Cobweb empire, p.1
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       Cobweb Empire, p.1

           Vera Nazarian
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Cobweb Empire


  “... Nazarian writes clean and true prose ...”

  —Publishers Weekly

  COBWEB EMPIRE

  (Cobweb Bride Trilogy: Book Two)

  Vera Nazarian

  Published by Norilana Books at Smashwords

  Copyright © 2013 by Vera Nazarian

  Cover Art Details:

  “Mysteriarch” by Sir George Frampton, 1892; “Corinthe, a Seated Female Nude” by Jean-Leon Gerome (1824-1904); “Palazzo Labia Venice” by Antonietta Brandeis (1949-); “Main Street in Samarkand from the Top of the Citadel, Early Morning” by Vasily Vereshchagin, 1869-70; “Swinton Park Tree by Night” by Andy Beecroft (geograph.org.uk), January 14, 2007; “Tree silhouetted in radiation fog” by Andy Waddington (geograph.org.uk), November 22, 2005; “Star-Forming Region LH 95 in the Large Magellanic Cloud,” Credit: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)-ESA/Hubble Collaboration, Acknowledgment: D. Gouliermis (Max Planck Institute for Astronomy, Heidelberg).

  Interior Illustration:

  “Map of the Realm and the Domain,” Copyright © 2013 by Vera Nazarian.

  Cover Design Copyright © 2013 by Vera Nazarian

  Ebook Edition

  September 25, 2013

  Discover other titles by Vera Nazarian at

  http://www.smashwords.com/profile/view/Norilana

  Epub Format ISBN:

  ISBN-13: 978-1-60762-124-9

  ISBN-10: 1-60762-124-X

  This book is a work of fiction. All characters, names, locations, and events portrayed in this book are fictional or used in an imaginary manner to entertain, and any resemblance to any real people, situations, or incidents is purely coincidental.

  All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of the copyright owner.

  Smashwords Edition License Notes

  This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each person you share it with. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Smashwords.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

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  Table of Contents

  Map of the Realm and the Domain

  Dedication

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16

  Chapter 17

  Chapter 18

  Chapter 19

  Chapter 20

  Chapter 21

  Chapter 22

  Author’s Note: Imaginary History, Geography, Weather, and Warfare

  List of Characters

  Other Books by Vera Nazarian

  About the Author

  Acknowledgements

  Map of the Realm and the Domain

  Dedication

  For all those who have gone before . . .

  Drink once, and forget everything you know,

  Drink twice, remember everything you knew,

  Drink for the third time and you die.

  COBWEB EMPIRE

  Cobweb Bride Trilogy

  Book Two

  Vera Nazarian

  Chapter 1

  Before the night was over, everyone in the village of Oarclaven knew that Percy Ayren had killed her grandmother.

  It was more than just the sin of murder that had them in an uproar. Rather, in a world suspended—a world where death had stopped and no one could die—it was a terrible miracle.

  First, in the early evening twilight, the neighbors heard the sound of many horses approaching, the crunching snow, and the dull ringing of plate armor and chain mail. Metal parts scraped and clanged as a knight and his men-at-arms, followed by a freight cart, came to a halt before the decrepit Ayren house, of all places. Someone went up their porch—a poor excuse for one, just a few snow-dusted wooden planks raised up to create a step barrier and keep the weather out. The door opened and closed a few times. Next came a lengthy pause of about a quarter of an hour, while the nearest neighbors continued to stare through slits in shutters, overwhelmed with curiosity at such an unheard-of sight.

  And then there was a sudden anguished female cry—no doubt Niobea, the Ayren wife was wailing—followed by more shouts and commotion. The men-at-arms waiting outside stirred, but no one made any move to enter. Not even the great knight himself—he who was clad in black armor and seated atop the largest soot-black warhorse the villagers had ever seen. He merely observed, his helmed head barely turned in the direction of the house with the poorly thatched roof.

  At last the door flew open and out came Percy—yes, the neighbors were certain it was she, the middle daughter of the house, as the hearth-light from within revealed her face and stocky figure. Percy came tearing down the porch, followed by her mother, Niobea, clutching a woolen shawl and screaming after her. In their wake came Alann, her father, and the other two daughters, everyone speaking all at once, and the two girls starting to bawl outright.

  “Get out! Get out! Begone from this house, you who are of the devil, and no daughter of mine!” Niobea screamed, between bouts of weeping, like a madwoman.

  “Wait!” Alann interjected, his own face stricken. “Stop this instant, silence, goddamit, woman! Persephone, come back! You listen here—”

  “Murderer!” ranted Niobea.

  In that moment Percy stopped a few steps from the porch, breathing hard, and turned around to look at her mother. The girl was bareheaded in the cold, her poor coat unlaced, her feet hastily shod in the wraparound woolen shoes that had not even had a chance to dry off. And the gawking neighbors realized that she had just returned home from having gone to be a Cobweb Bride together with half the young women of the Kingdom and the Realm.

  She had returned, but obviously, something terrible had happened.

  “Daughter, wait!” Alann spoke, looking at her. “You don’t have to go, not if I say so.”

  “I am sorry, father—mother,” Percy said loudly, and none of her family or the neighbors had ever heard her speak this way. Her voice was strong and resonant and cold like the evening air, and it seemed to cut like a knife . . . until it broke momentarily as Percy choked on a sob. “I am so sorry. But it had to be done. Gran was suffering. I could not have her suffer any more. Not like that. . . . And neither could you—you know it is so!”

  “Is that why you came back?” Patty, her youngest sister sniffled and wiped her nose and cheeks with the back of her hand. “To help Gran move on? How—how did you do it?”

  At that point most of the neighbors started to come out of their houses, no longer concerned with the soldiers in the street, only with the possibility of a miracle. . . .

  And the black knight, who had been watching silently up to that point, spoke in a soft but powerful baritone. “What has happened, girl? Has anyone harmed you in there?”

  “Harmed her?” Niobea shrilled, holding on to the door
way and barely standing upright. She was a tall woman, ordinarily rather stiff and proud, and it was strange for anyone who knew her to see her thus, broken and shuddering, overwhelmed by a complex mixture of terror and grief. It had to be this onslaught of emotion that somehow made her forget herself and carry on like a shameless madwoman before a knight of the Realm. “She came back and brought death with her! She did—whatever ungodly witchcraft she did, to her poor ill grandmother—and it has killed her!”

  “What?” the knight said, while a multitude of troubled voices swelled all around, in flutters of fear and breath curling with vapor on the icy wind. “How is that possible? Or do you mean to say she has dealt this grandmother of hers a mortal blow?”

  “I will not ask who you are, My Lord, or what is happening that you come to be here,” spoke up Alann Ayren—somewhat more in control of himself than Niobea, and thus cautious—and fully aware of the strange honor paid to his impoverished family and hovel by the presence and company of the grand knight. “But my mother lies dead in my house, right now. Not dying, not in that terrible halfway place between mortal illness and actual death, but gone entirely. Bethesia Ayren is dead and gone in the old way, the way it used to be before death stopped.”

  Waves of voices fluttered around them, growing louder, moving from house to house. Across the street Uncle Roald, their neighbor, thunderously cleared his throat and milled on his own porch, while his wife whispered and looked over his shoulder from their opened door.

  “Percy?” said the knight. “Is this true?”

  There were many stares then, as Alann, Niobea, the two other Ayren girls, and indeed the entire neighborhood, took in the unbelievable notion that the lofty knight not only knew of the existence of Percy Ayren, but he called her by her given name.

  “Yes.” Percy replied quietly in a steady voice, not looking at him, but continuing to stare at the doorway where her parents stood.

  “But how? What happened?”

  “I—don’t know. I touched her and then—”

  “And then you killed her!” Niobea cried.

  “Enough, woman!” Alann exclaimed. “If you do not shut your mouth now, I will—”

  “You will do what, husband? Your daughter has brought evil to this house! Your mother is dead!”

  “Yes, and blessed be!” Alann looked at his wife. And his eyes—oh, his eyes were terrible and resigned and triumphant.

  Niobea saw his expression, and her legs nearly buckled underneath her. She now held on to the doorway with both trembling hands, dropping the shawl from the crook of her arm to the flimsy old wooden planks that constituted their porch, covered with a fine layer of fresh snow. “What? You mean that you approve of this deviltry underneath your own roof, Alann Ayren?”

  Alann took a deep breath of ice air. “Call it what you will,” he said. “But my mother is at peace now, and suffers no longer. If that is deviltry, then so be it.”

  “What? At peace, you say?” Niobea took a deep breath also, and began loudly. “And how in blessed Heaven do you know that she’s at peace? For all we know, she may now be condemned to eternal damnation, all because of our daughter’s tainted hands, a girl who’s been touched by death—”

  “Why not have the priest come over and judge for himself if there is indeed ungodly taint here, woman!”

  “And so he should! Blessed is your mother that she had at least received the Last Rites some days ago, else it would be unbearable for her poor soul, likely burning in the flames, and her poor body, to wait thus in the unholy darkness. You will go for Father Dibue, first thing in the morrow, while she lies thus with us, growing cold in the night—”

  “And you think, wife, I don’t know that—”

  “Obviously you don’t know what your daughter has done, else you would not be so calm about it—”

  “She is your daughter too, as much as she is mine! She is our child, and this thing that happened is a miracle—”

  They could have gone on in this manner for endless painful moments, but Percy herself interrupted. “I am leaving,” she said, and everyone heard her, and again the street was plunged into silence. It was true dark now, and except for the faint lights coming from parted window shutters and doorways, there was no illumination. The moon had not risen yet, and no one along the street dared to bring out and light a torch. Their faces were plunged in deep shadow, silhouettes backlit by hearth fires. Eyes glittered. . . .

  “Did you hear me, mother? No need to speak of me at all, I had only come back for a moment, not to stay, but to see you all, and to say goodbye. It is true, I hoped to stay overnight, but—I am going now. Going south, and not coming back again . . . at least not for a long time.”

  Alann turned to her, his face twisting with pain. “Child! What are you saying? Do not let your mother’s muddled anger drive you away! This is your home, always! You know that! And whatever you did to Gran, it is for the best! Not an unholy thing, I say, but rather the opposite! She was indeed suffering, and she wanted, needed to pass on—”

  “I know,” Percy said gently. “But I have to go, Pa. There is something I must do.” And then she looked at the knight and his men, and back at her parents. “It is getting late, and if it is all right with you, my father, I will sleep in the barn, for this night only. Don’t worry, mother, I will not enter the house. But you must offer proper hospitality to this knight, the Lord Beltain Chidair—”

  At the mention of the name, everyone erupted. Chidair was the surname of the enemy; the Dukedom of Chidair bordered on the Dukedom of Goraque, which was where Oarclaven was situated, and the two were chronically at war. And furthermore, only a few days ago—indeed, on the very day that death had stopped—they had just had a great skirmish, their forces meeting, battling it out on the frozen surface of Lake Merlait, the two Dukes and their armies, Ian Chidair and Vitalio Goraque. So, what was a high-ranking Chidair knight doing here in Goraque lands? Wasn’t there a truce between them, at least for the duration of the unnatural cessation of death?

  “No need. I will not impose on your hospitality,” the knight spoke loudly, over the tumult. “I am here with no intent to harm, merely passing through this village, bound by common truce with your own Duke. And your daughter, Percy, is traveling with me. She is hereby under my protection.”

  “My Lord,” Alann spoke, taking in this astounding information with an unreadable face, and barely inclining his head, while Niobea bowed her head more deeply. “Of course you are welcome to this house and my own bed. Forgive me, but we do not have much in the way of comfort that you might be accustomed to, nor regular visitors.”

  “Comfort is a luxury. We have our own supplies and will make camp here. The barn looks to be adequate for our needs, considering we were planning to spend the night under the stars.”

  Niobea must have finally found reason. “Oh! My—My Lord,” she began to stammer. “If I can serve you in any way—”

  But from thereon the knight ignored the Ayrens, master and mistress both, and signaled his men-at-arms. They started dismounting, and there was much industry, and unpacking of items, while horses were led off the road and toward the back of the small Ayren property, and nearer to the roomy but somewhat drafty barn, occupied at present by the single Ayren horse.

  Soon, the only thing remaining on the street in front of the house was a large cart. It was hitched to an oversized, pale draft horse, and there were several people, mostly girls, huddled inside. Percy made her way toward it, and, as her family stared in surprise, she spryly got up on the driver’s seat and then with a sure hand untied the reins and lightly snapped them, accompanied with a “Whoa, Betsy!”

  Next thing they knew, the cart and its occupants turned into the Ayren backyard, and Percy fearlessly guided the very large animal past their small picket fencing, and to the back, near the old elm tree.

  Alann turned to Niobea, with a look of stunned loss as to what to do next. Niobea’s face was no less befuddled. The good thing was, she seemed to have forg
otten for the moment what unnatural thing her daughter Persephone had done. Forgotten that her mother-in-law was lying dead indoors; that there was no more rhythmic endless sound of a death rattle filling the house. . . .

  “Ma?” the youngest Ayren daughter Patty said. “Should I heat up some water for tea? I dunno if we have enough tea for so many people, but I think we might need to use the really big kettle—”

  Percy was cold. It was more than the normal chill of evening, but a cold that had come from her own self, had risen in the pit of her belly and seeped into her bones from the inside out, immobilizing her, and making her sluggish.

  Even now she moved mechanically and did things as though she were not piloting her own body, but someone else—someone else was pulling Betsy’s reins, and maneuvering the cart, and then coming to a full stop near the barn where the soldiers had already started to make camp.

  Someone else got down from the driver’s seat; someone else adjusted her listless hair falling around her bare forehead, where in moments sweat had turned to ice. . . . Where was that woolen shawl now?

  Oh, it was back in the house. She had come in through the front door and had taken it off carefully and proudly, and handed it back to her mother. Then, she—no, someone else—went to her grandmother’s bedside, and did something—

 

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