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This week’s excerpt is from a novel I started ages ago, one that sets the stage for most of my other work. It’s set about 300 years before the events in Crossing Swords and my other published stories, and some of you may recognize Mordraghil’s name from those books. I adore him as a villain because he’s often so…unvillain-like.
Eventually I’ll swoop in and finish this story, but until then, I’m gonna give you guys a little taste. Just a warning–there’s sex, violence and bad language. As if you guys expected any different from me.
Malik sur-Memhet stood before the great gilded doors of the Temple of the Ascension, grasped the carved ivory handles, and entered. His sandaled feet crossed the turquoise and obsidian tiles of the anteroom to the archway that opened onto the main chamber beneath the dome. Mosaics depicting the gods, their servants and scenes from the Divine War covered the floor, walls and the massive curve of the ceiling, rendered in colored glass, gold, silver, agate and lapis lazuli. The face of Salahem, twice the height of a man, gazed benevolently down from the dome with eyes of pure sapphire. The light flooding in the windows glinted off the shiny surfaces, and filled the empty space with a surreal glow.
Sur-Memhet crossed this majestic expanse without a glance at the richness and beauty surrounding him. As the head of this Temple, he’d spent decades looking at it, and the sight had never lost its ability to impress. But he had business this day that did not lend itself to enjoyment of aesthetics, nor did he feel equal just now to facing the countenance of his all-knowing god.
According to scripture, Salahem forgave his children all their sins. For sur-Memhet there was little comfort in that. Truth was, he could not imagine Salahem ever forgiving him this. There was no remorse in him—he had passed the stage of his life where the concerns of others troubled him much—but his fear of god was real, and nearly enough to unman him.
To the rear of the dome, behind the altar, a small, plain door led to the dormitory. Prince Judah awaited him in the corridor, his face set in its usual harsh lines.
“They have arrived,” he said without preamble, scowling down at sur-Memhet as if this entire undertaking were somehow his idea. “His barge has been moored in the river for over an hour. How long were you planning on keeping him waiting?”
“I have duties I cannot ignore, especially today,” sur-Memhet answered, squaring his shoulders and stepping past him, down the corridor. “Your father requested my presence.”
“My father is a fool!” Judah snapped, following. “He would take this gift the god has given Moscala and squander it. Worse, he would give it freely to others. Did you know he has commanded that the mother and babe be handed over to the High Council in Nomadi?”
“Too late for that now,” sur-Memhet said prosaically. By the time anyone deemed mother and babe fit to travel, they would be long gone.
They came to the door they wanted and entered without knocking. Within, a young woman lay amid mounds of fine linens in the massive bed reserved for highborn guests. A swaddled bundle lay in her arms. Beside the bed sat Agba sur-Basmat, a minor priest, and one sur-Memhet had never liked. The young man’s eyes seemed to measure all they beheld, and he always seemed to be present at the margins of events, pretending not to listen.
“We’ve come for the child,” Judah announced, the look of avarice on his face doing nothing at all to win the girl over. Still, she was of base birth, and thus schooled in respect. Though terrified, she offered no word of refusal to the finely dressed and bejeweled prince.
“What our honorable Highness means,” sur-Memhet explained with his most reassuring grandfatherly smile, “is that the child needs to be examined.”
The girl stared up at them with round, wary eyes and hugged the baby closer to her breast.
“The child has already been examined many times,” Agba said stiffly.
Prince Judah’s eyes flared and his face went pale. “You will not speak unless I call upon you, dog!” He crossed to the bed and reached for the child. “And this little slut needs to learn her place.”
The girl shrank back, but she had only given birth a few days ago and was still weak from it. The prince easily tore the bundled baby from her arms. His triumph was short-lived, however. Hefting the bundle in his hands, he frowned in growing suspicion and then tore the wrappings away.
The child wasn’t there.
Judah’s eyes practically bulged from his head, and with a hiss of rage, he grabbed the girl by the front of her nightgown and slapped her viciously across the face. She fell back against the pillows, sobbing quietly, her face turned away.
“That was kindly done,” Agba observed, not rising.
Judah rounded on him, one fist raised. “Where is the child?” Sur-Memhet saw the sweat that stood out on the prince’s face, the feverish glint in his eye, and wondered once more how he had let this lunatic talk him into this. The comfortable life of a high priest was not one to be thrown away on the advice of a madman.
“I’ve sent the child away,” said Agba, “a measure that now seems entirely justified.”
“She will be found, and those who harbor her punished! This I vow!”
“Your vows are empty,” Agba said softly. “Mordraghil will know that soon enough. I can only imagine what he’ll do to you when you show up empty-handed.”
“I will not stand here and listen to the lies of a dog!” the prince screamed, even as sur-Memhet felt damnation descend upon them. Drawing a short-sword from his belt, Judah advanced on the young priest.
“I would have thought someone raised in the royal palace would realize,” Agba said, backing away, “secret negotiations are never actually secret. The only thing I don’t know about your deal with Mordraghil is the price he offered.”
“Shut your filthy mouth!”
“Judah!” sur-Memhet shouted, reaching out one hand to stop him. “Kill him and we’ll never know where he sent her!”
Agba’s gaze settled on sur-Memhet, filled with judgment and reproach. “How loyally you serve the god, Excellency.”
“The god does not demand virtue of his followers,” sur-Memhet heard himself say, wincing inwardly at the defensiveness of his tone.
Agba chuckled. “Lucky for you, then, Salahem is the forgiving sort.” And then, before anyone knew what he was about, he drew his own knife from his sleeve and plunged it into the girl’s throat, then wrenched it out and dragged it across his own. He collapsed like a pile of empty clothes onto the floor.
Prince Judah stared down at the pair as their blood spread across white sheets and stone floor tiles. Then, in a fury, he crossed to Agba’s corpse and kicked it savagely, again and again.
Sur-Memhet stood aghast, feeling his insides turn to water. What would they do now? What excuse could they give Mordraghil that he might accept? Sur-Memhet’s earlier fear had evolved into full-blown terror. All things considered, he’d rather cross the god himself than the man who awaited them on the river right now.
On the other side of the bed, Judah had rendered Agba’s face virtually unrecognizable, and apparently satisfied, had ceased kicking to stand with his hands fisted in his hair, muttering imprecations under his breath. Understanding, no doubt, what was going to happen now that he could not deliver what he had promised.
And then it struck sur-Memhet like a bolt from the very heavens. Salvation. “Judah,” he whispered, reaching to touch the other man’s trembling arm. “I have an idea.”
Four hours later, as the bells called the faithful to evening prayer, sur-Memhet stood, a squirming baby in his arms, beside Prince Judah on the barge of Mordraghil sur-Marahad. Before them, two Kurgae’in formed an impassive human barrier between the supplicants and the demigod lord of the Dragon’s Head. Mordraghil had, evidently, grown bored waiting. Beyond one Kurgan’s arm, sur-Memhet could see the lord seated on a silk-upholstered divan while one of his slaves rode him. Other half-clad slaves—male and female—watched as if enthralled. The men were noticeably and unashamedly aroused. From sur-Memhet’s vantage point, Mordraghil’s glistening shaft could be easily seen sheathing and resheathing itself in the woman’s sex. It was not every day one saw the nether parts of the son of a goddess. Not what he would have considered demigod-like proportions, sur-Memhet found himself thinking, but nothing a man would be ashamed of, either.
As sur-Memhet and Judah watched, a Kurgan crossed to Mordraghil and leaned down to whisper in his ear. Mordraghil’s eyes lifted briefly to the pair who awaited his pleasure, then returned to the face of the woman fucking him. His hands slid from her buttocks up her sinuous back and around to cup her breasts. From the angle of his head, it was clear he had taken one of her nipples in his mouth and was suckling. Her cries could now be heard, rising in pitch and volume. Her back arched until her breasts pointed skyward, her head hanging back, her face visible to the waiting men. Seeing her expression—the indescribable ecstasy of it—sur-Memhet felt his own shaft harden, his heart beating a little faster. Then the woman slumped forward in exhaustion, laying her head on her master’s shoulder briefly before slipping off his lap to kneel at his feet. Mordraghil let her fasten his trousers, then motioned her away. She went to stand, shameless in her nakedness with the other slaves, her master’s seed trickling visibly down her inner thighs.
In sur-Memhet’s arms, the baby began to cry. He shifted its position, jiggling it a little, but its questing mouth was seeking something he didn’t have, and its wailing only got louder. Damnation. He’d been so relieved to find a female baby not only of the right age but also touched by the god that he’d completely forgotten to hire a wet nurse.
“Bring her,” Mordraghil commanded. No preamble, no courtesies, no deference to a high priest or a prince of the royal line.
The Kurgae’in had moved aside, and sur-Memhet hurried forward, bowing. Behind him, Prince Judah hung back a little, his arrogance seeping away in the presence of the demigod.
The child was screaming now, thrashing and twisting in sur-Memhet’s awkward grasp. Rising from his divan, Mordraghil reached for her, and sur-Memhet relinquished her without protest. He watched in crawling dread as Mordraghil drew back the swaddling clothes, tossed them aside, and lifted the naked infant high by her underarms.
The baby’s cries stopped abruptly, and she just hung there with her legs tucked up to her belly, frowning in puzzled fascination at the face of the man who held her. He regarded her with an odd, wistful half-smile. To look at him now, one wondered at the truth of his claimed lineage. Certainly, he was a handsome man, but neither tall nor short, his stature unimposing, his features benign. The only thing extraordinary about him was the turquoise of his eyes, a hue sur-Memhet had never seen before.
Mordraghil glanced distractedly up at the two men, transferring the baby to the crook of one elbow.
“You may go,” he told them. “Your payment will be delivered tonight.”
Sur-Memhet tried not to sag with relief. “Thank you, lord,” he murmured, and hurriedly backed away, nearly stumbling over Judah in his haste. He looked neither right nor left until he had passed across the plank and onto dry land. The two men clambered into their palanquin and the bearers heaved it from the ground and started up the hill toward the city gates.
They’d pulled it off. They’d pulled it off!
Judah was jubilant. Sur-Memhet nearly wept with relief. It was moonset before either they, or the rest of their city, realized how very wrong they were.
Marahad stepped out from behind the privacy screen and scrutinized the baby that now dozed in Mordraghil’s arms, her full, red lips set in a moue of aristocratic distaste. His arms involuntarily tightened around the infant and he glared coldly back at his mother.
The moue transformed into a sneer—disdain that he could have been fooled so easily, that he was that stupid. Not surprising. He knew what his mother thought of him.
“That,” she snapped, “is not Salgrim’s daughter.”
“I know,” he said evenly.
She blinked, taken momentarily aback, then scowled, her gorgeous features turning as ugly as a painted whore’s. “Well, toss it in the river and let’s get out of this wretched place!”
“Why would I do that?”
“That filthy peasant’s brat is of no use to anyone,” she said. “Get rid of it.”
He looked down at the tiny face nestled in the crook of his elbow. He wasn’t sure why he didn’t listen to his mother, but somehow the thought of discarding a newborn child rubbed him wrong. He certainly couldn’t bring himself to be angry at a helpless baby over the perfidy of the two Moscalans who had brought her. He looked up at his mother and raised his brows—a glance he knew she hated. “I shall be the judge of what is useful to me, mother.” He turned to one of his Kurgae’in. “Find me a wet nurse for this child,” he ordered. “Someone young, obviously, and not from the city.”
“So that’s all you’re going to do?” his mother hissed. “You’re just going to let those two jackals dupe you?”
“No, mother,” he said, feeling his face go tight with anger at the treachery of the two men. “As I told them, their payment will be delivered tonight.” He motioned to his commander, Cormac sur-Arman, who hastened to his side and bowed. “Get word to the armada. I want every ship here by moonset.”