We are thrilled to be able to share with you an exclusive extract from Twelve Kings, selected by the author, Bradley Beaulieu. Twelve Kings is an epic new fantasy series of mystery, prophecy and death within the ancient walled city of the Twelve Kings . . .
The twelve kings of Sharakhai tried to bury their secrets in the sands.
But no matter how deeply they are buried, secrets want to be found.
The kings murdered the assassin who discovered the first of them, and hoped their secrets died with her.
But secrets find a way.
The assassin had a daughter.
Her name is Çeda.
And it’s up to her to uncover the truth.
Two stories up, on the edge of the mudbrick roof of her home, Çeda rested on the balls of her feet, watching the alley that ran drunkenly from her house, up through the center of the bazaar, and on toward the Trough, the city’s central and largest thoroughfare. The wind might be gentle among the sheltered streets of Sharakhai, but up here it was strong enough to tug at the black thawb she wore, and the dust from the desert was thick enough that she’d pulled the veil of her turban across her face. Her mother’s silver locket hung around her neck, a weight that this night of all nights tugged heavily on her heart.
The sun still glowed a brilliant and burnished gold along the western horizon, but the rest of the sky was a field of stars scattered across a vast cloth of inky blue. Most nights the city would be loud with the sounds of hawkers in the bazaar, of children running the streets, of wagons rattling along the Trough, but not tonight. Tonight the city was boneyard quiet. Tonight the city was boneyard still. For this was the night of the reaping, the night the asirim would steal into the city like dark hounds, baying and hunting for souls.
Beht Zha’ir came once every six weeks, when the twin moons were full, and when it did, the city transformed from a thing bright and alive to the cowering beast Çeda saw before her. Not a single lamp in the great city was lit. Not a single word was uttered. Neither was expressly forbidden, but none would risk them for fear of luring the asirim to their home. Even the highborn, who considered it the highest of honors to be chosen, would follow custom. They would stand vigil in darkness, praying silently to the desert gods for favor until the sun rose once more. Even on Tauriyat, the hill where the Kings lived in their palaces, no lights shone, and none save the Reaping King and his deadly Maidens would venture out.
And Emre still had not come home. He was out there, somewhere—who knew where?—perhaps in trouble, perhaps wounded. Perhaps dead.
“Hurry,” she whispered, a word she hoped was carried on the wind to the gods of the desert themselves.
As she watched the alley intently, she wondered with a morbid and growing fascination whether the asirim would be attracted to Emre’s fear. They might. She’d never strayed near enough to one of them to find out. She’d never even seen one. Not clearly, anyway. Just a shadow in the night years ago, a crooked form lumbering through the city like a wounded dog.
With full night so near, she could no longer see into the deeper shadows, and she would be unable to until the moons were higher.
“Nalamae’s teats, come home, Emre.”
And yet despite her pleas, the city grew darker, the moons crept higher in the sky, and the lane below lay achingly empty. She ought to go inside. She ought to wait. She’d be a fool to search for him on a night like tonight. She knew he’d gone to the southern harbor to pick up the package, but she had no idea where he might have gone from there. She couldn’t abandon him, though. She would never do that to Emre.
The two of them had waited throughout the day for Osman to send word, for someone to give them the location for the pickups. She and Emre—both of them as edgy as they ever were when preparing for a shade—drank sparingly of water and pecked at a dish she’d made of saffron rice and raisins and pine nuts. Emre had whiled away the time, telling her of a Malasani bravo who’d come to the spice stall last night to try the vinegar peppers that Seyhan kept in clay jars beneath the spice tables.
“Said he’d heard of them,” Emre had said with a cat’s wide smile, his eyes distant. “He demanded one. Said I must give him the hottest peppers I could find. He left crying, Çeda. Crying and searching for anyone that would offer up a bit of water. But not a single one would, not even when he flashed gold.”
Çeda knew that every spice merchant kept water behind their stalls, but they wouldn’t have taken to a brash easterner pretending he knew more than everyone in the desert combined.
“They all smiled,” Emre went on, “and said to him, the gods’ blessing be upon you, but I have none. He left, and I tell you true, his face was bright as the sun, tears were streaming down his cheeks like a little boy who lost his mother. He’s probably still crying from it.”
Çeda had laughed ruefully, knowing the real reason the merchants hadn’t spared the Malasani a bit of water. None of them would have breathed a word of it to Emre, but they all knew of his painful history with Malasani bravos. Still, as quiet as they might be about it, they would always take Emre’s side. That they would surely do.
“You’re cruel and petty,” Çeda had said, “all of you.”
But Emre had brushed off her disapproval like sand from the deck of a ship. “The Malasani can die a thousand deaths before I’d care about a single one of them.”
And Çeda had left it at that, not wanting to tug on the stitches of a wound that, some days, still seemed half-healed.
Two hours before sunset, Tariq had come to their home, all cocky bravado, arms across his chest, talking down to them as if he owned Roseridge. Tariq was one of Osman’s street toughs, a boy she and Emre had both run the alleys with when they were growing up in Sharakhai’s west end.
“Two packages,” he’d said. “Çeda goes first. Emre, you’ll wait here until she’s gone.”
Tariq had ordered Emre to another room and given Çeda her assignment. She was to go to a distillery east of the city’s northern harbor, and she’d soon set out wearing a long abaya and a hijab to cover her head and face—plus two sheathed fighting knives strapped to her calves should she run into trouble—which ostensibly left Emre alone with Tariq.
As soon as she’d slipped down an alley, though, she circled back. Neither Tariq nor Osman would be pleased, but she and Emre had long ago agreed that they would let one another know where they were headed in case anything went wrong. She climbed the narrow three-story building opposite their home and peeked over the stone lip that ran along the roof’s edge. Emre had come to the window and leaned on the sill for a moment. His right hand hanging outside, he had pointed down—south—then flattened his hand like a sail, indicating the drop was in or very near the southern harbor.
She’d waited for Emre to stand and adjust the curtains, at which point she pointed up, north, and waved her hand like a leaf blowing in the wind, an indication she was headed to the rich green plantations fed from the Kings’ aqueduct. She’d left for her pickup immediately.
Behind the distillery’s ox mill she’d met a man of indistinct origin. His skin was dark like the Kundhunese, but his face looked more like the highlands of Mirea. He was a tall, distinguished sort, with dark clothes and midnight hair pulled back into a long tail. He’d given her a small ivory canister, which she took to a hovel in the middle of the Shallows, an area with cramped streets and homes stacked upon homes, an area she didn’t like staying in for any length of time, that very few in Sharakhai liked staying in for any length of time, even those who lived there. It was a dangerous place, but she reached the hovel in little enough time and was let in by an old, bony woman with wrinkles so deep she looked as though she’d been left in the desert to dry since the founding of Sharakhai. No sooner had Çeda stepped inside than the woman held out a grasping hand. She stared with a homorless, toothless grimace as Çeda held out the canister, then snatched it away and shooed Çeda from her home. And that had been that, as simple as Osman had made it out to be.
These layers of subterfuge were not uncommon in the Amber City. There were many in Sharakhai who wished to speak to one another, to trade or do business, illicit or otherwise, but who refused to do so openly with the watchful Kings so near, particularly the King of Whispers, who, it was said, could hear one speak, particularly when you uttered words related to the business of the Kings. The men and women who played at these games of power knew that conducting business beneath the bright light of day was foolish, so they would hire men like Osman to ferry commands and money and conditions of trade, hoping, often successfully, to do business in the shadows instead, hidden from the watchful eyes of the Kings and their Maidens and, sometimes more importantly, the royal taxmen. And if it required that men like Osman be added to the ledger, well, that was just the cost of doing business in a city like Sharakhai. The risks might be considerable, but the chance to make money outweighed them.
And there was more to consider than mere money. The coin they paid to have someone like Çeda run their messages might be dear, but it provided a certain amount of insulation. If the Silver Spears or the Maidens managed to get their hands on one of the canisters, they would be unable to decipher the message inside without its necessary other half, and if they captured Çeda or another of Osman’s shadows, she would know next to nothing. Even Osman himself—for his own protection as much as his patrons—would know nothing about the contents of the messages.
After leaving the woman’s hovel, Çeda had walked away as though that were the end of it. Once out of sight, she slipped around the backside of a four-story tenement house, one of the few in the Shallows. It was grossly overcrowded—twelve to twenty in a flat—but she made use of an inset in the odd, blocky structure that was not only child’s play to climb but hid her from prying eyes. Upon reaching the roof, she moved, swift and low, and lay down along its edge, watching the alley she’d just vacated.
This kind of spy work was a lucrative enough business, but it wasn’t why Çeda had agreed to start running things for Osman. She liked keeping tabs on Sharakhai. She liked knowing who was talking to whom—an investment, she told herself, that might one day pay dividends.
Nearly an hour later, two men and a woman moved with purpose down the narrow street. Curving shamshirs in leather sheaths hung from their belts. Their light-colored thawbs and turbans blended into the mudbrick homes, and their veils hung free, twisting in the wind as they walked. They stepped inside the woman’s hovel and left soon after, heading back the way they’d come. When they came to the nearest cross street, Çeda could see that the woman was carrying the same leather satchel Çeda had just passed to the old woman.
No sooner were they out of sight than Çeda descended to the streets and padded after them, through the Shallows, along the streets of the Well, and finally to Red Crescent, a neighborhood near the quays of the western harbor, the smallest and seediest of the city’s four sandy harbors.
She hid in a recessed doorway when the three of them came to an alley. The woman, walking between the two men, paused and scanned the street behind her with a wariness that made it clear this wasn’t her first time carrying packages. Apparently spotting nothing amiss, she followed the other two down the mouth of the alley.
Çeda gave them a bit of time—sensing their wariness would be heightened—then strode down the street, dusting her shoulder as she passed the alley, giving herself an opportunity to glance that way. Of the woman she could see no sign, but the two men were standing in a courtyard just beyond a peaked archway twenty paces down. It was no good trying to reach them that way, but there was another path.
She continued down the street to a bath house built for an ancient caravanserai that had once stood on this ground. Much of it had been torn down when the western harbor was built, but the bath house remained. The bath house alternated their days of patronage—women and girls one day, men and boys the next—and praise be to Tulathan, this was the women’s day.
The attendant was a bored-looking boy wearing a blue kaftan. “The baths will be cooling by now,” he told Çeda.
“It’s all right,” Çeda said, and handed two copper khet to the boy.
The boy shrugged, and with two clinks dropped the coins into a strongbox and handed Çeda a folded length of cotton. “Soap or pumice?” he asked, waving to a shelf that held a variety of each, for more coin.
Çeda shook her head and stepped toward the courtyard beyond the gates. As soon as she did, he went back to polishing a curving brass handle.
Four women and one young girl exited the bath house, laughing loudly as they took the steps down. Çeda headed toward the entrance, but the moment the group passed her, she strode with purpose to the corner of the ornate stone building. When she glanced back, the girl, the wind tugging at the ends of her long, damp hair, had turned to watch her. Çeda put her fingers to her lips, then ducked into the narrow space between the bath house and the wall that marked the perimeter of the grounds.
The two walls were close enough, and the brickwork rough enough, that she could easily gain purchase with hands and feet and press her way slowly up until she could grab the lip of the wall. When she reached the top, she heard a low murmur of voices coming from inside the bath house, but she could hear other voices more clearly now—the ones in the courtyard on the opposite side of this wall. She carefully lifted her head, seeing the three who had visited the hovel, plus one more. This man was tall and broad-shouldered. He wore a rich brown thawb, and two shamshirs hung from his belt. It was his forked beard, however, and the coiling tattoos of vipers wrapped around his forearms and wrists, that marked him as a man to be feared. His name was Macide Ishaq’ava, and he was the leader of the Moonless Host, a loose group formed from hundreds, perhaps thousands of members from the wandering folk, the twelve tribes that once ruled the entirety of the Shangazi Desert.
Everyone not simply passing through the city knew of Macide. Çeda had never met him, but she’d seen and heard of the types of things he left in his wake. The massacre at the perfume merchants’ was but the most recent example. Years ago, the Host had reached a man who supplied a delicacy to the House of Kings: salted meat that came from rare mountain deer found in the southern ranges of the Great Shangazi. They’d poisoned it in hopes that the Kings would taste of it during their New Year feast. They hadn’t, but eighteen of the highborn in attendance had, and they’d all perished from it. The Kings had not taken it lightly.
For the poisoning in their own house, they had poisoned dozens in return: men and women and children chosen randomly from the streets of Sharakhai—low born, recently come from the desert. The Kings had forced them to eat the same tainted meat, then thrown their bodies into the river so that all could see them on their way to the desert. Silver Spears lined the banks of the Haddah by the thousands, firing arrows upon those who dared to wade into the river to fetch the bodies.
In response, the Moonless Host abducted a young aspirant to the Blade Maidens, freshly chosen and not yet taken to the desert for her vigil. They staked her out on a sand dune and left her there to die. The Kings had found her and, in their rage, rounded up twenty-four girls—all roughly the same age as their young Maiden—and hung them by their feet on poles driven into the sand of the northern harbor. There they’d remained for twelve nights leaving them to die from thirst and exposure, the Maidens and Silver Spears watching carefully for anyone who would deny the Kings their message: that if the citizens of the city wouldn’t give up the names of Sharakhai’s enemies, then this is what would happen, blood for blood.
It was a vicious circle, fed at least in part by the man standing in the courtyard below.
Macide took the leather satchel from the woman and opened it, retrieving the scroll case hidden within. He examined it carefully, then turned the ivory rings that ran along its length to a certain combination, one that had surely been sent to him days or even weeks before. When he was satisfied, he cracked the wax seal at one end of the canister and pulled out a note written on parchment. Apparently pleased, he nodded and replaced the parchment inside the canister.
“Go,” Macide said to the woman. “Fetch the second canister and meet me on the ship.”
“Of course,” she said, and then the four of them walked down the alley and were gone.
Çeda thought about following them, but she’d seen enough. She likely wouldn’t learn more unless she could somehow get the parchment from Macide, but there wasn’t time.
The sun was already low. Beht Zha’ir had nearly come to Sharakhai once more, and now that she knew the Moonless Host were involved, the urge to return home to make sure Emre had returned safe was strong and growing stronger. She had no real reason to worry, and yet she worried just the same.
Each and every step toward home had only amplified her fears, a thing helped not at all when she returned to an empty home. Soon the bright light of dusk had died along the horizon, and a chill swept over the city. The threat of the coming night grew like a festering wound, and all the while the threat of the asirim loomed ever larger.
Çeda was startled from her thoughts by shadows in the alley ahead. She stared, waiting breathlessly, but it was only a mongrel dog, followed closely by another, and then a third. They looked skittish, galloping along the street, slowing with hackles raised, then padding forward again. And then they were gone, leaving Çeda alone once more.
Emre wasn’t coming, she realized. He wasn’t coming because something had gone terribly wrong. She knew it as she knew the hot winds that blew through the desert. Resigned at last, she pulled the tail of her black turban from across her face and let it hang down her chest. With reverent care, she levered her silver locket open with her thumbnails, revealing a dried petal the color of bleached bone, with a tip of brightest blue.
It did not slip her notice how similar this all felt to the fateful day eleven years ago when her mother had taken her out on the sands. The day she’d visited Saliah, the desert witch. The day her life had changed forever. The day her mother had died.
Would her life change so much this night? Would she be forced to witness the death of another she cherished?
The petal felt light as moonlight as she picked it up and placed it carefully under her tongue. Jasmine and rosemary and mace mixed with the unmistakable floral scent of the adichara, the misshapen desert trees from which she’d harvested the petal. Her skin tingled. Her lips trembled. She heard a crisp sound, a wine-laced finger pulling a note from the rim of a crystal goblet. As she often did, she felt the blooming fields beyond the city, though this time it felt deeper, as if she could feel the hunger of the asirim.
In moments, her aches from the pits faded. Her hands shook. The very moons themselves seemed to shiver in the sky, and for a moment she felt as though she could feel the entirety of the city—every man, woman, and child as they huddled in their homes, fearful of the coming night, fearful of what would stalk from the desert and into this massive and wondrous city, born, however improbably, from the shifting sands of the Great Shangazi itself.
Çeda pulled her veil across her face and tucked the tail back into her turban. She gripped the hilt of her knife, a keen-edged kenshar, making sure it rested tightly in its sheath at her belt. She reached over her left shoulder and did the same with the wooden hilt of the shamshir strapped across her back. Then she leapt down to the exposed wooden beam that marked the space between the first and second floors and sprung forward, somersaulting down to the dry, dusty ground.
Excerpted from Twelve Kings © Bradley Beaulieu 2015
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