by J.C. Hutchins
She reeked of smoke, sweat and soot. Gods, when was the last time she’d smelled of anything other than sweet kumari perfume and dala-rose oils? She couldn’t remember.
She cowered in the nighttime shadows here in the the city’s bazaar district, panting, desperate to remain unseen. The fat, full moon conspired against her. The alley was empty, but that meant little in Kutastha, her home for the past fifteen years. Here in the Gudanna Dominion’s capital city, eyes were everywhere … especially those of the Araska, the city’s elite guard.
Her own eyes (beguiling things, with irises the color of brass) flitted from the shadow-soaked cobblestones and buildings down to her soiled silks. Specks of pale gray ash dotted her arms and the tops of her trembling hands. Her mind, hungry to find reason in this world—a world that had been suddenly unhinged and upended, that had inexplicably turned sour—likened the ash-specks to stars.
Constellations, her mind mused. Mystery shapes, strange fates. Spelled out on my caramel skin.
She blinked away the thought. Absurd. Back to now. Back to ash. The air was choked with the swirling stuff. She’d nearly choked on it as she’d fled the royal palace mere hours ago. The face veil she wore helped obsure her identity, but it did little to protect her from the inferno’s omnipresent ash.
The long song of lamentation echoed across the night sky, hailing from the highest tower of the palace far behind her. Its words bore revelation and terror for the kingdom—and for her.
The Khan is dead. Dead to all, dead to thee. Our Great Khan is dead.
Overwhelmed by the significance of the message, she sucked in a lungful of air—and promptly retched as more ash filled her mouth. She mashed a hand over her lips as she coughed, muffling the sound as best she could. The news was terrible, heartbreaking, but had to be ignored for now. She couldn’t be found. Not now.
You are no longer safe, her servant Urjin had told her, back when the world changed forever. You must go.
Go, out here. Into the world of fire and ash.
Oh, how her bone-kin back home would have laughed at her as she stood here, quaking, coughing, ripped from a life of being so very pretty and pampered. What would her long-lost brethren say? Perhaps Ash is no foe to our kind, or Ash is our way. It is our shield, our second skin.
She glanced down at her arms again, at the constellations there.
What happened to you, child queen? her bone-kin would have asked, and sneered. What happened to Izvari, the mighty heir of Sunu, the greatest of all Urugal clans? What ruined you?
Izvari bit back a moan and pawed at the ash, smearing it off, leaving ghost trails on her skin. Her mind raced. This wasn’t the time to think of the desert, of the then. She needed to keep moving, keep running, keep surviving. Whoever had killed her father might want to kill her.
False father, the voice of her bone-kin whispered, insidious in her mind. Conquerer-father, Khan-father, not true father, not one of blood and bon—
“Quiet,” Izvari whispered. She clenched her hands, winced as her painted nails dug into the meat of her palms. The pain grounded her. Her gaze returned to the alley, cataloging it, frantic to find a place to hide and rest, if only for a few moments.
Ah. A cluster of vendor’s stalls, up ahead. One stood out: it was far larger than the others, big enough to accommodate a grand tent-roof. The sigil above the stall’s main counter was drenched in shadow, but Izvari could make out enough to understand the stall was a relic peddler’s.
Relics. Unlikely. More likely trinkets peppered with trivial glamors and magics. Izvari knew that genuinely powerful relics weren’t sold out here on the streets, they were used on the battlefield. The Great Khan had shown her one once, before sending it off with a trusted general. It had been a dagger forged before the First Age, with an unusually short blade—certainly nothing that could kill a man. But that wasn’t the point of this relic, the Great Khan had explained. The green harit stone embedded in the blade had been enchanted by the mad sorcerer Baylr. Merely scratch a rival with the blade, the Khan had said, and his mind is poisoned for hours. He’ll barely know his name, much less how to fight.
Now that was a relic: powerful magics, far beyond the purview of pedestrians.
She quickly skulked to the booth, confident it would be unoccupied. With a deft leap, she was over its counter and inside, grateful to be away from the glare of the full moon and the watchful eyes of the Araska, to rest …
The aroma of spices reached her nose.
… and to eat?
There was food here! Her mouth watered. She rooted around in the darkness, finding a small basket filled with kawaab. She plucked out a piece of the dried meat, took a bite. Gods, this was good.
Actually, it was awful—bland and cheap, compared to palace dinners—but she was so famished, she scarcely cared.
When had she eaten last? Long before the world had unhinged, had gone sour. As Izvari ate, her mind wandered to those inexplicable and terrifying first moments, from a few hours ago …
~ ~ ~
She’d been in her private quarters in the Great Gardens, preparing for bed, when the very earth beneath her bucked. The explosions came next. They sounded like thunder, but somehow different. Somehow unholy, otherworldly. In those first panicked seconds, Izvari had been reminded of the earsplitting noises made by the enormous shatterfire cannons wielded by Bone Fiends—titanic golems from her Urugal homeland.
To the trained ear, sorcery bears a particular tenor, Izvari knew. It seethes. It crackles. The thunder rocking the palace had crackled. Izvari knew that whatever was bucking the floor was powerful, and magical.
At her window moments later, she’d witnessed the inferno sweeping through the palace’s North Wing. That’s where the servants lived. She’d seen them burning, had shuddered at their screams, had seen the first cloud of cinders and ash gush into the night sky.
And then, in the seconds before a fist had pounded on the door to her quarters, Izvari’s soul had grown cold, and she had wished. She had wished that Nandanna was there now, in the North Wing. Izvari wished she could have seen her tormentor—her wild-eyed, power-mad adopted sister, blood-daughter of the Great Khan—writhing among the victims. Her and all the other loathsome children of the Khan, who’d all terrorized Izvari over the years.
Little Crow, they’d called her, long ago, as they’d yanked at her long black hair. Pull out your feathers, Little Crow, they’d squealed as they’d tugged. Cook you up. Sell your bones. But bones of a bone merchant fetch nothing, Little Crow. They’re worth less than the sand that birthed you.
And then the pounding at the door had shattered Izvari’s vengeful thoughts, and it had been her servant Urjin. You are no longer safe, Princess, she had said, pressing a cloak and face veil into Izvari’s hands. You must go.
And Izvari had. She’d dashed through the blazing palace, steering clear of its main hallways whenever possible, avoiding the palace guards. There was a breathless and terrible moment as she’d entered a great hall near the palace’s heart and spotted Archa, the Great Khan’s aged (but eagle-eyed) friend and confidant—a man held in such high esteem by the Gudanna’s leader that he was widely known as Archa the Khan-Blessed. There in the hall, Archa was surveying the shrieking masses of servants and guards, standing stock-still in the chaos, as if he were the eye in the storm.
Why was he here? It hardly mattered. What mattered was that Archa knew Izvari.
If he saw her, he would identify her.
As if on cue, Archa’s dark, probing eyes had begun to survey the region of the hall where Izvari was standing, taking in the carnage, about to find her, about to stop her—
And then a shriek pierced the great hall, a bloodcurdling sound much louder and higher-pitched than all others. It was a golem knight. She was on fire, screaming, sitting atop an armor-plated Sand Lion golem, a creature that was very large, and—impossibly—very much here, running through the hall, crushing the unwary, blasting through marble support columns, roaring in pain. How had it gotten inside the palace?
Izvari glanced back at Archa. The old man was transfixed by the horrific sight of flaming knight and beast. The Sand Lion ran on and on, finally smashing its boulder-sized skull into the hall’s far wall. As the spells that had formed the golem unwound and the Sand Lion’s hide split and its sludge-sand innards burst forth onto the hall’s floor, Izvari remembered something the Great Khan had told her when she’d become his ward all those years ago.
The two greatest animals are the panther and the viper, he’d said, and smiled. Izvari would learn to trust and love that smile. The panther is patient, he’d said. She waits for the perfect moment to strike, and is rewarded with the kill. Timing is all.
Izvari had wanted to know why the viper was great, but the Great Khan had simply winked. Timing is all, he’d repeated.
Timing is all, and Izvari had used the distraction of the Sand Lion to evade Archa’s eyes and the palace guard. She’d eventually descended into the palace’s catacombs, and then its sewers, and had finally emerged just outside the palace gates.
She’d fled further, at one point passing a horse-drawn wagon that moved slowly through an empty alley. Strange runes were painted upon the wagon’s canvas cover. The wagon’s driver—a cloaked woman who held a large bundle in her arms—cackled and chanted words Izvari didn’t understand. Mad gibberish? Spellspeak? Izvari didn’t know. The woman’s voice sounded old, and familiar, and insane.
Izvari ran on.
~ ~ ~
And now here she was, a shuddering, stinking, soot-covered mess, eating stolen meat in a peddler’s booth. Izvari, formerly of the Urugal clan Sunu, now the beloved adopted daughter of Jahnu, the Great Khan himself.
But the Khan was dead.
Dead to all, dead to thee, she thought, and shivered. Our Great Khan is dead.
She tore another hunk of the kawaab with her teeth and chewed, desperate to choke down the food, and her tears. She would not weep. Not here. Not until she was safe.
And when would that be? she mused. And where? She had no home. Her servant Urjin had been right; it hadn’t been safe at the palace. The Khan was dead (had Urjin known that? Izvari suddenly wondered), and his wretched, scheming, power-hungry heirs would undoubtedly uncoil their plans of succession (had Urjin known that, too?), and Izvari’s would’ve been the first head on the chopping block. (Urjin most certainly had known that. Anyone close to the Great Khan would’ve known that.)
Why? Because of all of his surviving children (nearly thirty), the Great Khan seemed to love Izvari the most. Izvari, the bone merchant. Izvari, the daughter who was not of his blood. No other received as many gifts, or as much affection, as she.
The Khan’s heirs hated her for that.
With the Khan gone, there was little reason for the heirs to let Little Crow live, Izvari knew. They’d kill her at the earliest opportunity … and Nandanna would undoubtedly lead the charge.
Izvari had been a gift, of sorts. She had been bequeathed to the Khan fifteen years ago by her blood-father Bijin, the leader of the Sunu. She’d been a human gift of gratitude to celebrate the sixteenth anniversay of Zanta, the treaty between the Urugal clans and the Gudanna Dominion.
In hindsight, Izvari suspected she’d been more bribe than gift. The treaty’s terms: the Gudanna and Urugal would remain at peace for as long as both Jahnu Khan and clan Sunu’s leader Bijin lived. That was it. Bijin hadn’t actually needed to give Izvari away; that had never been part of the deal. But the gesture was probably meant to illustrate the Urugal clans’ unspoken submission. The Gudanna Dominion would have marched across the desert and slain every last clan, had the Khan wished it.
After the weeks-long northward trek across the Hataza Desert, she had expected to meet a monster. But the Great Khan had been very kind to her, even when it wasn’t required. Izvari had been the daughter he hadn’t asked for, the one he could never claim as his own. But he’d loved her nonetheless … and she had loved him back.
It didn’t matter what the insidious voices of the past might hiss, here in her mind. Yes, it was true: the Great Khan was a false father, a conquerer-father, not a father of blood and bone.
But she unashamedly loved him more than her own birth-father, who likely lived on, back in the sand-swept lands of the Sunu.
Izvari permitted her mind to wander to the Great Khan, if only for a moment. She pictured him as she’d first seen him all those years ago, on her first day in the palace. He’d been impossibly tall, as tall as forever. Imperious. But his voice had been deep and warm and kind. He’d lifted Izvari into his arms. He’d smelled of spice and sandalwood. And then he’d told her that the panther and the viper were the two greatest animals.
Timing is all.
Her mind flitted to another memory of him, this one from years later. They had been sparring in the Grand Courtyard, fists and feet dancing and clashing above the courtyard’s mosaic floor. The pattern beneath their sandals was a massive map of Eretsu. Blood-red tiles represented the Gudanna Dominion’s territories. Much of the map was red.
Learning prdaku was essential for survival on and off the battlefield, the Khan had once explained. The martial art—quintessentially Gudanna, invented by the Khan himself—developed the supreme strength and extreme discipline required to pilot the Dominion’s savage, barely tameable golems.
The Gudanna Dominion’s war-beasts weren’t like the Durani Empire’s aged golems (which were often centenarians, passed down from one generation to the next), or the meticulously bloomed and pruned Zikia golems (beloved and bestowed on knights in rootbond ceremonies very much like marriages), or the ghoulish golems of the Urugal (whose bone-sorcery imbued the creatures with battlefield instincts older and sharper than desert glass). No, the Gudanna Dominion’s golems were conjured en masse, through complex spells and sorcerers’ blood. The Dominion’s golems were manufactured. They were young, tempestuous, rabid. They were world-wreckers. Untameable.
Untameable … unless the golem knight knew prdaku, that is. Which was why the Great Khan trained Izvari in the deadly art, week after week, for the requisite seven years, seven months and seven days. Only the greatest Dominion knights received this much training … only the very best ever learned all of prdaku’s secrets.
And so they had been sparring that day, and the Khan had been correcting her form, and then he’d promised to show her something new—something that will someday save your life, he’d said—and then he’d reminded her of the story of the panther and the viper.
Remember? Timing is all, he’d said, and bounded away from her. He’d stood at the far end of their sparring ring, bouncing on his toes, lowering his guard. The panther is patient, and is rewarded for it.
Izvari had nodded, puzzled by her Khan-father’s behavior. She had then approached, hands held high in the traditional prdaku blade-shape, unsure of what to do next.
And what of the viper? she’d asked. Will you finally tell me why it is as mighty as the panther?
The Khan had nodded, and beckoned her closer. The panther need only strike once to conquer its prey, he’d said, smiling. But the viper’s expertise is not in patience. Its might is in speed—in the single strike that is many strikes. Ferocity. Do you understand?
Izvari had opened her mouth to say she didn’t—and that’s when the Great Khan attacked.
Even now, years later, Izvari could scarcely understand how he’d moved so quickly. His arms were swords. His legs were spears. All were a blur. And with each piercing strike and step, he uttered the same words:
Strike and recoil!
Strike and recoil!
Strike and recoil!
And by the end, she was spinning out of the sparring ring, her body a mass of bruised skin and sore muscles.
Timing is all, the Khan had said, grinning at her. As is ferocity. Do you understand now?
She’d grimaced and nodded.
And she was nodding here, now, in the dark vendor’s stall, feeling the tears slide down her ash-dusted cheeks. How could he be dead? It was unthinkable. It was impossible. How could a person she’d loved so much for so long simply be … gone? How could she survive without her father?
And that’s when the massive hand shot forth from the darkness and gripped her wrist.
“Our great capital has grown so rich,” a deep voice said, “even the rats wear silk!”
~ ~ ~
His name was Raza Osa bin Beleem, and like Izvari, he possessed Urugal blood. The vendor stall was his. He said he was a friend. He let her continue eating.
Per the Urugal tradition, the man’s skin was bone white—white from the “second skin” of enchanted ash smeared all over the body to protect the skin from the unforgiving desert sun. All members of all Urugal clans participated in this sacred ritual. Urugal who did not were outcasts or unfortunate orphans, raised far from the sands and ways of the clans.
Izvari did not wear the ash. She hadn’t since she’d come to Kutastha.
Sitting here with Raza Osa, in the candlelight of the stall, she felt strangely … exposed. Underdressed. Unworthy.
Also per the Urugal tradition, Raza Osa bin Beleem’s body bore the tattoos of his people. The ink—made from holy ebon root—seemed to glare at her, in stark contrast to the surrounding ash. A crown of tattooed sigils encircled his bald head. More black glyphs covered what Izvari could see of the man’s chest, arms and hands. Such ink was given to clan members who’d experienced the Now-Becoming, she knew, the rite of passage that ushered Urugal children into adulthood.
Was she old enough to participate in the Now-Becoming? Izvari didn’t know. There was so much about her people’s private ways that she didn’t know.
You’ve been too far from your blood-home far too long, she thought.
Like her, Raza Osa’s eyes had shimmering brass-like irises. Or eye, rather. The peddler’s left eye was a milky, dead thing.
Izvari noted two more things about Raza Osa. The man was fat. This was an affront to common Urugal sensibilities; a people of the desert should be lean and nimble, ever-moving like the Hataza’s dunes. And his teeth—per Raza clan tradition—were filed into hideous, ragged fangs. Engraved in the enamel of each fang was a unique sigil—prayers to Gopt Pala, the Urugal warrior-god and custodian of the dead.
Izvari recalled clan Raza from her youth, when she was still with clan Sunu. The Raza were as shrewd as they were savage. They adapted easily to new peoples and cultures.
Which likely explained the man’s girth, Izvari reckoned. It was a masquerade of sorts. In the eyes of the Gudanna and Durani, he appeared prosperous … as they defined prosperous, anyway. That likely elevated his standing among them—a very savvy thing to do, as the Urugal were often treated as lesser beings by most Gudanna and Durani citizens.
Raza Osa was a very clever man, Izvari decided.
His eye glittered as he watched her eat.
“I swear upon my father’s marrow, you are safe with me,” Raza Osa said. “I have lived in Kutastha for many years. I have seen you in many parades, and have heard the songs they sing about you. I know who you are. And I know what you are. You are the long-gone heir. You’re the one who can redeem the disgraced Sunu.”
The disgraced Sunu? That didn’t make sense. Izvari knew clan Sunu was the mightiest of all the Urugal clans. It’s why her father Bijin had represented them during the creation of the Zanta peace treaty more than thirty years ago—a treaty that still held strong today.
But for how long, now that the Khan is dead? she wondered, suddenly worried. As long as he lived, there’d be peace. That was a condition of the Zanta. But now …
“The Sunu are not disgraced,” she said, suddenly no longer hungry.
Raza Osa gave her a smile that she imagined was meant to be apologetic, but was still the stuff of nightmares. Those hideous teeth. He shook his great bald head.
“Sweet child. Things in the south aren’t as they once were. Your clan has might, certainly. Some have even fought alongside the devious Black Widows as mercenaries—no mean feat, as the Widows only ally themselves with the fiercest of warriors.”
The Black Widows? Izvari knew about them. They were an elite regiment of war-golems, formed in secret about ten years ago by her adoptive brother (and other tormentor) Rudatha, the Spider Prince. The Widows’ existence was known to only a few within the Dominion. As far as the rest of the world was concerned, the Black Widows were a legend.
“The Black Widows are a myth,” she said.
Raza Osa gave her a knowing look. “If you insist,” he said. “Regardless, clan Sunu’s bones are now brittle. Feeble. Corrupted.”
The man raised his eyebrows. “I cannot say, dear child, for I haven’t seen Sunu sands in many years. But perhaps the question isn’t ‘By what?’ but ‘By whom?’”
That didn’t make any sense to Izvari either, but she didn’t say so.
“Let us talk plainly of your future,” Raza Osa said. “You are undoubtedly aware that you’re at my mercy. I could call for the Araska, or simply overpower you and sell you to the highest bidder.”
Izvari felt her cheeks flush. “You wouldn’t dare.”
“I wouldn’t … because I am motivated by something more important than coin, dear child. So. You cannot stay here in the city. I daresay you’re in danger, no matter where you go in the Dominion.”
Izvari agreed, but didn’t want to admit it to this pale, piggy man. She didn’t fully trust him. It was one thing to accept bread from a smiling stranger. It was another to entrust one’s life to him—especially since he was Urugal. Ask anyone in Kutastha, and they’d tell you: Urugal were scavengers. Filthy pickpockets. Stinking, scraps-clad parasites. Bone merchants were unscrupulous. They were vile, feral, barely human. They weren’t worth the spit—
Who are you, Izvari? her mind asked. Are you nothing more than a Dominion lapdog so hungry to belong, you’d happily eat the slanderous slop your adopted siblings fed you for years? Your Khan-father told you of your proud bloodine. Are you not Urugal? Are you not proud of the crow-blood that flows through your veins? Are you not of the sands? Isn’t that where you belong?
“I … I don’t know,” she whispered.
Raza Osa’s eye squinted, as if sensing her conflict. His voice was gentle, low. “I cannot say if all of the Dominion’s residents know this,” he said, “but those of Urugal stock certainly do: your adoptive siblings loathe you. They loathe the love the Great Khan bestowed upon you. They seethe. They wish you dead.”
“How can you possibly know that?” Izvari asked.
“We Urugal know the look. We live the look,” Raza Osa replied. “Much of the world resents our existence. It wishes we were not here. It hates that it needs us, and our wares, and our bone-magics, and our golems. We know what it’s like to be loathed, sweet child. And we see that loathing in the eyes of your Khan-brothers and -sisters. Especially Nandanna.”
Izvari nodded. Nandanna.
“They will hunt you,” Raza Osa continued. “But you already knew that. What you don’t know is where to go. I shall tell you. Go south. It is safest there, in the desert, with our people. With your clan.”
Izvari looked away from the man, out past the stall’s counter, into the shadowy alley beyond. She couldn’t go there. She didn’t even know where there was, not really. The desert? Was he mad? There was weeks’ worth of travel between here and there, through great swaths of Gudanna Dominion territory. Rudatha’s spies would be legion. Nandanna’s bloodthirsty soldiers would be omnipresent.
I should just go back to the palace, a part of her mind thought. Ah. She knew this voice. It was the purring voice of her soft side, the side that loved the palace’s luxury and pampering and endless entertainments and distractions. It spoke again. It is better to live with your enemies than on the streets.
And now another part of her mind piped up. This was her Urugal blood talking—the side of her that always remained restless, that bristled under the silk dresses, that pined to run free in the night.
They’ll kill you, the voice said. Go home, Little Crow. Go home.
And that’s all it said.
Her eyes drifted back to Raza Osa’s face, the tattoos there.
“All right,” she said, and paused. After a long moment, she added: “Can you help me?”
Raza Osa smiled his shark’s smile, but his eye was alight with warmth and kindness.
“Sweet child,” he said, “ofcourse I will. You are Urugal. It is our way.”
~ ~ ~
She spent the remainder of the night in Raza Osa bin Beleem’s home, not far from the bazaar. While a far cry from the opulence of the palace, Raza Osa’s home was comfortable, quiet, and well-appointed. She’d eaten until her belly had nearly burst, and then she’d bathed, and slept.
It had been a fitful sleep. Faces in the fire. The face of the Great Khan, skin blistering, then broiling, then peeling and turning to ash. He’d been screaming in the dream. Screaming that he’d been murdered.
Screaming to be avenged.
Izvari woke with a start and nearly screamed herself. The cozy bedroom was dark, but the bright light blazing behind the window’s curtains betrayed the hour. It was well into morning. She tried to blink away the last of the sleep and the nightmare, and stood.
Still so damned groggy. Last night had been terrible, and exhausting.
She squinted past the bedroom’s doorway. Two men were standing in the hall, speaking quietly.
One bore the unmistakable rotund silhouette of Raza Osa. The other was much taller, willowy in comparison. His head nearly touched the low ceiling. His arms seemed more like long broomsticks than proper limbs. She could not see his face.
“—am telling you, she is the one we’ve been looking for,” the tall man was saying. This was strange. His voice sounded almost like a growl … and it had an unfamiliar lilt. Where was this man from? The far north, perhaps?
“Think of them as scraps flung into the wind,” the tall man went on. “They are unbound and desperate. They haven’t been what they once were, not for years. But they can be. She, my friend, can bring them together. She is the Great Thread.”
Raza Osa shook his head, resolute. “A child? Ridiculous.”
“I can sense it,” the tall man said.
Raza Osa chuckled. He shook his head again. “Gods, you and your sense,” he said. “How many times has that gotten us intro trouble, Vittorio? I’ve known you long enough to know how little ‘sense’ you actually have.”
What kind of name is Vittorio? Izvari thought. It sounded alien, like a nonsense word.
“This sense of mine finds you your mighty relics, doesn’t it?” Vittorio asked.
Raza Osa didn’t reply.
“And this sense of mine saved your life, didn’t it?” the tall man continued. “Four years gone, now. Those bandits would’ve robbed you and your sons, and left you for dead.”
“Zikia savages,” Raza Osa spat. “What did they call their leader? Ziroruja?”
“So they said,” Vittorio said. “But we know better now, don’t we? He was more prince than Mercenary King, eh?”
Again, Raza Osa said nothing.
“Listen, old friend,” Vittorio said. “It is she. I know it.”
“I suppose we’ll see,” Raza Osa said. He stiffened. “My guest is awake.”
In the bedroom, Izvari tensed. She held her breath.
“Yes. Awake for some time now,” Vittorio agreed.
The tall man turned now and faced the bedroom door. He stared into Izvari’s eyes. Izvari exhaled her held breath, confused.
The man’s face was covered by a sicarana scarf, but his eyes were perfectly visible. They were unnatural. They were violet and seemed to glow faintly, like smoldering fire coals.
Izvari blinked, desperate to make sense of this. She was seeing things. It was her sleep-addled mind. That was it. That was all. She blinked again.
“Trust Raza Osa and his sons,” Vittorio said to her, and turned to leave. “They’re the only ones who can get you home safely.”
And then, with three long strides, he was out of the hallway, and out of her life.
~ ~ ~
The rest of the day was a hurricane of schemes, reinvention and movement. Raza Osa refused to answer any of Izvari’s questions about Vittorio, and instead directed all his attention to concocting a plan that would help Izvari escape the capital city—and eventually the Gudanna Dominion.
But it wasn’t enough to simply facilitate an escape, Raza Osa had explained. A stealthy solo trek wouldn’t be difficult to plan—“Not when you know the kingdom as I do,” he’d said, and grinned—but the risk of capture was too great. If Izvari traveled alone, or even with a bodyguard, she could be easily outnumbered and overpowered if found by the soldiers searching for her.
No, skulking in the shadows wasn’t the answer, Raza Osa had concluded. Izvari’s safety would be guaranteed in numbers—an entire horde of golems and their knights. It would have to be a motley collection of Urugal and Zikia golems, bound together as a Mercenary Kings guild. Izvari would be a member of this horde, riding alongside the others on a golem of her own.
An hour later, she was a member of The Marrow Crows, a hastily assembled band of warriors comprised of at least ten of Raza Osa’s children. All sons. She and these men would depart the city by sunset, and meet up with at least two dozen more Marrow Crow golems and knights near the Dominion city of Karvara. Raza Osa apparently knew a great many people in a great many places … and a great many owed him favors.
Izvari would soon be introduced to her golem, she was told—a gnarled Urugal beast that had apparently seen better years—but first, she was hustled off to receive a makeover of sorts.
She could look nothing like Izvari, beloved ward of the Great Khan, Raza Osa had said. She must assume an entirely new appearance and identity.
Her waist-length black hair was soon gone, trimmed to her shoulders. The right side of her head was shaved to the scalp. She wore the armor of the Urugal: black, lightweight, built for maximum movement and utility. A crow’s skull rested at her shoulder, used as a clasp for her channa cloak.
Her skin was covered in enchanted ash now, the same as Raza Osa’s, and all other Urugals’. She was as pale as death, as was the Urugal way. She had no sacred tattoos—that would come later, if she chose, in the ritual of the Now-Becoming. But today, for the time being, she was a child in the eyes of all Urugal.
When she’d slipped on the last of her battle armor, Raza Osa presented her with a looking glass. Izvari could scarcely believe her eyes. In fact, her brass-irised eyes were the only thing she recognized. She looked like a wild woman. She looked unkempt, untamed. She bared her teeth at her reflection. She looked like a … like a weapon. A deadly thing.
It felt good. It felt right.
“What is your new name, sweet child?” Raza Osa had asked her then, as he’d lowered the looking glass and gazed into her eyes. “What shall the world call you, during your travels?”
Izvari had thought for a moment—but only a moment. She couldn’t recall the last time she’d spoken in the Urugal tongue, but she did so now. The words came easily. The accent was flawless, unforgotten.
“Ksudra-Aindri,” she said.
Raza Osa nodded approvingly. “Little Crow,” he translated. “I like it. May you fly strong, Little Crow, and may you be fierce.”
And then the sun was setting, and the whirlwind had finally slowed, and she’d found herself striding through the streets of Kutastha with Raza Osa bin Beleem and his ten sons, unrecognizable, hiding in plain sight, heading to one of the city’s great golem stables—the place where she would meet her own Marrow Crow golem.
And moments later, in the stable, there it was. Gods above, the beast was remarkable.
The Corpse Collector stared down at her with eyes as black and inscrutable as onyx. Its face resembled a human skull, though many times larger. As with all Urugal golems, the creature was made completely of living bone, stitched together and alive thanks to powerful Urugal magics. It towered over her—it was certainly taller than most of the city’s single-story dwellings—but Izvari knew the beast was actually a medium-sized golem. Ogre class. There were bigger war-golems out there, she knew. Much bigger.
The Corpse Collector had two impossibly long batlike wings—each the size of boat sails. Izvari noted that its right arm did not end with a forearm and five-fingered hand, as its left arm did. It had been replaced by a massive curved, ragged mammoth’s horn. Likely taken from a slain Horned Blight golem.
The Corpse Collector must have lost its arm in battle, and an ingenious bone-mage had conducted an impromptu transplant.
The creature didn’t move—unmounted golems never move—but it seemed to look down at Izvari.
“I am yours,” she said. “And you are mine.”
Raza Osa stepped up beside Izvari.
“Its name is Mandible,” he said. “It’s … old. Patched together. It’s the best we could find, given the circumstances.”
“She’s beautiful,” Izvari replied. “She’s perfect.”
~ ~ ~
Izvari spent the trek to the city’s northern gates trying to memorize the names of Raza Osa’s sons, and enduring their teasing when she failed. In truth, Izvari was grateful for the task. By now, the city’s entire force of Araska elite guards would know that she was missing. They’d be eyeing those leaving the city with increased scrutiny.
Izvari’s fate would soon be decided at a checkpoint. It made her stomach churn. The banter with Raza Osa’s sons was a welcome distraction.
Like their father’s, the sons’ teeth were filed to fangs … and like their father, most were a bit soft in the stomach and face. They’d certainly seen battle—they had enough scars (and in poor Raza Zocya’s case, enough missing limbs) to prove it—but their eyes still twinkled with youth and optimism, and their chatter was filled with good humor. These were the kind of men you took to a tavern, Izvari reckoned. They weren’t the kind of men you took to war.
And yet, that’s precisely where they’d be going, should they safely pass the city gates. As much as Izvari wanted immediately to march south to Urugal territory, Raza Osa rightly pointed out that to do so would invite suspicion. Mercenary King guilds—dozens of them—were heading north, to the Dominion city of Two Rock.
Whispers of forthcoming combat were on the wind, Raza Osa explained. It had been less than a day since the Great Khan’s death, and Princess Nandanna was asserting her power. A border conflict with the Durani Empire was brewing, and Nandanna had sent word to all of the mercenary guilds: If you fight for me, you’ll earn more than my coin. You’ll earn my favor.
Since so many Mercenary King guilds were heading north, Izvari’s band must as well. Ironically, heading into war—fighting on the side of her wretched, mad Khan-sister, no less—was the only way to maintain a low profile. After the conflict at Two Rock had passed, Raza Osa promised, the Marrow Crows could begin a circuitous trek southward, back toward Urugal territory.
“So!” shouted one of Raza Osa’s sons as they marched. He sat astride an ambling Plague Bringer golem, jovially jabbing a thumb against his armored chest. Unlike his brothers, the man was so thin, he was practically skeletal. “Which one am I? What do they call me? What’s my name?”
“Raza Anuja,” she guessed.
The young man frowned and shook his head.
“I’m Raza Anuja,” called another voice—from a nearby man riding a Horned Blight golem. The warsprite snarled on cue, as if perturbed.
“No, I’m Raza Anuja,” cried a voice behind her. She looked back and up, up … and upward still—until she spotted the man. He was piloting a titanic Carapace Brute golem—practically a mountain with legs. Its four arms, each as thick as a tree trunk and longer than a horse wagon,waved at Izvari. Now, as if to drive home the point, all four hands extended their man-sized index fingers and pointed up to the grinning knight. Him, the golem seemed to mime.
These were some astonishing golem-piloting skills on display, Izvari knew. Golems weren’t thinking beings like people—no more than chariots were. This son (if he was indeed “Raza Anuja”) was exerting meticulous control over his golem’s body and behavior. Izvari thought only Dominion knights had this kind of focus and skill.
And now, from somewhere else, another voice: “No, no, I’m Raza Anuja!”
“My sons are just trying to impress you,” Raza Osa called to her, from the back of his own golem, a Horned Blight. The fat man looked perfectly at ease, effortlessly guiding his creature. This family was full of surprises, it seemed.
“They’re failing,” Izvari called back, loud enough for them all to hear. “Miserably.”
The men began to laugh and wail their protests … and then, as quickly as they’d begun, they hushed.
They were at the gate.
Already here. Oh, no.
The dozen Marrow Crow golems lumbered up to the city’s great perimeter wall. The sun was dipping below the horizon now, and the Araska guards were wielding torches and lanterns, sitting astride Gudanna golems of their own, to be at eye level with those whom they were investigating.
And then Izvari was staring into the cold eyes of an Araska guard. The guard could barely contain her disgust for Izvari, or the rest of her band. A sneer curled on the guard’s scarred lips.
“What do they call your lot here?” she asked. “And what was your business in the city?”
Raza Osa spoke up. “We are of a guild called the Marrow Crows,” he said. “We’re heading north, to lend our swords and steeds to Princess Nandanna’s cause.”
The guard nodded, bored, as if expecting this. Her gaze fell to Izvari.
“It is a worthy cause, is it not?” the woman asked Izvari. “Nandanna’s heart swells with greatness and generosity—even for you mercenary scum.”
Izvari gritted her teeth.
The guard’s eyes glittered. She spat on Izvari’s golem. “Would you not agree, wretch?”
Izvari inhaled deeply. She nodded dutifully.
How had I not seen this before? her mind screamed.
“Whois the captain of your band?” the guard called.
“She is,” Raza Osa said, and pointed at Izvari.
“In name only,” one of the sons muttered.
The guard didn’t hear this, but Izvari did. She didn’t know what to say. So she said nothing.
The Araska guard’s sneer turned into a sly smile. “Wise,” she said. “The only one with any sense would be the woman. Go.”
The guard waved Izvari’s golem through the gate, and then the others. Moments alter, they were beyond Kutastha’s walls.
Izvari was free.
She smiled. Her eyes trailed upwards, into the dark sky. The stars were already out, glimmering bright against the black. They told her stories—stories through pictures. Constellations.
Constellations, she thought, and her mind went back to last night, and its mayhem, and infernos, and the spots of ash that had fallen on her caramel skin.
Constellations. Mystery shapes, strange fates.
“What is my fate?” she asked the sky.
The sky did not reply. Her fate was not sealed, then. Her fate, for now, remained untold.
Timing is all, she thought, and urged her golem to stride faster. As is ferocity. Strike and recoil.
She nodded to no one, to her dead Khan-father. She smiled again.
Strike and recoil.
Illustration: Joel DuQue