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Author: zamakhtar

Zamil Akhtar is an indie speculative fiction author based in Dubai, UAE, where he lives with his wife and pet rabbit. Of Pakistani-heritage, he grew up in the Middle East and moved to Western Massachusetts when he was thirteen, and his varied upbringing colors his fiction. He has a BBA in Marketing from the University of Massachusetts and an MA in International Relations from Johns Hopkins University. His loves are horror movies, HBO dramas, and video games.

GUNMETAL GODS | Chapter 2 | Micah

It was said the waters of the High Holy Sea flowed through the Archangel and fell upon the world from heaven. It was said that baptism in the water rebirthed a soul, cleansing it of sin and darkness. The priests never said how cold the water was or how it tasted like rust. It was “heavy water” born of angels’ blood and should not be ingested, but when being drowned, it was hard not to swallow mouthfuls.

“In the name of Imperator Heraclius — the Breath of the Archangel and Custodian of the High Holy Sea — lift your head,” the Ethos priest said. “And be reborn as Micah the Metal.”

That was my name now. I was born just Micah, the son of an innkeeper, who I’d watched cough bile as a lord’s hireling stabbed him six times in the belly. Why? Because that was the world. And now I was reborn in the name of the Archangel, into the same broken world, but this time I held the knife and aimed only for the deserving.

I didn’t even have to lift my head; the priest pulled my hair.

“I baptize you with heavy water and cleanse you of all sins, before the Archangel and the Twelve Holies.”

At the lakeshore, my army covered the horizon. Fifty thousand armored paladins watched the rebirth of their grandmaster.

The old priest grabbed my shoulders. “Do you believe in the Archangel and the Twelve he has appointed to guard the believers?”

“I do.”

“Do you reject the Fallen Angels and all their temptations?”

“I reject them.”

“Will you follow the will of your imperator, no matter where it leads?”

I hesitated, then said, “No matter where.”

Once the rite was over, I waded out of the water. Berrin, my second-in-command, handed me a loincloth, and I proceeded to the fire he’d prepared. I plucked a fig from a tree, sat at the fire, and enjoyed some warmth. Ah, how light it was to be a newborn — a blank parchment upon which holy script could be written.

“What’s it like to be Micah the Metal?” Berrin asked. He looked like a baby with those fat cheeks. But he was the first of my paladins and wore the black armor of our battalion as if it were molded onto him at birth. The red accents of the breastplate complemented the stray, ruddy hairs of his eyebrows, which now pointed downward in trepidation.

“Before I stepped into that water, my soul was covered in tar. And now, it’s sinless, shimmering like a star.” I spat a fig seed into the fire. “I don’t want it to darken ever again.” I raised my hands, palms up. “Berrin, will you help me be a good man?”

“My liege, you’re the best of us. That’s why you were given this honor.”

“No…I am no more deserving than any of you.” I pressed my eyes to shut out tears. “When the priest pushed me down, and the water surrounded me, I saw all that my hands had wrought.” Another image flashed of Miriam in the windowless room, screaming shrill from birthing pangs, surrounded by hateful one-eyed priests. How could I have left her there? “The things I’ve done…I should be flung into the deepest pit.”

“That heavy water washed it all away. This is your great day, my liege. Don’t sully it with melancholy.”

Berrin fidgeted and hid his hands behind his back. How unbearably standoffish. Yes, by being consecrated in the High Holy Sea, I was now equal to any lord, even the Imperator. But the last thing I wanted was for my men to think me superior. To see me like the villainous lords that had trodden upon them.

“It’s a great day for us all,” I said. “Any honor I’m given, I share with each of you. And Berrin…please don’t call me ‘liege.’ I’m not whipping you for wheat.”

“As you say, Grandmaster.”

“Much better.”

I devoured my fig, shrugged off the melancholy, and looked upon my men. They knelt as I passed: my holy swordsman, their longswords pounded from the metals of Mount Damav; my gunners, their matchlocks forged with dark steel melted from the Colossus of Dycondi; my alchemists and sappers, their faces burned and blackened by firebombs. The sailors I’d taken from the isles of Ejaz were not versed in our customs, but they too knelt with their heads high.

I climbed a rock on the shore. What a perfect place and day: pure blue sky, craggy green hills surrounding us, and the High Holy Sea’s turquoise water shimmering in the sunlight. I gazed upon my men, proud as ever. Every honor I’d earned was due to their steadfastness, piety, and loyalty. No commander could ask for a braver bunch; so how could I keep these blessings for myself? “At attention, one and all!”

They did as commanded and became a wall of black metal that stretched across the shore.

“The priest asked me three questions. I have three questions for you.”

A chill breeze blew through.

“Will you pledge your swords, your guns, and your fire to defend the true faith and all who follow it?”

Fifty thousand men shouted, “Yes, Grandmaster!”

“Will you follow me to the shores of our holy lands to take them back from the infidel?”

“Yes, Grandmaster!”

“Look to your left and your right. Look upon your brothers. Look at the fire of the Archangel burning in their eyes.”

My men did as commanded.

“Do you pledge to die before you turn your back on your brothers?”

“Yes, Grandmaster!”

“As I am Micah the Metal, so shall you all be reborn. You are my house, you are my kin, and each of you shall carry my honor.” I gazed at the Ethos priests standing beneath an olive tree in the distance. They were not going to like this. “Go, every one of you, and bathe in the waters of the High Holy Sea. Be reborn, warriors of the Faith, one and all!”

Fifty thousand men shed their armor and became naked as pealed pears. While my army swarmed the lake and bathed in its strange waters, I sat by the fire and endured protestations from the Ethos priests:

“They have not been permitted to enter the High Holy Sea!”

“Baptism is only for those chosen by the Imperator!”

“We honored you, and this is how you repay us? Bishop Yohannes will hear of this!”

I hated priests. I hated holy men who claimed to speak for the Archangel. When I wanted to talk to the Archangel, I opened my heart and prayed. I needed no intercessors. But I kept silent and let the priests protest. My fifty thousand could not be stopped.

One man who did not bathe in the water was my engineer, Jauz. Bald and bristled, he was from the Empire of Silk far in the northeast, where the ice melts and turns again into grassland. Though he and his engineers had taken to dressing in the paladin black and red, it seemed as foreign on him as armor on a pig. Jauz spent his nights burning incense and meditating before a jade idol. Because of his knowledge and skill, I tolerated it. At least he was not a worshipper of Lat, the wretched Fallen Angel and temptress.

“Compliments, Grandmaster.” Jauz stuck a knife into an apple and plucked out the seeds. Even how they ate fruit was strange. “I share the holy feeling of this day.”

“Are you not interested in the heavy water, Jauz?”

“It’s just water.”

“No, there’s something odd about it. It tastes like steel.”

“We had a lake like that back home. Dive deep enough, and you’ll find an underwater mountain full of iron and copper. You definitely shouldn’t drink it.”

“If that’s true, I wish we could mine it all.”

“Our emperor felt the same.” Jauz crunched a piece of apple. “He drained the entire lake.”

I couldn’t imagine the words he’d just said. “You can’t drain a lake. Where would the water go?”

“When you have a million men and the knowledge to mold the earth,” he tapped on his own head, “you can do anything. The Silk Emperor is, no doubt, the most powerful man alive.”

“Good thing the Empire of Silk is so far away.”

Jauz tossed the apple pit into a pile of ants. They swarmed it. “Good thing for you I’m not.”

Once I’d dressed, Jauz and I traveled by horseback to the docks. By the Archangel, Nixos was a paradise in an emerald sea. Were I a man who sought pleasantry, I’d settle here. But something more beautiful waited offshore: my five hundred ships. They filled the horizon.

“How much more time do you need?” I asked Jauz as we climbed off our horses.

My paladins had donned their work clothes. Some readied their carts to haul wood. Others took measurements of ship dimensions. Burly men heaved planks on their backs like oxen. Even on a holy day of rebirth, my men didn’t cease their righteous labors. I had to succeed, for them as much as myself. In the new world we would build, I pledged that each paladin would have his own fief and never endure a lord’s whip again. But for that we needed land, and the only land I’d not conquered lay east, defended by the sea walls of the holiest city on earth: Kostany.

Jauz brushed his bald head. “Modifying all the ships will take a moon.”

“Too long. The Shah’s spies must’ve sent word that we’re massing for an invasion. If we wait a whole moon, he’ll have double the men at his walls.”

We stopped at one of the ships on the dock. Work had completed on it, but all I noticed was the flatter angle of the hull. Jauz had explained how rebuilding the hull would increase upward pressure. This would allow a ship of a hundred men and thirty cannons to speed through the shallow strait that led to Kostany.

“Your men are not shipbuilders, and work like this takes time,” he said. “With the men we have to spare, we can do ten to fifteen ships a day. If you want the ships done faster, then we won’t have enough men to make guns and ammunition and armor and artillery and all the other things we need.”

“Finish in a fortnight.”

Jauz twirled his mustache, as if it were a crank by which he processed his thoughts. Were all engineers from the Silk Empire bald mustachios? “You know, I’ve studied the sea defenses of Kostany. Even with ships that can travel in shallow water, you won’t get through the seven sea walls. The Shrunken Strait is rather narrow. You can only confront each wall with seven or eight ships at a time, and they will endure fire from a few hundred cannons.”

“We have five hundred ships and the best sailors in the world. A shock attack on the sea walls would be unexpected.” Though the specifics still had to be drawn up, I had a gut ache the Sirmians would be unprepared. That if we got through the sea walls, we could easily scale the embankments that led to the Seat.

“You’d need a miracle to survive those walls,” Jauz said. “The Silk Emperor has a navy of two thousand and engineers more knowledgeable than me. Even he wouldn’t succeed. Our best course is to land at Demoskar, march inland, and put Kostany to siege from land.”

I’d imagined that scenario. The march from Demoskar to Kostany, dragging artillery, would take days. How many raids would we endure during that march? Though it was Crucian land, stolen by the infidels, we’d forgotten its secrets. The Sirmian horse archers would whittle us down without ever engaging in a real battle. By the time we reached the walls of Kostany, the zeal we’d gained from this holy day would be snuffed out by the realities of war. A siege could take years. To feed my army, we’d have to pillage the villages around the city, many of which still practiced the Ethos faith. That would turn the people against us and swell the Shah’s army. A protracted siege was not winnable.

“All five hundred ships should be ready to sail the Shrunken Strait,” I said, “in a fortnight.”

“Grandmaster, did those holy waters turn one man into two?”

“There are five thriving towns on this island, filled with the best shipbuilders on this side of the world. I will bring them to you.”

“How? With all the metal and ships we bought, we have no gold to pay them.”

“We won’t be paying them.”

Jauz grinned, turned his head sideways, and nodded. Did these heathens have to nod strangely, too? “And they say you have a kind soul.”

“Who says that?”

“Your men. You know, they would follow you off the edge of the earth.”

I shook my head. “We’re not going to the edge of the earth.” I pointed toward the ship-covered eastern horizon. “We’re going to Kostany.”

*

I ordered five legions to the seaside towns to bring back ten thousand shipbuilders by dawn’s light. We promised the guilds repayment, but the unwilling leaders wouldn’t press their own into my service. And time was too short for deliberation.

As the shipbuilders marched to my ships in chains, I cursed myself as assuredly as they must’ve cursed me. Dozens had died resisting, preferring death to working without pay. Instead of watching them herded like cattle, I returned to my flagship the Watersteel and begged the Archangel to forgive me for spilling Crucian blood. I’d just been cleansed of my sins and had now amassed many more. The weight of it crushed me, and I could scarcely lift my head off the moldy floorboards of my office. I trembled at the thought of the Archangel’s rage for each innocent Ethosian I’d hurt. How could I do this? How could I be like the lords we were trying to escape?

As birds chirped to welcome the morning, ten thousand men — including all the shipbuilding guilds of Nixos — were toiling to modify my ships.

Zosi, the youngest brother of my deceased wife, came to me as I watched the workers from a rocky hill. He’d led one of the five legions that I’d sent to round up the shipbuilders. Though barely a man, he had the valor of a veteran. His soft features betrayed his soft heart, which, from his sulking expression, seemed to be bleeding like mine.

“Is this truly right, brother?” he asked. It seemed he was growing a beard, probably to look older, but his almond-colored hairs were hardly noticeable on such fair skin. “The streets are filled with weeping children and wives praying for their husbands’ safe return. Can we bear this sin upon our backs and still expect the Archangel’s favor?” He couldn’t look in their direction, so heavy was his shame.

I too could scarcely watch. They were believers, and I forced them to labor ceaselessly. The noon sun blazed. It was a windless day, and the toil must have been crushing. The crack of whips striking flesh echoed through the hillside. I myself had suffered at the hands of more powerful men and could only empathize.

“Once Kostany is ours, I will reward them a thousand times over. I will open the vaults of the Shah and rain his treasures upon all who toiled for us.”

Zosi nodded and smiled. “I’ve never known you to be false with your words. But it’s not me you’ll have to convince.” His shoulders tensed up again. “An Ethos knight came to your flagship. You’ve been summoned.”

“By whom?”

“Bishop Yohannes.”

Of course. The people of Nixos were his flock, and I’d stolen them. I couldn’t refuse a summons from the second-highest bishop of the Ethos Church, so I made my way up the island’s second-tallest hill to the cathedral. The white brick structure had two purple spires, and stained-glass windows adorned every wall.

Inside stood a solid gold, towering likeness of the Archangel. Melted down, it could pay for five hundred more ships. Not that I would go that far. Perhaps I could be forgiven for acts against my fellow man, but to act against god himself? There’s only so much a man should do against his own soul, though it all be for the greater good.

The Bishop had me wait. That’s what pompous men do — waste the time of those they think are beneath them. He had me sitting in the pew for thirty minutes before he showed his gray face.

“Micah the Metal,” Bishop Yohannes said. His robe was gray too, as were his whiskers. “Welcome to the Holy Sepulcher of Benth the Apostle.” Even his voice lacked color. What was he hiding behind his plainness?

He led me to his office, a small room attached to the cathedral’s library. It was devoid of luxuries, with only a plate of figs on a stone desk and a well-stocked bookshelf.

“Have you heard the story of the angel Micah?” he said. “Your namesake.”

“Only a thousand times.”

“It is said that Micah’s wings—”

“Destroyed a star and burned the earth, then covered the sun for a hundred years until the earth froze. It did not warm again until all sinning ceased. While I love the scripture dearly, I didn’t come here to hymn with you.”

“Your time is precious to you. You want to be somewhere so fast that you can’t spare a moment to remember the Holies.” The Bishop grabbed a book from a nearby shelf and opened it: Angelsong, the chapter of Micah. “Recite it to me, from the first verse.”

I laughed so hard, the spot in my ribs that the Alanyan pirate had slammed with a hammer hurt. “I’m not one of your choir boys. And you’re right, my time is precious. Goodbye, Bishop.”

Before I could step out, the Bishop said, “Cross that threshold and I’ll declare you a heretic.”

That wiped off my smile. “You wouldn’t dare. Imperator Heraclius sent me here to receive your blessings.”

“You may be Imperator Heraclius’ favorite pet, but it would take several days for him to hear about my declaration. And in that time, well, what would happen to you?”

“Nothing at all. I have fifty thousand men on this island. How many do you have?”

The Bishop must have stared down dozens of upstarts with his beady eyes and thought I was another. “There are only two who hold a higher position than me in the Ethos Church — the Patriarch and the Imperator. As holy paladins, your men are devoted to the Archangel. You have willed them to commit acts against their own souls and the souls of fellow Crucians. How many already doubt you? And how many would refuse your orders once I proclaim you a heretic?”

“My men would never take your side.”

“We’ll see,” the Bishop said. “One thing I’m sure of — the work on your fleet will take far longer without the total loyalty of your men.”

I walked to his side of the desk. Bishop Yohannes stood and faced me, a filthy grin on his face.

“This is a holy land,” he said, “one of the few not defiled by infidels. And you came here and treated it like it was yours, and not the Archangel’s. You will answer for your crimes.”

I refused to blink and stared him down. “I’ve sent more men to hell than there are on your placid little island. Choose your words carefully, Bishop.”

“You are valued by Heraclius and thus beyond reproach.” He stopped grinning and looked away, his tone losing its sharpness. “But your soldiers are not. I must show my flock that I can administer the angels’ justice to those who have wronged them. I want the five commanders of the five legions you sent to our towns. They will face justice in your place.”

“You will never sit in judgment over my men. They will die on the battlefield, not in your noose.”

The Bishop closed the book of hymns and dusted it. “Well said. A true commander never forsakes his men.” He cleared his throat. “But true men forsake their commanders all the time. Loyalty is easy when you’re winning, but you cannot win against the Church. I will give you a recourse…”

I sat again and grabbed a fig. Rolled it in my hand. “Go on.”

“You’ve just returned from the isles of Ejaz, where they worship the accursed Lat.”

“Indeed. We sent many infidels to hell to be with her.”

“Ah, and you also took many infidels prisoner, didn’t you?”

He was referring to my shipmen, the Ejazi sailors. They stuck out with their eastern dress and manner, so of course the Bishop took notice.

“The Ejazi are the best sailors in the world,” I said. “Still, I executed thousands I’d captured. The two hundred I spared proclaimed their faith in the Archangel and now are our brothers. You can’t have them.”

The Bishop fingered the spine of the book. “I’m not talking about the sailors. I’m talking about your other prisoner.”

He couldn’t mean…I’d been careful to hide her from everyone other than my closest lieutenants. Though the Ejazi knew…but still…

I swallowed my dread and disappointment. “What other prisoner?” How bitter to think I’d been betrayed. Not just me, but every paladin who dreamed of freeing Kostany, who dreamed of being free.

The Bishop’s smile was so smug, I would have bashed it off his face were he not a holy man. “You thought I wouldn’t find out? To climb high in the Church, one must know where the limits of loyalty lie.”

“Who told you?”

“Just a lowly Ejazi — his limit was his large toe. I barely got a squeal from the small one.”

A righteous fire flared through me. “There’s nothing softer than the heart of a new believer. Are you so cruel?”

“Oh Micah, men don’t forsake their gods so easily. He screamed out for Lat when my inquisitor brought the knife to his throat.” The Bishop’s chuckle was as dirty as his grin. “Now give me the prisoner, and you and I will be as one.” He clasped his hands. “Of and for the Ethos.”

*

I didn’t give Bishop Yohannes an answer. He gave me one night. I had to know if this prisoner was of use or better on the Bishop’s pyre.

We kept the prisoner on my flagship, the Watersteel. I’d seized it from Alanyan pirates. Unlike Crucian galleons, it had a second deeper hold, which could only be accessed by a trap door and was meant for hiding gold from tax collectors. That’s where I kept the prisoner.

Save for my lantern, it was utterly dark. The mold-stench was stronger here than anywhere on the ship. The prisoner sat in the corner, chained by the ankle to an iron ball. She looked at me with eyes as green as the water surrounding the ship. Her face showed no fear, anger, or sadness, only an utter calm.

“How’ve you been passing the time?” I asked from across the room.

“In truth.”

Strange answer, perhaps she didn’t know our language well.

“I could make things better for you. A lot better. Would you like that?”

She stared in silence.

“Here’s my proposal,” I said. “Renounce your false goddess, proclaim faith in the Archangel, and join my crew. You’d be the only girl, but I’ll guarantee your safety and honor. The alternative is much worse. I give you to the Bishop and he burns you.”

“I will not renounce my goddess.”

“I am pledged to destroy her faith, as she is the enemy of my angel. You can’t worship Lat in my crew.”

I held up my lantern to see her better. There wasn’t a wrinkle on her face or a hair that wasn’t lustrous. She couldn’t be any older than eighteen — too innocent to be what the Ejazi insisted. I’d fallen for a few girls like her in my hometown, forever ago. The baker’s daughter. The butcher’s niece. The moneylender’s suspiciously young wife. They weren’t stunners — a bit pasty and narrow — but plenty for an innkeeper’s son.

“Understand this,” I said. “I will burn your shrines. Any who refuse the true faith, I will put to the sword.”

“Yes, you will do all that and more.” Her broad eyes stared straight ahead, as if looking at an invisible man behind me.

“We’re enemies unless you change your faith.”

“We are not enemies, who serve the Dreamer.”

Another language fumble? But she seemed to speak Crucian well enough.

“The Bishop will be pleased to have you,” I said. “Burning witches is his special joy.”

I grabbed the metal rung of the ladder.

“The seven sea walls of Kostany have never been breached in the history of the world. How will you cross with a thousand cannons raining death upon you?” Now it was obvious she spoke our language better than most foreigners. “Below Kostany, there are tunnels. I know the way through.”

“Tunnels? What tunnels?”

“Labyrinthos.”

“Impossible,” I scoffed. “Labyrinthos is the gate to hell. There’s no way through.”

She stood and walked toward me until her body recoiled from the weight of the iron ball. “Where did you find me?”

“In the titan mines of Ejaz,” I said. “You just appeared, as if a ghost.”

“Do you know where I was a day before?”

She pushed closer. The iron ball gave way. She lifted her legs and pulled it, as if it was air. I stopped myself from gaping in awe.

And then I could smell her breath. Like mint and ice and honey. She’d been locked in this dungeon for days and had little water for bathing. How did she smell so tempting?

“I was in Kostany, six hundred miles away,” she said. “In Labyrinthos.”

I sniggered. “I ought to spank you for fibbing like that.”

“I can lead you through the tunnels in hours. You’d appear beneath the Sublime Seat while the Shah and his armies sleep. You’ll butcher them and capture the sea walls. Once you sail your ships through the Shrunken Strait, Kostany will be yours.”

The Crucian flag flying over the city. Divine hymns bursting from our holiest chapel. It sounded too good to be true. But her words made the image of conquering Kostany so real.

“There is a cost,” she said. “One that heavy water cannot cleanse. Those who enter Labyrinthos don’t leave quite the same. Ahriyya touches them.”

Ahriyya was another false god, believed by Lat worshippers to be the embodiment of evil. As if sin wasn’t bad enough. As if you needed something evil to embody it. Yes, the Fallen Angels were evil too, but their sins were their own.

I laughed in her face. “Here’s how I know that my religion is true and yours false. You people take slaves. You believe a man can be owned. If anything is evil, it’s enslavement. It’s the sins we commit against each other that are evil, not some dark god who rules over hell.”

I swear she smirked, but it was so slight I might have imagined it. “And what is it you’re doing? How many men toil to modify your ships without a speck of silver?”

I winced in surprise. “Who told you about that?”

“I know a great many things, just as I know you’re not as unyielding as you pretend.”

“I am a man of faith. The first thing I’ll do when I sack Kostany is bring all its gold and silver back to this island to pay everyone who even so much as lifted a plank for me. And to the widows of those who fell in the heat, I’ll give a shipload of the Shah’s precious jewels.”

“You’ll have to conquer Kostany first. You won’t without me.”

The girl walked away, pulled the iron ball across the room as if it weighed nothing, and sat in the corner.

*

Two choices lay before me that night: give the Bishop the witch or my five lieutenants. I stayed huddled in the nook where I slept, in the office onboard my flagship, and covered my head with a sheet to drown out the world around me. I begged for guidance and deliverance from the one who heard all prayers. How could I ever entertain giving up my men? And yet, the girl’s promise of Kostany lingered in my heart. She had shown me a sign of her power by moving the iron ball, and I could not hand over such a promise to the Bishop and his inquisitors. By dawn, I was writhing on the floor, still covered in a sheet and crying for the Archangel’s forgiveness, because I knew what I had to do.

I called the five lieutenants who’d overseen the conscription of the workers to my office. I explained how the Bishop wanted them to face justice in my place but omitted mention of his offer to hand over the witch.

“We’re ready to die for you,” Berrin said at the head of the five. “Don’t hesitate because of your love for us. We know it’s the same love the Archangel has for mankind.”

I could only say, “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry, brother,” said cleareyed Zosi. The thought of him swinging at the noose made me tremble. “We’ve all just been baptized in waters that cleansed our sins. We’ll die with so few, and perhaps our books of good deeds will be weightier than our books of sin.”

“May the Archangel put all your sins in my book,” I said. “Let me carry them, as you have carried our holy cause.”

Orwo, my chief alchemist and sapper, put his burnt hand on my shoulder. “I don’t want to die. I’ve too many recipes to try. But I’d be honored to see the angels with this bunch.” The man had no eyebrows, yet his raw face was more beloved to me than that of the fairest maiden.

Edmar, who had as many scars as he had hairs, nodded in agreement. “You can name a bridge after me in Kostany. Nah, make it a bombard. The biggest bombard.” Each scar on his face was holier than a sacred hymn, for they were rent in service to the Archangel.

Only Aicard remained silent. Not just silent, but dismissive. He tugged at his blond goatee, a vain fashion that I hated. My chief spy changed his facial hair every week, and it seemed he was pondering what to grow next, as if he knew he would live.

“I will pray with my last words for your victory in Kostany.” Berrin smashed his fist on my desk, almost crushing my brass compass. “Crush the Shah beneath your boot and tell him my name!”

Just thinking about what the Bishop would do to him turned my blood to fire. I could not accept it. I was Micah the Metal — reborn in the heavy water of the High Holy Sea, servant of the Archangel and the Twelve Holies, conqueror of Pasgard, Sargosa, Pendurum, Dycondi, and Ejaz. In a decade of blood, I’d tripled the size of the Imperium. What had Bishop Yohannes achieved to presume authority over me?

I unsheathed my sword, threw it on the table, and looked into the unyielding eyes of my five loyal lieutenants. Men so brave that death was but a trifle. Nay, men so faithful they welcomed death.

“Today, it begins,” I said, “our war for a pure place, outside the grip of rotten priests and cruel lords. A land ruled by the Archangel and only for those faithful in word and heart.” I grabbed my sword and raised it in the air. “Onward!”

*

The six of us killed or maimed every Ethos knight guarding the Holy Sepulcher of Benth the Apostle, though Edmar did most of it. His throwing knives always found flesh, whether the underarm gap in the plate or the back of the knee. I was a big man with a big sword, so cutting down the knights was like rending armored children — not that I’d ever done such a thing.

Bishop Yohannes was counting tithes in his office when I burst in. I dragged him by the hair out of the cathedral, bound him with rope, and pulled him up the tallest hill. He’d built a pyre there — of all ways to deal death, burning was the most painful. Did he presume I’d give him the witch and so prepared a pyre? Or was he going to torch my men?

Either way, his fate was decided.

“You are lost, Micah the Metal,” he said as I tied him to the pyre. “I speak for the Archangel. Have you no sense?”

“Then seek his forgiveness. You’re about to be judged.”

Paladins gathered. My five lieutenants stayed close. Baby-faced Berrin, soft Zosi, Orwo, Edmar, unflinching Aicard — I would never again think to forsake them.

But there was another that I didn’t expect. My prisoner — the witch.

“Who freed you?” I asked as she strolled toward me, her expression plain as the clear sky.

She removed her yellow headscarf. Her pupils reflected sunshine as emeralds would.

The Bishop’s eyes bulged when he saw her. “This is the cursed woman! This is whom you are willing to kill for, Micah? Do you not know who she is? Do you not know what she is?”

“Whatever she is, she’s mine.”

“She’s a magus!” the Bishop shouted. “A sorceress with powers you cannot comprehend! You must kill her before she brings ruin to us all!”

Berrin whispered in my ear, “Grandmaster, this man is a bishop, consecrated in the name of the Archangel by both the Patriarch and Imperator Heraclius. He baptized the Imperator’s sons in the High Holy Sea with his own hands. Are you sure you want to do this?”

A good argument. Though I desired to see Bishop Yohannes burn and was furious toward his cruelty, he was still an Ethosian. I tempered my fury with mercy, as all good Ethosians should.

“I’ll give you a chance to save yourself, Bishop,” I said. “If you’re truly a believer, then answer me — in the story of Micah the angel, when he covers the sun with his wings, why does he let the righteous freeze along with the sinners?”

The Bishop spat in my face. “I will not debate theology with you, nor will I be judged by you!”

I wiped the slime off my eyebrow. “Because we’re all sinners.” I grabbed the flint from Berrin. “We all deserve a painful death. Ice cleansed the believers of sin in the time of the angel Micah. Now fire will cleanse yours.”

“You are a curse upon this land.” The Bishop began his final lamentations. “Imperator Heraclius will excommunicate you. He will declare you an enemy of the Faith, and all that you’ve done will be for naught!”

I struck the flint. It took a few tries to create fire with this wind.

“You’re right, Heraclius probably will,” I said. “I’ve committed grievous sins and will continue to. But all will be forgiven.”

The Bishop laughed for the last time. “How can you be so filled to the brim with hubris!? The Imperator will never forgive this! The Archangel will cast you into the deepest hell!”

I lit the pyre. Fire crackled up the wood. “I will be forgiven because I will give Imperator Heraclius what he wants the most. What he has wanted since he ascended the throne. I will give every Ethosian what they yearn for with raging hearts.”

The Bishop bleated like a dying goat as fire charred his feet. The stench of burnt flesh assaulted my nose.

“For the Archangel and all his worshippers,” I said, “I will cleanse the holiest land upon this earth. I will open Kostany. I will defeat the unbelievers and take the east back for the Ethos.”

I hoped the Bishop’s screams were heard through the island. I enjoyed each one. When it was over, I turned to the witch, who’d been watching without emotion.

“Who freed you?” I asked again.

“I was a prisoner because I wanted to be,” she said, her ashen hair messy in the breeze. “Now I’m free because I want to be.”

She gazed upon the Bishop’s charred remains. Her blemish-free, almost child-like face betrayed no feeling. Was death even a curiosity to her? More importantly, was it a curiosity to me?

I stared at my hands. What the hell had I done?

“He’s only the first,” the girl said.

“The first of what?”

She whispered in my ear, “The first of many you’ll kill for me.”

What a strange thing to say. No matter how pretty, a girl was not worth killing for, though she wasn’t just another girl from town.

My men began marching down the hill — silent, as if in mourning. Most of them admired priests, so they’d be shaken. I’d have to work hard to reaffirm the justice of our purpose.

The witch looked upon Nixos, her eyes shimmering like its emerald waters.

“You haven’t even told me your name.”

She came close and said, “You can call me Aschere.” And then she walked away.

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GUNMETAL GODS | Chapter 1 | Kevah

You don’t refuse a summons from the Shadow of God, even if you’re a veteran of twenty battles, with a body count longer than a sheikh’s beard. I’d left my anvil weeks ago and journeyed by carriage to Kostany, the Seat of the King of Kings. Finally through the gate, I recoiled at the fishy stench of the streets. But when it didn’t smell like fish, it smelled like home — like the city I’d grown up in and come to love and hate.

The walk through the grand bazaar left my ears ringing, such was the clamor of folks rushing to buy geometric carpets from Alanya, colorful Kashanese spices, and ghastly metal idols. The hollering and running and bumping awakened memories of clashing armies; already I wanted to flee to the countryside. To relieve the strain, I considered stopping at a coffeehouse to smoke cherry-flavored hookah and down a thimble of their strongest black, but I feared the Shah had waited long enough.

The Seat of the Sublime Palace was not the highest point in the city; that honor went to the Blue Domes. But the Seat sat on a hill and looked upon Kostany the way many imagined god would. It wore its green dome like a turban, and the rest of the palace shimmered like pearls under the midday sun.

The plaza was all fountains and gardens and white marble. Imposing spires overlooked the gates. They were watchtowers for the Shah’s loyal slave soldiers: the janissaries. But the young janissary guarding the gate in flashy yellow and rose-colored cottons didn’t believe I was the great hero Kevah, answering a summons from the Shah.

“You’re the janissary who jousted twelve armored cavaliers while on foot?” he asked, disbelief bulging from his eyes. “Were they drunk?”

“No, but when your mother sees what I’m going to do to you, she’ll drink herself into a stupor.” An old janissary taunt — harmless since we didn’t know our mothers. “I was guarding this gate at sixteen. By eighteen, I’d left bits of my flesh on seven battlefields. At twenty — you get the idea. I won’t waste breaths on you while the Glorious Star is waiting.”

The young janissary bit his quaking bottom lip, forced a smile, and said, “The legend returns. His Majesty has been expecting you.”

He ushered me into the great hall, where the Shah sat upon his golden divan. And above it, the golden statue of the Seluqal peacock stared down with its ruby — literally ruby — eyes.

“Kevah the Blacksmith,” the Shah said. “I’ve met eunuchs with better titles.”

He wore lavender brocade with the imprints of peacocks, the sigil of House Seluqal. The plumes of real peacocks augmented the crest of his golden turban, which he’d wrapped just above his shaped eyebrows. At least he had the beard of a warrior — trimmed but thick enough to evoke respect. Beneath the pomp, he still had the hard way about him.

“Your Glory.” I bent my neck. “A former slave ought to appreciate whatever title he can get.”

“Oh shut up.” The Shah rose from his divan as the whine of a cicada punctured the air. “I freed you and gave you enough gold so you wouldn’t have to lift a finger, and yet you bang a hammer in the heat all day. You’re an ingrate if I ever saw one.”

“I could say the same for you.”

The Shah laughed, his belly shaking. “That’s the Kevah I know. Sharp blade and sharper tongue.”

“It’s good to see you again.”

“But it’s not. I wish I never had reason to call on you.” Shah Murad’s sigh was like air escaping a leather sack. “Another magus is stirring up trouble. I’d like you to bring me his head.”

Not what I expected, but I kept my back straight and tone even. “No ‘welcome home’ feast. No parade. Just straight to business.”

“Apologies, I mistook you for a soldier. But if it’s a powdering you want, let’s walk.”

We left the great hall and strolled through a pleasure garden. A breeze blew against the pretty flowers. A hornbill fluttered above the veranda — its green and gold wings flapping too fast for the eye.

The Shah said, “I require every ambassador to gift a native bird from his kingdom. Now songbirds from the eight corners make a home here.”

The spear-like beak of the fluffy, round one on the branch above could poke an eye out.

“Can’t they just…fly away?” I asked.

“Hah! Even the birds know there’s no place greater. They’ve far more sense than you.”

“I hope you’ve the sense to find another plan,” I said. “I can’t kill a magus.”

“But you did kill one. You’re the only man alive who has.”

“I got lucky.”

“Luck doesn’t behead a sorcerer.” The Shah studied me. He surely saw hair that had thinned with years and a belly that my tightest belt couldn’t hide. “Tell me, Kevah, what is it you want?”

“I have everything I need, thanks to you.”

“It’s been almost ten years since Lunara. You should take a new wife.”

“We’re still married.”

“You can’t be married to the dead.”

I made a fist behind my back. How dare he say that? “She’s not dead.”

Black birds with silver beaks flew overhead, their dark pupils bathing in red. The Shah raised his eyebrows and looked upon me with pity. “A woman doesn’t show for ten years, she might as well be. The Fount have decreed a husband need only wait five years, and you’ve doubled that. You’re almost forty, aren’t you?”

“I’ll be forty in seven moons.” I unclenched my fist, hoping he’d get to the point.

“Gray hairs in the beard and no children. You need a young, fertile woman. I’ve got dozens in my court, from this tiresome family or that. You kill this magus, and I’ll let you choose whomever you like.”

“I don’t need a reward to fight on your behalf. You need only ask.”

Shah Murad’s snicker wasn’t very royal. It reminded me of a younger Murad, who ate the leather off his shoes during the siege of Rastergan. “You think I’m sending you to your death.”

“I’m ready to die for your house. Always have been.”

“Fucking imbecile — I don’t want you to die for me. I want you to be the Kevah of ten years past and kill another magus.”

“Truthfully, I don’t know how I killed that magus,” I admitted. “Never have, really. I think about it all the time. The magus opened the clouds and rained hail upon us, each hailstone sharp as a diamond. One sliced into a man’s helmet and down through his groin, carving him in half. So many died.” I suppressed a shudder. “Then Lunara distracted the magus while I swung my sword. The next moment, his severed head and mask were at my feet.” Describing it was reliving a nightmare. One I’d never woken from.

“No-no-no.” The Shah glared at me with royal disdain. “I remember you boasting how you’d cut his head clean. You showed off that magus’ mask like it was an ear you’d cut off and hung around your neck. It’s too late to be humble.”

“That may be, but I was faster and stronger back—”

“You’re afraid!” The Shah’s shout startled a flock of parrots, sending them fluttering into the sky. The janissary guards straightened their backs. “I don’t ask. I command. You will kill this magus. Afterward, you will come to my court and choose the youngest, fairest, biggest-breasted girl and put Lunara out of your mind for good. Refuse either command, and I’ll feed your head to my birds.”

Had I left my countryside cottage and journeyed hundreds of miles to die?

I forced my neck to bend. “I’ve never refused a shah and won’t today.”

*

I couldn’t just march to the magus and lop off his head. I had to train. So I sought the man who had trained me when I was a boy.

Tengis Keep looked as I remembered: three floors of sandstone, a dusty courtyard, and the barracks with all its sour and sweet memories. Save for pigeons fluttering overhead, it was quiet. No janissaries trained in the courtyard, and no one fished at the lakeside. I swallowed nervous dread, which poured through me at the thought of seeing the family I’d abandoned ten years ago. I dusted my caftan, hands jittery, then pounded on the large wooden door.

I inhaled deeply and prepared to see Tengis’ shocked face, but a young woman answered instead.

She covered her mouth. “Papa?”

I had no idea who she was.

“It’s me, Melodi,” she said.

Now I saw it: how those cheekbones became lean and that stub nose grew pointed. She hugged me before I could say a word.

Then she reared back and slapped me so hard my ears rang.

“You never visited. Never wrote. And then you appear out of nowhere and fail to recognize the girl you adopted.”

I rubbed my raw cheek as the sting receded. Melodi stomped her foot and disappeared into the interior of the keep. I slipped inside before the door shut. The front hall was not as I remembered: faded, tribal carpets covered the floor. Dust kicked off them as I walked. A musty odor made me cough — was no one maintaining this place? A calligraphy-covered matchlock hung on the wall next to an unpolished scimitar. The stairs creaked as I climbed.

Tengis was in the solar, sitting on the floor at a low table and banging on a printing press. They imported them from the Silklands and were faster at transcribing than feather pens. He’d strewn metal trinkets and contraptions around the room — what a mess. The ancient man stared at me, mouth agape, and said, “You miserable goatshit.”

“Ancient” was a mild way to describe him, but all words were shade when it came to Tengis. His skin had so many spots, it resembled a carpet woven by a blind man. “How can you just stand there, gawking?” he said. “Are you a ghost? If so, know that fat ghosts are not welcome in my keep.” He stood and wagged his finger at me. “Get out, or I’ll fetch the exorcist this instant!”

After convincing him I was real, we went to the terrace for relief from the musty air. I took a seat on a floor cushion.

“Lunara was too good for this kingdom,” Tengis said. He gave me a mug of fermented barley water and plopped next to me. “Perhaps she’s better off…wherever she is.”

“I couldn’t keep her safe.”

Sitting in the house where I’d grown up, nostalgia flowed through me like poison.

“She didn’t need you to.” Tengis grunted in disgust. In ten years, his tangled hair had gone from gray to white. “I trained and tutored her for the same reason I did for you. Strength and intelligence are ladders for slaves. A girl as beautiful as her would’ve ended up in the harem had I not taught her how to think and fight. And where would you have ended up with those big arms of yours…a blacksmith?”

The sarcasm stung. “Come on, it’s not a bad profession.”

“I saw so much in the two of you. The day you married was a day of endless happiness for me. Melodi is lovely, but I wanted more grandchildren.”

“Sorry to disappoint.”

“You don’t disappoint me,” Tengis said. “Lat does. Though we may pray ceaselessly for her blessings, she gives and she takes.”

“She mainly takes from me. She may take my life soon enough.”

Tengis took a deep chug, then sat back on his floor cushion. The crust around his eyes seemed permanent. “In the ten years you’ve been gone, the Shah has become…restless, to put it mildly. This dispute with the magus should be resolved in peace. The unholy Imperium of Crucis masses its forces to the west, ready to invade at the slightest unrest. A conflict with Magus Vaya and his sycophants would ripen us up.”

“So I shouldn’t kill him?”

“Kill him? Even you’d certainly not succeed. This magus is said to be far more terrifying than the one you killed.”

The chill of the hailstones that cut through my platoon ran through me. What could be more terrifying than that?

I rubbed my arms. “How do you expect me to disobey a command from the Shah of Shahs and walk out of Kostany with my head attached?”

“Say you’re training with me and let his viziers talk sense into him. A moon passes and he’ll rescind the command.”

“I hope his viziers are up to the task.”

Tengis nodded. “Grand Vizier Ebra is a prudent man. He’s vehemently opposed to conflict. Last year, Shah Murad wanted to invade the isles of Jesia because they stopped exporting his favorite cheese. The man is prone to impulses, which his viziers have learned to reign in.”

“Ebra is Grand Vizier now? That was quick.” I gulped barley water. “Did we put the wrong man on the throne?”

“Certainly not. His brother would have been the end of us. I’d take a bit of imbecility and impulsiveness over cruelty and lunacy any day.”

“So,” I said, “I’m on leave for a month with you and Melodi.”

“Oh no, this won’t be leave.” Tengis could dismiss your entire world with his snigger. “We’re going to train. War is never far. You’re not old like me. You‘ve no right to be weak.”

*

Melodi stood in a bog by the lake, which I now noticed had receded and was barely more than a muddy pond. The soil used to be harder, too. My adopted daughter wore the same yellow dress as when she’d answered the door — except now she held a shamshir in high guard above her head. The blade was thicker than both her arms. Her stance seemed to compress the ferocity of an army into one teenage girl, and her menacing glare the anger of a hundred forsaken daughters.

“You can’t expect me to fight her,” I said with a cockiness that failed to disguise my fear.

Tengis’ conniving laugh unnerved me. “I’ve trained her with sword. I’ve trained her with spear. She’s learned the mace and crossbow. And even the matchlock, something you never cared for.”

“I hate guns.”

“Guard up!” Melodi soared. Steel rang as she slammed my high guard and pushed me back. My adopted daughter was freakishly strong.

“Melodi, go easy,” I said, breathing fast, “I haven’t dueled in years.”

“Grandpa always said you were a complainer.” She charged, slammed into my middle guard, and staggered me. Would have drawn blood with her thrust had I not stepped back.

Wielding a sword in battle felt so…unfamiliar. It might as well have been a giant cucumber. Had I really regressed so much in ten years? What happened to the skills that made me a hero among the janissaries?

Tengis stood like a dervish in meditation, hands crossed. “You proud of your slowness? A pregnant woman would make a more fitting opponent.”

Melodi slid and swept my feet with her shamshir. I jumped and landed on half a foot, just missing an anthill. Instead I fell on my knees into mud.

“Can we do this somewhere with solider ground?” I said as Melodi put her sword to my neck, concluding the duel.

“You must be tired, Papa.” She clanked her sword into her scabbard and tousled her inky hair. “Hope you’ll do better tomorrow.” Her disappointed sigh sealed my humiliation.

Minutes later, I was scrubbing my boots at the lakeside.

“What the hell kind of girl did you raise?” I asked.

Tengis watched me, his nose ruffled in disgust. “A girl who wouldn’t care if her favorite shoes got some dirt on them.”

I chaffed at the boot’s sole. “I just had these made. Do you want me to trail mud through the Sublime Palace?”

“You’re a soft, well-fed ninny. When is the last time you fasted?”

I almost retched at the question. Tengis would make us fast from sunrise to sunset, in the way of the saints, at least ten days of the month. There were few things I hated more. I blamed fasting for why I was fat now — I had to eat enough to make up for all that. “I once went three days without eating in the caves of Balah.”

“So ten years ago, like every accomplishment to your name.”

“Saving a shah. Killing a magus. Deposing another shah, ending a war of succession, and crowning his brother. I’d say I accomplished enough for a lifetime. It’s charitable to let someone else have a bit of glory. Who knows, Melodi could be the next me.” My eyes were closing. I needed sleep. I’d paid eight gold coins to the coachman to get to Kostany, and all that bought me was a bumpy carriage. Bed bugs plagued the caravansaries along the way, so I’d woken each night scratching. “Tengis, is she your last one? Will there be more like Melodi?”

The old man sighed and squatted by the lakeside. “The Shah retired me from training janissaries, and the Fount has disallowed women to serve in the corps, so Melodi can never take the vow. What to do with her, I wonder…”

A family of ducks floated by, quacking at the boot I doused in the water. The mother duck pecked it; I pulled it away before she could do any damage. My shoes would not be harmed by such a tasty bird. My stomach grumbled. There wouldn’t be any decent grub in Tengis Keep, and I wasn’t going to eat bone broth with barley. I’d have to catch something sumptuous at the bazaar tomorrow.

I smacked my boots together to dry them. The red leather was discolored at the base, but the green and gold embroidery glistened like new. They smelled funny though. Like the rest of Kostany — of fish and shit. A boiling bath could cure that. Another thing to do tomorrow.

Tengis told me to take the guest room upstairs: the softest place in the house, with a feathered mattress and cotton sheets instead of a bit of straw and hide like the barrack chambers I used to sleep in.

Melodi was sitting on the staircase in her yellow dress, still dirty from our bout. It was the most colorful thing in this dank keep. Her eyes said she wanted to talk, and I couldn’t ignore the daughter I hadn’t seen in ten years. We were all sons, fathers, or brothers to someone at Tengis Keep — blood didn’t matter to janissaries, and we bonded fiercely because of it.

She sulked. “Can I…ask you a favor?”

I craved a hookah pipe. Smoking cherry-flavored hashish before bed would’ve been the perfect release.

“Get me the hookah and I’ll give you the world.”

“Grandfather quit years ago. Threw them all out.”

I sighed. “Well, another reason to be disappointed.”

Melodi picked at the fake topaz in her bronze bracelet. “Are you sad to be here?”

I sat a step below her and reclined against the wall. “I’m sorry I didn’t visit or write. Truth be told, I’ve not been myself for a long time.”

“I know, Grandpa would always say it wasn’t your fault. That it hurt you too much to be here. I’m sorry I slapped you.” She took my hand. “I miss Lunara too.”

Tengis hadn’t painted his walls since I’d left. What was once white was now gray. I supposed houses got old like the men within them.

“Lunara loved to mother you,” I said to lighten my mood. “I’m surprised you even remember us. You were only five.”

“She should be here. Then it could be like old times.” Melodi squeezed my hand. “Do you pray for her?”

Grit roughened my voice. “I used to stand in vigil from dawn to the zenith hour and beg Lat to bring her back. All I got were swollen feet. Actually, they were already swollen from how long I’d been looking for her, through the forests and mountains in the countryside. When someone disappears in the night — not a clue, not a hint of where they went…there’s nowhere to look.”

“And yet, there’s everywhere to look.”

I pulled my hand away to scratch my beard. “So…what favor would you ask of me?”

Melodi gulped and pulled on her thin, dark hair. Whatever it was, it made her hem and haw. “Teach me everything you know.”

I laughed. “You’re better than me now.”

“I’m younger, faster, maybe even stronger. But I’ll never be as clever or experienced. I grew up in peace, mostly. You used to sleep with a dagger under your pillow, remember?”

Thinking back, it was a miracle I hadn’t cut myself turning in my sleep. It was easy to grab the dagger under my pillow and stab whoever was sneaking up on me. And during the conflict between Shah Murad and his brother, often fellow janissaries were trying to gut me as I slept, so divided were loyalties.

“I hope I never have to again,” I said. “Peace is its own reward.”

“Peace makes us weak.”

“You’re just saying that because you’re bored.” I rubbed her head.

“No, I’ve seen how people act in this city. Everyone just wants an easy time — without earning it.” She grimaced and swatted my hand. “Why’d you move so far from everything?”

“Because I earned my easy time. And I like being bored. After what I’ve been through, boring is the best I can hope for. Boring means no war, no fighting. It means the ghosts of those my blade bloodied won’t come back to dance.”

The glint faded from Melodi’s eyes. I hated seeing her sullen.

“Listen, Melodi.” I patted her back; her shoulder blades stuck out. I’d have to take her to the bazaar for a feast of pheasant marinated in yogurt or fermented dough stuffed with beef. “That old man made sure that if you want something, you have the strength to take it. He’s taught you everything you need.” I got up to go to bed.

“And what about you, Papa? What do you want?”

“I want a soft mattress for the rest of my life.” I’d have one tonight, at least.

My hope as I reclined on the mattress was that the Shah would see his error, make peace with the magus, and send me home. I prayed to Lat that I’d spend my days hammering trinkets and horseshoes and die with wrinkled skin and gray hair. And yet, as I stared at the guest room’s unfamiliar gray ceiling, I knew it was another prayer she would laugh and wave away, like a hornbill flying past her verandah in the heavens.

*

In the morning, I was devouring almond soup with buttered beef at the grand bazaar’s most overpriced establishment when some flashy courtier summoned me to the Sublime Seat. The warrior-poet Taqi called it the “Palace on the Shores of Time” because it outlasted a dozen dynasties and conquerors. I felt its green dome clashed with the white marble. Nevertheless, I trailed my slightly muddy boots through the Shah’s garden, where marigolds perfumed air cooled by a stone fountain. Black-feathered drongos chirped atop the trees that shaded me.

Flanked by janissaries in their colorful cottons, a slim man sat on the wooden divan beneath the veranda in the center. A glittering turban patterned with the eight-pointed star of Lat adorned his head. His beard and mustache were more manicured than the garden and evoked fashion rather than ferocity. I almost coughed at the astringent scent of myrrh flowing from his gown. Ebra, the Grand Vizier, was a far shade from how I remembered him in youth.

A yet more ostentatious man stood across from him, his head bowed, a pound of purple kohl around his eyes. His maroon silks were foreign, patterned with spades, and, dare I say, finer than the Grand Vizier’s.

“We’ll do something about those ruffians, rest assured,” Grand Vizier Ebra said to the man. “The Shah will compensate you from his own purse for the loss of your…what did you call it?”

“Palace of Dreams, Your Eminence. A place where no man could leave without a smile, his every yearning fulfilled. And now it’s just a husk. Boiled and blackened and burned. A dream in smoke. My fortune — ash.” Kohl streamed down his face with tears as a trembling overtook him. “We had twelve varieties of card games, wines from as far as Lemnos, beardless boys and pleasure girls versed in the techniques of Kashanese sutra. You would have loved—”

“No-no.” The Grand Vizier flushed and shuffled on his divan. “I am a worshipper of Lat and follower of the Fount. While it sounds lovely for some, such a den would be forbidden to me.” He crossed his legs and swallowed. “No one was killed, so there’s no blood money to be paid, but restitution there will be. For you and all others who have lost such fine establishments to these rabid fanatics. The Shah does not let criminality go unpunished.” Ebra looked to me and raised his eyebrows, a false smile spreading across his face. “And here is the legend who will make it so. It is with the grace of Lat that we meet after so long, Kevah. You’re a man who has done so much, and I now expect much of.”

“Your Eminence.” I bent my neck. “As I told His Glory, I’ll do as commanded.”

Ebra gestured for the pleasure house owner to leave. Once the tearful man had sauntered away, he said, “After much cajoling on my part, the Shah has wisely rescinded that command. Instead, you are to parley with Magus Vaya.”

Somewhat of a relief. I hunched my shoulders. “Parley? I’m no diplomat.”

“You are a respected and feared warrior. You are worthy to carry the Shah’s terms because you are one who can enforce them.”

“I’m sure there are many respected warriors in this city.”

“But only one who has killed a magus.”

A boast always catches up with you. I sighed with regret. “Your Eminence, the man who killed the magus ten years ago is gone today. I am not the warrior I once was. Yesterday during training, I was defeated by my daughter, a girl I once carried on my shoulders. Parleys can get messy, and as my father put it, you are sending a ‘well-fed ninny’ against the most powerful sorcerer in the kingdom.”

“Ah, us janissaries are so fond of calling those we love daughters and fathers and brothers.” The Grand Vizier laughed from high in his throat. “Perhaps one day I’ll call you ‘brother.’”

Ebra had trained under Tengis. I’d known him in those days, but he was shy and we didn’t speak much. Afterward, he was sent to a palace school for elite janissaries to be trained not in warfare, but statecraft.

“Did you not love the man who trained you and taught you everything you know?”

“Unlike most janissaries, I remember my real mother and father,” Ebra said with venom. “I remember the day they sold me for a pouch of silver. So…I find it difficult to call anyone else by those words.”

“And I find it difficult not to. What is a man without family?”

Ebra sipped the red liquid in his bejeweled goblet, then wagged his finger at me. “You’re blunt and persuasive, perfect traits to deal with a man like Magus Vaya. You leave within the hour.”

 Before the guards could usher me out, I said, “You don’t need me to make war, and I doubt you need me to make peace. It was a long carriage journey from Tombore to Kostany. Tell me truly, why was I summoned all this way?”

Ebra seemed so comfortable on his divan; it surprised me that he got off it and came close to my ear.

“The Shah has his eccentricities,” he said in a hushed tone, as if we were court gossips. “One day he wants this, the next day that. I don’t claim to understand it. Play your role, and you’ll be a passing fancy that he’ll toss aside and forget.”

Ebra sat upon his divan with a straight posture and high chin. He dismissed me with a backhand wave.

*

Magus Vaya preached at the shrine-town of Balah, ten miles east of Kostany. I traveled by carriage through the Valley of Saints, which was surrounded by the Zari Zar Mountains. It was also where I’d survived a hailstorm and killed a magus. I shut my eyes so I wouldn’t be reminded and to get a bit more sleep. The Fount insisted the hardships of the saint’s road be preserved, so rocks and broken patches jolted the carriage the whole way. I’m sure the horses hated it as much as I did.

After an hour, the hovels of Balah began to wrap around the mountainside. The path to the shrine of Saint Nizam, the only impressive sight in this pile of rocks, ascended the mountains. Too steep for carriages, so my janissary escorts and I continued on foot. We passed the cave where Saint Nizam had hidden, which some obscure scholar named the Bath of Stones. By the time we stood before the Shrine of Nizam, I realized I knew too much about this topic. It was thanks to Tengis, who made sure we had a thorough education and that our wits were as sharp as our skills.

At the shrine, the wailing of supplicants never ceased. While holy men chanted prayers, beggars cried for Saint Nizam’s intercession. All who entered the shrine wore white, except for me and the colorful janissaries.

The incense pots couldn’t cover the human smell of the place; skin-stench and sweat shot up my nose and burrowed in my brain. The janissaries clung to their matchlocks as we waded through the sea of worshippers. I’d neglected to even bring a sword.

We passed the mausoleum of Saint Nizam, where his shroud rested within a metal cage. Supplicants clung to that cage and pushed their arms through it, seeking closeness to the saint. I whispered a quick prayer, asking only for Melodi’s good health.

Stout men brandishing maces guarded a room behind the mausoleum. So these were the ruffians bringing disorder to Kostany — burning taverns and pleasure houses — supposedly on the orders of a magus. I displayed the Seluqal peacock seal and they let me pass.

A young man sat on the floor of the empty, tiled room, his face fresh and fair. Prayer beads in his right hand clack-clacked, and he whispered praises to Lat under his breath. In his cross-legged posture, he looked as unshakable as an anchor at the bottom of the sea. His hypnotic breathing seemed to inhale time, slow it down, and exhale serenity.

The young man gestured for me to sit. He snapped his fingers, and an elderly servant brought small, stone cups of tea.

“So you’re Magus Vaya.” I sipped the tea. It was so diluted, it might as well have been hot water. The faint taste of cumin did nothing to perk me up. And yet…the room seemed to tilt when I sipped. “Tell me, are you a man of peace?”

The young man locked eyes with me. I couldn’t read whatever lay behind his blank expression. How easily would he see the trepidation that hid behind mine?

The magus closed his eyes. “Anyone who claims to serve Merciful Lat must strive for peace.”

“Then let us guarantee the peace.”

“Without justice, how can there be peace?”

“And what injustice has been wrought?”

The magus sat up and straightened his back. “Below the Sublime Seat, in the place they call Labyrinthos, our sheikha is kept prisoner. Every Thursday, I used to visit her to record her sermon. And then on Friday during the prayer, I would recite that sermon, as if from her mouth. Tomorrow will be the third moon since we have not heard from our sheikha.”

I perked up in surprise. No one had briefed me on any of this. Was I sent here just to show that the Shah possessed a magus killer? Did my life matter so little that I’d been summoned across the country for such a paltry display? I hoped the magus didn’t notice the surprise and indignation in my eyes. I pushed those feelings down deep. “Why not seek recourse the proper way? Why agitate?”

“Have you been to Labyrinthos?”

I shrugged. “Can’t say I have.”

“When they put you there, they give you a torch and tell you to find your way out. The historians say that a Crucian imperator built Labyrinthos to confuse the demons coming out of the gate to hell. The tunnels go on forever, deeper, deeper, and twist in such ways that men go mad trying to get back to where they started. In the darkness, you hear the whispers of jinn as they prick your forehead with nails as sharp as knives. No one survives Labyrinthos…and yet our sheikha endured it for ten years.”

When I was a child, Tengis would scare us with tales of Labyrinthos. Hearing the magus describe it, a childhood fear shuddered through me. “How did she survive in a place like that?”

The expressionless magus pointed to his face, then covered it with his hands and opened his fingers so his eyes would show. “The wonders of our invisible masks and training allow us to survive without food, without water, without sleep — forever unaging.” He brought his hands back to his lap and clasped them. “But what kills in Labyrinthos is not the absence of those things. It is a madness that creeps like an assassin. Sheikha Agneya resisted it. She stayed by the entrance and never explored more of the cave.”

“Agneya…I met her once.” I recalled the pale girl, her hair wrapped in a bright scarf and body covered by a rough wool robe, standing before the throne in the great hall. “Twenty-five years ago, about. She looked younger than you. She refused to help Murad’s father campaign across the Yunan Sea and also to war against the Alanyans. Shah Jalal smashed a goblet or two but had the good sense not to throw one at a magus.” I could never forget her kind eyes as she walked toward me with the grace of a cloud. “I was fasting that day and sundown was far…she came up to me while I was guarding the palace, reached into her cloak, and took out the softest and whitest piece of bread that, till this day, I’ve ever eaten. Sometimes I wonder if I’d just dreamt it.”

“Our sheikha loved to feed the destitute. She was succor for the weak, wherever she went, in the spirit of Saint Kali.”

I grunted in dismissal of his platitudes. “And in whose spirit do you act? Name the saint that liked to burn things down. Tell me, magus, what is it you want out of this?”

There was elegance in the way the magus cleared his throat. “In the darkness of Labyrinthos, our sheikha heard the voice of Lat, like a breeze from paradise. And without her sermon, we are deprived of that heavenly breeze. Restore our right to see and speak with Grand Magus Agneya — that is all we ask.”

Reasonable enough, but I’d only heard one side of the story and was eager to hear the other. “I will convey your request to His Glory.” I got back on my feet. “Show good faith in the meantime. Have your followers take a break from assailing the card dens, taverns, and — yes — even the pleasure houses in Kostany.”

“Everything has a reason.” The magus gazed through me. Staring back, I was almost entranced. “Even a piece of bread given in kindness to a palace guard.”

I shuddered and returned to the janissaries waiting at the doorway.

*

An hour into our journey back to Kostany, the Balah stench finally left my nose. I could breathe air that didn’t stink of poorly washed, sweaty men. We rolled through the eastern gate toward the Sublime Seat. The smooth roads of Kostany let me doze off. It didn’t last — my carriage driver shook me awake.

“This isn’t the palace,” I said as I looked at the narrow street outside my window.

Yellow mud houses two-stories high lined the cobbled street. But why was it empty, save for our carriage?

My carriage driver beckoned me into a nearby coffeehouse, with its soft cushions and wooden floor tables, and guided me to the staircase. Upstairs, in a colorful room with two floor cushions and a hookah pipe, sat Shah Murad.

“Sit down and dispense with the courtesies,” he said. “We are here to talk frankly. You will be as straightforward and honest as with a dear friend.”

“Dear friends?” I chuckled with all the bitterness I’d been swallowing. “Would a dear friend send you to parley entirely disarmed of knowledge on the matter?”

“You misunderstand me.” Murad pulled the pipe out of his mouth and glowered. “I am the Shah, and you will tell me what happened, janissary.”

“Have you forgotten? You freed me from the janissary vows.”

“You’re still my subject all the same!” The Shah looked ready to strike me with the pipe. Instead, he puffed on it and closed his eyes. His breathing slowed. “I apologize, Kevah. It has been a trying few moons. Grand Vizier Ebra was supposed to brief you. You are a free man, one whom I respect, and that list gets shorter by the day. That is why you’re here. Now, please tell me what happened.”

“All right, I’ll give you your due.” I sat on the floor cushion and relayed what happened with the magus. The Shah kept silent and reflected. Hogged the pipe, too.

“Peace is a disease,” Shah Murad said after I concluded my report. Confounding words.

Finally, he passed the hookah pipe. I inhaled deeply. Cherry-infused smoke billowed in my lungs and out my mouth, calming me.

“Peace. Peace. Peace,” he said. “That’s all everyone wants. But I’m telling you, it’s a disease. Like leprosy or the pox.”

“Would war be better?”

Murals of lilies covered the walls. It seemed strange to talk about war in such a flowery room.

“Better or not, it’s coming.” Shah Murad let out a dry cough. “My spies tell me that a Crucian armada of five hundred ships and fifty thousand men has landed on the island of Nixos, only a few days away — with fortunate winds — from where we sit. Where do you think they’re going?”

One of the janissaries on guard handed the Shah a waterskin — the kind we’d use on campaigns. Murad guzzled from it like a warrior thirsty from battle, wiped his beard, and handed it to me.

“Demoskar, I’d imagine.” I chugged. It was just water. Even when we were young, I’d never seen Murad drink anything other than water and milk. So unlike his father and brother. “With five hundred ships, they’d take the port city in a day and march for a few more days through the lowlands to Kostany.”

The Shah winced as if pained by the picture of my words. “Our army is a shadow of what it was under my father. I was a fool to listen to my advisors, cowards like Ebra. ‘Build ten hospitals instead,’ he’d say.” The Shah heightened his pitch and spoke from his throat — a crude imitation of the Grand Vizier. “‘You’ll be the hero of the masses. The people will love you.’ The people are really going to love the Crucian imperator when he forces them to bow before cursed idols.”

I took this chance to puff out a billow of cherry-flavored smoke. “They’d never get to Kostany. No one wants to bow to Crucian idols. We would fight to the last man.”

“But what is a man worth these days? When my father was shah, everyone was a warrior. He led us across the Shrunken Straight into Yuna to conquer Crucian cities, and south beyond the Syr Darya to take Alanyan ones. The thought of a Sirmian warrior made Crucian imperators soil their sheets.”

Each word he spoke evoked memories of my service to Shah Jalal — some sweet and others sour. But too often, remembrance left me sullen. “And then when your father died, those great warriors killed each other.”

“Better someone was being killed. Better swords be sharpened daily for killing. You think I’m bloodthirsty? I say it to prevent worse bloodshed — the kind we’ll experience when the Crucians invade. Look at us. The magi stay in their holy shrines and obscure their minds by chanting and whirling. I hope to Lat you didn’t drink their tea.”

I held my tongue.

“And the warriors, look at our warriors.” He pointed to me with an open hand. “Our greatest one hides in a village on the edge of nowhere and distracts himself by banging on an anvil. What we need, Kevah, is a reason to fight that eclipses theirs. Never forget that Kostany is holy land to the Crucians.” Gray riddled Shah Murad’s beard. He tugged at its end, fingers tight. “Your wife Lunara was the kind of warrior we need today.”

Just hearing her name stopped time. Talking about Lunara was like bringing her back. “How well did you know her?”

Shah Murad smirked and nodded. “Don’t strike me, all right? I would have taken Lunara as a concubine, had I any sense. She was a lioness, and together we could have raised a litter of warrior kings, like Utay and Temur, who crafted this kingdom with blood and iron.”

My temper simmered. “You are a king. Why didn’t you?”

“Because I saw the way you looked at her, and I saw the way she looked at you, and realized I couldn’t rule without my head.”

I chuckled. The way he spoke about Lunara vivified her in my mind. What a strange woman, as if Lat made her from the clay of another world. Her hair outshone pure gold, yet she was tan from training under the sun and her small hands roughened from squeezing sword hilts.

A janissary went about the room and relit the candles on the ornate hanging lamps, giving us a bit more light.

“Kevah, she died.”

“How can you be certain?”

“Because she looked at you as if you were her prize. As if all the suffering and fighting were for you and the life you would build together. No way she ran from that.”

To the Shah, I must’ve seemed a feeble man forced to hold his tears.

“As I recall,” the Shah said, “she went missing mere days after my ascension. We all had too many enemies to count. Someone could have taken her unaware in the night, slit her throat, thrown her body in a pit.”

“No—”

“Wake up!” Shah Murad pounded the floor, almost toppling the hookah. “I’d strike you, but I’ve too much admiration for the man who got me where I am. This sulking will not do, not now, not when so much is at stake. If we don’t unite, the Crucians will roll us. That is what I want you to focus on — not some dead woman!”

The Shah could command my body, but not my heart. I didn’t want to care. I didn’t want to wake up. All I had was a dream of happiness.

“Why did you bring me here, to this abandoned coffeehouse, of all places?”

“Because Ebra controls the Seat. To the court and the janissaries, he’s painted me as an impulse-driven fool and himself as the wise and steady hand that steers the ship. That’s why he didn’t brief you — he wanted you to fail, so I would have no one to rely on but his underlings.” The Shah took a moment to breathe. “When Crucis lands fifty thousand paladins on our shore, we’ll see who’s the fool then.”

“If you don’t trust Ebra, depose him.”

“Everything’s so simple for you, isn’t it? Metal isn’t straight,” the Shah pounded the air as if he held a hammer, “so bang-bang until it is. If I stripped Ebra of rank and privilege, he would throw off his silks and wrap himself in carded wool, then join the agitators. And if I executed him, his janissary faction would hang my head from the Seat gate and put the crown on my son. He’s been outmaneuvering me for years and must be dealt with carefully.”

I shuffled on my pillow; my behind ached. What did I care about the power games of the palace? These feuds were why I’d moved so far away. “What do you want from me?”

“I realize you are fat and soft and can’t kill the way you could. Truth be told, I asked for the head of the magus to test your loyalty. To fight our enemies, within and without, I need steadfast men — not sycophants. There’s a fine line.”

Not so fine. A loyal janissary knew the difference between a true tongue and a brown tongue.

“Here’s a way to solve your problems,” I said. “Let those pungent folks from Balah see their sheikha.”

“Oh, Kevah.” The Shah crossed his arms and sat back. “Do you think I’m such a fool? I would even free her…if I knew where she was.”

I stiffened my posture. There was more to this story. “Is she not imprisoned in Labyrinthos?”

The coals in the hookah had gone cold. Shah Murad puffed, but the smoke he blew out was like gray hair. “Labyrinthos is the end of all. Sooner or later, they succumb to the whispering jinn that climb out the gate to hell. The Fount throws the worst offenders in there, as a punishment worse than death.”

The Shah puffed again but exhaled no smoke. He reached inside his silk vest, took out a yellow scarf, and tossed it in my lap. It stunk…of decayed trees and grass. I stretched it out: a Zelthuriyan hex pattern, the kind worn by pilgrims returning from the holy city.

“Other side,” the Shah said, twirling his finger.

I turned it around. Words…written with…tar? Indecipherable because I didn’t understand Paramic.

“Well?” The Shah peered over it and glared at me. “Don’t tell me you can’t read it.”

“I was never good with foreign tongues.”

“Dear Lat, you trained under one of the greatest polymaths alive and you don’t know the holy tongue?” The Shah coughed smoke and soot with each laugh. “You’re as single-minded as they say. Allow me to translate…”

I drank from the cup.

And now I hear the hymns.

They say: Remake the world.

With the demons on your sword.

A shudder spread through my back and arms, as if I’d been pricked by a jinn. “Poetic…but dark. Let me guess — you found it in Labyrinthos.”

The Shah nodded. “Had my bravest janissaries search the entrance. They pulled it from under a rock. One of Grand Magus Agneya’s scarves. You love the warrior-poets, don’t you? This any verse you know?”

Taqi and the other warrior-poets never used words like “hymn” or spoke of “demons” and “remaking the world.” Neither did the saintly recitals. I shook my head. “It sounds more like an Ethosian verse.”

“Aye…that was a thought as well. But the Ethosian bishop swears it’s not in their books.” The Shah crossed his arms, made a fist, and rested his forehead on it. It was his thinking posture, as I recalled. He used to meditate like that for hours. “Kevah, something truly frightful is coming. My bones haven’t ached like this since the war of succession. Ten years of peace does not go unpunished. I need true men to see this through. Men that can do more than just obey orders and swing a sword.” The Shah stood and brushed soot off his silks. “You’re right — you are a free man. I may jape about feeding you to the birds, but I’m not my brother. Walk out that door if you want no part of this.”

I wanted no part. But then why didn’t I go? Why wasn’t I running back to Tombore? I’d put this man on the throne. I made him, and now his rule was being undermined by enemies within and without. Despite my long absence, I had a daughter that looked up to me and a father that expected much. And what the hell happened to Magus Agneya?

I stood and looked my shah in the eye. “My first memory was as a slave arriving in this land. I’m told that I came from a country far to the north in Yuna, beyond even the Crucian Imperium.”

“We all know that. You’re fairer than a clean piss.” The Shah laughed at his own joke.

I didn’t laugh. “I have no ties to any house but yours. My father taught me to be loyal to the Seat and the Seat alone. Know that I don’t plan to stay forever, but while I’m here, use me as you see fit.”

The Shah pulled the pipe off the hookah and blew the ash out. “Oh, I will.”

Chapter 2

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Write with Voice like The Hunger Games

We read fiction because we seek an emotional experience. A novel or short story conveys emotion in three ways: through description, dialogue, and voice. The last is the hardest to understand, but writers who evoke emotion through voice often create an addicting reading experience. It is essential to learn to write with voice, because when we like the voice a writer employs and the emotions it evokes, we love hearing it in our head and are compelled to keep reading.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins did this for me. The moment I opened the book, I was no longer reading words on a page. I was listening to a human voice paint images and feelings. Since the book is written in the first person, voice is natural byproduct; but there are
certain stylistic qualities to the voice that make it evocative. Check out the following passage, where the protagonist, Katniss, talks about her cat:

Sitting at Prim’s knees, guarding her, is the world’s ugliest cat. Mashed-in nose, half of one ear missing, eyes the color of rotting squash. Prim named him Buttercup, insisting that his muddy yellow coat matched the bright flower. He hates me. Or at least distrusts me. Even though it was years ago, I think he still remembers how I tried to drown him in a bucket when Prim brought him home. Scrawny kitten, belly swollen with worms, crawling with fleas. The last thing I needed was another mouth to feed. But Prim begged so hard, cried even, I had to let him stay. It turned out okay. My mother got rid of the vermin and he’s a born mouser. Even catches the occasional rat. Sometimes, when I clean a kill, I feed Buttercup the entrails. He has stopped hissing at me.

2014, THE HUNGER GAMES -  MOCKINGJAY

So what makes the voice in the above passage, and the entire novel, so strong?

1. A real human being is speaking, not your English teacher. When we speak, we often speak in fragments and disregard the rules of grammar. Notice the second sentence has no verb, and thus is a fragment. Still, it is clear, and does not draw attention to itself. If you are going to be ungrammatical at times, make sure both are the case. The simple yet colorful vocabulary and the varied sentence structures also resemble how a person would speak a story, not just write one.

2. The voice creates images (and other sensations). A common problem with first person stories is rambling. Writers fixated with trying to create the impression of natural speech tend to allow their protagonists to ramble about their opinions. Collins makes sure her protagonist speaks in images, sensations, and actions – incasing opinion in between. Notice how the image of the cat is evoked in our mind, using words that connote the protagonists feelings toward the cat. The cat isn’t just ―ugly,‖ its eyes are ―the color of rotting squash (image)‖ and ―it hates her (opinion).‖ When strong images surround the protagonist’s feelings, the reader’s emotions are evoked.

3. The voice flows. The only way to know how to create flow is to develop an ear for it by reading. In general, flow is created by varying sentence and paragraph structure. Starting too many sentences and paragraphs with the same word, having them be the same length, with the same number of clauses destroys flow because it draws attention to the pattern of the words. You never want to draw attention to the words; the reader’s attention should always be on the music of the voice and the images and sensations the voice is creating. Notice how short and abrupt sentences are intermixed in the above example. ―She hates me‖ comes after several long sentences. ―He has stopped hissing at me‖ ends the paragraph perfectly because of its succinctness.

hunger-games_2167652b

CREATIVE WRITING TIP: Even if you write in third person, everything still applies. When editing your third person story, try to hear the POV character’s voice narrating, and even replace ―he or she‖ with ―I‖ in your head for full effect. It definitely helps get out of the ―English teacher‖ mindset.

The reader should be dreaming the words, lost in the story, and voice is a key component of inducing this dream. So, like The Hunger Games, learn to write with voice and make your readers dream!

Song of a Dead Star | Chapter 1 | Promise

Painting

The boy grabbed onto an old cedar, and as he pulled onto a branch, shedding leaves whirled around him.

“You damn fish! We’re gonna bleed you!” His three pursuers were yards away. “And paint this forest with your blood!”

The branches of the tree stretched to the sky. The boy climbed, panting.

“Your kind ain’t worth the shit on our soles!” one of his pursuers shouted. “The higher you climb, the bigger the splatter.”

The boy climbed higher. His pursuers appeared below.

“There he is.” One of them pointed at the old cedar. He had a puffy-blister on his lip, courtesy the boy’s elbow. “Listen Kav, how about you spare us the drama and come down?”

Kav grinned. “You come up. Plenty of room for a party.”

“You wanna play it like that? We’re giving you the choice of walking away, and you’re choosing to have your ass beat up on some tree?” The one with the puffy lip approached.

So Kav broke off a branch as big as a sword. “Since it’s my party, I’ll dish out the beatings.”

“Hey, let’s talk this out,” said one of the wiser boys. He removed his glasses and put them in his pocket. “Listen Kav, here’s our offer. You purposely lose the next match, and we leave you well alone. Remember who owns this place and who owns your people. No use fighting us, so you best accept our generosity.”

While the boy ran his mouth, Kav climbed onto an even higher branch. He put his arm behind his head and sat against the bark like nothing mattered. “I got a question. Is your man Tusir really gonna feel satisfied winning without a fair fight against us islanders? What does that say about you Shirmians? Can’t beat an islander fair? Truth be told, winning the tournament don’t matter to me, but I have principles. The travesty of a fixed fight doesn’t sit right.”

“Travesty? Wanna know what’s a real travesty?” This guy, clearly the idiot of the trio, sounded like a fresh arrival from some hill village. “How the hell do I get assigned to infantry when a fish from some shit island gets to be a pilot? I’m gonna die in that infantry group while you’re flying high, that’s the damned travesty.”

“You die,” Kav said, “and I’ll say a little prayer for your soul while I’m in the sky.”

The boy with the puffy blister on his lip took out something from his sash. The shameless ass. He held a six-inch blade — standard close-quarters weapon. It goes against the rules to use one in a mock battle. “Yeah, you know what comes next. I’ll cut the log down easy with this. Then you’re gonna fall back to earth for your beating.”

The puffy-lipped boy charged the blade with heat. A blue flame immersed the blade.

“You little shit,” Kav said.

Then the puffy-lipped boy flung the flame from his blade onto the bark. The tree caught fire.

“Come on down,” he said, “or you gonna burn.”

Fuck.

Kav jumped and landed on his sore feet.

They seized him. The idiot grabbed Kav’s left arm, the wise one his right. The puffy-lipped one punched him in the jaw. A tooth tore out; blood surged from his gums. Kav wrestled his arms free, but not before the wise one kneed him in the gut.

The idiot picked up a rock. “Poor fishy. You gonna love this next part!” And he bashed Kav’s forehead.

 ***

Kav awoke in a pink cloud. Its cotton wrapped around his sore bones, relaxing him. He opened his mouth and ate some; it tasted like strawberry. The whole world around him was sky and pink clouds.

“Am I dreaming?” Kav said. “What time is it?”

There was sunlight inside him. He looked at his wrist, at the jewel nestled in his skin. Eyes closed, he wrote a request to the Time Service in his mind, constructing the words with his will. He felt the sunlight flow through his veins and into his wrist as the jewel transmitted the request out into the world.

At the speed of light, it hit its destination and returned with the time. The numbers flashed in his mind. 15:03.

The strawberry clouds were turning melon. “Am I dreaming? What time is it?” Once more, he closed his eyes and wrote a request to the Time Service in his mind. He sent it out, and at the speed of light it came back.

04:54 appeared in his mind’s eye.

“So…I am dreaming.” Kav licked some of the melon cloud. Then he willed the world to transform. The clouds flew into the heavens and trees fell upon the land. Printed onto the dream were flowers, shade, and streams — the most beautiful place he could create with his imagination. Some kind of garden, all around him.

And he willed into the world its main attraction: a tree so big, clouds eclipsed the tips of its branches. It shot up from the ground and grew until it hit the ceiling of heaven. Otherworldly, this tree had no leaves; instead, its branches created clouds. They streamed off in trickles, puffed into cotton, and rose to the sky.

“Are you here?” One more thing and this place would be perfect. Kav willed her into being. He wanted to see her blue hair below the otherworldly tree, her skin radiant against its dark bark.

“Dammit, appear!” He kept seeing shadows from the falling leaves and little trails of light.

But not her.

“Why? I’m doing everything the book said.”

Something rained from the sky — itty-bitty lights like stars falling. Kav knew what they were and how they burned. Fireflies. They swarmed down and whirled around the tree – counter clock-wise.

“Them again…”

They went round and round in an eternal circle. Millions, billions of them. Fireflies that made his insides quiver.

Everything became white. The clouds were replaced by a ceiling, and there were people here, and blankets covered him, and it felt like someone was hammering his forehead.

“Kav! Oh man, you hear me?”

“I hear…bells and fireflies,” Kav said.

“What? Listen man, you got saved. You got saved!” It was his roommate, Kyars.

The throbbing in Kav’s head left him dizzy. He lay still, too sore to move.

“Saved?” Kav tried to raise his head. It hurt too much. “Saved by you?”

“Nah, man. They’re saying it was one of those Masks that saved you.” Kyars stood over him, his wavy hair flopping down.

“Masks? Why would a Mask save me?”

“Dunno, but you’re gonna be okay. White coat here says nothing’s broken except a tooth.”

“Ah…someone’s gonna hurt for that.”

The doctor came and did a check-up. Kav answered a few questions as the pain died down. None about who did this to him. Not that he would tell. The doctor gave him a bottle of pills, told him to take two twice a day, and after two hours of rest, discharged him.

The sun will heal me good. It warmed Kav’s shoulders as he walked to his dorm. Time Service said Universal Hours of Rest would start in a few minutes, and he needed every second. The sun filled his twicrys; with his will, he felt the hues of its wavelengths. The blue light most attracted him, so he soothed his soreness by pouring blue through his veins.

Back at the dorm, Kyars was already in bed. He put down the book he was reading as Kav entered.

“Did a cow give birth to a mountain gorilla?” Kav took his shirt off. “You’re actually reading for once!?”

“For someone who looks like he got raped by a mountain gorilla, you’re sure lively.”

“The price of winning these days. But really, you never read, so what is it?”

Kyars held up the book. “Erotic Tales of an Almarian Harem. You sure you’re good?”

Kav washed his face at the basin. While rinsing his mouth, he tongued the gap in his back set and thought about returning to the forest for his tooth.

“Lend it to me once you’re done. And yeah, I’m king.”

Silence as he changed his underwear.

“Listen man, they came after me too,” Kyars said. “There ain’t no shame…in cutting your costs, you know? Throwing that third round match made me sick. But they would have broken my bones if I didn’t, and they’ll break yours if you don’t listen.”

Upon sliding into his sheets, Kav rested on his pillow. “I’m not gonna throw the semifinal. Count it out.”

“Come on, what’s the point?”

“Point?”

“Of the competition. It’s got no bearing on anything. It’s a damned pride game for the Shirmas, that’s all. They wanna show they’re better than us islanders, just because we get better placements than them. Don’t get sent to the hospital over that. Pride doesn’t matter, you’re Necian, your mother must have taught you as much.”

Kav sighed. Kyars had a point, a real good point. But screw it.

“Look, it isn’t about pride for me. But I won’t throw the match. Really, why should I? Back on the islands, it’s the same. These Shirmas tell us what to do, and we obey like slaves. Time someone stopped toeing the line.”

“See, you can give that any name you want, but that’s pride right there. We know we’re better than them at heart, we don’t need to show it.”

Kav couldn’t look Kyars in the eye; the boy was right.

“I’m not gonna tell you what to do,” Kyars said. “You’re gonna make your choice come tomorrow morning. Hell, you don’t even have much chance to win, the shape you’re in.”

That reminded Kav — the Mask. “So you said a Mask saved me? Who told you that?”

“I heard it among the rabble. Said they saw one carrying you out of the forest. What do they call those Masks? Magi, was it?”

“Yeah, Magi. They’re some kind of elite order or something, though I heard there are only a few left.”

Kyars pushed into his pillow, muffling his voice. “I guess it’s true then, there are Magi here. But those guys are supposed to be up on the Haemian Front, fighting the war, no?”

“I don’t get it,” Kav said. “Why would a Magus go out of his way to save me?”

“Who knows?” Kyars hardly sounded awake. “But when one of those Masks takes interest in someone, it’s never a good thing. I heard they like to do experiments on people…weird things, like messing with people’s memories and confusing them about what’s real and what’s not.” He yawned. “Forget it…just stupid rumors.”

Kav burrowed in his pillow. A soothing lull crept up and snatched him from the world.

 ***

Again, Kav found himself in those clouds. Tangerine this time. Urgency compelled him not to sample the flavor. He skipped the Time Service test and willed the garden into being.

There he was, facing the otherworldly tree. The garden covered him in its rainbow hue, so unlike colors seen when awake. But this time, a sun lit the sky — made of a diamond on fire.

I’m getting better, way farther than I was months ago. Everything’s so concrete and real. I got this.

“Are you here?” Kav scanned the base of the tree, hope thudding his heart. “Layla — you here?”

An empty place. The ridiculously large tree blew out clouds that covered the burning diamond in the sky. Time evaporated with every empty moment.

“Layla?”

This is pointless. I don’t even remember what she looks like. How am I supposed to envision her here?

“Hey, Layla?” Nothing. No blue-haired girl.

Kav sat, plushing on the mud. Grass withered, trailed in the air, and turned to chaff. The tree collapsed. Branches hit the ground and quaked the world. A dark blanket put out the sun. A void sucked the clouds. And three dimensions of space dissolved into shapes and lines barely concrete — Kav sitting among it all.

He was too aware to let it devolve into a regular dream state, where random memories plastered together to make nonsensical stories. So he sat in silence among the building blocks of his lucid dream world. Lines, shapes, and colors floated without a purpose.

Something scared him: a little light, floating with the rest. Not of his own design. A single firefly. It swam in front of him, dancing to some tune.

He clasped out to it. The firefly buzzed in front of his eyes. The thing was almost on him. He swatted it away, but it wouldn’t leave.

And then it went inside him — into his soul — setting it on fire with words. They dropped into his mind and spread across his thoughts.

What is your Paradise? Will you grasp my rope and climb up to Paradise?

And the words wouldn’t leave his mind.

“Who are you?” Kav asked.

Everything became white. A familiar ceiling stared at him while footsteps pattered on the carpet. He was back in his room. Kyars stood half-naked, holding a pair of pants.

“Good morning Kav, you wet?”

“Wet?”

“I heard you last night, screaming her name. ‘Layla! Layla!'” Kyars grinned like a fool. “Must have been a fun time, eh?”

“You got it all wrong.” I gotta write that dream down, and the one from yesterday.

Kyars eyed Kav’s blanket. As if he’d done this many times, he pulled it off to check out Kav’s underwear.

“Nothing?” Kyars said. “That’s too bad. If you ain’t getting any in your dreams, you ain’t getting any.”

“You gonna stop gazing at my underwear?”

Kyars went back to changing. Kav took out his dream notebook and a pen from under his bed.

“So tell me more about Layla,” Kyars said. “We’ve been mates for six months and you barely said a word about her.”

There was too much to tell, really. “What do you want to know?”

“How fine is she? I mean, like the details.”

“Look, I’m not gonna paint you a picture of my wife. That pleasure’s mine and mine alone.”

“Aww, come on!” Kyars slipped on some pants, his cadet uniform untucked. “Man, I still don’t get it. How the hell is it that a young guy like you goes and gets married. That’s like having a whole garden of fruits in front of your face — grapes, bananas, apples, strawberries, oranges — and saying you’re only gonna eat grapes from now on. That kind of commitment’s for old folk, man.”

“When the grapes are just that good, you’re gonna keep eating ’em.”

“No grapes are that good!”

“How would you know?” Kav said. “You’ve never had these grapes.”

“True…why don’t you describe what these grapes taste like then?”

Kav sighed, then got up from the bed to stretch. “They are sweet and a bit tangy.”

“That’s not what I mean! What an asshole. I’ll never understand you Kav, never.” Kyars walked out the room, shaking his head.

So Kav finished writing down the dreams, showered, got dressed, and went to morning lecture with his bunkmate.

 ***

Supposedly some general was coming to speak today. Kav and Kyars took the backseats in the lecture hall as usual, among fifty or so cadets. This was one of the new buildings; the marble floor still glittered, and the desks and chairs smelt of fresh oak. After a brief introduction, which Kav barely heard, the general rose from his chair and began speaking.

“It is said that long ago, our ancestors departed their blue planet on a ship of the stars, in search of paradise. They found only our world, and betaken by the beauty of our continent, named it Eden.

“Today, tens of thousands of years later, long after we have forgotten our ancestors and their miraculous journey, our world faces a crisis which will surely bring it to its end, unless all of you work together to save it.”

The general wore a black uniform with a red trim, and over it a red coat with golden bird patterns. His gold boots glimmered as he paced back and forth at the head of the hall.

Kav was too far away to get a good look at the man’s face; all he could see was a thick blond beard. It reminded him of a lion’s mane.

“I’ve been told that here at the academy there’s been fighting recently among the different peoples of our continent,” the General said. “I want you to understand that we, the people of Eden, no matter the country, are all children of Nur. Two-thousand years ago, the Saint Iskander united the people of Eden under his rule. And when he erected the Barrier around our land to protect us, he meant for it to keep us together, so that Nur’s light would never fade.”

The General took a deep breath. His gut poked out when he did. “Now everyone look at your right wrists.”

Kav stared at the tiny jewel nested in his right wrist: his twicrys. It glistened yellow. Was this what made him a “child of Nur?” Around the twicrys, his aperture slot shone silver. The twicrys and aperture made it possible for him to conduct sunshine through his body, like all the people of Eden. Of course, he had no memory of when the aperture slot was sewed into his wrist, but he’d changed his twicrys jewel a few times whenever the jewel dulled.

The General continued. “Nur is the Light of Heaven, and all of us who conduct that light are His children — no matter what country we hail from. And as children of the divine, as holy brothers, we must all put the conflicts of the past behind us. When we unite as a people, when we focus on our specialties, only then will we be able to defend Eden.”

Holy brothers? To Kav, that just sounded ridiculous. How could that explain the War of the Poets, and the Second Keldanese Uprising, and all the wars between the “children of Nur?”

“And just what are these specialties?” the General continued. “Well, we know that the island nations, Necia and Keldan, are the source of ninety-five percent of Eden’s twicrys shards. Now that’s saying something. It’s saying that the islanders can focus on collecting twicrys, refining twicrys, and turning them into usable product.”

Also, islanders are better sunlight conductors, and thus better fighters and military personnel. But no Shirmian would admit that.

“And Almarians, by far the most populous group of our great Continental Empire. And also, the best metal workers. Almarians have got the best silicon threading technology, they make the best aperture slots, gain-mediums, conduction wells, wires — all that good stuff we need to power our military machine.”

Kav felt a message emerge in his consciousness. It hit his mind’s eye, writing itself in his thoughts.

Man, Almarian chicks are so damn hot.

It was Kyars, messaging him again during a lecture. And it caused Kav to miss some of what the General was saying.

Kav closed his eyes, channeled himself to Kyars’s frequency, and wrote his reply. Shining through the ceiling panels, sunlight hit his aperture and flowed into his twicrys, where it was converted it into radio frequency ready to be sent to Kyars.

You really need to get laid.

Kyars replied quick.

This guy’s so boring, and you’re right, it’s been such a long time man, too long.

“Then we come to the Shirmians inhabiting the nation of Devshirme, who compose the majority of Eden’s Continental Army, and the ruling house of his Highness — the Shahanshah. Nur Himself has given the Selukal House the power to rule over the entire continent. But we must safeguard that this rule never turns to oppression, for surely Nur punishes the tyrants. Which is why our great Shah has mandated that all the children of Nur be treated as equals in the Continental Empire.”

Kav messaged Kyars.

Equals? Everyone knows the Shirmas just step on whomever they want.

Kyars rolled his eyes.

Like I told you before, control that pride, or it’s gonna mess you up in this place. I mean look around, how many Necians in this hall, five? How many Shirmas, fifty? Can’t win with numbers like that.

Indeed, the hall was a sea of Shirmian faces. A group of boys at some desks in the middle glared at Kav. More of Tusir’s herd?

“This is by far the most important message I am here to convey. The peoples of the Continental Empire must NEVER fight among each other. Divided, our people can never prosper — it is the simplest and clearest theme throughout the history of all peoples.”

At that moment, Kav noticed the General staring at him with his golden eyes — as if the man wanted to see into his core. A few seconds was all Kav could take before he flinched and looked away.

“Cadets! The Barrier of Iskander, which has stood for two-thousand years, is fading. Already, the hole in the north is miles wide, and the Haemian hordes are ever-ready to pour through. If we don’t stand together, then we will never win in our struggle against the Plane of Haem.”

Back to a much more interesting topic — Almarian chicks, you dig?

Layla’s half-Almarian, so yeah, I do.

Kyars, leaning back in his chair, almost fell over. The chair banged as he settled back into balance.

Man, what the hell? You didn’t tell me your girl was half-Necian, half-Almarian. Damn Kav, my respect for you just quadrupled.

Nah. Half-Almarian, half-Shirmian.

Kyars took some time to think on that. A whole minute later, he responded.

Go to hell. That’s a damned lie. What else you been lying to me about?

Ain’t a lie. You should know by now, I always got my eyes on the prize.

“Recall the destruction of the city of Razh sixty-four years ago, our first encounter with the Haemians. Why do the Haemians want to wipe us off the earth? We still don’t know the answer, even after sixty years of war. Haemians don’t negotiate, they only destroy. They don’t have a civilization, or a culture. They bring only death with them on the wings of their levships.

“And that’s your passion, that’s the reason you fight. To preserve our civilization from their nihilistic darkness, to keep your loved ones safe, to sacrifice for the good of all the people of Eden. That’s all you need in your heart to be a soldier of the Continental Army, and a true son of Nur. Remember your true enemy before you even think of turning on your brother.”

Nihilistic darkness? The hell does that mean? Man, I’m about ready to bust out of here. What do you wanna eat?

Before Kav could reply, the General dismissed the cadets. Everyone got up and funneled toward the exit. The two roommates met in the middle as cadets rushed around.

“Could go for some fish curry right about now.” Kav tasted it on his tongue. Smothered in ginger.

“Man, really, you’re the biggest stereotype I ever met. The biggest, Kav. The biggest.”

“Please, you know you want some too.”

Minutes later, Kyars and Kav were stuffing down fish curry in the cafeteria. They ate with bread, dipping it into the curry, clasping some fish, then devouring the morsel.

“So man,” Kyars said, “you decided whether you’re gonna throw the match this afternoon?”

“There ain’t nothing to decide. I’m ending that Shirma.”

Kyars looked around frantically. “Keep your damn voice down.”

“Nah, anyone who wants to step up, can step up. The last thing I am is afraid.”

“Kav, settle the hell down. You’re acting like one of the Keldanese. We ain’t savages like them. Us Necians know that we can beat the Shirmians at their own game if we just play along, instead of trying to overthrow the system like those fish across the pond.”

Kav glanced away, unable to look Kyars in the eye — not after what he said. “Don’t hate on the Keldanese. They’re just like us. No different.”

“They’re savages, Kav. Don’t give me that ‘reunification’ crap.”

“Savages? What makes them savages? They’ve got the same blood as us! If they are then we are too.”

“Yeah? How about when they killed all those kids they’d taken hostage at that school last year? Or the fact that their country is complete shit — hell, they don’t need to kill us, they’re killing themselves.”

“Remember your true enemy before you even think of turning on your brother’.” Kav got up and pushed in his chair. “Anyway, I’m gonna go, conduction drills in fifteen.” He walked away, unable to look Kyars in the eye.

 ***

“Now we begin the semifinal of the Ekrah Academy Annual Conduction Arts Tournament.”

This guy covered in regalia was some kind of referee. But it’s because people like him didn’t do their job that Kav got that beating yesterday. With his opponent, Kav lined up facing the referee and a crowd of cadet onlookers. Behind them, the forest breathed out leaves, painting the world with foliage.

“Remember the rules,” the referee said. “The blade you have in your hand is blunt, and the gain-mediums are toned down to allow only minimal levels of intensity. Not much more than a firebulb. You cannot injure or be injured by the conduction charge of the weapon.”

The mock blade was of admirable construction. Slightly curved, like any standard CA scimitar. As usual, Kav would have to calculate for that curve. The gain-medium in the sword worked like a second twicrys, channeling sunlight from Kav’s twicrys so it could be fired off his blade as destructive energy.

His opponent looked nervous. Like bugs crawled over his legs, he fidgeted so much.

This is the end of your tournament, Shirma.

“On your belt, there are four jewels colored blue. As you get hit by conduction, they will turn red. Once all four jewels on your belt are red, you have lost, and your opponent is the victor.”

Just beyond the field, the cityscape of Ekrah adorned the horizon. Kav stared at what looked like a glass sword cutting through heaven. Known as the HEX Research Center, it was supposedly the tallest manmade structure in the world.

Over one-thousand feet, more than a hundred stories, hell, we get Time Service from there. Stunning.

“Physical combat is permitted during battle, but only if it is not injurious,” the referee continued. “And no one else is allowed in the boundary area while the match is underway.”

Another one of the referees approached. Kav saluted and disciplined his stance.

The referee led him into the forest with its varied terrain: little trails for maneuvering, trees to climb for height advantage, boulders and broken logs for cover. The forest with all its life would be Kav’s personal warzone.

They stopped at the starting spot, somewhere at the eastern end of the boundary line. His opponent would be at the western end, three hundred or so yards away.

“Get to it.” The referee blew his whistle.

And it began. Kav filled his twicrys with sunlight and closed his eyes. Spectrum mapping was the first order of battle. Blade in hand, he channeled the sunlight through his aperture, keeping aware of the wavelengths. Low-frequency infrared compiled in his twicrys, and his blade now felt like another limb. He calculated a spectrum ping, his nerves surged, and he let it burst off his sword.

It emitted off the end of his blade, unseen, pinging out in a circle. The light traveled through the entire forest before losing order and scattering. In the instant of a second, Kav’s aperture captured the ping echo of the forest and everything within it. Imprinted on his mind’s eye, the spectrum map was vivid and teeming with colors, showing the distances of everything and their movements and makings. With spectrum, he could see much more than his eyes ever could.

Ugh…too much…

The colors scattered about his mind and fizzled, losing the order of their pattern. The blue-shifting pattern of a moving human being indicated his opponent was on the western end — something he already knew.

Ugh, can’t do spectrum properly right now. Eyes and ears will serve me better.

Kav went west to meet his enemy. Furious leaves whirled around him. The wind’s roar was background music as he hunted for his prey. He ducked beneath a vine-infested log — decent cover. Pausing, he closed his eyes to give spectrum mapping another try.

The infrared light burst out into the world and came back. Shaky lines in his mind’s eye showed the enemy to the northwest, less than fifty yards away. But Kav couldn’t get much more.

Some people can tell if you’re chewing gum from miles away, I can barely tell man from tree.

A twig snapped — northwest.

Kav rose over the log to look. Nothing. No one.

Leaves ruffled. Something ran at him — west. There was the Shirma — charging full force!

Sunlight filled Kav’s twicrys. It surged through him and into his blade as he sliced at his foe.

Direct hit. The light wave hit the boy. One of those jewels must’ve turned red.

Too easy. Kav jumped sideways behind another log. The boy crept behind a tree.

“Trees won’t save you, Shirma.” They didn’t do me any good…

The Shirmian showed his face, in perfect position for Kav to let off a quick one. It flew off his blade — direct hit on the head.

“This your best? I expect more from a semifinalist.” Kav untensed.

End it quick and I’ll have more time to sleep and dream.

He approached the boy’s tree.

Hold…what if it’s a trap? Just like yesterday, they could be waiting to jump me again.

The boy dashed out of cover, blade forward. A beam seared off. Kav ducked as the beam flew over his head. Sunshine danced in his veins. A wide-area burst would show some style. He changed the aperture command in his mind and let it out, a burst so wide it would’ve sliced the Shirmian in half — if these weren’t mock weapons.

This was the reason Kav made the semifinals: great control over aperture commands. Unlike others who couldn’t “feel” how the tiny slot in the wrist interacted with the mind, to Kav and most islanders it was natural. All he had to do was feel the command he wanted. And that’s why this was all too easy.

The boy, as if surrendering with three jewels in the red, dropped his blade.

“What’s this now?” Kav kicked the boy in the thigh, sending him to the ground. “A trap? I won’t fall for this shit again.”

“Stop!” the boy said. “Please!”

“Tooth for a tooth Shirma, but first…” Kav prepared to conduct the game-ending bolt. But more than that, he was ready to get physical on this boy should anyone show up.

“I’m not with Tusir’s guys.” The boy put his hands up. “I…please, listen to me, aright?”

A quick spectrum check showed no one else in the forest. Just trees and birds and rocks.

“Kav, right? Before you end the match, please listen to what I got to say.”

“Say it already.”

“If I lose 4-0 to an islander, I’ll never be able to live it down. So please, I’m willing to lose to you right now, just please, not 4-0.”

“So what, you want me to friendly fire myself?”

“Yeah?”

Kav chuckled. “Okay, and you’re giving me…”

“I’ll tell you something real important, that you ought to know about your next opponent. About Tusir.”

“Hmm…do tell.”

“What about the friendly fire? My 4-3?”

“We’ll see how I feel.”

The boy sat up and wiped dirt off his shoulders. As if he needed to look dignified to say what he had to. “You said you expected more from a semifinalist. Well, truth is, Tusir’s been intimidating or paying off all the best conductors to throw or drop out. And not just the islanders, even the Shirmians and the Almarians. He’s been rigging the jewels, the gain-mediums, even getting the refs to turn away. All to make sure he wins.”

So that’s why yesterday happened.

“So you’re just what remained,” Kav said. “Why is Tusir so intent on winning this meaningless competition? He really in it for the glory? Doesn’t seem like the type, to be honest.”

“Dunno. I mean, I heard something. Could be why he cares so much, but it’s just a rumor.”

“Yeah? Hurry it up, I’m intent to catch up on sleep.”

“I heard that the competition this year is being observed by those masked people, the Magi. Rumors say the winner’s gonna get training from them, you know, in the secrets of the art.”

“Masked people?” Kav said. “Could be true with all the sightings recently. Anyway, let’s do this business.”

“I get my three?”

“You do. One for the info on Tusir, one for the bit on the Magi, and a bonus because I feel sorry for your incapable Shirma ass.”

Kav felt like an idiot hitting himself three times. Then he got his fourth on the Shirmian and walked out of the forest with a day’s work done.

 ***

Back at the dorm, Kav took off his sweat-soaked uniform. Kyars wasn’t around; the guy had targeting exercises around this time or something.

Training from the Magi, eh? Too bad I already knew all about that.

While walking to bed, Kav caught his own reflection in their little mirror on the wall. It was half-way cracked, so it looked like his head was severed.

There was a crack on his body too: a cut on the flesh above his left breast. Kav fingered it. The skin was hard and grown over. A little bump could be felt in the center, that when pushed, was like stabbing yourself with a thorn.

“Admiring yourself, pretty boy?” Kyars stood at the doorway in a dark-blue cadet jacket. “Half-Shirmian, half-Almarian wife…you damned stud.”

“You’re looking classy too. The occasion?”

“Had my clearance run today, brother. The sergeant had a word with me after. And guess what?”

“You got it?”

Kyars did a fist-pump. “Hell yes! I’m gonna be air artillery with the thirty-first. Flying high in the sky with the birds and the sun and the clouds and all that celestial fun.”

“The thirty-first…that on CAL-409 by any chance?”

“Dunno, but I don’t think the sky can handle both us fish on the same damn levship. The sky’s gonna fall or something if that happens.”

Kyars came closer to stare at Kav’s chest. “Been meaning to ask, just what is that? Someone knife you in the chest?”

Kav was still fingering the little bump on the scar, not realizing he’d been doing it the whole time. “Nah, my bond’s in here.”

“Your bond? What?”

“When Layla and I got married, we had the jewels sewed into our skin. You know, the bond. Like we do on the islands.”

An astounded Kyars shook his head. “Kav, you from the jungles or something? Civilization passed you over? Man, the only person I know to have a damned bond inside them is my grandma. Seriously, that’s some real backwater shit right there.”

“It’s old school. Me and Layla, we keep it old school.”

“Shut the hell up. Old school my fish loving ass. It’s unclean if anything.”

“It’s a part of our culture. Everyone on the islands used to do it before the Shirmians came and threw our way of life and culture into the sea, replacing it with their own.”

Kyars snickered and tinkered with his shoe straps. “Man, if that was our culture, I’m glad it got its ass drowned.”

Hours passed. The pair settled, changed into slacks, and lay on their mattresses. So much for sleep; napping now wouldn’t help sleeping through all six hours of UHR anyway.

Kav stared at the ceiling while fingering the bond beneath his shirt. And he wished it was a different ceiling, and the room a different room, and this damned country a different damned country.

“So Kavy — weekend leave is coming, baby.” Kyars beamed. “That’s all that’s been on my mind. You down for north Almaria?”

“I’ll go anywhere, so long as I don’t have to breathe this weak Shirmian air. But Almaria does sound fun.”

“Fun? Like I been saying, Almarian chicks are where it’s at. You’re gonna have fun, and then some.”

Kav let silence drench the conversation.

“What, man? What’s with that look?” Kyars said. “She’s a thousand miles away!”

“Nah, just an eight hour lev flight.”

“A levship flight to Necia costs, what, five-hundred twinsen? You got five-hundred shards in the bank to see her? On the other hand, Almaria’s a fifty twinsen train ride away.”

“You know, Almarian chicks are indeed fine, but most of them are devout too. That country’s full of saints and scholars. Those women ain’t as loose as you fantasize.”

“Look, even so, you’re only gonna see your girl once a year when we get our two weeks. How the hell you gonna live on that diet?”

“No doubt it hurts, but I made a vow. I can’t just back out on my vows — a man’s got to be honorable. Besides, I’m still crazy about her.”

Kyars rolled over in his bed like an unfurling dog. “Tell me something then, just so I can understand. Why do you love her so damn much? What the hell has put that ‘bond’ into your heart, figuratively and literally?”

Kav stared at the ceiling. “Eh…”

“Okay fine, tell me this. What’s your favorite memory of her? Like, the thing you think about when you’re trying to fall asleep, that gives you that warmth and all. Tell me about that, so maybe I can get your whole infatuation.”

“Get your own favorite memory.”

“Dammit Kav, tell me, please. I’m so curious my head hurts.”

“Fine, fine. Lemme set the scene…”

And Kav recounted his favorite memory with Layla. Ironically, one that never put him to sleep, but rather kept him up through UHR on days when he needed sleep the most.

 ***

The scene was this: a garden where fruits hung so low, you could pick apples just by reaching out. Clusters of leaves on trees so thick, even the sun was blocked from entering. Towering palm trees spread their shade everywhere, leaving each blade of grass crisp and cool.

A bubbling spring ran through the garden, caressing your feet as you stepped. And there was Kav, with Layla, sitting beneath the shade of the tallest tree.

“Why’d you choose me?” Kav asked. “It’s been years, and I never understood.”

The locks of Layla’s hair, blue as deep ocean, waved over her eyes as a gust of wind blew. Kind of messy. “I guess I was drawn to you, that’s all.”

“Drawn to me? You gotta do better than that. I’m an islander, you’re a Shirmian. Your bathtub is bigger than my house. So why?”

She gazed into him, her sapphire eyes thudding his heart. “You know the verse from the recitals, about how all things are created in pairs? You’re my pair, Kav. Our souls were created together, so nothing of the outward matters. Not your race, or your memories, or where you live. We had to find each other, and we’ll be together for eternity. No matter what.”

 ***

“Kav, shut the hell up. Just shut your damn face.” Kyars cut Kav off, just when he was getting to the best part. Then Kyars jumped off his bed and started lecturing like the General. “I don’t wanna hear that crap. By Nur, you’re a man, don’t fall for that camel shit.”

“I’m telling you my favorite memory, like you asked, and you’re calling it camel shit?”

“Look, girls — that’s how they get you,” Kyars said. “I’m telling you man, don’t believe a word of it. It’s all talk, none of that is really in their hearts. They’re cold as hell. If hell wasn’t a burning sea of fire.”

“I know that, I’ve been on the whole tour, so sit down.” Kav turned away from Kyars. “But Layla…she’s different. She’s not like other girls, she has this…sadness to her and this mystery and…anyway, forget it.”

Kyars got back on his mattress. “Man, I’m sorry. I’d really like you to finish your story.”

“No.”

“Really…truly…please…”

“I said no.”

“I’ll treat you to some steamed salmon?”

Kav rolled his eyes. “Clamp that mouth this time until I’m finished.”

 ***

Under the tree in the garden, the gentlest breeze kissed them both. Layla gazed holes through Kav’s heart, her warmth pressed against his shoulder.

She took something out of her pocket. “Let’s get married.”

“Damn. You’re sure direct.”

She held a jewel between her fingers. Within that jewel, swirled the sun itself. It was that stunning.

“You’d rather I dance around the notion? Or send you a menu of mixed signals?”

Kav touched his nose to hers. “A castrated panda couldn’t say no to you. Let’s do it.”

Before he could kiss her, she reached out to him with the jewel.

“Whoah,” Kav said, “you wanna get married right here?”

“With Nur as our witness!” She grinned her mischievous grin.

“We can’t. I’ve got nothing to give you.”

“Go up in a tree and grab an apple. That will be your dowry to me, and this will be my offering to you.”

He reached up to grab an apple. They were the thickest red — blood red — as if biting one would be like chewing through flesh. Luminous apples drenched with garden mist.

He gave it to her, and the bond was sealed. With Nur as their witness.

 ***

“Wait a damned minute,” Kyars said. “I know I’m not supposed to interrupt, but that’s some camel shit right there. You can’t get married with ‘Nur as your witness’, you need at least three witnesses for a marriage to be legal. You know, real flesh and blood human beings.”

Kav focused on the white ceiling. “Obviously, it was a romantic gesture. Not something someone like you would understand. After that, we went back to town and got married with witnesses and whatnot. All legal, all straight, and I bought her something better than a damn apple and we had our jewels sewed into our chests. So that’s the whole story, my favorite damn moment of my damn life. Now I’m spent, I need sleep so I can mess up that Shirma Tusir tomorrow.”

“Oh yeah! I forgot to congratulate you for winning today. I was so worried about you, that they’d come after you again. Whatever, my boy’s a finalist! Damn, I hadn’t even realized. Here we are talking about girls when you could be declared the conductor of the year. Now if only there were girls around to witness it…”

“I got this,” Kav said. “Victory is already humming my name. I will win.”

Kyars stretched to shut the blinds; the room darkened. The sun gazed through a gap at the top, peaking in at Kav’s bedside. Dust swirled in the air where the sunray hit.

“See, I might be pig-headed, but you Kav, are proud and arrogant. Nur will forgive me, but not you. Humility, my brother.”

At that, Kav pretended he was asleep. Minutes passed, and Kyar’s snoring confirmed that he’d left the waking world. Kav wanted to do the same, but dancing thoughts trampled his drowsiness.

The Mask, could he be the same one from four years ago? If I win tomorrow, and I get to meet him, then what? The hell will I do then?

He longed for the thoughts to stop so he could rest up for the big match.

If it’s the same Magus…if there’s even a chance I can meet him, I have to take it. I have to win. And then I can finally kill him.

 ***

After lumbering through the halls without any sleep, Kav slept through his Advanced Energy Routing class. He sat down for lunch with Kyars at twelve.

“Man, you shoulda woken me up if you couldn’t sleep,” Kyars said. “I would’ve knocked your ass out. How’re you gonna beat Tusir in this shape?”

Kav took a sip of his espresso shot. “Sleep is overrated. I’m giving him a much needed handicap.”

“You mean, you’re giving yourself a handicap.”

“Whatevs, same meaning.” Kav sipped. Quality espresso. These Shirmians could sure brew a cup.

A few minutes of silent eating passed. Kav ate his curry rice granule by granule, having little energy to fill his stomach.

“You know what I was thinking this morning?” Kyars said. “I was thinking about how I want to die. And I think I know…how I want to die.”

“How?” This is gonna be good…

“Imagine me, creeping around the palaces of Kostany. I sneak into the Shah’s harem, where I have my way with his Almarian quarter. No scratch that, I ain’t gonna limit myself to one race. Hell, if he’s got any Haemians in there, I’ll take ’em too. Anyway, the guards are alerted, they rush in with their scimitars, but before they kill me, I die Buktansir style!”

“Buktansir style? Should I even ask what that is?”

“Buktansir was the great conqueror who had over one-thousand children and three-hundred concubines. The man died while…you know.”

“Damn.”

Kyars nodded in rhythm. “I’ll give you some time to digest that. Then you tell me how you want to die.”

How I want to die? The question was like a shot of energy. Or maybe that was the espresso.

“Aright, aright. Here’s my version,” Kav said. “Imagine me, relaxing in a grassy field. No scratch that, relaxing on the roof of a tower. And I’m staring at the sky, just lying down, looking up. And then, all of a sudden, an immense meteor rips through the clouds. It flies downward at incredible speed, hits the city, and boom, buildings tear apart, and a massive cloud of death comes toward me and that’s the last thing I see before Nur takes my soul.”

“That’s just sick!” said a voice at Kav’s flank. “What messed you up in childhood?”

Kav spun to face him.

It was the blond-haired Tusir, glaring at him with his proud Shirmian nose.

And so Kav glared back.

A minute might have passed.

“Fine, I’ll crack the silence,” Kav said. “What in the blue hell do you want?”

“Just here to have a little conversation.”

Kyars piled his leftovers on his tray. “I’m out, have class anyway.” He darted out the cafeteria.

Tusir sat in his place. “You’re damn good.”

“Nah. I try, is all.”

“You do more than just ‘try’. I heard about your domination in the round phase. Not one red jewel — mighty stuff.”

“Which is why you tried to off me in the quarters, eh?”

Tusir smirked and leaned back in his chair. “You know, someone who fights as hard as you has got to have a good reason. Most of these guys around us are, for lack of a better word, clowns. Straight up clowns, who got to fill their compulsory service at the world’s best academy ’cause their parents got connections. They don’t want to be here, they don’t want to fight, it’s not in their blood. But you’re something else.”

“Yeah? Maybe so.”

“You know, someone who fights as hard as you, either they’re here because they got someone to protect, or they really want to mess someone up.”

Kav looked away and stared out the window. A flock of birds fluttered by outside.

“So which is it, Kav?”

“I just want the glory, man, there ain’t nothin’ deep to me. For myself, and my people.”

Back to glaring at each other.

“Your people?” Tusir said. “Where’re you from?”

“Riau island. In the south of Necia.”

“Really? I’ve been there. Love the local delicacy, what do you call it, those fish pancakes?”

Eyebrow was itching, so Kav scratched. “Oh yeah, good stuff, good stuff.”

And then Tusir closed his eyes. A message hit Kav’s consciousness.

You’re not from Necia. Damn liar.

It was obviously Tusir — his frequency unfamiliar.

Think what you want. Kav replied. I got nothing more to say to you, so why don’t you meet me in the field?

You’re Keldanese. Tusir messaged. For sure. I know, because I grew up in Keldan, in the Shirmian quarter of Hyseria. I can tell the difference between Necians and you Keldanese.

“Save it for the fight.” Kav pushed the table and got up. Time for class anyway.

Tusir messaged as he was leaving. I can spread your secret. All your Necian buddies will hate you. And there’ll probably be an investigation into your background. Just what’re you hiding? Damn, you a terrorist or something? You Sons of the Deep, or Keldan Alive, or some shit? They’ll deport you. Or worse, imprison you. But I’ll keep your secret, if you do one thing for me. Throw the match.

You know, even though I’m not one, I admire the Keldanese. Kav replied. They don’t take shit from anyone, and neither will I.

With sunlight in his veins, Kav wrote a block for Tusir’s frequency. The aperture fed a confirmation back to his mind. And then he went to class, the desire to win burning away tiredness.

 ***

The forest was furious. Leaves blew off trees in raging gusts, weaving a tapestry of foliage through the air. Kav stood still — eyes closed. He felt his wrist throb as his twicrys filled with sunshine.

Ping. He sent waves out through the forest, creating a spectrum map in his mind. Everything had its own pattern of colors, suspended in motion.

But his foe Tusir was nowhere on it.

Has he cloaked himself?

Kav stood as still as he could, like another tree beaten on by raging leaves. They pattered across his face, smelling of old life. Crunching into one another, whirling away.

That’s how I’ll hear him, footsteps on leaves.

He listened for the crunch. Patter patter — leaves hit his face. The wind whispered. Patter patter.

Patter patter.

Red light hit his eyes. It beamed onto him from a perch somewhere.

Shit.

Kav ducked behind a tree to cut off the angle of the light. He looked down to check the jewel belt.

One was red. Dammit.

Eyes closed, he released a spectrum ping. The area where the light came from seemed clean.

Has he moved?

There was something odd: an unusually large black hole in the spectrum map. Large enough to be the aura of a person. Up on a tree, twenty-five yards southwest. Unmoving, the black hole was still as he pinged again. He’s sniping…

Kav dashed for another tree, keeping cover between him and what he knew was Tusir. Leaves pummeled him as he pushed against the wind. He slid under a sprawling oak. It must have been a hundred years old; its branches reached to the sun over all others.

Once again, Kav pinged. This time, the black hole was gone.

He looked to the right — nothing. To the left — there! Kav slashed at the Shirmian boy and conducted a wide red wave. The boy jumped, slashed back in the air. Red flashed in Kav’s eyes.

Tusir dove into a bush. Kav was sure his charge hit the boy’s foot.

Back behind cover, Kav checked his belt. Two red.

2-1 — I got this. I can come back.

A quick look at spectrum revealed Tusir about fifteen yards west — blue-shifting. Kav peeked out from behind the trunk, saw no one. Tusir must have his own cover. By spectrum, Kav determined which tree the boy hid behind. I can flank him.

Kav dashed, keeping low, to a closer tree. He checked his angle, but still couldn’t see Tusir. Spectrum showed the boy in flight — red-shifting.

From tree to tree, Kav approached in a circle. There! Tusir sat huddled behind a fungus-infested log. Kav slashed twice, precise bursts at his torso. Direct hit. That’s two more! Kav slashed upwards for the third and final. Tusir sidestepped, released a wide-area burst. Light scathed Kav’s eyes. He backstepped behind a log.

Three red on the belt — 3-3. This one decides it.

I’m close. Damn close. To lose from here would be tragic. I won’t.

Spectrum revealed the boy near, about ten yards north.

“This’s been one hell of a fight!” Tusir said.

Kav kept silent, focused on ending it.

“I don’t think I can win,” Tusir continued. “You’re too fast. You release two in the time it takes me one.”

“You givin’ up, Shirma?”

“The Blessing of the Deep Blue — you definitely have it. It’s sad, my parents moved to a settlement on the Keldanese rim so that I could be born with it as well. All my life, I drank nothing but Deep Blue water, bathed in that water, ate only fish from that water. But I’m still not even close to as good as you.”

Nostalgic words, almost comforting. Words tinged with blue. Focus. If his words have any truth, I need to beat him NOW.

The tree which hid Tusir was thick, but another ten or so yards and Kav could see behind it.

“Lemme win,” Tusir said. “You don’t understand, I need to win. It matters more to me than you can know.”

Three yards. Two. One. There! Kav released a precision shot, reddening the world.

Direct hit! The match ender!

Tusir came out, blade sheathed in his belt. And next to it, were four blue jewels.

“The hell?” Kav gaped. “You cheating piece of gorilla shit!”

“I can’t lose to you. I won’t.” Tusir unsheathed his blade.

Kav charged at him, grabbed his neck, and threw him to the floor; then stopped himself from stomping the Shirmian in the gut; then stopped himself from smashing the boy’s proud nose.

Kav picked up Tusir’s blade and threw it next to him. “Get up and finish this farce.”

Tusir sat up, rubbing his neck.

“Finish it!” Kav said.

“I can’t.”

“Why not? You went to all this trouble to cheat yourself to a glorious victory. So finish the game so I can go sow a quilt or something.”

“Where in Keldan you from?”

“Fuck you.” Kav turned to walk away.

“You’re from Kerb, aren’t you?”

That stopped him cold.

“I can tell,” Tusir said. “The way you talk, your accent. It’s subtle, but having lived my life around you people, I can tell. But more than anything, I know because of how you fight. No people were more blessed with Nur’s light than the Kerbians.”

“Don’t talk like you’re Keldanese. You Shirmas lived in a walled-off little world.”

“You and I are the same. That’s why you want to win so badly. You want to be the strongest, don’t you? Whether or not winning matters, you can’t let yourself lose.”

Kav stared in silence at a mashed ant hill.

“Tell me,” Tusir said, “why is it you want to become stronger? Who are you trying to protect? Or…who are you trying to destroy? What happened to you, Kav?”

 ***

War happened, four years ago, after the Second Uprising began in Kerb. Kav awoke during Universal Hours of Rest, his sweat smelling of salt. His brother Mezzin wasn’t on his mattress, nor was auntie home.

Outside, the deafening whine of hovering levships drowned the roar of fires. Kav ran through the streets toward the Deep Blue shore. The people of the city stampeded the opposite direction, away from the levships toward the outskirts of town.

On the way to the shore, the Shrine of Saint Ad’deen stood radiant — a domed mausoleum for the dead saint. A throng of Keldanese clung to the tomb, their palms facing heaven, seeking his intercession with Nur.

And then fire rained from the sky. The dome exploded, spewing white marble. A piece hit Kav’s head and knocked him onto the dirt road. Blood gushed from his ear.

Clutching his dripping ear, Kav wanted to run away. His ear drum had burst, a piece of flesh dangled out the hole: a broken part of him. But it didn’t matter how many parts broke; all that mattered was the girl he sought.

So Kav got up and treaded to the shore. Something whirled above, free flying over the water — a levship, much bigger than any he’d seen. It seemed to be leading the armada. Most levships look like birds, but this one was flat and geometric, resembling an octagon. Like an eight-sided black hole, sucking the light of the sun. And it sang. It hummed a dead song that drove the world to its end. Kav ignored it and continued.

He pinged, and spectrum showed Layla, not too far from where he stood, a blue-glow upon the rainbow. Then he received a message.

Kav…run. Don’t let me be the cause of your demise. Our bond will outlast this world into the next. We’ll see each other again, in the Garden, so run.

And he replied.

I can’t. I can’t run from my own soul.

The gates of the Palace on the Shore were open. Kav ran into the courtyard, breathless. She was here, somewhere.

 ***

Tusir got back on his feet, blade in hand. “You joined the army that destroyed your home. Why?”

“I’ve got reasons.”

“It’s funny, your reasons may be too similar to mine.”

Tusir ripped something off his belt — a black piece of cloth. “This is a black absorber. It has a ninety percent chance of absorbing low intensity light hitting within its field.”

Into the wind he threw it. With the raging leaves it flew away. Then he pointed his blade at his chest and conducted a soft charge. A jewel turned red.

He did it again. “Let’s complete our flight.” And once more. Now it really was 3-3.

“You know,” Kav said, “I beat you already. It’s 4-3 to me.”

“Actually, remember when you hit my foot? Well, feet don’t count, they’re outside the belt’s range. Should’ve listened to the rules more carefully.”

“Whatever.” Kav pointed his blade at him. “Let’s finish this.”

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