Possessed by a ghost who feeds on death, the undying assassin Ahjvar the Leopard has been captured by the Lady of Marakand, enslaved by necromancy to be captain of her Red Masks. His shield-bearer Ghu, a former slave with an uncanny ability to free the captive dead, follows Ahjvar into the war-torn lands of the Duina Catairna to release him, even if that means destroying what is left of Ahj’s tormented soul. Deyandara, the last surviving heir of the Catairnan queen, rides into a land ravaged by disease and war, seeking the allies she abandoned months before, though they have no hope of standing against the army led by the invulnerable Red Masks of Marakand and the divine terror of the Lady. In the city of Marakand, former enemies ally and old friends seek one another’s deaths as loyalists of the entombed gods Gurhan and Ilbialla raise a revolt, spearheaded by the Grasslander wizard Ivah, the shapeshifting Blackdog, and the bear-demon Mikki. The Lady’s defenses are not easily breached, though, and the one enemy who might withstand her, the Northron wanderer Moth, bearer of the sword Lakkariss, has vanished.
About the Author
K. V. Johansen is the author of The Leopard (Marakand, Volume One) and Blackdog and numerous works for children, teens, and adults. She predominantly writes secondary-world fantasy but is also the author of some science fiction and literary criticism, and of a collection retelling medieval Danish ballads. With an artist friend, she is also working on a manga-style adaptation of a short story set in the Blackdog world. Johansen has an MA from the Centre for Medieval Studies at the University of Toronto. Her lifelong interest in ancient and medieval history and the history of languages has had a great influence on her writing and world building. Occasionally, she masquerades as an editor, freelance journalist, or book reviewer, and dabbles (infrequently) in illustration. She lives in New Brunswick with a moderately wicked dog.
Read an Excerpt
MARAKAND, VOLUME TWO
By K.V. JOHANSEN
Prometheus BooksCopyright © 2014 K.V. Johansen
All rights reserved.
The man had been like an older brother to him ever since his parents had got him hired into the caravan-mistress Gaguush's gang, but sometimes Zavel could hate the self-righteous bastard of a Westgrasslander. Like now. All he had wanted was the loan of a few coins, but no, he got a tongue-lashing instead. As if Holla-Sayan had never had a drink or two more than sat well the next morning, or gone with an easy woman. And if that wasn't what he was up to now, skulking down the street with his eyes running anxiously to those two slim figures who'd walked ahead and were now waiting arm in arm, a Grasslander caravaneer with the long braids of the road and another with her Nabbani-black hair cut short as a Marakander boy's. That one looked around, wondering where her victim had got to.
Zavel had Holla-Sayan by the arm, stopping the man just walking off on him, and now he dug in his fingers. Gaped wordless a moment. Couldn't be. And Holla had been right with them, a hand under the Nabbani's elbow, all friendly, when Zavel had spotted the threesome, the Westgrasslander and the two women, one of whom was—Ivah. The past year hadn't treated her well. She was gaunt and pallid, but cutting her long hair was no disguise at all; he knew the sly narrow eyes, yellow-brown as his own, the delicate features and tight little mouth, bruised black as it was. She knew him, too. He saw her eyes widen in shock, and damn if she didn't look to Holla-Sayan in some appeal.
"Holla!" He let go Holla-Sayan's arm, pushed away from him. "Ivah! You murdering, bastard whore of the Lake-Lord, you—" His knife was in his hand and he leapt for her, reaching to grab her by the front of her coat, to jerk her close and into the stabbing blade, but he choked, jerked backwards himself by the hood of his coat, Holla, damn him, and he spun around, slashing. Holla-Sayan knocked his arm aside and a fist hit his jaw. He heard the thud of it, felt the jarring clack of his teeth. Then nothing.
Sense returned in retching, in white lights smearing and streaking his eyes. Zavel hunched up and groaned, realized the man bending over him groping in his pockets was probably not trying to be helpful, and hit him, hard, low, and everything he deserved, the sneaking Marakander thief. He found his knife and staggered away, leaving the man groaning and retching in turn behind him.
No sign of Holla-Sayan or the women. Sera curse him, Holla, sneaking off with Ivah, of all people. Of all the girls he could go chasing when he tired of the boss's temper, he was whoring around with the damned dead Lake-Lord's thrice-damned and treacherous, murdering pet wizard, the woman who'd cut Bikkim's throat for him, or had haughty I'm-too-good-for-a-bondman's-son Shaiveh do it for her to keep her own soft fingers clean. He'd have expected Holla to tear the throat of her as soon as look at her and leave her broken in the street for the real dogs to feast on.
Maybe that's what Holla-Sayan had been about?
Not bloody likely, with that gentle hand under the arm he'd seen when he first glimpsed the man. Subtlety, sweet-talking her off into some private corner where he could kill her tidily out of sight, wasn't Holla's way. No, at the first sight, first sniff of her, the monster that possessed him should have taken over. The Blackdog should have been shaking her like a rat, had the throat of her there and then on the street without ever a thought for what danger that brought down on the rest of the gang from the Red Masks, the wizard-hunting mute priests of the Lady of Marakand. Even if they did hardly ever come out to the suburb.
The damned wizard had bespelled Holla-Sayan. That explained it. She had bespelled the whole gang, once upon a time, won herself a place with them, got herself made tutor to Pakdhala when they'd all thought her Holla's bastard daughter, not knowing she was the goddess of Lissavakail, not knowing Holla-Sayan had been taken and possessed by the Blackdog. Monster mountain-spirit or not, Holla-Sayan hadn't been immune to Ivah's wizardry then. He'd fallen to it again, obviously. And how was Zavel supposed to rescue him? He didn't want to end his life with his neck snapped like a rat's, and Holla, once the dog took him over, was quite, quite mad. Anyway, Zavel had no idea where they'd gone. In bed somewhere, he supposed and damned if he was going to start checking every inn and tavern to save the fool from himself. Holla would come to his senses in time. Surely. It wasn't like Ivah was even very pretty, to hold a man for long. Of course, you couldn't call Gaguush pretty, either, and he'd married her, so maybe that wasn't what Holla went looking for.
Zavel's jaw ached, his head ached, he was tired and alone and he had no money. Hardly any money. A few coins left. He'd already had to pawn his father's sabre, the only inheritance he had from either parent, because Gaguush refused again to advance him any pay on the next trip. They treated him like a child. At least he had enough for a bite to eat. He didn't think he could chew. His jaw throbbed, and damned if Holla hadn't loosened a few teeth for him. Something to drink, though, would settle his stomach, stop the spinning in his head, while he thought what to do about Holla.
A drink, and another, because the sweet thin wine did help, and the luck of the Old Great Gods was with him. He found a Marakander looking to play a game of tables, one of those who came out to the caravanserai suburb thinking the caravaneers all drunken barbarians with the wits of their own camels, and he won the first and third of the three-game match, made a decent purse off the game and more off the betting, which had mostly been against him. Made himself scarce thereafter, because he didn't like the way the loser was eyeing him. He wasn't so drunk as all that.
Zavel walked out into a battle.
Well, not quite. There had been an unusual number of people rushing in and out of the tavern, so he should have guessed something was afoot, but playing tables meant having your wits about you, and he had shut out the stir and fuss, though it had distracted his opponent to some advantage, in that last game.
The street, a crooked lane off the main road, was empty but for a couple of running caravaneers. Noise, though, cries and yells, and there was a reek of heavy smoke. He followed the running men, mostly to get himself away from the tavern as quickly as he could, with the pocket of his coat nicely heavy. He had the vague idea of heading for the pawnshop, which was down along closer to the graveyard at the Gore, and an even vaguer notion of seeing what all the noise was, in case Holla was doing something about Ivah at last, but when he rounded the corner onto the main road it was to a scene of chaos that took him right back to Lissavakail, where his father had died, where everything changed, and sometimes it seemed he'd lost not only the dead, but the living.
The road towards the Gore was obscured by black smoke. Buildings burned, scarlet flames climbing high, the air roaring with them. Screams and cries, the clash and ring of metal, animal roaring, too, came from there. Nearer, a smaller battle raged, women of the suburb and women of the road close engaged with Marakander temple guard in red tunics and leather armour, a twisting, tight knot of desperation. He couldn't see who was winning, wasn't such a fool as to rush into it, either way. Fighting street guard never came to any good end and temple guard—if they hauled you off before the Voice of the Lady, no, some assassin had murdered her, and the Lady, the goddess of the city, spoke for herself now, they said—if they hauled you off before the Lady, you'd certainly better hope the Old Great Gods had their hands over you, because nothing short of a miracle would save you then.
The caravaneers, outnumbered, broke and surged back. Zavel whirled to run with them; it was that or be taken gawking there by the temple guard pursuit. Sera damn him for a fool, he tripped and stumbled along and missed his chance to dart away up the lane again when someone helpfully grabbed his arm to steady him. They didn't run far, just to get their backs against the corner made by a caravanserai's outthrust entryway. Its gate was firmly shut. Spears were levelled at the fore, a wounded woman shoved away to the back.
"Here," she gasped in passing, a Black Desert woman with tattoos the same red and black as the boss's, but not so thick and heavy. Her lips were going grey. She pushed her blood-slippery spear into Zavel's empty hands before staggering down, trying to bind up the wound in her own thigh with her headscarf. No one spared a hand to help. The temple guard came in a rush.
Lissavakail all over again, in miniature. Zavel chose his man and braced himself. He'd always had a good eye; the spear's point found the weak join he'd marked at the neck, bit, and he thrust and twisted, jerked back, but the damned thing stuck and the man was a screeching, flailing dead weight, pulling it down, and he lost his grip on the slick shaft. It was all close-in work by then anyway, sabres and the stabbing swords of the Marakanders. Not the place for his knife, but he slashed to fend off a Marakander boy, kicked and screamed himself, trying to weave his way back out of it, out of the way of those who had sabres and shields and some chance of surviving.
New yells, sweeping from behind. The caravanserai doors had opened and more folk of the road, Marakanders too, rushed out, all armed. They crashed against the temple-guard flank and the guardsmen fell away, running, outnumbered now, hah. Zavel grabbed up an abandoned short sword and joined the pursuit. A man fell before him, tripped and rolling, and Zavel swung aside to finish him. Flat on his back, the man drew his legs back and kicked him in the gut before he could dodge. He lost his grip on the sword and fell himself, doubled up, nearly lost what little he had in his stomach, gasping for air, and then they were grappling together, kicking and punching, both of them grabbing for lost swords. The man got him by the braids, dragged him, half-rising, and Zavel kicked him down again, jabbed a knee in his belly, found his knife, but the guardsman seized him by the scalp this time and slammed him down against the road. Red fire lanced across sight and his ears roared. Vision blurred. He squirmed sideways. The guardsman's two-foot staff was raised in his hand, teeth grimacing in a blood-masked face. The cudgel came down.
Someone was screaming in his dreams, shrill and terrified. His sister, Zavel thought, but he couldn't remember which one. He lurched to hands and knees, squinting at over-bright light and gulping against sickness. Not a girl screaming, not one of his little sisters, murdered by the men of Tamghat the Lake-Lord or taken for bond-servants or who knew what dire fate, but certainly lost, long lost. Not his mother, who had walked into a sandstorm in her despair. No, in his nightmares she never cried out at all, but beckoned, beckoned, and grinned, while the red dust of Serakallash whipped around her and her skin dried to leather on her face ...
He was not dreaming at all. A woman was screaming, her voice rising piercingly over the wind-storm roar of other voices. Muzzily, Zavel blinked sense back into his thudding head. He was going to be sick. He had been. His mouth was foul and he lay in reeking filth, the dust of the road made muck with blood and bile and wine. If he'd fallen on his back he'd be choked and dead now. He pushed himself to hands and knees, shaking and shivering with cold, and crawled. He'd been lying close up against a wall. He got his back against it and just sat a moment, trying to sort out how bad it was. The screaming drilled into him and his empty belly roiled as fingers found the swollen lump of his jaw, the broken, sticky-crusted egg-lump on his head, far worse. He remembered the guardsman's cudgel. The man must have thought he was dead, or the Marakander bastard would have finished him. He'd had a sword.
No swords here now. There was his knife, though. He'd been lying on it. He crawled to pick it up, slow and shaky, found the sheath still in the big square pocket of his coat and the other still heavy with coin. That was something.
No Marakander guardsmen, street or temple, in sight. Whatever that boiling-over of rage had been about, the caravaneers must have won it. It was folk of the road mobbing the house across the street. He peered, blurrily. Desert folk and Grasslanders, Northrons and Westrons and Nabbani of the east. The woman screaming, she was Marakander, or at least, she was dressed like it, in a fine embroidered caftan, and they were dragging her stumbling down the steps. Not a shop, but a fairly grand, yellow-plastered house that would have looked less out of place in Palace Ward or by the Silvermarket. The porter lay limp before the door, and another, younger woman shouted, "Cowards! Traitors! Help her!" as she tried to struggle after the captive.
Someone stabbed the young woman in the midriff with a spear, and she just stood staring down at it, the dark stain spreading, till they jerked it away and she fell out of sight down the stairs, into the crowd, and a skinny man, another Marakander, staggered into the doorway, bleeding about the head. Mouth open, he slammed the door against the mob. Coward, too, or maybe wise. Zavel watched, a bit stunned, as if it were all a dream. That wasn't a fight; that was filthy murder. In broad daylight—murky, smoke-dulled daylight. In law-bound Marakand.
The older woman kept on screaming and pleading.
"Let me go! I've done nothing to you, I'm no priestess! Help! Someone help! I'm a magistrate of the city, a magistrate of the suburb! You know me, Old Great Gods witness, you all know me, I had no part in this, I knew nothing of it, I've wronged no wizards—" and then the threats, "You've murdered my clerks. The Lady sees, the Lady knows, the Voice will speak your names, you'll all die condemned in the cages for this, outlanders or no, you're not beyond Marakand's law ... help! Help me!"
They dragged her away up the street, towards the city, and her cries changed again to wordless screaming.
Zavel staggered to his feet to follow, uncertainly, not even sure why, except that he didn't know what was going on, and the only way to find out was to follow. The threat of temple guard and Red Masks seemed past. He snagged the sleeve of a man with caravaneer's braids and Stone Desert tattoos.
"The temple—" he said. "They'll come. They'd better let her—"
"Didn't you see? The demons slew the Red Masks, and the Lady's put to flight!"
"What?" But the man pulled away from him, outdistancing his unsteady steps. "What demons?" Zavel called, but nobody answered.
There were bodies, far more than had been mixed into the fight he'd taken part in; the street stank like a butcher's market. Here the corpses were scattered like river-edge flotsam, in drifts and swirls amid the shops and warehouses and caravanserais just before the Gore, the triangle of land between the branching roads to the Riverbend and Sunset Gates. Zavel picked his way over men and women lying still, flies already settling in buzzing black carpets. Strange, how very still the dead, how different from the sleeping. You'd never mistake them. He wouldn't. Not anymore. Folk of the road. Folk of the suburb. Temple guard. Many temple guard, in their red tunics and armour, and Red Masks, in crimson-lacquered scale and masked helmets, but people were pulling the helmets away and dragging them into rows, and there was none of the crowing he would have expected, the exuberance of victory over the feared and hated mute priests, only a horrible solemnity. What in all the cold hells had been happening?
No flies swarmed on the slain Red Masks.
Excerpted from The Lady by K.V. JOHANSEN. Copyright © 2014 K.V. Johansen. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books.
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