For decades, the magical race of shapeshifters called the Cheysuli have been feared and hated exiles in their own land, a land they rightfully should rule. Victims of a vengeful monarch's war of annihilation and a usurper king's tyrannical reign, the Cheysuli clans have nearly vanished from the world.
Now, in the aftermath of the revolution which overthrew the hated tyrant, Prince Donal is being trained as the first Cheysuli in generations to assume the throne. But will he be able to overcome the prejudice of a populace afraid of his special magic and succeed in uniting the realm in its life and death battle against enemy armies and evil magicians?
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DAW titles by Jennifer Roberson
THE SWORD-DANCER SAGA
CHRONICLES OF THE CHEYSULI
THE SONG OF HOMANA
LEGACY OF THE SWORD
TRACK OF THE WHITE WOLF
A PRIDE OF PRINCES
DAUGHTER OF THE LION
FLIGHT OF THE RAVEN
A TAPESTRY OF LIONS
THE GOLDEN KEY
(with Melanie Rawn and Kate Elliott)
RETURN TO AVALON
HIGHWAYMEN: ROBBERS AND ROGUES
OF THE SWORD
Copyright ©, 1986 by Jennifer Roberson O’Green.
All Rights Reserved.
Cover art by Julek Heller.
DAW Book Collectors No. 669.
The scanning, uploading and distribution via the Internet or via any other means without the permission of the publisher is illegal and punishable by law. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions, and do not participate in or encourage the electronic piracy of copyrighted materials. Your support of the author's rights is appreciated.
First Printing, April 1986
Table of Contents
Hondarth did not resemble a city so much as a flock of sheep pouring down over lilac heather toward the glass-gray ocean beyond. From atop the soft, slope-shouldered hills surrounding the scalloped bay, gray-thatched cottages appeared to huddle together in familial affection.
Once, Hondarth had been no more than a small fishing village; now it was a thriving city whose welfare derived from all manner of foreign trade as well as seasonal catches. Ships docked daily and trade caravans were dispatched to various parts of Homana. And with the ships came an influx of foreign sailors and merchants; Hondarth had become almost cosmopolitan.
The price of growth, Donal thought. But I wonder, was Mujhara ever this—haphazard?
He smiled. The thought of the Mujhar’s royal city—with the palace of Homana-Mujhar a pendent jewel in a magnificent crown—as ever being haphazard was ludicrous. Had not the Cheysuli originally built the city the Homanans claimed for themselves?
Still smiling, Donal guided his chestnut stallion through the foot traffic thronging the winding street. Few cities know the majesty and uniformity of Mujhara. But I think I prefer Hondarth, if I must know a city at all.
And he did know cities. He knew Mujhara very well indeed, for all he preferred to live away from it. He had, of late, little choice in his living arrangements.
Donal sighed. I think Carillon will see to it my wings are clipped, my talons filed…or perhaps he will pen me in a kennel, like his hunting dogs.
And who would complain about a kennel as fine as Homana-Mujhar?
The question was unspoken, yet clearly understood by Donal. He had heard similar comments from others, many times before. Yet this one came not from any human companion but from the wolf padding at the stallion’s side.
Padding, not slinking; not as if the wolf avoided unwanted contact. He did not stalk, did not hunt, did not run from man or horse. He paced the stallion like a well-tamed hound accompanying a beloved master, but the wolf was no dog. Nor was he particularly tame.
He was not a delicate animal, but spare, with no flesh beyond that which supported his natural strength and quickness. The brassy sunlight of a foggy coastal late afternoon tipped his ruddy pelt with the faintest trace of bronze. His eyes were partially lidded, showing half-moons of brown and black.
I would complain about the kennel regardless of its aspect, Donal declared. So would you, Lorn.
An echo of laughter crossed the link that bound man to animal. So I would, the wolf agreed. But then Homana-Mujhar will be kennel to me as well as to you, once you have taken the throne.
That is not the point, Donal protested. The point is, Carillon begins to make more demands on my time. He takes me away from the Keep. Council meetings, policy sessions…all those boring petition hearings—
But the wolf cut him off. Does he have a choice?
Donal opened his mouth to answer aloud, prepared to contest the question. But chose to say nothing, aware of the familiar twinge of guilt that always accompanied less than charitable thoughts about the Mujhar of Homana. He shifted in the saddle, resettled the reins, made certain the green woolen cloak hung evenly over his shoulders…ritualized motions intended to camouflage the guilt; but they emphasized it instead.
And then, as always, he surrendered the battle to the wolf.
There are times I think he has a choice in everything, lir, Donal said with a sigh. I see him make decisions that are utterly incomprehensible to me. And yet, there are times I almost understand him…Almost… Donal smiled a little, wryly. But most of the time I think I lack the wit and sense to understand any of Carillon’s motives.
As good a reason as any for your attendance at council meetings, policy sessions, boring petition hearings….
Donal scowled down at the wolf. Lorn sounded insufferably smug. But arguing with his lir accomplished nothing—Lorn, like Carillon, always won the argument.
Just like Taj. Donal looked into the sky for the soaring golden falcon. As always, I am outnumbered.
You lack both wit and sense, and need the loan of ours. Taj’s tone was different within the threads of the link. The resonances of lir-speech were something no Cheysuli could easily explain because even the Old Tongue lacked the explicitness required. Donal, like every other warrior, simply knew the language of the link in all its infinite intangibilities. But only he could converse with Taj and Lorn.
I am put in my place. Donal conceded the battle much as he always did—with practiced humility and customary resignation; the concession was nothing new.
* * *
The tiny street gave out into Market Square as did dozens of others; Donal found himself funneled into the square almost against his will, suddenly surrounded by a cacophony of shouts and sing-song invitations from fishmongers and streethawkers. Languages abounded, so tangled the syllables were indecipherable. But then most he could not decipher anyway, being limited to Homanan and the Old Tongue of the Cheysuli.
The smell struck him like a blow. Accustomed to the rich earth odors of the Keep and the more subtle aromas of Mujhara, Donal could not help but frown. Oil. The faintest tang of fruit from clustered stalls. A hint of flowers, musk and other unknown scents wafting from a perfume-merchant’s stall. But mostly fish. Everywhere fish—in everything; he could not separate even the familiar smell of his leathers, gold and wool from the pervasive odor of fish.
The stallion’s gait slowed to a walk, impeded by people, pushcarts, stalls, booths, livestock and, occasionally, other horses. Most people were on foot; Donal began to wish he were, if only so he could melt into the crowd instead of riding head and shoulders above them all.
Lorn? he asked.
Here, the wolf replied glumly, nearly under the stallion’s belly. Could you not have gone another way?
When I can find a way out of this mess, I will. He grimaced as another rider, passing too close in the throng, jostled his horse. Knees collided painfully. The man, swearing softly beneath his breath as he rubbed one gray-clad knee, glanced up as if to apologize.
But he did not. Instead he stared hard for a long moment, then drew back in his saddle and spat into the street. “Shapechanger!” he hissed from between his teeth, “go back to your forest bolt-hole! We want none of your kind here in Hondarth!”
Donal, utterly astonished by the reaction, was speechless, so stunned was he by the virulence in words and tone.
“I said, go back!” the man repeated. His face was reddened by his anger. A pock-marked face, not young, not old, but filled with violence. “The Mujhar may give you freedom to stalk the streets of Mujhara in whatever beast-form you wear, but here it is different! Get you gone from this city, shapechanger!”
No. It was Lorn, standing close beside the stallion. What good would slaying him do, save to lend credence to the reasons for his hatred?
Donal looked down and saw how his right hand rested on the gold hilt of his long-knife. Carefully, so carefully, he unclenched his teeth, took his hand away from his knife and ignored the roiling of his belly.
He managed, somehow, to speak quietly to the Homanan who confronted him. “Shaine’s qu’mahlin is ended. We Cheysuli are no longer hunted. I have the freedom to come and go as I choose.”
“Not here!” The man, dressed in good gray wool but wearing no power or rank markings, shook his dark brown head. “I say you had better go.”
“Who are you to say so?” Donal demanded icily. “Have you usurped the Mujhar’s place in Homana to dictate my comings and goings?”
“I dictate where I will, when it concerns you shapechangers.” The Homanan leaned forward in his saddle. One hand gripped the chestnut’s reins to hold Donal’s horse in place. “Do you hear me? Leave this place. Hondarth is not for such as you.”
Their knees still touched. Through the contact, slight though it was, Donal sensed the man’s tension; sensed what drove the other to such a rash action.
He is afraid. He does not do this out of a sense of justice gone awry, or any personal vendetta—he is simply afraid.
Frightened, men will do anything. It was Taj, circling in seeming idleness above the crowded square. Lir, be gentle with him.
After what he has said to me?
Has it damaged you?
Looking into brown, malignant eyes, Donal knew the other would not back down. He could not. Homanan pride was not Cheysuli pride, but it was still a powerful force. Before so many people—before so many Homanans and facing a dreaded Cheysuli—the man would never give in.
But if I back down, I will lose more than just my pride. It will make it that much more difficult for any warrior who comes into Hondarth.
And so he did not back down. He leaned closer to the man, which caused the Homanan to flinch back, and spoke barely above a whisper. “You are truly a fool to think you can chase me back into the forests. I come and go as I please. If you think to dissuade me, you will have myself and my lir to contend with.” A brief gesture indicated the hackled wolf and Taj’s attentive flight. “What say you to me now?”
The Homanan looked down at Lorn, whose ruddy muzzle wrinkled to expose sharp teeth. He looked up at Taj as the falcon slowly, so slowly, circled, descending to the street.
Lastly he looked at the Cheysuli warrior who faced him: a young man of twenty-three, tall even in his saddle; black-haired, dark-skinned, yellow-eyed; possessed of a sense of grace, confidence and strength that was almost feral in its nature. He had the look of intense pride and preparedness that differentiated Cheysuli warriors from other men. The look of a predator.
“I am unarmed,” the Homanan said at last.
Donal did not smile. “Next time you choose to offer insult to a Cheysuli, I suggest you do so armed. If I was forced to slay you, I would prefer to do it fairly.”
The Homanan released the stallion’s rein. He clutched at his own so violently the horse’s mouth gaped open, baring massive teeth in silent protest. Back, back…iron-shod hooves scraped against stone and scarred the cobbles. The man paid no heed to the people he nearly trampled or the collapse of a flimsy fruit stall as his mount’s rump knocked down the props. He completely ignored the shouts of the angry merchant.
But before he left the square he spat once more into the street.
Donal sat rigidly in his saddle and stared at the spittle marring a single cobble. He was aware of an aching emptiness in his belly. Slowly that emptiness filled with the pain of shock and outraged pride.
He is not worth slaying. But Lorn’s tone within the pattern sounded suspiciously wistful.
Taj, still circling, climbed back into the sky. You will see more of that. Did you think to be free of such things?
“Free?” Donal demanded aloud. “Carillon ended Shaine’s qu’mahlin!”
Neither lir answered at once.
Donal shivered. He was cold. He felt ill. He wanted to spit much as the Homanan had spat, wishing only to rid himself of the sour taste of shock.
“Ended,” he repeated. “Everyone in Homana knows Carillon ended the purge.”
Lorn’s tone was grim. There are fools in the world, and madmen; people driven by ignorant prejudice and fear.
Donal looked out on the square and slowly shook his head. Around him swarmed Homanans whom he had, till now, trusted readily enough, having little reason not to. But now, looking at them as they went about their business, he wondered how many hated him for his race without really understanding what he was.
Why? he asked his lir. Why do they spit at me?
You are the closest target. Taj told him. Not because of rank and title.
Homanan rank and title, Donal pointed out. Can they not respect that at least? It is their own, after all.
If you tell them who and what you are, Lorn agreed. Perhaps. But he saw only a Cheysuli.
Donal laughed a little, but there was nothing humorous in it. Ironic, is it not? That man had no idea I was the Prince of Homana—he saw a shapechanger, and spat. Knowing, maybe he would have shut his mouth, out of respect for the title. But others, other Homanans—knowing what Carillon has made me—resent me for that title.
A woman, passing, muttered of beasts and demons and made a ward-sign against the god of the netherworld. The sign was directed at Donal, as if she thought he was a servant of Asar-Suti.
“By the gods, the world has gone mad!” Donal stared after the woman as she faded into the crowded square. “Do they think I am Ihlini?”
No, Taj said. They know you are Cheysuli.
Let us get out of this place at once. But even as Donal said it, he felt and heard the smack of some substance against one shoulder.
And smelled its odor, also.
He turned in the saddle at once, shocked by the blatant attack. But he saw no single specific culprit, only a square choked with people. Some watched him. Others did not.
Donal reached back and jerked his cloak over one shoulder to see what had struck his back, though he thought he knew. He grimaced when he saw the residue of fresh horse droppings. In disgust he shook the cloak free of manure, then let the folds fall back.
We are leaving this square, he told his lir. Though I would prefer to leave this city entirely.
Donal turned his horse into the first street he saw and followed its winding course. It narrowed considerably, twisting down toward the sea among whitewashed buildings topped with thatched gray roofs. He smelled salt and fish and oil, and the tang of the sea beyond. Gulls cried raucously, white against the slate-gray sky, singing their lonely song. The clop of his horse’s hooves echoed in the narrow canyon of the road.
Do you mean to stop? Taj inquired.
When I find an inn—ah, there is one ahead. See the sign? The Red Horse Inn.
It was a small place, whitewashed like the others, its thatched roof worn in spots. The wooden sign, in the form of a crimson horse, faded, dangled from its bracket on a single strip of leather.
Here? Lorn asked dubiously.
It will do as well as another, provided I may enter. Donal felt the anger and sickness rise again, frustrated that even Carillon—with all that he had accomplished—had not been able to entirely end the qu’mahlin. But even as he spoke, Donal realized what the wolf meant; the Red Horse Inn appeared to lack refinement of any sort. Its two horn windows were puttied with grime and smoke, and the thatching stank of fish oil, no doubt from the lanterns inside. Even the white-washing was grayed with soot and dirt.
You are the Prince of Homana. That from Taj, ever vigilant of such things as princely dignity and decorum.
Donal smiled. And the Prince of Homana is hungry. Perhaps the food will be good. He swung off his mount and tied it to a ring in the wall provided for that purpose. Bide here with the horse. Let us not threaten anyone else with your presence.
You are going in. Lorn’s brown eyes glinted for just a moment.
Donal slapped the horse on his rump and shot the wolf a scowl. There is nothing threatening about me.
Are you not Cheysuli? asked Taj smugly as he settled on the saddle.
The door to the inn was snatched open just as Donal put out his hand to lift the latch. A body was hurled through the opening. Donal, directly in its path, cursed and staggered back, grasping at arms and legs as he struggled to keep himself and the other upright. He hissed a Cheysuli invective under his breath and pushed the body back onto its feet. It resolved itself into a boy, not a man, and Donal saw how the boy stared at him in alarm.
The innkeeper stood in the doorway, legs spread and arms folded across his chest. His bearded jaw thrust out belligerently. “I’ll not have such rabble in my good inn!” he growled distinctly. “Take your demon ways elsewhere, brat!”
The boy cowered. Donal put one hand on a narrow shoulder to prevent another stumble. But his attention was more firmly focused on the innkeeper. “Why do you call him a demon?” he asked. “He is only a boy.”
The man looked Donal up and down, brown eyes narrowing. Donal waited for the epithets to include himself, half-braced against another clot of manure—or worse—but instead of insults he got a shrewd assessment. He saw how the innkeeper judged him by the gold showing at his ear and the color of his eyes. His lir-bands were hidden beneath a heavy cloak, but his race—as always—was apparent enough.
Inwardly Donal laughed derisively. Homanans! If they are not judging us demons because of the shapechange, they judge us by our gold instead. Do they not know we revere our gold for what it represents, and not the wealth at all?
The Homanans judge your gold because of what it can buy them. Taj settled his wings tidily. The freedom of the Cheysuli.
The innkeeper turned his face and spat against the ground. “Demon,” he said briefly.
“The boy, or me?” Donal asked with exaggerated mildness, prepared for either answer. And prepared to make his own.
“Him. Look at his eyes. He’s demon-spawn, for truth.”
“No!” the boy cried. “I’m not!”
“Look at his eyes!” the man roared. “Tell me what you see!”
The boy turned his face away, shielding it behind one arm. His black hair was dirty and tangled, falling into his eyes as if he meant it to hide them. He showed nothing to Donal but a shoulder hunched as if to ward off a blow.
“Do you wish to come in?” the innkeeper demanded irritably.
Donal looked at him in genuine surprise. “You throw him out because you believe him to be a demon—because of his eyes—and yet you ask me in?”
The man grunted. “Has not the Mujhar declared you free of taint? Your coin is as good as any other’s.” He paused. “You do have coin?” His eyes strayed again to the earring.
Donal smiled in relief, glad to know at least one man in Hondarth judged him more from avarice than prejudice. “I have coin.”
The other nodded. “Then come in. Tell me what you want.”
“Beef and wine. Falian white, if you have it.” Donal paused. “I will be in in a moment.”
“I have it.” The man cast a lingering glance at the boy, spat again, then pulled the door shut as he went into his inn.
Donal turned to the boy. “Explain.”
The boy was very slender and black-haired, dressed in dark, muddied clothing that showed he had grown while the clothes had not. His hair hung into his face. “My eyes,” he said at last. “You heard the man. Because of my eyes.” He glanced quickly up at Donal, then away. And then, as if defying the expected reaction, he shoved the tangled hair out of his face and bared his face completely. “See?”
“Ah,” Donal said, “I see. And I understand. Merely happenstance, but ignorant people do not understand that. They choose to lay blame even when there is no blame to lay.”
The boy stared up at him out of eyes utterly unremarkable—save one was brown and the other a clear, bright blue.
“Then—you don’t think me a demon and a changeling?”
“No more than am I myself.” Donal smiled and spread his hands.
“You don’t think I’ll be putting a spell on you?”
“Few men have that ability. I doubt you are one of them.”
The boy continued to stare. He had the face of a street urchin, all hollowed and pointed and thin. His bony wrists hung out of tattered sleeves and his feet were shod in strips of battered leather. He picked at the front of his threadbare shirt with broken, dirty fingernails.
“Why?” he asked in a voice that was barely a sound. “Why is it you didn’t like hearing me called names? I could tell.” He glanced quickly at Donal’s face. “I could feel the anger in you.”
“Perhaps because I have had such prejudice attached to me,” Donal said grimly. “I like it no better when another suffers the fate.”
The boy frowned. “Who would call you names? And why?”
“For no reason at all. Ignorance. Prejudice. Stupidity. But mostly because, like you, I am not—precisely like them.” Donal did not smile. “Because I am Cheysuli.”
The mismatched eyes widened. The boy stiffened and drew back as if he had been struck, then froze in place. He stared fixedly at Donal and his grimy face turned pale and blotched with fear. “Shapechanger!”
Donal felt the slow overturning of his belly. Even this boy—
“Beast-eyes!” The boy made the gesture meant to ward off evil and stumbled back a single step.
Donal felt all the anger and shock swell up. Deliberately, with a distinct effort, he pushed it back down again. The boy was a boy, echoing such insults as he had heard, having heard them said of himself.
“Are you hungry?” Donal asked, ignoring the fear and distrust in the boy’s odd eyes.
The boy stared. “I have eaten.”
“What have you eaten—scraps from the innkeeper’s midden?”
“I have eaten!”
Anger gave way to regret. That even a boy such as this will fall prey to such absolute fear— “Well enough.” He said it more sharply than intended. “I thought to feed you, but I would not have you thinking I seek to steal your soul for my use. Perhaps you will find another innkeeper less judgmental than this one.”
The boy said nothing. After a long moment of shocked silence, he turned quickly and ran away.
In the morning, Donal found only one man willing to give him passage across the bay to the Crystal Isle, and even that man would not depart until the following day. So, left to his own devices, Donal stabled his horse and wandered down to the sea wall. He perched himself upon it and stared across the lapping waves.
He focused his gaze on the dark bump of land rising out of the Idrian Ocean a mere three leagues across the bay. Gods, what will Electra be like? What will she say to me?
He could hardly recall her, though he did remember her legendary beauty, for he had been but a young boy when Carillon had banished his Solindish wife for treason. Adultery too, according to the Homanans; the Cheysuli thought little of that charge, having no strictures against light women when a man already had a wife. In the clans, cheysulas, wives, and meijhas, mistresses, were given equal honor. In the clans, the birth of children was more important than what the Homanans called proprieties.
Treason. Aye, a man might call it that. Electra of Solinde, princess-born, had tried to have her royal Homanan husband slain so that Tynstar might take his place. Tynstar of the Ihlini, devotee of Asar-Suti, the god of the netherworld.
Donal suppressed a shudder. He knew better than to attribute the sudden chill he felt to the salty breeze coming inland from the ocean. No man, had he any wisdom at all, dismissed the Ihlini as simple sorcerers. Not when Tynstar led them.
He wishes to throw down Carillon’s rule and make Homana his own. For a moment he shut his eyes. It was so clear, so very clear as it rose up before his eyes from his memory: the vision of Tynstar’s servitors as they had captured his mother. Alix they had drugged, to control her Cheysuli gifts. Torrin, her foster father, they had brutally slain. And her son they had nearly throttled with a necklace of heavy iron.
Donal put a hand against his neck. He recalled it so well, even fifteen years later. As if it were yesterday, and I still a boy. But the yesterday had faded, his boyhood long outgrown.
He opened his eyes and looked again upon the place men called the Crystal Isle. Once it had been a Cheysuli place, or so the shar tahls always said. But now it was little more than a prison for Carillon’s treacherous wife.
The Queen of Homana. Donal grimaced. Gods, how could he stay wed to her? I know the Homanans do not countenance the setting aside of wives—it is even a part of their laws—but the woman is a witch! Tynstar’s meijha. He scrubbed a hand through his hair and felt the wind against his face. Cool, damp wind, filled with the scent of the sea. If he gave her a chance, she would seek to slay him again.
Taj wheeled idly in the air. Perhaps it was his tahlmorra.
Homanans have none. Not as we know it. Donal shook his head. They call it fate, destiny…saying they make their own without the help of the gods. No, the Homanans have no tahlmorra. And Carillon, much as I respect him, is Homanan to the bone.
There is that blood in you as well, returned the bird.
Aye. His mouth twisted. But I cannot help it, much as I would prefer to forget it altogether.
It makes you what you are, Taj said. That, and other things.
Donal opened his mouth to answer aloud, but Lorn urgently interrupted. Lir, there is trouble.
Donal straightened and swung his legs over the wall, rising at once. He looked in the direction Lorn indicated with his nose and saw a group of boys wrestling on the cobbles.
He frowned. “They are playing, Lorn.”
More than that. Lorn told him. They seek to do serious harm.
Taj drifted closer to the pile of scrambling bodies. The boy with odd eyes.
Donal grunted. “I am not one of his favorite people.”
You might become so, Lorn pointed out, if you gave him the aid he needs.
Donal cast the smug wolf a skeptical glance, but he went off to intervene. For all the boy had not endeared himself the day before, neither could Donal allow him to be beaten.
“Enough!” He stood over the churning mass of arms and legs. “Let him be!”
Slowly the mass untangled itself and he found five Homanan boys glaring up at him from the ground in various attitudes of fear and sullen resentment. The victim, he saw, regarded him in surprise.
“Let him be,” Donal repeated quietly. “That he was born with odd eyes signifies nothing. It could as easily have been one of you.”
The others got up slowly, pulling torn clothing together and wiping at grimy faces. Two of them drifted off quickly enough, tugging at two others who hastily followed, but the tallest, a red-haired boy, faced Donal defiantly.
“Who’re you to say, shapechanger?” His fists clenched and his freckled face reddened. “You’re no better’n him! My Da says men like you are nothing but demons yourselves. Shapechanger!”
Donal reached out and caught the boy’s shoulder. He heard the inarticulate cry of fear and ignored it, pulling the boy in. He thought the redhead was perhaps fourteen or fifteen, but undernourished. Like all of them. “What else does your father say?”
The boy stared at him. He hunched a little, for Donal still gripped his left shoulder, but soon became defiant. “Th-that Shaine the M-mujhar had the right of it! That you should all be slain—like beasts!”
“Does he, now?” Donal asked reflectively, desiring no further answers. He felt sickened by the virulence of the boy’s hate. He only mouthed his father’s words, but it was enough to emphasize yet again that not all Homanans were prepared to accept the Cheysuli, no matter what Carillon had done to stop Shaine’s purge.
Almost twenty years have passed since Carillon came back from exile to make us welcome again, declaring us free of qu’mahlin, and still the Homanans hate us!
Lorn came up to press against his leg, as if to offer comfort. It brought Donal back to full awareness immediately, and he realized he still held the redhead’s shoulder. Grimly, he regarded the frightened boy.
But not so frightened he forgets his prejudice. Donal took a deep breath and tried to steady his voice. “Do you think I will eat you, boy? Do you think I will turn beast before your eyes and rip the flesh from your throat?”
“M-my Da says—”
“Enough of your jehan, boy!” Donal shouted. “You face me now, not your father. It is you who will receive what punishment I choose to give you for the insult you have offered.”
The boy began to cry. “D-don’t eat me! Please don’t eat me!”
In disgust, Donal shook him. “I will not eat you! I am not the beast your father says I am. I am a man, like he is. But even a man grows angry when boys lose their manners.”
Lir, Lorn said in concern.
Donal silenced him through the link and kept his attention on the boy. “What punishment do you deserve? What I would give my own son for such impertinence. And when you run home to tell your Da, tell him also that you sought to harm an innocent boy. See what he says then.”
Even as he said it, Donal grimaced to himself. Most likely he will send his son out to find another helpless soul. Contempt and hatred beget more of the same. He tightened his grip on the redhead. “Now, perhaps you will think better of such behavior in the future.”
Donal spun the boy quickly and held him entrapped in his left arm. Before the redhead could protest, Donal swatted him twice—hard—on his bony rump and sent him stumbling toward the nearest street. “Go home. Go home and learn some manners.”
The boy ran down the street and quickly disappeared. Donal turned at once to the victim, meaning to help him up, then thought better of it. Why give him another chance to revile me for my race?
But the boy evidently no longer held Donal in such contempt. He scrambled to his feet, tried to put his torn and muddied clothing into some semblance of order, and gazed at Donal with tentative respect. “You didn’t have to do that.”
“No,” Donal agreed. “I chose to.”
“Even after—after what I called you?”
“I do not hold grudges.” Donal grinned suddenly. “Save, perhaps, against Carillon.”
The mismatched eyes widened in shock. “You hold a grudge against the Mujhar?”
“Upon occasion—and usually with very good reason.” Donal hid a second smile, amused by the boy’s reaction.
“He is the Mujhar! King of Homana and Lord of Solinde!”
“And a man, like myself. Like you will be, one day.” He put out a hand and touched the ugly swelling already darkening the skin beneath the boy’s blue eye. The brown one was unmarred. “This will be very sore, I fear.”
The boy recoiled from the touch. “It—doesn’t hurt.”
Donal, hearing the boy’s fear, took away his hand. “What is your name? I cannot keep calling you ‘boy,’ or ‘brat,’ as the innkeeper did.”
“Sef,” whispered the boy.
Cheeks reddened. “Thirteen—I think.”
Donal gently clasped one thin shoulder, ignoring the boy’s sudden flinch. “Then go on your way, Sef, as you will not abide my company. But I suggest you avoid such situations in the future, do you wish to keep your bones whole and your face unblemished.”
Sef did not move as Donal removed his hand. He stood very stiff, very still, his mismatched eyes wide, apprehensive, as he watched Donal turn to walk away.
“Wait!” he called. “Wait—please—”
Donal glanced back and waited. The boy walked slowly toward him, shoulders raised defensively, both hands twisting the drawstring of his thin woolen trews.
“What is it?” Donal asked gently.
“What if—what if I said I did want your company?”
“Mine?” Donal raised his brows. “I thought you feared it, Sef.”
“I—I do. I mean, you shift your shape.” Briefly he looked at the wolf. “But I’d rather go with you.”
“With me?” Donal frowned. “I will willingly buy you a meal—even a week’s worth, if need be, or give you coin enough so you could go to another town—but I had not thought to take you with me.”
“Please—” One hand, briefly raised, fell back to his side. He shrugged. It was the barest movement of his ragged clothing, intensely vulnerable. “I have no one. My mother is—dead. My father—I never knew.”
Donal frowned. “I do not live here.”
“It doesn’t matter. Hondarth isn’t my home. Just—just a place I live, until I find better.” The thin face blazed with sudden hope. “Take me with you! I’ll work for my wage. I can tend your horse, prepare the food, clean up afterwards! I’ll do anything.”
“Even to feeding my wolf?” Donal did not smile.
Sef blanched. He stared blindly at Lorn a moment, but then he nodded jerkily.
Donal laughed. “No, no—Lorn feeds himself. I merely tease you, Sef.”
The boy’s face lit up. “Then you will take me with you?”
Donal glanced back toward the Crystal Isle. What Carillon had sent him to do offered no place for a boy, but perhaps after. Having a boy to tend his horse and other small chores would undoubtedly be of help.
And there is always room for serving-boys in Homana-Mujhar. He turned back to Sef and nodded. “I will take you. But there are things you must know about the service you undertake.”
Sef nodded immediately. “I will do whatever you say.”
Donal sighed. “To begin, I will not countenance pointless chatter among other boys you may meet. I understand what pride is, and what youth is, and how both will often lead a boy—a young man—into circumstances beyond his control, but this case is very special. I am not one for unnecessary elaborations, and I dislike ceremony, but there will be times for both. You will know them, too. But you must not give in to the temptation to speak of things you should not to other boys.”
Sef frowned intently. “Other boys? Do you have so many servants?”
Donal smiled. “I have no servants—at least, not as I think of them. But there are pages and body-servants where we will go, when I finish my business here, and I must have your promise to keep yourself silent about my affairs.”
Sef’s dirt-streaked face grew paler. “Is it—because you’re Cheysuli?”
“No. And I do not speak of secret things, merely things that are very private. And sometimes quite important.” He studied Sef’s face and then brought his right hand up into the muted sunlight. “See this? Tell me what it is.”
Sef frowned. “A ring.”
“Surely you are more observant than that.”
The frown deepened. “A gold ring. It has a red stone in it, and a black animal in the stone. A—lion.” Sef nodded. “A black lion—”
“—rampant, upon a scarlet Mujharan field,” Donal finished. “Do you know what that is?”
Sef started to shake his head. And then he stopped. “Once, I saw a soldier. He wore a red tunic over his ringmail, and on the tunic was a lion. A black lion, rearing up.” He pointed. “Like that one.”
Donal smiled. “That soldier was Carillon’s man, as they all are. So am I. But—I am not a soldier. Not as you know soldiers.”
“A warrior.” Sef dipped his black head down. “I know about the Cheysuli.”
“Not enough. But you will learn.” Donal smiled and reached down to catch Sef’s chin. He tipped up his head. “My name is Donal, Sef, and I am the Prince of Homana.”
Sef blanched white. Then he turned red. And finally, before Donal could catch him, he fell downward to smack his bony knees against the salt-crusted cobbles. “My lord!” he whispered. “My lord—the Prince of Homana!”
Donal suppressed a laugh. It would not do to embarrass the boy simply because he was so in awe of royal rank. “I do not stand on ceremony. Serve me as well as you would serve any man, and I will be well-pleased.”
Donal reached down and caught a handful of thin tunic, then pulled Sef up from the cobbles. “Do not be so—overwhelmed. I am flesh and bone, as you are.” He grinned. “If you are to serve me, you must learn I am not some petty lordling who seeks elevation in the eyes and service of others. You may come with me as my friend, but not my servant. I left enough of those back at Homana-Mujhar.” His voice was gentle. “Do you understand me?”
“Aye,” Sef whispered. “Oh…my lord…aye!”
Donal released the ragged tunic. I will have to buy him better clothing, perhaps in Carillon’s colors—well, that will have to wait. But some manner of fitting clothing will not. “You shall have to earn your passage, Sef.” Donal looked down at the boy solemnly. “Are you willing to work for that passage?”
“Aye, my lord!”
“Good.” Donal squeezed a narrow shoulder. “All I require of you is your company. Come along.”
Donal turned back. “Aye?”
“My lord—” Sef broke off, pulling again at his ill-fitting, muddied clothing. “My lord—I wish only to say—” He broke off yet again, obviously embarrassed, vivid color flooding his cheeks.
Donal smiled at him encouragingly. “Before me, you may say what you wish. If you speak out of turn, I will say so, but I will never strike you. Say what you will, Sef.”
The boy sucked in a deep breath. “I wished only to thank you for coming to my aid, and to say that usually I win the fights.”
Donal smothered a laugh. “Of course.”
“They were five to my one,” Sef pointed out earnestly.
“I counted them. You are right.” Donal nodded gravely.
Sef studied Donal a moment. Then, anxiously, “You said I may say what I wish. Do you mean I may ask it as well?”
“You may always ask. I may not always answer.”
The boy smiled tentatively. “Then—I’d ask you what you’d do against five men, if you were ever attacked.”
“I?” Donal laughed. “Well, it would be a different situation. You see, I have two lir.”
“They would fight, too?” Sef stared at Lorn in amazement, then turned his bi-colored gaze to the sky to pick Taj out from the crying gulls.
“They will always fight, to aid me. That is what lir are for.”
That, and other things, Lorn reminded him dryly.
“Then five men couldn’t stop you?”
Donal understood what Sef inquired, even if the boy did not. “I do not doubt you fought well, Sef, and that bad fortune put you on the losing side. You need not make excuses. As for me, you must recall I am Cheysuli. We are taught to fight from birth.” His smile faded into a grim line. “There is reason enough for that. Even now, I begin to think.”
“Cheysuli,” Sef echoed. He stood very still. “Will you tell me what it’s like?”
“As much as I can. But it is never easily done.” Donal nodded his head in Taj’s direction, then gestured toward the wolf. “There is the secret of the Cheysuli, Sef. In Taj and Lorn. Understand what it is to have a lir, and you will know what it is to be blessed by the gods.”
Sef glanced at him skeptically. “Gods? I don’t think there are any.”
“Ah, but there are. I am no shar tahl, dedicating my life to the prophecy and the service of the gods, but I can tell you what I know. Another time.” Donal smiled. “Come along.”
This time, Sef fell into step beside him.
In the morning the ship’s captain, paid generously beforehand in freshly minted gold coin, cast off readily enough for the Crystal Isle. Donal questioned him and learned all traffic to the island was closely watched by men serving the Mujhar; the man had agreed to transport Donal and Sef only after a close look at the royal signet ring. For once, Donal was glad Carillon made him wear it.
The captain was a garrulous man, perfectly content to while away the brief voyage by telling Donal all about the Queen of Homana’s confinement. He confided there were Cheysuli on the island with Electra so she could use none of her witch’s ways, and they kept Tynstar from rescuing her. He seemed little impressed with the knowledge that he transported the Prince of Homana himself, being rather more impressed with how he could use the knowledge to his own best advantage in fashioning an entertaining story full of gossip and anecdotes. Donal did not doubt a tale of his visit to the island, undoubtedly much embellished, would soon make the rounds of the taverns. He quickly grew tired of the one-sided conversation and withdrew with what politeness he could muster, turning his back on the man to stare across the glassy bay.
Behind them, Hondarth receded. The painted cottages merged into clustered masses of glowing white, luminescent in the mist against a velvety backdrop of heathered hills. Before them, the island grew more distinct as the ship sailed closer, but Donal could see none of the distinguishing features. Just a shape floating on the water, wreathed in clouds of fog.
He became aware of Sef edging in close beside him. The mist shrouded them both and settled into their clothing, so that Sef—wrapped in a deep blue cloak Donal had purchased for him the day before, along with other new clothing—looked more fey than human. His black hair curled against his thin face—now clean—and his mismatched eyes stared out at the island fixedly.
“It should not frighten you,” Donal said quietly. “It is merely an island. A place.”
Sef looked at the eerie, silent blanket of sea-spray and morning fog. Even the crying of the gulls was muted in the mist. “But it’s an enchanted place. I’ve heard.”
“Do you know the old legends, then?”
Sef seemed hesitant. “Some. Not all. I’m—not from Hondarth.”
“Where are you from?”
The boy looked away again, staring at the deck. Then, slowly, he raised his head. “From many places. My mother earned bread by—by…” He broke off uncertainly. His face colored so that he looked younger than the thirteen years he claimed. His voice was nearly a whisper. “Because of—men. We—didn’t stay long in any single place.” He shrugged, as if he could dismiss it all. But Donal knew such things would never entirely fade, even with adulthood. “She died almost a year ago, and I had no place else to go. So—I stayed.”
Donal heard the underlying note of shame and loneliness in Sef’s tone. “Well, travel befits a man,” he said off-handedly, seeking to soothe the boy without insulting him with sympathy. In the clans, the Cheysuli rarely resorted to emphasizing unnecessary emotions. “You are of an age to learn the world, and Hondarth is as good a place as any to begin.”
Sef did not look at him. He looked instead at the Crystal Isle as they sailed closer yet. The fog thickened as they approached, wrapping itself around the ship until it clung to every line and spar, glistening in the brassy sunlight so muted by the mist. Droplets beaded the railing and their cloaks, running down the oiled wool to fall on the deck. Their faces were cooled by the isle’s constant wind, known to Cheysuli as the Breath of the Gods.
“Will you still keep me with you?” Sef asked very softly.
Donal looked at him sharply, frowning. “I have said I would. Why do you ask?”
Sef would not meet his eyes. “But—that was before you knew I was a—bastard.”
Donal made a quick dismissive gesture. “You forget, Sef—I am Cheysuli, not Homanan.” Inwardly he shut his ears to the voice that protested the easy denial of his Homanan blood. “In the clans, there is no such thing as bastardy. A child is born and his value is weighed in how he serves his clan and the prophecy, not in the question of his paternity.” Donal shook his head. “I care not if your jehan—your father—was thief or cobbler or soldier. So long as you earn your keep.”
“Then the Cheysuli are wiser than most.” The bitterness in Sef’s young voice made Donal want to put a hand on one narrow shoulder to gentle him, but he did not. The boy was obviously proud as well as uncertain of his new position, and Donal had more cause than most to understand the feeling.
He pointed toward the island. “Tell me what you know, Sef.”
Sef looked. “They say there are demons, my lord.”
Donal smiled. “Do they? Well, they are wrong. That is a Cheysuli place, and there are no Cheysuli demons. Only gods, and the people they have made.”
“Those of us now known as the Cheysuli. Once, we were something different. Something—better.” Like the boy, he stared across the glass-gray ocean toward the misted island. Finally it grew clearer, more distinct. It was thickly forested, cloaked in lilac heather. Through the trees glowed a faint expanse of silver-white. “The Firstborn, Sef. Those the gods made first, as their name implies. Later, much later, were the Cheysuli born.”
Sef frowned, concentrating, so that his black brows overshadowed his odd eyes. “You’re saying once there were no people?”
“The shar tahls—our priest-historians—teach us that once the land was empty of men. It was a decision of the gods to put men upon the Crystal Isle and give it over to them freely. It is these original men we call the Firstborn. But the Firstborn soon outgrew the Crystal Isle, as men will when there are women, and went to Homana: a more spacious land for their growing numbers. They built a fine realm there, ruling it well, and the gods were pleased. As a mark of their favor, they sent the lir to them. And because of the earth magic, the Firstborn were able to bond with the lir, to learn what lir-shape is—”
“Shapechangers,” Sef interrupted involuntarily, shivering as he spoke.
Donal sighed. “The name is easily come by, but we do not use it ourselves. Cheysuli is the Old Tongue, meaning children of the gods. But men—Homanans—being unblessed, all too often resort to the word as an insult.” He thought again of the Homanan in the Market Square; the woman who had made the sign of the evil eye; the splatter of manure against his cloak. And all because he could shift his shape from man into animal.
Surely the gods would never give such gifts to us was there any chance we would use them for evil! Why must so many believe we would?
They do not understand. Taj floated lightly, pale gold in the silver mist. They are unblessed, and blind to the magic.
Why do the gods not make them see?
Blindness often serves a purpose, Lorn explained. Sight recovered is often better than original vision.
Donal looked directly at Sef. “Shapechanger,” he said clearly. “Aye, it is true—I shift my shape at will. I become a wolf or falcon. But does it make me so different from you? I do not doubt there are things you do that I cannot. Should I castigate you for it?”
Sef shivered again. “It isn’t the same. It isn’t the same. You become an animal, while I—” he shook his head violently, denying the image, “—while I remain a boy. A normal, human boy.”
“Unblessed,” Donal agreed, for a moment callous in his pride.
Sef looked at him then, staring fixedly at Donal’s face. His disconcerting gaze traveled from yellow eyes to golden earring, and he swallowed visibly. “The—the Firstborn,” he began, “where are they, now?”
“The Firstborn no longer exist. And most of their gifts are lost.”
Sef frowned. “Where did they go? What happened?”
The taffrail creaked as Donal shifted his weight. “It is too long a story. One night, I promise, I will tell you it all—but, for now, this will have to content you.” He looked directly at the boy and saw how attentive he was. “I am told the Firstborn became too inbred, that the gifts began to fade. And so before they died out they gave what they could to their children, the Cheysuli, and left them a prophecy.” For a moment he was touched by the gravity of what his race undertook; how important the service was. “It is the Firstborn we seek to regain by strengthening the blood. Someday, when the proper mixture is attained, we will have a Firstborn among us again, and all the magic will be reborn.” He smiled. “So the prophecy tells us: one day a man of all blood shall unite, in peace, two magical races and four warring realms.” Fluidly, he made the gesture of tahlmorra—right hand palm-up, fingers spread—to indicate the shortened form of the Old Tongue phrase meaning, in Homanan, the fate of a man rests always within the hands of the gods.
“You said—they lost their gifts—?”
“Most of them. The Firstborn were far more powerful than the Cheysuli. They had no single lir. They conversed with every lir, and took whatever shape they wished. But now, each warrior is limited to one.”
“You have two!” Sef looked around for Taj and Lorn. “Are you a Firstborn, then?”
Donal laughed. “No, no, I am a Cheysuli halfling, or—perhaps more precisely—a three-quarterling.” He grinned. “But my half Homanan jehana bears the blood of the Firstborn—as well as some of the gifts—and by getting a child by my Cheysuli jehan she triggered that part of herself that has the Firstborn magic. I have two lir because of her, and I may converse with any, but nothing more than that. I am limited to those two shapes.”
Sef turned to stare at the island. “Then—this is your birthplace.”
“In a manner of speaking.” Donal looked at the island again. “It is the birthplace of the Cheysuli.”
“That is why you go?” Sef’s odd eyes were wide as he looked up at Donal. “To see where your people were born?”
“No, though undoubtedly every Cheysuli should.” Donal sighed and his mouth hooked down into a resigned grimace. “No, I go there on business for the Mujhar.” He felt the curl of unhappiness tighten his belly. “What I am about is securing the throne of Homana.”
“Securing it—?” Sef frowned. “But—the Mujhar holds it. It’s his.”
“There are those who seek to throw down Carillon’s House to set up another,” Donal told him grimly. “Even now, in Solinde…we know they plan a war.”
Sef stared. “Why? Who would do such a thing?”
Donal very nearly did not answer. But Sef was avid in his interest, and he would learn the truth one way or another, once he was in Homana-Mujhar. “You know of the Ihlini, do you not?”
Sef paled and made the gesture warding off evil. “Solindish demons!”
“Aye,” Donal agreed evenly. “Tynstar and his minions would prefer to make the throne their own and destroy the prophecy. He wishes to have dominion over Homana—and all the other realms, I would wager—in order to serve Asar-Suti.” He paused. “Asar-Suti is your demon, Sef, and more—he is the god of the netherworld. The Seker, he is called, by those who serve him: the one who made and dwells in darkness.” He saw fear tauten Sef’s face. “In the name of his demon-god, Tynstar wishes to recapture Solinde from Carillon and make the realm his own, as tribute to Asar-Suti. And, of course, his ambition does not stop there—also he wants Homana. He plots for it now, at this moment—but we know this, so we are not unprepared; we are not a complacent regency in Solinde. And so long as Carillon holds the throne—and his blood after him—the thing will not be done. The Lion Throne is ours.”
Sef’s hands were tight-wrapped around the rail. “You’ll hold the throne one day, won’t you? You’re the Prince of Homana!”
He glanced down at the attentive boy. “Now, do you see why I must teach you how to hold your tongue? Honesty is all well and good, but in Royal Houses, too much honesty may be construed as grounds for beginning a war. You must be careful in what you say as well as to whom you say it.”
Sef nodded slowly. “My lord—I have promised to serve you well. I give you my loyalty.”
Donal smiled and clasped one thin shoulder briefly. “And that is all I require, for now.”
His hand remained a moment longer on Sef’s shoulder. The boy needed good food in him to fill out the hollows in his pasty-white face and to put some flesh on his bones, but his attitude was good. For a bastard boy living from hand to mouth it was very good indeed.
Donal chewed briefly at his bottom lip. Being little more than an urchin, he may not prove equal to the task. He may not mix well with the other boys. But then I cannot judge men by how they conform to others—how boring that life would be—and I will not do it with Sef. I will give him what chance I can. He smiled, and then he laughed. Perhaps I have found someone to serve me as well as Rowan serves Carillon.
* * *
The prison-palace on the Crystal Isle stood atop a gentle hill of ash-colored bracken and lilac heather. The forest grew up around the pedestal of the hill, hiding much of the palace, but through the trees gleamed the whitewashed walls, attended by a pervasive silver mist. Stretching from the white sand beaches through the wind-stirred forest was a path of crushed sea shells, rose and lilac, pale blue and gold, creamy ivory.
Donal stood very still upon the beach, looking inland toward the forest. He did not look at the palace—it was not so ancient as the island and Homanan-made at that—but at the things the gods had made instead. Then he closed his eyes and gave himself over to sensation.
The wind curled gently around his body, caressing him with subtle fingers. It seemed to promise him things. He knew without doubting that the isle was full of dreams and magic and, if he sought it, a perfect peace and solitude. Carillon might have banished his treacherous wife to the island, but the place was a sacred place. Donal had thought perhaps the incarceration profaned the Crystal Isle.
But he sensed no unhappiness, no dissatisfaction in the wind. Perhaps the island was used for mundane Homanan concerns, but at heart it was still Cheysuli, still part and parcel of the Firstborn. It merely waited. One day, someone would return it to its proper state.
Donal feared to tread the crushed shells of the pathway at first, admiring its delicate beauty, but he saw no other way to the palace on its green-and-lilac hill. He took nothing with him save his lir and Sef. And, he hoped, his courage.
The isle was full of noise. Soft noise; gentle noise, a peaceful susurration. He and Sef and Lorn trod across crushed shell. They passed through trees that sighed and creaked, whispering in the wind. They heard the silences of the depths, as if even the animals muted themselves to honor the sanctity of the place.
Sef tripped over his own feet and went sprawling, scattering pearly shells so that they spilled out of the boundaries of the pathway, disturbing the curving symmetry. Aghast, he hunched on hands and knees, staring at what he had done.
Donal reached down and caught one arm, pulling him to his feet. He saw embarrassment and shame in the boy’s face, but also something more. “There is nothing to fear, Sef,” he promised quietly. “There are no demons here.”
“I—I feel something…I feel it—” He broke off, standing rigidly before Donal. His eyes were wide and fixed. His head cocked a trifle, as if he listened. As if he heard.
The boy shuddered. The tremor ran through his slender body like an ague; Donal felt it strongly in his own hand as it rested upon Sef’s arm. His thin face was chalky gray. He mouthed words Donal could neither hear nor decipher.
Sef jerked his arm free of Donal’s hand. For a moment, a fleeting moment only, his eyes turned inward as if he sought to shut out the world. He raised insignificant fists curled so tightly the bones of his knuckles shone through thinly stretched flesh. Briefly his teeth bared in an almost feral grimace.
“They know that I am here—” As suddenly he broke off. The eyes, filled by black pupils, looked upon Donal with recognition once again. “My lord—?”
Donal released a breath. The boy had looked so strange, as if he had been thrown into a private battle within himself. But now he appeared recovered, if a trifle shaken. “I intended to say it was only the wind and your own superstitions,” Donal told him. “But—this is the island of the gods, and who am I to say they do not speak to you?”
Especially if he is Cheysuli. Donal felt the cool breeze run fingers through his hair, stripping it from his face. The wind was stronger than before, as if it meant to speak to him of things beyond his ken.
“They know it,” Sef said hollowly. And then his mouth folded upon itself, pressing lip against lip, as if he had made up his mind to overcome an enemy. “It doesn’t matter.”
Donal felt the breath of the gods against the back of his neck. He shivered. Then he helped put Sef’s clothing into order once again. “I will not deny I feel something as well, but I doubt there is anger in it. I think we have nothing to fear. I am, if you will pardon my arrogance, a descendent of the Firstborn.”
“And I am not,” Sef said plainly. Then something flickered in his eyes and his manner altered. He looked intently at Donal a moment, then shrugged narrow shoulders. “I don’t know what I am.”
Donal smoothed the boy’s black hair into place, though the wind disarranged it almost at once. “The gods do. That is what counts.” He tapped Sef on the back. “Come along. Let us not keep the lady waiting.”
The interior of the expansive palace was pillared in white marble veined with silver and rose. Silken tapestries of rainbow colors decked the white walls and fine carpets replaced rushes which, even scented, grew old and rank too quickly. Donal did not know how much of the amenities had been ordered by Electra—or, more likely, by Carillon—but he was impressed. Homana-Mujhar, for all its grandeur, was somewhat austere at times. This place, he thought, would make a better home.
Except it is a prison.
Racks of scented beeswax candles illuminated the vastness of the entry hall. Servants passed by on business of their own, as did occasional guards attired in Carillon’s black-and-crimson livery. Donal saw a few Cheysuli warriors in customary leathers and gold, but for the most part his fellow warriors remained unobtrusive.
When the woman came forth to greet Donal, he saw she wore a foreign crest worked into the fabric of her gown: Electra’s white swan on a cobalt field. The woman was slender and dark with eyes nearly the color of the gown; he wondered if she had chosen it purposely. And he recalled that Carillon had also exiled the Queen’s Solindish women.
He wondered at the decision. Would it not have been better to send the women home? Here with Electra, they could all concoct some monstrous plot to overthrow the Mujhar.
How? Taj asked as he lighted on a chairback. Carillon has warded them well.
I do not trust her, lir.
Nor does Carillon, Lorn told him. There is no escape for her. There are Cheysuli here.
The Solindish woman inclined her head as she paused before Donal. She spoke good Homanan, and was polite, but he was aware of an undertone of contempt. “You wish to see the Queen. Of course. This way.”
Donal measured his step to the woman’s. She paused before a brass door that had been meticulously hammered and beveled into thousands of intricate shapes. The woman tapped lightly, then stepped aside with a smooth, practiced gesture. “Through here. But the boy must wait without—there, on the bench. The Queen sees no one unless she so orders it, and I doubt she would wish to see him.”
Donal restrained the retort he longed to make, matching the woman’s efficient, officious manner as he inclined his head just enough to acknowledge her words. Then he turned to Sef. “Wait for me here.”
Sef’s thin face was pale and frightened as he slowly sat down on the narrow stone bench beside the door. He clasped his hands in his lap, hunching within his cloak, and waited wordlessly.
“Be not afraid,” Donal said gently. “No one will seek to harm you. You are the Prince’s man.”
Sef swallowed, nodded, but did not smile. He looked at his hands only, patently prepared to wait with what patience he thought was expected, and wanting none of it.
Knowing he could do nothing more, Donal gave up the effort and passed through the magnificent door. It thudded shut behind him.
Taj rode his right shoulder. Lorn paced beside his left leg. He was warded about with lir, and still he felt apprehensive. This was Electra he faced.
Witch. Tynstar’s meijha. More than merely a woman. But he went on, pacing the length of the cavernous hall.
Electra awaited him. He saw her standing at the end of the hallway on a marble dais. And he nearly stopped in his tracks.
He had heard, as they all had, that Electra’s fabled beauty was mostly illusory, that Tynstar had given it to her along with the gift of youth and immortality; so long as she was not slain outright, she—like Tynstar—would never die. He had heard that the beauty would fade, since she was separated from Tynstar. But Donal knew how much power rumors had—as well as how little truth—and now as he saw the woman again for the first time in fifteen years, he could not say if she was human or immortal; ensorceled or genuine.
By the gods…separation from Tynstar has not dulled her beauty; has not dispersed the magic!
Her pale gray eyes, watched him approach the dais. Long-lidded, somnolent eyes; eyes that spoke of bedding. Her hair was still a fine white-blonde, lacking none of its shine or texture. Loose, it flowed over her shoulders like a mantle, held back from her face by a simple fillet of golden, interlocked swans. Her skin lacked none of the delicate bloom of youth, and her allure was every bit as powerful as it had been the day she trapped Carillon in her spell.
Donal looked at her. No longer a boy, he saw Electra as a man sees a woman: appraising, judgmental and forever wondering what she would be like if she ever shared his bed. He could not look at her without sexual fantasy; it was not that he desired her, simply that Electra seemed to magically inspire it.
I have been blind, he realized. No more can I say to Carillon I cannot comprehend what made him keep her by him, even when he recognized her intent. He swallowed heavily. I have been such a fool.…But he would never admit it to her—or to Carillon.
Electra wore a simple gown of silvered gray velvet, but over it she had draped a wine-purple mantle of sheer, pearly silk. Unmoving, she watched him. Watching her watching him, Donal made up his mind to best her.
“You come at last.” Her voice was low and soft, full of the cadences of Solinde. “I had thought Carillon’s little wolfling would keep himself to his forests.”
Donal managed to maintain an impassive face as he halted before the dais. A word within the link to Taj sent the falcon fluttering to perch upon the back of the nearest chair. Lorn stood at Donal’s left knee, ruddy pelt rising on his shoulders.
As if he too senses the power in the woman.
Electra was not a tall woman, though her tremendous self-possession made her seem so. The dais made her taller yet, but even marble could not compete with Donal’s Cheysuli height.
It was an odd moment. She stood before him, impossibly beautiful and immortally young. Too young. He came to speak of her daughter, when she appeared hardly old enough to bear one.
He smiled. I have you, Electra, and you do not even know it.
She watched him. The clear, gray-pale eyes did not move from his face, as if she judged him solely by his own eyes. Well, he knew what she saw: a clear, eerily perfect yellow; eyes bestial and uncanny, full of a strange inborn wisdom and wildness, and a fanatic dedication to the prophecy of the Firstborn.
We are enemies. We need say nothing to one another; it is there. It was there from the day I was born, as if she knew what I would come to mean to her and the Ihlini lord she serves.
“I have come to fetch home your daughter, lady,” he said quietly. “It is time for us to wed.”
Electra’s head moved only a little on her slender neck. Her voice was quiet and contained. “I do not give my permission for this travesty to go forth. No.”
“The choice is not yours—”
“So you may say.” Slender, supple hands smoothed the silk of her mantle, drawing his eyes to their subtle seductiveness. “Think you I will allow my daughter to wed a Cheysuli shapechanger? No.” She smiled slowly. “I forbid it.”
He set his teeth. “Forbid what you will, Electra, it will do you little good. If you seek to rail at me like a jackdaw because of your fate, I suggest you look at the cause of your disposal. It is because of you Carillon has made me heir to Homana and your daughter’s intended husband. You, lady. Because you conspired against him.”
Long-nailed fingers twisted the wine-red fabric of her mantle. Her eyes held a malignant fascination. “Your prophecy says a Cheysuli must hold the Lion Throne of Homana before it can be fulfilled. Undoubtedly all of the shapechangers think that man will be you, since Carillon has let everyone know—no matter how unofficially—that he intends to proclaim you his heir. ‘Prince of Homana,’ are you not styled, even before the proper time?” Electra smiled. “But that is not the prophecy Tynstar chooses to serve…nor is it mine! We will put no Cheysuli on the Lion Throne but an Ihlini-born man, and we will see to Carillon’s death.”
“You have tried,” he said with a calmness he did not feel. “You have tried to slay him before, and it has failed. Is Tynstar so inept? Is he a powerless sorcerer? Or has the Seker turned his face from his servant, so that Tynstar lacks a lord?” He waited, but she made no answer. Even in her anger, she was utterly magnificent. He felt the tightening of his loins, and it made him angry with himself as well as with the woman. “Electra, I ask you one thing: have you said this to your daughter? Do you tell her what you intend to do? He is, after all, her father.”
“Aislinn is not your concern.”
“Aislinn will be my cheysula.”
“Use no shapechanger words to me!” she snapped. “Carillon may have sent me here, but this is my hall! My palace! I rule here!”
“What do you rule?” he demanded. “A few pitiful acres of land, served only by those who serve the Mujhar, except for your loyal women. An impressive realm, Electra.” He shook his head. “It is a pity you hold no court. Instead, you have only the memories of what you once had the ordering of.” He smiled ironically. “The grandeur of Bellam’s palaces in Solinde and the magnificence of Homana-Mujhar. But all of that is gone, Electra—banished by your treachery and deceit. Curse not me or mine when you must first curse yourself.”
For the first time he had shaken her composure utterly. He could see it. She trembled with fury, and clutched at the silk of her mantle so that the fabric crumpled and rent. Rich color stood high in her face. “First you must wed her, shapechanger, to merge the proper blood. But what is not yet done shall remain undone…and the prophecy shall fail.”
Electra stretched out a hand toward him. He saw the merest crackle and flare of purple flame around one pointing finger, but the color died. The hand was nothing more than a hand. Before a Cheysuli, the arts Tynstar had taught her failed.
“Tynstar’s sorcery keeps you young now, Electra,” Donal said gently. “But you should remember: you are a woman of fifty-five. One day, it will catch up to you.” He walked slowly toward the dais, mounted it even as she opened her mouth to revile him, and slowly walked around her. “One day he will be slain, and then what becomes of you? You will age, even as Carillon ages. Your bones will stiffen and your blood will flow sluggishly. One day you will not be able to rise, so feeble will you have become, and you will be bound to chair or bed. And then you shall have only endless empty hours in which to spin your impotent webs.” He stopped directly before her. “That is your tahlmorra, Electra…I wish you well of it.”
Electra said nothing. She merely smiled an unsettling smile.
“What of me?” asked a voice from a curtained opening. “What do you wish for me?”
Donal spun around and saw the young woman gowned in snowy white. A girdle of gold and garnets spilled down the front of her skirts to clash and chime against the hem. Red-gold hair flowed loosely over her shoulders, in glorious disarray. Her lustrous white skin and long gray eyes were her mother’s; her pride was Carillon’s.
“Aislinn!” It was the only word he could muster. For two years he had not seen her, knowing her only through her letters to Carillon. And in those two years she had crossed the threshold between girlhood and womanhood. She was still young—too young, he thought, for marriage—but all her awkward days were over.
He smiled at her, prepared to tell her how much she had changed—and for the better. But his smile slowly began to fade as she moved into the hall.
Aislinn let the tapestry curtain fall from a long-fingered hand. The gems in the girdle flashed in the candlelight. Gold gleamed. A fortune clasped her slender waist and dangled against her skirts. And Donal, knowing that Carillon’s taste in gifts to his daughter ran to merlins, puppies and kittens, realized the girdle was undoubtedly a present from Electra.
He looked at Aislinn’s face. It was taut and forbidding, set in lines too harsh for a young woman of sixteen years, but if she had heard his final words to Electra he was not at all surprised she should view him with some hostility.
The girdle chimed as Aislinn moved. And Donal wondered uneasily if Electra had somehow purchased her daughter’s loyalty.
Carillon should never have sent her…not for so long. Not for two years. The gods know he meant well by it, realizing the girl needed to see her jehana…but he should have had her brought back much sooner, regardless of all those letters begging to remain a little longer. Two years is too long. The gods know what the witch has done to Aislinn’s loyalties.
The girl halted before him, glancing briefly at the wolf. Donal thought she might greet her old friend, but she made no move to kneel down and scratch Lorn’s ears as she had in earlier days.
Aislinn’s pride was manifest. “Well? What say you, Donal?” Her tone was a reflection of her mother’s, cool and supremely controlled. “What of me?”
“By the gods, Aislinn!” he said in surprise. “I have no quarrel with you. It is your jehana who lacks manners!”
It was obviously not what she expected him to say. She lost all of her cool demeanor and stared at him in astonishment. “How dare you attack my mother!”
“Donal.” Electra’s voice sounded dangerously amused, and he looked at her warily. “Are you certain you wish to wed my daughter?”
He wanted to swear. He did not, but only because he shut his mouth on the beginning of the word. He glared at Electra. “Play no games with me, lady. Aislinn and I have been betrothed for fifteen years. We have been friends as long as that.”
Electra smiled: a cat before a mousehole. “Friends, aye—at one time. But are you so certain she is the woman you would wish to keep as your wife the rest of your life?”
No, he said inwardly. Not Aislinn…but what choice do I have?
He gritted his teeth and made up his mind not to lose the battle. Not to Electra. He knew she took no prisoners. “I imagine you have done what you could to turn Aislinn against this marriage in the two years you have hosted her.” He glanced at the girl and saw contempt for him in her eyes. Electra’s eyes, so cool and shrewd. Contempt, where once there had been childlike adoration. “Aye,” he said grimly, “I see you have. But I have more faith in Aislinn’s integrity.”
“Integrity has nothing to do with it,” Electra said gently. “Ask Aislinn what she thinks of bearing unnatural children.”
Shock riveted him. He stared at the woman in horror. “Unnatural children—”
“Ask Aislinn what she thinks of babies born with fangs and claws and tails, and the beast-mark on their faces,” Electra suggested softly. “Ask Aislinn what she thinks of playing mother—no, jehana—” she twisted the Old Tongue cruelly “—to a thing not wholly human nor wholly animal—but bestial instead.” The perfect mouth smiled. “Ask Aislinn, my lord Prince of Homana, what she thinks about sharing a bed with a man who cannot control his shape—in bed or out of it.”
He took a single lurching step away from the dais and the woman. “What filth have you told her—?”
“Filth?” Electra arched white-blond brows. “Only the truth, shapechanger. Or do you deny the gold on your arms, in your ear…the animals your kind call the lir?” An expressive gesture encompassed gold and wolf and bird.