Glenda Larke: The Heart of the mirage

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Glenda Larke The Heart of the mirage
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    The Heart of the mirage
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The Heart of the mirage

Glenda Larke

LIGEA
PART ONE

CHAPTER ONE

When an emperor laughs about you behind your back, you know you are in trouble.

When the person speaking to the emperor at the time of his self-satisfied and smug amusement is the Magister Officii, your immediate superior and a man with a cruel sense of humour, well, then you know you ought to find a way to melt into the floor and disappear. If you can't do that, you stride up and down the anteroom to the royal audience hall instead. The carpet, fifteen paces long, showed signs of wear down the centre, so I knew I wasn't the first person to pace while waiting to be called into the august presence of Bator Korbus, Lord of Tyr, High General of Tyrans and Exaltarch of the Tyranian Empire.

If I concentrated, I could feel the Exaltarch's presence in the next room. If I focused my concentration, I could determine his emotions, although once I became aware of them, I wondered if I hadn't been happier ignorant. He exuded a ruthless confidence, like a wily feral dog delighting in its position as leader of the pack. And I knew the topic of his conversation with Magister Rathrox Ligatan was

me: why else would I have been called here to wait while the two men chatted? Rathrox headed the civil service, everyone knew that. Not so widely known was his interest in personally directing the Exaltarch's Brotherhood Compeers, of which I was a female agent.

Although I knew Rathrox well, his emotions were harder to divine through the walls of the audience hall. I thought I detected a certain watchfulness, and perhaps an amused tolerance towards his emperor, stopping just short of lese-majesty. Even a civil servant as powerful as the Magister Officii knew better than to ridicule a ruler whose power was absolute.

It was easy to imagine Rathrox, a thin grey man with yellow teeth, using his caustic wit to amuse his emperor. Easy to imagine the sixty-year-old Exaltarch, his handsome face marred by the cynicism of his eyes, being amused by Rathrox's brand of cruel humour. (What I couldn't imagine was what they found so entertaining about me.

Even as I speculated, the Exaltarch gave a belly laugh loud enough to carry through to the anteroom. The two imperial guards outside the door affected not to hear; I frowned. I was still pacing up and down, irritably because of the unfamiliar feel of carpet beneath my bare feet, but the laugh halted me. It was the kind of guffaw a person might make if they saw a slave spill soup in a rival's lap. Under the circumstances it was hardly encouraging, although I couldn't imagine what I'd ever done to warrant the mockery of the Exaltarch.

One of the guards gave me a sympathetic look. He had been more appreciative when I'd first arrived, eyeing my bare right shoulder, long legs and the swell of my breasts with a connoisseur's eye, but his

appreciation had died once he noticed the graceless way I walked and sat. Not even wearing a fine silk wrap threaded through with gold could make me feminine enough to please a man like that guard; the stylish wrap of the highborn lacked allure when it was worn as if it were a large, hastily donned bath towel. I had no pretensions to elegance, or even moderately good looks. I'm taller than most women, long-limbed and muscular. My skin is an unfashionable brown, and my hair the burnt-sienna colour of desert earth, although I did keep it curled and highlighted gold, more in keeping with Tyranian notions of beauty and fashion.

I felt someone approach the door and prepared myself for its opening. A slave appeared in the doorway and motioned me inside; I obeyed wordlessly and, eyes discreetly downcast, went to kneel at the feet of my monarch, just managing to suppress my distaste for the feel of carpet beneath my knees. The slave slipped away through a side door and I was left alone with the Exaltarch and Magister Rathrox. 'My service is yours,' I said formally, and touched my hand to the hem of the Exaltarch's robe in symbolic submission. The gold trimming was knobbed with seed pearls and felt stiff and harsh beneath my fingers. I kept my eyes lowered.

There was a long silence and then an 'Ah' that was little more than an expelled breath. 'So you are Ligea, the late General Gayed's daughter. Look up, girl, and let me see you properly.'

I raised my head and ventured to return the gaze of the Exaltarch's assessing eyes. I had seen him at close quarters once before, years ago. At the time he'd been returning to the city of Tyr at the head of his victorious troops and in those days he was lean and hard and arrogant, a politician-soldier about to wrest

the last vestiges of political power from the hands of his senile predecessor and a divided Advisory Council. The arrogance was still present, but the hardness had gone from the body into his face. His physique was showing signs of easy living – sagging chest, raddled cheeks, a belly large enough to move independently of the rest of him – but his face said this was a man used to being obeyed, a man who knew how to be ruthless. No overindulgence would ever eradicate the brutal shrewdness of those cold eyes, or the harsh lines around his mouth.

He was lounging on a red velvet divan, at ease, the fingers of one hand playing idly with the gold rings on the other. His nails were manicured and polished, and he smelled of moonflowers and musk. Suspended over his head, a long reed fan swayed to and fro to stir the warm air. There was no sign of the slaves who operated it; doubtless some mechanism enabled them to perform the task from an adjacent room.

When he looked away for a moment to glance at Rathrox, I risked a quick look myself. The Magister leant against the cushions of another divan but his thin, stiff body made no indent on the upholstery, his hands were rigidly still. I was unused to seeing him in the role of a subordinate, unused to seeing him tense. He seemed out of place, like an ugly, foul-smelling insect that had flown into the perfumed boudoir of some highborn lady and didn't know how to escape. Behind him, a marble fireplace dominated the other end of the room, flanked by a clutter of gilded furniture, painted amphorae and too many exotic ornaments. Lion skins, the glass eyes of their heads powerless to express outrage at the ignominy of their fate, were scattered here and there on the carpet. A full-sized statue had its own wall recess, two figures

entwined in grotesque embrace: a reminder of the sibling founders of Tyr whose relationship had so repulsed the gods they'd punished the city with the plague.

I wanted to let my gaze wander around the room, to mock the luxury of it, but the one brief glance was all etiquette allowed me. I had to give my full attention to the Exaltarch.

His shrewd eyes lingered on me, speculating. I continued to kneel, awaiting permission to rise, or to speak, but the only sound was the murmur of running water all around us. Tiled fountains set into the walls, or so I guessed. I had them in my own villa. They helped to regulate temperature, cooling the hot air of the desert-season or, once heated, warming the cold air of the snow-season – but I'd heard that in the palace they were thought to perform another function as well. They made it hard for slaves to eavesdrop.

A minute crawled by in silence while we stared at one another.

What the Vortex was so damned interesting about me?

I didn't dare let my eyes drop.

'You are not what I expected,' he said finally, in the smooth-accented speech of the highborn. 'You may stand if you wish.'

I scrambled to my feet. T was only the General's adopted daughter,' I said. 'If you look for signs of General Gayed in me, you won't find them, Exalted.'

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