It’s time for chapter two of one of our brilliant debuts, Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed.
DOULLA WATCHED RASEED weave between the teahouse tables, pulling the child gently along. They came to a halt before him, their backs to the Mainway’s throng of people. Raseed bowed his blue-turbaned head. Looking more closely, Adoulla did not think the frightened-looking, long-haired child was wounded. The blood on his clothing seemed to be someone else’s.
“God’s peace, Doctor,” said Raseed. “This is Faisal. He needs our help.” The dervish’s hand rested on the hilt of the curved, fork-tipped sword at his hip. He stood five lithe feet, not much bigger than the child beside him. His fine-boned yellow features were delicate and high- lighted by tilted eyes. But Adoulla knew better than anyone that Raseed’s slender frame and clean-shaven face hid a zealous killer’s skill.
“God’s peace, boy. And to you, Faisal. What is the problem?” he asked the dervish.
Raseed’s expression was grim. “The boy’s parents have been mur- dered.” He darted his dark eyes at Faisal but made no attempt to soften his tone. “With apologies, Doctor, my knowledge is insufficient. But from Faisal’s description, I believe ghuls attacked the boy’s family. Also—”
Two porters passed, each shouting at the other to go screw a pickle barrel, and the soft-spoken dervish’s words were drowned out. “What was that?” Adoulla asked.
“I said that I was sent here by . . . Faisal is . . .” He hesitated.
“What? What is it?” Adoulla asked.
“Faisal’s aunt is known to you, Doctor. It was she who brought him to your townhouse.” Adoulla looked down at Faisal, but the child said nothing.
“Stop this mysterious monkeyshit, you stuttering dervish! Who is the child’s aunt?”
Raseed’s birdlike mouth tightened in distaste. “Mistress Miri Al- moussa is the boy’s aunt.”
God damn me.
“Her courier brought the boy and this note, Doctor.” He drew a rolled piece of rough paper from his blue silk tunic and handed it over.
You know how things stand between us. I wouldn’t have bothered you if the need weren’t great. But my niece is dead, Doullie! Murdered! Her and her fool marshman husband. To hear Faisal speak, it was neither a man nor an animal that killed them.
That means you will know more than anyone in this city about what to do. I need your help. Faisal here will tell you all that happened. Send him back to my house when you have learned what you must from him.
God’s peace be with you,
“‘God’s peace be with you’?” Adoulla read the words aloud, a bit incredulous. Such a passionless, formulaic closing from his old heart’s- flame! Mistress Miri Almoussa, Seller of Silks and Sweets. Known to a select few as Miri of the Hundred Ears. Adoulla pictured her, middle- aged and still able to fill him with more lust than a girl of half her years, sitting in her brothel office among a hundred scraps of paper and a half dozen letter pigeons.
It was true that their last meeting had not been a happy one. But was she really so fed up with him that, even in such a dire situation, she had sent a note instead of coming herself? The rosewater-scented memory of her threatened to overwhelm him, but he shoved it to the side. He needed analysis now, not heartsick nostalgia.
The dried blood on Faisal’s rough spun shirt must have been from one of his parents. Miri had not even wasted time changing the child’s clothes before sending him over. “So you are Miri’s grand-nephew? I remember her speaking of a niece who lived out near the marshdocks.” “Yes, Doctor.” The boy’s tone was hard and flat—the voice of one who has refused to let his mind absorb what his eyes have seen.
“And why, Faisal, have you come all the way to the city for help? There’s a large watchmen’s barracks at the marshdocks—the Khalif has treasure-houses there, after all. Did you not tell the watchmen what happened?”
The child’s features twisted with bitterness that belied his, perhaps, ten years. “I tried. But the watchmen don’t listen to marsh boys. They don’t care what happens outside the treasure house walls, long as the Khalif ’s gold and gemthread are safe. My mama told me that my Auntie Miri in the city had a friend who was a real ghul hunter, like in the stories. So I come to Dhamsawaat.”
Adoulla smiled sadly. “Very little in life is like the stories, Faisal.” “But my mama . . . and my Da . . .” Faisal’s tough marsh boy mask slipped and tears fell.
Adoulla was not at his ease with children. He stroked the boy’s long black hair, hoping this was the right thing to do. “I know, little one, I know. But I need you to be strong right now, Faisal. I need you to tell me exactly what happened.”
Adoulla sat back down, seating the child opposite him. Raseed re- mained standing, hand on hilt, his tilted eyes watching the crowds that walked past the teahouse.
Faisal told his story. Adoulla sorted through babbling, sobs, and the exaggerations of fear, trying to isolate useful information. There was little to isolate. Faisal lived with his parents in the marshes a day’s ride from the city. While out spearfishing with another family they had been set upon by hissing, gray-skinned monsters, man-shaped but not human. Bone ghuls, unless Adoulla missed his guess—strong as half a dozen men and as hard to kill, with gruesome claws besides. Faisal had fled, but not before he’d seen the ghuls start to eat the heart muscle of his still living parents.
The blood on his shirt was his father’s. Faisal was the only one who’d escaped. Adoulla had seen grisly things in his work, but sometimes it was worse seeing the effect such things had on others.
“I ran away and left them . . . . Mama said ‘run’ and I did! It’s my fault they’re dead!” He began bawling again. “My fault!”
Adoulla wrapped an arm awkwardly around the boy. He felt like a great ape coddling a new hatched chick. “It is not your fault, Faisal. A man made those ghuls. Almighty God willing, we will find this man and keep his creatures from hurting others. Now I need you to tell me just once more what happened—everything, every detail you can remember.”
Adoulla extracted another telling of the incident. He didn’t like doing it—making the child relive this horror twice and thrice over. But he had to, if he was going to do his job. Frightened people often remembered things falsely, even when they meant to be honest. He listened for new details and inconsistencies, not because he distrusted the boy, but because people never remembered things exactly the same way twice.
Still, Adoulla found Faisal a better source of information than most grown men who’d laid eyes on a ghul. He was a marshman after all, and they were tough and observant folk. No people—not even the Badawi of the desert—lived closer to starvation. Adoulla could remember Miri’s disgust a dozen years ago when she’d learned that her niece was marrying a marshman. “What is there for her out there?” she’d asked Adoulla over a game of bakgam. He had been unable to answer; he was as thoroughly a city creature as she was. But there was no denying that where life itself depended on spearing quick fish and raising fragile golden rice, attentiveness flourished.
Faisal’s retellings informed Adoulla that three creatures had attacked, and that no man had been visible at the time. Adoulla turned to Raseed. “Three of the things! Commanded outside of the line of sight. This is not the usual half-dinar magus, heady with the power of his first ghul-raising. Troubling.”
The Heavenly Chapters decreed that ghul-makers were damned to the Lake of Flame. The Chapters spoke of an ancient, corrupted age when wicked men commanded whole legions of the things from miles away. But those times were past. In all his years of ghul hunting, Adoulla had never seen a man make more than two of the monsters at a time— and this always from a few hundred yards away at most. “Troubling,” he said again.
He instructed Raseed to cut a small scrap from the boy’s scarlet- stained shirt. Other than the name of its maker, the blood of a ghul’s victim was the best component for a tracking spell. The creatures themselves would likely prove easy enough to find. But he would need to head closer to the scene of the slaying, and get away from the city’s teeming, confusing life-energies, to cast an effective tracking spell.
Adoulla only prayed that he would be able to find the creatures before they fed again. As the silent prayer echoed in his mind, he felt a weary determination rising in his heart. There was more bloody work to be done. O God, why must it be me every time? Adoulla had paid his “fare for the festival of this world,” as the poets say, many times over. It was some younger man’s turn to do this.
But there was no younger man that could do it without him, Adoulla knew. He had fought beside many men, but had never had the wherewithal to train another in the ways of his near-dead order—had never been able to bring himself to set another on his own thankless road. Two years ago he’d reluctantly agreed to take Raseed as an assis- tant. But while the boy’s martial powers were unmatched, he had no talent for invocations. He was an excellent apprentice in the ends of ghul hunting, but his means to those ends were his own, and they were different than Adoulla’s.
In ages past, the makers and the hunters of ghuls alike were more plentiful. Old Doctor Boujali, Aduolla’s own mentor, had explained it early in Adoulla’s apprenticeship. It’s an almost dead art I’m teaching you here, young one, he had said. Once the ghul-makers ran rampant over God’s great earth, and more of our order were needed. These days . . . well, few men use ghuls to prey on one another. The Khalif has his soldiers and his court magi to keep what he calls order. And if a few fiendish men still follow the Traitorous Angel’s ways and gain their power through the death and dismembering of poor people, well, that’s of little concern to those who rule from the Palace of the Crescent Moon. Even in other lands the ghul hunters are not what we once were. The Soo Pashas have their mercenaries and their Glorious Guardians. The High Sultaan of Rughal-ba controls those few who still know our ways. They are part of his Heavenly Army, whether they wish it or not. Our work is not like the heroism of the old stories. No vast armies of abominations stand before us. These days we save a fishmonger here, a porter’s wife there. But it is still God’s work. Never forget that.
But in the many years since Doctor Boujali had first said these words to Adoulla it sometimes seemed that the scale arm was swinging back in the old direction. Adoulla and his friends had dispatched enough fiendish creatures over the decades to make him suspect that the old threats were starting to regain a foothold on God’s great earth. Yet He had not deigned to raise scores of new ghul hunters. Instead, for reasons known only to He Who Holds All Answers, God had seen fit to pile trouble after trouble onto the stooped shoulders of a few old folks. One day—one day very soon—Adoulla feared his spine would snap under the strain.
Why was Adoulla made to bear so big a burden alone? When would others learn to defend themselves from the servants of the Traitorous Angel? What would happen after he was gone? Adoulla had asked Al- mighty God these questions ten thousand times in his life, but He Who Holds All Answers had never deigned to respond. It seemed that Adoul- la’s gifts were always just enough to keep the creatures he faced in check, but he wondered again why God had made his life in this world such a tiring, lonely chore.
Still, as tired of life as he sometimes felt, and as foolish as he found most men to be, he could never quite manage to leave people to their cruelest fate. He drew in a resigned breath, let it out again, and stood. His teabowl was empty. Digging into the seemingly endless folds of his moonlight white kaftan, Adoulla drew forth a copper fals and slapped it onto the table.
As if he’d been summoned by the sound, Yehyeh appeared. He ex- changed God’s peaces with Raseed, then cast a cross-eyed frown at Faisal’s bloody clothes. But all he said as he and Adoulla embraced and kissed on both cheeks in the familiar parting gesture was, “Stay safe, Buzzard Beak.”
“I will try, Six Teeth,” Adoulla replied. He turned to Raseed and Faisal. “Come on, you two.”
Raseed stepped silently out from where he leaned against the teahouse wall. It was like watching a shadow come to life and peel itself from the sandstone. They joined the flow of the Mainway, Adoulla and the dervish keeping the child between them.
At the corner Adoulla waved over Camelback, a porter he’d known for years. Camelback was nearly a foot shorter than Adoulla but had shoulders enough for two men.
The men exchanged God’s peaces and cheek kisses. Adoulla pressed a coin into the porter’s palm. “Take Faisal here to Mistress Miri Al- moussa’s place in the Singers’ Quarter.” He had to speak loudly to be heard over a braying donkey half a block ahead.
The child panicked all over again. “But . . . but . . . don’t you need me to come with you, Doctor? To show you the way?”
“No, child,” Adoulla said, leaning down. “I will use my magic to track the ghuls. You would slow us down. And, besides, I will not put you in danger.”
“I’m not afraid.”
Looking into his eyes, Adoulla believed him. If Faisal came across the ghuls again, he would not run a second time. And that could only mean a little boy’s death. Adoulla had seen such before. He had no de- sire to bear witness to it again.
“I promise you, Faisal, we will avenge your family. But your mother gave everything so that you could live. Do not throw that away so quickly. You will make her happiest by being a good boy and living a long life.” Adoulla paused, letting the words sink in.
The child nodded, though he was clearly unconvinced. He went with Camelback, and they were soon swallowed by the crowd. Adoulla turned to Raseed only to find the dervish glaring at him.
“What? Why are you scowling so, boy?” Somewhere behind them on the street someone dropped something that broke loudly and gave off a vinegared scent.
Raseed glanced back, glanced at Adoulla, and sniffed. “You just sent a child barely ten back to a house of ill repute.” He pursed his thin lips in disapproval.
The little holy man could be so thick sometimes. “I sent him to his Auntie’s house. To one of the few places in the city where a penniless little orphan would be well-treated even were he not related to the proprietress. Miri and her girls always have need of an errand boy or two.”
“ ‘O believer! If a man asks you to chose between virtue and your brother, choose virtue!’ ” Raseed quoted from the Heavenly Chapters. “There are charitable orders where the boy would be better served. To grow up among such degenerate women is . . .”
Adoulla felt his fire rise at the boy’s words. The last time he’d seen her—almost two years ago now—Miri Almoussa had made it clear that she wanted nothing more to do with him. Nonetheless, he’d be damned if he’d stand for her being insulted. He made his voice dangerous. “About whom exactly are you speaking, boy?”
The dervish clearly thought better of elaborating. His blue turban bobbed in a bow. “My apologies, Doctor. I meant only that a virtuous upbringing in one of the city’s orphan halls, where the boy could learn a trade, would—”
“Would doom the boy to six nights a week of under-the-sheets upbringing by some drunken ‘Godly servant of children.’ They’d leave him alone on Prayersday. Hmph. He’d learn a trade all right.”
“Doctor! I can’t believe—” Raseed’s words were cut off when a big bull of a woman shouldered her way between the pair, cursing them for standing idle in the street. Adoulla started walking again, and the dervish followed.
“Please, boy,” Adoulla said, “spare me your solemn protestations regarding that which you know nothing of. He’d be more likely to be- come a whore in one of those terror houses than he would if he’d been living at Miri’s from the day of his birth. In my orphan days, I dodged such places for the dungeons they were. Nothing’s changed. Now!” Adoulla half-shouted, clapping his hands together in an effort to disperse the argument. “I need to go home to gather some spell supplies. Then we head out of the city. Let’s get moving. If we linger too long, I’ll end up thinking better of this.”
They quickened their pace as much as the press of people would allow. The sun shone clearly as they stepped out of the street and its building-shadows and crossed the open space of Angels’ Square. Adoulla did not stop and marvel yet again at the almost-living expres- sions on the ancient statuary faces of the Ministering Angels. He did, however, push brusquely through a knot of oddly dressed, gawking city-visitors who stood staring crane-necked at the lifelike marble work. Bumpkins! Adoulla griped to himself, but he didn’t really blame them.
Even when civil war had wracked the city two hundred years earlier, Angels’ Square had been a sanctuary of sorts. All sides had agreed to shed no blood on its stones. Though crowded cheek-by-jowl with refuge-seekers, one could taste the peace of the place in the air, or so the historians and passed-down stories said. Today, aside from the pack of sightseekers, the square was largely quiet. If there weren’t such grim work before him, Adoulla thought he might have felt some of the old peace. Instead, his thoughts were on tracking spells and a child’s blood- ied clothing.
He and Raseed left Angels’ Square behind for grimy Gruel Lane. On the Khalif ’s maps, the narrow, dirty street that led from the Square to Adoulla’s neighborhood bore the name of some long-dead ruler. But for centuries Dhamsawaatis had called it Gruel Lane for its poverty and its inhospitable inns. Avoiding the occasional puddle of piss, Adoulla made it to the corner that marked the border of his rough neighbor- hood, the ironically named Scholars’ Quarter.
Pious old Munesh, with his wisps of white hair and his roasted-nut stall, stood on the corner agitating fire-heated trays of sugared almonds and salted pistachios. The aroma made Adoulla’s mouth water. He stopped to buy a handful of roasted pistachios.
“Doctor!” Raseed had been silent for much of their walk home, and Adoulla had almost forgotten he was there. The dervish was clearly scandalized by the delay. Adoulla wished he were young enough to be- lieve that zeal and an urge to combat monsters were enough to fill one’s stomach. But the years had taught him otherwise, and he had a long day ahead of him.
“I’ve had only half a breakfast, boy. I need sustenance to think clearly, and a handful of moments here will matter little enough. The Heavenly Chapters say ‘A starving man builds no palaces.’ ”
“They also say ‘For the starving man, prayer is better than food.’ ” Adoulla gave up. He grunted to Raseed, thanked Munesh and walked on, cracking shells and munching noisily.
His assistant was a true dervish of the Order, truer than most of the hypocritical peacocks who wore the blue silks. He had spent years hard- ening his diminutive body, his only purpose to be a fitter and fitter weapon of God. To Adoulla’s mind, it was an unhealthy approach to life for a boy of seven and ten. True, God had granted Raseed more than human powers; armed with the forked sword of his order, he was nearly invincible. Even without the sword the boy could take on half a dozen men at once. Adoulla had seen him do it. But the fact that he had never so much as kissed a girl lessened Adoulla’s respect for him considerably.
Still, it was Raseed’s pious discipline that made him such a good battle companion. A man’s character was most clearly displayed in the uses he put his gifts to. In his forty years as a ghul hunter, Adoulla had seen a man jump twenty feet into the air and had watched a girl turn water into fire. He had seen a warrior split himself into two warriors, then four. He had watched as an old lady made trees walk.
What he had seen people do with such powers varied as much, or as little, as people themselves. Their motivations covered the same range of reasons all men and women did things. Occasionally they helped other people and made sacrifices. More often, they acted selfishly and did wrong to their fellow children of God. Raseed, for his part, always went the first route.
A neighbor’s child hollered Adoulla’s name and waved in greeting from across the packed-dirt street. Clearing his mind of extraneous thoughts and slurping the last bits of salt and pistachio from his fingers, Adoulla waved back and stepped onto his own block.
He passed the small sandstone shop that belonged to his friends and ex-traveling companions, Dawoud and Litaz, a Soo couple who had lived in the city for decades. Apparently they were not home—the shop’s cedar shutters were drawn tight. Too bad. Adoulla would never have asked his retired friends to accompany him on this ghul hunt, but Litaz had kept up with her alkhemy, and it would have been nice to borrow one of her remarkable freezing solutions or explosive preparations to aid in his work.
But it was Idesday, so Adoulla guessed that the couple would be spending the day and perhaps the night with friends at the Western Market, where traders from the Soo Republic swept in once a month with ivory, gold, and the yam candies that Litaz always had on hand to remind herself of home.
Finally, he and Raseed reached the pale stone townhouse that had been Adoulla’s thin slice of Dhamsawaat for twenty-odd years. Adoulla opened the white-painted wood door of the townhouse and stepped through the gently arched doorway, the dervish following.
It was no palace. But it was much better than the hovels that were his origin and likely inheritance as an orphan on Dead Donkey Lane. That he’d been able to buy the building at all had been due to the vaga- ries of his calling, which for once had worked to his advantage. Many years ago he had, with Dawoud and Litaz, fought a golden snake forty feet long, with huge rubies for eyes—an ancient monster created in the days of the Faroes of Kem and awakened by a greedy man’s digging. Just looking at the glittering serpent caused magical fear in even a stout heart, and it had already slain a squadron of the old Khalif ’s watchmen. But Adoulla and his friends had ambushed the creature and drained its animating magic.
The serpent had collapsed as they’d watched, crumbling into huge piles of gold dust. Near thirty years later, Adoulla could still smilingly recall the sound of those fist-sized rubies falling to the ground. I am now a rich man, he remembered thinking as he and his friends had gleefully scooped gold dust into their pouches and sacks, doing little dances of celebration all the while.
It had been a treasure to rival those of Dhamsawaat’s great mer- chants. And though, over the past twenty-odd years, his calling had forced him to undertake several expensive journeys to distant places, he still had a respectable sum. He had no wife or children to keep, after all. His expenses had increased two years ago when Raseed, who had aided Adoulla admirably in a ghul hunt, had asked to stay on as an assistant. But even that had not cost him much, as the boy ate such simple fare.
Adoulla set to gathering his things. The marshes were less than a day’s ride west by mule, so they’d need little in the way of traveling sup- plies. But there were preparations to be made for any ghul hunt. He slung a large, worn satchel of brown calfskin over his shoulder and moved about the townhouse’s book-and box-cluttered rooms. As he went, he stuffed the bag with things collected from shelves, tabletops and undusted corners. A punk of aloewood. A box of scripture-engraved needles. A vial of dried mint leaves. Pouches and packets, scraps of paper and bright little bottles wrapped in cloth.
In a quarter hour’s time he was ready to go, and Raseed was already standing by the door, cleaning his sword. The dervish’s own possessions were few: the sword, his blue silks, his turban made from a length of strong silk that could double for climbing or binding. He toted a square pack on his back that held their foodstuffs, a half-tent, and a small cookpot.
The boy ran his gaze up and down his sword’s blade and slid it carefully into its ornate sheath of blue leather and lapis lazuli. Adoulla had watched him clean the blade just yesterday, and he doubted that the boy’s sword had grown dirty since then. But he had come to understand that this ritual of Raseed’s was about more than maintaining a cherished weapon. It was about focus. About reminding himself, each and every day, what truly mattered to him.
Taking a last long look around the bookshelves and bureaus of his townhouse, Adoulla himself felt something similar.