THE GOD-CHOSEN by Lynn Abbey
He might have been a stonemason by the way he swung the long-handled hammer save that no solitary stonemason would be working before dawn in the unfinished temple. He might have been a soldier since, when a younger man appeared, he exchanged the hammer for a sword and held his own in a practice session that went on until the sun edged through the leaning stone columns. He was, in fact, a priest-a priest of the Storm God Vash-anka, and therefore a soldier and stonemason before all else.
He was a Rankan aristocrat: distant nephew to the late, unlamented Emperor; equidistant to the new one as well-though none would have recognized him with sweat making dirty tracks down his back and his black hair hanging in damp, tangled hanks. Indeed, because of the hair and the sweat his peers from the capital would have picked his tall, blond companion as the aristocrat and labelled the priest a Wrigglie or some other conquered mongrel. But there were no observers and none who knew Molin Torchholder mentioned his ancestry.
He'd been born in the gilt nursery of Vashanka's Temple in Ranke-the well-omened offspring of a carefully arranged rape. His father maimed or killed ten men of impeccable lineage before claiming Vashanka's sister, Azyuna, in the seldom enacted Ritual of the Ten-Slaying. It did not matter that Azyuna had been a slave or that she'd died giving birth to him. Molin had been raised with the best his mortal father and Vashanka's cult could offer.
His rise was steady, if not meteoric: An acolyte at age five, he traveled with the army before he was ten. He was fourteen when he engineered the siege at Valtostin, breaching the walls at four places in a single night. Some said he'd become Supreme Hierophant, but his accomplishments in war, destruction and intrigue were not accompanied by the proper deference to his superiors. He'd disappeared, apparently in disgrace, into the inner sanctums of the Imperial Temple, re-emerging in his early thirties to accompany the inconvenient Kadakithis into exile in Sanctuary.
"You'd send half the men on the barricades to an early death," Walegrin, commander of the regular army's garrison in Sanctuary, complimented the priest as they set aside their swords. "Pity the fool who thinks Vashanka's priests are soft."
Molin immersed his face in a bowl of icy water rather than acknowledge Walegrin's admiration. Vashanka's priests were soft, due in no small part to the irremediable absence of the god himself. Vashanka had died in Sanctuary-died because when a god is separated from his worshipers, the worshipers go on living-not the god. And the priests, intermediaries between worshipers and gods, what of them when a god had simply vanished? It was not a question Molin enjoyed pondering.
He settled the tunic of a successful tradesman around his shoulders and hid the hammer in a crack between two man-high blocks of stone. "Did the barricades hold last night?" he asked, tucking the sword into a saddle-sheath.
"Our lines held," Walegrin replied with a grimace as they left the enclosure of Vashanka's last, incomplete temple. "There was trouble Downwind between the Stepsons and the rabble-again. And something dead or deadly moving along the White Foal. But nothing to disturb our fish-eyed masters."
It was Ilsday for the Ilsigi, Savankhday for the Rankans and Belly's-day for the Beysin (who demonstrated their barbarism by giving days to their bodies rather than to the gods); but, most important, it was Market-day. Civil war would abate for one day while partisans and rivals rubbed shoulders in disorder of another kind. The Path of Money, like every other thoroughfare in town, was filled with the intense activity of commerce-legal and otherwise. The pair was separated near the Processional when a food stall erupted in flames. Walegrin, the soldier and representative of such order as the town possessed, went to the merchant's aid and Molin, in the disguise of a merchant himself, found his journey redirected into a tangle of streets.
Here, where a rainbow of painted symbols proclaimed which gangs and factions had been paid off by each household, there was no amnesty and a well-fed man on a well-fed horse was only a moving target. Torchholder shed his merchant's demeanor: straightening his back, holding the reins in one hand while the other rested on his thigh ready to wield whatever weapon his cloak might conceal. Ragged children gauged his ability to defend himself by shouting epithets combining anatomy and ancestry with an originality a soldier could admire-never guessing that they cursed Vashanka's Hierarch in Sanctuary. He ignored them all as he turned down a sunnier alley.
Then the sunlight vanished. The heavy black clouds which had foretold countless perversions of weather since the Storm God's demise condensed overhead. A blast of ice-laced wind roared down the alley making the horse rear in panic. The children and beggars struck the moment Molin's attention was on the horse instead of Sanctuary, and the priest found himself in the midst of a deadly little alley-fight even as needle-like pellets of sleet began their own assault from the sky.
He dropped the reins, a signal to his army-trained horse that it was free to attack, and drew the sword from its saddle-sheath. The odds swung back in his favor once he got a film grip on the hand pressing a knife into his kidney and tossed that urchin back into the street. Whatever his attackers had expected it wasn't a merchant who fought like one of the thrice-damned Stepsons and, though they would have dearly loved to drag this anomaly back to their leader for a closer interrogation, they cowered back under the eaves. Molin gathered the reins, pounded his heels against the gelding's flanks and made a dash for the Palace.
"Send for a groom to take this horse to the stables and see that he's well-cared for," Torchholder demanded when he reached the guardhouse at the West Gate of the Palace, forgetting his torn and dripping tradesman's clothes.
"Forgettin' your place, scum? I don't take orders from stinkin' Downwind scum ..."
"Send for a groom-and hope that I forget your face."
The soldier froze-tribute to the instant recognition the Storm Priest's oratory could claim and to the unconcealed rage that accompanied Molin's crisp movements as he wrapped the reins around the guard's trembling hand. The terrified young man hauled away on the stable-gong rope as if his life depended on it.
The storm intensified once the Hierarch stepped into the vast, empty parade ground before the Palace. Lightning grounded in the mud, releasing steam and stench. Those who remembered the terrible storms of the summer had already taken cover in the deepest, driest rooms. Molin glanced at the annex which housed the two children who were, somehow, avatars of both Vashanka and a new, unconsecrated Storm God, just as lightning caressed it with blue-and-silver. His instinct was to run across the courtyard but his belief that he would survive such bravery was not strong enough; he ducked into one of the stair-niches built into the West Gate.
"My Lord Molin," the bald courtier in rose-and-purple silk said, catching his arm as he strode down the corridors. A mere clothing disguise would never fool a Beysib courtier, accustomed as the Beysibs were to dressing like flowers and dyeing their skin to match. "My Lord Molin, a word with you-"
The Beysibs only called him "Lord" when they were frightened. They had a snake loving bitch for their only goddess and knew nothing of the temper of Storm Gods. Molin plucked his dripping sleeve from the courtier's hands with all the disdain his anger and frustration could muster. "Tell Shupansea I'll come to the audience chamber when this is over-not before," he said in perfect Rankene rather than in the bastard argot that passed for communication between the cultures.
Lightning reflected off the courtier's scalp as he ran to inform his mistress. Molin slid behind a dirty tapestry into the honeycomb of narrow passages the Ilsigi builders had put in the Palace and which the Beysibs had not yet unraveled. Barely the height and width of an armed man, the passages were foul smelling and treacherous, but they kept the remnants of the Rankan Presence in Sanctuary united, to the consternation of their fish-eyed conquerors.
Molin emerged in an alcove where the sounds of the storm were inconsequential in comparison to the fury emanating from a nearby room. An unnatural brilliance filled the corridor before him. His skin tingled when he crossed the sharp line from shadow to light. Thirty-odd years of habit told him to fall to his knees and pray to Vashanka for deliverance-but if Vashanka could have heard him there would have been no need for prayer. He told himself it was no worse than walking on the deck of a sailing ship, and entered the nursery.
The blond, blue-eyed demon he'd named Gyskouras, on the advice of a S'danzo seeress, was the focus of the brilliance. He was shouting as he swung his red glowing toy sword, but the words were lost in the light. The other child, the peaceful child of that S'danzo seeress, had a hold of Gyskouras's leg, trying to pull him away from the motionless body he was battering. Arton, though, was no match for his foster-brother while the god's rage was in him.
Molin forced himself deeper into the blazing aureole until he could grab the child and lift him from the floor.
"Gyskouras," he bellowed countless times.
The boy fought with the determination of a street urchin: biting, kicking, flailing with the straw-sword until Molin's damp clothes began to steam. But Molin persisted, imprisoning the child's legs first, then trapping his arms beneath his own.
"Gyskouras," he said more gently, as the radiance flickered and the sword fell from the child's hand.
'"Kouras?" the other child echoed, clinging now to both of them.
The light flared once and was gone. Gyskouras became only a frightened child wracked with sobs. Molin stroked the boy's hair, patted him between the shoulders, and glanced down where one of his priests lay in a crumpled heap. With a gesture and a nod of his head, Torchholder commanded the others to do what had to be done. When he and the children were alone he sat down on a low stool and stood the child in front of him.
"What happened, Gyskouras?"
"He brought porridge," the boy said between sobs and sniffles. "Arton said he had candy but he gave me porridge."
"You are growing very fast, Gyskouras. When you don't eat you don't feel good." Since they'd brought Arton into the nursery some four months earlier, both children had grown the length of a man's hand from wrist to fingertips. Growing pains were a living nightmare for all concerned. "If you had eaten the porridge I'm sure Aldwist would have given you the candy."
"I wished him dead," Gyskouras said evenly, though when the words were safely out of his mouth he fell forward against Molin. "I didn't mean it. I didn't mean it. I told him to get up an' he wouldn't. He wouldn't get up."
It was only Molin's experience with the children that let him make sense out of Gyskouras's garbled syllables-that and the fact that he'd known, in his heart, what had happened as soon as the storm began.
"You didn't know," he repeated softly to convince himself, if not the child.
Gyskouras fell asleep once his sobs subsided; the Storm God rages always exhausted the small body of their perpetrator. Molin carried an ordinary child to a small bed where, with any luck, he would sleep for two or three days.
'"Kouras can't stay here any longer," Arton said, tugging at the hem of the priest's much-abused tunic.
The S'danzo boy rarely spoke to anyone but his foster-brother. Torchholder let Arton take his hand and lead him to a corner away from the others who were beginning to return to the now-quiet nursery.
"You have to find a place for us, Stepfather."
"I know, I'm looking. When I hear from Gyskouras's father-"
"You cannot wait for Tempus. You must pray. Stepfather Molin."
Talking with Arton was not talking to a milk-toothed child. The seeress had warned him that her son might have the legendary S'danzo ability to foretell the future. At first Molin had refused to believe in the child's pronouncements, until Arton had utterly rejected Kadakithis and the Prince had finally owned up to Gyskouras' true paternity. Now he trusted the child completely.
"I have no gods to pray to, Arton," he explained as he walked toward the door. "I have only myself and you- remember that."
He pulled the curtain shut. The two acolytes who had been arranging Aldwist's corpse on a simple pallet moved aside to let the Hierarch speak the necessary rites of passage. A war-priest, Molin had sanctified the deaths of so many unrecognizable chunks of mortal flesh that nothing could bring a tremor to his voice or gestures. He had come to believe himself truly immune to death's outrages, but the imploded face of the gentle old priest brought twisting pangs of despair to his gut.
"We do not have enough bitterwood for the pyre. Rashan took what we had with him," Isambard, the elder of the two acolytes, informed him.
Molin pressed his fingertips between his eyes, the traditional priestly gesture of respect for the departed and one which, coincidentally, dammed his tears.
Rashan: that conniving, provincial priest whose sole purpose in life, even before Vashanka's death, had been to thwart every reform Molin instituted. A cloud of rage worthy of Vashanka swirled up invisibly around Molin Torchholder. He wanted to confront Rashan, the so-called Eye of Savankala, shove every splintered log of bitter-wood down the whey-faced priest's gullet and use that nonentity to light Aldwist's pyre. He wanted to take his ceremonial dagger and thrust it so deep in Gyskouras's chest that it would pop out the other side. He wanted to take Isambard's tear-stained face between his hands....
Molin looked at Isambard again, little more than a child himself and unable to hide his grief. He swallowed his rage along with his tears and rested comforting hands on the acolyte's shoulders.
"The Storm God will welcome Aldwist no matter what wood we use for his pyre. Come, we three will carry him back to his rooms and you will be his chorus."
They bore their burden in silence. Molin chanted the first chorus with them, then departed for his quarters hoping that the sincerity of the young men's grief would compensate not merely for the missing bitterwood but for Vashanka, Himself, and for his own heart's silence. The priest used another set of passageways to reach a curtained vestry behind his priest's sanctum. A robe of fine white wool was waiting for him and Hoxa, his scrivener, could be heard prodding the brazier on the other side of the tapestry-though just barely. His wife, and whatever gaggle of disaffected Rankan women she'd gathered since dawn, were clambering in the antechamber that separated his sanctum from their conjugal quarters.
He pulled the tunic over his shoulders and winced as the cloth reopened a wound he didn't remember taking. Fumbling in the darkness he found a strip of linen, then emerged into his sanctum clad in boots and loincloth; his robe draped over one shoulder; blood running from his left forearm and a strip of linen between his teeth. Hoxa, to his credit, did not drop the goblet of mulled wine.
"My Lord Torchholder-My Lord, you're injured."
Molin nodded as he dropped his robe on top of Hoxa's carefully arranged scrolls and studied the pair of bloody horseshoes on his arm. The street urchins, possibly, but more likely Gyskouras. With his good arm and teeth he ripped the linen in two. He pulled a knife from his belt and handed it to Hoxa.
"Hold it above the coals. No sense taking chances-I'd rather have the bite of a sword than the bite of a child any day."
The priest didn't wince when the cautery singed his skin, but after the wound was bandaged he used both trembling hands to carry the goblet to his work-table.
"So tell me Hoxa, what sort of a morning has it been for you?"
"The ladies, Lord Torchholder-," the scrivener began, jerking a shoulder toward the door, beyond which a chorus of feminine voices was raised in unintelligible argument. "Your brother, Lowan Vigeles, has been here looking for his daughter and complaining," Hoxa paused, took a deep breath and continued with a credible imitation of Vigeles's nasal twang, "about the lowness of the Rankan estate in Sanctuary, which is still part of the Empire although you have seen fit to conceal the arrival of a coterie of Beysib exiles, and their poorly defended gold, from the Empire, which could put all that gold to good use in its campaigns rather than see it squandered by Wrigglie scum and fish-eyed barbarians."
He took another gasping breath. "And the storm shook the windows loose from the walls. Your Lady Wife's glass from Ranke is ruined and she is in high wrath, I fear-"
Molin rested his head in his hands and imagined Lowan's aristocratic, somewhat vapid face. My brother, he thought to the memory, my dear, blind brother. An assassin sits on the Imperial Throne, an assassin who sent you running to Sanctuary for your life. In one breath you tell me how desperate, how depraved the Empire has become, and in the next you chide me for abandoning it. You cannot have it both ways, dear brother.
I've told you about Vashanka. It will take many years, generations, before the Empire disappears, but it is dead already, and it will be replaced by the people of the new Vashanka. I've already made my choice.
But the priest had said all this, and more, to his brother and would not say it again. "Hoxa," he said, shaking Lowan from his thoughts, "I've been attacked in the streets; I've been to the nursery where the child has killed one of my oldest friends; my arm is on fire, and you talk to me about my wife! Is there anything worthy of my attention in this forsaken pile of parchment before I go fawn at the feet of Shupansea and tell her everything is under control again?"
"The Mageguild complains that we've not done enough to locate the Tysian Hazard, Randal."
"Not done enough! I've poured twenty soldats into our informers. I'd like to know where the little weasel's vanished to! Damn Mageguild: Wait till Randal's here; Randal can do that; Randal fought on Wizardwall-he can control the weather. I could control the weather better than that damned pack of incanting fools! Gyskouras is making the ground move. He's three years old and his tantrums are shaking the stones. We'll have to go to the witch-bitch herself if this keeps up-tell them that, Hoxa, with flourishes!"
"Yes, my Lord." He shuffled the scrolls, dropping half of them. "There's the bill from the metal-master Balustrus for mending the temple doors. The Third Commando asks for a list of warrants against their enemies; Jubal's proxy asks for warrants against Downwinders and merchants; citizens from the jewelers' quarter demand warrants against Jubal's lot and half the Commando; everyone wants warrants on the Stepsons-"
"Any word from the Stepsons' Commander?"
"Straton presented his warrant-"
"Hoxa!" Molin looked up from his writing table without moving his head.
"No, Lord Torchholder. There's no reply from Tern-pus."
The enmity between the priest and the not-quite-immortal commander of the Stepsons had never been expressed in words. It was instinctive and mutual on both sides but now, because Kadakithis had admitted that Tempus was the real father of the tantrum-throwing godlet in the nursery, Molin needed Tempus and Tempus was incommunicado somewhere along Wizardwall.
Torchholder was not, however, allowed the luxury of contemplating the myriad disappointments around him. The door from the antechamber burst open to admit the unhappy figure of his wife, Rosanda.
"I knew you were in here-sneaking around like vermin -avoiding me."
A wife had never been part of Molin's dreams for the future-and certainly not a wife like Brachis had foisted off on him. It was not that the priests of Vashanka were celibate; they had problems enough without such unnatural strictures. Simply put, it was the custom of Vashanka's priests-priests, after all, of the Divine Rapist-to choose rather more casual liaisons among the many Azyunas the temple housed in their cloisters. No Vashankan ever voluntarily plowed the fields with a Celebrant (Hereditary Harridan, in the vernacular) of Sabellia.
"I have affairs in the city which require my presence, Milady Wife," he answered her, not bothering to be polite. "I cannot stand idle each morning while you diddle through your wardrobe."
"You have more important affairs right here. Danlis informs me that no preparations have been made for our Mid-Winter Festival-which, need I remind you, is a mere ten days from now. None of the bitterwood I sent to Ranke for has arrived. Sabellia's sacred hearth will be unpurified and there won't be enough embers for the women to take back to their home-hearths. Now, I know it's too much to think that snake-smitten puppy of a Prince would take his position as Savankala's Flamen seriously enough to attend to these matters, but I would think that you, the ranking Hierarch in Sanctuary, would see that our gods receive proper respect.
"The Flamens of Ils have set their altars up, the Snake-Chanters have theirs. Rashan struggles to honor all the gods without any aid-"
Molin spun the empty goblet between his fingers. "I have no god. Milady Wife, and precious little interest whether anyone scatters scented ashes this winter. Did you feel the ground quiver during the storm-"
"The glass in our bedroom, which you choose to ignore, is on the floor instead of in the windows. You'll have to get that horrid little metal-worker to fix it I won't spend a night with the sea air ruining my complexion."
He paused, thought better of commenting on her complexion, then continued in a softly modulated tone that signaled the end of his patience. "I'll send Hoxa. Now-I have more important matters-"
"Impotent coward. You have no god because you let Tempus Thales and his catamites usurp you. Torch-holder's a True Son of Vashanka,' they told my father. True son of the Wrigglie whore that whelped you-"
The rage Molin had repressed when he looked at Isambard's face burst out. The goblet stem broke with a tiny snap; the only sound or movement in the room. He forced himself to move slowly, knowing he would kill her if she did not get out of his sight and knowing, in a still-sane corner of his mind, that he would regret it if he did. Rosanda edged backward toward the door as her husband pushed himself up from the table on whitened knuckles. She was through the antechamber and barricaded in the bedroom before he said a word.
"Gather my possessions, Hoxa. Move them downstairs while I speak with Shupansea."
Mid-Winter drew closer in a series of dreary days remarkable only for their raw unpleasantness. Gyskouras, still chastened by the death of Aldwist, was almost as reserved as his foster-brother, giving Molin the opportunity to realize that, even without supernatural meddling, the weather of Sanctuary left much to be desired. Not even a blizzard along Wizardwall was as bone-numbing cold as the harbor mists, and no amount of perfume could disguise the fact that the city was filling its braziers with offal and dung.
There were still too many residents in the Palace, Beysib and otherwise, despite reclamation of a dozen or more estates beyond the city walls. Molin, having refused any reconciliation with his wife, lived in a barren room not far from the dungeon cells it resembled. He'd delegated all responsibility for the Rankan state cults to Rashan who, it seemed, was eager to insinuate himself in Lowan Vigeles's good graces. The Eye of Savankala promptly moved his entire disaffected coterie out to his estate at Land's End in hopes that not only could the Rankan upper class maintain itself there, untainted by the Beysib presence, but that they could somehow promulgate the ultimate miracle and propel Prince Kadakithis successfully back to the Imperial Throne.
Molin, in turn, spent all his time studying the reports his underlings and informants brought him, searching for the clues that would tell him which of Sanctuary's numerous factions was most powerful or most volatile. He ceased to care about anything Rankan and thought only of the fate of Sanctuary as it revealed itself through his informants. He left his room only to visit the children and practice with Walegrin each morning before dawn.
"Supper, My Lord Torchholder?" Hoxa inquired.
"It is later. Lord Torchholder. Only you and the torturers are still awake. Your old quarters are empty now. I've taken the liberty of scrounging a new mattress. Lord Torchholder, whatever you're looking for, you won't find it if you don't get some sleep."
He felt his tiredness; the cramps in his legs and shoulders from too little movement and too much dampness; and remembered, with a nicker of shame, that he hadn't bathed in days and stank like a common workman. Limping, he followed his scrivener up to the sanctum where Hoxa had laid out fresh linen, a basin of faintly warm water and the somewhat soggy remnants of dinner. His glass windows, he noted, had been replaced with dirty parchment; his gilt goblets with wooden mugs and his Mygdonian carpet was gone. But she hadn't dared to touch his work table.
"Drink wine with me, Hoxa, and tell me how it feels to work with a disgraced priest."
Hoxa was a Sanctuary merchant's son, without pedigree or pretensions. He accepted the beaker, sniffing it cautiously. "The ladies and the other priests they were the ones to leave the Palace. It seems to me that you're not the one in disgrace-"
He would have said more, but there was a screeching outside the window. His mug bounced across the floor as the black bird sliced through the parchment with a beak and steel-shod talons that were more than equal to the task. "It's back," the young man gasped.
The raven-Molin felt it had begun its life as a raven, at least-carried messages between the Palace and a ramshackle dwelling by the White Foal. It had made its first journey long before the Beysib fleet set sail, offering the priest a precious artifact: the Necklace of Harmony hot off the god Ils's neck. Since then he had trained other ravens, but none was like this bird with its malevolent eyes and a glowing band around one leg to make it proof against all kinds of meddling and magic.
"Get the wine," Molin told Hoxa. "It has a message it would just as soon be rid of."
The scrivener retrieved his mug and refilled it for the bird, but he would go no closer to it than the far side of the work-table and shrank back to the corner while Molin lured the beast onto his arm. Unlike his other winged messengers who carried tiny caskets, this one spoke its message in a language only the proper receiver could understand: another property of the spelled ring. Molin whispered a reply and let it take flight again.
"The Lady of the White Foal wishes to see me, Hoxa."
"The Nisi witch?"
"No-the Other One."
"Will you go?"
"Yes. Find me the best cloak she left behind."
"Now? I'll send for Walegrin-"
"No, Hoxa. The invitation was clearly for one. I hadn't expected this-but I'm not surprised, all the same. If anything happens, you can tell Walegrin when he comes looking for me in the morning. Not before."
He shook out the cloak Hoxa offered him. It was black, lined with crimson-dyed fur, and appropriate for visiting Ischade.
Winter's night in Sanctuary belonged to the warring partisans, the forces of magic and, especially, the dead- none of which challenged Molin as he rode by. He felt eerie sensations as he neared her home: the eyes of her minions, their silent movements around him, her dark-woven wards lifting when he touched the flimsy iron gate.
"Leave the horse here. They don't like it closer."
Molin looked down into the ruined face of a man he had once known-a man long dead and yet very much alert and waiting. He hid his revulsion behind a benign, priestly demeanor, dismounted and let what remained of Stilcho lead the gelding away. When he looked back to the house the door was open.
"I have often wished to meet you," he greeted her, lifting her tiny hand to his lips after the custom of Rankan gentlemen.
"That is a lie."
"I have wished for many things I never truly wanted to have. My Lady."
She laughed, a rich sound that surrounded and enlarged her, and led him into her home.
Molin had prepared himself for many things since clasping the cloak around his shoulders. He had met Stilcho's one eye without flinching, but he swallowed when he entered her seraglio. In candlelight the cacophony of color and texture was shocking. Sunlight, if it ever reached this forsaken chamber, would have blinded a fish-eyed Beysib. Ischade shoved aside a ransom's worth of velvet, silk and embroidery to reveal an unremarkable chair.
"You had something to tell me, in person?" Molin began, sitting uneasily.
"Perhaps I wished to meet you, as well?" she teased. Then, seeing that he did not share her light-heartedness, spoke more seriously: "You have been seeking the Stepson Mage, Randal."
"He vanished more than a month ago. Stolen out of the Mageguild-as I suspect you know."
"Roxane holds him in thrall until he delivers her lover to her. He will die at Mid-Winter if he fails."
"What else-if he fails? One mage, or lover, more or less, could hardly matter to you."
"Let us say that regardless of who might fail-it is not to my interest that Roxane succeed. Let us say that it is not to my interest that you should fail, and fail you would if Roxane has her way."
"And it is certainly not to your interest that you, yourself, fail. So you think that we should, together, protect the mage, the lover and our own interests from the Nisibisi witch?" Molin said, striving to match her tone.
Ischade spun down to sit among her pillows. The hood of her cloak fell back to reveal a face that was beautiful, and human, in the candlelight. "Not together, no. In our separate ways-so none of us fail and Roxane does not succeed. You can understand the dangers of the preternatural around us, the danger to the children you shelter? The ways of magicians do not mix well with the ways of the god-choosers. Sanctuary grows bloated with power."
"And the powerful? If I am to protect those children, I'd be best without any magicians. You, Randal, or Roxane."
She laughed again. Molin saw that it was her eyes that laughed with death madness. "It is not my power that we're talking about. My power is born in Sanctuary itself-in life and death."
"Priests! God-chooser, you think that because you have a ready buyer for your soul you are somehow better than those who must sell theirs piecemeal."
She was angry and her inky eyes threatened to engulf him. Molin rose unsteadily from the chair but faced her without blinking.
"Madame, I am not any persuasion of soul-selling magician: witch, necromancer, or whatever. You speak of interests and failures as if you knew mine. I served Vashanka and the Rankan Empire; now I serve His sons ..." He hesitated, unwilling to speak aloud the concluding phrase that had formed in his head.
Ischade softened. "And Sanctuary?" she concluded. "You see, we are not so different after all: I did not choose Sanctuary; my self-interest chose it for me. My life is complicated by enemies and allies alike. Every step my self interest dictates forces me further down a path I would not willingly travel."
"Then you will help me bring order to Sanctuary?"
"Order brings light into all the comers and shadows. No, Torchholder, Bearer of Light, I will not help bring your order to Sanctuary. I find that snakes, be they Roxane's or Shupansea's, are not to my interests."
"My Lady, we both use black birds. Does this make you a priest or me a wizard? Does it mean we are like Roxane, who favors a black eagle, or like the Beysib, who revere a white bird almost as much as they revere their snakes? Has not our shared, unwilling, concern for this cesspool of a town made us allies?"
"We could be more than allies," she smiled, moving closer to him until he could smell the sweet musk that surrounded her. Molin's dread mastered him. He bolted from the otherworldly house, her laughter and parting words ringing in his ears: "When you meet Randal, ask him about Shamshi and witch-blood."
Stilcho was gone. The gelding's eyes were ringed with white; flickering witch fire clung to its saddle. Molin had scarcely set his feet into the stirrups before it bounded away from the misty clearing. The gelding wanted the warmth and familiarity of its stall within the Palace walls; Molin fought it the length of the Wideway, past the curious fishermen waiting for the tide and the enticements of the few whores not yet taken for the night. They approached Vashanka's abandoned temple, passing behind the arrays of wood and stone which were now being appropriated for the reconstruction of the old Ilsig villas ringing Sanctuary.
One stone, a vast black boulder set deep into the soil and fractured by Vashanka's annihilation, would never be moved again. Molin approached it on foot. He could not make himself form the words to the Vashankan invocations he'd known from childhood, nor could he bring himself to pray, like an ordinary worshiper, to another god. His anxiety, despair and helplessness fled naked toward whatever power might be disposed to hear them.
"OPEN YOUR EYES, MORTAL. GAZE UPON STORMBRINGER AND BOW DOWN!"
Whatever Ischade believed, priests did not often look upon their gods. Molin had seen Vashanka only once: in the chaotic moments before the god's destruction. Vashanka had been swollen with rage and defeat, but his visage had been that of a man. The apparition which flickered above the stone had erupted from the bowels of hell. Molin's quivering knees guided him quickly to the ground.
"DEPARTED. / HAVE HEARD YOUR PRAYERS. I HAVE BEEN WAITING FOR YOU."
Priests shaped the prayers of the faithful to a form acceptable to the god. Each priesthood evolved a liturgy to keep god and worshiper at a proper distance, one from the other. Private prayer was universally discouraged lest it disrupt that delicate balance. Molin had been caught in prayer so private that his conscious mind did not know what longings had drawn the swirling entity from its esoteric plane. Nor did he have any idea how to dispel or appease it if, indeed, either could be accomplished.
"I am troubled, 0 Stormbringer. I seek guidance to restore Vashanka's power to its proper place."
"VASHANKA WAS, IS, AND WILL BE NO MORE. HE DOES NOT TROUBLE YOU. YOUR TROUBLES ARE BOTH GREATER AND LESSER."
"I have but one need, 0 Stormbringer: to serve Vashanka's avatars."
"USE STEALTH, PRIEST, TO SERVE YOUR AVATARS. THAT IS YOUR LESSER TROUBLE. I WILL NOT HELP YOU WITH THE GREATER." The seething cloud that called itself Stormbringer, the ultimate Storm God, inhaled itself. "THAT THORN AND ITS BALM LIE WITHIN YOUR PAST," it whispered as it blended into the first red streamers of dawn light.
Molin remained on his knees thinking he was surely doomed. He had not begun to recover from Ischade's suggestions and insinuations, and now the gods were speaking in riddles: Use stealth; lesser troubles and greater troubles; thorns and balms. He was still on his knees when Walegrin clapped him on the shoulder. "I had not thought to find you praying here." The soldier flinched when Molin turned. "Have I changed so much in one night?" the priest asked.
"Have you been here all night? The sea air is dangerous for those not born to it."
"And lying is dangerous for those not born to it." He took Walegrin's arm and rose to his feet. "No, I went first to the house of Ischade, by the White Foal. She told me that our wayward mage, Randal, has been caught in the Nisi witch bitch's web to serve, our necromancer says, as bait for Roxane's lover." He looked at the swords Wale-grin carried. "I think we will only talk this morning and walk a little-until I can feel my feet. Hoxa will blame himself if I return limping. It was not a good night-"
Walegrin held up his hand for silence. "To walk away from her is cause for prayer."
Molin shrugged the sympathy aside. The need to confess and confide had become all-consuming and Walegrin, however inappropriate, had become its object. "I came here because I did not know what to do next and my thoughts, not prayers, summoned something-a god called Stormbringer. I don't know-maybe it was only a dream. It said I must use stealth to serve Gyskouras and Arton-but that's the lesser of my problems, it says. The greater one is inside me. God or dream, I make no sense from it."
Walegrin stopped as if struck. "Stealth? Randal is bait for Roxane's lover-eh?"
"According to Ischade."
"It fits. It fits, Molin," the blond soldier exalted, using his superior's given name for the first time in their acquaintance. "Niko's been seen at the Mere's Guild."
"Niko-Nikodemos the Stepson? I met him once-with Tempus. Has Tempus returned, then?" Molin brightened.
"Not that anyone's seen. But Niko-he'd be the lover, if rumor's true. More important: He's Stealth."
Torchholder leaned against the gelding. The habit of taking war names was not limited to the Stepsons. He'd become Torchholder one night on the ramparts at Val-tostin, though unlike most, he'd made his war name a part of his known name.
"Find him. Arrange a meeting. Offer him whatever he wants, if necessary." He swung into the saddle, shedding his aches and tiredness.
"Whoa." Walegrin caught the gelding's reins and looked Molin square in the eye. "It said that was your lesser problem. Hoxa says you don't eat enough to feed one of your damn ravens and you sleep on the dirt under your table. You're the only one in the Palace my men respect-the only one / respect-and it's not right for you to be off with 'greater problems.'"
Molin sighed and accepted the conspiracy between the officer and his scrivener. "My greater problems, I was told, lie within my past. You'll have to let me struggle with them on my own."
They rode away from the temple in silence, Walegrin keeping his mare a good distance behind the gelding. He bit his lip, scratched himself and gave every indication of reaching an unpleasant decision before trotting the mare to Molin's side.
"You should go to Illyra," he stated sullenly. "Heaven's forfend-why?"
"She's good at finding things."
"Even if she were, and I admit she is, I've taken her son from her. She's got no cause to do me a favor. I'd sooner ask Arton directly," Molin said, thinking it might not be a bad idea.
"Illyra'd be better. And she'd do it-because you have Arton."
"That smith-husband of hers would use me for kindling. Even if she's forgiven me, he hasn't."
"I'll crush a few wheels and send Thrush with a message that he's needed at the barracks to mend some iron. You'll have the time."
The priest had no desire to talk to the seeress. He had no desire to go rooting around his own best-forgotten memories. Since his estrangement from Rosanda thoughts about his origins, never before a subject of consideration, haunted him. He hoped they'd vanish now that he had a fertile connection between Nikodemos, Randal, Roxane, and the avatars to pursue. "We'll see," he temporized, not wanting to offend his only efficient lieutenant. "Maybe after Mid-Winter. Right now, look for Niko. And strengthen the barricades around the Beysib cantonment. Ischade was honest and playing games of her own at the same time."
Two days, and the miserable nightmare-filled night between them, were sufficient to make Molin reconsider a visit to the seeress. He watched Walegrin mangle some stable implements, then headed for the Bazaar along a route which would not likely bring him into contact with Illyra's husband, Dubro.
He was recognized by the smith's apprentice and admitted into Illyra's scrying room.
"What brings you to my home?" she asked, shuffling her cards and, unbeknown to the priest, loosening the catch on the dagger fastened beneath her table. "Arton is well, isn't he?"
"Yes, very well-growing fast. Has your husband forgiven you?"
"Yes-he blames it all on you. You were wise to see that he was not here. You will be wiser to be gone when he gets back."
"Walegrin said you could help me."
"I should have guessed when that soldier came to fetch Dubro. I have had no visions of gyskourem since Arton went to the Palace. I won't look into your future, Priest."
"There is work for him to do at the Palace and a fair price for his labor. Your brother says you can find that which has been lost."
She set the cards aside and brought the candlestick to the center of the table. "If you can describe what it was that you lost. Sit down."
"It's not a 'something,'" Molin explained as he sat on a stool opposite her. "I've had ... visions ... myself: warnings that there is something within my past which is-or could cause-great trouble. Illyra, you said once that the S'danzo saw the past as well as the future. Can you find my-" He hesitated at the ridiculousness of the request. "Can you show me my mother?"
"She is dead, then?"
"In my birth."
"Children bring about such longings," she said sympathetically, then stared into the void, waiting for inspiration. "Give me your hand."
Illyra sprinkled powders and oils of various colors on his palm, tracing simple symbols through each layer. His palms began to sweat; she had to hold his fingers tightly to stop him from pulling his hand back in embarrassment.
"This will not hurt," she assured him as, with a movement so unexpected he could not resist it, she twisted his wrist and held his palm in the candle flame.
It didn't. The powders released a narcotic incense that not only prevented injury but banished all worry from the priest's mind. When she released his hand and extinguished the candle, most of the morning had passed. Illyra's expression was unreadable.
"Did you see anything?"
"I do not understand what I saw. What we do not understand we do not reveal, but I have revealed so many things to you. Still, I do not think I want to understand this, so I will answer no other questions about it.
"Your mother was a slave of your temple. I did not 'see' her before she had been enslaved. I could see her only because she was kept drugged and they had cut out her tongue; your hierarchy feared her. She was raped by your father and did not bear you with joy. She willed her own death."
Torchholder ran his fingers through his beard. The S'danzo was disturbed by what she had seen: slavery, mutilation, rape and birth-death. He was concerned by what it had to mean.
"Did you see her? See her as mortal eyes would have seen her?" he asked, holding his breath.
Illyra let hers out slowly. "She was not like other women, Lord Hierarch. She had no hair-but a crown of black feathers covering her head and arms, like wings, instead."
The vision came clear to him: a Nisi witch. His elders had dared much more than he had imagined possible; Stormbringer's warning and Ischade's whispers made chilling sense to him now. Vashanka's priests had dared to bring witch-blood to the god. His mouth hung open.
"I will hear no other questions, priest," Illyra warned.
He fished out a fresh-minted gold coin from his purse and laid it on her table. "I do not want any more answers, My Lady," he told her as he entered the sunlight again.
The difference between priests and practitioners of all other forms of magecraft was more than philosophical. Yet both sides agreed the mortal shell of mankind could not safely contain an aptitude for communicative-that is, priestly-power, along with an aptitude for more traditional, manipulative magic. If the combination did not, of itself, destroy the unfortunate's soul, then mage-kind and priest-kind would unite until that destruction was accomplished.
Yet Molin knew that Illyra had seen the truth. Pieces of memory fell into place: childhood-times when he had been subtly set apart from his peers; youth-times when he had relied on his own instincts and not Vashanka's guidance to complete his audacious strategies; adult-times when his superiors had conspired to send him to this truly godforsaken place; and now-times when he consorted with mages and gods and felt the fate of Sanctuary on his shoulders.
No amount of retrospective relief, however, could compensate for the anxiety Illyra had planted within him. He had relied on his intuition, had come to trust it completely, but what he called his intuition was his mother's witch-blood legacy. He did not merely sense the distinctions between probable and improbable-he shaped them. Worse, now that he was conscious of his heritage, it could erupt, destroying him and everything that depended on him, at any moment.
He walked through the cold sunlight looking for salvation-knowing that his impulsive searches were an exercise of the power he feared. Still, his mind did not betray him; his priest-self could accept the path intuition revealed: Randal, the Hazard-mage become Stepson. The magician's freedom would be the byproduct of Molin's other strategies, and for that freedom a priest might reasonably expect the instructions a disowned mage could provide.
It took Walegrin less than three days to corner Niko-demos. Regular sources denied the Stepson was in town. An alert ear in the proper taverns and alleys always heard rumors: Niko had exchanged his soul for Randal's-the mage did not reappear; he had joined Ischade's decaying household-but Strat denied this with a vigor that had the ring of honesty; he was drinking himself to oblivion at the Alekeep-and this proved true.
"He's shaking drunk. He looks like a man who's dealing with witches," Walegrin informed Molin when they met to plot their strategies.
The priest wondered what he, himself, must look like; the knowledge that witch blood dwelt in his heart had done nothing for his peace of mind. "Perhaps we can offer him service for service. When can you bring him to me?"
"Niko's strange-even for a Whoreson. I don't think he'd agree to a meeting and he's Bandaran-trained. Dead drunk he could lay a hand on you and you'd be in your grave two nights later."
"Then we'll have to surprise him. I'll prepare a carriage with the children in it. We'll bring it outside the Alekeep. I trust Stormbringer. Once Stealth sees those children he'll solve that problem for us."
Walegrin shook his head. "You and the children, perhaps. Bribes aside, the Alekeep is not a place for my regulars. You'd best go with your priests."
"My priests?" Molin erupted into laughter. "My priests, Walegrin? I have the service of a handful of acolytes and ancients-the only ones who didn't go out to Land's End with Rashan. I have greater standing with the Beysib Empire than with my own."
"Then take Beysib soldiers-it's time they started earning their keep in this town. We sweat bricks to protect them."
"I'll arrange something. You let me know when he's there."
So Molin moved among the men of Clan Burek, selecting six whose taste for adventure was, perhaps, greater than their sense. He was still outlining his plans when Hoxa announced that the borrowed carriage was ready. They roused both children, and the dancer, Seylalha, from their beds. The Beysib bravos had not exchanged their gaudy silks for the austere robes of Vashanka's priests before it was time to leave the Palace.
As predicted, Niko was drunk. Too drunk, Molin feared, to be of any use to anyone, much less Gyskouras and Arton. The priest tested him with the sort of pious cant guaranteed to get a rise out of any conscious Stepson. Wine had thickened Niko's tongue; he babbled about magic and death in a language far less intelligible than Arton's. There were rumors that Roxane had stolen Niko's manhood and bound the Stepson to her with webs of morbid sensuality. Molin, watching and listening, knew the Nisi witch had stolen something far more vital: maturity. With a nod of his head the Beysibs dragged the unprotesting Nikodemos to the carriage.
He left them alone, trusting Stormbringer's riddles and turning his attention to the frightened little man the Beysibs were interrogating with a shade too much vigor.
"What has he done?" the priest interceded.
"He's painted a picture."
"It's not a crime, Jennek, even if it doesn't reach your aesthetic standards." He took a step closer and recognized the painter who had unmasked an assassination conspiracy a few years back. "You're Lalo, aren't you?"
"It's not a crime-like you said, My Lord Hierarch-it's not a crime. I'm an artist, a painter of portraits. I paint the faces of the people I see to keep in practice-like a soldier in the arena."
Yet the Ilsigi painter was plainly afraid that he had committed a crime.
"Let me see your picture," Molin ordered.
Lalo broke free of the Beysibs, but not quickly enough. Molin's fingers latched onto the painter's neck. The three of them: Molin, Lalo and the portrait moved back into the carriage lantern-light just as a shaken, sober Niko emerged.
"Nikodemos," Molin said as he studied the unfinished, frayed canvas tacked onto a battered plank, "look at this."
The limner had painted Niko, but not as a drunken mercenary in a whitewashed tavern. No, the central figure of the painting wore an archaic style of armor and looked out with more life and will than Niko, himself, possessed. And yet that was not the strangest aspect of the painting.
Lalo had included two other figures, neither of which had set foot in the Alekeep. The first, staring down over Niko's shoulder, was a man with glowing blue eyes and dark-gold hair: a figure Molin remembered as Vashanka moments before the god vanished into the void between the planes. The second was a woman whose half-drawn presence, emerging from the dark background, overshadowed both man and god. Lalo had been interrupted but Molin recognized a Nisibisi witch like his mother had been, or as Roxane still was.
He was still staring when Niko dismissed the Ilsigi limner. The Stepson began to speak of Arton and Gysk-ouras as if he alone understood their nature. The children, Niko announced, needed to be educated in Bandara-an island a month's sailing from Sanctuary. When Molin inquired how, exactly, they were supposed to transport two Storm Children, whose moods were already moving stones, across an expanse of changeable ocean, the Stepson became irrational.
"All right, they're not going any further unless and until my partner Randal who's being held by Roxane, I hear tell-is returned to me unharmed. Then I'll ride up and ask Tempus what he wants to do-if anything-about the matter of the godchild you so cavalierly visited upon a town that had enough troubles without one. But one way or the other, the resolution isn't going to help you one whit. Get my meaning?"
Molin did. He also felt a tingling at the base of his spine. Witch-blood rushed to his eyes and fingertips. He saw Nikodemos as Roxane saw him: his maat, his strength and his emotions displayed like the Emperor's banquet table- and the priest knew witch-kind's hunger.
Niko, oblivious to Molin's turmoil, continued with his demands. He expected Molin to get Askelon's armor out of the Mageguild and to storm Roxane's abode with a company of warrior-priests.
"Are you sure that will be enough?" Molin inquired, his voice turned sweetly sarcastic by the witch-blood appetites.
"No. I will free Randal, but your priests will free me. I will be Roxane's champion-facing your priests-one man against many. You will arrange to capture me unharmed, but you'll make it look good. She must never suspect my allegiance. She must think it's all your doing: priest-power against witchery."
"We are ever eager to serve," the priest agreed.
"And the timing. It must be Mid-Winter's Eve at midnight-exactly. Timing is everything, Hierarch. You know that. When you're dealing with Death's Queen, timing is everything."
Molin nodded, his face a rigid mask of obedience lest his laughter emerge.
"And I'll need a place to stay afterwards. Wherever you've been keeping those children and their mother will do. It's time they had the proper influences around them."
It was all Molin could do to keep silent. Whatever maat gave a man, it wasn't a sense of irony. Stormbringer and the rest of his Storm-kind were leaning hard on this drunk mercenary. His picayune demands became prophecy the moment they slurred out of his mouth. His babble trapped Stormbringer in Sanctuary like a fly in a spider's web. Already Molin could feel the necessary strategies and tactics crowding into his thoughts. Success was inevitable -with one, unfortunate, shortcoming: Molin would become Roxane's personal enemy, and what she would do when she found out who had been his mother was beyond even a Storm God's guess.
Niko was still drunk. He bumped into the carriage as he headed back inside the Alekeep, still muttering orders. The Beysibs moved to haul him back.
"No, Jennek, let him go. He'll be ready when we need him again; his kind always is."
"But, Torchholder," Jennek objected. "He asks for the sun, the moon, and the stars and offers you nothing in return. That's not the bargain you described back at the Palace."
"And it's not the bargain he thinks it is, either."
The witch-hungers vanished as quickly as the Stepson. Molin grabbed the carriage door to keep himself from collapsing. The door swung open, Jennek lurched forward and Molin barely had the presence of mind to haul himself onto the bench opposite the children.
"To the Palace," he commanded.
Molin closed his eyes as the carriage rattled forward along the uneven streets. He was weak-kneed and exhilarated enough that he held his breath to stifle a fit of hysterical laughter. He had felt the naked power of his witch-blood heritage and, much as it had horrified him, he had mastered it. He was revelling in the wonder and simplicity of the strategies unfolding in his mind when Lalo's picture shifted under his arm. With a shiver, the priest reopened his eyes and pulled it away from Gys-kouras's candy-coated grasp. The child's eyes glowed more brightly than the lanterns.
"No," Molin said faintly, realizing that not even Storm-bringer could anticipate the influence and desires of a Storm Child.
"/ want it."
Seylalha, Gyskouras's mother, tried to distract him, but he pushed her back into the comer with a man's strength. Her eyes were as fearful as the child's were angry. Torchholder heard the rumble of thunder and did not think it was his imagination.
" 'Kouras-no," Arton interceded, taking his brother's hand. The children stared at each other and the light ebbed gradually from Gyskouras's eyes. Molin sighed and relaxed until he realized that the light had moved to Arton's eyes instead. "He is ours already, Stepfather. We do not need to take him," the dark-eyed child said in a tone that was both consoling and threatening.
They made the rest of the journey in silence: Seylalha huddled in the corner; the children sharing their thoughts and Molin staring at the triple portrait.
There were two hectic days until Mid-Winter's Eve. Molin had the satisfaction of knowing his plans could not be thwarted and the irritation of knowing the events already in motion were of such magnitude that he had no more power than anyone else to alter them.
By the time the sun set, Torchholder had become hardened to the cascade of coincidence surrounding his every move. He went out of his way to stop the Mageguild from donating Askelon's, and Randal's, enchanted armor to Shupansea in gratitude for her permission to meddle with the weather at their Fete. He even considered refusing it when she suddenly turned around and offered it to him "as we have no Storm Gods nor warrior-priests worthy to wear it." But, in the end, he accepted all her gifts gratefully-including the authority to name Jennek and his rowdy friends as his personal honor guard.
He retired to his sanctum to await the unfolding of fate alone-except for Lalo's portrait. There would be no surprises until Randal walked through the door at midnight-then there would be surprises enough for gods, priests, witches, soldiers and mages alike.