Temples to the Nine Elder Gods, as well as to many of the minor deities, had sprung up all over Rowanhart in the five years since its founding. A few of them were regarded with suspicion by the majority of the citizens of Rowan City. Some were spoken of as vague rumors, their existence questioned. Among those was the rumor that a shrine to the nethergod Hadjys the Dark Judge existed, hidden deep within the bowels of the city. His paladins comprised what the common folk called the Assassins' Guild and the believers referred to as the Hadjysheens.
Although feared by all, there was a little unprepossessing temple in the southeastern corner of the city that was feared far more than the Guild: the temple to Dynanna, God of Cussedness and Perversity. The trouble that minor godling could get people into and out of was both legion and legend. Her high priest was a scamp known as Birdie.Birdie twirled a long strand of dark hair sun-streaked to a sparrow's wing brown as she entered the kitchen and watched her sire stirring a huge cauldron of lamb stew. She was small for a Sharani, not quite half past five feet tall, while the rest of her people stood well over six feet. She had gotten her height from her sire, Zarim, a small black mon from Jedrua. She kissed his cheek. "Good morning, Papa."
Zarim gave her a long look, heavy on feigned distaste at the Vorgeni word she had used for him. Then it melted away and he hugged her carefully before laying his hand on her swollen belly to feel his grandchild moving. "Good morning, Birdie."
Four years ago he had had seven children. Now he just had five, and one of those had been away from home for that same length of time on the far side of the world from him. He had lost two daughters to a rogue vampire. A grandson had been stolen by the infant's father when Birdie divorced him. It seemed to Zarim that sorrow would always cling to their house. The impending birth of the child of his eldest daughter carried had brightened his life a bit.
Birdie noticed a strand of gray hair in her father's nappy coif. "You ought to dye them."
"Life gave them to me. I'll keep them." Zarim clenched his eyes shut tightly, sucking in a deep breath at the unexpectedly sharp edge to his tone.
"Papa, I didn't mean anything by it." She could see the hurt in his eyes. The Sharani had twice the lifespan of the rest of the human races. Zarim was already showing signed of age catching up to him in his late fifties. The black kings of central Jedrua made most of their wealth from diamond mines and from raiding neighboring countries for slaves. Zarim had been twelve when his village fell to the slavers. Most of the boys had been sent to the mines, but a Sharani merchant who dealt in exotic love slaves had spotted Zarim during a tour of the southern continent. He ended up in Shaurone where he was purchased for the bedroom by Birdie's ma'arams, Blackbird and Paunys. Love came calling and they freed him, taking the risk that he might simply decide to leave them. Instead he had moved into the largest bedroom in the house and forced them to court him. The result had been Birdie.
"I'm sorry, Birdie. I keep thinking about Elydar."
A single tear slid down Birdie's cheek. "Brooding about it isn't going to bring him back, Papa."
She kissed his cheek and left the kitchen. A herd of children rushed past her on the stairs, pausing just long enough to give her a polite bob of their shoulders and a "Morning, your holiness," before racing on. Birdie made a sign of benediction to them, adjusted her ankle length robes around her swollen belly, and kept walking. The former leader of a gang of street children in the Sharani city of Armaten, Birdie had been raised a thief, stealing to feed herself, her family, and the war orphans her ma'arams had taken in.
A toddler bolted from a side room and threw her arms around Birdie's legs. "Ma'aram!"
"Good morning, Melisyn." Birdie ruffled her daughter's raven hair. Melisyn was the twin sister to Elydar. Another tear crept to the edge of the priest's eyes, wondering what her son looked like now and imagining him as very similar to Melisyn – assuming that the child still lived. The child lifted her arms to Birdie to be picked up and Birdie shook her head. She was too far into the pregnancy to comfortably carry the toddler. "Grandpapa wants you in the kitchen. Go help him?"
Melisyn giggled and ran off down the hallway.
A chuckle drew Birdie's gaze to the threshold of her office where her na'halaef, Timandra, leaned against the doorframe watching her.
Timandra stood, like most of their race, over six feet tall with broad well-developed shoulders. She grinned at Birdie in an arch manner. "I'm glad it was you who decided to carry the abominable things."
Birdie shook her head at that, motioning Timandra to step into the study with her. It was furnished in cedar, the desk, couch and chairs as well as woven cedar wall hanging depicting Kwaklahmyn legends.
Miccan Heyers had gotten them both pregnant within days of each other. Sharani were triadic, requiring three parents to produce viable offspring. Birdie had snatched Timandra's embryo from her womb by way of an arcane energy called the kyndi and now carried both children within her. There had been a rash of pregnancies in the community, and even several of the female students at the Mage School, all attributed to Miccan.
"I know all the reasons you chose Miccan to sire these children. But seriously, Birdie, did it never occur to you that he was a slut?"
Birdie chuckled at Timandra's droll tone. "You want the truth?"
"Of course I do." Timandra settled on the sofa.
"At first, no. I had just broken up with Lizard and filed for divorce. I was hurting in ways I never imagined I could. Miccan comforted me. Hindsight, Timandra." A touch of rue brushed Birdie's lips. "It took him less than a week to get my legs open. He was persuasive and pushy and I was heartsick at the time." Birdie's thoughts circled round and round. "I'll never be vulnerable again in love, Timandra. Never."
"Not even with me?" Timandra rose from the sofa and bent over Birdie to kiss her passionately.
"Always with you and only you."
"So back to Miccan. The Mage Women's League is holding another protest this afternoon. They're planning to circle on the school green and pass around a symbolic bottle of tansy. As an honorary member of the faculty, I assume you'll attend it?"
"Nothing happens in this town that I don't know about." Birdie snapped back into her old self, eyes glinting with mischief.
Timandra raised an eyebrow at that, knowing that Birdie resorted to her mantra only when something was bothering her. "Like what?"
"Aye, truth. What is it?"
"I didn't realize Miccan was such a slut until a month ago. It took me three years to figure it out. Only thing that's ever gotten past me."
"It's not as if we ever intended to marry him, Birdie."
Birdie sighed and pulled at her robe again. "Lizard would never have…"
"There it is. You're missing him."
"I hate him." Birdie's face twisted up, but the light in her eyes spoke of grief and not anger.
"You don't know for certain that he stole Elydar."
"I divorced him. He leaves town. And our son vanishes on the same day?"
Timandra sighed, and wrapped her arms around her mate. "It's been three years and no one has been able to find either of them."
"One day, I'll find him and I'll get my son back…"
"Birdie, he's Lizard's child also."
Birdie burst into tears.
Timandra took out a handkerchief and dabbed her eyes. "Come on. Chin up. You can't go to the protest with red eyes."
The Manticore Bones Mage Shop was located on Lavender Road three blocks from Dock Street in an area that myn had begun referring to as the Mage Quarter. Palmistry stores, spiritworker tearooms, arcana suppliers, and various establishments catering to the widely diverse tastes of the occult practioners, the dabbling dilettantes, and just plain curious were interspersed along the streets.
A manticore skull sat upon the floor near the door, the tanned skin draped over it, the stinger, claws and teeth strung on a leather thong and run through the empty eye sockets. Three different kinds of hands of glory stood in one glass cabinet; one clearly orc and the other two of species that not even Amberlyn could identify: dark things in that cabinet. Some wondered how anyone who served the powers of light could buy and sell such paraphernalia of darkness.
Amberlyn Willidar's establishment was a mix, a neutral place: full of things of both light and of darkness and of everything in between and of things that would not bear the king’s notice. She served Badonth, a god of the light who believed in turning the tools of the hellgods against them, and so she acquired them from time to time – such as those hands – though she did not make them.
Stones, both raw and polished, filled another glass cabinet, laying in open baskets of woven reeds. In another cabinet were glass canisters with wooden lids, filled with herbs, spices, roots and dried berries, arcanes of every type from dark to light.
Amberlyn paused with a feather duster in her hands, glancing over her shoulder when the bell hanging from the front door rang. A young mon darted inside waving a piece of paper at her.
"We want your signature of this petition, Amberlyn."
"Another one?" Amberlyn laid the duster on a shelf, crossed to the small gate between two low glass fronted cabinets, and joined her visitor near the consultation table in the far right corner. "Trilby, I don't think you'll get rid of Miccan with petitions."
"But you'll sign it, won't you?" Trilby flicked back her loose hair, which had been bleached and then dyed blue – a current rage amongst the female students at the Azure Circle Mage School. She beseeched Amberlyn with a glance.
"Yes, I'll sign it. But one condition. You'll answer a question?"
Tribly lost some of her bounce and settled into a chair at the consultation table. "Whatever, just please sign it and come to the protest?"
"What has Miccan ever done to you personally?" Amberlyn took the chair opposite Tribly.
A bright flush lit Trilby's cheeks. "I guess this has to get out eventually?"
"Yes, I think it ought to. Now tell me?" Amberlyn took pen and ink from a drawer of the table. "As soon as you do so, I'll sign it."
"When I first came to Rowan City, I went up to the school to enroll. I went through the usual tests and then was sent to Miccan." Trilby shrugged with false indifference. "He told me that I did not have enough power to warrant a place in the school, but that he could grant me a special favor."
"That's wrong right there. You're one of the strongest intuitive earth mages I have met…"
"How was I to know that? I'm a small town mon. I had nothing to measure myself against." Tribly's finger described circles on the table and she averted her eyes from Amberlyn's face. "So when he said I would not get in unless I did him a few kindnesses, I believed him."
"And did you?"
The flush deepened in Trilby's cheeks and spread to the tip of her chin. "He did me on the couch in his office right then and there." She paused, her lips compressing with a wince. "I – I was a virgin."
Amberlyn's jaw tightened. "I've been informed that it has become a commonplace occurrence for Miccan to conclude interviews with prospective female students in such a fashion."
"Two out of three is the estimate." Trilby's shoulders drooped.
"You're not going to oust Miccan from his post as headmaster with protests and petitions. Someone needs to talk to Tagalong Tirconnel. She's the wealthiest patron of the school. Tag can dismiss him with a wave of her hand."
"We tried that." Trilby's finger went still and she flattened her palms on the table. "She's refusing to receive visitors until after the birth."
Amberlyn gave a rueful shake of her head. "Married three years and as embarrassed by her pregnancy as an unwed youth. I'll try to talk my way in to see her."
Trilby perked up. "We would be very grateful if you would."
Amberlyn signed the petition and blew on the ink to dry it. "I can't promise to be at the protest. I have some matters that just came up. But I'll try."
"I knew we could count on you." Trilby paused, her fingers making fresh circles on the table. "I've always wondered…"
"Has he ever tried it with you?"
Amberlyn gave out a loud bray of laughter that returned the blush to Trilby's cheeks. "You've never met my husband. Miccan has."
"Is he scary?"
"Absolutely terrifying. Sane folks know better than to get on his bad side. Loky's gentle as a lamb with me, of course. But the rest of the world better look out."
"I think I would like him. Is he coming home?"
"Eventually. He's been away for nearly a year now. I get letters from him. There's a war in Red Wolf, and he's got his hands full dealing with it."
"You miss him?"
"Terribly. Now you'd best get on back."
Trilby smiled, recognizing that as a dismissal. She rose from the table, put the petition back into her satchel and departed.
Amberlyn stared at the wall of her shop without really seeing it, lost in her reflections and loneliness. Their son Josaerin would be a year old that winter and Lokynen had not seen him yet. Their marriage had a lot of peculiarities about it. They were brother and sister by way of their father, Badonth, God of Aggressive Warfare and Vengeance. Lokynen was also her uncle with five hundred years of greats to place before the title. They were yuwenghau – demi-gods serving as divine knights errant. There were four others in the city: Dynarien and his Sharani wives, Edouina and Talons; Amberlyn's son, Josaerin; and King Aejystrys. There had been another, an infant: Elydar, whom Dynarien had sired on Birdie.
Her thoughts circling back and then around Lokynen, Amberlyn reached into the drawer and took out several sheets of paper. She began to write, forgetting how public the consultation table was. The shopkeeper poured out her heart into the letter, telling Lokynen how much she missed him, how fast their son was growing, and how much she wished her husband would come home to her.