My lord and husband's private chambers, deep inside his stone palace, are windowless. No torches line the walls. The Shadow King himself needs no light to see by, and many of his magical experiments require total darkness. Even the most favoured of his wives are not permitted to bring their own illumination into these halls.
But I was, as Chanthou had said, expected. A globe of dim purple light hovered in the darkness of the entrance hall like a miniature amethyst moon. By its faint illumination, I could just make out the shelves and racks of elaborate glassware that lined the hallway's walls. Once, perhaps, my husband's private apartments had been divided into separate bedchambers, meditation rooms, audience chambers, libraries, laboratories and storerooms. Over the centuries, however, the clutter of a thousand thousand experiments, along with laboratory notes, ancient tomes of magical lore, artefacts of known or unknown power and relics of long-forgotten ages - discovered, stolen or otherwise collected by the Shadow King and his templars - had overspilled their original storage places and taken over every chamber and hallway in this part of the palace. Finding anything amid the apparently haphazard piles of (mostly) junk had been a nightmare, at least for the templars, like myself, who were chosen to assist the Shadow King in his experiments. My husband, of course, never seemed to suffer any difficulty in locating even the most obscure items, even if he had neither seen nor touched them in decades.
The globe led me through several such hallways. The familiar smell of the place filled my nostrils: bitter myrrh, cloves and sandalwood smoke coiling from elaborate earthenware censers; the acrid tang of alchemical substances bubbling in pipes and vessels along the walls; the hot, dry cinnamon scent of my husband's draconic body; and the delicate jasmine-and-iris perfume favoured by Chanthou, overlaying the salt-sweet fragrance of her sweat.
I suppose I ought to have felt jealous, or perhaps even as though I had been deliberately slighted. Our lord and husband had never taken me into his bed. He had always made it plain that my worth to him was measured solely by my intellect and magical talents, and that my compact body and elf-tainted features were not at all appealing to him. But, in truth, I did not feel any ill will toward Chanthou for being able to give our husband what I could not. There was, perhaps, a vague sense of sorrow that she and I could no longer share that sort of intimacy.
I think I might even have smiled at the ironic absurdity of the whole thing. Chanthou, who preferred the embrace of other women, lay with our husband because it was her duty (and, I had to admit, probably to advance her position in the Templarate). I, who would have willingly given our husband that pleasure without feeling it an unwelcome chore, was not desired by him. And, four years ago, Chanthou and I had discovered that, while we might be closer than sisters, I did not desire her touch in the way she desired mine. For all that I can truly say that I loved her, I could never give all of myself to her.
We cannot be other than we are. That is the root of the tree of regret.
I found my lord and husband lounging amid silken sheets and velvet cushions upon a huge divan, half-hidden behind diaphanous veils the colour of the midnight sky. Sickly-scented smoke rose up from the mouthpiece of the hookah whose massive, bubbling bronze body stood beside the divan. My senses swam for a moment as I breathed in the coiling vapours, and I felt my tongue grow numb, the skin of my face tighten over my cheekbones.
How can I describe the Shadow King's true form? He is still somewhat man-shaped. His body might almost be that of a slender, languidly graceful youth, but a youth taller than the largest half-giant and with the cold, sexless beauty of a statue. His smooth, utterly hairless skin is the delicate hue of faded lavender petals, though in near-darkness as I saw him then, it seemed almost to drink in the meagre light that fell upon him. His fingers and toes are greatly elongated and tipped with needle-like claws rather than nails. There is nothing remotely human in his face.
You cannot understand. I have not the skill with words to make you understand. Even to myself, this description sounds monstrous. How could such a creature be so beautiful, his presence so intoxicating? Yet even now, as I tell you this tale, imagining myself to be beyond his power... I find my mouth grows dry, my palms moist. My heart quickens. There was a time when I would have died for him, not merely without regret, but with joy that I could martyr myself at his command. Death in his presence would have been as erotic as if he had taken me into his bed the way he did Chanthou.
Still hidden amid shadows that clung like cobwebs, his fanged, draconic head swayed languorously upon its sinuous neck. Greenish-yellow eyes like cold and distant stars regarded me silently.
I knelt at his feet, bending forward to press my palms, forehead and breasts against the cold stone of the floor, and waited.
After a while, he let out a deep and contented sigh that engulfed me in perfumed smoke. "YOU RETURNED QUICKLY," he said, each word a granite monolith swathed in black velvet. "DID YOU FIND WHAT YOU EXPECTED?" I could sense amusement in his tone. It chilled me more than the hard stone pressed against my forehead.
I rose to one knee - as a templar-wife, I was no longer required to remain fully prostrate once he had deigned to speak to me, but standing would still have been presumptuous. I tried in vain to moisten my suddenly parched tongue. "As you surmised, my lord and husband, there are sand devils in the mountains around the Dragon's Bowl. They have iron weapons: a lot of them."
The Shadow King inclined his head slightly in acknowledgement. "YES, THEY WOULD HAVE."
"I... I was taken captive, briefly. My servant, Bayl, rescued me." It ought to have been a shameful admission, but it is difficult to keep secrets unspoken in the Shadow King's presence.
My husband rumbled deep in his chest, as if undecided whether to be angry or merely curious. "DID YOUR CAPTORS SPEAK TO YOU? DID YOU LEARN ANYTHING OF SIGNIFICANCE?"
"Their leader... he told me some wild tale of the supposed origins of his people. It sounded like nonsense: just the usual sort of self-important mythology savage peoples invent for themselves."
"NEVERTHELESS, I WISH TO HEAR IT. I WILL JUDGE FOR MYSELF WHETHER IT IS NONSENSE."
I swallowed nervously. "Of course, my lord and husband. I did not mean to..."
"OF COURSE YOU DIDN'T." He tilted his head on one size, quizzically, and his voice softened slightly. "YSUUN. I SEE NO REASON WHY YOU SHOULD FEEL SUCH FEAR. YOU DID WELL TO SURVIVE AND BRING BACK WHAT YOU LEARNED. NOW, TELL ME THIS 'WILD TALE'."
And so I told him - of the war thousands of years ago when the sun was yellow and the earth green; of the soldiers bred to fight in that war; of their master, whom they claimed had also been his master once. He accepted all this without the barest hint of a reaction, as if he knew it all already. And I knew, somehow, without any indication from him, that all of it was true.
My words ran out like sand from a glass. The silence that followed was more cloying than the smoke from the hookah. His eyes looked past me, into the darkness. Into the past.
"YES," he said heavily, after some time had passed. "IT IS AS I FEARED. THEY SEEK TO FREE HIM. THE ONLY THING IN THIS WORLD MORE DANGEROUS THAN US, AND THEY SEEK TO FREE HIM. I HAD ALLOWED MYSELF TO HOPE THAT THEY MIGHT HAVE REGRESSED, THAT THEY HAD BECOME MERELY THE MAD, SADISTIC KILLERS EVERYONE IMAGINED. BUT NO. THEY HAVE A PURPOSE. THEY ARE..." His lip curled in absolute disdain. "THEY ARE IDEALISTS."
I was appalled. "Can they be stopped?"
My husband shrugged languidly. "PERHAPS. BUT THAT IS A PROBLEM FOR A FUTURE TIME. THERE ARE OTHER THINGS I MUST DEVOTE MY ATTENTION TO. MORE URGENT PROBLEMS." Putting aside the mouthpiece of his hookah, he rose slowly to his feet, stretching his neck and back, turning his draconic head from one side to the other like a snake seeking its prey. Moving over to a cluttered agafari-wood table, he swept several scrolls and glass paperweights aside with a claw and indicated the unrolled parchment beneath. It seemed to be the map of a city.
"That's Tyr, isn't it? But what is that next to the arena?" It looked like a rectangular plaza... no, a stepped platform. But it was huge. The scale couldn't possibly be accurate.
"KALAK WAS ALWAYS IMPETUOUS, BUT IT SEEMS HE HAS FINALLY EXHAUSTED WHAT LITTLE STORE OF WISDOM HE ONCE POSSESSED. NOT CONTENT TO ACCUMULATE POWER GRADUALLY, HE SEEKS TO COMPLETE HIS METAMORPHOSIS AHEAD OF SCHEDULE. IDIOT." He waved his clawed hand in a gesture of dismissal, his whiplike tail thrashing the air angrily. "IT WILL NOT WORK, OF COURSE. BUT IT WOULD BE IMPRUDENT OF ME TO EVEN ALLOW THE ATTEMPT. IT WOULD OVERTURN THE BOARD, AND IT IS NOT YET AN AUSPICIOUS TIME FOR THAT. SO, I MUST MOVE SOME PIECES..." His hand hovered over the representation of Tyr's arena, one clawed finger tapping thoughtfully at the parchment. After some moments, he appeared to reach some sort of decision. "YES," he said, at last. "YES, THAT ONE WILL SUFFICE, I THINK. IT SEEMS THIS IS THE TIME FOR HALF-BREEDS TO BECOME HEROES."
I still had no idea what he was talking about. It would be over a year before I heard even the first vague rumours of what had happened in Tyr. But I had no time to ponder his words immediately in any case, for my husband's attention had turned back to me.
"YOU RETURNED QUICKLY. ONLY ONE SUITABLE VEHICLE HAS ARRIVED FROM THAT DIRECTION THIS MORNING." Twin green-yellow orbs burned into me.
I made my decision. A thousand times since then, I've tried to convince myself I had no choice, that the Shadow King would have read the truth in my mind no matter how well I'd tried to hide it. But the truth is that, in his presence, I had forgotten Neren's kindness, Mei's innocence, and what we'd shared - what I owed them every bit as surely as I owed any loyalty to my husband.
I didn't even hesitate. "Neren of Mentsu transported Bayl and myself back to the city, my lord and husband. On the way, he let slip that he is..."
"ONE OF POLAN FELK'S SECRETIVE ASSOCIATES. YES. I AM WELL AWARE OF YOUNG MASTER MENTSU'S MISGUIDED LOYALTIES."
I felt as though he had torn me open and scooped out my guts. I couldn't breathe for several moments.
My husband blinked at me slowly. "YOU ARE WONDERING WHY I ALLOW KNOWN MEMBERS OF THE VEILED ALLIANCE TO WANDER FREELY ABOUT MY CITY."
I managed to nod.
"FELK IS A PARANOID FOOL. HE IS SO MISTRUSTFUL OF EVERYONE HE DOESN'T KNOW PERSONALLY THAT HE HAS ALMOST NO CONTACT WITH ALLIANCE CELLS IN OTHER CITIES. NOR DOES HE HAVE THE COURAGE TO APPROVE ANY SIGNIFICANT ACTION BEING TAKEN BY HIS OWN UNDERLINGS. AS LONG AS HE LEADS THE ALLIANCE HERE IN NIBENAY, I HAVE LITTLE TO FEAR FROM THEM. FAR BETTER TO LET THAT PARTICULAR SLEEPING DAGORRAN LIE."
"And Neren?" I was too shocked to consider the wisdom of using his first name quite so familiarly.
My husband shrugged. "NEITHER PARANOID, NOR A FOOL. NEREN OF MENTSU IS TOO DANGEROUS TO EVER BE ALLOWED TO SUCCEED FELK. YET HE IS ALSO TOO POTENTIALLY USEFUL A PIECE TO DISCARD AT THIS STAGE IN THE GAME. ANOTHER POWER HAS TAKEN AN INTEREST IN HIM: A POWER I WOULD LIKE TO SEE DRAWN OUT FROM HIS HIDING PLACE AT LAST. SO..." His long, serpentine neck craned down, placing his fanged snout inches from my face. His green-yellow eyes twinkled with malevolent pleasure. "SO, YSUUN, YOU WILL TAKE YOUNG MASTER MENTSU AWAY FROM NIBENAY FOR A WHILE. GO BACK TO THE DRAGON'S BOWL. KILL THE SAND DEVILS. EXPLORE THEIR LAIR AND BRING ME BACK THEIR IRON, ALONG WITH ANYTHING ELSE OF INTEREST. YOU KNOW THE SORT OF THINGS I LIKE. IF THEY HAVE AN IRON ORE MINE, AS I SUSPECT, YOU HAVE MY PERMISSION TO ORGANISE WHATEVER SLAVES AND OVERSEERS MIGHT BE REQUIRED TO KEEP IT OPERATIONAL." He paused, as though considering something. "ON SECOND THOUGHTS, DON'T KILL ALL THE SAND DEVILS. BRING THEIR LEADER BACK HERE, RELATIVELY UNHARMED. THERE ARE THINGS I WOULD LIKE TO DISCUSS WITH HIM."