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The Eyes of God
by John Marco
DAW, 2002

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Akeela had been given chambers in the south tower of Castle Hes, overlooking the city and its vast marketplace. They were well appointed rooms, fit for a royal visitor, furnished lavishly with silk and tapestries. A cavernous collection of hallways connected the rooms, so that Akeela not only had a bed chamber, but also a dressing room and a separate place to bathe. A huge bed of iron and brass decorated with plush pillows had been prepared for him, along with a basket of fresh breads and cheeses. Earl Linuk, who had escorted Akeela to the rooms, had told him to rest and make ready for the banquet being prepared for him. Linuk had seen to Akeela personally, while Karis’ servants tended to the other Liirians, finding them rooms on lower floors. Linuk had not expected Lukien to insist on sharing the rooms with Akeela. Cordially, Linuk explained that he had prepared a nearby room for the king’s "bodyguard," but Lukien had ignored him, choosing instead to remain with Akeela.

Lukien was always with Akeela.

Sometimes, it seemed to Lukien that he had been with Akeela his whole life. They were nothing alike, really, but over the years they had become like brothers, and had even been raised as such by Akeela’s father, Balak, who adored Lukien. Abandoned by his father and orphaned by his mother, Lukien had lived in the streets of Koth, with only his ten-year old wits to protect him from the big-city predators. He had been a thief and an angry youngster, stealing what he needed to survive or working for pennies in the slave-like conditions of smithies. By eleven he was emaciated from this grueling life, but by thirteen he was becoming a man, and life in the smithies had strengthened his body and hardened his heart. Then, at fourteen, he had met Akeela.

Akeela, who was three years younger than Lukien, had been touring the Liirian capital with some of his father’s advisors. A contingent of guards had accompanied them, but Akeela, curious about things even then, had wandered off to explore on his own, blundering into the alleys Lukien called home. It hadn’t taken long for the roughs in the area to find the well-dressed stranger. Even for his age Akeela was short, but he had defended himself against the youths that had robbed him, swearing when Lukien found him that he’d bloodied the noses of two of them. Of course it was Akeela who was truly bloody. Thoroughly drubbed by the boys, Akeela needed help finding his way back to his royal guardians. And when they had located the guards and gotten Akeela safely into his carriage, the boy-prince had told his protectors not to go looking for the youths that had robbed him, because they were poor and knew no better.

In all the years since then, Lukien had never forgotten that moment. Had he been the victim, he would have tracked the rabble down and killed them, but not so this forgiving youngster. Instead, Akeela had insisted that Lukien return to the castle with them, to get some clean clothing and a good meal, and to meet his father, the king. There, the young Lukien was greeted as a hero for helping the prince, and King Balak had practically adopted him. He had never left the castle since. Just as he had never left Akeela’s side, because the young prince needed him.

But Lukien always remembered the hard-bitten lessons of the street, and he had never forgiven his drunken father for leaving him, or his mother for dying. Those were burdens he carried with him everywhere, even the battlefield, and it was an unfortunate enemy indeed who came upon the Bronze Knight and his unwieldy emotions. In Koth’s castle he had grown to manhood, had studied in the Liirian war college and graduated at the top of his class. He had become the paragon of a horse soldier, rising to command the Royal Chargers. Yet still Lukien brooded, and still he recalled his miserable life on the streets of Koth.

All these things Lukien considered as he sat by the window overlooking Hes’ marketplace, absently chewing an apple. From high in the tower, Hes looked much the same as Koth, and the similarity triggered unpleasant memories. Lukien stretched out, holding back a sigh. Inside the dressing chamber, Akeela was preparing for the celebration. Lukien himself had already dressed, choosing a tunic of plain brown and some stiff black boots that Karis’ servants had provided. Already Lukien felt himself growing anxious. He didn’t like the idea of eating with Reecians, or of spending the evening being stared at. But Akeela was in a fine mood, for he had brokered his peace with Karis and was ready to celebrate. As the young king readied himself in the nearby chamber, Lukien could hear him whistling.

Whistling. Lukien couldn’t help but laught. At twenty-four, Akeela still resembled the boy he had rescued in the alley.

"Akeela the Good," he whispered, shaking his head. An apt name for such a blameless man. Suddenly, Lukien was pleased with his life as Akeela’s champion. Sometimes brothers are less than friends, he knew, but that didn’t mean there was love lost. Putting aside his half-eaten apple, he got out of the chair and strode toward the dressing chamber. "Almost ready?" he called. "They’ll be expecting us."

Akeela stepped out of the small room, his hair shining with oil, his blue tunic stunning. Across his waist rested a silver belt with a small, ceremonial dagger, while on his feet were a pair of thigh-high boots, polished to a gemstone luster.

"I’m ready," he declared. "And I’m starving."

"Let’s hope these Reecians can cook," said Lukien. He glanced down at Akeela’s dagger. "You’re taking that?"

Akeela caught his meaning. The Reecians had requested that Lukien himself bear no arms to the banquet. "It’s just for ceremony," he explained. "Besides, you’ll be sitting next to me. If anyone tries to harm me, you can grab my dagger and save me, all right?"

Lukien didn’t laugh. Without his weapons he felt naked. "I think they’d try to poison you first. Not much good I could do you then."

Akeela found a mirror in the hall and adjusted his collar. "You don’t trust them, I know. But you’ll see. The time for peace has come. The time for a new Liiria, maybe a whole new world."

"A grand dream."

"Nay, not a dream, Lukien. A plan." The young king smoothed down his hair. "Shall we go?"

With Akeela leading, Lukien followed him out of the chambers and into the hallway where two Reecian guards were waiting, ready to escort them downstairs. They explained that King Karis was already in the banquet chamber, and that many of Akeela’s men had gathered there, too. Akeela walked with eager strides as the guards led them down a flight of stairs, then into another hall, wide and tall. The hall was decorated with flowers, and as they neared the banquet room the strains of music reached their ears. Lukien could see Trager and Breck waiting for them just outside the banquet room. Breck wore a grin while Trager was unreadable, but both had dressed for the evening, sporting long capes trimmed with wolf fur. They looked fit, fine examples of Liirian excellence, and Lukien was proud of them. They bowed to Akeela as he approached.

"How’s it look in there?" Lukien asked Breck, peering over his lieutenant’s shoulder. The chamber was crowded with people and pipe smoke.

"You should see the feast they’ve laid out for us," Breck replied. He was a big man who loved food, and his appetite shone in his eyes.

"King Karis is already inside, waiting for you, my lord," Trager told Akeela.

Akeela nodded. "Go on, all of you, go first."

With a shooing gesture he ushered Trager and Breck into the banquet chamber, then asked the Reecians to proceed. Akeela steadied himself with a breath. Then, with Lukien at his side, he stepped into the tumult of the banquet. Instantly, every head in the chamber turned toward him, and the music grew. A crescendo of applause erupted and the Reecians banged the long banquet tables with their metal mugs and cheered for the foreign king. Servants with platters in their palms stopped in mid-service to gape, and the children of the castle nobles, who had been carefully outfitted in royal finery, pointed and giggled. At the end of the vast chamber, at a raised table against the far wall, King Karis got up from his chair and joined the applause. There was a huge goblet in his meaty fist and his beard parted in laughter. Around him were Earl Linuk and a dozen other nobles, while at a table to his left sat a group of lovely women all sharing a striking resemblance. These, Lukien guessed, were Karis’ daughters. He had heard that they were very beautiful, and now he saw the hearsay was true. Each wore a long velvet dress and twinkling jewelry, and each had a husband or suitor seated beside them. As Akeela moved into the center of the room, his Royal Chargers, who had already gathered for the feast, gave a large call of cheers, drowning out even the whistling children. The hero’s welcome made Akeela flush. The young king gave a humble smile as he approached the table where Karis waited, two empty chairs directly on his right. Akeela thanked the crowds, trying to speak over the clamor, gesturing for quiet. But there was too much good mood in the room for that, so he simply made his way to the head table with Lukien. There, with everyone watching, he and King Karis embraced. It was a light embrace, more like a handshake, but the peck the Reecian gave Akeela’s cheek told Lukien it was sincere.

"A great day!" said Karis over the din. "And now, a great night to celebrate!"

Akeela swept an arm over the room, astonished by the celebration. "This is wonderful, my lord," he said. "I’m grateful."

"It’s well deserved," replied Karis. "All Reec should celebrate tonight. Now sit, my young friend, and enjoy yourself. Tonight is for getting drunk."

Akeela sat down next to the king, then Lukien took his own seat beside Akeela. Trager and Breck, who had been waiting for them beside the table, sat down next to Lukien. A pretty serving girl offered him some ale. Lukien held out his goblet, giving her a wink. Trager noticed the flirting and shook his head with disgust.

"What?" asked Lukien.

Trager scowled. "Why would you pretend to want one of these Reecian she-wolves, Captain?" he asked, careful that Akeela did not hear him. "Once she got you in bed she’d emasculate you with her teeth."

"Sure," Lukien scoffed. "And how would you know that? Has a Reecian wench gotten to your stones, Trager?"

"They’re our enemies," said Trager simply. "Piss-filled bags of misery, the lot of them. You of all people should know that, Captain."

"Times are changing, Trager," said Lukien simply. "Have some ale."

The lieutenant folded his arms over his chest. "I won’t drink with these swine."

"Suit yourself."

Turning his attention toward the floor, Lukien noticed a clearing between tables. The space just in front of their own table had been left bare, but an instant later an acrobat tumbled into it. As the crowd laughed and clapped, the man somersaulted backwards, landing on his feet again and again. A juggler joined him, then a violinist, and soon the floor was full of entertainers. Lukien settled back to enjoy the show.

From a tiny alcove just beyond the banquet room, Cassandra peered out from behind a velvet curtain, breathless with anticipation. In a moment the soft music would start and her father would call her forth. Cassandra smiled inwardly. She was a fine dancer, and the dress Jancis had made her was tight in all the right places. Even if Akeela was accustomed to beautiful women, she knew she could seduce him. Men were like that when she danced, so pliable, even the hardest of them. Next to her, Jancis was smiling mischievously, enjoying the excitement. From their place in the alcove they could barely see Akeela past the crowds, catching only glimpses of him and his bodyguard, the Bronze Knight. The Liirian king was drinking and laughing. He had dark hair, not unlike Cassandra’s own, and his smile was blinding. Cassandra thought him handsome. Not stunningly handsome, but serviceably so, and that heartened her. She had heard too many stories of duchesses married to beastly brutes, who did nothing but breed them for sons. From the little she knew of the Liirian, he didn’t seem that type at all. And, to Cassandra’s great surprise, neither did his knight.

Lukien of Liiria was easily the more handsome of the pair. He was tall and lean, with the look of a wolf about his sharp face, and his hair was honey-colored, making him seem less threatening than Cassandra had imagined. Like everyone in Reec, she knew the stories of the legendary knight. On this side of the river Kryss, they were evil tales. Yet as she spied him from behind her curtain, Lukien didn’t look evil. He looked remarkably tame.

"Look," Jancis whispered, pointing toward the head table. "The tumblers are leaving."

As the entertainers left the floor, Cassandra finally got an unobstructed look at her husband. . .

No, she corrected herself. Not her husband. Not yet. He would have to accept her first, and for that she needed to be perfect. How many women had Akeela been with, she wondered? And she, still a virgin, had to seduce him. The challenge made her pulse race.

"God’s death, what’s taking Father so long?" she muttered.

"Easy," bade Jancis. "The musicians are coming, see?"

Cassandra craned around the curtain and saw the violinists moving toward the floor. When they made their soft music, her father would call her out. She closed her eyes, summoning her skill, and waited for his call.

Lukien watched with interest as the acrobats cleared the floor. He had been enjoying their antics, and they gave the Reecians in the room something other than him to stare at. A group of musicians were taking the floor, a lute player and a pair of violinists. The lute player tested his instrument, plucking off a string of gentle notes. The sight of them made the knight groan.

"Oh, no," he muttered softly, prepared to be bored.

Next to him, Akeela still had a smile plastered on his face. He was talking to King Karis, but when the musicians came forward their conversation abruptly stopped. Karis seemed distracted.

"More music, my lord?" Akeela asked him. Strangely, the room had quieted. The violinists drew their bows across their strings, readying themselves.

"King Akeela, I have a special treat for you now," said Karis. "The sweetest date in my orchard—my daughter, Cassandra."

"Daughter?" said Akeela. With his chin he gestured to the nearby table. "Aren’t those your daughters?"

"They are. But there is one you haven’t met yet." The monarch’s face glowed with pride. "She is the most special thing I have, King Akeela. Now she will dance for you."

Before Akeela could reply the king clapped his hands loudly. The violinists began to play, drawing out a soft melody. The lute player joined them, plucking slowly on his strings, and the music they made was beautiful. Lukien felt suddenly calmed. Like candlelight, the music bathed him. Even Trager was pacified. The glower on the lieutenant’s face melted away, replaced by a blankness. Akeela looked around the chamber, wondering where this prize daughter was hiding. Then, from behind a velvet curtain, she emerged.

Gliding into the center of the chamber came a lithe and delicate figure with raven-black hair and a twirling dress of green and crimson. She floated, barely grazing the floor in her ballet, her face lightly flushed, her dark eyes lustrous. Lukien slowly lowered his goblet, his eyes narrowing. She was a vision. Perfect in every way. The folds of her dress wrapped around her flawless figure, showcasing her hips and perfect breasts, and as she spun slowly toward them her hair twirled in seductive ribbons about her face. The music drew her nearer, filling the room, and every eye watched her, admiring her grace. Lukien glanced over at Akeela and saw his king mesmerized. He too had lowered his goblet, and now was clutching the arms of his chair, frozen by the lovely girl.

"Cassandra," Karis whispered. "My youngest daughter."

Akeela nodded dumbly. "Cassandra."

The music grew. The dancer drifted closer. As the rhythm quickened so did she, her movements bewitching. Soon other instruments joined the song, another lute and a flute player. Cassandra tossed her body into the music, twirling and falling and throwing back her head as though an unseen lover caressed her. Lukien swallowed hard, unable to take his eyes from the girl. She radiated beauty, and her seductive turns made his blood race. She was very near their table now. Lifting her face towards them, she gave Akeela the slightest smile. The gesture made the young king swoon. He tilted toward Lukien slightly, whispering in a star-struck voice, "Look at her. She’s beautiful."

Lukien nodded. In that moment, Cassandra of Reec was the fairest thing he had ever seen. Her seductive movements touched something primal in him, something dark and carnal. And, to his surprise, something gentle stirred within him too, longing for the love of a woman. He sank back in his chair, and suddenly he was on the streets of Koth again. Alone and afraid, he could never hope for a woman like this. Princesses were the purvey of princes. Lukien picked up his drink and sipped at it distractedly. He had bedded beautiful women before, but never a royal one. Close as he was to Akeela, he was still kept from such finery.

"Oh, she’s lovely," said Akeela. This time, he was speaking to Karis. "Such a fine dancer, my lord."

"My daughter dances constantly," said Karis. "It is a gift she has." He gave his guest a curious look. "You like her?"

"Like her? She’s a treasure. Your daughter—all your daughters really—are lovely."

Karis moved in closer. "Ah, but Cassandra is the fairest of them all, don’t you think?"

"She’s splendid," agreed Akeela, then said no more, concentrating instead on the dancer and letting the world fall away around him.

Cassandra danced until sweat fell from her brow and her long hair straggled across her face. She twirled and twirled without end, and when the music finally climaxed she collapsed to the floor in a dramatic finish, tossing back her head and panting, a giant smile on her face. Her eyes locked with Akeela’s as the room came alive with applause. Akeela’s gaze lingered on her. Lukien sighed breathlessly.

"Beautiful," he whispered.

Akeela rose to his feet. "Beautiful!" he echoed, clapping for the girl. His approval made Cassandra glow. Still on her knees, she tilted her head to the Liirian king.

"Thank you, my lord," she said. Out of breath, her voice was soft as a breeze.

"Rise, daughter," said Karis.

Cassandra did as her father commanded, getting to her feet. She did not look away from them as Lukien expected, but rather faced them head on, still looking at Akeela. Then, oddly, her eyes flicked toward Lukien for a moment. The gesture startled Lukien and it was he that looked away, but by the time he looked back her gaze had returned to Akeela.

"You are a very fine dancer, Princess," said Akeela. "The finest I’ve ever seen, I’d say. Wouldn’t you agree, Lukien?"

Lukien said, "I would, my lord."

"Good!" said Karis. "Then you will be pleased with what I have to tell you. Sit, my lord, please."

They all returned to their chairs, and while Cassandra stood before them, Karis picked up a pitcher of ale and began refilling Akeela’s goblet. Akeela put up a hand to stop the king.

"No, no more for me yet, my lord."

"Oh, but we have something to toast, I think, King Akeela," said Karis. He filled the goblet to the brim, then sat back. A pensive expression crossed his face.

"My lord?" Akeela probed. "What is it?"

"King Akeela," began Karis, "you have given all of us a great gift. You have brought gold to us and the goodwill of your people, and have given us the river Kryss to use as our own. Most of all you have brought us peace, a thing I had never expected to see in my lifetime."

Akeela shifted, embarrassed by the praise. "Thank you, my lord."

"You are remarkable, King Akeela. For such a young man, you are very wise. So different from your father."

"Please, my lord. . ."

"No, let me say this," Karis interrupted. His face was grave. "I never met your father, not even on the battlefield. But I know from my advisors that he was a brutal warrior and a hater of Reec, and I think it’s extraordinary that a man like that could sire such a wise-hearted son. You are remarkable, King Akeela, and I have almost nothing of equal value to match the gifts you have given me."

"I ask for nothing in return, my lord Karis," said Akeela. "Just the chance to rule Liiria in peace."

Karis nodded. "I believe that. I know you want nothing from us but peace. And to seal that peace, I offer you the greatest thing I possess, something that means more to me than anything." He pointed at the waiting Cassandra. "I give you a wife. My daughter, Cassandra."

Akeela’s ubiquitous smile faded. "How’s that?"

"A wife, King Akeela. To seal the peace between us."

Lukien was stunned. Akeela looked at him for an explanation, but the knight merely shrugged. Before them, Cassandra wore a confident smile.

"A wife?" blurted Akeela. "For me?"

"You are surprised, I know," Karis admitted. "But you are young, and unaware of how we do things in Reec. Peace is made in such ways, my lord."

"Yes, but. . ."

"She is the greatest gift I can give you," said Karis. "And if you accept her, she will please you. She will give you children as beautiful as herself, and a link to Reec, so that we will never war again. Isn’t that what you want, my lord? Peace?"

Unable to speak, Akeela looked at Cassandra. She was still breathing hard from her dance but met his gaze head-on. Akeela chewed his lower lip, overwhelmed by the offer. Lukien put a hand on his shoulder.

"It is a great gift, my king," he said diplomatically. "But a surprising one. And surely you will need time to think on it."

"Yes," agreed Akeela quickly. "Time to think on it, consider things."

"Of course," said Karis. There was a trace of disappointment in his voice. "Such a union shouldn’t be entered lightly, and while you’re my guest you can think on it."

"It really is a great gift, King Karis," said Akeela. "Truly, I am humbled. But what does your daughter think of this, I wonder?" He turned toward Cassandra. "Princess Cassandra? Do you agree to your father’s proposal?"

The questions shocked Lukien. Was Akeela actually considering the offer? He kept his hand on Akeela’s shoulder, giving it a cautionary squeeze. Surprisingly, Akeela shook it off.

"My father is very wise," said Cassandra. "And I don’t object to his offer. If you will have me, King Akeela, I’ll be your wife."

Akeela grinned. "Very well, then. I will think on it. Thank you, Princess. And thank you for your beautiful dance."

Cassandra curtsied and dismissed herself, disappearing back behind the curtain. Akeela watched her go, admiring her all the way. Once again Lukien put his lips to the young man’s ear.

"Steady," he whispered. "She’s just a girl."

Akeela shook his head. "Not just a girl, Lukien. Perhaps the girl."

"You’ve had too much ale," said Lukien. The music had started again, and the servants went back to work, delivering steaming platters of bread and meat. Akeela’s eyes lingered on the velvet curtain. Lukien sighed. "Fate above," he muttered. "What have we gotten into?"

If Akeela heard him, he didn’t show it.

Excerpted from The Eyes of God by John Marco. Copyright © 2001 by John Marco. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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