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Authors: Angela Highland

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Chapter Two

Lomhannor Hall
,
Jomhas 22
,
AC 1876

All throughout the war with Adalonia, Khamsin, proud daughter of Clan Sarazen, had slept with a dagger beneath her pillow and a sword in arm’s reach of her bed. That changed when Adalonia won the war, and her Clan saw fit to send her sister Yamineh north to marry the Duke of Shalridan, Holvirr Kilmerredes. Khamsin laid aside her sword and her pride and accompanied her sister, and when Yamineh shocked them all by consorting with one of the Hidden Ones, Khamsin took it as a sign from Djashtet that she was meant to salvage her Clan’s honor and take her sister’s place.

She’d had to lay aside all signs that she still followed the Lady of Time, for to follow Her openly on the path she’d chosen was foolhardy. But she’d never ceased sleeping with her dagger. And since the coming of the assassins to Lomhannor Hall, she’d taken up keeping her sword beside her bed once more. And she’d prayed in her heart of hearts to Djashtet that her lord husband, returned from Arlitham Abbey, wouldn’t ask to sleep at her side once more. Khamsin had seen his empty eyes, and she feared what he might do with a sword too close to his hand.

When one of Lomhannor’s guards came to wake her in the middle of the night, her fears ignited into fiery life.

“My lady, come quickly. The
akresha
Ulima’s chambers.”

Khamsin snapped awake at the urgent words and the shaking of her shoulder, and sprang out of bed to follow the young guardsman as he bolted right back out of the room. Without thinking, she seized the dagger beneath her pillow. All that kept her from snatching the sword that hung on hooks along the frame of her bed was that the guards themselves were armed. But when she followed them to her kinswoman’s chambers, she almost regretted leaving the bigger blade behind—for what met her eyes as she rushed through the door was a scene of death.

Two more guards had reached the room ahead of her. They were already pulling the slack forms of her husband and Ulima apart, but not quickly enough. Khamsin had already seen Holvirr’s hands around the old woman’s neck, and the dagger Ulima had plunged into his chest in return.

Mercifully, none of the guards were foolish enough to try to explain what she saw before her with her own eyes. Nor did they try to stop her as she strode forward to check each fallen form to verify that they were in fact dead. It was little more than a formality, for though it’d been over twenty years since she’d lifted a sword in battle in the name of Djashtet and of Clan Sarazen, she hadn’t forgotten what death looked like.

Still, that formality had to be observed. Khamsin allowed herself to close her eyes for a moment and wonder grimly whether Djashtet would hear her prayers anymore. She offered one nonetheless, murmured low in the Tantiu tongue as she closed first Ulima’s eyes and then her husband’s.

“No one outside this room is to know what happened,” she commanded the guards when she stood again. “My lord husband died in a riding accident. That is the tale we’ll tell any and all who asks. Take him from this room and prepare him. We will lay him to rest according to the laws of his gods and this land.”


Akresha
...” It didn’t surprise her that Semai had been one of the guards to reach the room first, nor that he was the one who finally spoke up. “What of the Nobi? We must give the
akresha
Ulima her proper due, as well.”

Khamsin couldn’t fault the man for his loyalty; he’d always been an exemplary guardsman, and before that, on the battlefield, an honorable soldier. But in that moment, she couldn’t abide the sight of him. “The Nobi has slain my lord,” she snarled. “She can be consigned to the rubbish heap for all I care.”

“She was Djashtethi,” Semai said. Among all her people who’d come to Lomhannor from Tantiulo he was one of the few remaining who still wore the
korfi
, so she couldn’t see his expression. His disapproval was plain nonetheless. “And she was your kin and Clan. To dishonor her body would be to dishonor the Lady of Time Herself.”

He was right. Gods of both the realms take him, he was right, but Khamsin bristled at admitting it. “Do what you will with her, then, but do it out of my sight.” Unable to bring herself to meet the guardsman’s gaze, she spun on her heel and headed for the door. “I must check on my children. Report to me in my chambers when this room has been cleared.”

What nods they might have given or acknowledgements they might have uttered, the duchess neither noticed nor cared. Her heart and mind in turmoil, she prowled through the corridors of the Hall to the nursery where Yselde and Artir slept. En route she fetched and lit a candle, for she had no wish to frighten the children in the darkness.

In truth, she dreaded explaining to her daughter what had happened to her father. Artir had barely begun to walk; he was too small to understand. But Yselde was another matter. And it was Yselde’s small form that Khamsin sought as she entered the nursery, candle in hand. To her intermingled pleasure and dismay, the child stirred instantly at the sound of her entrance.

“Mama? What’s the matter? Is something wrong with Papa?”

Khamsin went to Yselde’s bed and sat down at her side, reaching over to stroke her hair. “Little bloom,” she murmured. “You know more than everyone believes, don’t you? Even me, sometimes.” And it was true. Yselde was a mix of her parents in coloring, but in the shape of her young features, Khamsin saw someone else. Her sister. Like Yamineh, Yselde had a certain delicate wistfulness in her visage, and Khamsin had always dismissed that as weakness. Yet Yamineh had had a way of knowing things. Nothing so rarefied as visions of Djashtet, like Ulima’s, but insights nonetheless.

Yselde was looking up at her with that same grave awareness now, and the sight of it sent a pang through Khamsin’s heart. “I know Papa came home sick,” she said.

“Yes. Very sick,” her mother agreed, lifting her up gently into her arms. “And I sorrow to tell you now, little bloom, that your papa is dead. The gods have taken him from us tonight.”

Small arms tightened around her as her daughter pulled close. “Did the Father and Mother take him? Or did Djashtet?”

To hear the name of the Lady of Time on Yselde’s lips surprised Khamsin more than it should have. She’d never taught the little one of Djashtet, but she was hardly the only Tantiu in Lomhannor Hall—and Ulima had been a priestess of the Djashtethi. That Yselde could know Djashtet’s name was not the surprise. That she could think to ask the question, though, was.

Khamsin looked down into her daughter’s face, struck anew by cold realization. Because it had pleased her husband, and because she hadn’t wanted to threaten the power she’d carved out for herself, she’d begun to raise Yselde as an Adalon child would be raised. But Yselde was Tantiu too.

And all at once, Khamsin wanted nothing more than to take her daughter and her son home. Not this great drafty hall in this land of the cold north, but Tantiulo, her true home. Where her children could learn of the land of fierce sun and endless sand that had birthed their mother, and where they could claim places as children of Clan Sarazen. Where they—and she, once more—could worship Djashtet without fear.

Sarazen had survived the war because it had sacrificed its fairest daughter, and when Yamineh had fallen, Khamsin had shouldered the burden of taking her place. She’d even loved Holvirr Kilmerredes after a fashion, as much as she could manage, and he’d always treated her and the children with honor.

But now he was slain. Khamsin drew in a breath, kissed Yselde’s dark hair, and told her, “The Crone of Night, the oldest face of Djashtet, called him home to Her tonight.”

“Mama, you haven’t talked about the Crone of Night before,” Yselde said, blinking up at her with wondering eyes.

“No, little bloom, I haven’t. That’s going to change, because you should know about Her, and about the Dawnmaiden and the Noonmother, all of the faces of Djashtet. And there will be more changes, as well.”

“What changes, Mama?”

“You’ll see them in time. Tonight, though, I wanted to come to you and tell you of your father. And that
I
won’t be leaving you.”

Yselde snuggled up against her, and Khamsin hugged her close. Changes there would be, indeed, more than she could easily explain to a four-year-old child. But all would be worth it, if she could abandon this country that had nothing left for her heart. And so much the better if she could deal one last blow in the name of a war that her people should never have surrendered.

Her husband had had certain plans, for Adalonia had devoured other countries before turning its hungry eye to Tantiulo. His greatest ambition had been to see the lion of Nirrivy rising again—the very lion for whose heart Lomhannor Hall itself had been named. If she could claim his plans for her own, then a lion would indeed rise in Kilmerry Province.

The lion of Clan Sarazen.

* * *

Shalridan
,
Jomhas 25
,
AC 1876

Semai el-Numair Behzad had done much in the service of Clan Sarazen—and lost much. What hurts he’d taken as a younger man in battle against Adalonia were nothing to the greater price that war had demanded of him, the lives of his wife and small sons. Yet when Sarazen had called him to lift up arms, he’d answered. When they’d bid him to lay them down again, he made his grudging peace. And when volunteers were summoned to join the household of the Clan’s fairest daughter and accompany her to live with her new northern husband, Semai had accepted the honor of serving as the captain of her guards. He’d borne the indignity of living in the land whose people had invaded his own, had endured a climate far colder than his desert-bred bones cared for, and had even stifled his grief that the younger Tantiu of her household had turned their faces from Almighty Djashtet.

But not once had he ever been called upon to set foot in an Adalon dockside tavern, filled wall-to-wall with the less savory denizens of Shalridan, and rife with the smells of alcohol, unwashed bodies and fish. The noise alone would have normally kept him away; the wild shrilling of fiddles and the roaring of voices with far more vigor than skill at song was an assault upon his ears.

Ulima had bid him seek his quarry in this place, though. And for a Nobi of the Djashtethi—for
that
Nobi, who’d given her life in the name of Djashtet—he’d do even more than he might have done for a Clan whose fate had turned against him.

Semai was grateful for his
korfi
as he strode into the tavern, for it gave him some small protection against the smoke from the hearth fire and the many substances the patrons were smoking. Moreover, it kept his face from scrutiny. He had no illusions that he’d go unobserved in this place. Such wasn’t possible for a man of his size, and one of Tantiu coloring and garb to boot. It would suffice if he could acquire a drink, ask a few discreet questions and make it through the night unchallenged—though he had no illusions about his chances of that, either. Not when he walked among the people who’d fought against his own all too short a time ago.

As it happened, though, Djashtet smiled upon him.

He claimed a free stool at the end of the bar without incident, for almost everyone in the tavern was engrossed by a figure in the center of the room. The young man stood atop a table, slim and striking, his disheveled golden hair set off by the brilliant blue coat that hung half-buttoned on his frame. Eyes fixed upon the far wall, he hurled daggers over the heads of the astonished crowd. When each blade struck, the people around him cheered. Money flowed between their hands as freely as the wine and whiskey flowed into their cups.

And when each blade struck, the man on the table bellowed a stinging curse.

“Crow!”

“Vulture!”

“Harpy!”

Long moments passed before anyone approached Semai, moments he was content to spend studying the young man with the knives. If his eyes didn’t deceive him, one of the knife-wielder’s hands looked wrong. That one small detail above all others held his attention. The
akresha
Ulima hadn’t told him the names of the men he sought before she and the Duke of Shalridan had killed each other. But she’d known that each of them was maimed, and that one of them had only nine fingers.

When an exhausted-looking young woman with an empty tray scampered past him, Semai put out a hand to halt her in her path. Before she could protest, he held out a handful of coins to her. “These are yours if you tell me the name of the one on the table, the one with the knives.”

The serving girl cast a twisted little half smile in the direction of the knife-hurler, even as three eager youths plucked all his blades out of the wall and brought them back to him to throw all over again. “That’s Nine-fingered Rab, of course.” Suspicion tinged her dark eyes even as she plucked the coins from his palm and squirreled them away beneath her apron. “What’s it to you, blue-scarf? Did he seduce your daughter or something?”

Her latter words weren’t worthy of comment—after all, if this Nine-fingered Rab had violated the honor of any of his offspring, he would have drawn a blade on the stripling and challenged him, Adalon laws against dueling or no. “I seek a girl. I’m told that boy can help me find her.”

“Well, hells, blue-scarf, if a girl’s all you want, you don’t have to talk to him. Some of us around here might not mind a peek at what you Tantiu types are hiding behind those scarves of yours.”

That was even less worthy of comment, coming from a girl young enough to be his daughter. But he’d bought her attention with his money, and he wasn’t ready to surrender it quite yet. “I seek a specific maiden—” he pressed two more coins into the server’s hand, “—and the one with the knives can help me find her. I’ll buy his next drink. Tell him I’d like to speak to him.” Smirking behind his
korfi
, he paused as the sharp thwack of metal against wood proclaimed that Nine-fingered Rab had resumed his campaign against the wall. “If he can spare the time.”

The serving girl eyed him dubiously but seemed to accept the persuasion of his coins. “I’ll see if I can get his attention. Don’t be surprised if it takes a bit, though. Rab’s been at this all night.”

BOOK: Vengeance of the Hunter
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