Clouds blanketed the sky, rippling bruises in the twilight. The city Darrhyn below, sprawling along the bend of a wide river, was draped in the resultant shadows, pierced only intermittently by the remnants of the day’s sun. Hurried figures passed from street to street in certain of its quarters to light the lamps, while others were left to what the night would bring. Along the city’s great wall the beacons in the towers were struck, signaling the changing of the Watch. The new quadras marched up tower stairs, the soldiers heading out to pace the ramparts, looking into the final glare of the sun as it cast the scrub of the desert in oranges and reds.
Within one of the watchtowers five men squinted in the lamplight at a just-overturned cup, none of them speaking. Above them the sentinel on duty was singing an academy song about a woman so light in her manners that she would invite any man to sup with her.
“Call,” the dealer said as he removed his hand from the cup, its contents still a mystery.
The youth to his left exhaled slowly as he eyed the cup. “Even. Five kenir,” he said, the flames of the beacon above them snapping as more oil was added.
“Odd. I’ll see you, Husem,” the man beside him said, and the youth grimaced. “You’re too young to be a gamester, I think.”
He had a face gone thick with age and a long scar that ran from his chin up to his ear, just above the line of his jaw on one side. When he grinned, as he was doing now, it had the effect of creating what seemed a double smile on that half of his face.
“He lacks ability,” the dealer said.
“Short on talent as well,” the man said, to the laughter of everyone but the youth. The others at the table followed through with their bets, all odd.
Masiph id Ezern bit his lip. “I hope this is all above board,” he said, staring at the dealer whose hand had strayed back to the cup.
“I hope so too,” the man, Achelluth, said. “Someone short on talent and without ability certainly can’t handle the underboard of life.”
Masiph bit his lip again, not replying, and the dealer pulled the cup away, revealing two dice—a four and a three. There were whoops from around the table, but he did not look up, his eyes fixed on the dull bones whose pips had betrayed him again.
“That’s it. I’m out,” he said, pushing the last of his coins across the table. “I’m getting some air.”
“Neither the coin nor the stamp for it, Husem,” Achelluth called out, the white of his scar almost gleaming. “You haven’t run through your allowance already, have you?”
“Hardly. I have better things to spend it on than at this table.”
“Well, at least you are wise enough to know you will be spending it here,” Achelluth said to more laughter. Masiph just nodded and walked out the door.
He wandered from the tower, stopping just outside the glow of the beacon to lean against the ramparts. It had been a cool day, given the rains could not be far away, and now that the sun was nearly set the night brought a chill. One of the two men on patrol on this stretch of the wall passed by, and they greeted each other. Masiph reached into the folds of his robe for the pouch that held his aslyn and put a quid in his cheek.
“Quiet night,” he said, as the soldier passed back in the other direction.
“Every cursed night is quiet, Husem.”
Masiph smiled, starting to work at the quid, as he stared idly at the veil of the night descending upon the desert. Here, so near the Eresnan River, it was a green desert—the short grass and sage brush that was its hallmark, plentiful and vibrant in color and scent. Once the rains began there would be even more as other plants began to flower. It was something he was curious to see, for though he had lived in Darrhyn his entire life he, like so many others from the city, had not set foot outside the western wall. When he had travelled it had been east into the Ferryen Plains, or down the Eresnan where the desert, so near, was safely kept from sight by the trees that lined its banks. To most Darrhynna, the desert was worthy of no more than a wary glance to the west and a scuff of a boot heel at the earth when talk turned to the Shadow Men.
Masiph had joined the Watch at the beginning of the dry season, five months ago, over his father’s objections. For once Ibrazol had relented, though it had not felt like a victory as Masiph had expected. It felt like his father had in some way outmaneuvered him again, achieving his desired end in allowing his son this. Perhaps he had. Masiph never could tell what his father’s thoughts were and was still not clear on his own feelings now that he had achieved his desire. The work itself was tedious—a few weeks on, a few days off, and always a quiet night.
This in spite of what one could hear walking the streets. To listen to the talk there was to believe that the Imperial city’s very existence was precarious, given its location in that nebulous region near the Empire’s border where the desert began. And the desert was the creatures’ domain. Never mind that the Shadow Men, even as they were conquering the desert, shattering the Empire a hundred years ago, had never dared an attack on Darrhyn and its fabled great walls. None had in the five centuries it had served as capital of Renuih.
There had been a raid a week ago in Fardun, little more than a day’s journey southeast—the first of the season, and earlier than usual, given the rains had not started. Strangely, the fact that it was an unimportant farming village seemed to lead to even more anguish among the populace. There was no sense to it, but why did there have to be? It was the creatures, after all. They were without reason and purpose, moving like common beasts with the seasons, content with the barest of existences on the rock and scrub of the desert.
In the streets talk turned to conspiracy and invasion. This was the only tangible result of a Shadow Men raid. That afternoon Masiph had heard that the shadows were gathering near Ghehel and were working to rebuild the Nasuila Bridge to use as a gateway to strike at the heart of the Empire, cutting the Ferryen Plains off from the capital and the southern provinces. At any given moment in the rainy season Darrhyn was a day or hours away from a massive army of the creatures materializing at its gates. In a week, maybe less, it would all be forgotten—until word of the next attack arrived.
We live in an age diminished, Masiph thought, the shadows of greater days. Before the fall of the desert, even during that desperate struggle to maintain their hold in that realm, the denizens of this city would never have cowered at the mention of a mere raid by the creatures. The thought would have been laughable. Now those who had to memorize their invocations, and even some of their betters, spoke of the Shadow Men as the natural inhabitants of the desert. Generations of Renians had known no other life but that of the desert—and that included his own family—yet that seemed to be almost forgotten now, or at least dismissed.
“What’s the thought this evening?” Nustef id Illied said to him as he stepped out of the tower. The Nohritai was older than his fellow nobleman, with narrow features and a heavier green tone to his skin than was usual for those from Darrhyn.
“We can only bear a life of fear so long,” Masiph said.
“Heavy things indeed, especially for someone with no marrow in his bones,” Nustef laughed.
“Where else do you find the pox but in the bones?”
“The voice of experience, perhaps? Are you preparing lines for your chronicle?”
“I don’t think so. The historians just put whatever words they want into the mouths of whoever anyway. Husem Azyereh was illiterate, I’ve been told.”
“Yes. He was not a favored cousin.”
More laughter. “Fair enough, I suppose. I always forget that he had a life before he became the Ad Eselte’s Vazeir.”
“Someday though,” Masiph said, “we’ll have to do something about the shadows or we’ll be nothing more than carrion for them to feast on. Better to act now than to be put to the squeak later.”
“You shouldn’t listen to what you hear in the drinkeries. It only bothers the blood.”
“The drink or the talk?” he said.
“I wouldn’t know these things. I lead a pious life, as my ancestors and the sage Delth proscribe.”
Masiph spat over the wall in response and Nustef smiled. “Talk to Our Most Benevolent One. Don’t you have his ear by now?”
“Oh yes, I join him daily for his constitutionals and we discuss all the important matters of the Empire in between verses.”
“Does he really go walking about every morning?”
Masiph shrugged. I would be the last to know.
Nustef took his own quid out, putting it in his cheek, and the two of them chewed in silence. There was a small copse near the wall that was filled with dahrrynna birds, the capital’s namesake, and their animated calls as they roused themselves for an evening of feasting on insects drowned the air. This was the scene that faced them every night as the sun slipped below the horizon, and that familiarity and the calm that now settled over the day’s end was seductive.
Masiph felt strongly about what he said regarding the creatures. It was an easy thing to be passionate about, given no one was so derelict of their senses as to invade the desert. A byproduct of the restlessness of youth, his father would say in that dismissive tone which burned his ears. That his father, and no doubt that useless philosopher Ad Eselte, frowned upon his views only served to confirm them even more firmly in his mind. Something would have to be done, if only because no one else seemed to think that was the case.
The last Renian force to invade the desert in an attempt to reclaim their birthright had been led by a cousin of his father’s, Waleen, ten years before his own birth. Two hundred sons, the flower of the Darrhynna youth, had joined him, dazzled by his speeches calling for a crusade to purify the desert of the black scourge, to resurrect those ancestors lost there and restore the empire whole. The result was predictable: a laughable disaster guided by a mad fool. Most failed to return and those who did were ruined, never to be whole again. Masiph had seen a few of them on visits to other Nohritai homes, balding men who walked about like children, unsure of each step.
Such a catastrophe had the effect of ensuring that no Ad Eselte or Nohritai would propose a war against the Shadow Men for generations. Still, Masiph admired Waleen his madness. His cousin, he thought, probably had felt much as he did the echo in each step of his life. If a cauldron of blood in the desert was necessary to drag this plain into a new age, then let it come.
“He’s a poet,” he said, breaking their silence. “He has the pouting lips for squeaking after all. Certainly no stomach for war.”
“Probably he’s too concerned about self-important Nohritai who think they know better than him how to run the empire.” Nustef said.
A clanging bell down the wall stifled Masiph’s reply. Just as it started to ring it dropped silent, leaving a dimming tremor of sound in the air before it began again in earnest. Both of them stood confused, unsure of what to do. The ringing stopped and did not resume, the darrhynna continuing their chatter, oblivious of this brief disruption, the alluring stillness holding