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Read an exclusive extract from Blood Upon the Sand

We can’t wait until the publication of Bradley Beaulieu’s Blood Upon the Sand, out in bookshops and online on the 9th February. We’re celebrating exclusive extract was selected by the author. Are you ready to return to the ancient walled city of Sharakhai, home to the Twelve Kings and join Çeda on her quest?

Çeda, an elite warrior in service to the kings of Sharakhai, is learning their secrets even as they send her on covert missions to further their rule. She has already uncovered the dark history of the asirim, but it’s only when she bonds with them, chaining them to her will, that she feels their pain as her own. They hunger for release, they demand it, but their chains were forged by the gods themselves and are proving unbreakable.

Çeda could become the champion the enslaved asirim have been waiting for, but the need to tread carefully has never been greater. The kings are hungry for blood, scouring the city in a ruthless quest for revenge, while Çeda’s friend Emre and his new allies in the Moonless Host are laying plans to take advantage of the unrest in Sharakhai, and strike a major blow against the kings and their god-given powers.

The shifting tides of power are fickle and dangerous, though. The Kings and the Moonless Host have their own agendas, as does the dangerous blood mage Hamzakiir, whose plotting uncovers a devastating secret that could shatter the power of the hated kings. But it may all be undone if Çeda cannot learn to control the growing anger of the asirim that threatens to overwhelm her…


Chapter  5

Over the  shallow dunes, two leagues out from Sharakhai, Çeda rode at the end of a line of six horses. Zaïde led the way, with Yndris coming behind, then Sümeya, Kameyl, Melis, and finally Çeda. The twin moons were nearing their apex, the two nearly in line with one another, creating a ghostly landscape over the amber sands. Ahead, a dark line marked the edge of the blooming fields, beyond which lay a thousand pinpoints of light, the blooms of the adichara opening to the sister moons Rhia and Tulathan, basking in their heavenly glow. As they came closer, Çeda saw pollen drifting on the wind, glowing like some otherworldly mist that might whisk them away to the farther fields were they foolish enough to enter it.

As Çeda reined Brightlock over to follow the others up a shallow rise, she winced at the pain in her right hand. She switched and used her left to guide the horse, albeit clumsily. A week had passed since the feast held in Yndris’s honor, and every day had seen Çeda’s old wound grow progressively worse. At first it had been little more than an ache. But the ache had deepened; then it had felt like a fresh wound, tender to the touch. Now it felt as though the poison were spreading through her arm all over again, ready to sweep through her and take her life once and for all. She should have gone to Zaïde, but she hadn’t wished to go crawling for aid when she knew this was something she needed to fight on her own. There will be times when it will threaten you, Zaïde had told her when she’d revealed the tattoo she’d made to protect Çeda. She’d tapped the images around the wound. These will not protect you. You will need to fight it here instead. She’d touched Çeda’s heart, and Çeda had known it would be a battle she could never truly win.

It was becoming so painful she was tempted to tell Zaïde, but this wasn’t Çeda’s night. It was Yndris’s, so she resolved to bite her tongue and tell the Matron in the morning.

When they neared the adichara, they slipped down from their horses to the sandy stone and gathered in a circle. They were so close to the adichara Çeda could feel them, not just the ones nearby, but those farther and farther away as they ringed the city. She’d had this sort of awareness before, but al- ways after taking a petal. This was different. She could feel the swaying trees through the pain in her hand, a sense that the adichara were alive in a way she’d never quite understood, as if all the hatred burning within the asirim, held in check for centuries by the power of the desert gods, was now radiating from the trees that fed on the blood of the innocent.

A long, low wail fell over the desert. Çeda could hear the lament in that call, but she also felt it in her hand, in her arm. It deepened the ache, like roots reaching into the earth. It felt as if the asirim, all of them, had been given voice through this one wailing asir. In that moment, it was a creature of pure hatred, the embodiment of a people that craved vengeance above all else.

“Çeda?”

She turned, realizing Zaïde had been speaking for some time.

“She said kneel.” This came from Yndris, standing while Melis, Kameyl, Sümeya, and Zaïde all knelt on the ground, waiting for Çeda to comply.

“Of course,” Çeda said. “My apologies.”

With Yndris waiting impatiently and Zaïde watching carefully, Çeda kneeled. She tried to compose herself, but it was difficult. The smallest move- ment of her right hand brought with it a burning pain that was difficult to manage.

Yndris knelt across from Zaïde. The ritual was now properly underway. Zaïde picked up a handful of sand and whispered a prayer to Tulathan. What she said Çeda couldn’t tell, for her ears had started ringing, a sound that seemed to mingle with the wails of the asir, which were coming closer and closer. Couldn’t the others hear it? Didn’t they realize the asir was coming for them?

The others whispered their own prayers to different gods, and soon it was Çeda’s turn. She hastily picked up a fistful of sand with her good hand and whispered as it sifted between her fingers. “Thaash feed your anger that you might take retribution against the enemies of Sharakhai.”

The night was becoming dreamlike, and a terrible rage was boiling up inside her. It had little direction at first, but as she stared at Yndris, kneeling on the ground by Kameyl’s side, she knew it was because of this girl, this whelp come to the Maidens, fresh from her entitled upbringing, a life that had been built on the graves of the unfortunate, on the lies the Kings had been feeding to Sharakhai for four hundred years.

Çeda blinked. Tried to quell the sudden hatred inside her. Beyond Yndris, she saw something dark moving among the adichara. The branches spread, creating a tunnel of sorts. It was the asir, once a man, now a blackened, shriveled thing. It wailed no longer, but stood at a half-crouch, the black pits of its eyes trained on the youngest of the Maidens, the one with her back turned. Its intent  burned brightly in Çeda’s  mind. It  would break the Maiden’s frail form, drag her dying body into the adichara before the others could react. That, at least, would be some small recompense for all that had happened in the endless years since the gods had transformed him into this thing, this perversion of man. It plodded forward, but paused, sensing one of the Maidens watching, the one that had been kissed by Sehid-Alaz, its King.

Çeda sensed its unquenchable anger sweeping her up like a storm until she shared in it. Feeding it. Thaash, Lord of War, let me join your servant. Let me be the one to take Yndris’s foul head from her shoulders.

Very well, came the asir’s terrible voice from within her mind.

Before she knew what she was doing, she was standing with River’s Daughter held inexplicably in her right hand. She stared down at Yndris, and the girl stared back, shocked and angry.

Sümeya, sitting to Yndris’s left, was up in a flash, blade drawn in a glori- ous arc of shadowed steel. “What do you think you’re doing, sister?”

Çeda blinked. Saw through her own eyes once more. The asir came forward over the ground in an animalistic lope. Run, Çeda called to the asir.

Run! And then she pointed toward it. “There!” Please run!

Sümeya spun. The others stood and drew their shamshirs as the asir bounded over the rocky ground, heading straight for Yndris.

Çeda grimaced as the scar on her thumb grew hot. A rumbling shook the earth. As it ran, the asir ducked its head low and then craned it upward. The rumbling built into a bellow. It filled the air, rattled Çeda’s bones. Ahead of the asir, sand and bits of stone lifted in a fan. It struck Çeda like a terrible storm, pitching her back, sand flaying her skin where it was exposed. Barely discernible in the deafening roar was Zaïde’s voice. “Cease!” she called. “By Tulathan, I call on you to cease!”

But the storm raged on, and something happened that shook Çeda even amidst the madness. Just as her heart had fallen into sync with King Külaşan in the moments before she drove her sword through his chest, so it did now with the asir. The beat was a dirge, a lament for a love too early lost. It wasn’t merely that she could feel the anguish in this creature; she was its anger. She was its endless well of hatred. She was its vengeance.

She could feel its burning desire to kill. To rend. She fanned the flames higher. Somehow unshackled from the gods’ restraints, it raced to take re- venge on the Kings for all they’d done. And what example could be more perfect than Yndris? Young. Bold. Generous with her contempt for all save the Kings and the grand house they’d built on the backs of the thirteenth tribe.

Çeda knew she was being carried on the asir’s rage. From this creature, this man, who’d lived to see as many summers as the Kings, she felt not only anger, but his life, his story. She saw his hands test the grain of freshly sawn wood, saw him brush away the sawdust. Using that same wood, he erected a lintel for a home in a growing neighborhood that would one day be known as the Shallows. She saw a clear night with the twin moons high, a goddess with bright silver skin walking among the streets, her sister with golden hair at her side. She saw his brother fall to the ground and claw at the dirt before curling into a tight ball, wailing from the pain.

Then he was struck as well, by a dark suffering that smothered his senses. His will bent to another power, and then a dictate was laid upon his soul—a desire for blood, a will to harm those who stood against the Kings. He knew even then it was a hunger that would never be sated.

On gangly limbs he’d risen and loped toward the edge of the young city. He and dozens, hundreds, of others were being funneled through the city’s gates. Given free rein, this unfettered race felt joyous. He howled. He called to his brothers and sisters, the young and the old, ready to feed on those who stood in the desert with swords in hand.

Innumerable  spears lay pitched against their charge, but already he could feel his enemies’ fear. He fed upon it. Beyond this night the enemies of Shara- khai would stand no longer. The very notion of a desert ruled solely by the rightful Kings of Sharakhai filled him with golden light, a pervading glee that eclipsed any petty concerns he may have had before.

Had he worried? Had he feared? It seemed not. The very notion felt like an insect boring its way deeper beneath the skin. It enraged him.

On he ran, the urge to feed building. But the memories began to fade, to darken. The shrieking wind, so loud only moments ago, dwindled, until all that could be heard was sand falling to the desert floor, a sound like rain against the river.

Çeda stood three paces away from the asir. He had been charging toward Yndris, but now he stood stock-still, his eyes meeting Çeda’s. In that moment he looked like any mortal man might. One with brothers and sisters. One with a mother and father and a family, his roots embedded in the past, his once-vibrant hopes reaching like shriveled branches toward the future.

The truth was in his eyes. He was trapped within this pitiful form, en- slaved, lost, but through his eyes she could see his soul.

I am undone, she said to him.

His blackened lips pulled back in a grimace. A smile. An expression of joy, here at the end. Long years I’ve prayed for this day.

He turned to his right, eyes calm, accepting, and Çeda saw too late Yndris flying over the desert toward him. “Don’t!” Çeda cried, running to intercept, but she was too late.

The asir stared up, not at the twin moons, but at the glittering firmament beyond, and in that moment Yndris swept her blade across his undefended throat. As his head toppled from his neck, his body crumpled to the stone.

All was silent save for the still-falling rain of sand. Yndris stared down at the blood pooling around the rag-doll form with a righteousness that sickened Çeda.

And then Çeda was charging toward her, sword held high, a cry of impo- tent rage bursting from her. Yndris met her blade with surprise in her eyes. She blocked one stroke hastily, then another. Çeda blocked a clumsy counter and stepped in while spinning, sending an elbow crashing into Yndris’s jaw.

Yndris fell, but before Çeda could do anything else, Sümeya bowled into her from behind. She tried to roll away, to regain her feet, but Kameyl had now joined Sümeya.

Melis had her arms around Yndris, but Yndris managed to free herself, ebon blade still in hand. “Enough!” Melis called, but Yndris was already charging forward. Çeda was defenseless, held down by the two Maidens as she was. There was nothing to stop Yndris from cleaving Çeda’s head from her shoulders just as she had the asir.

But then a white blur drove in from Çeda’s left. Zaïde. She was running forward, moving faster than she had any right to. Yndris tried to snake past her, but Zaïde imposed herself along Yndris’s path. Zaïde was like a blade herself, a weapon poised, quick and ready to defend.

Yndris tried bulling her way past, but Zaïde had her by the sleeve of her sword arm and was drawing her arm sharply down. Yndris was thrown, but she rolled along the ground, then advanced on Zaïde. Zaïde, however, had used that moment to step inside Yndris’s guard; she sent a series of blinding, two-fingered strikes into Yndris’s neck and armpits, more against her wrists and elbows. Yndris’s head lolled. Her arms went slack. A strange moan es- caped her as her eyes rolled up into her head. As she collapsed altogether, Zaïde swooped in to lower her gently to the ground.

The hiss of falling sand had stopped, but the clack of the nearby adichara had replaced it. Their branches swayed this way and that, rattling against one another beneath the light of Tulathan and Rhia.

Zaïde stood from Yndris’s prone form, hands slipping behind her back and clasping as if this were a sparring circle, little more than their latest les- son. Her eyes, though, were intent on Yndris. They were angry, more angry than Çeda had ever seen them.

She turned to Çeda, who was being forced to her feet by Sümeya and Kameyl. “Release her,” she said, and the two Maidens did. “Why did you attack your sister Maiden?”

What could she say? “The asir are holy. Is it not so? Those blessed by the Kings and gods, both. And she killed one without thought. He didn’t deserve it.” “Unhhh . . .” Yndris was trying to speak, but all that came from her were guttural sounds.

Melis helped Yndris to her feet, and Zaïde pressed her thumb to the places she’d struck, massaging slowly. “And you,” Zaïde said to Yndris, “what justified the killing of the asir without my leave, and more importantly, with- out King Mesut’s?”

“Thuh . . .” Yndris opened her mouth wide, lolling her tongue like a jackal. “Thuh . . . the asir was wild. It wuh . . . was coming for me.”

“It had stopped.”

“It was stuh . . . staring at her.” She raised one trembling arm, pointed to Çeda, and swallowed several times before speaking again. “I know not what it saw, but I know it was dangerous.” When Zaïde remained silent, Yndris’s eyes widened and she spoke in one long slur, “By the gods who breathe, it attacked us.”

Zaïde stared up at the moons, as if searching for wisdom, then released a pent-up breath and leveled her gaze at Yndris. “Your sister Maidens are the ones who need your protection most. It’s true the asir attacked, but there was no need to slay it as you did.” She turned to Çeda, her eyes afire. “And while it was against our laws to harm it, drawing a blade on a sister is a sin that cannot be forgiven.” She motioned to the places where they’d been kneeling not so long ago, mere paces from where the dead asir lay. “Come. Yndris’s vigil is a holy ritual I refuse to delay, but upon your return to Sharakhai, you will both present yourselves in the courtyard, where you’ll receive ten lashes each.”

“Yes, Matron,” Yndris and Çeda said together.

Zaïde watched them as they knelt. Everyone clearly felt uncomfortable, including Çeda. But she, Çeda, had felt that man’s life. She had lived his memories. The only thing remotely similar had been the emotions she’d felt from King Külaşan in the moments before she’d killed him in his hidden desert palace. She’d  never dreamed of being connected to the asirim so strongly, or that they would remember so much.

And in truth the nature of her connection—the wound, the poison, the anger flowing like a river—didn’t concern her as much as the magnitude of the asirim’s suffering. For too long she’d thought of them as less than human, creatures without lives of their own. She’d known the truth of it, but until tonight, she hadn’t felt it in her heart.

How foolish Ive been. How thoughtless. They were victims four centuries ago on the night of Beht Ihman, and they were victims now. She’d been so fixated on the Kings, she’d forgotten about those who had lifted them to their thrones on Tauriyat. She would make that mistake no longer.

 

Late the following evening, Zaïde trudged up the dark, winding stairs of the Matron’s tower toward her room. Her candle threw strange shadows as she wound her way upward. She was more tired than she’d been in years, and yet she wondered if she’d be able to sleep. Her mind kept drifting to that strange scene in the blooming fields. The asir. Yndris lopping off its head. Çeda at- tacking Yndris in retaliation. Later, she’d been unable to shake the memory of the scene in the courtyard, where Çeda and Yndris had received their lashes. Yndris had acquitted herself well enough, crying out near the end, but Çeda had been stone silent. With the sun rising in the east, she’d stared at the keep’s outer gates, jaw set grimly, eyes watering from the pain. But she hadn’t made a sound. Not once. Not even when Kameyl had whipped her harder near the end in order to make her do so.

Çeda could be so very stubborn. It was half the reason Zaïde had waited so long to speak to her. She wanted the girl to learn patience, but Zaïde now wondered if she ever would.

As she neared the fourth floor and her bed, her candle guttered. A draft, likely from Sayabim leaving her windows open again. “Tulathan’s  light,” Zaïde said under her breath, “live on the mountainside if you love the cold so much.” She was old as Tauriyat anyway. The two of them would likely get along fine, trading stories from dusk till dawn.

She laughed at her own lack of charity. You’re not so very  much younger, Zaïde Tülin’ala.

She’d have a word with Sayabim in the morning. Winter was on them. There was no sense risking the flu. And yet when she reached the landing of the uppermost floor, the chill washing over her feet came not from Sayabim’s door, nor the other two Matrons’, but from her own. She remembered then that she had closed her shutters that morning, just before she’d left for a bath and her midday meal.

Stopping short of her door, she reached out, felt a heartbeat from within the room. She recognized it immediately. Closing her eyes, she gathered what patience she could—Nalamae lend me strength, why does the girl have to be so headstrong?—then opened the door to find a dark form sitting in the chair beside the open window. She worried Çeda might have been seen stealing up the stairs of the tower, but when she looked at the open shutters, understand- ing dawned on her. Çeda had climbed here and had been lying in wait since. Clever. Tulathan had already set, and Rhia shone in the east, which had given her all the shadows she’d needed to remain hidden during her climb. More clever still, she’d left the shutters open, a subtle cue to warn Zaïde so she didn’t cry out and alert any of the other Matrons on this floor.

Zaïde stepped inside and closed the door. The latch set home with a soft clink. “Explain yourself,” she said in a bare whisper.

Çeda pushed herself to her feet. With the candlelight wavering,  she looked as old and merciless as Sayabim. “I’m not the one who needs to explain.”

Zaïde took a step forward, thrust a finger at Çeda’s chest. “I will not have you—”

But her voice trailed away, for Çeda was holding out a folded piece of papyrus between two fingers. When Zaïde made no move to take it, Çeda shook it, and when Zaïde still refused, Çeda took her hand and placed it in her palm. That done, she stepped back and lowered herself gingerly into the chair, sitting stiff-backed to avoid putting pressure on her fresh wounds. She motioned to the note. “Read it.”

After taking a moment to let her anger subside, Zaïde took the candle to her bedside, sat down, and by candlelight read.

I know not how much you know of the asirim, but know this: I felt them last night. I felt the mind of the one who was killed. I felt his life before he was given as sacrifice by the Kings to the desert gods. I felt him as a man, felt all his hopes and dreams, felt them as they burned  to ashes and were lost to the wind so that the Kings could secure their place in the desert.

The asirim have waited  four hundred  years for justice. While you and I re- main warm and sheltered in a tower of the Kings’ making, they wait still. And they suffer.

No longer will I stand aside. Teach me or I will take matters into my own hands.

Zaïde read it again, then set it to flame and let it burn along the candle’s brass base. There was anger in her over Çeda’s presumption, over the risk she’d taken in coming here, but in truth she’d felt this confrontation coming for months. She knew Çeda’s nature, and knew as well she would not rest forever.

“You felt so much?” she said after a time. Çeda nodded.

There had been a day when Zaïde had felt similar things, but those days were long gone, and she’d never had visions as strong as Çeda seemed to. She’d lost the ability long ago, well before she’d taken the Matron’s white. She’d never understood why. Perhaps her own deep-rooted fear of the asirim. Or perhaps the asirim themselves sensed her hesitance and distanced them- selves from her because of it. Whatever the case, it was clear Çeda was more gifted than Zaïde had guessed those months ago when she’d saved her from the adichara poison.

Zaïde motioned to the dying flames. “You shouldn’t have penned those words. If you’d been found and searched—”

“We cannot speak,” Çeda cut in. “We cannot share words. What can we do, Zaïde? When do we act?”

“Only when the time is right. We must take care, and move with preci- sion.”

“And while we take care, the asirim die.”

“They are already dead.” She immediately regretted the words.

Çeda paused before speaking again. “Do you believe them less worthy than us?”

“No. But if you have their welfare in mind, then you must know that all can be unraveled if we act brashly, as you have done tonight.”

Çeda stood, grimacing from the effort. “We unravel ourselves if we wait too long. I am not advising that we act in haste. But we must act, Zaïde. And soon. Our kin have waited long enough.” She moved to the window and crept up onto the sill. “I’ll give you one week.”

Zaïde’s spine stiffened at Çeda’s tone. “Or what?”

Çeda spun on her toes, seemed to gather herself before speaking again. “Are you aware that a man breached the walls of Tauriyat three weeks ago?”

“Everyone in the House of Kings is aware.”

“Are you also aware that the assassin gained the walls of Eventide? That he attempted to kill several of the Kings? That he scratched the Confessor King’s cheek with a poisoned arrow?”

Any annoyance Zaïde had felt over Çeda’s  tone vanished with these words. Zaïde was aware of the assassin, but Çeda shouldn’t have been. The information had been shared with only a handful outside of the Kings them- selves.

When Zaïde chose not to reply, Çeda said, “The assassin was no man.” And then she was gone, climbing down the tower, though along what hand- holds and footholds Zaïde had no idea.

A slow burning rage built inside Zaïde at the implications of what Çeda had said. Çeda was the assassin. She’d  taken matters into her own hands without ever speaking to Zaïde about it. And what had come of all that risk? A Spear dead. A Maiden fallen.

And yet . . .

She’d come close. By the account King Ihsan had given her, Kiral might have been killed without Mesut’s quick action. Husamettín had protected himself with his usual deadly skill, but Cahil’s life had been a very near thing. The poison had acted quickly and might have finished him had a healing elixir not reversed the damage it had caused.

And she’d done it all on her own. Was Çeda right? Was she being too cautious? She could remember only dimly now the sorts of visions Çeda had mentioned. A woman running over the sand toward the gathered might of the desert tribes. She remembered the howling, the glee, the terrible thirst for blood.

That old life of hers felt so close at hand, as if she could take it up again if she wanted, make a difference by the might of her own sword arm. She knew at the same time that her day in the sun had passed, and it brought on the feelings of failure she felt so often. “What have you done in all your years, old woman?”

Little enough. Despite all her hopes to the contrary, the might of the Kings had always felt too large for her to stand against—a  ceaseless wind- storm, she but a grain of sand.

Zaïde closed the shutters, then returned to her bed and blew out the candle. She lay awake for hours, haunted by her decades of failure. She found sleep only after she decided what she must do next.

Excerpted from Blood Upon the Sand © Bradley Beaulieu 2017

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by Bradley P. Beaulieu

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