In celebration – and anticipation – of the third and final book in the Chronicles of Ghadid series, I’m sharing an in-world novella that takes place sometime during the events of the second book, The Impossible Contract.
That said, if you haven’t read The Impossible Contract: stop. Do not pass go. Do not progress forward. Warning warning, danger danger. Turn back. Read book two first. Then come back. You will thank me.
There are four parts to this novella and I will be sharing them in the days leading up to The Unconquered City’s release (June 16th!!).
Today I present:
At least the intruder knocked first before shoving the door open and filling the dusty room with sticky-hot sunlight. Amastan was still finding his cane and his feet when a voice asked,
“Where is she?”
Amastan squinted against the light, trying to make sense of the shadow at its center. His ankle protested under his weight, even as he leaned most of it on his better foot. He’d been left alone in the room by his sisters and family with nothing to keep him company but his pile of cushions, a few pens, and a stack of scrolls that needed transcribing. For most of the quiet morning, he’d welcomed the reprieve from his family’s constant attempts at helping him, but now a part of himself he could never quiet assessed his chances in a fight, weighing his cast-stiff arm and still-healing ankle against the possibility of a violent intruder.
Instead of advancing, the man stopped a respectful distance away, fingers worrying at tangled stringwork. The door closed under its own weight, cutting off the bright light of midday. The thinned light from the window and the steady light from the hearth took its place, warming the man’s dusty wrap and sharpening his features. He’d tied his tagel in haste, covering his mouth and chin but neglecting his slender nose, and sweat darkened his pits and neck, more than might be expected from a midday walk.
Amastan relaxed as he recognized his visitor. Salid was the charm maker his family preferred, but not one in the habit of making house calls. “Water, sa?”
Salid’s initial brusqueness gave way to a mirror of Amastan’s confusion. He nodded even as he frowned, taking in the cane, the cast, and the fading bruises across Amastan’s arms. More bruises circled Amastan’s neck, but thankfully his tagel hid those from Salid’s searching gaze.
The healers had only released Amastan a few days earlier. They’d stabilized him, made certain he’d live, and even sped up his ankle’s healing. But any more than that would’ve been a flagrant waste of water. He’d been tempted to press more baats on the healers – he had more than enough to pay – but in the end he couldn’t justify the waste. He wasn’t a drum chief and his particular specialization wasn’t required for the ongoing function of the city. Not now, anyway. He had to trust that Thana had all the contract under control.
He had a cane and a limp, but neither would kill him and both would heal fully within the month. He just had to take things slow and allow time to finish the process.
With Thana gone, all he had was time.
“I’d heard you’d been at the healers, but…” Salid trailed off, gaze lingering on Amastan’s cane even as he took the glass of water from Amastan.
“If you’re looking for Thana, you’ve just missed her, sa. By a few days.”
“How convenient for her,” said Salid. “She’s the one who dragged this whole mess into the light and now she’s nowhere to be found to fix it.” He untangled his fingers from the stringwork and shoved the whole of it into a pocket. “When does she plan on returning?”
“Not for some weeks, sa.”
Salid grimaced. “Too long. She’ll be too late.”
“She told you, didn’t she?”
Amastan tightened his grip on his cane. “Are you talking about the marabi–?”
“–and the dead men?”
“The bound.” Salid pulled out a chair from the table beside Amastan and slid into it with a sigh as if all the air were being squeezed from his lungs. “We’re on the same page, then.” He drained the rest of his water. “There’s been another.”
“What do you mean?”
Salid didn’t quite slam the glass down, but he did set it on the table with more force than was necessary. “Another corpse that’s refusing to stay a corpse. Except – I don’t understand how.” Salid picked up Amastan’s pen and began rolling it between his fingers while staring at the table as if it might offer up an explanation. “One of Drum Chief Talal’s slaves died of a fever last night, but just as the marab arrived to attend her jaani, the slave got up and attacked Talal’s wife.” Salid held up a hand, stoppering any questions. “The wife is fine. Scratched, bruised, and shaken, but fine. The marab managed to subdue the dead slave and lock her in a closet.”
“Are they certain she was dead?” asked Amastan. “Fever can addle a mind. Or perhaps she’d been possessed by a jaani.”
Salid was shaking his head before Amastan had finished. “Everything I’ve heard about this has only confirmed my suspicions–”
“How did you hear about this?”
Salid suddenly found his almost empty glass of water more interesting than Amastan. “Well, when something like the dead walking happens once in your city, you keep an ear out.”
But Amastan stayed silent and staring until Salid squirmed and finally spat out, “A marabi owes me a favor, all right? And everything he told me about this has only confirmed my suspicions.” He held up a hand and began ticking off fingers. “Unresponsive to verbal commands, inexplicably violent, no indication of awareness, doesn’t react to pain, and – most importantly – the marab have been unable to quiet her jaani.”
“I still don’t understand what this slave has in common with the men who attacked me and Thana. She’s acting strangely, yes, but that doesn’t mean she’s not suffering from some other illness of the mind, or that she’s not possessed. Did she have any markings?”
“No one has been able to examine her,” said Salid, voice tight. “Not since they determined she was dead. And she is quite dead – she does not breathe, sa.”
Amastan didn’t need to close his eyes to relive that terrible night again, to see the absence in the face of the man who had effortlessly lifted Amastan off his feet and thrown him into the wall like he’d been little more than a bag of trash. He could still feel those cold, stiff fingers digging into his neck, still taste the acid at the back of his throat as his bravery shattered into terror – and shame.
“The en-marabi is gone,” said Amastan, trying to push away the cobweb cling of memory.
“Nevertheless, the girl is exhibiting the same symptoms,” insisted Salid. “If it isn’t his doing, then I fear we may have a bigger problem.”
“What are the chances of two en-marab, sa?”
“What are the chances of one?”
Amastan sat with a heavy thump. “What do you want from me?” He gestured at his cane. “I’m in no shape to fight monsters.”
“Not a monster,” corrected Salid. “Bound. I came to you because you’re the only other person currently in this city who has met these things face to face. You understand what this means.” Salid stopped fidgeting with his glass and finally set it down, empty. “After Thana left, I spent some time reading up on our en-marabi friend and what rumor claims he’s capable of. Even taking sensationalizing and hyperbole into account, we have good reason to be alarmed.”
“If you have a friend among the marab, you should take this to them.” He gestured at himself. “This is what happened the last time I tried to fight them.”
Salid crossed his arms. “Did I ask you to fight, sa? No. I’m only asking for somebody who understands the very real danger of what we are facing here. I’ve already spoken to the marab – they refuse to listen. To them, this slave is an anomaly, not a warning of what could be coming. Izri… the marab want to handle this themselves, but they refuse to believe that en-marab ever existed, let alone still practice, let alone in our city. Even if we could convince them, it’ll be too late.”
“It’s one slave, a remnant from the en-marabi’s attacks. Why do you think there will be more?”
“There was a clear progression to Djet’s work and I fear that this en-marabi – or perhaps Djet himself – will follow the same path. Yes he marked men’s flesh to bind their jaan, but he also experimented with other binding methods, ones that didn’t leave a mark. Before his death, a strange affliction struck a village near Na Tay Khet. Every person – adults and children both – simply disappeared. Around the same time, rumors circled of monsters who couldn’t be hurt or killed who were attacking any travelers who neared the village. These monsters couldn’t feel pain and they wouldn’t stop until you’d taken the head from their shoulders.”
Salid leaned toward Amastan, eyes alight with intensity. “If I’m correct – and I pray to G-d that I’m not – then this may be our only warning, our one chance to prepare. Whatever Djet has done, this slave won’t be the last. There will be more. We must be ready, or else his bound will overwhelm us and our city will become another warning for history. If I’m wrong, then we will have prepared for nothing and lose only our time, maybe some dignity. Do you understand now why I came to you?”
Amastan nodded. “You need a plan.”
“We need a plan.”
“All right.” Amastan leveraged himself up and crossed the room to the hearth. “But we’re going to need a lot of tea.”
Early evening was coalescing in the air and in the streets all around Amastan as he stood in front of the familiar faded red door. He shook out his wrap and shifted his weight so that he wasn’t leaning so heavily on his cane, despite the exertion from having walked all the way here. Then, when he couldn’t put it off any longer, he knocked.
A minute passed, the street filling even further with those venturing out into the fading light to run the errands they’d put off during the worst of the day’s heat. The air was like the steam off boiling water, except instead of a passing unpleasantness, it was constant. Sweat stuck Amastan’s wrap to his back and peppered his brow as he wished he was anywhere but here.
He knocked again. After another minute, he raised his cane.
The door swung open, hitting the wall with a tooth-rattling crack. An older woman with a thick twist of braids and wearing a smoky purple wrap stared him down with eyes the exact same shade of sand-brown as her absent daughter’s. Tamella, the notorious and rightly-feared Serpent of Ghadid and Thana’s mother, took in his cane and cast and then looked past him, scanning the platform center beyond.
When she didn’t find what she was looking for, she eyed Amastan’s still upraised cane with disdain, then yanked it – and him – through the door. Amastan was still trying to catch his balance, pain shooting through his ankle, as Tamella slammed the door shut and flicked the lock into place. Amastan steadied himself on a chair and was just beginning to wonder if this hadn’t been the more dangerous of his options when Tamella whirled on him, eyes sparking.
“Where’s my daughter?”
Amastan held up his hand. “She’s fine, ma. Thana’s fine.”
Tamella sized him up as if for a fight – which wouldn’t be the first time, at least – but her gaze narrowed as it caught on his cane, his ankle, his arm. She focused on his eyes last, stance shifting so that she was taller, took up even more space. “She hasn’t been home in three days. I know she shared her contract with you. It doesn’t look like that contract is going well. Why didn’t she come with you? Am I going to find her unconscious in a healer’s room?”
The knife appeared in Tamella’s hand as if it had always been there. Before Amastan could back away or even raise his cane, she had the blade pressed against his throat. Her breath was close, hot, and her skin smelled of sweet palm nut oil.
“I’m not going to ask again, so you’d best pay attention,” she hissed. “Where. Is. She.”
Amastan swallowed and the blade pressed harder against his throat. Tamella didn’t trust fully him, hadn’t for years, not since he’d fought her on a rooftop and, worst, questioned her judgement. So he didn’t question her willingness to hurt him. Yet, inexplicably, she’d let her daughter work with him on numerous contracts. Or, if not outright let, at least never interfered.
Careful to speak slowly and clearly, Amastan said, “Before I explain, please promise you won’t do anything rash, ma.”
Tamella considered him, her face a blank mask. Then, without warning, she pushed him into the table at his back and slammed his hand against its wood paneling, all the while keeping the knife at his throat. She ground the heel of her hand into his bones, her gaze intent on his, willing him to look away. It took every ounce of control for Amastan not to wrench away or cry out.
“I don’t think you’re in any position to ask for favors. If you want to keep your fingers, talk.”
The words spilled out as fast as he could form them. “There was more to the contract than we were told. Thana’s tracking the mark by traveling with a caravan to Na Tay Khet. She–”
Tamella leaned on his hand, cutting him off. “She’s left Ghadid.”
“–but you’re still here.” While Tamella had grown deadly calm, she increased the pressure on his hand, yanking a thin whimper from Amastan’s throat.
“I didn’t have a choice!” he gasped out. He sucked in a breath and closed his eyes against the pain – a mistake. Now he could see the bones breaking under Tamella’s implacable fury, stealing even his ability to write. “I would’ve gone with her, but she left instructions with the healers to keep me unconscious.”
“That’s my girl.” Tamella chuckled even if she didn’t ease up. “But how did you end up at the healers?”
“The mark wasn’t what we’d been told, ma. Kaseem had said he was a marabi, but not that he was an en-marabi, that he could bind–”
“You let my daughter go off alone with a jaani thief?” This time, the knife bit into his throat, as gentle as a lover’s kiss. “Cousins are to work in pairs! What is the point of you if you couldn’t even manage that?”
“Please,” whispered Amastan. “Let me explain. I can’t run, and if you still want to break my hand when I’m done, you may.”
For a moment, Tamella looked like she was going to break his hand anyway. Then she stepped back, releasing his hand and removing the knife from his throat. She still kept her blade loosely trained on him, even as she yanked a chair under herself and sagged into it. Amastan blinked back glitters of pain, breathing through a wave of nausea. Somehow, he didn’t think being sick all over Tamella’s floor would redeem him with her.
When the nausea subsided, he moved his fingers just enough to confirm nothing was broken. Then, all too aware that he was trapped by a woman who could just as easily take his eye as breathe, Amastan began his story at the very beginning.
As he led Tamella through the events of only a week before, her rigid posture melted and she tilted forward with interest, then back again with concern, but the knife kept her threat clear. Amastan finished his story with Thana’s last visit at the healers’ and the decision they’d arrived at together: that Thana would leave with the caravan and take a stab at the contract on the sands. Alone.
“I’d have thought that you, more than anyone, understood how dangerous attempting a contract alone could be.” Her voice was still sharp, but the blade stayed in her hand instead of Amastan’s throat. “Kaseem should never have given Thana that contract. A marabi is much too advanced a mark for a novice assassin. Of course she’ll fail.”
“Kaseem saw her potential. You underestimate her.”
Tamella snorted. “You coddle her.”
Amastan bristled. “I treat her as an equal. She was still in training, yes, but this last contract – if you’d seen her, seen the way she’d kept calm when the whole thing was falling apart… well. Maybe you would have been proud.”
“I wouldn’t have neglected to discover any cross-reactions. She put herself in unnecessary danger.”
Amastan shook his head. “It was my contract. That mistake belongs to me, not her.”
“She’s only a child–”
“She’s older than I was when I took my first contract and far more experienced than when you had me find Yanniq’s killer. Kaseem knows what he’s doing. Trust him, if not your own daughter.”
Some of the tension finally left Tamella and the knife’s point angled toward the floor. “Fine. But you can’t fault a mother for worrying.”
Amastan swallowed a response – he would have picked a different word than worrying.
“Ever since that night…” started Tamella, but when she trailed off, she didn’t continue.
She didn’t need to. Amastan knew exactly what she meant, could still taste the fear from that night. Of course Tamella would always hold the memory of when she’d come within a hair’s breadth of losing her only child within reach, just beneath the surface of her skin. That’s where you kept your failures, so you never forgot. Or forgave.
Tamella’s gaze sharpened. “If she doesn’t come back, I will kill you.”
Amastan let out a breath, but he couldn’t let the reprieve from one danger eclipse the danger he’d come here for. “We need to make certain there’s a ‘back’ when she returns.”
Tamella frowned. “What do you mean?”
“I didn’t come here for you to threaten and berate me.” Amastan rubbed his hand, searching for any fractures or breaks but – thankfully – only finding pain. “A dead slave attacked her master and healers yesterday.”
“And your mark has a habit of making the dead do things.” Tamella shrugged. “Perhaps he left you a little surprise. If you’d only gone with my daughter, you could’ve solved this problem by now.”
“The mark departed several days ago. If this were his work, then how many more surprises should we expect to find? And if this wasn’t his work, then what does that mean for us that there could be two en-marab when there should be none?”
Tamella sheathed her knife and crossed her legs. “You already have a theory. So tell it.”
“We need to be prepared for the worst.”
“You think this will happen again.”
“I pray that I’m wrong,” said Amastan. “But Salid found records of similar events, when the dead did not stay dead, and these never ended with just one. We can’t know what this one is ultimately planning, but from these records, we can plan that there will be more victims. These dead – these bound, as Salid calls them – can’t feel pain and can’t be killed like normal people. According to these records, it only took a handful of these creatures to wipe out entire villages.”
“Sounds like information you should pass on to the drum chiefs,” said Tamella. “They have watchmen just for that reason.”
“You know the Circle won’t listen to any of this, let alone do anything about it.” Amastan crossed his arms. “They’ll say I’m hysterical and then it’ll be too late. The records Salid uncovered – the dead didn’t stay dead. Any of them. That’s the core of the problem – one or two bound won’t cause a lot of harm, but more than that will quickly overwhelm. We need to handle this and we can’t wait for the drum chiefs.”
“So what’s your plan?”
Amastan took a deep breath before answering: “We need to be prepared.”
Tamella’s eyes widened, just a little, just enough so that he knew she understood. Then she nodded, the violent tension in her posture replaced by something more inquisitive, more serpentine. “The family.”
Amastan nodded. Waited.
Her lips twitched into a smile that was made all the more frightening for its proximity to violence. “Why not? After all, it has always been our purpose to protect the city, even if that purpose got a little muddled over time. And it’s not like we’ll be working outside any contracts. It’s not murder if they’re already dead.” Her smile was slow, but lethal. “It’s been many years since I’ve worked a contract, Amastan. Many would say I’m out of practice, too old. It might not be wise to involve me.”
Amastan held his throbbing hand against his chest. “Now that, I know is wrong.”
Tamella spread her legs and leaned forward, hands clasped as if in prayer. “What’s your plan?”
(Part two: Second Wave)