Scarcleft Hall, Level 2
Lord Taquar Sardonyx looked up from his desk, frowning. It was late, it was cold, and he had been about to go to bed. In fact, he’d been wondering whether to ask his steward to fetch him a woman. That pretty new servant girl, for example. Eighteen, wistfully innocent and adoring — she would do. And yet … he glanced at the painting he had mounted on the wall. Terelle’s painting. A waterpainting once, until the earthquake had separated the paint from the water. Now it lacked a little of the life it must have once had, but still the figure leaped at him out of the paint.
Taquar, Highlord of Scarcleft, driving a pede.
She had captured everything he liked to think he possessed: the aura of power, the ruthlessness, the strength, the commanding stature, and of course the sensuality. But more than that, she had painted something of herself into the work: her fear of him, her fear of her attraction to him. Every time he looked at it, he cursed the earthquake that had enabled her to escape. Watergiver, what a lover she would have made! All she’d needed was the awakening, and he could have stirred her senses so easily. Stupidly, he had thought her not ready. And now, whenever he took another woman to bed, he thought of what he had missed, and cursed again. Innocence and the promise of initiating a maiden’s sexual awakening — it intrigued him every time, and rarely disappointed. A victim either learned to match his passion or shivered in fear. Either way, he enjoyed the result.
He’d sent people out looking for her, of course, once he realised she had escaped. Unfortunately it had been a day before they had cleared away enough of the rubble along the passage to her room to see that she was not dead or trapped, but missing. Even then, he’d assumed she was still in the city. Now, five days later and thanks to his seneschal’s investigations, he knew better.
It was infuriating. How would he ever entice Shale Flint — or Jasper Bloodstone as the wretched lad was called now — back to Scarcleft City if he found out Terelle had fled?
Scarcleft was a wounded city still, and it riled Taquar that the most serious damage was to his own hall on Level Two. He was tired of the noise and dust of cleaning up and the preparations for rebuilding. He was infuriated by the grumblings of discontent from Level Thirty-six, the lowest level, where the waterless lived. How dare they protest the slow reaction to their plight! As if they had any rights at all. He would have killed the lot of them long ago, if some of the merchants and tradesmen and artisans had not made it clear they needed the labour of the waterless from time to time.
Definitely, he needed a little solace in his bed. He was reaching to ring for his steward when a knock sounded at the door.
The visitor the servant ushered in a moment later took Taquar by surprise. He rose to his feet, trying to conceal the extent of his astonishment. ‘Laisa? My dear, this is a surprise! A pleasure of course, but … unexpected.’ Even as he spoke he was taking in her grubby appearance, the fatigue about her eyes, the tension around her mouth. Her long blond hair was dusty and tumbled out of its jewelled clips, her skin bare of any artificial powders or paints. She was still beautiful, of course. She had the kind of looks that weren’t ruined by a little grime or lack of sleep; a brilliant, cool beauty that improved rather than diminished with age. Looks that suited a harsh land and matched a nature that revelled in luxury. Laisa was a sensual woman, yet pitiless.
And he had never seen her so dishevelled. What the salted damn had happened?
‘What brings you here? And looking like this?’ he asked, keeping his tone carefully neutral.
‘Don’t pretend you don’t know what happened to Breccia City,’ she said. ‘You can’t really be unaware that the desert beast has slipped the leash you tried to put around his neck!’
‘I don’t know what you mean.’ And he didn’t, but he could guess, and the guess left him cold. Davim. That spitless sand-louse of a Reduner. He must have moved his forces from Qanatend to Breccia City. Why couldn’t he have waited for things to fall into place of their own accord?
The answer came all too soon. He must have found out I don’t have Shale.
Aloud, he said, ‘Suppose you tell me, my dear.’ He nodded to the servant. ‘Bring us some of the best imported wine and sweetmeats, man.’ When they were alone again, he waved at a chair in front of the fire. ‘Sit down, Laisa.’
She flung herself into the chair, saying, ‘What the sandblasted hell happened here, Taquar? Why is part of your city in ruins and much of the lowest level burned? Did Davim attack Scarcleft, too?’
He shook his head, and went to stand with his back to the fire. ‘Hardly! No, it was the earthquake. You didn’t hear? I sent word. It happened a few days after Gratitudes.’
‘We have been otherwise occupied,’ she said, her voice brittle with irritation. ‘We were attacked five days after Gratitudes. Nealrith sent word immediately.’
‘I see. None of your messengers arrived, and neither did mine to you, apparently. Davim’s to blame for that, I suppose. He must have Breccia ringed. You were lucky to get through yourself.’
The look she gave him was scathing. ‘I did not take the road, and anyway give me some credit. I do have enough water-sense to dodge men out looking for people escaping the city. So what was this earthquake? I’ve never heard of one doing this much damage.’
‘The damage was fairly localised, fortunately. Some damage to the hall. And a fire on the thirty-sixth level, but that place is no great loss. Far from it, in fact. Gave me an excuse to clean out some of the water-wasters. But tell me about Breccia’s troubles.’
‘Troubles?’ She shot him a look of scornful fury as she warmed her hands at the fire. ‘Is that what you’d call it? The city has fallen, you withering sand-brain! Nealrith is dead. So is Granthon. And doubtless most of our rainlords as well: Ryka and Merquel Feldspar, Kaneth Carnelian, Lord Gold and most of the rainlord priests, for a start. The Scarpen is without a competent stormlord.’
Baldly, concisely and without histrionics, she told him all that she knew about the siege and how she had escaped with her daughter and Shale Flint. Except, he was quick to realise, the most important fact: the exact whereabouts of Shale. The tale didn’t take her long; she finished just as the servant came in and left the tray of refreshments.
He poured her some wine, imported from across the Giving Sea, saying, ‘Let me see if I understand you: Breccia City’s rainlords decided to die fighting — a piece of monumental stupidity on their part. Typical of Kaneth Carnelian, of course, to indulge in heroically futile gestures, but I expected better of some of the others. Doubtless the city will have been thoroughly subdued in the time it took you to cross the desert to my gates.’
‘Doubtless,’ she agreed.
‘Sandmaster Davim now controls both Qanatend and Breccia and has access to whatever water the two cities have. At a guess, you are now about to offer me the estimable young man, our only stormlord — in exchange for what, I wonder?’
She took the proffered drink in its imported goblet of blown glass, and he had to admire her aplomb. Newly widowed and having just ridden several days across a desert, dispossessed of all her wealth and much of her status, and still she could look at him coolly across her glass of wine and say, ‘What did you hope from all this, Taquar? Were you really so sun-fried as to bargain with this Reduner nomad and think he would do your bidding?’
He shrugged indifferently. ‘It could have worked. But he is an impatient, arrogant hothead. And greedy with it. I promised him free rein in the Red and White Quarters in exchange for water when and where he wanted it, but apparently it wasn’t enough for him. I must assume he found out Shale ran to Nealrith?’
‘Cloudmaster Granthon made sure he knew.’
‘Which prompted him to renege on my alliance with him, of course. I assure you, these attacks on the cities of the Scarpen were not my idea. Oh, I thought to threaten the other cities with the idea of Reduner attack, yes — but I want to rule a wealthy nation, not a huddle of ruined buildings and groves.’
Laisa turned on him, her anger vicious. ‘You were out of your sand-stuffed mind! Do you think a rainlord can control a sandmaster, one whose thinking is as twisted as a spindevil wind? He dreams of returning to a Time of Random Rain, when the dunes managed without rainlords. You unleashed a force you can’t control, you fool! And now we all have to suffer for it.’
He felt the heat of his anger flood his face, but kept his temper under control. ‘I don’t fear for Scarcleft. Unlike the late unlamented Granthon and Nealrith in Breccia, or Moiqa over in Qanatend, I believe in ziggers and a trained army. Every young man of this city can handle a pike and a scimitar or a sword. They can drive a pede or fight from its back. They can handle ziggers. They don’t get their water allotments unless they undergo training sessions once a year. Davim would never take Scarcleft — but that is neither here nor there. You were wise to get Shale out of Breccia City. The idea of Davim getting his hands on our last stormlord at this stage does not bear thinking about.’
‘Pity you didn’t think before you began all this,’ she retorted.
He ignored that. ‘The question is, what do you want in exchange for Shale?’ He rubbed a finger around the top of his glass reflectively. ‘Of course, I could force you to tell me where he is, but bargaining is so much more civilised, is it not, my dear?’
She leaned back in her chair, both hands cradling her goblet. ‘And more rewarding, I think. You won’t find my terms too arduous. Put simply: I want to be the wife of a highlord, with all the, er, panoply that entails, and I want my daughter to be the wife of the Quartern’s one and only stormlord. That’s basically it. The details can be negotiated later.’
Taquar almost laughed. ‘Not quite the grieving widow, are you?’
She did not deign to reply, merely helping herself to a sweetmeat instead.
‘What in all the waterless sands of the Quartern makes you think I would want to marry you, Laisa?’
She took the insult in her stride, shrugging. ‘I don’t really care whether you want to or not, Taquar. I want the position. As Nealrith’s wife, I’ve grown used to being pampered. I like the power I have as a rainlord, but I also like the extra that comes with being the wife of a city’s highlord. I don’t want to give it up. I’d be willing to let you have all the freedom you need, to do whatever it is you’ve always done. In return, I can run your household, be your hostess, share your bed if you want, or not if you don’t.’
He chuckled. ‘I do not need a hostess or another seneschal when I have Harkel Tallyman, and I have plenty of women for my bed.’
‘Harkel? I heard you were so enraged when he let Jasper escape to Breccia that you threw him in your deepest pit.’
‘I am a civilised man. He was ensconced in the tower for a while, deprived of all his normal luxuries. After half a cycle both he and I were fed up with the situation. He missed his luxuries; I missed his organisational skills. He is my seneschal once more, and vastly more subservient.’ He paused, suddenly thoughtful. ‘However, you do tempt me. My original idea was to keep Shale hidden. To have everyone thinking I was the one who shifted the storms, that I was the stormlord. Not possible now, of course, seeing everyone knows about the lad. But I will need someone to keep him in line. He is not going to take kindly to doing my bidding … Take on that job, and I might think about it.’
She waved a careless hand. ‘I can manage a young man of his age.’
‘And then there is one slight problem you have neglected to mention, my dear. You are selling me a carpet with a flaw in the weave.’
‘I beg your pardon?’
‘Oh, come now, Laisa. When I lost Shale to Breccia, I decided it wasn’t such a bad idea. The Cloudmaster could teach him all he knew about making and breaking clouds. Once he’d learned, I had the means to entice him back.
‘I did hear that he was cloudshifting, so I put the plan into operation. But then I heard a few wind-whispers from our fellow rainlords. Shale Flint, or Jasper Bloodstone if you prefer to call him that, has only been shifting storms, and has needed Granthon’s power to lift the water vapour from the ocean in the first place. He cannot do it on his own. Moreover, as far as I can tell — and I may be wrong because I cannot always sense far-distant clouds the way a stormlord can — no rain has fallen anywhere in the past few days. Which, I assume, means since Granthon died. Tell me, do I have the truth of it?’
Unfazed, she said, ‘Unfortunately, you do. However, Jasper told us you were the one who stole Granthon’s storm. That makes you a very powerful rainlord, Taquar. It seems to me you have neglected to mention to other rainlords the extent of your abilities. I have the feeling there is a good chance, if you back Jasper with your power, that the young man will be able to do what is needed. Of course, it won’t be enough water for everybody, but that can’t be helped.’
He sipped his wine, thinking. ‘Unhappily, the reason I stole a storm was because I couldn’t make one. As it turns out I didn’t do too good a job of moving a cloud a long distance, either. I lost the cloud I stole, remember? Let’s face it, Laisa, I may be a damn fine rainlord, the best there is in fact, but I am nowhere near being a stormlord.’
‘Together the two of you may achieve something. Jasper’s talents at moving water and sensing water are phenomenal. And he can extract vapour from pure water, just not from a salty sea. Anyway, we don’t have a choice. We have to try. You have to try. Otherwise there’s no rain and we are all in trouble. How long will Scarcleft’s water last, Taquar?’
‘Not long enough. All right, I’ll try. And at least we don’t have Granthon or Nealrith’s highly developed moral sense to deal with any more, do we, m’dear?’
‘Exactly. But we do, unfortunately, have Jasper’s. Extraordinary just how moral he is, considering he comes out of the Gibber. He can hardly have learned ethics from you, either, can he? However, with his nicely developed sense of duty, I think he can be persuaded it’s necessary to work with you. He won’t like it, but he’ll do it.’
‘You have it all worked out already, it seems.’ He sat back in his chair, absently swirling his wine, while he considered her proposal. It was some time before he added, ‘One other thing before we seal the bargain, something I have idly wondered … I want an honest answer to a query.’
Laisa raised a questioning eyebrow. ‘You trust me to be honest?’
‘There’s no reason not to be, now Nealrith is dead. Who is Senya’s father?’
She laughed then, with full-throated amusement. ‘So you have wondered? I’ll give you an honest answer: I don’t know. It could have been either of you. I doubt she’s dark enough to be your daughter, but I could never see anything of Nealrith in her, I must admit. But you — everything I’ve heard seems to indicate you don’t leave a trail of bastards behind you. Is it possible I could be the only woman who ever bore yours? It seems unlikely. Does it matter, anyway?’
He shook his head. ‘Not really. Stormlord children would have been an asset, but apart from that, I have never hankered after brats, especially not one as spoiled as Senya. You are going to have to rein her in, Laisa, if she is to reside in my household.’
With an airy wave of the hand she dismissed that problem. ‘That won’t be a problem now that Nealrith’s not here to spoil her.’
‘Very well. It won’t harm me to have a decorative wife, I suppose — will it?’
There was more than a note of warning in his tone, and she raised her eyebrows in acknowledgement. ‘I know where my interests lie, Taquar. But tell me, what happens now you have Jasper again? Where does that leave Sandmaster Davim? Is he still going to go on the rampage around the Scarpen?’
He rose to put another couple of seaweed briquettes on the fire. The Scarpen sun may have seared the land by day, but at night the cold had an edge to it. ‘No. I think I can bridle him, if I have Shale. Jasper. Davim knows I’m no Granthon, and no Nealrith either, with silly scruples about bringing water to everyone. I shall tell him he will not receive any water at all — random or otherwise — unless he holds to his end of the bargain. He can have the White Quarter, and I will assist him if any of the other dunes in the Red Quarter prove restless under his rule. He wants his Time of Random Rain, true, but until he has the logistics of that worked out, he needs predictable water.’
‘At the moment he is stealing it,’ she said. ‘He is draining the Qanatend mother wells dry, and doubtless he intends to do the same thing to Breccia.’
‘That water won’t last forever without a rainlord replenishing it. We can bargain with him. He needs us. Any trouble and I will see to it the dunes will not receive any rain. As long as I have Jasper and Davim fears the power I have over water as a consequence, he will behave. In exchange, I get to call on his troops if I need them to quell a rebellious city or a recalcitrant Gibber settle on my own. And so, Laisa, it seems we have a bargain. Now tell, where is Jasper?’
‘Not far from here. I killed the pedeman shortly after we left Breccia, and I drugged Jasper’s water.’ She laughed. ‘The little idiot made it so easy for me — he even gave me his water skin to carry when he was organising his rather spectacular departure from the city. Senya is keeping an eye on him at the moment. He’s been befuddled out of his mind for a couple of days now, and I fear he will wake up in a fury when he realises I led him here and not to Portennabar.’
He laughed and stood, holding out a hand to her. ‘Then let us go find them, my dear. I cannot wait to see the look on that Gibber grubber’s face when he sees me again!’
Laisa stood, a little too close to him for normal social conventions. He took the hint and pulled her into his arms, kissing her roughly, deliberately bruising her arms and lips, kneading her breasts with a shade too much force. When they parted, she was still smiling.
Softly, full of menace, he said, ‘M’dear, do not ever treat me as you treated Nealrith. Never. Or you will regret it.’
Her smile didn’t waver — but he thought her confidence did.
Which was exactly what he wanted.
Copyright © Glenda Larke 2010
The right of Glenda Larke to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by her under the Copyright Amendment (Moral Rights) Act 2000. This work is copyright. Apart from any use as permitted under the Copyright Act 1968, no part may be reproduced, copied, scanned, stored in a retrieval system, recorded, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior written permission of the publisher.
Stormlord Rising is out in bookshops across Australia on 1 March 2010. Preorder your copy today!