Crickets sang. A breeze stirred the languid vines and night-drawn flowers around her. Dusk lay in blue-green shadows over the courtyard.
She stood where she had awoken: in Lord Haroun's garden, panting as though she were pursued. Niryah's Light shone white and brilliant in her cupped hands—it had freed her from that tainted sleep.
In the frisson of the magic in her blood, she knew that something was very wrong. She stepped forward, listening to the distant song of the Light in her hands. It shimmered over the leaves, glittered over the surface of the spring.
The shape of the cypress tree flickered, like a shadow flinching away. An illusion.
She held the Light aloft and stepped towards the tree, parting the cool air like water. The illusion snapped, and the tree was different now, but she could not tell how, until the glow fell across it. A male hand was carved in fine detail from the cypress wood. The hand led to an arm, and to a bare shoulder, and deeper still in the tree was a face in profile. Fine sprays of cypress leaves sprang from that temple, like curling strands of hair.
It was a hamadryad, with the face of Lord Haroun.
Clarity crashed down on her, and the Light blazed. The everlasting orchid. The garden—and the groves and pastures.
But if Lord Haroun was here, then the man she had met… The wizard in Dhar Jinan. The withered rose. All of it, an illusion. He had not even paused to look at her face before he kissed her, the way men did when they removed a veil. He knew her features well.
It was him, all along. How could she call herself a truthseer?
A rush of determination poured through her, and the Light spread up her hands and wrists. Another spell was wrapped around the hamadryad—a spell of sleep and false dreaming, the same one that had ensnared her. She placed her moonlit fingers on his shoulder and the spell vanished like a worm into the earth.
"Hear me, and come towards the Holy Light."
The faintest stir of that chest, and human color washed over his face. Imane stepped back, heart pounding. The wood that encircled him began to creak open, bark unfolding, though he still slept. As he emerged, she realized that the imposter must have taken his clothing: he wore nothing but a loincloth.
The roaring heat in her cheeks turned cold when she saw the open wound in his side.
It mirrored the gash on the other side of the tree, the one that dripped into the fountain. Pale sap coated his wound, too, but as the flush of life spread downwards, it began to bleed, dark-red and quick.
"Oh, no—" Imane sprang to catch him as he fell headlong onto the damp grass. Her hands pressed against the wound, but blood welled between her fingers. She whispered a binding between her teeth. Healing was one of the fundamental duties of a cleric of Niryah, but it was not what she had trained for six years to do.
He stirred, and her concentration faltered. "Who...?" he croaked.
She swallowed. "Veralim Imane, my lord. You've been injured—"
His eyes found her face. "If you are the Veralim, can you tell me whether I am awake or dreaming?" he asked softly. "No, of course it is false. My dreams are filled with truthseers…"
"I am Imane," she said, hoping this was not delirium. "Hear the truth in my voice—I called you from your sleep in the tree."
Lord Haroun blinked, and lifted his head from the grass, wedging one arm beneath him. "Oh god, I am unclothed," he stuttered.
Imane bit her lip and quickly shed her silk outerrobe to spread over him—she had enough layers to spare. Despite her protests, he insisted on wrapping it clumsily around himself and securing it below the waist. At last he sat with his back to the tree, panting and drawn, as she hastily reinforced the blood-binding.
"Not as I imagined it," he whispered. "But then, it would have been indulgent to imagine so lovely a face behind the pen." Startled, she looked up, and her accursed blush rose again. "Please forgive me," he said immediately, stricken. "My mind is still buried in wood."
Imane lowered her gaze, fighting to keep her mind on her healing. He clasped her arm with sudden alertness. "You are in danger. There is a wizard who has taken my face, and casts illusions like a spider spinning a web." His chest heaved at this expenditure of breath. "He means to trap someone here, a woman. It must be you."
"I know who this man is." Imane took a deep breath, trembling. "I do not know by what trickery he has wound himself into my life again. But I am afraid that it is so, that I am the cause of your suffering." Her shock was turning into the threat of tears.
"Suffering and salvation in one gentle hand," he said unsteadily. "How ruthlessly the gods pursue balance."
This was the Lord Haroun that she had written to; this was the man she cared for. And how long had he lain bleeding? Tears spilled over one cheek, though she held the thread of healing steady.
He noticed. "Please, do not weep, this is not your fault…"
"What reason had he to stab you, when you were already bespelled?" she cried, suddenly angry. "What cruelty—!"
"I saw only flashes of the waking world, but…after he sealed me away, the garden began to wilt before your arrival. My blood in the spring revived it."
"It has that power?" She glanced up at him, blinking away her tears. "You never told me, before, that you were a hamadryad."
He sighed. "Forgive me that omission. Some faiths in the Empire would call me a monster."
"There are far worse things for a man to be, than full of green magic," she whispered, and saw a hint of his true smile, not his face misused by another man. Like sunlight through the clouds.
A flicker caught her eye, in the rooms that bounded the garden. A lamp moved in the window of the chamber where she had slept. He was looking for her.
Lord Haroun followed her gaze, and stiffened. "You must go," he urged her. "He does not care about me, he wants you. I can stand, I can walk—"
"Don't you dare," Imane said fiercely. "I won't leave you wounded and helpless for him to vent his anger on. A truthseer has more power than reviewing letters!” Her jaw tightened, and she shoved power into the clotting binding in his side.
"Imane…" Even that whisper could not stop her. She surged to her feet, just as a silhouette filled the garden archway.
The other Lord Haroun strode towards her, lamp glowing and eyes aflame. Those were not the eyes she had just gazed into; they did not have the look of sunlight on the surface of a deep pool. It was a fine illusion—his power had grown since she had known him—but it was not real.
"What is this?" growled the imposter. "What sorcery—"
Imane clenched her shining fists. "I name you, Ruslan Gavid!" she shouted.
The tight-wound illusion shattered like glass. His skin lightened to ochre, his hair shrank short and turned black, and his eyes and brow sharpened to a familiar vulpine expression. The embroidered robes no longer fit his shoulders. Imane stared at his face, panting, as the tide of her hatred rose.
"I name you, liar. Thief. Ravager. You will not find me so helpless as I once was." Her voice was unexpectedly steady.
"Imane." His chin rose, and he looked at her with calculating eyes. "You must understand. Why should I not do anything for you? Even when you would give what is mine to this puling Athic bookworm—"
"I never belonged to you!" she cried. "And how dare you call him a coward when you hid behind his face. You will never have my love—you have nothing to give in return."
He only smiled. "I can make you see."
She drew in breath, her blood seething under her skin. "No longer," she whispered, and reached for the full power of her Goddess.
Tongues of white fire lapped up her arms, enveloping her. "In the name of Holy Niryah, I bind you," she called out. "I strip your power from you. As I will, so wills the Goddess Above." Not mere words: she felt it in her bones, in the heat of her shining eyes.
Her outstretched hands snuffed the magic from his body and soul like flame from a wick. The lamp tumbled from his grasp and went out.
Imane stood trembling with vengeance as the light around her waned, as Ruslan sought within himself for something that was no longer there. The confidence was at last shaken from his shoulders.
He looked at her, and his face congealed into black anger. "If I cannot take you gentle and ignorant, I will take you as you are," he growled, and lunged for her.
She should not have faltered, not with her power so close, but stronger than his threat now was the memory of the harm he had done to her. She stumbled backwards.
But he did not touch her. One step away, the ground broke open under his feet as gnarled roots surged up from the earth and wrapped around him. He struggled, only for more roots and sinewy vines to lash towards him. Then he could not even move, with nothing free except his head, and his furious scream had no power.
Imane whirled to see Lord Haroun on his feet, one hand outstretched. His other hand clutched his side, where blood soaked through the robe.
She scrambled to support him. "I had it handled!" she insisted, though her voice shook.
"It did seem so to me," he gasped. "That, I am afraid…was purely selfish."
Imane stood in the rear archway of the garden, watching as Ruslan was led away in bonds. In the thin dawn light, a shadow that had haunted her long before she came here was banished.
It had been a weary night. Since she went for aid, the house had been subject to a flood of people, all in defense of their lord: what seemed like half the city watch, five healers, and two proud men and a woman that Haroun had sent for, to be sure the imposter had not damaged the laws or business of Dhar Jinan.
Her tender had arrived too, brought her unstained clothes, and then proceeded to fuss so thoroughly, poor man, that she finally agreed to get some sleep just to placate him.
Walking back through the garden now, arms wrapped around herself, she ached for sleep again. The Goddess’s power could not be wielded lightly. But the sight of Lord Haroun in the garden gallery stopped her. He sat in a cushioned chair, talking with one of the important men. His color was much improved, and he sat straight with ease. The healers were far better at their craft than she had ever been.
He noticed her, and spoke to the man, who bowed and left. “My Lady Imane,” he said, in his warm voice, “you have my eternal thanks. But now, please, you must go to the inn and rest. I’ll send Barasef with you, to make sure they take none of your coin, but that everything comes to me—”
Imane leaned against the pillar nearest to him: half an excuse to be close, half a necessity. She might have been crestfallen at this dismissal, but… Lord Haroun had been sorely aggrieved to hear what Ruslan had attempted in his shape. He must think she did not want to spend another day in this place, nor even look at him. Perhaps it should have been so. But the soft green light of the garden at dawn was balm enough against the evil that had taken place, and that same light was in his eyes.
“My lord,” she said, gently interrupting him. “It seems to me that I should give you a second chance at hospitality, since the first was taken from you. And… I feel that I owe you something for what I brought to your doorstep, and company is all I have to give.”
He was silent for a moment. “Do not stay out of obligation, or the time will not be so sweet,” he said quietly. “Stay because you wish to.”
“Then I will stay,” she replied, ignoring the warmth that rose in her cheeks. “I am afraid all I desire now is sleep—” Sympathy, perhaps mixed with relief, crinkled his brow. “—but this evening, I would very much like to sit in the garden with you.”
“Yes,” he said, a weary thoughtfulness passing over his face. “I would walk in the garden when you are in it, and hear the sweet mourning of the dove. Let us sit in the shade of the cypress tree; let us speak of memory, and of…” Lord Haroun trailed off.
"Of love?" she supplied softly, for that was the verse’s end.
His color deepened. "I did not mean to suggest..."
Imane shook her head and, on impulse, gently squeezed his hand where it lay on the arm of the chair, for he looked like he needed the reassurance. He reached over and covered her hand with his other palm, and held it tight.