Chapter One

 

 

THE funeral procession wound slowly through the spiral main street of Harleh, an empty casket at the fore. Sael rode in the next carriage, propped up between his father and his sister-in-law, unable to sit upright under his own power. The Taaweh who’d been attending to his wounds had advised against exerting himself, even this much. His body had been damaged by the fall from the suspended hall beyond anything the ömem could have done to save him—not that they would have—and only the intervention of the Iinu Shavi had kept him alive.

Sael had insisted on a state funeral for Koreh as soon as he was out of danger himself. His father had protested that Koreh had been his nimen only in the eyes of the Taaweh, who had no jurisdiction in Harleh. But Sael had grown so furious it had brought on another coughing fit. By the time the Taaweh physician attending him had calmed him down, the vek was looking pale and frightened.

“This is foolishness,” he said irritably, but then he added, “Have the funeral, if you must.”

Sael drank from the cup of water the Taaweh held for him. She then eased his head back onto his pillow. When Sael was able to speak again, he said, “I want you to be there, Father. Riding in the carriage with me and Tanum.”

Worlen looked as though he might object, but apparently he thought better of it. “Very well.”

Then he gave his son a curt nod and strode from the room.

The Taaweh woman looked at Sael sympathetically. “Iinyeh Sael, this is really unnecessary. Your tyeh-iinyeh’s physical body is gone, but his spirit is not. All living creatures must someday go through this transition.”

Sael had asked for some time alone after that, embarrassed to let her see his tears. Koreh was gone, and the last thing he wanted to hear was vague religious reassurances that Koreh’s spirit would continue in some sort of Taaweh afterlife. It might be true—Sael fervently hoped it was—but it wouldn’t bring Koreh back to him. And the thought of spending the rest of his life without Koreh was unbearable.

It was raining as the horse-drawn carriages clattered across the cobblestones in the street, and though the citizens of Harleh were turned out to watch the procession, huddled in doorways and under awnings, there was no grief on their faces—merely confusion and curiosity. They hadn’t known Koreh. Most were still baffled and frightened by all the strange occurrences over the past few weeks—the emperor’s army suddenly falling unconscious during battle, the strange forest that had sprung up on the plain and surrounded Harleh, the appearance of an unearthly spired city to the west, and the constant eerie blue clouds that now blanketed the valley. This funeral was merely one more puzzling thing added to the lot.

Lady Tanum sat to one side of Sael, holding his hand. She’d been sympathetic, having been through this with her own husband—Sael’s older brother, Seffni—just weeks ago. She was still dressed in mourning for him. But though Sael would have felt far more comfortable slumping against Tanum’s shoulder, it was his father who supported him on his right side. The vek had been adamant about Sael not being seen in public draped in such an undignified manner against his sister-in-law. Even then, Sael did his best not to appear infirm to those people watching his carriage. He summoned up enough strength to sit upright, with only his shoulder pressing against his father’s to avoid slumping.

The carriage behind them held both Master Geilin and Vönan Makek Snidmot. There had been some discussion of them taking separate carriages, since Geilin was no longer part of the vönan order and therefore not really suited to ride alongside the vek’s vönan makek. However, Geilin was still Sael’s advisor and still a mage—if a different sort of mage—since the Taaweh had begun training him. Sael had insisted he ride at the head of the procession. But then Snidmot had insisted his carriage be allowed to go ahead of Master Geilin’s, since he was from the vek’s household. Geilin would have allowed this, but Sael said no. Master Geilin was part of his household and this washis city, so Master Geilin outranked Master Snidmot while they were in Harleh. Sael stated this, of course, largely to get under Snidmot’s insufferable skin.

His father had then stepped in and ordered both mages to share a carriage or walk. They agreed to share.

The remaining carriages in the procession were occupied by General Meik and General Denet, other high-ranking soldiers, and some of the high-ranking servants in the keep. It wasn’t a very long procession, but it was enough to satisfy Sael that Koreh was being afforded a proper amount of respect.

Since Koreh had disliked the temple, Sael had made the decision to hold the service at the edge of the Taaweh forest instead of the temple courtyard in the center of Harleh. The funeral processed outward from the keep, winding through the city until it departed through the west gate. Sael observed that the shops and houses outside the gate, which had burned during the siege, were mostly rebuilt now.

The sky was odd. Odder than usual, that was. Sael had almost grown used to the ubiquitous bluish cloud cover, but now he could see flashes of light in the sky that disturbed him. He’d noticed them in the city but hadn’t really paid much attention, assuming them to be lightning. Now he could see the flashes were too bright and too frequent for normal lightning. Was it some kind of Taaweh magic?

His father saw that he was watching the sky and commented almost offhandedly, “We appear to be under attack.”

“Attack?” Sael asked, his eyes going wide.

“The bombardment began the night you returned. I gather the Stronni were not pleased when you freed this… Iinu Shavi.”

“Why wasn’t I informed of this?” Sael asked.

His father gave him a withering look. “I assure you, I am quite capable of looking after Harleh while you are indisposed. If there had been anything that demanded your immediate attention, I would have informed you.”

Sael felt his face flush. He hadn’t meant to imply that he was essential to the administration of the city—not while his father was here. But before he could think of a response, he noticed the carriage was passing a number of tents and lean-tos that had been hastily constructed alongside the road. They appeared to be housing a disturbing number of people.

“What’s all this?”

“Refugees,” Tanum said softly.

“From where?”

“Worlen,” his father replied. “The Stronni have been attacking it as well. Harleh Valley has been safe, so far. The fireballs cannot make it through the cloud cover. But Worlen is falling to ruin. The attacks are predictable—the Stronni only attack at midday for a brief time—but the casualties are enormous and much of the city has been reduced to rubble.”

Sael felt the hair prick up along the back of his neck and on his scalp. “How many casualties?” he asked.

“Thousands,” Worlen said, as he looked out upon the makeshift shelters. “There are no longer any safe havens within the walls of Worlen. Most of the buildings have been destroyed, though the hospital still stands, for the time being. We’ve been evacuating the citizens here and to other cities as quickly as we can, but if they are caught on the open road at midday, they are frequently assaulted.” He sighed and said grimly, “All of this time, we have been worshipping monsters.”

Eventually the procession came to the edge of the forest and stopped, the carriages lined up along the edge of the road. A space had been cleared for a funeral pyre and servants lifted the casket out of the first carriage to place on the pyre, while the vek helped Sael step down from their carriage.

Geilin had agreed to preside over the funeral service, and he approached the pyre, dressed in new finery of blue and silver. This was for reasons other than mere vanity. Geilin and Tanum had conspired together to design a new robe, as the circumstances demanded something formal, but it was no longer proper for Geilin to wear the gold-and-white robes of a vönan. Sael suspected the two had a secret plan to similarly outfit others who Geilin might persuade to study Taaweh magic. And though there had been no further discussion about it since he’d been injured, Sael also suspected Tanum was still determined to join this new class of mages.

All the members of the procession gathered in a large circle around the pyre, and a chair was brought for Sael. Regardless of how it looked to the citizens of Harleh to see the dekan looking infirm, it would be impossible for him to stand for the service. There were no townsfolk there, at any rate.

Master Geilin had fully recovered from his own “illness”—the incredible weakness he’d suffered as a result of the vönan bond, when he’d been deprived of access to the Eyes—and now he stood straight and tall before the pyre. The shimmering gold tattoo that had once adorned his scalp had vanished, though he still shaved his head out of habit.

“I am not a caedan,” he told those gathered around the pyre. “But there are no priests, as of yet, for those who might worship the Taaweh. I’m not even certain that they want to be worshipped. I’m not certain that they are gods. Those of us who have turned away from the Stronni, as iinyeh Koreh did and as I have done, no longer have answers for some of the fundamental questions—What happens when we die? Where do we go? If we are banished from the Great Hall of the Stronni, will the Taaweh care for our spirits when we leave this life? I don’t know. I have no liturgy, no sacred rites, no eulogy that I can deliver.

“But iinyeh Koreh had faith in the Taaweh,” Geilin went on. “He believed in them, enough to sacrifice his life for their cause, if necessary. And so he did. Koreh sacrificed himself for the Taaweh, for the dekan, whom he loved above all others, and for all of us in this valley. We are gathered today not to speed him on his journey into the afterlife, but to honor his sacrifice.”

Sael noticed his father bristle slightly at the mention of Koreh having loved Sael, but the man said nothing, and Sael himself was grateful for the acknowledgement. No doubt others would do their best to forget the love he and Koreh had shared, but he never would, and he knew Geilin never would. It was small consolation for the long, dark days and nights that stretched ahead of him now, but it was something.

With a small flourish of his hand, Geilin caused the funeral pyre to burst into flame—not the golden flame of burning wood or vönan magic, but a pale blue flame with a white-hot core. Its flames shot upward in a dramatic thirty-foot column of fire interspersed with sparks. The fire burned so hot that many of those present were forced to step back.

Sael had managed to hold himself together so far, but unexpectedly, Tanum began to sing. There were standard liturgical songs thecaedan sang at funerals, but since they would be inappropriate in this context, Sael had expected they would simply watch the funeral pyre burn in silence. Instead Tanum sang a beautiful, tragic ballad that had been popular in the royal court about a year ago—one about a simple farmer who loved a nobleman. Every day, the nobleman’s carriage passed by the farm, on its way between the man’s estate and the city, and the farmer saw the handsome face of the nobleman in the carriage window. The farmer tried everything to get the attention of the nobleman, standing by the side of the road or riding alongside the carriage for a short distance on horseback. But the nobleman was always preoccupied with his day’s business affairs and never looked up to see him. Then one day, bandits attacked the nobleman’s carriage and killed his guards. They dragged him into the road and were about to slash his throat and steal all his gold and jewels when the farmer charged out of the forest, brandishing nothing more than a hunting knife. He fought valiantly for the man he loved, killing all the bandits, but he was mortally wounded in the battle. As he lay dying, the nobleman saw him clearly for the first time and was struck by how handsome he was. He held the farmer’s head in his lap and bent weeping to give him one tender kiss before he died.

Sael had always thought the ballad silly, the sort of thing the vapid women of the court enjoyed hearing and getting teary-eyed over. But Tanum’s voice was beautiful and clear, and as he pictured Koreh in the role of the farmer, Sael could not prevent his own tears from coming. He made no attempt to wipe them away. Let everyone in the city know that the dekan wept for Koreh.

When the song was over, they all fell silent, watching the flames lick at the sky, until Sael noticed someone standing at the edge of the road—an old man, with his head lowered and his hat in his hands. Sael wondered who he was. Had he known Koreh? It was possible, since Koreh had spent time working in the courtyard with the local merchants and farmers bringing supplies into the keep. Or had the man simply seen a funeral service and stopped to be respectful?

He told one of his guards, “Do you see that man? Please ask him to come here a moment. Don’t intimidate him—I simply want to talk to him.”

The old man did nevertheless look very intimidated when he was brought before Sael and the vek, worrying his frayed hat between his hands. He immediately fell to his knees and bowed low. “Your Grace! Your Lordship! I beg yer pardon if I intruded.”

“It’s quite all right,” Worlen said smoothly. “I’m sure the dekan isn’t finding fault with you.” He shot his son a look that said very clearly Sael had better not find fault with the poor man.

“No, of course not,” Sael said. “On the contrary, I was pleased to see you paying your respects. Tell me, goodman, do you know who the service is for?”

The man nodded, still keeping his eyes lowered. “I think so, Your Lordship. I heard that… it was a young man named ‘Koreh.’”

“Where did you hear that?” Sael asked, puzzled. Certainly it hadn’t been known to many in the city.”

“I’m sorry, Your Lordship. I don’t remember exactly who mentioned it, but it were someone in the courtyard, when I delivered flour to the kitchen this morning.”

“I see. Did you know Master Koreh?”

“Master Koreh… well, he was very nice to me and me family before the battle. A good, honest man. So I thought it wouldn’t hurt nobody if I paid me respects….”

Sael smiled at him, warming to the man. “No, it certainly doesn’t hurt anyone. And I think it has helped me a great deal.”

When the man seemed bewildered by that, Sael asked, “Might I ask your name?”

“Moghm, Your Lordship.”

The name meant nothing to Sael, but no doubt the man had spoken with Koreh in the days before the siege. “Thank you, Moghm. You’ve honored Master Koreh, and your consideration has eased my grief.”

 

 

THE land of the dead had a name: Bashyeh.

Koreh had learned that in the months he’d been traveling. He’d also learned time moved differently there than in the world of the living. One night, as they’d been warming themselves by a blazing fire at a tavern, Koreh had muttered darkly, “Harleh has probably been reduced to rubble by now.”

“Why do you think that, iinyeh?” Chya had asked him. “Chya” was the name Koreh himself had given his Taaweh companion, since the boy insisted he could no longer remember his name. The word meant simply “boy” in the Taaweh language.

“It’s been months!” Koreh snapped. “If the Stronni haven’t broken through the Taaweh defenses by now, the emperor’s army must have found a way in.”

“It hasn’t been months for Harleh,” Chya said calmly. “It’s only been a few days.”

When Koreh stared at him, uncomprehending, he continued, “There is no time here. Not in any real sense. Whether something takes a day or a year depends entirely on how long you expect it to take. You expected this journey to take months, so it has.”

Koreh hadn’t completely understood, but it didn’t really seem to matter. He could do nothing to affect what happened in Harleh, so whether a month or a century went by, events would unfold as they would.

It had been several days since that conversation, and now as they walked along a winding riverbank, a small mill town appeared ahead, nestled in a fork of the river. To the west lay fields of grain, and farmhands were winding up their work day in the light of Kiishya as it set behind the distant mountains. Koreh had been fearful of Kiishya and Omu in his first days here, but Chya had repeatedly assured him the Eyes were not magically bound to them, as they had been in Dasak. Kiishya and Omu were not spies in this land. They merely illuminated day and night, respectively, and provided warmth.

The farm wasn’t the first they’d passed in their journey, and Koreh wondered again at the similarities between Bashyeh and Dasak. All his life, he’d been told about the Great Hall and the glories of the Eternal Battle. Though many of the poor peasants he’d known had regarded the Great Hall as the place that nobles went after death, assuming they would merely be servants in the Stronni kingdom, even for them the afterlife was associated with unending warfare. This peaceful, idyllic scene wasn’t what he’d expected at all.

“Are there wars here?” he asked Chya as they passed through one of the stone archways that marked the boundary of the town.

Chya shrugged. “If you like.”

“I don’t like,” Koreh said irritably. “I was simply asking a question.”

“If you don’t want to be in a war, you do not have to be.”

“I didn’t have to be in a war when I was alive,” Koreh said. “But there were still wars. And not everyone was able to run away from them.”

“Here, there are only wars for those who want them,” Chya said. “They do not involve those who do not want to fight.”

“How is that possible?” While no one other than the vek had ever dared challenge the emperor in open combat, to Koreh’s knowledge, the city keeps often went to war. Koreh had seen entire villages burned to the ground and all the villagers put to the sword. It was not something easily avoided.

“This world is vast, iinyeh,” Chya replied. “Those who enjoy combat may engage in it without disturbing those who wish to be left in peace.”

Koreh thought back to his first night there, when Chya goaded him to throw himself off a cliff. Obviously, he hadn’t died. And it hadn’t hurt. So anyone who wanted to do battle in this world would be engaging in a sport without death or injury. It seemed rather pointless to Koreh, but then he hadn’t been raised as a fighter.

On the other hand, he was baffled by the fields of wheat. “Are farmers forced to continue farming, even after they die?”

Chya shook his head. “Nobody here is forced to do anything.” They were nearing a large building at the edge of town with a wooden sign hanging in front of it sporting the name The Hungry Tekh. Chya suddenly broke into a run and scampered up the wooden steps like a child playing a game. He pulled open the door with both arms and shouted back to Koreh, “Come on! I’m hungry.”

Koreh sighed and followed him up the steps. Hunger was another oddity of this world. Koreh did feel hungry, now and then. But one recent evening, when he and Chya had been far from any town and there hadn’t been any berries nearby to eat, he’d complained about it, and the boy had simply replied, “You don’t need to be hungry if you don’t want to be.” And instantly Koreh’s hunger had vanished. Eating, Chya had explained, wasn’t necessary.

But apparently, the boy had chosen to become hungry. So Koreh decided to be hungry as well, and the two of them went inside the inn. It was a homey place, with several heavy oak tables and clean straw strewn on the wooden floor. Though of course that was kept well away from the massive stone fireplace in the back of the room. A couple of men sat at one of the tables near the fireplace, playing gönd. Otherwise, the tavern was empty.

A cheerful old woman brought out a pitcher of ale and poured some into the men’s empty mugs. She glanced up at Koreh and his companion and smiled broadly. “Just seat yourself anywhere. Would you like some ale?”

“Yes, please,” Chya said.

They found a table in a corner, while the matron wandered out back for something.

Koreh noticed she walked a bit slowly, limping a bit, and he leaned in close to Chya. Keeping his voice low, he asked, “If someone dies in old age, or after they’ve become infirm, are they doomed to remain that way in death?”

“No, iinyeh. You can be whatever you want to be.” To illustrate his point, Chya quickly transformed into a handsome young man Koreh’s age, and then just as quickly into a middle-aged woman, and lastly into a squirrel, before settling back into the body of the small boy Koreh was familiar with. Startled, Koreh glanced at the men by the fire to see if they’d noticed. If they had, they gave no sign that anything unusual had happened.

“I don’t understand,” Koreh said. “You keep telling me that people can be anything they want and do anything they want, but you expect me to believe that they choose to be old or weak, or spend their time laboring in the fields all day? That doesn’t make sense!”

“We are still on the outskirts of Bashyeh,” Chya replied. “These people still cling to what they knew when they lived. It comforts them.”

“Then they don’t stay like that forever?”

“Nothing is forever. Not even here.”

The old woman returned while Koreh was mulling that over, and she set two mugs of ale down on the table between them. “We have lamb stew, just made this morning, if you’d like some,” she told them.

“Yes, please,” Chya said with a wide grin. He could be adorable when he smiled like that, and Koreh found himself wondering, not for the first time, if he was really a child by Taaweh standards. He didn’t act like any children Koreh had ever known, but the Taaweh appeared to live a very long time. He might be hundreds of years old.

No doubt the Taaweh think of me as a child, Koreh thought. Which might explain why they had assigned a child to guide him. But Chya was a pleasant enough companion, so Koreh had no complaints about that.

The woman brought them bowls of hot stew. It was delicious, and they ate in silence.

As the last of the daylight disappeared, men began to wander into the pub, sweaty and grimy from their labors. They seemed a happy lot, shouting out to one another and laughing boisterously with the air of camaraderie Koreh recalled from his youth—before the plague had brought death and misery to his family and their friends in the poor neighborhoods of gü-Khemed.

He began to wonder if he might be happy settling in a village like this. He didn’t need fancy accommodations, and he didn’t really mind working. Perhaps Chya had a point about people choosing this “life.” But could he ever be happy without Sael at his side? Eventually, Sael would have to die and come to this world, but how long would that be? If several months here amounted to no more than a few days in Harleh, Koreh could spend hundreds of years alone before they were reunited. And what if Sael had given in to his father’s wishes and married to preserve his legacy?

Koreh forcefully shoved those dark thoughts out of his mind. He couldn’t think about that, or he would sink into depression, as he had many times over the past several weeks. He concentrated on mopping up the last of his stew with a chunk of heavy sourdough bread, until a familiar voice forced him to look up.

“Master Koreh? Is that you?”

Koreh hadn’t expected to see Snut and Mak ever again. Not after he’d cried over their corpses on the battlefield at Harleh. Now he had to blink hard to keep tears from welling up in his eyes at the sight of them. He leapt to his feet, nearly overturning his chair in the process, and moved to grip the older boy by the arms. “Snut!” Koreh exclaimed. “Mak!”

He likewise clapped Mak on the arms, but then his voice faltered, and he was unable to think of anything else to say. Fortunately, Chya spoke up. “Won’t you join us?” he asked the two youths, his formal manners seeming incongruous with his childlike appearance.

When they’d all been seated, Snut smiled at Koreh and said, “Were ye killed in the battle then, Master Koreh?”

So they knew they were dead, at least. Koreh hadn’t been certain he should mention it.

“No,” he replied. “Not there. I… died in the mountains. Sael… the dekan and I were sent there.” He trailed off, not really wanting to go into detail about that night.

Mak looked crestfallen. “His Lordship is dead?”

“No,” Koreh hastened to assure him. “The dekan is still alive. And we won the battle.”

Both boys beamed at that news.

“I knew the dekan and the vek would win!” Snut said proudly. “’Cause we—all of us—we’re loyal, we are! We’ll fight t’ the death for ’em. The emperor may ’ave a bigger army, but ’e don’t ’ave us!”

Koreh laughed good-naturedly at his enthusiasm. “No, Snut. He sure doesn’t.”

“What about our da?” Mak asked anxiously.

Koreh hadn’t had a chance to track down Moghm since the battle. The Taaweh had whisked him away too quickly. He’d assumed the old man stayed out of the fight, but he had no way of knowing for certain—not with all the chaos on that day.

“Your father is alive and well,” Chya told the young man, and Koreh inwardly breathed a sigh of relief. But he felt a pang of guilt. He should have insisted upon at least relaying the news of his sons’ death to the miller. He’d deserved to find out about it from someone who cared.

But Mak was pleased. “That’s all right, then.”

“Hope ’e can find someone to work the mill,” Snut commented.

Was the mill even still in use? Koreh wondered. The forest had engulfed most of the farms surrounding Harleh. But he kept that information to himself. He simply smiled and said, “I’m sure he’ll do fine.”

“To our da!” Mak said, holding up a mug of ale Koreh had no recollection of being on the table a moment ago.

A mug had mysteriously appeared for Snut as well, so all four of them tapped the wooden mugs together and drank a toast to the miller. Then Snut decided to toast the dekan, so they all drank once more, and then Mak made a toast to the vek….

The ale was good and apparently it was possible to get drunk in this world—perhaps if one “chose” to, which Koreh more or less did. He felt a bit lightheaded after the third round. He’d already finished a mug earlier, but his was once again full of ale, though he didn’t recall the old woman coming back to fill it.

While he was contemplating this, Snut started rambling on about how the two young men had been led to this village by a mysterious woman. “Turns out,” he said excitedly, “we ’ave grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins all o’er town! More in other towns, but these’re the ones we remember.”

Koreh smiled at him and took another sip of ale.

“What about you, Master Koreh?” Mak asked. “’Ave ye found your family yet?”

That stopped Koreh in midsip. He slowly lowered his mug to the table. “My family?”

They had all died so long ago—his mother and father and all his siblings. Well over seven years now. It hadn’t even crossed his mind to look for them, but of course they would be here. Wouldn’t they?

Koreh looked at Chya, who had a particularly mischievous smile on his face. The little bastard had been waiting for Koreh to figure it out. “Is my family here?” Koreh asked, his voice suddenly thick with emotion. “In this town?”

“Not in this town,” Chya answered, “but very near.”

 

 

DONEGH had heard the stories about Marik. He’d heard that she had once been beautiful and that beauty had gained her the emperor’s favor. But the loyalty of an ömem was fleeting, regardless of any gifts and privileges bestowed upon her. When a nobleman had engaged the services of the samöt to kill the emperor, Marik had aided the assassin in entering his private chambers. Only a fluke had found the emperor still lying awake when the assassin entered, and alert enough to roll under his bed, where he could stay just out of reach long enough for his screams to alert the guards outside the door.

The samöt had been captured and tortured, despite the fact that torture had been forbidden by the ömem. It had accomplished little. The assassin had taken the name of his contractor to the grave. But the emperor accused Marik of aiding his enemies. Rather than deny his accusations, the woman had scorned him for challenging the Sisterhood. He hadn’t quite dared to execute her, but he was so enraged that he ordered one of his guards to sear her eyes out with the fireplace poker.

Now Marik was no longer beautiful. She had petitioned the Sisterhood to exact revenge against the emperor, but they had denied her request. The massive financial donation the emperor had paid the Sisterhood to ignore the incident had bought the man some time.

But it was no secret that Marik still longed for revenge. And Donegh had c