Written for the 2015 Narnia Fic Exchange Madness Round, for cofax.
This story takes place some years after what would have been The Horse and his Boy. Given the grim nature of this AU, and the Calormen tradition of older men marrying minors, there will be a lot of heavy subjects discussed during this story, and a lot of implied violence (most of which occurs in the past, and is pretty sinister, often with implied rape). If that's not your cup of tea, I understand.
I already have a few chapters of this written, and am currently editing them, so I should update pretty regularly.
Aravis ran her fingers over her husband's wrist, his skin hot and clammy, pulse ticking violently against her thumb. The room was dimly lit, only a few candles remaining—no one had wished to disturb him, and the physician had indicated that too many people at his bedside might only worsen his condition. Now it was only Aravis kneeling beside the mattress, legs folded beneath her as she held his hand in hers and looked down at his face.
His brow was covered with small beads of sweat which trickled into his hair, his sleep restless and feverish, and it had been many days since he had been lucid at all. The sores at his mouth, bloated and glistening with blood, opened with every movement of his lips, which murmured unintelligibly into the heavy air. Rabadash Tisroc was dying.
A damp rag lay close to her, but Aravis made no move to take it. Her husband's hair was wet with sweat and she took acute pleasure in seeing him shift under the covers, alternating between cold shivers and overwhelming heat. His beard, once oiled and dyed with great care, now seemed ragged and dry against his bare chest.
Even as she watched him his breath hitched and his pulse sped up, and his eyes, halting the rolling motion beneath his eyelids, snapped open and met hers in reddened fury. She glanced at the door beyond; his chamber walls were of thick stone, the carpets and richly embroidered tapestries stifling all sound, and the slaves outside the threshold were deaf and mute—she had taken care to ensure it.
"Viper," he rasped with great effort, reaching out to raise himself from the bed. She tightened her grasp on his wrist—she must take care not to dig her nails into his flesh, lest the physician see the marks later—and did not allow him to rise. He was easily overpowered, weak as he was, but his eyes flashed with fury. "False, black-hearted daughter of a dog! Bring me the Vizier!"
"O my husband," she murmured, stroking his wrist even as he lay restrained by his own weakness. "Your delusions have reached their peak, and I fear you near your end."
"Bring… me… the Vizier…" he panted viciously, thrashing about within the confinement of the sheets. "I have orders to give him. The first of which," he paused and groaned, pain overtaking him momentarily. "The first of which will be to execute you… pelt you with stones… until…"
Aravis smiled. "But husband, you have forgotten yourself. For it is night time now, and none lie awake. It has been near a fortnight since you first fell ill, and whilst your wives languished about your bedside on the first week, time does breed forgetfulness, and we are all now weary of watching you die."
Rabadash did not have the strength to shout, and she watched him struggle with his voice, sweat trickling down his temples. His hand shook helplessly below hers. "You have murdered me," he said, fear spreading through his features. "You have murdered me!"
Her smile was fierce, and she leaned closer to his face as he trembled beneath her, still holding down his arm. "You have murdered yourself," she said. "You chose your own poison—now comes the wrath of the gods. Let them have their ransom for your devilry."
"I am the Tisroc," he said shakily. "Tash the Almighty stands at my side—he reaches out to clutch your throat—for your betrayal—bring me the Vizier!"
"Sleep now, Tisroc," she murmured and let go of his hand, which flapped weakly against the mattress and was still. He was fading, and had no strength even to struggle anymore. Her smile disappeared as she tasted bitterness on her tongue; it had been three years of repulsion and fear, but now her prayers were being answered. She wiped her hand against the coverlet to rid herself of the filth of his sweat. "May you live forever."
There was a boy with golden hair who lived by a creek of the sea, and he was a fisherman. His father wore dirty tunics and had a habit of boxing the boy's ears when things did not go his way, and so the boy learned early in life to remain silent and not venture too far from the house.
But sometimes, as the boy sat outside the shack he called his home, he seemed to look up at the hills towards the North, a deep spark of curiosity igniting within him at what lay beyond.
Cor awoke slowly, and experienced the strange, confusing disorientation that comes with having too vivid a dream. For a moment, it had seemed to him that he ought to be sleeping on a bed of hay in a hut, dressed in little more than rags in stiflingly hot climate. Instead, he was covered with two thick blankets and surrounded by the cold air of a stone castle, his eyes looking up at the artfully carved wood of the bed's canopy. Small rays of sunlight filtered through the curtains and Cor turned slowly, his muscles feeling immeasurably heavy, to see a figure lying on the floor.
The memories came rushing back to him and he slumped against the pillows again, grief heavy on his heart. It was only some seconds of weakness in which his realization produced a few tears, but it was soon accompanied by the steel grip of his will, which smothered his sadness and prompted him to look down at the floor again.
It had been years since he and Corin had shared a room, though they would have very much liked to do so their entire adolescence; the court had deemed it unsafe to put the two princes beside one another, where any catastrophe might harm them both. Cor also suspected that his father had been concerned that their mischief would only be heightened if they lived in such close quarters. Either way, the room now had only one bed, and while Cor knew that the servants would be more than willing to provide Corin with a bed in which to lie, rather than the cold floor and a pair of blankets, he also knew that Corin was much too proud to admit that he was sharing a room with his twin because he couldn't bear to sleep alone.
Cor had grown used to it over the last fortnight, even relieved that Corin had appeared sometime past midnight on the first night looking haggard and grief-stricken. He himself had suffered in the darkness, struggling with nightmares too exhausting to battle. So now they awoke each morning in this manner, with Corin curled up on the floor, rising before the servants came to see them—though they hardly did it nowadays, allowing them space, saying they needed rest.
Corin's eyes were already open, only slightly red as he stared at some distant point on the floor.
"I had such a vivid dream," Cor remarked slowly, rubbing his eyes with a groan. "I've never dreamed quite as vividly."
"Lucky you," Corin grumbled. "I've hardly slept a wink."
Cor sat up, blinking slowly. "What time is it?"
"Time to get up, most likely," said Corin, and slowly got to his feet, leaning down to bunch up his blankets and toss them under Cor's bed. He met his brother's gaze. "You all right?"
Cor swallowed and nodded. He wanted to ask the same of Corin, but knew there was no point to it. Either way, he appreciated the gesture—he would need his support; things would soon become very complicated. "Yeah," he muttered. "I'll go soon; I just have to go over Darrin's instructions one more time."
With a nod, his brother left the room, feet quiet in the corridor outside. Normally the castle at this time of day would have been full of barely muffled movement, as the servants discussed tasks and gossipped about the morning's news. But a lot had changed since the King had died.
He dressed himself and left the room, making for the Council Hall. He could have his breakfast there, though he had very little appetite. Still, he knew Darrin would make him eat, and had little energy to argue.
King Lune had passed a fortnight ago, murdered violently in Calormen's treacherous attempt to take Anvard. No one had expected such deceit—though looking back, Cor thought bitterly that they ought to have kept better watch, knowing that Rabadash was more impulsive and violent than his father. Already there had been rumors that he had meant to attack them the year before, as a preliminary conquest to his intended ransacking of Narnia, but Adeben Tisroc had not permitted it, knowing that Calormen's forces could not withstand the combined armies of the Four and King Lune—especially when the motive was merely spite out of being denied the Queen Susan's hand in marriage.
They had not been prepared, and so had barely managed to fend off the new Tisroc's army. Rabadash had been rash in thinking his two hundred horse might overthrow Anvard—but he had succeeded in driving a scimitar through King Lune's heart before he was forced to retreat to his own borders. There had been no sense in sending what was left of the hastily assembled force of Archenland to the Calormene desert after the traitors; it would have proven a much greater tragedy, and as such they had merely drawn their host closer within Anvard, and set close watch on the borders. Narnia could not come to aid; the Four had been lost, and the thrones in Cair Paravel sat empty.
Lord Darrin pushed the tray of food closer to Cor after the servants had deposited it on the table. "Please eat, Sire."
Cor made a face and tried to find some joy in the meal; it tasted dry and bland in his mouth, but he supposed it was only his mind that rejected it.
"Do you feel correctly informed of the procedures today? I can go through them again—it is much to remember."
"There's no need. They have been running through my head for days."
Darrin nodded, his grey eyes still looking rather concerned, but he said nothing more as Cor finished his breakfast. In the absence of King Lune, Darrin had been Cor and Corin's chief assistant when it came to navigating the complicated waters of repairs, funerals and coronations. The twins had been too young when the Queen had died, but Darrin had already been a Lord and member of the Council at the time, and knew much of the tasks that lay ahead. Cor was appreciative of it; his title as Heir was already much to be anxious about without adding the ever present frustration of not knowing the ways of tradition.
When Cor was finished eating, he could already hear the noise of a multitude gathering beyond the walls of the castle. He rose and was followed closely by Darrin as he made his way out of the room and towards the large double doors that led outside. Many courtiers had already assembled just before the door, and on the raised dais at the top of a small flight of steps men dressed in the colors of the Guard awaited somberly, heads downcast, flanking a gilded casket.
Cor left Darrin and slowly made his way up the steps, passing between the Guard and moving to stand beside the casket. It was open; it would not be closed until both the King Lune's sons had gazed upon his face one last time.
In the Fortnight of Mourning, which was traditional to Archenland, the casket had lain open for all to come pay their respects. The artisans of Anvard, skilled in preserving the Kings' earthly bodies, had tended to King Lune and dressed him in the richest clothing, sword-hilt set between his hands and golden circlet above his closed eyes. He looked as if he had merely fallen into a deep sleep—yet his skin was pale and grey-toned, the cares life had placed upon his body finally evident; he looked old, much older than he had ever looked in life, and Cor had spent the last two weeks avoiding seeing his father again for that very reason—he was hardly recognizable without a warm smile on his lips.
Cor drew a deep breath and stepped away from the casket, trying to swallow down the knot that had fixed itself in his throat. He could hear the multitude outside, quiet yet shuffling against the stone floor. Suddenly feeling his heart racing, he reached up to wipe the sweat that had broken around his temple, feeling choked and constricted by the heavy velvet cape that was draped around his shoulders and the sword that hung at his side—he tried not to think of the last time he had used that sword, when he and Corin had both been too occupied fending off the assault of a group of Tarkaans to run to their father's side when he had needed them the most.
But there was no time to think; the doors were now slowly swinging open, and Cor saw that Corin had arrived before he had, dressed in formal clothes and having already paid his respects to their father. The Guard pulled the cover over the casket, swiftly nailing it closed with a few sharp knocks of hammer against wood, and then King Lune's body was being borne on the shoulders of six men, their eyes grave as they followed behind the Princes in the march towards the tombs.
The tombs lay upon a small green hill on the outskirts of Anvard, with mounds of stones marking the graves of the Kings. Fifteen mounds formed two circles, surrounding the central largest mound: King Col the Builder, first King of Archenland. There was a gap in the outer circle, where already the men of the city had dug the space in which King Lune would be laid to rest beside his forefathers. It was a strange thought for Cor to know that when he passed, his remains would begin a third circle for the dead.
The people of Anvard followed them, and so did many from neighboring villages, Lords and Ladies and common people, for the King had loved many and been loved in returned. The people held ribbons in their hands, limp and lifeless, and many went arm-in-arm as they walked, climbing the small hill and gathering on the outskirts of the mounds.
Then a minstrel began a low, wordless chant, and the Guard's slow walk led them to the edge of the grave. As they lowered the casket into the ground, Cor could not bring himself to look up at the crowd that stood all around him. He knew that King Lune was only the last to be buried of all those who had died in the Battle of Anvard, and knew that this funeral was, in a way, a funeral for all those who died unjustly. As the flag of Archenland was lowered in ceremony, and he and Corin seized the first of the grey rocks that had been piled about them, brought from the Winding Arrow over the last few days and meant solely to shroud the King's tomb, Cor could hear the weeping of the people and could not help weeping himself, clumsy as his tears made him. He knew Corin was doing the same. Before them, slowly, their father was blanketed in darkness and held by the earth.
"May you now feel the warmth of the Lion's breath," Cor breathed through trembling lips as he knelt before the grave. The Guard moved the burial, and he and Corin stepped back to allow the mound to be built.
Cor glanced at his twin's expression as the ceremony came to a close. There were tears lining Corin's cheeks; Cor knew that while his father had always been close to both of them, there was a certain despair to Corin's grief. While Cor had known his father's intentions for the country and the weight of the crown he bore better than anyone, and had been prepared from the moment of his birth for the moment in which he would have to replace him, it had not been so for Corin. Corin had always been the less prudent of the two, prone to impulsive decisions and choosing fancy over obligation; characteristics which had amused King Lune. But Cor suspected that Corin had hardly ever given thought to the idea that their father would one day die—and the shock of his death had come as a heavy blow to him.
The crowd seemed to draw a breath as the Guard stepped back from the mound. The Fortnight of Mourning was now over, and King Lune had been laid to rest. Along with his remains, so must their grief be left behind, and while the banner of Archenland was not yet lifted, the air of sadness shifted to that of slowly rising anticipation. Cor could not escape his duties any longer.
Stepping forwards, he walked in a straight line through the crowd, his subjects moving quickly to give way. Behind him came Corin, and the standard-bearer, and the Lords of the Council, and then the Guard. The time of sadness was past; now came the time to crown the new King.
They left the hill behind and crossed the gates of Anvard. The sun was now high in the sky, approaching midday, and its towers of red-brown stone gleamed, blinding in the sunlight. Cor breathed deeply and tried to rid his mind of the thoughts that had occupied it for so long since the battle; now began a new day, and he had much to remember.
Upon crossing the threshold of Anvard, he halted and touched his palm to the stone floor, face upturned to the heavens, as it was said that Col did when he first entered the finished city. When he reached the castle, he stood upon the steps and the people stopped before him. Now they bore the ribbons in the air, sadness shifting into celebration, their eyes expectant and joyful as he stretched his arms in greeting. "Come forth, people of the North, for here we shall build our kingdom."
The castle doors opened, and the people crowded in, escorted carefully by guards, and the Lords of Archenland stood at the bottom of the raised dais, where the throne King Lune had occupied all of Cor's life sat empty, and the golden crown he had worn lay on the cushion of silken red. And when the room had been filled, and the Lords of Archenland stood tall and silent, and the standard-bearer small and quiet behind them; then Cor met Corin's eyes, for he could not bear to look into the expectant ones of anyone else, and his brother gave a short nod, his mouth a thin, grim line.
Cor lifted the crown to his head and bowed before the people, and as the Lords knelt and the Archenlanders followed suit, the standard-bearer hoisted up the banner of the nation high above the heads of all, and a cry rose up.
"Long live the King!"
"He is dead."
The physician's words seemed to be swallowed by the silence in the room, and as the man spoke, Aravis did as the other wives and prostrated on the ground in the direction of Rabadash Tisroc's unmoving body. A sheet had been drawn over him, and two of the women sobbed, their faces hidden by their veils.
Behind them, seven men in large white turbans prostrated as well, bowing once before returning to their feet and exchanging looks. Aravis saw them over her shoulder, her hands clenched into fists against the rich carpet. Nearby, three men seemed to shift uncomfortably, their eyes moving from the late Tisroc's body to the seven men. They had also bowed, but the movements had been stiff, and their minds were occupied with too much to pay etiquette much attention. Aravis' gaze lingered particularly on one—a man with a black beard, only the tips dyed crimson; his sharp eyes met hers for a moment before he looked away.
Aravis returned her forehead to the carpets and spoke, loud enough for the others to hear, yet low enough to be reverent: "On him be the peace of the gods."
"So short was his reign—yet so noble his sword!" exclaimed Zoshrud Tashkhad, one of the priests of Tash, his eyes expressionless. "For he rid us of the Northern enemy's King, a victory dearly earned, and nearly on the very eve of Midsummer." He turned to the three Tarkaans. "Vizier, messages must be relayed to Azim Balda; this duty is one of your last, lest the new Tisroc (may he live forever) wishes your company." The Vizier, a thin, weak man, hurried off and disappeared through the open door beyond. Zoshrud returned to the two who remained. "And here are Ishamiel and Avar, I see—yet Ishaq is not among us. Send a slave to fetch him." He shook his head and waved a hand towards Rabadash's wives. "The women must leave us; there is much to do."
Aravis rose with the other three, meeting Badrih's eyes as she did so. The woman reached out and gave her hand a gentle squeeze. Durriya was the first to leave the room, head bowed, her tears halted. She went to seek her child. The youngest of the four wives, Aya, leaned heavily on Badrih's arm as they left the sickly air of the room and emerged into the richly furnished corridor.
"You should lie down, sweet girl," Badrih murmured to the girl. She herself was the eldest of the four, and had been Rabadash's first wife. Heavy cares lay on her face; she had been older than Rabadash when he married her, and had aged swiftly during their years together. In later years, Rabadash had striven to forget her existence, unless it came to relations between Tashbaan and the Tarkaans of Zalindreh, Badrih's kin. Aravis suspected that his neglect had been a welcome change.
Aya shivered, wide eyes glancing back at the room where the Tashkhid remained. Servants were already flocking towards it; they would bear away the Tisroc's body. "I did not think he would pass so soon—what is to become of us?"
She was even younger than Aravis had been when she was married, and had still been a favourite plaything to Rabadash—a novelty he enjoyed exploiting. Aravis frowned as they turned towards the Women's Wing. "Perhaps Ishaq Tarkaan will take you as his bride; you are young and beautiful, and he has but one wife of his own."
They now pulled their veils off, for they approached their quarters. The corridor opened into a large archway and a pool of clear water lay in the middle of the room over colorful mosaics. Windows of stained glass allowed a view of the gardens of the Tisroc's palace, and the carpets were woven with designs of various flowers. The room branched off into diverse corridors and rooms, belonging to the Tisroc's four wives and their chosen ladies in waiting.
Aya wrinkled her nose. "Ishaq Tarkaan's mind is slow, and he only has eyes for wine."
"Which would be a pleasant change," Aravis muttered. Around them, servants stood nervously, approaching them to change their frock and clear them from the heavy air of sickness, and likely hoping to hear news of the Tisroc. Aravis said nothing—they would learn the truth soon enough. Instead she turned towards her own quarters, knowing that Aini, the young slave-girl, had already done her bidding.
Lasaraleen Tarkheena reclined upon a low couch, surrounded by white curtains and eating dates from a low dish before her. Aravis had called for her near the hour of dawn, knowing that Lasaraleen would not resist being invited to the palace at such an important time, to visit the Khasik Tisroc—the Tisroc's primary consort, the wife of greatest power.
Lasaraleen straightened quickly when Aravis appeared, eyes wide. "Is he well?"
Aravis glanced at the door. No one else was near, and Badrih and Aya had already moved towards their own rooms. She shook her head. "He is dead."
"No." Lasaraleen shook her head in distress, reaching up as if to clutch her heart. "Our beloved Tisroc! On him be the peace of the gods."
"Oh, be quiet," Aravis snapped. "You know well that his death was a welcome blessing."
"Don't say such things!" Lasaraleen hissed immediately, reaching out to pull Aravis down to sit beside her. "They may yet say things about you, and such words could seal your fate with death."
"What are you saying?"
"It is known that in his private hours Rabadash called you his Viper—and that though he valued Calavar too much to speak of it openly, the name strayed often from playfulness to insult." Lasaraleen looked uncomfortable, as if she feared overstepping some boundary. Her voice dropped even lower into a whisper. "And after what happened to Ahoshta—"
"What are they saying, Lasaraleen? That I am a witch?"
Lasaraleen wrung her hands, concern etched onto her face. "Not yet, but you are now widowed, and have nearly been so before, and people will talk. Already his sickness has been attributed to a curse."
"I know well what his sickness stemmed from, and it was no curse," Aravis said with a scowl of revulsion. "One can only frequent the hovels of the degenerate so often before catching some unsightly disease—and my husband took himself to the common brothels often."
"But the Tashkhid will not acknowledge it. They will seek another to accuse."
Aravis frowned, crossing her legs beneath her and hugging a cushion much as she had done when she was a child, living with her father and small brother in Calavar, far removed from the horrors of Tashbaan. In her mind's eye she saw Rabadash again, writhing in bed, mouth bleeding painfully, the scimitar he had borne with such ferociousness to battle lying limp beside his bed, his body robbed of its victory. Her lips curved coldly. Lasaraleen could concern herself with Aravis' fate, but Aravis had little fear for her own life—she was already more alive than she had been in a long time.
When Aravis awoke the next day, amidst the hurried yet muffled footsteps of the servants outside her door, she had to take a moment to clear her head. She had had a dream, more vivid than any dream she remembered having, and the face of a young boy with golden hair remained etched into her mind's eye as if she had known him—but she did not. She had never seen him; she knew she would have remembered if she had. And neither had she ever seen the old hut by a creek in which, she knew from her dream, the boy lived.
It was strange.
Aini pushed the door open softly, curtsying immediately when she realized that her mistress was awake. She was a small, thin girl, approaching her thirteenth year of age. Aravis knew that Aini feared her slightly; the tales that had run about the palace of the sharpness of her tongue had not done her any favors, but she had tried her best to treat the girl with kindness, if only because there were scarce children like Aini in the Tisroc's court—either they were the Princes' spoiled children, or street urchins intent on stealing some precious jewel or other. After leaving Calavar, Aravis had not encountered children like her younger brother, sweet and playful. Aini was a breath of fresh air.
"How much longer?" she inquired, sitting up and running her fingers through her tousled hair. The city outside was unusually quiet; even though the Women's Wing faced the gardens and was removed from the streets of Tashbaan, they often still heard the sounds from the market and the cries of the heralds.
"Khasik Tarkheena," Aini said in a low voice, curtsying again at the foot of the bed. "The Tarkaans are assembling in the Hall of Pillars, and the streets are being swept for the procession."
"We must hurry then," Aravis said, and rose to undress. Normally, the Tisroc's funeral would have waited longer, until all the Princes and Tarkaans of various provinces were in Tashbaan and could attend. But the proximity of Rabadash's death to the Midsummer Offering—when Calormen was called upon by the gods to offer up fractions of its spoils to ensure the retaining of wealth and prosperity—had precipitated the process, and the Tashkhid had hurriedly arranged for it to take place the very day after the Tisroc's passing. Then, before the Temple of Tash and the eyes of all Tashbaan, the new Tisroc would pledge his soul to Tash and take the rule of the Empire.
The servants entered the room shortly afterwards and led Aravis to a pool in an adjacent room, where she was bathed with oils and salts until her dark skin glowed and her hair seemed to shimmer. They then dressed her in a long red robe and veil, soft red slippers and only one thin bangle on her arm, marking her as Khasik Tarkheena; she would retain the title until the next Tisroc chose a favorite among his wives.
As they covered her hair and attached her veil, Aravis fingered the bangle on her arm and thought bitterly of the first time Badrih had branded her with the cold golden metal. She had often cursed her father for pleading such a boon of Adeben Tisroc after Ahoshta Tarkaan's untimely death, and Adeben for granting it. It had taken Rabadash some time to realize that she was not a plaything for him to trifle with.
She was escorted out of her quarters once the preparations were finished, leaving the Women's Wing and descending into the lower courtyard, and she paid little heed to the servants who glanced at her edgewise. She wondered how much of Lasaraleen's words rang true—how many of these suspected her of having a hand in Rabadash's demise. Under the cover of the veil, her expression was well hidden, and she kept her eyes impassive; though they might expect her to weep at the passing of her husband, she had not the patience to indulge them.
At the edge of the colonnade she found Badrih, Durriya and Aya, all dressed as she was, but devoid of any jewelry. Only Aravis' arm glimmered with gold, and she knew Durriya's eyes glanced at it in envy—or anticipation, perhaps. The high rank Durriya coveted was now near her reach, or at least it might be, once her infant child—Rabadash's sole blood heir—reached the age of maturity.
Saying nothing, for there were more servants there than those in their confidence, and all knew the Tashkhid and Tarkaans often kept spies within the court, they set off on foot until they reached the Hall of Pillars, where a great assembly of men awaited, clad in shining armor and turbans of many colors. They turned towards the four women as they approached, eyes downcast in respect and mourning, but Aravis knew that many of them glanced at their bodies with pleasure, for stories said that no women were as fair as the wives of the Tisroc.
The Tashkhid were at the forefront of the procession, and they stood about like large mountains dressed in white against the black marble of the Hall beyond them, muttering to each other beneath the arches. Outside, the stable boys were bringing forth Tashbaan's fairest horses. Aravis watched the Tashkhid from afar as she and the other women joined the assembly; Zoshrud's greying beard and gold-tipped turban were visible above the rest.
"Khasik," a voice murmured at her side, and Aravis started. Turning, she saw Ishamiel Tarkaan standing beside a pillar, his eyes averted. It was not proper for him to be found speaking to his brother's widow—for he was a Prince, sixth in line after Rabadash. But they had wished to speak since the night before, and it was not likely that they would get another chance until day drew to an end. "Do you plan to continue with this madness?"
"I did not ask your opinion, Ishamiel, when I confided in you," Aravis said, thankful that no one could see her lips move beneath the red veil. "Is Ishaq present?"
"They dragged him in yesterday, but could not get a coherent word out of his lips. He was not in his quarters this morning." He ran his eyes over the crowd, at the Tarkaans who murmured among each other in the maze of pillars. "Doubtless he has taken to wine after they released him."
Aravis turned away from him in pretense to be looking at the other women. Badrih was yet again comforting Aya, and Durriya had disappeared from view. No one was watching. "And do the Tashkhid know this?"
Ishamiel's dark eyes glanced at her, grave and piercing. "No. I took it upon myself to inform them of his absence, which I have not done. Khalid is also missing; he will not reach Tashbaan today."
Aravis breathed a sigh of satisfaction. "Thank you."
"To attempt this is to play with fire, Khasik," he muttered, and she knew he was displeased with his own decision. "I cannot protect you when you fail."
"I will not," she replied, and turning away from him, joined Badrih and Aya.
Finally the horses were readied, and the golden chariot, strewn about with rose and jasmine, was readied below the largest archway in the Hall of Black Marble. Aravis and the other wives went first, passing through pillars until their slippers touched the dark stone, and they came to stand beside the chariot, heads bowed. Six slaves moved forwards, bearing a heavy weight—the Tisroc's body, wrapped in linens. He was placed over the flowers, to be escorted by his wives in his last journey to the Temple of Tash.
They set out on foot, and Aravis bowed her head even lower as she felt the heat of the midmorning sun hit her. The marble tiles of the road outside, which led out the gates and into Tashbaan itself, seemed to burn straight through her slippers—Tarkheenas' shoes were not made for the hot streets of the city.
Directly behind them came the Tashkhid; Aravis felt as if their eyes bored into her back as she walked. After the Tashkhid came the Tarkaans, first the Princes and then the Cousins, and after that the men of lesser blood who had won the Tisroc's favor. Many Tarkaans were not present; her father and those of other provinces too far removed from the Capital would not be able to attend. She wondered, briefly, if her father thought she would return to Calavar once Rabadash was buried—or perhaps he hoped that Ishaq would desire her as well, and keep their family in favor by taking Aravis as his wife.
Soldiers lined the wide, winding stone street that led up to the Temple. Slaves and commoners had spent all night and day sweeping the road so that the feet of royalty might touch it, and the Tarkheenas might have no need of litters. The citizens of Tashbaan crowded behind the armored shoulders of the soldiers, gazing at the faces of the wealthy and powerful with wonder, for it was not often that they could witness such a procession. It was a welcome spectacle for many, to have had two funerals take place in such quick succession—first Adeben Tisroc, scarcely a month since, and now Rabadash Tisroc. Yet Aravis saw also that many seemed fearful as they glanced at the Tisroc's body. She wondered how far the tale of the curse had truly travelled.
They soon reached the Temple of Tash, its glittering dome of blue-green shining in the sunlight. The day was nearing noon, and as they crossed the archways into the large, echoing hall where Tash Himself, the Inexorable, towered, beak upraised to the heavens, sunlight shining through his mouth and into the space between his ribs as it entered the dome through a skylight and shot through the statue's body. Around his clawed feet were piles of kindling, baskets of various fruits and vegetables, dead lambs and calves set upon them and surrounded by incense; all were sacrifices collected by the people of Calormen in anticipation of the Midsummer Offering. And before them all, directly in line with Tash's mighty head, a large pyre had been raised, upon which the slaves soon carried Rabadash Tisroc.
The wives stood close together at the front of the mass of men, and did not look up as Zoshrud Tashkhad, accompanied by two other Tashkhid, stepped forwards with hands raised to Tash and the light that came from within him.
"O Tash, the Irresistible, the Inexorable!" he cried. "Known are your many blessings, showered upon the people of this land in generosity—for it was through your hand that our fathers first set foot upon this earth, and watched it flourish beneath their feet. Yet known now, also, are the violent tests you send upon us; for on the very eve of our venerable Tisroc's return (on whom be the peace of the gods) from his glorious enterprise in the barbaric North, he fell ill and passed but a fortnight after, and in the arms of Tash he shall rise in victorious fire, a privilege gifted to those of the line of the gods. To you we offer our victorious leader, as the sacrifice you have claimed; well is it with he that joins you! And before your almighty feet we shall name your new servant."
At a sign from Zoshrud, six slaves ran up with torches in hand. One by one, they set the kindling aflame, and the scent of incense filled the Temple, sweet and slightly sickening. Aravis watched as the linen that wrapped Rabadash's body suddenly crawled with orange flame, and felt a deep, penetrating satisfaction at the sight, her heart racing as she turned to where Ishamiel Tarkaan stood.
He was already watching her. They shared a look before Aravis reached up, tore off the red veil and stepped forwards until she stood directly before her husband's burning body. The smell of burning flesh reached her nose, too strong in such proximity to be masked by incense, and she had to quell her rolling stomach as she looked up at Tash's powerful arms and face.
"What devilry is this?" cried one of the Tashkhid suddenly, the spell of surprise broken. "For shame, Khasik Tarkheena—you stand before Tash Himself, and dare expose yourself so!"
"I do," she said, her voice shaking as she turned to face the crowd. Her movements had been unexpected, and none dared step towards her to stop her; only the Tashkhid stood close at hand, and though infuriated, they did not seem to know what to do. "For I have a claim of my own to lie at his mighty feet."
"He takes no more claims, but for that of the throne," Zoshrud Tashkhad said, voice sharp and menacing. "And that is one reserved for the Crown Prince."
"Yet he is not here," Aravis said smoothly, looking around the crowd. "Where is Ishaq Tarkaan, Crown Prince after my husband (on whom be the peace of the gods)? Is he here to lay his claim, or does he stagger still in his hovel like a common wretch, unfit to even speak the name of Tash, the Irrevocable?"
There was silence, but for the crackling of the fire at Aravis' back. She could feel the warmth of it burning against her skin, but did not move. The crowd said nothing, not knowing how to react to a Tisroc's wife unveiled, and speaking against the heir to the throne.
But Zoshrud stepped forwards, expression furious, and reached out with his hand as if he meant to seize her. "Do not speak of matters beyond your comprehension," he growled in a low voice, which the crowd could not hear over the roaring of the flames."If Ishaq Tarkaan claims it not, then upon Khalid Tarkaan lies the right, not upon an unruly Tarkheena—"
"Have care, Tashkhad, of how you speak." Aravis stepped away from him, eyebrows raised in a challenge. He would not dare touch her. "Do you truly want one who supports the Southern Tribes commanding the Empire?"
Before she had finished speaking, she knew she had entrapped him, for the Tashkhid loathed Khalid Tarkaan almost as much as they loathed the Northerners. Adeben Tisroc had long supported their refusal to trade with Wild Men of the South who bore no loyalty towards the Tisroc and were not in service to Tash or the Tashkhid; a decision Khalid blatantly opposed, even going as far as to approach Rabadash in secret in an attempt to have him order the Tashkhid to give him way to do his will. Zoshrud would not dare speak out loud in support of the Prince; and he had no time to consult with his colleagues.
"You are a woman," he finally spat, loud enough for all to hear, his voice ringing in the Hall. "No royal woman would dare speak so inside his Temple, to lay a claim of such frivolity!"
"Would you speak so to Zardeenah, or Azaroth? And here, at the feet of Tash Himself!" Aravis' eyes flashed, and the bangle on her arm burned—she would not need it again. "Were they not only women, but goddesses, above the rule of any man? How dare you then dispute my claim to power by brandishing my sex as if it were an insult—you attempt to denigrate the goddesses, second only to Tash!"
Zoshrud fell back, stricken at her implication, and glanced about him. But the Tarkaans, unaccustomed to hearing a woman of such clear voice and conviction, did not protest but watched wide-eyed as Aravis turned to them.
"In my husband's absence, as he slayed the barbarian King, it was I who commanded the Empire in his stead; and when he fell ill, so I continued for love of him and the land that birthed me." Then she extended her arms, and they shone red in the light of firelight. "Behold, people of Calormen! For the fire of Tash shines about me, and upon Him will rest this judgement—I, Aravis of Calavar, Khasik Tarkheena, with the blood of Illsombreh Tisroc rushing powerful through my veins, lay claim on the throne of the Empire. For I am deserving, and Tash will find me worthy."
And even as she spoke, a cloud above shifted, and a bright ray of light fell through the skylight with blinding potency, illuminating the god's figure; and a sharp gust of wind blew through the Temple's arches, and quickened the fire, so that the blaze rose high in the air as Aravis concluded her words. And the people of Calormen quailed, for it seemed to them that Azaroth herself stood before them, a mighty servant of Tash.
"You have upset the Tashkhid," Ishamiel said later, frowning as he stood before her. There was much movement in the palace, and the air was strange and uncertain. "They will not let you defeat them."
"I have no desire to defeat them," Aravis said cooly. "Only to keep them at arm's length."
"They despise you. You have only succeeded out of luck, and because they believe they can use you. Once they discover they cannot, they will turn the winds against you. There is still the child to be reckoned with."
Aravis scowled. "He is but an infant, and Durriya holds little favor in court. They will not think of him yet."
"They may now, after you have bent the rules for yourself."
Aravis' lips pursed into a vicious line, and she shook her head calmly as she leaned back into the large throne of gold, fingers running over the thin band of rune-engraved silver which marked her as Tisroc. "Let them try."
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