Here's an extract from Bradley P. Beaulieu's upcoming Twelve Kings in Sharakhai, courtesy of the author himself. For more info about this title: Canada, USA, Europe.
Here's the blurb:
Sharakhai, the great city of the desert, center of commerce and culture, has been ruled from time immemorial by twelve kings — cruel, ruthless, powerful, and immortal. With their army of Silver Spears, their elite ompany of Blade Maidens and their holy defenders, the terrifying asirim, the Kings uphold their positions as undisputed, invincible lords of the desert. There is no hope of freedom for any under their rule. Or so it seems, until Çeda, a brave young woman from the west end slums, defies the Kings’ laws by going outside on the holy night of Beht Zha’ir. What she learns that night sets her on a path that winds through both the terrible truths of the Kings’ mysterious history and the hidden riddles of her own heritage. Together, these secrets could finally break the iron grip of the Kings’ power…if the nigh-omnipotent Kings don’t find her first.
Wiping away her tears with one hand, Çeda pulled the black veil across her face with the other. The bazaar stalls were torn down, the bright canvas tents folded away for the night. Tulathan was already well above the eastern horizon, her silver face staring down over the desert, watching as the asirim stalked over the sands toward Sharakhai. Her sister, golden Rhia, was bright in the west.
Çeda listened for a moment before choosing her path. The wails were coming from the north, so she jogged southeast along the winding Serpentine and then onto the Trough, heading toward the southern harbor. As she ran, the buildings changed from simple dwellings and shops to stone mansions on either side of the street. As the Trough curved, the buildings shrank once more, but now they were of much older construction. This close to the edge of the city she had to be more careful. The asirim might enter Sharakhai from any direction, and if some had come from the south, they would be nearing the city’s edge by now, or they might already be within her borders, wandering, taking those marked by Sukru.
No sooner had she thought this than she heard a heavy knocking on her left. A more final sound she’d never heard. She cringed as her boots scuffed the dirt and the smell of the asirim came to her, that sickly sweet scent that had wafted from their King just before he’d kissed her. She pressed herself into an alcove in a wheelwright’s stables. It had suddenly become difficult to breathe. She could think of nothing but the asir’s warm lips pressed against her forehead.
The knock came again, the sound like a skull pounding wood. Çeda dared not move, and yet she found her right hand itching to draw her shamshir, an instinct borne of fighting in the pits, although she knew very well a blade would do her no good.
When the knock came a third time, it was accompanied by the sound of splintering wood. A thumping followed, the heavy tread of feet upon a wooden floor.
Çeda tried to control her breathing, but with the asir only paces from where she stood, she couldn’t. It came in deep, rapid gasps. She licked her lips, told herself to remain calm, but a moment later a scream tore through the still of the night.
“No!” A woman pleaded. “Not my son! Take me instead! Take me!”
Her shouts were cut off with a sound like the sledges butchers used to fell cattle. Çeda spun away, refusing to look back. If she did, she might be caught by its gaze. She would not be so lucky as she was last time, King of the asirim or no.
She sprinted down a narrow alley between two houses, flew along the street it led to, listening for sounds of pursuit. She could hear nothing—nothing save the pounding of her heart and the heaving of her breath. The petal’s energy carried her on. She made a turn at the old grain mill that always smelled of mule dung and hay, and then again at Kavi the jeweler’s.
Ahead, ships’ masts stabbed upward from beyond the row of warehouses. The harbor opened up before her. Çeda reached a set of stone stairs that led down to the sand, and there, with practiced ease, she slipped her zilij over her head and tossed it down. As it skimmed over the surface, she jumped upon it, her feet finding the boiled leather straps she’d nailed into the gently hollowed topside. She kicked with her left leg, which sent her sighing across the sand as easily as the sidewinding vipers that nested along the Haddah’s riverbed. Leaning this way or that to steer, she moved beyond the borders of the harbor and into a long inlet hemmed in by high stone outcroppings, barely wide enough for two ships to pass one another.
Within minutes she reached the desert proper, the Great Shangazi, where the dunes opened up before her. The dunes changed often, and tonight they were tall. High sands, they were called, the sort that would force ships to wait in harbor to sail, or if they were caught in the desert, to find higher ground or risk being washed under by the shifting sands.
For one lone woman with a zilij, however, they were easy enough to navigate. Çeda used her skimwood board to fly along the slope of a dune, allowing her momentum to carry her up the next one. The moment she slowed she would hop off and hike to the summit, and once there throw the zilij down, leap upon it, and race down, leaning into the curves to keep her balance or to steer away from the occasional outcropping of rock.
Time was already growing short. Tulathan was reaching her apex.
Çeda continued, skimming, climbing, skimming, climbing, for nearly an hour. When the sand became rocky ground at last, she slung the zilij over her back and jogged easily. Rhia stood over the western horizon, a twinkling eye in the distance. Tulathan was directly overhead, surrounded by a host of attendant stars.
The blooming fields soon came into view, the twisted forms of the adichara given definition by the light of the moons. At first they looked like little more than a mass of darkness huddling in patches, but as she came closer, details were revealed: a branch reaching toward the stars, a bough twisting around itself and others. The blooms glowed ever so softly beneath the moon, and when the breeze picked up, Çeda could see trails of shimmering blue pollen carried on the wind. She could smell it now as well, a scent like red wine, like powdered amber, subtle yet deeply powerful, as if these twisted trees somehow fed upon the stories of man throughout all the pages of time.
As she stepped closer, a buzzing filled the air—rattlewings moving drunkenly from bloom to bloom, oblivious to Çeda’s presence. Like hummingbirds, they collected nectar from the flowers, but only when the moons were brightest. Çeda approached two trees that looked like lovers entwined in one another’s arms. After hunkering down in the shadows, she pulled her slim kenshar from its sheath at her side. This close, the petals of the adichara blooms glowed a pale blue, almost white, not unlike bright Tulathan. The five golden stamen inside seemed to shiver, though perhaps that was merely a trick of the wind. She reached forward and slipped the edge of her knife beneath the flower and cut the stem. She cut a second and finally a third, stashing each in the leather pouch at her belt.
Then, after sliding the knife into its sheath, she stared at the other blooms, at the thorns that graced the length of their stems. In truth, these were what she had come for, not the flowers.
Ever since the sail back from Saliah’s, when she’d stared down at that drop of dried blood on her thumb, she’d known she would come to the adichara and taste of their poison. “What say you?” she said softly to the trees.
She held her hand out, saw her hand not merely quivering, but trembling, as if she’d been stricken by palsy. The branches wavered, but made no move toward her. The wind picked up, making the adicharas rattle, and still she waited, hoping it would accept her on its own.
She caught movement from the corner of her eye—a dark form off to her left—and the moment she did, she felt it: a pinprick against the meat of her thumb. Her breath drew in sharply, her heart went wild, not merely for the pain or the implication of what the poison would soon do, but for the sudden expansion of awareness that swept through her. When she took the adichara petals, she often felt as though she could sense the vast ring of trees around Sharakhai. Now she felt not only that, but also a deep, insatiable hunger. She had no idea what it might be, but could only think of the asirim, their anger bleeding through the poison to touch her heart, to infect her like a wound going septic.
A huff filled the cold desert air, the sound of a horse exhaling. She heard the thump of hooves in sand, though it stopped before reaching the rocky ground around the adichara—a clever move if one was wary of an interloper in the field ahead.
Already the poison was spreading. The skin around the thorn prick was going numb. Bakhi’s grace, could the poison lay her low before she could return to Sharakhai?
She listened carefully for the horse, or its rider, but heard nothing. Through the boughs of the adichara, though, she saw something: a woman moving with deadly grace. Her dress was cut in the style of the Blade Maidens, but, strangely, it looked a different color, perhaps purple—it was difficult to tell in the moonlight. She must be a Maiden, though, for she held an ebon blade in her right hand. Her face was covered by a veil so that the only skin Çeda could see was around her eyes and the backs of her tattooed hands. A glittering ruby hung on her forehead, just above the bridge of her nose, and she wore a necklace of sleek, finger-length thorns.
The Maiden had fouled everything.
She might kill Çeda outright or take her to the House of Kings to be questioned before being hung or drawn and quartered in the city square. What she might be doing out here, Çeda had no idea, but she knew this: if she didn’t leave now, it would mean her death.
The Maiden stalked through the adichara with slow and steady purpose, the ebon blade held easily in her hand. It did not gleam in the moonlight; instead, it shone dully, a wicked, dark smile in the night.
Çeda could already feel the skin along her thumb and the upper part of her wrist going numb. Breath of the desert, how quickly it was happening! As the Maiden tread softly through the twisted trees, the burning anger from the adichara intensified within Çeda, urging her to stand, to attack the maiden and drink of her blood. Çeda smothered the thoughts as well as she was able. She didn’t wish to give the Blade Maiden any sort of edge, but it was difficult; the feelings ran so very deep.
The Blade Maiden stalked closer, listening, hunting. Çeda hoped she would move toward the bulk of the adichara so Çeda could sprint north, over the dunes toward Sharakhai, but no. She was headed straight for Çeda’s hiding place, and she was no longer scanning the trees to discover who was there.
She knew, Çeda realized. She knew exactly where Çeda was.
So she ran.
The Blade Maiden called out, “ Lai, lai, lai!” Both a warning and a demand for her to stop.
She didn’t care. She sprinted faster, pulling her zilij off her back. But she was still on rocky ground, and the Maiden—gods she was fast!—was catching up. She shouldn’t have been able to, not with Çeda’s petal still giving her inhuman energy, but here she was, pacing Çeda like a maned wolf—indeed moving ahead to cut her off before she could reach the sands.
While drawing her sword from its sheath on her back, Çeda slipped her left arm through the straps of the zilij and held it like a shield. The Blade Maiden lowered into a fighting stance, advancing, dark sword at the ready.
Çeda darted forward, arcing her blade high. The Maiden blocked her stroke, but as she did Çeda snapped a kick into her gut. Çeda had only meant it as a warning, to give this woman pause, and indeed the message seemed to hit home. The Maiden’s kohl-rimmed eyes widened in the moonlight as she reassessed Çeda. She advanced more cautiously, while Çeda gave ground, hoping to slow her enemy down; she needed to reach the sands, where the zilij would be faster than a horse. But the Maiden guessed her purpose and advanced once more. They traded a flurry of blows that rang through the cold night air. Çeda blocked with her zilij, though the ebon blade bit deep into the wood, and the Maiden ducked one of Çeda’s high slashes, twisted in a blur of motion, and cut from the side.
Çeda barely managed to block it with her sword. It struck like a hammer, numbing her arm from the elbow down. She nearly dropped the sword, and she knew, as another blow came for her, that she couldn’t hope to win this fight. This woman was too good by far, and Çeda was having more difficulty simply retaining her grip on her sword.
She started to give ground faster after that, feigning weakness. The Maiden took the bait, but didn’t overcommit. She was steady and careful, firmly in control of a duel that favored the Maiden the longer it continued.
Knowing a retreat was hopeless unless she put the Maiden on the defensive, Çeda stopped near the edge of the sand and unleashed a vicious combination of blows, moves that had won her fights in the pits many times before. Never with a numb hand, though. The Blade Maiden blocked her blows and then kicked high, connecting with Çeda’s wrist, as if she knew about the poison.
Çeda’s shamshir went flying through the midnight air, flashing in the moonlight as it went. And in that moment, Çeda jumped onto the sand, spinning and holding the zilij by only one strap. She brought its tip across the sand, sending a spray up and across the Blade Maiden, who twisted away, raising her arm to fend off the spray. But she was too late and it caught her full in the face. She uttered not a sound, but she stepped back several paces, blade ready, shaking her head to clear her eyes.
It gave Çeda the time she needed. She ran, threw her zilij down against the sand, and leapt on it. In moments she was skimming down the flank toward the trough between the dunes.
She spared a glance behind her. The Maiden had initially given chase, but had already realized her mistake and was running back for her horse.
By the time Çeda reached the crest of the next dune, she saw the Maiden in the saddle, galloping forward. The horse would never catch her, though. It would plod through the sand and tire quickly, while she was able to fly down one side of the dune and sprint up the next.
When she’d crested two more, she stopped and looked back, holding her zilij by her good left hand. At the top of a dune, just north of the blooming fields, the Maiden was watching from horseback. Çeda waved, threw her board down, and was gone.