Behind the veil
Eastward from the bare crags of the Agoniste Mountains, the land fell off in scabby ridges and gullies, sere and drab. Rare oases like green wounds pitted the valleys, but otherwise that desolate country was fit only for antelope and wild goats, watched over by buzzards drifting in the thin blue sky. Below the hills, a roasted desert stretched away to meet the surf of the Spring Sea.
In the main, the ironbound coast of Zark was as deadly and inhospitable as the interior. Yet, at long intervals where some trick of the landscape caught the nourishing sea wind or cool springs gushed from the rocks, life erupted in abundance. There the soil yielded crops of uncountable variety. The people dwelt there, on islands encircled half by ocean and half by desert. Whereas in other lands the earth spread its generosity widely, in Zark it hoarded all its goodness into these few green enclaves, like rich emeralds knotted on a string.
Richest of them all was Arakkaran, a narrow land blessed with twisting valleys of deep soil and legendary fertility. Its wide bay was the finest harbor on the continent. Many trade routes met in its markets, depositing wealth there in heaps to be fondled by the soft-fingered merchants: dates and pomegranates, rubies and olives, costly vials of perfume, intricate rugs, and the silver fish of the sea. From distant lands came gold and spices, elvish arts and dwarvish crafts, pearls and silks, and merfolk pottery unequaled in all Pandemia.
The city itself was beautiful and ancient. It was noted for its cruelty, and for fine racing camels. It boasted of a history written in blood. Near the close of Ji-Gon‘s Campaign, the young Draqu ak‘dranu had turned back the Imperial legions at Arakkaran, and there they won their revenge nine centuries later under Omerki the Merciless. During the Widow War, the city had withstood a siege of a thousand and one days.
From the loud and overscented bustle of the markets, it climbed by slope and precipice, in a tapestry of nacreous stone and flowering greenery. Trees had wedged in every unused crevice, hanging welcome shadow over steep alleyways and winding stairs. On the crest of the hill, celebrated in many ancient stories, the Palace of Palms was a marvel of domes and spires and towers, graced with lush parks and exotic gardens, as widespread in itself as many a respected town.
Throughout recorded history, a sultan of Arakkaran had ruled in that palace. There had been many sultans; their names and deeds were uncountable as the shells of the beaches. Some had held sway over half of Zark, while others had barely controlled the docks. A few were celebrated for justice and wisdom; many had been despots of a savagery to make the Gods recoil. No single family had ever dominated for long, no dynasty prevailed; old age had rarely troubled them.
Whatever he had been -- warrior or statesman, tyrant or scholar, poet or giver of laws -- every sultan of Arakkaran had invariably been renowned for his ferocity and for the number and beauty of his women.
From the dark cold of Krasnegar, Inos stumbled through a curtain of jewels into blinding light and a heat that took her breath away. Her willful feet carried her several paces farther before she felt them returned to her control. But Rap and Aunt Kade were in danger -- without even pausing to take stock of where she was, she spun around and rushed blindly back to the drape.
There was nothing there to stop her except many dangling strands of gems, flickering and tinkling in the breeze. A moment earlier she had passed between the strings with no trouble at all, but now she bounced on, stubbing her toe and almost falling. From this side, apparently, the curtain was as impenetrable as a castle wall. Yet it still shimmered and rippled. Infernal sorcery! She thumped fists on it furiously.
"Anger will not help," said a harsh male voice behind her.
She wheeled around, screwing up her eyes against the glare.
He was big, as tall as a jotunn. His pale-green cloak billowed and danced in the breeze, making him seem even larger. Yet in a moment she could make out his ruddy-hued face, and the thin line of red beard framing it. He was a djinn, therefore. Of course.
Under the cloak he wore voluminous pajamas of emerald silk, but she doubted he had just climbed out of bed. The scimitar hanging at his side, for example, its hilt glittering with diamonds -- not a comfortable sleeping companion. The miscellaneous gems scattered from his lofty turban to the curled-up toes of his shoes, and especially the wide cummerbund of solid emeralds encircling his waist. . .no, those were not believable bed wear. And no matter how slim he was, that incredible belt must be excruciatingly tight. It was a wonder he could breathe in it.
His face was thin and intense, his nose aquiline, and his eyes hard as rubies. He was not very much older than herself. The size of him! Those shoulders. . .
The arrogance! He was enjoying her inspection. Whom had he intended to impress?
"Your name and station, wench?"
She drew herself up, miserably aware of her ruined leather riding habit, bloodstained and filthy; aware also that she must be haggard with fatigue -- eyes like open sores, hair in yellow tangles. "I am Queen Inosolan of Krasnegar. And you, lad?"
Her insolence made fires flicker in his crimson eyes. Her head would barely reach his shoulder, and that emerald sash alone would buy her whole kingdom, even if the gems did not go all the way around him.
"I have the honor to be Azak ak‘Azakar ak‘Zorazak, Sultan of Arakkaran."
"Oh!" Dummy! Had she expected him to be a cook or a barber, dressed like that? The diamond medallion on his turban was worth a fortune in itself. Remembering in time that she was wearing jodhpurs, not skirts, she bowed.
The young giant studied her disapprovingly for a moment. Then he swept an expansive gesture with a large, red-brown hand and doubled over as if to touch his turban to his knees, making Inos wince. Obviously that emerald cummerbund was not tight at all -- his waist really must be that narrow, and his back was even broader than she had suspected. He flicked himself upright again as if such gymnastics were no problem at all, but she could not tell if they were a compliment or a mockery.
Sultan! Rasha had claimed to be sultana, and this lad was far too young to be her husband. Of course that was assuming that Rasha was what she had seemed when she had first appeared in the tower -- middle-aged and thick-bodied. There had been an even more revealing glimpse later, when Sagora had replaced himself with Andor. Startled by the occult transformation, Rasha had momentarily become an ugly old woman. The svelte maiden image would have been the illusion, obviously. Sorcerers lived a long time, but most likely this very tall and youthful sultan was Rasha‘s son, or grandson.
A surge of exhaustion closed over Inos like a dark wave. She was in no state to deal with sultans, or sultanas, or sorceresses.
And then the jeweled drape tinkled. Inos spun around as Aunt Kade came through. Kade! Short and plump and blinking watery blue eyes at the brightness, but oh, how welcome!
"Aunt!" Inos hugged her fiercely.
"Ah, there you are, dear!" She sounded tired, but quite calm. She seemed blissfully unaware of her disreputable appearance -- rose-and-silver gown all stained with tea, bedraggled snowy hair fluttering in the hot breeze.
Inos took a deep breath and forced herself to display suitably ladylike behavior. "How nice that you can join us, Aunt! Let me present you. . .the Princess Kadolan, sister of my late father, King Holindarn of Krasnegar. The sultan. . .er. . ."
"Azak!" snapped Azak.
"Sultan Azak." Inos was not at her best at the moment.
"Your Majesty!" Aunt Kade curtsied, with no perceptible wobble. She was again demonstrating her astonishing durability.
The sultan frowned, registering aristocratic surprise at these two waifs appearing in his domain. When he clenched his jaw, the fringe of red beard rippled. Of course he could not possibly be as stupendous as he thought he was, but Inos decided she would go so far as to class him as noteworthy. Again making his curious gesture, he bowed to Kade -- deeply, but less deeply than before. Then he went back to staring at Inos.
"Your father? You are a queen in your own right?"
Indignant, Inos opened her mouth and then firmly closed it again; a queen with only two loyal subjects should be discreet. Which reminded her of her other loyal subject --
"Aunt, where is Rap?" She turned back to the curtain of jewels and pushed at it. It was still immovable from this side, a one-way curtain.
"Still in the chamber, I expect, dear."
"The slut is in there, I presume?" Azak inquired.
Inos and her aunt both turned to stare at him.
"The woman who calls herself Sultana Rasha? You have met her? She is beyond that drape -- wherever that may be?" He folded his arms imperiously.
"Beyond that drape is Krasnegar, my kingdom!" Inos shouted, feeling her threadbare self-control starting to rip. This ordeal had been going for a whole day and night, and she just couldn‘t take much more. "I want to go home!"
"Indeed?" He seemed skeptical. "You have no magic of your own, either of you?"
"None!" Inos shouted.
"Inos!" Kade frowned disapprovingly.
The djinn shrugged. "Well, I am no sorcerer, merely the rightful ruler of this domain. For sorcery you must deal with the bitch."
"Is she not your. . .Well, if you are sultan here, then what is she to you?" Inos demanded, still ignoring glances from Kade.
The djinn scowled grotesquely at the magical drape behind them. "You have met her, I presume?"
"Queen Rasha? I mean Sultana--"
His already ruddy face darkened and reddened even more. "She is no queen, no sultana! She was a dockside harlot who illicitly acquired occult powers. Now she styles herself sultana, but there is no truth in that! None!" Just for a moment, his anger betrayed his youth.
But Inos knew that Rasha had not truly impressed her as royalty. She had not sounded right, or moved right--
"What a marvelous view you have here!" Kade exclaimed, firmly changing the subject.
For the first time, Inos took a serious look at where she was. The room was big, much larger than Inisso‘s chamber of puissance, but not unlike. It was obviously located high up, it was circular, and it had four windows. If those similarities were important and not just coincidence, they must mean that this also was a sorcerer‘s chamber. A sorceress‘s, of course. Rasha‘s.
The walls were of white marble, supporting a huge bulbous dome of the same milky rock. There were no windows in the great shell, but light flooded it from somewhere, apparently through the stone itself. Moreover, that strange brightness pulsed with inexplicable, eerie movements that Inos could see perfectly well out of the corner of her eye, but not when she looked straight at them. Then the shiftings ceased and there was nothing there except smooth translucent marble; while the haunting would have started somewhere else. Creepy!
And the view that her aunt had mentioned -- the four wide openings were larger by far than the casements in Inisso‘s tower, triple-arched and not merely unglazed, but lacking even shutters. Obviously Arakkaran‘s climate was kinder than Krasnegar‘s.
To her left, the austere yellow light of morning streamed in from a newborn sun, aiming a golden sword at her across the sea. All through her childhood, seaward had meant northward -- the Winter Ocean. At Kinvale, although it was well inland, seaward had meant westward, toward Pamdo Gulf. Sea to the east was wrong, horrifying. It told her she was appallingly far from home.
Southward, towers and more pointed domes obscured much of the view, but she could tell she was high in some castle or palace. Beyond them she glimpsed a coastline of dry brown hills falling to white surf, stretching off to meet the sky. Craggy peaks to the west were already almost lost in a heat haze. They were much higher and rockier than the Pondague range, and obviously desert.
Fatigue and despair crushed down on her. She struggled to recall childhood lessons from Master Poraganu, wishing she had been more attentive. Djinns were tall, fierce folk, with reddish skin and hair. . .djinns lived in Zark. . .desert and sand. Those mountains looked bare as any desert she could imagine. But Zark was somewhere in the extreme southeast of Pandemia, about as far from Krasnegar as it was possible to be. Which would explain why Master Poraganu had not gone into details, and why she had not listened.
Her eyes went again to the shining water eastward. That must be the Spring Sea, and she remembered Mistress Meolorne talking about silk once, long ago.
"Is this truly Zark?" Kade exclaimed. "How thrilling! I have always wanted to see more of Pandemia. This will be a very informative and educational visit." She beamed warningly at Inos.
"Arakkaran is a small, poor place compared to the Impire," Azak proclaimed, "but its people are a proud and noble race, jealous of their own ways and their independence. We draw our strength from the desert, scorning the decadence of those who dwell in milder climes."
Oh, just juicy! Barbarians.
Again Inos tried the infuriating drapery of gems; again it refused to admit her. What was Rasha doing? Was Rap all right, or had the impish legionaries finally broken down the door? Her legs wobbled with weariness, but she must stay close to this impossible sorcery in the hope that somehow it would lead her home again.
Azak‘s eyes had made her think of rubies on first sight, but now they had darkened to garnets and were regarding her with a haughty stare that reminded her of Firedragon, the stallion.
"You truly have no occult power. . .your Majesty?"
Inos shook her head, feeling weary now beyond speech. A whole world between her and Krasnegar, and Rap. Rap? Suddenly she realized that, more than anything else, she wanted Rap here beside her. Solid, dependable, reliable Rap. How strange! Rap?
The sultan fingered his beard thoughtfully. His feet had not moved since she entered. They were enclosed in very soft-looking shoes that curled up absurdly at the toes. Certainly not desert wear. Rather decadent, in fact.
"That is indeed curious."
"In what way?" Aunt Kade inquired, casting another worried glance at Inos.
"Because the sorceress slut has cast a spell upon me. By rights you should both have been turned to stone before now."
"Turned to stone!" Inos and Kade echoed in chorus.
He nodded. "Anyone who grants me my correct honorific. . . I wonder if the curse works only on my own subjects, not strangers? No, the ambassador from Shuggaran was smitten."
It would have been kind of him to have mentioned the matter sooner.
"This petrification," Kade murmured, obviously deeply offended by the idea, "is it. . .reversible?"
He glanced in surprise at her -- Kade‘s queries were often much sharper than her appearance led one to expect, "In the beginning it was not. The first half dozen or so victims are still statues. Now the jade usually restores them to life after a week or two."
"That is the most disgustingly stupid thing I have ever heard of!" Inos said.
"I told you -- she is a whore, an evil woman, and spiteful."
"She must also be half-witted, if she did not see what would happen with a spell like that loose! Six people died before she changed to a sorcery she could undo?"
He shrugged. "But why were you not immobilized when you gave me my legal title?"
Obviously he had expected it to happen. That realization left Inos at a loss for words.
"The effects of my curse are limited to the palace itself," the big man mused. "Can it be that this odious sorcerous chamber is excluded?"
Again Inos looked around. She could see nothing obviously sorcerous, only an excessive amount of bright-colored furniture, much of it ugly and garish, intermixed with ill-suited statuary. Nor could she see any doorway. The floor, where it was visible, was a spectacular mosaic of vines and flowers, all intricately intertwined and as brightly hued as a swarm of butterflies, but the effect was ruined by a litter of rugs, as gawdy and mismatched as the furniture. Everything looked expensive, but nothing fit or blended. Whoever had assembled the collection had been sadly lacking in even the rudiments of taste. One glance at this warehouse would give Duke Angilki a seizure.
But being turned to stone. . .Was this oddly youthful sultan trying to be humorous? As Inos was planning a suitable query, the drape jingled again. A huge gray dog bounded through, skidded on the polished tiles past both Inos and her aunt, and came to a stop facing Azak. The dislike was immediate, and mutual.
The dog bared teeth, flattened ears, and raised hackles. Azak put hand to sword hilt.
Inos was about to speak, then her courage failed her. Rap had called the monster "Fleabag" affectionately, as if it were a cuddly lapdog instead of an overgrown timber wolf. It had obeyed him eagerly, but dogs were always happy to go along with Rap‘s suggestions, and Rap was not present now. It had not noticed Kade or Inos, apparently, and even to speak its name might attract its hostility.
Moreover, something about Azak‘s stance suggested that he did not believe he was in much danger, and Inos decided that she was more concerned for Rap‘s dog. True, it had overpowered Andor and then savaged the giant Darad. The djinn was not as massive as the jotunn had been, but he was almost as tall; he was younger and probably faster, and Darad had been hampered by entering the fight when he was already on the floor with the monster‘s teeth in his arm. . .Shocked to discover that she was assessing the contest as she might weigh an upcoming skittles match at Kinvale, Inos looked to Kade, and Kade was very obviously not going to interfere, either.
Azak‘s slim, curved blade slid into view. Inos glanced around at the drape in the hope that Rap might appear. If Rasha had allowed his dog through, surely she would not leave Rap himself to the unlikely mercy of the imps? The sword was out now. The wolf had begun to growl. Was that a good sign or a bad?
It garnered itself to leap; Azak drew back his elbow. The dog turned to stone. Kade recoiled, moaning, and Inos reached out to hug her, but more for her own comfort than her aunt‘s, probably.
May the Good be with us! There was no doubt -- stone it was. No mundane sculptor could ever have matched the detail of the coat so well, nor achieved the cunning fit of the grain of the rock to the gleam of light over muscle and bone, but otherwise what had a moment before been a living, breathing, and highly dangerous predator was now only a graceful ornament. Inexplicably, that felt wrong. Inexplicably, that sorcery impressed Inos more than all the miracles she had seen and experienced since the terrors began, so many hours before.
Azak, on the other hand, sheathed his scimitar quite matter-of-factly, as if petrification were no more remarkable in Arakkaran than shampooing, or ladies entering rooms through windows.
Before anyone spoke, the jewels tinkled again, signaling the arrival of Sultana Rasha. Light flared up behind her and there was no longer an impossible night beyond the drapery. She was wearing the face of a mature woman, an imperious matron in her thirties -- not conventionally beautiful, but striking. In Inisso‘s chamber her appearance had flicked back and forth from age to youth, from ugliness to beauty, and her flowing white raiments had varied similarly, from coarse white cotton to silks embroidered with pearls and gems. Now, like her face, her dress represented a compromise, rich but not ostentatious. Her fingers glittered with gems, though.
She stopped abruptly, frowning at Azak. "What‘re you doing here, Beautiful?" She spoke to him as Inos would to a wayward horse.
Azak scowled. His teeth were large and regular and very white. "You summoned me." Again the dislike was obviously mutual.
Rasha laughed. "Well, so I did! I‘d forgotten. I was feeling bitchy and wanted some entertainment." She turned to Inos. "You‘ve met Prince Azak, dearie?"
"He‘s not the sultan?"
"Oh, never! Don‘t believe a thing he says. He‘s a notorious liar."
A jotunn would have struck her for that remark, even had the act meant suicide. Azak almost did. His lips paled, his neck bulged, but he managed to control his fury, just barely.
Rasha was enjoying herself. "All men are liars, my dear," she said with affected sweetness. "Whatever they tell you, they only want one thing, and lots of it. Don‘t call him ‘sultan‘ inside the palace, either -- I‘m trying to stamp out that nonsense. Here‘s all right; nowhere else. Now come, move your little buns." She led the way, marching like a legionary, her vestments floating out behind her. As she went by Azak, she reached up and tweaked his beard. He recoiled with a choking noise.
"Wait!" Inos cried. But the sorceress kept going, weaving between the furniture. Inos ran after, dodging overstaffed divans and bronze urns and porcelain animals. "What about Rap? And Doctor Sagorn? And the goblin?"
She caught up with Rasha at a circular balustrade in the center of the room. Here a grand staircase spiraled down to a lower chamber. That was why there were no doors, of course.
"What about them?" the sorceress asked, not looking around.
"You just left them there? Left them for the imps to kill?"
The sultana walked around to the top of the stair and paused at the first step, where the way was partly obstructed by a life-size carving of a black panther, seemingly poised to spring at any intruder coming up toward it.
"This is Claws," she muttered absently, but she was studying the great shimmering dome overhead. Or possibly she was listening to something. A small smile played around her mouth, registering satisfaction. Then she set off down the stairs, stroking the basalt neck in passing. "Isn‘t he gorgeous? I think I‘ll put him on one side and the wolf on the other."
Chasing down after her, Inos said, "It‘s real?"
"When I want it to be. Lucky I remembered to warn it that the Meat Man was coming."
Inos was becoming more bewildered by the minute. "Who?"
"Azak," said the sorceress. "I‘ve got lots of names for him, but that one really twists his nose. It fits him, though -- he‘s got biceps like the humps on his camel. I‘ll have him show you sometime."
Halfway down, she suddenly slackened her pace, as if the urgency -- whatever it was -- was over. Azak was padding down the stairs behind Inos in his kidskin slippers. Aunt Kade was just passing the panther.
"But Rap!" Inos exclaimed. "Doctor Sagorn? You can‘t just leave them there for the imps!"
Rasha continued down the stairs without replying. The lower chamber was as overloaded with furniture as the upper had been, mostly innumerable chests and tables of random styles. Two windows added little to the light spilling down the central stairwell. The walls were poorly lighted, therefore, and yet cluttered with ornate mirrors and bright tapestries barely discernible in the shadows. Musk and flower scent hung in the air like syrup.
Despite her worry over Rap and the others, despite her bone-deep weariness, Inos was intrigued by these exotic, alien rooms. They were like nothing she had ever seen, not even in the Duke of Kinvale‘s collection of lithographs; a collection that he had amassed from all over the Impire, and had inflicted on her during several mind-numbing afternoons. Neither in art nor reality had she ever seen decor so alien. Double doors vast enough to admit a coach and four stood shut; against the opposite wall was an absurdly huge bed, the largest four-poster in the world, wide and high, draped in filmy gauze. Then her eyes had adjusted to the gloom and the nature of some of the statuary penetrated her fog-shrouded mind. She took an incredulous second look at the illustrations on the walls and was suddenly very glad that such obscenities were so poorly lighted. Kade would have an apoplectic fit.
Hastily Inos turned her attention back to the sorceress. Surely the legionaries would be breaking down the door by now?
"You must save them!"
Rasha spun around. "Must? You say must to me, child?"
"I‘m sorry, your Majesty! But I beg of you -- please save them!"
"Why should I?" inquired the sorceress, smirking.
"Because they‘ll be killed!"
"Better than what you‘d have got, dearie, if I‘d left you there! You know what gangs of men do to pretty girls?"
"No!" Inos had never even considered such a thing. Imperial legionaries? A band of raiding jotnar, certainly, but not the imperor‘s army! It had been Rap who had been in danger, and the goblin, also -- not her! "Not that!"
"Yes, that!" the sorceress said, her mouth twisting in an expression Inos could not read. "I know more about men than you‘ll ever guess at it, sweetie girl. Believe me, I know!"
Inos was still a couple of steps up, staring down at her in horror. Possibly the sorceress thought she was not being believed, because she suddenly discarded about twenty years, to become again the gem-bedecked, sylphlike maiden who had so bewitched Rap, her flesh glowing hot and tantalizing through garments of mist.
She smiled mockingly up at Inos. "All men have to do is die, and they have to do that eventually, don‘t they? That‘s nothing compared to what a woman might get. What do I owe them? What does any woman owe a man, ever?" She glanced past Inos, apparently at Azak. "Well, Wonderstud?"
Receiving no answer, she chuckled and turned away, sauntering toward me great bed with her hips swinging, ruddy flesh and ox-blood hair shining through garments that seemed to have become flimsier than ever, over a body even more voluptuous.
Inos had heard of women who dressed like that and behaved like that -- had heard of them mostly in whispered tales in the castle kitchens. She had never expected to see a queen do such things.
Shakily she descended the last couple of steps, fighting back tears, trying to scrape some last trace of strength from the bottom of her personal barrel. Her knees trembled with exhaustion. Her head told her that the sultana‘s palace was rocking gently, like a ship, and that was not very likely. Soon she would simply fall over. Oh, Rap! Rasha must be a very powerful sorceress, but she might be crazy, also. Was her hatred of men genuine? Had she endured the sort of experience she had hinted at?
Could anyone ever believe anything said around here?
Azak stepped past Inos and moved toward the door -- head high, back rigid. Kade came to Inos‘s side and took her hand in a gesture that held only caution and sympathy. Those were not much use.
Rap! He was only a stableboy, yet he had been the only one to stay faithful. Even when Inos had spurned him in the forest, he had not wavered in his allegiance. He had endured the ordeal of the taiga for her sake, not once but twice. Her only loyal subject! Monarchs dreamed of loyalty like that. For Rap, Inos would brave even the fury of a sorceress.
She had just one arrow left in her quiver, and it might make things immeasurably worse, because despite what Rasha said, men as well as women could meet ordeals more terrible man a quick death.
"He knows a word of power!"
Rasha spun around, matronly dignity replacing nymph seduction instantly. "Who does?"
"Doctor Sagorn!" Inos watched the sorceress stalking back toward her like a hungry cat. "And Rap has one, too."
"So!" Rasha came very close, smiling dangerously. "So that was why you were holding hands with a stableboy? I wondered why the smell didn‘t bother the royal nose."
Queen Rasha herself reeked sickeningly of gardenia. Rap, Inos suddenly realized, had smelled of laundry soap, not of horses as he usually did. Which was irrelevant. . .
"His talent doesn‘t work on people! Just on animals. He‘s a faun."
Kade said, "Inos, dear!" in a warning tone.
Still somehow catlike, the sorceress smiled. "But words of power have side effects. Even one word would naturally make a man more successful at lechery; he would automatically collect any stray princesses around."
"That wasn‘t what -- I‘ve known Rap all my life! I‘d trust him with--"
"More fool you!" Rasha sneered. "Don‘t ever trust a man, any man. Muscles, you stay! I‘m not done with you." Her eyes had not wandered from Inos‘s face; she had spoken to Azak without looking at him. "Men keep their brains between their legs. Don‘t you know that yet, child?"
"Yes, Rap." She considered Inos slyly for a moment. "Maybe I will fetch him for you! I could show you his real colors."
"Don‘t believe her!" Azak shouted from the door. "She can inflame any man to madness!"
Rasha raised her eyes to glare at him. She did not seem to do anything more, but the young giant screamed, clutched his belly, and fell writhing on the floor.
"Brute!" Rasha muttered, then went back to studying Inos. Azak was thrashing and whimpering. Inos had heard tales of animals caught in traps trying to chew off their own paws. . .why was she thinking of such stories at a time like this? Appalled as much by the sorceress‘s casual indifference as by the barbarity itself, she fought in vain for words.
"No," the sultana said. "They‘re all after the same thing, and nothing else."
Rasha seemed to grow taller, and her eyes redder. "You think so? What do you know of life, Little Palace Flower?"
"Enough!" Inos shouted. "I was about to be married to a man I loved and I saw him transformed into a monster!"
"Inos!" Kade said sharply. "At twelve I was sold to a monster. He was old. He oozed."
"I watched my father die!"
"When I was younger than you I watched my babies die!"
"I crossed the taiga in winter!"
"I was cook on a fishing boat for five men. Can you guess what that was like, Butterfly?"
Kade was clucking like a panicky hen at Inos‘s side. To yell at a sorceress was certainly rash, but Inos ignored the warnings. Yet she didn‘t think she was going to win this crazy shouting match. Rasha sounded like one of the fishwives on the docks at Krasnegar, an expert.
"I can‘t help what happened to you!" Inos bellowed, louder still. "But you could help me now!"
Azak was still sobbing and squirming in agony on the floor, disregarded by everyone.
"Help you?" The sorceress glared. "Help your stableboy lover, you mean?"
Inos dropped her eyes. It was hopeless! Oh, Rap!
"On the other hand. . ." Rasha said more softly. "Which one was Sagorn?"
"The old man."
"One of the sequential set? But they must share memories, so they all know it?"
Inos nodded, looking up with sudden hope.
"Interesting!" Rasha had reverted to her matronly, queenly guise, which was encouraging. "A matched set with a word of power! That could be amusing. And two words would be worth salvaging. Come, then, dearie, and let‘s see."
She started back up the stairs. Hope leaping wildly within her, Inos brushed past Kade, ignoring her attempts to signal warnings, following the sorceress. As she rounded the curve, she saw the basalt panther watching her with eyes of yellow onyx, gleaming bright. They seemed to follow her as she approached, but it remained a statue, and she ignored it, staying at Rasha‘s side.
Before they had quite reached the top, the sorceress stopped, holding out a hand to stay Inos, also. Then she advanced cautiously, one step at a time. When her head was level with the floor, she paused a long time, seeming to be listening, as she had before.
"What--" Inos said.
"Sh! All clear. . ." Apparently reassured, Rasha strode upward again. Once past the panther she did not turn north, toward the magic casement, but headed instead to the southeast, weaving between bijou divans and tables and grotesque carvings, until she came to a large mirror hung on the wall. It was oval, bound in an intricate silver frame depicting leaves and hands and numerous other shapes, all vaguely sinister. Even the reflections seemed oddly distorted.
Inos stared in horror at the two images she saw there, shadowed and dim. She was a fright -- face livid, eyes staring, honey hair awry, looking for all the world like flotsam washed up on a rock. Rasha, meanwhile, seemed as fair and regal as everyone‘s ideal of motherhood. She was observing Inos‘s reaction with cool disdain.
Then she frowned, as if in concentration. The twin reflections faded and the glass darkened. Shapes moved within it. Inos gasped at this new sorcery, seeing the mists coalesce into the forms of imp legionaries. Soon she recognized the chamber at the top of Inisso‘s Tower, dimly lighted, with snow swirling beyond the panes and settling on the leading. She could make out the shattered door, and the throng of soldiers milling around in the thin gray light. There was no sound, only the vision in the glass.
"See?" the sorceress muttered. "No sign of your lover."
"He was not that! Merely a loyal subject!"
"Hah! He‘d have been slobbering all over you as soon as he got the chance. They all do. But I don‘t see the goblin, either; nor one of the set."
Inos blinked tears from her eyes.
"And look here!" Rasha said. The scene lurched sideways and steadied again. Several of the legionaries were leaning out the great south casement, staring down. "Either they had the sense to jump," Rasha said, "or they just got thrown. Thrown, I expect."
The scene blurred as the tears won over the blinking. Rap and Aunt Kade -- only two of her father‘s subjects had stayed loyal to Inos. And now there was only Kade.