Master of CrowsWritten by Draven, Grace
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MASTER OF CROWS
Table of Contents
MASTER OF CROWS
This book is dedicated to my editors, Lora Gasway and Mel Sanders. Ladies, without your help, I would have never been able to write "The End." Thank you for your time, your patience, your suggestions, and most of all for your wonderful friendship.
She shrugged. “We need the missing pages.”“Tell me something I don’t know.” He drummed his fingers on chair arm and cursed under his breath. He’d have to go back to Iwehvenn and find those pages. If he was lucky, they’d still be where he dropped them, in the lich’s ruin of a library. If his luck held, he’d make it out of the stronghold for the second time, alive.Along with his apprentice.She massaged her lower back. “Whatever ritual the kings used, they were successful. There is no Amunsa listed in the later histories, no ruins of temples built to him, not even in the North.” Silhara caught her stifling a yawn behind her hand. Dark circles ringed her eyes, and her lids drooped to half-mast despite her best efforts to look alert. He’d worked her hard the past two weeks, adding more and more responsibilities, expecting more out of her. She was still here, and making a significant contribution to the running of his household. He was both pleased and annoyed.“We’ll travel to Iwehvenn.” An incredulous stare met his declaration.“We?” she squeaked.“Yes, we.” He arched an eyebrow. “I don’t read ancient Helenese, and there are several pages missing from that book. There are likely more gone from the other books I took from Iwehvenn. I need you to make sure we’re gathering the right pages. I don’t fancy making a trip to the soul eater’s lair a second time. I damn well won’t do it a third.”A convulsive swallow worked the muscles in her smooth throat. “How does one sneak past the Eater of Souls?”He rose from his chair. Martise hastily followed suit. “I can cloak us both with concealment spells, incantations that will fool the lich.”“I’ve heard he has great power and can sense a living man like a wolf smells blooded prey.”“You’ve heard rightly. If ever a more deadly predator existed, I’ve yet to know of it.” He was tempted to touch her, graze his fingers over the gooseflesh rising on her arms.“What if he attacks us?”“Then we’ll fight our way clear.”She spread her hands. “I’m neither warrior nor mage. I’d be of little use in a battle.”His gruff laugh was roughened by weariness. “I don’t need a brute fighter, and my magery is stronger than a gaggle of priests combined. If you can read Helenese and read it fast, you’ll be of great use to me.”“What if your magery isn’t enough?” Horror edged her voice, darkened her eyes.Her reaction was justified. All Conclave acolytes were taught about those rare but vastly powerful and malevolent forces called liches or soul eaters. She knew what would happen if the Iwehvenn lich trapped them. Silhara was thankful she had such knowledge. He wouldn’t have to explain the danger or impress upon her the risks involved.He held her gaze. “I’ll kill you before he ever touches you.” The blunt declaration made her flinch. For some inexplicable reason, he wanted to soften his words. “There are worse fates than a clean death.”“I don’t suppose I can respectfully decline?” She gave him a weak smile.“You can, but you’d have to leave Neith.” This, more than any brutal lesson he might mete out to her, would measure her determination. “If I have nothing for you to translate, I’ve no need of you and will send you back to the bishop.”Myriad emotions passed in her eyes; fear, acceptance, a touch of anger and most of all, resolve. “When do we leave?”His respect for her grew. She was terrified but willing to accompany him. A brave woman, and one wise enough to accept her fear. It would keep her alive. “Tomorrow.”“So soon?”“I want to get my hands on those pages as soon as possible. And I have a harvest to bring in to market next week. Playing cat and mouse with a soul eater wasn’t in my plans.”He extinguished three of the four lit candles on the table. The remaining one cast a nimbus of feeble light around him and Martise. “Put the books and papers away. We’ll deal with them when we return.”Once in the corridor, he handed her the candle. The only point of radiance in the black hallway, the flame flickered and danced, lending Martise’s face a ghostly aspect dominated by her wide copper eyes.“Get what rest you can,” he said. “And pack lightly. A change of clothes, no more. I’ll see you in the bailey an hour before dawn.”She held the candle out to him. “Don’t you need this?”Blackness hid his amusement. “I’m used to traveling dark paths, Martise. You need the candle more than I do.”She nodded her thanks and ascended the stairs. He heard the floor boards creak above him as she made her way to her chamber. The candle was truly more use to her than to him. He could light his way with witchfire, but even that wasn’t necessary. He’d lived at Neith for almost twenty years and could navigate its winding corridors, with their buckled, broken floors, blindfolded.The drowsiness plaguing him in the library had vanished by the time he reached his bedroom. The bright moon, suspended high in the sky, plated the balcony and chamber in silver. Corruption’s star hovered below it, casting its own baleful light over the grove and the flat plains beyond. Silhara sensed the god’s nearness, its predatory regard. Best not to sleep. He could only imagine the horrors awaiting him in what should be peaceful slumber.“Do you have nothing better to do besides vex me in my sleep and sully my magic?” He recalled Martise’s words. “You know, pestilences to create? Villages to destroy? Dead hounds to resurrect?”He prepared his huqqah for his delayed evening smoke and tried to ignore the empty laughter filling his mind.Sully? I thought you would appreciate that small taste of power. My offering is limitless if you accept me.
Silhara cursed and clipped off a cluster of oranges, almost snipping his fingers in the process. Such domestic contentment didn’t suit him. He did well enough at Neith with only Gurn and Cael for company. However, when Martise called him for their midday meal, he joined her eagerly.The bowl of soup she set in front of him was fragrant with vegetables and herbs. Busy placing bread, butter and the tea kettle on the table, she missed his appreciative sigh.She handed him a spoon. “I thought you might prefer this today. There’s also wine, if you want to risk it.”His stomach balked at the thought of the wine, but he managed to consume half the pot of soup and a loaf of bread. Martise no longer stared at him in wide-eyed astonishment. She was used to his appetite and sipped her bowl of soup while he devoured his.She refilled his tea cup. “I’ve prepared the room two doors down from yours. It’s the only one with a bed still usable. There’s water in the pitcher and cloths if your guest wishes to clean up when they arrive. I also cleaned the mirror, though there’s nothing to be done about the crack.He scowled into his teacup at the persistent sense of guilt. She was neither his wife nor his mistress. Just another servant in his household. Like Gurn. Would she be so accommodating if she knew his guest was a houri brought to entertain him for an evening?She was in the midst of clearing away the table while he finished off the pot of tea when Cael suddenly let loose another round of barking.“I’m going to kill that damn dog.”The creak of wagon wheels announced Gurn’s return. Silhara braced himself for more of Gurn’s disapproval and wasn’t disappointed. The giant entered the kitchen, a thundercloud of condemnation on his normally affable face.“Gurn, welcome back!” Martise’s cheerful greeting only served to darken his visage even more. “Why didn’t you come through the front door?”Silhara heard the puzzlement in her voice. His eyes widened when the servant ushered his companion into the kitchen. A soft gasp from Martise punctuated his own surprise.Gurn didn’t bring home just any houri. Silhara gaped at the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen. Long, black hair artfully arranged and held with jeweled clips was swept back to fall in thick curls down her back. Smooth, honey skin begged to be caressed. Her face was exquisite, with a slender nose and vermillion-painted lips that curved into a come-hither smile and highlighting delicate cheekbones. Her green eyes were skillfully outlined in kohl, enhancing their exotic shape. She had a body to make a man’s mouth water, small-boned and generously curved. A plethora of sheer, brightly colored scarves draped her form. Except for her height and dainty build, she was Martise’s complete antithesis. And she must have cost him a fortune.The houri bowed, her small hands clasped together as if in prayer. “It is an honor to be summoned to serve you, Master of Neith.” She had a pretty voice, high and sweet.A strangled sound reached his ears. When he looked, Martise was busy clearing the dishes away from the table, her head bowed and face turned away. The grace she usually exhibited had deserted her, and she stacked bowls with a clumsy rattle. He looked to Gurn whose withering stare threatened to immolate him on the spot.Silhara nodded to the houri in greeting and motioned for Gurn to join him in a far corner of the room.“Have you lost your mind?” he snapped in a low voice. “I sent you to the Temple of the Moon for a houri who wouldn’t have the pox. What did you do, ask for the most expensive prostitute in the brothel?”Gurn’s snide smile confirmed his suspicion.Silhara saw red. “You insolent bastard. I’m tempted to load her in the wagon and make you take her back. But that’s what you want, isn’t it? Well, tonight you can just sit in this kitchen and chew on the idea that I’m upstairs fucking away two months worth of food for us.”He didn’t think it possible to sign sewage-sucking-excuse-of-a-baseborn-bilge-rat but somehow Gurn managed. Silhara was interrupted from further snarling by Martise addressing the houri.“I am Martise, adané, servant and apprentice here. If you’ll follow me, I’ll show you to the room I’ve prepared for your stay.”Silhara’s gut burned, both at her polite address to the houri and the fact she’d cleaned that room not knowing its intended use. Gurn's low growl highlighted his disgust. He stalked past the women and out of the kitchen. The houri smiled and inclined her head at Silhara as Martise led her to the stairs. Martise never looked at him.Left alone in the kitchen and feeling lower than a maggot, he fled to the grove and vented his frustration on the wasp nests sheltered in the trees, freezing or burning them with spells that made his head ache when he finished.When dinner was called, he sat at the table and stared at the culinary horror on his plate. Only his meal was a disaster, a nearly inedible concoction of pork burned to a slab of black coal and watery grain mush with all the taste of a stick of furniture. Gurn sat as far from him on the bench as he could without falling off the edge and glared at him as if he was an insect he’d like to smash under his shoe and smear across the floor for good measure. Martise refused to look up from her plate. She ate methodically, asked their guest about her trip to Neith then fell silent.Only the houri, who’d introduced herself as Anya, didn’t treat Silhara as a pariah. She smiled, complimented him on Neith’s ancient beauty, the comforts of her room and the solicitousness of his servants.Silhara shoved the mess around on his plate with his knife before finally giving up. He stood and met Anya’s gaze. “When you’re finished, go to your room. I’ll meet you there.”Back in his chamber, he prepared the huqqah and smoked the bowl down to its dregs. Martise. The smiling woman who’d emerged from a cocoon of cautious passivity to laugh and joke with him, touch his arm and offer the fire of her kiss was gone. In her place, a shard of ice had sat across from him and eaten her dinner as if the world beyond her plate had ceased to exist. She hadn’t raised her eyes long enough to see the pity in Gurn’s gaze, but he had, and his chest tightened.“You are Conclave,” he muttered around a ribbon of smoke. “You serve the will of the priests. I am your mentor. You are my apprentice. Nothing more.” If he said it enough, he might begin to believe it.He shed his clothes, bathed and changed into a loose tunic. Barefoot, he made his way to the guest chamber Martise prepared. The houri smiled when she saw him. Draped in her transparent silks, she reclined on the bed in a pose contrived to show her considerable charms to their best advantage. She rose, her hips swaying seductively as she came up against him and draped her slender arms over his shoulders.“What would you have of me? I am yours tonight.”She was soft and supple in his arms. Despite his disquiet and the resounding disapproval of his actions from the rest of his small household, desire rose within him. He embraced her, running his hands down her back to cup her rounded buttocks.The unexpected scent of kohl and vermillion struck his nostrils. He’d expected orange flower and soap. He paused. Anya’s long hair brushed his hands, and he imagined it russet instead of black. She stirred in his embrace, bumping his groin gently, widening her stance so that his cock nestled against the silk covering her cunnus. A low moan hung trapped in his throat when her small hand slid between them to cup him. Nimble fingers played over his erection, his bollocks, caressing him through the long tunic.He nuzzled her neck, trailing kisses down the side of her jaw. Her bottom filled his hands, rounded and firm. She was lush curves, soft breasts and skilled hands. Still, a chill thread ran through him—a detachment, as if his mind acted independent of his body and watched their play with amused boredom. His cock wanted her. His mind did not.Frustrated, seeking the fire that licked at his limbs when he held another in his arms, Silhara pulled away. An idea came to him, one that might have the houri looking strangely at him. No matter. She was paid to please him, whatever his pleasure.The cracked mirror leaning against the opposite wall was enormous, a luxury bought by a previous master of Neith generations earlier. Despite the damage, it was still an impressive piece and reflected the candlelight in its clear face. He ignored Anya’s puzzled expression and turned her to face the mirror.They made a striking pair, both dark-haired and flushed by the heat of their embrace. He loomed behind her, tall and austere. By contrast, she was small and sensually beautiful. She reminded him of the fragrant flowers blooming at the coast in shades of pink, orange and brilliant magenta. That puzzled look changed to one of trepidation when Silhara gestured and the air rippled around her.He placed his hands on her shoulders. “I mean you no harm. This is only temporary. Watch.”His hand passed over her face, leaving a silver aura in its wake. The aura shimmered around her, transforming, lightening Anya’s hair to russet, altering her features until her beauty was gone, and she looked oddly out of place in her colorful silks. The houri touched her face. Her eyes, now copper instead of emerald, widened in panic. She whimpered.Silhara caressed her hair. “Peace, woman. This is nothing more than a mask. An illusion. It will fade in a few hours or sooner if I break the spell.”Her shoulders sagged in relief, and her changed eyes closed for a moment. When she opened them and smiled, all his pent-up hunger broke free. She was Martise. Silhara slid his arms around her slim waist and brought her back against him. His hands splayed dark over her jeweled bodice, and he itched to rip the contraption off her.Anya’s eyes met his in the mirror. “She doesn’t know, does she? That you desire her? Want her above all others.”She faced him, and he put a finger to her lips. “Shhh. Don’t speak. There are things of beauty even my magic cannot recreate.”She arched in his arms, sinuous and graceful while he removed her silks and allowed her to peel off his tunic. Her hands were practiced at touching just the right places, in just the right ways to bring the greatest pleasure. He stroked her breasts, her buttock, and slid his fingers over the smooth curve of her shaved cunnus. He didn’t kiss her mouth, nor she his. He knew the way of hourin. They might use their mouths in ways that defied or horrified the imagination, but they never kissed the men—or women—they serviced on the mouth.He guided her to the bed and lay down. She rose above him, bent and plied tongue and hands to his body, stroking and licking. For several minutes he bore her touch and watched her long brown hair flow over his belly and thighs as she kissed a path to his cock. That first burn of desire, when he’d transformed her features, had guttered. He was a fair illusionist, but it wasn’t enough. The houri might wear Martise’s face for a brief time, but she wasn’t Martise. She smelled different, felt different, moved different. Even staying silent didn’t help, and the fantasy he tried to play out in this room crumbled.Silhara drew up his knees and gently pushed Anya’s head away from his softening erection. “Enough,” he said and drew her up so that she lay against his side. “I am undone.”Frustration, lust, need; they all ran high in his blood, but not for the woman sharing the bed with him. He stared at the ceiling, wondering if Gurn had locked away his already decimated bottle of Peleta’s Fire. If he couldn’t find surcease in a prostitute’s willing body, he’d find it in the oblivion of another bout of drunkenness.He glanced at Anya when she rose on one elbow and hovered over him. The longer he gazed, the less she looked like Martise, and the spell was still firmly in place. Her eyes were sympathetic, but the soul behind them was not Martise’s.“May I speak?”He nodded.She took his hand, pressed his palm against her cheek. “She is more than this face. You crave what no sorcery nor hourin trick can create. Your illusions and my skills are for naught. I’m not the woman you want.”Her words brought home the depth of his yearning. He closed his eyes, fighting down sheer terror. She kissed his hand. He opened his eyes and laid a finger across her perfect lips.“If you say anything, I’ll cut out your tongue.” His words lacked any bite, though he meant every word of his threat. Martise had unmanned him before a houri, and she wasn’t even here. He’d be damned and Anya dead before he let such humiliation become fuel for snickering gossip at the marketplaces.Anya’s eyebrows arched in amusement. “I wouldn’t be the Houri Prime at the Temple if I told tales of the bedchamber.”If the fiasco of his thwarted desire hadn’t already killed his erection, her statement regarding her status would have done so. Silhara groaned in agony.“Ah gods, how much did you cost me?”She told him, and he groaned louder. Rising, he dressed, revoked the illusion and instructed her to dress as well. She waited for him at the door while he snuffed candles and doused one of the lanterns. He took the remaining lit one and guided her into the corridor and down the stairs to the first floor. Standing before the closed door of the chamber off the side of the kitchen, he rapped sharply and waited. The door opened. Gurn, wide-eyed, naked and holding a cudgel in one hand, greeted them.Silhara smirked. “Well, aren’t you a sight? And here I thought it was me and my reputation that chased visitors away from Neith.” He didn’t give Gurn time to digest his sudden appearance at his door. Instead he pulled Anya in front of him and nudged her across the threshold.Gurn’s eyes went round and wide as dinner plates. Anya whistled, her admiring gaze noting all his endowments.Silhara hid his amusement behind a frown. “You best enjoy her. She’s your dinner for the next two months.” His eyes narrowed. “And if you ever serve me slop like you served tonight, I’ll hang your carcass from the biggest orange tree and let the crows strip you to the bone.”He strode back toward the kitchen, smiling faintly. At least one of them would enjoy so costly a gift. The smile died. He intended to spend a lonely night in his room, burning a bowl of tobacco and cursing the apprentice who’d brought him low before a prostitute.He looked up, into the blackness of the third floor stairwell and wondered if she slept. Shadows clotted behind him, trailed his feet as he continued up the stairs and down the hall to his room.
Exhausted from loving her throughout the night, he’d dragged her on top of him and promptly fallen asleep. His rest wasn’t peaceful. Violent dreams made him flail in the bed, and twice Martise narrowly avoided a blow when he lashed out, battling some invisible demon. She considered retreating to her room where she could sleep without being pummeled but abandoned the idea. Whatever dark thoughts plagued the Master of Crows in his nightmares, she wouldn’t leave him alone with them.He finally quieted, his stillness interrupted by an occasional muttered curse and the soft rhythm of snoring. Martise had sighed her relief and curled against his side. Sleep didn’t come easily for her. She’d mulled over Silhara’s restlessness, the subtle shift in his behavior since they’d returned to Neith.She’d noted the change the morning they packed their gear and said their farewells to the Kurmans. She hadn’t asked what the sarsin discussed with him, and he held his silence on the matter. That silence lasted almost the entire trip back to Neith. Never jovial in the best of moods, he was even more distant. The few times he spoke to remark on their lunch or instruct her on how to set up their camp for the most protection, he’d been remote, barely acknowledging her presence.Martise was used to others ignoring her. But not him. His actions might have hurt save for the fact he touched her constantly on the return trip. She rode in front of him, and he kept a tight grip on her as he guided Gnat home. The one night they spent on the open plain, he held watch while she slept. She’d awakened to find him running his thumb and finger over her braid as if it were a strand of prayer beads.They’d been back at Neith for a day, and he remained taciturn and distracted. Even when he’d taken her so passionately the previous night, he said little, though his dark eyes burned when he gazed upon her. He slept now, oblivious to her movements. Or so she thought.“You needn’t tiptoe. I’m awake.”The leine slipped from her fingers at his voice. She bent to retrieve it, wincing again. “Forgive me. I tried to be quiet.”“I hurt you.”She paused. Had he seen her flinch in the dark? His eyesight was exceptional. He moved sure-footed through Neith’s lightless corridors, but she’d thought it nothing more than a natural grace combined with the familiarity of his domain. Those shrewd black eyes missed very little.She smiled and shrugged the thin leine over her head. “I didn’t notice at the time. And I probably left a bruise or two on you as well.”“Come here.” His voice was no less commanding for its quiet raspiness. Blankets rustled, and he sat up.Standing patiently between his splayed knees, Martise studied his austere face in the pallid light slowly filling the room. Dark circles ringed his eyes, revealing a lassitude that went deeper than muscle and bone. His warm fingers tugged at her leine, lifting the hem until her legs were once more exposed to the chilly air. She gasped softly at his touch, the trickle of heat fluttering over her skin as he caressed the bluish marks on her hipbones and inner thighs. “I didn’t mean these.”Reawakened desire raced through her when he placed a light kiss where thigh curved into hip. “I know.”He leaned his forehead into her belly. “Say my name.”Martise swallowed down the knot lodged in her throat. Something was horribly wrong. The volatile sorcerer who captured a storm, ridiculed a god and spat in Conclave’s collective face, sat before her, a weary pilgrim seeking succor in her embrace.“Silhara.” His hair slipped through her fingers in an inky cascade as she stroked his head. His name slid off her tongue, and she savored the feel. She loved his name, the grace of it in her mouth, the sound of it on her ears. In old Coastal, his name meant Unconquered, and the man who bore the name lived up to it in every sense.She cupped his jaw, tilting his face so she could look in his eyes. His cheeks were rough with a day’s growth of beard, and his lips were still swollen from her enthusiastic kisses the night before. He sighed when she ran her thumbs lightly over his cheekbones. “You slept poorly and chased demons in your dreams. What troubles you?”A faint smile curved his mouth and was gone. “I don’t have to sleep to chase demons, Martise.” Long fingers drifted gently over the back of her thighs. “You worry over nothing. I’ve had more than my share of bad nights.” He dropped the hem of her leine.Not like this. At least not since she’d come to share his bed. He didn’t sleep many hours, but when he did, he slept hard and was as still as death in her arms. Last night was far different, and Martise sensed the sarsin’s words, whatever they were, weighed heavily on Silhara’s thoughts. The warning gleam in his eyes told her not to pursue it further.She stood in his loose embrace for several moments, content to simply stroke his hair while he pressed his cheek against her stomach. The clatter of pans and the bang of the bailey door downstairs signaled Gurn’s arrival in the kitchens.“I have to go downstairs and help Gurn. He burned his hand on a hot pot yesterday and will be clumsy for a few days with his bandages. Do you need anything from me?” She was reluctant to leave him.The folds of her leine muffled his chuckle. “Can you give me salvation?”The strange question sent another bolt of dread through her. “No.”“Then tea will do.” He pulled away from her, swatting her lightly on the bottom. A grim humor hardened his smile. “I’ll see you and Gurn in the kitchen. And tell him I’ll want a look at that burn.”She and Gurn were almost finished with breakfast when Silhara finally made an appearance. Clean-shaven but still haggard, he sat at his customary place and proceeded to drink three pots of tea without saying a word. A sidelong glance from Gurn, and Martise shook her head. Silhara had been pensive in the privacy of his chamber. Now he was dour with storm clouds gathering in his eyes. The oranges sat untouched in their bowl, another oddity. Only once had she seen him forego the ritual of eating his two oranges, and that was due to a stomach still roiling from the effect of Peleta’s Fire.“Do you not want the oranges this morning?”His black gaze glittered. “Not today.” He looked to Gurn, busy at the hearth stoking the fire. “Gurn, show me your hand.”After inspecting the burn and reciting a spell to ease the pain, Silhara pronounced the wound on the mend. He was rewrapping it when Martise interrupted him.“You can use me to heal him, can’t you?” She caught Gurn’s puzzled expression.“No.”Stunned, she stared at him wide-eyed. He lied outright. They both knew the combination of her Gift and his skill could heal Gurn’s hand. Why would he not help his most trusted servant?“But…”“Martise!” His voice, ruined by the garroting, managed to boom in the kitchen. “You forget yourself. I said no.”Outrage at his surprising callous treatment toward Gurn almost overrode twenty-two years of servitude. She clenched her teeth against the words rushing to her lips and finally bit out “Forgive me, Master.”Her lungs burned with the need to shout at him. Martise kept her gaze firmly on the floor, assuming the long-standing posture of servant to master. The kitchen’s quiet pounded in her ears, tense and humming with a silent anger. She jumped when Silhara suddenly grasped her arm and yanked her toward the door leading to the great hall.“The library. Now.”He hauled her up the stairs and down the hall, his grip unyielding on her wrist. Martise hurried to keep up with his long strides. The library door banged against the opposite wall and Silhara thrust her inside. A cold fire flickered in his gaze as he slammed the door behind him.“Your Gift is a danger to everyone here, Martise. If Gurn knows of your particular talent, my willingness to remain silent about it means nothing. Conclave will do whatever it has to in order to get the information it wants.” He paced in front of her. “I can withstand any seer-bonding a Conclave priest might subject me to. They’ll learn nothing and may well kill us both for the effort. Gurn, however, isn’t Gifted and doesn’t have the means to resist a bonding. Do you think if they can’t interrogate the master, they won’t interrogate the servant? Being mute will not guard all his secrets. And where will you be if they learn of yours?”Her face heated. All this time living with Silhara and Gurn, she should have realized Silhara would have good reason to let his servant and friend suffer his wound. “I’m sorry, Silhara.”His expression softened. “No need to apologize. I don’t fault you for your compassion, only your indiscretion.” He walked to the table where her notes were neatly stacked next to the old pages they rescued from Iwehvenn. “If Conclave were to seer-bond with Gurn, it would be to glean information about me, not you. But if they discover some hint of your talent in his memories, they’ll pursue it.” The look he gave her from the corner of his eye was amused. “You have no reason to suspect Conclave the way I do. I’d wonder at your caution if you did.”Martise’s shoulders sagged in relief. “I’m more concerned about Gurn. I’d never deliberately hurt him.”“I know.”Ancient parchment crackled under his fingers as he flipped them gently over and stared at the writing. “The Helenese make heroes of those who would make them fools.”She came to stand beside him, bemused by his cryptic remark. The Helenese script was burned on the back of her eyelids by now. She’d read the documents dozens of times, searching for something more in the story of Amunsa that might be applied to defeating Corruption. “I don’t know that these papers have helped. The ancient Conclave who first exiled Corruption used a very similar ritual, but it wasn’t enough to kill him. Maybe the kings were able to destroy Amunsa because he wasn’t as strong.”Silhara’s next statement surprised Martise. “Without these papers, Karduk’s information would be useless.” He smiled faintly at her wide-eyed stare. “When the Kurman were greater in number and more powerful, they were ruled by a single sarsin. One who claimed his place through fratricide instead of election.”Martise waited, intrigued. She knew little of Kurman history but found it fascinating, even without its ties to the Helenese documents. Silhara continued.“The sarsin was powerful and united the tribes for a short time under his rule. He was also a sorcerer, as skilled as any Conclave bishop in the ways of magery and unafraid to invoke the dark arcana. But such gifts weren’t enough. He sought more through any means, sent spies far and wide to find the secrets of other peoples. He even sacrificed two of his consorts and a half dozen of his children to gain more power.”“Gods.” She shuddered at the thought of such monstrous acts.Silhara flipped more of the parchment, stopping at the last page describing Amunsa’s death. A long finger traced the mysterious symbol next to Birdixan’s name. “That was his goal. To be a god. He was no different from the lich of Iwehvenn except he was moved by a craving to rule a world. The soul eater was moved by a fear of death and embraced something far worse.”“Then why would he help the northern kings defeat Amunsa?”“There was nothing left for him. The tribes rose against him, banishing him and his remaining wives from Kurman territory. They had no place to go but north. The one thing he’d sought most of his life he found in exile and by accident.”Martise rubbed the chills on her arms. “The Kurman should have killed him instead of exiling him.”Silhara gave a dark, humorless chuckle. “You’re not alone in your opinion. His name was Berdikhan, and he fooled the kings into thinking he was a pilgrim traveler, a man of great power who sought their good will by helping them destroy Amunsa.”Martise gasped and snatched the stack of parchment from Silhara. She shifted through the pages and laid out those with Birdixan’s name mentioned. “Berdikhan. Birdixan. I missed it. The Helenese have no equivalent for the hard sound in his name. For example, Cumbria would be written as 'Xumbria.' I should have seen it.”He shrugged. “I don’t see how. You can flounder your way through a sentence when speaking Kurmanji, but how would you know to make such a connection? The Kurmans have never put their language in script. You had nothing to compare.”She appreciated his support but still cursed her folly. One document made her pause. “This piece says he swallowed the god. I can only think that’s willing possession.”“It is. Berdikhan believed himself strong enough to not only harness the god long enough for the kings to entrap him, but also to take the god’s power for his own.”“Become the god and destroy the kings.”“Yes. But he overestimated his strength in that regard and his cleverness. The kings knew what he intended.”“Still, they remember him as a hero in these passages, not a traitor. Why?”Silhara lips curved into a faint smile. “People are less inclined to praise you if they know someone almost made a fool of you.”Martise met his gaze, impressed. Silhara was an astute observer of human nature. That talent alone made him formidable, even without his magic to strengthen him. She flipped back through the parchment to the last one showing the symbol next to Birdixan’s name. “Did Karduk know anything about this symbol?”“No.”She paused to stare at him. Nothing in his demeanor betrayed him. He met her eyes calmly, kept his body turned to hers, wide shoulders relaxed. But her instincts fluttered their disquiet. Silhara was lying. He knew something about that symbol and chose to keep it from her.She kept her suspicions to herself for the moment. “What will you tell Conclave?”A subtle shift in his stance signaled his relief when she abandoned the subject of the symbol. “Everything I’ve just told you. As repulsive as we may all view it, I need the priests, and they need me if they want to defeat Corruption.”Conclave could definitely use Silhara in ritual. Not only was he talented, he was young and physically strong. Magic and strength depended on each other in ritual spells. However, she didn’t believe Conclave trusted him enough to invite him to a god-killing.“They’ll refuse your help.”“No, they won’t.”She helped him stack the parchment together, musing aloud on the ritual. “The strongest priest would have to act as Berdikhan to hold Corruption so the others might destroy him.” She shook her head, puzzled. “Some of the younger bishops are powerful enough to do it, but I know of none willing to martyr themselves.”Silhara’s eyebrows rose. “Don’t be so sure. There’s always some idiot willing to sacrifice himself for fame and glory. Immortality through martyrdom isn’t all that unusual.”He placed his hand over hers as she continued to fiddle with the parchment. “Enough for now. I need to write a letter to the Luminary. I’m sure Gurn can keep you occupied until midday?”The strange disquiet wouldn’t leave her. He held something from her. She heard it in his voice, felt it in the tension of his body next to hers. “Silhara…”“Later, Martise.”He swept out of the library, leaving her to trail after him, sick with a sense of dread.Distracted by thoughts of her conversation with Silhara, she said little to Gurn as she spent the morning helping him with chores. Her stomach continued churning with unease. Silhara hated Conclave, had made no secret of his loathing for the priesthood. If she were honest, she sympathized with his enmity. But what if he wanted to take on the role of Berdikhan? Suds dripped from her hands as she clutched a dirty dish and stared, unseeing, at the soapy water. Silhara’s survival instincts were honed too sharp for him to willingly give his life for such a cause, but he might well succumb to the temptation of vengeance. He might not die for a world, but would he do so for his own hatred?“Ah, gods,” she murmured. “What are you up to, Silhara?” She’d come to Neith for the purpose of betraying him, to send him to a different death. But that had been when the temptation of her freedom overrode the morality of her soul, and when Silhara of Neith was nothing more than a means to an end. Everything had changed since then. Even if he’d never discovered her Gift or she’d witnessed a hundred traitorous acts on his part, she wouldn’t betray him. Dour and scornful, yet generous and loyal to his own, he’d taken her heart and made her love him. “You must live for me,” she said softly. “Don’t make my sacrifice an empty one.”She’d talk to him, beg him if necessary if such were his plans. Her hope lay with the priests. Silhara might offer to act as Berdikhan, but the priests weren’t like the northern kings. They didn’t trust the Master of Crows. The idea that they might allow him to participate in the ritual at all was far-fetched. Allowing him to act as the key player was out of the question.At midday, Martise and Gurn ate their lunch in the kitchen without Silhara. Shut in the downstairs study since morning, he hadn’t emerged at the tempting fragrance of Gurn’s soup. Gurn loaded a tray with a deep bowl filled with broth, two loaves of bread and a pitcher of wine. Martise, desperate to speak with Silhara once more, quickly volunteered to take the tray to him.The study door was open partway, allowing strands of light to ripple along the corridor’s dark walls. Martise balanced the tray of food on one shoulder and rapped on the door to announce her presence before crossing the threshold. She saw Silhara, not at the desk writing, but standing near the small window that looked out onto the grove. A dry zephyr wind, smelling of dust and orange blossom, swept inside. It spun through the room, shuffled parchments on the desk with unseen hands and played with Silhara’s dark hair before fading to a gentle sigh.Martise might have thought nothing of it, save for the welcome warmth it brought. The chamber was icy with a sepulchral chill that reminded her of the Conclave cemetery or worse–those brief moments before a summoner brought forth a demon. Fear scuttled down her spine.From somewhere in the house’s labyrinth of corridors and rooms, Cael set up a howl loud enough to raise the dead. Silhara remained at the window, ominously still. Martise tried to swallow and found her mouth dry as chaff. Every instinct screamed at her to run, to drop the tray and race for sanctuary. Sweat dotted her upper lip despite the numbing cold pouring through the doorway. She prayed he didn’t know she was there, dreaded what she might see when he finally turned and faced her.She eased back toward the hall’s shadows one step at a time. Gurn. She had to warn Gurn. Of what, she didn’t know, only that they were all in imminent danger, and the master of Neith had somehow become the greatest threat to their safety.Her cry echoed down the hall when an invisible force suddenly struck her in the back, shoving her farther into the room. She managed to twist away just in time to keep from shattering her nose against the door’s edge. The tray she carried flew out of her hand, tilting end over end, sending a shower of soup and wine splattering across every surface. Martise pitched forward, staggering until her hip struck the work table. She gripped its edges in an attempt to keep her footing on the now slick floor.The unseen hand abruptly ceased pushing her forward. Martise ran for the door, terror giving her feet wings. The crack of wood slamming against the frame buffeted her ears. She skidded in a puddle and fell against the door’s carved face. When she turned to face her adversary, Silhara had abandoned his place at the window and walked slowly toward her. Backlit by the sun’s red rays, he was no more than a lithe, sinister shadow.“We meet again, servant.”Martise gasped. Sweat ran in rivulets down her ribs despite the brutal cold glazing her skin. He was no longer hoarse. The rasp normally characterizing his speech gave way to a deep timbre as smooth as a silk strangling scarf. Whoever or whatever spoke to her was not Silhara of Neith.“Silhara?” The question fading on a choked breath as he drew closer, and she got a good look at his features.Still the hard face she knew and loved, all sharp planes and unforgiving angles, it had taken on a skeletal cast. His prominent cheekbones stood out in high relief, accentuating the sunken hollows beneath his eyes. He looked starved, drained of life and spirit. His eyes made her shrink against the door and edge her way along the wall. The whites of his eyes were gone, replaced by a solid black stare from which something inhuman and ancient gazed back at her.Silhara, or the thing inhabiting his body, looked upon her with unblinking curiosity, much as a viper waiting to strike. Her teeth chattered, and a faint whimper escaped her lips. He cocked his head, nostrils flaring as if to catch the scent of her terror. His actions reminded her of the way Corruption acted when it first entered her room as a white and faceless abomination.He kept pace with her as she slid along the back wall in a futile attempt to keep distance between them. “He craves you.” Long fingers reached out to skate along her collarbone. She flinched at the touch. “Why? You have no beauty to speak of.” He leaned into her, drawing a deep breath against her neck. “Still, there is something within you—unique, appetizing. Something unafraid.”Horror nearly blotted out all reason, and she lunged away from him—or tried to, only to be held fast in place. Her Gift, buried within the deep recesses of her soul, twisted and turned in reaction.The power that had thrust her into the chamber now shackled her to the wall. Her heart thumped against her ribs. Over Silhara’s bent shoulder she glimpsed the window, the orange grove beyond etched in the shadow of a summer sun, and the dull star drawing ever closer on the horizon.Corruption had taken him, possessed the man whose ambitions and desires coincided with the will of the fallen god. Martise wanted to vomit. Her notions of slavery had been burned to ash more than once here at Neith. But this trumped them all. She had never known this form of bondage, singular and nightmarish. Her voice, thin and unsteady, begged for mercy. “Please. Release him. He won’t serve you willingly.”The god laughed softly in her ear, the dulcet tones raising the fine hairs at her nape. “I disagree. Silhara of Neith is willful and stubborn, but he is also ambitious. All those things he wishes for—power, respect, control—I can give him. He knows this. In time, he shall turn fully to me.”Martise did her best to melt into the stone wall against her back as Silhara straightened. His gaunt face filled her vision once more. The intense, passionate lover who had arched beneath her caressing hands the night before was gone, overwhelmed by an evil whose smile never reached the dead black eyes. He swept a hand down his body. “As you can see, he is nearly mine already.”Revulsion curdled the food in her stomach. “Your price for such rewards is too high.”“Not for him. He will have dominion over the world through me, wealth and immortality. And I will have the greatest avatar ever born, stronger than those before him. One who will lead my armies and conquer all before me.”Martise’s terror mingled with shock. Bursin’s wings! Silhara, the reborn avatar. And he knew. Surely, he knew. Tears of despair and rage made her vision swim. A lesser man might well serve Corruption, but not the Master of Crows. A man who refused to bow to Conclave would not submit as puppet to a god.Her lip curled as she stared into the god’s dead eyes. This was no creature worthy of deification, only a parasite with no greater wish than to yoke a world to serve its petty whims.“You’re mistaken.” She found some small measure of strength in the renewed steadiness in her voice. “He will not surrender to you. You’ve fed his temptation and turned him for a moment, but it won’t last.” She met the dark, reptilian gaze unflinchingly. “Release him. You are false and unworthy of either worship or Silhara’s servitude.”A flicker of something—uncertainty, doubt—chased a whirl of shadows in Silhara’s possessed gaze. He lashed out, fingers curving around her throat as he straight-armed her off the floor. There wasn’t even time to scream. She dangled in midair, choking and clawing at the hand slowly crushing the breath out of her.He was preternaturally strong, holding her aloft with ease, oblivious to her nails digging bloodied furrows into his hand. Her feet kicked in a desperate bid to find some purchase as black spots danced in her vision. Her struggles were rewarded when her foot connected with something soft. Silhara’s calculating expression never changed. The force of her blow, which should have brought him to his knees, had no effect, filled as he was with the god’s power.He tightened his hold slowly, his mouth curving into another brittle, calculating smile. “You will have the honor of being my first condemned heretic.”Her vision grayed. Her air-starved lungs burned in her chest. Somewhere, in the fading threads of her consciousness, she heard the sound of running feet, the frantic barking of a dog. The wall behind her vibrated as the door shook on its hinges from a relentless pounding. Gurn and Cael come to save them both. Too late, her mind whispered. Too late.“Please,” she prayed in choked silence. “Help me.”A god didn’t answer, but her Gift did. Released from her control, it surged out of her, bathing her and Silhara in amber light. A powerful wrench snapped her head against the wall as Silhara lost his grip. Invisible hands lifted him off his feet and slammed him across the room. He crashed into the desk, hard enough to overturn it.Martise hit the floor in a gasping, gagging heap. She struggled to take one, two precious gulps of air before rolling to her back. The ceiling spun above her in a shimmering sea, and the pounding at the door was a monstrous heartbeat in her ears. She turned on her side and saw Silhara.Slumped against the overturned desk, he looked like a broken doll. His head was lowered, shoulders sagging as if Corruption had suddenly cut the strings that held him a prisoner puppet. Blood streaked from his nose and down his mouth. Drops splashed on his hands, mingling with the blood seeping from the wounds she’d gouged into his skin.She sucked in a pained breath and crawled to him, terrified that Corruption still held sway but desperate to reach him. Her sigh of relief scorched her throat when Silhara raised his head and blinked slowly. His eyes, bloodshot and nearly crossed, were human again. Tears dripped from her cheeks, mingling with the blood on his hands. Martise touched his nose, his mouth and kissed his forehead. She tried to speak, to thank more merciful gods that he was whole again, but she was mute, her voice lost from his strangle hold. Silhara stared at her, dazed. His lips parted. Suddenly, what little color he still retained drained from his skin. His mouth opened in a rictus of pain, and he clutched the place between his legs. Martise backed away when he keeled onto his side and curled into a fetal position, gasping in wordless agony.
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If you enjoyed MASTER OF CROWS, you may like HEART OF FIRE by Kristen Painter: http://www.amazon.com/Heart-Of-Fire-ebook/
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