Sharakhai, the great city of the desert, center of commerce and culture, has been ruled from time immemorial by twelve kings—cruel, ruthless, powerful, and immortal. With their army of Silver Spears, their elite company of Blade Maidens and their holy defenders, the terrifying asirim, the Kings uphold their positions as undisputed, invincible lords of the desert. There is no hope of freedom for any under their rule.
Or so it seems, until Çeda, a brave young woman from the west end slums, defies the Kings’ laws by going outside on the holy night of Beht Zha’ir. What she learns that night sets her on a path that winds through both the terrible truths of the Kings’ mysterious history and the hidden riddles of her own heritage. Together, these secrets could finally break the iron grip of the Kings’ power…if the nigh-omnipotent Kings don’t find her first.
Çeda knelt next to the upstairs windows of Dardzada’s apothecary, peeking through the slats of the shutters out to the street below, where three women in brightly colored jalabiyas—emerald and saffron and goldenrod—were walking down the street chatting gaily with one another. These women came every week, always at the same time, ostensibly to buy tonics for their skin, but in reality to buy ral shahnad, summer’s fire, a hallucinogen made from the distilled essence of a rare flower found only in the furthest reaches of Kundhun. Çeda had been living with Dardzada for four years now, and already she’d seen many drugs of choice come and go. She knew, for she was the one who went through the painstaking work to prepare them. Dardzada might have perfected the formula, but it was her hard work that granted these women their eyes-aflutter dreams.
In the alley across the street, a boy poked his head out, staring up at her window. It was Emre. The women were just passing the alley, and when they walked past, Emre slipped into their wake and walked with a bow-legged gait, nose lifted high, arms swaying ridiculously. Çeda giggled but was horrified when he continued past Dardzada’s shop. At least he stopped acting the fool, but if Dardzada saw him, he would know Çeda was up to something.
Çeda waited until she heard the women entering through the door directly below her window. She heard the floor creaking as Dardzada walked from his workroom to greet them, and immediately one began regaling Dardzada with a story about a beautiful horse, a gift she’d imported for her daughter’s twelfth birthday. Upon hearing their voices fade—Dardzada often took his regular customers into the garden behind the shop for a cup of tea—Çeda opened the shutter wide, slipped out and onto the sill, then dropped down to the dusty street, rolling to make as little sound as possible.
She was up in a moment, and she and Emre were sprinting down the street. She socked him on the arm as they ran.
“Ow! What was that for?”
“For being such an idiot. I told you not to make a fool of Dardzada.”
“I wasn’t making a fool of him. I was making a fool of those women. Did you see the way they were walking? As if they could snap their fingers and the entire quarter would come running just to be the first to fall at their feet!”
“The entire quarter just might.”
“That isn’t the point.” He socked her back, then sprinted ahead.
She quickly caught up and pinched his ear, then the two of them made their way, laughing, to the nearest stone steps down to the Haddah. It was spring in Sharakhai, and the river was swelling. It was going to be a rich fishing season if the rains kept up. Old Ibrahim said the river might even flood.
“Has the look of it,” Ibrahim had told Çeda one day while fishing over the edge of an old stone bridge. “Just you see if it doesn’t. Ibrahim remembers.” He’d tapped his noggin below his wide-brimmed, sweat-stained hat. “Ibrahim knows the signs.”
“What signs?” Çeda had asked.
And Ibrahim had turned to Çeda, his face pinching like he’d bitten into a Malasani lime. “Never you mind, girl. Never you mind.”
Çeda and Emre wound their way along the Haddah. Near the city’s center, the bank was little more than a paved walkway that had been built for the more affluent of the city, the river flowing along a canal below. There were hundreds of people out, groups of the rich, some sipping rosewater lemonade and leaning out over the balustrades to look into the clear water below, others strolling and talking quietly. Çeda and Emre were given the eye by a few Silver Spears patrolling the promenade—they even followed the two of them for a short time until it was clear they were headed upriver.
They passed beneath Bent Man, the oldest and bulkiest of the bridges spanning the Haddah. The traffic along the Trough was lively, but through some trick peculiar to this place, the sounds seemed dull and distant. Soon the larger four- and five-story stone buildings gave way to squatter constructions, and those gave way to hovels. They had entered the Shallows, where crowds of men and women were out washing clothes. Children splashed in the water. Even a few herons waded along the edge of the reeds, their sharp beaks darting down to catch mudskippers.
A gang of seven or eight gutter wrens were playing at swords in the water, practicing the motions of tahl selhesh, the dance of blades, while wading in the shin-deep water, but they stopped and lowered their wooden practice swords as Çeda and Emre approached. Several began moving toward the bank but stopped when Çeda and Emre placed hands on the knives at their belts.
They continued through the northwestern quarter of the city, passing through a wonderland of trilling birdcalls and jumping fish and buzzing insects, all of it so foreign to the way of things in the desert ten months out of the year. Is it like this in Malasan, where you can’t walk half a day without running across a new river? Or Mirea, where it rains every week? Some may call her a liar when she said it, but Çeda wouldn’t like to live in such places. The desert was in her blood, through and through. The very thought of leaving it made her laugh.
“What?” Emre asked, looking at her as if she were mad.
“What?” she shot back.
“You just laughed. At nothing.”
“So what?” she said, still smiling. “You look like an ox’s ass all the time, and I don’t make fun of you for it.”
He tried to punch her arm again, but she was too fast. She ducked the blow and sprinted away, Emre chasing after. To the annoyance of some enjoying the river, they flew along the banks, screaming, until they were exhausted from it.
Near the edge of the city, Emre pointed and said, “There, behind those bushes.”
After stepping behind the bushes with the flaming orange flowers, they dismantled a carefully constructed pile of stones. Within were the two packs she and Emre had brought here several days before in preparation for the journey. It felt good as Çeda shouldered hers. They had supplies for a few days, though they only planned to be out until the following morning.
When they’d passed the edges of the city at last, and entered the desert proper, Emre asked, “You sure you want to do this?”
Çeda eyed the way ahead, squinting against the brightness of the sun as it glinted against the flowing river. “Of course I’m sure.”
“Why did your mother go to the blooming fields?”
Emre was being sly. He had wanted to know for a good many years now, but he’d waited until they were halfway to the blooming fields to ask her again.
It worked, too. Çeda reckoned it wasn’t fair of her to keep it from him any longer. “She came for the blooms.”
“I know. But why?”
She wasn’t surprised that he’d guessed about the blooms—what else could she be going all that way for, after all?—but she was embarrassed that she knew so very little about her mother’s life. Surely Ahya had planned to tell her one day: about the petals, why she collected them, what she meant for Çeda to do with them. She’d merely been caught before she’d had a chance to do it. Çeda had made the mistake of asking Dardzada about it a few months back. He’d not only refused to answer, he’d barked at her never to ask of it again. When she had asked a second time he’d beaten her for it and locked her in her room to think about how badly she’d disappointed him. He’d kept her there until the following evening, bringing her only bits of bread and water, telling her it was worlds better then she’d get from the House of Kings if they ever caught her.
She hadn’t asked him about it again—she was no fool—but his actions had done nothing to quench the fire within her. If anything, it had thrown fuel upon it. She’d left it alone for far too long already.
She’d made plans with Emre over the following weeks for this very outing, planning when they would go, how she would sneak away from the apothecary, what they would bring. The only thing she hadn’t worked out was how to tell Dardzada when she returned. She knew he’d be angry—knew he’d be a good deal more than angry, in fact—but she was nearly thirteen. She would make him see that she was becoming her own woman and that he could neither hide her from the world nor the world from her.
“She gave me the blooms sometimes,” she told Emre while hopping along a series of rounded river rocks. “She’d take them herself, as well.”
Emre tried to follow in her footsteps, but slipped and splashed in the water, twisting his ankle along the way. “When?” he asked, hissing and limping the injury away with embarrassment.
“On holy days, but rarely those the Kings proscribe, only the days the desert tribes celebrate the gods or the making of the desert.”
“But why give you petals, the very thing the Kings love most?” He caught up to her along a wide bank of smooth river stones. Ahead, the river ran straight until it curved to the right around a rocky promontory upon which an abandoned tower sat sulking like a long-forgotten grave. “Why take adichara blooms, like the Maidens?”
This was a question Çeda had been struggling with for a long while, even before her mother’s death. She’d asked, but had never been answered, at least not to her satisfaction. “I think she took them because the Kings would deny them to her. She gave them to me for the same reason. That which the Kings forbade, she did. That was her way.”
“Was she one of the Moonless Host?”
“No,” she said immediately. “She didn’t agree with their ways. She thought them too brutal.”
“But if she meant to kill the Kings—”
“I don’t know if she meant to kill them.”
“But her death . . .”
“Yes, I know, but I think she’d been caught off-guard. Maybe she meant to take something from them.”
Emre scoffed. “You don’t believe that.”
“No, not really, but it might have been. I don’t know. Maybe I’ll never know.”
Emre paused, and when he spoke again, it was with a quiet intensity. “Then why not leave it all alone?”
Çeda looked at him, aghast. “Because they killed her.”
“I know. But people die every day, Çeda.”
Çeda stopped in her tracks, waiting until Emre stopped as well and faced her. “Go back if you don’t want to help. I’m fine on my own.”
“No,” he said. “I want to go.”
“You just said you want me to stop!”
“No, I didn’t.” Emre looked completely confused, and more than a little scared. “It’s just . . .”
Emre didn’t respond. He wasn’t even looking at her anymore but over her shoulder. When Çeda stared at him, confused, he jutted his chin at something behind her.
She turned and saw a wolf’s head, just above the riverbank. It approached until it was standing at the very edge, looking down at them. It was little more than a pup, and by Rhia’s kind fortune, it was white. Its muzzle was grey—as were the tufts of darker hair along the mane covering its withers—but the rest of it was snow white.
She’d never seen such a thing. Never even heard of such a thing.
Emre had picked up a rock to throw at it, but Çeda grabbed his wrist. “No!”
“They’re mangy,” Emre said.
“They’re beautiful.” She took out one of the lengths of smoked venison she’d stolen from Dardzada’s larder.
“Don’t feed it.”
“Why not?” she asked as she tossed it up to the embankment.
No sooner had it landed than another maned wolf came padding up to the edge of the bank, this one the normal tawny color with a blackened mane and muzzle. Another followed, and another after that, and more, until there were eight in all. These were adult wolves, each standing every bit as tall as Çeda.
Despite her words, despite her feeling that these were noble creatures, Çeda’s hands and arms quivered like a newborn’s. Her teeth began to chatter. She had no idea why. She wasn’t scared. Not really. They were just so wondrous.
Two more pups came, the same size as the shorter white pup, which was as tall as Çeda’s waist.
Emre reached for his knife, but Çeda hissed at him. “Don’t. They’re smart, Emre.”
One of the wolves was itching to leap down. It ranged back and forth along the riverbank, looking down toward the rocky ground below. Another snapped up the venison and chewed, its head jerking forward as it swallowed. The rest, hackles rising, watched the two hapless humans, as if each were waiting for the next to attack.
The white wolf, though, didn’t appear to be paying much attention to the pair of them at all. It nipped at one of the adults’ legs, then harder until the larger one reached back and bit it on the snout. Immediately the white one turned and loped off. The adult let out a strange yelp, almost like the cry of a yearling child, and then ran off after the pup. The others soon followed, leaving the one that was keen to leap down. This one—a beast with many black scars around its head and withers—lowered its head and growled, teeth bared, then it too turned and galloped after its brood.
“We were stupid to bring only knives,” Emre said softly.
“What would we have done with swords against a bloody pack of them?”
“A far sight better than anything I could do with a rat sticker like this.” Emre held up his knife, staring at it as if he’d just realized how short it was. “Gods, what just happened?”
“I don’t know, but Bakhi has clearly smiled upon us. Let’s not make him a fool.”
She started to head upriver, but Emre grabbed her wrist. “We’re not ready for this.”
“I am.” And she yanked her arm away and kept walking.
She didn’t hear Emre following, and for a moment she thought it might be better if he did head back to Sharakhai, but when she heard the crunch of the stones as he followed her, she was glad. As eager as she was to see the blooming fields, she didn’t want to see them alone.
They continued well beyond midday, following the river several leagues out into the desert. They were sheltered from the oppressive heat by the river, which was cool along the banks, and when they grew too hot, they’d stop and splash water on themselves, cup water into their mouths until they were no longer thirsty, and then continue on. They came to a fork, where a small stream fed the River Haddah. Çeda chose to follow the stream, reasoning that it might make for easier walking as they came closer to the blooming fields.
They followed it for several hours more.
“Where do we stop?” Emre asked.
“There,” Çeda said, pointing to a tamarisk tree in the distance. “They’ve got to be close. We’ll climb the tree and look for them.”
The broad-trunked tree was some distance from the stream, so they drank their fill, topped off the water skins in their packs, and left the streambed, making a beeline for the tree. When they reached it, Çeda unslung her pack and handed it to Emre. After a quick climb she was able to see far along the amber sands. To the east, she spotted the white sails of ships moving in the distance: a caravan, drifting over the sands to some distant port—who knew where? Çeda might not want to leave the desert, but she would love to ride aboard a sandship one day, travel the Great Desert and see the wonders she’d heard and read so much about.
Northward, wavering in the desert heat, she thought she saw a smudge of black. There was another west of it: The blooming fields.
Her fingers tingled. She’d never been, but she’d imagined so many things, and she wondered if reality would be anything like her dreams. A part of her was nervous about seeing them, but another part was glad this day had finally come.
When she climbed down, she paused, noticing a flat stone nearly swallowed by the roots on either side of it. The stone was the size of her hands placed side-by-side, and engraved upon its surface was a complex sigil.
“What is it?” Emre asked.
“No idea,” Çeda replied, squatting down and trying to wrest it free. She had no luck, and they quickly moved on, heading for the nearest of the fields. As the sun lowered, throwing splashes of color against the cloudy western sky, they crested a low dune and saw a mass of trees spread out before them. When viewed from afar it was clear the trees were laid out in a very rough line—southwest to northeast—but as they trudged closer, they could see how erratic the spacing was. Like an island of black stone in the desert, inlets and islets and lakes of sand were hidden within the twisted groves.
Small forms like hummingbirds flitted to and fro above the adichara, and several flew toward them.
They were the açal. Rattlewings. Beetles as big as Çeda’s thumb with wings as wide as the spread of her hand. Their shells were iridescent black, and their wings were a glimmering shade of purple, but the wickedly curved mandibles were a muddy, bloody red—a color that marked many insects in the desert as poisonous.
Many flew past before circling around and coming toward them once more. Then one landed on Çeda’s arm and bit her.
She screamed in fright and pain and flung her hand at the beetle, but it had already flown up and away. Another came toward her. She swatted it away as one of them bit Emre.
The two of them retreated, but more of the rattlewings were now swinging past them. A veritable cloud of them floated in the air ahead, swinging back and forth, effectively blocking their way.
It was when Çeda turned back to look for an escape route that she noticed the carcass. Within the fields of adichara was the body of an oryx. She could see its distinctive black stripe running along its length, its white underbelly and its long ribbed horns. Much of the creature was wrapped tight in the arms of a tree, as if it had wandered into the grove and been strangled to death.
As she and Emre backed away from the rattlers, swatting at them when they came near, Çeda spotted two other oryx among the adichara, beetles swarming out from within their dead carcasses.
“Stop backing up!” she shouted. Gods, the thought of being slowly eaten by them, of becoming a home in which the rattlewings could lay their eggs and multiply. “They’re herding us toward the trees!”
Emre glanced back, eyes wide with fear. Whether he understood or not, she didn’t know. But he took his pack and held it before him like a shield. Several of the beetles attacked it instead of him, but more swept in and stung him on the thigh and shoulder. He swatted them and took a step back as the cloud continued to thicken. “What are we going to do?”
Çeda slipped her pack off and aimed it toward the beetles as Emre had done. “This way!” she said, trying to run to her left, but the buzzing black insects were quick to block her path. Another swept in and stung Çeda’s ankle. The arm where she’d been stung first was in terrible pain.
Emre shouted again and swatted maniacally. “What are we going to do?”
“I don’t know!”
Çeda caught Emre’s expression, a perfect mirror of her own. He was terrified, frightened for his life. As was she. Her breath came rapidly now, the poison already beginning to spread through her arm, causing a deep aching sensation when she tried to swat the beetles. They couldn’t go on like this, and they both knew it.
Hands shaking, his movements jerky and erratic, Emre pulled a blanket from inside his pack. He was crying with pain now, shouting at each new bite.
After one last desperate look at Çeda, he threw the blanket over his head and shoulders. Holding the pack before him, the blanket blinding him, he screamed and sprinted away across the sand.
The rattlers attacked, swooping in, many getting caught against the blanket. But many slipped beneath the blanket, stinging him over and over again. She didn’t know if Emre had meant for it to happen, but most of the rattlewings followed him, leaving a thinner cloud with her.
“Leave him alone!” she yelled, running after Emre. “Leave him alone!” Tears streaming down her face.
The beetles ignored her cries and came for her, though not nearly in the same numbers as for Emre.
The sun had set, and the desert was cooling which, more than anything else, may have made the rattlewings peel off, one by one, and drift like dark clouds back toward the adichara. Emre didn’t care, though. Either that or he didn’t notice. He kept running, now screaming more from pain than fright. And Çeda followed, feeling small and foolish over the sacrifice Emre had made for her.
Eventually all the beetles were gone, and still Emre ran, though it was now more of a limp, a strangled gait that barely kept him from falling to the sands.
“Emre, stop!” she called. “They’re gone.”
She didn’t know whether he heard her or not, for soon after he simply collapsed, the sand billowing where he fell. She dropped to his side and pulled the blanket away.
And saw the travesty the beetles had made of his skin.
Dozens of bites marked his face, arms, and legs. His torso and back, thank the gods for small favors, were blessedly free of the puckered wounds, but the rest . . . Dear gods, they might be enough to kill him.
She’d never seen the rattlewings before and had heard of them only once or twice in passing—Dardzada talking with a client, perhaps, or maybe it had been Ibrahim the storyteller, or Davud, the annoying boy in the bazaar who couldn’t keep his mouth shut. Her own wounds felt painful enough—her skin was swollen and reddened—but that in itself wouldn’t kill. It was the constriction against her heart that worried her most; it felt as if it were being pressed inside a box too small to contain it, and if her heart felt sluggish, what would Emre’s be like?
He moaned, opened his eyes, fixed them on her with something akin to recognition. “Did I scare them off?”
A bark of nervous laughter escaped her. She brushed his hair to one side, then got her water skin out and gave him some of it. The rest she used to wash his wounds. Then she applied a salve meant to help against sunburns. She had no idea if either would help, but they might, and right now, easing the effects of the poison was more important than preserving their water. It was clear, though, that they would need more. And there was no way that Emre would be able to walk. Not like this.
By the time she was done, it was nearly dark. The stars were out. Only a strip of gauzy violet light still hung in the west. She needed to get back to the stream. There was water there, and she’d seen Sweet Anna along the way, and goldenthread, too. She could make a poultice from them.
“Emre, can you hear me?” She wrapped both blankets around him and left the strap of his water skin wrapped around his right wrist, left the pack open near his left in case he grew hungry, then she leaned forward and spoke softly in his ear, “I’m going to get some help, Emre.”
“From your mother?”
She almost cried. “No, Emre. My mother’s dead.” She stood and regarded him one last time.
“Tell her I miss her.”
“I will,” she replied, and then turned and loped toward the stream.
Excerpted from Twelve Kings in Sharakhai © Brad Beaulieu, 2015