Orbit Loot

Orbit Books

Join the Orbit Newsletter

SHADOWHEART

PRELUDE

He was named after the tualum, small antelope that ran in the dry desert hills. As a girl, his mother had often watched the herd come down to the river to drink, so lean, so bright of eye, so brave; when she first saw her son, she saw all those things in him. “Tulim,” she gasped. “Call him Tulim.” It was duly noted down as he was taken away from her and given to a royal wet nurse.

The first things the boy remembered were the sunset-colored hangings of the Seclusion where he lived among the women for the earliest years of his life, where kind, sweet-smelling nurses held him, sang to him, and rubbed his tiny brown limbs with expensive unguents. The child’s only moments of sadness came when he was placed back in his cot and another of the monarch’s youngest children was lifted out to be cosseted and caressed in turn. The unfairness of it, that the attention which should have been for him alone was also given to others, burned inside little Tulim like the f lame of the lamp he stared at each night before he fell asleep—a f lame that he watched so carefully he could sometimes see it in his mind’s eye at midday, so bright that it pushed everything real into shadow.

When he was scarcely three years old, as a sort of experiment, Tulim drowned one of the other young princes in the bath they shared. He waited until the nurses were turned away to comfort another child who had been splashed and was crying, then he reached for his brother Kirgaz’s head, shoved it under the blossom-strewn water, and held it down. The three or four other children in the bath were so busy splashing and playing that they didn’t notice.

It was strange to feel his brother’s desperate struggles and to know that only inches away ordinary things went on without him. People made so much of life, Tulim realized, but he could take it away whenever he chose. He saw the lamp’s f lame again in his mind’s eye, but this time it was as though he himself had become the fire, burning so brightly that the rest of creation fell into darkness. It was ecstasy.

By the time the nurses turned around, Kirgaz was floating lazily, his hair swirling on the surface like seaweed, pale f lower petals tangled in it. They screamed and dragged him out, but it was too late to save him. Many princes lived in the Orchard Palace—the autarch had many wives and was a prolific father—so the loss of one was no great tragedy, but both nurses were, of course, immediately executed. Tulim was sad about that. One of them had been in the habit of smuggling him a honey-milk sweet out of the Seclusion’s kitchen each night. Now he would have to go to bed without it.

Tulim soon grew too old to live in the Seclusion, so he was moved to the Cedar Court, the part of the mighty, sprawling Orchard Palace where the young sons of nobles were raised until manhood in fortunate proximity to the royal sons of Tulim’s father, the glorious god-king Parnad. There for the first time Tulim lived with true men—only the Favored were allowed in the Seclusion—and learned manly things, how to hunt and fight and sing a war-song. With his long-legged good looks and his sharp wits, he also for the first time came to the attention of the men of the Orchard Palace, including, most surprisingly, his own father.

Most of Parnad’s sons hoped to remain unnoticed by their father. True, one of them would one day become his heir, but the autarch was a vigorous, powerful man in his fifties so that day was far away, and Xixian heirs had a way of suffering accidents. Parnad himself had found a few of his sons too popular with the soldiers or the common people. One such young man had been the sole casualty of a battle with pirates in the western islands. Another had died, purple and choking, after apparently being bitten by a snake in the Yenidos Mountains in midwinter—a most unusual season for snakebites. Thus, none of the other princes felt too jealous when their father noticed Tulim and began to speak to him occasionally.

“Who was your mother?” Parnad asked him the first time. The autarch was a big man, tall but also broad as an old crocodile. It was strange for Tulim to think that this heavyset man with his thick beard was the source of his own slender limbs. “Ah, yes, I remember her. Like a cat, she was. You have her eyes.”

Tulim wasn’t sure whether this way of talking meant his mother was no longer alive, but he did not want to ask, which might seem sentimental and womanish. If he had inherited her eyes, though, she must have been exceptional indeed, for that was the thing that people noticed first about Tulim, the strange, golden eyes like holes filled with molten metal. It was one of the reasons he had long known he was not like any of the others—that same bright, all-devouring f lame did not burn within his brothers or the other children as it did in him.

He and his father the autarch had other conversations, although Tulim never said much, and after a while Tulim was taken from the sleeping room he shared with several of the other young princes and given his own room where the autarch could visit him at whatever time of the day or night he thought best without disturbing Tulim’s brothers. Parnad also began to perform various odd cruelties and unwholesome practices on him, all the while explaining to him about the terrifying responsibility of being the Bishakh—the chief of the falcon line that had come out of the desert to trample down the thrones of the world’s cities.

“The gods hold us dear,” Parnad would explain as he held Tulim’s mouth closed, silencing his cries of pain. “It is given by them that the falcon soars higher than any other—that he can look down on all creation. The very sun itself is only the great falcon’s eye.”

Tulim could not always make sense of what his father said, but as a whole the lessons, coupled with the pain and other strange feelings, made it clear that the way of the f lame and the way of the falcon were more or less the same: Everything belongs to the man who can reach and grasp without fear. That man the gods love.

Still, although the visits went on for years, Prince Tulim made a vow the first night that he would kill his father one day. It was not so much the pain that had to be revenged as the helplessness—the f lame should never be smothered by the shadow of another, not even the autarch himself.

As he approached the age at which boyhood would be set aside and manhood put on like a new garment, Tulim began to spend time with another grown man, this one much more deferential toward his feelings. It was the man he called Uncle Gorhan, one of the autarch’s older half brothers. Gorhan had been sired by Parnad’s father on a woman of extremely common blood, and so was no threat to take the throne. He had used this sullied nobility to his advantage, becoming one of the autarch’s most trusted councillors, a man of storied wisdom and ingenuity. His attraction to Tulim was both less physical and less metaphysical than that of the boy’s father: he saw in the youth a mind like his own, one that could, with proper training, roam not just beyond the walls of the Orchard Palace or the boundaries of Xis but through all the endless corridors of the gods’ creation. Gorhan it was who taught Tulim to read properly. Not simply to recognize characters printed on vellum or reed paper and glean their sense—all princes learned that—but to read as a way of harnessing new wisdom to one’s own like draft oxen, or adding new ideas to one’s own like soldiers, so that the reader’s power grew ever greater.

Gorhan introduced Tulim to the works of famous tacticians like Kersus and Hereddin, and historians like the great Pirilab. Tulim learned that the thoughts of men could be saved in books for a thousand years—that the great and learned men of other ages could speak as if to his own ear. Even more important, he learned that the gods and their closest followers could also speak across the great abyss of time and the greater abyss that gaped between earth and Heaven, sharing the secrets of creation itself. In the words of the warrior-poet Hereddin, which Gorhan quoted to him, “He who reaches only for a throne will never grasp the stars.” Tulim understood that and felt that his uncle also must have a wisdom beyond other men, a wisdom only a little less than the gods: Gorhan had clearly sensed that Tulim was like no other, that he was greater even than the blood of his father that rushed through his veins. Gorhan understood that Tulim was a child, not of a man, but of Heaven itself.

Over the years, as Tulim grew older and his boyish limbs gained the supple sinews of young manhood, his father the autarch lost interest in him, which only confirmed him in his hatred. The autarch had only wished to use him, and not even for that which made him unique, but for those qualities he shared with any other handsome boy. If Tulim could have killed Parnad, he would have, but the autarch was not only constantly attended by his fierce Leopard guards but was himself a man of astounding strength and practiced, unf lagging attention, even while engaged in activities which would leave a lesser man distracted or drowsy. In any case, generations of Xixian Autarchs had been protected by the existence of the scotarchs, the special, temporary heirs who were not of the autarch’s direct line, men who would take the throne in the event of any autarch’s suspicious death and mete out justice before handing the throne over to the true heir—providing that heir had not been the former autarch’s murderer. It was a strange old custom; one with many twists and turns, but it had kept centuries of autarchs safer from intrigue than almost any other nation’s monarchs.

So Tulim could do nothing except wait, and study, and plan . . . and dream.

At last came the day when the rectangular gongs in the Sycamore Tower and the Temple of Nushash sounded the royal death-knell. Parnad, only a little more than three-score years old, had died in the Seclusion, in the bed of one of his wives. Although there was no sign of foul play his scotarch promptly had the wife and her maids tortured to make sure they had no guilty knowledge, then executed them, which served as a reminder to other palace dwellers of how unsafe it was to be involved, even innocently, in the death of an autarch. The period of mourning began, after which Dordom, the oldest son, already a general in the army and a warrior of renowned skill and cruelty, would ascend to the throne. But Dordom died choking the night of Parnad’s death and it was whispered throughout the Orchard Palace that he had been poisoned. That began to seem even more likely when three more of Parnad’s brothers (and a few of their friends, servants, and mistresses who happened to share the wrong plate or goblet) also died from some strange poison that could not be tasted or smelled, did not act at once, but then ate the victim away from inside like spirit of vitriol.

One by one the other heirs fell, poisoned like Dordom, stabbed in their sleep by servants thought incorruptible, or strangled by assassins while in the throes of love, with guards waiting outside who, apparently, heard nothing. Several of Parnad’s less ambitious sons and daughters, seeing which way the winds of change were blowing, took their families and left Xis altogether to avoid their own deaths (which, nevertheless, eventually found them.) Others fell into the spirit of the game and for a year ancient Xis was like a single huge shanat board, with every move by a surviving member of the royal family considered and countered. Tulim, who was twenty-third in the line of succession, was not even considered as a possible culprit in the early deaths—many people believed that Parnad’s death had set off a long-prepared, murderous rivalry between many of the aspirants to the throne. In fact, during the Scotarch’s Year (as it was afterward called) most inhabitants of Xis, and certainly the wisest minds in the Orchard Palace, believed that the struggle for supremacy was between Dordom’s younger brothers, the princes Ultin and Mehnad, who survived as other heirs fell or f led until only they, Tulim, and a demi-handful of others remained alive in Xis.

Most of the wisest courtiers felt certain that Tulim’s survival was a mark of how little a threat he was to anyone. The few who knew him better, who might have had suspicions that things were not as they seemed, also knew him well enough not to gossip about him. Many of these truly wise ones survived to serve him.

Wisest of all, of course, was Uncle Gorhan, who had recognized a certain implacability in young Tulim—perhaps the ref lection of his inner flame—and cast his own fate with the obscure princeling, so far from the throne. This was a genuine gamble on Gorhan’s part because he was the sort of wise, unthreatening elder most likely to survive the accession of a new monarch, most likely to carry his service through another reign or even two, to die at last peacefully and in dignity and then be interred along with as many as a thousand living slaves, a mark of the royal family’s great favor. Instead he was risking everything on one unlikely throw of the dice . . . or so it would have seemed to anyone who had not looked deeply into Tulim’s disquieting golden eyes.

“I could do nothing else, Blessed Highness,” Gorhan told him. “Because I knew what you would be when I first saw you and nothing could make me betray you. You and I, we are like this.” The older man lifted his hand, index and middle fingers raised and pressed tight together to show the completeness of his connection to Tulim. “Like this.”

“Like this, Uncle,” echoed the prince, raising his own hand, fingers twinned. “I hear you.”

As it happened, it was not long until their partnership bore its final fruits. One of the lesser princes was having an uncomfortable dinner with Mehnad, one of the two main rivals for the throne. In the midst of the meal the lesser princeling began to breathe like a man who had an entire duck egg stuck in his throat. He turned black, lurched to his feet and walked through the sumptuous meal set on the floor without seeing it, then fell into a crowd of servants bearing finger bowls and wine jugs, making such a clatter that for long moments it obscured the fact that his young wife had also died of a similar, although quieter, apoplexy.

Prince Mehnad, furious, shouted that this was nothing to do with him, that it was a plot to make him look petty (because what else was one to think of someone who poisons guests in his own house, and not only men but a woman as well?) Certain that his brother Ultin was behind it, Mehnad took a squadron of guards and went to Ultin’s apartments in the city’s Blue Lamp Quarter, but news of the murder had gone before them, and Ultin was waiting with a squadron of his own guards. Both brothers were so tired of the months of plot and counterplot, of murder and mistrust, that they needed no excuse to settle their differences now once and for all. As the guards brawled among themselves, Ultin and Mehnad singled each other out and, like the fierce soldiers they were, fought each other without mercy.

It was only when Ultin had finally cut down his brother and stood over his body in triumph, bloodied by a few wounds but largely unhurt, that the nature of Tulim’s plan became obvious. Even as he crowed in victory, Ultin suddenly began to choke as the unfortunate princeling had choked—as if a duck egg were lodged in his throat. Blood passed from his nose and mouth, then Ultin fell down on top of his dead brother. Both men’s swords, it was later discovered, had been poisoned by some third party, but Mehnad had not lived long enough to suffer the effects.

And as the two princes’ household guards stood around the bodies in a cloud of confusion and rage, Tulim and Gorhan stepped out from the place where they had been watching. They had only a few of Gorhan’s own guards with them, a much smaller number than either Ultin’s or Mehnad’s forces, but those who had so recently fought for the two older brothers recognized quickly that if they fought Tulim the best they could hope for was to be in search of new employment afterward—for what is a prince’s guard with no prince? After all, Tulim was one of Parnad’s heirs, and although he had begun as a very unimportant one he had managed to outlast nearly two dozen others—that in itself was enough to convince them his candidacy was worth considering; Gorhan’s small but firmly committed bodyguard and their sharp spears were enough to make the argument convincing.

So it was that Prince Tulim, whom few had even noticed and none had particularly feared, walked across the bodies of dozens to achieve the Falcon Throne of Xis, taking for himself the autarchical name Sulepis am Bishakh. In days to come, Sulepis would reassert the historical right of Xis to rule over all the continent of Xand, walking across the bodies of hundreds of thousands more to do so, covering most of the land south of the Osteian Sea with his bloody footprints. And if he then set his sights on conquering the northern continent of Eion, who could blame him? He clearly had destiny on his side: his f lame had indeed proved to burn brighter than all others.

And, like a god, Tulim-who-became-Sulepis didn’t only mete out justice on the scale of continents: he could be personal as well. Within a few days of taking the throne he found himself in disagreement with his uncle Gorhan over some minor matter of statecraft, at which point Gorhan gave the new autarch a look calculated to make him feel, if not shame, at least discomfort at his own ingratitude.

“I am disappointed, my lord,” Gorhan told his nephew. “I thought we were to be like this,” he held up his fingers, index and middle pressed together. “I thought you cared enough to heed my advice. You are like a son to me, Tulim. I had hoped to be like a father to you.”

“Like a father?” Sulepis raised one eyebrow, fixing Gorhan with a stare as remorseless and golden as that of a hunting hawk. “So be it.” He turnedto the captain of his Leopard guard. “Take the old man away,” he said.“Flay the skin from his body—but slowly, so that he may feel it. Not all at once, either, but in a single strip winding the length of his body, starting at his feet and continuing to the top of his head. I would like him to live until then, this new ‘father’ of mine.”

Even the hardened captain hesitated as old Gorhan fell to his knees, weeping and begging for mercy. “A single strip, Golden One?” the soldier asked. “How wide?”

Sulepis smiled and lifted two fingers. “Like this.”