Posted on March 20, 2013 by Flames
The Flames of Shadam Khoreh is the concluding volume in The Lays of Anuskaya trilogy. It brings the story full circle from where it began in The Winds of Khalakovo. In that first novel, Nikandr Khalakovo, a prince of the Grand Duchy of Anuskaya, learns of Nasim, an autistic savant with wondrous powers. Through Nasim, Nikandr learns of the Al-Aqim, three wizards who long ago tore rifts between the material and elemental worlds. Those rifts have been growing, and things are coming to a head at last. The story expands in the second book, The Straits of Galahesh, moving from the archipelagos where Nasim was discovered to the island of Galahesh. It is there that a plot by Al-Aqim is revealed. And in The Flames of Shadam Khoreh, the rifts have spread to places that once thought themselves safe. It falls to the heroes to close the rifts before the entire world suffers the consequences.
After such a wonderful Kickstarter experience with my short story collection, Lest Our Passage Be Forgotten & Other Stories, I’m pleased to bring this story directly to fans of the series through another Kickstarter that was recently launched. You can find much more about the books there, including options to buy all three books with newly designed covers.
– Bradley P. Beaulieu
At first light, deep within the massive Palotza Radiskoye, Styophan Andrashayev sat in a chair near the largest bed he’d ever slept in while his wife busied herself around the room, preparing them both for the coronation. Styophan’s dress uniform lay on the bed. The pants he already wore, but the white shirt and the silk scarf and the black cherkesska, the one upon which all his medals were pinned, lay there, waiting to be donned.
“Hurry yourself,” Rozalyna said.
He pulled one boot partway on and used two wood-handled hooks to pull at the straps inside the boots until his foot slid home. The boots were a deep and beautiful black. They’d been polished by Rozalyna yesterday, hours before the coach had come for them at their home on the outskirts of Volgorod. She polished them again last night after they’d arrived and been shown to their opulent rooms in the palotza’s northern wing. She’d tried to do so again this morning, but he’d refused her. “You’ll wear them through the way you go at them.”
She’d huffed while washing her face in the porcelain basin. “If I left it up to you, you’d go in your long clothes.”
After pulling on the second boot, Styophan stretched them, trying to work out the tightness. He’d never had the chance to break them in, and now he’d be limping from blisters on a day that should have brought honor to him and his entire family.
He pulled on his shirt and tied the red scarf tightly around his neck so that the shirt’s collar stood up, slipped into his cherkesska, and stood before the mirror. “’Twould be a sight, wouldn’t it?”
He could see Roza in the mirror, sitting on the edge of the bed and brushing her long brown hair. The sound of it was like leaves being raked in the distance. “What would?”
“Everyone wearing long clothes to the coronation?”
Roza leveled her stare at him, the one that told him she was not pleased, but then she burst out laughing. “Could you see that fat Borund walking in with his stained bed shirt to hand Ranos the scepter?”
“He wouldn’t dare take up Iaros’s scepter.”
“If it’s a fancy we’re talking about, I’ll have that fat slob wearing a stained bed shirt and handing the scepter of Khalakovo to Ranos if I want.”
It was his turn to stare, but he couldn’t keep it up. He broke down laughing. “Scepter in one hand, ham hock in the other.”
Roza laughed so hard her face turned red and she wiped tears from her eyes.
“Be quiet,” Styophan said. “You’ll wake our neighbors.”
It took her long moments of rolling laughter before she could speak again. “I don’t think we have neighbors, Styopha.” She finished her brushing and came to his side by the mirror. She looked him up and down, her pride showing clear.
He tried to see what she saw. But in himself he could only see a soldier that had failed his commander. He looked at the scars along his right cheek, at the patch over his right eye. His bloody right eye. Why did it have to be the right? He could still remember the akhoz—that foul, misshapen child—crawling up his sword and grabbing his jaw and pulling herself along until she was able to snatch his wrist, then his neck, and finally his head. It had all happened so quickly. Her withered hands had grabbed his skull like a gourd, her right thumb piercing his eye. By his father’s fathers, it had been agony. What was worse, though, was the realization that he had failed to save his lord, Prince Nikandr, that he’d failed to wake Princess Atiana from the spell that had been put upon her. No matter that they had both lived—it had been no thanks to him.
“Stop thinking about it,” Roza said.
He took a deep breath, taking in the coat, the boots, the scarf. He looked a right proper soldier. But he was an impostor. Ranos might be giving him a medal today, perhaps an assignment, but he’d be giving it to the wrong man.
“Stop it.” She put her arm around him and pulled him tight. “A prouder wife there never was, and you should be proud, too.”
“I may have to go again.”
“As you’ve said, but even if you hadn’t, the wife of a strelet at war knows such things.”
He drew his gaze down to her. She still wore her nightdress. Through the supple cloth he could see the curve of her hips, the swell of her breasts. He turned to face her and pulled her into a deep embrace, smelling the scent of rosewater on her skin. He drank in the form of her, his hand against the small of her back, his hips pressed tight against hers, his lips against the soft round of muscle just behind her ear. How had he lived so long without her?
And how would he do so again?
Roza tried to pull away. “We’re due at the ceremony, Styophan!”
“The ceremony can wait.” He pulled her tight and together they fell into the bed. She struggled as he kissed her neck, right where she liked it. He slipped one hand beneath her dress and caressed her thighs.
“Stypoha…” She spoke his name—half rebuke, half invitation. She made no move to stop him as he moved his hand slowly up. She drew breath sharply when he reached the silky place between her thighs. A slow moan escaped her as he began stroking her there.
She pushed his shoulders away, but not hard. She closed her eyes, arched her neck back, drew her pelvis higher as her moaning intensified. She regarded him with a slow, smoldering look, and then she flipped him over and straddled his waist. She pressed herself against him, thighs tightening over his hips, hair tickling his face as she bit his ear. “Perhaps it can wait for a bit,” she whispered.
He drew her in for a kiss as warm as a winter fire. “Just don’t make me take off my boots.”
She looked back, confused, and then dissolved into laughter. A more beautiful sound he’d never heard.
As he pulled off her dress and she scooted his pants down to his thighs—going no further than the tops of his tight dress boots—he lost himself in her form. He knew it was partly so he wouldn’t have to think about Galahesh—he also knew that in another day he might regret what he was doing, or at least the reason he was doing it—but right then, he didn’t care.
And then, as she settled down on top of him, a moan escaped his lips.
* * * * *
Styophan watched, Rozalyna by his side, as Prince Nikandr handed his brother, Ranos, the scepter of Khalakovo. The two brothers wore their long coats of office—bright medals and the golden seal of Khalakovo pinned over their right breast, epaulets of golden thread resting on their shoulders. Their tall black boots, every bit as polished as Styophan’s, glinted under the soft light that suffused the room. They stood on a dais. The ducal throne of Khalakovo rested behind them. Dozens were in attendance, but there were many notable in their absence. Some had been taken by the war, some by disease, some by old age. The courts of Khalakovo were changing, but at least it was back in rightful hands.
Styophan was close enough to the front of the assemblage that he could see Ranos’s hands tremble as he held the scepter. There was no expression of joy on his face, no sense of satisfaction that the interloper, Borund, had finally left Khalakovo’s shores. His was an expression of sadness, as if he wished for nothing more than to turn and hand the scepter to his father.
And yet, as quickly as this expression came, it fled, and Ranos straightened. He turned to those gathered and raised the scepter and said, “For the throne!”
“For the throne!” the crowd yelled back, and then everyone began clapping while the military men stomped their feet.
Nikandr, standing next to Ranos, cheered along with everyone else, but there was a certain lifelessness in his eyes that Styophan had often seen since the events at the Spar. He didn’t know what had happened. He heard something about Nikandr being wounded. Some said he was stabbed by Muqallad. Others said Soroush. Some even said Nasim had done it, though how this could be, from a boy as gentle as Nasim, Styophan couldn’t guess. The one time Styophan had broached the subject, Nikandr had refused to speak of it, so Styophan left it alone, figuring Nikandr would share the story if and when he wished.
Styophan looked to the opposite side of the aisle and saw Princess Atiana. She was smiling—beaming—as she watched Ranos with Nikandr by his side. The joy of it filled Styophan’s heart as well. The man who had led Khalakovo through the storm had passed, and now a strong young man was taking his place. As the crowd continued to clap, as the streltsi, young and old, continued to stomp, Atiana turned her head and caught Styophan’s eye.
Styophan felt a chill run through him. He could think of nothing in that moment but the princess staring down at him coldly as the akhoz, that shriveled, rotted girl, clawed her way toward his throat. He wondered what had happened afterward. Why had he not been killed? Had Atiana found some small ounce of compassion, or had the fact that he still breathed simply gone overlooked? The look on Atiana’s face was not one of apology, but there was something like regret. As the clapping died down at last, she tipped her head, as if she too had felt the victim that cold morning in the streets of Vihrosh.
Suddenly the sharp sound of bells filled the room, and everyone turned their heads. The doors leading to the great room were opened. Servants stepped in carrying small silver handbells. They rang them in time, walking slowly and leading the crowd into the adjoining room where a feast would be held. As he was bid, however, Styophan remained, giving Roza a kiss on her cheek before she left.
She looked up to him, with a smile as wide as the seas. She knew that this was an honor for him. She also knew—for he’d told her—that he would likely receive his next commission at this meeting, whatever it might be. She knew he might be called away, and yet here she was, eyes proud, tears of joy gathering at their corners. She squeezed his hand one last time and then followed the rest.
Soon the doors had been closed and Styophan was left with seven other officers of the Grand Duchy’s wind corps, the staaya, as well as Ranos and Nikandr. In turn, Ranos greeted each man, thanking them for their service in the conflict on Galahesh. There was Artur Edikov, a grizzly old officer who led a vicious, even foolish, countercharge when the forces of Yrstanla had nearly routed the Grand Duchy’s troops near the base of the Mount in Baressa. There was Denis Gennadov, a dark-faced hussar with his left arm in a sling, his hand now missing. He had charged through deep ranks of janissaries to reach a cannon position near the straits that had been laying waste to a line of advancing streltsi. He and his hussari on their fearless ponies had laid waste to the cannoneers, allowing the streltsi to advance at last. There was Aleg Kastayov, a young, wide-eyed strelet with a shock of blond hair—he couldn’t have been more than sixteen—who had found his commander unconscious behind the enemy lines and had carried him through the city streets until he reached a physic.
And on it went, hero after hero, making Styophan wonder why he would be counted among them. He had done nothing. He had failed when it had counted most. His lord had been taken. His men had all been lost.
He caught Nikandr staring at him. His Lord Prince had a look in his eye that Styophan didn’t quite know how to interpret. He seemed ashamed, somehow, though whether it was because of his own actions, or Styophan’s, he couldn’t say.
As Duke Ranos read off the accomplishments of each man, he gave each a medal—in the case of Denis, he received two—and then he took them into tight embraces, slapping their backs and kissing their cheeks. The men bowed and were asked to leave, one by one, until it was clear that Styophan would be the last. No one would be here to see the Duke speak to him—only the Duke himself and Prince Nikandr—which made it clear that for him there would be no medal. For him there would be no honor. Why they would make him watch this ceremony he did not know, but his gut wrenched at the notion that it was for no good reason at all.
Finally, the sixth officer left through doors behind Styophan. As they had for the others, the crowd clapped as he entered. When the door closed, it sounded like a gavel, for the sound in the room dropped to an ominous silence.
Ranos stepped in front of Styophan. He had rarely seen Ranos up close. The Duke was a young man still, not quite forty years old. Grey streaks ran through his closely cut, dark brown hair. His russet-colored eyes were hard. They weighed Styophan while giving little away in turn. There was much of Iaros in him, but his eyes… Those were his mother’s.
“My brother has spoken well of you, Styophan Andrashayev.”
Styophan bowed his head. “As you say, My Lord Duke.”
“He’s spoken well of your time together on the winds. You are stout and hard-willed, and yet you listen to your men when needed.”
Styophan bowed his head again, trying hard to keep his eyes fixed on Ranos and not Nikandr, who stood on the dais, near the throne.
“We’ve spoken much about those final hours on the Spar, but Nikandr remembers little beyond the time his mind was taken. What can you tell me of it?”
“In truth, My Lord, I can tell you little. I continued to fight after My Lord Prince had fallen, but the akhoz and the Hratha… They were too many, and we were quickly overrun. I was taken by the akhoz, and I thought surely my ancestors had come for me, but I awoke early in the morning, when the great storm was still raging. A woman and her husband were over me, dragging me into their home, to safety.” Styophan motioned to his ruined eye, the scars on his face. His heart was pounding, and his eye, though six weeks had passed since those events on Galahesh, was still not fully healed, and just then it hurt terribly. “They bandaged my wounds, helped me as much as they were able, until the following day when the streltsi began to arrive in Vihrosh. I was taken then to a proper physic and eventually brought back here to Uyadensk.”
“You have a wife.”
“I do, My Lord.”
“I’m glad for it,” Ranos said. “I truly am. And I wonder if I should give you a choice at all.”
Styophan shook his head, confused. “My Lord?”
At this Ranos turned, and Nikandr stepped forward with a shallow wooden box. Ranos lifted the hinged lid and from within cradled a golden medal with a ribbon of purple and white. The medal was fashioned into a hawk, talons bared, eyes fierce.
A medal of valor. For him…
Ranos stepped forward and pinned it onto the left breast of Styophan’s cherkesska, above all the other medals. He spoke while adjusting the medal just so. “With quick and decisive action—even despite Nikandr’s orders—you saved his life on Rafsuhan. You returned for him, when others might have left. You sent him away on Galahesh after the gunpowder had been taken, and you’ve protected him in battle dozens of times. This is all reason enough for me to grant you a title and give you a keep here on the islands. And so I wonder if I shouldn’t simply grant you that and give you your time with your wife.” Apparently satisfied, Ranos stopped fussing with the medal and stood tall, hands clasped behind his back. “But troubled winds lay ahead, Styophan, son of Andrasha. Bahett ül Kirdhash has retreated to Aleke?ir. He’s ingratiated himself with the Kamarisi’s eldest son, and he’s been appointed regent. He is already gathering forces so that he can return to Oramka and Galahesh, so that he can retake them either in hopes of returning to his seat on Galahesh or, more likely, to gain a larger title under the newly proclaimed Kamarisi when he comes of age.
“I have need of men like you, but still, I would grant you your title and your keep if you’ve thought better of your place in the staaya.” Ranos motioned to Styophan’s eye. “Ancients know you deserve it, and you’ve been serving our house for nearly twenty years already. No stain upon you or your house were you to decide that is what you wish. It’s why I’ve saved you until last. Whatever your choice, the decision won’t leave this room.”
“Of course, My Lord.”
“So I put it to you. Would you stay here on Khalakovo? Or would you take to the winds?”
Styophan could only stare. He’d never even considered the option of leaving the staaya. Truth to tell, ever since Nikandr had chosen him for service in his own personal unit, he’d never considered leaving his side.
But to be in a keep? A lord of Khalakovo? A lord of Anuskaya? He was stunned. He could live there with Rozalyna. They could have the children they’d always wanted. They’d tried, many times. It seemed to be difficult for her, but if they lived here, he was sure she could have a child. And he could watch his son grow, watch him run along the halls of a keep, or outside it along the snowy grass in winter.
He looked to Nikandr, who had been strangely silent through this whole affair. That same look of shame was on his face, and Styophan was sure it had to do with his assignment, were he to take on a new commission.
“Forgive me, My Lord Duke,” Styophan said, “but if I were to accept this new commission, where would I go?”
Ranos cleared his throat. “This is sensitive, Styophan.”
“Of course, My Lord.”
“One month ago a woman of Hael made her way to these shores. I spoke to her in this very room with Nikandr. She is a wodjan. Do you know the term?”
“I’ve heard it spoken.”
“And what do the wodjana do?”
“In truth I know little. I’ve heard they perform heathen rituals, and that they act as healers for their tribe.”
Ranos nodded. “They’re soothsayers. They claim to see the future.”
Styophan chuckled. “A lot of good that’s done the Haelish.”
Ranos shrugged and gave Styophan a smile that told him he’d be foolish to underestimate the Haelish. “Who can say? What might the Haelish have become without their wodjana? Yrstanla is vast and powerful. They may not have wodjana, they may not have Matri, but they have overwhelming numbers. They have gunpowder and they have steel. In any case, this has little to do with why she came. She came to treat with us. She asked us to send rooks to speak with the Kings. She asked us to offer aid to the Haelish so that they might take up their war with Yrstanla, which she says they are ready to put down.”
“Why would they abandon a war they’ve waged for generations?”
The sound of clapping and laughing rose up from the next room. Ranos glanced that way and then regarded Styophan seriously. “She would not say.”
Styophan worked this through in his mind. “She came at the behest of the Haelish Kings?”
“I think only the wodjana know. Much as the Matri work here, the women of Hael form their own counsel, and they advise the Kings in their way. She asked that I speak with our Grand Duke.”
“And what had the Grand Duke to say of it?”
Ranos smiled a humoring smile. “The Grand Duke thought our ships would be better spent as firewood than giving them over to Hael—or worse, to Yrstanla. He thought any gems we might grant the Haelish would be better served as jewelry for dogs than to give them to the Haelish warriors. He believes them impotent, ready to fade into history, and so he bid me to keep our ships moored, to keep our gems locked away.” Ranos paused, running a hand down his trim moustache and beard. “What have you to say to that, Styophan son of Andrasha?”
Styophan was not a man accustomed to the halls of power, but he chose his next words as carefully as he could. “It seems as though the Haelish might prove a distraction, and that however small it might be, it could be worth a few gemstones.”
Ranos’s smile turned genuine. “Yrstanla will come. They will attack. And in doing so they will all but ignore the Haelish. For now the Kings know little enough of our war, and when they do hear of the conflict, they may think it small. They might even think it a ruse formulated by the Kamarisi. But we need them. They must attack the Empire, for in this lies our only hope of blunting the forces of Yrstanla that now gather, preparing to head east. Three weeks ago I sent a rook to the Haelish. Ishkyna Vostroma spoke with them for eleven days. They’ve agreed to treat with us. I would have you go, Styophan. I would have you fly westward, over the bulk of the Motherland and down along the great mountains until you reach Haelish lands. I would have you tell them what’s happening so that they can come to our aid—or their own, as they may see it. Now is the time to strike, for if we wait and simply entrench, as the Grand Duke would have us do, we will be doomed.”
“And the Grand Duke?”
Ranos pulled himself taller. “This is why it must go to someone like you, Styophan. The North must tend to Anuskaya if the Grand Duke will not.”
“Would I be going with My Lord Prince?”
“You would not,” Nikandr said, stepping off the dais and moving to Ranos’s side. “There are other places I must go.”
“Were I given the choice,” Styophan said, bowing his head, “I would accompany you.”
Ranos shook his head. “That’s not the choice you’ve been given. You are needed elsewhere.” The Duke took a deep breath as someone in the next room began to make sounds like a snorting bull and laughter rose around it. “And so it comes to it. Think on it tonight. Stay here in Radiskoye, and we’ll speak in the morning. I will have your answer then.”
Ranos did not speak as if this were punishment, but it somehow felt like it, or at the very least as if it had been Nikandr’s choice all along. Part of him wanted to take the lordship and be done with this life. But what would he be if he took it and left the Grand Duchy wanting? He could not take the lordship and simply wait as the war raged on. He had to go. He had to see his country safe. Only then could he settle with Rozalyna.
How he was going to tell her, he didn’t know.
Please forgive me, Roza. “I can give you my answer now, My Lord Duke.”
Ranos paused. He glanced to Nikandr at his side, and then met Styophan’s gaze. Again he seemed to be weighing Styophan. “Go on, then.”
“I will go west. I will find the Haelish and bring them down on the crown of Yrstanla, if that is what you wish.”
Ranos’s face did not change for a breath, perhaps two, but then he smiled proudly, slapped Styophan’s shoulders, and took him into a fierce embrace.
* * *
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Tags | dark-fantasy