Aylinn warmed to me as we made our way through the passage. "These caves connect to the Dhroon fortress on the edge of the city," she explained. "The stymphs crawl along the cliff and under the falls to reach the main entrance, which is directly below us. They echo-locate like bats, so they can enter and leave in the safety of darkness. No one in the city knows they're here."
I shook my head. "The White Queen does not pay as much attention to her city as she should. What are you doing here, Aylinn?"
"I'm acting as their Captain. The Dhroon have been flying stymphs for years, but they're not well trained in aerial combat. They need a good leader--me."
The passage dried out the further we went, although the roar of the falls still boomed faintly. Small creatures skittered out of our path, disappearing into the darkness. Once we passed a grinning skeleton impaled on a spike. "Duke Dhroon is fond of such traps," Aylinn said casually. "He wants no one to discover his secret."
I shook my head. "I'm amazed that anyone finds their way back here."
"You did," Aylinn said. "It happens, especially in the dry season when the water volume lessens. That's why I was watching at the cave. Everyone here spends time doing guard duty."
Finally we came out onto a platform that overlooked a wide cavern lit by torches. The floor was divided into dozens of pens by high iron bars. Each housed an ill-tempered stymphad, some preening, some sleeping. They were smaller than the ones the Hharangi kept and were colored differently, a dull green with splotches of gold and yellow. I counted thirty of the beasts, but there were pens for dozens more.
"This whole cavern used to belong to the Hharangi, back in the days before the Caramaithzes came," Aylinn said. "The Dhroon took it over when they fled the city. The Hharangi stymphs left a few fertile eggs behind so the Dhroon had breeding stock to experiment with."
"These do look like a different breed," I conceded.
"They are. More of a scout and raider, while the Hharangi stymphs are bred for combat. I'd tell you more, but you look like you need to get warmed up."
I was shaking by now, as the cavern interior was much cooler than outside. "You must have read my mind."
Aylinn borrowed a uniform from one of the other riders, introducing me with a few quick words. The man looked at me strangely, but she merely turned away and led me through a side tunnel into a smaller cavern. Heated water spumed softly in shallow wooden tubs fed by pipes in the ground. That, and the benches and clothing pegs, told me this was a bathing area. I noted a tightly-caulked wooden hut. "That's our sauna," Aylinn said.
I used a knife to slice away what was left of the silk. I was shivering by now, my skin clammy as a corpse's. "I'd like to use it, if you don't mind."
"Good idea. I think I'll join you."
I wasn't exactly happy at her company, as her manner indicated she wanted to do more than sit and chat, but I was a guest here and had to censor my feelings. The inside of the hut was dim and steamy, smelling strongly of warm cedar wood and spicy herbs. I stretched out on one of the benches and tucked my head in my arms. A cheerful, naked Aylinn joined me a few seconds later. She was slightly shorter than I but powerfully built, almost stocky, and the tanned skin of her arms was covered with dozens of triangular scars. "Love bites," she grinned. "My favorite stymph has a sharp beak."
If I had commented on her remark she would have forced me into a conversation and perhaps forced her attraction. I knew she'd been ogling me. But I was in no mood for casual sex after the narrow escape I'd had, and besides, Aylinn wasn't my type. I feigned sleep to ignore the issue, but it wasn't long before I was really napping.
I began to dream.
It began the way most dreams do, dim and vague. I was standing in an opulent chamber surrounded by silent naked figures, some plated with silver, others gold. Some were male and some were female. I looked down on my own body and saw I too was nude and gilded, a shade of deep, rich gold that was almost bronze. This should have been alarming but I felt only a sleepy acceptance...but not sleepy enough to leave the dreamscape for a deeper layer of dream.
Then the air began to hum with a silent sexual tension. I raised my bronzed eyelids to see a white, lithe figure pick its way among the statues...appearing, then disappearing. It was the Queen. A flush of fear infused my flesh, sending sensual ripples skating across my skin. I would not stand on display for her! But my limbs refused to work, my mouth to open. I could only wait mutely as she approached.
Finally she stood in front of me, naked but for her crystal belt. She ran her cool fingers down my body. Although this was only a dream, I felt my flesh shiver. My nipples contracted at her touch.
"Give yourself over," she whispered, the sibilants in the words soft and seductive. "You belong to me. You know you do."
She squeezed my nipples with her fingers. I felt blood engorge my breasts, my lower organs. I knew she was evil but I could not hide my arousal, for I was as naked as all the other figures here...and as paralyzed.
"Yes," she laughed wickedly. "Your body obeys me, even if your mind does not. You *will* be mine, Jozhande Tanimury, and become part of my gilded herd, whether you like it or not."
She lowered her carmine lips to my breast and suckled me gently. The pleasure was indescribable, the sensations only increasing as she lapped. She took as much pleasure in it as I did. Her eyes closed as her mouth palpated slowly, seductively, her tongue flicking like a snake's. I gave a low moan, a note of pure passion.
"Forever," she whispered. "All mine, forever..."
I woke with a start. I was on my back, arms flung above me, legs spread...the damp patch between them still throbbing. Warm steam curled in the air. The sauna was empty.
That left out Aylinn as the molester. Her innocence was further proven when I looked outside: she was sitting in one of the wooden tubs, singing to herself and running suds through her hair. There was no one else in the cavern.
I shook my head. It was only dream, caused by the sexual overload I had suffered. I thought about asking Aylinn if anyone else came into the sauna while I was sleeping, but knew it was a silly notion. Instead I bathed, then dressed in the plain brown tunic and trousers the stymphad riders wore.
I then had a brief meeting with Aylinn and the general of the Dhroon land militia. "Duke Ushroez has given the rebels his support," I said. "He plans to concede his mines to the Queen to give himself a plausible cover. There wasn't much he could do under house arrest. I haven't made contact with the priestess yet, I'm afraid."
"She keeps a low profile," the general said. "Shezrine has long wanted to unify church and state, and the only way to do that is have herself proclaimed high priestess of Tontaxir. But the current priestess stands in her way, and has proved remarkably resilient to assassination attempts. The old religion dies hard in the city."
So Shezrine wished to style herself as a goddess. It seemed almost appropriate. I promised to keep Aylinn and the Dhroon informed of developments.
It was early evening by the time I was back in the upper city. As I turned onto the street my inn was on a small boy slipped me a piece of paper and quickly ran away. Puzzled, I unfolded it and began to read.
As I write this I fervently hope you have made it back to the city and have not been drowned in the falls as reported by the litter bearers that came back this morning. Wherever you are, do not return to your inn. *Shezrine suspects.* Turn your back and walk quickly away without looking behind you, for the Queen's spies are everywhere. Go to the Black Dog in the Temple District, for it is run by a man we can trust. I have already taken the precaution of moving your belongings. Meet me tomorrow at fourth ring in the eating room there, so we can talk.
Your friend in the palace.
A cold chill rolled up my spine. J'Wabra; it could be no other. Of course the Queen suspected. How many dark-skinned Pharazii were there in the city, after all? I had been foolish to think my escapade would have no repercussions. I breathed deeply to calm myself, then crumpled the note in my fist and walked swiftly away.
After a few blocks I had the feeling I was being followed. Several times I caught a glimpse of a nondescript figure when I glanced behind me, but he or she always melted into the crowd.
*Shezrine suspects.* I quickened my pace. But why was the Queen tracking me? Surely she had the resources to capture me immediately if she wanted. Whoever my pursuer was, I knew had to lose them, and fast.
I plunged grimly into the heart of the entertainment district, which boasted the thickest crowds in the city. The common folk sang and laughed as they strolled arm in arm, fueled by cheap ale and sticks of pungent dream-weed. Wealthier citizens traveled in litters, their favorite slaves trotting behind them on leads of gold chain. The pets were nude save for glitter or brief straps of leather...objects of display that announced the status of their master or mistress to the world. Apparently novelty of appearance served as one of the yardsticks, for I had never seen such freakish hair and skin colorations or exaggerated sexual endowments. Not a one looked up at me as I passed; their eyes were solely on their masters.
But still I sensed those unnerving eyes on my back.
I pushed through the crowd to a nearby gambling hall, where I bought a quart of cheap wine; the smashed bottle would do as a weapon in a pinch. The hall was dim and smoky. I could hide here for a while, but it was better that I find a disguise.
The patrons were too intent on their games to notice my thievery. With a few items of purloined clothing I became a struggling trader (a camel merchant, by the smell of the jacket) with my braidlocks tucked into a peaked leather cap. Crouching to conceal my height, I skirted the edges of the hall and slipped out through the kitchens, pausing in the narrow alley to get my bearings.
A black-garbed figure leapt out at me, its face hidden in a veil. Before I could react I heard the sharp foot-thuds of two more attackers as they landed behind me...the low rooftop above providing an excellent perch to catch me unawares.
And I thought I had lost my pursuers. I raised the bottle in my fist to smash it against the alley wall.
A dart stung me between the shoulderblades before it could connect. Whirling around, I saw a fourth attacker lowering a bamboo blow-tube as a sensation of warm pins and needles caterpillared down my spine. I had been drugged with e'phrem, a strong sedative and anticonvulsant. I had used it myself to sedate delirious patients.
The bottle slipped out of my grasp and smashed itself on the hard stone cobbles of the alley. My legs gave out from under me and I fell, too, next to a puddle of fresh urine and a head of rotted lettuce.
A line of drool slowly bled from the corner of my mouth. I couldn't raise my hand to wipe it away. I was paralyzed.
The spies quickly bound my limbs close to my body and rolled their heavy black capes around me. The last thing I remembered was being slung over their shoulders, to be carried off like a length of old carpet.
When awareness came back to me I was lying on my back. I was thirsty, and my head was cradled on a soft pillow which supported it completely. I couldn't move my limbs as yet, nor open my eyes. In the distance I heard faint chanting in pure, high voices. Women's voices. Even fainter than that came the cheerful underhum of the nocturnal streetlife I had been recently abducted from. I heard no other noise. Yet another sense told me that wherever I was, I was not alone.
Then came the unmistakable sound of flint on steel and the smell of freshly rolled dream-weed, which told me for sure.
I must have flicked my eyelids or gave some other sign of awareness, for this unseen person said, "Can you hear me? I know the drug's effects are leaving you. Move your little finger if you can."
It was torture being unable to speak or move. At least I was still clothed. That was a good sign. If the Queen had taken me I might be naked and in chains by now. Moreover, she was too crass to be entertained by the sweet chanting I heard. It sounded almost...holy.
I opened my eyes. I was in a narrow hall lined with curtained alcoves. It took great effort to focus, but across from me, sitting casually in a carved wooden chair, was a slender woman of medium height. She was smiling, holding a slim black stick of dream-weed between her fingers. I knew her. I had punched her that morning.
"Welcome to the Temple of Tontaxir," she said.
I tried to speak, but it came out as the moan of an imbecile. My head thumped against the pillow in uncoordinated jerks.
"Here, let me help you sit," she said, bending over to give me a hoist. She was much stronger than her frail build suggested. The fine embroidery of her robe rippled with her movements, and what I thought were abstract designs quickly resolved themselves into interlocking nudes. The tiny figures were engaged in a variety of carnal acts, including a few that raised even my eyebrows. "It will be a few more minutes before you recover. Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Lassimla."
"The High Priestess of Tontaxir."
I was surprised. I had expected a priestess of Tontaxir--the Love Slave of the Gods, as they called him, her, or it in this city--to be of a more sensual mien...a full-figured harlot with scarlet lips and a breathy lisp. But Lassimla was more androgynous than voluptuous, almost girlish, and gave off a feeling of quiet strength. Her hands were large but smooth and feminine, her lips firm and well-shaped; her face was long, with a strong chin that had the suggestion of a cleft in it. Her eyelashes had been lengthened and darkened by cosmetics, soot mixed with mineral oil most probably.
"We in the Temple heard about your arrival in the city," she continued in a cultured, genderless voice that would have been low for a woman and high for a man. "I knew I would have to contact you sooner or later. And if I'm not mistaken, we already met earlier this day, did we not?"
I laughed mirthlessly at the pale violet-blue bruise decorating her cheekbone. "How d' I know I can trus' you?" I said in an uncoordinated mumble that sounded like a mouthful of marbles was impeding my speech.
"There is the door; you can leave at any time if you wish." She gestured toward an arch half-concealed by a velvet curtain. I saw stars beyond and the stone rails of a balcony.
"I can't leave if I can't walk," I grumbled, pushing away the cup of water she proffered. "Why did you kidnap me?"
"The Queen's men were all around you," she explained matter-of-factly. "Twenty of them, and closing in fast. You would never have escaped their net. I know this because I and my Templewards were tracking you at the same time from the city rooftops. To reveal ourselves in our night-garb and explain the situation to you would have taken too long and attracted too much attention. So we chose to abduct you and spirit you to safety."
Her explanation make sense. I rubbed the sore spot between my shoulderblades. Knowing myself, I would have protested at the unwanted rescue anyway, insisting on facing my pursuers rather than fleeing. "How did you know I was in the city?"
"It was common knowledge by the time you sat at the Queen's banquet table," Lassimla said. "People gossip. The jealous throng at the Wall of Thorns, for example. Besides, I had two dream-sendings from Tontaxir. The first was that you would come."
I ignored the bit of mystic mumbo-jumbo. "You know my mission then."
Anger pinched the priestess's face. "Yes. The Queen must be stopped. What she does is blasphemy!"
Her vehemence surprised me. "How so?"
"Look at the niches lining this hall. Do they seem familiar? The Queen keeps a similar arrangement for her slaves, using them as decorations for her palace. She stole the custom from us and perverted it. Our Temple is not a place where men and women go torture and abuse others. It is a place for them to experience their godhood. For centuries they have come to this hall, some to choose their passions, and others to experience the sweet danger of serving those passions. There were no slaves and no masters--only desire."
"I don't understand," I said. "Isn't Tontaxir the pleasure slave of the Gods? Surely he approves of slavery?"
"You misunderstand. Not a pleasure slave as you think of it, an object owned and used, but a *slave to pleasure.* Pleasure is all that Tontaxir is or cares about. Carnal pleasure. It is because of this that Tontaxir has supremacy over the other gods. And over mortal men and women too, by the all-encompassing immediacy of their urges.
"He is the god of sex?" I said bluntly.
"Yes. And no he, either. Or she." She rose from her chair and gestured for me to join her. "Come to the main floor of the temple, and I'll explain it to you."
As I understood it the true form of Tontaxir was not human at all but a sort of pink, octopus-like creature covered with human orifices, organs, and genitalia of many different sizes and shapes...rather unattractive, but well suited for its role. But for more intimate situations the god took on the form of a man or woman...and sometimes both. Or neither.
We reached the floor of the congregation, which was covered by a vast shallow dome. Thousands of beeswax candles burned like stars in the darkness. In the center stood a white marble statue almost thirty feet high depicting a nude man and woman. They stood shoulder to shoulder but at an angle, so the man looked over the northwest half of the congregation, the woman the northeast. Where their hips and shoulders touched a third, androgynous figure emerged, to stare sternly at due north.
"That is Tontaxir," Lassimla said. "Neither male nor female, but a little of both."
Against my will, I was awed. I walked around the wide altar-plinth, stepping over pilgrims' offerings. The faces seemed to change expression in the flickering candles, from wise to cruel to dispassionate, with a hundred variations in between...while the triple body of god was at once sexed and sexless, grotesque and beautiful.
I finished my inspection, coming back to where Lassimla stood. A startling certainty flashed upon me. "As you are," I said.
She nodded. "Yes. I am what you call *jaggaidrin*, double-sexed. All of us in the Temple are."
She undid the loose tie of her robe and pulled it down towards her waist, baring her torso. If it wasn't for her small, virginal breasts, with their flat and childish nipples, she could have been a young man. Her shoulders were broad and strong enough, and the chiseled musculature of her neck and torso definitely belonged to the male sex. Yet her skin was as fine as a girl's. The bone structure of her face and her long auburn hair could have been at home on either. She slipped the robe back over her shoulders. "You have seen enough," she said quietly.
I noted a nasty scar along her ribs before the satin fabric hid it. "The Queen?" I said, remembering what the Dhroon general had said about assassins.
"Yes." she said, tying her robe. "But she did not succeed. We have skilled healers here, and Tontaxir takes care to protect me."
"Why doesn't she simply arrest you and...kill you?"
"That would cause riots not even she could quell," Lassimla said. "The Temple is too powerful, both as an institution and a religion. Not even Shezrine wants a jihad in her own city. That is why she covets my title, for if she is High Priestess as well as Queen, there will be few who will oppose her."
"She is not *jaggaidrin,* though," I pointed out.
"That doesn't matter. She will simply rape our doctrine once again, and declare herself the perfect being."
"Shall we talk about the rebellion, then?" I said, a grim determination on my face.
We sat on the altar steps to formulate our plans. When the rebel forces entered the city, the Temple would declare a holy war and rise in arms against the Queen; hints spread at worship services would galvanize them weeks in advance. The Temple had plenty of gold in its coffers to furnish them with weapons. These, too, would be bought weeks in advance from dealers outside the city and stored in the Temple catacombs.
When we finished Lassimla said, "You must not forget the most powerful weapon of the rebels, the one greater than all the rest combined. The Stone Beasts of Qu'Az."
I frowned. Shadow had made no mention of them. "What are they?"
"Centuries ago, when this city was founded, Tontaxir gave it a means of defense: eight celestial guardians from the Outer Planes, rendered to stone to remain immortal. You may have seen them as you entered the city." I nodded, remembering the feathered wolf, the antlered snake. "If the city was threatened they would resume life and motion to defend it. Tontaxir gave their wardship to the Qu'Az, a family of noted warriors, so it could be passed down from generation to generation. For centuries the Qu'Az served the city, always vigilant. But in all that time enemies never came. Obn Dhregni grew fat and lazy. The beasts faded into legend. They were simply eight statues, nothing more. Children played on them and lovers trysted in their shadows.
"But if the city had forgotten the legend, Subbobor had not. He invaded one balmy autumn night, striking as swiftly as an adder to fell the Qu'Az before they could rally their charges. Without them, the beasts were silent, and the city fell.
"Only one of the Qu'Az survived that night, a woman who was living with her merchant-husband in a distant land. That woman's children were raised as natives of that land and never knew the power they carried. But Subbobor did. It took many years for him to track all of them down, and when he did, this remaining branch was eradicated. But again, a young woman escaped.
"She was pregnant at the time and ran for eight months, eventually birthing the babe in a town north of here, where the assassins finally tracked her down. They killed her, never realizing she'd been pregnant because she had immediately given the child away for safekeeping. Subbobor congratulated himself, thinking the Qu'Az had been finally obliterated. The child, meanwhile, had vanished.
"Tontaxir told me in the second dream-sending that the child is still alive and has been raised among the remaining Mejdabians. She does not know what she is. If she could be brought here and trained, she could activate the beasts and cause them to rise. Shezrine may be a sorceress, but she cannot withstand the avatars of a god."
"I'll have to send a message to the rebels about that," I said. "Did you see the girl's face in your dream?"
"No. It was no vision; only thoughts."
"Hmm. Is she recognizable as a Qu'Az, then? Do the family share certain features?"
"They did, but the girl would have too much foreign blood in her to be a clear match. According to legend, though, all the Qu'Az bore a star between their brows...a paleness underneath the skin that was almost unnoticeable, yet easily observed when you know what to look for."
Again I wondered why Shadow had never told me about this, but perhaps he hadn't known. If the girl was adopted as an orphan, as seemed likely, no one would known anyway. "I'll make sure the rebels find her," I said. "And now, as long as we talking about dream-sendings, I was wondering if I could trouble you with a few I experienced myself..."
Lassimla leaned forward eagerly. "From the god?"
I shook my head. "No. I don't know where they are coming from." Haltingly, I told her about my dream experiences with the Queen. "They disturb me," I said. "Something about them is not...natural." But even as I spoke a small gem of moisture formed inside me when I recalled how the Queen had made me feel.
Lassimla was silent a moment. "The Queen is a powerful sorceress," she said. "Her mental emanations are far stronger than a normal human's, letting her affect the minds and judgement of others against their will. Some call it magic; I call it determination. I believe she is trying to entrap you somehow."
"What can I do about it?" I said in a panic. Though the Queen had hundreds of guards at her disposal, how much more easy my capture would be if I was lured into going to her, as if pulled by leash on my genitals.
"You can sleep here tonight," Lassimla decided. "I will bring bedding to this altar so Tontaxir can guard you as you dream. The Queen will trouble you no more."
I slept that night on the skin of a white bear, close enough to touch the stone toes of Tontaxir's three pairs of feet. Lassimla knelt beside me and rested my head on her thighs, crooning a prayer of rest. She stroked my forehead as she sang. I soon grew drowsy and my eyelids drooped. I did not dream that night, yet slept long and well. Tontaxir, the giver of erotic pleasure, could also take it away.
On to Chapter 13
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