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Scott Ciencin

The Night Parade

One

She hated the storms.

Staring out at the walled city of Arabel through the grand window of her private chambers, Myrmeen Lhal closed her eyes and listened as the rain beat a staccato rhythm against the thick glass. The sound should have been comforting; it reminded her of a nervous habit her father had possessed, drumming his fingers on the side of the lute he had played for passersby on the streets of Calimport. She could still picture him as he sat on the pavement, entertaining the rich from sunrise to sunset, their gold dropping into the plumed hat at his feet. Turning her thoughts from that image, Myrmeen forced herself to smile. Tonight she did not want to think about her early life. At thirty-four she was the ruler of the second largest city in Cormyr and there was no reason for her to give in to the sadness that awaited her in the past.

It had been the storm, of course. The haunting sounds of the rain had brought back moments that were better left forgotten. Better to concentrate on more pleasant memories, such as the young sculptor's touch as he had expertly worked her tender flesh for the past ten evenings, as if he were attempting to make her into one of his highly regarded works of art. Across the room lay a present that he had left for her: a bust of the ruler wearing her most wicked expression and little else. Behind her was the huge, round bed they had shared, topped with teal and black silk sheets that had been wrestled into unnatural formations by their efforts. On the floor lay a pile of black and gold pillows that had been tossed from the bed in a frenzy that continued to delight Myrmeen when she thought of it. The chamber was lined with several sculptures and paintings; many were abstract works of expression and all were joyous celebrations of life and love.

She clutched at the thin black sheath she wore as she hugged herself and sighed. Her life had turned out better than she had ever believed it would. She would not allow herself the ridiculous indulgence of self-pity. For as long as she was able, she would push away the growing realization that for all her wealth, for all the dreams she had made real, her life was hollow and empty.

'Myrmeen?'

The tall, beautiful, dark-haired woman turned from the window in surprise. A decade ago, when she had been a ranger operating under the Harpers' direct supervision, Myrmeen instantly would have been aware of the lean, pale-skinned man who stood next to her. The storm had distracted her, she told herself.

'Is something wrong?' he asked.

'Foolish thoughts,' she said in a failed effort to banish them. 'It's late, Evon. What do you need?'

Evon Stralana, Arabel's minister of defense, shifted uncomfortably. Myrmeen suddenly realized her state of near-undress. Out of respect for his more delicate and refined sensibilities, Myrmeen turned from the man as she retrieved a robe from beside her heated, ivory bath and slipped it on, tying the sash tightly around her small waist. Her generous figure was accentuated even more by the clinging silk robe. Stralana glanced at her long, beautiful legs, exposed by the slit at the side of the robe, then trained his gaze on her eyes and did not allow it to wander, though he would not have offended her if he had. Myrmeen restrained a smile.

'We have a prisoner who claims he must speak to you on an urgent matter. He murdered a man at the Black Mask Tavern. My guess is that he wants to plead for his life.'

'That's not unusual, Evon. But you generally don't come to me with such requests. Why is this man so special?'

Stralana's head tilted slightly to the side. 'He's something of a sight. A filthy man dressed in rags, with wild eyes and hair everywhere you look.' The immaculately groomed minister of defense wrinkled his nose in disgust. 'From the stench I rather doubt that he's bathed in months. But he had a message that I thought you should hear.'

'What did the vagrant say?'

'He said to tell you that the Night Parade is real.'

Myrmeen recoiled as if she had been struck.

'He said his name is-'

'Dak,' she interrupted.

'Yes. He said that you know him.'

'I knew him,' she said, correcting the thin man. 'Once. From the way you've described him, he doesn't sound much like the man I remember.'

Behind her, she could hear the whisper of the storm.

Crossing her arms over her breasts, Myrmeen set her face in a grim expression and narrowed her eyes. 'Have him cleaned up and brought to me.'

Why had it suddenly become so cold? she wondered.

'Here?' Stralana said, aghast. The pale, dark-haired man surveyed her opulent bedchambers.

'Hardly,' she said, her voice as cold and hard as her eyes had become. Bright yellow slivers floated in her deep blue eyes, ships of gold adrift on a sea with no stars. 'I want him brought to my private court. I'll meet you there in an hour.'

'Of course, Myrmeen,' he said sheepishly. 'My apologies.'

Stralana exited her chambers without another word. Myrmeen looked back to the window and gazed at the rooftops of Arabel as the rain streaked downward, then studied her own reflection in the glass. With the exception of the barest hint of lines around her eyes and mouth, her flesh had lost little of its soft, youthful appearance. Her strongly defined cheekbones, piercing eyes, full, blood-red lips, and flowing brunette hair served to better define her beauty. Her figure was generously proportioned, and she trained daily to stay in peak condition.

Myrmeen spun away from the window and sat down hard upon her bed. 'It's been ten years, Dak,' she whispered hoarsely. 'Why didn't you stay away?'

From somewhere far off, as if in reply, she heard a rumble. But it was only the storm.

Or so it seemed.

An hour later, Myrmeen waited in her private court, dressed in her ceremonial armor. A jewel-encrusted sword hung at her side. Her hair was tucked neatly within a shining silver headdress modeled after the legendary phoenix, and a host of red gems were embedded in the steel mesh that encased her trim body. The only flesh that was exposed was that of her face.

Stralana brought Dak into the room. The prisoner's ankles and wrists were secured by chains, and he moved in a halting fashion. Even hunched over, the man was imposing, standing close to six and a half feet. He was gaunt, his eyes bloodshot. His damp hair had been cut as if someone had placed a bowl over his head, then shaved. A series of nicks lined his face, causing Myrmeen to wonder if he fought whoever had been assigned the task of making him presentable. Still, the man was handsome, with jade green eyes, soft black hair, and strong, chiseled features, dressed in a simple white frock.

Dak laughed when he saw Myrmeen sitting upon her throne. Grinning, he raised his hand slightly, indicating her full battle regalia. 'A little extreme, don't you think, Flower?'

Myrmeen's expression revealed nothing as she ordered Stralana to leave them alone. In moments he was gone.

'Dak,' she said stiffly. 'It has been a long time.'

'The years have been kinder to you, Myrmeen.'

She advanced on him. 'You knew that Arabel was mine. You must have.'

'I knew. I've been here before. I've seen you at the ceremonies. You did not see me.'

'You bastard,' she said finally. 'How dare you mention the Night Parade?'

'I had to get your attention,' he said in a deep, gravelly voice. 'Besides, it's true. The monsters are real.'

Memories exploded unbidden in her mind. She thought of the first time she had heard the name of the Night

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