Sar scrambled around the corner and ran for the pylons that marked the temple’s inner sanctum, but he was too late, because Dor was there. The enormous man stood at the threshold looking in, broad back like a sheer wooden barrier between Sar and the chambers of the clerical council. The smaller man made a move to back away, avoid the warlord’s wrath, but the slightest pivot of the shorn head told him that was impossible, he had been detected.
“My cousin,” Dor said. In the old, old halls his already booming voice had an extra layer of resonance. “You’re still here? Don’t you have flowers to tend to?”
He took a step forward, over the barrier that someone like him should not have been able to cross. Lamps along the walls picked out a network of battle scars across his shoulders and back, one diagonal over the crown of his head. Sar had been present when he received that one.
Failing to warn the clerics, Sar’s alternate plan had been to simply escape: and it looked as though Dor would let him. The warlord had no army with him, only a few loyal hangers-on who could not be waiting at every door and window and sluice. But the minder of the temple gardens struggled to move his feet, to pull back away from the corner and seek an exit. It was a familiar paralysis.
His cousin did not take another step, not yet. He inhaled deeply in the air on the other side of the pylons, testing if it was better air that the clergy was allowed to breathe. Or, maybe, trying to detect some scent of holiness. The pylons were shaped in images of the elephant- and rhinoceros-headed gods of earthly and unearthly wisdom. Dor ran his fingers down the laboriously hand-abraded jade trunk on his right.
“What do you think you’re doing, cousin?” he said. “Do you think I’m here for you? Do you think this has anything to do with you?”
Of course it had something to do with Sar. The gardener raised his chin, and prepared to speak.
“Do you think,” Dor continued. “that I bear any more resentment? That I’ve not forgiven you?”
He turned around, finally, and put an end to any attempt Sar might make to speak. It was the first time Sar had seen his cousin’s face in many years. Lined, now. Around the mouth and eyes. The gardener had heard about the lash marks that split his right cheek, chin, and chest, and the pronounced acid burn that had turned one eye a dead white and been the old king’s farewell. Those were all just newer than the one across his scalp, and Sar had not been present for them.
“Maybe,” lips spread into a smile, a reminder of how many of those lines were dug in moments of cruel mirth. “Maybe you’re right.”
His thick sandals carried him back across the threshold, to where his powerless cousin seethed. The metal plate at his gut shone blindingly from the nine gems.
Sar had his shears with him. He held them out, blades open, but Dor took them easily in the palm of one hand, and though they cut into flesh, fingers closed over them, bent the iron easily out of shape, and wrenched them away from the gardener.
“I have a lot to thank you for,” Dor threw the ruined tool away and took another step closer. “I’ve had some time now to think. To get closer to my god and his brothers. Many years, in fact. A long time to learn his ways and his mind. That might not have been possible, if you had killed the traitors as you were ordered.”
Sar set his jaw. Dor was more than head and shoulders taller, and far wider, and though once the gardener had been every bit as mighty a warrior, far, far stronger. Colorful shadows from the nine gems played over the rough, bitterly gleeful face that peered down. He had been standing that way over a browbeaten slave when the escaped traitor’s sickle had risen over his head and sliced. Fallen, shocked and bleeding to the earth, while his soldiers – a young Sar included – fell on the assassin and his supporters, who would have been dead the night before had Sar not found himself unable to execute them. And then the armies of the king, whom the warlord had been so close to deposing, had arrived.
“I think, though,” Dor said. “that I should have preferred to have taken my kingdom then, anyway, and come to know my god later.”
He struck Sar with his bleeding fist, and the one blow was enough to drive the gardener to the ground. Another bounced the back of his head off the floor and made him dizzy. But there were no more after that. When his old fighter’s wits helped return his senses to him, Sar saw his cousin standing over him, hands loose.
“Then,” he gasped, as though this miniscule effort had been difficult for him. “you run to the false gods, the king’s gods. You live and work in their highest temple. I think, maybe, it does no good for you to die. Not before you see your holy men put down first.”
Dor turned again, and disappeared into the deeper halls beyond the pylons. Sar could have gotten to his feet, staggered forward, maybe called out a warning. But he had just a moment to realize: he had come from the gardens. He was dirty. He could not enter the holiest sanctum anyway.