Authors: Kate Hill
She removed her hood. Though the air still felt warm, the shade of buildings and trees decreased the brutal desert heat.
Another wall surrounded the palace. Guards draped in pure white robes and carrying double swords stood ready to admit visitors. They greeted Mica by name and allowed his small group to pass. They stepped into a vast garden of exotic plants and flowers. A silver cage as high as a house and filled with pink and blue birds stood
amidst tall trees with feather-like leaves.
Mica nodded toward the birdcage. “A gift from the king of the Eastern Land. Have you ever visited the Eastern Land, Dame Sun?”
“No. My assignments have been north and west. Since the wars with Zaltana, few have been sent far east.”
“If you have the chance to go there, I think you’d like it. There are some excellent fighting masters.”
“Blaze learned many of his skills there.”
Mica glanced at the Knight. “Combat?”
“And healing,” Blaze added.
“It seems we have much to talk about, Sir.”
“Undoubtedly,” Blaze said, his expression one of keen interest. “One of the guards mentioned Bedouins. What have you to do with them?”
“I help them when I can.”
Mica had spent the past several years off and on among the Bedouins. After he’d been banished, a group of them had cared for him. When he’d taken service under the High Advisor, he’d been sent to assist the tribes often.
“I heard they fight among themselves,” Sun said. “What do you do there?”
She shot him an annoyed look. “Do you try to be elusive?”
He wondered if she’d ever gaze at him with anything but anger—not that he blamed her entirely. Traveling with the son of the man who had nearly destroyed her life must be difficult.
Stepping through the arched doorway leading to the great hall, Mica glanced around. Two servants worked in the vast hall of pink and white marble, one dusting a silver table in the far corner, the other lighting candles on a chandelier.
His gaze riveted to a tall, slender man who entered through the doorway across the room. The High Advisor’s blue eyes gleamed in his dark-skinned face. He waved to Mica in greeting. Dressed in pale blue robes, a sapphire the size of a small fist resting at his throat, he hurried to meet his guests.
“Mica.” The High Advisor embraced him. “Good to see you, though I admit it’s sooner than expected. The last time you were gone so long I nearly sent a search party for you.”
“I’m back for a disturbing reason. We found a man in the desert. He’d been banished.”
The High Advisor’s smile faded. “Dead?”
Mica nodded. “I thought banishment was illegal here. If someone was to be executed—”
“You should know better. Since the war ended, no one has been banished. You helped make that change.”
“I was afraid something might have happened to the emperor again.”
“The emperor is safe and well. If anyone was banished, it didn’t happen in Ademene. Are you sure the Bedouins weren’t somehow involved?”
Mica shook his head. “They’ve been at peace for months. If there were any uprisings, I’d have heard.”
The High Advisor’s smooth brow furrowed. “Perhaps rebel groups are forming again, or the victim might have been banished by another kingdom.”
“And gotten so far south?”
“It’s unlikely. Still, we have to be sure, which is why you came, is it not?”
“I think we should exhaust every possibility,” Mica said.
“The emperor is in a meeting now, but first thing in the morning, I’ll ask him to send soldiers to search the surrounding area.”
“Thank you.” Mica bowed his head then glanced at his companions. “I’m sorry.
High Advisor Kado, this is Dame Sun and Sir Blaze. They helped me bury the banished one.”
“After he sheltered us through night and storm,” Blaze said.
Kado offered a pleasant smile. “Welcome.”
Sun stared at the High Advisor and found herself liking him. His large blue eyes were gentle and strong, reminding her of Blaze. He stood about Sun’s height and wore his black, waist-length hair in a thick braid. Sun could scarcely keep her gaze from the enormous jewel at his throat.
“Please enjoy the palace while you’re here,” Kado said.
“This is Sun’s first time in Ademene.” Mica grinned at Sun who resisted the urge to slap him. “I want to make sure she sees all the beauty it has to offer.”
“Be sure she visits Marta’s tavern. The best food in the city.” Kado glanced at Blaze.
“You’ve visited the Kennas before?”
“Several times. There’s much to learn. Akin to the shining waters of a celestial shore.”
Mica and Kado glanced at him in question.
Smiling slightly, Blaze added, “A magnificent land.”
“I wish you could have come here under better circumstances, but we will find out where the banishment originated and why. Please excuse me. I have some business to attend.” Kado turned to Mica. “It is good to have you back. You have been well?”
Sun thought she saw a hint of concern on Kado’s face as he said, “Was that an honest reply?”
Was it her imagination, or had a look of irritation passed over Mica’s calm face?
“You’ll join us for ritual this evening?”
“I would be honored.”
Kado left the hall and Mica turned back to his guests. “First I’ll find rooms for you then we can eat and visit the bathhouse.”
“What ritual was he referring to?” Sun asked.
“Ritual prayer. It’s routine for Priests and Messengers of the Goddess. I’m a Priest in Waiting, Dame Sun.”
Mica and Blaze walked toward the door, but Sun stood, stunned and rooted, in her place.
Priest in Waiting
. This gorgeous hunk of man flesh with a bulge the size of a melon in his pants was going to be a
“Dame Sun?” Mica glanced at her over his shoulder.
“Coming,” she muttered.
This was turning out to be the strangest series of events in her life. She should have listened to Dame Neila and stayed out of the Kennas.
* * * * *
After escorting Sun and Blaze to rooms in the palace’s east wing, Mica visited the Priests’ quarters where many of the Priests, Messengers and students lived. When in Ademene, he shared a chamber with a Messenger called Zareb. He knocked on the door.
Mica stepped inside, glancing at Zareb who looked up from where he knelt in prayer.
“Wasn’t sure I’d find you here,” Mica said. “Last I heard you were somewhere in the Eastern Land.”
Zareb finished his prayer before rising to greet Mica with a clap on the shoulder.
The Messenger was one of the few men in Ademene tall enough to meet Mica eye to eye. “Just got back yesterday. You look well. Have you been?”
“Yes.” In truth, he felt better than he had in months. The past few years had been difficult, the previous year being the worst, but life had been pleasant of late.
“How goes it with the Bedouins?” Zareb asked.
“Very well, or so I thought. I found the corpse of a banished man yesterday. Kado said no one here knows anything about it, therefore I’m guessing rebels are somewhere in the desert.”
Zareb’s brow furrowed. “Has the emperor sent a search party?”
“He will in the morning.”
“But I guess you’ll do some investigating yourself as well. I’ll help you.”
“I could use it.” Mica dropped his travel bag on his cot and tugged out a loincloth.
“Bathhouse, eh?” Zareb said. “That’s the only good thing about this place.”
Mica grinned. “The only?”
“The food’s good too but being cooped up in these chambers…”
“It’s the life of a Holy Man. You’ve been here almost all your life.”
Zarab curled his lip. “And been complaining about the chambers for just as long.”
“Complaints, complaints. No wonder you chose to be a Messenger instead of a Priest.”
“Messengers work just as hard, but I guess
is the key word when it comes to being a Messenger.” Zareb winked. “You still plan on going through with it?”
“In two months, I become a Priest. I’m more than ready, Zareb. If I’d followed the way of the Goddess sooner, I wouldn’t have such guilt now.”
“You can still follow the Goddess even if you don’t have your—”
“I’m not changing my mind.”
“I still think you’re crazy. It’s an old, brutal custom. Turning men into—”
“Will you lower your voice? The Priests might hear you,” Mica snapped. “Each man has his own reason for becoming a Priest, just as Messengers have their reasons.”
“Guilt is not a good enough reason to sacrifice yourself.”
“Yes it is, and it’s not just guilt. You’ve never been anything but a Holy Man, so how can you question me?”
“I’m not questioning your need to serve, but the initiation to Priesthood has nothing to do with helping people and promoting peace. In fact, I’ve always thought the initiation was a contradiction to the very essence of the Goddess’ teachings.”
“If you were meant to be a Priest, you’d understand.” Mica undressed and pulled on the loincloth, glancing at his cock and balls and feeling a bit of longing. Most of his old strength had returned these past months, but he thought his urge for women had died—until meeting a certain tall, golden warrior. Mica shrugged on a robe and headed for the door. “I have guests waiting to visit the bathhouse.”
“A Knight and a Dame. Met them in the desert.”
live in complete contradiction. Warriors and healers in one. I hear Dames are as fierce as men on the battlefield.”
“If Dame Sun is any indication of her Order’s skill then most men wouldn’t stand a chance against them.”
Zareb folded his arms across his chest and narrowed his eyes at Mica. “That’s an odd look on your face when you mention her.”
“You’re seeing things that aren’t there, Zareb.”
“What does she look like?”
Mica knew Zareb was fishing for any sign of interest. He wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of providing another reason to point why he shouldn’t become a Priest.
Instead of admitting Sun was beautiful enough to be a goddess herself, he shrugged and said, “She’s tall.”
“And I have to go. Good to see you again, Zareb. I think.”
is the key word.” Zareb called as Mica closed the door. “
about what you’re going to do before you make a mistake.”
The last thing Mica needed was more lecturing. It had taken him years of service and heavy thought to form his decision regarding Priesthood. Until yesterday, he’d been absolutely positive he was making the right choice—then he’d met Dame Sun.
Since then, his thoughts had been everything but religious. Now he was escorting her to the bathhouse for more reasons than simple hospitality. The idea of seeing her in swimming clothes seemed to inspire complete recovery from the ravaging effects of the past few years.
He walked down the staircase, passed through the great hall, and up another flight of steps to the guest chambers. Sun and Blaze awaited him in the hallway, both draped in robes supplied by palace servants. Sun’s was black, a startling contrast to the thick, blonde hair hanging loose down her back. Imagining her body beneath the robe, Mica felt his pulse leap.
“How was your meal?” he asked.
“Excellent,” Blaze replied.
Sun’s gaze held Mica’s. “Where’s this bathhouse? Outside the palace?”
“No. Under it.”
“A spring,” Blaze said.
“Yes. The water’s warm and very pleasant.” Mica led them to another dim, narrow staircase at the end of the hallway. “There are several bathing rooms, one for male servants, one for female, one for the Priests and private baths for the emperor and the High Advisor. Kado has given us permission to use his—unless Dame Sun would prefer the company of the other women?”
“I’m a soldier and don’t require special treatment or segregation.”
Blaze raised an eyebrow in her direction. “I would say using the great Holy Man’s bath is special.”
“Very true, Sir Blaze.” Mica smiled.
Near the end of the steep staircase, the air grew warm. At the bottom of the steps moisture beaded the tile walls and ceiling. Straw and leather mats kept their boots from slipping on the marble floor. Torches lit their way down the hall which was randomly scattered with plants in colorful pots. The tiles on the wall created pictures of the Goddess in many forms. Tall, slender, fat, short, redheaded, blonde, raven-haired,
large-breasted and small. In some she was the mother, in others an old woman. Always she wore an expression of compassion—even in her fiercest poses.
Mica’s father and his followers had hated the Goddess and tried to crush the people’s belief in Her, but Her ways were rooted deep in the Kennas.
“These works are lovely.” Sun paused in front of a picture of the Goddess astride a blood bay mare.
“Most were done by an old Priest, now long dead. This palace is over a thousand years old, Dame Sun.”
They continued down the hall. Giggling and splashing sounded from the bathhouse used by female servants. Glancing into the Priests’ bathing chamber, Mica noticed several of his friends enjoying the pool. Ahead, the hall divided. Mica guided his guests to the left. Taking a torch from the wall, he led them through an open door to a dark chamber. He lit torches around the room and at each corner of a square pool. Potted trees scattered randomly throughout the room. Several feet from the pool, the marble floor rose to a slightly higher level, accommodating a black and silver trunk, a tiny wooden table and four large satin pillows serving as chairs. A hearth only large enough for the black pot hanging over it stood beside the trunk.
“How do you release the smoke?” Blaze nodded toward the hearth.
“Blaze has proven smoke to be bad for breathing. He tries to spread his message to villages everywhere, but not everyone believes him.”
“Change can be difficult to bring about,” Mica said. “However, we are not a backward land. Our houses and the palace have pipelines for smoke to escape. Look.”
The three walked to the hearth where Mica knelt, sticking his entire arm up a hole in the wall above the hearth. “It goes all the way to a chute on the first level of the palace.