Naia dreams of becoming a Jaihar Blademaster, but after assaulting a teacher, her future seems ruined. The timely intervention of a powerful stranger suddenly elevates her into elite Upper Grounds training. She has no idea that the stranger is Dal Gassan, head of the Daljeer Circle. Seventeen years ago he witnessed the massacre of Challimar’s court and rescued its sole survivor, a baby girl. Gassan plans to thrust a blade into the machinations of imperial succession: Naia. Disguised as the legendary Princess Xarimet of Challimar, Naia must challenge the imperial family, and win. Naia is no princess, but with her desert-kissed eyes and sword skills she might be close enough…
File Under: Fantasy [ Warrior Foretold | Royal Massacre | Wrongful Heir | Forbidden Kingdom ]
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|Product dimensions:||5.10(w) x 7.70(h) x 1.20(d)|
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Seventeen years ago
Gassan heard the shouting from all the way down the narrow stone passageway leading to the entrance of the serai. A woman, her voice raising to a near-scream and eventually dissolving into sobs. He broke into a run, noting in passing the slanted crescent of the waning moon peeking in through the narrow window overhead. Not the average hour to expect visitors in the Daljeer command center, disguised as a scholarly hall.
The door at the end of the curving passage stood ajar. Gusts of cool night air washed through the entrance hallway, filling it with the scents of desert rosemary and creosote. As Gassan skidded around the last bend, he caught a view of the moonlit path outside, winding to the city down below. Dark shapes loomed along it, outlined against the white sand. Boulders? Odd. Just yesterday, when he arrived here from the empire's capital for the celebration of the Sun Festival, the path had been clear. He peered closer, a chill creeping down his spine as the objects began to take shape.
Bodies. Dear Sel.
His mind jerked into a heightened state of alertness, taking in the details of the scene much faster than he could possibly process them. People rushing back and forth at the serai entrance ahead. A woman crouching on the doorstep leading outside, clutching a bundle of rolled-up cloth to her chest. Half a dozen bodies lining up the path outside, visible through the open doorway. The gleam of the dead soldiers' armor, visible underneath their dark red cloaks shifting in the wind. Red cloaks. Sel almighty save us all.
The logical part of Gassan's mind told him he couldn't possibly see it right, not from this distance. But the other, panicked part kept nagging him with the same urgency as the woman's sobs. From here, he couldn't see the cloaks' style or fully make out the bronze-gold patterns on the dead soldiers' breastplates, but his imagination painted the rest as clearly as if he were standing up close. The one-of-a-kind gear worn only by the Royal Challimar Redcloaks, the elite unit that personally guarded the queen.
Gassan darted forward, to the crouching woman. Not the queen, thank the prophets. She looked twice the age – in her forties, at least. Torn strands of gold beads glittered in her disheveled hair, her jeweled slippers far too ornate and impractical for a run through the sands. A noble? A high official of the royal court? Gassan forced away the guesses, not nearly as important right now as the immediacy of her need. He knelt by the woman's side, edging out a young Daljeer girl who was making vague moves around the woman, clearly with very little clue of what to do.
The woman's clothes and hair were soaked with blood. Gassan hoped it wasn't all her own. His eyes glossed over the long scratch at the base of her neck – not life-threatening despite its ugly look – down to a deeper stab wound below the collarbone, oozing with slow but steady gushes of blood. Cursed Irfat. He wasn't sure he could possibly do anything about that one. Not with all the distance she ran here from the royal palace, likely after she incurred the wound.
Gassan reached forward to pry the bundle the woman was clutching in her arms, as if it was more precious to her than the life seeping out of her. She held on for a moment longer, then released her hold, meeting his eyes with plea.
"Protect her ... please ... she is the only one left now ..."
Her? What in three hells is she talking about? "Keep still." Gassan handed the bundle to the Daljeer girl still lingering behind him, then ripped his medicine bag off his belt, fumbling for bandage and disinfecting liquid.
"The imperial soldiers are coming ..."
"Imperial soldiers?" Gassan frowned. The kingdom of Challimar was under the empire's protection. Their queen was about to sign a treaty that would give Challimar full province status in exchange for relinquishing their ancient succession claim. What could this richly dressed woman, escorted by the royal guards, possibly fear from the imperial soldiers?
"Betrayed ..." the woman's voice faltered and grew stronger again under Gassan's urgent gaze. "The treaty ... was a trap. Our queen ..." The woman gasped, her mouth opening and closing like that of a fish thrown ashore.
"Don't talk," Gassan snapped, clasping a fresh bandage to her neck while his other hand ripped open her cloak to reveal the mess inside. Cursed Irfat. For the first time in his healer's career he felt helpless – made worse by the fact that no matter what, he couldn't possibly show it.
The woman's pale lips twitched. "Don't bother with my wounds, Daljeer ... Just listen ... The queen ... the royal family ... the Redcloaks ... they're all dead ... The only one left ... my queen ..." She gasped, her eyes rolling to stare at the passage just past Gassan's shoulder.
For an eerie moment it seemed to Gassan as if these words were directed not at him but at someone standing there in the shadows, but he had no time to wonder. The woman was getting delirious, another bad sign he couldn't possibly ignore.
"Save your strength," he said. "You can tell me all this when you recover."
Her lips twitched into a ghostly smile. "I said, listen, you stubborn man ... My life is not important right now. The imperial soldiers ... They will come after me. No matter what, they must not find her ... Our savior ... When the time comes ... She can set things right ... I ..." she didn't finish her sentence as her entire body went limp.
Damn it, no. Not on my watch. Yet, even as the thought raced through Gassan's mind, he knew there was nothing he could possibly do. Not even with his healing skill, already famed within the Circle despite his relatively young age of thirty-five.
He lowered the woman to the floor and turned to the Daljeer girl standing behind him. She held the bundle the dying woman had brought in gently, her arms curved around it, rocking it. Protect her. Damn it. "Is this ...?" Gassan's skin prickled as he saw the girl's slow nod.
"Yes. A baby."
Bloody hell. "A girl, I assume."
The Daljeer girl briefly lifted the baby's wrappings, then nodded as she tucked in the loose cloth. A distant smile played on her lips, oddly calm amidst the havoc around them.
"You don't need to concern yourself with this baby, Dal Gassan," she said. "We have everything we need in this serai to take care of her."
Gassan rose to his feet so fast that he felt lightheaded. "It's not the taking care of her that I'm concerned about right now. It's the imperial soldiers, who I assume will arrive here shortly to look for this woman and her charge." His eyes drifted to the limp shape on the floor. At least the imperial soldiers could no longer harm the woman, whoever she was. Imperial soldiers. His mind simply refused to enfold it. Young Emperor Shabaddin was known for his cruel, volatile temper, but a power grab like this exceeded everything the Daljeer feared when he had ascended the throne. The Challimar treaty took years to negotiate. And now, all this intricate work was laid to waste on a tyrant's whim.
One way or the other, Shabaddin was going to pay the price for it someday. There was no telling, though, how many innocent people would pay it first.
He turned back to the Daljeer girl. She stood very still, her eyes unfocused as she clutched the bundle to her chest. An understandable shock, given the girl's young age. Still, being stationed in this serai, the center of the Daljeer's southern operations, meant she was not only a highly promising scholar, but also someone Gassan could trust implicitly – an important commodity right now.
"What's your name?" Gassan asked.
Only now did Gassan notice the shade of her eyes – light brown with yellow-orange speckles, like a spray of molten gold. Desert-kissed. Not so rare in these parts, even if to a northerner like him it continued to look like a marvel. Up in Zegmeer and Haggad, men swooned over Chall women. Many would certainly fall head over heels for one like Mehtab. Her face looked so classic – not exactly beautiful, but timeless and majestic in its elegant lines. For some reason, it seemed vaguely familiar, as if bearing resemblance to someone he'd seen before. He wasn't certain where the feeling came from, but he was sure he would remember her if he saw her again.
"Mehtab," he said. "When the imperial soldiers come, I need you to disappear, and keep this baby safe. I'll follow you after I take care of some things, and take her off your hands."
An odd expression shifted Mehtab's features, playing in the downturned corners of her eyes and mouth. Resentment? Scorn? Unlikely, given that the girl should have no reason to object to his words. He realized now that she was not as young as she seemed, maybe twenty-five? In the flickering torchlight he couldn't quite tell. He frowned, then stepped away as he realized he was staring.
"Find the nearest hideout and stay there until the imperial soldiers are gone," he said. "Feed the baby. I'll find you."
"Don't worry, Dal Gassan. I'll take good care of her."
Gassan nodded. He knew he should feel nothing but relief at the fact that Mehtab was here to help with at least one of the problems that had been dropped on their heads so unexpectedly. He should focus on dealing with the more immediate threats, like the imperial soldiers who were making their way up the winding path to the serai gates — as well as the longer-term repercussions of the Challimar coup.
He wondered about the story of the baby girl, entrusted into their care so dramatically. Obviously someone important. If only he had time to ask the dying woman any questions at all. And now it was up to him to work out this mystery, as well as to find the best way to keep the baby girl safe.
The dying woman's words stuck in his memory. When the time comes she can set things right ... He didn't like any of the guesses that came to mind. He hoped Mehtab didn't hear all of it, or at least wasn't informed enough to put the ends together the way he did.
The failure of the treaty left the royal family of Challimar the only power that could possibly challenge Emperor Shabaddin's right of succession and take over his throne, when his time came. This right had been the biggest contention point in all the negotiations over the last few years. Was this why His Imperial Majesty had been so keen to kill them all?
And could it be that the baby, so mysteriously delivered into the Daljeer care, was the key to enforcing this right and taking control of the imperial succession?
He heard soldiers approaching along the path outside, shouting orders as they walked. The Daljeer scrambled to get out of their way. Gassan turned to the place where Mehtab had been standing moments ago, relieved to see her gone. He heaved another breath of cool air, its fragrance now tinged with smoke from distant fires, then slipped away too, down another long passage. He could do no good by staying around any longer, except to identify himself as the healer who had tried his absolute best to save a potential enemy of the empire fleeing from justice, and the only man who heard her dying words.
It was a comfort to know that no matter how hard they searched, the soldiers would find nothing, and would eventually have to leave the serai alone. The Daljeer Circle was good at building secret chambers and nooks that could easily hide a battalion, not merely a small child. Assuming that Mehtab knew her way around the place – a certainty, judging by her confidence – the baby was safe for now. Barring unforeseen circumstances, this little girl was going to survive and do well in the Daljeer's care.
It was the next steps that worried him more.
Naia paused at the edge of the practice range, looking across it toward the distant mountain crest. Its jagged ice peaks, highlighted at the edges by the rose gold of the rising sun, gleamed, as if adorned by precious jewels. She narrowed her eyes, then turned to look the other way, over the rooftops of the city below. Quiet, just like everything here, enjoying the last hour before the start of the day. Her last one on these grounds, if her trainers got their way.
She reached for her gear – then froze, as she caught a movement in the shadows of a deep side archway.
An intruder? Unlikely. The Jaihar stronghold, located in the very heart of the busy city of Haggad, trained the top blademasters in the empire. This place was better protected than the emperor's palace itself. No sane person would ever sneak in here with bad intentions.
Of course, there were always the insane ones.
The thought barely formed in her head when the low hum of a flying dagger cut through the stillness. Her body reacted on its own as she dove. Not away from the blade which was probably the smartest thing to do but toward it. Time slowed for an instant, then returned to its normal flow as she snatched the dagger by the hilt and clenched it in her hand, watching her attacker step out of his hiding place toward her.
Anyone less experienced would probably think of him as an enemy right now. Naia knew better, though. The way he'd aimed – off to the side, so that the dagger couldn't possibly hit her unless she purposely flung herself into its path – told her that the stranger never intended to harm her. This was a test. She saw a confirmation of it in the man's broad smile, in his nod of approval as he crossed the grounds in measured steps and stopped in front of her.
She took her time to look him up and down.
He was probably in his fifties, and very fit, for an outsider. His plain clothing – a loose shirt and ankle-length pants, girded with a large bulky belt-bag and covered by a dusted brown thawb – suggested a lower class occupation. Most traders and workers in the city wore similar outfits, well-worn and devoid of any decorations or jewelry. Yet, the way he held himself – with an air of superiority, as if used to people bowing to him, didn't match the image at all. She had no idea what to make of him.
"Impressive," the man said, then held out his hand in a commanding gesture, palm out. An order to hand him back the dagger.
Well, she would have, if he asked nicely. But she was damned if she was going to be patronized by an outsider. There were plenty of men on these grounds to do the job.
She ignored his waiting hand, moving slowly and deliberately as she turned the dagger in her fingers to look it over. Noble steel – reasonably balanced, its double-edged blade polished to mirror-smooth perfection, its simple but elegant hilt carved with an emblem. All the telling signs of its owner's high standing, despite the shabby clothing he chose to wear. She took another moment to examine the carving – two curved lines meeting at an angle, like a crude depiction of a flying bird. It seemed vaguely familiar, but she couldn't quite recall what it meant.
She kept his gaze as she bent down and placed the dagger on the pavement between them.
The stranger's face stretched in surprise, but his twitching lips betrayed a smile, one she didn't quite expect. He held in place for another moment, then lowered his hand.
"How did you learn to do this?" he asked.
"By watching my superiors," she said.
He grinned. "I was referring to the dagger catching."
"So was I." Mostly. She couldn't help a grin in response. Despite his obviously high standing, this stranger seemed surprisingly easy to talk to.
"I believe I might have neglected to introduce myself," he said. "You may call me Dal Gassan. I am on my way to see your headmaster."
"Dal? You're a Daljeer?"
"I thought you recognized the emblem, didn't you?"
Naia glanced at the dagger, still lying on the pavement between them. She was recalling it now. The curved lines didn't depict a bird, but the contour of an open book seen from the side. The Daljeer were known for their scholarly activities, as well as hospitals and schools that served everyone, regardless of their ability to pay. Every city had a Daljeer serai for the poor.
The last thing she expected for a Daljeer was to seek an audience with the Jaihar Headmaster. Or to throw daggers with this kind of a skill.
"I never realized the Daljeer were so proficient with weapons," she said.
Gassan laughed. "Come now, you can't possibly call this proficient. Not at your level. How about another test?"(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Shadowblade"
Copyright © 2019 Anna Kashina.
Excerpted by permission of Watkins Media Ltd.
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