A scent similar to the fflorin’s filtered down the long corridor that connected the Garrison to the Temple compound. A phalanx of Cavalry warriors, the only military allowed inside the Temple, waited at its end to separate the wharf and hill country contingents. With the exception of Lorin, the Cavarly was made up entirely of women. They were known for their fearlessness, fierce dedication to the protection of Temple members, and unbreakable loyalty. Torak admired those qualities and sought them for his warriors, rather than mere fighting skills.
Other than during the investiture, he’d seen only one of the famed fighters up close. A handler of their Cavalry mounts had traveled to Gracarin to purchase wild charger mares, due to inbreeding problems. She’d not had the height and strength of the women of his country, but had about her a quiet menace that made shoppers on the wharf keep their distance, even though she hadn’t brought her charger. If she had, a glimpse of the military mount would have emptied the harbor.
Wild chargers looked similar, the serpentine heads smaller and usually brown-spotted, not all over black. Gracarin chargers had none of the training that made them living machines of war. All Temple entrances and exits were large enough to accommodate the beasts, since charger sentries roamed the Temple inside and out at night. There were none with the warriors today.
It was ironic that his first time inside the Temple was for a hearing in its Judgment Court. He strove not to gape, while wondering about the venue. Most legal actions were heard in the one of the city’s municipal courts. Only violent crimes were judged by the Temple’s leader. The present High Priest used facts and discretion. The former priestess could read minds. So it was said.
This could be to his advantage, if she were present. The evidence against Kilamok was strong but verdicts from the former High Priestess were never questioned, and hers were potentially deadly if it involved premeditated cruelty.
The clatter of armor and heavy footsteps rattled up and down the wide corridors. The Temple’s wealth had diminished during its temporary abandonment after the Dawn That Bleeds. There were no indications of any restoration work being done to its interior. Some of the gem-studded murals remained unmolested on the ceilings and high up on the walls. The Temple’s distinctive scent became stronger as they moved deeper into the maze of hallways, the smell similar to that of the fflorin, but more herbal and not as sweet, sparking the memory of incense.
They halted in front of what he initially assumed was a metal door with no handle, only a handprint embedded in its center. As he moved closer, he discerned that it was highly polished wood, opened from the inside by a warrior. A long line of them stood on red-carpeted steps leading down into the sunken courtroom. Beneath the high-vaulted ceiling, white marble pews encircled the chamber. Torak and Jaekl were escorted down and seated in the first row. Kilamok and his entourage were taken to the opposite side. A dark, uneven smudge marred the floor’s gleaming white.
There was no seating for judges, priests or official scribes, prompting Torak to murmur, “An odd sort of courtroom.”
Jaekl nudged him in the ribs and gestured sideways with his chin. “What do you make of that?”
On their left, the remainder of their marble pew had been warped, buckled into lumps of white stone. “Looks melted,” Torak murmured. He asked the warrior standing on the steps across the aisle, “What happened there?”
The insignia on her armored chest stated her rank and her proficiency in hand-to-hand. The shield was absent from her back, and she wore a saber in the belt that secured her Cavalry blue tunic. Since they were riders, they usually wore trousers, but today, all the warriors wore knee-length tunics and high-strapped leather sandals with a side-sleeve for a knife.
The warrior preceded her reply with a smirk. “Someone displeased Her Highness.”
“You mean Lady Sha?”
The warrior’s expression hardened. “Lady Sha is forever High Priestess to us. Be advised that there will be no talking once the High Priest enters.”
“And what about that dark spot on the floor?”
The warrior gave the blemish a glance and smiled again. “Where Her Highness ended the Mastema.”
“Mastema. Doesn’t that mean drechleth? I thought she killed it out on the steps.”
She gave him a suspicious glance, most likely due to his proficiency in Omirrian and his slight knowledge of Temple language. As a boy, he had preferred weaponry training. His mother insisted on learning about neighboring cultures. As he matured, he became grateful for her demand that he also learn their languages.
The warrior shifted her attention from him to the opposite pews before giving an answer. “Her Holiness and my Lord Sha killed the Threat From the North on the Temple steps. That spot on the floor is where she destroyed the Oracle, the one known in the Portends as the Mastema. His evil filth has been difficult to remove.”
She stood straighter and placed her hand on the saber’s hilt. “Silence. His Highness is about to enter. You will stay seated and silent until directed to do otherwise or you will be punished.”
How the warrior knew that High Priest was about to enter was in no way apparent, but a door on the opposite side of the court underneath the pews opened. A warrior entered first, followed by Ladnor, Medra, and the High Priest. Torak’s heart started to thump inside his chest when the most lethal person in the world, a small, white-robed figure entered last.
The warrior escort stood to one side with Medra and Ladnor. Both were armed The scrape of a sword being withdrawn slithered through the silence as the High Priest and Lady Sha moved to the courtroom’s center. The guard stood well back in the attack-defend position, feet planted, sword pointed up and at the ready.
Lady Sha stood directly on the smudged spot, giving Torak the eerie impression that she enjoyed standing on it. He allowed one side of his mouth to lift with a half-smile. He liked her, even though she was rather puny for a woman renowned for her power. An annoying compulsion had him glancing sideways at the melted marble.
High Priest folded back his cowl, revealing sharp features and skin paler than most Omirrians. He also had a thin line of beard along his jaw when all the men of Omirr were clean-shaven. His night-dark eyes glinted aggravation. So this was the half-breed Gryff of Sha, the unlikely heir decreed by the Temple’s former leader to rule.
“We are here because uncivilized men could not contain their violence during a meeting convened to bring nations and peoples together in common understanding. Beyond that, a challenge was issued by Lord Torak for the return of his countrywoman. As crude and uncontrolled as it was, it remains an accusation and one, due to its heinous nature, must be immediately addressed. We are aware of the matriarchal aspects of your laws and religion, but you are now in Omirr and will be adjudicated by ours.”
Kilamok started to speak and was silenced when a warrior’s blade pressed against his neck. Salmysis was clever enough to keep silent and still. High Priest ignored the incident and moved closer to where Torak and Jaekl sat. He studied them with a gaze steady and uncomfortably piercing.
“Jaekl of the Coldblood Clan, do you speak Omirrian?”
“Yes. More fluently than my Lord Torak”
“Was that your sister among the harem?”
“And you are positive that she was not with them of her own accord?”
“No. She was taken while shopping at the wharf.” With pride he added, “It was reported that it took five men to bring her down.”
High Priest glanced at Torak, who couldn’t contain his the hot hatred of his stare at his enemies across the room. High Priest returned to ask Jaekl, “Your sister appeared to be drugged. Do you concur?”
“Highness, that was my sister, but not. They have done something to her.” Jaekl swallowed. “You know how we revere our women.”
“Yes, Jaekl, we are aware of all religious doctrines and comprehend the aspects of your matriarchal culture. Therefore,” he turned and moved to the small figure in the center of the court, “we will decide this matter in a manner where there can be no misunderstandings, no opposition.”
Across the room, Kilamok raised his hand and High Priest responded. “You have a question?”
“Why do they have the right to speak and I do not?”
“Because you were not requested to speak, and you are not the offended in this matter. It was hardly the smartest political move to flaunt a crime, particularly one so abhorrent to the strictly religious of the Gracarin faith. And a crime that is more than loathsome to Omirrians.”
He turned to the warrior standing beside Medra. “Bring Jaekl’s sister. She doesn’t need to be coherent.”
Sheathing her sword, the warrior turned, jogged across to the door under the pews and exited. Hand raised again, Kilamok stood. Before he could speak, the warrior shoved him down on the pew.
Salmysis remained still, caught in a staring contest with Medra. Torak sneered. What incredibly stupid behavior, aggravating the nation’s Lady Protector. Salmysis was the worst sort of soldier, one who would not protect his master. Jaekl would have somehow intervened.
With bored impatience, High Priest demanded, “What is it now, Kilamok?”
“My lord priest, we have a witness.”
“One was not requested. It is expected that you act as your own witness.”
Kilamok’s furtive glance to the center of the courtroom darted away from the small, silent figure. He would never succumb to an interrogation from her. She would comprehend all of his perfidies. The Temple couldn’t outright execute a foreigner, but there were many other ways to punish.
Kilamok answered, “I was not present. There was a merchant who saw it all and will verify that was not abducted.”
High Priest turned away, looked up, and spoke to the warrior guarding the courtroom entrance. “Have their witness brought here.”
The courtroom guard returned through the door under the pews. A burly warrior followed, carrying Jaekl’s sister, who’d obviously been given more drugs. Her limp arms swayed as the warrior brought her to the High Priest.
Torak sensed his second’s distress, saw Jaekl’s white-knuckled grip curled around the edge of the pew. Because he couldn’t speak, Torak placed a steadying hand on Jaekl’s thigh, digging into tough muscle to pin him in place, and felt him flinch when the High Priest brushed aside his sister’s veils and cupped her cheek in his palm.
When her eyes fluttered open, High Priest gently said, “Hush. I am healing you. The poison you’ve been given will be erased from your body.” The court remained silent until Jaekl’s sister inhaled a sudden, deep breath.
The priest gently asked her, “Your name?”
“Feldspa, are you able to stand on your own?”
“I am not sure, my lord.”
High Priest took her from the warrior, who backed away and exited under the pews. He held her in his arms for a moment then gently set her down. Feldspa weaved in place for a second then straightened, shoulders back, head up. She yanked off layers of veils and kicked them aside until she stood in a short, filmy tunic.
Not realizing that she wasn’t allowed to speak, she looked at the High Priest, a glare sparked by outrage. “May I kill them, my lord?”
He responded first with a dark, disturbing chuckle. “No, Feldspa, only we are allowed to do that here, but we do commprehend your provocation. Remain silent and join your brother. He looks about to explode if he doesn’t get you safely in his hands.”
She scowled and whipped back flowing dark blond hair. Familiar with Feldspa’s easily provoked temper, Torak wasn’t surprised when she tugged off delicate, gem-studded sandals and aimed them at the wharf rats before she stomped across the courtroom to her brother. Jaekl clutched her in a rough embrace until his sister shoved free, kissed his cheek, and sat in glowing discontent.
While Feldspa glared death and destruction at her former captors, the High Priest looked at Medra with a lop-sided smile. They shared an extended visual conversation—hers not amused, while his, oddly merry. Torak experienced a moment of understanding and surprising envy; theirs was not a political alliance but a true marriage.
Their silent interchange was interrupted when a warrior led a man down the steps into the courtroom. Crackling power rippled throughout the chamber when Lady Sha lifted back the hood of her robe. Torak had seen her from a distance, too far away to distinguish her strong-featured face. Hair the color of old blood, braided Cavalry style and streaked with silver, coiled around her head. The sly cleverness of her gaze spoke of a confidence so complete that there was no hiding from her perception. High Priestess she had been in the past, but in her eyes, he saw that all of her faculties remained as sharp as ever. And as terrifying.
Her husky voice filled the courtroom, sending a chill down his spine, when she asked the witness, “Do I have your permission to touch you?”
Visibly trembling, the slender, well-dressed man nodded. Shaking back a billowing sleeve, she placed her palm on his brow. The man buckled to his knees, leaving her hand in the air.
She instructed the warrior who’d brought him, “Take him away. He is of no use.”
Kilamok again opened his mouth but choked off the words when the warrior guarding him stuck the blade under his nose.
Lady Sha turned to address the wharf contingent. “You have presented me with nothing to verify your assertion. Feldspa was indeed compliant and subdued when she and your soldiers passed the vendor’s booth. That proves little. She could have been coerced to behave in other ways besides employing a quick acting drug. Feldspa was drugged again before being brought here.” She asked over her shoulder, “I presume it was hallucinate in composition?”
When High Priest nodded, Lady Sha sent a smile to Jaekl’s sister. “You did not make it easy for them, did you, Feldspa? They were bloodied when they passed that vendor’s booth. Good for you. Now that we have established how and that she was abducted and held against her will, we shall determine the Hill Country contingent’s assertion regarding this issue. Lord Torak, come here.”
Torak got up, stepped down, and crossed the courtroom floor, amazed at how large she appeared from a distance but in reality was so small up close.
She squinted up at him. “It is rude to swagger in this place, Lord Torak.”
“May I speak now?” When she jerked a nod, he replied, “Apologies, but it is my usual manner of walking.”
High Priest and Ladnor must have taken his remark as insolent and stepped closer to her. Lady Sha backed them away with a shake of her head and a cluck of her tongue. “Leave us be. Gryff, go torment Medra. You also, Ladnor. Stand back. I dislike the two of you hovering.”
“He’s a bit of a brute,” Ladnor warned.
She snorted at that and again waved them off to eye Torak up and down. He should feel petrified. This woman had melted marble like wax and obliterated an entire Marin horde with a sweep of a sword. All he could think of doing was cuddling her until she squealed. He couldn’t help it. Except for being half her size, she was so like his mother that he was unable to mask his sympathy.
“You are weary from healing, Holiness.”
“I am Lady Sha now, and what would you know of healing, Lord Torak?”
“My mother is a healer.” He paused to grin down at her and added, “Lady Omirra-Sha.”
“You are impertinent. And speak Omirrian well enough.”
“My mother taught me.”
“Good for her. I assume you give your permission?”
When he nodded, she flicked her fingers, an impatient gesture for him to lower his head, and muttered, “You Gracarin hill people are impossibly tall. Worse than my husband.”
Warmth and comfort soaked through the palm she placed on his brow, sinking down into his soul, weakening his legs. From somewhere far away he willed himself to stay standing. When her touched lifted, he blinked to reorient.
Wise eyes, hazel and gold, studied him. A film of sadness, brief with understanding, dimmed the alertness of before and created a queasy feeling, as if his most secret thoughts had been exposed. He’d had no choice. She’d given an order. There was no other alternative but to obey. He could only pray that she hadn’t seen his darkest secret.
“Lord Torak, you and your second have reason for your grief. Return to your seat and say nothing. Remain after the others have left.”
Relieved that she showed no change in her opinion of him, he smiled. “It will be exactly as you wish, my lady.”
He bowed, suppressing a chuckle at her annoyance when he added a bit more swagger to his walk. She clicked her tongue as he sat and waited for the drama to unfold. She had to have seen his homeland, its magnificence destroyed, the vileness of the wharf king and his lords, the suffering of Jaekl and his family when Feldspa disappeared. The strapping, sassy-mouthed girl was the pride of the Coldblood Clan.
Lady Sha glided across the courtroom to stand in front of Kilamok and Salmysis, whom she addressed first. “Lord Golivaris, our Lady Protector’s animosity stems from a nasty incident that was actually none of your doing. Someone impersonating you presented himself as a suitor.”
Lady Sha glanced over her shoulder at her scowling daughter. “That was enough to set up her back. She has a difficult time casting off a grudge. Even though her present animosity is unjustified, you, Salmysis, are not an honorable person. Your soldiers got their teeth loosened when they abducted Feldspa. If I should ask her, she would never admit to rape, but I am positive that it occurred.
“As for you, Kilamok, I will not give you the respect of your title. Since I am no longer priestess, I am not subject to specific limitations and can say and do as I please. I am tempted to unman the both of you, but instead, will ask our ruling High Priest to ban you from our country. If either of you dare to enter Omirr, either by water or by way of Marin lands, you will die. That is all. Warriors, escort them to their ships. Take your chargers. If they speak or create any disturbance, have your mounts remove their heads.”
She turned to the High Priest. “Have I overstepped?”
He nodded a bow. “As Lord Torak so eloquently stated, it will be exactly as you wish. She has spoken. Let it be done.”
Torak put on his most gloating smile as the wharf rats were taken by sword point from the courtroom. Salmysis glared revenge. Kilamok stared straight ahead, red-faced and too overwrought with frustration to do anything but focus on each step up the carpeted aisle. There would be retaliation. Torak looked forward to it.
Prickling on the back of his neck had Torak returning his attention to the courtroom floor. Ladnor had crossed the courtroom floor. Narrowed-eyed and amused, he said, “They dropped themselves right into your hands, didn’t they?”
Before replying, Torak addressed the High Priest, “May I now stand and respond, Highness?”
Gryff unbelted a fringed, blue sash and shrugged out of a layer of robes. “Court is over. Say what you like, but I have an idea of what you will say. All of us do, but we should go somewhere else to discuss it.”
When Jaekl, Feldspa and Torak left the pew to step down onto the courtroom floor, Ladnor sent his wife a scowl, because she tucked her hand into Torak’s elbow. She held him to a leisurely stroll, companionable, deceptively friendly. Torak wasn’t deceived but was mildly surprised by her first comment.
“Tell me about your mother, Lord Torak. Then we shall see about this plan of yours to become the king of Gracarin, not just its wharves.”
He concealed his dismay that she had seen everything he had planned. “My lady, I was beginning to think that you were like her, but perhaps not.”
Behind him, he heard Ladnor mutter, “You have no idea what holds you by the arm, Torak-en-Doarth.”
Her laugh sent a slither of awareness down his spine. “My husband delights in spoiling my little amusements. Pay no attention. I saw that you came directly from your ship to the conference. You may join us for a meal. The family keeps a villa nearby. A dwelling too luxurious for my taste, but necessary for impressing those who liked to be impressed. It has a view of the city that I never tire of looking at. Ladnor, find Sorda and bring her to me.”
“She’s heading to Sha with Lorin and Rynn.”
“Tell them all to delay the trip. Off you go. Now, Lord Torak, I believe your country is partial to fish and bison. We are blessed with plenty of the former and none of the latter. My husband and children would gnaw on a haunch of meat every day if they could,” she ended with a delicate shudder.
From the corner of his eye, Torak saw Ladnor veer off and go down another corridor, as the diminutive tyrant with a scary grip on his arm whispered, “Very clever of you to suppose correctly that you could entice my husband over to your way of thinking by offering cattle.”
Dread’s chill trickled through his belly. So far, she hadn’t referred the one thing he wanted no one to know about him, but he kept that so deeply hidden he rarely thought about it. Had she seen his political and salacious interest in Sorda? He looked down. Lady Sha wore a smile some might judge as soft and complacent, but he saw something entirely different.