father and shared supper with him.
"We must end Challan's rule," Carnat declared after his physical emptiness had been filled.
Eliat nodded. "She has caused much evil. I am to blame, but I must rely on you to take action. The habit of fearing her has been with me too long." For a moment the king looked away, then he looked back into the eyes of his son and said, "You must despise me for my weakness."
Carnat looked at his father and shuddered. "How can I despise you now? I once thought you were a fool and a cipher, unfit for any respect, but I have done nothing in the months that have passed since I knew you were my ally. I have been as weak as you ever were, with less excuse."
Eliat shook his head. "When I first married your mother, I might have acted to stop her. You face a much more serious threat. She has loyal servants who will oppose you. The steward and the man who heads the palace guard are worthy opponents. I have considered the problem. It will not be easy to overset the queen."
Carnat stood. "I have delayed long enough."
He felt a sense of relief that he had at last set his foot on the stones of the hallway that led to the workroom. The stink of scorched dass and the fumes of docil mingled with the hated scent of selan in the air of the corridor. He was reminded of his nocturnal visits to the workroom to procure drugs to keep Neril compliant when he had first captured her. It seemed so long ago, yet it was little more than a year since he had carelessly caught her as he would a pretty butterfly, concealing her in his secret garden and going through the pretense of a marriage.
It seemed that most of his life had been lived in the brief months since she had waked from her drugged state. Her forgiveness, her love, were gifts that overwhelmed him with gratitude. But he had failed her again and again.
He was prepared to drive Challan and Ayarlan from the workroom and make them account for their crimes, but when he reached the regions where his mother worked her evil magic, he found the door locked and barred. He pounded at the wooden panels and raged at himself for failing to secure a key. He reviewed his memory for some other way into the workroom, but his frustration increased when he realized that when Challan had ordered the watchtower to be built, the only other access had been sealed off.
Beyond the door, Ayarlan groaned her relief that she had taken the precaution of locking the door and securing the keys. She knew she had taken a great risk by attacking Neril. Too late she had recalled the evidence she had left behind. At any hour she had expected Carnat to appear in her workroom and demand that she leave Saadena. With Challan's mind captive, she had some small control over the dubious loyalties of the Queen's sworn men, but she knew she walked a narrow path.
If either Eliat or Carnat showed the courage of true men, she could soon find herself in exile, barred forever from the power that was so nearly in her grasp. She stayed in one of the empty cells of the workroom at night and ventured out only in the dead of night when hunger and the need for supplies required the risk.
As days passed without any sign of retribution, she had begun to relax her guard. Only an hour ago she had left the door ajar after returning from an errand. The stench of the workroom was hardly relieved by the narrow air-vent high in the wall. Something warned her and she had secured the door before beginning her work.
Carnat's hands ached from his futile blows on the workroom door. He sensed that there was someone beyond the door, but it would be stupid to argue for either Ayarlan or Challan to open to him. He should have used stealth. They could not hide forever. Sooner or later they would have ventured forth and he could have caught them. Now they would be on their guard. Perhaps they would summon their loyal guards and he would find himself facing a force of armed men when next he ventured to drive them forth.
He walked away, his sense of futility increased by the knowledge that he had acted without thought after using the excuse that he needed to plan as a means of delaying the confrontation. Now it would be nearly impossible to take Challan and Ayarlan unaware.
Ayarlan set her eye to a knothole and watched Carnat leave the corridor. When his shoulders slumped in defeat she smiled and gave a sigh of relief. She knew him well. His surge of courage would not last. He would scurry back to the comfort of his few friends. Ayarlan was virtually alone, trusting no one, but she gloried in her power. She could not yet give up her guard, and it would be well to tell Jargin to set a force of men around the entrance to her workroom to discourage any further attempts by Carnat to pretend to be a man, but the Mareklan woman must be close to death or Carnat would not have been so full of anger and outrage. The end was drawing near.
Challan shuffled out of her cell and peered around. "What is happening?" she whined. "I thought I heard someone calling my name."
"We have nothing to fear," Ayarlan gloated.
Chapter 9 Doka's Duty
Placine, wife of Doka, the Headman of Tedaka, pushed herself away from the desk where she had been trying to make sense of her household accounts. Her back hurt and when she reached to massage it, the child within her womb made its first flutter of movement.
It was a warning. She had promised herself she would visit Saadena and find out the truth about Neril. Soon it would be impossible for her to travel until months after her child was born.
When Doka returned home from the council hall that evening, he met a flurry of activity. His neighbors ran past him carrying baskets and packs. Placine came out of the kitchen with a rack of journey meat balanced in front of her growing waistline.
"What is happening?" he asked anxiously.
"I'm preparing for a journey to Saadena," his wife said.
"You can't travel to Saadena until after our child is born," he cautioned her.
"You promised me last winter that when the weather improved we would visit Neril," she said.
"Think of your other children," he reasoned. "The path to Saadena is hazardous. If you risk it, you might not return."
She glared at him, then tears sprung up in her eyes and she found herself weeping in his arms. "Please Doka, I have to know how Neril is doing. You said you'd send a trade mission but whenever I ask you about it, you say it has to be delayed."
He couldn't explain to her how he had been held from acting. Somehow he had always been diverted to something else. There were always demands on his time and attention.
"I may have some news for you. Thalon, Neril's friend, entered the city this afternoon with a Mareklan caravan. I'll go to their camp this evening and ask him to come and visit you," he promised.
She relented as she sensed how truly he regretted the delay. The promise of an interview with Neril's good friend salved her impatience and she directed her friends to tidy the hall where they had been piling the provisions she thought she might need. Tedakans did not employ servants, but somehow Placine was always well served.
Thalon was reluctant to visit the Headman's wife. As he walked toward Doka's sturdy stone house, he tried to rehearse his words. When Placine opened the door to him, he saw the hint of the tears she had shed. He could remember the smile she had given him the day she had purchased the feather flower for Neril when she had been a guest in Doka's house.
Placine led him into her cozy home and showed him to a seat near the fire. He sat back and relaxed. The truth would be difficult to speak, but he knew he could trust her. "Doka told me you wanted to know what we have heard of our friend. I'm ashamed to tell you that the Marekla council has banned the mention of her name."
Placine was shocked. "What foolishness!" she gasped indignantly. "If I were a Jaman, I'd wager Geran was behind the ban."
Thalon nodded. "We searched for her for months after she disappeared in Saadena. We questioned rogues in Zedekla Taleeka and combed Jaman docil dens. Geran nearly caused a riot in Jama when he sneaked out one night and got involved in a droka match. We had begun to think Neril was dead. Finally we received the message your husband sent to the enclave in Timora. We immediately ended our search and returned to Marekla. I urged that we should return to Saadena and visit Neril, but the council refused. Geran was enraged when he heard that Neril had married Carnat."
"I believe she was abducted and drugged," Placine protested.
"That would only confirm the council's decision that no Mareklan woman will ever again be allowed to leave the valley. The practice of denying women the right to go on trek was only a custom before Neril joined our trek. Now it is the law. Geran is persuasive. Though Sergon and I argued that Neril's presence had benefitted the trek, her father, Neragon, was chastised and the council banned trade with Saadena. They consider Neril a bad example to other Mareklan girls."
"I've always admired the wisdom of Marekla's council. How could they commit such folly?" Placine asked plaintively.
"Fear drove them. The threat of Orqu's cult and the assault on the enclave in Timora reminded them of old outrages. Sergon was disgusted with the decision. He has retired to Timora where he has been appointed to the Sacred Council. Sometimes I'm tempted to join him, but I have a wife and family in Marekla and they are my anchor."
Doka coughed politely at the entrance to the room and Thalon made a gesture of greeting. "I heard you mention that the Mareklans no longer trade with Saadena," the Tedakan Headman said as he settled on a bench near his wife. "The Jamans trade in selan, but their price is too great since it includes the right to deal dass and docil. What will we use instead of selan to ease pain and speed healing?"
"If someone were willing to make the trip, they would have ready customers in Janaka and Zedekla," Thalon said. "The track to Saadena from Tedaka is fairly straight forward. It is a hot and tiring trip, but I would rather deal with an honest Tedakan instead of a Jaman docil dealer. Our trade with the forest people depends on a minimum quantity of selan. I heard that Uguck has seized control of the trade in Jama and is trying to gain exclusive trading rights."
Doka stared at the fire. He had always been too busy to travel to Saadena, even in the face of Placine's pleas, but If the Jaman drug dealer, Uguck, controlled access to selan, he would use it as a lever to legitimize his other products. The herb, selan, was useful as both anodyne and medicine. There was nothing to equal its efficacy in easing pain, but docil and dass had no redeeming value.
"The knowledge that Uguck is gaining a monopoly should convince the council to release me to lead a caravan." He told Thalon. "I could arrange to carry vouchers of trade with me. I will visit Neril while I am in Saadena." He sent a guilty glance at Placine.
His wife lifted her eyebrow and smiled, she knew him well. "Tilla, Tolka's young widow, has been trying to find a way to travel to her parent's home in Janaka. If you continued on to Janaka and Zedekla after you visit Saadena, you would increase your profits from the trip," she said.
Thalon saw the surprise on Doka's face and laughed. "I think your wife must have Mareklan blood. How soon could you begin your journey?"
"I'm not sure." Doka hesitated.
"He'll be ready within the week," Placine replied. I have a message for Neril and I want her to receive it before snow closes the passes."
* * *
Sweat rolled off Doka's face and dampened his tunic as he struggled to the summit of the ridge that separated him from his first sight of Saadena. At last he topped the rise and stared down at the ruined city below him. As the caravan wound its way down into the valley and entered the city, he saw the gaunt poverty of the harvesters. He ducked his head in fear that they might meet his eyes and he would see the vacancy in their gazes. He was ashamed that the trade he had come to make was the means of supporting this evil. His debates with Placine regarding the importance of respecting the autonomy of other cities and states returned to haunt him. It had been a convincing argument then. Now he was not so sure.
The New Palace seemed almost deserted. When the caravan of men and women finally reached the portals of the great castle, they could see a well disciplined company of guards on duty. The ungainly tower that Challan had built was manned by a watchman, but no one had interfered with their passage into the valley and across the chasm that had once been the bed of a mighty river.
Doka used the hefty knocker to signal their presence. After several minutes, a servant appeared and took Doka's token of greeting. Two people strode toward him as he waited for some sign of welcome. Neither of them fit the image of Saadena's proud royalty.
Ayarlan was still wearing the stained gown she wore in the workshop. Jargin had brought her word that a caravan had entered the city and she had told him to ask them to wait until she was able to deal with them. Then he had mentioned that they were not Jamans, but Tedakans. She was growing wary of the increasing power of Jama's drug merchants and welcomed a breech in their monopoly.
Eliat was wearing a fine layer of dust from his labors in the library. Carnat had brought him word that he might have found a way to get to Timora in the company of sympathetic allies. He would not risk himself and the scroll to the dubious hospitality of Jamans.
The king reached out his hand and forestalled Ayarlan's greeting. "I am Eliat, King of Saadena."
Ayarlan lurched back in surprise and summoned her steward but Jargin dared not act against the king except by the personal order of Challan. They stood and watched as Eliat led the visiting Headman of Tedaka to the guest quarters. The others in Doka's caravan looked with disdain at Ayarlan's stained skirts. Turning suddenly, her head high, she returned to her chambers. Eliat gave no appearance of being drugged, and he had usurped the her power over the servants.
"How did this happen and I not know?" she stormed at the empty room. She picked up a stone bottle and smashed it against the wall. For the first time since she had drugged Challan she knew real fear. "Now he claims his rights and I have no recourse," she muttered.
Jargin knocked at the door of the workroom. "What are you raving about?" he asked.
"The king, Eliat, the Idiot of Saadena!" Ayarlan yelled. "I thought he was eating less because he was getting weaker and I began to hope that I would finally see the last of him. Now I realize that he was eating other food. I underestimated him. He thinks to take away all I've fought for."
"Then summon your Aunt," Jargin suggested with a shrug. "Even without drugs, I believe she will subdue her husband. You know he has never dared to stand up to her."
Ayarlan stared at the steward. "She is --indisposed."
Jargin gave her a keen look. "I think you would do well to tell her what is happening. If she doesn't do something soon, she will lose control of the palace, and with the palace, the kingdom, such as it is."
"There are other ways than selan to ensure that we will regain control of Saadena," Ayarlan assured the steward.
Jargin looked at her and felt a tremor of unease. For the first time he began to listen to the whispers of his intuition that had nagged at him for days. Ayarlan would not be so bold if her aunt were in any condition to hear what she said. Challan had always been expedient. She had overlooked the brutality of the worst men in her army and never hesitated to punish those who resisted her will, but Ayarlan seemed to have learned all Challan could teach her, and added a few nasty embellishments of her own. He would not defy her until he made sure he could escape her.
"What are you planning?" He asked in a voice that oozed with fawning abasement meant to reassure and cajole the uncertain temper of the woman he now acknowledged as his mistress.
"Those old scrolls Eliat has been studying are probably dry and easily burned," Ayarlan mused. "Keep watch on the king and let me know when he returns to the library."
Doka was relaxing in the guest quarters when he heard a knock on an inner panel. Curiosity drove him to examine the wall but he could discover no door. The knock came again. Doka knocked back. The panel slid open and he saw a tall young man with russet hair and golden eyes standing in the opening.
"Please sir, I've heard of your reputation for fair dealing," the visitor said. "I am afraid for the lives of my wife and child. Will you help me?"
"Who are you," Doka asked.
"I am Carnat, prince of Saadena," the youth said.
The prince was a handsome young man, his fine features reflecting his royal breeding, but there was a hint of weakness about his face. Doka decided to test his allegiance. Although he was eager to find Neril, he pretended confusion. "I am no doctor. Your mother has a reputation with herbs and medicines,"
"I will not allow my mother near my wife," Carnat said, his chin taking on a firmer tilt. "If I did, both my wife and child might suffer."
"If that is true, you should take your wife and child out of harm's way," Doka insisted.
"That is why I've come to you. My wife is near death. If she knew our daughter was in the care of someone like you, I think she would be comforted," Carnat explained.
Doka was dismayed at the news of Neril's illness. "Show me the way," he commanded. He shoved Carnat back through the secret panel and hastened after him.
When they came at last to the room where Neril lay, Doka saw that the frail young woman had survived on will power alone. The narrow nose and high cheekbones that told of her heritage stood out sharply in her thin face, but her face shone with an almost unearthly beauty. He mourned the loss of the charming, lively girl who had visited their home in Tedaka only a little more than a year before. Doka did not quite succeed in biting back his exclamation of dismay.
Neril turned her eyes to see who had come into her chamber. The glow of hope lit them when she saw her friend.
"Father Doka," she whispered, using the name she had playfully given him when he had counseled with her about the choices she faced.
Doka fought his tears when he saw the tiny child tucked in Neril's arms. "Your husband told me of your fears. I have a woman in my retinue who is nursing a child. She is a widow who is returning to Janaka with her two sons. She can provide your little one with plenty of nourishment."
Neril kissed her daughter's soft cheek and murmured farewell with a broken whisper. Then she lifted the tiny bundle toward Doka. He was an answer to her prayers, but it was like the strike of a sword blow to part with Caril. Her fingers lingered for a moment on the soft russet curls of her tiny girl before her arm grew weary and her hand dropped away.
"Take her," she said with a strength summoned from the depths of her being. Tears filled her eyes as she saw the tender care with which the brawny Tedakan Headman cuddled her little daughter in his arms. "Her name is Caril," Neril said, almost too faintly to be heard. Then she relaxed on the bed, her features taking on a waxen pallor.
"Placine prays for you. I will take care of your daughter," Doka promised. He reached into the pocket of his tunic and held up the message Placine had written. "We heard that you had found happiness here. Placine wanted to make sure of your condition. She wrote to you."
Neril summoned the will to reach for the tablet and Doka held it steady for her. She smiled as she read the words of her friend. "Tell her I found happiness and more," Neril whispered as her hand faltered and she dropped the tablet to the floor. She closed her eyes and lay silent. Carnat hardly seemed to notice the transfer of his child to the other man. He stood over Neril, his face a mask of sorrow.
Doka's hand trembled as he arranged a fold of his cloak over his arm to conceal the child. "I cannot find my way back to my quarters without your guidance," he said to the prince. Carnat glanced up at him, a look of faint surprise in his face, as if he hardly remembered how the Tedakan had come to be in the room with him. Doka gave one last glance at the waxen figure on the bed and followed Carnat back through the dusty secret passages that led to the panel in his chamber.
Doka left the child sleeping and hurried to the guest chamber two doors away where Tilla was reading to her older son, Barga. Her year-old baby boy was sound asleep in a cradle board near her bed. "Come," Doka said. "I must consult you on an important matter."
His face convinced her to hurry. She admonished her older child to keep watch on his small brother and followed Doka to his room. Her breath rushed out in a coo of maternal admiration when she saw the sleeping infant he had placed in the center of the bed.
"Who is she?" she asked.
"I can tell you nothing, but I am her guardian and we must take her from this place in all haste and secrecy. Can you help me?" he asked.
Tilla nodded. The child stirred and brought a tiny knuckle to her rosebud lips. "Please go and look after my sons," she directed the Headman. Doka immediately obeyed.
Adjusting her bodice for modesty, Tilla lifted the child and held her to her breast. "You show a hunger to live that will serve you well," Tilla said as she stroked the russet curls, unwittingly retracing the path made by Neril's fingers only minutes before. "It will be easy to conceal you in my shawl when we leave the palace."
When she had finished nursing, she hugged the infant against her and let her cloak fall before returning to her own room. Doka looked up with concern. "Where is the child?" he asked. Tilla smiled and tipped back the corner of her shawl. A tiny hand, like a plump pink star, waved at the air.
Doka chuckled, then he turned to Tilla's older son. "We have a wonderful secret. You must never tell anyone about where the baby came from."
The boy nodded solemnly. He could not take his eyes off the infant that his mother unwrapped and began to clean. His little brother was all very well, but he had been as bald as a nuka fruit from the moment he had been born. This baby looked almost human with her dark red curls. Barga became her instant champion.
Doka returned to his room with a sense of mingled sorrow and accomplishment. He took off his boots and sat near the window. Neril barely clung to the edges of life, but something in her face had awed him. She walked the borders of death as unafraid of that great mystery as she had been un-awed by the dangers of the trek.
He smiled through the tears that sprang to his eyes while he thought of the tales she had told his young sons, Desta and Deka. He dreaded the moment when he would have to tell Placine and his sons that their dear friend lay near death.
His musings were invaded when another knock came at the secret panel. When Doka opened it, he saw an old man dressed in the white robe and blue sash of a servant of the Radiance. A tattered badge decorated with the seal of Saadena gave evidence that it was the royal chaplain who cowered in the dim recess. He held out a long object wrapped in rich brocade. "This is the child's birthright. Guard it and give it to her when she comes of age," Fedder said. He gave Doka a scroll case of beautifully tooled and gilded leather and directed him to put the other object into it. "I have seen that this must be done," he muttered.
Doka agreed to the old man's request and slid the long object into the scroll case. He watched the priest scurry away down the narrow passage between the walls before he closed the panel. He concealed the scroll case in his baggage and prepared to seek out King Eliat when he heard another knock at the panel. "Does no one use the door?" he wondered aloud as he tightened his sash.
He swung open the secret door. and realized that his latest visitor was the king himself. Eliat glanced in either direction furtively before sidling into Doka's room. He seemed quite a different character from the bold ruler who had greeted the caravan only hours earlier. Eliat's courage of the morning had retreated under the old habit of fear.
"I must travel to Timora. I beg your help. May I join you for the journey across the desert?" he asked.
Doka nodded. "The sooner we are quit of this place, the better. I bring grain and fruit vouchers from Zedekla and Tedaka, and gold from Janaka in exchange for selan."
Eliat nodded. "We can take care of this now and leave Saadena before nightfall. I will disguise myself and meet you near the northern trail head," the king said. Then his face took on a distant look and he seemed almost to wince in pain. "If I am not there to meet you, travel on without me."
As Eliat led Doka to the door of the storehouse, they began to discuss the trade agreement. Doka was scrupulously fair in setting the exchange of selan for the vouchers and gold he carried. When the complex lock did not yield to the decorative key Challan had mockingly given him many years before, Eliat picked up a carved stone vase that stood on the projecting plinth of the arched opening and smashed at the door.
Nearby servants were stunned by the king's action. Several of them recovered enough to help Doka carry away the selan sold him to the chamber where his porters waited. Another scurried to tell Jargin.
"The king broke the lock of the storehouse and gave most of the selan to the Tedakan," the servant reported. "He came suddenly and we could not warn you."
The steward hurried to find Ayarlan. He had given up hope that Challan would ever give him orders. . "What should I do?" he asked. "Neither of us has the authority to interfere with the king. Some of the servants were only too eager to help him. If we intervene with this trade, we risk having them rise against us."
Ayarlan burned with impotent fury. She knew too well that the traditional palace servants served the royal house. They had been willing to serve Challan because she was the queen and the king had never countermanded her demands. "Do not interfere with the Tedakans. Do as I told you before. Bring me word when Eliat returns to the library."
Only after the steward had quit the room could Ayarlan give vent to her frustration and fury. She did not lose track of her plan as she cursed and paced and waited for the moment of revenge. When Jargin returned she turned with a curse. "Where is Eliat now?" she demanded. "You seem well informed about what he does."
"You told me to report to you. He's in the library snuffling around in the dust again." Jargin said contemptuously. He could not understand why neither Eliat or Carnat pressed their advantage. He would be among the first to accept the change in leadership if they acted. He would not regret a chance to escape Ayarlan's capricious temperament.
"Stay here and guard the entrance to my workroom," Ayarlan commanded, discarding all pretense that she was merely Challan's amanuensis. She jangled her keys and picked up the burner that had been used to simmer yet another combination of selan and other drugs. Jargin did not demur or try to follow her as she raced down the corridor toward the library.
The Tedakans who had accompanied Doka were eager to leave the dusty corridors of the Saadenan palace. The garish furnishings of the newer portions, contrasted with the glimpses they had caught of vast empty rooms littered with the remnants of tapestries and carved furnishings were anathema to their tidy souls. Once they had packed the selan that had motivated their visit, they made their way out of the palace and through the dreary ruins of Saadena. Doka looked around as they reached the trail head but there was no sign of Eliat. He lingered behind as the others took the trail. The mournful sound of a signal bell rang from the castle.
Doka stared back toward the weathered towers of the New Palace. He had heard whispers that Queen Challan was a sorceress, and he knew that in aiding Carnat and trading with Eliat, he had earned the dreadful woman's enmity. Did the tolling bell signal a summons to pursuit? Then he saw the reason for the alarm.
A thin pillar of smoke rose from the castle. It was too small to signal a major fire, but it was far more than even the great fireplace in the audience hall would produce. Doka felt a shudder of insight that told him that the smoke signaled the reason that Eliat had not joined them. He said a brief prayer for the pathetic monarch. Then he turned his back on the dread valley and followed the others into the desert. Setting their course for the city of Janaka, the Tedakans traveled swiftly, almost as if the specter of the ruined city pursued them.
None but Doka, Tilla, and her small son Barga knew of the precious secret the Janakan woman kept secured near her heart. In her other arm she carried her own infant, and any cries that the young princess uttered might easily be attributed to the older child by her companions on the trail.
Chapter 10 Gift for a King
Doka did not know of the secret passes and paths of the Mareklans. His caravan marched steadily on with an order unique to Tedakans, making a wide detour of the dubious allure of the gambling dens of Jama. They took the ancient imperial road that had once thronged with the commerce of the Saadenan empire. It joined the pilgrim trail south of the Or bridge where they turned toward the mountains.
After more than a week on the road they finally approached the metal studded walls of the city that sat like a great rude jewel crowning a peak framed by taller mountains. Countless glittering facets struck light into Doka's eyes. He knew the sophistication of Zedekla's harbor city, but the barbaric grandeur of Janaka's ramparts amazed him.
The mammoth bronze gates of the city stood open and the guards in their barred chest plates hardly took notice of the line of Tedakans. Doka felt a thrill of atavistic fear at the sight of battle tattoos on the guard captain's naked skull.
Every Janakan they passed bore a weapon. A woman walked ahead of them. The jeweled dagger she wore as a hair ornament could have pierced the heart of a brawny man. The dark pyramid of Orqu, built in the years of war and turmoil when Jagga was king, stood ruined and empty. An enterprising market woman had spread her bright tapestries over the lower tier of the entrance, making mock of the grim decorations carved on its face.
The way to the palace led upwards through a series of cutbacks, looping up the steep face of the mountain. The sound of horns and drums drew near. Doka halted and tried not to pant with fatigue as he waited to see the source of the noise. The other Tedakans glanced around nervously but Tilla smiled expectantly.
Suddenly the square ahead of them filled with the twirling bodies of painted warriors. The urgent beat of drums and wailing horns built to a crescendo, then stopped. The dancing warriors straightened from their crouches and made way for a small, plump man wearing an ornate headdress that towered over his balding head. He was clad in paint and feathers, a golden breastplate studded with jewels, a gleaming sword, and an ornate loincloth that reached his ankles.
"I wear this regalia only to honor you Doka," Tagun, called the Peacemaker, said with a grimace. "Now, let's get inside before I catch a cold."
They were escorted into the palace of Janaka by the fierce looking dancers who quickly left them and returned dressed in the red and bronze tunics of their royal livery. While the other Tedakans were shown to comfortable quarters, Doka was led to a tower apartment that gave views over the city of Janaka from its windows. His eyes were caught by the white shrine that reatly reproduced the graceful contours of Timora's ancient shrine. He had heard f its history, how it had begun as a tomb to honor Elinka, Tagun's mother, but then the needs of his people and the approval of a holy seer Had convinced Tagun to bury his mother in the garden and convert the edifice into a shrine.
Fruit and steaming cala were set on a table near a comfortable chair. There were two cups provided. Doka sat on the bench next to the table and waited for Tagun.
The door swung open. "I told you I would bring peace and plenty to Janaka," the monarch of Janaka announced briskly as he entered the room, still tugging a plain tunic into place over his rotund figure. He walked over to Tedaka's leader and grasped him in surprisingly brawny arms, hugging Doka with fierce enthusiasm.
"What could stand against you?" Doka teased his friend. "Now, may I take off these miserable boots?"
Tagun clapped his hands and servants entered with basins of water and soft towels. Both leaders were treated to the cleansing and massaging of their feet as they sat next to each other and began to reminisce.
"None who knew you in that shrine service year really doubted you could succeed in bringing peace, if you could evade treachery," Doka assured his friend. "Once you had led your men to relieve the seige of Tedaka and survived the ambush at the Or Bridge the rest must have been easy.
"My enemies underestimated me. Never underestimate a small man, especially one with a tall father," Tagun said, tapping the short sword he wore at his waist.
"If you could make other swords like the one you wear, even Tedakans would be willing to trade their battle axes," Doka said. He reached out and then thought better of touching the surface of the glistening bronze blade.
"This is the Sword of Dorn. It is the only one of its kind as far as I know. I believe that the only other sword that could defeat it is Tharek oc Baroka, which would have been my inheritance if Darm hadn't lost it to Tharek."
"It is just as well that Tharek oc Baroka was won by Tharek. You would look ridiculous trying to support it from your belt," Doka said.
Servants removed the basins and the two old friends turned to the meal. Tagun, taking precedence as priest here in his kingdom, uttered the invocation, adding a benediction and blessing on his friend. When he lowered his hands, they began to eat.
"I commend you on the changes you've made in Janaka," Doka commented after he had swallowed a bite of spicy meat. "As we passed along the road from Jama I noticed that there has been a great recovery from Jagga's War."
"I still have not succeeded in my goals," Tagun admitted with a rueful shake of his head. He gestured to the hillside outside the city where foundries sent smoke into the air. "Though I've tried to convince my people to turn their smithing skills to making tools and fittings, nearly a quarter of our production is still given to making weapons. I've seen the warehouses fill with corroding swords while we scramble to fill orders for farm implements and bells."
"You brought your people to accept the treaties you made with Manchek of Tedaka and my uncle, Tanka. The honor of Janakans is legendary. Once they promised to support the Alliance there remained little need for weapons of war."
"Yes, Janakans support the peace, but what of Orenon and Jama and the bandit lords who hide in Kumnora's wild reaches? I am wary that when I no longer rule, my cousins and sons will want to turn a profit by selling weapons. I will train my first grandson to be my heir, but he is only an infant. I wonder if he will be short enough to succeed."
Doka laughed at the quip, but he knew Tagun's concerns were serious. Many were still alive who remembered the days when Janakan hordes had boiled down from their mountains and crashed into the excellent defenses of their proposed victims. The same great axes the Tedakans used to fell trees had taken a toll of the usurping clans, but there had been a bloody cost for the victory on both sides of the conflict.
Now that they had turned from war, it seemed every second Janakan had become a broker or banker. The metals and gems that were mined in the surrounding mountains were traded for goods from all corners of Okishdu. Doka toyed with his cup, a beaker of Zedeklan design and ran his bare foot across the plush surface of a Virdanan rug. He looked up at the grizzled face of the friend he'd made in Timora years ago when they were mere boys and he prayed aloud. "May you live long, Tagun of Janaka."
While Doka visited with Tagun, Tilla took Caril and her sons, Barga and Fren, to the home of her mother, Rena, who had attended Queen Selendra for the births of Tagun's sons. Tilla showed the infant princess to her mother with as much fond pride as if she herself had borne the child.
"She will be a beauty," Tilla's mother said as she touched Caril's silken cheek. "She should be fostered with royalty."
"What about King Tagun?" Tilla asked. "You told me how eager he was to have a daughter."
"When Selendra died he declared that he would not remarry. He loved Selendra dearly and I doubt that another could ever replace her in his heart," Rena explained.
"I've wondered how Doka will take care of the child while he returns to Tedaka. He knew from the beginning that I'll make my home here with you," Tilla said.
"Has he told you anything of his plans?"
"He'll stay in Janaka for several days before going down to Zedekla. After that, he'll return to Tedaka. There was no time for him to make plans when we left Saadena. I think he has some vague idea of returning to Tedaka with Caril and raising her as his own. It is a good home, none better in all Okishdu, but Placine will soon give birth to another child. She could not help loving this one, but it would be a difficult task for her to take on without servants."
Tilla waved her finger in front of the tiny princess. She smiled when the child reached up to catch it in her fist. "Perhaps it is time for our good king Tagun to receive his heart's desire," Rena said as she glanced out the window at the glittering walls of the palace. "I was never asked to return the key I was given when I was appointed royal midwife."
After Tagun left him, Doka thought about his promise to Carnat and Neril. As the days of their trip from Saadena had passed, he noticed how Caril bloomed under the fastidious care and bountiful nourishment Tilla provided. Her husband had left his widow destitute. If he offered Tilla a generous amount of money, sufficient to overcome the lack of a dowry, she might return to Tedaka with him.
He pondered the problem while he dressed for his formal audience with Tagun. Their meeting earlier was a meeting of friends. Now they would meet as representatives of two powerful cities with wide territories and competing interests.
Meanwhile Tilla and her mother carried out their plan. They dressed Caril in fine clothing of Zedeklan design and wrapped her in the Mareklan cloth Neril had provided. Then they nestled the infant in a finely wrought basket from Tedaka. It would be difficult for anyone to guess the origin of the child from an examination of her accouterments.
Rena was familiar with the palace and the king's routine. "We should hurry. Tagun will soon leave his apartment. This afternoon he will meet with Doka first because he is the most important of his visitors. If we leave Caril at the entrance to the king's quarters just before he leaves, he will probably accept her as his fosterling. I'll stay nearby to make sure that no one frustrates our plan. When Doka sees how our monarch dotes on the baby, I venture he won't wish to take her away. If Doka doesn't suggest you care for the child, I will tell the king that I have a widowed daughter who can serve as nurse."
They settled the child and quickly made their way to the palace. Tilla carried the basket while Rena led her into the royal quarters through a back door. It gave access to a stairway leading to the king's apartment. It was a nearly forgotten entrance, used only when a member of the royal family needed immediate treatment for illness, or in Rena's case, childbirth. Tagun and his sons were hardy males who made light of injuries and seldom called on the services of healers.
"Put the basket down by that door across from the window," Rena urged."Hurry!"
Tilla thought her mother was needlessly worried, but as soon as she put the basket down in front of the door and rejoined Rena in the hidden angle of the corridor, the king's attendant opened the door and gasped with surprise.
"What is it Doso?" Tagun asked as he followed the man into the corridor. The servant tried to dismiss the object, coming between it and the king with nervous haste. But he was not quick enough. Tagun shoved him aside and leaned over the basket. A smile wreathed his face when he saw the delicate infant asleep within a fold of embroidered cloth. Her soft breaths barely disturbed the fine lace of her gown.
"It is a child. See, here is a note attached to her blanket: 'This is Caril, a royal daughter for the king.'" Tagun read. Then he reached down and tenderly took the basket in his arms. "Whether it was an angel or a mortal being who bestowed this gift on me, they knew the desire of my heart," he said.
He lifted the child and walked to a window that looked out over Janaka's shrine. Years before, when he had returned to the city of Janaka as a conqueror he had turned the mausoleum erected by Jagga to the memory of Elinka into a place of worship. Twelve years later he buried his wife Selendra in the garden of the Shrine next to his mother's grave.
He lifted the infant in his arms and felt that somehow his mother and his wife could see her. Perhaps they had used their influence with heaven to bring the child to him. "Thank you," he murmured. He placed the infant back into the basket before proceeding down the corridor toward the audience chamber.
Doka, waiting for his visit with Tagun, looked around the finely furnished audience room with speculation in his eyes. Perhaps Tagun would foster Caril, he thought. The king had a genial nature, but his wife had died years before. How would a widower provide care for an infant?
Doka shook his head. It had been a pleasant thought. No, As much as the idea appealed to him, it would be best to take the child on to Zedekla where she could be raised with the family of King Farek and his wife Ranila.
The couple already had three small children and would surely not object to giving a home to Caril. He wished it were possible to take Neril's child back to Tedaka with him, but the coincidence of his visit in Saadena and the appearance of a child in his home was certain to be noticed by her enemies. Doka's thoughts were interrupted by the sound of footsteps and he turned toward the door.
"Look what I have been given!" Tagun boasted as he entered the room with the basket. "I found this little princess waiting for me when I opened my door this morning. Actually, my servant opened the door, but I found the baby, or at least I was the one who realized what was in the basket. Isn't she lovely?" Tagun was breathless with excitement as he showed the child to his friend.
Doka was speechless. He knew he would not have to look far for the 'angel' who had bestowed the gift. The delight in Tagun's face revealed that he would not easily give up the child. "How will you care for the child?" Doka finally asked after tickling the tiny chin and giving a suitable demonstration of his appreciation for Caril.
"I'll find some good woman who has a young child and will be able to nurse the baby. I've always wanted a daughter," Tagun explained. Then he noticed that the wide dark gold eyes of his new daughter were open and she was smiled up at him.
For several minutes Doka was treated to the spectacle of a king reduced to babbling baby talk. For the first time he heard the delightful sound of Caril's infant laughter. If he had any doubts about leaving the child in Tagun's care, that delicious sound ended his reservations.
"Tilla, a young widow with two small sons, came with me to Janaka. She was born here and decided to return after her husband died. I'm certain she would be a good nurse for your new daughter," Doka said. "She could use the employment."
"Send for her. I will decide if she is worthy of the post," Tagun said as he gently lifted Caril from her basket. She was busily searching her tiny hand for her thumb. "I think my little one is hungry."
"I will bring her," Doka promised as he hurried from the audience chamber.
He found Tilla lingering near the door. "Your strategy was successful Tilla. I might resent your interference if I hadn't seen how happy Tagun is with the gift of a daughter. Wait for a short time, then come in and take care of the child. I told Tagun I would send for you."
Tilla entered the room just as Caril began to whimper with hunger. She took the child and retired to an alcove. She nursed Caril as Doka and Tagun proceeded with their business. When she finished feeding the princess, she rose and went to the basket for supplies to clean the baby. Though Tagun continued talking to Doka, he kept his eyes on the woman and the competent yet gentle manner she used with Caril.
"I would like you to move into the palace and become my daughter's nurse," Tagun said after Tilla brought the baby back to him. "I think I recognize you. Is your mother Rena, the woman who attended my wife Selendra when she bore my sons?"
"Yes, Rena is my mother. Before I married and moved to Tedaka, she was preparing me to follow in her profession," Tilla acknowledged.
"Then you are well qualified to take care of my daughter. Guard her well and teach her. You will have the same status in the palace as if you were the child's mother. Now go and tell my steward to prepare an apartment. Take this seal as guarantee of your authority," Tagun instructed.
Doka was surprised at the generosity of Tagun's instructions. After Tilla left with Caril, Tagun turned to him with an ironic smile. "I'm not easily deceived Doka. If I were not so delighted with the tiny foundling princess, I might resent the attempt to manipulate my emotions. I am delighted, and I am willing to reward anyone associated with the precious gift. What can I do to repay you?"
"It wasn't my idea to make you a father again," Doka said with a wave of his hand, "I must ask you to keep the princess's origin quiet. We came here from Saadena where Prince Carnat fears for the life of his wife Neril and her infant daughter. If those responsible for the murderous attempt on Neril suspect that her child no longer lies by her side, it could endanger your small princess."
"I will keep all speculations on her origin quiet. She will be acknowledged as my foster child with a share in my wealth and attention," Tagun assured Doka.
The Tedakan was satisfied. "There is a scroll case in my chambers that belongs to Princess Caril. You must give it to her when she comes of age."
In the following days, as Doka concluded his meetings and trade agreements, he had additional proof that Tilla had chosen well when she gave the princess to Tagun. Before he left Janaka to journey to Zedekla, he said farewell to Tilla and touched the rosy cheek of Princess Caril. Both were thriving in their position at the court. As he joined Tagun for a final ceremonial, a messenger was shown into the king's presence.
"I have come from Saadena," the young man said. "I bear sad news. King Eliat died in a fire that destroyed the royal library. His daughter-in-law, Neril, and her infant child died shortly afterward. King Carnat sent me to find Doka of Tedaka and tell him what happened."
Doka wondered if Eliat felt some premonition when he had spoken to him. His heart was heavy as he said farewell to Tagun. Then Tilla entered with the foundling princess and he saw the look Janaka's ruler bent on his new daughter. His grief was assuaged by the knowledge that Caril had found a loving home and Tagun, the daughter he had longed for.
After dispatching Chiat to carry the message to Doka, Carnat left the palace with Fedder. He walked listlessly beside the priest and the servants who carried Neril's open coffin. The sun shown as mercilessly as ever, but the day seemed dim to Carnat when they came to the wall of the garden where he had first lived with Neril. He released the catch that opened the hidden door. He stood aside as the mourners entered the abandoned garden. He had decided Neril should be buried among the blades of spear leaf that grew tall between the walls.
Mirin stood in the first rank of mourners with her daughters Nara and Kana. They wore the pendants Neril had given them and her final words to them seemed engraved on their hearts. The children of Saadena who had been Neril's students gathered to pay their respect to the woman who had changed their lives. The cultivation of spear leaf was underway in many hidden gullies and byways. Because of their diets of spear leaf, most of the rising generation would grow into adulthood free of the enslavement of selan.
Mirin told them of the courage and faith of Neril while she faced her death. They listened to the words of Fedder as he dedicated the grave of their heroine and their sorrow was turned to joy as he assured them that Neril was with them still. Later some shared the vision they had seen of a slender dark-haired figure who seemed to hover over the grave in a mist of light.
Carnat stood with his head bent and his eyes averted from the grave. He did not hear Fedder's words of hope and promise. His pain seemed to swell. The waxen doll that lay in Neril's arms symbolized the death of his hope. Neril had brought him from aimless selfishness to a world of possibilities. More than that, she had wakened his heart. At the last he had failed her. He acknowledged her wisdom in sending their child away to safety. It seemed nothing could fill the yawning gulf left by her death.
Ayarlan watched the procession leave the garden from the shelter of a column. She turned and scurried into the palace to spy on the the pathetic crowd of harvester brats until they were out of sight. Her lips drew back in a sneer. Let them have their day, she thought. The Mareklan was buried among weeds as she deserved. She heard Challan's querulous voice behind her and suppressed a sigh of impatience. If only she could kill the old woman as well, but her dubious hold on the services of Jargin and Arcat still depended on the authority of her aunt and that fuddled brain had not yet yielded up all the formulas and secrets Ayarlan needed to continue her research.
The thick stone walls of the palace had kept the fire in the library from spreading. After completing his prayers over Neril's grave, Fedder went into the ruins of the library to recover the ashes of Eliat. He found that although the fire had consumed the most of the scrolls, the stone tablets were undamaged. His heart lightened at the thought that there was still a task to be performed that might lift Carnat out of his stunned grief.
Carnat returned to the palace with heavy steps after the burial of Neril. The death of his father had been a shock no less than the destruction of the library. The precious scroll of history was now lost for all time. Neril's errand from the Seeress had been in vain. It seemed that nothing was left to give meaning to his life.
When Fedder entered the apartment Carnat had shared with Neril, he found the young man kneeling with his upper body sprawled face down over the bed. His hands clutched a round shell and a bit of dried flower that Neril had kept on a shelf near the window.
"Come, there is much to be done. The library still contains many valuable documents that need to be cleaned and sorted," the chaplain urged the distraught prince.
"I have failed." Carnat muttered. "If it were not for me, she would still be alive and would never have suffered so. How can you talk of a future when everything worthwhile has been destroyed. Even at the last, she knew our daughter would be better off away from this city of death." He turned his face away from the priest and shut his eyes. He wanted an end to the ache. He could not exist in a world grown dark with pain and self contempt.
"Come with me and share my supper," Fedder invited Carnat. "You have eaten nothing for several days. You were so constant in caring for Neril that you have starved yourself. The emptiness of your stomach amplifies the emptiness in your soul. You must try to eat."
Carnat shook his head. He heard the priest go out of the room and shut the door behind him. Left alone, he was assailed by memories. The bedding still held a faint trace of the scent of night blossoms that recalled sweet memories of Neril.
He tried to pretend that she was only gone to the Shrine to teach, or perhaps in the chapel helping Fedder. Those thoughts led to the other services she had performed for his people. His heart seemed to be held in a relentless metal fist that wrenched the life from him as the consciousness of her death again overwhelmed him.
He lurched up and for a moment he contemplated the quick death offered by the window that opened on a steep fall. He moved forward and put his foot on the sill, then he remembered that Neril had fallen in her attempt to escape his imprisonment. For him to fall and perhaps survive with broken limbs in a drugged state seemed a desecration of her courageous climb for freedom
Surely Ayarlan hated him enough to kill him if he put himself in her hands. He looked at the sun and saw that it was near the hour when his mother and cousin dined together. He would join them. If he was drugged instead of poisoned, then it was only a fit punishment. Neril might yet be alive and free if he had not trapped her in the garden. The memory of the year of joy he had known was swamped by the intensity of his grief and guilt. He felt numb as he walked toward the chamber where his mother and Ayarlan dined.
Ayarlan glanced up with surprise and fear when Carnat entered the dining hall. He was the king now that Eliat was dead. She was still insecure in her control of Challan's minions and if Carnat chose to confront her now, she could lose everything she had plotted to gain.
He did not meet her wary glance. Instead, he took the chair near the foot of the table that had been his accustomed place before he had married the Mareklan.
"Will you serve me wine?" he mumbled in a forlorn voice.
Ayarlan was quick to act on the opportunity he presented. As she passed a cup of wine to Carnat, she dropped a dose of concentrated selan she had prepared for Challan into the red liquid. She watched him as he drank the cup to the dregs. She laughed with a sense of blazing triumph when she saw the same dullness come into his eyes that marked the placid countenance of the queen. "Call the chaplain, Challan, I think your son is about to take a wife," she smirked.
Fedder was surprised when Challan herself came to fetch him. There was no doubt now that she was under the influence of her own drugs. "Ayarlan will wed my son and you must come and perform the ritual," she muttered with none of her formerly imperious manner.
The priest would have denied the request, but he knew Ayarlan would only find another to perform the wedding. Carnat had let himself be caught in the deadly web. If Fedder rejected Ayarlan's demands, she would mark him as her enemy. Let her think him compliant and she might overlook the work he carried forth among those who had become his flock. He would not endanger the school Neril had set up for the sake of paltry rebellion. When he reached the throne room where Ayarlan had decided the marriage should take place, there were only a few witnesses present.
Arcat, the head of the army, Jargin, the steward, and Queen Challan made up the entire audience to the royal nuptials. It had always seemed to Fedder that Carnat looked like his father, Eliat, but now that both the prince and his mother wore the same dull expression it was easy to see some faint resemblance. Carnat had the same strong brows as Challan, now lowered over his vacant stare.
The priest hurried through the brief ceremony that united Carnat and Ayarlan as husband and wife. Their marriage contract was hastily inscribed on a scroll and the witnesses made their marks. Ayarlan turned to the steward and the officer As soon as her name was written. "I am now your queen. From henceforth, you will come to me for any instructions." Her smile was so broad that the words were almost a crow of laughter.
The men bowed and acknowledged her ascendancy without even glancing toward Challan. Fedder had long since learned to avoid undue notice. He backed away from the scene of Ayarlan's triumph and sought refuge in the smoke-stained library. He guessed that the new queen would not suspect his presence in a room she had attempted to ruin. It would be his refuge while he wrote the Scroll of Neril. Sergon had promised to return. When he came, he must be given the document that would tell of how Neril had fulfilled the promise and warning of the Seers of Timora and forged a future for her adopted people.
Next book Fraud Prince