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Black Pearl 17


The Black Pearl of Pharazionby Cobalt Jade ( 17: Eight Beasts of StoneWe said little on the way back; even the wall of thorns seemed an anticlimax after what we had seen in the tower. But when we reached the Market District we began to talk. "The rebels need to get that belt," Shadow said."Are you proposing we steal it?" I said."Who else?" he said with a disarmingly boyish smile.I knew that if the belt was magical it would be protected by safeguards; I'd already had a taste of Shezrine's power. But if it meant being near Shadow again I'd gladly take the risk. My mind began to paint pleasant pictures.We came back to the townhouse at first light. Some of the rebels had stayed the night waiting for our return and as we walked in I noticed they were talking intently with a newcomer in their midst. The stranger was female, perhaps a few years younger than Shadow, with light olive skin and short, cropped hair of a dark bronze color. Her mouth was generous, with curves that suggested she liked to smile, and her arms were slim and well-muscled; overall she presented an almost boyish vitality that was belied by her well-shaped breasts and full lips. When we entered the room she looked up, flashing green eyes that sparked with recognition."Shadow?" she said. With two switches of her leather-clad legs she made it across the floor and caught him up in an embrace, along with a kiss considerably more probing and personal. "Oh, I've missed you..."Sourly I waited, my illusions shattered. To make things worse, she bore the star of the Qu'Az between her brows. She, as it turned out, was the long-lost mistress of the stone beasts.#We had to explain it to her, of course. I looked daggers at Shadow, who now sat with his fiancee, her hand resting over his. My blood was boiling for the chance to talk to him alone, out of this room of yammering priestesses and scheming nobles. But he could have been on another planet for all the notice he took of me. "You must be mistaken," she--Karina--said, with the naivete of youth. Her voice was high and innocent. "I can't be this person you're talking about. I have parents back in the village.""They are not your real parents," Shadow explained patiently. "Didn't I tell that to you? They took you in as a baby and raised you as their own.""The Star tells all," a priestess intoned. Karina put her fingers to her forehead as if she wanted to rub the pale star off. "Just because I have this...this...mark, it doesn't mean I'm the champion of this city! I've never even been here before, I hate it. The White Queen is disgusting. I think it's awful the way she treats people.""But you have the power to change it," the priestess said."You're going to have to accept it, Love," Shadow said, taking her hands in his own. "Fantastic as it seems, there can be no denying it. We can have no rebellion if you don't accept your destiny.""She must go to the temple," the priestess said in a basso voice."Yes. Yes," the advisors agreed. "For the Opening-of-the-Eyes Ceremony.""What, a ritual?" Karina said in alarm. "Oh no, not that. I detest organized religion, it exploits people. No one is going to play hocus-pocus with me."I slunk away as they tried to convince her. She was obviously a ninny. And ugly. Her face was too square, her nose was too hooked. And she was Shadow's fiancee. How could I have been so foolish! I could have taken solace with Marnessa just then, but Aylinn had gotten to her first. The Wing-captain of the stymphads and the slave girl had crept off to a spare bedroom and were locked face to crotch, Marnessa moaning her head off as usual. I closed the door. What else could go wrong?I considered leaving Obn Dhregni just then, but I would never back off from a promise I had made; and I had sworn, too, that Shezrine would be made to account for her atrocities, whether Shadow was involved in the vengeance or not. So I took up my sword and went to the garden to practice, action being the best fuel for the angry furnace I found myself stuck in.I went many rounds with an imaginary opponent and the sun was well up when I decided to rest. As I wiped the sweat from my eyes I noticed Karina standing in the door looking at me. Her arms were folded and there was a serious expression on her face. I stiffened, expecting a denouement, but she merely walked over and handed me a clay mug of soign-berry juice. "I'd like to thank you," she said, her clear eyes fixed on mine. There was no malice in them, no hidden motives. "For saving the life of my fiancee."I shrugged, downing the contents of the mug. *Do you know your fiancee is also a wolf?* I wanted to say. *One who haunts the hills, ripping up livestock with his teeth?* But I had given my word, and that secret would pass to no one. "He saved my life too," I said trying to sound nonchalant. "One turn deserves another." I took up my sword again."You are a mercenary?" she said with curiosity."That's right," I said, briefly envisioning the blade eviscerating her pretty little belly. Instead, I chipped the bud off a lily."My father was a mercenary," she said. "Well, my adopted father, I should call him now. He didn't want me to follow in his footsteps, but I ran away to join Deneir. Foolish, I guess," she said, scuffing the sand near her foot. "Deneir taught me how to fight. Shadow is his brother, you know.""I know," I said, beginning to warm to her. She wasn't vain, that was for sure. Her plain leather pants and jerkin were as utilitarian as mine, and she kept her hair short for practicality, eschewing the long tresses of court life. I wondered what she would say if I told her Shadow and I had been lovers. Probably she never dreamed of a thing, thinking my race enough to mark me as unattractive to him. The thought soured me again. "Do you use a sword?" I asked."A little. Quarterstaff, mainly. And I have knives. I serve with the rebels, but I'm really more of a thief. Or a thieving scout, I guess you'd call me." She touched her forehead again. "All this is so hard to understand. A few days ago, I was nobody, and now...this."I parried a few more times, showing off my skill. The birds twittered in approval. "Future sister-in-law to a king is hardly being a nobody.""Oh, Shadow," she said dimissingly, making a sharp motion with her hand. "He's hardly ever there! When he's gone I'm just another soldier. Things will be different when Deneir is back in power, though." She plucked a waxy plumeera bloom off a bush and twirled it in her fingers. "In the hills, we have nothing. Deneir holds court under a broken roof, with an audience of bats and squirrels. Even our neighbors, the Leopard Dukes, have to patch their robes."I laughed. "Then Deneir would make a better ruler than Shezrine after all, if he maintains so ascetic a lifestyle." I realized I didn't feel hate for her anymore."They say I must go to the temple this afternoon," Karina said with a frown. "Some crazy ritual. Will you come with us? They tell me this High Priestess is a friend of yours.""I would be happy to," I said.But before we left for the Temple, I had to square things off with Shadow.I still desired him, that was the problem. What he thought about it, I had no idea, but I would not push my claim over another woman's. Neither would I let him stand on sidelines to watch us fight it out, like two cats over a juicy mouse. He had some explaining to do, it seemed.I ran into him as he was discretely packing his things from the room we had shared a day ago. He jumped when he saw me. Guilty, I fancied. His eye rolled up to meet mine."You could have told me you had a fiancee, you know," I said casually.He stuffed a shirt into his pack, the muscles of his back working smoothly. A tendril of dark hair fell into his face. "Would you have told me if you had another?"That stung; I hadn't told him about the Duke, after all. But the Duke was hardly a significant other. Neither was Shadow, yet I couldn't rid myself of the feeling that he was *mine,* illogical and delusional as it was. "Does Karina know about your curse?" I said."No," he said, facing me, too proud to act the blackmail victim. "Will you tell her?""No." I lowered my eyes, ashamed that I had even brought it up."I've known her five years," he said. "She was always with the rebels, always with my brother. She wanted battles and adventure. I...responded to that, I guess. Deneir was very fond of her. He couldn't marry her--she wasn't of noble blood--but he thought she and I would make a good match, and he encouraged us. After a while, it seemed natural...a forgone conclusion, if you will." He stuffed another item of clothing inside the bag. "Do you love her?" I said. "If so, then why not remain faithful? Does she not expect it of you?""This is really none of your business, you know," he said icily, standing, and slung the pack over his shoulder. A dagger glinted at his belt, looking very long and sharp, like a wolf's fang. "Do I love her? Yes, in my way I do. Will we marry? By the gods, I don't know. Would you wed a wolf, an animal? Would you bear the children of one who might turn out like their father?""Shadow, I--" I blurted; but he had already gone, slamming the door to the chamber.I sat down on the bed, feeling awful for the things I had said. Of course he could not marry her, and of course he felt obligated to. And of course he loved her; any fool could see that, from his consideration and smiles. I felt like I'd walked into a pit of scorpions. What had I been in this drama? An interloper, or a chance of escape? I pinched my eyes, feeling the need to sleep. The trip to Shezrine's tower had taken most of last night, and with the events of this morning, there hadn't been the time.But that, too, was out of the question, as the priestesses announced they would be escorting us to the Temple for the ritual. Marnessa was to come too, for Lassimla was going to try to break Shezrine's enslavement spell. The rebels had tried to question her, but her replies had only been on the order of "Yes Mistress" or "No Master," ample evidence her intellect had been simplified along with her memory. I wondered how they had taken her repeated offers to "serve" them. Going by Aylinn's reaction, they had felt quite guiltless about accepting the offer.Marnessa stood eagerly when I entered the room, expecting me to use her in turn, but I only shook my head. "No," I said, tossing a bundle of clothes at her. "Put these on. We're going to the temple."She wrinkled her nose at the tunic and trousers, looking as disgusted at the thought of dressing as others more prudish would be at her nudity. Shezrine's slaves were made to be naked; seeing one with clothes on was like seeing a finely made sculpture swathed with rags. I draped a cloak around her and fastened it at her neck, drawing up the hood. "Keep your head down when you walk and the edges of the cloak pulled together.""But Mistress, I will be hot.""No hotter than you usually are," I said. The straining outline of her nipples was still clearly visible through her tunic. I availed myself of a cape, realizing I would be more recognizable in the streets now than I had been, and led her outside. It was a quick walk to the Temple through the morning crowds. Shadow and Karina walked in the lead, she with her arm around his waist. He paused every now and then to pick up an item from the marketplace stalls, make some comment on it, and walk on, as if he was indulging his lover by buying her a bauble. I knew it was part of their disguise, but the syrupy display still grated on my nerves. I thought about all the lovers I had known, who'd cheerfully come into my life and gone out of it without leaving much of a mark. Thunzer; Marrong; Ke-Aynan; Riethert--all of us adventurers, all of us pursuing our separate paths.We came to the Temple. I hadn't seen it in daylight before and was impressed. It was shaped like a handbell, with a bottom floor that flared into a shallow dome and a tall decorated spire on top of that, which was gilded and rang softly with thousands of tiny bells. Around it was a high wall decorated with blue and green tiles in geometric patterns. The priestesses left to join their sisters--or brothers, as it were, given their double-sexed nature--leaving Shadow, Karina, Marnessa and I the only ones on the floor. Our footsteps rang strangely in that vast echoing place.An altar had been set up near the tri-bodied statue of Tontaxir and to either side of it two braziers burned with a thin but pungent smoke. Slight whispering from the balcony told me other priestesses were present, to watch or chant, perhaps. Marnessa started to fidget. "Mistress, I do not like this place...""Hush," I said, giving her arm a squeeze.Lassimla walked down from the altar dressed in ritual robes of pink, red, and black, with silver kohl around her eyes. Her step was a little unsteady, her eyes alert but slightly glazed. I gathered she had taken some sort of drug, perhaps one that amplified the senses. Her eyes fixed on Karina. "So this is the one," she said. She brushed Karina's short bangs back to reveal the star. Though light, the touch was clearly sexual in nature. "The Keeper of the Beasts."I felt Shadow bristle. He didn't know about Lassimla's *jaggaidrin* nature but reacted exactly as if another man had encroached on his lover. "What is she doing?" he muttered.Karina's eyes locked with Lassimla's in obvious fascination. The *jaggaidrin* had that effect on both genders. It didn't hurt that Lassimla was so lovely, either; her hair had been done in many long, thin braids, an exotic yet genderless hairstyle that emphasized the flawless bones of her face. "They think I am," she said. "Do you?" Lassimla asked."I...I don't know," Karina said, dropping her eyes. Lassimla caught her chin and lifted her face up again. Before Karina could react she ducked her face in close and kissed her full on the mouth.Shadow's hand went to his sword. I put my arm out, stopping him; fortunately the rough scrape was hidden in the high, eerie chanting that came from the balcony. "No!" I whispered. "What are you doing, do you want to spoil the ritual?""That is no ritual!" he hissed back.Lassimla disengaged and looked at us. Karina stumbled a little on her feet as if dazed, her eyes blinking rapidly. The kiss, whatever it was, clearly had a druglike effect on her. "She needs this to claim her power," Lassimla said. "Otherwise, she is no use to you at all.""You do that by raping her?" Shadow said acidly.I glared at him. It was clear Lassimla's behavior was striking against some deeper issue, and despite my feelings for him I couldn't help thinking he was being hypocritical about it. After all, he had no objection to bedding me when he was promised to another.Karina shook her head, coming out of her trance. "Shadow," she warned. "She will not be hurt," Lassimla said. Templewards appeared unobtrusively between the columns, swords drawn, warning us we were not to make any more trouble.Shadow knew he was outnumbered, and furthermore that it was foolish to draw swords on so flimsy a pretext, yet he did not want to give it up. Like many men he chose to abdicate rather than admit he had been wrong. "Do as you will, then," he said, on the verge of civility, and stalked out of the temple.I could see Karina's lips move helplessly, she had not expected this from him. But Lassimla drew her back. "Let us continue," she murmured. They kissed, as the cold stone faces of the god looked down. Marnessa and I were the only witnesses. When Lassimla let her robes slip to the ground I was not surprised. Tontaxir was the god of sexual pleasure, after all. Marnessa gasped. "Mistress, she's...she's...""The word is *jaggaidrin,*" I said. Naked, Lassimla was a perfect meld of girl and youth. Though slight her body had the V shape of a man, with the small breasts of a teenager; her naval was as low as a woman's and her pelvis had the concave shape designed for childbearing. Yet between her legs a sizable cock was rising in the temple's warmth, and beneath it hung a healthy wrinkled sack full of fresh seed. For all the freakishness it was holy somehow, in a way I cannot explain, for its union of opposites.Karina was too caught up in the spell to notice; her responses grew heavy and languorous as Lassimla explored her mouth. Her hands remained at her sides, passive; yet I could see them twitch with desire to touch the *jaggaidrin's* slim body. Marnessa was so fascinated she barely made a sound. Clearly such a thing was out of the range of her experience, even though she had served in a concupiscerium.Karina began to swoon. She threw her head back as Lassimla kissed her neck, slithering her hands beneath her shirt to touch her breasts. The chanting built to a crescendo. Suddenly Lassimla pushed her to the floor in a gesture of urgency. She thrust her cock into Karina's mouth and I was shocked to see Karina suck on it with an even greater urgency. "Do it, *sahrilla,*" Lassimla said. "Suck it hard, make me come, or else all is lost!"Power rippled in the air. Karina applied herself to her task with single-minded determination, her eyes closed; I saw her cheeks dimple and hollow. The bizarreness of the scene impressed itself upon me: a woman who looked like a man fellated a man who looked like a woman. I would actually been glad, earlier that day, for Karina to humiliate herself in a ritual like this, but it all seemed petty now. If the ritual didn't work, there would be no avatars to come to the city's rescue, and without the avatars, the rebels would lose.Karina sucked as if she couldn't get enough of whatever nectar the priestess contained. But Lassimla's face showed none of the pleasure, only a sort of rising, holy agony. She was obviously reining herself, controlling her reactions, to make the act last as long as possible.The sound of bells erupted from the temple balconies, hundreds of them, of various rich, silvery tones. Lassimla's eyes closed and I could see the tension gather in her face. "Yes , yes, *sahru,*... yeeessss," and she thrust her hips back, tearing her cock out of Karina's mouth. As she came a blaze of bright light momentarily obliterated the two figures.I blinked. What was this? But it was no trick of the eyes. The fiery star detached itself and swiftly spiraled through the air, circling the ring of mosaics that lay around the altar. And I saw those designs were in fact the images of the Qu'Az beasts inlaid in many colored stones, and as the star touched them they came briefly to life, rearing in triumph from their positions on the floor."Hachu'kai!" Lassimla commanded. An antelope with eagle claws raked the air, uttering a shrill cry like a raptor's."Artelus, the Demon Queen of Scorpions!" An albino scorpion with the head of a maiden scuttled round to face her, presenting its deadly sting."Keeya of the Thousand Eyes!" A metal peacock spread its tail, the iridescent eyes stunning me like a blow."Zu, come forth!" A fire-breathing bull with a man's head embedded in its chest stamped and bellowed."Amangarauta, Hronde!" An eight-legged armadillo, a living siege engine, rose from the floor like a boulder; next to it reared a python with the antlered head of deer. It gave an impressive hiss, displaying fangs longer than my hand."Quorveh, Packleader and Hunter!" A feathered wolf gave an eerie howl."Vengla, the Invincible!" A dragon-headed turtle rose from the mosaics as if from a pond and puffed a cloud of scalding steam.They all faced the altar, these bizarre mixtures of human and bird, mammal and reptile, insect and automaton, and bowed. To Karina, who stood still as stone, looking over the congregation with eyes full of terrible wonder. The star on her forehead burned like a white-hot coal.Then it was over. The beasts shimmered like dreams, disappeared. Lassimla sagged against the altar, spent. A priestess quickly rushed in with a fresh robe.Karina blinked, coming back into herself. "Wha' happened?" She touched her forehead and quickly snatched back her finger. "Ouch!"Lassimla gently pulled her hand away. "Be careful. Your power has been activated now; you must handle it carefully." "I feel so tired..." Karina began, and suddenly sagged too. The light faded from the mark, leaving a narrow four-pointed star. A priestess rushed in to attend to her. "Come with me," she said, supporting Karina around the waist. "I'll take you to a place where you can rest.""All right," Karina muttered. She seemed to have no recollection of what she had done. Her eyes lit up when she passed over the mosaics. "I saw them!" she said, pointing excitedly. "I had a vision...they were all there, bowing to me, and I was commanding them...""Yes, yes," the priestess soothed, and led her away to the chambers in the back.It turned my attention back to the altar. Lassimla was drinking from a carafe, something to refresh her after her exertions. She noticed me watching her. "It is done," she said simply.I nodded in what I thought what was a nonchalant way, though I was still reeling from what I had witnessed. "Do all your rituals involve sex?" I said."Most," she said., "Not because they have to, but because it's the quickest and most convenient way of working magic. Shezrine's secret too, as you know,"I nodded."You have another innocent victim for me, do you not?" she said. I smiled at the joke. "Yes," I said, removing Marnessa's cloak. "Here she is."Marnessa's eyes went round with fright, or surprise, or maybe excitement; it was hard to tell. But she gave no protest."Ah, Shezrine's captured rebel," Lassimla said. "Come on up here, my dear. I do not bite."


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