The Burnt World of Athas

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Lady of Shadows - Part 21


Prologue and Other Parts

Part 21

By Duskweaver

The Temple’s baths were a late addition to the building, when the number of templar-wives in the Naggaramakam grew too large to be accommodated in the main bath-house near the eastern wall. The three marble-walled bathing chambers had been dug into the earth beneath the first level of the pyramid, so that gravity alone was sufficient to bring cold water through ceramic pipes from the city reservoir, while the hot water welled up under pressure from a natural spring deep beneath the Temple.

At this time of day, I did not expect anyone else to be using the baths, but as I entered the first chamber, which contained the hottest of the three pools, a powerfully muscled figure loomed out of the roiling steam. Eyes like chips of amber regarded me with surprise, then recognition.

Like me, Hiromi was one of the very few non-human women chosen to wed the Shadow King. Despite that shared status as perpetual outsiders – or perhaps because of it – the mul and I had never really gotten on. As Chanthou had put it, with her usual sly smile, we’d never really been able to see eye-to-eye.

As was her habit, Hiromi lumbered to a halt far too close, almost treading on my toes. She had never understood the concept of respecting others’ personal space. Or anything else, for that matter. I glared at her, but it’s difficult to be properly intimidating when you have to crane your neck back and squint past a pair of breasts bigger than your entire torso.

Hiromi blinked at me sleepily. She’d always been a late riser, something Chanthou had found endlessly amusing (“A lazy mul! We should stuff her and put her on display for posterity, alongside friendly tembo and dwarf poets!“). She grinned as she recognised me, though I wasn’t sure whether it was supposed to be friendly or menacing.

“Huh. Ysuun. Haven’t seen you around for a while. Still always in a hurry, though, I see.”

I gave up on trying to stare her down and forced myself to smile. We weren’t children any more, after all; while we’d never be friends, there was no point in deliberately antagonising each other. Besides, I had questions. “Greetings, sister. You look well. Has something dreadful occurred while I was away from the city? There seem to be a lot of new girls upstairs.”

The mul grimaced and looked away, as if embarrassed. “Yeah. ‘Something dreadful’ doesn’t quite cover it. We lost all our agents in Raam and Gulg, and all but one in Tyr. All killed on the same day, so far as we can tell.” She looked back at me, and I was shocked to see her eyes were wet. “We got ratfucked, Ysuun. We don’t even know who did it. A lot of us think it was those Veiled Alliance kank-humpers, but they’ve never been this coordinated before, and our lord and husband dismissed the idea out of hand. Whoever it was, they must have had access to our files. The only place the names and cover identities of all our agents are kept is right here in the Temple. Which means one of our dear sisters is a shit-eating traitor.”

Without realising it, I’d taken a couple of steps backward.

Hiromi frowned at me, her eyes blazing orange. Then she shrugged her wide shoulders, took a deep breath and let it out in a long sigh. “You needn’t worry, Ysuun,” she said, her voice and eyes softer now. “I know it wasn’t you, at least. Nobody could fake that look on your face. And you’ve never been any good at all at concealing your thoughts. You really didn’t have a clue what had happened, did you?”

I shook my head. I was numb. I had only a hazy idea of how many of my sister-wives had been stationed in Tyr, Gulg and Raam as spies, but I would probably have known every one of them, for they would all have been drawn from the ranks of the Temple of Thought.

Hiromi sighed again. “We’ve been set back at least ten years. At least we still have one agent in Tyr. Luckily, our lord and husband had her file with him in his palace, since he’s been taking a lot of interest in Tyr since Kalak started building that ridiculous ziggurat. I was going to get a copy made if he wanted to hang onto the original any longer. Bloody glad I didn’t, now!”

My mind refused to function. That was probably for the best, since it gave Hiromi a chance to leave before my stunned incomprehension gave way to a crippling sense of guilt for my own earlier disloyalty. It was stupid and illogical: briefly flirting with the idea of not telling my lord and husband about Neren’s true affiliation hardly compared to exposing the identities of dozens of templar agents. And the deaths of my sisters most likely had nothing to do with Neren and his associates. And yet, somehow, ludicrously, my addled mind conflated my own small betrayal with the monstrous crime committed by one of my sister-wives.

“You should close your mouth before something flies in there and builds a nest!” Hiromi called back over her shoulder, though she was gone by the time my mind actually registered her words.

 

Floating alone in the steaming pool, I tried to let the almost painfully hot water soothe my aching joints and muscles. The water that bubbles up from the spring beneath the Naggaramakam is so rich in minerals that one can float easily in it without paddling. The physical scars the sand devils left me with had all healed as much as they ever would, fading to small, pale lines crosshatching sections of my skin like the desperate, purposeless marking of days on the walls of a prison cell. But my left shoulder still ached dully, as it had done intermittently ever since Bayl cut me down. Being hung by the arms for any length of time will do that, and I knew that the pain would likely afflict me for the rest of my days.

The pain in my shoulder did lessen as the heat penetrated down to the bones, but calming my mind was a harder task. Part of me still couldn’t accept what Hiromi had told me. My lord and husband had said nothing of the losses, as though he had already put them out of his mind by the time he spoke to me. Logically, there was no reason why he should feel anything more than annoyance at the work that would now be required to rebuild those webs of intrigue that had been so suddenly torn apart. That and a wish to find and punish the traitor, of course. Any foolish young girl who came to her wedding ceremony with some romantic idea that the Shadow King would become emotionally attached to her quickly had such silly notions thoroughly quashed. We were his tools, to be used for the good of the city-state, not the companions of his heart.

Yet still, it felt somehow wrong that he cared so much less for the lives that had been lost than I did. Had the sand devils broken me? Made me into a mewling weakling, crippled by emotional dysentery?

Or did the failing lie with him rather than me? How would Neren have taken such terrible news? I knew the answer to that, because I’d seen his grief at the loss of a mere four of his crew to the sand devils, his relief and gratitude that I had saved Mei’s life, and his open-hearted generosity to the crippled Jak. Those feelings were irrational, purposeless, even dangerous. Or so I had been taught to believe.

I think I did still believe that... but I could no longer convince myself that those feelings were wrong.

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Raddu

Original creator of The Burnt World of Athas back in 1995 or so...