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An Excerpt From Unveiling the Sorceress by Saskia Walker

[ Information on Unveiling the Sorceress ]

From Chapter Two

Elishiba was ready for them. She smiled to herself as she stripped off her clothing and walked down the steps into her bathing pool. On the ebb of evening, songbirds had gathered in the tranquil courtyard outside her apartments, and she granted their songs a secret audience while she thought through her strategy. She'd settled upon a plan. It relied on her bravery and her wit in the heat of the moment, but if all else failed, she would be in their court. She would die for her cause, if it came to it. She would fight to protect her people, no matter what.

As the water embraced her body, she melted into it, watching as the light lowering across the opposite wall of the chamber charted the passage of the sun sinking in the sky. She leaned her head back on the ledge of the bathing pool and moved her arms in slow circles. The flower petals moving over the surface of the water exuded a heady scent and she floated in the perfumed water intoxicated by the atmosphere.

The pool was adorned with the treasures of their province, and her fingers traced the ornate lapis lazuli and turquoise inlaid tiles around the edge of the huge bathing pool. Her fingers knew the shape of the stones as well as the lines of her own body. These were the valuable stones that made Aleem a popular trading post between lands near and far.

A sound captured her attention, and Elishiba rolled her head to glance after it. Elra, her handmaid, was moving quietly at one side, arranging the oils and cosmetics her mistress would need when she emerged from bathing. Her twin sister, Amra, moved gracefully beside a screen, laying out the vivid silken tunic and copper waistband that Elishiba had requested to wear that evening. Elishiba watched their graceful movements. Their waist-length hair, the color of ripe dates, moved in silken ripples as they swayed with the innate sensuousness of the harem women they resembled. They mirrored each other in their gestures, as they did in so much else. Their voluptuous figures and attractive features were so identical that Elishiba had them wear sashes to tell them apart. Elra wore a bind of indigo across her body, and Amra a scarlet. Sometimes she thought of them as one woman, two halves of the same, perfect creature. In their sisterly affections they reminded her of a happy child, caught kissing its own reflection in the looking glass.

Amra turned to her mistress and gave a gentle smile. "Do you wish to wear the jewels of pageant during the festivities tonight?"

Elishiba pondered the question. The visitors she and her father were receiving were an unknown quantity, and they hosted them with caution, for it was the greeting party representing Karseedia that was due to arrive that day. These were the designated acolytes of Hanrah and his mother, the dowager Empress, Mehmet. They were the men who were to escort her back to their land, her new home.

"No, the simple lapis. We shall exhibit the wealth of our land, but not so much that it indicates willingness to share it with them."

Amra bowed her head, turning toward the outer apartments to prepare the jewels.

Elishiba moved in the water and looked up at the high window. Lush green foliage crept through the narrow arches, filtering the remaining light and dappling it across the marble floor toward her. Elra was lighting the candles set into evenly spaced niches in the walls and soon the room was infused with their warm glow, outshining the fading light of the outside world.

The outside world . . . very soon, she would have to leave Aleem for Karseedia. She loved her home. It pained her to even think of leaving it, but her heart was strengthening. It had to.

"Elishiba, may I have your attention for a moment?"

The husky male voice drew her back from her thoughts. It was Xerxes, her closest and most loyal manservant. He was a fine Aleem warrior, a leader of The Immortals, and one who took his vows very seriously. The Immortals were so-called because they believed defending their beloved land until the death would bring them immortality. Devoted and powerful, they itched to do battle with Karseedia, and Elishiba feared the wisdom of even taking a small number of them with her to Lhastari.

Xerxes stood to the side of the sunken bath. The drapes of his robe still swayed with movement as he stopped at the top of the steps that descended into the bath. With his massive, muscled arms folded across his chest, he presented a powerful image of male strength, and she admired it, openly, smiling up at him. He returned her smile, indulgently, as he looked down at her, his dark eyes made even blacker by the sight of her body through the petals on the water. Elishiba knew it was shown to good effect against the blues and greens of the tiles, and the crystal waters that ran down to Suzin, from the Zaneesie Mountains. The water was piped into the palace and then warmed in a huge furnace, for her to bathe in. His eyes on her imbued her with her own kind of strength, lusty female power.

She gestured fluidly with her hand, indicating that he should begin. He hesitated, his eyes watching her breasts as they bobbed gently near the surface of the water. The candlelight glinted on his smooth, golden skin. It was the color of the sandstone walls of the temples when the afternoon sun warmed them. Elishiba watched as the beautiful shape of his shaven head was highlighted by the wavering patterns of the candlelight, dancing across the bones like shadows on the far hills at sunset.

She was very fond of him, and they had been lovers, until the latest turn of events had forced her to put some distance between them. It was hard, to say the least. He was an adept and passionate lover, and he had been both angry and hurt at first. Eventually, he had acquiesced and agreed it was for the best thing to do for their people, but the history between them remained.

"The preparations for the banquet are complete. Everything is just as Elishiba has requested." He bowed, but his eyes still lingered on her body. He inclined his head. He was waiting for her to instruct him.

She idled a moment, enjoying the sight of desire in his eyes. The shape of his head alone was handsome. He knew that, and had it shaved daily, to catch her eye. His mouth was wide, expressive; his brows were heavy dark lines, echoing the dark line of hair that grew down his chin. His ears were adorned with rows of silver hoops, evenly spaced, except for one gap, where she herself had knocked the hoop from his ear in a moment of blind and ecstatic passion. He had left the piercing naked and wore the small scratch she had caused him unwittingly, with true pride, reminding her of his prowess.

Elishiba smiled at him and let her body float up through the water. "I feel there was something else you wished to say--a comment on our visitors perhaps. They have arrived?"

He smiled in response to her words. "You are perceptive, as always, Mistress." His tongue lingered on the name he chose to call her at that moment. "They have arrived," he continued. "Two men, with a number of slaves and a heavy guard . . . however, their soldiers seem unwilling to accept our hospitality."

He adopted a disgruntled expression. He had made it clear on more than one occasion that he felt their position would be better secured on a battlefield, but Elishiba was a leader of a different kind. Too many lives had been lost to similar causes over the centuries, and now it was time to cut to the heart of the matter. Elishiba did not aspire to be a leader who hid behind her army rather than talk and negotiate. However, centuries of turmoil and death in battle were not easy precedents to overlook, and the way had to be led by a grand gesture--the betrothal. Beyond that, Elishiba intended to negotiate her way toward peace and cooperation.

"It is our duty as hosts to break down such wariness and teach trust, is it not?" She swam across the pool toward the steps.

"As you say, Empress." He stayed at the edge of the pool, a bemused expression on his face.

"What else have you to tell me?"

"I thought you would be rather amused to know that among the gifts they have brought for you, there is a selection of nubiles from the northern countries. Pale, thin creatures they are, too." He gave a mocking frown, as if in distaste.

"They are a gift sent by Hanrah's mother, and are offered to . . . to keep Elishiba supple and pleasured." His mouth twitched into a smirk and his eyes glinted with amusement.

Elishiba laughed aloud, the sound echoing within the cavern of her bathing room. "Did you hear that, Elra?"

Elra nodded, joining the other two in their amusement.

"Do I need their offerings? Is Elishiba not kept happy enough by her own chosen companions?" She flashed her eyes at him.

"Indeed," Xerxes replied. His body wavered on the edge of the pool. The heat in his eyes passed through her flesh as she rose out of the water, beginning to mount the steps. She looked at his muscled arms. His powerful shoulders looked inviting against the pure white of his robes, slung low across one shoulder. He moved slightly, flexing his chest as her gaze crossed it.

Her body responded with desire. She glanced up and smiled at him. He turned and took the wrap Elra carried toward her mistress, opening it for her himself as she stepped from the pool.

"Thank you, Xerxes."

His gaze met hers as she turned into the robe.

She returned his gaze, unflinching. "I trust you will bring your favored concubine of the moment to the banquet this evening."

He nodded his head slightly, his smile turning wry, yet lifting one corner of his mouth. It was her way of reminding him of their agreement. Their relationship was strong and trusting, but it was also edged with desire and she often teased him this way. If things had been different, she thought wistfully as she watched him leave, perhaps it might have been Xerxes she would have taken as her betrothed. They would have ruled Aleem well together, and she could have been happy. But that was not meant to be, even though they had both thought of it often enough.

She sighed, and adjourned to her dressing chamber.

Ramsis, Elishiba's father, was just as restless and uneasy about the visitors, but his worry manifested itself in different ways. Later that evening he paced behind Elishiba while she sat before her looking glass. Elishiba watched him while Elra prepared her for the banquet, applying kohl around Elishiba's indigo eyes.

"I have spoken with Sibias," Ramsis told her. "He is the older man of the two advisors, and he is close to Hanrah and his mother, Mehmet. I feel it is to Mehmet that he owes most loyalty, however, for he has been with her for many years."

Elishiba frowned, she did not like the stories she had heard of Mehmet. She was a notorious empress who had ruled harshly beside her warmonger of a husband. "Is this Sibias as power hungry as his mistress?"

Ramsis paused, and laid a comforting hand over his daughter's shoulder. His eyes showed the doubt that echoed in his soul. The atmosphere of change was devastating to him--he felt weak, manipulated by an inevitable situation. He no more wanted his daughter to leave his side than she did. He squeezed her shoulder. "No, Sibias seems fair. So too is the other man, the one they call Amshazar."

Elishiba looked at her own reflection as she considered her father's words. Elra was painting her lips with precious dark red pigment from a tiny inlaid box. It offset the rich purple satin of the long tunic she wore; the opulent colors were like bright jewels against the ebony of her hair.

She had heard many strange stories of this man, Amshazar, whom some also called "The Nomad." Officially, he came with Sibias to lead her and talk to her about her future role as Empress of Karseedia. Rumor had it that Amshazar was not Karseedian. He was said to be from a distant land and had strange powers, that he could read minds and win the trust of anyone through his sorcery. Somewhat reluctantly--for she was made curious--she reserved judgment until she met him, and reminded herself that whatever he was, he was, above all, annexed to her enemies.

"That is not all they say about him, Father, we must be cautious." She leaned her head to one side, her heavy hair falling back as Elra hooked ornate lapis lazuli gems through her ears.

Ramsis glanced at her reflection in the mirror, his hand on his chest, where his breathing was labored. "Do not fear, my child, I will do my best to make sure that no harm comes to you. I have pleaded with the gods. I have asked for their intervention. They will send us a sign and grant us assistance." He fell silent then, as if he wished to say no more, or feared that he had already said too much.

Elishiba caught the subtle inplication in his words, but did not press him on it. Her father's faith in the gods was fierce, unwavering. She prayed for the very same herself, even though she did not feel as sure as he was on the matter of the gods' intervention. Who or what would they send, if they deemed the Aleemite plea just? She wanted no war, nor did her father. They wanted cooperation, peace in this time of unrest. They wanted protection for their people. What manner of assistance would enable them to achieve this?

Her father looked wistful and then he smiled, and she knew they shared the same curious thoughts in that moment. His long graying hair fell about his noble head in waves, as if its strands were gentle thoughts emerging from his mind.

She smiled back and turned to him after Elra finished settling the collar of gems around her neck. "Come, let us go to the banquet and I shall judge these two envoys for myself."

She rose to take her father's arm. Together, they walked through the palace, and across the central courtyards and elegant gardens toward the banqueting hall. A trail of servants walked alongside them, carrying long torches to light their path. The night was warm, the air palpitating with the scent of the jasmine that trailed over the walls of the court; the sky looked mellow and almost plush with hazy moonlight.

Despite the heavy weight on her shoulders, Elishiba entered the banqueting hall with a sense of anticipation. She was keen to meet the guests. It was an important occasion and extensive efforts had been put into the evening's entertainment for them and their visitors.

The banqueting hall was the largest room in the palace, gaunt and majestic. Its ancient walls were hung with heavy embroideries from around their province. Each depicted images of life in the region, from as far as the mountains that surrounded Aleem. As Elishiba and her father walked the length of the great hall, she glanced, as she always did, from image to image. She felt as if she were traveling amongst the villagers who had taken the time to depict their lives in woven threads for Ramsis and Tala's wedding. Her mother, Tala Ekana, had died when Elishiba was young, but she had chosen the arrangement of the tapestries and Elishiba always felt she knew her mother better through them.

Chimes heralded their entrance. The warrior guarding the door alerted the inner guests to their host's presence and Helena, her father's musician, stilled her fingers against her stringed harp and rose from her cushioned stool. She bowed her head as Ramsis and Elishiba passed her by. Ramsis looked fondly at Helena, his concubine, as he passed.

Elishiba also exchanged smiles with the woman, with whom she fared well. Often she would allay her deepest fears for her people by reminding herself of Helena's young son, Tariq, her half-brother. If good fortune did not choose to reward Elishiba and her father, Tariq would become emperor, and as he grew, he would surely fight for the people of Aleem in their place.

As they approached their places at the long, low table at the head of the room, Elishiba noticed an older man there, a stranger.

He was standing, awaiting their arrival. Her father whispered that this was the Karseedian they called Sibias. He wore loose trousers with a belted shirt, a big man, heavily set, with silvering hair and a ringleted beard streaked with white.

"I am honored to meet you. The Daughter of Ramsis is as beautiful as we have heard." He bowed his head low before her when introduced, as custom demanded, but his words held a false note that she didn't overlook.

Sibias watched her through narrowed eyes as she merely nodded in response to his greeting, and moved on past him to take her place at the table. She had no intention of trusting this man, despite her father's more positive attitude toward him, and her instincts were not without good cause.

She nestled into the large, silk-bound cushions beside her father's place, at the center of the long and low feasting table. Despite her steely determination to make the plan work, rebellion had a grip on her at that moment. Whilst Ramsis spoke quietly with Sibias, she listened instead to the musician, watching Helena's delicate movements appreciatively, and nibbled on savories--roasted ostrich and goose, braised meats bound in tender pastry nests. The flavors enticed her taste buds, each in turn. She lingered, before indulging herself on each morsel.

The conversation between Sibias and Ramsis occasionally reached her. They spoke of the trade routes, how they might be expanded and made strong through the union of their lands. Their conversation was staged and polite and she felt little interest in it. Instead, she tried to focus her mind, sure in her heart that somehow this dreadful union could be averted.

As her gaze wandered, she saw Xerxes across the room, seated with several of his men. A dark maiden in scarlet robes sat by his side and Elishiba looked at her with curiosity. This had to be his woman, and she was a beauty. The woman looked proud to be by his side. And why wouldn't she be? Elishiba mused, sadly. Whilst she found that a certain sense of regret invaded her, she was also pleased to see he had honored her request to bring his woman to the event. When he caught her eye, she acknowledged him with an approving smile and a nod of her head. The court poet recited three new works. Ramsis had risen and moved amongst his guests in the background, chatting to the families of the officers of The Immortals, and court officials, scattered at tables, greeting them. Elishiba watched him fondly.

When two flute players joined Helena, the dancers took the floor to move in brightly colored weaves of movement, following where the music led them. Elishiba allowed the sensual pleasures of the occasion to relax her, supping on the plum-colored wines, breathing the aromas of perfumed sweetmeats before tasting them.

It was with surprise, then, that she felt a dramatic shift in the room's atmosphere, as if a powerful vapor passed through her mind and captured her attention, as if it had entered her body and touched her very soul. Her skin was suddenly alert; her senses no longer relaxed, but keen and focused. That is how she became aware of the sudden presence of the other man at the table: Amshazar. She had neither seen him arrive, nor had she seen him take his place to her left, on the other side of Sibias.

He was just suddenly there.

This must be the man they call The Nomad, she thought to herself, for she had known it was Amshazar before she had even turned to look at him. His presence in the room had altered it completely.

As she glanced over at him, her breath felt trapped in her chest. He was a compelling personage--of that there was no doubt. She was surprised most of all by his outstanding looks, for his reputation had not even hinted at the striking nature of his appearance. His hair fell past his shoulders in a dark brown, mahogany-brushed curtain, trailing into loose curls at its tails.

His features were those of the soaring hawk, keen and observant, about to swoop on its prey. His darkly fringed and hooded eyes glowed emerald green in the flickering candlelight, his sharp eyebrows echoing the distinct line of his cheekbones.

The defined line of his jawbone was clean-shaven, his skin a tawny color, gently sun-kissed. Devastatingly attractive, he wore it with an unassuming air. Dressed in charcoal robes, he was discreet and set apart from them all in every way, and yet he had affected the very air she breathed, she was sure of it.

His posture was quietly self-assured and yet watchful as he engaged in a whispered conversation with Sibias. Elishiba watched the stranger, unable to take her gaze away from his flashing eyes and his chiseled mouth while he spoke. When he glanced her way, he fixed her with those eyes, and then inclined his head in acknowledgement, a slight smile hovering at the corners of his mouth. She tried to look away, but could not.

He had a penetrating, unafraid stare. He was indeed a hunter. And she was captured in a glance, as if he had pinned her with one sharp talon. The look in his eyes both tormented and aroused her. Her heart beat erratically. She could not drag her gaze away.

In the background she was vaguely aware that Helena had begun another song, accompanying the delicate notes she spun by her slender fingers, with her beautiful voice. Thankfully, he looked away, breaking the tension. It was not until then that Elishiba she realized she had not responded to his acknowledgement. He had affected her so strangely. Her blood was racing. Her hairline felt damp, the palms of her hands too. She lifted her goblet and drank heavily from it.

He stood up and walked in her direction. She rearranged herself on the cushions in an effort to regain her composure. He was tall and elegant, leanly muscled, and he walked with the quality of a man who answered to no one. Bowing graciously before her, he caused most of the people in the room to turn and watch his actions.

"Empress Elishiba of Aleem, as your Father is with his guests, may I present myself? I am Amshazar."

He spoke quietly but distinctly, and the rich tone of his voice resonated through her body. Whilst his greeting was polite, he seemed to insinuate himself in some other way. She felt as if he had touched her, intimately. Her heart thudded in her chest. That the gods had given him their secret gifts, she did not doubt. He had a dark, brooding quality and an aura of knowing things beyond their immediate manfestations. She felt as if he could read her thoughts, for when he looked at her it was as if his very spirit climbed inside her mind and body.

"Welcome, to our home," she said, with effort. It was difficult enough to welcome these strangers, without the overwhelming nature of this man's stare.

He smiled, as if amused by a private joke. "It is interesting . . . to finally see its legendary charms for myself." His eyes raked over her from head to toe as he spoke.

She could not tell if his appraisal was deprecating or complimentary, and her hackles automatically began to rise. She pursed her mouth but had no chance to reply, for he was approached on one side by her father, looking concerned, and Sibias, on the other, looking suspicious.

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Copyright © 2007, Saskia Walker. All Rights Reserved.

Juno Books
copyright ©2007