The Knight moved relentlessly toward the King. His Majesty was alone. His castles gone, his rank-and-file decimated — even his Queen had been taken from him. The end was in sight.
A moment’s hesitation and then . . . shah mat! The game was over.
“Your mother was a jackal, Tulun,” Abbas Bedvian said. He knocked over the ivory chess piece with an angry flick of his finger. “All the men of Birjand are the whelps of diseased dogs.”
“And the men of Sevan are spoiled children who pout when they lose,” I told him.
Abbas snorted and began to gather up his pieces, placing them into a velvet bag. He glanced to the corner of the room where Gavriel Laskaris sat. We were a small, select group that evening — Abbas, Gavriel and I — and our games had lasted well past sunset.
“I should have known,” Abbas muttered, as much to himself as to the small Nestorian. “‘Never gamble with the men of the Hanif’ my mother told me. And did I listen? I did not!”
“Your mother was a wise woman,” I said. “What where her words concerning the payment of a debt?”
“You need not concern yourself with such things,” Abbas replied, smiling his best yellow smile. “Come and see me tomorrow. We will settle the matter then.”
I returned his smile with equal ferocity. “You were happy enough to take my gold in our previous matches, Abbas — I would be happy to take yours now.”
“But you would agree, as would any man, that the game was hardly fair. Gavriel, what is your opinion on the matter?”
“It was you who suggested the wager,” Gavriel told him. “I am here merely as Tulun’s guest. Do not to include me in your quarrel.”
Abbas was correct, of course. Our final game had been unfair. I had allowed him to win some small sums of gold in our first three matches, then when he had suggested a larger wager had reluctantly agreed, before defeating him in less than a dozen moves.
“Tulun,” he said as sweetly as he could, “you are my captain and my comrade. How could you doubt my integrity?”
“It is because I am your captain and your comrade that I do not wish this matter to come between us,” I said, placing my hand upon the hilt of my curved jambiya dagger. “You owe me fifty gold tram, I believe.”
“I do not have it,” he said in a sullen tone.
“That is unfortunate,” I said. “Still, some other payment might suffice, eh? Your horse or sword — failing that perhaps a finger or an ear.” I drew the dagger an inch or so from its scabbard. Its bright steel glimmered in the candlelight.
Abbas blanched. He was a big man, at least a head taller than myself, and like most Tarsa warriors was built like a fortress. But he had no wish to cross swords with me, for I was an Honoured Guest of his Prince — the Melik Valerian Bal — and to insult to me was to insult his lord.
“There must be another solution, Tulun,” Abbas said.
“I would be eager to hear it.” Even though I had invited Abbas to my quarters with the express intention of taking his gold, I had no wish to upset him unduly. Equally, though, I had no wish to allow him to renege on our wager.
He pondered for a moment while chewing at the long ends of his red moustache.
“Another wager,” he finally said. “If you win you shall have my sword, my horses — all of my belongs.”
“And if I lose?”
“If you lose the matter will be over between us.”
I freely admit that greed has always been one of my failings. Although hardly a rich man, all the worldly goods of Abbas Bedvian would raise a tidy sum in the marketplace.
“What is the wager?” I asked.
“A simple but entertaining one.” He sat down at the low table and looked me in the eye. “I wager that you cannot bring me a flower plucked from the Melik’s palace.”
“Only that?” It would be a difficult — but not impossible — wager to win. Valerian Bal was well known, indeed mocked in some circles, for the beauty of his gardens.
“Not quite. I require a very specific bloom to fulfil all conditions of our bet.”
“A black poppy from around the neck of the Lady Shimshal.” He smiled his yellow smile once again.
I should have damned him but instead I laughed in his face. “You are the bastard son of a whore, Abbas Bedvian. But, who knows? The game may be worthy of the prize. I accept!”
* * *
When I recall the events of those days, it is strange to consider how one game led to another and how the latter resulted in one of the most bizarre episodes of my long career. And it may sound stranger still to those who know me to learn I have spent time in the service of a Tarsa prince. As a young man I fought in many campaigns against the Tarsans, sometimes gloriously, sometimes disastrously. But by the time I took employment with the Melik Valerian Bal of Sevan I was no longer a youth — my fortieth year was behind me, my beard contained as much grey as black — and the Ten Kingdoms of the Tarsa were on their way to at least some form of civilisation.
Besides, the Melik’s gold spoke louder than the voices of dead generals and Emirs, and whatever idealism my younger self had possessed lay with those slaughtered men on a score of cold battlefields.
The Melik’s problems were simple: while he tried to forge the Ten Kingdoms into one, enemies, both old and new — the Nestorians to the west and the bellicose Khazaran to the east — continually harried and hampered his efforts.
He needed to create an army capable of meeting both threats — the Nestorians in open battle and the Khazaran in brutal skirmish — an irony that was not lost upon me since only a short decade before, my fellow ghulams and I had faced the same dilemma against the Nazarani and the Tarsa themselves. I knew how to fight a two-front war, and I was aware of the Tarsans’ weaknesses; this knowledge would prove to be valuable to the Melik.
And so it was that in my forty-second year I rode to the city of Sevan on the shores of the great inland lakes of Tarsakesh in order to serve my former enemies.
Sevan was not without its charms, particularly in the summer months when a cool breeze from the lakes ran through its twisting streets and pristine squares, and my chief employment — to train and lead a regiment of the Melik’s newly formed lancers — was hardly taxing.
My status as Honoured Guest allowed me a freedom that other officers lacked, and there were many distractions to fill my quiet moments so that my first few weeks passed quickly. The men of the Tarsa were free with their hospitality and their gold, and the women — although hardly comparable to the beauties of my native lands — were handsome and willing enough.
But one stood far above the rest: the Lady Shimshal, consort of the Melik and the most beautiful woman in the Ten Kingdoms.
I had met her once, briefly, at my first audience with Valerian Bal. While the energetic young prince told me of his plans for the new army, she sat in elegant silence on her amber throne, regarding the assembled court with cool detachment.
She was pale-skinned with long dark hair and ochre eyes, their pupils slightly oval, which added to her exotic allure. But for the rise and fall of her chest and the occasional languid blink of her eyelids I might have taken her for some magnificent mannequin carved from alabaster.
Her simple gown was of purple silk and covered her from throat to ankles so that only her face was exposed. Her long hands were covered with gloves of the same colour and material and around her neck she wore a garland of black poppies, flowers that, as I was later to learn, no other woman in Sevan was permitted to wear. The perfume drifting from them was subtle but heady and lingered with me long after I had left the Melik’s palace.
* * *
As soon as Abbas had departed, Gavriel and I adjourned to one of the quiet taverns in the southern quarter of the city and sat together sipping sweet, hot qahwa.
“You cannot be serious about this, Tulun. She is the Melik’s woman — better men than you have died for simply daring to speak to her.”
“There are no better men than me,” I said with a grin.
Gavriel shook his head. “You are a newcomer to Sevan and unaware of exactly how much power the Melik wields. Don’t be fooled by his fine clothes and manners, the man is a despot — nothing more and nothing less.”
Gavriel Laskaris was a mercenary like myself. Formerly a regimental commander in the Nestorian army, he was in his second year of service training Valerian Bal’s infantry. As outlanders, we naturally sought out each other’s company and I found him an easy and amiable companion.
“Abbas sought to best me with a low trick,” I said. “But he will find that Tulun of Birjand is not so easily fooled.”
“Eight men have died in the past year alone,” Gavriel told me. “The Melik had them torn limb from limb and their carcasses placed on his palace gates. Each of them sought to be alone with the Lady Shimshal — that was their only crime.”
“Men will dare much to be in the presence of a beautiful woman,” I said. “And some men will dare even more when there is gold at stake in the bargain.”
Gavriel snorted. “This has nothing to do with gold.”
He was right, of course — at least partially — and looking back, I still wonder exactly why I accepted Abbas Bedvian’s wager.
It is too easy to say that it was greed alone and, equally, too simple to claim that my mischievous nature overwhelmed my common sense. I think now that it was something in those sad, ochre eyes that made me want to be close to the Lady Shimshal regardless of motivation or consequence.
“So tell me,” I said. “What do you know of the Lady Shimshal?”
“You are a fool, Tulun. Worse than that, you are a persistent one,” he said, shaking his head. “I only know what I hear — that the lady was brought to Sevan eighteen months ago as the Melik’s consort. I know she is beautiful and that she is never seen in pubic without the Melik at her side.”
“These are all things that I have heard myself. None of them will help me win the wager.”
Gavriel sighed. “Her chambers lie in the southern wing of the palace, beyond the Garden of the Black Flowers, or so gossip would have it. They say the only thing to match the beauty of the lady herself is her surroundings.”
“How is it that you know these things?”
He grinned sheepishly. “You are not the only one to dream of being alone in her presence.”
“And yet you never acted upon that dream?”
“I prefer my arms and legs remain attached to my body, Tulun — I find it easier to get around that way. Besides, sometimes a dream should remain just that.” Gavriel finished the last dregs of his coffee and stood up. He pulled his red cloak over his thin shoulders and stretched his limbs. “Bed for me, I think. My company marches out in the morning.”
“The Tian hills. It’s a routine patrol — we’re to burn a few Khazaran villages, take a few heads and generally teach the bastards a lesson in proper skirmishing.” He threw me a half-mocking salute. “Take my advice, Tulun, and forget your wager with Abbas. So what if he has cheated you out of fifty tram? There’s always more gold in the world — and always other women.”
“May al-Bāri The Rightful keep you safe, my friend,” I said. “I shall see you on your return.”
* * *
But Gavriel did not return, nor did any of the men of his company. Word arrived three days later that they had been ambushed in the Tian Pass and slaughtered by the forces of the Khazaran warlord Urwas Padsha.
The following evening I was summoned to the palace of the Melik Valerian Bal.
As ever, he was surrounded by magnificently attired guards who lined the walls of his throne-room as still as statues. The Lady Shimshal sat at his left side, no more animated than the guards themselves.
As I entered his throne-room the Melik stood and crossed to meet me, embracing me warmly, as if I were an old and valued friend rather than a vagabond lancer captain; whatever failings Bal possessed, pomposity was not one of them.
“It is good to see you, Tulun,” he said. He was a swarthy, handsome young man — not yet thirty — thin but well muscled and with a long black moustache which was fastidiously trimmed. Around his neck he wore the emblem of his House — a swooping hawk with talons extended. It was a crude thing, roughly wrought in plain iron, yet he wore it proudly, its simplicity in marked contrast to his fine clothing. He broke off the embrace and returned to his throne. “You have heard what happened to poor Gavriel, I suppose?”
“Yes, my lord.” As I spoke I cast a surreptitious glance toward the Lady Shimshal. She did not acknowledge me, nor did I believe that she would, but I was struck once again by a sense of deep sadness within her.
“This so-called warlord, Urwas Padsha, dares to challenge my authority,” the Melik continued. “I am a man who wants nothing more than peace, Tulun. But sometimes peace can only be achieved through the sword, is that not so?”
“The Book tells us, ‘If they incline to peace incline thou to it as well’,” I replied.
He grinned, showing strong, white teeth. “And if they do not incline so?”
“In that case you must do as you see fit, my lord.”
His laughter was loud, long and genuine. “Take your men out in the morning,” he said. Suddenly there was no humour in his voice, only steel. “Find Urwas Padsha and bring me his head.”
“Yes, my lord.” I bowed and backed away from him.
As I left I saw him reach out and take the Lady Shimshal’s hand. And for the first time I saw an expression — or the ghost of an expression — cross her lovely, sculpted face.
I think it was hatred.
* * *
I rode out just after dawn the next day at the head of two hundred lancers. Abbas Bedvian rode by my side; wager or no wager he was a good soldier and an equally good comrade. Besides, he had fought against Urwas Padsha before and knew the warlord on sight.
The morning sky was the colour of blood, predicting rough weather ahead, and sure enough we were no more than ten miles from Sevan’s city walls when the rains came. By mid-morning we were riding through a sea of mud.
The Pamir Mountains rose starkly before us, their peaks shrouded in mist. Beyond them lay the lands of the Karluks, Tuvan, Kimaks and a dozen other warlike tribes including the Khazaran themselves.
We reached the Pamir foothills in the afternoon. I called a halt, and while the men attended to their mounts, Abbas and I discussed our strategy.
“It’s like a maze in there,” Abbas said, pointing toward the mountains. “The Khazaran know every inch of the passes and gullies — worse than that, they know how to use them. We’ll be allowed to ride in alright, but we may not ride out in one piece.”
“The Hanif have a saying,” I replied. “‘Only a diamond will cut diamond.'”
The big Tarsa frowned, wiping rain-water from his face. “And what does that mean?”
“It means that Urwas Padsha is not the only one capable of planning an ambush,” I said. “The Khazaran will be expecting us. They know that Tarsa honour will not allow Gavriel and the others to lie unburied and rotting in the open air. Urwas will allow us to enter Tian Pass, then he’ll spring his trap.”
“And then we will be in his snare.”
“Not all of us. I’ll lead a small force into the pass while you and the rest of the squadron keep your distance — a half-mile should be enough. Wait for my signal. When you hear it, ride as if all the demons in hell were on your tail and with luck we can catch the Khazaran between us.”
“Or you could all be dead by the time I arrive.”
I nodded. “True. But then you would owe my ghost fifty tram and I doubt that even you could wriggle your way out of that.”
He stared at me blankly for a moment, but soon enough offered another smile. “Then for both our sakes make sure your signal is long and loud, Tulun.”
* * *
Carrion feeders scattered at our approach. Crows and buzzards, their bellies swollen with meat, took to the air with an ungainly flurry; wild dogs slunk away, glowering at us with red-rimmed eyes. The stench of violent death hung thick in the air, a ripe, sickly smell that even the heaviest rain could not wash away. Apart from the irate cries of crows and the nervous snorting of our horses the pass was silent.
There were forty of us, a strong patrol but weak for a punitive force — tempting enough, I hoped, to bring the Khazaran out of hiding.
While the men busied themselves burying the dead I went in search of Gavriel.
I found him at the far end of the pass. He was recognisable only by the tatters of the red Nestorian cloak he had habitually worn — his face and fingers had been chewed away by scavengers and other, more savage wounds marked the remains of his corpse.
“May The Rightful show mercy to an unbeliever and may we meet again in paradise,” I said softly.
A flash of white in the rocks above me caught my eye: the Khazaran had taken the bait. A moment later a torrent of spears struck all around us and I saw a dozen of my men go down under their deadly hail.
The Khazaran came screaming down the rocky sides of the pass, their tulwars carving intricate and deadly patterns in the air. Tall, wiry men in flowing robes, their faces were distorted with bloodlust and hatred.
I had fought their kind before and knew that their tactics were simple: charge the enemy and destroy him, offering no quarter and asking for none.
“Now, damn you! Now!” I shouted at the trumpet-major.
He blew a long blast, the sound ringing through the rocks, then curtailing as a keen blade opened his throat.
A warrior in muddy robes rose up before me. I shouldered him to one side and gutted him with a furious slash. Another Khazaran sprang from a hole nearby. Then another. And another. I killed them all with cool efficiency — fearsome they were, competent swordsmen they were not.
Time slowed and the world became a long whirling, hacking moment of steel and blood. Horses screamed, men screamed. The sound of steel against steel, flesh against flesh and the abattoir stink of battle that both repelled and uplifted me.
But the fight was going against us. At least half my troops were down, pouring their lives onto the sodden earth, and the others were fighting desperately in knots of struggling men.
Then, abruptly, the pass was filled with horsemen, Abbas Bedvian at their head and cutting a path through the tribesmen with lance and sabre, howling primal battlecries as they came.
None of the Khazaran left Tian Pass alive. The slaughter was over in less than ten minutes.
“What kept you?” I called to Abbas. “For a moment I thought I would have to kill them all myself.”
He reached down and patted the lathered flank of his horse. “She’s getting old, like all of us. But ask yourself this question: would you rather be nearly saved or nearly killed?”
“Given the choice, I would rather live to be a tiresomely rich old man.”
Abbas looked at the bodies scattered all around us. “I pray we both may achieve that.”
We found Urwas Padsha in the rocks above the pass where he had crawled to die. Abbas knew him at once.
He spat in the dead man’s face. “Too many good men have died because of this bastard,” he said. “No one will weep over him.”
As Abbas bent down to examine him, Urwas’ eyes flicked open. “The devil of the nine hells waits for you, kuni,” he snarled through blood encrusted lips as he flashed a thin, cruel dagger toward the Tarsa’s throat.
But my blade was quicker. I put my sword through Urwas’ heart with a single thrust. “The Rightful does not love aggressors,” I said, then hacked the Khazaran warlord’s head from his shoulders.
* * *
As the column rode back to the city, Abbas said, “The Melik will be pleased. And when he is pleased he can be a generous man.”
“I have no doubt of that.”
Abbas chewed his moustache fitfully, as he did when troubled or thinking hard. “Fifty, a hundred, two hundred golden tram — who knows where his generosity will end?”
“Indeed, who knows?”
He reined his horse in. “Are all the men of the Hanif this pig-headed or is it merely you? Forget the wager, Tulun, it was a poor jest at best. We stand in the Melik’s favour now — why should you risk that?”
I smiled back at him. “The Melik will never miss a single flower, and as you say, we stand in his favour now; that should make the game even easier.”
“Tulun, I owe you my life and for that I have to properly thank you.” He paused, chewing his moustache again. “If you anger the Melik he will kill you, make no mistake about that, but there are worse things than death.”
“You speak in riddles, my friend, and that is most unlike you.”
He urged his horse forward again and for a while we rode in silence.
“There are rumours,” Abbas finally said. “Perhaps they are nothing more than soldiers’ stories and the lies of the market-women, but who knows? Even the smallest lie may have a grain of truth in it.”
“More riddles, Abbas?”
He ignored me, staring straight in front of him at the muddy trail. When he spoke again there was more than a hint of anxiety in his voice. “They say the Melik practices the Black Arts, that demons dance to his beck and call. He is a covetous and grasping man, Tulun, and he jealously guards that which is his: his wealth, his power, his woman.” He laid particular emphasis on the last word.
“Do not concern yourself, my friend — the risk will be mine and mine alone.”
“Does the money mean that much to you?”
“Very well, Abbas. If it will placate you then we will forget the wager. You will pay me from the gold which our generous lord will pay us and that will be an end to the matter.”
It was a lie, naturally. The more I thought of the Lady Shimshal the more I wanted to see her again — to find out what secrets lay behind that impassive exterior. Of course the Melik would guard her closely, what man would not? Abbas Bedvian’s fears and talk of dark magic were nothing more than a soldier’s superstition, I reminded myself. And as we rode closer to the city and the Melik’s palace I thought that I could detect the scent of her black flowers on the breeze.
* * *
They placed Urwas Padsha’s head on a spike outside the palace gates as a warning against sedition and a reminder of Valerian Bal’s power.
Abbas was correct about the Melik’s gratitude and generosity; he handed the big Tarsa a small but weighty looking pouch before dismissing him. We both bowed and prepared to leave but the Melik stopped me with a simple gesture.
“You have done both me and my kingdom a great service, Tulun,” he said. “And for that I am in your debt.”
We stood on a marble terrace overlooking a pristine garden in which peacocks strolled imperiously through the grass and brightly coloured songbirds roosted in the trees. To our right I could see the Garden of Black Flowers, its starkness made more apparent by the riot of colour surrounding it.
“I have merely done my duty, my lord.”
He laughed. “Spoken like a true soldier.” He smoothed a crease from his tunic. “You are a brave and resourceful man, Tulun, and one from whom I could learn much. Dine with me tonight.”
Despite his pleasant tone and easy smile I knew that it was an order, not a request. “It would be my pleasure, my lord.”
I ate with him in the great hall that evening but took neither bread nor salt from his table. As we ate, my eyes were continually drawn to the silent woman who sat with us. She wore velvet gloves and a green velvet gown, bare at the shoulders, which accentuated both the paleness of her skin and the garland of black poppies around her throat.
Bal noticed my gaze and said, “She is exquisite, is she not? I cannot blame you for staring.” But there was barely checked anger in his words. He wiped his mouth with a silk napkin and rose from his seat. “Come, I wish to show you something.”
He extended his hand to the Lady Shimshal and she too rose. When she took his hand the expression I remembered from before crossed her face, but this time it lingered. Her eyes closed tightly for a moment and when they opened again I thought I could see a brightness in them that had not been there before and it seemed to me that her oval pupils had widened, becoming somehow less human than they had been a moment before.
Bal led us down a long corridor elegantly decorated with tapestries and wall hangings. Each of them was intricately rendered, their vibrant colours bursting from the cloth.
At the end of the corridor we passed through a large doorway into a high vaulted room.
“This is my museum, Tulun,” Bal said.
There have been few moments in my life when I have been truly speechless, but the things Valerian Bal showed me that night robbed me of words.
It was not so much a museum as a lifeless menagerie filled with fabulous creatures. Some I knew from the legends of my people, others were the stuff of dreams and nightmares. All of them defied both senses and reason.
Here, a basilisk stared at us from atop a granite plinth, its deadly eyes replaced with enormous rubies; there, a unicorn, noble even in death; here, a wyvern, its diaphanous wings held aloft with silver wire; there a diamond-backed salamander, wrapped around a marble pillar.
There were snakes with multiple heads, lions with the bodies of goats and horses, women with long fish-tails — creatures that could never and should never have been, slaughtered and mounted to entertain the Melik Valerian Bal.
The Melik picked up a small object — a two-headed scorpion, preserved in amber.
“A gift,” he said to me. “A small token of my affection.”
I took it and bowed to him but did not reply.
“I like to surround myself with the beautiful and the exotic,” he said. “It is my one weakness.”
“Who is there to forbid the beauty which The Rightful has brought forth?” But it was not I who spoke the words of the Book.
It was the Lady Shimshal.
Her voice was soft, little more than a dull whisper, but it cut through the air like Dimashq steel.
Bal’s face twisted into an unreadable expression.
The lady opened her mouth to speak again, but Bal cut her off.
“The evening is late and you are tired, my dear. Perhaps it is time you retired.” His smile was strained but once again the words were pleasant. He clapped his hands brusquely.
Two palace guards led the Lady Shimshal away.
“You do not approve — either of my collection or my consort,” Bal said when she had gone.
“It is not my place to approve or disapprove, my lord. But since you ask, no, I do not.”
“An honest man,” he said without a trace of irony. “A rare enough quality these days. But you judge me too harshly, I think.”
For a long time neither of us spoke. We stood there under the gaze of dead legends.
“Have you ever loved a woman, Tulun?” the Melik said at last.
“I believe I have.”
“Only ‘believe’? Then it is clear that you have never loved — not truly. I pity you for that. You will never understand the divine madness that can possess a man’s mind and soul.”
He turned and walked out of the museum. I followed.
“You will stay here tonight as my guest and comrade,” he said, his mood lightening again. “We still have much to discuss — new campaigns, new methods of war — Urwas Padsha may be dead but there are a hundred others like him beyond the Pamirs.”
“Your enemies are my enemies, my lord,” I said.
“I may have misjudged you, Tulun of Birjand. Perhaps you have never loved a woman, but I believe that you have a passion for war and for that, at least, I envy you.”
* * *
We talked late into the night. When he spoke I listened politely, offering my opinion only when asked. I have known princes and kings before and since — some were intelligent men, some were fools, still more were hardly better than savages. Valerian Bal was little different from any of them: his dreams were the dreams of all these men, and he believed unflinchingly in himself and his right to rule.
At last our conversation ended and I was led by a footman to a spacious bedchamber in the western wing of the palace.
I lay on the bed for an hour until I was sure all was silent, then slipped out onto the balcony of my room.
The moon was full and bright — a hunter’s moon — and its brittle light shone on the myriad of blooms in the palace grounds. I climbed down with ease, using the natural handholds in the pitted stone of the palace walls, and dropped lightly onto the grass.
It was simplicity itself to cross the gardens — the palace guards were alert for dangers from without rather than within the grounds — and I reached the southern wing without hindrance.
The scent of the black flowers was fainter than before, for the blooms had closed their thin, fragile petals in response to the moonlight.
Apart from a small pool of yellow light spilling onto the ornate balcony from a lantern on the floor above, the southern wing of the palace was dark and lifeless.
Before I commenced the climb I took the jambiya dagger from my boot and stuck it into my sash. It was the only weapon I had — or rather the only one that I had been able to conceal from the palace guards — and though it provided little enough insurance against danger it was better than nothing at all.
As I swung myself over the balustrade and onto the tiled balcony a strong breeze swept through the garden. The flowers shifted and whispered. And with the breeze came something else: an animal stench from within, lost almost as soon as I had detected it.
I thought of what Abbas had said, of the demons that supposedly danced to the Melik’s beck and call, and a tiny chill of unease brushed along my spine.
I pushed the thought to the back of my mind and busied myself opening the door from the balcony to the chamber. The lock was a simple thing of iron, easily sprung; experience has taught me time and again that there are few locks that cannot be opened with patience and thin steel.
As I stepped into the room the feral scent reached me again, much stronger this time.
The chamber may have been elegantly decorated once, but now it was little more than a ruin. A single tallow candle burned in a battered golden holder, adding to as much as dissipating the gloom. Tatters of silk and velvet littered the floor, the tapestries and hangings that decorated the walls had been brutally slashed, and torn paintings hung in cracked frames. Delicate furniture lay in flinders.
And scattered all around were desiccated black flower petals.
A muffled sob drew my attention to the far corner of the room and I moved toward it cautiously, the petals crunching beneath my feet. A pale figure, its skin glowing softly in the glare of the moonlight, sat with its face pressed against the wall.
When I was within a yard of it, the creature turned. I stepped back, uttering an involuntary curse, and my hand went to the dagger at my waist.
Its skin was not merely pale but translucent, with thick squirming coils that moved erratically under the surface. Sparse grey hair covered a pointed skull, mottled with blue and green spots. Its fingers and toes were black, almost leprous, and a long red tongue flicked from its gaping mouth, surrounded by a cluster of white tendrils that pulsated with each breath.
The creature slowly rose to its full height, long limbs held loosely at its sides, fingers curling and uncurling, the coils beneath its skin moving like angry vipers.
Bal’s demon — the Melik’s jealousy and cupidity incarnated as malevolent flesh — a guardian for the woman who ruled his mind and soul.
I drew the dagger and prepared for its attack. I doubted that I could kill it, but one good blow might split the suppurating skin and give me enough time to make my escape.
But the attack did not come. Instead, the creature raised its misshapen head and stared at me with ochre eyes.
The eyes of the Lady Shimshal.
“Please,” she said. And the word was filled with suffering.
A wave of revulsion gripped me, so strong that I could feel the bile rise in my throat. I gripped the dagger tightly, preparing to strike — not in self-defence this time but in disgust.
Her mouth squirmed and quivered as she tried to form words. “Please,” she said again, her voice distorted and low. “Help me, Tulun.”
With an effort of will I sheathed my blade although my senses still cried out in revulsion. How could this be the woman who had haunted my thoughts? And yet I knew beyond a doubt that it was.
“What are you, lady?” I asked.
“She is a peri, Tulun,” said a voice from the other side of the room. “A creature of the netherworld.”
A lantern flared and I turned to see Valerian Bal emerge from the shadows. His face was gaunt and a thin sheen of sweat covered his features.
“You came,” he said. “Just like all the others. I had hoped you would not — I prayed you would not — and yet you came.”
He moved toward me, one hand resting casually on the jewelled hilt of the sword at his hip. In his other hand he held the small lantern which cast fantastical shadows around the ruined room. “I found her beyond the Pamirs,” he said. “A shaman of the Karluk told me of her and her breed. ‘The last of the fey folk, like a beautiful woman, lord, with the face of an angel and the eyes of a lion’.” The Melik laughed, softly and bitterly. “I wanted her before I even saw her.”
“For your museum?” I watched him closely, all too aware of the implicit threat in his stance.
“Yes, at first. But I grew to love her. And for a while, I think, she loved me too.”
Shimshal moaned. “No more,” she wailed. “I love you no more.”
“But you did once — and you will again.” The steel and certainty had returned to his voice.
“This is not love, my lord,” I told him. “How can it be when it is not returned?”
“Do not judge me, Tulun,” the Melik snarled. “And do not pity the lady.” He stared at the pale figure in front of me. “How can you feel compassion for such a creature?”
“Because she is in pain.”
“She inflicts it upon herself. She takes this form to defy and repulse me.”
The Lady Shimshal spoke again, her words painful and deliberate, each syllable carefully articulated. “In this form, my body and soul are my own.”
“Only until the morning.” Bal set the lantern on the floor at his feet and scooped up a handful of dried petals, crushing them in his palm. “The mountain tribes call these the flowers of forgetfulness; their magic is small, but enough to make my lady forget her hatred of me. When they close she remembers once again, but a simple lock is enough to keep her here until the black flowers bloom, for iron is like poison to the fey folk.” His hand strayed to the hawk around his neck. “The same iron that keeps me safe in her company on nights like this.” He drew his sword with a languid, almost regretful, motion. “I am sorry, Tulun. But my secret cannot leave this chamber.”
Then Bal struck.
I twisted to avoid the blow, barely moving in time, and drew my dagger as I did so. He struck with the speed of a viper, cutting through my tunic and carving a long shallow cut across my chest.
He was younger, stronger, and swifter than me — more than that he was a skilled swordsman with a long blade against which my short dagger was almost useless.
I pressed forward, hoping to close the distance between us and use the small blade to my advantage, but he moved nimbly away from me.
The Melik struck again and I caught the blow low on the blade of the jambiya. A numbing shock ran up my arm and the dagger fell from my grasp. Then Bal’s left fist thundered into my face and I fell sprawling amid the splintered remains of a mahogany table.
I saw the tortured, hideous face of the Lady Shimshal waver and change — her features flowing like melting wax. Beyond the balcony doors I could see the first tinge of dawn spreading across the sky.
And with it came the cloying perfume of the black flowers as they opened to greet the sun. A perfume that would rob the Lady Shimshal of her memories and place her in the Melik’s thrall for another day.
Shimshal screamed, a sound of such torment and dread that even Bal halted in his tracks, his sword poised above me to deliver the killing stroke.
And suddenly, I knew what I had to do.
I flung myself past the Melik and grabbed the lantern. His sword missed me by a hair’s breadth as I scrambled toward the balcony, then pushed open the doors and half-fell onto the cold tiles.
The air was filled with the scent of flowers, with the echo of the lady’s scream, with the sound of my blood pounding in my ears.
I threw the lantern.
It arced high into the dawn light then fell amidst the papery blooms. A moment later they began to burn and within moments the Garden of Black Flowers was a raging inferno.
When I turned back to the chamber I could see Bal, his sword held loosely in his hand and his face rigid with shock. Behind him stood the Lady Shimshal.
She was more beautiful now than she had ever been before. Her body glowed with an ethereal light and her ochre eyes were filled with boundless compassion.
She drew closer to the Melik and whispered something in his ear. The sword slipped from his fingers and he fell to the floor, his face buried in his hands.
Shimshal approached me, smiling. “Thank you, Tulun. I can remember everything now,” she said, her voice like the sound of clear water. “I remember who and what I am.”
She spoke then a single word — a word so ancient and so beautiful that it must have been spoken at mankind’s birth, and a word that try as I might I cannot pronounce or even recall other than to remember its splendour — and two perfect white wings, fragile as gossamer, sprouted from her back.
Next Shimshal uttered words I clearly understood: “I am whole,” she said.
She walked past me onto the balcony and then she was gone, soaring high above the palace, trailing light in her wake as she flew toward the Pamir Mountains and the plains beyond.
I wiped tears from my eyes, cursing the smoke that had made them water, and went to Bal’s side.
“What did she say to you?” I asked.
He raised his face to me and I could see the anguish that racked him.
“She said, ‘I forgive you’.”
I turned and went back to the balcony, straining for another glimpse of Shimshal — but there was nothing.
The Melik Valerian Bal stood beside me.
“Have you ever loved, Tulun?” he asked again.
“No, my lord. Nor have you.”
* * *
An hour after dawn I rode away from Sevan, back to the south and the land of my birth, taking nothing with me other than the clothes on my back, the weapons at my side and the red cloak of my friend Gavriel Laskaris.
I have never returned to the lands of the Tarsa, for the memories of that place have cost me more pain than any of my battle scars. But even now — even though I am a tiresomely rich old man whose adventuring days are long behind him — I find myself looking northward in unguarded moments, hoping, perhaps, to catch a glimpse of gossamer wings or to hear the sound of Shimshal’s sweet voice on the wind.
But the distant mountains are cold and silent and care nothing for an old man’s dreams.
James Lecky is a writer based in Derry, Northern Ireland. His short fiction has appeared in or is forthcoming in a number of publications both in print and online including Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Silver Blade, The Absent Willow Review, Sorcerous Signals, Aphelion and the anthologies The Phantom Queen Awakes, Arcane Whispers 2: The Best of Sorcerous Signals and Emerald Eye: The Best Irish Imaginative fiction.
You can learn more about Jim and his writing by visiting his blog, here: