The Far Kingdoms [The Far Kingdoms, Book 1]
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by Allan Cole, Chris Bunch
Description: Allan Cole and Chris Bunch - the bestselling authors of the Sten series - now turn their storytelling talents from science fiction to epic fantasy--with a magnificent quest novel. The Far Kingdoms: a place of wonders, riches, magic, and terrors . . . a place where a young trader will seek wealth beyond imagination and find the adventure of a lifetime.
eBook Publisher: Wildside Press/Cosmos Books, 1994 USA
eBookwise Release Date: June 2009
22 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [834 KB]
Reading time: 528-740 min.
"A thoughtful and well-crafted epic fantasy..."--Publishers Weekly
"Young trader's son Amalric of the port city of Orissa must soon depart on his test-of-character voyage, known as Finding His Tradewind. With warrior-scholar Janos Graycloak, Amalric decides to search for the fabulous Far Kingdoms. One small complication: They must take along one member of the local magician's guild, or Evocators, in this case the weak and treacherous Cassini--who, true to type, betrays and abandons them in a far, perilous land."--Kirkus Reviews
King of Fire.
King of Water.
Queen of the Muse.
I, Amalric Emilie Antero, put quill to linen on this, the second candleday of the Harvest Month, in the tenth year of the Time of Lizard. I swear on the heads of my descendants all I write is true. I beseech thee, My Lords and My Lady, to look with favor upon this journal. Fire, light the way through dim memory. Water, nourish the fruit of my thoughts. Muse, look with kindness on my poor skills and grant me words worthy of the tale I tell. The tale of my travels to the Far Kingdoms.
And what I found.
* * * *
As I re-read those lines I could hear Janos's laugh. It was a deep drum of a laugh that could warm a cold night, or turn a fool's words to stone. I heard it loud, as if he sat next to me, instead of from a distance of over forty years. The laughter mocked me. Not for writing this history. He approved of histories and all books of knowledge. He thought them more sacred than any holy cedar grove, more telling than the mirror of any Seer. Yes, he would have approved, even if this account sometimes paints him in an ugly light. Which it shall. It shall. For have I not sworn to tell the truth? Janos was Truth's most ardent worshipper. Even when he lied ... Especially when he lied.
The mockery, I am sure, was for the traditional opening spell I penned, calling on fire, water, and the Muse to assist me in my endeavors.
"It's a silly custom," he would have said. "What's more, it is also a waste of your energies and your substance. It's like curing a nest of warts, and then not having anything left over for important things like a demon in your skull. A knotted thread's as good as thrice-blessed toad skin for a wart, and much less expensive, besides."
Then he would have slapped me on the back and filled our wine glasses to the brim. "Just start the book, Amalric. It'll come to you as you go."
Very well, then ... It began with a woman.
Her name was Melina and she was the most exquisite courtesan in all Orissa. Even after all these years, my loins stir when I remember her. She had large dark eyes a man could lose his soul in and long perfumed waves of black hair to cover him with if he were accepted into her embrace. She had the form of a goddess, with golden skin, hennaed lips, red-tipped breasts and silken thighs that promised the most welcome harbor any voyager of the flesh could imagine. In short, I was a man of exactly twenty summers, and I lusted for her with all the blind, unreasoning youthmust that hot-blooded age carries. If she had satisfied that lust, I would not be telling this story. Instead she held me transfixed in her professional thrall with nothing more than promises.
I was on a rare bit of business for my father the day I entangled myself in her net. A ship bearing goods from the West had just disgorged its cargo into one of my father's warehouses and it was my duty to oversee the accounting. This did not mean I was to interfere with my father's excellent slave clerks. I was there as a "presence of authority" as my father put it. This meant keeping the bribes allocated to the port officer, city tax collector and Evocators' tithingman to a sensible level. I had a purse of gold and silver coins to slip into greedy fingers, and had been warned if I paid out all of it, profits from this voyage would be slim. The voyage had been long and with much incident, including a storm which had caught and battered our ship just off the mouth of the river that nourishes our city. It was tricky business and I was amazed at the time that he'd entrusted it to me. But my father was trying to encourage me during a time of youthful confusion. He saw merit in me I did not see in myself.
The port officer was green but overly cautious to make up for this failing. As we went from crate to bundle to barrel to jar and toted up the value, I saw a look of craft mar his youthful eyes as he envisioned a bribe equal to a year's wages. As his appetite sharpened, my mind raced for a solution. My gaze fell on a broken bundle of fabric. I groaned, ripped it open and let the rich cloth spill onto the dusty warehouse floor. I shouted for the ship's captain, ignoring the startled look on the port officer's face. He must have thought I'd gone mad. But the look turned to amazement when the captain arrived and I showed him the offending cloth and cursed its poor quality.
"You are either a fool who has been taken by a great cheat," I berated him, "or you are that great cheat in the flesh." I swore the cloth was of substandard quality, and even a dimwit could see it would rot within a week in Orissa's moist river climate. And if this was so, what of the other goods? "Damme, captain, look at me when I speak!"
The captain was an old hand and caught on quickly. He moaned regret and swore ignorance. I sent him away to contemplate my father's wrath and turned back to the port officer. His smile was weak when I apologized, and the smile grew weaker still as I expanded on that apology--slipping him a single coin for his bribe--to include the obviously diminished value of the cargo. He did not protest, but gripped the coin tightly and fled before I came to my senses and said it was too much.
The city tax collector took no thought at all--he owed my father many favors--so he was happy with a rare trinket from the West to pleasure his much younger wife.
Believing myself a new master of commerce, I awaited with confidence the tithingman from the Evocators' Council. But the sorcerer who showed himself quickly pricked that thinly stretched silk. Prevotant was known as one of the fattest, greediest Evocators in Orissa. He was notorious for his poor skills as a wizard, but frightening talent for skinning a merchant of his purse. The moment he saw me he chuckled in glee that one so young and stupid was all that stood between him and fortune. His chuckle was echoed by a shrill chittering from the Favorite clinging to his shoulder. In that time there were still a few, usually older, Evocators who kept a Favorite to assist them in casting spells. Part animal, part demon, they could change their size at will from twice that of a man, to even smaller than the scaly thing curled around Prevotant's neck. The creature's chittering grew wilder, as the Favorite stirred itself into a boiling broth of excitement. Most Favorites were high-strung and sometimes difficult to control, but I could see this creature was as hysterical as a much beaten dog. Instead of soothing it with a soft word and stroking its leathery hide, Prevotant cursed and gave it a stinging blow. The Favorite squealed in pain and anger, but subsided. Still, I could see it was brooding, for its skin had turned from black to pulsing red. It worried at a bloody sore with small, sharp teeth.
"Perhaps he's hungry," I offered, thinking to ingratiate myself. "I could send for a morsel to tempt him."
The Favorite chirped, but Prevotant flapped his jowls from side to side: "Never mind him. Let's get to the business at hand." He puffed up his girth and fixed me with a fierce stare. "I have reports of sorcerous contraband hidden in your cargo."
My good sense fled before his charge. It was an old ploy at the docks, especially among the Evocators' tithingmen. My father would have dismissed it with a laugh. I knew this. My father had always made a point to mention these small confrontations and conquests to aid my education. But, knowing and doing--ah, now, there's a great divide. My face, that great betrayer of red-headed folk, turned as fiery as my hair.
I sputtered: "But ... But ... That's not possible. We ordered all precautions taken. All precautions!"
Prevotant grimaced and pulled some scribblings from his stained robes. He examined quill scratches, keeping his hand cupped to hide them from my view. He shook his head, gloomy, then replaced his notes. His Favorite snatched at the pocket, receiving another blow. "Nasty beast," the Evocator hissed, then he shifted his attention back to me. "None the less," he said, "these charges are serious. Serious indeed." He gazed lovingly at my father's goods. "I have no choice, but to ... but to..."
But I was gaping, numb. His head gave an impatient jerk and he stared at me, hard. "BUT TO-"
Light belatedly dawned. "Oh. Oh ... Right!" I grabbed my belt and gave the purse a great shake. His eyes widened at the rattle and his face glowed as he counted his new wealth. A burst of chatter from the Favorite hinted at the deep emotions at play. He absently pinched the creature in rebuke. As for me, I realized my error the instant I'd acted. Now Prevotant knew what I had, and all I had was his to take. Disaster lay on one side, humiliation on the other, as I groped for wit. And the bargaining began.
"Well, yes," he said at last, "There are certain things I should do. Some would say, required to do. But I would need assistance. Ten colleagues ... or more."
I shook the belt again, angry that I had no choice but to plunge on. "But, you..." I said, wearily joining his game, "BUT YOU-"
"...Don't necessarily have to go by the book," he answered. "I've learned to trust my sweet nature in these matters." He eyed the purse, but I kept my hand in place.
"I could do it myself," he said, willing that hand to free the gold. "Except that would require..." He looked over the cargo again. "...My masters wouldn't permit me to tithe you less than ... three coppers for every tenth weight?"
I sighed. "Then I must depart at once to my father's house to bring news of his ruin." I patted the purse. "The tithing you ask will take all this ... and more."
Prevotant looked pained. His jowls sagged. But I saw the eyes of his Favorite glint and its tongue flicked at me, tasting for fear. I held my nerve, betraying nothing. The Evocator broke first.
"I have it," he said. "I'll perform a simple purification. But to be safe, it must include the whole warehouse. The tithe for that is set at one copper per hundred weight."
He lifted a hand. "However ... there's still only my Favorite and myself to perform the enchantment. There's a great deal of work and prep--" I slipped the purse from my belt and gave it to him. The Favorite hooted greedily as his master swiftly tucked it away. "I'll have it done in no time," he said, briskly. "No time at all."
I sent a slave to fetch his things from his litter and in a few moments he'd set up a tripod, a brass bowl of hot coals dangling beneath it and was tossing pinches of various dusts and molds and powders into the bowl. A ghastly smell arose, but there was no smoke. His Favorite leaped to the floor, jumping about and shrieking protests at what lay ahead. I'm sure it would have fled if not for the long, slim chain Prevotant clutched in his fist.
The Evocator had chosen a narrow aisle between crates of wooden toys to place the tripod. It was to help direct the force of the enchantment, he said. He waddled down it, dragging the Favorite behind. It fought all the way, squalling like a child and choking itself on the chain. "Stop," Prevotant hissed. "You'll only make it worse."
He eased himself to one knee and scrawled a circle on the floor, then a square encompassing that. He shortened his grip on the chain and pulled the Favorite to him. Its little teeth snapped frantically at his fingers, but he finally got it by the neck and hurled into the circle. The creature was still for a few moments, stunned by the fall. Prevotant nodded." Good. And if you give me any more trouble I'll have you skinned for shoes." The Evocator puffed back to his feet and strode to the tripod. He motioned for me to join him and I complied.
"I need the presence of an owner," he explained, "or the purity spell will not be lasting."
He dug out another pouch from his kit. "I want to make it good and strong," he said. "I like to see a satisfied client."
There were people scattered about the warehouse. Clerks and loaders, and prospective customers getting an early look at the goods. "Shall I clear the place?" I asked.
"No need. There's little danger." He dropped a fat fistful of what appeared to be brown shavings into the bowl. There was a wet hiss as they fell on the coals. I looked closer and once again noted there was no smoke.
He began, abrupt: "Oh, demons who dwell in darkness," he intoned. "Beware! Be-ware!" A hiss as he shook more brown stuff on the coals. And I saw the coals begin to lose their glow, as if the heat were being sucked from them.
"Fire to Cold. Cold to Fire. I summon flames to seek you out. Beware, demons! Be-ware!"
He emptied the rest of the pouch into the bowl. There was a flash and the pile of coals collapsed in the center, gray and dead. A ghastly howl came from the creature in the chalk prison. The circle was alive with leaping flames. The Favorite gibbered in pain, dancing and jerking about as the fire seared him through. The fire's touch left no mark on his hide, but there was no question he felt it. His howls of anguish were very real. The creature suddenly shrank until he was the size of a pebble, even though his screams resounded as loudly as before. I jumped back as the pebble became dog size, then bulked until the Favorite towered out of the circle that enclosed him; small teeth now big, glistening fangs gnashing in agony. But size was no escape, for the flames leaped even higher, enveloping all but the howl. Prevotant shouted: "Begone!"
The Favorite was stricken mute, mouth gaping and ghostly through the flames. Silence settled. But I soon heard a ticking, then another. Then it was as if the roof opened and it stormed insects. Whole clouds fell dead from the rafters and walls: Winged things; boring things; crawling things. The thick, dry rain stung my flesh as they fell. I heard another stirring, which became a scurry and a scratch that doubled, then doubled again and the floor became a sea of fur and scales as rats and lizards fled the warehouse. There were cries of alarm and disgust from the men and women scattered about the place.
"Nothing to fear," the Evocator said in a normal voice. "The spell is perhaps a bit strong, but at least you'll be rid of vermin as well." Before I could answer, he flung up his hands, shouting: "Finit!" A whoosh, and the fire vanished. With a start, I saw the coals in the tripod glow into renewed life.
The Evocator hauled on the chain, dragging his Favorite across the chalk boundaries. It was normal sized. but still furious from its treatment. "Now, there's a good job done," he said to me, jerking viciously on the chain. "I only need to--" Both of us jumped as the Favorite snarled and shot up to half man-size. It jerked on the chain, and Prevotant yelped as the leash slipped from his grasp, cutting soft flesh.
"Hear now," he thundered, "what's this all about? Stop it at once." He waddled forward, fist raised. The Favorite snarled again and the snarl became a snap, snap, snapping of hysterical teeth. It cowered as Prevotant approached, but its size did not diminish and its skin flashed with angry colors. The Evocator gave it a furious kick, and that was all the beast would take. It shrieked and leaped over its master. The Evocator whirled, cursing and shouting for it to come back. But the Favorite closed its ears and bounded across the warehouse, like a dog dosed under the tail with pepper oil. A richly-dressed woman screamed and leapt back into the company of her slave retainers. But her scream drew attention and the Favorite veered and shot through them, scattering the woman's slaves and leaving a bloody bite on the woman's arm.
Prevotant's anger turned to panic. "Come back to daddy," he pleaded in high soprano. "Daddy has some tasty treats ... Please come back." But the Favorite ravaged on, shredding bundled goods with its teeth, ripping crates open with its claws. My men tried to pin it in a corner, but it drove them back, growing even larger and charging forward. Then it was ravaging through the cargo again. The chaos must have sharpened my wits, for I saw the damage was minimal, but in that damage was my own escape from the Evocator.
"Ah, ha!" Prevotant shouted, as it turned and raced back toward us. "No, you'll listen to reason." But it shrank and dodged between us. I saw my chance and quickly tipped the tripod over. The smoking coals tumbled among the crates of wooden toys. Now it was the Evocator's turn for hysteria. He rushed over and began beating at the small flames with the hem of his robe. "Help me," he cried, "or all is lost." He had visions of this warehouse ... and then the whole river front ... going up in smoke. I strode casually up, gentled him aside, and stamped the fire out.
I left him there, mumbling stunned apologies, while I fetched the warehouse overseer, got a net, some long sticks and a few husky slaves. It wasn't long before we netted the Favorite, who was now tired and frightened, and brought him to his master. Prevotant looked at me with sheep's eyes. I ignored him, gazing coldly about at the ruin.
"Please let me set it right," he said.
I held out my hand. "You can start with my father's gold," I retorted.
This shocked him. "So much?" It was barely a whisper. But he gave me back the pouch just the same.
"And, that's just to start with," I continued. "Once I've tallied the score of this day's work..." I shook my head. "I doubt you have the means for repayment. I'll advise my father to seek recompense from the Council." I only meant to put the fear of the gods in him. I really didn't expect to collect more. I figured the debt my father's bookkeepers would conjure up would keep him humble for years to come. I was about to go into my own dance of "Buts," and "on the other hands," when he raised a finger for silence. He looked about to see if anyone is watching.
"Perhaps I have something here that will soothe the young gentleman," he said, all oiled charm. He dipped into his robes and plucked something out. He gave me a leer. "You will see it's very special," he said.
He handed me a card. It was white and bordered in rich red. In the center was the seal of the hetaerae guild: the blatantly naked form of Butala, the harvest goddess, with exaggerated breasts and pudenda. Beneath it, in gold leaf: Melina will dance tonight for her special friends and benefactors.
I knew who she was, as did every other man in Orissa. Melina was one of perhaps no more than a dozen beautiful women who were at the very top of the pleasure trade. They were all well-spoken and educated in the refinements of civilization. Great men, rich men, handsome men, heroes, wooed them as much for the pleasure of their company as for the pleasures of their flesh. And in that final hot, rutting goddess of a skill, they had no equal. A man would do much for the love of Melina. Especially a very young man with little to offer but his youth.
I gaped. "How did you come by this?" It was not possible that a man like Prevotant would be asked to join such exalted company, even if he were an Evocator.
Prevotant dismissed my implied insult with another leer. "Do you really care?"
I looked at the card again. Butala was no longer alone. Now she reigned over an elaborate orgy. As I stared the naked figures began to move, coupling and uncoupling in more ways than I had ever imagined.
"I was going to sell it," the Evocator whispered in my ear. "It would bring a fancy price, no doubt."
I looked at her name again, heat rising, the letters growing larger until they filled my vision. "Melina," came the harsh whisper of the Evocator. "For you?"
I took the card, forcing a casual air. "Oh, I suppose it might be of interest." I put it in my jerkin.
"We have agreement, then?" Prevotant asked.
I hesitated, but felt the card burn at my breast. Already I was in her spell. I had to see this woman for myself. I nodded. Prevotant chose to take the nod as a formal seal, shook my hand and, with much babbling, fled the warehouse with his little fiend chattering on his shoulder. But his leer stayed in my mind after he left, and I felt a little silly for accepting the card. Instead of taking the recovered gold and going straight home to triumph, however, I went to a tavern and drank and gamed with my friends until it grew late. Brandy fumes mixed with youth to blow my first hesitations away. Why should I let river slime like Prevotant affect me one way or another? Besides wasn't he an Evocator? And weren't the Evocator's the bane of the Antero family? Why, if I went, I'd be snapping my fingers under all their noses in the name of my family. Wouldn't I?
I slipped away from my companions and went out into the night to hire a litter. The slaves carried me away through narrow streets. When they finally set me down, the moon was at her full height. The building the invitation drew me to had nothing to distinguish itself except general shabbiness. In fact, the whole street was a neighborhood of tenements, shops and taverns for the lowest of the free classes. Lizards and pigs fought in mounded rubbish over scraps of offal. I entered the tenement, doubt of a different kind nagging. Inside, the dark was suffocating. I pulled fire beads from my pocket, whispered an enchantment and they glowed into dim life. The interior was more forbidding with this small bit of light. I could see dark forms hunched here and there, and smaller creatures scuttled from my path. But I plunged on, climbing rickety stairs, stepping with care over broken steps and snoring bodies.
The brandy fumes curling in my brain began to dissipate in this squalor. I eased my rapier in its sheath. This was a place of thieves and witches and I wondered again at my judgment. Then I heard faint sounds of music wafting down the stairs and laughter. On the last landing was an enormous door. Floral incense floated through, pushing aside the tenement's miasma of poverty and too many failed spells. I pulled the chain. Bells chimed. Then footsteps and the door swung open, creaking on its hinges. Light spilled onto the landing and I flung up a hand to shield my eyes.
"How may I assist you, gentle sir?" came a deep voice. My stylish costume was a badge of class and wealth.
"I have ... an invitation," I said, rubbing my eyes to hasten vision. "I have it here ... someplace." I was nervous as I groped for the card in my jerkin.
My eyes suddenly adjusted. My heart lumped into my throat when I saw the enormous black spider perched across my greeter's face. It had an obscene, bulbous body, with jagged bands for legs and huge red eyes that stared back at me. The spider spoke. "Welcome, gentle sir."
I buried panic. The spider was an elaborate tattoo, a totem. My greeter was a tall, skeletal man, with a long, narrow face and pale skin that rarely saw sunlight. He wore rich, brocaded clothing with the red waist sash of a Procurer--a manager licensed by the hetaerae guild.
"The hour is late," the man said. "But you are most fortunate. Melina has yet to dance." He motioned. "This way, if you please." I entered a broad, well-lighted foyer, carpeted with thick, colorful rugs from the Western lands. The music and laughter were louder. The man looked over his shoulder. "My name is Leego, young sir. If there is any way I can assist you this evening, you have only to mention my name to a slave."
I found voice: "That is most kind of you, Leego," I said. "May Butala always smile upon you."
Leego nodded, then flung wide two large doors. "Greetings to our new guest," he bellowed. Feminine shrieks of pleasure and laughter met his announcement. I was surrounded by a dozen of the most beauteous creatures I had ever seen, all quite naked. Now, I was not an inexperienced youth. I'd played tickle and slap-a-belly with many a pert, young household servant and tumbled in the hay with female cousins at my father's farms. In recent years, I'd disport myself with enough tavern wenches and half-coin hetaerae to worry my father that I was poised for self ruin. But I had never, ever been confronted with so much lusciously available flesh. Each woman seemed lovelier than the next. One was tall and shorn of all hair. She had legs and arms long enough to wrap around any man's girth. Another had flowing blonde hair and was small enough to twirl into any imagined position. Some were lush, others slender. And they all giggled and pressed themselves against me, burying me in jiggling flesh and tugging me deeper into the room.
Someone asked my name. "Amalric," I croaked. "Of the Antero family." I heard a buzzing as my name was whispered around the room and then I found myself sprawled among thick, perfumed pillows, a goblet in my hand filled with heady spirits and a naked woman to tempt me with candied delicacies from a silver tray. Fearing any moment someone would shout fraud and drive me out of this paradise, I peered about, trying to behave as if this experience was trifling.
No one was paying me the slightest attention. There were about twenty other men in attendance. Rich men, important men, older men, laughing and talking amongst themselves. Like me, they were lying on thick, richly brocaded pillows and tended by Melina's naked servants. The room was large with vaulted ceilings, and was pleasingly lit. Soft music stirred the silken curtains that covered an arched entryway to one side. Beside the entryway was a large, golden statue of Butala. Her form was more slender than the traditional image, more inviting of caresses. Rugs from the Western lands covered the floor. I had never seen weavers' art like these. Erotic figures curled and blended together. The walls were ablaze with murals depicting wild orgies in every imaginable setting, from forest glens to the pleasure rooms of the gods and goddesses. A heady incense burned in a copper brazier. It produced the thick red smoke wealthy hetaerae used to inflame a man's imagination. For me it was entirely unnecessary. My imagination was already as white hot as a swordsmith's furnace. The woman into whose charge I had been given lifted a slice of honeyed peach to my lips. I obediently opened my mouth.
Then I saw Melina ... and my mouth snapped shut. I have already described her great beauty, her charm, her intelligence and her skills. But those are poor weak words, which cannot begin to illuminate the sensuous creature I saw that first time. She lounged across a low, gilded couch on the far side of the room. The couch was raised on a rug-covered pallet. Unlike her slave girls, she was fully clothed--maddeningly so. She wore translucent pantaloons the color of hearth coals and a sheer blouse of the same shade, with a form-fitting sleeveless jerkin over it. It was vermilion and picked out in gold. The buttons were of rare, worked stones. Her feet were bare and quite small, with red painted nails and gold anklets. Her hands were slender, with long, delicate fingers tipped in red. Each finger bore a glittering ring. Expensive bracelets jangled at her wrists. Long black hair tumbled to the curve of her waist. She toyed with it as she listened to a plump man sitting on the floor next to the couch. He was middle-aged and dressed like a wealthy merchant. A half-dozen other men were also favored enough to sit close to Melina.
I hated every man in that room. I could see each only pretended interest in his companion's conversation. The laughter was false, the talk chattering bravado. In reality all they could think of was Melina. Their eyes kept flickering toward her, greedy, devouring. The naked flesh of those lovely slaves was nothing to them. Just as it had become nothing to me. I only had eyes for the flash of those gold limbs beneath the sheer material of Melina's costume, the red-tipped breasts and the red-glint of henna between those silken thighs. The nakedness of her women intensified my desire to glimpse more--much more--of Melina.
Then my heart stopped. The hatred was forgotten. Melina idly lifted her eyes. They met mine. I felt as if I had been struck by a heavy, padded club. I had never in my life seen such dark mystery. Those eyes were slightly bored when they first met mine. Then I saw--or prayed I saw--a spark of interest. Full, hennaed lips parted. A pink tongue flicked across them. She looked me up and down. Leego came forward to refill her goblet, and I saw her whisper and point. She was pointing at me!
I thought my heart would burst at such good fortune. Then I began to worry. Had I somehow become ugly? Had I been cursed with warty features by some witch hiding on the awful staircase? Had a bat shit in my hair? I reflexively touched my head and realized what had caught her interest. It was my hair. In those days, before the winter of age, my hair was as bright as an Evocator's torch. I was one of the very few men and women in Orissa with red hair. Until this moment it had mostly served as a source of humor to my friends, as had the pale skin that displayed my every emotion. Leego whispered. My name, I supposed. She laughed. I felt my skin turn the color of my hair. I was mortified, sure once again my hair had transformed me into a jest.
To cover my embarrassment, I turned to the slave girl and accepted the peach slice. My mouth was so dry I could hardly chew, much less swallow. Then the music stopped as did the chattering voices of the men. I heard the sweet sound of strings being plucked. I turned back to see Melina had raised herself into a sitting position. In her soft lap was a lute. Her lovely fingers touched strings and the most melodious sound emerged. But it was nothing compared to her rich voice when she lifted it in song.
Melina sang a tale of long ago. It was the story of a young courtesan, sold into the guild by her impoverished family. The girl fell in love with a handsome captain, off to the wars. He promised he would make her his wife when he returned. But he died in battle. The young hetaera grows in beauty and her skills are acclaimed. Many men come to her doorstep with rich gifts and richer promises. She gives herself to them, as is her duty, and accepts their gifts. But there is not one she can ever love. For there is that secret place only the handsome captain had ever touched. A place where no other man would ever be permitted to venture.
When the song was done I could barely hear the applause of the others. I felt tears scalding my cheeks. I ached for Melina and the torment she must be suffering. For I immediately made her the heroine of that song. And I burned with the need to comfort her and take the place of that handsome captain. As did every other man in the room.
Melina, as I have said, was wonderfully skilled.
Her charming smile of thanks singled each of us out. She leaned forward as if to speak and the room was silent. Instead, a graceful arm stretched out. A perfect finger pointed at Butala. An old woman, draped in a rich red robe, emerged from the curtained entryway beside the statue. She wore a golden tasseled sash about her waist. It was one of the hetaerae guild's Evocators.
"Greetings, my lords," she said in a voice oddly youthful for such withered cheeks. "All praise Butala."
"All praise Butala," we responded in the traditional return chant. "May our loins be strong, and the wombs of our women fertile and deep."
I glanced over my shoulder and saw with great disappointment Melina was gone. The Evocator's words brought me back: "You gentlemen will be pleased to know I have just cast the bones, and the omens are favorable tonight will be a most special evening. Butala is pleased with the worthiness and piety of the gathering. She has signaled to me she will permit Melina to reveal a sacred dance few have been fortunate enough to witness."
"All praise Butala," we all chanted. The voices of the other men were as thick as mine. The Evocator slapped her hands together. The statue of Butala moved. A graceful swivel of the torso, arms splaying wide, head going back. A rich, colored liquid spurted from the statue's breasts. Two slave women ankled forward, burnished hips swaying. They caught the liquid in a large golden bowl. In a few moments it was brimming and the twin fountains stopped. The women passed among us, offering the bowl to each man. When it came to me, I obediently bent my head, smelling a thick, pleasing musky odor. I drank. It went down smooth and sweet, lighting a warm fire in my belly. The warmth spread and I felt my blood stir and all my senses snap into full, clear life.
Another clap from the Evocator and a thick cloud of red smoke burst from the incense brazier. It smelled of roses and violets and my flesh tingled in anticipated pleasure. The curtain of billowing silk parted. We saw nothing in the dark alcove except stringed instruments and pipes abandoned on the floor by the never-seen musicians.
The Evocator clapped again. "Oh, beautiful Butala," she intoned, "grant us music as sweet as your womb." She crooked a finger at the instruments. "Play," she commanded. We sat in gaping wonder as the instruments rose from the floor. Pipes and harps and dulcimers alike swayed gracefully. Two small gilded drums danced on either side. Strings were plucked by invisible fingers. Small, padded hammers coaxed beauteous sounds from the dulcimers. Pipes fluted visions of woodland bowers. Drums tat-tat-tatted the rhythms of love.
Melina came out of the gloom like a ghost from the mountains of the gods. Torches flared up on either side, lit by invisible hands. Her naked flesh shown pure gold. We saw the startling perfection of her smooth body for so quick a moment one couldn't be sure it wasn't the sacred drink and our imaginations. Suddenly Melina was covered from toe to crown with writhing shapes of many colors. She stood quite still for one, two, then three heartbeats. We saw images of men and women coupling, other figures in playful chase, women embracing other women as lovers, handsome boys doing the same and wonderfully twisted combinations of both sexes. Melina turned in a slow pirouette, body alive with other scenes of living erotica.
The music shifted and Melina began to dance. First, a slow, swaying shuffle, hips rotating, arms weaving, long, firm legs moving gracefully. Melina's dance quickened, as did the music and spirit forms at play on her body. She kicked and twirled and shook her breasts and hips until I thought I would go mad with lust. I felt the heat rise in the other men. The room became stifling with our must. When we could bear no more, Melina stopped. She held a pose to make a sculptor weep. The images were gone and we could see her in all her glory. My eyes fed on her like a starving man, on her lips, breasts and smooth, shaven vulva outlined in henna. Then the alcove went black. We turned to look at one another, mouths dry, eyes aching in their sockets. Our balls as hard as stones.
"Well, gentlemen," came that wondrous voice, "did I please you?" Our heads swiveled. There ... lounging on the couch ... was Melina. Dressed in pantaloons and jerkin as before. Only a slight sheen coating her body hinted she had danced that incredible dance.
"All praise Butala," we shouted. The applause was deafening. Men tumbled forward to praise her art. There was a loud and constant jangling of coin and clink of rare gems as gift after gift was flung at her feet. Leego floated among the men, smiling, patting them on the back and coaxing even more gifts. I couldn't help myself. I jumped to my feet, hands fumbling for the only gift I had ... my father's fat purse of gold. I muscled through the crowd around her, elbowing my competitors aside as if my strength were twice that of a normal man. She lifted her eyes to meet mine as I stood before her. I saw a glint of pleasure. Sensuous lips curled in smile. I dropped the purse on top of the other gifts. The sound of its fall was pleasingly heavy.
"Ah ... It is my handsome young man with the fiery hair," she said. Her voice was warm and welcoming. But her hot perfume rose to smite me dumb. All I could do was nod.
"Amalric Antero, is it not?" There was no music as lovely as my name upon those lips.
I bowed. "At your service, my lady," I said.
She laughed at my stiff formality. But it was not meant to be unpleasant. Still, I flushed. Melina's white, perfect teeth gleamed. "Oh, do please call me Melina. All my gentlemen friends do. My very close friends, that is." Her fingers touched my hand and I trembled at that touch. "And I can see as well as any diviner, young Amalric, you and I are destined to be ... close friends."
I'm not sure what I stuttered. But she giggled as if I were the great wit of all Orissa. "Tell me," she said, "is your hair real? Or is it some clever cosmetic the young bravos of Orissa now affect?"
"It's quite real, I assure you, my ... uh ... Melina. Upon my honor."
"Perhaps I shouldn't take your word for it," she teased. "After all, there are more interesting ways of proving it, young Amalric." The glint in her eyes told me it was not my sprinkle of chest hair she hinted at. "I could also learn if it is true what knowledgeable women say about red-headed men and their ardor."
If I was dumb before, now my tongue had been ripped out. I wanted to shout to the gods to let me prove it now. Now! I would show her true ardor. Not the fraudulent love these ... these.. beasts offered. Before I could recover, Leego pressed forward. With him was a middle-aged man of distinguished bearing. I recognized him as one of my father's wealthiest competitors.
"If you please, my dear Melina," Leego said, "I want to introduce a very special admirer of yours."
The man stepped forward, his eyes eager. Before I could hear the exchange, I started to rush away. I knew this was the man chosen to enjoy Melina's favors that night. The gift he had presented would beggar mine and those from most of the other men in the room. If I don't leave now, I thought, I'll kill him where he stands. Melina's voice stopped me. "One moment, Amalric."
I turned, afraid to lift my eyes, because I knew they would betray my feelings. But I couldn't help it. I had to see her once more. For the first time, I saw the color of her eyes. They were as green as stones from the hot forests of the north.
"What is it, Melina?" I husked.
"You will come again, won't you? Please promise me you shall."
My answer was hot, unguarded. "I would lay my life down as a gift, fair Melina," I said, "to win another invitation from you."
She did not answer. If she had, I'm sure I would have slit my throat for being such a fool. Instead she kissed one of her perfect fingers, and laid it against my hand. "I'll be waiting, Amalric," she whispered. "My handsome, red-headed man."
I don't remember how I got home. But I felt so godlike after those words, I'm certain I must have discovered the power to levitate.
* * * *
After that night I went to see Melina at every opportunity. Which meant anytime I had weaseled enough coin to buy a suitable gift? Leego made it very clear I would be unwelcome without one. I blamed him for this, not my fair Melina. I was certain she wanted me for myself, not for something so crassly material as gold. What could he know of the higher feelings that beat in both our breasts? He was a Procurer, after all, only interested in the profits the hetaerae guild said was his right. And I knew he must be the greediest individual of his money-grubbing trade.
I tried desperately to ignore Melina's wild swings of mood. One moment only I seemed to matter. The next I would be dust at her feet. I wallowed in her humiliations, the rich gifts she scorned, the cold looks, her ostentatious displays of affection to other men. I put my gift at her feet with the others. Bore her scorn. Bore her jokes at my expense. Bore Leego's increasingly mocking manner.
I spent all I had. Then I sold my possessions. I lied to my father, and begged sum after sum. When he refused me, I borrowed from my friends so heavily they began to avoid my company. For soon as I would despair, Melina would become warm, casting long haunting looks, stroking me and petting me until I was on fire with desire. She would praise me loudly to the other men, make a trinket I had delivered into a treasure trove or complain she was weary and ached from her work--I dared not imagine how she came by those aches and pains--and beg me to massage her. Many a time I was her slave and worked her limbs into suppleness. She would groan under my hands as if lit by passion. She would turn slightly and allow my hands to brush against her secret places. Then she would send me away with promises burning in her eyes. So I always returned, richly laden and eager. This time, I would think, she'll fall into my arms and beg me to carry her away like that brave captain in the song. That moment never came. Because as sure as the sun king lashes his chariot into motion each dawn, the next greeting would be as cold as a slave seller's heart.
This went on for month after humiliating month. I became pale and think in the fevered pursuit. When I slept, the sleep was so troubled that awakened as exhausted as before. It was in that time I began to have a strange dream. A nightmare that came with increasing frequency as the days of my obsession passed. Even now, as I recall it to write these lines in this journal, the dream leaps, leaving me as shaken as it did so long ago.
But I swore I'd tell this tale. And tell it all, despite any pain I might relieve. So here it. The dream that came to me nights:
I was not fettered, but rose when he beckoned as if I wore manacles and he was the keeper at the end of the chain. I stepped awkwardly across the boat's thwarts and then lunged up onto the slime-thick dock carved from living stone. My feet dragged, as my mind screamed: Strike out. You cannot go up those stairs. You must not.
The water beside the boat was thick, heaving, a dark viscous substance. I could hear the hiss of the great river beyond as it rushed through the black gorge the boatman had brought us through. I could also hear baying. It came from above, from the ruined, cursed city on the gorge's plateau. It was not the howling of jackals, or even direwolves. Far above, far outside this river-dug cavern, in the city, in the shattered amphitheaters, in the gods-hammered stones, the creatures sat in patient rings. Up there in the moonless night those creatures that bayed like hounds bore no semblance to anything seen on this earth. The thought came they might have been men, once. Men who had struck a dark bargain.
The boatman took one of the torches that guttered on either side of the arched stairway, and beckoned once again. I saw his arm clear in the flare of the burning pitch, muscles flexing, jumping; an arm that was twisted like an olive that had fought its way up to sunlight through arid stone. But there was no sunlight in his world. I knew his body's contortions had come from the rack, from the fire-hot rod. He turned, satisfied I was following, and went up the worn stone steps, steps that many had stumbled up, crying aloud in their pain. But no one had ever come down again. No one but the masters. Or, this man or his comrades.
I knew this. I knew not how.
He wore only black breeches. On his back, I could see the marks of the lash, old and new. I knew he prided himself on those lash-scars. On my own back wounds throbbed, and I felt the searing, shame, struggle, and moment of pride not yet yielding.
I, too, had been tortured.
Somewhere above, someone was waiting. A great drum began, its boom drowning the dark howls from the ruins on the midnight plateau above.
The steps ended.
We entered in a great chamber, stone arches lifting into blackness. A king's welcoming chamber. It was empty--except for the man and myself. He beckoned once more. I heard the shatter of a cymbal, perhaps only in my mind as I stared full into his face. clang of a cymbal, perhaps only in my mind. It was riven by a thousand sins, a thousand eagerly-sought pains. His nose was broken, then broken again before it had healed. His lips had been shaven away, and his ears were cropped. His face was sliced by a smile, crooked black teeth leering. One eye gleamed black. The other was a gaping socket. But something moved within that socket. A tiny red, writhing fire. A fire that saw more than the solitary eye that peered at me.
"Yes, Amalric, my prey, my enemy, my friend, my reward, his intended partner and ambition." came his voice. "We are almost there. This is what you wanted. This is your weird. This is what your brother could not embrace. Come ... Come ... It has been too long and He is waiting."
He laughed, and the laugh was joined by a great boom from the darkness, from beyond. That roar came from someone who could find no pleasure except in lashing pain. It rose, echoing the now-mad baying from the nightmares in the damned city beyond, then it buried their joy, and became its own cacophony.
I smiled and walked forward. My arms open, welcoming the dark comradeship to come.
I awoke, trembling and perspiring, more exhausted than when I had come to my bed. At first I feared the dream might be an omen or a curse in repayment for my obsession with Melina. But to accept this, I would have needed to confront myself, and see the folly of my ways. So each time it returned I pushed the dream from my mind and fell to scheming once again for money or presents for Melina.
Finally, the day of reckoning came. Spurned by my friends, mocked by enemies, and in danger of being disowned by my father, I sat in my room reviewing the meager possessions yet unsold. I was to see Melina that night. One of her slaves had brought the invitation to my house. She had written at the bottom of the card in her own, dear hand: Come early, my love. So we might steal a few precious moments alone. Hope burned bright in my breast and my loins, then dimmed as I realized I had nothing of value to sell for her giftprice. I thought of rushing to the river and throwing myself to the demon of the currents.
I seriously considered creeping into my father's strong room and stealing the gold that would be required. I was appalled for even thinking such a thing. To steal from my father? What devil has possessed you, Amalric? How could you have allowed events to come to such a pass? This must stop. This must end. Besides, what if she spurns me once more, after I steal from the man who gave me life and was so generous and understanding of such a useless son? It would be impossible to bear.
But I must have her, I thought. I must make her mine. Yes ... but, how? An evil plan rose. It disgusted me to even think it and I hurled it away, and flung myself onto the bed. Buried my head from the betraying light that streamed in from the balcony.
A bird cried outside, and I swore it called: "Melina ... Melina ... Melina." The evil idea crept in again. If I could borrow enough money, I knew of dark places in Orissa where it was reputed certain potions and spells could be purchased, with no questions asked and without the chit of permission from an Evocator. I would buy a love spell.
I understood this was not only evil, but illegal as well. I knew very well it was strictly forbidden to give a love potion to a hetaera. The whole courtesan's guild system might collapse, making a mockery of the sanctity of Butala. The penalties prescribed by the Council of Evocators started with dismemberment, and grew quickly worse. And you will shame your family, I thought. Think of the terrible shadow your family already suffers under for once angering the Evocators. Think of the awful disappointment for your father.
I tried. I really did. But all I could think of was Melina's lips and breasts and thighs that had been denied me so long. These hot thoughts were further fueled by the vow I had taken after our first meeting. I had been with no other woman since that time.
Lust won the toss. Risking life and my family's honor, I rushed out to put my plan into action.