Selden jerked awake to the pounding on the door. Shaking with alertness, he rolled from the divan to the floor and then, surprising himself, to his feet. He had no time to wonder if he was getting better or if his fear was overriding the weakness of his body. He heard the key turning in the lock.
‘Lady Chassim, we must enter, on the Duke’s orders. He wishes the dragon-man brought to him immediately!’ A man shouted harshly as the door swung open.
The lady herself strode from her bedchamber, an unfastened robe hastily thrown over her nightdress and a stone vase balanced over her head in her two hands. The set of her mouth said she would battle first and then find out why. Selden had taken to sleeping with a stick of kindling on the divan beside him. His was a feebler weapon than hers, but he gripped it tightly, intending to defend her to the death this time.
The two guardsmen fell back at the sight of her fury. ‘Lady, please, we are sorry to disturb you. Our orders are absolute. We must bring the dragon-man to the Duke. His need is dire and he cannot wait longer.’
Dizziness swooped through Selden’s brain at those words and the stick of wood tumbled from his nerveless hand. Here was death, barging in the door in the middle of the night. ‘I am not ready,’ he said, to himself rather than the guardsmen.
‘He is not!’ Chassim snapped out her agreement. ‘Look at him. He coughs and spits gobs of yellow mucus. He has a fever and his piss is the colour of old tea. He is thin as an old horse and he shakes when he tries to stand. You will take this to the Duke? Sick as he is, you will take this diseased creature into his presence? Woe betide you when you are his death!’
The younger of the two guardsmen blanched at her words, but the grizzled older guard only shook his head. He looked haggard, as if sleep had long abandoned him. ‘Lady, you know well we are dead if we return without him. Disobeying the Duke’s order will only ensure that we are tortured to death along with our families. Stand back, Lady Chassim. I have no desire to handle you roughly, but I will take the dragon-man now.’
Vase in hand, she stepped boldly between him and his abductors. She set her feet and Selden knew she would fight them. He staggered in a wobbly circle around her and into their arms before she realized what he was about. ‘Let us go quickly,’ he told them. They seized him by the arms and as they hastened him out the door, he called over his shoulder, ‘For a few days of respite, may Sa bless you.’
‘Sa, the god that fucks itself,’ the younger guardsman sneered.
The heavy vase landed with a crash on the floor just behind them. ‘You didn’t lock her in?’ the older man exclaimed in horror, but there came the sound of a slamming door. ‘Run back and lock it,’ the guard told his junior in disgust. He kept his grip on Selden’s upper arm and half-dragged him until the youngster caught up with them to seize Selden’s other arm.
‘You sick like she said you are? Are we going to catch your disease?’
The younger guard huffed as he spoke, hurrying to keep up with the older one. His grip was not as tight as the older man’s; plainly he didn’t even want to touch Selden’s scaled arm. In response, Selden went off into one of his coughing fits. Over and over, the air was squeezed from his lungs and he struggled to take in each shallow breath. Be calm, he told himself. Be calm. He had discovered it was the only way to recover his breathing. He closed his eyes, went limp and made them drag him as he put all his focus into trying to get breath back into his body. Why? he asked himself. Why not die on the way and thwart the Duke?
But breathe he did, if shallowly, on the long haul that continued down several flights of stairs and then through an endless dim corridor. Lanterns in alcoves burned with low flames, and a short train of servants bearing armloads of bloodied sheets and basins met them and streamed past them in a nightmarish parade.
‘How can he lose so much blood and still live?’ the younger guard asked.
‘Shut up! Someone hears you, that can be called treason,’ the other barked.
They marched on in silence. At the end of that hall, they handed Selden over to two servants in spotless white robes. They escorted him, just as urgently, through grandly carved doors into an antechamber where two servants garbed in pale green seized him without comment. Another set of impressive doors, and he entered the Duke’s lavish bedchamber.
A death chamber, he thought, for the smell of death permeated the room. The heavy drapes of the bed had been roped back and lamps burned everywhere. Incense burned as well, and Selden lowered his face, trying not to breathe the smoke that would choke him. The basket of bloody cloths by the grand bed smelled of rot, the red stains streaked with brown and black. The circle of healers around his bed looked terrified, as did the guards who stood watch behind them. At the end of the bed, his hands clasped behind him, stood Chancellor Ellik. He was elaborately and carefully attired, as if he had readied himself for a special occasion. Did he hope to proclaim the Duke’s death tonight?
The Duke himself sprawled on his back, his head thrown back, his mouth open wide. He pulled in breaths and pushed them out with a sound like a bellows. Selden thought him unconscious until the bony head on the ropy neck turned toward him. The man’s pale-blue eyes were framed in pools of red. ‘Laggards!’ he croaked. His withered lips trembled as if he wished to utter a thousand curses. Then they firmed and he said only, ‘The blood!’
They dragged Selden forward and one healer brought out a gleaming knife while others set a small table, a white cloth and a polished silver basin ready. He fell to his knees, but they paid no more attention to him than if he were a chicken being prepared for the pot. His left hand was seized and drawn forward, and when his wrist was over the basin, the healer cut him with a deft and practised flick of his knife. His blood, thin and bright red, ran freely. Selden watched dully as his life poured out of his body and into the bowl. It fell in spatters and then a tiny stream. The gathered healers watched it puddle and then pool in the basin.
‘Enough!’ one cried suddenly, and with an expert wrap and a tight twist, a white cloth bound Selden’s wrist. An assistant darted forward to seize his hand and hold it up over his head. Selden sagged helplessly in their grip. He longed to be taken away, to not witness any of this, but they held him there. Through stunned eyes he watched them pour his blood into a crystal goblet. No less than four healers assisted in the lifting of the Duke’s head, while two held the goblet to his lips. Another one bade him, ‘Sip slowly, my lord.’
Breathe it in and choke on it, Selden thought. But he did not. The Duke sipped his blood and then, gaining strength, lifted his own head and drank it. In horror, Selden watched colour come back into the man’s face. His tongue, greyish, lapped at the last scarlet drops in the glass. He drew in a deeper breath. Then he tried to sit up. He could not manage it but there was unmistakably new strength in his voice as he commanded, ‘Bring him here! Directly to me!’
They dragged Selden to the bedside on his knees. One of the attendants forcibly bent his head down before the Duke while another snatched the cloth from his wrist. His face was pressed hard against the bedding. Selden struggled to draw breath, but no one cared. Someone grasped his arm firmly and twisted his wrist toward the Duke.
He felt the cracked lips brush his wrist in an obscene caress. The Duke’s tongue was warm and wet as it probed for his wound, leaving chill slime as its track on his arm. Selden gave a low moan of disgust as the old man’s mouth latched onto his wrist and suckled at his blood.
After a short time, he felt the Duke’s claw-like hands fasten their own grip on his arm. The sucking grew stronger and an ache extended from his wrist to the inside of his elbow and then up his arm. When it reached his armpit he thought he would faint with the pain. The world was spinning and the distant cries of amazement and joy that reached his ears mocked his death.
Ellik watched in repugnance as the Duke suckled at the freak’s arm. Coward. What battle could not do, disease has done. It has made him a coward, and he will perform any act, no matter how demeaning, to hold death at bay. Long practice kept his thoughts hidden. To any onlooker, he watched with concerned eyes as his beloved duke tried once more to snatch life from the jaws of death.
The Duke breathed through his nose as he sucked the blood, a panting breath that took on the same rhythm as coitus. The Chancellor looked aside from the revolting display, expecting that at any moment the Duke would breathe his last. But as the slow moments dragged by and the breathing became stronger, he looked back at the man. Horror blossomed in him. Thin he still was, but there was a faint flush on his cheeks now. His eyes were half-opened as if in pleasure, and they were brighter than Ellik had seen them in months.
‘My lord. My lord, may it not displease you that I speak, but if you wish to preserve this creature’s life so that you may have a later treatment of his blood, you must stop now.’
The healer who gripped the dragon-man’s wrist spoke in a timorous voice. His thumb was on the creature’s pulse. The Duke paid no heed. The healer shot a frightened glance at the older man who grasped the dragon-man’s forearm. Now Ellik noticed that he, too, kept a monitoring thumb on the pulse point inside the creature’s elbow. He met the younger man’s stare, gave his head a tiny shake, and pressed down. The Duke sucked harder for three breaths and then abruptly lifted his head. His voice was stronger, thick with his drink as he demanded, ‘Has he died? The blood has stopped!’
‘No, my duke, he is not dead, but he flutters close to it.’ The healer spoke in a gentle voice full of deference. ‘Would you finish him now, or send him back to be fed up again for a later treatment?’
Greed and caution warred in the Duke’s face. Abruptly, he pushed the thin wrist away from his mouth. ‘Take him away. Bid my daughter feed my fine blue cow fat again. Whatever Lady Chassim desires for him, she may have! See that she does all she can to bring him to where he can be bled again. Tell her this is my most ardent wish for her, if she would retain the goodwill of her duke.’
‘My lord,’ the healers chorused. Ellik saw concern in how quickly they bandaged the creature’s wrist. Before they wrapped it, he glimpsed the deep purple bruising all around the wound. The Duke’s teeth had left deep dents in the flesh.
‘I will eat now,’ the Duke declared.
As he leaned back into his pillows with a deep sigh of contentment, the room around him erupted into a frantic bustle of activity. A basket of clean cloths appeared as the used ones were whisked way. Fresh bedclothes were brought, and the servants deftly folded away the soiled ones as the new ones were spread over him so that not even for a moment was he chilled. An array of musicians bearing their instruments trooped in and stood ready against the wall in case he should bid them to play. A narrow table was carried into the room, followed by an ant stream of servants bearing trays of all manner of food and drink. Water beaded on the outside of pitchers of iced wine while other pots steamed fragrantly with hot, mulled drinks. Covered platters stood shoulder to shoulder with steaming tureens. The array would have done credit to a banquet and once again Ellik wondered where the hardy warrior he had once followed had gone.
The Chancellor cleared his throat and the Duke’s eyes turned to him. He waited, watching the Duke count and measure the words he would give him, and knew he was on the cusp of losing all he had gained. ‘Your gift has pleased me,’ the old man said at last.
Ellik waited ten heartbeats. The Duke said no more, and in that quiet, the Chancellor read that he would not keep his promise to him. When a man hopes to live, he does not prepare a stronger man to take his place. It would be more important to him now that he coddle his daughter so that she might keep his blood-cow alive. ‘Lady Chassim’ he had called her. He could not recall the Duke ever granting her both honorific and name when he had spoken of her before. Her status had changed in his mind. He would not again offer his daughter to Ellik. But the Chancellor replied only, ‘Then I am very well pleased, my lord.’ He lowered his eyes, so that no one might see how his mind seethed with fresh plans to take the reward he had earned.
For the first time in months, the Duke had ordered his servants to open the heavy draperies that sealed all light from his chambers. From his bed, he had watched the pale-grey light of dawn venture across his carpets and then the linens on his bed. He had opened his hand to that light, light he had believed would not touch him again, and smiled as it became the full gold of daylight. He was alive this morning. Still. And as he resolved that he would live, he’d issued his orders. The chief of his healers looked aghast.
‘My lord, favoured of the gods, beloved of the people, I fear you attempt too much too soon. Your recovery has been swift, but so quick an improvement, if followed by too much activity, may lead to a relapse and—’
‘Be quiet or die.’ The Duke kept his response short. He knew the wisdom of not taxing himself just as he was starting to recover. But to no one else could he entrust this errand. ‘Carry me to her chambers, set down the chaise, and leave. Stand ready outside the door until I summon you. Do not otherwise disturb us.’
Last night, after the dragon-man’s blood, he had eaten and drunk wine with pleasure for the first time in months. When he awoke, he could sit up in bed, and could control his bowels once more. He had not soiled himself, nor spat blood today. He knew it was soon to demand to be conveyed to his daughter’s presence, but it was a risk he had weighed well. Beneath the light coverlet, he grasped a knife in each hand. If she saw fit to show her vicious side, he would kill the bitch regardless of the consequences. But if she could be reasoned with at all, there might be great benefit for both of them. He intended to show her that.
He had sent a messenger ahead, to inform her of the visit. He had no wish to have a vase flung at him. Something almost like a smile hovered at the corners of his withered lips. She got her spirit from her father. Briefly, he considered ordering that all heavy objects be removed from her rooms. No. That was not how to begin with her. She must not think that he feared her, nor know, completely, just how much power she held. This would be a delicate negotiation, one only he could perform.
As he had commanded, the Duke was carried to Chassim’s chambers. The locks were unfastened. ‘Knock!’ he ordered the guard who had begun to open the door. The startled man hesitated, as if questioning his order. Then he hastily rapped on the heavy panel of the wooden door and called out, ‘Lady Chassim, you are honoured with a visit from the Duke!’
A moment of silence stretched almost long enough to be insolence. Just short of defying him, she called, ‘Enter and honour me, then.’
His guards looked uncertain. Had she mocked the Duke? Were they required to kill her? He found it almost amusing, and he nodded for them to obey.
They carried him into a sunny room with thick carpets on the floor. There was a cage of songbirds in one corner and a table with a silver bowl of fresh fruit from his hothouse. Evidently courtiers had already begun to send her favours. How quickly word spread in his court! He narrowed his eyes and decided to put a stop to it. Nothing must enter this room save that he sent it. To him she must come for any little favour she sought. She must depend on him for every single thing, even a glass of water or a husk of bread. For he knew his life now depended on her.
‘A pleasant room,’ he reminded her as they lowered his chair to a spot before her hearth. A slight motion of his head dismissed his guards and bearers. He did not deign to watch them leave. He would not take his eyes off her. Witches were best watched closely. She had muffled herself most peculiarly, covered her entire body in drapery from head to foot. All he could see was her face, but at the same time he took in the details of the room. He listened to the door close behind them as he met his daughter’s gaze.
A divan in the corner held his dragon-man. He was very still but the sheet that swathed him rose and fell. By the divan were a tray bearing partially consumed food and a glass with the dregs of wine in it. So, she had fed him and the creature had eaten. Good. ‘Plenty of sunlight,’ he added to her lack of response.
‘There would be more, were there not bars on the window.’
‘That is true. Would you like me to have the bars removed? Or move you to larger quarters that do not have bars on the windows?’
That unbalanced her. The flicker of uncertainty in her eyes warmed him more than her fire did.
She drew a breath, hesitated, then bravely countered, ‘I would wish to go back to my own quarters among your women, free to walk the gardens and use the baths as I once did.’
‘Impossible, I am afraid, for it would scarcely do for my dragon-man to be quartered among my women. I do not trust them as I do my only daughter.’
The uncertainty was consternation now, and she could not mask it. Wariness swam behind her eyes. ‘What do you want?’ she asked bluntly. ‘Why have you come to see me after years of banning me from your presence?’
He stared at her for a time and she held his regard. She looks, he thought, more like me than her mother. I should have seen that years ago. There is more of me in her than in any of the sons who failed me. I have battled my dilemma, and the solution was before me the whole time. A rush of inspiration filled him. He kept his voice low. ‘I know what you’ve done. And I know your ambition.’
A shadow of fear flickered across her face but she did not speak.
‘You sought to stir insurrection against me. Rebellion. Your exhortations were skilled, for a woman. But you sought your alliances in the wrong places. To build a throne, you must build on stone, not flowers. I am stone.’
‘I don’t understand.’
He hadn’t intended that she should. He needed to draw her into the conversation, to make her think she negotiated for what he would offer her. ‘You should have come to me with your ambitions for power. Am I not your father? As much of my blood flows through you as through any son I sired. Did you think I would find your craving for power reprehensible rather than true proof you are worthy to be my daughter? To be my heir.’ He dropped his voice on the last words and was gratified to see her lean forward to catch them.
She swayed slightly; the offer had dizzied her. But she recovered quickly. ‘Mother of your heir, perhaps. Ellik told me the terms of your agreement when he … visited me here. I will be the cow that drops a calf for both of you.’
That explained the fading shadow of bruise on her face. Ellik had been quick to take him up on his offer. The Duke rather hoped she was not pregnant. He did not want her mawkish with maternity, not until his own health was fully restored. And that, he was convinced, rested on her keeping his dragon-man alive and well.
‘I will not allow him to “visit” you again, if that is what you wish. I will move you to better, larger quarters where your ward can have a chamber of his own, and there are no bars on the windows.’ He thought of a set of rooms in a tower not far from his own. Windows set so high in a sheer wall had no need of bars on them. She was staring at him. Recklessly, he enlarged the offer. ‘And you, not Ellik’s child, shall be written as my heir. With the power to choose your own consort, when the time for that is right.’ He paused. What other female silliness might please her?
‘Why do you come offering me these things?’ She did not even pretend to be anything other than astounded. And cautious.
‘Because you have proven yourself worthy,’ he told her grandiosely. ‘I do not think you really sought to overthrow me,’ he lied. ‘Even you must have seen that you could not come to power in a land torn by civil war. Every warlord beneath me would have risen, seeking to claim my throne, with you the swiftest path to legitimacy. No matter how many women you could rally to your cause, they would swiftly be subdued by their own husbands and fathers and sons. No. You cannot rest your throne on frail flowers, my dear. You must build it on the stone of your father’s strength.’
He lifted a hand and gestured casually at the dragon-man. ‘I gave you a task, thinking that I would test where your loyalty lay. Would you obey my request, or purposely kill the valuable creature put into your keeping? You knew that I wished him restored to health. And, my Chassim, you have passed my test of you. Last night when he was brought to me, I found his health much improved. And by that I knew that your wishes aligned with mine.’
‘He was swooning when they returned him to me, his wrist chewed as if an animal had been at him.’
She spoke the accusation in a low voice. He felt a muscle twitch and thought of killing her. How dared she? Instead, he smiled affably. ‘Another small test. And again, you have passed it. I see that you have made him comfortable, have persuaded him to eat and drink. I do not doubt that soon you will have restored him even more completely than he was last night. You have done well, daughter. And that is why I have come to see you, and to offer you your earned reward. Continue as you have begun. This very day, you and your charge will be moved to better quarters. If there is food or drink you wish, music or books or flowers, make your desire known to the servants I will give you. And it shall be done.’
‘Freedom to come and go as I please?’
He smiled again but he was wearying of her. ‘In time, perhaps. For now, I think you will be too busy taking care of our special guest. Occupy your time and thoughts with tending to him. As you can see, my health is improving. Soon, I will begin instructing you in the ways of power. Before I can formally declare you my heir, I must show you well groomed for the position. It has been long since a woman has come to power in Chalced. The way must be prepared for you, my dear.’
He took a breath. Tired. Time to return to his bed, to sleep. Tired, yes, but not sickened with weariness. Only tired as any man would be after having to deal with a witch. She opened her mouth to speak. He lifted a cautioning finger. ‘Later,’ he said. ‘After you have had time to think well, and have shown me, yet again, that you can employ your skills for love of me.’ He nodded toward the supine dragon-man. Then he lifted his voice. ‘Guards! I wish to return to my rooms.’
They entered with alacrity. Had they feared for his safety? Good. To his daughter he said, ‘You see. They respect your abilities as I do.’ As they lifted his chair, he leaned back on his cushions. Let her ponder what he meant by that.
‘You are awake.’
He opened his eyes. The room seemed very bright and he quickly lidded them again. He felt her hands on him. They were light and cool as she felt his brow and then slipped her fingers down to his throat to touch his pulse.
‘Don’t go back to sleep. Not until you’ve eaten and drunk.’
‘To make me strong.’ He could manage no more than a hoarse whisper. ‘So your father can bleed me again.’
She didn’t deny it. ‘I knew you were awake and listening. And yes, for now, that is what we must do, to buy time for ourselves.’
‘I must live, waiting for him to want to use me again? That is why I should get better?’ He did not have the strength to put the full outrage he felt into his voice.
‘Not so different from what I have had to do, and more than once,’ she hissed back at him. ‘Do you think that to be kept in a pen and fed like a fattened bullock is so different from being confined until you are bred like a cow for the calf you may drop? Yes. It will be hard for you. It has been hard for me. But we are both still alive. And that is what it will take for both of us to remain alive long enough for us to make a different plan.’
‘What plan?’ He hated that her words made sense to him. He wanted her to be wrong, wanted to be offered a future that did not include the ghastly old man’s withered lips sucking at his wrist.
‘If I knew already, we would not have to make it. Here. Let me help you to sit up a little. I want you to drink some wine, and eat something. It seems you can have whatever you wish to eat or drink now. Is there anything you would fancy? Anything that would tempt your appetite?’
‘Meat. Fresh meat,’ he demanded. He spoke the words without thinking and then fell suddenly silent. He looked up to find her staring at him quizzically.
‘Just a touch of the dragon speaking,’ he said, meaning it as a jest. But he wondered.
Day the 12th of the Plough Moon
Year the 7th of the Independent Alliance of Traders
From Sealia Finbok, of the Bingtown Traders
To Hest Finbok, of the Bingtown Traders
To be held at the Cassarick Traders’ Hall
My dearest son, how can you leave us in such suspense? All matter of strange tidings have my friends received from the Rain Wilds, and yet not a word from you! My dear, it is humiliating that I must hear tales of dragons sighted, and the mysterious and sudden departure, upriver, of the very impervious ship that you were on! I am told that it set off without a word to anyone, and that several very important Traders appear to have departed with it! If you know anything of this delicious bit of gossip, I implore you, send me tidings by bird at your earliest possible opportunity! All my friends are boiling with curiosity. Some are saying it was an incredible trading opportunity that led the boat to depart immediately, and others that it has to do with the other ship that followed the Tarman upriver.
My friends are speculating that you have dashed off on a mad adventure to find your missing Alise. They imagine all sorts of romantic reunions and rescues, but I will tell you again, I have always found her an unsuitable match for you. I do hope you will not put yourself into any danger or great inconvenience for her sake.
I am trusting that you will contact me almost immediately, by the swiftest messenger bird that can be hired!