Chapter 1: Change
A sandstorm brewed dark and menacing against the Qazāli horizon as Lieutenant Touraine and the rest of the Balladairan Colonial Brigade sailed into El-Wast, capital city of Qazāl, foremost of Balladaire’s southern colonies.
El-Wast. City of marble and sandstone, of olives and clay. City of the golden sun and fruits Touraine couldn’t remember tasting. City of rebellious, uncivilized god-worshippers. The city where Touraine was born.
At a sudden gust, Touraine pulled her black military coat tighter about her body and hunched small over the ship’s railing as the ship approached land. Even from this distance, in the early morning dark, she could see a black Balladairan standard flapping above the docks. Its rearing golden horse danced to life, sparked by the reflection of the night lanterns. Around her, pale, Balladairan-born sailors scrambled across the ship to bring it safely to harbor.
El-Wast, for the first time in some twenty-odd years. It took the air from the lieutenant’s chest. Her white-knuckle grip on the rail was only partly due to the nausea that had rocked her on the water.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” Tibeau, Touraine’s second sergeant and best friend settled against the rail next to her. The wooden rail shifted under his bulk. He spoke quietly, but Touraine could hear the awe and longing in the soft rumble of his voice.
Beautiful wasn’t the first thing Touraine thought as their ship sailed up the mouth of the River Hadd and gave them a view of El-Wast. The city was surprisingly big. Surprisingly bright. It was surprisingly…civilized. A proper city, not some scattering of tents and sand. Not what she had expected at all, given how Balladairan’s described the desert colonies. From this angle, it didn’t even look like a desert.
The docks stretched along the river like a small town, short buildings nestled alongside what were probably warehouses and workers’ tenements. Just beyond them, a massive bridge arced over shadowed farmland with some crop growing in neat rows, connecting the docks to the curve of a crumbling wall that surrounded the city. The Mile-Long Bridge. The great bridge was lined with the shadows of palm trees and lit up all along with the fuzzy dots of lanterns. In the morning darkness, you could easily have mistaken the lanterns for stars.
She shrugged. “It’s impressive, I guess.”
Tibeau nudged her shoulder and held his arms out wide to take it all in. “You guess? This is your home. We’re finally back. You’re going to love it.” His eyes shone in the reflection of the lanterns guiding the Balladairan ship into Crocodile Harbor, named for the monstrous lizards that lived in the river centuries ago.
Home. Touraine frowned. “Love it? Beau, we’re not on leave.” She dug half-moons into the soft, weather-worn wood of the railing and grumbled, “We have a job to do.”
Tibeau scoffed. “To police our own people.”
The thunk of approaching boots on the deck behind them kept Touraine from saying something that would keep Tibeau from speaking to her for the rest of the day. Something like, these aren’t my people. How could they be? Touraine was barely toddling in the dust when Balladaire took her.
“You two better not be talking about what I think you’re talking about,” First Sergeant Pruett said, coming up behind them with her arms crossed.
“Of course not,” Touraine said. She and Pruett let their knuckles brush in the cover of darkness.
“Good. Because I’d hate to have to throw you bearfuckers overboard.”
Pruett. The sensible one to Tibeau’s impetuousness, the scowl to his smile. The only thing they agreed on was hating Balladaire for what it had done to them, but unlike Tibeau, who was only biding his time before some imaginary revolution, Pruett was resigned to the conscripts’ fate, and thought it better to keep their heads down and hate Balladaire in private.
Pruett shoved her way between the two of them and propped her elbows on the railing. Her teeth chattered. “It’s cold as a bastard here. I thought the deserts were supposed to be hot.”
Tibeau sighed wistfully, staring with longing at some point beyond the city. “Only during the day. In the real desert, you can freeze your balls off if you forget a blanket.”
Home was a sharp topic for every soldier in the Balladairan Colonial Brigade. There were those like Tibeau and Pruett, who were taken from countries throughout the broken Shālan Empire when they were old enough to already have memories of family or the lack, and then there were those like Touraine, who had been too young to remember anything but Balladaire’s green fields and thick forests.
No matter where in the broken Shālan empire the conscripts were originally from, they all speculated on the purpose of their new post. There was excitement on the wind, and Touraine felt it, too. The chance to prove herself. The chance to show the Balladairan officers that she deserved to be a captain. Change was coming.
Even the Balladairan princess had come with the fleet. Pruett had heard from another conscript who had it from a sailor that the princess was visiting her southern colonies for the first time, and they’d tried and failed to spot the young royal on her ship.
The order came to disembark, carried by shouts on the wind. Discipline temporarily disappeared as the conscripts and their Balladairan officers hoisted their packs and tramped down to Crocodile Harbor’s thronging streets.
People shouted in Balladairan and Shālan as they loaded and unloaded ships, animals in cages and animals on leads squawked and bellowed, and Touraine walked through it all in a daze, trying to take it all in. Qazāl’s dirt and grit crunched beneath her army-issued boots. Maybe she did feel a spark of awe and curiosity. And maybe that frightened her just a little.
With a whumpf, Touraine walked right an odd tan horse with a massive hump in the middle of its back. She spat and dusted coarse fur off her face. The animal glared at her with large, affronted brown eyes and a bubble of spit forming at the corner of its mouth.
The animal’s master flicked his long gray-streaked hair back off his smiling face and spoke to Touraine in Shālan.
Touraine hadn’t spoken Shālan since she was small. It wasn’t allowed when they were children and now it sounded as foreign as the camel’s groan. She shook her head.
“Camel. He spit,” the man said in Balladairan. The camel continued to size her up. It didn’t look like it was coming to any good conclusion.
Touraine grimaced in disgust but beside her, Pruett snorted. The other woman said something short to the man in Shālan before turning Touraine toward the ships.
“What did you say?” Touraine asked, looking over her shoulder at the glaring camel and the older man.
“Please excuse my idiot friend.”
Touraine rolled her eyes and hefted her pack higher onto her shoulders.
“Rose Company, First Squad, form up, on me!” She tried in vain to gather her soldiers in some kind of order, but the noise swallowed her voice. She looked warily for Captain Rogan. If Touraine didn’t get the rest of her squad in line, that bastard would take it out on all of them. “Gold Squad, form up!”
Pruett nudged Touraine in the ribs. She pointed and Touraine saw what kept her soldiers clumped in whispering groups, out of formation.
A young woman descended the gangway of another ship with the support of a cane. She wore black trousers, a black coat, and a short black cloak lined with cloth of gold. Her blonde hair, pinned in a bun behind her head, sparked like a beacon in the night. Three stone-faced royal guards accompanied her in a protective triangle, their short gold cloaks blown taut behind them. Each of them had a sword on one hip and a pistol on the other.
Touraine looked from the princess to the chaos on the ground and a growing sense of unease raised the short hairs on the back of her neck. Suddenly, the crowd felt more claustrophobic than industrious.
The man with the camel still stood nearby, watching with interest like the other dockworkers. His warm smile deepened the lines in his face and he guided the animal’s nose to her, as if she wanted to pat it. The camel looked as unenthusiastic at the prospect as Touraine felt.
“No.” Touraine shook her head at him again. “Move, sir. Give us this space, if you please.”
He didn’t move. Probably didn’t understand proper Balladairan. She shooed him with her hands. Instead of annoyance or confusion, he glanced fearfully over her shoulder.
She followed his gaze. Nothing there but the press of the crowd, her own soldiers either watching the princess or drowsily taking in their new surroundings in the early morning light. Then she saw it: a young Qazāli woman weaving through the crowd, gaze fixed on one blonde point.
The camel man grabbed Touraine’s arm and she jerked away.
Touraine was a good soldier and a good soldier would do her duty. She didn’t let herself imagine the consequences if she was wrong.
“Attack!” she bellowed, fit for a battlefield. “To the princess!”
The Qazāli man muttered something Shālan, probably a curse, before he shouted, too. A warning to his fellow. To more of them, maybe. Something glinted in his hands.
Touraine only spared half a glance toward the princess. That’s what the royal guard was for. Instead, she launched toward the camel man, dropping her pack instead of swinging it at him. Stupid, stupid. Instinct alone saved her life. She lifted her arms just in time to get a slice across her left forearm instead of her throat.
She drew her baton to counter-attack, but instead of running in the scant moment he had, the old man hesitated, squinting at her.
“Wait,” he said. “You look familiar.” His Balladairan was suddenly more than adequate.
Touraine shook off his words, knocked the knife from his hand, and tripped him to the ground. He struggled against her with wiry strength until she pinned the baton against his throat. That kept him from saying anything else. She held him there, her teeth bared and his eyes wide while he strained for breath. Behind her, the camel man’s companions clashed with the other soldiers. A young woman’s high-pitched cry. The princess or the assassin?
The old man rasped against the pressure of the baton. “Wait,” he started, but Touraine pressed harder until he lost the words.
Then the docks went silent. The rest of the attackers had been taken down, dead or apprehended. The man beneath her realized it, too, and all the fight sagged out of him.
When they relieved her, she stood to find herself surrounded. The three royal guards, alert, swords drawn; a handful of fancy-looking if spooked civilians; the general—her general. General Cantic. And, of course, the princess.
Heat rose to her face. Touraine knew that some part of her should be afraid of overstepping; she’d just shat on all the rules and decorum that had been drilled into the conscripts for two decades. But the highest duty was to the throne of Balladaire, and not everyone could say they had stopped an assassination. Even if Touraine was a conscript, she couldn’t be punished for that. She hoped. She settled into the strength of her broad shoulders and bowed deeply to the princess.
“I’m sorry to disturb you, Your Highness,” Touraine said, her voice smooth and low.
The princess quirked an eyebrow. “Thank you—” the princess looked to the double wheat stalk pins on Touraine’s collar. “Lieutenant…?”
“Lieutenant Touraine, Your Highness.” Touraine bowed again. She peeked at the general from the corner of her eyes, but the older woman’s lined face was unreadable.
“Thank you, Lieutenant Touraine, for your quick thinking.”
A small shuffling to the side admitted a horse-faced man with a dark brown tail of hair under his bicorn hat. Captain Rogan sneered over Touraine before bowing to the princess.
“Your Highness, I apologize if this Sand has inconvenienced you.” Before the princess could respond, Rogan turned to Touraine and spat, “Get back to your squad. Form them up like they should have been.”
So much for taking her chance to rise. So much for duty. Touraine sucked her teeth and saluted. “Yes, sir.”
She tightened her sleeve against the bleeding cut on her left arm and went back to her squad, which stood in a tight clump a few yards away from the old man’s camel. The beast huffed with a sound like a bubbling kettle and disdainful glob of foamy spittle dripped from its slack lips. Safe enough to say she had made an impression on the locals.
And the others? Touraine looked back for another glimpse at the princess and found the other woman looking back. Touraine tugged the bill of her field cap and nodded, before turning away as unruffled as she could.
Back in the squad, Pruett looked uncertain as Rogan handed the older man off to another officer, who led him and the young woman away. “I told you to be careful about attracting attention.”
Touraine smiled, even though her arm stung and blood leaked into her palm. “Attention’s not bad if you’re the hero.”
That did make Pruett laugh. “Ha! Hero. A Sand? I guess you think the princess wants to wear my shit for perfume, too.”
Touraine laughed back, and it was tinged with the same frustration and bitterness that talk of their place in the world always was.
This time, when she called for her squad to form up, they did. Gold Squad and the others pulled down their field caps and pulled close their coats. The wind was picking up. The sun was rising. The Qazāli dock workers bent their backs into their work again, but they glanced at the conscripts—nervous, scared, suspicious, hateful. At Rogan’s order, she and the conscripts marched to their new posts.
Change was coming. Touraine aimed to be on the right side of it.
Chapter 2: A Homecoming
A flea storm, the Balladairans in Qazāl called it, because grains of sand lodged in every improbable place on a body, climbing into buttoned jackets and nestling into cropped hairs, whistling itchy fury into every home and guardhouse, no matter how tight the curtains were shut or how low a soldier tugged their field cap. It cast everything in brown shadow.
Touraine pulled her cap lower as the storm tugged at her black uniform coat while she and the other Balladairan Colonial conscripts stood at attention in the bazaar. Their faces were neutral, but Sergeant Pruett, scanned the crowd. Sergeant Tibeau kept his eyes locked obediently forward, but he was probably contemplating every anti-Balladairan feeling he’d ever had. When the order had come for Touraine’s squad to muster in the city’s largest bazaar, the storm was no longer just a dark imagining on the edge of the horizon.
Sand skittered like dry rain against the wooden gallows in the center of the square. It flayed the Qazāli prisoners Touraine and Pruett had caught just that morning, ripping into their bare chests while they stood parched and peeling in the sun. It taunted Touraine and her squad just like the Balladairans who called the desert-born conscripts “Sands.”
Within the square of a horse-mounted guard, the Balladairan princess shifted uncomfortably on horseback, eyes darting between the prisoners and the Qazāli civilians in the crowd. She didn’t look near as confident as she had after the thwarted assassination this morning.
Only the Qazāli took the sand with equanimity, their bright hoods raised and sand veils or scarves wrapped to protect against the dust’s assault.
As the Balladairan captain of Touraine’s company strutted toward her, Touraine willed the scowl off her face if only for the sake of the general at his side. Captain Rogan kept his bicorn hat low on his head to keep the wind at bay, preening and bowing toward anyone of higher rank. The general only ducked her head a little under the wind.
“Lieutenant Touraine. You’ve done well for yourself since I last saw you.” General Cantic smiled and Touraine’s mouth went dry. “We have you to thank for this.” The general nodded toward the prisoners, awaiting their fates.
“General Cantic is giving you the hanging. I trust you won’t botch it?” Rogan slipped in, trying to undermine Touraine immediately. His clipped, aristocratic accent curled Touraine’s lip by reflex. His blue eyes were cold and his nose short and sharp, good for looking down. He thrust the prisoners’ chain at her.
The wind blew hard enough to snap the nooses like whips.
“Of course, sir.” Touraine chose to speak directly to the general.
“Excellent,” Cantic said. “Move along. The weather’s turning.”
Touraine glanced at the sky and regretted it as stray granules of dust lodged into her eyes. She’d been relieved to scuff dry land under her boots this morning, had never wanted to see another ship again. Now she wanted to get back on that wooden catastrophe and vomit her way back to Balladaire. So what if she had been born in this sand-fucked city? It was too long ago for her to remember, and she could see why she’d never missed it.
Still. The Qazāli rebels drew Touraine’s eyes like a lodestone, and they squinted and scowled right back. The woman she had captured, the old camel man, and three others. Five Qazāli prisoners, standing in loose dark trousers, stripped of the hoods and vests so many Qazāli wore, and chained together. Their curly hair clumped with dried sweat. The brown skin of their bare chests reddened and peeled. Brown skin, like hers, like most of the Sands’. Touraine’s nose burned at the smell of their piss. The prisoners must have stood there all day, maybe since their capture. If they hadn’t been questioned first. The sun rose slowly, peeking over the buildings to the other side of the river, the ruins of an old city, out of the storm’s reach. The chain was heavy and warm in Touraine’s hand.
The pale Balladairan soldiers stood poised at attention, their musket butts digging into the earth. They formed another buffer between the princess on her horse and the restless Qazāli in the square. Touraine’s primary attention, however, was with the general. Ultimately, only General Cantic had the power to promote her, but maybe the princess would be grateful enough to commend her.
Cantic and a squat, official-looking woman walked up the wooden stairs, and Touraine followed, leading the prisoners by the chain. She gestured for Pruett to follow. From the new vantage point, she could see the tops of the clay buildings whose walls formed the edges of the bazaar, outlined against the approaching storm. Fine, maybe Tibeau was right. It was a little breathtaking.
Sergeant Pruett yanked each prisoner into position behind a noose. She nodded to Touraine, her eyes half-lidded, looking more sullen than usual. The russet-brown curls poking from her field cap were plastered darkly to the sides of her skull with sweat. Then she stepped back to wait next to the lever that would drop the rebels to their deaths. Touraine waited for her own cue on the other end of the platform.
The kick of Cantic’s boots on the gallows platform killed the rumble of conversation. Time had made her even more severe. Her hair was more white than blonde since Touraine had last seen her, pulled back into a tight tail under her tricorn. Her hand rested on the pommel of her saber and her broad shoulders were bonier, but straight, despite the approaching wall of sand.
A woman worth studying, worth pleasing, worth staying close to. Touraine had been thrilled to learn she would be stationed at Cantic’s base. Supposedly, the general had been expanding and protecting the desert colonies for years.
The other woman was less severe but she cocked her head at Touraine and the other Sands in curiosity. She wasn’t in an officer’s uniform, which meant she had to be a government official. The governor. Touraine returned her focus to the general, like everyone else in the square.
In a commanding voice that echoed across the square, General Cantic said something in Shālan, the language of the broken southern empire. The words sounded like rocks rattling in a cup, and it caught everyone’s attention. Touraine didn’t know what it meant. Like everything else Touraine had taken from Qazāl when she was a kid, the language had been culled out of her.
Cantic continued in Balladairan. “Citizens, today we celebrate. Though the occasion is grim, justice has won a decisive victory.” She gestured to the prisoners behind her with an open palm. “These rebels are guilty of attempted murder.”
Touraine’s eyes drifted back to the princess. She’d dismounted. Smart not to provide a raised target for more rebel assassins. The people who weren’t looking at the condemned snuck glances at her highness. The heir to the Balladairan throne seemed small and fragile on the ground, surrounded for her own protection.
“With the help of the Qazāli magistrate, we have spoken with the prisoners”—there was no doubt what “spoken with” meant—“and we will find the other rebels involved. Anyone found aiding them, or feeding them, or sheltering them will die with them. However.” General Cantic softened her tone marginally. “What is justice if not upheld by the law and the people? If you have any information about the rebel leaders, come to us. You will receive amnesty, a handsome reward, and gratitude for your dedication to our alliance.”
The spectators craned their necks to see them: Touraine and Pruett, the general, the prisoners. Touraine and the Sands were an unspoken lecture: born Qazāli, Balladaire had educated her, trained her to fight, fed her, kept her healthy. She had grown up civilized. The Qazāli could do much worse than cooperate.
General Cantic gave Touraine an encouraging nod.
The first of the condemned was a dark man with salt-crusted black hair that curled around his ears and a thick, close beard covering his chin. She hadn’t seen him yesterday morning, and he refused to make Touraine’s job easier. She stood on tip-toes to loop the noose over his neck. The second person was the young woman, less bullish, delicate even. The fight in her was gone. She watched Touraine calmly and ducked into the noose, murmuring under her breath.
The woman was praying. Touraine had studiously ignored Sergeant Tibeau’s praying in the barracks long enough to recognize the rhythms. Nearby, Cantic cleared her throat. Touraine shuddered and cinched the rope quickly, reciting to herself from the Tailleurist lessons: there are no gods, only superstitions. No superstition can harm you. And yet, when their skin touched, Touraine felt a tingling sensation across her body.
She got through the others as quickly as she could, trying to forget the feeling. Instead, she only felt the pressure of everyone’s eyes on her, and the tickle of her own sweat down her coat. The older man was the last one. He tried gamely to stand up straight. His shaggy gray hair hung in his face. It seemed like he’d aged decades since she’d met him at the docks, smiling warmly with his camel. It wasn’t real, she told herself. He’d been a distraction, a pair of eyes. She pulled the noose around his sagging neck. As she tightened the rope, his eyes narrowed at her, then popped wide.
“You look just like--” the man rasped, working around his dry tongue. Louder, he rushed to get the words out. “You’re Jaghotai’s daughter, aren’t you?”
Touraine startled and looked to Pruett, who held the drop lever. Do it now! Touraine said with her eyes.
“You’re Hanan?” The old man’s voice croaked from his throat.
Touraine staggered back at the sound of her old name. Her heart dropped into her gut like the gallows floor, and the air caught in her lungs.
The old man dangled.
Except for a few desperate kicks, the prisoners hung in silence. Touraine saluted to Cantic and jogged down to stand in front of her soldiers as if nothing had happened. As if her heart wasn’t rattled in its cage. Her men and women formed a tight square, five by five. Sergeant Tibeau caught her eyes. He didn’t need words to send a cold drip of guilt sliding between her shoulder blades.
The world felt muffled and slow. Beyond Captain Rogan, General Cantic had descended and left, leading the princess down one spoke of road. The true-born Balladairan soldiers already marched to the Balladairan compound under their own captain’s orders.
For the first time in twenty years, Touraine was back in Qazāl. She looked at the swinging bodies. The man jerked, and Touraine watched until he stilled.
How did he know who I am?
Rogan glanced over Touraine's platoon and then over to the sandstorm with a satisfied smirk. "Welcome home, Sands."
Touraine and her squad followed Rogan and the other soldiers north and east through the city to the compound, away from the storm. It would have been a long march even without the wind and dust that managed to thread through the winding roads. Still, the storm couldn't stop her from gaping now that there was light enough to see by and the city was coming alive.
Everything spiraling out from the bazaar was clearly the older part of the city. The buildings were yellowed clay lined with cracks and the roads had once been fitted with stones but were now mostly dirt with rugged juts to trip over. Qazāli workers prodded donkeys and goats—and once, even another camel—through the narrow passages, but yanked the animals aside as the Sands marched by. Their faces were swaddled in scarves and shawls against the stray dust. Piles of shit drew flies and down one road, two filthy children shoveled the driest clumps into baskets.
Like the bazaar, the shopkeepers here were mostly Qazāli, and so were the shoppers. Touraine wondered where all the Balladairans were. There'd been enough of them at the hanging.
You're Jaghotai's daughter.
Touraine wasn’t the only one observing the city in proper daylight.
"This is sick, what they're doing to this place." Tibeau covered his face with a thick forearm.
"Huh." Pruett grunted. "Why, what's different?"
"Everything. Can't you tell?" Tibeau looked at Touraine for support.
Touraine shrugged. “I was barely five years old. It all looks the same to me."
All Touraine could see in her memory were vague senses of buildings, from a very low vantage point. Maybe the buildings were yellow-brown, like the buildings here, but no sounds or people she recognized. For all she knew, her memories were just taking the images in front of her.
"They're making us live on the scraps of the city. The Old Medina used to be beautiful. Look at this.”
They passed through a massive, crumbling wall like the ones that surrounded the city, all carved with curling shapes of Shālan script. Swirls and slashes and stylized squares, and how they amounted to words Touraine would never know. The ceiling of the archway was—had been—painted blue several times. The most recent layer chipped to show a different shade blue in some places, bare yellow stone in others.
“The New Medina used to be ours, too. Now it’s their shops, their cafés, their homes.”
He shot a dirty look at the pristine neighborhood they were passing through. Here—where the stone pavers were carefully placed and there was barely a whiff of animal or human shit, where the buildings were freshly sealed and sturdy—were the Balladairans. They poked their heads out from wooden shutters to check the progress of the storm.
“It’s not just Balladairans, though.” Touraine nodded toward brown faces over doublets, hair short and styled with Balladairan sleekness. “They don’t look hungry.”
“Because they’ve sold themselves to Balladaire.”
“You don’t know that. You don’t know anything about—”
“Children, please.” Pruett cut in, glaring meaningfully up ahead. Rogan walked with one of his men, but they were too close for loud, philosophical bickering.
Touraine and Tibeau slowed to match Pruett’s pace. When Pruett spoke again, her voice was low and probing.
“So—did you recognize him?”
“What?” Tibeau looked between them. “Who?”
“On the gallows. The old man—he called her Hanan.”
The look that Tibeau gave her was jealous and livid all at once. “So? Did you?”
The question caught Touraine off guard, though she’d expected it. She hadn’t been able to let go of the man’s face the entire walk. Or the way the woman had caught Touraine with her song-like prayer. A seed of doubt, trying to root.
She yanked it out like she always did. She was safer, stronger with Balladaire than without it. It looked like the Qazāli in this section of the city had learned that, too, and that’s why they lived more happily than any other Qazāli in this city.
“Do you remember Mallorie?” Touraine asked instead.
Tibeau and Pruett both flinched. Of course they remembered. Every Sand did. Mallorie, who’d been of an age with Tibeau and Pruett, had run away when she was fourteen, just a few years after they’d been brought to Balladaire. Cantic—a captain, then—had Mallorie whipped, doctored in the infirmary, and kept under watch for months. Every Sand breathed a sigh of relief, even Touraine, who was only nine years old. The moment the Balladairans eased the leash, she ran again. Five Balladairan soldiers were in the firing squad that executed her when they caught her again.
“Do you remember what she looked like?”
Silence. They were both taller than her, but they shrank for just a moment.
“Because I don’t.”
Pruett sucked her teeth. “Fair point. How do you know your memory’s so sharp, anylight, Beau? It’s been two sky-falling decades. Looks like the usual I-have-some and I-have-none split to me. Doubt it was nice and even when it was just Qazāli here.”
Tibeau glared at them both. “You two can both go fuck a skunk.” He walked beside them in silence for a little while longer before falling back. His lover Émeline had already gone ahead to the compound. If she’d been here, she might have mediated better.
Once he’d left, Pruett ducked her head to look Touraine in the face. “Tour. Love. You’re not all right.”
“Course I am.” Touraine forced herself to meet Pruett’s gray-blue eyes.
“You just killed someone who knew you from before. Who knew you as Hanan. You aren’t bothered?”
It was only the dust in the air that dried her mouth, that made it difficult to tell the truth. “I’m curious, I guess, but I don’t know who Hanan is any more than you do. And that man didn’t know me.”
What would Cantic do to her if she thought that Touraine would run to the other side?
A smile quirked across Pruett’s lips. “You forget—I did know Hanan. She was a stubborn clod of shit. She punched the biggest kid in the balls when she was six and she’s been insufferable ever since.”
Touraine snorted. She did remember her first practice fight with Tibeau. She shook her head. “I was already Touraine by then. That’s me, Pru.”
You’re Jaghotai’s…. No, she wasn’t. She didn’t know Jaghotai. She didn’t want to.
They marched through the city, covered in dust, shielding their eyes with their arms and field caps, the perfect picture of Balladairan military might. They passed from the New Medina through another massive archway etched with stylized script in the shape of what might have been the sun. From there, to the north, small townhouses were clustered together like sheep. Directly east from the city gate loomed the yellow-gray walls of the Balladairan compound, constructed some fifty years or so ago.
It made Touraine thirsty just to look at it. Or maybe that was just the long city march. Her legs ached; despite keeping up with her exercises on the ship, nothing quite prepared you for a couple hours of marching like a couple hours of marching.
The only similarity to her old compound in Balladaire was the layout. Nothing green grew inside these walls and the roads were trampled yellow dirt. Instead of thick, gray stone blocks sealed with mortar, the walls were gritty chunks of sandstone wedged together. The yellow-brown buildings on the right were all the same, great square blocks. The barracks. The buildings on the left curved away from the street, making a small, dusty courtyard. The biggest building of the lot would be the administrators’ building and their quarters. That would include General Cantic.
Balladairan guards stood up straight when Rogan approached the gate. One sneered as Touraine and the other Sands followed. The other’s eyes were wide, incredulous, like he was watching trained dogs marching in parade. She stared him down as they passed.
Touraine trudged to the mess hall. She wanted food and a chair, and to take off her boots and maybe even drown herself in water. Before she could find shelter under the cool stone, though, a Balladairan boy ran up to her. He was sunburnt across his cheeks, probably a few years her junior.
“You Touraine, then? I have a message from General Cantic.” His voice was pitched to crack. Several years her junior, then. His black uniform was plain, no pins on his collar or rank stripes on his shoulders.
“Lieutenant Touraine.” She folded her arms. Beside her, Pruett tensed. Touraine had gotten into more than one fight over her rank. She wouldn’t this time, though. Not with Cantic so close, not with the chance for promotion at her fingertips. Her record was—mostly, minus some temper here or there—exemplary. “One of several,” she growled. “What’s the message?”
“There’s several of you made it to lieutenant?” He threw his head back, laughing.
If you kill him, you definitely won’t get promoted. Sky above, it would feel amazing, though.
Touraine felt Pruett’s silent warning behind her. She snatched the paper from him. “At least we earn our ranks.”
She shoved past him without looking back. She didn’t know what else to expect in this new country, but some things would clearly stay the same.
“What’s our dear old instructor want with you?” Pruett asked, close on Touraine’s heels. “Think that she-wolf still loves whippings?” Her amusement was tinged with bitterness.
West of the compound, the sandstorm rolled north through the city and into the sea. Touraine held her hand across her face and flicked the note open with one hand. Nothing but a summons and an ink stamp.
You’re Jaghotai’s daughter. Cantic had heard the man.
She forced a smile. “If she were going to kill me for some kind of treason, she wouldn’t send a messenger first.”
The logic even managed to comfort her, until Pruett said, “If she were going to kill you, she’d do it when it suited her and not a second before.”
Touraine snorted. “A kiss for luck, then?”
A shadow passed across Pruett’s face. Touraine could tell she was scanning the compound, watching Balladairan blackcoats and Sands alike—watching them watch her and Touraine. A constant habit. While fraternizing within the brigade wasn’t forbidden—in fact, it was the only fraternization allowed—Sands couldn’t afford the weakness of public affection. You never knew if it might be used against you.
Touraine leaned in a hair. “If they see us as citizens,” she murmured, “as more than bodies to throw in front of Taargen cannons, maybe we could be more than just this one day.”
Pruett shook her head, her expression shuttered. “We have this. Please.” She locked Touraine’s eyes. “Don’t say or do anything stupid. Kiss her ass like you used to. Lieutenant.” She flicked a salute, and then she was gone, pushing away against the wind and into the canteen.
Touraine had thought about the general often since the woman stopped being the Sands’ instructor. Touraine had been thirteen and devastated when Cantic told them all she was going back to the field. She had been wearing a formal dress uniform with a lieutenant colonel’s golden shoulder stripes.
The only people the Sands gossiped about more than each other were the instructors, and after Cantic left, rumors about her spread like plague. She had been disgraced once, and teaching them was her punishment; now she was forgiven. No, she had fucked her way up the ranks until she got to the duke—that’s how she got a promotion so quick. No, Cantic was lying entirely and it was just an excuse to retire without looking weak. Touraine had believed none of it and fiercely wished to be an officer under the woman one day. But after Cantic had left, Touraine never thought she’d see the general again.
Now, after all that time, all those hopes to impress, and here she was, summoned when she was sweaty with heat. Though she had changed her uniform and washed from a basin, she imagined she still smelled like body odor and seaweed and fish gone bad. Her stomach looped itself in knots and she hadn’t wanted to be sick like this since the first week at sea. Yes, Touraine had stopped an attempt on the princess’s life, but she’d also been recognized by one of the perpetrators. Would that condemn her somehow, too?
He had called her out by name. The thought still made her shudder with—what? Revulsion wasn’t right, and neither was fear. It was the sense that she had been walking a broad path along a cliff only to find it was a bayonet’s edge. She was just waiting to be pushed.
And how she’d stumbled with the praying woman. If Cantic thought Touraine had sympathized with the woman, this could be a different meeting entirely. One that ended with her own neck at the end of a rope. Touraine was long past the age where they were only whipped for sneaking prayers and hiding holy beads.
The administrative building was guarded by a sergeant at attention, rifle at her side. The sergeant was trying and failing to pretend the wind didn’t bother her. Even though the storm was blowing north through the city, the wind here ran wild.
“Lieutenant Touraine to see General Cantic.”
The soldier scanned Touraine up and down, lip curled. The effect was ruined by her flinching squint. “Address your betters appropriately, Sand.”
“Lieutenant Touraine to see General Cantic, Sergeant.” She leaned heavily on the subordinate title and left it at that. Irritation in the back of her throat threatened to bubble into temper as Touraine passed, but she swallowed it down.
She walked through the small hallway and up the stairs, dropping her eyes whenever another Balladairan passed her. They were all high-ranking military administrators or aides de camp. Here were officers in black and gold.
They made her feel small, even more conscious of the sand falling from the folds of her uniform to scatter across the floor. One day, she wouldn’t tiptoe through compound halls. She would belong there. Her soldiers wouldn’t be at the mercy of horse-faced bastards like Rogan. She’d have the certainty and safety that came with rank.
One day, even farther away, people would look at her like they looked at Cantic. She would command the same level of respect.
After passing door after plain door, Touraine knew instantly when she arrived. She knocked three times on the ornate wood.
The general’s door was smooth with age and nicked by travel, but well cared for. Touraine smelled the polish. Carved rabbits chased each other along the bottom panels and birds flew at the top. The middle panels were taken by smooth deer, two fawns and a buck grazing while the doe looked warily around for a threat.
Another rumor: before Cantic became the Sands instructor, she was a captain in the field, instrumental in expanding the empire under King Roland. When her husband and two children died in the last Withering plague, the grief broke her. She couldn’t fight anymore. They brought her home to teach and recover.
Touraine reached to brush her fingertips across the buck’s antlers.
The door swung open under her hand.
General Cantic stood in the doorway, looking sour. Not a good start.
“Are you deaf, soldier? I said come in.”
“Apologies, General.” Touraine saluted. “Your door. It’s beautiful.”
The general’s eyes might have softened. Then the moment was gone and her eyes were the blue ice chips Touraine remembered from her childhood.
Cantic had taken off her black coat with its golden arm, and her tucked shirt hung loose on her wiry frame. Her skin had leathered and freckled with sun and age more than Touraine had realized on the gallows. She still wore a thick grief ring on her right middle finger and a small one on each little finger.
Cantic finally cracked a smile. “Touraine. Lieutenant Touraine. I am glad to see you well. I always knew you’d advance. Yesterday was very well done.”
Touraine smiled back, flush with pride and hope. “I think of your lessons regularly, General. It’s good to see you again, sir.”
“Good.” Cantic sat behind a desk carved with as much artistry as the door. Her face sharpened from impressed teacher to inquisitor. The familiar eyes, searching for missteps. “Now, first. Who was that man to you? The one at the gallows.”
“No one, General.”
“No one I know, sir.”
The truth, no matter who asked.
“You know me better than he does,” she added. “I’ve spent my entire life in Balladaire. My commanding officers are Balladairan. My teachers are Balladairan.” She nodded at the general. “Sir.”
Cantic nodded slowly, her face bit too pinched for Touraine to think the general would dismiss this entirely. She shuffled the papers on her desk in silence, as if she were looking for a topic in particular she wanted to discuss, and Touraine’s heart crawled up her throat while she waited for the silence to break.
“I’m glad to hear it. Here, have a seat. Would you like some water?”
The sudden turn made her body lock in suspicion even as her stomach flipped with giddiness.
Cantic flicked her hand impatiently and poured water from the pitcher on a small side table. “Sit. You just marched through the whole sky-falling city and you look drier than old balls.” She caught herself and smirked. “I suppose you’ve heard worse by now.”
Touraine took the cup out of reflex and sat slowly—an order was an order—but she wanted to look over her shoulder, just in case. This wasn’t turning out to be the moment Touraine had dreamed of for months, of going from lieutenant to captain, of ousting Rogan. She didn’t know what it was, but it was dangerous.
“You fought the Taargens. How was it?”
Touraine took a drink to delay. The water was lukewarm but it felt like bliss on her dry throat, rinsing away the dust. Somehow, the question was a test.
What are you asking?
Yet another rumor: Cantic’s loyalties were suspect; she hailed from Moyenne, the disputed region between Balladaire and its neighbor Taargen to the east; the spelling of her family name smacked too much of Taargen influence. Training the Sands had been penance and loyalty test, both. Touraine always cut down whoever brought this up. Cantic’s loyalty was no more suspect than her own.
“We won many of our engagements. They weren’t equal to our training, sir.”
Their one notable loss was caused by an anti-Shālan captain of a Balladairan company who refused to send his men to help a “den of sand rats.”
“No, of course not. God-loving bastards. They’ll stay on their side of Moyenne for now. Tell me about your time behind their line.”
Touraine’s mouth went dry again, and there was not enough water in the world to wet it.
“As you said, sir. They’re uncivilized.”
Uncivilized. It meant they kept a god close. Touraine had never believed in magic. It was the sort of crutch the Tailleurist books urged the Sands away from. Gods were myths and holding them close was the sign of a weak mind. Touraine had honed her mind against them.
“The Qazāli and all the other Shālans are just as uncivilized.” Cantic leaned her elbows on the desk and stared at her. As if she could read the fear in the shape of Touraine’s grip on the glass.
“You’ll be stationed in the main guardhouse in the city, off Rue de la Petière. Captain Rogan will rely on your leadership to set steady patrols in the city. The buildings are close together, so you’ll want to watch the rooftops. And beware any proselytizing. Too many damned dissidents trying to stir up trouble.”
Cantic gestured at the parchment on her desk and Touraine realized it was a map of El-Wast. Smaller maps detailed the various quarters and medinas, but they all oriented themselves by the River Hadd flowing east of the city.
Touraine had never seen a map so beautiful—or, probably, so expensive. The Hadd’s thick blue line flowed south from the sea, separating Qazāl from Briga and El-Wast from the abandoned Brigani capitol, drawn in a faded gray. Small green flourishes denoted the rich farmland between the docks and the city; more elaborate ones indicated the mile-long bridges that arched above that land (that wasn’t an exaggeration; the walk from the docks to the city had felt like an age after the voyage). From the bridges, the Old Medina wall circled what Touraine understood as the oldest part of the city, including the Grand Bazaar. The New Medina was smaller, an additional circle around the city, marked with bolder ink. And then the Balladairan additions, the military compound and the Quartier, where many of the Balladairan civilians lived.
Touraine sat back and exhaled. “Yes, sir.”
“What I really need to know, Lieutenant, is the status of your men and women. This is an abrupt change. It might be troubling for some. We think that your presence—the colonial brigade—will have a positive effect on the citizens. To show that they can have power of their own if they’re cooperative. When we open the ranks to Qazāli, I’ll need experienced officers I can trust.”
A recruitment initiative. The idea sent a thrill up Touraine’s back. So far, Touraine’s cohort of Sands was the only cohort. Maybe Balladaire was trying a different, more voluntary tactic. If the Qazāli could see how the Sands benefited from Balladairan employment, they wouldn’t want to rebel. And if others were recruited, it meant being a conscript would become a job, not a life they were bound to. A choice. With rewards. And her, a captain over her own squad of Qazāli. She could make them a company to be reckoned with.
“You can count on me, of course.”
And yet, as she said it, Touraine thought of Tibeau’s anger at the rich Balladairans in the New Medina. Cantic wasn’t warning idly. She wouldn’t be the only eyes the general picked to keep the Sands from straying. Eyes would be watching her, too. The test would continue.
She twisted the half-full glass of water in her hand. It was warm and brackish, but it was water. You’d die without it, especially in the desert.
“Is there anything else I can do, sir?”
Cantic’s lips were pursed, thoughtful. “You’ve been invited to dine with Lord Governor Cheminade this evening.”
“Sir?” Touraine’s stomach lurched, even though she didn’t understand the implications of the invitation. She didn’t want to ask who that was and risk looking like a fool. “The Colonial Brigade?”
“No,” Cantic said, as if she were just as baffled. “The invitation was for you personally. I believe she was impressed with your actions yesterday morning at the docks. I explained to her how irregular this would be, yet she insists. That means you don’t have much time to prepare.” Her voice went sharp, the confusion falling away. “Treat it as a military ceremony. Speak to no one unless spoken to, and when you are spoken to, know that you speak with my reputation at stake. Do you understand, Lieutenant?”
“Sir. Yes, sir.” Already Touraine’s stomach tied itself in knots over the nerves. And the excitement. No Sand had ever been in this position before. Their status could change, if they were noticed by the right people.
The general eased back. As if she could read Touraine’s thoughts, she said, “No colonial soldier has ever been in such company. Perhaps you can further prove yourself. A carriage will retrieve you from the guardhouse at sunset after you’ve settled your troops. Perhaps time will see you in charge of a guardhouse yourself.” General Cantic smiled warmly again, like she was oblivious to any threat in her words. “Dismissed.”
The guardhouse where Cantic had stationed Touraine and her squad had once been a home, “borrowed” from a “generous” Qazāli merchant and repurposed by the Balladairans. A small sign nearby read, “Rue de la Petière.” It was in the Ibn Shattath district in the Old Medina, near the Grand Bazaar square. The gallows square.
The sandstorm had finally blown itself out, and the sun ducked behind the nearest building, like a soldier chasing cover. Touraine ducked her head down to catch the glare on the brim of her cap. In less than an hour, it would be gone and she’d be cast back into cool shadow.
Across the narrow street, more of the old city’s crumbling clay brick buildings. The whole city had no distinct shape to it. Buildings crammed themselves along the streets, not caring how much space there was: if there was no room, the building shoved itself in anylight, leaving barely enough room for a couple to walk arm-in-arm. The streets themselves were a labyrinth. How could anyone know where they were going in this city? As far as Touraine could see, though, all of the main roads wide enough for multiple carts and livestock led to the Grand Bazaar. They’d passed a couple of the smaller bazaars on the walk back into the city, doing business as if the storm had never come through.
The narrow streets would make a good defense for a smaller force, and whoever had the rooftops would have the advantage.
The entire building had been claimed by the Balladairan military, and so, because of the winding, attached-at-the-rooftops nature of Qazāli architecture, that included almost the entire street. Within, Touraine’s platoon could live under close watch of their Balladairan handlers, with Captain Rogan’s horse-ass face in charge of it all.
The Qazāli natives who passed them on the street stared at Touraine and her soldiers, like they were animals on display in a menagerie.
Touraine scowled. She wasn’t the one who looked like a bird, bright clothes flapping in the wind.
“This our shithole, then, sir?” The jaunty voice belonged to Aimée, a decent fighter, and strong in formation. She had a mouth worse than Pruett’s and a sour sense of humor, but it was still a sense of humor.
“It’s not a shithole, Aimée. Go in and get comfortable.”
Touraine didn’t like the way the Qazāli kept looking at them, and she really didn’t like the way some of her soldiers were looking back. A few soldiers wore hostile sneers and a couple looked curious, but most of them were uneasy, and jumpy soldiers didn’t make an easy peace.
Touraine plucked Pruett’s sleeve and spoke to her in a low voice. “Get a couple of soldiers on patrol around the building and someone out here. Everyone else, inside.”
Thirty soldiers filed past her, but Tibeau held back. He stared back at the civilians, searching faces. “Sergeant?” Touraine said softly.
“Do you think anyone will recognize us? The rest of us, I mean.” His voice was barely audible over the city’s noise. There was a longing in his voice that made her heart beat faster.
“No.” The word came out sharper than she meant. “And in case you haven’t noticed, most would rather stab us than share dinner.”
A gang of kids ran by, slowing to stare at Touraine and her squad, the Shālans in Balladairan uniforms. Did the children find them strange? Being so close to the main commercial section of the city, Ibn Shattath was a mix of the lowest and the highest and everyone in between, from Qazāli merchants in Balladairan clothes to Balladairan servants running errands. With the spectacle of soldiers gone, most moved on quickly.
Touraine chanced a look at Tibeau’s face. The smile she found was grimmer than she was used to, more like Pruett’s. “Someone recognized you,” he said.
It felt like a shove. A friendly sparring match turned cruel. She met him stare for stare as he tested her, asking her to bend.
"I was ten when I was taken," he added. "I'd already had time to grow into my delicate features." He batted his lashes over brown eyes full of desperate hope. He tried to hold onto the joke, but his voice cracked. “I should be even more recognizable, shouldn’t I?”
Touraine forced a chuckle despite the growing tension between them. Tibeau wasn't what someone would call a pretty man. Like her, he was crossed by scars from growing up with the instructors and pocked by even more from going to war for Balladaire. When Touraine first met him, she'd just learned what a bear was from a lesson book. With his short dark hair, furry arms speckled with moles, and taut belly, he'd looked like a cub. Now he was full-grown. She still sparred with him for practice, but she only beat him four out of ten times, maybe. It hurt, now, to watch the tentative slump of his shoulders.
A scrawny man only wearing loose trousers ran a rickshaw past them, barefooted. He avoided colliding with them, but his cargo still shouted at him. A soft, blond Balladairan man, the lace from his clothes dripping from the cab. She felt Tibeau’s anger pulling taut like a bowstring.
She gripped the back of one of Tibeau’s thick arms. "Don't bring trouble on us, Beau."
"And you'd know all about that, wouldn't you?”
"I'm not as stupid as I used to be." It had been almost ten years since Touraine had gotten her friends whipped for fighting with Rogan, before he was their captain.
She tugged him toward the guardhouse with one last look around the emptying street.
The entrance to the home had a clever partition that denied a direct entrance. If anyone tried to attack, they would be squeezed to no more than one or two side by side, and using rifles and muskets would be impossible. Probably not the original intent of the design.
The building rose in a square surrounding a courtyard with a gurgling fountain. It was the wettest sound since the ocean, and the air within had a clean smell. Touraine felt more comfortable already, with everyone outside cut away. Immediately, everything was simple again.
She divided everyone into rooms on the first and second stories, four or five to a room. To the left of the entrance was an office, already set up with papers. That would be Rogan’s domain, then, and the biggest room would be his. Probably at the far end, opposite the entrance. To the right, there was a room with a couple of low tables and pillows to make a rough common room.
Touraine nodded, satisfied. It was already better than any of their other postings. She squeezed Tibeau’s shoulder again. “Be easy, Beau. Find Émeline. Let’s have a drink.”
“Easy.” He grunted. “Right. So easy.”
He and Émeline joined Pruett and the other Sands in the common room for games of tarot and cups of nutty flavored beer. Touraine beckoned Pruett with a look. Her sergeant followed her out of the common room and back into the open courtyard.
It might have been a beautiful place, before. Back when water flowed from the pale stone petals of the fountain and the planting troughs were full of living flowers instead of dried husks on their way to decomposing. The ground was scattered with dirt and dead leaves and animal shit, bird and otherwise. Someone would go on cleaning duty.
Pruett sidled in close. “What’d you do this time, Lieutenant?” When Touraine didn’t smile back, Pruett dropped the wryness. “Did Cantic say something?”
“I’ve been invited to a dinner,” Touraine whispered. “Tonight. With the governor.”
“What the sky-falling fuck?”
“Shh. I don’t want everyone to know—wait, should I tell them?” Touraine glanced over her shoulder. “Everything is so tight. It feels like one wrong move and—”
“Like someone’s got a flame hovering over a fuse and all you’d have to do is spook them at the wrong moment. I know.” Pruett nodded gravely. She took Touraine’s hand briefly and squeezed it before dropping it again.
Underneath it all, the unspoken hung. She felt it in the other Sands’ glances at her, some covert, some frank and curious. They were home and she had been recognized. They were home and allegiances were up in the air. Only, they weren’t. She’d have to address it before she left for the Lord Governor’s dinner. Leaving her soldiers like this, on edge, in the middle of such a mess, was a bad idea.
“It feels like I have a chance, Pru.” Touraine searched Pruett’s eyes for any hint of validation. “Like maybe they’re starting to take us seriously for once.”
Her sergeant raked her hands through her short hair, dried stiff and at odd angles from sweat. “Sky above. The governor.” Pruett gave her a quick kiss on the mouth. “Just don’t—”
“Get us into any trouble. I know.” Touraine rolled her eyes and Pruett’s mouth quirked up at the corners.
Touraine was considering the words she would say to her squad when a soldier on guard shouted angrily from the street.
In seconds, the other Sands were outside, just in time to see the barrage of rotten food pelting the guardhouse walls. An egg sailed past Touraine’s face and she ducked. The sulfur smell cracked open behind her but she tracked its trajectory to a Qazāli man in a glaring yellow hooded vest.
The handful of Qazāli scattered, except him. He jogged backwards, trying to get in one last shot with his eggs. How he didn’t expect Touraine’s fist in his jaw, she didn’t know. She was proud of the punch; it echoed all the way through her chest to her hips. For a second, he hung suspended in the air. For a second, some idiot part of her brain thought she’d made a mistake. The only Qazāli she’d ever punched before were other Sands, and you don’t hit your soldiers like she hit him.
That idiot part of her brain was small compared to well-trained instinct. She got him down with a knee in his back and locked his wrists in her hands. Passersby watched from a distance.
Let them look. Let them see what they can be a part of if they have any sense. They wouldn’t beat the Sands with rotten eggs and cabbages. Her hands clenched tight around the man’s wrists, her nails digging into his skin.
It was almost sunset. Her carriage would come soon. She couldn’t afford to get bloody. Behind her, Pruett and the others waited for orders, batons ready. She dragged the half-conscious man to his feet. “Take him in. Cézanne, you’re out here with Philippe, now. Patrols are three men on.”
Anger welled up in her, hot and defensive, as Tibeau approached. She gave him a sharp look. He misinterpreted it. “We could let this one go,” he said close to her ear. “With a warning. Show them we’re open—”
“We are not open, Sergeant. And if you think we are,” she continued through gritted teeth, “we should have a chat about your fitness for this position. Do you understand?”
“Sir.” He straightened with a snap, his face so blank Touraine knew he was as pissed as she was.
Good. He needed to know she wasn’t fucking around. She wouldn’t give Cantic a reason to question her loyalty, and that meant he couldn’t, either.
The Qazāli man would be bound and thrown into a room for holding. Rogan could arrange for his transport to the jail in the compound.
Back in the common room, the mood was brittle. Touraine didn’t like the taste of the beer, but she drank a cup anyway. It busied her hands and cooled her off. She kept glancing anxiously toward the exit. She had cleaned up, put on a clean uniform. Even stole a bit of the cologne Aimée had splurged on with their meager salaries.
Tibeau slouched in the corner against the wall, arms crossed over his chest, Émeline beside him with a hand around his waist. Aimée leaned on one of the tables, tapping her fingers noisily and looking from Touraine to the other Sands. That troublemaker was just barely holding in a smile at the tension.
Pruett sat beside Touraine, a cigarette pinched between her lips. Now? Touraine asked her silently. Pruett nodded.
Sighing, Touraine pushed herself up to her feet. “Alright, everyone. Let’s talk about this. Some of us are home now, yes?”
Several nods, but some of the Sands were taken from other nations in the Shālan Empire, like Masridan or Lunaab farther east.
“And even if Qazāl isn’t where you came from, you’re closer to home than you’ve ever been, right?” More nods.
“You’re feeling frustrated and confused. I was, too. The things that are confusing you aren’t real, though. If you’re torn between your post and some idealized past, stop and think a minute.” Touraine jerked her thumb toward the street beyond the guardhouse wall, where Philippe and Cézanne kept watch. “The people you imagine welcoming you? That’s them.”
Thierry shifted his shoulders, glancing at Tibeau, as if for a cue. Thierry was Qazāli, too, she remembered that much.
It had been so long since any of them had talked about where they were from, that Touraine wasn’t even sure who she should keep the closest eye on. In Balladaire, she had been on the outside of the warm circles when the older children talked about home and how they’d go back one day and what they missed most. If the instructors heard them talking about Qazāl or the other colonies, they were beaten, and the memory-spinning grew more and more hushed until the only thing left was silence around all they’d left behind.
“I know some of you think this is our chance.” Touraine avoided glaring at Tibeau like she wanted to and leveled her gaze at each soldier. “And it is.” A shock rippled around the room and she put her hands up. “Not to leave. To rise. I’ve spoken to Cantic. About a promotion. No more Rogan.” She held her hands out to encompass the guardhouse. “This building would be ours. I’ve even been invited to a dinner with the governor general tonight. I’ll be representing our interests.”
Everyone sat upright or held their drinks or cards still in shock. Touraine nodded hopefully.
“So, while we wait, we watch our people get crushed under Balladairan boots?” Tibeau said softly. “Until we get to do it ourselves.”
She matched his softness, her voice carrying through the quiet room. “The best way to help them is to show them what they gain if they stop fighting.”
“We shouldn’t have to remind you what happens if you desert.” Pruett’s voice was sharp. “Remember Mallorie.”
Everyone looked down at their boots or their drinks at that. Better for them not to delude themselves. Aimée’s amusement disappeared as she nodded thoughtfully.
Touraine felt a stab of jealousy. Her soldiers were split on two sides, to stay or to go, but they weren’t looking to her for guidance. Even though she was their lieutenant, they respected Tibeau and Pruett. But Touraine knew Balladaire. She knew its systems and she knew how to be what it needed.
“It’ll take getting used to,” Touraine said finally. “I’m not asking anyone to be perfect. Rest up tonight.”
A chorus of “yes, sirs” followed her out.
“Good luck,” Pruett murmured, squeezing Touraine’s forearm.
On reflex, Touraine winced at the touch. The cut she’d gotten the day before had been clean and shallow, but long enough to feel inconvenient whenever she flexed her skin tight. It hadn’t even bled through the last bandage she’d put on, so she didn’t bother to change it when she bathed. Odd thing was, though, it didn’t hurt at all when Pruett grabbed it.
Though Touraine didn’t think Cantic the type to pull a prank, she was still surprised to see the one-horse carriage waiting for her outside of the guardhouse in the early twilight. The Balladairan driver just nodded her to get in the cab. She’d barely closed the door before he’d set the horse off, and she jostled on the hard seat. A rough start.
Touraine tried not to think about what her soldiers were saying about her in the guardhouse. She had to give them space to work out their feelings without her oversight, and trust Pruett to report any changes in the temperature.
Instead, she turned her thoughts forward. She was exhausted. She’d gone from the ship, to the hanging, to Cantic and her soldiers’ teetering loyalties, and now this. Excitement kept her alert. Maybe Pruett was right to be nervous, but Touraine had a good feeling.
Tonight would change everything. She was going to become someone.
Touraine remembered her arm as the carriage trundled through the Quartier to the governor’s home. In the darkness of the cab, she pulled her left arm out of its sleeve. Blood hadn’t seeped through the bandage. Gingerly, she tugged it off.
Before panic could seize her, the carriage stopped.
“Shit.” Touraine stuffed her arm back in her coat and hid the bandage in her pocket just as a footman opened the door. She tried to pull herself together. If she fucked up this chance to catch the Balladairans’ attention, she wouldn’t get another one.
But even as the footman—a footman!—led her from the carriage to the governor’s house, the back of her mind spun in a panic over this new secret.
There’d been nothing but a thin line of blood on the wrap, and a thin silver scar across her skin.
It had already healed.
Chapter 3: The Governor General
"Princess Luca! It is my absolute pleasure to welcome you to my home and to Qazāl."
At the sound of her name, Luca Ancier startled in her carriage. The door had been thrown open and a pale, round Balladairan woman with gray-streaked chestnut hair grinned at her from the ground. Luca had arrived, then, at Lord Governor Cheminade's home.
It was a short trip from Luca's townhouse in the Balladairan Quartier to the governor general's, but it felt even shorter.
Luca had been thinking of the hanging. How hot the sun had been. How the sky darkened in the distance as clouds of sand threatened to engulf the city. How the old man had cried out at the last and the young woman had twitched for long seconds after—Luca didn't know how long because she hadn't the stomach to watch.
Like the heat, the old man's voice had followed her into her own townhouse, and up into her study as she unpacked her books and placed them on the empty shelves that were waiting for her.
They were the rebels she had come to stop. Them, and men and women like them, perhaps hidden in the crowd. And when she stopped the rebellion and eased the unrest in the colony's capital city, she could show her uncle that she had the skill to rule. She would claim the throne that was her right.
The governor general herself handed Luca down from the carriage. Luca saw the woman glance at her leg, but it seemed less boorish curiosity and more careful concern. Luca warmed slightly toward the woman.
When Luca had both feet and her cane on sturdy ground, Lord Governor Cheminade bowed deeply. "Your Highness. It is a pleasure to meet you. Your father always spoke proudly of you when you were a child. You've grown into a striking young woman. My household is at your service, as am I."
At first, Luca was put off by the effusiveness, preparing to fend off the first sycophant. At the mention of her father, she checked the impulse. Of course Cheminade would have known her father. She'd been the governor general of the Shālan colonies for almost fifty years, as long as Balladaire had called the broken Shālan Empire her colonies. Cheminade would have spoken to her father regularly, surely. Something like jealousy bred with hopeful longing in her chest.
Most importantly, that might make Cheminade an ally as Luca worked to contest her Uncle Nicholas for her throne. First, however, she would calm the unrest in the colony.
"Thank you, Lord Governor. It's likewise a pleasure." Luca bowed her head in return.
The governor's smile reached into full cheeks, plump and still touched pink by the sun. Her eyes crinkled with pleasure. "Come, come. You must be famished. I know a thing or two about ship's food. That's why I haven't gone back home all these years." She wrinkled her nose distastefully, then laughed.
She beckoned Luca to follow her into the house and Gillett, the captain of the royal guard, fell in behind Cheminade. Luca’s two other guards brought up the rear. Her constant shadows.
Cheminade kept talking as she led the princess into the townhouse, but Luca lost the conversation entirely as she gaped around the woman's home.
Luca was not a person to be surprised by finery, but Cheminade's home was cluttered with the bounty of a life of exploration. A massive lion pelt nailed to the sitting room wall greeted her first. The maned head was still attached, the darker ruff sticking stiffly at all angles, its eye sockets empty and mouth gaping to show yellowed teeth almost as long as her fingers. Shelves lined the walls and they were crammed with trinkets of gold and silver—creatures that looked human aside from an abundance of limbs or the rears of beasts, long-spouted oil lamps, intricately patterned cups and plates—and even a small skull that Luca hoped had belonged to a monkey.
She reached out a hand to stroke the lion pelt as they passed it and Cheminade paused the stream of her chatter.
The governor ruffled the lion's mane casually, but her smile held the tilt of pride. "A gift from the wild tribes that roam the desert. They're sovereign, never did bow to the Shālan emperors. They wouldn't abandon their god, as one of their leaders explained to me. Call themselves the Many-Legged, for the animals they worship, you see.”
"A gift?" Luca tentatively stroked the mane, too. The fur was coarse, the strands thick. The empty face sent a chill up her spine.
Before Cheminade could respond, another guest entered the sitting room from the foyer. He wore a thin woolen tailcoat over broad shoulders and a body that looked like strength only just softening in his middle. His knee-length breeches showed thick calves.
Casimir LeRoche, Comte de Beau-Sang, a small region in southern Balladaire. His eyes were bright when he saw Luca, and he immediately dipped into an elaborate bow.
"Your Highness," he murmured to the ground. “A pleasure to see you on this side of the empire.” He allowed himself to be led into the dining room by a servant, but not without one brief smile. Where Cheminade's grin was open and enthusiastic, Beau-Sang’s smile was sharp, his lips thin. Luca watched his broad back as he departed. Beau-Sang owned the quarries, which meant anyone who needed sandstone or quartz had to pay him for the pleasure.
Which meant he was one of the most powerful men in the colony, even if he didn’t have the highest rank.
At the door to the dining room, a Qazāli footman in a simple gray tailcoat and blue knee-breeches bowed and announced Luca to the room. Inside, a host of Qazāl's most established Balladairans waited while a string quartet played in the background. Some she recognized, nobles who had come south to explore new ventures; others she did not: likely merchants, or possible friends of Cheminade's. Even, to her greatest surprise, the Sand from the hanging, the one the old man had yelled at, was there, wearing a crisp black uniform. Luca realized she was holding her breath and had clenched her cane in her fist. With effort, she released the air and her grip, and followed the footman to her seat.
Then she saw that the three tables in the room were all low, in the Qazāli style. Her heart sped up. She couldn't afford to show any signs of weakness here, not yet.
Her host recognized the hesitation. Cheminade's mouth went round, a perfect 'O' of realization. Before Cheminade could make any embarrassing efforts to accommodate her, Luca smiled tightly.
"I only wanted to give you a sense of Qazāl's traditions and culture, Your Highness. I'm so sorry."
"Truly, Lord Governor. I'll be alright."
She wasn't, not really. Though Gil helped her down with a steady arm, they were all expected to sit cross-legged. After a quarter of an hour, the pain had her shifting as imperceptibly as she could. Others, at least, were having similar difficulties. Down the table, the dowager Marquise de Durfort was complaining loudly about the arrangements—“the indecency of sitting like barbarians!” Luca smiled privately, thinking of Sabine de Durfort, and how, after one of their nights together, the new marquise contemplated where, exactly, to send her mother to get the old woman out of the way. Apparently, Qazāl was not far enough.
To distract herself from the pain, Luca turned to the food instead, including a Qazāli dish comprised of beans that Cheminade called “chickpeas” and various vegetables. Small round loaves of bread were stacked at intervals along the table, as were small roasted chickens, seasoned with a smoky red spice.
To Luca's right, Cheminade dug into the meal, explaining the dishes to Luca as she went. Somehow, the Comte de Beau-Sang had gotten himself placed directly across from Luca, so that they were sharing the same pile of bread along with another figure Luca had not expected to see so soon and in such social circumstances. General Cantic, in a fresh black uniform with a general's golden sleeve, sat to Beau-Sang’s left, across from Cheminade. Cantic wielded her knife and fork surgically, taking small efficient bites and staring intently at her food—except for whenever she glanced at the Sand, who sat beside her. The Sand who had helped stop the assassination attempt yesterday.
Luca had never met one of the conscripts before. The woman wore a lieutenant's double wheat stalks on her collar; not near high enough to accompany Cantic to a meal with the elite Balladairans of the city under normal circumstances. Was she Cantic's protégé? The Sand sat quietly, observing the flow of conversation. She had steady, dark eyes, a sharp jaw, and black hair cut close to the scalp. She easily imitated Cheminade’s unique way of eating the Qazāli food, folding the bread and scooping the chickpeas with tidy efficiency. She seemed completely unflustered by her return to her home country, the almost-assassination, and the hanging.
Luca realized Beau-Sang had asked her a question and was waiting for an answer. His focus was entirely on her. He reminded Luca of an overturned fruit basket: his straw-colored hair, eyes like ripe blueberries, ruddy apple cheeks, and a squashed strawberry of a nose.
"I'm sorry, what was that, monsieur?”
He smiled. "Is Qazāl everything you expected?" His look took in the food, the tables, Cheminade's dining room, which was as full of trophies as the sitting room.
Luca was still grappling with that question herself. Whenever she had thought of her father's addition to the Balladairan empire, she had imagined something more beautiful. More adventurous. More benevolent. The hanging alone was a sharp contrast to those visions, as were the dirty, disheveled masses of people her carriage had navigated through to get here.
"There were some surprises. How often are there hangings like today's?" she asked, rubbing her aching thigh beneath the table. A dull ache throbbed wherever the bones had broken and mended poorly—which was everywhere.
Beau-Sang’s face went grim. "The rebels have been getting bolder, but this is the first attempt on someone’s life, Your Highness. I'd say their numbers are growing. They need a firmer hand or we'll all lose our livelihoods. You, above all, shouldn’t be put at risk.” He looked pointedly at the governor.
Luca glanced at Cantic. The general clenched and unclenched her fist around her knife before stabbing another vegetable. They had done their best to keep knowledge of the attack to those who had been there and those who needed to know: Luca, Cantic, Cheminade. They couldn’t stop gossip that the soldiers and dockworkers spread, though.
Cheminade arched an eyebrow back. "Actually, Your Highness, our execution rates have remained consistent with the last five years or so. There was an increase in rebel activities, but that's why we've asked our dear general to step in. Her experience with the Brigani and the Masridani will be invaluable, I'm sure." Despite Cheminade’s warm tone of voice, there was a bite to her smile that made Luca suspect this wasn’t a compliment.
On Cheminade's other side, someone struggled to suppress a cough. Luca craned around and saw the only other non-Balladairan guest. The Qazāli man clutched his napkin to his face while Cheminade stroked his back intimately and pushed a cup of wine at him. He waved her away. Across from him, the Sand soldier was surprised at their intimacy, too—though she didn’t have the grace to hide her expression, eyes wide, mouth half-open. The general whispered something sharply to her, and the Sand mastered herself.
"My soldiers’ comportment has been exemplary," Cantic responded coldly. She nodded at the soldier beside her. “As you’ve noticed. The lieutenant and her troops will continue to do what must be done."
Luca had never known Cantic intimately, only by reputation as one of the bloodiest, most effective generals in the Balladairan military. Little was based on fact, however; the original, primary reports were mysteriously unavailable, even to Luca—she’d looked. One text credited Cantic only with “Masridan’s expedient surrender.” Whispers spoke of massacre.
Yet, Cantic was one of Guard Captain Gillet’s close friends. She came from a minor noble house that came from the oft-disputed-and-currently-Balladairan region of Moyenne, and many suspected future treachery, but her service record was—almost—impeccable. Luca found it difficult to believe that Gil, with his distaste for so many nobles, would stomach someone so brutal, no matter how effective.
Luca turned the subject slightly. “Which colonial teaching method did you use, then, General? Droitist, I take it?"
Cantic looked surprised, at first, then she frowned in disgust and shook her head. “No. The Droitists are cruel. They have no idea what it takes to run an army, let alone foster loyalty.”
"So, you're a Tailleurist?" Luca asked her.
The older woman stroked her chin with a thumb and Luca wondered if she had looked like this planning the Sands’ lessons years ago, rubbing her face and concentrating over the theories of leadership like Luca had. Luca also wondered if Cantic realized her dear uncle regent was behind the Droitist theories she thought were so ineffective.
“I suppose you could say so. They’re the closest thing. The Tailleurists like their ideas of pruning, and encouraging. I developed a suitable combination of the two, I think. Cut off the most undesirable traits and encourage them in other ways. Look at the orphan schools run by the Droitists in the empire—there’s one in Southern Qazāl, if you ever visit. The children are miserable wretches. Half-starved for the slightest infraction. If the children had a chance to escape, or kill their masters, they’d have no reason not to take it.”
Beau-Sang chuckled heartily enough that his barrel of a torso jostled the table. "General, I never pegged you for a sentimentalist."
The general's lips went tight. “Destroy your soldiers and you make them useless.”
"Nonsense. Look at my boy, here. Richard. Strong Balladairan name.” Beau-Sang snapped once and his personal lackey knelt by his side with a pitcher of wine.
The lackey was a young Qazāli boy, not more than ten years old, with somber brown eyes. As he refilled Beau-Sang’s wine, Luca noticed he was missing two of his fingers. The knuckles were covered in thick scarring.
“He was at one of the Tailleurist charity schools. They’re too soft there. You don’t want them to be useless. If he’d stayed there, he’d finish and still be fit for nothing but begging.”
The young conscript stiffened beside Cantic, arrested mid-bite, and Luca wondered what the soldier thought of her own education. She didn't look half-starved, but the quick, furtive glance she gave Cantic didn't seem so far from the looks the boy with the missing fingers gave Beau-Sang.
"He certainly appears eager to please." Luca tilted her head in acknowledgment; she couldn't bring herself to smile.
Beau-Sang saw where Luca’s eyes lingered. “You wouldn’t tolerate disobedience from a hound, would you? The Lord Regent has the right of it, there. We should be grateful for his ideas.”
Cheminade was murmuring to the Qazāli man beside her. Though Luca couldn't see his face, she saw the tender hand Cheminade placed on top of his darker one, the gentle squeeze.
Luca tapped her fingers idly on her utensils. “We have the perfect example of the two schools of thought. Why not let the lieutenant speak for herself?” She opened her hand to the conscript. Frankly, she had always thought her uncle’s theories a little too stringent, but she’d never had the chance to speak to someone on the practical end of them.
At first, the lieutenant looked startled. Her voice cracked. “I am grateful, Your Highness.” She cleared her throat and tried again. “For the general’s steady hand. Military training, reading and writing. History. It’s an education as good as anyone else in Balladaire, and we’re better soldiers for it. We—the colonials—almost single-handedly held the Taargens out of Moyenne.” The soldier straightened her shoulders and, for once, met everyone’s eye.
Beau-Sang smiled patronizingly at her. “That’s nonsense. Balladaire’s regular regiments were there to support the colonial brigade every step of the way.”
“With respect, sir,” the lieutenant said, leaning forward so that she could see him on Cantic’s other side, “the regular regiments were often unfortunately days, sometimes months late with their support. We fought the Taargens and their priests—”
The general cleared her throat and glared the conscript into silence. Luca was impressed, though. Whatever the general’s strategy had been training the Sands, it seemed to have worked. The lieutenant was articulate, competent, and restrained. Not the most diplomatic, but soldiers weren’t known for their tact.
“I always did say they were trainable,” came a reedy voice from down the table. The dowager de Durfort. “Dogs, just begging for a master.”
It was crude, and typical of her, but Luca didn’t have a chance to react. Cheminade slapped the table sharply. Heads turned and people jumped, causing a wave to ripple across the room.
“Enough,” the governor general said. “I won't welcome you into my home and be treated like this." The look Cheminade gave Beau-Sang was quelling, and the other tables went silent. “An insult to my family is an insult to me.”
“Surely you understand we’re not referring to you, Nasir.” Beau-Sang smiled benignly and dismissed Richard with a wave of his hand. “There are differences in...quality.”
Luca accidentally met the Sand’s gaze. A flare of anger flashed across the other woman’s face before the Sand lowered her gaze back to her plate and popped the knuckles on one hand one finger at a time. That brief burst of confidence that had allowed her to speak had vanished. Luca felt a pang of sympathy.
Trying to head off the murderous look in Cheminade’s eyes, Luca stepped in delicately again. “I’ve also been curious about the stories of Shālan magic. I’d like to read more of the histories.”
Another dismissive wave of Beau-Sang’s large hand. “The time for chasing their so-called magic died with the king.”
Luca’s lips thinned in anger, but an embarrassing flush crept up her cheeks. “I was actually referring to the Second City. I want to see the libraries.”
Cantic chuckled, wiping her face with her napkin. “Not likely, Your Highness. The bridges and docks to Briga and the Second City were destroyed long before we got here. They call it the ‘Cursed City’ now. The one time we went through the trouble of sending soldiers, they came back empty handed. Nothing but dust.” As if an afterthought, Cantic waved behind the walls. “We confiscated books from the temple and there were some in the buildings we converted into guardhouses. One of the aides can show you at your leisure.”
“I see.” Luca was filled with sinking disappointment. Until, surreptitiously, Cheminade caught her eye and winked.
With the practiced grace of a diplomat, Cheminade turned the subject to less consequential matters, like the food and the heat, and Luca let them go on without her. She found herself seeking the boy Richard in the shadows, where he waited with the other lackeys, Balladairan and Qazāli alike. She tried to catch a better glimpse of Cheminade's companion at the table, too, but all she could see of him was a thick, dark, curling beard from the front, and a bald head and narrow shoulders from the back. The Sand never spoke another word unless spoken to, as if she had been ordered to silence.
After dinner, all of the guests retired to the sitting room to mingle. Cheminade deftly encouraged Beau-Sang to find someone else to talk to, while she led Luca and Cantic to a quiet corner. She foisted small silver cups of something dark into their hands. Coffee, a Shālan drink that was already becoming a prized export.
"He's certainly enthusiastic." Luca held her steaming cup of coffee, the dark liquid bitter. It cut through the lingering tastes of the meal.
Cheminade snorted. Her face had gone sour during dinner and hadn't turned cheerful again. "He's enthusiastic about his economic fears," she said. Luca hadn't thought the governor capable of the quiet discretion with which she spoke now. “Nas—Nasir, my husband—hates him. As I’m sure you saw.”
Luca bit her cheek to keep her surprise from her face. Husband. The governor general of the Shālan colonies had married a Qazāli.
“Beau-Sang is right to worry. The city isn't safe. While I work with the Lord Governor to make it safe, Your Highness, I recommend you stay in the Quartier or the compound," said Cantic.
Her tone was one used to obedience and Luca bristled.
“How do you plan to ‘make it safe,’ General? Have you located the rebel leaders?”
Cantic frowned, cradling her cup of café in strong, leathery hands. “I apologize, Your Highness. That's confidential between my officers. Our intelligence must be kept close. We’ve been compromised. Yesterday was proof. The rebels shouldn’t have known you were coming.”
“Do you think I’m going to have myself killed? Or worse, sabotage my empire? I came to help stop the rebellion, General, not sunbathe.” Luca frowned. “Did you get anything useful from the prisoners before they were executed, at least?”
The general’s jaw flexed with her gritted teeth. “Not particularly. Only a few noms de guerre.” She scoffed. “So we put them outside to bake before they hung.”
“Noms de guerre actually sound very useful, General. We’ll talk further soon.”
Yesterday’s attack had startled and, yes, if she had to admit it, frightened her. She wasn’t going to tell General Cantic, though, and she certainly wasn’t going to let it stop her fixing the Qazāli situation. Or stop her research.
Cheminade smiled conspiratorially, almost eager to countermand the general. "I'd also be happy to speak with you anytime. I'll get my books in order, have legible copies made. I look forward to your thoughts on the colonial theorists and your ideas on the situation.”
Cantic scowled and tossed back the last of her drink. Luca caught the general's glance to Gillett behind her. “One last thing, and then I’ll excuse myself.” The general beckoned sharply with one hand and the Sand who had been clinging desperately, awkwardly to the walls of the sitting room, strode over. “Your Highness, allow me to present Lieutenant Touraine of the Balladairan Colonial Brigade, 1st Division, Rose Squad.”
The lieutenant was a little shorter than Luca but broader. Handsome, with a hard jaw line and striking, dark brown eyes. She bowed deeply.
“Your Highness, I’m at your service.” Softer spoken, now.
“Lieutenant.” Luca returned the bow with a gracious nod. “I owe you a debt of gratitude. If there is a boon I can grant you, please ask.”
Always appear generous, Jean Yverte wrote in his aptly titled The Rule of Rule. Small gifts could breed great loyalty.
The soldier bowed again. “It’s honor enough to serve the crown, Your Highness.”
The general bowed stiffly to Luca and barely bent her neck to Cheminade. "Your Highness. Lord Governor. We thank you for your hospitality.”
Cheminade watched the two soldiers walk away, intrigue playing in her eyes.
“What is it?” Luca asked.
“Oh, nothing.” Cheminade smiled mischievously at Luca. “I was just thinking about how useful it would be to have a conscript we could send as an envoy of sorts to the rebels. The general doesn’t like to relinquish control on her troops, but we are just as much a part of the empire as she is.”
Luca smiled back. She was beginning to like this woman’s mischievous eccentricity. It was looser than the rigid Balladairan court. “Isn’t that what ambassadors are for?”
“Indeed. I just find that the Qazāli don’t trust people who look like us as much. Too many like a certain comte. Plus, she’s a trained soldier.” Cheminade shrugged. “Anylight, plenty of time to talk about that later. Please, Your Highness. Make yourself at home.”
For the rest of the evening, nobles and merchants presented themselves to her. Though she waited all night for the chance to meet Cheminade’s husband, she only received Cheminade’s apology.
“Nas is…distressed, Your Highness.” The other woman looked away, up toward the bedrooms. Concern was plain on her open face. “Perhaps another time. A more private dinner. It would be my honor to host you again, for dinner or for any questions. Nothing is too silly or uncivilized for me. I’m also looking forward to your welcome ball.”
A surprising warmth spread through her, and not just because Cheminade hinted that she was interested in talking about Shālan magic. She finally had a peer. Someone with the same curiosities, who wouldn’t make Luca feel ashamed of them, or herself.
Less than one full day in Qazāl, and she had an ally.
By the time she returned to her own sitting room, however, she had already begun second guessing her interpretations.
“Gil. Do they all think I’m a fool?” Luca asked over her shoulder.
She stood at the wide window that overlooked the streets of the Quartier. The townhouses in the Balladairan district were small, and hers was no exception. It was made of stone from Beau-Sang’s quarry, with a door of imported lumber. There was little to recommend it from the outside. No garden, no escape from the sky-falling heat, not even an awning or umbrella. It sat, instead, in a patch of colorless dirt; it was shuttered tight against the warmth. It was a young construction, though, barely a decade old compared to homes built by the first Balladairans to delve roots into the colony. It had all the modern flourishes one could expect so far from home.
Still, she found it cozy rather than cramped. She kept a small, trusted staff and had a room for her office with a desk and most of her books. That’s all she really needed.
That, and the confidence of the local ministers.
Luca didn’t have to turn around to see Gil’s flat stare of disapproval.
“Take Cheminade. Is she just humoring me? Playing on my enthusiasms? What does she want?”
The captain of her guard, her chief advisor, her second father joined her at the window. His boots were quiet on the thick carpet. He clasped his hands behind his back under his gold cloak. Gil had been King Roland’s guard captain and lover until the Withering Death took the king and queen. Gil hadn’t left her side since.
A smile broke his weathered face into even more lines. “I think Governor Cheminade is smitten with you. I’m sure it’s been a while since she had another scholar of her caliber to talk to.”
“You know her?”
“Not well. Mostly I remember Roland muttering arguments as they wrote back and forth about the colonies.”
“And Cantic? I know she’s your friend. I saw that look she gave you.” Her voice went sharp, and she side-eyed Gil. The general’s “recommendations” for her safety still needled her.
“She’s one of the crown’s most loyal and competent officers, Luca. And sky above, she’s not wrong. The rebels tried to kill you yesterday. You need to stay safe.”
“Which crown is she loyal to?” Luca turned to meet Gil’s eyes.
He huffed into his thick gray mustache. “There’s only one crown.”
Luca shook her head, sighing heavily. “Not right now. There’s the legal, inherited claim, and there’s the one sitting on the actual seat. Right now, we’re all pretending it’s all right and that we’ll reconcile the two into one, but—be honest, Gil.
“If I don’t solve the problem here, do you think Nicolas will be so eager to move his ass? If I don’t fix Qazāl, we’ll have a succession trial at best. I know how that will go. We’re not the first royal family to have a contested succession. Not even the first Ancier.” Luca snorted and gestured out the window. “And all of that assumes I’m not murdered here.”
Gil clasped an arm around her shoulder and pulled her into his side. “I’ll never let that happen.”
The hug comforted Luca and made her feel too small at the same time. She straightened out of it and pulled her frustration closer instead.
“I feel like the general wants to push me out of the way, like I’m too stupid to know what I’m doing—or to learn.”
And why wouldn’t the general assume that? An untested queen—no, a princess, who hasn’t governed anything unrulier than a library and a pen by anyone else’s knowledge. That’s why her uncle, the regent, had sent her to this sun-scorched desert in the first place. “To gain experience,” Uncle Nicolas had said, “before taking the crown.” Behind it, though, was the possibility that she would fail. That she would make an utter a mess of it and he could make a case to the nobles that she wasn’t fit to rule. It wouldn’t be the first time one Ancier had disposed of another like that.
“I have to be the one to fix this,” Luca murmured as she looked out of the window.
The Quartier was only a brief strip of desert away from where the soldiers lived and one cog of her empire turned. Beyond that, she could imagine, far distant, the night noise of the city. Just beyond the city flowed the River Hadd, and beyond the Hadd, the ruins of the Second City. Somewhere in the Second City was the Scorpion Library. The First Library.
And maybe the secrets of the Shālan magic that could help her rule one day. The magic that her father had never managed to claim. The magic that might have saved his life.
Luca ran a finger along the stone sill of the window. It was cool to the touch. “I’m twenty-eight years old, Gillett. I should have been crowned this year. The only reason I agreed to this test of his is so we don’t end up mired in another ten-year civil war. You know I have as strong a grasp of strategy and economics as Nicolas. I’ve read everything there is to read. I’ve been tutored in Shālan since before I could walk.” She turned to him, her voice low and bitter. “He’s too excited to test his Droitist this, or Droitist that. Every corner of the empire will be like this if he’s not careful.” She gestured back to the city, as if she could point directly at the gallows and the hanged rebels.
“I know, Luca.” He tried to soothe her with his own murmurs, his rough hands rubbing her shoulders. “You’re going to need people to do this, though. The right people.”
Luca made a delicate, peeved sound in her throat. “The right people?”
“Like Cheminade. Cantic. Even Beau-Sang. Never overlook a good weapon.”
Luca grunted and rolled her eyes. Later, however, her thoughts drifted to the handsome conscript. Perhaps she would make a good weapon, too.