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 bulging as a laden camel or thin as prayer beads, and you’d still be the sultana of this harem.”
A beardless boy placed more softbread onto our floor table. The irony: neither I nor the Shah ate much. Every day, servants carted the palace leftovers to the poor living 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 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 supposed, with the entire Majlis apprised of the happenings, that everyone would find out eventually — but news has spread faster than I expected. Believe me, 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 carried 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? Dramatic moments: just when the executioner was about to swing, the Shah would 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 didn’t rule for two decades, otherwise. Of all three reigning House Seluqal shahs from the kingdoms of Sirm, Kashan, and Alanya, 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 smashed a fully stocked and armored Crucian army at the Syr Darya last year. If not for him, Micah the Metal and Imperator Heraclius would’ve wiped our ungrateful cousins up north from history. What is 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 desert chill, you and Kyars will be cuddling amid a coal-burning fire, surely.”
A sickening thought, for which I suppressed a shudder. Nonetheless, winter remained moons away, and so my window seemed wide 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 five hundred years ago, just after Temur the Wrathful carved a blood trail through half the earth. Born in Tinbuq, the seat of the once Golden Kingdom of Himyar to the southwest, 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 breadth 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 the worst among them.
“Make way for Sultana Mirima!” a eunuch called.
I stood to the side in the hallway, 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 the back of her ring-studded 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. The older men and women here seemed to. “We inquired as to the feelings of the people concerning the siege.” I’d given my best answer, 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.
“Like here in the palace, opinion is divided. Some see it as serious, and others as a trifle.” 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 which 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.
Back in my room, I took my son from the wet nurse and cradled him close. A sweet warmth 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 about the sun and birds and fish. Kyars loved the name, too. As for myself, I couldn’t imagine a worse man to name my son after, but I had no say.
“You may go,” I said to the wet nurse.
I kissed my son’s scalp and inhaled his fresh, life-giving scent. He giggled. I laid him 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.
Words once spoken by my uncle and father-in-law echoed in my mind: “Don’t raise your children the way your parents raised you. They were born for a different time.” It couldn’t be truer with my son and me; I’d have to raise him for this time, this place, this mission.
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 only numbed 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.
I often obsessed over one question: who was the most powerful man in Alanya? The obvious answer was Shah Tamaz, but thrones veil those behind them. A more astute answer was Grand Vizier Barkam because his hands plucked the strings. But that too was wrong. Neither Barkam nor the Shah held the minds of the people, and without them, a kingdom was nothing but ordered mud and stone. Then it was 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 man to save my life, it wouldn’t be 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 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 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 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 gates. Maybe it’s a blessing Kyars left you behind.”
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. 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 in Sirm.”
“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 a 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’d take anything — everything — if 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, the Shah promoted you 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 bit a peach and enjoyed 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 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, the warhorses of the Sylgiz trampled it. 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 wart 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 I now breathed 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 in trepidation, then landed on whatever was beneath me. My talons scratched at 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 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 a 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. 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 sweaty feet. Lat has given us an auspicious gift, something she doesn’t do often. My fleet is just beyond the river bend, 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 sea mists.”
“I was in court the day an ambassador came, claiming to be from there. The woman wore 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, it seemed, had stronger suspicions than Ozar. I hoped none led to me.
“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.
The sun’s gaze heated the window head to a discomforting sizzle, but I clung on with my talons, hoping to learn something I could use.
“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’d endanger us all.”
They’d brought Cyra into their schemes? Why would she work for Hadrith? How curious…and annoying.
“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.”
A crack formed in 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!”
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.