The reign of the kings of Sharakhai has been broken. The blood mage, Queen Meryam, now rules the city along with the descendants of the fabled twelve kings.
In the desert, Çeda has succeeded in breaking the asirim's curse. Those twisted creatures are now free, but their freedom comes at great cost. Nalamae lies dead, slain in battle with her sister goddess. Çeda, knowing Nalamae would have been reborn on her death, sets out on a quest to find her.
The trail leads Çeda to Sharakhai where, unbeknownst to her, others are searching for Nalamae as well. Çeda's quest to find her forces her into a terrible decision: work with the kings or risk Sharakhai's destruction.
Whatever her decision, it won't be easy. Sharakhai is once more threatened by the forces of the neighboring kingdoms. As the powers of the desert vie for control of the city, Çeda, her allies, and the fallen kings must navigate the shifting fates before the city they love falls to the schemes of the desert gods.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Çeda followed the flow of traffic through the bazaar. All around her, the aisles were choked, the myriad patrons shoving past her, trading and chatting as if war hadn't nearly torn the city apart five months ago.
The meeting she was about to have was nothing if not dangerous. Nevertheless, Çeda found herself smiling beneath her veil. She wore a threadbare dress. A dusty, eggplant-colored turban wrapped her head. A beaten old shamshir hung from her belt. It was tatty attire at best, yet she felt like a queen. She hadn't realized how much she'd needed this homecoming until she'd arrived in Sharakhai.
Sümeya, the former First Warden of the Blade Maidens, walked alongside Çeda. She wore a head scarf as well, its veil covering her face. The skirt of her midnight blue dress was uncharacteristically long, frayed along the hem, hopelessly dusty from walking the streets of the city. "Where are we meeting the girl?"
Ahead of Çeda and Sümeya was Kameyl, the vanguard of their small contingent. Çeda pointed beyond her towering form to the horseshoe archway into the spice market. "Just inside the arch."
The last of their number, Jenise, one of Çeda's Shieldwives, trailed a few stalls behind. She wore a belted kaftan. Her brown, shoulder-length hair was unbound and flowed freely on the gentle wind. She'd never been to Sharakhai, and it showed in the way her striking green-and-gold eyes flitted around, the way she flinched when others brushed past her.
As the four of them entered the spice market, the din of business and barter became intense, and Çeda found herself looking for signs that they were being followed—by Silver Spears, by Blade Maidens in disguise, by one of the Kings' elite Kestrels. Sümeya had assured her that Nayyan—Queen Nayyan, the woman they were about to meet—would abide by her word and listen to what they had to say. She'd further agreed to bring three and only three Blade Maidens, and promised that, no matter how the conversation went, neither Sümeya nor any of those accompanying her would be taken into custody. It was risky, but Sümeya trusted Nayyan, and Çeda trusted Sümeya. The closer they came to the meeting, though, the more Çeda's doubts were starting to resurface.
For years Nayyan had posed as her father, King Azad, but those days were behind her. She'd stepped out of her father's shadow at last, unveiling herself as the rightful heir to his throne, which was precisely why Çeda was worried. With all the other young monarchs in the House of Kings, and a dominating force like Queen Meryam leading them, Nayyan needed notoriety. What better way to get it than by delivering the White Wolf and Sümeya, the former First Warden turned traitor?
A few stalls in, Çeda spotted Mala, an eleven-year-old girl with curly brown hair pulled into a long, scraggly tail. Several strands hung down her face, adding to her angry, distrustful look.
"Hello, Mala," Çeda said.
Mala glanced at the milling patrons. "Don't use my name," she spat. "You know better than that."
Çeda gave her a second look. Then caught an older girl staring at the two of them from across the way. Further down the aisle stood more gutter wrens, all of them girls, watching this exchange carefully.
In Sharakhai's west end, children were often pressed into gangs, either by choice or by the tough hand that life in the city's poorest quarter often dealt them. When inducted formally, they were forced to stand up to a random person and cut them after some forced argument. It was a ritual called taking up the knife. Mala was only eleven, but it was clear she'd taken up hers. She looked harder than she once had, more prepared to protect herself and those she'd come to call family. Çeda wanted to ask about her swordcraft, wanted to trade a few blows as they used to, but she couldn't. She'd become an outsider in Mala's eyes.
"Did you follow her?"
Mala's chin jutted out. "Money first."
Çeda considered challenging her, but she saw how fixedly Mala was staring at her. Mala needed this. She had to show that she could handle herself. So Çeda took out the handful of six-pieces she and Mala had agreed upon but held them just short of Mala's waiting palm—this was deadly serious; the other wrens could easily have sold their identities to the Silver Spears.
"Do they know who I am?" Çeda asked in a low voice.
Mala shook her head.
"They don't know."
"Do they know you were sent to watch Queen Nayyan?"
She shook her head again. "I told them you were an heiress feuding with her sister over an inheritance."
Çeda stared at her, weighing her words, and found no reason to disbelieve her. "Here," Çeda said, handing over the money. "Now tell me what you've found."
"She came in through the east entrance and went straight to the tea stall. Three women joined her. She's been there for half a turn. There's no one else watching her."
"No more Spears than normal? No enforcers wandering the aisles?"
"None, and we've been watching all morning."
"Good," Çeda said, and lowered her voice even further. "Take care of yourself, Mala."
A quick smile, a bit of the old Mala returning. "You too," she said, and then she was gone.
It was as Mala had said. Near the center of the spice market was a tea shop with several small tables and chairs. Within it, sitting by herself at a table with two empty chairs, was a woman in a rust-orange dress that was rich but not too rich. Standing at the corners of the shop were three women in tribal niqabs, the veils covering their faces a cascade of beaten coins and coral beads. Each wore a voluminous skirt that had been bunched beneath the belt at one hip. No doubt there were ebon blades beneath those skirts, ready to be drawn.
As Jenise and Kameyl took up positions near a counter dominated by open bags of aromatic teas, Çeda followed Sümeya, who was just rounding Nayyan's table. Sümeya suddenly stopped in her tracks. Çeda had no idea why until she reached Sümeya's side and saw that Nayyan was cradling a newborn.
"You have a child," Sümeya said in a voice that was distant as the Austral Sea.
Nayyan was a woman of some forty summers who stunned with her beauty. Thin eyebrows arched above expressive eyes as she took Sümeya in. She had full lips, a dimpled chin, and rounded cheeks that accented the unbound waves of her hair. The folds of her dress were pulled wide at the chest, allowing the babe to suckle while her mother patted her swaddled bottom.
Nayyan's eyes might have been locked with those of her child, as if the baby were her sole concern, but her words gave lie to that impression. "When you asked me here, you said nothing about inviting the daughter of my father's killer to sit across the table from me."
Sümeya pulled out a chair and sat. "Nayyan, this is as much about Çeda—"
"I should have her throat slit here and now."
"I told you we'd be discussing the asirim and the thirteenth tribe and all the things Çeda discovered in the desert and in the mountains. Who better to tell it than Çeda herself?"
"Don't bandy words with me, Sümeya." Nayyan stroked the peach fuzz on top of her baby's head. "It doesn't suit you."
"It isn't Sümeya's fault," Çeda said. "I insisted."
"The Sümeya I knew wouldn't let anyone insist on anything."
"Then maybe you don't know her as well as you thought."
Nayyan regarded Çeda at last, her gaze turning razor sharp. "I know her better than you ever will, scarab."
Just then the baby squirmed, fell off the teat, and began to fuss. Only then did Çeda realized the babe had mismatched eyes: one brown, one hazel. Nayyan pinched her nipple and used it to rub the baby's lips, at which point she latched back on, gave one last squirm, and continued feeding. Çeda actually felt bad. It was clear Nayyan had brought the baby away from the safety of the palace specifically so that Sümeya could meet her, and Çeda had ruined the moment.
When it became clear Nayyan wasn't going have Çeda's throat slit—not yet, at least—Sümeya waved to the tea merchant and signaled for two more cups. "What's her name?" Sümeya asked when tea had been poured. She'd asked almost casually, which told Çeda just how much she cared.
Nayyan surprised Çeda when she let down her guard and gave an unabashed smile. "Her name is Ransaneh Nayyan'ala, heir to the Throne of Thorns."
Sümeya shared a look with Çeda as the sound of the market washed over them. Nayyan had given the matrilineal version of her daughter's name, which meant she considered herself the child's sole provider, or enough that it made no difference.
"Will her father be pleased to hear it?" Sümeya asked.
"Her father wasn't there to witness her birth"—the fire in Nayyan's eyes was plain to see—"nor has he been attentive enough to warrant his name's precedence over mine." She kissed the crown of Ransaneh's head. "Now tell me why you've come. I have no wish to sit in this traitor's presence for a moment longer than I need to."
Sümeya, apparently oblivious to the seriousness of Nayyan's words, stared at Ransaneh with a forlorn expression, as if with her presence one of the hopes Sümeya had secretly harbored had been dashed. Çeda had known of Sümeya's feelings for Nayyan—she just hadn't realized how strong they were.
"She's beautiful," Sümeya said with a melancholy smile.
Wary at first, as if unsure whether Sümeya had some ulterior motive for paying her daughter the compliment, Nayyan's look eventually softened. "Why did you ask me here, Meya?"
"Because Sharakhai is in trouble."
Nayyan snorted. "Do tell."
"It's the gods," Sümeya went on. "They're playing a game, and have been for four hundred years. How can we win that game if we refuse to acknowledge we're even playing it? How can we make a move when the rules have been hidden from us?"
"And how do you think I can aid you?"
"In the mountains, something happened that few outside the thirteenth tribe have heard about. You know King Beir led a battle against the thirteenth tribe. You know he failed. You know that the goddess Yerinde arranged for that battle. She wanted Nalamae to die." Sümeya leaned closer. "Yerinde succeeded, but was slain in the process."
Nayyan scoffed. "Yerinde cannot die."
"She fell to Night's Kiss, a sword of Goezhen's making."
At this, Nayyan sobered. "Who killed her?"
Up to this point, Nayyan had seen fit to ignore Çeda, but now she took her in as she might a west end trollop brought in for questioning. "This one killed the goddess?"
"Yes," Çeda replied, "this one did."
"Yerinde was slain," Sümeya went on quickly. "I saw her body with my own eyes. Nalamae fell too, but she will return, or has already, as she has done since the days of Beht Ihman."
"Well, which is it? Has returned, or will?"
"We don't know," Çeda interjected. "We've been searching the desert since the battle in the mountains."
Nayyan's nostril's flared. "Your betters are speaking, child."
"The wise would not silence me. What we search for is nothing less than a way to stop the gods."
"From doing what?"
"I don't know," Çeda said, "but I know this much. Ihsan is searching for the same information. He wants a solution to this riddle of the gods' desires and what they mean to do with the crystal. He told me as much in the desert."
"Yes, well"—Nayyan pulled Ransaneh from her breast and tugged the rich fabric of her dress back into place—"the more time passes, the more I think Ihsan is a fool."
"He isn't, though," Çeda said. "He was right about the gods hunting Nalamae. And he was right not to kill me when he had the chance. Nalamae will return, and when she does, we must be there to meet her. Only then do we have a chance of learning what the gods mean to do."
Nayyan laid the baby's head against her neck and patted her back. "Then why aren't you off finding her?"
Ransaneh squirmed, then whined, the sound barely audible above the roar of the market. Nayyan, meanwhile, was about to speak, but Sümeya cut her off. "Before he died, King Yusam told Çeda he'd seen her, Çeda, kneeling beside his mere, peering into its depths. He said she was caught in a vision, rapt."
Nayyan waited for more. "And?"
"Çeda has never done so." Sümeya shared a look with Çeda. "We think that time is now. We think she uses it to search for Nalamae."
"We . . ." Nayyan was looking at Sümeya in a new way.
Nayyan still loves her, Çeda realized.
Sümeya stepped into the silence. "We need this, Nayyan. For the good of the city, we must find Nalamae."
Nayyan responded, "I've spent years getting to where I am, Sümeya. And I'll be fighting until the day I die to remain there. I've made many mistakes along the way. I've learned hard lessons." Nayyan held her baby close and stood. "I decide what's good for the city, not you." She turned to Çeda. "And certainly not you."
She turned, ready to walk away, but before she could Çeda stood and snatched her wrist. Nayyan's eyes went wide, and the veiled women who'd accompanied her began to close in. They stopped when Çeda released her and Nayyan signaled them to back away.
"This isn't for me," Çeda said, "It isn't for Sümeya, either. It's not even for you. We've lived our lives and could be content with them." Çeda's gaze drifted to the soft bundle in Nayyan's arms. "This is for her."
Nayyan stared into Çeda's eyes as if she'd never heard anything so foolish in her life. She looked ready to slap Çeda for it. Holding Ransaneh close, she turned and strode away. As one of her Maidens led the way through the crowd, the other two watched Çeda and Sümeya carefully, then followed in their queen's wake.
"You were right," Çeda said, her head hanging low, "I never should have come."
"Well?" Kameyl grunted as she and Jenise joined them.
Sümeya shook her head.
Kameyl suddenly put one hand on the hilt of her shamshir. One of Queen Nayyan's escorts was striding quickly toward them. "Return here tomorrow," the Maiden said, "at the same time. I'll have instructions for you then."
As she turned and lost herself in the crowd, a wave of relief washed over Çeda.