W&N Fiction

Çeda and the Sandship

Gollancz Author: - February 15th, 2017
Bradley Beauilieu, Fantasy

We are delighted to welcome Bradley Beaulieu back to the blog. Today Bradley shares with us an exclusive deleted scene from Blood Upon the Sand. Return to the ancient walled city of Sharakhai, home to the Twelve Kings and Çeda. This exciting extract follows Çeda as she embarks on a dangerous mission.

Çeda and the Sandship

Cloaked in the darkness of a moonlit night, Çeda crouched atop a rise a league out from Sharakhai. Around her neck hung the delicate chain that held her mother’s silver locket. She held the locket between thumb and forefinger, rubbing it absently, polishing the otherwise-tarnished keepsake while studying the sprawl of the Amber City. Lights winked in the desert’s dying heat, a reflection of the stars above, a glinting coin forgotten by the elder gods. Along the city’s leftmost edge lay the inky blackness of Tauriyat, a sated beast surveying its demesne. Closer to her position lay the crescent of the northern harbor, the twin flames of its lighthouses shining bright, a beacon for ships arriving after sunset.

By some trick of the desert, the rocks along the slope gave off a plaintive wail, as if they longed for the return of the sun. The wind tugged at the hem of the sand-colored dress she’d sewn over the past few days, a garment cut not in the style of the Maidens’ black fighting dresses, but more like those the women of the desert tribes might wear. It was loose, like a thawb, with slits along the sides so her legs were free to move. Across the front and back, along the sleeves, and down legs of the sirwal pants, strips of boiled leather were sewn in, providing some small amount of protection while keeping her movements free and her burden light.

Çeda flexed her hands, realizing how tight she was in body and in soul. “Come,” she whispered to the wind. “I grow tired of waiting.” The wind’s lone reply was the rustle of a breeze playing with the sand along the slope below.

Long minutes later there came a hint of movement near the mouth of the harbor. The great lanterns atop the lighthouses lit a trio of lateen sails. The ship sailed on, the brightness of the sails fading to a telltale shadow lit faintly by Rhia’s golden light. As it neared Çeda’s position, she could make out the pale ghosts of its sails, the blackness of its hull.

This was the ship King Yusam had sent her to intercept. She’d been brought to his palace two days before, where she’d stood with him on a balcony overlooking the southern reaches of the city. The sun had been setting in the west, a crash of ochre and gold against a violet sky.

“There is a book I need you to find,”  Yusam had said, and he’d gone on to describe it in great detail. The size her open hand, covers of worked leather, pages of linen the color of curdled cream.

A seemingly odd request, but then, all of his requests seemed odd. “And where will I find this book, My Lord King?”

He’d taken some time to answer, staring out at the sunset, blinking as if to clear his eyes of dust. “On a ship,” he’d said, “in the captain’s cabin. Where, exactly, I do not know.” He’d gone on to describe the ship as it left the harbor, exactly as Çeda had seen it moments ago.

Discussions with Yusam were often like this. As much as she’d feared him when they’d first met, she’d found him since then to be quite flighty, often lost in the visions of his mere. She remembered how he’d screamed while being gripped by the vision at that first meeting between them. Çeda had thought surely she’d be killed over whatever it was he’d seen, or at the very least given back to Sümeya to do with Çeda as the First Warden pleased. But to her surprise, Yusam had not only given his blessing for Çeda to enter the ranks of the Blade Maidens, he’d asked that Sümeya’s own hand of Maidens be assigned to him. Since Külaşan’s death, Çeda had been sent on various missions, sometimes with the other Maidens, sometimes without. They’d all been rather routine, however. Nothing so unusual as this.

“Might I ask the King a question about the mere?” He’d turned to her, irritated. She’d been sure she’d taken a misstep, but he merely looked her up and down and then nodded for her to go on.

“I only wonder,” she went on, “why it doesn’t grant clearer visions.” “You’re displeased with the gift Tulathan has granted?”

“I would never presume to question such a thing. It’s wondrous, to be sure. It’s only, if the gods granted it to you, why does it veil its intentions so?”

“Because it has no intentions. It finds what it finds, the pieces of a grand puzzle. And it is left to me, sometimes with the help of my fellow Kings, to root out the warnings contained within.” Yusam’s eyes stared through the sunset, as if he were living the dreams from the mere even then. “There are times when it takes me years for me to piece it all together. As for why the gods made it so? Who can say?” He said the words with such lament it was clear he’d wondered the very same thing she had, and often. “Go now. Bring me this book, Çedamihn. Leave all else untouched. And return to me the morning after.”

“Of course, Excellence.” “Çedamihn?”

She’d turned, bowing her head to him.

“Wear not the Maiden’s black.” He left the implication unspoken, that he didn’t wish her presence, should she be caught, to be tied back to the House of Kings, which only served to make her wonder whether the point of this mission was to get the book

at all. It might be for something else entirely. Perhaps he meant for Çeda to be captured. To be killed. Perhaps that was the vision he’d seen.

But like a trump player protecting her cards, her fears were nothing she could voice. “It will be as you say,” she said, and left his palace.

As the ship sailed through the night, Çeda pried open the locket and carefully picked up the pear-shaped petal that lay within. She set it against the light from the distant city. “Guide me, mother,” she said, and placed it under her tongue.

Immediately her mouth filled with spit and her tongue began to tingle. Warmth infused her. Her every muscle sang from it. It was difficult, even after all these years, to navigate the rush of vitality borne on the wing of the adichara petal. But she did the best she could, allowing it to come before trying to control it in any way. Slowly the rush from the petal receded, leaving behind a strangely intimate feeling. Her skin tingled, but in a way that gave her complete awareness of her own body—its limits, certainly, but especially its strengths, which were much greater with the vigor of the petal running through her veins.

With the ship looming closer, she snapped the locket shut and slipped it inside her dress, then pulled her zilij over her shoulder. The zilij was a board made of skimwood, the very same wood used to fashion the runners of the desert’s sandships. When treated properly, the wood was strong as iron and slick as silk. She unhooked the zilij from the cord that had kept it across her back and set the board onto the sand. It slid easily until she placed her foot into the gently hollowed surface to hold it in place.

She waited as the ship sailed over the wide trade route that dozens of ships used each day to sail from Sharakhai to Mirea and the Thousand Territories of Kundhun. When she judged the ship close enough, she kicked off the sand and crouched onto the zilij, leaning into it as she gained speed. Down she slid, moving faster and faster. The ship was moving with good speed, her sails full, her three runners bearing her with ease over the sand. The sleek caravel pulled even with Çeda, then passed her by.

Perfect, Çeda thought as she studied the slope ahead. This hill, by some trick of the wind or the will of the gods, was often covered with a thin layer of sand. She’d found it years ago and used to used it to practice with her zilij. She leaned forward and back, guiding herself around the black rocks that protruded near its base, the curvature of the hill beneath her feeling more like the rise and fall of a song than the hard crust of the desert. She sped so quickly the skirt of her dress flapped, the sound like an amberlark taking wing. Blinking away wind-born  tears, she flew out and into the broad shipping lane.

Like a falcon diving for prey, she gained quickly on the ship. No lights shone from within the captain’s cabin at the rear of the ship, she saw. A fortuitous sign. Soon the hull loomed above. The rudder—the central runner at the rear, the one that rotated left and right to steer the ship over the sands—lay just ahead. It split the sand with a sound like falling rain, marking its passage with a furrowed wake. Çeda guided her zilij into the wake’s trough and used her speed to approach the broad runner. As she neared it, she kicked the front of the zilij up and slid onto the skimwood runner itself.

After catching herself on the rearmost strut, she unslung the zilij’s leather cord from around her shoulder and used it to strap the board tightly against the strut. She gave the board a quick kiss. “Gods preserve,” she whispered, then looked up to the hull.

A ship’s struts always had small footholds the crew could use to navigate to effect repairs or conduct maintenance along the underside of the ship. Çeda used those footholds now, hand over hand, gripping the deep notches in the wood, until she reached the hull itself. There was a door that could be opened from the inside, but she wouldn’t try to gain the ship via that route. Too risky. Instead she gripped the top of the strut and arched back, pressing her chest against the hull and stretching her free arm until she could feel edge. The ship took a rise. The hull creaked as the caravel angled over it and down the opposite slope. The motion threatened to toss Çeda from her perch, but she held tight, the adichara petal lending her strength.

When the ship leveled off, she released her hold of the strut and grabbed tight to the narrow lip that ran along the hull’s edge. She hung there by fingertips, arresting her movement with well-timed  swings of her legs. Just above her was the captain’s cabin, one of its windows ajar. She pulled upward and grabbed the sill, then swung her right leg up so that her toes rested on the lip.

The hollow sound of footsteps came from the deck above. Two men spoke with one another in the heavy tongue of the Kundhunese. Çeda knew a smattering of the language, but they were speaking in hushed tones and it was coming well too fast for her to understand what they were getting at. But she didn’t have to understand the language to tell how heated the conversation was.

The ship’s upper deck was angled away from her position, so she could not easily be seen, but all it would take was for one of them to lean over, to look down at the sand, and surely they would spot her. Taking great care to move with deliberate motion, she pulled herself up and peered into the darkened cabin. Rhia’s light was weak, but the magic of the adichara petal allowed her to pick out details she would otherwise have been unable to see. A bunk along the cabin’s right. A closed door on the far side. A bare desk and a set of shelves to the left.

Finding the cabin blessedly empty, she levered the window open. It groaned softly, and she thought surely she’d been given away, for the men above stopped their conversation, but moments later, one of them, the one with the deep voice, took up the conversation anew, perhaps trying a new tack. As the other butted in and spoke over the first, Çeda levered herself over the sill and dropped to the cabin floor, leaving the window ajar lest it creak again.

She felt the soft swell of the dunes as she moved to the captain’s desk and leafed through the ledger. She couldn’t read the contents in the moonlight, but she knew enough to know this wasn’t what King Yusam was after. This was the captain’s log, not the ledger.

She moved about the cabin, peered beneath the bunk. There was little there save a prayer mat, extra blankets, and a beaten pair of sandsman’s boots made from triple- thick leather. She checked the shelves on the far side of the cabin, the desk drawers, the cabinets, even the captain’s clothes trunk. All the while the men continued to argue, masking the creaking and ticking sounds the planks made beneath her thin-soled shoes.

Finding nothing of note, she reached into her dress and pulled out a small wooden box. Within was the small sack of grey powder and a lone glove. She took a hand and squeezed tightly. Immediately the sack began giving off a soft salmon glow, and the harder she squeezed, the brighter it became, until a bright carmine light burst through the seams between her fingers. She worried the glow through the cabin windows or under its door might give her away, but there was nothing for it. She moved about the room, shaking the glowing sack, and as she did, pink powder floated free. She moved it close to the surfaces of the desk, its sides, the walls of the room, the captain’s clothes chest, even the floor. Her fear pleaded with her to rush, but she forced herself to move slowly so as not to create whorls of air current, allowing the glowing dust to settle as evenly as possible. When she’d covered the room as best she could, she put the sack back into the wooden box, pulled the now-glowing glove off and stuffed that inside as well, then hid the box back inside her dress.

All around her, a soft glow lit the room, the pink cast purple by the brown colors of the wood. She could see it gathered on the drawer handles, at the top rail of the chair, on the desk’s edges, particularly where the captain would pull himself toward the desk and push himself away. Anywhere the captain or others had touched, especially recently, the dust would gather. And it did, but it only seemed to be gathering near the places she’d already searched.

She grew desperate. She retraced her steps, looking more closely at everything, careful not to smudge the powder along the floor. Had Yusam’s vision been wrong? It seemed odd that the captain wouldn’t have some sort of strongbox where he kept important items locked away. Surely he did. She just had to find it.

She stepped onto the edge of the bed and examined one of the heavy wooden beams that spanned the cabin. Some powder had gathered there, but the beam was solid wood and nothing more.

As the ship eased over another dune, the argument outside escalated to shouting. Another man came, speaking in a placating tone, but he fell silent when the deep-voiced man barked an order at him. When Çeda, wary of what would come of that order, turned to look at the window,  she realized the curtains were pulled aside. The moonlight was bright enough that it might foul her vision where the powder was thin. After pulling  them closed, she examined the room again. And noticed a gathering of powder along the floor.

She dropped to her knees and felt along the boards. She thumped the heel of her hand against each until she heard a sound like the beat of a drum. She gripped that board as best she could and moved it forward and back, left and right.

Finally, when she pushed down on the leftmost end of it, the right side angled up, and she was able to grab it and slide it away. Revealed below was the lid of a chest with four closely situated holes. From the pack at her side she removed a set of twelve reed-thin lengths of wood. She’d used them once or twice in her days with Osman, but Melis had given her this set and drilled her in their use until she felt her old skills returning. Each of these had a peg affixed to the end of it. Each peg was of a slightly tumblers, and if she found the right combination, she could remove the top and leave the captain none the wiser.

She slipped the first of the picks into the locking mechanism and moved the picks with care, listening for the telltale sign that the picks were now in the right position. She would never have been able to hear it without  the help of the petals, but with them, she was just able to pick out the scritch-scratch of the locks inner workings.

She was sure she’d solved the first two when the argument above came to a sudden stop.

“Tolovan ad jondu gonfahla,” came the deep voice.

Çeda went still. She didn’t have to understand Kundhunese to know the words for what they were—an order, an end to the conversation—but he’d also spoken a name that Çeda recognized. Tolovan, the vizir to the Honey-tongued King. Whether it was something Tolovan might do for them or to them Çeda wasn’t sure.

“Tolovan, ad jondu kash.” “Ahvo! Hehf!”

She understood the last. Roughly translated it meant, Go, leave me in peace. Soon after, two sets of footsteps thumped against the deck above.

The ship creaked as it headed over a rough patch of stones and rock. Çeda was desperate to move more quickly now, driven by the apprehension knotting in on itself within her chest. The captain would return to his cabin soon, to think or to rest. To her great dismay, she was not disappointed.

After clearing her mind and trying for the third and forth combinations, she heard the captain’s footsteps clomp over the deck, heard them soften and then pitch lower as he took to the stairs leading down. And now she heard them not through the window behind her but through the door ahead. They were soft but growing stronger by the moment.

She released her breath slowly, working the picks, listened carefully, finding the third combination at last.

The footsteps thudded outside the door. There was a pause as he stopped—why, exactly, Çeda had no idea—but in that moment, she found the fourth combination and pulled at the top of the chest. It lifted, and by the pale moonlight she could see a leatherbound journal nestled within the confines along with some other effects—a weighty ring, a small bag of incense, several brightly colored feathers. She took only the journal, stuffing it into her dress.

Before Çeda could slide the top of the wooden chest back into place, footsteps approached the cabin door. She stepped away and pressed herself against the cabin wall as the door swung open.

The captain stepped in and stopped, hand still on the door as he stared at the windows. He dropped into a stance that was half wary, half defensive. His head swung back and forth as he peered into the darkness. He’d just started turning toward Çeda when she slipped her arm around his neck and used her right foot to press against the door. As his hands went to his throat, she used her foot to push the door closed, which rattled home louder than she’d hoped. The captain fought, struggling for breath, but she tightened her hold, leaning him back to prevent him from regaining his balance.

He managed to shove her backward hard against the wall. Her shoulder and head struck the solid wood of the hull, but he was already losing strength.

His wet gasps stopped a moment later, and he went slack. She lowered him to the floor, then moved quickly.

“Uonjo?” someone called, the Kundhunese word for captain.

As quickly and quietly as she could, Çeda lay the captain down and replaced the lid of the chest. More footsteps approached as she set the floorboard home and rushed toward the windows and spread the curtains wide.

A knock came at the door. “Uonjo?” Another knock, and then the door swung inward.

Çeda leapt through the open window,  grabbing the sill as she went. Her last view of the cabin as she swung down was of a man’s outline, framed by the doorway. Whether he was looking at her or not she couldn’t tell, for she was soon down and out of sight. She controlled her body well, making the softest of sounds as her chest then stomach then legs rolled along the ship’s stern. Then she grabbed the lip below and swung herself down, releasing at the perfect moment to grab the strut she’d climbed earlier.

As she slipped down along its length and retrieved her zilij, she heard a cry of alarm. She stepped onto the board, then twisted herself out and onto the sand. Her momentum carried her even with the ship for a moment, but as the sand slowed her zilij, the ship’s dark bulk moved steadily ahead of her.

She crouched, leaning back ever so slightly, and came to a quiet stop. To any who might be watching, she would look like a stone the ship had passed over, nothing more.

As the ship pulled away, a lantern lit, washing the interior of the captain’s cabin with a golden glow. The crewman was outlined for a moment, waving someone else into the cabin. A second man soon came. A moment later, the first knelt down by the captain’s side and the other retreated.

A bell began to ring, shrill and clear over the desert. The shouts of orders followed, but the sounds of alarm soon dimmed as the ship took a decline and was lost from sight.

 

Excerpted from Blood Upon the Sand © Bradley Beaulieu 2017

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