Authors: Deborah J. Ross
Shannivar could no longer hear the chanting or feel the bone-deep shivers of her body.
Winds bore her up as if she were no more than a downy feather from her clan's totem eagle. Overhead, storm clouds collided, and in their turbulent depths, colors writhed and coalesced. Shapes moved, noâone single shape, man-like and erect, but distorted. She made out a heavy-jawed skull, arms, and legs that reached down into the very marrow of the land. It blotted out half the sky.
The figure was moving now, emerging from the clouds to stride across a wide green field. A corona of fire surrounded it. Whatever it touched burst into flames and left cinders of frost. Its shadow spawned smaller creaturesâstone-drakes, winged snakes, things that might have been wolves except for their many-forked tails and firelit eyes, and many others too dim and misshapen to recognize.
The mountains glowed, belching molten rock and ash. Shannivar became aware that she was not alone. Rising up behind her, as if she had floated on a banner in their forefront, stood a company of men. One man in particular stood out. Although she could not see his face and his armor and weapons were foreign to her, she knew him. The soldiers chanted in unison, but she paid them no heed. Her attention was drawn to the object the man now raised overhead, a rainbow of colored crystals, shimmering with power. At their heart lay a clear faceted gem, forged for a single purposeâto focus that power. Golden light streamed through it and suffused the face of the man. It glimmered under his skin.
the men shouted. Their voices filled the windÂ .Â .Â .
Also by Deborah J. Ross:
The Seven-Petaled Shield
The Heir of Khored*
*Coming soon from DAW Books
Copyright Â© 2013 by Deborah J. Ross.
All Rights Reserved.
Cover art by Matthew Stawicki.
Cover design by G-Force Design.
DAW Book Collectors No. 1640.
DAW Books are distributed by Penguin Group (USA).
All characters and events in this book are fictitious.
All resemblance to persons living or dead is coincidental.
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eBook ISBN: 978-1-101-63567-4
First Printing, December 2013
DAW TRADEMARK REGISTERED
U.S. PAT. AND TM. OFF. AND FOREIGN COUNTRIES
HECHO EN U.S.A.
To Bonnie Stockman
May the Mother of Horses hold you ever in her heart
Zevaron clutched his chest, kneading muscle and skin to ease the ache within. He heard the whispers of his mother's words. She was trying to tell him something, but there was no time. She was dying already.
I will come back
, he'd sworn.
I will save you.
And she had answered him as she lay in her filthy prison cell.
You have already saved what is most dear to me.
Gone, she was gone.
Gone as Maharrad his father was gone, and Shorennon his brother, and Meklavar his country.
Cinath had done these things. She was dead, and Cinath, may-he-rot-forever, had killed her.
Her life was worth a thousand Ar-Kings. Ten thousand.
Cinath will payâ
His empire would pay. Gelon would burn. By all the gods of Gelon and Denariya, where he'd sailed as a pirate for four long years, by the ancient powers of his own people, he would bring down this accursed land and everyone in it. If he had to make a treaty with his bitterest enemy, if he had to march into the pit of hell itself, he would do it. He would do whatever he had to, for the power to accomplish his revenge.
Gelon will pay.
* * *
Zevaron had not meant to sleep the night through, only to rest for a time, once his first frenzy of grief had subsided. When he opened his eyes and smeared away the gummy residue of tears, pale yellow dawn light was sifting through the tower windows. He washed, packed away his mother's few possessions, and went downstairs.
Voices reached him from the garden atrium, Jaxar's hoarse rumble in counterpoint to Danar's clear tenor. He should take his leave of them properly, he thought, to honor what they had done for his mother, Tsorreh. At least Jaxar's wife, Lycian, did not seem to be in attendance. He would not have to witness her gloating.
In the garden, a freshness hung on the leaves. A hidden bird chirped and then fell silent. It was an oasis, this place. Zevaron hoped his mother had found a refuge here.
Danar sat across from Jaxar, his father. Sun glinted on his red-gold hair, but his face looked pale, even for a Gelon. Jaxar gestured for Zevaron to take the empty chair, just as if he were a guest invited to break his fast with the family.
Zevaron chewed a piece of bread, still warm from the oven, and sipped the lightly fermented fruit juice. The bread was surprisingly good, with a thin, crisp crust.
Jaxar waited until Zevaron had finished eating and then spoke, clearly having prepared his thoughts. “Zevaron, I know you wish to leave Aidon. The city must hold nothing but painful memories for you, after all that has happened. I would offer you a place in this household if it would ease your grief, but I fear that any place in Gelon will quickly become too dangerous for one of your race.”
Zevaron nodded, thinking Jaxar had never spoken truer words. “I thank you for everything you have done, but I would not impose on you a single night longer.”
“Have you thought where you might go?” Jaxar asked. “Back to Denariya?”
Anywhere I can find help.
“Perhaps,” Zevaron said carelessly. “Yet the way is long, and the passage through the Firelands can be treacherous.”
“You have made the journey many times?” Danar asked with a touch of eagerness.
“What about Isarre?” Jaxar said. “Would you not have a place there, as Tsorreh's son?”
Zevaron sat back, studying the older man. “You are not interested in my travel plans. Tell me straight out what you want, and have done with it.”
Danar and Jaxar exchanged uncomfortable glances. Danar's expression turned rebellious, the muscles of his jaw standing out as he clenched his teeth.
“I wish Tsorreh were still alive, so that I might admit to her face that she was right about Cinath.” Jaxar sighed. “I thought, I foolishly believed, that the devotion he and I once shared as brothers, as well as my own position, would protect those I love.”
He paused, his eyes desolate. “The only thing I can say in my own defense, and his, is that he was not always so ruthless, so bent on power. He had always been ambitious, yes, but he was reasonable, too. Now he will listen to no one, and any dissident voiceâeven mineâonly provokes him further.”
Jaxar fears the Ar-King's retaliation for having defended Tsorreh.
“I am sorry,” Zevaron said, aware there was no hint of sympathy in his tone, “but this no longer has anything to do with me.”
And it changes nothing.
“Perhaps, perhaps not.” Jaxar sat back, drumming his fingers on the table. “Sad times have befallen my country. I do not know precisely when or how the change came about. Certainly, the loss of a beloved son and heir is enough to break the mind of any father, even a king. But I think Cinath must have been, if not mad, then gravely mistaken, to send Thessar to Azkhantia in the first placeâAzkhantia, the rock on which armies shatter and fall!”
Isarre was weak, Zevaron reflected, barely able to defend its borders, or he and his mother would not have been taken prisoner at the fall of the port city of Gatacinne. On the other hand, the nomadic horse peoples of the Azkhantian steppe had repulsed wave after wave of Gelonian incursions. Cinath's own son had met his death at their hands. The possibility of an alliance with the Azkhantians merited further consideration. If he were to have any chance of avenging himself on Gelon, he would need such a force.
“Perhaps it all started to go wrong when we invaded Meklavar,” Jaxar mused. “Nothing but sorrow has come of that. As happy as I have been to have Tsorreh in my house, to study with me and discuss my work, to teach Danar and become his friend, I would that she had stayed at home in peace.”
Zevaron had not expected such graciousness. He looked away.
After a breath, Jaxar went on. “He will come for Danar next.”
“But not for you?”
“My life has never been very secure, as you can see.” Jaxar gave a slight, self-deprecating gesture at his swollen body and twisted foot. “The priest-physicians have been telling me I was going to die since before Danar was born. If Cinath comes for me tomorrow, or if this weary heart gives out at last, then I will have had more time than I ever expected. These last four years have truly been a gift.”
Danar, who might well challenge Cinath's younger son for the throneâyes, Cinath would see him as a threat, one he cannot permit to live.
“Father, you must not speak this way.” Danar got up and began pacing. “You cannot ask me to leave you.”
Jaxar waved him to silence. “Zevaron, I have no right to ask anything of you. We are already deeply in your debt. You saved the life of my son once. Now I beg you to do so again. You yourself must leave Aidon. For the sake of Tsorreh, who loved him too, take Danar with you. Take him to Isarre, beyond Cinath's grasp. Keep him safe. Keep both of you safe.”
“Danar, no more foolish talk! I do not wish to mourn my only son, and that is what will happen if you stay here.”
“Then you must come, too! I will find a wayâZevaron, help me to convince him! We cannot leave him here!”
, Zevaron thought. It was bad enough to consider taking a city boy out on the seas, assuming they could make it to the coast, but not an old man, an invalid, someone easily recognized. They would not find a haven in Isarre, and he would not find the allies he needed. It would be sheerest folly.
“The elder generation must pass away,” Jaxar said, his voice shifting from stern to gentle. “Sooner or later, in the rightness of things, you will lose me. I want to lay down this life knowing that you are free.”
Danar turned his face away.
“Someday, if the gods are kind,” Jaxar said, “you will return to Gelon and make it a better place, the place it ought to be. Then the sun will truly shine upon our Golden Land. Perhaps you will be the one to make things right. A free Meklavar and a reawakened Gelon will live at peace, as brothers, even as you and Zevaron will.”
Zevaron's heart caught in his throat. Of all the things he had expected Jaxar to say, this was wildest and yet the most true. He had never thought that Danar might have the power to restore Meklavar, that this might be the result of saving his life. It was the one argument Zevaron had no defense against, and it was not even being addressed to him. These words were spoken as a prayer, a father's hopes for his son, and not as a bribe.
Jaxar turned to him. “Zevaron, you are the only one I can trust who has the fighting skills and cunning to get Danar to safety. I cannot ask Jonath or Haslar to become outlaws, not even for my sake. Will you help us?”
, Zevaron thought again. And then:
This is what Tsorreh would have done.
Tsorreh had trusted these people and had looked to them for protection, but in the end, they had not been able to protect her from Cinath. Jaxar's pledges of aid for Meklavar might well amount to nothing.
But, Zevaron thought, Jaxar's scheme offered a practical way out of the city and a better chance than he would have alone. If he were to find alliesâAzkhantian, Isarran, or otherwiseâhe must search beyond Gelon's borders.
“Give me a good sword, some food, and money for passage,” he said. “And both of us shall reach Isarre alive, or neither of us will.”