Feast of the King's Shadow

He did not run, but walked along the waterfront, foolishly close to the edge; posturing again, but he allowed himself the indulgence. The guards were holding back, hiding in their cave at the gully's mouth, where rock walls offered some illusion of shelter. Let them see him bolder...

Let them see him eaten by 'ifrit, to know him no spy - but he did not believe he would be eaten. He found it hard to believe in the 'ifrit at all, because he had not been there with Marron -

- Or because Elisande had. As she was here, though not with Marron now. He found her at the open gateway to the rising tunnel, Rhabat's secret exit; she stood just outside its black maw, fretfully staring within.

"You showed him this?"

"Of course. He asked me to."

Briefly, Jemel felt all of the Ashti's patent distrust of her. She was Patric, a friend maybe but still of the enemy and committed to its cause: its survival, its occupation of Catari land. She should never have been allowed here the once, let alone brought back; this gateway was a Sharai secret and precious to them, it should never have been taught to her...

It should never have been taught by her to Marron, but his reasons there were more obscure, and faltered before her gaze. Marron was also Patric, of course, also perhaps of the enemy; not committed to anything, though, so far as Jemel could tell, beyond the avoidance of war.

"And you let him go up alone?"

"He told me to. It's dark in there, Jemel. I didn't think to bring a torch, I didn't know what he wanted until he led me here. He said he could find his way without light, but I would slow him down..."

"Why has he gone up, what for?"

"I don't know, he didn't say."

Is he coming back? was the question neither one of them wanted asked, for fear of the other offering an answer.

Nothing to do then but wait, and find out. Wait together, as they must: caught in a reluctant companionship, bonded by a mutual love that only touched each other at its fringes.

The Sharai could wait in patience, in silence when they must. So could she. Talking was always better, though, talking killed relentless time; how many nights had he talked through with Jazra in their youth, huddled together over a low flame without a blanket between them to keep back the bitter cold of the stars? Uncountable nights, immeasurably precious to him still. Talking with her could never mean so much, but he would talk if she would; the alternative was all but unbearable, to watch the dark and listen to its silence, to wonder if trust and need were both to be betrayed again. Marron had said more than once that his only skill lay in betrayal...

Jemel's eyes shifted, away from the shadows of the gateway to the shadows shifting on the lapping water. Nothing was moving there, except patterns of dark on the surface and below; he set his back to the rock so that he absolutely couldn't stare any longer into that tunnel, slid down to a comfortable squat and asked, "What did you see, in the land of the djinn?"

What did you see, that I should have seen instead? was the real question, and she heard it clearly. "Little," she said, shrugging as she sat beside him, folding her legs neatly beneath the hem of her robe as his own people did. "You went through first, you know what was there, the Pillar's elder brother; other than that, gold dust and golden rock, gold sky by day and night. It's not a land for looking at. There's little there, and little of what there is is extreme, or even actually interesting. Except that simply being there is fascinating. Like standing at a spring when you know it's the wellhead of a massive trading river, when you've spent all your life on its banks: to be at the source at last is mindshaking, even when the source is a trickle of clean water through a simple pasture and no more."

Jemel had never seen a river such as she described, and hardly knew what she meant; but he knew how he'd felt when he stood in that other world, and so he nodded. He'd thought he stood in the heart of the sun, and was not burned.

"What of the mountain that was flat at the peak?" This was all a tale already told. She had narrated the whole journey to the entire party before they reached Rhabat; but stories were made to be told again and again. And he wanted to hear it alone, to have at least some sense of sharing.

"It was hardly a mountain, Jemel, no great climb." You didn't miss that much. "I don't know what to tell you about it, else. It wasn't just flat, it didn't happen that way by nature. It had been cut off somehow and polished after, unless what did the cutting left it polished as it went. The surface was smooth as glass - smooth as ice, if ice is ever warm. And it got hot towards the centre, hard to walk on. Perhaps we should have run and slid across, like children, but it felt like a cathedral. Like a temple, somewhere holy..."

"What did it mean?"

"I don't know, Jemel. Nor does Marron. What did the needle mean? It was something they could do, perhaps, no more than that..."

Jemel shook his head. Everything must have a meaning; he believed absolutely in signs and portents and significance, only not in the ability of women to read what was written in the world. Works so great had to have a potency beyond their sheer scale. If he had seen and could not understand the blade - the needle she had called it, but she was a woman - perhaps that was only because he had not seen the mountaintop. A man might need to walk far in that land to penetrate its secrets. The week they'd been gone, she in the Ghost Walker's shadow - and fasting by the gaunt look of them and the hunger now, though they denied it - that week should have proved plenty, in both time and distance. Would have done, he was sure, had he been there in her stead. As he should have been, but for the mischance that had set her in his place, at Marron's side...

It had been more than mischance today, it had been Marron's choice, or hers. Almost he twisted his head, to seek the Ghost Walker fruitlessly in the dark; instead, again, he looked to the water.

"What is it," he wondered aloud, "that lives in there?"

"The 'ifrit," she said, and shuddered.

"No, not those. Something more, something greater. This has been a place of evil for generations. Men used to sail these waters," though it was hard for him to imagine, who had never seen a boat; he knew the words from stories, but he had no pictures in his mind. He waved his hand towards the evidence, storerooms in the cliffs and steps from the quayside that broke the surface of the sea and went on down into mystery. "Now we watch them and whisper, and keep safe away."

"They stink," Elisande said, which was true but fell far short of the truth. "They are dead; nothing lives there, nothing could. That's reason enough. The rest is storytelling, nothing more."

"No," again. If he'd known no better, he still would not have believed her; she had the shifty look of someone driven to a lie. Against her desire, perhaps, but lying none the less. "Men have died, and been found dead on the shores. Dead in terror, or torn apart. Not many and not recently, but they are more than stories, they have graves." Or tombs or cairns, crumbling rock-piles in the Sands to cover crumbling bones. "You have lived in Rhabat, as I have not," and he hated this, that he must ask a Patric for knowledge that was Sharai. He hated also to press her past her defensive lying, it was ill-mannered and worse, humiliating for them both; but if he could not have her share of Marron, he'd have whatever less he could take from her, and give her as little as he could in return. "What do they say here? They must speak of the Dead Waters..." In the women's quarters, and elsewhere; she'd been a girl then, unveiled, licensed to roam. Girls were demons, he'd often thought: they tormented the boys and plagued the men, and nothing could be kept secret from them.

"Surely," she said, her face tight against him. "They say that they are dead." And then, of a sudden, her expression changed: collapsed almost, like rock that had stood too long against the sand on the wind and was worn as thin as paper, too weak to hold its own light weight any longer. "Oh, Jemel, I'm sorry. But you know what the djinni called me...?"

"Lisan of the Dead Waters." He had not forgotten. He called her Lisan himself, these days, when he called her anything at all. His tongue could find its way around her full name if he chose, but he preferred to emphasise the distance that lay between them, that he was Sharai and she was not.

"Yes. I didn't understand it then, and I still don't; but now we're here, and I don't want it, I don't want even to think about it. I'd forgotten, I think, how rank these waters are. More than smell, but you said that. I came down here seldom, except when the children challenged me. And that was rare, they were scared themselves; but it was forbidden, and so we had to come. Besides, there was this," a jerk of her head towards the open gateway, "though we never explored far up there, either. Too dark, and too dull. The water was dull too, to be honest. If we stayed long enough to be brave, it was long enough to be bored. Nothing ever happened; we were never even caught by the adults, there wasn't a guard then. Why risk men, against a devil? That's what they say, in Rhabat: that a devil lives in the water, and takes whoever dares to come within its reach. Takes and torments them, body and soul - that's what they say, that the water's fouled by the souls of all its victims, which it keeps so that they'll never find their way to paradise. It's worse than death, they say; it's death and hell together."

Jemel had - perhaps - stopped believing in paradise, and so in hell; he had stood however briefly in another world, and thought that two such might be enough for any man's faith to sustain. Belief was easy, for those who had not seen. Truth was heavier, and he could only carry so much in mind or heart. He said his prayers by rote now, and only when others were there to see it if he failed.

He could still believe in devils, though; that much was easy, where wickedness seemed to seep up through the damp stones, and hang in the very air he breathed. And if in devils, perhaps also in souls; he shuddered at the thought of it, being trapped past death in those murky waters.

Watching more alertly now, perhaps looking for souls among the shadows, he thought he saw more solid shadows gather below the surface. It was hard to be sure, when the waters were choppy suddenly - but they were choppy only in a small area above that cluster of black shadow, as though a wisp of wind stirred them only there. Or as if something were rising, disturbing them from below...

And moving too, moving swiftly now, sending little bubbles up to stir the surface as it, they headed cleanly for the steps.

Jemel leaped to his feet to cry a warning to the guards, drawing his scimitar and pointing it towards the broken arrowhead of ripples that was spreading slowly across the water.

Too slow, too late, and useless anyway; what could two men do, against a sudden eruption of ebony-shelled creatures from the deep? Too many to count, they scuttled up the steps like crabs, like giant crabs with claws like scything daggers; but they were growing, changing even as they climbed, swelling into something greater than those hard shells could contain. Their backs split open, and bony wings unfurled.

Read an excerpt from the first book of Outremer The Devil in the Dust

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© Chaz Brenchley; reproduced with the author's permission.