Today, we have an annotated excerpt from Bradley P. Beaulieu‘s A Desert Torn Asunder — the final book in the author’s Song of the Shattered Sands series. Before we get to that, though, here’s the official synopsis for the novel:
The final book in The Song of the Shattered Sands series closes the epic fantasy saga in a desert setting, filled with rich worldbuilding and pulse-pounding action.
The plans of the desert gods are coming to fruition. Meryam, the deposed queen of Qaimir, hopes to raise the buried elder god, Ashael, an event that would bring ruin to the desert.
Çeda and Emre sail for their ancestral home to bring the traitor, Hamid, to justice. To their horror, they discover that the desert tribes have united under Hamid’s banner. Their plan? A holy crusade to annihilate Sharakhai, a thing long sought by many in the tribes. In Sharakhai, meanwhile, the blood mage, Davud, examines the strange gateway between worlds, hoping to find a way to close it. And King Ihsan hunts for Meryam, but always finds himself two steps behind.
When Meryam raises Ashael, all know the end is near. Ashael means to journey to the land that was denied to him an age ago, no matter the cost to the desert. It now falls to Çeda and her unlikely assortment of allies to find a way to unite not only the desert tribes and the people of Sharakhai, but the city’s invaders as well. Even if they do, stopping Ashael will cost them dearly, perhaps more than all are willing to pay.
The series is published by Gollancz in the UK and DAW in North America. The other novels are Twelve Kings of Sharakai, With Blood Upon the Sand, A Veil of Spears, Beneath the Twisted Trees, and When Jackals Storm the Walls. (Beaulieu has also written a number of short stories that fit within the chronology of the series. You can find more details of those here.)
And now, on with the excerpt!
Chapter Three is Çeda’s first appearance in the book. Here, we see her heading east to take care of unfinished business. More specifically, she needs to take back control of the thirteenth tribe from her childhood friend, Hamid, who betrayed Shaikh Macide (Çeda’s uncle) in the previous book.
Çeda gripped the Red Bride’s forestay to steady herself on deck. Her other hand rested on the pommel of River’s Daughter, a shamshir forged of ebon steel. The stiff wind tugged at her turban, made the skirt of her wheat-colored battle dress flap. The yacht’s lateen sails were full and rounded. The day was bright and beautiful, the wind pleasantly warm.
It reminded Çeda of a similar day, what felt like a lifetime ago. She’d been sailing with her mother, Ahya, toward a salt flat, a pilgrimage to witness the great flocks of Blazing Blues that congregated there in spring. Back then, the skis of their skiff had hissed over the sand, just as the Red Bride’s were now.
This is the first mention of Çeda’s mother in this book. Though I didn’t precisely plan it this way, I knew fairly early on that I wanted to use the last book as a retrospective of sorts. I wanted to show how far Çeda, Emre, and all the others had come, and in order to do that, I need to drop in a few hints of the past along the way.
“It’s a good day to be alive,” Ahya had said in a rare moment of bliss.
Çeda had been confused at first, even wary—her mother simply didn’t share those sorts of emotions. Eventually, though, she’d relaxed and shared in her mother’s joy. She’d stood on the thwart and gripped the mast, reveling in the wind as it flowed through her unbound hair.
Her mother had actually laughed.
I’ve done enough along the way to show how hard a woman and a mother Ahya was. I wanted a moment of brightness here, a memory that Çeda can actually enjoy. That Çeda is able to do so sheds a bit of light on how much she’s matured.
Çeda smiled wistfully at the memory but sobered as she cast her gaze over the amber dunes. Sailing the Great Shangazi had become dangerous, now more than ever. She and the others aboard her two ships had to remain wary of white sails, of dark hulls, along the horizon.
Sailing in the Red Bride’s wake was Storm’s Eye, a schooner that carried the bulk of warriors accompanying Çeda toward the mountains. All told they were a respectable force—eighty swords and shields in all, including the Shieldwives, the fierce desert swordswomen Çeda had trained herself. Even so, Çeda worried they wouldn’t be enough. The task she’d set for herself and the others was formidable. They sailed east to bring the traitorous Hamid, their childhood friend, to justice and regain control of the thirteenth tribe. The number of warriors at Hamid’s command would dwarf their own, but it couldn’t be helped. They had to try.
Along with memories, I need contrasts. Çeda started as a young pit fighter who had few resources to speak of and little power to stand up against the Sharakhani Kings. Now she’s a force in the desert, and I needed to show that early.
To the ship’s port side lay easy, rolling dunes with patches of perfectly flat sand. Along the starboard side were dunes the size of caravanserais. Known as the mounds, the dunes lounged like lizards, content in the knowledge that no ship could navigate their steep slopes. The formation was a strange phenomenon that occurred near summer’s end, a time when fitful sandstorms plagued the open sands. In a few more weeks, the winds would pass, the shift toward winter complete, and the dunes would slowly disappear.
It’s important to me that the desert has character, and that it be shown to be more than a swath of hot sand. I want there to be wrinkles to life in the desert, to sailing the Great Shangazi, and this is part of it: showing that there are many aspects and dangers to saililng.
The mounds represented a strange combination of danger and safety. Pirates or enemy ships sometimes lay in wait along their gutters, which was why Çeda had ordered three lookouts to watch them, but sailing on open sand had its dangers, too. Çeda and her allies had no shortage of enemies, after all. Sailing close to the mounds allowed her the option of sailing into them to lose their pursuers, be they desert tribespeople, Sharakhani, Mirean, or Malasani.
Hearing the scrape of footsteps, Çeda turned to see Emre climbing up from belowdecks. A smile tugged the corner of her mouth on seeing Emre work his way past Frail Lemi, who had strung a hammock between the foremast and a cleat on the cabin’s roof.
Emre gave him a shove as he sidled past. “Who let this bloody ox on our ship?”
His eyes still closed, his fingers laced behind his head, Lemi grinned his handsome grin as he rocked back and forth. “The gods gave me much, it’s true. No need to be jealous.”
“Why don’t you string your hammock at the top of the masts? At least then you’d be out of the way.”
“No!” Kameyl, a brawny ex-Blade Maiden Çeda had fought alongside countless times, called from the ship’s wheel. “He’d tip the damned ship over.”
Lemi’s grin only broadened.
I didn’t know what to think of Frail Lemi when I first created him, but he’s become one of my favorites. It’s fun writing an absolute brute with no filters whose fiercely loyal to his friends.
Emre rolled his eyes, then gave Çeda a wink as he came to stand beside her. He wore sirwal trousers, sandals and a loose shirt that revealed the dark hair along the top of his chest. His broad, boiled leather belt and bracers were new, but they reminded Çeda of the ones he’d worn years ago when they had lived together in Roseridge.
Emre scanned the desert, his eyes a bit bleary. He’d just woken, having taken night watch. Çeda ran her fingers through his hair, feeling the scar from his surgery. To relieve the pressure from a terrible, lingering head wound delivered by Hamid’s lover, Darius, Dardzada had cut through Emre’s skin and used a carpenter’s drill to pierce his skull. She missed his long hair, but she had to admit the shorter hair, along with his pointed beard and mustache, gave him a roguish look she rather liked.
Another memory of the past, this one from when Emre received a head wound from Hamid’s and Darius’s betrayal of him. I’m constantly trying to drop in hints of the past, but to also make them matter to the present, even if it’s only to evoke emotion. In this case, it reminds the reader of why they’re going to face Hamid and what it means to Emre, specifically.
A sharp whistle cut through the hiss of the skis.
Çeda turned to see Shal’alara of the Three Blades, an elder of the thirteenth tribe, waving from the foredeck of the much larger Storm’s Eye sailing in their wake. She wore a battle dress similar to Çeda’s but, in her customary style, had dyed it a bright orange and embellished it with beaten coins, bracelets, and necklaces. The ruby brooch on her cream-colored head scarf glinted brightly in the sun.
In all honesty, I wish there had been more time to explore Shal’alara. She’s a fun character, but there simply wasn’t enough room in the books for her. Either that or she didn’t demand it strongly enough. 🙂
“There’s an oasis to the north,” she bellowed across the distance.
There was no doubt everyone deserved a rest, but Sharakhai and the desert itself were still in deep danger. Making Hamid pay was only one of the reasons they needed to return to the valley below Mount Arasal. Çeda also needed access to the acacia tree, which granted prophetic visions. Çeda hoped to use them to learn how to close the unearthly gateway beneath Sharakhai.
“We sail on!” Çeda called back. “We have enough water to reach the next.”
Shal’alara nodded and began relaying the orders to Jenise, a fierce swordswoman and the leader of Çeda’s Shieldwives. Çeda was grateful to have them both. Shal’alara had rallied dozens to their cause, and Jenise had trained them, drilling them relentlessly with her Shieldwives. If Çeda succeeded in her quest, it would be thanks to their efforts as much as anyone else’s.
Sümeya, the former First Warden of the Blade Maidens, came up from belowdecks wearing her black battle dress, her Maiden’s black. With five clay mugs of water gripped tightly in her hands, which she proceeded to pass around, she looked more than a little like a west end barmaid.
Sümeya has been a huge influence on Çeda. I love that their roles have been reversed from the earlier books, where Sümeya was the leader. Now it’s Sümeya who follows Çeda’s lead, providing advice where she can.
Frail Lemi was just tipping the largest of the mugs back and swallowing noisily when Çeda felt something peculiar. It started as a tingling in the meat of her right thumb, where the adichara thorn had pricked her skin. It flowed through her fingers and up along her arm. It suffused her chest and for some peculiar reason made her keenly aware of the tattoos inked across her arms, chest and back. The sensation felt achingly familiar, though she couldn’t place it.
In one paragraph, we get a host of reminders. Of how Çeda poisoned herself to prove she was a daughter of the Kings, which allowed her entry into the House of Maidens. We also get reminders of her various tattoos, each of which is tied to major events in the various installments of the series.
As they came abreast of a colossal sand dune, the feeling became so strong Çeda’s ribs and chest tickled from it. It was enough to jog a memory loose.
“Stop the ship,” she called immediately.
Kameyl followed Çeda’s gaze to the crest of the massive dune, but made no move to obey. “Why?”
“Just stop the ship!”
Speaking from a writer’s point of view, it’s important to look for ways to increase suspense and tension wherever you can. Çeda has an inkling what she’s just sensed, but I don’t have her voice it because doing so teases the reader, makes them wonder what’s going on. It creates a narrative vacuum that draws the reader forward.
Kameyl shared a look with Sümeya, then shrugged. “As you say.”
They pulled in the sails and let the Bride glide to a halt. Behind them, Storm’s Eye did the same. All the while, Çeda faced the dune.
“What is it?” Emre asked in a soft voice.
Before Çeda could answer, an animal with cup-shaped ears, a long, pointed snout, and a ruff of red fur lifted its head over the top of the dune.
“Breath of the desert,” Çeda breathed.
It was a maned wolf, one of the long-legged creatures that roamed the desert in packs, often competing with black laughers for dominance over a territory.
Frail Lemi set his mug down, grabbed his greatspear, and stared at the wolf as if fearful that hundreds more would come storming down the dune. “What’s happening?”
But his words hardly registered. Another wolf was lifting its head along the dune’s crest. A third came immediately after, then a fourth. Soon more than twenty were staring down at the ships.
Çeda held her breath, waiting, hoping.
“Çeda?” Emre called.
She raised one hand, and he fell silent. Several long breaths passed. The wind kicked up, making spindrift lift in curls and whorls. The sun beat down, warming Çeda’s cheeks, her neck, the backs of her hands.
She took a deep breath. Released it slowly, praying.
She was ready to give up hope when another wolf, a female with a white coat, lifted her head.
And so we arrive at one of my very favorite moments of the entire series. It’s been a long while since we’ve seen Mist. I knew Çeda would be ruinited with her at some point, and this seemed like a great point to do it. Though Çeda doesn’t realize it yet, Mist has a gift for her…
For long moments, Çeda could only stare. She knew this wolf. Çeda herself had named her Mist. She’d been the inspiration for Çeda’s guise of the White Wolf in Sharakhai’s fighting pits. Gods, how powerful she looked now. How regal. On Çeda’s very first foray to the blooming fields with Emre, she had seen Mist as a pup. Years later she’d come to Çeda on the Night of Endless Swords, shortly after Çeda had killed King Mesut, and the two of them had traveled with the asir, Kerim, far into the desert. They’d stayed together for weeks until Çeda was discovered by scouts from Tribe Salmük.
More memories from the past, reminding the reader of all Çeda’s gone through to reach this point.
It seemed a lifetime ago. So much had changed since then, both in Çeda’s life and Mist’s. Thorn, the largest and fiercest of the pack, was nowhere to be seen. Mist seemed to be their leader now. The rest waited as she padded forward. At first Çeda thought Mist was going to come down to meet the ship, but she didn’t. She halted less than halfway down, as if waiting for Çeda to come to her.
Çeda leapt over the gunwales, landing on the amber sand with a crunch. The sand sighed as she attacked the slope. Emre joined her, as did Sümeya.
“Play with a pack of mangy wolves all you wish,” Kameyl called from deck. “I’m staying here with the olives and the araq.”
A broad smile lit Frail Lemi’s face. “Olives and araq!” he roared, and fell back into his hammock. “I like the way you think!”
When Çeda reached Mist, she hugged the rangy wolf around the neck and scratched her fur. Her musky smell whisked Çeda back to their days hiding with Kerim in their desert cave.
Mist was a lithe beast, and taller than Çeda. While she wasn’t the biggest wolf in the pack, she had a confident air. The others were attentive, subservient, courtiers awaiting their queen’s next pronouncement. For a while, she seemed content to revel in Çeda’s scratches, then she nipped at Çeda’s wrist, something she used to do when she wanted Çeda to follow.
“Go on, then,” Çeda said with a smile, curious.
Mist yipped, then howled, as if trying to speak. Then she turned and padded up to the crest, and the pack parted for her, creating a lane. One growled, but fell silent when Mist barked loudly.
I love the notion that Mist also had to rise up through the ranks to become the leader of her own tribe.
At the crest, Mist stopped and looked back, as if ensuring Çeda was following, then stared at something hidden behind the slope.
Çeda’s breath was on her by the time she reached Mist’s side. Below them, half buried at the base of the dune, was a sandship. Its skis had long been swallowed by the sand, and the hull was almost wholly submerged, a thing that happened to unattended ships in the deeper parts of the desert. The bow had been lost to the sloping edge of the dune’s windward side, but the stern and the quarterdeck were still visible.
“That’s a royal clipper,” Sümeya said.
Çeda suddenly recognized it. “It’s one of the ships that attacked us.”
Along the leeward side of the next dune, she saw signs of a second clipper, that one broken beyond repair, a victim of the goddess Nalamae’s power when she’d come to save Çeda and the others from the Kings.
I’m packing a lot of memories into this chapter, but I hope it doesn’t feel that way. I tried my best to make them a part of the narrative.
Mist headed down the slope. Çeda, Emre, and Sümeya followed. The other wolves paced alongside them in two broad wings—an honor guard of sorts.
“Are you sure they’re not taking us somewhere to eat us?” Emre asked.
“Be quiet,” Çeda said, “or I’ll offer you up as a snack.”
Mist led them to the half-buried clipper and onto the main deck. From there she took the stairs down into the ship.
“What—?” Emre began. He stared at Çeda with a confused expression but soon fell silent.
They took the stairs down, where Mist led them to the cabin’s captain. The door was open, hanging from one hinge. Inside, a sifting of dust covered everything. Bottles and glasses and books had fallen from the shelves built into the hull. Broken glass lay everywhere, glinting. The shutters were closed, but light filtered in at an angle, segmenting the chaos into ordered ranks.
The feeling that had blossomed inside of Çeda on recognizing the clipper grew stronger by the moment. There were wolf prints on the dusty floor. Retracing them, Mist wove beyond the desk to a locked chest in the far corner of the cabin, the sort the captain would use for valuables, the ship’s treasury, and more. Mist sniffed at the lid, yipped and whined, then tugged at Çeda’s sleeve.
The air within the cabin felt suddenly oppressive. It was getting harder and harder to breathe.
More drawing out of tension… 🙂
Above the shutters, mounted to the hull, was a ceremonial spear. Çeda took it down and wedged it beneath the lid. With Emre and Sümeya helping, they pushed and pried, and eventually the lid gave way.
Çeda knelt before the chest. She balled her hands into fists. After taking one deep breath, she threw the lid back.
“By the gods…” Emre said. “How?”
Always teasing the reader, waiting for as long as possible before giving the reader what they want. It’s a subtle skill. Overused, it can be irritating, so be careful not to take it too far.
Words failing her, Çeda could only stare in wonder. Her heart pounded as she reached in and took the object on top, a helm, the sort gladiators wore in the fighting pits. It had a wolf pelt along the top. The face guard, made of highly polished steel, was a mask molded into the likeness of a goddess: Nalamae. Beneath the helm was a set of boiled leather armor: a breastplate, a battle skirt, greaves, bracers, and gloves, all of which had been dyed white.
It was her old armor, the set she’d used when she’d fought in Osman’s pits for money.
Coupled with Mist having led her to this place, I adore that we’re brought back to the very opening of the series. The very first scene in Twelve Kings in Sharakhai is Çeda fighting in the pits wearing this armor. We see later in Twelve Kings how much it meant to Çeda. And now here it is again. We don’t know precisely what she’ll do with it, but we know it’s important to her. For me, this is a moment that borders on the mystical.
Utterly confused, Çeda looked up to Sümeya, still holding the mask.
“The armor was meant for the sickletail,” Sümeya said. “Nayyan told me they’d needed something of yours in order for the bird to find you.”
“But how could they have found her armor?” Emre asked.
“Osman,” Çeda said. “They had him in their prison camp. He must have told Cahil where it was. Or Ihsan might have commanded him to give up its location.”
More memories, which again help to put Çeda’s journey east in context. Some of the memories are quite old, but others are new. I want to use these small flashes to constantly fill in details so the reader recalls the general plot and stakes without me stopping the narrative to lay it all in some boring, info-dumpy fashion.
Çeda hardly knew what to feel. So much was rushing back to her. Her time in Roseridge with Emre. Her days learning the ways of pit fighting from her mentor, Djaga. Her many bouts in the pits. Her brief affair with Osman, owner of the pits. The journey she’d undertaken with Emre, which had led her to her uncle, Macide, and eventually to the King of the asirim, Sehid-Alaz—the start of her long and winding journey.
Mist panted beside her, her tongue hanging out. Her ivory eyes were alive, her gaze flicking from the armor to Çeda and back. She knew she’d done good. Çeda hugged her tight, ruffling the fur of her mane and the spot between her ears she liked so much to have scratched.
Mist leaned into it. Her tail wagged. For long moments she reveled in the attention, then suddenly broke away and faced the hull as if looking through the wood and sand to the Red Bride beyond. She hopped in the way she did when she wanted to run free.
A cute moment between Çeda and Mist gives hint to the bond they share.
A moment later an attenuated whistle reached them. Çeda and Sümeya knew what it was immediately. Emre, however, didn’t know how to decipher the Blade Maidens’ whistles.
“What?” he asked, staring at them.
“It’s Kameyl,” Çeda said as she gathered up the armor. “She’s spotted ships.”
Here, the present is invading once again. We don’t know that what Kameyl has spotted means danger, precisely, but, this being the final installment in an sweeping, epic fantasy, we can guess it’s not the best news in the world. I like that we have this moment of reflection and caring between Çeda and Mist, and then we’re whisked back to the troubles plaguing the desert.
They left the ship and took the slope up toward the crest of the massive dune. When they reached it, four ships could be seen sailing in from the north. Emre and Sümeya immediately began their slip-slide descent, but Çeda stayed behind. Shifting the armor’s bulk under one arm, she crouched and hugged Mist close.
“Thank you,” she whispered.
Mist’s gaze flicked from Çeda to the distant ships. Several of the other wolves growled. One whined. Ignoring them, Mist butted her head against Çeda’s hand. After Çeda gave her one more scratch, she barked, then padded down the slope, away from the ships. Her pack followed in her wake.
A parting of two queens.
Çeda watched them go until Kameyl whistled again, then she turned and rushed down the slope toward the Bride.
Propelling us into the next chapter…
Also on CR: Interviews with Bradley P. Beaulieu (20) and Bradley P. Beaulieu & Rob Ziegler (2016); Guest Posts “On Co-Authoring Strata” and “The Ties That Bind”; Excerpts from Twelve Kings and Blood Upon the Sands; Reviews of The Winds of Khalakovo, Twelve Kings, Strata, and The Burning Light