Shezan was halfway through the morning invocation to Achadith, chanting the hymn thanking the queen of heaven for the favor she showed to Idrath World-Conqueror at the birth of Calormen. In a moment she would lift the heavy onyx bowl from its niche in the wall and pour water on the feet of the goddess's statue.
Sometimes people came to watch the ritual -- young initiates in training, older women seeking a moment of communion with the goddess, powerful men reminding themselves of the origins of the empire -- but they were always quiet, respectful, as they should be. They asked permission, purified themselves, and watched the entire rite.
They did not flurry in unannounced like agitated pigeons, squabbling over bread in the streets.
Shezan stuttered for a moment over the final verse. Then she ruthlessly shut out the commotion behind her and finished the invocation. She returned the onyx bowl to its resting place, faced the goddess, and said, "Great Achadith, Queen of Heaven, Counselor of Tash, we abase ourselves before you and beg you once again to bring us wisdom unlooked for, as all gifts from heaven arrive beyond our understanding: like thunder, like comets, like rain in the desert." She clapped her hands and bowed. She added, as always, a silent prayer for the goddess to favor Prince Rabadash with wisdom and patience.
Then she turned in a whirl of white linen skirts and silver bells and glared at the three initiates who had nearly disrupted the ritual. "What were you thinking? Never interrupt an invocation! The gods favor us because we show them the honor they deserve, not because we think ourselves strong enough to disrespect them."
Had one of the other priestesses sent them as a secret test? Sometimes Shezan suspected them of wanting her to fail and shame herself before the goddess.
The girls had the good sense to look ashamed of themselves for a moment, before excitement overcame them again and they all began talking at once.
Shezan cut them off with a curt gesture. "Stop. You talk," she said, pointing at the middle girl, who was short and dark with a hawk-like nose. "You two, be silent."
The initiate glanced at her companions, then took a half step forward and bobbed in a hasty courtesy. "Shezan Tolkheera, the garrison down the coast at Elith took a ship of pirates and smugglers, and when they searched the hold, they found one of the northern demons -- the spirits of chaos who take the shape of beasts -- and they've brought it here to Tashbaan to be given to the gods in the Spring Festival. Nakdeh Tolkaar says that since the demon is in the shape of a female beast, it should be our burden to guard and ward it until the sacrifice." She bobbed in another courtesy and stepped back to huddle with the other two girls.
Shezan frowned. Not a test, then -- or at least not a test devised by humans. "Nakdeh has no right to decide the affairs of the priestesses without consulting us, but if the demon is female in body, it would be improper for men to watch it alone. Beast shape or not, spirits are subtle, and there is no telling what harm this one could cause. Where is it being kept?"
"In the Courtyard of Willows, between the great temple and Zardeenah's shrine," the initiate said. "Deel Tolkheera is with the soldiers in case it attempts sorcery. She sent us to find you before Nakdeh Tolkaar is summoned to the palace."
It was well done of Deel to stand watch and to publicly remind Nakdeh that he was only first among nine equals, not a king or god to stand above them. Shezan made a note to thank her fellow high priestess for quick thinking.
"A demon is clearly a thing out of season and thus within Achadith's domain. I will go help Deel and decide what is to be done with it," Shezan said to the three initiates. "Attend me."
"To hear is to obey," the initiates murmured.
Shezan strode out of the inner shrine, leaving the goddess to bask in the flickering light of oil lamps and their pale, wavering reflections shining up from the shallow water pooled about the statue's silver feet. The initiates fell in behind her like squabs following a grown bird, waiting to be taught its secrets.
Had she ever been that young, Shezan wondered as she hurried through the temple complex, keeping her strides short and even so they didn't disturb the fabric of her skirt and thus hid, to some degree, the fact that she was hurrying. She didn't remember being that foolish. But then, she had grown up in the palace as milk-sister to Prince Rabadash and granddaughter to Axartha Tarkaan, the Grand Vizier. She had danced with snakes since before she could speak. That made a difference.
Shezan had yoked her knowledge of politics to her zeal to serve the goddess. That combination had made her high priestess of Achadith in her twenty-seventh year -- the third-youngest woman to ever hold that title, and the first under forty who had been appointed in nearly three hundred years. Now came her first great challenge in that role.
She would rise to meet it.
The great temple -- Tash's temple, though all the gods had subsidiary shrines within its embrace -- dominated both the temple complex and the city of Tashbaan itself. Even the palace of the Tisroc (may he live forever) lay slightly lower and to the west, while the temples of the other eight gods lay scattered to the east like a half chain of brilliant jewels. Zardeenah's shrine -- for the goddess of maidens and the night preferred wild places to cities, and so had the smallest home among men -- lay immediately south of the temple's carved and gilded front gates, for Zardeenah the Pure was the dancer before Tash's throne. It was meet and fitting for the beauty of her shrine to prepare a worshipper for the splendor of Tash and his court.
Achadith's temple lay on the exact opposite side of the temple complex, connected to the great temple by a graceful colonnade, just as Achadith was connected to her husband by the bond of marriage and the respect he gave her for her wise counsel. Shezan left her three initiates inside the great temple with orders to wait on her return. Then she pushed open the small door set within the lower panels of the great, gilded main entrance and started down the steps to the Courtyard of Willows, with its central pool and three ancient, weeping trees.
The courtyard was generally busy, as the rich and powerful of Tashbaan came to worship the nine gods and temple workers moved around them performing rituals and maintaining the grounds. This morning it was strangely empty save for a huddled group of soldiers -- their clothes and skin streaked with the dust and sweat of travel. Six faced inward, their swords drawn and ready. Six more faced outward, swords still in their sheaths, their eyes darting lightly over the edges of the surrounding buildings. The rest of the troop must have gone to help the temple guards direct people away from the courtyard.
Deel and Nakdeh stood between the two rings of soldiers, heads bent toward each other in whispered discussion. Judging by the angle of Deel's chin and the set of Nakdeh's broad shoulders under his golden tunic, they were, as always, arguing.
The demon was not visible.
"Nakdeh. Deel. I hear you have requested me to deal with a demon," Shezan said as one of the soldiers spied her and moved tentatively to rouse her colleagues' attention.
Deel glanced up, a quick smile ghosting over her wrinkled face. "Shezan, thank you for coming. I trust the initiates didn't interrupt you?"
Shezan flicked the fingers of her left hand, dismissing the incident. "Oh, if it comes to that, interruptions are within Achadith's domain, are they not? As are demons. Let me see this one so I can determine where and how to hold it until the Festival."
"It has taken the shape of a beaver, a creature common in the western provinces, that cuts trees with its teeth and builds dams and houses of sticks in a clumsy imitation of man." Nakdeh said in his deep voice, every word smooth and slow like honey over ice. "It is a foolish shape in many ways, being neither an eater of meat nor of a threatening size, but beavers are known for their cunning and persistence, much like the demons and the unquiet dead that the Accursed Lion leads against the fortress of the heavens. Move aside," he added to the soldiers. They parted obediently.
The demon was sitting upright on its hind legs, hunched over with its gaze on the courtyard stones. Shezan estimated its head would reach partway up her thigh if it adopted a less shamed posture. Its fur was thick and reddish-brown, its head rounded with small ears and huge front teeth, and its tail curiously wide, flat, and scaled, like a fish beaten into the shape of a paddle. Someone had fixed a leather collar around its neck, hung with warding charms made of silver and iron. One of the soldiers held a rope attached to the collar. It was badly frayed in two places, as if the demon had chewed on it.
First things first.
"One of you fetch a metal chain, a hook, and a good set of pliers," Shezan said to the soldiers. "That rope is a disgrace."
"To hear is to obey," said the soldier holding the rope -- evidently he was the commander of this squad. "You, go," he told one of his men, who bowed and hurried off at a half run toward the gatehouse, presumably to ask the temple guards for help.
Shezan examined the demon more closely. Its front paws looked nearly like hands -- fingers and palms were clearly visible, lacking only a thumb. The rear paws seemed more like the feet of waterfowl, with thick, leathery webbing between the long, clawed toes. That skin was cracked and scabbed in several places, as was the tail.
"Does it speak?" Shezan asked the commander.
"A better question would be, what does it take to make it stop speaking, O most excellent Tolkheera," he said. "It is only silent now because it talked so much that its throat wore dry, and we gave it no water to refresh its voice."
The demon twitched at that, turning its head to look at the commander with what, if it were human, Shezan would almost have called an accusing expression. It opened its mouth and wheezed something that might have been meant as words.
"Silence, beast," the commander snapped, jerking on the rope. Across the courtyard, the soldier sent to fetch a chain reappeared with his hands full of something metallic that glinted in the morning sun.
"The beaver," said Nakdeh in his smooth, deep voice, "is a water animal, despite that it breathes air and nurses its young. This unnatural mixture of habits is shown by the fish-nature of its tail and the duck-nature of its feet. Depriving this demon of water, therefore, while a useful punishment, may kill it too soon." He shot a poisonous look at Deel. "It is plainly our duty to sacrifice the demon on the altar of Tash in six days. The charms around its neck have kept it contained thus far. As the poet Roondeh has said, to pluck out an eye to stop the pain caused by a grain of sand is both foolish and short-sighted."
"You would leave the female initiates only half-protected from a demon in their midst?" Deel said, returning the glare with added venom. "For shame. Beware your own god does not cast his bolt upon you, as those who harbor snakes in their households deserve."
Shezan wanted to roll her eyes and make horrible faces the way Rabadash did in a temper, but she stifled the impulse. She stepped between Deel and Nakdeh and placed one hand on each of their shoulders. "O my brother, O my sister, let us not argue here. I will take the demon to Achadith's temple, which has wards against demons and sorcery worked into all the doorways. It will be safe there for a week until the Festival. Nakdeh, your wisdom on the subject of beavers is most welcome. Deel, I thank you for your concern about the safety of my initiates."
She pushed her way between them, forcing them to separate by a good two feet to let her through, and held out her hand for the chain that the soldiers had just finished fixing to the demon's collar. The commander placed it in her palm and bowed.
"I will bring news of the demon to the Tisroc, may he live forever," Nakdeh said. "He will doubtless send someone to investigate. Have everything in order as soon as possible."
"I will inform the rest of the temple," Deel added.
"Thank you," Shezan said to both of them, and strode through the circle of soldiers toward the steps of the great temple, tugging the beaver demon behind her.
Shezan gathered the three initiates from the entrance of great temple and sent them to find a porcelain tub, a bundle of the food given to eaters of plants in the royal menagerie, and the menagerie keeper who could ensure that the demon did not die before the Festival. Then she looked down at the demon, which had been shuffling slowly and awkwardly behind her on its cracked and bleeding feet.
It was of compact build and likely weighed more than it looked as though it should, but Shezan doubted it was heavier than a five year old child, and she could carry one of those well enough. Sometimes children were abandoned at the temple gates with a token tribute for the gods, cut out from their family lineages in return for a chance at a better life. They were always taken in and trained until they were of an age to speak their vows or to choose a secular life. Some even rose to become Tolkaars or Tolkheeras of their own temples despite their low birth and lack of family support. Shezan had cared for dozens of those children before she had climbed to her current authority.
"If you scratch or bite, it will go hard for you," she said to the demon. Then she crouched down, slid one arm underneath its belly, and hoisted it to her shoulder. They must have looked a peculiar picture: a tall, thin woman dressed in flowing linen skirts and sleeves, her long black hair bound up in intricate braids, carrying a short, squat animal whose fur was caked and matted with the filth of the road. Shezan made a note to change her clothes and ritually wash her face and hands at the first chance.
The demon was still as stone all the way to Achadith's temple.
In addition to the courtyards and colonnades, all the nine temples and shrines of the complex were connected by tunnels underground, so the inhabitants could get from place to place even through the great, packed crowds at the solar feast days and other major festivals. Shezan took those ways to keep the demon away from curious, unprotected eyes. She climbed a narrow flight of stairs back into sunlight in the side chambers of Achadith's temple, where her priestesses lived.
Muthori, a stocky middle-aged woman who had been Shezan's rival for high priestess and was now her most likely successor, was passing down the hallway as Shezan appeared in the archway at the top of the stairs. She saw the demon on Shezan's shoulder, stopped, and gasped.
"Hush," Shezan said, somewhat out of breath. "We are keeping this demon, which has taken the shape of a beaver, until it is sacrificed to Tash during the Spring Festival. Go tell the others while I put it in the contemplation chamber of Soorabadeen Takhun."
"To hear is to obey," Muthori said, with a twist of wry curiosity in her voice and face. "Shall I gather wards to tie on the window bars as well?"
That was a good thought. "Do so," Shezan agreed, and turned down the hallway toward a small room in the back of the temple.
Soorabadeen Takhun had been first wife to Ardeeb Tisroc and mother to Ilsombreh Tisroc, and had favored her second son rather than her first in their war for their father's throne. Ilsombreh had killed his rebellious younger brother, but filial piety kept him from visiting the same fate on his mother. Instead, he had imprisoned her in Achadith's temple under the guise of a contemplative retreat. The room where Soorabadeen had spent the final twenty years of her life was a single square box, twelve by twelve feet, with one narrow, barred window in each of the two outer walls and no other features. The walls were unpainted plaster, the floor was of plain white tile, and the ceiling held none of the fantastical chandeliers common in the solitary retreats of highborn ladies.
It was, in other words, an obvious prison cell.
It also had a highly illegal spellstone concealed behind the plaster in an upper corner of the walls, carved with runes that would both record and transmit sound to another stone carved with the mirror form of those runes. Ilsombreh had rightly suspected that his mother would continue to stir conspiracies and rebellions through conversation with her visitors, and had judged it more useful to let Soorabadeen act as his inadvertent double agent than to keep her from all contact with his court. The sorcerer who made the stones had done so in return for an honorable execution on false charges instead of public denunciation and the death of a thousand cuts. Ilsombreh had never revealed the stones to his heir. Achadith's high priestesses were thus the only ones who still knew of their existence.
Shezan wore the second spellstone on a chain around her neck. Usually it was an inert symbol of her office, but if she whispered the correct word, the stone would signal her whenever the demon spoke. Another word would bring the demon's voice to her ears as if on a spirit wind that no one else could feel or hear.
Shezan was not sure what a demon might speak of when it believed itself alone, but she suspected it might be revealing.
When not in use, the contemplation chamber was left open with the key in the door. Shezan set the demon on the floor and moved back to stand in the doorway. "This will be your home until the Festival," she told the demon. "You will be given food and water. Do not try to tempt the initiates; they are trained to resist your lies. Do not try to escape, either; the walls are stone behind the plaster and the window bars are solid steel. You cannot chew through them like rope or wood. For now, you may rest."
She shut and locked the door, taking the key out of its hole so the demon could not attempt to turn it from the inside. She hung the key on a hook beside the doorframe so the initiates and the menagerie keeper could bring the demon its food and water, and inspect its damaged feet and tail.
Then she walked down the hallway to her chambers, woke the spellstone to the first of its duties, and rang the bell to summon an initiate with wine, bread, and dried fruit so she could break her fast while she waited for the representative of the Tisroc (may he live forever) to arrive.
Shezan had finished her breakfast and was reviewing the tithing records from the previous month when a faint knock sounded on her chamber doors. "Enter," she called, without rising from her desk.
The door opened, revealing a stooped and aged man with deep seams lining his face, a long, iron-gray beard gracing his chin, and a modest green turban circling his head. "Shezan Tolkheera, my day is grown brighter at the sight of you," he said, stepping forward and closing the door behind himself.
Shezan sprang up from behind her desk. "Grandfather!" She hurried forward to help him to the sofa along the side wall. "You are, as always, the delight of my heart and eyes, but why are you here? Surely you have a younger man whose observation and discretion you trust, who could have come to see the demon in your stead."
Axartha Tarkaan, the Grand Vizier of Calormen, sat down on the sofa with a tired sigh. Shezan hastily picked up a cushion to place between his back and the wall, and another to place between his side and the arm of the sofa. He settled against them, making his bones as comfortable as he could.
"I have men whose observation I trust and men whose discretion I trust, but finding the two qualities together without the poison of vaunting ambition is like finding a shining pearl in the depths of a coalmine. Besides, I take any reason I can manufacture to see you, O my granddaughter. A demon is an excellent excuse."
Shezan smiled and knelt at her grandfather's feet. "Any excuse is excellent when spoken from your lips," she said. "In any case, the demon is locked in Soorabadeen Takhun's contemplation chamber with only a porcelain tub of water and a pile of aspen twigs and lily roots to break the monotony. It has done nothing but splash about and noisily chew on wood for the past two hours. Meanwhile, the room is ringed with warding charms, the demon wears more wards on the collar about its neck, and I have given orders that the door must not be opened without at least two people present, so the demon will have no chance to escape."
"That is well done," Axartha said, laying his thin, wrinkled hands on Shezan's unbound hair. "I will tell Rishti (may he live forever) that the demon is in hand and the Festival will be graced by its death. Now. Let us talk of more important things, for I know you are close to your milk-brother as I am not, and I value the quickness of your mind when unraveling knots in the silk of the court."
It pained Shezan that her grandfather, whom she respected above all people except perhaps for the Tisroc (may he live forever), so lightly dismissed the affairs of the gods in favor of the affairs of men, but if he asked for her attention, he had it. Always. "O my grandfather, what knots have tangled the court since last we spoke?" she asked.
Axartha stroked her hair once and returned his hands to his lap. "That is a long story. You know, of course, that Malindra Takhun is ever seeking a way to stain Rabadash with the brush of treason or any other flaw that would make him unfit to rule, so that her son Ilragesh might inherit instead. Two nights ago, your mother brought news to me that Malindra spoke with Ahoshta Tarkaan, who lately has Rishti's ear nearly as much as I, purporting to have evidence that Rabadash is plotting a coup during the Spring Festival."
Ahoshta Tarkaan was baseborn, as Axartha was, but while Axartha had won Prince Rishti's favor during the wars and struggles of Zarman Tisroc's later reign, backing his advice with the strength of his sword arm and showing loyalty when there was no guarantee that Rishti would succeed his father, Ahoshta had won favor through boundless flattery and groveling now that Rishti Tisroc (may he live forever) was the unquestioned ruler of all Calormen. Ahoshta had no scruples and, so far as Shezan had heard, nothing worth naming as a soul. He would doubtless become one of the unquiet dead and rail against the heavens when he died.
"I would doubt Malindra and Ahoshta if they told me water was wet," Shezan told her grandfather. "If they speak of plots, who will believe them?"
"I fear that Rishti (may he live forever) will listen," Axartha said heavily. "He drinks Ahoshta's flattery like wine, and as he grows more removed from the vigor of his youth, he appreciates the lust Malindra feigns when she gazes upon him. What I fear even more is that they may speak truth. I have seen Rabadash's companions in whispered discussions in the palace, which they break off when anyone comes near. Your milk-brother is, as we well know, still impetuous with youth. He lacks his father's patience to temper his strength and wit."
Shezan thought of the myriad near-disasters Rabadash had plunged into over their childhood, and the way his reputation as a general was built on forced marches and daring battles rather than supply trains and cold-blooded sieges, and could not help but agree. "He will make a brilliant Tisroc, an emperor for the ages, but not yet. And never as a patricide. It is one thing to kill a brother or a son. To kill a father..." That was abomination in the eyes of the gods.
"Yes, yes, my delight, you would hate to see him condemn his soul," Axartha said indulgently. "I would hate to think of him running the empire to disaster, the way he rides horses to death on a whim. We must think of a way to unravel this plot without ever letting it come to light. Rabadash must not kill his father, but equally he must not be exposed. If he falls, so do I, and your mother, and perhaps even you, though Rishti cannot officially extend his hand against one sworn to the gods. Moreover, Prince Ilragesh lacks the temperament to rule and a Tisroc governed by Malindra Takhun and Ahoshta Tarkaan does not bear thinking of. Therefore set your mind to this problem, O my granddaughter and O the light of my eyes, and find a thread to lead us through this labyrinth."
Shezan bent her head. "O my grandfather and O the treasure of the empire, I will do my best," she promised. "I will find Rabadash this evening, if possible, and see what I can persuade him to tell me."
"Excellent," Axartha said. "Now, let us go observe your demon so I may report truthfully to Rishti (may he live forever) that I have seen it with my own eyes and verified that your custody is right and proper."
Shezan helped her grandfather stand laboriously from the sofa, and he leaned on her shoulder as they went to look in on the captive demon.
Shezan's day passed in the usual round of rituals, interspersed with meetings about the demon and its planned sacrifice, most of which degenerated into arguments and resolved nothing. When evening stole across the sky like a thief through a treasure room, trailing stars in its wake like diamonds and pearls scattered from a torn bag, she left the temple complex and entered the palace through the Courtyard of Butterflies, which lay opposite the Courtyard of Bones that separated the temples of Tash and Achadith. Rabadash kept his rooms in the new palace, in the spacious interior of a second story wing overlooking the Courtyard of Broken Spears and its politically pointed fountain.
There were guards stationed at the top of the spiral stairs and outside the door of his suite, but they let Shezan pass without question. Rabadash was her milk-brother, after all; her mother had nursed them both after his mother, Nurneesh Tarkheena, had died in childbirth. They were as close as blood siblings but much less likely to kill each other, since neither Shezan nor her hypothetical children could inherit upon Rabadash's death. Her family's status depended on his eventual rise to the throne.
"How is his mood this day?" Shezan asked the guard at the doorway.
"Bored, O my mistress," the guard said as he swung the heavy door open on soundless hinges. "You will be a welcome distraction and may save him from inventing something at which to take offense."
"Mind your tongue," Shezan said as she entered the receiving room. "The prince only takes offense at matters that are offensive. He would not conjure them from nothing."
In truth, Rabadash might take offense at something petty and react out of proportion -- Shezan suspected he found it amusing to order outrageous punishments for minor infractions, and hoped he would grow out of the tendency -- but he was not the sort to invent an insult where none had occurred. His father, now... but no. She would not think ill of the Tisroc (may he live forever) who had plucked her family from obscurity and remained loyal to her grandfather through the twenty years while Axartha toiled to win Rishti the throne and the fourteen years of intermittent rebellions since their victory.
"Greetings, Prince Rabadash, O my honored brother and O the delight of my heart," Shezan said as the door closed behind her. "Forgive my intrusion on your privacy."
Rabadash was lounging on the balcony outside his receiving room, idly tossing scraps of smoked fish to the gulls that screeched and flapped around the frothing water in the fountain below. One of his companions -- Ilgamuth Tarkaan, whose otherwise mild, dark face was rendered ferocious by the scar that twisted his lip into a teeth-baring sneer -- sat cross-legged by his side, reading a slim book of poetry in the light of a candelabra carelessly set on the floor between the two men.
"O my sister and O the beloved of Achadith, how can family intrude upon one another?" Rabadash said in a lazy tone, not bothering to turn and meet her eyes. "Come. Sit. I hear you have a demon in your temple. Tell me all about it. Ilgamuth has been reading poetry at me this past hour and more, and I long to hear something to wake my mind."
Ilgamuth closed his book and rolled his eyes at Shezan. She smiled briefly, then composed her face before Rabadash could turn and see either of them. Ilgamuth was her favorite of Rabadash's friends, precisely because he did not always take the prince as seriously as Rabadash might have wished and yet was loyal anyway. Shezan liked the clarity of vision that implied.
She sat in a billow of linen skirts and a stifled ring of the silver bells at her right ankle, and leaned casually against the carved stone of the balusters that edged the balcony. "The demon was taken at Elith, as part of a crew of pirates and smugglers from the north," she said. "The coastal guard fought long and valiantly to bring the barbarians to bay, and hanged them one and all for their crimes. The demon was hiding in the hold, which shows the truth that all such creatures are cowards at heart when faced with the wrath of Tash's loyal servants, but it was discovered, captured, and brought to Tashbaan to be sacrificed in the Spring Festival along with the yearling bull."
"Yes, yes, I know," Rabadash said, tossing another scrap of fish to the gulls, which screeched and postured to seize it from one another. "I heard as much from those who heard your grandfather's report to my father, who seems certain to live forever. What kind of demon is it?"
"It wears the shape of a beaver," Shezan said.
"Truly, a beaver?" asked Ilgamuth, leaning forward with interest in his eyes. "That seems a peculiar choice for a demon. Beavers have fearsome strong teeth and jaws, but they use them only on trees, not to fight. They eat nothing but bark, roots, and the green scum that floats on ponds, and they spend the western winters hiding in their houses of sticks and mud rather than brave the snow like the eaters of meat or their fleet-footed prey. They are useful only for their fur and for the oil on which the best perfumes are built."
"Nonetheless, it is shaped like a beaver," Shezan assured him and Rabadash. "The soldiers say that its voice marks it as a female demon, though I cannot see how anyone could tell male from female through all that fur. It may be a kindness to kill it soon rather than try to keep it cool and watered through the high summer at the desert's edge."
"Many creatures might be better served to die in a useful fashion instead of outliving their time in physical discomfort," Rabadash agreed.
Shezan thought of the Tisroc (may he live forever) and the way he had grown increasingly ill-tempered as his weight blossomed, his joints swelled, and his digestion worsened. She suspected Rabadash was thinking along similar lines. Behind her milk-brother, Ilgamuth looked sideways, the good side of his mouth pressing together in a hard line.
"Perhaps so," Shezan said, noncommittal. "In any case, Nakdeh Tolkaar and I have been arguing over the form of the sacrifice. I told him that I should wield the knife, since demons are within Achadith's domain. He said there is no difference between a demon and a bullock, and he will perform both sacrifices since the shedding of blood falls within Tash's domain. Pfah. Nakdeh is a fool. If nothing else, I must be present to carry the wards against sorcery lest the demon take the chance to kill the Tisroc (may he live forever) while his guards are distracted by prayers."
Rabadash twitched. Ilgamuth went very still for a moment. Then the two men glanced at each other and relaxed into a semblance of normality. "Surely not even a demon would risk the wrath of Tash in his own temple," Ilgamuth said.
Rabadash laughed. "Truly, the bolt of Tash would not have to fall very far to strike it down! Come, O my sister, spin a tale from thread and wisdom, not from madness and smoke."
They were very natural. To anyone who hadn't been looking for signs of treason, they might well have been convincing. But Shezan knew.
Rabadash was plotting to kill Rishti Tisroc, and -- though she had spoken a real fear of what the demon might do, never dreaming her milk-brother would truly go so far as to break both Tash's law of filial respect and the peace of the temple at the same time -- he was planning to use the Spring Festival as their cover. Perhaps this was new. Perhaps he had only picked the time and place when he heard about the demon. But he had a plan, and it was monstrous.
"If demons feared the wrath of Tash, they would not have spurned him and left his lands in heaven to follow the Accursed Lion," Shezan said lightly. "But you are right, O my prince. Your father (upon whom the gods smile) is doubtless in no danger. The demon's death will be a sign of the gods' approval of his reign and the breaking of the western rebels last autumn."
"Indeed it will, O most excellent of sisters," Rabadash agreed, laughing again. "Indeed it will. But enough of this talk. Let us call for supper and speak of less portentous matters."
The demon was silent all night and through the dawn while Shezan performed the invocation to Achadith, but when she returned to her chambers the spellstone vibrated against her skin. Hurriedly, she left a note in her receiving room instructing the initiate to leave the breakfast tray without waiting for her to acknowledge the delivery, and locked herself in her bedroom to listen.
The demon was singing, loudly, in a voice that might have belonged to any of the younger initiates -- a sickeningly perfect imitation of a human girl. The song itself was of no importance, merely some long and tedious recounting of the deeds of an ancient barbarian warrior, but the demon was singing at the top of its lungs as if trying to batter down the silence of the contemplation chamber.
Shezan had nearly decided to return to her normal routine when the demon abruptly stopped in the middle of a verse. The sound of wings and scrabbling feet echoed in her ears.
"Here you are," said a scratchy voice, akin to an older woman with a chest congestion. "I've been looking everywhere. This city is built like a maze, and do you know how many hidden tunnels and windowless rooms there are? If you weren't so loud, I might never have found you."
"That's why I was singing," the demon said in its girlish voice. Then it burst into thick, heaving sobs. "Oh! Oh, Hkreegah, they're going to kill me! Look at my feet! Look at my tail! They put a collar on me and they think I'm a demon and they're going to kill me before next week!"
"No, they won't," the scratchy voice -- a demon in the form of a bird? -- said with calm surety. "Narnia will not abandon you, Marigold Beaver. The minute I knew the Calormenes were taking you to Tashbaan, I flew to Cair Paravel and told Queen Susan of our ship's fate. She swore in the names of Aslan and the Emperor-Beyond-the-Sea that she would do everything in her power to bring you safely home. So hush your blubbering and tell me what you know about your captors."
Shezan listened to the beaver demon tell its avian counterpart the little it knew of its circumstances, but her main attention was turned inward. Demons were notoriously craven and selfish; only their fear of the Accursed Lion kept them in any semblance of order. Yet here were two demons acting almost as if they were friends. Did they know she was listening? Were they shamming for her ears?
And what of this Queen Susan they mentioned? Shezan paid little attention to external politics -- tracking the mood of the court and the rise and fall of rebellious sentiment was much more immediately important -- but she knew, in a vague way, that Narnia had acquired new rulers in the same year that Rishti Tisroc (may he live forever) had taken the throne of Calormen. In defiance of all sense, these tetrarchs were four siblings who shared the power that should belong to one alone. Yet somehow they made it work. Perhaps it took four humans to guard each other's backs when surrounded by their demon subjects, and the drain of that constant watch left them no time to turn on each other?
In any case, whatever this Queen Susan of Narnia had promised her unholy lackeys, there was no way for Narnia to reclaim the beaver demon. Archenland was at peace with Calormen; its king would never allow Narnian soldiers through his territory, for fear of restarting the endless cycle of raids and trade warfare. Narnia might have a deepwater navy, but even if its ships could pass the harbor defenses they could never carry enough men to break through Tashbaan's walls. And if this Queen Susan thought she could ransom her wayward demon, she was dreaming. Narnia was a tiny land, still recovering from a century of sorcerous winter, and had nothing to offer Calormen that was worth the implied humiliation of allowing a demon -- which was also a convicted pirate and smuggler -- to live and go free.
"But what is Queen Susan going to do?" the beaver demon said finally, its voice breaking with the threat of renewed tears. "She doesn't go to the wars; she can't come save me. Where are the other three?"
"King Edmund is in the Lone Islands dispensing royal justice, King Peter is in the Western Wild negotiating with the exile communities, and Queen Lucy is riding the mediation circuit in the north," the avian demon said in its scratchy voice. "They cannot reach Tashbaan in five days. Even if they could, Narnia cannot afford a war with Calormen. The only way out is through treaty or trickery, and Queen Susan's words and wits will serve you as well or better as those of her siblings. Tell me again about the sacrifice. Does it take place in a courtyard or in one of the temples? How many people will attend? How will you be bound?"
"I don't know!" the beaver demon cried. "I don't know, they didn't say. All the Calormenes already know and they don't think I'm a person. Who tells dinner how you're going to kill it, anyway? They're going to kill me and it won't even be like a dumb beast killing me for food. They're going to kill me for fun. I don't want to die!" It broke down into hiccupping sniffles.
Shezan could not help but be disgusted. Even baseborn slaves faced execution more bravely than this. They didn't wallow in self-pity like children. Besides, a sacrifice was not for fun. The death of the yearling bull in Tash's name was a sign of fealty to the gods, a payment for success in war, and a symbol of the turning year -- immediately after the young bull died, a newborn male calf would be brought to the altar, marked with fresh blood, and raised for the next year's sacrifice. Its health was a sign of plenty; if it sickened or died, that presaged famine. None of that had anything to do with frivolous amusement.
"I told you, you won't die," the bird demon said. "I'll pass your information to the ravens. They'll report to Cair Paravel while I fly around this horrible city and learn what I can about the Spring Festival. You stop crying and see what you can pry out of your captors. Be strong, Marigold. This isn't what any of us expected for your first voyage, but we'll see you safely home."
The sound of wings came again, nearly drowned out by the beaver demon's cry of, "Wait, Hkreegah, come back, don't leave me!"
Silence, for a long moment. Then the beaver began to cry again, soft and despairing like an abandoned child.
Shezan frowned in sudden thought. How old was the demon? Was it possible that it truly was a child, as its kind counted such things? How could one tell the age of beasts and demons and compare it to the age of men?
If the demon was a child, did that change anything?
No, Shezan decided. Child or not, the beaver would die. That was what the law decreed for its crimes, and it was unforgivable for the servants of the gods to let a demon escape to fight heaven once again. She put the spellstone back to its silent guard and returned to her duties.
Still, her breakfast sat uneasily in her stomach and Shezan went through her day with a frown tucked into the corners of her eyes, making the initiates bite their tongues and hurry about their tasks and lessons twice as efficiently as usual for fear that she was displeased with them.
Zardis Tarkheena, Shezan's mother, had no official position at court and her blood was suspect despite being a child of Axartha Tarkaan's middle age and second, noble, wife. She was nevertheless widely known as the best hostess in Tashbaan, and invitations to her gatherings and parties were eagerly sought by one and all. Zardis both enjoyed intrigue and genuinely liked people from all factions and classes, so she had no objections to occasionally tailoring her invitations to suit the Grand Vizier's purposes.
Tonight was the eve of Endweek, the seventh day when servants and slaves were released from heavy work, merchants kept minimal hours, and the great and good of Tashbaan threw off the cares of their positions for a night and day. Therefore, the party to which Zardis had asked both Ahoshta Tarkaan and Malindra Takhun was larger and more elaborate than usual -- held on a pleasure barge a mile upriver from the heat and smell of the city, with musicians, dancers, and all manner of expensive delicacies to tempt jaded appetites.
Shezan accompanied her grandfather at his request.
"You are certain that Rabadash plans to use the Spring Festival in this way?" Axartha asked as he and Shezan rode through the city gates in their palanquin. They each held enough authority to cause the gates to open during the night, but power was best saved for matters of true importance. Shezan had delegated the morning invocation to Muthori, her second, and planned a leisurely trip back to the temple tomorrow.
"O my grandfather," she said now, "I am as certain of Rabadash's plans as I am sure the sun will rise in the east. We were children together. I know how to read him. Grandfather, we must stop him from this blasphemy."
"Yes, yes, we must," Axartha agreed. "This would-be coup proves that he is not ready to take the reins of the empire. Even if he could lay Rishti's death (the gods forbid it to occur) at the demon's feet, it would be a terrible omen to start his reign. Despite the breaking of the rebel armies, the western provinces are still restive after the great drought this past decade and would take that as an excuse to rise again. The treasury is recovering, but we cannot afford a new civil war for at least three years."
"Even if we could afford a war, we couldn't let Rabadash do this evil thing," Shezan insisted. "Tash will not suffer a patricide to sit long on the throne, and the other gods will raise their hands against us if we turn a blind eye to such a sin."
"The people will certainly share your horror," Axartha said indulgently. "Therefore, it is best to stop the prince before he gathers himself to strike. Tonight, I hope to hint to Ahoshta -- who is not half so subtle as he believes himself to be -- that certain parties may think the Spring Festival an opportune time to strike. Then you will help me direct his suspicions toward Malindra Takhun and Prince Ilragesh, and thus both send him to warn Rishti (may he live forever) and turn him against one of Rabadash's rivals."
"To hear is to obey," Shezan said, modestly lowering her head and setting the bells at the end of her braids chiming.
Axartha laughed. "Neither you nor your mother have an obedient breath in your lungs, whatever you feign to flatter me. She chose her own marriage, and when she wished to arrange a marriage for you, you claimed the gods had called you to other purposes. I am simply grateful that you humor an old man and that you are both clear-eyed and discreet."
"We follow your esteemed example, O my grandfather," Shezan said with a smile.
She did have an obedient breath, though. No matter what Axartha thought of her vocation, Shezan had truly heard the goddess call. That to answer that call also freed her from the prospect of marriage to a man twenty years her senior had merely been a happy coincidence.
But enough of memories. They were nearing the banks of the Shirush, where the barge her mother had rented was moored to a dock amidst weeping willows and banks of artfully scattered wildflowers. Already noise and light streamed through the gathering dark as Tarkaans and Tarkheenas ate, drank, and traded gossip like barbed and jeweled daggers.
The six slaves lowered the palanquin to the ground, and Shezan helped her grandfather stand and step onto the packed earth of the narrow road down to the river.
Zardis Tarkheena met them as they crossed the wide, iron walkway that connected the barge to the dock. She was dressed in swathes of sky-blue silk, with her black hair braided and pinned into something nearly as elaborate as a man's turban. Silver stars hung from artfully scattered points and a few wilder curls escaped in planned disarray. Silver powder accented her dark eyes, and her lips were stained the wine-red of ripe raspberries.
"O my father and O the light of my eyes," Zardis said, reaching forward to embrace Axartha and help him down the shallow step from the walkway to the deck of the barge. "My heart sings with gratitude that you found a moment to attend my little gathering. And Shezan, daughter, how pleasant to see you! You should come home more often. The cats take to sharpening their claws on the sofas without you to distract them."
"You should come worship more often," Shezan said, and smiled to take the teeth out of the old, well-worn disagreement. "If you wish, though, I will come spoil the cats tomorrow morning."
"I do so wish," Zardis said. "Now, come greet your fellow guests and take something to eat. You're too thin, as always. I'm sure Achadith doesn't wish for you to waste away in her service, and I know the temple has more than enough gold to buy you proper meals. Father, you should eat as well. Some wine will warm your blood and do your heart good."
Shezan and Axartha looked at each other over Zardis's head and smiled. Then they allowed her to lead them into the silk-shrouded pavilion that filled the center of the barge and introduce them to people they already knew.
It was well known that Zardis arranged gatherings at Axartha's request, so each one needed an overt political purpose to hide its true goal. In this case, the guests were a mix of people who had the ear of Rishti Tisroc (may he live forever) and those who had survived their association with the western rebels and presumably still had knowledge of any brewing unrest in the provinces. If useful information passed from the west to the Tisroc quickly enough for him to respond and forestall anyone from raising arms anew, that was all to the better. As Axartha was fond of saying, if two birds could be brought down with one shot, where was the sense in wasting one's effort and arrows?
Shezan spent a pleasant half hour talking with Alicheen Tabek, the Tisroc's third wife, about her planned pilgrimage upriver to the great temple of Achadith at Ulvaan, where Idrath World-Conqueror had begun to unite the cities of Calormen under the goddess's direction. "I spent two years at that temple before returning to Tashbaan," she told Alicheen, "and while it is not so huge or rich as the temple complex here, when you walk in the sacred grove of the battlefield or follow the labyrinth built out of the shattered swords of Idrath's enemies, it's impossible not to feel the weight of the goddess's regard on your shoulders."
"My shoulders are not so strong as many people's, but surely Achadith will take mercy on me and not watch so very hard," Alicheen said with a careless laugh. "I thought that I might bring my brother's sword as an offering along with the diamonds and onyx. His spear was burned on his pyre, of course, for him to lay at Tash's feet when he joined the army of heaven, but I kept his sword as a memento."
"That would be a worthy gift," Shezan said, and would have explained how the labyrinth was constantly being reconstructed as old swords fell to rust, but her mother swept up and tapped lightly on her shoulder.
"O light of the nation, please forgive the interruption," Zardis said to Alicheen Tabek. "My esteemed father has requested the presence of my daughter, and it is meet and fitting to honor an elder's wishes."
"O my hostess, do not fear; I take no offense," Alicheen said. "We were simply talking about the temple of Achadith at Ulvaan. Have you ever traveled there?"
Zardis began reminiscing about her trip south after she married Dinar Tarkaan thirty years ago, laying her hand on Alicheen's arm and turning her to face upstream though nothing was visible beyond the curtain of silk and light that defined the barge in the darkness of the river and the surrounding gardens. Shezan took the chance to slip away and find her grandfather.
He was seated on a hard, narrow divan, kept upright only by a single cushion placed between his back and the bare wooden arm of the couch. Ahoshta Tarkaan, a short, hunchbacked man with a sly face and an overly large turban for his station, sat on the other end of the divan and leaned in with an unhappy expression, intent on catching Axartha's every soft word.
"Are you certain? I find it difficult to believe that the Takhun--" Ahoshta was saying as Shezan ghosted up behind him. Axartha caught her approach and made a beckoning gesture with one hand, which Ahoshta failed to notice.
"O my grandfather, and O most esteemed counselor, please forgive my interruption," Shezan said, making Ahoshta twitch in surprise. "My mother said you wished me to attend you."
"So I did, O my granddaughter and O the comfort of my age," Axartha said as Ahoshta twisted, attempting to look at him and Shezan at the same time. "You have met Ahoshta Tarkaan, the junior advisor to the Tisroc (may he live forever), have you not?"
"I have," Shezan said neutrally.
"Shezan Tolkheera is the one who informed me that someone might use the presence of a demon at the Spring Festival as cover for a coup," Axartha said softly, forcing Ahoshta to lean toward him again. "As you may easily guess, this worried me, and I began to investigate who might benefit from such perfidy. I have come to believe Malindra Takhun is behind the plot."
"But surely others have equally much to gain--" Ahoshta began.
Axartha cut him off with a shaky wave of his hand. "Rishti Tisroc is not the only target. Tell him, O my granddaughter, what you learned from your milk-brother yesterday evening."
Shezan hid her surprise behind a practiced mask of calm. "O Ahoshta Tarkaan," she said, "know that when I called upon Prince Rabadash in his chambers by the Courtyard of Broken Spears, I chanced to see a servitor pull a knife from within his robes when he came bearing supper for the prince and his companions. The most worthy Ilgamuth Tarkaan, valiant despite the lingering effects of the wounds he took at Zulindreh last autumn, struck the traitor down before he could touch the prince. Thus we failed to learn who had sent him, but he is known to have accompanied Malindra Takhun on her sojourn at Lake Jaboor this winter." She spread her hands as if to say the inference was obvious.
In truth, the servitor had died as a hasty punishment for spilling coffee on Rabadash's hand when a gull had swooped too near the nervous slave's face, but what Ahoshta didn't know would not hurt him, and Rabadash would find it amusing to inflate the minor incident into something more exciting. Besides, Malindra had been behind at least two assassination attempts Shezan knew of. Ahoshta likely knew of them as well, since he was her creature. That would lend weight to the tale.
Ahoshta frowned. "If that is true, it is a most weighty charge."
"So it is," Axartha agreed, "which is why I have not brought it to Rishti's ears. You know he dislikes turmoil within his household. But there is no harm in advising him to be on guard during the Festival and the sacrifice. He thinks I see conspiracies everywhere in my age, but if the warning comes from you..." He spread his hands in the same gesture Shezan had used.
Ahoshta's frown deepened. "I will think on your words," he said.
"That is all I ask," Axartha said, and smiled.
The spellstone vibrated twice while Shezan lingered on the barge and then rested in a room of the nearby pleasure mansion her mother had rented for the night, but when she listened briefly, she heard nothing but the demon weeping or telling itself maudlin stories of its home. Both times she silenced the stone and returned to conversation or sleep.
She ate a late breakfast with her mother -- her grandfather had already accompanied Ahoshta Tarkaan and the two royal wives back to the palace -- and then spent a pleasant hour in her mother's house playing with the sleek, haughty cats her mother took in from the streets and spoiled with food and leisure. They lunged after the tip of a peacock feather that Shezan dangled near their paws, scrabbled to catch themselves after any falls, and washed themselves with studied unconcern as if to pretend they had never lost their dignity.
They were rather like the members of the court, Shezan thought, and reminded herself to relate that observation to her grandfather when next they spoke. He would appreciate it.
Regretfully, Shezan left the now-mangled feather for her mother's house slaves to dispose of and rode the smaller of the family palanquins up the hill to the temple complex. She dismissed the bearers at the gates, of course, since everyone navigated the temples on their own feet or not at all; it was disrespectful to the gods to do otherwise.
The sun had just begun its long slide down from zenith and the courtyards were bright and warm with the desert breeze. The gilded clock set in the gateway arch proclaimed that the sixth hour of day had come and gone and the seventh was fast approaching. The noon rituals should be done, then, and Shezan could confer with her colleagues about the beaver demon and the Spring Festival.
She should tell them about the bird demon. In fact, she was unsure why she hadn't already shared that information with either Nakdeh or her grandfather.
Shezan set out through the courtyards toward the temple of Soolyeh, lady of the sun and the growth of summer. When she arrived, she found the other three high priestesses already there and waiting for her: Deel Tolkheera, who served Zardeenah the Pure, Falna Tolkheera who served Soolyeh the Fair, and Izelichoor Tolkheera who served Nazreen the Wise. It never ceased to amuse Shezan that Deel was eldest of the three and Izelichoor barely two years older than Shezan herself, when symmetry with the goddesses they served should have it the other way around.
Falna did not live in the temple complex -- she and her husband kept a household in the upper city -- and so she had turned her private chambers into four receiving rooms, each decorated in the motif of a different season. The three priestesses were drinking honeyed coffee in the winter room, talking idly of the weather and the difficulty of keeping ice so near the desert. Falna looked up when an initiate led Shezan to the door and clapped to gain their attention.
"Ah, Shezan, did our message reach you?" Falna asked, setting her coffee down on an extravagant table inlaid with shards of white glass among ripples of blue, green, and violet, creating the effect of ice in a river. Falna was one of the temple orphans who had fought and maneuvered her way ever upward, and Shezan suspected that she surrounded herself with luxury in reaction to her impoverished origins -- that or she simply loved color and texture and had no care for what her personal decorations cost. Either was possible. For all her surface approachability, Falna kept her thoughts tight within her hands.
Shezan shook her head, still crowned with the intricate braids and bells from last night. "No, I came on my own. What did you need me for?"
"To help us convince Nakdeh, before his next audience with the Tisroc (may he live forever), that while the sacrifice of the yearling bull can and should occur in the great temple as always, the sacrifice of the demon should occur in more neutral ground. The war against demons is the province of all the gods, not Tash alone," Falna said, her plump, smiling face gone hard and serious.
Izelichoor took up the thread as Falna paused for breath. "The great courtyard extending down the eastern steps is the best place," she said in her thin, bubbly voice, "as it faces all the temples except Zardeenah's and Achadith's, and it will be simple enough to set statues of the goddesses flanking the eastern doors to remind the crowd that all nine gods are watching. Deel has agreed to that compromise, as have our brother priests. If you add your voice we can face Nakdeh as one."
"What say you?" Deel finished.
The three high priestesses watched Shezan in silence, waiting for her answer.
Shezan thought of the bird demon and its complaint about windowless rooms. She also thought about Rabadash and his plot. For security of the sacrifice, it would be best to stay indoors at the altar of Tash. But for the security of the Tisroc's life (may it continue forever), it would be best to move into the open where any false move would be witnessed by several thousand people. Furthermore, Falna's point that the beaver demon's death should be dedicated to all the gods was well made.
"I say yes," she said.
Deel and Izelichoor smiled. Falna simply finished her coffee as if the outcome had never been in doubt. "Let us go pull Nakdeh's beard until he cries mercy," she said, and set her empty cup aside.
Shezan stepped aside to let the other women pass through the doorway, then followed, pausing only to snatch a handful of roasted garlic cloves and a piece of bread from the stained glass table, since it appeared she would get no time for lunch.
They wore Nakdeh down within an hour, and he promised to tell the Tisroc of the new plans for the Festival. Shezan returned to Achadith's temple and set about her paperwork with the satisfaction of a job well done. She led the initiates through the dusk invocation to the goddess, returned them to Muthori's care, and looked in on the beaver demon. It was paddling aimlessly in its porcelain tub, singing softly to itself like a lost and homesick child. No change there.
The demon glanced up upon hearing the door swing open, then pointedly turned its back on Shezan and chewed viciously on a stick of aspen wood.
"Would you like to talk?" Shezan heard herself asking.
The beaver demon whirled around in a splash of water and leaves, and stared. "What?"
"Never mind," Shezan said hastily, wondering what had come over her. Just because a demon sounded like one of the younger initiates was no reason to let herself be lulled into sympathy. It was an enemy of the gods and in four days it would die, as all enemies of the gods were fated to do.
She locked the door and returned to her rooms.
As she fell asleep, she realized she had forgotten, again, to tell anyone about the bird demon. Tomorrow, Shezan promised herself. Tomorrow she would do her duty.
She dreamed of Achadith's regard pressing heavy on her shoulders, the echoes of the goddess's heartrending voice lingering incomprehensibly in her ears.
Shezan woke in the faint gray light of false dawn with the impression that an insect was biting her upper arm. She swatted at the itch, only to realize that the spellstone had fallen sideways to lie beside her while she slept and was vibrating against her sheets instead of her skin. Hastily she murmured the word to bring the demon's voice to her ears.
"--don't know, I keep telling you they don't talk to me!" the beaver demon said, sounding, as always, near the brink of tears.
"Try harder," the bird demon said in its scratchy voice. "Your grandparents sheltered the kings and queens when they first came to Narnia, despite what they knew the Witch would do if she discovered them. They survived because they didn't panic. They made plans and followed them through. Follow their example, Marigold, and think."
"But Hkreegah--" the beaver demon said, a whine sliding into its voice.
"But nothing," the bird demon snapped, clicking its beak for emphasis. "If there's one thing you do better than anyone I know, it's talk. So talk to the Calormenes. They'll let something slip, even if it's just to shut you up or scare you."
"I hate you," the beaver demon said sullenly. "I don't believe you're trying to save me at all. I bet you're the one who betrayed us -- Captain Dar said he'd never seen a storm blow up like that, and if you'd been flying patrols like you were supposed to, we wouldn't have been blow all the way south to Calormen. It's your fault I'm going to die."
"Don't be an idiot. If I'd been out flying close enough to spot that storm, it might have sucked me in. Anyway, I was asleep. You may have noticed that people can't stay awake forever," the bird demon said. "What happened, happened. All we can do is deal with the consequences. Now. Queen Susan has sent an ambassador to Tashbaan to parlay with the Calormenes. He should arrive tomorrow. Maybe that will do you some good and maybe it won't, but at the very least he may learn something useful."
"Like what kind of knife they'll use to kill me?" the beaver demon said, still sullen.
"Like where the sacrifice will take place," the bird demon said. "I have to go before the sun rises and someone notices me here. One visit from a bird is random chance, but two might begin to raise suspicions. Keep your eyes and ears open. I'll be back tomorrow morning."
Shezan heard the rustle of wings as the bird demon flew away.
"I hate her," the beaver demon muttered to itself. "I really, really hate her. Why did she get away? She's the one who always talked about adventures and raiding slave ships! I was just the cabin girl, and Captain Dar said it was just a little trip to Terebinthia. I'm not a pirate! Hkreegah should be locked up here, not me."
It sniffled, and there was a peculiar chewing, snapping sound -- biting on a stick? Then the demon whispered, so soft as to be nearly inaudible, "I didn't mean it. I don't want anyone to die. I just want to go home."
It began to weep.
Shezan whispered the terminating word and let go of the spellstone.
She had a morning invocation to perform.
As the warmth of the afternoon slipped into the cool of evening, freshened by a perfume-laden breeze from the upriver gardens, Shezan entered the palace in search of her grandfather. She had hoped he would be in his private chambers, but when she unlocked the door the rooms proved empty. Therefore, he was playing politics, and given the situation he was most likely with Rishti Tisroc (may he live forever), Ahoshta Tarkaan, Malindra Takhun, Prince Rabadash, or some combination of those four.
Shezan had no desire to speak with any of them tonight.
Nonetheless, she stopped a passing courtier and asked where the Tisroc had chosen to dine this evening. Then she walked through the corridors, courtyard, and grand halls of the new palace, ignoring their grandeur and beauty with the ease of lifelong familiarity, until she reached the small, private Honeycomb Pavilion, so named for the singular construction of its ceiling: a receding nest of hundreds upon hundreds of tiny plaster hollows, outlined by jagged geometric plaster stalactites. The outer surface appeared to be a normal ribbed dome in red sandstone, resting on eight pillars, one at each corner of the raised stone dais.
Rishti Tisroc (may he live forever) reclined on a stout, cushioned sofa, the heavy flesh of his body nearly hidden by the elaborate layers and embroidered frills of his robes. Now and again he reached a lazy hand down to the table set before him and ate a sweetmeat or raised his glass and drank a long swallow of sweet red wine. Ahoshta Tarkaan sat cross-legged on a cushion, a glass of wine at his side, and Axartha Tarkaan -- granted a most extraordinary honor, both for his advanced age and the long friendship between him and Rishti -- sat on an old camp chair, made of canvas on a hinged wooden frame so it was easily folded and carried from place to place. He had neither wine nor food to hand. Four guards stood watch, one at each path leading to the pavilion, and a slave knelt by Rishti's feet, ready to serve.
Ahoshta was speaking in a low voice about the ever-present worry of renewed unrest in the western provinces, and the new worry of what to do with the soldiers who had grown accustomed to war during the continual rebellions and succession wars of the past two hundred years, should the rumors of western troubles come to nothing. Shezan stopped at the base of the three stone steps up to the pavilion; the guard lowered his sword, cutting edge outward, to symbolically block her approach. She clapped her hands.
When the Tisroc (may he live forever) turned his attention toward her, Shezan knelt and pressed her forehead to the stones of the path for a count of nine. Then she straightened and folded her hands on her thighs, but remained kneeling.
"Your granddaughter is most correct in her behavior, O my friend," Rishti Tisroc said in a calm, unhurried voice -- the tone of one who knew all things were within his power and thus had no need to indulge in the worries or frustrations of lesser men. "You, however, might have thought to inform me that you expected her presence. I should have requested my chief wife to attend us, that she might be enlightened with the elevated sentiments of religion."
Ahoshta twitched briefly at Rishti's words.
Axartha smiled. "O my master, my granddaughter goes where she will when the goddess calls. And I, for one, would not have it said that Malindra Takhun takes more interest in talk of soldiers seeking employment than is, perhaps, seemly for one whose repute rests on her graciousness and beauty rather than her strength of arms."
Ahoshta twitched again.
"Your concern for my wife's good name pleases me, O most loyal Axartha," Rishti said, raising his glass to his lips. He drank, then added, "I also am concerned for my family's reputation. While nineteen sons are a great blessing from the gods, at times I could wish for somewhat less favor. The fiery passion of youth, as the poet Izfadil has said, can easily leap the stones of reason and ignite the wildfire of violence."
Axartha smiled, but Shezan could see the tightness around her grandfather's eyes. He was wondering whether Rishti knew about Rabadash's plans, and if so, how much.
"In any case," Rishti continued, "I wish to contemplate the slow birth of night, as Zardeenah's stars peer through the darkness of Azaroth's enveloping cloak. Leave now. We will discuss the best disposition of the western armies on the morrow."
"To hear is to obey," Axartha said, and attempted to rise without upsetting his flimsy chair. Shezan clambered to her feet and moved to help him, but the guard held out a hand to stop her on the lowest of the three steps. The waiting slave lent his aid instead.
Shezan slid her shoulder under her grandfather's arm when he reached the base of the steps.
Ahoshta had remained on his cushion, watching Axartha's halting progress with a badly hidden smile. Now Rishti Tisroc stirred himself and noticed his junior advisor still cluttering the Honeycomb Pavilion with his presence.
"Ahoshta Tarkaan, when I dismiss my friend, I wish to be alone. See that you cease to presume," the Tisroc said in his placid voice. The guards all took one step up toward the dais, swords naked in their hands.
Ahoshta scrambled to his feet and snatched his cushion from the stones. "To hear is to obey, O my master," he said, and hurried past Shezan and Axartha into the surrounding garden.
Shezan did not bother to hide her smile.
She and her grandfather spoke of inconsequential things -- the weather, the perpetual ache in his feet and knees, the difficulty of finding cooks who could satisfy Rishti Tisroc's appetite without inducing indigestion -- until they reached his chambers and sat on the wide marble rim of the fountain in his private courtyard, letting the splash of water and the singing of his caged nightingales cover their voices.
"O my grandfather, does the Tisroc (may he live forever) suspect Rabadash, or was he speaking of Prince Ilragesh and Malindra Takhun?" Shezan asked.
Axartha shrugged. "Who can say? For now, it is enough that he suspects someone, and that his partiality toward the Takhun has not blinded him to her ambitions. I will continue to work on Ahoshta so our voices will be in harmony and thus point Rishti's attention where it should go. But enough of my work, O delight of my days. Tell me what has passed with you since last we spoke." He patted the folds of white linen draped over Shezan's shoulder with a trembling hand.
Shezan told him about the plan to hold the demon's sacrifice outdoors, where more people could see the victory of the gods over a minion of the Accursed Lion, and, not incidentally, where more witnesses would make it problematic for Rabadash to strike his father.
"That was well done," Axartha said.
"It was Falna Tolkheera's idea," Shezan corrected. She enjoyed her grandfather's praise, but not for accomplishments that belonged to others.
"Perhaps she proposed it, but you saw the advantage and chose correctly," Axartha said, patting Shezan's shoulder again. "If you had been a son, there would be no need for me to fear for Calormen after my death. I know you would easily outwit Ahoshta and give wise counsel to Rishti (may he live forever) and to Rabadash in his turn. Even now, I sleep easier knowing you hold a high position in your own name and cannot be removed from Rabadash's circle by someone assigning your husband to a distant province. It was, I admit, well done to speak your vows to Achadith, though I thought it the foolish rebellion of youth at the time."
"You flatter me," Shezan said, unsure how else to respond.
"Flattery is an exaggeration or outright lie calculated to bring advantage to the flatterer," Axartha said, steel sliding into his voice as distaste spread sour across his face. "I speak the truth and the only advantage I seek is for you to trust yourself as I trust you, O my granddaughter. Now. The twelfth hour approaches and you should return to the temple complex. Tonight is the new moon, is it not?"
"When Zardeenah bows to Achadith," Shezan agreed, on more solid footing when discussing the rituals she knew in her breath and bones. "Deel Tolkheera is preparing now, doing what is needful in Zardeenah's honor. Achadith simply waits to receive the sickle and the bowl, which can be done by anyone sworn to her service. My part comes at the first hour of day."
"Nonetheless, it is best for you to be seen as the Great Queen's representative in this world," Axartha said. "I will not keep you merely to relieve an old man's boredom. My heart and bones could doubtless benefit from a rest." He pressed his hands on the marble and began to lever himself upright.
Shezan helped him indoors, where a slave took over the job of preparing Axartha for bed.
Shezan watched for a minute to ensure that all was well, then began her journey back through the palace to Achadith's temple, where she ritually cleaned her feet, her hands, and her face before waiting at the doors to receive the bowl and sickle from Deel's hands.
It wasn't until she laid the symbols of the moon into the water at the feet of Achadith's statue in the innermost shrine that she realized she had once again forgotten to tell anyone about the bird demon and its hope of disrupting the sacrifice.
The night was filled with noise and motion as Shezan and her fellow priestesses led a score of the older initiates through the rites that marked Achadith's ascendant power as expressed in the moonless sky. As the twelfth hour of night gave way to the first hour of day -- which was now nearly synonymous with dawn, two days from the border between winter and spring -- Shezan led the procession across the temple complex to Zardeenah's shrine and returned the silver bowl and sickle to Deel in a mirror of Achadith returning the moon to the sky.
Then she performed the morning invocation before Achadith's statue, allowing the chosen initiates to watch the steps and listen to the hymn. Usually they watched one of the lesser priestesses perform the public invocation in the outer shrine, but some of these girls might become Tolkheeras of lesser temples elsewhere in the empire. They would need to know the hidden rituals that only those sworn to the gods were permitted to carry out.
When she finished, Shezan returned to her chambers and slept until noon.
Upon rising, she delegated the preparations for the Spring Festival to Muthori, who promptly passed most of them on to the other priestesses and the initiates. Shezan left them to iron out the details and went in search of her milk-brother.
This proved more difficult than she had expected, since clouds hung like a flat gray veil over the sky and Rabadash had taken the opportunity to train his companions and their armsmen in various cavalry and chariot maneuvers without worrying over the blinding glare of sun on sand. There was no room within Tashbaan itself for such things -- the island was entirely given over to buildings and gardens, with the streets as narrow as possible and most markets set up within rented courtyards rather than the public squares one saw in other, flatter cities -- and so the army camps and training grounds lay downstream on either side of the Shirush. Rabadash was on the desert side of the river today, so that was where Shezan went, first by palanquin and then on horseback. Riding had never been one of her greater skills, but she had traveled to Ulvaan and back and joined in numerous pleasure excursions over the years. She was perfectly able to sit a horse for half an hour.
She still failed to find Rabadash himself, since he was busy with his play-fighting. Ilgamuth Tarkaan, however, was sitting cross-legged under a scrubby olive tree at the edge of the flat, sandy chariot field, reading a treatise on the First Brothers' War, which had nearly broken Calormen in half after Idrath World-Conqueror's untimely death. His horse was tethered to a nearby stake, his companions' various saddlebags were strewn around in careless disarray, and an open bottle of white wine sat on the dusty ground at his side.
Ilgamuth looked up at the sound of hoof beats and smiled at Shezan. His scarred lip twisted half the expression into more of a sneer, but Shezan had learned to see around that in the years since he had been at court.
"Shezan Tolkheera, what brings you to this wasteland to grace my unworthy eyes with the glory of your presence?" Ilgamuth asked, closing his book and setting it by the wine bottle.
"Mercy brings me, O most worthy Tarkaan," Shezan said, returning his smile. "The Spring Festival approaches. In past years, Prince Rabadash has sought me out to spend long hours complaining of the crowds, the noise, and the pointlessness of honoring Tash with the death of a placid beast instead of with a glorious battle or some other violent upheaval. This year, I thought I would save him the trouble and seek him out instead."
Shame flashed over Ilgamuth's face for a moment before he veiled it with mild curiosity. So Rabadash was still contemplating patricide, and Ilgamuth was sensible to the gravity of that crime. Despite that, Shezan did not expect him to betray Rabadash's confidence. When Tarkaans swore loyalty to a Tisroc or a prince, that bond outlasted death. To break it was to condemn oneself to the host of unquiet dead who, lacking the favor of the gods, were easy prey for the Accursed Lion and his demon hordes.
"The prince, upon whom may the gods bestow luck, is perhaps learning that he cannot treat the great festivals the way he did as a boy," Ilgamuth ventured. "They are of greater moment and portent for a man in the fullness of his strength."
"Perhaps so," Shezan agreed, lightly. "If so, I rejoice in the change. Rabadash has long been the most excellent of generals -- was it not he who destroyed the rebel army in the province of Surnar, so their comrades could be cornered at Teebeth for the final blow? If he matches wisdom to his strength, his future will be bright."
"I will convey your words to him, O jewel of the goddess," Ilgamuth said, bowing slightly from the waist. "While we wait for him and my other companions to tire their horses, will you not sit under these boughs and share a loaf of bread and this bottle of wine with me? For the day, though cloudy, is nonetheless warm, and refreshment is more welcome in company."
"O most excellent of flatterers, I will," Shezan said, laughing, and swung her leg over the saddle to dismount.
She and Ilgamuth spent a pleasant half hour discussing the early history of Calormen, jumping from war to politics to religion and back. He had a quick mind and a deft turn of words, he was a strong soldier, and he was pleasing to look upon despite his scars. Shezan thought, half seriously, of venturing a joke on how a true man would be fighting with his companions despite his still-healing wounds, just to see if Ilgamuth would react favorably. She had had no interest in the marriage her mother had attempted to arrange when she was fifteen, but unlike a young Tarkheena, a priestess could choose a partner for herself. She would be pressed to find a better one than Ilgamuth Tarkaan -- assuming she wished a husband at all. A man would divert her attention from the goddess and from politics. Then again, perhaps she could afford to be less single-minded now that she had reached her goals.
Before Shezan could decide one way or the other, the rapid drumbeat of a galloping horse announced the presence of a messenger in a hurry. The man pulled his panting horse to a stop not one stride away from them, slid to the ground, and knelt in a hasty obeisance.
"Yes, get up, what is it?" Ilgamuth said irritably.
"O my master and O my mistress," the messenger said without raising his head, "the Tisroc (may he live forever) requests the presence of his eldest son in one hour when he gives audience to the ambassador from Narnia, but lately arrived in Tashbaan."
"A pox on Narnia," Ilgamuth grumbled. "Why could it not have remained a frozen and inaccessible legend until after our time?"
"The gods willed otherwise," Shezan said philosophically, though she shared the sentiment.
"So they did," Ilgamuth agreed. "Ah well, I will interrupt my prince and bring him home. Will you wait for our wretched procession, O most noble Tolkheera, or will you avoid our inevitable stench and foul tempers?"
Shezan smiled and stood, brushing dust from her split linen skirts. "Since you have defined the options with such a clear imbalance, how can I help but choose the one you hold out as the course of wisdom? Tell Rabadash I will see him in the palace."
Ilgamuth offered his hand to help her mount and ordered the messenger to serve as her escort back to Tashbaan. As Shezan rode away, she saw him untether his own horse and ride toward the cloud of dust that marked Rabadash's chariots, a small signal horn held loosely in his hand.
"What cause did the Narnian barbarian give for his presence in our country?" Shezan asked the messenger. If he didn't know, that would imply either that Rishti Tisroc (may he live forever) or her grandfather wished the details kept secret, or that Rabadash had been summoned in such haste that the details were not yet known. Either would be interesting.
But the messenger answered readily: "To plead for the life of the demon taken at Elith, O my mistress, and to speak of trade and alliance, perhaps even marriage."
That was even more interesting, especially when put together with what Shezan had overheard the beaver and bird demons speak of... which she still needed to tell her grandfather, so he would not try negotiating with only half the knowledge he needed.
Shezan dug her heels into her horse's sides, urging it into a trot. The faster she reached the palace, the better.
Shezan barely had time to comb dust from her hair and rebraid it into a single long plait before her palanquin arrived at the gates of the palace. The guards knew her and normally let her walk where she wished, but this time one of them stepped into her path, bowed, and announced that the Grand Vizier requested her presence immediately and he himself, unworthy servant that he was, would take her where she needed to go. Shezan allowed him to stand and escort her.
The guard led her through the Hall of Black Marble, the Hall of Pillars, and half of the Hall of Statues. He turned aside before the colonnade that led to the main doors of the throne room, slipping through a small side door, easily overlooked in the general grandeur of the palace. This led, by means of a narrow passage with a low ceiling and no windows (which was nonetheless decorated in intricate painted plasterwork, illuminated by a single flickering lamp), to a side chamber at the back of the throne room where Axartha Tarkaan was waiting.
The guard bowed and withdrew, leaving Shezan and her grandfather alone.
"O my granddaughter and O the prop of my age, we have no time to talk," Axartha said hastily. "Prince Rabadash rode his men straight up through the city and thus arrived faster than I and Ahoshta expected. Even now he is entering the throne room to stand beside Rishti (may he live forever), and the Narnian messenger will be brought in any minute. I need you to watch the barbarian for any signs of sorcery or communion with the Accursed Lion, and also to restrain Rabadash should he seem on the verge of rash words or actions. You have my full trust and confidence."
He grabbed hold of Shezan's arm with surprising force and tugged her toward the curtained archway into the throne room. Wrong-footed, Shezan allowed her grandfather to maneuver her onto the dais near the Tisroc's right hand. She found herself standing next to Rabadash, who looked even hotter and dustier than she felt, though he had apparently found time to change into a fresh tunic and trousers and wrap a length of red silk three times around his helmet by way of miming a turban.
"This is a farce," Rabadash muttered in Shezan's ear. They were nearly of a height, so he could do so without any betraying stoop.
"This is your father's command," Shezan murmured back, while her grandfather shuffled behind the throne to sit in his flimsy camp chair at Rishti Tisroc's left hand.
"As I said, a farce," Rabadash repeated. He might have continued in that vein, but Rishti Tisroc (may he live forever) waved a languid hand from where he lounged on his cushioned throne. Slaves began to beat the great drums on either side of the entrance. Slowly the massive copper door swung open, revealing a most peculiar figure.
The Narnian had skin as pale as the unquiet dead -- even paler than slaves of northern birth, or the merchants and sailors from the eastern island who sometimes accompanied their goods upriver from the harbor. His hair was the dead color of straw and his eyes a strange, washed-out gray as if Narnia's sorcerous winter had leached them of pigment. He wore outlandish clothes: a long tunic of wool dyed a blinding bright green, no trousers to cover his legs between his boots and his knees, and neither helmet nor turban nor cap to cover his head. Naturally he wore no sword in the Tisroc's presence, but when he reached the base of the dais where Rishti sat in his throne he did not press his head to the floor, nor even kneel, Instead he made a simple bow, as if the Tisroc were no higher than an ordinary Tarkaan.
Truly, he was a barbarian.
"Your majesty," the Narnian said, without waiting to be announced or acknowledged, "the Queen Susan of Narnia has sent a letter to you as a brother king, touching on the subject of her vassal, one Marigold Beaver, lately captured and unlawfully imprisoned on false charges of piracy. She requests your favor in reviewing the case and releasing the aforementioned vassal, and in return offers a treaty and trade agreement advantageous to both your nation and hers."
Now he knelt and presented a rolled and tied piece of parchment he pulled from between his tunic and belt.
Shezan stepped on Rabadash's foot before he could react. "Silence," she hissed in his ear. "The insult is to your father; therefore let your father answer."
She ignored the sidelong glare he sent her way. In another minute or nine, he would realize she was right and had saved him endless trouble and embarrassment. He was hasty, of that there was no doubt, but Rabadash was far from stupid.
"Ahoshta," the Tisroc said, gesturing toward the letter. Ahoshta Tarkaan hurried from where he stood beside Axartha, snatched the letter from the barbarian's hands, and presented it to Rishti with an obsequious bow.
The Tisroc slipped the ribbon off, unrolled the letter, and read it in a leisurely fashion. Then he handed it to Axartha, who also read it. Shezan studied her grandfather's face, but though she knew him better than anyone save the Tisroc himself (may he live forever), she could not find any change in his expression. He had far too much experience in court politics to reveal himself so easily.
The barbarian had no such training. His restlessness was obvious to the smallest child. His lack of hope -- as if he already knew what response would come -- was equally obvious.
Axartha handed the letter back to Rishti, who crumpled it in his hand and tossed the wadded parchment to the floor at his feet. "My answer is no," he said, his lack of emphasis somehow giving his words more conviction than any great emotion could have done. "The demon was lawfully taken -- its ship entered our waters without the proper stamps and papers, and one of the Elith coastal patrol captains recognized several men as part of a raiding party encountered in previous years. A demon is also an abomination unto Tash and thus doubly deserves to die. As for the trade concessions your mistress offers, they are already rightfully ours whatever your people choose to believe. As for the offer of marriage, it is insulting beyond belief that I should choose to bind the blood of Tash to the family of a mongrel warlord who holds a land smaller than any of the twenty-seven provinces within my rule."
The barbarian clearly wanted to protest, but he managed to hold his tongue by his own will.
"You may, if you wish, remain for the Spring Festival to witness the death of the demon," the Tisroc continued. "Otherwise, return to Narnia and tell your mistress that the game of kings is not for fools and dreamers, but rather for those who can see the world as it is and bend it to their will. When she can do that, I may begin to listen."
The barbarian rose to his feet and bowed from the waist. "I will remain to bear witness to Marigold Beaver's fate, your majesty," he said. "I ask only that you remember your words should events turn in new directions."
"I forget nothing," Rishti Tisroc said in his cool, placid voice. "Guards, show the barbarian to the guest chambers in the old palace."
Four men immediately stepped forward from their positions against the walls and surrounded the Narnian. Two of them fell in beside him, while one walked ahead and the fourth behind. They marched the barbarian out of the throne room almost as if he were a prisoner -- the only difference, in truth, was that they had neither seized his arms and legs, nor chained his wrists and ankles. The symbolic effect was much the same.
"The Grand Vizier and his second may stay," the Tisroc said to the room at large. "The rest of you, leave us." The guards and courtiers slowly filed out through the still-open copper doors. Rabadash and Shezan exchanged a speaking look, then ducked out through the small back corridor.
"I repeat: farce," Rabadash said for the third time as he strode toward his chambers, Shezan trailing at his heels. "My father knew he would refuse, your grandfather knew, that useless blister Ahoshta knew, every guard and courtier knew, even the barbarian knew! There was no need to call me away from training for this. My men need to be prepared for any circumstance, yet lately we are interrupted more and more often. It grows intolerable."
"Perhaps you should request permission to undertake a small campaign against the minor southern lords in Rachegra province, who have been refusing to pay their full taxes these past two years," Shezan suggested. "That would provide valuable experience for your companions, win glory for you, and ensure that no court politics would interrupt your plans."
"What, and leave Ilragesh to steal my place at his abominable mother's prodding?" Rabadash demanded. "No. Never."
"You could take him with you," Shezan ventured.
"No!" Rabadash said, and kicked the wall, breaking off a delicate bit of plaster molding. "He will never make a soldier, and I won't have deadweight in my army. Especially not deadweight that is always looking to stab me in the back or slit my throat while I sleep. His mother would force me to assign him a command, and do you know how easy it is for a commander to ensure that a battle is lost and a supposed ally killed in the confusion? I won't have Ilragesh within five miles of any campaign I lead."
"I bow to your knowledge of war, O my prince," Shezan said as they approached the door to Rabadash's chambers. Ilgamuth was sitting on a low stone bench nearby, reading; he looked up at the sound of their footsteps. Two other Tarkaans standing next to him also turned. "I will leave you to the company of your friends," Shezan said. She bowed from the waist, touching her forehead to symbolize pressing her head to the floor, then turned and began to make her way out of the palace.
Behind her, Rabadash murmured something to his friends. Male laughter filled the corridor, loud and full of life.
As the afternoon wore on, Shezan attempted to join the rest of those sworn to Achadith in deciding which priestesses and initiates would be assigned to which rituals and at what times during the Spring Festival. Normally that kind of puzzle came easily to her, but today her mind seemed caught in sand, so that every step was a struggle and every track erased as soon as her metaphorical feet left the ground.
Eventually she gave up, left Muthori temporarily in charge, and went to the inner shrine where she knelt before the goddess and prayed for this unseasonable confusion to be lifted. For a moment she thought she heard the echo of Achadith's voice, as if the goddess had spoken from a great distance, but no words resolved from the sweet cacophony and Shezan concluded that she had simply heard the muffled sound of a gong or a bell. Her mind still felt gritty and slow when she finished her prayer and splashed water from the pool at the goddess's feet to wet her eyes and clear them, but if Achadith chose not to answer, Shezan would do her best to soldier on regardless.
The spellstone vibrated as she walked back to her chambers, startling her -- Shezan had nearly forgotten that she had the means to listen in on the beaver demon. She whispered the necessary word and a foreign tune floated to her ears. Something about green rushes and lost love, melodramatic and silly like some of the peasant folk tunes from the northwestern provinces where the influence of Archenlandish exiles still lingered. Suddenly angry, Shezan strode toward Soorabadeen Takhun's contemplation chamber instead of her own rooms.
Shezan unlocked the door of the makeshift prison cell and glared down at the demon, which abruptly fell silent. "The soldiers said you talked," Shezan said. "Not that you sang."
"I don't have anyone to talk to," the beaver demon said, petulantly, drawing itself upright on its hind legs with its fish-scale tail stretched out behind for balance. "The soldiers just stopped giving me water. You people hit me if I try to talk. Are you going to hit me now?"
It waddled back a few steps and picked up a peeled twig in its hand-like paw. "I can hit you back! I could bite you! I bet you taste awful, because you're an awful person, but I could do it anyway!" the demon said. Its false bravado mimicked the behavior of girls a few years away from the transition to womanhood, pretending that they were already grown and independent.
"A man from Narnia came to Tashbaan today. He had a message from your Queen Susan to the Tisroc (may he live forever)," Shezan said, wondering how the demon would react. Would it manage to fake surprise?
"Oh. What was the message?" the beaver demon asked.
No surprise. It really did act like a child. Did demons have children? If the bird demon had spoken truth, then yes, they did -- it had mentioned the beaver demon's grandparents. But demons weren't properly alive. They were the slaves of the Accursed Lion, caught in the halfway lands between this world and heaven. The dead could not create life. Neither could demons, not even the Accursed Lion, which was the chief cause of the envy and hatred they bore the gods.
Yet this beaver demon purported to have ancestors.
"It doesn't matter what the message said. The answer was no," Shezan said curtly. "You will not be ransomed or rescued. The day after tomorrow, you will be sacrificed to the nine gods."
"I hate you," the beaver demon said, bending the peeled twig between its forepaws. "If you were on a ship that got blown to Narnia in a storm, we wouldn't call you a pirate and lock you up and kill you. We wouldn't sacrifice you to any gods. The only people who do that are evil, like the White Witch was evil. She tried to kill Aslan but it didn't work, and it won't work if you try to kill me for your stupid gods. Someone will save me and take me home."
"No one will save you," Shezan said, folding her arms and glaring down at the demon. "Whatever your Accursed Lion did to cheat death, he will not do the same for you. It is not in his nature to share his secrets or his power. This we know from the mouths of the gods themselves -- both Tash and Achadith have come to earth and spoken to the line of the Tisroc (may he live forever), revealing the nature of the world.
"One day the Lion will be bound to the earth outside the wall of heaven and the vultures of Tash and the eagles of Achadith will pluck out his eyes and liver every morning and evening to the end of eternity," she continued. "This will happen. It is written and promised. Without the Lion's sorcery to protect you, your land will come to nothing, destroyed in fire and ice. But the righteous of my land will pass through the gates of heaven and follow the gods to a new world, as we once followed them to Calormen."
Shezan drew a deep breath. "So you see, it is better for you to die now in the service of the gods than to share the fate of those who follow the Accursed Lion."
The beaver demon looked at her with a child's blank lack of understanding. "Aslan's not cursed," it said. "And no eagles or vultures would touch him, not if they were Talking Beasts. We remembered him for a hundred years of winter, no matter what the Witch did to make us turn away. Besides, how can you pick out somebody's eyes more than once?"
There was no sense arguing theology with a child. They weren't old enough for logic.
"Don't sing anymore," Shezan said, and shut the door with great force as she stepped back into the corridor.
"I don't care what grandmother says, humans don't make any sense," she heard the beaver mutter through the spellstone. "Not even Queen Susan, if all she did was send a letter. But I'll be brave like Hkreegah said. I'll be brave like Aslan."
Shezan muttered the word to end the spell. Then she officially dumped the Spring Festival scheduling details in Muthori's lap and spent the evening back at Achadith's feet.
If the goddess spoke, Shezan failed to hear.
As before, the bird demon came to visit during the gray light of false dawn. Shezan woke the spellstone halfway through the conversation, when its vibration finally nudged it close enough to her arm to touch skin and irritate her into awareness.
"--soon as you're on the altar, or whatever they're going to set up. I think they're going to improvise on the steps outside the biggest temple," the bird demon was saying. "The only problem is if they chain you to a piece of furniture. As long as it's a human holding the chain, we're fine. Ellen can claw up a person, no trouble -- then we just have to get you over the river to where the others will be waiting."
"But won't the Calormenes know?" the beaver demon said plaintively. "They don't notice you because nobody pays attention to gulls near a river, but even Calormenes can't be stupid enough to miss an eagle swooping down to grab me in the middle of a thousand humans. Then they'll follow us and we'll be caught and we'll all die and I'll never get home!"
"That's the best part," the bird demon said in its scratchy voice. "Of course it's strange for a golden eagle to come that close to humans, let alone carry off a yearling beaver. But Queen Susan has been studying Calormen for months now so she can try negotiating for lower tariffs, and she says that eagles are sacred to one of the Calormene gods -- the one in charge of strange chances and impossible things. So they'll take it as a sign from their gods and let us go."
That was... actually rather clever, Shezan admitted. Perhaps this Queen Susan of Narnia was not the fool her letter and her envoy had painted her. Perhaps those were simply for show and distraction. Narnia could not afford war with Calormen, so the barbarian queen used cunning instead of force to achieve her will.
Of course, this Queen Susan's work was for naught, since Shezan knew the truth and could easily foil the would-be rescuers by ensuring the beaver demon was chained to heavy weights of stone or steel, and could denounce the Narnian plot even if, through some mischance, it did go to plan. Even so, Rabadash could stand to learn from the barbarian woman. He had not outgrown his youthful tendency to throw himself into action without considering the consequences, and none of the Tarkheenas he had deigned to flirt with over the years had shown either the desire or the ability to restrain him.
The two demons were still conversing. Shezan hastily returned her attention to their words.
"--try to be quiet so they won't worry about chaining me," the beaver demon was saying, "but they're awfully mean. I don't know if they'll notice. They call me a demon, but they treat me like a dumb beast. Look at this! They're making me eat sticks and raw things all the time. I like salad as much as any beaver, and of course aspen is the best snack and I like to keep my teeth in good condition, but what I really want is some of Grandmother's baked potatoes with butter and chives and sour cream." The wistful longing in its voice was impossible to miss.
"You'll see your grandmother soon enough, along with your parents and all your brothers and sisters," the bird demon promised. "Now remember -- act like you're sad and defeated. If you seem too cheerful someone may grow suspicious."
"Yes, yes, I know," the beaver demon said. "Oh, go away, Hkreegah. You keep saying you shouldn't be here when people might see."
"So I shouldn't be," the bird demon agreed. "If all goes well, I won't see you again until you're free. Be brave, Marigold. This will all be done tomorrow, one way or another."
Shezan heard the sound of wings and broke the listening spell.
She needed to tell Nakdeh and the others to chain the beaver demon during the sacrifice. All the Tolkaars and Tolkheeras were meeting from the fifth hour onward to set the final details of the Festival. She would reveal the Narnians' plot then.
For the second time within a week, someone interrupted Shezan during the morning invocation. This person was more subtle than the initiates had been -- contenting herself with a single loud cough, a pointed clearing of her throat, and twice the faint chime of bells as she shifted her position -- but Shezan found herself even more annoyed. The initiates were merely girls and they had been whipped into a loss of composure by the demon's presence. An adult should know better.
Shezan returned the onyx bowl to its niche and turned. "Malindra Takhun. To what do I owe the honor of your exalted presence?" She did not bow, nor touch her forehead, nor lower her eyes.
Malindra Takhun, a tall, statuesque woman whose sharp bone structure had easily made the transition from youthful beauty to mature elegance, frowned minutely and tapped her lacquered nails against the silk and lace of her dress. "Shezan Tolkheera. To what do I owe the slander you and the Vizier have poured into Ahoshta Tarkaan's ears?" she said, equally direct. "I would never raise my hand against Prince Rabadash. It is foul and dishonorable of you to imply otherwise."
Of course Malindra Takhun would never raise her own hand against Rabadash. That was what intermediaries were for.
"I never said you would stain your hands in such a fashion," Shezan said, striding toward the door of the inner shrine. It was dangerous for anyone to be there without a priestess to deflect the goddess's attention. In fact, it was improper for anyone but a priestess or an initiate to be there at all without elaborate purification rites, which raised the question of who had let Malindra in, and why. Shezan resolved to question Muthori about that later. In any case, her departure forced Malindra to follow.
"Words do not have to be spoken to be heard," Malindra said, taking three long, chiming steps until she was walking at Shezan's side instead of trailing behind her. "I bear you and your family no ill will. We all want what is best for Calormen. Your grandfather's mind is keen, but age has blurred his sight and he sees conspiracy where none exists. I ask you as one woman to another, O most discerning of Tolkheeras, to cease your support for the Vizier's campaign of whispers against me and mine."
"And what of your campaign of whispers against Prince Rabadash, for whom I bear all the love due my brother and all the loyalty due my lord?" Shezan asked, turning down the corridor that led to Soorabadeen Takhun's contemplation chamber.
Malindra cut in front of Shezan and spun on her heel, forcing them both to stop in the middle of the dead-end corridor. "It is no secret that I think Prince Rabadash unfit to rule," she said, raising her right hand and pointing at Shezan's heart to emphasize her words. "He is rash, intemperate, and a slave to romantic passions -- the worst mixture of his parents' flaws. My esteemed husband (may he live forever) made a bad first marriage, and though I grieve for his past grief, I consider Nurneesh Tarkheena's early death a blessing to the empire. It would have been a greater blessing if her son had accompanied her into the grave."
Shezan drew breath to argue, but Malindra pressed her hand against Shezan's collarbone. The shock of uninvited contact gave her the space to continue uninterrupted.
"My sons are not perfect. Only the gods are perfect and I would never blaspheme. But Ilragesh is versed in court politics, and while he has never been to the wars, he knows how to choose generals who will earn victory."
Shezan drew breath again, and Malindra pressed harder. "Ah! Don't interrupt. Moreover, I arranged my son's marriage to a wife whose strengths complement his flaws, and already they have a son. Meanwhile, Prince Rabadash agitates for senseless fights and the only women he seeks out merely indulge him in his folly. It would take a miracle from the gods for him to set his eye on a woman strong enough to rein him in and temper his passion with wisdom. Should he take the throne, his reign would be bloody, expensive, and above all, short -- leaving my son to pick up the shards. I would prefer not to subject Calormen to that fate. Should Ilragesh become Tisroc, he would be pleased to assign Prince Rabadash to fight in all the far-off battles his heart may desire. So. For the sake of our country and both our families, Shezan Tolkheera, I ask you again to cease your foolish stand against me."
Malindra removed her hand but remained standing too close for comfort. Shezan refused to take a step back. Instead, she gestured to the door of the contemplation chamber, behind Malindra's back, forcing the other woman to turn and take a half-step to the side.
"That is the prison of a woman whose mind followed lines that mirror yours," Shezan said. "I trust that you have heard of Soorabadeen Takhun's fate, and the long, prosperous reign of the son she despised."
"It is foolish to assume history will repeat itself," Malindra said sharply.
"It is equally foolish to ignore history's lessons," Shezan said, her back and shoulders stiff with cold fury. "I would remind you of Chazbardin Tisroc, who accepted his elder brother's oath that he had no interest in the throne, and then spent seven years putting down the rebellions that were raised in his brother's name. If Ilragesh inherits while Rabadash still lives, Calormen will descend into the very chaos that you claim to abhor. Your ambitions require my brother's death. All the clever words in the world will not perfume that truth enough to make it palatable."
"So you accuse me of that crime?" Malindra said, drawing herself up to her full height as if she wanted to look down on Shezan.
Shezan stood pillar-straight, taking full advantage of the two inches she had on Malindra, and spread her hands, palms open and fingers outstretched. "Of assassination? No. No one has died. Of the attempt? Again, no. Your hands, as you say, have never been raised in violence. Of playing politics and dropping whispers into the court like stones into a shallow pool? Yes, but that is both the truth and not a crime. You have nothing to take to Rishti Tisroc (may he live forever) that he does not already know, and you cannot cry slander because I have made no false charge against you."
Malindra was too practiced to grind her teeth or curse, but her elegant face betrayed a certain tightness that said she dearly wished to let her frustration out.
"We will speak of this again," she said.
"To hear is to obey, O most perceptive Takhun," Shezan said, and hid a savage smile at the sour twist to Malindra's face. "However, I have duties to attend to, and I am certain you have people to meet and speak with. I presume you can find your way out as you found your way in, and I wish you a restful day."
Shezan spun on her heel and strode off, never once looking back.
The final organization for the Spring Festival was run out of Nakdeh Tolkaar's chambers in the great temple, since as the high priest of Tash he was first among equals and also the one who performed the sacrifice of the yearling bull. The high priests of Sokda, Garshomon, and Nur were already there when Shezan arrived, as were Deel, Falna, and Izelichoor. Only the high priest of Azaroth had yet to arrive. Nakdeh had arranged his receiving room to resemble a council chamber, with nine hard-backed chairs arranged around a table on which a score of diagrams and lists were held down with polished river stones. A pitcher of coffee sat in a basin of melting ice on a low table in the corner, with bowls of honey, cocoa powder, and ground dried chili beside it.
Shezan poured herself a cup of coffee and added a spoonful of cocoa before taking a seat at the table between Nakdeh and Falna.
Deel and Nakdeh were arguing over the order of the procession, as always. The priests of Tash went first, followed by the priestesses of Achadith, and the priests of Azaroth went last, but the placement of the other gods and goddesses, not to mention the arrangement of people not sworn to any god's service, such as the Tisroc (may he live forever) and his family, had never been formally settled and tended to shift in response to political currents and how many concessions Deel could wring out of Nakdeh before she went hoarse.
Shezan determinedly ignored the show and set about helping her more practical colleagues arrange less lofty but more important matters, such as certifying the receipt of five hundred barrels of cheap red wine, sending initiates to make sure the doors to all but the public areas of the temples were locked, authorizing payment for the masons who had constructed a temporary altar on the eastern steps leading down from Tash's temple to the great courtyard, and so on and so forth for nearly three hours. At some point a pair of servants arrived with platters of finger food, since everyone was far too busy to stop for a proper lunch.
Shezan had just stood to replenish her coffee when a male initiate knocked on the frame of the open door, cleared his throat, and said, "O my masters and O my mistresses, the barbarian envoy seeks an audience with Shezan Tolkheera, on the matter of the captive demon."
Shezan glanced around the room to see if anyone had prior knowledge of this, but her colleagues seemed as puzzled as she was. She set down her empty cup and said, "I will deal with this. Remember that I must be standing beside the temporary altar to guard against sorcery. Otherwise I make no requests."
"Yes, yes, it will be done," Nakdeh said, waving a careless hand before resuming his endless argument with Deel.
"I'll make sure of it," Falna added, which was much more reassuring.
"Lead on," Shezan said to the initiate, and followed him through the shining splendor of the great temple to the graceful archway and colonnade that joined the seat of Tash's power to that of his queen. The Narnian messenger was waiting just inside the doors of Achadith's temple, smiling awkwardly at the passing initiates, who stared and whispered to each other behind their hands. One of the temple guards stood at his side, glaive held loosely in one hand and a dagger and flail hung from his belt.
"You requested an audience," Shezan said, discarding the usual courtesies.
"I did, and I thank you for agreeing to meet with me," the Narnian said. "The Grand Vizier said you were charged as Marigold Beaver's jailor, since demons fall within your goddess's sphere of influence." He bowed from the waist, but something in his posture and the set of his shoulders gave the impression that he had no real understanding of the appropriate degree of honor he should have paid to Shezan, given their respective statuses, and had simply used a generic greeting. "My name is Peridan," he added as he straightened and met Shezan's gaze.
"If you wish me to release the demon, know, O man of the North, that I cannot, and moreover, I would not even if I could," Shezan said. "Its death is promised to the gods and the Tisroc (may he live forever) has added his voice to theirs, so both the earth and the heavens speak as one on this matter."
The Narnian grimaced and did not much bother to hide the expression. "I'm sorry to hear that, my lady, but I cannot say I expected anything different. I wish to know if it would be possible for me to see and speak with Marigold Beaver before her execution. Her family sent messages in my care and I promised to bring her last words home to them."
Again, the implication that the beaver demon was a child, born as human children were, rather than a demon coalesced from the chaos that followed the Accursed Lion -- a spirit that only aped at life. Shezan concealed a frown.
"If I and the guard remain present, you may have your meeting," she said.
The Narnian grimaced again, but nodded. "As you say, my lady. I assume you have a prison somewhere within the palace?"
Shezan had to work harder to hide her frown. The bird demon knew the beaver demon was in Soorabadeen Takhun's contemplation chamber and had presumably informed its fellows and its queen. So how did that same queen's envoy not know such a basic thing as which building the demon was kept in? Or was he better at dissembling than she'd thought, and his previous poor attempts were merely a way to lull her into complacency?
"Rishti Tisroc (may he live forever) has many rooms for those who break his laws and attempt to dissolve order into chaos. However, demons are a matter for the gods; therefore, the demon you seek is held within Achadith's temple," Shezan said. "Come. I will show you."
She set off toward the contemplation chamber, staying within the public areas as long as possible to keep the Narnian out of rooms and corridors where he had no business being. He followed at her heels, turning his head this way and that to take in the columns, the ornate plasterwork, the fountains, the frescos depicting scenes from the hymns of Achadith, and the statues of the goddess in her many aspects: as warrior, teacher, mother, judge, scourge, and, of course, queen. The temple guard trailed silently behind.
"Here," Shezan said when they reached the dead-end corridor with the small, plain door. She lifted the key from its hook and unlocked the door.
The beaver demon was paddling aimlessly in the porcelain tub, facing toward the window and away from the doorway, but it detected some change and slapped the water with its fish-like tail, producing a great surge that nearly spilled out onto the floor and a loud, carrying crack like the snap of a whip. It attempted to duck under the water, but surfaced again a second later, spinning around in the choppy water to face the door.
Its eyes grew round and its mouth opened soundlessly as it caught sight of the Narnian man.
"Marigold Beaver, my name is Peridan," the barbarian said, dropping to one knee just inside the threshold. "Queen Susan sends her respect and sympathy to you, our sister in the love of the Lion. In recognition of your courage and endurance, she names you a companion of the Order of the Garter." He bowed his head -- a human bowing to a demon. It was an abomination.
"I-- but-- I--" the beaver demon stuttered.
"I also bear messages from your family," the Narnian said, lifting his head though he remained down on one knee. "The priestess Shezan Tolkheera has allowed me to bring them to you, though unfortunately we cannot speak in the privacy that such missives deserve. Shall I begin?"
"I-- yes," the beaver demon said. "No. Wait. Can we go into the corner?" it said, looking up at Shezan with an expression halfway between aggrieved glare and abject pleading. "I promise we won't whisper, but even though you hate me, can't you let me pretend you're not here? Can you at least turn around?"
Shezan met the beaver demon's stare evenly. "No. You might pass hand signals or a written message. But the guard will look the other way," she said. The guard immediately turned and faced the open doorway. "And he will close the door," Shezan added. The guard did so.
"You're a horrible person. I hope you wake up one morning and realize how horrible you are and spend the rest of your life hating yourself, just like I hate you," the beaver demon said. It pulled itself awkwardly over the side of the tub and waddled into the far corner. The Narnian man stood and followed, then crouched so his face was nearly on a level with the beaver demon when it sat on its hind legs and straightened from its habitual hunch.
"What-- what did my mother say?" the beaver asked in a trembling voice.
Gently, Peridan told her.
After a time, when the beaver finished weeping, she gave a message for Peridan to take back to Narnia. It had nothing to do with birds and rescue attempts -- just family, love, and the regret of things left unsaid and undone.
Shezan watched, blank-faced, as Peridan of Narnia took the beaver's front paws in his hands and squeezed them gently. Then he leaned in and wrapped his arms around the beaver, as if hugging a scared and homesick child. "I'm so sorry, Marigold," he said. "But have faith. Aslan will not abandon you. Even if the worst comes to pass, all those who love him will meet in his country at last."
"Thank you," Marigold Beaver whispered.
Shezan turned away.
Shezan always slept badly the nights before the four great festivals that marked the cycle of the sun and the change of the seasons. She expected to sleep even worse this year, what with the beaver locked up in her temple and the escape plans she still hadn't passed on to anyone. Instead, she fell into deep, drowning blackness the minute her head touched her pillow, almost as if she were drugged or caught by sorcery.
It seemed only a breath later that she opened her eyes to gray light seeping through her gauzy curtains. She had a vague memory that she had had an important dream -- something about light and darkness, a high mountain, and two voices (one sweet like a knife in the heart, one deep and bright like sunlight on the summer earth) that each made her want to follow forever -- but the details leaked away like sand poured through the sieve of wakefulness.
Well, if it was important, she would remember sooner or later.
In the meantime, Shezan had a morning invocation to perform and all the madness of the Spring Festival to manage -- not to mention she still had not warned anyone about the Narnians' plan to rescue Marigold Beaver, nor did she know if Rabadash had come to his senses and abandoned his dream of patricide, nor had she spoken with her grandfather about how to warn the guards to watch for assassins without pointing them specifically at Rabadash.
Groaning, Shezan set her feet on the cool stone floor and wondered if she would survive the day.
When the morning invocation was finished, she summoned Muthori and told her to manage the preparations for a time. "I will return by the fifth hour and accompany you to the great temple," she said. "Until then, keep the initiates in order and oversee the purifications. Have two guards remove the tub from Soorabadeen Takhun's contemplation chamber and fasten the chain to the demon's collar, so all will be ready for the sacrifice."
"To hear is to obey," Muthori said. Her eyebrows and the set of her jaw expressed the disapproval she did not voice.
"When you are in my position, you can criticize my choices," Shezan said sharply. "Until then, veil your thoughts in deed as well as word. I know who allowed Malindra Takhun into places where only those sworn to the goddess should go unaccompanied, and I doubt you wish word of that transgression to take wing. Now go."
Muthori bowed and departed, her face carefully blank. Shezan finished her breakfast and followed shortly thereafter.
Rabadash rarely rose before the fourth hour when he was not on campaign or training his followers, but proud as he was, he knew better than to offend or dismiss the gods by sleeping through one of the great festivals. He and a handful of his closest companions were sitting around a low table in his chambers, drinking watered wine and laughing over stories from their most recent battles, when Rishti Tisroc's armies had finally broken the western rebels at the fortress of Teebeth and run the remnants down like dogs near the village of Zulindreh the past autumn.
"O my sister, the sun is bright in my eyes now that you grace us with your holy presence," Rabadash said expansively, motioning for a slave to pour wine for Shezan. "Come, sit, and tell us the will of the gods, for surely they have taken notice of such an illustrious band of warriors and have some grand and improbable task for us to achieve."
His friends laughed, some politely and some with true amusement.
"Alas, I have had no vision or sign to that effect, O my prince and O my brother," Shezan said as she accepted the wine and sat, folding her linen skirts under her crossed legs. "I merely wished to speak with you before my responsibilities draw me away. This is, after all, a most momentous day for your line: the beginning of the first year of peace in generations, achieved through your strength and your father's wisdom and patience. Truly we must hope he lives forever, to safeguard this change in the fortunes of empire."
Rabadash and Ilgamuth were better about concealing their reactions this time -- they gave no sign that anything was amiss. Chlamash Tarkaan, less guarded, made a subtle warding sign against sorcery with the hand on his thigh, while Anradin Tarkaan ran his hand down his crimson beard and frowned suspiciously for a moment.
"The changing of seasons is always a day of significance," Rabadash agreed. "The old gives way to the new and we begin again. Such is the way of life."
"Wise words, O my prince," Shezan agreed. "But it is well for all things to have their fullest chance to grow and thrive, lest pearls and gems be lost simply because they are stored in an old box that is throw away in favor of a new container. There is no sense in uprooting an ancient tree that provides good shade simply to plant a new one and wait a score of years for it to be of use."
Rabadash frowned. "Strange words, for one who serves Achadith. Is she not the goddess of chance and change, and breaks in worn-out patterns?"
Shezan lifted one shoulder and offered a self-deprecating smile. "So she is. But it is not for us to say which pattern should break, or when, or how. That is for the gods alone to decide."
"As the poet Ilmuzin has said, the gods pour wisdom down upon us like life-giving rain, but our souls are like the desert and channel it away without absorbing its virtue," Ilgamuth put in before Rabadash could retort. "Tolkaars and Tolkheeras are those who have learned to make an oasis in their hearts. Therefore, we should heed their words."
Shezan bowed her head.
After a long moment, Rabadash exhaled explosively. "Truly, you have a verse for every occasion. It would behoove you not to flaunt your learning in the teeth of us rough souls, who are more attuned to the arts of war," he said to Ilgamuth. "As for you, O my sister, while I note your concern, I remind you that Idrath World-Conqueror had already begun to fight the wayward cities before Achadith took mortal shape and advised him. Sometimes men must take the first step instead of always cringing in fear of the gods' displeasure."
"That is so and I would never dispute that it is so," Shezan said, still with her head bowed respectfully. "Nonetheless, one must take care when choosing a new path not to disregard the commandments of Tash, for while a man can succeed in his enterprise with or without the gods' aid, he can never overcome their anger."
She stood in a graceful swirl of linen and a chime of bells. "I leave you with that thought on this holy day, O my prince. I will see you again for the sacrifice."
The room was silent as she departed, and she could feel Rabadash's eyes burning into her back.
Axartha Tarkaan was nowhere to be found, so far as the servitors and courtiers Shezan asked were concerned. After checking his rooms, the Tisroc's rooms, and several gardens, Shezan admitted defeat and returned to the temple complex via the Courtyard of Butterflies and the Courtyard of Bones. The procession did not begin until half past the fifth hour, so that the death of the yearling bull would fall precisely at noon, but even now at the fourth hour the temples and courtyards were filling with people. The rich and poor of Tashbaan rubbed shoulders, smashed together in a riot of color, sound, scent, and heat, on equal footing before the gods.
Shezan fought her way through the press into Achadith's temple, unlocked a door into the private areas, and slipped into a relatively empty corridor with a sigh of relief. In the distance, she heard splashes and ragged, antiphonal singing as priestesses and initiates worked through their purification rites one by one.
Assuming the others had things well in hand, Shezan retreated to her chambers to purify herself and dress in her full formal regalia. The purifications took nearly an hour -- as high priestess, she had to do every step twice, first to cleanse her body and again to cleanse her soul so that she would be a fitting sheath for the goddess should Achadith choose to descend to earth. Then Shezan dressed in a long-sleeved tunic and trousers of pure black silk, tied a short-sleeved robe of pure white silk over them, and fastened it with a belt of silver links. She left her hair long and loose, and fastened the sheath for her obsidian knife to her belt. The spellstone hung around her neck along with a blackened silver disc to represent the eclipse and the dark of the moon.
She wore no shoes.
Thus prepared, Shezan went to fetch the beaver from her cell.
Two nervous initiates were standing outside the door of Soorabadeen Takhun's contemplation chamber, one carrying a spear taller than her head and the other a sword curved so far as to mimic a sickle. They held the weapons in awkward grips that would make a soldier wince. Shezan could almost hear Rabadash's scathing commentary and see the elaborate roll of his eyes. But only initiates could carry Achadith's arms in the Spring Festival -- two girls or young women who had chosen to serve the goddess but had not yet made their formal oaths. They would not receive weapons training until they were full priestesses.
"You are the right and left hands of the goddess today," Shezan told them. "Acquit yourselves with honor and bring no stain upon her name."
"To hear is to obey," the initiates chorused, looking even more nervous. One of them, a hawk-nosed girl who seemed vaguely familiar, added, "Will we be the only guards for the demon?"
"Of course not," Shezan said. "The temple guards will be present, as will the initiates from the other eight gods. Additionally, the Tisroc (may he live forever) will have his personal guards. As for the demon, I will hold its leash."
She took the key from its hook and unlocked the door.
Marigold Beaver was sitting in the center of the barren room with wards strung around her neck, pinned to the bars of the window by the steel chain fastened to her collar. She was grooming her red-brown fur over and over again, combing the claws of her hind feet down her sides and back. At the soundless swing of the door, she looked up and then quickly back down again.
"Is it-- is this it?" she said, sounding for all the world like a third nervous initiate.
"Yes," Shezan told her. "Come. It is time to face the gods."
She unfastened the chain from the window and looped it around her wrist. Then she walked into the corridor and down into the tunnels that led to the great temple. Marigold shuffled after her and the initiates trailed behind, their sword and spear pointed tremblingly at the beaver's hunch-backed form.
Shezan had led beasts to the altar before. This felt nothing like that. This was leading a child to the executioner's axe.
But it was Achadith's will. She could not shirk her duty.
Shezan put one foot in front of the other, step by step, toward the moment of truth.
The doors of the great temple were closed and the cavernous interior was thick with ringing echoes as the priests and priestesses sorted themselves into position, leaving space for the Tisroc (may he live forever) and his entourage of guards and family. Shezan climbed out of the tunnels with Marigold Beaver and her two initiates in tow and headed for the front of the procession, right between the priests of Tash and Rishti Tisroc's first pair of guards.
Her grandfather stood beside the Tisroc, leaning heavily on the cane he so rarely deigned to use. Rabadash stood on Rishti Tisroc's other side, ivory-sheathed scimitar slung at his side and a look of frustrated anticipation on his face. Shezan attempted to catch her grandfather's eye and signal him to watch Rabadash, but he was deep in conversation with the Tisroc (may he live forever) and didn't notice.
Shezan resolved to try again later. She led her little trio into the empty space assigned to them and waited for everyone to stop shuffling about. Finally Nakdeh waved a hand to one of his initiates, who blew a long, deep note on a war horn.
Silence fell in the temple.
Nakdeh raised his hands and began to recite: "In the name of Tash the Inexorable, king of heaven and master of war. In the name of Achadith, queen of heaven and lady of changes. In the name of Sokda, lord of wind and wave. In the name of Garshomon, father of river and stone. In the name of Zardeenah the Pure, lady of the night and its thousand stars. In the name of Soolyeh the Fair, mother of mares and grain. In the name of Nazreen the Wise, lady of memory and regret. In the name of Nur, master of scholars and physicians. In the name of Azaroth the Silent, guardian of death and darkness. We celebrate the turn of the year from winter to spring and pray for the favor of the gods. So may it be."
"So may it be," Shezan chorused with the rest of the gathering.
"So may it be!" Nakdeh said, and the third time sealed the prayer. The initiate blew the war horn again. Beside him, one young man gripped the cords that dangled from the yearling bull's neck while another hoisted the spindly-legged male calf awkwardly in his arms.
Nakdeh lowered his hands and led the procession toward the north gate of the great temple, out into the Courtyard of Bones. The temple guards had kept the steps clear of people so the bull was easily visible as it stepped gingerly onto the wide stone stairs. Quiet rippled out over the vast crowd, sweeping around the corner of the temple to the great courtyard and even the Courtyard of the Willows, until the temple complex was as nearly silent as five thousand people could possibly be.
"The old year ends and the new year is born. The old bull dies and the new bull thrives. In the name of Calormen. In the name of the gods. In the name of Tash!" Nakdeh called, spreading his arms toward the crowd, palms open and turned up to hold his ceremonial sword. The initiate blew the war horn three times.
"So may it be!" the crowd shouted, a massive assault of noise.
At Shezan's feet, Marigold Beaver flinched.
Nakdeh led the procession around the temple, stopping every fifty feet to repeat the invocation, until everyone present had seen the bull and the calf. They returned in through the great south gates and the crowd streamed in behind them, filling two thirds of the open space. The temple guards held the press back from the dais and the altar, where the procession circled.
Nakdeh and his initiates ended directly behind the altar; Shezan and her trio stood to his right, and Azaroth's priest and single initiate stood to the left. Rabadash, Axartha, and Rishti Tisroc (may he live forever) stood just to Shezan's right, to signal the link between the throne and the gods; other members of his family, including Malindra Takhun and her son, Prince Ilragesh, stood beside Azaroth's servants. Priests and priestesses of the nine gods lined the dais, chanting the Hymn to Spring, which was so old the meaning of the words had been lost between worlds and only the naked syllables and the hypnotic, droning melody remained.
Nakdeh and the initiate holding the yearling bull led the docile animal up the low steps to the massive altar and forced it to lie down on folded legs. The hymn swelled toward conclusion -- Nakdeh raised his sword -- cried, "In the name of Tash!" -- swung the blade down.
Silence. Blood splashed and pooled in the hollow carved into the ancient stone. Then the war horn blared and the crowd screamed in response: "So may it be!"
The initiate holding the calf set the trembling, spindly-legged little beast on the other side of the altar. Nakdeh reached his hand into the pooling blood and brushed his red, sticky palm down the calf's forehead and nose. "The old year gives life to the new," he called. "So it has been, so it is, so will it ever be, to the end of this world and beyond."
"So may it be," Shezan repeated with the rest of the crowd.
Normally that would be the end of the ceremony -- the Tisroc (may he live forever) and the members of the procession would depart through the tunnels while the crowd slowly dispersed to the food, drink, song, and dance that formed the less religious part of the festival -- but this year, of course, Marigold Beaver had complicated matters.
The temple guards held the surging crowd back while Nakdeh led the procession out through the east gate of the temple, onto the steps that faced the great courtyard and which currently held an improvised stone altar, perhaps half the size of the true altar in the temple. From the steps of the other temples, the Hymn to Spring began to rise again, ragged and slightly out of time as nine groups attempted to synchronize. The crowd twitched like a restless beast.
"People of Calormen!" Nakdeh said as the members of the procession arranged themselves around the new altar. "This year, we are blessed with a sign from the gods themselves. A demon, one of the never-born, the chaos spirits that follow the Accursed Lion, has been captured and brought to Tashbaan. Today we will send it to face judgment from the gods."
"So may it be!" the crowd roared, drowning the drone of the hymn.
Shezan bent down and hoisted Marigold Beaver onto the altar. She positioned the chain so it ran over Marigold's throat, an easy threat of suffocation should the beaver try to struggle.
"Don't fight," Shezan whispered. "Whatever happens will be the will of the gods."
"Will of Aslan," Marigold wheezed, somehow sounding defiant despite the panic clearly visible in her rolling eyes and twitching paws.
Shezan pressed down on the chain to silence her. In the corner of her eye, she saw Rabadash drawing closer to his father, one hand sliding into the seam of his tunic. Birds circled overhead, most likely Tash's vultures waiting for the yearling bull to be left out as carrion for them to consume. One of them wheeled steadily lower and lower.
Nakdeh raised his sword, still red and wet with the blood of the yearling bull. The hymn swelled. People in the crowd stamped their feet in time with the beat.
Nakdeh drew breath, opened his mouth, cried, "In the name of Tash!"
The sword drew back another inch, to the top of its arc.
It began to fall.
Something slammed down onto the altar, knocking Nakdeh aside in its mad descent. Huge talons hooked around Marigold Beaver's hind legs, massive wings beat in a mad frenzy, and a golden eagle launched itself toward the sky.
Shezan stumbled forward, pulled by the tightening chain, still looped around her wrist.
For two breaths she clutched it tightly within both hands. She could play deadweight, could pull the eagle to the ground where it would be easy prey, could force it to drop Marigold Beaver so the sacrifice could continue. She could.
Shezan let go.
The chain whipped over her hand, scraping her knuckles raw.
The eagle vanished over the spires of the great temple, heading northwest. Marigold Beaver dangled helplessly in its claws. She was laughing.
Shezan turned, feeling drunk and half-asleep, wondering what the others would make of her sudden change of heart. Had they even noticed? Would they assume she simply lacked the strength to resist the force of the eagle's pull, or would they accuse her of blasphemy? Either way, she needed to confess.
The steps seemed locked in a frozen tableau. Nakdeh lay sprawled on his side, his sword knocked a yard away from his hands. The three initiates of Tash stood like dazed sheep, waiting for a dog to sweep them into order. The other Tolkaars, Tolkheeras, and initiates seemed equally confused.
Rishti Tisroc was staring skyward with an inscrutable expression. His guards surrounded him with drawn swords, ready to strike down any suddenly appearing demons. Just inside their circle, Axartha had grabbed hold of Rabadash's arm and was forcing his hand back inside his tunic. Rabadash's sword hung at his side, still sheathed, despite the soldier's reflexes that should have had it drawn and in his hands.
Behind her, the crowd had gone so silent Shezan wondered if they still breathed.
Into that silence, a voice rang out like honey and razors, so sweet it stabbed the heart and left nothing but the aching yearning to follow forever. Shezan knew that voice. She had heard it first when she was fifteen and had listened for it every day of her life since that night in the dark of the moon.
"All that happens here today is my sign and my will," Achadith said. "It is time for the pattern to break."
The echoes grew and grew until the words sounded all at once, a meaningless jumble of sound like shards of glass piercing Shezan's ears with their beauty. And then, all at once, silence.
She drew a deep breath and turned to face the crowd, knowing that whatever she said would be taken as the will of the gods -- that it would be the will of the gods, whether she understood their reasoning or not. She could change the world.
"Achadith has spoken!" Shezan shouted, raising her arms to show her empty hands, palms forward and fingers spread. "Calormen must change. In the beginning, Idrath World-Conqueror drew us together and set us against a hostile world. Lately we have turned on ourselves. Now we must take the peace Rishti Tisroc has won and look outward once again, starting with Narnia and the north. This world is ours, given to us by the gods. We must reconcile with each other and return to our ancestors' path."
She drew another breath, but the crowd took the pause as a conclusion and a ragged shout began: "So may it be. So may it be! So may it be!"
Three times sealed the prayer.
Shezan lowered her arms. What had she done?
Some time thereafter, she found herself sitting in a small, windowless room in Rishti Tisroc's (may he live forever) private chambers, along with the Tisroc himself, Rabadash, Malindra Takhun, her grandfather, and Ahoshta Tarkaan. Someone handed her a glass of red wine and told her to drink.
"Again," said a familiar voice, and Shezan obeyed. "Good, good. O my granddaughter and O most excellent of Tolkheeras, are you returned from communion with the goddess and ready to convey her intent to us, her mortal servants?" the familiar voice -- her grandfather's voice -- said, as Axartha stroked his wrinkled hand along Shezan's windblown hair.
"O my grandfather and O the delight of my eyes, I will try," Shezan said slowly. She realized she was sitting in the presence of the Tisroc and hastily stood from the satin-covered sofa, setting the empty wine glass aside on a gilded table. "What do you wish to know?"
"For a beginning, what was that nonsense about looking outward toward Narnia?" Malindra said from her position against the far wall. "What could a tiny, pitiful barbarian country -- a country this is, moreover, infested with demons -- have to offer Calormen?"
"And what do you mean, make peace with each other?" Rabadash demanded as he paced back and forth in agitation, kicking irritably at the tassels that edged the intricately woven carpet. "Just the other day you advised me to consider a campaign against the lords of Rachegra province to remind them that tax evasion is a first step on the road to treason."
"O my wife and O my son, desist in your troubling of the Tolkheera," Rishti Tisroc said in his cool, placid voice. "If you think for a moment, the answers are clear. The gods have reminded us that this world was given to us for the taking. We have simply strayed from that path and begun to squabble amongst ourselves over petty trifles. We must turn our soldiers' attention outward to the barbarian countries that ring our empire. That is clear. As for Narnia, since that nation has just handed us a humiliation -- for though Achadith used the disruption to send her message, elementary logic assures us that if a demon may take the shape of a beaver, another demon may equally well take the shape of an eagle -- it is only good sense to learn what we can about Narnia that we may avenge the insult and avoid a repeat of the mistake."
"Your words, most discerning of Tisrocs, are enlightening as always," Ahoshta Tarkaan said from his position on the floor.
"The question then becomes how to approach Narnia," Axartha said, aiming a quelling frown toward Ahoshta, who lowered his face to the carpet once again. "We must seem neither conciliatory, nor as though we bear a grudge for the blatant disrespect they have shown to our territorial waters and our gods."
"And?" Malindra Takhun said, folding her arms. "Do you have any ideas, or are you simply fishing for thoughts that you can claim as your own?"
Axartha glanced at Shezan, then at Rabadash's hand where it rested on the hilt of his sword. His sword, Shezan suddenly recalled, which should have been drawn during the commotion, but which had remained in its scabbard while his hand was otherwise occupied, gripping something hidden within his tunic.
Gripping a knife.
He truly had intended to kill his father in front of five thousand people. Rash, blasphemous, and dangerously out of control.
He needed someone to force him to think.
"I suggest that we propose a marriage treaty between Prince Rabadash and Queen Susan of Narnia," Shezan said.
"You suggest what?" Rabadash shouted. "I am the blood of Tash. How could I pollute that bloodline with a barbarian whore of no known ancestry? She consorts with demons, she is no better than a daughter of midden-cleaners, she has--"
"She is reputed to be very beautiful, in a washed-out foreign way," Axartha interrupted. "In any case, no one is suggesting you need to go through with the arrangement. This is simply a way to get you and a handful of your men into Narnia to scout its strengths and weaknesses. We can send ambassadors tomorrow to make the offer. If all goes well, you could be in Narnia within a fortnight. Even if they refuse, we will have achieved the useful goal of confusing them when we seem to show no resentment over being played for fools."
"I have heard that the barbarians are fond of fighting games," Malindra Takhun added abruptly. "You might appreciate the chance to try your strength against new styles of battle, inferior though they doubtless are."
"I am certain you would love to see me killed by chance in a tournament gone awry," Rabadash snapped, rolling his eyes.
"Did I say any such thing?" Malindra asked, spreading her hands and attempting to look innocent.
"I know what you whisper between your words, O daughter of vipers," Rabadash snarled, his hand clenching around the hilt of his sword. "O my father, put an end to this nonsense and let us plan a war against Kutu, where the southern heathens lurk in their jungles and strangle the mouth of the Nandrapragaan River. It may be that a show of force against them will both satisfy the gods and remind the lords of Rachegra what their duties are to the throne and the empire."
Rishti Tisroc (may he live forever) stirred on his couch and said, slowly, "I think not. The Grand Vizier and his granddaughter make an excellent point about Narnia. It is important not to let an insult languish unanswered, lest other barbarian nations become emboldened in their resistance to our trade policies. The Kutulese, on the other hand, are currently embroiled in a succession struggle and can therefore wait. You will travel down the coast to Elith to learn all the details about the ship from which the escaped demon was captured, while ambassadors sail north to treat with Narnia. When they send word of their success, you will join them and remain as long as courtesy allows. We will discuss other ventures when you return."
"But--" Rabadash started.
Shezan stepped on his foot. He glared at her, but muttered, "To hear is to obey, O my father and O the sun in my sky."
"That is well," Rishti Tisroc said. "Gather your companions and leave as soon as you may."
Rabadash stormed out of the room.
"The rest of you may also leave, save for my wife," Rishti Tisroc added with a languid wave of his hand. "Today remains a festival as well as a day of great moment for Calormen. I plan to enjoy it to the hilt. I suggest you do likewise while you may."
"To hear is to obey," Shezan murmured along with her grandfather and Ahoshta. She and Axartha supported each other as they exited the room and began the walk back to less rarified areas of the palace.
Ahoshta hurried past them, intent on some machination of his own. Axartha waited until the other man was long gone, then turned to Shezan with a proud smile. "That was a difficult hand most excellently played, O my granddaughter. It is never easy to know what the gods mean when they place their hands in human affairs. I have seen many such signs come to nothing because no person could impose his view of the message quickly and clearly enough to convince others to follow."
Shezan shook her head. "This was not like that," she protested -- except, of course, the truth of the matter was exactly as her grandfather had described. She had spoken whatever came into her head, never stopping to think if what she wanted was also what the goddess wanted. She had presumed to speak for Achadith after allowing the Narnians to carry out their secret plans. The humiliation of Calormen was her fault and hers alone. Even if Achadith claimed all things had happened according to her will, Shezan had still chosen to betray her country and her gods. She had made the mistake of seeing a beast as a human child and had not been strong enough to put that notion aside, nor to ask for help in carrying out her duty.
"You may attribute your words to the gods, but you are still the one who spoke them and who found a way to get Rabadash out of Tashbaan until his blood cools, for which I thank you," Axartha said. He patted Shezan's hand. "Treaties for this sham marriage will take two months at least, I should think, and if Rabadash should become infatuated with the Narnian queen, as he often does with inappropriate women, that will simply serve to distract him further."
"Susan of Narnia is less inappropriate than many of his favorites," Shezan said. "A woman who knows when not to start a war and who keeps her own envoy in the dark about her plans is someone who might be able to manage Rabadash even in the worst of his tempers." She paused. "Speaking of which, what did become of the Narnian messenger? He said he would stay to watch the sacrifice but I don't recall seeing him."
Axartha smiled wryly. "In point of fact, the barbarian lord Peridan left a note in his rooms claiming that he had been summoned home, and departed early this morning. If that was this Queen Susan's work, that was also well considered. If he had remained, either Rishti or Rabadash might well have chosen to avenge the slight on his body."
And there was no sense in rescuing one vassal only to lose another. Queen Susan of Narnia seemed an admirable woman, for a barbarian and a friend of beasts, Shezan thought. If for some reason she played along with the marriage treaty long enough to visit Tashbaan, Shezan would like to meet her.
But for now, she should return to the temple complex to help oversee the crowds that took advantage of the free meat and drink the gods provided (via their servants) on the great festival days. She said as much to her grandfather, who nodded in agreement.
"I will lie down and ease my old bones," he said, "but I hope we will see each other tomorrow night at your mother's home for a family supper."
"To hear is to obey," Shezan said with a teasing smile, and left her grandfather with a kiss on his wrinkled cheek.
When the chaos of the day was done and the initiates were beginning to clean the mess left behind by thousands of feet, Shezan retreated to her chambers for a much-needed moment of peace and quiet.
She found someone waiting for her.
Ilgamuth Tarkaan sat on a chair in her receiving room, reading a treatise on natural philosophy -- specifically on the nature of water, from both a spiritual and an engineering perspective. As torchlight fell through the open door, he looked up and smiled around his scarred lip.
"Shezan Tolkheera, please excuse my rudeness at entering unbidden," he said, setting his book aside. "I did not want to disturb you in your work and I will not have time to find you tomorrow morning before I accompany Rabadash south to Elith."
"It is of no moment," Shezan said, sinking onto her sofa with a deep sigh. She removed the silver belt and obsidian knife and slipped the white silk robe off her shoulders, leaving herself in nothing but the thin black silk tunic and trousers. Her feet were still bare, and she tucked them up under her crossed legs to warm them.
"I thank you," Ilgamuth said. He looked down, clasped his hands, unclasped them, and clasped them again -- a strange hesitation from a noble and a soldier.
"I also wish to thank you and your grandfather for stopping my prince," he said slowly. "I could not speak against him, but the action he intended troubles my conscience and I would not see Rabadash begin his reign with the gods set against him. It was wise of you to make reasons for him to be away from Tashbaan for a time, without sending him into battle where his disgust at his father's growing sloth would only ferment the more."
Shezan waited a long moment to be sure that Ilgamuth had confessed what she thought he had. Then she said, "I stopped nothing. I simply interpreted the words of the goddess."
"You did your duty," Ilgamuth interpreted, still looking down at his clasped hands. "That is more than I had strength to do. What is the use of a Tarkaan if he cannot tell his prince when he is riding headlong over a cliff?"
Shezan thought about Rabadash's temper, his dislike of being crossed, and his bone-deep certainty -- reinforced by dozens of successful battles -- that his choices were right and justified. It was easy to see why people would hesitate to tell him his choices were wrong. She herself had never come out and told him, in so many words, not to kill his father... though it had been clear that he knew what she meant underneath what she said, just as she had figured out his intentions from his surface obfuscation.
On the other hand, once Rabadash had seen that he had chosen badly and had been made to endure the consequences, he never repeated the same mistake twice. He was, in truth, nearly as intelligent as he considered himself to be. He simply needed more people who could tell him no without risking death for taking a stand.
Shezan had that immunity, so long as she did not overuse it. Ilgamuth did not.
Then again, what was the use of a soldier if he lacked the courage to face certain death?
And Shezan could use something for herself, something solely human and of Calormen, to wipe away the confusion of Narnian beasts and the nagging uncertainty over how many of her recent choices had been hers and how many had been forced by Achadith to achieve her own mysterious goals. She could do far, far worse than Ilgamuth.
"A Tarkaan who dares not tell his prince that they are galloping toward a cliff is not much use," Shezan agreed in a deceptively light tone of voice. "Indeed, I would say such a Tarkaan is hardly a man at all."
Ilgamuth jerked his head up, injured surprise written all over his face. Then Shezan's words and her teasing expression seemed to snap into place in his mind like a dislocated joint sliding into its socket. He smiled, his scarred lip twisting the expression into something nearly predatory. "Is that so?" he said. "When I return from Elith, we must talk more about your definition of manhood... and about your sad lack of perfume."
"If you survive the long, arduous trip down the coast and are competent enough to buy perfume without losing all your money in the bargaining, I might be induced to change my mind," Shezan said, matching his smile. "But only perhaps."
She was high priestess of Achadith in Tashbaan. She had reached that height on her own merit, regardless of who she was related to. She served the goddess faithfully and well. She had helped prevent Rabadash from killing his father and plunging Calormen into civil war.
She had survived this test.
If she wished to reward herself by courting Ilgamuth Tarkaan, that was nobody's business but her own.
Shezan walked Ilgamuth out of the temple, exchanging more barbed steps in the opening dance. Then she went to the inner shrine, bowed before the statue of Achadith, and prepared to start the evening invocation.
In the flickering light of the lamps, the goddess seemed to smile.