Secrets of the Sands
Leona R. Wisoker
Hee-ay, hee-ay: the cry of the water-seller in the broad and the narrow places; shass-shass-shass, the warning signal to clear a road for noble blood, be it one or many together. Iiii, iii-sass, iii-sass, the wailing of a merchant who protested his certain ruin—with overtones of castration—should he lower the price any further. To Idisio’s sensitive ears, the cacophony resembled a melodic pattern that steered him, unerringly, to the best possible target.
At the height of his madness, the previous king had issued a decree forbidding residents of Bright Bay to speak anything but the common northern tongue. Two months later he had died of less than natural causes. Whether that absurd law had been the final wring on a mad asp-jacau’s tail would never be known; rumor said the new ruler, now six months on the throne, still worked day and night to untangle the mess left behind by his predecessor.
Idisio listened for more than words, in whatever language, as he worked his way through the cobbled, paved, and sand-gravel streets of BrightBay. The most important sounds of the city had nothing to do with speech. The clink of a full purse at the side of a foolishly confident merchant meant meals for the next few nights. The solid crunch of guard boots nearby meant seek cover: although the worst had quickly been culled under the new regime, changes in permitted behavior were slow to filter to the street level. But hisses and whistles were more important than any of those. They served as coded warnings from the other thieves scattered throughout the city.
A strident whistle from a rooftop lookout could save Idisio’s life: while no true organization of thieves existed in Bright Bay, no one thief could ever hope to keep track of all the powerful people that moved through this sprawling city. The open warning, given by those who knew to those who didn’t, was a traditional obligation that only the most foolish newcomers to the trade ignored.
Idisio had grown up on these streets and survived the recently-ended madness that had temporarily given Bright Bay the nickname “Blood Bay.” Those thief-calls had saved his life many times, and he’d passed on as many warnings; but many thieves, along with nobles, commoners, and priests, had fallen during the last weeks of Mad Ninnic’s reign. While the worst of the madness had passed, the streets would never be safe for Idisio unless he found a more respectable—and legal—trade.
He considered that as likely as an asp-jacau meowing.
As he slid between fat and thin, clean and unwashed, his breath clogged with the hot smell of a crowded southern city on a summer day. A light touch on a thick wallet bound at a man’s side prompted a certainty: gold. Not the half-rounds he normally counted himself lucky to get, but uncut disks of gold, more than one, many more. Idisio always knew, just from a touch, if the purse held anything worth taking; other thieves, seeing him withdraw from a mark empty-handed, had learned to steer clear themselves.
Idisio decided that any man foolish enough to carry gold in an outside purse deserved to lose it all. He reached, fingertip-knives busy, and had three of the four strings cut before another breath had passed.
Too late, he heard the warning: tee-tee-tee-awrk! tee-tee-tee-awrk! The loud, insistent call resembled that of a common sea-bird, but that particular bird never strayed this far from the docks proper. One of the roof lookouts was sending an urgent, if belated, “stay-clear,” and with the intuition that had kept him alive so far, Idisio knew he was the one being warned.
He started to slide away into the crowd, but found his wrist gripped in the mark’s hand, a larger and harder one than his own. He followed the line of the arm up. Dark, hawk-hard eyes glared at him from a narrow face containing a sharply hewn nose, bronze skin, and thin lips— reason enough for the tardy warning.
Old blood was in that face; desert blood, noble blood—definitely someone to stay well and truly away from. Idisio had never before been so stupid as to grab a purse without checking the appearance of the mark for danger signs first; but it only took one mistake, and this had been it.
“My lord,” Idisio said, caught without escape. He reached for an excuse, an apology, anything that would loosen that deadly dangerous grip and give him just a moment to run like he’d never run in his life.
The grip tightened, grinding the bones of Idisio’s wrist together; the very real prospect of death right here and now ran cold down his back. The slender finger-blades fell from his hand, landing on the paving stones with a distant clink.
Something about the noble’s touch sparked his erratic intuition: He won’t kill me. The surety faded, though, when he looked up into the man’s dark stare.
“Who sent you after me?” the noble demanded.
Idisio ran through a rapid list of names in his head, searching for one that might get the grip on his wrist released in a moment of fear. In the face of that desert-hot glare, he could only say, “Nobody, my lord.” He wouldn’t put his worst enemy in the path of that stare. And he didn’t have any names that might rattle this man.
“Liar,” the noble said, pulling Idisio a step closer, thin lips stretching back. “Who?”
“What’s going on here?”
For the first time in his life, Idisio blessed the arrival of the white-robed guards. There were four in this patrol, all carrying the thick staves of their office. At their side, an asp-jacau, tall and narrow, raised its thin snout and sniffed at the air, head tilted to allow one pale blue eye to study him.
Idisio let out a gasping breath of relief. Asp-jacaus only went out with King’s Guards. Even a southern noble had to respect them. But the man holding Idisio either didn’t know that or didn’t care.
“Just a pick-thief,” he said briefly.
“We’ll handle it.” A guard’s hand landed on Idisio’s shoulder from behind, closing into a hard grip that pinched a tender spot; Idisio hissed and flinched. The fingers dug in deeper, and Idisio squirmed, praying he wasn’t dealing with an unculled “Ninnic’s Guard”.
The noble didn’t loosen his hold, either. “I claim justice-right.”
“I’m summoned to the king. Argue my right with the king. Argue the time with the tide that goes by. Let us pass!”
Idisio felt his bladder weaken, and clamped down just in time. He’d never had that extreme of a reaction before, but this mistake could cost his life.
Claiming justice-right marked the man as a full desert lord. They didn’t consider themselves subject to any kingdom laws. Many of them offered no term of courtesy beyond “lord” to the king himself.
And he had heard that desert lords, when angry, tended to take their price in blood . . . slowly. Idisio might be better off with a potentially sadistic guard after all.
But his odd intuition insisted: He won’t kill me. This is a good thing happening.
Idisio wondered if he were losing his mind.
The guards gave way. The desert lord yanked Idisio forward. He trotted at the man’s side, wrist bones no longer in danger of breaking but still held bruisingly tight.
“Give me no trouble,” the noble said. “I’m not in the mood for it.”
“You’re hurting me,” Idisio whined, deciding to give pathos a try, and dragged his step.
“I just saved you a notch on the ear at the least,” the noble snapped, with no change in pressure. “You’ll live through a bruise or two. Hurry up; I’ll drag you if I have to.”
Idisio matched the man’s pace, feeling like a child against the noble’s towering height and determined stride. He said, desperate now, “Nobody sent me, my lord. I swear.”
“I’ll ask of you later,” the noble said ominously. His pace quickened yet again; Idisio jogged at his side and soon had no breath to protest further.
They swept through areas of increasing wealth, where Idisio had never dared move so openly. Plain clothes gave way to fine silks; brightly painted merchant stalls replaced worn storefronts. Horses stepped delicately through the corridors that opened for them in any crowd. Idisio even glimpsed the distinctive purple, gold, and black tabard of a King’s Rider, honored emissary and royal news-bearer throughout the kingdom.
Spaces grew wider as they neared the palace grounds, the heart of BrightBay. This area was no less sprawling than the rest of the city. It boasted seventeen gates into the grounds proper; at least fifteen noble families lived inside the miles of costly iron fence, along with enough merchants and storehouses to make the palace a small city in its own right.
The noble headed for the Crown Gate. Gold had been cast in great loops around the grim iron bars, decorated further with river-opal, diamonds, and bits of moon-shell—not particularly attractive, except to a thief skilled at prying gems from their settings. The guards protecting this gate stood sentry as much to keep that from happening as to ward against intrusion.
The noble went forward as if intending to simply walk right through the open gates, ignoring the guards and horizontally lowered pikes in his way. He stopped at the last second, the shaft of a pike almost touching his chest. Idisio, staggering at the jarring halt, bumped into the pole.
“I’m summoned to the king,” the noble said, staring at the guards around him as if expecting them to bow on the spot.
“And this one?” The man wearing the white braid of command pointed at Idisio.
Idisio opened his mouth, hoping to get the guards to take him away from this madman. As his wrist bones tightened again, he abandoned the notion. He stood quietly, eyes downcast, gritting his teeth against the fire flowing from wrist to elbow to shoulder and neck. His hand began to go numb.
The grip loosened a little, just enough to allow prickling sensation to shoot through his hand.
“He’s mine,” the noble said briefly. “I’ll speak for him.”
A quick glance up showed the guards surveying him skeptically. He tried to look meek and innocent. Whether he succeeded or his captor’s obvious status dominated, the guards finally stepped aside and allowed them through.
The pace resumed, Idisio jogging along beside the long-legged stride.
“You needn’t hold me,” he said, darting a quick glance up to the noble’s stern face. “I couldn’t get anywhere; I’d be grabbed right away if you weren’t with me. I’ll stay with you, lord. I swear.”
The noble paused, considering. “Very well,” he said at last, and let go. “Mind, if you try to run. . . .” He lifted a corner of his tunic to show a pair of long-handled throwing knives with hilts of solid ebony.
Any hopes Idisio had of escape failed immediately.
“Yes, my lord,” he said humbly, his stomach once again queasy with fear. Only weapon-masters used ebony on their weapon hilts; this noble had to be one of the best knife throwers in or out of the kingdom to be carrying those at his side.
As blood rushed back into Idisio’s hand, the pain increased. Cradling the hurt arm in the other hand, the boy hurried obediently at the noble’s side, trying not to moan in agony even as he gaped at the astounding sights unfolding around them.
They entered a wide space filled with flowerbeds and statues, fountains and benches where a strolling courtier might take his ease with his latest lady of favor. No smell of trash and marsh could be found here: instead, a faint breeze stirred up the scents of rosemary and roses, whitemusk flowers and tall, red-flowering sage.
Idisio breathed deeply, overwhelmed; he’d never known such luxury. Knowing it now, he fiercely wanted it for himself. The thought of returning to the streets and lifting half-rounds from an unfortunate’s purse seemed, suddenly, worthless as a worn wooden half-bit. And that damned intuition kept nagging: This is a good thing happening. Stay with it.
Maybe he wasn’t losing his mind, after all. He started to sort through possible ways to stay in this magical place. Perhaps he could plead for a job, throw himself on the king’s mercy. Was he really going to be in front of the king? His step slowed as that thought fell on him with the force of a fish-eagle’s plunge. His knees wobbled, not wanting to carry him forward.
Even the noble’s pace eased as they moved through the cloud of scent shaken loose by the light wind. Eventually he took a deep breath and resumed his quick stride, not looking back to see if Idisio followed.
Idisio hurried to keep up, trotting along at the man’s side and keeping his eyes ahead as best he could. Moving too fast to properly focus on his surroundings, Idisio managed only a series of fleeting glimpses: silk curtains, elaborate tapestries, luxurious rugs, ornate chairs. He put a hand to his mouth, afraid he would start to drool with envy. They entered a series of hallways, turning this way and that, up and down short flights of stairs, until Idisio considered himself thoroughly and unusually lost.
Finally they stopped in front of a small grey door. Two guards with gold and silver braids looped on their sleeves watched as they approached, offering no challenge but also no welcome. The noble made a polite motion of greeting and stared at the door as if expecting it to be opened for him.
“Lord Cafad Scratha,” he said briefly. “I’m expected.”
“Yes,” one of the guards said. “Go in.”
Idisio’s mouth dropped open. All tales he’d heard claimed Scratha Family had been wiped out almost twenty years ago; nobody knew why or by whom. Apparently one survivor hadn’t been worth mentioning. A complete slaughter must have made for a more dramatic story.
Looking sour, Scratha pushed open the door. It swung noiselessly inward, and they walked into the king’s presence.
Not into the throne room, as Idisio had expected, but a small apartment of sorts, filled with bright sunlight. Idisio glanced up, his jaw sagging once more. Thick panes of fine glass, some sand-cast, others clear, were set in the ceiling, arranged in an eight-pointed star pattern: the traditional king’s symbol. The display of wealth and power made the Crown Gate look cheap.
“Lord Oruen,” Scratha said.
Idisio brought his attention hastily down and sank to his knees in belated courtesy.
“Up,” Scratha said. “This is an informal audience.” His expression hardened as he looked back to the man across the room.
King Oruen stood easily as tall as Scratha and had the same eagle’s nose, dark hair, and narrow build. His skin seemed a lighter shade of bronze, his eyes round where Scratha’s held distinct angles. The royal robe hung neatly on a hook to one side; he wore a simple, if finely cut, outfit of blue and green cotton. If not for the robe and the “Lord Oruen” from Scratha, Idisio would have thought this man simply a high-ranking court official.
“Informal,” the king agreed. His dark eyes studied Idisio for a moment. “Is this boy needed?”
Without thought intervening, before Scratha could answer, Idisio found intuition speaking for him. “I stay with my lord, Sire.”
He couldn’t believe he’d said it, but there it was, and now both men were staring at him. King Oruen’s mouth quirked in what might have been amusement, while Scratha’s expression could have melted sand into glass. Idisio swallowed hard and tried to look sure of himself.
“Very well,” the king said, seeming to dismiss the matter.
With one last, ominous squint, Scratha let it go as well. Idisio realized he’d been holding his breath; he let it out as quietly as possible.
“Do you know what I’ve summoned you for, Cafad?”
“I imagine I’ve upset some petty courtier again.” Scratha sounded indifferent, but his hands curled into fists.
“No,” the king said. He looked at Idisio. “Do you like my solarium, boy?” He pointed to the glass overhead. “I saw you admiring it when you came in. It was Sessin Family’s gift to me, marking their acceptance of me as the new king in Bright Bay. They tore down the existing roof and replaced it with that in less than a tenday.”
Idisio glanced up again, then back to the king, confused.
“It’s wonderful, Sire,” he said. “It’s a marvel.”
“A marvel that could have been commonplace by now, if not for the Purge,” the king said, his gaze on the glass star overhead. “A wonder that should have, would have been, if the madness hadn’t destroyed hundreds of years of learning. Sessin now knows more about glasscraft than anyone north of the Horn. They’re in an excellent position for trade, on that basis alone. Quite a lot of money in glass, as I understand it. Quite a lot of tax revenue potential for the city they choose to set up their main trade shops in. And do I need to note that this gift also marks Sessin Family as my allies? That’s not something for a new king to take lightly, either.” He didn’t lower his gaze from the ceiling as he spoke.
Scratha’s face was tight as his fisted hands. “This is about Nissa.”
“Lady Nissa, of Sessin Family.” The king at last turned his gaze back to Scratha. “She has some very livid bruises, Lord Scratha, and this isn’t the time of year for long sleeves.”
Cafad Scratha seemed to draw himself upright and compact, all at once.
The king said, “She claims you threw her into the street half-naked, bellowing that she was a whore.”
“It’s a good name,” Scratha said. “She’s Sessin.”
“She admits she should have told you,” the king said. “She was afraid of your obsession.”
“That’s what it’s been named,” the king said, “and I agree. The girl did nothing, by her account, that gave cause to humiliate her like that. Can you give a good reason?”
Scratha looked mutinous. “She’s Sessin. I’ll have nothing to do with that family.”
“You’re a fool.” The king sat down with a heavy sigh. “I have to do something about this, Cafad. I won’t alienate my strongest supporters for your pride.”
“Your strongest supporters?” Scratha said, and while his volume stayed low, his tone was anything but mild. “Sessin’s a family of cowards. Their support means nothing. Less than nothing. I wouldn’t let one of their asp-jacaus near me, much less one of their women.”
If there had been any point to running, Idisio would already have been edging towards the door. He stood very still and hoped they wouldn’t notice his continuing presence.
“I know Sessin was involved in my family’s destruction,” Scratha said, “and gods save them when I find the proof to present to a desert court. And I will. I’ll find it! And then you’ll see—”
“Enough,” the king said, raising a hand. “None of the desert families had anything to do with your family’s slaughter. I won’t believe such a thing, and neither should you. You’re wasting your life on this. Find a good woman, of whatever family or line. Fill your fortress with the laughter of children instead of the wailing of ghosts.”
Scratha stood mute and straight, a hard line to his jaw and a darkness in his eyes.
The king looked at that grim, silent refusal and slowly shook his head. “I had hoped to talk you into apologizing to Nissa. I see that won’t happen.”
“No, Lord Oruen,” Scratha said. “That will never happen.”
“Sessin isn’t the only family you’ve upset lately, Cafad.”
“That’s desert lord business, Lord Oruen, and none of yours.”
“You’ve brought your squabbles into BrightBay, so it’s now become my business,” the king said just as sharply. He stood, and his tone changed to one of authority, one he might have used in front of a full audience in his throne room. “I have a task for you, Cafad Scratha.”
Idisio could feel roses and silks rapidly fading beyond any chance of his reach. He’d be lucky to live out his life in a dungeon alongside the man he’d foolishly claimed as lord. Twice in one day, intuition had failed him, and each time more disastrously.
Secrets of the Sands is available in trade paperback through ReAnimus Press in either ebook or trade versions.
Please do visit Leona R Wisoker’s author web site.