The wind picked up again near dawn, a powerful yet steady easterly that filled the silt skimmer’s wyrmsilk sail easily, and the crimson sun had barely cleared the horizon at our backs when we reached the edge of the first Nibenese noble holding. The eastern sky was a lurid green, as often happens around dawn when there have been dust-storms in the distant Sea of Silt. Gazing out in that direction, I could just make out – with my soul’s eye if not my mortal senses – the distant spike of power that was the Pristine Tower.
I am always aware of it, just as a lodestone always knows which way is north. Orienting myself by its sorcerous beacon had been the first exercise my lord and husband had set me when I was delivered to his inner sanctum by High Consort Siemhouk. I smiled at the memory, and at my childish fear that Siemhouk had become jealous of my abilities and was sending me to my death. The Shadow King had not been present at the ceremony in which I was welcomed into the Temple – though we templars are called ‘wives’, most of us are not considered worthy to consummate our marriage physically – and this had been the first time I saw his true form. I was still young and foolish then, and I thought him a monster set to devour me.
The young and foolish often see truths hidden to older and wiser souls. But, ironically, that realisation would only come much later. As we travelled through the petty demesnes of Nibenay’s indolent nobility toward House Mentsu’s own holdings, my soul was torn between my wifely duty and the unwelcome demands of conscience and compassion, but it did not seem then that I had any real choice in the matter.
Or do I deceive myself even now? Do I simply make excuses for the sins of my past? Even when obedience scours the soul with darkness, it is still a far easier path than following the beacon of one’s own conscience. As Neren says, this is the true curse of this fallen world: that the easy roads lead down into the Black, while all the others are so hazardous that few dare tread them.
After the arid desolation of the Tablelands, the rice paddies, orchards and irrigation ditches outside Nibenay’s walls always seem like a Paradise, a green memory of a lost age. We made good speed now, for the wind itself seemed to be refreshed. Chanya looked often upon Mei’s still-sleeping form, fear and wonder in her soft brown eyes, whispering something about spirits and their blessings.
The girl awoke just as we reached the House Mentsu compound, a simple rectangle of mud-brick walls surrounding a cluster of sheds, silt skimmer hangars, barracks blocks and warehouses. Neren’s family had a more impressive dwelling inside the city’s walls, of course, but it is difficult to navigate the narrow, tangled streets of Nibenay in any vehicle much larger than a palanquin, so the silt skimmer would unload its cargo here.
Mei seemed stronger and more beautiful somehow, her eyes an even more startling blue, as though her strange encounter in the Crescent Forest had unlocked a door deep within her. She smiled radiantly at me, and I was reminded of what I had seen with my soul’s sight. I tried to return her smile, but found all I could manage was a wry grimace. Even her joy seemed a rebuke, and part of me recoiled from her, like a naughty child avoiding her mother’s gaze.
House Mentsu servants had seen our distinctive sail from afar and had already hauled open the compound’s large agafari-wood gate by the time the silt skimmer reached it. Chanya went below-decks to drop the loading ramp, and crew and servants between them began unloading crates of pomegranates and oranges from Draj, dried berries from Urik, and amphorae of wine from Raam. With everyone’s attention on the valuable cargo, it would have been easy for Bayl and I to slip away unnoticed. But we did not. I felt I owed Neren and Mei a farewell, if not an explanation. And I knew better than to deny Bayl a last few moments with Enamdis.
I found Neren inside a small, low building that obviously served as some sort of administrative office, talking animatedly with a pair of dwarfs so similar they must have been brothers. He turned as I entered, his gaunt face breaking into a boyish grin. Just for a moment, I allowed the warmth of his presence to touch me. He was the worst sort of naive idealist: a most dangerous man, whether he knew it or not. Yet, I knew he was also that rarest of treasures: a genuinely good and noble soul. He did not deserve what was going to happen to him. And that I would be the cause of his suffering broke my heart.
“Ysuun…” Even the way he spoke my name felt like an embrace, warm and comforting: obvious desire tempered by… not shyness, but a careful reticence born of his unwillingness to intrude where he was not yet invited.
I could not bear it. I interrupted him brusquely. “Bayl and I thank you for your hospitality, Lord Neren, but we must leave you now. My… sister is expecting me. She will be worried sick, for we are already a day late.” I had intended to say that my husband was waiting for me, which would have had the advantage of being true, but I somehow could not bring myself to declare to Neren that I belonged to another.
Besides, or so I convinced myself, it might have sounded strange that a married woman would travel so widely beyond her native city without her husband. A merchant house matron might do so, but not a simple healer. It might have raised questions. Neren is probably the most intelligent man I have ever known aside from the Shadow King and, perhaps, his son Dhojakt. He might easily have realised that a Nibenese woman travelling the wastes with only a mul for company, then hurrying so urgently to meet her husband upon arrival in the city, might easily be a templar.
Neren seemed a little taken aback. “I had hoped you would grace me with your company for a little longer. After what you’ve been through, you deserve a few nights’ sleep in a proper bed, at least. Some decent food, rather than dried inix and ship’s biscuit. A… a real bath,” he finished lamely.
This was unbearable. To leave him pining after me like a boy whose pet has gone missing would be unspeakably cruel. I wanted him to be glad to see the back of me. “Lord Neren,” I snapped, trying to sound scornful, even insulted by his suggestion, “I am not your woman, to be wined and dined and bathed and bedded. You are noble-born. I know you must think you are entitled to have any woman you fancy the sight of, but I’m no whore. I will not endure the scorn of your family and servants. I will go to my sister’s house and be among my own kind again.”
As I turned to leave, I heard Neren call my name, his voice filled with confused dismay. The dwarves were sniggering.
I found Bayl gazing longingly at Enamdis as, single-handedly, she carried heavy crates of fruit out from the cargo hold, handing them off to a chain of human and dwarf labourers to take into a nearby mud-brick warehouse. She had stripped down to her loincloth and a strip of cloth tied across her breasts, and her athletically muscled limbs gleamed with sweat in the hot sun. Despite my heartache over what I had been forced to do to Neren’s hopes, I could not resist smiling in memory of that mental image Bayl had accidentally projected into all our minds when he first met the half-giant woman. I had to admit, his imagination, vivid and lust-fuelled though it had been, had also been quite accurate.
“Time to go, Bayl,” I said, quietly. “I hope you’ve said your goodbyes.”
He nodded glumly, his eyes still on the half-giant woman’s splendid form. “I know you don’t understand what I see in her, lady…” he began.
I smiled again, though this time it was mostly to stop myself from weeping. “But I do, Bayl. She is strong and brave. And, yes, she is beautiful.” I managed to avoid adding the words “for a half-giant”.
He nodded again. “She tore the head right off one of those sand devils. Put a foot on his chest, grabbed his horns with her bare hands, and just pulled. It was glorious! At first, she reminded me a bit of one of my fighting partners. But even Skafra could never have done that.”
The significance was lost on me. It was only much later that I remembered the story. Skafra had been a one-eyed mul woman who was Bayl’s lover, as well as his fighting partner, for a year or so when they were both still slaves in the arena. Until the templar in charge of arranging matches decided it would spice things up if the two were entered into a death-match against each other. Bayl and Skafra had marched out onto the sands, and then simply refused to fight, so the templar ordered her archers to kill Skafra and then sent half a dozen guards to drag Bayl back to his cell. Enraged by the callous execution of his lover, he killed them all. Very bloodily. The crowd cheered so wildly and were so clearly on Bayl’s side that the templar did not dare to challenge his ‘victory’.
That templar disappeared soon after, although body parts that might have been hers did turn up in the arena beasts’ food trough. There was never any evidence that Bayl had had anything to do with that, of course, and his popularity was so great by that point that the templar’s successor (who presumably was just happy for the sudden promotion) never raised the issue.
I will give him this much: Bayl did try to warn me.