Floating indolently in a steamy haze had resolved nothing. My shoulder still ached as I clambered out. So did my heart. I drew a little magic to quickly dry myself, wincing as the beads of moisture flashed into steam as though my skin were hot stone, then padded back to my quarters. I dressed quickly, in the charcoal-grey sampot, crown and collar. My makeshift leather ‘armour’ would serve for the journey, but was not appropriate attire for visiting the manor of a noble house.
I could not put it off any longer. It was possible that Neren might still be supervising the unloading of his cargo outside the city, but I doubted it. It had been clear that he trusted his crew implicitly, and surely duty to his family would have dictated that he go as soon as possible to his house’s manor in Cliffside. Though his father was long dead, his mother’s brother was the patriarch of his house and would need to be told of the sand devils. First-hand information regarding the safety of an important trade route would be worth more than water to such a man.
And his mother was, as far as I knew, still alive. Though I did not delude myself that I knew Neren’s innermost thoughts, I was nevertheless sure that he would go to see her. He had spoken of his mother only once in the time I had been with him – at least as far as I could remember – and even then it had been a somewhat oblique reference, but there had been such warmth in his voice that I’d envied both of them.
I cursed as my ungainly crown slid down over one eye. I adjusted it, checked my reflection is an old bronze mirror that badly needed re-polishing, then jammed several large bone pins through the lacier parts of its structure to anchor it to my hair. When I had first been wedded to the Shadow King, I’d been able to wear a simple tiara of ivory and obsidian, but it would be unthinkable for a templar-wife of my present station to appear before members of the nobility dressed as befitting a neophyte. I sighed, picked up my rod of office, and left my quarters without a backward glance.
I took two templarate guards with me. More would have been provocative, as well as implying I could not defend myself. Alborn was a huge man, a veteran of three decades of soldiering, heavily-bearded, his massive limbs covered with red hair almost as thick as the pelt of a forest ape. His armour of insect carapaces and mekillot scales was mostly red too, though here and there pieces had been replaced over the years, giving it almost a mottled effect. Iblis was only a few years younger, but could have passed for a youth of perhaps eighteen. With his bouncing golden curls, his sky-blue eyes and his enchanting smile, he was almost heart-stoppingly beautiful. Many templars had boasted of bedding him, but all complained that, while he remained unfailingly polite throughout, it was clear he did not enjoy such encounters as they did.
Behind us came a young slave woman pulling the cart that carried my armour and lotulis, as well as a crate filled with potion fruit and a few other little surprises taken from the vaults beneath the Temple of Thought. I am afraid I do not remember her name, nor even her appearance beyond the shapeless white robe that is the uniform of the templarate’s non-military slaves.
We worked our way through the narrow, winding streets of Sages’ District toward the cliffs that stand like a great wall at the northernmost edge of the city. The bustling crowds parted before us, recognising the authority of my crown and rod. Slaves and lowborn knelt as we passed, dray mercenaries bowed their heads in respect, and painted nobles watched us with glittering eyes from their palanquins. It was such a contrast to how Bayl and I had been jostled and ignored when we had passed through this district before, without any such tokens to prove my status, that I struggled not to smile.
The visible part of House Mentsu’s manor turned out to be surprisingly modest: a rather squat, squarish façade of brick and worn sandstone, nestled at the foot of the cliff in the shadow of the Serpent Tower. Before it lay a small courtyard, separated from the street by a low wall of carved silkwyrms, painted a deep blue to match the family device.
The wooden gate swung silently open as Iblis approached it. Alborn grunted and hefted his trikal: he always expected trouble, and could always be relied upon to respond with levelheaded pragmatism when it did occur, which was why I’d chosen him for this. Iblis glanced back over his shoulder, one pale eyebrow raised, and the two men shared a glance that communicated more than words could have done. This was the other reason I’d chosen them: years ago, and apparently at their own request, they had been psionically bonded so that they could act and fight almost as a single being. The younger man unslung his heavy chitin shield from his back and strapped it to his arm. He kept his other hand near the hilt of his obsidian-bladed sword as he stepped forward into the courtyard.
“In the name of the Shadow King, Consort Ysuun has business with Master Neren of this house!” Iblis called, his voice as clear and sonorous as the pealing of a temple bell.
After a few moments, the large double doors to the manor were opened by a dark-haired woman whose pale grey sampot marked her as a servant rather than a slave. She favoured us with a smile, though it did not touch her dark eyes.
“You are welcome in this house, Consort,” she said coolly. “Lord Talib and Master Neren are within and will see you immediately.”
She ushered Alborn, Iblis and myself into the comfortably chill gloom of the manor’s entrance hall, silently directing us toward the curtained archway opposite.
We stepped through the blue silk curtains and into what was obviously the manor’s main receiving chamber, a many-pillared hall cut from the pinkish rock of the cliff itself. Set into the walls along either side, as well as into the pillars themselves, were niches holding carved figurines, exquisitely-crafted musical instruments, natural crystal formations, and urns and vases of ivory, porcelain and brightly-coloured glass. Golden globes floated near the high, vaulted ceiling, shedding a soft, warm light upon us, and upon the four people who waited for us at the far end of the hall.
Lord Talib of Mentsu was an unremarkable-looking man. He shared his nephew’s pale skin and reddish hair, though his head was almost bald and his beard, while much fuller than Neren’s, was streaked with silver. He sat cross-legged upon a divan, amid a pile of deep blue cushions, entirely naked as was proper for a man of his station. A serpent of blue paint, shimmering with crushed beetle carapaces, writhed across his chest and down his left arm. His pale, shrewd, green-grey eyes were outlined in kohl.
Neren, still in his dust-stained grey jubba, stood behind his uncle, flanked by Enamdis and, surprisingly, Mei. Enamdis glared at me with undisguised loathing. Neren’s face was unreadable, though it seemed to me that the shadow of a smile tugged at his lips. Mei kept her eyes downcast, but I could feel a barely-contained power radiating from her.
No, not from her, but from the broken carrikal at her belt. Tamar’s carrikal. The one I had last seen at Bayl’s side.
“We have been expecting you, Consort,” said Lord Talib.