Lin, newly initiated in the art of otherwordly enchantments, is sent to aid her homeland’s allies against vicious attacks from the Fire Dancers: mysterious practitioners of strange and deadly magic. Forced to step into a dangerous waltz of tradition, treachery, and palace secrets, Lin must also race the ticking clock of her own rapidly dwindling life to learn the truth of the Fire Dancers’ war, and how she might prevent death on a scale too terrifying to contemplate.
Palace intrigue, dark magic, and terrifying secrets drive Ilana C. Myer’s standalone novel Fire Dance, set in the world of Last Song Before Night. Available April 10th from Tor Books.
He was crying in her dream, as he did most nights. This time on the floor in the corner of her tent, beside the legs of the brazier. His face hidden in his hands. Lin Amaristoth sat up, buried her own head in her hands. “I think of it, too,” she said. “It doesn’t help. What is to be, will be.” She turned and saw herself in the bed, adrift in sleep. So pale, as if dead already. Yet she was also standing, looking down at his hunched shoulders and golden head. A bright heart brought low.
“We all made mistakes, my love,” she said. Then paused, brought up short by the words. A dream, she reminded herself. Moonlight through the tent flap, slender as a rapier, split the wall between them. Lin was still. She felt to cross that line would signify the end of something.
Instead she reached out a hand, towards the shaking shoulders of the man who had died for her. Said, “I know you never meant to hurt me.”
* * *
When she awoke it was still night. As ever when Lin first awoke, she was unsure in her own body and where she was, as if she saw double. There was the tent and its slat of moonlight through the flap, and overlying that, another place and time where the stars were different. Where not as many years had worn on the earth and stones. But to be in two places at once, she found, meant you were not fully present in either. Sometimes she expected even the most vibrant sunlight to pass through her as if she were glass.
Lin supposed this feeling, of not being entirely present in her body, had to do with the way she was fading. That was how she’d come to think of it, like a star gradually winking out of existence—or, if the astronomers of the east were right, into an expanse of rock. Though that took thousands of years. As many mortal lives swallowed within that time as scattered sand.
Viewed that way, a life was nothing. Not even the men who became legends could count for much, when their memory lived only in fragile creatures like themselves.
Lin sat up in bed. She had begun to notice a sound, quieter even than the crickets and the wind. At first wondered if it was another dream. Or Edrien. But as she listened, as the sound merged with the night, it became ordinary. A man’s voice, singing. A sound like a chant, melodious repetition.
She draped her blanket around her shoulders, rose from the bed. The blanket was crimson velvet and of surpassing softness, lined with gold silk. Gathered about her it was like a cape, finer than any she’d owned, and less practical. She drew aside the tent flap and stepped out.
Garon Senn had gone. In his stead a pair of guards kept watch—young men, likely terrified of their new responsibilities and of her. They started like hares when she emerged behind them. She permitted herself a smile at this test of their reflexes. Heard them stir uneasily as she passed. But neither dared yet to speak.
Out here, she could hear the singing more clearly, though it was faint. The royal pavilions were camped at the crest of a hill; the sound seemed to be coming from partly down the slope. The tune not one she recognized. It was a song released in circles, without finding resolution. She remembered: the scales of music used here were different.
It did not occur to her to be afraid—the camp was well-guarded. She trod carefully to avoid the poppies, as she understood they were considered sacred—the red ones. Painted with the blood of some martyr of long ago, as their faith would have it. She picked her way around them in the soft earth. Moonlight made dimpled shadows on the grass.
Lin was some paces away when one of the guards timidly called out to her. She straightened as if the blanket were in fact a cloak. As if she was outfitted for a hunt. “Yes?” she said over her shoulder. “I am going to walk a bit. If I have need of you I will call you.” She could not have said what compelled her. She was weary, saddened from the dream, and tired of being alone with the image of stars guttering to rock and the grief of a man who had died for her.
In a way she did hunt that night, for she didn’t want to alert the singer to her presence. Her footfalls were light on the grass. It brought to mind times past, the excitement of setting out on a night’s expedition. She and her brother, clad in leather and fur, armed with bows and knives. Setting the bait—salt poured on the bole of a tree—for the stag that would come. They two comprising a silence more profound than night. All the things each of them thought, and did not say. The hatred and love that could not be disentangled. And now would never be, since Rayen Amaristoth was gone.
But this was an altogether different place, where the air was rich, seductive with poppy scents. Where beneath her feet there was, instead of dirt and twigs, a carpet of grass. And she was not on the hunt to bring down a proud, antlered creature in its home. Not in years had she done so now.
The singing grew near. She spotted movement in the dappled shadow of cypress trees. Later she would recall how she found him, seated on a stone outcropping. His song, as she approached, seemed sad to her, though perhaps she would have heard any music just then as sad. It was in a language she didn’t know. Not Kahishian, not her own.
He ceased when a clump of pebbles crunched under her foot. His head turned towards her. She could only see an angular face, framed with shoulder-length black hair. Lin became aware of how she might look—slight, childlike under a blanket. A disadvantage. But it was too late. In Kahishian she said, “That is a sad song. It drew me.”
He smiled. She could see that, the gleam of teeth, but it was hard to see more. When he replied it was in her language, and perfectly. “Is it sad?” he said. “It is from my childhood. It goes around in my head sometimes, until I find I must let it go.”
“Valanir Ocune mentioned something about music, and you,” she said. “He said before you studied magic, you were a musician.” The Seer had spoken admiringly of his friend, who had risen from humble origins to make his name in Ramadus, and subsequently the Zahra.
The dark curtained his expression. “You are Lady Amaristoth.”
“Gvir Alcavar,” she said, inclining her head in mock formality. “You are late for supper.”
This time he did not smile. “It is a failing,” he said. “One for which, thankfully, Eldakar forgives me. The fighting in the north… requires my focus. This past week especially.”
“Why? What’s happened?”
He shook his head. “No real news yet—what I have, I must save for the council. You will be there. Mansur—the king’s brother—has been encountering fierce battles. There are—terrible things happening.” She saw now that he looked exhausted. “I try to warn the forces where the attacks will come. Still, it is bad. Mansur doesn’t have enough men. But all this… it can wait until morning. I am here to welcome you, as are we all.”
“Valanir intimated that you and I have much to discuss,” she said. She chose her words with caution, though she didn’t think they were overheard. “As to who you think is… responsible.”
She felt his eyes on her sharpen. Light-colored, they brought to mind a mountain cat. Something new in his voice when he spoke again. Four words, but they chilled her. “Lady,” he said. “You are alone?”
Lin glanced around, behind her. There was a sinking in her stomach. But she raised her chin, met his eyes as if unconcerned. “I am here with my guards and attendants—of course.”
He continued to stare. Under his gaze Lin felt fear at first, then the beginnings of anger. It was in response to his summons that she had come, after all. Come all this way. She could have stayed in the palace of Tamryllin, with her rooms that overlooked the sea, the daily rituals that gave her comfort. Small comfort, but nonetheless. She could have stayed there, in the time that was left.
Lin realized she had hoped she could rely on this friend of Valanir Ocune with the truth. This man the Seer held in such high regard, who was a Magician of renown. But hearing that cold mistrust in his voice, she doubted that now.
Despite feeling increasingly desolate, she held his gaze. “The fighting in the north concerns me, too, Zahir Alcavar. It is the reason I am here.”
No question about his coldness now. “There is a shadow that moves with you, Seer. I see it even in the dark.”
Lin’s fists closed. But she kept her tone even. “A shadow?” she murmured. “Why don’t you explain?”
His tone remained level as well. He had a deep, sonorous voice, such as had been evidenced in his singing. “There are several possible names for what I see accompanying you,” he said. “None of them good.”
Lin looked down at the man sprawled at her feet. Assessing him not just through her own eyes. “You will need to decide if you are willing to take me as you summoned me, Magician.” The last word pronounced like an epithet. That she had come this far, bearing under her burdens, and this was the end of it. Rage filled her like a tide. “I have turned back a laylan from my land’s destruction. Watched people I loved die. What have you done in your palace, Ramadian? In your tower above the world?” He was silent. He was a court fop, she thought, soft from palace life. Valanir’s stories of singing with Zahir Alcavar in the palace gardens began to take on a new light. Of Magicians trammeled in luxury and concentric circles of flattery, safe in their tower. Lin knew these were not entirely her thoughts—what Magicians had she known?—but resolve like iron backed her words. “I will leave if you wish it,” she said. Her tone turned soft. “Leave your people to whatever fate Kiara has decreed for them. I shall return to the court of Tamryllin, perhaps write a song about the Kahishian mountains in spring. And then forget them, and if we meet again it will be on the battlefield, or else never. Those are my terms.”
Still he didn’t speak, his face masked in night. She had not wanted to imperil this alliance but neither could she compromise her honor, which did not belong wholly to her. It was done. Since he was silent, it seemed there was no more to be said. She turned, began to make her way back up the hill. Zahir Alcavar did not call out to her. Nor did he take up the strands of his song again. Silence was all that accompanied Lin in the march to her tent—that, and her ghosts. Perhaps he will have me killed, she thought, and almost it made her laugh.
* * *
As a child Lin Amaristoth had been taught contempt for the upstart, as her family named Yusuf Evrayad; he who had united the splintered provinces of Kahishi and built a mountain palace above Majdara of such splendor it shamed any in the land that had come before. But this was vanity by the reckoning of an Amaristoth, in their fastness of centuries. To their view, the decades-long reign of Yusuf Evrayad was an eyeblink, a hothouse orchid beside an oak. As ever her family concealed their true attitudes—even their nature—from outsiders. Often Kahishian dignitaries were guests of House Amaristoth, especially in summer. Decked in ostentatious scents and finery they came, like tropical birds amid the sparrows of the north. From them, over years, Lin had learned the tongue of Kahishi. She never knew what these visitors with their clattering gold earrings and neck chains thought of the ghostly daughter of Amaristoth, who tended to linger in corners or else near the fire, as if she never could get warm. Doubtless they—strangers to Vassilian who drank chilled gold wine with Lord and Lady Amaristoth and their son Rayen until agreements about ships and caravans and bolts of wool were reached—gave the daughter little thought. Seldom she spoke while these negotiations took place. She listened. Most of her life she had spent listening.
Lin Amaristoth’s family hid their poison behind smooth smiles, made use of Kahishian connections by necessity. Majdara is our gate to the world, Rayen had once said. It held the keys to trade with the south and east; to the west the seas were uncharted, and no ships sent on exploratory voyages that way returned. Standing at the mountain passes, guarding the coastline, Kahishi also held the keys to Eivar’s defense. Or our defeat, Lin had thought at the time, and thought it again now, hands tightening on the guardrail as she looked out on theRiver Gadlan, waters murky green in the shadow of the royal barge. Along the bank ran the walls of Majdara, spiked with battlements and hung with the banners of Evrayad. The sun was high and picked light from the gold-threaded banners, made them gleam with each stir of the wind.
They had ridden three days from the poppy fields and the temple there. Before departing, Lin had stopped to pay her respects to the god, to see for herself what a temple to Alfin was like. It was a small building of adobe, unadorned, but for its domed roof and minaret. As instructed ahead of time, she removed her shoes upon entering, felt cracked tile underfoot. A temple that had not been in use for some time, it was empty this morning. Arches split the half-dark in multiple angles, gave a feel of depth even to this small space. Lin noted that though the god of the Kahishians had a thousand names, he was without a face: there were no images of him to be seen. In Eivar, even the meanest temple to the Three might have figures, or a fresco, depending on what the community could afford. Artists in Eivar made their livelihood depicting images of gods. Here, the art was without a human subject: intertwining tree limbs made for a frieze along the wall. This was interspersed with grapes hanging from a vine, a lion frozen in the act of stalking a gazelle.
In a corner, the grave of the martyr was an upright slab, his name an inscribed curlicue that had faded. But the bas-relief beneath his name endured: a winged horse. This in their faith represented the journey from earth to the heavens.
Lin had insisted on entering alone, against Ned’s protests. She could tell that was a problem for him—she hoped he would forgive her. It was useless for him to try to protect her. I’m already endangered, she’d told Valanir Ocune with a wry lightness of tone, in part to set him and his sorrow at a distance. But here in this abandoned temple to a foreign god, surrounded by flowers stained with the blood of a long-ago martyr, Lin could not deny the heaviness in her heart. The place forced her into an awareness of herself. Something in the entrenched silence; in the blades of sunlight, glittering with dust, that cut the shadows between pillars. In the engraved letters, strange to her eye, that ran in flourishing strokes across the wall. Unthinkably old, this place was. Though Ned waited outside, she felt alone.
That evening, following a day’s ride, a council was held in the banquet tent. They had set up camp on the banks of the River Gadlan, a watery road that led to the capital. Zahir Alcavar had not, it seemed, denounced her, but he avoided her, too. He was close to the king; her words would have consequences. She wondered if he was biding his time—if they all were. But for what? It seemed as if, for now, the plan was to go forward. As if, bizarrely, they felt an urgent need of her.
Or no, it was Zahir Alcavar who felt a need for her, an outsider to the machinations of his court.
At the council Zahir had stood at the head of the table, at the other end of which sat the king and queen. In between, to either side, sat the courtiers who had accompanied the retinue, whom Lin didn’t know yet by name, along with Second Magician Tarik Ibn-Mor. Now Lin could see that Zahir Alcavar was tall and slim-waisted, with skin like copper. And like copper exposed to days of air and rain were his eyes, vivid blue-green. Silver streaked the hair at his temples; he was, she recalled, some ten years younger than Valanir Ocune. About his waist a sash of gold silk, the mark of First Magician. A hush fell in the tent when he began to speak, to tell of the battles Mansur Evrayad faced in the north. From the Tower of Glass, the Seven could foresee where the Fire Dancers were to attack and send a warning to the prince. It gave him enough time to lead his men to the villages’ defense.
It was not enough time to prevent the nightmare that came.
As Zahir spoke, he became impassioned; it was clear that some of this nightmare he had seen for himself.
Lin Amaristoth was flanked on either side by guards and her personal men-at-arms, Ned Alterra and Garon Senn. She had instructed them to remain impassive, no matter what they might hear. Ned knew the Kahishian tongue well, as was customary for a scion of one of Tamryllin’s great houses. Garon Senn, commander of Lin’s guard, spoke it with crude efficiency by dint of his field experience abroad. Certainly he would comprehend Zahir Alcavar’s tale of war.
Zahir’s eyes were ringed with shadow as he recounted what he’d seen. “Without purpose, without mercy, the Fire Dancers kill,” he said. “They do not seem to have a motive beyond killing—there is no theft. Cattle, even dogs, are slaughtered along with the rest. The last village they attacked, Mansur Evrayad reports that he and his men waded up to their ankles in blood. There were—heads piled in the streets. Women, children—it matters not at all to them.”
Eldakar Evrayad cleared his throat. He looked pale. “And you still think it is magic.”
The Magician bowed his head. “There is some spell,” he said. “The way they appear within town walls or village gates—as if barriers do not exist for them. When they fall, their bodies rot within moments. Not in the natural way of things. It is another horror for the prince’s men—the sight and smell of melting flesh. Morale wears thin.”
Lin looked at the head of the table where Eldakar and his queen sat. She saw Rihab Bet-Sorr was upright, her expression calm. But her eyes were another story. Lin wasn’t sure what she saw there, but she made a note to herself to find out more. She thought there were things that did not make sense in what she had been told of Rihab Bet-Sorr.
Now Tarik Ibn-Mor had risen. He was draped in green brocade bound with a bronze sash, the mark of Second Magician. He sounded harsh, even hoarse, as he said, “There is much here not in accordance with what we know of the Fire Dancers. Their magic has never tended to violence. Previously we defeated them in nearly every battle. Those we lost were due to the uncommon cunning of the Renegade. He has not stirred for years from his mountain fortress—until now. What we must ask now is, What has changed? Who is helping them obtain this power? Moreover, what do they want?”
“There is the matter of my father,” said Eldakar. He spoke drily. “His breaking faith with the Renegade brought us to this. We could not question Yusuf Evrayad, not on any matter, while he was alive. Now we pay the price for that silence.”
“It does nothing to blame your father,” Tarik began.
“Perhaps not,” said Eldakar. “But it is truth. And truth must be our light to see a way out of this. The Renegade has asked nothing from us—so it must be he wants revenge. You know what happened to the messengers we sent, seeking terms.”
For the first time, Lin spoke. Her tone was sharp. “What happened?”
Eldakar eyed her across the table. He looked so young and helpless in that moment, Lin marveled that this man commanded the armies of Kahishi. But of course—it was Yusuf Evrayad who had built those armies, not his son. “Their horses returned bearing the messengers,” said Eldakar.“Without their heads.”
Lin bowed her head.
“Something is at work here,” said Zahir. “Something we don’t yet see. As I have often acknowledged, Gvir Ibn-Mor. It’s the reason Lady Amaristoth has come.”
“And that is to our shame,” said Tarik, eyes flashing anger. “With respect to the Court Poet, and our alliance with Eivar. We have never needed to call upon Eivar for aid, and should not have done so this time. We have all the resources we need.”
“You say that,” said Zahir. “Events give the lie to your words. We are no nearer the truth than we were months ago.”
“Then why not turn to Ramadus?” Tarik demanded. “They are our equals, if not more. Our neighbors to the west, though they make charming music, make little else that is of use.”
“Enough.” Eldakar Evrayad had risen from his seat. “This is grievous disrespect to our guest. And foolish, besides. The enchantments of Eivarhave returned. What we once knew of them is no longer true. At the very least, it can do no harm to consult the Court Poet in matters that continue to stymie us.” He looked to Lin. “My lady,” he said, “my apologies for the remarks of Tarik Ibn-Mor. They were uncalled for.”
She made a gesture of dismissal. “What I hear him saying, your grace,” she said, carefully, as she felt all eyes on her now, “is that theFire Dancers may not be the enemy.” Either that, or he wants to turn to Ramadus for aid. If Tarik was working with Ramadus, it was the logical next step. Instill fear in Kahishi, then present the eastern empire as their salvation.
“And would that that were true,” said Zahir Alcavar. He appeared haunted, as if scenes of violence still played in his mind. “I am not sure I understand the Second Magician’s game here. In our seekings, we have traced the shadow.”
“You see shadows,” she said. A flat tone, without mockery. Their eyes met.
“It is part of what we do.” No anger in him that she could see. Adirectness. “A Magician of the Tower might see the dark and demons that surround us, that are invisible to the eye. This one comes from the north.”
Lin’s gaze moved to Eldakar. She said, “Why not attack their fortress, then—in the north?”
“You mean war,” Eldakar said shortly. “The Renegade is wily—has built a stronghold of warrens and weapons, possibly enough to outlast years of a siege. It would require most of our forces, leaving Majdara, and the Zahra, unprotected. Of all the counsels my father gave me, the one against doing that is most clear in my mind.” Eldakar’s lips twisted, as if he tasted something sour. His hand clenched on the table. “It’s what our enemies are waiting for.”
“And yet if we don’t,” said Zahir, “we lose Almyria.”
A silence. Lin knew of Almyria, jewel of the north. The city that, long ago, had been the capital.
“We will send men,” the king said. “As many as may be spared. But no more.”
* * *
“By sunset we will be there.” Ned had joined her at the guardrail. Wind off the water blew back his hair. He had befriended the Kahishian guardsmen, and had come to know before she did what the next stage of the journey would be, the route of the day’s ride.
She turned to him. “You are smiling.”
His teeth flashed. “This wakens… memories for me. Despite that we’re in a toy that would perish at sea.”
“The seas blooded you,” she said, remembering. Her hand found his on the guardrail. “Ned, thank you. For being here.” A glancing touch, and then she withdrew; she would not impose her need, her deepening isolation, on Ned Alterra.
He looked at her with sombre eyes. “I am here as long as you require me, my lady.”
“I took you from home.”
“I have my duty just as you have yours,” said Ned, becoming stern. “Say no more of that.”
Only Ned was permitted to speak so to her. She turned back to the water. Beyond the green shadow cast by their boat, the river mirrored the sun’s glare. Nearer the bank, spindle-legged herons skimmed the surface like intrepid couriers, calling.
“Look.” Ned’s voice was soft.
She followed his gaze. Beyond the city walls rose the mountain. Piled upon it a layered confection of towers, gold in the late sunlight. There were terraced gardens. Cutting upward through these, a white stairway tunneled under a series of archways that reached all the way to the top. The Zahra looked vast enough to contain several palaces within it, yet all the parts together were harmonious—arches and terraces and tower-tops mirroring one another in their curves. As a contrast, the jagged stairway was of a piece with the terrain of the mountain.
“Do you believe it is as they say, Ned?”
He was looking up still. “I daresay we shall see.”
“Yes.” She looked around, saw no one within earshot. “You with your tasks, and I with mine.” She was thinking of one of the last things Valanir Ocune had told her—the address he had pressed into her hand, in that way he had. “This person may help you,” he’d said. “Keep it secret. You must find a way to go out to the city alone, without a guard.”
She had smiled at this, for it had not sounded much of a challenge at the time. Not after all they’d done. But today, staring up at the proud spear of a mountain overlooking a strange city, she knew there would be more layers to this—to everything—than experience had led her to expect.
She had given some thought to what she wanted of Ned. Not to investigate Tarik Ibn-Mor—she would not send her man after a Magician. The risk was too great. But there were other ways Ned’s skills could be of use.
“Your task is to befriend the queen,” she said. He didn’t react, still watching the water. “It is an odd tale, this slave girl elevated at such great cost to the king—to the kingdom. Find out all you can. Become a friend to her. She strikes me as a woman of few friends.” Ever since the council, she had been thinking back to the still, lovely face of Rihab, the way emotions had seemed to flicker through it nonetheless. It might have been horror at the events recounted… but it might not.
Now Ned turned to her. His fierce smile was without humor. “You think I’m skilled with women.”
She shrugged. “I know it.” And was surprised—then amused—that he looked away, blood risen in his face.
* * *
It was drawing toward sunset when a servant approached Lin, summoning her to a private meeting with Zahir Alcavar. Or no, that was not entirely true. Requesting her presence. The distinction mattered. She was standing alone at the guardrail, watching the conflagration of the sky. Had sent away anyone who might protect or watch her, tiring after all of that. Of being watched.
Without summoning any guards to her now, Lin followed Zahir’s servant to a chamber on deck. The double doors to it were of polished cedar, each gilded with the Evrayad falcon sigil, its beak like a dagger. Lin recalled many a tale of guests summarily dispatched by their royal hosts—an assassin in a bathhouse, a cup of poisoned wine.
There was no dignity in such an end. On the other hand, she didn’t know what her end would otherwise look like. Last night she had found herself standing incrementally nearer to Darien as he sobbed in the corner. Lin did not need anyone versed in magic to explain what this meant. In her mind’s eye she saw the silver amulet of the wizard swing on its chain: once. Again.
As it happened, no apparent threats waited behind the double doors. There was only Zahir Alcavar himself. He sent away his servant. So against protocol and perhaps good sense, they were alone.
The last of the sun was soft in this east-facing chamber, with bay windows that opened generously to the air and a view of the river. The wood-paneled walls were of the same décor as the doors, the falcon repeated. In place of chairs were velvet cushions of various colors, adorned with thread-of-gold. He motioned her to sit. “If you will.”
“I prefer not,” she said. “First tell me what it is you want.”
He let out a sigh. “I suppose I should not be surprised. I said things to you, when we met, that I shouldn’t have. It’s why I asked you here.”
She nodded. “Good. But not quite enough. There is a pall that lies between us now.”
Her lip curled, grudging acknowledgment of his candor. “Yes.”
The Magician looked at her as if weighing something in his mind. There was a vulnerability to him such as he’d shown in the council meeting, when describing the atrocities of the Fire Dancers. As if it wore on him, to see so much. Today in addition to the sash of gold, he wore a brocade robe, liberally threaded with gold and silver. Turquoise earrings and neck chains hung with ruby, topaz, and tourmaline were added to this.
Lin wore a dress of midnight silk belted with silver links, and her diamond earrings. Silver woven into her hair. Trailing from her shoulders, the six-colored cloak of the Court Poet. It was necessary, the day she presented herself in the Zahra, to appear so, just as her hosts had made themselves resplendent to welcome her to their city.
“Lady, that pall will be lifted only if you speak plainly.” He sounded gentle. “I was wrong to think ill of you. A darkness wraps around you more surely than the six-colored cloak you wear, but now I see… it is not your choice. It is, perhaps, a grief.”
She shrugged. “I don’t owe you an explanation. Even some of those dearest to me don’t know.”
“If we are to work together in enchantments, I must know.”
“Enchantments.” She laughed. “Gvir Alcavar, I am only lately turned Seer. Initiated into powers even the most learned Seers can only guess at. We know so little. I’m here because Valanir Ocune told me you need someone from outside your court to provide aid; but if it is magical aid you seek from me, you may be sorely disappointed. In this respect, I regret to say, Tarik Ibn-Mor may be right.”
She had been steeling herself to make this admission, a dangerous one, since it revealed weakness.
Unexpectedly, he nodded. “My lady,” he said, “I would be surprised if you fully grasped the nature of your abilities. The enchantments of Eivar—that which we dreamed of restoring, Valanir Ocune and I—lack the mechanical precision of our magic. It is not a system such as we have, ruled by the stars.”
She stared at him a moment. Then all at once in a sweep of her skirts, she sat. The cushion sank beneath her. “Go on,” she said.
He smiled, and sat across from her. He had very white teeth, slightly pointed. A sensuous mouth, to cover savage teeth. She redirected her attention to his words. “I am glad that despite all—despite whatever it is that torments you—you want to know,” he said. “I take it as a good sign. Here is the point: your enchantments are not a system to be learned. Oh, there are laws, likely more than we have discovered yet… But laws are not the essence of it. It will manifest differently, in your hands, than it would for any other Seer. Who you are is at its core. Do you see?”
She shook her head. She did not understand how something taught inan Academy could not be learned. But knew it was Zahir Alcavar who had guided Valanir in crucial ways—his words could not be discounted. “What do you want of me,” she said, “if you help me learn? I assume that is what you are offering.”
“It is a part of it,” he said. “And in return you will help me. What I told Valanir Ocune still holds—I am deeply uneasy in the Zahra. Something there evades me. But first I must earn your trust. So I propose an exchange. To begin anew.”
Her eyebrows arched. “What sort of exchange?”
“A secret.” He spoke low; she had to lean close to hear him. “For a secret.” In the face of her silence, he went on. “If I don’t understand the shadow that surrounds you, it will block any work we attempt together. But to cement our trust I will tell you… a thing no one knows about me. Not even Valanir Ocune, or Eldakar.”
“And it will be something true,” she said. “On your honor?”
“On mine and my family’s honor, yes.” His voice low, almost a growl, on the word family.
It was truth that she was hearing, Lin was almost sure. But there was another factor more decisive. It was due to Zahir Alcavar that Eivar had reacquired its enchantments at all. He was, in a real way, the reason she was here. Without his help she, Valanir, Darien—they would have been powerless to stop the thing that had possessed Nickon Gerrard.
“I will tell you,” she said. And as the sky dimmed and stars emerged she told Zahir Alcavar what so far only the Seer who’d made her knew: about her dream, and the spell, and the wizard’s words to her. The silver amulet on its chain. When she was done she discovered, with bewilderment, that Zahir held her hand. She was too surprised to pull away.
“This hurts to hear,” he said. “Lady, a light shines from you. Even when you tell of this… thing that is happening to you. Do you know that?”
She shook her head. Disengaged her hand, finally, and crossed both in her lap. “Words,” she said with narrowed eyes. “Words like that. Save them for the girls in night gardens.” Not her words, her images. Night gardens. So much she knew of men from Edrien—how they thought, what they did—that was interesting, but also, in some ways, distressing to know. She shook her head again. “That was ill-spoken,” she said. “You were being kind, and I…”
“I was not being kind,” he said, in the low growling voice of before. Quickly he rose, as from an urgent need to stand. Going to a cabinet, he removed a jeweled and enameled box. From the box he drew a taper, which he lit, and with this kindled one of the brass lamps set in the wall. And then another, until all five were dancing. As he returned, Lin thought she saw a glistening in his eyes, and he turned from her a moment with a tightened jaw. When he looked at her again, however, he had mastered emotion. “Does Valanir know?”
“Only he,” she said. “And now you.”
“It is… unbearable,” he said. Quietly, as if to himself. “How can Valanir bear it.”
“Please,” she said. “It does no good to talk about it. Let’s proceed with our agreement. Your secret, now.”
Zahir looked rueful. “It’s not… has not the magnitude of yours,” he said. “Though my life hangs on it. Here it is, then: it is true I am Ramadian. But not from the capital, as people believe. Some know I was the son of a lute-carver and singer. It is true that my father made instruments for the court of Ramadus, and in girlhood my mother sang there. It is said… was said… that I have her eyes. But in later years they moved away, to a smaller city, where lands were available and a lute-carver might also have a garden, some horses. We lived… I am from Vesperia.”
“Vesperia.” She leaned forward. “The city that vanished?” She stared at him. “The tale has it that none survived.”
“There was one,” he said. Slowly, as if testing each word. She watched as he hesitated. A long hesitation before he spoke. He is afraid, she realized, and wondered if this secret was true, indeed. “There was one,” he said again, and this time it was clear he had made the decision to tell her—or knew it was too late to do otherwise. “One boy, out in the hills that night. Fleeing punishment for disobedience… which I regret to say was not unusual.” He was trying to smile, but it faded.
Lin felt her heart constrict. “Just now, you swore… on your family’s honor.”
He nodded. “They are gone.”
“I am sorry,” she said. Vesperia was a mystery from before she was born, but she recalled visitors from Kahishi speaking of it to her family. The destruction had all the appearances of an earthquake, but the Ramadus court Magicians judged magic as the cause. For years it was dangerous to be known as a Magician within the borders, or in any land allied with Ramadus. Some Magicians, on suspicion alone, had met ugly deaths. All this consigned by now to history. But a poisoned magic was said to linger in the ruins. The city was not rebuilt, and looters, if caught, were executed. Anything taken from the place was thought cursed. And of course, that would have included people, if any survivors had been found.
“How old were you?”
“I was eight,” he said. “It’s a miracle I wasn’t killed or kidnapped in the hills. I ran. An old farm couple took me in, eventually. Somehow I knew even then not to reveal my origins. They were grateful for a strong boy to help with chores. I still think of them—they were kind to me. The woman, especially, was kind. Of course, they are long gone.”
She bowed her head. They sat quietly. Seagulls called from the riverbank. Lin found she was sitting gripping her upper arms, as if for comfort. She had no words of comfort. I am the last, too, she wanted to say, but knew it was different. A different kind of sadness.
“My life is in your hands,” said Zahir at last. His eyes were fringed with dark lashes, she saw now; a trace of the boy who had been. She recalled the melody he was singing the night they met. From my childhood. Is it sad?
“If anyone were to discover my history, I would be run out of the Zahra,” he said. “In truth, I think Vesperia did affect me. My—affinity—for magic began after that. Through the years I hid where I was from. It became easier once I educated myself, made a name in the capital as a lutenist and then, later, a Magician. Once I became someone else. It became easier, with time, to tell no one.”
“No one,” she murmured. So long, to carry a secret like that. It felt unreal, to speak of cataclysm, and her own death, as they drifted on a royal barge in the silence of evening.
“No one,” he said. “And now you.”
* * *
With time until they were to disembark and with his orders in mind, Ned Alterra sought the queen. The barge rocked with his tread on the boards, reminding him he was not on firm ground. As if he needed reminding. The Court Poet might be mad, their lives were at risk, and now he’d been assigned to discover more about a woman of whom the rumors were not encouraging. In the guard’s tent when they were not making vulgar jokes about Rihab Bet-Sorr—coded, of course, and dared only over too many mugs of beer—they hinted at her lurid reputation. She was insatiable, they murmured, clearly regretting this quality did not extend to themselves. Ned was sober enough to realize such talk amounted to treason, could mean death to the queen if it was true. And if she was capable of such betrayal, he reflected, what else might she do? In which case Lin was right to set him to discover what he could.
The breeze wafting toward the barge brought the scent of orange trees. From the reeds along the shore, the guttural scream of a heron. Ned found his mind drifting back to his travels, and back. He remembered sadness. It was strange to look back on a distant self. Those feelings could still arise in him, though without the quicksand pull they’d once had.
He was shocked to find her alone, on a balcony below deck. The queen was usually surrounded by her women. But not now. Her back was to him as she gazed towards the mountain. Like her husband, she was attired in robes of state, thick and heavy and so beaded with gems he wondered how she could move. Her hair elaborately braided. In a cold voice and in his tongue she said, without turning, “What is it, Lord Alterra?”
The hairs on the back of his neck prickled, as before an attack.
“I hope my odor is not displeasing, your excellence,” he said, trying for humor to cover his confusion. “I know not else how you guessed it was me.”
She turned her head, chin high, her expression unmoved. Her lips stained the color of blood. “Do you customarily come upon women in this way?”
“Not customarily,” he said. “I was looking for… quiet. There are a great many people above deck. Sometimes I find myself inclined to get away.” As he said it, he realized it bore a ring of truth because in part, it was true. He had been looking for her. He also longed for solitude, away from the invisible, tensed strings that seemed to pull him in all directions above deck. The scrutiny, meaningful gestures, veiled manipulations among which, by contrast, Lin Amaristoth seemed to thrive. “May I join you?”
“I wish to be alone,” she said. “But we might meet later, if you wish. Tonight.” She was looking him full in the eye. Her eyes were an unusual color, so dark a blue they were almost black. Her neckline dipped low, what it revealed like dented cream. “You are so pale, Lord Alterra,” she purred, with no trace of a smile. “I trust you are well?”
Ned felt heavy and light at the same time. I can’t do this. But found himself saying, “Of course I will meet you. I await your instructions, my lady.” Good, he imagined from Lin, her fevered eyes approving, and felt a returning surge of sadness. Anything he did to imperil his life with Rianna Gelvan could plunge him right back, he realized. That distant self was, it turned out, only as far as the next disaster.
A disaster that might be approaching now, with the ring the queen pressed into his hand. She did so without touching his skin. Ned stared at the inside of his palm. The ring was gold and set with pearls that took the shape of a swan, with a single amber eye. It seemed large for her small hand. “Show this at the seventh arch in the fifth corridor, three bells from moonrise,” she said. “I think I might like you, Ned Alterra. Time and your performance will tell. Now go. I would be alone with my thoughts.”
As Ned stumbled back the way he’d come, he felt as if he pushed through the mire of his own self-loathing. The ring clutched in his hand coated with sweat from his palm.
He had a choice. Who was to say what his desires were, his true motives? These were buried beyond consciousness, even for Ned who though the knew his own darkness. I have a duty, Ned tried to tell Rianna Gelvan in his mind. But knew he would never tell her. The unsaid would consume him, perhaps forever. Yet to lose her would be worse.
As he surfaced above deck a wind swept over Ned and he tipped back his head to receive it, to be cleansed. But such ideas were illusory. They were nearly ashore now. The walls that soared in great curves around the mountain were painted crimson with the descending sun. The Tower of Glass like a bloodied sword. So Ned saw it when first they approached, and would afterward remember.
The servant kept refilling her cup; Lin didn’t stop him. She even allowed his hand, muscled and smooth, to linger against her own. It was good wine. The servants appeared to have been selected for their beauty. Most servants and soldiers who served the Zahra had been captured, and traded, from lands far away. Among these lands was Sandinia, where a man could ride for weeks and see nothing but oceans of grass, overrun with wild horses. These men and women tended to be fair-skinned, strong. The servant who filled Lin’s cup was one such, his hair drawn back with a jeweled clip, his jaw of impressive prominence. She registered serene approval, and drank some more.
An extensive ceremony had followed their arrival at the Zahra. Each courtier was presented, beginning with the Seven Magicians, in order of rank. The five beneath Zahir and Tarik, who had remained behind at the palace, were disconcertingly young; at least one seemed to regard Lin with a certain trepidation. That was the youngest, who looked to be no older than nineteen, with eyes like a doe. And then the rest of the court—hangers-on, mostly, in Lin’s perfunctory estimation. People who gravitated to where the power was, made a trade of gifts and flattering words. She had seen enough of that herself, in Tamryllin.
The difference—or one of them—was that Eldakar commanded a significant army, swelled in ranks through the years by slaves. Added to this were the forces of the viziers in the provinces and the proud lords of the north, in Almyria. Tamryllin had nothing like such a force.
Eldakar himself presented Lin with a gift of welcome, a bracelet of gold links set with emeralds. “This belonged to my mother, Seiran Evrayad,” hesaid. “Here bestowed as a token of our friendship with King Harald.”
She allowed Garon Senn to fasten the heavy chain to her wrist. As he did, she kept her eyes on Eldakar, her countenance impassive. Not troubling to look at the extravagant thing as Garon fastened it. It would be beneath her, and the dignity of her office, to appear dazzled. Eivar had its pride. As the ceremony resumed, she saw Zahir Alcavar watching her and wondered if he guessed her thoughts; there was an understanding in his eyes, sharp, yet almost—was the word tender? She thought of Valanir Ocune, wistful as he watched her across the room from bed. Knowing she was changed, not yet knowing why.
She was what she needed to be. Wasn’t that true?
The throne room was lit for evening with spheres that hung from gilded ropes. The chair itself was of gold and surrounded with a forest of pillars: these alternating onyx black, crystal white. The east wall opened out to a view of the gardens. Lin could imagine how sunlight, bent and concentrated by the crystal, would transform the room by day. She had heard the pillars were deliberately placed to bend sunlight towards the throne. Late afternoon, the radiance would be overwhelming.
The floor was a great mosaic of red and gold tile, the falcon again. Clustered around it the sigils of the houses that served under House Evrayad, those of the provinces and northern marches. A gazelle, a leopard, a wolf, a steed—east, west, north, south. And another, beneath these: a gryphon rampant. That one, she did not recognize.
Following these ceremonies came the banquet, where she was seated with the highest officials. By this time Lin felt strangely off-balance, as if she veered close to losing herself. It was not the wine. That was to make her forget. If she could forget, she could continue pretending, for the good of the court of Tamryllin.
Or that was the theory, Lin thought with a crooked smile, and drank. She didn’t think she had mistaken the touch of the servant, though he would almost certainly have to be a castrate. What, then, was it—had he been sent to service her, spy on her? A thought that could have been depressing, but was not. Can you vanish my dreams? she thought idly as she smiled into the blue eyes of the young man. A smile with teeth.
Lin turned to Ned Alterra beside her after the servant had gone. “They are extraordinarily considerate of our—needs, here, aren’t they?” He looked distracted, said, “Sorry? What do you mean?” and she realized he was unaware of the little byplay going on with the discreet touches, the constant refilling of her cup. There was none more observant than Ned when it came to such details, and he was by now as finely attuned to her moods and behaviors as if they were lovers, so Lin was surprised by this.
“Ned,” she said, tugging his sleeve.
He turned from his plate, which he’d barely touched. He was tearing a haunch of bread to pieces without eating it; he stopped, as if he hadn’t known he was doing it until she said his name. “Yes? My lady.”
“Is there something you ought to tell me?”
It was a long table and the clamor of conversation and tableware allowed them to speak without being overheard. Across from them, Tarik Ibn-Mor was eyeing them with more than passing interest. She wondered if, by some magic, he could hear what they said.
Ned stole a glance at the royal table where sat the king and queen. He looked miserable. “I will report my progress,” he said flatly. “For now, all you need know is I am carrying out your instructions.”
It took her a moment to put it together. Then she understood, and the blanketing comfort of wine was abruptly gone. “Ned, I said ‘befriend,’ not—”
He was cold as he cut her off. “I know what you said. So do you. I will have to live with what I do. Will you then disavow it—what I do for you?”
It wounded her, more than she would have expected. She knew they both had the same thought: Rianna. She closed her eyes. He was right. She had been trying to deny what she herself had bid him, make him shoulder the responsibility alone. He deserved better of her. “I will do no such thing,” she said. “You know you are of great value to me, Ned.” There is little I would not do for you, she thought, but did not say. It would have embarrassed him.
But perhaps he saw it in her face. He nodded, turned away. Seized a chunk of bread, dipped it in the fig sauce on his plate, took a bite. All the while looking as if he took poison.
She thought of Valanir and how angry she’d been with him years ago—for the strings he’d pulled, the decisions he’d made. I understand, she wanted to tell him now. I think.
The blue-eyed servant was back, this time presenting her with a rolled parchment. Its red wax seal was stamped with a gryphon: Ah, she thought, so that is it. After she read it she looked up, saw Zahir Alcavar was watching.
* * *
“Thank you,” he said, “for agreeing to meet me at this hour.” They stood in a courtyard at the foot of a winding stair.
Lin shrugged. The wine sang in her blood. “I don’t sleep.” She had passed several courtyards since arriving. The one near her bedchamber was lined with orange trees in bloom, overpowering in their scent, their dropped petals like a white satin carpet. This courtyard had a fountain at the center, around which coiled vines of white, starlike flowers that just hours earlier had been buds. They had since opened to the moon.
“These flowers, then, are like you,” said Zahir as he guided her to the stair.
She said, “You must be popular in the night gardens, my lord,” and he laughed.
Lin thought she could guess what lay at the top, as they climbed; she counted more than a hundred steps before the end. “Are you all right?” Zahir Alcavar said once, turning to her with an outstretched hand, as they passed through alternating lamplight and shadow.
She gave him a cool look. “No less than you, Magician.”
At the top was a room wrapped in sky. She caught her breath, not just from the climb. What opened around them was vast. It was said Yusuf Evrayad had built the Tower of Glass to rival the famed Observatory in Ramadus. The artisans had employed magic in its construction, she’d heard, though this was disputed. She did think it should have been a much longer climb to go as high as they now were, and wondered if there was magic involved in this, too.
Rumors swirled about this tower. The center of the Zahra, as much as the throne. More?
The space was large enough to contain a small town. It was impossible, simply not possible, that it was in reality this large, she thought, imagining some kind of illusion wrought by Ramadian magic. Light came from everywhere and nowhere; there was not a torch to be seen, yet the room was flooded with soft illumination like moonlight. Lin’s gaze was drawn up, to the walkways that ran alongside the walls in three levels, accessible by staircases of porphyry and gold. The walls that were entirely glass, clear as air, so that along the walkways burned countless stars.
All this overseen by an arched ceiling like a second sky, adorned with stars and spheres. Against a backdrop of black crystal, jewels made the constellations. Lin knew them: The Great Tree, the Warrior, the Witch, and many more. They glittered as if from within. Scattered among them the heavenly spheres, represented with enormous gems of various colors. In Eivar they used the Kahishian names for them: red Mahaz, for war and bloodshed; blue Maia, for the seas and navigation; diamond Vizia, for fertility; amber Sheohl, lord of the Underworld. Zahir said, quietly, “The dome shows the original order of the heavens. At the beginning.”
“The creation of the world.”
Not wanting to seem as if she gaped, Lin pulled her gaze downward to Zahir. He was looking up, however, as if in contemplation. The illumination from above softened his face. “There are seven heavens, you see,” he said. “That which is above us—the one we see—is the lowest of these. Beyond are the upper reaches. The configurations of stars, the spheres—these are gateways, agents of higher powers. And prophecies—these are, if you think about it, like writing sent from above. Messages only the initiated can read.”
“Upper reaches?” she said. “What—what is there, in the heavens we cannot see?”
He smiled. “There’s little we know for sure. But it’s where wisdom, and knowledge of what is to come, are infinite. That’s why the god is with the Tower of Glass in all that we do. Our work is nothing but for the grace of Alfin.” He beckoned to her. “Come.”
The constellations were set into the floor in mosaic tile. They trod on a gold and green Great Tree, a silver Wheel. It took time just to pass over each one. In the deep quiet Lin could have sworn she heard, from far away, a snatch of music; this kept time with the spark of the stars.
At last they reached a stairway, this one more gilded than the rest, and slender, accommodating only one person at a time. It traversed the air in a spiral, unsupported as a curl of smoke, and seemed neverending; after a time, Lin found herself growing dizzy. Around her spun lights: from the candescent gems overhead; from the stars outside.
By the time they reached the top she was winded. Lin had a fear, as she caught her breath, her chest pounding, that her soul was about to fly out of her as the wizard had foretold. But as her breath slowed, she felt the blood return to her face. Zahir was watching her, not speaking. She could see he felt impelled to help her but held himself back, knowing she would dislike it. She didn’t know how she could see that, from a glance. “I’m all right,” she said. They stood on a platform of glass. It was cut in the shape of a square, fenced in with rails of gold. Lin looked down, through the glass, and saw they were at a vertiginous height.
Looking up, she saw the platform was encased in a glass dome. Lin guessed this must be the Tower’s pinnacle—its observatory. Nearby stood a long brass tube on a tripod, that she guessed was a tool of observation; and a great gilded sphere inlaid with silver symbols and wrapped in gold and silver rings. That, she guessed, was an astrolabe.
Zahir Alcavar was waiting for her to speak. In her eyes he had altered, as someone who belonged to a place like this. The sourceless light seeming to emanate as much from him as their surroundings. His eyes less bright, softened, but harder to read.
Lin found her voice. “So from here you see it. The… shadow.”
“That is a part of it,” he said. He sounded deliberately casual, as if to set her at ease. “We can foretell catastrophes like drought, and war, and sickness. It is secret, because such things, if known, would drive the people to frenzy. And because such knowledge rightfully belongs to the king. It is him we serve, at the behest of the Thousand-Named God.”
“But surely the people know something is happening,” said Lin.
“They know of the battles in the north. Skirmishes. They don’t know of magic. Though rumors will travel of the—the strangeness, if they haven’t already. And soon more men will march north, fuel further rumors.” He shook his head. “All this and more, we will have to deal with.
“Meantime, I wanted to show you our work here. It is not like the Academy, where mysteries prevail. The stars tell a tale.” He swept a hand outward at the dome. “We have clear means to read it, worked out in calculations. These are the makings of prophecy.” Here he indicated a desk pinned with a parchment, on which had been drawn a series of intersecting lines and symbols. Not the way Lin would have pictured a prophecy. “There are disputes of the finer points, of course. But the fundamentals are absolute. Along with our calculations, there are acts we can take—Seekings and—very occasionally—with portals. Like all magic, these pose a risk. Last time, in our Seeking north… we nearly lost a Magician. As it was, he was ill for a long time.”
“It is that bad?”
He was sombre. “Lady, I would not have asked you here for less.”
“I believe you asked me here,” she said, “because you suspect one of your Magicians. Perhaps…” She watched his face, but he was impassive. “Perhaps one in particular.”
“Yes,” he said curtly. “But I don’t have proof, and personal animosity might cloud my judgment. I cannot act, nor let on I suspect, until I am sure. That’s where you come in, my lady. If you so agree.”
“I agreed from the moment I set out,” she said. She had gone to stand at the glass. Far below, curving with the riverbank were the walls of Majdara, made visible by the light of watchtowers. She saw the bridge that spanned the River Gadlan, lit so it resembled a jeweled strand. “That is not the question. The question is, rather, what you’d have me do.”
“We’ll talk about that,” he said. “Not here. There is something else I want to speak of first.” A change in his tone, but she did not turn. This was beauty, she thought, looking to the jeweled sky; and she did not know how long she had.
Zahir said, “Lady, the night we met, you accused me of being removed from danger. From life, perhaps.”
“Did I?” She wondered if the pearl of light on the horizon to the east, more brilliant than any star, was Vizia.
His tone became more emphatic. “What have you done,” he said, in an accent eerily like hers, “in your tower above the world?”
She smiled, finally turned. “I suppose I did say that.”
“In some ways, it’s true,” said Zahir. “What happened to you is more than most Magicians face in a lifetime. And there are other ways in which I keep myself—distant. You saw more than perhaps you knew, when you said that.”
She inclined her head, studying him. “You never speak of a wife.” Her thoughts went to Ned, who was possibly with the queen in that instant. What I do for you, he’d said so coldly.
“Magicians don’t marry,” said Zahir. “Some take concubines.”
He was expressionless. “I am—careful with women. A child shouldn’t carry on my blood, along with whatever happened in Vesperia.” He held up a hand. “But I did not mean to speak, just now, of myself. You may be right that I am at a remove from life and its trials. And you have been so much in them. And what if that holds you back, now, from the thing you want most?”
“And what would that be?”
She issued it as a challenge, half-mocking, but he seemed not to notice—or else it didn’t matter. On his face that same look she had glimpsed as Garon Senn fastened the emerald bracelet to her wrist—understanding, a trace of tenderness. “Valanir Ocune has told me, manytimes, that always it is about the music,” he said. “And I believe… so it is with you.”
She was about to reply, but later would not recall what she would have said. That was when she heard labored breathing, growing nearer. Someone mounting the stairs. Together they turned towards the sound.
“You brought her here.” Tarik Ibn-Mor, his eyes like dark glass, standing at the top of the stairs. His silver cloak glistened.
“If she is to aid us, she should see how we work,” said Zahir equably, as if he didn’t notice that the other man, though expressionless, was seething. “You are here for your watch?”
“I am. Have you had word?” Tarik spoke as if Lin were not there, his gaze trained on the First Magician.
Zahir shook his head. “Tonight has been quiet,” he said, and pressed his palms together at his chest. “Prayers be with the prince.”
Clearly it was a ritual, for with the same gesture Tarik said, in flat tones, “Prayers be with the prince.”
Later they were out in the courtyard, back on the ground after what seemed an interminable descent. The sky left behind. Lin keenly felt it, like a loss. Yet nothing was changed. Water splashed among the night flowers as before.
“So we part ways here,” she said, stretching her arms above her head with a sigh. She thought of the chamber where she was to sleep, soft and perfumed and silent. Isolation rose in a wave. Not even a pretty servant-spy would dispel that, she knew. That, she had known all along—her thoughts of the evening meal a game of self-deceit. “I’ll bid you a good night,” she said.
“Not yet, if you will,” said Zahir Alcavar. There was that cat’s gleam in his eye. “The night isn’t over.”
* * *
The route to her took him through the palace at night, a different sort of splendor than had been lit vividly at sunset. The king’s boat had deposited them ashore just before dusk. In a procession they had ridden from shore up a road that wound with the curves of the mountain, past terraced fruit trees and walls ornamented with carvings delicate as a spider’s weave. Ned had marveled at the entrance hall tiled with porphyry, at rooms gilded as the inside of a jewel box. Gardens interwove with rooms on every level of the palace, wild or tamed, with flowers like explosions of fire and trees in bloom. He knew what he saw was a fraction. The tales he’d heard were true, more than true.
With nightfall, the colors dimmed. Low-burning coals in the braziers cast a ring of light on the wall carvings, left the rest in darkness. On his way Ned came to a courtyard where pillars lithe as birch trees surrounded a still, square-cut pool that held the moon.
If he had been a poet, Ned thought, he might have lingered here. But someone like him had no business tarrying in a place like this. He was tasked to act: his thoughts about it didn’t matter. He was no more than a concealed knife in the Court Poet’s sleeve. Yet even after he’d left the courtyard behind, that image, of the moon doubled in water, lingered in his mind.
When he showed the pearl-encrusted ring to the door attendant, he was led inside without a word, down a hall hung with silk draperies, their embroidered designs vague in the half-light of braziers. The steps of the servant made no sound; in contrast, Ned thought his own boots rang a vulgar announcement on the tile. It would be painfully clear to anyone that he was not of this place. Nonetheless: he had bathed from the dust of the journey and changed into his best clothes, which included a jacket of blue jacquard of which Rianna was fond. Had shaved using the copper mirror and scented oils provided, taking care not to look himself in the eye.
What he had not done was apply the scent that had been presented to him in a handsome brass jar. Had resisted the urge to throw it back at the impassive servant who offered it. It might have been a gift for all honored guests. Scents were distilled and mixed in the Zahra itself, withs ome valued for medicinal properties. Some would have brought a fortune to Tamryllin merchants. He had learned something of trade in his travels—what seemed long ago.
The male attendant, garbed richly as a monarch, remained expressionless as he motioned Ned Alterra to enter. Without allowing himself to think—though a part of him still with the calm pool, its doubled moon—Ned parted the curtain that led to her.
She was seated at a table ringed with red candles that stood in tall brass sconces, each split at the base into four clawed feet. She had changed her dress from the opulent absurdity of earlier; her robe was simple and yellow, kirtled with gold thread. Peering from beneath the robe a slippered foot, all soft satin and gold beads. Her hair only partly braided, flowing soft around her face. “Come,” she said. “Sit. Do you like wine?” A woman at her elbow held a pitcher and cups—porcelain glazed to look like gold. Ned remembered: there was a prohibition among those who worshipped Alfin against drinking from vessels made of metal.
With a murmured assent, he allowed himself to be seated at the table. And then saw the table for the first time. Ned felt his brows draw together. He looked from the table to the queen and back again.
“Wine,” he agreed, and took the cup, drained it. When he was done, he saw the queen was watching him with a small smile.
In a way that gave him an opening. “You like to play games, I see.”
“This is why I invited you here.” She balanced her chin on her fingertips, looking mischievous. “Are you angry?”
“No.” Ned could have laughed in that moment, but it would have come out wild, strange. He restrained himself. When at last he could speak, he managed a casual tone. “Though it does raise some questions. The first being: is this what you meant by my ‘performance’?”
She laughed. But he thought, when her eyes turned to the table, figures of black and white lined up in rows on the squares, it was with a veiled look that was not amusement at all. “This is the game that interests me, Lord Alterra. And I so rarely have the opportunity for a fair match. No one wants to win against their queen, you see.” Here her lip curled with scorn. “Or they imagine this is a whim for me, like a new face powder, and will not engage with all their wits. It is a bore, you know, to defeat someone not even in the fight.”
“What game is it?” He narrowed his eyes in concentration as he took in the game board. A new, different sort of task. His knees were weak with relief; at the same time, he felt unprepared. And beneath that…he would not look too closely.
She was smiling as if they were already friends, as if his agreeing to play so delighted her. “Do you not know it? It is the Game of Kings.”
“I have heard of it.” He thought he had played it once or twice. A childhood memory.
But he would have remembered a game board like this. The alternating squares of black and white were marble, the white veined with red. Also carved from marble were the pieces, their faces dignity in miniature. Each side had its king and queen, the white with tiaras of diamond, the black with rubies. Alongside these he noticed the figures of bearded men in long robes who held staves, each topped with a jewel to match the royal crowns. “The Magicians,” said Rihab Bet-Sorr, noting his glance. “I suppose in Tamryllin they would be Court Poets. Each side is a court, you see. The game… it’s the only game that matters, isn’t it?” She had taken up the king on her side, the side of black. Her slender fingers with their painted nails stroked it in a manner almost sensuous, or seemed so toNed. But her gaze was far away. “Kings fight to keep ahold of the throne while the queen—their queens—must play the game. As you’ll see, the king can do little on his own behalf, so hampered is he by tradition and ceremony. These weigh on him like the crown itself. The queen—she is more skillful at maneuvering. But surrounded by enemies. Much of the battle falls to her.”
“When you say that,” he said, “do you mean the queen is the more powerful piece?”
She nodded. “She can move this way, and that, and that, to capture a piece.” She demonstrated with her own queen, using it to knock one of Ned’s foot soldiers from his front line. “The Magicians have power, too, but they are at her command. Capture the queen,” she said, staring at the board, “and more often than not, you’ve as good as won the game.”
“It sounds… straightforward,” Ned said, studying the positioning of the pieces. He wondered where on such a board he would be. He was no Magician. His eyes fell on the disposable soldiers on the front lines. They were not as finely carved as the rest, their faces crude copies of one another. But there were other pieces, too. There were horse heads as if inspired by a royal battle charger—not as disposable as the more numerous men-at-arms, perhaps. But loyal. In the end just as ready to die for their king, or queen.
Rihab was saying, “It may sound simple, but you will see it becomes complex. Sometimes power is its own price.”
“What do you mean?”
She smiled, though it seemed forced, like a curtain coming down on a lamp. “That, I should keep to myself,” she said, “if I want to win against you.”
* * *
They followed a melody through trees. A lonely tune, picked out on a woodpipe. Or it sounded lonely to Lin. A harp was different: the strings keeping company with each other, a sound ethereal rather than plaintive. Melancholy, yes, but that was something else.
Perhaps Valanir Ocune would have disputed this point, she thought, keeping Zahir Alcavar in sight ahead of her, the gold of his sash. There were few absolute facts about their art, it was clear; her own thoughts were often at odds with the Academy. As if on her solitary path she had picked up other things, odd and random, like brambles caught in one’s cloak on a walk through the wood.
She trailed him through the grey dark of moonlight into the deeper dark of tree shadows, scented with orange blossoms. A nightingale’s song carried on the breeze. They were in the imperial gardens, those which could be seen from the throne room. Even at sunset Lin had noticed that there seemed no end to them. Upon entering now, Zahir had listened a moment, then said, “Ah!” when the woodpipe was heard. And smiled. Then motioned that she follow him, down the garden path before swerving from it, into an unmarked wilderness of trees. He didn’t explain—not about the music, nor the garden, nor the reason for coming here.
It didn’t matter. The alternative was the silence of her room and the dream. She would have agreed to almost anything.
At one point she did whisper, grabbing hold of his sleeve, “I feel as if… I’ve been here.” The scent was overwhelming in what it recalled to her, despite the memories not being hers. As was the construction of this garden; the way the sight lines teased, made you think you were coming to one thing, only to see another in its stead. Every angle you stood, the prospect changed dramatically. There was a pattern to this, and an art, that was decipherable once you recognized it.
Zahir stopped then. He bowed his head as if she’d told him something disquieting. “Edrien Letrell played in the court of Ramadus,” he said. “Was welcomed as a guest there. Yusuf Evrayad wanted his palace to resemble that court.” The pipe had broken off a moment, but soon resumed.
“Do you think he succeeded?” Lin asked, recalling that Zahir had been in the court of Ramadus for a time.
He thought a moment. Then: “In some ways. But the Zahra—it is no copy of anything, in the end. Whatever Yusuf might have wanted. It is itself.” The tune of the woodpipe soared, became wild. Neither happy nor sad—at a remove from both of these. For Zahir it seemed a signal. He held out a hand to her. “Come.”
After a moment she took his hand. It was roughened, with a firm grip. So he was a fighting man. In bouts she wore gauntlets to keep the palms of her hands smooth, as befit a Court Poet and lady of Amaristoth. They walked together. The warmth of his hand, after days without contact, a reminder of isolation. This and the refrain of the pipe twisted within heras they trod the grass; she breathed deep of the garden scents to clear her thoughts. To forget everything but this moment, since nothing around it—before, or after—could be altered.
Soon they heard not only the nightingale and the woodpipe but the sound of falling water. She was not surprised when they stepped into a clearing and saw that the moon shone on a waterfall and beside it, a stream. She was more surprised that she recognized the man who played music at the water’s edge. He sat cross-legged on a blanket in the grass. Willows dug their roots into the bank, their branches dipped to the water in curves, like a lady dropped in a curtsy.
As they approached, Lin disengaged from the First Magician. She bowed to the man by the stream. He stopped playing, looked bemused. “No need for that here,” said Eldakar. “Sit with us.”
“In this garden you—drop formalities?”
Eldakar’s smile looked sweet to her, and sad. “Here, we become ourselves.”
Zahir knelt in the grass, then stretched full length beside the king, the back of his head cupped in his hands. He let out a long sigh and closed his eyes, as if, at long last, he was at rest. Almost absently, the king reached over and squeezed the other man’s shoulder. Zahir raised himself on an elbow. “A long day,” he said, looking up at Eldakar’s face. “How are you?”
“I am home,” said Eldakar. “We—all of us—are home. For now that is enough.” He looked to Lin. “Please make yourself comfortable, my lady,” he said, indicating a spot on the blanket. “I swear to behave with every propriety, as will my friend.”
She smiled. “A rash promise,” she said, “if even half of what I’ve heard of this place is true. But I was listening to your playing. I did not know that you, too, are a musician.”
“It is something my father despised,” said Eldakar. “My love of music. Of poetry. Oh, these things he approved at his court—he wanted a name for sophistication. Kahishi was, before his arrival, too riven by feuds and dynastic battles for art, for music. So he took pride in these, as the fruits of peace. But not from me. Not from his son.”
Now it was Zahir’s turn to reach out, to lay a hand on his friend’s knee. “There was no pleasing that man.” A bitterness low in the throat. “You are worth ten of him.”
“But I am no warrior,” said Eldakar. “He was right about that. Mansur should have had the throne. I would give it to him if I could.”
Lin curbed her shock—it helped, in this instance, that it was dark. A king did not say such things, her instincts told her; except just now, one had. She thought of Eldakar seated on the golden throne, alight with the sun. His mien impassive, stately. He knew as well as she did—better, even—what kings did and did not say.
But since he had, she could ask. “Why don’t you give it to him?”
His response was a mirthless grin. “There is a belief in the countryside that if the heir—the eldest male issue—does not inherit, the land is cursed. The crops will fail, rains will not come. In the cities fewer believe this, but I cannot afford to induce panic—not at such a time. The same people who scorn my presence on the throne, who see me asa weakling king, would still see no one else there. Under only one circumstance will they accept Mansur as king.” A silence, and there was no need for him to explain this last. A cricket chirped from the willows; another answered. Lin thought of a legend from her home, from northern Eivar, from a time before Eivar could have been said to exist at all. Of occasions when the lands were infertile, were said to cry out for blood in place of rain. A king’s blood.
An image came to her of Eldakar with a black grin across his throat, his face waxen pale, and she shuddered.
The king said, “There is no real choice. If I were to abdicate…”
He trailed off. Zahir shook his head. His eyes were fixed on Eldakar’s face, as if he could read it as he did the stars. A look that weighted his words. “These are dark thoughts. Why need you dwell there?”
A breeze wafted towards them. Roses, such as Lin had seen earlier. This intertwined with other scents she could not identify. In the gardens throughout the palace she had noticed lilies, irises, narcissus, and others she didn’t know.
Eldakar smiled again, and Lin was sure now that it was with sadness. “Mansur is a fine brother,” he said. “I know he cares for me. But if he became king… well, if he did not quietly have me killed, one of his supporters would do it. So we remain in this bind. So we dance. And I must try to save this place, which I love. Mansur’s love is for war… he has little interest in the Zahra. While for me, this place is home. Anywhere else, I would be an exile.”
On impulse, Lin knelt in the grass. “Eldakar,” she said. “You honor me tonight with your trust.”
He nodded. “Zahir has told me I can trust you,” he said. “And to him I would entrust my soul.”
A memory reared up: she was in the hills north of Tamryllin, in the company of two men. Before so many terrible things had happened. She felt Darien Aldemoor and Hassen Styr beside her. Not as ghosts, nor quite as memories. She simply felt them there. Almost she could imagine twining her hands in theirs, the comfort that brought—one that had evaporated so quickly.
Lin sank into a seated position in the grass. “How came the two of you to be friends?”
The two men looked at each other with identical wry expressions. Zahir laughed. “I assume you’ve heard the rumors.”
“Let her alone, Ramadian,” said Eldakar, punching his shoulder.
“It’s not my business,” said Lin, and meant it.
“For some things there is a time, a season,” said Zahir Alcavar. He had turned serious. “And after, one might go on in a different way. Now Eldakar belongs to Rihab Bet-Sorr. But some things are as before: we meet here, some nights, for music; by day, in the practice yard. And sometimes…”
“The city,” said Eldakar. “Though that is… a greater risk than it used to be. To be recognized, as prince, was a game. As king… that is something else, again.”
“What about the queen?” asked Lin. “Doesn’t she want to see Majdara?”
“She would, most likely,” said Eldakar with a smile. “But she knows the way of things. A queen is a treasure to be guarded. Otherwise her reputation is stained forever. I think she understands.”
“Rihab?” Zahir shook his head. “She understands everything. More than we can imagine, probably.” He must have seen Lin’s quizzical look, for he added, “Perhaps you haven’t heard how Rihab and Eldakar met. It was here.”
“Here?” She gestured around them, at the waterfall, the willow trees. She remembered Ned’s story of the king coming upon a singing slave girl, that he’d had from the guardsmen. It was hard to picture it now.
“Here.” He turned to Eldakar, who was looking away, appearing embarrassed. “Our king—prince at the time—was in search of a rhyme, but quite in his cups. He couldn’t think of a way to end his poem. And then suddenly from out the trees, one of the singing girls spoke up. The poem, as it stands now, has become a popular song at court.”
Lin raised an eyebrow. “The singing girls.”
“She had a way of distinguishing herself,” said Eldakar.
“And still does, I am sure,” said Zahir, and laughed when his friend winced. “Stop that,” said Eldakar. “You ought not dare, considering whatI know about you.”
“True enough,” said Zahir.
No longer did they make her think of Darien and Hassen. Nonetheless the presence of her lost friends was with her, as if they lounged here in the grass. They would have loved this place, and to make songs here.
As Zahir had said, Lin thought, one goes on. Even if not, not ever, as before. “I would hear more of the tune you were playing,” she said, hugging her knees to her chest. “If you would be so kind.”
They sat there a while. Eldakar took up his pipe, shut his eyes. The melody still sounded lonely to her; as if even loved as Eldakar was, a corner of his soul stayed apart. Some time passed, and then Zahir began to sing, wordless and melancholy. The two men leaned together. In their movements she read a story: of adventures in the city, a headlong passion, of plans that had faded like the roses would, once the demands of monarchy asserted themselves. And seeing this story, or even a piece, made her feel some of its sweet ache, and a desire to open her voice to it, release it that way. But she was silent. Somewhere the nightingale resumed its song, a counterpoint to music joined with a man’s voice at the water’s edge.
It was a moment, Lin thought, in which she would have liked to take root, stationary and content, as time and mortality slid around the three of them and away.
* * *
The red candles burned low, and she had beaten him three times. Wine was replaced with steaming cups of khave, bitter and rich. Giving him a jolt of false alertness amid fatigue. Ned scowled at the board. Across from him Rihab Bet-Sorr sat with her legs crossed, one slippered foot over another. Her lips parted as she gazed toward the vistas of garden now more clear in the growing light. Every so often Ned would look up and see her in this same pose, unchanging, as if she’d forgotten their game. Yet this mattered not at all for his chances: at each turn she demolished him.
She did this without triumph, but also without seeming to think; her expression one of weary inevitability. By the time Ned Alterra realized that once again, her pieces were assembled to entrap his king, there seemed no way to reverse it. “How are you not tired?” he said at last, rubbing his eyes. They had spoken little in the course of the night. Ned was drawn into the contest despite himself. She, in turn, seemed to have no need of conversation.
She shrugged. “I see you are tired. There is no shame in losing, Ned Alterra. As time passes, you will improve.”
“How long have you been… at this?”
“The game? Some months. Or weeks. I don’t recall.”
He swore softly. He had thought, perhaps, she was long-practiced at this. “Pardon me, lady,” he added, remembering himself.
She smiled, though it was abstracted, as if her mind was elsewhere.“You are an intelligent man,” she said. “Don’t doubt yourself. It is a pleasure to see how fast you learn, compared to others I’ve played against. I promise you.”
He did not know whether to be irritated or touched by this extensive reassurance. A salve for his male pride. Largely, he thought, it depended how tired he was.
The girl who served them khave—a new one, as he supposed the one with the wine had gone to sleep—approached the queen’s elbow. In Kahishian said, “He’s here, my queen.”
Coming up behind her, in a silk robe and with shadows under his eyes, was Eldakar. He leaned over the back of her chair, hands on her shoulders, without sparing a glance for Ned. She tilted her head against his arm and closed her eyes. “Why are you still here, my heart,” said Eldakar. A tone playful and weary, as if this had happened many times. “Come.”
When she spoke, her eyes closed, it was a murmur. Both men leaned close to hear. “The game,” she said. “It doesn’t stop.”
“It does when the king commands it,” said Eldakar, teasingly, and kissed her behind the ear. She made a low, gratified sound in her throat. Ned rose hurriedly. “I shall… take my leave, majesties. Wishing you both a good night.” Or a good morning, he thought sourly. How Rianna would laugh at him, if she could see where he’d gotten himself tonight. A thought like a sudden ache.
“Wait,” said Rihab, rising too. She extended a hand. “Let us play again soon. Tomorrow?”
“As the queen commands,” Ned said with a bow only slightly mocking, which seemed safe; Eldakar was distracting her with kisses again, this time on the nape of the neck. When at last Ned Alterra extricated himself from the room and found himself back in the long marble-tiled hall, he needed time to orient himself. Nothing seemed familiar. But there was an attendant, a new one, with movements like oil, to conduct him to the corridor entrance.
Ned’s thoughts were a welter as he made his way back. He had arrived at the queen’s chamber with a mix of dread and compelled desire; the latter was chilled, dampened, by hours engaged in a battle of wits. But Eldakar’s arrival served as a reminder of what Ned had earlier been expecting to do; and he found himself disturbingly overheated as here called the sound Rihab Bet-Sorr made when kissed behind the ear. Yet he could not shake a memory that seemed important, despite the protesting distraction of his body. As he was leaving, Ned had met the queen’s gaze once more. What he saw, in the moment before departing, was the same fatal inevitability as when she maneuvered her pieces on the board. Setting the trap.
Excerpted from Fire Dance, copyright © 2018 by Ilana C Myer.