"SO YOU are the Duke of Trathmere's widow," said the ugly, smooth-skinned man who called himself Prime Inquisitor to the Khadrach Emperor.
A sudden rush of grief forced Elienne to look down. Scarcely an hour had passed since the Khadrach army had claimed her home and her husband's life, and the words had a lonely, unreal sound. The heavy, blood-crusted boots of halberdiers still seemed nightmarishly out of place against the glass mosaic floor of Trathmere Keep's great hall.
"Answer me, bitch!" said the Inquisitor.
Elienne bridled at his tone, forgetting her torn, soot- stained gown and swollen face. She raised her head and glowered at the rat-faced Inquisitor.
"You dare," she spoke quietly, "you dare call me that? Khadrach mervine! May Hell's own Demons defecate on your tongue. It seems fit for little else."
The Inquisitor blinked, hot eyes framed in a reddening face. His jeweled collar of office glittered like blue flame in the torchlight as he sat back, slowly. Anger always made him careful.
"So." He licked thin lips. "The Lady can curse like a mercenary."
The Inquisitor laced his veined hands on the table before him. "Woman," he said, "you're a Duke's widow, less, even, than the little worm that hatches a fly. You have no worth. Unless, of course, you carry the Duke of Trathmere's unborn heir?"
Without pausing for her answer, the Inquisitor flicked a glance over Elienne's thin body.
"I see not," he observed.
Elienne again shut her eyes. The night before, Cinndel had come to her bed for the first time in weeks, perhaps knowing it was fated to be his last. There was a small chance ... but Elienne crushed the memory at once. Children were not conceived by husbands worn and hardened like flint before the tides of a hopeless war. And scarcely a week past, Elienne had had evidence she was not with child.
She opened her eyes as the Inquisitor went on.
"As mother of Trathmere's heir, you would have some stature in the eyes of the Emperor. As Trathmere's widow, you are an obstacle in his path. By Khadrach Law, only women of blood descent may inherit. The Duchy of Trathmere, therefore, becomes a prize of war, and yourself, my sharp-mannered Lady..." The Inquisitor paused, smiling venomously. "You become chattel of the estate, less, even, than the hens in the byre, for at least they and their eggs may be eaten."
Elienne felt her neck warm beneath the thick, dark knot of hair that had fallen loose across her shoulders. Despite the fear that nestled like a toad in her stomach, she drew a long, steady breath. "Tell me, Inquisitor"—her tone became acid—"do all Khadrachi carry their manhood in their bellies?"
The Inquisitor shot half out of his chair before he could curb his temper. He rearranged himself like a snake coiling to strike, and rage splintered abruptly into laughter.
"That was a foolish challenge, Little One." He turned to the halberdiers. "Have her brought to my chambers at sundown. She will learn quickly how a Khadrach officer likes his bed warmed. Until then, lock her away. I find her manner offensive."
"Touch me, and you'll learn regret!" said Elienne. The Inquisitor ignored her. He nodded to the halberdiers.
A gauntleted hand prodded Elienne's back. Rather than allow herself to be driven like an animal, Elienne gathered the tattered ruin of her skirt and walked from the hall. Though she did her best to ignore the clanking presence of her escort, pretended indifference did nothing to loosen the terror that circled her thoughts like a garrote. She had acted rashly. Cinndel was dead. What had she thought to gain by further resistance?
"I love you for your horrid, saucy little tongue," Cinndel had once said to her. The memory brought tears despite her attempt at control. She stumbled blindly. The misstep earned her an ungentle shove from a halberd haft. Elienne blinked quickly to clear her eyes, and found herself guided around a corner and down another corridor. Lancet windows cast patterns of light and shadow like a game board, herself the pawn haplessly manipulated across its wide squares. Elienne shivered. Already the sun slanted toward late afternoon. Night would be upon her all too swiftly.
The halberdiers stopped at last before a portal bound with ancient, rusted iron. Lurid orange stains streaked the oak panels between, caused, Elienne knew, by condensation from Trathmere castle's dungeons. In her memory, the door had never been opened. But the shock and revulsion she felt only inspired amused laughter and grins from her guards.
"Got cold feet, little Lady?" said one. "Inquisitor'll warm ‘em, sure‘s fire."
The door opened with a torturous groan, spilling a wash of damp air. A man was sent for a torch. Elienne waited in silence and struggled to contain her apprehension. The cresset's guttering, smoky light revealed a littered stair that plunged down into darkness. Elienne forced an outward show of courage. Cinndel had disliked women who were silly and afraid. The chilly touch of a halberd against her shoulder pressed her forward.
Gritty stone met Elienne's slippered foot, and cobwebs trailed like ghost fingers through her hair as she descended. Daylight faded behind, replaced by the fitful flicker of torchlight. The stair ended in a corridor so low the soldiers had to stoop. Confined, the reek of tallow and sweat became stifling. The curses and clangs as helms scraped against slime-caked stone made Elienne want to stop her ears.
The soldiers thrust her into the first available cell. A thin slice of light fell through the barred slot in the door while the soldiers wrestled slide bolts jammed with rust. Elienne heard an annoyed order accompanied by the jingle of steel mail as her escort unslung weapons and pounded the bolts home.
"Bide well, little Lady." Rough voices and torchlight receded, leaving Elienne in darkness. Minutes later, she heard the moaning complaint of the upper door being drawn closed. The echoes died slowly into thick silence broken erratically by the sullen drip of water. Elienne reached out to orient herself. Her hand met stonework soft with slime, and something wet squirmed away from her touch.
Elienne flinched back. The curse she uttered would have embarrassed a stablehand, but the effect was ruined by the shuddering sob that followed. Cinndel had frowned upon tears, but he was dead. The spirit he had admired in her had earned no less than the shame of the Inquisitor's bed. Succumbing to the despair that had driven her since Trathmere's fall, Elienne allowed herself to cry. Better here, she felt, than before Khadrach eyes.
She quieted after a time. The tears dried on her cheeks, and the water drop's monotonous song became predictable and familiar to her ears. It reminded her of the water clock her uncle had tried to rig with chimes. The mechanical portion had never worked properly, and it was forever striking the hour out of sequence. Elienne pushed the memory aside and leaned wearily back against the door. The Khadrach had burned both her uncle and his silly clock. The Emperor's armies had marred almost everything that had ever given her pleasure, and uttering another stinging curse, Elienne lapsed into silence.
Time passed, but Elienne had no way to mark the hours. The waiting was long—perhaps the Inquisitor had forgotten her? More likely the dark, damp solitude stretched minutes to hours below, while above the sun had not yet set. Then, abruptly, she realized she was no longer alone. The darkness remained impenetrable as before, the water drop an erratic solo against stillness; yet, for no apparent reason, Elienne sensed a presence with her that had not been in the cell before. It evaded definition.
Uneasy, but not yet afraid, Elienne pushed herself away from the door. She reached out, but groping fingers met nothing. There was nothing there, she thought, stung by self-reproach. No tangible cue sparked her imagination, only nerves. Still the feeling persisted. Something, or someone, had invaded her solitude.
Half in annoyance, Elienne reached out again. This time her fingers encountered the sharp, cold prickle of an Enchanter's craft.
Elienne gasped and drew back. The Enchanters were surely dead, all of them; Guild Tower had been mercilessly leveled by Khadrach. Any survivors would have learned better than to practice loremagic within the Emperor's lands. And what could an Enchanter offer but illusions anyway, Elienne thought. Anger at her helplessness followed.
"Show yourself, meddler," she said sharply. Her troubles were great enough without a stranger intruding on them. "Show yourself! I am sick to death of guessing you out."
A faint light sparked into existence before her. With a thin snap, it flared into startling brilliance. Darkness shattered, knifed into sudden shadows. Elienne shielded aching eyes with her hands, half-blinded, and found herself face to face with a Sorcerer.
He was dressed richly in the heavy blues of twilight, his cloak lined with red. His features were mapped with the usage of centuries. The light, brilliant and dense as a winter star, hung poised over the palm of his hand. Without asking, Elienne realized he hailed from no Guild in Trathmere, or in any other land listed in the archivists' records. This was no dabbler in images.
"Who are you?" she demanded.
The Sorcerer dimmed his light and, with a flick of his finger, set it adrift. His mouth reflected forced patience, and light eyes regarded her with the dispassionate intensity of a snake. "I am called Ielond."
"Searcher," translated Elienne, wondering even as she spoke. The name derived from no language she knew. Meaning could have come only from Ielond's own touch upon her mind. Overwhelmingly awakened to the fact she confronted a wielder of intense and dangerous power, Elienne was unable to curb the question that rose like a challenge to meet him.
"What do you seek in Trathmere's dungeons, Gifted? Khadrach have no love for your kind."
"I seek a bride for the Prince of Pendaire."
Elienne's temper flared, heated by memory of Cinndel, whom she loved without thought for another. "Myself, Gifted? Am I the one you came for?"
Staring upward, Elienne read her answer in the Sorcerer's impassive silence. "Devil and Demons take that idea! Keep your Prince, Gifted. Better I take my chances with that mervine of an Inquisitor. Himself I am free to hate."
"Keep still." Above Ielond's shoulder, the light flared like a small sun. "You will wed my Prince only if you prove worthy—and your manner with strangers shows regrettable lack of courtesy."
"Then search elsewhere, I beg you." Elienne fought to contain sudden tears, overcome by the sensation that there was nothing understandable left in the world.
Quiet for a long moment, Ielond stood with his head bent, perhaps listening to the lonely splash of the water. Elienne glared at him through swimming eyes and noticed his face had softened a little.
"Will you leave, Gifted? I have little desire to be any man's companion."
Ielond spoke at last with measured, forceful phrases. "I will go, Lady Elienne, if that is what you wish. But before you speak, hear me. Your choice will also affect the life of the child you carry within you."
Elienne stepped back, clumsily, into the door. Her hands moved instinctively to her middle. "Last night," she whispered, and felt chilled. Could it be true, after all, that Cinndel ...
Ielond finished the thought with icy abruptness. "Fathered a child upon you, yes. Before you allow yourself hope, hear what alternatives await you. The Inquisitor will take you to his bed, come nightfall. He will be startled by your beauty, for he did not notice it this afternoon beneath the dirt. If you manage to control your tongue in his presence, he will take you on as consort. Cinndel's son will be claimed as his own blood without hope of proof to the contrary."
Elienne gasped, suddenly pale beneath soot-streaked skin. "Never. Not while I live."
"That is but one alternative," Ielond continued remorselessly. "There is another. You will slight the Inquisitor with your customary lack of tact. He, in a subsequent fit of temper, will break your neck. Mistress, it will take you eight months to die, and your child will miscarry."
Elienne pressed against her prison door, wrung speechless with horror.
"Or you can come with me," Ielond said, "and perhaps be saved. I cannot promise such choice will be without peril, but the Prince is a just man, and your son would become heir to Pendaire's throne."
Elienne dragged air into her lungs to curse, but her throat locked against words. Suddenly she wished Ielond had not told her of the child, for that knowledge made her yet more vulnerable than before. She was also afraid. No Guild Sorcerer ever known could appear at will behind locked doors. What sort of man was the Prince of Pendaire, who sent an adept powerful as Ielond to search for his bride?
"You must choose, and quickly." Ielond gestured impatiently. The stamp of booted feet could be heard descending the dungeon stair, and stone walls threw back unpleasant echoes of male laughter. The guardsmen had spent a busy interval celebrating their victory with drink. Gripped by sudden revulsion, Elienne made her decision.
"I will go." She hoped the Inquisitor's wrath would kill him when he learned of her escape.
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