Neris Veran was waiting as Tia climbed the goat path up to his cave overlooking the pirate settlement of Mil. His eyes were bright and he was unnaturally alert, a sure sign he'd recently taken another dose of poppy-dust. He must have been waiting for her since he spied her crossing the bay. It was raining, but it didn't seem to bother the madman. His thin shirt was soaked, his ragged, unkempt hair plastered to his head.
"Where's Dirk?" he asked as soon as she stepped onto the rocky ledge.
"Can't we go inside, Neris?"
"Where's Dirk?" he repeated stubbornly. "And why is everybody suddenly back in Mil?"
Tia glanced over her shoulder through the rain at the ships anchored below them. It was an unusual sight, all the pirate ships in port at the same time. She hadn't thought Neris would realize it, though.
"Let's go inside, Neris," she insisted. "I'm not going to stand out here in the rain being interrogated by you."
"It's only water," Neris said, turning his face upward. He let the rain fall on his closed eyes for a few moments, and then he looked back at Tia and grinned. "You're always complaining I don't wash often enough."
"Come on, Neris," she urged. "You'll catch your death if you stay out here."
"How do you know?"
Tia hurried across the ledge. He turned to watch her sheltering in the entrance of the cave, looking quite irritated. "You row across here in a downpour and that's perfectly all right for you, but if I stand in it, I'm being foolish! Suppose I want to catch my death? Suppose I'm too cowardly to take my own life so I'm standing here in the rain, tempting fate, daring her to take me?"
Tia sighed impatiently. There was no reasoning with him when he started asking questions like that.
"Did you want to hear about Dirk or not?" she called to him over the steady patter of raindrops, hoping that would entice him to come in out of the rain. She didn't wait for his answer. Instead, shivering a little in her wet clothes, Tia hurried over to the small fire in the cave and began to coax it back to life.
"So where is Dirk?" Neris asked her again as he stepped into the cave, shaking his head like a dog, showering everything within reach with a fine spray of raindrops.
"In Avacas," Tia replied shortly as she tended the fire. "He's joined the Shadowdancers."
Neris didn't reply.
Tia turned to look at him. "Did you hear what I said? Dirk Provin has betrayed us. He's joined Belagren and Antonov. He made a deal with the High Priestess, handed me over to them as part of it, Neris, just to save his own stupid neck."
Neris nodded, walked to the bed and sat down, oblivious to the fact that he was soaking the bed with his wet clothes.
"He betrayed me without so much as a flicker of remorse, Neris."
Her father's expression was thoughtful, rather than upset. He was taking the news far better than she anticipated. Where was the rage? The feelings of grief and torment over Dirk's unconscionable betrayal? Tia had felt little else since Omaxin, when she'd heard Dirk inform the High Priestess Belagren that he was ready and willing to join her.
"Aren't you going to say something?"
"I'd like some tea."
"I meant about Dirk."
"I know. But I'd still like some tea. What did you do?"
"When he betrayed me? I shot him."
"Well, you never did have much of a sense of humor."
"Neris! This is nothing to joke about! He sent a message to Reithan. He told him he was going to tell Antonov the route through the delta."
"That would be logical."
"Logical! Are you--" Tia was going to ask: Are you crazy? As her father's insanity was a well established fact, it seemed a rather pointless question. "Neris, are you listening to me? Don't you understand what he's done?"
"Better than you, probably."
"Dirk Provin has betrayed us. He handed your only daughter over to the High Priestess to be tortured and killed. I thought you'd be upset."
"I'm a little surprised," Neris conceded. "But why would I be upset? Anyway, as you obviously haven't been tortured and killed, why should I waste time worrying that you might have been?"
Tia cursed under her breath as she moved the kettle over the fire. "I don't know, Neris. Why would I think you might be upset? Perhaps because, thanks to Dirk Provin, we're all likely to be dead in six weeks?"
"Is that supposed to frighten me? I've been trying to work up the courage to kill myself for more than twenty years, Tia."
"And that's all you can say?"
"What else did you want me to say? I'd actually like to say 'I told you so,' but I didn't, so there wouldn't be much point, would there? Or I could say 'Naughty Dirk,' but you've undoubtedly called him far worse. Or I could say . . ."
"Just forget it, Neris."
"Now you're mad at me. Still, I suppose with Dirk gone, you have to find someone to be mad at."
Tia rose to her feet, fighting back the urge to take him by his thin, wasted shoulders and shake some sense into him.
"We're evacuating the settlement."
"That's probably a wise move."
"You won't be able to take much with you, but--"
"I'm not leaving," he cut in, quite indignantly. "I'm staying right here! I'll get the best view from up here. Do you think they can get the Calliope through the delta? I've heard she's a magnificent sight under full sail."
"Is that all you care about? Seeing the Calliope?"
"I suppose I'd like to see the other ships, too . . ."
"There is no Calliope, Neris. Reithan burned it in Elcast when we tried to save Morna Provin."
"What a shame," Neris sighed.
Tia wanted to scream at him. "Neris! Concentrate, please! We're evacuating Mil. You can't stay here when we leave."
"Why not?" He seemed genuinely puzzled.
"Because you'll be killed or . . ." She didn't finish the sentence, not wishing to remind her father an even worse fate awaited him. It would be far better for all of them if he were dead, if the only alternative was Neris in the clutches of the Lion of Senet or the High Priestess of the Shadowdancers.
Neris's eyes narrowed cannily. "You think Dirk will have told Antonov and Belagren I still live, don't you?"
"Why not?" she replied. "He seems to have told them everything else."
"He won't tell them about me."
"How can you be so certain?"
"Because if Dirk wants to secure his position in Avacas with the High Priestess, then he needs her to believe I'm dead. While Belagren thinks Dirk is the only man alive who can tell her when the next Age of Shadows is due, he's indispensable. If she knew that I lived, it would reduce his value to her significantly and he's too smart to let something like that happen."
Tia stared at her father, surprised to hear him make such an astute observation.
"Neris, did Dirk say anything to you before he left?" she asked suspiciously. "Did he give you any hint about what he was planning?"
"Why would he tell me what he was up to?"
"He told you lots of things, didn't he?"
"Tia, Dirk's a very smart boy. The last thing he'd do if he was planning to betray us would be to confide in a madman."
Tia stared at her father, trying to decide if he was telling the truth. He might be. Or he might be telling her what he believed to be the truth, which in Neris's tortured mind was quite often the same thing.
"What did you tell him, Neris?"
"I'm sure I don't know what you mean." He looked away, quite offended by what she was implying.
"Why now? Why did Dirk choose to do this now? Why didn't he do it months ago? Or wait another year? Did you tell him something important? Something that would give him the ammunition he needed to set himself up as the Lord of the Shadows? Something important enough for Belagren to appoint him her right hand?"
Neris grinned. "Lord of the Shadows? Is that what he's calling himself now? Our boy is demonstrating a previously unsuspected flair for the dramatic, isn't he?"
"What did you tell him, Neris?"
"What about this eclipse that's coming?"
Neris looked puzzled for a moment and then he smiled. "So he told them about the eclipse, did he?"
"He sent the message to Belagren before we even got to Omaxin. How could he have known about this coming eclipse, if you didn't tell him?"
"He told them about the eclipse?" He began to laugh. "Oh, that wicked, wicked boy!"
"Neris? I don't see what's so funny about this. He's going to consolidate Belagren's power for years to come. And if I find out it was you who told him about it . . ."
But he wasn't listening to her. Neris was laughing so hard he toppled sideways on the bed, holding his sides as tears streamed down his face.
"Neris . . ."
"I never thought he'd do it!" he gasped between great heaving guffaws. "Oh, that's just too much!"
It was no use. Whatever Neris found so funny, it totally consumed him. Tia glared at him as he sobbed with mirth, furious he would react to something so devastating with hysterical laughter. She glanced down to find the water bubbling in the kettle. Snatching an old shirt of Neris's from the floor, she lifted the kettle clear of the flames and dumped it on the floor beside the fire.
"Get your own damned tea!" she snapped before stalking out of the cave and back into the rain, wishing that just once, Neris would act like a sane man.
In death, the High Priestess was not a pretty sight. Belagren had fallen against the wall and lay slumped beneath the window of her sitting room, her jaw slack. Only the whites of her eyes showed beneath her partly closed eyelids, as if she was staring blindly into the afterlife. Dirk Provin gagged on the sharp aroma of urine as he entered the room.
Why don't people die with beatific smiles on their faces?
Instead, the High Priestess's bladder had relaxed when she died and it had stained the red silken robes bunched up beneath her, revealing ankles and lower limbs swollen with the body fluids that had pooled there when her heart stopped beating.
If there really is a Goddess, and if death is her reward, then why is the transition to the afterlife such an ugly, degrading thing? Dirk wondered.
Yuri Daranski, the palace physician, was bending over the corpse and looked up when he heard the door open, his ferrety eyes guilty. He seemed relieved when he saw who entered and beckoned Dirk forward. Somewhat reluctantly, Dirk crossed the room, noticing a tray with a cup and saucer resting on the table beside the settee. He hesitated for a moment, picked up the cup and sniffed the familiar scent of peppermint, and then without changing his expression he walked to the window and squatted down beside the physician.
"She's been dead for a little over two hours," Yuri told him. "See, rigor mortis has begun to set into her fingers and toes."
"Do you know how she died?" He declined to touch her and confirm what Yuri told him. The Shadowdancer knew his trade.
Yuri glanced at Dirk with a frown. "A stroke perhaps . . . or something else."
"What kind of something else?" Dirk asked carefully.
The physician hesitated before answering. "Poison."
"You think she was murdered," Dirk said, knowing she almost certainly had been--and who the likely culprit was.
"I seriously doubt she took her own life." Yuri shrugged.
There was a moment of silence--a moment of suspicion and uneasiness as the youth and the old physician sized each other up, debating how far each could be trusted.
"Have you told Antonov of your suspicions?"
Yuri let out a short, skeptical laugh. "If anyone is going to tell the Lion of Senet the High Priestess has been murdered in his own palace, it won't be me, Dirk Provin. I'm rather fond of my head right where it is, thank you."
"You expect me to tell him?"
Yuri shrugged. "You're the Lord of the Shadows, aren't you? The right hand of the High Priestess of the Shadowdancers? That puts you in charge now, my lad--temporarily, at least. I suppose it'll be up to old Paige Halyn to appoint her successor." Yuri stood up and wiped his hands on a towel. It was a symbolic gesture, Dirk thought. As if he were wiping his hands of the whole affair. "What are you going to tell him?"
Still squatting beside the corpse, Dirk studied Belagren for a moment longer, and then glanced up at Yuri. "I'm not going to tell him she was murdered, that's for certain. Not without a culprit I can hand him on a platter."
"You're going to lie to him?"
"I'm going to make certain the Shadowdancers aren't destroyed by Antonov in a fit of rage," Dirk corrected. He hesitated for a moment and then added, "Will you back me up on this?"
Yuri thought about it and then nodded. He hadn't gotten to the position of trust he held in the Shadowdancers without being a realist. "Aye. I'll say it was a stroke." He tossed the towel aside and looked at Dirk approvingly. "You've a level head on your shoulders, boy."
"And like you, I prefer it where it is." Dirk stood up and glanced around the room. "Has he seen her yet?"
"Briefly, I believe. Apparently he sent for the High Priestess to attend him in the temple and when she couldn't be roused the guard fetched a servant to wake her. It was the laundry maid, Emalia, who found her. She told the guard, he told Antonov, who raced into the palace, took one look at her body and then stalked off. I suppose he's back in the temple."
Dirk knew for a fact that he wasn't. The Lion of Senet had not returned to his private temple. He'd been watching for Antonov from the window in his room and had seen no sign of him since the Lion of Senet had hurried back to the palace in response to the guard's summons.
"We need to get her cleaned up. He'll want to see her again, but not like this."
Yuri nodded. "I'll get Ella and Olena to see to it. What are you going to do?"
"First, I'm going to send a message to the Hall of Shadows and get Madalan Tirov back here. I can't deal with this on my own. Then I'm going to find Antonov and try to convince him this was the will of the Goddess."
Excerpted from Lord of the Shadows by Jennifer Fallon. Copyright © 2004 by Jennifer Fallon. Excerpted by permission of Spectra, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.