Whatever became of the khazal’s former chef remained a mystery to Kaira. She hadn’t cared to ask when accepting the post and now she didn’t dare. One month in the Hundred Palaces had taught her more about the dangers of court intrigue than her forty-five years spent under minor princes. Here a brash question might be answered with a venomous snake bite or a shove off the cliffside gardens. And according to rumor, the woman sitting across from Kaira had a hand in it all.
Lounging on a wicker chair in the corner of her garden, the khazal’s favorite concubine puffed up grey plumes from her seashell pipe. By the sunbeams that slipped past the treetops, she resembled a red-lipped, black-lidded dryad in her own little jungle of palms and creeper.
A pair of bare-chested slaves fanned her from behind the backrest. Their peacock feathers sent ripples up her gown to make the satin seem more liquid than solid. The fabric flowed around her ankle as she nudged a coral-pink lotus across the fishpond.
A charming sight to be sure. But Kaira knew rotten things could fill piquant crusts – not so different from how man-sized eels lurked in the fishpond. Their bejeweled fins guzzled the sunlight and winked for Kaira’s attention as she crossed the courtyard.
Halting at the customary three pace distance, she balanced her violet-glazed tray in one hand and pinched her smock in a deep curtsy.
“Your Radiance Rhameli,” said Kaira, striving to smoothen her scratchy voice. “I’ve brought the samples for tonight.”
If Rhameli heard, she showed no sign. Silently, she kept her long-lashed eyes on the fishpond while the fountains burbled on her behalf.
Kaira’s patience began to dwindle. She didn’t want to breach etiquette, but the banquet wasn’t going to cook itself. Drawing a deep breath, she went so far as to clear her throat.
“You’d do well to kneel when addressing me.” Rhameli’s deep voice snapped off each syllable, chopping “kneel” into “knee-all.”
It took every ounce of Kaira’s willpower to stop her jaw from unhinging. Only the khazal could enforce proskynesis. Anyone else who demanded as much was subject to have his – or in this case her – feet cut off. Kaira took a little pleasure in picturing those pretty toes dangle from the Ruby Gate.
“Who do you think you are?” she wanted to say. But on seeing one of the flytraps snatch up a sucklebug, she decided to be sweet instead of sour. Her arthritic knees ached as she bent them to the grass. Even still, Kaira refused to let this stuck-up harpy peck at her own sense of self-worth. How could she, when she was the best damn chef in the Glorious Oases?
From the moment she lifted the lid from her tray, the air turned rich with the scents of spiced meats and aged cheeses. One of the slaves paused his fanning just to gawk at the fare. His eyes twitched even wider when his mistress’s voice boomed throughout the courtyard:
“Who told you to stop? Keep your eyes where they belong or I’ll give them to the eels!”
The slave fixed his gaze on a tulip-filled urn as he carried on with his task.
Rhameli looked back at Kaira’s tray, where eight porcelain bowls showcased samples of viands for that night. She inspected the crayfish basted in garlic, the fried gourd-chips and goat cheese, and all of the other dainties but betrayed no hint of her pleasure. In fact her face remained motionless until she lifted her green eyes to Kaira’s brown ones. “And what of the thunder trout?”
Every sculpture in the garden seemed to crush on Kaira’s chest. “The… the thunder-what, Your Radiance?”
Rhameli sat up straight to better look down her nose at Kaira. “The thunder trout.” A crease formed between her well-groomed brows. “A Flaurian delicacy.” She ashed her pipe in the bowl of goat cheese. “Since they’re tonight’s guests of honor, I requested it a month in advance.”
Impossible! This was their first audience! But then Kaira thought back three weeks ago, when the Keeper of Ceremonies listed so many of her responsibilities that she couldn’t possibly remember them all. She would’ve have tried her damned hardest if she’d known her life depended on it. Kaira digested all of these thoughts just in time to make a recovery.
“But of course,” she forced herself to say. “It’s only that the thunder trout needs awhile to marinate. It’ll be ready by tonight. Of that I guarantee.” Each word made her loathe herself that much more.
“Good.” Rhameli pinched a crayfish from the tray and observed it closely. “I’d hate to be disappointed by a chef so full of promise… yet again.”
Then she flicked the morsel into the fishpond where it sank to the bottom. Within seconds, the eels flashed their fangs to tear the shellfish apart. Once they slithered out of sight, Kaira noticed a white fragment lying at the pool’s base.
A bone-white fragment.
“Begone,” said Rhameli.
Kaira clinked the lid over the tray louder than she’d intended. Climbing to her feet, she jerked another curtsey before backtracking out of the garden. Not until passing the horseshoe archway did she remember to breathe. Without the thunder trout, the same passion that lifted her up would also tear her down.
Never in Kaira’s life had the clash of pots and pans sounded so ominous. The kitchen was full of activity but she felt empty inside. To clear her head, she gripped the bars of one window and took in the fresh air.
Beyond the bars sprawled Faral-Khazal, City of the Sky. An archipelago of eroded bluffs leapt from the desert coast to support the overbuilt warrens of stucco and sandstone. From there, cupolas and onion-shaped domes sprang skyward, daring the gods to strike them down. They’d already survived the Deluge, and the mystagogues claimed that another apocalypse loomed on the horizon.
Not that Kaira gave a pip about legends. Her mind was on thunder trout, so it was with that lens that she scoped out the city. Perhaps she could buy it from the Heights of Plenty, where an arcade of storefronts swirled all the way up to the Grand Emporium. But even supposing the district stocked the thunder trout, the delivery-boy couldn’t possibly return before nightfall. Nor did she know how the trout tasted, so there’d be no way to substitute it for something else.
Kaira dropped her eyes from the bluffs. In the city’s shadow dwelled thousands of commoners, outlanders, and tribals. There they set up slums and strung them together with docks and causeways. Lateen-sailed ships were moored by those docks, and for a moment Kaira considered cutting her losses and booking passage aboard one. She dismissed the idea in a flash. To flee would mean forsaking her very name. Never again could she show her face in respectable households. Better to die as the greatest chef in the Glorious Oases than live as a nobody in some backwater town up in Flauria. But then where did that leave her?
In frustration Kaira banged her fist on a trestle table and sent the pans atop rattling. A stretch of silence ensued as the kitchen staff froze midway through their tasks. Since Kaira had never made such an outburst before, every eye stared at her in wide-eyed confusion.
It was Lemon the potboy who broke the ice. The hunchbacked youngster walked step by uneven step across the tilework. In his squeaky voice, he said, “Erm, Chef Kaira? What’s wrong?”
The concern in his words soothed Kaira’s nerves. Lemon reminded her much of herself when she was his age. She too was an orphan who’d started at the dregs of the culinary barrel. Just like whipped cream, she’d floated to the top and now hoped the same for him.
“Don’t you worry about me,” she said. Then, to the others: “Come on people, let’s get cracking! Time’s short and we’ve got a banquet to fix!”
The staff whisked back to their clinking and clattering while Kaira turned to the window. From the corner of her eye she noticed Lemon still lingering nearby. Tapping her foot, she asked, “Is there something you need?”
Lemon twiddled his fingers. “The Anchorite’s delivery.”
Kaira massaged her wrinkly forehead. “Ah! How could I forget!”
At the end of every week, Lemon delivered rations to the khazal’s personal arcanist. Even though the Anchorite didn’t style himself as a hermit, living on the highest peak of the palace had estranged him from the bulk of the court. Nobody could remember the last time he descended from his casbah in the clouds. Supposedly it helped him attune to the secrets of the cosmos. But for Kaira it meant another task on her neverending list.
After grabbing a basket from a shelf, Kaira stuffed it to the lid with flatbread and waterskins. She was about to hand it to Lemon when she cooked up an idea.
“The Anchorite,” said Kaira, “does he know anything about conjuration?”
“Condrayshun?” Lemon puffed out his cheeks and glanced off to the side. “Dunno. With him it’s always put this here or that there but not a word elsewise. Why d’you ask?”
“I’ll tell you on the way,”
“You’re coming along?”
“I am.” For if coin couldn’t get her the thunder trout, then perhaps sorcery could.
“So you think the Anchorite could get us this thunder fish?”
“Thunder trout,” said Kaira while keeping both eyes on the rock wall to her left. She’d lose the nerve to climb the rest of these stairs if she looked the other way. In that direction a seaward plummet awaited its next victim. Unlike most paths in the palace, the Anchorite’s Ladder had no rails to keep distracted clerks and drunken courtiers from taking a tumble. Worse yet, the steps grew so narrow that she and her potboy had to climb them single file. Meanwhile the unbroken wind lashed at her smock and made her wince even after they summited the spire.
Up close, the many-towered casbah looked more like a semi-melted sandcastle – which in a sense it was. Gryphons had been forced to construct it in the Antediluvian Age. Since the tribals had slain most of them in the Springwater Wars, there was no feasible way to keep it in repair. Some of its towers were crumbling apart whereas others perched over thin air.
“Before we go in,” said Lemon, “there’re some things you ought to know.”
“Yes, yes. The Anchorite’s mad as a monkey,” said Kaira between gasps. “Everyone knows that. Rumor soars.” She distrusted magic and that went double when the stuff was thrown around by madmen. But at this point she’d resort to the gods if those devils might help her. A starving shepherd mustn’t say no to a gift lamb, and right now Kaira was oh, so starving. Fists clenched, shoulders squared, she strode for the set of brass doors that led into the casbah. Except no matter how many steps she went, the doors stayed a stone’s throw away.
“That’s the other thing.” Lemon wiped his runny eyes. “Only those with permission can get past the enchantment.” He cradled the basket in one arm and offered his free hand to Kaira. “Whatever you do, don’t let go.”
Hand in hand, they went into a dark place wherein Kaira sought a slice of light.
Of all the things Lemon could’ve mentioned, the Anchorite’s nudity should’ve been on the list. Shafts of sunlight penetrated the sanctum’s walls and exposed every liver-spot on the old man’s backside. He sat cross-legged on a pockmarked altar, cooing a sermon to a flock of pelicans. They bobbed their heads to his birdcalls in a way that seemed strangely human.
The flock flapped their clipped wings at the newcomers’ footsteps, scuttling off to the sanctum’s furthest reaches. From there they watched Kaira and Lemon with beady-eyed interest.
Without turning around, the Anchorite spoke in a husky voice, “Is it Akudas already? Leave the food by the archway and tell the chef that I only need half as much water.”
“Noted,” said Kaira.
Now the Anchorite did turn around. He dangled his legs over the altar, thus subjecting Kaira to a frontal view of his scraggly body. He had less hair on his scalp than he did on his groin, enough to hint at his berries without fully exposing them. Others might’ve covered up in the presence of a woman, but the Anchorite didn’t so much as blink as he asked her, “Didn’t you have shorter hair?” He scratched his eggplant-shaped nose. “And a moustache, for that matter?”
Wearing a scowl, Kaira tied her windblown hair back into a bun.
Lemon squeezed Kaira’s hand as he set the basket onto an overturned obelisk. “This is Kaira, the new chef.”
“Ah,” said the Anchorite. “That explains the crunchy flatbread. I prefer them soft, by the bye.” He parted his lips to show the few teeth he had left. Then, as if thinking Kaira had made the death-defying climb just to get his rations right, the Anchorite lifted his chin and continued clucking at the birds.
Kaira’s palms began dripping with sweat. “Actually, I’ve come to ask for a favor.”
Silence ensued, filled only by the howl of wind and spare wingbeat. After awhile, the Anchorite’s raven-black eyes came to rest on Kaira. “Of course. A favor.” His tone swung up in a mocking whine. “Summon me a succubus! Make me immortal!” He beetled his brows as he went on, “Don’t you know that humankind’s abuse of spellcraft is what vexed the gods so much in the first place?”
Kaira marched a few steps further with Lemon in tow. “Survival guides me, not self-gain.”
The Anchorite rolled his eyes up to the timeworn vaulting. “So they all claim.”
“You don’t understand,” said Kaira. The whole tale came spilling from her lips.
At one point the Anchorite raised a crooked finger. “Did you say Rhameli? As in First Concubine Rhameli?”
That took Kaira by surprise. For a man who didn’t bother remembering the one who fed him, it seemed odd that the Anchorite would pick up on Rhameli. “You know of her?”
“Know of her?” The Anchorite’s joints cracked as he slid down from the altar. He strode so close that Kaira could smell the cheesy odor of his unwashed body. “I despise her! Just because I don’t bow to her every whim she’s marked me as her enemy. Oh, she can try to enlist so-called Star-Touched all she wants, but the khazal knows they’re pretenders compared to me.”
“So you’ll help?” asked Kaira, who couldn’t quite keep the pleading note out of her voice.
“No.” The word crushed Kaira’s heart with all the weight of a cauldron. “Do I look like a genie to you?”
Kaira sank to her knees and nearly threw Lemon off his feet as she slapped her hands together. “I’ll do anything.”
“Anything?” The Anchorite gazed at Kaira with a stare unending. Somehow his eyes turned darker than before, expanding into vast pits that engulfed her very soul. Ever so slowly, he lifted a hand and let it drift toward Kaira. It stopped inches away from her ear, only to pluck out a grey wisp of hair in one flash of movement. His eyes brightened as they took in the strand. Aside from the prick in her scalp, Kaira felt an inexplicable weight lift from her shoulders.
“Release the boy’s hand,” said the Anchorite.
Kaira’s logic said to do nothing of the sort. Without protection from the charm, anything could befall her. But whatever the Anchorite had in store, Rhameli’s threat loomed ever larger. So blinking away images of her instant combustion, Kaira shut her eyelids and wrested her hand free from Lemon’s grip.
The next few seconds passed slow as syrup while she waited for the worst. She nearly soaked her underdrawers when the old man’s voice rasped her way.
“I’ve given you access past the boundary.”
On reopening her eyes, Kaira found the Anchorite zigzagging up a stairwell at the rear of the sanctum. He stopped midway up and put his hands on his hips as he scowled at her.
“Well? Are you coming?”
Splendid, thought Kaira. More stairs. Leaving Lemon behind, she hurried after the Anchorite.
The reek of death intensified with each step Kaira climbed. It was the kind of stench she could taste, so to keep herself from gagging she clamped her mouth with a dishrag. The constant sight of the Anchorite’s bony backside hardly helped the cause.
At the top of the stairs, upon the center of the octagonal platform, lay the body of something monstrous. Dead and monstrous, thank the stars. Just enough sunbeams poured over the fallen walls for Kaira to see the beast clearly. She would’ve called it a raptor if not for its wings. It sort of resembled the reliefs of gryphons she’d seen on the walls of the throne room.
“It’s a roc, not a gryphon.”
Kaira whirled on the Anchorite. “Get out of my head!”
“I’m not in your head. Not anymore at least.” He doddered across the chipped stonework and squatted beside his roc. Despite the fast-moving clouds, the beast’s feathers remained motionless. It felt as if the chamber still had all of its walls instead of the few left standing.
“People often make that mistake,” said the Anchorite. “Rocs are close cousins to gryphons but there are… distinctions.”
“Well the gryphons are practically extinct whereas rocs still number somewhere in the thousands. Also, a roc can withstand the rigors of space. My Glypto used to roam the galaxy and report back to me with its secrets.” A ragged sigh passed from his lips while he ran a hand through his pet’s plumage. “Another fact you should know is that rocs only let maidens ride them.”
Kaira got a bad feeling. In all her sixty years she’d never lain with a man. Or a woman for that matter. Not that she had anything against coupling, she just never saw the appeal. Instead she’d focused on her passion without once looking back. How the Anchorite knew this puzzled her, but she suspected it had something to do with his gaze from earlier.
“And since the path up here is too treacherous to guide a roc by its halter-”
Kaira’s bad feeling began to curdle.
“-I want you to fly Glypto’s replacement up here for me.”
Kaira wagged her lips around words that wouldn’t come. She glanced from the tawny-feathered roc to the cloud-coated sky. “I’ve never seen such a creature in my entire life,” she muttered. “How on Eufael do you expect me to fetch you another?”
“Rumor soars that Beastmaster Roylan keeps a roc cooped up somewhere on the grounds of the palace menagerie.” His cracked lips twisted in disgust. “For the right price, he’ll verify whether potential brides still have their flowers intact. So far he’s made quite the profit. It’s all on the hush hush of course. Most misdeeds are.”
“Misdeeds?” Though Kaira took pity on the poor women subjected to these trials, she also thought that this Roylan wasn’t so different from the Anchorite. After all, they both used the animal for their own gain. But then perhaps that was her disdain for spellcraft doing the thinking.
“Yes, misdeeds!” The Anchorite sprang up from his knees. “Imagine a man who kindles his campfires using wizards’ wands for tinder! Exploiting a roc for such insipid aims is an injustice! One that must be stopped!”
“And this has nothing to do with the fact that your last roc just died?” Kaira couldn’t help but ask.
“The two may be related,” The Anchorite bunched up his shoulders. “Why do you care? I recall that your neck depends on this little errand. Now’s not the time to be choosy. Not if you expect me to conjure your thunder trout.”
Much as Kaira wanted just that, she still had the sense to say, “If the guards catch me stealing this roc, my rough fix will get that much rougher.”
“Whoever said anything about theft? We may not live on the Heights of Plenty, but we can still trade like civilized Phezeli!”
He flung out his hand so swiftly that it shocked the breath out of Kaira. Upon his palm rested a whorl-patterned stone no larger than a marble. Seeing as how the Anchorite was bare from head to toe, it was anyone’s guess from whence it came.
“This charm will turn hot in the hands of the unchaste.” He tossed it underhand to Kaira.
It felt like catching an ice cube. Besides that, it looked like any old stone she could’ve picked from the debris. So whyever would Roylan trade his prized possession for it?
“Aren’t sorcerous things supposed to be – I don’t know – shiny? Can’t you frame it in filigree or something? This might be a tough sell.”
The Anchorite scoffed. “Hardly. A roc must be cared for daily, kept nourished and groomed or else it goes wild. As for a stone, the only upkeep is to make sure it doesn’t fall out of your pocket.”
A chill rolled down Kaira’s thigh as she slipped the stone in her smock. Rubbing her neck, she said, “So I’ll get this roc for you and bring it back-”
“Fly it back.”
Her stomach may as well have leapt off the tower. “F-fly it back, and you’ll grant me what I most desire?”
“That sounds about right.” After nodding slowly, the Anchorite bulged out his eyes. “And the flatbread. Don’t you forget what I said about the flatbread.”
Ride the roc, get the trout, feed the Flaurians. Simple. Kaira chanted the words to herself as she raced back to the sanctum. There she found Lemon piling a stack of stones to pass time. As they braved their way round and down the Anchorite’s Ladder, she couldn’t help but miss the days when being a chef meant cooking.
Kaira’s time was running out. Though she tried not to look at the darkening sky, she couldn’t ignore how shadows began to stretch in every direction. Fighting for breath, she followed Lemon down the maze of yellow-brick terraces that led to the menagerie.
Set in the center of the plaza, the domed structure stood apart from the blocky buildings in its shadow. Each of the banners draped along its upper walls showed the Zhakarite Dynasty’s silver hibiscus over a sea-green backdrop.
“Are you sure this is it?” Kaira asked Lemon. “It looks like a stadium to me.”
“That’s what people say it used to be before the Springwater Wars. S’posedly gladiators from all over Eufael had to fight for their freedom.” He bit his underlip. “Good thing we’ve become more civilized since then.”
“Yes. Civilized,” Kaira said. She waited for a covey of black-frocked clerks to pass out of earshot. “Now we play our bloodsports behind closed doors.” She was about to head for the triple-arched gateway when Lemon’s voice gave her pause.
“Shouldn’t I go back to the kitchens?”
“To do what? Loaf around with the others?” On the last word she scowled over her shoulder.
Both of Lemon’s shoulders were raised so high that his hump overshadowed his grimace.
In a softer tone, Kaira said, “Listen. I won’t ask what bothers you so much about this place. Nor will I force you to come. All I can do is ask nicely. I swear I’ll make it up to you.”
Lemon stuck out his chest as best he could, lifted his chin, and hobbled to Kaira’s side. “Then let’s get a move on.”
With a smile, Kaira said, “Let’s.”
None of the spearmen in the circular hallway paid any attention to Kaira and Lemon. They stood as still as the marble columns looming between them. At first Kaira guessed this was because a little old lady and a hunchback potboy didn’t stand a chance as thieves. But when they reached the cellblock downstairs, she realized thieves would be the least of the spearmen’s concerns.
The flickering torchlight made it tough to see the beasts, but the gleams of their claws, tusks and teeth told Kaira to beware. Their squeals and roars hastened her pace as she rushed from cage to cage. For a reason she couldn’t explain, a purring noise brought her up short. Turning to the cell on her left, she squinted past the bars and into the darkness.
A pair of eyes glowed gold in the shadows like twin suns. No, not suns. And if suns couldn’t do them justice, then nothing could. Something about them was so bewitching, so otherworldly, that Kaira couldn’t break her stare even when Lemon spoke up. His squeaking came as a drone too distant to be understood – too insignificant. The Anchorite; the Flaurians; the First Concubine; none of them mattered anymore. All that mattered now was to set the beast free. But no sooner had Kaira touched the bars than someone shoved her aside.
Kaira came to her senses the instant she landed in Lemon’s arms. In between blinks she saw the unearthly eyes turn crimson before melding with the darkness. Whatever manner of beast that was, she didn’t like it one bit. She dreaded to imagine her fate if not for the cinnamon-skinned man in front of her. Aside from his comparatively light complexion, his braided beard and eyepatch made him look like a corsair from the stormy shores of Flauria. All of the beasts fell silent as his voice lilted down the cellblock.
“That’s right!” The accent of his mother tongue made the word sound like “riot.” “Back to the shadows with you!” His leather armor squeaked as he snatched a torch from its bracket. “You’ll want to hold your breath,” he said to his visitors.
From a sack slung on the wall he took a few brown sprigs of stars-saw-what. When he flicked the stuff into the flames, the torchlight burned a caramel-brown hue. With one arm shielding his mouth, he hurled the torch into the cell. Then he sealed the room off with a floor-length shutter before any fingers of smoke could crawl through.
“Hoo-kay,” he said, turning his one-eyed glance onto Kaira. “Be glad you didn’t breathe just then. Imp’s Tongue works great for calming the marmyr, but it’s lethal to just about anything else. So lethal that the slightest dosage can kill a man without leaving a trace.”
“W-what on Eufael is that thing?” Kaira’s body trembled even as she got to her feet.
“I just said it was a marmyr. What? Is my accent too much for you?” He cocked his hip sideways and slipped his thumbs into his studded toolbelt. “Don’t concern yourself. You’re in no place to be asking questions anyhow. Down here that’s my job.” As he leaned closer, Kaira tallied the scars that crisscrossed his cheeks. “Whadya want?”
“You’re Roylan?” asked Kaira. “Beastmaster Roylan?”
Kaira straightened up. “Chef Kaira, head of the khazal’s kitchens.”
An off-white grin split Roylan’s beard. “She must be at it again.”
Roylan lifted a gloved hand. “No, no, let me guess: Rhameli’s sent you off to serve some last minute dish and now you hope I’ve got the beast in stock.”
Despite her shock, Kaira kept a straight face. “What makes you think that?”
“A number of things.” He tapped the points off his leather-clad fingers. “Tonight’s the big banquet with the Flaurians. You’re downright dripping with sweat. Ah, and the last three chefs came to me when they got tall orders they couldn’t fill. And neither can I.”
Anger and embarrasment burned Kaira’s cheeks. To think she’d blamed herself for this mess when it was really another one of Rhameli’s schemes! For a moment she felt just as trapped as the caged beasts around her. Turning to Lemon, she asked, “And you didn’t tell me this because…?”
“Because you would’ve lost all hope if you’d known Rhameli wanted you dead from the start,” Lemon said to his sandals.
“It’s not that she wants her dead,” said Roylan. “She just needs to cushion the blow in case the banquet goes awry. If the Flaurians don’t like what they see, she can always blame the help.” He chewed his cheek. “Or at least that’s the way I see it.”
It seemed that Roylan knew much about Rhameli; too much to trust him. But with nowhere to turn and nothing to lose, the only way out was onward.
“I know for a fact you’ve got the beast I need,” said Kaira.
“Forget it,” said Roylan. “These are the khazal’s creatures, so I’d be as good as dead if I handed one over.”
“Even the roc?”
Not a single muscle moved on his face. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Hear me out,” said Kaira. “I’ll make it worth your while.”
One of Roylan’s pierced eyebrows wrinkled his forehead as he dealt her a nod. He didn’t seem the sort to reject profit when it stared him in the eye. “Let’s go somewhere more private.”
Roylan brought Kaira and Lemon to the room at the end of the cellblock. The space was jammed with casks and crates branded with the emblems of whichever cartel, tribe or consortium had delivered them. The beastmaster rested an elbow on a sphynx-stamped crate and kept his face neutral while Kaira laid out her bargain. Eventually he spoke over her, “Let’s see this stone of yours.”
A gush of warmth returned to Kaira’s thigh as she withdrew the stone. She flicked out her wrist in order to spice up its stale appearance.
Roylan narrowed his good eye. “Doesn’t look like a magic stone to me.”
“I thought likewise,” said Kaira. “But it can still detect chastity, just like your roc. Besides, nobody would think to swipe it when it looks so plain.”
“So what do you say?” said Lemon. “Rock for a roc?”
The bone charms in Roylan’s braids click-clicked as he tilted his head to the side. He unstrapped a glove and stretched out his palm. “Give it here.”
After handing over the stone, Kaira rubbed the heat back into her fingertips. “So? How does it feel?”
“Like it just came out of the hearth.”
“You don’t sound very impressed.”
“Because it could’ve just come out of the hearth.” He crossed the storeroom and poked his head into the cellblock. “Almanti! C’mere!”
In short time, a lad no older than Lemon sauntered into the storeroom. He was well on his way to sporting a face like Roylan’s. The cuts on his forehead overlapped when he caught sight of his hunchbacked peer.
“Lemon,” he said with a dose of venom. “Shouldn’t you be scrubbing pots somewhere?”
“Almanti,” said Lemon in the same tone. “Shouldn’t you be scratching your bunghole somewhere?”
Kaira would’ve smiled had her situation been less dire. No wonder Lemon had been so reluctant to tag along: he had a little rival.
“Alright, you scamp.” Roylan ruffled Almanti’s hair. “Before you get yourself into a spitting match, I want you to take a look at this.”
Almanti switched his scowl from Lemon to the stone in Roylan’s calloused palm. As soon as he took it, his eyes popped wide as grapefruit. “What’s this? Some kind of trick?”
“That’s what I’m trying to find out,” said Roylan. “Does it feel hot or cold?”
“Cold, of course!” Almanti cried.
Lemon snickered behind his sleeve.
Using his gloved hand, Roylan scooped up the stone. “And it stays cold after fleshly contact, which means the handler cannot lie. Good. Very good. Much obliged, Almanti. That’ll do.”
Almanti shot Lemon one last glare before stomping out of the storeroom.
“So it’s a deal?” asked Kaira.
Roylan looked off to the side. “I don’t know….”
“Oh, be a friend!” Kaira went on about how the stone didn’t need feeding or grooming or any upkeep whatsoever. To sweeten the deal she even offered Roylan a honeycake from her apron. But the beastmaster didn’t seem to be listening. He tugged on his beard, fixing his eye on a rack of barrels. At last he spoke up.
“Say, you’re a lady right?”
Kaira frowned. “You know I am.”
“Which means you can get into the harem.”
Kaira didn’t like the sound of that. “Not as a concubine. Maybe a laundress but-“
“That’s not a bad idea.” The corner of his lips curled up in a smirk. “Perhaps we can help each other after all.” His eye flicked between Kaira and Lemon. “Can you two keep a secret?”
“Yes,” Lemon said in a heartbeat.
“If it means saving my skin,” said Kaira, “then yes.”
As if the stone was a copper shiksil, Roylan rolled it along his scar-nicked knuckles. “I’m a man who loves danger. Dangerous beasts, dangerous weapons, dangerous women.”
Those last words may as well have trampled over Kaira’s heart.
“As everyone knows, Rhameli is the deadliest of them all.” Roylan’s voice took on a lovesick note. “To me she’s the fairest as well. Since she’s off-limits, the best I can hope for is a little token. Something I can keep to myself and cherish whenever it takes my fancy.”
That was more than Kaira could stomach. Partly she wanted to blackmail Roylan; to trade one of his sordid secrets for the other. But mostly she knew that to be Rhameli’s style, and Kaira refused to stoop that low.
“So I’m to sneak into the harem and bring back something of hers?”
Roylan grinned. “You’re on the right track. Any piece of clothing will do, so long as it carries her scent.” He sighed wistfully. “Smoked citrus and juniper. It’s a very specific fragrance.” He tapped his nose. “And I’ve got very keen nostrils. So don’t think you can trick me.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” said Kaira, who’d been doing just that.
“Glad to see we understand one another.” The beastmaster started to toss and catch the stone. “I’ll keep this in the meantime.”
“I think not.” Kaira snatched the stone in midair and stowed it back in her smock. “This could all be some ruse to get me killed.”
“Feh, do as you like. I figured I’d keep it safe. Just in case.”
Kaira didn’t have to ask what that case may be. Nor did she offer a curtsy before bolting out of the menagerie. Raid Rhameli, ride the roc, get the trout, feed the Flaurians. Not so simple, but all in a day’s work when cooking for the khazal.
Whoever designed the khazal’s seraglio spared no expense. Facing two rows of palm trees, its edifice featured a dragon’s hoard of bejeweled mosaics and pink-veined marble. Indeed, it ranked amongst the grandest of the Hundred Palaces.
Which made its side entrance grossly underwhelming. Three stucco walls flanked a square crammed with washboards, water-buckets, and women at work. The only signs of wealth were the satins and silks and other such nonsense hung up to dry. The garments fluttered to the comings and goings of red-faced maidservants. While none of them batted an eyelash at Kaira, some did spare her potboy a glance or two.
“Thank you for guiding me here, but I want you to wait outside the menagerie,” she whispered to Lemon. “You’d draw too much attention if I brought you inside.”
Lemon flapped his lips like a fish out of water. Pretty soon he realized that she wasn’t referring to what rose between his shoulders so much as what dangled between his legs. “If you think it’s for the best.”
“I do. Also, if I“ – her voice hitched – “if I turn up dead, I want you to let the next chef know what happened. No more secrets!”
Lemon nodded solemnly. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you earlier.”
“Don’t be,” said Kaira. “You did what you thought was best.” She let the moment stretch a little longer. “Now be off with you!”
Kaira tracked Lemon as he squeezed past the press and out of sight. Then she turned to face the seraglio. Step by step she shouldered nearer, about to undertake her greatest challenge yet.
To throw off suspicion, Kaira needed to look busy. The trick behind that, as she’d learned from the slackoff-scullions in her kitchens, was to always hold something and walk at a brisk, purposeful pace. So, snatching a bucket from the courtyard, she followed the flow of staff down the service hallways and into the heart of the seraglio.
The trill of harps and tinkle of chatter told Kaira that she was getting warmer. After rounding the next corner, she found herself in a room filled from floor to dome with the smoke of incense.
So dense were the clouds of myrrh and lavender that Kaira could hardly pick out the other end of the room. In fact the concubines looked almost ghostly as they swished in and out of the fretwork-walled apartments.
Surely one of those apartments belonged to Rhameli. The very idea made Kaira’s heart kick. Still, she kept her head as cool as the stone in her smock. Doing otherwise would raise questions to which she had no answer. Thus she stuck close to the wall and stared into her bucket as she set forth.
Every step felt like a throw of the knucklebones. As she edged around the chamber, she snuck sidelong glances into the row of apartments. From tea parties to dancing lessons, all sorts of revelry took place in the tiny rooms. Yet each concubine wore a smile too thin to be in earnest. Beneath the kohl on their eyelids and rouge on their lips, Kaira sensed a deep-seated fear. A fear she knew well, since the First Concubine’s shadow loomed over them all.
In her distraction, Kaira bumped into a pillar. No, she realized with a pang of horror. Not a pillar, but a hard-faced guard whose scalp was smooth as stone. He wore a suit of scarlet chainmail with a scimitar to match. The blade glinted by the lamplight with keen-edged menace, but Kaira tried to ignore it as she met the guard’s glare.
“A thousand and one pardons to you.” When she curtseyed, her aching knees trembled to the brink of collapse. “I wasn’t minding my steps.”
“Obviously.” The word rumbled like a landslide. “Most of the others know better.” He stared her down with his iron-grey eyes. “Are you new?”
“Yes,” she shot back a second too soon to sound casual.
The guard crossed his arms. “Let me see your pass-card.”
Nobody had mentioned a gods-damned pass-card! She patted down her smock and forced the tightest of smiles. “I must’ve left it at home. Forgive me, I’ll remember to bring it tomorrow.”
“That’ll be impossible.”
“Why’s that?” she squeaked.
“Because there’s no such thing as a pass-card.”
The bucket slipped from Kaira’s fingers and hit the tiles with a thump. She tried backing up but the guard closed the distance with a single stride per three of her shuffles. No sooner had he grabbed her shoulder than his face went blank, square jaw slack and eyes semi-lidded. Next came a wave of spasms that remolded his features like wads of putty. Thinner went his cheeks, longer went his nose, and his eyes turned dark as a starless winter sky.
“Is it really you?” asked Kaira.
“Don’t be daft,” whispered the Anchorite. “Of course it’s me. Now go and finish what you’ve started! I can only possess this ogre for so long, and if he sees you again it’ll retrigger the memory.”
A torrent of questions flooded Kaira’s head until the best of them broke the surface. “Where does Rhameli keep her apartments?”
“Fourteenth to the left.” Chainmail rattled as the Anchorite pointed the eunuch’s arm thither.
Just as Kaira turned to leave, the Anchorite said, “One more thing.”
Kaira huffed through her nose before turning around.
His grin showed more gums than teeth. “You forgot your bucket.”
Aside from its lack of occupants, the fourteenth suite to the left differed little from the rest. When Kaira snuck into the chamber, she found the same rosewood furniture and paper lamps placed in all the other suites. And even if this room did belong to Rhameli, no garments were in sight. There had to be someplace Rhameli kept her clothes – there just had to!
Driving the dread from her throat, Kaira searched the room until finding a false panel in the wall. She rolled the panel aside, slid herself through, and nudged it back into place.
Kaira gasped as soon as she turned around. None other than Rhameli stood inside the atrium. The First Concubine spoke not a word, moved not a muscle, and held a glare so statuesque that Kaira realized why.
Candles encircled the painted terracotta to make it look a thing of flesh and blood. Leave it to Rhameli to place herself on a pedestal in any way she can.
After wiping the sweat from her forehead, Kaira crouched next to the statue and grabbed a cherry-scented candle. The flamelet flicked off shadows as she sped across the porphyry tiles. Everywhere she looked were crystal-inlaid baubles, ivory-handled knickknacks, and gewgaws she couldn’t even describe, much less name. But in regard to clothing, she didn’t see so much as a slipper.
With time burning quicker than the tallow in her grip, she rushed down a corridor off the atrium and set foot in an antechamber with mirrors for walls. The cobra-shaped faucets in the next room told Kaira that she stood in the bathhouse’s vestry.
When she saw the pile of crumpled fabrics in the corner of the vestry, she knew she hit her mark. Kaira snatched a periwinkle ribbon from the top of the pile and gave it a whiff. Smoked citrus and juniper: the odor of evil. She had just stuffed it into the bucket and turned to leave the vestry when things went sour.
From the atrium came the patter, stomp, and scuff of footsteps. Next came a voice. A deep, harsh voice that could only belong to the one whom Kaira most feared.
“So what’re you trying to say?” Rhameli’s voice grew louder with every spoken word. “That you’re afraid of a frail old man?”
“He’s not exactly frail, Your Radiance,” came a voice that was eggshell-thin by contrast.
Kaira blew out her candle and skulked toward the vestry’s arched entry.
“You claimed that you’d live up to your name!” boomed Rhameli. “How am I to believe that the great Nhuram is first among Star-Touched when you’re second to the Anchorite?”
The rap of bangles on wood made Kaira cringe. Somehow, she mustered the courage to peer past the archway. From there she could see down the corridor and into the atrium.
Rhameli had enthroned herself on the edge of the statue’s plinth. In front of her, the frizzy-haired fellow named Nhuram stood perfectly still. He wore a tight-fitting robe belted at the ribs with a crescent-shaped buckle. As he spoke, the tattoos of his face shone red by the candlelight.
“I could zap him to dust in a face to face duel.” He loosened his triple-tiered collar. “But that’s just it. His garrison hex makes it impossible to reach him. Unless you want to spend the rest of your days as one of his pet pelicans, that is.”
Rhameli shifted in her seat to take a lacquered box from an end table. Its mother-of-pearl lid glistened all kinds of colors when she snapped it open. Packing her seashell pipe with its contents, she said, “So you can’t lay a finger on him.”
“Without possession of his hair or his birth-name, I’m afraid that’s the case.”
Dead silence choked the atrium as Rhameli puffed on her pipe. She blew one, two, three rings at her hireling’s face. “In that case, what use are you to me?”
Nhuram coughed into his blossom-cuffed sleeve. As his eyes swiveled round the atrium, sweat began to sheen his face.
“I know how to decrypt dead languages. I can tell your future from the stars. I can haunt your foes with nightmares.” More and more, his voice took on the shrill, hurried quality of a man who senses his own doom. “I can see into the next plane! I… I… I have children!”
The next few movements occured in such a flash that Rhameli and Nhuram seemed to blur into one. Only after the body hit the floor did Kaira understand what just unfolded.
The stem of the seashell pipe stuck out of Nhuram’s eye socket like a conqueror’s standard. Lifeblood oozed down his earlobe and filled the grooves between the tiles.
Kaira tightened her grip on the bucket as she backed into the bathhouse. All the while, she prayed to any god who’d listen.
She should’ve known better.
Click, went a tile underfoot. Blood-warm water shot from the cobra-heads and sprayed Kaira’s backside.
“What in the…. Who’s there?!” shouted Rhameli. In a lower voice she hissed to an unseen other, “You! How about you make use of that sword for once! Go see what’s the matter!”
Metal slid on leather. Leather pounded on tiles.
Desperately hoping to use the steam for cover, Kaira dashed to a corner and balled herself up in the darkness.
Candlelight surged into the bathhouse as a bare-chested slave hustled inside. The flames harshened his features but Kaira could still place him as one of the slaves from the gardens. When his eyes landed on hers, he worked his jaw as if he too was filling in the blanks.
“Well?” This time Rhameli’s voice sounded louder; closer; deadlier.
Without breaking her gaze from the slave, Kaira crinkled her brows and pressed a finger to her lips. For lack of any better option, she took the honeycake from her apron and offered it to him, squashed and soggy though it was.
The slave didn’t take the bait. One corner of his lips twitched up in the slightest of smirks. He drove his sword home in its sheath and turned toward the vestry. “Everything’s fine, Your Radiance. One of the snakes got loose and set off the showers.”
“Which one?” Despite the fondness in her voice, Rhameli’s advancing footfalls struck more fear into Kaira than ever before. Death in a dress lurked right around the corner. Just when she stepped into view, her slave dropped the candle. The water on the tiles doused the flame and flooded the room with darkness.
“You no good goon!” Rhameli sounded close enough to kick. “How many of you brutes does it take to hold a candle?”
“Thousand n’ one pardons, Your Radiance. The steam slipped up my palms.”
“Watch yourself,” said Rhameli. “Next time you’ll share the fate of that wretched arcanist. Speaking of which, I want you to clear up his body before I return. The last thing I need is blood on my change of clothing for the banquet.”
Only when the slippers scuffed into silence did Kaira climb to her feet. Never in her life had air tasted so fresh. She lifted her eyes to her savior, whispering, “Thank you.”
After a moment’s pause, the slave asked, “Could you save me some leftovers from the banquet?”
“I think I can make that happen,” said Kaira. Sure, knowledge and love and money all hold their allure. But at the end of the day, everyone has to eat.
Back at the menagerie, Kaira met up with Lemon and together they hurried to the dungeon. In one cell they found Roylan combing out knots in a gorilla’s fur. On seeing Kaira, he chucked the comb over his shoulder and strode outside the bars – much to the gorilla’s dismay.
“So? Do you have it?” He flashed sidelong glances down the cellblock as if the animals had it out for him, which some probably did.
“Show me the roc first.”
“Fine.” A frown furrowed his beard. “We’ll do things your way.”
After guiding them back to the storeroom, he pushed a chevron-stamped crate out of the way of a trapdoor. Then he grabbed a keyring from his toolbelt. With a jangle and a snick, the door came unlocked.
“Hope you’re not afraid of tight squeezes,” he said as he took a torch from its bracket and kicked open the door.
A tight squeeze indeed. They needed to bend their shoulders against ashlar-brick walls in order to thread through the tangle of tunnels.
”How much longer?” Kaira asked. “I haven’t got much time.”
“Keep it down,” whispered Roylan. “These passages were built to hide khazals during riots. Now their agents use them, not many of whom care to leave behind witnesses.”
Two turns later, they stopped at a set of brass doors locked with a triple-ringed mechanism. The figure embossed upon them was barely visible by the tremble of torchlight: astride his gryphon, a mail-clad warrior poised his spear overhead, forever frozen in the instant before the strike.
“The Cloudscape Chargers once stabled their mounts here,” said Roylan. “Now that they’re a thing of the past, the place is all mine. Here, take this.” He handed Lemon the torch. Then he flipped through his keys until finding a silver one with an opal set in its handle. When it clicked into the gadgetry, the wheels began to spin one by one. Gears clacked, bolts rumbled, and the doors scraped ajar.
No sooner than that, wind and daylight blasted Kaira’s eyes shut. She reopened them to behold a semicircular aviary with sky chambers curving along the far wall. Some doors hung off their hinges. Others lay on the floor. None of them stood shut. Except for one. In that direction they went, picking their way around the debris underfoot.
After sliding back a slot in the door, Roylan crossed his arms at Kaira. “Go on. Have a look.”
Kaira stepped forth to behold the all-important beast. If not for its azure feathers, the roc could’ve passed for Glypto’s twin. It must’ve awoken from the snap of the slot since its amber eyes stared right back at Kaira. The sight of its shackled talons, dusty feathers and muzzled beak filled her with a mix of pity and anger.
“The poor thing!” Kaira’s smock licked at her heels as she whipped on the beastmaster. “How dare you keep it in such squalor!”
But Roylan only scratched his armpit. “It’ll barely let me feed it, much less groom it. You try taming that thing.”
“I will,” said Kaira. “Unlock the door.”
“Nuh-uh-uh.” Roylan wagged a gloved finger. “We have unfinished business.”
Smoky juniper spoiled the fresh air as Kaira tore the ribbon from her smock and thrust it into Roylan’s hands.
The braids of his beard coiled around the fabric when he pressed it to his nostrils. In that moment he fluttered his eyelid shut, drifting into a world of lovelorn bliss.
Kaira threw the stone at him. Overhand.
Roylan broke from his trance just in time to clap it against his chest. “It’s as cold as your heart,” he said while storing stone and ribbon in separate pockets. “But a deal’s a deal.” He unlocked the door but left it closed. Taking the torch from Lemon, he told the potboy, “Meet me at the entrance.”
“What’s the hurry?” called Lemon.
On his way toward the brass doors, Roylan nestled a hand into his ribbon-stuffed pocket. “Just make it quick,” echoed over his shoulder. That monster isn’t my problem anymore.”
The words didn’t sit well with Kaira, but she’d come too far to back down from her fears. At this point she’d tame a hundred rocs if it meant her survival. So with a deep breath, she risked a step into the sky chamber.
At once the roc tried a muffled shriek and reared onto its hind legs. The whole time its eyes never left Kaira’s unchaste potboy.
After Kaira waved Lemon away from the doorpost, the roc went back onto all fours. Its eyes softened as it cocked its head at Kaira, and she took that as her cue to draw nearer. All the while, she tried keeping her eyes off the claw-marks in the stone floor. To let the beast smell her fear could prove fatal.
“Will you let me take off your muzzle?” asked Kaira.
It was less the words than the tone that encouraged the roc to lower its head.
Just when Kaira untied the knot, the roc gave a screech that ripped through the air. Its black tongue lolled behind six rows of fangs in celebration of its newfound freedom.
Kaira bent double and stuck her fingers in both ears. “Keep it down!”
The roc fell silent and looked down at its shackles.
“Yes, those are next. Just promise not to fly off without me.” Kaira knelt to the ground and snapped open the set of thumb-latches.
As soon as the shackles clattered to the stones, the roc clawed toward the sky-chamber’s landing. The beast perched on the ledge and gazed at the dark-blueness beyond, doubtlessly basking in the glow of freedom. Soon it stretched out both wings, the tips of which spanned both ends of the sky-chamber.
“Wait!” Kaira flailed her hands in the air as she dashed forth. She skidded to a halt mere inches away from the plummet. The wind tore her bun loose as she cried over its wail, “Don’t go! Not yet!”
Both wings folded shut as the roc lowered its gaze to Kaira. For a moment the intensity of that amber-eyed stare struck her breathless. Whether out of comprehension or curiosity, the best lowered to its haunches.
That was as good a hint as Kaira could expect. She wasted no time in climbing the beast’s back. She did, admittedly, spend plenty of time finding a position where she wouldn’t fall off. All she could do was pin her knees to its feathers, hug its neck, and hope for the best.
That hope was doused by the drop straight ahead. Beyond the chasm rose the Heights of Plenty, where pulleys winched up pallets of cargo from the sea-slums. It was a long way down, enough to kill Kaira twenty times over.
“Are you alright?” The moan of wind all but muted Lemon’s squeaks. “You’re shaking.” A pause. “And sweating.” Another. “And-”
“I know!” snapped Kaira. Then, more calmly: “I know.” She looked around and found the lad standing just outside the doorway. He gnawed his lower lip, eyes fixed on his twiddling fingers.
As Kaira addressed Lemon, her unbound hair flew with the wind. “Never you worry about me, Stars know I’ve worried myself enough for the two of us. I’ll see you back at the kitchens if… when I return. Oh, and Lemon? I never would’ve gotten this far without you.”
Lemon took a bow that was one wobble away from grace. “You would’ve done the same for me.” Taking a page from Kaira’s cookbook, he added, “Enough tarrying! You’ve got a job to do.”
That she did. Kaira leaned forward, tightened her grasp on the roc, and whispered, “Onwards.”
Up flew the roc, into the purple sky and toward the first stars of twilight. Meanwhile Kaira clung to its neck with a white-knuckled grip. The air became sparser with every cloud they passed until she could hardly breathe. A roc might be able to survive the rigors of space, but the same hardly applied to a little old lady.
With ears plugged and eyes glazed, she dug her fingers into the roc’s neck. The beast unleashed another screech as it swooped aside, nearly throwing Kaira off its back in the process. After steeling herself from swooning, she lowered her eyes to the dizzying drop.
Upon the city’s tallest cliff stood the Hundred Palaces, with the Anchorite’s Ladder jutting over the roofline like an upthrust cleaver. Kaira folded herself elbow-to-knee, as much for her own safety as to extend her reach. Then she stretched her arms forward and pointed at the casbah.
“There!” she cried over the whistling wind.
Drawing back its wings, the roc whooshed thataway. In a matter of heartbeats it crested the tower, scraping up shards of stone and chips of tile on descent.
The dust cleared to show the Anchorite standing beside Glypto’s corpse. He favored his newest pet with a toothless grin while Kaira clambered off its back.
“Phew! I’ll never do that again!” she cried hoarsely. “Not for all the saffron in Faral-Muzzafti!” Once straightening out her smock, she put her hands on her hips and spun on the geezer.
But the Anchorite had eyes only for the roc. Gesturing at Glypto’s corpse, he spoke in his husky voice, “A token of fellowship.”
The words had scarcely left his lips before the roc pounced forth and sank its fangs deep into Glypto’s flesh.
Bile crawled up Kaira’s throat. She made it to the tower’s edge just in time to spew a string of vomit seaward. Then she wiped her mouth on her apron and turned back to the Anchorite. “What about me?”
“Hrm?” Without shifting his eyes from the roc, the Anchorite lofted a brow and narrowed his grin. “What are you babbling about?”
Kaira cooled her kettle with some lungfuls of night air. “You owe me a thunder trout.”
“Oh, right.” The Anchorite’s voice was barely audible over the crack of bone and snap of gristle. “I don’t have it.”
“What do you mean you don’t have it?” Each of her limbs trembled with rage. She was one breath away from wrapping her fingers around the old fool’s wattle.
The Anchorite looked upon Kaira for the first time tonight. “I did you one better.” Then he ambled up beside her and pointed over the ledge. “Wait for it.” He said it again, stretching out each word, “Wait. For. It.”
Up here she could see the whole palace, from its cityside turrets to its oceanside lighthouses. In between, the countless specks of torchlight resembled gold dust cast over folds of velvet. Lamplighters were still making progress across the promenades and pavilions, leaving pinpricks of light in their wake. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary until….
Somewhere, a clarion blasted off three times. That meant a call to arms. But then came a fourth blast, which, if Kaira remembered correctly, indicated a fire was loose on the palace grounds. After that came the fifth and final blast. Everyone knew what that meant: a royal death.
At once, the flecks of light spilled out of buildings and onto terraces. The vast majority of them rushed for the the seraglio.
Kaira swung toward the Anchorite. “What did you do?”
The old man laughed himself hoarse. His lips looked thin as larvae wriggling over an open grave of gums. “It wasn’t what I did.” Out of the blue he produced a lock of Kaira’s hair and let it fly off with the wind. “It’s what I did through you.”
The last of the vomit burned the back of Kaira’s throat. “Have you been making my decisions this whole time?”
“No. As with that guard in the seraglio, you wouldn’t remember the moments when I’d been in charge. Once to snatch the Imp’s Tongue from Roylan’s bag. Another to plant it in Rhameli’s tobacco box. The herb itself is untraceable, so you needn’t worry about the beastmaster’s fate. Be merry!”
“Merry!” Kaira shook her head to the pace of her rapid heartbeats. “I never wanted to kill her!”
“Last time we talked,” he said calmly, “you promised to do anything for your own survival.“
Kaira curled her windburnt hands into fists. “You tricked me!”
The Anchorite shrugged off the accusation. “Such is life in the Hundred Palaces. Not only will the banquet be cancelled, but I have one less rival to contend with.” He returned to the roc and folded his hands behind his back. “This way we both win.”
“Don’t you turn your back on me, you dried-up crow! I’m not done with you yet!” Kaira had marched halfway to the Anchorite when the roc reared its head to screech at her.
“One more step and you won’t live to take another.” When the Anchorite spun around, he seemed another man. Gone was the smile, gone was the warmth. All that remained were those two black eyes. “Our business is finished. You have one minute to leave before I lift your immunity to my polymorph hex.”
In a flurry of fabric, Kaira rushed down the tower and out of the sanctum. Not until she stumbled outside could she think things through. In helping the Anchorite, she’d enabled an evil just as bad as Rhameli. Whipped cream might rise to the top, but so does scum. Still, just because Kaira fed that scum didn’t mean she had to swim its current.