Authors: Nikki McCormack
FORBIDDEN THINGS: BOOK TWO
For my sister, Holly, one of the most
courageous and caring women I know.
Yiloch sat in his newly won throne, patient and wary, watching the black-skinned man’s approach up the length of the magnificent room. Guards, adepts and creators stood alert along both sides of the room, and even the eyes of the men and women in the subtle etchings along the blue marble walls behind them seemed more attentive than usual. Two lines of three warriors flanked the man, each carrying an ornate spear topped with a slender curved blade. Elaborate etchings down the length of the shafts made them appear more ceremonial than functional, but he knew better than to doubt the effectiveness of those weapons or that of the men bearing them. Kudaness warriors were skilled fighters. In their practiced hands, those delicate looking blades could decapitate a horse with a single strike. Allowing the visitors into the room armed at all was a simple statement of his confidence in the many ascard users present.
Thin sand colored straps across the lead man’s chest exposed a broad, muscular build. A warrior at a glance, but firsthand experience with the Kudaness, coupled with years of political education, gave Yiloch the knowledge to translate the messages written on the man’s skin. An elaborate tattoo on his right cheek marked him as part of the Ithik Ani, the Kudaness priesthood. The black swirling tattoos over his arms, shoulders, and legs declared that he was a suac, a high priest. Another tattoo consisting of three black lines running parallel to the line of his jaw on his left cheek and two black dots beside his left eye declared that he was of the Murak tribe. Long black hair, braided back into countless strands, several woven through with patterns of beads, swung heavy down to his lower back. He wore intimidation like armor, and his copper eyes, discolored by the potion the Ithik Ani used to initiate communion with their gods, gleamed with feral intensity.
Only a month into his reign and Yiloch was hosting a most unusual visitor. The presence of a suac in his halls was either a gesture of respect or a warning. Perhaps both.
“Emperor Yiloch,” the Lyran usher, his pale skin stark white beside the dark Kudaness, offered a deep bow to Yiloch then inclined his head toward the visitors. “I am honored to present Suac Chozai Galal un Murak un Ani.”
The usher’s introduction confirmed everything Yiloch read from the tattoos. This man was very important among his people. Kudaness high priests held more power than their tribal chieftains did. Even among other tribes, this man’s rank made him second only to that tribe’s suac.
Before the throne, the high priest lowered his chin in the slightest intimation of a bow, his odd metallic eyes never leaving Yiloch’s pale silver-blue ones.
This is a man whose power is never challenged
Such a man would be aggravating to deal with. Yiloch needed to proceed with caution though, especially given the unexpected nature of the visit. Whatever the reason for his unannounced arrival, the suac had the political advantage for the moment.
Yiloch nodded to the suac, offering reserved respect. “Suac Chozai, your visit honors us.”
The suac’s answering smile curled his lips into a predatory snarl and his eyes shimmered as if with some inner amusement.
The irrepressible twitch of a muscle in Yiloch’s jaw was the only visible indication that the response annoyed him. A heightened sense of alert rose in him in reaction to the veiled dislike lurking behind those eerie eyes, but he kept his expression neutral. Kudaness priests had a notorious lack of respect for rank outside of their own culture and, at least in his limited experience. They treated most everyone with a degree of disdain. It made them difficult to deal with in general, but the Kudaness were a powerful people and the border they shared with Lyra boasted a long trade history that was beneficial to both countries. His father’s madness had nearly destroyed that trade and Yiloch wasn’t going to risk its revitalization over such a small measure of insult.
“The Murak have seen that the new Emperor of Lyra makes an effort to respect the trade relationship with Kudan,” the priest began, his accent thick enough that Yiloch had to listen close to understand him. It might be easier if he’d chosen to speak his native tongue, but using the Lyran trade dialect was appropriate here and showed some deference to Yiloch’s rank in this setting. “The Murak, the greatest tribe in Kudan, wish to extend our gratitude for your efforts.”
He resisted a smirk. How many of the tribes would lay claim to that status?
“It has long been a beneficial arrangement. Emperor Rylan insulted both of our peoples by disrespecting that relationship. It will not happen under my rule. However, while I appreciate your gratitude, I do not believe you traveled all this way to convey a simple thank you. Why have you come here?”
Tension rippled out from the high priest. His copper eyes glinted in the sunlight shining down through the faceted crystal ceiling. He returned Yiloch’s measuring regard for a long moment, perhaps trying to determine whether the new emperor intended some insult with his abrupt manner.
Perhaps he could have been more tactful, wasting time on niceties, but the mere rarity of a visit from a Kudaness suac was enough to incite interest and unease. He itched to know the reason.
“I am suac to the Murak tribe, chosen by the Gods to bear the burden of their gifts for the benefit of my people.” Suac Chozai’s somber expression and weighted tone communicated the significance of his status. “One of those gifts is the ability to foresee the possible future. The Gods have shown me that our lands and people will soon face a terrible danger. Not only the people of Kudan, but
our people,” he swept a hand out to imply a wider area, “are under threat from a tribe not of Kudan. This tribe is strong. They come in great numbers and control power that none here have ever faced. They ride on the backs of sturdy horses and will decimate all in their path if not dealt with in quick and decisive action. We require the aid of the Blood Prince in defeating this threat.”
Yiloch narrowed his eyes, making no effort to hide his disapproval of the old hated title. He itched to move his hand closer to his sword. Whether use of that title was a mere slip from long habit or an intentional insult, the suac was trying his patience. A careless approach given that he was requesting military assistance.
He waited a moment to see if the suac would apologize for his error. When he didn’t, Yiloch spoke, biting off his words with the effort of keeping them civil. “I would be a fool to extend my resources so soon after taking the throne. My empire is still recovering from its own upheaval. I still have many soldiers and adepts out hunting for the adept Myac, who remains a substantial threat. What benefit is there to Lyra in sending aid to the Murak against an enemy who is, as of yet, mostly unknown even to you?”
The suac’s smile broadened, giving a glimpse of incisors tapered to a subtle point. It enhanced the predatory appearance, but he wasn’t going to intimidate Yiloch with tribal gimmicks. The confidence in that smile, however, was a trifle unsettling.
“You need us, Blood Prince,” Chozai stated, making it clear that the use of the title hadn’t been a slip.
Yiloch scowled, losing the struggle to hide his irritation. Kudan and Lyra held an uneasy peace balanced on benefits they could offer one another and a shaky mutual respect for the extreme differences in their cultures. That balance felt even more precarious at the moment.
This one man is not worth the destruction of that peace
, he reminded himself.
“You insult me in my own palace, then expect me to accept on your word that I should extend you aid at a time when I have need of my soldiers here. You had best be able to offer more concrete proof of how this is of benefit to Lyra.” He infused his tone with an edge of warning. He would not continue to suffer disrespect in his own palace.
Like a man struck dead, the suac’s face lost all expression. His eyes clouded over, a translucent whiteness masking the brilliant copper, and his voice took on a deep, rhythmic cadence. “The emperor of Lyra will be thrice betrayed; by ally, by family, and by love. To escape the dark fate of that betrayal, he must send forth his army to the aid of those favored by the gods his people will not see. In return, salvation will come from beyond his borders to mend the rifts created by those betrayals. If such aid is not given, salvation will not come and his empire will fall in a storm of fire and blood to a savage power from beyond the Rhuakine.”
Yiloch glanced at Ian, the strongest—and youngest—creator in his army. The young man shook his head. If the suac was drawing on ascard to effect the changes in his eyes and voice Ian couldn’t detect it.
A chill passed through Yiloch and he noticed his cousin, Lord Terral, shifting his feet near the foot of the dais. Was that from the same unease they all felt at the suac’s dark foretelling, or something more insidious?
Betrayed by ally, by family, and by love
The Rhuakine was a canyon-scarred desert to the east of Kudan, implying that the savage force the suac spoke of was the same one that threatened the Murak. If so, his words suggested that his own people would fall before this new power first if Lyra didn’t send soldiers to their aid. Under those circumstances, he would have expected a more respectful approach from the man. Was the disdain of foreign royalty so ingrained that he couldn’t overcome it even for the sake of diplomacy?
Yiloch stood. His sword riding comfortable at his hip, he descended the steps until he stood no more than a foot from the high priest. Suac Chozai was taller by several inches, but his eyes, which had regained their normal abnormal color, took on a hint of wariness at the approach. One of Yiloch’s captains and longtime friend, Adran, placed a hand on his sword hilt when the hands of the Murak warriors tightened on their weapons. His bold approach appeared to inspire a touch of respect in the arrogant high priest and his guards after all.
He met those deep copper eyes with a steady gaze. “You’ve intrigued me, Suac Chozai. I do not give much credit to fortunetelling as a rule, but if I discounted all such things completely out of hand, I would not be where I am now. Perhaps we could discuss this in a more casual setting.”