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Book Three of The Percheron Saga

Goddess by Fiona McIntosh
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The city-state of Percheron is in crisis. Zaradine Ana has been captured by the mysterious Arafanz and his desert warriors and is being held in their isolated fort. It is also suspected that she is pregnant with Zar Boaz's son, the heir to the throne . . .

Though Lazar has made it out of the desert, his heroics in bringing the Valide and Grand Vizier to safety have cost him. Afflicted with the drezden illness that befalls him when he is weak, he is too sick to move from his bed, when help comes from an unexpected source . . .

Zar Boaz finds himself trapped by both his heart and his head. Though he can think of nothing but Ana, imprisoned in the desert, his country is on the brink of war and his Spur is helpless. Hatching a daring plan, he calls for Percheron's strongest to make one more pilgrimage into the desert, even as warships threaten Percheron's harbor, and the Goddess reaches the crest of her ascent, throwing all parties—mortal and divine—into a perilous battle for their hearts, their lives, and their souls.

HarperCollins; October 2009
576 pages; ISBN 9780061861000
Read online, or download in secure EPUB
Title: Goddess
Author: Fiona McIntosh

Chapter One

Herezah slapped away the ministrations of her slave. "Stop fussing! It's hot enough without your feverish activity."

The attendant was saved further criticism by the arrival of an Elim, who bowed. "Valide."

"What?" Herezah's brow creased with annoyance. "Can you not see I have taken to my bed?"

Annoyingly calm, the man simply blinked. "Grand Master Salmeo wishes to see you, Valide. May I show him in?"

"Oh, do what you will. It's like the bazaar here today anyway. I can see that I shall have no peace."

The Elim withdrew and moments later the doorway was filled amply by the chief eunuch, giving his best gap-toothed smile. "Valide," he began, bowing more extravagantly than his size could comfortably permit. He'd brought her delicate ferlise blooms, fragile bells in the palest of mauves and pinks found only in the alpine regions of the very far north.

She couldn't imagine how he'd amassed so many. And they were beautiful but she wasn't going to let the fat eunuch know how exquisite she considered them. Instead the Valide sniffed. "I thought you'd forgotten me."

"How can you say that, Majesty?" Salmeo said in a tone of feigned injury. He handed the flowers to Elza, who arrived on cue, bobbed a curtsy, and hurried off to find a vase. "I have visited no fewer than a dozen occasions and have been turned away on most."

"I am in pain. Does no one realize that? And this heat! It cannot be summer already."

"The weather is curious for sure. And we do appreciate your pain, Majesty, but the physics need to understand the extent of it. They are not keen to reduce your discomfort with their herbs and medicines until they are sure of what is happening within."

"Because they are cruel!" she hurled at him.

"Because you are too precious to risk, Highness," he soothed. "Their methods are sometimes challenging, I grant you, but you must persist and let them take care of you in the way they know best."

She heard the soft lisp and gave him a scornful glance. "I returned with a broken ankle, Salmeo. It can't be that hard for the physics to work out."

"Nevertheless, Majesty," he said, a finger raised to suggest caution. He smiled again, his chins quivering. "You seem"—he paused, frowning, searching for the right word—"restless."

She knew it to be true; her ankle was not so troublesome anymore—although it did still hurt—but she wasn't going to allow Salmeo any sense of smugness at knowing her so well. "Restless? Do I?"

"Is there anything I can do for you, Valide?"

"You can turn down the sun's heat, you can mend my ankle, you can tell me about my son—who I haven't seen in days—or you can stop second-guessing my moods. I don't mind which you pick."

Salmeo's bright demeanor dimmed slightly but he ignored her sarcasm, smoothing out the folds of his pale silks as he replied. "Ah, the Zar is very busy with war preparations, Majesty. I am told he eats little, his temper is short, and his periods of wanting to be alone are long and frequent."

"What is the new estimation on timing?"

"The doomsayers would have us believe that war has begun, but the word on the streets is that the Galinsean fleet is not yet close to our waters, Majesty. The fishermen are keeping the palace well briefed . . . but it can't be long before enemy ships return."

"When was the last time you saw Boaz?"

Salmeo shrugged. "Not in more than a week. He is preoccupied, has not called upon anyone at the harem, of course."

"That shouldn't surprise you, eunuch."

"Well, your news that Ana is likely pregnant is playing heavily on his mind, I suspect, from what the Elim tell me, although the looming war must be taking a hard toll also. He is, of course, assuming she is still alive."

Herezah nodded, tapping an elegantly buffed nail against her teeth in thought. "She has the lives of a cat, that girl. And he probably misses that wretched dwarf as much as anything else. Still no word of the freak's whereabouts?" The huge man shook his head. "And the Grand Vizier? Is he fully recovered now?"

"He was not injured, as you know, Valide," Salmeo replied pointedly, before softening his tone. "He is working closely with the Zar, as I understand it. Has recently been away, I gather."

"Well, I wish to speak with him," she said, pouring herself a glass of chilled minted tea and yawning, feigning distraction as she waved a hand carelessly. "Set it up, would you." She phrased her next question carefully, keeping her voice disinterested and remote. "And what news of Lazar?"

"None at all, Majesty."

"But surely the palace needs his input now more than ever?"

"From what my sources tell me, the Spur refuses to emerge from his house."

"What, still?"

"He is sickening, I hear, although I cannot substantiate this."

"Well, you certainly are the bringer of glad tidings, Salmeo. Not a single positive item have you given me."

"I have learned not to insult Your Majesty with idle gossip. I have lived long enough beside you to know that the running of the realm is your only true interest."

She eyed him with a look that combined contempt for and amusement at his slippery manner. "Help me up, Salmeo, I'm going out."

"Out? Valide, you are in no fit state."

"Oh, tosh! I'm bored. I can be in pain outside the palace just as easily as I hurt inside its walls and I cannot sit around and do nothing."

"But what do you plan to do?"

"I'm going shopping," she lied. "Now leave me and go make preparations for the Elim to take me where I wish. And send in Elza. She has no mistress for the time being—she can help me ready myself."

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