Chapter One: Jiaan
Jiaan ducked, and a bronze cup shaped like a ram's horn crashed into the wall behind him. It didn't clatter on the floor, since the thick carpets that had already absorbed its contents muffled the sound. He hoped the carpets wouldn't be too hard to clean. Jiaan knew that some people found it harder than others to fight off the djinn of rage. But he didn't think the lady Soraya was even trying.
"Lady, if you'll just lis --"
"I have listened," the girl snarled. Her grip tightened on the second cup. Her loose hair -- the straight, black hair of the noblest of noble lines -- was disheveled. The tight vest she wore beneath her loose, silk overrobe rose and fell with the force of her breathing. At fifteen, she was probably the most beautifully feminine creature Jiaan had ever seen -- so what djinn-cursed fool had taught her to throw like a shepherd boy?
"I have listened," she repeated. "But all I've heard is that my father -- my own father! -- seeks to cast me out like some peas -- like broken rubbish!"
Like some peasant-spawned bastard. It was an insult so familiar that Jiaan's heart hardly flinched. At least she hadn't said it aloud. That surprised him; most deghasses wouldn't have given a moment's thought to the possibility that he might be offended. But Jiaan's father hadn't cast him out. Far from it. And High Commander Merahb didn't intend...
"He doesn't intend to cast you out." Jiaan made his tone reasonable, despite the way her lovely, dark eyes narrowed. "He only means to hide you away for a time, in order to --"
"Away in some peasant sty..."
The second cup flew, and Jiaan sidestepped nimbly.
"...in some dung-sucking outland while..."
Her groping hand found a niche, carved into the outer wall between the arched windows, and came to rest on a goblet whose glass bowl glowed as blue as the heart of a flame. Its base was chased in gold. Its worth was probably ten times that of Jiaan's sword, and his sword was more costly than all his other possessions put together.
The goblet hurtled toward the wall. Jiaan leaped, cursing the carpets that hindered his feet. He caught the goblet with the tips of his fingers, fumbled with it for an endless moment, and settled it into a secure grasp.
The plate it had rested on, thrown like a discus, struck him full in the chest, bruising him even through the padded silk layers of his armor.
"Ow!" Had she distracted him deliberately? "He's only trying to save your life, you...Lady Soraya. The gahn rules all of Farsala. Even the high commander has to obey him."
"Dung!" she shrieked. The incense burner her hand fell on next -- small but solid stone and bronze -- made a dent in the heavy panels of the door at Jiaan's back. "The armies of Farsala haven't propitiated the war djinn since Rostam cast down the last djinn emperor. Centuries ago! And he thinks he's going to exile me for however long it takes to win his stupid war? Well, I won't --"
The door behind Jiaan opened. "You won't have any choice," said a woman's voice coldly. "And if you're overheard by the wrong people, your choices will become fewer -- and even less pleasant than exile."
Jiaan stepped aside and bowed, the goblet still in his hands. Commander Merahb's wife, the lady Sudaba, moved gracefully into the small solarium.
Soraya froze, her hand clenched around the carved wooden horse she'd been about to throw. "Madam my mother, have you heard of this...this outrage? What about my marr --"
"I imagine everyone has heard." Sudaba took the goblet from Jiaan and crossed the room to return it to its shelf. "But I see no reason to give them any more information about our family's private affairs." Her ironic gaze rested on Jiaan.
He bowed himself out of the room, but not before Sudaba seized her daughter's ear and twisted it.
His own peasant-born mother had twisted his ears, and paddled his buttocks as well. But along with occasional -- and usually deserved -- punishment, there had been warmth, laughter, and love. Not only from her, but even from the farmholder to whom Jiaan's father had given her, when he was required to wed a deghass and produce a noble heir. His mother had died of a fever two years after the commander had outraged everyone by taking a peasant-born bastard into his household as a page, instead of as a servant. Jiaan still missed her.
Jiaan looked around the second-story gallery on which he stood. Intricately carved rails, sanded, waxed, and polished, encircled the courtyard below. Summer was ending; the leaves on the ornamental bushes looked dusty, almost ready to turn and fall, but a handful of late roses still bloomed, and the splash of the fountain calmed his ruffled nerves.
The home in which he'd lived till he turned ten had rough, log walls, and the plain, plank floors had never seen a carpet -- yet he thought he'd been luckier than the lady Soraya.>
On the other hand, all she had to do was go quietly and be patient for a while. Was that too much to ask?
The door behind him opened, and Sudaba emerged. "Soraya will depart with you tomorrow morning," she said calmly.
"Yes, madam." Jiaan bowed. She was eight inches shorter than he, but the assurance in her eyes made him feel as if he were the smaller.
"You should have pointed out that her father is plotting to save her," Sudaba murmured.
"At some risk."
The crash of priceless glass against the door made Jiaan wince.
Sudaba didn't even twitch. "And however inconvenient it may seem, it's much better than the alternative."
In fact, Jiaan had pointed out all those things. Soraya hadn't cared. "Yes, madam."
"This is just a ploy." Sudaba leaned on the gallery rail, gazing down at the garden with unseeing eyes. "Another move in the game. But a good one."
Jiaan settled back to wait with the ease of long practice, till she noticed his existence long enough to dismiss him. The late-afternoon sun lit the expensive, brocaded silk of her overrobe and the almost equally expensive, fine-woven linen underrobe beneath it. Gold on brown, to honor the approaching harvest. Her hair, as straight and black as her daughter's, was caught up in a complex coil, twined with silk ribbons knotted with glowing glass beads and the hawk feathers only a deghass, a lady of the noble class, could wear.
Jiaan's hair was brown and curly, like his mother's...and his father's. Many of the deghans had peasant hair. But not Sudaba. In her youth, the poets had said, she'd been as lovely and imperial as the moon. And as distant, Jiaan thought now, watching her calculate the political implications of her daughter's fate. As indifferent.
But then a black-haired boy, his brown skin as naked as the day, burst shrieking into the courtyard and toddled toward the fountain. Two nursemaids, armed with trousers and tunic, hurried after him.
Sudaba's frown faded and her eyes lit, her face suddenly, warmly maternal. Merdas, the long-awaited heir, had finally confirmed her status, eliminating the danger that she could be set aside allowing High Commander Merahb to take another wife. But still...Jiaan had served in the high commander's household for seven years -- as page, as squire, and now as the commander's aide -- and he had never seen Sudaba's face soften like that for Soraya.
On the other hand, her father loved her best. "The commander of the army must sacrifice the being he holds most precious in all the world," the priests had said. "Or the djinn of war will give their favor to the armies of the Hrum, who will roll over Farsala like the darkness of the pit itself."
Jiaan wondered uneasily which of the commander's enemies had bribed the priests to say it. And why. No, he didn't envy his half sister. Even if she was a silly, spoiled she-bitch.
Text copyright © 2003 by Hilari Bell