The desert writhed with poison life. A rustling carpet surrounded Edene on every side. Barbed tails curving over scuttling carapaces that were patterned sand-colored or stone-colored, glossy or dull, rust or taupe or black or brown.
Tireless, escorted by scorpions, she walked through day and night, through the hazy scent of baked stone. Light and darkness had no meaning to what Edene had become. Unpunctuated by sleep, the days joined seamlessly. She could not have said how many had passed when a sunset found her, light-footed and easy, climbing a rocky trail leading into a valley that cut a low sweep of hills. Mountains rose before her, one tier beyond another. She did not recognize the range, but they could not stop her.
Always east. She must move east.
There were ruins here, the remnants of a stone-and-daub house huddled like a mud wasp’s nest against a great boulder. This was the first sign of habitation that Edene had seen breaking the desolate Rahazeen outlands since she escaped Ala-Din, the rocky clifftop fortress of the cult of Nameless assassins. Only her wits and the magic of the hammered green-gold ring weighting her left hand had won her free.
Edene paused, contemplating the winding path before her, the slumped carcass of the little house so alien in this landscape. The hills must be wetter than the plateau she had just walked across: their grim line against the evening sky was softened like a man’s ill-shaven cheek by a thorny fuzz of shrubs.
Dust turned the sunset yellow behind those hills—east, still east. She was not out of Rahazeen territory yet. But perhaps if she walked the night through, the sun would rise in the same place come morning, and she would know by the changing skies that she was one nation closer to home.
She pressed a hand against her belly. The babe had quickened savagely since she fled Ala-Din, and now she endured a spate of blows that felt like dried rice fire-puffing inside her. It did not pass swiftly, but she was growing accustomed to the child’s ferocity.
While she waited out the assault, her eye fell again on the tumbledown lodging. Curiosity drew her off her eastward path for the first time. The hut’s walls were standing and roof collapsed, as if someone had carefully stepped in the center. She wondered who had lived here, and a few moments to explore would cost her little in light of the length of the journey still before her.
Her escort of scorpions broke away from her footfalls. A scurrying wave crested and crept, lapping the bottoms of stone walls and mounting crumbling mortar to whisper over the sills of deep, narrow windows. The hut had no remaining door, but a cracked stone lintel still bridged a narrow gap. Edene turned to pass beneath it—
And drew up short.
Within the hut velvet blackness puddled; without lay blue, quiet gloaming. Framed within the door, outlined against that interior darkness, stood an inhuman creature as gray-blue as the twilight hour and as velvety as the dark. It had a long face with a wrinkled muzzle, mobile ears that focused on her brightly, and the huge soft eyes of a night predator. Even in the evening’s shadow, its pupils had contracted to pinpricks in the green-gold watered silk of its irises.
“Mistress of Secrets,” it said, in a language that hurt her ears but that she nevertheless understood, despite never having heard it before. A thick tongue showed behind chipped, yellowed fangs. “Far we have traveled to find you. I am Besha Ghul. I have come to bring you home to old Erem.”
“Erem?” She’d heard of the dead empire, as who had not? But it lay beyond the Western Ocean and the Uthman Caliphate—and no ruined city could serve her now, when she needed to win home to her clan, to her people, and to the father of her child.
For the whole duration of her captivity, she had restrained herself from brooding on Temur—where he was, if he was safe. If he was seeking her, as she suspected he must be. But now she was free, and the itch to return to him was the only fire close to as strong as the curling certainty that had risen in her since she escaped Ala-Din: that she would go home to the steppe and arise a queen.
“Erem,” said the Besha Ghul, its ears flicking to and fro. “You wear its ring upon your finger, Mistress of Secrets, Lady of Ruins, Queen of the Broken Places. You walk half within its veil already. It is deep time; its nights and twilights speed like quicksilver to hurry you through the shallow days of this insubstantial modern world. You have more time than the world, my Queen.”
She considered that. She considered the blur of days—had they been days at all, then? Nights? Or something else, some shape of time passing that her experience had not yet prepared her for?
“You call me by many titles,” Edene said. “But I am not those things. I am Tsareg Edene, not your Queen of Ruins.”
Besha Ghul bowed low from the hips, legs bent back to counterbalance arms and torso that swept the dust. Edene saw gray hide stretched gaunt over the shadows between ribs, in bony buttocks. It had no tail.
“You wear the Green Ring,” it said, voice muffled by the dust.
Edene glanced down at the plain green-gold band upon her finger. “Rise,” she said, recollecting some of the gravitas of the matriarch of her clan. “And explain yourself.”
Besha Ghul straightened up as if the depth of its bow were no inconvenience, brushing a little yellow dust from its jowls with clawed fingertips. “You wear the Green Ring,” it repeated, as if reciting a refrain. “The beasts of the desert that crawl and sting are yours to command. Yours is the domain of what is broken and what lies in ruins. Yours is jurisdiction over secrets and mysteries and those things intentionally forgotten.”
“I see,” said Edene. And perhaps she did: in response to Besha Ghul’s words, the ring on her hand burned with a wintry chill. It seemed desperately heavy. The babe kicked and kicked again.
Besha Ghul smiled once more, or at least skinned back its flews. “It is I who am charged to teach you how to wield these things. To teach you the power you must employ, when you are Queen. Will you come to Erem with me and meet your army?”
“If I am your Queen,” Edene said, “then I would have you guide me to my consort.”
Besha Ghul smiled, gray soft lips drawing back from dry yellow teeth meant for tearing flesh. “First you must be crowned, your majesty. Erem is real. It is the true empire, and all khans and kings and caliphs that follow it are insignificant before its memory. How much more insignificant shall they be before its rebirth? When you wear its crown, Lady of Ruins, all the world will bow before you.”
When I am Queen. She pictured Temur at her side. Her clan safe. Her child in her arms. Mares and cattle grazing peacefully to the horizon.
Edene felt strong and certain. Her mouth curved in a beneficent smile. She said, “I will come with you to Erem.”
* * *
Mukhtar ai-Idoj, al-Sepehr of the Nameless sect of the Rahazeen, knelt in contemplation before a plain, unornamented human skull. Paper-dry and brown with age, it lay upon a low table in a room whose every wall was serried with unlit lamps. The skull reflected in the table’s gilt and red-enameled surface as if it lay mirrored on blood.
Other than being relict of a dead man, it seemed quite ordinary and inoffensive in the dim evening light.
It was the skull of Danupati, the ancient warrior-emperor of the Lizard Folk. To al-Sepehr’s honed otherwise senses, it reeked of the ancient knotworks of curse that bound it—and bound every land over which Danupati, once God-Emperor, had held sway.
Al-Sepehr had lowered his indigo veil, letting the night air cool his face. He was not praying. As the high priest of the Nameless and a priest of the Scholar-God, he did not pray to idols, to relics, or to ancestors. He prayed by preserving knowledge, for that was his God’s glory—and his own. Nor was he incanting, precisely, for he had no intention of casting spells with the essence of the dead emperor.
He was contemplating, that was all. Allowing the possibilities of the future to fill up the room, his mind, his awareness.
Al-Sepehr was now a man of middle years, his eyesight not so keen as it once had been, and his joints ached from contact with the hard stone floor. He could have fetched a rug—or had one of his wives or servants fetch it—but for the time discomfort suited him. If he meant to watch the night through and give this dead man a proper vigil, the pain would help him stay awake.
Privation kept a man hardened.
The sun finished setting while he watched the skull, his hands folded, his eyes blinking only slowly. Shadows spilled from the corners of the room. The brass lamps—each tidy beside the next, handles and wicks militarily aligned—at first gleamed dully, then lost their luster as darkness grew absolute. The room should have reeked of lamp fuel—or the herbs steeped in oil to sweeten it—but instead it smelled dusty, dry. The lamps stood empty.
Al-Sepehr reached out one hand—the left one—and laid it on the crown of Danupati’s skull as if gentling a child. He could see nothing, but he knew exactly the distance and the reach of his arm.
“So, ancient king,” he murmured. “Where is the war you vowed would greet any attempt to move your bones?”
Silence followed, long and thin, until it was broken by the papery, powdery whir of insect wings. Not one or two, but thousands, filling the air with the scent of dust and mustiness: the flutter of ten thousand butterflies, then silence as they settled.
Swiftly but individually, the empty brass lamps in their ranks lit themselves, revealing in their own increasing light that each wick was briefly touched by a butterfly before each butterfly vanished into fire. A ripple of light and warmth ran around the room. A ripple that expanded outward, through al-Sepehr, through the walls of the chamber, through the wide rooms of the world.
* * *
There was no coolness in the predawn dark to which Temur awakened. He lay in yet another unfamiliar sort of bed—he’d learned so much about how the foreigners slept on this journey! This one was a mattress on the floor stuffed firmly with what, by its spring, might be bats of wool. The coverlet was cotton, woven with an open hand, but even that was too warm on such a night and he’d kicked it away.
The air was warm too, if not still. It moved softly beyond the stone-latticed window. The stone walls re-radiated the heat of the day, and the leaves in the garden beyond rustled. A whisper of light fell inside, from the foreign stars and from the city beyond the garden walls: enough that his dark-adapted eyes could pick out the curve of warm flesh in the darkness, the line of shadow below a shoulder blade, dark and sharp as if drawn with a pen.
A woman lay in the bed beside him, her hair drifting across his arm, starlight pooled in the cup of her palm. He knew he should have felt frustration, impatience with the slow grindings of Uthman politeness in this foreign city of Asitaneh when another woman for whom he cared needed his help—but it was hard, at just this instant, after so much fear and exhaustion, to do more than lie in the dark and fill himself with the scent of the person he rested beside.
In the morning, he thought. I will make my grandfather help me find Edene. In the morning.
We can have this one night.
The woman breathed softly—but not with the slow regularity of one asleep. As he lifted his head, he could see the gloss of light across dark irises.
“Samarkar,” he breathed.
“You felt it?” she asked, speculation altering the contours of her face as it had when he admitted sometimes dreaming true.
He shook his head. “I was asleep.”
“I wasn’t.” The Wizard Samarkar turned in the covers, and that starlight spilled from her hand, running across the bed to thin and vanish. The room was darker than before; now he could see her only as a dim outline of greater darkness against the night. He heard the faint consternation in her voice, but she made herself say, “I wanted to remember this.”
He might be younger than she, but he wasn’t so young he couldn’t read all the pain of her loveless marriage and early widowhood in her words. He opened his mouth to soothe her and shut it again. Given everything they were hunting—the lord of the Rahazeen cult called the Nameless, Temur’s stolen lover, vengeance for his slaughtered brother and hers—and everything that was hunting them—his uncle, her surviving brother, assorted murder cults, the dread memory of an ancient sorcerer—he could not promise much.
“I’m at your side,” he said at last. “And I will remain there so long as fate permits. Sleep; there will be other nights to remember.”
She kissed him in answer, a foreign custom for which he was developing a taste. Then she pulled back and said, “I think I shall not be sleeping in any case. Something cold and chill has passed across the world this night; I think I would have felt it even in my dreams.”
“Cold and chill? Something sorcerous?”
“Only as your blood vow in Tsarepheth was sorcerous.” Her shape moved against lesser darkness as she stood. Her hair swept his face again, full of the scent of the sea. “A true word from a man or woman of power has the strength to change the world, so the sages say. If you did not feel it, what wakened you?”
“I don’t know. Perhaps just your breathing—” He cast from side to side, listening in the night. “No,” he said. “Wait. No birds.”
She cocked her head, a hand to her ear. But Temur did not need the confirmation. There were birds, heralding the first paling of sky before an incipient sun—but not outside the window. Birds in the city. But no birds in the garden.
Silently, Temur found his feet. Samarkar slid into a pair of breeches she’d discarded. Temur grasped his knife, which was laid against a bolster beside his bed—on Samarkar’s side, but he had not been planning to share the couch when he retired.
He pulled on his clout, holding his knife between his teeth. She struggled into a tunic and found her own knife—a much shorter, square-pommeled one, meant for chores and not fighting. All Rasans seemed to carry the like. “Follow me,” she said.
He did without hesitation. Samarkar had grown to adulthood in the terraced cities of Rasa and Song. She could find her way around a permanent dwelling place as Temur could not. But he could guide them across a steppe that would seem featureless to the uninitiated.
Barefoot, padding on blood-hot stone, she brought them to a door beside which paced one of the household guards, broad-shouldered and stocky beneath a robe of dark browns that blended into the shadows.
“Hail,” she said.
The guard must have heard them coming, because he turned quietly in the gloom. Temur could only tell that his hand rested on the hilt of his scimitar by the outline of his silhouette.
“Who passes?” he asked in the Uthman language.
Temur’s use of it was still raw, but he managed to say, “The guests of Ato Tesefahun,” without choking on his tongue.
“To what purpose do you creep in the dark?” Though the guard’s tone was suspicious, no scrape of steel on sheath revealed him to have loosened his sword.
“Someone’s in the garden,” Samarkar said. “We thought we’d go and see who.”
Her sarcasm—Temur could see the raised eyebrows and one-sided smile that went with it in his mind, if not through the dark—seemed to ease the guard. “I shall raise the alarm—”
“Wait,” said Temur. “Just wait a moment, is all, and watch us from the door.”
He stepped up to it, allowing the guard to check suspiciously through the peephole before pulling the door aside. The guard kept it chained at top and bottom, so Temur and Samarkar had to sidle through a narrow gap to pass one by one into the garden.
Outside, the starlight less filtered, Temur’s eyesight showed him a stark world of blues and silvers outlined in shadows that could have been cut from black silk. The graded paths of the courtyard seemed treacherously uneven, the plantations along their edges shrouds of vegetation over some bottomless pitfall. Temur’s breath came fast and light, his hands cold with anticipation and his heart whirring like a chariot wheel. A motion beyond the screen of pomegranates caught Temur’s gaze; pale light sliding on pale cloth. He watched for a moment, some of the anticipatory tension falling out of his shoulders and the weight from off his heart.
It was Brother Hsiung, the sworn-to-silence monk of Song. He stood in a clear patch of the central court, practicing the strikes and parries of his weaponless war form, moving with a fluidity no less impressive for the force with which he threw each kick or punch.
He must have heard Temur’s or Samarkar’s tread upon the path as they approached, though, because he let his hands fall to his sides and his flurrying feet rest on the gravel.
“What woke you?” Samarkar asked as they came up behind him.
Temur knew she wasn’t really expecting an answer, not until they were inside and Hsiung could reach ink and paper. But Brother Hsiung turned, light on his feet for all the bulk of his barrel body, and Temur—hardened to war and death since his eighth summer—took a quick step back.
The monk’s eyes blazed poison-bright as green glass held before a fire. The flickering light cast Temur’s and Samarkar’s shadows out long behind them, like coils of rope unreeling.
“Well,” Temur said, in his own language. “That’s not a good sign.”
* * *
Brother Hsiung held up his hands as Samarkar stepped forward. She heard the crunch of footsteps behind them—the door guard coming at a run—but she reached out to Brother Hsiung as if there were no hurry in the world. Her own hands were blurred by a dim azure glow as she—reflexively—called her power. Hsiung backed away slowly, head shaking, holding eye contact the entire time. He did not seem ensorcelled—well, no, of course he seemed ensorcelled, Samarkar corrected herself—but he seemed in control of his faculties. So she paused where she was and lowered her hands to her sides, sweeping Temur and the guard back with the left one as it fell.
It was eerie to hold Hsiung’s gaze while his eyes crawled with radiance, but she did it, watching for a glance or an expression that might offer a clue to what he wished of her. Brilliant green sparks chased one another through the space between his iris and the surface of his eye—a membrane that should have been transparent but by daylight would show the blue clouds of incipient blindness. Samarkar could see them now, lit from beneath. Her stomach tossed, her long muscles weak with fear. She thought it ought to subside when she reminded herself that she was a trained Wizard of Tsarepheth, who should be observing this both as sorcery and natural history.
Perhaps it ought to—but it didn’t. It didn’t matter; she forced herself to focus anyway.
She was leaning forward for a better look when Temur, beside her, caught her hand.
She squeezed his fingers and did not let him draw her back. “Wait.”
The man-at-arms brought up a lantern from within the door. Samarkar did not see how he lit it, but it gleamed suddenly, flaring and then dimming, casting a natural light across the scene.
“Go,” Samarkar said. “If you must raise the alarm, pray do it quietly. But above all, I bid you bring the master of this house.”
He hesitated; she did not turn to see if he obeyed. She still had the voice and manner of a princess of Rasa. The man-at-arms left the lantern on a plinth and ran.
From the edge of her eye she saw Temur shift his weight, but he hesitated—dagger in his hand, to be sure, and balanced on the balls of his feet—but not yet stepping forward. She released his hand. From the way his head tilted, she understood that he would have given her a grateful glance for not fouling his line of attack, except no mortal power could have shifted his eyes from the monk.
Brother Hsiung stepped back into the courtyard, claiming his space. He resettled into his stance—balanced, fluid—and began to move again. Simple forms, meditations, building rapidly to more complicated and focused ones. Samarkar, who had practiced with him across the wastes of salt and sand, watched for a moment or two.
Then she walked forward, onto the flags of the open court, and faced him. She thought Temur would reach for her. Perhaps he did, but if so he paused before his hand made contact and let her pass unimpeded.
The early forms were easy. Samarkar kept pace at first. She thought she understood what Hsiung was doing—using the forms to control whatever sorcery raged beneath his skin—and she was determined to mirror his concentration. To offer him support.
That green light behind his eyes twisted and flickered, but they did focus on her briefly before his expression turned inward again. Sweat collected on his brow, first a skin of it and then beads, rivulets. It splashed from his nose and spiked his eyelashes, and still they moved in echoes.
He soon outstripped her skill and continued—at first ever more elaborate, then deceptively simple and with snakelike speed. But she paced him, falling into her own routines—a silent ally, if nothing else. And she watched his eyes.
The lines of concentration on his forehead smoothed as he found his rhythm, to be replaced by serenity. The crawling fire that burned within his irises began to dim, until it was like looking at the last veil of flame surrounding a red-hot coal before it gutters to an ember. He continued, hands stroking the air with conviction and certainty now, feet moving fluidly from one stance to the next. She had lost her focus on Temur and only with the dimming of the glow infecting Brother Hsiung did she become aware that the lamp still burned over her shoulder.
Samarkar might not have known when the light died entirely, except the crawling shadows died too. Hsiung did not cease, however, until his forms were complete—and so Samarkar perforce kept pace with him. Their martial dance was a spell, now, and she would not risk breaking it.
Eventually he came to rest, facing Samarkar, his broad chest rising and falling slowly, but strongly enough to be visible in the firelight. His hands hung relaxed at his thighs. His clothing hung too, sand-worn and sweat-soaked, clinging to his skin. He bowed his head to her, and when he raised it again his eyes were wide and brown and faintly cloudy.
A male voice—full and controlled, worn smooth by years—spoke over Samarkar’s shoulder in tones of mild surprise and satisfaction. “Edifying. Perhaps we should take this inside, where the tea is waiting.”
Ato Tesefahun, Temur’s grandfather and their host, had arrived.
Copyright © 2013 by Elizabeth Bear