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.”
“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.”