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The traveler was exhausted. It had been many days and nights since he had eaten or had rested. His clothes were torn, his body was filthy, and his eyes were wild and red. He knew that if he followed the ancient customs, it might be a long time before he received an audience with the High Priest. There was no time left for such formality.
He had heard good reports of the dark stranger from over the sea, whose wife, the Lady Kyra, was noted not only for her exceptional powers as priest and Lord of the Sun, but for her sympathy and understanding of all who came to her in trouble. He knew also that she was of his own land, and no stranger to its problems.
It was not easy to find his way within the maze of wooden priest's houses and long student-huts that clustered closely around the great Temple of the Sun. But he was desperate to deliver his message, and his desperation gave him courage to dodge and hide. He came at last to the High Priest's home, which was set back among trees and separated from the others but otherwise hardly distinguishable from them, and not of the grandeur he would have expected.
There was no marker of crossed feathers above the skins that hung over the doorway to indicate that entry was not permitted, and indeed they were drawn aside and fastened so that the cool air and the light could pass into the interior.
He crossed the threshold swiftly before he could be seen or stopped.
"My lord, I must speak with you," he cried in a voice breaking with weariness and urgency. He almost fell upon witnessing the contrast between the vibrancy and light of the outside world and the inner, still darkness of the chamber.
He could see nothing.
Watching him in some alarm stood Deva, now thirteen summers old, alone in her mother's chamber, dressed in her mother's robes, her face painted with ceremonial paint, the crown of the priestess upon her head. She knew that she was not allowed to wear this even in play, but there had been no one to see her and the temptation to try it on had been too great.
Frightened, she stared at the rough, uncouth intruder. Was he robber or demon, drawn to her from the hidden realms by the sacrilege she had just committed?
To the man standing in the doorway, his eyes gradually adjusting to the dim light within the house, she was a priestess in full regalia, standing impassively and calmly, waiting for him to deliver his message.
"My lady," he said softly, stumbling forward a few steps to fall on his knees before her.
"I beseech you...," he continued in a low voice. He found himself trembling and the words catching in his throat.
He had thought about this meeting many, many times as he had traveled the long, weary way from his home in the west country, but never had he imagined he would feel such awe in the presence of another human being. This must be the great Kyra, the lady who had repelled an army with power from her slender hand. She was looking at him now with dark eyes, eyes as bright as jet, and the words he had rehearsed so many times would not come to his tongue.
She did not move.
"My lady," he tried again at last. "Forgive me that I break in upon your home...that I come to you with no preparation, no ceremony. Forgive me my appearance. I would not have had it so, but the matters that I would bring to your attention are urgent beyond all ceremony..."
His voice trailed away. She was so beautiful, and there was a scent so strong and so holy about her that he could hardly bear it.
He dropped his eyes from her black gaze and stared helplessly at the point where her long cloak of white and blue touched the ground.
It would be easier to talk to the High Priest, her husband. He had never been at ease with beautiful women, and this one was beautiful beyond any he had ever seen.
Meanwhile Deva, in her borrowed robes, was puzzling what to do. She knew she should acquaint the man at once with his mistake and lead him to her mother, butand here the little thread of mischief in her gave a tugshe was enjoying the role of priestess and saw no harm in playing it a moment or two longer.
She raised her hand with a graceful and imposing gesture.
"Rise," she said as imperiously as she could. "There is no need to kneel to me."
At least that was no lie, Deva told herself.
"My lady," the man said as he almost crawled forward. "May I touch your hand?"
Deva found herself lowering it to him grandly, flushing slightly at the thrill of power she felt stirring within her.
Instead of touching her fingers briefly, as she had thought he would, he seized her hand and started covering it with kisses, tears streaming from his eyes and down his rough and dusty face.
Fear and pleasure fought for control over her. She was at once horrified at herself for allowing this to happen and enjoying it.
She pulled back her hand sharply.
The man gave a kind of sob and fell, fainting at her feet.
Terrified, she stared at him.
She thought she would remember until the end of her days the tears in his eyes when he thought he was kissing the hand of the legendary Kyra. The story of Kyra's part in Panora's War had spread throughout the land and was sung by many a poet on feast days. She had become worshipped almost as though she were a goddess. Indeed, Deva had heard her mother complaining about this to her husband, the Lord Khuren, and protesting that it was wrong for anyone to set her aside from other people. Her powers were no greater than his or those of the former High Priest, the Lord Guiron. Together Kyra and Khuren had tricked the enemy into defeat, using what skill they had as human beings trained to work with the spirit realms, the Lords of Light.
Her mother would not have allowed the man to grovel so, and Deva felt tears of shame in her own eyes for her part in the embarrassing scene.
With shaking hands she lifted the crown of the priestess off her head and struggled to unpin the robes about her shoulders. She was determined to be out of the clothes before anyone else saw her. Her mind was racing with thoughts of how she could undo the harm that she had done.
As soon as she was clad once more in her own tunic, she reached to fetch water for the man, spilling it from the earthenware beaker in her haste.
His eyes opened and he stared bewildered at the dark-haired girl leaning over him.
He shook his hair, wet from the water she had poured upon it, and dragged himself in confusion to his feet. He gazed around, only half remembering what had occurred.
"You must have had a vision," the girl said breathlessly, "a dream...a vision," she gabbled. "You fainted...you are better now!"
"My lady...," the man murmured, looking around the chamber, thinking of the stately priestess he had seen with gold upon her head.
"No, she is not here. You had a vision," Deva insisted, her heart cold with the lie she was telling and yet still telling it.
The man was silent.
He was tired, so tired he feared he might not be able to keep upright much longer.
"I must...," he said at last, painfully, pulling the words out of an aching body. "I must see her. I needwe needhelp."
"You will have it!" promised Deva hastily. "Just do not fall down again." She pulled his arm and seated him upon a wooden bench.
She thrust a beaker full of water into his hands.
"Drink that," she said with a semblance of control returning to her voice. "I will fetch the lady. Do not fall!" she added commandingly as he swayed.
He forced himself to remain upright.
"Hurry...," he whispered.
But she was already gone.
He saw the skins at the doorway still moving from the touch of her shoulder.
He thought it was a breeze that made him feel so cold and every moment colder.
When an agitated Deva returned with her mother, they found him lying on the floor, the earthenware beaker smashed to pieces beside him and the spilled water already seeping into the clay floor.
"Oh no," cried Deva, "he has fainted again!"
She rushed for more water as Kyra kneeled beside him.
When she returned, her mother was standing very tall and still beside the figure on the floor.
Kyra lifted her hand to stop her daughter approaching any nearer.
"He is dead," she said quietly.
Deva stood stunned.
She herself was near to fainting with the shock.
What had she done?
She had deceived a dying man and wasted precious moments in foolery when they were the only ones he had.
Kyra straightened the stranger's dusty, crumpled body and asked Deva to join her in lifting him, so that he may lie with greater dignity upon the soft rush-bed.
The girl shuddered as she touched his cold skin.
"What will we do, my lady?" she whispered. "He asked for help, but we know nothing of the nature of the help he wanted."
Kyra was deep in thought.
"Leave us," she said to Deva.
As Deva withdrew, Kyra sat quietly down beside the stranger. One hand held the stone sea urchin that was for her a talisman of power; the other rested upon his forehead.
There was no way she could call him back from the dead. He was not a priest who knew how to die in stages and with control, but a rough man of action who had fallen into death unwillingly and unprepared. Kyra's only chance was to draw the last vibrations of his thoughts from the air around him before they moved beyond her reach on to another level of reality.