Preview

Sword of the Deceiver — Chapter One

It was the season of dust.

The sky was copper with dust.  Dust smeared the white cotton of Natharie’s plain skirt and breast band.  Dust rose in a plume from the distant road as some messenger rode pell-mell for the river bridge.  Dust clung to her sweating skin; the itch and smell of it filled her nose until she could taste it in the back of her throat.  The whole world was an oven and only the flies danced.

Despite this, Natharie strode joyously through the shin-high grass, her bare arms swinging and the white skirt flapping around her knees.  Today was her nineteenth birthday, today Natharie would at long last be declared a woman.

Queen Sitara, Natharie’s mother, followed her, all her gold chiming and glittering in the hazy sunlight.  Three of Natharie’s sisters, Shu, Vikka and Rasura — younger than she, yet women already — walked with their mother, all swaying hips and superior airs.  Behind her blood family walked Natharie’s aunts, cousins, maids, attendants, and nurses.  Anun, the rough, round, bawdy captain of the women’s guards strode with them, her voice rising in a hoarse bellow over their clear song.  Even the old nun, Sathi, followed Natharie today, and Natharie stretched out her long legs, determined to keep ahead of them.   Little Malai, Natharie’s youngest sister and the only remaining girl-child of the family took the excuse of the festive occasion and ran, only half a grinning, giggling step behind Natharie.

It was all Natharie could do to keep from laughing as her smallest sister’s high, panting voice struggled to get out the words of the womanhood hymn that rose up from the glittering procession.

“The grain full ripe falls to seed the earth.

“The grain will grow up toward the sun.

“The girl gives birth to the woman, who gives birth to the world.

“So turns the wheel, until Heaven is achieved.”

In the traditional way of things, Natharie’s womanhood ceremony would have been held when she was thirteen or fourteen.  Mother’s had happened when she was only nine.  No one could become a bride until they became a woman, and this was why Natharie’s ceremony had been so long delayed.  Treaty obligations written before Natharie was even born gave her, the King of Sindhu’s oldest daughter, to the King of Lohit.  When the old king found himself widowed, he had sent for Natharie, but her parents had demurred and delayed, for one year, and another, and still another after that.

Now, the old king was dead, and Natharie was finally free from her extended childhood.  Free to claim the rights and the obligations of womanhood, and of her own home and a new land to go with it.  The new king, Pairoj waited for her to become his bride.

“The girl gives birth to the woman, who gives birth to the world.

“So turns the wheel, until Heaven is achieved.”

The women of the procession were the only color in the dust-brown world.  Their silks and linens made them a river of color in the pale grassland: scarlet, sapphire, emerald, silver, gold, diamond white. Even Captain Anun had laid aside her uniform for a gown of amethyst and silver.  Tia, Natharie’s ancient nurse, had been stitching the emerald threads onto her red cotton skirt for over a month now.

“My mistress will only become a woman once in this life,” she’d said with a grin.  Natharie had hugged her then.  Neither one of them had been sure Tia would survive long enough to see this day.  Because she had never been declared a woman, Natharie’s childhood servants had stayed with her for far longer than the usual time.  Now, they would all be gone.  That was the hard part of this day, thought Natharie.  So many familiar faces and presences would be given other places, or paid their final pensions and returned to their family homes.  A woman did not need the same tutors, servants and possessions as a girl.  Especially when she would shortly be sent to her husband’s home.  Natharie pushed that thought away.  Later there would be time enough to worry about the future.  Not, she told herself, that there was much to worry over.  Pairoj’s letters held the promise of a bright and considerate husband.  After all, her mother, had come from Lohit to be queen of Sindhu and found here a good life and a kind husband.  She knew this must be a day of endings as well as beginnings.  That was as it should be.  Natharie lifted her chin and lengthened her stride.  She would not go afraid.  She would go with her eyes open.

Beneath her sloping bank, the sacred river, Liyoni, was low, flat and brown.  The passing boatmen were black shadows who raised their hands to the brightly colored procession as the current carried them swiftly past.  She pushed her way through the chattering reeds that lined the river bank.  The dried edges grazed her skin.  Warm mud squelched between Natharie’s toes and tugged at her sandal heels with loud, sloppy kisses.  A trio of ducks, offended by their noisy passage, burst into the air, complaining as they flew.

Natharie’s mother and the other women set down their baskets and singing still, they surrounded her.

“The wheel turns life to birth to death to life.

“The wheel turns girl to woman to widow to girl.

“Take her hand, O! Awakened One!

“Open her eyes as yours were opened and lead her from the wheel to Heaven.”

Anun the guardswoman grinned like a tigress and stripped off Natharie’s white skirt and breast band.  Tia crowned her tangled hair with the golden flowers.  Oma, Rasura, Vikka, Shu, all of them, crowded around her and draped more garlands around her shoulders, kissing her and laughing as the bright petals fluttered down to stick to her arms and the backs of her hands.  Malai hung garlands on Natharie’s wrists and hugged her big sister hard.  Natharie was a little surprised at the tears that came so quick and strong to her eyes as she returned the little one’s embrace.

Lastly, Mother came to wrap the girdle of white chrysanthemums around Natharie’s waist.  Then, she stretched up on tip-toe and kissed her forehead.  Fate had declared Natharie should have all her father’s height.  Where Mother was tiny, slender and straight-hipped, Natharie was as tall as most men, with a broad, curving body, and arms and legs hardened by the playing and fighting she did with the female guards who looked after mother and the concubines.  There were many jokes whispered among Natharie and her sisters about…accommodations her future husband might have to make because of her size.

Mother stepped back to let old Sathi, the only other one here wearing white, hobble forward.  Natharie held still and found that, for all her delight, solemnity came easily.  After this day, her new life would begin in earnest.  She needed this blessing as she had never needed any other.  The challenge of her size was the least of what she had to face

Someone handed Sathi the clay bowl of henna and jasmine.  The nun raised it up to the coppery sky and began the hymn of departure in her cracked voice.

“Let the way begun again be the way of peace.

“Let the horizon that is seen again be seen from the calm and generous heart.

“Let the eyes be open to see Heaven and the Awakened One and all the Blessed.”

The familiar voices all took up the hymn, spinning the words over and over again until Natharie felt dizzy.  Sathi dipped her withered fingers into the henna and Natharie stooped down so the nun could mark her brow with signs of tranquility and the turning wheel of time.  Then Sathi passed the bowl to Tia, and took Natharie’s hand.  The ancient nun led Natharie into the river.  Boatmen called out blessings as they passed.  Natharie found she was shaking a little.

“Let the way begun again be the way of peace.

“Let the horizon that is seen again be seen from the calm and generous heart.”

When the water was up to Natharie’s breast, Sathi turned, grasped Natharie’s shoulders and shoved her down into the water.

The water roared as it swallowed Natharie.  There was no time to draw in extra breath.  The world below was brown and shifting and silent.  Water, sand and silt filled her eyes and ears.  Shadows scattered and sunlight sparkled through the brown water.  Her blood pounded in her ears.  She tried to hold still, but it went on and on, and she kicked at the sand underneath her, but Sathi held on tight.  She grabbed at the wiry fingers, trying to pry them loose, but Sathi still held her.

All at once, Sathi let go, and Natharie shot up into the air, gulping in deep, whooping gasps of air, and of the water that fountained off her, which made her cough and gag and gasp again.  Sathi embraced Natharie, and led her  — a woman grown now, and still coughing gracelessly — back to shore where the other women still sang for her.

“Let the new heart bring peace in the time of hardship.

“Let the new voice bring wisdom in the time of darkness…”

Natharie coughed out the last of Liyoni’s waters and pushed her streaming hair out of her face.  Then, she froze, ankle deep in river water, her face warm with sudden wonder.

A horse stood atop the bank.  He was pure black without trace of paler color, so shining and perfect he might have been a polished statue.  His mane flowed like silk, and were it not for the wind that blew it back, it would have hung down almost to his knees.  He tossed his head at her, stamping his hoof as if in greeting.

Natharie’s jaw dropped open.  The thought flitted through her mind that her father had sent this beautiful creature as a womanhood gift.  But the other women all turned as well, and they too froze like stone.  Now Natharie could see that the horse was surrounded by a crowd of men.  Three were wrinkled things in flowing red robes with high, curving gold hats that they had to keep clutching to prevent the wind from blowing them into the dust.  Their hands were full of scrolls and gold rods and other shiny things that they they kept dropping as they tried to keep their hats on.  They looked like busy little brown monkeys next to the beautiful black horse.  All but one.  That one stood tall and stern, his great arms folded, frowning down on the world.  Smaller monkeys, boys she saw now, scurried around their red-robed masters, picking up what they had dropped, dusting it all off.  The red monkeys shouted and pointed and sent the boys scuttling off on new errands, to the palanquin bearers and other dust-caked servants who waited behind them, to other men in plain robes bearing tablets and styluses, who bobbed and scribbled while the red monkeys held onto their hats and shouted at each other.

The men behind looked much more imposing.  They stood in neat formation, four rows of five.  They wore armor that glittered like fish scales.  They carried long spears and wore curving swords at their hips.  Bows and quivers of arrows had been slung over their shoulders.  One young man led them, his face stern, his eyes cold with anger.  Not at her, she thought in the odd, slow moment of her staring at him, but at the men in red.  Beside him, on a smaller horse sat a single woman in a plain white dress carrying a white staff as the soldiers carried their spears.

They were not her father’s men.  All of them — the red monkeys and the soldiers, the boys, the secretaries,  the bearers and that one woman in white stared at the women and naked Natharie with the dripping flower garlands disintegrating on waist and shoulders.

A horse.  Red-robed…priests.  Soldiers.  Natharie knew what she saw, and knowing made her blood run cold.

Hastinapura.  They’ve come back.

The soldiers’ leader met Natharie’s eyes, drew himself up a little taller, and the moment broke.  The world exploded into motion.  Anun shoved Malai behind her.  The women on the shore scattered, clutching the wealth they’d brought for Natharie.  Mother charged forward with the red dress that should have been wrapped ceremonially around Natharie and tossed it over her to cover her nakedness.  Anun shouted something.  Natharie snatched up little Malai, tossed the girl across her shoulder and began to run.  Mother saw she held Malai, and with her skirts hiked up around her knees, she ran past.  Natharie heard womens’ screams, the boisterous sounds of men’s laughter, and shrill shouts that could have only been the red priests.  She thought she heard Sathi shouting, but she could barely breathe, let alone understand what was being said..  It took all the breath she had to find her stride to get Malai and herself back to safety .

Rusara, Vikka and a few of the others had caught up with them, and all they ran together.  Natharie’s head spun but she had no breath for asking questions.  She could only clutch at the red cloth with one hand and her little sister with the other and try to keep running.

They reached the edge of the rice fields.  Laborers cried out to see their queen and her maids racing through the brown grass and only belatedly fell to their knees.  A horn sounded.  Men, soldiers — father’s soldiers — poured across the canal bridges and surrounded all the women.

They must know what is happening.  Natharie set Malai on her feet and hugged her close, relieved that her little sister was too short of breath to ask questions she did not have wit or wind to answer.

Mother was talking fast, giving orders.  Anun was rattling off descriptions and numbers to the soldiers and orders to the women’s guards who arrived at a dead run with them.  Behind the first flood of soldiers came a troop of bearers with a double palanquin.  Mother boosted Malai into it, and Natharie scrambled in behind while Anun snatched a spear out of the hand of the nearest guardswoman to take her place beside them.

“Hurry!” Mother called to the bearers, and they did.  They lurched and rocked so badly, Natharie was afraid they’d be thrown out.  Poor Malai huddled on the floor, hugging their mother’s knees.  Mother wrapped one arm around her daughter and gripped the canopy support with the other, her face grim and her jaw clenched tight.

Natharie clutched the nearest canopy pole, suddenly, childishly incensed at what had been ruined.  She had waited years for this day.  She was supposed to be covered in women’s finery – gold and jewels and perfume.  She was supposed to be walking through the streets in her gilded sandals while the people showered her with flowers.

She was not supposed to be running from the priests of the northern empire and their barbaric sacrifice.

When they reached the dark wood and gilt walls of the palace, the gates were already open.  Father, King Kiet of Sindhu, waited there, his craggy face taut with fear and fury.  The bearers barely had time to set them down on the palm-lined lawn before Mother had leapt out to grab his hands.

“The horse…from Hastinapura,” Mother gasped.  “The emperor’s horse.”

“I know.  We had a messenger.”  Father covered her long hands with his square ones.

“Why now?” she demanded.  “Chandra has been on the throne four years, why does he send out the horse now?”

When Father just shook his head, Mother covered her face.  “Ah!  Why not yesterday?  Why today?”

Ancient Tia, had come up to the side of the litter, wheezing from the run, and was tugging at Natharie’s arm.  “Come chil…Natharie.  You cannot be seen like this.”

But defiance filled Natharie and she stayed where she was.  Malai slipped up to her, grasping her hems.

“What’s happening?” the little girl demanded.  “Tell me!”

Father looked at her, and Natharie swallowed as she saw the unspoken order in his eyes.  Her first duty as a woman had come.  She wrapped her arm around Malai’s thin shoulders.  “We cannot talk of such things here.”

Malai pulled back, belatedly aware of how many people filled the yard — secretaries, servants, soldiers, merchants, farmers, all sorts of people kneeling before the royal family with their heads pressed against the dusty ground, but with their ears wide open.  She straightened herself up and tilted her chin up.  Showing all the angry dignity an eight-year-old girl could muster, Malai turned on her heel and walked toward the doors of her palace home with her nurse fussing behind her.

Mother pressed Natharie’s hand.  “There will be an audience,” she said and quickly turned to Natharie’s sisters and the other women.

Natharie felt light-headed.  A strange buzzing filled her ears as she walked slowly, carefully to her own chamber.  There, her maids greeted her with fuss and flutter and a hundred questions.

“There will be an audience,” she said, hearing her own voice only at a great distance.  “I must be ready.”

To their credit, her women stopped their questioning.  They hurried forward with basins and cloths, to clothe her properly in red and gold, wash her skin with cool water, to comb and dress her hair, ready to receive the high golden cap that was her crown as eldest of Sindhu’s royal daughters.

While they worked, Natharie stared out of the great arched windows leading to her balcony, overlooking the gardens, the fields, and the river beyond.  She was looking along the bank for dots of white and red.  She saw nothing but the roots of the white mountains that held up the sky.

Hastinapura.  The great empire to the north.  Natharie had been only four years old when they last came.  She remembered being held in her mother’s arms to watch father as he lead  away the long columns of the army.  Father had been gone for more than a year.  When he came back, he was dusty and he stank, and he had the wound that left a white and ragged line behind his ear, but he was triumphant.  He and mother had talked a lot about treaties and other things she did not then understand.  She did understand that her father had persuaded the emperor on the Pearl Throne not to bring his armies into their land of Sindhu and take her parents away.

Now, three times a Sindhu sent tribute up the river on long lines of flat-bottomed boats; bales of rice, great logs of teak and mahogany, chests of the gold dust that washed down from the white mountains into the streams that fed the Liyoni.  All of this went to Hastinapura, where the men were so afraid of women they locked them up and wouldn’t even look at them in the time of love, yet allowed sorcerers to live right in the palace with the king, instead of sending them into the forest monasteries to study and pray and keep the temptation and corruption of power away from the weak and the vulnerable.

These were the red-and-gold men who walked over their grasslands behind the shining black horse.  This was the lead soldier with the cold eyes.  Eyes that had seen blood sacrifice over and over again, that helped it and honored it.  Eyes that looked on the land of Sindhu and saw it as their property.

Then, she thought of Malai alone in her chamber, at least as frightened as Natharie was, and bewildered at the wreckage of this celebratory day.  When the maids finished tucking the last fold of Natharie’s scarlet gown, she rose and went to her little sister.

Malai’s nurse, old Seta was finishing Malai’s hair, braiding it with gold as she knelt on the floor, looking more stunned than patient still.  The girl had been dressed in emerald green embroidered with golden birds.  She was a delicate child, Natharie thought fondly, sadly, and she would be a beautiful woman when her turn came.

Natharie must have made some sound, because Malai turned her head.  She did not speak.  She just tilted her chin up again, letting her interfering older sister know that she was still angry.

Natharie was smiling; and since she was not refused permission to enter, she walked into the room.  Malai smelled of sandalwood, sunlight and sweat.  Seta placed a pillow for Natharie beside her sister.  Natharie knelt on the cushion and began to speak.  She spoke slowly and calmly, falling into the rhythms of reciting an old poem, grateful for the distance and discipline the pretense gave her.  “In Hastinapura, when a new emperor ascends to the Pearl Throne, they have a week of mourning for the old emperor, and then a week of sacrifice and celebrations for the new.  At the end of this time, a black horse is sent out from the city.  The horse roams where it will for a year before it returns to be sacrificed.”

Malai swallowed and Natharie nodded, silently acknowledging the little girl’s thought.  The Seven Mothers who were worshipped in Hastinapura demanded blood for the smallest blessing, it was said.  The magnificent creature they had seen was destined for the knives of the priests.

“Whatever land the horse crosses is said to belong to Hastinapura, by the will of their Mothers.

“Centuries ago, an army of conquest followed the horse, but now it has only an honor guard, as you saw.  If any of those who accompany the horse do not come back alive, and with enough celebratory tribute following them, it is the land they were last seen that will bear the blame, and the punishment.”

Slowly, the meaning of those words sank in and Malai shuddered.  Natharie knew what she was thinking, because she had been thinking the same thing since they had reached their home and she was able to think at all.  The emperor on Hastinapura’s Pearl Throne expected more tribute.  Wealth.  Servants.

Women.

There were always women in the tribute.  Mostly servants, but every so often, a daughter of one of the high houses.

Why did it have to come today? Mother had wailed.  Today, when Natharie became a woman and was ready to be given in marriage as the treaty spelled out.  True the contract had not been formally witnessed, but letters had been exchanged between the kings, promises had been made and her name had been bound to those promises.  Yesterday, when she was still a girl, she could have been the one to go to Hastinapura.  Now, if a daughter was demanded, there was only tiny Malai left to go.

Nausea gripped Natharie’s stomach.  Only little Malai, the youngest of three daughters.  Only a daughter, with three brothers who would remain in the house.  Oh, no.  Malai was not too much to ask.  Not too much to give to Hastinapura and their bloody goddesses to prevent a war.

The thought made Natharie sick, even as she realized the same reasoning could apply to any of them.

“But we have a treaty,” Malai said, invoking the word like a magic charm.  It had prevented so much, surely it could prevent this.

“We had a treaty with the old emperor,”  said Natharie.  “Our father, and our ambassadors say his son is a very different man.”  She had heard the gossip late at night, after banquets and around corners.  The new emperor was not well liked.  He was shiftless and lazy.  The most daring, when they thought no one was listening, wondered softly if King Kiet had made the Hastinapuran treaty knowing that when the old emperor died the young one might not be able to hold the new lands.  Natharie had often wished this was true, but if it was, that plan would come to fruition too late for Malai.  “There are…complications with his rule.  It may be he has decided it is time to make his authority…” her mouth twisted sourly.  “Well understood.”

Malai stared up at Natharie, her wide brown eyes blinking for a moment.  Then she leaned forward, wrapping her arms tight around Natharie’s neck.  Natharie hugged her back, as if she could keep her sister safe with the strength of her own arms.

“All will be right, little sister,” she whispered.  “The wheel turns for us, that is all.”

But she did not feel serene or resigned as she spoke.  Instead, she felt hard as flint and as sharply edged, and when she tilted up Malai’s chin so her sister had to look into her eyes, she knew an anger so fierce, Natharie was surprised Malai could not feel its heat.

“Come, sister.” Natharie stood, holding herself with all the poise she could muster.  “Let us go hear what is required of us.”

Cool and graceful, Malai rose, much more a woman than the girl who ran laughing to the river, and followed Natharie to the audience chamber.

The audience hall was already full by the time they reached it.  Father sat on the ancient golden throne, the three-tiered crown on his head and the ivory staff in his hand.  Mother, crowned in gold and pearls, sat at his right.  Beneath the great symbol of her rank, her face was rigid and cold.

Look on her, she thought toward the Hastinapurans.  We do not fear our women in this land.

On Mother’s right-hand side, Natharie’s full-blood brothers and sisters sat absolutely still, without prompting from their nurses and governors who stood behind them.  All of them, even little Bailo, were arrayed in their best clothing and crowned according to their birth order.  Kitum, the oldest boy and the heir, did his best to look regal, but his young face was pale.  He had listened well to his teachers, and knew enough to fear the Northern Empire.

To the left of the dais, knelt the viceroy and the servants of the throne in their golden robes and collars.  The “aunties,” father’s four concubines, knelt below these.  Their children were arrayed with them, as serious and as still as the full-blood royals.  What was to come affected them all.  No one would be left untouched.  For once even sly, insinuating Radana looked concerned, and all the fear was almost worth it for that sight.

Natharie walked deliberately, gracefully between the throne and the kneeling Hastinapurans.  She moved slowly, keeping each gesture separate and precise.  She knelt before the dais and set the edge of first her right hand, then her left hand on the woven rush mat and pressed her head to them in obeisance to her father.  Beside her, Malai did her best to move in time with her older sister.

Natharie counted five full heartbeats before she rose with Malai and walked slowly to assume her place at little Bailo’s right hand.  Natharie brushed Bailo’s hand with her arm as she sat, a gesture they had used many times before, and felt him move his little finger in response.  They could not hug or even look at each other in formal audience, but they could share this bit of warmth and silent reassurance.

We are all here.  We are together in this.

She wished she could give such reassurance to Kitum.

As she knelt in her place on the carved platform, she was able to take stock of the Hastinapurans.  Their leaders — the hard-eyed captain of the soldiers and the red-and-gold priests — knelt on the mats before father and the throne.  They all looked very proper and respectful, save one.  The tallest of the priests let his gaze impatiently flicker here and there, taking in the audience hall with its golden images of the ancestors, the gods and the Awakened One.  His face grew more deeply sour with each thing he saw.  His huge, hard hands plucked restlessly at the cloth of his robe where it lay across his thighs.  What actions did those hands wish they could take?

The one woman who had accompanied the Hastinapurans was also there.  She knelt at the back of the hall with the servants and the soldiers, her white clothing making her stand out among the vivid hues of silk and gold.  Natharie felt an involuntary shiver run down her spine.  She must be the sorcerer who followed the prince.  The rulers of Hastinapura had sorcerers accompany them wherever they went.  Could this one weave some influence from where she sat?

No.  If that could happen, Father would have denied her entrance.  Natharie tried to remind herself that father knew much more of Hastinapurans and their ways than she did, but the trust she needed was hard to find.

Suthep, father’s wizened viceroy thumped his ebony staff on the floor.  At the same time, the great gong was struck, the deep, long sound reverberating throughout the hall.

“Kiet Somchai, Great King of Sindhu will now hear the petitioners before him!”

The gong was struck again, and Natharie suppressed a smile.  Petitioners.  Very good.  The deep frown on the big priest’s face showed he keenly felt the insult.

The captain of the soldiers kept his face absolutely still and dignified as he made his bow from where he knelt.

“Great King, I am Prince Samudra tya Achin Ireshpad, First Prince and Son of the Pearl Throne.  I bring you greetings from my brother Chandra tya Achin Harihamapad, Emperor of Hastinapura, Revered and Respected Father of the Pearl Throne and Beloved of the Seven Mothers.”

Prince?  It was all Natharie could do not to stare in shock.  This man in plain and dusty armor, commanding a tiny troop of soldiers from horseback was a prince?  Father would not even send one of her half-brothers out with so little to mark and protect his rank.

Father nodded once in acknowledgement of the prince’s statement.  “You are welcome here, Prince Samudra.  What has brought this honor to our house?”

The big priest flushed, clearly angered by this feigned ignorance.  Natharie concentrated on remaining properly composed and calm.  Malai shifted her weight, probably itchy.  Natharie flicked her little finger.  Malai caught the gesture and stilled.

“Great King,” said Prince Samudra, seemingly unperturbed by having to state his errand aloud.  “As well you know, when a new emperor ascends the Pearl Throne it is right and proper that all who receive the throne’s protection celebrate the continuation of peace and harmony by sending gifts and ambassadors.”  He spoke Sindishi without a trace of accent, which somehow eased Natharie’s feelings toward him.  She also noted that in his well mannered speech, he said not one word about the horse, or the soldiers.  This one was a diplomat as well as a prince.

Again, Father nodded.  “And this we did.  When Emperor Chandra took his father’s place, four years ago.”

The Hastinapuran prince’s face tightened for a moment, and Natharie thought he might be suppressing a sigh.  She found herself wondering how many times he had knelt like this, and made this same demand of other kings.  Sindhu was one of twenty “protectorates,” taken by the old emperor.  Were all of them visited by the horse and the prince?

“Your gifts were received with great thanks,” answered Samudra solemnly.  “But as the great king knows, not all the proper ceremonies were able to be completed at that time.”

The big priest’s fingers were tapping now, showing how difficult it became for him to hold his impatience at bay.  Natharie felt a cold knot form beneath her heart.

“And they are to be completed now?” Father asked.

The prince nodded once.  “Even so.”

Father considered this for a long, uncomfortable moment.  The priest’s frown deepened, although the prince remained calm.

At last, father said, “I am delighted that the emperor is so secure in his place that he is now able to turn his mind from the affairs of state to the affairs of Heaven by which blessing each of us has our place on the wheel.” Father kept his voice carefully bland.  “We are happy to house and feed the pilgrims of the Pearl Throne as they cross Sindhu and of course, they will be under the king’s protection.  I will speak to my generals about proper escort.”

Natharie’s fingers threatened to curl into fists.  He’s going to make them say it.  He’s going to make them demand the tribute.

“I am honored to receive the great king’s assistance,” answered Prince Samudra, inclining his head once more.  “I fear that we may have to trespass on your hospitality for a little while longer.  There are several matters which require discussion.”

Now it was father who frowned, in apparent confusion.  “Can that be done?  It is my understanding of the ceremony that you must follow the horse wherever and whenever the Mothers lead him.”

That hit hard.  The big priest was now the same scarlet color as his robes, and the prince, for a fleeting second, looked distinctly uncomfortable.

“Great king,” said Prince Samudra quietly.  “You and I both know what is happening.  I ask your tolerance and forbearance.”

“Yes, we do know what is happening,” father answered.  “You are saying that our offerings and embassage of four years ago were inadequate.”

The prince took the accusation without flinching, and met the king’s eyes.  “I would never say that, great king.  You know this.”

Father leaned forward, looking down on the kneeling man.  “I thought I did, Prince Samudra,” he spoke softly, but his voice was pitched to carry through the hall.  “But if the purpose of this so-called sacrifice is not to wheedle more tribute out of your protectorates, what is it for?”

Which was the end.  The big priest shot to his feet.  The golden scarf around his thick neck slithered to the floor with the violence of his motion.“Barbarian!” he shouted.  “How dare you profane the holy mysteries!  You worship a vain human who dared deny the Mothers!  You sit on your gilded…”

“Divakesh!” The prince also stood swiftly.  “Silence!”

It was too much for little Bailo.  A whimper escaped him and he cringed backwards into his nurse’s arms.  All Natharie’s other siblings took the opportunity to huddle together.  Natharie made herself sit still.  She was the oldest.  She must remain still, as still as mother was, as still as father on the throne.  Even while the court gasped and muttered, they would be absolutely correct.  Behind them and on either side, the guards had shifted their grip on their spears and their swords.

If the priest noticed any of these things, the only effect was to increase his rage.  “I will not be silent!” His voice shook from fury.  “You will tell this petty chief that his children belong to the Mothers as does any other thing They see fit to require of him!  You will tell him…”

“Priest,” said the prince, and this time his voice was low as the first rumble of the earthquake.  “You will leave the hall at once.  You will not reenter it unless I send for you and then you will only do so in proper respect for the great king.”

They stood there, each daring the other with his own pride, authority and history.  Natharie risked a glance at her father, and she saw a tiny smile on his face.  In that moment, she understood.  Father had not been speaking to the prince at all, but always to the priest.  He saw the weak link and he pressed against it until it broke.

The priest turned on his heels and marched toward the door.  Before the tension could break, Radana startled them all afresh, by leaping from her place with the other concubines and scuttling forward to claim the golden scarf the priest had let fall.

“My lord?” She knelt in front of him as humble as any servant and holding the scarf up for him to take.

It was a wonderful move.  It broke the terrible tension his outburst had brought.  Natharie was sure she heard one of the serving women snicker.

The priest who could not turn any more red, snatched the scarf way and left the hall.  Radana bowed deeply to the king and queen and returned to her place with the other concubines, a smile of smug satisfaction on her face.

For all this, it was now the prince who was shamed and he who must act humble.  Which he did, bowing deeply.  This time, his forehead touched the mat.

“Great King, I am truly sorry for this outburst.  Divakesh is diligent in his piety and it is my fault for not instructing him more carefully on the ways of the Awakened lands.  It will not happen again, I promise you.”

Father sat back, looking haughtily down his nose.  “That is the man who will perform the sacrifice when it is time?”

“Yes, Great King.”  The prince sounded plainly puzzled.

“The horse then belongs to the Mothers and he will…send it to them at the appointed time?”

“Yes.”

Now father spoke with cold precision.  “Given this, what did your man mean when he said my children belong to the Mothers?”

Murmurs flitted through the air.  Natharie heard again the sound of shifting weight, the faint jingling of scaled armor as the soldiers readied themselves in her defense, in the defense of all.  At the same time, fear bit hard into her.  The priest did not mean they were to be killed.  He could not.  Did the Mothers drink human blood?   Ima, Bailo’s nurse, held him close, murmuring comfort.  Natharie was ashamed of herself for thinking his nurse should sit him up straight.  They could not afford to show less than perfect dignity now.

Prince Samudra took in a long, breath and let it out slowly.  “Great King, the priest Divakesh spoke hastily and without thought.  I beg you not give any consideration to his words.”

But Father would not be placated.  “He spoke of my children, Prince Samudra, of my son and heir.  I must consider his words, and I must have them explained.”

Prince Samudra hesitated.  His eyes flickered toward the princes and princesses where they knelt.  For a single heartbeat, his gaze met Natharie’s once more, and to her surprise, she saw pain there, behind the anger and the carefully crafted mask of patience.

Then it was gone and the prince’s attention was fully on the king again.  “It is our hope, great king, that you will agree that some members of your family will come with us to reside in the Palace of the Pearl Throne to strengthen the ties that bind our lands together.”

Hostages.

“Some members?” said the king slowly.  “Your man spoke of all my children, the whole of the royal line of Sindhu.”

For the first time, Prince Samudra’s patience seemed to slip and his voice took on a brittle edge.  “Again, I beg Your Majesty to overlook those intemperate words.  We have much to learn from each other, your people and mine.  It is my sincere hope that knowledge and friendship can be increased by this exchange.”

“Exchange?  What will the Pearl Throne leave here when I have sent my children to the Mothers?”

“You know full well, Great King,” said the prince quietly.

He meant that sovereignty would be left.  Father would be allowed to hold the throne and the name of king, if he gave up what was demanded.  If he gave up Malai to the quiet prince, the white sorceress and the hard-handed priest.

Natharie knew at that moment what she must do.  The realization made her weak as water, but she understood it was the right thing, the only thing she could do to save her brothers and sisters, to keep Kitum, Malai and little, frightened Bailo and all the others free.  There was a treaty, there were promises, but she was more free than her married sisters and she could not, she would not let this burden fall to Malai

She lifted herself up, and on her knees she approached the throne.  The room watched her move in in stunned silence.  She felt the weight of their varied gazes like cold stones against her back as she made her obeisance and held it.

“Great king, great father, I offer myself to this office.”

Keep your places, my brothers and sisters.  Awakened One, let them see and let them hold their tongues.  Let me be the only one.

Father held his peace, one heartbeat, two, three, four.  “My daughter makes a tremendous offer,” he said quietly, and Natharie heard the words rasp and catch in his throat.  “I do not believe any other princess of her blood has ever done such a thing before.  What do you say to it, Prince Samudra?”

The sound of shifting cloth told Natharie the prince bowed.   “In the name of the Mothers and the Pearl Throne, I do accept this offer.”

And it was done.  Natharie lifted her head and met her parents’ eyes.  Father looked sad, but Mother’s eyes were wild.  She looked as if she would jump to her feet and shout denial just as the priest had, but she did not move.  She could not move.  Natharie had cast the dice, and only the Awakened One now could see how it would land.

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