Lady of Shadows - Part 20
I do not remember leaving the palace. For all I know, my lord and husband might have teleported me through the Grey – he has done that before when he wanted something done quickly. More likely, my mind was simply too preoccupied to take notice of the route my legs took through those shadowy halls.
I found myself standing, blinking in the harsh sunlight of midday, beneath the ornate gateway of the palace itself. You will never have seen the Shadow King’s palace. Even to set foot within the outer walls of the Naggaramakam would mean a slow death for such as you. You would probably need to bring a large army and slay every templar-wife in the city to reach the inner wall surrounding the palace itself, and even then the Shadow King himself would destroy you before you glimpsed the grove of agafari and trees-of-life within.
The palace is shaped like a colossal human head, its face modelled after the one the Shadow King wears when he wishes to seem merely human. Perhaps it is how he appeared those many centuries ago when he served the secret master of the sand devils. If so, he had been a handsome man, if somewhat austere and hollow-cheeked. Gazing up at the edifice, I was struck suddenly by how closely he resembled Neren. Well, perhaps it is not so surprising, for surely he fathered many children in the early decades of his rule, before he began his long, slow metamorphosis into his current form. Probably several of Nibenay’s noble houses originally sprung from his loins. I wonder which of those ancient warrior-women, whose statues occupied my lord and husband’s antechamber, had been the mother of House Mentsu?
I stepped hurriedly into the welcome shade of an agafari tree. Here, in the Shadow King’s private arbour, it was almost possible to imagine that the city beyond the Naggaramakam’s walls did not exist. The endless clamour of the narrow, crowded streets was muted almost beyond hearing, the air filled instead with the soft, rustling sighs of wind-touched branches and the carefree chirping of birds. Jasmine bushes grew in among the great pillars of the trees, and purple, white and yellow irises shone like brilliant stars in the shadiest hollows. The oven-hot air was thick with their scent.
I wanted to seek out Chanthou, to ask her about her own journey, to know how she had fared these past three years in the darkness beneath the Temple of the Eye. Or perhaps merely to know that things were well between us, that our friendship could survive her desire for me, and my inability to feel the same for her. And yet I did not, for I feared to know the answers to those questions.
I wanted to go to Neren, not because my lord and husband had commanded it, but to throw myself at his feet and beg his forgiveness for my earlier deception of him, and for what I had almost… for what I had been about to do to him. Terror gripped my heart. How could he forgive my betrayal? Would I have forgiven him if our situations had been reversed? I knew with absolute certainty that I could not have done so.
And I still knew nothing of what my lord and husband had planned for Neren. He had said nothing more about the mysterious ‘power’ that had supposedly ‘taken an interest in’ him, but it seemed clear to me that it must be another sorcerer-king. Who else could possess ambition and intellect formidable enough that the Shadow King would see him or her as a rival worthy of respect? For there had been respect in my husband’s voice, grudging but unmistakeably genuine. Neren, Mei, Enamdis and the rest of Neren’s associates might be safe for now, but I did not allow myself to believe the Shadow King’s forbearance would last forever. He obviously still saw Neren as a threat, to be dealt with in the future. He would not be allowed to rise to leadership of the Veiled Alliance in Nibenay. Silently, I wished Polan Felk a very long life, hardly even aware of the treasonous direction of my thoughts. It seemed almost as though betrayal had become the only reliable constant in my life of late. Chanthou. My husband. Neren. Mei. Bayl.
I knew this whirling tempest of warring thoughts was foolish, pointless, even dangerous. The Shadow King had given me a task. All other considerations should have been irrelevant. There would be time enough to speak with Chanthou when I returned from my mission. Neren was safe enough for now. If nothing else, I would need him to lock the sand devil leader’s psionic talents so that he could be safely brought back in chains to Nibenay.
Eventually, I set off for my private quarters in the Temple of Thought. I needed to bathe, and to properly attire myself as befitted a templar of Nibenay before appearing at the House Mentsu compound. And, having rashly granted Bayl the freedom of the city’s taverns and whore-houses until evening, I would need another escort. So, there were at least three things I could do to delay my inevitable meeting with Neren. A task is usually less daunting when sliced into ever-smaller pieces. With enough planning, even the inevitable can be delayed almost indefinitely.
The Temple of Thought stands behind the Shadow King’s palace, just outside the fifty-foot walls that enclose the palace, its gardens and its grove of trees-of-life. It is unmistakeable: a five-tiered pyramid of dull red brick and yellow-grey sandstone, surmounted by five lotus-bud towers arranged in a quincunx. It is an ancient building, even by the standards of Nibenay, and its perfect symmetry and relative lack of carvings gives it an austere, forbidding appearance.
It seemed, that day, to be teeming with children. A new influx of girls chosen to become templars must have arrived in the Naggaramakam while I had been absent. Some stood waiting patiently in rows, their young faces proud and solemn. Others milled in obvious terror and confusion. Half a dozen or so, with that foolhardy courage that only the very young possess, played and laughed amid the columns and statuary. A pair of middle-aged, harried-looking templars tried – with little success – to maintain some sort of order.
Usually, Nibenese girls were chosen at sixteen to be trained as templars and wedded to the Shadow King, but many of these girls looked to be much younger. I wondered if perhaps the School of Augurs or the Academy of Fierce Purpose had identified an unusually high potential for psionic abilities in this year’s students, for the Temple of Thought would often intervene in such cases – more to deprive the nobility of a sudden increase in power than because the templarate truly required new talent. But there was an air of desperation, rather than smug satisfaction, about the templars in nominal charge of this gaggle. I felt a sudden twist in my guts as I realised that only the sudden loss of many of my sister-wives would precipitate the recruitment of such a large number of youngsters. I scanned the crowd: there must easily have been two score of the girls. How many templars had died? And how? Surely only a full-scale war could account for so many deaths all at once. I wondered whether any of the dead had been known to me. I was thankful beyond words that I knew for certain Chanthou was not among them.
No-one spared me more than a glance as I made my way inside. A lesson was taking place in the Temple’s central chamber. A dozen girls – all thankfully older than those children outside – sat cross-legged on woven mats, in a circle surrounding another two who faced each other. Even with my minimal psionic talent, I could feel unseen energies crackling in the air as the two girls in the centre duelled mind-to-mind. Neither moved so much as a muscle, yet their bodies seemed to quiver with tension. Sweat poured off them as each sought to exploit even the slightest lapse in concentration of the other.
I saw Siemhouk standing just outside the circle, watching intently. As always, my superior was an unsettling presence. Nobody seemed to know her true age, though she looked to be about fourteen or fifteen now. Her mind could shift in an instant between a cold, pitiless intellect that rivalled the Shadow King’s, and a childish petulance that suggested she was in some ways even younger than her physical age. I knew she was aware of my presence, but she kept her attention on her students, absent-mindedly chewing on a strand of her long white hair. Teaching other girls to harness the power of the mind was her greatest love, perhaps even more than her childlike devotion to our lord and husband.
One of the duelling girls gave a sudden strangled cry, spasmed uncontrollably and slumped to the floor.
Siemhouk stopped chewing her hair and daintily cleared her throat. “Now, can anyone tell me what Juri did wrong?”
Several hands went up eagerly. The unconscious girl’s limbs twitched. Blood trickled slowly from her ears.
I continued on to my own quarters, a cramped room on the second level, nestled against the northern wall of the Temple. It was barely large enough to hold my narrow bed, an agafari-wood wardrobe and a plain chest with a mekillot-bone lock. As a personal assistant to the Shadow King, I was in theory entitled to a suite of apartments scarcely less luxurious than those given to the high consorts, but somehow I had never gotten around to making the necessary applications. In truth, this austere room was all I required.
With a Word, I opened the chest’s arcane lock. The lid opened on sprung hinges – that tiny quantity of steel probably made the chest the most valuable thing I owned, certainly more valuable than its contents – and took out my spare crown, beaded collar and rod of office. I would have to recover the originals from the sand devils, but these would suffice for now. This crown was a frankly ridiculous confection of gilded ivory, amethyst and obsidian, with two crimson-lacquered kirre horns mounted above the brow, a little heavier and much more ornate than the one I usually wore. I grimaced at it, remembering how my head, neck and shoulders would ache abominably after wearing the stupid thing for any length of time. At least the rod was no different from the one I usually bore for, by their very nature, they are made to a standard pattern: a cylinder of rune-carved obsidian roughly two feet long and the right thickness to fit comfortably in a woman’s hand, banded with polished bronze and silver and topped with a carved likeness of the Shadow King’s human head.
I laid the items on my bed and went to the wardrobe. The pungent smell of mothballs hit me as I opened the doors. Some high-ranking templar-wives favour richly-decorated sampots patterned with images of coiling serpents, water lilies, or the green dragon’s-eye device of our lord and husband. Mine were all as plain as those worn by first-year brides. I have never been one for needless ornamentation. I chose one at random: smoke-grey silk, with a narrow edging of silver thread. Then, after a moment, I took out the chemical-stained black leather sampot I usually wore when assisting the Shadow King with his more hazardous alchemical experiments. This was to be no simple scouting expedition: our primary purpose was to slaughter the sand devils, and I knew they would not be so considerate as to die without a fight.
I assembled the rest of the outfit I wore for those experiments: a face-mask of perforated cilops carapace with tinted crystal lenses to protect the eyes; a pair of sandals with mekillot-bone toe-caps and attached leather greaves; heavy leather gauntlets covered with scorch marks; an aegis of tiny blue-black drake scales made to resemble my usual beaded collar; and a wide cummerbund of dark grey silk covered with larger scales from the same beast. The outfit was intended to protect me from corrosive chemicals and unexpectedly explosive glassware, rather than from iron swords, but it would have to do.
Sighing, I bundled the whole lot up in a spare bedsheet, along with my lotulis and a pair of obsidian-bladed knives, and went back downstairs to the Temple’s hot baths.