Night falls at a remote caravanserai on the spice road, and the desert chieftains come in, lured by the glamour and guile of a traveling company of acrobats, conjurers, dancers and wrestlers.
Young fire juggler Tai Emreth is in terrible danger. Alak Zhar is in the great yurt, and the Zhar has a nasty reputation for reaching out and stealing whatever, whoever, he wants.
But tonight's performance is the price of Tai's liberty. He's determined to go on despite warnings from a mysterious stranger who moves like a panther, has the eyes of a hawk and the voice of the old, wicked cities of the west. Tai is immediately fascinated. Who is this one who calls himself Giero? What does he want ... what might he give? Giero melts back into the shadows -- and time is up.
The music begins, the audience is waiting for the fire juggler who's been given an immense build-up. Tai steps into the lights, sets eyes on the High Chief from the fortress of Murkul-zahd, and realizes he's made a terrible mistake.
Exotic fantasy, swordsteel and mayhem, from long-time favorite Mel Keegan.
- Scroll down to read the opening segment of this story right here...
Length: 29,000 words
Rated: adult (18+; sex, violence)
Publication date: 2012
Price: $2.99 - ebook
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Tai wanted that gold coin more than he had ever wanted anything, while a small, wise voice in the back of his mind said, Only wait, only serve the company, and you'll be in your brother's house, safe, before the stars of the winter solstice are bright.
Months more of routine, of bowing before the master in the morning, rigging tents and grooming mules.
A matter of minutes, strutting in the lamplight and juggling fire for the amusement of an oaf who was probably too witless with ale by now to even notice.
The singer lapsed into silence and the harper took up the shepherd's song. It was a lilting, plaintive tune, a lament for some lost love. It lasted a bare three minutes, and then Hal would be out there before the wyld ones -- first to spin a few fanciful tales of the wickedness he had seen in the east, and then to announce the amazing skills of a boy from Gupar, in whose hands fire behaved like a performing monkey.
The Alqadih brothers were drifting away, cloaked now, against the chill. Tai was sweating, both with the exertion of the routines he had completed to prepare for his performance and with the healthy fear that had haunted him since Maritza spoke to him. If she believed Alak Zhar was a demon in human skin, Tai could believe her while he would doubt a hundred others.
But he had told Hal he would perform. He had given his word, and Maritza had the gold coin -- she was keeping it for him, until he was done, and then he could pack his things, walk away from the company and find the horse trader, Mahadali, whose animals were the finest east of Pragend.
The stars glittered, almost mocking him as he dropped the loose, striped linen trousers and let the cold night air caress him. He was naked, but for a little pouch on a fine chain girdling his hips, and a pair of the flimsiest sandals, strapped to his knees. Around his neck was a high collar, shimmering like flakes of gold, and his hair was roped back with scarlet ribbons which contrasted the black, and amber baubles, matching the ornaments banded to his wrists and biceps.
The costume was daring by the standards of Gupar and Murmesh. In Zunguo, he would have been hustled into exile for lascivious behavior -- save at the court of the Imperatrix herself, where he would have been showered with rose petals before being carried off to the private quarters, to service the most glorious women in the realm. In Pragend the costume would have won him a cell under the citadel, where he would molder while priests said prayers for the salvation of a soul so corrupt, he must be in league with demons.
Here in the wyld, the costume was teasing, seductive, and his black haired, brown eyed, brown skinned looks were exotic, in a land where the lords were blue eyed, red haired, and often ghost-pale. He was still slender, whippy as an acrobat, where the lords were thick with muscle and swiftly grew stiff in the spine and joints with the rigors of the warrior code they followed.
The danger was very real, and Tai's throat constructed. He swallowed hard, and had turned his eyes to the stars, about to petition his heathen gods for protection when a shadow moved into the blue darkness behind the yurt. His heart jumped into his mouth and a pulse hammered in his temple.
"Who is it?" He heard the falter in his voice, and cursed himself. "I said, who is it, damnit, who's there?" He stooped to the cloak he had dropped before he began his practice routines. "I'm warning you -- I have a sword, and I know damn' well how to use it!"
A rich chuckle issued from the darkness and the shape moved out into the light. Tai saw a voluminous blue cloak, trimmed in copper, a raised hood, a black glove thrust out, clasped around the hilt of the sword the man wore at his left side.
"Easy," the stranger said, coming closer, and he teased back the hood, far enough to show his face. "I'm not here to do you harm. Rather, to warn you. There's danger for you tonight, if you persist in this." He gestured at Tai's near nakedness. "This is rash. It's foolish."
"It's my job, and it's profitable," Tai added, intent on the man's face and making out strong features, a hawklike nose, piercing dark eyes, though he could not tell the color. His most striking features were his brows, which were arched, challenging, critical. Tai wondered if he were being judged, and he met the man's eyes defiantly. "Hal Khouris pays me well, and this is the last night I'll perform."
"It well may be," the man mused, "at least in public. I've no doubt you'd perform a great many times -- for a somewhat smaller audience." He looked Tai up and down with obvious amusement. "Has no one told you about Alak Zhar?"
Tai groaned. "They told me." He saw the glint of a big hoop earring in the man's left ear, smelt the hint of cedar about him, heard the sound of the far west in his voice. He was tall, even measured against the lords of Murkul, who towered over the folk from Gupar and the omirates closer to Zunguo. "Who are you?"
"A traveler," the stranger told him, as if determined to be inscrutable.
"Your name?" Tai lifted his chin. "How shall I trust you, if I don't even know your name?"
"I know yours," he said, as if Tai had made a joke. "I've been watching you for a week now."
"I haven't seen you in the audience."
The man's eyes widened, and laughed. "And who said I'd been watching you from the benches inside Hal Khouris's great yurt?" Again, the rich chuckle. "You can call me Giero. Have they told you how beautiful you are?"
In fact, Tai had heard this many times, but he had never believed a syllable of it. The words were cheap, and had usually been spoken in places, times, when they were calculated to lure him into an embrace. He wrinkled his nose. "They've told me -- and usually to my cost. It's always said by people wanting something from me -- usually the gift of me."
"How astute, for one so young." Giero allowed. "nd now, since you have the gift of such astuteness, you can do yourself a favor."
"hat favor?" Tai was listening to the last strains of the harper's music. In a minute more, Hal would be out there, spinning an unlikely tale about having vanquished an evil, barbarian queen to save a nubile young man with eyes like a doe and a body like paradise incarnate. Such were the stories he wove, of ancient cities, haunted ruins, savage rites, before he introduced the next performer. His own gift was that of the storyteller, and in his way he was quite a performer. "I asked, what favor?" Tai demanded, listening to the quaver in his own voice.
"Run to your master while there's still time, and tell him you've thought better of your rashness," Giero advised. "Have him bring on the old knife thrower instead, or the woman who dances with the snake."
"My master," Tai echoed. "I'll have no man as my master. If you've watched me for a week, you should know that's the very reason I'll perform tonight."
Giero's wide shoulders lifted in an expressive shrug. "Do as you please, but in a week, a month, a year, when you've had Alak Zhar as your master for long enough to know every freckle on his skin and every curse he'll grunt before he spends himself inside your sore, aching body -- on that night, remember what you were told, and who told it to you."
With a flourish, he tossed the cloak back over one shoulder and Tai saw a dark green vest laced over the deep rose silk of his shirt, tight gray britches and high boots of some soft black leather, buckled across the instep. It was the style of the far west, the cities that clung to the shores of the long, narrow Tamar Sea. Tai had heard amazing stories of those cities, had seen paintings of their splendor, and all at once he longed to beg Giero to tell who he was, where he was from, what he knew.
But Giero was stepping back into the shadows, and with a mocking chivalry he dropped a bow before Tai. "Perform if you must, Tai Emreth, ne'er-do-well from the Omirate of Gupar, but be wise. Keep your wits about you, open the eyes in the back of your head, and trust no one, nothing, before you're well away from Murkul-zahd, with the wind at your back and the hills of Distambool in plain sight ahead."
Distambool was a great mountain of quarried granite and carved marble on the very edge of the wyld. In the west, scholars said civilization ended at those hills, and the skirmishing never ended, as lords like Alak Zhar and his brothers pushed, probed, trying to force back the scarlet-plumed border guards and gain an extra mile or ten of the spice road.
"Wait," Tai called. "Don't leave. Look, I'll only be a few minutes -- wait, will you, Giero? When I'm done, I'll buy you coffee and ale, and you can tell me about where you come from." His eyes widened, trying to follow Giero's shape, as the big man melded back into the shadows as if he were part of them. "Don't go," Tai shouted after him. "I've always wanted to see those cities -- take a boat and sail the Tamar coasts."
"Be wise," Giero's voice whispered out of the coagulated darkness, moments after he had become invisible. "Remember your wits, and forget how to trust."
And then he was gone, leaving Tai trembling slightly in the cold night air. He was cooling down rapidly and would have the stretch and limber up again soon, if Hal did not hurry through his storytelling. The singer and harpist were out of the lamplight now, probably back at Maritza's hearth, where she would pour liquorice tea and they would watch the stars until the lords reeled drunkenly out of the yurt and returned to the wyld.
Hal Khouris's voice was lilting, sensual, as he addressed the gathering. He was telling the story of how he followed the legend of a she-demon with breasts like melons and a penchant for turning men to stone at a glance of her vast emerald eyes -- and how the she-demon was seduced by a beautiful young man who had been born blind, and was thus immune to the curse of her eyes. The story was a good one, and given substance by the houri, Armand and one of the wrestlers, Mikhail -- she with her skin tinted green, he with his eyes blindfolded and his massive, bronze-skinned body glistening with oil -- who wrangled like desperate lovers at Hal's feet while the saga was told.
But it was not a long story, and as Hal stepped out of the light of the eight brass lamps, Tai had better be ready to take his place. The great yurt was crowded tonight. Alak Zhar went nowhere without a band of his most trusted elite, and they had been picking up courtesans, cousins and friends across the whole caravanserai. Their horses were tethered on the north side of the yurt, and six big guards squatted at two fires, keeping watch. As if, Tai thought, Alak Zhar himself trusted nobody and nothing -- as if he knew he had a thousand enemies for every ally he had ever made.
"And so," Hal was saying, "I returned home with empty pockets -- I left the demon and her blind lover where I found them, in a cave filled with the petrified forms of hundreds of warriors who had gone before me. I ended the adventure enriched only by the memories of the she-demon writhing in my arms, the splendid melons of her breasts crushed hard against my chest -- which was nothing, I promise you, against the bliss I have been pledging you this night!
"His name is Tai of Gupar, and you must have heard of him. A lad with a body like paradise unveiled, the face of a marble saint, and the skill of a fire sprite. The magic in his hands will astonish you, as the grace of his form and the beauty of his face will seduce you to ecstasy."
The words were typical of Hal's gift for terrible overstatement, and Tai only grimaced as he listened to them. As Hal entered the introduction, he tucked the torches under his arm and made his way in under the heavy leather flap. He collected his props from the barrelheads just inside -- three hoops, three balls, three daggers. Hal was coming toward him as he hung the hoops over his left wrist and took the rest of the props between his hands.
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