Read an Excerpt
Summer, A.D. 1517
The Sun Child was trembling.
The motion beneath Sayan’s sandals was a mere quivering that vanished almost as it began. She would never have noticed it if her senses had not been tuned to exquisite sensitivity by the knowledge of what was to come.
Her hand tightened on the stem of the silver goblet. She was also trembling. She hadn’t expected to be this afraid. She had thought once she had accepted her fate, she would have the courage to meet it with dignity. After all, it would not be a cruel death. She would drift peacefully to sleep, never to awaken. At least, never to awaken on this plane. There had been something in the flames, a promise.…
She lifted the goblet to her lips and quickly swallowed a large draft of potent maize wine. It was strong and smooth as it slid down her throat, leaving warmth in its wake. She was not quite so cold now, and she would be able to meet her fate as a clairana should. She moved slowly to the polished brass mirror affixed to the far wall. The mellow golden circle reflected the scarlet blossoms in the white jade vase on the low table in front of the mirror and beyond it her own image. She had dressed very carefully tonight to forestall this very terror and give her confidence. She wore her favorite ceremonial robe, the cloak of sunrise. A sunburst of fine silk pleats fell from the shoulders of the garment in a cascade of gold and ivory and rose and was fastened at her throat with a large yellow-diamond clasp whose facets sparkled in the soft candlelight. The ivory silk gown beneath it was a mere slip of material, and it revealed the full thrust of her breasts and the clean line of her thighs. At least she looked like a clairana. She mustn’t have these doubts. When the time came she would have the courage she needed. Probably the isolation of the last few days had been more painful than her death would be.
The priests had been very wise in their punishment. They had snatched none of the riches that were the accoutrements of her position from her. They had taken away only their belief in her and the companionship to which a clairana was accustomed. She decided it was the terrible loneliness making her so cowardly. Everyone was alone within their soul, but a touch, a word, would have been a comfort as she released her essence to the—
“You look splendid.”
Sayan whirled to face the man standing in the doorway. “No!” she whispered. “I told you to leave. I begged you to leave and you promised you would. Why are you still here, Dalkar?”
“I lied.” He strolled into the chamber, moving with grace and athletic coordination. His sandals made no sound on the marble tiles. His white teeth were gleaming in his bronze face as he smiled at her, and she felt an eddy of warmth cascade through her that was more heady than the strong wine she had just drunk.
He was the one who was splendid. Strong and superbly muscled like a giant jaguar, his dark eyes shining with humor and vitality. He was naked to the waist as was his custom. The single swath of a dark brown leather chanton girdled his slim hips, leaving his muscular thighs as naked as his hair-roughened chest. The cords of the sandals that crisscrossed his ankles and lower calves were also leather. A beaten silver necklace imbedded with turquoise encircled his strong brown throat; the center medallion, inscribed with the cross of the four rivers, hung directly between his breasts. His features were not at all handsome. His nose was too short and blunt and his cheekbones too broad. It made no difference. He drew women to him like the great lodestone in the temple of Ra. He was all male virility and joyous laughter. Sayan had heard the whispers that followed him before he had even approached her, and knew he was not a man she could trust to keep his distance. That, too, had made no difference. His body had seduced her with its strength and heated masculinity, but it was his laughter that had enchanted and won her.
He was laughing now. “You should have known better than to trust me. Any man who would dishonor a clairana is capable of any crime.” He picked up the graceful silver pitcher from the black marble table and poured a small amount of wine into a goblet. “I knew you wouldn’t stop arguing unless I told you I’d leave Kantalan.” He lifted the goblet in a toast. “And I had no intention of leaving either you or Kantalan. If you stay, I stay.”
“I don’t want you to die. I want you to live. It will happen, Dalkar, believe me.” Her eyes glittered in the candlelight with the tears she refused to let fall. “Please believe me. I saw it in the sacred flames. It was a true vision. Ra didn’t take away my powers when I committed the blasphemy.”
He stiffened and his smile faded. “It was no blasphemy. It was beautiful. Just because the priests have declared us outcasts doesn’t mean what we did was wrong. If you hadn’t been the clairana, I would have been allowed to take you as my lady. We were right to ignore those pompous fools and their outdated superstition and seize the joy that was our right to know.”
She shook her head. “No, we were wrong. If I hadn’t betrayed my vow, our people would have believed in me and fled Kantalan. They would not be climbing the Sun Child tonight to give sacrifice.”
He frowned. “You have regrets?”
Her eyes widened. “Of course I have regrets. The greatest civilization that has existed since we left the homeplace is going to be destroyed.” Her despairing gaze searched his face. “You don’t believe me either, do you?”
He shrugged. “I’m a soldier, not a mystic. I believe what I can see, what I can touch, and what we are together.” He smiled. “Is that enough for you, Sayan?”
“No, you must believe.” Her voice was vibrant with urgency. “You must leave Kantalan, Dalkar.”
“Shh.” His fingers touched her lips gently. “It doesn’t matter what I believe or don’t believe. If I thought Ra was going to rain fire down and destroy the world in the next instant, I would still be here.”
“There will be no fire.” She closed her eyes. “Not this time. Not until the four who come after walk the streets of Kantalan.”
Dalkar felt a cold chill in the hollow of his spine. He had always been a confirmed skeptic, but her utter certainty shook him. Then he moved his shoulders as if shrugging off a burden. He had always lived for the moment, and Sayan had given him the most exquisite moments in his life. He had learned these last few days when he had forced himself to stay away from her that a future without her would be meaningless. It was not a future he could contemplate. If Sayan’s prophecy proved true, then he could have no more beloved a companion with to whom spend that final moment. Yet it was against his nature to accept even the possibility of death meekly. “I could take you away. We could make a life for ourselves somewhere else.”
“I can’t go.” She opened her eyes to reveal a sadness that made his throat tighten with empathy and love.
Love. He hadn’t realized until this moment how much he did love her. She had been a passion, an obsession, a challenge. He had always been tempted by any challenge that presented itself, and Sayan had posed a most difficult and exciting one. He didn’t honestly know whether he had set out to seduce her because she was forbidden or because he was truly captivated by her. She was undoubtedly a great beauty, with her perfect features and huge dark eyes, but her solemn mystical temperament was foreign to his easygoing nature. Well, it no longer mattered how they had reached this point; their future was bound inexorably together. Of that he was sure.
His fingers moved from her lips to caress the hollow of her cheek. “Then I can’t go either.” His hand dropped away. “Now, stop protesting. You’re too intelligent a woman to waste your time with futile arguments.” He smiled with gentle raillery as he took her goblet and placed it with his own on the table. He took her elbow and propelled her toward the doors of the balcony. “Particularly since you’re convinced we have so little time left. Why don’t we watch the procession up the Sun Child? It will be quite a spectacle. Our being outcasts has one advantage at least. We don’t have to climb to the sacrificial plateau for the ceremony. We can watch it from right here.” He drew aside the heavy drapes of filigreed silver and stepped aside for her to precede him. “Perhaps their sacrifices will pacify Ra into forgiving our sins.”
“Don’t joke.” She heard the soft metallic rustle as Dalkar released the silver curtain and it fell into place behind them. She crossed to the stone balustrade to look out over the city. It was hot and utterly still tonight, the air heavy and difficult to breathe. “It was a sin. I don’t think Ra considers it a sin against him because he gave me the vision, but it was a sin against our people. I should have been more responsible. I should have obeyed the law.”
His arm slid around her slim waist beneath the pleated cloak and his lips grazed her ear. Her dark waist-length hair caressed his naked chest and the delicate woman scent of her caused his head to swim and his groin to tighten. “There’s no one more responsible than you, little Sayan, and it was a law meant to be broken.”