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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.

CONQUEROR’S BLOOD | Chapter 2 | Zedra

Extinction. Fractures within fractures, breaking the whole. A river dilutes into streams that lead into an ocean. Salt and seaweed muddle the sweet water, erasing its purity. A firm root and a tall stem, decay into wispy branches, and then—

“My dear, you haven’t touched your eggplant soup.” Tamaz’s butter-oil voice broke my anxious thoughts.

My gaze returned outward. Just Tamaz and I, at a low table in his supper chamber, surrounded by serving girls, beardless boys, and braided eunuchs. I’d only been here once before; with its bare, sand-brick walls and floor covered with the square-patterned rugs of some sand tribe, it seemed the dining room of an ascetic sheikh, not the glorious Shah of Alanya.

“Apologies, Your Glory,” I said, bending my neck. “Truth is, I haven’t lost all the heft from carrying the child.”

Now he glared at me, nostrils flaring and mouth hanging. The king of the land looked like an irate farmer — no turban, hair unkempt, caftan a mud-brown. “Zedra, you are as lovely as a red tulip plucked from the holy soil of Zelthuriya.”

How classical. Perhaps he ought to drag his dais to Laughter Square. “I’m afraid younger eyes are a bit more…discerning.”

“Has Kyars said something unkind?” Thunder rang in his voice. “That lout. I thought war would make him a man and—”

I shook my head. “No, Your Glory. The Crown Prince has been nothing but kind. Some of his other women, though…oh, I shouldn’t gossip.”

“Hmph. Jealousy. Not much else to it. Let them say what they will. The truth is, you are the mother of the future shah. You could be as bulging as a laden camel, or as thin as prayer beads, and you’d still be the sultana of this harem.”

A beardless boy placed some more softbread onto our floor table. The irony: neither myself nor the Shah ate much. Every day, the palace leftovers were carted to the poor dwelling in the Alleys of Mud. I imagined a rag-wearing family sitting within mud walls, gorging on the eggplant soup and softbread. Good — they deserved it more than we.

“I fasted today, in honor of Saint Nora’s ascension,” the Shah said, “and strangely, I’ve no appetite. You know, my father passed at my age — peace be upon his soul. The dreaded gout. Nothing better than fasting, the Philosophers say, to keep the gout away.”

I’d seen men die from gout — all oafs who could devour a lamb in a single sitting. No, Tamaz would not die that way.

“I heard a rumor,” I said, broaching the topic that really mattered. Even the mother of the shah-to-be had to ask weeks ago for this intimate supper. I feared the Shah would disdain to meet, given the Sylgiz arrival — who’d come days earlier than I’d wanted — though thankfully the Shah kept true to his schedule. “Is it true someone beheaded three Sylgiz traders, and that their khagan seethes for vengeance?”

Tamaz sipped his water and stared straight in silence, then said, “I suppose it’s no secret, not with the entire Majlis apprised of the happenings. Look, I’ve dealt with all manner of khagans — they come for one raging reason or another, but always leave with their horses dragging chests of gold. And in that, we’re not lacking.”

“But I also heard they blame you. That there was a royal message, stamped by you, with the heads of the dead. This year, there’s already been an attempt on your life. That assassin was Path of the Children, too, was he not? I fear what these heretics are plotting for you…Father.”

Tamaz loved when I called him that. He told me once that he’d sorely desired a daughter, and Lat had blessed him with three, though all had been cursed to die in childhood. Well, that wasn’t entirely true — he didn’t tell me, I overheard him lamenting with the gholam commander, Pasha Kato.

“We all must die, dear Zedra. I pray Lat forgive me for what my hands have wrought. When I became Shah, I believed I would be better than my father. That I’d follow the Recitals of Chisti — word and spirit — in all I did. But only Saint Chisti could carry both holiness and kingship with equal weight. For the rest of us, forgiveness is the only salvation, so we must not cease begging for it. ‘Forgive if you wish to be forgiven,’ a recital that I live by.”

That was why the people loved him. How many death sentences had he commuted, this year alone? And how dramatic were those moments, just when a beheading was to take place for the people to suddenly see the Shah appear and hold up his hand. Cheers and ululating and thigh-clapping followed — true, the people desired justice, but they loved mercy. The Shah was as clever as he was pious, for certain. You don’t rule for two decades, otherwise. Of all three reigning Seluqal shahs, Tamaz’s was the longest, most peaceful, and richest reign.

And that only made my task harder. “You are so wise, Father.”

“Comes with the gray hair, my dear.”

Oh, I knew that well enough. “Will you recall the gholam?”

He huffed — seemed he didn’t want politics at dinner. But I had to press.

“Are you so keen to see Kyars?” he asked.

“I miss him dearly, and worry what those Ethosian pirates may do.” Tamaz would be more pliable with that framing, surely.

“My dear, never forget that Kyars once smashed a fully-stocked and armored Crucian army. What are a smattering of infidel pirates, compared to that?”

Meaning: I will not be recalling the gholam. Perfect. “You’re right. Of course. He’ll be back before the cold winds blow down from the End…from the Waste.”

“We can’t let pirates winter in our seaside towns and forts, cutting off trade with Ejaz, Sirm, Dycondi. Kyars and twenty thousand gholam will show them an Alanyan recompense for their crimes. By the coming of the cold winds, you and Kyars will be cuddling amid a coal-burning fire, surely.”

A sickening thought. Nonetheless, winter remained moons away, and so my window seemed expansive enough. “A wonderful thought.”

I kept silent after that, allowing the Shah to grab a morsel of softbread. He chewed it for an eternity and gulped deep. Then he tossed the remaining piece of bread on a brass plate. His saliva moistened the part where he’d bitten.

“It’s been a wonderful supper,” he said, “but with age comes an early rise and an even earlier bedtime. And before I sleep, I would stand in vigil before Lat and her saints, so that this kingdom I tend may remain blessed and at peace.”

“I, too, will pray. For your good health, for peace, and for my beloved Kyars’ victory.”

As Tamaz stood and stretched, I reached over and grabbed the piece of bread he’d bitten, then slipped it into my sleeve. I looked around at the beardless boys, serving girls, and eunuchs, hoping none had noticed. They all stared straight in silence. Good.

 

As I walked toward my room, I thought about the Philosopher who’d engineered the Sand Palace: last week, I borrowed his biography from the Tower of Wisdom, so I could break from my serious reading with something pleasurable. He lived about three-hundred years ago, just after Temur the Wrathful carved a blood trail through half the earth. Born in Jalivaz, a Dycondian outpost in Himyar far to the south, the man came to Alanya with nothing but a dream. He imagined a vast construct, made of baked clay and mud and sand, that stretched the breath and width of the highest hill in the city.

And he imagined it to be opulent: today, encrusted jewels lined the walls of the halls. Hanging lamps encased in platinum, carpets of angora silk so soft you could safely wrap a baby in them, lenses that caught the moonlight so that entire rooms would glow silver — I could go on and on. Tamaz’s sanctimonious asceticism hadn’t poisoned the other Seluqals, who outweighed his simplicity with their indulgence. My beloved Kyars being worst among them.

“Make way for Sultana Mirima!” a eunuch called.

I snapped my attention back into the hallway. I stood to the side, bowed my head, and hoped the Shah’s sister wouldn’t notice me. Unfortunately, I’d worn a stunning blue and gold dress for my supper with the Shah, which resembled sunrays striking a river. The woman adored fashion. More than that, she loved to show her superiority over us concubines.

As expected, Mirima stopped her prance in front of me. She gazed at my dress, then caressed the brocade on my forearm with her ring-studded back hand.

“Who made this?” she said in a lofty tone.

I raised my head. “Sultana, it was a gift from His Eminence, Grand Vizier Barkam.”

She opened her mouth, as if to retch. “He buys a size too small on purpose. A walking scandal, that man.”

True, and ironically, Barkam was one of the few men whose words I could stomach. Something about his obvious perversity rang sincere.

I kept silent, hoping Mirima would move on. But her gaze stayed on me like the midday sun.

“What do you do all day, Zedra?”

Oh dear, not an open question. Bait, coming from this woman. The black dye in her hair disguised the gray so well, and whatever soaps and creams she lathered hid wrinkles and pockmarks. A decent mask that gave her back ten years. But mine was better.

“Today, I went into the city,” I said, hoping to escape whatever trap she was setting, “with Cyra, my dearest friend.” Mirima loved Cyra. Who didn’t? “We inquired as to the feelings of the people concerning the siege.” I’d given the best answer I could, though I expected her to smell the lie.

“And what do the people say about the siege?” How bitterly she intoned people. Her disdain for them blinded her to my obvious deception. Good.

“Just like here in the palace, opinion is divided. Some see it as serious, and others as a minor inconvenience.” Everyone knew that, though. Better to give obvious answers and reassure them that I’m dull.

“Fools. It is whatever we make of it. If we wanted it done, we’d end it today. Obviously, there’s some benefit to having these Sylgiz savages on our side.” By Lat, she used we and our so confidently. A trait I respected, somewhat.

“I agree.” I glanced up and down her thick, flowery gown. How to end this agonizing conversation? “To be truthful, I was so scared. When I looked out from the balcony at the yurts and horsemen filling the horizon, I so wanted Kyars to be here to hold me.”

Sympathy glimmered in Mirima’s gaze as she put her hand on my shoulder. “My dear, you are like an unplucked flower who knows not the vagaries of the wind.” Decent verse. Another thing to respect, despite how wrong it was. “So young. So fragile. But you need not fear a thing. My brother is the greatest king alive.” She thrust her fist in the air. “Unshakable, unbreakable. A khagan from the Waste is but a fly on an elephant’s ass.”

I giggled. Didn’t expect such language from her. “You’re right, dear sultana. Thank you for reassuring me. I hope the years will make me braver.”

She finally went on her way. To be honest, that conversation wasn’t as terrible as I’d expected. Still, best to keep them short; Mirima was more perceptive than her brother, and I worried one day she’d see through me.

Finally back in my room, I took my son from the wet nurse and cradled him close. A warmth heavier than any other flowed through me, as if I were one with the world.

“He’s feeding joyously,” the wet nurse, a dark-skinned woman from Himyar, said. I smiled and thanked her.

I gushed as Seluq fidgeted. Yes, that was what the Shah named him. Apparently, Seluq the Dawn had come to him in a dream the night my baby was born. I didn’t recall the details, but there was some nonsense regarding the sun and birds and fish. Kyars loved the name, too. As for myself, there was no worse man I could imagine naming my son after, but I had no say.

“You may go,” I said to the wet nurse. “Same time tomorrow.”

I laid my son in his crib and marveled at his beauty. But the beauty of a baby to his mother can’t be described. It is like fanaa, like unity with god herself.

I moved toward the balcony, which gave me an encompassing view of Qandbajar, its ancient quarters, the double-layered walls, and the yurts beyond. A stillness ruled the night — no breeze, barely any birds chirping.

A comfort, to just stare at the world and not have to think. Grind and grind your mind, toward whatever purpose you sought. A comfort I couldn’t claim because too much remained to be done. And only I was left to do it: carrying the truth on my shoulders, the survival of Lat’s beloved Children, and, ultimately, the fate of mankind. The world held up by one old woman.

“Father Chisti,” I prayed, “bless your daughter with your strength, your righteousness, your victory.”

I wiped a tear from my cheek. Holding up the world hurt. Carrying the pain of the lost, the dead, the annihilated could only numb me so much. It was these silent moments that I couldn’t endure, that I’d rather fill with anything: banal poetry, tawdry gossip, strolls through the pleasure gardens.

Or, best of all, my mission.

 

Who was the most powerful man in Alanya? Obvious answer: Shah Tamaz. Ah, but the throne veils those behind it. A more astute answer would be Grand Vizier Barkam because his hands were plucking the strings. But that too was wrong. Neither Barkam nor the Shah held the hearts of the people, and without them, a kingdom was nothing but ordered mud and stone. Then it would be Grand Mufti of Alanya and Grand Sheikh of the Order of Saint Jamshid, Khizr Khaz, who tended the souls of all Alanyans…but if forced to choose one of those three to save your life, would you really bet on him?

So after dawn, I went to the man I would choose. An empty barrack is rather dull. Finches and sparrows — a rare sight, these days — sang in its central garden, which didn’t really deserve the name. More like an uneven and stony mess of plants and flowers. Beneath the shade of a bent cypress sat the most powerful man in Alanya: a slave named Kato. Or rather, Pasha Kato.

Grand title for a slave, but mine was better and I wasn’t free either. He held an entire branch of dates in his chiseled forearm. Upon my arrival, he stood, said “Sultana,” then sat back against the tree bark — all in one, careless motion. He had the coal-dark skin of the Himyarites and still spoke with their accent, which I always found melodic and pleasing.

“Go away,” I told my gholam escorts, not of mind to say much more. Of course, Kato was the greatest of the gholam, so leaving me with him wasn’t supposed to be a danger. But the gholam guarding me were loyal to Kyars, not Kato. Still, they gave us space, standing near the arched entrance, out of earshot, though within eyesight.

Kato looked up with a date-speckled grin. “Would you whip me too with that firm tongue?”

“Here you sit, sulking.” I shook my head in disgust. “It’s despicable. Pick yourself up. There are enemies at the fucking gates. Maybe it’s a blessing Kyars left you behind.” I resumed our conversation from the other day.

He stared at me, tongue out. “Just the lashing I needed to feel better.”

I wanted to grab a stone and crack his bald head. But he was the one man my plan couldn’t do without, and so I suffered his obscenity. “You’re pathetic. Tamaz will notice your absence. You’ll lose your command.”

“Already lost it. My soldiers march west to fight the infidel, without me. And I’d just been given the post after the death of my dear friend. You see, Barkam — and his shit son Hadrith, as well as a dozen or so viziers, I can name them all — detest me, all because I refused to do their bidding. Barkam, or perhaps Hadrith — if I’m really as weak as I think I am — will have me killed or sent to some metal mine to die, soon enough.”

No, he didn’t sound like the most powerful man in Alanya, but that’s because he wasn’t…yet. I’d have to build him up.

“Oh? Would Kichak have sulked about it like a little girl?”

Now he pointed a finger at me, as if to stab my chest. “Don’t act like you ever met the man. He was a hero to us all. Saw his end at the hands of some debased sorcerer.”

“And how will you die? Given it a thought? Because if you had, you wouldn’t be wasting today stuffing yourself.”

He stood and didn’t even wipe the grass off his caftan. “Nor would I be sparring with a little girl who looks a lot like my first,” he closed the distance, breath stinking of some bitter southern brew, “all those years ago, in a cottage overlooking the breathless Yam Sup Sea. How sumptuous were her moans,” he licked his lips, “I’d so like to hear them again before they kill me.”

I’d slap him, but only a fool slaps a cornered lion. “You do know I am the Crown Prince’s consort and mother of the shah-to-be. How dare you spew such filth?”

He laughed. “Want me to sultana you every time you break wind — shouldn’t have told them to leave,” he pointed at the gholam waiting near the entrance, “you’ll get only truth from me when no one is listening. Looking for flowers? You’re in the wrong square.”

Just why I liked him. Kato seemed loyal, but I wagered he would take anything — everything — if he knew he could get away with it. I counted on that.

“When you’re done feeling sorry for yourself, here’s what I suggest you do. There’s a man hiding in a sordid little reed-roofed hut in the Alleys of Mud. I’ll tell you precisely where he is. Arrest this man and bring him to the Shah. Do so, and you’ll be a hero once more,” I snapped my fingers, “just like that.”

Kato spat a date pit. “What man? Who is he? Why would I—”

“Do it,” I said firmly, “the last time I gave you a hint, you were promoted to grand commander of the Alanyan gholam. Forgot already?”

“Some good it did me, when it was your beloved who fell prey to the whisperings of my enemies and ordered me to stay. Think soldiers follow titles? Soldiers follow those who bleed with them, kill with them, shit in a ditch with them.”

Another thing I was counting on.

“I know a thing or two about men and what they’ll follow.”

“Not men — soldiers.”

I sighed. Kato was a blood-stained dagger, but I wore armor that shattered most edges. “All men are soldiers when enough is at stake. There’s one thing they’ll follow above even their brothers, their fathers, their kings, their god. Know what it is?”

“Hah, what are you, nineteen? At that age you think you know everything.”

I grabbed the date branch from his hand and flung it to the side. “They’ll follow the winner. And that’s what you’ll be, if you take my advice.”

Kato grinned, revealing date stains on his lovely whites.

As I walked toward the exit, I kicked at one of the date pits Kato had spat. Then I bent down to brush my shoe and picked it up, in one smooth motion. Surely, no one noticed.

 

For breakfast, I took a big bite out of a peach and a few sips of ayran: too salty, and it left me with a yogurt mustache. After bathing and wearing my brownest brocade, I got to work.

Before all this began, before I was ripped from my world and brought here, I was entirely unfamiliar with the seductive lure of something so simple: privacy. Aloneness. With baby Seluq asleep and my room devoid of handmaidens, eunuchs, and wet nurses, I locked the door and crawled into the closet. The silk of my hanging clothes brushed against my face and hair. Sunlight beamed through the single hole I’d made, which also provided me with air to breathe.

Darkness, stillness, peace.

I shut my eyes and strained to hear it: the call of the black drongo.

Chirp-peep-peep-chirp. The call remained faint, but its flapping wings beat like a storm against my mind. Chirp-peep-peep-chirp.

I opened my eyes. And ears. At first, it was difficult to tell which was sound and which was sight. Both mapped the world, both wrestled for that commanding spot among my senses. I saw and heard a sky so bright and endless. A city, tiny and mysterious. A desert, which seemed like a thin layer of sand on the back of a god. The river snaking through the desert and city, though a quarter-mile wide, seemed like a string I could pull and tangle around a god-sized finger. The cultivation at the riverbank blazed green and brown with rich, canal-irrigated soil growing the rice, millet, couscous, wheat, figs, and grapes that fed the city. But now, it was trampled upon by the warhorses of the Sylgiz. And those horses sprawled a great distance, roaming the thornbush-ridden grasslands to the south and even the scrub to the west, which was dotted with acacia trees, palms, and gazelle.

And everything was upside down. Above me, the city surged, a wort amid the sand upon the god’s back. I wanted to fall into the clouds below, but I was frozen in place. Instead, the city fell upon me, raging to smash me to pieces. But as it neared, it was as if I’d entered a bubble, and now could breathe air mixed with trees and sand and dust. An earthy taste.

The screech of a holy song scathed my ears, as if a wolf howled in my brain. I fluttered suddenly, in trepidation, then landed on whatever was beneath me. My talons scratched something solid. I looked down — hardstone. I looked around —  Qandbajar’s skyline. Chanting and prayers and holy words rang. To Lat we belong…I beseech those beneath her throne…do what is beautiful…lay not upon us burdens that we cannot bear…take us not to task for our error…bestow us your mercy, lest we be lost…

I flew off the yellow dome of Jamshid’s shrine and soared toward a palace by the river. Air rushed against the bottom of my wings, keeping me in flight. And yet, it always seemed like the world was moving, not me. Like some giant had tossed the city in my precise direction.

I flapped to slow my descent and landed on the flat roof. Already, voices sounded and bounced off the interior walls, forming a map of the inside. Divans, shelves filled with scrolls and books, hanging carpets, oil lamps flickering in the corner niches — so much sight from only sound. I dipped down to the windowsill; my left eye watched the men inside: Hadrith, Grand Vizier Barkam’s son, and Ozar, the spice master of Alanya. A man who, the rumors say, sacrificed a baby daughter for the blessing, or perhaps curse, of unending wealth.

Hadrith poured date wine into a crystal glass and said, “It’s fateful that Kyars is not here. Something of a wonder, perhaps, how the stars could align like this.”

Ozar nodded, his plump form wrapped in thin, sky-colored silks. “Oh yes. But be honest — it’s your father’s absence that you treasure.”

They sat together at a glass floor table, maroon cushions softening their asses. Hadrith was so tall, he seemed to tower even when sitting. I never understood why he didn’t trim that unruly beard —was anyone buying the warrior facade? “I’ll tell you this — it’s too advantageous. Why would Kyars suddenly agree to leave Kato behind and bring my father instead? It’s not his style. Everyone knows Kyars didn’t win a thing by himself, but rather on the backs of men like Kato. Everyone knows this — Kyars most of all.”

“You’re saying the idea didn’t come from Kato?”

“Someone closer is playing the flute and Kyars dancing to the tune.”

Ozar caressed his chin hairs. “Who?”

“I don’t know, but before proceeding, we ought to find out.”

“Oh you’re just getting cold feet. Lat has given us an auspicious gift, something she doesn’t do often. My fleet is just beyond the riverbend, ready and waiting. You have your father’s stamp. The Majlis won’t go against you because you are your father’s son. Give the order. Open the way.”

Hadrith eyed me through the window. He grabbed his glass and flung it at my face. I fluttered upward as the crystal arced and shattered on the grass below.

“Fucking drongos,” he said as I repositioned to the head of the window, just out of sight, “one pecked my cat to death last week.”

“A bird…killing a cat? Oh dear, what is the world coming to?”

“They don’t belong here. Ever heard of a place called Talitos?”

Ozar drew in a shocked breath. “Of course, the land beyond the mists.”

“I was in court the day an ambassador came, claiming to be from there. The woman wore truly bizarre clothes that changed color as you stared, the way a waterfall flows. She also brought a cage full of black drongos as a gift. In the sky above, you used to see hawks and eagles and doves. Now you see black.”

“Foreign plagues seem to be our bane these days.”

“Precisely. Foreigners. How many have the Crown Prince’s ear? His concubines from the Waste, his gholam from Himyar, none are truly Alanyans. What interests have they? What agendas?”

Ozar squeaked a sound of approval from high in his throat. “The great Eshkal once said, ‘your heart is with whom you share the battlefield and bed.’”

Hadrith seemed to suspect much. Was he on to me? Was he about to say my name?

“Eshkal — a eunuch who’d never thrust a spear, of any kind. I don’t share your admiration.”

“Wisdom has two founts — doing, and observing.”

How true.

“Anyway,” Hadrith said, voice ringing with impatience, “I’ll task my beloved little fawn with scouring the harem for enemies. There’s nothing she won’t do,” a perverse laugh bellowed from his chest, “nothing.”

“She’s a lovely girl, Hadrith. And more than that, her brother is at our gates, with a horde. Don’t even think of dishonoring her. You could endanger us all.”

Cyra was mixed up in this? Really? Why the hell would she work for Hadrith?

“I don’t shit where I herd sheep, Ozar. Something you never learned.”

“I became the spice master of Alanya so I could shit wherever I wanted.”

SULTANAAAAAAAAA—

A crack formed on my consciousness and shattered it into a billion pieces. Back in the closet, sweating, eyes wide, staring up at the eunuch Sambal, his braids reaching his shoulders.

“Sultana! Oh, fetch the healer at once!”

My slobber moistened my left cheek. I blinked what must’ve been a thousand times, sat up, and heaved. Heaved every speck of air I could. It felt as if a barrel crushed my chest and heart, which beat a thousand times a second.

“I’m all right,” I muttered, unsure if I’d even made a sound.

Sambal slapped his own cheek. “Oh, she’s awake! Thank Lat!”

He and another eunuch pulled me up and onto the bed. Numbness and pain alternated through my bones and flesh, as if tossing me on waves. But worse than that, a nauseating rage built up inside. I’d been severed from the drongo, at the worst moment, just when I was about to learn their plan.

O’ Lat, heap your curses upon the saints.

CONQUEROR’S BLOOD | Chapter 1 | Cyra

The sand tribes claim that a jinn with eleven fiery horns, born before time began its flow, climbed a ring in the seventh heaven and — overcome by some mysterious, primordial rage — hurled a thousand and one pearls at the earth. A thousand of those pearls burned as they surged toward the ground, becoming the stars that still blaze. Only one pearl landed, and it created this city: Qandbajar.

Well, I have a fanciful origin story, too. It begins with my brother and me huddling in a yurt, covered by a harsh, moth-holed blanket. My belly ached from the rotten broth I’d scarfed down days ago. We held hands and resisted the Waste’s deadly winter, as best we could. Then, as we inched closer, his bony knee jutted into my belly, worsening my ache. Still, I welcomed any warmth as my flesh numbed. A screaming wind beat against the eight walls, and soon my brother would have to rush outside to hammer the nails lest our yurt collapse, despite his toes almost having frozen yesterday, rescued only by the heat of our stove’s final embers. So, to save us, as well as our baby brother in his bone-built crib, I shut my eyes and prayed.

The memory unnerved me. Had that really been my life, before coming here, to the paradise that is Qandbajar?

“Today is not for reminiscence,” Shah Tamaz had instructed. And so I shrugged off that frigid memory and stared down at the sand-colored city from high on my balcony. How precarious it all seemed. Beyond the city walls, colorful yurts dotted the desert and shrubland. Our besiegers. They’d find those yurts too warm in the Qandbajari summer — ovens heated by the sun’s gaze. Though fertile, the pastures by the river and its canals couldn’t support them and the tens-of-thousands of warhorses they’d brought. But that wouldn’t deter them. Little could deter the warriors of the Sylgiz when they’d set their arrowheads upon something.

And what that something was, the Shah had tasked me to find out.

“You’re the sand-brick bridge connecting our two sides,” he’d said with his usual kind smile, to which I replied, “I’m more of a…bridge-left-in-disrepair-for-eight-years-because-the-treasurer-didn’t-care-about-the-people-on-the-otherside…but I see your meaning.”

So I took a carriage to the city gate. As I’d requested, a warhorse waited for me there. The saddle was sheepskin, the stirrups almost wire-thin iron. I patted its head — it huffed and snorted. A typical mare from the Waste: slightly bigger than a pony, with slender legs and light hooves that barely disturbed the grass. She didn’t belong in this city, surrounded by marble palaces, cobbled streets, and heaped-up mud houses. But perhaps the Sylgiz would regard me as one of their own if I trotted over on a worthy steed.

The glittering, golden gholam warriors on guard raised the portcullis and I galloped toward the Sylgiz camp. Though it’d been years since I’d ridden a horse, I’d learned to ride one before learning to walk, so said the stories. Judging by how swiftly I bolted against the wind and how natural it felt to sit so high, I almost believed them.

As I galloped into the forest of yurts, Sylgiz men and women gazed upon me. Some hauled water in horse-hide sacks, while others tempered steel over fire pits, the clank-clank of their hammers a perfect beat for the throaty and harsh Sylgiz tongue being spoken. Their sheep, goats, cows, and camels devoured the fruits, crops, and even the reeds that grew by the canals that snaked from the Vogras River. I could easily imagine what followed such rapid consumption: cold, bones, and despair.

Hardy, though short men clutching matchlocks guarded the imposing sun-colored yurt at the camp’s center. The Sylgiz were, on average, smaller than the Alanyans. They fit their mares well and drank deeply of the milk, whereas the Alanyans drank from camels, some as large as elephants. I think I did most of my growing after coming to Qandbajar, despite being fifteen at the time.

I climbed off my horse, dusted my silk caftan, and readjusted my plumed hat. A million thoughts raced: who waited in that yurt? What would they think of me? And most crucial, would they tell me what they wanted?

“I am Cyra, daughter of Khagan Yamar,” I said in Sylgiz to one of the guards, a man with thin eyes and a wing-like mustache. I didn’t recognize him — the tribe had grown since I’d been taken, so most here were new faces. “I have come to entreat on behalf of the Seluqal House of Alanya, and of His Glory, Shah Tamaz of Alanya.”

He looked up at me, then gestured, ever so slightly, with his head toward the entrance flap.

Inside, the simple ways of the Sylgiz prevailed. Men and women sat upon sheepskin blankets and passed around a tree branch molded into a crude pipe. The stench of opium seemed heavier than air. In the center, an ice-filled stove barely provided relief from the swelter.

A familiar face stared back from the dais at the far end. Warm, wolf-like yellow pupils. Looking upon my brother, after eight years apart, he seemed both a stranger and the boy I knew. Tears bubbled behind my eyes, and I strained to keep them there. I wanted to hug him. I wanted to cry in his arms and ask about father and mother and baby Betil. But when the man got to his feet, he towered and cast a cold gaze upon me.

“Cihan,” I said.

“Cyra,” he replied, as if my name had been boiling in his belly.

I trembled as he approached. He put a hard hand on my shoulder, then pulled me in. I barely reached his chest as we embraced and could no longer hold my tears. When I’d left, my big brother had been skinnier than a goat, and now he looked like he could rip a goat apart. The warmth and cold from so many memories flowed through me.

“Is it true that…Father died running from battle, an arrow in his back?” I asked. The Alanyans had rejoiced that day, finally relieved of a thorn in their side, though a worse one grew in its place.

He clasped my cheeks and studied me, as if he were as surprised by my appearance as I was of his. “Alanyan and Jotrid lies. Father fell honorably in battle. It’s true, the arrows were in his back, but he was feigning retreat and luring the enemy into a trap. Since then, Mother hasn’t left her yurt, or her bed, and I’m told her soul will have gone by the time I returned. As for baby Betil…I wish there were more to it, but he got sick and returned to Lat.”

I choked on my sorrow and cried out. Betil was dead, too!? Mother bedridden!? There were others I wanted to ask about —aunts and uncles and cousins — but what did it matter? They’d all been dead to me, anyway, because I was certain I’d never see them again. But now, my brother stood before me, twice the width of his image in my memories. A man, fully grown. A khagan, like our father. A besieger, of the city where I’d been hostage for eight years. Did he come for me? No, why would he? Surely I wasn’t worth a whole horde.

“Why are you here?” I asked, struggling to shut out my tears. Though we’d hugged and talked of our loved ones, there was still an icy air between us, and the Shah had asked me to be quick and leave catching up for later.

“Beloved sister, I think you know well the crimes your captors have committed upon your tribe, upon the Sylgiz.”

“But Shah Tamaz assured me he hasn’t been raiding Sylgiz land.”

“Raiding?” Cihan chuckled and shook his head. Laughter bubbled from the men and women in the room, who were still passing around that tree-branch pipe. That’s when I recognized the one laughing loudest: Gokberk, a cruel cousin who’d once stomped on a puppy’s neck, for fun. Now he had a scar down his cheek, which created an ugly gap in his beard, and he was missing an ear, too.

Cihan said, “We are no longer sheep to be milked and sheared and slaughtered, like when our father was khagan.”

Of course, I’d heard about the battles my brother had won, and the lands he’d captured. He’d brought the Sylgiz a new dawn, but to be so bold as to siege Qandbajar, the crown jewel of Alanya…

“Then what crimes do you speak of?” I asked.

A balding, oaf of a man grabbed a woolen sack in the corner of the room and handed it to my brother. He emptied it on the floor. Heads sloshed around my feet. HEADS.

A twisted, half-decayed face brushed my ankle. I gasped. Skull stuck out where the eyebrow ought to be. A worm crawled out of the skull. I backed away toward the entrance flap and only just stopped myself from running.

Cihan said, “This is how Shah Tamaz paid three of our riders, whom I’d sent to trade spices and furs.”

I shook my head. “The Shah is a good man. A faithful Latian. He would never kill without cause.”

Cihan handed me a parchment. The simurgh seal of Alanya blazed at the top in wax, the Shah’s stamp.

Payment for your sins was all it said in Paramic. Perfect flourishes at the ends of the letters with deep, bold strokes — a royal scribe wrote this, or perhaps an imitator of one.

“How strange,” I said. “I’ve lived under the Shah’s protection for eight years. He wouldn’t recompense sins with sins.”

Red boiled in Cihan’s cheeks as dimples formed. I used to tease him for being so adorable when angry. But the ferocious, towering warrior glaring at me was anything but cute.

“Those men did not sin,” he said. “To even claim—”

“I didn’t mean it like that!” I took his calloused hands, remembering that in the Waste, you had to watch your words, unlike in Alanya, where they flowed freely. “You’ve come here for revenge, that I understand.”

“Not revenge. Each of them had wives and children, who now weep through the night. You think I wanted to come here? I came to silence that weeping, with the only thing that can — justice.”

“I understand. You must believe me. Shah Tamaz is a good man. He couldn’t have ordered this. It must be a deception.”

He huffed, then nodded slowly. He stared into me, but he was looking at something else: a memory, perhaps. “Seeing you again, it takes me back to happier times. Simpler times, like when father caught a gray rabbit, and you wanted to keep it as a pet rather than skin and eat it.” He chuckled. That was a plentiful time, when it seemed like we’d never run out of rabbits and yaks and goats and especially horses. But ten moons of drought can change everything.

Cihan pulled on his beard and said, “When I heard they were sending you, I feared the worst. Feared I’d find a girl with no teeth and wrists as thin as reeds. But you…with your tanned skin and curled hair, you look like an Alanyan, and I mean that in a good way. They’ve treated you well, and for that, I’ll give them time to explain this.” He pointed at the heads.

I nodded, pleased that I’d laid the first brick for what would hopefully be a bridge between the two sides. “Thank you, Cihan. I would always smile when news would reach me that you’d won a battle. And yet, it never sounded real, as if it were some other Cihan winning that acclaim. But now…seeing you…I finally understand.”

His chuckle trailed off into a melancholic sigh. “Tell me, Cyra, are you happy here, amid all this sand and clay and mud?”

A memory burst through my mind: Cihan and I sharing a bone, shattering our teeth on it, because we were that hungry. “I’m content,” I said, “and grateful. Shah Tamaz treats me as a daughter. I couldn’t ask for anything more.” That last part wasn’t entirely true.

As I approached the exit flap, a big-bellied warrior blocked it.

Cihan said, “He may have treated you like a daughter, but Tamaz isn’t your father. Here, in this yurt, you’re in the Waste. We brought it to you. And yet…you’d just walk away. Back to your captors. Back to our enemy.”

I froze upon realizing what he meant. The chills of the Waste’s winters ran across my spine. “If you don’t let me go back, it’ll be bad. Shah Tamaz will assume the worst.” I turned in Cihan’s direction, so he could see my pleading eyes.

“Perhaps that’s truly why I came, little sister. To take you back. We’ll ride away, to the Endless,” that’s what we Sylgiz called the Waste, “and be done with this country and its lies and cruelty. But I won’t go against your will. Taking you back — that’s recompense enough for those heads.” He paused, peering deeply into me, trying to see beyond whatever facade I was putting up. “What say you? Ready to go home?”

I wanted to speak my mind: Oh, Cihan, how much you assume. Home is where you build your hopes, and a city born from a celestial pearl is far better for that than a clump of yurts on some frozen grass.

But instead, I turned away, went toward the exit flap, and simply said, “Qandbajar is my home, now.”

 

Back within the walls of the Sand Palace, glorious gholam in glimmering golden plate surrounded Shah Tamaz, though I wasn’t sure which was him. His two body doubles wore the same dirt-colored caftans and thin chainmail, stood lanky, and slacked their jaws to the right. They even had the precise shade of gray hair and imitated his limp.

That voice, though, wasn’t so easy to imitate. Whenever Tamaz spoke, it was as if earthy syrup melted down your ears and cheeks.

“What did he say?” The real Tamaz wasted no time, huddling close to me with his gholam forming a wall of armor around us. Turned out, he was wearing the golden armor of the gholam, only his walnut pupils visible through his helmet.

“Your Glory.” I bent my neck, then whispered what happened in his ear, so no onlookers could hear.

“A pretext to attack us?” he said with wide eyes.

I shook my head. “I don’t believe my brother to be lying.”

“But who would try to sow such calamity?”

“If we can prove we took no part in the beheadings, I think Cihan will turn around.”

Shah Tamaz put his anxious breaths to my ear and whispered, “Whoever did this timed it perfectly. A mere week after I’d sent most of the gholam to retake our sea forts, leaving this city under-defended. But anyway, you’ve done your job, and done it well. Leave the rest to me, sweet one.”

I nodded, then turned toward the palace, which glimmered like golden sand beneath the rising sun. Before I walked out of earshot, the Shah said, “Seems your brother still trusts you. I’ll needs call on you again. Be ready.”

Stepping on the silk carpet in the palace hall, I cringed. I thought of those putrid heads rolling at my feet and yearned for another bath. I climbed the winding stairs toward the harem wing, then greeted the braided eunuchs guarding the bath chamber with a polite nod. Once inside amid the blue, star-patterned tile, I stripped and entered the steam chamber. Sitting against the moist walls, the soothing humidity calmed my insides. Sorrowful memories played as I drifted between alertness and dozing.

Father, dead. Betil, dead. Mother, about to be dead. The saddest part of me wanted to steal the fastest Kashanese horse from among the Shah’s racing steeds and ride to the Waste, just to hold her hand. But I was no longer her daughter, truly. This palace was my mother, now. Its walls were all the embrace I needed.

That day when the Jotrids raided us, their khagan had forced my father to make humiliating concessions, me among them. How terrible the moment when their warriors pulled me from my mother’s arms. The Jotrids were blood enemies to our tribe. They prayed to the saints, like the Alanyans, whereas we prayed only to the Children. Lat hears our prayers because the Children live beneath her throne, whereas the saints roast within a chasm of flame in the thousandth hell for their falsehoods. That was what I’d been taught, though I didn’t believe it anymore.

The Jotrid khagan, who had even lived with us for a time and was barely older than my brother, gifted me to the Alanyans. Though it took me far from home, in the end, it was for the best. Now here I sat, in a bath chamber fit for the sultana of the world, my belly full. And yet, my heart still ached, from all that had been severed.

The steam began to feel oppressive, so I soaked in the lukewarm pool in the center of the bath chamber. I always avoided the ice bath — being so cold that I felt my veins freezing reminded me of those frigid, starving days in the Sylgiz lands. While I shivered just thinking about that time, concubines flowed in and out of the bath chamber — the ones that didn’t hate me smiled with polite greetings, the rest were careful to avoid my drifting eyes. To think, after all I’d been through, I’d end up here.

Zedra entered. Her black curls fell past her breasts as she removed her towel and joined me in the lukewarm water. I sat up, smiled, and mumbled a greeting — hopeful not to have bothered her with my lack of attention, though she’d always been kind to me. Kind to everyone.

“I’m so jealous,” she said, giggling. Her reddened cheeks made plain that she’d been drinking. “You’re an ambassador, now. Nay, Grand Vizier!”

“Nothing of the sort. It’s just, the man at the head of that horde happens to be my brother by blood.”

“You’ve the blood of conquerors,” she said. “Another reason to be jealous.”

“You’ve no reason to ever be jealous of me.”

“Humble too, yet another thing to be jealous of.”

“Stop it.”

I splashed water in her face. She didn’t even flinch and took it with a grin. I remembered when she first arrived in the palace, barely a year ago, she wouldn’t even bathe. She refused to get in the pools, despite the pleading of the eunuchs, and would instead sit on the floor and dump water over her head with a pail. Sometimes I’d catch her staring at the pool water, in a daze. Strange woman, to say the least.

Though I was, by law, a free woman and Zedra a slave, her status towered over mine. After all, she was the beloved of the Crown Prince, a man loved by the people as much as his father, Shah Tamaz. And, out of all his concubines, she was the only one who’d given him a son.

Eunuchs wearing maroon robes placed fresh incense in the corner burners. A zesty scent with earthy tones, probably aloeswood with musk.

“So what was it like, seeing your brother after all this time?”

What did it feel like? As if I’d been smashed by a hammer, hugged by a bear, and trampled by a horde; I tried to find some measured words instead. “He felt like my brother…and yet, he didn’t. It was like, he was the boy I knew and a complete stranger, at the same time.”

Zedra nodded. “Time and distance make strangers, yet blood bonds are forever. I’m sure he felt the same as you.” She was so wise for her age. Her expression tensed. “So…tell me, what’s going to happen now? Should we be worried?”

I didn’t notice bombards in Cihan’s camp, so they couldn’t easily get inside the walls. If it came to it, the gholam who’d been sent westward could be recalled to deal with them. But I was worried. I didn’t want war between two peoples I cared for.

“I think we’re going to solve it, in peace.”

Zedra bit her lip. “Can’t lift the veil, can you? What ever will I gossip about at supper?”

I chuckled. Tamaz hadn’t ordered me to keep anything a secret. Besides, secrets always spilled in the Sand Palace. “Someone beheaded three Sylgiz traders and framed Shah Tamaz. We need to prove it wasn’t him.”

She gasped, holding her hand to her mouth, her ruby rings dripping. “Who could…who would ever do such a thing?”

I said the first thing on my mind: “The Jotrids. I mean, I don’t know if it was them, but they’ve every reason to foment war between us and the Sylgiz. Their khagan, Pashang, is as cruel as a broken slipper.”

Zedra chuckled, then splashed water on me. “By Lat, what is that saying?”

How embarrassing — I could feel my cheeks tighten. “Just something my mother would say. Us Sylgiz have the dumbest sayings.” I’d always tried to avoid showing where I came from, here. My tribe was not liked in Alanya — we followed a different path toward Lat, our language was bitter, our ways violent, and our customs savage.

The lukewarm water was getting boring, and I yearned once more for some steam. I pushed out and wrapped myself in a star-patterned towel.

“Let’s go into the city later,” Zedra said, “just you and me. It’s been a bit dull around here. Oh, apart from the siege and all.” She laughed.

I nodded and went toward the coals.

 

Strange what a siege does to a thriving city. The food bazars were bursting with haggling and desperation. The stall sellers had raised prices, a precaution if a long siege would choke their supplies. The city folk sought to stock up on whatever they could: dried fruits, vats of well water, teeth twigs, lye. As for Zedra and myself, we rode together in a carriage surrounded by mounted gholam, watching the crowds from our windows. As we neared Laughter Square, the air of wealthier folk seeking a good time replaced the panicked atmosphere of the food bazar.

Upon getting out, Zedra raised her hands and twirled — how carefree. She too was from the Waste, the part with the mountains, which was a different world from that of the Sylgiz, Jotrids, and other lowland tribes. Strange that, until today, it had all seemed so unimportant. Though I’d learned about the world since coming to this city, the Philosophers who’d tutored me didn’t focus much on the Waste, its tribes, and its geography.

Anyway, Laughter Square lived up to its name today. Men and women lined up before an array of poets, each poet standing upon a richly-tapestried dais. The treasure chests at their feet overflowed with all manner of coin: Alanyan, mostly, but I noticed coins with the soaring falcon emblem of Kashan, the aggressive peacock of Sirm, and even some with blocky western letters.

Of course, Zedra and I went to the front of the line, ignoring the glares and foot-stomping of those we’d cut past. Her favorite poet, a man draped in so much green silk he resembled a pig covered in grass, glowed with an eager delight. “The moon has just risen,” he turned to me, “and with it the sun.”

“Ooh!” Zedra clapped. She tossed a silver coin into the treasure chest below his dais. It made a satisfying clank as it landed. “I hope that was merely a taste.”

I looked behind. Too many were staring, either upset we’d cut in front, or perhaps enraptured by the sight of women from the palace. Suddenly uneasy, I wrapped my veil over my face and turned back toward the poet.

The poet glowered. “The sun has just gone out, leaving us bereft! Oh lady of the sky, do not deprive us of your light!”

Clever. Begrudgingly, I loosened the veil.

Zedra said, “Hmph!” and shook her head. “I paid you to praise me. The moon needs some adoration, too.” She grinned impishly.

“Radiance leaps from your sandstone cheek — ancient eyes full of love — a spirit that sails, piercing the mists with its bow…”

While the poet flung flowers at her from his tongue, I studied what was going on in the square. Snaking lines stood before all the favorites: Babar of Zunduq, from a city deep in the jungles of Kashan, positioned himself near what I think was a pleasure house and sat high upon a mechanical elephant. He rained warlike songs upon the gholam, pashas, and khazis who lined up before him. At the entrance to a coffeehouse, a beardless boy named Jilqees composed rhyming verses, mostly about magical, faraway places, which he’d learned about from the pirates and sailors who frequented his nighttime job. But the longest line belonged to a man I’d never seen before, who sat upon a brass throne studded with fake emeralds and rubies. A Himyarite, judging by his skin, which was the color of deep soil. Unlike the gholam around us, who were mostly Himyarites too, this man seemed rather frail of build. And he wasn’t shouting his verses, like the other poets, but writing them on parchment with a rather fat brush. Why was he so favored?

I interrupted some sappy nonsense about how Zedra was a lioness on a mountain peak to ask, “Who’s he?”

The poet in green silk squinted at the Himyarite and said, “Oh, that fool. Been here a week and everyone is falling over his verse.” The venom in his voice could kill a snake.

“What’s so special about it?”

The poet huffed. “Toss a silver at his feet and he’ll spew the most vile insults — truly unholy, vulgar.”

“Insults? About whom?”

“About you, my dear. Whoever pays him.”

Zedra gasped. “You mean to say people pay him to be degraded?”

“Indeed!” the poet said with a growl. “It’s despicable! Disgusting! It should be banned! What is this country coming to!?”

“Sorry.” I touched Zedra’s arm with both my hands. “I’ve just remembered, I’m to meet someone at the Grand Bazar. Briefly. Do you mind?”

“Of course, dear,” she said. “Go flutter about wherever you may. I’ll be here, wasting my time and money.”

With an escort of four gholam, I proceeded on foot across the Bridge of Saint Jorga toward the Grand Bazar. How much it’d changed in the eight years I’d lived in Qandbajar. When I’d first come to the city, it was an overstuffed series of lanes and stalls that sat stinking in the city center. Now it stood as a hollow, open-air stone pyramid with nine levels. Nine! A Philosopher had designed it, and it dwarfed even the Sand Palace. The only taller building in the city was the Tower of Wisdom.

At the first level of the Grand Bazar, cloth, sheepskin, and leather merchants draped their wares across wooden stalls, which were arranged like a maze. Barely room to walk, but everyone stepped out the way of the gholam and myself. I’d not regularly worn such base materials since moving here, so stared straight as we ascended the stairs to the next level.

Fruits. As we walked through the slightly less crowded area, fruit sellers lowered their gazes, their hands outstretched with whatever ripe perfections they’d reserved for the palace that day. Before handing over the treats, a gholam would pick off a piece with a gold-hilted knife and test the taste. Soon, tangy grapes, spicy dates, and sweet oranges were falling into my hands.

I devoured a date. The spices danced on my tongue and burned down my throat. A rather Kashanese taste. Considering I could barely fit into this pearl-studded caftan Grand Vizier Barkam had gifted me last year, I declined the other delights.

The third floor was nothing like the others. In perfect rows, spices of every color — even sky blue — sat piled in polished, glass cauldrons. Cinnamon, turmeric, ginger, saffron, sumac, cumin, caraway, coriander, cloves, cardamom — to name the ones I was familiar with. Every food smell imaginable invaded my nose, as if an army of kababs, lamb shanks, and mutton balls were on the march. And it was all the work of one man. He controlled Qandbajar’s — nay, Alanya’s — spice trade, and upon seeing me, he smiled with warmth. He bent his neck, despite his rank exceeding mine: he was a pasha, after all. And he looked like one; down the middle of his caftan, purple pearls twinkled as if stars burned within.

“When I awoke this morning,” he said, “I prayed Lat would bless my eyes. And by the sight of you, a humble man’s prayer is answered.”

“A humble man?” I looked around. “Has he run off?”

Ozar chuckled along with me, a good-natured grin seizing his pastry-filled cheeks. “Sultana,” he said, granting me a title I did not possess, nor deserve. “The clouds part when you arrive. The breezes burn with fire. The mystics fall over themselves, drunk and debased.”

“Keep your day job, pasha. You’ll be laughed out of Laughter Square with verse like that.”

He wagged a thick, ring-covered finger. “Not my words, sultana. The wise Eshkal himself breathed them to life.”

My ignorance of poetry, laid bare. How embarrassing. “You need not call me that, pasha. I’ve not attained such rank.”

His face twisted. “Are you not the daughter of a Sylgiz khagan? Considering the men at our gates, I’d wager your rank on the ascent.”

“Yours may be, too.” I reached into my caftan pocket and took out a parchment, then handed it to Ozar.

“What’s this?” He snapped his fingers; one of his retainers brought him a spectacle. Ozar squinted through it as he unrolled the parchment and read its contents.

“Dear Lat,” he said, his eye enlarged and bulging through the spectacle. “I’ve been begging the Majlis for months. By the thousandth heaven — by the saints beneath the glorious throne — how on earth did you get this?”

So bombastic. “I have my ways,” I said with a curt grin, knowing it would drive him mad.

“My dear, do you not realize how valuable this piece of paper is? Barkam has been hounding me for years. ‘Ozar’s monopoly on spices must be broken!’ is the first thing he says when waking up, and his final prayer before sleeping. ‘Ozar’s price wars are against the laws of the Shah and the Fount!’ is what the Grand Vizier whispers in his wife’s ear when making love.” Ozar covered his mouth. “Excuse my crudeness, but I can scarcely contain myself. How did you get him to stamp a paper granting me exclusive rights to the Koa spice lane?”

Now he really was prodding me to bare myself. “The more important question is — what do I want in return?”

“I’ll give you half the world, and the other half too.”

“Wonderful. I like being owed favors by rich and powerful men.”

He raised an eyebrow in surprise. Perhaps he thought I’d ask for my return now. But, like any debt, it’s better to call it later — with interest.

“You know, sultana, you’re nothing like that girl they dragged from the Waste, eight years hence. Thin-wristed, stinking of horse manure, barely a legible word on your tongue. You’re truly a woman of the city, now. To see you climb so high has been a pleasure.”

To have the richest merchant in the land owing me a favor — that was the real pleasure. But I couldn’t ignore the shudder in my bones when I thought about the parchment I’d just given him, and who had given it to me.

 

Zedra clapped as the little monkey danced on the red-tusked elephant’s back. She tossed a gold coin — how excessive — at it; the monkey caught it with its hard, red cap, and then flipped it toward its owner, who beamed beneath his gray mustache.

“Our sultana is as generous as Saint Kali,” he said.

A deadpan expression seized Zedra’s face, as if she were insulted. Slowly, a smile spread across her cheeks, but her eyes remained sour. Strange. “That’s too much praise for a paltry gold. You’ve trained the creature so well — you deserve a thousand more.”

I gave the owner a polite nod, then said to Zedra, “Feeling a bit faint. Would you mind if I went home?”

“Been a long day for you, dear. Of course, go and rest.”

Wonderful, I’d gotten rid of her. But the four gholam escorting me would be harder to lose. Thankfully, I only needed a few minutes. As we traveled by carriage toward the Sand Palace, we passed by the Shrine of Saint Rizva. Barely anyone beneath its sandstone arches — an almost forgotten relic. Shouts and clamor from the adjacent coffeehouse assured worshippers would get no peace, anyway.

I ordered the carriage driver to stop and stepped outside.

“I would pray, for a moment,” I said to the gold-clad gholam captain, sitting high upon his horse.

“Mistress,” he said. Ah, at least someone knew my proper title. “This shrine is known as a gathering place for degenerates. You can pray at Saint Jamshid’s, up ahead.”

I shook my head. “Saint Rizva was a peacemaker. I would seek her intercession, so my diplomacy with the Sylgiz bears fruit.”

“We’ll come with you, then,” the captain said.

“Into the women’s section? That would be scandalous.” I raised my eyebrow. “I think I can survive five minutes in a shrine.”

The gholam captain nodded, begrudgingly.

Elderly women sat on the faded sandstone in the women’s section, reciting holy words and flicking prayer beads. They ignored the tall, and frankly stunning man standing behind them. Hadrith stood with his arms crossed; he’d cut his curly hair short, but his combed beard grew longer each day, now reaching his chest.

“You kept me waiting,” he said, entirely unamused, “and I only wait for good news and god.”

“He bought it,” I said. “Didn’t question me. Ozar truly believes the Koa spice lane is his.”

“Well done, little fawn.”

I made a fist, my instinctual angry reaction. “I told you not to call me that.”

“My beloved. How’s that?” His false grin revealed perfect, glossy teeth. He’d once pontificated about how I ought to use teeth-cleaning twigs from the arak tree at least three times a day. Seemed they did work.

“What kind of man uses his beloved for his illicit schemes?”

He stepped closer — I barely reached his chest, which was broader than mirror armor. He’d clearly been out in the sun; his perfume-mixed sweat was at once overwhelming and intoxicating.

“If you’re to be my wife, we’ll be scheming illicitly till the dust of the earth washes over us. The foremost lesson I learned from my mother and father, so best get used to it.”

Ugh. Truthfully, I didn’t know if I could. The thought of Ozar being arrested, because of me, made me feel so…unclean.

“Did you really use your father’s stamp? When they arrest Ozar, he’s going to tell your father — the most powerful man in the kingdom after the Shah — that I gave him the document!”

“No one expects a little fawn to bare teeth, so you’ll be seen as an unwitting accomplice, at worst. Besides, I’ve been dealing with my father for twenty-eight years. Very successfully, might I add.”

“The Grand Vizier isn’t known for his clemency — far from it. Can’t you see I’m worried? I have no idea why you made me give him a paper like that. Tell me your plan, for Lat’s sake!”

The praying women turned to look. I’d been too loud in this hallow place.

Hadrith came to my ear with sweet and heavy breaths. “O’ little fa…my beloved. Trust is the bedrock upon which love grows. Ours will bloom into a wondrous cypress, stretching toward heaven itself.” His tongue was almost in my ear when he said, “I’ll have another task for you soon, my loveliest.”

At that, he left me. I wanted to take another bath. And yet, I burned to know what he wanted me to do next. Whatever it was, I wouldn’t say no.

 

I did take another bath — my third one today. This time, I made sure no one was around, so I could cry. Surely, the eunuchs at the door heard, but a woman bawling in the harem bath was nothing new.

I even prayed. First, to Saint Rizva, begging her to forgive me for using her shrine for such sordid business. But the child within, awoken after so long because of my brother’s arrival, felt sinful for praying to a saint, so I prayed to Father Chisti. Or was he Saint Chisti? Ugh, what did it matter? He was the founder of our faith, regardless of which path you walked. The straight path or the path of heretics — which was which?

Mother, baby Betil, Father, Cihan — the child in me ached. Memories played. Why always these painful ones? Like the time my father didn’t return after a battle with an infidel Rubadi tribe — I would sit on his bed, smelling his sheets, even drinking his awful salt tea. My mother was almost forced into remarrying the new khagan, whom my father promptly decapitated when he returned, eight moons later. In all that time, I never ceased praying to Father Chisti and the Children, so we could be a family again.

Remembering such things, tears burned down my cheeks, heated by the steam that smothered the air. But the memories always left me cold and shivering. I needed more heat. More fire.

I fetched more coals for the steam from a bag in the back of the chamber. While piling the coals on the burning tray, one tumbled off the edge and fell on the damp floor, just behind the tray. Black water began running toward my feet. Sickening. I pushed the tray to the side to pick up the coal: that’s when I noticed something.

Across the wall, behind the tray, was a red handprint. No, a blood handprint. What the hell?

I brushed my wet hand against it, but it didn’t drip. The blood was caked onto the tile. I grabbed my towel, wet it from the puddle on the floor, and rubbed the handprint. Harder and rougher, as if I were cleaning my horse. But when I pulled the towel away, the fabric was perfectly yellow and star-patterned, and the bloodstain remained undisturbed.

As I stared at it, I heard…whispers. But as far as I knew, I was alone in the bath. I pushed my hand toward the blood print. It fit…perfectly, as if it were my own hand that bled it onto the warm tile.

What the fuck?

Whispers. Just outside my steam room. I peeked outside — no one there. Was I going mad?

I pushed the coal tray back, blocking the blood print from sight. Had someone…bled in this room?

Died in this room?

Read Chapter 2!

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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