Authors: Deborah Chester
Tags: #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Science Fiction, #Post-Apocalyptic, #Space Opera
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Copyright © 1990 by Deborah Chester
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
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First Diversion Books edition February 2015
Sits he on never so high a throne, a man still sits on his bottom.
It was Kathra, the eve of season’s end. The night of blood rained down upon Altian. Purple-white lightning forked the sky, blasting light through the palace windows. Thunder rolled like boulders crashing together. The protective bubble that had curved for centuries over the inner city lay cracked open like the splintered halves of a nhulk egg. Quakes and tremors shook the floor and walls. Death cries wailed into the air, lost in the violence of the storm. And on the roof, dark things clawed to get inside.
Zaula awakened with a sharp cry and sat up among her cushions. Breathing hard, she clutched her swollen womb. She could hear the fetus screaming inside her, its agony twisted even more by the violence of the night. She flinched, her ears deafened by thunder. Overhead, the terrible clattering came from falling ice needles, not the demons of Merdar trying to get inside. She had been dreaming again. The storm raging outside had not yet destroyed the palace. She was still safe.
Her ragged breathing gradually steadied. She sighed, wiping a film of cold sweat from her face. Incense still burned from a tiny
near her sleeping cushions. The acrid scent comforted her. Finally she lay down again.
But she could not go back to sleep.
By Anthi’s mercy she had not died at the moment of Hihuan’s death. His ring-bonding with her had been so new, so barely formed, so
, it had not killed her. Unlike most wives who counted it an honor to die thus with their mates, she was glad to have escaped. For she still loved Fflir, in spite of the forced bonding with Hihuan before he left for battle and in spite of Hihuan’s child growing within her.
By day, with the distractions of maintaining official mourning for her dead leiil when in truth her heart sang with freedom, she could push her fears to the back of her mind. There were meetings with obsequious ministers and officials, delegates from the great houses who surrounded her like vitches with dripping jaws. Everyone was eager to seize power in the present chaos.
But at night, when her nightmares raged and there was only her own breathing to listen to over the screams of the baby, she could not escape the terror within her heart. Were this child not the growing seed of a Tlar leiil and therefore a sacrilege to kill it, she would have the little thing torn from her as an act of mercy. For what kind of creature could form and grow property without the rings of its father to guide it into full life? Her own rings, damaged as they were by Hihuan’s cruelty and death, were not sufficient alone to support the fetus. She had hoped for Fflir’s swift return because the fetus might have accepted the nurture of a substitute father’s rings, but Fflir had become a traitor fawning upon the usurper Asan.
She wept, hating Fflir for his betrayal yet longing for his return.
As soon as she delivered the child, she would no longer be Tsla leiis. She could not return to her own house, for her kinship had been relinquished to take on the high titles of her marriage. Without Fflir to take her away, she would be forced to remain in the palace without rank, a ghost in the shadows, ignored and ill-fed. She would not even have the right to govern her child’s upbringing.
She buried her face against the soft cushions, her tears seeping into the fabric. The fetus twisted inside her womb as a dagger might. She gasped, choking back a scream.
She would not die. She would not give Hihuan’s ghost that satisfaction. She would live, and this child would live. And she must find a way to keep her place.
Tomorrow, season would end. And the end of season meant Asan’s long-dreaded arrival.
Ever since the Battle of the Leiils upon the windswept Ddreui plains, the inhabitants of Altian had crouched in fear, waiting for the legendary Asan to sweep down upon them. Chancellor Aabrm had fled at the first news, taking with him jewels, two transports, and a wealth of food. A few other cowards followed his example, but most waited as Zaula waited. If she fled, she acknowledged Asan’s right to usurp her child. Those who remained about her, however, might choose to support Hihuan’s heir, or they might bow in oath-sworn allegiance to Leiil Asan and hope for a better position in the reorganization of power.
Asan, that ghost of the past, that legend which walked again, that destroyer of Anthi, was not likely to show her mercy. If she did not bear a child of the right sex, none of the great Tlar houses would support her against him.
She must know!
She swept her hand out over a light cube. Darkness remained around her. With a grimace she chastised herself for forgetting that Anthi was no longer with them. All the luxuries of unlimited heat and light had vanished. She struggled to light the coals in the brazier beside her bed, and when a feeble flame ignited, she struck a summons with her ruby-encrusted mallet.
A guard answered the call promptly, saluting with a crash of gauntleted fist upon battle shielding. “My leiis?”
“Prepare my litter. And a cadre to accompany me.”
The masked face stared at her. “N-now, my leiis? Thou are going outside? But the hour is not safe.”
“And what safety lies in the day? Obey my order, or summon another to your post.”
He stiffened at the affront to his honor. “I serve thee in all things, noble leiis. Thy litter will be prepared. Or thy transport.”
“And what need have I of armored transport waking the entire city when stealth is of greater importance?” she said. “Go at once, and see that the rest of the palace is not awakened.”
“By thy will.”
He strode out, and she rose clumsily from her bed to dress in warm leggings, a long crimson gown trimmed in borlorl fur, a protective leadweave cloak, and an unmarked mask. After some thought, she slipped a pouch of dried meat pellets into her pocket and armed herself with a jen-knife. Closing her eyes, she drew several deep breaths for courage.
Outside, beyond the protective walls of the Court of Women, cold air whipped her. A jen cadre stood at attention beside her litter. Overhead, lightning clawed the sky. She flinched as she picked her way through puddles of melted ice needles and climbed into the litter. Her body was large and awkward. By the time she settled herself behind the privacy of the curtains, she was panting heavily.
The child turned inside her, and she curved an arm around the swell of her abdomen as though to reassure it. Her rings could have sent it direct communication, but she made no attempt to awaken that agonizing pain. She longed for the soothing
ministrations of a priest. But Picyt was dead, and the House of Kkanthor dissolved. Vengeful Bban’n hunted down priests and spitted them mercilessly for food.
The pon commanding her personal cadre stuck his head through the curtains to see if she was ready. “Is my leiis determined on this venture? It is not wise—”
“It pleases me to set forth now.”
Without further argument, the pon called his men to position, and the bearers picked up the litter with a sway that made her queasy. She reclined against her cushions, her fists clenched on costly fabrics and her face set behind her mask.
The bronze gates of the palace opened, and she was carried out into the broad avenue. Proud villas stood dark and silent on either side. Their insides had been gutted by fire and pillaging.
Despite the lateness of the hour, the city did not sleep. Furtive shadows darted from street to street, drawing back from the path of the guarded litter. Death struck in narrow alleys. Chinks of metal scraping stone and the quick rustle of cloth betrayed scavaging through debris piles or the patting search of bodies. Because there was no one to burn the bones of the dead, vitches gnawed on carcasses, too hungry to run as the litter passed by.
Peering out through the curtain slits, Zaula saw distant flickers of firelight where Henan’n and Bban’n huddled together for protection.
It was a night where to be alone was to die, for since the eye of Anthi had shut no one was safe—not Henan slaves turned out from the warm villas by hysterical masters, not the fleeing families of the Tlar’jen which stood in the Outerlands under the usurper’s command, not the Bban merchants and laborers, not the thieves, looters, food stealers, or priest hunters, and not the Tsla leiis herself in spite of her guard. Tension stretched around her, tightening upon the weak shield of her mental rings.
She could have sent for a seer. Yes, and then the whole palace would have known of her uncertainty and fear. The whole palace would have also known the verdict immediately. To have that knowledge first might prove to be her only advantage.
The Street of the Salvi’dara-dla wound through the back quarters of Vector Nine, a mean, stinking way where tethered chakas bleated at their passage. Snarling vitches rushed from a dark doorway, diving for the bearers’ legs. It was their practice to slash knee ligaments with their fangs so that their victims could not run. But the bearers wore armor, and Zaula heard a curse, a savage squeal, and the deadly crackle of a fire-rod. Scents of burning fur and flesh filled the air, and Zaula raised a perfume cone to her nostrils.
Long minutes later the litter was set down. A masked face peered in at her. “We have arrived, my leiis.”
“Are you sure of the house? Is it marked clearly?”
“Yes, noble leiis.”
She drew in a deep breath and touched the hilt of her jen-knife for reassurance. Making sure her mask was well secured, she descended from the litter.
Flanked by her guard, she stood in the stinking street while the pon knocked on a door with the hilt of his knife. The knocking echoed off the earthen walls. Far to the north, lightning still flashed, but the storm had passed over the city. Zaula shivered in the cold, nauseated by the smell of something rotting.
A hissing from the shadows made one guard spin, but the thing scuttled away. Zaula let out her breath with a ragged sigh and touched her stomach as the child shifted inside her.
What if the seer no longer inhabited this foul den? Both she and her baby could be endangered by this night’s business, for the growing seed of a Tlar leiil was not to be exposed to travel of any kind.
The pon knocked again, harder this time. Down the street, a shutter opened, then banged shut again. Something rustled behind the door.
“Begone!” snarled a voice roughened with age. “I have no food and nothing to burn for a fire. Begone, Lli-scum! Or know the power of the four moons!”
One of the litter bearers made a furtive sign with his fingers, but the guards twitched in anger.
The pon rapped again on the door. “Open by the command of the Tsla leiis.”
The reply was an insult upon his ancestry.
Drawing his fire-rod, the pon blasted the corroded bolt and kicked open the smoking door. Someone inside wailed with despair. He ducked through the low doorway and descended the steps into the house, his black cloak billowing behind him. Zaula felt a rush of warm air escaping out into the street. There came sounds of a brief scuffle and another wail abruptly cut off.
“Noble dame,” called the pon, slightly breathless. “All is now safe.”
The guards swept Zaula inside the dreadful place, where all was darkness and stench. She blinked, her eyes gradually adjusting to the vague scarlet glow from a Lli idol. The mingled aromas of spice, potion, cheap incense, and
“Light,” ordered the pon. “And build a fire. Quickly, old woman!”
“If you have come here for refuge, you’ll get none,” said the old crone. “Already the Bban’n have caught your scent and come hunting—”
“Merdarai!” The pon whirled to the door with his men, fire-rods drawn. “Make haste, noble dame.”
Zaula shivered, drawing her cloak tightly about her. The thought of being trapped here by Bban savages frightened her.
“Have you lost your powers, Uxe Vaani?” she asked. “Are you no longer a seer who can recognize one who has come to you before?”