Raldnor, Storm Lord and chosen hero of the goddess Anackire, has passed into legend after bringing peace to the land of Dorthar. But after twenty years, that tenuous peace is threatening to dissolve. Contentious forces are brewing, working through subterfuge and overt war to see the new Storm Lord displaced.
Kesarh, prince of Istris, has grand ambitions. Though he is only a lesser noble of Karmiss, his shrewdness and cunning ensure him a stake in the tumultuous fight for sovereignty. If he succeeds, he may yet win the power he craves—and an empire to rule.
But his plans are not infallible—a daughter, conceived from a forbidden union, could prove to be his downfall. Ashni is a child not quite human, altered by the strange circumstances of her birth and blessed by the goddess Anackire.
In a world of assassinations, concealed plots, and political machinations, Ashni must contend with the dangerous plans of her father if she is to fulfill the demands of the goddess…and avoid a war that could destroy the very empire Kesarh wishes to build.
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Dawn came to Istris over a silver sea. The slim-towered capital, which was also the mistress-port of Karmiss, released a shower of birds on the sky, a shoal of slender fishing skimmers on the water. The dawn bell rang from a cupola high on the Ashara Temple—a custom of Shansar-over-the-ocean.
Kesarh Am Xai, standing at his casement, looked into the sunrise and cursed it.
Hearing him speak, the girl still lying in the great bed murmured, “My lord?”
Kesarh did not glance at her.
“Get up. Get out.”
He stood where he was, naked, his back to her as she obeyed him.
The mixture of his blood showed clearly, the tawny lightness of his skin, the black hair, dark eyes. His looks were arresting, the young face vivid with intelligence and power. Tall, sparely and strongly built, his body also was possessed of a natural and powerful physical grace, elegant even unclothed. In the flesh, his lineage had served him well. In all other ways it had failed him. He was, among the minor princes of Karmiss, one of the least. A stray Shansarian had got him, the more forward of twins, on a lesser princess of the old Karmian royal house, in the frenetic year following the Lowland War. The other twin was a girl. They were not alike, Kesarh and his sister, though they had shared the womb in closest company. Val Nardia was an exquisite white-skinned doll, with light eyes almost the shade of honey. And her hair, as sometimes happened with mixed blood, was the same fabulous scarlet the rising sun now dashed on the bay of Istris.
So, he cursed the dawn, and his sister.
The slut he had taken to bed the previous night was gone. Kesarh turned and began to dress himself, drinking the last cupful of wine from the jug as he did so.
Going outside, he paused, looking at the guard on duty there. Since adolescence Kesarh had thought it wise to have his apartments guarded. This man, however, was leaning on the wall, asleep—even despite the fluttering past of the girl. Kesarh drew his dagger. Catching him suddenly about the throat, the Prince pressed the honed blade into the sentry’s skin. Blood welled and the man came to himself with a startled oath.
“So the assassin would have caught you, and thereafter caught myself.”
“My lord—I’d have woken—”
“Yes. Like this. But the blade through your windpipe.”
Kesarh let him go, and watched the fellow straighten in his unblazoned mail, a hand to his bleeding neck.
“You can choose, soldier,” Kesarh said. “Seek my sergeant and ask him for ten lashes. When you have recovered from them, return to my service. Or else surrender your issue-weapons and the clothes I put on your back and lose yourself in the alleys, or whatever other hole you were dug up from.”
“Yes, my lord.”
The soldier, mouth twisted, bowed. He was Karmian, dark hair and copper skin. There was a lightness to his eyes, but that might be only a Vis heritage. He would choose the lashes, probably.
Kesarh walked on along the corridor, his black mood enhanced yet ornamented by the soldier’s respectful hate striking between his shoulderblades.
* * * *
His sister’s modest apartments were already busy and vocal. In the antechamber the chests stood piled and ready. The female fussings irritated him and he walked straight through the scurrying and swirling of skirts, the stares of big painted eyes, into her bedchamber.
Val Nardis was standing, as he had stood, before a long window, but facing into the room. The moment she saw him, she froze all over her stillness. He too had stopped dead. From childhood he had been used to seeing her in such silks and velvets as their station allowed, her hair plaited with jewelry, and at her throat invariably their dead mother’s golden torc with its three black Karmian pearls. Now she was dressed for the coming heat of the day in a gown of unbleached linen. Her skin was without cosmetics or gems, and her hair hung loose about her, one long combed flame. Something checked him, he was not sure what it was.
He indicated, not looking at them, the two women who were in the bedchamber.
“Send them away.”
Val Nardia drew in one deep breath. But she did not have to say anything to the women, they were already in retreat. The door curtain rustled and the door was closed. Beyond, the ante-chamber had turned very quiet.
“Have you come to bid me farewell?” Val Nardia said. Her eyes had fallen and she was pale, a pallor easily discernible through such fair skin. She looked even younger than her youth.
“If you like. Farewell, dearest sister.”
“Don’t,” she said. She swallowed; he saw the movement of her throat. “Don’t upbraid me, Kesarh. This should be a happy day for me, and you should be happy for me.”
“Happy to see you go, to waste your life. Be happy then, you witless mare.”
The lash of anger seemed to release them both. She looked up at him in fear as he came toward her. He stood less than a foot from her, and reached out and grasped her suddenly by the arms. Her eyes filled at once with moisture, perhaps not tears. She looked at him, shaking her head.
“All this for Ashara-Anackire. All this to be buried in Ankabek.”
“I shall be a priestess of the goddess,” she cried out. “Is there something better for me here?”
“I am here.”
“You—” she whispered. Tears or not, the drops ran out of her eyes.
“And it’s because of me that you’re leaving the court.”
“Yes, Kesarh. You’re afraid to the roots of your spirit of me, and of yourself when with me. Aren’t you, my little sister?”
They regarded each other. “Let me go,” she said eventually.
“Why? In Lan it’s thought quite proper.”
“Father and daughter, brother and sister. To lie together, to wed, even.” He grinned at her. She watched him it seemed in a horrible fascination. “Let’s fly to Lan and be married, and live in the hills and spill a horde of brats.”
She struggled between his hands, then ceased to struggle. She lowered now not merely her eyes but her head.
“It isn’t that you want me,” she said, “but only that you must have me. Everything you desire you must possess.”
“I’ve little enough. A title that means nothing. A cupboard euphemistically called a room in the lower palace. A strip of land at Xai that yields nothing but rotten gourds and diseases. But if you’d stay, I might wrest something from the rubbish. For both of us.”
“I only want peace.”
“Which is to be had away from me?”
She looked up again and into his eyes.
“And in a few nights, Zastis will be burning in the sky. What then? You’re not white enough or yellow enough, my half-breed sister, to ignore the Red Moon.”
“There are disciplines practiced in Ankabek, learned from Lowland temple lore—”
“And none of them so effective as a man against you in the sheets. You’ve had Zastis lovers, Val Nardia, if never the one you truly wanted.”
She wrenched away from him at last, and he laughed softly, his face now full of contemptuous dislike.
“No,” she said, “you’ve never been able to commit that wrong, at least.”
“But you think finally I shall force you? Is that why you’re running away?”
“Yes, then, if you must have it. Running from you. Oh, not simply your lusts, your demands. From everything you are. Your corrupt dreams, your plans, your clever brain fermenting into a sewer—”
He caught her by the hair this time and pulled her sharply against him. Her slanders were cut short as he brought his mouth down on hers.
At first she grit her teeth to keep him out, but he had also cut off her breath. Soon her lips parted to gain air. The tingle of Zastis was already apparent to those susceptible. He felt her trembling tension alter, and suddenly her hands were locked across his back. For a lengthy swiftness of moments he swam strongly in the fragrant coolness of her mouth, in the pleasure of her own strength answering his, the narrow hands fierce on him. Then her struggles abruptly began again. She pushed at him, clawed at him, and he stepped away, drunk on her and dazzled.
To his bemused, amused, furious surprise she had snatched up a little fruit knife from a table.
“Get out,” she said. Her voice was no more than a cough, but the tiny blade glinted.
Kesarh turned. He retraced his steps to the door, paused, and glanced back at her. At once she raised the knife, poising it to be thrown.
“Farewell, gentle sister,” he said. “Remember me in the hot crimson nights, alone on your religious mattress.”
Only when the door had closed on him did Val Nardia carefully replace the knife beside the fruit. It required care, since she could see nothing now for her tears.
* * * *
In the stony under-palace, Kesarh’s guard sergeant surveyed a covered court, and the long post at its center, thumbs hooked in his belt.
“Yes, that’s his way, our Lord Kesarh. To send you on your own authority. You’re not the first by any means, soldier. Nor won’t be the last. Too much beer, was it? Or too much of the other thing?”
The Karmian guardsman—he had given his name a year ago as Rem—said nothing. The sergeant did not expect him to. With ten lashes in the offing from the prescribed whip, known among the men as Biter, few saw anything to joke or intellectualize over.
Kesarh had ten private guard, the permitted number for a prince of his lowly lights, a by-blow, with the royalty and the elite yellow-man’s blood in different parents. The bastards of the conqueror Shansar king and his brothers did much better. Kesarh’s ten men, however, mysteriously and schizophrenically fluctuated. Number Seven, for example, could be stocky and scarred one day, stocky and smooth the next, tall and smooth the next. Secretly listed under every single number there were now ten soldiers, which added up to a hundred, ninety of them unofficially in Kesarh’s private army. The practice was not uncommon, but Kesarh was more subtle, and more accumulative, than most. He also had a distinct and conceivably unfair advantage. Charisma was either natural to or absent in a leader. The Prince Am Xai had a goodly share, a peculiar dark and pitiless human magic that kept his men enthralled even though they frequently had some grievance against him, for his brand of justice was often bizarre, and occasionally actually unjust.
And this one, now, was going to get Kesarh’s malevolent unjust justice all nicely cut into his back.
“And who do we send you to to be looked after,” the sergeant said conversationally, “when we take you down?”
The sick and the punished did not lie up here. The whole force, save those ten on duty, were billeted about the city. Sometimes they deserted, but there were always more to be found. This one, this Rem, had been a thief, had he not?
“There isn’t anyone,” said the soldier flatly.
“What, no friendly doxy you keep in a burrow somewhere?”
“Not just now.”
The soldier glanced at him.
“I don’t ask idly,” said the sergeant. “If there is someone, you’ll need them.”
The soldier who called himself Rem looked out at the whipping-post, the iron cuffs hanging ready from it.
“A woman,” Rem said. “The red house on Slope Street, near the harbor.” He smiled in an unsmiling way. “She may refuse. She’s the mistress of a dealer in rope and cord. He’s out of the city at the moment.”
“As well for you. All right, soldier. Strip to your drawers, you know the formula. It’ll come fast and hard, you’ll feel it less that way. And no worse after. Call me any names you like while I’m doing it. I was a whip-master in Zakoris twenty years ago, and good enough then.”
They walked out together to the post and Rem put up his hands into the cuffs, letting them snap closed. The two guards, the picked witnesses, grunted their commiserations. The sergeant gave him a drink of raw spirit that tasted itself like the edge of a lash.
Then the whip named Biter came down on his back.