Tailei stood before the man who called himself king of Apalakki, studying him as he studied her. It was he who led the rebellion against the bloody tyranny of the Sangi, who claimed to belong to a distant branch of the royal lineage, who sought to drive Kasus into the east as a usurper, but he mainly struck her as being bull-necked and bullish in temperament too. And what did he make of her, a young woman who offered him the services of an army of dead men? She had shown him that her magic was real, but did he see it as a tool, a toy, a threat?
“Baghīl,” K’azis said at last, speaking to the servant who stood by the door with bowed head. “Illuhat’ Gisīl talutkkun.” The servant returned a few minutes later with Gesil, a Sughin man with a blindfold over his eyes.
“You send and summon this man, but I will come for you when you are strong enough to face me,” Gesil said. Was he mad?
“Ah, Gesil, tell us about Hekkzaghin, about Kasus, about Ghilik,” said K’azis in the Sughin tongue, rather poorly, but he got his meaning across. Tailei intended to learn the Apalakki form of speech, but was nowhere near fluent yet.
“The three wolves that the serpents let loose to tear and shred the world, before the proper time comes for them to enfold their territory in the coils of death.” Gesil was grinning now. “Curs! They have tried to harness the serpents, but the fangs have sunk into their flesh and the poison will soon be in their minds.”
“Very good. Curse the tyrants! May they die forsaken and their elements be used to make worms and flies.”
“The curse may take you also. You think you can drive out the serpents, but they may not be done yet with your city.”
“If you must speak ill, speak ill of Kasus who blinded you and put you to torment, not me who set you free.”
“Set me free? This body is only a husk for me to use as I will. It does not matter to me what happens to it.”
K’azis sighed. “You oracles are more trouble than you are worth, I think. What good has a message from the gods or from the Earth herself ever done for mortals?”
“I was a mortal once…”
“We found him in the prisons,” said K’azis to Tailei. “I gather he had said something to displease his former masters. Gesil, this is Tailei.”
“A pleasure, my lady,” said Gesil.
“What can you tell me about her?”
“I know Tailei very well, now don’t I? She’s been given great power indeed. Well might Kasus tremble when her army rises up to fight him.” His voice shifted and became softer, more melodious. “I look forward to meeting you very soon.”
K’azis nodded, smiling and showing his misaligned teeth. “You’ll have your chance to prove yourself,” he said to Tailei, “and if you do well I will reward you. Give me Apalakki.”
“It is yours,” Tailei said. They were always present in her head now, and to give them orders was as simple as moving pieces on a siaren board. K’azis had claimed the palace and driven the Sangi out, but they had taken a new stronghold in one of the great oracular domes in the eastern quarter, from which they commanded their Sughin and wrought havoc on the neighboring parts of the city. Elsewhere in the city were others who fought for Kasus and Hekkzaghin, but the Sangi were the greatest of the threats that faced K’azis, and now Tailei too. She sat on the floor and closed her eyes, and her hands moved to orchestrate her soldiers.
There was little challenge anymore for her in these matters, as much as she wished for a challenge to distract her from the voices of dead men. Even Malg’us was there, though she had not seen him since that dreadful day when she had discovered her gift. The Sangi worshipped death, but against the dead they could do nothing. The oracles were weeping and proclaiming the end of prophecy and the silence of the Earth as the dead men marched past them to seize the Sangi and bring them to the cruel justice of those who had suffered their bloodlust.
And when all was done, Tailei strolled through one of the gardens near the palace in Apalakki, awaiting her summons. It was raining, but despite the heavy clouds only a light drizzle fell to the earth. None of the flowers had budded yet, but she paused for a moment to admire a sculpture of a young man with lily-of-the-valley draped over his shoulders. As she turned away, she saw an elderly woman scuttling towards her, and she paused.
When she reached her, the old woman brought her hand up to stroke Tailei’s hair. “You are Tailei?” she asked.
“I was told to tell you that your uncle is calling you home.”
Tailei nodded. “Will he be coming to fetch me?”
“You are to wait for him near the temple of Vaghatin, in the western quarter.”
“I understand. Thank you.”
Tailei did not hesitate for a moment, but returned to her room to gather together her few possessions – mostly clothing – and bundle them together so that she would be ready to leave at a moment’s notice. Then she went down to the appointed meeting place.
It took her a few hours to reach the temple, especially as several times she had to evade men who approached her with smug leers and invitations. It was one of the larger temples in the city, with an entire order of priests dedicated to the god of war. With the conquest of Apalakki by Kasus and his barbarian hordes, opinion in the city had turned against the god who had failed to help them, so that donations and sacrificial offerings were at a low ebb.
A priest sitting by the threshold saw her and raised his hand in warning, and she stopped where she was, some distance from the entrance. Women were not allowed to enter this god’s temple, she had learned. In this realm, women were not allowed to take part in war, and so neither could they be accepted by Vaghatin. Her face twisted up as she looked at the priest sitting there fanning himself, but she waited patiently. Women may not be able to fight, but nothing prevented them from sending men to fight for them.
It was not long before she saw K’azis’s aide Tal approaching her with hurried steps. “Ah, you are here. Come with me, if you please,” he said.
“Is everything ready, then?” she asked quietly.
“Yes, of course everything is ready. Come with me.”
She followed him back towards the palace, her thoughts unhappy ones. She did not like being here, did not like what she was doing for these men. Then why are you here? something asked her, and she answered the only way she could. Because she had been given this gift, and she must use it to do some good in this terrible land.
K’azis was waiting for her in the throne room, already sitting in the emperor’s seat and being attended by purple-robed servants. On his brow he wore the Star of Lasghigel, the wheel of diamonds that Tailei had brought from the palace in Alhunvin. “The last of our enemies will be killed or frightened into obedience, thanks to you. I congratulate you on your success.”
“Thank you,” Tailei said. “And your end of the bargain?”
“Of course. K’azis son of Buldinukk does not break his word. Tal. Ildukimrāl āksin?”
With a mildly reproving look, Tal took a clay tablet from a stand near the doorway and held it up. “These are the words of the agreement by which Tailei of the Zconr becomes duke of the armies of the empire. She will lead the living and the dead to war in the north, the west, and the east. She will be given all honor and praise.” As Tal droned on, Tailei felt the presence of her servants nearby. There were more and more of them now, for she would walk through the field of battle when all was done, chasing away the scavenging birds, and kneel to kiss the fallen soldiers with her kiss of new life. And the more servants she had, the stronger she felt in her own body. Something was changing within her – her mind was being wrapped around with iron bands, shaped into a new form. And she could not predict what would be the end of it.
All was quiet in the ducal chamber, situated in a far corner of the palace and decorated with dusty ivory statuettes. It had lain empty for some time now, she suspected, but no longer. A throne sat at the head of the chamber, a smaller copy of the great chair of the emperor. In perfect stillness Tailei ascended the steps to the throne and seated herself in it, and the darkness settled in around her.
To the north of Ghizdulah the rumors spread of Tailei and her armies of dead men, fear and awe exaggerating their number twentyfold. Gladly the Sughin threw down their Sangi overseers as imposters who claimed to speak for Death when they had no real mastery over it. According to the rumors, Tailei was divine, a daughter from the line of the old trickster Apalakki himself, or perhaps she was a demon in the shape of a woman. Was it perhaps she who had cut down Kasus and Hekkzaghin in Malhun? As for the P’ugdaghun, they were all fleeing to Vunis, but they left the legend of the silent throne boiling in their wake, and what was more silent than death itself, the death that now spread out along the coast?
At last Tailei and the armies of Apalakki, living and dead, pressed close to Malhun lands, where the throne had now been taken by a new king, a man who had been able to step into the place left empty by Kasus, killing or otherwise dealing with his competitors. It was not only the throne of Malhun that he claimed, but the young empire itself, and so he sent an ambassador to Tailei’s camp. This ambassador was, judging by his appearance, one of Kasus’s countrymen; he introduced himself as Sratau, servant of the emperor Taghgos.
“I know Taghgos, and have counted him a friend in the past,” said Tailei. “Apalakki has no desire to steal land from the realm of Malhun.”
Sratau smiled on one side of his mouth. “That is very well for Apalakki, a most becoming humility, but I serve the emperor of the south. You are his subjects, his rebellious subjects. I have not come to ask for mercy, but to demand your submission. I hope I have made myself clear.”
“Words are easy, but deeds are another matter. Or haven’t you heard of the duchess of Apalakki and her army?”
“I have heard many rumors,” said Sratau. “I have heard of a woman who calls forth the dead to fight for her. A lone woman. I wonder what would happen to the feared army of Apalakki if she were to die? Say because she unwisely accepted to meet with an ambassador who was clever than he was scrupulous. Or suppose she was poisoned. It really doesn’t matter to me. I do wonder what would happen, though. All that power resting upon a lone woman.”
“You shouldn’t trust every rumor you hear,” said Tailei, but Sratau’s calm stare told her that he was not fooled by her bold front. He nodded slightly.
“Let’s put it to the test, shall we?” he asked, and suddenly there was a knife in his hand. He struck as fast as a snake, blade swinging towards Tailei’s bare neck before she could do anything to react. But there was a rush of wind, a sound of feet on the ground, and pale hands pulled Sratau away from her. She met the empty gazes of her children of death with her own. A few of the soldiers who were still alive asked her what to do with Sratau.
“He’s a false ambassador,” she said, “and he has outraged the gods. Death is the penalty for his blasphemy, and then I will send him back to his master to deliver my message.”
Taghgos was no fool, and when the next ambassador came from Alhunvin he brought with him a promise of peace and a gift of gold. So the empire of Kasus came to an end in name, but from Kupavim to Malhun, people began to quietly call Tailei empress, the bearer of the Star of Lasghigel, and some even referred to her as the Lady.
And Tailei came then to Alhunvin to confirm the submission of the King of Malhun to the Duchess of Apalakki. She smiled at Taghgos as he helped her step from her chariot, but he didn’t look at her, keeping his gaze away from her, and far away from the dead man who was her driver and who stood perfectly still, his hands loose on the reins. “It is a pleasure to see you again,” she said in a low voice.
“It is a pleasure to serve you,” he replied gruffly. She considered him quietly for a minute, then gestured for him to accompany her into the courtyard of the palace, where tables had been arranged for a banquet. Sparrows stuffed to bursting with onions and spices, date pudding shaped into miniature castles, whole roasted lambs positioned as if grazing on a field of chives, and more fanciful creations of the Alhunvin cooks made it plain that conquest and madness had not harmed their ingenuity. Tailei sat at the head of the table, her silent bodyguard looming behind her so that there was a nervous paleness to the faces of everyone she looked at.
Actors came in during the meal to perform the epic of Apalakki in a realistic fashion, behaving as if the heroes they portrayed were everyday men and women, albeit prone to giving long soliloquies that Tailei’s interpreter struggled to keep up with. Tailei was vaguely familiar with the story that unfolded before her: the birth of the young hero Apalakki, his rivalry with his brother P’ugdagh, whom he banished at last to the sea, the death of his father fighting wars in the north and Apalakki’s ascension to the throne of his ancestors. Then came the birth of Pirlisu to Apalakki’s wife, and, if Tailei could trust her interpreter, there wasn’t the slightest hint that Pirlisu was the son of a god. She nodded to herself.
Pirlisu and his mother were exiled, but Pirlisu returned and set in motion the tragic events leading to Apalakki’s death and apotheosis as a royal Zinrin spirit. When it was done, Tailei set down her goblet of wine and told her interpreter to say to the actors, “The gods bless you and Pirlisu son of Antark.”
“Fīranilut ārig ggul bi Pirlīsu kixan Antark.”
The actors bowed to her and she heard appreciative murmurs for her acknowledgment of Pirlisu’s divine ancestry. Night was falling quickly, the stars coming out above their heads, and the palace chamberlain showed Tailei and her attendants to a room with beds and mats for them to rest on.
But Tailei woke up at the darkest hour of the night and found it impossible to get back to sleep. She rose from her bed, intending to maybe take a walk through the palace, and then she noticed that the dead were slumped against the walls, sleeping as soundly as the living. Only the barely perceptible twitches of their eyes and fingers told Tailei that they had not returned to their natural state.
“But my dead don’t sleep,” she said under her breath.
“There are none, living or dead, who can resist the power of the master,” said a voice from the doorway in the Apalakki tongue. A man with veiled face stood there, his hands clasped together before his stomach. “The master wishes to see you.”
“What is your master’s name?”
“That is not for his servants to know, but his title is Lord of Dreams.”
“I’m starting to think all of this a dream. Tell me then, what he wants with me, and say it in plain words.”
“For ages beyond reckoning the master has ruled Alka’al, and you question him? He is lord of dreams and lord of nightmares, and you would be a fool to ignore his command.”
“Very well, I’ll see where this dream leads,” said Tailei, and followed the veiled man out into the open air. Waiting for them just beyond the gates to the courtyard was a man in a black cloak dotted with specks of white as if to match the sky above. He was tall and slender, and as Tailei approached him she saw that something was odd about the cast of his face, though she couldn’t say what, any more than she could describe exactly what marked a funereal tune as different from a happy one.
“And we meet at last. But I am the Lord of Dreams, and you are only the latest petty queen in these lands,” said the tall man. He spoke so quietly that she could hardly hear him, but the words were those of her homeland far away in Zconr, and the reminder of her own people was a sudden pain to her. “And I have seen many of your kind come and go, for I have lived long.”
“Have you seen many who can raise the dead?”
“Nor have I yet. But what power you have is not of yourself, is it? For it was given by one of the old magicians lingering past his proper time, and he had his own purposes, and the basilisks had their own purposes, and what are you?”
“My realm encompasses nearly all of Lakki! What are you? A king who hardly ever steps outside his tiny kingdom?” Tailei demanded. She was still not sure if this was a dream or reality, but she could show no weakness. Lord of Dreams or not, she didn’t mean for Alka’al to get notions about the frailty of its western neighbor.
“And you disdain me? But you are the thrall to the ancient masters and I am free. And my children live though they sleep and dream. Nor do I seek a quarrel with you or your masters, but I summoned you to warn you. For long ago I stared into the rifts that break the usual succession of miles and years, and I have seen what no mortal has seen, and I see it still. Now the lands east of the Sakkuru do not belong to you or the basilisks, and I urge you to be content with what you have, for my hand is strong.”
“I neither had nor have any wish to trouble your realm,” said Tailei. “Under the eight winds I can swear it. There is no reason why Lakki and Alka’al shouldn’t be at peace now as they have been for uncountable ages.”
The Lord of Dreams lifted his head upwards, but his eyes remained on Tailei. “Nor do I seek to take the men of Lakki into my care, for I have cares enough, and the business of the basilisks is not mine to concern myself with.” He touched two fingers to his forehead in a curious salute.
Then his servant led Tailei back to her bed, where sleep took her immediately. But she knew in the morning that it had been no dream, and that she had met with the Lord of Dreams himself, and that meant she was mighty indeed. So after she left Alhunvin she went to Tiggras and there she summoned the alchemists to her. “I would like to live forever,” she told them. “Tell me how.”
Majelis had insisted that he go first to Teolphar, despite Uromalkhuros’s warnings that he had been supplanted and would not be welcome in the city now. Thetta didn’t seem to mind one way or the other: she was in a state of numbed shock after the chaos that had fallen upon Alhunvin. But as day followed day she began to speak more, even venturing an occasional smile. She had not been particularly happy before, the charming foreigner Kasus having altered into a neglectful husband shared with two other women, in a land where no one behaved with propriety and she had no friends except Uromalkhuros and his men. Now that world had been destroyed underneath her, a feeling that Majelis understood very well, and so he spoke to her with comforting words.
They came to Teolphar early in the morning, and while most of the Khiar remained outside the walls to avoid alarming the guard, Majelis and a few others entered the city. Majelis and his companions went first to the high tower on the pretext of consulting the oracle, Majelis intending to ask if he should go to Khiar, but even though his face was concealed by the hood he wore, he was recognized. Amil, one of the tower guards, spotted his dark skin and prodded back his hood. Amil’s eyes widened. “You!”
“Yes,” said Majelis. “I have returned to my tower.”
“Your tower?” Amil asked, and his mouth moved silently. “Perhaps I should take you to meet Elsasel. High Priest Elsasel.”
“So that is how the fruit has fallen,” said Majelis. “Of course, I’d be happy to see Elsasel again.”
Amil led them up to the chamber that had once been Majelis’s own, and while he remained in the lower room with Majelis’s Khiar guards, Majelis ascended to speak with Elsasel in the presence of the Flame itself. Elsasel was waiting for him, and when Majelis’s head appeared through the hole in the floor, he exclaimed, “You’re not dead! Well, maybe it would be better for you if you were. There can only be one high priest of the Flame.”
“You’re right,” Majelis said, finishing his climb and seating himself before Elsasel, “and I am he.”
“Are you? You have no city, no oracle, hardly any guard.”
“Is it force, then, that determines the Flame’s blessing?”
Elsasel looked pained, and it was a while before he replied. “Before Emperor Sarekham, the priest of Teolphar was nothing. It was the Khiar emperor who put my forefather, or rather, our forefather, Hazmno in this chamber a thousand years ago, and he did it with the power of his armies. The Flame blessed his sword; the sword did not reflect the Flame. Do you understand?”
“And what of my consecration?”
“What of it? I, too, am consecrated. I have put aside my wife. And, if it’s permitted for me to say so, I have done far more for Teolphar and my office in under a year than you did in three, and I intend to do more yet. Kings and lords from all around will seek my blessing. The Halarenkhe will come to me for advice, and it will be apparent whom the Flame has blessed.”
“And my fate?”
“That is for you to decide. I considered you a friend when you were in my service; I still consider you a friend, but you know as well as I that having two high priests in Teolphar is not a good thing, not for the city and not for the Flame. The Beast loves discord.”
Majelis lifted up his hands, but said, “I pray that what happened to me never happens to you. If you want, I will leave Teolphar immediately.”
“That would be best. It’s a pity that you were never given the chance to make all that you could of your office, but the Flame is wiser than we.”
“So it is,” said Majelis. “May I greet Selinel before I go?”
“She is occupied with her duties, and I fear that you would only unsettle her mind and allow the Beast’s hand in her soul.”
“I understand,” Majelis said. “Goodbye, then. I wish you the Flame’s blessing.”
“And may you prosper in whatever you do now. But please don’t come back to Teolphar.”
Majelis and his companions were escorted by armed men outside the walls, where they joined Thetta and Uromalkhuros again and rode north. “You didn’t want to be priest again?” Thetta asked.
In his awkward Khiar, twisted towards the speech of Teolphar, Majelis said, “No. I have sinned. I never should have been high priest of the Flame at all.” He did not look back towards the tower of the Flame as it shrank away in the distance behind them.
Now Thetta returned to Khiar, and the news of her arrival spread quickly throughout the land. Immediately she and her companions were summoned to the imperial presence to recount what had happened in the south. The empress Meseisalkines had died not long ago, and the new emperor was her son Heohyltakyneos, a man with deep lines in his face and weary eyes. Majelis found it difficult to follow all the words that passed between Heohyltakyneos and Thetta, but he knew they were talking about Kasus. Finally Heohyltakyneos turned to Majelis and asked something.
“I beg your pardon, but I am not yet accustomed to your way of speech,” he replied.
More slowly now, Heohyltakyneos said, “And thee are a scryer to all these?”
“I am,” said Majelis. “The realms of the south have fallen into the anarchy of the Beast.”
“And thee are the Flame it hierarch?”
“I was, until I was replaced by another.”
“Kasus kidnapped me for some time and when I returned, another sat in my place.”
“Which is nae seemly. And thee are the Flame it hierarch, nae mind Teolphar. Thee have a sound chair in Khiar til end of days.”
“I am grateful beyond words,” said Majelis. “But I am unfit to serve as high priest. My sins are great.”
“Nae mind thee. It shall be for tomorrow, nae?”
Majelis bowed low to the ground. He was allowed to stay in the palace itself, in a room of his own, and when servants appeared with lit candles to be placed around the walls and mandalas for him to meditate on, he surmised that despite his protests, he was to be treated with all the honors of the high priest of the Flame. And day by day he learned to speak the language of Khiar, sister to that of Teolphar, and to began to read the amazingly complex symbols that were used to write it. Everyone he met treated him with respect, even honor, but his thoughts lay coiling within his mind, hatching a gloomy darkness that kept him within the palace, never once venturing out into the city.
Calcam had been right. Majelis had thought that by embracing his office he could put his past sins firmly behind him, but he was a murderer, a fornicator, a thief, and he would always be so. A voice told him that he hadn’t died for nothing, but the memories were as vivid as reality.
A man named Anunto came to see him, explaining that he had been a companion of Kasus when he had come to Khiar. “How are my old friends,” he asked, “Alzurid and Semsa, Kasus and Tailei?”
“I cannot tell you about Tailei,” said Majelis, “but Alzurid and Semsa were well the last I saw them. They’re going to be married, I believe. As for Kasus, he is dead, and his empire crumbles.”
“Ah,” said Anunto, closing his eyes. “The contest between the Flame and the Beast is mysterious to man. Who can say whether it goes well or ill?”
Then, one day in late autumn, he was visited in a dream by a woman, or perhaps a goddess, who wore the forked hat of a cardinal. She appeared to him like one of the women of Sretskalawa, dark and slender, but she used the language of Teolphar. “Majelis,” she said. “It was not you who stole me.” Now he recognized her as Asatis.
“But it was,” he replied, and bowed his head. “Don’t you remember? It was I who took you from your parents to hand you over to my brother, for no better reason than that I wanted to thank him for what I considered his kindness to me.”
“It was not you who stole me,” she repeated, and now he recognized her as Selinel, and he understood that she was more than that, and reddened in shame for his clothes, which were stained with the dust of his long journey. “If you loved me, you would take me back.”
“But you have another servant, better than I.”
“He seeks his own glory, but you have ever sought mine. I have chosen you; now you must chose me. Or were you brought back from Aratus for no reason? Your sins are great, but see!” And Majelis saw thunderclouds rolling overhead, and stinging rain fell and washed the mud from his robes.
“I will obey,” said Majelis, raising his head to meet her eyes. She smiled at him, and he awoke.
The morning after his dream Majelis asked to see the chief priest in Khitharenes, an aged but nonetheless lively man who regarded Majelis with a great deal of skepticism. “I am the high priest of the Flame,” Majelis said. “Or at least, so I was consecrated in Teolphar. I have been asked to take up my office here, but I must unburden myself first. I was a great sinner before I knew of the Flame, yet I have failed to be properly shriven.
“I was a fornicator, for I lay with many women and acknowledged none of them as my wife.
“I was a thief and a dealer in human flesh, for I took a maiden from her family and delivered her to another’s lusts.
“I was a murderer and a parricide and a traitor, for I desired my inheritance and so betrayed my father into the hands of those who killed him at my command.”
“These are grave sins,” said the priest.
“They are. Very grave sins for the high priest of the Flame to carry.”
The priest nodded and pressed his hands together in thought. “Your sins are grave,” he said finally, “but the Flame burns hot. Maybe through the greatness of your salvation many will be amazed and see the Flame more clearly.”
Majelis nodded doubtfully. “May it be so.”
“As for shriving you, the Flame stands behind me and burns you clean as you speak. Can you not see it?”
He almost could, almost saw the flickers of light behind the old priest, but he winced and turned away. “I wish I could,” he said. “I believe, but I am afraid nonetheless.”
“Are you meditating daily?”
“That is good. Shield yourself from the Beast and you will be at peace.”
Majelis found the first part of the priest’s speech more useful than the last, for peace eluded him no matter how much he meditated. Priests began to come to him in his chambers and ask his advice, and he gave them whatever help he could, until one day the emperor himself visited him. “Your grace,” said the emperor. “We hope you are finding Khiar hospitable.”
“I have been made very comfortable, thank you. Will you have tea?”
“Not at the moment, no. We heard your account of the death of Mirathol the Varluker woman with foreboding; now our fears have been realized. The life of Mirathol was bound to the covenant between Khiar and Varluker, so now the covenant is dead and we are at the mercy of our enemies, who are strong and as fierce as the Beast in all its wrath. It seems to us very likely that Khiar will be overrun and the Flame will be snuffed out in this world, for we are weaker than we once were. May the Flame illuminate its servants to protect itself!”
“And I am the greatest of its servants,” Majelis said. “But what can I do to protect it, besides tell the Varluker that their daughter is indeed dead?”
“You have not heard how the Varluker were turned back the first time, have you? It was fifty years ago, when I was still a child, but I remember it quite clearly. Terror spread through the city, and from the meanest street to the highest room of the palace, we were all convinced that it was the end of days. I had quite vivid nightmares about horsemen trampling me or wolves devouring me.” The emperor smiled then, and his gaze was far away. “Then he came from the rebellious cities beyond the mountains, the high priest of the Flame did, and though many scoffed and called him a foreigner and an imposter, he approached the Varluker with no weapon or guard. Whatever it was that he said to them, it convinced them to ride away again and leave us unharmed, and we gave him a great feast, but he only counseled us to trust in the Flame before returning to his home. That was a true high priest!”
“And if I do the same as my predecessor, I would be a true high priest as well,” said Majelis. He looked at the candle burning in the center of the table between them, and saw in it the Flame itself, illuminating the entire world and his own soul. “I will try myself and see if I am consumed or blessed in the heat of the Flame. If I am blessed, I will return and serve in my office as I should.”
So it was that Majelis rode to face the darkness falling towards Khiar. He knew nothing of the Varluker besides the name and the fear that was in the faces of the Khiar people, a fear that seemed more than natural. With him rode a handful of the empire’s bravest soldiers who had volunteered to accompany him on his perilous task.
“The High Priest of the Flame comes forth to deal with the slaves of the Beast,” they announced when a few of the Varluker rode forth to meet them.
“What is your priest to us? We will make him our slave with the rest of you, and no matter that his skin is burned black.”
Majelis cleared his throat and said in a loud voice, “Your concern is not who I am, but what I serve.”
The foremost of the Varluker laughed. “You serve fire, which is extinguished in an instant, but we serve the wolves of heaven, who have never been defeated. It’s the wolves of heaven who walk among us and guide us.”
“And may I speak to the wolves of heaven?”
The Varluker did not answer, but turned their horses and rode away. Majelis exchanged glances with his companions and said at last, “We’ll wait here for a few days and see if they return.”
They did indeed return after two days and nights, but this time they were led by a man with a silver mask that covered his entire face. “You have called for the wolves of heaven,” this man said to Majelis, “and here we are.”
“I greet you in the light of the Flame, of which I am high priest. What is the meaning of your hostility towards the Khiar, who have done you no harm?” Majelis asked.
The wolf looked at Majelis for a long silent moment, then laughed mockingly. “What is this? Have you brought a half-wit to treat with us? Are there no more men of sense left in Khiar?”
“Forgive my unskilled tongue, but as you can see I am an alien in these lands. I know little about you or the Varluker, and so I ask again, what is the meaning of your enmity to the Khiar?”
“If you think we are enemies of the Khiar, you are mistaken.” The wolf dismounted and began to walk towards Majelis, whose horse shook its head and turned aside. “Just as you are mistaken if you think that you are the favored children of the earth, you who cram yourselves into stinking cities and make gods for yourself to replace the one you abandoned. But we have fallen into the hands of the grandam giantess herself, we do her bidding, and when we have chastised you with sword and fire, you will obey her too. She hungers for you: you will not evade her for long.”
Majelis trembled at these words, but he raised his hands to the heavens and cried, “The Flame aid me!” And immediately there was a flash of white light in his vision, nearly blinding him, and all his hair stood on end. The words that came into his mouth were in a strange tongue that sounded to his ears almost like the barking of wild dogs, but he knew in his mind what they meant. “Remember, curs, who it was that banished you in the days of the first Golden Men. The wastelands are your prison! You are not to leave them until you are summoned forth, or your judgment will overtake you, hounds chased down by hounds. In the name of the light that drove the ice from the world, go back to your cage!”
The wolf fell backwards, lifting up his arms as if to protect himself. He snarled something wordless and sprang back to his horse. “Khiar slaves!” he shouted. “Meddle not with the lands to your east! You will not be warned again!” He and the Varluker turned their horses and galloped away.
And soon afterward it was reported by scouts and friendly tribes that the Varluker were gone again on their endless rounds of the steppe. Majelis found himself acclaimed a hero by one and all, no matter how much he insisted that he had done nothing apart from the Flame. Again and again he was informed that the Flame would only deign to shine through the holiest of men. It was clear that he would have some work to do in the instruction of his subordinate priests.
And throughout the land the news spread that the High Priest of the Flame had returned to Khitharenes, driving back the Varluker with the blazing light of his soul, and all rejoiced and celebrated the coming age.
As Semsa helped Noxagh carry the sack of grain to the caves from the impromptu bazaar that had sprung up around the visiting merchants, she gave one final glance to the eastern horizon. Every day now she hoped to see Alzurid returning to her, and every day she was disappointed, and had to force herself not to entertain the darkest possibilities of her imagination, where reddened knives and hooks lurked. The life here in Tanos was not bad – although Gavat Meld’in, the local Sangi overseer still swaggered like a tyrant from the days before Maghd’u, the danger of war and slavery had been eliminated – but she could not bear to live in the old way forever, not now. B’oli and Hekkzaghin and Alzurid had changed that.
He did not come on the next day, or the next, but on the following day Semsa was carrying a pot of water when a hand landed roughly on her shoulder. “Hello there, my quiet pretty girl.” It was the overseer. He leered at her, and there was something darker and more frightening than simple lust in his eyes. “You keep to yourself, don’t you? Not very sociable, not for someone looking like you. Why don’t you come with me and we’ll have some fun.”
“No thank you,” she said, shifting quickly away from him, but his fist tightened around her arm.
“I think it’s time you were taught a lesson about who you should obey,” he said, and his other hand went to one of the several blades hanging at his belt.
Then he fell to the dust, and Semsa could breathe again, and now the pounding of hooves over the last few seconds came to her attention, and she saw Alzurid astride a horse, unsheathing a long saber. “What is your name?” he asked quietly.
“Gavat, of the Meld’in tribe,” said the overseer in a dazed voice, shaking his head slowly.
“I am Alzurid of Lazu, and if you even try to lay another hand on my wife, you will regret it. Did Hekkzaghin put you in charge here? Hekkzaghin is dead. His empire is falling apart and his power is crumbling. You have no more authority here. Begone!”
Gavat stumbled to his feet and fled, and Alzurid turned to gaze upon Semsa. He didn’t say anything. He didn’t have to.
“Your timing was very lucky,” said Semsa.
“Not luck. The Fates,” he replied with a twinkle in his eye.
She laughed, overcome by joy, and said, “Your wife, am I?”
“Perhaps I anticipated. But I think we’ve waited long enough, don’t you?”
She blushed and said, “Yes, absolutely.”
“And if anyone objects to you marrying an outsider, there isn’t anything they’ll be able to do about it. So how does this work?”
“Well, we hold hands over a sacred stone and if our families have agreed, we will be husband and wife. But I don’t think we need worry about the second part. I was under B’oli’s authority, before he died.”
“And my family, of course, is far away from here and probably don’t care a whit what I’m up to.”
“The nearest sacred stone is just on the other side of the caves. Let me tell Noxagh at least,” Semsa said.
“Very good,” said Alzurid, and kissed her deeply.
Alzurid did not have to wait long for Gavat Meld’in to return, accompanied by one of the Sangi, whom Alzurid vaguely remembered confronting before. The Sangi didn’t bother with pleasantries or greetings, but said immediately, “I am Mub’is, a child of Death. We have heard that you have been troubling our people and especially our good servant Gavat. What brings you into our realm, and what defense do you make for yourself?”
Alzurid had been sitting above the entrance of B’oli’s old cave, sorting through a basket of figs, and when Mub’is spoke he stood up to face him, setting the basket by his feet. “Well,” he said, “I suppose I can only defend myself by saying that Gavat was an extremely poor overseer, who abused his position and mistreated the women whom he should have treated like sisters. But somehow I doubt you will accept such a defense. As for what I am doing here, I have recently married a Sughin woman.”
“You are an outsider,” hissed Gavat. “You defile her when you touch her.”
“I defile her?” asked Alzurid, eying Gavat.
“Enough,” said Mub’is. He took a deep breath, and his face wrinkled as he looked at Alzurid. “Take your concubine and leave. You don’t belong here. This is the realm of Death.”
“This land, like all lands, belongs to the Omnipotent. Death has ruled here for less than ten years, and now it has taken Hekkzaghin himself.”
“Go to your brethren and give them this message: the Tanos will no longer tolerate the Sangi lording over them, nor their assassins prowling in the night,” said Alzurid, and Gavat and Mub’is laughed incredulously.
“I warned you before. Death will come for you. I could kill you right now,” said Mub’is, stepping closer to Alzurid and hiding his hands in the deep folds of his robe. “Then your impudent tongue would be quiet.”
“You would be two men against three hundred. I have not spent my honeymoon, as we call it in Lazu, idling. The Tanos are prepared to strike down whoever attempts to put the yoke of the Sangi back on their necks.”
Mub’is’s right hand appeared, holding a dagger. “Death accompanies me,” he said.
“I have seen death laid low,” said Alzurid. “And the Living accompanies me. Leave us at once.”
“So be it. I declare a sentence of death upon you, outsider. Your life is in the hands of the Sangi as an offering to Nosseli.”
By now the three of them were no longer alone, as some men of the Sughin had seen the confrontation and drawn near. Mub’is smiled coldly at them, then gestured to Gavat to follow and walked away. Alzurid wasted no time in explaining what had happened to the onlookers.
“This is your chance to end their tyranny,” he said. “I confess that the weaker part of me would rather be in the west, where I’d be safe from assassins and murderers, but my wife is one of you, and I will gladly shed my blood to help her and her kin.”
Paghkken, who looked far older than his few years and had fought against Hekkzaghin in the recent revolt, stepped out from the others and, spitting in his hand, held it up for Alzurid to take. “I will shed my blood with you,” he said. “We have had enough of the law of Death.”
Alzurid spat and gripped Paghkken’s hand. “Then we’ll drive the Sangi back to their fortress and into the sea.”
“The Fates will weave it.”
It was not long before men came from other tribes to consult with Alzurid about the battle against the Sangi, meeting near the Tomb of Maghd’u, a tall stony hill where the prophet Maghd’u was supposed to have spoken to the Fates themselves, and underneath which he was supposed to be buried.
One of the Sughin in particular, an old man named Maltak, proved to be a particularly valuable source of information on the events throughout his land. He would tug on his long white beard and, raising his head to face the sky, recite in a sing-song voice the names of various tribes and their successes or failures. Paghkken knelt to sketch out a rough map in the dirt. When Maltak had finished, he descended to Alzurid’s side. Sangi influence had always been weak in the distant, harsh, Ad Kghalzik, but there was no help to be found in the tribes of Ad Sulum, who were now finding new homes for themselves in the eastern lands thanks to the Sangi. They would never turn against the new order of the world. The Ad Belaghis, the home of the Voskalo who were as fierce in these days of peace as they had been peaceful in the days of constant war, had cast off the Sangi yoke through large portions of the north, despite Hekkzaghin’s recent depredations. As for the Ad Fezetni, and the Ad Asatni where the Tanos dwelt,
though the Sangi held little land directly, their assassins still haunted villages and camps.
“We should strike their fortress,” said Alzurid, and marked it on the map in the dust. “The sooner the better. We are warriors and they are assassins; we work by day and they by night; if we delay long, they will bleed us to death with their daggers.”
Elggagh looked up from his scrutiny of the map. “I agree,” he said in his slow, cautious voice. “But my father commanded me to ask you this question. How will the tribes treat one another now that Hekkzaghin’s rule has come to an end? Will we return to the ceaseless struggle for dominance? With all the bloodshed and slavery accompanying it?”
“I’m not your king, or anyone’s,” said Alzurid. “Nor am I a god, and the future of the Sughin is not mine to determine. I cannot say what you should do, but I can give you advice if you want it. My ancestors have passed down to me a great store of wisdom in such matters.”
“When the battle is done, then we’ll have time to plan such things,” said Elggagh. “I know that my father has been most eager to meet you.”
“And I’m eager to visit the Voskalo,” said Alzurid. “I pray for that day to come soon.”
It was close to evening when he found Semsa at the peak of the Tomb of Maghd’u, sitting and looking up at the sky. “I can’t hear them anymore,” she said, and smiled wistfully. “Maybe the dragons have given up on me after I failed to call them to aid you. At the time I feared I could be releasing something better left bound in the mountain, but maybe I was wrong. Do you think I was just imagining things, or did I make the right choice?”
“You were right, or at least, I think so,” Alzurid said. “Majelis and I were delivered from our prison according to the wisdom of the All-Knowing. I sought Nusgwedn looking for a holy place, but we only found ruins and death, and who knows what darkness could come from there?” He glanced towards the southwest, wondering if across the water the dragons were circling in the air above the mountain. “So much of the past is lost forever. So much we’ll never know. Well, I do know this at any rate: you were led to a trap and refused to step in it.”
“I nearly didn’t. Since my parents died I’ve been standing on the edge of my tribe with B’oli, respected and even befriended but never truly a Tanos sister. And then G’aghla died, and Hekkzaghin became something else, and everyone seemed to be running away from me; not you, though, so when you were taken, I was ready to tear apart the world if it would bring you back to me. I understand the dragons. They’ve been prisoners too, waiting the long years since they were betrayed.”
“The basilisks may have plans yet for the dragons. I hope not. I haven’t felt their presence since I was freed, so I can hope that they’ve departed for at time.”
“The basilisks are the dragons,” Semsa said, her voice almost a whisper, but clearly audible to Alzurid in the still evening air. “I know that now. They were driven out so that the dragons could become faithful servants of man, but when Nusgwedn fell they returned to their old homes with sevenfold strength. They are always watchful and their eyes see far.”
“Ah! How I wish I could visit Nusgwedn in spirit, but that power has been stripped from me, it seems. I am just a normal man again.”
“You saw a lot while you were in prison, didn’t you?” she asked.
“I did. I wandered from the great icy fields of the far north to the western ocean. I saw the deserts of Jibun and the jungles of Sretskalawa, and the lands in the east where men live in ox-drawn wagons. I have seen nearly all the world, I think, seen enough for six men. It’s time for me to stay put for a while,” and saying this, he kissed her.
And at last those of the Sangi who did not surrender were either killed or holed up in the fortress called Kighzlamu, the Broken Tooth, after the jagged shape of the hill it rested upon. Day and night the besiegers kept watch, and several assassins were caught skulking around the camp and put to death, for upon rejecting the doctrines of the Sangi, the Sughin had returned with redoubled fervor to Maghd’u’s teachings. Alzurid did nothing to stop them. Some things were against the law of all civilized nations.
It was Tsrari who emerged from Kighzlamu in order to speak with his besiegers. He was alone, and somehow looked smaller than when Alzurid had seen him last. His eyes were tired and his skin tight against the bones of his face. “So,” he said to Alzurid, Elggagh, Paghkken, and the other leaders of the Sughin tribes who were with them. His use of the Sughin language was remarkably eloquent, at least as far as Alzurid could judge, and he smiled as if greeting friends. “You don’t want Nosseli to rule over you? She will claim you in the end regardless, but the Book of Land and Sea recommends that the rites not be conducted in an entirely hostile land. None of the gods favor us, not even our beloved. She has taken Ewitss, and if what I’ve heard is true, she has taken an avatar in the east.
“So be it! You have defeated us; we will leave these shores and go where we will be welcomed. Maybe it will be granted me to die in her arms.”
“Leave then!” Maltak exclaimed, his voice trembling. “Never bother us again, or we will use your blood to water these sands! But begone!”
“We will take to our boats, then,” said Tsrari. “Kighzlamu, and all this wretched desert, shall be yours again. Enjoy them.”
The call came to Alzurid and Semsa as they rode through the desert of Ad Fezetni towards the coast. Alzurid intended to show Semsa the lands that lay to the west of Sughin before returning north to his home, but as the horse rounded an outcropping of rock, there was a man standing before them whose dark skin was a startling contrast to his cloak of light gray feathers. “Alzurid! Semsa!” he greeted them in the Sughin tongue. “You have traveled far! Please come and rest while the sun is high!”
“Do we know you?” Alzurid called back. “You are familiar with us, I gather.”
“We met briefly, some years ago. I spoke harder words to you than you deserved, but we did not know you as well then. I am a gardener.”
“The Wulam!” Semsa exclaimed, and the man spread his hands.
“You are correct. Maybe in the future your people and mine will be more friendly than we have been, but for now I’ve been sent to invite you to our garden. It is a very great honor.”
Semsa bowed. “I accept, on my part.”
“And I’d be delighted. But the gardens are many miles from here, certainly,” said Alzurid.
“How do you think I came to be here without horse or camel or food or water? Follow me, if you want to see a mystery.” He winked and stepped aside into a fissure that split the rock. It was wide enough for Alzurid and Semsa to lead the horse through into the darkness, following the gardener, even as the ledge blocked out the light of the sun from over their heads. Then the light was completely gone, and a sound like water lapping on rock grew louder. For several minutes they continued forward in the dark before the sound faded and a sliver of light appeared ahead.
When they emerged from the tunnel, Ad Fezetni was gone and before them was a valley of such a brilliant green color that Alzurid’s breath was quite taken away. A cool mist settled on his skin as he stepped out of the cave and he felt himself smiling. “Is it like the garden you have been searching for?” Semsa asked, squeezing his hand.
“No,” he said, “but it has its own beauty. And you know well that I have stopped searching.”
“These are the gardens of the Wulam,” said their guide. “My name is Aujar, and I’m one of the gardeners.”
“I remember now,” said Semsa. “I asked you before why you denied us your incense.”
“And I answered, though I fear you may not have been satisfied. This place is protected from many evils, but we cannot protect the entire world. We do what we can to forestall the old gods and their slaves, but often there is misery in the world no matter what we do with our incense. And often enough we make the wrong choice.” Aujar took a deep breath, then gestured down a narrow path to the buildings that were set lower down in the valley. “You have fought hard against the basilisks and suffered much. It will be our pleasure to treat you to a great feast tonight, but first would you like to see where the incense grows?”
“Certainly,” said Alzurid. “I’d like to hear about the old gods as well, if it’s not forbidden.”
“Why should anything be forbidden you?” asked Aujar as they began to walk, the horse plodding along beside them. Although a beast of melancholy disposition, even it seemed pleased to be here in the valley, pausing to take greedy bites of the fresh grass. “Here in the south we remember many secrets that you young folk have forgotten. We remember the old sins and the old gods that we turned to in the days of darkness, how we escaped them, and the price we paid. You have met the cannibals, yes? They remember that what a man eats is taken into him, and so by eating human souls, innocent souls, strong souls, they became greater. Wretches! But we gardeners are few, and grow fewer.”
Aujar’s anger was surprisingly fierce, reminding Alzurid of a desert storm that came suddenly down from the west and was gone again. They continued down to a grove of trees whose branches were covered in white-and-red flowers and where men and women were moving from tree to tree tending to the cuts in the bark from which drops of syrup occasionally fell into ornately carved bowls. There was a sweet smell in the air.
“Your child will be blessed for having come here,” said Aujar, glancing at the still-gentle swell of Semsa’s belly. She smiled and crossed her hands over her stomach.
Later, as night fell and the fires were lit in the great hall, Alzurid and Semsa sat with the elders of the Wulam and ate from a common dish with them: bread and a rich dark sauce, vegetables with a delicate taste, a fragrant drink something like wine. Alzurid was deep in thought throughout the meal, but when the dish was taken away he looked up and, after thanking his hosts for the meal, said “I also appreciate your generous words about us, but I am troubled by the thought that if I had not come to this land, many evils could have been avoided. It was my quest to Nusgwedn that released the dragons and the basilisks.”
“If you had not come, the evils might have been worse,” said Aujar, shaking his head firmly. “You were not the only one seeking after the basilisks, and we are fortunate that the gifts of the magicians were given to you, neither of whom misused them.”
“What about Tailei?” asked Semsa quietly.
“If Tailei ever comes here we will tell her many things. But if you like, we will forgive you for whatever harm you have done us, and you may forgive us, if you choose, for not telling you more than we did. We should have, but at the time we didn’t know you as well as we do now.”
“You’ve been watching us?”
“Not like the basilisks have, no. But we have friends in many parts of Kimu, Sughin, and Lakki. What little we could do to help you, we did.
“So you will be going on to Kimu, and our blessings will go with you. I foresee that you will be happy.”
“Well, I certainly forgive you for any inaction of yours,” said Alzurid, and Semsa nodded. “The Wise knows that I too have long struggled with when to act and when to stand by. Perhaps I will do better now that I no longer walk alone.”
Semsa said, “I’ve been troubled by nightmares all my life and have been afraid of the night. Childish, perhaps, but that’s how it was. Perhaps I was forewarned of what was to come. But of late, my dreams have been happier.” And she took Alzurid’s hand.