Tamasin, called Abhasvar, watched from the concealing folds of her hood as the Riever and his men strode into the great hall. For a long, fearful moment she thought the Riever wouldn’t stop, would mount the dais alongside Piro and throw a too-jovial arm around his neck (and perhaps break it). But the Riever did stop at the foot of the dais, bracing his legs wide apart, teeth bared in a broad grin. He’d brought six men with him, two of them grinning as unpleasantly as their master; the other four were blank-faced, their gazes darting to the orblights on the walls. Piro had insisted on the orblights and Tamasin thought now that he might have been right to do so—that sourceless, icy glow was uncanny, even to her. Her own objections had centered on the wisdom of exhausting himself in maintaining them; Piro was pale, to her critical eye, but perhaps no more so than usual. She hoped.
“The prince of Anmoor himself!” cried the Riever, and flung out his arms. One of the more uneasy of his men flinched back. “Your welcome, so unexpected!”
“Surely not,” said Piro. His voice was light, thin compared to the Riever’s rich tones, but to Tamasin’s pride quite steady. “Captain Shal did not assure you of our hospitality?” Tamasin and Piro had spoken nothing but Imperial Un, to each other and to anyone else who would listen, for the past four weeks. Piro had come along amazingly, well enough that he’d been able to insist upon keeping Tamasin hidden for this first meeting rather than using her to translate.
“Oh, the captain,” said the Riever, expansively. “A hard man, your Grace! And no one was more surprised than I to hear that you not only had anticipated our coming,” and Tamasin didn’t think it was only the glare of the orblights that lent a metallic sheen to his dark eyes, “but were actually inviting us into the keep! But pleased, pleased, to hear of your immediate need for a suitable heir, though saddened by your rapidly declining health, of course.”
“Of course,” said Piro. “The rest of your men, they are outside?”
“Quite.” The Riever’s teeth gleamed. “I had my doubts that you could accommodate all of them, but those doubts have been laid to rest.” As you will be, he might as well have said aloud. Tamasin cast a quick look across the double handful of assembled court, as many of the keep’s inhabitants as they’d been able to round up who could fit into the old finery and act the part. Most of them understood enough Un to have followed some of that exchange—their collective gazes still rested calmly on Piro, though. “If you’ll show us to our quarters? Naturally, we’ll all stay together!”
“Naturally,” said Piro, and smiled a little. And astonishingly, when the Riever met his gaze, it was the Riever’s grin that faltered. He recovered himself instantly, but his eyes had narrowed, and Tamasin could see that whatever end he had planned for Piro had just acquired a new degree of cruelty.
Piro lifted his hand, and Tamasin drew back the curtain over the archway behind her. The Riever’s shoulders stiffened, then relaxed as a dozen or so of what were clearly servants, just as clearly unarmored and unarmed, filed silently into the hall. As they approached him, he said offhandedly to Piro, “There are thirty or so of my men outside—your guard captain as well! I’m afraid none of his men returned with him.”
Piro’s mouth twitched. The Riever saw it, and satisfaction softened the hard lines of his face. Tamasin’s head swam with the force of her rage. Piro was speaking, and she made herself listen: “—will take you and your men to your chambers, to refresh yourselves before the feast tonight and the accession ceremony in the morning.”
The Riever casually grabbed one of the women in servant’s garb by the arm and thrust her at his men. Shame, as intense as the rage had been just moments before, flooded Tamasin’s eyes with acid tears. She inhaled deeply, trying to force herself into some semblance of calm.
The Riever gave two of his companions an instruction accompanied by a booming laugh, and after disappearing briefly from Tamasin’s line of sight, they reappeared, dragging—Shal! After a night of fevered imaginings of his fate, each worse than the last, Tamasin was shocked to see him alive and relatively well. Dried blood did crust one side of his face and his nose was swollen, but he was staggering along under his own power, far more hindered than helped by the men’s tugging hands. They flung him forward and he skidded on his knees almost to Piro’s feet.
The orblights flared, ghastly green. A few of the Riever’s men cried out, and Tamasin’s gaze snapped to Piro’s face. He was rigid, expressionless, and as the green bled back out of the orblights, the eerie color they had lent him vanished. Even his lips were bloodless now. Shal lurched to his feet; Piro stood as well, carefully navigating the steps down from the dais, and Shal rose to offer him a steadying arm. Tamasin moved as unobtrusively as she could to Piro’s other side and he leaned heavily against her shoulder.
“Come, Your Grace,” said Shal. His voice was cracked and rusty, but he knew how to fill the hall with it. “The priestesses await you in the healing chambers.”
Hardly—the only priestess as such was propping him up on one side as Shal supported his other. There had been no true priestess in Anmoor for fifteen years, not since Piro’s mother had died, and the healing chambers were wherever Piro and Tamasin happened to be when the need arose. But the Riever had obviously grown up on the same tales of Anmoorish magic as everyone else in the Empire, and waved them away with a sneer.
The refugees had begun trickling across Anmoor’s southern border three months before, with horrific tales of marauders led by a great-nephew of the Emperor himself looting and pillaging their way up the Great North Road. South of their villages, that road led to the Imperial province of Nebra, where Tamasin and her mother had settled when the latter had remarried for the final time. North, it led to only one place still within the Empire’s borders, even if only nominally—icy, ancient Anmoor.
Tamasin hadn’t particularly wanted to travel the Great North Road herself eleven years before. She had still been reeling from her mother’s death when her stepfather had summoned her to his study and informed her that she was to go live with her unremembered father’s kin in Anmoor.
“Anmoor?” she’d said blankly, staring at him. She had thought she might have misheard him—did people actually live in Anmoor, anymore?
They did, apparently, and her stepfather had sent a letter to them, informing them of her projected arrival some six to eight weeks hence. “Wait—my father’s kin?” Tamasin had still been utterly shocked, but her brain had been trying to work in fits and starts. “I’m Anmoorish?”
“Did your mother never mention it? Well, I suppose she wouldn’t have, to you. Your father’s grandfather was Anmoorish—of the ruling house there, in fact.”
“But…” Tamasin had begun to protest, and then had stopped. Her stepfather hadn’t been looking at her face anymore; he had been frowning down at the papers scattered across his desk. He hadn’t even been pretending to forget her existence; he had been well on his way to genuinely doing so already.
And so she had come to Anmoor, where she had stuck out like a speck of pepper in a sea of salt, where she had spoken not a single word of the language, not even yes or no or thank you or goodbye—not that goodbye had mattered much, as she’d had no other place to go. The Anmoorish hadn’t been interested in her in the slightest, had likely doubted that she was genuinely Anmoorish in even that scant eighth part. She had doubted it herself, but had seen no reason to broach the topic.
Captain Lord Shal, one of the few Anmoorish who spoke Un fluently, had stuck her in the nursery with her three-times-removed cousin, the orphaned prince of Anmoor. Prince Piranos Abhasvar, Shal had informed her, before literally pushing her inside a grim stone-walled chamber that looked nothing like any nursery Tamasin had ever seen and closing the door behind her. What trepidation she might have felt at being so placed with a prince of anything had faded quickly in the face of the flaxen-haired little boy five years her junior, who had greeted her with painstakingly learned phrases in Un and an anxious, eager-to-please smile. It had been so long since anyone had appeared impressed with her in any way that she had forgotten to stay distant and angry, that day—and, at least where Piro was concerned—all the days after.
Now, Tamasin, Shal, and Piro made their way down one of the keep’s more ancient corridors. It was barely wide enough for the three of them, and if Shal hadn’t been hunched over Piro, his head would have brushed the ceiling. Piro at least didn’t seem to be worsening—what was more frightening to Tamasin at that moment was Shal’s obvious weakness. He was favoring his left side—kicked, perhaps; she hoped he wasn’t bleeding internally. She had gotten to know all the ways people could be damaged inside, in the years since she’d come to Anmoor; that was one of the worst, and the hardest to heal.
They finally reached the old temple and the abandoned high priestess’s chambers. Tamasin had found time to supervise their retreat from the keep’s family quarters, where the Riever and his men were now residing, but had not found similar time to organize any unpacking; trunks and chests were piled haphazardly against the walls. At least a fire had been lit, some time ago judging from the heavy warmth permeating the air, and a bed for Piro had been set up. Shal and Tamasin steered him toward it and lowered him onto the sagging mattress. Tamasin eyed Shal pointedly; when he didn’t appear to notice, she said sharply, “And you as well, please—”
“Piro first,” said Shal, staring down at Piro’s sleeping features. Piro had barely been awake during the last ten minutes of their journey and had waited only for his head to touch the pillow to surrender consciousness.
“Piro first,” Tamasin agreed. “But it’ll be easier for both of us if you’re already lying down after I’m finished with him. Besides, you look like death warmed over.”
His expression grew distant; Tamasin watched him at first with curiosity, then with alarm. “You can’t,” she said, “you can’t be thinking of not allowing me to—we need you! We need you well, not, not shambling around while you heal the good old fashioned way!”
One side of his mouth quirked up, though his eyes never left Piro’s face. “Your bedside manner leaves much to be desired.” Then his mouth straightened out and he finally looked at her. “I was thinking of conserving your strength.”
Tamasin was briefly silenced by this. She hadn’t the faintest idea how much of her strength the following day would require; none of them had ever done or even witnessed anything like it. Shal had read of it, and that was all. “I suppose we had better leave you visibly injured, at least,” she said at last. “But I think we do need you more well than you are now, where it counts.”
Afterwards, when Shal had left, Tamasin stayed with Piro and watched him sleep—it was sleep, now, not the unconsciousness that exhaustion drove him into on a regular basis. But not a deep sleep—as she was thinking that, Piro’s eyes opened, blank and dazed in the firelight. Tamasin frowned down at him and his gaze cleared, a small smile curving his lips. “It’s definitely you,” he said. “What have I done now?”
“Nothing, for God’s sake. Other than pass out as usual. How are you feeling?”
“As usual,” he said dryly. “That’s how.” He paused. “Am I allowed to sit up?”
“Go to the pot?”
Tamasin rolled her eyes. “It’s under the bed. At least, it had better be under the bed—”
She bent down, but Piro said hastily, “I was just joking. I don’t need it.” Tamasin straightened back up and gave him an exasperated look. “I’m sure it’s there,” Piro said, clearly intending to placate her.
“I’ll know the reason why, if it isn’t.” But she couldn’t help smiling down at him, though it faded nearly as quickly as it had come. “I still think I should come to the feast,” she said abruptly.
“Shal will be there,” said Piro mildly.
“And what good will that do, if you collapse?” she snapped.
“What good would you do? Do you think the Riever will stand back and patiently wait for you to minister to me? He’d more likely simply claim the right to rule then and there, and you along with it.” Piro’s fair cheeks were flushed; Tamasin determinedly looked away, jaw clenched. “Tam, I won’t collapse, or faint, or anything else.” The pause after those words lasted long enough that Tamasin unwillingly returned her attention to his face. Piro’s gaze had turned inward, pensive. “I’d wanted to tell you, before—something about the Riever, or his men or both, I don’t know—I can feel them.” Tamasin grimaced, and a spark of humor lightened Piro’s expression. “It’s not exactly unpleasant…it actually makes me feel stronger. As though I could be stronger, as if the strength were mine for the taking.”
“Well,” said Tamasin, uneasily. “Perhaps it does work that way, when…we…tomorrow.” She forced the last word out. Piro reached out and gripped her fingers tightly in his; Tamasin squeezed back, refusing to let her own ambivalence weaken her grasp.
Piro’s clear hazel eyes met hers. “I hope you’ll stay, after I’m gone,” he said. Shock stopped her breath and her fingers stiffened in his; he brought his other hand up to cover them. “I overheard you and Shal arguing, the night the first refugees arrived.”
Tamasin stared at him whitely, thoughts scurrying through her head—what else might she and Shal have said, that night? “Oh?” she managed. “Really?” Even through her agitation, she was disgusted with her own lack of aplomb—but lying to Piro, even just concealing things from him, wasn’t a skill she had ever wanted to develop.
“You said, that if I were dead”—and it was dreadful enough that he’d heard her say that, and even more dreadful that he spoke of his own death with such resigned acceptance—“that you might leave Anmoor.”
“I’d never leave you,” Tamasin said intensely. “Never.”
“I know,” said Piro. “But…I don’t think you’d leave a child, or take it away from its heritage, either. Even if I were gone.”
Tamasin stared down at their interlaced fingers—Piro’s were long, startlingly white against the battered-looking brown of hers. He had beautiful hands, a lute-player’s hands, she had told him fancifully more than once when they were younger. “No,” she said. “If—if there were a child, I wouldn’t leave it behind, and I would stay here with it.” Each word felt like the bars of a cage drawing ever tighter around her, suffocating her.
“I’d leave with you, if I could,” she heard Piro say, over the hammering of her pulse in her ears. “You know I’ve always wanted to see the Empire.” His tone was deliberately light; Tamasin couldn’t quite make herself look at him, but she did prod her lips into curving upward. It wasn’t even that difficult; it was an old joke between them.
“You are in the Empire,” she said. “Ignorant savage.”
“I can read better than you—”
“—in the old Anmoorish syllabary, that even you northern barbarians don’t use anymore—”
“You’re a fine one to talk, Lady Abhasvar—”
They fell into comfortable bickering, and a few minutes later Piro dozed off again, mid-sentence. Tamasin’s gaze lingered on his face; his color had definitely improved, at least.
Lady Abhasvar—until the refugees had arrived, everyone living in Anmoor had been to some degree, however attenuated, an Abhasvar. Only Piro was of the direct line and carried the name, but after the plague had swept through Anmoor, everyone who was not at least tinged with the blood had died.
And Tamasin Tealitt, sullen and resentful thirteen-year-old still utterly confounded by the healing magic that had awakened within her scant weeks before, had found that in its aftermath nobody would call her Tealitt anymore. “I’m not Abhasvar,” she had snapped. “Most especially not The Lady Abhasvar!” That conversation had taken place after enduring a full week of overhearing herself referred to as such and on one memorable occasion, having been addressed so to her face by the chief (and now only) laundress.
“Very well,” Shal had said, staring coldly at her mulish expression. “Tamasin, called Abhasvar. Is that tolerable? It pleases them to claim ownership of you. Are you so small that you’ll deny them that comfort now?”
But to become Piro’s wife, the Lady Abhasvar in truth—looked at dispassionately, it wasn’t as shocking an idea as it had seemed to her three years ago when Piro had first so hesitantly proposed it. Who else had he ever gotten to know well enough to think of in that way, after all? Who else could keep him alive and healthy enough to have a real chance of siring an heir? And of course, Shal had been doing whatever he could to water and fertilize the idea in Piro’s head for years, though she hadn’t known that then.
She would unhesitatingly die for Piro; living for him, all the long years of her life, especially if he weren’t even present to comfort and distract her, was an entirely different proposition. And living them in Anmoor, where summer was a barely an interruption in the endless cold, damp twilights of spring and fall–Anmoor, where there were never enough hands to do all that needed to be done day after day, month after month, year after year to keep what was left of the populace alive. And living them with Shal, who should never have touched her once he’d decided it was her destiny to strengthen Abhasvar’ s overbred direct line with her sturdy mongrel blood—
Tamasin bent over and smoothed back Piro’s bright Anmoorish hair, so different from her own unruly dark braids, and kissed him gently, just as she had when he was little. But he wasn’t little, not anymore, even if her heart’s eyes insisted on seeing him that way—damn Shal! She pulled back abruptly, wanting to damn Piro too for his unwitting complicity, but couldn’t bring herself to do it. Piro could not afford to be any more damned than he already was.
After Shal had collected Piro and left for the feast, Tamasin tried to wait, to calmly stay behind in the old temple as she’d been told to do. She lasted perhaps an hour, then edged out into the corridor. It was empty; she ran fleetly down the passage to the newer parts of the keep, then crept past the kitchens to a tiny chamber, barely more than a niche, that some past untrusting Abhasvar had built on the other side of the great hall. She had to clear the cobwebs out of its squint before she could peer through it; clearly nobody had used it in some time, perhaps not since she and Piro had last spied on Shal’s council gatherings, all those years ago when there had still been a council to gather.
Tamasin pressed her cheek hard against the chill stone, trying to get a better look at the high table, then recoiled involuntarily; the Riever was directly facing her, barely half the width of the hall away. He was speaking, and she strained to hear.
“—Great-Uncle doesn’t even know what he’s got out here, and doesn’t seem to care, either—I had little trouble obtaining his permission to consolidate these wilderness territories,” the Riever was saying.
“But Anmoor is no wilderness territory, my lord,” came Shal’s voice from somewhere outside the limited view of the squint. “Surely the Emperor never labeled us as such to you?”
“No, no, of course not! But I heard, as I was making my way up here, that fabled Anmoor had fallen silent this past decade or so! I felt it to be my duty to the Empire to investigate. Anmoor may be one of her least populous and most remote holdings, but its place in legend far outweighs all those considerations.” The Riever clapped his hands together once, sharply. Into the unpleasant silence that followed, his voice rang out: “Your Grace! Isn’t it well that I happened to come here just when the glorious line of Abhasvar was on the verge of dying out? I assure you, as your adopted heir, my blood will flow more strongly in your name than even yours ever could!”
The Emperor will not be pleased, whispered Shal’s voice in Tamasin’s memory, from just a few weeks before. The Emperor almost certainly meant only to rid the Imperial court of him. Twenty years ago, when I carried the news of Piro’s father’s ascension there, the Emperor had far too many great-nephews and twice-removed cousins and grandsons-in-law intriguing at court for his comfort. I doubt it’s any different now. Piro’s great-grandfather—and yours—fought alongside the Emperor in the Indigene wars, when the Emperor was young. The Emperor was glad, very glad, when Abhasvar returned home, and he wanted them above all else to stay there.
If this great-nephew should happen to wander all the way to Anmoor, and then should happen to disappear entirely—the Emperor is very unlikely to come looking for him.
“—keep is so well-maintained, for such an ancient holding, I nearly thought myself home again,” the Riever was saying jovially. “Your servants are quite obedient, as well—who might I thank, for such efficient management?”
“My elder cousin,” came Piro’s voice—not weak at all, to Tamasin’s intense relief. “Chief of the God’s priestesses—she is resting, and meditating; she will be at the accession ceremony in the morning, if you would like to thank her then.”
“I would, I would! And to assure her that with such devotion to our comforts, she’ll always have a place here, no matter who is overlord.”
Tamasin couldn’t bear to listen to any more; Piro was as well as he ever was, and that was all she had really needed to know. She flung herself away from the squint and fled back to the old temple.
Piro returned alone a few hours later, pacing with restless energy. Tamasin did her best to project the calm demeanor of somebody who hadn’t stirred outside the chamber; either it worked, or Piro was too tightly strung to notice anything amiss. “I think I know them all now,” he said. He had paused beside one of the piled trunks; his fingers gripped the carven lid so tightly that the knuckles shone white. “I think they were all there at the feast.”
“All thirty of the Riever’s men?” Tamasin said, startled, and barely managed to shut her teeth over the observation that she would have expected the hall to be louder in that case—she would have made a terrible spy.
“I counted at least twenty-five—if a few were missing, then they were elsewhere—” He stopped abruptly, and their eyes met in too-perfect understanding. “I hate this,” said Piro softly. “I hate that we must let him and his men run rampant through the keep.” Tamasin flinched and his face hardened even more. “I made damn sure I memorized all their faces at the feast. Must we wait until dawn? For the—accession ceremony?” His mouth twisted on the last words.
“Shal said so.” Usually the near-reverent regard in which Piro held Shal and his every word chafed on her nerves, but she found herself grateful for it now. “To increase our chances of success—sunrise, and at the place of the stones.” She grimaced involuntarily. “And with me consecrated like a real live priestess. Or as close to it as we can manage.” If you can hold all those faces in your mind, all at once, no matter what else is going on—if I can keep you alive long enough to expend so much magic upon so many people—
The telltale lines of pain and exhaustion had begun to bracket Piro’s eyes and mouth, and Tamasin eventually managed to convince him to lie down. After she had let him talk himself to sleep, she slipped out the door and edged down the corridor. Shal’s failure to return from the great hall was making her more and more nervous. She could hardly go wandering about the keep looking for him; the Riever knew nothing of her existence, and at this point it would be impossible to pretend, should he or his men happen across her, that it had been a mere oversight on all their parts.
She stopped at the threshold of the old temple quarters, dithering. A faint scraping noise came from behind her; she whirled around, heart pounding hard in her chest, and noticed for the first time that the door across the corridor from the high priestess’s chamber was not quite shut. It was ridiculous to feel afraid; the only preternatural things in the entire keep were herself and Piro, and Anmoorish legends had nothing to say on the subject of the ghosts of priestesses past. Tamasin squared her shoulders, strode over to the door and firmly pushed it open.
The chamber beyond was much smaller than the one Piro was currently sleeping in. Shal, shirtless, filled up a good quarter of it; he was standing next to a small table and the dying remains of a hearth fire, hands full of bandages that he was clearly attempting to bind his ribs with. He looked up as the door opened, and Tamasin jerked her eyes away from his bare chest, staring fixedly at the table. “You’d better let me do that,” she said, relief and irritation both serving to sharpen her voice.
He was silent for a moment; she could feel his gaze against her averted face. “All right,” he said quietly. Tamasin closed the door behind her, more thoroughly than it had been before, and crossed the room to the table.
“I’m sorry they’re still sore.” She picked up the nearest roll of bandages. “They’re not broken anymore.”
“Bruising,” he said, and she allowed herself the briefest of glances at his ribs—she thought she could see some mottling there, the skin darkening from the burst blood vessels beneath it. “I didn’t want you to waste any more of your strength. It’s only uncomfortable, nothing more.”
“How stoic of you.” He didn’t respond to that; she didn’t expect him to. She bound his chest far more efficiently that he had been going about it, though perhaps not as efficiently as she was capable of doing; she didn’t usually take such care to not to brush her patient’s bare flesh with her own. The second she finished she stepped back a good few paces. “There. Better, I hope.”
“Yes.” He paused. “And you?”
“Me? I’m fine. I could’ve done more for you, earlier. I’ll sleep a little. I’ll need to be up again at least an hour before you and Piro anyway.” She didn’t really want to ask, but she had to. “Will anyone be able to help me with the preparations?” Untraumatized, unwounded…? She braced herself for the answer.
After several excruciating seconds, Shal said, “I don’t know yet.”
“Ah.” There wasn’t much else to say to that. The silence that fell between them was no more uncomfortable than usual. She started to turn away from him, then stopped as his fingers gripped her wrist.
She couldn’t remember the last time he had touched her voluntarily, of his own accord—or rather she could, but he had made a point of not doing so, even in passing, since then. She was startled into looking up at his face, and the sight of it surprised her even more—he looked ravaged, was the only way she could think to describe it. Him! “You love him,” said Shal, and either exhaustion or the exigency of the moment had roughened his voice, violating its usual cool control. “Why won’t you save Abhasvar?”
Shock quickly gave way to outrage. “I am helping save it, supposedly! First thing in the morning—”
Her laugh was short and sharp. “You think there’ll be one?”
“There may be.” Tamasin opened her mouth, then closed it. There were twenty answers to that, each more incoherent than the last, all boiling over with emotion. “The princess of Anmoor can do whatever she pleases,” Shal continued in a low voice. Tamasin went rigid. “She can have whomever she pleases, once she’s done her duty by Abhasvar—”
“My God, what you think of me!” Tamasin wrenched her wrist from his grasp. Her cheeks felt like they were on fire, skin stretched tight as a drum. “Even when I thought I wanted you—”
“I want Abhasvar to live,” said Shal, meeting her eyes without any evidence of shame or self-doubt—was he even capable of those emotions? “It can, through you. And you do love him.”
“Of course I love him,” she said. “He always loved me, even when I was nobody and nothing. I could even do what you’re asking—not the part where I have whomever I please—” She stopped; her voice had begun to shake. After a deep breath, she continued, more calmly, “But none of that matters now, does it? None of us may even be alive by this time tomorrow.”
“But we may be,” he said. “And if we are, Tamasin—please.” His jaw was so tight that the muscles twitched under his cheekbones. “Please. It would make Piro very happy—does that move you, at least?”
And what about me? she wanted to shout at him. What about my happiness?—but that argument would never move Shal. He never considered his own happiness, after all—well, he had once, if happiness was the proper word for what had happened between them all those years ago. She had been happy, at least—but she’d been a fool. Tamasin did not enjoy being a fool. “I’ve said I’ll consider it,” she said flatly. “I’ve said so to Piro.” Shal’s eyes widened. “I’m surprised he didn’t tell you. He’s asked me to marry him at summer solstice.” Unwilling to even look at him any longer, Tamasin turned her back on him and stalked towards the door. “Try to get a little sleep,” she said, over her shoulder. “I’m going to do the same. Then find someone to help me get ready before sunrise.”
Later, Tamasin was never sure if she had slept—she thought she must at least have dozed off, sitting on the floor beside Piro’s bed, because the sound of the door opening startled her fully awake. She lifted her head from the side of the mattress, careful not to jostle the still-sleeping Piro as Anbeg, once chief laundress and now Tamasin’s second in everything else domestic in the keep as well, poked her head into the chamber. Tamasin rose creakily to her feet and padded to the door and out into the corridor.
Anbeg, her arms piled high with cloth and satchels, led her to the door across the corridor behind which Shal had been, earlier. Tamasin eyed it as if it were a striking snake, but Anbeg simply nudged it open with her hip and continued inside without pause. Tamasin followed her, closing and barring the door behind them. Shal had at least built the fire up before he left—the little room was brightly lit now, and almost uncomfortably warm.
Anbeg crossed the floor to the small table and set her burdens down carefully, then turned to face Tamasin. She didn’t look any the worse for wear—but she wasn’t young; perhaps she’d been spared the attentions of the Riever and his men. “My lady,” said Anbeg sturdily.
Tamasin sighed. Anbeg had always been the most resistant to simply addressing her as Tamasin. “Do you know what to do? Because I don’t, not really.”
“I was an acolyte, once,” said Anbeg. At Tamasin’s startled look, she cracked a small, dry smile. “Wouldn’t think it, would you, my lady? But I had the blood. Obviously. It never blossomed, though.” She turned away and busied herself opening the satchels and spreading their contents out across the tables—sticks of color, small capped ceramic pots, a handful of golden vials, brushes and combs. Tamasin idly fingered the billowing piles of cloth—beneath the topmost, pure white layer were several more, heavily embroidered and alternating purple and black.
“Black?” Tamasin asked, plucking up an edge to show Anbeg.
“It’s still just the purple—if you concentrate the dye enough, you get black,” said Anbeg. “We used to sell a lot of it, the black and purple cloth, when traders came through the mountains. They didn’t know that either.” The small, dry smile made a reappearance. “They thought it was magic. They gave us good coin for it.”
“Useful,” said Tamasin, with a faint smile of her own. No traders had visited Anmoor since the plague—in fact, nobody at all had until now, other than the Emperor’s tax collector once a year, and he never came further in than the border garrison at the southern pass. It had been a challenge to make the garrison actually appear manned for those visits—but they had been recovering. They had.
There was no point in dwelling on that now. “Should I change into it?” Hoping she could—she had no idea how it was put together, and the stained-glass frescoes in the old temple depicting the priestesses in full regalia, while long on beauty, were short on fine details.
“No. We’ll do the rest first.” The rest turned out to be the paints and powders and brushes—lacking a chair, Tamasin alternately stood and knelt as Anbeg ordered her to—a role reversal for both of them, but if Anbeg found it uncomfortable or unnerving, she gave no sign of either.
Tamasin found Anbeg’s dispassionate demeanor a relief when it came time to strip off her robe and the shift beneath. “Three vials,” Anbeg murmured, “containing the fluid of the God’s own flesh—tears, saliva, sweat. Close your eyes, my lady.” Tamasin did, and felt something cool trickle down her scalp, then between her breasts, then down the small of her back. “Now stand.”
Tamasin’s feet had begun itching from standing motionless for so long by the time Anbeg had finished wrapping her in the complex, butter-soft folds of cloth. The unconfined weight of her hair, a state it was almost never in, unnerved her; she could feel it slithering across her shoulder blades and swinging against her elbows as she turned around to face Anbeg.
Anbeg backed slowly away from her, expressionless. That expressionlessness was more than Anbeg’s usual stoicism. “What?” Tamasin burst out finally.
“I haven’t seen a true priestess in an awfully long time, my lady,” said Anbeg. Her voice was hoarse in the thick silence that had fallen.
“The hair ruins the whole thing, I expect,” said Tamasin, trying for breeziness.
But Anbeg shook her head and backed up a few more steps. “The young prince will do what he must,” she said softly, “just as his grandfather did in his day, when the Wolfclans came across the mountains to raid us. The prince’s mother and aunt were only girls then, but they were consecrated true priestesses and healed him afterward, my father told me. He was there, and saw it with his own eyes.”
“What else did your father say about it?” Tamasin’s voice was harsher than she meant it to be. “About—Piro’s grandfather, and what he did? What was it—” She trailed off.
Anbeg pinched her lips together. “He wouldn’t tell that part,” she said finally. “He didn’t want to talk about it. The prince’s grandfather lived, and so did most of his men, and the raiders all died. That’s enough to know.”
After bidding Anbeg farewell, Tamasin slipped out of the keep. The Riever had posted no guards, and indeed, why should he have? He and his men were the only things that menaced the keep. It was dark enough to make following the path a bit tricky, but Tamasin knew the way—she and Piro had sneaked out here often enough when Shal had imagined them hard at work in the nursery schoolroom instead.
To most of the Anmoorish, this was a sacred place; to Tamasin, even after the magic had wakened in her, it had never felt any different from anywhere else. The standing stones were certainly impressive, each one twice her height and several times her breadth, with a blackened sconce atop each where generations of mage-princes had summoned orblights for their priestesses’ supplicants. She spared them barely a glance before dropping to her knees in the soft grass. Even through her cloak, and the ceremonial robes beneath it, the ground was icy, as was the breeze that wafted through the gaps between the stones. She was glad of it; she thought she would be sweating like a pig otherwise, from the layers of cloth swaddling her and her own fear.
She had only just beaten them out here—bare moments later, she heard them approaching. The Riever’s voice rang out, bright and mocking; Shal’s low tones answered, unintelligibly, then Piro’s lighter ones. When she was sure they could all see her, she rose as gracefully to her feet as she could, keeping herself swathed in the cloak’s heavy folds.
The long grass rustled as the men pushed their way through it. Two of the Riever’s men gripped Shal’s arms, shackled in front of him; his ankles were chained barely a foot apart and a fresh bruise was swelling his jaw. Piro stood beside the Riever, who clearly felt his mere presence was sufficient restraint for the prince of Anmoor. Piro looked well—more than well—his eyes were shining, and it amazed her that the Riever didn’t notice, or didn’t care if he did.
“Priestess,” said Piro, his voice clear and bright in the sharp dawn air. “Please begin the ceremony.”
Tamasin bowed her head in what she hoped was a ceremonial fashion, then whipped her cloak off. She’d practiced that maneuver ten or fifteen times back in the chamber, until she could do it without tangling it up in either her legs or her hair, and it spilled back flawlessly off her shoulders to puddle at her feet. The rising sun caught her robes and lit the metallic embroidery to orange-gold; she shone in the light, and the men all stared at her, transfixed.
“Why, where were you keeping this one?” cried the Riever. He looked her up and down, ostentatiously. “This can’t be your elder cousin! Does she come with the crown?”
Piro gazed at her for a long moment, his eyes serious and steady on her face. “I hope she does,” he said. “Priestess. Please begin.”
“Your Grace,” said Tamasin. Her voice was a little choked; she swallowed as surreptitiously as she could and said, more strongly, “Do you choose, at this break of day, to relinquish your hold on the princedom of Anmoor, to pass on all honors and birthrights to your chosen heir?” Shal had come up with the wording. It had sounded a lot more impressive when he had said it, especially with the echo that had been imparted by the surrounding stone walls of the keep; the emptiness of the sky all around them swallowed her own voice whole.
“I do,” said Piro.
“Then, prince and prince-to-be, come to me, and”—for an eternal, awful second she blanked on what she was supposed to say next—“receive the gifts of the God!” Tamasin raised her hands and spat on both palms, the only genuine part of the entire thing, then held them out; the Riever looked faintly revolted. But he walked forward with Piro and clasped her hand anyway—his was far larger and rougher than Piro’s familiar palm. The Riever squeezed then, brutally hard, but she was too keyed up to react. The sky was darkening in her sight, a reversal of the sunrise, as Piro’s magic swelled against her flesh.
There had been no way to practice this; they had both been equally unwilling to do so on anyone else, Anmoorish or refugee. It would either work, or it wouldn’t. Tamasin thought distantly under the onslaught of Piro’s magic that something was going to work—she had never felt anything quite like this. She thought she heard shouting, and a muffled clang of steel on steel, but she could do nothing about any of it.
A man screamed, high and hoarse as a boy, and the Riever’s hand wrenched itself from her loose grasp. Piro staggered against her and she groped for his other hand, found it and squeezed it tightly in hers. Piro’s magic surged again and finally, her own healing magic rose to meet it—that at least was familiar, the shuddering heat flooding her body and surging down her arms to his hands gripping hers.
Light boiled around them. Her eyes were working again, and everything was brilliant, eerie green; the orblights atop each standing stone had ignited. The Riever had fallen to his knees beside Shal, his fists buried in his own heavy black hair. The screams were his; his men had staggered back, faces bleached and working in the emerald haze.
The Riever’s screams turned into guttural, mindless ululations—one of his men broke and fled, achieving five or six strides before he fell to own knees, clutching his head. The other wrenched his sword clumsily from its scabbard and swung it sideways at Shal, who rolled away unscathed. The man dropped his sword, fingers ripping at his own cheeks as he toppled sideways. What about the others? she said, or thought she said—could Piro hear her over the dying howls of the Riever’s men?
It appeared he could; his lips were in her hair and his voice vibrated through her skull. The same thing’s happening all throughout the keep; our people are running, hiding in the old temple passages and the storerooms. And they were safe from the withering—that was what Shal had called it, what his old texts and diaries had named it, what had induced the then-youthful Emperor of Un to do everything but outright exile his Abhasvar vassals after he’d seen them make war.
Tamasin could feel it now, like the roaring of a winter storm muffled by the keep’s thick stone walls—but the Anmoorish and the refugees were all safe behind the walls of Piro’s will. He was controlling the withering, forcing its life-draining power through the narrowest of channels: only the Riever and the men who serve him, these faces, only them, only—
The Riever had stopped screaming; his body was twitching and his empty eyes were staring at her and Piro, but no more sounds emerged from his gaping mouth. Should I be horrified? Tamasin looked past the Riever, at the gobbling, convulsing remains of his men, and couldn’t bring herself to even try to be. Piro’s arms tightened against hers and she burrowed in closer, fiercely glad that they were dead and that Piro was alive, and loving him so much it hurt.
I love you too, he whispered. I’ve always loved you. She could hardly tell where Piro left off and she began, in the shared maelstrom of their magic; she didn’t resist when he turned her fully around to face him and let go of one of her hands to cup her chin in his palm, tilting her head back. Her eyes closed as Piro’s mouth gently covered hers. A different sort of heat intruded, prickling across her flesh, and Piro’s body pressed harder against hers as her lips parted beneath his. She had been a woman grown for five years, had grimly struggled alone against the desires of one for most of that time, and her body knew what it wanted now regardless of who was providing it.
Suddenly every muscle in Piro’s body locked—Tamasin jerked her mouth away from Piro’s and staggered back, only his hand still clenched in hers keeping her by his side. That was all the warning she had before the withering, as soulless and terrible as a hundredweight of dead stone, came surging back into him. Piro screamed, a terrible harsh cry, and because she was still utterly entangled in him she felt her (his) mind begin to come apart at the seams, fragmenting under that hideous grinding pressure.
When a priestess recalls her magic to herself after healing, it’s greatly weakened, having poured itself into her supplicants, Shal had said to Piro and Tamasin, that night weeks ago when they had all finally realized the magnitude of the danger they were in. Yet what little is left of it restores her, heals her just as it healed them, because that is its most basic nature. When a mage-prince recalls the withering to himself, it’s swollen to bursting with the life force of all its victims, and it will do its damnedest to kill him just as it killed them, because that’s its most basic nature. Those stolen lives must be drained from the withering until it is weak enough that he can control it, and banish it once more.
Tamasin had hoped fervently that this use of her magic would come to her as easily as the healing did, and it was easy, at first. As she determinedly siphoned the withering’s tidal wave of life force away, it sprinted through her veins like sunlight, bright and ephemeral, swelling her inner reservoir of magic. Piro’s hand in hers slowly began to relax. She drained it, and drained it, and ignored the faint, growing ache in her head and belly. She could heal herself as well as she could any other Abhasvar; if she took a little damage now, what of it? A little damage—but the ache persisted, and deepened, and she gritted her teeth through it and thought I can heal a lot of damage, too—just let me finish, damn you!
But the priestesses, she thought suddenly, in the frescoes in the old temple—the high priestess with her hands in the mage-prince’s and all the lesser priestesses standing around them in a circle with their own hands clasped together, waiting…waiting for the head priestess to tire, each to take her place in turn and drain the withering. But Tamasin had no other priestesses to call upon, and now the ache could no longer truly be called an ache. It was a rock of agony in her stomach and behind her eyes, radiating outward until she couldn’t even see the standing stones and the slumped bodies and Shal anymore—Shal!
Shal had no magic of his own, but he was Abhasvar and that might be enough. Blindly she spat on her free hand and thrust it out, praying that Shal was still conscious and could possibly figure out what she needed him to do in time.
Fingers grasped hers, strong and hard, and suddenly Shal was with them in the tumult of their shared sorcery. The crushing weight of the life force still pouring out from the withering into her abruptly shifted, the reduction of the accompanying pain such a relief that she gasped aloud as her vision swam back into focus. For one long, perfect moment the three of them were balanced against the withering and then it was shrinking, rolling back like a storm front in reverse. In its wake the three-way bond of magic between Tamasin, Piro, and Shal snapped into focus and to her horror, she saw that Piro had clearly sustained more than a little damage himself, his mind wavering and half-lost. And Shal—his pale hazel eyes, barely inches from her face, were locked on hers—and she could feel it, feel the sullen heat of his desire for her, ruthlessly suppressed by his duty to Abhasvar but never entirely eradicated. A searing memory boiled up between the two of them, the three of them—her own face, eyes shut tight, neck arched back, sweat shining on her bare breasts and the feel of herself around him, slick and tight and hot—
Both Tamasin and Piro recoiled, Piro’s reaction so intense he actually took a step backward, pulling Tamasin along with him. Shock and betrayal ripped into the link between them all like jagged spears—and then, horribly, the withering spilled out of Piro in a sudden scalding torrent towards Shal. Shal jerked like a marionette, the hopelessly tangled shackles and chains that were still wrapped around his arms and legs shrieking as they grated together.
Tamasin opened her mouth to scream, at Piro or Shal she hardly knew, but before she could do more than take a single breath, the withering was upon her as well. A terrible lassitude replaced all her own magic so utterly that for an instant she thought she had simply died; her legs buckled, collapsing her into a heap on the ground, the weight of her falling body wrenching her hand from Piro’s grasp. A vast, cool wind filled her head, sweeping everything that made her Tamasin away with it. She rolled onto her back with the last of her strength and found herself staring up into Piro’s eyes, eyes glaring with the sickly green radiance of the orblights.
Piro’s mouth was open, his lips forming her name but she couldn’t hear anything except a dull, rhythmic thudding. The last thing she saw, before the withering swallowed her utterly in its infinite empty darkness, was Piro’s face contorted into a rictus of agony and determination.
Tamasin tightened the straps on her old haversack, kept from that long-ago journey to Anmoor, then set it down in the pile of what was left of her belongings at the end of her bed. When she thought about carrying all of it, on foot for weeks or even months, the pile looked enormous, but when she thought about surviving on its contents, it looked pathetically tiny instead.
The door to her bedchamber creaked open. I should have somebody oil that, she thought, then realized how ridiculous the thought was—the state of any and all door hinges throughout the keep would henceforth be someone else’s problem. She looked up; Shal stood there, gazing expressionlessly at her. Well, he could hardly be surprised, unless he hadn’t taken seriously any of her twenty recent declarations on the subject of leaving.
But his staring nettled her. “Your Grace,” she said evenly. His lips tightened, then he came in and closed the door behind him. His eyes were on her hair, and when his nostrils flared she said, “Yes, I burned it after I cut it all off.” The acrid stench still lingered around the hearth.
“Why?” he asked.
“Why did I cut it all off, or why did I burn it?”
“I cut it off because it would be a disaster to take care of on the road, and I burned it because—” The sight of it after she had sawed it off, piled on her mattress in a mass of tangled dark curls, had made her cry, and she had shoved it blindly into the fire to stop that bitter flood of tears. “Because why not?”
“Don’t go,” he said, and all her insouciance was silenced, just like that. His face was drawn—thinner, and the usually firm flesh of his cheeks and jaw sagged a little. “You’re needed here.”
“Not anymore,” she said, and her voice was harsh and grating in her own ears.
“People still fall ill—”
“They’ll live! They can’t catch the plague twice, and they’ll survive anything else!”
“—and suffer injuries, and bear children—”
“I don’t care.” Her eyes were filling again, damn him! Tamasin dug her nails into her palms, harder and harder until the pain drove the tears back into abeyance. “That’s not true,” she said, as mildly as she could once she was sure she could control her voice. “I do care. But I need to leave.”
“Where will you go?”
She had thought long and hard about that. “Nebra had a college of physicians and midwives,” she said finally. “People used to come from all over the Empire to visit it. I may try to win a place there.” She shrugged irritably. “I realize that very few, if any, of my future patients could benefit from my…special gifts, but I’ve delivered enough babies in the past ten years to have acquired a respectable amount of mundane skill as well.”
“I’ve never been able to touch the magic,” he said abruptly. “I’ve only ever even felt it that once. When—”
Tamasin flinched, then said thinly, “I’m surprised that you think it needs to be said aloud, here, between us, that this is all my fault. But since it is—”
“You should know better than that. You do know better than that.”
“There!” she said, and the venom in her voice surprised even her. “That’s you. I was starting to wonder if you’d somehow replaced yourself with someone else, these past few weeks—”
“The people still accept you,” he said, calm again. “They’ve accepted you for many years. Even loved you.” Tamasin stiffened. “Not just Piro. And nobody blames you for his death.”
She wanted to scream at him for speaking of love, and Piro, and death all at once, in his even, measured tones—but she didn’t; she counted her heartbeats until the urge to do so faded. The last part might even have been true; she had been unconscious for three days after the deaths of the Riever and all his men. It might simply have seemed to everyone else that both she and Piro had tried to sacrifice their lives to save Anmoor, and only she had been strong enough to recover from it; Piro’s steadily worsening health had hardly been a secret. But she didn’t need anyone else’s blame to validate her own.
“I suppose you feel you must do this, because now they’re yours,” she said flatly. “All Anmoor is yours now by right, and who else is there to help you care for it? As you say, you’re magicless.” He didn’t react to that; with a sigh, she gave up on further provocation and said, wearily, “But I am proof that the magic can manifest where you’d least expect it. Marry another Abhasvar and have ten children. You might be surprised.”
He gazed at her for a long moment; she looked away. “You’re hardly exiled,” she heard him say. “If you ever want to return, you’ll be welcomed. Assuming you survive.”
“Thank you,” she said briskly. “Always the voice of comfort and cheer! None of the refugees are staying either, you know—their homes are at least possibly reclaimable, now that the Riever and his men are gone, and Anmoor has turned out to be a little too much like the old tales made it out. They’ve offered to let me travel with them, so my chances of survival, at least until I reach the lowlands, really aren’t that terrible—”
“All right,” he said tonelessly. The silence that fell between them was distinctly sticky. “Goodbye, Tamasin.”
She waited until she was sure he was gone before she moved, bending down to pick up her haversack, her belts and bags and cloak. The refugees were all bedding down in the hall tonight, with their bundles and boxes, ready to move out at the first light of day; she would join them, so there would be no delay in leaving and no chance they’d leave without her. She swept one last look around at the room that had been hers since she’d first come to Anmoor so many years ago, but she didn’t feel anything for it. Piro was dead, and this room held nothing of his presence anymore.
She tried anyway. “Goodbye, Piro,” she whispered. But nothing answered back; the room was silent except for the faint hissing of the dying coals in the hearth. Tamasin, called Abhasvar, turned on her heel and strode out the door, not bothering to close it behind her.
What a compelling story, tremendous world-building! I’ll read it again, and if Ms. Short chooses to write more tales for Tamasin, I’d love to read them too.