With Blood Upon the Sand

Çeda, now a Blade Maiden in service to the kings of Sharakhai, trains as one of their elite warriors, gleaning secrets even as they send her on covert missions to further their rule. She knows the dark history of the asirim—that hundreds of years ago they were enslaved to the kings against their will—but when she bonds with them as a Maiden, chaining them to her, she feels their pain as if her own. They hunger for release, they demand it, but with the power of the gods compelling them, they find their chains unbreakable.

Çeda could become the champion they’ve been waiting for, but the need to tread carefully has never been greater. After their recent defeat at the hands of the rebel Moonless Host, the kings are hungry for blood, scouring the city in their ruthless quest for revenge. Çeda’s friend Emre and his new allies in the Moonless Host hope to take advantage of the unrest in Sharakhai, despite the danger of opposing the kings and their god-given powers, and the Maidens and their deadly ebon blades.

When Çeda and Emre are drawn into a plot of the blood mage Hamzakiir, they learn a devastating secret that may very well shatter the power of the hated kings. But it may all be undone if Çeda cannot learn to navigate the shifting tides of power in Sharakhai and control the growing anger of the asirim that threatens to overwhelm her…

With Blood Upon the Sand is the second book in Bradley P. Beaulieu’s Song of Shattered Sands epic fantasy trilogy—available February 7th from DAW.

 

 

Chapter 1

Çeda crouched, cradled in the branches of a well-tended fig tree, studying the movements of the Kings’ soldiers, the Silver Spears, along the palace wall above. Staring up through the leaves, she measured their pace as they marched from tower to tower, noted how long and at which locations they tarried. She gave special attention to the changing of the guard, and was relieved that the same guards had been posted as on the other nights she’d hidden here. Most important, though, was their mood. She weighed it—as well as she could from a hundred feet below—and to her great relief, found them attentive, but no more than usual. Had they seemed more prepared, on edge in some way, she knew she would have been forced to abandon her plan to kill the King of Kings.

This great palace that sat atop Mount Tauriyat was named Eventide, and it was the home of Kiral, the King of Kings. Not only was it the highest and largest of Sharakhai’s palaces, it was the most difficult to penetrate. Its walls stood higher than any other palace. Its western side was built atop a sheer rock face, making it near impossible for any sizable force to approach from that angle. Watch towers stood like sentinels every fifty paces, and the winding road leading up to it had a gorge spanned by a drawbridge that, unlike many of the other palaces on Tauriyat, was often raised.

Not that the palace had never been breached. With enough preparation, training, and, not least of all, patience, a woman or man could pierce any wall, gain any fortress. There were stories of the Moonless Host having done so many years ago. Whether or not they’d grown in the telling was anyone’s guess, but one thing was certain: gaining the walls was only the first of their difficulties. There were the Silver Spears to contend with. There were the elite Blade Maidens, who protected the King. And there was the King himself who, even after four hundred years walking the sands of the desert, was still one of the Shangazi’s most feared fighters.

Careful not to rock the leafy branches, Çeda leaned to one side to get a better look at a tall soldier marching along the parapet. A second Spear followed several paces behind, his helm and the tip of his tall spear glinting gold from the remains of the dying sun. From their high vantage, the two soldiers studied the vertical drop below them. Their gazes roamed the dry slope of the mountain. They stared out past the walls circumnavigating the whole of Tauriyat, to the sprawl of the Amber City. Çeda could see the city as well, an expanse of choked streets and mismatched buildings, of grand temples and leaning hovels. Some were old, some were new, some large, some small, some rich, some so decrepit they looked as if they’d crumble the moment the next sandstorm hit.

Çeda’s heart drummed as a hot breeze picked up and wind tossed the leaves. One of the guards was staring right at her. The tree, one of dozens in a grove below Eventide, did much to hide her, as did her supple leather armor, which was dyed a mottled color that matched both the fig tree’s bark and the rocky soil. She’d made the armor with padding that rounded her stomach, chest, and arms, making her appear bigger than she was. She’d bound her breasts and stuffed boots too large for her feet to make anyone who spotted her think she was a man. She was not only prepared to be seen before the night was done; she counted on it. Only, it wasn’t supposed to happen now.

She stared at the guard, breathless, certain he’d spotted her, but a moment later he spat over the wall, said something to his comrade, and moved on, the two of them laughing with the sort of ease that was common to the shisha dens sprinkled all across the Amber City. Indeed, as if the thought had summoned the city awake, drums and music lifted into the warm evening air, some celebration now underway.

The Spears were soon lost from sight, swallowed by the gaping entrance of the next tower, and finally Çeda relaxed. Still, her confidence was beginning to erode. Where were the other Kings? They should have been here by now. The urge to abandon this plan as too bold and return to the House of Maidens was growing, but a night like tonight wasn’t going to come again. She’d known weeks ago that she would come; it was practically a directive from the gods themselves, or if not the gods, then surely the fates.

When the sun set and the air began to cool, Çeda worried the moment had come and gone. Perhaps King Yusam’s diary had been wrong. Or in her haste she’d noted the wrong date. But just then the sound of galloping horses drew her attention to King’s Road, the paved road of endless switchbacks that wound its way like a serpent up the slopes of Tauriyat to each of the Kings’ palaces. Twelve other palaces graced the mountain, but it was from Husamettín’s, the King of Swords, palace that an honor guard of ten Blade Maidens and a large black wagon emerged.

A cavalcade of moths began to flutter in the space between Çeda’s ribs as the wagon wended its way higher along the palace road. Eyes fixed on the wagon like an archer taking aim, Çeda pulled the teardrop necklace from inside her armor, took a white-and-blue adichara petal from within, and placed it under her tongue. She’d no sooner clipped the locket closed than her awareness began to expand.

Like the perfect unfurling of a freshly cut rose, more of the world became known to her. The conversations of the men and women preparing for the arrival of the other Kings—conversations hidden from her only moments ago—now drifted down from Eventide. The smell of roast meat filled the air, as did a savory mix of garlic, onion, and the sharp scents of lemon and coriander and sage. A thrill ran through her. Her physical form became vibrant, white hot. She itched to use it.

The most subtle effect, and the most dangerous on this particular night, was her awareness of the blooming fields. These were the groves of twisted trees, the vast ring around Sharakhai where the asirim slept. Like torches in the night, they brightened in her mind. Ever since she was young, when her mother had begun feeding her bits of pressed petals on holy days or during other rites of passage, she had been bonded to the adichara. She hadn’t known their nature then, but she did now. She could feel the asirim in their slumber, could sense their tortured dreams.

She could call to them if she wished—they’d granted her that power—but that wasn’t what she needed tonight. Like the guards above, it was imperative they remain unaware of her. After all, were the Jackal King to sense her presence here, all would be lost. So instead of calling to them, she distanced herself, becoming something ephemeral, spindrift lifting then lost.

The distant thump of horse hooves came louder as the wagon team and the Maidens’ horses approached the entrance to Eventide. When they were lost from view and the clatter of the entrance bridge being lowered filled the cool night air, Çeda stared up at the palace wall and saw a lone guard standing at attention along the western side, facing inward.

Bless you, Nalamae.

Low and fast, she raced to the rock face. Upon reaching it she climbed, using the path she’d mapped for herself while waiting for the sun to set. Up she went, quickly, quietly, her body tight to the stone, arms and legs moving smoothly. She was a good climber without the power of the petals driving her, but with it, she reached the lower stone blocks of Eventide’s walls in as little time as it took a man to piss. She moved slower then, careful to find space for the tips of her fingers to grip, for the edges of her boots to find purchase.

From within the walls, echoing up into a sky bursting with stars, came the sound of pounding hooves, of iron-rimmed wagon wheels rattling over stone. She approached the top of the wall and slowly raised herself until she could see the Silver Spear. With care, she drew a pre-knotted rope from around her waist and slipped one end over the merlon directly above her. The other end, wound into a noose, she held at the ready. She made a ticking sound and waited, controlling her breath, controlling her emotions. When the Spear remained standing at the ready, she made the sound again. This time he looked out over the wall, then down.

She was already swinging the rope up. It caught him neatly around the neck. Immediately she dropped, and the guard dropped with her. The noose cinched tight and he slipped over the side, arms scrabbling for purchase. His spear spun end over end toward the fig trees below. The rope went taut, and he swung like a headman’s axe toward the wall. Çeda slid along the rope so that his weight struck her instead of crashing noisily against stone. Something along his belt bit into her stomach, but he made blessedly little sound as he slammed into her. A cough escaped her, loud enough that she might have been heard. She switched her grip from the rope to the collar of his hauberk. All her weight was on him now, the noose drawing even tighter. He tried to free himself, tried to draw the knife at his belt, but it was a simple matter to snatch his wrist. The noose was so tight he didn’t so much as gurgle. She heard a popping sound, though, and then another. A moment later, his whole body went slack.

Like an ungainly ladder, she climbed his meaty frame until she was able to grab the rope, stand on his shoulders, and ascend once more. She prayed no cries of alarm would be raised as she slipped through the crenel and belly-crawled into the nearby tower.

Hearing none, she rose up until she could view the courtyard through the loophole in the tower. She watched as the wagon lurched to a stop. The team of horses at the lead shook their manes as four Blade Maidens dismounted and moved to stand beside the wagon. A footman in King Kiral’s blue livery opened the wagon doors, and three men stepped out, the Maidens and the footman bowing their heads to each. The first was the tall form of Husamettín, King of Swords. Next came Mesut, the Jackal King, lord of the asirim. And lastly, Cahil, the Confessor King. Mesut and Cahil wore the fine clothes of the Kings of Sharakhai: khalats of vibrant cloth and thread of gold with turbans to match. In contrast, Husamettín wore simpler clothes—the utilitarian sort a desert shaikh might wear—but he had a most impressive sword at his side. Night’s Kiss, the two-handed shamshir granted him by Goezhen himself.

Only when they had all exited the wagon did a fourth King appear. He came from the palace with three Blade Maidens waking in unison behind him. He was a tall, clean-shaven man. Even from this distance Çeda could see the pockmarks on his skin, evidence of some childhood disease that had struck well over four hundred years ago. This was Kiral himself, the one all the other Kings deferred to—or so Çeda had thought before entering the House of Maidens. She’d heard rumors of various rifts between the Kings since entering the House four months earlier. None of the other Kings would challenge his authority outright, but some would shed no tears were the Dawn King to topple from his lofty perch.

For a time the four Kings spoke, their conversation lost in the clop of hooves as the Maidens’ horses were led away. The wagon, however, remained.

“Let’s begin,” Kiral said as the noise dwindled.

Çeda pulled the short bow from her shoulder as King Mesut nodded to the interior of the wagon. At this, a Silver Spear exited, holding a chain in one hand. When he drew on the chain, it clinked, and a woman stumbled into view. As she took the steps, her miserable state was revealed. The chain was affixed to a leather collar around her neck. She was gagged. Her hands were bound behind her, and her breath came jackal-quick. She was trembling, and yet she stood tall before King Kiral; she stared defiantly into his eyes.

Çeda had been pulling one of the four poison-tipped arrows from the quiver on her back, but she halted at this strange occurrence. Two months ago she’d stolen into King Yusam’s private offices and read through his journal, the one he used to record the visions from the magical pool secreted away in his palace, his mere. The entries were snippets mostly, the most memorable bits and pieces he used to remind him of the things he’d seen. This meeting, on this particular day, had been mentioned several times. He had not, however, mentioned this woman, which meant either that he’d not seen it or had chosen to withhold it; she had no idea which it might be.

“Where shall we begin?” Mesut asked.

Çeda knew the answer even before Kiral waved to the patch of gravel situated between the greenhouse and the tower where she hid. The greenhouse had been mentioned in the journal.

Indeed, they moved to that exact location, four calm Kings and the terrified woman. “Kneel,” Mesut said. When the woman didn’t, Cahil kicked the backs of her legs out from under her so she fell to her knees. As he moved behind her and sliced through her bonds to free her hands, Çeda placed the arrow across her bow and nocked it. She held it at the ready, staring through the loophole in sick fascination. She thought of releasing the arrow now but, Nalamae forgive her, this was too important. She had to know more. The mere wouldn’t have shown it to Yusam if it wasn’t vital to him or the Kings or Sharakhai itself. If she revealed herself to soon, they would only perform this strange ritual another time, and she’d be none the wiser. So she waited as Cahil unstoppered a glass flask filled with a brown, muddy liquid. Waited as Mesut untied the gag and wrenched her head back. When they began pouring it down her throat, however, Çeda lifted the bow and drew the arrow back.

Finally, the flask was drained. Cahil stepped back, and Mesut let the woman go. She fell slowly to the ground, gripped in pain. She balled her hands into fists, struck them against the ground, as if waging a terrible battle within. But this was a battle already lost. Before Çeda’s eyes, the woman’s skin shriveled. Her cheeks grew sunken. Her hands became skeletal.

By Bakhi’s bright hammer, what did Cahil give her?

Her own breath coming faster, Çeda sighted down the arrow, aiming for Kiral. She could kill him, here and now, assuming the wound from a single arrow and the poison on its tip would do their work against a man the gods themselves had seen fit to protect. She might take another of the Kings as well, maybe even three of them if the gods were kind.

Or she might put this woman out of her misery.

I should, she thought. And yet the arrow held steady, its point aimed squarely for Kiral’s chest, indecision staying her hand.

Mesut stood beside the writhing woman. One of his sleeves was pulled back, revealing a bracelet of gold with a large black gem on it. The courtyard was deep in shadow, lit only by the braziers spaced throughout the grand courtyard, which was why Çeda was able to see the thin white cloud lifting from the gemstone.

It made the hair on her arms stand tall, made her insides twist. She wasn’t even sure why, not until more of the stuff floated free and began to take form. It was a wight, she realized. She’d never seen one before. Not really. Only a glimpse in a boneyard when she was young. At the time she’d thought it her fear of that massive boneyard manifesting, the stories she, Emre, Tariq, and Hamid had told one another before going there with bravery in their hearts and a skin of wine to hand. The moment they’d seen a ghostly form floating above the grave marker, though, all the bravery the wine had lent them vanished like summer rain, and they’d fled. It had been a harmless day, even a fun day.

Here, in the courtyard of Eventide, it was anything but.

The wight drifted forward, guided by Mesut’s outstretched hand. The woman stared at its approach, her screams maniacal now. At a wave from Mesut—a thing so akin to a pleasant introduction it made Çeda sick—the wight touched her. Immediately, the woman went silent, rigid as stone. With a measured pace not unlike a bone crusher ripping meat off one of its kills until it was sated, the wight slipped inside her. Then it dissipated and was gone.

For long seconds, all was silence. But then, as if she were rotting from the inside out, the woman’s skin began to darken. Like a dirty wet rag left to dry in the sun, her already-tight skin drew in further, until she looked almost indistinguishable from the asirim, the sad creatures that lived beneath the groves of adichara trees far out in the desert. Çeda had been purposely masking her presence from the asirim, but she could hardly ignore the woman below, who shone like a beacon in her mind, shedding darkness instead of light. The woman was one of them now, and they were calling to her: a paean to her pain, but also a welcome to their clan.

Breath of the desert, the Kings had created an asir. What Cahil had given her, what the true nature of Mesut’s golden band was, she didn’t know, but she was certain they’d taken a living woman and re-created the spell the gods had placed on the asirim four hundred years ago on Beht Ihman.

Without knowing why, she realized her awareness of the asirim was strengthening. She tried to suppress it, fearing that Mesut, lord of the asirim, would sense her, but in the end it wasn’t the Jackal King who found her, but the woman. She lifted her head and stared directly at the loophole through which Çeda was watching this grisly scene. The doomed woman lifted her skeletal hand and pointed. The moment she did, Çeda aimed and released her arrow.

The arrow flew true, directly for Kiral’s chest, but Mesut stepped in front of him and snatched the arrow from the air, spinning in a blur as he did so. Another arrow was already on its way. This one caught Cahil across one cheek. The third arrow flew toward Husamettín, but he was already drawing Night’s Kiss. He swept it in a broad arc, slicing the arrow in two as he dodged fluidly to one side.

She couldn’t afford to shoot the fourth arrow. Mesut was already running toward the tower. The Maidens were charging as well. A dozen Silver Spears were converging along the curtain walls from the other towers.

Çeda turned and took two long strides from the tower to throw herself over the merlon where her rope was tied. Grabbing the near lip of the stone, she controlled her motion and dropped straight down, then grabbed the rope and slipped along its length. She slid until she reached the Silver Spear’s lifeless form, at which point she climbed down his body, held on to his booted ankles, and dropped. She flattened herself against the steeply sloping stone and was able to slow her descent somewhat. Her light armor scraped with a sizzling sound. Something burned bright along her right shin as the leather tore through, but she reached level ground a moment later.

Taking a bag from her shoulder, she unfastened the tie and quickly began spreading the contents: dozens and dozens of caltrops. She scattered them generously along the ground in the most likely places for the Maidens or the Kings to drop down.

Above, she saw silhouettes—a trio of Blade Maidens—just as a bell began to ring from within the palace walls. She’d hoped to have more time before the whole of Tauriyat woke, but there was nothing for it now.

She turned and sprinted through the trees. Whether the Maidens were caught by the caltrops she didn’t know. She heard no cry of alarm, but once or twice she heard running along the dry slope behind her. They were swift, even in the darkness, likely having taken petals of their own by now, but Çeda was well ahead, and she’d plotted her course carefully over the past several weeks, ever since reading Yusam’s journal.

Her own petal powered her on, also granting her the sharp vision she needed to run full speed and avoid tripping over the stones that littered the landscape.

As she knew they would, other bells began to ring, more palaces picking up the alarm. “Lai, lai, lai!” she heard from behind, a demand for her to stop. But she could tell it was also a feint. There were other Maidens closer, hoping to catch her unaware.

She approached the walls around Tauriyat. She could see, faintly, several more Maidens running along the tops of the walls to intercept her. This had always been the weakest part of her plan. She couldn’t predict how many Maidens might be waiting along the walls. One Maiden was standing directly ahead, Çeda saw now. Without breaking stride, she drew her bow, nocked the last arrow, and released on the run. It struck the Blade Maiden through the neck. She fell backward off the wall, a short cry of surprise and pain going with her.

Çeda’s lungs burned, but she pushed harder, soon reaching the stone where she’d secreted a rope and grapnel. She swung it through the air in widening circles as she neared the wall. Slowing only for a moment, she put her whole body into an almighty launch of the hook. The rope snaked through the moonlit night, and the hook caught on the far battlements with a clank. Then she was pulling herself up along the inside of the wall. After gaining the walk, she launched herself over the battlements and into Sharakhai proper.

She stood along the eastern edge of the city, near the temple district. Ahead was the old city—a maze of ancient buildings and drunken streets, built as they were for a city from a different age. She’d no more made it to a bend in the street than she heard behind her the thud of booted feet against stone, the pounding of swift strides.

Ahead, more bells rang, this time from the garrison, the largest and oldest of the Silver Spears’ holdings. She ran toward those bells, a thing most would think terribly foolish, but she’d carefully chosen her exit along the wall so that the Spears might be drawn into the search as well. It would, she hoped, only add to the confusion and mask what she was about to do.

She sprinted along a short, dark street that led to an intersection of three others. Halfway down the street, a rope hung from a stone signpost advertising a Mirean leechman. When she came near, she leapt and seized the rope with both hands. Though her momentum sent her to swinging like a pendulum, legs dangling like a wooden doll’s, she climbed as quick as she could and clambered onto the beam. After coiling the rope on top of the beam, she slipped over the edge of the roof.

Lying flat, she controlled her breathing and prayed that none of her pursuers would spot the rope, nor see the sign swaying, as she’d knocked it with her leg on the way up. Staring at the sky, she heard bootsteps along the street below. In moments they’d reached the intersection of streets. One hushed conversation later, they resumed, and soon had faded altogether. All around, sounds were waking the city that had been settling for slumber. The clatter of metal. Horse hooves ringing over stone. Soldiers mobilizing. The sharp orders from men and women alike.

At the corner of the darkened roof, Çeda unwrapped a bundle she’d hidden a week earlier. She pulled out her Blade Maiden’s uniform: a black battle dress, a turban, leather boots, and her shamshir, River’s Daughter. She stripped off her leather armor, shed the padding and the binding around her chest, and pulled on the clothes she’d been wearing nearly every day these past four months. She was a Blade Maiden once more. The leather armor, the bow, and the quiver she rolled tightly together and stuffed into a clay downspout on the outside of the building. The padding and cloth binding she took to the far side of the roof and dropped into the trash bin of a tailor’s shop. The clothes might be found and they might not. If they were, the Maidens would likely assume one of the Moonless Host had tried to assassinate the Kings, and with any luck they’d think it was a man who’d changed garb in order to melt into the city. And if the clothes remained unfound, well, all the better.

As she lay there, staring at the moonless sky, any relief she felt at still being alive was soured by the realization of how badly she’d failed. Kiral. By the gods, she’d wanted Kiral. His death would have sent every court on Tauriyat into chaos. It would have lain to rest the notion, even more so than King Külaşan’s death, that the Kings were immortal. Husamettín would have been nearly as good, since he and his Blade Maidens had been the cause of so much pain in Sharakhai and the desert beyond. She’d failed to deliver a killing strike against Cahil, but at least the arrow had nicked him. The poison she’d used paralyzed in seconds, killed within minutes. Surely not even a King could stand against it.

She had to admit, though, however short of reaching her goals she might have fallen, the night hadn’t been a complete loss. She knew more about the Kings than she had that morning. She knew how utterly fast they were. She’d seen how they reacted. She had underestimated them, but she wouldn’t do so again.

The sound of boots approached once more. A hand of Maidens moved like ghosts beneath her. When they reached the same crossing, they took the left fork. The moment they were out of sight, Çeda slipped over the edge of the roof, dropped to the street, and sprinted after the Maidens. She caught up to them just as they were meeting a contingent of ten Silver Spears. Çeda whistled, a request to be apprised of the situation, an implied request for orders from the commanding officer, in this case a tall warden of the Blade Maidens. Two more Maidens arrived behind her, one giving the same whistle.

The warden, who’d been speaking to the captain of the Spears, turned to them. “You three,” she barked to Çeda and the new arrivals, “follow the Raven Road, then swing down along the Trough. Question anyone you find in the streets. We’re searching for a man, short, wearing light leather, possibly armed with a bow, so take care. We’ll meet at the Wheel after a sweep of our own.”

Çeda and the other two Maidens nodded, and then they were off, running back the way they’d come toward the road that wound through the temple district. As they did, Çeda began to breathe easier. They would search the city—likely they would search the whole night through—but they’d not find the assassin. Not this night.

Excerpted from With Blood Upon the Sand © Bradley P. Beaulieu, 2017

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