Saladin Ahmed has been a finalist for the Nebula and Campbell Awards, and now at last his debut fantasy novel, Throne of the Crescent Moon, is here. Check out the prologue and first chapter of the book, in which the last great Ghul-hunter faces the fact that he might just be getting too old for this life.
Top image: cover art by Jason Chan.
Nine days. Beneficent God, I beg you, let this be the day I die!
The guardsman's spine and neck were warped and bent but still he lived. He'd been locked in the red lacquered box for nine days. He'd seen the days' light come and go through the lid-crack. Nine days.
He held them close as a handful of dinars. Counted them over and over. Nine days. Nine days. Nine days. If he could remember this until he died he could keep his soul whole for God's sheltering embrace.
He had given up on remembering his name.
The guardsman heard soft footsteps approach, and he began to cry. Every day for nine days the gaunt, black-bearded man in the dirty white kaftan had appeared. Every day he cut the guardsman, or burned him. But worst was when the guardsman was made to taste the others' pain.
The gaunt man had flayed a young marsh girl, pinning the guardsman's eyes open so he had to see the girl's skin curl out under the knife. He'd burned a Badawi boy alive and held back the guardsman's head so the choking smoke would enter his nostrils. The guardsman had been forced to watch the broken and burned bodies being ripped apart as the gaunt man's ghuls fed on heart-flesh. He'd watched as the gaunt man's servant-creature, that thing made of shadows and jackal skin, had sucked something shimmering from those freshly dead corpses, leaving them with their hearts torn out and their empty eyes glowing red.
These things had almost shaken the guardsman's mind loose. Almost. But he would remember. Nine days. Nine . . . . All-Merciful God, take me from this world!
The guardsman tried to steady himself. He'd never been a man to whine and wish for death. He'd taken beatings and blade wounds with gritted teeth. He was a strong man. Hadn't he guarded the Khalif himself once? What matter that his name was lost to him now?
Though I walk a wilderness of ghuls and wicked djenn, no fear can . . . no fear can . . . He couldn't remember the rest of the scripture. Even the Heavenly Chapters had slipped from him.
The box opened in a painful blaze of light. The gaunt man in the filthy kaftan appeared before him. Beside the gaunt man stood his servant, that thing-part shadow, part jackal, part cruel man-that called itself Mouw Awa. The guardsman screamed.
As always the gaunt man said nothing. But the shadow-thing's voice echoed in the guardsman's head.
Listen to Mouw Awa, who speaketh for his blessed friend. Thou art an honored guardsman. Begat and born in the Crescent Moon Palace. Thou art sworn in the name of God to defend it. All of those beneath thee shall serve.
The words were a slow, probing drone in his skull. His mind swooned in a terror-trance.
Yea, thy fear is sacred! Thy pain shall feed his blessed friend's spells. Thy beating heart shall feed his blessed friend's ghuls. Then Mouw Awa the manjackal shall suck thy soul from thy body! Thou hast seen the screaming and begging and bleeding the others have done. Thou hast seen what will happen to thee soon.
From somewhere a remembered scrap of a grandmother's voice came to the guardsman. Old tales of the power cruel men could cull from a captive's fear or an innocent's gruesome slaying. Fear-spells. Pain-spells. He tried to calm himself, to deny the man in the dirty kaftan this power.
Then he saw the knife. The guardsman had come to see the gaunt man's sacrifice knife as a living thing, its blade-curve an angry eye. He soiled himself and smelled his own filth. He'd done so many times already in these nine days.
The gaunt man, still saying nothing, began making small cuts. The knife bit into the guardsman's chest and neck, and he screamed again, pulling against bonds he'd forgotten were there.
As the gaunt man cut him, the shadow-thing whispered in the guardsman's mind. It recalled to him all the people and places that he loved, restored whole scrolls of his memory. Then it told stories of what would soon come. Ghuls in the streets. All the guardsman's family and friends, all of Dhamsawaat, drowning in a river of blood. The guardsman knew these were not lies.
He could feel the gaunt man feeding off of his fear, but he couldn't help himself. He felt the knife dig into his skin and heard whispered plans to take the Throne of the Crescent Moon, and he forgot how many days he'd been there. Who was he? Where was he? There was nothing within him but fear-for himself and his city.
Then there was nothing but darkness.
Dhamsawaat, King of Cities, Jewel of Abassen
A thousand thousand men pass through and pass in
Packed patchwork of avenues, alleys, and walls
Such bookshops and brothels, such schools and such stalls
I've wed all your streets, made your night air my wife
For he who tires of Dhamsawaat tires of life
Doctor Adoulla Makhslood, the last real ghul hunter in the great city of Dhamsawaat, sighed as he read the lines. His own case, it seemed, was the opposite. He often felt tired of life, but he was not quite done with Dhamsawaat. After threescore and more years on God's great earth, Adoulla found that his beloved birth city was one of the few things he was not tired of. The poetry of Ismi Shihab was another.
To be reading the familiar lines early in the morning in this newly crafted book made Adoulla feel younger-a welcome feeling. The smallish tome was bound with brown sheepleather, and Ismi Shihab's Leaves of Palm was etched into the cover with good golden acid. It was a very expensive book, but Hafi the bookbinder had given it to Adoulla free of charge. It had been two years since Adoulla saved the man's wife from a cruel magus's water ghuls, but Hafi was still effusively thankful.
Adoulla closed the book gently and set it aside. He sat outside of Yehyeh's, his favorite teahouse in the world, alone at a long stone table. His dreams last night had been grisly and vivid-blood-rivers, burning corpses, horrible voices-but the edge of their details had dulled upon waking. Sitting in this favorite place, face over a bowl of cardamom tea, reading Ismi Shihab, Adoulla almost managed to forget his nightmares entirely.
The table was hard against Dhamsawaat's great Mainway, the broadest and busiest thoroughfare in all the Crescent Moon Kingdoms. Even at this early hour, people half-crowded the Mainway. A few of them glanced at Adoulla's impossibly white kaftan as they passed, but most took no notice of him. Nor did he pay them much mind. He was focused on something more important.
Adoulla leaned his face farther over the small bowl and inhaled deeply, needing its aromatic cure for the fatigue of life. The spicy-sweet cardamom steam enveloped him, moistening his face and his beard, and for the first time that groggy morning he felt truly alive.
When he was outside of Dhamsawaat, stalking bone ghuls through cobwebbed catacombs or sand ghuls across dusty plains, he often had to settle for chewing sweet-tea root. Such campfireless times were hard, but as a ghul hunter Adoulla was used to working within limits. When one faces two ghuls, waste no time wishing for fewer was one of the adages of his antiquated order. But here at home, in civilized Dhamsawaat, he felt he was not really a part of the world until he'd had his cardamom tea.
He raised the bowl to his lips and sipped, relishing the piquant sweetness. He heard Yehyeh's shuffling approach, smelled the pastries his friend was bringing. This, Adoulla thought, was life as Beneficent God intended it.
Yehyeh set his own teabowl and a plate of pastries on the stone table with two loud clinks, then slid his wiry frame onto the bench beside Adoulla. Adoulla had long marveled that the cross-eyed, limping teahouse owner could whisk and clatter bowls and platters about with such efficiency and so few shatterings. A matter of practice, he supposed. Adoulla knew better than most that habit could train a man to do anything.
Yehyeh smiled broadly, revealing the few teeth left to him.
He gestured at the sweets. "Almond nests-the first of the day, before I've even opened my doors. And God save us from fat friends who wake us too early!"
Adoulla waved a hand dismissively. "When men reach our age, my friend, we should wake before the sun. Sleep is too close to death for us."
Yehyeh grunted. "So says the master of the half-day nap! And why this dire talk again, huh? You've been even gloomier than usual since your last adventure."
Adoulla plucked up an almond nest and bit it in half. He chewed loudly and swallowed, staring into his teabowl while Yehyeh waited for his reply. Finally Adoulla spoke, though he did not look up.
"Gloomy? Hmph. I have cause to be. Adventure, you say? A fortnight ago I was face-to-face with a living bronze statue that was trying to kill me with an axe. An axe, Yehyeh!" He shook his head at his own wavering tea-reflection. "Threescore years old, and still I'm getting involved in such madness. Why?" he asked, looking up.
Yehyeh shrugged. "Because God the All-Knowing made it so. You've faced such threats and worse before, my friend. You may look like the son of the bear who screwed the buzzard, but you're the only real ghul hunter left in this whole damned-by-God city, O Great and Virtuous Doctor."
Yehyeh was baiting him by using the pompous honorifics ascribed to a physician. The ghul hunters had shared the title of "Doctor" but little else with the "Great and Virtuous" menders of the body. No leech-wielding charlatan of a physician could stop the fanged horrors that Adoulla had battled.
"How would you know what I look like, Six Teeth? You whose crossed eyes can see nothing but the bridge of your own nose!" Despite Adoulla's dark thoughts, trading the familiar insults with Yehyeh felt comfortable, like a pair of old, well made sandals. He brushed almond crumbs from his fingers onto his spotless kaftan. Magically, the crumbs and honey spots slid from his blessedly unstainable garment to the ground.
"You are right, though," he continued, "I have faced worse. But this . . . this . . ." Adoulla slurped his tea. The battle against the bronzeman had unnerved him. The fact that he had needed his assistant Raseed's sword arm to save him was proof that he was getting old. Even more disturbing was the fact that he'd been daydreaming of death during the fight. He was tired. And when one was hunting monsters, tired was a step away from dead. "The boy saved my fat ass. I'd be dead if not for him." It wasn't easy to admit.
"Your young assistant? No shame in that. He's a dervish of the Order! That's why you took him in, right? For his forked sword-‘cleaving the right from the wrong' and all that?"
"It's happened too many times of late," Adoulla said. "I ought to be retired. Like Dawoud and his wife." He sipped and then was quiet for a long moment. "I froze, Yehyeh. Before the boy came to my rescue. I froze. And do you know what I was thinking? I was thinking that I would never get to do this again-sit at this table with my face over a bowl of good cardamom tea."
Yehyeh bowed his head, and Adoulla thought his friend's eyes might be moist. "You would have been missed. But the point is that you did make it back here, praise be to God."
"Aye. And why, Six Teeth, don't you say to me ‘Now stay home, you old fart?' That is what a real friend would say to me!"
"There are things you can do, O Buzzard-Beaked Bear, that others can't. And people need your help. God has called you to this life. What can I say that will change that?" Yehyeh's mouth tightened and his brows drew down. "Besides, who says home is safe? That madman the Falcon Prince is going to burn this city down around our ears any day now, mark my words."
They had covered this subject before. Yehyeh had little use for the treasonous theatrics of the mysterious master thief who called himself the Falcon Prince. Adoulla agreed that the "Prince" was likely mad, but he still found himself approving of the would-be usurper. The man had stolen a great deal from the coffers of the Khalif and rich merchants, and much of that money found its way into the hands of Dhamsawaat's poorest-sometimes hand delivered by the Falcon Prince himself.
Yehyeh sipped his tea and went on. "He killed another of the Khalif's headsmen last week, you know. That's two now." He shook his head. "Two agents of the Khalif's justice, murdered."
Adoulla snorted. "‘Khalif's justice'? Now there are two words that refuse to share a tent! That piece of shit isn't half as smart a ruler as his father was, but he's twice as cruel. Is it justice to let half the city starve while that greedy son of a whore sits on his brocaded cushions eating peeled grapes? Is it justice to-"
Yehyeh rolled his crossed eyes, a grotesque sight. "No speeches, please. No wonder you like the villain-you've both got big mouths! But I tell you, my friend, I'm serious. This city can't hold a man like that and one like the new Khalif at the same time. We are heading for battle in the streets. Another civil war."
Adoulla scowled. "May it please God to forbid it."
Yehyeh stood up, stretched, and clapped Adoulla on the back. "Aye. May All-Merciful God put old men like us quietly in our graves before this storm hits." The cross-eyed man did not look particularly hopeful of this. He squeezed Adoulla's shoulder. "Well. I'll let you get back to your book, O Gamal of the Golden Glasses."
Adoulla groaned. Back when he'd been a street brawling youth on Dead Donkey Lane, he himself had used the folktale hero's name to tease boys who read. He'd learned better in the decades since. He placed a hand protectively over his book. "You should not contemn poetry, my friend. There's wisdom in these lines. About life, death, one's own fate."
"No doubt!" Yehyeh aped the act of reading a nonexistent book in the air before him, running a finger over the imaginary words and speaking in a grumble that was an imitation of Adoulla's own. "O, how hard it is to be so fat! O, how hard it is to have so large a nose! O Beneficent God, why do the children run a-screaming when I come a-walking?"
Before Adoulla could come up with a rejoinder on the fear Yehyeh's own crossed eyes inspired in children, the teahouse owner limped off, chuckling obscenities to himself.
His friend was right about one thing: Adoulla was, praise God, alive and back home-back in the Jewel of Abassen, the city with the best tea in the world. Alone again at the long stone table, he sat and sipped and watched early morning Dhamsawaat come to life and roll by. A thick necked cobbler walked past, two long poles strung with shoes over his shoulder. A woman from Rughal-ba strode by, a bouquet in her hands, and the long trail of her veil flapping behind. A lanky young man with a large book in his arms and patches in his kaftan moved idly eastward.
As he stared out onto the street, Adoulla's nightmare suddenly reasserted itself with such force that he could not move or speak. He was walking-wading-through Dhamsawaat's streets, waist high in a river of blood. His kaftan was soiled with gore and filth. Everything was tinted red-the color of the Traitorous Angel. An unseen voice, like a jackal howling human words, clawed at his mind. And all about him the people of Dhamsawaat lay dead and disemboweled.
Name of God!
He forced himself to breathe. He watched the men and women on the Mainway, very much alive and going about their business. There were no rivers of blood. No jackal howls. His kaftan was clean.
Adoulla took another deep breath. Just a dream. The world of sleep invading my days, he told himself. I need a nap.
He took a second-to-last slurp of tea, savoring all of the subtle spices that Yehyeh layered beneath the cardamom. He shook off his grim thoughts as best he could and stretched his legs for the long walk home.
He was still stretching when he saw his assistant, Raseed, emerge from the alley on the teahouse's left. Raseed strode toward him, dressed as always in the impeccable blue silk habit of the Order of Dervishes. The holy warrior pulled a large parcel behind him, something wrapped in gray rags.
No, not something. Someone. A long-haired little boy of perhaps eight years. With blood on his clothes. O please, no. Adoulla's stomach clenched up. Merciful God help me, what now? Adoulla reached deep and somehow found the strength to set down his teabowl and rise to his feet.