It was a good feast. Celenda's manservant had purchased two of the biggest and strongest oxen in Fena Kef and they now roasted over the hall's two huge braziers. The smell filled Celenda's nostrils. She closed her eyes and laid back on her silk divan, enjoying the sights and sounds. Her finger fiddled with a torn seam on the divan's armrest and her pleasure faded. She would have flogged her seamstress for allowing such a thing but the woman had fled a year ago. She could barely afford clothing acceptable to a woman of her position, though few could say for certain what that position was, so she simply wore less clothes overall.
She raised her arms behind her back and let the warmth of the braziers flow over her body. Though the number shrank, many still enjoyed Celenda's frequent celebrations. Some laughed and shouted on one side, some coupled in the dark shadows and behind silk curtains. Most feasted and drank and everyone partook in the red lotus.
Celenda beckoned a thin slave boy, one of her last few, and he came holding a bronze bowl. Dried red leaves covered the bottom of the bowl.
"Why is this bowl not full?" she shouted at the boy. He cringed but she could tell he was not really frightened. She could not afford to injure or kill him and everyone knew it. She slapped him, but not hard. If she hit too hard she would find herself with one less slave along with her diminishing supply of the red leaf.
Celenda pinched four petals from the bowl and shooed the boy away. She closed her eyes and rolled the dried petals into powder, her fingers relished the texture. She let the powder fall into the palm of her other hand and then placed her palm to her nose and inhaled.
Instantly the thoughts of the crumbling villa, the torn furniture, and the diminishing coffers fled from her mind. Euphoria flowed in. She felt it in her fingers and toes. She felt it awaken her pleasures like no man had ever done. She fell back onto her divan, feeling as though her body sank into the earth below. She saw the skin of the ox charring over the fire and saw it open one black eye. She saw figures dancing like the flicker of fire. Their shadows twisted like demons on the stone wall. She saw a thick man with glistening muscles making love hard to an ivory skinned woman. She saw blood splash on the floor.
At the doorway stood a figure dressed in black. He stood straight and unmoving among the figures twisting and moving all around him. His eyes burned blue under the rim of his black leather three-cornered hat. He stepped slowly along the stone floor, the hard heels of his riding boots clicking on the stone floor. The sound was painful. When she met his eyes, they burned into her and she looked away. A childhood story of demons torn from the black hells into the lower chambers of corrupt kings flashed past. Had death come to her as it had for her father and sister? If it had, she welcomed it.
"Lord Jon Ganvel, my lady. Ambassador of the North." whispered Genty, Celenda's plotting, scheming, and oft-wrong advisor. The cloaked man removed his hat and swept it across the floor as he bowed, right foot back and balanced on the steel tip of his boot.
"The north has many ambassadors," said Celenda. The man said nothing. Genti ushered the ambassador to an ornate chair on Celenda's left. She frowned at her advisor but he did not acknowledge her displeasure. She turned back to the cloaked man. He sat comfortably scanning the room before his eyes fell on Celenda.
"You traveled a great distance to partake in the pleasures of the south, Ambassador. One would wonder if you had no pleasures at home." Celenda smiled at him. His face remained emotionless, a thin smile on his lips.
"My father spoke of the north." Celenda heard gasps from the other guest around her. She doubted anyone here would bother to turn her in for speaking of the traitor of the Danken. They would not cut themselves from the fun she gave them. Not yet. "He said it was a nation of thieves and vagabonds with no history of their own who worshipped a false goddess engineered by corrupt self-declared kings. He said if the the north had no guns, they would have become a barony of the south long ago."
The other guests laughed. Somewhere in the shadows, a woman cried out in either pleasure or pain. The man said nothing and his expression never changed.
"Has the desert stolen your voice too, Ambassador?" He continued to look at her without speaking. Though she had often wore no clothes in the presence of people, his eyes made her feel naked. She turned and watched the fires dance. She watched the men and women gyrating in the shadows The room swam. The colors melted into one another. A woman in a tiny loincloth and a goat's head ran from a huge muscled man with a head of a bull. The other guest cheered when he caught her and mounted her. All around Celenda, the world shifted between dream and reality. When she turned, she saw that the the black-cloaked northerner continued to watch her. She smiled at him.
"I need the night air. Come ride with me, Ambassador."
Celenda rode well. When she was twelve years old her father gave her a lean desert stallion she called "Sunstorm". She learned how to ride in a month and soon spent every afternoon racing through the canyons beyond the villa. She had to sell Sunstorm after her father's execution and now rode an older and less controlled mare. The northerner rode his own horse, a large black stallion.
Celenda rode hard, hoping to give the northerner chase or even perhaps to lose him in the night. She laughed at the thought of sending Genty to find the lost foreigner in the canyons. Yet whenever she thought she must have lost him, she would turn and see him black shadow against the black-red sky of night.
Celenda rode up a path to the canyon's edge and raced through the cool air. The rocks seemed to shift and the night folded like a sheet of vellum, but she rode on. She turned and saw him behind her, riding high in his saddle. His face was hard and expressionless under the brim of his hat. His eye met hers. Celenda kicked hard.
The horse lurched and shifted under her. The rock edge gave way. Time slowed. Celenda felt the horse lose control and slip into the canyon. Celenda slipped with it. All the dark thoughts, all of the dreams of the red lotus, all of her serenity and passivity and thoughts of a welcomed death fled from her. She did not want to die tonight.
Iron horseshoes tore into the cracked ground. Air rushed in at Celenda from two directions as she slipped. An arm wrapped around her waist like a belt of steel. It took the wind from her as she was pulled free from her doomed horse. She found herself wrapped in the arms of the northerner, clutching him like a child. She watched her horse fall screaming into the canyon before its head hit the rock wall and went silent. She turned and buried her face in the man who saved her.
It was impossible. He was yards behind her but he had still snatched her from the jaws of the canyon at full gallop. It was magic. She felt his breath on her neck, rapid and hot. Something stirred in her and she clutched him closer.
Celenda woke, her head throbbing. Her skin was numb and her stomach rolled. She turned her head but could get no clear bearing of up or down. She was on her bed, wrapped in wool sheets. She tried to speak but only croaked. Genty wasn't here. It was the first morning in years when the small portly man hadn't woken her. She rolled her head in a great effort.
A figure stood at the door, slender in the silhouette of daylight. He was upside down. Celenda rolled onto her stomach and felt sick. The figure approached. When the light hit the ambassador's face, the evening flooded back into Celenda. He was dressed in a white silk shirt and dark trousers tucked into a pair of soft boots. He did not smile at her but Celenda could not take her eyes from him. One more memory of the night came back to her. He had said his name was Jon.
"Drink this." Jon handed Celenda a ceramic cup. She drank its contents, feeling the thick liquid flowing into her stomach. She nearly vomited. Soon, though, her head cleared. She kept her eyes on the ambassador and silence hung between them.
"You loved your father," he said.
The words pushed aside all of the remaining fog in her head. She did not speak for a long moment and then remembered what she always said when her father was mentioned, which was very rarely.
"He was a traitor to the Dankin."
"But you loved him anyway." said Jon. His eyes never blinked and she recognized at once that her own betrayal was plain to him.
"You were wrong," said the man who had saved her life from the crushing rock of the canyon. Celenda felt anger well up her. Who was this northern stranger to question her love for anyone. "He was no traitor," said Jon.
Celenda could only stare at the man.
"Your father was betrayed. He spoke of peace when all of the other Danken's advisors spoke of war. When his words became too stinging to them, they called him a traitor to the throne and convinced the Danken of it. They were rewarded and your father was executed."
Years of speculation and secrets flooded into her at once. She felt thin threads in her mind snapping with each word the northerner spoke. As she listened she knew immediately that this man spoke true. Jon kept silent and then asked another question that changed her life.
"Do you know Severn Leigh?"
Celenda's face grew hot.
"Your father's betrayal was punishable by the death of him and his family. You would have burned next to him along with your sister but Leigh spoke to the Danken and had you spared. You were banished here but not killed. Why?"
"I was a child. He and I were once close."
"He loved you."
"I don't know." She remembered the touch of Leigh's hands and the taste of his breath in the dark shadows of her chambers.
"He helped murder your father but risked much to save you. It is safe to say he had reason."
Celenda turned to Jon, anger welling up once again.
"What do you want."
"I need your help, Celenda. The king's advisors whisper of war. I am here to find out if they plan to invade the north. The north just finished one war, our soldiers are tired and our supplies are low. This would be an ideal time for the Danken to order Dan Trex to battle against us. I must know if this is his intent and I need you to help me."
"Leigh now serves as the third advisor to the Danken. He is still in love with you."
"Why do I care if they wage war against the north?"
"Your father cared. He knew what would happen if Dan Trex's army marched against the north. Empires would crumble. Hundreds of thousands would die. The desert and the forests would bathe in blood. He plotted to stop this from happening."
"I don't care."
"Consider two other things. For one, you will be dead or selling your body on the streets in two months. Your coffers are dry. Your servants plot against you. Your cook keeps a small vile of powdered venom next to his spices to season your food the minute the mood fancies him. Your world is about to collapse and the only reason people still come here is to take what remains when you leave. If you do not come with me, you will die.
"Second, Severn betrayed your father and had him and your sister burned alive. Severn still lives, knowing what he did and not caring. I can help you expose him."
Celenda looked into this man's eyes. She remembered how strong and fast he had been the night before. She turned away.
She heard the northerner turn and leave.
Celenda walked down the stone hall of her father's villa as frightened and off-balance as she had been arriving here eight days after she had watched her father and sister burn to death. Red sunlight shined through the tall open windows of the audience hall. No one had cleaned it since the feast the evening before and already she saw insects engaging in their own feast on the carcasses left behind.
Jon stood at one of these windows. He turned, his light blue eyes falling on her from within the shadow of the red sun. She lifted her chin but saw that her defiance meant nothing to him. He saw right through her.
"My father was innocent." It felt good to say the words. Men would kill her if they fell on the wrong ears.
"Yes," said Jon.
"Severn was responsible."
"He was involved in the plot that led to your father's execution. He was responsible."
"I will go with you," said Celenda. The words sent a chill through her when she spoke them. Jon's expression softened. He started to say something and then stopped.
"When do we leave?" asked Celenda.
Celenda was impressed. The carriage Jon had hired was luxurious, more than Celenda herself could have afforded. She reclined on a divan along one mahogany wall of the spacious cabin. Outside, two huge desert oxen pulled the carriage and supply carriage followed behind. Four small brown men, men born of the desert, drove the caravan speaking to each other and to Jon in a language Celenda did not understand. They prepared food and served Jon and Celenda throughout their travel but ate different food only once a day on their own.
The amount of money spent on this trip alone astonished Celenda. This was more than just one man's mission. As if reading her mind, Jon spoke.
"This is important, Celenda. You are important to us. The north will pay much to ensure you find out what we want to know."
Celenda looked at Jon, seeing the experience in the small lines around his eyes. He scared her. She turned and watched the dunes of the desert move slowly past. The huge red sun painted the sands crimson. Deep gorges cut into the ground like wounds from the steel edge of rivers now dried into dust. Mesas of red rock stood watch over the eternal desert like titans that walked the lands before men were a gleam in the eyes of the old Gods.
Celenda awoke one evening, the chilled wind of night blowing in the carriage windows. She peeked out and saw Jon sitting in his small camp on the top of a nearby dune, thin smoke rising from a rolled leaf he held in his hands. She heard the four carriage drivers singing in their strange tongue. One played a flute of thirty small barrels.
Celenda pulled on a silken shift over her bare skin and stepped out into the night on bare feet. Jon made no sign of hearing her approach but he did not stir when she spoke.
"What are they singing?" she asked.
"They sing to the titans under the earth. The Boda believe that great beasts once ruled over all of the world and we were but their servants. They warred with each other, turning forests to desert and mountains to sea. They grew tired and slept as the earth grew over them. Now the Boda sings to them to keep them asleep. They would be flayed apart in any city of the south for playing such a tune. The desert Daknen can stand no other gods but themselves."
"You fought in the war against the Voth?" asked Celenda.
"How did you find it so easy to kill them?" He looked back up at the red planet above.
"The Voth worshipped the beast-gods. They would sacrifice and perform rituals in their honor, hoping to call the beasts with virgin blood. Once, when the black moon set on top of the red world in the night, the Voth killed ten thousand men, women, and children on an alter in the south of their capital city. We found the bodies piled in mountains around the alter. After seeing that, killing the Voth was easy after that."
Celenda could only stare at Jon. He was unlike any other man she had met. He was mysterious and smart. He had seen things she would never dream of. She looked at his face and imagined him standing on a hill, cloak whipping in the wind, blue eyes piercing under the rim of his three-cornered leather hat, rain and mud running down his face, a bloody rapier in one hand, a smoking pistol in the other, and a thousand raging Voth barbarians below.
They sat in silence, each in their own thoughts of worlds moved on.
"If Severn finds out what I'm doing, will you let them kill me?"
Jon turned and looked at Celenda.
The carriage rolled on. Celenda watched as Jon slept. Once he tilted his three-cornered hat and peered out the window.
"What do you want me to do when we arrive?" asked Celenda. Jon turned and looked at her before answering.
"First we will introduce you back to Leigh. Then we want you to stay close to him and learn. Leigh is not a smart man. He is not known for his great strategy yet his advice to the Danken is remarkably sound. He knows things he should not and gives wise council when he has no wisdom of his own. Learn how he does this and learn of his plans."
"When I have learned what you want, what of me then?"
"Your world is your own. We can arrange for a noble seat in many cities in the south. We can re-introduce you to your cousin in Gazu Tevel. You can act as a southern ambassador and advisor to the north."
Jon shrugged. "I will continue to do what I have done."
Red clouds of dust rose from the slave pits of Gazu Kadem. They saw the clouds hours before they saw the city itself. Two deep pits, thousands of feet across and nearly a thousand feet deep lay outside the city itself. Half a million slaves carved into the rock seeking iron, coal, gold, and the treasures of the old city now buried underneath the sand and clay above.
The minerals and artifacts were only one profitable commodity. The slaves themselves were the other. Those strong enough to survive in the pits fetched the highest prices on the market. Those fierce enough to survive the brutality of the world below could serve in Dan Trex's slave army, the largest army on the planet.
Celenda looked east and saw Trex's citadel, Tog Saker, the Fortress of the Black Tree. Dan Trex had the largest arena in the south. Hundreds of thousands went to see his pit fighters battle. Celenda saw Trex himself once when she was a child. Her father had taken her to the pit fights that day. Dan Trex was huge. He wore a silver demon-skull helmet and black enameled armor with gold highlights. His sword, Hellsplitter, was nearly six feet long. He fought five large slave pit fighters, smashing open their skulls with his iron gauntlets and impaling them on his black and silver sword. He split the last one open from the top of his head halfway down his chest. Celenda had gotten sick.
She felt queasy now, seeing the citadel on the hazy horizon. Turning south she saw the tip of a pyramid that towered over the rest of the city of Gazu Kadem. She watched it grow as they got closer, the crimson sun shining off of its golden walls. It rose five hundred feet above the city. Her father had told her that it was over a thousand feet under the surface as well. Most of the twenty five hundred year old pyramid lay buried and forgotten.
They traveled through the noble's entrance on the northern wall of the city. Rich merchants sold the finest gems, jewelry, silks, exquisite spiced meats, and the strongest or most beautiful slaves for thousands of miles. Noble houses lined the streets guarded by stern house guards in bronze and steel.
The carriage pulled down a side road and stopped in front of a sandstone building. Jon dropped a small leather purse with the lead driver. The man smiled, bowed low, and left. Jon led Celenda inside.
The suite was quiet and elegant. Cotton and silk sheets covered the large feather bed. A servant boy brought bowls of fresh fruit and water. The lodge's proprietor seemed to know Jon. It was clear that Jon felt safe here and that made Celenda feel safe.
After seeing her to her rooms, Jon left.
"Your travel went well, I take it?"
"Your Boda served you well, strong and reliable for so small a people."
"Will she do what we need?"
"I don't know."
"You were quite confident before. What changed?"
"She is very young for this work. I don't think she has the proper skills."
"To lie to a man? To seduce him? Make him fall in love with her and spy upon him? She is a woman. What further skills would she need?"
"She doesn't know what is at stake."
"Perhaps it is better that she does not."
They spent three days at the suite before the invitation arrived. Jon disappeared for many hours each day, leaving her with a small purse of gold coins and a servant to escort her in the market. Celenda purchased dresses of whispering silk and jewels of violet. A gold clasp of a lion's head held back her thick hair. She spent one day in a spa, her skin softened and powdered, her hair washed, and her nails polished in deep lacquer.
THe invitation was penned on a sheet of virgin calf, thinned and hardened into a sheet. Jon broke the seal and inspected it briefly.
"Tomorrow we attend the Danken's Autumn Feast. Leigh will be there."
Jon's casual response to the invitation shocked Celenda. The Danken's Autumn feast was an event no lord, king, or noble would miss for fear of dishonor or death. The invitations were acknowledgments of nobility by the only one able to distinguish and recognize such nobility. Each invitation cost as much as ten lives in the slave pits but the cost of the words and the seal of the Danken were immeasurable.
Jon left Celenda the following afternoon with a hired body-servant to prepare for the feast. The whisper-thin girl washed and perfumed Celenda's body, painted her lips and nails, and dressed her in scarlet and gold silks. The silks rode high on her thighs and left her right breast exposed, a recent fashion of the nobility. When Jon returned and beheld her, his face went crimson.
"Do you not approve?" Celenda asked, enjoying his reaction. He had transformed himself since she had last seen him. He dressed in a white tunic buttoned up the front and embroidered in swirling black. His trousers were tucked into the tops of tall boots shined in animal fat. His leather three-cornered hat had been replaced by one of black cotton felt decorated with a silver charm. His hair was washed, trimmed, and pulled back in a silver buckled band of leather. Black gloves covered his strong hands. He stood tall and handsome, but his expression was as hard as stone.
"It is not my approval you require."
Two hundred of Dan Trex's largest and fiercest warriors guarded the massive steel and stone doors of the Danken's palace. Dan Trex himself stood among his men. He wore steel, bronze, and black leather armor with Hellsplitter on his back. His hair and beard had grayed since Celenda had last seen him but his size still seemed massive.
Celenda prided herself on her ability to host a good feast. From the time she returned to her father's villa until Jon came for her, Celenda had hosted hundreds of feasts but nothing came close to what she saw in the Danken's Autumn Feast.
The rear of the crowd echoed off of the stone walls. Music of strings and long flutes filled the air. The smell of spiced cooking meat made Celenda's mouth water. Six enormous braziers burned twelve feet high. Smoke rose to the windows of the palace hall. Huge oxen cooked on spits as thick as a man's arm. A half dozen slaves turned the spits.
On a raised dais, beautiful men and women danced in swirling silks. All around, the elite class of the city reclined on large pillars and watched them. Celenda imagined the thousands of slaves who dug in the pits so these very few could live a life of such decadence. She knew she was no different.
Nearby, nobles coupled with pleasure slaves of the highest quality. Older noble women melted in the strong arms of young handsome males and noble men laid back while beautiful slave girls used all of their finest assets to pleasure them.
The clash of steel turned Celenda's attention to the sunken pit surrounded by men and women dressed in the finest cotton and silk garb in the city. She heard the struggle of combat in the pit but could see nothing through the crowd. Celenda heard a grunt of exertion, the crack of bone, and saw a jet of red blood spray over the crowd. The crowd roared. Celenda turned away.
None of these sights amazed Celenda as much as the pool. The entire center of the banquet hall was sunken below the floor and filled with clear water. Celenda had never seen so much water in one place before and doubted many had. Men and women swam naked in the pool, laughing and splashing one another. A handful of people swam in enough water to quench the thirst of the entire city.
Any pleasure for which one might ask could be found at the Danken's Feast. It was paradise. Yet in the shadows of the hall and in the darkness of each person's eyes burned the knowledge that the wrong word, the wrong sound, the wrong action, could spell death for the actor and his or her entire family. The Danken did not forgive anything. Celenda saw this first hand.
"Leigh is over there." Jon pointed to a far corner of the hall. "He's watching the animals. Let him see you first."
"Where will you be?"
"Watching you. I will meet you at our carriage when you are ready."
"Ambassador! Welcome!" A small man dressed in rich blue bowed to Jon, "Come with me, I have someone you must meet!"
Jon disappeared into the crowd and Celenda was alone.
A beast caller dressed in striped skins whistled while a three-headed cobra hissed with three strangely harmonic voices. A crowd of nobles applauded around him. Leigh was among them.
Leigh had aged since she had last seen him. Strands of gray laced through his dark hair. His skin was pale and soft, sagging on his thin neck. Cara, Leigh's first wife of three, stood next to him. Her dark hair was streaked with red and her eyes shone green in the torch light. Her age, over forty years, was well hidden under layers of thick powder and moist paste.
Old feelings long forgotten rose in Celenda when she saw Leigh. He and her father had been friends. Leigh visited often and they all traveled often to the neighboring cities together. Leigh and his wives often stayed at her father's villa drinking expensive wine and laughing. Leigh's eyes were always on her.
He came to her late one night, wine on his breath. His blue eyes were wide and his hands shook when he pulled down her bed sheet. He ran his hand over her body slowy. Celenda was so frightened. A nose got his attention. He covered her and left.
He had begun courting her but her father resisted. A fourth wife for Leigh was not up to her father's expectations for her but Leigh persisted. When her father was dragged off to the Danken's court, Celenda heard no more proposals. He gave her no marriage but while her father and sister were burned, she was sent to the villa. He gave her no ring but did not take her life.
"Celenda?" His voice shocked her from the dull memories. She turned and saw his wide eyes.
It was late into the evening when the Danken visited the autumn feast. Celenda only caught glimpses of him before she, like every other person in the huge hall, lay prone, arms outstretched towards him. Everyone stopped eating, swimming, laughing, mating, and speaking to pay their ultimate respects to the God-king of Gazu Kadem. He looked no older than twenty five. Soon he was gone and the roar of the feast returned to life.
It was dawn before Celenda returned to her carriage. When she stepped inside she felt Jon's hand help her in. He climbed in afterwards and sat across from her.
"And?" he asked.
"Severn Leigh has invited me to join him on a visit to Gazu Tevel."
"Did you accept?"
"It is what you wanted." Jon and he spoke no more. He only looked at her with his cold blue eyes.
The next morning Jon and Celenda walked to the Noble's market. They pushed through the crowd, letting the smell of spices, perfumes, and human sweat flow over them.
Celenda's head swam. Less than a month before she was living in a red fog within the villa of her dead treacherous father and now she would walk the streets again as a noble. The feast had done something to her. She remembered how wonderful that life felt. She remembered what it was to be held above the rest of those who lived in the city, to walk among them as some strange exotic creature, a goddess. She wanted that life again.
It was these egotistical thoughts, she would later tell herself, that blinded her at that moment. She was so busy standing superior to all of those around her, lifting her head high above the merchants and slaves, that she never saw the man come for her.
He dressed in rough cotton, tied with a rope belt. The dirt on his body and his face was no different than the thousands of others who worked every moment in the hopes of not dying of thirst or starving. The way his dark eyes had beheld her, however, told her clearly that this man was no simple worker.
Celenda did not move as the man lunged for her. She couldn't comprehend anyone, especially of a class so lows as his own, daring to even come close to her. Jon saw him, however, and Jon moved.
It took less than a few seconds before the situation was over and Jon had Celenda by the arm as he led her back through the crowd. She tried to understand what had just happened but only remembered bits and pieces. She saw the man move forward. She saw a glint of sunlight in the man's hand. Jon had grabbed him and made three sharp movements with mechanical precision. Celenda heard two loud pops and the man screamed. Then Jon had grabbed her and they moved quickly from the market. Celenda had glanced back and saw the man lying on the ground, his right arm a and twisted ruin.
As she became more aware of what had happened, her skin grew cold and her heart beat faster. She had only known violence in word or from afar. Today she was nearly killed. She looked at Jon's stone-like expression. He had moved so fast! This was the second time he had saved her life.
She did not remember their fast walk back through the streets but soon she found herself back in her suite. Jon was staring at her with his eyes cold and his jaw set.
"I didn't see him," she said quietly. "He was going to kill me."
Jon's expression didn't change. He looked at her with cold eyes. She wanted him to hold her again like he had on the cliffs. She closed her eyes, waiting for his cold words to bite into her. Instead he pressed his lips to hers.
He made love to her as though his life depended on it. She met his need with her own. He tore off her silk shift and held her against the wall. His hands grasped her breasts and his mouth pressed hard on her own. Their bodies met again soon and again throughout the night. She denied him no pleasure and he gave as much in return.
She sat in the moonlight before dawn looking at his body. He looked so different, his hair unbound and his body bare. He was no ambassador of the north, no spy. He was a man scarred and light of skin. Celenda was in love with him.
She left before dawn. Jon still slept and she could think of no conversation that brought no pain, so she left and went to Severn Leigh on his journey to Gazu Tevel.
They rode in a vessel as large as Celenda's suite. It housed Celenda, Severn Leigh, his first wife, her younger brother, his own first wife, and five comfort slaves. Four huge desert beasts pulled the massive vessel with another two beasts pulling a cart of water, foods, and other supplies. Forty armed guards and twenty workers flanked the enormous silk and wood carriage.
Celenda grew into the comforts that surrounded her. She watched mountain bluffs turn into deep desert canyons. She watched the red sun turn the sky violet as servants fanned her. She chatted for hours with Severn and his wife without saying a single word of substance.
She forced herself to forget why she was here and become the lady of nobility once again. Try as she could, Celenda could not keep Jon out of her dreams.
It was the night before they were due in Gazu Tevel when Severn came to her. She had been with many men, many for whom she cared not at all. She had worried that doing what she knew she needed to do would be hard, but it was not. It was easy. It was easy for her and she hated herself for it.
The decadence of her journey increased five fold in Gazu Tevel. She marveled at the cyclopean spires that cut into the sky like knife blades. She dined with the finest people on the finest foods. She bathed daily in cool water. She talked and listened to the nobles of Gazu Tevel and she soon became one of them.
It was three weeks before they returned to Gazu Kadem and another two before she saw Jon again. It was at a small feast for the Danken's fourth cousin and his marriage to his third wife. Jon stood straight in a perfectly clean white tunic buttoned in gold up to his chin. His blue eyes pierced into her and she felt her heart leap. It sunk quickly when she remembered Severn's hands on her.
Most of the party passed before they could speak. She found herself on a stone deck looking out over the fires burning from the slave pits. She shivered. Jon stood next to her, his strong hands gripping the stone bannister. He spoke low, his voice smooth.
"Dan Trex and his military advisors have been meeting with the Danken every day for a week. They are planning a campaign but we know not against whom. The advisors will gather, Severn among them. Find out what they plan."
Celenda felt cold. This was the man who saved her life twice. The man who held her and made love to her until tears fell from their eyes. Though she had pushed him from her mind during her time away, she still dreamed of him, still wondered how he would be with her. Now she knew. He cared nothing for her at all.
"Will you be able to do this?" Jon asked. Celenda nodded.
"It will be easy. I am to be his second wife."
Jon hadn't drank for two years but he found it easy to return. He kept a list of all the taverns, brothels, and ale stands in the eastern walls of the city in his head. He knew which ones had the ear of the king, which had the eyes of Dan Trex, which one had the best women, and in which ones he could get safely drunk and not have his throat cut. Drinking came easy but it did little to sooth him.
He loved her. He couldn't admit that to himself until he had found out she would marry the man who had betrayed her father. He knew it when he saw her wearing the twin-emerald ring that marked her as Leigh's second wife. He hadn't gone to the ceremony even though doing so would have been easy. He didn't know if the wolf inside him would stay tethered. He wanted to rip Leigh in half. He had done so before to men far better than that one.
Each night for four months he would drink and fall asleep thinking of her. He thought about how he had taken a young girl and sent her into the mouth of the lion. He had saved her from falling off the canyon only to throw her off of another one.
He still saw her from time to time, sometimes from afar, sometimes near. Her hair was different and she had gained weight. It hurt him to see her changing and know he was not a part of it. He could drink all he wanted but he still loved her. #
Gabe came in, that same blank expression on his round face. Jon had spent his life acting upon the expressions on one's face. To see no expression at all made him very uncomfortable.
Gabe wore a light violet tunic and black loose trousers with a pair of soft tan boots. Though he wore no family insignia, he was clearly dressed as nobility and the ale house masters treated him as such. Gabe sat on the cushion opposite Jon. He didn't speak until his drink was placed in front of him.
"She married him." Jon said.
"I know, it is quite the scandal," said Gabe.
"It's dangerous," said Jon. "We may have to pull her out."
Gabe didn't reply for a moment. He just stared at Jon with the same blank expression on his face.
"She's safer married to a noble than she was before. No one would risk hurting the wife of an advisor to the Danken."
"Someone tried to kill her when no one knew she was in the city. If they find out what she is now, they'll burn her like her father."
"No they won't," said Gabe. "Severn Leigh is in a web. His allies are few and the other advisors want him gone. He offers solid advice to the Danken and his information goes further and deeper than their own. If they find out that he has a northern spy in his bed, the whole house will burn."
Gabe sipped his drink and continued.
"Sometimes doing nothing is the best action we can take." Gabe paused, his eyes on Jon. "Do nothing, my friend. We will soon know what we need to know and then we can pull her out."
Celenda woke on a bed of silk. She dozed in the early morning, letting the beams of the red sun roll across the room. Her bodyservant entered and filled Celenda's bath with fresh water and oils while Celenda rose and stared out over the city. Life in Leigh's apartments was beyond the best of dreams. It was a life of luxury. Celenda spent her days as she wished, only having to suffer Severn occasionally in her bed. It was worse after the wedding, but now, two years later, his tastes and attention had returned to his first wife.
Celenda stood by the window feeling hot air blow over her skin. "He's out there," she thought to herself. "I wish I was with him."
Dressed and bathed, Celenda walked past Leigh's study. Someone had left the door open and she saw the large leaf of parchment on the oak desk. Her heart jumped and she remembered Jon's words to her. She could walk on and continue her life as nobility or she could do what Jon had asked of her.
She walked into the room and closed the door.
She had changed much since he had last seen her, but when her eyes were the same and when Jon saw them he wanted to cry. She sat next to him and his heart jumped when he smelled her. She drew a scroll case from her sash and gave it to him.
"I will need to get back soon, but you must see it."
Jon opened up the parchment and read.
"These are battle plans. Dan Trex plans an invasion of the western city-states; a war against the other Dankens. This would take years. The notes here, these are Leigh's?"
"No, it's his first wife."
Jon sat stunned. Celenda continued.
"Leigh is brainless but docile and he married well. His plans are her plans. His advice is hers. Her servants weave a web of information from all over the city."
Jon continued to look at her and then back to the plans.
"Dan Trex is not invading the north."
"No." Celenda took the scroll, wrapped it, and left.
"What do you mean?"
"The plans were gone when I went to get them but they returned when I came back."
"Someone had taken them?"
"Tell me or I will castrate you in your sleep."
"How do you know?"
"The servants were with us. She was the only one in the apartments."
"What do we do?"
"We have to kill her."
"We cannot! They'll know!"
"Not if she gets sick. Many get sick in this city. Even the whore wives of idiots. Leave it to me."
Jon wanted to break Gabe's neck when he finally saw him. Three weeks he had waited. Only now had the agent of the Eye bothered to show up.
"She's right." Gabe said when his drink was in front of him. "Dan Trex already begins training for siege warfare against pikes and arrows. She's right about Leigh too. His brilliance has only been as deep as his wife's instructions."
"What of Celenda." said Jon. Gabe waited before speaking.
"She is ill," said Gabe. "She is confined to her chambers and only Leigh's wife is allowed to care for her."
"We have to get her."
"We cannot, Jon. We have what we need. If we expose ourselves who knows how it will affect us. She knows what she risked for the security of the north."
"She cares nothing for the north."
"No. She cares for you," said Gabe. "And you did your job. Meddle now and the Eye will know of it, Jon. It is time to go."
Sickness filled the room. Celenda felt weak from vomiting and her legs felt like soft wood. She was going to die. She knew that now and the thought was almost comforting. She had seen Sara pouring the black powder into her drink and she knew when she saw that, two weeks before she began getting sick, that she was going to die. She drank the drink anyway.
A commotion outside cut into the dullness of her mind. Shouting and the clang of metal. She rose, her feet numb as she went to the door. It took great effort to open it. She came out and down the hall. Servants ran past, eyes wide as they stared at her. She went to the balcony overlooking the entryway. Two guards stood, halberds in hand. Leigh and Sara stood behind them.
Jon was at the door.
Gone was his garb of the northern ambassador. He now wore black and leather. His riding boots were dusty.
"This is an outrage! Your king will hear of this," said Sara. Leigh stood at her side, mouth open.
"You can call it whatever you like. I want Celenda."
"You expect us to hand you his wife?"
"Leigh, we must speak. Alone."
Leigh moved stiffly to Jon. Jon leaned in and whispered. Sara looked panicked.
"Cut him down," she said to the guards.
"Silence!" shouted Leigh. "Celenda, come."
Celenda began stepping down the stairs but dizziness overtook her. She fell but he was there. Jon lifted her into his arms.
"He has the medicine that can help her," said Leigh.
"Fool!" yelled Sara.
Celenda put her arms around Jon's neck. She felt the tightness in him. Jon turned towards the door and began to walk out but a figure blocked him.
The man was big, with steel hair, steel eyes, and black armor accented with gold. A rough scar cut across his face, disjointing his nose. Celenda felt Jon stop short.
"Dan Trex," said Leigh. Sara's cry cut short. "Good evening to you."
"I had hoped for a meeting, Severn Leigh." said Trex. His eyes moved from Celenda to Jon. "I appear to have picked a poor time." His voice was smooth and deep. While energy coursed through everyone in the room, Dan Trex was fully relaxed.
"What is happening?" asked Trex.
"My wife is ill. Our friend wishes to take her with him to a healer."
"And you do not go with him?"
Jon spoke. "I am an ambassador of the north..."
Dan Trex cut him off quickly and cleanly. Until now, Jon had been the most confident and powerful man Celenda had ever known but Trex was something else. His words caused cities to crumble and thousands to die. His voice was power and he knew it.
"I know who you are. I can say three words and you would disappear. No one would ever speak of you again."
"I just want the girl." said Jon.
No one spoke for a long moment. No one made a sound.
"Go." said Trex. Jon left and Celenda hung onto him. "Severn Leigh, we have much to discuss."
Celenda felt fresh air run over her skin. Jon lifted Celenda onto a desert horse, fast and enduring. Another horse was packed with supplies.
Jon mounted the horse in a single motion. He sat behind Celenda, his arm strong around her and her breath on the back of her neck. He kicked once and they were off.
Celenda looked behind them as they rode off. She saw Leigh staring at her, the light of the red moon on his face. Dan Trex stepped inside and closed the door.
Celenda put her hands on Jon's arm as they rode.
She was going to live.