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 will finally be able to take his revenge - but at what cost?
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.
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.
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 fire glow, 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 did not intend to allow 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 she 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.
Unless Azzad could get to the palace in time.
"A tale of loyalty, treachery, and love.... The author’s large readership as well as lovers of epic fantasy should enjoy this stand-alone prequel." — Library Journal, Starred Review
"Rawn weaves a rich tapestry of war, magic, and relationships in this historical fantasy prequel to 1996's The Golden Key.... Rawn at her best remains a mesmerizing writer." — Publishers Weekly
"Superb.... This book is a prequel to The Golden Key (1996) yet stands on its own merits and will delight anyone who enjoys reading about chivalry, the Middle East, and a genetic mutation that allows some to harness magic in ways that are carefully guarded." — Booklist
"Melanie Rawn is an amazingly talented writer who is capable of some of the most direct and clearest fantasy writing I've had the pleasure of reading in quite some time." — Seattle PostIntelligencer
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