Today, we have an excerpt from Brad Beaulieu‘s highly-anticipated Blood Upon the Sand, the next novel in his Song of the Shattered Sands epic fantasy series. First, the synopsis:
Second in epic new fantasy series of mystery, prophecy and death within the ancient walled city of Sharakhai, home to the Twelve Kings…
Çeda, an elite warrior in service to the kings of Sharakhai, is learning their secrets even as they send her on covert missions to further their rule. She has already uncovered the dark history of the asirim, but it’s only when she bonds with them, chaining them to her will, that she feels their pain as her own. They hunger for release, they demand it, but their chains were forged by the gods themselves and are proving unbreakable.
Çeda could become the champion the enslaved asirim have been waiting for, but the need to tread carefully has never been greater. The kings are hungry for blood, scouring the city in a ruthless quest for revenge, while Çeda’s friend Emre and his new allies in the Moonless Host are laying plans to take advantage of the unrest in Sharakhai, and strike a major blow against the kings and their god-given powers.
The shifting tides of power are fickle and dangerous, though. The Kings and the Moonless Host have their own agendas, as does the dangerous blood mage Hamzakiir, whose plotting uncovers a devastating secret that could shatter the power of the hated kings. But it may all be undone if Çeda cannot learn to control the growing anger of the asirim that threatens to overwhelm her…
Thirteen years earlier . . .
Çeda woke to the sounds of the city coming alive. She got out of the bed she shared with her mother, taking the blanket with her. Her mother always snapped at her for getting the blankets dirty, but she wasn’t around to yell at Çeda just then, was she? She shuffled over to the window and pulled the heavy curtains aside, then breathed out and watched the fog of her breath dissipate in the cold winter air. Outside were the streets of the Red Crescent, the neighborhood that surrounded the city’s small western harbor. Beyond the buildings she could see the tops of the ships’ masts, dozens of them, bare and sharp like the legs of some strange, overturned insect.
Far to the east, bells began to ring. It came from Tauriyat, little more than a mound in the distance. The palaces would ring their bells first, followed by the House of Maidens, then the manses scattered across Goldenhill. It traveled through the rest of the city as people paid honor to the asirim, the city’s sacred defenders, and the men and women they’d taken as tribute during the holy night of Beht Zha’ir. The asirim protected the Kings, the legend went, but also the city itself.
Protected the city from what, Çeda wasn’t quite sure. Some said the threat of the desert tribes. Others said the kingdoms that neighbored the Great Shangazi. Whatever the case, the story said they were the blessed, beloved by the gods themselves, but how could creatures as terrifying as the asirim be beloved by the gods? Her mother, Ahya, said some stood vigil on the night of Beht Zha’ir, waiting, hoping to be chosen, but Ahya never did and Çeda certainly didn’t either. She huddled in their home when the holy night came to Sharakhai, often with her mother, but sometimes Çeda was left to clutch her blanket alone, listening in fear as the asirim howled across the city— like last night, when Ahya had gone to the desert to collect her petals. She’d never admitted her purpose to Çeda, but Çeda knew. She’d seen her mother pressing the pale blue adichara petals in her small book of poems more than once.
Through the window, Çeda could see a goodly length of the Waxen Way, where she and her mother had moved only a few weeks before. She wished her mother would appear along the street below, bringing home fresh goat’s milk, some fruit, or a loaf of bread, but Çeda knew better. If Ahya hadn’t returned by now she’d probably be gone until early evening. She wouldn’t want to be seen returning from the desert early enough for anyone to suspect she’d spent the night outside the boundaries of Sharakhai. To be found guilty of being out on Beht Zha’ir would earn you a public flogging. To be found near the blooming fields would mean death.
Part of her was glad her mother would be gone. There was a boy she’d recently met. Emre. He was fun. And funny. And his friends had all taken to her right away. All but the one called Hamid. He was always so quiet it made her wonder what he was hiding.
A short while later, as she was shoveling a handful of pistachios into her mouth, several clattering noisily onto the floor, she saw him. He was walking with Demal and Tariq. She quickly picked up the pistachios she’d dropped and stuffed them in her mouth while shedding her night clothes. After pulling on a pair of boy’s trousers and a shirt that had seen better days, she sprinted out and down the stairs, winding around and around until she reached the ground floor and headed out into the street.
“Hello, Emre,” she said as she came near.
“Hello, Emre,” Tariq echoed with a sneer. He had dusty blond hair and hardly more meat on his bones than Çeda had on hers.
Emre gave Tariq a shove. He looked like he was about to say something when Demal broke in, “We’re already late. Bring your new girlfriend if you want.” He gave Çeda a friendly wink as he spoke, then continued down the street.
“Where’re we going?” Çeda whispered to Emre as Demal and Tariq led the way.
“Off for a bit of fun. You in?”
Glancing back at the empty window of her home, Çeda shrugged. “I’m in.”
Demal turned as he walked, giving Çeda a flash of his bright smile. “Another added to my growing flock.” He was well older than Tariq and Emre, who Çeda was pretty sure were both her age, seven or thereabouts. She’d only met Demal the other day, but she could already see the swagger he had about him. He knew what he was about, a confidence that ran much deeper than Tariq’s defiant cockiness.
With the morning wind kicking up a bit of desert dust, they marched along the Waxen Way to the Spear, then made their way eastward toward the Wheel, stopping once so that Demal could buy them each a warm meat pie filled with ground lamb, onions, and a gravy so thick and savory it made Çeda’s mouth water with each and every bite. “Never let it be said my wrens go without,” Demal said as he licked his fingers clean.
They passed a squad of eight Silver Spears heading in the opposite direction. They’d done nothing wrong, and yet Çeda’s heart began to thump in her chest. Emre and Tariq stepped aside and waited. Çeda moved behind them, eyeing the Spears, standing stock-still. But Demal removed his white woolen cap and bowed with a flourish. Çeda didn’t understand why he was doing it, exactly, but she knew it was rude. The lead Spear stared at Demal, and looked like he was nearly ready to do something about it, but then he leaned into his comrades and mumbled something. They laughed, staring at the lot of them — dirty, threadbare gutter wrens, one and all — and continued on their way.
When they’d passed, Demal spit onto their path, though not, Çeda noticed, when any of them were looking. Soon they reached the Wheel, the grand open circle in the center of the city. Already traffic was busy, carts and horses and people flowing through the circle from one of the four streets that crossed here in the center of the city.
Demal turned around and sized the three of them up. “A bit more rough and tumble, methinks.” Immediately Emre and Tariq took dirt and rubbed it over their hands and face. Demal snapped his fingers at Çeda. “You as well.” Çeda complied, but stopped when Demal laughed. “Dear gods, you’re meant to look like a west end urchin, not a bloody golem from Malasan.” He wiped off some of the dirt, sized her up anew, and then nodded. “Well enough.”
Demal ordered them to the edge of the Wheel, but not so far that those passing through couldn’t still see them. He looked to Emre. “You can enlighten our young wren?” Emre nodded, and then Demal headed into the crowd looking for all the world like a little lost dove.
“Keep your eyes on him,” Emre said to Çeda, “and look sad.”
“I do look sad.”
“No, you don’t. You look like the jackal who swallowed the finch.”
Çeda laughed. She tried hard to hide her excitement, but Emre’s look made it all the harder, and soon she was laughing outright, the crowd staring at her and the others as they strode or rode past.
“Gods, just send her home,” Tariq said.
“No, I can do it.” But she didn’t actually stop smiling until she got a sour look from Demal. The look made her feel small and childish, and she felt bad for disappointing him.
After a good long stare, Demal seemed satisfied and proceeded to stop random passersby and tell them stories. A tale of woe, she later learned. Their mother had gone to a caravanserai to pick up their ailing grandmother. She’d been robbed at the caravanserai and could no longer afford the return passage home and could they spare a sylval or two to help?
Sharakhai was famous for how many ships arrived the day after Beht Zha’ir. Who would want to arrive just before Beht Zha’ir, after all? As Demal began working his magic, Emre went on. “The richest among these fine, wide-eyed does,” he said, “often have their purses cinched tighter than Tariq’s arse.” Tariq scowled and gave him an elbow. Emre shot him a quick smile before putting his sad face back on. “And the crews of the sandships have little enough to spare. It’s the people like them.” He pointed to the couple in green finery speaking with Demal, who held his woolen cap tightly in his hands. “They’re the ones ripe for the plucking.”
Demal got nothing from that first couple, but he moved on, undaunted. He changed the story for each couple he stopped, and it was always couples. If a Malasani merchant was walking the Wheel, Demal might say their mother was lost in Ishmantep, a caravanserai they’d likely passed through on the way to Sharakhai. If it was a Qaimiri lordling, it would be Mazandir. And he would change the caravanserai based on how rich they appeared to be: the poorer the lord and lady, the nearer the serai was to Sharakhai, and so, the cheaper the passage; the richer, however, and their fictional mother was magically transported to one of the farthest serais along the path to their assumed country of origin. Two women wearing green silk dresses even gave Demal a rahl, a full piece of gold, and this after they’d given him two sylval and Demal had been bold enough to ask for more, explaining that the fare from Rienza was expensive indeed.
They did well that day. Very well. Çeda saw coins pass to Demal’s hands several times an hour. They moved locations now and again, sometimes to try their luck in a new place, other times because a Silver Spear told them to shove off or catch the flat side of his blade for the trouble. Near midday Demal bought a sprig of yellow jasmine from a vendor at the center of the wheel, near the pool of water. “You hardly look like a girl,” he said to Çeda as he put it in her dark brown hair.
She could feel her face flush as he went back to his business. She felt foolish wearing it. Her mother had never been one for putting on airs, so after a few more prunings, as Demal put it, Çeda threw the jasmine into the dirt behind her. Soon after, she caught Demal looking at her hair, but he made no mention of it, so neither did she.
They finished a few hours before sundown when the traffic had wound down and most of those freshly arrived in Sharakhai had made it to wherever they’d been headed. As they were starting back toward the Red Crescent, Demal put one arm around Emre’s shoulder, the other around Çeda’s. “Well, my little wrens, one of you must certainly have pleased Bakhi.” He squeezed Çeda’s neck and hefted his leather purse. All of them heard the satisfying clink. “Tulathan’s bright smile, I’ve never seen the like.”
Demal was not a gutter wren. Not really. His father was a stevedore at the southern harbor. His mother was dead. He was the de facto head of his household, and did things like this to make a little extra, to help his father and brothers and sisters. Perhaps that, and the fact that they’d managed to take so much that day, was the reason he did something no one in Sharakhai should do in plain sight.
He opened the purse and began to count the money out. Tariq received his share first. Then Emre. Before he could count out Çeda’s, there were three men standing before them in the street, blocking their way.
“Hello, Demal,” said the nearest, a shirtless man with a red vest and an expression that made him look calm, like an old friend happy to be reacquainted with someone he’d missed. Except he was no friend. If Demal’s expression of poorly masked terror wasn’t enough to tell her that, the looks on other two men — utterly blank, like a pair of wild dogs closing in for the kill — would have. The one who’d spoken was Çeda’s mother’s age. Thirty summers, perhaps. The other two, grizzled men, the both of them, looked years older.
Demal was silent. Grim-jawed. Wide-eyed. He stared at the men as if he knew exactly who they were and deeply regretted that he was now standing before them.
The red-vested man motioned to the alley on their right. “Let’s go have a chat, shall we?” Without another word, he walked down the alley, while the other two men remained, watching Demal closely.
Demal glanced over to Tariq on his left, then Çeda on his right. “Alando, there’s no need to involve them.”
“Bring them all,” the red-vested man, Alando, called over his shoulder.
With familiar ease, the larger of the two toughs pulled a straight, slim knife from the leather bracer he wore on his forearm. It was keen-edged, Çeda saw. Well kept. “You heard the man,” he said, jutting his stubbled chin toward the alley.
Demal swallowed, then worked his tongue around in his mouth. His cheeks were aflame. He looked ready to bolt, but after only a moment’s pause he nodded and followed.
Ahead, Alando had reached a courtyard of sorts. He whistled three high notes and stared upward, a common signal that no one above should watch lest they risk the street toughs’ wrath. Çeda and the others soon reached the courtyard, and indeed, the windows above them were all empty save for one three stories above, where a tabby cat lay along a sill, watching them with casual interest.
Alando waited, hands behind his back. Only when Demal and Çeda and the rest came to a stop did he begin to speak. “You’ve been going to the Wheel for a while, now, haven’t you, Demal?”
“A few weeks is all. No more.”
“A few months,” one of the men called from behind him. “Near a year now.”
Alando tilted his head, regarded his man, then settled his cold stare back on Demal. “A few months, he says. Near a year.” He paused as if trying to remember some crucial fact. “When did we speak last, Demal?”
“About a year ago,” Demal said, “but I haven’t—”
“About a year ago,” Alando cut in, “and when we spoke, what did I tell you?”
When Demal replied, his tone sounded defeated, like he’d already given up. “I haven’t made much.” Even Çeda knew he shouldn’t have said it. Give, and they’d ask for more. Give them that, and they’d take everything.
“Doesn’t look like not much to me,” Alando said. “That look like not much to you, Meshel?”
“Not to me,” said the one with the thin knife, still held loosely by his side.
“Doesn’t look like much to him.” Alando considered Demal, looked him up and down like a cut of meat he hadn’t quite figured out if he was going to buy or not. “The way I see it, Demal, you owe Farah tribute for a year, plus interest.” He jutted his chin toward the purse at Demal’s side. “We’ll take that as the daily amount and extend it from there. You know what that’s going to add up to by the time you’re done?”
“What I made today was triple any other day this year! And I don’t go every day! I’ve got a family to take care of. Tansu’s come up sick. The medicine’s expensive. And father needs the salve for his knees more than ever!”
Çeda heard the man coming up behind her. She should have moved, but she was so worried for Demal, what would happen to him and his family, what Alando would do if Demal didn’t pay him the money, that her feet were like lead. Meshel, the one with the knife, grabbed her hair and slipped the knife easily under her chin, the tip pointed upward. All he need do is lift it and she’d be done. Her terror drove her up on her tiptoes, but Meshel kept the tip pressed lovingly against her skin. All she could think about was how long it would take to die when Alando decided enough was enough and Meshel did the deed. Gods help her, she squeaked in fear like a frightened little mouse, but what was she to do against such a big man?
Demal turned halfway toward her, but kept his eyes squarely on Alando. “Please, don’t. Leave her be. She only came with us today, this one time!”
“If you didn’t want her involved, Demal, then you shouldn’t have involved her.” He nodded to Meshel, at which point the big man tightened his grip on Çeda’s hair and pressed the knife deeper.
This time Çeda shouted from the fright and the pain. She’d never been so afraid, not even when the asirim came howling. But just like those nights, she hated herself for giving in to the fear. Her mother was no victim, and neither was she. Before Demal could say another word, she gripped Meshel’s wrist and put all her weight and strength into pulling the knife down. The moment it was free of her skin, she jerked aside and shoved the knife upward as hard as she could.
He wasn’t ready for it. The knife drove into the underside of his jaw. How deep it went she wasn’t sure, but the moment he loosened his grip on her hair, she dove forward, grabbing a blue, castoff bottle as she rolled back to her feet. As she turned to face Meshel, she felt a burning on the underside of her jaw. The knife had cut her, she realized, but she ignored it.
Meshel was holding his throat with his free hand, eyes wide in disbelief. He was half coughing, half choking as he staggered toward her. He swiped clumsily as Çeda ducked. When she came up, she swung the bottle broadly over her head. It crashed into the side of his head and shattered. Çeda felt stinging pain along her palm where the glass cut her. Meshel staggered backward, coughing, eyelids blinking like a butterfly’s wings. Then he fell to the dry earth like the broken mast of a sandship, the sounds of his moist gagging filling the small space.
A sound like a hammer on stone preceded the world tilting away. The ground swung up and struck Çeda full on. The only sound in the air was a keen ringing. And then the pain came, something small that blossomed like a newborn sun at the back of her head. Her skull felt like it had been put into a vice and was squeezing, squeezing, ever harder.
As she rolled over, she saw Alando standing over her. “You’re a fucking disgrace, Meshel!” He was shouting, but the words were soft and distant, dreamlike in the fabric of the pain that enveloped her. She could understand little. The windows above her seemed impossibly far away, doorways to other worlds. Alando’s knife, however, seemed oh so close. He held a proper knife — a kenshar, curved and keen, flicker-edged.
He gripped Çeda’s hair and lifted her head until the two of them were eye to eye. There was regret in his eyes, as if he knew this had gone too far. He pointed to Meshel with his blade. “He might die girl. I can’t let this go. You know I can’t.” Which seemed a strange thing to say since he was the one holding the knife and could do just about anything he pleased.
He was breathing hard now, perhaps working himself up like she’d seen boys do from time to time. But then there came a long, piercing whistle. Alando’s head snapped up and his look of indecision became one of confusion. Confusion and a touch of fear.
“This is no business of yours,” Alando said, though who he might be speaking to Çeda had no idea.
“My daughter is my business,” said a voice.
It took a long while to register who had spoken, and still she didn’t understand. Why would her mother be here? How could she have found Çeda?
“Your daughter’s just taken a knife to my man.”
“If your man can’t protect himself from a seven-year-old, then perhaps he deserves to die.”
Footsteps approached, the sound gritty. Alando stood, and finally Çeda could roll over to see. Her mother wore a simple blue dress. A fighting dress, cut at the sides, strips of boiled leather worked into it. She held her shamshir at her side with ease, at the ready. She had always done so when the two of them had practiced at swords, but something had changed. Never had Çeda felt ill intent from her mother. But she felt it now, a will to do harm. The signs were all over her. From her half-fighter’s stance to the way her body was poised to the way she was ignoring-but-not-ignoring Alando’s other man.
Most of all, though, it was in her eyes. There was a dangerous quality in them Çeda had never seen before, not even when she was shouting at Dardzada the apothecary, arguing with him over this or that.
Ahya turned to where Emre was standing and stared straight at him. “You know where we live?” she asked.
“Go, then. Take my daughter home.”
“You can’t have her,” Alando said, holding the kenshar so tight his knuckles turned white.
Ahya said nothing. She merely stared him straight in the eyes, the tip of her sword waggling as she dropped incrementally into a proper fighter’s stance. She was a bowstring drawn, a black laugher ready to charge. And Alando knew it, good and well. He held perfectly still and said no more.
Emre came to Çeda’s side and helped her to stand. With Tariq and Demal following, Emre supported her as they walked unsteadily from the courtyard and returned to the buzz and bustle of the Spear. As the thoroughfare made way for them, subsumed them, caught them up in its ever-flowing currents, Emre whispered into Çeda’s ear. “What’s she going to do?”
She might have heard a shout. She might have heard a scream of pain, cut short a moment later, but she couldn’t be sure. The traffic along the Spear was too loud.
In the days ahead, Çeda would hear rumors of a rival gang eliminating another in the Red Crescent. She would hear of three of their men being killed in vicious fashion. She would hear of their leader, a particularly ruthless woman named Farah, who’d been found face down in the Haddah’s riverbed, both of her little fingers missing. She would hear that the remaining few members of Farah’s crew, having no idea who’d murdered their leader, had moved on to a rival gang before they too were given back to the desert.
In the days ahead, she would learn those things and more, but that night Çeda knew none of them, and when her mother came home safe and whole and stitched Çeda’s wounds, the two of them lay with one another long into the night, Ahya stroking her hair while Çeda cried herself to sleep.
Also on CR: Interview with Brad Beaulieu (2011); Interview with Brad & Rob Ziegler (2016); Guest Post on “The Ties that Bind”; Guest Post w. Stephen Gaskell, “On Co-Authoring Strata“; Excerpt from Twelve Kings; Reviews of The Winds of Khalakovo, Twelve Kings, Strata and The Burning Light