Disclaimer: The Chronicles of Narnia is the intellectual property of C. S. Lewis and his estate. No money is being made from this story, and no copyright or trademark infringement is intended.
Author's Note: This story was written for the 2012 Narnia Big Bang challenge. It is not the story I signed up to write, but it turned out that I couldn't write a sequel to "Out of Season" without first going backward. Many thanks to metonomia for the beta, and to i_autumnheart for the awesome artwork! (You can find her paintings at this post: narniaexchange. livejournal. com/ 69219. html ) Warnings for character death and violence; this is a war story, after all.
Summary: Ilgamuth Tarkaan was fourteen when he first rode to war. He was likewise fourteen when he pledged his life and his name to Prince Rabadash, a decision that would shape the rest of his life. Prequel to "Out of Season."
To Every Thing There Is a Season, part 3
The army struck camp in the second hour. That was later than usual, but there was unavoidable confusion over dealing with prisoners, which according to rumor might include Urcharooh Tarkaan himself (unless he had been killed, or had fled on a stolen horse, or any of another dozen equally unverified rumors). At least one company from every province also had to remain behind to identify and dispose of the dead. A small group of the Nameless had already begun building pyres during the night, working through Azaroth's sacred darkness, but obviously un-persons could not say the prayers, arrange the noble dead, or light the fires themselves.
Rabadash stormed off to find General Jenin and berate him for wasting the advantage of Had Ordjah's weakened defenses. "Even if we destroyed half their army, which I am certain we did not, they must have at least ten thousand men remaining within the walls, or ready to send further south to circle and attack us from behind," he said. "What was the point of my raid if we still end up setting a siege?"
He returned in an even worse temper and would not tell anyone how the confrontation had gone, but the army did move out shortly thereafter.
The pace was nowhere near what the raiding party had set on their way north the day before, nor even close to their speed when heading south. An army traveled as fast as its slowest part. In this case, that meant they went at the pace of a walking man.
"Useless!" Rabadash said several times. Finally, as the fifth hour drew to its close, he rode off to find General Jenin again. This time he returned in a somewhat more cheerful mood.
"To me, you sorry excuses for men!" the prince called. "We will ride ahead to scout for any sign of the retreating remnants from yesterday's battle, or any hint of what the traitor's daughter meant when she extracted a promise to treat with her."
He kneed his horse - another stallion, as was his preference - into a trot, and the sixteen remaining would-be companions dutifully followed him, gathering into a rough wedge with the prince at its tip. They veered off the road into the tall grass, slowly edging past the endless, snaking line of the army and its supply wagons. The dust was less choking out of the direct line of march, but the grass shook loose its miniscule seeds as the horses brushed past the tasseled stalks, coating everyone in straw-gold instead of grayish-brown.
Finally they surged past the chariots and the cavalry van and returned to the road. Rabadash whooped as he urged his stallion into a reckless gallop. The career soldiers of the royal cavalry saluted, laughing and cheering for their prince.
Strange that they could smile so soon after their comrades had died.
Then again, Ilgamuth himself did not feel as melancholy as he thought he should. The sun shone golden-white in a bright blue sky, dotted by soft, scattered clouds. Birds sang in the distance, hidden by the ever-present grass, and to his left he could hear Corradin telling a long, involved tale of a childhood adventure that Ilgamuth suspected was more than half fabrication. The difference between this ride and yesterday's grim, silent race was so great he wondered if he had fallen into a different world while he slept.
"Look! Dust!" Azrooh shouted, standing high in his stirrups as he pointed to the south. "I think I also saw a reflection thrown by something bright," he added.
"Fall back and give the warning," Rabadash ordered, turning his horse as he spoke.
The army spread out to either side of the road, the soldiers taking position with the ease of long experience. General Jenin rode slowly forward to the van, surrounded by his staff and a man carrying Urcharooh Tarkaan's young son bound in slender chains. He ordered the Tisroc's standard raised: the red wings and crossed talons of Tash on a golden field. "You will accompany me, O my prince," the general said to Rabadash, "but only on the understanding that I will give the order of battle, if indeed battle is what we face. You lead your company, as is your right, but you are still untried in true war. One guard slain in a corridor may make you a man. It does not make you a general."
The contortion of the prince's face was terrible and Ilgamuth held his breath. But sense triumphed over rage. Rabadash held his tongue and nodded his head the barest minimum to show he understood.
The general promptly ignored him and ordered a pair of Tarkaans and one of the lesser court officials who had come to manage the legalities of the campaign to ride forward under the bright green flag of truce, while the army continued its slower advance behind them.
Shortly one of the Tarkaans rode back at a brisk trot. "The rebels also seek a truce and a parley," he shouted. "Furthermore, half their company seem to be in chains."
"Ha!" said Rabadash. "So that is what the traitor's daughter meant, when she said we would wish to hear what she and her sisters had to say."
General Jenin turned on him with a deep scowl. "What is this about Urcharooh Tarkaan's daughter? Why was I not informed you had spoken with her?"
"I did not think anything would come of it," Rabadash said with a mocking shrug. "After all, I am not a general. By your lights, I know little of either war or diplomacy, despite that I grew up in the shadow of my father (may he live forever) while he made both war and peace." He smiled, unpleasantly. "Come, let us see what the Tarkheena wants."
He urged his stallion forward, leaving General Jenin no choice but to follow. The general's staff scrambled to keep up. After a moment, Anradin also rode toward the waiting rebel army and the rest of Rabadash's little company followed suit.
The Rachegrenes had set up an elaborate tent at the side of the road, with heavy carpets to weigh down the grass and cushions for several dozen people to sit on. Three armed guards stood at each of the corners, and four girls and an infant sat along the back side, which was the only one with its wall rolled down and pegged to the earth. The eldest was perhaps seventeen, the youngest (who held the infant) barely eleven. They were unmistakably sisters, all sharing the same wide mouth and hatchet nose. None would be considered a beauty. A cracked spear with blood-stained red and blue ribbons lay on the rug before them, along with a wicker basket covered by a plain wooden lid.
The eldest girl stood as Rabadash and General Jenin dismounted. "Be welcome in my province, O son of Tash, and O most well-reputed of generals. I am Zubidah Tarkheena, High Lady of Rachegra, and I hereby surrender to the mercy and judgment of Rishti Tisroc (may he live forever), renouncing the madness and treason of Urcharooh Tarkaan, my late and unlamented father."
"Your late father?" General Jenin asked as he ducked to enter the tent. Rabadash, the guard holding Urcharooh Tarkaan's son, and two of the court officials followed; everyone else remained outside, listening with badly hidden curiosity.
Zubidah Tarkheena smiled. "He survived the battle. He did not survive the retreat. Alas, his body is not in any fit state to display before such noble personages as yourselves, though I will of course give you his spear. And his head." She gestured toward the items at her feet.
Rabadash bent to pick up the basket and flipped open its lid with ill-concealed glee. "Ha! My father (may he live forever) will regret not seeing the traitor's execution, but no one can argue with the correctness of his fate."
Behind him, the traitor's young son began to weep.
"Just so," Zubidah Tarkheena agreed, ignoring her half-brother's distress. "As a further token of my sincerity, please accept two of Sibanis Tarkaan's sons as hostages. My sisters and I were not able to keep the third from escaping and taking six thousand men west to rejoin his father in Drinachlala, but I trust the gesture is sufficient." She snapped her fingers, and two soldiers brought a pair of struggling men into the tent.
"Wife! You shame me!" one of them shouted at Zubidah Tarkheena. "You shame your father! You shame every drop of your blood for nine generations!"
"You shamed me, when you raised arms against your lawful ruler," Zubidah said calmly. "And I am no longer your wife. In the name of Nazreen, I divorce you. In the name of Nur, I divorce you. In the name of Azaroth, I divorce you. I am keeping my daughter for my own. You, I leave to the disposition of imperial justice. It is possible the Tisroc (infinite be his wisdom) may be more merciful than I am inclined to be. Gag them," she added to the soldiers, who complied with great vigor. Behind her, her youngest sister made a mocking face at the two bound men.
"I see you made good use of the past day and a half," Rabadash said, an admiring tone in his voice. For once, Ilgamuth agreed with the prince completely. To orchestrate a coup that fast was more than impressive, no matter how much groundwork the Tarkheena must have previously laid to swing the majority of her father's army rapidly to her side.
"I merely seized the opportunity you created, O my prince," Zubidah said, bowing respectfully and touching her hands to her forehead. "I thank you for the chance to restore honor to my family and my home."
"Hrmph. This is all very well," said General Jenin, frowning, "but you are overlooking the incontrovertible law that a woman cannot rule a province on her own. You have disposed of your husband, O most ruthless of Tarkheenas. What fool do you intend to serve as your catspaw?"
Zubidah Tarkheena smiled. "My uncle is no catspaw, O most sagacious of generals. He and I planned this coup together. At present he is in Deeva, where he has been persuading our esteemed neighbors to remain loyal to the empire, but as soon as I send word, he will ride for Had Ordjah where he and I will wed. Together we have as good a claim by blood to this province as my half-brother, and a much better claim by strength than a boy only halfway to the age of reason."
She knelt on the rug, her long split tunic pooling gracefully around her legs. "I petition you, O my prince, O my lords, O my masters of the court who speak with the voice of the Tisroc and the law: let me and my uncle inherit Rachegra and return to the grace of the gods and the empire. Let the shame of my father be lifted by his death and our loyalty, and relieve us from the burden his guilt imposed upon my people. This I beg of you in the name of Achadith the Queen, who looks kindly upon change and whispers moderation into the all-hearing ears of Tash."
Ilgamuth held his breath, hoping the prince and the general would accept.
Rabadash looked at General Jenin, whose face was still set in a deep frown. "I do not speak with my father's voice," he said, "but her words sound fair to me. We will, of course, take the late traitor's son to Tashbaan where he will be raised in the comfort of my father's court," he added with a bladed smile when Zubidah Tarkheena began to raise her head. "I doubt the boy would find much comfort among his father's killers." He set a warning hand on the boy's small shoulder.
"Of course," Zubidah murmured.
"What say you, O wise and respected general?" Rabadash asked.
General Jenin frowned and tugged on his beard. Rather than replying directly, he turned to the court officials and asked, "Is that legal?"
Rabadash and Zubidah smiled. Ilgamuth held back a sigh. The general might understand war, but diplomacy was obviously not his strength. By failing to counter the Tarkheena's plan, he had tacitly accepted it.
The two robed officials glanced at each other before admitting that yes, the plan the prince and the Tarkheena suggested did seem to be legal, though certainly not very common in cases of treason and rebellion.
"Excellent!" said Rabadash before the general could raise any objections. "Then everything is settled. General Jenin, I leave the disposal of the Drinachlalene prisoners in your most capable hands. Meanwhile I and my friends will take the news of Rachegra's surrender back to the army. Zubidah Tarkheena, you have won peace for your people. Spend it wisely."
He ducked back out of the tent and swung up into his saddle. "Calormen! Tash! Victory!" he shouted, and kicked his stallion into a gallop while everyone else was still repeating his invocation.
Ilgamuth and the others scrambled to follow, leaving General Jenin sputtering fruitlessly behind them while the court officials began to prepare a written record of Zubidah Tarkheena's coup and the sudden end of Rachegra's rebellion.
The rest of the campaign was not nearly so dramatic. By its conclusion, Ilgamuth was not certain whether that was an improvement.
The true nature of war, he discovered over the rest of the interminable summer, was very little concerned with battles. Instead it involved punishing travel, maddening waits, endless worries over food and water, and a near obsession over who held which pieces of territory and how their respective soldiers were arranged. Moreover, Drinachlala in high summer was even more miserable than Rachegra: a sandstone maze of tablelands and deep ravines, both hot and dry as the inside of an oven. Even the occasional thunderstorms brought little relief, and came with their own risks of flash floods in dry stream beds.
The High Lord of Drinachlala, Sibanis Tarkaan, seemed hardly inconvenienced by the loss of two sons and several thousand men. He slipped from one fortress to the next, always abandoning them via daring sorties or secret tunnels just when the Tisroc's army had wasted the maximum time and effort getting their soldiers into position for a siege. He knew his land as intimately as a lover and pinning him down was like tracking a fox to its secret lair.
Eventually even General Jenin lost patience chasing him. "Let him run circles in the badlands to his heart's content. If we take Ichlaar, Zeron, and Sayyosayya, we hold the lifeblood of his province in our hands. If he fails to defend the only fertile land worth speaking of, it will be easy to put about rumors that the gods have turned against him."
Rabadash approved heartily of this plan and promptly claimed Sayyosayya as his personal target. After the prince's public finesse of Rachegra's surrender, the general had little choice but to allow Rabadash his way, though he insisted on lending two of his advisors to do most of the actual troop arrangements. Rabadash listened to them, making horrible faces all the while, and proceeded to ignore their advice.
"All the cavalry worth speaking of is dancing around the wilderness with Sibanis Tarkaan," he said to his sixteen remaining would-be companions. "We have the advantage of speed. It would be folly to throw that away for the sake of an archaic ideal of a balanced battle line. We will ride down as fast as we can, hit them as hard as we can from three sides at once, and let the foot soldiers clean up the remains. Now rouse the men and prepare to march within the hour."
This plan went nearly perfectly, except for the minor problem that the people of Sayyosayya had lined the field in front of the town with hidden stakes that flipped upright to skewer horses' stomachs as the first riders swept down from the hills toward the low adobe walls.
"Turn right, turn right!" Rabadash shouted, his voice nearly lost in the hideous noise of screaming horses and the slice of steel through flesh and fabric.
Ilgamuth strained to turn Shaxi from his headlong rush, and found himself flanking Rabadash to the left with Chlamash to the prince's right. Together they swerved past the horrible piles of dying horses and led a wedge of the surviving cavalry through the rebels' pitiful attempt at a defensive line.
"About, about, about!" Rabadash shouted. Ilgamuth doubted anyone more than two strides away could hear him, but somehow enough of them wheeled around, set their spears, and crashed into the Drinachlalene infantry from behind. Rabadash whooped in triumph, a dazzling smile on his handsome face. Despite the dying men all around them - victims of the prince's own strategy - Ilgamuth was helpless not to return it. Something about Rabadash drew him like a moth to flame. Perhaps that was the mark of his divine blood.
"I perceive that fighting is another of your talents, despite your confusion in Had Ordjah," the prince said some hours later, as they rode back to camp, herding the captured and stumbling rebels like cattle. "You hold a spear well and are quick enough with your sword as well as with a clever plan. But tell me, Ilgamuth of the twisted lip, have the gods put a curse on your voice? I think I have only heard you speak two times this summer, aside from answers to direct questions."
Ilgamuth shrugged, feeling his tongue grow awkward behind his teeth. "I... have little to say?" he managed.
"Then it is fortunate you and Corradin are friends. He has more words than anyone could need in a lifetime," the prince said, his smile gone shark-like though his eyes remained merry.
"O my prince, who are we to say how many words any man needs?" Ilgamuth said after a too-long silence. "Perhaps the gods intend him to be a poet."
"What, Corradin? No, no," Rabadash said, laughing. "Poetry, as my milk-sister is wont to remind me, is about the quality of words, not their quantity. You, who hoard your speech like pearls, are more likely to speak wisdom than Corradin, who speaks any fancy that flows through his mind. But enough of this. Tell me about yourself, Ilgamuth Tarkaan of Calavar, and what made you desire to serve me, for I think you will accompany me back to Tashbaan when we are finished with this campaign."
Ilgamuth felt his words desert him again. He thought of Kinboor, dead at the gate of Had Ordjah so the prince could escape and buy peace for Rachegra without the kind of interminable fighting and expense that the Drinachlalene campaign had turned into. He thought of how Rabadash drew people to him with his brilliance, only to ignore them when their words did not suit his whims. He thought of the gods weighing human souls and deciding their worth, whether their virtues outweighed their flaws. He thought of the son of gods locked in endless combat with the son of beasts. He thought of Tash, spending the blood of his people like water.
He swallowed those thoughts.
Then he laid about with a net until he caught a handful of less dangerous words to present to his prince: a few mentions of Zivathoor, of an elder brother and two sisters, and of a desire to see the empire and make a name of his own. Enough to assure Rabadash that Ilgamuth held no ambition greater than to serve his prince. Then he lapsed into grateful silence as Rabadash rode over to speak with Chlamash and Anradin.
If he were a poet, he could cloak those other thoughts in words so fine they would creep into the prince's ear and whisper virtue into his thoughts while he slept. But Ilgamuth was no poet. He was merely a soldier, whether he wished to be or not.
Eventually the army brought Sibanis Tarkaan to bay. He fought well, but in open battle he and his soldiers were outnumbered and outmatched, and the conclusion was never in question. He and his remaining sons were captured and bound in chains, their judgment reserved for Rishti Tisroc in Tashbaan. Even Rabadash did not contest that.
Most of the army disbanded after the final battle, the various lords returning to their lands, the standing units returning to their garrisons, and the peasant conscripts returning to their farms. Rabadash and General Jenin were no different, except that their land and garrison, respectively, were the city and court of Tashbaan, far to the northeast at the edge of the empire. Rabadash went through the fourteen survivors of his tiny company and chose eight to accompany him: Anradin with his flattery; Hunagor who worshipped him; Zuketh, who never questioned him; Azrooh with his fierce temper; Chlamash with his calm strength; Corradin with his easy tongue and quick hands; Ilvari with his steady caution.
And Ilgamuth, as the prince had promised.
The journey to Tashbaan was long and hot. The late summer sun beat down mercilessly as they rode through the forests and farmlands of Calormen's heartland: the vast, rolling, fertile country between the Shirush in the north and the Nandrapragaan in the south. They traveled as close to straight northeast as the roads allowed, rather than heading east and then riding up the coast, so they bypassed Calavar. Ilgamuth sent a letter home with Alimash Tarkaan, assuring his family of his survival and success, but he knew his writing left something to be desired and wished he could have seen them in person.
Tashbaan was a revelation. Ilgamuth had not grown up in poverty, of course, but his father's house, no matter how fine, remained the country house of a minor lord. Furthermore, it was surrounded by open land and villages almost small enough to fit into a trouser pocket. There was always space and silence available if he could convince his mother to release him from lessons or his father to release him from training.
Tashbaan was like a thousand thousand villages all crammed into the space of five, like Azim Balda or Had Ordjah swollen to ten times the people in barely twice the space: an entire island swallowed by stone and the press of human bodies. Nobles traveled the streets in palanquins to keep their feet from the soiled ground, and everywhere the sound of human voices echoed, doubling and redoubling off the walls. It was filthy, artificial beyond belief, a bizarre carbuncle sprung from the cool, clean sweep of the garden-bestrewn Shirush River.
And yet, it was beautiful. The Tisroc's palace and the great temple complex crowned the crest of the island like gleaming jewels, and even the meanest house was made of solid brick with painted plaster or bits of carved stonework around the frames of doors and windows.
Ilgamuth had never wished so much that he were a poet. This city was a miracle beyond any he had dreamed, and he longed for the words to capture it.
Rabadash saw his gaping mouth and laughed. "Country boy," he said, not unkindly. "Have no fear; everyone grows accustomed to the city soon enough. Now let us hurry to the palace so we can bathe and settle in before the evening meal with my father."
The idea of eating in the same room as the Tisroc (may he live forever) snatched whatever response Ilgamuth might have found from his lungs. He knew Rabadash was crown prince, that he stood the best chance of inheriting the throne someday, and yet even after three months there was a chasm between that knowledge and the idea that Rabadash was Rishti Tisroc's son, that a person Ilgamuth knew had grown up in the Tisroc's presence and could speak of him with such familiarity.
It was less an inability to remember that Rabadash was the crown prince, Ilgamuth decided as he swung down from Naija and let a slave lead her away, and more an inability to believe that he himself could possibly have joined such exalted company.
Servitors led each of Rabadash's companions to rooms in the new palace, small but sumptuous. They laid fine court clothes out on their beds. They led the way to the men's baths and helped them wash.
Cleaned and dressed, the newly minted companions gathered in Rabadash's own rooms, which were grand in a more subtle way than the public rooms of the palace. The ceilings were not as high or ornate, and the walls less intricate, but the arches of the windows were in perfect proportion to the length and height of both the open space and the surrounding walls, the sconces seemed a natural outgrowth of the occasional plasterwork decoration, and the wooden doors were carved with an exquisite battle amidst a woodland, suggesting the unity of life and death. Rabadash ignored the finery with the ease of familiarity and led his eight companions out onto the balcony that overlooked a fountain made of broken spears.
"We have an hour yet before my father will have us summoned," the prince announced. "Until then, let us celebrate our victory. We have passed from children to men, our spears and swords blooded in the death of traitors to the empire and the gods. We are the strong arm of Tash the Inexorable, and our fame will grow until our names will never die!"
Ilgamuth cheered along with the others, and drank from the cup of wine the prince ordered them to pass around and share.
Some time later, when the others had gone inside to explore or to recount their bravery in the just-finished war, he sat against a baluster and stared down into the courtyard and its ominous fountain. Broken spears should always be burned, to send them on to join their owners in death as they fought for the gods in the army of the heavens. To keep a spear and let it rust and rot was a sign of greatest dishonor. The fountain below him was built of several hundred spears, all wearing away under the constant flow of water. They were not all of the same age, either: some were nearly eaten to nothing, while others were still fresh enough for their blades to show bright patches through the growing rust.
"There will be new spears added tomorrow," Rabadash said, leaning against the balcony railing. He glanced down at Ilgamuth. "That is what befalls rebels and traitors. They set their spears against the empire and they are duly punished. You, of course, have nothing to fear on that count. With my companions at my back, I will easily put my brothers down to win my father's throne upon his death... may it never come," he added, in a rote tone of voice.
"The gods favor those who are true of heart," Ilgamuth said, inanely. "Surely they cannot help but favor us if we favor you."
Rabadash laughed with a mocking edge. "You sound like my milk-sister. She is to be married soon, to the High Lord of Hargirupad, but she has taken to hearing the voice of Achadith and protesting that she wishes to serve the goddess instead of a husband. Always 'the gods' this and 'the gods' that. Pfah. The gods do as they wish; who are we to them? What do I know or care about the heavens, except that Tash looks down with approval upon our battles? No, our concerns are here on earth."
"The earth is vast enough," Ilgamuth said. Vast enough to fit all the people who lived, and ten times that number. So why did the gods wish them to kill each other over matters as petty as who claimed which bit of land?
"The earth is vast, and someday Calormen will rule it all," Rabadash agreed. He held down his hand. "Come. We are summoned to my father's presence. You would not wish to be late."
There was something unpleasant in the corners of his smile.
Ilgamuth clasped his prince's hand and let Rabadash draw him up.
Rishti Tisroc (may he live forever) was intimidating beyond Ilgamuth's wildest expectations. He was not a tall man, and while he had clearly been strong in his youth, he was beginning to run to heavyset flesh. That meant nothing. His eyes were piercing and missed nothing; his voice held the weight of absolute command. He held the power of life and death over everyone in his empire, and nobody who spoke with him could forget that. That awful strength seemed to hover around him like the kiss of the gods.
Ilgamuth tried to avoid looking at him, especially while he and the other seven knelt and swore their undying loyalty to Rabadash: on their breath, on their blood, and on their names. He felt the Tisroc could see into his heart and mark every doubt and reservation that lingered in his mind. This man was Tash's son on earth, the living embodiment of the god's naked might and wrath. Surely he would not wish his son to be any different.
And here in Tashbaan, in his father's house, Rabadash seemed harsher than he had been during the war, more conscious of his blood and dignity. The edge in his voice was sharper, the snap of his temper quicker.
As Ilgamuth touched his throat, his heart, and his head, he wondered if he was doing the right thing - if he should have demurred from this honor, gone home to Calavar in peace - but then the words were spoken and it was too later to take them back.
For good or ill, he was bound to Rabadash.
Ilgamuth spent the rest of the meal studying the other diners, trying to learn the people who would shape his new world: the Tisroc's four wives, several generals and their wives, three High Lords who were in Tashbaan for various reasons and obviously wished to inspect the crown prince with their own eyes, and an elderly man in simple cotton clothes accompanied by a tall, gangly girl with her long hair unbound though she was surely old enough to wear it in braids. He wondered what such an incongruous pair were doing at the Tisroc's left hand.
"That is my milk-sister, Shezan Tarkheena," Rabadash leaned over to whisper in Ilgamuth's ear when he noticed the direction of his gaze. "The old man is her grandfather, Axartha Tarkaan."
Ilgamuth looked at the old man with new respect. The Grand Vizier did not need to be introduced by title; everyone knew his name. Rishti Tisroc (may he live forever) was wise and cunning and strong, but he had learned his wisdom at the side of this baseborn man, who now held the second highest position in the empire.
The gangly girl at the Vizier's side caught Ilgamuth watching. She frowned at him and drew an inch closer to her grandfather's side, clearly defensive of him. Ilgamuth nodded his head in an abbreviated gesture of respect, and ventured a smile. The girl's frown eased and she nodded in return. Then she turned and spoke softly to the Vizier, who smiled and answered.
As the meal drew to a close, the Vizier stood and murmured into Rishti Tisroc's ear. After a moment, the Tisroc (may he live forever) nodded and waved his hand in a clear grant of permission. The Vizier made his way down the long table toward Rabadash, his granddaughter trailing awkwardly after him.
"O my prince and O the hope of the empire, would you grant me the honor of a moment to speak with you and your companions?" the Vizier asked. "For the night is drawing near, and it would be shameful to the gods to abuse the vigor of your youth with the debauchment of politics and wine."
Rabadash rolled his eyes, but gestured in agreement. "Come, you lot," he said to Ilgamuth and the others. "We will accompany the noble Axartha Tarkaan to his office and you will answer truthfully any question he puts to you."
Axartha Tarkaan smiled and made a slight gesture of negation, his body hiding it from view of anyone at the table. If Ilgamuth had not been watching him and his granddaughter, he would have missed it too. "You are the soul of courtesy, O my prince," he said, and followed them from the banquet chamber.
Once in the corridor with the doors shut behind them, Rabadash scowled at the Vizier. "Explain yourself, O left arm of my father."
"I have no need to speak with your companions, O my prince," the Vizier said. "You have learned well how to read both loyalty of heart and skill at war. I would not undermine your judgment. But I remember my youth and the first months after my sword and spear drank blood in battle. Confinement among my elders is the last fate I would have wished. Is it not so with you?"
Behind Ilgamuth, Corradin and Azrooh failed to completely stifle their laughter. Rabadash favored them with a dangerous smile, then plastered amiability on his face as he turned back to the Vizier. "It is so, O most perceptive of sages. Truly you are the eyes and ears of the empire."
"I can but try," the Vizier said. "Now be off with you. Unless..."
He trailed off.
"Unless what?" Rabadash asked, suspicion creeping into his voice.
"My granddaughter wishes to return to her mother's house this night, rather than stay in borrowed rooms. Perhaps you would do me the favor of escorting her through the streets? I know Shezan has longed to hear your exploits from your own lips, and surely you have questions about recent events in Tashbaan that are better asked of one you can trust than of those whose loyalties may be complex." Axartha Tarkaan shrugged, as if he had not just insinuated that most people in the palace might be spies, or at the least have their own agendas.
Rabadash scowled. "Is that so?"
The Vizier spread his hands and smiled. "I leave that as an exercise for you to resolve, O my prince. But what say you?"
"We will," Rabadash said curtly. "O my sister, let us leave this place for somewhere with freer air."
Shezan Tarkheena touched her hands to her forehead and bowed to the prince, graceful despite the awkward thinness of her limbs. "As you wish, O my brother," she said. Her voice was soft and low with a hint of something rough around the edges.
"You mean, as your grandfather wishes," Rabadash muttered as he seized his milk-sister's hand and strode down the corridor, everyone scrambling to catch up.
"You mean, as I wish," Shezan Tarkheena said equally softly, her expression solemn but for a smile hidden in the corners of her mouth and eyes. "He would have had me spend the night on his sofa. But I confess, I wished to see if war makes men out of boys, as the saying goes, or if it simply turns them into strutting cocks who proclaim themselves king of the yard when in truth they live on the sufferance of the cook and his cleaver. Thus far, I favor the second theory."
Ilgamuth tensed in anticipation, wary of his prince's temper.
But contrary to his habit, Rabadash tipped back his head and laughed. After a moment, Shezan Tarkheena's mirth joined his.
The trip to Shezan Tarkheena's home was less enlightening, as she and Rabadash disappeared into a palanquin and pulled the curtains shut, presumably talking about matters private to the royal family. Perhaps one day Ilgamuth and the others would be trusted enough to share such confidences - that was the point of their position as companions - but for now the prince was understandably cautious. So Ilgamuth walked alongside the slaves who carried the litter, his hand hovering near his sword in case of calamity, and wondered at the face of Tashbaan at night.
Even darkness did not bring rest to the capitol, as it had to Azim Balda and Had Ordjah. Lanterns hung from posts set at every intersection of the spiral avenue with one of the steep cross streets (which were as often shallow stairways as proper roads). Lamps shone from windows as laughter and song echoed out from private parties. The petty merchants whose stalls lined the streets in daylight had mostly packed up and gone home, but some food-sellers were still doing brisk business, and street cleaners had begun to sweep and scrape the dung and debris into carts to haul away and sell for scrap and fertilizer.
"'The jewel of the earth, chief treasure in the Tisroc's hand; every face a new shade of riches; every edge a blade to piece the heart,'" Ilgamuth murmured to himself.
"You and your poetry," Corradin said, knocking his shoulder companionably. "Not everything needs to be caught in words. Just take a deep breath and smell the perfume of our new beginning!"
"Take a deep breath and smell ten thousand unwashed feet, more like," said Azrooh with a sly grin.
"You know what your problem is?" Corradin said, pointing at Azrooh. "You are the opposite of Ilgamuth. He's too caught up in poetry, but you - you're an anti-poet. You have no depth to your soul. Perhaps you're simply too short!"
Azrooh snarled and leapt at him. They tussled playfully for a minute before Anradin broke them up with an exaggerated sigh.
Too soon for Ilgamuth's taste, they arrived at a modestly sized house with a vivid mural of a boating party on a river - the Nandrapragaan, judging by the crocodiles - painted on the lower walls. The slaves lowered the palanquin smoothly to the ground and Rabadash opened the curtains to help Shezan Tarkheena stand. "Until tomorrow, O my sister?" he asked as a slave knocked on the door.
"If the gods are willing," Shezan Tarkheena said. "But I think the afternoon rather than the morning. I have no need to deal with you in a temper after excessive drink."
The door opened and she slipped inside before the prince could respond.
As in the palace, Corradin failed to stifle his laughter.
This time, Rabadash whirled in an unguarded temper, his smile wide and merciless. "Yes?" he said. "You enjoy seeing me mocked?"
"No, no, I would never-" Corradin attempted to say, uncharacteristically caught short of words.
"Yet you laughed," Rabadash said. He drew his sword and laid the edge of the blade along Corradin's skin, where his shoulder joined his neck. "I am the blood of Tash. I am my father's heir. Would you mock the gods? Would you mock the empire?"
"No," Corradin whispered.
"Then do not mock me," Rabadash said, still wearing that terrible, shark-like smile. "Whatever your fathers' stations, you are as dogs compared to me. You gave me your names and your oaths; I hold your souls as well as your lives. Never forget that. Now. Let us return to the palace and make merry."
There was a long, trembling silence as he sheathed his sword.
Ilgamuth broke it. "As you wish, O my prince," he said, stepping forward to stand at Rabadash's side.
The gods abominated oath breakers. Even if they did not, Ilgamuth would abominate himself if he flinched from the consequences of his own choices.
He had lost his childhood in the war and he had given his life to Rabadash, for good or ill. Now he swore to himself and the gods that he would spend himself to tip the balance toward the son of gods rather than the son of beasts, to make his prince a ruler for the ages. But even if he failed in that, he would be the sword at his master's side. He had given his loyalty as a man: by his breath, his blood, and his name.
He would keep his word.
End of Story
AN: Thanks for reading, and please review! I appreciate all comments, but I'm particularly interested in knowing what parts of the story worked for you, what parts didn't, and why.