Chapter One

 

 

THANE angled the delicate blossom to catch sunlight streaming through the greenhouse’s vast windows. Droplets glistened like rubies on flame-colored petals as he tilted the flower back and forth. “See the gold specks in its throat?” he asked.

Ander leaned forward. Black hair fell unnoticed in front of his eyes as he peered at the star-shaped flower. He examined the plant intently, radiating curiosity. Thane felt a surge of affection. Though his beloved had turned twenty last summer, he still possessed a child’s fascination with the world.

“I see them,” Ander said at last. “Tiny, almost the color of copper.”

“Make sure you don’t use a blossom if you see green specks on it. Oils made with those are just as slippery but will make a cock soft for an hour. An unpleasant surprise when you’re ready for love.”

Ander looked up. “I’ll remember.” His handsome features were alight at learning secrets of the art.

Thane put the blossom down and picked up a pale yellow orchid. “You already know this one, I think. The Xu Quan flower. Remember how it’s used?”

“Um, you dry and powder it. Then mix it with raffia bark and make a tea. If you drink the tea and then make love while burning dreamsmoke leaves, you can make it last longer. A lot longer, Sorel says.” He leaned close. “Would you like to show me, tonight? We could—”

“Ah, boys, there you are!” A thin man with wispy white hair emerged from the foliage behind them. Dirt stained his green linen robe. Lord Jeffrey Tolmin, the master of the house and Thane’s aristocratic patron, bustled toward them. “I found it. My newest specimen, all the way from Peruskia.” He held up a glazed clay pot and proudly displayed a fleshy plant covered with long spikes like spears.

“It’s good to have you back in the house,” Tolmin said as he set the plant on a potting table. “How long has it been since you lived here, Thane? Five years? It’s so hard to remember. With you never changing, it seems like yesterday.”

“Eleven years,” Thane said softly, all levity vanished. “To me, it seems like forever.”

Tolmin looked stricken. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to raise ghosts. I’ve just missed you, my boy. But you were nineteen when you left and don’t look a day older now. It’s uncanny.” The elderly aristocrat was right. Thane still appeared a radiant young man of nineteen, tanned and strongly muscled like a farmer, but possessing beguiling silver eyes and the easy grace of a dancer.

“It’s the art,” Ander said, putting an arm around Thane’s waist. “He’ll never change as long as he keeps using magic. And he owes it to you, Lord Tolmin. You taught him botany, and the estate you gave him is perfect for pursuing his studies.”

Tolmin waved a hand, clearly distressed by the discomfort he had caused. “Let’s forget the past. It holds too much pain. And there’s work to do. Your collection, Thane! We have to restock your greenhouse, as soon as it’s rebuilt.” He picked up a trowel and began loosening soil around the pot’s perimeter. “Take a look at these roots. They’re remarkable!”

Thane gave him a hand, carefully holding the prickly plant while Lord Tolmin loosened it from the pot and exposed thick roots. Jeffrey’s fortunate. If only I could forget the past as easily as he.

It had been eleven years since Lucian, his first love, had died in the zamindar’s torture chamber. Lucian and Thane had freed Tolmin’s daughter, imprisoned on suspicion of treason, but a guard closed the portcullis at the prison gate and trapped Lucian after the others had passed through. The young lovers had already discovered the rudiments of the art and shared a deep psychic bond. Thane shared Lucian’s agony as the torturers tried to learn how the escape had been accomplished. He almost went mad as his lover succumbed to pain and despair.

Out of gratitude for saving his daughter, Lord Tolmin gave Thane a small estate in the backcountry. For eleven years Thane tried to bury his grief by pursuing the mysteries he and Lucian had begun to explore. Intense pleasure could be a gateway to unseen realms, a different reality beyond the perceptions of everyday life. Creating elixirs, potions, balms, and oils to enhance sensation and expand awareness was only the first step. The art required finding comrades who shared his passionate nature and honing their lovemaking until pleasure forged a link between minds. Thane’s estate became a lyceum, a secret training ground for mages dedicated to a common cause.

Behind it all, driving him relentlessly, lurked barely contained rage. The zamindar had ravaged the lands of Izmir as brutally as his inquisitors had cut and branded Lucian. Thane’s quest for vengeance grew into iron determination to overthrow the tyrant. Ander’s arrival at the lyceum during the past winter had soothed his pain but not weakened his resolve.

“Here, look closely,” Lord Tolmin said as he brushed dirt from purple nodules near the root tips. “This is most unusual. I’ve never seen such—”

“Lord Tolmin.” A servant dressed in green hose and a gold shirt rushed through the door connecting the greenhouse with the rambling mansion. “Two boys are out front, demanding entrance. One of them is armed! They claim to know your guests and want to see them immediately.”

Thane looked up, his eyebrows arching. “Did you get their names?”

“Erik was one. He’s carrying a bow. The other had some barbaric northern name.”

“Skorri?” Thane asked.

The servant nodded. “That’s it. So you do know them?”

Thane frowned. “Yes. But they shouldn’t be here. Especially not by themselves.” He turned to Lord Tolmin. “Jeffrey, whatever brought them here must be important. Your new specimen had better wait.”

Lord Tolmin sighed. “If you insist.” He waved absently to his doorman. “Show them in. We’ll see them here.” The servant bowed and left.

Lord Tolmin’s attention returned to his plants, but Thane wasn’t listening. Skorri and Erik, new initiates at the lyceum, were outcasts from a tiny village in Izmir’s northern forests. They had only recently turned eighteen and lacked the experience to safely journey to a sophisticated city like Chanture on their own. Their sudden appearance did not bode well. He glanced at his partner while Lord Tolmin theorized about the traits of his new specimen. Ander waited silently, too polite to interrupt the elderly botanist, but the tense set of his shoulders showed he also felt unease at the surprise visit.

Though the mansion’s galleries and greenhouses were extensive, it took only a few minutes for the servant to return. Two youths dressed in soft brown traveling leathers entered the greenhouse behind him. As soon as they saw Thane, they ran to his side. The one with loose blond curls reached him first.

“Sorel sent us. You have to leave. There’s no time to waste.” He grabbed Thane’s arm and tugged. “Let’s go.”

Thane pulled free. “Slow down, Skorri. What’s the news? Is there a problem at home?”

The other moved to Skorri’s side. His chestnut hair was cut short like Thane’s, and he moved with the quiet of an expert hunter. He carried a quiver of arrows on his broad back, and his right hand held a yew bow. While Skorri was excited and flustered, Erik was as serious as a hunter facing a deadly beast. “We need privacy,” he said. “There’s danger.” He glanced at the servant who hovered near the greenhouse door.

Lord Tolmin stared at the new visitors with bemusement but made a dismissive gesture to his doorman. The servant left, closing the door behind him.

“You can talk in front of him,” Thane said. “He’ll keep our secrets.”

Erik bowed toward Lord Tolmin, then turned back to Thane. “As Skorri said, Sorel sent us. You have to flee. The zamindar is searching for you. His heralds are riding everywhere, offering a reward for your capture. We even saw heralds in Kielce, a few miles north of here. They’re moving fast. In one day they’ll be in Chanture. In two days everyone in the city will be looking for you.”

A frown clouded Thane’s features. “What happened?” he asked, his throat tight.

“That’s what I was trying to tell you,” Skorri said. “A cuirassier patrol came to the lyceum. They’d been searching the whole province. They had orders to arrest any man who looks about twenty and has silver eyes. They searched and then announced the reward for your capture. Ten thousand drinars. Ten thousand! A fortune!”

Thane slumped onto a stool beside the potting table. “Is the lyceum all right? Did the cuirassiers find anything?”

“We knew they were coming,” Erik said. “We were watching the roads into the valley, like you told us to. We had time to hide all implements of the art.” His brows pulled down over deep blue eyes. “But you understand, don’t you? You can’t go back. You can’t stay anywhere in Izmir. Nowhere in the kingdom is safe.”

Lord Tolmin pushed his fingers through white hair, oblivious to the dirt. “How can this be, Thane? What does the zamindar know about you?”

“He’s seen me. Face to face.” Thane’s voice was a whisper. “I was his prisoner, Jeffrey. A few weeks ago, in Pella. There was a trap. They…. I, I’d rather not talk about it.” He swallowed hard and looked aside, sweat beading his brow.

Ander moved behind Thane, lending him silent support. “It’s a long story,” he said to Lord Tolmin. “The zamindar’s sorcerers had found a way to extend life by stealing the lives of others. They were almost ready to use it, but Thane took the crystals they needed to work the magic. They knew he was guilty because he’d been caught by a cantrip and marked by the spell. They put him to torture by the chief imperial wizard.”

“But Thane still escaped,” Skorri said. “Nobody had ever defeated the imperial wizards before. The zamindar must have figured out Thane’s a mage, and more powerful than his own sorcerers.” He shrugged. “At least that’s what Sorel thinks.”

Lord Tolmin looked more confused than ever. “Sorel?”

“One of Thane’s initiates,” Ander said. “A crafty one.”

Thane stood up. “I’ve got to get back home.” Determination settled on his face, a look the others knew well. “We have to rebuild the lyceum’s greenhouse. Grow the plants we need for magic. Only the art is strong enough to defeat the zamindar, and our time is running out. The zamindar thinks I stole his key to immortality and escaped with it. No wonder he’s desperate to find me.”

Erik held up a hand, his expression firm. He was accustomed to the silence of the hunt and did not speak often. When he did, it was usually important. “Sorel said that’s what you’d want to do. He said you’d be a fool to try and wanted me to tell you so. He thinks you should leave Izmir, at least for now.”

Anger flashed across Thane’s face. Though he had thirty years of experience in life, the art had suspended his spirit as well as his body at nineteen. Feelings burned hot. His body tensed as he glared at the young messenger. “Since when does Sorel decide what I do or where I go?”

Erik didn’t flinch. “He doesn’t, and he knows it. But he said to tell you to put the cause first. Staying won’t help anybody, Thane. You’ll be captured, and this time you won’t escape. Skorri and I brought supplies. We’ll go with you, help guard your back.”

“No! I can’t run and hide!” He was breathing hard.

Ander stepped between them. “Sorel and Nicolai can watch over the lyceum until it’s safe for you to return. Trust them. Sorel is usually right. Things will calm down soon enough. Please, jirí. I’ll be at your side whatever you choose. But fighting is foolish if we can’t win.”

Ander’s concern cut through the tumult in Thane’s mind. Jirí. Beloved. He shouldn’t need to remind me. His shoulders slumped, and he nodded wearily. “I’m sorry. I should know by now to listen to my friends.” He stood and briefly clasped Ander’s hand, then turned back to Erik.

“Did Sorel suggest where I should go?”

Erik looked relieved. “East. He said you’ve been wanting to journey there anyway, to search for the origins of Leif’s stories. He thinks a trip in that direction won’t be wasted.”

“Sorel’s clever, as always. He knows how to tempt me.”

Leif, Ander’s boyhood friend and a recent initiate to Thane’s band of mages, had a grandmother from the distant east. Her tales of lost secrets, mysteries of flesh and spirit, had piqued Thane’s interest. They hinted that the art, or something like it, might have flourished in another time and place.

Lord Tolmin wiped dirty hands on his robe, then reached into a pocket and withdrew a small leather sack. “Take this, use it to book passage on a ship. It’s the only way out of Chanture that you won’t be seen.” He handed the sack to Thane.

The soft chink of gold was unmistakable. “Jeffrey, I can’t. You’ve given me so much already.”

The old man waved a hand. “You’re wise to take your friends’ counsel. Don’t let the damned zamindar catch you. I couldn’t bear it.”

Thane hesitated a moment, then embraced his old friend. “Perhaps I’ll find some new specimens for you,” he said.

Tolmin patted his back gently, then pushed him away. “Don’t worry about me.” His eyes were sad. “You’re like a son to me, Thane. Take care. That’s all I want.”

“We should get ready,” Ander said. “There’s not much time if we’re to leave Chanture on tonight’s tide.” Long shadows already filled the greenhouse, making it look like deep jungle.

Thane stepped back from his kindly mentor. Plans for rebuilding the lyceum’s greenhouse and defeating the zamindar hovered around him like shattered dreams. But his gaze came to rest on Ander, and the tightness in his chest eased. He would be a fugitive but would not be alone.

 

 

CHANTURE never slept. Narrow streets and canals wove a tangled web around stately mansions and elegant shopping districts, turning the teeming city into a maze. Though it was early spring and still brisk, doors were open to entice travelers with fine food and exotic entertainments. Erik and Skorri gawked at the marvels as they hurried past, while Thane wore a hooded cloak and kept his eyes downcast. He didn’t want any of the revelers to remember seeing a gray-eyed young man when word of the zamindar’s reward reached Chanture.

They soon found their way to the warehouse district near the docks. Darkness brought a measure of relief. Thane threw back his hood and looked around. They all wore their traveling leathers and carried saddlebags over their shoulders. Erik had kept his bow in hand, and Ander carried his guitar in its leather case. He had made his living as a musician in a brothel before finding his way to the lyceum, and was justly admired for his skill. His musical ability, even more than his beauty, was what had drawn him close to Thane.

Turning a corner, they found themselves in a narrow avenue lined with stone warehouses. Smells of fish and tar hung heavy in the air. They were halfway down the street when a shadow near the next intersection divided into half a dozen figures. Thane saw a glint of moonlight on metal.

He raised a hand to halt his companions. “Nightblades. Too many of them, and we can’t fight weighted down like this. Back.” They moved away, returning the way they had come, not turning their backs. The nightblades kept pace.

Thane heard the scrape of boots on cobblestones behind them. He spun around. Three more men had appeared at the opposite end of the street. He cursed softly and let the saddlebag he was carrying slip off his shoulder. His companions did the same, preparing to fight.

“There’s too many,” Erik said softly. “The longer we wait, the worse our odds. Get ready to run.” He plucked an arrow from his quiver and raised his bow, pulling the drawstring to his ear and letting fly in a single smooth movement. A man screamed in the larger group of nightblades, and shouts split the air. Erik turned while notching another arrow and took aim at the other group. The arrow’s whisper was followed by more curses. The nightblades dissolved back into the shadows.

“Back the way we came,” Thane said. They grabbed their baggage and ran until they emerged into a wider street where richly dressed residents still strolled. Thane slowed and pulled up the hood on his cape. “We probably haven’t lost them,” he said, breathing hard from the sprint. “They’ll want revenge. Look out for an ambush. But don’t attract attention.”

“Can we still get to the docks?” Ander asked.

“It’ll take longer, but I know another way. Keep close. And stay away from shadows.”

Thane led the way, relying on his memory of the city’s labyrinthine streets. They detoured through an entertainment district where brothels competed with inns and taverns. Nobody challenged them, but furtive figures kept pace. Soon they turned downhill again. The slap of water on stone got louder, and they emerged quayside. A line of ships bobbed gently on inky water, lamps hanging from booms swaying overhead like drunken moons.

“Which one?” Ander asked.

Thane studied the line of ships. Most were merchantmen, ranging from sleek galiots to four-masted carracks. He started walking down the quay and examining each vessel closely. The others followed, keeping wary watch on the side streets. Finally he stopped beside a three-masted vessel with a carved dragon on its prow. The fierce beast was painted red and gold, with black eyes that bulged from its long head.

“This one,” Thane said. “It’s the only one built in the eastern style. And it’s big enough to take on passengers.” He put down his luggage and cupped his hands around his mouth. “Is anyone aboard?” he called. “We seek passage. Hello, is anyone on watch?”

Soon a man appeared on the foredeck and ambled over to the taffrail. The tilt of his eyes confirmed Thane’s guess about the ship’s origins. He peered at them, then spat into the water.

“Go away. Have full crew.” He turned and started walking back toward the helm.

“Wait, come back,” Thane called. “Let me talk to your captain. We can pay.”

The man paused, then turned. “We leave soon, home to Gaizhou. How much?” The interest in his voice belied his nonchalant pose.

Ander leaned close to Thane. “We’re making progress.” He dug a silver coin out of a pocket and tossed it to the man aboard ship, who caught it deftly. “There’s more where that came from,” he said. “If your captain gives us passage, I’ll double it.”

After holding the coin up to light and confirming its authenticity, the sailor gave Ander a small salute before turning and jogging to a companionway.

“He’d better not take long,” Skorri said. He pointed to an alley on the far side of a warehouse. “Somebody’s over there. I heard him.”

“Probably a nightblade,” Erik said, scowling. “Waiting for his friends. There’s no cover here. We’re done for if they bring bows.”

Thane’s stomach knotted, but he stood fast. “A little longer. None of the streets would be much better. Be ready to jump into the river if you have to.”

A minute passed, then two. Thane began to fear the sailor had failed, that they had run out of time. Then the companionway door swung open, and a tough-looking woman in silk robes stepped onto the deck. Two sailors followed her.

While female captains were rare in Izmir, the eastern kingdoms had no such prejudices. The woman walked to the taffrail and looked at them curiously. Her rich robes, decorated with intricate needlepoint, spoke of nobility. The design featured an embroidered dragon that matched the ship’s figurehead.

“Thank you for coming,” Thane said. “Can you grant us passage? We can pay.”

The woman gave them a careful inspection. “My man was right. You’re the best-looking boys ever to turn up on the wharf. But that’s not enough to earn you passage.” Though she bore the almond eyes and sleek black hair of the east, her strong voice had only a slight accent.

Thane blushed but didn’t look away. He pulled the bag of coins Lord Tolmin had given him from a cloak pocket and poured gold onto his palm. “Here, see for yourself. We’re honest merchants.”

The woman snorted. “I can guess what you’ve been selling. Keep your money. I was curious to see if you were as fair as my man claimed, that’s all. But I’ve carried westerners before, and it’s more trouble than it’s worth. You don’t understand our ways. I don’t need your fare that badly.” She turned to leave.

“Wait!” Thane shouted. The captain ignored him.

Ander immediately pulled his guitar from its case and sat cross-legged on the quay. He started playing with fierce concentration, a dissonant melody that made no sense to Thane’s ears. It sounded devilishly difficult.

The captain was halfway to the companionway, but she stopped and cocked her head to listen. After a short pause, she returned to the taffrail. She looked astonished.

“Keep playing,” Thane whispered. “Whatever you’re doing is working.” Ander didn’t seem to hear him. A true musician who felt music to the depths of his heart, he was oblivious to distractions. His fingers flew over the fingerboard as the music whirled and danced. The captain watched him intently. Several sailors appeared at the taffrail and seemed equally awed.

The piece raced to a fiery conclusion. Ander took a deep breath, then rose gracefully and gave the captain a bow. “A small gift,” he said when he lifted his gaze. “We understand some of your ways and would like to learn more. That’s why we’re traveling east.”

The captain tapped her fingers on the taffrail, regarding them with a serious expression. At last she gave a single nod. “I judged too quickly. Those with great beauty are often shallow, but it’s a mistake to judge by appearances. Would you be willing to play for me during the journey?”

“I would be honored,” Ander said as he bowed again.

The captain returned the bow, then gestured to her sailors. They extended a gangplank to the wharf.

Thane sent his friends aboard while keeping a wary eye on the alley where trouble lurked. Figures moved in the shadows as he boarded with the last of their saddlebags. He took a final look at Chanture as the gangplank was withdrawn. Will I ever see it again? Or Lord Tolmin? There was no way to know. He took a slow breath, then followed the others below deck.