Lady of Shadows - Part 17
Prologue and Other Parts
The ancient road to the Mekillot Gate is straight and wide enough for three argosies to pass side by side with room to spare. The paving slabs, each some four yards across, are irregularly shaped, yet fit together so closely you could not slide even a hair between them. Even after countless millennia of heavy traffic, the wagon ruts that mar their dark blue-grey surface are at most a quarter-inch deep. Like the fort and causeway in Bremil Pass, the Caravan Road was built to last out the ages.
Before us rose the walls of the city and the Mekillot Gate itself. These were true Nibenese architecture: built of yellow-brown sandstone that had darkened over the centuries to almost the colour of slate, and covered with the figures of dancing templars and battling warriors exquisitely carved in high relief. The gatehouse was built in the form of two seated templars, each gazing out along the top of the wall to either side, with the proud and handsome face of the Shadow King’s human seeming gazing down imperiously from above the corbelled gateway arch itself. Stone galleries ringed the seated figures, worked seamlessly into their elaborate carved clothing, and spaced along each gallery were the bamboo stakes used for public executions.
Only the most serious breaches of the King’s Law, such as high treason or the murder of a templar, merit impaling, for it is a particularly slow and agonising way to die. The Shadow King and the Temple of the King’s Law do not shy away from necessary cruelty, but Nibenay is not Draj. Lesser criminals are sold as slaves, thrown into the arena or, if execution is warranted, simply beheaded.
But, today, several of the stakes were occupied: four men and two women hung suspended above the Mekillot Gate, dark streams of blood running down their legs to drip slowly from their limply dangling feet. We knew to expect the sight long before we reached the Gate, for we had smelled the fragrant incense that burned in stone censers below the traitors, the clouds of blue-white smoke warding off both the flies and the stink of blood and loosened bowels. As I said, Nibenay is not Draj. Even in our cruelty, we are careful to minimise its less sanitary side effects.
The traitors’ bodies glistened with sun balm. In theory, they ought also to have been given water at regular intervals by the guards, who would push sponges or wads of cloth soaked in water into their mouths upon long poles. But, whether out of laziness or compassion, this was often conveniently forgotten, so that the impaled expired within a day or two, their suffering ended prematurely by what was poetically termed ‘the Sun’s Mercy’.
One of the women could not have been much older than Mei, though her skin and the long hair that mercifully hid her anguished face were dark. I tried to tell myself that Mei was only an associate of a traitor, not a traitor herself. If High Consort Djena was utterly without mercy, she was at least inclined toward justice rather than vindictiveness, and I was sure I could convince her that Mei did not deserve such a fate. She would probably still have to die, but not like that.
Thankfully, none of the men – two Gulgans, a copper-scaled dray and an elderly dwarf – looked anything like Neren, and so I could for the moment avoid thinking of the fate I would send him to.
Bayl, at least, was wise enough not to look up as we approached the Gate, but I could sense a certain stiffness in his bearing, a tightness in his square-set jaw. I had not considered whether he too might have realised what was bound to happen to our erstwhile companions once we reached Nibenay and I reported what I had discovered. If I could spare Mei the agony of a traitor’s death to salve my own conscience, could I do the same for Enamdis, for Bayl’s sake?
A queue of merchants and other travellers waited ahead of us as their credentials were carefully checked, but one of the Gate’s guards recognised Bayl and waved us through without question.
The Caravan Road continues through the Mekillot Gate, running as straight as a lance through the Sages’ District to the Temple of Trade at the foot of the Naggaramakam’s monumental walls. First-time visitors to Nibenay are often surprised at how cosmopolitan this part of the city appears, in contrast to our reputation for narrow-minded traditionalism. In truth, the parts of our city frequented by merchants, elves, dray and other strange folk who wander in from the wastes have such an inclusive, even permissive, atmosphere precisely because such people are carefully kept separate from the rest of the city, which is every bit as conservative as the stereotype suggests.
Sages’ District is always busy, its streets packed with inix-drawn wagons carrying trade goods from as far away as the Forest Ridge and the closed city of Eldaarich; nobles lounging amid the silken cushions of their palanquins, their naked bodies painted with gold and silver leaf and bedecked in jewels; human and mul slaves in their shapeless kurta, running errands for their masters and mistresses; dray mercenaries in their scaled armour, clawed hands on the hilts of their weapons, casting ferocious glances at anyone who comes too close as though looking for an excuse to start a fight; tall, long-legged elves in their desert robes, slanted eyes always on the look-out for someone to swindle or something to steal.
Even navigating the wide thoroughfare leading to the Temple of Trade required a certain amount of dodging and weaving. Smaller pedestrians gave Bayl a wide berth, but even he could hardly shoulder-barge his way through knots of dray mercenaries or walk through the wooden walls of traders’ wagons. I remained in his shadow, uncomfortably reminded with every unthinking jostle (and the occasional quite deliberate grope) that I was not wearing my symbols of office. Strange how the lack of a few baubles, of little intrinsic worth, can so utterly change how others treat you. Part of me wanted to speak a few well-chosen Words, to drive these ignorant louts to their knees with that irresistible magical compulsion we templar-wives call the Voice of the Shadow King.
But, despite the crush, we reached the Temple of Trade soon enough. A small but incredibly ornate building in the shape of a cross and topped with multi-tiered spires, its walls are carved so that the whole building appears to be formed from the interlocked figures of dozens of merchants, each hawking their wares or negotiating deals with one another.
Bayl and I paused outside the wide, square doorway. Inside, we could see slave scribes moving among the offices and scriptoria, but after a moment we saw who we were looking for.
The templar turned to face us, frowning, and opened her mouth to berate us for gawking like ignorant foreigners. I spoke directly into her mind, giving my name and my position in the hierarchy of the Templarate. Her mouth snapped shut.
“I apologise, elder sister,” she quavered, ushering us into the blessedly cool interior of the Temple and guiding us into one of the smaller offices beyond a curtain of amethyst beads. “I did not recognise you without…”
I smiled reassuringly. “No matter, sister. I am returning to the Naggaramakam after a long journey. I do not require anything of you save access to your snake’s door.”
The so-called ‘snake’s doors’ are a secret known only to the templars of Nibenay and a handful of particularly favoured and trusted servants, such as Bayl. All the main Temple buildings have them, as well as a few supposedly empty buildings dotted around the city. Each door is well hidden amid elaborate relief work, and leads into a network of narrow passageways that link to the Naggaramakam. Approaching from the Mekillot Gate, the snake’s door within the Temple of Trade is the quickest route to the Shadow King’s palace, avoiding as it does the tangled network of narrow streets that makes up the Reservoir District.
I turned to Bayl. His expression was unreadable, his yellow eyes strangely lifeless.
“I won’t be needing you for a while, Bayl,” I said, trying to keep my voice from quavering. Where had this sudden fear sprung from? As he had so fiercely promised when he rescued my from the sand devils, Bayl would never harm me. Besides, why would he want to? Even if he had realised that I would have to report Neren’s connection to the Veiled Alliance, he surely must also recognise that I wasn’t responsible for the choices he and Enamdis had made?
“I’ll send for you this evening. Don’t get too drunk.” I attempted a smile, but I think I probably just looked queasy.
Bayl grinned then, and I relaxed a little. With a grunt of assent, he turned and made his way back out of the Temple.
The cool darkness of the snake’s passage was a blessed relief from the harsh glare and oppressive heat of the crimson sun, which had made even the stone-walled offices of the Temple of Trade feel unpleasantly sticky. A shelf next to the door held half a dozen full oil lamps, but my half-elven eyes adjusted to the gloom easily enough and I left them untouched.
These passageways were immeasurably old, and primitive, their walls built of bricks rather than carved sandstone, the floor of beaten earth so dry and compacted that it might as well have been stone. The walls of some of the deeper passageways, I knew, occasionally crumbled and fell in, allowing access to the rubble-choked ruins of a buried city far older than Nibenay. Once, centuries ago, a group of templars had encountered a tribe of savage albino elves living in these lightless ruins. They had exterminated the foul things, of course, and brought back their strange crystalline artefacts to the Temple of Thought for study. But the records of that research had been destroyed on the orders of the Shadow King and nobody but he knew where those artefacts were now stored.
We bury our secrets deep in Nibenay.
The passageway soon began to ascend at a pitch almost too steep to climb without stairs, eventually reaching a narrow platform and an ornate agafari-wood door whose distinctive Nibenese carvings marked it as much newer than the flaking brick walls.
I put my lips to the carved mouth of the Shadow King, portrayed in his true draconic form seated upon his throne, and breathed a Word. Magic pulsed through every fibre of the door, invisible to normal sight but glowing like sunlight through amethyst to my eyes. It swung open silently on oiled hinges, and I stepped into my husband’s palace.