Çeda, now a Blade Maiden in service to the kings of Sharakhai, trains as one of their elite warriors, gleaning secrets even as they send her on covert missions to further their rule. She knows the dark history of the asirim—that hundreds of years ago they were enslaved to the kings against their will—but when she bonds with them as a Maiden, chaining them to her, she feels their pain as if her own. They hunger for release, they demand it, but with the power of the gods compelling them, they find their chains unbreakable.
Çeda could become the champion they've been waiting for, but the need to tread carefully has never been greater. After their recent defeat at the hands of the rebel Moonless Host, the kings are hungry for blood, scouring the city in their ruthless quest for revenge. Çeda's friend Emre and his new allies in the Moonless Host hope to take advantage of the unrest in Sharakhai, despite the danger of opposing the kings and their god-given powers, and the Maidens and their deadly ebon blades.
When Çeda and Emre are drawn into a plot of the blood mage Hamzakiir, they learn a devastating secret that may very well shatter the power of the hated kings. But it may all be undone if Çeda cannot learn to navigate the shifting tides of power in Sharakhai and control the growing anger of the asirim that threatens to overwhelm her...
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Çeda crouched, cradled in the branches of a well-tended fig tree, studying the movements of the Kings’ soldiers, the Silver Spears, along the palace wall above. Staring up through the leaves, she measured their pace as they marched from tower to tower, noted how long and at which locations they tarried. She gave special attention to the changing of the guard, and was relieved that the same guards had been posted as on the other nights she’d hidden here. Most important, though, was their mood. She weighed it— as well as she could from a hundred feet below— and to her great relief, found them attentive, but no more than usual. Had they seemed more prepared, on edge in some way, she knew she would have been forced to abandon her plan to kill the King of Kings.
This great palace that sat atop Mount Tauriyat was named Eventide, and it was the home of Kiral, the King of Kings. Not only was it the highest and largest of Sharakhai’s palaces, it was the most difficult to penetrate. Its walls stood higher than any other palace. Its western side was built atop a sheer rock face, making it near impossible for any sizable force to approach from that angle. Watch towers stood like sentinels every fifty paces, and the winding road leading up to it had a gorge spanned by a drawbridge that, unlike many of the other palaces on Tauriyat, was often raised.
Not that the palace had never been breached. With enough preparation, training, and, not least of all, patience, a woman or man could pierce any wall, gain any fortress. There were stories of the Moonless Host having done so many years ago. Whether or not they’d grown in the telling was anyone’s guess, but one thing was certain: gaining the walls was only the first of their difficulties. There were the Silver Spears to contend with. There were the elite Blade Maidens, who protected the King. And there was the King himself who, even after four hundred years walking the sands of the desert, was still one of the Shangazi’s most feared fighters.
Careful not to rock the leafy branches, Çeda leaned to one side to get a better look at a tall soldier marching along the parapet. A second Spear followed several paces behind, his helm and the tip of his tall spear glinting gold from the remains of the dying sun. From their high vantage, the two soldiers studied the vertical drop below them. Their gazes roamed the dry slope of the mountain. They stared out past the walls circumnavigating the whole of Tauriyat, to the sprawl of the Amber City. Çeda could see the city as well, an expanse of choked streets and mismatched buildings, of grand temples and leaning hovels. Some were old, some were new, some large, some small, some rich, some so decrepit they looked as if they’d crumble the moment the next sandstorm hit.
Çeda’s heart drummed as a hot breeze picked up and wind tossed the leaves. One of the guards was staring right at her. The tree, one of dozens in a grove below Eventide, did much to hide her, as did her supple leather armor, which was dyed a mottled color that matched both the fig tree’s bark and the rocky soil. She’d made the armor with padding that rounded her stomach, chest, and arms, making her appear bigger than she was. She’d bound her breasts and stuffed boots too large for her feet to make anyone who spotted her think she was a man. She was not only prepared to be seen before the night was done; she counted on it. Only, it wasn’t supposed to happen now.
She stared at the guard, breathless, certain he’d spotted her, but a moment later he spat over the wall, said something to his comrade, and moved on, the two of them laughing with the sort of ease that was common to the shisha dens sprinkled all across the Amber City. Indeed, as if the thought had summoned the city awake, drums and music lifted into the warm evening air, some celebration now underway.
The Spears were soon lost from sight, swallowed by the gaping entrance of the next tower, and finally Çeda relaxed. Still, her confidence was beginning to erode. Where were the other Kings? They should have been here by now. The urge to abandon this plan as too bold and return to the House of Maidens was growing, but a night like tonight wasn’t going to come again. She’d known weeks ago that she would come; it was practically a directive from the gods themselves, or if not the gods, then surely the fates.
When the sun set and the air began to cool, Çeda worried the moment had come and gone. Perhaps King Yusam’s diary had been wrong. Or in her haste she’d noted the wrong date. But just then the sound of galloping horses drew her attention to King’s Road, the paved road of endless switchbacks that wound its way like a serpent up the slopes of Tauriyat to each of the Kings’ palaces. Twelve other palaces graced the mountain, but it was from Husamettín’s, the King of Swords, palace that an honor guard of ten Blade Maidens and a large black wagon emerged.
A cavalcade of moths began to flutter in the space between Çeda’s ribs as the wagon wended its way higher along the palace road. Eyes fixed on the wagon like an archer taking aim, Çeda pulled the teardrop necklace from inside her armor, took a white-and-blue adichara petal from within, and placed it under her tongue. She’d no sooner clipped the locket closed than her awareness began to expand.
Like the perfect unfurling of a freshly cut rose, more of the world became known to her. The conversations of the men and women preparing for the arrival of the other Kings— conversations hidden from her only moments ago— now drifted down from Eventide. The smell of roast meat filled the air, as did a savory mix of garlic, onion, and the sharp scents of lemon and coriander and sage. A thrill ran through her. Her physical form became vibrant, white hot. She itched to use it.
The most subtle effect, and the most dangerous on this particular night, was her awareness of the blooming fields. These were the groves of twisted trees, the vast ring around Sharakhai where the asirim slept. Like torches in the night, they brightened in her mind. Ever since she was young, when her mother had begun feeding her bits of pressed petals on holy days or during other rites of passage, she had been bonded to the adichara. She hadn’t known their nature then, but she did now. She could feel the asirim in their slumber, could sense their tortured dreams.
She could call to them if she wished— they’d granted her that power— but that wasn’t what she needed tonight. Like the guards above, it was imperative they remain unaware of her. After all, were the Jackal King to sense her presence here, all would be lost. So instead of calling to them, she distanced herself, becoming something ephemeral, spindrift lifting then lost.
The distant thump of horse hooves came louder as the wagon team and the Maidens’ horses approached the entrance to Eventide. When they were lost from view and the clatter of the entrance bridge being lowered filled the cool night air, Çeda stared up at the palace wall and saw a lone guard standing at attention along the western side, facing inward.
Bless you, Nalamae.
Low and fast, she raced to the rock face. Upon reaching it she climbed, using the path she’d mapped for herself while waiting for the sun to set. Up she went, quickly, quietly, her body tight to the stone, arms and legs moving smoothly. She was a good climber without the power of the petals driving her, but with it, she reached the lower stone blocks of Eventide’s walls in as little time as it took a man to piss. She moved slower then, careful to find space for the tips of her fingers to grip, for the edges of her boots to find purchase.
From within the walls, echoing up into a sky bursting with stars, came the sound of pounding hooves, of iron-rimmed wagon wheels rattling over stone. She approached the top of the wall and slowly raised herself until she could see the Silver Spear. With care, she drew a pre-knotted rope from around her waist and slipped one end over the merlon directly above her. The other end, wound into a noose, she held at the ready. She made a ticking sound and waited, controlling her breath, controlling her emotions. When the Spear remained standing at the ready, she made the sound again. This time he looked out over the wall, then down.
She was already swinging the rope up. It caught him neatly around the neck. Immediately she dropped, and the guard dropped with her. The noose cinched tight and he slipped over the side, arms scrabbling for purchase. His spear spun end over end toward the fig trees below. The rope went taut, and he swung like a headman’s axe toward the wall. Çeda slid along the rope so that his weight struck her instead of crashing noisily against stone. Something along his belt bit into her stomach, but he made blessedly little sound as he slammed into her. A cough escaped her, loud enough that she might have been heard. She switched her grip from the rope to the collar of his hauberk. All her weight was on him now, the noose drawing even tighter. He tried to free himself, tried to draw the knife at his belt, but it was a simple matter to snatch his wrist. The noose was so tight he didn’t so much as gurgle. She heard a popping sound, though, and then another. A moment later, his whole body went slack.
Like an ungainly ladder, she climbed his meaty frame until she was able to grab the rope, stand on his shoulders, and ascend once more. She prayed no cries of alarm would be raised as she slipped through the crenel and belly-crawled into the nearby tower.
Hearing none, she rose up until she could view the courtyard through the loophole in the tower. She watched as the wagon lurched to a stop. The team of horses at the lead shook their manes as four Blade Maidens dismounted and moved to stand beside the wagon. A footman in King Kiral’s blue livery opened the wagon doors, and three men stepped out, the Maidens and the footman bowing their heads to each. The first was the tall form of Husamettín, King of Swords. Next came Mesut, the Jackal King, lord of the asirim. And lastly, Cahil, the Confessor King. Mesut and Cahil wore the fine clothes of the Kings of Sharakhai: khalats of vibrant cloth and thread of gold with turbans to match. In contrast, Husamettín wore simpler clothes— the utilitarian sort a desert shaikh might wear— but he had a most impressive sword at his side. Night’s Kiss, the two-handed shamshir granted him by Goezhen himself.
Only when they had all exited the wagon did a fourth King appear. He came from the palace with three Blade Maidens waking in unison behind him. He was a tall, clean-shaven man. Even from this distance Çeda could see the pockmarks on his skin, evidence of some childhood disease that had struck well over four hundred years ago. This was Kiral himself, the one all the other Kings deferred to— or so Çeda had thought before entering the House of Maidens. She’d heard rumors of various rifts between the Kings since entering the House four months earlier. None of the other Kings would challenge his authority outright, but some would shed no tears were the Dawn King to topple from his lofty perch.
For a time the four Kings spoke, their conversation lost in the clop of hooves as the Maidens’ horses were led away. The wagon, however, remained.
“Let’s begin,” Kiral said as the noise dwindled.
Çeda pulled the short bow from her shoulder as King Mesut nodded to the interior of the wagon. At this, a Silver Spear exited, holding a chain in one hand. When he drew on the chain, it clinked, and a woman stumbled into view. As she took the steps, her miserable state was revealed. The chain was affixed to a leather collar around her neck. She was gagged. Her hands were bound behind her, and her breath came jackal-quick. She was trembling, and yet she stood tall before King Kiral; she stared defiantly into his eyes.
Çeda had been pulling one of the four poison-tipped arrows from the quiver on her back, but she halted at this strange occurrence. Two months ago she’d stolen into King Yusam’s private offices and read through his journal, the one he used to record the visions from the magical pool secreted away in his palace, his mere. The entries were snippets mostly, the most memorable bits and pieces he used to remind him of the things he’d seen. This meeting, on this particular day, had been mentioned several times. He had not, however, mentioned this woman, which meant either that he’d not seen it or had chosen to withhold it; she had no idea which it might be.
“Where shall we begin?” Mesut asked.
Çeda knew the answer even before Kiral waved to the patch of gravel situated between the greenhouse and the tower where she hid. The greenhouse had been mentioned in the journal.
Indeed, they moved to that exact location, four calm Kings and the terrified woman. “Kneel,” Mesut said. When the woman didn’t, Cahil kicked the backs of her legs out from under her so she fell to her knees. As he moved behind her and sliced through her bonds to free her hands, Çeda placed the arrow across her bow and nocked it. She held it at the ready, staring through the loophole in sick fascination. She thought of releasing the arrow now but, Nalamae forgive her, this was too important. She had to know more. The mere wouldn’t have shown it to Yusam if it wasn’t vital to him or the Kings or Sharakhai itself. If she revealed herself too soon, they would only perform this strange ritual another time, and she’d be none the wiser. So she waited as Cahil unstoppered a glass flask filled with a brown, muddy liquid. Waited as Mesut untied the gag and wrenched her head back. When they began pouring it down her throat, however, Çeda lifted the bow and drew the arrow back.
Finally, the flask was drained. Cahil stepped back, and Mesut let the woman go. She fell slowly to the ground, gripped in pain. She balled her hands into fists, struck them against the ground, as if waging a terrible battle within. But this was a battle already lost. Before Çeda’s eyes, the woman’s skin shriveled. Her cheeks grew sunken. Her hands became skeletal.
By Bakhi’s bright hammer, what did Cahil give her?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This novel picked up and RAN with the various characters and plot threads started in the first of the series! Excellent second novel in the trilogy, looking forward to the third.
I’ve enjoyed the story. It’s fun with a reasonable pacing