When a battle to eradicate the Thirteenth Tribe goes awry, the kingdoms bordering the desert metropolis of Sharakhai see the city as weak and ripe for conquest. Çeda, now leader of the Shieldwives, a band of skilled desert swordswomen, hopes to use the growing chaos to gain freedom for Sehid-Alaz, the ancient, undying king of her people. Freeing him is only the beginning, however. Like all the people of her tribe on that fateful night four centuries earlier, Sehid-Alaz was cursed, turned into an asir, a twisted, miserable creature beholden to the kings of Sharakhai—to truly free her king, Çeda must break the chains that bind him.
As Sharakhai’s enemies close in and the assault on the city begins, Çeda works feverishly to unlock the mysteries of the asirim’s curse. But danger lies everywhere. Enemy forces roam the city; the Blade Maidens close in on her; her own father, one of the kings of Sharakhai, wants Çeda to hang. Worst of all, the gods themselves have begun to take notice of Çeda’s pursuits.
When the combined might of Sharakhai and the desert gods corner the survivors of the Thirteenth Tribe in a mountain fastness, the very place that nearly saw their annihilation centuries ago, Çeda knows the time has come. She was once an elite warrior in service to the kings of Sharakhai. She has been an assassin in dark places. A weapon poised to strike from the shadows. A voice from the darkness, striving to free her people.
Now she's going to lead.
The age of the Kings is coming to an end . . .
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Under cover of darkness, leagues east of Sharakhai, three women navigated the endless dunes of the Great Shangazi. Çeda led the way on her zilij, a skimwood board that hissed as she rode it. Like the runners of sandships, the board had been painstakingly treated with a special wax which, coupled with the qualities of the wood itself, allowed it to glide slick as a lemon seed over the desert's surface. Melis and Sümeya, wearing their old uniforms, their Maiden's black, rode just behind her on zilijs of their own, and while they might not be as deft as Çeda, they were passable and they made good time toward their destination: the blooming fields.
Golden Rhia and silver Tulathan hung high overhead, pendants in a star-swept sky shedding light on the spindrift that lifted from the dunes like smoke on the wind. Both moons were full. Beht Zha'ir had returned to the desert, which partly explained why, despite the night's heat, all three women wore battle dresses. Melis and Sümeya's were well worn and made from black cloth, while Çeda's was newly sewn and dyed in rich amber hues, colors more typical of the desert tribes. Hanging easily from Çeda's belt were her mother's knife and her shamshir, River's Daughter: the ebon steel blade that had once felt so foreign, a sign of the Kings' oppression, but was now her truest, most trusted friend.
The weapons gave comfort against the boneyard chill trying to seep its way into her heart, but did nothing to prevent the whispers of doubt. Turn back, the whispers said. There's no hope in this. The Kings will sense you. They were echoes from the asirim, those pitiable souls who lived beneath the twisted trees. The words were meant to discourage, but served only to harden Çeda's resolve. What she was about to do was necessary-for the good of the asirim, for the good of her tribe, for the good of the desert-and it was long past due.
After following the crest of a dune, Çeda leaned into the downward slope, built speed toward and through the trough, then kicked along the incline with full-body strokes of her leg. Melis and Sümeya followed suit, and when they reached the peak, all three of them stomped the end of their zilijs, flipping them over to prevent them from sliding away.
"Breath of the desert," Sümeya said, "it feels like years since we were here."
"Like another life," Çeda replied.
So much had happened since then: their flight into the desert, their meeting with the thirteenth tribe, the battle against King Onur and his tribe built through conquest, then the larger battle where the other Sharakhani Kings and the royal navy joined in. It had all begun here, when Çeda, hoping to reveal the truth to Sümeya and Melis, had chosen a family of asirim to speak with. They'd told their story, but King Husamettín had dominated them immediately after and forced them to do his will. Only with the help of Dardzada, the old apothecary, had they managed to escape Husamettín and his Blade Maidens, and even then it had been a near thing.
The sand was soft beneath Çeda's callused hands as she crouched and studied the blooming fields. Today might be a different day, she thought, but it's every bit as dangerous. From their distant vantage, the long line of trees looked harmless, a line of ink spilled across a rolling piece of parchment. To the careful observer, however, more was revealed. The branches of the adichara trees swayed, their night blooms open, each a pale, blue-white flame, brighter than the reflected light of the moons could account for. Like a river of souls, Çeda mused, searching for the farther fields.
She studied the shadows beneath the trees and the gaps between the groves for any telltale signs of soldiers. She spread her awareness outward, wary of spikes of emotion from the asirim that might indicate the presence of one of the Kings.
She had once needed an adichara petal to do such things. Not so now, especially this close to the blooming fields. It was a miracle of sorts, a power that flowed from the old wound in the meat of her right thumb, a wound she'd given herself to prove once and for all that she was a daughter of a Sharakhani King. Through the poison that still resided there she could feel the trees and the asirim. The tattoo around it, given to her by the Matron Zaïde, had saved her life. It helped to hem the pain in, but it could only do so much. This close to the blooming fields the wound was a fount of anger and vengeance.
She'd learned that she could draw upon that anger so long as she didn't let it overwhelm her. She did so now, squeezing her hand until the pain sharpened. Her sense of the blooming fields sharpened with it.
"Well?" Melis said gruffly.
Çeda ignored the note of impatience in her voice, completing her inspection with care. "There's nothing," she replied when she was done. "We're safe for now."
Melis stood and stomped on her zilij to flip it back over. "Then let's get bloody moving." With one hard kick, she slid into motion.
Çeda and Sümeya shared a look. Melis had been acting like this more often of late, but now was hardly the time to discuss it. They followed and had just reached the peak of the next dune when a lonely wail swept like cold rain over the desert. Çeda shivered from it. The sorrow in that call stemmed from the asir's pain, its helplessness to stand against the voices of the gods that whispered in their minds: Go to Sharakhai. Take tribute. Kill for us.
Çeda had once viewed the asirim as ruthless monsters. Now she saw them for what they truly were. Slaves. Slaves to the gods' decree. Slaves to the will of the Kings. On this holy night, they would go to Sharakhai and kill the ones King Sukru had marked, then return to the blooming fields with their tributes, where the bodies would be tossed into the arms of the adichara to be torn limb from limb, their blood feeding the roots of the twisted trees.
It was all still so daunting, her mission to destroy the Kings, but she couldn't forget how far she'd come. Six Kings lay dead or powerless. Azad had been felled by Çeda's mother, Ahya. Külaan, Mesut, and Onur were dead by Çeda's hand. Yusam's death was still a mystery, though Çeda wouldn't be surprised to learn that one of his brother Kings, Ihsan being the most likely, had done it. And then there was Zeheb, the Whisper King, driven mad by his own power.
As she reached the edge of the grove, more and more of the blooming fields were opened to her. More of the asirim were as well. She felt so much pure need in them it was nearly overwhelming, but she suppressed those gnawing feelings as best she could, concentrating solely on the grove that lay before her. As she, Sümeya, and Melis entered it along a tunnel-like path, the adichara branches moved snakelike, rubbing against one another, the sound of it like twigs breaking underfoot. Beneath the light of the blue-white blooms, an arsenal of thorns stood out starkly along the branches.
They made their way to a clearing where they'd first met the asir named Mavra, a matriarch who had somehow managed to keep her family together over four terrible centuries of enslavement. As had been true the last time she'd come, Çeda felt not only Mavra, but her kin as well: the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. Most were asleep, caught in the spell that kept them in place until called upon by Sukru and his infernal whip, or pressed into service by one of the other Kings.
"Rise, Mavra," Çeda said aloud. "Rise and wake your children."
Like moonlight rippling over a pond, Mavra's will spread amongst the others. They roused, and their anger flared. Emaciated hands broke the sandy surface beneath the trees. Their ceaseless hunger gnawed at them as they crawled like termites from rotted wood. A dozen cadaverous shapes lifted from the ground, their blackened skin shriveled, tight against their bones. More followed, and more still, until they all stood trembling, mouths agape as their eyes swallowed the light of the adichara blooms.
Only Mavra remained in her grave.
Come grandmother. Leave the roots behind.
A few paces from where Çeda stood, an ungainly form broke the surface and pulled herself tall. Mavra was large, with broad shoulders and pendulous breasts. Lank hair hung before her face in dust-ridden strands. Her whole body quivered, making her look fragile, as if she were standing through sheer will alone. Only in her flinty stare could Çeda see some glimmer of her former, awesome strength.
"Threeee of mine died when last you came," she said in a reedy whisper.
"What happened was a tragedy," Çeda said. "But the Kings caused it. Surely you see this."
"Haaaaddd you not coooome"-her voice had grown stronger, her sorrow palpable-"they would still be aliiive."
Her brood were becoming more animated. Sedef, the most overprotective of her sons, crept closer on all fours. His limbs were long and lanky, his thoughts dark, echoing the murderous look in his eyes. The others parted as he came.
"You're right to be angry," Çeda said, keeping one eye on Sedef, "but direct that anger against King Husamett’n, who has hidden the truth for four hundred years. Direct it against King Sukru, who summons you to Sharakhai. Direct it against King Kiral, who rules them all. Not against me, nor my sisters, who have come to see you freed."
Çeda could feel Mavra's heart skip at the word freed. She might hate Çeda for what had happened, but she recognized the truth in Çeda's words. Sedef, however, was not so patient. He growled and groaned until the others backed away and cowered from him, even Mavra.
It was in the following moments, as Sedef charged and Mavra did nothing to stop him, that Çeda understood: Sedef had supplanted Mavra as the leader of their family.
With long strides he stormed toward the clearing.
"Control your son, Mavra!" Çeda called.
Melis, breathing rapidly, drew her shamshir. Çeda immediately whistled, Stand down! Melis knew better-Çeda had told her not to touch a weapon-but her fear of the asirim was overriding it. Still, she complied with Çeda's order, though by then Sedef was nearly on top of her.
Now! Çeda whistled.
As one, Çeda, Melis, and Sümeya tackled Sedef. Çeda felt his long claws rake her dress across the thighs. The armor held, but the next moment he was reaching for her neck.
Like all the asirim, Sedef was inhumanly strong, but Melis and Sümeya had both taken petals, and Çeda had the power of the adichara running through her as well. Together, they held him at bay. But Sedef was no newcomer to battle. He rolled. He clawed. He bit. Sümeya, Melis, and Çeda all took cuts from his nails, or were struck by his elbows, his knees, his feet.
Sedef head-butted Çeda. Stars mixed with the brightness of the adichara blooms. Sedef threw her back and sent a kick into Melis's gut, and then, in a blink, had his arms around Sümeya's waist. He lifted her high, ready to throw her into the poisonous adichara thorns.
"No!" Çeda cried, coming shakily to her feet, too far away, too woozy to help.
With a roar, a dark form tackled Sedef from behind. It was Mavra. She was using her weight to force Sedef to the ground while Sümeya fell against two winding adichara boughs.
"Sümeya!" Çeda reached her a moment later and helped her to her feet.
"It's all right," SŸmeya said. "The thorns didn't pierce."
Çeda's relief was short-lived. Sedef's strength was terrible, and Mavra seemed unable to stop him. When Mavra spoke to him, however, everything changed.
"Throw away your chance for freedom if you will, but don't do it for us all. Think of Amile and how he's suffered. Think of all the others, your brothers and sisters, your nieces and nephews and countless cousins."
Sedef still fought her, but Mavra was displaying the sort of power she surely possessed when she was young. The mood in the clearing shifted. Mavra's children had felt lost without her. Her return, though it came at the cost of Sedef's defeat and shame, gave them hope. They wanted Mavra to win. And so, Çeda suspected, did Sedef. How else to explain his slowed movements or his faint sense of hope as Mavra drove him down and pressed a forearm against his throat? When his body finally went lax, she lifted herself up and pointed to the darkest part of the nearby trees. There, the adichara parted, creating a path. Like a scolded child, Sedef rose and followed it, shoulders bowed, and the trees converged behind him.
Mavra's broad frame heaved with every ragged breath she took. She turned to Çeda. "Tell me now," she said, her words little more than a long wheeze. "Tell me how we can be freed."
All eyes shifted to Çeda.
"I must know something first," Çeda replied, and waved to the adicharas as their branches clicked and clacked. "Would you leave this grove? Would you leave the only home you've known for the past four hundred years?"
It was not a simple question. Mavra's old life was like a dream to her, distant and discomfiting even compared to the embrace of the adichara's roots. No matter that they were a symbol of her enslavement, these twisted trees had long ago become her home.
Mavra considered, her childlike worry plain on her face. "Yeessss," she said. "I would leave."
"Would you strike against the Kings?"
"Gleefully." She spat the word.
"Lastly, Mavra, would you follow me?"
All around the grove, the tortured voices of the asirim rose. It made the hair on Çeda's arms and the back of her neck stand up. Some, heedless of the thorns, grabbed the nearby trunks and shook the trees, making the light from the blooms above flicker wildly. Mavra, however, was a guiding star. The asirim settled themselves, deferent, waiting for Mavra to decide.
"Will you free all of us?"
"Our King as well?"
She meant Sehid-Alaz, who as far as Çeda knew was still trapped in King Husamettín's palace.
"That is my hope," Çeda said.
Mavra considered, her jaundiced eyes searching. "I want more," she finally rasped. "I want more than to simply be free."
"What more do you want?"
Çeda thought she knew the answer, but she wanted Mavra to say it out loud. Mavra leaned aggressively toward Çeda. Her heavy cheeks shook. Her eyes opened wide in a yellow leer that spoke of hunger and rage and little else. As much as she wanted to say the words, she couldn't. She was forbidden to speak of such things, so Çeda spoke them for her.
“You want revenge. You want to taste the blood of Kings.”