Leona R Wisoker: Secrets of the Sands (excerpt)

Secrets of the SandsSecrets of the Sands

Leona R. Wisoker

 

Hee-ay, hee-ay: the cry of the water-seller in the broad and the narrow places; shass-shass-shass, the warning signal to clear a road for noble blood, be it one or many together.  Iiii, iii-sass, iii-sass, the wailing of a merchant who protested his certain ruin—with overtones of castration—should he lower the price any further. To Idisio’s sensitive ears, the cacophony resembled a melodic pattern that steered him, unerringly, to the best possible target.

At the height of his madness, the previous king had issued a decree forbidding residents of Bright Bay to speak anything but the common northern tongue. Two months later he had died of less than natural causes. Whether that absurd law had been the final wring on a mad asp-jacau’s tail would never be known; rumor said the new ruler, now six months on the throne, still worked day and night to untangle the mess left behind by his predecessor.

Idisio listened for more than words, in whatever language, as he worked his way through the cobbled, paved, and sand-gravel streets of BrightBay. The most important sounds of the city had nothing to do with speech. The clink of a full purse at the side of a foolishly confident merchant meant meals for the next few nights. The solid crunch of guard boots nearby meant seek cover: although the worst had quickly been culled under the new regime, changes in permitted behavior were slow to filter to the street level. But hisses and whistles were more important than any of those. They served as coded warnings from the other thieves scattered throughout the city.

A strident whistle from a rooftop lookout could save Idisio’s life: while no true organization of thieves existed in Bright Bay, no one thief could ever hope to keep track of all the powerful people that moved through this sprawling city. The open warning, given by those who knew to those who didn’t, was a traditional obligation that only the most foolish newcomers to the trade ignored.

Idisio had grown up on these streets and survived the recently-ended madness that had temporarily given Bright Bay the nickname “Blood Bay.” Those thief-calls had saved his life many times, and he’d passed on as many warnings; but many thieves, along with nobles, commoners, and priests, had fallen during the last weeks of Mad Ninnic’s reign.  While the worst of the madness had passed, the streets would never be safe for Idisio unless he found a more respectable—and legal—trade.

He considered that as likely as an asp-jacau meowing.

As he slid between fat and thin, clean and unwashed, his breath clogged with the hot smell of a crowded southern city on a summer day. A light touch on a thick wallet bound at a man’s side prompted a certainty: gold. Not the half-rounds he normally counted himself lucky to get, but uncut disks of gold, more than one, many more. Idisio always knew, just from a touch, if the purse held anything worth taking; other thieves, seeing him withdraw from a mark empty-handed, had learned to steer clear themselves.

Idisio decided that any man foolish enough to carry gold in an outside purse deserved to lose it all. He reached, fingertip-knives busy, and had three of the four strings cut before another breath had passed.

Too late, he heard the warning: tee-tee-tee-awrk! tee-tee-tee-awrk! The loud, insistent call resembled that of a common sea-bird, but that particular bird never strayed this far from the docks proper. One of the roof lookouts was sending an urgent, if belated, “stay-clear,” and with the intuition that had kept him alive so far, Idisio knew he was the one being warned.

He started to slide away into the crowd, but found his wrist gripped in the mark’s hand, a larger and harder one than his own. He followed the line of the arm up. Dark, hawk-hard eyes glared at him from a narrow face containing a sharply hewn nose, bronze skin, and thin lips— reason enough for the tardy warning.

Old blood was in that face; desert blood, noble blood—definitely someone to stay well and truly away from. Idisio had never before been so stupid as to grab a purse without checking the appearance of the mark for danger signs first; but it only took one mistake, and this had been it.

“My lord,” Idisio said, caught without escape. He reached for an excuse, an apology, anything that would loosen that deadly dangerous grip and give him just a moment to run like he’d never run in his life.

The grip tightened, grinding the bones of Idisio’s wrist together; the very real prospect of death right here and now ran cold down his back. The slender finger-blades fell from his hand, landing on the paving stones with a distant clink.

Something about the noble’s touch sparked his erratic intuition: He won’t kill me. The surety faded, though, when he looked up into the man’s dark stare.

“Who sent you after me?” the noble demanded.

Idisio ran through a rapid list of names in his head, searching for one that might get the grip on his wrist released in a moment of fear. In the face of that desert-hot glare, he could only say, “Nobody, my lord.” He wouldn’t put his worst enemy in the path of that stare. And he didn’t have any names that might rattle this man.

“Liar,” the noble said, pulling Idisio a step closer, thin lips stretching back. “Who?”

“What’s going on here?”

For the first time in his life, Idisio blessed the arrival of the white-robed guards. There were four in this patrol, all carrying the thick staves of their office. At their side, an asp-jacau, tall and narrow, raised its thin snout and sniffed at the air, head tilted to allow one pale blue eye to study him.

Idisio let out a gasping breath of relief. Asp-jacaus only went out with King’s Guards. Even a southern noble had to respect them. But the man holding Idisio either didn’t know that or didn’t care.

“Just a pick-thief,” he said briefly.

“We’ll handle it.”  A guard’s hand landed on Idisio’s shoulder from behind, closing into a hard grip that pinched a tender spot; Idisio hissed and flinched. The fingers dug in deeper, and Idisio squirmed, praying he wasn’t dealing with an unculled “Ninnic’s Guard”.

The noble didn’t loosen his hold, either. “I claim justice-right.”

“But—”

“I’m summoned to the king. Argue my right with the king. Argue the time with the tide that goes by. Let us pass!”

Idisio felt his bladder weaken, and clamped down just in time. He’d never had that extreme of a reaction before, but this mistake could cost his life.

Claiming justice-right marked the man as a full desert lord. They didn’t consider themselves subject to any kingdom laws. Many of them offered no term of courtesy beyond “lord” to the king himself.

And he had heard that desert lords, when angry, tended to take their price in blood . . . slowly. Idisio might be better off with a potentially sadistic guard after all.

But his odd intuition insisted: He won’t kill me. This is a good thing happening.

Idisio wondered if he were losing his mind.

The guards gave way. The desert lord yanked Idisio forward. He trotted at the man’s side, wrist bones no longer in danger of breaking but still held bruisingly tight.

“Give me no trouble,” the noble said. “I’m not in the mood for it.”

“You’re hurting me,” Idisio whined, deciding to give pathos a try, and dragged his step.

“I just saved you a notch on the ear at the least,” the noble snapped, with no change in pressure. “You’ll live through a bruise or two. Hurry up; I’ll drag you if I have to.”

Idisio matched the man’s pace, feeling like a child against the noble’s towering height and determined stride. He said, desperate now, “Nobody sent me, my lord. I swear.”

“I’ll ask of you later,” the noble said ominously. His pace quickened yet again; Idisio jogged at his side and soon had no breath to protest further.

They swept through areas of increasing wealth, where Idisio had never dared move so openly. Plain clothes gave way to fine silks; brightly painted merchant stalls replaced worn storefronts. Horses stepped delicately through the corridors that opened for them in any crowd. Idisio even glimpsed the distinctive purple, gold, and black tabard of a King’s Rider, honored emissary and royal news-bearer throughout the kingdom.

Spaces grew wider as they neared the palace grounds, the heart of BrightBay. This area was no less sprawling than the rest of the city. It boasted seventeen gates into the grounds proper; at least fifteen noble families lived inside the miles of costly iron fence, along with enough merchants and storehouses to make the palace a small city in its own right.

The noble headed for the Crown Gate. Gold had been cast in great loops around the grim iron bars, decorated further with river-opal, diamonds, and bits of moon-shell—not particularly attractive, except to a thief skilled at prying gems from their settings. The guards protecting this gate stood sentry as much to keep that from happening as to ward against intrusion.

The noble went forward as if intending to simply walk right through the open gates, ignoring the guards and horizontally lowered pikes in his way. He stopped at the last second, the shaft of a pike almost touching his chest. Idisio, staggering at the jarring halt, bumped into the pole.

“I’m summoned to the king,” the noble said, staring at the guards around him as if expecting them to bow on the spot.

“And this one?” The man wearing the white braid of command pointed at Idisio.

Idisio opened his mouth, hoping to get the guards to take him away from this madman. As his wrist bones tightened again, he abandoned the notion. He stood quietly, eyes downcast, gritting his teeth against the fire flowing from wrist to elbow to shoulder and neck. His hand began to go numb.

The grip loosened a little, just enough to allow prickling sensation to shoot through his hand.

“He’s mine,” the noble said briefly. “I’ll speak for him.”

A quick glance up showed the guards surveying him skeptically. He tried to look meek and innocent. Whether he succeeded or his captor’s obvious status dominated, the guards finally stepped aside and allowed them through.

The pace resumed, Idisio jogging along beside the long-legged stride.

“You needn’t hold me,” he said, darting a quick glance up to the noble’s stern face. “I couldn’t get anywhere; I’d be grabbed right away if you weren’t with me. I’ll stay with you, lord. I swear.”

The noble paused, considering. “Very well,” he said at last, and let go. “Mind, if you try to run. . . .” He lifted a corner of his tunic to show a pair of long-handled throwing knives with hilts of solid ebony.

Any hopes Idisio had of escape failed immediately.

“Yes, my lord,” he said humbly, his stomach once again queasy with fear. Only weapon-masters used ebony on their weapon hilts; this noble had to be one of the best knife throwers in or out of the kingdom to be carrying those at his side.

As blood rushed back into Idisio’s hand, the pain increased. Cradling the hurt arm in the other hand, the boy hurried obediently at the noble’s side, trying not to moan in agony even as he  gaped at the astounding sights unfolding around them.

They entered a wide space filled with flowerbeds and statues, fountains and benches where a strolling courtier might take his ease with his latest lady of favor. No smell of trash and marsh could be found here: instead, a faint breeze stirred up the scents of rosemary and roses, whitemusk flowers and tall, red-flowering sage.

Idisio breathed deeply, overwhelmed; he’d never known such luxury. Knowing it now, he fiercely wanted it for himself. The thought of returning to the streets and lifting half-rounds from an unfortunate’s purse seemed, suddenly, worthless as a worn wooden half-bit.  And that damned intuition kept nagging: This is a good thing happening. Stay with it.

Maybe he wasn’t losing his mind, after all. He started to sort through possible ways to stay in this magical place. Perhaps he could plead for a job, throw himself on the king’s mercy. Was he really going to be in front of the king? His step slowed as that thought fell on him with the force of a fish-eagle’s plunge. His knees wobbled, not wanting to carry him forward.

Even the noble’s pace eased as they moved through the cloud of scent shaken loose by the light wind. Eventually he took a deep breath and resumed his quick stride, not looking back to see if Idisio followed.

Idisio hurried to keep up, trotting along at the man’s side and keeping his eyes ahead as best he could. Moving too fast to properly focus on his surroundings, Idisio managed only a series of fleeting glimpses: silk curtains, elaborate tapestries, luxurious rugs, ornate chairs. He put a hand to his mouth, afraid he would start to drool with envy. They entered a series of hallways, turning this way and that, up and down short flights of stairs, until Idisio considered himself thoroughly and unusually lost.

Finally they stopped in front of a small grey door. Two guards with gold and silver braids looped on their sleeves watched as they approached, offering no challenge but also no welcome.  The noble made a polite motion of greeting and stared at the door as if expecting it to be opened for him.

“Lord Cafad Scratha,” he said briefly. “I’m expected.”

“Yes,” one of the guards said. “Go in.”

Idisio’s mouth dropped open. All tales he’d heard claimed Scratha Family had been wiped out almost twenty years ago; nobody knew why or by whom. Apparently one survivor hadn’t been worth mentioning. A complete slaughter must have made for a more dramatic story.

Looking sour, Scratha pushed open the door. It swung noiselessly inward, and they walked into the king’s presence.

Not into the throne room, as Idisio had expected, but a small apartment of sorts, filled with bright sunlight. Idisio glanced up, his jaw sagging once more. Thick panes of fine glass, some sand-cast, others clear, were set in the ceiling, arranged in an eight-pointed star pattern: the traditional king’s symbol. The display of wealth and power made the Crown Gate look cheap.

“Lord Oruen,” Scratha said.

Idisio brought his attention hastily down and sank to his knees in belated courtesy.

“Up,” Scratha said. “This is an informal audience.” His expression hardened as he looked back to the man across the room.

King Oruen stood easily as tall as Scratha and had the same eagle’s nose, dark hair, and narrow build. His skin seemed a lighter shade of bronze, his eyes round where Scratha’s held distinct angles. The royal robe hung neatly on a hook to one side; he wore a simple, if finely cut, outfit of blue and green cotton. If not for the robe and the “Lord Oruen” from Scratha, Idisio would have thought this man simply a high-ranking court official.

“Informal,” the king agreed. His dark eyes studied Idisio for a moment. “Is this boy needed?”

Without thought intervening, before Scratha could answer, Idisio found intuition speaking for him. “I stay with my lord, Sire.”

He couldn’t believe he’d said it, but there it was, and now both men were staring at him. King Oruen’s mouth quirked in what might have been amusement, while Scratha’s expression could have melted sand into glass. Idisio swallowed hard and tried to look sure of himself.

“Very well,” the king said, seeming to dismiss the matter.

With one last, ominous squint, Scratha let it go as well. Idisio realized he’d been holding his breath; he let it out as quietly as possible.

“Do you know what I’ve summoned you for, Cafad?”

“I imagine I’ve upset some petty courtier again.” Scratha sounded indifferent, but his hands curled into fists.

“No,” the king said. He looked at Idisio. “Do you like my solarium, boy?” He pointed to the glass overhead. “I saw you admiring it when you came in. It was Sessin Family’s gift to me, marking their acceptance of me as the new king in Bright Bay. They tore down the existing roof and replaced it with that in less than a tenday.”

Idisio glanced up again, then back to the king, confused.

“It’s wonderful, Sire,” he said. “It’s a marvel.”

“A marvel that could have been commonplace by now, if not for the Purge,” the king said, his gaze on the glass star overhead. “A wonder that should have, would have been, if the madness hadn’t destroyed hundreds of years of learning. Sessin now knows more about glasscraft than anyone north of the Horn. They’re in an excellent position for trade, on that basis alone. Quite a lot of money in glass, as I understand it. Quite a lot of tax revenue potential for the city they choose to set up their main trade shops in. And do I need to note that this gift also marks Sessin Family as my allies? That’s not something for a new king to take lightly, either.” He didn’t lower his gaze from the ceiling as he spoke.

Scratha’s face was tight as his fisted hands. “This is about Nissa.”

Lady Nissa, of Sessin Family.” The king at last turned his gaze back to Scratha. “She has some very livid bruises, Lord Scratha, and this isn’t the time of year for long sleeves.”

Cafad Scratha seemed to draw himself upright and compact, all at once.

The king said, “She claims you threw her into the street half-naked, bellowing that she was a whore.”

“It’s a good name,” Scratha said. “She’s Sessin.”

“She admits she should have told you,” the king said. “She was afraid of your obsession.”

Obsession?”

“That’s what it’s been named,” the king said, “and I agree. The girl did nothing, by her account, that gave cause to humiliate her like that. Can you give a good reason?”

Scratha looked mutinous. “She’s Sessin. I’ll have nothing to do with that family.”

“You’re a fool.” The king sat down with a heavy sigh. “I have to do something about this, Cafad. I won’t alienate my strongest supporters for your pride.”

“Your strongest supporters?” Scratha said, and while his volume stayed low, his tone was anything but mild. “Sessin’s a family of cowards. Their support means nothing. Less than nothing. I wouldn’t let one of their asp-jacaus near me, much less one of their women.”

If there had been any point to running, Idisio would already have been edging towards the door. He stood very still and hoped they wouldn’t notice his continuing presence.

“I know Sessin was involved in my family’s destruction,” Scratha said, “and gods save them when I find the proof to present to a desert court. And I will. I’ll find it! And then you’ll see—”

“Enough,” the king said, raising a hand. “None of the desert families had anything to do with your family’s slaughter. I won’t believe such a thing, and neither should you. You’re wasting your life on this. Find a good woman, of whatever family or line. Fill your fortress with the laughter of children instead of the wailing of ghosts.”

Scratha stood mute and straight, a hard line to his jaw and a darkness in his eyes.

The king looked at that grim, silent refusal and slowly shook his head. “I had hoped to talk you into apologizing to Nissa. I see that won’t happen.”

“No, Lord Oruen,” Scratha said. “That will never happen.”

“Sessin isn’t the only family you’ve upset lately, Cafad.”

“That’s desert lord business, Lord Oruen, and none of yours.”

“You’ve brought your squabbles into BrightBay, so it’s now become my business,” the king said just as sharply. He stood, and his tone changed to one of authority, one he might have used in front of a full audience in his throne room. “I have a task for you, Cafad Scratha.”

Idisio could feel roses and silks rapidly fading beyond any chance of his reach. He’d be lucky to live out his life in a dungeon alongside the man he’d foolishly claimed as lord. Twice in one day, intuition had failed him, and each time more disastrously.

“The royal library has been decimated since the time of Initin the Red,” the king went on. “I am of a mind to restock it. An accounting of the kingdom is sorely needed: history, current affairs, culture, religions, beliefs, and so on. Without such a guide, I’ll be hard put to pull order from the chaos I’ve been left. You’re a man of learning and intelligence; I place you in charge of compiling a modern history of this kingdom. I want tales of how the last two hundred years have affected the rest of the kingdom, especially the northern half.”

Scratha opened his mouth to speak, eyes narrowing.

The king stopped him with another imperious gesture. “Arason is of special interest to me, but be very careful; they’re a bit touchy at the moment.”

The two men locked stares.

“This task of yours will take years, if I agree to do it,” Scratha said. “If.”

“You’ll do this, Cafad Scratha,” the king said. “Or lose your access to BrightBay for the rest of your life.”

Scratha stared, seeming more puzzled than angry, for another moment, then shrugged and gave a sharp nod. “I’ll do the job.”

The king smiled without joy and shook a small silver hand bell. At the faint tinkling sound, a servant stepped through a side door half-hidden behind draperies, and stood, attentive and silent, waiting instruction.

“Settle Lord Scratha and his servant in a guest room,” the king directed. “When they’re ready, take them to see the steward regarding supplies and two horses.”

“I only need one horse, Lord Oruen,” Scratha said stiffly.

“What about your servant? Is he to run at your stirrup? Take two, and a pack-mule if you need one.”

Scratha turned a glare on Idisio.

“I don’t know that I’ll need a servant on this journey,” he said after a moment, turning a markedly more polite glance to the king. “I’ll move faster traveling alone, and I’m used to doing for myself. Taking this one on was . . . a whim. I’ll find another place for him, before I leave.”

Intuition prodding him hard, Idisio gave in, hoping for better results this time, and matched the desert lord’s quick recovery with his own before the king could speak.

“My lord, I’m no whim. Just the other day you said you couldn’t do without me! And I really don’t know what I’d do without you.”

“Take your servant along,” the king ordered before Scratha could speak. “He’ll come in handy, and he seems devoted to you: not something to toss aside lightly.”

“Indeed,” Scratha said.

Idisio shivered at the ice held in that single word, and wondered whether he’d made a very bad mistake after all.

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The wall crashed up behind Idisio, and his breath thumped from his lungs at the impact. Idisio rolled away from Scratha’s reaching hand and scrambled to his feet. Settling into a crouch,  weight on his toes, he kept his eyes fixed on Scratha.

“Wait,” he said, knowing it wouldn’t do any good. “Wait, my lord, please. . . .”

The man fairly steamed with fury. Idisio didn’t think Scratha would dare to kill him, since they both had the king’s notice now, but he suspected a hefty helping of bruises for his insolence loomed in the near future.

Idisio let the plea hang in the air and watched with intense relief as the madness slowly faded from Scratha’s eyes, leaving behind a simpler and safer version of that anger.

“I’ll ask you again,” Scratha said. “Who sent you?”

What the king had said helped Idisio understand the desert lord’s obsession, but made a convincing reply no easier to craft.

“Nobody, my lord,” Idisio said. “I’m just a simple street thief. I made a mistake, trying for your pocket.”

“And as a simple street thief you nailed yourself to my side in front of the king?” Scratha demanded.

Idisio lifted his hands in a helpless gesture. “It’s a better life than scrounging half-bits for a living, my lord; can you blame me for trying?”

“I don’t believe you.”

Idisio shrugged and straightened. “Will you take my service, my lord, or am I out on the streets again? If I go back on the street now, after walking into the palace by your side, I’ll be dead by nightfall.” An outright lie, which was dangerous with a desert lord; but it would resonate with the man’s paranoid fears.

Scratha stared at him, anger easing further, and finally said, “Very well.”

Idisio let out a very quiet sigh of relief through barely parted lips.

“Get your belongings, then, and meet me back here,” Scratha said, turning away.

Idisio thought back over his small, carefully hidden cache of possessions; nothing there worth the trip to gather. A small dagger, a ragged shirt, a worn pair of sandals, a handful of coin that looked pitiful next to what he hoped to make now—if Scratha intended to pay him as a servant rather than use him as a slave. It seemed worth the risk.

“I have nothing to get, my lord.”

“Sit quietly, then.”

The noble knelt at a low wooden desk, pulled a quill, ink, and three pieces of parchment from the shallow drawers as though he’d known they were there, and began to write. Not being able to read, Idisio could only guess; one looked like a list, the other like a letter to someone. Judging by the frequent pauses, a good deal of thought was going into the writing of both. The third took less time.

Idisio sank to the floor while Scratha wrote, grateful for the chance to rest. His bare feet were scuffed and aching from walking over so much unaccustomed stone. He normally kept to the sand and dirt paths of the city, but almost all of the trip to and through the Palace had been on paved roads and along hard stone corridors.

“Here’s your first task, then, servant,” Scratha said at last, rolling up two of the papers, note inside the list, and fastening a silk ribbon tightly around them. The longer letter he folded and pushed to one side. “Go with that man waiting outside and take these to the steward. They’re just supply lists and directions on what we’ll need,” he added, sounding impatient, as if Idisio had questioned him.

Idisio stood, feeling the weight on his feet as if he were made of lead more than flesh. “You’re not going, my lord?”

“No. I have other . . . tasks to do.”

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The steward was a thin, sharp-faced man of no readily-apparent bloodline and a sour demeanor. He stared at Idisio as if examining a particularly nasty bug.

“Eh . . . the servant to Lord Scratha, s’e,” the steward’s secretary murmured, then withdrew hastily.

The distasteful expression on the steward’s face intensified.

“No surprise,” he said, not standing, “that he’d take on such as you.” He held out a thin-boned hand on which veins looped and sprawled prominently against paper-dry skin. “Give me the list, then, don’t stand there like a fool.”

 Idisio stood silent, gaze on the floor, as the steward snapped the rolls open with quick gestures.

“I see,” the steward said, his voice considerably colder than it had been. “Boy, look at me.”

Idisio raised his gaze slowly.

“Do you know what this letter says, boy?”

“No, s’e. I can’t read, and my lord said nothing of it.”

“Kind of him, to send you with a handful of chaos and say nothing to you of it,” the steward said. “Typical of him, in fact.”

He leaned back in his chair and rubbed at his eyes, seeming exasperated.

“The man’s got no idea of palace politics, none at all—and not much notion of how to play his own land’s games, either. He said nothing of this to you? Are you lying to me, boy?”

“No, s’e, I wouldn’t dare.”

“I believe that, at least.” The steward sighed and stood. “Come with me. I’ll send a servant along with the supplies by the end of the day. No doubt your hasty young fool of a desert lord will want to leave first thing in the morning. Not that I said that, mind you,” he added with a glare.

“No, s’e. S’e?” Idisio decided to chance his customary brashness. “What did the letter say?”

“Instructions to clean you up, and no surprise. You stink.”

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Cleaning him up, as it turned out, involved a thorough scrubbing by a fat old palace eunuch who only gave over the brush when Idisio threatened to shove it somewhere unpleasant, and only retreated farther than arm’s-length when satisfied that Idisio really would clean himself.

Idisio emerged feeling very raw and sour, especially when he found his old clothes gone. In their place lay the silks he’d wished for, spread out ruby and white on the wide clothes-stool, and a pair of dark soft-soled boots. He stared at them in dismay. The outfit might be suited to court, but certainly not the open road. He could imagine the state they’d be in after a tenday.

He suspected the steward of having a grim joke at his expense.

S’ii,” he started, turning to the eunuch to protest, but the man had slipped from the room already. There was nothing for it but to put the clothes on. Once dressed, Idisio stood very still, wide-eyed at how smooth the silk felt against scrubbed-raw skin. It felt like walking in a continual bath of cool water, and the way the fabric flowed over his body was heady and arousing. He swallowed hard and finally managed to subdue the reaction; it took him a bit longer to walk across the room and back without it recurring.

A long mirror leaned against one wall; he went to it hesitantly. He’d had a chance to look in burnished-metal mirrors, and once a real Sessin glass hand-mirror, but never his whole body at once.

Idisio knew he didn’t qualify as handsome. He’d been laughed at and taunted by too many girls for that to be a hope. What stared back at him from the glass, however, wasn’t as ugly as he’d expected.

He almost had the wide face of a born southerner, but free of dirt it showed a much lighter color than Lord Scratha’s. His nose was far too snubbed to be true southerner, and his eyes, a clear bright grey, were unusually wide and round. His hair, washed, brushed, and tied back, turned out to be a fine shade of deep brown and as silky as the clothes he wore. His eyes shifted between grey-blue and grey-green as he studied himself, tilting his head this way and that. Standing straight in the fine new clothes, he could have passed for some noble’s bastard down from the north.

Idisio hovered between shock and revelation: nobility weren’t born looking one way and street-scum born another. They were all the same. Put a noble’s son in rags and run him through the sand and dust of the back streets for a day, and he’d look like Idisio had that morning. Noble blood attracted girls.The way he looked now, maybe they wouldn’t laugh at him any more.

It took him a while more to calm himself after that thought.

Finally, fairly sure he wouldn’t embarrass himself, he took a guess at the door he thought opened to the hall and looked out. The eunuch sat on a wide stool just outside, and a guard stood to the other side of the door. They both glanced at him as he stepped out.

“Much better,” the eunuch said, favoring Idisio with a faint smile.

The guard grunted, returned his attention to front, and said nothing.

“Sorry I took so long, s’ii,” Idisio said.

The eunuch’s smile widened just a bit. “I understand,” he said, standing. “Back in the room, boy. I’ve been asked to teach you some manners so you don’t disgrace your lord at dinner tonight.”

“At. . . .” Idisio stared, suddenly horror-struck at the implication. Needing manners, not disgracing his lord, meant he’d be at a formal dinner, a noble’s dinner, more than likely with the king attending. The notion scared him silly. “At dinner?

The guard made another small noise, his mouth twitching slightly in what might have been amusement or scorn.

“It would be rude beyond measure, as your lord is staying at the palace, not to join the king at table,” the eunuch said calmly. “You have a bit over two hours left before the call. I expect I’ll only need one.”

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“Nobody knows you as a street-rat,” had been the eunuch’s first piece of advice. “Don’t act like one; nobody will peg you as one. Stand straight—that’s it, like that—and say as little as you can. Better for people to think you slow or mute than to hear that gutter accent of yours.”

Idisio stood silent at his lord’s side for what seemed like hours in the before-dinner gathering, watching the nobility and their servants flow by like an unruly river. Scratha stayed still, not quite in a corner but with his back inches from a wall, and watched the proceedings with an expressionless face. He had dressed in sober clothes—black trousers and soft black boots, a dark grey tunic with a high collar. Idisio saw a thick silver band on his left thumb, stamped with what looked like a family crest, and a thin silver chain around his throat. His long dark hair was carefully pulled back and tied with a black leather thong.

In this crowd, all in silks and riotous colors, he stood out like an axe-man at a wedding, and most people avoided him after a quick, uneasy glance his way. Idisio had the feeling that Scratha had aimed for exactly that effect.

Idisio’s boots began to chafe. His legs hurt; his back and neck ached. He couldn’t wait for this to be over. Servants didn’t sit, the eunuch had told him. They stood at their lord or lady’s side, hour after hour after hour, until the dinner ended. Only then, and only if they were lucky enough to have their lord’s approval, could they go to the kitchen to scrabble over scraps.

Idisio had been unable to hide his dismay at that information. The eunuch had checked mid-sentence and given him a hard look.

“You haven’t eaten yet today, have you, boy?” he demanded, then sent a servant for a plate of food. Crusty bread, still warm from the ovens, a wedge of fine white cheese, and thick slices of sand-pear; it had been a feast, and only the eunuch’s restraining hand kept him from tearing into it like a hungry asp-jacau. Idisio’s stomach still felt warm and full from that first lesson on eating in polite company.

Idisio looked over the before-dinner crowd with a rather benign feeling as a result, ignored his multiplying aches, and tried to see if his lord watched anyone in particular. He couldn’t see any pattern, and his own gaze often wandered; a number of pretty girls were drifting around the room, most of them clad in thin silks and flowing gowns. The sight caught his breath hard in his chest. He looked at the ugliest old men in the room to calm himself.

“My lord,” he said after a while, “may I ask a question?”

“What?”

“Why did the king say Arason is of special interest right now?”

“GhostLake,” Scratha said, not looking down at him. “The people of Arason believe strange creatures live in the lake, creatures that come out and seduce unwary women. The children of such a union are supposed to have unusual powers, reading minds, seeing the future, and so on.”

“Witches,” Idisio said. Something about his lord’s words sent a shiver up his back, as if there were more to the story. Seeing the future? He won’t kill me. This is a good thing happening. . . . He blinked hard and tried not to think about whether his intuition could be considered witchcraft.

“Yes. The Church convinced Ninnic to investigate. Troops were sent to Arason to root out the witches. It got . . . ugly. Oruen called the troops back when he took the crown, but the damage will take generations to heal.”

Arason is dangerous. Very, very dangerous. Idisio tried to quell the panic rising in his throat.

“Do we have to go there?” he husked.

Scratha made no reply beyond a faint smile.

They stood in silence for a time, watching the room; then the faintest of sighs came from Scratha, drawing Idisio’s attention. His lord’s expression had shifted from bland to stony.

“Damn,” the noble said, just barely audible.

A tall, thin young man strode towards them, aristocratic jaw set hard and ugly. Idisio had seen him before, moving through uptown and downtown streets with no worry over safety: Pieas Sessin didn’t need any thieves’ warning passed before him to warrant caution.

Scratha shifted slightly, as if considering rapid evasion, then stilled and waited, expressionless again. Pieas came to a halt before them, fine dark brows drawn into a fierce scowl.

“You, Lord Scratha,” he said. “I’ve words for you.”

“Sessin,” Scratha said, making the name sound like an insult. “I’ve none for you.”

Pieas’s dark face flushed further. “You dishonored my sister, Scratha.”

People were beginning to turn and watch.

“Your sister?” Scratha said idly, watching the young man with the detached interest he might have shown an unusually colored rat.

“Have you forgotten her so quickly?” Pieas’s hands were clenched now, his eyes narrow. “I shouldn’t be surprised—”

Before he could say more, an older man with a similar face but broader build pushed through the gathering crowd and clamped a hand on his shoulder.

“Pieas,” the new arrival said, and neither tone nor grip was gentle.

The rage in the young man’s expression shifted to a sulky, resentful demeanor as he turned to look at the man, who Idisio felt sure had to be Pieas’s father or uncle. Pieas opened his mouth to protest, but the words seemed to fade into silence under the man’s hard stare. With a last, burning glare at Scratha, Pieas jerked away to stomp off into the crowd, which scattered like sand in a strong wind as he passed.

“My apologies, Lord Scratha,” the man said, offering a shallow bow. “Pieas is a bit of a hothead, I’m afraid. I warned him to stay away from you, but he listens about as well as a deaf and blind asp-jacau.”

Scratha returned the slight bow a bit stiffly, as if reluctant to offer any courtesy to the man, and said nothing.

“I don’t know what happened with my sister’s daughter,” the man went on, lowering his voice and casting a quick glance at the dispersing crowd. “I do know the girl’s done nothing but cry for the past few days. I believe she was actually quite fond of you, Lord Scratha.”

Scratha’s face twitched, brows and lips and eyes contracting for an instant, but he stayed silent, his gaze watchful and wary now.

The man, in turn, studied Scratha in silence for a few moments, then said, “I suppose I may as well be hanged for a turkey as for a leg. I’ve been troubled for years over the way my family treated you, but I couldn’t go against my Head of Family—at least, that’s how I saw it when I was younger. But I’ve grown up a bit since those days, and now I can say aloud what I should have said then: that I never agreed with Lord Arit’s policy, and I am truly sorry about how Sessin has treated you, Lord Scratha.” He kept his voice low, although to his credit he didn’t glance to see who else might be hearing his words.

Scratha stood still in a way that reminded Idisio of a thunderstorm about to break.

“I’m afraid I haven’t met you, Lord Sessin,” he said at last.

“I’m Lord Eredion Sessin,” the man said. “Sessin’s resident ambassador to the northern court. When we last met, you were only ten. I’m not surprised you don’t remember me; there was rather a lot going on at the time.” He grinned, a bright flash of even teeth in a dark face. “I normally don’t attend these dinners, but when I saw Pieas setting out with that look on his face, I came along to keep him in hand.”

Scratha drew a deep breath and let it out slowly, staring at the man with a distant, thoughtful expression.

Eredion waited a moment longer, then said, “Don’t think so harshly of all our family, Lord Scratha; some of us are actually human.” He offered another shallow bow and smile, and took his leave, unruffled by Scratha’s silence and brooding regard.

A rattling crash of hardwood sticks on wide, hollow metal tubes hanging near one of the wide entryways brought the crowd to hushed attention . Before the ringing tones had completely stilled, people began moving through the doorway into the huge dining hall beyond. Idisio obediently followed Scratha, took up a place behind his lord’s chair, and tried not to look intimidated or overawed.

The gathering room had been large, but with all the people moving about Idisio hadn’t noticed the size or grandeur so much. Once everyone had settled into their seats, the dining hall was revealed as even more tremendous. Incredible vaulted ceilings rose high overhead, painted with murals showing the triumphs and tragedies of past kings and queens. King Ayrq, the first ruler of BrightBay, glowered down, unappetizingly, at the diners: a huge, fierce man towering over those around him, one booted foot on a large pile of skulls. Another mural showed a queen with long black hair unbound and flowing around her, beseeching the skies as if asking one of the old gods for aid, a child limp in her arms.

Idisio tried to keep his attention on his lord, but found it difficult. He’d never seen such vibrant artwork before, and certainly never on ceilings. He’d never been in a room lit by what must be hundreds of fine candles, some of them taller than he could reach. More than candles brightened the room; several alcoves brimmed with with intense columns of light from some hidden source.

A hard nudge to the ribs from the boy standing beside him jolted Idisio into realizing he’d been gawking. Many of the other servants around the table openly grinned at him. He swallowed hard and stood a bit straighter, resolving to keep his mind on his job for the rest of the night.

Scratha said little, despite overtures from several people seated nearby; and the king, at the other end of the table, seemed to be ignoring the desert lord completely. Idisio had expected that Scratha, as a desert lord, would be sitting closer to the king’s hand, but Scratha seemed oblivious to the unsubtle insult.

“My lord Scratha,” said a thin young woman seated across from the desert lord.

She was dressed in what Idisio guessed to be the high fashion of the moment. It seemed to involve a tremendous amount of bright red chachad feathers and silver chains. Idisio thought it looked absurd, but the girl preened as if the feathers made her a firetail bird herself and fluttered her lashes at Scratha as she spoke.

“I’m Alyea Peysimun. Pleased to meet you. I understand you’ve not been seen at court for some time.”

“True,” Scratha said, not taking his attention from his food.

She waited, looking expectant; slow realization crept over her pert features like a growing storm cloud.

“Really,” she said, no longer fluttering her lashes. “My lord Scratha, I had heard you were a man of few words; I see that’s true as well.”

He bit into a roasted chicken leg and said nothing. She raised an eyebrow and a shoulder at the same time and, her smile distinctly thinner, turned her attention to the people on her right.

“I don’t blame you,” said the thin man seated to Scratha’s right, quietly, leaning over just a bit to keep the words private between them, “for not wasting words on her. She’s a ninny.”

Scratha spared the man a brief, dark stare before taking another bite of the chicken leg.

“Chicken,” the man went on amiably, ignoring the lack of response. His voice acquired a conversational level now. “I don’t care for it much. I will say this for Ninnic; he knew how to set a table. Gerho at every meal, prepared in every imaginable way. Grilled, steamed, braised, fried; oh, that man knew good food, or at least his chefs did. Oruen’s no gourmet.” He flicked a finger at the plate in front of him. “Good enough,” he noted with a shrug, “but I do miss gerho.”

Idisio repressed a shudder. Marsh lizard had always been the food of last desperation for him, but all he had ever sampled was the stringy version available to anyone with the skill to set a small trap. Still, that was the first kind word he’d ever heard about the previous king. He served good lizard: what an epitaph for a mad ruler. Idisio held back a snort of nervous laughter.

“Do you like a properly cooked platter of gerho, my lord?” the man asked against Scratha’s continuing silence.

“Yes.”

Icy premonition scrabbled like a wet rat down Idisio’s back: Gerho. Something about gerho . . . is that going to be important? He grimaced and pushed the uneasy worry to the back of his mind. He was having more intuitive flashes today than he’d experienced in the past four tendays, and he didn’t care for it one bit.

“It’s a shame for the merchants that King Oruen can’t stand it,” the man rattled on. “I understand some of them are rather put out financially; the market held quite favorable just before Ninnic had his unfortunate accident.”

Idisio held his face as expressionless as possible. So that pleasantry covered Ninnic’s death among the nobility? An unfortunate accident? The streets called it murder, and born of treason, but always in the tones of fact, not complaint. Nobody sane honestly missed Ninnic. Oruen had been marked as a hero the day he took the throne, from the lowest gutter to the highest table in the city.

The talkative man rattled on for a few moments about gerho prices, market collapses, and despairing merchants. “There’s one man in particular, invested too heavily, been haunting the palace trying to convince the king to change his mind. I believe he’s only just left a few days ago. Lashnar . . . yes, Asti Lashnar, that’s his name. Have you ever met him?”

Scratha dropped the bare bone on his platter and reached for a piece of bread from the basket in front of him. He made no reply.

The man sighed. “Lord Scratha,” he said, “you really ought to learn at least the basics of social convention, you know.”

Scratha set the bread on his plate and turned his gaze to the man beside him. “Why? It’s all chattering nonsense. I won’t waste my breath on it.”

“Suit yourself,” the thin man said, and turned his attention to people who were interested in chattering nonsense.

By the time the last platter of desert-honey pastries had been cleared from the table, the afternoon snack seemed like days ago. Idisio found himself impatient to get to the kitchen and grab the remaining scraps of the glorious dishes he’d been seeing and smelling all evening.

But with a motion of his hand, Scratha called his attention.

“Stay with me,” the noble said when Idisio bent to see what his lord wanted. The king rose to take his leave, and the whole room stood, everyone bowing deeply. As the nobles drifted to the surrounding gardens and social-rooms, Scratha laid a hand on Idisio’s shoulder and steered him in a different direction.

They walked through hallways and around corners, turning this way and that, seeming to go in circles, until Idisio once again conceded himself lost. At last he saw a familiar portrait. Confirming his guess, they paused before an unremarkable grey door.

“Yes, you’re expected,” one of the guards said, deadpan, and once again they walked through the door into the presence of King Oruen.

The royal robes of public appearance were draped almost carelessly over the back of the king’s chair. The king, now simply a thin, gangly man in breeches and tunic, half-slouched in his chair, looked up as they entered and pointed silently to seats. Without protest this time, Scratha sank into one and motioned Idisio into another.

“Lord Oruen,” Scratha said. “Once again, I am here at your summons.”

“And once again,” the king said, “I’m holding back an urge to throttle you, Cafad.” He held up a sheet of parchment that showed signs of having been crumpled and carefully smoothed back out. “What are you trying to do to me?”

“You benefit from this arrangement, Lord Oruen.”

The king looked at the letter again, shaking his head slowly. “The other desert families will have a collective stroke when they hear of this.”

“Let them twitch,” Scratha said. “Your steward already has a brief version of the letter in your hand. No doubt he’ll spread the word before the news loses its value.”

The king’s gaze sharpened into a glare.

“You’re a fool,” he said, then: “No, you’re not. You’ve made it impossible for me to refuse. Nobody will believe that I turned this offer down. Damn you, Cafad!”

Scratha’s only answer was a shrug, hands spread wide.

“What did you put in the steward’s note?” the king demanded.

“That I ceded you stewardship of my lands while I am working off your displeasure,” Scratha said, emotionless. “Nothing more. The name change I put to you alone.”

Idisio tried not to choke audibly. A desert lord was giving a northern king authority over his entire holding? Collective stroke would be a mild reaction, under Idisio’s admittedly limited understanding of southern politics. And as much, if not more, ire would be directed at the king for accepting as at Scratha for offering such a thing.

But the king was right: nobody would believe he had turned down such an opportunity.

The king stared at Scratha for a while, fingers nervously working the edges of the note in his hand as if he longed to rip it to bits.

“Very well, then,” he said at last. “I accept. I’ll guard your lands from intrusion while you’re gone. You do realize the implications of your offer?”

“I do.”

“As for the name change—are you sure you want to do that?”

“I can’t very well collect history, observe culture, and send useful reports if the people I speak to are busy fawning on or fearing me as a desert lord,” Scratha said. “It’ll be hard enough, in the northlands, for me to pass at all without being attacked. I’ll probably be relying on my servant in some areas.”

Idisio did choke this time. Up to this moment, he hadn’t considered anything of his role beyond a hazy supposition that he’d be tending to Scratha’s horse, cooking him supper, mending and cleaning his clothes. Not that he knew how to do any of those things, but he’d figured it would all be easy enough to pick up along the way.

His strangling noise drew a brief, amused glance from the king. “I see you haven’t mentioned that idea to your servant yet.”

“There hasn’t been time,” Scratha said.

“At least you took time to clean him up before dinner. I’m grateful for that. And I hope you’ve also taken the time to caution your young thief against stealing anything while on palace grounds.”

In the following silence, Idisio could feel all color draining from his face, and Scratha looked completely at a loss for words.

The king managed a tired smile. “I’d be a fool if I didn’t inquire about a servant that looked as if he’d been picked up straight from the dustier streets of BrightBay just before arriving—especially as you’ve never taken a servant before, Cafad. I thought you understood by now that I’m not a fool.”

“Indeed,” Scratha said. “My apologies, Lord Oruen. I seem to have forgotten.”

“You’re not the only one that forgets.” The king sighed. “Why, if I may ask, that choice of name?”

“Gerau was my s’enetan’s name,” Scratha said.

The king nodded. “Honoring your grandfather’s memory, I can understand,” he said. “And— forgive me—sa’adenit? I know you’re no fool yourself, but don’t you mean s’e deaneat, son of a desert family?

Scratha looked grim. “I said what I meant.”

“There aren’t many who understand the old languages anymore,” the king said. “Most people won’t know what you mean.”

“All the better,” Scratha said. “Anyone who understands that word is dangerous.”

Idisio had held his silence for too long. Questions were crowding in his throat, becoming painful. He burst out, “My lord, Sire—what does it mean?”

“Ah,” the king said, smiling again as his gaze shifted to Idisio. “This one, at least, is safely ignorant, if there is any such thing.”

Scratha shook his head, brooding, and said nothing.

“What does it mean?” Idisio repeated.

The king answered, as Scratha sat silent. “It translates to ‘Blood on the Sand.’ The sa’a at the beginning marks it as matrilineal, where a line run by male parentage would call it se’edenit. It comes from an old verse. I learned it as a child, but I probably received a poor translation. Here’s best I can recall.” He began to chant in a hoarse voice:

When the desert sleeps

It does not forget its secrets

It does not forgive the blood

The blood that was shed without cause.

Stone grows cold and flowers close

But the desert remembers the warmth of life

The warmth of the blood as it fell to the sand.

The blood on the sand may disappear

But the desert does not forgive the death.

With the sun’s awakening the blood flows fresh

And the killer is damned by the desert

Because the desert does not forget

And the desert will never forgive.

The king paused, then repeated softly, “‘The desert will never forgive.’ That verse always gave me chills.”

Idisio nodded fervently in agreement, goose bumps running up and down his spine.

“That was a poor translation,” Scratha said. He had crossed his arms during the recital, and still looked distinctly displeased. “It’s much longer than that, and more explicit. Northerns like to water everything down. But that version serves the point.”

“It’s a call for vengeance,” the king said quietly, his gaze fixed on the desert lord. “A thoroughly ugly call, at that, when it’s translated without what you call ‘watering down’ the words.”

“I will find the hand behind my family’s slaughter,” Scratha said, equally soft and calm, but madness flickered in his eyes again. “I will have their blood in equal measure. Never think I’m giving that up, however far you send me. Who knows, maybe the northlands will have clues I couldn’t find in the south. Stranger things have happened in this world.”

The king opened his mouth, checked, then sighed. “King’s Researcher Gerau Sa’adenit it is, then. I really hope you’ve thought this out, Cafad.”

“I have,” Scratha said, and stood. With two long steps he loomed over the king; then he knelt and held out his hand, palm up, offering a heavy silver ring with what looked like a family sigil stamped on the face.

Oruen stared at it for a moment, as if the desert lord were offering poison; then he reached out and picked the ring gingerly from Scratha’s palm. “I’ll tell people you’ve gone to the StoneIslands,” he said, not taking his gaze from the ring. “At least I can give you that much protection against gossip.”

“As you wish,” the desert lord said, sounding supremely indifferent, then stood, retreating as swiftly as he had advanced. “May we retire, Lord Oruen?”

The king waved a weary assent, sinking further into his chair. The last glance Idisio had of the king showed a deeply worried expression and a note once again crumpled between royal hands.

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They didn’t return to their room, as Idisio had expected. Instead, his lord guided him through another seemingly endless march. They turned and twisted through various hallways, climbing a shallow flight of steps and then descending, several changes of direction later, a rather longer set of stairs.

The air grew noticeably damp, and Idisio put his arm over his nose to ward against the increasing tang of mold and mildew. The space between the guttering wall sconces grew until islands of light lay ahead and behind while they walked in darkness. The hallway narrowed, too; eventually Idisio could put his hands out to either side and feel the walls. And then the passage tightened further, until he could extend no more than elbows.

Finally there were no more torches ahead: only cold, unbroken silence and empty, dark, stinking air.

“My lord?” Idisio ventured, keeping his voice just above a whisper, hoping his growing panic wouldn’t show in the low tone. This place felt foul; although no smell of blood or refuse registered in his nose, an itching nausea seemed to lurk in the very air.

Something bad happened here. Lots of bad things.

Idisio felt as though the dead crowded close, their slimy hands caressing his arms and back and legs.

The noble made a low shushing noise and went on, his feet making no noise on the pitted rock that had long ago replaced smooth stone underfoot. Idisio drew breath, cursing himself for a fool, and followed, one hand out to avoid running into his lord from behind.

And then something stirred, something deep and wild and formless; there came a shriek that had no sound and a moment of grey eyes staring desperately into his own. Scratha’s hand, latching onto his wrist, jerked him back to the moment and almost brought the held scream from Idisio’s throat. With a faint whimper, he followed the man’s tug to the left.

To Idisio’s intense relief, the feeling of foulness faded with each step they took. Scratha walked behind him from that point on, steering with one hand on Idisio’s shoulder. Every so often Scratha tugged him to a brief halt, nudged a little faster, or turned this way or that, all in complete darkness. At times Scratha reached to touch, push, or pull something hidden, provoking muted clicks or distant grinding noises.

The floor finally sloped sharply upwards, and the air freshened, feathering Idisio’s hair. The darkness became that of an open, cloudy sky on a moonless night.

“Wait here,” Scratha said in a low voice, and slipped back into the passage.

Idisio stood still, trembling with relief, and stretched his arms out full in all directions, just to prove to himself that he could. Returning, Scratha made an odd noise that might have been amusement and nudged Idisio’s shoulder.

“Come on. We’ve a walk yet.”

Idisio couldn’t hold back a groan. More walking sounded as welcome as an asp-kiss.

“Where are we going, my lord?”

“We’re leaving. I’ve arranged everything to be left at a safe spot not far from here. And don’t call me Lord any more. I’m Gerau Sa’adenit, Master Gerau to you, now.”

“What happened to first thing in the morning?” Idisio muttered.

Behind them, the Bright Bay Watch-Tower bells sounded the midnight hour. Idisio cast an aggrieved glare towards the sound and stomped after his new master.

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Secrets of the Sands is available in trade paperback here or through ReAnimus Press in either ebook or trade versions.

Wander over to Leona R Wisoker’s author web site; there are some fun posts there! For instance, here’s one that gives perspective on just how far from the initial draft Secrets of the Sands traveled; there’s another on the etiquette system showcased in the second book, Guardians of the Desert; each of the current books in the series, in fact, has behind the scenes information posted on Leona’s site. Do browse around!

Secrets of the SandsGuardians of the DesertBells of the KingdomFires of the Desert