Paul B. Thompson, Tonya C. Cook



Shadows were thick in the windowless corridor deep inside the Khuri yl Nor. Open oil lamps were set on corbels at intervals along the wall, but their flames scarcely penetrated the gloom. Here in the Nor-Khan, the central citadel of the khan’s palace, the corridors were not as confusing as those farther out. Even long-time courtiers had been known to wander for hours in the outer palace, seeking a particular chamber.

Sahim Zacca-Khur, Khan of All the Khurs, was not troubled by the maze of passageways or the lack of light. He had traveled the path from his private quarters to the throne room so many times, he could do it in utter darkness. He entered a small, private side chamber and paused, taking time to gather his thoughts and smooth his elaborately curled beard. Although he was past middle age, his black hair and beard showed no gray at all.

Lastly, he adjusted the crown on his head. The crown seemed heavier lately. True, he wore a mail coif beneath it to foil assassins, but the crown itself-a ten-inch-tall hat of stiff red leather, its lower edge decorated by strings of gold beads-felt weightier these days. The departure of the laddad ought to have lightened his burdens, but it had not. Even with the exiled elves now deep in the desert, Sahim’s troubles were no fewer.

The laddad had fled their devastated homelands of Silvanesti and Qualinesti to fetch up against the walls of Khuri-Khan like debris driven by a sandstorm. For five years, Sahim had allowed them to remain in exchange for the treasure they contributed to his coffers. With them gone, he was back to squeezing coppers from the soukats, and the merchants of Khuri-Khan were notoriously tight-fisted. Of course, Sahim knew how to squeeze.

He opened the door, and the guards within the throne room raised gilded swords in salute.

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