Read an Excerpt
Book One of The Percheron Saga
By Fiona McIntosh HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.
Copyright © 2008
All right reserved.
The prisoners, chained together, shuffled awkwardly into the main square of the slave market of Percheron; six men, all strangers and all captives of a trader called Varanz, who had a reputation for securing the more intriguing product for sale. And this group on offer was no exception, although most onlookers' attention was helplessly drawn to the tall man whose searing, pale-eyed stare, at odds with his long dark hair, seemed to challenge anyone brave enough to lock gazes with him.
Varanz knew it too; knew this one was special, and he sensed a good price coming for the handsome foreigner well worth the effort it had cost six of his henchmen first to bring the man down and then to rope him securely. It puzzled him why the man had been traveling across the desert, of all places—that in itself a perilous journey—but also moving alone, which meant almost certain trouble, particularly from slavers renowned in the region.
But Varanz had a policy of not inquiring into the background of his captives; perhaps to ease his conscience he didn't want to know anything about them, save what was obvious to his own eye. And this one, who refused to name himself, or indeed mutter much more than curses, was clearly in good health. That was enough for the merchant.
Trading for this cluster of slaves opened at the sound of the gong. TheMaster of the Market called the milling crowd of buyers to order: "Brothers, we have here Varanz Set Number Eight." His voice droned on, extolling the virtues of each on offer, but already the majority of potential buyers were in the thrall of the angry-eyed man, clearly the pick of the bunch and the only one of the six who held his head defiantly high. Sensing a lively auction, the Master of the Market decided to state more than the obvious healthy appearance, strong structure, and good teeth. "He was found emerging from the golden sands of our desert alone, not even a camel for company. Brothers, I'd hazard this one will make a fine bodyguard. If he's canny enough to travel our wasteland and remain as well as he looks, then I imagine he has excellent survival skills."
"Can he fight?" one buyer called out.
Varanz arched an eyebrow and looked toward the slave, wondering whether he'd finally get something out of the man. His instincts were right.
"I can fight," the man replied. "In fact," he challenged, "I demand to fight for my freedom."
A fresh murmuring rippled through the crowd. An oddity in Percheron's slave market was its ancient and somewhat quaint rule that a slave who was captured as a free person had one chance to buy his freedom—with a fight to the death. The Crown covered the cost of his loss, either way, to the trader. It was one of the market's oldest customs, set up by a Zar many centuries earlier who understood that such a contest from time to time would provide entertainment for the otherwise tedious business of trading in human cargo.
Such fights were rare, of course, as most prisoners took their chances with a new life as a slave. But now and then one would risk death in a bid to win back his independence.
Varanz strolled over to the man now that he knew his tongue was loosened. "You understand what you ask for?"
"I do. It was explained to us on the journey here by one of your aides. I wish to fight for my freedom. I also wish to speak with your Zar."
At this Varanz smirked. "I can't imagine he will want to speak with you."
"He might after he watches me best twelve of his strongest warriors."
Varanz was speechless at the man's arrogance. He shook his head and walked to the Master, briefly explaining in a quiet mutter what the slave was proposing. Now both of them returned to stand before the man.
"Don't try and talk me out of it. I want my freedom back. I will pay the price if I fail to win it," the slave warned them.
The Master had no intention of attempting to thwart the prospect of some sport after an already long and wearying day in the market. He could see that Varanz was unfazed, knowing that he would get a good price either way.
"What is your reserve, Varanz?" he asked.
"No less than two hundred karels for this one."
The Master nodded. "I will send a message to the palace for authorization," he said. Then, turning to the man, he insisted, "You must give us your name."
The slave knifed them with a cold gaze. "My name is Lazar."
The palace did more than give authorization. A runner returned swiftly with the news that Zar Joreb, his interest piqued, would be in attendance for the contest. "You understand how unusual it is for the Zar of Percheron to visit the slave traders," Varanz informed Lazar.
The foreigner was unmoved. "I wish to speak with him if I succeed."
Varanz nodded. "That is up to our Zar. We have told him you have offered to fight twelve of his men to the death. This is no doubt why he is coming to witness the contest."
"It is why I suggested so many."
Varanz shook his head, exasperated. "How can you best a dozen fighters, man? There's still time to change your mind and not waste your life. I will ensure a cozy position for you. A fellow like you will find himself in high demand by a rich man to escort his wives, families . . . take care of their security."
Lazar snorted. "I'm no nursery maid."
"All right." Varanz tried again. "I know I can sell you as a high-caliber bodyguard to a man who needs protection whilst he travels. I'll find you a good owner."
"I don't want to be owned," Lazar snarled. "I want my freedom."
The trader shrugged. "Well, you'll have it, my friend, but you'll be carried off in a sack."
"So be it. I slave for no one."
Their conversation was ended by the Master of the Market's hissing for silence—a troop of Percheron's guard had arrived, signifying that the Zar's karak was just moments away. Varanz nodded to one of his aides to escort the rest of the prisoners to the holding pen. Trading would resume once this piece of theater was done with.
"I wish you luck, brother," he said to Lazar, and moved away to stand with the Master, who was marshaling all the other traders into a formal line of welcome. The Zar finally arrived, flanked by several of the Percherese Guard, his karak carried by six of the red-shrouded Elim, the elite guardians of the Zar's harem who also performed bodyguard duties to royalty. The Zar's entry between the slave market's carved pillars of two griffins was heralded by the trumpeting of several of the curled Percherese horns, and everyone who was not attached to the royal retinue instantly humbled himself. No one dared raise his eyes to the Zar until given formal permission.
No one but Lazar, that is.
He was on his knees because he had been pushed down, but he brazenly watched the Zar being helped out of the karak; their gazes met and held momentarily across the dust of the slave market. Then Lazar dipped his head, just a fraction, but it was enough to tell the Zar that the brash young man had acknowledged the person who was the closest thing to the god Zarab that walked the earth.
The guard quickly set up the Zar's seat and the Elim unfurled a canopy over it. Zar Joreb settled himself. He had a wry smile as the Master of the Market made the official announcement that the prisoner, Lazar, captured by Trader Varanz, had opted to fight for his freedom against a dozen warriors from the Percherese Guard. No one watched the Master or even the Zar. All eyes were riveted on the dark foreigner, whose wrists and ankles were now unshackled and who was disrobing down to the once-white, now gray and dirty loose pants he wore. They watched his measured movements, but mostly they watched him study the twelve men taking practice swipes with their glinting swords, all bearing smirks, none prepared to take the ridiculously outnumbered contest seriously.
The gong sounded for silence and the Master outlined what was about to happen. It was a superfluous pronouncement but strict protocol was a way of life for Percheron's various markets, especially in the hallowed presence of the Zar.
". . . or to the prisoner's death," he finished somberly. He looked to Zar Joreb, who, with an almost imperceptible nod, gave the signal for combat to begin.
Those who were present at the slave market that day would talk about the fight for years to come. Lazar accepted the weapon thrown toward him and without so much as a hurried prayer to his god of choice strode out to meet the first of the warriors. To prolong the sport, the guard had decided to send out one man at a time—presumably they intended to keep wounding the arrogant prisoner until he begged for mercy and the deathblow. However, by the time the first three men were groaning and bleeding on the ground, their most senior man hurriedly sent in four at a once.
It didn't make much difference to Lazar, who appeared to the audience to be unintimidated by numbers. His face wore the grim countenance of utter focus; he made no sound, never once backed away, always threatening his enemy rather than the other way around. It was soon obvious that his sword skills could not be matched by any of the Percherese, not even fighting in tandem. His fighting arm became a blur of silver that weaved a path of wreckage through flesh, turning the dozen men, one after another, into writhing, crying heaps as they gripped torn shoulders, slashed legs, or profusely bleeding fighting arms. To their credit, the final two fought superbly, but neither could mark Lazar. He fought without fear, his speed only increasing as the battle wore on. Cutting one man down by the ankle, Lazar stomped on his sword wrist, breaking it, to ensure he did not return to the fray, and some moments later, fought the other into exhaustion until the man was on his knees. Lazar flicked the guard's sword away and gave a calculated slash across his chest. The man fell, almost grateful for the reprieve.
The slave market was uncharacteristically quiet, save for the cries of bleeding, paining men. Varanz looked around at the carnage, his nostrils flaring with the raw metallic smell of blood thick in the air, and he raised his eyebrows with surprise. No one was dead. Lazar had mercilessly and precisely disabled each of his rivals but claimed the life of none.
Throwing down his sword, Lazar stood in the circle of hurt warriors, a light sheen of perspiration on his body the only indication that he had exerted himself. His chest rose and sank steadily, calmly. He turned to the Zar and bowed long and deeply.
"Zar Joreb, will you now grant my freedom?" he said finally into the hush that had fallen.
"My men would surely rather seek death than live with the dishonor of losing this fight," was Joreb's response.
Varanz watched Lazar's curiously light eyes cloud with defiance. "They are innocent men. I will not take their lives for a piece of entertainment."
"They are soldiers! This was a fight to the death."
"Zar Joreb, this was a fight to my death, not theirs. It was made clear that I either win my freedom through death or through survival. I survived. No one impressed upon me the fact that anyone had to die as part of the rules of this custom."
"Arrogant pup," Joreb murmured into the silence. Then, impossibly, he laughed. "Stand before me, young man."
Lazar took two long strides and then went down on one knee, his head finally bowed.
"What is it you want, stranger?" the Zar demanded.
"I want to live in Percheron as a free man," Lazar replied, not lifting his head.
"Look at me." Lazar did so. "You've humiliated my guard. You will need to rectify that before I grant you anything."
"How can I do that, Zar Joreb?"
"By teaching them."
Lazar stared at the Zar, a quizzical look taking over his heretofore impassive face, but he said nothing.
"Become my Spur," Zar Joreb offered. "Our present Spur must retire soon. We need to inject a fresh approach. A young approach. You fight like you're chasing away demons, man. I want you to teach my army how to do that."
Lazar's gaze narrowed. His tone sounded guarded. "You're offering to pay me to live as a free man in Percheron?"
"Be my Spur," Zar Joreb urged. This time there was no humor in his voice, only passion.
The crowd collectively held its breath as Lazar paused. Finally, he nodded once, decisively. "I accept, but first you owe Varanz over there two hundred karels apparently."
Joreb laughed loudly in genuine amusement. "I like you, Lazar. Follow me back to the palace. We have much to speak of. I must say, I'm impressed by your audacity. You put your life in danger to get what you want."
"It was never in danger," Lazar replied, and the semblance of a smile twitched briefly at his mouth.
Fifteen years later . . .
The Spur of Percheron was oblivious to the clandestine attention he was being paid from the city's favorite ratha emporium. Inside its kitchens a pair of women feasted their eyes on Percheron's most eligible bachelor while patrons took similar pleasure in the sisters' celebrated spicy pancakes.
The two women had been preparing since before sunrise for the busy morning trade. For years they had created what was considered by many to be Percheron's finest hot rathas, and as a result it was commonplace to see a long line patiently shuffling closer to the counter where the women's husbands took the orders. The wealthier patrons often sat at some of the small tables on offer and paid a premium for the privilege of being served their steaming rathas on warmed plates accompanied by mouthwatering sambas and chutneys.
Though the sisters never had any dealings with the customers, they seemed to know them as well as their husbands did. This was because the open windows that allowed fresh air to blow through the busy kitchen also afforded a splendid close-up view of Percheron's city folk at work and play. With their hands lively about their work, so skilled in it now that their fingers required no thought or supervision, the sisters had become keen observers.
And no one gave them greater pleasure to watch than the revered Spur of Percheron, the long-legged, raven-haired former prisoner turned brother-friend of royalty, who was in their sights at this moment.
"Why do you think he looks at that stone carving each time he passes this way?" asked one woman, expertly kneading the dough into mounds between both hands.
"That carving is Iridor, isn't it, and the Spur's been doing that for years," came the reply over the sizzle of flattened rolls of dough frying in melted butter. "Keep fanning those flames now," the woman urged a young lad who sat between her legs, ensuring that the smoldering lumps of knotwood never lost their heat.
"I know that." The first sister raised her eyebrows in mock exasperation. "I'm asking you what you think he sees in it."
"Your guess is as good as mine, Mara. Perhaps he casts a silent prayer to it. Now that I come to think on it, I'm sure that owl has something to do with the old stories of the Goddess."
"Hoosh," said a man bustling in from behind. "You know not to speak her name."
"No one can hear us back here, Bal. And it's only an old myth. No one believes in all that Goddess stuff anymore. You go about your business, man, and let us get on with ours. There's a lot of customers queuing."
"And you stop flapping your gums, woman, and keep frying up those rathas."
"Oh, be gone," Mara said, shooing her husband back to the front of the shop. "You could be right, Hasha." She returned to her chore, the dough piling up in a neat, glistening pyramid. "The Spur's such a secretive sort, perhaps he's atoning for something."
"I'll show him atonement." Her sister rubbed her breasts and grinned wickedly. The look of disapproval on Mara's face made Hasha laugh out loud. "Don't tell me you haven't thought it at least once? Every woman in Percheron daydreams of a roll with the Spur." Though the child below remained silent, his soft smile of enjoyment at the women's banter suggested this was not the first time his mother and aunt had discussed this man and would surely not be the last. The Spur of Percheron prompted more conjecture than any other; the man with the curiously light-colored eyes was not just every woman's dream but was spoken of admiringly by the men too.
"I haven't," Mara lied, and stifled her laughter. "Oh, but if I were younger, I would."
Hasha flipped the four oiled pancakes currently in the pan and a delicious new aroma of cooked ratha spiced the air. "He always looks so serious, though. I don't think I've ever seen him laugh."
Mara stopped kneading the dough. "Oh, he's got secrets, that one, but he never seems to put a foot wrong. I'm told the Zar holds him in higher esteem than any of his council and his men in the protectorate would die for him. That sort of loyalty isn't won easily."
Her sister looked up and exclaimed, "Zarab save us, Mara, he's coming this way!"
Both sisters watched in genuine pleasure as the familiar long stride of the Spur brought him to the door of the shop and the chance to serve the highest-ranking soldier in the land became reality.
As he entered the shop, Lazar was planning to order a dish known tantalizingly as the Feast of Seven Spices. Had he known what was to come that day, he might have found good reason to ignore the hunger pangs that made him so accessible to the Elim runner sent from the palace with such dire news.
As it was, ignorant of what was coming, Lazar sat down at a small table, smiling politely at the two middle-aged ladies who giggled coquettishly behind their veils from the kitchen, as if being visited by Zarab himself.
It was going to be unpleasant, she thought, tapping perfectly rouged lips with the tips of manicured nails that had been buffed by a slave until they shone. But it had to be done . . . and swiftly.
The First Wife and Absolute Favorite glanced down into the exquisite private garden where boys played among the cypresses with a ball made from an inflated pig's bladder. Their laughter prompted a smile, but anyone looking at this woman would have sensed no warmth. Herezah was already imagining how different those childish squeals would be when the order was given.
An agonized groan dragged her from her thoughts. Taking a moment to settle an appropriate look of sorrow on her face, Herezah turned from the beautifully sculpted window of the Stone Palace to the bed where Zar Joreb, Percheron's high ruler, King of the Seas, Ruler of the Deserts, Mightiest of the Mighty, lay dying. The man had been treated as a god these past thirty years. But even gods have to die, Herezah thought with fierce joy as she flicked a glance of summons to a slightly stooped man standing nearby.
Tariq spoke softly from behind the oiled beard carefully split into two narrow plaits and ostentatiously hung with a ruby at each end. These audacious accessories spoke much to Herezah about Tariq's designs for personal aggrandizement. She knew he wanted the title of Grand Vizier and she was sure he had never felt himself closer to his goal than now. That was good. He was well connected; she would feed his ambition, make him her puppet.
He kept his voice low enough for her ears only. "My lady Herezah?"
"Fetch Boaz," she whispered. The Vizier understood, bowing and withdrawing silently.
Herezah looked around the fabulously ornate chamber, gilded recklessly with gold at every turn. The room, already crowded, would get only more thick with people as the day drew on, for her husband would most likely die, if not this hour then within the next few.
Joreb had very particular tastes in art, which thankfully his Absolute Favorite shared, although in truth he had given her that appreciation, guiding her since childhood as to what constituted beauty. And it was certainly not this gold-laden room with its rich, gaudy colors. No, Joreb liked subtlety and understatement; his preference was for paler hues and simpler design. Herezah felt a fleeting pang that the man who had given her the opportunity to rise out of the slush of the harem would give up his soul in a room as vulgar as this. Her regret passed quickly, however, replaced by the thrill of knowing that her ultimate goal, the one she had been striving toward these past two decades, would be achieved in merely hours.
She calmed her racing pulse and tried to focus. Despite her anticipation at what her husband's death meant for her, Herezah had been shocked to learn that his injuries were, in fact, fatal, and she had made every effort to make him as comfortable as possible.
The large chamber they were in might be vulgar but it was cooled by a gentle breeze blowing from the massive, semicircular aquamarine harbor the famed city of Percheron overlooked. It was here that for thousands of years cultures had collided and mingled to yield the Percheron of today. Its strategic position and seemingly endless reserves of precious stones and metals gave the city riches beyond most realms' dreams.
But while those elements had once given Percheron such power, they were now its greatest threat. Herezahkeenly in tune with national securitywas well aware that Joreb had begun fretting about Galinsea in particular. He had disclosed to her his concerns that their warlike neighbor to the west had designs on Percheron.
Herezah's wandering attention was arrested by the worried expressions of the court's two most senior physicians. The Zar would not see sunset, that much was obvious, and in turn their lives were forfeit for failing His Majesty. Understandably they continued to consult each other, desperately considering new, and hopeless, strategies.
At the foot of the Zar's bed cavorted a dwarf, sumptuously outfitted but looking ridiculous all the same. Herezah quelled a scowl. The fool was a constant annoyance in her life. He was "closed" too, which only served to irritate Herezah further. Not even a blood-telling by her crone, Yozem, had revealed anything about him. The Practitioner of the Blood Arts had termed him a blank, claiming the dwarf offered no clues about himself, thereby accounting for his madness. Herezah felt sickened to see the awkward antics he performed on his thick, short legs.
If Percheron was credited as being the most idyllic cove in the Faranel Sea, then its Stone Palace was the most breathtaking aspect of that cove. And within that Stone Palace its harem was the magnificent prize where beauty ruled supreme. It disturbed Herezah constantly that such vulgar deformity as this dwarf roamed among the beauty. He was the flaw in Percheron's jewel. Pezshe wasn't even sure whether this was his real namehad been a favorite clown of the Zar's for too many years for Herezah to get rid of him. She despaired that her son adored Pez in equal measure to her hatred.
She sighed; at least the palace buffoon, with his strange yellow eyes, would keep Boaz amused during the difficult times ahead. He might even prove a blessing, for there were occasions when time spent with Pez seemed to help her only child emotionally. Boaz was intense, often too serious, but the dwarf made him laugh with his ramblings. She couldn't imagine how. The dwarf could hardly string together a single sensible sentence without breaking into song, or acrobatics, or without his mind wandering elsewhere. How Boaz and Pez managed to hold even a simple conversation was a mystery to her.
A small movement at the corner of the room distracted her. She glanced over at the silent mountain of black flesh that went by the name of Salmeo. He put the fear of a thousand angry gods into most people around the palace, including herself. She had lost count of the times the giant man had reduced her to a shaking wreck. But never again, she promised, now that absolute power was within her grasp.
Salmeo was the cleverest, most sly man she had ever knownno doubt ever would know. He was as cunning as he was dangerous. He was also cruelty personified . . . but then you didn't become Grand Master of the Eunuchs without taking a perverse pleasure in punishment.
Salmeo embodied so many unpalatable characteristics, it was hard to imagine how they all came together in one person. For the umpteenth time her amazement was triggered by the sheer size of him beneath the richly patterned garments he draped over his folds of loose, flabby skin. Heavy folds, she knew all too well from her own experience, that had to be lifted away in order for him to be cleaned. He matched his revolting looks with a vicious demeanor more befitting a scorned woman than a grown man. Which wasn't far from the truth, perhaps. Salmeo had been cut at the age of seven, when his height and size fooled the Grand Master Eunuch of the day into believing he was older. He was an "almost complete": nothing much was left of his manhood save the painful yearning of desire. No toys, no tricks, no magicks helped ease Salmeo with his frustrations, so he took his pleasures in other ways.
Herezah's gaze was helplessly drawn toward the sinister, sharply pointed nail on the index finger of his right hand. He stained it red, so no woman could ever forget its purpose and no naive boy went beyond wondering at its use. She masked the shudder of the memory of that nail's cruel touch.
Salmeo must have sensed her attention and she just had time, before hurriedly looking away, to see the pale rope of the scar that ran the length of one of his fleshy cheeks pull as he raised an eyebrow at her interest. As she turned away, Herezah's focus finally fell upon the Zar himself. He groaned and moved restlessly beneath silken sheets, fighting the unseen spirits who had come to claim him.
Death is ugly indeed, Herezah thought, watching the great one's lips draw back in a silent howl as a fresh wave of punishment rode his body. The door opened and to her relief she saw Vizier Tariq usher in her son.
"My lion," she said softly to the boy, reaching out her arms theatrically.
"Mother." He dutifully kissed her cheek but twisted away from the embrace.
Herezah did not outwardly react to his rejection but she promised herself that she would try harder with Boaz. After all, within hours she would be his regent, quietly ruling from behind the figurehead Zar of so few summers. She saw his intelligent dark eyes observing her and felt a momentary loss of composure, as if he understood precisely what she had been thinking. Before she could correct her expression, his gaze slid away to his father, moaning on the bed.
"You must be brave, Boaz," Herezah warned. "He will not last long."
"Can we not stop his pain?" he asked tersely, ignoring her concern.
"The physicians minimize it," Tariq offered, eager to include himself in the royal conversation.
Boaz ignored the sycophantic Vizier as well. It was shock enough for him to see his father in this stateespecially as he had seemed to rally in the early days of the fallbut having his mother displaying her newfound devotion and feeling his emotions used as some sort of circus ground for everyone else's benefit was making him angry.
"Come, my son," Herezah said, taking his hand. "You are fifteen now and old enough to witness your father's final breaths."
Final breaths? Boaz scowled. He could hear the predatory tone in his mother's voice. He knew only too well what his father's death meanthis mother had comforted him to sleep when he was a young child with stories about how one day the two of them would rule Percheron. When he was small he had trusted and adored his mother, but for the past six or seven years she had essentially ignored him and he had been raised by royal servants, learning to live without the maternal love he craved. Now it amused him that both his parents doted on him: his mother because of the power he would bring her, and his father because he recognized in Boaz a future leader. Boaz knew the Zar loved his sharp mind, his scholarly pursuits and love of the arts, and it didn't hurt that he was described as handsome these days eitherhe could see how all of these attributes made him a most eligible heir. Nevertheless, it was sickening to watch his mother reveling in this same knowledge and using it to get precisely what she wanted, not for his benefit, but for hers.
Yet she was his only allynot friend, not loved one, but someone he could count on to look after his interests because they served hers so well. It was a terrible thing to admit but he needed Herezah and her bright, agile mind, which could plot and plan faster and more skillfully than anyone's he knew.
Accepting this only made him angrier still, but these dark thoughts were put on hold as Pez scampered up. Boaz smiled inwardly at the dwarf's oversize pantaloons, which, because they had insufficient length to billow properly, pooled comically around his thick ankles. Nevertheless, the swath of fabric hid the savage bow of his legs that made Pez sway so oddly. He arrived pulling silk squares from his nose. It was a trick that had always amused Boaz, but not today.
"Hello, Pez," Boaz muttered.
"Master," Pez replied.
The boy looked sadly at the dwarf. "Is he truly dying?" he said, as if, by asking his friend rather than those he disliked, the reality might be different.
"We all die," Pez replied in a singsong voice. "You, birds, fish, me . . . your parents too." Herezah glared at the dwarf as Pez's gaze slid past her in a deliberate provocation. "You must carry yourself proudly now, young prince. Do you know why?"
Boaz looked at his friendthe only one he trusted in this roomand nodded. "Because I'm to be Zar."
"That's right, my darling," Herezah gushed, clearly surprised that the dwarf was making sense. "Your father awaits," she urged, pulling Boaz away from the jester.
The young man glanced at Pez, who blinked slowly in that curious manner of his. Then the dwarf bowed theatrically, the bells on his velvet cap tinkling into strained silence, for the groaning had just subsided.
Aware that all eyes in the room were trained upon him, Boaz took his father's hand. It felt dry, too cold, as if death had indeed arrived, although a sudden rasping groan put an end to that fright. Through puffy eyes, the King of Kings tried to focus.
"My lord." Herezah spoke lovingly near the Zar's ear. "Our son, Boaz."
The man rallied ever so slightly, a brief smile immediately replaced by another grimace. "Boaz."
"Hush. Listen now," the Zar growled, though it took all his effort to endow his weak voice with the tone needed to make the youngster pay attention. "You are the Chosen One. No one else! You alone. Never forget it!" He gasped desperately, tried to take one last struggling breath, and failed. The stricken physicians watched as the head of the Zar lolled to one side; a trail of spittle escaped, running down his chin. Herezah looked away in feigned despair, the action hiding her triumph. The men of medicine hung their heads, imagining what their own last words would be that evening when their throats were cut. No point in fighting it now. Their wills were written and they knew their families would be well looked after. They had enjoyed position and wealth for many years and had always understood that when Joreb died, they would too.
They went about their final duty now, one checking that no pulse was present while the other held a small mirror against the Zar's mouth and nose. As a final precaution, the first man drew a long pin from a pouch and pricked the Zar's body repeatedly. Herezah was busy removing the large ring from her husband's finger. Boaz, his eyes stinging with tears, turned his head away.
Pez, sensing the boy's distress, suddenly sank to his knees before him. As if the dwarf's sudden movement was a signal, everyone in the chamber also dropped. They bent to touch their heads on the floor before Boaz, the son of their Zar's Absolute Favorite and his chosen successor. Salmeo took longer than anyone to kneel, but after much grunting he too paid the new Zar appropriate homage.
Boaz froze, stunned; he wasn't ready to accept this new role, even though he had been groomed for many years to take his father's crown. If not for the sly wink that Pez gave him from under a short arm, he might have fled the chamber.
"Your Majesty," Herezah cried, and Salmeo, Tariq, the physicians, and even the servants attending took up the chant. "Hail the Zar!" They repeated this several times until the new King of Kings commanded them to stop.
Into the instant silence that followed, Pez broke wind, his rear pointing suspiciously toward the new Valide Zara and her bejeweled Vizier. Boaz knew this sort of lewd behavior should have made his father sit up from death and roar with laughter. Joreb had so loved Pez's wickedness. Boaz felt a nervous flutter of amusement threaten to explode from his own throat but he controlled it with effort and focused on his scowling, clearly offended parent. He ignored the mortified Vizier, who, in his opinion, deserved all the bad smells that came his way.
"Mother," he said. "Rise."
And she did, first crawling forwardas one should before the Zarand then straightening on her knees to place the diamond-encrusted emerald ring onto her son's finger. She nodded reassurance before bowing her head over her son's hand and kissing the ring fervently.
"My lord Zar," she said, pride catching in her throat. "How may I serve?"
"Hail, Valide Zara," Boaz said, and Herezah basked in the words she had longed to hear for so many years. Now, as the Zar's mother, her very name would strike fear into the hearts of those around her.
She accepted their obeisance, noticed the wry smile on Salmeo's normally unreadable face, and gave her first order as the most powerful woman in the land.
"Rise, all," she said, turning to Tariq. "Where is Lazar?"
"Waiting, Valide Zara," the Vizier replied, fully recovered from the dwarf's insult and barely able to contain his glee at the thought of the potential riches and power spreading out before him. Hail the Valide! He had aligned himself well.
"Admit him alone," she ordered, resisting smiling at the notion that Lazar would share this moment of high joy with her. "The passing of the old Zar is a secret until I say differently."
The physicians were smoothing the formerly rumpled sheets neatly over the corpse as the tall, sun-browned Spur entered the chamber.
"Lazar," Boaz said, his expression lightening. The formidable warrior was the only person who walked the palace corridors whom he truly considered a friend, aside from Pez.
The Spur spared only a fleeting glance toward the prone figure on the bed. His shock at the news of the Zar's imminent death had already been suffered at the ratha emporium; he had concealed it with effort as he strode in disbelieving stony silence ahead of the runner who had brought the dire message. He would reflect on his grief later, in private. Right now his focus was firmly on the new Zar and on ignoring Herezah, who stared at him with the hungry gaze of a hunter.
Lazar dropped to his knees, reaching to the huge ring that was barely able to sit straight on the slender fingers of the young man's hand. "Zar Boaz, Your High One, I offer my services and my life to you."
In a show of affection, Boaz covered Lazar's hand with his own, pale and unblemished against the tanned, strong fingers of the bowed man. "I hope we never claim it, Spur."
The Spur of Percheron stood and nodded at Boaz, proud of the boy's composure. The light gray eyes that marked Lazar as a curiosity looked now to Herezah before he bowed low. "Valide Zara."
The Valide stifled her pleasure, hiding it behind the grave expression she had contrived; there would be plenty of time to enjoy Lazar's new fealty to her. Right now there were urgent arrangements to make and she reveled in the thrill of finally being able to give him a direct order.
"Take the physicians away and do what you must," she said coldly, glad that protocol did not insist she be veiled within the palace confines so long as the Zar was present. It pleased her hugely that the Spur could see her beauty and know what he was missing.
If he could sense her pleasure, he did not show it. "May I pay my respects?" he asked, looking toward the body draped in silken sheets.
The new Valide inclined her head and watched the Spur cross the room in four strides, kneeling to kiss the hand of the dead Zar. He took a moment in silence before he stood and soberly turned toward the men who had tried to prevent death. "Physicians" was all he said.
"You must be gentle with the gentlemen's throats," Pez began to sing. He cartwheeled once before an exasperated look from Herezah told Lazar that it was in the dwarf's interest to be removed as well.
"Come, Pez. You can keep us company," the soldier suggested.
The dwarf agreed but not before a loud and long farewell belch to those gathered.
Annoyed at being so insultingly upstaged, Herezah made her voice chilly. "Do it immediately, Spur, but no word of Zar Joreb's death is to get out until I sanction it."
Lazar noted Herezah's lack of deference to her son, but said merely, "As you wish, Valide," and bowed. The Faranel Sea below blew a sweet wind into the room that was nevertheless unable to cover the stench of ambition. It revolted him and he was grateful to escape, even if it were only to carry out the unpalatable task of having the physicians executed.
After the door had closed on the five men, Herezah turned and said, "Tariq, Salmeo."
"You understand what needs to be done." It was not a question.
"I do," the avaricious Vizier replied.
The huge black man sighed. "Enemies will be made, Valide Zara."
She could smell on his breath the violet-fragranced tablets that he habitually sucked. "The enemies of Boaz will be dead. The other kind will be helpless."
"Mother? What's going on?" Boaz, lost in his grieving thoughts, was unable to follow the conversation.
"Come with me, Boaz. I want to explain something to you." The Valide took his hand, looking pointedly at the two men who had been charged with the ugly task.
She did not need to say any more. The darkly ambitious eyes of the woman who now essentially ruled Percheron said it all.
Excerpted from Odalisque by Fiona McIntosh Copyright © 2008 by Fiona McIntosh. Excerpted by permission.
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