Sara’s stomach compressed into a hard knot as the tall, cadaverous high priest of Nir, the God of War, strode into the banquet hall.
Seeking reassurance, Sara touched the crossbow she’d secretly had mounted to the underside of the head table. Hidden by the blue tablecloth, her fingers found the crossbow bolt she’d loaded, the cord she’d cranked back still taut, ready to fire as soon as she gave a hard pull on the lever.
Her mouth felt as dry as the desert. The circular hall’s white dome seemed to press down on her as if she were an insect trapped under a bowl. Eight long tables radiated out from the head table’s dais in the middle, each seating two hundred men and women. The rise and fall of so many people talking battered her ears like a sea of sound, most of them ignorant of the drama playing out.
They would assume Nir had come, like the other high priests, to confer a blessing on her father, the new Primus of the Republic of Temboria. Was she the only one who noticed the way Nir ignored protocol and headed straight toward her father? All high priests were called by the same name as their god, but Nir seemed to believe he was the God of War incarnate.
Her hands felt icy. Now that the time was at hand, her contingency plan seemed inadequate.
When Primus Vidor died unexpectedly without heirs, the Senate had been divided between two candidates: the wealthy Lord Favonius and General Pallax, whose military victories had won Nir's favour. No one had been more shocked than Sara when Aleron Remillus had emerged as the compromise choice after four days of deadlock. In one stroke, her father had elevated their minor House to a major power, secured the future of Sara's beloved younger brother and rid their family of crippling debt, but he'd also made enemies, most notably the powerful Temple of Nir.
Her father believed he'd placated the temple with a large "thanks offering", but he hadn't endured long hours seated next to Nir at dinners like Sara had. Unlike her father, Nir was not a consummate politician; his response to the Senate's failure to vote as he wished was apt to be a lot more... direct. And violent.
Sara's nerves tightened at Nir's approach. He scowled as he was forced to wait for the diminutive priest of Cepi, the God of Small Favours, to grant his benediction.
Archers stood watch on the second-floor inner balconies to guard against assassination, but most legionnaires worshipped the God of War. She did not trust them.
Hidden by the blue tablecloth, her fingers found the crossbow bolt she'd loaded earlier in place, the cord she'd cranked back still taut, ready to fire as soon as she gave a hard pull on the lever. If Nir drew his sword, she would--
A man's hand slid up her thigh. Sara flinched, barely sucking back a shriek.
"Lady Sarathena, have I told you how beautiful you look tonight?" young Lord Claudius Pallax asked from his seat on her right. He leaned in close, blue eyes soulfully wide, in order to be heard over the clank of dishes.
The compliment left Sara cold. Claude seemed to think paying homage to her beauty gave him the right to paw her body. "No, tell me." Only Aunt Evina's strict instructions kept a smile on her lips as she peeled his hand off her leg for the third time that evening.
The wild girl that still lived inside her wanted to punch the leer off Claude's overly-red mouth, but Sara no longer had the luxury of ignoring political realities.
Her demand stymied Claude for a moment. He paused to eat a honeyed fig. "You look... like a goddess," he said at last.
"Don't say that," Sara said lightly, her attention on Nir as he shifted from foot to foot. "If you make the Goddess of Desire jealous of me she might turn me into a fawn." In the stories, pretty girls were always being transformed into wild animals. In truth Sara had never quite understood the supposed horror of such a fate.
She held Claude's sweaty hand at her side, as much to keep him from touching her as to prevent him from discovering the hidden crossbow. He rubbed his thumb across her wrist. "If you were a fawn, I'd keep you in my garden and feed you from my hand."
Sara didn't know whether to laugh or cry. Even as a deer she wouldn't be allowed to run free.
Claude kept talking. Sara smiled glassily; Cepi had glimpsed Nir behind him. His flowery speech stumbled to a halt. He blessed her father and hurried off, his bald head gleaming under the hundred-candlelight of the chandelier.
Nir swept up to the head table, his gray eyes burning in his olive complexion. Disdaining the elaborate folds of the toga, he wore a legionnaire's breastplate and old leathers. A scabbard and sword hung at his hip. Though his cropped, gray hair showed his true age, his body moved like a warrior's, without stiffness.
Sara held her breath--yes, he'd stopped in the right spot. She'd calculated the angle of the crossbow precisely. Because of the dais, her arrow should take Nir in the chest--and, if she missed, fly harmlessly over those seated at the banquet tables.
Of course, if the blonde cuorelle--one of the hundreds of female Heart Slaves acting as servers tonight, every one of them exotically white-skinned--pouring wine at the table on the right stepped into the line of fire--I will not miss.
Her father began the ritual. "To Nir, the God of War, I offer the heart of a racha. May it find favour with you."
Despite the anxiety knotting her belly, Sara felt a surge of pride. Age and illness had shrunk Primus Vidor into a scrawny stick of a man. Her father was a robust man of forty, powerful in body and in mind. The silver border of his rank shone against the folds of his deep blue toga as he waved forward a platter of meat, still bloody.
A voluptuous cuorelle knelt gracefully and held the dish aloft.
Nir curled his lip, and Sara's body flushed with hot temper. How dare he? The racha was a fierce predator with razor-sharp claws that inhabited the deserts of Qi. The meat had cost three thousand gold coins. Eat it, you pig.
Still Nir said nothing. Sara felt sweat pool between her breasts as the cavernous hall fell silent in a spreading circle. Lady Pallax stopped tittering over the risqué story Aunt Evina was telling; Claude ceased bragging about the sweet filly he'd purchased.
"This sacrifice is unworthy," Nir cried in ringing tones. His hand swept up--
Almost, Sara triggered the crossbow, but Nir's hand didn't touch his sword. He flipped up the platter instead.
The poor cuorelle shrieked, covering her face; the silver tray hit the table, then fell to the floor with a hellacious clatter; the racha meat tipped off, splattering blood on the cuorelle's bare feet and sleeveless tunic. All two thousand Republicans in attendance gasped.
Her father's jaw tightened, but he remained calm. "I'm distressed that the meat displeased you. Another platter will be brought from the kitchens. Julen?"
Her father's chief toady bowed from his place standing behind the head table and hurried off.
The second platter, Sara knew, had been intended for the consumption of those at the head table. There was no third. Sara's mouth tasted of ashes. Her crossbow and all her meticulous calculations were useless. Nir needn't resort to assassination; all he had to do to block her father's ascension to Primus was reject the next offering.
She watched helplessly as another cuorelle brought out the second platter and knelt in front of Nir, her eyes submissively cast down.
"This sacrifice--" Triumph shone in Nir's eyes--and then, in the next moment, something changed, broke.
Nir blinked. He looked... uncertain.
"If you try it, I'm sure you'll find the meat to your liking," her father said.
With yellowed fingernails, Nir jerkily picked up the racha heart. Instead of taking a ritual bite, he stuffed it all into his mouth and chewed desperately at the tough meat. Sara's own gorge rose, but Nir managed to swallow it down without choking.
Nir shot her father a scorching glare. His hand went up as if his arm had been yanked and traced the sign of the god's blessing over Sara's father. Teeth bared, but still silent, Nir turned sharply away from the table, almost stumbling in his haste to leave.
Everyone else began to talk again, but Sara was too disturbed. What had just happened? Studying her father's bland, controlled face, Sara thought she saw satisfaction gleam in his eyes. Had he found some way to subtly blackmail Nir?
She wished he'd told her his plans and saved her worrying. Not that she'd told him about the crossbow.
The scrape of a knife on a plate brought her back to her surroundings. She would ask him when the feast ended--there were still ten more courses to come. She stared down at the peppered songbirds' tongues curled on her plate with revulsion.
Mouth dry, she drained the last of the red wine from her silver goblet. Hiding a grimace at its faint metallic aftertaste, she smiled at Lord Claudius Pallax, eldest son and heir of General Ambrosius Pallax, Nir's candidate.
Claude's father had been sent to quell an uprising in the distant province of Gotia, but by now word of Primus Vidor's death would have reached him. He could be marching towards Temborium even now leading an army of loyal legionnaires.... House Remillus' fortunes could turn so quickly: a bloody coup, her father beheaded, herself either hastily married off or, worse, dedicated to the Temple of Nir, her beloved seven-year-old brother slain--
Sara would do anything to prevent that.
Her father and Aunt Evina had decided the best way to secure an alliance with House Pallax was for her and Claude to wed. Quickly. That way, when General Pallax returned he would find the marriage already taken place and his wife and son living in the Primary Residence as "honoured guests"--hostages, if needed.
Claude leaned closer to her. "You look flushed. Shall we go for a stroll? I can show you my new mare."
Cool air sounded wonderful. When had the room become so stifling? Sara almost accepted, before Claude's gaze dropped to her breasts and she realized this was just one more attempt to hustle her off somewhere alone.
"No, thank you." She redirected the conversation. "Your mare sounds marvelous. Will you take her with you when you join the Legion?"
Claude's shoulders hunched, an almost palpable cloud of resentment rolling over him. "Perhaps," he mumbled. His father wanted him to follow in his footsteps and become a legionnaire. Claude, ably assisted by his mother, was resisting. Sara suspected that the friction between Claude and his father was a large part of why Claude wanted to marry her, the daughter of his father's political rival.
Sara hadn't understood Lady Pallax's motives until Aunt Evina had enlightened her. "I'm afraid Lady Pallax has run up a rather large gambling debt. As her steadfast friend, I bought up all her promissory notes and told her not to worry about little things like interest or repayment. So, you see, when I asked her to promote the match between you two, she couldn't refuse."
In all likelihood Sara would marry Claude within the week.
She told herself, again, that things could have been worse. Claude wasn't physically repulsive. He had all his teeth and a full head of curly brown hair--even if he persisted in powdering it with gold dust. Nor could Sara complain that he was too old--he was ten months younger than she. Claude wasn't cruel, although his mind moved at a snail's crawl. Aunt Evina would say that made a good trait in a husband. Truly, Claude wouldn't make a terrible spouse.
But she dreaded the thought of lying with him.
A bead of sweat rolled down the Claude's wide forehead. As the evening wore on, muggy heat had filled the room, but Claude looked... anxious. Why?
"How are you feeling?" he asked, low-voiced.
Four bull-necked cuoreons carried the sixteenth dinner course, a roast giraffe imported from across the Kunal Sea, into the hall on two long poles. The smell warred with the thick, sweetish odour of burning incense. Sara's stomach dipped; she opened her mouth to tell Claude she felt ill, then paused. She sensed something expectant in his expression.
Something was wrong.
Claude put his hand on her thigh again, and Sara left it there while she tried to think.
She felt strangely removed from the room, from Claude and everyone else. Her heart raced, and her skin felt hot, achy as if with fever. Her breasts felt heavy--
"Are you hot? Should we step outside?" Claude murmured. A sly smile played around his mouth.
He'd drugged her. The knowledge struck like a lightning bolt. The wine--there must be jazoria in it. The heat and muzziness she was experiencing were born of desire.
For a moment rage overwhelmed the unnatural languidity of her limbs. Sara almost grabbed the cover off the silver chafing dish and clanged it over Claude's head. How dare he treat her like some cuorelle he wanted to bed?
Lust glazed his eyes, and his hand crept toward the inside of her thigh. But this time her nerves quivered in anticipation, her body betraying her. Sara twitched and knocked over his wineglass. Red liquid splashed over the blue tablecloth and her white dress.
"Oh, no!" Sara jumped up. "My gown--it's stained." Giving Claude no chance to react, she rushed down off the dais. She needed to be alone, for her head to clear so she could figure out what to do.
She walked swiftly toward the retiring room, dodging the cuorelle servers, afraid to look behind her for fear she would see Lady Pallax in full pursuit.
Claude's mother must be in on the scheme; Claude would never have come up with something this bold on his own. They wanted her well and truly trapped into marriage. But why? Sara couldn't make sense of it. Had Lady Pallax acquired another debt to someone other than Aunt Evina? Did they need her dowry?
The laugh would be on them if so. While her father's ascent to the Primacy meant no one would try to collect on their debts, preferring to be owed favours, at the moment Sara's dowry was mostly a matter of wishful thinking.
Sara entered the retiring room at the edge of the ballroom. A gentle fountain splashed into a scalloped marble basin, muting the roar from the banquet. Yet another blonde cuorelle leaped to attention when Sara came in--really, the whole Republic must have been stripped bare, to find so many Gotian Heart Slaves. Most third-generation slaves came from the less-recently-conquered Elysinia province.
Since Sara had no idea where the girl's loyalties lay, she ordered the cuorelle out. Alone, Sara cupped a handful of water from the fountain and splashed it on her face, sighing in pleasure at the coolness. She bathed her wrists and temples, but by the time she finished one pulse point the fever had risen in another. Unless she crawled into the cursed fountain this wasn't going to work.
And the sensations were worsening. Her gown of fine Qiph silk rubbed against her skin like sandpaper, abrading her nipples until they jutted out in hard points. The flesh between her legs felt swollen. She wanted to tear the gown off, wanted-- She barely knew what she wanted. Aunt Evina, had always spoken frankly about sex, but Sara had scant practical experience.
The door to the retiring room opened. Sara straightened, pinning on a cool smile, then relaxed when she saw only her aunt and one of her attendants.
"Evina," Sara said with heartfelt relief. Her aunt would know what to do. Six years ago her mother's sister had taken in hand the wild girl Sara had been and given her the skills she needed to survive in Temboria's capital.
"What's wrong, duckling?" Evina asked, bustling forward in a wave of lilac perfume. Her aunt's short, round figure showed to voluptuous advantage in a lilac gown with a plunging neckline that made the drapes on Sara's gown look staid. As always, she'd piled her dark hair on top of her head in a froth of curls to give herself an extra two inches of height. "Will the stain not come out?"
Sara hadn't even tried to remove the wine-blot. "It's not the gown; it's Luck-forsake-her Lady Pallax and her snail-brained son. They put something in my wine."
Evina's glanced sharply at her cuorelle. The girl immediately shut the door and stood guard against eavesdroppers. "Not poison, surely?" Evina asked.
Sara hadn't even thought of poison. She considered her racing heart and tingling lips then shook her head. "No, it's a love potion."
Evina laughed. "Is that all? You had me worried for a moment, duckling."
"How do I make it stop?" Sara asked grimly. "If I go to the vomitorium...?"
"Are you feeling ill?"
"Not now, but I was earlier. The smell..."
"The fool must have given you too much or mixed the jazoria with a second potion." Evina put her hand on Sara's forehead, her green-eyed gaze assessing. "From the size of your pupils, it's too late for vomiting to do you any good. You're just going to have to ride it out--one way or another," she added naughtily.
Sara bared her teeth. "I will not permit Claude to profit from this underhanded maneuver."
"Are you sure?" Evina asked. "You're setting yourself up for a nasty night. Arousal without relief is very unpleasant, and the effects will only get worse."
"No," Sara said again, but she felt dismay. A nasty night? She'd thought the potion would wear off in an hour.
Evina looked impatient. "You're going to have to lie with the boy sooner or later--"
Sara controlled a flinch at that blunt truth.
"Why not do it tonight when you'll actually enjoy it?" her aunt continued. "Jazoria can turn the smelliest dungtoad into a wonderful lover."
Sara narrowed her eyes. The moue of Evina's mouth suggested something... "You've used it yourself?"
Evina raised an elegant eyebrow. "Of course, duckling. So has every other married lady of my acquaintance. Believe me, it's the only way to endure your uncle."
Sara hadn't wanted to know that. Uncle Paulin was fat and dull, but she'd always assumed there was some affection between her aunt and uncle. The biting contempt in Evina's voice said otherwise.
"So, should I set a bird in Claude's ear that you would appreciate his company in one of the side rooms?" Evina asked. "Ten minutes of tupping versus ten hours of torment."
Sara scooped more water onto her face and made herself consider the matter as coldly as possible. She and Claude were almost betrothed. A marriage between them could well save her father and brother's lives. And she wasn't at all sure that on her wedding night she could make herself lie down with Claude and simply open her legs. Whenever he put his hands on her, her first instinct was to fight--to tear at him with her fingernails if she had to.
Beginning her marriage in such a way wouldn't aid her father.
Whereas tonight... everything would unfold in a haze of the drug. If she could get the first time over with, she might be able to tolerate him.
And as bedmates went, she could do much worse. Despite herself, Sara remembered how Nir used to sit next to her at dinner, close enough so that she could smell raw meat on his breath, and scratch his yellow fingernail down her cheek, the promise of future pain shining in his eyes. The thought of being drugged and in Nir's power sent a wave of horror through her. Truly, Claude was a better choice.
She opened her mouth to ask her aunt to send for Claude and then stopped. It didn't make sense for the Pallaxes to be the ones rushing their fences. Unless the political situation had changed somehow? If some rebel had put a sword through General Pallax's heart, then the advantages of a marriage to the Primus's daughter suddenly outweighed the reverse.
"No message," Sara said, looking at her aunt with brittle calmness. "I need your help distracting Claude and his mother while I leave through the kitchens. Make my excuses--say I'm ill."
"As you wish, duckling." Evina drifted toward the door. "Whatever you do, don't try to take care of the problem yourself. The priestess will have enchanted the jazoria so that if you climax without a man inside you the symptoms will come back twice as bad."
For perhaps five minutes after her aunt left, Sara remained staring at the door, waiting for rescue. Then a brazen young woman entered. Unmarried daughters like Sara wore white gowns with only sashes of their House colour; the woman's solid emerald dress proclaimed her a married woman of House Arranius. House Arranius had favoured Lord Favonius during the recent political wrangling, but despite all her aunt's coaching Sara couldn't remember the woman's name. She didn't know what House she'd been born into or who she might be the lover of.
The woman's sharp gaze said that she recognized Sara. If Sara stayed here much longer, she would become the subject of gossip.
Sara opened the door to the retiring room and looked both ways. Left lay the wine table where a dozen cuoreons removed the plugs from amphorae and poured jets of red wine into carafes. A steady stream of cuorelle servers picked up the full carafes, while another set sailed in and out of the kitchens just beyond. To the right, a row of Republican legionnaires stood on guard in bronze armour and crimson cloaks. Ahead was the main dining hall and--
Vez's malice. The Pallaxes stood not ten feet away. Aunt Evina had her hand on Lady Pallax's arm and was talking to her.
Praying to Diwo for luck, Sara ducked her head and hurried into the bustling kitchen. A rush of spiced, steamy air greeted her. Two cuores at a nearby worktable stopping deboning poultry to stare at her, but most of the slaves paid her little heed. Sara cut across the kitchen, skirting the huge firepit, and nipped out the back door into blessedly cooler air--only to come face-to-face with Claude's stocky Elysinian servant, Gelban.
Her heart gave an uncomfortable thump. Gelban was a sanguon, a second-generation slave. His slavechain was still long enough to be worn as a belt, and his scarred face gave him an air of roughness.
While first-generation slaves, osseos, worked almost exclusively in the fields or at other hard labour, sangues were usually given positions in places like the stables or laundry. Most nobles preferred cuores as personal servants because they were considered more refined. Sara had long wondered what Gelban had done to earn his higher position.
"Gelban!" Sara struggled to think as another wave of heat engulfed her. "Claudius needs you. In there." She waved a vague hand at the doors.
Was Gelban suspicious? Just keep walking. He's a Blood Slave. He won't dare put a hand on you.
"Put her in the carriage," Claude said from behind her.
Gelban put his hand on Sara's wrist. "This way, Lady," he said politely.
Sara pouted. "I've changed my mind. I want to go back inside--"
"You're coming with me." Claude's breathing sounded harsh. "Mother says I'm to get you pregnant tonight. I've been looking forward to it all day," he said in the tones of a child promised a treat.
It was so hard to think. Before Sara could decide what to do--scream? run?--Gelban picked her up from behind. She kicked weakly, but Gelban kept carrying her towards the Pallax's gaudy orange carriage. She struggled harder, but only succeeded in making the horses toss their heads. The blacks were race stock, too proud and nervous to pull a carriage, as everyone but Claude knew.
Gelban opened the carriage door and laid her down gently on the seat.
Was that an apology in his brown eyes? It didn't matter, if so. Gelban was a sanguon. He would not--could not--help her.
Sara tried to scramble up off the cushioned seat, but her body felt sluggish. Claude crowded inside, and it was too late.
"Let me go," Sara said, but the words were soft around the edges, not the demand she'd intended.
"You don't mean that." Claude leered. "I know you're feeling strange, but don't worry. I know just what you need." His hands dug into her shoulders while he stuck his tongue down her throat. She tasted wine.
The carriage lurched into motion, and Sara fell back on the seat. Claude pinned her in place. He was so heavy, and his hands had multiplied. It felt as if there were at least five of them pawing at her. Dizzily, Sara kept trying to remove them from her person.
Her head swam. The pressure of his body on hers felt good. It helped the fiery ache in her flesh caused by the jazoria. She arched up against him.
"That's right, you want it, don't you?" He ground his hardened manhood against her through the layers of clothing, laughing when she whimpered with need. "Tonight I'm going to fill your belly. Once I do Mother's promised to sign over her dower property to me, and I'll be free of her purse strings."
His speech repelled her, and she turned her head away from his even as she couldn't help opening her legs. In punishment, he nipped her bottom lip, drawing blood.
The carriage bounced over cobblestones, then swayed sideways as it took a corner too fast. Claude's elbow dug into in her stomach, and sickness overwhelmed desire. Sara wedged her arms up between them, turning her face away from his kiss. "Please, stop, I'm going to be ill," she begged.
Claude smirked. "You're just nervous."
The carriage bounced again; her stomach heaved. Something in her face must have convinced him: he moved off her and called to his driver to stop. Which made the carriage lurch again, even worse.
Sara was leaning on the door when Gelban yanked it open. She nearly fell at his feet, but managed to cling to the doorframe while her stomach turned inside out. When the long spasm ended, she closed her eyes.
Claude shifted. "Let's--"
Sara vomited again. This time when the nausea faded she felt a touch stronger and more clear-headed.
Claude held his nose. "Gelban, fetch my pomander. When we get home, have her bathed." Despite his distaste, Sara knew that being ill would not save her. Her ravishment had only been postponed.
And. Loma have mercy on her, she would probably cooperate. The jazoria was a fire in the her flesh.
Gelban hurried around to the back of the carriage and began rummaging in a trunk. The coachman still sat on top the box, holding the blacks in check, and another sanguon armed with a club against thieves stood in back.
She would never get a better chance. Sara jumped.
She missed the puddle of vomit, but landed awkwardly, skinning her knee. The jazoria helped her. The pain seemed far away as if it were happening to another Sara.
A stone poked into her palm. She picked it up and threw it at the horses. Stung, the left one leapt forward ahead of the other one, almost toppling the carriage. Then the other black broke into a gallop, too. The coachman cursed and pulled back on the reins.
Sara struggled up and ran, stumbling in the dark. They would be back soon.
Her legs felt like breadsops, weak and shaky. Loma's Mercy, where was she? The streets all looked strange and forbidding. She plunged down the darkest one while shouts rose up behind her.
Sara ran, guided only by the moonlight gleam of puddles. The skirts of her gown trailed in muck. The sodden material clung to her legs.
Sara tried to speed up, but her foot slipped in the mud. She found herself slowing, her drugged body unwilling to run any farther. The jazoria inside her whispered to stop, wait, let herself be caught. Let Claude take her. Anything to make the horrible, clawing need go away.
No. She would not give in.
Sara looked around, trying to get her bearings in the dark. Which way lay safety?
Claude called out again, his voice a little nearer. "Sara, be reasonable; you can't stay out here. Tell me where you are." From the fear in his voice, he was probably trying to think how to explain to the Primus that he'd lost his daughter. "I'll drive you back to the Primary Residence. We were just going for a little ride, you needn't have run," Claude said self-righteously.
Did he think she was stupid? Well, yes, of course he did. She'd always played the vapid coquette for him.
In reality, Sara possessed her father's stubbornness. If her father couldn't force Sara to do what he wanted, what hope did Claude have? Sara remembered the prodigious battles she'd had with her father when he'd removed her from his country estate in Elysinia to the capital and told her she had to behave like a lady. It had taken a near tragedy for Sara to finally see that she owed it to her family to marry well. Her will hadn't been broken; she'd reforged it into something different.
That same will kept her on her feet now, when she wanted to curl up in a ball and moan. Sara moved farther away from Claude and stumbled upon a raised path.
"Lady, it isn't safe, not here." Gelban spoke this time. "Do you know whose temple you're at?"
Temple? Most temples were scrubbed free of mud by diligent dedicants. Only one--
"I don't want to say His name, Lady," Gelban said.
Vez, God of Malice. She'd entered His temple. Sara's heart jumped as her memory supplied an image of temple courtyard full of black mud with Vez's statuary facial features rising up out of them. She must be walking on the obscenely long, lolling tongue, about to pass through Vez's mouth into the courtyard. Although Vez's assassin-priests had been outlawed over one hundred years ago and his worshippers driven into hiding, no one had dared pull down the God of Malice's temple.
"You don't know who might be out here in the dark," Gelban said. "Please, come back to the carriage."
Sara tried to think. Was Gelban right? The dark seemed suddenly malevolent. All types of scum were rumoured to come out at night to search the mud for the gold coins thrown by those buying a curse. She could end up with her throat slit or sold into slavery. In comparison, the early wedding night Claude wanted was nothing.
"Where is the little twotch? We've lost her." Claude swore with surprising viciousness.
The degree of anger and resentment in his voice made Sara uneasy. Claude sounded different from the petulant boy-man who had been courting her. She'd thought that since Lady Pallax bullied him, Claude would be manageable husband. Now she saw that she was wrong. Claude would be a petty tyrant to those in his power.
"We have to find her soon," Claude said. "The physicker said the potion would only make her fertile between now and midnight."
Fertile? Sara felt a lurch of panic. Jazoria shouldn't make her fertile; it was brewed by the priestesses of Jazor, the Goddess of Desire. Claude's physicker must have mixed it with something from the Goddess of Fertility's temple.
Her determination to escape Claude hardened. She did not want to bear his child.
Ducking her head to avoid the sharp statuary teeth, Sara entered the mouth and the Temple of Vez.
Inside, her foot came down in ankle-deep muck. The mud in the courtyard was said to be studded with sharpened stakes. Vez only wanted worshippers who hated enough to be careless of losing a little blood. And if they died later... the God of Malice played no favourites.
Mud squelched as Sara pulled her foot free. All too easily she could imagine that the sucking mud was a pair of hands grasping her ankles, pulling her down.
"There!" Gelban held the lamp high, and yellow light painted the length of the tongue. "Something white!"
Her gown--it was reflecting the light. Sara ran as fast as she could, heedless of the possible stakes. Her sandals skidded, and she almost fell.
Running footsteps slapped behind her. The lamplight jerked and juddered, casting crazy black shadows everywhere. Sara's breath came in deep sobs. Every step she took became shakier, her weakened body threatening to revolt.
The mud. The mud would cover her white gown. Sara threw herself down and rolled in it. The chill ooze made a pleasant shock on her jazoria-fevered flesh, but it reeked as if it were not mud at all--not dirt and water, but dirt and blood. Now they'll be able to smell me.
As she struggled to get up, her palm came down on something hard with a sharp corner.
The most dedicated petitioners slogged through the mud to one of Vez's large brass ears and whispered the name of the one he or she bore malice. The less brave threw tokens of the hated House into the mud from safety.
Irrationally afraid that the token was of House Remillus, Sara pocketed it.
She'd taken too long to get up. Someone, not Gelban, caught her arm and hauled her to her feet. "Got her!"
For a moment she stood there, passive, her body relieved that it didn't have to fight anymore. She could relax. Give in--
Sara raised her hands and smeared a glob of mud over her captor's eyes and mouth.
"Gahh!" He let go of her in confusion.
Sara wobbled away. Her toe brushed something sharp.
Close by, her pursuer screamed. Her imagination filled in what had happened. The sanguon's bare foot coming down on a sharpened stake, his weight driving it up through flesh--
Sara made herself turn away from his pain. Gelban would help him. She had only herself.
Pushing her legs through the ooze, Sara steered away from where Vez's ears should be. She would not risk her name being said in Vez's hearing. Her luck ran ill enough.
The lamp remained back at the mouth; Gelban must be reluctant to enter the temple. Sara tried to remember which direction to go. Left?
In the next instant, she ran into a wall. No, not a wall, for she rebounded slightly, felt cloth and muscle underneath--a man as big as a wall. Large hands grabbed her shoulders.
Sara tried to twist free, but he held her with ease. His silence frightened her. Why didn't he call out to the others that he'd found her?
He's not one of Claude's men. She would have remembered someone this tall and broad. Which meant her captor was the river scum she'd feared and Claude had become the more attractive option.
She drew breath to scream--and his hand clamped over her face, smothering her.