Only someone looking very closely would have noticed the chameleon Crasii standing against the elaborately detailed mural. The stylized hunting scene lined the west side of the Ladies Walking Room and ran the length of the vast Caelum Royal Palace's third floor. The room was a long narrow promenade, built to afford the ladies of the court a place to exercise during the long Caelish winters, when the palace was snowbound for months at a time. Fortunately it was summer now; otherwise Tiji would have risked hypothermia standing naked as she was, blending in with the mural so she could listen in on the conversations of those who chose this favourite concourse to discuss affairs of the court.
Tiji resisted the urge to scratch an itch on the side of her nose, falling into the unnatural stillness unique to her kind as the door opened at the end of the hall. As she'd hoped, the Queen of Caelum's guests had arrived. The Grand Duchess of Torfail and her children let themselves into the room, checked the door was firmly closed and then walked further along the hall until they were closer to where Tiji was, blending with the wall so completely she had ceased to exist as a separate entity.
"The queen has given us an answer," the grand duchess announced, as they approached.
"And?" her daughter prompted. Although she was dressed in a hooped gown similar to her mother's, made from heavily brocaded silk, even Tiji considered the daughter plain. She had pale eyes and dark hair braided in the elaborate fashion currently in favour in Caelum. Being completely hairless herself, Tiji often wondered how humans coped with all that grooming and washing and tying it out of the way every day, certain even a small amount of hair would have driven her mad.
"And she said yes," the duchess announced. She glanced at her son and smiled. "Looks like you're getting married, dear."
The young man was unfairly pretty, dark haired and perfectly formed, with eyes the colour of twilight framed by long dark lashes. He seemed to be about twenty or so, his beauty marred, however, by the scowl he wore. "Tides! Do I have to?"
"It's the quickest way to secure the throne." His mother shrugged.
"She's a wretched child, mother."
"That wretched child becomes queen as soon as she marries," his sister reminded him. "That makes you king if you're her husband, you know." She added the last bit, no doubt, to aggravate her sibling.
The young man seemed quite annoyed. "They'll expect me to sleep with her."
As they talked, the group neared Tiji. The sister smiled nastily. "Surely you're not objecting on moral grounds, Try?"
This was the closest Tiji had been able to get to the grand duchess and her family in the month since she'd been sent to infiltrate the Caelum Palace. It was rumours of their arrival that had brought Tiji to Caelum in the first place. Declan Hawkes had learned that after Glaeba's potentially disastrous refusal to unite their crown prince with Princess Nyah, the heir to the Caelish throne, another contender had appeared on the scene. Declan had wanted to know who it was, so Tiji was dispatched from Herino and sent north to discover the truth behind this new offer.
The truth was before her now. Tiji was glad of it, too. Caelum was a cold, miserable place and when she was using her chameleonic abilities, she couldn't wear clothes to protect her body from the elements. The sooner she learned what this lot of grasping foreigners were up to, the sooner she could head home.
"I'm objecting on the grounds that the Tide is on the turn and I don't see why we need to keep up this ridiculous charade."
Almost at the same time the young man spoke, Tiji's skin began to prickle. A feeling akin to nausea washed over her, threatening her concentration, and with it her camouflage. The trio drew closer, the danger with them. The sensation was sickening, and familiar, although she was a child when she'd felt it last. That was back in Senestra, before she'd met Declan Hawkes.
This feeling was the reason she worked for Declan Hawkes.
That this trio were not who they claimed was no surprise to Tiji. When Declan heard the Grand Duchess of Torfail had made an offer for her son to wed Princess Nyah, he'd been instantly suspicious, certain there was no such place as Torfail—in Caelum or anywhere else on Amyrantha—let alone a grand duchy attached to it. But Declan had been expecting at best some ambitious grifters, at worst agents of a neighbouring country trying to mess with the Caelish succession by providing a contender of their own.
He wouldn't be expecting three immortals seeking to take the throne of Glaeba's closest neighbour, any more than Tiji was.
Quashing the fear and nausea all Scards felt in the presence of the immortals, Tiji forced herself to concentrate.
"It's easier this way," the older woman was saying. "And faster. You marry the child, she takes the throne, you become king, then I can call the others back, and we're set for the next three hundred years. Why go to the effort of trying to achieve the same thing by force, when the only work you have to do is smile nicely and not terrify the little brat until after the wedding?"
"It's humiliating," her son complained. "I command the Tide, for pity's sake. I shouldn't have to work for anything."
"One whisper of the Tide returning and all of a sudden ordinary work is humiliating?" The plain young woman laughed. "Tides, Tryan, a century ago you were hiding out in Parve, pretending to be a cobbler."
Tryan? Tides, it's the Empress of the Five Realms!
Tiji forced her racing pulse to slow, afraid if she let her dread get the better of her, she'd let her camouflage drop, a mistake that might result in her instant annihilation. She had to remain a part of the wall for as long as this took. It was critical she survive to take this news back to Glaeba.
"I've no time for your bickering," Syrolee snapped, before Tryan could respond. "You'll both do what you have to, and that's an end to it. Have either of you had word from your brothers?"
Elyssa nodded, but she was smirking at Tryan. "A messenger arrived this morning while you and the queen were negotiating. Krydence has heard a rumour that Cayal might be in Glaeba."
Tryan rolled his eyes in disgust. "Tides, that's all we need."
"It's just a rumour, Tryan."
The young man eyed his sister speculatively. "One you'd like confirmed, I don't doubt."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Elyssa demanded.
"As if you didn't know."
"Tryan, leave your sister alone. Has there been no word from Rance or Engarhod?"
"Last I heard Rance was so far south he was almost in Jelidia," Tryan reminded them. "He could be anywhere. As for Engarhod, he's more likely to contact you than either one of us."
Syrolee nodded in agreement. "As soon as he gets word the wedding is going ahead, I'm sure he'll be here."
"But I'll be king," Tryan pointed out.
Syrolee's eyes narrowed. "What do you mean?"
"I mean, mother dear, I'll be King of Caelum. Not you. And certainly not Engarhod. If I have to take this child to my bed to stake a claim on this wretched throne, I'm not giving it away. I'll have earned the damn thing and you're not bringing Engarhod here and unseating me just because you like being empress."
Syrolee scowled at her son for a moment and then forced a smile.
"Let's take this throne first, dearest, before we start arguing about who's going to sit on it. You both know what you have to do. I expect you to do it."
With that, the Empress of the Five Realms turned on her heel and strode the long length of the Ladies Walking Room, slamming the door behind her.
Tiji held her breath, waiting for the others to follow, but it seemed the siblings weren't done squabbling yet.
"Look on the bright side, Try," Elyssa suggested. "Nyah's only ten years old. She's too young to notice what a lousy lover you are."
"At least I've got a lover."
Elyssa's eyes narrowed. "Don't you dare . . ."
"Or you'll what?" Tryan asked. When Elyssa didn't seem to have an answer, he smiled. "Maybe Cayal is in Glaeba, Lyss. Maybe he'll finally come looking for you. I mean . . . Tides, it's been how long since you saw him last? He must have screwed everything else that walks on Amyrantha, by now. I'm sure he'll get around to you eventually."
The sharp crack of Elyssa's hand striking her brother's face almost startled Tiji into revealing herself.
Her brother smiled, sending a chill down Tiji's spine. Such malice, such inhuman malevolence, was more than she'd bargained for. Tryan the Devil, the Tarot called him. Tiji began to understand why. She felt her camouflage slipping, but forced it under control. With their attention fixed on each other, neither Tryan nor Elyssa seemed to notice.
"Bastard I may be, Elyssa, but soon I'll be king. And this time, I'm not planning to share it with anyone."
"Syrolee might have something to say about that."
"Let her say what ever she wants. Let her find somewhere else to play Empress of the Five Realms, if it comes to it. I'm a Tide Lord. I'm fed up with being a minion."
"Maybe that's all you're good for, Tryan."
"We'll find out soon enough, Elyssa."
His sister didn't seem to have an answer to that. Tossing her head, Elyssa swept up her skirts and headed for the door. Tiji closed her eyes in relief, expecting Tryan to follow, but the booted footsteps she heard didn't dwindle into the distance.
They seemed to be getting closer . . .
A strong hand closed around her throat before she had time to register what that meant. Tiji's eyes flew open. Her camouflage vanished in her fright, leaving her naked and vulnerable, dressed in nothing but her silver-scaled skin. She couldn't breathe. Tryan's face was only inches away, his eyes boring into hers.
"What are you doing here, you Crasii scum?"
"To serve you is the reason I breathe, my lord," Tiji gasped. Scard she may be, but she knew the forms. If she remained a quivering mass of terror—which required no acting on her part at all—he would have no reason to suspect she was anything but just another Crasii, probably a spy set on the Grand Duchess of Torfail by the Queen of Caelum.
"Why were you spying on us?"
Tiji didn't answer. All her breath had been spent swearing allegiance to him.
It seemed Tryan wasn't interested in an explanation anyway. He shoved her away as he let her go, turning his back on her. "It doesn't matter why. You will repeat nothing of what you heard today."
"To serve you is the reason I breathe," she managed to wheeze, as she fell.
Heading for the door, Tryan didn't even acknowledge her reply.
But then, why would he? The Crasii were slaves, bred with unquestioning obedience to the orders of their masters. Tryan had no reason to doubt her, believing, as did all the Tide Lords, that the reptilian Crasii had been purged of any rebellious tendencies several thousand years ago. He had no reason to assume every word he and his conspirators uttered would not remain secret because the Crasii were incapable of doing anything else.
Unless the Crasii was a Scard.
Unless the compulsion wasn't as assured as Tryan assumed. And if the Tide Lords had a weakness, it was their inability to tell a Scard from a loyal Crasii until the Scard disobeyed a direct order.
And Tiji was a Scard, recruited, trained and loyal to the enemies of the Tide Lords. And if it killed her, she would get word to Declan Hawkes and the Cabal of the Tarot, that Tryan the Dev il was planning to take the reins of power in Caelum, and that Engarhod, Krydence and Rance probably weren't far behind them.
The Empress of the Five Realms was among them once again.
Excerpted from THE GODS OF AMYRANTHA by JENNIFER FALLON
Copyright © 2007 by Jennifer Fallon
Published in July 2009 by Tom Doherty Associates, LLC
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.