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Authors: Kelley Grant

Desert Rising

BOOK: Desert Rising
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Dedication

Dedicated to the memory of Chester; little gray house cat with the heart of a
feli
.

 

Acknowledgments

M
ANY THANKS TO
the teachers who encouraged and inspired me to become a writer; Roger Imhoff, Beth Rigal Daugherty, and Alison Prindle to name a few. To Rick Maloy and the Tuscarawas writer's club for keeping me writing years back. To Deryck Richardson, who taught me to believe in myself. To my parents Dio and Sharyn, who had a love of reading, an unlimited book budget and who made the time to read to me. Thanks to Chris and Wendy for letting me steal their fantasy books, which started my lifelong love for the genre.

And thanks to my students at Studio Om Yoga for understanding when my flights of fantasy would take the class in a strange direction. You are all my inspiration, and I'll try not to kill you off in the next book.

Many, many kudos to my editors; Janice Berry Paganini for her wisdom in helping make the novel readable and Rebecca Lucash at Harper Voyager for wringing out every ounce of creativity and making
Desert Rising
so much better than I could on my own.

And, of course, this is all for Brian. For believing in me, supporting me and loving me even when I'm depressed and grouchy. Much Love.

 

Prologue

S
ULIS STARED AT
her mother's still form on the pyre, trying to memorize the details of her face. It was serene, her expressive eyes closed, the welcoming smile gone from her lips. White silk hid the arrow wound on her neck. It had festered and refused to heal, the poisons stopping her heart.

Sulis's gaze followed the white silk down her mother's body to where it draped over the still form of a great cat, the temple
feli
who'd paired with her mother before Sulis was born. Rafael had paced beside her mother all the years of Sulis's life and now lay with her mother on the pyre, his head resting on her stomach.

Sulis had found them in this position when she'd brought in the morning tray. She'd called out to her mother and put her hand on the
feli's
rough fur, but neither had woken. Though her mother had been strong enough to survive the long caravan from Illian to Shpeth, her heart had given out when she was safe in her own
jetal
. Her
feli
followed their bond past the boundary of death.

Sulis could picture them like this in life, lying together in the shade on a scorching afternoon while Sulis napped beside them. Her mother, Iamar, laughed when the
feli
flopped beside her, and she'd pushed his big head off her lap.

“Too hot, Rafael,” she'd said. “I don't want a fur coat. Go lie on Sulis.”

Sulis closed her eyes, yearning to climb the pyre and curl up with them, to rest her head on the
feli's
side and hear him purr, with her mother's laughter echoing around her.

“I will light the pyre,” she'd told her aunts this morning, insisting when they protested: “I'm the eldest. It's my duty.”

“She's only twelve,” Aunt Raella had murmured.

Sulis had raised her chin stubbornly as her grandmother studied her. But her grandmother had nodded.

“It is her privilege,” she'd said.

The sun was setting in the heat-­bleached sky, casting shadows over desert dunes that stretched into the distance.

The time was nearing. Sulis's legs shook beneath her, and she clenched her hands so they wouldn't tremble. She listened to her grandmother speak the sacred words that would send Iamar's soul to the One, and suddenly she wanted nothing more than to hide in the
jetal
under her bedcovers until this was all over. She wanted to be a little girl again, to run into her mother's arms and be comforted. But she was the eldest daughter, and her mother was dead. Everything had changed, and she felt old, as though she'd skipped ten years of her life and become, overnight, a woman.

A hand slipped into hers, and she darted a quick, grateful glance at her twin, who stood beside her. Kadar stared straight ahead, his expression stoic except for his eyes, which swam with tears. Sulis looked away quickly, not wanting to give in to the luxury of weeping before her task was done.

Her grandmother's voice ceased, and Sulis looked to where the tall, regal tribeswoman stood at Iamar's head. She looked gravely at Sulis, then across to Sulis's father. He stood alone on the other side of Iamar's body, staring at his feet. His brow was set in furrows as he scowled at the sand. Sulis had heard him shouting earlier, out in the hot desert, screaming at the One for taking Iamar just as he'd brought her home.

“Gadiel,” Grandmother said to Sulis's father, gesturing for him to come forward.

“Sulis,” she said, and gestured with her other hand.

Sulis released Kadar and stepped forward as her father did, her heart almost leaping out of her chest. They stood before her grandmother, who held a staff with an oil-­soaked rag tied around one end. Gadiel brought out his flint and struck a single spark, a good omen for the speed at which Iamar's soul would go to the One. He took the lighted torch and handed it to Sulis. She grasped it with both hands. The torch was heavy, of a longer length than usual to extend her limited reach, and she concentrated on holding it straight and proud. It would be shameful to let it tip and extinguish in the sand because she couldn't control her trembling arms. She pursed her lips and forced her body to still.

In front of her brother and the crowd of mourners, Sulis walked with the torch to her mother's feet and stood facing the setting sun, her father's hand warm on her shoulder. The last of the blazing orb sank beneath the undulating dunes, leaving only a brilliant pink-­and-­yellow afterglow.

Sulis turned to her mother's body and lifted the flame high enough to thrust into the tinder at her feet. When the wood caught, she proceeded up to the body of the
feli
, lighting the tinder underneath. Finally, she reached her mother's head, and, tears streaming down her face, she lighted the tinder under the thick cloud of ebony hair. Infused in oil, it flared and crackled.

An ululation, high and shrill, rose around her as mourners wailed their pain and ushered Iamar's soul to the One. Sulis felt her knees buckle as the scent of burning hair and flesh wafted from the pyre. She gagged, and her father caught her around the waist, steadying the torch as she fell to her knees. Her grandmother took the flame and handed it to the keeper, who would feed the fire through the night.

Sulis clung to her father, but he remained stiff against her, looking away as she sobbed harder into his shoulder. He held her until she quieted, then escorted her over to the thick, woven mat where her brother already sat for their nightlong vigil. He kissed the top of her head.

“Remember I love you, now and always,” he said. They were the words he always said before a long trip, and her eyesight blurred again. He was leaving them.

Kadar silently put an arm around her, and she wiped her tears on the shoulder of his mourning tunic, letting her shudders quiet with the comfort of his touch. Sulis recognized Aunt Janis's voice rising above the other women's laments and saw her kneeling, reaching toward the flames, with Uncle Aaron's restraining hands tight on her shoulders. Aunt Raella stood silently behind Uncle Tarik as he knelt, mourning his sister. Sulis looked around for her father, but he had disappeared into the night.

“He's gone,” she murmured to her twin. Kadar understood whom she meant. “He told me good-­bye.”

“Will he come back?”

“I don't think so. Not with mother dead and her killer free. No, he will search for her killer until one of them is dead.”

She stared into the fire as Kadar threw his head back and keened, his voice rising with those of the other mourners. The fire crackled and danced, and Kadar buried his face in his hands. She pulled him to her, holding him as he wept for both of their parents.

Sulis's own tears had dried, and she felt calm amid the storm around her. She wondered if this was what her mother had felt before she left for Illian the last time—­putting herself back in the danger she'd fled fourteen years before. Sulis felt it, the call that had taken her mother away. Her entire life, she'd felt as though something were calling her name—­but from a distance. When she'd touched her mother's
feli
, she'd felt a connection to something greater. Her mother had told her that connection was to the One. In the past few days, since her mother died, that feeling had turned to a call, a pull to the Northern Territory, to the Temple of the One. It was as though her mother's burdens passed to her upon death, and she had to succeed where her mother had failed.

Sulis sat in the darkness, feeling this new space inside her as Kadar fell asleep, and the mourners drifted off to their own
jetals
. It made her feel alone, apart from her family and friends. The low voices of her grandmother and aunts seemed to come from a different world, one that was closed to her now that her parents were lost.

Aunt Janis knelt on the mat beside her. “Sulis, do you know where your father is?” she asked quietly.

“He's gone,” Sulis said, looking into the fire.

“He's taken his horse. Did he tell you where he was going? Aaron wants to go to him, to make certain he's all right.”

Sulis looked over at her aunt. “He won't find Father,” she said with certainty. “He told me good-­bye. He won't be back.”

Aunt Janis put out a hand and stroked Sulis's hair.

“Oh, child, you are such an old soul,” she said. “These shouldn't be your burdens.”

“I am what the One wants me to be,” Sulis said stiffly, repeating what her mother used to say.

“You are yet a child, in spite of your calling to the One—­and having to grow up too soon,” Aunt Janis said. She shifted closer to Sulis, and her nimble fingers began weaving small braids in Sulis's thick hair. “You and your brother are very welcome in our
jetal
, love, as you have been this past year. Aaron and I love you as our own.”

I'm not ready for this,
Sulis thought as she leaned against her aunt, the hands plaiting her hair bringing her back to herself.
I need to learn so much about the Northerners and their great Temple. How do you even get to Illian? How do you pair with a
feli
? If you pair, does the Temple consider you a pledge?
She closed her eyes, letting her aunt's touch comfort her. She would keep learning. When she was ready, Illian and the Temple would be waiting.

 

Chapter 1

K
ADA
R
U
N
F
A
S
T
E
N
E
D
H
I
S
pack from the saddle with a sigh. It had been several days' travel from the last Northern town they'd traded at to here, the Temple city of Illian. The caravan had entered the city at dawn. He'd spent most of the morning unloading the Frubian silks and goods at their large merchant hall on the main road, then dropped the mules and wagons off at the merchant stables before heading to his uncle's house. Kadar was looking forward to a real meal instead of travel fare.

His horse stamped impatiently, wanting to join his fellows in the Hasifels' personal stables for a hot mash. Kadar slung the double pack over his shoulder and patted the gelding once before his young cousin led him away for a well-­earned rest. Kadar grinned as the horse practically dragged Simon off his feet in his haste to reach his stall. Kadar's own stomach rumbled mutinously as he headed around the front of the house. He hoped he had time to grab a bite to eat in the kitchen.

He stopped when he came around the corner. His sister was sitting in the middle of the road, her red-­and-­orange robes flaring out onto the cobblestones, her pack by her side. Her head was bent low over a giant Temple
feli
. Like all felines who came in contact with Sulis, it was acting like a kitten—­in this case, a kitten the size of a boarhound. Sulis ruffled the fur on its spotted belly while it batted her hair, claws sheathed in its massive paws. Kadar could hear its purr from where he stood. A guard of Voras in a stiff red uniform was speaking to their uncle, Tarik, who looked angry at whatever he was being told. The guard kept shooting uncertain glances at Sulis, seeming disconcerted to see his proud
feli
act like a common barn cat. Sulis, as usual, did not notice the look the guard was giving her, nor the curiosity of the staring towns­people. An unrepentant eavesdropper, Sulis was probably listening intently to the conversation between her uncle and the guard.

Kadar sighed, retrieved Sulis's pack out of the dirt, and tapped her on the shoulder. She glanced up at him and stood, her robes swirling around her bare feet. The
feli
scrambled to sit upright, head tall and proud, tail curled around its paws. The
feli's
head came to about the middle of Sulis's stomach. The great cat bumped her in the ribs as she caressed it one more time behind the ears.

“Off with you, then,” Sulis told it, and turned to go in the house. She did not notice the guard's outrage that she would treat one of the sacred
feli
like a common creature. The
feli
cleaned its whiskers once, gazed longingly at Sulis's retreating back, then reluctantly rejoined the guard.

Kadar admired the great creature's grace as it padded away. It had a thicker, heavier body than the wild desert
feli
he had grown up around, built for power and strength rather than speed. He'd seen wild
feli
bring down fully grown
gizas
in the desert. The
feli's
deep chests and long legs combined for short bursts of speed that exceeded even those of the rangy horses Uncle Aaron bred for racing.

The house was cool and dark after the full sun of mid-­spring, and Kadar shivered. He stopped in the front mudroom and set the packs aside, not entirely certain where their rooms would be. He supposed he would get used to the weather since this would be his home for the next few years as he and his sister finished their trading apprenticeships. At least Illian was perched only a day's ride from the Southern Territory and Kadar's beloved desert, instead of in the Northern mountains. Kadar's first experience with snow, huddling for warmth with a string of mules and two irate family members during a freak spring storm, had left him with an aversion to the cold flakes.

“Aren't you curious what Voras wanted with our uncle?”

Kadar jumped at the sudden intrusion and turned and glared at his twin, who laughed at him.

“If it's something he wants us to know, I'm sure he'll tell us himself,” he remarked mildly.

Sulis made a face at him. “Oh, Mister Stodgy. It's hard to believe we're twins,” she said lightly, hooking her arm in his. “If you're going to survive in the big city, you'd better pay attention.” She started to drag him toward the kitchen.

“I pay attention,” he said, stung. “I at least noticed you were irritating one of Voras's guards. Sulis, you need to treat these ­people and their animals with more respect.”

She had the grace to look chastised. “I know,” she said in a low voice. “It's just hard. I can feel it, the Temple up there. I touched the
feli
, and it was like someone was calling my name.”

Kadar nodded. They'd spent nights up, after their elders were asleep, talking about her “calling.” Sometimes when they were riding in the caravan, he'd turn to say something to her, and she'd have her head cocked as though listening, her eyes unfocused. It had gotten worse the nearer they'd come to Illian. She'd become short with him and Uncle Aaron—­even more impatient than was natural for her. They were both supposed to finish their apprenticeship here, but he didn't think she'd stay a week before she followed her calling. Then he'd lose her to the Temple. He put an arm around her bony shoulders and shook her lightly.

“Just don't think about it,” he said.

“Yeah, don't think about eating, and you won't starve, right?” Sulis said. “Doesn't work that way.”

Kadar's stomach growled in agreement, and they both laughed as they entered the kitchen.

Aunt Raella glanced up from the shipping list she was tallying at the big wooden table and smiled at them. “That's what I like to hear, the twins laughing together. There's food if you're hungry.”

Kadar gave Aunt Raella a peck on the cheek. The cook, a short, round, older man who was a third or fourth cousin on his mother's side, handed him a plate of smoked meats and cheese. Kadar settled at a long plank table, scooting on the bench beside his sister and across from his two uncles.

Kadar could feel Uncle Aaron's appraising look at him as he ate. They'd traveled together the past four years, his uncle acting as both father and teacher over the long roads. Soon, Uncle Aaron would be loading up their string of mules and leaving Kadar behind in the city so he could learn the stationary, market supply side of the family business. He would miss the older man's tales by the fire, his quick appreciation when Kadar did something right.

Uncle Tarik spoke first. “What do you think of our city, Kadar?” he asked kindly.

Kadar thought a moment about the bustling streets and gray stone buildings, so unlike the soft, sandy streets and colorful tent villages of his desert life.

“It's very different than what I'm used to,” he admitted. “We've only ever briefly passed through Illian on our way to more distant towns. The sales hall is larger and busier than any of the others. If I'm to learn the trade, this seems the place to do it. Although the crowds seem excessive even for a city this size.”

Uncle Tarik nodded. “It's the tithing season. In the spring, the Festival of the Founding brings pilgrims from all over the Northern Territory; you just missed that crowd. Spring also brings the handfasted to ask the deity Ivanha to bless their marriages, while spring and summer bring soldiers tithing to Voras for luck in battle. Studies for healers and lawyers start in fall, so students tithe to Aryn and Parasu then. And while they're here in town, they might as well pick out a few pretties for their ones back home. Spring, summer, fall—­this is bread-­and-­butter season, and you've come at the good time of it.”

“They also come to the Temple to pledge,” Sulis said softly.

Uncle Aaron frowned and looked away, but Aunt Raella set aside her papers and answered.

“Of course,” she said. “Many of the acolytes now serving the deities came to give a tithe or ask a blessing but found a
feli
waiting for them and were taken as Temple pledges instead.”

Aunt Raella accepted a plate of food from the cook with a nod of thanks.

“We don't see many acolytes at this hall,” Uncle Tarik said. “You won't have to deal much with the Temple during your apprenticeship.”

“Except with the acolytes of Voras,” Sulis said, her head cocked to one side. “Especially with the Temple raising tariffs.”

Uncle Tarik looked at her, his eyebrows raised.

Sulis blushed. “I overheard the guard out front,” she explained.

“Listened in is more like it,” Uncle Aaron commented though a mouthful of cheese. “I have to tell you, Tarik: you and Raella are in for it with this one. She's as much trouble as those
feli
that like her so much.” He grinned at Sulis to take the sting out of his words.

She smiled back. “But really, Uncle Tarik, what are they raising funds for? Why are they taxing the merchants more?”

Uncle Tarik shrugged. “That's the question, isn't it?”

He seemed reluctant to say anything further. Sulis was frowning at her plate, so Kadar decided a change of conversation was in order.

“It'll be strange staying in one place so long,” he commented casually. “We haven't been still more than three months since our apprenticeship began.”

Sulis nodded in agreement, daintily picking at her meat.

A girl in a brown robe came by with a pitcher of mead. She was slender, with straw-­colored hair and a slightly upturned nose. Kadar couldn't take his gaze off her, marveling at the blueness of her eyes until she left through the side door.

Sulis nudged him with her elbow, and he realized she'd noticed his stare. He winced, preparing for her tease.

“Who was that?” she asked their uncles sweetly. “One of the other apprentices?”

Kadar could have killed her on the spot. At the same time, he was glad she'd asked. Heat rose to his cheeks.

“Farrah? No, not that I wouldn't love to teach her and her little sister, smart as they are,” Uncle Tarik said. “Farrah helps out around the place, cleaning and cooking.”

“Why waste her on that?” Sulis asked, and Kadar grinned. His sister had no patience for cooking or sewing, being more inclined to run outside with the horses and
feli
.

Uncle Tarik put down his fork and looked at them seriously. “She's one of the Forsaken. There are strict rules in the city about what the Forsaken can and cannot do, and trading is on the cannot list.”

Kadar was shocked. “I didn't think we kept Forsaken,” he said. “Isn't it like keeping slaves?”

Aunt Raella shook her head. “Many Northerners treat them like slaves, but we try to improve their condition. There are no laws against paying the Forsaken well, which is what we do. So they can support their families.”

“I was reluctant to hire them, at first,” Tarik admitted. “I expected trouble from the Northerners if we paid good wages. But your grandmother told us it was part of our mission, part of our calling to the One, to help Forsaken families.”

Kadar nodded. His grandmother, Tarik and Aaron's mother, was the headswoman in their hometown of Shpeth. A formidable leader, when she spoke, the desert went still, and even the birds listened.

Sulis frowned. “Aren't you just encouraging the system, by not training someone who could be learning?”

Uncle Tarik nodded. “I agree with you, Sulis, as would all of us from the desert. I don't like the rules that say smart ­people can't better themselves, can't get an apprenticeship to help their families. But this isn't our land. We can't interfere with the Northern laws. We can bend them by paying the Forsaken livable wages, but breaking them would get us cast out of the city, and maybe the Territory.”

Uncle Aaron added, “It's one of the reasons I want you both to apprentice here with your uncle Tarik. You have to learn to work in the system. You've got a good feel for the business, but you need to be aware of the compromises you have to make to live in a city and do business with the ­people.”

Sulis looked up from the meat she'd been pushing around her plate. “And if we don't want to compromise? What then?” she asked, her gaze intent.

Uncle Aaron rested his blue eyes on her, and Kadar thought he looked sad. “You are so like your mother,” he said softly, and reached a hand out to rest on hers. “Iamar would not compromise either, and she left two children behind when it killed her. Don't struggle so hard against the world. Change is slow; change starts small.”

“Change starts from within. That's what Grandmother always says,” Sulis told him. “I could be the one to start the change from within the Temple itself,” she added abruptly.

“Sulis,” Uncle Tarik said. “What is this nonsense?”

“I don't think my apprenticeship is here, with you,” Sulis said. “I'm called to the Temple. I need to serve the One there.”

Uncle Tarik shook his head. “But Illian has a combined Temple—­the One's temple and the altars of the four deities. Sulis, we don't worship the four deities. Go back and apprentice with your grandmother if you want to take the religious life.”

“I need to go to the Temple, to pledge,” Sulis said, stubbornly. “It calls to me. The One wants me here, at this Temple.”

“Your mother said that, too,” Uncle Tarik said. “And she died for it. Are you trying to prove yourself better than your mother? Or just repeat her folly?”

“She's been talking about it since I announced we were coming here,” Uncle Aaron said. “I don't know where she got the notion.”

Aunt Raella cocked her head. “It's been longer than that, hasn't it, Sulis?” she asked. “The last time I visited at Shpeth, two years ago, Janis and Grandmother Hasifel mentioned a calling. Grandmother seemed resigned that you would follow the calling to this temple rather than a desert temple. “

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