Ilgamuth Tarkaan was fourteen when he first rode to war.
This was not an unusual age. Most Tarkaans' sons learned to ride as early as they learned to walk and were trained with sword and spear from boyhood. To blood one's spear was to become a man.
What was unusual was the context. Kidrash Tarkaan, the High Lord of Calavar, had kept the province largely neutral in the decade of civil war that followed Zarman Tisroc's death, so Ilgamuth's brother had proven himself in skirmishes against roving bands of deserters instead of in a proper battle. Ilgamuth had expected to do the same, riding out at his father's side.
But even after Rishti Tisroc (may he live forever) captured Tashbaan and put his elder brother to death as a coward and traitor, some of the southwestern provinces were still reluctant to recognize his legitimacy. Two years into his reign, the High Lords of Rachegra and Drinachlala rebelled outright. Therefore the Tisroc raised a great army to crush the traitors, and permitted his own son, who was now fifteen, to accompany the campaign.
This was a moment of great opportunity. Anyone who could become one of the crown prince's companions would win immeasurable influence and power for himself and his family, should Rabadash succeed his father in due time.
Kidrash Tarkaan's voice carried less weight at court than the High Lords who had supported Rishti Tisroc (may he live forever) from the start of his campaign, but Calavar was justly famed for the quality of its horses and the wealth of Elith, one of the two main ports between the Shirush and the Nandrapragaan, and so when Ilgamuth's father asked a favor from his lord, Kidrash was able to have Ilgamuth assigned to the small personal cavalry troop that Prince Rabadash would command.
The rest would be up to him.
The soldiers from Calavar were led by Alimash Tarkaan, the son of Kidrash Tarkaan's sister. He took the weight of his responsibility seriously, judging by the pains he took to speak individually with each of the boys going to war for the first time, listening to their obliquely expressed worries and explaining the more practical details of life in an army. The trip to Azim Balda, where the army was assembling, took three days. "Your first lesson: armies always travel slowly unless somebody makes a great effort and is very well organized," Alimash Tarkaan said when several of the boys complained. "We can only go as fast as our supply train. Otherwise, as the poet Roondeh said, 'An army chokes on its own dust; it starves in the midst of plenty.'"
Ilgamuth whispered the second line of the poem as Alimash quoted it, and smiled to himself. He was not always skilled at putting words to his own thoughts, and having a store of potentially apt phrases was a comfort. He also liked the images and rhythms, and the sense of disparate words coming together into a balanced whole, greater than the sum of their individual parts.
It was good to be going to war at last. That was what he had been born and raised to do, like any Tarkaan's son, rich or impoverished. He was less sure about becoming one of the prince's companions. Truly, it would be an honor, but Ilgamuth was not sure he wanted to leave the quiet countryside of Calavar for the grandeur of the royal court. His brother Ilvari would inherit their father's lands, but there was no shortage of work on the estate or around the village of Zivathoor, and Ilgamuth had thought he might try his hand as a scholar or an engineer once he proved himself a man. He doubted he would have that chance if he somehow caught the prince's eye.
It would be shameful not to obey his father's wishes, though. He would try his best.
In Azim Balda, the Calavarene contingent met the rest of the army and organized themselves into divisions by specialty and by province. Alimash Tarkaan went off to argue his precedence with the other commanders of chariots, the other boys accompanied their kinsmen to the camp set aside for the light cavalry of Calavar, and Ilgamuth was left alone in the courtyard of the house commandeered by Prince Rabadash for those who would be his companions.
Ilgamuth had brought two horses -- Naija, a bay roan mare, and Shaxi, a chestnut gelding -- along with the spear and sword his mother had presented to him the morning of his departure. They weren't precisely new, since it was best to know the balance and handling of one's weapons before putting them to the test in battle, but they were new enough and his mother had tied ribbons of scarlet and black silk around them in honor of Tash and Azaroth, the gods of war and death, and a white ribbon for Achadith, the great queen of heaven whose favor granted victory. He also had his armor, three changes of clothes, a letter of credit up to three hundred crescents, a coin purse with five crescents, twelve sickles, and a handful of copper minims, a letter of introduction from Kidrash Tarkaan, and a copy of his family seal on a chain around his neck.
After a moment, he collected himself and pulled the bell rope just inside the outer courtyard gate. Two male servitors came out of the main house. One took his horses and led them toward the attached stables; the other took his saddlebags and led Ilgamuth into the house.
"You will share a room with Chlamash Tarkaan, O my lord, until General Jenin gives the order to ride south," the servitor said respectfully. "I will place your possessions at the foot of your bed while you present your seal and your letter to Prince Rabadash (may the gods smile on him). He and the other young Tarkaans are in the inner courtyard."
Ilgamuth nodded his thanks and set off through the room and corridors of the borrowed house. He suspected it belonged to a merchant rather than a Tarkaan; there was a telling lack of heirloom weapons on the walls, and an equally telling number of landscape murals on flat walls rather than raised and textured plaster work. But it was still a very nice house, and the carpets were more lavish than any Ilgamuth had seen except for his one trip to Kidrash Tarkaan's house when he was very young.
The inner courtyard was arranged around four shallow water channels, each rising from a circular pool at one doorway and leading to a low fountain in the center of the garden. Several boys and young men sat on the rim of the fountain, laughing and jeering as others played halgah among the bushes, striking the leather ball with fists and feet as the two five-man teams fought to advance to opposite sides of the yard. Ilgamuth counted twenty-four in all, dressed in varying degrees of finery, and wondered which was the prince. Presumably he was a player rather than one of the unlucky watchers on the sidelines, and presumably he was neither the youngest nor the oldest in the group, but that left far too many options.
One of the players noticed him standing in the frame of the open door and whistled, a piercing, wavering note that Ilgamuth recognized from horse drills. Someone caught the ball, and everyone turned to examine the newcomer.
Ilgamuth felt akin to a horse that had wandered unexpectedly into the midst of a dozing pride of lions, only to see the great cats wake with hungry eyes.
He swallowed his fear and bowed from the waist, touching his hands to his forehead. "Greetings, O worthy ones," he said. "My name is Ilgamuth Tarkaan, son of Ilcortha Tarkaan of Zivathoor in Calavar."
One of the players -- a tall boy, still beardless, wearing a crimson tunic and turban -- stepped forward. "Calavar," he said. "Kidrash Tarkaan is your overlord?"
"Yes," Ilgamuth said, wary at his questioner's lack of a reciprocal introduction.
"A good man with a keen mind, my father says, though perhaps more cautious than befits a soldier," the boy said. "Let us hope you equal his insight and surpass his courage. I am Prince Rabadash, son of Rishti Tisroc (may he live forever). Be welcome in my house."
"Thank you, O my prince," Ilgamuth said, stepping into the courtyard.
"Are you any good at halgah?" a gangly boy in a dark blue turban asked, tossing the leather ball from hand to hand. "You make twenty-five, which means we can field five teams; that's lucky! And this way Ilvari and Zuketh won't have any excuse to continue shirking. I'm Corradin, by the way -- son of Achilar Tarkaan, warden of Castle Tormunt."
"Otherwise known as Corradin Slip-Tongue," a tall, broad-shouldered boy added. Corradin threw the ball at his head. The tall boy struck it neatly back, and Corradin caught it one handed, laughing. Behind him, the prince rolled his eyes in exaggerated impatience.
"I don't know if I'm good, but I can play," Ilgamuth admitted.
"Excellent! Take my place while I rearrange the teams," Corradin said. "You're with Azrooh, Hunagor, Zarman, and Prince Rabadash, striking that way." He pointed toward the notional goal, then threw the ball to Ilgamuth.
By the time a pair of servitors came to the courtyard to announce that supper was prepared, Ilgamuth had played eight rounds of halgah, watched ten more, and had no idea whatsoever what the prince or any of the others thought about him. He consoled himself that he hadn't been the worst player on the field, and that the prince would probably care more about their performance in battle and their loyalty than their skill at boyhood games and their quickness at making friends.
Prince Rabadash appeared ready to stay awake well into the night. Ilgamuth, more used to following the cycle of the sun and uncomfortable among strangers, claimed weariness from the road and retired early -- or he would have, if he hadn't passed through the merchant's small library on his way upstairs. Nearly an hour later, he surfaced from a volume of war poetry at the sound of feet in the hall outside his temporary bedroom. He hastily blew out the lamp, slipped the book under his flat pillow, and pretended to be asleep when Chlamash Tarkaan opened the door.
Chlamash was a tall, stolid young man who'd evidently been to war at least once before, since he was attempting to grow a beard. (The results were sadly scraggly.) Ilgamuth watched him through slitted eyes, wondering if he would catch the faint scent of smoke from the lamp and call Ilgamuth's bluff, but either the other boy failed to notice or failed to care. He simply removed his shoes, changed into soft sleeping trousers, and dropped straight off to sleep.
Ilgamuth watched the stars through the narrow, open window and wondered what he thought he was doing here.
He woke with the gray light of dawn on a cloudy day. Chlamash was still soundly asleep, as were most of the others, judging by the closed doors along the various corridors of the upper floor. Ilgamuth found the merchant's sumptuous bath on the ground floor and proceeded to wash and scrape away the grit of the road that he'd largely ignored the previous day. Then he went in search of breakfast.
The house slaves were naturally already awake and had set a simple breakfast out in the dining hall: a large bowl of fruit, a platter of dark bread with side dishes of honey, oil, pickled fish, and spiced humus for toppings, and several pitchers of watered white wine. Ilgamuth helped himself and resumed exploring the house. The arch of the sky and the calls of birds were the same he had always known, but the sounds drifting over the walls of the property were the waking grumbles of a city, dominated by people and the clatter of wood and stone rather than by animals and the aimless murmur of water and wind.
He was in the stables, crooning nonsense to his horses, when Prince Rabadash found him.
"Here you are," the prince said. Ilgamuth jerked backward in surprise, then caught himself, pressed his hands briefly to his forehead, and bowed from the waist. "Stop that, fool," Rabadash snapped, brows pulling down and eyes rolling like a maddened horse. "What sorry excuse for an army would we be if my companions had to interrupt themselves and bow every time I walked past? That humility is for soldiers, not Tarkaans."
Confused, Ilgamuth held his tongue.
Rabadash seemed to take that as agreement. "You have a good eye for horses, typical for a Calavarene," he continued in a calmer tone of voice, looking appreciatively at Shaxi and Naija. "You'll need a third, though. I run my cavalry by the old rules, to ensure we will have the greatest possible advantage of speed. Go to the horse market and find a reasonable mount instead of the dogmeat trash some thieves try to sell to the regular army."
"As you command, O my prince," Ilgamuth said. "Ah. Pardon me, but about the cost--"
"On your own shoulders," Rabadash snapped, annoyance blooming over his face once more. "Your father spent money and favors to buy you a chance at my side, but I and only I decide who will stay there. I have no use for men who can't make their own way. I need strong companions, not ones I have to carry over every tiny obstacle in life. Buy a good horse or slink home with your tail in the dust and spend the rest of your miserable life on your knees with a petty horde of silver to remind you of your lost chance at glory."
He whirled and strode out of the stables. The horses shifted in muted agitation as he passed.
Ilgamuth stroked Naija's soft nose, letting her breathe the familiar scent of his skin and clothes under the foreign odors of the city and the perfume of the merchant's soap. Shaxi leaned over the high wall dividing his stall from his sister's and lipped at Ilgamuth's hair, a habit Ilgamuth had never bothered to train him out of.
"Where am I supposed to find a horse market?" he wondered aloud.
"I see you've been subjected to the horse lecture," a voice said unexpectedly from behind his shoulder.
Ilgamuth twitched, controlled himself for the sake of his horses, and turned slowly to see who had snuck up on him. Three of the other would-be companions stood in the central aisle of the stables: Corradin, the one who had welcomed him yesterday afternoon; a tall, broad-shouldered boy with the light skin and straight hair of the far northwestern provinces showing around the edges of his gray turban; and an older boy whose chin was graced by the start of a respectable beard, which he had dyed a brilliant scarlet.
It occurred to Ilgamuth that if these others knew about the 'horse lecture,' presumably they also knew where to find a horse market. And it would do him no favors to continue keeping to himself, no matter how awkward and tongue-tied he felt among strangers.
"Prince Rabadash instructed me to buy a third mount," Ilgamuth agreed. "Would any of you be so gracious as to show me the way to a suitable market?"
"Truly it is fitting for us, as ones who would become close as brothers, to extend every favor to each other," the bearded boy said. "Alas, my horses are accustomed to a regular schedule and I must exercise them before the third hour." Suiting deed to word, he pushed past Ilgamuth and began fussing over a rather high-strung stallion at the far end of the stable.
"Our horses are not nearly so particular as Anradin's," the tall boy said with a broad smile. "We were introduced last night, but remembering such a mountain of names without any context is a skill more suited to courtiers than soldiers. I am Ilvari Tarkaan, from Vesilan in Archeni province. This fool is Corradin of Castle Tormunt, in Ifayyapura."
"And you are Ilmurath from Calavar!" Corradin finished triumphantly.
Ilvari sighed. "As I said, a fool. Thank you for proving my point. His name is Ilgamuth."
As Ilgamuth nodded in agreement, Corradin waved his hands in grand dismissal. "Ilgamuth, Ilmurath, Ilmarkesh, Ilragesh, Ilcortha, Ilsombreh, Il-this, Il-that, Il-the-gods-themselves. The gods know our names, we know our deeds, and who needs to fret over the grains of sand in our shoes? Psssht! Now follow me, Il-one and Il-two. We have a horse to buy."
Ilgamuth looked furtively toward Ilvari and caught the taller boy rolling his eyes. He let his own amusement show on his face. When Ilvari smiled, he began to feel this war might not be such a bad way to enter the world of men, whether the prince chose him or not.
The army spent two more days in Azim Balda before beginning the long march south to the rebellious provinces. Ilgamuth rode his newly purchased horse, seeking to build trust between himself and the sullen pinto mare, while a groom led Naija and Shaxi in the rear of the prince's column. The mare had been nearly three times as expensive as she would have been back home in Calavar -- now he had only a hundred and twelve crescents remaining to his name.
If he won the prince's favor, his poverty would be fleeting.
If he won the prince's favor, his freedom would also be fleeting. With only rare exceptions, royal companions rode where their master rode, ate what he ate, slept where he slept. They spoke his words and their swords were extensions of his.
It was rather like slavery, Ilgamuth suddenly thought, only freely chosen rather than imposed by the outer world. He wondered if there might be a poem in that comparison. He suspected not: it seemed close to treason.
Already three of the other contenders had abandoned the quest for one reason or another and faded into the general mass of the cavalry. That left twenty-one boys and young men trying to distinguish themselves in Rabadash's eyes.
Ilgamuth kept his new mare absently in line with the rest of the small troop and wondered what he could do to make his mark.
Anradin of the crimson beard and several others rode close around the prince, evidently competing to entertain him through the interminable heat of high summer. The air was filled with the scent of sweat and horses. Dust kicked up by the passage of several thousand hooves, feet, and wheels drifted down to coat everything and everyone in a fine layer of grit. Ilgamuth could not even distract himself by watching scenery, since the prince's column was in the very center of the army and all he could see to either side was a veritable ocean of soldiers who looked as hot and tired as he felt.
He began reciting poetry in his mind as a distraction, which had the unfortunate side effect of letting Corradin and Ilvari sneak up on him yet again.
"Have you named her yet?" Corradin asked, nearly startling Ilgamuth into wheeling his horse around to face the unexpected threat. But he had not grown up in the heart of Calavar's horse country for nothing. He controlled himself and the mare before they could disrupt the column.
Corradin was laughing at him nonetheless.
Ilvari simply shook his head and sighed. "It is said that taking a nameless steed into battle brings misfortune on her rider and his companions," he said. "You must give her a self so the gods can see her."
"'They run like wind, like lightning, like a storm-tossed sea on dry land; who can count their number, any more than drops of rain or grains of sand? But beware, O man, before you think to steal a single hoof; their master knows them all,'" Ilgamuth quoted.
Corradin laughed harder.
"Just because Sokda knows every horse in the world doesn't mean Tash or Achadith do. You have to bring them to the right gods' attention," Ilvari said patiently. "What is the mare's name?"
In Calavar, horses were not named until they were known, so the word would not interpose itself between beast and master. Ilgamuth had not yet learned all the moods and habits of his new mare, nor had she grown accustomed to him and able to respond to his slightest shift of attention. But she did remind him of a folktale his elder sister Hunariyyah was fond of: the sullen girl who sat by the oven all day and would never help her family with any of their chores, nor offer the fresh bread to any guests, until one of those guests revealed himself as a prince in disguise and bought her for his slave because he found her sharp tongue amusing.
"Hareena," Ilgamuth decided, and poured a tiny pool of water into his right palm, letting it drip through his fingers onto the mare's neck.
Ilvari nodded in satisfaction.
"It's leagues upon leagues to Rachegra, and all of them exactly the same as this," Corradin said, still wheezing slightly from his fit of laughter. "You will expire of boredom long before we meet the traitors in battle if you keep to yourself the whole way. Come meet the rest of our happy little band and entertain us with your poetry and tales of battle."
Ilgamuth frowned. "This is my first time at war," he said.
Corradin blinked and nudged his gelding closer. "I know you don't have a beard, but I assumed that was because of your scar," he said, pointing toward the left half of Ilgamuth's face. "Where else could you take a wound like that if not in battle?"
Ilgamuth kept his hand from covering the maimed side of his mouth by pure strength of will. He hated touching the ruined skin and feeling the twist in his lips and cheek that forced his mouth into a permanent sneer.
"When I was eight, I fell from a tree and struck a branch on the way down," he said, and forced himself to shrug as if untouched by embarrassment.
Corradin hissed on an indrawn breath, as if feeling sympathetic pain. "I see, I see. No wonder you didn't say anything about it earlier. But consider the bright side: after we put down this rebellion and are chosen as royal companions, everyone will assume you got the scar defending the prince's life. If my sisters are any fit standard for judgment, that will make you very attractive! Now come and pretend you're not a hermit in training."
He directed his gelding toward a group of six other boys, obviously expecting Ilgamuth and Ilvari to follow him.
"It is not good for anyone to always be alone," Ilvari said after a moment. "It is particularly undesirable for a soldier to stand at a distance from those whose lives he holds in his hands, and who hold his life in turn."
"As you say," Ilgamuth agreed, and they rode together toward Corradin's friends.
The rest of the journey to the border of Rachegra seemed to take simultaneously years and no time at all. By the time General Jenin ordered the army to make camp on the northeast bank of the broad, sluggish Angaavush River, Ilgamuth felt he was made of nothing but road dust and threadbare poems. He also felt that he was further away from winning Prince Rabadash's favor than ever.
Though Ilvari and Corradin presumably could be counted among his friends, he still felt as if a pane of glass stood between him and them. As for the others, he knew their names, their faces, enough about their temperaments to class them as pleasant or unpleasant, and enough about their skills to know which he would prefer to have at his back or side in battle -- but little more. He knew even less about the prince.
Rabadash seemed to flash from mood to mood at the flap of a crow's wing, and whether there was a foundation beneath his whims was impossible to say from Ilgamuth's distance. It was also impossible to know if there was true steel behind his hunger for glory, though that question, at least, might soon be answered if the rebels chose to give battle rather than shut themselves up in their cities and forts and prepare for interminable siege.
It was unusual to set camp in the seventh hour with the sun barely past zenith, but it was doubtless wiser to have the river guarding their van rather than lurking at the rear to drown them in the event of an unexpected attack. It was also good politics to give the rebel High Lords one final chance to bow their heads and sue for peace, without handing them the provocation of an imperial army on their lands.
Ilgamuth and Chlamash, the largest and quietest of the would-be companions, helped the prince's personal slaves beat down the tall grass of the southern plains and set up the royal tent while the rest of the boys unfolded and steadied their own shelters. A few had complained about the work in the early days of the journey, but Rabadash had turned on them in a fury, his face contorted like a demon, and shouted that, "Calormen was built by men who rode a thousand leagues without complaint, who went without food, without water, without sleep if need be, all for the glory of the Tisroc, the empire, and the gods. They did not scruple to dirty their hands. Do not dare to think that you are above them, you midden-loving sons of crippled dogs!"
Occasionally the prince even helped erect his own tent, though he spent most evenings in discussion with General Jenin, the court officials sent to ensure the legality of the war, and the various provincial unit commanders.
This afternoon Rabadash stormed back into his section of the camp, Anradin and Zuketh trailing like wolfhounds at their master's heels. Ilgamuth was certain those two had won the prince's favor. He was fairly sure that Chlamash, a sullen southern boy named Hunagor, and a short, fiery boy named Azrooh would also be chosen as companions, presuming they survived the approaching battles. Five was a good number. Very few princes and Tisrocs had named more than five companions. Considering that Rishti Tisroc (may he live forever) himself had only ever claimed one sworn man, who was a generation older than himself and now served as Grand Vizier, for Rabadash to pick a large number might seem presumptuous.
Ilgamuth drifted toward Rabadash's tent, where the prince was ranting to anyone who would listen about how General Jenin's age had curdled to senility, how caution had soured into cowardice. "The rebel curs will never bend unless they are made to bend, with the edge of a sword at their necks to remind them of the oaths they have forsworn," he said. "This show of good faith, this mockery of negotiation, does nothing but give them time to increase their stores and dig in like the badger in his set, like the tortoise in his shell. It will take half of forever to burn them out into the open, and every day we keep these peasant excuses for soldiers away from their home provinces, every field we burn and every cow we requisition, will only breed new thoughts of rebellion in some other lords' rotten, fly-infested hearts."
Rabadash turned and struck the pole holding up the roof beam of his tent, making the entire structure shudder and sway. "Useless! 'Learn from your elders,' said my father (may he live forever) when I left Tashbaan. All I can learn from this maggot of a man is how not to pursue a war!"
"You could take command from him, O my prince," Anradin suggested, stroking his short beard. He did that often; Ilgamuth suspected it was an attempt to look older than his sixteen years. "You are the heir. General Jenin must obey your orders."
Rabadash scowled. "My father (to whom the gods give strength) has specifically ordered the General to disregard any order I give that would weaken his authority. He has also ordered me to roll over and show my stomach and throat to the man rather than put him in his place."
"A pity," Anradin said. Zuketh and Hunagor murmured agreement.
"What exactly are the general's plans?" Corradin asked, leaning forward with curiosity bright on his face. "And does anybody know where exactly the rebels are? Rachegra and Drinachlala are not the smallest provinces in the empire."
Rabadash shot Corradin a sour look, but the change of subject did seem to distract him from the worst of his temper. He sent one of his slaves into his tent to bring out a large map which he pinned to the ground with borrowed daggers, and began explaining the strategic and tactical situation, as best as the army's spies had been able to determine.
"The main force is gathered in the provincial seat of Had Ordjah on the Tavrir River, fifteen leagues south across the Angaavush from our position. Sibanis Tarkaan of Drinachlala has sent his three eldest sons to join the High Lord of Rachegra, though half his sworn vassals remain within his own province. Of their own forces, the rebels in Rachegra have three thousand horse, six thousand foot, at least one division of chariots, and whatever siege engines and fortifications they have had time and resources to build since the traitor Urcharooh Tarkaan forswore his oaths and declared against my father (may he live forever) in the week of the Spring Festival," Rabadash said, pointing out the city and the current location of the camp on the beautifully drawn and calligraphed map.
"Had Ordjah has little natural fortification aside from the river itself, but the city has often been turned into an artificial island during past wars, and the river has been dredged so deep over the centuries that the city bridge is the only feasible crossing within two leagues in either direction. Doubtless the rebels will destroy it the minute they see our approaching dust."
"That is not an easy siege, O my prince," Ilvari said.
"A child could see as much," Rabadash agreed angrily. "Therefore we must find a way to avoid one, particularly since there is a constant risk of counterattack from Drinachlala, but General Jenin seems determined to bury the army in the quicksand of futility."
"How would you plan to avoid a siege, my lord?" Ilgamuth asked, and then forced himself not to flinch when everyone's attention swung toward him.
"How would you?" Rabadash asked, turning the question back around on him. "Tell me, O Ilgamuth of Calavar, Ilgamuth the poet, Ilgamuth of the twisted lip. You are here to become a soldier and a leader of men. How would you take Had Ordjah without a siege?"
Ilgamuth swallowed and tried to think. "To take a city, you must defeat its defenders. If a siege and starvation are impossible or impolitic, you must get your own soldiers within the walls or lure the defenders outside," he began, stalling for time by quoting truisms.
Across the map, he could see Corradin rolling his eyes.
"If Had Ordjah sits on the floodplain, there is little chance of secretly bringing enough soldiers close to the walls to make a difference against over eight thousand men, let alone the entire population of the city, even if there were a way to get them through the walls. Therefore it becomes a question of luring the defenders out."
"Blindingly obvious," said Rabadash. "Continue."
"To hear is to obey, O my prince," Ilgamuth stammered, his mind racing. "There is no tactical reason for the High Lord of Rachegra or his allies to venture beyond the security of their walls. But tactics are not the only considerations that drive men to action. 'Passion undercuts reason, toppling empires as water levels mountains.'"
He heard someone snort at the fragment of poetry.
"Do not interrupt," Rabadash said, his voice deceptively mild. "Platitudes are not plans, sweet though poetry may be to the ears. Continue."
Ah! Ilgamuth grasped at a fleeting idea and shoved words around it as best he could. "General Jenin will not move the army until official negotiations have fallen through. O my prince, what if a handful of us rode to the city. What if we rode in disguise? Who would notice another group of refugees taking shelter from the Tisroc's wrath?"
"Aha!" Corradin said, jumping in. "Then we kidnap the High Lord's daughter, carry her off at the stroke of midnight, and marry her to Rabadash! Very romantic!"
The rest of the gathered boys dissolved into laughter. Even Rabadash seemed amused, though he signaled Zuketh to slap Corradin on the side of his head.
"No," Ilgamuth said, and then a bit louder, trying to make his voice carry over the jumble of laughter and jeers, "no, we kidnap the High Lord's son."
Rabadash went still, and silence spread from him until Ilgamuth could hear nothing but the sound of quiet breathing. Even the noise of the surrounding army seemed to fade away.
"Urcharooh Tarkaan has four daughters, but his only son is a child of barely four years. His next closest blood relative is his half-brother, whom he hates and has banished from his lands," Ilgamuth said. "I listen to the soldiers talk around camp," he added hastily when Rabadash's face darkened in sudden suspicion. "If we take his son, at the very least we will cause suspicion and dissent between the High Lord and his allies. If the gods favor us, we might even provoke him into opening his gates and attacking what he considers a small group of madmen. Meanwhile you, O my prince, could summon the rest of the army to cross the Angaavush, kill the traitor, and crush whatever forces he brings with him beyond his walls."
He tried not to shift awkwardly in the continuing silence.
Rabadash drew a deep breath. "The edge needs sharpening, but the blade itself is sound," he said. "Which of you fools has been to Had Ordjah before? Anyone?"
There was a general chorus of demurrals and shrugs.
Rabadash hissed through his teeth. "Useless. That means I must be one of the kidnappers, since I was in Had Ordjah only this past autumn, and am therefore the only one who knows the shape of the High Lord's palace. Ilgamuth, as this plan was your idea, you will come with me. So will Zarman, Ilvari, Chlamash, and Kinboor. We leave at dusk. Anradin, I will leave you my ring and my seal. At dawn on the day after tomorrow, you will order General Jenin to proceed across the Angaavush and south toward Had Ordjah, whether he wishes to or not. Until then, give out that I have taken a fit of pride and am avoiding him lest I be reminded of my supposed lack of power and experience."
As the twelfth hour of day drew to a close and the sun bled scarlet and gold on the distant tablelands of Drinachlala and the yet more distant peaks of the western mountains, six boys wrapped in dusty cloaks requisitioned from peasant foot soldiers rode downriver along the Angaavush, toward the main road and the ford. They carried swords and daggers, but their spears remained behind. Rabadash had decided they were too obvious a sign of noble blood and warlike intent and would interfere with their disguise. (His sudden passion for misdirection did not extend to changing their clothes, however. Ilgamuth was uncertain if that was a hidden layer to the plan or simple oversight.)
Rabadash led the way, followed closely by Kinboor Tarkaan, whose mother was Rachegrene and who therefore had some familiarity with the province, though he lacked the social standing to have ever visited its High Lord. Ilgamuth and Ilvari took the rear. Ilgamuth had chosen Naija for this trip; she was steadier than Shaxi, and he felt he still didn't know Hareena well enough to trust her reactions in a chase or a battle.
"This is the worst kind of luck," Ilvari muttered, his voice barely carrying over the jingle of harness and the clop of hooves on hard packed earth. "We asked no blessing from the gods, we're starting a journey as the sun dies instead of as it rises, and we are technically disobeying the Tisroc (may he live forever)."
"Surely we can stop at a shrine in the city," Ilgamuth murmured back. "And this sort of journey is the kind I would request Azaroth's blessing for rather than any of the sunlit gods. Darkness suits its beginning."
"I note you avoided my third point," Ilvari said.
Ilgamuth shrugged helplessly. "How could we disobey the prince? To report him to General Jenin, against his orders, would be treason. To not report him may also be treason. At least along this path we have a chance at a great victory that will push any questionable tactics into the shadows."
"We also have a chance at getting the crown prince killed, or worse, held hostage by rebels," Ilvari said gloomily. "Why did you speak up?"
"The prince asked," Ilgamuth said.
In truth, he wondered that himself. What was it about Rabadash's focused attention that had driven away any doubts Ilgamuth had about serving him? Now that the prince was riding several horse lengths ahead, the spell of his eyes and voice broken, Ilgamuth remembered that Rabadash was rash, that his temper was foul, that his favorites among the potential companions were Anradin who fed his pride, Zuketh who took his every word as holy writ, and Hunagor who idolized him so obviously that a blind man could see his hero worship.
And yet. Sometime during the journey Rabadash had paid enough attention to know that Ilgamuth liked poetry. He had listened to Ilgamuth's ill-considered idea instead of immediately declaring him a fool. He was brave enough to risk his life and his honor on this half-mad plan, and while part of that was undoubtedly a thirst for glory, his ranting about sieges did suggest that he might wish to spare the soldiers and the land that would someday be his from unnecessary death and destruction.
"The gods willing, this will come to something other than complete disaster," Ilvari said in a gloomy tone. "Ware the ford."
Their horses splashed into the water at a shallow spot marked by a pile of whitewashed stones, and crossed into Rachegra.
They made camp perhaps a mile beyond the river, pitching two small tents by the faint light of the crescent moon and eating nothing but water, stale bread, and dried beef. Ilgamuth stood the first watch -- he was unsure whether that was meant as punishment or reward. Rabadash took the final watch and kicked the rest of the awake as the golden-pink light of dawn seeped over the flat eastern horizon. By sunrise proper and the first hour of day, they were back on the move.
The road they followed southward was wide enough for twenty men to ride abreast, but it seemed barely worth the name compared to the paved highways of the northern provinces. It was just a flat, dusty scratch through the endless cattle pastures of Rachegra. The scattered farms and occasional tiny villages rose sudden and abrupt from the mask of the tall grass, which swayed like green-gold waves under the hot and fitful wind.
This land lived on the constant edge of drought, only the rivers that meandered down from the western mountains allowing anyone to settle permanent roots in the soil. It was strange to think that the southern edge of the province bordered Kutu, only a low line of hills separating the dry plains from the humid, fertile valley of the Nandrapragaan River. Thirty leagues did not seem nearly enough distance for such a difference in climate.
The fields they passed were eerily empty. Nobody was carrying water, pulling weeds, or spreading manure to nourish the needy soil. The peasants and the lesser lords of northern Rachegra had clearly heard news of the approaching imperial army, and fled -- either into the protection of their High Lord, or away across the eastern border into the province of Deeva, whose High Lord had thus far refused to join his neighbors in their rebellion.
In the fifth hour, they finally saw other people on the road. A group of peasants with a two-horse wagon and a herd of forty cattle swerved to the side to give the six riders right of way. "Tell Urcharooh Tarkaan to hold the gates open!" a woman shouted as they passed. "He asked for this war, he'd better protect us!"
"Insolent vermin," Rabadash growled, but he held up his right arm in acknowledgment. The peasants burst into laughter mixed with ragged cheers.
They passed more and more refugees as they drew closer to Had Ordjah, until they were forced to slow their pace for the last mile and enter the city as part of a shifting, slug-like mass of peasants, cattle, and a few lesser lords escorting their wives and children to the supposed safety of their High Lord's sheltering arms. The massive stone bridge over the Tavrir still stood, though several massive machines of steel and wood stood ready to smash it apart, and guards at either end of the span tried repeatedly to pause the flood of refugees and ensure that they had a right to enter.
One of them waded determinedly through a clump of lowing cows toward Rabadash's small troop, spear in hand as he shouted for them to identify themselves. Kinboor Tarkaan pushed forward, swirling his worn cloak aside to reveal the good silk of his tunic and the copper wire decorating the sheath of his sword. "Kinboor Tarkaan of Epembir," he shouted to the guard. "My cousin, Zarman, and our friends who came to support High Lord Urcharooh Tarkaan's glorious cause!"
"Report to the barracks against the western wall!" the guard shouted back, and waved them across the bridge. Then he rejoined his fellows trying to prod the restless cattle into some kind of order.
Ilgamuth couldn't believe it was that easy to sneak into the rebel city. On the other hand, what else could the guards do? If they tried to confirm the identity of every refugee, they would shortly create a riot. And there was no way six people could take a city the size of Had Ordjah -- from what he had seen as they approached, it was half again as large as Azim Balda.
They dismounted once inside the city walls and away from the river of cattle funneling down the main avenue toward safe pasture on this side of the river. Even Rabadash conceded that riding made them too conspicuous. As they crowded around a wide, low-rimmed fountain, letting their horses drink from the muddy trough marked for animal use, Rabadash said, his voice low and intense, "We will rise in the twelfth hour of night and strike at dawn. In the first hour, the Tarkaans and their families are still abed, the servants are busy with the confusion of morning chores, and the guards are tired at the end of their watch."
"To hear is to obey," Zarman said as he pulled on his lively mare's reins, stopping the horse from drinking herself sick. "But where will we sleep tonight? It would be too dangerous to go to the barracks, O my pr-- O my lord, but I doubt there will be room at any lodging house, even presuming the owner failed to report us as suspicious."
"A shrine," Ilvari said firmly. "Azaroth would be best. His priests ask no questions, and we need his blessing on this endeavor."
Rabadash rolled his eyes, but agreed. "I think... this way," he said, and led the way through the twisting maze of Had Ordjah's narrow streets, stopping twice to backtrack and take a different turn. Finally he reached a plain, solid building made of unpolished gray stone, built along the same unassuming lines as a grain storehouse. The only signs of its true nature were the low dome toward the center of its roof and the sign of the sickle and the eye carved in the heavy oaken door.
They walked single-file down the breath-tight alley at the side of the building and maneuvered their horses in through the side gate. The courtyard was paved in more gray stone, with occasional square patches of bare earth around twelve lemon trees. A fountain burbled quietly in the center, its water spilling into channels that irrigated each tree in turn.
A black-robed priestess, perhaps of an age with Ilgamuth's mother, came out of the temple to meet them. She looked unsurprised at their arrival. "I am Tolkheera of this shrine. Be welcome in Azaroth's name," she said, each word careful and precise, as if she were trying to erase any hint of individuality. "We have no stable, but if you give me five crescents I will send an acolyte to buy grain in the evening market. Meanwhile you may purify yourselves in the fountain and join us for sunset prayers."
"Thank you, O keeper of the final secrets," Ilvari said while Rabadash was still drawing breath for some retort. "We are grateful for your hospitality." Chlamash set his hand on Rabadash's shoulder and whispered something in the prince's ear. After a moment, Rabadash grimaced and nodded.
"All people come to Azaroth in the end," the Tolkheera said calmly. "We strive to extend his care to the living as well." She held out her hand.
Five crescents seemed far too high a price for grain, Ilgamuth thought, but then again, the city was under siege. After a moment he fished five crescents from his purse and laid them in the Tolkheera's palm. She curled her fingers over the silver coins and smiled at him, close-lipped.
"She reminded me of my sister Sholis," Ilgamuth said to Ilvari as they dipped their hands in the fountain and splashed water on their foreheads, their shoulders, and their bare feet. "Very serious, always wanting you to think she knows everything. I half expect to return home and learn that she's sworn her life to Zardeenah."
"There are worse fates than the Maiden's service," Ilvari said. "If nothing else, you would never have to fear her dying in childbirth."
Ilgamuth pulled a face. "I prefer not to think of her that way at all. She is only eleven."
"If she were a High Lord's daughter, that would be nearly old enough to marry," Kinboor pointed out, slicking his dripping hair away from his face and back under his turban. "Be grateful we're of lesser blood. After all, 'The hawk is prisoned by jess and bell; the sparrow flies where it will.'" He smiled.
Despite himself, Ilgamuth smiled back.
They knelt in the back of the public shrine, along with several dozen other people, while the Tolkheera and two acolytes -- one gangly boy roughly Ilgamuth's age and one cross-eyed girl of perhaps six years, who must have been a temple orphan -- chanted their way through the sunset rites. When the Tolkheera snuffed the torch behind the altar and clapped to signal the end of the service, Ilvari remained kneeling.
"I wish to ask the god's blessing," he said in response to Rabadash's questioning glance.
"As you will," the prince said. "I need no luck but what I make myself."
The male acolyte led them down to the cellar under the temple, where the back half of the structure was set aside as a sort of last-resort guest house: a single huge room lined with three rows of plain straw mattresses on the bare stone floor, each with a thin, undyed cotton blanket and no pillow. The only light came from a shielded lamp on the wall by the door. Almost all the beds were already occupied, some by obvious beggars who were willing to trade piety in return for sleep, but many others by refugees who lacked either family in the city or money to buy a proper room.
Ilgamuth chose the bed nearest the door, on the theory that it would be best to leave without stumbling past too many people. Chlamash lay next to him on the narrow mattress, his broad shoulders nearly shoving Ilgamuth off onto the bare stores. Kinboor, and Zarman claimed a bed in the center row. The prince, naturally, took one to himself. When Ilvari joined them half an hour later, he spoke briefly with a refugee in the third row, then lay down on a sliver of mattress with an air of a man who had released a great burden.
Ilgamuth closed his eyes, sure he would hardly sleep a moment, but the next time he opened his eyes it was to see Rabadash leaning over him. The prince's hand was pressed across Ilgamuth's mouth in warning, only removed once Ilgamuth blinked and must have made some expression that showed he was awake. "Wake Chlamash," Rabadash murmured, and turned to rouse the others.
They attempted to slip away without waking anyone else, but either the Tolkheera did not sleep or the gods had sent her a warning of their intentions. She was waiting for them in the courtyard, stroking Naija's soft, dark nose and murmuring into the mare's ear.
"Whatever you are going to do, O you who are strangers to Rachegra, know that it will not come without a price," she said as Rabadash strode forward, his hand on the hilt of his sword. "Azaroth has marked you and yours."
"Your god has no claim on me," Rabadash said, seizing his stallion's reins and motioning Zarman to open the courtyard door. "I serve Tash and only Tash."
"Tash may rule the heavens and the empire, but not even he can prevent Azaroth from claiming his due," the Tolkheera said calmly. "You will learn that as you age. Everyone learns it someday, from the poorest beggar to the blood of kings. Death is the one universal truth of humanity." She handed Naija's reins to Ilgamuth with another close-lipped smile, and stood silent and ominous in her black robe as they led their horses back into the hair-thin alley.
In the twelfth hour of night, as darkness thinned toward dawn and the few street lamps on the main avenues had long since burned out, the city was eerily silent. The scent of bread filled the air as bakers prepared for the morning flood, and a few servants walked to and from the public fountains carrying heavy buckets of water over their shoulders, but by and large the streets were empty. Their horses' steps rang terrifyingly loud from the stone streets and walls, though Ilgamuth tried to convince himself it was only his nerves amplifying the sound.
Had Ordjah was as flat as the rest of Rachegra, which meant the buildings shielded anything beyond a street or two away from view except when they emerged into an empty market square or a fountain plaza and a shortened vista opened up. The streets seemed designed purposely to confuse, being neither a grid nor a spiral, and frequently shunting the little raiding party underneath the first story of a house or through what seemed to be private courtyards. Rabadash directed them steadily west and south, cursing every time the streets forced him to turn aside from his chosen path.
Finally they spilled from a narrow alley into a broad, brick-paved square. The High Lord's palace rose before them, a great edifice of reddish sandstone painted with abstract designs that resembled both rushing water and stampeding horses. To the left stood a temple, its marble dome topped by a pair of golden spires shaped like the horns of a bull with a stylized sunburst caught between them: the signs of Garshomon and Soolyeh, the patrons of this province. The diffuse light of false dawn was growing bright and sharp as the sun neared the hidden horizon behind them, changing the eastern sky from a deep twilight blue to the pale shade of a robin's egg, tinged with pink and gold.
Ilgamuth hoped Rabadash remembered the inside of the palace better than he had remembered the city. They might be harder to find once the city woke and the crowds of refugees took to the streets, but those same crowds would make escape nearly impossible, particularly since they would have to fight against the flood to leave Had Ordjah rather than enter.
Rabadash led them to the north end of the palace and through an open archway wide enough for six men to ride abreast. He nodded curtly to the yawning guard as they passed, his posture and expression fierce enough that the hapless rebel soldier either did not think or did not dare to question the presence of six unfamiliar youths of uncertain social status. Once inside the first courtyard, Rabadash turned immediately to the right and gathered Ilgamuth and the others in the northeast corner of the vast, cobbled yard, next to a small fountain with four oval pools.
"Four of us will enter and seize the traitor's son," he said. "Two will remain here with our horses to prepare for a fast escape." He swept a measuring gaze over the five boys. "Zarman, Chlamash, Ilvari, with me. Kinboor, Ilgamuth, wait here." He shoved his stallion's reins into Ilgamuth's hand, spun on his heel, and strode toward the inner gates of the palace. After a moment, Ilvari handed over his gelding's reins with an apologetic shrug and followed the prince.
Ilgamuth juggled the reins, maneuvering the other horses to stand on either side of Naija. The stallion tossed his proud, dark head, misliking the touch of a stranger's hand on his shoulder, but Ilgamuth murmured into his ear and offered a pinch of salt on his palm, which reconciled the horse to his presence. Ilgamuth stroked his nose, admiring the high arch of the stallion's neck and the way his obvious strength did not interfere with his clean lines, unlike work horses which grew squat and bunched with muscle.
"Calavarene men are as good with horses as rumor claims," Kinboor said, drawing Ilgamuth out of his focus. "I've heard of grooms carrying dried fruit to sweeten a beast's temper, but not salt. Whose idea was that?"
Ilgamuth shrugged. "It was old when my grandfather was young. Beyond that only the gods can say."
Kinboor laughed quietly. "Scribes might beg to differ, but fair enough." He leaned against the chill stone wall of the courtyard, three sets of reins held lightly in his hands, and squinted toward the main bulk of the palace. "You never talk except to Corradin or Ilvari, or in response to a direct question. You are a figure of mystery, Ilgamuth Tarkaan. It makes me curious. Do you really want to be here, fighting this war, striving to serve this prince?"
Ilgamuth shrugged again. "War is the inevitable curse and glory of mankind, the path set for us by Tash. What does my desire have to do with my presence?"
"Not every man is called to be a soldier. There are other paths for spare sons," Kinboor said. "And this war was far from inevitable."
He frowned as he regarded the palace. "My mother writes regularly to her father's family. Rachegra has skirted the ragged edge of drought for the past five years. The peasants and merchants cannot afford the taxes that the Tisroc (to whom may the gods grant wisdom) has set, and even the Tarkaans are being driven into debt. The taxes are a punishment for Urcharooh Tarkaan's refusal to support Rishti Tisroc's claim to the throne. He may not have sworn himself to Prince Udrilar, but he never refused the prince's requests for coin or grain. If the High Lord had rebelled outright, he would now be dead and Rachegra would be taxed according to its new lord's loyalties -- as Deeva is, though Deeva's former lord fought for Udrilar while Urcharooh Tarkaan held back his spear. The weight of the Tisroc's displeasure has pushed discontent into outrage, and created war where peace might easily have been sown instead."
Ilgamuth stilled. Those words were dangerously close to treason. Was this a test?
"Do you wish to be here, fighting this war, striving to serve this prince?" he asked, turning Kinboor's words back on him.
"Imagine Rabadash surrounded only by men like Anradin, Zuketh, and Hunagor," Kinboor said, turning to meet Ilgamuth's eyes. "How will he learn to see the world as it is rather than the world as he wishes it to be? And yet, he can be made to listen. Here we are at your suggestion, engaged in a ruse to stop this war before it can tear thousands of men to bloody shreds and grind thousands of crescents into the dirt where, unlike seeds, they will bear no grain and feed no starving mouths. Like all men, the prince has two sides to his soul. I wish to see the son of gods triumph over the son of beasts."
Kinboor raised one shoulder in a half shrug. "So. Here I am. Can you say you disagree with my choices, Ilgamuth Tarkaan?"
Ilgamuth turned aside and adjusted Naija's bridle in lieu of answering.
He and Kinboor stood in silence as the rising sun began to illuminate the western wall of the courtyard, rousing color in the intricately carved façade. What could be keeping Rabadash and the others? Surely it was not that difficult to carry a boy of four years down a few corridors and stairs? And if the prince had been discovered, where was the uproar that should follow?
"Hssst," Kinboor said, striking his foot against Ilgamuth's ankle. "A guard is approaching. Keep silent and let me answer. Your accent is too obviously from the northeast."
The guard, presumably on his way to replace one of the tired men at the palace gateways, strode toward Ilgamuth and Kinboor, the scowl on his face nearly hidden by his thick beard. His hand hovered near the hilt of his sword as he called out, "You there. What are a pair of unblooded boys doing in the High Lord's house with six horses that are obviously too good for you?"
"O most worthy of soldiers, we have come to join the High Lord's army in his glorious fight against the false Tisroc," Kinboor said, his accent shifting to mirror the guard's own words: broad and monotone, the vowels flattened when they weren't skipped altogether. "But we thought to see what the enemy has planned, and so we crept across the river to spy. My cousin and our friends are even now seeking to report what we learned before we were discovered."
"Which river?" the guard asked, a hint of concern creeping into his demeanor. "If someone has persuaded Jenin, that fat old layabout, to disregard the courtesies and cross the border--"
"Naa, naa, the enemy remains on the far side of the Angaavush," Kinboor said. To Ilgamuth, it sounded as though he had completely swallowed the middle syllable of the river's name, replacing it with a tiny pause.
"Aaa," said the guard, regaining his composure. "In such a case, your cousin's information is almost certainly already known to Urcharooh Tarkaan, through the judicious use of messenger birds and couriers who have the correct authorization to enter the High Lord's presence. Your enthusiasm is admirable but misdirected. I will wait here with you, and when your companions arrive I will direct you to the barracks where your efforts may be channeled into more useful streams."
"Your attention does us honor," Kinboor said with a shallow bow. Ilgamuth bowed also, desperately trying to force his face into a mask of gratitude instead of the pounding terror coursing through his blood.
How could they redirect this man's interest?
Perhaps if they requested food for their horses? But before Ilgamuth could whisper his idea to Kinboor, Rabadash burst from the palace. Ilvari and Chlamash followed him, the latter with a bundle slung over his shoulder that might be a small boy wrapped in a sheet. Zarman was nowhere to be seen.
The guard swung around at the clatter of boots on paving stones, mouth opening to shout a warning and hand beginning to draw his sword.
Ilgamuth and Kinboor struck him at the same moment -- Ilgamuth high, his sword slicing into the man's neck, and Kinboor low, deep into the man's torso between the lower edge of his boiled leather armor and the bone of his hip. The guard collapsed with a futile attempt to breathe through a ruined throat, one hand drift to the gaping wound in his side.
Then he died.
It seemed to Ilgamuth that he stood watching blood puddle under the guard's corpse for hours while Rabadash and the others hung trapped in a world gone thick and airless as honey, the gold of the just-risen sun dazzling his eyes as it reflected from glass and mica in the palace walls. Besides him Kinboor's breath was harsh in his ears, and he could almost feel his own blood pounding at the insides of his veins like a herd of lightning-spooked horses running breakneck over the rolling hills of Calavar.
Presently Kinboor wiped his sword on the guard's trousers before sheathing it. Ilgamuth blinked and copied him just as Rabadash arrived and seized his stallion's reins from where they hung loose over the horse's neck. Ilgamuth blinked again and looked around for Naija and Ilvari's gelding.
"Fools. You will never survive a true battle if you are so easily distracted," the prince said as he leapt into his saddle. "Warhorses may not grow restive at the scent of blood, but they are still dumb beasts, all too prone to startle or wander off. You struck, your blows were true, and there was no sense wasting a moment before returning to your main task. Hide that trash behind the fountain. The ruse is threadbare, but may gain us a precious handful of time."
"To hear is to obey," Kinboor said, seizing the guard's shoulders as Ilgamuth bent to pick up the corpse's feet. They shoved the body between the fountain and the corner before scrambling onto their own horses.
Ilgamuth wondered if anyone else heard the faintly sardonic tone to the other boy's voice.
Or no. Not boy. He and Kinboor had jointly killed a member of an enemy army. He supposed that made them men.
He did not feel like much of a man.
"Where is Zarman?" he asked as he mounted Naija.
"Dead," said Rabadash, and punched his heels into his stallion's sides. The horse raised its front hooves from the cobblestones, but the prince leaned forward and the stallion surged into a rapid trot rather than rear. Chlamash followed, the fabric-wrapped bundle squirming in his lap as Urcharooh Tarkaan's son kicked and fought.
They rode briskly back out of the palace and turned northeast along one of Had Ordjah's wide, fragrant main avenues. Its center was lined with trees and terraced banks of flowers, many sadly ragged from the attention of a thousand cattle the previous day. Merchants were setting up carts and shopkeepers were raising the wooden awnings from their windows, propping them up with measured poles. They turned and stared at the passing horses, some calling out in confusion or alarm.
Ilgamuth wanted to ask what had happened in the palace, but he dared not risk waking any more suspicion than six horses hurrying from the palace at dawn -- one neither guided by a rider nor bound by a lead rope -- roused by their very nature.
Sooner than he thought possible, they approached the main gate in the city walls, its heavy towers and iron doors rearing like a mailed fist at the mouth of the great bridge. The doors stood wide, presumably opened at dawn, and a handful of refugees were straggling across the bridge into the city.
Rabadash kicked his stallion into a gallop.
The five boys whipped past the bewildered guards onto the bridge, arrowing toward the gatehouse on the other side of the Tavrir. Shouts chased them, and the guards on the north bank began to winch their gates shut. But either the counterbalance was off or the hinges had rusted during long years of peace -- Ilgamuth could see they would be well past by the time the two doors met.
Several guards also saw this. They scrambled into a defensive line in the center of the gate, spears braced against the ground and aimed to kill the charging horses.
Ilgamuth wished for his own spear. Why had the prince chosen to leave them behind, north of the Angaavush? They could easily have entered the city even with that added sign of battle-readiness.
Suddenly another horse pulled a burst of speed from its bones and broke past the prince and his stallion -- first a head, then its shoulders, then its hindquarters, then clear air opened between them. The rider bent low to his mount's shoulders, his toes pointed in to its sides. It was impossible to see his face, but Ilgamuth recognized Kinboor's black turban and the sky blue print of his tunic.
Kinboor shouted something, but the wind tore his words away.
At the last moment, he swerved sideways and rammed the line of spearmen, bowling them off their feet.
His horse tripped and fell to the stone floor of the bridge. One foreleg snapped under its own weight. The beast screamed. It rolled onto Kinboor's feet, pinning him. A guard rose and drew his sword.
He hacked downward.
Rabadash aimed his stallion through the narrow gap Kinboor had created. The other three followed.
And they were free.
Scattered arrows chased them as they fled, but the soldiers at the gate had concentrated inward rather than outward, and no bolt struck home. Luck was also with them that the bridgehead was too small to have a cavalry unit attached. They had precious minutes to put distance between themselves and the inevitable pursuit.
Unfortunately Rachegra's terrain did not lend itself to hiding: everything was flat and nearly treeless, as far as the eye could see, any slight rise or dip of the ground swallowed by the vast sweep of the dry, dusty plains. Ilgamuth felt he had a ringed spear target fastened to his back, and crouched low to Naija's shoulders as he rode, feeling her labored breath and straining muscles as if they were his own. They needed speed, they needed distance -- but if they spent their horses too soon, they were dead.
Rabadash, whatever his faults, was an excellent rider and must have felt his own mount's increasing fatigue. "Walk," he shouted, reining in his stallion and letting the other three cluster around him. Zarman's riderless mare galloped on for a few seconds before slowing and sidling up to Naija's side. Ilgamuth reached across the narrow gap and stroked her speckled neck. He wondered what her name was.
"We will turn east off the road at the first tributary ford," Rabadash commanded. "I realize that is the obvious move, but one does what necessity demands. We will ride upstream and then choose our path based on what chances Tash provides."
"What of the boy?" Ilvari asked, tipping his head toward the bundle in Chlamash's arms. Its occupant had stopped squirming, but seemed to hear the question.
"Let me out!" the boy shouted, his high, childish voice muffled by the layers of fabric. "My father will whip you for this! He will lock you up and beat you and have you die the death of the wild horses! I am Sunda Tarkaan son of Urcharooh Tarkaan, the High Lord of--"
"I am Prince Rabadash, and I say you will be silent or I will slit your throat myself, your father's wrath be damned. The gods themselves would call that just, after the oaths he has broken," Rabadash said. His voice was level, and he was not exaggerating his rage with the theatrical facial contortions he often indulged in, but Ilgamuth believed every word.
"You wouldn't," the boy said, but his voice shifted to an uncertain whine.
"I swear by Tash the Inexorable, that if you are silent you may survive this day, but if you make so much noise as a sniffle or sneeze, you will die instantly," Rabadash said. "Now be silent."
The boy subsided. Chlamash resettled his wrapped body over the front of his blocky gelding's saddle, evidently trying to find a way to balance the weight while leaving his own arms free. Ilgamuth glanced at Zarman's mare, then drew his sword and cut her reins. Zarman would not need them ever again. "Here," he said, handing the leather cords to Chlamash, who nodded silent thanks.
They splashed eastward off the wheel-rutted dirt of the main road into a shallow stream shortly thereafter, their horses picking their footing cautious on the muddy stones of the streambed. The water barely deserved the name, Ilgamuth thought, compared to the streams that laced Calavar's hills. Those were wide enough in places that five men could lie head to toe and not reach from one side to the other, and deep enough to swim in when they pooled in calmer bends. This was barely one man's height across, and it ran so shallow he doubted any fish could make a trail from the river upstream to whatever pond might lurk around another bend.
The banks were only the height of Naija's shoulders, but the wild grass on top grew that height again, concealing them thoroughly from sight. Yet Ilgamuth still felt that target on his back: as Rabadash said, any pursuit would turn up this stream as a matter of course.
"What path do you think General Jenin will take when he crosses the Angaavush?" Ilvari asked, raising his voice just enough to be heard over the splash of horses' hooves in shallow water. "Will he follow the road as we did, or will he swing east or west to approach Had Ordjah from the side?"
"If he is loyal to my father, he will follow the road and meet us as quickly as flesh and blood allow," Rabadash said. "Therefore we should not turn too far aside ourselves."
The journey between the Tavrir and the Angaavush had taken them nearly a full twelve hours, Ilgamuth thought, and they had traveled much faster and lighter than an army. Fifteen leagues was a hard day's ride for skilled cavalry, but out of the question for infantry or supply wagons.
"Ha!" the prince said, spying a dip in the stream banks that opened onto a narrow dirt path. "North again. We will parallel the road as best we can. Remember, the men chasing us -- for surely the High Lord has sent cavalry by now -- cannot push their horses any further than we can push ours, and we have the promise of help ahead while they have none."
The next hours were like an eerie dream, Ilgamuth later thought, in which they alternated between rapid trots and brief walks, stopping twice to feed and water their horses. They rode single file, keeping to the meandering path -- it was the only way to make any sort of time, since riding through the unbroken grass was as difficult as fording through deep water. Once Chlamash unrolled Urcharooh Tarkaan's son and told him, gruffly, to piss and drink while he had a chance. The boy obeyed in tear-streaked silence. Another time they passed through an empty village rather than alongside single farmsteads. Their horses startled a flock of abandoned chickens into a flurry of beating wings and injured squawks. All four boys held their breath, irrationally, until the birds fell silent.
Always Ilgamuth had the sense of pursuit looming just beyond their vision, but they were well into the sixth hour, the sun almost at zenith, before Ilvari turned in his saddle and pointed to a cloud of dust rising to the south. "Cavalry!" he shouted.
Rabadash's mouth set in a grim line. "Whip Zarman's horse toward them," he said. "She may buy a minute or three of distraction."
The speckled mare was walking close beside Ilgamuth and Naija, taking advantage of a slight widening in the path. Ilgamuth looked regretfully at her liquid brown eyes. Then he pushed her head to the left and kicked her in the side with the point of his boot. She sidestepped and looked at him reproachfully, but sidled back.
"Go!" he shouted, and drew his sword. He struck her with the flat of the blade, kicked her again, then turned his sword so the edge sliced a shallow cut over her shoulder. She screamed in distress, her ears flat back against her head, and wheeled away.
"Sokda guide your feet and Soolyeh soothe your pain, sister," Ilgamuth whispered as he wiped his blade on his trousers and slid it back into his sheath. Then he squeezed Naija's sides and sent her galloping to catch up to the prince.
The next three hours were a grueling game of inches. The pursuing cavalry also had to rest and water their horses, which allowed the escaping four to make time, but whenever they slowed or stopped, the ominous dust cloud drew closer once again. And every time their gain seemed less and the enemy's gain seemed more.
"They must be killing their horses," Ilvari muttered to Ilgamuth as they paused and dismounted, letting their own lathered, laboring horses breathe free for a snatched handful of minutes.
"That or they brought two or three for each soldier, to switch which ones bear the weight," Ilgamuth answered. "I wish I had Shaxi or even Hareena to give Naija a rest. Look at her. Her legs are trembling. She would kill herself for me, but how can I ask that of her?"
"Such is war. Such is life," Ilvari said.
"Mount!" Rabadash cried. Ilgamuth shoved himself off the ground and back into the saddle, and the nightmare chase resumed.
He began to wonder why they weren't seeing a corresponding dust cloud ahead of them. What if General Jenin had refused to listen to Anradin and hadn't crossed the river? At the rate the Rachegrene cavalry was gaining, they would never reach the Angaavush before their pursuers caught and killed them. Surely the general wouldn't let the Tisroc's son be killed?
He did not voice his worries.
And then a line of infantry rose like fangs from the cover of the tall grass, spears out and ready to kill their horses. Rabadash pulled his stallion up so hard the horse reared and nearly toppled backward, front hooves pawing desperately at the air for balance.
"Hold! Hold your ground, you dogs! Stand down! I am your prince, you sons of dust and ashes! Spill one drop of my blood and not a single whisper of your own will remain in your filthy, worthless corpses!"
Rabadash's voice was hoarse from weariness and lack of water, but loud enough to carry. Either the soldiers recognized him from the long march south or simply decided it was safer to surround the four exhausted riders and pass the business of thinking on to those of higher rank. Their commander hastily assigned ten men to escort Rabadash and the others, and the remaining infantry resumed their watchful crouch.
As they passed through the lines, Ilgamuth realized what General Jenin had done: the front line of infantry waited at the top of a shallow rise, barely enough to notice in the overall sweep of the land, and certainly not enough to inconvenience a galloping horse... but just enough to conceal the bulk of his army between the dip of the land and the height of the grass. The main road itself remained temptingly empty, but it would be easy for their own cavalry to fall on the Rachegrene army from both sides.
"I see the old buzzard knows a few tricks after all," Rabadash said in the musing tone of someone so tired he scarcely realized he was speaking aloud. "Well, I will thank him for disposing of the vermin so long as he thanks me for luring the badger out of its den. In the meantime, we have a hostage to dispose of. Come, you lot. Forget Jenin. Take me to Anradin and the other bootlickers. They can deal with the boy. I am going to sleep the sun down and no one may wake me on pain of death until tomorrow."
"To hear is to obey," Ilgamuth murmured in chorus with Ilvari and Chlamash.
"But what about the battle, O my prince?" Chlamash asked after a moment.
Rabadash waved a careless hand. "As if the gods will let us lose. Furthermore, Tash's blood may run through my veins, but even I admit that I have limits. We would do more harm than good even on fresh horses. Best not to disrupt matters."
There was truth to his words, Ilgamuth acknowledged, though he disliked the idea of people he knew facing death while he stayed safely in the rear of the army. His legs felt as shaky as Naija's, though she had done all the running while he merely sat astride her back. He patted her lathered neck, and smiled when she blew heavily through her nose and flicked an ear toward his touch.
Behind them, he heard the thunder of approaching cavalry, and then the shouts of a thousand men as the hidden line of soldiers stood with their spears. To the side, he saw their own cavalry tense for action.
Ilgamuth closed his eyes and let Naija follow the other horses toward their camp.
The battle lasted less than an hour.
Shortly after Ilgamuth finished tending to Naija and greeting Shaxi and Hareena so they would not feel neglected, the rest of their tiny company rode back to the waiting tents, singing a rather profane version of a hymn to Tash. Ilgamuth counted them absently, then counted a second time when he got a smaller number than he expected. Three boys had not survived. Their loss, along with that of Kinboor and Zarman, left only sixteen competing for Rabadash's favor.
"We were in the first charge, along with the royal cavalry," Corradin said breathlessly when Ilgamuth ventured up to him. "We rode against Urcharooh Tarkaan himself and his most loyal lords! I think I killed one of them. I know I struck him, but everything moved so fast and grew so confused that I couldn't swear to his death."
"'Divine chaos, a whirlwind madness, spun of splintered bone and scarlet blood,'" Ilgamuth offered.
"Ha," said Corradin. "Yes. Also a lot of flapping cloth and fallen horses, and everyone shouting a hundred different things at once so not a single word makes sense." He glanced at the tip of his spear, slowly turning brown as the bloodstain dried, and shivered: a sort of full body shrug like a dog shaking off water. "But enough of that. What about you? The prince is sleeping and it's useless getting any kind of story out of Chlamash, but you and Ilvari owe the rest of us a tale!"
He seized hold of Ilgamuth's arm and dragged him off toward the main firepit at the center of their ring of tents. The stacked wood was unlit now in only the ninth hour, but the others were gathering around the freshly laid ring of stones, passing a pilfered jug of wine from mouth to mouth and making large of their exploits.
"Where's Ilvari?" Corradin called as he and Ilgamuth drew near.
"Asleep, the lazy dog!" Azrooh said. "So is Chlamash."
"Well, wake them! And while he does that, Ilgamuth, you start telling us about Had Ordjah," Corradin ordered, shoving Ilgamuth to the ground and dropping down beside him.
"Getting into the city was easy--" Ilgamuth began, slowly, searching awkwardly for the right words to explain a series of events he wasn't certain he understood himself. He mentioned Azaroth's shrine, how Rabadash had split them into two groups, and the guard he and Kinboor had killed in the palace courtyard. Then he stopped and looked across the unlit fire at Ilvari. "What happened in the palace? I never had time to ask."
Ilvari looked down at the jug of wine currently in his hands. "The prince led us into the palace wing where the High Lord's family has their chambers. We tried several doors before we found the boy's bedroom. Apparently this woke one of the High Lord's daughters, who called for a guard. That is how Zarman died. Azaroth marked us, as the Tolkheera said."
"Yes, yes, obviously Azaroth marks those who go to war," Corradin said. "So you took the boy and ran?"
"Yes and no," said Ilvari. He passed on the jug of wine and clasped his hands. "The Tarkheena then came herself to investigate the sound of steel on steel, but when the prince raised his sword and threatened to strike her down as a traitor and kin of traitors, she laughed and said, 'O Prince Rabadash, I remember your face from when your father sent you to sweeten the words he whispered this autumn past. So you are here to kill my forsworn father? Truly, the gods have sent me luck. Follow me and I will take you to where the fool lies sleeping.'"
A low murmur of surprise swept the gathering. "I am fairly certain I have seen that exact same circumstance in a pageant," Anradin said, stroking his beard. "Are you spinning romantic nonsense to cover for your cowardice?"
"I am no coward, and that is truly what she said," Ilvari insisted. "You remember, Chlamash."
Chlamash nodded. "She did say that," he agreed.
"But of course we had no time to follow her, and just then Chlamash came out of the boy's room with the child wrapped in a sheet," Ilvari continued. "The Tarkheena marked this and laughed again. 'So you seek to lure my father's army out of these walls, and play the game of Tash rather than that of Achadith?' she said. 'Very well. I will hide this wretch's corpse and conceal your actions as long as I may, in return for your promise to treat with me and my sisters after your battle. I think you will be most interested to hear what we have to say.'
"Then we ran," Ilvari concluded. "Ilgamuth can tell the rest."
Ilgamuth tried not to twitch as everyone's attention swung back toward him. "We rode through the city toward the Tavrir," he said. "The guards at the far end of the bridge set up a spear wall. Kinboor sacrificed himself to clear us an opening. We turned aside from the main road and found a parallel track leading north. Then we rode as fast as we could until we reached your lines."
He groped for a poem to describe the airless nightmare of the chase, but found none. His own words would have to suffice. "It was like... When you were young, did you ever have a fever dream? One where you knew a monster was chasing you, but when you turned to look, nothing was there?"
A few of the other boys nodded.
"It was like that until Ilvari spotted the dust cloud. Then it was simply endurance."
"You endured, and you brought the traitor lord to us," Anradin said. "Zarman and Kinboor gave their lives in the service of our prince and our empire, as did Shelimbreh, Guzmi, and Azekfahadrin. Let us salute our fallen comrades, our noble Prince Rabadash, and our dread and invincible lord Tash!"
"To fallen comrades! To Prince Rabadash! To Tash!" they chorused: once, twice, and again.
Ilgamuth mouthed the words, unable to find joy in the deaths of people he had spent a month living among. He had not been close to any of the dead, but he suddenly wished he had tried harder to make friends. He wished he knew the name of Zarman's mare. He wished he knew when and how Kinboor had decided to trust him with his borderline treasonous reasons for serving the prince. He wished he knew anything about Shelimbreh, Azekfahadrin, and Guzmi beyond their home provinces, and useless tidbits like Guzmi's braying donkey laugh, Shelimbreh's habit of talking in his sleep, and Azekfahadrin's off-key singing.
He sat silently while the other boys resumed describing the battle to themselves and each other, slowly hammering out a unified tale of what each of them and each of the enemy riders had done, and in what order. After a time, as one of the prince's servitors slipped through the circle to light the waiting fire, he stood and walked away toward the bit of open field where their horses were tethered in two long lines.
At least ten of them no longer had owners.
Ilgamuth borrowed a brush from one of the two grooms assigned to their little troop, and busied himself currying Naija's shoulders and sides. She had already been washed and brushed, of course, but the steady motion and the scent and heat of her living body calmed him. Soon Hareena noticed his presence and nudged him forcefully in the middle of his back. She bit his sleeve and began to tug on the fabric, threatening to strangle him with his own collar.
"Greedy," Ilgamuth said fondly, and turned to curry her in turn.
As he stroked the brush down her red-brown neck, he noticed a trio of unfamiliar grooms walk down the lines and unfasten eleven horses from their pegs. Then they led the animals away toward the main camp.
Those were Zarman's horses, and Kinboor's, and the other three who had died this day, Ilgamuth realized. Horses they had brought from home or bought with their own money at Rabadash's orders. Now they would be given to surviving soldiers who had lost a mount, without any mention of their former owners.
And this was only one battle. A small battle, an easy battle, the lightest possible toll for a war.
Ilgamuth had been raised to follow Tash. He remembered his joy when his father first let him lift a true sword instead of the wooden imitations all boys fashioned for themselves at some point in childhood. He remembered the pride on his mother's face when she fastened the silk ribbons to his spear before he left home. He remembered the way time slowed when he and Kinboor killed the guard in the courtyard, and the way his mind went blank when he rode past Kinboor's screaming horse and broken body.
"I serve you, O Tash," he whispered into Hareena's shoulder. "I am a soldier now, and you are the god of war as well as the king of heaven and the guide of Calormen. My body is yours. But not my heart. I am sorry, O Tash. Strike me down if you will, but I cannot give you my heart."
Calormen had been at constant war for centuries, fighting both within and without its borders as High Lord strove against High Lord, prince battled prince, and Tisroc after Tisroc sought to expand the reach of the empire. Surely that was Tash's design. Surely that was his delight.
But there were other gods, and there were other ways.
Kinboor had seen that, Ilgamuth thought. Kinboor had wanted to guide Rabadash to a different way. Perhaps he would have been brave enough and skilled enough with words to make the prince into a man of peace.
Ilgamuth knew he could never live up to that goal.
He closed his eyes and wished with all his heart he had never left home.
The army struck camp in the second hour. That was later than usual, but there was unavoidable confusion over dealing with prisoners, which according to rumor might include Urcharooh Tarkaan himself (unless he had been killed, or had fled on a stolen horse, or any of another dozen equally unverified rumors). At least one company from every province also had to remain behind to identify and dispose of the dead. A small group of the Nameless had already begun building pyres during the night, working through Azaroth's sacred darkness, but obviously un-persons could not say the prayers, arrange the noble dead, or light the fires themselves.
Rabadash stormed off to find General Jenin and berate him for wasting the advantage of Had Ordjah's weakened defenses. "Even if we destroyed half their army, which I am certain we did not, they must have at least ten thousand men remaining within the walls, or ready to send further south to circle and attack us from behind," he said. "What was the point of my raid if we still end up setting a siege?"
He returned in an even worse temper and would not tell anyone how the confrontation had gone, but the army did move out shortly thereafter.
The pace was nowhere near what the raiding party had set on their way north the day before, nor even close to their speed when heading south. An army traveled as fast as its slowest part. In this case, that meant they went at the pace of a walking man.
"Useless!" Rabadash said several times. Finally, as the fifth hour drew to its close, he rode off to find General Jenin again. This time he returned in a somewhat more cheerful mood.
"To me, you sorry excuses for men!" the prince called. "We will ride ahead to scout for any sign of the retreating remnants from yesterday's battle, or any hint of what the traitor's daughter meant when she extracted a promise to treat with her."
He kneed his horse -- another stallion, as was his preference -- into a trot, and the sixteen remaining would-be companions dutifully followed him, gathering into a rough wedge with the prince at its tip. They veered off the road into the tall grass, slowly edging past the endless, snaking line of the army and its supply wagons. The dust was less choking out of the direct line of march, but the grass shook loose its miniscule seeds as the horses brushed past the tasseled stalks, coating everyone in straw-gold instead of grayish-brown.
Finally they surged past the chariots and the cavalry van and returned to the road. Rabadash whooped as he urged his stallion into a reckless gallop. The career soldiers of the royal cavalry saluted, laughing and cheering for their prince.
Strange that they could smile so soon after their comrades had died.
Then again, Ilgamuth himself did not feel as melancholy as he thought he should. The sun shone golden-white in a bright blue sky, dotted by soft, scattered clouds. Birds sang in the distance, hidden by the ever-present grass, and to his left he could hear Corradin telling a long, involved tale of a childhood adventure that Ilgamuth suspected was more than half fabrication. The difference between this ride and yesterday's grim, silent race was so great he wondered if he had fallen into a different world while he slept.
"Look! Dust!" Azrooh shouted, standing high in his stirrups as he pointed to the south. "I think I also saw a reflection thrown by something bright," he added.
"Fall back and give the warning," Rabadash ordered, turning his horse as he spoke.
The army spread out to either side of the road, the soldiers taking position with the ease of long experience. General Jenin rode slowly forward to the van, surrounded by his staff and a man carrying Urcharooh Tarkaan's young son bound in slender chains. He ordered the Tisroc's standard raised: the red wings and crossed talons of Tash on a golden field. "You will accompany me, O my prince," the general said to Rabadash, "but only on the understanding that I will give the order of battle, if indeed battle is what we face. You lead your company, as is your right, but you are still untried in true war. One guard slain in a corridor may make you a man. It does not make you a general."
The contortion of the prince's face was terrible and Ilgamuth held his breath. But sense triumphed over rage. Rabadash held his tongue and nodded his head the barest minimum to show he understood.
The general promptly ignored him and ordered a pair of Tarkaans and one of the lesser court officials who had come to manage the legalities of the campaign to ride forward under the bright green flag of truce, while the army continued its slower advance behind them.
Shortly one of the Tarkaans rode back at a brisk trot. "The rebels also seek a truce and a parley," he shouted. "Furthermore, half their company seem to be in chains."
"Ha!" said Rabadash. "So that is what the traitor's daughter meant, when she said we would wish to hear what she and her sisters had to say."
General Jenin turned on him with a deep scowl. "What is this about Urcharooh Tarkaan's daughter? Why was I not informed you had spoken with her?"
"I did not think anything would come of it," Rabadash said with a mocking shrug. "After all, I am not a general. By your lights, I know little of either war or diplomacy, despite that I grew up in the shadow of my father (may he live forever) while he made both war and peace." He smiled, unpleasantly. "Come, let us see what the Tarkheena wants."
He urged his stallion forward, leaving General Jenin no choice but to follow. The general's staff scrambled to keep up. After a moment, Anradin also rode toward the waiting rebel army and the rest of Rabadash's little company followed suit.
The Rachegrenes had set up an elaborate tent at the side of the road, with heavy carpets to weigh down the grass and cushions for several dozen people to sit on. Three armed guards stood at each of the corners, and four girls and an infant sat along the back side, which was the only one with its wall rolled down and pegged to the earth. The eldest was perhaps seventeen, the youngest (who held the infant) barely eleven. They were unmistakably sisters, all sharing the same wide mouth and hatchet nose. None would be considered a beauty. A cracked spear with blood-stained red and blue ribbons lay on the rug before them, along with a wicker basket covered by a plain wooden lid.
The eldest girl stood as Rabadash and General Jenin dismounted. "Be welcome in my province, O son of Tash, and O most well-reputed of generals. I am Zubidah Tarkheena, High Lady of Rachegra, and I hereby surrender to the mercy and judgment of Rishti Tisroc (may he live forever), renouncing the madness and treason of Urcharooh Tarkaan, my late and unlamented father."
"Your late father?" General Jenin asked as he ducked to enter the tent. Rabadash, the guard holding Urcharooh Tarkaan's son, and two of the court officials followed; everyone else remained outside, listening with badly hidden curiosity.
Zubidah Tarkheena smiled. "He survived the battle. He did not survive the retreat. Alas, his body is not in any fit state to display before such noble personages as yourselves, though I will of course give you his spear. And his head." She gestured toward the items at her feet.
Rabadash bent to pick up the basket and flipped open its lid with ill-concealed glee. "Ha! My father (may he live forever) will regret not seeing the traitor's execution, but no one can argue with the correctness of his fate."
Behind him, the traitor's young son began to weep.
"Just so," Zubidah Tarkheena agreed, ignoring her half-brother's distress. "As a further token of my sincerity, please accept two of Sibanis Tarkaan's sons as hostages. My sisters and I were not able to keep the third from escaping and taking six thousand men west to rejoin his father in Drinachlala, but I trust the gesture is sufficient." She snapped her fingers, and two soldiers brought a pair of struggling men into the tent.
"Wife! You shame me!" one of them shouted at Zubidah Tarkheena. "You shame your father! You shame every drop of your blood for nine generations!"
"You shamed me, when you raised arms against your lawful ruler," Zubidah said calmly. "And I am no longer your wife. In the name of Nazreen, I divorce you. In the name of Nur, I divorce you. In the name of Azaroth, I divorce you. I am keeping my daughter for my own. You, I leave to the disposition of imperial justice. It is possible the Tisroc (infinite be his wisdom) may be more merciful than I am inclined to be. Gag them," she added to the soldiers, who complied with great vigor. Behind her, her youngest sister made a mocking face at the two bound men.
"I see you made good use of the past day and a half," Rabadash said, an admiring tone in his voice. For once, Ilgamuth agreed with the prince completely. To orchestrate a coup that fast was more than impressive, no matter how much groundwork the Tarkheena must have previously laid to swing the majority of her father's army rapidly to her side.
"I merely seized the opportunity you created, O my prince," Zubidah said, bowing respectfully and touching her hands to her forehead. "I thank you for the chance to restore honor to my family and my home."
"Hrmph. This is all very well," said General Jenin, frowning, "but you are overlooking the incontrovertible law that a woman cannot rule a province on her own. You have disposed of your husband, O most ruthless of Tarkheenas. What fool do you intend to serve as your catspaw?"
Zubidah Tarkheena smiled. "My uncle is no catspaw, O most sagacious of generals. He and I planned this coup together. At present he is in Deeva, where he has been persuading our esteemed neighbors to remain loyal to the empire, but as soon as I send word, he will ride for Had Ordjah where he and I will wed. Together we have as good a claim by blood to this province as my half-brother, and a much better claim by strength than a boy only halfway to the age of reason."
She knelt on the rug, her long split tunic pooling gracefully around her legs. "I petition you, O my prince, O my lords, O my masters of the court who speak with the voice of the Tisroc and the law: let me and my uncle inherit Rachegra and return to the grace of the gods and the empire. Let the shame of my father be lifted by his death and our loyalty, and relieve us from the burden his guilt imposed upon my people. This I beg of you in the name of Achadith the Queen, who looks kindly upon change and whispers moderation into the all-hearing ears of Tash."
Ilgamuth held his breath, hoping the prince and the general would accept.
Rabadash looked at General Jenin, whose face was still set in a deep frown. "I do not speak with my father's voice," he said, "but her words sound fair to me. We will, of course, take the late traitor's son to Tashbaan where he will be raised in the comfort of my father's court," he added with a bladed smile when Zubidah Tarkheena began to raise her head. "I doubt the boy would find much comfort among his father's killers." He set a warning hand on the boy's small shoulder.
"Of course," Zubidah murmured.
"What say you, O wise and respected general?" Rabadash asked.
General Jenin frowned and tugged on his beard. Rather than replying directly, he turned to the court officials and asked, "Is that legal?"
Rabadash and Zubidah smiled. Ilgamuth held back a sigh. The general might understand war, but diplomacy was obviously not his strength. By failing to counter the Tarkheena's plan, he had tacitly accepted it.
The two robed officials glanced at each other before admitting that yes, the plan the prince and the Tarkheena suggested did seem to be legal, though certainly not very common in cases of treason and rebellion.
"Excellent!" said Rabadash before the general could raise any objections. "Then everything is settled. General Jenin, I leave the disposal of the Drinachlalene prisoners in your most capable hands. Meanwhile I and my friends will take the news of Rachegra's surrender back to the army. Zubidah Tarkheena, you have won peace for your people. Spend it wisely."
He ducked back out of the tent and swung up into his saddle. "Calormen! Tash! Victory!" he shouted, and kicked his stallion into a gallop while everyone else was still repeating his invocation.
Ilgamuth and the others scrambled to follow, leaving General Jenin sputtering fruitlessly behind them while the court officials began to prepare a written record of Zubidah Tarkheena's coup and the sudden end of Rachegra's rebellion.
The rest of the campaign was not nearly so dramatic. By its conclusion, Ilgamuth was not certain whether that was an improvement.
The true nature of war, he discovered over the rest of the interminable summer, was very little concerned with battles. Instead it involved punishing travel, maddening waits, endless worries over food and water, and a near obsession over who held which pieces of territory and how their respective soldiers were arranged. Moreover, Drinachlala in high summer was even more miserable than Rachegra: a sandstone maze of tablelands and deep ravines, both hot and dry as the inside of an oven. Even the occasional thunderstorms brought little relief, and came with their own risks of flash floods in dry stream beds.
The High Lord of Drinachlala, Sibanis Tarkaan, seemed hardly inconvenienced by the loss of two sons and several thousand men. He slipped from one fortress to the next, always abandoning them via daring sorties or secret tunnels just when the Tisroc's army had wasted the maximum time and effort getting their soldiers into position for a siege. He knew his land as intimately as a lover and pinning him down was like tracking a fox to its secret lair.
Eventually even General Jenin lost patience chasing him. "Let him run circles in the badlands to his heart's content. If we take Ichlaar, Zeron, and Sayyosayya, we hold the lifeblood of his province in our hands. If he fails to defend the only fertile land worth speaking of, it will be easy to put about rumors that the gods have turned against him."
Rabadash approved heartily of this plan and promptly claimed Sayyosayya as his personal target. After the prince's public finesse of Rachegra's surrender, the general had little choice but to allow Rabadash his way, though he insisted on lending two of his advisors to do most of the actual troop arrangements. Rabadash listened to them, making horrible faces all the while, and proceeded to ignore their advice.
"All the cavalry worth speaking of is dancing around the wilderness with Sibanis Tarkaan," he said to his sixteen remaining would-be companions. "We have the advantage of speed. It would be folly to throw that away for the sake of an archaic ideal of a balanced battle line. We will ride down as fast as we can, hit them as hard as we can from three sides at once, and let the foot soldiers clean up the remains. Now rouse the men and prepare to march within the hour."
This plan went nearly perfectly, except for the minor problem that the people of Sayyosayya had lined the field in front of the town with hidden stakes that flipped upright to skewer horses' stomachs as the first riders swept down from the hills toward the low adobe walls.
"Turn right, turn right!" Rabadash shouted, his voice nearly lost in the hideous noise of screaming horses and the slice of steel through flesh and fabric.
Ilgamuth strained to turn Shaxi from his headlong rush, and found himself flanking Rabadash to the left with Chlamash to the prince's right. Together they swerved past the horrible piles of dying horses and led a wedge of the surviving cavalry through the rebels' pitiful attempt at a defensive line.
"About, about, about!" Rabadash shouted. Ilgamuth doubted anyone more than two strides away could hear him, but somehow enough of them wheeled around, set their spears, and crashed into the Drinachlalene infantry from behind. Rabadash whooped in triumph, a dazzling smile on his handsome face. Despite the dying men all around them -- victims of the prince's own strategy -- Ilgamuth was helpless not to return it. Something about Rabadash drew him like a moth to flame. Perhaps that was the mark of his divine blood.
"I perceive that fighting is another of your talents, despite your confusion in Had Ordjah," the prince said some hours later, as they rode back to camp, herding the captured and stumbling rebels like cattle. "You hold a spear well and are quick enough with your sword as well as with a clever plan. But tell me, Ilgamuth of the twisted lip, have the gods put a curse on your voice? I think I have only heard you speak two times this summer, aside from answers to direct questions."
Ilgamuth shrugged, feeling his tongue grow awkward behind his teeth. "I... have little to say?" he managed.
"Then it is fortunate you and Corradin are friends. He has more words than anyone could need in a lifetime," the prince said, his smile gone shark-like though his eyes remained merry.
"O my prince, who are we to say how many words any man needs?" Ilgamuth said after a too-long silence. "Perhaps the gods intend him to be a poet."
"What, Corradin? No, no," Rabadash said, laughing. "Poetry, as my milk-sister is wont to remind me, is about the quality of words, not their quantity. You, who hoard your speech like pearls, are more likely to speak wisdom than Corradin, who speaks any fancy that flows through his mind. But enough of this. Tell me about yourself, Ilgamuth Tarkaan of Calavar, and what made you desire to serve me, for I think you will accompany me back to Tashbaan when we are finished with this campaign."
Ilgamuth felt his words desert him again. He thought of Kinboor, dead at the gate of Had Ordjah so the prince could escape and buy peace for Rachegra without the kind of interminable fighting and expense that the Drinachlalene campaign had turned into. He thought of how Rabadash drew people to him with his brilliance, only to ignore them when their words did not suit his whims. He thought of the gods weighing human souls and deciding their worth, whether their virtues outweighed their flaws. He thought of the son of gods locked in endless combat with the son of beasts. He thought of Tash, spending the blood of his people like water.
He swallowed those thoughts.
Then he laid about with a net until he caught a handful of less dangerous words to present to his prince: a few mentions of Zivathoor, of an elder brother and two sisters, and of a desire to see the empire and make a name of his own. Enough to assure Rabadash that Ilgamuth held no ambition greater than to serve his prince. Then he lapsed into grateful silence as Rabadash rode over to speak with Chlamash and Anradin.
If he were a poet, he could cloak those other thoughts in words so fine they would creep into the prince's ear and whisper virtue into his thoughts while he slept. But Ilgamuth was no poet. He was merely a soldier, whether he wished to be or not.
Eventually the army brought Sibanis Tarkaan to bay. He fought well, but in open battle he and his soldiers were outnumbered and outmatched, and the conclusion was never in question. He and his remaining sons were captured and bound in chains, their judgment reserved for Rishti Tisroc in Tashbaan. Even Rabadash did not contest that.
Most of the army disbanded after the final battle, the various lords returning to their lands, the standing units returning to their garrisons, and the peasant conscripts returning to their farms. Rabadash and General Jenin were no different, except that their land and garrison, respectively, were the city and court of Tashbaan, far to the northeast at the edge of the empire. Rabadash went through the fourteen survivors of his tiny company and chose eight to accompany him: Anradin with his flattery; Hunagor who worshipped him; Zuketh, who never questioned him; Azrooh with his fierce temper; Chlamash with his calm strength; Corradin with his easy tongue and quick hands; Ilvari with his steady caution.
And Ilgamuth, as the prince had promised.
The journey to Tashbaan was long and hot. The late summer sun beat down mercilessly as they rode through the forests and farmlands of Calormen's heartland: the vast, rolling, fertile country between the Shirush in the north and the Nandrapragaan in the south. They traveled as close to straight northeast as the roads allowed, rather than heading east and then riding up the coast, so they bypassed Calavar. Ilgamuth sent a letter home with Alimash Tarkaan, assuring his family of his survival and success, but he knew his writing left something to be desired and wished he could have seen them in person.
Tashbaan was a revelation. Ilgamuth had not grown up in poverty, of course, but his father's house, no matter how fine, remained the country house of a minor lord. Furthermore, it was surrounded by open land and villages almost small enough to fit into a trouser pocket. There was always space and silence available if he could convince his mother to release him from lessons or his father to release him from training.
Tashbaan was like a thousand thousand villages all crammed into the space of five, like Azim Balda or Had Ordjah swollen to ten times the people in barely twice the space: an entire island swallowed by stone and the press of human bodies. Nobles traveled the streets in palanquins to keep their feet from the soiled ground, and everywhere the sound of human voices echoed, doubling and redoubling off the walls. It was filthy, artificial beyond belief, a bizarre carbuncle sprung from the cool, clean sweep of the garden-bestrewn Shirush River.
And yet, it was beautiful. The Tisroc's palace and the great temple complex crowned the crest of the island like gleaming jewels, and even the meanest house was made of solid brick with painted plaster or bits of carved stonework around the frames of doors and windows.
Ilgamuth had never wished so much that he were a poet. This city was a miracle beyond any he had dreamed, and he longed for the words to capture it.
Rabadash saw his gaping mouth and laughed. "Country boy," he said, not unkindly. "Have no fear; everyone grows accustomed to the city soon enough. Now let us hurry to the palace so we can bathe and settle in before the evening meal with my father."
The idea of eating in the same room as the Tisroc (may he live forever) snatched whatever response Ilgamuth might have found from his lungs. He knew Rabadash was crown prince, that he stood the best chance of inheriting the throne someday, and yet even after three months there was a chasm between that knowledge and the idea that Rabadash was Rishti Tisroc's son, that a person Ilgamuth knew had grown up in the Tisroc's presence and could speak of him with such familiarity.
It was less an inability to remember that Rabadash was the crown prince, Ilgamuth decided as he swung down from Naija and let a slave lead her away, and more an inability to believe that he himself could possibly have joined such exalted company.
Servitors led each of Rabadash's companions to rooms in the new palace, small but sumptuous. They laid fine court clothes out on their beds. They led the way to the men's baths and helped them wash.
Cleaned and dressed, the newly minted companions gathered in Rabadash's own rooms, which were grand in a more subtle way than the public rooms of the palace. The ceilings were not as high or ornate, and the walls less intricate, but the arches of the windows were in perfect proportion to the length and height of both the open space and the surrounding walls, the sconces seemed a natural outgrowth of the occasional plasterwork decoration, and the wooden doors were carved with an exquisite battle amidst a woodland, suggesting the unity of life and death. Rabadash ignored the finery with the ease of familiarity and led his eight companions out onto the balcony that overlooked a fountain made of broken spears.
"We have an hour yet before my father will have us summoned," the prince announced. "Until then, let us celebrate our victory. We have passed from children to men, our spears and swords blooded in the death of traitors to the empire and the gods. We are the strong arm of Tash the Inexorable, and our fame will grow until our names will never die!"
Ilgamuth cheered along with the others, and drank from the cup of wine the prince ordered them to pass around and share.
Some time later, when the others had gone inside to explore or to recount their bravery in the just-finished war, he sat against a baluster and stared down into the courtyard and its ominous fountain. Broken spears should always be burned, to send them on to join their owners in death as they fought for the gods in the army of the heavens. To keep a spear and let it rust and rot was a sign of greatest dishonor. The fountain below him was built of several hundred spears, all wearing away under the constant flow of water. They were not all of the same age, either: some were nearly eaten to nothing, while others were still fresh enough for their blades to show bright patches through the growing rust.
"There will be new spears added tomorrow," Rabadash said, leaning against the balcony railing. He glanced down at Ilgamuth. "That is what befalls rebels and traitors. They set their spears against the empire and they are duly punished. You, of course, have nothing to fear on that count. With my companions at my back, I will easily put my brothers down to win my father's throne upon his death... may it never come," he added, in a rote tone of voice.
"The gods favor those who are true of heart," Ilgamuth said, inanely. "Surely they cannot help but favor us if we favor you."
Rabadash laughed with a mocking edge. "You sound like my milk-sister. She is to be married soon, to the High Lord of Hargirupad, but she has taken to hearing the voice of Achadith and protesting that she wishes to serve the goddess instead of a husband. Always 'the gods' this and 'the gods' that. Pfah. The gods do as they wish; who are we to them? What do I know or care about the heavens, except that Tash looks down with approval upon our battles? No, our concerns are here on earth."
"The earth is vast enough," Ilgamuth said. Vast enough to fit all the people who lived, and ten times that number. So why did the gods wish them to kill each other over matters as petty as who claimed which bit of land?
"The earth is vast, and someday Calormen will rule it all," Rabadash agreed. He held down his hand. "Come. We are summoned to my father's presence. You would not wish to be late."
There was something unpleasant in the corners of his smile.
Ilgamuth clasped his prince's hand and let Rabadash draw him up.
Rishti Tisroc (may he live forever) was intimidating beyond Ilgamuth's wildest expectations. He was not a tall man, and while he had clearly been strong in his youth, he was beginning to run to heavyset flesh. That meant nothing. His eyes were piercing and missed nothing; his voice held the weight of absolute command. He held the power of life and death over everyone in his empire, and nobody who spoke with him could forget that. That awful strength seemed to hover around him like the kiss of the gods.
Ilgamuth tried to avoid looking at him, especially while he and the other seven knelt and swore their undying loyalty to Rabadash: on their breath, on their blood, and on their names. He felt the Tisroc could see into his heart and mark every doubt and reservation that lingered in his mind. This man was Tash's son on earth, the living embodiment of the god's naked might and wrath. Surely he would not wish his son to be any different.
And here in Tashbaan, in his father's house, Rabadash seemed harsher than he had been during the war, more conscious of his blood and dignity. The edge in his voice was sharper, the snap of his temper quicker.
As Ilgamuth touched his throat, his heart, and his head, he wondered if he was doing the right thing -- if he should have demurred from this honor, gone home to Calavar in peace -- but then the words were spoken and it was too later to take them back.
For good or ill, he was bound to Rabadash.
Ilgamuth spent the rest of the meal studying the other diners, trying to learn the people who would shape his new world: the Tisroc's four wives, several generals and their wives, three High Lords who were in Tashbaan for various reasons and obviously wished to inspect the crown prince with their own eyes, and an elderly man in simple cotton clothes accompanied by a tall, gangly girl with her long hair unbound though she was surely old enough to wear it in braids. He wondered what such an incongruous pair were doing at the Tisroc's left hand.
"That is my milk-sister, Shezan Tarkheena," Rabadash leaned over to whisper in Ilgamuth's ear when he noticed the direction of his gaze. "The old man is her grandfather, Axartha Tarkaan."
Ilgamuth looked at the old man with new respect. The Grand Vizier did not need to be introduced by title; everyone knew his name. Rishti Tisroc (may he live forever) was wise and cunning and strong, but he had learned his wisdom at the side of this baseborn man, who now held the second highest position in the empire.
The gangly girl at the Vizier's side caught Ilgamuth watching. She frowned at him and drew an inch closer to her grandfather's side, clearly defensive of him. Ilgamuth nodded his head in an abbreviated gesture of respect, and ventured a smile. The girl's frown eased and she nodded in return. Then she turned and spoke softly to the Vizier, who smiled and answered.
As the meal drew to a close, the Vizier stood and murmured into Rishti Tisroc's ear. After a moment, the Tisroc (may he live forever) nodded and waved his hand in a clear grant of permission. The Vizier made his way down the long table toward Rabadash, his granddaughter trailing awkwardly after him.
"O my prince and O the hope of the empire, would you grant me the honor of a moment to speak with you and your companions?" the Vizier asked. "For the night is drawing near, and it would be shameful to the gods to abuse the vigor of your youth with the debauchment of politics and wine."
Rabadash rolled his eyes, but gestured in agreement. "Come, you lot," he said to Ilgamuth and the others. "We will accompany the noble Axartha Tarkaan to his office and you will answer truthfully any question he puts to you."
Axartha Tarkaan smiled and made a slight gesture of negation, his body hiding it from view of anyone at the table. If Ilgamuth had not been watching him and his granddaughter, he would have missed it too. "You are the soul of courtesy, O my prince," he said, and followed them from the banquet chamber.
Once in the corridor with the doors shut behind them, Rabadash scowled at the Vizier. "Explain yourself, O left arm of my father."
"I have no need to speak with your companions, O my prince," the Vizier said. "You have learned well how to read both loyalty of heart and skill at war. I would not undermine your judgment. But I remember my youth and the first months after my sword and spear drank blood in battle. Confinement among my elders is the last fate I would have wished. Is it not so with you?"
Behind Ilgamuth, Corradin and Azrooh failed to completely stifle their laughter. Rabadash favored them with a dangerous smile, then plastered amiability on his face as he turned back to the Vizier. "It is so, O most perceptive of sages. Truly you are the eyes and ears of the empire."
"I can but try," the Vizier said. "Now be off with you. Unless..."
He trailed off.
"Unless what?" Rabadash asked, suspicion creeping into his voice.
"My granddaughter wishes to return to her mother's house this night, rather than stay in borrowed rooms. Perhaps you would do me the favor of escorting her through the streets? I know Shezan has longed to hear your exploits from your own lips, and surely you have questions about recent events in Tashbaan that are better asked of one you can trust than of those whose loyalties may be complex." Axartha Tarkaan shrugged, as if he had not just insinuated that most people in the palace might be spies, or at the least have their own agendas.
Rabadash scowled. "Is that so?"
The Vizier spread his hands and smiled. "I leave that as an exercise for you to resolve, O my prince. But what say you?"
"We will," Rabadash said curtly. "O my sister, let us leave this place for somewhere with freer air."
Shezan Tarkheena touched her hands to her forehead and bowed to the prince, graceful despite the awkward thinness of her limbs. "As you wish, O my brother," she said. Her voice was soft and low with a hint of something rough around the edges.
"You mean, as your grandfather wishes," Rabadash muttered as he seized his milk-sister's hand and strode down the corridor, everyone scrambling to catch up.
"You mean, as I wish," Shezan Tarkheena said equally softly, her expression solemn but for a smile hidden in the corners of her mouth and eyes. "He would have had me spend the night on his sofa. But I confess, I wished to see if war makes men out of boys, as the saying goes, or if it simply turns them into strutting cocks who proclaim themselves king of the yard when in truth they live on the sufferance of the cook and his cleaver. Thus far, I favor the second theory."
Ilgamuth tensed in anticipation, wary of his prince's temper.
But contrary to his habit, Rabadash tipped back his head and laughed. After a moment, Shezan Tarkheena's mirth joined his.
The trip to Shezan Tarkheena's home was less enlightening, as she and Rabadash disappeared into a palanquin and pulled the curtains shut, presumably talking about matters private to the royal family. Perhaps one day Ilgamuth and the others would be trusted enough to share such confidences -- that was the point of their position as companions -- but for now the prince was understandably cautious. So Ilgamuth walked alongside the slaves who carried the litter, his hand hovering near his sword in case of calamity, and wondered at the face of Tashbaan at night.
Even darkness did not bring rest to the capitol, as it had to Azim Balda and Had Ordjah. Lanterns hung from posts set at every intersection of the spiral avenue with one of the steep cross streets (which were as often shallow stairways as proper roads). Lamps shone from windows as laughter and song echoed out from private parties. The petty merchants whose stalls lined the streets in daylight had mostly packed up and gone home, but some food-sellers were still doing brisk business, and street cleaners had begun to sweep and scrape the dung and debris into carts to haul away and sell for scrap and fertilizer.
"'The jewel of the earth, chief treasure in the Tisroc's hand; every face a new shade of riches; every edge a blade to piece the heart,'" Ilgamuth murmured to himself.
"You and your poetry," Corradin said, knocking his shoulder companionably. "Not everything needs to be caught in words. Just take a deep breath and smell the perfume of our new beginning!"
"Take a deep breath and smell ten thousand unwashed feet, more like," said Azrooh with a sly grin.
"You know what your problem is?" Corradin said, pointing at Azrooh. "You are the opposite of Ilgamuth. He's too caught up in poetry, but you -- you're an anti-poet. You have no depth to your soul. Perhaps you're simply too short!"
Azrooh snarled and leapt at him. They tussled playfully for a minute before Anradin broke them up with an exaggerated sigh.
Too soon for Ilgamuth's taste, they arrived at a modestly sized house with a vivid mural of a boating party on a river -- the Nandrapragaan, judging by the crocodiles -- painted on the lower walls. The slaves lowered the palanquin smoothly to the ground and Rabadash opened the curtains to help Shezan Tarkheena stand. "Until tomorrow, O my sister?" he asked as a slave knocked on the door.
"If the gods are willing," Shezan Tarkheena said. "But I think the afternoon rather than the morning. I have no need to deal with you in a temper after excessive drink."
The door opened and she slipped inside before the prince could respond.
As in the palace, Corradin failed to stifle his laughter.
This time, Rabadash whirled in an unguarded temper, his smile wide and merciless. "Yes?" he said. "You enjoy seeing me mocked?"
"No, no, I would never--" Corradin attempted to say, uncharacteristically caught short of words.
"Yet you laughed," Rabadash said. He drew his sword and laid the edge of the blade along Corradin's skin, where his shoulder joined his neck. "I am the blood of Tash. I am my father's heir. Would you mock the gods? Would you mock the empire?"
"No," Corradin whispered.
"Then do not mock me," Rabadash said, still wearing that terrible, shark-like smile. "Whatever your fathers' stations, you are as dogs compared to me. You gave me your names and your oaths; I hold your souls as well as your lives. Never forget that. Now. Let us return to the palace and make merry."
There was a long, trembling silence as he sheathed his sword.
Ilgamuth broke it. "As you wish, O my prince," he said, stepping forward to stand at Rabadash's side.
The gods abominated oath breakers. Even if they did not, Ilgamuth would abominate himself if he flinched from the consequences of his own choices.
He had lost his childhood in the war and he had given his life to Rabadash, for good or ill. Now he swore to himself and the gods that he would spend himself to tip the balance toward the son of gods rather than the son of beasts, to make his prince a ruler for the ages. But even if he failed in that, he would be the sword at his master's side. He had given his loyalty as a man: by his breath, his blood, and his name.
He would keep his word.