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The morning sun shone.
Dew bejeweled the lakeshore grasses, and the calls of nesting shatra birds carried sweetly on the breeze. Lady Mara of the Acoma savored the air, soon to give way to the day’s heat. Seated in her litter, her husband at her side and her two-year-old son, Justin, napping in her lap, she closed her eyes and breathed a deep sigh of contentment.
She slipped her fingers into her husband’s hand. Hokanu smiled. He was undeniably handsome, and a proven warrior; and the easy times had not softened his athletic appearance. His grip closed possessively over hers, his strength masked by gentleness.
The past three years had been good ones. For the first time since childhood, she felt safe, secure from the deadly, unending political intrigues of the Game of the Council. The enemy who had killed her father and brother could no longer threaten her. He was now dust and memories, his family fallen with him; his ancestral lands and magnificently appointed estate house had been deeded to Mara by the Emperor.
Superstition held that ill luck tainted a fallen family’s land; on a wonderful morning such as this, misfortune seemed nowhere in evidence. As the litter moved slowly along the shore, the couple shared the peace of the moment while they regarded the home that they had created between them.
Nestled between steep, stone-crested hills, the valley that had first belonged to the Minwanabi Lords was not only naturally defensible, but so beautiful it was as if touched by the gods. The lake reflected a placid sky, the waters rippled by the fast oars of a messenger skiff bearing dispatches to factors in the Holy City. There, grain barges poled by chanting slaves delivered this year’s harvest to warehouses for storage until the spring floods allowed transport downriver.
The dry autumn breeze rippled golden grass, and the morning sun lit the walls of the estate house like alabaster. Beyond, in a natural hollow, Force Commanders Lujan and Xandia drilled a combined troop of Acoma and Shinzawai warriors. Since Hokanu would one day inherit his father’s title, his marriage to Mara had not merged the two houses. Warriors in Acoma green marched in step with others in Shinzawai blue, the ranks patched black, here and there, by divisions of insectoid cho-ja. Along with the Minwanabi lands, Lady Mara had gained an alliance with two additional hives, and with them the fighting strength of three more companies of warriors bred by their queens for battle.
An enemy foolish enough to launch an assault would invite swift annihilation. Mara and Hokanu, with loyal vassals and allies, between them commanded a standing army unsurpassed in the Nations. Only the Emperor’s own Imperial Whites, with levies from other houses under his sovereignty, would rival these two armies. And as if fine troops and a near-impregnable fortress did not in themselves secure peace, the title Servant of the Empire, bestowed upon Mara for her services to Tsuranuanni, gave her honorary adoption into the Emperor’s own family. The Imperial Whites were as likely to march in her defense, for by the honor central to Tsurani culture, insult or threat to her was as an offense visited upon the Light of Heaven’s blood family.
“You seem delightfully self-satisfied this morning, wife,” Hokanu said in her ear.
“Mara tilted her head back into his shoulder, her lips parted for his kiss. If, deep in her heart, she missed the wild passion she had known with the red-haired barbarian slave who had fathered Justin, she had come to terms with that loss. Hokanu was a kindred spirit who shared her political shrewdness and inclination toward innovation. He was quick-witted, kind, and devoted to her, as well as tolerant of her headstrong nature, as few men of her culture were inclined to be. With him, Mara shared voice as an equal. Marriage had brought a deep and abiding contentment, and though her interest in the Great Game of the Council had not lessened, she no longer played out of fear. Hokanu’s kiss warmed the moment like wine, until a high-pitched shout split the quiet.
Mara straightened up from Hokanu’s embrace, her smile mirrored in her husband’s dark eyes. “Ayaki,” they concluded simultaneously. The next moment, galloping hoofbeats thundered down the trail by the lake.
Hokanu tightened his arm around his wife’s shoulder as the two of them leaned out to view the antics of Mara’s older son and heir.
A coal-black horse burst through the gap in the trees, mane and tail flying in the wind. Green tassels adorned its bridle, and a pearl-stitched breastplate kept the saddle from sliding backward along its lean length of barrel. Crouched in the lacquer-worked stirrups was a boy, recently turned twelve, and as raven-haired as his mount. He reined the gelding into a turn and charged toward Mara’s litter, his face flushed with the thrill of speed, and his fine, sequin-stitched robe flying like a banner behind.
“He’s becoming quite the bold rider,” Hokanu said admiringly. “And the birthday present appears to please him.”
Mara watched, a glow of pleasure on her face, as the boy reined in the mount upon the path. Ayaki was her joy, the person she loved most in life.
The black gelding tossed its head in protest. It was spirited, and eager to run. Still not entirely comfortable with the huge animals imported from the barbarian world, Mara held her breath in apprehension. Ayaki had inherited a wild streak from his father, and in the years since his narrow escape from an assassin’s knife, a restless mood sometimes claimed him. At times he seemed to taunt death, as if by defying danger he could reaffirm the life in his veins.
But today was not such a moment, and the gelding had been selected for obedience as well as fleetness. It snorted a gusty breath of air and yielded to the rein, falling into stride alongside Mara’s litter bearers, who overcame their inclination to move away from the large animal.
The Lady looked up as boy and horse filled her vision. Ayaki would be broad shouldered, the legacy of both his grandfathers. He had inherited the Acoma tendency toward leanness, and all of his father’s stubborn courage. Although Hokanu was not his blood father, the two shared friendship and respect. Ayaki was a boy any parent could be proud of, and he was already showing the wits he would need when he reached adulthood and entered the Game of the Council as Lord of the Acoma in his own right.
“Young show-off,” Hokanu teased. “Our bearers might be the only ones in the Empire to be granted the privilege of sandals, but if you think we should race you to the meadows, we’ll certainly have to refuse.”
Ayaki laughed. His dark eyes fixed on his mother, filled with the elation of the moment. “Actually, I was going to ask Lax’l if I might try our speed against a cho-ja. It would be interesting to know whether his warriors could overtake a troop of the barbarians’ cavalry.”
“If there was a war, which there is not at the moment, gods be praised,” Hokanu said on a note a shade more serious. “Take care you mind your manners, and don’t offend Force Commander Lax’l’s dignity when you ask.”
“Ayaki’s grin widened. Having grown up around the alien cho-ja, he was not at all intimidated by their strange ways. “Lax’l still has not forgiven me for handing him a jomach fruit with a stone in it.”
“He has,” Mara interjected. “But after that, he grew wise to your tricks, which is well. The cho-ja don’t have the same appreciation of jokes that humans do.” Looking at Hokanu, she said, “In fact, I don’t think they understand our humor.”
Ayaki made a face, and the black curvetted under him. The litter bearers swerved away from its dancing hooves, and the jostle disturbed young Justin. He awakened with a cry of outrage.
The dark horse shied at the noise. Ayaki held the animal with a firm hand, but the spirited gelding backed a few steps. Hokanu kept a passive face, though he felt the urge to laugh at the boy’s fierce determination and control. Justin delivered an energetic kick into his mother’s stomach. She bent forward, scooped him up in her arms.
Then something sped past Hokanu’s ear, from behind him, causing the hangings of the litter to flutter. A tiny hole appeared in the silk where Mara’s head had been an instant before. Hokanu threw his body roughly against those of his wife and foster child and twisted to look in the other direction. Within the shadows of the bushes beside the path, something black moved. Instincts honed in battle pressed Hokanu to unthinking action.
He pushed his wife and younger child out of the litter, keeping his body across them as a shield. His sudden leap overturned the litter, giving them further cover. “The brush!” he shouted as the bearers were sent sprawling.