The Gage and the Dead Man brought a message from the greatest wizard of Messaline to the ruling queen of Sarathai, one of the Lotus Kingdoms. But the message was a riddle, and the Lotus Kingdoms are at war.
Hugo Award–winning author Elizabeth Bear returns to the epic fantasy world of the Lotus Kingdoms with The Red-Stained Wings, the sequel to The Stone in the Skull, taking the Gage into desert lands under a deadly sky to answer the riddle of the Stone in the Skull. Available May 28th from Tor Books. Read chapter one below, and continue with chapter two on the Tor/Forge blog.
Over the gold stone walls of Sarathai-tia, the long night darkened toward sunrise. The Veil rose across the sky and the light of the heavenly river dimmed. Phosphorescence crawled along the top of the battlements, where the Dead Man was careful not to lean.
That glow revealed the presence of shards of dragonglass embedded edgewise in the mortar: quick as razors, and slow poison to whatever they might slice.
The Dead Man rested a hand on the butt of one of his twin pistols, instead. If the gesture was a threat, the threat was not one he consciously intended. He gazed outward, across the plain and the river that ran silt-white between its banks beyond. He had lowered his veil, and breathed the rainy air unfiltered.
That was a threat, or a statement, and it was an intentional one.
The Dead Man was waiting for the war to come.
He looked out over a city designed to be defended, which was a small but solid blessing. The Alchemical Emperor, in his day, had raised his throne city above the rich mud of the broad and flooding river valley by summoning the small mountain it stood upon from the very bones of the earth. Sarathai-tia’s outer walls were living rock, the same living rock as the steep terraced slopes that rose within them. A single road spiraled from the base of the city to the palace at its peak, joined to itself at intervals by alleys lined with overhanging shops and houses. The alleys would be easy to block with rubble, forcing an invading force to fight uphill the entire length.
The city was surrounded by the mighty river on three sides, and connected to the mainland only by a broad causeway that would normally be flooded in the rainy season, and all of which was in range of the city’s cannon. The villages that surrounded Sarathai-tia were built on stilts or floated on houseboats, and the farms grew rich between them when the annual floods receded.
Sarathai-tia’s outer wall was pierced by only two gates: the main gate that faced the causeway, away from the river… and the Queen’s Gate, the water gate, reached by a stair that ran down from the palace to the Mother River, surrounded by hanging gardens and suspended on pillars. The back side of the mountain was even steeper than the fore, and it would be quick work indeed to knock the stair off its pillars and use the resulting rubble to fill up more alleys and build barricades.
Sad, to destroy an architectural marvel, but sadder things happened in wars.
From his perch on the heights, the Dead Man could see a long way indeed across the flat, white river and the endless bottomlands it meandered through. He could see the villages and the piers lining the Mother River—called Relentless, called Deep-Hearted, called Butter of the Earth—on both sides. He could see the long, rich fields and the river so wide and slow and clotted with rafts of roots and lotus that it had become a slowly moving garden as the summer wore on.
The vanguard of the enemy reached the river’s far shore as those of Mrithuri’s people who had not yet evacuated to the fortress city were still setting flame to huts and bridges and whatever boats they could get to, under a hail of enemy arrows. They were leaving as little behind for the enemy’s forces to use as they could.
“Burn them,” the Dead Man had said. So now, as was his duty, he stood and watched as the livelihood of Mrithuri’s people floated away on the breast of the wide white Sarathai, blazing atop the reflections of their own flames. If his cheeks were damp, and it was not with sweat, there was no one present now to question him.
Until there was.
A step scraped the stones behind him. He was not startled; the battlements were well-manned and he had not thought himself entirely alone. He fastened the end of his veil across his face with a practiced gesture before he turned. His right hand did not leave the gun until he saw who came toward him.
A woman, the skin of her muscled arms silk-dark against the white of her sleeveless tunic, hurrying. Her tight, steel-colored curls gave a lie to her unlined face, and bangles on her wrists chimed merrily although her expression was stern. The Aezin Wizard, Ata Akhimah.
She paused to stare over the Dead Man’s shoulder—suddenly, as if distracted from whatever it was that she had come so urgently to say. She shook her head. “Who wages war in the rainy season?”
“It does seem an unfathomable choice.”
“Maybe cholera will thin their ranks for us.” She sounded as if the prospect pleased her.
The Dead Man couldn’t fault the sentiment. He cleared his throat. “Were you seeking me?”
The Wizard gestured toward the distance. “Was that what you were looking at?”
He knew without turning what she meant, but he turned anyway rather than stand with his back to it. The gates in the city’s outer walls, a catapult’s throw and a bit more away from the walls of the palace, still stood open. Farmers and fishers and tradespeople from the surrounding countryside poured into Sarathai-tia—those who had not chosen to take to their boats, or take their chances on the open road rather than in the squalor and starvation of a besieged city.
Beyond the bustle of boats and wagons, beyond the rivers of humanity and the river of pale water, beyond the flames consuming one stilt-legged hut after another, beyond the first jeering vanguards of the enemy—the main bulk of the advancing army had not yet come into view over the horizon. What was plainly visible was a long, black smudge against the sky, in the wrong direction to be the edge of the Veil sliding across the brilliant night.
It looked like smoke, but smoke never moved with such volition. Such sinister coordination: the flocking of many minds into a single consensus. Tendrils sought out from the dark mass, seethed and lifted, collapsed back. The body roiled and dappled, showing glimpses of sky beyond.
Carrion birds tracked the advancing forces, heralding the army as thunder heralds the storm.
At that moment, a shrill sound rent the air. A woman’s scream, meant to carry. Not in the city, or beyond the walls, as might be expected— but in the extensive, rain-soaked palace garden below and behind Ata Akhimah.
The Dead Man eyeballed the Wizard.
The Wizard sighed. “I guess we had better go see what’s fucked up this time.”
They ran. Side by side, wet soles slapping. Other defenders of the palace might be closer, it was true. But other defenders of the palace might not be as equipped to deal with the sorts of oddities that seemed to be making a more and more frequent appearance at Mrithuri Rajni’s court in these strange days.
There came no second cry.
Their pelting steps carried them into the garden grounds, out of breath and slipping in the mud. The Dead Man’s veil sucked annoyingly against his mouth with each gasp for breath, the fabric slack and moist in the humid atmosphere. As he had expected, they were not the only searchers in the garden. Men and women carrying torches and lanterns fanned out along the gravel trails. Ata Akhimah glanced about at the bobbing pools of light, sighed, and outstretched one hand, pale palm upright.
A column of yellow-white light flared upward, hissing and shedding sparks, too bright to look at directly. It rose to the treetops and flowered, spreading brilliant chrysanthemum petals in every direction. It wasn’t a witchlamp such as the Dead Man had seen Rasan Wizards hang, but more like a captive lightning bolt, and it sounded angry as a trapped cat.
Conveniently, at that moment, the cry came again.
This time, the Dead Man recognized the voice. “Chaeri,” he said tiredly, and turned toward the sound.
Ata Akhimah was a step ahead of him. She darted into the strange, stippled shadows that fell hard-edged and jet-black where flowering branches, not yet fully leafed, broke the actinic light of her pillar. The Dead Man followed her, pistol in his hand.
They came to the garden wall and followed it along—just a few steps, into an open patch among flowering shrubs. Akhimah stepped to the side so that the Dead Man could come up with her—or possibly to clear his line of sight, and field of fire if necessary.
Chaeri, the queen’s handmaiden, stood with her back to them. Her dark hair spiraled down her back in artfully casual locks. She wore a tunic and trousers that were wet with rainwater, and mud spattered her bare ankles among the jingling bracelets.
She faced down two men—a large and muscular one, mustached, sword-wearing, in what the Dead Man took to be some kind of local uniform, and a small and round one in the seamed and petal-skirted black coat of a Rasan Wizard. They seemed quite familiar. The Dead Man’s chest itched as he realized that he had seen them only a few hours before. They had accompanied the assassin disguised as the poetess Ümmhan when she—he?—attempted to murder the young queen, Mrithuri.
The Dead Man had taken a pistol ball to the chest that had been intended for Mrithuri, and only the twinned lucks that that ball had first passed through her general, and that a Godmade priest had been near enough to work a miracle, had saved him.
These men he now looked at—or their likenesses—had vanished away when the assassin they accompanied was killed.
Studying them more closely, the Dead Man could see that the likenesses were not perfect. This captain and Wizard were considerably more haggard-looking and road-stained than the previous set. And the Wizard held a child-sized bundle of cloth to his chest, with light showing in the creases as if he shrouded a heatless, living coal.
Chaeri was drawing in her breath for one more good scream when the man with the mustache said, “Call her off. We surrender.”
His Sarathai was accented, but comprehensible.
“They’re spies!” Chaeri said. “Assassins!” She ducked back between Akhimah and the Dead Man. “I caught them coming over the wall again! Shoot them!”
“What’s in the bundle?” Akhimah asked. It made the Dead Man feel kindly toward her, as he too was inclined to investigate the mysteries of the situation rather than acting precipitately.
“They came over the wall,” Chaeri interjected. “If you let them talk, they’ll Wizard you into believing their lies, like that other one.”
“I believe I can withstand their blandishments,” Akhimah said kindly. The light of her spitting tower of cold fire limned the strong bones of her face. “A persuasive tongue is one of the gifts of my order, rather than that of Dr.—”
“Tsering,” the Rasan Wizard said. He stepped forward, still clutching his bundle. The Dead Man thought it moved.
The Rasan cleared his throat. “Tsering-la. This is Captain Vidhya. We are emissaries from Sayeh Rajni.”
“Where’s the poetess?” the Dead Man said.
Vidhya rocked back. “How do you know—?”
“One question at a time,” Ata Akhimah said gently. And, indeed, everyone fell silent, including the slowly growing crowd of garden searchers. She nodded to Tsering-la, who fumbled with the luminescent cloth-wrapped object tucked under his arm. He pulled back a fold, and a bedraggled crimson-and-gold head emerged, hesitantly. A broken crest of feathers fluffed.
“Pretty bird?” the phoenix said faintly.
“Guang Bao,” Tsering-la said. “He is Sayeh Rajni’s familiar. She sent him with us to prove we were her men.” He smiled. “Now it’s your turn.”
“Someone sent an apparition of the two of you, along with an assassin disguised by illusion to look like the poetess, to murder Her Abundance Mrithuri Rajni,” Akhimah said.
A guard cleared his throat, or maybe it was one of the acrobats who were sheltering in the palace.
“Speak,” Ata Akhimah said.
“Are these who they seem to be?” It was an acrobat, the Dead Man noticed. Amruth, the matriarch Ritu’s son.
“I only engage in royal prophecy,” Akhimah replied dryly.
“No Ümmhan this time,” the Dead Man noted.
Ata Akhimah reached into her pocket and produced a silver clip that seemed empty in the difficult light. She held it up, and the Dead Man surmised it must contain the single strand of silver hair that had been sewn into her jacket by unknown hands. “No, she must be captive. That’s why she was the focus of the illusion.”
“Yes,” Vidhya said. “The poetess, our rajni, her heir, and Tsering’s apprentice Nazia are all captive of Himadra.” He turned his head and spat into wet moss. “Our kingdom lies in ruins—if there are even ruins there. We came to beg you for aid. Instead, we come flying before an army.”
“A great volcano beneath the Bitter Sea has shaken the city down,” Tsering-la said. “And then boiled it in a cloud of steam and poison.”
The Dead Man spoke to Chaeri over his shoulder, in the politest tone he could muster. “Just out of curiosity, what were you doing in the bushes?”
“Feeding the songbirds,” she said primly, as if recollecting herself. Perhaps his tone had not been polite enough. He heard her dusting off her hands.
There were, indeed, rather a lot of seeds scattered on the earth nearby, and trampled into the mud. No birds were in evidence, but then there was a lot of fuss going on.
“Is that Himadra’s army in pursuit of you?” the Dead Man asked, returning his attention to Vidhya.
Sayeh’s guard captain glanced up at him from beneath furrowed brows. “You mean you don’t know already?”
“Only there are a number of armies wandering about the countryside lately, and this one rather came out of nowhere,” the Dead Man snapped.
“Yes they did.” Vidhya leaned against the stone wall as if nothing else kept him upright. “They’ve got an illusionist, I think.”
“Yes,” Akhimah said. “We found out.”
“Anuraja. It’s Anuraja’s men.”
“From the north?” said Akhimah.
The round little Rasan Wizard in his torn once-black coat shrugged hard enough to split the shoulder seam further. The phoenix made an indignant mumble.
Ata Akhimah sighed tiredly. “I think we’d better go inside and have a word with Her Abundance.”
Tsering-la’s answering sigh was one of relief. “Thank you.”
Ata Akhimah slapped dust off her sleeve and let the tower of light die. “Don’t thank me. You’ve arrived in a city that is about to be under siege. We can use all the Wizards we can get.”
Clarity burned through the young rajni’s veins with the lucid potency of venom. It made her restless. It made her ruthless. It made her fierce.
She sat among cushions and regarded her advisors, chafing her arms with her palms. Trying to drive the prickling heat through them. Syama, her bear-dog, lay against her hip—eyes sleepy, but brindled body quivering with the tension Mrithuri was communicating.
At least the venom gave Mrithuri concentration. Everything else was terrible.
She could not recall the last time she had really slept. She could not even imagine, any longer, what being rested might feel like except in absences. She vaguely remembered joints and eyes and thoughts that did not grit sluggishly and ache inside her.
The venom helped with that, too. Much more than the tea she now lifted from a low traylike table set among the rugs and cushions, all the while wishing very much that it were wine. Before her were arrayed most of her nearest and most trusted: sharp little Hnarisha with his delicate bones and rounded features; Yavashuri, the maid of the bedchamber who knew (probably literally) where the bodies were buried; Druja, the agent who traveled to foreign lands; her general, Pranaj; and her newly acquired dependent, the unexpectedly clever and wicked Lady Golbahar.
Oh, and that asshole Mi Ren, the Song princeling who thought Mrithuri ought to marry him, and who nobody could quite figure out how to get rid of without offending his powerful family, from whom he had requested troops and money on behalf of the rajni he supposed must inevitably become his ticket to true regal power.
Missing only were her body servant Chaeri, whom she had not seen since before this meeting when Chaeri brought her her Eremite serpents; her Wizard, Ata Akhimah; and the Dead Man, sent to her rescue by the foreign Wizard who had trained Ata Akhimah.
All of them—the ones who were present—were very upset about a siege that could not succeed. Mrithuri had explained that it could not succeed, because Sarathai-tia was raised above a floodplain, and the Mother River would inevitably rise and sweep any besiegers away. Her illustrious ancestor, the Alchemical Emperor, had designed his capital city that way.
Mrithuri’s people did not dare raise their voices to her. But that did not in the least stop them from raising their voices at one another, despite mostly being in agreement. The exception was Mi Ren. The foreign half-prince, or near-prince, or whatever he was—Mrithuri could never keep the endless and varied intricacies of ranks in the endless and varied Song principalities organized in her head, which was one of the many reasons she had Hnarisha—was cheerfully yelling at everyone, despite apparently having no idea what was going on and no idea that he had no idea. One of Mi Ren’s lackeys stood beside him, looking impassively embarrassed and holding his coat.
No one else really dared to yell back at him, which was a pity. Although Mrithuri was not sure that her nerves and head could have stood the rise in volume. She could not even hear the plainchant of the cloistered nuns who lived within her palace but separate from it, which under normal circumstances would have echoed through the filigree panels piercing the walls between the two separate and interlocking realms. She had very little idea what any of them were saying. There was too much competition. Perhaps she would wait until they exhausted themselves, and then make them take turns.
She reached out and fondled Syama’s ears, trying to soothe both of them. The bear-dog grumbled too low in her throat for anyone to hear, though Mrithuri felt it vibrating through her guardian’s deep barrel. Mrithuri smoothed her palms over Syama’s ears, knowing how sensitive she was to noise. Syama sighed and leaned her head on Mrithuri’s knee.
It will be fine, Mrithuri told herself, hoping she was not lying. It had to be fine: she had so many responsibilities.
Still, she sighed—and Syama’s head came up sharply—when the door to the room slid aside and everyone momentarily stopped shouting at each other to turn and face whoever might be coming in. Mrithuri breathed relief to see Chaeri, and Ata Akhimah with a bundle in her arms, and behind them the Dead Man, and two—
She startled to her feet. Syama surged up also, hackles raised, growling to be heard now. “What are they doing here? Why have you brought them into my presence?”
She knew these men. They—or rather their shadows—had entered her court before, in the company of the illusion-draped assassin who had worn the shade of a famous poetess, and who had tried to murder Mrithuri. Syama had dealt with the agent—sadly in such a manner as to leave him unavailable for questioning—but not before he had killed her former general and wounded her… friend, the Dead Man, while those two were rushing to defend Mrithuri.
“Hold your wrath, my rajni,” said Ata Akhimah. “These are the true men, come from your cousin Sayeh with a message, and not shades such as the illusionist used to disguise the attempt upon your life. They come with a surety.”
With a flourish, she unwrapped one coil of the bundle she held in her arms, revealing the draggled, miserable head of—
“Is that a phoenix?”
Despite herself, Mrithuri took a step forward. Syama escorted her uncertainly.
“Guang Bao, Your Abundance,” said the narrow-waisted, mustached man in the unkempt military uniform. From their previous, albeit fraudulent, introduction, Mrithuri recognized him as her cousin’s captain of the guard, one Vidhya. He confirmed that name, and introduced the little round Wizardy fellow beside him as Tsering-la. “My rajni sent Guang Bao with us to prove our authenticity as messengers, just before she was captured—”
Mrithuri raised a hand, and both Captain Vidhya and the rising murmurs of her courtiers fell silent. She should have thought of that an hour ago. “Captured.”
Hnarisha stepped forward. He wasn’t much bigger than Tsering-la, though lighter of bone. Mrithuri knew better than to underestimate either one of them.
“By your cousin Anuraja,” the captain said. “He is holding her hostage, with two of her ladies. We sent men back to scout, and so learned who had taken her. His ally Himadra has kidnapped the prince Dru-pada, her son.”
Mrithuri’s world whirled. She put a hand out and touched Syama for steadiness, a warm and solid object in a world she abruptly did not understand. “That is… quite an insult,” she said.
“Yes, Your Abundance.”
Theological, as well as personal.
She was overwrought. She knew she was overwrought. And she knew that if she showed it, she would be destroying her people’s confidence and morale. She kept her voice flat, perhaps a little venomous, and said, “That is an insult not just to our cousin’s royal person, but to the royal persons of everyone else in our family. Sayeh and Drupada’s inviolacy is sacred. Anuraja and Himadra dare to kidnap a ruling rajni and her son?”
The captain looked at the Wizard. “Yes, Your Abundance,” the Wizard said.
Mrithuri pressed her lips together. She swallowed until her throat lost the tightness that presaged a rising scream.
If one could kidnap a queen or a prince, could one not also execute one?
Mi Ren stepped forward—around Lady Golbahar, who glared after him but really couldn’t do much more, given the difference in ranks. He bowed before Mrithuri with a flourish of glittering rings. “Your Abundance,” he said, as if he were saying my love. “I have sent doves to Song with messages for my father. I have informed him that you have agreed to be my bride—”
“—and that his men must come to your relief if I am to rule by your side.”
Definitely not what I said. Mrithuri smiled, and laid the back of her hand against his sleeve. “It is a long way to Song, my lord Mi Ren.”
His face fell, but with true self-absorption he rallied and simpered. “They will come. I am my father’s favorite son.”
Mother, how bad are the rest of them?
“Then we will look for them at the enemy’s back.” She stepped back, swallowing both fury and laughter. “Go now,” she told them, when she could make her voice low and throaty and confident again. “All of you. Except for Chaeri. There will be court in the Great Hall in an hour. You must prepare for it. Find our friends some fresh clothes, and get that poor bird to the austringers.”
“Rajni,” the Dead Man said, his eyes pleading above his veil. He leaned forward, silently begging for her word to stay.
She dismissed him with a gesture.
If he stayed, she would collapse against him. And she could not bear that he see her so. He must think her strong, powerful. He must think her a worthy rajni, or he would not want her—he who had seen caliphs and Wizard-Princes, and so much of the world.
When the door had closed behind everyone except Chaeri, Syama, and Mrithuri, Mrithuri turned to Chaeri as Chaeri held out her arms. Mrithuri went into the embrace and rested her forehead on Chaeri’s shoulder. Tears burned the edges of her eyes as Chaeri comforted and coaxed her.
“I am here for you now, my rajni. You do not have to be strong anymore. Rest a moment. You know I can make it right.”
Mrithuri let loose a trembling sigh and felt some of the grief and panic leave her. “Did I shame myself?”
“No one noticed anything,” Chaeri assured her.
“You are the only one who knows me, Chaeri.”
“There is nothing so bad you cannot tell me,” Chaeri said, stroking Mrithuri’s hair. Chaeri was only a few years older than Mrithuri, but for the moment the rajni felt very young, and very much like she needed the mother she had lost so long ago. “There is nothing you can tell me that is so bad I will not love you still.”
“I have nothing bad to tell you,” Mrithuri said. “Except that I did not realize until just now that I am afraid.”
Chaeri stroked her hair again. “Let me fetch your pets, my rajni.”
“It’s not wise,” Mrithuri said. “It is too soon.”
Chaeri bent to kiss her brow. “My rajni. This is war.”
Sayeh Rajni looked up at the towering, seamless walls of Sarathai-tia and felt… a little faint, quite honestly. She had raged, in her heart. But she raged quite coldly, quite inwardly, keeping her pretty face smooth as years of artifice could make it.
Now the rage was frozen in a wash of even colder fear, for she did not know how she had been brought so quickly by her enemy from her own lands to those of her cousin Mrithuri. And she had not known what a citadel she would be forced to face when she got here.
But here she was, helpless in her enemy’s keeping. And not even the enemy she had meant to surrender herself to.
Her broken leg was splinted and stretched out before her in the horse litter on which she reclined. It jolted with every rough step the pair of grays she was suspended between took, and the view of the rump of the horse before her never changed. The pain was not precisely bearable, but since she had no choice but to bear it, she gritted her teeth and managed.
Ümmhan rode beside her on a docile old mare; Nazia, who was still not very much of a rider, chose to walk beside the litter mostly. They had ridden through the bright night, and with the darkening of day—there was the golden city of Sarathai-tia rising across the river, that should have been weeks of travel from Ansh-Sahal.
Sayeh did not wish to speak. There were enemy soldiers on the horses behind and before her, tasked with controlling the animals who carried their raja’s most honored hostage. Those would be trusted and seasoned men, Sayeh knew, and not rough recruits who would not understand the seriousness of the work assigned to them. Whatever she said, they would notice and report, and she did not care to give away the advantage of allowing her enemy to know she felt fear, or anxiety, or confusion.
She had wept when first captured, wept and screamed, it was true. She had engaged in what was surely the finest display of hysterics the lands under the Mother River had seen in her lifetime. That had been occasioned by the discovery that she had given herself into the wrong hands, the hands of her cousin Anuraja, and not those of Himadra—also a cousin, it was true, but the cousin who held her young son as hostage. If she had to be captive, she would rather be captive where she might be able to use her wiles, her political sense, even her (admittedly aging) beauty to influence and protect Drupada, who was her only child, her heir, and all she had left of her husband now that he was gone.
Ümmhan would not lie, it seemed. Sayeh had come to learn that lying, in her sect, was not just a sin but a kind of blasphemy. But she needn’t correct misapprehensions in others, and so the guards had been allowed to think Sayeh’s raving was a fever from her broken leg. It was not a hard notion to sell; she was as weak as a nestling, and the pain whitened her face and dewed it, even now.
So she did not wish to speak, and she did not speak. But she caught Ümmhan’s eye.
And Ümmhan raised an eyebrow over the veil she had abruptly resumed wearing, as if to suggest that she would explain eventually. Or possibly as if to suggest that she, too, had no idea how they had come this far. Speaking glances were all very well, but they were still not exactly language.
A clatter of hooves approaching made Sayeh glance over her shoulder, but she could see nothing but the chest and mane of the trailing gray. From the sudden tension in the back of the soldier riding before her, however, she expected that she would soon have her long-delayed conference with her enemy.
Perhaps she was correct, she thought later. But if so, once again, it had not been the enemy she expected.
A woman rode up beside her litter, beyond Ümmhan. Her tall, arch-nosed red bay mare struggled through the verdant rainy-season growth along the road’s shoulder, but the rider did not seem concerned for its footing. The horse’s trappings were rich and well-cared-for. Perhaps more well-cared-for than the mare. Her saddle was gilded over ornaments carved into the leather, and her saddle blanket was a tiger skin with the snarling face intact and taxidermied. The edges of the skin were finished with tassels and flashing jewels.
The rider was built on the same model as the mare: tall and muscular, with mahogany skin and black hair piled in intricate braids and glittering with ornaments. Her jerkin was red leather with peaked shoulders, and carved and gilded and jeweled as extravagantly as the mare’s harness. She wore it over silks in a peacock color that dazzled the eye with a mauve countersheen, and the cloak thrown over her shoulders was trimmed with the fur and tanned paws of a wolf.
She was rough with the reins, making the red mare struggle with the bit and her balance, and did not seem to care at all. Sayeh did not like the way she treated the mare. But the woman met her eyes, and despite the woman’s cruel hands, Sayeh felt drawn to her, bathed in a charismatic warmth.
Nazia, at the shoulder Sayeh was turned away from, made a sharp sound under her breath. Ümmhan suddenly had her hands full as her mare tried to sidle away from the bloody-mouthed bay with its rolling eye and pinned ears. She didn’t have room to turn the mare in a circle, because the heedless rider in the wolf-trimmed cloak was crowding them, and Sayeh, helpless in the horse litter, was in the way on the other side.
Ümmhan managed to balance her mount, though, and Sayeh had only a few bad moments. The woman let her bay fight its way forward, kicked it hard across the path of the first litter-bearer, and dropped back to push between Nazia and Sayeh.
Sayeh had a few bad moments more as the woman turned her clear brown eyes on Sayeh and said, “So you’re the Sahali rajni.”
There was a shimmer of color at the back of her eyes, Sayeh thought, like the shimmer behind a cat’s eyes in the dark. She had a catlike face, also, with a snub nose and a slightly undershot jaw. The woman had a cold expression that was no expression at all, as if she had forgotten how to wear a human face.
“This is Her Abundance Sayeh Rajni,” Nazia said, when Sayeh couldn’t quite organize her thoughts between the ache of her broken leg and the woman’s stare. She felt like it went right into her, through her, peeled back the layers of her soul like the petals of a rose and rummaged around in there. It was horrid, and intoxicating, and she wanted to relax and fall into that stare and let all her troubles be forever over.
“Let me know you,” the woman said, her voice velvety.
Sayeh’s mouth opened to say yes. Ümmhan’s hand went out to touch the pole of the horse litter, a silent warning.
Sayeh snapped her jaw shut again. She gritted her teeth and closed her fingers on the bruised and swollen muscles of her splinted thigh, sending a spike of pure, white, unfiltered pain through her body. It blinded her and cleared her head at the same time, and the rush of sensations left her dizzy. She clutched at the poles of the litter and accidentally placed her hand over Ümmhan’s.
The poetess’s hand was warm and dry, despite the humidity and rising warmth of the morning. Her touch clarified Sayeh’s thoughts that much further.
Sayeh got a breath and said, “Who are you?”
The woman grinned wolfishly. Sayeh got the impression that she was… amused… by the resistance. “Ravani,” she said, as if that explained everything. “I am an advisor to the raja.”
Sayeh thought of Himadra, and of the black-haired man on a tiger-caparisoned horse who had ridden beside him. She thought of how that man’s eyes had glanced off her without acknowledgment but—she thought—not without seeing.
Ravana, he had been called.
A cold sensation rose up inside Sayeh like icy water in a spring. She shivered and managed to make herself look away. “What do you want with me, Ravani?”
She made herself say the name, even when her tongue and teeth and lips, her very flesh, seemed to peel away from it. Ravani. A simple word, but it hurt coming out of her.
“I don’t know.” Ravani directed her eyes ahead. “An alliance, perhaps? An acquaintanceship, for certain.”
“To use me.”
Ravani laughed. “You’re already a hostage. I imagine the raja will wish to speak to you by night’s end. Don’t you think that you could use a few people who have his ear, and might wish to speak for you? And… for your son?”
Sayeh was silent. Ravani’s words weren’t illogical. But the creeping sensation that filled her, that those words presented the only reasonable path for her to take, and that everything else led to destruction— that was not rational.
“You do not know what I sacrificed to bring that child into the world.”
Ravani reached across and laid a palm against Sayeh’s cheek. She stroked its smoothness and Sayeh shivered. “I can extrapolate.”
Ümmhan’s touch helped to anchor her. The pain helped to anchor her. This person is my enemy. She offers nothing that does not have a hook in it somewhere.
Still, she obviously wanted something from Sayeh. And Sayeh did need allies in Anuraja’s entourage, since apparently she was doomed to be a part of it whether she willed that or not.
“I am grateful for the consideration,” she said at last, schooling her voice into its softest and most gracious tones. “I am grateful that you sought me out, Ravani.”
Again, the name was bitter in her mouth. She swallowed saliva for having said it. Is there a curse on her name?
“What do you want of me?” Sayeh asked, when Ravani let the silence hang. She could feel Ümmhan and Nazia beside her, both breathing shallowly.
“I don’t know yet,” Ravani said, quite easily.
It was not the courtly fencing gesture Sayeh had expected next, and it disarmed her.
She was still remustering her forces when Ravani continued, “You are a true-born descendant of the Alchemical Emperor. His blood flows bright in your veins. His gifts to his daughters are your gifts. I am certain of this. You speak to animals; you have the hand of the Mother upon you.”
“I have a little talent,” Sayeh said. “Not what my cousin is said to have inherited. And what about you?”
“I have the raja’s ear,” Ravani said, low enough that perhaps the soldiers on the litter-bearing horses would not quite hear her. “I am loyal, of course.”
“Of course,” Sayeh said.
Ravani looked at her speculatively. “Do you happen to play chaturanga?”
“I was once accounted good at it,” Sayeh admitted.
“Hmm,” Ravani purred. “You will be bored while that leg heals. And I am always bored. Once you are settled, I will bring the board. I think that if we spend some time together, you can come to see how our purpose might benefit you. You might consider a true alliance with An-uraja. Surely that is more pleasant than hostageship. It would certainly offer you a position of more strength.”
Nazia made another sound, a little hum low in her throat like a worried dog. Sayeh almost saw Ravani’s ears prick, wolflike, to hear it. The corners of her mouth tilted. It wasn’t a smile.
“I see your point,” admitted Sayeh.
“Excellent,” Ravani said. “I’m sure we can be of benefit to one another. Send your girl if you wish to talk to me, and I shall come and see you by and by, when I think I can be of use.”
She jerked the horse’s reins savagely. It half-reared, settling on its haunches and pawing in distress. Ravani yanked the bay mare’s head around and kicked her much harder than needful, sending her careering back down the line of the army at a good clip. Despite her terrible horsewomanship, she could ride. She sat the mare’s canter well, Sayeh thought, for the few strides that it was visible.
“Ugh,” Nazia breathed, when she was gone.
“Ravani,” Sayeh said. “Ravana. Remember him?”
“Are they twins?”
Ümmhan frowned after the woman with the tigerskin horse-blanket. “They’re something.”
“I don’t trust her,” Nazia said, and seemed as if she might be about to say more. But she wiped the back of her hand across her mouth and shook her head as if she were shaking off the chill of premonition.
“Neither do I,” said Sayeh. “But I need allies if I’m going to rescue my child.”
Excerpted from The Red-Stained Wings, copyright © 2019 by Elizabeth Bear.