the destroyer goddess

 

 

Praise for

 

The Destroyer Goddess

The Silerian Trilogy: Book Three

 

 

 

Year's Best list,
Publisher's Weekly

Year's Best list,
Voya

 

 

"Fast-paced, witty and full of action, the book is a marvel of storytelling, but it's the credible, complex relationships among the characters that elevates this far above the usual fantasy standard... Resnick fans have cause to rejoice."

—[starred review]
Publishers Weekly

 

"The rivalries and feuds continue fast and furious, not to say bloody, and Tansen nearly loses his life. But a mysterious boy from the ranks of the waterlords saves Tansen to continue his struggle to a breathless and satisfactory conclusion. The tale will certainly keep its series audience industriously turning pages and make them hope Resnick has more in store for them."


Booklist

 

"Free will wars with vague prophecy and divine intervention in this epic romantic fantasy, which will stay with readers long after the satisfying conclusion... [Resnick's] mythology and world-building are flawless, the characters are convincing and complex, and Sileria is intoxicatingly believable."

                        —
Romantic Times

 

"Resnick's writing is as sharp as always. The book may be hefty but every word is essential... Characters are the heart of great writing, and this is great writing. Let's hope Resnick never stops."


Cincinnati Enquirer

 

 

 

 

Copyright

 

 

 

The Destroyer Goddess

Copyright © 2003 & 2011 by Laura Resnick

ISBN: 978-1-61475-881-5

Ebook published by Blonde Trifecta

 

Maps by Elizabeth Person

 

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

 

The copying, reproduction, and distribution of this ebook via any means without permission of the author is illegal and punishable by law. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions and refuse to participate in or encourage the electronic piracy of copyrighted materials. Your support of the author's intellectual property rights is greatly appreciated. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To my cousin Robert, his wife 

Glenda, and their son Brian

 

 

 

 

Foreword to the E-Book Edition of

The Destroyer Goddess

The Silerian Trilogy: Book Three

 

 

This ebook contains some extra features which were not in the original hardcover and paperback editions of
The Destroyer Goddess.

First and foremost are the color maps, which I commissioned from my friend Elizabeth Person. If you have a black-and-white e-reader and would like to see the color versions, or if you'd just like to see a larger image of the maps and some additional information about them, they're posted on my website.

There's also a
Glossary
of various terms created for the world of the novel, as well as directories of
Characters
,
Clans
,
Factions
, and
Place Names
.

The Destroyer Goddess
has been out of print for a few years, and I am delighted to be able to make it available again. I hope you enjoy this novel—as well as the first two books of this trilogy,
In Legend Born
and
The White Dragon.

 

—Laura Resnick

 

 

Interregnum

 

Dar, the destroyer goddess, chose Sileria 

as Her home... and no one loves 

destruction the way a Silerian does.

—Ambassador Kaynall,

                  former Imperial Advisor in Sileria

 

 

The last of the Valdani warships left Sileria and set sail for the mainland, ending centuries of foreign rule as Emperor Jarell's forces withdrew from the mountainous island nation which dominated the Middle Sea, once named Sirkara—heart of the world—by an ancient people whose forgotten empire had been the first of many to rise in glory and descend in flames.

The last of the Valdani ships left Sileria... but not the last of the Valdani. During two hundred years of occupation, generations of Valdani had been born in Sileria, and this was the only home they knew. Although some fled to the imperial city of Valda or sought refuge somewhere in her sprawling empire, many others remained, unwilling to abandon the land of their birth. But after two centuries of harsh Valdani rule, many Silerians were eager to murder any Valdan who didn't leave the newly-freed nation which Josarian the Firebringer had died to liberate from the heavy yoke of Valdani rule.

The last of the Valdani ships left Sileria... and finally abandoned Silerians to their own private bloodfeuds, to enmity  nurtured for centuries, to enduring hatred so fierce that no outsider could truly understand it. 

The Firebringer's loyalists declared war on the Honored Society which had betrayed him. The waterlords and assassins of the Society promised destruction to any Silerian who was not loyal to them, and they vowed to kill every last Guardian of the Otherworld. The
shallaheen
, Sileria's mountain peasants, chose one side or the other, then ferociously attacked anyone who chose differently. The
toreni
, Sileria's aristocrats, sought to protect their wealth in a land disintegrating into rampant chaos. The lowlanders and the city-dwellers were swept into the fiery whirlwind engulfing everyone in the country, while the sea-born folk tried to remain aloof from the quarrels of the landfolk. The
zanareen
, that religious sect of Dar-loving madmen, mourned the death of the Firebringer and wailed dark warnings about the suffering that Dar would now inflict on Sileria for having murdered Her chosen one.

And as Sileria spiraled into the inferno of civil war, Dar demanded Her due. She Called people from all over the nation to come and worship Her, praise Her, comfort Her, and offer Her their lives. They came from the thirst-maddened cities, the war-torn mountains, the withered fields of the lowlands, and the villages devastated by earthquakes. They came to dwell on Mount Darshon, the snow-capped volcanic mountain wherein the destroyer goddess dwelled. They came to die in explosive showers of burning rock, or to melt in the rivers of lava that streamed down the tormented slopes of the mountain. Vents opened in Darshon's ravaged skin to smother them with poisonous fumes, avalanches buried them alive, and the volcano threatened to consume them all in a massive eruption.

And still they came, drawn there by a summons they could not resist.

Strange colored clouds and dancing lights surrounded the summit of Darshon, visible from vantage points throughout much of Sileria. Meanwhile, in the night sky over Mount Dalishar, where perpetual fires burned without fuel in the sacred caves, pilgrims continued to see the now-famous visions there which warned of—or promised?—an imminent arrival. 

No one could say what the visions meant, nor could anyone bring solace to a nation so thirsty that it daily spilled and drank its own blood. 

A child of fire, a child of water, a child of sorrow...

Sleeping in a mountain Sanctuary of the Sisterhood, where she awaited her fate, Mirabar the Guardian awoke with a pounding heart. Gasping for air, she sat up and pressed a hand to her sweat-dampened brow.

Fire and water, water and fire...

She heard the silent voice of the Beckoner, the mysterious Otherworldly being who brought her visions to her. He'd made her a prophetess and valued advisor to the Firebringer. Now she was a hunted enemy of the Honored Society.

Welcome him... 

"Am I doing the right thing?" Mirabar asked aloud.

There was no answer.

"I failed Josarian, and he's dead," she said, her voice breaking. "Will I fail the new ruler I've foreseen in my visions? The Yahrdan? How can I protect him?"

Welcome him... Welcome your fate.
 

 

 

Chapter One

 

Love demands its martyrs 

and craves its sacrifices.

                              —Kintish Proverb

 

 

Elelar realized what Tansen had done as soon as she saw the blood-soaked cloth wrapped around his left hand. She had seen his protective affection for Zarien, the sea-born orphan who traveled with him. So it didn't take a
shallah
to guess that he'd recently cut his palm with a knife, in a ritual typical of Sileria's mountain peasants, to make the boy his bloodson.

"Are you sure that was wise?" she asked Tansen as soon as they were alone together in Santorell Palace. They were in the same room, in fact, where she had watched in horror as Searlon the assassin murdered Commander Cyrill to help Elelar convince Advisor Kaynall that he must publicly announce that the Valdani were surrendering Sileria to native rule.

"You're supposed to congratulate me," Tansen replied. "Becoming a father is—"

"Zarien is not like other boys," Elelar said. "Surely you see that."

"Dying and being given new life by a goddess has a tendency set someone apart," he agreed dryly. "However, since I saw my bloodbrother through a similar fate, who better than me—"

"This could be a very good thing for you," she interrupted again. "I see that. I understand that."

"Then why do you look as if I've taken a fever instead of a son?"

"Because men never think these things through practically."

"Don't start," Tansen warned her.

"He was sea-bound for the first fourteen years of his life," she persisted. "How well do you really know him? How well could you
possibly
—"

"Much better," he pointed out, "than many people know each other before they get married." He lifted one brow but didn't bother to cite an obvious example. He didn't need to.

Elelar sighed, recalling Tansen's insistence that she locate her husband. "I've had news from my estate. Ronall has been there recently."

"Is he still there?"

"No, he left again. Almost immediately. With no explanation about where he was going. And," she added with irritation, "he took my favorite horse with him again." She paused, then said in puzzlement, "He also brought my widowed cousin there for safety. Only..."

"Only?"

"I do not, as far as I know,
have
a widowed cousin," said Elelar.

"Perhaps she was widowed quite recently?" Tansen suggested.

"How would Ronall, of all people, know about it before I do?"

"Maybe he was visiting her and—"

"He wouldn't be welcome among any of my relations.
I
haven't been welcome among most of them ever since I married him."

Tansen shrugged off her family problems and said, "So you're no closer to locating him than you were before?"

"No. But I've been..." She couldn't help grimacing before she continued, "Talking about him here in Shaljir. In public. Saying... nice things about my... heroic husband." It made her want to kick someone.

As if sensing this, Tansen edged away from her. "Good."

She turned to another topic. "We've received bad news."

"What?"

"Baran is siding with Kiloran."

His expression became focused and very serious as the discussion turned to the Honored Society. "How do you know?"

"We've learned that they had a truce meeting."

"Ah. I knew there'd been one, but I didn't know if Baran attended."

"He did," she said. "And he and Kiloran made their peace there. Temporarily, of course."

"Of course."

"In front of quite a few witnesses from the Society, Baran agreed to oppose you and to help Kiloran bring the city of Shaljir under the Society's influence—by using the Idalar River, obviously." The river was the capital city's primary source of water, and Baran had spent recent years challenging Kiloran's sorcery for control of it.

Tansen's jaw worked for a moment as he considered the threat of those two powerful waterlords, usually at odds with each other, now unified to fight him. "Damn. That's discouraging." After a heavy pause, he added, "Still, maybe Mirabar can bring Baran around. He might still be—"

"Mirabar should stay away from him." When he looked sharply at her, Elelar explained, "Before they parted, Baran and Kiloran divided up their tasks. Kiloran is coming after you, and Baran will take charge of killing Mirabar." A moment later, she said to Tansen's retreating back, "Wait! Where are you going?"

"Home."

"What?" He had no home.

"I'm leaving Shaljir," he said, opening the door and pausing briefly. "I told Mirabar to do whatever she had to do to get Baran on our side. If she doesn't know about this truce meeting, she'll walk right into whatever trap he sets for her, especially if he baits it with promises of cooperation. I've got to stop her."

"Tan—" She closed her mouth. He was already gone.

A moment later, she heard him shouting for Zarien as he ascended the steps to gather his few belongings and set off for the mountains again.

 

 

Najdan left Mirabar in Sister Velikar's Sanctuary, where she would await Baran's return from Josarian's native village of Emeldar. Najdan had things to attend to while the
sirana
and his woman, Haydar, were temporarily safe in the little Sanctuary on Mount Dalishar's slopes. Besides, he had no desire to be anywhere nearby while Haydar explained certain things about marriage and men to Mirabar. Many subjects were best left strictly between women, and that was one of them.

Just when Najdan believed the world could get no stranger or more bewildering—it did.

Mirabar, the most famous Guardian in all of Sileria was going to marry Baran, a waterlord who was second only to Kiloran in power—and in the fear he had inspired for years. Perhaps Najdan, the Society assassin who now served Mirabar, shouldn't be shocked by the idea; but he was. 

When Mirabar broke the news to him, he forbade her to marry Baran, or even speak to that demented sorcerer again. Had Mirabar lost all her wits? Did she really intend to accompany Baran to the moldy ruins of Belitar where he could murder her at his leisure, in the comfort and privacy of his own home? When had any Guardian ever been able to trust a waterlord? And even if Mirabar
could
trust one, did she really want one as notoriously crazy as
Baran
for her husband? Najdan did not want to see so worthy a young woman bound to so repellent a man.

"Even if he
doesn't
kill you in some devious scheme or sudden fit of madness," Najdan had added, "he's too old for you!" Though Mirabar didn't know her exact age, she was certainly no more than twenty; whereas Baran must be close to forty by now. 
      There was a lot of shouting, since Mirabar was being completely unreasonable. Haydar had ventured into the Sanctuary and tried to make them both calm down, and Najdan yelled at his warm-hearted mistress for the first time in years. Seeing her stricken expression brought him to his senses, and that was when Mirabar also calmed down enough to explain herself.

And so it unfolded. 

A child of water. A child of fire.
 

Things Najdan didn't understand and would really rather not think about too much. Baran's words to the
sirana
echoed the promises in Mirabar's visions. So now she was convinced the waterlord would somehow help her fulfill the prophecies of the Beckoner. 

She was very confused, though. Well, that was understandable. Conversation with Baran would confuse
anyone.
Mirabar didn't know if she would be the mother of the new Yahrdan, but she seemed to think not. Somehow, though, the child she would bear would be integral to Sileria's future, and there were things at Belitar, Baran's home, which she must learn and understand.

If that was the way it had to be... Well, Najdan supposed he had already done stranger things in his life—such as betraying his former master, Kiloran, to protect and serve a Guardian.

Baran had offered a home to Najdan and Haydar at Belitar, too. Although the idea initially revolted Najdan, Haydar made him see that if Mirabar was indeed going to marry Baran—and she was, Najdan had eventually agreed upon that point after being confronted with the will of Dar and the Beckoner in this matter—then the assassin must join her at Belitar or abandon her altogether. And no one, Haydar reminded him, should be abandoned alone with Baran. 

Besides, Haydar was tired of living in Sanctuary and of sleeping without Najdan at her side. They could be together at Belitar. And as long as Baran didn't kill them all, Haydar added, where would Najdan's women be safer from Kiloran, in all of Sileria, than in Baran's lair?

As long as Baran doesn't kill us all.

Yes, that could be the flaw in the plan—it relied on Baran being honorable enough
and
sane enough to keep his word and not harm any of them.

It had taken time, but Najdan had finally agreed to Baran's plans, though not without some bargaining. The
sirana
was a great prize as a wife, and so Najdan deemed a high bride price was required—particularly since Baran was a man of great means. After some thought, Mirabar herself had set the price: Baran must cure the poisoned water of Emeldar, so that Josarian's people could one day go home to the village from which they had reluctantly set out to fight the greatest empire in the world and free Sileria. As the man responsible for the
sirana,
in the absence of male relatives, Najdan presented this demand to Baran as the cost of winning her.

According to Kiloran, Baran had originally come from a merchant family. Najdan believed it now, because the haggling over the bride price had been energetic and skilled, and Baran had clearly enjoyed it. Until, that was, he suddenly seemed to grow tired. Then he agreed to Najdan's demands without further protest, and he stayed behind in Sanctuary with Sister Velikar while the rest of them ascended to the sacred caves to observe the phenomenon that everyone was talking about in these parts: the visions which sometimes appeared high over Dalishar, often accompanied by the promise, "He is coming."

Najdan had seen it before and had no interest in enduring that blood-curdling Otherworldly experience again, but Velikar had insisted he leave, anyhow. She and Baran had private business of their own, she said, though she wouldn't reveal what business a Sister could possibly have with a waterlord.

There were huge numbers of pilgrims crowding the camp at Dalishar these days. Even more were on the roads and rocky paths heading east, to distant Mount Darshon. Glowing eyes or a powerful fist in the night sky at Dalishar, the strange dances of colored smoke and flashing lights at the snow-capped summit of Mount Darshon, the wild-eyed worshippers from all over Sileria streaming toward Dar's home in answer to some strange summons from the volcano goddess... And Mirabar, a Guardian of the Otherworld, preparing to share the marriage knife with Baran.

Najdan supposed it was just as well that no one had ever told him what his future held; he wouldn't have believed them, anyhow.

Now he, after too long an absence, was returning home to the miserable little village where he had been born. His mother and his two sisters, both married, were still here—if they were alive—and he had neglected them. He had ensured their safety and comfort throughout his years as an assassin, but he had not seen them or communicated with them since betraying Kiloran. That change of allegiance was not something he particularly looked forward to announcing to these women whom he scarcely even knew anymore, and his most urgent duties had kept him away from here lately, anyhow.

Najdan didn't think Kiloran would punish his betrayal by murdering his female relations, which would be a thoroughly dishonorable deed; but he needed to make sure—and also to bring them whatever money he could, as he had done for years. So now that there was time for this task, before he accompanied Mirabar and her new husband to Belitar, he came home again, to the hungry and desperate place which had once given him, in place of food, the passionate ambition to make something of his life so that he would never be hungry again.

He no longer wore the clothes of an assassin, and he kept his
shir
hidden inside one of his dusty boots. As Kiloran's enemy, rather than his servant, Najdan could no longer afford to draw attention to himself with the red and black colors he had worn for twenty years, or by openly displaying the beautifully-crafted water-born dagger which he would never relinquish or surrender. So he looked like just another sojourner when he entered the village, just another tired and hungry traveler on a hot Silerian day. Hardly anyone paid him attention as he made his way to his mother's simple stone house.

The tattered
jashar
still hung in the doorway, blowing in the slight breeze. Its knotted, woven strands proclaimed his family's lineage and history, humble even by the standards of
shallaheen.
He was the only man who had ever brought honor to the family, as well as food and security; the only man to make a name for himself, to improve his position, to gain even a little minor fame through his deeds.

Consequently, his mother and sisters thought he had hung the moons. Their fawning could be a little tiresome, but he looked forward to it today. After all, every man of worth enjoyed his share of it now and then.

He pushed aside the
jashar
and called out to his mother as he entered the low-ceilinged dwelling. She rose to her feet when she saw him. He was pleased to see her looking well—better than he expected, actually, considering the privations of the rebellion, the civil war, and the dry season. 

Najdan grinned at the shocked expression on his mother's wrinkled face. "Did you think I was dead?"

He glanced at the other woman in the room—his youngest sister, Neysar—and saw her swallow as she rose to her feet, staring at him. Her wide-eyed gaze narrowed a moment later and she said, "We only hoped that you were."

Najdan frowned. The instincts of a lifetime in the Society had him moving away from the door even before the attack came, even before his sister said, "And now you will be."

Someone
had
noticed him enter the village, he realized, dodging the thrust of a
shir
from an assassin who flew through the door of his mother's little home. Men too shrewd to show themselves, too experienced to let themselves be seen.

The second attacker came through the door as Najdan pulled his
shir
from his boot and started swinging his
yahr
in a circle over his head.

Clumsy,
he thought. They should have killed him before he even knew they existed. They should never have given him a chance to fight back. Searlon would have advised an ambush, would have told them he couldn't be taken as easily as most men; but, no, these two were young and wanted to prove their honor, wanted to defeat him in combat rather than through stealth. 

One dropped to the ground and went for his legs, a surprise ploy that worked against many opponents. Najdan broke his nose with the
yahr
, then trapped the
shir
-wielding hand beneath his boot heel. He came down hard on the assassin's spine with a knee and heard it snap. The screams told him his opponent wasn't dead, but Najdan knew he was no longer a threat, so he ignored him and went after the other one.

This one was impatient. Najdan saw it and guessed that he had been waiting for him to show up in this dull little village for quite some time. Najdan baited him, letting his impatience turn to recklessness. When the attacker overcommitted on a thrust, Najdan stunned him with the
yahr
, then drove the wavy-edged blade of the
shir
up under his ribs and into his heart.

The body dropped to the ground, the thud barely audible above the screams of the assassin with the broken back. Najdan walked through his victim's blood and tracked it across his mother's rush-covered floor, then slit the throat of the screaming man.

Only then did he look at the womenfolk who had betrayed him.

His mother was weeping, pleading for him to tell her it wasn't true, none of it was true, it was all a mistake. His sister was ordering her to be quiet, not even to speak to this filthy
sriliah
.

Najdan looked at his mother, at the woman who had loved and tended him until the day he left home to make his first kill and gain Kiloran's esteem, and he said something he didn't think he had ever said to anyone before: "Let me explain."

"No!" his sister shouted. "You betrayed Kiloran! You have betrayed us all!"

"There was a reason," he said, already knowing it would do no good. 

Najdan knew these people. He knew their absolute loyalty to traditional ways and their fear of the Society. He knew their awe of Kiloran. He knew all this because he had been one of them.

"You are dead to us!" his sister hissed. "
Dead.
I have no brother."

"Mirabar—"

"Has her own people! As you had yours."

He heard someone approaching the door and he prepared for more combat. Then he saw his eldest sister and lowered his guard. "Nulimar..."

Her eyes were cool, where Neysar's were hot. She had always been the more intelligent one. "You made your choice, Najdan." She looked at the corpses polluting her mother's house. "And you will live with it for a while longer, I see."

"The world has changed," he said. "Th—"

"Not that much," said Nulimar. "Not here. Some things are still unforgivable. Some things still make a man dead to his family, though he walks and talks even after they've finished mourning him."

"Kiloran takes care of us now," Neysar told him. "He mourns you, too, for he loved you like a son."

"And you betrayed him," Nulimar said.

Najdan said, "I did what I thought was right."

His mother wailed, and Neysar screeched, "You thought betraying your master was right? You thought humiliating us before the entire village—the entire clan—was
right?
"

"The Firebringer—"

"Is dead!" Neysar shrieked. "Now who is master of Sileria? Now who deserves our loyalty and love?"

He said, "Kiloran will never deserve to—"

"
Get out!"
Neysar screamed. "Get out of this house! You are dead to us! Don't ever come back!"

Najdan looked at his mother, who was weeping in his sister's arms. He could think of nothing to say besides, "I've brought you some money t—"

"Don't bother," Neysar snapped. "Kiloran ensures that we have all we need."

Najdan took the small purse he had brought and put it on the rickety wooden table. "I want you to have this, even so."

"We'll just put it on the funeral pyre along with the corpses you've given us today."

"That's your choice," he said quietly.

"Get out," Neysar repeated. She indicated their mother. "Can't you see how you're hurting her?"

He nodded. "I'll go." He took one last look at his mother. "Goodbye." He wasn't even sure she could hear him above the noise of her own sobs.

He walked past Nulimar, who followed him outside. Most of the village was gathered there now. Their expressions ranged from blank to openly hostile.

"You knew how it would be," Nulimar said quietly. "Surely you knew." When he didn't reply, she added, "Or did you even think about us at all?"

Najdan had, but too late, much too late. Kiloran had thought of them first. And so Kiloran had won. They were his now. 

 

 

Tansen had told Mirabar to go to Sister Velikar's Sanctuary to await news from Baran, so that seemed the best place to start looking for her. He had journeyed most of the way from Shaljir on horseback, despite Zarien's discomfort and occasional accidents, then simply abandoned their mounts when the way became too narrow, steep, and rocky for riding to be practical.

Now, as he approached Sanctuary, half-dragging the exhausted sea-born boy with him, he prayed silently to Dar to protect Mirabar, who had served Her so bravely and faithfully. 

A sentry saw him, and before the
shallah
could even greet him, Tansen shouted, "Do you know where Mirabar is?"

"At Velikar's!" was the reply.

Relief flooded his heart.

"Gods be praised," Zarien murmured breathlessly, yanking his wrist out of Tansen's grip. The boy sank to the ground and urged him, between panting breaths, "Go. Leave me... here. I'll... catch up... later."

Mount Dalishar was safe enough, Tansen supposed—much of it well-guarded ever since the ambush he had survived. "Don't be long."

Zarien fell back gratefully on the rocky soil, closed his eyes, and waved him away. 

It didn't take Tansen long to reach the simple stone Sanctuary, especially now that he wasn't hauling an ever-growing and tender-footed boy behind him. He saw a number of people he knew gathered there, and he easily recognized Lann—by his size and his beard—from a distance. 

Tansen ignored all greetings as he approached and demanded of Lann, "Where's Mirabar?"

"Around there." Lann gestured to the back of the building. "Tansen, there's something you should—"

"Later."

"Uh, Tan?" Yorin said, his one remaining eye blinking rather a lot. "Maybe you should—"

"Tansen!" Lann tried again.

Behind him, he heard Pyron saying to them, "Let it go."

"But—"

"You don't really want to be the one he hears it from, do you?"

Tansen ignored them all in pursuit of his woman. He found her standing in Velikar's garden, talking with Najdan. Her fiery hair was dressed with flowers today, a feminine whim he'd never seen her indulge before, and she wore unusually fine clothes—a simple confection of wild gossamer. Her back was to him as she faced Najdan. Tansen stopped abruptly, willing the pounding of his heart to ease and let him behave rationally now that he knew she was safe.

"You're sure your family were well?" she asked the assassin probingly.

"Yes." Najdan's answer was quiet and without expression.

"Because you don't seem quite your—" 
      "They're well," was the terse reply. Then Najdan saw Tansen. "Uh..."

"Maybe you should bring them to Dalishar," Mirabar persisted.

"I already told you. Not with us, and not to Dalishar," Najdan replied, staring uncertainly at Tansen. "They're safe where they are."

"Then why are you..." Realizing he saw someone behind her, Mirabar looked over her shoulder. When her gaze met Tansen's, she gasped and flinched.

"I'm glad to see you, too," he said dryly.

"
Tansen
." Her intense tone surprised him.

It finally dawned on him that her unaccustomed finery must be for a special occasion. He frowned. "It's not a festival day, is it?"

The Guardian and the assassin just stared at him.

"Well?" he prodded. 

Najdan and Mirabar exchanged a glance. Then they looked at him again.

"What?" Tansen asked.

Najdan suddenly moved. Mirabar put a hand on his arm. Her gaze, when the assassin looked down at her, was almost pleading.

Najdan said, in the sternest tone Tansen had ever heard him use with Mirabar, "I'm not staying for this. This is between the two of you."

Mirabar let out her breath on a puff of exasperation and released him. Her fire-bright eyes glowed almost yellow as she watched Najdan walk away. When she and Tansen were alone, she folded her hands and, after a long pause, asked, "What are you doing here?"

"What's going on?" he demanded.

"Aren't you supposed to be in Shaljir?"

"Mirabar."

"What happened at sea?"

"Oh, that..." He shook his head. "It's a long story, but nothing happened."

"So you're..." She looked a little upset. "You're not the one whom Zarien was sent ashore to find and bring back to Sharifar as her consort?"

"I don't know," Tansen admitted, thinking of the price the sea goddess had demanded of Zarien in exchange for his life after a dragonfish killed him. He had intended to go to sea with Zarien, who was convinced that Tansen must be the sea king he sought, but... "We had an unexpected change of plans."

"What happened?" Mirabar asked.

"First, tell me what's—"

"Tansen!"

He made a vague gesture. Her eyes followed the movement—then widened. She came closer and took his left hand between both of hers. Her touch set his heart to pounding again.

"You've sworn another bloodvow," she observed.

"Oh. Yes..."

She looked so beautiful. As beautiful as the mountains of Sileria. How had he ever, even at first, failed to see her beauty? He couldn't even remember what idiocy had prompted him to flinch in superstitious fear the first time he had ever looked into those passionate flame-gold eyes. 

Mirabar was a
shallah
and immediately understood the significance of the deep, slowly healing cut on his palm. "A bloodpact relation," she murmured.

"I've become a father," he told her.

She didn't have to ask whom he had taken for a son. "But doesn't he already have a fath—"

"When we got to Shaljir, we found out they were dead. His whole family and most of his clan."

"Dead?" Her face clouded with sorrow for Zarien.

"They died... well, not long after he did. Only no goddess brought them back to life."

"What happened?" Mirabar asked.

"They were killed at sea, when an earthquake on land swelled the waves and flung their boat against the rocks." Tansen told her everything else that he knew about it. Except Zarien's secret, of course, which it was not his right to share without permission...

"My real father wasn't sea-bound. Not even sea-born. My father was a drylander." Zarien's words were choppy and harsh.

"Who was he?" Tansen asked.

"I don't know." 
      
"I see. And your mother?"

Zarien shook his head. "I don't know."

"So Zarien threw Sharifar's gift to him, that oar—what did he call it, a
stahra
—into the sea?" Mirabar said, looking a little shocked. "To break the bargain she made with him the night she gave him back his life?"

The
stahra
—a traditional weapon of the sea-born folk—did indeed look like an oar. Tansen said, "He's very angry at Sharifar for letting his family die." Adopted in infancy, Zarien had believed they were his real family until the night, deep beneath the sea's surface, when Sharifar restored his life and told him the truth. And now the boy grieved for them as his real family. "He has turned his back on the sea."

 Mirabar said with concern, "I understand. But even so... What if he changes his mind later? The
stahra
—"

"—was meant to lead him to me. It's not needed anymore."

"We don't know that," Mirabar objected. "Not really. Sharifar's will can be interpreted in a number of—"

"Well, it's gone, either way," Tansen said. "And there's nothing we can do about it now."

"A quarrel with a goddess is dangerous," Mirabar said pensively.

"I know."

Her gaze flashed up to his. "Yes. Of course."

Unable to resist, he reached up to touch one of the brilliant yellow flowers decorating her lush hair. "Now tell me. What's going on here?"

"Um..." She licked her lips. "Well, you're going to find this very strange. I didn't expect you back so soon. I hadn't yet really considered how I would tell you—"

"Tell me what?"

From behind him, a gruff female voice said, "Aren't you ready yet? Baran's getting bored."

Tansen whirled to face Sister Velikar. 

"Oh. You're back. Hello," Velikar said, with about as much warmth as she ever showed.

"Where is Baran?" Tansen demanded.

Sister Velikar jerked her chin. "Inside."

"He's
here
?" His swords were in his hands before he realized he had unsheathed them. Halfway across the garden, he felt Mirabar's arms around him, her weight dragging against him to slow him down.

"Stop!" she cried. "No!" 

"He's come to kill you!" said Tansen. 

To his astonishment, Velikar laughed.

He stopped and glared at the Sister. "Sanctuary. I know. But whatever that madman is planning, Mirabar won't be safe the moment she leaves—"

"You haven't told him?" Velikar said to Mirabar.

"He just got here," Mirabar replied.

Still ready for combat, Tansen snapped, "Told me what?"

Mirabar cleared her throat. "We're getting married."

"Who?"

"Me and Baran," she said.

He was sure the sky tilted. "You're
what?
"

"Getting married," she said. "That's what I've agreed to, to convince him to side with—"

"
You're WHAT?
" he shouted.

Velikar said, "I'll leave you two alone."

He ignored the retreating old woman as he shouted at Mirabar, "What in the Fires are you talking about?"

"Baran set a price for his help," she said. "I've met it."

Tansen stared at her in speechless confusion.

She continued, "There were things he said—"

"It's a trap," he insisted. "Baran has promised Kiloran—"

"To kill me," said Mirabar. "I know."

"You
know?
"

"He's told me everything."

Tansen shook his head. "Baran is shrewd. He knew we'd eventually find out about the truce meeting, so he told you himself. To disarm you. To make you believe he was lying to Kiloran."

"Oh, I don't think he was lying to Kiloran."

Tansen frowned. "Then what—"

"Not at the time, I mean," said Mirabar. "I think he changed his mind afterwards."

"Then how do you know he's not going to change his mind about whatever he's promised
you?
" He was shouting again. He didn't care.

"Because this is our destiny. His and mine," she said.

"Your destiny? To marry a waterlord? To trust that madman?"

Another voice came from behind him. "You say that like it's a bad thing."

"
Baran
." Tansen turned his back on Mirabar and, swords poised for attack, faced the waterlord.

Baran frowned at Mirabar. "Did we invite him?"

"Go away," Mirabar said to her intended.

"You hot-headed
shallaheen
," Baran said disapprovingly to Tansen. "Always drawing your weapons on Sanctuary grounds."

Through clenched teeth, Mirabar repeated, "Go away."

Baran smiled at Tansen. A tall, big-boned man with unruly hair and famously wild eyes, Baran looked surprisingly older and thinner than when they had last met, but still formidable. Tansen retrained himself from glancing at the well in the center of the garden, knowing full well how easily Baran could wrap its waters around his neck and strangle him.

"My condolences," Baran said to him, "on the death of your brother."

"Don't even speak of Josarian to me," Tansen growled. "You don't deserve to."

"On the contrary," Baran said, impervious to insult. "I know what it is to lose someone to Kiloran."

"And I'm not going to find out what it is to lose someone to
you
," Tansen vowed. He ignored the stifled sound Mirabar made and kept his eyes on Baran.

Baran's gaze sharpened with amused interest. What he said next, though, surprised Tansen as much as the gentle tone in which he said it. "I swear I won't ever hurt her." He shrugged and added more prosaically, "Well, no more than men and women usually hurt each other."

"You're lying," Tansen said, wondering what would happen if he did violate Sanctuary and kill Baran right here and now.

"No," Baran said with quiet certainty. "If I'm lying, may my power forever desert me, and may I burn like the Fires for all eternity."

"I won't let her do this," Tansen warned him.

"How do you intend to stop her?" Baran asked curiously. "She's the most powerful sorceress in Sileria, and last I heard, you were still just a man."

Tansen drew in a sharp breath. "So
that's
why you want her." Maybe Baran really didn't intend murder, after all. Still, there was no way Tansen was letting this marriage take place.

"She knows why I want her," Baran replied. "I'll let her explain it to you."

"Thank you." Mirabar sounded exasperated.

As he turned to go, Baran added, "Try not to take too long. I'm getting bored." 

Almost shaking with helpless anger, Tansen sheathed his swords and asked Mirabar, "So why
does
he want to marry you?"

"Could your tone possibly be any less flattering?"

"
I
wanted to marry you," he snapped. "So I'm in no mood—"

"You?" Mirabar stared at him. "You..." She made a helpless gesture. "You never said..."

"I didn't—I was going off to..."

"To Shaljir."

"To battle," he said defensively. "And then to—"

"To Shaljir. To
her.
"

"No," he insisted. "To sea."

"Elelar's still alive, isn't she?" Mirabar asked wearily.

"And she's going to stay that way," he replied. An instant later, Tansen wanted to bite his tongue until it bled. He did not want to talk about Elelar right now, and he certainly didn't want to get stuck in the mire of defending her to Mirabar. He said with strained emphasis, "I was going off to sea to meet Zarien's sea goddess, and I knew—"

She sighed. "Even if I had known..." Tears filled her eyes and she shook her head. "I don't know. I think... I think it really has to be this way, Tansen."

"No, it doesn't," he argued fiercely, feeling her slipping away from him. 

The fire-fringed gold of her eyes revealed all the strength of her fervent belief in Dar, in destiny, in her decision. "This is what I must do."

"
No.
"

Tansen seized her shoulders and drew her to him, desperate, scared, angry, bitterly jealous. Her lips were soft and warm. She was startled at first, and she struggled. But he wouldn't let go. Couldn't.

"No," he repeated against her mouth, willing her to understand him, accept him. To want what he wanted. To give him what he tried to give her, to take from him as he took from her when he kissed her again.

For a moment her body answered him, and her will succumbed to his. For a moment, she was all living flame in his arms, all warm breath and soft skin and soul-deep longing. For a moment, they kissed as they were meant to, as they had always been meant to, and the wasted time and lost nights didn't matter anymore.

He felt heat, fire, the rich stream of lava-soaked desire which flowed between a man and a woman and made them forget everything but each other. He drowned in the hunger that led to delight, and the delight which led to more hunger. The craving which was pleasurable, the pleasure that hurt like pain. This was what only they could give each other, this and so much more. All the things he needed from her, all the things he longed to lay at her feet, welled up in him as his arms tightened around her and sought to keep her from another man.

For a moment, everything he wanted for them, together, seemed real and within reach. The fire and the warmth mingled in his blood, in his heart, in the breath they shared, in the frantic embrace they inflicted on each other, in the hot union of their mouths... But only for a moment.

She was strong for her size, and so he stumbled when she pushed him away and staggered backward. Driven by furious needs, he reached for her—but froze when he saw her scarred palm warding him off, begging him to stay away from her.

Blue-flecked flames danced across her skin for a moment, a glorious display he'd never seen on her flesh before. He smelled something burning and looked down. He absently patted the smoking sleeve of his tunic, noticing that it was singed now.

The hazards of making love to a Guardian, he supposed. Or at least to an inexperienced one.

"Mira... Don't do it." Tansen heard the pleading in his voice and didn't care.

Tears trickled down her face. Darfire, it hurt to see her cry. It hurt even more to be the one causing it. "I have to." Her voice was brokenhearted.