Darrell Drake has published four books, with A Star-Reckoner’s Lot being the latest. He often finds himself inspired by his research to take on new hobbies. Birdwatching, archery, stargazing, and a heightened interest in history have all become a welcome part of his life thanks to this habit.
A Star-Reckoner’s Lot (excerpt chapters 1-3)
by Darrell Drake
There comes a time in every child’s life when even the disappointed stare of a much-loved, much-respected father is not enough to smother the stupidity of youth. This was Ashtadukht’s time.
She’d wandered off some time prior, her brother reluctantly in tow, as she was wont to do. It had occurred to her that doing so during a royal hunt would be dangerous; it had also occurred to her that it’d be thrilling. Caution had lost that battle, squashed beneath the tenacious curiosity of childhood.
So it was that this day found the siblings mired in an especially precarious situation, one of the sort that threatened the course of history.
“I think we’re lost,” said Ashtadukht. She gripped her brother’s arm and leaned into him. Having an illness that made physical exertion bothersome on the best of days never really stopped her. If anything, it only made her more intent on finding trouble—to challenge her handicap and overcome it. And the presence of her brother meant she benefitted from the reassurance of his carrying her back if she overexerted herself, as he’d done many times in the past.
“We are not lost,” contested Gushnasp. He accepted her weight without realizing it; it’d become second nature for the boy. “We are right where you want us to be. You are not fooling anyone.” He’d been dragged on these adventures often enough to know her aim, and more than anything it irritated him that she persisted in her lie. It was insulting. He wasn’t dull, and he didn’t need convincing to take care of his little sister. “You are—”
“Shhh! There’s something up ahead.” Ashtadukht hunkered down behind an old yew
and peered around, eyes gleaming with excitement. A feeling had led her to this spot, had expressed in what were unspoken but very clear words that she wanted to be here. The why never mattered; she never even bothered asking herself why.
Because he wanted to indulge her, and because he was the more circumspect of the pair, Gushnasp followed suit and squatted behind the trunk.
The thicket they’d been exploring gave way to a small clearing just ahead. The far edge was lined with low-hanging branches and dense shrubbery that stirred in the wake of some hoarsely grunting creature. Ashtadukht leaned forward. Her brother’s hand came to rest gently but firmly on her shoulder, a preemptory tether.
Out charged what Ashtadukht believed to be the largest boar anyone had ever seen, raking at the earth and shaking its head. The beast had shoulders higher than Gushnasp,
with a fine sheen to its coat that had a peculiar white pattern like it’d trampled its rump— the pattern! Ashtadukht shot up straight.
At that same moment a man stepped into the clearing opposite the boar. There are men, then there are men who will invariably become more than men: legends in the making. And this man was clearly forging his own legend. Broad-chested, tall and steady as a cypress, with wise eyes, and divine glory emanating from his features: this was the King of Kings. He hefted a spear in one hand and readied a throw at the boar.
Ashtadukht would have stood there marvelling at the splendour of her king—the most just king her glorious nation would ever know—if she knew what was good for her. Instead, she rushed out between him and his prey, hands waving. “Stop! Stop!” she yelled. “Don’t kill it!”
Half remembering herself, she had the presence of mind to swiftly hide her hands in her sleeves and cover her mouth. Still, she had gone as far as inserting herself between the King of Kings and the boar. Against his better judgment, Gushnasp followed her into the clearing to keep watch over the boar, which seemed to realize what was going on and made no move to intervene.
The King of Kings commanded the silence that followed, and used it to take stock of the situation. With a nod, he lowered his spear. “Move away from the boar, child. It is a dangerous animal. We can discuss this matter once you are safe.”
Ashtadukht pulled herself behind her brother and talked through his back. “M-may you live forever, but I can’t let this animal die. I made a promise. Promises are important.”
“That they are,” replied the King of Kings. “But what a wicked promise it must be to place you between your king and his quarry.” Even as he parlayed, he was focused on the boar, ready to skewer it if it started on the girl.
His entourage emerged from the forest behind him. To Ashtadukht’s dismay, her father was among them. She had seen him angry thanks in no small part to her wanderlust. She would have preferred that anger to the look he now levelled on her. Ashtadukht shivered, but she did not back down.
“Ashta,” called her father. His voice was thick with admonition. “Gushnasp, take your sister back to the others.”
“No, let her speak,” instructed the King of Kings. “If you have raised her well, she will have good reason for this.” Her father acquiesced by taking a step back, though begrudgingly. “So,” continued the King of Kings, “go on, little one.”
Ashtadukht lowered her gaze. Much as she tried, the lump in her throat would not relent. “I made a promise.”
“Yes, of course. We have been over that.”
“To, to a div.”
“A wicked promise indeed to belong to a creature of the Lie. But go on.”
Ashtadukht nodded inwardly. The stories all painted divs as fey, fiendish beasts that
conspired to bring Ahriman’s chaotic influence to the orderly domain of Ohrmazd—that of Man. That the depravity of divs was only surpassed by their many manifestations. But she was beholden to her promise.
“I was out exploring and it was foggy and I couldn’t see and—” Ashtadukht caught herself rambling. Abashedly, she peeked around her brother. The King of Kings wore the faintest of smiles, but even that was enough to inspire courage in the girl. “I fell. I was just hanging there by a cliff calling out for help when he appeared. He pulled me up and saved
my life. All he wanted in return was for me to come back to that place if I found a boar with a pattern like it’d trampled its rump. He said he’d stored his phylactery in it and lost track of it.”
The King of Kings nodded. “And you think this is your boar. It is noble of you to hold so resolutely to your promise. But would it not better serve Truth to kill this boar and in doing so rid the seven kingdoms of a div?”
“I made a promise. Father says it’s just and right to keep one’s promises.”
“Your father is a good man. One of my best generals. You are right in putting so much stock in his lessons, and a better daughter for it. But what would you have me do? Let the royal quarry, a div’s phylactery no less, run free?”
Ashtadukht bowed her head in acknowledgement of his point. Asking him to turn a blind eye to the whole affair would be tantamount to asking him to do a div a favour. Then she recalled a story her father had told her. “What of the great Jam, who ruled divs, yazatas, and men alike? If the boar were captured instead of killed, I could show you where this div dwells and he would be forever your slave. If he disobeys, then . . .”
“You will have kept your promise,” said the King of Kings. He considered the idea, gave his marvellous, pearl-studded tunic a pat, and tightened his lips. Ashtadukht braced herself by leaning into her brother. The stress was beginning to get to her.
“Very well,” the King of Kings eventually decided. “You are a clever, honest girl— respectable qualities. I would offer you the hand of my son, but it seems you are already enamoured of someone closer to home.”
Ruddiness burned in Ashtadukht’s cheeks. A part of her knew he had said what he did because of more than his all too accurate appraisal of her feelings for her brother: her illness made her undesirable for most any man, especially a prince. But the embarrassment that overcame the girl generously drowned the truth of things. Even with her mouth covered as it was by her sleeves, her wide grin was unmistakable. If an affected smile did not reach a person’s eyes, this one was so sincere that it conquered hers. “Y-yes,” she finally managed.
Gushnasp straightened his back, but made no other indication of a response. Unlike his sister, he respected proper etiquette. All but the boon companions did not speak in the presence of the King of Kings unless spoken to.
“In that case,” replied the King of Kings, “I will have you sent to the academy at Weh- Andiok-Shabuhr. Not as punishment, dear girl, but because I salute your integrity and intelligence. It would be a folly to waste. Your brother has a promising future following in your father’s footsteps, so you should aspire to be more than a burden.”
“May you live forever,” said Ashtadukht. She wasn’t quite certain what all of this meant for her or how her father would take it, but the exchange had drained her too much for anxiety to take hold.
“Come, cousin,” Ashtadukht growled, slathering the familial term with rancour. She fumed so intensely that each of her four plaits writhed on her shaking frame. “Come.”
“I am not a dog to be ordered around,” replied Tirdad. “It would do you well to remember that.” His tone was even, without a trace of the hostility that marred hers.
Ashtadukht waved a hand at the shrinking fortifications on the horizon. “Really? Because you’ve been following me like a lost dog since I left Dvin.”
“My father doesn’t know what’s best for me. He hasn’t seen me in years.”
“And whose fault is that?”
Ashtadukht deflated, if only slightly. “Mine.” She shook her head. “But that changes
nothing. You shouldn’t be here.”
“You are right,” said Tirdad, “but I am.”
“It is not only because your father requested it of me, or because I would like to help
you find the div who killed your brother, your husband. I came because no one else would. The names they call you, they are disrespectful at best. They think you are a div lover. I do not believe any of it.”
“So I should thank you for treating me like a decent person would? I do Iran a service that few others could stomach, let alone accomplish. If that means I’ve lost the approval of my family then so be it. And I’ve done so alone during the years since Gushnasp . . . since Gushnasp . . .” Ashtadukht grew quiet, and any remaining ire sloughed away. She gazed at the pale peak of Mount Masis, which mingled with the heavens where it dominated the southwestern horizon, and saw only an obstruction. Once, she would have seen so much more.
She admitted to herself that she was wrong in treating her cousin so scornfully. He had sacrificed much in agreeing to be her guardian. And women roaming alone, well, that was just unseemly. Never mind the dirty details of her office. Ashtadukht did not agree with any of it, but she had come to understand that whether or not she agreed did not always matter. Or often matter.
For his part, Tirdad respected her silence.
The pair spent most of the day and next morning pushing their horses at a canter along a course toward Lazica. When noon arrived, the high Sun and dry summer air of the Masis plain forced them to rest their mounts.
Ashtadukht had spent the ride reflecting on her behavior the day before, and figured now was a favourable time to break the hush that had followed. “We’re headed to Lazica,” she said.
Tirdad came to stand beside her, where she sat on the bank of the Aras River. “I gathered as much from our direction.”
“The area will be rife with the symptoms of war, if not war itself. I thought you should be prepared.” Ashtadukht squinted up at her cousin. The Sun was unbearably bright, so much so that she could only make out his hooked nose. “Expect bandits.”
Tirdad sniffed. “Bandits, huh? That is all you have to offer?”
“The time will come when you’ll hope for bandits. Star-reckoners often find the trouble you can’t simply slice your way out of.”
She reckoned he could defend himself well enough where slicing was effective. If his training was anything like others of his social strata, the sword at his hip and bow case secured to his horse were instruments he knew intimately. Her father would not have chosen him otherwise.
It must have been the war in Lazica that had prompted her father’s sudden interest in the safety of her travels. Sure, there were always bandits, but she had never been called into the heart of a conflict before. He always had a soft spot for her. Ashtadukht felt genuinely insulted by the order to allow Tirdad to join her, but she appreciated it nonetheless.
She stood and patted down her tunic and trousers—not that the dust was so complaisant as to evacuate, comfortable as it was in the dull roundels and faded viridian.
“To Petra then.”
The approach to Petra was as eventless as the trip there: not a single confrontation with bandits or deserters. Ashtadukht would not admit it openly, but she would have liked to see Tirdad fend off a thug or two just to break the monotony.
“It seems we just missed the siege,” observed Tirdad. “They have not even had time to dismantle the engines or remove the dead.”
The scene was decidedly more grim than battle would have been. Battle is gruesome, but it is vigorous, alive. The aftermath is the worst of it: adrenaline fades, quiet sweeps in, and there’s nothing to distract you from the mess of bodies and disturbed earth.
Riding in the midst of death and destruction surrounding Petra, Ashtadukht looked every bit the woman of enormity she’d long been accused of being. She urged her horse toward the cluster of pavilions that had been erected well beyond the city’s walls. “Better this than getting caught up in it,” she replied at length. “Or worse, an audience during a siege against an obstinate enemy. The King of Kings will be in better spirits now.”
They dismounted upon nearing the main tent, and were challenged by a pair of guards, each with a pomegranate-shaped mace resting on his shoulder.
“We’re to see the King of Kings—may he live forever,” said Ashtadukht. “By request. Tell him his star-reckoner has arrived.” She pulled the stamp seal from around her neck and handed it to the man.
He disappeared into the tent and returned soon after to wave them in. The other guard stopped Tirdad with an outstretched mace. “Only the star-reckoner.”
Tirdad gave Ashtadukht an inquiring look, who responded with a nod. “I shouldn’t be long. Mingle with . . .” She glanced at the guards: tight of lip and stern of face, neither seemed the talking sort. “Well, I shouldn’t be long.”
Inside, the pavilion smelled of musk and ambergris—pleasant enough to mask the stench of warfare, but not so strong as to be stifling. Ashtadukht stepped in, hid her hands in her sleeves and immediately prostrated.
“Stand,” ordered the King of Kings as he walked over to help her to her feet. “What sort of leader asks an ill woman to throw herself to the dirt before him? Moreover, we are alone, and this is a war room not a throne room.”
Ashtadukht accepted his assistance, but kept her hands hidden. She craned her neck to smile up at him, and it seemed to draw all the life from her eyes just to creep up her cheeks. She had not seen him since that fateful day when her carefree childhood was extirpated and replaced with something . . . less. “May you live forever,” she said.
“Some cultures consider that an insult, you know.”
“I—there—I didn’t mean—” Ashtadukht averted her eyes.
The King of Kings waved away her worry. “I jest, of course. It is good to see you well.”
He spread an arm wrapped in golden brocade toward an assortment of rhytons. “Have something to drink.”
Ashtadukht did as she was told. The wine was rich, a welcome departure from the watered-down provisions she had bought in Dvin. Meanwhile, the King of Kings took a seat. “Such a tragedy what happened to your brother. The two of you would have prospered
as husband and wife. He served his nation as fully as anyone can ask of a man, and I personally witnessed his valour. I trust you are still searching for the div responsible?”
Ashtadukht very carefully placed the drinking horn back where it belonged, as if she could no longer be trusted with the apparatus.
“I strive for his justice with every passing day.”
The King of Kings nodded, evidently satisfied with the response. “Yes, well, I appreciate your coming all this way on such short notice, and in a time of war no less. I need a star- reckoner I can trust with a matter of delicacy.”
“I’m honoured. I truly am. But you’ve three star-reckoners in your retinue if memory serves.”
“Your memory is strong as ever, but this is a complicated matter. Star-reckoners are not known for being gentle with divs, and you are rather notorious for your more forgiving touch.”
Ashtadukht leaned in, certain to commit every word of the exchange to memory. A personal request from this man was not to be taken lightly. The King of Kings went on. “The wife of the Lazic king has been bedridden by a foul illness. Physicians have done what they could, which frankly, is absolutely nothing. There is talk of her being a div, or at least victim to a div, due to the strange nature of her affliction.
“I believe it to be a baseless rumour spread by people without answers. Even so, I must entertain all possibilities. I cannot trust the heavy-handedness of most star-reckoners where the queen of Lazica is concerned, so I have called on you. Our support in this would go a long way toward securing the alliance with Gubaz, and it is the right thing to do besides. Go to Nokalakevi, and see that you give her respect befitting a queen.
“Now, while you have that to untangle, I have Hrom to deal with. Let us pray your lot is less troublesome than mine. Be well, star-reckoner.”
Ashtadukht prostrated and recited the reverential, “May you live forever.” She stood with some complaint from her knees, and upon leaving, was sure to remain facing the King of Kings until she exited the pavilion.
She and Tirdad were given swift, well-rested horses and departed for Nokalakevi post- haste. They pushed their steeds tirelessly through several nights until reaching the city, where they were practically pulled off their saddles by a very distraught steward.
“Your seal, your seal! Quickly! You must be the one we’ve been waiting for,” he yammered, reaching out expectantly.
Ashtadukht dismounted gracelessly, using one hand to steady herself while the other fished in her tunic for the seal. The steward gave it a perfunctory glance before grabbing the reins of her horse and leading them through the gates.
“She is not well, not well at all,” he rambled. “You should have come sooner. Everyone should have come sooner. I made it perfectly clear she needed special attention. All this diplomacy, and for what?”
Ashtadukht held an iron grip on her saddle. Her body was numb, her head throbbed, and everything was awash with nausea. Tirdad walked beside her, but she refused to request his assistance. “Just get us to your queen. I came as quickly as I could once I understood the severity of her condition.”
“What is he saying?” asked Tirdad.
“Nothing important. He’s just frightened for the queen.”
They were escorted through a rear entrance, and eventually to the royal chambers,
where a somber hush clung to the air.
The stench hit first—a vaguely familiar stink that Ashtadukht couldn’t quite place.
Whatever it was, it only worsened her nausea.
“She has been alone for days,” explained the steward. “The smell inside is unbearable,
and most are wary of whatever it is that has befouled her. I check in regularly, but not much else.” He stopped outside the door to the queen’s chambers, obviously not keen on entering. “Even the priest has left.”
“If I can do anything for her, I will,” Ashtadukht assured him. She inclined her head toward Tirdad. “My guardian will watch the door. If you’d like to get some rest, you may.”
The steward shook his head. “You are considerate, but I’d rather remain here if it’s all the same to you. The worry keeps the sleep at bay. We’re all very worried about her. Afraid, yes, but worried, too.”
“Suit yourself,” said Ashtadukht.
She moved to enter, but Tirdad caught her by the arm. “You look unwell,” he whispered. “You should have a quick rest first. We have been riding hard for days.”
Ashtadukht turned a scowl on her cousin. “I’ll be the one to decide whether or not I need to rest. I didn’t ride all this way for a nap.”
Tirdad answered her scowl with a measured stare before backing down. “I will be here if you need me.”
“Thank you, Tirdad. Keep the good steward company, won’t you? And try not to worry yourselves sick.”
Entering that room was like walking into the fetid gullet of the Stinking Spirit himself. Ashtadukht swallowed the bile that rose in her throat, wiped the tears from her eyes, and pressed on. She knelt bedside, where a host of offerings had been amassed.
The queen was younger than Ashtadukht expected—not much older than she was— though her condition made it difficult to tell. She was pale as alabaster, with thick brown veins that profaned her face and hands.
“Another mountebank come to apply your sham cures?” asked the queen. “My steward is a gullible, desperate man.”
Ashtadukht frowned and fought off a deep breath. She had hoped to find the woman sleeping. “No sham cures, Your Highness. I’m a star-reckoner sent by the King of Kings of Iran.”
“A star-reckoner? Am I a div now? Have you come to put me out of my misery?” “Nothing so dramatic or murderous. I’d like to help if possible.”
The queen squinted and reached out a hand. “Oh, you are death come for me. I can feel
it. You are death.”
Ashtadukht gently took hold of the queen’s hand. “I’m not—what?”
The moment she applied pressure to the skin it cracked, and beneath, the flesh was a
sickly yellow-brown. Then the identity of the smell hit her: rotten eggs. “No, no, no! Tirdad! Tirdad!”
He rushed in, sword brandished. His eyes flashed around the room. “Where? Where are they?”
“What’s going on?” asked the steward.
“We must hurry,” urged Ashtadukht. “There’s a cursed hen’s egg buried at one of the gates. Gather anyone you can find to search. Look for freshly disturbed earth.” She knocked Tirdad’s sword out of the way and dashed between the two.
“Hurry!” she called over her shoulder, as she turned into a causeway that was in fact a terrace. Her compromised faculties realized this too late, and Ashtadukht blundered into the night with all the grace of a tumbling chicken.
Fortunately, her fall was cushioned by a hay bale. Unfortunately, it was a rat-infested hay bale. She crawled out, kicking at the vermin that were anything but pleased to have their home so violently disturbed, and managed to escape with only a bite to her ankle.
“Accursed, good-for-nothing rodents,” spat Ashtadukht as she limped from the stable and headed toward the only gate she knew of: the one she and Tirdad had been escorted through upon arrival.
“Damned idiots,” she went on with her cursing. “Damned fingernail-swallowing idiots.” She crawled in and around the gate, giving the dirt and cobblestone a thorough inspection. “Can’t be satisfied with half of creation trying to kill you—never that! You have to find the worst ways of killing one another.”
After a thorough and unsuccessful search, Ashtadukht struggled to her feet and tried to judge where another entrance might be. She’d decided to follow the wall when Tirdad came running over.
“Ashtadukht! There you are. I may have found something. This way.” He took her by the arm and hurried her off, which ultimately had him carrying her after several falls.
“Put me down!” she demanded. “I can walk just fine!”
Tirdad sighed, but did as she asked. “You yourself said we must hurry. Or is your pride more important than this woman’s life?”
Ashtadukht started to run, and would have fallen on her face if she hadn’t caught herself on her cousin. She blew out an irritated groan. “Bear me there.”
Tirdad did as she bade him, hefting her like the light, sickly mass she was. “I do not enjoy this,” he said. “I would rather you prove me wrong.”
“Don’t gloat,” said Ashtadukht as he bore her across a courtyard. “I can usually manage on my own, but these last few days have been especially . . .”
“Trying,” finished Tirdad.
Ashtadukht furrowed her brow and looked up at him. “Cousin?”
“I am not as dense as you think I am. Your father could have given your guardianship to
any man if he wanted only brawn.” He deposited her in the corner of the courtyard they’d just crossed, where a small, vine-covered gate sat ajar. “I happened to spot it while sweeping the area, and thought it would be a good place to hide something.” He pointed at the ground. “There.”
Ashtadukht immediately began digging at the spot where the dirt had very clearly been disturbed. Her focus came and went, and she fought the enervating force of fatigue until she found what she was looking for: a rotting hen’s egg with a spell that spiralled its sunken shell.
“No,” she whispered. “No.”
“What?” asked Tirdad.
“We’re too late.”
“But surely there is something you can do?”
Ashtadukht gave a grim shake of her head. “No. The curse has run its course. The queen
rots same as this egg, and that’s that. We squandered too much time.”
She slumped against the gate and stared past her cousin into the night sky, where the
luminaries waged war. In that faraway theatre, Ahriman’s invasive planets encroached upon the heavenly domain of Ohrmazd, diverting to the wicked some of the power of the beneficent stars.
As a star-reckoner, Ashtadukht had been instructed in the esoteric methods of finding her place in that battle on any given night. She was angry—at herself for failing, and at the person responsible for so insidious a curse. She grasped that anger, the clarity of it, and used it in her star-reckoning. Ashtadukht wasn’t particularly gifted at the craft. You might even say she was worse than being terrible at it: her reckoning was often unpredictable. That was why she tried to avoid using it. But rage so easily conquers reason.
Her formerly dull eyes took on the sheen of the stars, and she began to murmur. “Saturn hangs in the Balance. Mars and Venus assail the Lion. Jupiter and Mercury fall upon the Bull out of sight—”
“What are you trying to do?” asked Tirdad.
“—Tishtar and Vega bide time. The Bear mauls nothing. Mex-i-gah and Sadwes are silent. The lot has been drawn.”
She felt the residence of the Lion draw near, like reclining on a Sun-kissed slab of stone, and the tetrahedron of fire began its celestial clatter. When it came to rest, she knew her lot had not been favoured. The gamble had failed. How disastrously it had failed would be revealed soon enough.
Any fear Ashtadukht might have had concerning the outcome was tempered by experience and exhaustion. It was beyond her now; all she could do was wait. The starlight faded from her eyes, and the gossamer ring of swords tickled the furthest edges of her hearing. Energy coursed through her, fuelled by that faraway combat, then was gone as abruptly as it’d come. A blast of hot air swept over her and Ashtadukht knew it was done.
“Give me a hand,” she said.
Tirdad, who was looking past her with the sort of amazement reserved for miracles and great acts of nature, did not respond.
“You did this?” asked Tirdad, blinking. “Is this the way of a star-reckoner?” Remembering himself, he reached out to help her up.
Ashtadukht accepted his hand and turned a frown on her handiwork: a perfectly straight tunnel that had been burned into the fortress. Its brightly glowing edges illuminated the way in and ended at a still-burning figure.
“I beseeched the heavens to find the person responsible,” replied Ashtadukht.
“And this is how the heavens answered?”
“It isn’t what I aimed for.”
“I had no idea it was so . . .” Tirdad trailed off and wrung his hands. “I do not like it.”
“I know,” said Ashtadukht. “The duality of existence is manifest in the war of the
luminaries. Calling to that conflict for answers is always risky.” She decided not to mention how it was far riskier for her than any other star-reckoner.
“Is that person the culprit then?”
“Yes. Of that I’m certain.”
They entered the tunnel, careful to avoid the bright-hot areas of molten rock, and
followed it into the fortress. There, the criminal who had cursed the queen lay still, a soft and continuous groan escaping his lips. He’d put the fire out, but not before suffering serious burns.
“Is that the steward?” asked Tirdad.
“I think so. It’s hard to tell.”
The clamour of footsteps closed in, and the royal guard rushed into the room and
surrounded them. “What is the meaning of this?” asked the man in charge. “Make a move and I’ll have you cut down where you stand.”
Tirdad resisted the urge to shift his palm to the hilt of his sword. “I do not suppose he is praising us.”
“Not quite,” replied Ashtadukht. Then to the officer: “I’ve exposed this man as a servant of the Opposer—a demon. More than that, he’s the fiend responsible for the curse on your righteous queen. In this, I’ve accomplished my task of rooting out the evil in your midst. Is this how you’d repay me?”
The officer scratched his beard and peered up through the tunnel. “Be that as it may, you have only your word. And you are unknown to me. A foreigner no less.”
Ashtadukht pointed back the way she’d come. “Have one of your men check outside the breach. There’s an egg inscribed with the very spell that’s killing your queen. When I discovered the truth, the demon must’ve sensed it and summoned the fires of Hell.”
“And burned himself?”
“I’m trained in the ways of demons. His spell was turned back on him. Destroyed by his own treachery.”
After a moment’s consideration, the officer nodded to one of the guards. “Go fetch the
egg.“”Be very careful with it,” warned Ashtadukht. “It’s quite literally your queen’s body.” “Wait!” shouted the officer.
The guard halted mid-step and looked back to his superior. “Sir?”
“Might be safer if she takes care of this,” said the officer, with a nod to Ashtadukht. “But I will supervise.”
“Wise decision,” replied Ashtadukht. With some assistance from Tirdad, she led the others back to the egg. “See?” she said, kneeling to very carefully cup it in her hands.
“This?” asked the officer. His tone had grown more respectful, even awed. “This is our queen?”
“In a sense, yes. I must get it to her.”
“What wicked sorcery. To be honest, I always thought the steward was up to no good. Forever second-guessing my security measures. My men will make his final hours very unpleasant. In the meantime, let us get that to Her Majesty.”
Ashtadukht nodded, and cradled the egg as if the slightest drop would spell disaster for the queen. “Help me, Tirdad.”
Her cousin wrapped an arm around her back, and they proceeded along a supremely cautious path. After veritably tip-toeing the entire way, they finally reached the royal quarters.
“You have been causing quite the ruckus out there,” the queen greeted them upon entering. “What’s burning?”
The officer stepped forward. “It is under control, Your Majesty. The foreigners have weeded out the demon among us.”
“Have they now?” She levelled a doubtful stare on Ashtadukht. “Have you now, star- reckoner?”
“Hmm. What is that in your hands?”
“An egg, Your Highness. The very same used to curse you.”
“What a curious method of cursing.” She took a shallow, labored breath. “I would like to
discuss this with the star-reckoner. Alone. Send an urgent call for my husband.”
“Yes, Your Majesty.” The officer bowed his head and departed.
“Give us some time,” Ashtadukht said, and Tirdad obliged. She presented the egg to the
queen, no longer worried about keeping up the ruse of its preciousness. “Your steward did this.”
“My steward? You are certain?”
The queen sighed. “An unfortunate part of being in my position is that even your
friends want you dead. It is the nature of things. Is he alive?”
“Not for long.” Ashtadukht took a seat on the floor, and began to knead the cuff of her
“I would wager the same is true for me.”
“I . . . well, yes.”
“Nothing you can do?”
Ashtadukht averted her gaze. “That’s correct, Your Majesty.”
“I apologize for my conduct when we first met. Judging by your weariness, you exerted
yourself greatly on my behalf.”
“I wish it were enough to save you.”
“You did me a boon by finding the one responsible, and in doing so preventing him from
inflicting more harm. That is more than I can say for most who have stepped foot in this room.”
The queen grew silent for a time, and remained so until Ashtadukht was beginning to nod off. “I expected it to be a quiet thing, to die. It has been so noisy. It was a pleasure to have met you . . .”
“Ashtadukht. I would like to be alone now. Be well, and thank you.”
“It is good to have put that place behind us,” said Tirdad. “I did not like being the only one to not understand anything anyone said.”
He took a bite of dried date and glanced at his cousin. Several days’ rest seemed to have reinvigorated her. She sat straight in her saddle, her plaits were kempt, her pallor had faded, her eyes shone, and most telling, her chin was slightly raised. “You look well today.”
Ashtadukht, who had been revisiting the events of their mission in Lazica—namely her failure—extended her palm toward him. “Date. And I’m well most days. Moderation is the key.”
“It is good to practice moderation in all things,” agreed Tirdad, handing over her share of dried fruit. He had been reflecting on their first task together, and his part in it. He felt ill- prepared. “Have all your journeys as a star-reckoner been so . . . all of that?”
Ashtadukht chewed her date slowly, clearly masticating more than just food. She often meditated on her past, but had never really made an effort in comparing her experiences. She swallowed, and the memories were hard to get down. “Some of it. All of it. None of it.”
“How do you prepare for something like that?”
“Training helps.” Ashtadukht negotiated the more tenacious memories—those that refused to yield so easily. “But not nearly enough. Divs are as numerous and varied as there are grains of barley, only outnumbered by the predicaments they’ll put you in. Not to mention the people who’ll stand in your way.”
She closed her eyes and shook her head, dispersing the last dogged remnants of her past. “You’re never really prepared. Our failure illustrates that well enough.”
Tirdad nodded. “Much like war. You train so that you may live long enough for experience and character to take root.”
“Father said that.”
Ashtadukht drew in a deep breath and shied away from that topic. “I was on my way to
Baku when you arrived with the summons. They seem to be having trouble with their wind.”
“Its absence to be more precise. As you well know, it’s typically very gusty.”
“What does that have to do with a star-reckoner?”
“Well, the wind keeps the snakes at bay, so the city has become infested as a result of its
disappearance. There have been supposed sightings of a div in the nearby wilderness.”
“I see.” Tirdad cleared his throat. “I would appreciate a warning the next time you plan
to . . . consult the stars.”
Ashtadukht emitted a brief, faintly amused chuckle. “I was too tired to really take in the disbelief of your expression at the time. Thank you for reminding me.”
Obviously not amused, Tirdad turned a frown on his cousin. “You burned a tunnel into a fortress. That is downright incredible. Anyone would have been astonished.”
“Fine, fine.” She answered his disapproval with a shrug. “It’s not like I meant for it to end up that way. And I don’t make a habit of actual star-reckoning to begin with.”
“I am still not entirely certain what star-reckoning entails.”
“It’s . . . complicated.” Ashtadukht intended to leave it at that, but he was staring at her as if he expected her to continue. She sighed, thinking she’d have to really water it down for an outsider. “Anyone can learn the names and locations of the luminaries. And it’s true that the foundation of a star-reckoner is an intimate knowledge of the windows of the night sky. What sets us apart are the trials we’ve endured, every last one of us, to be able to attune ourselves to the heavens. The celestial theatre is more than the exegesis we’ve been taught by the priests. It’s no metaphor; it’s real, cousin. I’ve felt it—I feel it with every reckoning. The planets and the constellations are in a constant contest.”
“Ahriman’s assault on the heavens,” Tirdad inserted with a knowing nod.
“Right. A star-reckoner projects her . . .” Ashtadukht screwed up her face in thought, fishing for the right word. “She projects her mind into those battles. Her soul. Doing so grants a star-reckoner the faintest glimpse of the glory of the celestial theatre. Whether the theatre is the Ram or the Water Pot or some other constellation, we try to consider all the portents—falls, exaltations, conjunctions, aspects, elemental qualities, and well, let’s just say a star-reckoner’s mind is always racing when she draws a lot. Risks are unavoidable, as you yourself witnessed. Even as you’re drawing the lot, you can feel something like a, like an immaterial die tumbling in your head to decide the outcome. An unfavourable roll generally gives your intentions a life of their own, for better or for worse.”
“That is not very reassuring. How about a gesture or warning?”
“Oh, of course.” Ashtadukht made an obscene gesture with her thumb, grinned, and
roused her horse into a canter.
Ashtadukht sucked in a heady lungful of the brackish Mazandaran Sea air. She generally tried to avoid things that reminded her of home, but this smell always seemed to squash the need. It was just nostalgic without all the baggage.
The road to Baku, a busy port city snug with the seashore, had been a long one fraught mainly with the regular hazards of travel. As far as Ashtadukht was concerned, boredom ranked high on that list. Tirdad had brought along nard for their breaks in travel, and the board game had certainly livened up the trip a bit. But he would win more often than not. That just left her irritated. For the sake of friendly competition remaining friendly, they had quickly learned to play sparingly.
With Baku in sight, Ashtadukht felt relieved. She had become accustomed to travelling alone, not with a watchdog in tow. It wasn’t that Tirdad was bad company. He’d been good friends with her brother, so that naturally made him a childhood friend for her as well. She just preferred her privacy and solitude.
“I thought we would never arrive,” her cousin said as he pulled his mount, now a mule, next to hers.
“Well, let’s get down to business now that we’re here. The missive is months old now, so we should contact the authorities. The situation may have changed, or the div may have moved on.”
Half of their uncertainty was elucidated upon nearing Baku: the area was rife with snakes. Heaps of those that had been beheaded had been amassed outside the city gates. After making their way through the still-thriving port, they met with a very grumpy, perpetually insulted official.
The pair were informed that the div was last seen in the Arran foothills, but that this was before the wind had ceased blowing. The descriptions were unreliable at best—from enormous bubbles to a three-headed chassis with feet to a headless fish. The only real answers he gave were many scowls and a crude idea of the area. Mostly, he just yammered on about the insult of their taking so long to arrive. Ashtadukht inquired about the div responsible for her husband’s murder, but the official was too caught up in his own troubles to offer any help. He answered by waving them away. She figured the leads he offered would’ve been dead ends anyway.
Afterward, a guide brought them some days out to the general vicinity of the last sighting and left them there, not too keen on having anything more to do with divs or star- reckoners than was absolutely necessary.
“What now?” asked Tirdad.
“We search. If we can find a trail, we can track this div.” Ashtadukht took a look around. “The trouble is in finding the trail to begin with. The guide said the last sighting was up that hill, so I suggest we start there.”
“We should keep to the higher ground,” added Tirdad. “It is a better vantage and less likely to be ambushed.”
“Agreed,” said Ashtadukht. “Be ready for anything.”
They scaled the tussock-covered rise, sure to keep watch for signs of activity, and discovered a forest that started mid-way down the opposite side. It spread like a waterway in and around the adjacent hills, leaving the upper reaches bare.
“Do you see anything?” asked Ashtadukht. She shielded her eyes and squinted against the afternoon Sun.
“A game trail, but nothing that would indicate something large has been through here. Do divs defecate?”
“When they choose to eat.”
“I think they eat for pleasure, not sustenance.” Ashtadukht scanned the edge of the
trees. “Maybe the div used the hilltop as a vantage while navigating the woods. Some are intelligent.”
Tirdad brandished his sword and started for the trees. “What’re you doing?” asked Ashtadukht.
“It could’ve set traps.”
“We will not know either way if we just linger up there. Is this not what star-reckoners do? Search for divs in dangerous places?”
Ashtadukht sighed and plodded down behind him. “I don’t like when you’re assertive. I—no, check for traps in the brush before you enter. I’m the star-reckoner here.”
Tirdad used his sword to prod the grass at the edge of the forest. “I am checking. And be that as it may, the longer you twiddle your thumbs on that hilltop the less sunlight we have.” He continued his search a moment longer then etched a line into the nearest tree. “It looks clear.”
“It usually does until it isn’t.” Despite her grim appraisal, Ashtadukht took the lead. They wove through ironwood and chestnut-leaved oaks, over mainly uneven terrain that ran at a high grade, with Tirdad slicing a notch into every other tree. There were signs of Arran red deer, tur (which neither could identify beyond it being goat-like), and much more worrying, brown bears. But no indication that something foreign had been in the area.
The snake infestation hadn’t reached this far. That seemed to Ashtadukht to indicate that while the div may have something to do with the wind’s disappearance, the snakes could have simply been a consequence of its cessation—as the locals believed.
The pair travelled in wary silence for an hour before Tirdad waved Ashtadukht over. “This is getting us nowhere,” he said. “We cannot track with no signs to track by.”
Ashtadukht drew one side of her mouth taut and pondered the point. “Well,” she offered at length, “I could try star-reckoning after sunset. I usually have more of a lead to go on. If not, I spend all the time it takes to find the div I’m looking for. Or use star-reckoning. Sometimes both.”
“That’s like me telling you to never use your sword. For cutting trees or cutting down foes.” Ashtadukht looked away from his glower and in doing so spotted something peculiar in the brush. She walked over and squatted over three empty bird nests.
“Have you found something?” asked Tirdad.
“I don’t know. Some vacant nests. But these aren’t the type you’d see from birds that lay their eggs on the ground.”
“They could have just fallen off the branches.”
“Maybe, but would they have arranged themselves in a neat triangle after doing so?”
“It is possible.”
Ashtadukht glared over her shoulder. “Come have a look.”
Tirdad came to stand over her. “They look like nests to me.”
“You really aren’t helping, cousin.”
“I just do not see the significance. There has been an increase in snakes. It could be
“Really? You’re willing to go that far in your argument? That some, some fastidious or
artistically inclined snake is slithering around eating bird eggs then arranging the nests in some sort of . . . shrine to its murders.”
“I was thinking more of a snake fellowship.”
Ashtadukht huffed and got to her feet. “Now I’m certain you’re just being difficult.” She turned her back on his grin and headed farther into the forest. There, some dozen trees later, she discovered another trio of nests in the same shape. “I’ve found more,” she called.
“That is strange,” Tirdad conceded after catching up to her. “Do you think the div is responsible?”
“It’s the only clue we’ve come across.”
“What does it mean?”
“Beats me. We should check for more, though.”
They canvassed the area in a widening spiral that eventually crossed another group of nests. While this one had no more clues than the first two, it did establish a curved line along the base of a hill. Daylight was growing scarce, but they pressed on and managed to find another along the way.
When night descended and blanketed the forest, it was the heavy sort of night brought about by a new moon. At that point, they did what little they could to continue along the general course while staying within reach of one another. It took another hour of navigating by keeping the higher part of the hill on their left before they came to the edge of the woods.
A line of fire illuminated the nearest ridge, which was marvellously coloured with strands of vermilion, white, and grey that seemed to caper along its side.
Ashtadukht and Tirdad knelt low. Neither really suspected it was a campfire, but they also had no idea what it was. They both knew that fire distorts distance, and that the ground they’d have to cover between here and there could be treacherous by starlight.
“I don’t want to ignite a torch for fear of giving ourselves away,” whispered Ashtadukht. “Do you see any movement?”
“Only the fire.”
“We’ve come this far. Give me your bow. You lead; I’ll follow within range.”
Tirdad handed over his combination bow and quiver case. “It is a stubborn draw.” Ashtadukht removed the bow and slipped the case over her shoulder. “I’m a stubborn
woman,” she replied as she nocked an arrow. “Lead on.”
He sheathed his sword to prevent it from catching the light of the fire and crept
forward, keeping a low profile as he did. Ashtadukht shadowed him some fifty paces back. She thanked Ohrmazd for her favourable condition this day, as she did every day that she could crouch without complaint from her back and knees.
The distance wasn’t quite as far as she’d first thought, but the approach was nerve- racking nonetheless. This made her disappointment all the more striking when Tirdad waved her over. It wasn’t that she particularly minded coming out of it unchallenged, but the adrenaline rush she’d experienced along the way would have liked some release. “It’s just fire,” she said. “And it reeks.”
Tirdad shrugged. “Better that than a group of bandits.”
“. . . Right.” Ashtadukht returned his bow, and leaned in to inspect the fire. “Curious thing. I don’t see any fuel.”
“It is not a div, is it?” Ashtadukht said nothing. “Well?”
“You do not seem confident.”
“Divs aren’t fire. I just thought—” Ashtadukht thought it was a stupid question. “Nothing. Why don’t we camp for the night instead of bumbling around with a torch?”
Tirdad started back toward the trees. “Fine by me, but I am not sleeping here.” •••••
The next morning came to Ashtadukht with all the rejuvenating oomph of an onager’s hooves. She rolled miserably onto her stomach and hid her face in her sleeve.
“Not today,” she groaned. “Of all days.”
“What about today?” asked Tirdad from somewhere beyond her dampened senses.
She peeked one eye out and spied the toe of his boot. Dirty as it was, it still managed to
look tidy. He was very much like her father in that way. Vaguely, some half-memory wherein her father went on about the need for a military man to have order in everything itched at her brain.
Ashtadukht groaned again and fought the temptation to go back to sleep. She pushed herself off the ground, and her joints ached terribly as she struggled to find a comfortable sitting position.
“One of those days?” asked Tirdad.
“Yes.” Her head throbbed, and the bright gaiety of the morning Sun only made it worse. Ashtadukht felt around for her sacred girdle, which had somehow slipped under her bedding, tied it three times around her waist, and secured it with four knots. She recited the morning prayer while tugging at her girdle; it always felt too tight.
“Truth is the utmost good. Truth is contentment. The man who gives himself unto truth is content.” She blew out a sigh and put her feet beneath her, though they were vehemently against it.
“Have you done any scouting?” she asked.
“I have not.”
“You do not expect me to leave you here while you rest, do you?” “I guess not.”
Never mind that she had managed to sleep alone, often in the wilderness, without incident for years. No use mentioning it, though: Ashtadukht knew his duty came first. She rummaged through her pack for her waterskin and drank greedily. When she’d finished, she wiped her mouth and grabbed her pack.
“Let’s get going then. I don’t feel like breakfast.”
“Do you have anywhere in mind?”
Ashtadukht peered in the direction of the still-flickering flames. The landscape on this
side of the forest was mostly barren, with the exception of the odd bundle of bushes, tussock, or squat tree.
She nodded toward the nearest ridge, whose colours swathed its slopes like the rippling banners of an approaching army.
“We’ll cover some ground that way and see if we come across anything, but I don’t want to venture too far. If we don’t find any clues before noon, we’ll head back and see if we can’t locate more nests to get a better idea of this div’s direction.”
“Assuming the div has anything to do with the nests at all,” added Tirdad.
Ashtadukht proceeded around the lower side of the ridge, persuaded by her
complaining legs to avoid the steeper, more direct path. Surmounting that hill granted a view of the next couple ridges: one stretched just past the foot of theirs, and the other intersected the latter somewhere behind its zenith. Ashtadukht decided she’d rather be herded by the terrain than battle it, so she chose a path down to the valley shared by the three.
It was in this valley, after traversing a family of displaced boulders, that she came across some peculiar rock engravings the side of one of them.
“What do you think it means?” pondered Tirdad. “Is there a beast nearby?”
“I haven’t the slightest. It looks—” She tilted her head. “It looks like a beast in a gorge. And it’s breathing at the . . . my guess is that those are people.”
Tirdad shrugged. “Beats me.”
He drew his fingers along the lines surrounding the beast. “Do you think these represent the perimeter of this valley? They meet in the same place.”
Ashtadukht fingered the cuff of her sleeve and deliberated the petroglyphs. “That’d make more sense than a gorge. It seems as if the beast is emerging from the juncture of the hills farther up the valley.”
“You are going to tell me we are walking into the mouth of the beast,” said Tirdad. “Now that you’ve said it, I don’t have to.”
“I was afraid of that.”
“I’d avoid suggesting things I’m afraid of if I were you.”
They trekked deep into the valley until they reached the point where the ridges adjoined. There, tucked into a recess, was a portal. The portal itself was rather unimaginative as far as portals are concerned: rectangular, ordinary, and without embellishment.
On the other hand, what was inside the portal piqued Ashtadukht’s interest. A swarm of creatures like forgotten cheese and jellyfish with all the salt and none of the water clogged the entrance.
They were stuck. Ashtadukht reached this conclusion for two reasons: because they weren’t swarming her, and because they were squabbling and tugging at one another with stumpy little half-arms.
“What are they?” asked Tirdad, who had immediately brought his sword between them and the creatures.
“Divs of a sort. Simple things if you haven’t already figured that out. They feed on lies. Mostly harmless, though. I’ve never seen this many in one place. Only ever two or three at most.”
Ashtadukht approached the portal and stopped within arm’s reach. “This is incredible,” she said. “What manner of lie could possibly attract so many?”
She searched her mind for a truth she hadn’t used yet. One she knew they would find terrifying. Ashtadukht leaned in and whispered.
Even with such a diaphanous delivery, the effect was both immediate and potent. The divs squealed, and it sounded like a thousand boots tugged free of a mud puddle. Fear dislodged the swarm, which disappeared in all directions.
Their sudden dispersal released all the wind that’d been pent up over the months, which surged into the cousins and knocked them flat. After its initial outburst, the gust settled into a strong, steady flow.
Tirdad fought the wind to get to Ashtadukht. When he reached her, she was staring at the sky, tunic and plaits flapping around her face.
“I guess we solved that,” she yelled above the din. “I think I’ll stay here a while.”
“I would advise against it,” shouted Tirdad. He slipped his arms under hers and forcibly dragged her to the side of the portal.
“You could’ve let me have my triumphant rest,” complained Ashtadukht while slumped against the stone. She lay there for a moment before it hit her: she’d gotten a glimpse of something just inside the portal before she’d been bowled over.
“There’s someone inside,” she yelled to Tirdad, and signalled to the portal. “I saw feet.” “Feet? A body, too?”
“Go find out. I’m tired.”
Tirdad gave her a look that was at the same time incredulous and resigned. He probably
shouldn’t have joked about the feet. He edged close to the portal and pulled himself around the corner. The wind was worse inside, blasting him so that he could hardly see, but he did spot the figure on the ground. Without giving it any more thought than helping a person in need, he scooped it up and carried his surprisingly light load out of the mouth of the mountain while being carried out by the wind himself. Tirdad rushed over to Ashtadukht and deposited the person beside her.
It wasn’t until then, as Ashtadukht shrieked and scrambled away, that Tirdad realized he’d had a div in his arms. His eyes went wide and he verily tore his blade from its sheath. He brought it up to strike, but Ashtadukht grabbed hold of his wrist.
“No,” she shouted. “It’s done nothing to deserve that.”
Tirdad reluctantly lowered his sword, but kept it firmly in his grasp. “Yet,” he replied. What had once been the div’s clothing was so threadbare that it was an insult to rags.
This made some things readily apparent to Ashtadukht, and fewer so to Tirdad. To him it was female, and probably a warrior judging by its well-toned and scarred frame; his appraisal ended there.
Ashtadukht, however, gleaned that and more. She noted the deep blue, snake-like scales that covered its head where hair would have been, and ran down its nape and over its body until it mingled with the human flesh that reduced it to patches farther down.
“Half-div,” she shouted over the wind. “It’s a half-div. Let’s bring it somewhere quieter.” “I am not picking that div up twice,” refused Tirdad. “I am not.”
“Fine,” said Ashtadukht. And to her surprise, he watched her, sword ready, as she
dragged the half-div out of range of the din of the gale.
“I have my limits,” explained Tirdad. “I still cannot believe I carried that thing. We
should have left it back there or, better yet, killed it.”
Ashtadukht extended her hand. “Your sword.”
She pointed at it. “That pointy stick you’re so set on using. Give it to me.”
Tirdad hesitated before flipping it over and handing her the hilt. “What do you plan to
do?”“Just watch.” She pointed it at the half-div’s foot and lightly pierced the bottom. The half-div immediately shot up into a sitting position, chest heaving and eyes frantically searching here and there.
“A hero!” it exclaimed. “A hero has come to thief my dreams! I’ll vanquish every—ow, ow, ow! Who swords a foot?”
Ashtadukht cautiously knelt before the half-div and placed the sword on the ground. “We’re not heroes,” she explained.
“Then you’re just rude,” said the half-div, who then contorted to nurse the wound.
Ashtadukht watched her suckle the bottom of her foot for a moment before continuing. “Do you have a name?” she asked.
“Waray.” “Waray?” “Waray.”
“Like the bird? That isn’t a name.”
“. . .”
Ashtadukht sighed. “Okay, Waray. Tell me what you’re doing here. What kind of lie are
you harbouring to entice so many of your own to come feed on it?” “Searching,” answered Waray.
Waray nodded. “Are you an augur? You can augur me.”
“I’m . . . no.” Ashtadukht decided to start over. She pointed at Tirdad, but kept her
attention on the half-div. “This man wants to kill you. I don’t think that’s necessary, and I’d like you to convince us both.”
Waray gave Tirdad a sidelong glance and narrowed her eyes.
“Did you have anything to do with the snakes surrounding Baku?” asked Ashtadukht. And in an effort to satisfy her own curiosity, “Or the nests arranged in the nearby woods?”
“Snakes on a plain? None of that. None of it.”
“And the nests?”
Waray pursed her lips. “Maybe. Don’t nudge them. The fate of the stars is theirs to
“I do not trust her,” interjected Tirdad. “She is a div, a creature beholden to the Lie.” “She is half-div,” Ashtadukht corrected. “Are you the star-reckoner here or am I?” Tirdad spread his arms and turned away, offering no further argument.
“Star-reckoner . . .” murmured Waray, and her pitch was rife with dread. She began to
crawl away backwards, kicking up dirt as she did. “I’m searching,” she pleaded. “Only searching! Only that!” She cast about desperately and emitted a bombilating whine.
Ashtadukht shot her cousin a look that left no question as to who she blamed for this and started after the half-div.
“It’s okay,” she said with the most silvery tone she could muster. “I’m not here to hurt you. I’m not like the others. Tell me what you’re searching for. Something in the cave with the wind?”
Waray dragged her fingers over her head and shook it violently. “No, no, no. I only wanted a peek. Why does a cave bellow šo-furiously?”
Ashtadukht closed on her and gently grabbed the now-trembling half-div by the shoulder. “Tell me what you’re searching for.”
“Not that. I told you. Not what.”
Waray grew deathly still. Wherever she went to retrieve the answer must have been
tumultuous, because it sucked the life from her eyes. “My family.”
“Your family?” asked Ashtadukht. “Have you lost them?”
Waray’s reply was measured, grim, and stuffed with as much meaning as you can get
into a single word. So much that it was coming apart at the seams. “Ye—s.”
Ashtadukht gave the shoulder a squeeze then pulled a mauve-purple tunic and trousers from her pack, which she offered to the half-div. “Take these. They’re old, but they’re serviceable. Try to find something to cover your head and hide your eyes, red as they are. If
you keep wandering around like that, you’re bound to get unwanted attention.”
She retrieved the sword and frowned at the half-div, who was still clutching the clothes
to her chest. “Good luck, Waray.”
Tirdad hadn’t said a word since the encounter, too embroiled in his conflict of conscience. He hadn’t even bothered to ask for his sword. They were returning the way they’d come, using notched trees to take the same path back, when he finally spoke up.
“I do not like how you handled that,” he said. “I do not think I do.”
Despite her condition, which had deteriorated throughout the day, Ashtadukht had been setting the pace. She did not want to give her cousin the opportunity to go back.
“It isn’t your place to decide,” she retorted. “You aren’t here to tell me how to do my
job.”“That div could be off killing someone right now,” Tirdad countered. “It could be coaxing children to serve the Lie.”
“I could say the same of humans. Should I cut down every human I see because of it?” “Lady has a point.”
The cousins froze. Between their bickering, Tirdad’s preoccupation, and Ashtadukht’s
weariness, neither had noticed the bandits lying in wait. They’d just crossed into a large gap between forests, and standing there hands on hips was a man in the garb of the legion of Hrom.
Ashtadukht instinctively looked over her shoulder, only to find eight armed soldiers emerging from the forest. Farther off, a pair of archers had bows ready.
The man in the clearing—the one who’d spoken—stepped forward. “Don’t you be worryin’,” he said. “We ain’t for killin’ you or havin’ your woman. We may be deserters, but we ain’t demons.” There arose a chorus of protests from the men who’d now surrounded them. “Okay,” conceded the leader. “A bit o’ your woman. And all o’ your coin.”
“Use your star-reckoning,” whispered Tirdad.
“Oh, now you’re all for it.”
“This is not the time to argue.”
“Do you see any stars?”
A squelch, a shout, and a grunt of a giggle came all at once from the direction of the
archers. One was already down; the other was reaching for his blade as a flash of mauve leaped on him and brought him down, too. Waray emitted a strange string of high-and-low, almost musical yet unmistakably feral cackles as she used a broken arrow to dig a hole in the archer’s throat.
Meanwhile, the cousins were profiting from the ensuing confusion. Ashtadukht tossed Tirdad his sword, who caught it and in the same movement skewered a distracted soldier. He relieved the dying man of his spatha, handed it to Ashtadukht, and parried an incoming blow.
A twang sounded, prompting several deserters to throw themselves out of the way, and an arrow lodged in one as he fell, which was by no means indicative of the user’s skill. Ashtadukht took advantage of the opportunity to run another through before an arrow whirred past her nose. She instinctively ducked, which earned her a boot to the face.
Tirdad’s first opponent hadn’t so much as flinched when the shot came, but a strong overhand blow that changed direction last instant quickly dispatched the Hrom deserter. Tirdad then pivoted to stab the man standing over his cousin and immediately returned his attention to the four remaining soldiers, one of whom had an arrow in his thigh.
They would have all attacked him at once if Waray hadn’t crashed into them with all the force and presence of a frenzied lion. A purple, hundred-pound lion, but a lion all the same. And she did have a snarl of sorts. She collided with one soldier, dragged him to the grass with her, and left him with an arrow in the eye as she scampered out of the group.
Tirdad closed in the moment she hit, scoring a mortal blow on one and wounding another before he disengaged. The Hrom legionnaires weren’t so set on fighting now.
“Keep it together!” their leader called as he charged, sensing their hesitation. “More loot for the survivors!”
Tirdad circled toward the one who’d been hit by an arrow, which gave him a view of the leader just as Waray intercepted his run. Tirdad set his jaw and engaged the remaining deserters. He came in with an overhand strike that masked a kick aimed for the wounded leg of the one on the right. His boot connected, the soldier howled, and that was cut short by a cleft skull. Tirdad side-stepped under a chop from the other man, and shoved the corpse—along with his sword, as it’d been wedged deep—into his path. The legionnaire stumbled, and Tirdad moved to rush in weaponless when Ashtadukht verily collapsed on the deserter, using her weight to push her spatha through his torso as she fell with him.
She groaned and turned a circle on her hands and knees. Her still-throbbing head didn’t like the idea of engaging in more of anything, much less fighting. Mercifully for her head, it looked like Waray was handling the last of it. Or had handled. She couldn’t really tell. The half-div had stolen a spatha, and was doing some excessive plunging either way.
“Are you hurt?” inquired Tirdad, placing his hand on her back.
“Nothing serious,” Ashtadukht replied. “Only—urgh—only a boot to the head.”
“Take a moment if you need it. They are all dead. I made sure of it.”
Waray started over, fangs bared and grinning in wild excitement, with a blade in her
hand and bouncing from heel to heel, when Tirdad halted her with a raised sword. Her face and hands were splashed with blood; her sleeve was ripped where a nasty blow caught her upper arm; her chest rose and fell alongside heavy breaths. She just stared at the tip of his blade, wearing that toothy, adrenaline-fuelled grin.
“Drop your weapon,” Tirdad instructed.
She let it fall.
“Don’t hurt her,” said Ashtadukht. “I swear, if you do—”
“I do not intend to,” interrupted Tirdad. “She saved our lives after all. But I have seen
that look before, and I would not trust any man to come at me armed and looking like that.” Ashtadukht crossed her legs, tapped gently at her swollen head, flinched, and
considered the half-div. “You were trailing us,” she surmised.
Waray canted her head and looked sideways at nothing in particular. Her heels were
gradually losing their springiness, and along with it, her grin.
“Why were you following us?”
Waray canted the other way, still focused on the same nothing in particular. Her
bouncing became a rocking, her grin a barely perceptible curve. “Okay, Waray. We’re leaving then. Thank you for your—”
“Wait!” The half-div was obviously battling something, not the least of which was her battle rage. “You didn’t nudge my nests. I ate the eggs because . . .” Waray narrowed her eyes. “Don’t know. The shells hurt. But I’m saying you didn’t nudge them.”
“And you didn’t kill me.”
“I don’t believe we did. It was a wise decision,” said Ashtadukht.
Tirdad snorted. He knew that last statement was directed at him.
The half-div nodded, or just canted her head further; Ashtadukht couldn’t tell.
She sighed and fought the urge to put her head in her hands. “You’re going to keep
trailing us, aren’t you?”
Waray winced and gingerly gripped her arm. “Maybe. If you don’t want to kill me.” Ashtadukht took a deep breath and looked at Tirdad. He obviously wasn’t pleased by
the idea, but his sense of honour prevented him from speaking up. Half-div or not, she had been instrumental in their getting out of the ambush alive. Ashtadukht knew better than Tirdad to be wary of divs, but she also realized this one could have gone on wandering and faced far less danger than she did just now.
“Come here,” she said, “and I’ll see about dressing that wound.”
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About the Book:
For some, loss merely deprives. For others, it consumes.
Ashtadukht is a star-reckoner. The worst there’s ever been. Witness her treacherous journey through Iranian legends and ancient history.
Only a brave few storytellers still relate cautionary glimpses into the life of Ashtadukht, a woman who commanded the might of the constellations—if only just, and often unpredictably. They’ll stir the imagination with tales of her path to retribution. How, fraught with bereavement and a dogged illness, she criss-crossed Sassanian Iran in pursuit of creatures now believed mythical. Then, in hushed tones, what she wrought on that path.