General Zalaz was a wiry man with stick straight black hair. Where others had their shorn close to the skull, Zalaz wore his long. Few dared to declare this to be a womanish affectation, to do so would be to incur his anger and fewer still had survived that. Zalaz was in the midst of having that waist long hair braided when the servant came into the room with the message that Marcos was waiting for him in the courtyard. While Marcos was king of the city and considered to be the highest man of the empire, Zalaz felt no qualms about making him wait.
"I will come when I am ready," Zalaz said, waving a
dismissive hand. The servant bowed and left the room. The woman
braiding his hair paused for a moment. "Yaeli, what troubles
you?" Zalaz said, knowing his concubine would not have ceased in
her efforts for an idle moment or for the minor distraction that her
servant provided. The woman with olive skin and auburn hair said
nothing as she continued her braiding of her lover's hair. "It
is Marcos, yes?" he said. Of all four of his concubines, it was
Yaeli who had shared his confidences and come closest to being like a
wife. Zalaz often considered making Yaeli his wife but knew the
scandal that came from such a marriage would have been problematic.
He had enough chatter from the other council members over the fact
that he had given Yaeli her own house in the city, complete with
servants to attend her needs. While it was his in name, Yaeli was the
one who lived there and attended his business. The other three
concubines came to her when Zalaz returned from his diplomatic visit
to Selath five years ago. They had been a gift from the governor of
Selath and supposedly a sign of his good will towards Dacia. Zalaz
tolerated the three women but was fairly certain the lavish 'gift'
was intended to keep his attention focused on something other then
Selath's reluctance to sign the accord.
"He comes bearing news of trouble," Yaeli said after a
long moment of silence as she finished Zalaz's braid. "The king
and emperor of Dacia does not go to the council," she said,
setting a cautious hand on Zalaz's shoulder, "The council goes
to him. Something is wrong." Zalaz sighed. He wanted to tell
Yaeli that her worries were nothing but his gut told him that she was
correct. Of all the council, Zalaz thought he was the last whom
Marcos would come to in a time of trouble. Unless that trouble was
one that required an army, which Zalaz suspected might be why Marcos
had come to him.
"The sons of Omurath have been a thorn in Marcos's side for
almost three years now," Yaeli continued, "It may be that
they have raised an army..." Zalaz raised his right hand and
Yaeli fell quiet. He looked over his shoulder at her. In the light of
the fading evening sun, Zalaz wondered where the lines had come from
on Yaeli's face. He questioned how it was that age had come upon her
and then briefly considered if the stiffness creeping into his bones
was perhaps signs of his own age before pushing such melancholy
As he stood, Zalaz said, “Do not trouble yourself over the sons
of Omurath. They are fools who think they can win the Empress by
force. Julara's will is against them as it was against their father.
When this business with Marcos is finished, we shall walk the gardens
before attending your sisters.” Yaeli did not smile as Zalaz had
hoped she would at the prospect of visiting the gardens kept by the
wealthy of Dacia city and the village beyond the walls, Asser.
Zalaz shook his head ruefully. “Better we are not wedded,” he
said with a smile, “Or I think my bed would be cold tonight.”Yaeli
rolled her eyes at the general's old jest. Zalaz considered putting
on his sword belt and then decided against it, for he did not deem
Marcos to be either a threat or a match of strength.
Dressed in his white tunic and
full pants, Zalaz was a study of contrasts as he walked into the
courtyard. His apparent air of carelessness was denied by the
unconscious lethal grace with which he moved. His black braid stood
out starkly on his shoulder as he approached Marcos. Zalaz offered
Marcos a smile that would have been charming if it was not for the
suspicion in his eyes. In the shade of the courtyard walls, Marcos
seemed smaller and more timid to Zalaz. The general would have been
amused if it weren't for the fact that the priest-king had only speak
a word and Zalaz's life would be forfeit.
“You honor my house,” Zalaz
started when Marcos looked at him. A mixture of dread and concern
shone in the priest-king's eyes and Zalaz's pleasantries died on his
lips. “You did not come to speak of happy things,” Zalaz said and
Marcos looked away. “Do you seek me as general or councilman?”
“Both,” Marcos said quietly,
motioning to the chair beside the table he sat at. Zalaz sat and
noticed that Marcos' refreshments were untouched. Zalaz frowned.
“Althar has gone to the sons of Omurath and, if the report is
accurate, is raising an army,” Marcos said. He did not want to
mention the second reason for his coming to the general, as much as
Sorenan insisted it was vital he did so. Marcos rubbed the stubble on
his jaw with the back of his left hand and hoped that Zalaz would
seize upon the news of the raider's activities and forget the matters
of his role as councilman.
“The raider's army merits a
general's attention. That is not all you are here to discuss,”
Zalaz said, turning to take the cup of spiced almond milk from the
servant who came forward as he was sitting. “Nor is that what you
are troubled by,” Zalaz continued as he set the cup on the table at
his right hand, “We have discussed the raider and the sons of
Omurath. There are plans in place if this is coming to bear. What
drives the king of Dacia to seek out his servant?”
“Rumors,” Marcos answered so
quietly that the general had thought he misheard him at first. Zalaz
leaned forward slightly. “They speak of Mina in the marketplace,”
he said. Zalaz started to open his mouth to state something derisive
about gossips when Marcos said something that stunned him. “Some of
those rumors are true,” Marcos said, “She has taken another in
Zalaz stared at Marcos for a
moment, not fully comprehending what his lord had just said. For as
long as the Dacian empire has stood, the high priestess of Julara was
wedded to the priest who had been chosen by lots from all who served
the stern god Ashur. It was tradition that was steeped in antiquity.
Tales of false priestesses who betrayed Ashur's priests were
whispered in the dark, most often ending with the tragic woman torn
apart by Julara's priestesses. The stories of the false priests who
betrayed Julara's daughter were more grisly.
Zalaz looked at Marcos. “You
would have me bring this before the council? They would see her
hanged,” Zalaz said, watching Marcos' face closely. At the mention
of Mina's possible death, panic shot through Marcos. “This lover,”
Zalaz continued, “he is the warrior from the north, if the rumors
are true. And, if the rumors are true, you have welcomed him in your
bed.” Marcos said nothing but looked at the cut pieces of melon on
the plate at his left hand. Zalaz gave a small sigh and leaned back
in his seat.
“What would you have me do,
Marcos?” Zalaz said, “The priestesses would kill you both. The
council is powerless against them. If this were some small garrison
town, there may have been hope.”
“The priestesses know,”
Marcos answered, lifting his gaze to Zalaz's face, “They have known
for the last three years.” Zalaz's eyebrows went up with amazement.
“It is Julara's will that we have come together,” Marcos said.
“And Ashur?” Zalaz said.
Marcos looked down at the plate again. “The gods have willed this,”
Zalaz said slowly, “You are sure of it?” Marcos didn't answer and
Zalaz leaned forward. He gripped Marcos' left wrist hard and the
priest-king looked up. Terror and desperation warred in the
priest-king's eyes. Zalaz frowned. “Tell me,” he said, “What
were the signs of it?”
“The stars,” Marcos replied,
“It was the stars.” Zalaz let go of Marcos' wrist. “When Mina
became high priestess, the three stars aligned,” Marcos said, a
curious sense of lightness stealing into him as he spoke, “The book
of Ashur spoke of a lion coming to the couch of Julara and Ashur a
year later. That was when Sorenan took my place in Mina's bed on the
journey to Malath. It was a ruse to deceive Omurath's assassin.
Somehow, on that journey, he became more then a shield between Mina
and Omurath. He...” Marcos' words failed him and he dropped his
head into his hands and wept.
Zalaz regarded him solemnly. He
knew that the other council members would be furious. As much as he
disliked Marcos and his timidness, Zalaz couldn't help the sense of
compassion that rose in his breast for the situation Marcos was in.
If he was honest with himself, Zalaz would admit that he felt a
measure of envy for Marcos, Mina, and Sorenan. They were at least
living true to their hearts' urgings. Zalaz sighed.
“The council will not be
pleased,” he said tiredly. Marcos's tears moved Zalaz as much as
they made him want to shake the timid man and demand he snap out of
it. Zalaz thought of Yaeli. She would not forgive him if he turned
away from Marcos in this hour of need, especially under these
circumstances. “I will do what I can,” Zalaz said. Marcos lifted
his head, gratitude shining in his face. “You, however,” he said,
“Owe me a debt of my choosing.”
Marcos opened his mouth to thank
Zalaz when the general lifted his hand. “Do not thank me,” he
said as he pointed to the woman who stepped into the doorway across
the courtyard from them, “Thank her.” Zalaz stood, disregarding
proper manners and waiting for Marcos to rise. As the general stepped
away from him, he said, “The king is not the only one with a
secret. Go, return to your lion and bride. I will send word in three