Even in the shade of the graffiti-carved olive tree, the air sang with heat. Dahoud listened to the hum of voices in the tavern garden, the murmured gossip about royals and rebels. If patrons noticed him, they would only see a young clerk sitting among the lord-satrap's followers, a harmless bureaucrat. Dahoud planned to stay harmless.
The tavern bustled with women - whiteseers hanging about in the hope of earning a copper, traders celebrating deals, bellydancers clinking finger cymbals - women who neither backed away from him nor screamed.
The youngest of the entertainers wound her way between the benches towards their table, the tassels on her slender hips bouncing, the rows of copper rings on her sash tinkling with every snaky twist. Since she seemed nervous, as if it was her first show, he sent her an encouraging smile. Ignoring him, she shimmied to Lord Govan.
The djinn slithered inside Dahoud, stirring a stream of fury, whipping his blood into a hot storm. Would she dare to disregard the Black Besieger? What lesson would he teach to punish her insolence?
Dahoud stared past her sweat-glistening torso, the urge to subdue her washing over him in a boiling wave. For three years, he had battled against the djinn's temptations. To indulge in fantasies would batter his defences and breach his resistance. He focused on the flavours on his tongue, the tart citron juice and the sage-spiced mutton, on the tender texture of the meat.
Govan clasped the dancer's wrist and drew her close. “Come, honey-flower, let's see your blossoms.”
She tried to pull herself from his grip. Panic painted her face. Against a lesser man's groping, she might defend herself with slaps and screams, but this was the lord-satrap. She was too young to know how to slip out of such a situation, and none of her older colleagues on the far side of the garden noticed her plight. The other clerks at the table laughed.
“My Lord,” Dahoud said. “She doesn't want your attentions.”
“She’s only a bellydancer.” Contempt oiled Govan's voice. Still, he released the girl’s hand, slapped her on the rump, and watched her scurry towards the safety of the musicians. “These performers are advertised as genuine Darrians. I have a mind to have them arrested for fraud. I suspect ...” He ran the tip of his finger along his eating bowl. “They're mere Samilis.”
Dahoud, himself a Samili, refused to react to the jab. Govan was not only satrap of the province, but Dahoud's employer, as well as the father of the lovely Esha.
“Samilis are everywhere these days.” Peering down his nose, Govan swirled the wine in his beaker. “Not that I have anything against Samilis. Given the right kind of education, their race can develop remarkable intelligence, practically equal to that of Quislakis. They can make valuable contributions to society.” He stroked the purple fringe of his armband, insignia of his rank. “Provided they respect their betters.”
The other clerks at the table bobbed their chins in eager agreement.
Dahoud the Black Besieger would not have tolerated taunts from this pompous peacock, but Dahoud the council clerk had to bow. Submission was the price for guarding his secret.
At the entry arch, a short man in the yellow tunic and turban of a royal rider was consulting with the tavern keeper.
“Is that messenger looking for you, my Lord?” Dahoud asked.
Govan shifted into his official pose and summoned the man with a flick of his sandalwood fan. The courier walked on bowed legs as if he still had a mount between his thighs. Conversations halted, glances followed him, and whiteseers peered, anticipating business.
Lord Govan put on his official smile to receive the leather-wrapped parcel.
“Forgive me, my Lord,” the herald said. “The message I carry is for Dahoud, the clerk.”
Govan’s hand pulled back and his smile vanished.
Dahoud's stomach went cold: The Queen or her Consort would not write to an ordinary clerk. After three years of respite, his anonymity was breached. He stripped off the camel-skin wrap and broke the scroll's seal. The ends of the purple ribbon dropped into the mutton sauce.
“The High Lord Kirral, Consort to the Great Luminous Queen, greets Dahoud, council clerk in the satrapy of Idjlara: Present yourself at the palace without delay. The Queendom needs the Black Besieger. K.”
The expansive curves of the signature “K” claimed more space on the parchment than the message.
In his bowl, the uneaten mutton was going cold, whitish grease separating from the sauce. A large fly drifted belly-up in the liquid, its legs clawing for a hold in the air. The memories of siege warfare wrapped around Dahoud, those sour-sweet odours of fear and faeces, of disease and burning flesh.
At twenty-five, he had a conscience heavier than a brick-carrier’s tray and more curses on his head than a camel had fleas. He had left the legion to cut himself off temptation, to deprive the djinn of fodder. After a siege, subduing women was legal, a soldier's right, practically expected of him, part of the job. By returning to war, he would forfeit his victories over his craving. The djinn would again be his master.
Yet he ached to wear the general's cloak again, to silence sneering bureaucrats, to make women take notice. He lusted for that power the way a heavy drinker, deprived of his solace, ached for a sip of wine. The yearning to wield a sword ached in his arms, his chest throbbed with the urge to command, and his loins flamed with the dark desire. He felt the panting breaths of women and their hot resisting bodies, smelled the scent of female fright and sweating fury.
“Why is the Consort writing to you?” Govan leant forward to grab the document. “You’re out of your depth with royal matters. I'll read and explain.”
“Why should I want your counsel?” Dahoud tucked the rolled parchment into his belt.
“Don’t get pert, Samili!” Govan barked. “Give me that letter.”
“The Consort summons.” Dahoud rose. “Good afternoon, my Lord. Don't expect me back soon.”
He strode to the exit, his mind reeling like a spindle. Could he deny that he was the Black Besieger? Refuse a royal order? Lead an army without stimulating the djinn?
On a low stone wall near the entrance gate, a row of whiteseers perched like hungry birds. Whiteseers had glimpses of futures others could not even imagine. One of them slid off the wall and sauntered in his direction. A coating of pale clay covered her sharp-boned triangular face and her long hair, and painted black and blue rings adorned her clay-whitened arms.
“Your hands,” she demanded.
“I need to know what will happen if -”
“Give your copper to a soothsayer,” she snapped. “We white ones only give advice. We can see the future; we can see several futures for everyone, but we won’t tell you all we see.”
“Advice is all I want.”
“That’s what they all say. Yet everyone asks for more. I give one piece of advice, the best I can give to help a client. They always demand that I tell them what I see. Well, I won’t.” Nevertheless, she grabbed the copper ring from Dahoud’s fingers and threaded it on her neck-thong. Her tunic smelled of old sweat and mouldy wool.
She grasped his hands to pinch their flesh, her long nails tickling. Her white paint contrasted with Dahoud’s bronze tan. When she felt the pulse and lifted his hand to her face to listen and sniff, he could have sworn he saw her blanch under the white clay as her closed eyes stared into his past. She sagged forward and stayed in a silent slouch.
At last she straightened, her eyes wide, her mouth open, but no words burst forth. So she had seen what he had done, and worse, what he might do once more.
“I assure you, I'll never again...”
“I can’t read if you chatter.” She frowned at his hands. “My advice: Get stronger arms.”
He flexed his biceps, startled. “My arms are strong! I do trickriding, I wrestle, I lift weights.” Every night, Dahoud exercised until his muscles screamed, to block out his cravings and punish his body for its desires.
The seer’s mouth curled with contempt, making more clay crumble. “You’re not listening. I didn't say strong. I said stronger.” She pinched his biceps. “Much stronger.”
“What difference can arm muscles make?”
“I told you to give your copper to a soothsayer.” She ambled off, leaving a cloud of unwashed stink and crumbles of clay.
Dahoud hurried to the stable to ready his horse. He had to persuade the Consort not to send the Black Besieger back to war.
At the entrance to the royal audience hall, green-uniformed guards confiscated Dahoud’s dagger-belt. The door thudded shut behind him.
Light seeped through slitted windows, painting stripes on the carpet. Rows of whitewood benches stood empty, as if waiting for spectators to stream in and take their seats. The Consort Kirral sat on an elevated divan, a jewel-encrusted white turban on his head, his moustache shaped into a pair of pointed blades. The steep platform bearing the divan forced visitors to gaze upwards, a technique Dahoud himself had often used to intimidate callers.
“Highness, you summoned me.”
Grape-green eyes peered from under dark bushy brows. Kirral cracked a saltnut between his teeth and spat the empty shell on the carpet at Dahoud's feet. Dahoud permitted himself no response. Standing as straight as a soldier before his commanding officer, he inhaled deeply of the stale incense and old breath that lay in the air, and waited.
A mural of the Queen, a white full-moon face under an ornamental headdress, dominated the room, reminding audience-seekers that she was the true ruler of Quislak – even if she took little interest in politics. She left the day-to-day government to her Consort, who in turn delegated most work to his head-wife.
“Would you like some saltnuts, young man?” Kirral's voice had the soft scraping tone of a sword grinding against a whetstone.
To take the nuts from the Consort’s outstretched hand, Dahoud had to walk up to the platform and look up, the way a lapdog accepted morsels. Kirral grinned, and his slippered feet wiggled in anticipation.
If the Consort gained pleasure from humiliating visitors, pride was a waste of time. “Thank you, Highness.”
“The Koskarans ransack our settlements, rob our caravans, slaughter our people.” Kirral twisted a saltnut between his fingers, as if assessing its value. “Are you the man who subdued those savages four years ago?”
“I am.” Dahoud glanced at the statues lining the cedar-panelled walls. He had looted many of those marble deities from temples in conquered lands, including Koskara. Now they queued at floor level, paying homage to Quislak's nine Mighty Ones, who stood haughtily on a brocaded dais. “If my experience may be of use, I'll gladly advise the general in charge.”
Kirral cracked another nut. “I want you to squash those rebels to pulp.”
“You need a different man, Highness.”
“I need the Black Besieger, and I will get him.” Kirral stroked the parchment scrolls at his side with a lover's caress. “My favourite reading matter: personal dossiers. These are from your employers, past and present. You were the youngest general in the Queendom's history, the first ethnic Samili to rise to that rank. Then you threw your career into the dust.” Kirral's eyes focused like a hawk's before the kill. “Why?”
“Your personal reasons entertain me,” Kirral said. “During a fine game of Siege last night, I asked my good friend Paniour why the Black Besieger quit. I learnt that he had a sudden attack of conscience. Not about battlefield deaths, but the treatment of captives.”
Dahoud stayed silent.
“To fool the world that the Black Besieger no longer existed, you spread rumours about his death. His supposed demise occurred not on the battlefield, but at the hands of an enraged woman. How imaginative.” Kirral cackled like a spotted hyena. “Paniour tells me you imagined yourself possessed by a djinn. A mythical creature from nomad lore.”
Dahoud knew better than to insist on the gruesome truth of demonic possession. “It was a figure of speech.”
Kirral's bushy brows rose to his turban rim and stayed there. “For two years, all traces of you vanished as if you had indeed died. What did you do before Govan took you on?”
“Labour.” The kind of work a Samili could get: digging latrines, dragging a builder's brick-loads like a sweating donkey, stirring a dyer's pots of boiling piss.
“Watching you would have been educational. A leopard may dress as a rabbit, but he will find the garments too small.”
Dahoud said nothing.
“Last year, one of Satrap Govan's regular reports held an interesting paragraph. When the earthquake struck, a minor clerk led the rescue efforts 'with courage and quick thought, and with the efficiency of a general'. The clerk was an ethnic Samili with a sketchy history. Naturally, this clerk interested me. Alas.” Kirral leant back into the divan, and the corners of his mouth twitched as if something amused him. “Govan's opinion changed. Now he rants about your lack of manners, your insolence, the ideas you have above your station, how he wants to kick you out of office and send you to count goat-droppings in the Samil.” Kirral's voice lowered to a confidential whisper. “Tell me, young man: Are you courting your employer's daughter?”
Dahoud's face fired. Esha's white dimpled cheeks and soft voice had captured him. Whenever they met at work, she granted him a friendly word, and twice he had escorted her to a fantasia show. For the first time in his life, a woman seemed to like him.
“A Ladysdaughter has dynastic obligations,” Kirral said softly. “Her offspring will only be Ladysdaughters if fathered by a satrap. If the girl has sense, she will not waste herself on a mere clerk.” He popped another nut into his mouth.
“Of course.” Esha would marry a satrap, or at least, a chief councillor with promotion prospects.
The moustache blades quivered with every chewing motion. “Two days ago, more news came from Koskara. This is not public knowledge yet. Satrap Zetan is dead, apparently poisoned by rebels. His councillors barricaded themselves into the residency. What do you think of their decision?”
“They're brave.” They were foolish. Dahoud remembered the residency: a greenstone palace with pillars and pilasters, fancy and fragile, not designed to withstand a siege. “Are women among them?”
Kirral's lips curved as if the question gave him malicious pleasure. “Would it make a difference to you if there were? If the Black Besieger squashes those rebels, I will make him the new lord-satrap of Koskara.”
Dahoud stood very still. Lord-satrap? He checked the Consort's posture: leaning forward, hands tented, lips pursed, eyes intent.
“Think about it, Dahoud. No more labouring, no more clerking, no more grovelling before Govan. More power than you ever had as a general. Your own satrapy to shape into an oasis of peace where you can keep the womenfolk safe.” The Consort’s smile spread the ends of his moustache. “And I shall send Esha Ladysdaughter as your bride.”
Power, respect, peace, a woman who liked him, all served on a silver platter – if he unsheathed his sword again, if he devastated Koskara once more, if he besieged the rebels' strongholds. During a siege, anger and lust built a pyre on which the noblest resolutions burnt to ashes. He might again become the monster he had fought so hard to leave behind.
“What if I decline?”
Kirral beamed as if Dahoud's reaction had lit pleasure lanterns behind his eyes. “Then you will stay here at the palace. I will give you a job suiting your particular talents and interests: torturer in charge of females. You will enjoy that. The choice is yours.”
Dahoud's blood chilled. “I'll go to Koskara.”
“Good choice, Dahoud. The high general Paniour awaits you.”
On his way out, Dahoud sent silent a prayer to the Great Mare, the horse-headed woman who protected Koskara.