Now Available: Mouth of the Underworld

MOUTH OF THE UNDERWORLD

FANTASY

CLINT WESTGARD

The Mouth of the Underworld, the eater of souls, has long been lost. But Kasuir and Jasryl, Hautlyrun youths who have heard endless tales of it, discover its entrance in the highlands above their town.

They are forbidden to enter the cave, warned that the old tales may be true. But they are both young. They do not believe in those old stories, told to scare them as children. The old ways were all proven wrong when the Ven conquered and brought the railroad and modernity.

But sometimes old tales do have a kernel of truth. For something awaits them in the Mouth of the Underworld. From it, there will be no escape.

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Excerpt: Mouth of the Underworld

In advance of the publication of Mouth of the Underworld on December 14, here is a short excerpt:

Help me. I am here. Help me. I am trapped.”

The words, carried on the wind, from somewhere within the mountain, were so faint I could barely make them out. I leaned forward, straining to see if there was any more to be heard, but only the sharp whistle of the wind on stone and the stirring of the trees behind me reached my ears. I stayed rooted where I was for five minutes or more, my sweat cooling on my back, but the voice did not return. I stood on the threshold of the Mouth of the Underworld, peering uneasily into the darkness that lay beyond the narrow ingress, knowing that I had to step within that void, but fearing to cross into that unknown realm.

My father had forbidden me to enter this place, and it was not in me to disobey him.

Only the past lies there,” he had said. “We have forgotten the entrance for a reason.”

I could have argued that the past was who we were, that we had to face it and exorcise those demons if we were to ever be free of the Ven and their rule. But I had not, for there were many in Huispar who still believed in demons, in the terrible gods of the deep our ancestors had once worshipped. They believed the old laws still applied and that no Hautlyrun should enter the caves, for they were the path to the underworld, where the living had no place. That I knew differently did not matter, the cataman’s son had to obey the ancient laws.

The breeze coming from the mouth of the cave died and silence descended in the surrounding cloud forest, as though the whole world was hushed, awaiting my decision. I had imagined the words, I told myself, imagined the voice, my own disquiet playing tricks on my mind.

But, even if that were true, it did not matter. Jasryl was still down there somewhere below. He had been gone for the better part of two days and there was nowhere else he could be. I had to go after him, because no one else would dare. More than that, he was the truest friend I had in this world. If I left him to die I would never be able to forgive myself, no matter that it went against my father’s word and my own nature.

The decision made, I felt the weight lift from my shoulders. I slid through the narrow gap, the jagged edges of the stone almost touching my arms, giving me the distinct sensation of teeth closing in for a bite. I tried to ignore the feeling, though it was difficult, telling myself it was just the stories I had heard as a child coming to life in my head.

Three days before I had crossed this same threshold with Jasryl. That had been a different occasion, both of us filled with awe and excitement. Now every harbinger seemed to point toward doom.

I knelt in the opening of the cave where there was still enough light that I could see and fought with the lantern I had brought, trying to get it to stay lit. The wind was very strong, gusting at times, almost sweet smelling, alive with the earth itself. As I crouched over the lantern, trying to spark the oil, the words came on the wind again, more distinct this time, the voice clearly recognizable.

Help me. I am here. Help me. I am trapped.” Continue reading

Excerpt: Dance of Shadows

There were no Shadows upon the desert, at least none that they had seen, and the cohorts were growing restless, their desire for blood growing stronger even as a lingering unease began to edge into their thoughts the farther into the desert they went. Would they lose themselves in this place, as so many had said before whenever an invasion of the desert had been proposed, whether at court or in a drinkery, chasing Shadows? The kehels and seconds merely repeated what their Gvers, who themselves were beginning to feel anxious about the entire enterprise, had told them: they were marching to the ruined city Esyln there to face the Shadow Men and their alkemysts. And what if they should find only ruins there, the men asked, and to that there was no answer.

The answer, Donier thought as he relieved himself in the latrine dug the night before, was that the Council Adepts would decide the matter, letting the Gvers and the Qraul think the decision was theirs. That was how they had ended up here in the first place, after all. The Adepts would take them everyone to their doom all over a couple of engines.

Donier spat when he was finished and clapped his hands together, a ritual begun sometime in his youth and now done unconsciously, though he could not have told anyone of its providence. He picked his way among the still-slumbering cohorts, going mostly by memory, dawn still a little way off, though there was a hint of light on the horizon. A false light, he knew; the sun would not arise for at least another hour.

He had become used to the desert in the last week, now knew its rituals. There was the false light before morning, the endless sunsets that seemed to color the whole sky, the wind that would pick up late in the morning and die as evening settled in, to say nothing of the unrelenting heat of the day and surprising cool of the night. The vastness of it all, these endless landscapes, red rocked or dull green, fading to brown with scrub, and the scent of sage everywhere.

It was the place of his dreams, he realized. It all had the same feel, the same absence of any other living things, and the silence but for the wind. The valley where he had walked endlessly he felt certain was here somewhere, though he had no urge to discover it and the destination he had been seeking. The Gods, though, would decide the matter, he knew. He could only thank them that the dreams had absented themselves since the march into the desert had begun.

His thoughts were still upon the dreams as he slipped into his tent, hoping to get another hour’s sleep before duty called him forth, so he did not notice the other man’s presence until the hand was at his throat and the point of the dagger was pressed into his back. Continue reading

Coming Soon: Dance of Shadows

Available December 2015

War with the Shadow Men looms in both realms as the consequences of the Gvers’ Council in Craitol begin to make themselves known. A war that could end in glorious triumph or bitter disaster.

Doubt shadows everyone’s steps, for they know there are no certainties in the desert. Especially now the Shadow Men have made the art of alkemya their own.

No one has more questions than Vyissan, for he is working in service to a cause he is no longer sure he believes in. And now he must undertake a journey with those who both loathe and fear him. Before the first sword is drawn, his life will be under threat.

But his will not be the only one, for somewhere in the desert the Shadow Men lie in wait…

Dance of Shadows is the final volume in The Shadow Men.

Fiction: Last Night

Another long night of keeping watch without a fire. I can smell olives on the trees. There is noise all around: the stirrings of a breeze, a restless unseen creature, or something more sinister? The air feels like a coming squall. The moon has disappeared above and I am left with only the stars till morning.

The roads are dangerous. Life is dangerous, after a time, when all the consequences from things done and choices made begin to make themselves known.

I can just make out your form through the darkness. I long to lie beside you, to press up against you and feel the contours of your body. It has been months since we had such luxury, every moment of passion has been a stolen one. A few minutes here as we rest out of sight of the road, or a few minutes there as we trade off the watch, one of us still filled with the sleep, the other driven to frenzy by boredom.

It is such an empty life now, it is hard not to feel despair, especially in these bleak moments when the darkness is my only companion. When did life become so absent of anything but survival, our days all the same, repeating themselves one after the other? I cannot recall. Every choice seemed beyond doubt, essential to our beings. Now I can hardly recall them. They seem barely to matter.

The world has just gone to fire. All of us tearing at each other in a frenzy, until nothing remains but the bones.

See the rest at Circumambient Scenery

Image: Van Gogh’s The Olive Trees

Council of Shadows

NOW AVAILABLE!

Discontent continues to fester within the realms of Craitol and Renuih, fed by intrigues carried out in the shadows. As rivals and apostates struggle for supremacy, a long incubated plan begins to unfold.

Vyissan, a mysterious alkemycal practitioner arrives in Renuih, the latest strike in a long war over who shall control the secrets of alkemya and Craitol itself. He carries with him a secret that, once revealed, will reverberate across all realms. Before he can reveal it though, the conspirators against the emperor will strike their own blow.

But now, a new and more powerful menace looms on the horizon. The Shadow Men have gained the secrets of the Council Adept’s alkemya and no one can be certain what they will do with it…

Council of Shadows is the second volume in The Shadow Men.

Available at Amazon, Kobo and Smashwords

 

Coming Soon: A Council of Shadows

Discontent continues to fester within the realms of Craitol and Renuih, fed by intrigues carried out in the shadows. As rivals and apostates struggle for supremacy, a new and more powerful menace looms on the horizon. For the Shadow Men have gained the secrets of the Council Adept’s alkemya and no one can be certain what they will do with it.

In Craitol a council is called to discuss the threat. Gver Keleprai, unsure of who he can trust, attempts to walk a dangerous line between the High Adept and those who oppose his designs. But the Golden Veil has risen from the ashes of its destruction and they want vengeance.

Meanwhile, Masiph is drawn deeper and deeper into the conspiracy against the emperor, even as his father comes ever closer to uncovering it and his son’s involvement. But the arrival of Vyissan in the Renian capital and the secret he carries will change everything.

A Council of Shadows is the second volume of The Shadow Men, a richly imagined epic fantasy. The third volume, The Dance of the Shadows, will be available in October 2014.

Now Available: Realm of Shadows

Realm of Shadows eBook Cover

Discontent festers within the realms of Craitol and Renuih, fed by battles and intrigues carried out in the shadows. As rivals and apostates struggle for power, a new and more powerful menace looms on the horizon. For, in this world of shadows, it is the Shadow Men who stand apart, threatening the existence of both realms and exposing long simmering conflicts to the light of day. And now they have gained the secrets of the Council Adept’s alkemya.

Caught in the middle of this growing hostility is Masiph id Ezern, unfavored son of the Imperial Vazeir. As he tries to forge a path for himself within the empire, he finds himself drawn into a conspiracy against the emperor and his father. With the rains coming to the desert, the choices he makes will have consequences that reverberate across all the realms.

The first part of The Shadows’ Dance. The second volume, The Passing of Days, will be available in 2014.

A novel by Clint Westgard
Available at AmazonKobo and Smashwords

The Disciple’s Inquiries

It had been raining on and off throughout the morning, a band of dark, heavy clouds settling over the city. For the moment it had halted, though there was a slight mist in the air. A miserable day, biting, with the wind and a damp that rotted at the bone. Disciple Hieran tramped, disgusted, through the streets to the Morning grounds, his foul mood made worse by the sight of two palanquins passing him on the road. He should have been used to it by now, but it still galled him that the Disciple of the Adept of Lastl did not have the coin to afford a rented palanquin in the rain. He cursed, not the first time, the Council for joining him to the greatest miser in the Realm. Not just a miser but a doddering old fool, more interested in his scrolls and specimens than the alkemyc arts. So, rather than practicing the art for which he had suffered years of training and disappointments, Hieran spent his days as the Adept’s errand boy.

No, it had all been disappointment and dreams denied since he had come, a supplicant, to the Council eight years ago. He had barely been a man then, though he was already a thaumaturge of some repute in his village Quilran, near Takyl. People came from villages over two days’ journey away just to have him heal their broken bones and the like. Unaware that there were men such as he in villages across the Realm, though few who were prodigies in thaumaturgy as he was, Hieran got it into his head that he should appeal to the Council to join their ranks.

And so, at fifteen, he had set out from home for Craitol, the Qraul’s city, to plead his case before the Council of Adepts. It was a harrowing journey for one who had hardly gone more than a day or so from Quilran. He spent a night in Takyl and was robbed and beaten and then spent another week on the streets of the city, begging for food and trying to find someone who would pay for his skills. When he had gained what he thought was enough coin for the journey he left Takyl, setting out for Craitol. His first two nights he spent at the roadside inns eating and drinking his fill and taking a girl to his room, only to find that his funds were nearly exhausted and the opportunities to earn more, which he had foolishly assumed would be there, were nonexistent. The rest of his journey he spent his nights in ditches under Senteur’s heavens and even had to spend two days outdoors in Craitol itself until he managed to convince the gatekeepers at the Council’s school that he was not some mere vagrant.

Fours years as a pupil passed with rigorous study of alkemya and its related arts. When he was deemed ready for elevation of rank, he submitted himself to the Council for testing, a grueling two-day affair where he had to demonstrate his abilities at drawing forth the astral aspects of various elements and shaping them into seeds of alkemy. He was judged to be of the highest proficiency and was admitted to the Council’s inner circle, though they felt him lacking in some critical faculties and so named him a Disciple rather than an Adept. He should have been happy, for most who passed the tests—and there were many who did not—were left to the Council’s outer circle to pass their days as unjoined conjurors, little grander in the scheme of things than a village thaumaturge. But instead, he was crushed by his failure to be named an Adept, a loss made all the keener by his joining to the Adept of Lastl. That hurt had not been lessened by the passage of time, mostly because his master Tehh was a man he thoroughly despised. And he had to suffer to submit, all his skill, the very astral of his being, to the service of that man, never his to be the guiding hand.

The Morning Grounds were not far from the Palace and the coliseum. Nearest the street was the public match ground and attached to it were the Morning’s betting and performing halls. Beyond that, and behind a wall, were the barracks and training fields for the players and a larger performing hall where the Morning’s musicians, actors, and dancers would put on their grander performances. There was a match set for the afternoon, the Morning’s third rank against Midday’s, which was the reason Hieran had to suffer the rain. He praised the Gods that he would not have to endure the stands.

He went to the wagering hall, which was empty but for a few bettors and the usual hangers-on, stopping first at a stand near the entrance to buy a dala drink to warm himself, before beginning to wander around. He didn’t have long to wait – a bookmaker approached him almost immediately. The man was short and a little stout, with a mess of hair that was starting to thin. His face was guarded in the way all such men were and he nodded a greeting at Hieran, which he returned in kind, neither of them particularly caring for the other’s name.

What have you?” Hieran asked.

The bookmaker shrugged noncommittally. “Depends, depends. Suppose you’re looking for some asyl. I know some people who have dealings with some Enir traders. Long story, but they just got their latest supply last week. Very good quality, you cannot find its like in this city. You’re a man of quality, I can see.”

Quite,” the Disciple said. “That’s not what I’m interested in today, though. I’m wondering about the odds for today’s match. I’ve heard one of your stringers has gone missing.”

A merest shrug of the shoulders. How am I to keep track of the comings and goings of these players?

They probably don’t have a replacement just yet, he only went yesterday.”

The bookmaker waved his hand, “Pssh. He wasn’t much of a player, you know. Could hardly manage a toss. He wasn’t moving up the rankings, surely. No one’s going to notice him missing, I can assure you of that.

No, no sense throwing money after this today. There’s no coin here,” he said, gesturing about the hall. “Besides, it’s going to be raining all day. Who wants to be sitting out in that? Now I have to, mind you, but I certainly don’t encourage such behavior. No, your coin is better spent elsewhere. I happen to have the acquaintance of a few of the finer dancers of the Morning who will most certainly be free this afternoon. Why pay market price in the arches when a finer commodity is on offer and at fair coin?”

Quality again.”

Indeed. Fair coin for fair coin.”

Sadly, I am on official business.”

Aren’t we all.”

Hieran smiled slightly. “From the Palace.”

The bookmaker went silent, frowning. Hieran increased his smile. “You wouldn’t happen to know a gentleman named Fennen? A Morning supporter.”

He was around,” the bookmaker said.

He was a Palace guard,” the Disciple said, followed by a shrug from the bookmaker. What of it?

He was killed yesterday, in the alley of one of the Morning drinkeries. You probably heard. His face was disfigured.”

Another shrug, though Hieran thought he detected some nervousness about the man. The wrong answer was now a dangerous proposition. If people were having Palace guards murdered they would not hesitate to do the same to an odds man.

He owed you money,” Hieran said, gesturing to the betting hall. “A great deal of money, am I correct?”

I wouldn’t know. I didn’t take his bets.”

Hieran stared hard at the man, waiting. “I wouldn’t know,” he repeated.

I am not a Magistery, obviously, but I do have the authority of the Gver to arrest you.”

On what basis?” the bookmaker demanded. It was Hieran’s turn to shrug. What did it matter? He did not take his eyes from the bookmaker’s.

He has no debts with us,” the bookmaker said at last.

Hieran let out a silent Ah. “How were they settled?”

The bookmaker had turned to stone, not even blinking. He did not answer.

Coincidences and more coincidences, all very convenient. Fennen’s debts gone though not paid, and he murdered. A no-rank ball player vanishes at the same time and no one knows a thing about him past or future. In fact, no one knew anything – how long he had been with the Morning in Lastl, who he had spent time with, what he had done.

He had wandered through the betting hall and then over to the theater where some actors were running lines for that afternoon’s performance and received much the same response. Everyone knew who he was speaking of, but whether they knew what had happened to him or not, they kept silent. A series of shrugs and avoided glances was all he got in return for his questions. How thick they all were.

It was to be expected, of course, and no one had bothered with coming up with a lie yet, which suggested that they did not attach any real importance to the man’s disappearance. They simply saw no need to cooperate with a Palace man. It was not unheard of for a stringer to vanish without reason. They hardly made enough to keep themselves in food, and at some point most were forced to admit that they were not going to rise through the ranks. A merchant wanting to have his rivals good stolen or anyone looking to have some brutality done to someone would come looking for just such a man, and if the money was good enough, well, why bother coming back?

He went into one of the barracks and began speaking to a hungover stringer, having talked his way past the gatekeepers and into the compound. The player’s face was such an ashen color that Hieran felt ill just looking at him. He wasn’t getting much out of the fellow beyond grunts and “Lazul was a good sort,” so he decided to press on and see who else he could find that might volunteer more, or at least let something slip. He was met at the door by two hired swords, northerners by the look of them, who blocked his way with their short blades.

I am from the Palace,” he told them as though unfurling a passkey.

They did not reply, one of them simply stepping aside to allow him room to pass, jerking his head as he did so. Hieran considered arguing the point but decided against it and allowed himself to be led outside. The two swords walked on either side of him, neither bothering to sheath their swords, leading him along a path deeper into the Morning grounds. They were given a wide berth by everyone they passed, which was disconcerting, and he was taken to what he assumed was the estate of the Morning Chair. It was a sprawling building, three storied, with balconies and what looked like some walled gardens behind.

A servant let them in, observing their passage without expression. Panic seized Hieran once he realized that they were not going to throw him off the grounds. Instead they led him downstairs past the wine cellar, and through another basement before coming through a door to a cell. They stopped and one of the men unlocked the door while the other leveled his sword at Hieran. He glanced about, trying to get what bearings he could in the gloom. The smell of earth was heavy in the air.

Once the door was open, the man gestured with his sword for Hieran to enter to the cell. He almost refused, ready to make his stand there, but thought better of it. It wasn’t like they would kill him; the Chair of Morning could not afford to defy the Gver in such a way. The whole situation was bizarre. Why, if he was on the right track, draw such attention by imprisoning a Palace representative?

Stepping into the cell, he started to say, “This is outrageous, you understand,” and then one of them struck him hard on the back of the head. He fell to the floor with a grunt. Another blow and he felt as though he were floating atop an ebbing tide. He tried to look up at his attackers but he had no sense of whether he was actually moving his head or not. All he could see were waves of color that swirled across his vision. Another blow and the colors went, the gloom descending to dark.

from Realm of Shadows

Every Cursed Night

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.”

Really?”

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

from Realm of Shadows: The Quiet of the Night