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PART ONE: THE BINDINGS

CHAPTER 1

 



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In the instant that she became aware of the tug of her father's will, she felt the change sweep over her. She didn't need to look down at her hands to know they were now twisted and knobby, the knuckles swollen, the skin spotted with the brown patches of old age. Her tunic hung loose on her, sagging over flat, fleshless dugs where a moment before proud young breasts had lifted it. Her head felt oddly light because the luxuriant growth of blue-sheened black hair that hung to her hips had transmuted into scanty white locks. Hekate looked down instinctively to hide her eyes, where a flicker of triumph might be exposed.

That change of form had originally been a punishment for some forgotten misdeed in her first blossoming of adolescent rebellion, but the punishment had been far more valuable to her than simply teaching her that obedience to her father was the easiest path. Some instinct had wakened in her when her father's spell touched her, and when he tried to change her back, she resisted him and remained a withered crone.

Even now as she turned to leave her portion of her father's house—the building that housed the entrance, the slaves . . . and her—drawn by his will to his underground lair, even now a smile twitched at her lips. Perses had been frightened, the first and only time Hekate could remember doing anything that frightened her father.

The impulse to smile faded. It was sheer good fortune, or perhaps owing to the protection of the Great Mother, whom Perses laughed to scorn, that he hadn't perceived the resistance to be deliberate. Possibly he'd been so shocked by the failure of his restoration spell that he hadn't understood it was by Hekate's own will that she retained the form of the crone. He had struck her, and to conceal his failure had screamed at her that she should wear her disgusting form until the spell wore thin and she could find a way to dismiss it herself.

She had fled, as if terrified—and some part of her was—across the fields that her father's slaves worked and into the forest where she had willed herself back to her natural form and then back to the image of the crone. She had spent a happy day in the woods, calling the small, shy, wild things to her, touching their soft fur, their long ears, even their dainty paws, offering them nuts and berries she had found. When she returned, still in the form of the crone so that her father should not learn how easy it was for her to change, her mother wept with horror . . . but as ever Asterie could do nothing for her daughter.

Hekate crossed the long reception chamber and turned left past a heavy wooden door into a small chamber in which another door—surfaced with modeled clay to match exactly the sun-baked brick of the back wall—opened at her touch. The opening revealed a covered walk leading to another building, somewhat larger than that a visitor would see at first. The entryway led to a courtyard lavishly planted with bushes and flowers. To the left was an arch open onto an opulently furnished reception chamber. Behind that, Hekate knew, were the bedchambers. Her skin, coarse and leathery as it was, prickled at the thought, but she turned right where a narrow door, again painted to match the surroundings walls, now stood open onto a dark corridor.

To her right was a solid wall. Hekate stared at it. She was either losing her mind or that was the way she had gone the last time she had been summoned. However, since she had no choice, she turned left and began to walk. Within ten steps a part of the corridor wall suddenly disappeared showing the head of the stairs. Hekate shivered. He—or something he had summoned—was watching and knew where she was. She could have sworn she had walked much farther when the corridor had opened to the right. She looked down the stairs. They were unlit, steep, uneven . . . dangerous.

As she looked, the door behind her swung shut and she was in darkness. The temptation to form a mage light flicked at her, but because of the watcher, she fixed her mind on regret, thinking "too weak," stretched a hand to the wall and began to feel her way from step to step. She had long been aware that her father could scry her, or summon some otherworld creature to watch her, but she was not certain how deep that scrying or the creature's seeing went. She had never been able to discover whether it could read her surface thoughts as well as her position and expression.

At least neither scrying or summoned slave could read below the surface; her mother had assured her of that, but Asterie was not sure whether he or his creature could read thoughts at all. She feared he could but knew he couldn't reach into the back of the mind; Hekate had proved to herself that she could safely bury her satisfaction there.

Slowly, step by step, she felt her way down the stairway that curved steeply along the side of a natural sinkhole. From far below came a faint echo—moving water? her own steps? As far as Hekate knew, no light had ever exposed those black depths.

Under her hand the smooth baked brick of the wall changed to rough-dressed stone. Hekate hesitated. The pull of her father's will intensified. Soon it might become pain. Fear made her heart clench. Hatred and a despairing resistance kept her still, clinging to the wall, panting for breath. The pull grew no stronger. Hekate waited, letting her breathing ease, clutching her tiny triumph to her.

The crone's pretense of weakness had a second advantage in addition to reminding Perses of his failure; it increased the time before she had to face him. And a third. Hekate swallowed. Before she'd worn the guise of the crone, Hekate had begun to dislike the way her father looked at her. She tried to assure herself that he wouldn't violate his own daughter, and truly she had never believed he lusted after her. What he wanted was almost more foul. Coupling was a doorway to binding a person close enough to enslave her or suck out her power.

A stab of rage almost tore through the fear and submission Hekate kept in the forefront of her mind. It was through coupling that Perses had seized and subdued her mother. Asterie hadn't always been the near-mindless shadow she now was. Bit by bit, from a whisper here, a word from there, a sad sigh and headshake, Hekate had learned that before she married Perses, her mother had been a strong sorceress with an unequaled ability to create spells.

Asterie could still create spells, although she could no longer cast them, and in secret, when Perses was busy with his own sorceries or when they could escape to the mysterious shelter of the shrine in the forest, she had taught her daughter all she knew. But that was in years past. As Hekate matured, Asterie faded until she scarcely seemed to know her daughter and would pass her when they met in a chamber without a word or a sign of recognition. At first Hekate had stopped her, spoken to her, embraced her, but of late she had given up trying.

The stair ended. A corridor darker, if possible, than the stairway was an emptiness before Hekate's extended hand. She hobbled forward slowly, favoring the aches in her knees and back. A few steps brought her outstretched hand into bruising contact with a wall. Hekate hissed with pain and frustration. Doubtless Perses was laughing. No matter how careful she was, she met that wall too hard. Perhaps he had some way of moving it.

She wondered, feeling her way along the wall to the right, whether he hoped she would break a bone. The form of the crone was no illusion; in it she was truly old and had all the ills great age brought with it. Unfortunately, since she had not lived the years the shape betokened, she had garnered no wisdom to go with the appearance. Her mind was her own; it held no more and no less whatever her form.

If that was a disadvantage while she was the crone, it was advantageous when she took on the third form natural to her and didn't reduce her to a childish fool. Hekate paused, leaning on the wall and breathing hard, keeping the fore of her mind filled with fear and her awareness of a pounding heart. That should please Perses and divert him if some image of the blonde, barely nubile maiden she could also be had been exposed.

She had discovered that form by accident. Staring into a still pool that reflected her image, she had wondered what she would look like with blonde, curling hair instead of the shining black curtain that hung to each side of her face. And the image was there. Hekate had sat, blinking at it, wondering how it had formed without a spell of illusion being cast. And then she'd touched the hair, and it did curl. Her new form was no illusion.

Shape-shifter. She had realized then she was a shape-shifter, that her father's spell might have decided the form the crone took, but the change into that form was her own doing—and that was why Perses' restoration spell could not dismiss it. Remembered terror over that knowledge pulsed through her again and she did not fight it. Let Perses feed on the fear. As long as her panic bound his attention and his vanity accredited that fear to himself, he would not learn the secret.

Magic was accepted, if grudgingly, by the rulers and people of Ka'anan. Magic was useful; spells could make building bricks light, could heal, could ward against thieves—if one could afford the price. Moreover it took training and study to learn magic, and most spells were not quickly or easily cast, the sorcerer being vulnerable and thus controllable before that casting was complete.

Gifts like shape-shifting were another matter entirely. They benefitted only the person Gifted and required no preparation. A man who could change into a wolf could tear out your throat before you could find a defense; a woman who could change her form could steal, cheat on her husband, do gods knew what. The Gifted were anathema, an abomination; if discovered they were sacrificed to the king of the dead.

Hekate shuddered. Slow pace or not, she had reached the door. Before she could touch it, it swung open.

"Come in, Hekate."

Here there was light enough, in some places too much light for Hekate's comfort—light that deliberately picked out the twisted, tortured forms her father had bound in some kind of stasis—but for the moment she was blinded, unable to see anything. She hobbled forward, hand outstretched, shuffling her feet, bent a little crooked, until Perses bade her stand still. By then she could see.

Perses scowled. "I know you weren't a wizened old hag a quarter candlemark ago. Why did you change yourself?"

"I didn't do it apurpose, Father," Hekate answered in a thin, meek voice. "As soon as your will touches me, I become what your spell put on me, long ago. You can't think I would choose to look this way or feel so weak and full of pain."

He stared at her. "That will complicate matters."

What matters? Hekate wondered. What does he want now?

"Will yourself to be a beautiful woman!" Perses ordered. "Will it, I say!"

Be the woman. Hekate thought, outwardly obedient, while deep within her will clenched tighter around the old, fragile body she wore. Pain lashed her; her skin burned; a bone snapped in one finger, then another. She screamed, tried to writhe away from the pain, but darkness washed over her and she felt herself falling. "Old, old, old," her heart drummed. Somewhere far away she heard Perses cursing, but she lay crumpled on the floor, clinging to the darkness, and inside it listened to the drumming, "Old, old, old."

A blow, another. Hekate was aware of them but felt no pain inside the black blanket. Then nothing. "Old, old, old," the drumming was softer, slower, but steady, perhaps for a long time, but she was not sure. Then the blackness began to soften into gray. She tried to cling to it, but it raveled away like mist rising from a meadow. She allowed herself to twitch, to stir.

"Get up," Perses ordered.

Hekate tried twice. A stick skidded across the floor and hit her shoulder. She put her hand on it, realizing as she reached out that the pain was gone. Perses had not been able truly to break the bone, only to inflict pain. To hide the relief she felt, Hekate concentrated on the stick he had thrown at her.

It was all twisted and knobby, the wood so old that wear had smoothed it like oil, but without grease. One end was pointed, sharp enough to prick her hand, but the knob at the other end had an odd shape that fitted into her palm. What was more, the twists and bends could be used as handholds. Setting the pointed end into a crack in the stone-paved floor, Hekate climbed the stick to an upright position.

"Very well," Perses snarled. "You can't break the spell when my will touches yours so you will have to accomplish my purpose on your own without my help. This is important to me. I want you to understand that if you cannot or will not perform what I desire, you will be of no use to me and I'll find a way to be rid of you. Do you understand?"

"Yes, Father," Hekate whispered. "Why do you threaten me? Haven't I always been obedient?"

He made no reply to that, just staring with a very faint upcurve of his lips. Hekate clung to the staff that supported her, heart pounding again. No, he couldn't read her deepest thoughts, but he didn't trust her either. He felt something, sensed her resistance enough to make him uneasy.

Then suddenly he smiled. Hekate could hear it in his voice as he said, "You'll enjoy this obedience. It will make you a queen."

Hekate kept her eyes down. The last thing she wanted was to be a queen, particularly under her father's direction. She didn't wish to imagine what he would require her to do to and demand from the people she was supposed to rule. Studying the floor by her toes, her eye was attracted by a dull sheen. It was the tip of the staff, well dug in between the stones of the floor, and it seemed to her that the mortar, stained black with years of wear and spilled effluvia, was lighter where it rested.

"Every woman wishes to be a queen," Perses insisted. "Isn't that so, Hekate?"

"I don't desire power," she murmured.

Perses laughed aloud. "Then what I have planned for you is perfect," he crowed. "You'll have the trappings, the gowns and jewels and the fawning of many subjects, but you won't need to make decisions. I'll make those."

"Yes, Father," Hekate said. Since it had been her experience all her life that Perses tried to make all her decisions, this was nothing new, and Hekate's toneless voice carried no resentment.

"The queen of Byblos must die," Perses said sharply. "And you will take her place."

For a long, breath-held moment, Hekate made no response. Her tongue had frozen as solid as her heart. The queen of Byblos! She had thought her father had designs on the ruler of the town near their homestead, Ur-Kabos, but apparently he intended to start at the top. And then her brows knitted.

"But there is a king," she said. "The queen of Byblos does not rule."

"Oh, did you think that you would hold a kingdom in your own hand?" Perses' sneer was as audible as his smile had been; Hekate had no need to raise her eyes to see it. "Your role will be far less exacting. You need only arrange for me to have access to the king in the queen's bedchamber—your bedchamber—where we can be private so I can instruct him whenever I wish."

"You mean you wish me to become the king's concubine . . . after you kill the queen?"

"You will become the king's wife, after you kill the queen," Perses said. "Being a woman you would have far easier access to her than I would. I don't care how you do it. I would suggest that you go in as the old woman and poison her, but it would be even better if you could arrange for an accident to befall her."

Hekate stood silent, leaning on the staff. She was tempted and allowed that sensation to come to the fore of her mind. The queen of Byblos certainly needed killing. The latest little frolic rumor had brought to Ur-Kabos was that she had beat her puppy to death for treading on her gown, but that had only been an excuse to have the maidservants who cared for the dog similarly treated.

That was nothing compared with her more serious escapades, like having executed every living being—including newborns, cattle, and caged singing birds—in a village that because of a drought drew water from a pond in which she had once swum. And that was not to count the hundreds or thousands who had died from other causes owing to her cruelty and extravagance. The death of the dog happened to annoy Hekate particularly because she was very fond of dogs.

"So you agree," Perses said. "I thought you would. I'll give you three days to decide on a method."

"I'll try for an accident," Hekate whispered, looking up at last, "but I'll need to go to the woods to gather special plants."

"We have enough in the garden," Perses said.

Hekate shrugged. "If that is your will, I will use the plants from the garden, but if poisoning is suspected and the king's mages use a spell of concurrence . . ."

Perses stared at her.

"In the woods I'll touch nothing with my bare flesh, and I'll burn the gathering basket."

Her father's stare grew more intense as if he were trying to penetrate the simple puzzlement she was presenting. Why should he stare? she wondered. He knows I have studied some magic, enough to know about spells of concurrence. Does he want me to be caught as a murderer? The last idea, fearful and resentful, seemed to have put Perses' doubts, whatever they were, to rest.

"Very well," he said smoothly, "you may go, but don't take your mother with you."

Hekate lowered her gaze to the floor again. Take her mother? she repeated to herself. But her mother didn't seem to know her or want anything to do with her. She made no effort to hide that thought, but below it lay a muted pang of hope. Did Perses suspect there were depths in Asterie where he couldn't reach and somewhere in those depths a concern for her daughter?

"She knows the plants better than I," Hekate murmured.

"That's as it may be," Perses said, and Hekate could hear him smiling again, "but she is my warranty that you will return, for if you do not . . ."

"Where have I to go?" Hekate whispered.

He laughed aloud at that and bade her take herself out of his sight. She turned at once, stumbled, caught herself on the staff—and then carefully put her foot over the bleached bit of mortar between the stones where the staff had rested. Leaning heavily on the wooden support, Hekate ground dirt into the lighter spot before she hobbled toward the darkness of the passage, but it was no longer dark. Mage lights bobbed along the wall and up the stair. A reward for being compliant? Hekate allowed herself to feel gratitude, but didn't move any faster; nor did she allow herself to slip back into the woman until she was safe in her own chamber.

Not that her father could not scry her there, he could, but what she would do would be natural in her own chamber and he would assume, she hoped, that because he was no longer willing her to act, his spell would release her. The change swept over her, bringing a sensation that was almost erotic. Her skin, now smooth and soft, could feel the caress of her silk gown. Of course, her tenderer flesh also felt the bruises Perses' blows had inflicted. Nonetheless, Hekate could see better, hear better, and despite an awareness of draining and exhaustion, the well-being of youth sang in her veins. She smiled, stretched, not hiding her pleasure in her most natural shape, reinforcing the notion that she wouldn't willingly exchange it for the hag if she could avoid the change.

Now she dropped the staff carelessly in a corner, as if no longer needing its support, she dismissed it. Then she sat down and thought about the queen of Byblos, dredging up her dislike of all she had heard of the woman. She thought of what an old woman could do to murder a young one without a weapon. Without a weapon? Her gaze went to the staff. There was a weapon and most appropriate for an aged crone.

She let her mind play with this plan and that, seeking reasons for an old woman to appeal for an audience with the queen, reasons good enough to obtain such an audience. The mental exercise kept her busy and hid any other thoughts until the worst of her exhaustion passed. She didn't question why she was exhausted; whenever she was near her father she lost strength as if she were ill.

Twice she rose from her chair, once to wash carefully and to change her dress for a gown of rougher fabric with long, loose sleeves, and once again to take a handful of sugared dates from a bowl on a low table. Both times she had felt cautiously for a watcher, but the presence had faded some time during her ruminations on how to gain access to the queen and did not return.

Even so Hekate did not relax completely, thinking carefully of what herbs she would need and how to gather them. First, however, she would need a new basket, not one that belonged to the household, and she must not touch anything. Hekate took a long shawl from a chest near the wall, keeping in mind that it could be used to hold the basket and to cover her hands while she culled the plants she needed.

She must buy the basket. Hekate went to a shelf built out from the wall by setting in several wider bricks. A softly murmured word changed a statue of the sacred bull to a small metal-bound box. A second word caused the lid to spring open. From the box Hekate scooped a large handful of metal wire and a few pieces of metal. Most of it slid imperceptibly into her wide sleeve. She picked over what she still held, choosing five twists of copper wire of varying weight and length. The remainder she returned to the box, which again appeared like a winged bull as she replaced it on the shelf. On her way out, she picked up the staff.

Throwing the shawl over her head so that one end was longer than the other and could be drawn across her face, Hekate again crossed the reception chamber. This time she went directly out through it into the courtyard and then passed through a room that held several benches and stools upon which messengers could wait under the eye of the doorkeeper. One bench now held two young slave boys, who would carry messages within the house. Pulling her shawl aside, Hekate winked at them and then passed close enough to drop several of the sweetmeats in each slyly extended hand. One giggled, the other looked down to hide a smile.

The doorkeeper was something else again. The old man turned his dead eyes to her when she entered the chamber in which he was chained, but Hekate didn't bother to speak to him. Whatever lived in that body no longer responded to kindness even though the body was still quite human enough to require food and drink and sleep. It knew her and that no order had been given to keep her within; whether it had the power of thought beyond dealing with such matters and with visitors and messengers, she could not guess.

Down three broad steps to the wide path that passed through the garden and out to the road. To right and left were other paths through the garden, which led to the fields her father's slaves tilled. Beyond those the dark groves of cedars rose up the slope of the hills and whispered and murmured to each other in the dawn and the evening.

As she stepped out of the house, Hekate felt the watcher descend on her almost like a muffling cloak. She had expected that. Ordinarily her father didn't bother to set a watcher on her, but having spoken to her about the murder of the queen of Byblos, this time he would want to know if she met any person in particular or dealt with anyone he might construe as an enemy. Fortunately she saw no one who was even a nodding acquaintance on her walk to the town.

The road was steep, Ur-Kabos having been built on a small plateau where a substantial stream, almost a river, poured down through the foothills of the mountains that rose behind the town. Hekate leaned on her staff and paused briefly to glance at the mountains. That was the best place for herbs, she thought, then brought her attention to the open gate in the walls, behind which the market spread right and left and then along the road that led deeper into the town, to the palace and the temples. The watcher seemed to close around her; in one way its touch was feather light—had she herself not been Gifted, doubtless she would never have noticed its presence—but knowing it was there stifled her.

Sometimes the press of people and the noise—merchants shouting to attract customers, customers chaffering, children squealing, women gossiping—also stifled her, accustomed as she was to quiet and being alone, but this time one pressure negated the other. The watcher—not Perses scrying; this must be one of his otherplanar slaves—seemingly had no experience with noise and crowding; it was bewildered or diverted by the confusion. Its grip on Hekate grew tenuous, but she was careful to suppress any feeling of relief.

Baskets were plentiful. Hekate went from stall to stall, apparently seeking the cheapest product—logical if the basket was to be destroyed. Each time someone spoke to her or bumped her Hekate could feel the watcher's attention waver and sometimes even fix on someone else. Nor did it cling so heavily around her when it returned. It seemed to be pulled this way and that, attracted to all the minds and souls moving around her. Shielded by others, she at last allowed her true thoughts to surface.

As she looked and asked prices of baskets, she thought that killing the queen was not the problem. The queen of Byblos deserved to die and Hekate knew herself capable of stopping the woman's life without need of poison. Not that she would ever do such a thing at her father's bidding or allow him to know she was capable of it. But marry and bed the king? Hekate's lips turned down as bile rose in her throat. Never! He and his queen deserved each other.

How to avoid killing the queen and marrying the king was a far greater problem than killing them. Hekate began to turn away from a stall that showed beautifully designed and woven baskets. The merchant called to her, drew her back; she shook her head, saying regretfully that she had not the money for such fine work and showing in her hand three of the five small pieces of copper wire she had taken with her.

"Ah, but I have just what will suit us both," the merchant said, drawing from the bottom of the stall a long basket that was of coarser weave and less perfect ornament. "Apprentice work," he said. "I am sure you can find about you something else that I could use. Another piece of copper, that handsome shawl you are wearing. Come, come, you have a purse. Look into it. Perhaps there is a hairpin or comb?"

Hekate shook her head. "Why should I give up my shawl or comb? I am only looking for a coarse basket to carry unwashed roots and such matters. What you show me is pretty, but not suitable for my purpose."

"Oh, you must have an old basket in the house that you could use to carry your roots. This one . . ."

He continued talking, lifting and twisting the basket so that Hekate could see it inside and out. The words became meaningless to her because a strip of light-colored material tucked into the coarsely woven withies had caught her eye. A scrap of parchment? She felt no change in the watcher, but she fixed her gaze on the merchant's face and for a little while continued to argue price, finally allowing herself to be convinced and to seek in her purse for a fourth piece of copper wire, which she handed over grudgingly. Equally grudgingly the merchant accepted the additional metal, whining about how she was cheating him.

At last, Hekate took the basket, carefully dropping her long sleeve over her hand so her flesh would not touch the handle. With it in hand, she continued to wander about the market for a time, looking idly at a tray of knives. A long poniard with a blade so thin it was more like a flat needle than a knife attracted her attention and she picked it up with her hand shielded by her long shawl. Put in just where the head meets the neck, under the hair, it would kill and likely no one would ever find the small wound. She put it down, saying "Perhaps tomorrow, I do not have the price now," to the merchant who had hurried over.

Then she went to look at the herb-sellers' wares, but over those, she mostly shook her head. However, there were some strange bundles that came, the seller said, from far west, over the sea. She expended the fifth twist of copper wire on a handful of each type she did not recognize and had the merchant drop the sprigs, tied with a thread of bright wool, into the new basket. When she looked in as if to check that what she had bought was all there, the slip of parchment was covered.

Finally she walked slowly out of the market, looking from side to side at the stalls. After she passed under the gate, she quickened her pace and when she was past most of the crowd and obviously headed toward Perses' house, the touch of the watcher was suddenly gone.

 

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