Thanks to the folks at Daw Books, here's an excerpt from Melanie Rawn's forthcoming The Diviner. For more info about this title: Canada, USA, Europe.
Here's the blurb:
Bestselling author Melanie Rawn's triumphant return to high fantasy.
The only survivor of royal treachery that eliminates his entire family, Azzad al-Ma'aliq flees to the desert and dedicates himself to vengeance. With the help of the Shagara, a nomadic tribe of powerful magicians, he begins to take his revenge-but at a terrible cost to himself.
The Diviner is a prequel to The Golden Key (Canada, USA, Europe), which was co-authored by Melanie Rawn, Jennifer Roberson and Kate Elliot.
Why, Azzad al-Ma'aliq asked himself for the thousandth time, were women so expensive? And not just in the cost of trinkets, either. They demanded a man's time and exhausted his patience—not to mention his energy. They required so much attention. And thoughtfulness. And conversation.
And money, he thought ruefully, patting the folds of scarlet silk wound around his waist, where until an hour ago a fabulous pearl necklace had been concealed. It was now somewhere in the rubbish heap behind Ashiyah's house. Instead of squealing with delight at the gift, she'd thrown it out her bedroom window.
The idea had been for Ashiyah to undress him—slowly if she liked, quickly if that was her mood; he was always generous and accommodating, wasn't he?—and discover his latest gift, and thereupon would ensue—
But it hadn't. She'd come at him spitting and clawing, furious that he was late. A hundred women in Rimmal Madar would have waited years just for a smile from the latest handsome al-Ma'aliq male in a long line of handsome al-Ma'aliq males, and yet Ashiyah had behaved as if a paltry couple of hours was good and sufficient reason to rip his face to shreds.
He'd backed off, desperately groping for the pearls hidden in his gold-and-green striped sash. For just an instant the ploy succeeded; covetous joy sparked hotter than anger in her magnificent eyes when she saw the jewels.
Then she seized the necklace and tried to strangle him with it.
Between his knees, Khamsin heaved an almost human sigh. Azzad patted the stallion's arching black neck. "Do you think you need to tell me I'm a fool? Believe me, it's nothing I haven't told myself a thousand times. But she is spectacularly beautiful. And it would infuriate her husband spectacularly if he ever caught us!"
The vexing Ozmin had in recent months been Azzad's guide through the bureaucratic snarl of the Sheyqa's tax collectors. It was the al-Ma'aliq's contention that their lands were being singled out for heavier tribute than usual, and Za'avedra el-Ibrafidia al-Ma'aliq—in futile hopes of rousing her second son to anything even vaguely resembling familial responsibility—assigned Azzad the disagreeable duty of untangling (which meant bribing) enough functionaries to support a protest in the law courts. Absurd, of course; everyone knew it was the Sheyqa who had ordered the extra taxes, and only the Sheyqa would have any say in easing them. Not for the first time, Azzad joined his relations in cursing the ancestor who had thought it expedient to make a bond of defense with a woman everyone had fully expected to die in battle against the heathen—or to be murdered by one of her own lethal siblings in their quest for family dominance.
But Sheyqa Nizzira's great-grandmother had not died, and the oath remained binding, and here they all were: sworn to the descendant of an arrogant bitch from some obscure southern tribe whom Acuyib had inexplicably blessed in war.
"At least I don't have it as bad as Ammineh," he muttered. The stallion's ears twitched, but Azzad's tone indicated nothing more than the usual complaining, so Khamsin ignored him. "She has to sleep with the son of that miserable barghoutz. For a little while, I slept with Ashiyah."
Not that Ashiyah's whisperings on his behalf when she summoned her husband to share her pillows had done the al-Ma'aliq any good. Azzad hadn't courted Ashiyah only for her usefulness—though had she been skinny and plain instead of sumptuously beautiful, he simply would have closed his eyes or told her that making love in the dark was so much more sensuous. Ayia, memories of her bed would have to sustain him until the next luscious lady presented herself to his fastidious notice. He wondered with a sudden grin which woman he could bestow his favors on to infuriate Ashiyah most when she heard of it.
He rode through the dark streets toward home, paying no attention to his surroundings. He didn't need to; Khamsin was familiar with this route. Azzad's nose identified the streets for him without his being fully aware of it. The stench of tanneries and butcher shops. The softly tantalizing scents from bakeries in Ayyash Sharyah. The tang of dinner spices wafting silently down from upstairs living quarters in Zoqalo Zaffiha, where from dawn until dark the hammers of brass and bronze and tin workers clanged. The long narrow alley where the stink of dye vats and wet wool was bearable only by daylight, and only because of the eyes' delight in the rainbow shanks hung from balcony to balcony overhead to dry. All workshops were shut up tight now, all streets and squares deserted. No one called out invitations to see or sample various wares, so Azzad was left alone with his thoughts.
Khamsin picked his way along the dirt and cobbles toward home while Azzad dreamed of Beit Ma'aliq's cool fountains, and fruits plucked ripe from the trees, and an evening spent listening to his sisters sing. The girls were of an age now to be of use to an older brother. Perhaps, he mused, fingers toying with the fine bronze wire tassels on the reins, now that they were almost marriageable, some of their prettier friends might be amenable to a dalliance. . .
He could see his mother's face even now: stern, implacable, her dark eyes knowing every wayward thought in his head, and a single word on her lips as sharp as the silver needle that was her family's name and crest: No. Whatever women he amused himself with, none of them could be of rank or wealth.
Then again, Za'avedra el-Ibrafidia might turn a blind eye to such an association, in the way of mothers who knew their sons. If he compromised a nobleman's daughter, he would be forced to wed her. The very thought made him shudder. Getting married. Fathering children. Living a settled life. Doing something useful for the family—something unutterably boring. Staying with one woman for the rest of his life, or at least until her parents were dead. No, when he married—if he married—it would be to a girl with no relations whatsoever, not a single woman or man of her family alive anywhere to trouble him on her behalf when he wanted a little variety in his bed. Azzad considered it grossly unfair that only a Sheyqa and her immediate family were permitted more than one spouse, the justification being that for from them sprang the strength of the nation in the form of strong daughters and sons.
He snorted. Of all the descendants that Sheyqa Nizzira and her sons and daughters had produced so far, Azzad had heard very little to recommend any of them. Fifty of them now; he'd heard this morning that his cousin Ammineh had given birth to a daughter, and—
"Fifty! Acuyib save me! The celebration feast!"
Khamsin didn't bother to swing an ear around this time, but when Azzad hauled back on the reins the stallion snorted and pranced a few steps in protest. He wanted his stall and his evening feed, Azzad knew—but all the al-Ma'aliq had been invited to the palace tonight to celebrate Ammineh's little girl, and in anticipating an evening with Ashiyah, the royal command had completely slipped his mind.
With a groan—he'd never get there in time and would have to think up some plausible excuse for his tardiness—he turned Khamsin toward the palace. A brisk trot and a shortcut or two, and maybe he'd arrive during the dancing or while an especially incredible creation of the Sheyqa's kitchen staff was being presented, or—well, he'd spent all his twenty years being lucky, and there was no reason to think tonight would be any different.
* * *
"Esteemed Majesty," the eunuch whispered at Sheyqa Nizzira's shoulder, "not all of them drink enough."
The Sheyqa smiled, clapping her hands in time to a spirited tune, following the dancers' swirling silks and exposed flesh with her gaze. The youth on the far left, the one who was dark and muscular and half-naked, he might do for later tonight. She kept her eyes on him, annoyed by the interruption, knowing it was necessary to reply. Without moving her lips, she said, "I never meant them to."
"But—Revered Majesty—your kinsmen from beyond the Steeps said—"
She saw the concert master watching her, and gave him the signal that indicated her choice of the beautiful dark boy. He nodded once, and turned to give his own instructions. To the eunuch, the Sheyqa said, "All that is required is that most of them are drunk. Go away. All will be as it should."
"You have commanded it, Exalted One." Bowing low, he melted away into the shadows.
She returned her attention to the boy whose new role in the dance now required him to shed almost all his clothes. He was the coveted one, the desired one; all the other young men faded into the corners of the room while concubines belonging to Nizzira's sons danced to tempt him.
"No difficulties, I trust, Highness?" asked the al-Ma'aliq seated nearest her—father of Ammineh, smug enough to make Nizzira's palm itch for her knife.
Instead she waved a well-manicured hand, rings sparking a dozen colors by lamplight. "That silly eunuch frets as if he truly were a woman, instead of merely not a man. Do you enjoy yourself, my friend?"
"Truly, Highness, it is a night for jubilation at Acuyib's great generosity to both our houses. For is it not said," he added, his smile dazzlingly white below a luxuriant black mustache, "that the fiftieth of a Sheyqa's descendants shall be the joy of her age? My own father finds it so." He directed a fond glance at the drooling ninety-year-old moron who, determined not to wait on grandchildren to fulfill his ambition, had killed seven successive wives in the getting of his first forty-nine offspring. The fiftieth, sole product of the eighth and final wife, attended the old man so devotedly that he practically chewed his food for him. The Sheyqa found this utterly disgusting—but what offended her more deeply was the reference yet again to the long-gone al-Ma'aliq power. That senile, toothless old man ruling Rimmal Madar? It didn't bear contemplation.
What she said, in a mild tone, was, "I hope your daughter has given me a child just as fine for my fiftieth."
"I am confident that she has, Highness." Another raising of the wine to his daughter's accomplishment.
The Sheyqa nodded, smiled, and drank. The exquisite young boy had spurned the attentions of all the girls, no matter what they did to entice him: it was his role to reject them, and eventually to prostrate himself at the Sheyqa's feet. She watched as he began the moves that culminated the dance, reflecting that it really was a fine thing to be past the age of childbearing, and not have to limit herself only to those men she had married for money or land or political alliance. Carelessness in this regard had been her own mother's downfall—one did not bear the child of a Hrumman servant, no matter how tempting his golden looks might be, not when there had never been an al-Ammarizzad born with blond hair. Husbands were tedious at times, but not even a Sheyqa could mortify them in such fashion. It was said she had died of a fever, and all her husbands were seen to mourn her—none of them less sincerely than Nizzira's father, who had administered the "fever" in a cup of wine. The act had sealed Nizzira's accession to the Moonrise Throne, for not only had her father taken on the task and thus the responsibility if caught, that he had not been caught was warning enough. No one in the palace wish to be similarly administered to. The other husbands had been dealt with in Nizzira's own time, and their offspring as well, and now all of her own husbands were either dead or divorced.
So she could have anyone she wished these days. Truly, it was most liberating. When the boy began his approach, she forgot to wonder if what was between his thighs was natural or cleverly provoked by drugs. The latter, she thought, rightly judging the glaze in his eyes. But it mattered for nothing; he really was quite the loveliest thing she'd ever seen.
She was just beginning to plan the end of her evening when the first al-Ma'aliq began to vomit.
* * *
No one was on the last mile of the palace road. Azzad cursed. No other late arrivals with whom to slide, practically unnoticed, inside the gates. He couldn't even pretend he'd been there all along, caught up in greeting friends or seeing to the comfort of his older relations. His esteemed father would see through that in a twitch of a lamb's ear.
Khamsin suddenly froze—ears pricked, head thrown back, the whites showing in his black eyes. Azzad frowned. Usually he had his hands full preventing the stallion from challenging every other stallion on the palace road, for which the Qoundi Ammar on their grand white horses did not thank him.
But there were no Qoundi Ammar lining the palace road tonight.
He was alone.
And on the soft evening breeze his inferior senses finally recognized what Khamsin's nose had already warned of: fire.
* * *
One hundred twenty-six of the almost four hundred al-Ma'aliq had to be helped from the banqueting hall to the outer courtyard, robes stained and bellies churning. The Sheyqa waved aside the mortified apologies of Ammineh's father.
"Young men will overindulge, you know it is so," she said as servants hurriedly cleaned up the messes. "Think no more on it, my friend. Come, let's not ruin the celebration."
On the expert advice of distant relations whose help she'd sought for this purpose, she'd made sure that all of the "drunks" would be young men, easily excused in their excesses. For their elders, she had something else in mind.
The eunuch approached right on time, bowing, begging Her Glorious Majesty to accede to the Qoundi Ammar's request that they might demonstrate their joy in her fiftieth descendant. The Sheyqa smiled. "Very thoughtful. My thanks and compliments to the qabda'an, but it can wait until tomorrow. I shall even bring along my little Sayyida to see the salute in her honor."
"Highness," said Sayyida's grandfather, "the disgraceful actions of my kinsmen have soured the atmosphere within. The fresh air of the courtyard would be most welcome, would it not?"
Naturally the al-Ma'aliq would wish to revel in a show of military precision by the elite guard. They thought it a tribute to them. Fifty years ago—at about the time of Nizzira's birth, in fact—a renegade faction of al-Ma'aliq had been the only troops ever to defeat the proud invincible Qoundi Ammar. The doddering old fool down the table from Nizzira had been the one to punish his wayward kinsmen—thereby gaining for himself royal assistance in his claim to leadership of the family. But the necessity still galled, all these years later. Had things been just slightly different, one of the al-Ma'aliq women would now occupy the Moonrise Throne. "Never trust them, my daughter—never, never. They were kings once, and would be again if they could. Keep them under your eye always."
Ayia, not her eye—her heel. And even that had not been enough. Who knew but that Ammineh had been dangled before her fool of a son in hopes of precisely these circumstances: an al-Ammarizzad with al-Ma'aliq blood, who one day would seize the throne? Restored to its former glory, the family would make certain that all the mighty deeds of Nizzira's own forebears were appropriated to their renown.
Never. Never. There were, among her forty-nine other strong, clever, ambitious sons and daughters and grandsons and granddaughters, many now at an age to begin vying for precedence in the succession—which amused her. She intended to live to be at least eighty years old and die in bed with a beautiful boy in her arms—not with a knife in the spine as her grandmother had done. (Not Nizzira's knife, to be sure, though she had hated the old woman, and she had enjoyed tremendously the execution of the cousin who had done it.) Her plans for the al-Ma'aliq tonight were in part to warn her own offspring that such could just as easily happen to any of them, should she become displeased. Another lesson learned from her esteemed father.
But not a flicker of these thoughts showed in the Sheyqa's face. She chewed another candy, pretending to consider, then nodded. "Very well. Let us go outside and see what the qabda'an has arranged for our amazement tonight. Something spectacular, I hope, with lots of pretty riding, and that trick they do with their swords and axes. Have you ever seen it? Truly extraordinary."
* * *
Azzad urged Khamsin back toward the city, and the closer he got to home the brighter the sky became. The breeze had died, and smoke billowed straight up into the heavens. Smuts of soot began to drift down onto his blue cloak. People in outlying districts leaned out windows or stood atop the flat roofs of their houses to get a better view—but as he neared home he had to slow the big stallion to avoid the milling crowd. Only when he turned onto Sharyah Ammar Zaqaf—the Street of the Red Roofs—did he realize that there was no rush toward the flames with buckets of water to fight the fire. The faces he saw, lit crimson by fireglow, were curious and apprehensive at the same time—like dogs confronted by poisonous snakes.
Abruptly furious, he dug his heels into Khamsin, caring nothing for whoever might get in the way. Down the wide avenue he galloped, past shops crammed with silk and silver where his five sisters loved to dawdle of a morning before the heat grew oppressive. At the very end of the double rows of plane trees was the walled magnificence of Beit Ma'aliq: the house of his family. The gate was high and narrow and closely woven, all fanciful curves and bright flowers, like a woman's embroidered shawl draped shoulder-to-shoulder across her slender back—only this embroidery was of iron. Tonight the vivid colors of the painted metal were black against a background of flames.
Someone grabbed at Khamsin's bridle—a mistake that nearly cost him a hunk of shoulder as the stallion snapped angrily. Azzad kicked the man and wheeled Khamsin around toward the back entrance. The surrounding wall was much too high for him to see over, but through small, iron-barred apertures cut into white-plastered brick he caught glimpses of the blaze. And no people. Not one single person was outside in any of the courtyards.
When he got to the rear gate, he understood why. Through the twisting painted iron he could see the sprawl of the main house, and the doors leading out to the stable yard—and the stout planks nailing them shut.
There was yet one more way to get in. Frantic now, he turned Khamsin to the alleyway behind the stables and fumbled in his green-and-gold sash for the key. The postern gate into the gardens was made of wood. Even as he turned the corner, he saw that it too was ablaze, and as he neared he smelled the stench of rancid oil.
Beyond the high walls spread the garden with its languid flowers and many fountains. Above was the two-story arrareem, the women's private chambers that no man dared enter without Za'avedra's invitation. Azzad coaxed Khamsin nearer, fighting the horse's terror of fire, standing in his stirrups to see over the wall. All the windows spewed fire through ornamental wooden grilles out onto balconies. Behind those windows lived his mother, sisters, aunts, cousins, the wives and daughters and infant sons. And from within he heard screaming.
He swung one leg over Khamsin's neck, preparing to dismount. The stallion, wiser than he, sidled away from the postern gate toward the opposite wall. Azzad was too fine a rider to lose his balance—yet neither could he leap down, for Khamsin had trapped his other leg against the bricks. And the instant his rump connected with the saddle again, the horse pivoted neatly on his hind hooves and galloped down the alley.
He could not turn Khamsin back to Beit Ma'aliq. The stallion had had enough of fire and smoke, and no intention of allowing his chosen master to commit suicide. Cursing, Azzad lifted his head into the wind of Khamsin's gallop, feeling the tears dry on his cheeks.
Blazing windows, barred doors, oil-soaked wood—all the women and children of his family would die tonight in an inferno of the Sheyqa's making. Azzad knew he would hear their screams the rest of his life.
Khamsin finally slowed at the outskirts of the city. Azzad had no notion of where they were or how many people had been trampled to get them there. He understood one thing only: the Sheyqa had murdered helpless women and children in their beds, and he would have no qualms about murdering every man of the al-Ma'aliq at the palace tonight.
His cousin Ammineh too would die, and her baby with her—no, Sayyida was the granddaughter of the Sheyqa, she would be spared. And she would be the only al-Ma'aliq left.