Nearly a century has passed since the Prophecy of the Firstborn was set in motion—the generational quest to recreate the magical race which once held sway in the lands ruled by Homana's Mujar. Now, Kellin, heir to Homana's throne, has only to sire an offspring with an Ihlini woman to reach this goal. But Kellin wants nothing of prophecy, nor even of his own magical heritage. Embittered by tragedy, he refuses the sacred lir-bonding, becoming anathema in the eyes of his Cheysuli kin.
But willing participant or not, Kellin provides a very real threat to the Ihlini—the ancient enemies of the Cheysuli people—for should the prophecy be fulfilled, life as the Ihlini know it will end. How can a lirless warrior ever hope to escape the traps of the Ihlini sorcerers? And how can the prophecy ever be realized when the man born to become its final champion shuns his destined role?
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reached out and caught at his hands, trapped the fingers in his own, and Kellin’s speech was banished.
This time there were no gods to invoke. The words spilled free of the stranger’s mouth as if he could not stop them. “He is the sword,” the hissing voice whispered. “The sword and the bow and the knife. He is the weapon of every man who uses him for ill, and the strength of every man who uses him for good. Child of darkness, child of light; of like breeding with like, until the blood is one again. He is Cynric: the sword and the bow and the knife, and all men shall name him evil until Man is made whole again.”
The voice stopped. Kellin stared, struggling to make an answer, any sort of answer, but the sound began again.
“The lion shall lie down with the witch; out of darkness shall come light; out of death: life; out of the old: the new. The lion shall lie down with the witch, and the witch-child born to rule what the lion must swallow. The lion shall devour the House of Homana and all of her children, so the newborn child shall sit upon the throne and know himself lord of all.”
A shudder wracked Kellin from head to toe, and then he cried out and snatched his hands away.
He scrambled to his feet even as the guardsmen shredded canvas with steel to enter the tent. He saw their faces, saw their intent. One of the guards put his hand upon his prince’s rigid shoulder, but Kellin did not feel it.
The Lion. The LION.
None of them understood. No one at all knew him for what he was. They saw only the boy…
But the Lion wanted him.
Don’t miss JENNIFER ROBERSON’S monumental fantasies:
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 NOVELS OF TIGER AND DEL:
THE WILD ROAD
OF THE CHEYSULI:
The Chronicles of the Cheysuli:
THE PROPHECY OF THE FIRSTBORN:
“One day a man of all blood shall unite, in peace,
four warring realms and two magical races.”
Originally a race of shapechangers known as the Cheysuli, descendants of the Firstborn, Homana’s original race, held the Lion Throne, but increasing unrest on the part of the Homanans, who lacked magical powers and therefore feared the Cheysuli, threatened to tear the realm apart. The Cheysuli royal dynast voluntarily gave up the Lion Throne so that Homanans could rule Homana, thereby avoiding fullblown internecine war.
The clans withdrew altogether from Homanan society save for one remaining and binding tradition: each Homanan king, called a Mujhar, must have a Cheysuli liege man as bodyguard, councillor, companion, dedicated to serving the throne and protecting the Mujhar, until such a time as the prophecy is fulfilled and the Firstborn rule again.
This tradition was adhered to without incident for nearly four centuries, until Lindir, the only daughter of Shaine the Mujhar, jilted her prospective bridegroom to elope with Hale, her father’s Cheysuli liege man. Because the jilted bridegroom was the heir of a neighboring king, Bellam of Solinde, and because the marriage was meant to seal an alliance after years of bloody war, the elopement resulted in tragic consequences. Shaine concocted a web of lies to salve his obsessive pride, and in so doing laid the groundwork for the annihilation of a race.
Declared sorcerers and demons dedicated to the downfall of the Homanan throne, the Cheysuli were summarily outlawed and sentenced to immediate execution if found within Homanan borders.
Shapechangers begins the “Chronicles of the Cheysuli,” telling the tale of Alix, daughter of Lindir, once Princess of Homana, and Hale, once Cheysuli liege man to Shaine. Alix is an unknown catalyst bearing the Old Blood of the Firstborn, which gives her the ability to link with all lir and assume any animal shape at will. But Alix is raised by a Homanan and has no knowledge of her abilities, until she is kidnapped by Finn, a Cheysuli warrior who is Hale’s son by his Cheysuli wife, and therefore Alix’s half-brother. Kidnapped with her is Carillon, Prince of Homana. Alix learns the true power in her gifts, the nature of the prophecy which rules all Cheysuli, and eventually marries a warrior, Duncan, to whom she bears a son, Donal, and, much later, a daughter, Bronwyn. But Homana’s internal strife weakens her defenses. Bellam of Solinde, with his sorcerous aide, Tynstar the Ihlini, conquers Homana and assumes the Lion Throne.
In The Song of Homana, Carillon returns from a five-year exile, faced with the difficult task of gathering an army capable of overcoming Bellam. He is accompanied by Finn, who has assumed the traditional role of liege man. Aided by Cheysuli magic and his own brand of personal power, Carillon is able to win back his realm and restore the Cheysuli to their homeland by ending the purge begun by his uncle, Shaine, Alix’s grandfather. He marries Bellam’s daughter to seal peace between the lands, but Electra has already cast her lot with Tynstar the Ihlini, and works against her Homanan husband. Carillon’s failure to father a son forces him to betroth his only daughter, Aislinn, to Donal, Alix’s son, whom he names Prince of Homana. This public approbation of a Cheysuli warrior is the first step in restoring the Lion Throne to the sovereignty of the Cheysuli, required by the prophecy, and sows the seeds of civil unrest.
Legacy of the Sword focuses on Donal’s slow assumption of power within Homana, and his personal assumption of his role in the prophecy. Because by clan custom a warrior is free to take both wife and mistress, Donal has started a Cheysuli family even though he will one day have to marry Carillon’s daughter to cement his right to the Lion Throne. By his Cheysuli mistress he has two children, Ian and Isolde; by Aislinn, Carillon’s daughter, he eventually sires a son who will become his heir. But the marriage is rocky immediately; in addition to the problems caused by a second family, Donal’s Homanan wife is also under the magical influence of her mother, Electra, who is mistress to Tynstar. Problems are compounded by the son of Tynstar and Electra, Strahan, who has his father’s powers in full measure. On Carillon’s death Donal inherits the Lion, naming his legitimate son, Niall, to succeed him. But to further the prophecy he marries his sister, Bronwyn, to Alaric of Atvia, lord of an island kingdom. Bronwyn is later killed by Alaric accidentally while in lir-shape, but lives long enough to give birth to a daughter, Gisella, who is mad.
In Track of the White Wolf, Donal’s son Niall is a young man caught between two worlds. To the Homanans, fearful of Cheysuli power and intentions, he is worthy only of distrust, the focus of their discontent. To the Cheysuli he is an “unblessed” man, because even though far past the age for it, Niall has not linked with his animal. He is therefore a lirless man, a warrior with no power, and such a man has no place within the clans. His Cheysuli half-brother is his liege man, fully “blessed,” and Ian’s abilities serve to add to Niall’s feelings of inferiority.
Niall is meant to marry his half-Atvian cousin, Gisella, but falls in love with the princess of a neighboring kingdom, Deirdre of Erinn. Lirless, and with Gisella under the influence of Tynstar’s Ihlini daughter, Lillith, Niall falls prey to sorcery. Eventually he links with his lir and assumes the full range of Cheysuli powers, but he pays for it with an eye. His marriage to Gisella is disastrous, but two sets of twins are born—Brennan and Hart, Corin and Keely—which gives Niall the opportunity to extend his range of influence via betrothal alliances. He banishes Gisella to Atvia after he foils an Ihlini plot involving her, and then settles into life with his mistress, Deirdre of Erinn, who has already borne Maeve, his illegitimate daughter.
A Pride of Princes tells the story of each of Niall’s three sons. Brennan, the eldest, will inherit Homana and has been betrothed to Aileen, Deirdre’s niece, to add a heretofore unknown bloodline to the prophecy. Brennan’s twin, Hart, is Prince of Solinde, a compulsive gambler whose addiction results in a tragic accident involving all three of Niall’s sons. Hart is banished to Solinde for a year, and the rebellious youngest son, Corin, to Atvia. Brennan is tricked into siring a child on an Ihlini-Cheysuli woman; Hart loses a hand and nearly his life in a Solindish plot; in Erinn, Corin falls in love with Brennan’s bride, Aileen, before going to Atvia. One by one each is captured by Strahan, Tynstar’s son, who intends to turn Niall’s sons into puppet-kings so he can rule through them. All three manage to escape, but not until after each has been made to recognize particular strengths and weaknesses.
For Keely, sister of Niall’s sons, things are different. In Daughter of the Lion, Keely herself is caught up in the machinations of politics, evil sorcery, and her own volatile emotions. Trained from childhood in masculine pursuits such as weaponry, Keely prefers the freedom of choice and lifestyle, and as both are threatened by the imminent arrival of her betrothed, Sean of Erinn, she fights to maintain her sense of self in a world ruled by men. She is therefore ripe for rebellion when a strong-minded, powerful Erinnish brigand—and possible murderer—enters her life.
But Keely’s battles are increased tenfold when Strahan chooses her as his next target. Betrayed, trapped, and imprisoned on the Crystal Isle, Keely is forced through sorcery into a liaison with the Ihlini that results in pregnancy. But before the child can be born, Keely escapes with the aid of the Ihlini bard, Taliesin. On her way home she meets the man believed to be her betrothed, and realizes not only must she somehow rid herself of the unwanted child, but must also decide which man she will have—thief or prince—in order to be a true Cheysuli in service to the prophecy.
Flight of the Raven is the story of Aidan, only son of Brennan and Aileen. Hounded in childhood by nightmares, Aidan grows to adulthood convinced he is not meant to hold the Lion Throne after all, but is intended to follow a different path. This path becomes more evident as he sets out to visit his kin in Solinde and Erinn in order to find a bride; very quickly it becomes apparent that Aidan has been singled out by the Cheysuli gods to complete a quest for golden links personifying specific Mujhars. In pursuing his quest, Aidan becomes the target of Lochiel the Ihlini, Strahan’s son.
Bound by their mutual Erinnish gift of kivarna, a strong empathy, Aidan and Shona of Erinn marry. The child of this union will bring the Cheysuli one step closer to completion of the prophecy, and is therefore a grave threat to Lochiel. The Ihlini attacks Clankeep, kills Shona, and cuts the child from her belly. Aidan, seriously wounded, falls victim to epilepsy; in his “fits” he prophesies of the coming of Cynric, the Firstborn. To get back his stolen child, Aidan conquers his weakness to confront Lochiel in Valgaard itself, where he wins back his son. But Aidan realizes he is not meant for thrones and titles; he renounces his rank, gives his son, Kellin, into the keeping of Aileen and Brennan, and takes up residence as a shar tahl on the Crystal Isle, where he begins to prepare the way for the coming of the Firstborn.
Table of Contents
In thread, on cloth, against a rose-red stone wall gilt-washed by early light: Lions. Mujhars, Cheysuli, and Homanan; and the makings of the world in which the boy and his grand-uncle lived.
“Magic,” the boy declared solemnly, more intent upon his declaration than most eight-year-olds; but then most eight-year-old boys do not discover magic within the walls of their homes.
The old man agreed easily without the hesitation of those who doubted, or wished to doubt, put off by magic’s power; magic was no more alien to him than to the boy, in whose blood it lived as it lived in his own, and in others Cheysuli-born.
“Woman’s magic,” he said, “conjured from head and hands.” His own long-fingered left hand, once darkly supple and eloquent, now stiffened bone beneath wrinkled, yellowing flesh, traced out the intricate stitchwork patterns of the massive embroidered arras hung behind the Lion Throne. “Do you see, Kellin? This is Shaine, whom the Homanans would call your five times great-grandfather. Cheysuli would call him hosa’ana.”
It was mid-morning in Shaine’s own Great Hall. Moted light sliced through stained glass casements to paint the hall all colors, illuminating the vast expanse of ancient architecture that had housed a hundred kings long before Kellin—or Ian—was born.
The boy, undaunted by the immensity of history or the richness of the hammer-beamed hall and its multitude of trappings, nodded crisply, a little impatient, black brows drawn together in a frown old for his years; as if Kellin, Prince of Homana, knew very well who Shaine was, but did not count him important.
Ian smiled. And well he might not; his history is more recent, and his youth concerned with now, not yesterday’s old Mujhars.
“Who is this?” A finger, too slender for the characteristic incomplete stubbiness of youth—Cheysuli hands, despite the other houses thickening his blood—transfixed a stitchwork lion made static by the precise skill of a woman’s hands. “Is this my father?”
“No.” The old man’s lean, creased-leather face gave away nothing of his thoughts, nothing of his feelings, as he answered the poorly concealed hope in the boy’s tone. “No, Kellin. This tapestry was completed before your father was born. It stops here—you see?—” he touched thread, “—with your grandsire.”
A dirt-rimmed fingernail bitten off crookedly inserted itself imperatively between dusty threads, once-brilliant colors muted by time and long-set sunlight. “But he should be here. My father. Somewhere.”
The expression was abruptly fierce, no longer hopeful, no longer clay as yet unworked, but the taut arrogance of a young warrior as he looked up at the old man, who knew more than the boy what it was to be a warrior; he had even been in true war, and was not merely a construct of aging tales.
Ian smiled, new wrinkles replacing old between the thick curtains of snowy hair. “And so he would be, had it taken longer for Deirdre and her women to complete the Tapestry of Lions. Perhaps someday another woman will begin a new tapestry and put you and your father and your heir in it.”
“Mujhars,” Kellin said consideringly. “That’s what all of them were.” He glanced back at the huge tapestry filling the wall behind the dais, fixing a dispassionate gaze upon it. The murmured names were a litany as he moved his finger from one lion to another: “Shaine, Carillon, Donal, Niall, Brennan…” Abruptly the boy broke off and took his finger from the stitching. “But my father isn’t Mujhar and never will be.” He stared hard at the old man as if he longed to challenge but did not know how. “Never will be.”
It did not discomfit Ian, who had heard it phrased one way or another for several years. The intent was identical despite differences in phraseology: Kellin desperately wanted his father, Aidan, whom he had never met. “No,” Ian agreed. “You are next, after Brennan…they have told you why.”
The boy nodded. “Because he left.” He meant to sound matter-of-fact, but did not; the unexpected shine of tears in clear green eyes dissipated former fierceness. “He ran away!”
Ian tensed. It would come, one day; now I must drive it back. “No.” He reached and caught one slight shoulder, squeezing slightly as he felt the suppressed, minute trembling. “Kellin—who said such a monstrous thing? It is not true, as you well know…your father ran from nothing, but to his tahlmorra—”
“They said—” Kellin’s lips were white as he compressed them. “They said he left because he hated me.”
“Who said this?”
Kellin bit into his bottom lip. “They said I wasn’t the son he wanted.”
It was very nearly a wail though he worked to choke it off. “What did I do to make him hate me so?”
“Your jehan does not hate you.”
“Then why isn’t he here? Why can’t he come? Why can’t I go there?” Green eyes burned fiercely. “Have I done something wrong?”
“No. No, Kellin—you have done nothing wrong.”
The small face was pale. “Sometimes I think I must be a bad son.”
“In no way, Kellin—”
“Then, why?” he asked desperately. “Why can’t he come?”
Why indeed? Ian asked himself. He did not in the least blame the boy for voicing what all of them wondered, but Aidan was intransigent. The boy was not to come until he was summoned. Nor would Aidan visit unless the gods indicated it was the proper time. But will it ever be the proper time?
He looked at the boy, who tried so hard to give away none of his anguish, to hide the blazing pain. Homana-Mujhar begins to put jesses on the fledgling.
Strength waned. Ian desired to sit down upon the dais so as to be on the boy’s level and discuss things more equally, but he was old, stiff, and weary; rising again would prove difficult. There was so much he wanted to say that little of it suggested a way to be said. Instead, he settled for a simple wisdom. “I think perhaps you have spent too much time of late with the castle boys. You should ask to go to Clankeep. The boys there know better.”
It was not enough. It was no answer at all. Ian regretted it immediately when he saw Kellin’s expression.
“Grandsire says I may not go. I am to stay here, he says—but he won’t tell me why. But I heard—I heard one of the servants say—” He broke it off.
“What?” Ian asked gently. “What have the servants said?”
“That—that even in Clankeep, the Mujhar fears for my safety. That because Lochiel went there once, he might again—and if he knew I was there…” Kellin shrugged small shoulders. “I’m to be kept here.”
It is no wonder, then, he listens to castle boys. Ian sighed and attempted a smile. “There will always be boys who seek to hurt with words. You are a prince—they are not. It is resentment, Kellin. You must not put faith in what they say about your jehan. They none of them know what he is.”
Kellin’s tone was flat, utterly lifeless; his attempt to hide the hurt merely increased its poignancy. “They say he was a coward. And sick. And given to fits.”
All this, and more…he has years yet before they stop, if any of them ever will stop; it may become a weapon meant to prick and goad first prince, then Mujhar. Ian felt a tightness in his chest. The winter had been cold, the coldest he recalled in several seasons, and hard on him. He had caught a cough, and it had not completely faded even with the onset of full-blown spring.
He drew in a carefully measured breath, seeking to lay waste to words meant to taunt the smallest of boys who would one day be the largest, in rank if not in height. “He is a shar tahl, Kellin, not a madman. Those who say so are ignorant, with no respect for Cheysuli customs.” Inwardly he chided himself for speaking so baldly of Homanans to a young, impressionable boy, but Ian saw no reason to lie. Ignorance was ignorance regardless of its racial origins; he knew his share of stubborn Cheysuli, too. “We have explained many times why he went to the Crystal Isle.”
“Can’t he come to visit? That’s all I want. Just a visit.” The chin that promised adult intransigence was no less tolerant now. “Or can’t I go there? Wouldn’t I be safe there, with him?”
Ian coughed, pressing determinedly against the sunken breastbone hidden beneath Cheysuli jerkin as if to squeeze his lungs into compliance. “A shar tahl is not like everyone else, Kellin. He serves the gods…he cannot be expected to conduct himself according to the whims and desires of others.” It was the simple truth, Ian knew, but doubted it offered enough weight to crush a boy’s pain. “He answers to neither Mujhar nor clan-leader, but to the gods themselves. If you are to see your jehan, he will send for you.”
“It isn’t fair,” Kellin blurted in newborn bitterness. “Everyone else has a father!”
“Everyone else does not have a father.” Ian knew of several boys in Homana-Mujhar and Clankeep who lacked one or both parents. “Jehans and jehanas die, leaving children behind.”
“My mother died.” His face spasmed briefly. “They said I killed her.”
“No—” No, Kellin had not killed Shona; Lochiel had. But the boy no longer listened.
“She’s dead—but my father is alive! Can’t he come?”
The cough broke free of Ian’s wishes, wracking lungs and throat. He wanted very much to answer the boy, his long-dead brother’s great-grandson, but he lacked the breath for it. “—Kellin—”
At last the boy was alarmed. “Su’fali?” Ian was many generations beyond uncle, but it was the Cheysuli term used in place of a more complex one involving multiple generations. “Are you sick still?”
“Winter lingers.” He grinned briefly. “The bite of the Lion…”
“The Lion is biting you?” Kellin’s eyes were enormous; clearly he believed there was truth in the imagery.
“No.” Ian bent, trying to keep the pain from the boy. It felt as if a burning brand had been thrust deep into his chest. “Here—help me to sit…”
“Not there, not on the Lion—” Kellin grasped a trembling arm. “I won’t let him bite you, su’fali.”
The breath of laughter wisped into wheezing. “Kellin—”
But the boy chattered on of a Cheysuli warrior’s protection, far superior to that offered by others unblessed by lir or shapechanging arts and the earth magic, and guided Ian down toward the step. The throne’s cushion would soften the harshness of old wood, but clearly the brief mention of the Lion had burned itself into Kellin’s brain; the boy would not allow him to sit in the throne now, even now, and Ian had no strength to dissuade him of his false conviction.
“Here, su’fali.” The small, piquant face was a warrior’s again, fierce and determined. The boy cast a sharp glance over his shoulder, as if to ward away the beast.
“Kellin—” But it hurt very badly to talk through the pain in his chest. His left arm felt tired and weak. Breathing was difficult. Lir…It was imperative, instinctive; through the lir-link Ian summoned Tasha from his chambers, where she lazed in a shaft of spring sunlight across the middlemost part of his bed. Forgive my waking you—
But the mountain cat was quite awake and moving, answering what she sensed more clearly than what she heard.
And more— With the boy’s help Ian lowered himself to the top step of the dais, then bit back a grimace. Breathlessly, he said, “Kellin—fetch your grandsire.”
The boy was all Cheysuli save for lighter-hued flesh and Erinnish eyes, wide-sprung eyes: dead Deirdre’s eyes, who had begun the tapestry for her husband, Niall, Ian’s half-brother, decades before …—green as Aileen’s eyes—…the Queen of Homana, grandmother to the boy; sister to Sean of Erinn, married to Keely, mother of Kellin’s dead mother. So many bloodlines now…have we pleased the gods and the prophecy?
The flesh of Kellin’s Cheysuli face was pinched Homanan-pale beneath thick black hair. “Su’fali—”
Ian twitched a trembling finger in the direction of the massive silver doors gleaming dully at the far end of the Great Hall. “Do me this service, Kellin—”
And as the boy hastened away, crying out loudly of deadly lions, the dying Cheysuli warrior bid his mountain cat to run.
“Summerfair,” Kellin whispered in his bedchamber, testing the sound of the word and all its implications. Then, in exultation, “Summerfair!”
He threw back the lid of a clothing trunk and fetched out an array of velvets and brocades, tossing all aside in favor of quieter leathers. He desired to present himself properly but without Homanan pretension, which he disliked, putting into its place the dignity of a Cheysuli.
Summerfair. He was to go, this year. Last year it had been forbidden, punishment as much for his stubborn insistence that he had been right as for the transgression itself, which he still believed necessary. They had misunderstood, his grandsire and granddame, and all the castle servants; they had all misunderstood, each and every one, regardless of rank, birth, or race.
Ian would have understood, but Kellin’s harani was two years’ dead. And it was because of Ian’s death—and the means by which that death was delivered—that Kellin sought to destroy what he viewed as further threat to those he loved.
None of them understood. But his mind jumped ahead rapidly, discarding the painful memories of that unfortunate time as he dragged forth from the trunk a proper set of Cheysuli leathers: soft-tanned, russet jerkin with matching leggings; a belt fastened with onyx and worked gold; soft, droopy boots with soles made for leaf-carpeted forest, not the hard bricks of the city.
“—still fit—?” Kellin dragged on one boot and discovered that no, it did not fit, which meant the other didn’t either; which meant he had grown again and was likely in need of attention from Aileen’s sempstresses with regard to Homanan clothing…He grimaced. He intensely disliked such attention. Perhaps he could put on the Cheysuli leathers and wear new Homanan boots; or was that sacrilege?
He stripped free of Homanan tunic and breeches and replaced them with preferred Cheysuli garb, discovering the leggings had shrunk; no, his legs had lengthened, which Kellin found pleasing. For a time he had been small, but it seemed he was at last making up for it. Perhaps now no one would believe him a mere eight-year-old, but would understand the increased maturity ten years brought.
Kellin sorted out the fit of his clothing and clasped the belt around slender hips, then turned to survey himself critically in the polished bronze plate hung upon the wall. Newly-washed hair was drying into accustomed curls—Kellin, frowning, instantly tried to mash them away—but his chin was smooth and childish, unmarred by the disfiguring hair Homanans called a beard. Such a thing marked a man less than Cheysuli, Kellin felt, for Cheysuli could not ordinarily grow beards—although some mixed-blood Cheysuli not only could but did; it was said Corin, in distant Atvia, wore a beard, as did Kellin’s own Erinnish grandfather, Sean—but he would never do so. Kellin would never subscribe to a fashion that hid a man’s heritage behind the hair on his face.
Kellin examined his hairless chin, then ran a finger up one soft-fleshed cheek, across to his nose, and explored the curve of immature browbone above his eyes. Everyone said he was a true Cheysuli, save for his eyes—and skin tinted halfway between bronze and fair; though in summer he tanned dark enough to pass as a trueblood—but he could not replace his eyes, and his prayers in childhood that the gods do so had eventually been usurped by a growing determination to overlook the improper color of his eyes and concentrate on other matters, such as warrior skills, which he practiced diligently so as not to dishonor his heritage. And anyway, he was not solely Cheysuli; had they not, all of them, told him repeatedly he was a mixture of nearly every bloodline there was—or of every one that counted—and that he alone could advance the prophecy of the Firstborn one step closer to completion?
They had. Kellin understood. He was Cheysuli, but also Homanan, Solindish, Atvian, and Erinnish. He was needed, he was important, he was necessary.
But sometimes he wondered if he himself, Kellin, were not so necessary as his blood. If he cut himself, and spilled it, would that satisfy them—and then make him unimportant?
Kellin grimaced at his reflection. “Sometimes they treat me like Gareth’s prize stallion…I think he forgets what it is to be a horse, the way they all treat him….” But Kellin let it go. The image in the polished plate stared back, green eyes transmuted by bronze to dark hazel. The familiarity of his features was momentarily blurred by imagination, and he became another boy, a strange boy, a boy with different powers promised one day.
“Ihlini,” Kellin whispered. “What are you really like? Do you look like demons?”
“I think that unlikely,” said a voice from the doorway: Rogan, his tutor. “I think they probably resemble you and me, rather than horrid specters of the netherworld. You’ve heard stories of Strahan and Lochiel. They look like everyone else.”
Kellin could see Rogan’s distorted reflection in the bronze. “Could you be Ihlini?”
“Certainly,” Rogan replied. “I am an evil sorcerer sent here from Lochiel himself, to take you prisoner and carry you away to Valgaard, where you will doubtlessly be tortured and slain, then given over to Asar-Suti, the Seker—”
Kellin took it up with appropriate melodrama: “—the god of the netherworld, who made and dwells in darkness, and—”
“—who clothes himself in the noxious fumes of his slain victims,” Rogan finished.
Kellin grinned his delight; it was an old game. “Grandsire would protect me.”
“Aye, he would. That is what a Mujhar is for. He would never allow anyone, sorcerer or not, to steal his favorite grandson.”
“I am his only grandson.”
“And therefore all the more valuable.” Rogan’s reflection sighed. “I know it has been very difficult for you, being mewed up in Homana-Mujhar for so many years, but it was necessary. You know why.”
Kellin knew why, but he did not entirely understand. Punishment had kept him from attending Summerfair for two years, but there was much more to it than that. He had never known any freedom to visit Mujhara as others did, or even Clankeep without constant protection.
Kellin turned from the polished plate and looked at Rogan. The Homanan was very tall and thin and was inclined to stoop when he was tired, as he stooped just now. His graying brown hair was damp from recent washing, and he had put on what Kellin called his “medium” clothes: not as plain as his usual somber apparel, but not so fine as those he wore when summoned to sup in the Great Hall with the family, as occasionally happened. Plain black breeches and gray wool tunic over linen shirt, belted and clasped with bronze, replaced his customary attire.
“Why?” Kellin blurted. “Why do they let me go now? I heard some of the servants talking. They said grandsire and granddame were too frightened to let me go out.”
The lines in Rogan’s face etched themselves a little more deeply. “Even they understand they cannot keep you in jesses forever. You must be permitted to weather outside like a hawk on the blocks, or be unfit for the task. And so they have decided you may go this year, as you have improved your manners—and because it is time. I am put in charge…but there will be guards also.”
Kellin nodded; there were always guards. “Because I’m Aidan’s only son, and the only heir.” He did not understand all of it. “Because—because if Lochiel killed me, there would be no more threat.” He lifted his chin. “That’s what they say in the baileys and kitchens.”
Rogan’s eyes flinched. “You listen entirely too much to gossip—but I suppose it is to be expected. Aye, you are a threat to the Ihlini. And that is why you are so closely guarded. With so many Cheysuli here Lochiel’s sorcery cannot reach you, and so you are closely kept—but there are other ways, ways involving nothing so much as a greedy cook desiring Ihlini gold—” But Rogan waved it away with a sharply dismissive gesture. “Enough of a sad topic. There will be guards, as always, but your grandsire has decided to allow you this small freedom.”
Summerfair was more than a freedom. It was renewal. Kellin forgot all about rumor and gossip. Grinning, he pointed at the purse depending from the belt. His grandfather had given Rogan coin for Summerfair. “Can we go? Now?”
“We can go. Now.”
“Then put on your Summerfair face,” Kellin ordered sternly. Rogan was a plain, soft-spoken man in his mid-forties only rarely given to laughter, but Kellin had always known a quiet, steady warmth from the Homanan. He enjoyed teasing Rogan out of his melancholy moods, and today was not a day for sad faces. “You will scare away the ladies with that sad scowl.”
“What does my face have to do with the ladies?” Rogan asked suspiciously.
“It’s Summerfair,” Kellin declared. “Everyone will be happier than usual because of Summerfair. Even you will attract the ladies…if you put away that scowl.”
“I am not scowling, and what do you know about ladies?”
“Enough,” Kellin said airily, and strode out of the room.
Rogan followed. “How much is enough, my young lord?”
“You know.” Kellin stopped in the corridor. “I heard Melora. She was talking to Belinda, who said it had been too long since you’d had a good woman in your bed.” Rogan’s face reddened immediately. It was the first time any of Kellin’s sallies had provoked such a personal reaction, and the boy was fascinated. “Has it been?”
The man rubbed wearily at his scalp. “Aye, well, perhaps. Had I known Belinda and Melora were so concerned about it, I might have asked them for advice on how to change matters.” He eyed his charge closely. “How much do you know about men and women?”
“Oh, everything. I know all about them.” Kellin set off down the corridor with Rogan matching his longer strides to the boy’s. “I was hoping I might find a likely lady during Summerfair.”
A large hand descended upon Kellin’s shoulder and stopped him in his tracks. “My lord,” Rogan said formally, “would you be so good as to tell your ignorant tutor precisely what you are talking about?”
“If you mean how much do I know,” Kellin began, “I know. I learned all about it last year. And now I would like to try it for myself.”
“At ten?” Rogan murmured, as much for himself as for Kellin.
“How old were you?”
Rogan looked thoughtful. “They say Cheysuli grow up quickly, and there are stories about your grandsire and his brothers….”
Kellin grinned. “This might be the best Summerfair of all.”
“Better than last year, certainly.” The understated amusement faded from Rogan’s tone. “You do recall why you were refused permission to go.”
Kellin shrugged it away. “Punishment.”
“And why were you punished?”
Kellin sighed; it was very like Rogan to impose lessons upon a holiday, and reminders of other lessons. “Because I set fire to the tapestry.”
“And the year before that?”
“Tried to chop the Lion to bits.” Kellin nodded matter-of-factly. “I had to do it, Rogan. It was the Lion who killed Ian.”
“It came alive, and it bit him. My harani said so.”
Rogan was patient. “Then why did you try to burn down the tapestry?”
“Because it’s made of lions, too. You know that.” Kellin firmed his mouth; none of them understood, even when he explained. “I have to kill all the lions before they kill me.”
* * *
Summer was Kellin’s favorite season, and the fair the best part of it. Never searingly hot, Homana nonetheless warmed considerably during midsummer, and the freedom everyone felt was reflected in high spirits, habits, and clothing. Banished were the leathers and furs and coarse woolens of winter, replaced by linens and cambrics and silks, unless one was determinedly Cheysuli in habits at all times, as was Kellin, who wore jerkin and leggings whenever he could. Everyone put on Summerfair clothing, brightly dyed and embroidered, and went out into the streets to celebrate the season.
Doors stood open and families gathered before dwellings, trading news and stories, sharing food and drink. In Market Square Mujharan merchants and foreign traders gathered to hawk wares. The streets were choked with the music of laughter, jokes, tambors, pipes and lutes, and the chime of coin exchanged. The air carried the aromas of spices and sweetmeats, and the tang of roasting beef, pork, mutton, and various delicacies.
“Sausage!” Kellin cried. Then, correcting himself—he had taken pains to learn the proper foreign word: “Suhoqla! Hurry, Rogan!”
Kellin’s nose led him directly to the wagons at the outermost edge of Market Square, conspicuously far from the worst of the tangle in the center of the square. Already a small crowd gathered, Homanans nudging one another with elbows and murmuring pointed comments about the foreigners and foreign ways. That other traders were as foreign did not seem to occur to them; these foreigners were rarely seen, and therefore all the more fascinating.
Kellin did not care that they were foreign, save their foreignness promised suhoqla, which he adored, and other things as intriguing.
Rogan’s voice was stern. “A more deliberate pace, if you please—no darting through the crowd. You make it difficult for the guard to keep up in such crowded streets—and if we lose them, we must return to the palace at once. Is that what you wish to risk?”
Kellin glanced around. There they were, the guard: four men of the Mujharan Guard, handpicked to protect the Prince of Homana. They were unobtrusive in habits and clothing generally, except now they wore the crimson tabards of their station to mark them for what they were: bodyguards to the boy in whom the future of the Cheysuli—and Homana herself—resided.
“But it’s suhoqla…you know how I love it, Rogan.”
“Indeed, so you have said many times.”
“And I haven’t had it for almost two years!”
“Then by all means have some now. All I ask is that you recall I am almost four decades older than you. Old men cannot keep up with small—” he altered it in midsentence, “—young men.”
Kellin grinned up at him. “A man as tall as you need only stretch out prodigious legs, and he is in Ellas.”
Rogan smiled faintly. “So I have often been told,” he looked beyond Kellin to the wagon. “Suhoqla it is, then. Though how your belly can abide it…” He shook his head in despair. “You will have none left by the time you are my great age.”
“It isn’t my belly I care about, it’s my mouth.” Kellin edged his way more slowly through the throng with Rogan and the watchdogs following closely. “By the time it gets to my belly, it’s tamed.”
“Ah. Well, here you are.”
Here he was. Kellin stared at the three women kneeling around the bowl-shaped frying surface. They had dug a hollow in the sand, placed heated stones in the bottom, then the clay plank atop the stones. The curling links of sausage were cooked slowly in their own grease, absorbing spiced oil.
The women were black-haired and black-eyed, with skins the color of old ivory. Two of them were little more than crones, but the third was much younger. Her eyes, tilted in an oval face, were bright and curious as she flicked a quick assessive glance across the crowd, but only rarely did she look anyone in the eye. She and her companions wore shapeless dark robes and bone jewelry—necklaces, earrings, and bracelets. The old women wore cloth head-coverings; the youngest had pulled her hair up high on the back of her head, tying it so that it hung down her back in a series of tight braids. Two yellow feathers fluttered from one braid as she moved.
“A harsh place, the Steppes,” Rogan murmured. “You can see it in their faces.”
“Not in hers,” Kellin declared.
“She is young,” Rogan said sadly. “In time, she’ll grow to look like the others.”
Kellin didn’t like to think so, but filling his mouth was more important than concerning himself with a woman’s vanishing youth. “Buy me some, Rogan, if you please.”
Obligingly Rogan fished a coin out of the purse provided by the Mujhar, and handed it to one of the old women. The young one speared two links with a sharpened stick, then held it out to Kellin. “Ah,” Rogan said, looking beyond. “It isn’t merely the women, after all, that attract so many…Kellin, do you see the warrior?”
Tentatively testing the heat of the spiced sausages, Kellin peered beyond the women and saw the man Rogan indicated. He forgot his suhoqla almost at once; Steppes warriors only rarely showed themselves in Mujhara, preferring to watch their womenfolk from the wagons. This one had altered custom to present himself in the flesh.
The warrior was nearly naked, clad only in a brief leather loin-kilt, an abundance of knives, and scars. He was not tall, but compactly muscled. Black hair was clubbed back and greased, with a straight fringe cut across his brow. He wore a plug of ivory on one nostril, and twin scars bisected each cheek, ridged and black, standing up like ropes from butter-smooth flesh.
Kellin lost count of the scars on the warrior’s body; by their patterns and numbers, he began to wonder if perhaps they were to the Steppes warriors as much a badge of honor and manhood as lir-gold to a Cheysuli.
At the warrior’s waist were belted three knives of differing lengths, and he wore another on his right forearm while yet another was hung about his throat. It depended from a narrow leather thong, sheathed, its greenish hilt glinting oddly in the sunlight of a Homanan summer. The warrior stood spread-legged, arms folded, seemingly deaf and blind to those who gaped and commented, but Kellin knew instinctively the Steppesman was prepared to defend the women—the young one, perhaps?—at a moment’s notice.
Kellin looked up at his tutor. “Homana has never fought the Steppes, has she?”
Rogan sighed. “You recall your history, I see. No, Kellin, she has not. Homana has nothing to do with the Steppes, no treaties, no alliances, nothing at all. A few warriors and woman come occasionally to Summerfair, that is all.”
“But—I remember something—”
“That speaks well of your learning,” Rogan said dryly. “What you recall, I believe, is that one of your ancestors, exiled from Homana, went into the service of Caledon and fought against Steppes border raiders.”
“Carillon.” Kellin nodded. “And Finn, his Cheysuli liege man.” He grinned. “I am kin to both.”
“So you are.” Rogan looked again at the scarred warrior. “A formidable foe, but then Carillon himself was a gifted soldier—”
“—and Finn was Cheysuli.” Kellin’s tone was definitive; nothing more need be said.
“Aye.” Rogan was resigned. “Finn was indeed Cheysuli.”
Kellin stared hard at the Steppes warrior. The forgotten suhoqla dripped spiced grease down the front of his jerkin. It was in his mind to make the warrior acknowledge the preeminence of the Cheysuli, to mark the presence of superiority; he wanted badly for the fierceness of the scarred man to pale to insignificance beside the power of his own race, men—and some women—who could assume the shape of animals at will. It was important that the man be made to look at him, to see him, to know he was Cheysuli, as was Finn, who had battled Steppes raiders a hundred years before.
At last the black, slanting eyes deigned to glance in his direction. Instinctively, Kellin raised his chin in challenge. “I am Cheysuli.”
Rogan grunted. “I doubt he speaks Homanan.”
“Then how does he know what anyone says?”
The young woman moved slightly, eyes downcast. “I speak.” Her voice was very soft, the Homanan words heavily accented. “I speak, tell Tuqhoc what is said, Tuqhoc decides if speaker lives.”
Kellin stared at her in astonishment. “He decides!”
“If insult is given, speaker must die.” The young woman glanced at the warrior, Tuqhoc, whose eyes had lost their impassivity, and spoke rapidly in a strange tongue.
Kellin felt a foolhardy courage fill up his chest, driving him to further challenge. “Is he going to kill me now?”
The young woman’s eyes remained downcast. “I told him you understand the custom.”
“And if I insulted you?”
“Kellin,” Rogan warned. “Play at no semantics with these people; such folly promises danger.”
The young woman was matter-of-fact. “He would choose a knife, and you would die.”
Kellin stared at the array of knives strapped against scarred flesh. “Which one?”
She considered it seriously a moment. “The king-knife. That one, one around his neck.”
“That one?” Kellin looked at it. “Why?”
Her smile was fleeting, and aimed at the ground. “A king-knife for a king—or a king’s son.”
It was utterly unexpected. Heat filled Kellin’s face. Everyone else knew; he was no longer required to explain. He had set aside such explanations years before. But now the young woman had stirred up the emotions again, and he found the words difficult. “My father is not a king.”
“You walk with dogs.”
“Dogs?” Baffled, Kellin glanced up at Rogan. “He is my tutor, not a dog. He teaches me things.”
“I try to,” Rogan remarked dryly.
She was undeterred by the irony. “Them.” Her glance indicated the alerted Mujharan Guard, moving closer now that their charge conversed with strangers from the Steppes.
Kellin saw her gaze, saw her expression, and imagined what she thought. It diminished him. In her eyes, he was a boy guarded by dogs; in his, the son of a man who had renounced his rank and legacy, as well as the seed of his loins. In that moment Kellin lost his identity, stripped of it by foreigners, and it infuriated him.
He stared a challenge at the warrior. “Show me.”
Rogan’s hand came down on Kellin’s shoulder. Fingers gripped firmly, pressing him to turn. “This is quite enough.”
Kellin was wholly focused on the warrior as he twisted free of the tutor’s grip. “Show me.”
Rogan’s voice was clipped. “Kellin, I said it was enough.”
The watchdogs were there, right there, so close they blocked the sun. But Kellin ignored them. He stared at the young woman. “Tell him to show me. Now!”
The ivory-dark faced paled. “Tuqhoc never shows—Tuqhoc does.”
Kellin did not so much as blink even as the watchdogs crowded him. He pulled free of a hand: Rogan’s. “Tell him what I said.”
Tuqhoc, clearly disturbed by the change in tone and stance—and the free use of his own name—barked out a clipped question. The young woman answered reluctantly. Tuqhoc repeated himself, as if disbelieving, then laughed. For the first time emotion glinted in his eyes. Tuqhoc smiled at Kellin and made a declaration in the Steppes tongue.
Rogan’s hands closed on both shoulders decisively. “We are leaving. I warned you, my lord.”
“No,” Kellin declared. To the young woman: “What did he say?”
“Tuqhoc says, if he shows, you die.”
“Only a fool taunts a Steppes warrior—I thought you knew better.” Rogan’s hands forced Kellin to turn. “Away. Now.”
Kellin tore free. “Show me!” Even as Rogan blurted an order, the watchdogs closed on the warrior, drawing swords. Kellin ducked around one man, then slid through two others. The dark Steppes eyes were fixed on the approaching men in fierce challenge. Kellin desperately wanted to regain that attention for himself. “Show me!” he shouted.
Tuqhoc slipped the guard easily, so easily—even as the challenge was accepted. In one quick, effortless motion Tuqhoc plucked the knife from the thong around his neck and threw.
For Kellin, the knife was all. He was only peripherally aware of the women crying out, the guttural invective of the warrior as the watchdogs pressed steel against his flesh.
Rogan reached for him—
Too late. The knife was in the air. And even as Rogan twisted, intending to protect his charge by using his own body as shield, Kellin stepped nimbly aside. For ME—
He saw the blade, watched it, judged its arc, its angle, anticipated its path. Then he reached out and slapped the blade to the ground.
“By the gods—” Rogan caught his shoulders and jerked him aside. “Have you any idea—?”
Kellin did. He could not help it. He stared at the warrior, at the Steppes women, at the knife in the street. He knew precisely what he had done, and why.
He wanted to shout his exultation, but knew better. He looked at the watchdogs and saw the fixed, almost feral set of jaws; the grimness in their faces; the acknowledgment in their eyes as they caged the Steppesman with steel.
It was not his place to gloat; Cheysuli warriors did not lower themselves to such unnecessary displays.
Kellin bent and picked up the knife. He noted the odd greenish color and oily texture of the blade. He looked at Rogan, then at the young woman whose eyes were astonished.
As much as for his tutor’s benefit as for hers, Kellin said: “Tell Tuqhoc that I am Cheysuli.”
Rogan’s hand shut more firmly on Kellin’s shoulder and guided him away despite his burgeoning protest. Kellin was aware of the Mujharan Guard speaking to Tuqhoc and the young woman, of the tension in Rogan’s body, and of the startled murmuring of the crowd.
“Wait—” He wanted to twist away from Rogan’s grasp, to confront Tuqhoc of the Steppes and see the acknowledgment in his eyes, as it was in the woman’s, that a Cheysuli, regardless of youth and size, was someone to be respected. But Rogan permitted no movement save that engineered by himself. Doesn’t he understand? Doesn’t he know?
Unerringly—and unsparing of his firmness—the Homanan guided Kellin away from the wagons to a quieter pocket in the square some distance away. His tone was flat, as if he squeezed out all emotion for fear of showing too much. “Let me see your hand.”
Now that the moment had passed and he could no longer see the Steppes warrior, Kellin’s elation died. He felt listless, robbed of his victory. Sullenly he extended his hand, allowing Rogan to see the slice across the fleshy part of three fingers and the blood running down his palm.
Tight-mouthed, Rogan muttered something about childish fancies; Kellin promptly snatched back his bleeding hand and pressed it against the sausage-stained jerkin. The uneaten suhoqla grasped in his other hand grew colder by the moment.
Rogan said crisply, “I will find something with which to bind these cuts.”
Blood mingled with sausage grease as Kellin pressed the fingers against his jerkin. It stung badly enough to make the corners of his mouth crimp, but he would not speak of it. He would give away nothing. “Leave it be. It has already stopped.” He fisted his hand so hard the knuckles turned white, then displayed it to Rogan. “You see?”
The tutor shook his head slowly, but he gave the hand only the merest contemplation; he looked mostly at Kellin’s face, as if judging him.
I won’t let him know. Kellin put up his chin. “I am a warrior. Such things do not trouble warriors.”
Rogan shook his head again. Something broke in his eyes: an odd, twisted anguish. His breath hissed between white teeth. “While you are fixed wholly on comporting yourself as a warrior, neglecting to recall you are still but a boy—I realize it will do little if any good to point out that the knife could have killed you.” The teeth clamped themselves shut. “But I’ll wager that was part of the reason you challenged him. Yet you should know that such folly could result in serious repercussions.”
“But I could see—”
Rogan cut off the protest. “If not for yourself, for me and the guard! Do you realize what would become of us if you came to harm?”
Kellin had not considered that. He looked at Rogan more closely and saw the very real fear in his tutor’s eyes. Shame goaded. “No,” he admitted, then anxiousness usurped it, and the need to explain. “But I needed him to see. To know—”
“Know what? That you are a boy too accustomed to having his own way?”
“That I am Cheysuli.” Kellin squeezed his cut hand more tightly closed. “I want them all to know. They have to know—they have to understand that I am not he—”
“Don’t you see? I have to prove I am a true man, not a coward—that I will not turn my back on duty and my people—and—and—” he swallowed painfully, finishing his explanation quickly, unevenly, “—any sons I might sire.”
Rogan’s mouth loosened. After a moment it tightened again, and the muscles of his jaw rolled briefly. Quietly, he said, “Promise me never to do such a thoughtless thing again.”
Feeling small, Kellin nodded, then essayed a final attempt at explanation. “I watched his eyes. Tuqhoc’s. I knew when he would throw, and how, and what the knife would do. I had only to put out my hand, and the knife was there.” He shrugged self-consciously, seeing the arrested expression in Rogan’s eyes. “I just knew. I saw.” Dismayed, he observed his congealing sausage as Rogan fixed him with a more penetrating assessment. Kellin extended the stick with its weight of greasy suhoqla. “Do you want this?”
The Homanan grimaced. “I cannot abide the foul taste of those things. You wanted it—eat it.”
But Kellin’s appetite was banished by aftermath. “It’s cold.” He glanced around, spied a likely looking dog, and approached to offer the sausage. The mongrel investigated the meat, wrinkled its nose and sneezed, then departed speedily.
“That says something for your taste,” Rogan remarked dryly. He drew his own knife, cut a strip of fabric from the hem of his tunic, motioned a passing water-seller over and bought a cup. He dipped the cloth into the water and began to wipe the cut clean. “By the gods, the Queen will have my hide for this…you are covered with grease and blood.”
Rogan’s ministrations hurt. No longer hungry, Kellin discarded the suhoqla. He bit into his lip as the watchdogs came up and resumed their places, though the distance between their charge and their persons was much smaller now.
Humiliation scorched his face; warriors did not, he believed, submit so easily to public nursing. “I want to see the market.”
Rogan looped the fabric around the fingers and palm to make a bandage, then tied it off. “We are in the market; look around, and you will see it.” He tightened the knot. “There. It will do until we return to the palace.”
Kellin’s mind was no longer on the stinging cut or its makeshift bandage. He frowned as a young boy passed by, calling out in singsong Homanan. “A fortune-teller!”
“No,” Rogan said promptly.
“Such things are a waste of good coin.” Rogan shrugged. “You are Cheysuli. You already know your tahlmorra.”
“But you don’t yet know yours.” Grinning anticipation, Kellin locked his bandaged hand over Rogan’s wrist. “Don’t you want to find out if you’ll share your bed with Melora or Belinda?”
Rogan coughed a laugh, glancing sidelong at the guards. “No mere fortune-teller can predict that. Women do what they choose to do; they do not depend on fate.”
Kellin tugged his tutor in the direction the passing boy had indicated. “Let us go, Rogan. That boy says the fortune-teller can predict what becomes of me.”
“That boy is a shill. He says what he’s told to say, and the fortune-teller says what he’s paid to say.”
Rogan sighed. “If you desire it so much—”
“Aye!” Kellin tugged him on until they stood before a tent slumped halfheartedly against a wall. A black cat, small version of the Mujhar’s lir, Sleeta, lay stretched out on a faded rug before the entrance, idly licking one paw; beside him curled a half-grown fawn-hued dog who barely lifted an eyelid. The tent itself was small, its once-glorious stripes faded gold against pale brown, so that it merged into the wall. “My grandsire gave you coin for such things,” Kellin reminded his tutor. “Surely he could not count it ill-spent if we enjoyed it!”
Graying eyebrows arched. “A sound point. That much you have mastered, if not your history.” Rogan gestured for the guardsmen to precede them into the tent.
“No!” Kellin cried.
“They must, Kellin. The Mujhar has given orders. And after what you provoked in the Steppes warrior, I should take you home immediately.”
Kellin compromised immediately. “They may come wait here.” His gesture encompassed the rug and entrance. “But not inside the tent. A fortune is a private thing.”
“I cannot allow the Prince of—”
“Say nothing of titles!” Kellin cried. “How will the fortune-teller give me the truth otherwise? If he knows what I am, it cheats the game.”
“At least you admit it is a game, for which I thank the gods; you are not entirely gullible. But rules are rules; the Mujhar is my lord, not you.” Rogan ordered one of the guardsmen into the tent. “He will see that it is safe.”
Kellin waited impatiently until the guardsman came out again. When the man nodded his head, Rogan had him and his companions assume posts just outside the tent.
“Now?” Kellin asked, and as Rogan nodded he slipped through the doorflap.
Inside the tent, Kellin found the shadows stuffy and redolent of an acrid, spice-laden smoke that set his eyes to watering. He wiped at them hastily, wrinkling his nose at the smell very much as the street dog did to the suhoqla, and squinted to peer through the thready haze. A gauzy dark curtain merged with shadow to hide a portion of the tent; he and Rogan stood in what a castle-raised boy would call an antechamber, though the walls were fabric in place of stone.
Rogan bent slightly, resting a hand on Kellin’s shoulder as he spoke in a low tone. “You must recall that he works for coin, Kellin. Put no faith in his words.”
Kellin frowned. “Don’t spoil it.”
“I merely forewarn that what he says—”
“Don’t spoil it!”
The gauzy curtain was parted. The fortune-teller was a nondescript, colorless foreign man of indeterminate features, wearing baggy saffron pantaloons and three silk vests over a plain tunic: one dyed blue, the next red, the third bright green. “Forgive an old man his vice: I smoke husath, which is not suitable for guests unless they also share the vice.” He moved out of the shadowed curtain, bringing the sweet-sour aroma with him. “I do not believe either of you would care for it.”
“What is it?” Kellin was fascinated.
Rogan stirred slightly. “Indeed, a vice. It puts dreams in a man’s head.”
Kellin shrugged. “Dreams are not so bad. I dream every night.”
“Husath dreams are different. They can be dangerous when they make a man forget to eat or drink.” Rogan stared hard at the man. “The boy wants his fortune told, nothing more. You need not initiate him into a curiosity that may prove dangerous.”
“Of course.” The man smiled faintly and gestured to a rug spread across the floor. “Be in comfort, and I will share with you your future, and a little of your past.”
“He is all of ten; his past is short,” Rogan said dryly. “This shouldn’t take long.”
“It will take as long as it must.” The fortuneteller gestured again. “I promise you no tricks, no husath, no nonsense, only the truth.”
Kellin turned and gazed up at Rogan. “You first.”
The brows arched again. “We came for you.”
Rogan considered it, then surrendered gracefully, folding long legs to seat himself upon the rug just opposite the fortune-teller. “For the boy’s sake, then.”
“And nothing for yourself?” The fortune-teller’s teeth were stained pale yellow. “Give me your hands.”
Kellin dropped to his knees and waited eagerly. “Go on, Rogan. Give him your hands.”
With a small, ironic smile, Rogan acquiesced. The fortune-teller merely looked at the tutor’s hands for a long moment, examining the minute whorls and scars in his flesh, the length of fingers, the fit of nails, the color of the skin. Then he linked his fingers with Rogan’s, held them lightly, and began to murmur steadily as if invoking the gods.
“No tricks,” Rogan reminded.
“Shhh,” Kellin said. “Don’t spoil the magic.”
“This isn’t magic, Kellin…this is merely entertainment.”
But the fortune-teller’s tone altered, interrupting the debate. His voice dropped low into a singsong cadence that made the hair rise up on the back of Kellin’s neck: “Alone in the midst of many, even those whom you love…apart and separate, consumed by grief. She lives within you when she is dead, and you live through her, seeing her face when you sleep and wake, longing for the love she cannot offer. You live in the pasts of kings and queens and those who have gone before you, but you thrive upon your own. Your past is your present and will be your future, until you summon the strength to give her life again. Offered and spurned, it is offered again; spurned and offered a third time until, accepting, you free yourself from the misery of what is lost to you, and then live in the misery of what you have done. You will die knowing what you have done, and why, and the price of your reward. You will use and be used in turn, discarded at last when your use is passed.”
Rogan jerked his hands away with a choked, inarticulate protest. Kellin, astonished, stared at his tutor; what he saw made him afraid. The man’s face was ashen, devoid of life, and his eyes swam with tears.
“Rogan?” Apprehension seized his bones and washed his flesh ice-cold. “Rogan!”
But Rogan offered no answer. He sat upon the rug and stared at nothingness as tears ran down his face.
“A harsh truth,” the fortune-teller said quietly, exhaling husath fumes. “I promise no happiness.”
“Rogan—” Kellin began, and then the fortuneteller reached out and caught at his hands, trapped the fingers in his own, and Kellin’s speech was banished.
This time there were no gods to invoke. The words spilled free of the stranger’s mouth as if he could not stop them. “He is the sword,” the hissing voice whispered. “The sword and the bow and the knife. He is the weapon of every man who uses him for ill, and the strength of every man who uses him for good. Child of darkness, child of light; of like breeding with like, until the blood is one again. He is Cynric, he is Cynric: the sword and the bow and the knife, and all men shall name him evil until Man is made whole again.”
The voice stopped. Kellin stared, struggling to make an answer, any sort of answer, but the sound began again.
“The lion shall lie down with the witch; out of darkness shall come light; out of death: life; out of the old: the new. The lion shall lie down with the witch, and the witch-child born to rule what the lion must swallow. The lion shall devour the House of Homana and all of her children, so the newborn child shall sit upon the throne and know himself lord of all.”
A shudder wracked Kellin from head to toe, and then he cried out and snatched his hands away. “The Lion!” he cried. “The Lion will eat me!”
He scrambled to his feet even as the guardsmen shredded canvas with steel to enter the tent. He saw their faces, saw their intent; he saw Rogan’s tear-streaked face turning to him. Rogan’s mouth moved, but Kellin heard nothing. One of the guards put his hand upon his prince’s rigid shoulder, but Kellin did not feel it.
The Lion. The LION.
He knew in that instant they were unprepared, just as the Steppes warrior had been unprepared. None of them understood. No one at all knew him for what he was. They saw only the boy, the deserted son, and judged him worthless.
Aren’t I worthless?
But the Lion wanted him.
Kellin caught his breath. Would the Lion want to eat a worthless boy?
Perhaps he was worthless, and that fact alone was why the Lion might want to eat him.
To save Homana from a worthless Mujhar.
With an inarticulate cry, Kellin tore free of the guardsman’s hand and ran headlong from the tent. He ignored the shouts of the Mujharan guard and the blurted outcry of his tutor. He tore free of them all, even of the tent, and clawed his way out of pale shadow into the brilliance of the day.
“Lion—” Kellin blurted, then darted into the crowd even as the man came after him.
* * *
He did not know.
Away from the Lion—
—won’t let the Lion eat me— He tripped and fell, facedown, banging his chin into a cobble hard enough to make himself bite his lip. Blood filled his mouth; Kellin spat, lurched up to hands and knees, then pressed the back of one hand against his lower lip to stanch the bleeding. The hand bled, too; Rogan’s bandage had come off. The cut palm and his cut mouth stung.
It smells— It did. He had landed full-force in a puddle of horse urine. His jerkin was soaked with it; the knees of his leggings, ground into cobbles as well, displayed the telltale color and damp texture of compressed horse droppings.
Aghast, Kellin scrambled to his feet. He was filthy. In addition to urine and droppings weighting his leathers, there was mud, grease, and blood; and he had lost his belt entirely somewhere in his mad rush to escape the Lion. No one, seeing him now, would predict his heritage or House.
“Rogan?” He turned, thinking of his tutor instead of the Lion; recalled the fortune-teller’s words, and how Rogan had reacted. And the watchdogs; where were they? Had he left everyone behind? Where am—
Someone laughed. “Poor boy,” said a woman’s voice, “have you spoiled all your Summerfair finery?”
Startled, he gaped at her. She was blonde and pretty, in a coarse sort of way, overblown and overpainted. Blue eyes sparkled with laughter; a smile displayed crooked teeth.
Humiliated, Kellin stared hard at the ground and tried to uncurl his toes. I don’t want to be here. I want to go HOME.
“What a pretty blush; as well as I could do, once.” Skirts rustled faintly. “Come here.”
Reluctantly Kellin glanced up slantwise, marking the garish colors of her multiple skirts. One hand beckoned. He ignored it, thinking to turn his back on her, to leave the woman behind, but the laughter now was muted, replaced with a gentler facade.
“Come,” she said. “Has happened to others, too.”
She wasn’t his granddame, who welcomed him into her arms when he needed a woman’s comfort, but she was a woman, and she spoke kindly enough now. This time when she beckoned, he answered. She slipped a hand beneath his bloodied chin, forcing him to look up into her own face. At closer range her age increased, yet her eyes seemed kind enough in an assessive sort of way. Her hair was not really blonde, he discovered by staring at exposed roots, and the faintest hint of dark fuzz smudged her upper lip.
The woman laughed. “Don’t blush quite so much, boy. You’ll have me thinking you’ve never seen a whore before.”
He gaped. “You are a light woman?”
“A light—” She broke off, brows lifting. “Is that the genuine accent of aristrocracy?” She leaned closer, enveloping him in a powerful, musky scent. “Or are you like me: a very good mimic?”
She is NOT like granddame after all. Kellin tugged at his ruined jerkin, than blotted again at his split lip. She watched him do it, her smile less barbed, and at last she took her hand from his chin, which relieved him immeasurably. “Lady—”
“No, not that. Never that.” Her hand strayed into his hair, lingered in languorous familiarity. Her touch did not now in the least remind him of his grandmother’s. “Why is it,” the woman began, “that boys and men have thicker hair and longer lashes? The gods have truly blessed you, my greeneyed little man.” The other hand touched his leggings. “And how little are we in things that really matter?”
Kellin nearly squirmed. “I—I must go.”
“Not so soon, I pray you.” She mocked the elaborate speech of highborn Homanans. “We hardly know one another.”
That much Kellin knew; he’d heard the horseboys speaking of whores. “I have no money.” Rogan had plenty, but he doubted the Mujhar would approve of it being spent on women.
The whore laughed. “Well, then, what have you? Youth. Spirit. Pretty eyes, and a prettier face—you’ll have women killing over you, when you’re grown.” Her eyes lost their laughter. “Men would kill for you now.” The smile fell off her face. “And innocence, which is something everyone in the Midden has lost. If I could get some back, steal it back, somehow—”
Kellin took a single step backward. Her hand latched itself into his filthy jerkin; she did not seem to notice her hand now was also soiled. “I must go,” he tried again.
“No,” she said intently. “No. Stay a while. Share with me youth and innocence—”
Kellin wrenched away from her. As he ran, he heard her curse.
* * *
This time when he fell, Kellin managed to avoid urine and droppings, landing instead against hard stone cobbles after his collision with a woman carrying a basket. He feared at first she might also be a whore, but she had none of the ways or coarse speech. She was angry, aye, because he had upset her basket; and then she was screaming something about a thief—
“No!” Kellin cried, thinking he could explain and set everything to rights—the Prince of Homana, a thief?—but the woman kept on shrieking, ignoring his denials, and he saw the men, big men all, hastening toward him.
He ran again, and was caught. The man grabbed him by one arm and hoisted him into the air so that one boot toe barely scraped the cobblestones. “Give over, boy. No more kicking and biting.”
Kellin, who had not thought to bite, squirmed in the tight grasp. He intensely disliked being hung by one wrist like a side of venison. “I am not a boy, I’m a prince—”
“And I’m the Mujhar of Homana.” The man waited until Kellin’s struggles subsided. “Done, are we?”
“Let me go!”
“Not until I have the ropes on you.”
Kellin stiffened. “Ropes!”
“I and others like me are sworn to keep the rabble off the streets during Summerfair,” the big man explained. “That includes catching all the little thieves who prey on innocent people.”
“I’m not a thief, you ku’reshtin—”
The big hand closed more tightly. “Round speech for a boy, by your tone.”
“I am the Prince of Homana!”
The man sighed. He was very large, and redhaired; he was also patently unimpressed by Kellin’s protests. “Save your breath, boy. It only means a night under a decent roof, instead of some alley or doorway. And you’ll be fed, so don’t be complaining so much when you’re better off now than you were.”
“But I’m—” Kellin broke off in astonishment as the men looped a rope around one wrist, then the other. Prince or no, he was snugged tight as a gamebird. “Wait!”
The man nodded patiently. “Come along, then, and I’ll see to it you have a decent meal and a place to sleep. I’ll free you first thing in the morning if anyone comes to fetch you.”
The furious challenge was immediate. “If I had a lir—”
“What? Cheysuli, too?” The giant laughed, though not unkindly. “Well, I’m thinking not. I’ve never yet seen one with green eyes, nor leathers quite so filthy.”
Kellin did not know Mujhara well. In fact, he knew very little about the city he would one day rule, other than the historical implications Rogan had discussed so often; and even then he was ignorant of details because he had not listened well. He wanted to do something much more exciting than spend his days speaking of the past. The future attracted him more, even though Rogan explained again and again that the past affected that future; that a man learning from the past often avoided future difficulties.
Because he was so closely accompanied each time he left Homana-Mujhar, Kellin had come to rely on others to direct him. Left to his own devices, he would have been lost in a moment as he was lost now. The big red-haired man led him like a leashed dog through the winding closes, alleys, and streets, turning this way and that, until Kellin could not so much as tell which direction was which.
He felt the heat of shame as he was led unrelentingly. Don’t look at me— But they did, all the people, the Summerfair crowds thronging the closes, alleys, and streets. Kellin thought at first if he called out to them and told them who he was, if he asked for their support, they would give it gladly. But the first time he tried, a man laughed at him and called him a fool for thinking they would believe such a lie; would the Prince of Homana wear horse piss on his clothing?
Don’t look at me. But they looked. Inwardly, Kellin died a small, quiet death, the death of dignity. I just want to go home.
“Here,” his captor said. “You’ll spend the night inside.” The giant opened the door, took Kellin inside, then handed over the “leash” to another man, this one brown-haired and brown-eyed, showing missing teeth. “Tried to steal a goodwife’s basket of ribbons.”
“No!” Kellin cried. “I did not. I fell against her, no more, and knocked it out of her hands. What would I want with ribbons?”
The gap-toothed man grinned. “To sell them, most like. At a profit, since you paid nothing for them in the first place.”
Kellin was outraged. “I did not steal her ribbons!”
“Had no chance to,” the redhead laughed. “She saw to that, with her shrieking.”
Kellin drew himself up, depending on offended dignity and superior comportment to put an end to the intolerable situation. Plainly he declared, “I am the Prince of Homana.”
He expected apologies, respect, and got neither. The two men exchanged amused glances. The gaptoothed Homanan nodded. “As good a liar as a thief, isn’t he? Only that’s not so good, is it, since you’re here?”
Courage wavered; Kellin shored it up with a desperate condescension. “I am here with my tutor and four guardsman, four of the Mujharan Guard.” He hoped it would make a suitable impression, invoking his grandfather’s personal company. “Go and ask them; they will tell you.”
“Wild goose chase,” said the redhead. “Waste of time.”
Desperation nearly engulfed injured pride. “Go and ask,” Kellin directed. “Go to Homana-Mujhar. My grandsire will tell you the truth.”
“Your grandsire. The Mujhar?” Gap-tooth laughed, slanting a bright glance at the giant.
Kellin bared his teeth, desiring very badly to prove the truth of his claims. But his leathers were smeared with filth, his bottom lip swollen, and his face, no doubt, as dirty. “My boots,” he said sharply, sticking out one foot. “Would a thief have boots like these?”
The redhead grinned. “If he stole them.”
“But they fit. Stolen boots would not fit.”
Gap-tooth sighed. “Enough of your jabber, brat. You’ll not be harmed, just kept until someone comes to fetch you.”
“But no one knows where I am! How can they come?”
“If you’re the Prince of Homana, they’ll know.” The giant’s eyes were bright. “D’ye think I’m a fool? You’ve my eyes, boy, plain Homanan green, not the yellow of a Cheysuli. Next time you want to claim yourself royalty, you’d best think better of it.”
Kellin gaped. “My granddame is Erinnish, with hair red as yours—redder! I have her eyes—”
“Your granddame—and your mother to boot—was likely a street whore, brat…no more chatter from you. Into the room. We’re not here to harm you, just keep you.” The red-haired giant pushed Kellin through another door as Gap-tooth unlocked it. He was dumped unceremoniously onto a thin pallet in a small, stuffy room, then the door was locked.
For a moment Kellin lay sprawled in shock, speechless in disbelief. Then he realized they’d stripped the rope from his wrists. He scrambled up and hammered at the door.
“They won’t open it. They won’t.”
Kellin jerked around, seeing the boy in the corner for the first time. The light was poor, admitted only through a few holes high up in the walls. The boy slumped against the wall with the insouciance of a longtime scofflaw. His face was thin, grimy, and bruised. Lank blond hair hung into his eyes, but his grin was undiminished by Kellin’s blatant surprise.
“Urchin,” the boy said cheerfully, answering the unasked question.
Kellin was distracted by newborn pain in his cut hand, which now lacked Rogan’s bandage. He frowned to see the slices were packed with dirt and other filth; wiping it against his jerkin merely caused the slices to sting worse. Scowling, he asked, “What kind of a name is that?”
“Isn’t a name. Haven’t got one. That’s what they call me, when they call me.” The boy shoved a wrist through his hair. His eyes were assessive far beyond his years. “Good leathers, beneath the dirt…good boots, too. No thief, are ye?”
Kellin spat on the cuts and wiped them again against his jerkin. “Tell them that.”
Urchin grinned. “Won’t listen. All they want is the copper.”
“Copper a head for all the thieves they catch.”
Kellin frowned, giving up on his sore hand. “Who pays it?”
Urchin shrugged. “People. They’re fed up wi’ getting their belt-purses stolen and pockets picked.” He waggled fingers. “Some o’ them took up a collection, like…for each thief caught during Summerfair, they pay a copper a head. Keeps the streets clean of us, y’see, and they can walk out without fearing for pockets and purses.” Urchin grinned. “But if you’re good enough, nobody catches you.”
“You got caught.”
“Couldn’t run fast enough with this.” Urchin extended a swollen, discolored foot and puffy ankle. “Dog set on me.” He was patently unconcerned by the condition of foot and ankle. “If you’re not a thief, why’re you here?”
Kellin grimaced. “I was running. They thought it was because I was stealing.”
“Never run in Mujhara,” the boy advised solemnly, then reconsidered. “Unless you be a fine Homanan lord, and then no one will bother you no matter what you do.”
Kellin glanced around. On closer inspection, the room was no better than his first impression, a small imprisonment, empty save for them. “Not so many copper pieces today.”
Urchin shrugged. “The other room is full. They’ll put the new catches in here. You’re the first, after me.”
Kellin peeled a crust of blood from his chin. “How do we get out?”