MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
LUKER HAD sworn never to return to this place.
He was not a man who gave his word lightly, yet here he stood, staring at the Sacrosanct through the wrought-iron gates at the entrance to its grounds. His gaze took in the boards across its windows, the tiles missing from the roofs of its turrets, the bleak lines of its walls that rose like black cliffs to seemingly impossible heights. Home sweet home. The place looked deserted, but there was light coming from the windows at the top of the First Guardian's tower-like a beacon guiding him into harbor. He did not need its glow to tell him he had entered dangerous waters.
The scar running from the corner of his right eye to his jawline itched again, and he scratched it absently. He'd expected to feel something on seeing the Sacrosanct again. Had hoped to. But when he searched inside he found only emptiness tinged with disappointment. And he being such a cheerful soul normally. He took a breath. Two years ago he'd closed these gates behind him and walked away without looking back. The place had meant nothing to him then, he was a fool to have believed it would be different now.
I shouldn't have come back.
The gates were unlocked and guarded only by the twin statues of the Patrons, their grim expressions a foretaste of the reception Luker would no doubt receive inside. He pushed open the gates. Before him stretched a path flanked by rows of kalip trees, their branches casting long shadows in the half-light. Luker set off along the trail. To either side, the grounds of the Sacrosanct grew unchecked. Insects swarmed over shadowy shapes partly hidden in the undergrowth. From tangled grasses protruded the gravestones of the Lost, their epitaphs faded. Some of the graves had been disturbed, and soil lay heaped beside the stones. As an apprentice Luker had spent many evenings wandering the burial yard with his master, Kanon, listening to tales of the fallen Guardians and the sacrifices they had made. There was a time when Luker had known all their names, but not now-the ranks of stones had swelled while he'd been away.
Still, at least he now knew where everyone had got to.
The first drops of rain began to fall. A storm was blowing in from the south, the same storm that had buffeted Luker's ship into port earlier. Through the trees ahead, the Sacrosanct was a darker gray against the gathering gloom. The path ended at a flight of steps that Luker took two at a time. The door at the top was twice his height and made from a wood so dark it looked fire-blackened. It was set in a frame of stone engraved with runes that shone softly green. As Luker brushed his fingertips against them he felt only a faint tingling. The wards were failing. Like every other damned thing round here.
Four years ago Luker had watched from one of the windows above as Emperor Avallon Delamar ascended these same steps. The door to the Sacrosanct had been shut then as it was now, but the runes had cast a glow that stained the emperor's face even in bright sunshine. Before entering, Avallon had taken off his coronet and set it on the top step. The gesture had brought a gasp from those watching with Luker, for its message was clear: The emperor left his sovereignty outside the walls of the Sacrosanct. He came to the Guardians to petition, not to command.
And yet the bastard still left with what he came for. The Guardians' decision to side with the emperor that day had opened rifts in their ranks, leaving them vulnerable when Avallon came calling again, this time with poorly concealed demands for allegiance. Luker had known the episode would mark the beginning of the end for the Guardians, but he had never imagined they would be brought to their knees so quickly.
Not that he was about to get all tearful at their fall. It was too late for regrets. He had made his decision two years ago. There was no going back.
So what in the Nine Hells am I doing here?
He drew the sword on his left hip and used the pommel to pound on the door, then resheathed the blade and waited, head bowed in the rain. A while later he heard bolts being thrown back. The door opened inward. In the shadows beyond, Luker saw the weathered face of an old man, his white hair standing disheveled as if he had been disturbed from his sleep. Luker towered over him.
"What do you want?" the doorman asked.
"A little courtesy for starters," Luker muttered. "My name's Luker Essendar. I'm here to see the First Guardian."
The old man looked him up and down like he'd never before seen someone with honey-colored skin. Maybe he hadn't.
Luker reached into the folds of his cloak and pulled out a roll of parchment. The movement caught the doorman by surprise, and he stepped back, arms raised as if to fend off a blow.
"Relax." Luker held up the scroll for the doorman to inspect. The wax seal was broken, but the stamp impressed upon it could still be made out. "Look here-the First Guardian's mark."
The old man bent to peer at the scroll, his nose almost touching the parchment. After a handful of heartbeats he grunted and stepped aside to allow Luker to pass. Once Luker was inside, the doorman set his shoulder to the door, and it closed with a noise like rolling thunder. Luker waited in near blackness as the locks were secured. Water dripped from the hem of his cloak and collected in a puddle at his feet.
"Follow me," the doorman said.
"Save your legs. I know the way."
"Nevertheless. The First Guardian will expect me to announce you." Without waiting for a response the doorman shuffled into the gloom. Luker fell into step behind.
They passed through a series of corridors and entered the Great Hall. A knot of shadows marked the Council table and the wooden thrones surrounding it. Gone were the rich rugs and tapestries, and Luker could hear the room's vastness in the echoes of his footsteps.
The doorman reached the far side of the chamber and entered the maze of passages beyond. Luker could have found his way through with his eyes closed. In his first years at the Sacrosanct he had spent countless nights pacing the corridors, fleeing the memories that sleep would bring. Every time, his footsteps led him to the Matron's shrine-they passed it now-where he'd sit huddled at the feet of her statue, waiting for the goddess to break the silence. And as each day dawned gray and empty he retreated to his room no closer to answers than he'd been the night before. He had lost his childhood somewhere down here in the darkness.
The doorman led him through an archway and up a spiral stairwell. There seemed to be more steps than Luker remembered, but then maybe that was down to the torturous pace his escort was setting. Reaching a door at the top, the old man turned and bid Luker wait, then knocked and went inside. Luker heard muffled voices before the old man reappeared and beckoned him to enter.
The First Guardian's tower was much as Luker remembered it: the open fire; the candles in their holders; the desk with its covering of scrolls. A quill pen lay on a piece of parchment, the last words on the page glistening as the ink dried. The heat felt oppressive after the chill of the Great Hall.
With his back to Luker, First Guardian Gill Treller stood gazing out a window. When he finally turned, Luker saw that the last two years had not been kind to him, for his neatly trimmed beard was shot through with gray and his hairline had retreated a few fingers' widths. He clutched his black robes tightly about him in spite of the heat. But his look still held the same intensity. And hostility, Luker realized, frowning. He's no more pleased to see me than I am to be here.
The usual warm welcome, then.
"What took you so long?" the First Guardian said.
"Good to see you too, Gill."
"The summons was delivered a week ago. You could have swum from Taradh Dor in that time."
"You're lucky I came at all."
"Indeed? I don't recall giving you a choice in the matter."
Luker shrugged, then crossed to the desk and poured himself a glass of red wine from a decanter.
"Help yourself to wine," Gill said.
Luker took a sip. "Not bad. A bit young maybe."
"If I'd known you would arrive today I'd have ordered something more to your taste. Now perhaps we can begin."
"I've got a question first," Luker said. "How did you find me?"
"I didn't need to find you. I knew exactly where to look."
"You've been scouting me all this time?"
"That surprises you? A Guardian does not simply disappear, Luker, however much he might wish to. The emperor would not allow it."
"The emperor?" Luker said, his eyes narrowing. "What's he got to do with this?"
"You thought the summons came from me?" Gill shook his head. "You walked out on us, Luker. Not for the first time, either. If I'd had my way, you'd have been left to rot on Taradh Dor."
Luker pulled the sheet of parchment from his cloak and tossed it on the floor. "Then why's your seal on the Shroud-cursed scroll? Since when have you been Avallon's errand boy?"
"The emperor judged you would not have come if the summons had been his."
"Damned right. I don't take orders-"
"I suspect Avallon may see things differently," Gill interrupted. Pulling a handkerchief from his sleeve he dabbed at his watery eyes. "You'll find much has changed in the time you've been away. The emperor's power has grown. We are all his servants now, whether we like it or not."
Luker stared at him. Seeing the Sacrosanct's neglect had been surprise enough, but to hear such words from the First Guardian's mouth ... "We've really fallen that far?"
"Gods below!" Gill said, throwing up his hands. "Look around you, man! The Sacrosanct is falling into ruin. The Council hasn't convened for more than a year. What would be the point? There are barely a score of us left."
"Better the Guardians go the way of your hairline than stain their knees before Avallon."
"You really mean that?"
"Then why did you answer the summons? Why are you here now?"
Luker swirled the wine in his glass. "Maybe I was just curious."
"The Abyss you were. You came back because you're one of us. You always will be."
One of us? This from the man who would have left him to rot on Taradh Dor? "You're way off the mark, Gill, but I'm not going to argue with you. You can't dress this up as some test of my loyalty. The summons came from the emperor, not you."
The lines around Gill's eyes tightened, then he turned his back on Luker and looked out the window once more. The silence dragged out. Luker was beginning to think he was dismissed when the First Guardian spoke again. "Did you see the new citadel on your way up from the docks? The Storm Keep." He pointed. "There, beside the White Lady's temple?"
Luker squinted at him. Just like that, the summons was forgotten? Had the First Guardian conceded defeat already? No, not Gill. A new line of attack, then. Luker joined him at the window and looked down on Arkarbour. He hadn't noticed the Storm Keep on his walk from the lower city, but its towers could be made out easily enough through the rain, silhouetted against the twin fires at the entrance to the harbor. They'd been built just tall enough to eclipse the tower he was standing in. A pissing contest in stone.
"You're looking at the stronghold of the Breakers," Gill said. "You remember them?"
"I know the name. Some squad in some legion. Just one more cog in the emperor's military machine."
"Oh, come now, the Breakers were always more than that. Their commander is a Remnerol shaman-Rakaal-who was spared the noose at Avallon's order. The rank and file are also chosen from men in the emperor's debt. In the fifth Kalanese campaign they gained a reputation for doing the jobs no one else would do. And because of that they became to the emperor what the Guardians could never be."
"You reckon Avallon's grooming them to replace us?"
"I'm sure of it."
"Then he's an idiot. Whatever the Breakers' loyalties, they're still just soldiers."
"Because they don't have the Will, you mean? Oh, but they do, Luker. Amerel and Borkoth are training them. They walked out on the Guardian Council last year."
Luker mastered his surprise. "Borkoth, I get, but Amerel? How did the emperor get his claws into her?"
"Next time she stops by I'll be sure to ask."
Luker sipped his wine. "Even with Amerel on their side, it'll be years before the Breakers master the Will. Just as well, too. It's probably the only reason you're not floating facedown in the harbor already."
"You think I don't know that? The emperor needs the Guardians for now, but each day our position becomes more precarious. We must use the time we have left to counter his plans."
"Right. A score of you left, you said."
A gust of wind set the tower's windows rattling. The First Guardian moved to the fire and held his hands out to the flames. "We are not without allies. The Senate won't stand by and watch us die out. It fears the emperor's growing power, just as we do. For now there are only a few dissenting voices-the senators won't risk open conflict with the emperor while the war with the Kalanese goes badly. But when it ends there will be a reckoning. We just have to make sure we survive long enough to see it."
"The war's turned sour?" Luker said. "I thought Tyrin Malek was holding his own."
"You haven't heard the news? Reports say Malek has suffered a crushing defeat west of Arandas. He was lured into the shadow of the White Mountains by a Kalanese feint and hit with a flank attack by troops hidden in the foothills. The offensive drove a wedge through his forces, then the main Kalanese host fell on them before they could re-form. The Seventh was routed and scattered across the Gollothir Plains. The Fifth-what's left of it-is retreating south to Helin."
"Taken. The Kalanese may try to ransom him, but I doubt the imperial treasury has any coin to spare, even for one of the emperor's brothers."
Not all bad news, then. "What about Arandas?"
"Avallon has ordered a full withdrawal."
Luker grunted. "The Aldermen will love that. Emperor spends years bullying Arandas into joining his Confederacy, then cuts the city loose at the first sign of trouble."
"Avallon had no choice. The Kalanese and their allies are massing in the tens of thousands. Arandas cannot be held."
The fire cracked and popped as wood settled in the grate. Luker finished his wine and set the glass down on the desk. "All of this is fascinating, but it changes nothing. Avallon started this war. If he wants to finish it, he'll have to shovel his own shit for a change."
The First Guardian seemed unperturbed. "I haven't even told you what the emperor wants. Hear me out at least. You may find you're more sympathetic to his cause than you suspect."
Luker eyed him warily, wondering where this was heading. Somewhere with a sharp drop on the other side, most likely. He thinks he's got me, in spite of all I've said. What's he got hidden up his sleeve? "I'm listening."
The corners of Gill's mouth turned up. "Let me get you some more wine." He lifted the decanter and topped up Luker's glass, then poured one for himself. "Won't you sit?" he asked, gesturing to a chair. When Luker shook his head, Gill drew his robes about him then said, "You recall the night of the Betrayal? The assault on the Black Tower?"
The change of subject took Luker aback again. Another feint? He's trying to keep me off balance. Disguise the real strike when it comes. "Aye," he said finally.
"Then you must remember Mayot Mencada. No? He was one of the mages that sided with the emperor. Along with Epistine he pierced the Black Tower's defenses long enough for us to slip through."
"If you say so."
Gill moved back to the window. "After the attack, Avallon installed Mayot and a few others on the Mages' Conclave. Most were quietly removed by the mages when the emperor's attention was focused elsewhere, but Mayot survived."
"You going somewhere with this?"
"If you'll let me. Mayot fled Arkarbour recently. No doubt the mages were delighted to see the back of him-except that he took something from the Black Tower when he left."
"The Book of Lost Souls."
Luker scratched his scar. "That supposed to mean anything to me?"
"I'd be surprised if it did. I know little myself, save that the mages consider the Book to be valuable and are anxious to see it returned."
"What's this got to do with me?"
"I would have thought that was obvious. The emperor wants you to hunt down Mayot and get the Book back."
Luker blinked. Then he burst out laughing.
Gill's expression darkened. "I fail to see what is so amusing."
"You're serious? Malek's troops have taken a mauling. Malek himself is probably staked out over a fire somewhere in Kal Kartin. The Confederacy's on the verge of collapse." Luker ticked them off on his fingers. "And the emperor wants me to look for a book?"
"Why? What's in it for him?"
"I don't know."
"You didn't think to ask?"
Gill waved a hand. "In case it's escaped your attention, the emperor isn't in the habit of confiding in me of late. Perhaps he seeks to win favor with the Black Tower now that the tide of the war has turned." The First Guardian shrugged. "In truth, I don't care. All that matters is that Avallon wants the Book and has come to us for help. This is a chance to earn his gratitude. One we can ill afford to pass up."
"Prove we're still useful, you mean."
"If you like."
Luker picked up his wineglass and raised it to his lips, his gaze still locked to Gill's. "Why me?"
"Why has the emperor chosen you?" The First Guardian shrugged a second time. "As I said, there aren't many of us left. Senar Sol, Jenin Lock, Alar Padre, all gone." He cast Luker a calculating glance. "I can't afford to lose another member of the Council on this mission. And for some reason Avallon seems to hold you in high-"
Luker held up a hand to cut him off. "Wait. You mean I'm not the first to be sent after Mayot?"
"No. There was another, but he vanished some time ago."
Luker's throat was suddenly dry. "You said someone on the Council. Who?"
Luker set his glass down on the desk with a crack. Wine spattered the sheets of parchment like drops of blood. "Kanon's disappeared? When? Where?"
The First Guardian frowned at the scrolls. "I can't tell you."
"Can't or won't?"
"I'm not in the mood for word games."
Luker ground his teeth together. He should have seen this coming. Gill had remained confident in spite of Luker knocking him back because the First Guardian had always known he had Kanon's disappearance to fall back on if persuasion alone failed to win Luker round. "You think I don't know what you're doing, Gill? You're trying to use Kanon to bring me to heel."
"You leave me little choice."
"And Kanon himself? You going to just-"
"Oh, spare me!" Gill cut in. "This is about more than Kanon. The future of the Guardians is at stake, yours included. You think the emperor will let you walk away if you refuse him? He'll see it as a betrayal."
So now he threatens me. Luker turned for the door. "We're done here."
"Wait!" There was a touch of the Will in Gill's voice.
Luker froze in midstep, then shook his head to clear it of the First Guardian's lingering touch. He dares use his Will on me? Luker slammed up his defenses. "Get out of my head!"
The First Guardian studied Luker for a heartbeat, then placed his wineglass on the mantelpiece. Luker felt Gill's power brush his thoughts again, a subtler but more insistent probing. In response, Luker gathered his own Will and used it to slap the First Guardian's questing aside. As their powers collided, the candles in the room were extinguished. The fire in the grate flickered and died, plunging the room into darkness.
Gill stood silhouetted against the window. "Think carefully before you do something you'll regret. This is not a fight you can win."
Even as he spoke, Luker sensed him drawing on his power again. Gill's next attack struck his wards with a force that made him wince. The pressure in the room increased. A candleholder toppled to the ground with a clang, sending candles rolling across the floor. It felt to Luker as if a great weight pushed against his chest, and he drew in a breath with difficulty. His hands hovered over the hilts of his swords. "I don't like people riding me. And I sure as hell don't like seeing Kanon thrown to the wolves just so you can get cozy with Avallon."
"And this is how you would help him? You want to find Kanon, yes? Tell me, what will you do without my aid? Where will you look?" Gill's voice took on a conciliatory tone. "Track down Mayot and he may lead you to your master."
Luker's head was beginning to throb. The First Guardian's Will hammered against his defenses, driving him back a step. He needed time to think. Gill was right: Luker would need help if he was to find Kanon, but help from where? There was no guarantee anyone else on the Guardian Council knew about Kanon's mission, and even if they did, what reason would they have to share that knowledge? As for the emperor's army of minions, Luker had no way of knowing which of them had the answers he needed. And if he walked out on Gill now, he'd be a hunted man-not in itself a concern, but working out Kanon's last movements would be hard enough without having Avallon on his back. Luker brought his attention back to the First Guardian. I'm out of options and he knows it. Biting back on his anger, he let out a shuddering breath. "All right, Gill. I'll play your game." For now.
"You'll find the Book before you search for Kanon? I want your word on this."
"You have it. But I warn you, if Kanon dies because of this I'll be calling on you again."
There was a flash of white as Gill showed his teeth. "I look forward to it."
A heartbeat later the First Guardian released his Will. Luker waited for the pressure in the room to ease before following suit.
Gill shuffled to the desk and rummaged through one of the drawers. There was the sound of flint striking steel, and light blossomed as the First Guardian moved round the room, relighting the candles. "To business, then. Kanon's last report came from near Arandas. That was over a month ago. Start your search there."
Luker crossed his arms. "You think Kanon might have got caught up in the Kalanese invasion?"
"I don't know."
"What did his last report say?"
"He was following Mayot. That's all."
That sounded like Kanon. Never one to waste time on words. "Did he say where the trail was heading?"
"If he did, I wasn't told."
A look of disgust crossed Gill's features. "Meaning this is Avallon's mission, not mine. Kanon has been reporting to the emperor's men. I know only what they tell me, and that is precious little."
"What about the Guardians' spies? Kanon must have checked in with one of them."
"I'm afraid not. With Borkoth's and Amerel's knowledge, the emperor has moved quickly to dismantle our network of informants. We are now entirely reliant on the scraps Avallon feeds us."
"Then you'll have to speak to him again. I'll need more than 'near Arandas' if I'm to find Mayot."
"That's where your traveling companions come in."
Luker thought he must have misheard. "What?"
The First Guardian drained his wineglass. "Did I forget to mention them? How careless of me. Avallon is sending one of his Circle to keep an eye on you."
Luker shook his head. "I travel alone."
"You're a slow learner, Luker. This isn't a suggestion. It's a command."
Luker's breath hissed out. "Shroud's mercy, does the emperor want me to fail, then? How am I supposed to track Mayot down if I'm playing nursemaid to one of Avallon's lackeys?"
Gill arched an eyebrow. "I hardly think you need worry in this case. We're talking about Tyrin Merin Gray here, formerly commander of the Seventh."
"And now a Breaker, I take it."
"Whatever he is, you'll need his contacts to find Mayot. This is not the time to be sniffing round Arandas for a trail that's likely gone cold."
"If he slows me down I'll strike out alone and take my chances."
"Do what you must."
"I won't take orders from this Merin Gray either. He'll have to do what I tell him."
The First Guardian's lips quirked. "I'll leave you to work out the details yourselves."
"Is there someone else?" Luker asked. "You said 'traveling companions.'"
"Indeed. A necromancer from the Black Tower. The head of his order, no less. Don Chamery Pelk."
Luker's face twisted. "Emperor's got a sense of humor, at least. A Guardian and a mage traveling together? I must remember to sleep with my eyes open."
"No doubt the feeling is mutual." Gill righted the fallen candleholder, then seated himself at the desk. "Now, unless there was something else, I suggest you get some rest. You leave at dawn. Meet the others at the Imperial Stables for a briefing at the tenth bell tonight. Don't be late."
"I'll be there," Luker said.
But in his own time.
He had some personal business to attend to first.
* * *
Romany hated it when her goddess dropped by unannounced. Why could the Spider not knock at the door and present herself like other visitors, instead of treating the temple as if she owned it?
Taking a breath to compose herself, the priestess settled back in the pool. Perfumed candles floated among the bubbles on the water, filling the room with the scent of moonblossom and mint. Clouds of steam rose into the air, and the delicious heat of the pool was already easing her aches. She could sense the Spider skulking in the shadows behind, but Romany was not about to acknowledge her until the goddess observed the customary courtesies. Instead the priestess spent some time admiring the fresco of Mercerie's harbor on the opposite wall. Such vibrant colors. Such exquisite detail where the sunlight glinted off the sea ...
A cough sounded at her back, and she sighed. It was no good. Her equanimity was slipping away. It would be no coincidence, of course, that the Spider had arrived while Romany was bathing, for the goddess never missed an opportunity to ruffle her feathers, particularly during those rare moments when the priestess was taking a well-deserved break from the tedium of her temple duties. And yet, after an absence of more than a year, it seemed unlikely the Spider had come for no other reason than to nettle her.
She sank deeper into the pool. More galling even than the goddess's arrival was the fact Romany had not sensed her coming. The priestess's carefully crafted web of sorcerous wards extended not just throughout the temple but also into every corner of Mercerie: the slave markets, the shrines of the other immortals, the halls of the great and the good. There would be outrage if their denizens ever found out, of course, but Romany had yet to encounter anyone with the wit to detect her illicit and watchful presence. As a result, little went on in the city she did not know about, and absolutely nothing in her sprawling temple. Many of the acolytes soon discovered this to their cost. Only yesterday one of the new girls had seen fit to mock Romany's modest girth to a friend. The priestess had been on the opposite side of the temple at the time, but her web had brought her word of the affront all the same, and the acolyte had swiftly come to regret her impropriety.
For some reason, though, Romany's sorcerous creation had given her no warning of the Spider's approach. She considered checking the integrity of her wards, but resisted the temptation. To do so, after all, would only highlight the fact that Romany's spells had failed her.
A flap of feet, and a red-faced acolyte emerged from the steam to her right. The girl was struggling under the weight of a huge copper kettle. As she wrestled it to the far edge of the pool, metal scraped against the terra-cotta floor tiles. To compound her blunder, the acolyte then tilted the kettle too sharply, sending a gush of water cascading into the pool. The floating candles bobbed precariously, and Romany tutted her displeasure.
Naturally the Spider chose that moment to step into the fuzzy light.
The acolyte squealed and dropped the kettle. It clanged against the tiled floor before falling into the pool. Water splashed into the priestess's eyes and nose, and she half rose, spluttering. The acolyte stood trembling, her gaze moving from Romany to the goddess, then back again, evidently uncertain as to which of them represented the greater cause for alarm. From the girl's expression it was clear she had no idea who the Spider was. The acolyte was new to the temple-the priestess could not remember her name, if indeed she had ever known it-but still, a disciple who did not recognize her own goddess? Absurd!
And yet strangely gratifying.
True, the Spider did not look much like an immortal. Romany had no idea what a goddess was supposed to look like, but the Spider was certainly not it. Her ageless, heart-shaped face was memorable only in its plainness. She was short-one of the few people the priestess could look down on-and had long auburn hair. Her gaze never rested for more than an instant in any one place, and her fingers were forever caressing the air as if she strummed the strings of an unseen harp. What sound would she make, Romany wondered idly, if I were to place an instrument before them?
Rousing herself, she sent the acolyte scuttling away with a look. The girl disappeared into the steam. A few heartbeats later a door opened, then slammed shut.
The Spider approached and made a show of studying Romany's face. "Ah, it is you, Rrromany," she said, putting that little trill on the "r" as she sometimes did. "For a moment I thought I'd taken a wrong turn and stumbled into the Augustine Springs."
"Time has not stood still since you last graced us with your presence, my Lady. You are aware the temple was attacked earlier this year?"
"Someone broke in and built you a bathhouse?"
"Very droll. Alas, the intruder destroyed various parts of the shrine, this chamber included. I took the chance to introduce some much needed trappings of civilization."
"Though only in your personal quarters, I see. So refrrreshing to see a high priestess lead by example."
Romany sniffed. "Perhaps if you had responded at the time to my call for assistance-"
"I'd assumed," the Spider cut in, "that you were capable of keeping your own house in order. Apparently I was mistaken."
"This was no ordinary intruder. A disciple of Shroud."
The goddess's eyes went cold. "Who?"
"I have no idea," Romany said. "Shroud's vermin all look the same to me. Without question, one of the god's elite, though. He cut through the temple's wards as easily as if his master were guiding his hand."
The Spider started pacing along the length of the pool. "You kept the body?"
Romany licked her lips. "Ah. Sadly, no. He escaped. Fortuitously. He left empty-handed, of course, tail between his legs. I remain alive and safe, as you can see. Imagine thinking he could best me in my own temple! Such impertinence!"
"Yes, you really showed him. You're sure it was you he was after?"
The Spider crouched at the opposite end of the pool and dipped a hand into the water. For an uncomfortable moment Romany thought the goddess intended to join her in the pool, and she was grateful suddenly for the covering of bubbles on the water. "It seems Shroud has become more brazen in my absence," the Spider said. "I have been away too long."
Romany had been trying to tell her as much, but when did the goddess ever listen? "How fare your concerns in the Storm Isles?"
"Adequately. A new empire is about to rise from the ashes of the old, but the battle for its soul continues. It is only a matter of time before the conflict spreads beyond the borders of the kingdom."
"And the Emira?"
"Is no more than a minor player, though she knows it not. When the game begins in earnest she will soon be swept aside."
"And which faction do you favor?"
The Spider laughed. "Oh, Romany. You should know by now that I am never on just one side. Only a fool would risk everything on a single roll of the dice."
"Who, then, are the other players?"
"That does not concern you."
Romany sighed. "How is a high priestess meant to further her goddess's cause when she is kept ignorant of such matters?"
"I tell you what you need to know," the Spider said mildly. "And besides, I have other plans for you." She stood up. "Perhaps we could continue this somewhere more comfortable."
Romany sighed again, deeper this time. "Very well." She clapped her hands to summon the acolyte before remembering the girl had gone. Romany's robe was folded over the back of a chair a few paces away.
She looked at the goddess, but decided against asking her to pass it. The Spider watched her with a hint of a smile.
"If you would turn away, please," the priestess said.
The Spider's grin broadened, but she did as she was bid.
Romany rose and climbed the steps that led from the pool. She toweled herself down hurriedly, then slipped into her robe. The silk clung to her still-damp skin in a most unflattering manner. Her slippers, too, quickly became soaked when she slipped them on. As she crossed to the door to her living quarters, she lifted her chin in an effort to preserve whatever dignity remained to her.
Her footsteps squelched on the floor.
The air in the next room was delightfully cool. Light flooded through the windows to her left, silvering the strands of the huge web that spanned the far wall. There was a flicker of movement as her silverback spider scuttled along the gossamer threads. Romany reached out a hand to it. The creature's legs tickled her arm as it moved down to settle on her shoulder. Her acolytes had not yet lit the candles in the wall niches, and the Spider set them burning with a flick of her hand.
The goddess settled into one of the leather chairs surrounding a low table in the middle of the chamber, then selected a scroll from one of the bookshelves stacked like wine racks along the wall behind her. She unrolled the scroll and raised it to catch the light. Romany sank into one of the other chairs, but the Spider ignored her. Suppressing her irritation, the priestess looked at her desk beneath the windows and saw the acolytes had left one of her astronomical instruments fractionally out of alignment. As if that wasn't frustrating enough, the invisible strands of her magical web-focused in a tangle, here, at the hub of her empire-were quivering softly, indicating that somewhere in Mercerie a scandal was in the offing. Romany's fingers itched, but she would have to wait a while longer to find out what developments the tremors signaled.
She looked back at the Spider. The goddess was gazing at the silverback on Romany's shoulder, her forehead crinkled in distaste. "You realize," she said, "that one bite from that thing will turn your blood to poison."
The priestess snorted. "An absurd notion, my Lady! The silverback makes for a most devoted pet."
"Indeed. Just keep it away from me." The goddess gestured to the parchment she was holding. "What is this?"
Romany squinted to make out the muddle of words and diagrams. "Ah, yes! An exciting discovery at Elipene. A priestess has found a dry well at the center of the village where, at noon on Cartin's Day, the rays of sunlight shine right to the very bottom, meaning-"
"The sun is directly overhead. What of it?"
"I have had a post erected in one of the courtyards here and measured the angle of its shadow at the exact same time and date. Thus, knowing the distance between Mercerie and Elipene, I am able to calculate the approximate circumference of the globe."
"I estimate it to be fourteen thousand four hundred and twenty leagues."
"You misunderstand. I meant, of what rrrelevance is this?"
Romany rolled her eyes. "The writings of Isabeya, if they are to be believed, put the distance from Mercerie to the Alkazadh Sea at eleven hundred and forty leagues. This continent, therefore, is but a small part of the world's vastness."
The goddess tossed the parchment onto the table. "My congratulations on proving something I have known for millennia."
"Ah, but I have ascertained the truth through empirical evidence."
"Meaning you do not trust my word?"
"Of course I do. I would simply observe that at times you can be less than generous in sharing your knowledge."
The goddess regarded her with raised eyebrows for a while, then said, "Game of hafters? It has been so long since I had a worrrthy opponent."
Romany's eyes narrowed. It would be just like the Spider to try to use the game to distract her from some more important matter. On the other hand, she had come so close to beating the goddess last time ... "As you wish." She rose to fetch the playing board.
"No need," the goddess said. With another flutter of her fingers, a checkered battlefield appeared, floating in the air between them. Romany could not help but notice the Spider had given herself the queen's pieces. The figures had been animated in breathtaking detail. A harpy's wings beat the air as the goddess advanced it three spaces.
They exchanged a few moves in silence.
It was the Spider who finally spoke. "An unexpected opportunity has arisen to gain revenge for Shroud's raid on your temple. A powerful artifact has surfaced in an empire to the south. You have heard of Erin Elal, of course."
Romany succumbed to her curiosity. "What sort of artifact?"
"A book containing forgotten lore from the Time of the Ancients. It was an era of great upheaval for the pantheon. Many elder gods perished. Some fell to the titans, some to ... pretenders. The knowledge of the fallen died with them."
"Or not, in this case."
The Spider nodded. "Somehow the Book of Lost Souls, as it is known, found its way into the possession of a fellowship of mages. They must have recognized its potential, for they wisely decided to keep it concealed beneath formidable wards. By pure chance, word of its existence came to me along the threads of my web."
"And you want this book ... stolen?" Romany could hardly bring herself to say the word.
"No, that task has already been accomplished. At my instigation, of course, though the thief and his emperor are unaware of that fact." The Spider moved one of her witches to a position where Romany could capture it. "And besides, I have no interest in acquiring the Book for myself. Its use would draw attention to me, and as you know I prefer to remain hidden behind the veil."
Romany hesitated, then took the Spider's unprotected piece. The witch gave a piercing cry as she vanished from the board. "So instead you will arrange for the Book to fall into the hands of someone sympathetic to your cause?"
"Not quite. The thief himself, a mage by the name of Mayot Mencada, should be a suitable tool for what I have in mind."
"And how does Shroud fit into this?"
"In the hands of the right person, the Book could do him untold harm, for the secrets contained within it are inherently linked to the source of his power."
Romany advanced her wyvern one space, ignoring the goddess's amused look. "If the threat is as great as you claim, will Shroud not intervene personally to quash the danger?"
"And risk setting foot on unsanctified ground? I think not. No, he will send his disciples to do his grunt work."
As immortals are wont to do. "And you intend for them to walk into a trap?"
"Very good. The elimination of a few of Shroud's most capable followers would prove highly damaging to him. There is, however, a problem."
As the goddess spoke, she advanced another of her harpies in an apparently sacrificial move. Romany frowned. A ruse, perhaps, to draw Romany's pieces out of position? She tore her gaze from the board. "Problem?"
"Until now the thief's attempts to unlock the Book's mysteries have proved ineffective. He will be easy pickings when Shroud's disciples arrive."
"You mean to help him?"
"I mean for you to help him, yes-not just in penetrating the Book's defenses, but also in opposing whichever disciples Shroud sends to claim the artifact once it is activated. Ultimately the forces arrayed against Mayot will prove irresistible, but before then you should get a chance to exterminate some of Shroud's rrrabble."
Romany moved her king's champion to the center of the board. "And when Shroud finally gets his hands on the Book? Could he not use it as a weapon against you?"
"I suspect the Book contains few secrets that are not already known to him. He owned it once himself, after all."
"Owned it once ... and lost it?"
The Spider shrugged. "As I said, it was a time of great upheaval."
"All the same, you are taking quite a risk."
"I do not see it so. After all, how can one lose a game if one has staked nothing on it? If there is a price to pay, Mayot Mencada will pay it for me."
Not that you have ever hesitated to sacrifice your own followers in the past.
The goddess considered the battlefield for a moment longer before waving a hand. The board faded. Romany had been holding a piece, and she watched openmouthed as it too melted away. Looks like I was winning, then.
"We don't have much time," the Spider continued. "No doubt you will want to leave instructions before we leave."
Romany stiffened. "Leave? I had assumed..."
The goddess wagged a finger. "Tut-tut. You should know better than that."
"Where are we going?"
"The Forest of Sighs."
Romany's hope rekindled. The forest was scores of leagues to the west. "A voyage of many weeks, my Lady. By the time I arrive the contest may be over."
The Spider looked to the heavens. "Romany, Romany. Have you never wondered how I'm able to travel so quickly between my various concerns?"
The priestess had, actually, but there were more important things on her mind just now. She adopted what she hoped was a suitably rueful expression. "Alas, it has been a long time since I left the temple."
"Too long, one might say."
"Nevertheless, my appetite for adventure is not what it was. I have a number of capable deputies. The vigor of youth..."
The goddess shook her head. "I cannot afford any mistakes. Shroud is unlikely to be forgiving if he discovers my involvement in this matter. I need someone I can trust. Someone who can walk the trail without leaving footprints behind."
"But my responsibilities at the temple-"
"I'm sure your 'capable deputies' can cope without you for a while." The Spider's voice hardened. "No one is irreplaceable, after all."
A threat? No, surely the goddess would never stoop to anything so vulgar. And yet her expression did have a distinctly uncompromising cast to it. "But a forest," Romany said, aware of the desperation in her tone. "Perhaps the thief could be persuaded to relocate to more congenial surroundings."
"As it happens, Mayot Mencada's choice of destination is inspired. It should be, since I chose it for him. Why else do you think he would travel so far from his homeland?" She rose. "You are familiar, of course, with the history of the Forest of Sighs?"
"Most distasteful," Romany said. "Though I fail to see what relevance it has to the Book."
The Spider's slow smile cut through her like an arctic wind.
Copyright © 2015 by Marc Turner