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Serpent of the Stones   Chapter 1    

Alair kept her attention fixed on one of the massive stone blocks partway up the sloping far wall. She silently counted, inhaling and exhaling to successive counts of three, to keep her breathing under control. Every murmur, footfall, and cough was a rebuke from the hundreds waiting in the pyramidal audience hall.

To the left and front of Alair's chair, the chair of the Kan remained empty. Alair's irritation with her mother for her tardiness fed her anxiety and rising desire to flee. Every one of the people here to wait the Kan's judgement against the accused witch would be looking to Alair to end the delay. Not a single one of them would have any idea how close to panic Alair hovered. They would see only her immobile expression and erect posture.

"Aiee!" A woman's shout pierced the murmurs.

Alair forced herself to keep watching the wall for the count of three before lowering her attention to the disturbance. The prisoner slumped on the ground where one of the guards must have knocked her. Her chains rattled on the stone floor.

The door beside Alair thumped open. Everyone snapped upright. Alair rose as her mother, Kan-Feryl, swaggered past. The Kan spared a glance for her daughter, and seated herself in a swirl of perfume, brightly coloured robes, and wine fumes. Even after years of practice, it was not easy for Alair to keep all trace of contempt and disgust from her face.

A law guardian at the foot of the dais banged the heel of her ceremonial spear on the ground, though the audience had already hushed with the Kan's entrance. "In the sight of the Goddess and the presence of our Great Kan we have gathered to hear justice. All will listen!"

The Chief Law Speaker stepped forward and bowed. "Great Kan. If it please you, we have brought to the attention of your justice the accused witch and sorceress, Reane, from the village of Jerat."

"Is this the one who's been turning people into river monsters?" the Kan asked.

"Um." The law speaker glanced at the clay tablet in her hand. "No, Great Kan. She is accused of causing cattle infertility."

"Pity." The Kan slumped back in her chair. "I was looking forward to learning which half of a person an enchantress turns into fish. It'd make a quite a difference, wouldn't it?"

The law speaker's lips twitched in a suppressed smile.

"Well. Cattle infertility, you say?" the Kan said. "How terrible. Let's get it over with, shall we?"

Alair listened to the law speaker detail the accusations and evidence against the prisoner. Neighbours spoke of cows spontaneously aborting after visits by the prisoner. After an altercation between its owners and the accused witch over the price of some poultry, the region's best bull had become impotent.

The latter represented the most serious charge in Alair's thinking. The loss of a breeding bull could cripple the villages in the area. Without meat, milk, and new beasts of burden, the local economy would suffer for years to come. Yet, it wasn't clear to Alair whether sorcery had been involved. Malice, yes; but magic? Certainly the woman sowed acrimony about her and should be removed from the region for the sake of harmony, but Alair would need more evidence before condemning the woman to the three elements.

 "Yes, yes, yes." Kan-Feryl cut into the law speaker's recitation. "Bring the prisoner closer."

At the law speaker's signal, the guards nudged the accused witch towards the dais. The people in the crowd shuffled forward a pace, too, as if in anticipation of one of the erratic Kan's more interesting displays.

Alair gritted her teeth. That the governance of one of the largest and richest kanates between the Mountain of Clouds and the Desert of Seas should fall to the painted hands of a flamboyant drunk was an outrage against the Goddess as Divine Lawgiver and Mistress of Justice. The only reason Alair could bear to endure daily witness to her mother's degradations was that Feryl's council had forced the Kan to prematurely install Alair as Kan-Heir. One day, Alair would have the chance to put it right.

"This witch is not exactly a handsome specimen," Kan-Feryl said. "Terrible stink. Speaker, have prisoners dunked before bringing them before me. My stomach is a little delicate this morning."

The Chief Law Speaker bowed.

"Well, woman," the Kan said. "What have you to say for yourself? Are you a witch? Should we have you thrown into the river, stoned, and burned?"

The prisoner fell to her knees. "Mighty Kan. I ain't done nowt wrong. Honest."

"Really?" Kan-Feryl said. "What about this bull's pizzle? Didn't you wither it?"

"As the Goddess is me witness, Mighty Kan, I didn't do nowt."

"Come, now," the Kan said. "A clever enchantress like you, on a lonely night, might change herself into a cow and wear this poor bull to nothing. Isn't that so?"

Around the hall, sniggers erupted into laughter. Alair couldn't stop her fingers tightening on the arms of her chair. She glanced at her mother. The Kan was grinning.

"No, Kan!" the accused shouted. "It weren't me."

"Not you?" Kan-Feryl said. "Then who was it? Who took to this bull? Perhaps you'd like us to believe that it was the evil Zedana herself come back to life to curse us all?"

"No, Kan! Please, Kan. It weren't me. I didn't do nowt. They cheated me." She pointed to a pair of roughly dressed women among the crowd. "They owed me."

"So, you felt you had every right to curse them and ensorcell their bull?" the Kan said.

"They deserved it!" the woman shouted.

The Kan stifled a belch. "How tiresome. Speaker, the creature has admitted her guilt."

"What? No! I didn't say nowt! I--"

A guard cuffed the woman about the ear.

Alair's gaze cut to her mother. Surely the Kan couldn't take that piece of trickery as a basis for her decision?

The Chief Law Speaker hesitated.

"Don't you have to read out the penalty?" Kan-Feryl said. "Hurry up and get on with it. I'm not going to sit here all day."

This was a travesty! Witches who plied their dark, anarchic powers deserved to be hunted down and put to death, but this woman had yet to be proved a witch. Alair's impotent anger seethed behind her impassive exterior.

The guards hauled the prisoner to her feet for the sentence. Blood trickled from a cut above her left eye. She watched the Kan with an unwavering stare.

The Chief Law Speaker intoned the sentence: "Reane from the village of Jerat, you have been found guilty, in the judgement of the Great and Glorious Kan-Feryl, of practising witchcraft and thereby usurping the powers of the Goddess. For this blackest and most heinous of crimes, you are condemned to the three elements. You are to be taken to the river in chains and cast on the mercy of the waters until you repent of your evil, or until such time as you are no longer capable of speech. While you still live, you will be bound to the base of the pillar of justice. Priestesses will cover you with stones until the life and evil have gone from your body. Your remains will be purged by fire, so that no part of you continues to pass through creatures of this life. Let the Goddess bear witness to our justice in her name."

The Kan rose. "Goddess, I wish it'd been the river monster one. I was looking forward to that. When is that, Speaker?"

"I'm not rightly sure, Great Kan," the Chief Law Speaker said. "I don't think there are any more accused witches. But I'll find out for you."

Kan-Feryl nodded.

"I curse you!" the prisoner called. "Kan! If I die, so will you! I--"

A guard punched the prisoner in the face. She staggered back. Blood welled from her nostrils and the corner of her mouth. She spat. The bloody gobbet hit the bottom of the Kan's robe. For a moment, Alair thought the air around the woman and her guards wriggled and wavered. Magic? Was that real magic? The law guardian smacked her ceremonial spear against the side of the prisoner's head. She sprawled senseless on the stone floor.

The hall echoed with shocked silence.

"I really do need a drink now," Kan-Feryl eventually said. Despite her attempt at nonchalance, her face had lost all colour. "Two, perhaps."

The Kan strode out of the hall. Shouts of disbelief and anger rang through the hall. Some wailed for the Goddess's help. Runners bolted out the doors to carry the story throughout the palace and to the city streets. That was a shame. They would be spreading alarm. Alair mentally sighed. She would have to follow her mother to discover how the Kan proposed to deal with this threat and its attendant complications. The last thing they needed was a panic sweeping the city.

The Chief Law Speaker, as bloodlessly pale as the Kan, looked to Alair.

"Keep the prisoner chained, bound, and gagged," Alair said, "until the time of her execution."

The Chief Law Speaker bowed.

Alair walked out of the hall. Her mother strode some yards ahead and soon turned down the corridor towards her private apartments. The obstinate set of the Kan's shoulders augured ill for a rational discussion. Alair maintained her outward appearance of calm as she paced through the gauntlet of curious stares from priestesses, merchants, guards, messengers, and servants who lined the corridors.

"Feryl!" A voluptuous young woman in a filmy tunic hurtled past Alair from behind. The woman's golden sandals slapped on the stone floor. "Feryl!"

The Kan stopped and turned. Alair averted her eyes as her mother's latest concubine flung herself into the Kan's arms.

"What's wrong, my little bird?" the Kan said.

"Feryl, is it true? Did the witch curse you to death?"

"Who's been running tales to you and scaring you?" Feryl asked.

"Feryl! Tell me it's not true."

"If that's what you want," Feryl said. "It's not true. Better? Now, how about a smile to cheer me up?"

Alair gritted her teeth. She bent her concentration on the closest mural with its depiction of naked hunters spearing monkeys amongst vibrant jungle foliage. Over the background murmurs of many voices and footfalls carrying along the corridor, Alair heard kissing. It took considerable self-control not to run away from her mother's vulgar, public display of affection.

"Now, my pretty little bird," the Kan said, "let's go and get some wine. No more talk of witchcaft."

The Kan strode off, but her concubine whirled around to Alair. The concubine's kohl-lined eyes looked wild. She clamped soft, warm hands on Alair's arm.

"Alair, you'll tell me the truth," the concubine said. "Did the witch curse--"

"Don't touch me," Alair said.

The concubine recoiled and jerked her hands free.

Ahead, the Kan stopped. Her sister, Councillor Preya, bustled towards her trailed by secretaries and bodyguards. Preya looked like she chewed rocks.

"Feryl!" Preya called. "Is it true?"

"Goddess damn!" Feryl shouted at the ceiling.

Behind her fašade, Alair cringed from the raised voices.

"Did the witch curse you to death?" Preya asked.

"She's cursed me to putting up with this stupidity," Kan-Feryl said. "Damn it, I need a drink. You, there, girl. Fetch wine. Run!"

Feryl stormed off to her apartments.

"Is it true?" Preya shouted at the Kan's back. Preya turned to Alair. "Is it true?"

"The condemned woman uttered a curse on the Kan," Alair said.

Feryl's concubine shrieked.

Alair walked away. Preya stomped at her side. Before they caught up with the Kan, another of Alair's aunts bustled down the corridor, red-faced and shouting demands.

"I've just heard someone babbling some tale about a witch cursing Feryl," Goren said. "Preya? Alair? Is it true? Has she--Goddess's sake, can't someone shut that damned woman up?"

"Yes, Feryl is cursed," Preya said. "She's not taking it seriously. Come on. We'd better go and talk to her."

Kan-Feryl stood in the inner doorway of one of her private chambers. The bronze-covered doors were open to allow sunlight and aromatic breezes in from the courtyard beyond. Lush greenery, dotted with flowers in parrot colours of yellow, red, and blue, framed the Kan's rigid back. Scurrying servants had already provided the Kan with a goblet. She ignored the approach of her sisters and daughter.

"Feryl, what are you going to do?" Preya asked.

Kan-Feryl drained her wine and snapped her fingers for a refill.

"You can't do nothing," Preya said. "If this witch truly did curse--"

"I've already condemned her to death!" the Kan shouted. "What more could I possibly do to her? Piss on her ashes?"

Preya's lips pressed together. She scowled at Goren and Alair.

"It's possible that the curse will prove ineffective," Alair said.

"Why?" Preya asked.

Alair glanced at her mother's back. "The evidence against her didn't include any strong proof that she practises sorcery."

The Kan turned around to glare at Alair.

"But Feryl just said she'd condemned the woman to--" Goren broke off as she saw the look on the Kan's face.

"Go easy on the child." Preya laid a restraining hand on Feryl's arm. "She's upset about this curse."

Kan-Feryl snorted in disbelief.

"Alair upset?" Kan-Feryl said. "Child? Goddess, Preya, whose backside has your head been stuck up these last ten years? She's twenty-four years old and waiting for me to die! By all that's holy, you'd better hope this curse doesn't kill me, because then you'd be left to the mercy of that bloodless monster." She pointed a shaking finger at Alair. "And it'd be your own damned fault. You all made me name her as--"

"That's old history," Preya said. "Let's concentrate now on--"

"For the life of me, I can't understand how I birthed such a creature as that," Kan-Feryl said. "It was supposed to have been the year of great omens when I became Kan. They promised me that the sun returning from the dark of two moons would give me a glorious daughter--a child any mother would be proud of. I picked the most expensive, handsome male I'd ever seen. Big penis, too. He was quite a specimen. Trust me, she was conceived in hot blood. But you wouldn't think it. As cold and plain as a temple statue. Whatever she sucked from my teats, it wasn't any human feelings. If she--"

"Feryl, you're distraught," Goren said. "Don't take it out on Alair. We should--"

Kan-Feryl shoved past her sisters to close on Alair. Alair stood her ground, despite the cowering child inside who wished to run and hide in a dark cupboard with her hands over her ears. By sheer power of will alone, she held herself steady and met her mother's gaze.

Kan-Feryl leaned close enough for the wine on her breath to smother Alair.

"Just once, I'd like to see some emotion from you," Kan-Feryl said. "Just the slightest evidence that you're flesh and blood. I'm terrified. A witch has just cursed me. Do you care, Alair? Are you happy that you might be getting my feathered crown a bit sooner than you expected? I haven't seen you smile since you were in the cradle."

Alair fought to master her quickening breathing and light-headedness. She must not faint in this room.

"I think you hate me," Kan-Feryl said. "Do you? Is there even that broken shard of feeling in you? How can I provoke you to--Oh. I have a way."

The Kan turned with a gloating smile and beckoned to the servant who held the wine jug.

"Sisters, I've had a brilliant idea," Kan-Feryl said. "Since this curse has thrown us all into a panic, I see it as my duty to counter-act it by securing the succession of the kanate. So, it's time Alair was married. Which poor bitch shall we get for the deed?"

For a terrifying few moments, Alair couldn't control the glare of hatred that she directed at her mother's back.