Authors: A.E. Marling
Copyright © 2012 A.E. Marling
Cover illustration by Eva Soulu
Graphic design by Raymond Chun
Editor: Heather G Coman
Special thanks to the Reading Vanguard:
Christina, Stephanie, Corey, Vylar, Laurel, Zed, Lisa, and Robin.
First electronic publication: October, 2012
First Edition eBook
Meet the humble scribe:
On Twitter: @AEMarling
for my parents,
who love spending the evening
reading the same book
Enchantress Hiresha made a point of falling asleep at all the best parties. Her peculiar condition no longer embarrassed her, and she rather thought it a luxury to close her eyes and wallow through the lullaby conversations of the desert empire's dignitaries. They had to invite her back regardless.
Scarabs of lapis lazuli adorned necks, their wings crafted of red-agate tiles. Scented wax melted down glistening skin. Women wore headdresses of flowers. Guards lofted gemstone-studded axes and sickle swords, the weapons ignored with an edge of scorn by merchant princes and scribe lords. A tribal headman stooped to speak into the ear of a fine-boned native of the desert, and all of them respected the court fashions by wearing wigs of braided black and linen of gossamer white.
Hiresha wore a defiance of purple. Amethysts in her gown glittered in spirals. Ladies and lords averted their eyes from her then snuck further glances.
A noblewoman dropped a folded cloth near Hiresha. While the lady waited for a servant to replace it, she spoke in a whisper. “The gods work through you, Elder Enchantress. Our daughter sees with two eyes because of you.”
Hiresha was neither so young nor so old that she enjoyed her title of “elder,” but relief passed through her to learn of her enchantment's success. Regenerating eyes often confounded her
“Excellent.” Hiresha could not remember the client's name through her drowsiness. “Do the eyes match? In color.”
“Both a wonderful amber.” Red filaments of spider lilies curved from the lady's wig and bounced. She straightened as a lord limped near enough to overhear. Her tone of voice changed, and she took a step away. “And that hue of dress is so, ah, bold.”
Hiresha narrowed her eyes. She could excuse the wish among nobility to hide their ailments, even if it meant snubbing the enchantress who cured them. However, Hiresha had designed the dress herself and chosen amethysts because of her love for the color, and she would not allow a narrow mind to condescend to her.
The noblewoman said, “Not to say that purple is a mistake, but have you thought of undyed silk and diamonds? Do promise to send my tailor the patterns for the dress.”
“Only if you promise never to wear it.”
Hiresha worried she should not have said that. Words had a habit of gallivanting out before her fatigue-soaked mind could close the doors of propriety.
Weariness flowed like sand
around her, each step harder and harder when all she wanted to do was lean back and let the soothing heat carry her off to comfort and peace. She swayed and blinked on the brink of dozing. Her slippered feet trod over pink and white flower petals, strewn down the center of the throne room as thick as a carpet.
She forced her eyes open to admire the quality of enchantments within the palace architecture. Magic pulled water upward within crystal columns and transparent walls. The blueness gushed overhead, spinning up a glass dome in an upside-down whirlpool to cascade from a central skylight to a pool in the floor. The sound of rushing water accompanied the tinkling of wine poured into glazed bowls and the ruckus of merchant lords.
Hiresha glanced over her shoulder to see her guard, Spellsword Chandur. He wore a vest of scale armor and a purple velvet coat to match her gown. His eyes reminded her of tiger-gemstones, and wonder stretched them wide as he gazed at the Water Palace, at the gushing water underfoot, at the baskets on pedestals holding rainbows of fruits and monuments of sliced meats. The enchantress enjoyed having Spellsword Chandur nearby. Seeing his amazement informed her what she too might be feeling if fate had not blunted her emotions with fatigue.
“Chandur,” she began, but a glimpse of another guest caused her throat to catch. She turned away from her bodyguard, inch by inch.
Her blood surged, tingling sensations zigzagging up from her fingertips to her shoulders. Recognition of a man’s voice wakened her like teeth grazing her throat, his tones of disinterest hiding a playful wickedness.
“I adore walking on water,” the lord said.
His collar jutted with crimson feathers from a man-eating bird. After the local fashion, he had painted his eyes with the insignia of a god: two scorpion tails curved upward over his cheeks. Hiresha would have mistaken him for a common nobleman except she knew the secret of his magic. Of all the guests, Hiresha suspected only she knew him as the Lord of the Feast.
“You have the sense,” the Lord of the Feast said, “you could plunge through the floor and drown in a suffocating, lungs-bursting death. All parties could use such enlivenment.”
A lady slid a hand over the gold wings of a scarab necklace to touch her throat. “I never thought of it like that.”
A nobleman backed from the transparent floor onto a flower carpet. “There's no place I'd rather be than in the Water Palace. May the Oasis Empire rule for ten thousand years.”
“Yes...drowning.” The Lord of the Feast smacked his lips as if sampling a delicacy. “The pharaohs had excellent taste. Can't have your petitioners too comfortable.”
The Lord of the Feast winked at Enchantress Hiresha. She slid her gaze away, touching two fingers to her chest. Her bodyguard, Chandur, had appeared to have missed the wink, and she hoped no one had seen it.
Hiresha had spent the last year trying not to think of the Lord of the Feast. People who indulged in Feasting magic were punished with nails driven through leg, neck, and heart.
It is only right,
Too much power, too little control.
Hiresha had watched the Lord of the Feast slaughter men with that magic. Images wracked her mind of his fingers stretching into fangs, of his arms coiling in the air like a dance of snakes. He had killed to save her life.
“Enchantress Hiresha?” Chandur's voice was concerned.
“The heat is affecting me. I—I must return to the inn.” There she could await commissions sent in sealed notes by ailing nobles. “We should go and leave and be gone.”
She navigated around lords arguing about how to purify salt. Priests in blue robes joined the debate, their bald heads shining. One held a small fox with a jeweled collar and an earring. The fox squeaked at her.
Hiresha strode down the flower carpet toward the great glass arch of the palace's entrance. The door framed a sky of rippling blue.
The Lord of the Feast stepped between her and her freedom. His arms stayed motionless at his sides, seemingly paralyzed, as he walked closer.
She changed course, passing the vizier. A scribe crouched before him, holding a tray stacked with papyrus. The vizier scrawled with a quill, and in the other hand he held a staff
mounted with a baboon carved from an opal, an effigy of the deity of knowledge and enchantment
. Hiresha made a silent promise to her goddess that she would not dishonor her profession and her life's plans merely because she desired an acquaintance with a Feaster.
Hiresha considered warning the vizier that one of the pharaoh's lords was also a master of forbidden magics. The vizier would then demand how she knew him to be the Lord of the Feast. She could lie, but as the royal guards led him to his execution, he could tell of Hiresha's unfortunate but necessary association with him to save her city. They could search her and find a red diamond he had once given her.
She hated to think of him betraying her. The thought of doing the same to him disgusted her as much.
Perhaps he does not pose a threat to the gathering
, she told herself.
The accounts of him using his magic in the daytime are likely exaggerated
. The brightness shimmering through the glass ceiling would dissolve his illusion spells.
The vizier never looked up from his writing. She returned the lack of acknowledgement with aplomb.
Hiresha had lost sight of the Lord of the Feast but thought that he had to want to speak to her, perhaps as much as Hiresha desired to talk to him. That scared her more than anything. She worried he would catch her while she navigated between servants waving palm fans.
A man holding a folded cloth to mark him as a noble stepped into her path. “Enchantress Hiresha, I assume you know whom I am.”
Since he felt himself too important for a simple “who,” she guessed him from a long line of preening peacocks. “Your pardon, yet I'm—”
“In an awkward position, I know.” The nobleman shifted his girth to better block her way. His turquoise-plated belt was like a barricade. “I don't judge people by their low birth, and I say you deserve land titles.”
“Actually, I bought a few tracks around Morimound. Now if you'll excuse—”
“But no plots of the royal salt fields. No influence here, at the heart of the Lands of Loam.” He shook his head. “Disgraceful, when the gods of wealth and fortune have blessed you more than any other unmarried woman in the empire.”
“These conversations tend to go only one way. Let us skip to the end,” Hiresha said. The human blockade had delayed her too long, and she worried the Lord of the Feast would catch up to her any moment. “No, I will not marry you, your sons, or any other debtors of rank you hoped to thrust upon me.”
“'Debtors?' I'll have you know that my dealings….”
As she edged around the noble, a thorn of apprehension traced over the skin of her back. Some shred of instinct in the man with the gemstone belt must have warned him to silence. The Lord of the Feast stalked into view from behind a pair of tribal kings.
“Hiresha.” He bowed, arms hanging to the glass floor. “My memory must be failing. Or were you this beautiful when we last met?”
Her blood seared her face, pulsing in her neck in bursts of unwanted delight. She reminded herself that she should give no encouragement to the Lord of the Feast.
Best for me to ignore him.
She could have no future with a Feaster. He would destroy her life's plan.
“My heart,” the Lord of the Feast said to Hiresha, “you must be less loud with your silence. People are beginning to stare.”
A yelp drew the court’s attention from her to the group of priests. The Lord of the Feast glanced toward the men in blue robes, and one winced and stuck the side of his hand in his mouth. The crowd rippled outward from him, and noblemen pointed toward the ground and murmured.
“The Golden Scoundrel!”
“It's a sign. The Incarnate runs toward the door. The price of salt will go down.”
“No, you fool! It means it'll go up.”
Hiresha used the distraction to skirt around the Lord of the Feast. A path opened between the guests and down the flower carpet toward the door. She thought she might escape.
The fox with the jeweled earring and collar strutted onto the carpet of pink petals. Each of his ears were bigger than his head, and Hiresha had a disturbing feeling that the tiny predator trotted forward to meet her. Her back prickled as she sensed the human hunter also closing in from behind.
Men and women bowed before the fox's black-tipped tail. The enchantress did not.
The gems in his collar are only emeralds, after all
. Neither would she walk over the kitten-sized creature. If she understood the matter, this was more than a royal pet.
“Chandur,” Hiresha said, turning her chin to the side to glance at her guard, “why is this pygmy staring up at me?”
“I believe...” Tendons tightened in Spellsword Chandur's neck. His lips whitened when they pinched together. “...this fox is their god.”