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The third book in The Song of Shattered Sands series--an epic fantasy with a desert setting, filled with rich worldbuilding and pulse-pounding action.
Since the Night of Endless Swords, a bloody battle the Kings of Sharakhai narrowly won, the kings have been hounding the rebels known as the Moonless Host. Many have been forced to flee the city, including Çeda, who discovers that the King of Sloth is raising his army to challenge the other kings' rule.
When Çeda finds the remaining members of the Moonless Host, now known as the thirteenth tribe, she sees a tenuous existence. Çeda hatches a plan to return to Sharakhai and free the asirim, the kings' powerful, immortal slaves. The kings, however, have sent their greatest tactician, the King of Swords, to bring Çeda to justice for her crimes.
But the once-unified front of the kings is crumbling. The surviving kings vie quietly against one another, maneuvering for control over Sharakhai. Çeda hopes to use that to her advantage, but whom to trust? Any of them might betray her.
As Çeda works to lift the shackles from the asirim and save the thirteenth tribe, the kings of Sharakhai, the scheming queen of Qaimir, the ruthless blood mage, Hamzakiir, and King of Swords all prepare for a grand clash that may decide the fate of all.
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Çeda knelt in a cavern beside a pool of water, deep beneath the desert’s surface. The cavern’s darkness enveloped her, as did the chill air. It smelled clean here, unsullied, a place that might have remained hidden throughout all the history of the Kings of Sharakhai, perhaps longer.
In her hands she held a thick, golden bracelet. She turned it over, again and again, feeling its weight, touching the oval stone, roughing her skin against the intricate designs worked into the gold.
“Speak to me,” she said. “This time, speak to me.”
The echoes went on and on.
The bracelet had once belonged to King Mesut, the Jackal King, but now it served as an indictment of all the Kings and even of the gods themselves. It was not the band itself that provided evidence of their treachery, but the onyx stone. Even now she could feel the souls of the seventeen dead asirim within it, clamoring for freedom, pleading for their release. Çeda was desperate to give it to them, but after six weeks of trying she still had no idea how.
On the night of the great battle in King’s Harbor, Mesut had summoned them forth as wights and set them against Çeda and Sehid-Alaz, the King of the thirteenth tribe, the crowned asir who had kissed her and set her on this strange new path. It had been a desperate moment, but she’d managed to sever Mesut’s hand and take the golden band from him. She’d pleaded with the ghostly souls to take their revenge against Mesut, and they’d answered, descending on Mesut like buzzards. Each rake of their terrible claws had brought them exultation, a taste of their long-awaited revenge, but the joy had been short-lived. No sooner had Mesut succumbed to his wounds than they’d been drawn back into their prison and chained once more. The trick to freeing them had eluded her ever since.
“By your grace,” Çeda whispered to the goddess, Nalamae.
Cleaving open her mother’s flame-shaped locket, she took out the last of her adichara petals. Her mouth watered at the floral scent, and when she placed it beneath her tongue, the mineral taste rushed through her. It warmed her limbs, drove away the cold humidity of the cavern in a way that a fire never could. Clipping the locket closed, she breathed deeply, closed her eyes, and welcomed the sensations that came.
She felt the asir, Kerim, somewhere high above her. He was outside the cavern, roaming among the rocks, she guessed. He seemed reticent, as if he were hiding his thoughts and emotions from her. He didn’t like the bracelet. He’d told her so. She could feel the revulsion within him, though whether it was from the constant reminder of his own fate, or concern for the souls trapped within, she couldn’t say.
Opening her mind further, she beckoned the souls nearer. When they retreated, she searched for the onyx’s boundaries, tried to define them in some way so that she might learn more about the souls within. But as it had every other time she’d done this, the gemstone felt unknowable— a star in the sky, well beyond the ken of mortal man. When she’d taken petals in the past, in or near Sharakhai, she could always sense the blooming fields and the asirim below, trapped in their sandy graves. Even now she could feel them, far, far to the west of the cavern where she and Kerim now hid. She’d thought by using the petals she would feel the asirim in the onyx. She’d hoped to be able to puzzle out its secrets, to use the asirim’s shared bond to free them from their prison or, failing that, simply speak with them as she did with Kerim. To no avail. She’d been rebuffed over and over again. Not once in the weeks following the great battle in King’s Harbor had she felt nearer to her goal.
“Speak,” she said, that lone word echoing in the cave. “But one word, and I’ll know this is not a lost cause.”
Her only reply was a miasma of anguish, fear, confusion, and hatred. The same as always.
Her concentration was broken, as it was so often of late, by the growls and yapping of wolves. She was tempted to simply let it go on, but when the sound became more fierce, and she felt panic emanating from Kerim, she pulled away from the souls in the bracelet.
“Forgive me,” she whispered, and rushed up the winding tunnel toward the sun.
She was out of breath by the time she reached the cavern’s entrance where, spread before her in a protective fan, were her pack of maned wolves. They’d placed themselves between Kerim and the entrance to Çeda’s cave. Directly before Kerim’s crouched form was Mist, a white wolf, hunkered low, ears laid back, teeth bared as a deep growl issued from her throat. She was the very wolf Çeda had stumbled across with Emre on her first trip to the blooming fields, the very wolf that had healed Çeda and led her here so she could recover from her wounds and decide what to do next
“Kerim!” Çeda said as she approached.
Kerim didn’t acknowledge her. He was staring at Mist, his jaundiced eyes wild and nervous, as if he couldn’t understand how he’d come to be here. His disorientation had been getting worse the longer they hid from the Kings’ forces.
Kerim, back away.
As she came near, the maned wolves closed ranks, blocking her path. The largest among them, the scarred one she’d named Thorn, was padding behind Kerim. Though the pack tried to stop her, Çeda pushed her way through them, then charged at Thorn, waving her arms as the wolf darted toward Kerim, silent, teeth bared.
Kerim turned, arms raised, just in time for Thorn to claw him, to tear at his shriveled, blackened skin. Kerim could have killed him with one blow— the asirim were inhumanly strong— but he didn’t. He backed away, warding off Thorn’s advances with arms and hands spread wide. But the danger was far from over. While she’d been focused on Thorn, Mist had padded to Çeda’s left, clearing a path to Kerim.
“Back!” Çeda cried, putting herself between Kerim and the white wolf.
Mist’s eyes flicked between Kerim and Çeda, but she obeyed, and Çeda ran to stop Thorn.
Kerim wailed, his bloodshot eyes wild with fear. He swung wildly, angrily, at Thorn. Çeda heard a thud as Kerim’s fist struck the wolf’s massive head. Thorn was the largest among the wolves— with his long legs, his head was higher than Çeda’s— yet he was flung aside by the force of that blow. It brought on a fierce yelp and a renewed fury that drove the entire pack to close in. Their heads were low, growls rumbling from between their bared teeth. They’d listened to Çeda until now, but with Kerim’s attack on their leader, they were ready to excise this hated member from their pack once and for all.
Çeda pulled at Thorn’s black mane. “Leave him alone!”
But Thorn rounded on her and charged. Jaws snapping, he caught her wrist. She managed to snatch her hand away, but caught several deep gashes while doing so. She stumbled backward and fell as Thorn advanced, snapping at her ankles as she tried to kick him. He’d just managed to clamp his jaw over her calf when a blur of ivory flew in.
Her leg was freed as Mist and Thorn growled, grappled, and rolled in the sand. The other wolves looked on, their eyes intense as they studied the two wolves locked in battle. It grew so fierce Çeda thought they would kill each other, but when Kerim turned and began sprinting over the sand away from them, the wolves finally disengaged.
In moments, all their growling and yipping and yowling stopped. They panted, wary but content in Kerim’s absence. Thorn was the most animated among them, alternating looks between Çeda and Mist, but then he loped off, heading into the shade of the rocky overhang near the cave entrance, where he dropped down and watched, as if daring any to come near and challenge him, Çeda included.
Mist padded closer to Çeda and licked the blood welling from her wounds. They immediately felt better, just as her injuries had weeks ago. Mist did the same to the puncture wounds along Çeda’s calf while Çeda raked her fingers through Mist’s cloudy mane. “Thank you,” she said, then limped after Kerim.
She followed the footsteps and the trail of black blood left over the sand, weaving her way between the sentinel-like pillars of rock. She found him a quarter-league away, sitting cross-legged between the dunes, knees hugged to his chest like a child lost in the desert.
She crouched by his side, careful not to touch him but close enough that he could feel her warmth. “You don’t have to stay.” She waved her arm to the dunes. “You can go, flee into the desert. Surely, somewhere in the Great Mother you might find peace.”
She didn’t want Kerim to go. Not truly. She wanted to free him or, failing that, find a way for him to have his revenge on the Kings, and how could she do either of those things if he left? But his misery was so great she had to try.
His only response was to swivel his head and stare at her left wrist, where Mesut’s thick gold band rested. Çeda felt the souls in the onyx gemstone, though muted, as they always were in the sunlight. As if he couldn’t bear to think about them any longer, Kerim lifted his gaze to meet hers, a silent plea, and then looked to the sword at her side. Her ebon blade. She put her hand on the pommel, knowing that he’d contemplated this, his final release, since leaving Sharakhai.
“I will give it to you, if that’s what you wish.”
Kerim opened his mouth to speak. A long wheeze came out. He swallowed and tried again. “I . . .” he said, the lone word coming out in one long rasp. “I would . . .”
She stood and with clear intent laid her hand over the leather grip of River’s Daughter. “This?”
Çeda’s heart pounded loud in her ears. She didn’t wish to be alone out here, nor did she wish to end a life that might help others to win their freedom, but she meant what she’d said. No one deserved a life like Kerim’s.
And yet . . .
“You must say it, Kerim.” She licked her lips, praying he would say no. “I can’t do it unless you say it.”
Kerim stood, the blackened skin of his forehead wrinkling. “I . . .” he said again, but then he turned sharply to his left, and Çeda followed his gaze.
Beyond a dozen clutches of standing stones, she saw it, a sleek ship, lateen sails cutting a line across the horizon— a royal yacht, from the looks of it. It was not headed directly toward them, but a crewman atop the vulture’s nest might see them at any moment.
She crouched, pulling Kerim down with her. Her fingers became sticky with the dark, drying blood on his arm.
He looked at the blood, lifted his gaze to the ship in the distance, then regarded Çeda once more. “I cannot leave you.”
She was tempted to ask if he was certain, only her relief was so great she couldn’t find the words. “Come,” she told him. “We shouldn’t linger.”
As they headed low and fast toward the cave where the pack had gathered in the shade, she felt Kerim’s worry growing. He’d managed to resist the Kings’ call thus far, but could he if a Maiden were close and summoned him, or worse, a King? Ahead, Mist was digging in the sand, most likely for a lizard to eat, or to give to Çeda, but stopped when Çeda came near. Her ears perked and her head lifted. Perhaps sensing worry in Çeda even as Çeda felt it in Kerim, Mist returned to the shade of the rocks and lay beside them.
A pack once more, they huddled close, while in the distance the yacht drifted across the horizon. It adjusted course once, and Çeda thought they’d been spotted but, thank the gods, it merely continued in a straight line.
When the sails were nearly lost, Çeda breathed easier, but Mist was still tense. She gave a soft yip, staring at the rocks above them, then huffed and nipped at Çeda’s wrist. Wary, Çeda stood and, silent as a scarab, climbed the rocks, gained their flattened top, and crawled to the far lip.
On the sand below, a hundred paces distant, three skiffs huddled behind a cluster of stones. Three women and a man with a long, sandy beard stood nearby. They watched the horizon, where the tips of the yacht’s masts could still be seen, wavering in the heat.
Four to man three skiffs? Çeda thought. There must be more crew.
The typical minimum was two to a skiff, but given how much gear she saw inside the hulls, likely a dozen had come. The footprints she saw heading away from the ships confirmed her fears.
She’d grown out of practice with feeling for the hearts of those around her. She tried now, clumsily, and realized too late there were others nearby, some working their way around the bulk of the rock she lay upon—
“Stand,” came a voice behind her. “Slowly.”
She stood and turned to find a woman and a man only a few paces away, both holding shamshirs. Çeda lifted her hands in peace as the stiff wind tugged at their amber thawbs. Their faces were hidden by the veils of their turbans, but Çeda recognized contempt when she saw it.
“Your sword,” the woman said. “Carefully.” She wore a black turban with thread-of-gold embroidered throughout. The small coins adorning the fringes clinked softly in the wind.
“I am not yours to command,” Çeda said, lowering her hands until they were loose at her sides.
“Fool girl,” the man said, stepping forward, ready to poke her chest with the tip of his shamshir— a warning meant to draw a bit of blood if Çeda refused to comply. He did it sloppily, betting she’d be cowed, but in this he was sadly mistaken. Before his blade could touch her she spun and slid alongside the path of his swing. He tried to recover, but she was inside his guard now and moving quickly. As he pulled his shamshir back, she gripped the blade near the hilt with one hand, his wrist with the other, and followed his movement. She guided the sword back and up, twisting beneath it and controlling him so that his body effectively blocked any advance by his female companion.
She had more than enough leverage to snap his wrist or dislocate his arm, but she merely flipped him over his extended arm, taking his sword from him in the process.
The woman advanced with a good deal more prudence, but Çeda wasted no time. Gripping the shamshir with both hands, she beat the woman’s initial swing up, dodged when the expected downward swing came, and brought her shamshir down across the woman’s sword with a mighty two-handed chop. The woman lost her grip on it, and the sword clanged loudly against the stone.
Things were escalating far too quickly, but when the woman made the foolish decision to reach for her lost sword, Çeda had no choice but to hold the man’s shamshir against her throat. Thankfully, she took it no further, choosing instead to stand and back away, hands raised.
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