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.
Which was, at this moment, besieged. By my brother. From high on the palace balcony, I stared beyond the sand-colored city walls at the colorful yurts dotting the desert and shrubland. Our besiegers would find their 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; little bother it happened to be the capital of the richest and most powerful kingdom in the east.
Like Qandbajar, I have a fanciful origin story. It begins with my brother and me huddling in a yurt, covered by a harsh, moth-holed blanket. I’d let him have the last bits of horseflesh, knowing Father would lament his death more than mine, him being the heir of a line of khagans that stretched to the time of Temur, and me being an ungainly daughter; my belly ached from the rotten broth I’d scarfed down instead. 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 the 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 to the paradise that was Qandbajar?
“Today is not for reminiscence,” Shah Tamaz had instructed when he debriefed me an hour ago in the great hall. “You’re the sand-brick bridge connecting us and the Sylgiz,” he’d said, sitting straight-backed on his golden divan, his usual kind smile stretched across his face.
I bent my neck and replied, “I’m more of a…bridge-left-in-disrepair-for-eight-years-because-the-treasurer-didn’t-care-about-the-people-on-the-other-side…but I see your meaning, Your Glory.”
So I took a carriage to the city gate. As I’d requested, a warhorse waited 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. 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.
Around me, men hauled water in horsehide sacks, while others tempered steel over fire pits, the clank-clank of their hammers a perfect beat for the throaty and harsh Sylgiz tongue. 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 imagined 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. 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 a guard 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’ve 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 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 weighed 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 he 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, 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 by 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 return. 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 a hostage for eight years.
“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 recollecting 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 still passed 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 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. A shard of cranium 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.”
“This can’t be!” I shook my head and slowed my breathing to inhale less death stench. “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.
“Surely, a falsification,” I said after swallowing whatever shot up from my stomach. “I’ve lived under the Shah’s protection for eight years. He wouldn’t recompense sins with sins. Heads with heads.”
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 had wives and children, who now weep through the night. You think I wanted to come here? I came to silence that weeping with one thing — 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. When he stared into me, he was looking at something else: a memory, perhaps. “Seeing you again takes me back to happier times. Simpler times, like when father caught a red squirrel, 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 we’d never run out of rabbits and yaks and goats and especially horses. But ten moons of drought changed everything.
Cihan pulled on his beard. “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 decaying heads.
A heckle sounded from the back. Gokberk glared at me, his upper lip pushing against his nose in obvious disapproval.
I ignored him and 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. I always wanted more. But the things I wanted, my brother couldn’t give.
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 Endless 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,” the tribes who called it home chose to shorten it to the Endless whereas others chose 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 turned away, went toward the exit flap, and said, “Qandbajar is my home, now.”
Back within the walls of the Sand Palace, gholam in shimmering bronze and gold 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. Be ready — I’ll needs call on you again.”
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. It was busy this morning, as usual, with a few eunuchs tending to their duties and more than a few concubines tending to themselves.
As I sat 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 while 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 pressed against my chest, 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 hair 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 it 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.”
I splashed water on 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. She told me that was how they bathed in the Vogras, where she was from, but the other Vograsian concubines didn’t do that. 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 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 a nineteen-year-old. Her expression tensed. “So…tell me, what’s going to happen now? Should we worry?”
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 despite reassurances, ants still crawled through my veins; 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. “Don’t gossip about this, all right?” Secrets always spilled in the Sand Palace, but I trusted Zedra and needed to pour out my worries.
She zipped up her lips.
“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 — my cheeks tightened. “Just something my mother would say. Us Sylgiz have the dumbest sayings.” I’d always tried to avoid showing where I came from. 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 began to bore me, and I yearned once more for 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 was planning to go anyway, to tend to a certain scheme I was part of, so I nodded and went toward the coals.
Strange what a siege does to a thriving city. The food bazaars were bursting with haggling and desperation. Stall sellers had raised prices, a precaution if a long siege would choke their supplies. 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 and watched 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 bazaar.
Upon getting out, Zedra raised her hands and twirled like a Vograsian dancer — how carefree and fluid. The Vogras, where she was from, was a mountainous part of the Waste and a different world from that of the Sylgiz, Jotrids, and other lowland tribes, so I didn’t know too much about it. 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 focused little on the Waste, its tribes, and its geography.
Today, Laughter Square lived up to its name. 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. 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 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 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 believed 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 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 syrupy 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 vilest 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 and should be forbidden! 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 Bazaar. Briefly. Do you mind?”
“Of course, dear,” she said. “Go flutter about wherever you may. I’ll be here, wasting my time and money.”
I fingered the scroll in my pocket and let out a tense breath. I’d joined this scheme by choice, days before my brother arrived, and couldn’t back out now.
With an escort of four gholam, I proceeded on foot across the Bridge of Saint Jorga toward the Grand Bazaar. 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 Bazaar, 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 of the way of the gholam and myself. I’d not regularly worn such common 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, 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 the 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. Or it would’ve been had this exchange been genuine. 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, she’d bought my excuse. But the four gholam escorting me would be harder to trick. 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, obviously 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. “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.”
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 that I gave him that parchment!”
“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-five 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?”
The praying women turned to look. I’d been too loud in this hallowed 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. After doing something so wrong, I wanted to take another bath. And yet, I burned to know what he wanted me to do next. Whatever it was, I couldn’t stop now.
I did take another bath, my third one today. This time, I made sure no one was around, so I could cry. The eunuchs at the door must’ve 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.
As I remembered 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 behind the tray. Black water ran toward my feet. Sickening. I pushed the tray to the side to pick up the coal.
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. Ugh, were the eunuchs not taking care of this place? Well, someone ought to. 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, whispers floated into the steamy air. 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?