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Roberson, Jennifer - Cheysuli 05

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A Pride of Princes


Chronicles of the
Cheysuli 5


Jennifer Roberson




The cavern was dense with smoke. The
woman stepped through and dutifully it followed, purling in her wake. It
gathered along the hem of her skirts like puppies on a bitch, suckling at her

She walked from shadow into glare,
into the pure clean light of godfire as it leaped from a circular rent in the
stone floor. A hole, like a wound in the earth itself, bleeding flame.

issued forth, fell, formed a glowing
necklet on the nap of her velvet gown. But she did not flinch as they died; the
fire—like the sparks—was cold,

Beyond the flame, she saw her
brother. Standing as he stood so often, for hours on end, and days, at the rim
of the netherworld. Godfire bathed his face in its lurid lavender glare,
limning the magnificent planes of his bones. A beautiful man, her brother; she
might have been jealous, once, but she knew she claimed more power.

He saw her. He smiled. In the light
his eyes were mirrors.

Briefly the flame died back; was
sucked down, withdrawn, like a tongue into a mouth. But the afterglow remained,
shrouding him in light. A transcendent luminescence that made her want to

Beneath her feet, the floor was hard
and sharp. The entire cavern was formed of black, glassy basalt, faceted as a
gemstone. There were no torches in deference to the godfire, there was no need
for manmade light when the Seker lent them his.

All around her columns gleamed. Slow
spirals mimicked blown glass, delicately fluted; twisted strands, oddly
seductive, stretched from floor to ceiling. Light lost itself in endless glassy
whorls. The world ran wet with fire.

She crossed, hearing the echoes of
her steps and the chime of girdle, silver on black, nearly lost in the weight
of velvet. As always, she smelled the breath of the god.

But to her, it was not unpleasant.
The promise of power was a heady scent that set her flesh to tingling.

She paused on the brink of the
orifice. "How long has it been since you ate?"

He smiled. Trust you to concern
yourself with things such as food."

"How long, Strahan?"

He shrugged; smoke shrugged with
him. "A day, two, three—what does it matter, Lillith? I will hardly waste away
in the service of the god."

Briefly she glanced down. They stood
but six feet apart; between them lay a world. The world of Asar-Suti.

They had only to open the Gate—

Not yet. There was time.

Time for the fruition of their

"Come up," she said.
"You should eat."

His hair, like hers, was black. And
it flowed back from a brow as smooth and unlined as a girl's, though there was
nothing girlish about him. It cloaked his shoulders and reached beyond, bound
back by a silver fillet wrought with Ihlini runes. In the glare of the godfire
his gray suede leathers were dyed an eerie lilac, glowing purple in the
creases. The doublet hung open from throat and chest, and in the gap she saw
the white edge of a linen tunic. Soft gray boots stretched to his thighs. His
wide belt was clasped with a two-headed silver serpent.

Lillith sighed as he did not answer.
She was his sister, not mother or father. But both parents were long dead, and
so this fell to her. "Will you come up?"

"I am hungry," he
admitted, "but for something more than food. And I am thirsty, also, but
the wine I want is blood. The blood of Niall’s sons."

His eyes were alight with something
more than reflected glare. One brown, one blue; even she had difficulty looking
past the mismatched pairing to the emotions in their depths. But she looked,
and she saw, and knew his patience was nearly ended.

"A little longer," she
said. "Surely you can wait."

"No. I have waited. I am done
with waiting." He smiled his beautiful, beguiling smile. "Lillith—I
am hungry."

"Time," she said. "We
have all the years of our lives."

"They do not. They are human,
even if Cheysuli. They die. They live seventy, eighty years, and they die.
While we are still but children."

"You are still a child."
Lillith laughed, and the girdle chimed. "The last time I counted mine, my
years were nearly two hundred."

He grunted, unimpressed; he was
young in years, compared to her, but his power grew every day. "I have
need of them, Lillith. The sons are no longer infants, no longer boys. They are
men. Warriors. If we wait much longer—"

"But we will." Lillith
shrugged naked shoulders. "We will wait as long as we must, and longer.
Until the time is right."

"Twenty years, Lillith!"
His shout reverberated in the hidden shadows of the cavern. "Twenty years
since Niall thwarted me."

"Twenty years is but half a day
to us." But she saw his frustration and felt a measure of her own. "I
know. I know, Strahan ... I weary of it, also. But we are close. The game
begins—all of the pieces are in place. As you say, now they are of an age to
make a difference."

"Of an age to serve me
well." In the light, his mismatched eyes were eerie. "I want them. I
want them here, within the walls of Valgaard, so I may make them mine. Mine to
rule, as I will have them rule." He laughed suddenly, and their eyes
locked in perfect accordance across the Gate of Asar-Suti. "When they are
mine, Niall's sons, I will set them on their thrones, all three of them ... I
will take their lir and take their minds, all three of them, making them
faithful Ihlini minions—" He broke off a moment, considering his words;
continued in quiet, abiding contentment, "—and then I shall rule through
their empty bodies in the name of Asar-Suti."

Lillith smiled, nodded, sketched an
idle rune in the air between them that pulsed with purple godfire. It spun,
whirled, twisted; tied itself in knots, was gone. "Of course. It is to be
expected; we have laid our plans." She paused. 'When will you come

"Up," he echoed.
"Aye. In a moment. There is something I must do."

And in the eerie lurid light,
Strahan the Ihlini knelt in deep obeisance to the god of the netherworld.




The sun hung low in the west,
painting the city rose-red, ocher-gold, russet-brown. Sunlight, trapped and
multi-plied by mullioned glass, made mirrors of countless windows. Mujhara was
ablaze with gilded glory.

The one-eyed man stood alone upon
the curtain wall surrounding the massive
. Spilling in all directions from the
battlements was the royal city, home of kings and queens; home of the Mujhars
of Homana. Home to countless others of lesser birth as well; he could not even
begin to estimate Mujhara's population. He knew only that the number had
increased one hundredfold, perhaps one thousandfold, over the past two weeks. The
festival was even larger than his brother had predicted.

"Everyone will come, Ian had
said, from everywhere, even the other realms. Scoff if you like, Niall, but it
is past time the Homanans paid homage to their Mujhar. More than past time they
showed their gratitude for twenty years of peaceful rule."

Twenty years. It seemed longer than
that. And then, at times, it seemed only days since he had assumed the Lion
Throne from his Cheysuli father, Donal, who had given himself over to the
death-ritual on the plague-born deaths of his lir. With Taj and Lorn gone,
there had been nothing left for Donal, save madness. And no Cheysuli warrior
willingly gave himself over to madness. Not when there was a choice. Not when
there was the death-ritual, which was surely more merciful than madness.

Niall sighed deeply, frowning down
at the street far below the curtain wall, and the smooth earthwork ridge that
girded the lower portions of the thick wall. He could hear the distant sounds
of celebration: faint ringing tambors of the street-dancers; cries of
stall-merchants; shouts and screams of children in their finery, turned loose
to play in crowded streets and alleys.

Dead so long, my jehan. He readily
acknowledged the still familiar pain. There was grief. Regret. Even bitterness,
that a man so strong and healthy as his father should throw his life away.

Homanan thinking, he told himself
wryly, made aware yet again of the division in his attitudes; how pervasive
that division could be. Have you forgotten the oaths you made when you accepted
the responsibilities of the lir-bond before Clan Council?

No. Of course he had not forgotten.
But it was difficult to be two men at once: one, born of a Homanan mother, who
was the daughter of a king; the other born of a Cheysuli shapechanger, a
warrior with a lir, and claiming all the magic the gods had given the race.

Automatically he looked for Serri,
but the wolf was not with him. His lips tightened in annoyance. How could he
have forgotten Serri was in the royal apartments?

Because, he told himself ironically,
in a spasm of defensiveness, with all the toasting going on, it is fortunate
you can remember your own name, let alone Serri's whereabouts.

Still, it displeased him that he
could forget for even a moment. A sign of age, he wondered?

Niall abruptly laughed aloud.
Perhaps. No doubt his children would agree he was aging, but he thought not. At
forty, there were decades ahead of him still.

And then he recalled that his own
father had not been so much older than forty when the loss of his lir had ended
his life. His mother as well was gone; Aislinn, Queen of Homana, had died ten
years after Donal. Some said of grief that grew too strong.

He stopped the laughter. Memories
welled up. Most of them Niall had believed buried too deeply to trouble him.
The gods knew he had tried to bury them; with drink, with daily council
sessions lasting from dawn till midnight, with abrupt departures—escapes—into
the woodlands with Serri, seeking respite in his lir-shape. But Deirdre had
made him realize none of those things held the answers; that he would have to
find a place for each memory and let it live there, where he could look at it
from time to time and know what was lost, was gained, was learned.

Deirdre. The memories of her were
fresh, beloved, cherished, and very near the surface. But there were other ones
as well, buried more deeply: of guilt, of fear, of self-hatred, because once he
had believed her murdered by his own unintended instigation. No matter how
helpless, how unknowing he had been, trapped within the Ihlini web of madness,
deceit and sorcery, he could not think of that time in his life without
experiencing a fresh burst of shame, guilt, pain.

"So." She approached from
his right side, his blind side; he had not heard her, either. "With all
your great palace in an uproar, you'll be coming out here to escape it."
Deirdre smiled, glancing over the nearest crenel to look upon the crowded city.
"Peace in turbulence, then?"

Though she had been with him twenty
years in Homana, she had not lost the lilt of Erinn. He smiled, "Aye,
escape, except there is no escape. Everywhere I turn there is a servant telling
me I must go here, go there—even Ian. Even you."

Deirdre laughed, green eyes alight,
and moved in close to his side. His arm settled around her shoulders
automatically. She wore green, as she so often did, to play up the color of her
eyes. It suited her, as did the torque of braided gold and carved green jade he
had given her the night before. "But 'tis for you all of this is being
done," she reminded him tartly. "D'ye wish to disappoint so many
people who have come here to pay their respects?"

He grimaced. "You make it sound
like I am dead."

Deirdre leaned her head against his
chest. She was neither tall nor short, but he was head and shoulders above most
men, even the Cheysuli. "No, not dead," she said calmly. "Very
much alive—or so you would have me thinking; I who share your bed."

Niall laughed and hugged her against
his chest. "Aye, well, there is that." His fingers smoothed the weave
of her braided hair. A year younger than he, she looked no more her thirty-nine
years than his daughters. The hair was still thick and brassy gold; the skin
still fair and smooth, with only a shallow threading of lines by her eyes; her
hips and breasts, respectively, still slender and firm as a girl's.

"What were you thinking?"
she asked.

"Remembering," he
answered. "The night I stood atop the dragon's skull in Atvia. and lit the

Deirdre stiffened. "Why?"
she asked. She pulled away and faced him. "Why, Niall—why that? Twas more
than twenty years ago."

"That is why," he told
her. "Twenty years. The Homanans are even now celebrating twenty years of
my rule, and all I can see are the memories of what I nearly did that many
years ago." His voice was unsteady; he steadied it. "I killed your
father, Deirdre. And nearly the rest of the eagles.”

His pain was reflected in her face.
"You fool," she said softly. "Oh, ye great silly fool. Liam
would be taking his fist to you, he would. I should." She shook her head
and sighed. "Aye, Shea died, but he took the assassin with him. Else we
would all be dead, and you could be blaming yourself for that." Firmly,
she shook her head. "You lit the fire, 'tis true, but 'twas Alaric's
doing. Thanks to his addled daughter."

Addled daughter. Gisella of Atvia,
half Cheysuli herself, and Niall's full cousin. Poor mad Gisella, who had
married the Prince of Homana; Niall, now called Mujhar.

The Queen of Homana, who now resided
in Atvia in permanent exile from the land of her mother's birth.

He sighed. "Aye. Tis done, as
you would say. But I cannot forget it."

"Then don't. Come in, instead,
where a bath is being poured." She took his hand. "Are you
forgetting? There is to be a feast for you in the Great Hall."

"Oh, gods, not again," he
blurted. "Who is host tonight?"

"Prince Einar, heir to the King
of Caledon," Deirdre answered, smiling. "The one you want to make a
new trade alliance with."

He strolled with her along the sentry-walk.
"Aye, I do. The old one is far out of date; there are more concessions to
be won. Without them, we lose more money than we make, which serves Homana not
at all. What I want to get—"

"No," Deirdre said firmly.
"No, don't be filling my ears with that. I've been hearing too much of it
these past two weeks, and I'll hear more of it over my food. No, Niall—not

He laughed. "Well enough,
meijha—not now. I am sick of it myself."

The sentry-walk was not wide enough
for two to walk abreast comfortably, not when one was as large as Niall.

He moved Deirdre away from the edge,
closer to the wall, and assumed the risk himself. Below them, in the other
bailey, men-at-arms in new crimson livery practiced a close-order drill. The
shouted orders from the captain carried easily to the sentry-walk, though
Deirdre and Niall were still some distance away. It was easiest to stay on the
wall and follow it around than to go down into the baileys, which were thronged
with royal escorts and honor guards from other realms.

Niall sighed. "I think
Homana-Mujhar will burst before the month is through. Certainly Mujhara

Deirdre frowned absently.
"Einar," she said. " Twas him, was it not, so dissatisfied with
his chambers?"

Niall snorted inelegantly. "You
are chatelaine of this great sprawl of red stone, meijha, not I."

Deirdre's face cleared. "Aye,
'twas him. He demanded better quarters."

"Well, he is a king's son—and
the heir to

"And what of the heir to
Ellas?" Deirdre demanded.

"Am I to put Diarmuid out just
because Einar wants his room?"

"What did you do?" Niall
asked curiously.

Deirdre grinned. "Homana-Mujhar
is filled to bursting, my lord Mujhar. I made them share."

Niall's shout of laughter erased the
lines of tension that had etched themselves into his face as a result of trying
to juggle multiple princes, envoys, cousins and heirs without giving offense to
any. Deirdre felt he needed no more lines at all, regardless of his
responsibilities; Strahan's demon-hawk had already ruined enough of his face. A
patch hid the empty right socket and most of the scarring, but the old talon
weals still scored the bridge of his nose and much of his right cheek, as well
as dividing one tawny eyebrow neatly in half.

She glanced up at his face. To her,
it was familiar, beloved, unremarkable, save for the unmistakable stamp of
Cheysuli pride, even if he lacked the coloring. But to others, unaccustomed to
the disfigurement, he was note-worthy only in that respect. She had first known
him as a young man, at eighteen, when the handsome looks of his maternal
grandsire. Carillon, had been fresh, boyish, as yet unformed by adversity. But
the demon-born hawk of Asar-Suti had robbed him of his boyhood in addition to
his looks.

For that, if for nothing else,
Deirdre hated Strahan.

Through the casements of the palace
came the dim glow of new-lit candles. The rose-red hue of the stone deepened as
the sun dropped down behind the massive walls, from pink to dull, bloodied
gray. Deirdre suppressed a shiver; there were times, she thought, Homana-Mujhar
resembled a monument to war and death, rather than the home of Homanan kings.

Niall took her off the sentry-walk
into one of the exterior comer towers, then down a coil of stairs to the
interior of the palace. Deirdre had always felt Homana-Mujhar more confusing
than Kilore, the clifftop fortress her brother Liam ruled from in Erina.
Kilore, known as the Aerie of Erinn, was plainer, more functional, lacking the
multitudinous staircases and tower chambers of Homana-Mujhar. But then perhaps
it was only time and distance that made it seem so; Deirdre had not been home
in eighteen years.

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