The stone halls of the palace of the Shadow King are never truly silent, filled with the endless susurration of whispered voices even in the dead of night. The carved templars lining its twisting, labyrinthine corridors in high relief seem trapped in an endless dance, stone limbs writhing in tranced ecstasies as the flickering torchlight plays upon them. One is left with the disturbing impression that these stone women are the source of the endlessly echoing murmurs, the true living inhabitants of the palace. When I first came to the Naggaramakam, a confused and wistful child plucked from my dying mother’s mud-brick hovel to become yet another bride of the Shadow King, I wondered for a time whether those stone women waited only for us flesh-and-blood women to leave or to die, so that they might live and serve our Lord and Husband in our place.
Of course, I never asked my lord and husband whether such was the case. But it would certainly not be beyond his power to animate thousands of statues to serve him, and building and maintaining such a reserve over the centuries of his existence, as a precaution against some unforeseeable calamity, would be entirely in keeping with what he has allowed me to observe of his character. It is, in fact, just the sort of thing he would do.
From the outside, the palace itself is not a large building, being home only to the Shadow King himself, his son Dhojakt and a handful of his most favoured wives. But the way its passages and chambers are so tightly coiled around one another makes it seem much larger. It is easy to get lost if one is not familiar with its twists and turns. Supposedly, the palace’s layout shifts and changes to match the Shadow King’s own subtle mind, and it is said that even Dhojakt occasionally has difficulty finding his way back to his own quarters – certainly the prince has been observed on more than one occasion hurling his warped body against the walls, howling in rage and frustration.
But I remembered the route to my lord and husband’s personal apartments at the heart of the palace. I had spent most of the last three years working in his personal arcane laboratories, while my own living quarters remained in one of the buildings that formed part of the Temple of Thought – within the enclosure of the Naggaramakam, but well away from the palace itself. It was a journey I had undertaken almost every day.
Yet still I came to the portal to the Shadow King’s apartments sooner than I had expected. Did the passageways contract to bring me there more quickly, at his will, or was I merely too preoccupied with thoughts of Neren, Mei and Bayl to notice how time passed?
Before the great agafari-wood doors to my lord and husband’s private rooms is a large antechamber, filled with the statues of those wives he favoured most highly throughout his centuries of life. Some, especially the oldest, are depicted as warriors, clad in highly ornate armour and wielding swords, axes, spears and bows. Most of the later statues are dressed in crown, collar and sampot, recognisable as the garb of a templar-wife today, and hold the brush and scroll of a scribe, the rod of a magistrate or the whip of a slavemistress. Only in death is a templar-wife worthy of being immortalised in this chamber, for a living wife – even the most favoured – is always at risk of failing her lord and husband, whether through mischance, incompetence or deliberate treason. Many of those early warrior-templars died in battle, defending the Shadow King from assassins or enemy soldiers. Later wives died to the knives or poison of jealous rivals, or simply to old age.
On past visits to this room, it had often seemed to me, gazing upon the implacable basalt faces of these ancient wives, that we had become somehow less noble, less pure in our devotion over the centuries. That there was something honest in pledging our lives to guard our lord and husband that was lost when we became merely administrators, fighting our battles with brush and ink, with numbers on a page. Or with the subtle knives and vitriolic poisons of ruthless ambition. There was nothing noble in dying for the advancement of a sister-wife. Thankfully, I had always managed to avoid such sordid rivalries, better suited to a seraglio of courtesans than to the templar-wives of a king.
As I stumbled into the antechamber, distracted and uncharacteristically anxious, I saw the doors to my husband’s apartments open silently, and a tall, slim, golden-skinned figure emerged into the flickering torchlight. My breath caught in my throat and, for a moment, I forgot Neren’s warm smile, Mei’s unintentionally accusing eyes – everything of the three years since last I had set my own eyes on this unexpectedly welcoming sight.
I had not even realised I had spoken, but she turned abruptly at the sound of her name, her long, jet-black hair swirling around her like a cloak of shadow. Her eyes – the deep, dark purple of the ayame, the desert iris – were wide, dilated, the soft skin of her high-boned cheeks delicately flushed.
With all the thoughtless grace of the dancing girl she had been before entering the Templarate, she slipped easily between the guardian statues and enfolded me in a warm, smiling embrace. “Ysuun. Dearest of all sisters. It has been too long. Far, far too long.” If there was a hidden bitterness behind the soft words, I was too overwhelmed with unexpected joy to notice it.
Chanthou’s beauty was exquisite, her lovely face and athletic limbs perhaps more suited to a golden statue than a woman of mere flesh and blood and bone, but soft too (as Bayl would have put it, with a sly wink) “in all the right places”. In those early years of loneliness and sorrow, she had not been a cold idol to be worshipped from afar, but a comfortable refuge. True friendship is rare among the ranks of the shadow-brides, but we had been more than friends. Chanthou had been like a second mother to me, despite that she was only a year older than myself. And, as I realised far too late, even more lost and lonely than I was.
Despite all that has occurred since that seemingly happy reunion, the memory of her smiling down at me after three years apart still sets my breast and belly aflame with an almost wicked pleasure, made all the more acute for the pain that accompanies it. It is like the burning talon of the Dragon piercing my quivering heart.
After a long moment, she released me, held me at arm’s length, her great violet eyes roaming over my body. “You’ve been travelling too, I see,” she remarked, raising a delicate eyebrow. “Through Bremil Pass, and up to the mountains around the Dragon’s Bowl. If you’d set off back a day earlier, we’d have met on the road.”
I grinned as her eyes met mine again. “I suppose you worked that out from the colour of the dust on my feet? Or the precise configuration of the wind-blown tangles in my hair?”
Chanthou shrugged, then chuckled throatily. “No, Ysuun, not this time. Our dear husband told me. He has been expecting you.”
And, as suddenly as that, my momentary joy was shattered again. I would betray Neren, Mei, Enamdis and the rest to torture and death, all for the duty I owed to the Shadow King, who had saved me from a desperate existence on the streets of Nibenay as a beggar or a whore, who had stolen my childhood away and given me back the illusion of power and authority in return. In that moment, I truly hated my lord and husband, but I hated myself more for being so selfish and ungrateful.
Chanthou, recognising my unease even if she could not guess at its cause, hugged me again. “All will be well, dearest sister,” she whispered, her breath warm against my cheek. “He was somewhat restless earlier, but I have put him in a good mood for you.”