Sneak Peek: Dragon Hunters

Dragon Hunters by Marc TurnerOnce a year on Dragon Day the fabled Dragon Gate is raised to allow a sea dragon pass from the Southern Wastes into the Sabian Sea. There, it will be hunted by the Storm Lords, a fellowship of powerful water-mages who rule an empire called the Storm Isles. But this year someone forgot to tell the dragon which is the hunter and which the hunted.

The second book in The Chronicles of the Exiled by Marc Turner, Dragon Hunters follows Emira Imerle Polivar and others intent on destroying the Storm Lord dynasty. As the Storm Lords assemble in Olaire in answer to a mysterious summons, they become the targets of assassins working for an unknown enemy. When Imerle initiates a planned coup, the enemy makes use of the chaos created to show its hand. Please enjoy this excerpt.

CHAPTER 1

THE TIME had come for Senar Sol to learn his fate.

The Guardian had known it as soon as the bolts of his cell door were thrown back, for this was the first time it had happened in all the months he had been imprisoned. He pushed himself to his feet, found his legs were trembling. How long had he been a captive? How long since he’d stepped through the Merigan portal and swapped Emperor Avallon Delamar’s knife at his back for a sword at his throat? The best part of a year, he realized, for through the bars across his room’s window he had seen autumn, winter, spring, and much of summer pass by. As the weeks of his imprisonment had turned into months, he’d begun to wonder if his jailers would just leave him there to rot. But then why had they kept passing food and water through the grille of his cell door? Why bother keeping him alive at all?

Something told him he was about to find out.

The door opened and torchlight flooded through the doorway, banishing the gloom about the cell. Senar squinted into the light. A balding man entered—the same man to whom the Guardian had surrendered his sword on stepping through the Merigan portal all those months ago to find himself surrounded by enemy soldiers. The guard wore leather armor covered with metal plates that overlapped like fish scales. In one hand he held a sword with a blade made from the snout of a sawfish. Three stripes on his left shoulder marked him as an officer. Senar searched his gaze for any hint as to what his coming here signified, but the man’s expression was masked. He gestured to the open doorway.

Senar scratched at the stubs that were all that remained of the two smallest fingers of his left hand. Beyond the officer waited an escort of no fewer than twelve soldiers. High honor, indeed. Another time, odds of thirteen to one would have meant nothing to the Guardian, but he rejected the idea of attacking for the same reason he’d yielded up his blade after he passed through the portal three seasons ago: even if he could defeat the guards facing him, what about the reinforcements that would inevitably come? And what was the point in trying to escape when he didn’t know what lay beyond the four walls of his cell, didn’t even know in which city of which empire he was imprisoned? Then there was the fact that his time in captivity would have left his skills as rusty as the hinges of his cell door. No, he would not throw his life away while his captors’ intentions remained unclear.

Not when he still had unfinished business with the emperor who had sent him here to die.

Why, then, when the officer beckoned him through the door again did Senar hold back? A smile touched his lips. He had been a prisoner all this time, yet now when he was offered a glimpse of freedom, he hesitated? Better the gallows than this lingering death of the spirit he’d endured these past few months. Though he might see things differently, of course, when he was swinging from the noose.

He hadn’t been heedless of the risks of traveling through the Merigan portals when he stepped through all those months ago. Only two such gateways had been found in Erin Elal—at Bastion and at Amenor—but there were innumerable others beyond the borders of the empire. And while the symbols etched into each portal’s architrave denoted the destinations to which one could travel, the emperor’s scholars had yet to decipher the code behind those symbols. Senar’s destination had been chosen at random, and if that destination had proved to be a gateway that no longer existed, his journey to it would have killed him instantly. Even if the passage had not proved immediately fatal, Senar could have been transported to any one of a hundred different kingdoms, thousands of leagues from home. Few of those kingdoms would look kindly on visitors dropping by unannounced.

So where had the portal brought him? He hadn’t had any visitors in his time here, so no help there. Nor had his captors left any clues in his cell, for the books of poetry and philosophy he’d been given were written in the common tongue by authors from numerous different cultures. Badly written, as it happened. He’d tried looking out of his cell’s window for clues, but there was only so much information he could deduce from the blank wall opposite. From time to time he’d heard people talking outside, but never clearly enough to make out their words. And why? Because they were drowned by the sound of the sea.

The sea.

Senar had come to know its many voices in the months he’d been a prisoner. At times its gentle gurgle put him in mind of sleepy days spent fishing with his father in the sheltered bays east of Amenor—before his father had died. At other times it would rage in the grip of a storm so savage it seemed the Furies themselves were battering at the shutters. Those storms had been one of the things to awaken in Senar a suspicion as to his location. Then there was the style of the armor and sword worn by the officer before him, together with the emblem on the man’s breast of a shaft of silver lightning over a storm cloud.

The Storm Isles—that was where the clues were leading him.

Throughout his imprisonment, he had tried to remember everything he’d heard of that empire. Located in the Sabian Sea to the north and east of Erin Elal, the Storm Isles were a chain of islands ruled by a fellowship of water-mages—the Storm Lords—that held in its thrall a confederation of cities known as the Sabian League. In return for the Storm Lords protecting the League’s shipping from pirates, as well as from the supernatural storms that swept down from the Broken Lands, the League’s members paid tribute to the Storm Lords. The Storm Lords’ seat of government was the city of Olaire on the island of Faeron, a handful of leagues from the fabled Dragon Gate that spanned the Cappel Strait between Dian and Natilly.

The Dragon Gate. Just to speak the name in his mind made Senar’s pulse quicken. Once each year the gate was raised to allow a sea dragon to pass into the Sabian Sea. Awaiting it would be ships from the Storm Isles and the cities of the Sabian League, and they would hunt the creature for the honor and riches that came to the vessel that slew it. Dragon Day. Two words that inspired awe even in Erin Elal.

The balding officer gestured again to the open door, and Senar glanced down at his clothes. They were the same clothes he’d arrived in last year. He looked like a beggar, and he smelled like one too, but if they’d been going to kill him, surely they’d have let him wash and change first. Die with a little dignity, and all that. He stepped through the doorway.

To his right stretched a passage that was featureless but for several closed doors to either side. At the end of the passage was another door, and beyond it was a corridor that seemed cavernous to Senar after the confines of his cell. Its floor was covered by a blue and white mosaic so artfully crafted that, for an improbable moment, the Guardian thought he was standing on a frothing tide.

The officer led the way through a maze of passages. Senar’s legs ached as he struggled to keep pace, but then the months of captivity would have left a few creases it would take time to iron out. The sound of the sea grew louder until eventually he came to a corridor where the boom of waves made it feel as if he were inside a drum. The wall to his right had no windows and was imbued with such powerful water-magic he suspected the sea lay just the other side.

And where there was powerful water-magic, there were powerful water-mages.

The Storm Isles. It has to be.

If Senar’s theory concerning his location was correct, the news was both good and bad. Good in that if he ever got the chance to return home, Erin Elal was only a few weeks’ travel away.

But bad for the same reason. For even though Emperor Avallon Delamar had yet to lock horns with the Storm Lords, it could only be a matter of time. Over the past decade Erin Elal had fought its northwestern neighbor, Kal, to a standstill, and while Avallon would never abandon his ambition to conquer the Kalanese empire, the loosely allied nations to the northeast of Erin Elal surely represented easier pickings. If the emperor were to learn of the Merigan portal in the Storm Isles, the strategic advantages he would gain from a back door to the Storm Lords’ empire could not be overstated.

So why am I still alive?

The question had plagued him throughout his imprisonment. Even if his captors were ignorant as to his identity—and doubtless they were, since no one had bothered to question him—why take the risk of keeping him alive? Why not kill him and be done with it?

Of course, that could be what was about to happen.

The balding officer—a Storm Guard, Senar supposed, if these were indeed the Storm Isles—came to a staircase, and the Guardian followed him up into blistering sunshine. Shielding his eyes against the glare, he stepped onto the roof of the corridor he had been walking along moments ago. He was on a terrace overlooking the sea. The terrace stretched for hundreds of paces in either direction, ending to the east in black cliffs and to the west in a rocky shoreline. Its tiles were slick with spray. Immediately to the south Senar saw the roofs and courtyards of a sprawling building complex. Beyond lay a hill, its lower slopes crowded with white-plastered houses that gave way to trees near the hill’s summit.

To the Guardian’s left stood five figures, all staring down into a courtyard. They turned as he approached. At the center of the group was a woman with skin so pale she might never have set foot outdoors before. Her hair was gray—a curious detail, since she looked only a few years older than Senar. Her blue eyes were as cold as glacial pools, and perhaps ice ran through her veins as well, for her face showed not a bead of sweat in spite of the crushing heat.

To her right stood two young women, identical twins. And a handspan taller than Senar. He disliked them instinctively. Each wore a sword strapped to her waist, and one of them was holding Senar’s scabbarded blade. To the other side of the gray-haired woman was a bearded man wearing a brown shirt and trousers. The whites of his eyes were gray, marking him as an oscura addict. Beside him stood a one-eyed old man with the olive skin of a Remnerol. Like all Remnerol, he was missing the little fingers of both hands. In his left hand he held a black bag. When a gust of wind tugged at the bag, its contents made a clacking noise. Bones. A shaman, then, for the elders of the Remnerol tribes were said to be able to read the future in the cast finger bones of their kinsmen.

The Storm Guard officer bowed to the gray-haired woman. “The prisoner as you ordered, Emira,” he said, raising his voice to make himself heard above the sound of a wave striking the seawall. The spray thrown up cooled Senar’s skin.

The emira inclined her head, and the soldier retreated.

So this was Imerle Polivar, leader of the Storm Lords and reputedly the most powerful water-mage ever to have sat Olaire’s throne; the woman who had brought to an end an ancient dispute between the Storm Isles and the city of Hunte by draining Hunte’s harbor and diverting the river that ran through it; who had destroyed the stronghold of the notorious pirate lord Kapke Kar in the Uscan Reach by pummelling the fortress with waves of water-magic until it slipped into the sea. Of the woman behind the legend, Senar had heard nothing, but all the clues as to her temper were there in her thin mouth and wintry gaze.

The emira studied the Guardian with the same scrutiny with which he regarded her. Then she turned to look down into the courtyard. Senar followed her gaze. At the center of the yard was a wooden post. Tied to it was a stocky man with gray-green skin, naked but for a loincloth. His hands and feet were webbed, and there were gills on his cheeks. An Untarian. Beyond the prisoner, another figure entered the courtyard. Senar did a double take. The man was a giant, half again as tall as the soldiers standing guard along the walls. At first Senar thought he was wearing armor, but when he looked closer …

Matron’s mercy. Years ago, in the Tresson Mountains, Senar had encountered an Uddin tribe who mixed molten iliafa ore with rose blood to create a metal that could be spun into threads as supple as string yet as strong as steel. For every enemy defeated in single combat, the tribe’s warriors would stitch one of these strands through the skin of their upper arms. The giant below Senar, however, had woven the threads across his entire body from the bottom of his ankles to the top of his neck to form a metallic skin that shimmered as he walked. Over his arms, legs, and chest, black hairs sprouted from between the strands. The hilt of a sword was visible over his left shoulder.

He halted beside the Untarian and looked up at the emira.

She nodded.

Senar glanced from Imerle to the prisoner. It seems a show has been put on for me.

The Untarian must have known what was coming, for he started pulling against his bonds. The giant placed a paw on his right shoulder before bending until his face was level with the other man’s. The prisoner gabbled in a language Senar did not recognize. His words had a pattern to them, as if he was chanting some mantra.

On the giant’s left hand was a metal gauntlet with long curved talons. He lifted the gauntlet to the Untarian’s chest and drew its claws across his skin. They left threads of blood in their wake.

The prisoner’s voice grew louder, his eyes bright with defiance.

The giant bared his lips in a snarl.

Then he pulled back his gauntleted hand and plunged its talons into the Untarian’s chest over his heart.

Senar’s expression tightened. The prisoner’s gasp was barely audible above the sound of cracking bones. Blood bubbled at the corners of his mouth, and he slumped against his bindings. He managed another few words of his mantra before his voice abruptly faded as if he’d run out of breath. Five metal claws in your chest would do that, though, the Guardian supposed. Poor sod, Senar thought. What crime had the man committed to warrant such a punishment? Perhaps no more than to be brought before Imerle on the day Senar was released, for the spectacle had clearly been intended as a warning to the Guardian of what would happen if his answers to the emira’s questions failed to please.

When the emira spoke, her voice was as sibilant as the sea. “We are Imerle Polivar, emira of Olaire and first of the Storm Lords.”

We? The woman referred to herself in the plural? But then doubtless she had an ego big enough for two.

The emira nodded toward the oscura addict and continued, “This is our chief minister, Pernay Ord, and beside him”—she indicated the Remnerol—“is our seer, Jambar Simanis.” She paused as if expecting Senar to introduce himself, but when he kept silent she glanced at his halfhand and added, “And you are Senar Sol, member of the Guardian Council of Erin Elal and former apprentice of Li Benir. A diplomat, a spy, an assassin. Which of those three are you here, we wonder?”

Senar rubbed the stubs of his missing fingers. So it was his halfhand that had given him away? His mouth twitched. With the aim of hiding his identity, he had spent countless bells during his captivity inventing an alter ego with a history as rich and detailed as his own. Now, within the space of a few heartbeats, Imerle had rendered his efforts redundant. He had to smile, though. People who couldn’t laugh at themselves were missing out on a rich vein of humor. In response to her question, he gave his best bow and said, “Here, Emira, I am naught but your prisoner.”

“Why were you sent through the Merigan portal?”

So that was the end of the small talk, apparently. Senar was silent, considering. He didn’t want to volunteer information unnecessarily, but neither did he want to be caught being economical with the truth. “If you know about me, you will know of the history between the Guardians and Emperor Avallon Delamar—”

“We did not ask you to tell us what we already know,” Imerle cut in. “We are aware of what happened on the night of the Betrayal. We are aware of your opposition to the emperor, and the reasons why Avallon chose you to travel through the gateway. Our question is, why were you sent here?”

“I was not sent here. I was sent to wherever the portal took me.”

“Meaning?”

“Meaning the emperor has been trying to rid himself of the Guardians for years. The opportunity to pluck a few thorns from his flesh by sending us through the gateway was too tempting to pass up.”

“You are saying Avallon has no interest in navigating the portals?”

“I am saying his professed intention of using the Guardians to decipher the portal’s code is incidental—”

“A moment.” It was the chief minister’s turn to interrupt. “The code? You mean the symbols on the gateway’s architrave?”

The Guardian nodded.

“What is the symbol for Olaire?”

“I do not know. As I stepped through the portal, the symbol was hidden from me by Avallon’s pet mages.”

“And the symbol for Amenor—the city from which you traveled?”

“If I knew that, would I not have used the gateway here to return to Erin Elal when I was confronted by your soldiers?”

Pernay threw up his hands. Yes, how dare Senar bring his logic and good sense here? “This is absurd!” the chief minister said. He looked at the emira, then pointed a finger at the one-eyed Remnerol. “He plays you for a fool!”

The Remnerol smiled inanely. “Your barbs strike at my heart, yet my bosom is armored in the steel of righteousness.”

Pernay shook his head in disgust. To Imerle he said, “You would place your faith in this … this—”

The emira silenced him with a look.

There was plenty going on here that Senar did not understand, but before he could think on it, he noticed a flicker of movement in the courtyard. The dead Untarian had begun thrashing against his bonds once more. And since there was no question of the man still being alive, that could only mean … dragon blood. The claws of the giant’s gauntlet must have been dipped in the poison. Dragon blood was said to scar not just the flesh but also the soul, ensuring the victim’s suffering extended beyond his passage through Shroud’s Gate.

A reminder, as if one were needed, that Senar would have to be on his best behavior.

Imerle said, “You say it was Avallon who ordered you through the portal.”

“Correct.”

“We were of the understanding the Guardians served the empire of Erin Elal, not its emperor.”

“To Avallon the distinction has ceased to have any meaning.”

“And you value his opinion above your own?”

Senar frowned. “Your point is well made. A few years ago his view would have carried little weight with our Council, but the Guardian order has fallen far in that time. The emperor has made sure of it.”

“You hold him accountable for your losses?”

Damned right he did. “He has never acted openly against us, but neither has he passed up any opportunity to whittle down our numbers.”

“Even if by doing so he weakened Erin Elal?”

“The emperor cares not if his horse dies under him, so long as he remains in the saddle.”

“So we understand. In the last two years over a hundred Guardians have been lost, yes? Including your master, Li Benir.”

Senar felt the familiar anger bubble up inside him. He took a breath and let it out slowly. The emira was trying to provoke a reaction in him, but he could not afford to let her succeed. Best behavior, he reminded himself. And at least his spell in captivity had given him time to grieve properly over Li Benir, and Jessca, and other friends lost.

Imerle said, “And yet in spite of Li Benir’s death, when the emperor orders you through the portal, you obey. Why?”

“The word ‘no’ is not one Avallon recognizes.” In hindsight, Senar should have been suspicious of the emperor’s intent when he was summoned to Amenor, but then Senar had long thought himself too important for Avallon to try strong-arming him through the portal. Maybe he still did. Conceited, perhaps? To that charge he had to hold up his hands. Or a hand and a half at least. Thirty of the emperor’s Breakers had quickly disabused him of his pretensions.

The emira said, “Six Guardians were sent through the Merigan portal before you, is that not so? Considering your enmity toward Avallon, you must have known he might make you the seventh.”

“You think I should have run? To where? To do what?”

“The Guardians are all you know.”

“The Guardians are all I have known, yes.” After the death of his father thirty years ago, the Guardians had become the only family Senar had.

“Then you must be anxious to return to Erin Elal.”

Senar was under no illusions on that score. Trapped as he was on an island of water-mages, the chances of him escaping to the mainland were slim at best. More to the point, whatever Imerle’s reasons for keeping him alive thus far, they would count for nothing unless he could convince her his old allegiances were dead. “Return, Emira? So the emperor can send me somewhere else through the portal?”

“So you can avenge Li Benir’s death. So you can help the Guardians regain their preeminence.”

“The Guardians are finished.” It was hard for Senar to say the words, but he couldn’t let any sentiment show in his voice. Even though he feared it might be true. What had happened back home in the months he’d been away? Somehow he doubted the emperor’s campaign against the Guardians had stopped just because Senar was out of the picture. “Even if Avallon does not disband the order, he will make sure its numbers never return to what they were.”

“And you are just going to stand aside and let that happen?”

“There is nothing I can do to prevent it.” He paused. “That does not mean, though, that I will forget the part the emperor played in the Guardians’ demise.”

Imerle turned back to the courtyard. The Untarian’s body had been untied from the post and was now being dragged away by two soldiers. The executioner stood to one side, staring at nothing.

“If revenge is what you seek,” the emira said, “you have come to the wrong place. We have no quarrel with Erin Elal.”

“Not yet, perhaps.”

Pernay sneered. “Would you have us believe Avallon has set his sights on the Storm Isles? Is he in the habit of confiding his plans in you, then?”

Senar caught the man’s gaze and held it. “If you’ve done your homework on me, you’ll know I was sent to Balshazar three years ago to sound out the city’s Ruling Council on the possibility of joining the emperor’s Confederacy against the Kalanese.”

“Balshazar is not a Storm Lord city.”

“But it is part of the Sabian League. It pays you tribute. If Avallon were to gain a hold on the city, do you think he would continue paying? And if Balshazar refused to pay, would that not set a dangerous precedent?” Senar turned to gauge Imerle’s reaction to his words, found her expression as blank as a slab of ice. “But whatever plans the emperor has concerning the Storm Isles, there is one thing of which you can be certain. He is not a man to settle for what he already has.”

Into the silence that followed came footfalls, and Senar looked across to see the balding Storm Guard officer approaching. He halted a few paces away.

“Forgive my interruption, Emira. Mazana Creed’s ship has just docked at the harbor.”

Mazana Creed? A name Senar had heard before, but where?

Imerle had gone still. “Mazana Creed. You are sure, Septia?”

“That is the message I was given.”

When the emira exchanged a glance with Pernay, Senar noticed with a start that a smoldering flame had kindled in her eyes. And not the sort of flame that left him feeling any warmth, either. He’d thought it a reflection of a fire behind him, but no, the flame was actually within the orbs themselves. When she looked back at him, he knew the time of his judgment was upon him. He scratched at the stubs of his missing fingers. What could he say to sway her decision? In an effort to persuade her of his usefulness he had exaggerated the threat posed by Avallon, but the longer Imerle’s gaze bored into him, the more he suspected she was no more taken in by his deception than she was by his feigned indifference to the Guardians’ plight.

He looked at his sword in the hands of one of the twin sisters and saw she was holding it by the scabbard, not the hilt. Did she know he could use his Will to summon the blade to him? Li Benir, the consummate diplomat, used to say that if you had to draw your sword you’d already lost. And the reality was, there was no chance of Senar fighting his way clear of this terrace—when you were standing a handful of paces from the sea you didn’t take on a water-mage of Imerle’s repute and expect to walk away from it. But there were different types of losing, Senar reckoned, and any death at the hands of the emira or the twin swordswomen beat losing a lump of his chest to that metal giant in the courtyard.

You had to take your consolations where you found them.

His look at the weapon had not gone unnoticed by Imerle. She smiled faintly. “Perhaps we should adjourn to the throne room to greet Mazana,” she said. “Join us, Guardian.”

It took a heartbeat for her words to sink in. Was he to be spared, then?

“Emira—” the chief minister began.

Imerle waved him to silence. “Do you know,” she said to Senar, “why we kept you imprisoned for so long?”

He shook his head.

“How many months has it been since you came through the portal? Nine? Ten?”

It was Pernay who answered. “Ten.”

“A man could travel far in that time; is that not so, Guardian?”

“He could,” Senar said cautiously.

“Aside from the Storm Guards who saw you arrive, the only people who know how you came to be in Olaire are those here now, and they can be relied on to keep the information to themselves. We trust the same can be said of you.”

Senar paused, thinking. There was a certain logic to Imerle’s reasoning. When Avallon discovered Senar was in Olaire, all he would know for certain was that the portal to which the Guardian had journeyed was within ten months’ travel of the Storm Isles. Yet if Senar were to reveal the truth of what had happened here … I’m missing something. It was clear the emira didn’t trust him, so why was she taking a chance on his silence? True, she could prevent him from leaving the island, but how could she stop him sending a message to Erin Elal if he chose to do so?

Senar’s gaze shifted to the Remnerol shaman. What had Pernay said to Imerle earlier? He plays you for a fool. Somehow Jambar had convinced the emira to spare Senar’s life, but why?

Rousing himself, the Guardian looked back at Imerle. There was an expectation in her eyes, and Senar knew what she wanted to hear. He had no hesitation in speaking the words, though if his hands hadn’t been on show he would have been crossing his fingers. Or the fingers he had left, that is.

“My sword is yours, Emira,” he said.

 

 

The Chameleon priestess, Karmel, crept a step closer to her target. Elarr stood ten paces away, the back of his shirt emblazoned with a dark butterfly of sweat. Unlike Karmel he was pale-skinned, and as he turned toward her she saw his face was flushed. His eyes seemed to fix on her, but with her power employed Karmel knew she would be invisible to him while she remained still. Sure enough, the initiate’s gaze was already sliding away to the east.

The priestess scanned the temple courtyard with its carpet of broken glass. Near the eastern edge was a huge sand-glass, its top globe now all but empty of sand. Beyond, in the shade of a colonnade, a small crowd of Karmel’s fellow priests and priestesses had gathered to watch the contest, for unlike a mere initiate such as Elarr they would be able to track her movements as she closed in on her adversary. Imrie was there with her mismatched sandals. Beside her stood Colley, the belt of his robe drawn so tightly round his waist it was a wonder he could breathe. Both were watching the scene intently. The object of the game she was playing was to reach the center of the courtyard and touch her opponent without being spotted, yet most Chameleons never made it that far. The best they could hope for was to go a turn of the glass undetected.

Before commencing the game Karmel had removed her sandals, and the courtyard’s flagstones burned beneath her feet. The ground would be cooler ahead and to her right in the shadow of Vaulks Tower. The priestess had rejected an approach from that direction, though, because if she’d been in Elarr’s shoes she would have expected her hunter to come from there. Time had proved the wisdom of her choice. Since the start of the game Elarr had concentrated his attention on that side of the square, and as he looked that way again Karmel stepped forward, easing her weight onto the ball of her left foot before settling back on the heel. All the while her gaze was on her opponent, not on the ground in front of her. Earlier she’d mapped out a mental path through the glass, but she was still taking a risk in moving without checking for shards. It was a risk she had to take, though, for by keeping Elarr in her sights she gave herself a chance of stopping if he spun round unexpectedly.

As he had a habit of doing.

Karmel glanced again at the sand-glass. Judging by the level of the grains she had already exceeded her best time, but that was hardly surprising considering who her opponent was. The gangly youth, Elarr, was flintcat-quick, and he was taking care to ensure his movements never settled into a pattern, that his gaze never rested for long in one place. She’d known what to expect from him, obviously, for she had danced this dance with him once before—a contest six months ago from which she’d emerged victorious, but only after two turns of the glass. Why, then, had she chosen Elarr of all the initiates as an adversary today?

For the same reason she’d opted to have broken glass scattered on the ground: she needed a challenge. Because if she could defeat an opponent such as Elarr when he knew he was being hunted, how much simpler would it be to bring down an unsuspecting target when she was finally trusted with a mission beyond the temple walls?

Patches of shadow glided across the courtyard as a flock of limewings passed overhead. To the west the flags of the Ingar countinghouse fluttered in the breeze. Thinking to take advantage of the cover offered by the sound, Karmel raised her right foot to step forward—

Elarr turned, his sandals scuffing on the flagstones.

The priestess froze.

Something had drawn the initiate’s gaze. That something could not have been Karmel, though, for Elarr was looking toward the scriptorium’s archway on her left. For an instant she considered lowering her leg, then rejected the idea in case her opponent spied her in his peripheral vision.

She waited.

Footsteps approached from the archway. Elarr’s mouth opened as he recognized the newcomer, and he touched the fingers of both hands to his forehead in a gesture of deference.

Curious, Karmel followed his gaze—moving her eyes, not her head.

Then frowned.

Beneath the western colonnade stood her brother, Caval. The high priest always claimed it was coincidence that brought him to this part of the temple when Karmel was playing the game, but the priestess knew otherwise. He’d been here the last two times she’d tasted defeat, and Karmel suspected he’d had a hand in both failures. It would be easy for him to sabotage her efforts, after all; all he had to do was allow his gaze to linger on her and thus give Elarr a clue as to her whereabouts. If Karmel was going to reach the youth now, before Caval interfered, she would have to take more risks than she’d intended.

Perhaps that was no bad thing, though. Since her brother had gone out of his way to seek her out, it seemed only fair she entertain him properly.

A breeze stirred the leaves of a tree in the southwest corner of the courtyard, and their rustle blended with the susurration of the distant sea. Still balanced on one leg, Karmel looked at Elarr. The initiate had dragged his gaze from Caval and was now staring at something behind Karmel. A needlefly buzzed past his face, and he swiped at it with a stick in his right hand—the stick with which he must strike Karmel to bring the game to an end. The priestess worked saliva into her mouth. The muscles of her thighs were beginning to tremble from keeping her leg up, but she wasn’t yet concerned—such twitches would be imperceptible to Elarr so long as they remained minor.

From beside her right ear another needlefly’s whine sounded. The insect settled like the touch of a feather on her arm. She silently swore as she felt its stinger pierce her skin. The needlefly’s body darkened and puffed out as it drew in her blood. Her flesh round the bite began to blister. The urge to scratch the swelling was strong, but Karmel ignored it. A breath of air tugged at her, and it took all her concentration to keep her balance. Her leg muscles were cramping. She reckoned she had only heartbeats before her strength gave out. Elarr would have to turn away soon, though. The longer he went without seeing her, the more he would worry she was creeping up on him from behind.

Gritting her teeth, she waited for some sight or sound to snare the youth’s attention. Who knew, maybe Imrie or Colley would do something to distract him. It was against the rules for spectators to interfere, of course—but it wasn’t breaking the rules if you didn’t get caught.

Her friends, though, seemed to be enjoying her discomfort. Colley in particular was grinning. But then maybe he had every right to, since when he’d played this game last week, Karmel had sprinkled pepper on the ground to make him sneeze. Pranks were common among the younger priests and priestesses at the temple. Indeed, they were expected.

Not today, though. Not when there was glass on the floor that Karmel could step on.

Just then the sands of the timer ran out, and two female initiates scampered over to it from the eastern colonnade. As they wrestled the glass end over end, Elarr looked toward them. It was the opportunity Karmel had been waiting for. Lowering her leg, she took two paces forward, praying she hadn’t left sweaty footprints on the flagstones behind.

The needlefly on her arm took flight. It flitted across Elarr’s field of vision, and he waved his stick at it.

Karmel was now only half a dozen paces from her opponent but these last few steps would be the most difficult, for the closer she came to Elarr, the greater was the chance of him seeing her when she moved. Some sixth sense must have warned him she was near, because he began thrusting out with his stick in all directions as if he were play-fighting an imaginary foe. Safely beyond range, Karmel considered her next move. Immediately ahead the ground was blanketed in a covering of glass so thick she could see no way through. If she stepped over it to clearer ground, the initiate would surely hear her foot coming down. If she went round, though, she would have to plot a new path to her opponent. And if she was looking down at the flagstones, she couldn’t also be watching Elarr.

Fortunately she had a plan. It would mean trusting more to luck than she would have liked, but with Caval standing by to spoil her game, what choice did she have?

Elarr turned to survey the courtyard again. When his back was to Karmel, she bent down and snatched up a shard of glass from the ground. Her pulse was racing, but her thoughts remained calm. Truth be told, she was starting to enjoy herself. The thrill of the hunt was back: the buzz that came from feeling the gazes of the watchers—Caval included—upon her, from seeing her opponent’s frustration as she crept closer.

Karmel rose and advanced, her right foot touching down in the space the shard of glass had occupied.

So far, so good.

Now, though, she would need a touch of the Lady’s fortune, for there was no way of knowing how Elarr would react to what she planned to do. On the previous occasion she’d hunted the youth, she’d duped him into turning away at the critical moment by throwing a fragment of glass onto the flagstones behind him. When he’d spun toward the sound—thinking, no doubt, that Karmel had inadvertently disturbed the carpet of glass—the priestess had sprung forward to touch him on the back.

If it worked last time …

Karmel tossed the shard of glass onto the ground. It made a tinkling noise.

Elarr smiled. He must have remembered the ruse she’d played in their last encounter, for he turned not toward the sound but away from it, plainly expecting a repeat of the priestess’s deception.

As Karmel had hoped he would.

For she had thrown the shard not beyond the initiate, but merely a pace ahead and to one side of her. Elarr, by turning away from the noise, had put his back to the priestess, and two quick steps now brought her behind him. She rested a hand on his left shoulder.

“Better luck next time,” she said.

Elarr groaned, his head dropping.

The sound of crunching glass marked Caval’s approach, and Elarr bowed to the high priest before scurrying away. Karmel searched her brother’s gaze for some hint of approval at what he’d seen, but there was nothing. There had been a time when they were able to share in each other’s successes; now Caval seemed to treat her victories as if they’d come at his expense. His beard was freshly oiled, and his shoulder-length hair was held back from his eyes by a silver band. He halted before Karmel.

“Impressive,” he said, though his tone gave the lie to his words. He stroked his crooked nose. “I think there must be something wrong with your sand-glass, though. I noticed the initiates turning it earlier. Surely it hasn’t taken you half a bell to finish the game.”

“The only problem with the sand-glass is that I haven’t fixed it so the grains run more slowly.”

“Still obsessed with beating my time?”

“You mean once wasn’t enough?”

“Ah, you are referring to your efforts last month against that girl—Silina, wasn’t it? I had understood the point of the game was to touch your opponent before she touches you, not at the same time.”

“Silina got lucky. Luck-y.”

“Either that or she heard you approach.”

“She couldn’t have done, because I made no sound. She must have heard something else and thought it was me.”

“I can see why you would want to believe that,” Caval said, smiling his gap-toothed smile.

Karmel scratched at her needlefly bite. There was something unconvincing about that smile, just as there had been something unconvincing about the whole exchange. It was as if the high priest’s jousting had been done for her benefit—as if he’d merely been going through the motions. The old banter between them didn’t feel the same anymore. Too often there was an edge to their words that could cut.

At the edge of the eastern colonnade hovered two initiates with brooms ready to sweep the glass from the courtyard. A further two acolytes were carrying the sand-glass toward the scriptorium with stilted steps.

“Walk with me,” Caval said to Karmel, setting off for an archway on the far side of the square.

The priestess bridled at the note of command in his voice but followed him all the same. She had left her sandals next to a pool of water by the arch Caval was heading for, and she paused to wash her feet before slipping on her shoes. Imrie and Colley waited to her right. Karmel nodded to them, but there was no time to talk. Her brother had gone on ahead, and she hurried through the arch to catch up to him.

A chill hung about the temple’s passages. Karmel’s sweat cooled against her skin. In front Caval passed the doorway to the Quillery, acknowledging with a raised hand a greeting from within. His footsteps echoed along the corridor, one moment as loud as if he were walking beside Karmel, the next so soft he might have been at the other end of the temple. The sorcery invested in the shrine’s walls was responsible, the priestess knew—it could play such tricks on the senses. Even now the walls rippled as Caval strode by, briefly taking on the hue of his black robe before fading once more to white.

Karmel drew alongside her brother. “Did you know Mother is in Olaire?” she said.

Their mother had always been a distant figure in their childhood—emotionally as well as geographically. Too often she’d abandoned them to their father’s care while she disappeared on some mission or other. Recently she’d tried to ingratiate herself into their lives, but neither Karmel nor Caval had let her. It was easy to play mother now that her children had earned independence from their father. Parenthood wasn’t supposed to be easy, though. And Karmel wouldn’t forgive her mother for being absent through the difficult times.

“I know now,” Caval replied.

“I would have thought as high priest—”

“Ah, Anla reports to the emira now, not me. Imerle has been keeping her busy in the east, spying on the new pasha of Hunte.”

At the end of the corridor they entered a courtyard and followed its colonnade round to the left. At the center of the square a mithreni initiation ceremony was underway, and a statue of the Chameleon throbbed in and out of focus as six priests circled it with outstretched hands. The slap of Karmel’s sandals drew a scowl from the bearded mithren leading the ritual. Karmel gave him a wave.

“She asked if she could see you,” she said to Caval as they reached the next passage.

“The emira?”

“No. Mother.”

“Maybe she wants to remind herself what I look like.”

Karmel smiled sweetly. “Or maybe she has a message for you from Father.”

They had arrived at Caval’s quarters. He pushed open the door.

“Well?” Karmel said. “What shall I tell her?”

“Tell her I have not forgotten.”

She pretended ignorance. “Forgotten what?”

A coldness entered her brother’s eyes, and Karmel wondered if she’d pushed him too far. That was always her problem: not knowing when to stop. But then when Caval’s moods slipped as quickly as they did, it could be hard sometimes to tread the line between teasing and taunting. Sometimes that line could shift midsentence. Karmel tried to think of some quip that would take the sting out of her words, but Caval had already walked into his quarters.

Karmel trailed him inside.

She felt a familiar knot in her stomach as she stepped over the threshold. These chambers had belonged to their father, Pennick, until Caval deposed him as high priest in a bloodless coup last year. Since then Caval had tried to erase all marks of his predecessor. Gone were the grim-faced images of the Chameleon glaring down from the walls; the gnarled fellwood furniture; the stale odor of sweat and old blood. In their place were white-plastered walls adorned with Elescorian tapestries; bookcases filled with books on philosophy, history, and mercantile law; and covering the floor was a mosaic showing the Dragon Gate rising over the Sabian Sea. Yet even though Caval had been high priest for more than a year, the room seemed to Karmel to have an … impermanence to it. As if behind the plaster on the walls, the cold gray stone of Pennick’s time was just waiting to be exposed once more.

For all her brother’s changes, the room’s most striking feature remained its transparent, west-facing wall, pulsing with sorcery. That sorcery meant that while Caval’s chambers appeared from this side to be open to the elements, anyone outside staring back at the building would see only a blank wall. Karmel looked down on Olaire’s black-tiled roofs. Years ago the Chameleon Temple had stood alone on the flank of Kalin’s Hill, but with the sea having risen to flood the low-lying districts of the city, a tide of humanity had swept up the slope to surround the shrine. Dominating the skyline to the northwest was the Founder’s Citadel, while farther south and east were the guildhouses, the mercantile courts, and the embassies of the Commercial District. One of the embassies was hosting a reception, and a dozen figures were gathered on a second-floor balcony. Some of those people seemed to be looking back at Karmel, but there was no way they would be able to see her.

The high priest had seated himself behind his desk, and Karmel sat down opposite him. He gazed down on Olaire as if he’d forgotten she was there, but then doubtless he liked having her wait on him. He rubbed his left shoulder—the shoulder that had never healed properly even after all these years—and Karmel’s face twisted as she saw again the blow that had broken his collarbone, heard her father’s voice gasping the Chameleon’s name over and over in time to the rising and falling of his cane …

Caval’s gaze focused on her. “I have a task for you,” he said. “One uniquely suited to your talents.”

Karmel blinked. “Flattery, Caval? You must need my help very badly indeed.”

“You are familiar with Piput Da Marka, the governor of Dian?”

“I know the name.”

“Ah, then you must be aware of the trouble he’s been stirring up for the emira recently.”

“Remind me.” In truth, the politics of the Sabian League always made Karmel’s eyes glaze over.

Caval’s smile was knowing. “Since coming to power, Imerle has been steadily increasing the Sabian cities’ tribute—this year alone she raised it by two hundred and fifty imperial talents—and Piput has finally had the temerity to object. With the Dragon Gate barring the dragons from the Sabian Sea, and the storms from the Broken Lands having abated of late, the Storm Council’s only function, as Piput sees it, is to protect Sabian shipping from piracy.” He spread his hands. “And since piracy is on the increase, Piput has been left wondering whether Imerle is really earning her keep.”

The sun was bright in Karmel’s eyes through the transparent wall, yet she could not feel its heat, nor detect the touch of the wind that rustled the branches of the ketar trees a short distance away. “So?”

“So he has been finding support among the leaders of the other Sabian cities. Muted support, it must be said, for while those leaders are keen to reduce their tribute, they are more anxious still not to draw the emira’s eye.”

Karmel could see where this was heading. “Imerle wants Piput taken down a peg or two.”

Caval nodded. “She believes—rightly, I suspect—that if Dian’s governor were to lose face with his allies, his cause would flounder.”

The priestess was silent, considering. Then it came to her. “Dragon Day,” she said.

“Very good. On Dragon Day the heads of every city in the Sabian League will converge on Dian and Natilly for the Dragon Hunt. If the Dragon Gate should fail to rise, thus depriving those leaders of their day of sport…”

Karmel’s voice betrayed her doubt. “Fail to rise? You are the historian, I know, but as I recall, the gate hasn’t failed to rise in more than three hundred years.”

“Three hundred and eighty-six, to be precise. Oh, there have been plenty who wanted to stop it in that time. The Rubyholters tried to smuggle some men into the citadel a few years back. But tricking your way past the guards is going to be harder than just putting on a hat and claiming your name has been missed off the guest list.”

“And that’s where I come in?”

“Correct.” Caval looked down at the floor mosaic of the Dragon Gate. “For the gate to rise, the hoisting mechanisms in both Dian and Natilly must be operated simultaneously. Which means it just takes one of those mechanisms to malfunction and Dragon Day will be over before it has started.”

“As easy as that?”

“Ah, I never said it would be easy. In two days’ time the citadel will be crawling with soldiers, and even if you make it past the outer wall you still have to get to the fortress’s control room where the hoisting mechanism is located. Then there is the small matter of escaping afterward through a citadel up in arms. Of course, if you think I should find someone else…”

Karmel ran a hand through her short-cropped hair. Her brother was trying to play on her pride, but he needn’t have bothered. For months she’d been waiting for a chance such as this to prove herself, and she would have accepted the mission whatever the dangers. What was the point of all her training, after all, if she did nothing with it? It felt sometimes as if Caval was trying to protect her, but at other times it felt like he was holding her back. A voice inside her urged caution, though. Caval had never before trusted her with an assignment of note, yet now he would trust her withthis? Breaking into the Dianese citadel? On Dragon Day? She shifted in her seat. Even for a Chameleon it sounded … ambitious. “What happens if I get caught?”

“I wouldn’t advise that.”

“I mean, aren’t you taking a risk in sending your sister? If I should be seen, the finger of suspicion will point at you.”

“Whether it’s you or another Chameleon, the suspicion will be the same.”

“Then why did you choose me?” Karmel said, knowing the answer but wanting to hear it from him.

The high priest did not respond.

Karmel gave him an impish look. “It’s all right, Caval—you can say it. I’m good. I may even be better than you. Of course we’ll never know for sure if you keep refusing to spar with me.”

Her brother’s voice was bitter. “And that’s the height of your ambition? To outdo me?”

Not that it mattered, obviously. However many times she challenged Caval, he would always find an excuse not to face her. It wouldn’t do, after all, for a high priest to be beaten by one of his juniors. More to the point, it wouldn’t do for a brother to be beaten by his little sister. “What about the emira? What’s in it for her?”

“I’ve already told you. Piput gets the wind taken out of his sails—”

“Oh, come on, you can do better than that. Imerle’s time as emira is up at the end of this year, meaning Piput will soon become her successor’s problem. Why should she care about what tribute Dian pays when she won’t be there to receive it?”

“Won’t she?”

At first Karmel thought Caval was mocking her, but when his gaze held steady on hers, she realized she’d read him wrong. She leaned back in her chair. So Imerle was planning a coup, was she? For weeks the city had been alive with rumors of a plot. But then there were always rumors when an emir or emira’s tenure came to an end, and none of those rumors had ever come to anything before. With good reason, too: however powerful the head of the Storm Council might be, there were five other Storm Lords to oppose them. The fact Imerle intended to risk those odds was surprising enough … but more surprising still was the fact she had apparently confided her plans in Caval. It was less than a year, after all, since her brother had first approached the woman to offer his services.

Caval made to rise, but Karmel remained seated. “Dragon Day is, what, three days away? If I’m supposed to infiltrate the Dianese citadel in that time, we’re cutting things a little fine.”

“Ah, that’s why you’re leaving tonight.”

“Who else is coming?”

The high priest stared at her.

Karmel grinned. “I may be good, Caval, but even I need someone to carry my bags.”

“His name is Veran.”

“A Chameleon?”

“Of sorts.”

“Meaning?”

“Why don’t you ask him yourself. You’ll be meeting him soon enough.” The high priest’s gap-toothed smile was back, but there was no more humor in it this time than there had been the last. “I’m sure he’ll be only too happy to answer your questions.”

Copyright © 2016 by Marc Turner

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