Cinnabar Shadows - Lynn Abbey

Chapter One

Urik.

Viewed through the eye of a soaring kes’trekel, the walled city was a vast sulphur carbuncle rising slowly out of a green plain. Towers, walls, and roofs shimmered red, gold, and amber, as if the city-state itself were afire in the steeply slanted light of a dying afternoon. But the flames were only the reflections of the sun’s bloody disk as it sank in the west: an everyday miracle, little noticed by the creatures great and small, soaring or crawling, that dwelt in Urik’s purview.

Roads like veins of gold traced from city walls to smaller eruptions in the fertile plain. Silver arteries wove through the patchwork fields that depended on that burden of water as Urik depended on the fields themselves. Beyond the ancient network of irrigation channels, the green plain faded rapidly to dusty, barren badlands that stretched endlessly in all directions except the northwest, where the dirty haze of the Smoking Crown Volcano put a premature end to the vision of man and kes’trekel alike.

Drifting away from the haze, toward the city, a kes’trekel’s eye soon enough discerned the monumental murals decorating the mighty walls. One figure dominated every scene: a powerful man with the head of a lion. Sometimes inscribed in profile, other times full-face, but never without a potent weapon grasped in his fist, the man’s skin was burnished bronze, his flowing hair a leonine black, and his eyes a fierce, glassy yellow that shone with blinding brilliance when struck by the sun.

The kes’trekel swerved when Urik’s walls flashed gold. Through uncounted generations, the scaled birds had adapted to the harsh landscapes of the Athasian Tablelands. They knew nothing natural, nothing worthwhile, nothing safe or edible shone with such a brief yet powerful light. Given their instincts and wings, they sought other, less ominous night roosts. The men and woman trudging along the dusty ocher roads of Urik’s plain possessed the same instincts but, bereft of wings, could only flinch when the blinding light whipped their eyes, then swallow a hard lump and keep going.

Unlike the kes’trekels, men and women knew whose portrait was repeated on Urik’s walls: Lord Hamanu, the Lion of Urik, King of Mountain and Plain, the Great King, the Sorcerer-King.

Their king.

And their king was watching them.

No Urikite doubted Lord Hamanu’s power to look through any wall, any darkness to find the secrets written on even a child’s heart. Lord Hamanu’s word was Law in Urik, his whim Justice. In the Tablelands where death was never more than a handful of unfortunate days away, Lord Hamanu gave Urik peace and stability: his peace, his stability—so long as his laws were obeyed, his taxes paid, his templars bribed, and he himself worshiped as a living, immortal god.

Lord Hamanu’s bargain with Urik had withstood a millennium’s testing. There was, despite the cringing, a measure of pride in the minds of those roadway travelers: their king had not fallen in the Dragon’s wake. Their city had prospered because their king was as wily and farsighted as he was rapacious and cruel. The mass of them felt no urge to follow the road into the badlands, to the other city-states where opportunity consorted openly with anarchy. Wherever they lived—on a noble estate, in a market village, or within the mighty walls—most Urikites willingly hurried home each evening to their suppers and their families.

They had to hurry: Lord Hamanu’s domain extended as far as his flashing eyes could be seen, and farther. Early on in his career as sorcerer-king, he’d decreed a curfew for law-abiding folk that began with the appearance of the tenth star in the heavens. And, unlike some of his other law-making whims, that curfew stood unchanged. Law-abiding folk knew better to linger where the king or his minions could find them after sunset.

Except in the market villages.

In another longstanding whim, Lord Hamanu did not permit anyone to enter his city unannounced, and he levied a hefty tax on anyone who stayed overnight at a public house within its walls. In consequence of this whim—and the city’s daily need for food that no whim could eliminate—ten market villages studded Urik’s circular plain. In a rotation as old as the reign of King of the Plain himself, the ten villages relayed produce from nearby free-farms and outlying noble estates into the city. They also gave their names to the days of Urik’s week. On the evening before its nameday, each village swelled with noisy confusion as farmers and slaves gathered to gossip, trade, and—most importantly—register with

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