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Throne of the Crescent Moon: Chapter 3

Our third extract from Throne of the Crescent Moon, a great new debut from Saladin Ahmed released tomorrow. 

THREE

Men and women packed the stone Mainway and the sidestreets, inching along and shouting in competition for the few sedan chairs and mule rides available. From what Adoulla could see, those on foot were actually moving faster. Which meant that they would be walking to the stables at the edge of the city. Wonderful. He ought to have been born a Badawi tribesman, for all the walking he had done in his life. But on they walked, moving westward for half an hour.

“So here we are again,” he grunted  at Raseed, tired of the silence between them. “Leaving behind safety and comfort to kill monsters. Maybe to be killed. Almighty God knows I don’t have much more of this left in me. You’ll soon have to do this without a mentor, you know.” “You don’t really mean that, Doctor.” The boy crinkled his fine featured face in distaste  as they  passed a refuse cart, broken down in the middle of the street and stinking  in the morning sun.

“I don’t mean it? Hmph. Need I remind you of our last excursion? I was nearly beheaded, boy! This is how an old man should be living?”

“We saved lives, Doctor. Children’s lives.”

Adoulla managed to half-smile at the dervish. I wish the knowledge of that still kept my feet from aching, the way it did when I was your age, he thought. I wish it could keep me from freezing up and accepting death. But what he said was, “Yes, I suppose we did.”

They kept walking, making their way past the gaudy storefronts that lined the Lane of Monkeys. Adoulla watched an ancient husband and wife sitting  cross-legged on a long reed mat in front of a teahouse ahead of them. They were all dirty gray hair and wrinkled brown skin, playing  a fierce game of bakgam.  The man  moved  his token  across the board’s painted sword tips and, with a loud clack and a victorious smile, landed on the first sword. The old woman  was about to lose. She scowled and spat, the glob nearly hitting Raseed  as he  and Adoulla walked by.

Just after they  passed the old couple, Adoulla  heard the rattle of triangle dice in the bakgam  cup,  the clatter as they hit the board, and a series of shouts. The old woman cackled and began a taunting,  incomprehensible victory song as her husband cursed in disbelief. She’d rolled an eight!

That  should be Miri  and me, Adoulla  couldn’t help thinking. He should have married Miri a long time ago. He should have left the lu- natic life of a ghul hunter. Instead, year after year, he had foolishly  de- cided that fighting fanged things and stopping  the spells of wicked men was more important than happiness. Instead of a blissful  marriage,  he had monstrosities on his mind and  a pile of “should haves” pressing down upon his soul.

He and Raseed finally neared the western gate which  would take them out of the city. As they crossed a small alleyway, a doe-eyed girl of an age with Raseed smiled  a none-too-shy  smile at the dervish. Raseed made a choking  noise and kept his eyes on the ground until the girl was a block  away.

Though he knew it was a lost cause, Adoulla couldn’t help himself. “What is wrong  with you, boy? Did you not see the way that little flower looked at you? You could have at least smiled back!”

“Doctor, please!” The boy paused. “This attack. You spoke of the extraordinary  powers of this ghul pack’s master. Do you think one of the Thousand and One, rather than a man, made these ghuls?”

So much  focus on  duty,  so much  neglect of  what really matters. He doesn’t know the painful  end of this road . . . .

Adoulla abandoned his avuncular attempt to get Raseed to act like a living, breathing young man. The dervish would rather think about monsters than smile at a girl. Very well. But he sounded too eager about the possibility of fighting a djenn.  If he’d ever actually  faced one of the Thousand and One in battle, he’d feel differently.

“It wasn’t a djenn, boy. When  one of the fire-born strikes, no one escapes, least of all a child.”

The dervish nodded thoughtfully.  Whatever else Adoulla found ir- ritating about Raseed, he was at least deferential to Adoulla’s experience. “I wonder—” Adoulla continued as they rounded a corner, but the words twisted into a shouted curse as he saw the  massive  crowd that lay before them.

“Ahhh, God’s balls! The Horrible Halt!” Adoulla pronounced the Dhamsawaati term for the complete standstill of traffic with a familiar disgust. Before them, a wall of people seemed to rise up as the blocks- long tangle of carts, camels, and fools slowly pinched its way through the wide western gate. Adoulla  collided with an unwashed little man who had been walking  in front of him. He barely acknowledged the man’s loud admonition to watch where he put his big feet.

“Some sort of gate inspection?” Raseed asked.

Adoulla snorted.  “ ‘Gate  inspection,’  ‘tariff-checks,’  ‘watchmen’s business.’ It’s all the same monkeyshit. And there’s more of it every day.” At the rate the line was moving,  it would  be another hour before they were through.

A ghul pack was loose, which  meant lives were at stake. But Dham- sawaat’s hundred  headaches hurried for no man. One did not walk through the gates of Dhamsawaat the way one walked through a town- house door.  There was first the gray stone inner wall, then one passed through Inspector’s Square, and then through the great main wall, a hundred feet thick. Then one crossed a house-lined  lane past the last guardwall before taking  the Bridge of Yellow  Roses over a ditch. The process had never been a quick  one, and due to the new Khalif ’s poor city management, it took longer than ever.

The duo cut through the throng as best they could  without being truly rude. Adoulla did not want to start a fight, and fights were not uncommon in situations like these. Another quarter-hour and he and Raseed managed to get near the wide gate at the main wall. There the road rose slightly,  and Adoulla  saw that this was more than a simple traffic tangle.

An execution! The great gray paving  stones of Inspector’s Square had been cleared of carts. At its center lay a worn leather mat. A boy of no more than two and ten kneeled on the mat, his hands and feet bound and his eyes wide  with terror. A huge, hooded man with a broad bladed sword stood over him.

Adoulla stopped walking,  transfixed with horror. Name  of God! What could a child that age have possibly done to deserve such a fate?

As if in answer, a high-pitched voice assaulted his ears. Turning toward  the sound, he saw a liveried  crier standing  in an alcove carved in the stone archway above the gate. The man shouted shrilly through a metal cone.

“O fortunate  subjects of God’s Regent in the World, the Defender of Virtue, the Most Exalted of Men, His Majesty the Khalif, how God smiles upon you to provide you with such a ruler!  See how your be- nevolent monarch, Jabbari akh-Khaddari, Khalif of Abassen and of all the Crescent Moon Kingdoms, protects you from the grasping hands of thieves!  See how he punishes the wicked swiftly and terribly!”

Traffic still moved at an inchworm’s pace, but most of the folk on the road were now gawking at the square. Adoulla  stood still, wanting to stop this wickedness but knowing  he could not. Someone behind him pushed past, trying to get forward in the press.

He looked back to the leather mat. Almighty God, why do you allow this? Why  do you send me to fight  monsters outside of my city while  such monsters live within it?

God did not answer.

Raseed, who had also stopped, looked  at him with concern. “Doc- tor, what do you—”

Without warning, something flew at the hooded executioner’s face, covering it in an amber goop. Then the man’s chest exploded in red.

A crossbow bolt! Men and women screamed. There was a sound like a thundercrack  and a puff of orange smoke suddenly obscured the square. A moment later, the smoke cleared and Adoulla  saw only the sprawled form of the dead executioner.

The bound boy was gone.

What could—?

There was another thundercrack, this one from the alcove above the gate. More orange smoke wreathed the recess where the crier had stood. It cleared almost instantly,  and Adoulla  made out the crier’s liveried form slumped at the feet of a tall, broad-shouldered man. This man wore a costume of calfskin and black silk, emblazoned with falcons. His arms were as thick as some men’s legs, but he moved like a dancer  as he stepped to the alcove’s lip.

It’s him! thought Adoulla, who’d heard much of the man but never seen him. Pharaad Az Hammaz, the—

“The Falcon Prince!” The words left a dozen mouths around Adoulla.

More trouble. A confident grin split the famous thief ’s moustachioed face. Adoulla shouldn’t have been able to read the man’s facial expression quite so clearly at such a distance. An address-spell was at work,  then— the kind that, supposedly, only the Khalif  could afford. Every person in the crowd would  have the same clear view of the Falcon Prince, would hear his words as if he stood beside them, and would find themselves . . . not coerced by the Prince’s magic, but open to hearing what he had to say. It was likely the only reason they weren’t panicking and fleeing.

Raseed growled. “The criminal!”

Well, most people would  be open to hearing the man, Adoulla cor- rected himself. Technically, Adoulla could not dispute Raseed’s epithet. Ten years ago, a string  of flamboyant robberies of the city’s wealthiest citizens were showily  announced to be the work of a single  brilliant bandit, who called himself the Falcon Prince. Pharaad Az Hammaz, as he had later revealed his name to be, never himself claimed to be true royalty, but the rumors persisted that he was the last heir of a kingly line from Abassen’s dim past.

Royalty or not, the Falcon Prince was one of the most powerful men in Dhamsawaat. He and his small army of beggars and thieves had become an almost governmental  force, the semiofficial  voice of the poor. And while the landowners and merchants who took up the cry of “share the wealth” were few and far between, Adoulla  had heard from sound sources that a few of the Khalif ’s most powerful ministers, due to personal conviction  or bribery, secretly backed the bandit.

“God’s peace, good people of Dhamsawaat!” The thief boomed, his outstretched arms embracing the crowd. “Our time together is short! Hear the words of a Prince who loves you!” A small, cautious cheer went up from a few corners. “I’ve freed an innocent boy from the Khalif ’s headsman. His crime? Being fool enough to think he could pick coins from a watchman’s purse and feed his ailing mother! Now, we grown folk know that watchmen are as attached to their purses as normal men are to their olive sacks.” The bandit grabbed at his crotch and the crowd laughed hesitantly at his bawdiness. “But did the child deserve to die? Do we Dhamsawaatis care more for the ill-earned wealth of bullies than for the life of a child?”

The crowd grew bolder, and shouts of “No, no!” and “May God forbid it!” erupted from all corners.

The Falcon Prince stood, hands on hips, drinking it in. “I am guilty, good people! I freed the boy. I hit the headsman with a honey pie before I killed him! Only a hungry, hungry man would chop off a child’s head for a few filthy coins. So I fed him! Honey and steel, good people!” The crowd laughed loudly now at the Falcon’s cheerful, casual tone, and he went on. “The old Khalif and I were enemies. He was no hero, but he spent fifty years watching  over this city, which he loved. But for three years now, his fool of a son has bled  Dhamsawaat. He has tried to find me and kill me. He! Has! Failed!” With the help of the address-spell, the Falcon boomed each word with a great drum’s rumble.

The crowd sent up a boisterous cheer, and a small knot of men took up a chant:

Fly, fly, O falcon!

Thy wing no dart can pierce!

Fly, fly, O falcon!

Thy heart and eye so fierce!

The old-as-sand song—in  which  a noble falcon gouges out the eyes of a cruel king—had  become associated with the Falcon Prince, and the new Khalif had made the singing of it punishable by flogging.

There’s going to be real trouble here. A dozen watchmen in riveted jerkins  shoved their way through  the packed crowd toward the gate. They brandished  slender steel maces and tried  to keep their  eyes on the alcove and the crowd  at the same time.

As the Khalif ’s men moved toward the knot of singers the song died down. At once, though,  a fresh round  of “Fly, O Falcon” went up on the opposite side of the crowd. The watchmen’s heads all whipped to- ward the sound in unison, but they let the singers be and tried to reach the Prince himself, who had stopped speechifying to caper to the tune as best he could in the small alcove. The bandit’s jollity only  caused the singers in the crowd to sing more boisterously. This time, men did not stop chanting when the knot of watchmen passed. And  Adoulla saw the Khalif ’s men were scanning the crowd more anxiously   as they made their way toward the gate. A dozen against hundreds.

Beside him, Adoulla sensed a sudden battle  tension  in his protégé. Raseed drew his sword soundlessly, and everyone around him took a step back. The blade was two-pronged,  according to the Traditions of the Order, “in order to cleave right from wrong.” Adoulla  feared that Raseed was about  to try to do so now.

“What are you doing?” Adoulla  whispered. “I’m going to help the watchmen, Doctor.” “The Falcon Prince is not our enemy, boy.”

“With apologies, Doctor, he is not a prince.  He uses magic  to commit crimes. Exactly the sort of thing that we are obligated to fight!”

Raseed started  to move  again, but Adoulla grabbed his slender shoulder. He could  hardly  restrain  Raseed if the dervish chose to interfere, but Adoulla hoped his age and authority would prevail.

“We are obligated  to fight the servants of the Traitorous Angel. Pharaad Az Hammaz may be a criminal,  but he feeds the poor and chastens the proud.  Surely even your  zealous  eyes can see the virtue in that!”

The boy said  nothing. He  frowned hard at Adoulla. Then he sheathed his sword.

In the alcove, the Falcon Prince spread his huge hands wide  as if welcoming the approaching watchmen to a banquet. “The Khalif ’s dogs come for me, my friends! If you hear their yappy mouths a-cursing, it is because some scoundrel  has sabotaged their crossbows! But this is only the beginning,  dear Dhamsawaatis! Stand ready! The day comes soon when we take back what is ours! There will be choices before us all, though  some would  have us believe that they are meant  by God to do our choosing for us! But are we of Dhamsawaat bound by chains forged by the tyrants of past days? Does a man rule us without limit or wisdom just because his father  ruled?”

A booming “NO!” went up from the crowd, and a dozen different voices shouted support.

“Let the Falcon rule!”

“God grant  us a wise Khalif!” “No chains here, O Falcon!”

Adoulla would wager money that the flamboyant thief had placed these men and women in the crowd himself. The watchmen were nearly at the gate now, but they had to push through an increasingly hostile crowd. The Prince continued.

“We of the Jewel of Abassen love a Khalif who does his duty. Who helps feed his people. Who steals not their coin. But a Khalif who dooms us with his greed and his cruelty? Well—” menace edged into the bandit’s voice “— well, even a Khalif  is but a man, and better a bad man should die than our good city!” Due to the address-spell everyone in the crowd saw the infectious  gleam in the Falcon Prince’s eye.

A clamor went up from the crowd. Some of it was outraged mut- tering. But a good  number  of folk were clearly emboldened  by the Prince’s regicidal words, and they made a lot of noise. At the edge of the crowd Adoulla noticed an extravagantly dressed merchant and a liveried civil servant making their way out of the crowd, frightened looks on their faces.

Raseed put a hand back to his sword hilt and shifted restlessly.

“When there is little food to buy and less work to be had, when half our sons have known  the gaol and half our daughters have been shamed by watchmen, the people of Dhamsawaat have risen up before! It will happen again, my friends! Stand ready! Stand ready!”

The watchmen  were now climbing to the crier’s alcove. More of them were streaming in from the other side of the gate. But there was another thundercrack, another cloud of orange smoke, and the Prince was gone.

Almighty God!

The crowd quickly  lost its boldness. Men and women went back to their business,  giving the furious watchmen   a  wide berth. Beside Adoulla,  Raseed cleared his throat, and Adoulla  remembered the ur- gency of their task. Movement through the tight-packed crowd had been impossible during the Prince’s appearance, and the crowd moved slowly now.

“Come, boy, this gate will be gummed up for hours now. Maybe we can cross over to the avenue and hire a sedan. With all the commotion here, the Chair-Bearer’s Gate might actually be quicker than this mess.” Adoulla tried not to dwell on how much time they’d lost already. Lost time meant more men dead beneath the fangs of ghuls.

They walked a half-dozen long blocks and turned  the corner into an uncrowded alley. It felt like a different city. The alleyway was cooler, shaded  as it was by tall buildings  on either side. A hard-eyed woman sat on her doorstep, and she looked up suspiciously from the basket she was weaving when the pair walked by. She and a bone thin poppy-chewer, who lay sprawled on another doorstep, apparently talking to the clouds, were the only people in the alley. Adoulla’s discerning  nose detected stewed goat wafting  from a window, and he greedily inhaled the smell. “Watch your step, Doctor!”  Even as the words  left Raseed’s mouth Adoulla felt his sandal sink into a warm  pile of camel shit. Adoulla cursed and scraped his foot on the stone. He turned back to curse again at the brownish  smear behind him.

And found himself face-to-face with the Falcon Prince.

Name of God! Where did  he come from? The man was nearly six and a half feet tall. Taller even than Adoulla, and rippling with muscle where Adoulla jiggled with fat. His black moustaches  were  meticulously groomed, and his handsome brown  face split in a grin.

Out of the corner of his eye Adoulla saw Raseed turn and draw his sword.  The Falcon took  a wary step back. The thief  looked  at Raseed as one might  a dangerous animal. But he smiled  again as he spoke.

“Well, this is something one doesn’t see in every alley! A dervish of the Order and a ghul hunter—Doctor  Adoulla Makhslood, I would guess.” The Prince’s manner  was strangely casual, given the situation he had just fled.

Adoulla said nothing but let his face register surprise at being known outside of his home quarter.

“Yes, Doctor, I know of you. Had we time, I would repeat all of the praises that I have heard sung of you among the poor of the Scholars’ Quarter. But there are watchmen  a few blocks behind me.”

“Murderer!” Raseed spat the word and took a step forward,  but Adoulla threw an arm across the boy’s chest.

The Prince ignored the dervish and spoke to Adoulla. “Will  you help me, Uncle? My next steps—and the lives of others—depend on whether the watchmen know my true path.”

So, a ghul-orphaned  boy was not enough for old Adoulla Makhslood today,  eh, God? No, You had to involve Your fat old servant in a mad usurper’s plots as well! Wonderful. Adoulla looked up at the Prince.

He could hem and haw, but there was only one choice here, and this was a matter  of moments. “They will not know your true path,” he muttered.  Beside him, Raseed made an angry noise.

The Prince bowed his head. “The Falcon Prince thanks you, Uncle! Mayhap I will have the chance to return the favor someday.” The bandit then leapt up, landing on a second-story balcony.

Remarkable. Adoulla had seen leaping-spells before, but the way the Prince’s physical grace blended  with the obviously magical enhance- ments was still impressive. With two more quick leaps he was on the building’s roof and lost from sight. Beside Adoulla,  the dervish let out what seemed an involuntary grunt of respect.

Adoulla heard the shout and clatter of approaching watchmen. “We saw him go the other  way, yes?” he said tersely.

Fury filled the boy’s tilted eyes. “I will not lie to protect that villain, Doctor!”

“Then conceal yourself, boy, and let me talk!” But the dervish did not move. “Please!” Adoulla urged.

The boy shook his turbaned  head, but he stepped into the alley shadows, where he seemed to disappear.

Two watchmen rounded the corner running. From the noise I’d have guessed it was a whole squadron. Belligerent fools. Adoulla  kept  himself from darting his eyes about  the alley’s shadows. He prayed that the boy would  stay hidden.

“You there, old man! Halt! Halt if you value your life!” The watch- men were both tall, fresh-faced young  men. Again they shouted at Adoulla to halt, though  he was standing still.

The pair thundered up and Adoulla  could smell their sweat. “You! Did you see—”

“That way!” Adoulla shouted, pointing  in the wrong direction. He put on his best irked-uncle face. “He ran down that turn-off! That dirty, damned-by-God bandit! He nearly knocked me over! What in God’s name are you men doing to stop this, I ask? Why, when I was your age, the watchmen would never let—”

The two men shoved past Adoulla, running  in the direction of his pointing finger. When they were out of sight, Raseed stepped from the shadows.

It was Adoulla’s turn to shake his head. “We’ve lost a lot of time, boy. Looks like we’ll be doing some night riding.”

Raseed nodded  with a grim relish. “Ghul hunting in the dark.” Adoulla smiled in spite of himself, feeling buoyed just a bit by his

assistant’s indefatigability. “Aye. And only a sword-for-brains little mad- man like yourself  would  be excited by the prospect.”

Not quite wanting to know what Almighty God had in store for him next, Adoulla gestured to his assistant and walked on.