Sara Douglass
Starman: Book Three of the Axis Trilogy

And, of course, the fifteen Alaunt, who lolled about on the deck and snapped at the waves when they dared splash too close.

Sometimes Azhure found herself listening to the rhythmic slap of waves against the ship and, lulled half to sleep, dreaming of strange shores of rippling sands and rocky beaches.

Rivkah stayed behind in Carlon, serving as the royal presence, although Azhure continued to attend most matters of administration in morning and evening sessions held in the Seal Hope’s main cabin. Icarii messengers brought what she needed in the way of documents and information from the mainland.

Stars, she now thought in some exasperation, I cannot wait to discover what I can on the Isle of Mist and Memory, drop these babies, and rejoin Axis as soon as possible. Although she could feel a faint pull at her soul with each breath that Axis took – perhaps a reverberation through the Star Dance – Azhure had heard very little from him in the past month. Reports drifted down haphazardly, and all they reported was that Axis led his army north, north, north. Azhure supposed Axis must be well into the province by now, and a shiver of fear passed through her. Live, Axis! Live! Believe in yourself enough to live for me!

StarDrifter turned from the bow and strode back to where Azhure and Ysgryff sat under a canvas canopy.

“Ysgryff. How much further?”

Ysgryff restrained a smile. “We cannot be far, StarDrifter. Really, why don’t you leave us earth-bound creatures and wing your way there?”

StarDrifter glanced at Azhure. “No. No, Ysgryff, I will stay with Azhure. I promised Axis.”

Azhure narrowed her eyes. Exactly what had he promised Axis? StarDrifter had behaved with perfect decorum since Axis had departed. Azhure knew it must have been hard for him, for he now spent many hours with her each day, either singing gently to the babies within her or to Caelum. Yet not once had she felt his touch or his eyes to hold anything but restraint, not once had his manners and conversation descended from the heights of good manners and civility.

It was not like StarDrifter at all. Not given the depths of his desires. Azhure wondered if it was her pregnancy that kept StarDrifter at a distance. Maybe, once she was unencumbered of Axis’ children …

The soft beat of wings broke her thoughts and she sat up in her chair as an Icarii scout landed gently on the deck.

He bowed to Azhure. “Enchantress, there is an Icarii approaching from the south.”

“From the Island!” StarDrifter said. “Who? Did you see who it was?”

The scout shook his head. “No, StarDrifter. The Icarii is still too far away.”

“Thank you,” Azhure said, inclining her head, then smiled at StarDrifter as the scout lifted off. “Peace, StarDrifter. We will find out soon enough.”

But even Azhure could not keep her excitement down, and after a few minutes she struggled to stand up, finally taking StarDrifter’s hand and letting him pull her to her feet.

“Is it …?” she began, leaning on the railing and straining her eyes to the southern skies where she could just see a black shape emerging from the haze. “Do you think it might be …?”

“FreeFall!” StarDrifter shouted and, unable to restrain himself any longer, launched into the air.

Within minutes, FreeFall and StarDrifter had alighted on the deck, the two embracing fiercely before FreeFall turned to Azhure.

“Azhure!” he laughed, hugging her briefly. “You are enormous! Do you carry the entire Icarii nation within you?”

“Sometimes it feels like it.” Azhure grinned. “Are you well?”

“Ah, Azhure.” Wonderment infused FreeFall’s face, softening his violet eyes so that they seemed as blue as the surrounding sea. “I cannot tell you how well! I have seen wonders and mysteries before now, but never such mysteries as I have found on the Island of Mist and Memory.”

Azhure stared at him. For a man who had died and who had walked the rivers of death before resuming life in the form of an eagle, the mysteries of the Island must be wondrous indeed to captivate him so.

“And EvenSong?” she asked.

“She is even better than I, except daily her temper has grown worse with her impatience to see you again.”

StarDrifter shifted restlessly. “Tell me,” he said. “Tell me.”

FreeFall glanced at his uncle. “The mysteries of the island will wait another few hours. Words will not describe what should be seen for one’s self. Look …” He put his arm about what was left of Azhure’s waist and turned her to gaze over the railing. “Look.”

Faint, so faint Azhure thought it was her imagination, a grey-green line smudged the distant horizon.

“The Island of Mist and Memory,” FreeFall said.

For a thousand years the Island of Mist and Memory had been known to the Acharites as Pirates’ Nest. For a thousand years the pirates had sallied forth from their island fortress to raid, plunder and burn, and the Barons of Nor, whose task it was to eradicate the pirates from the Sea of Tyrre, had wrung their hands and claimed that the pirates were too vicious and too numerous to do anything about. For a thousand years Pirates’ Nest had held onto its secrets, and both pirates and Barons of Nor had cooperated in keeping it that way.

Now the Icarii were returning to claim their island, to worship in the Temple of the Stars and to revere and honour the other, more sacred and far more secret, sites of the island.

But the Island of Mist and Memory held even more secrets than the Icarii counted on.

The Seal Hope put into the northern port of Pirates’ Town so late in the afternoon that the decision was taken to spend the night in the town before travelling to the Temple complex in the morning.

Azhure had been aghast at the size of the island. She had vaguely expected it to be small, a few houses for the pirates, a few more for the priestesses of the Order of the Stars, and the Temple itself, but as they had sailed towards it she saw that it was massive.

“It stretches for ten leagues north to south,” FreeFall said softly, moving to her side as the Seal Hope docked, “and six east to west. See that peak rising to the south?”

Azhure nodded. The entire island sloped towards the mountain.

“It is called Temple Mount, and it rises almost three thousand paces from the sea. On its plateau rests the complex of the Temple of the Stars.”

“My mother lived there,” Azhure whispered, “and that is where. I was conceived.”

“Yes,” FreeFall said, “that is where you were conceived, Azhure.”

Azhure turned to him. “Have you told the priestesses I am coming? Have you told them who I am?”

FreeFall hesitated. “No. No, I have not. I thought that was for you to do.”

“What do the priestesses know, FreeFall?” StarDrifter asked.

“They know only that the Prophecy walks, that the StarMan has reclaimed Tencendor, and that the Icarii will shortly return to re-light the Temple of the Stars. EvenSong and I have not told them much, and they have not asked questions. They have waited for a thousand years, and no doubt feel a few more days or weeks will not kill them.”

“StarDrifter,” Azhure said, “there is no need for you to stay with me tonight. Ysgryff is here, and numerous servants. We will travel to Temple Mount in the morning. You could fly there tonight with FreeFall.”

“No.” Curiously, StarDrifter seemed to have lost all his impatience now. “No, Azhure. I promised Axis that I would look after you. We will all reach Temple Mount soon enough.”

The port of Pirates’ Town was situated in a narrow harbour that penetrated deep into the northern shoreline of the island. Over fifteen-thousand pirates, their wives, children and numerous cats, dogs and chickens lived crammed into the town; the harbour was crowded with every type of sailing ship imaginable, some built from the forested slopes of the island, some purloined from distant seas and harbours.

The people seemed friendly enough, although their wild eyes, bright scarves and bristling daggers made Azhure hold Caelum close, and many smiled and waved at Ysgryff as he strode through the streets. The Baron found them comfortable accommodation in an inn close to the port, made certain Azhure was settled, then made arrangements for their journey to Temple Mount in the morning.

That night Azhure tossed restlessly, disturbed and irritated by the slightest noise or movement of her babies. Not a sound came from StarDrifter’s chamber next to hers in the inn, and she wondered that the Enchanter could sleep this soundly when he was so close to the mysterious Temple of the Stars that he had hungered after for so long.

Finally she fell into an uneasy slumber just as dawn stained the eastern sky, and as she did, she dreamed.

She stood in darkness, surrounded by the slap of waves and suspicious voices and prodding fingers.