Lady Sun Has Risen
In a world where high culture and barbarian nomads clash, the educated believe magic to be a myth·but sometimes the gods still take a hand in human affairs. And when the gods meddle during the erotically charged Spring Equinox festival, lust can turn to love against all logic.
Miryea, a female physician from the Soranian Empire, thinks her interest in sexy, infuriating half-nomad Adimir is a case of opposites attracting. Nothing serious could come of their attraction, but a fling with Adimir sounds like the perfect way to celebrate Spring Equinox, when wild sex spurs the new growing season.
Adimir has no problem with this plan.
Especially since he's already figured out Miryea's just the kind of woman he likes·a strong woman who melts for spanking and rough-and-tumble foreplay.
But Lady Sun and the Lord of Grain, the eternally committed, eternally contentious divine lovers whose passionate reunion marks the beginning of spring, have their own plans for Miryea and Adimir. And gods and goddesses get what they want, even if it takes a slave raid, acts of heroism, and a display of sex-magic the likes which hasn't been seen in Sorania in decades.
"Why so silent, Miryea?" Velari asked. "You've hardly said a word for hours. I think you offended Shiran and Kiran." Velari inclined her head slightly, indicating the two young men—identical twins—with whom she'd been chatting as the caravan trudged along the high road to Poldar.
Miryea dragged herself out of the well of introspection she'd fallen into and made herself smile. "I doubt it. They had eyes only for you anyway, and you for them. Thought you might like some time to decide which one you'd prefer on the Equinox."
She dropped her voice to a whisper, "Or if you want a matched set."
A grin lit up the little blonde's face. "That's true friendship, Miryea." The grin slipped away almost as quickly as it came. "It's also nonsense. They teach us to read body language in the temple. Something's on your mind." Velari was an acolyte of Lady Sun, traveling to the shrine in Poldar.
Miryea glanced around. Most of the travelers seemed merry, enjoying the fair weather. (Velari's twins were bellowing a lewd song about a Kulchu and a lonely widow, and more and more travelers were joining in. The Kulchu, from the sound of it, was going to turn down the widow in favor of buggering her sheep.) Although spring would not officially arrive for several days, the grass was already green and the almond and apricot orchards lining the high road were fuzzed with pale, fragrant blossoms and tiny, bright new leaves. Birds sang their mating calls overhead, and below, at least some of the travelers seemed to be doing the same, as Velari and the twins had had been earlier.
Miryea wished her heart were so light.
Every day brought them closer to Poldar, and to the master physician—the son of one of her grandmother's myriad old connections from her days in the Soranian Imperial Army—who would oversee her apprenticeship.
Which she had to do in faraway Poldar, two entire satrapies away from home, because no one in Yareth wouldn't want Fanel the Failure's daughter to get anywhere near an actual sick person. At least not without the whole town holding its collective breath, waiting to see if she were more like her grandmother—a decorated veteran of the Kulchu wars—or her father.
Her father. The brilliant scholar who came back from the
university heaped with honors, but who fainted the first time he saw a
bleeding patient. Who panicked and wavered when faced with a crisis, so
that people died who might have lived. Who ended his life as a failure,
a drunkard supported by his wife and mother-in-law.
Miryea knew she was like her father in certain ways: a good memory for anything she'd read, an affinity for herbs, cleverness in school.
She only hoped she wasn't like him in other, less desirable ways.
Miryea knew she could put arnica on a bruise, patch up a small cut, or dose someone so a mild cough didn't become pneumonia. That already put her practical skills ahead of her father's.
She didn't know, though, if she could handle a true emergency, the pain and fear of people who were really suffering.
And the closer they got to Poldar, the more it preyed on her mind.
"I know," Velari said, touching her arm gently, "I bet you're worried because we're getting near Thelana satrapy. I certainly am." She shivered theatrically, making her blonde curls bounce. "Hard to believe we're so close when everything still looks so civilized."
At that, Miryea managed a real smile. "You've heard those stories too—about the Thelanese making blood sacrifices to Kulchu demons? My father used to tell them when he was trying to cadge drinks. Good tales, really scary, but nonsense. My grandmother fought the Kulchu. They're barbarians and slavers, but they're not demons. And Thelana's backward after being yanked back and forth between the Empire and Kulchu for so long, but I doubt there's anything too odd about it other than a lot of family trees that look more like grass."
"Do you suppose we need to worry about slave raids?" Velari shivered and looked around her. "I know it's a lot safer than it used to be, but still it's a scary thought…"
Frankly, Miryea didn't think Velari sounded nearly scared enough. To most people who'd grown up in Yareth or the surrounding villages, far from the Kulchu border, slavery was something that happened somewhere else and had an exotic tinge to it that made it more exciting than horrifying.
Most people hadn't been raised by someone who'd fought the Kulchu, who'd freed captives and heard their stories.
be fine. This is a big caravan." She wasn't going to admit that her
grandmother had personally interviewed the caravan-master and had
recommended several mercenaries of her acquaintance as guards before
she'd let Miryea travel with the group. Admitting it would make her
feel like a child, but deep down, knowing it made her feel safer.
"Besides, if it comes to it, I know how to fight. I'll protect you."
She was great with her quarterstaff in a practice bout, but actual fighting, in the face of actual danger, was another thing at which she was unproven.
Then a crazy notion popped into Miryea's head, and she went with it because talking about sex seemed far preferable to letting her mind wander even further down paths of self-doubt, or worrying about the possibility of slavers. "We're going to be in Thelana for the Spring Equinox rites. Want to see if we can find out what their festival is like?" She felt a shimmer of excitement at the idea of being the newcomer in some insular village—inhabited, since it was her daydream, by unusually handsome, well-endowed single men as randy as the goats they herded, but a great deal cleaner. She didn't know about Thelana, but in Yareth, it was considered especially good luck to lie with a new acquaintance on the Equinox, a particularly powerful offering to Lady Sun and the Lord of Grain. What a Spring Equinox she and Velari could have, with men lining up to entertain them!
Velari turned a happy shade of pink, obviously thinking along the same lines.
Then Miryea's common sense kicked in, deflating her fantasy. "On second thought, maybe it's not such a great idea. Thelana was a Kulchu territory for a long time and you know how if you live with someone for a while, you'll pick up their bad habits? The Kulchu treat women like cattle."
"More like house pets," Velari concurred. "From what I hear, they're prized, maybe even loved, but still possessions. Half the time they just buy slaves instead of taking wives so the poor things really are possessions. And I'm sure the bad attitude rubbed off in Thelana, even if they didn't take to keeping slaves. Overbearing men and meek, mousy women—I bet that what we'd find in Thelana. And that would make the rites just nasty."
So much for the happiest thought she'd had in several days. She'd have to find her partner for the Equinox rites among the men in the caravan—none of whom attracted her that much. "If they're that much like the Kulchu, Thelanese men are probably dreadful lovers anyway."
They heard a deep chuckle. Miryea turned.
The laughing man was, if not the tallest person she'd ever seen, then one of them. Unlike the other travelers, who were showing signs of fatigue as suppertime drew near, he walked with the long-legged, relaxed stride of someone thoroughly at home in his body. It was clear to Miryea's eyes that the long sword he wore at his hip in a plain leather sheath was an old friend, not (like, for instance, Shiran's) an affectation he might not know how to use properly. He was somewhat older than the two women, but not a great deal.
And as handsome as the Lord of
Grain, she thought, but a Lord of Grain carved out of shadow. He was a
dark man, black-haired and gray-eyed, with an olive complexion rarely
seen among those born in the heart of the Empire. Although the day was
not especially warm, he'd taken off his outer coats (at least Miryea
figured he must have been wearing them to start out—he didn't look like
a beggar). His linen under-robe was slit in the front and hung open,
displaying a very impressive bare chest.
She found herself puzzling a bit at how his salvar were cut. Linen, or even a silk-linen blend, shouldn't cling to a man's thighs and hips like that and still allow him to move properly. He had a foreign look to him—apparently they made their pants a bit differently wherever he was from, and she definitely approved.
More than easy on the eyes.
But definitely laughing at them.
"What's so amusing?" Miryea demanded.
"Little girls spouting theories about places they don't understand." The big man had a slight accent, one Miryea couldn't place. "You'll learn soon enough."
"Who are you?" She thought she had met everyone traveling with the caravan but she'd hardly forget such a distinctive-looking man.
Such an attractive man, even if there was something infuriating about him, an air of confidence that bordered on arrogance. "And why are you listening in on our private conversation?"
The man gave an ingenuous smile that Miryea didn't believe for a minute. "My name is Adimir. I joined the caravan only today. As for why I was listening in on your conversation, I drew closer to the two loveliest women around, as a man will, only to hear them spouting nonsense about my land and my people."
Miryea and Velari glanced at each other. Miryea wondered if her own face was as red as Velari's. Probably.
"You're Thelanese?" Miryea said, wishing she could sink into a hole in the ground.
"Part Thelanese, part Kulchu."
He narrowed his eyes and glared at them. The look was part annoyance, part condescension, as if they were someone else's bratty children whom he'd dearly love to swat, but couldn't—and part frank male assessment. He looked ready to start an argument at the very least, and Miryea was relieved that there were other people around.
And in a strange
way, very sorry. There was a stern set to his jaw, but his lips were
full and sensual, like they'd be more adept at smiling or kissing than
frowning—as if he might be ready to argue or rant, but could be
diverted into making up the quarrel in some very amusing ways. Some
very erotic ways, even. And despite his current grim expression, there
was a glint in his eyes that suggested suppressed mischief.
Heat which was spreading through her body, making her nipples crinkle and her sex
He loomed closer. Lord and Lady, he was tall. And broad. And as close to perfectly built as a human being could be. Miryea had heard older women talking about "rippling muscles," but had never seen a specimen who actually had them before. It was…distracting. She had to fight not to touch him, to see how that combination of rock-hard muscle and smooth olive skin would feel under her fingertips.
"The Kulchu are not barbarians, let alone demons. They have kept to their own ways instead of falling in with those Soranian. There's good and bad there, as there is any place. Thelana, you will find, is not so different from what you know. The main difference is in most of the Empire they pretend that men and women are the same. In Thelana we celebrate their differences."
"'Celebrate their differences'—is that a polite way of saying 'treat women poorly'?" Miryea scoffed. "Or does it mean 'have a lot of sex'? I approve of that, at least if you're typical of Thelanese men. We don't grow them so tall and broad-shouldered at home."
Had that really slipped out of her mouth?