Saturday, December 20, 2008

Rain at Midsummer by Teresa Noelle Roberts

“Dry spring here,” Dela commented, as if Nikos hadn’t noticed. “Are the crops doing all right?”

Nikos took a deep breath. Dela had grown up on a small farm—she’d be sensitive to the state of the land even though she’d left that life behind for a soldier’s. And he was used to Dela assuming he was a good-natured idiot. For a while, she’d outranked him, and even though he’d been promoted ahead of her, everyone including General Ancius acknowledged that Dela deserved lieutenant’s rank at least as much as he did—but when there was only one promotion to be handed out and two candidates, a lord, even the lord of a small, obscure holding in the Empire’s most backwater satrapy, was going to beat out an equally competent hill-country farm girl.

It was just that everyone was asking him the same questions, as if people who’d been in Thermanae all along wouldn’t know better than he would. Worse yet, everyone was expecting him to do something about it, as being the Lord gave him power to end the drought.

Not Dela’s fault he’d been away from home for the past eighteen months with the Army, or had spent two years at the University in Poldar before that. Or that this was all supposed to be Naso’s problem, Naso who had a feeling for the land and the farmers under their protection.

Naso who died and made him Lord of Thermanae. Gods cradle his soul—and damn him to seven hells for trying to be a hero on the Peshtari front, when everyone knew that was the younger brother’s job, not the elder.

He thought a prayer for patience to gods he wasn’t sure he believed in. “If we get rain soon, it shouldn’t be too much of a problem. They’ve been able to irrigate—we had plenty of snow this winter, from what Theos says. But that’ll only last so long.” And their irrigation system dated from before the last Kulchu invasion, meaning it was only slightly more efficient than hauling buckets to the fields by hand. Hells, in one of his villages, they were doing just that because the aqueduct had collapsed after an otherwise minor earthquake and no one had the skills or time to rebuild it. “The headmen of the villages will be able to tell us more today.”

“So, is your betrothed coming to Thermanae for Midsummer and help you bring the rains?”

“First, I don’t believe in that old-fashioned nonsense. The seasonal festivals are just celebrations. Who you fuck or where, or whether or not you spank them while you’re doing it, doesn’t make the crops grow or bring rain or anything. They’ve proven it at the University in Poldar. It may please the gods that we celebrate, but the rain comes when the rain comes.”

Dela raised one eyebrow. Like most country people, Dela no doubt believed the legends about having sex in the fields to bring rain at Midsummer and seeing visions of the gods at Spring Festival if you’d found your true love and spanking women to ensure good spring weather and thrashing men in autumn for some fool reason he’d willed himself to forget—but she politely waited for him to continue.

“And second, I don’t have a betrothed. Yet.”

“I knew you’d have told me, but it’s all anyone’s been talking about since Anat and I got here.” Dela let out a barking, boyish laugh. “Anat says it’s so outrageous it must be true, but who would marry a Thelanese lout like you? Unless the lady had a thing for goats or spankings.”

Nikos wouldn’t have taken it from anyone but Dela, also a native of this backwater satrapy—not to mention his best friend. “Got it in one guess. She likes goats. I’m hoping she may settle for me because the goats are all pining for you.”

“Only the females, my boy, but they can’t have me. Anat doesn’t share.”

She smiled the smile of a satisfied woman before continuing.

“But seriously, Nikos, what’s going on? The servants have been talking of nothing else since we got here, trying to pump me for information. The rumor must have started somewhere. So is this just something your mother dreamed up or have you really set your heart on some rich woman from Poldar, even if it’s not formalized?” She didn’t add that Lalage Thermanae was out of touch enough with reality to invent a betrothed for her surviving son, but her tone implied it.

Unfortunately, it was true.

Nikos forced a smile. “Mother’s eager to see me married. I did meet a woman in Poldar, but…” He shrugged. “It’s nowhere near that point, and it won’t ever reach that point while I’m stuck in this backwater. Sarakia doesn’t see me as worthy of anything but a light flirtation.”

“Seven hells, what is the woman looking for in a husband? If I liked men, I’d at least consider you. You’re not half bad-looking, you’re just stupid enough to be entertaining, and you’re a lord!”

He snorted with laughter, then stifled it. Very uncouth to laugh that way, not the way for a young officer on the rise to behave, even in front of an old friend like Dela. “Oh, the Lord of Thermanae—that’s going to impress a sophisticated woman from the Imperial capital. I may have the blood of seven satraps and a king in my veins, but you’ve seen the villa. The roof has more holes than tiles. All I stand to inherit is an olive grove, a mediocre vineyard, and high expectations. Oh, and three border villages that look to my family for defense against the Kulchu. She’d never want to live here. She’s a spice merchant, a wealthy woman. Refined.”

He sighed, remembering Sarakia’s soft hands, her cultured voice, her elegance, her wit and spirit.

And the way she’d laughed when the gods’ blessings during seasonal festivals were mentioned. “It’s a great excuse to have an adventure with someone you’d otherwise never meet,” she’d said, “but everyone knows it doesn’t mean anything. The priests invented it to make sure we go to the temple at least a few times a year so they keep their jobs.”

No, Sarakia would never fit in here, where people still took the old ways seriously and women, no matter how strong and competent they might be, kept up a veneer of deference to men.

Which was why he had to get out. “I need to make a name for myself, either on the battlefield or in Poldar—maybe take the Thermanae Senate seat that no one’s actually bothered with since the days of Tallius the Unifier and do something impressive. Otherwise she’ll never notice me.”

“And I know that’s where I come in: someone to keep an eye on the defenses while you’re away.”

Even though he was the Lord, and in theory, master of all he surveyed on his own lands, he looked around before answering, to make sure that no one was listening. He just wasn’t ready to reveal his plans to his dependants yet. “To take over the defenses indefinitely, more like. I don’t belong here anymore. Father and Mother raised me to see the world, to be the Thermanae who went to Poldar and made the connections we need to pour some money back into the land—not the one who tends the land. If Naso hadn’t died…”

“But he did, Lord and Lady embrace him. You’re the Lord of Thermanae. You have duties to the land, and to the villagers.”

“Spoken like a true Thelanese.” He said it with a slight, cultivated sneer, the one he’d learned to put on for his more urbane acquaintances.

At the same time, her words tugged at his heart, reminding him that, like it or not, he belonged to this little corner of his harshly beautiful, remote satrapy as much as it belonged to him.

More than it belonged to him. The land and the villages had been there long before his birth, would be there long after his death. He was just the one who, thanks to an unluckily aimed arrow in a far part of the Empire, had the responsibility to steward them.

Seven hells.

He let go of the sneer, knowing it wouldn’t impress her and probably wouldn’t fool her. She was Thelanese to the core—and she knew him well. “That’s why you and Anat finishing your Army term and wanting to come back to Thelana was an answer to my prayers. I can make sure my land and my people are in good hands, do a good turn for old friends, and still keep my sanity.” Anat, the eldest child of her local lord’s steward, could help out their steward Theos until he finally admitted he was ready to sit by the fire and tell stories to his grandchildren, and Dela was the best rough-country scout the Seventh Legion ever had, not to mention the best at training other scouts and skirmishers. And between Dela’s dirty jokes and Anat’s pretty face, even the old curmudgeons were starting to say “those two bossy Army women aren’t so bad.”

Dela and Anat loved Thelana, really wanted to make a life among the goat farmers and vintners even having seen more civilized parts of Sorania, but they couldn’t go to back to their hill village after running away from home together to join the Imperial Army. In Thermanae, if the young lord vouched for you and the Lady Lalage liked you—hells, if she came out of her melancholy and noticed you on a regular basis—you were accepted.

Especially if you could fight off Kulchu raiding parties.

The nomads loved to harass the border villages, carrying off livestock and kidnapping unlucky villagers into slavery. Dela’s job was to whip the villagers, the few men-at-arms, and anyone else she could recruit into a passable border patrol.

For decades, Imperial forces had been stationed here, patrolling the borders, protecting the borderfolk from Kulchu raiders who, if they couldn’t steal back the territory the Empire had wrested their control, were happy to steal from it. But since the invasion of Peshtar, and its attendant troubles, only one legion was stationed in Thelana, and that was spread far too thin to do much good.

“You and Anat are godssends, Dela. Now if I could just find someone to keep an eye on Mother…” He sighed. She was getting worse, more withdrawn from the world, more melancholy. Valaria and Theos and the rest of the staff could manage the day-to-day matters on their own, but Lalage needed someone to drag her from her shell or she’d sink so deep into melancholy she might never find her way out, leaving Thermanae without a Lady until he could wed. And he couldn’t leave home again, in good conscience—and thus couldn’t wed—until he found a suitable person to watch over her.

Which could be a long time. Practically any adult villager knew how to tend someone infirm in body, but afflictions of the mind and spirit were another matter.

And physicians, even frail, elderly, slightly crazy ones, made terrible patients. The person who had Lalage Thermanae in her care would have to be on her toes.

Dela smacked him on the shoulder. “Stop wool-gathering. Let’s see the countryside, meet some of these villagers of yours and see how bad this drought really is. See if we can find us some slavers to beat up.”

“Let’s hope not. I want my visit home to be nice and quiet. No profit in excitement here.”

Shattered Dreams by Mychael Black and Shayne Carmichael

“Kulisael.”

Li cursed under his breath and turned. “Yes? Do I know you?”

The man who spoke was taller than Li’s six and a half feet. Looking at the black and white uniform with red insignia patches, Li knew this demon was high level.

“I thought as much,” the man said dryly. He smirked at Li.

“What do you want?” Li started backing up, and the man advanced.

“You are required to return home.”

“Home?” Li shook his head, not once looking away from the coal-black eyes staring through him. “I no longer have a home.”

The man pulled out a small square card and handed it to Li. “Your service is requested.”

“Something tells me this isn’t a volunteer thing,” Li remarked. The man simply laughed. Then he was gone in the blink of an eye.

“Fuck.”

* * * *

Skulking on the outer fringes of Caeunial, Cody stayed well away from its demon populace. He had his own agenda to take care of, and the thirst for vengeance had led him here. It fucking figured it would be the one place Cody really didn’t want to be. Keeping a low profile in the midst of demons, as a human, wasn’t the easiest thing to do. Sitting in front of the small fire he’d set to ward off the chill of the coming night, Cody stared into the black flames.

“I thought I might find you here.”

Cody didn’t freeze with the sound of the voice, but he refused to turn around and look at the speaker. He knew who it was. “That’s odd. I didn’t think I would find you here.”

“I was on my way to…work.” The speaker emerged from the shadows and knelt across from Cody, on the other side of the fire. “You look worse for the wear.”

“You were called in to deal with the zombie problem, weren’t you?” Cody’s gaze remained on the fire as he reached into the pack near him. Pulling out a can, he opened it and drank his dinner. “Are you going to provide additional incentive from the Counsel to hire me on?”

“How do you know any of that?”

Shrugging, Cody tossed the empty can back into the pack. “They already tried to hire me. I told them ‘no thank you’. I just didn’t think they would bring you into it.”

“I don’t know what they’ve called me in for. And I guess it’s safe to assume that you’re still pissed off.”

“Now why would I be pissed off?” Finally looking over at Li, Cody gave his ex-lover a bland look. Li hadn’t changed one bit. The demon still was one of the most incredibly handsome creatures Cody had ever seen. From the top of his golden blond curls to the innocent looking features of an angel, Li had eternal youth and extraordinary good looks on his side.

“Why else would you storm out?” Li asked him. “Why else would you turn away from everything?”

“Things change. Didn’t anybody ever tell you that? I learned the hard way myself.” Cody had found out in a hard way exactly what Li was. In the lesson, he wasn’t given a chance to choose, either by Li or the demons who’d damn near killed him.

“Fair enough.” He stood and ran his fingers through his hair. “For what it’s worth, I haven’t changed, Cody.”

“That mean you still don’t tell the truth?” Cody stood and went to a pile of small sticks. Picking up several of them, he turned back to throw them into the fire.

“What?”

“Never mind. Water under the bridge, Li.” In a more conversational tone, Cody asked, “So, are you going to wade into the zombie problem?” Internally, Cody cursed the Counsel. Whether it was deliberate or not, sending Li into it would be an excellent way to drag Cody in as well.

Li eyed him dubiously. “If that’s what my orders are, then that’s what I must do.”

“Never one to do what you want to do, or what you really should do, are you, Li?” Cody tried to keep his own personal issues out of it, but it was hard to do. “You’re on your way to the Scarlet Chapel, then.”

“Excuse me?” Li stepped closer and glared at Cody. “I went against laws you have no concept of, just to be with you!”

Those laws had been beaten into his body by a group of extremely angry demons, and Cody had precious little use for them. Reaching back into his pack, Cody drew out two more cans. “Want one?” As he asked he tossed the can to Li.

The infuriated look on Li’s face gave way to sheer confusion. Catching the can, he slumped back against the nearest tree. “I don’t know what else to say, Cody. I’ve spent the past year trying to figure out why the fuck you just up and walked out, but I’m coming up blank here.”

“It was time for me to move on. Why else would I ever have left, Li?” Cody directed a mildly questioning look at him. Yeah, they had some issues. Only Li didn’t know what they were, and Cody wasn’t sure he gave a damn anymore. The thought itself was a lie, and deep down inside him, Cody knew it.

“So you left, just like that,” Li said. “No reasons, no goodbyes, nothing.” He nodded. “All right. I see this is fucking pointless.” He tossed the unopened can back to Cody. “See you around, babe.” With that, he turned and walked away toward the gates to Scarlet Chapel.

* * * *

“Kulisael, you must take him with you.” The older demon was stiff in his demeanor, ever mindful of his own position.

Li whirled around. “Why? Because the Counsel finds it amusing to use me as leverage to get the best mercenary in Caeunial on the roster? I think not.”

The second they turned the corner, however, Li came to an abrupt stop. There was Cody Slate, sitting in the outer office and in clear earshot.

“Didn’t think he’d go for it.” Cody doffed his hat and nodded to the High Lord. Tossing a small velvet bag at the Counsel member, Cody smiled then slid off the edge of the small desk. “If you guys are done with me, I’ll be going back to my own plans now.”

“We know what you have been doing, Cody Slate. Up until now it has been allowed, but that will change unless you remain.” A threatening undercurrent echoed in the High Lord’s words as he stared at Cody.

Altering his tone to a more conversational level, he added, “Now, I’m sure no introductions need to be made between the two of you.”

Cody’s lips compressed in a thin line before he answered with an abrupt nod of his head.

Blinking, Li took in the situation and realized he honestly had no idea what was going on. “Okay,” he said, throwing his hands up, “I give up! What’s behind the charade? What the hell have I missed here?”

“Seems I’m in for the duration. You along or not?” Folding his arms against his chest, Cody ignored the small bag near him.

“I apparently don’t have a choice,” Li grumbled under his breath.

Narrowing his gaze on Li, Cody muttered, “That makes two of us.”

“Excellent.” The High Lord sat at his desk and tossed a set of photos beside Cody. “That’s what you’re both up against.”

Glancing down at the pictures, Cody studied them. The creatures in the photos were humanoid in appearance, or at least that was the impression. Better described as zombies, they fed on flesh and blood, and some on souls.

“What area are they infecting now?”

“East Outlands,” the High Lord said. “We’ve had steady reports on the disease spreading.”

“Disease?” Li moved closer to Cody and leaned in to look at the pictures.

“They’re spreading a disease that seems to attack the central nervous system. When the victim becomes a vegetable, the creatures move in for the kill.”

“How do they spread the disease?” Li asked.

“An unknown strain of bacteria thrives in the creatures’ mouths. It’s transferred to the victim by bite. Our healers are working on isolating the bacteria, and hopefully devising a cure. But as of now, we have nothing to stop the progress of the disease in mortals. In most cases, we’ve contained the flesh eaters, but the soul eaters are swifter-moving and far more aggressive.”

“Sounds lovely.” Li glanced up at Cody and found himself staring into a pair of painfully familiar gray eyes.

“Who else did you con into going along for the ride?”

Ignoring the snide tone of Cody’s question, the High Lord said calmly, “There’s a legion of specially trained demons waiting outside the Chapel. Both of you will lead them. The creatures must be contained.”

Li chose to ignore the pain; it would do neither of them any good. Cody had made it clear there was nothing left. “Then we best get moving,” Li said quietly. And if his damned heart felt like it was ripping in two all over again, well, so be it.

“The consecration will take place when the moon has reached the second line of the Scarlet Tower. I will leave it to you whether or not you’ll attend, Kulisael, but the soldiers are required to do so. Afterwards the legion will break camp.” Settling back, the High Lord looked extremely pleased with himself.

Sliding off the desk, Cody shot the Counsel member a disdainful look before he turned to head from the office.