“Ah, Your Grace,” Nirartu said courteously enough, though there was a glint in his eyes that suggested he found Viroka none too graceful. “May I be of some service?”
“Oh, don’t mind me, Nirry,” Viroka trilled cheerfully, privately pleased by the faint wince the nickname earned. “I’m just going to see Kamala.”
“Is it not perhaps slightly late?” he inquired.
“Is it?” She looked at him with wide, curious, seemingly vacant violet eyes. “Oh, I won’t keep her up very long. But you certainly can do something for me, though—there’ll be a priestess along in a bit, and I’d be happy if you’d tell the guards to let her through. It’s a special surprise for Kamala.” The Azvom chieftain gave a bubbling little laugh.
“As you wish, Your Grace,” Nirartu said through clenched teeth that masqueraded as a smile, bowing slightly.
She patted him on the head; he entertained a vision of tying her arm around her neck. “You’re such a nice boy, Nirry!” With a toss of her chestnut curls, she skipped lightly down the corridor to the imperial apartments, apparently oblivious to the glare he focused on her back as if looking for the best place to sink a knife.
Less than thirty minutes later, a slender, white-clad figure moved at a sedate pace toward the ornate doors. Even without Captain Nirartu’s reluctantly-issued word, the guards would have hesitated before seeking to block the visitor’s way; the elegantly draped robes of white silk and the polished, ornate silver mask covering the top half of the face beneath the deeply cowled hood that hid her hair marked her as an adherent of the Moon Goddess, the Sun’s younger sister. In the robes and mask, she could have been anyone—old or young, plain or pretty, though the smoothness of the skin visible beneath the mask suggested a young woman. To Avatar sight, she presented only a blank silvery-white aura, devoid of any clues as to her birth clan; in the eyes of the Moon Goddess, all of her sister’s children were equal, their clan unimportant. With a respectful bow, the door guards let her pass unhindered into the imperial apartments.
Any watcher might have been a little surprised by how competently the priestess moved through the unfamiliar chambers, if not for the laughter and chattering that was faintly audible even from the sitting room. The marble bath chamber tended to magnify sounds, and the two young women were making no particular effort to speak quietly. Empress Kamala was soft-spoken by nature, but Chieftain Viroka was anything but, and she tended to loosen her friend’s normal reserve. Dressed in light robes, the pair sat on one of the benches, Viroka combing out the Empress’s wealth of silver-blond hair.
“Ah, there she is!” Viroka exclaimed as the priestess entered the chamber; she clapped her hands as if in simple delight, but the gesture obviously meant something more. The priestess moved her fingers in a rapid, intricate pattern, then nodded crisply as she released the spell, her lips still moving in a nigh-inaudible whisper. It seemed at first that the magic was worked on Viroka herself, because she suddenly became quite businesslike.
“Let’s do this quickly,” she murmured, setting the comb aside and standing up.
Kamala looked at her in confused surprise. “What’s going on?”
The Azvom looked at her gentle friend for a long moment. “Kamala, do you trust me to have your best interests at heart?”
“Of course, Viroka. You’re my best friend.”
“Then do as I say. I’ll explain when I can. We need to hurry.” She held out a hand to help Kamala up. The young empress still looked confused, but rose to her feet.
The priestess was already quite busy, unclasping her silver-adorned belt and setting it aside, then unwinding the elaborate drapery of her white silk robe. As soon as it was off, she handed it to Viroka, who turned to Kamala. “Here. I’ll help you put it on.”
“But, Viroka, that’s a priestess’s robe,” she protested softly.
“If it makes you feel better, remember that you’re the priestess of the Moon’s elder sister. I don’t think She’ll mind you borrowing Her priesthood’s clothing.”
“Who are you?” Kamala asked the priestess plaintively, letting Viroka get started on the robe.
The other woman smiled, taking off the long cloak and folding it over one arm. With the removal of the hood, her lustrous black hair was visible, wound into a thick braid coiled at the back of her head. She pulled off the mask, revealing an exquisite face with large, intensely green eyes. She was still chanting or praying or whatever she was doing under her breath, but she nodded graciously to the empress.
“She’s busy maintaining the spell,” Viroka whispered, adjusting a fold of silk. “Anybody who’s spying or eavesdropping will only see and hear us holding a normal conversation.” She clasped the belt at Kamala’s waist. “We wanted to be certain to cover all the angles.”
“I don’t understand this,” the empress mumbled.
“I know. I’m sorry. I’ll explain when I can,” Viroka repeated, taking the cloak and arranging it over her friend’s shoulders, making certain that the pale silvery hair was well-concealed by the deep hood. The mask felt very warm as she settled it carefully onto Kamala’s face; a glance with Avatar sight showed that the distinctive aura of the Lotus clan was gone, replaced by the white glow of the Moon’s priestesses. The mask hid more than merely one’s face.
“You’re sure you’ll be all right?” the Azvom asked the black-haired girl, who nodded emphatically. Without further questions, Viroka started pulling on the clothes she’d discarded for her bath, glancing at Kamala. “You’ve seen the way the priestesses walk. Can you do that? Hands hidden in your sleeves, head angled down?”
“Um . . . yes,” Kamala answered, obediently tucking her hands into her sleeves.
“Good. We’ll go out to the guest apartments first.”
As they spoke, the priestess was doing something a bit odd. She picked up the ivory comb that Viroka had been using on Kamala’s hair, and drew out a few long strands, pale and fine as cobweb. She almost seemed to be pantomiming, making braiding motions with something nearly too thin to see, then reaching back to knot the whisper-thin cord into her own braid. She looked hard at Kamala’s face, as if studying it, and then nodded once before closing her eyes in concentration.
The young empress stared in astonishment as the other woman’s face seemed to ripple like disturbed water, and gasped softly when it settled into an exact duplicate of her own face. The black hair paled into silver-blond, and even the eyes became the same soft grey that Kamala saw every day in her mirror.
Viroka only smiled a quick, almost grim smile, pulling on her boots. “That ought to do it. If you can maintain it long enough, we’ll have a good head start.”
Kamala’s twin winked and then gestured toward the door. Without another word, Viroka nodded and put her hand gently to Kamala’s elbow, guiding her out of the room as the almost inaudible whispering ceased.
“Good evening, boys,” the Horsewoman said cheerfully to the guards as she and her companion went through the door. “Her Imperial Majesty’s going to retire for the night.”
“Is she well?” one of them ventured carefully.
“Oh, she’s right as rain. She’s just a bit sleepy, that’s all. Though you might have a bit of something sent in. Some grapes or something. She’s a touch hungry.” With a casual wave, she and the disguised empress went off down the corridor.
“Your Grace,” the guard at the entrance to the guest apartments said with a deep bow. “A message for you arrived while you were out. I believe it was important.”
“I’ll see to it at once,” Viroka said briskly, pausing to let the “priestess” enter the room first as she took the folded paper from the guard, then stepped in and closed the door.
“Viroka,” Kamala said very softly, “would you please tell me what’s happening?”
“Not just yet,” the Azvom said, breaking the seal and scanning over the few lines quickly, then nodding. She yanked the door open again and leaned out. “Have my horse saddled at once,” she instructed the guard. “My attention’s needed down south. I’ll be taking the priestess with me—I can drop her off at her temple along the way.”
“At once, Your Grace,” the man said, ripping off a flawless salute and hurrying off.
Viroka made a quick circuit of the rooms, collecting a few items and stuffing them into her traveling bag. As often as she spent time in the Imperial Compound, she hardly needed to bring anything with her; the closets in her quarters were sufficiently full of clothes and ornaments. Kamala watched in mild confusion as the Horsewoman nevertheless stashed a change of clothing in the bag.
Within a half hour, Kamala was riding sidesaddle behind Viroka on the huge, heavily muscled grey stallion that was her favorite steed. This was all very baffling, but Kamala was rather enjoying the strange adventure. She was rarely permitted outside the Imperial Compound without a bevy of attendants and guards; riding with her friend through the nighttime streets of the city was a new experience indeed.
As soon as they were outside the gates, Viroka touched one of Kamala’s hands, which were clasped around her middle. “Hold on tight,” the Horsewoman muttered. “This might be a little bumpy, and I don’t want you to fall. If we could have gotten you up here astride, I’d be happier, but we’ll manage.”
Obediently, Kamala tightened her grip as Viroka leaned forward in the stirrups, giving the empress a bit more room to sit firmly in the saddle; with a click of her tongue and the bare touch of her heels, the massive stallion went straight into a driving gallop. Kamala gasped and hung on, staring wide-eyed as the landscape began to unroll past them at an alarming speed.
Viroka did not rein the horse in until the lights of a small inn became visible up the road; the animal snorted, tossing his head as if he wanted to keep up the fierce pace. She whistled softly and stroked the arched neck, calming the beast as he trotted toward the inn, somehow expressing pique in the way he moved.
There was a small, closed carriage in the inn yard. Viroka let out a long breath as if in relief as she drew the horse to a halt beside it. She didn’t even have to call out; the door of the carriage swung open and two men emerged. Kamala recognized them both—one was Erjutvu, Viroka’s new husband.
The other, tall and stunningly handsome, hair shining golden in the lamplight, was Prince Hiranyu.
With a courteous bow, Hiranyu reached up to help Kamala down from the horse, then guided her up into the carriage. After the wild ride, the soft cushions were a welcome relief.
“Please, Divine Majesty,” he murmured in a voice that had the same sort of qualities to the ear that velvet had to the skin, “make yourself comfortable. You are safe, I swear my life on it.”
“Don’t be so grandiose,” Viroka said, giving him an elbow in the ribs to move him so that she could climb into the carriage. “You can ride up on the driver’s seat with Erju. I need to explain things. Make sure Slaymaker’s tied off to the back rail, would you?”
“Do I have to touch him?” the gorgeous prince asked dubiously.
“No. Just give the reins a glance. I don’t know why you’re so nervous around him. He likes you.”
“That monster tried to step on my foot.”
“See? He likes you. He’d have kicked you otherwise. Let’s get moving.”
With another deep bow to the Empress, Hiranyu closed the door of the carriage; a few moments later, the vehicle set off at a casual pace.
“What is happening, Viroka?” Kamala asked plaintively.
The Horsewoman took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “We’re probably saving your life, Kamala.”
“But he’s the Captain of the Guard! He’s supposed to protect me!”
“He’s got his own goals in mind. We’re getting you well away from him.”
“Who was the priestess?” Kamala asked, falling back on a smaller and simpler question.
“She’s the sister of the Deer chieftain. She’s the best sorceress we could find, and she’s trustworthy. She’ll masquerade as you for as long as her spell holds to give us time to get away without having the alarm raised too soon.”
“The Deer chief’s twin sister?” Kamala blinked in surprise.
“Right. She really is a recognized Moon priestess. The mask you’re wearing really is one of theirs—it’s hiding your aura.”