Welcome back to Fantasy Firsts. Today we’re featuring an extended excerpt from Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear, first in the Eternal Sky trilogy. The Khan’s heir, exiled by his cousin’s bloody victory, joins a princess who surrendered her worldly power for the gifts of magic, fighting to hold back a rising evil. Elizabeth Bear will be returning to the world of the Eternal Sky in The Stone in the Skull, available October 10th.
Temur, grandson of the Great Khan, is walking from a battlefield where he was left for dead. All around lie the fallen armies of his cousin and his brother who made war to rule the Khaganate. Temur is now the legitimate heir by blood to his grandfather’s throne, but he is not the strongest. Going into exile is the only way to survive his ruthless cousin.
Once-Princess Samarkar is climbing the thousand steps of the Citadel of the Wizards of Tsarepheth. She was heir to the Rasan Empire until her father got a son on a new wife. Then she was sent to be the wife of a Prince in Song, but that marriage ended in battle and blood. Now she has renounced her worldly power to seek the magical power of the wizards.
These two will come together to stand against the hidden cult that has so carefully brought all the empires of the Celadon Highway to strife and civil war through guile and deceit and sorcerous power.
Ragged vultures spiraled up a cherry sky. Their sooty wings so thick against the sunset could have been the column of ash from a volcano, the pall of smoke from a tremendous fire. Except the fire was a day’s hard ride east—away over the flats of the steppe, a broad smudge fading into blue twilight as the sun descended in the west.
Beyond the horizon, a city lay burning.
Having once turned his back on smoke and sunset alike, Temur kept walking. Or lurching. His bowlegged gait bore witness to more hours of his life spent astride than afoot, but no lean, long-necked pony bore him now. His good dun mare, with her coat that gleamed like gold-backed mirrors in the sun, had been cut from under him. The steppe was scattered in all directions with the corpses of others, duns and bays and blacks and grays. He had not found a living horse that he could catch or convince to carry him.
He walked because he could not bear to fall. Not here, not on this red earth. Not here among so many he had fought with and fought against—clansmen, tribesmen, hereditary enemies.
He had delighted in this. He had thought it glorious.
There was no glory in it when the men you killed were the husbands of your sisters, the sons of your uncles. There was nothing to be won when you fought against those with whom you should have shared a shield and a fireside. He could not find the fire of battle fever within himself. The ember had burned to a husk, and Temur was cold, and weary, and the lonely sorrow ran down his bones with an ache like cold.
Perhaps he was a ghost. For weren’t ghosts cold and hungry? Didn’t they crave the warmth and blood of the quick? The wound that gaped across Temur’s throat should have been his death. When it felled him, he’d had no doubt he was dying. Because of it—so obviously fatal, except that he had not died of it—nobody had thrust a second blade between his ribs or paunched him like a rabbit to make sure.
He had been left to lie among the others, all the others—his brother Qulan’s men and the men of his uncle Qori Buqa: the defenders of one man’s claim on Qarash and the partisans of the one who had come to dispute it—on the hard late-winter ground, bait for vultures who could not be bothered to hop from their feasts when he staggered close.
One vulture extended a char-colored head and hissed, wings broad as a pony blanket mantled over a crusting expanse of liver. The soot-black birds were foul and sacred. Tangled winter-crisp grass pulling at his ankles, Temur staggered wide.
But if Temur was a ghost, where were all the others? He should have been surrounded by an army of the dead, all waiting for the hallowed kindness of the carrion crows and of the vultures. Please. Just let me get away from all these dead men.
His long quilted coat was rust-stained with blood—much of it his own, from that temporary dying. It slid stickily against the thick, tight-woven silk of his undershirt, which in turn slid stickily against his skin. The fingers of his left hand cramped where they pinched flesh together along the edges of the long, perfect slice stretching from his ear to his collarbone.
The wound that had saved his life still oozed. As the sun lowered in the sky and the cold came on, blood froze across his knuckles. He stumbled between bodies still.
The fingers of his right hand were cramped also, clutching a bow. One of the bow’s laminated limbs was sword-notched to uselessness. The whole thing curled back on itself, its horsehair string cut. Temur used it as a walking stick, feeling it bend and spring under his weight with each step. He was beyond suffering shame for misusing a weapon.
The Old Khagan—the Khan of Khans, Temur’s uncle Mongke, son of the Great Khagan Temusan, whose enemies called him Terrible—was dead. This war was waged by Mongke’s would-be heirs, Qulan and Qori Buqa. Soon one of them would rise to take Mongke Khagan’s place—as Mongke Khagan had at the death of his own father—or the Khaganate would fall.
Temur, still stumbling through a battlefield sown heavy with dead mares and dead men after half a day walking, did not know if either his brother or his uncle had survived the day. Perhaps the Khaganate had fallen already.
Walk. Keep walking.
But it was not possible. His numb legs failed him. His knees buckled. He sagged to the ground as the sun sagged behind the horizon.
The charnel field had to end somewhere, though with darkness falling it seemed to stretch as vast as the steppe itself. Perhaps in the morning he would find the end of the dead. In the morning, he would have the strength to keep walking.
If he did not die in the night.
The smell of blood turned chill and thin in the cold. He hoped for a nearby corpse with unpillaged food and blankets and water. And perhaps a bow that would shoot. The sheer quantity of the dead was in his favor, for who could rob so many? These thoughts came to him hazily, disconnected. Without desire. They were merely the instincts of survival.
More than anything, he wanted to keep walking.
In the morning, he promised himself, he would turn south. South lay the mountains. He had ridden that far every summer of his young life that had not been spent campaigning. The wars in the borderlands of his grandfather’s empire had sometimes kept him from joining those driving the herds to his people’s summer ranges—where wet narrow valleys twisted among the stark gray slopes of the Steles of the Sky, where spring-shorn sheep grazed on rich pasturage across the green curves of foothills. But he had done it often enough.
He would go south, away from the grasslands, perhaps even through the mountains called the Range of Ghosts to the Celadon Highway city of Qeshqer. Away from the dead.
Qeshqer had been a Rasan city before Temur’s grandfather Temusan conquered it. Temur might find work there as a guard or mercenary. He might find sanctuary.
He was not dead. He might not die. When his throat scabbed he could capture some horses, some cattle. Something to live on.
There would be others alive, and they too would be walking south. Some of them might be Temur’s kinsmen, but that could not be helped. He’d deal with that when it happened. If he could find horses, Temur could make the journey of nine hundred yart in eight hands of days. On foot, he did not care to think how long he might be walking.
If Qulan was dead, if Qori Buqa could not consolidate his claim, the Khaganate was broken—and if he could, it held no refuge for Temur now. Qarash with its walled marketplaces, its caravanserais, its surrounding encampments of white-houses—the round, felt-walled dwellings Temur’s people moved from camp to camp throughout the year—had fallen. Temur was bereft of brothers, of stock, of allies.
To the south lay survival, or at least the hope of it.
* * *
Temur did not trust his wound to hold its scab if he lay flat, and given its location, there was a limit to how tightly he could bind it. But once the long twilight failed, he knew he must rest. And he must have warmth. Here on the border between winter and spring, the nights could still grow killing cold. Blowing snow snaked over trampled grass, drifting against the windward sides of dead men and dead horses.
Temur would take his rest sitting. He propped the coil of his broken bow in the lee of the corpse of a horse, not yet bloating because of the cold. Tottering, muddy-headed with exhaustion, he scavenged until he could bolster himself with salvaged bedrolls, sheepskins, and blankets rolled tightly in leather straps.
He should build a fire to hold off the cold and the scavengers, but the world wobbled around him. Maybe the wild cats, wolves, and foxes would be satisfied with the already-dead. There was prey that would not fight back. And if any of the great steppe cats, big as horses, came in the night—well, there was little he could do. He had not the strength to draw a bow, even if he had a good one.
No hunger moved him, but Temur slit the belly of a war-butchered mare and dug with blood-soaked hands in still-warm offal until he found the liver. Reddened anew to the shoulders, he carved soft meat in strips and slurped them one by one, hand pressed over his wound with each wary swallow. Blood to replace blood.
He would need it.
There was no preserving the meat to carry. He ate until his belly spasmed and threw the rest as far away as he could. He couldn’t do anything about the reek of blood, but as he’d already been covered in his own, it seemed insignificant.
Crammed to sickness, Temur folded a sweat-and-blood-stiff saddle blanket double and used it as a pad, then leaned back. The dead horse was a chill, stiff hulk against his spine, more a boulder than an animal. The crusted blanket was not much comfort, but at least it was still too cold for insects. He couldn’t sleep and brush flies from his wound. If maggots got in it, well, they would keep the poison of rot from his blood, but a quick death might be better.
He heard snarls in the last indigo glow of evening, when stars had begun to gleam, one by one, in the southern sky. Having been right about the scavengers made it no easier to listen to their quarrels, for he knew what they quarreled over. There was some meat the sacred vultures would not claim.
He knew it was unworthy. It was a dishonor to his family duty to his uncle. But somewhere in the darkness, he hoped a wolf gnawed the corpse of Qori Buqa.
* * *
Temur waited for moonrise. The darkness after sunset was the bleakest he had known, but what the eventual, silvery light revealed was worse. Not just the brutal shadows slipping from one corpse to the next, gorging on rich organ meats, but the sources of the light.
He tried not to count the moons as they rose but could not help himself. No bigger than Temur’s smallest fingernail, each floated up the night like a reflection on dark water. One, two. A dozen. Fifteen. Thirty. Thirty-one. A scatter of hammered sequins in the veil the Eternal Sky drew across himself to become Mother Night.
Among them, no matter how he strained his eyes, he did not find the moon he most wished to see—the Roan Moon of his elder brother Qulan, with its dappled pattern of steel and silver.
Temur should have died.
He had not been sworn to die with Qulan, like his brother’s oath-band had—as Qulan’s heir, that would have been a foolish vow to take—but he knew his own battle fury, and the only reason he lived was because his wounds had incapacitated him.
If he never saw blood again … he would be happy to claim he did not mind it.
Before the death of Mongke Khagan, there had been over a hundred moons. One for Mongke Khagan himself and one for each son and each grandson of his loins, and every living son and grandson and great-grandson of the Great Khagan Temusan as well—at least those born while the Great Khagan lived and reigned.
Every night since the war began, Temur had meant to keep himself from counting. And every night since, he had failed, and there had been fewer moons than the night before. Temur had not even the comfort of Qori Buqa’s death, for there gleamed his uncle’s Ghost Moon, pale and unblemished as the hide of a ghost-bay mare, shimmering brighter among the others.
And there was Temur’s as well, a steely shadow against the indigo sky. The Iron Moon matched his name, rust and pale streaks marking its flanks. Anyone who had prayed his death—as he had prayed Qori Buqa’s—would know those prayers come to naught. At least his mother, Ashra, would have the comfort of knowing he lived … if she did.
Which was unlikely, unless she had made it out of Qarash before Qori Buqa’s men made it in. If Qori Buqa lived, Temur’s enemies lived. Wherever Temur walked, if his clan and name were known, he might bring death—death on those who helped him, and death on himself.
This—this was how empires ended. With the flitting of wild dogs in the dark and a caravan of moons going dark one by one.
Temur laid his knife upon his thigh. He drew blankets and a fleece over himself and gingerly let his head rest against the dead horse’s flank. The stretching ache of his belly made a welcome distraction from the throb of his wound.
He closed his eyes. Between the snarls of scavengers, he dozed.
* * *
The skies broke about the gray stones of high Ala-Din. The ancient fortress breached them as a headland breaches sea, rising above a battered desert landscape on an angled promontory of wind-eroded sandstone.
Ala-Din meant “the Rock.” Its age was such that it did not need a complicated name. Its back was guarded by a gravel slope overhung by the face of the escarpment. On the front, the cliff face swept up three hundred feet to its summit, there crowned by crenellated battlements and a cluster of five towers like the fingers of a sharply bent hand.
Mukhtar ai-Idoj, al-Sepehr of the Rock, crouched atop the lowest and broadest of them, his back to the familiar east-setting sun of the Uthman Caliphate. Farther east, he knew, the strange pale sun of the Qersnyk tribes was long fallen, their queer hermaphroditic godling undergoing some mystic transformation to rise again as the face of the night. Farther east, heathen men were dying in useful legions, soaking the earth with their unshriven blood.
And that concerned him. But not as much as the immediate blood in which he bathed his own hands now.
Twin girls no older than his youngest daughter lay on the table before him, bound face to face, their throats slit with one blow. It was their blood that flowed down the gutter in the table to fall across his hands and over the sawn halves of a quartz geode he cupped together, reddening them even more than the sun reddened his sand-colored robes.
He stayed there, hands outstretched, trembling slightly with the effort of a strenuous pose, until the blood dripped to a halt. He straightened with the stiffness of a man who feels his years in his knees and spine, and with sure hands broke the geode apart. Strings of half-clotted blood stretched between its parts.
He was not alone on the roof. Behind him, a slender man waited, hands thrust inside the sleeves of his loose desert robe. Two blades, one greater and one lesser, were thrust through his indigo sash beside a pair of chased matchlock pistols. The powder horn hung beside his water skin. An indigo veil wound about his face matched the sash. Only his eyes and the leathery squint lines that framed them showed, but the color of his irises was too striking to be mistaken for many others—a dark ring around variegated hazel, chips of green and brown, a single dark spot at the bottom of the left one.
Al-Sepehr had only seen one other set of eyes like them. They were the eyes of this man’s sister.
“Shahruz,” he said, and held out one half of the stone.
Shahruz drew a naked hand from his sleeve and accepted the gory thing with no evidence of squeamishness. It was not yet dry. “How long will it last?”
“A little while,” he said. “Perhaps ten uses. Perhaps fifteen. It all depends on the strength of the vessels.” The girls, their bodies too warmed by the stone and the sun to be cooling yet. “When you use it, remember what was sacrificed.”
“I will,” said Shahruz. He made the stone vanish into his sleeve, then bowed three times to al-Sepehr. The obeisance was in honor of Sepehr and the Scholar-God, not the office of al-Sepehr, but al-Sepehr accepted it in their stead.
Shahruz nodded in the direction of the dead girls. “Was that necessary? Saadet—”
“I cannot be with your sister always.” Al-Sepehr let himself smile, feeling the desert wind dry his lips. “My wives would not like it. And I will not send you into the den of a Qersnyk pretender without a means of contacting me directly. All I ask is that you be sparing of it, because we will need it as well as a conduit for magic.”
Shahruz hesitated, the movement of his grimace visible beneath his veil. “Are we dogs, al-Sepehr,” he asked finally, reluctantly, “to hunt at the command of a pagan Qersnyk?”
Al-Sepehr cut the air impatiently. “We are jackals, to turn the wars of others to our own advantage. If Qori Buqa wants to wage war on his cousins, then why should we not benefit? When we are done, not a kingdom, caliphate, or principality from Song to Messaline will be at peace—until we put our peace upon them. Go now. Ride the wind as far as the borderlands, then send it home to me once you have procured horses and men.”
“Master,” Shahruz said, and turned crisply on the ball of his foot before striding away.
When his footsteps had descended the stair, al-Sepehr turned away. He set his half of the stone aside and bathed his hands in sun-hot water, scrubbing under the nails with a brush and laving them with soap to the elbow. When he was done, no trace of blood could be seen and the sky was cooling.
He reached into his own sleeve and drew forth a silk pouch, white except where rust-brown speckled it. From its depths, he shook out another hollow stone. The patina of blood on this one was thin; sparkles of citrine yellow showed through where it had flaked away from crystal faces.
Al-Sepehr cupped his hands around it and regarded it steadily until the air above it shimmered and a long, eastern face with a fierce narrow moustache and drooping eyes regarded him.
“Khan,” al-Sepehr said.
“Al-Sepehr,” the Qersnyk replied.
The stone cooled against al-Sepehr’s palm. “I send you one of my finest killers. You will make use of him to secure your throne. Then all will call you Khagan, Qori Buqa.”
“Thank you.” The son of the Old Khagan smiled, his moustache quivering. “There is a moon I would yet see out of the sky. Re Temur escaped the fall of Qarash.”
“No trouble,” al-Sepehr said, as the beat of mighty wings filled the evening air. “We will see to it. For your glory, Khan.”
The whuff of soft breath across Temur’s cheek awakened him. His hand clenched on the knife hilt; he nearly drove the forged blade into his own belly before he realized that what stood over him, filthy in the morning light, was a liver-bay mare whose sparse mane was still braided down between her eyes with red war ribbons.
She whuffed again, not startled by his sudden movement, and resumed lipping the fleece that Temur huddled under. She was sucking up the frost from his breath, which hoared his blankets. When Temur pushed himself out of their warmth, cold water ran down his back—melted by the residual heat seeping from the bulk of the dead horse. Every movement ripped pain through the tight muscles of his neck and along his spine. The edges of his wound were hot and thick, stiff as unstretched leather. He pressed his left hand over the cloth he’d used to cover it and felt the wetness of lymph and blood, but there was no reek of pus. The wound was still seeping.
The mare must have been numb to the smell of blood by then. As Temur rose, she ambled a few steps off and paused, head hanging, cropping winter-dry grasses where she could find a patch untrampled. Her tack was complete, though her reins had been broken and her quilted chest armor swung from a tangle of straps, whacking her brown-and-black-striped forelegs with each step. Temur could see the dings and abrasions on her knees and cannons where the furniture had struck her.
That was why she was still here, among all the dead. She was effectively hobbled.
The knife was in his hand. He dragged a worn whetstone from the slash pocket in his quilted trousers and scoured the blade to hone it. The barding had to come off, and he didn’t think the mare would stand still long enough for him to release the knots and buckles—assuming his hands were strong enough for the work. And assuming she didn’t knock him over.
She stood steady as the gray morning when he came up to her, humming low in his throat. I’m here, the noise said. I’m not sneaking. I’m a friend.
When he got close enough, he just stood beside her for a moment, speaking nonsense. He told her she was pretty and asked her name. Her ears flicked, but she didn’t lift her nose from the grass. He didn’t recognize the pattern of triangular nicks cut from their edges—without a shaman-rememberer, there was no way for him to know to whom she might have belonged. She had a good look about her, though—a short straight back, sharp angles, and dense muscles under the hide. She was thin and long-boned after the manner of steppe ponies, not fat with muscle and thick-necked like Song horses.
Gently, Temur slipped the blade beneath a tangle of her harness, edge out, and began to saw the leather. It parted well enough: In a few breaths he had the strap severed. She stood for it, nonchalant, and the next as well. After that, he could slide what remained down her skinny neck one-handed, saving the injured side, and let her shake it off her own ears.
She didn’t like that, snorting and backing away precipitously until her hind hooves thumped on a dead man’s outflung arm and she startled forward again. Temur opened his arms gently and tried to reach her with his voice. “Hush, now, dumpling, little brave one. It’s all right. Everything’s going to be fine now.”
It was a good thing everything on the steppe smelled like blood, because she didn’t shy from the reek all over him when she picked her way forward. She shoved her nose into his chest, not too hard. Her unchipped hooves, planted stubbornly in the grass, were banded tawny and black. Her eyes were large and clear. Temur felt tears spring up in his own as she pushed him again and whickered.
“I haven’t got any,” he said. “If I had, I would have eaten it.”
She still looked at him expectantly, turning her head aside the better to see him out of one egg-sized eye. He scowled, then when she would not stop staring, he glanced around at the dead. “What am I saying? We can find you all the sweets you want, dumpling, can’t we?”
* * *
Sweets—seeds pounded with honey and mutton fat—reins, a saddlebag’s worth of clothing that wasn’t soaked in blood or piss: All this and more—food, a cooking pot, spare bowstrings, and fresh arrows, though their weights and shaft lengths varied, so he hoped he would not be shooting for prizes before he had a chance to learn the peculiarities of each. He also found a hoof pick and a brush, a bow that wasn’t notched to uselessness, and an iron hatchet. He kept the blankets and fleeces he’d salvaged the night before, rolling them as tightly as he could one-handed. He improvised a sling for the left arm, because the weight of it dragged at his wound and pulled the edges open. Better to go easy and be one-handed for a while than to compound his injury, he thought, though it was harder to apply the wisdom to himself than it would have been to a mount.
He kept calling the mare “Dumpling”—Bansh—and soon it became obvious that she had accepted it as her name. She pricked her ears every time he said it. She had wounds, too, which he found when he brushed the blood and grime from her sides. A long shallow slash across her ribs was the worst of it. The blow could have split her open, and Temur flinched in retroactive sympathy as he cleaned it. Her girth or her master’s leg was all that had saved her.
She let him tend it, though, and begged for more mutton-fat sweets when he was done. She pushed her soft, mottled nose into his pockets and licked his quilted trousers while he worked, and he hadn’t the heart to shove her head away. He sang to her—the clean-healing song and the sound-feet song—and she pricked her ears and huffed sweet breath across his mouth.
They might have been the only two things living for a hundred yart, except the carrion beasts.
When Bansh was clean, Temur picketed her in the least devastated grass he could find and went to butcher another horse. The livers were no good now, after a night and a day and a half, but in the cold the meat hadn’t turned yet, and he took as much of a haunch as he could eat before it went bad. He wrapped it well in oiled hides so the smell wouldn’t bother the mare, then he tied it on behind her saddle.
Mounting one-handed, weak as he was, was no mean feat, and Temur considered himself lucky that Bansh stood for him as sturdily as a practice block. He was glad his grandfather Temusan couldn’t see him as he hauled himself into one iron stirrup, belly down across the saddle. With sharp agony pulling at his neck and shoulder, he struggled upright, stepped through the gap between the pommel and cantle, and found the other stirrup before the mare moved off.
She stayed to a walk, picking her way among the stinking bodies, ears moving unhappily as her head swung from one side to another. It was just as well, Temur thought; he wasn’t sure he could sit a trot without falling, and if he fell he was sure to reopen his wound. While many a Qersnyk warrior died in a tumble from horseback—the Great Khagan himself had been killed so, leading an army at the age of eighty-two—Temur couldn’t bear the irony of doing it now.
So he let the mare have her head, guiding her only in that he kept them pointed toward the south, where the Range of Ghosts was not yet even a smoky purple smudge on the horizon.
* * *
Another night passed before they left the dead behind, and by then they had begun to overtake the living. Temur had not been alone in his determination to reach the mountains. A straggling, numb, war-shocked column of refugees struggled south, moving like migrating birds—each individual but all of one goal, so the whole assembly gave the illusion of unity. In numbers, at least, there was some semblance of safety from the predators that stalked their margins—wolves and the massive steppe lion—waiting for twilight when the archers of the defenders would have to seek their targets half blind.
At first he feared he might be recognized—by warriors or by the women and children hauling their salvaged goods in carts. But either they did not know him or they were too focused on the business of survival to care, or perhaps some were of the faction that would have preferred his brother Qulan to Qori Buqa. So he and Bansh moved among them untroubled.
The vultures stayed with them. Most of the refugees were wounded or exhausted, and when they fell, the sacred birds would dine on their flesh and carry their spirits into the Eternal Sky.
Temur mourned his brother and lost track of the days. He should have fought on in Qulan’s stead. He should have rallied the men.…
Except that was foolish. He might have spent half his life in army camps, but he was barely a man, and Qulan had been older and experienced. Qulan, Temur thought, would have known what to do. Temur could just get more people killed.
Temur had no sense of time passing, except in watching the slow attrition of the moons, the heavier darkness each night as the Eternal Sky noted the passing of another of his uncles or cousins. The days passed in hands with little variation, except that food became scarcer and scantier. Short rations impeded his healing, but eventually his wound scabbed and granulated, though he could tell from touching it that it would remain terrible to the sight for as long as he lived. The scar stiffened, making it difficult to turn his head to the right.
Each day he and Bansh moved until they could move no longer, and each evening he slept while she grazed, until moonrise brightened the night and they could move again. They rested again between moonset and morning. In summer, they would have conserved water by sleeping away the high heat of the day, but in winter the refugees kept moving—which meant less sleep and less rest for everyone.
The steppe stretched away on every side, trackless and unfeatured, spotted with the shapes of walking or riding men, of women with oxen pulling their carts, of boys and girls with no more than four summers riding scout.
His people. The Khaganate might have fallen, or Qori Buqa might be gathering his scattered allies and consolidating power. News was fragmentary and not easy to come by. But the Qersnyk people endured, as they always had. As they would whether there was to be a succession or whether the empire would crumble back into the scattered tribes and clans it had been before the Great Khagan conquered the world in every direction as far as a horse could run.
Whatever became of them, Temur thought, they were his people. His brothers and sisters. And he owed to them any hope of survival he could find.
The army of refugees swelled around him. After a few nights, there were songs by the dry-dung fires—and ceremonies to commend the inevitable dead to the Eternal Sky. After a hand of days or so, Temur took up his new bow to bring food back to those fires—marmots, mostly, and the odd zeren gazelle, because he could not range widely enough or draw the bow strongly enough to bring down larger game. But whatever he brought was accepted gratefully, and in return the others shared with him what they had—dumplings, clarified mutton fat, salted butter, airag—fermented mare’s milk—from the bags that hung over the flanks of the cattle when the herds were on the move.
Those sheep and horses, the goats and oxen among the refugees were too precious to slaughter for food. They would be the foundation of the herds that meant next winter’s survival.
Temur was welcomed there, and he was relieved that when he failed to provide his clan name, no one inquired as to his family. That kind of reticence would have been a rare thing among his people before the fall of Qarash, for the steppe folk navigated their world through a complex and comforting system of clan and family allegiances.
But in the refugee caravan, no one spoke uninvited of clan or family outside—or the allegiances that had brought them all here. The potential that a new friend should prove an old enemy was more than anyone could bear.
* * *
The days warmed, which was both good—the greening grass would help feed hungry livestock—and bad, in that one could no longer sweep up snow to boil for water, but must ration one’s self between the shallow lakes that dotted the steppe. One morning four hands of days after the fall of Qarash, Temur roused himself in the long gray gloaming. He stood out of dew-damp bedclothes and pulled on the boots he’d tucked under a corner of the horsehide to keep them dry. Bansh cropped grass nearby. She’d grown leaner, as had Temur.
He offered her dried slices of persimmon as a bribe to slip the bit between her teeth; she lipped them up, whiskers brushing his palm, and stood patiently while he tacked her and rolled up his bedding. He was securing the bedroll behind his saddle when the shushand thump of hooves across steppe grass drew his attention.
He might have reached for his knife, but whoever rode toward him was making no attempt at stealth.
He looked up to see a girl about his own age, seventeen or eighteen winters behind her, seated astride a rangy rose-gray filly with the long ears and sparse mane of steppe blood. The young horse curvetted, snorting—showing off—and Bansh flicked her own ears as if to show herself unimpressed by the strenuous affectations of youth. The girl’s nervousness, Temur judged, was communicating itself to her mount.
She was old to be unmarried and still riding astride rather than proudly in possession of her own cart and household. But not every married woman gave up horses, especially not when there was a need for swift travel.
“Hail,” the girl said. “Are you Temur?” Long black hair, braided into ropes, protruded from under the wings of her hood. She was plump under her quilted breeches despite the rigors of travel, sloe-eyed, small-nosed between broad sweeps of cheek. Pretty.
Temur put a hand on Bansh’s shoulder and felt the liver-bay mare lean into it. He thought of the moons falling out of the sky every few days. He could be in Bansh’s saddle in an instant if he must. But it was just a girl, and she had not asked his clan. Just his given name.
He opened his mouth to answer and was struck by a sudden wave of grief. He was alone. Whatever family he had left might as cheerfully kill him as welcome him. And if his mother was dead, there was no one alive to speak his true name when he died, no one to whisper it to his wife when he married, no one to speak it in the ears of his mares so they might find him anywhere.
He was alone. He swallowed and said, “I am.”
“I’m Tsareg Edene.” She gave up her clan name without a thought. It was a good name, old and honorable, of a clan not prone to getting into other people’s fights. She looked down, pressing a palm flat against one of the broad cheeks that might have been inflamed with embarrassment.
Temur strove to make it easier on her. He kept his gaze down, on her mare’s fine-tipped silver ears rather than on the girl herself. The young horse was striking; she would eventually fade to the blistering, iridescent silver that gray steppe horses obtained, but for now she was the color of snow underneath and up the sides of her body, her head the color of new-hammered silver, her flanks and shoulders bright copper decorated with scalloped dapples of reddish silver.
The horse returned his examination boldly. The girl might not be accustomed to talking to strangers, but she was too stubborn to let modesty silence her. “My grandmother’s mother, Tsareg Altantsetseg, wishes to know if you will eat with us. She boiled a lamb overnight.”
Temur hesitated. Breakfasting on lamb in this time of need was near unto an offer of adoption, and he knew what brought it on—men of fighting and marrying age were scarce among the refugees. He’d heard of Tsareg Altantsetseg: She was a good part of the reason for her clan’s reputation for reserve and good sense. If she was seeking his favor in order to protect her daughters—well, it did not mean she knew his former family. It meant only that he’d made a good display of himself among the refugee band, and she knew he was a strong provider.
And she’d sent a pretty, marriageable girl to make the offer, which was a coded message as well. Or would be, until he had to tell her that there was no one to share his true name with her, or with any potential wife.
Bansh nudged him impatiently.
“I will come,” he said, and swung into the saddle, seating both feet in the iron stirrups. He let the reins hang casually and chirruped to Bansh as Edene swung her own mare around.
It was a brief ride, brief enough so Temur understood that Edene had only ridden for the confidence of speaking from horseback. When she showed him where to dismount and picket Bansh, he held his tongue. There was no good in pointing out to someone that you had noticed their insecurities. Instead, he gave his mare an extra rub across the poll and followed Edene toward the fire.
Most of the refugees had lost their clans and families, though a surprising number reunited on the road, and this seemed to be one of them. The clan hadn’t set up a white-house, but there were two or three skin tents in evidence and more than one cart. A fire licked across coals in the center of the little grouping, and the same light breeze blew skeins of a late snow through tramped grass. A woman sat bundled in skins before the fire, surrounded by younger women and a few boys. Edene led Temur directly toward her.
Tsareg Altantsetseg was diminutive with age, her face like an apple doll’s. The horsehides and sheepskins that wrapped her made her seem even more doll-like, while the crabbed hands that stirred the fire or ladled broth from the cauldron over it could have been dry black sticks.
Sticks were never so deft, though. As Temur and Edene approached, she first dished out bowls of milky tea and airag, the lightly fermented mare’s milk that would not make your bowels sick, as fresh mare’s milk was wont. By the time they had made an obeisance—deeper in Edene’s case than Temur’s—the tea was joined by bowls of broth.
Temur took up the tea in both hands and bowed once more over it to the matriarch of the Tsareg clan. “I am grateful.”
“It’s nothing,” she demurred, in a voice stronger than her cracked appearance would have hinted. She pushed a platter of boiled, fatty lamb across the cleared ground toward them. It had been picked over, Temur could see, but there was quite a bit of meat and fat left.
The tea was salty. He sipped it, then drank down the broth and the airag. With chopsticks from his belt, he worried loose morsels of lamb, dipped them in the tea, and ate. Sparingly, despite his hunger, for there were not that many more lambs where this one had come from—perhaps it had been stillborn, so early in the year?—and the Tsareg had a lot of women and boys to feed.
Beside him, Edene ate with similar reserve. The Tsareg watched them closely, all polite attention, and Temur found it difficult to chew and swallow under the regard of so many friendly eyes. After a few bites, though, Altantsetseg humphed her satisfaction and turned back to partitioning out food among her horde of descendants and collateral relatives. As the edge came off his hunger, Temur enjoyed the leisure to watch others. Two of the youngest who were old enough to feed themselves—a boy and girl who might have been twins—argued over the remains of a plate of hard-baked dumplings that must have been wrapped in leather and buried in the ashes the night before.
Temur sipped his tea, eyes half closed, and allowed himself the luxury of imagining himself in his mother’s white-house, watching younger siblings or nieces and nephews quarrel. True, there was no white-house here—the Eternal Sky stretched overhead, and there was little point in setting up a white-house every night only to pull it down again, when simple hide tents would do—but that seemed like a quibble. This was more comfort than he’d known since Mongke Khagan died the previous summer—so much more comfort than the rough fire circles of a military campaign, if there was less food to be had.
The comfort and the companionship settled some deep craving in him. Something he hadn’t even been truly aware of until now, except as a sort of disembodied longing.
He set the airag down and picked up the broth, which had been replenished. There was no sense in letting it make him maudlin. What was gone was gone, and the future that unrolled before him was a mystery road whose destination only the Eternal Sky knew.
He glanced over at Edene and caught her looking at him over the top of her tea bowl. She ducked her head again, spilling tea, and whatever he had been about to say was sanded from his mind by sudden squealing, as the girl twin piled onto her teasing brother, yanking his long, ink-black ponytail.
Temur sighed and shook his head. Altantsetseg was grinning at him toothlessly. He raised his eyebrows in a question he wasn’t sure how to put into words.
She shrugged and tossed a lamb bone to one of the massive, lion-maned mastiffs that lay comfortably far from the fire. The Bankhar dogs were still in their winter coats, their black sides and enormous red-gold feet almost invisible under puffs of undercoat plate-matted like that of musk oxen. Bankhar were called the “four-eyed dogs” for the gold spots marking their eyebrows, said to be able to keep evil spirits at bay, and now the eyes and eyespots of every dog around the fire were trained on Altantsetseg.
Temur, amused, watched as she prised loose another bone for the pack. Dogs were not livestock; they were honored as near-brothers. No clan or tribe could long survive without its dogs—mastiffs to guard and shepherds to tend—and both breeds served as loyal hunting companions.
A good dog was sky-buried with as much honor as a good horse.
She gave the bone to Temur, and Temur—aware that this, too, was a test—offered it to the nearest mastiff, a great-headed dog whose yellowed teeth showed alongside a lolling tongue. Even a third of an ayl from the fire, he was too hot in his winter coat.
Gravely, the big dog stood and came to Temur, softly placing feet as big as a lion’s paws. Gravely, he accepted the bone.
Despite the heat of the fire, he lay down beside Temur to dispatch with it.
Over the splintering bone, Temur heard Altantsetseg say, “You have a good eye for a dog. That is Sube, the ‘Needle’s-Eye.’ He’s the best get of my old ruddy bitch.”
Temur looked up and smiled. “He was closest,” he said.
“He’s Edene’s dog, you know.” She picked shreds of meat from the bones with her fingertips and tucked them between teeth still strong if worn. “Maybe the way to her heart is through wooing him.”
“Grandmother,” Edene said. But she covered her mouth with her hand and looked down as if her face were burning.
Temur looked from one to the other. “I know better than to war with women.”
Edene looked at him directly, her eyebrows lifting. “As if you have a choice,” she said archly, “when women would war over you.”
* * *
The open air burned cold and wide, blue-white with winter, around the wings of Shahruz’s mount. The wind of her passage cut through the heavy weave of his trousers, plastering the cloth to his legs. It seared his knuckles in his gloves and struck tears from his eyes, until he remembered the wood-framed, wool-padded goggles that hung on their braided cord around his neck. Even with those, and several wraps of his veil protecting his face, his cheeks and lips chapped and peeled.
The rukh’s body rose and fell between her wings as wide as sails, her crested head on its long neck stretched out before her. Shahruz straddled that neck just before her shoulders, legs bound to the saddle with an assortment of straps, and pretended the reins were anything but a suggestion. The wind served al-Sepehr because it feared his retribution, not because she was in any way tame or trained.
Lesser rukhs—the young of the mother bird, some no greater than falcons—flocked around them, sometimes landing to rest on their parent’s back and shoulders. The rukh herself was tireless, sky spanning. She never hesitated nor varied the clockwork of her wings.
And so they beat east, into the setting sun of the Uthman Caliphate, until they crossed the broad but bounded waters of the White Sea, and the sun was abruptly behind them, setting in the west. As they flew over the sprawl of Asmaracanda at the mouth of the Mother River, they entered Qersnyk-held lands, and the sky reflected it.
The rukh brought Shahruz so close to the sky he thought he could almost touch it, raise a hand to rip through its folds and catch a glimpse of whatever wonders lay beyond. But of course that was illusion: Not even a rukh—perhaps not even a dragon—could fly so high as to touch the tent of the heavens where it draped the Shattered Pillars and the Steles of the Sky.
From here, though, Shahruz could see both mountain ranges before they widened away to the north and southeast and were lost to blue distance. In the throat of the funnel they formed, the Mother River ran down to Asmaracanda, and beyond Asmaracanda the level steppe stretched to where haze concealed its reaches.
The rukh flew on through nightfall, and Shahruz dozed on her back. He never quite slept—far behind, in Ala-Din, his sister Saadet slept for him. He could feel her there, the warmth of her dreams as she gave him her rest and took his tiredness into herself. She asked no questions, though she must have felt the wind tangling his veils and the cold cutting his bones. She just warmed him and ate for him and gave him her womanly strength without stint.
There were too many moons, scattered across the sky like empty plates. When the sun rose, it shone into Shahruz’s eyes.
Not too long after, he spotted the distant smudge of a caravanserai. Perhaps a half day’s walk; not bad at all, and from the way the rukh’s head turned toward it with interest, he knew it was not deserted. Her keen eyesight told her there were animals within—animals big enough to be worth eating.
Perhaps there would be men there worth hiring, as well. At least worth hiring for as long as they lasted.
It was a sad truth, Shahruz reflected, that the nature of war was such that not everyone could survive it.
When word of the fall of Qarash first reached Tsarepheth, the Once-Princess Samarkar did not hear of it. On that cold spring day, Tsarepheth shone bright with prayer banners strung between its granite towers. Its walls hummed loud with mills that turned relentlessly under the force of waterwheels hung horizontally, borrowing the strength of the swift Tsarethi. Trade bustled through cobbled streets in the swinging belly of a crooked mountain valley.
Fourteen hundred li away, the center of creation shifted. The world’s mightiest empire fell, along with the walls of a place Samarkar would barely have recognized as a city, with its dusty paths and felted walls—though the beauty of the treasures those walls girdled round would have moved even a Rasan princess.
When the news of the fall of Qarash reached Tsarepheth, the Once-Princess Samarkar did not even know that a woman in red and saffron robes sat alongside her, because on that day Samarkar lay drowsy with poppy among rugs and bolsters in her room high up in the Citadel of wizards. Silk wraps wadded absorbent lint against a seeping wound low in her abdomen. When she woke—if she woke—she would no longer be the Once-Princess Samarkar. She would be the wizard Samarkar, and her training would begin in truth.
She had chosen to trade barrenness and the risk of death for the chance of strength. Real strength, her own. Not the mirror-caught power her father, his widow, her half brothers, or her dead husband might have happened to shine her way.
It seemed but a small sacrifice.
* * *
Samarkar was not sure how often she had opened her eyes before the time she managed to keep them open. A woman still sat by her bedside, and she had a fuzzy sense that that woman—or one like her—had been there for some time. Samarkar’s eyelids and lips stuck together; her tongue adhered to the roof of her mouth. Her belly cramped with emptiness and injury.
She peeled her mouth open to speak, but the only sound that emerged was a hiss of air. It must have been enough, because the woman turned. Samarkar saw now that it was Tsering-la, one of the teachers and mechanics and scholars—a wizard who was without magic of her own. Tsering’s black hair hung oiled and glossy over her shoulders, unbraided in her leisure. She wore a wizard’s high collar; it would be folly to let the uninitiated guess which sworn and neutered magician could defend herself with eldritch power and which could not.
No matter what, now Samarkar had earned that river-pearl-and-carved-jade collar. When she died, she would be buried in it. Whether the power blossomed in her empty belly or not.
Something of her own. Something she had bought with her own currency. Something that had not been given her.
“Don’t speak,” Tsering said. “I know what you need.”
Effortlessly she knelt on the thick rugs beside Samarkar’s mat. A tray of mahogany and gold held offering bowls and a pot. Into a round cup no bigger than the dish of her hand, Tsering poured faultless water, either filtered through layers of silk or drawn from some way upstream, where the Tsarethi’s tributaries crashed among the steep valleys of the mountains called the Steles of the Sky. Safe water, which would not transmit cholera.
Samarkar thoughtlessly reached out her left hand for the cup. If she could have made a sound, the stitch of pain in her abdomen would have had her cry aloud. Instead she gasped.
Tsering’s free hand fell gently on Samarkar’s shoulder, fingertips pressing her back against the bolsters. Samarkar had grown to womanhood scrambling up the slopes and across the ridges of the terraced fields, swimming the wild Tsarethi as befitted a princess of the Rasa dynasty. But even that slight pressure was more than she could resist.
“I will hold the water for you,” Tsering said. “You need some but still should not have too much. And no food yet.”
Samarkar nodded, grateful for even the small wetness on her lips, the three measured swallows she was now allowed. If the surgeon’s knife had perforated her intestine, she would probably be dying already. But there was no sense in taking risks, and the poppy destroyed her appetite anyway.
“My passionate thanks,” she said, when her tongue worked properly.
Tsering smiled and set the cup aside. She must have dipped a bit of felt in cool water, because now she bathed Samarkar’s face and scrubbed the crusts from her lashes. Samarkar sagged back on silk and wool and let her do it. The touch soothed and cooled, telling her by contrast how fevered she was still.
Fevered but awake and clear-headed. She was recovering.
The surgery was worse physically for women and emotionally for men, she had been told. Men almost always survived it. There were many fewer female wizards. In olden days, only those set aside as barren and those widowed and too old to bear had been allowed to present themselves before the Citadel of Tsarepheth. Now the surgery made wizardry an option for young widows such as Samarkar as well.
An option. Not a safe one.
I’m alive. She tasted the words in her mouth without speaking them. There had been a good chance it would end otherwise.
Failed wizarding women were even more of a tragedy, in Samarkar’s eyes, than failed wizarding men. To take such a risk, and earn no magic …
Too late now for second thoughts. Either she would show the gift or she wouldn’t, and only experience would tell. And even if she did not manifest, there were opportunities. Harlot. Teacher. Regent or courtesan. Wizard-errant.
She was alive, and once-princess no longer.
“Your brother called for you.” Tsering dropped the rag back into the water.
“Half brother,” Samarkar corrected. “Which one?”
“Songtsan-tsa. He came as a supplicant and left his entourage in the road. The Old Master Yongten-la stopped him at the stair and explained that you were healing from your neutering. Yongten-la said to the crown prince that you are one of us now, and that when he met you again he must address you as aphei, Samarkar-la.”
“Oh, I wish I could have seen that.” Despite herself, Samarkar smiled. La, not tsa. Yes. And she could imagine the venerable, stick-straight Yongten-la, with his moustache that trailed down his chest like something out of a storybook, holding back the king-in-all-but-name of all Rasa with a raised finger, a stern look, and the authority of rightfulness.
Whether she grew magic or no, she was a wizarding woman now. She hoped she lived long enough to earn half of Yongten-la’s authority.
* * *
With good food—when she was finally allowed it—and rest, Samarkar mended quickly. Two days after she awoke from her poppy haze, she managed to spare herself the indignity of pans in bed by tottering across richly knotted carpets to squat over a pot in one bare corner. She relished the grate of cold stone beneath her naked feet, but it was all she could do to hold the skirts of her bed robe clear and not topple over in the process. She had to call Tsering to lead her back to bed and was astonished by the weakness of her own voice, how it almost got lost under the glassy chiming of the devil-bells guarding the open window.
Two days after that, however, the stitches came out of her wound. She knew the surgeon-wizards did their work with mirror and tweezers and long delicate tools, so they could operate through the smallest incision possible, but when Tsering brought her a mirror and showed her the red line of the scar, she was startled by how small it was: only the span of her hand, and no more.
A day later, when there was no additional bleeding, she was deemed well enough to be carried through the halls and down the stairwells of the Citadel, down to the steaming baths of mineral-rich water that flowed hot from the earth and was reheated over a coal-fired hypocaust. Because the kitchens and the baths also heated the Citadel, the halls themselves grew warmer as Samarkar descended with her litter-bearers—three novices from her own classes, would-be wizards as yet uncut and uncollared, and one newly elevated wizard younger than herself, still stiff in his pristine collar.
She knew the novices well; now, they pretended for her sake that they did not exist. She chose to believe it was a kindness, that they did not force her to think through their changed status and relationships yet.
In summer, the baths would be allowed to run from warm to tepid; the kitchens would go mostly cold. Now, with the nights still frosty, the water was kept steaming.
Samarkar had meant to protest that she could walk, but Tsering had been so efficient about bundling her into bed robes and cloaks and seating her among the cushions of the litter that by the time it occurred to Samarkar to resist, it would have been churlish.
Five minutes into the journey, she realized that these traditions had their sense. Tsarepheth meant “white and scarlet citadel,” and the Citadel that was now her home was the source of that ancient name.
The Citadel was a palace and a fortress and a library and a college. It was the home and shelter of all the wizards of the Rasan Empire. Its ivory and gold and crimson walls had sheltered them for centuries—through the fall of empires, the rise of conquerors, and a civil war or two. It was vast—spanning a promontory at the top of the narrow valley Tsarepheth inhabited, built to the buttresses of the mountains that flanked on either side so that its outline was a broad, irregular, and shallow triangle with the blunt tip pointed down. It was the tallest building in Tsarepheth—the city named for it—as well as the most massive, but the thirteen stories of its height were dwarfed by the basalt and granite peaks abutting it on either side. The domed basalt mountain on the left was called the Cold Fire; the taller granite peak whose flank it half enveloped was the Island-in-the-Mists.
The wild Tsarethi flowed through its foundations in an arched tunnel; the hot springs heating its belly sprang from the quiescent volcano that guarded its left flank. A thousand steps climbed its face; there were no doors at ground level, and no windows for thirty spans above the ground. Trade goods had to be hauled up in a basket, and for that reason bannered winches stood along its battlements.
On winter nights, mist dragons might creep down from their lairs among the heights of the Steles and drape themselves over and around those battlements for warmth. Samarkar had even once seen one, a translucent, ghosty thing with blue eyes winking along its feldspar length.
From the city below, the Citadel had the aspect of a great stone dam, a massive thing wrought of white and red granite, and in time of need it could become one, walling the sacred Tsarethi behind steel gates that only waited a command to fall into place across its tunnels. The city itself lay just below, rising in ranks to the steep valley walls above the river. Farther downstream, where the slope of the river’s descent lessened and the valley widened in response, brown fields and paddies that would soon hold rice and vegetables and oats lay tiered like ruffles on a gown.
Samarkar’s rooms, as befitted a new wizard, were in the highest and winter-coldest corner of the place. Twenty flights of stairs lay between the room where she slept and healed and the ones where hot baths pooled in cisterns scoured from the black basalt of the Cold Fire.
She would not have made it on her own.
Even being carried exhausted her beyond words. The ceilings in the pale granite corridors were high, so her bearers could hold her level even as they descended, but she fought not to clench her fists on the rails. She had not ridden in a litter, she realized, since her ill-fated trip to her husband’s court when she was fourteen.
When they set her down and the newly ranked wizard extended a hand, she took it gratefully. She had been trained from the age when she could stand by herself to move with the grace and dignity befitting a princess, but now it was all she could do to not lean too hard on the man’s arm as the bath attendants came for her, extending their tongues to show respect.
Two young women led her into the heat of the bath chamber. They were clothed in sheer white gowns that fell straight from the shoulder. Their arms were scandalously bare. Each of them was careful to hold Samarkar upright while making the touches seem natural and solicitous.
A heavy curtain fell behind Samarkar, and the heat of the bath chamber rolled over her. One of the servants opened her bed gowns and stripped her cloaks away while the other steadied her. She soon stood naked. It was an effort to hold her hands wide while the smaller of the two—a moon-faced beauty who could almost have been Samarkar’s daughter, if Samarkar had had a daughter swiftly upon her marriage—unwound the gauze and silk across her belly. Samarkar wanted to defend the wound, to hide it with her hands as if it shamed her. She forced herself to stand proud.
The young women conferred over her abdomen—shrunken now by her fasting and recovery, and the taller and perhaps older one nodded. “It is healing well,” she said. “Shall I help you into the water?”
“Thank you,” said Samarkar. “I shall walk. If I can.”
The entrance to the pools was shallow, not stepped but slanted, and scattered thickly with white sand that lay in pleasing ripples against the black basalt. Samarkar walked in slowly, as if savoring the warmth rising across the arches of her feet and the bones of her ankles, but in truth she did not trust her stability if she walked fast. From the way the attendants hovered, they were as worried as she. For the sake of her pride, though, she stayed upright.
The descent grew easier as the water took her weight. As the gentle swirl of the current washed her thighs and belly free of sweat and the crusts of dried blood and strong wine, as they soothed her shoulders and her neck, as they lapped her until she stood on tiptoe in hot water to her chin and felt it untangling her oiled hair down her back, she sighed and let go of a breath she had not known she was holding.
She stepped deeper. The water lifted her off her feet. Her toes dipped to brush the sand when she exhaled; her breasts bobbed weightlessly when she inhaled. Warm water licked her collarbone, shading hotter as she stroked deeper into the pool.
Each time she drew her arms forward, each time she lightly kicked, she felt the pull through the cramped and damaged muscles of her abdomen. But still she swam, as she had swum all her life except for the three terrible years in Song. She swam. And soon she would swim strongly once more.
Samarkar would live. And she would grow to become something new. Whatever the future held for her.
She would live.
* * *
Because she would live, she knew she could not avoid her brother forever. But still she stalled, giving herself another hand of days to recover and build her blood up with apples studded with nails (the nails were pulled out before serving) and a rich broth made with bones and liver, with plenty of wolfberries and the sweet, hard roots called beets that came all the way from Kyiv along the Celadon Highway. Everything she ate was served with the soy that came from Song along the same ancient road. She dined on the steamed immature beans, hot and crunchy with a sprinkling of Tsarepheth’s famous violet salt; the soft curd sweetened and served mixed with rice; the pressed curd fried crisp in toasted oil and sprinkled with crunchy seeds.
Yongten-la had explained that she must eat a great deal of soy now—soy with every meal, when she could—and a great deal of butter and yogurt and milk, or her bones would grow brittle as an old woman’s, without the life force harbored in her stones to keep her strong. It wasn’t an edict she found difficult to endure: Samarkar had always enjoyed her food.
She stalled too until she was permitted to return to her studies, which was several days before she faced Yongten-la on one of the great decked battlements of the Lower Citadel. Her brother and sister wizards and the novices gathered in every overlooking window and along the curves of the walls and the banks of white steps leading down to make a sort of auditorium, and she tried not to weep tears of joy and apprehension as the master bent her wizard’s collar about her throat. Fireworks—one of the sacred and secret sciences of her order, which she might one day undertake as a profession if she proved unmagicked as well as unwomaned—whistled and cracked overhead, showering bright sparks in all the colors of dragonfire across the evening sky.
Down in the city, Samarkar knew, across the valley at the great black basalt palace that stood opposite the Citadel like its far-cast shadow, in the terraced mountain farms—in all of these places, men and women looked up from their work and knew that a wizard had been made. One of the thousands of dark sets of eyes reflecting these fiery blooms probably belonged to her elder half brother.
Samarkar flourished. And after the ceremony of her elevation, she could no longer easily find excuses to avoid her brother. She was a ranked wizard now and could do as she liked. But somehow each day passed without her summoning a sedan chair—or simply walking down the Thousand Steps—crossing through the bustling streets of Tsarepheth to find him.
The mountains that embraced the Citadel meant that morning came late to its windows, and evening early—but Samarkar’s room, high in its towers, received the first light of the sun over the shoulder of Island-in-the-Mists. Still, it was only gray and not yet light when she awakened one morning from a terrible dream, clutching the covers to her collarbone and breathing loudly in her terror.
Her stomach no longer hurt with each deep breath. But she still remembered the horror of the dream, in which she had been sent back to her brother in disgrace by Yongten-la, because her gift had never manifested itself.
It was foolish, she thought, soothing herself, to stall an immediate duty because you were waiting for something that might never materialize.
Today. Today I will go to the palace.
The next morning, Temur again received an invitation to dine with the Tsareg—this time on marmot cooked in its skin, and tea with noodles. Before long, Temur found himself attached to the household of old Altantsetseg and her tiers of children and grandchildren.
Altantsetseg must have put her back to eighty winters, but she still rode upright on the shelf bench of her two-wheeled wagon, drawn by a pair of red oxen, the felt panels of her white-house and its long, precious wooden poles heaped up behind her. As evidenced on that first day, Altantsetseg’s kin-band was mostly women and boys—like the rest of the refugee train—and they were happy to have Temur’s companionship and protection. And Edene somehow managed to put herself in his way every day or two, a situation which he found more confusing than disagreeable.
You cannot have her, his rational mind argued. And yet another part answered, Why not?
After each break, Temur rode out before Altantsetseg’s people, pushing Bansh on until he found a camping site that was both unoccupied and desirable. He’d turn the mare loose to graze, as the distance he could travel in one day was limited by his lack of a remount, and he would begin building a fire, hunting game, and carrying water, if there was water to be had. When Altantsetseg’s granddaughters and grandsons arrived—the ones who had ponies ahead of the ones on foot, driving their few salvaged cattle, sheep, and goats with the help of a pack of scroungy dogs—they would set up the camp around him and take over the chores. At the very last came the adult women with the wagons and the heavy goods—the white-houses, an anvil, iron cook pots, and so on.
Temur had seen Song refugees when he rode with his uncle Mongke south and east to war. The Song were a sedentary people, with their farms and fields of millet and rice, their oxen yoked to turn earth with plow blades rather than haul women’s possessions in their carts. They had suffered greatly without their villages and their homes.
His own people were far more adapted to this life. They knew how to spread out, to make use of the land, to travel safely. Like tortoises, they carried their homes with them wherever they went. Indeed, if it had not been for the war, they would have been making this migration anyway. But now they were months early and moving in greater numbers than was their wont. And because of it, Temur worried for their food, come next winter.
Normally, at the end of the winter season, before moving up to their summer range, the Qersnyk would harrow under the last year’s straw and plant grains and root vegetables in the fields to grow through summer so they could be harvested when the clans returned. This year, there had been no planting, and the ground that now grew green and soft underfoot had been frozen too hard to turn before they were driven from it—which meant famine, come autumn.
But they would worry about that when they were in the mountains alive. For now, the challenge was not dying on the high steppe, bereft of ten-elevenths of their animals and adequate food for the journey.
One sunrise in the second or third hand of days of Temur’s travel with the Tsareg clan, Edene rode up to Temur on that leggy rose-gray filly of hers, the one whose mane was so sparse it did nothing to soften the long stark line of her neck.
“May I ride with you?” she asked, as he finished securing his gear around Bansh’s saddle and tramping the last embers into the wet earth.
This time, she did not cup her hands across her cheeks in embarrassment. She kept her eyes down, demure, and he glanced away to show respect.
He knew he should say no. He should say, I am a man of no clan. He should say, I have no name to give you.
He should do those things, but he was not strong enough to send her away. He said, teasing, “Do you think you can keep up?”
She grinned, teeth flashing white, and had turned her mare and urged her into flight before he had his leg over Bansh’s rump.
The rose-gray filly could run. Temur got a good look at her dappled flanks as she kicked off, her pale belly flashing between dark legs as she alternately dug in and stretched out. Bansh didn’t need his urging to follow. Temur’s off-side foot was barely in the stirrup when she lunged forward, stretching against the reins, her hooves drumming a sharp and aggressive tattoo. He’d never asked her for this before, and it was probably irresponsible to run her now, after forty days of toil and poor diet.
But once he got himself settled and thought about taking up the reins, she had fallen into her stride and shook her head irritably at his interference.
She meant to catch that filly.
Edene rode like a burr stuck in her mane. Like a fat-cheeked manul cat clinging to the back of its prey. Temur heard her shrieking laughter, saw the flicker of the rose-gray’s silver ears as she listened to her rider and to Bansh’s hoofbeats. The liver-bay dug down deep and found the speed to creep up, span by span. Thundering hooves showered clods of muddy grass on the earth behind. Bansh’s head bobbed low, her great shoulders rolling as she surged along in the wake of the taller gray.
They passed sleepy flocks, just beginning to move out with their dogs and tenders for the morning. They passed carts in the process of loading, and a few bands of mares guarded by wary men. So few horses left; so few of the sixty-four sacred colors of horses represented. Temur hoped that most of the bands had scattered on the steppe or been collected by Qori Buqa’s men, rather than being cut down in their blood. He would rather see the horses wild or in his enemy’s hands than dead.
As if responding to his distress, Bansh threw herself forward with ever-greater speed. Temur felt her gather and extend, the rocking motion, the way her body swelled and shrank around each tremendous breath. She moved, and he moved with her, then they were beyond the edge of the refugee train and running, still running, while the grassland rolled away under them as endless as a tax assessor’s scroll.
Slowly, Bansh ate up the rose-gray’s lead. Slowly, she drew up beside her, her breath trailing in smoky plumes through the morning chill, her mottled nose reaching the rose-gray’s flank, her cinch, her shoulder. As he came up on Edene, he saw her turn to check under her arm for his position. He saw her lips moving as she chanted to her mare—swiftness songs, or songs of soundness, he did not know.
He had nothing to say to Bansh. She was flying; she was giving everything to the race, and it would be unfair to ask for more. The world whipped by. Stride by stride, the rose-gray’s lead failed her. Stride by stride, Bansh came on.
Edene’s rose-gray was one of the best sprinters Temur had seen.
But Bansh, he began to realize, was an immortal.
At two yart—Temur estimated—the mares ran neck and neck. At two yart and forty ayl, their black-and-pink noses bobbed side-by side.
Another forty ayl, and the rose-gray folded. She broke stride, snorted, tossed her head. Gamely, she surged forward again, but Temur saw her rally only because he glanced back through his armpit to see her. To see her fighting the reins as Edene restrained her gently, turning her in a broad circle so she dropped into a canter, then a snorting, blowing trot, kicking out at tussocks and still protesting her rider’s counsel.
Temur settled his weight back, and Bansh too dropped into a canter. He brought her around, aware of the spring in her gait, the lightness of her motion. Having beaten the rose-gray, she was willing to stop. But she wanted him to know she wasn’t finished yet, if he still cared to run.
He stroked a hand down the sweaty length of her neck, brushing away the lather where it had collected beneath the reins. He shook her sweat from his fingers and wiped his palm on his trousers as Bansh brought him up beside the now-walking rose-gray.
“Is she all right?”
Edene nodded. Her face glowed with the wind and excitement, almost as bright as the iridescent shimmer of her mare. “Buldshak is of the line of the varnish-colored mare Temurbataar. She does not get beaten. What a horse that is! What is her line?”
“I don’t know,” Temur said, smoothing down her mane once more. “She found me on the battlefield. I don’t know her line.”
Bansh reached, teeth bared ostentatiously, for Buldshak’s neck, and he leaned down to tap her cheek. She backed off, making a performance of shaking her head. “Clown,” he called her.
She snorted and danced a step.
Edene was looking at him, hands folded on the pommel, eyes half lidded. When he returned the glance, she turned away and looked down. “Temur—”
He drew a breath. He had to say this now, before she made herself embarrassed.
She met his gaze, eyes wide, and swallowed her words.
“I have no clan,” he said. “I have no one to tell my name. If you want that of me—”
Her eyes widened with pity, which wasn’t what he wanted. But then she schooled herself and grinned. Her voice was strained, but she made it come out light anyway. “I don’t need to marry you,” she said. “What if we were just friends?”
* * *
Al-Sepehr reclined across cushions before the shaded windows of Ala-Din’s stoutest tower, listening to his youngest wife read aloud from a book of histories purported to have been written by the hand of the ancient Sepehr al-Rachīd himself. The door to the hall had been left slightly ajar on purpose, and another of his wives—older and white-eyed with cataracts—sat beyond, her hands occupied with her stitching.
Al-Sepehr heard her stir as someone came up, and two women’s voices speaking in low tones. He held up a hand for the youngest wife to cease reading and found his feet. A moment later, the door swung open and Saadet entered—as slender as her twin, but not so tall. Being a woman, she was not clad in the indigo sash and veil of the Nameless, and while she carried an unseemly long knife—in case she should need to use her brother’s combat training—she did not go so far as to offend the Scholar-God by handling a sword.
“Al-Sepehr,” she said, lowering herself to the floor.
“Stand,” he said, extending his hand to her. His youngest wife snapped the book shut—al-Sepehr made a note to speak to her about respect for ancient objects—and exited the room hastily, tripping over the rug edge on her way.
Saadet rose without his assistance, holding the ivory silk of her veil across her nose and mouth with one hand. “My brother has reached Qori Buqa,” she said. “He has with him a dozen mercenaries dressed in indigo, and Qori Buqa has made him welcome. He says to tell you that he will be among the pagan dead tomorrow.”
“That is good,” al-Sepehr said. “You may go, and tell Shahruz to contact me directly when he has reached the battlefield.”
She bowed again, though this time not so floor-scrapingly, and retreated through the door. “Close it,” al-Sepehr said.
She pulled it silently to behind her, before either of his wives could reenter the room. Al-Sepehr stood for a moment and watched the empty space before he allowed a frown to crease the corners of his mouth.
His chambers were simple for a man who claimed the title al-Sepehr. A bed, the cushions, a low couch or two. The shelves that held boxes, and books, and small trinkets—but not too many. He thought better if he kept his space and his head free of clutter.
But toward the rear of the chamber there was one thing that stood out. A heavy stone table hung suspended from the ceiling-beams on iron chains, insulated on every side by air. Al-Sepehr crossed to it, measuring his footsteps, and looked down at the single thing it supported.
A book. Or what could have been the ghost of a book, perhaps—its covers translucent gray, marked with letters white as bone; its binding rings silver; and every transparent page within etched with the gorgeous serpentine cursive letters and diamond-shaped accents of the dialect of ancient Erem.
The glass covers chimed softly as al-Sepehr drew on a kidskin glove and opened them with infinite care. Some of the page edges were chipped, and he was too well acquainted with the illness that followed when he let this dire old thing taste his blood. One by one, he turned the crystal leaves, watching as transparent letters cut in transparent pages caught the sunlight.
Every word twisted in his head and made his eyes ache and burn. He found the page he wanted and settled down to study the spell inscribed therein.
To raise the enemy’s dead and bind them to your bidding, he read, in a book that had been ancient, a language that had been dead, when the founder of al-Sepehr’s order—Sepehr al-Rachīd—first unearthed it from the tombs of a crumbled city and spoke its phrases aloud.
* * *
Temur was awake still at sunset, checking his mare’s legs, bribing her with the last of the mutton-fat sweets. He worried for her condition, on the spare diet of wintered-over hay and first spring shoots of grass, when they had so far to go. Bansh was steppe-bred, and now that she was properly groomed, even by starlight the bay hide stretched over her long muscles and prominent bones showed the characteristic pearly glow of her ancestry. The steppe horses were legendary for it; in sunlight, they gleamed like hammered metal, like jewels, like mirrors, in shades of silver or brass or pearl or steel no animal should reflect. There were legends of how they came by those colors, but Temur thought it was probably some trick of the shape of the hair shaft. Not all the steppe horses exhibited it, and it never endured in preserved hides.
Temur hobbled Bansh loosely while she lipped his shoulder, hoping for more sweets. The smell of honey, cinnamon, and grain clung about her breath, laced with the slightly rancid mutton fat. Temur’s stomach grumbled; his marmot supper, stewed with coals inside a bag sewn of its own skin, had been long ago and fairly insubstantial once divided with Edene and her seven-year-old brother.
He had pitched his bedroll some distance from the Tsareg tents. Now he stood in the cool calm and the firelight, watching the stars prickle out across the darkening veil. They faded away in the still-lit west, their light the silver and pale gold of ghost-colored horses.
Slowly, methodically, Temur brushed Bansh’s hide and combed out her mane and tail until she gleamed like a horn bow in the firelight. The long slice along her ribs had healed completely, with no sign of proud flesh—unlike the distended, livid scar that bulged across his own neck—but the new hair was coming in white across the scar.
He heard the footsteps behind him. And this time he did not reach for his knife, because he knew them well.
He tossed the brush and the wide-toothed wooden comb towards his saddlebags and turned. “Edene—”
She wore a long white shirt that closed up the front over trews of rough, undyed wool. Her hair was down over her shoulders, combed out and oiled smooth. In the firelight, it gleamed with almost the luster and depth of a steppe mare’s. “Hush,” she said. “I said we could still be friends.”
She stepped up close, her face tucked into the curve of his shoulder, her warm breath bathing his neck. When she leaned forward, her hair made a drape all around her face and shoulders; she smelled of civet and sandalwood and vetiver, rare treasures from the reaches of the empire. The Tsareg clan had indeed come away from ruin with certain of their riches intact.
Her fingers slid under his coat and under his tunic, gliding over flesh that shivered at her touch as if her hands were the hands of the rain.
Temur closed his eyes. He placed his hands upon her hair. The warm curves of her ears filled his palms. He knew what to do, of course. He’d grown up surrounded by it. But knowing what to do and knowing how to go about it to her satisfaction were different things indeed.
His heart raced so loudly in his ears that he barely heard his own voice. “I haven’t done this.”
“You’re no beardless boy,” she said. She looked up at him, her eyes huge and black, and pressed a finger to his lower lip.
“I’ve been ten years in war camps,” he said, and saw her doing the sums in her head. “I could have gone to camp followers or captive women.…” He shrugged. Some did, some didn’t. But his own mother Ashra was a captive, one lucky enough to be taken as one of Otgonbayar Khanzadeh’s wives, and every time he looked at the captive women, he’d seen her.
Edene’s lips curved. “I like you more for what you’ve not done, then.” Her one arm slipped around his waist—still under the tunic—and her other hand emerged to take his and slide it down across her face. She brushed his knuckles with her lips in passing. “Come on. I’ll show you.”
* * *
Temur’s mother Ashra was the daughter of an Aezin prince, bartered in marriage for politics once already, before the Qersnyk khans had claimed her from her Uthman husband. She had gone to Otgonbayar Khanzadeh as his third wife, and she had borne him only one son that lived—Temur, who had grown up surrounded nevertheless by his father’s other children, even after his father died.
Ashra had taught Temur all sorts of things. One was that she thought herself lucky to have come to Qarash, for before that she had been a captive in the women’s quarters of an Uthman household, and the women in the Uthman Caliphate went veiled and shrouded and lived as the property of men, secreted away in female quarters where they saw none but their husbands, their fathers, their brothers, their sons. This was done out of respect for them as living incarnations of the Uthman Scholar-God and Her Prophet, Ysmat of the Beads, Ashra had said.
They could have professions—they could be scientists or physicians, historians or mathematicians, in honor of the Scholar-God and Her Prophet. But learning did not free them to walk in the air. Ashra herself had been raised to the Scholar-God’s religion, but her Aezin father practiced it differently. Ashra had chafed under veils.
And in the Qersnyk lands women rode free; they owned white-houses and all the livestock (except horses—though women might ride, horses belonged to men and men milked and maintained them, unless there were no adult men in a family); they could divorce their husbands; and no one cared in whose bed they lay until they married. And sometimes not even then.
And so when Edene led Temur to his bed and drew him down upon it, there was no one to say her nay. By the fires of her clan, an ayl or so off, children cried and women sang; pots clattered; the cracked voice of Altantsetseg rose above the din. Someone took up a working song and other voices joined.
She slipped the toggles on his coat, opened his belt, and put it aside. She unlaced the collar of his shirt and made him raise his arms over his head so she could pull it off. She placed his knife neatly beside the bed, and she untied the wrap of his trousers and drew those, also, down.
And then, as he reclined upon the scratchy wools and the fleeces, she knelt over him and slipped the knots from the loops that held her shirt closed. She let the wide sleeves slip down her arms and showed him her breasts. She hooked the trousers down, and the light of the rising moons silvered her belly and thighs and laid mysterious shadows across the alluvial fan of her sex. Those same shadows cupped her breasts, stroked her throat, and defined the line of her jaw. Temur wanted to reach in and trace them with his hands.
Temur’s breath quickened, first, then became strong and deep. The night air cooled his flesh. When he reached out a hand and laid it against Edene’s arm, he felt the tiny prickles as her skin tensed around fine hairs. She covered his hand with her own, calloused fingertips scraping, and drew it across her breast so his thumb grazed her nipple.
“It is permitted to touch,” she said with a ghostly smile.
So he did.
Her hands drew swaths of warmth against him; her mouth, arcs of fire that burned then chilled. She pressed him against the blankets, her skin smooth against his chest. Wool scratched his shoulders pleasantly. She threw one round, soft thigh across his hips so he gasped aloud when the rough wetness of her sex brushed the underside of his. She reached between them and grasped his shaft, and he did more than gasp: He arched to the touch, bearing her weight up. From the Tsareg fire, there was a burst of conversation, but Temur couldn’t care. What could they see, anyway, looking from the glow of embers into the dark?
“You are the stars,” he said to her, words from an old tale to make her smile.
“You haven’t seen anything yet,” she said, and grinned as she lifted his sex in her hand and glided down to envelop it.
She smiled at the intake of his breath, long and ragged, and the soft moan that followed. She was …
She was honeyed silk and heat and horsewoman’s strength as she rocked against him and rose up on the old-ivory pillars of her thighs and brought herself down again. She was softness, lush dimpled softness of arms and flanks wrapped around strength, like a bent bow. She was the fall of cool hair across his throat and his burning face, like water to a man sick with sun. She was the smell of sweat and pungent oils. She was the warmth of the night, and seventeen moons rose over her shoulders while she rode him with the same purpose and intensity with which she raced her mare.
Temur grasped those shoulders in both hands. She lifted her breast to his mouth, the long nipple pointed and salty between his lips. He suckled like a babe. She took his hand in hers and pressed it between them, showed him where to touch and how. Her head stretched back, her face a mask of concentration. Her thighs slipped in the sweat of his body when she moved. He felt her body tense in ripples.…
One moon in the sky behind her flared briefly white, brilliant enough to wash the whole of the Veil of Night in blue, then flickered dark as a mirror that reflected nothing. It was the Feather Moon of his cousin Mongke, named after Mongke Khagan, the cousin’s father–and then it was gone.
A hole in the night, that was all.
Temur pulled her down to him and buried his face against her shoulder, crying out something that could have been her name and could have been release and could have been despair.
* * *
She slept in his arms, afterward, and Temur lay awake and watched the night go by. The talk at the campfire lulled and surged and caught and eventually drifted silent, except for one voice that muttered on, low and plaintive, long after everyone else had either dropped off or resorted to feigning sleep. Another night, Temur might have called out a demand to shut up, people were sleeping. But tonight it was part of the music that surrounded him—the shush of wind through the tent lines, the rip of mare’s teeth cropping new grass, the snores of women, the soft talk of young boys on the night watch, the pop of a dying fire. Somewhere in the darkness he heard the cough of a lion, but it was distant, and even the horses barely paused their evening meal to listen.
Sixteen moons drifted across the Veil of Night, towed in a pattern Temur, no shaman-rememberer, did not know how to read for portents. So few of us left. He watched them trail through the night, one outracing another, a third falling behind. His own Iron Moon was set apart from the others now, wandering off to the north of the sky. Temur wondered if Qori Buqa was somewhere with a shaman-rememberer, casting stems to find him, or if his uncle had decided to let him live in defeat and ignominy.
It would be smarter, of course, to have him sought and silenced. But Temur didn’t know what resources Qori Buqa still commanded, or if they would extend to a hunt and assassination.
He turned on his side and curled against Edene’s back, burying his face in her hair.
* * *
In the morning when they awoke, it seemed that the entire camp had picked up in the night and reintegrated itself around them. Cookfires blazed on three sides, and Temur—unearthing himself from Edene’s hair—found Tsareg Altantsetseg cross-legged beside a cooking fire, a shaman-rememberer—third-sexed, like all those who spoke for Mother Night and the Eternal Sky—sitting beside her and rebinding the eight blue knots on his saddle. He smiled as Temur struggled into his trousers and came up. Altantsetseg just sniffed, and without looking at him, said pointedly, “This fire needs more dung if there’s going to be enough tea for everyone.”
“So it does,” Temur said, as Edene rolled over and propped herself on an elbow. “I’ll go fetch that, then.”
Edene threw him his boots as he went past. He threw her a smile.
* * *
From then on, there was no question that Temur was part of the clan. As the hands of days passed, he even heard one or two people from other traveling alliances refer to him as “Tsareg Temur,” and though he was careful to correct them, he began to wonder, with a little hope, if Altantsetseg did indeed intend to adopt him.
Edene came to his blankets every night, until Altantsetseg offered to give them a small tent of their own—with a show of bad grace and a complaint about scaring the horses. Edene refused: Her small sister and cousin needed the tent more.
Altantsetseg humphed, but Temur caught the edge of her toothless grin and realized that she’d been teasing. That eased his heart more than anything. Old women teased and crabbed and picked—but only to their families.
He breathed in and breathed out and felt the war that much farther away and unmissed. When Edene came to him that night, he borrowed her comb and combed out her hair, the sort of office a man might perform for one of his women, if she liked him enough to permit it. And she sat with a small smile and allowed him.
* * *
Temur awoke again after moonset, in the hour of phantoms, when the sky grayed and the mist rose and the cold found its way into every limb. Now, there was silence. Edene had curled in on herself, drawing up the blankets, and Temur lifted his head only reluctantly from the island of warmth they’d created to see Bansh standing over them, alert, ears pricked, her fine-boned head dark against the tarnished sky.
Something was wrong.
Temur shook Edene’s shoulder, crouched, reached for his trousers, and pulled them on in haste. She rolled on her back, saw his face, and instantly sat up, pushing her hair behind her shoulders as she groped for her clothes. As she slipped her shirt on, he stuffed the long plait of his hair under his coat and cinched it on. The knife was still sheathed on his belt; he unhooked it and handed it to her.
She took it wordlessly and clenched it between her teeth as she tied her hair into a knot. Then she stood, stepping into her trousers, while Temur went to his pile of gear and lifted his quiver and bow.
A cold wind blew across the steppe. Bansh stamped a hoof, and across the breadth of the camp another mare answered. Temur saw heavy shadows moving against the grass around the perimeter; the Bankhar, awake and alert, scenting the darkness, their huge heads almost lost in the weight of their coats. In the mist, they looked like boulders shaggy with lichen, like molting bears, as they waited, silently, noses to the wind.
Bansh tossed her head once restively and stamped again. Edene put out a hand to the liver-bay’s shoulder. Temur had just decided to risk slipping her bridle on when out in the grayness a mastiff began to bark.
First once, sharp and deep. A warning. Then savagely, heavily, a hard angry sound over a rumble like rolling thunder.
Temur knew that sound. Edene did too, by the look she shot him as she skinned the blade he’d given her. Then every dog in the camp was barking, shepherds and mastiffs both, horses stamping and circling, a stallion squealing threat and outrage.
There was no time to bridle the mare. He set an arrow to his string but did not draw, saving his strength for when he would need it. Around him, the camp was stirring to life, Edene’s cousins and sisters and aunts rolling to their feet, finding weapons, checking on children or elders.
Temur saw two strong women he knew from the campfires start toward him, each shouldering a bow as they strode across the short soft grass, the mist that softened everything curling tenderly about their bodies. They never made it.
What came out of the mist seemed at first the mist itself—gray as a dove-colored dun, as immaterial and cohesive as smoke. But mist never went clothed in a warrior’s quilted coat and trousers, and mist never showed the deep, unbleeding gashes of death wounds below the perfectly ordinary faces of staring dead men. Mist never wore helms bannered in the three-falls tiers of Qori Buqa, or the horsehair twist of the soldiers of Qulan.
Ghosts. The ghosts of the dead of the fall of Qarash. So many who had not had their remains commended to the carrion crows and the sacred vultures. So many who had not had anyone to speak their true names aloud to the wind, that they might pass to the embrace of the Eternal Sky.
So many doomed to haunt the steppe, hungry and lost and crying out for any scrap of warmth that might feed them a brief memory of what it had been to be living.
Temur heard Edene’s sharp intake of breath as the ghosts closed around her cousins. He found himself searching the faces fruitlessly for ones he recognized, his heart savage behind his ribs. He took a step forward, then another, as the ghosts closed on the Tsareg women.
One woman nocked an arrow; the other drew a knife. They stood back-to-back, and Temur saw now that one had a baby on her shoulders, strapped into a cradleboard. They were Qersnyk women; they would fight any way they could.
There was no way to fight ghosts with a bow.
Temur watched in horror as a captain of Qori Buqa’s army reached out his transparent hand and scraped it down the face of one of the Tsareg women. She was the one carrying the infant. She did not scream; she shouted, instead, and struck out, lashing around her with the knife. The child’s outraged shriek joined the rising cacophony of fruitless battle.
“Salt!” Edene cried.
He looked at Edene. “Salt,” he said, as the sense of her word penetrated his despair. Salt and iron. Iron alone couldn’t harm a ghost.…
She was already scrabbling through his saddlebags, squeezing and discarding pouches until she found one that must have gritted between her fingers in the right way. She cut the knot with Temur’s knife, then spat on the blade so grains would adhere when she plunged it into the gritty purple-black salt that came all the way from Tsarepheth.
Temur snatched a handful of arrows from his quiver and imitated her, then cast salt by the handful in arcs around Bansh and Edene to form a circle.
It might work. “Stay with Bansh,” he said to Edene, not waiting to see if she nodded.
He snatched up the bag of salt, turned away, and hurdled over the protective circle. A pair of bounds took him almost to Edene’s embattled cousins.
The woman with the bow loosed arrow after arrow futilely. Her clanswoman’s face ran rivulets of blood where the ghosts had clawed her. The archer shouted, too, then she screamed like a peacock as one of the ghosts reached into the stuff of her face and dragged an eyeball down her cheek.
Temur, unthinking, planted his feet. At much too short range, he nocked, drew, and loosed.
The barbed arrowhead passed through three ghosts as if they had no substance at all, and he had the momentary satisfaction of watching their faces—the dead of Qori Buqa and the dead of Qulan, fighting as if they had served one army—as they shattered and drifted into shreds, like the mist they seemed to be.
The half-blinded woman sagged, her bow forgotten in one hand, palms on knees. The other struggled still, lashing out with a knife at four more mocking evil spirits that toyed with her, reaching around her to the child she struggled to protect.
“Salt!” he yelled, and threw a handful over her. It struck her like a scatter of small hail, grains bouncing here and there—but she and the infant were damp with mist, and some grains adhered.
Her dark eyes widened. She laughed a warrior laugh and stroked the side of her knife against her tongue, then her sleeve.
Now the ghosts drew back, wary. Temur dumped a handful of salt on his own head, shaking it down inside the collar of his coat. He advanced upon them, yelling, hoping someone else in the camp could hear him and take up the cry: “Salt! Salt! Fight them with salt!”
A snarl, and suddenly a dog tall as a young horse was at his hip, lips skinned back from teeth like yellow tusks, long matted hanks of undercoat swaying about it like an armor of quilted rags.
Sube, the Needle’s-Eye, the best of Tsareg’s great dogs, had come to defend his mistress. Temur upended the salt pouch over the dog’s wide shoulders, throwing a handful into his jaws. Whether the dog understood his purpose or not, he never knew, but at the moment Sube lunged forward, ponderous and elemental in his fury, and sank his teeth into the misty fabric of the nearest ghost.
It opened its mouth as if to scream, but no sound emerged. Its mouth grew horribly to encompass and consume its whole head—and the head came apart in shreds. Temur fired a salted arrow through the next two, and Sube ripped the fourth to pieces before he could nock another shaft. Bansh screamed in a fury behind him, and he heard the thunder of her hooves as she whirled and kicked out; he did not have time to turn before another ghost came before him, rearing up suddenly, only to shrivel around the blade of the nearer Tsareg cousin’s knife.
“Temur—” the cousin said, reaching over her shoulder to touch her child. It was still wailing, which Temur took to mean it was still all right. Behind her, the other Tsareg woman choked with pain but forced herself to stand. With fumbling fingers, she shoved her trailing eye back into the ravaged socket, swaying as she did so. She managed it, then she folded down, bloody hands on the earth, her bow forgotten behind her.
The woman with the knife crouched over her. “I’ll see to Toragana. Get Edene—”
He turned, saw Edene lash out with her salted knife. The ghosts were piling up outside the salted circle like water behind a dam, and as Temur stepped forward, the pressure of the ones behind pushed the first ones over. They shredded, slipped apart, came to pieces and mist. But others rode that bank of mist up, up, towering until, like a snow cliff crumbling into avalanche, they washed into the circle.
Bansh whirled again, tearing up her picket, and kicked out with hooves that tore through the first rank of ghosts like hammers hurled against silk hangings. Edene must have salted her hooves, and Temur blessed smart women even as he leaped forward, Sube bristling and snapping at his side, into the midst of the wave of ghosts.
Edene lashed out, opening the belly of a ghost wearing the plumes of a private of Qulan’s guard. Temur—too close now for bowshots—lifted an arrow to stab the next ghost, whose plumes were those of a ranking officer, through the eye as it turned to him.
His brother’s face was hewn from brow to jaw by the blow that had killed him, and in the bloodless bottom of the wound Temur could see brains, bone, the fibers of severed muscle, the fat of Qulan’s cheeks. He’s dead and cursed, Temur thought, and almost brought the arrow down. But then he remembered, as Qulan’s one remaining mute eye stared at him, the tongue flopping through the ruined jaw.
He knew his brother’s true name. “Go free, Re Sha-kharash Arslanjin, called Qulan. Go to the Eternal Sky now.”
The ghost dissolved into mist. Behind it stood another, and this one—a one-armed, broken-backed soldier of Qori Buqa’s army—was not Temur’s kin. But now he had it in his heart what he was destroying, that these were the shades of men left unmourned on a battlefield, and some of them Temur might have left that way himself. His battle rage was broken.
He thrust his arrow into the dead man’s face, not in fury but in pity.
Sube began to bark, frantically, lunging in place like a dog bouncing on the end of a tether, and Temur turned.…
Edene reached for him through mist and morning, his knife in one hand and the other outstretched, her body pulled back as the ghosts surrounded and lifted her. She shouted—she didn’t scream—and Temur lunged after her as they pulled her into a sky they vanished against. His fingertips brushed hers. She twisted like a squirrel in a wolf’s mouth, lashing out with the blade, hacking at the gray hands that dragged at her.
Bansh was there. Temur vaulted up her flank, dropping his bow, using her mane as a handle until he crouched on her shoulders.
This time he did not even touch Edene. The ground was a long way down. He landed, rolled, heaved himself into a crouch. Arrows fell around him, shaken from his quiver. His bow was there, just beside the circle of salt that glittered amethyst and obsidian on the grass. The mist was burning off, the sunlight starting to cut and sparkle as it shone through.
She wailed, lifted higher, vanishing into the sky. Still fighting.
Temur snatched up his bow. He swept an arrow through the salty-wet grass, nocked, drew back.
Temur raised his left arm. Found the roughness of the serving with his right fingertips. Let the string pull back into his gathered strength, the bow’s leathern grip settling into his palm. Spread the fingers of his left hand, reaching so his grip would not shake the bow. Raised the bow above his shoulders and waited until he felt it surround him, felt himself fall into the bow. Felt the pressure of the string at his thumbtip, unprotected by the flat horn ring he would have used to draw if he’d had time to find it.
The fall might kill her. But would that be worse than whatever the ghosts intended?
He bent his knees, tucked his tail, and the bow enfolded him. There was a moment when its balance encompassed his and the jouncing breasts of rising ghosts bounced up and down past the point of his arrow—or the point of his eye.
The arrow was the intention. There was no difference.
When Temur breathed, the bow breathed. When Temur waited, the bow waited.
When the fingers of Temur’s right hand drifted open, the bow killed.
The arrow flew true. True and high, piercing the sky, piercing the ghosts that threw themselves into its path, shredding them, passing through them as if they were nothing.
But they were not nothing. There was something to them. Some presence. Some substance.
The arrow crested its arc an arm’s breadth below the ghosts that held Edene, and began its long smooth descent back to earth.
Temur forced himself not to look down until he could not see her anymore, until Edene’s cousins came to pry the bow from his stiff hands and tend the wounds and bruises he had not even noticed he’d acquired.
Copyright © 2012 by Elizabeth Bear
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