Empire of Sand – Tasha Suri

Mehr woke up to a soft voice calling her name. Without thought, she reached a hand beneath her pillow and closed her fingers carefully around the hilt of her dagger. She could feel the smoothness of the large opal embedded in the hilt, and its familiar weight beneath her fingertips calmed her. She sat up and pushed back the layer of gauze surrounding her divan. “Who is it?” she called out. The room was dark apart from one wavering light. As the light approached, Mehr realized it was an oil lantern, held aloft by a maidservant whom Mehr knew by sight but not by name. Through the glare of the lit flame, the maidservant’s features looked distorted, her eyes wide with nervousness. “I’m sorry to disturb you, my lady,” the maid said. “But your sister is asking for you.” Mehr paused for a moment. Then she slid off the divan and wound the sash of her sleep robe tight around her waist. “You work in the nursery?” she asked. “Yes, my lady.” “Then you should know Lady Maryam won’t be pleased that you’ve come to me,” she said, tucking the dagger into her sash.

“If she finds out, you may be punished.” The maidservant swallowed. “Lady Arwa is asking for you,” she repeated. “She won’t sleep. She’s very distressed, my lady.” “Arwa is a child,” Mehr replied. “And children are often distressed. Why risk your position and come to me?” The light wavered again as the maidservant adjusted her grip on the lantern. “She says there is a daiva watching her,” the maidservant said, her voice trembling. “Who else could I come to?” Mehr strode over to the maidservant, who flinched back.

“What’s your name?” “Sara, my lady,” said the maidservant. “Give me the lantern, Sara,” said Mehr. “I don’t need you to light the way.” Mehr found Arwa curled up in her nurse Nahira’s lap outside the nursery, surrounded by a gaggle of frightened maidservants. There was a Haran guardswoman standing by, looking on helplessly with her hand tight on the hilt of her blade. Mehr had some sympathy for her. Steel was no good against daiva, and equally useless in the comforting of distressed women. “Mehr!” Arwa cried out, coming to life in the woman’s arms. “You came!” The nurse holding on to her had to tighten her grip to keep Arwa in place, now that she was squirming like a landed fish. Mehr kneeled down to meet Arwa at eye level.

“Of course I’ve come,” said Mehr. “Sara says you saw a daiva?” “It won’t leave my room,” Arwa said, sniffling. Her face was red with tears. “How old are you now, Arwa?” “Nine years,” said Arwa, frowning. “You know that.” “Much too old to be crying then, little sister.” Mehr brushed a tear from Arwa’s cheek with her thumb. “Calm yourself.” Arwa sucked in a deep breath and nodded. Mehr looked up at Arwa’s nurse.

She knew her well. Nahira had been her nurse once too. “Did you see it?” Nahira snorted. “My eyes aren’t what they once were, but I’m still Irin. I could smell it.” She tapped her nose. “It has sharp claws,” Arwa said suddenly. “And big eyes like fire, and it wouldn’t stop looking at me.” Arwa was growing agitated again, so Mehr cupped her sister’s face in her hands and made a low soothing sound, like the desert winds at moonrise. “There’s no need to be afraid,” she said finally, when Arwa had gone still again.

“There’s not?” “No,” Mehr said firmly. “I’m going to make it go away.” “Forever?” “For a long while, yes.” “How?” “It isn’t important.” “I need to know,” Arwa insisted. “What if another one comes and you’re not here? How will I make it go away then?” I’ll always be here, thought Mehr. But of course that was a lie. She could promise no such thing. She looked into her sister’s teary eyes and came, abruptly, to a decision. “Come with me now, Arwa.

I’ll show you.” One of the maidservants made a sound of protest, quickly hushed. Nahira gave her a narrow look, her grip on Arwa still deathly tight. “She won’t approve,” warned Nahira. “If my stepmother asks, say I forced you,” Mehr told her. She touched light fingers to Arwa’s shoulders. “Please, Nahira.” “I imagine Lady Maryam will draw her own conclusions,” Nahira said dryly. She let Arwa go. “She doesn’t think highly of you, my lady.

” “Oh, I know,” said Mehr. “Come on now, Arwa. You can carry the lamp.” The nursery was undisturbed. The living room was lit, candlelight flickering on the bright cushions and throws strewn across the marble floor. Arwa’s bedroom, in the next room along, was dark. The guardswoman trailed in reluctantly behind them. Her hand was fixed firmly on her scabbard. “There’s no need for this, my lady,” the guardswoman said. “Lady Arwa simply had a nightmare.

I’m sure of it.” “Are you?” Mehr replied mildly. The guardswoman hesitated, then said, “I told Lady Arwa’s nursemaid and the maidservants that daiva don’t exist, that they should tell her so, but …” She paused, glancing uneasily at Mehr’s face. “The Irin are superstitious.” Mehr returned her look. This one, she thought, has not been in Irinah long. “I ran into the room as soon as she screamed,” said the guard, pressing on despite Mehr’s pointed silence. “I saw nothing.” Ignoring her, Mehr nudged Arwa gently with her foot. “Go on, love.

Show me where it is.” Arwa took in another deep breath and stood straight, mustering up her courage. Then she went into her bedroom. Mehr followed close behind her, the guardswoman still hovering at her back. “There,” Arwa said, pointing. “It’s moved. On the window ledge.” Mehr looked up and found the daiva already watching her. Pale dawn was coming in through the window lattice at its back. Silhouetted against it, the daiva was a wisp of taloned shadows, its wings bristling darkly against a backdrop of gray-gold light.

It was small for a daiva, no larger than Arwa, with nothing human in the shape of its face or in the lidless glare of its golden eyes. “Stay where you are, Arwa,” Mehr said. “Just lift the lamp higher.” Mehr walked toward it—slowly, so as not to startle it from its perch. The daiva’s eyes followed her with the constancy of prayer flames. Three floors above the ground, behind heavily guarded walls, nothing should have been able to reach Arwa’s chambers. But daiva didn’t obey the rules of human courtesy, and there were no walls in Jah Irinah that could keep them out of a place they wanted to be. Still, Mehr’s gut told her this daiva was not dangerous. Curious, perhaps. But not dangerous.

Just to be sure, she held her hands in front of her, arms crossed, her fingers curled in a sigil to ward against evil. The daiva didn’t so much as flinch. Good. “What are you doing?” whispered Arwa. “Speaking,” said Mehr. “Hush now.” She drew her hands close together, thumbs interlocked, fanning out her fingers in the old sigil for bird. The daiva rustled its wings in recognition. It knew its name when it saw it. “Ah,” breathed Mehr.

Her heart was beating fast in her chest. “You can move now, love. There’s nothing to be afraid of.” “It still looks like it wants to bite me,” Arwa said warily. “It’s a bird-spirit,” Mehr said. “That’s what birds do. But there’s nothing evil inside it. It’s a simple creature. It won’t hurt you.” She took another step closer.

The daiva cocked its head. She could smell the air around it, all humid sweetness like incense mingled with water. She sucked in a deep breath and resisted the urge to set her fingers against the soft shadows of its skin. She held one palm out. Go. But there was no compulsion behind the movement, and the daiva did not look at all inclined to move. It watched her expectantly. Its nostrils, tucked in the shadows of its face, flared wide. It knew what she was. It was waiting.

Mehr drew the dagger from her sash. Arwa gave a squeak, and behind them the guardswoman startled into life, drawing the first inch of her sword out with a hiss of steel. “Calm, calm,” said Mehr soothingly. “I’m just giving it what it wants.” She pressed the sharp edge of her dagger to her left thumb. The skin gave way easily, a bead of blood rising to the surface. She held her thumb up for the daiva. The daiva lowered its head, smelling her blood. For a long moment it held still, its eyes never leaving hers. Then the shadows of its flesh broke apart, thin wisps escaping through the lattice.

She saw it coalesce back into life beyond the window, dark wings sweeping through the cloudless, brightening air. Mehr let out a breath she hadn’t known she’d been holding. There was no fear in her. Just the racing, aching joy of a small adventure. She pressed her thumb carefully against the window lattice, leaving her mark behind. “All gone,” she said. “Is it really?” Arwa asked. “Yes.” Mehr wiped the remaining blood from the dagger with her sash. She tucked the blade away again.

“If I’m not here and a daiva comes, Arwa, you must offer it a little of your own blood. Then it will leave you alone.” “Why would it want my blood?” Arwa asked, frightened. Her eyes were wide. “Mehr?” Mehr felt a pang. There was so much Arwa didn’t know about her heritage, so much that Mehr was forbidden from teaching her. To Arwa, daiva were simply monsters, and Irinah’s desert was just endless sand stretching off into the horizon, as distant and commonplace as sky or soil. She had never stared out at it, yearning, as Mehr had. She had never known that there was anything to yearn for. She knew nothing of sigils or rites, or the rich inheritance that lived within their shared blood.

She only knew what it meant to be an Ambhan nobleman’s daughter. She knew what her stepmother wanted her to know, and no more. Mehr knew it would be foolish to answer her. She bit her lip, lightly, and tasted the faint shadow of iron on her tongue. The pain grounded her, and reminded her of the risks of speaking too freely. There were consequences to disobedience. Mehr knew that. She did not want to face her stepmother’s displeasure. She did not want isolation, or pain, or the reminder of her own powerlessness. But Arwa was looking up at her with soft, fearful eyes, and Mehr did not have the strength to turn away from her yet.

One more transgression, she decided; she would defy her stepmother one more time, and then she would go. “Because you have a little bit of them in your blood,” Mehr told her. When Arwa wrinkled her nose, Mehr said, “No, Arwa, it’s not an insult.” “I’m not a daiva,” Arwa protested. “A little part of you is,” Mehr told her. “You see, when the Gods first went to their long sleep, they left their children the daiva behind upon the earth. The daiva were much stronger then. They weren’t simply small animal-spirits. Instead they walked the world like men. They had children with humans, and those children were the first Amrithi, our mother’s people.

” She recited the tale from memory, words that weren’t her own tripping off her tongue more smoothly than they had any right to. It had been many years since she’d last had Amrithi tales told to her. “Before the daiva weakened, when they were still truly the strong and terrifying sons and daughters of Gods, they made a vow to protect their descendants, and to never willingly harm them.” She showed Arwa the thin mark on her thumb, no longer bleeding. “When we give them a piece of our flesh, we’re reminding them of their vow. And, little sister, a daiva’s vow is unbreakable.” Arwa took hold of her hand, holding it near the glow of the lantern so she could give it a thorough, grave inspection. “That sounds like a children’s story,” she said finally, her tone faintly accusing, as if she were sure Mehr was telling her one of the soft lies people told their young. “It is a children’s story,” said Mehr. “Our mother told it to me when I was a child myself, and I’ve never forgotten it.

But that doesn’t make it any less true.” “I don’t know if my blood will work like yours,” Arwa said doubtfully. She pressed her thumb gently against Mehr’s. Where Mehr’s skin was dark like earth after rain, Arwa’s skin was a bare shade warmer than desert sand. “I don’t look like you, do I?” “Our blood is just the same,” Mehr said quietly. “I promise.” She squeezed Arwa’s hand in hers, once, tightly. Then she stepped back. “Tell Nahira it’s safe to return,” she said to the guardswoman. “I’m going back to my chambers.

” The guardswoman edged back in fear. She trembled slightly. If Mehr had been in a more generous mood, she would, perhaps, have told the guardswoman that Irinah was not like the other provinces of the Empire. Perhaps she would have told the guardswoman that what she so derisively called Irin superstition was in truth Irin practicality. In Irinah, the daiva had not faded into myth and history, as they had elsewhere. Weakened though they were, the daiva were holy beings, and it was wise to treat them with both wariness and reverence when one came upon them on Irin soil. But Mehr was not in a generous mood. She was tired, and the look on the guardswoman’s face had left a bitter taste in her mouth. “Never mind,” said Mehr. “I’ll go.

” “Daiva aren’t real,” the guardswoman said blankly, as Mehr swept past her. “They’re a barbarian superstition.” Mehr didn’t even deign to answer her. She walked out into the hallway, Arwa scampering after her, the lamp swinging wildly in her grip. As they left the nursery, Nahira swept Arwa up into her arms and one of the maids plucked the lamp deftly away. Mehr kept on walking until Arwa called out her name, holding out her arms again in a way that made Mehr’s traitorous heart twist inside her chest and her legs go leaden beneath her. It would be best, she told herself, to keep walking. It would be best not to look back. She did not want to be punished. She did not want Arwa to be punished.

“Don’t go,” Arwa said in a small voice. “Can’t you stay just one time?” Mehr stopped. If she turned back—if she stayed—Maryam would ensure that she would not be allowed to visit Arwa again for a long, long time. Mehr took a deep breath, turned, and walked back to her sister regardless. She closed her eyes and pressed one firm kiss to Arwa’s forehead. Her skin was soft; her hair smelled like rosewater. “Get some sleep,” she said to her. “Everything will be better when you wake up.” “Go,” Nahira said. “I’ll take care of her, my lady.

” A pause, as Arwa struggled and Mehr hesitated, her feet frozen in place by a compulsion she couldn’t name. “Lady Maryam will be awake soon,” Nahira said, and that, at last, broke the spell. Mehr turned and walked swiftly back toward her room. She could hear Arwa crying behind her, but as she had told the maidservant Sara, children were often distressed. The hurt would pass. Soon Arwa would forget she had ever been sad at all. In the privacy of her own chambers, Mehr bathed and dressed, one single yawning maid helping her to oil the wild mass of her hair and braid it back from her face. She could have gone back to sleep, but that seemed pointless now. Her stepmother would be calling for her soon enough. As the maid wound thread through her braid to hold it in place, Mehr stared out of the lattice wall of her living room.

Hollowed out in the shapes of leaves and flowers, it gave Mehr a clear view of the city of Jah Irinah and the desert beyond it. She looked at the sandstone of the city, the gold of the desert, and the clear sky above it and thought: There’s a storm coming. There hadn’t been a true storm in Jah Irinah in years, but Mehr knew when one was on its way. There was Amrithi enough in her for that. The daiva had been the first sign of it. The city was no place for its kind, and yet the bird-spirit had come. Mehr was sure it had flown to Arwa’s window on the first sharp, invisible winds of the coming storm, dreamfire under its wings. Soon enough more daiva would arrive, followed by rising sand and a fall of dreamfire to cloak Jah Irinah in light. The daiva’s scent still clung to Mehr’s senses like a warning, a portent of things to come. It was no surprise to her when a maid arrived, holding a message delivered by courier moments before.

The message was brief, to the point. I’m coming. Important news. “Bring refreshments, please,” she said, folding the message up. “Something simple will do.” The maid left with a hurried farewell. There were perks to being the daughter of the Governor of Irinah—even an illegitimate one. People obeyed you. Servants rushed to your bidding. Even the ones who loathed you—and there were many—were forced to veil their contempt and keep their loathing eyes lowered.

All people faced hatred. All people suffered. Few had the cushion of wealth and privilege to protect them as Mehr did. She reminded herself of this as she walked over to the bare floor in front of the lattice, pressing her feet against marble warmed by the morning sun. She was very, very lucky. The heartache she experienced every time she thought of her sister tearily reaching out to her was an agony she had no right to feel. Better to put the agony away. Better not to think of Arwa at all. Mehr took a deep breath, slowly filling her lungs. She straightened her spine and rolled back her shoulders, raising her hands above her head to greet the sky.

When she pressed her feet flat to the ground, legs bent to a diamond angle, she felt a veil of peace settle over her. The old rites never failed to calm her. Although the correct time for it had passed, Mehr moved through the Rite of Sunrise, hands shaping the sigils for night and sun and sky as her body moved fluidly from stance to stance. Subtle poses transitioned into the wider, florid movements as she mimed the sun rising. Her muscles warmed; her breath quickened. She let her heavy thoughts go. The dance was ancient, and its age comforted her. Amrithi had greeted the dawn just like this for generations. There was an endless, unbroken history of men and women who had moved exactly as Mehr was moving now: arms upraised, then lowered, fingers interlocked, then spread in a constant rhythm that matched the rising beat of her heart. Mehr was merely a link in the chain.

She didn’t have to think. She was elemental. From dawn she moved to day, and from day to dusk. There was a whole cycle of rites simply for the passing of the hours. Mehr knew them all. Lost in her body, she didn’t even notice when Lalita finally entered, even though a maid had surely arrived to announce her. She only realized Lalita was there when she heard a voice humming with the rhythm of her steps, fingers tapping along with the smack of her feet against the floor. Mehr stopped immediately, falling into the finishing stance. “Welcome back,” Lalita said wryly. Her Chand guard Usha, standing in the doorway, gave a shy wave.

“Are you wholly with us now?” Mehr’s legs were cramping. She must have been dancing for hours. It wouldn’t have been the first time she’d lost herself in the rites. She stretched out the soreness in her muscles, her breath still a shade too fast. “Were you waiting long?” “Oh no, not long,” Lalita said. “One of your maids offered me refreshments. Such a pleasant girl.” She raised a small glass of fruit nectar to illustrate. “Will you join me in a drink?” Mehr joined her on the floor cushions, crossing her aching legs before they could resist her will. It was hard not to look at Lalita without being reflexively astounded by her beauty.

Although she was a woman old enough to be Mehr’s mother, she wore her age the way she wore her loveliness: proudly, like armor. She’d once been a courtesan in Jah Ambha, the Emperor’s city. Usha had told Mehr in awed, hushed tones that Lalita had danced once for the Emperor himself. But now she lived a quiet life in Jah Irinah, near the desert of her ancestors, holding small salons and entertaining only the most select of guests.

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