With his heart beating loudly in his ears, the young man stumbled on, his eyes wide and wild as his breath came in snatches.
“Keep going, Your Majesty! Don’t stop!”
Your Majesty. That was what they called him now, the few who raced on with him, and even though he’d heard them call him that over and over, he still couldn’t accept it, for it was only just that very morning that he was still fourth in line for the throne, and now, he was all that was left of his family.
As one, the men about him dove for cover, a firm hand grabbing him by the arm and pulling him deep into the shadows, and with bated breath, he and the six men with him raised their gaze skywards, their hearts pounding loudly in their chest as they watched a feathered beast soar past overhead. Then another. And then two more. Then, after what seemed like an eternity, the eldest of the seven stepped from the shadows, the spear in his hand gripped tight as he scanned beyond the canopy above them, the moon’s rays glittering off the chainmail adorning him and revealing the tattered and muddied cape upon his back.
“Go!” he hissed at last, and as one, the men darted forth to continue their mad dash through the woods.
“Karim,” whispered the one who’d dragged the young man into the shadows and was now racing alongside him, his one word pulling the young sultan’s gaze to him. “Are you alright?”
Young Karim moved to speak, but could not form his words.
Karim’s young friend grinned and turned his gaze forward. “Don’t you worry, we’ll get you out of here. One way or another.”
In response, the young sultan’s gaze wandered to the vivid scar that ran down his friend’s face, robbing him of his right eye, and as he stared, he felt the deep gash in his scalp begin to throb once more.
“You just hang in there, alright?” Karim’s friend continued. “No matter what happens, you have to survive. With you, we can rally our people. Without you, all is lost.”
The young sultan moved to speak, but said nary a word, swallowing hard instead as he turned forwards.
“We’re almost there, Your Majesty!” hissed one of the man at the fore. “I can see the ravine!”
“Oh, thank the gods!” Karim’s friend replied.
“Do you think Faruk made it?” asked another.
“He’d better,” replied a third. “We have no way of crossing the ravine on foot.”
“Boys…” the man at the lead growled. “This is not time to let your emotions rules you. We’re not out of this yet. Do not forget the open grassland between us and the ravine. We’ll worry about Faruk when we get to the ravine, but for now, focus!”
“Oh, leave off, Menes,” another of the men threw back. “This isn’t the Academy, and we’ve all earned our scars.”
“Yeah,” answered another. “And besides—”
“Quiet!” the grizzled warrior snapped.
Falling silent, the men hurried to the edge of the woods within which they’d raced, and slowing, they stepped out into the open, spears at the ready, their ears pricked to hurting as they scanned their surroundings.
They saw no-one.
“Go!” the grizzled warrior barked, and as one, the men raced for the ravine.
“Where’s Faruk?” Karim’s friend soon added as the ravine loomed closer. “I don’t see him.”
“We’ll worry about him at the ravine,” the grizzled warrior snarled.
“But we can’t—”
“At the ravine! Now, hurry!”
Karim’s gaze drifted between the men, and what he saw in their eyes sent the fear coursing through him to ever greater heights.
“Why do we need—” he began.
But then, a shrill cry rang out, freezing the men’s blood in their veins, and before they could even so much as think, eight winged beasts took to the skies from the ravine, the moon’s rays shimmering off the armour of the riders upon them.
“Back!” the grizzled warrior barked, though he needn’t have bothered, for the men had already turned to race back the way they’d come.
Except it was too late, for barely had they gone five paces when archers sprang up from the tall grass, their bows nocked and drawn.
“Form!” the grizzled warrior thundered, and in response, the men darted forth and encircled their sultan.
“Damn it!” spat Karim’s friend.
“How in the hells did they find us?” hissed another.
“They didn’t find us,” the grizzled warrior snarled, “they were waiting for us.”
“What?” Karim gasped. “But—”
“Steady, boy,” the warrior muttered, “we’re not beaten yet.”
“I’m impressed,” boomed a voice from the skies, drawing the men’s gaze to one of the winged birds hovering overhead, and the woman seated atop the one closest. “For you to make this this far… You truly are the greatest warriors this land has to offer. But this is as far as you go.”
“Any ideas, Menes?” muttered one of the seven.
“I’m thinking…” the warrior muttered, his eyes darting every which way. “I’m thinking…”
“I know Prince Karim still lives…” the voice continued, her words freezing the young sultan’s soul as the men gripped their spears even tighter.
“…your friend, Faruk, told us everything. Surrender the prince, and I may show you leniency. Refuse, and I shall send you to your friend. But make no mistake, the prince’s head will be mine, and any who stands in my way will share his fate!”
“Father…” Karim’s friend pressed.
“I…” Menes muttered as he scanned his surroundings, desperate for a way out. Then, the old warrior breathed deep and stood tall, his gaze as steel as he turned to face the riders square.
“Karim,” he whispered, “your sceptre. Can you sneak it into Amon’s belt without these bastards seeing?”
“What?” Karim frowned. “What do you mean, what’re you—”
“She wants a prince,“ Amon said, staring at his father, his gaze as dark as the old man, then turned to his friend, a soft smile upon his lips. “So we’ll give her one.”
“No! Amon!” Karim hissed. “She’ll kill you!”
“Better me than you.”
“No, damn it, you can’t—”
“We’re not getting out of this one, Karim,” Menes growled. “However much you wish otherwise, this is where it ends. For us. You, on the other hand, must live. If we die here, nothing changes. If you die here, our people will be forever lost.”
“We’re out of time, boy. That bitch isn’t stupid. The more you dither, the more she’ll begin to suspect you’re the one she’s after. Give. Amon. The sceptre. Now!”
Karim knew in his heart the old warrior spoke the truth, but that did little to stop a crushing wave of nauseating guilt from washing over him.
“You know what!” Amon barked at last, standing tall and stepping before his sultan. “I’m done hiding! If this bitch wants my head so badly, let her come take it! On me!”
“Sire!” the others roared and formed about the warrior.
“No, Amon,” Karim began as he reached for his friend, “you can’t—” but his words were cut short by the heavy hand that fell upon his shoulder.
“Be quiet!” Menes seethed, “Amon is doing his duty, do yours! Or do you wish us all to die here for nothing?”
Karim turned to the warrior, but he knew not what to say.
“When we charge, I’ll trip you. Stay down and don’t move till it’s over.”
Still, the young sultan could not form his words.
“Amon!” Amon barked. “My sceptre. Now!”
“Oh?” the rider said, the mirth in her voice unmistakable. “A decoy? I’m impressed. For a moment, I felt sure the one skulking behind you was the true prince.”
“You’ll pay for what you’ve done to my family, bitch,” Amon seethed in response. “You’ll pay with your life!”
“Now, Karim,” Menes whispered. “Or we die in vain.”
Swallowing hard, his eyes glistening, Karim reached at last for the Sceptre of Kings, and gritting his teeth hard against the tears welling up within him, he drew forth the sceptre from beneath his cape and, raising Amon’s cape, slipped it into his belt.
“Goodbye, Karim,” Amon whispered. “Live well.”
The young Karim moved to speak, but the pain in his heart was too much to bear.
Breathing deep, the Pretend King let out a deep sigh, and stood as tall as he could, and as a fierce snarl twisted his lips, he gripped his spear tight and breathed deep once more.
“Charge!” the young warrior bellowed, and as one, the men charged forth, a single battle cry upon their lips. Save one.
Sitting with his nose a hair’s breadth from the window of the carriage he sat in, young Behzad sighed as he stared at sights unseen. Try as he might, he couldn’t keep his mind from the nightmare he was riding towards, and the more he thought about it, the lower his heart sank, but even he knew, when the Shah summoned, there was no ignoring the summons, nevermind the occasion.
“But still,” he sighed, “anything but this?”
“What was that?” growled a voice from behind.
Sitting tall, the young man turned to the woman seated beside him, forcing a smile to his lips as he shook his head. “Nothing, Mother.”
“Leave him be, Farah,” the man at the other end of the carriage added. “You and I both knew he’d hate the whole affair, no sense in rubbing his nose in it.”
“Rubbing his…” the woman gasped before rounding on her husband. “Why must you always defend him? Have you forgotten how serious this whole affair…”
Shaking his head, young Behzad sighed and returned his gaze to what lay beyond his window, his mother’s words fading into the background. His father was right, he hated being in the carriage. His clothes itched, the powder about his eyes itched, his feet were sore, and he was utterly miserable, but all that paled to what he was set to endure at the palace. Every fibre of his being wished for some miracle, anything, to make them turn back. And yet, the carriage rolled forth still.
Then, at last, the carriage began to slow as the familiar sights of that which surrounded the palace rolled past.
Sighing once more, the young man sat up.
“Yes, Mother?” he said, turning to his mother.
“Don’t you use that tone with me, young man!” the woman snapped. “It’s bad enough I’ll have to sit there and listen to that Daria prattle on about her daughter’s war spoils…”
It took all Behzad had to not roll his eyes at his mother.
“…but I will not have you give her more things to look down her blasted nose at me about. Honestly, why can’t you be more like—”
“Farah,” Behzad’s husband interjected, “we’ve spoken about this. Comparing Behzad to Mona serves no purpose. The gods saw fit to bless Daria with a child that has war in her blood, and you with a child that prefers the arts. If you compare the two, you—”
“Yes, yes, I’m showing ingratitude, I know,” the seated woman muttered, waving her husband’s words away as her cheeks reddened slightly. “Though, it wouldn’t hurt if he actually tried, now, would it? I mean—”
The seated woman glared at her husband, but uttered no words, and instead, turned forward and began muttering under her breath.
Turning to his son, Behzad’s father smiled and winked at him before turning to the window beside him, and as he too turned, young Behzad couldn’t help but smile.
Then, the moment came, and as the carriage rolled past the grand gate of the royal palace, Behzad slowly sat tall.
“I suppose there’s no avoiding this.” He sighed.
Before long, the doors of the carriage were swung open, and forcing a smile, the young man stepped forth.
“Ah, Farah!” came a cry from across the yard as the carriage pulled away. “You’re here!”
“Oh, gods,” Behzad heard his mother growl as he turned to the utterer.
“What in the world is she doing out here?” he heard his father mutter as he watched the procession in the distance make its way towards them, the noblewoman at its fore grinning from ear to ear. “It’s her daughter’s big triumph!”
“What do you think?” Behzad’s mother hissed. “She’s here to rub our faces in it all.”
“Daria! Darling!” Behzad’s mother added, raising her voice as she stepped forth, her lips parted by a smile as wide as the approaching noblewoman’s as she held out her arms as if eager to embrace a loving friend.
“Gods, they’ve already started,” Behzad muttered at last.
“Tell me about it,” Behzad’s father growled as another carriage pulled up behind them.
“Let’s get this over with, then,” Behzad sighed and squared his shoulders before making to step forth.
“Actually, Behzad,” Behzad’s father muttered, his words, halting his son, “how about you go see to the slaves with Reza and the others? I’ll create a distraction, you slip away.”
Behzad frowned, turning to his father. “You know I hate going to those things. Besides, Mother’ll have my head!”
Behzad’s father smiled and nodded slightly at the embracing women. “Would you rather be a party to that?”
Behzad turned to the women. Even at his distance, he could sense the dreadful aura about them despite their warm smiles.
“Count to five?” he soon said.
Behzad’s father’s smile widened. “Count to five. Ready?”
“Yeah.” Behzad nodded, grinning as he turned to his father.
“Good.” His father nodded, then stepped forth. “One…two…”
Walking between the many cages, Behzad held his breath as he fought against the overwhelming stench in the air.
“Gods, I hate these things,” he muttered, his face screwed in disgust.
“You know, you really don’t have to come,” the servant walking behind him replied. “Ashraf and I can complete this easily enough. We know what’s needed for the household.”
Smiling, Behzad turned to the servant. “For the thousandth time, I’m not here to question your judgement, Reza. I’m just…here to learn!”
The stone-faced servant was unconvinced, and it showed.
“Anyway,” Behzad continued, scanning the cages about them, “what about those ones?”
“Hrm?” Reza muttered, turning to where his master’s son pointed.
“No.” He shook his head at last. “They’re sickly.”
“Oh?” Behzad frowned, turning to the man.
“Yes.” Reza nodded. “Their wounds look infected. No, we need someone who can work, not someone Donya will spend all her time tending.”
“Oh,” Behzad muttered before carrying his gaze about them as they went.
“Those ones look promising, though,” Reza soon added, nodding at a large cage to the side along the path they trod.
Hurrying, the group made their way towards the large cage, and as they reached it, young Behzad fell behind the others, a wooden smile upon his lips as Reza and Ashraf approached the traders by the cage, the two men jostling past those that had already gathered to make their offer for some slaves.
Stepping to the side, Behzad sighed and turned his attention to the cage, and as he stared at those within, his smile began to fade. Spoils of war, that’s what everyone saw them as. That and nothing more. It was a thought that turned his stomach each time it surfaced.
“You’d think we’d be beyond this by now,” he growled.
But then, as he sighed and made to turn from the cage, his gaze fell upon a lone man sitting in the far corner, his eyes upon the little girl seated beside him, and the more Behzad stared at the man, the more his heart grew heavy. There was a melancholy about him, a sadness that, even in a place as dire and wretched as they were in, stood far and above everything else, and the more Behzad stared, the more his heart bled.
Then the man raised his gaze and their eyes met.
At first, Behzad knew not what to do, but the man’s stare was unflinching, filled in equal measure with longing and despair. Crossing his hands behind him, he wandered towards the cage and gestured for the man to come closer.
At first, the man hesitated, but a gentle poke from the girl saw him on his way, and in silence, Behzad watched him pick his way carefully past the other slaves till he stood before Behzad, then bowed slightly.
“Your name,” Behzad said.
“Amon, my lord,” the man said.
“Amon…” Behzad muttered. “Were you a soldier or common folk?”
“Soldier, my lord,” the man replied, bowing once more as he spoke.
“Hm.” Behzad sniffed. “You can’t be very good if you’re in there.”
“As opposed to where, dead?”
It was the defiance in those words that struck Behzad the hardest, and it took him a full moment to accept those truly were the words of a slave.
“Forgive me,” the man added, lowering his gaze and bowing his head.
“Are you always this rude?” Behzad demanded.
The slave shook his head.
“I’m sorry, my lord,” came a small voice from the man’s side, pulling Behzad’s gaze to the little girl who had appeared beside him.
“He doesn’t mean anything by it,” she continued, an earnest smile upon her lips. “He just talks without thinking sometimes, that’s all.”
“And who might you be?” Behzad demanded.
“Bahiti, my lord,” the young girl replied, bowing and curtsying as she spoke.
“Hrm…” Behzad muttered, turning to the man once more.
“Who did you—” he soon began.
“Behzad!” came a loud cry, and of a voice that stilled young Behzad’s heart and drew all the blood from his face.
With eyes wide, he slowly turned, and as he beheld the entourage heading towards him, he swallowed hard and forced a smile to his lips.
“Mother!” he said, his gaze upon the woman at the fore, hurrying towards him. “What brings you here?”
“Don’t you take that tone with me, young man,” the seething woman hissed as she reached her son. “What are you doing here?”
“Ah, there you are, Behzad,” said the woman following close behind his mother.
Keeping firm of his smile, Behzad turned to the utterer.
“I was so looking forward to seeing again,” the woman continued as the others gathered around them. “I thought you of all people would be glad of my triumph. But when your parents showed up, you weren’t there. Then my servants told me they saw you here of all places. Did I slight you in some way?”
Breathing deep, Behzad warmed his smile as best he could as he stared at the woman before him. A few months younger than he, hers was a beauty that was known far and wide. Coupled with her boundless charm and endless elegance, this was a woman who was a darling to all who knew her. Except those who knew her well.
“Hello, Mona,” Behzad replied, standing tall. “No, you haven’t slighted me.”
“Good.” Mona grinned, “I was beginning to worry.” Then her grin faded as he turned to the cage. “But why would you choose the company of slaves of me. And cowards at that.”
“It’s alright, my dear,” said the young woman’s mother as she stepped out aside her daughter, a comforting hand upon her daughter’s shoulder. “Even childhood friends can be taken with envy. It’s quite natural, I mean—”
“Envy?” Behzad’s mother gasped, and though her smile had returned, the fierceness of her gaze told a different tale. “Are you sure you should be mentioning envy of all things, I mean—”
“You’re right, Daria,” came a voice from behind the pair, drawing everyone’s gaze to Behzad’s father as he made his way towards this family, “even childhood friends can be taken with envy. You more than anyone here would know that, wouldn’t you?”
“What did you say?” Daria frowned.
“I mean,” Behzad’s father continued, an easy smile upon his lips, “take a look around. All this is your Mona’s doing. There are men who’ve served the empire all their lives and have never achieved such a victory. Hells, many of our Warmasters did not claim their first kingdom for the empire till well past their fortieth spring. And yet, here we are, celebrating Mona’s first triumph while memories of the celebration of her thirtieth is still fresh in our minds. You must be the envy of all your friends.”
“Yes, well,” the woman continued, standing tall and raising her chin to Behzad’s father. “It’s not everyone who’s been blessed with as special a child as our Mona.”
“Indeed!” Behzad’s father grinned, turning to the woman. “Your accomplishments here cannot be understated, Mona, by any margin. It’s been an age since any woman has risen up our military’s ranks as high as you have, and after this victory, it’s only a matter of when the Shah names you his next Warmaster, not if, I’m sure.”
“Oh, I don’t know about all that, sir,” Mona replied, her cheeks reddening slightly.
“He’s right, my dear,” Mona’s mother cooed in her ear. “It’s been decades since anyone became Warmaster before their fortieth, and centuries before any woman’s ever been granted that title. You should feel honoured.”
“Do you know what I think is your greatest accomplishment, though,” Behzad’s father continued, turning all eyes to him.
Mona shook her head.
As his smile warmed, Behzad’s father turned to face her square. “Not only did you somehow convince Warmaster Azad to lend you such a large part of his forces without question, but you also convinced that prince to turn on his kingdom for you. And even poison his whole family no less! A lesser woman would’ve had to resort to spreading her legs, but you didn’t, did you? No, you kept your honour and saw to your duty. A true inspiration for every girl across the empire, my dear, without a doubt.”
The silence that fell upon the group was deafening.
Smiling still, Behzad’s father turned to him, leaning forward slightly as he did so. “So this is the one you want, then?”
Behzad turned to his father. He knew precisely what his answer needed to be.
“Yes.” He nodded, turning to the slave. “This is the…one.”
It was the whiteness of the slave’s knuckles as he gripped his fists tight on either side of him, along with how his entire frame quivered that had given Behzad the greatest pause.
“And the girl?” Behzad’s father added.
Behzad turned to the girl. She was staring at him, her eyes pleading.
“Yes.” He nodded, turning to his father. “Her too.”
“Excellent!” Behzad’s father cried. “Reza!”
“Yes, Master?” the servant replied as he appeared from behind his master.
“See it done, will you?”
“Of course, Master,” Reza bowed and hurried to do his master’s bidding.
“Good!” Behzad’s father cried, then turned to the others.
They were still every bit as stunned as before.
“Well, we shall see you all inside, then, shall we?” the smiling man said, then began ushering his family away from the gathering.
“What in the world was that?” Behzad’s mother hissed.
“What do you mean?” Behzad’s father frowned.
“Whatever happened to minding ourselves and not making a scene?”
“What in the world are you talking about?”
The bewildered woman turned to her son, who shrugged and grinned at her.
Then, she sighed and shook her head as her smile broke free at last.
“Days like this, I’m glad I married you,” she added, turning to her husband as she spoke, and as her smile widened, she turned forwards and carried on apace.
As for Behzad, his grin had begun to fade. That slave had hate in him, full and raw, of a kind that was terrifying in its intensity. He’d heard tales of slaves who’d waited for their masters to lower their guard before striking their masters down, and the more he dwelt upon it, the more he felt he’d just made the greatest mistake of his life. But now was not the time to speak of such things. Perhaps he was overreacting, he was a slave after all. Reza was also filled with such hate when he was first bought, and look at him now. No, he was overreacting, he must be.
“Please let it be nothing to it,” he thought, then turned his thoughts to what lay ahead.
Sitting in the caged cart of iron, Karim rocked to its sway as it lumbered forth, his nose long accustomed to the smell of the cargo with him as he took in the countryside, till at last, growing tired of the scenery, he sighed and turned, only to lock gazes with his little friend. She’d been staring at him, and was grinning from ear to ear.
“What?” Karim frowned.
“Oh, nothing…” little Bahiti replied, shrugging, “I’m just surprised you actually managed to keep your mouth shut long enough for us to get bought this time, that’s all.”
“Oh, shut up!” Karim spat before turning to the scenery once more.
Giggle, the little girl lay flat upon the sacks beside her, and as she did so, Karim cast a sideways glance at her.
“You do know what’s in those, right?” he muttered.
“Eh.” The little girl shrugged. “It’s no worse than where we’ve been sleeping this week.”
Karim moved to speak, but instead shrugged.
“True…” he muttered and returned his gaze to the scenery.
“So…” the little girl said after a spell, her gaze at the heavens. “What do you think of our new masters?”
Once more, Karim shrugged. “The boy seemed decent.”
“Boy?” Bahiti replied, raising her head and turning to him. “He doesn’t look that much younger than you.”
“That may be so,” Karim sniffed, “but he sounded like a spoilt brat.”
Bahiti grinned once more. “True.” Then, as she lay down once more, her grin faded. “He doesn’t seem anything like the others, though.”
There was an undercurrent to the little girl’s words, a darkness that ate at his soul every time she spoke in such a manner, and as he turned to her once more, and saw the all too familiar emptiness in her gaze, the darkness grew even more.
Not knowing what else to say, the young prince turned to the scenery once more, leaving his little companion to her thoughts as his too wandered, the loud creaking of the cart keeping the silence at bay, till, after what seemed like an eternity, the cart began to slow.
“Looks like we’re here,” Karim muttered as the cart came to a halt, his little companion sitting up as it did so.
“Hm.” Bahiti nodded as the sound of heavy iron creaking filled the air.
Then, the cart jerked forward and began rolling on once more, and before long, the pair watched as they rolled past a pair of wrought iron doors, and as four burly guards slowly swung them shut, the cart stopped once more.
“About time you showed up!” cried a voice at the fore of the cart and out of sight of the pair. “The other cargo arrived ages ago!”
“Don’t start with me, Reza,” growled the cart driver as he leapt off the cart. “My head’s pounding as it is.”
“Gods, don’t tell me you went drinking on duty again!”
The cart driver held his peace as he wandered round to the back of the cart, a large key in his hand.
“Gods damn it, man!” the man named Reza thundered as he stormed into view. “Do you want the master to sell you? Is that it? Or do you think he was jesting when he warned you the last time?”
“Eh.” The cart driver waved his companion’s words away before inserting the key into the lock of the cage. “They’re still celebrating, they won’t be back till evening. What they don’t know won’t hurt them.”
“And if one of their friends saw you? Or the new slaves had managed to pick the lock and escape like the last time?”
“Who, these two? Please. I know a good lockpicker when I see one, and these two aren’t.”
As the cage’s lock was turned, the man named Reza stared at his companion with supreme disgust.
“I can’t imagine how anyone can take their freedom so lightly,” he said at last.
“This is freedom?” The cart driver sneered.
“Would you rather go back to your former master?”
The cart driver fell silent at this, and lowering his gaze, turned to the cart as a heavy silence fell upon them all.
“Alright, out!” he soon barked as he opened the cage.
As it opened, two of the burly guards by the gate stepped forth, their gazes as menacing as the swords by their sides.
The pair stepped out of the cage in silence, and standing side by side, they held their peace still and bowed at the men.
“Now,” the man named Reza began, folding his arms behind him as he spoke, “you are both fortunate to be bought by this family, and you will show your gratitude by working hard. There are no whips here, or chains, but rest assured, should you transgress, you will be sold, and to far less accommodating masters. Do we understand each other?”
The pair nodded.
“Good,” Reza added, then breathed deep and stood tall. “You may address me as Master Reza…”
Then he turned to the man beside him. “…this is Master Mahdi…”
The man named glared at them, saying nary a word.
“You,” Reza continued, nodding to Bahiti, “you will go with Master Mahdi to the women’s quarters, Donya is waiting for you there.”
“Well, come on then,” the man named growled, then shuffled on.
Little Bahiti glanced at her friend, throwing him a warm smile before hurrying after the man.
The others watched the pair a spell as Mahdi led Bahiti away, but as they fell from view, Reza turned to Karim once more, his face as dour as before.
“As for you,” Reza continued, “your slaver gave quite the tale about you. Rather impressive words, in truth.”
“Ah,” Karim smiled, raising his gaze, “I am by no means—”
“Did I say you could speak?”
Karm fell silent at this, his smile dissipating as he bowed his head once more.
The heavy silence returned, but for a mercy, it was fleeting.
“I am yet to meet a slaver who doesn’t spin a tall yarn about his wares, and truth to tell, yours is the tallest I have heard in a while.”
The young prince gritted his teeth, but held his peace.
“Be that as it may,” the man continued, “there may yet be some truth to the tale. I have a task you shall perform. Should there be any truth in your slaver’s tale, you shall excel at this, and if it is all a lie, you shall not live to see the sun rise.”
At those words, Karim slowly rose his head. There was no mirth in the man’s eyes, and as a smile as dead as his eyes parted the man’s lips, the young prince felt a cold hand grasp his heart and grip it tight.
“This way,” the man said, and began walking forth.
Karim remained where he stood, but the sound of a blade slowly being unsheathed brought him to his senses, and as his gaze darted to those whose blade was now drawn free, he swallowed hard and followed after the man named Reza, one of the guards following close behind.
Stepping free of his carriage, Behzad sighed and stretched as an almighty yawn gripped him.
“Welcome back, sir,” said Reza as he held the carriage door open, a soft smile on his lips.
“Tired, Behzad?” came a voice from behind Behzad before he could speak.
Smiling, the young man turned to his father standing the doorway of the carriage and nodded.
“Like he’s done anything useful today…” growled a voice from within the carriage.
“Farah…” Behzad’s mother admonished as he glanced behind him.
“It’s alright, Father,” Behzad said, shaking his head. “Really.”
Turning to his son, the patriarch smiled.
“Well,” he soon said as he stepped free of the carriage, “if it’s any comfort, I was close to falling asleep myself.”
“Heh.” Behzad grinned, “I thought I saw you nodding off a few times.”
“Can you blame me? That Mona girl doesn’t half drone on given the chance.”
“At least she has something to drone on about,” growled Behzad’s mother from the carriage doorway.
“Farah!” Behzad’s father cried. “Must you—”
“It’s alright, Father,” Behzad interjected, shaking his head. “I think I’ll go spend some time in my work room. I’ll come down for supper.”
“It’s alright, Father,” the young man interjected as he turned, “really.”
Then, before any more words were said, the young man stepped forth.
“Go with him, Reza,” he heard his father say, but Behzad kept his pace unchanged.
“Are you alright?” a voice soon came to his ear as Reza began marching abreast him.
“Of course, I’m alright,” he growled.
“Your mother loves you, you know,” Reza added. “She’s just—”
“Not now, Reza,” Behzad growled. “I’d just like to return to my paintings, if you don’t mind.”
“Of course.” Reza nodded. Then, he smiled. “Your slave arrived safely,”
“Oh?” Behzad replied, stopping at last. “I’d actually forgotten all about him. How’s he doing?”
Reza’s smile grew. “I left him tending to Zarin.”
The silence that fell upon the pair was absolute, young Behzad standing stock still as all his sense failed him for that brief moment. Then he blinked.
“I left him tending to Zarin,” Reza repeated, his smile just shy of a grin.
“Reza, have you gone mad?” Behzad breathed. “Zarin’ll kill him!”
With his smile a grin at last, the man named Reza turned and sauntered forth, and for a time, Behzad remained rooted where he stood, his lips agape. But soon, he found his feet and hurried after the man.
“There,” Karim soothed as he brushed the great bird before him. “How does that feel?”
The beast cooed in response, closing its eyes as it raised its large, feathered head, turning its face skywards as its wings rose and opened as if of their own accord.
“Oh, you like that, don’t you?” Karim added, the sable brush in his hand gliding though soft, supple fur of darkest blue. “Don’t you?”
The beast cooed once more before clucking softly, its eyes closed as it slowly folded its wings, the low light shimmering of feathers of the same hue as its fur, save for those at the tips of its wings, which seemed dipped in blood and looked to absorb the light.
“Yeah,” Karim nodded, “it feels good, doesn’t it. You know, if you continue to be such a good girl, I might preen you gain tomorrow.”
“Amon!” came a cry from beyond the large doors behind the pair, and turning, Karim watched as one of the doors was swung wide and his new master raced in, followed close by a smiling Reza.
“Amon! Are you…” the man said, his voice raised, and his breathing strained, but as he beheld the sight within, he stopped, his lips falling agape as his eyes darted from Karim to the beast and back.
“What in the world…?”
“As I was trying to tell you,” the man named Reza said, stepping forth and sauntering between their master and Karim as a soft smile parted his lips, “Amon here seems to have managed to make Zarin accept him without issue.”
“I’m sorry, what…?” Behzad said, his brow furrowed deep.
In response, Reza turned to Karim, but as he noticed Karim still seated, his smile faded.
“Your master stands before you, and you still remain seated?” he growled.
In response, Karim bowed and moved to rise, but a low, throated gobble filled the room, freezing the two newcomers and drawing their gazes to the beast. She was glaring at the man named Reza, and with eyes of emerald that spoke volumes.
“Perhaps I should just…stay seated,” Karim offered as he returned to as he was, forcing back a smile as he did so.
“Ah, uh…” Reza said before clearing his throat and turning to his lord.
Young Behzad was staring at the beast, a smile upon his lips. Then he turned to Reza. “Go on, we’ll be fine.”
Reza frowned as this master’s son. “Are you sure?”
Behzad shrugged. “She hasn’t killed me after all these years, so…” Then he smiled once more. “Go on. Go.”
Reza turned from his lord to the beast, then sighed.
“Very well,” he said, turning to Behzad. “But the moment she tries anything—”
“I’ll be fine, Reza.” Behzad interjected, his smile widening.
Reza held his lord’s gaze a spell longer, then sighed and, giving the beast a brief glare, headed for the door.
The others watched him leave, and as Reza closed the door behind him, they turned to one another.
“So,” Behzad said at last, “where did you learn to handle griffins so well.”
Karim turned to the beast, and, picking up his sable brush once more, he smiled and began brushing the creature’s fur.
“My father taught me,” he said as he worked, the majestic bird closing her eyes and leaning her head slightly towards Karim.
“Oh?” Behzad replied as he wandered forth. “He was a handler, was he?”
Karim shook his head. “Not quite.”
“A rider, then?”
Karim paused mid-stroke, then, forcing a smile, he nodded.
“Something like that,” he said, turning Behzad as he resumed his strokes. Then he turned to the creature once more. “Though I’ve never seen one with her colours before.”
“Ah,” Behzad grinned, turning to the griffin, “very few have. Before we got her, no-one in this city had even seen one “
“Oh?” Karim frowned, turning to Behzad. “She’s that rare?”
Behzad nodded. “Oh yes. Father says her particular kind are called midnight hawks. He says they’re from the Sundial Cliffs to the south, and—”
“Wait,” Karim interjected, his frown deepening, “Sundial Cliffs?”
“Mhm.” Behzad nodded.
Karim turned to Zarin, then to Behzad, shaking his head. “The only griffins you find there are snow crowns.”
“And you’d be right.” Behzad grinned.
Karim stared at his master a spell, then shook his head. “Sorry, you’ve lost me completely.”
Chuckling, Behzad took a step forth. “Midnight hawks are an aberration of the normal snow crown, and is an aberration that occurs nowhere else.”
“Hm.” Behzad nodded. “And it happens extremely rarely, too. Father says one in every million eggs hatch into a midnight hawk…”
“…or was it ten million…? Anyone, some big number.”
Karim smiled at the majestic bird. “Her eggs must be worth an absolute fortune, then.”
“Mh,” Behzad shrugged, “not really?”
“What do you mean, not really?” Karim gasped, turning to his master. “If her kind is that rare, people’ll be queuing for a chance to own one!”
Except no breeder has been able to hatch one.”
“Remember how I said they’re an aberration that occurs nowhere else?”
“I mean that literally. No breeder’s been able to hatch one, regardless of which parent is a midnight hawk, or even if both parents are.” Then he sighed. “There’s something about those cliffs that cause the aberration to occur, and so far, no-one’s been able to ascertain what.”
“I see…” Karim mused, turning to the great bird once more.
“Yeah.” Behzad sighed. “Father says some breeders go their whole lives without ever even seeing one.”
Karim smiled at this, turning to his master once more. “Your father knows a lot about griffins.”
Behzad grinned. “I should hope so. Our family’s been breeding them since back when we were our own kingdom!”
The young prince’s frown returned. “You used to be a slave?”
“Oh, goodness, no!” Behzad chuckled. “No, that was my ancestor. We’ve come a long way since then.”
“Ah,” Karim nodded, “I see.” Then he turned to the griffin once more.
“So, how did you get her, then?” he asked as he resumed his brushing.
“Ah,” Behzad grinned, “that is quite a tale, and it comes from a time when my father was much younger.”
“Hm.” Behzad nodded before wandering over to sit upon a low wall nearby. “You remember the family at the market where we bought you?”
At those words, Karim felt his chest tighten as he saw in his mind’s eye the face of the woman who’d torn his whole world asunder, and gritting his teeth, he nodded.
“Well,” Behzad continued, “in their youth, Father and that woman’s father were rivals in a great many things, including breeding griffins for the Shah, and after one especially difficult request from the Shah himself to that woman’s father, one he could only complete with my father’s help, he went to the Shah boasting of his prowess and spinning yarns about how he’d completed the request without any help from anyone.”
“Hm!” Behzad nodded. “He wanted all the glory to himself.”
“Don’t tell me he succeeded.”
“Oh, gods no! The Shah may be a lot of things, but he’s no fool. He saw through the man’s ruse immediately. But the man was a noble at the time, and Father was still a commoner, so there was little the Shah could do without upsetting his court, so he kept silent.”
“That little snake…” Karim snarled.
“He is, isn’t he?” Behzad sighed. Then his smile grew. “But that was till the Shah offered him his reward.”
“Which was?” Karim asked, frowning.
“Well, the Sundial Cliffs are the preferred stock of griffins for our griffin riders, they’re the hardiest in battle, by a long way, and for that reason alone, no-one else is allowed to keep them. Anyone with griffins from those cliffs is expected to hand them over to the Ministry of War immediately. No exceptions…”
“…so when the Shah presented him with a set of five eggs to choose from to keep as his very own griffin, all plucked directly from the Sundial Cliffs, you can imagine his joy.”
“Oh, yes! And you can also imagine his rage when the Shah told him my father will also be choosing one!”
“Hah!” Karim cried. “That must’ve stung!”
“Oh, yes! You should hear Mother tell it. Apparently, you could’ve heard a pin drop in Court when the Shah said it.”
Karim couldn’t help but laugh at those words.
“But that’s not all,” Behzad continued.
The young lord nodded, the twinkle in his eye unmistakable. “That man chose first, noble and all, and he chose the largest, heathiest-looking egg in the set. Then, when it came to my father’s turn, Mother said when he got to the eggs, he just …stood there, completely wide-eyed, muttering to himself. He stood staring for so long the Shah had to ask him if he was alright.”
“Oh?” Karim replied, pausing his brushing as he turned to Behzad square, his brow furrowed deep.
“Hm!” Behzad nodded. “Then, when he did finally pick one, he chose the smallest egg in the batch, one whose shell had an unnatural blue tint to it, a shell looked thinner and weaker than the others. When he picked it, that woman’s father started laughing at him, calling him a fool for picking one what was obviously sickly, and before long, the whole Court joined him in mocking Father. Mother said it got so bad, the Shah asked him if he wanted to choose another. But Father refused, said he’d made his choice.”
“Ah.” Karim smiled, nodding. “The muttering, the staring…he recognised Zarin’s egg for what it was.”
“Yes, exactly!” Behzad cried. “And when Zarin hatched, our family became the talk of the empire, while the Hedayatis…the man who’d gotten the Court to laugh at Father, became a laughing stock for not recognising Zarin’s egg for what it was. Mother said it was partly why Father’s gotten such a strong accord with the Shah, that and a few other deeds over the years.”
Karim’s smile widened. “Sounds like he deserves his place in your empire.”
“Oh, for sure of it!”
“Heh,” Karim replied before turning to the griffin and returning to his brushing. “So Zarin is your father’s, is she?”
“No.” Behzad shook his head, a hint of sadness in his voice. “He was her rider for a while, but an accident put paid to that. He said he slipped and fell, but Mother insisted Zarin tried to kill him. Then, when I came of riding age, he gifted her to me.”
“Oh,” Behzad replied, his voice soft. “So, you ride her now?”
Forcing a smile, Behzad shook his head. “I’m not much of a rider, don’t have the head for it. And besides, she hates me.”
Behzad nodded. “The one time I tried riding her, she stuck a talon through my upper arm. Bled for ages. And all I did was try and grab her reins.”
Karim stared in silence a spell, then turned to the griffin. In response, the beast lowered her head before turning her face from him.
“And besides,” Behzad continued, “my heart lies elsewhere. Riding, breeding…it’s not for me.”
“Really?” Karim frowned, turning to Behzad.
“Hm.” Behzad nodded. “Father doesn’t mind that I won’t follow him, not anymore at least, but Mother…well, let’s just say she never shies from telling me what she thinks of me. Especially since Mona’s become such an accomplished rider.”
Once more, the scene of his dear family’s slaughter flashed before Karim’s eyes, but he held his peace and fought against the rage within him.
“Is that what today was all about, then?” he asked instead.
“Yeah.” Behzad sighed. “Mona and her parents still see us as commoners. They take every opportunity to lord over us, and mother hates me for gifting them such an easy avenue to do so. She keeps saying how much more accomplished I would’ve been had I applied myself. She said father used to run rings around Mona’s father on Zarin, that they were such a sight to behold, and that I’m a disappointment and…yeah.”
Breathing deep as his smile turned wooden, Behzad shrugged and turned to the griffin as a heavy silence fell upon the room.
Karim stared at the man as the weight of the silence grew, till at last, unable to bear the silence, he turned to the griffin, his mind searching for a means to break the silence.
“Sundial Cliffs…” he said at last, turning to Behzad once more as he furrowed his brow. “If memory serves me right, life on those cliffs is especially bleak for griffin chicks, isn’t it?”
“Hm,” Behzad nodded, “your memory does serve you right. There are a whole host of predators who absolutely love to dine on griffin eggs, far more than anywhere else, I think. About a third, and sometimes even half the eggs in a nest are lost to them, and for those who do hatch, they must survive being hunted by other griffins out of spite or jealousy for their parents, bigger predators, and even their own sibling sometimes. Honestly, when you think about it, it’s a wonder they have such a strong colony on those cliffs.
Karim grinned at those words, shaking his head as he did so.
“First time I’m seeing you smile so much, Amon,” Behzad said at last.
At those words, Karim’s smile faded.
“Uh-oh.” Behzad grinned. “Don’t tell me I chased it away.”
Biting his lip, Karim turned to the griffin as a soft silence fell upon them.
“Amon,” Behzad said at last.
Karim turned to him.
“What I said back there, at the market, I mean, about you being a failed warrior, that was cruel…”
Slowly, the young prince sat tall, unsure what to make of Behzad’s words.
“I’m not even sure why I said it. I have a lot of admiration for your people. You were honest and brave, and didn’t deserve what was done to you.”
Breathing deep, Karim blinked slowly and let out a long, ragged sigh.
“Thank you for saying that,” he said at last, nodding at Behzad. “Thank you.”
Smiling, Behzad nodded, and sat tall. Then, he glanced down at the other end of the stable.
“There is…something I ought to give you,” Behzad said, then rose and headed further into the stable, towards the door at the far end, a door Reza had warned Karim to stay well away from on pain of death, and as Behzad reached it, he pulled free a wrought iron key, slipped it into the lock and twisted, then opened the heavy wooden door before stepping in, and as he closed the door behind him, Karim caught sight of easels and canvas scattered about the room.
Before long, the door opened once more and Karim stepped forth, clutching a large canvas to his chest. Pausing to lock the door, the sombre-faced lord wandered towards the seated Karim, and as he reached Karim, he knelt and placed the canvas between them, its face to him.
“Seems wrong of me to hold onto this,” he said, “now that you’re with us.”
Slowly, Karim turned to the man square, lowering his hand as his heart began to beat faster, his brow furrowed deep throughout.
Breathing deep, Behzad turned the canvas round, and as Karim’s gaze fell upon it, he gasped as his eyes grew wide.
“I painted this seven years ago when your king and his two eldest visited us on a peace signing accord…”
And indeed, Karim was staring at his father, the man standing proud and strong, his armour glimmering in the light as his griffin stood tall behind him, two riders hovering behind them on either side and just large enough for Karim to see their faces. Husani and Jabari, he would recognise them anywhere.
“…and when I saw them fly in, I knew I had to paint them. It took me a while to get the pigments right, but I’m proud of how it turned out.”
The paintings look so real, so life-like, and as tears brimmed Karim’s eyes, he reached out and touched his father’s face as a pained smile parted his lips.
“Why, then?” he said at last, turning to Karim. “Why did you…?”
Breathing deep, Behzad shook his head. “Not everyone agrees with what happened to your kingdom, and I’m not the only one who admired your king. To have you all fall in such a foul manner…well…yeah.”
Karim turned to the painting once more.
“Here,” Behzad continued, offering the painting to Karim, who took it and held it close as his tears fell at last.
Then, with no more words left to say, Behzad headed for the door.
Whether he noticed or not, Karim didn’t show it, and as the door closed, the young prince crumpled into himself as he began sobbing softly, the great griffin beside him raising a wing and pulling him close to hold him gently as his heart wept for all he had lost.
Standing on the balcony in her night gown, her long black hair running down her shoulder, Farah Behnam stared out into the garden, her eyes upon the young man in the distance who stood with brush in hand before an easel, his gaze upon the griffin not far before him. There was a tight frown upon Farah’s lips and a hardness to her gaze, and as she stood in silence, she sighed and raised her hands to her hair, then began playing with it.
“Of all the things to have a passion about,” she muttered before shaking her head.
As she sighed, soft footsteps reached her ears, and as a familiar scent wafted to her nostrils, she smiled in spite of herself and waited for the hug that was to follow.
“Good morning, my beloved,” came a gentle voice in her ear, and as her smile grew, she bent her head away from the lips near her neck and tensed.
The soft kiss that followed still sent a sensuous wave rushing through her whole frame, even after all these years.
“And what are you watching this time?” the voice continued as a pair of strong arms slipped about her waist and held her close.
Closing her eyes, her smile growing wider still, Farah signed and shook her head.
“Good morning, Omid,” she said at last before turning slightly to stare deep into her beloved’s eyes.
Her husband smiled at her in response before leaning in and kissing her gently on the lips, and as their lips parted, Farah’s smile returned, and with a deep sigh, she turned her gaze forward and snuggled into her beloved’s embrace, with Omid only too glad to oblige.
“So, what got you out of bed so early, then, hm?” he asked.
At those words, Farah’s smile began to fade as her gaze drifted to her son, and the griffin stretching its wings before him.
“Wait, is that…Zarin?” Omid gasped.
Gritting her teeth Farah bit back a sigh.
“Yes,” Farah replied, her voice terse. “It seems Behzad finally managed to coax her out of the stable, only to stand there…painting!”
“Oh, ease off, Farah,” Omid teased, pulling his wife closer. “Don’t forget how much coin he makes selling those things.”
“They only sell because you strongarm your friends into buying them,” Farah growled.
“Not anymore, I don’t,” Omid replied. “Everything he’s sold since spring is all his doing.”
“Yeah, I know, but—”
“He’s not a rider, Farah,” Omid interjected, his tone as soft as his touch. “He never will be.”
“And it doesn’t bother you?” Farah stressed, turning her head to stared deep into her husband’s eyes once more. “It really doesn’t bother you that all that you’ve worked so hard for, the long and glorious tradition you’ve upheld all your life, will just…end with you. Tell me it doesn’t bother you.”
Omid moved to speak, then sighed and shrugged. “The gods know what they’re doing.”
“Farah,” Omid replied, touching his beloved’s forehead with his, “careful. The gods are always listening.”
Farah moved to speak, but instead bit her tongue and turned to her son once more.
“I just wish…” she soon said, nestling into her husband’s arms again. “…just once, he’d try. You know.”
“He is not Mona, and he never will be.”
“I know, I know,” Farah sighed. “Gods, I know, I just…”
“Besides,” Omid continued, “Zarin will never accept him.”
“So get him another griffin!” Farah cried, but even as the words left her lips, she knew it was an impossibility.
“You know I can never do that. Zarin is from the Shah, and if I get him another griffin, it’ll be like I’m telling the Shah I have better taste than he does, and you can imagine how well that’ll go in Court.”
“I know.” Farah sighed. “I know.” Then she smiled. “But he got her out of the barn today. “Maybe she’s warming to him.”
“Hrm,” Omid muttered. “Are you sure it was him or that Amon boy?”
Farah moved to speak, but as her gaze drifted to the man standing directly before Zarin, stroking the feathers of her head, she gritted her teeth and held her peace.
“Well,” Omid continued, kissing his wife’s head before standing tall, “I need to go bathe. Care to join me?”
Biting back a smile, Farah turned to her husband. “Tempting though that offer is, and it really is tempting, I think I’m just going to stand her a bit longer, take in the breeze.”
Omid smiled at his wife a spell, but as his smile faded, he held her chin and raised her gaze to his.
“He may not be the son we want, but he is the son the gods gifted us. We can’t make him into a rider, we can’t force him to be something he’s not.”
Then, kissing her forehead, the master of the manor smiled and headed inside.
Farah watched her husband a spell, then turned to the balcony, her brow furrowed deep as her gaze drifted to Karim once more.
“We may not be able to make him, but…hrm…”
Then, without a word, she spun on her heels and marched for the door.
“Oof, I am so tired, right now,” little Bahiti said stretching her arms as wide as they could go.
“Tired?” Karim smiled, turning from his plate to her. “Just what exactly have you been doing that…”
But his words were cut short by the almighty yawn that parted his little companion’s lips.
“Well,” he said instead, his gaze dropping to her plate, “if you’re that tired, then you won’t be needing this.” And as his smile grew, he reached for the plate.
“Hey!” Bahiti cried, reaching for her plate before smacking Karim’s hands away. “Hands off!”
“But you’re tired,” Karim stressed, reaching for the plate again. “You should be too tired to eat, right? You should be going to bed instead.”
“Hey!” Bahiti repeated, smacking Karim’s hand away again. “Don’t make me tell Reza on you!”
Chuckling, Karim shook his head and turned his attention back to the plate before him.
Glaring at him still, Bahiti slowly sat tall, and when it became clear her supper was saved, she gave him one last glare, then tore a piece from her loaf and slipped it into her mouth.
“That Reza’s really taken a shine to you, hasn’t he,” Karim said after a spell.
“He’s alright.” Bahiti shrugged, picking up a piece of succulent chicken and slipping it into her mouth before reaching for another. “I think I remind him of his granddaughter.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised if you were his granddaughter. You both do the same thing with your nose when you’re angry.”
“What thing?” Bahiti frowned, her mouth full from cramming it with succulent morsel after succulent morsel.
“Bahiti, slow down,” Karim said. “We’re not in the pens anymore, nobody’s going to take your plate.”
The little girl stopped, a sheepish grin on her face.
“Thowy,” she mumbled, reaching for her mug.
Shaking his head. Karim returned to his plate and sighed.
“This place is nothing like the pens, is it?” Bahiti soon asked, drawing Karim’s gaze. “It’s nothing like I was expecting, honestly.”
“Yeah, me neither,” Karim replied, placing a piece of chicken in his mouth and sucking on it a spell before chewing. “To be honest, not sure what I was expecting, but nothing like this.”
“Yeah.” Bahiti nodded. “Sometimes I can’t tell who’s a slave and who isn’t.”
“Heh.” Karim smiled. “Me neither.”
“Mh.” Bahiti nodded, then grimaced. “Except that Mahdi. He makes my skin crawl every time he looks at me.”
“You mean like how those slavers in Bakhmun were looking at you?”
“Hrm.” Bahiti frowned, then shook her head. “No. It’s just… I don’t know…but he does.” Then, shrugging, she reached for her loaf once more.
“Oh!” she cried as she tore a piece. “What did Mistress Farah want with you earlier?”
“Hm?” Karim frowned in response.
“Saw you two earlier, near the barn. You and her were whispering.”
“Oh, that!” Karim replied, then shrugged, his smile returning, but as he moved to speak, he paused and glanced about them. The others in the kitchen were out of earshot, but only if he lowered his voice.
“Hunh?” Bahiti frowned as Karim scanned about them, turning to see about her as well.
“Here,” Karim muttered, lowering his voice as he leant toward the child.
“What?” Bahiti whispered, “what is it?”
“She wants me to train her son to ride his griffin.”
Bahiti stared hard at her friend a spell.
“That’s it?” she said at last when nothing else was said.
“Well, yeah,” Karim added. “But she doesn’t want him to know it’s her idea. I’m to make it seem like it’s mine.”
“And what’re you getting out of it?”
Karim shrugged and grinned. “Her eternal gratitude.”
The little girl turned her nose up at that. “Like that’s worth anything.”
“Bahiti,” Karim sighed as he straightened, “she’s the Lady of the House. Her gratitude is worth loads.”
“Hrm.” Bahiti muttered, clearly unconvinced.
“Whatever,” Karim sighed in response, reaching for his loaf.
“You think you can do it, though?”
“Mh.” Karim nodded as he tore a piece of his loaf. “I think deep down he wants to ride, but that griffin’s scared him. I just need to get him over that, and her to stop glaring at him so much.”
“That sounds like a lot.”
Karim shrugged, dipping the piece of bread in his hand in his plate. “I’ve faced worse.”
“Oh yeah, you were a great warrior once, weren’t you,” Bahiti replied, rolling her eyes as she spoke.
“And what’s that supposed to mean?” Karim replied, frowning at the child.
“Well, you never talk about it, for one. And for another, don’t great warriors have loads of scars all over them?”
“Well, first,” Karim replied, turning to face the little girl square, “I don’t believe in boasting about killing people, and second, scars come when you’re careless, not when you’re good.”
“No, they don’t!” Bahiti cried.
“Yes, Bahiti,” Karim replied. “They do.”
“You take that back!” Bahiti yelled.
“No.” Karim shook his head and raised the torn loaf to his lips.
“Alright then,” the fuming girl spat, turning to face Karim square, “how careless were you when you got that big scar on your back then, eh?”
Karim moved to speak, but no words came.
“Exactly!” little Bahiti thundered. “My uncle was a warrior. He fought for our king. He fought really hard, and had lots of scars, but he wasn’t careless, he was good. You hear me, he was good! Don’t tell me he wasn’t!”
Everyone was staring now, with the steel in their gazes meant for him. But it wasn’t till he saw the shimmer in little Bahiti’s eyes that Karim realised perhaps he’d gone too far.
Forcing a smile, he placed the bread in his hand down and turned to the little girl square.
“You’re right, sometimes you get scars whether you’re careless or not. But I’m sure I wasn’t a warrior for nearly as long as your uncle was, and if I have as many scars as he had, would that make me as good as your uncle, or just careless?”
The little girl moved to speak, but no words came.
“Exactly. That’s what I meant, Bahiti. Not that all warriors with scars are careless, just that having lots of scars while being a warrior for only a couple of years doesn’t make you a good one.”
Again, the little girl moved to speak, but again, no words came.
Sniffling, little Bahiti wiped her eyes, then smiled.
“Eh.” She shrugged and returned to her plate.
“And besides, it’s not as if—”
“Bahiti!” came a cry at the kitchen door. “You in here?”
As one, the pair turned to the door to watch old Reza wander in.
“I have an errand in town,” Reza said the moment his eyes fell upon the little girl. “You wish to accompany me?”
“Hm? Oh! Yes, please!”
“Oh, are you having your supper?” Reza added, glancing past the little girl to the plate before her. “Finish your supper, I’ll wait by the wagon.” Then he turned and left.
“Oh, uhm…” little Bahiti began, turning to her plate. Then, with an impish smile, she slowly pushed the plate towards Karim.
Karim stared from Bahiti to the plate and back. “What, I look like a waste bucket to you?”
The little girl’s smile grew.
“Weren’t you the one who was complaining of being starving earlier?”
Little Bahiti shrugged. “Reza promised to buy me some sugared plums and iced cocoa next time we go into town, so…”
“Oh, gods, you and your sweet tooth.”
The little girl chuckled at her friend.
“Go on, then.” Karim sighed, reaching for the plate.
“Thank you!” Bahiti cried and raced for the door.
Karim watched his little friend a spell, then sighed and emptied her plate into his.
“That girl…” he muttered, then tucked into his meal.
Humming softly, little Bahiti emptied the pail in her hands into the large ornately carved hole before her, one etched deep enough into the marble floor to allow a grown man sit comfortably upon the step hewn into its side and have any water within go no further than his chest, billows of steam raising from Bahiti’s pail as she poured its contents in. Then, once emptied, she placed the pail to the side, pushed up her sleeve and dipped her elbow into the water.
“Perfect!” She grinned, then reached for her pail.
Just then, the door behind her swung open.
“Ah!” Behzad cried as he stepped in. “Seems I’m early.”
“Oh, no,” Bahiti shook her head, “it’s ready for you now.”
“Excellent!” Behzad cried and closed the door behind him, then began unbuttoning his shirt as he made his way towards the water.
“So, how was it today?” Bahiti said as she picked up her pail and stepped to the side.
“Your ride,” Bahiti replied. “How did it go?”
A slow smile parted Behzad’s lips, and glancing at the closed door, he gestured to Bahiti to come closer.
“Don’t tell Amon,” Behzad soon said, going on one knee once Bahiti was near, “but I think I’m finally beginning to enjoy it.”
“Hm.” Behzad nodded eagerly. “Zarin and I flew so high I almost saw to town!”
“Wait!” Bahiti gasped. “You mean you flew higher than the harness posts today?”
Behzad shook his head, his eyes wide and bright. “I flew without the harness vest on!”
“What?” Bahiti cried.
Once more, Behzad nodded.
“And Zarin didn’t buckle?”
Behzad shook his head.
“Yes!” Bahiti hissed, clenching her fist as a wide grin parted her lips.
“Oh, it’s too soon to celebrate, my dear. We weren’t up for long, Zarin still isn’t fully comfortable with me on her back, but we’re getting there.”
“But still though, you flew! With her! And without a harness! What!”
The kneeling man laughed. “You sound more excited than I am.”
Grinning, Bahiti shrugged. “I like happy endings.”
Sighing, Behzad nodded. “Me too.” Then he stood. “Right, well, I’d best get in the bath, and you’d best be leaving!”
Grinning still, Bahiti nodded. “Fine. Enjoy you bath.”
“Oh, my dear,” Behzad groaned as he took his shirt off, “I am most definitely going to do just that.”
Little Bahiti chuckled at those words, but as she moved to leave, her eyes fell upon the scar upon Behzad’s upper arm.
“Oh!” she cried, pointing. “Amon has one of those on his back! How did you get yours? Was it a sword or something?”
“What?” Behzad frowned.
“Your scar,” Bahiti replied, tapping her upper arm, then pointing to Behzad’s. “How did you get it?”
“Oh, this?” Behzad replied, turning to the scar. “Zarin gave it to me, a long time ago.”
“Yeesh!” Bahiti grimaced.
“Yeah.” Behzad sighed and nodded.
“Did it hurt?”
The man nodded once more.
“Oh.” Bahiti winced. “Amon’s is a lot bigger than that, so his must’ve really hurt!”
“He has one, does he?”
“Hm.” Bahiti nodded. “On his back, near his arse. It’s really close to his spine, too, and just never talks about it.”
“I’m not surprised. If it was caused by a griffin, and it’s where I think you mean, he’s very lucky to be alive. In fact, one of your princes…”
Stopping, Behzad smiled. “Nevermind. That’s something I shouldn’t be telling any…”
Without warning. Behzad’s voice faded as the mirth drained from this face.
“What?” Bahiti frowned. “What is it?”
Behzad turned to the ether, his brow furrowed deep.
Behzad turned to the little girl.
“What is it?”
“Just a thought,” he said, turning to the ether once more. “A crazy thought, but…”
Then he turned to Bahiti once more. “Amon was a royal guard, wasn’t he? He was caught defending your Prince Karim from capture, right?”
Bahiti nodded. “He doesn’t speak about it, but that’s what our slavers always said.”
Behzad’s frown deepened as he turned to the door.
“Behzad, what is it?”
Behzad turned to the little girl once more, then shook his head.
“Come with me,” he said, putting his shirt back on as he marched for the door.
Behzad did not, swinging the door wide and marching through without a break in stride.
“Mmh.” Reza smiled as he picked up a bowl of chilled cocoa, and reaching for a spoon, made to sit. “Finally!”
“Reza!” came a cry as his door swung open.
“What in world…” Reza began, but his words faded as he caught sight of the fierce visage of his master’s son.
“I need you,” Behzad said. “Now!”
Reza turned from Behzad to the bowl, and, gritting his teeth, set the bowl down and marched forth. “Let’s talk while we walk.”
“You see?” Karim grinned, caressing the griffin before him. “It’s not that bad. You were meant to soar the skies with someone, after all. It’s lonely up there by yourself, and Behzad, well, he—”
“Everybody out!” barked a voice from the door, silencing all within the stable.
Frowning, Karim turned to the utterer.
“Behzad?” He frowned.
“Out!” Behzad roared, stepping aside and pulling the door wide.
The few servants within the stable stared at one another, then hurried towards the door.
“No!” Behzad snapped, pointing to Karim as he moved to leave. “No, you stay!”
It was then Karim noticed a cowering Bahiti behind him, a fierce Reza barring her path.
Not know what to make of it all, Karim remained as he was, and before long, the stable was emptied.
Stepping inside, Behzad closed the door behind Reza and Bahiti, then they marched towards him. As they neared, Zarin turned to Behzad, a throaty warning emanating from her.
“It’s alright, Zarin,” Karim said, stroking the griffin’s head. “I’m sure there’s a reason for this.” He turned to Behzad. “Right?”
“Lower your trousers,” Behzad replied once close enough to see the whites of Karim’s eyes.
“What?” Karim and Bahiti said in unison.
“Lower your trousers, Amon,” Behzad repeated. “Now.”
Frowning still, Karim glanced at Bahiti.
“You’re wearing a loincloth, she’s fine. Lower your trous—”
“Can you not tell me what—”
“When your master gives you an order,” Reza growled, his eyes colder than Karim had ever seen them, “you do not ask questions, you just do.”
Karim stood in silence as a chilling air fell upon them all.
“Amon,” Behzad growled, “lower. Your. Trou—”
“Alright, alright,” Karim said at last, then undid his trousers and lowered them to his thigh.
“No.” Behzad shook his head. “Let them fall.”
Karim gritted his teeth a spell, but soon did as ordered.
The two men stared at Karim’s legs a spell, and for a while, none spoke, till at last, both men stood tall their gazes drifting to Karim’s face.
“You see them?” Behzad asked.
Reza nodded. “Yeah, I see them.”
“See what?” Bahiti asked.
“Turn around,” Behzad ordered.
“What are you looking—” Karim began.
Karim gritted his teeth, staring hard at Behzad, but soon did as ordered, and as he did so, his gaze fell upon the glaring griffin behind him.
“It’s alright, Zarin.” Karim smiled. “It’s alright.”
The great bird blinked, then slowly rose, carrying her gaze over to Behzad as she echoed its warning once more.
“Zarin,” Karim stressed, reaching for the griffin, “I said it’s alright. You don’t have to—”
“Lift your shirt up, Amon.”
It was then, at last, that Karim realised what this was all about.
“Lift your shirt,” Behzad repeated. “Now.”
Slowly, Karim turned to the man, his gaze as fierce as Behzad’s, and as they stared in silence, Behzad soon nodded.
“I’m right, aren’t I?” he said at last. “Aren’t I?”
“Right about what?” Bahiti asked, her voice quivering. “Behzad, please, you’re scaring me. Whatever he’s done, it can’t be that bad, he’s just—”
“Bad?” Behzad said spinning to the little girl. “My dear, this is catastrophic!”
Behzad turned to Karim once more, then raised a palm to him. “Bahiti, I present to you Prince Karim Nour-al-Din.”
“What?” Bahiti gasped, turning to Amon.
“Amon?” she added. “Is it true?”
Karim stood in silence, the heat of his gaze undimmed as it remained upon Behzad.
“Behzad,” Bahiti continued, turning to the man. “I don’t understand. How do you know he’s—”
“When he was five,” Behzad interjected, “his uncle staged an insurrection, with plans to kill him and his brothers along with his father, and during the attack, Karim ran in a blind panic. One of his uncle’s men gave chase on a griffin, and when he caught Karim, he had the griffin grab him like he was kill. The griffin dug a talon into his back and used two other talons to grab hold of his legs and slice through his arteries.”
“Oh, gods!” Bahiti gasped.
“Yes.” Reza nodded. “Each one of those wounds was enough to kill a man, and boy, well… Luckily for the boy his grandmother had also given chase. She was a spellcaster and a healer, and she arrived just as the griffin began climbing for the skies. She hurled a thunderbolt through griffin and rider, and when Karim fell to the floor, she raced over and fought to save him.”
“The boy’s wounds healed, but not without deep scarring,” Behzad continued. “His grandmother’s healing wasn’t as good as her spellcasting, but she kept him alive long enough for others to come help her. And no-one ever spoke of it again to spare the boy shame. He never really forgave himself for running away when everyone else stood to fight. Even though he was just a boy.”
“How do you know all this?” Karim said at last.
Behzad turned to him. “Your father told my father, and he told us on quiet nights in.”
“And why would my father tell your father anything?” Karim sneered.
Behzad shrugged. “You’ll have to ask him that.”
“Wait,” Bahiti said, her voice quivering. “You mean it’s true?”
Smiling at last, Karim turned to the little girl and nodded as he pulled up his trousers. “Yeah, it is.”
Little Bahiti gasped, her clenched hands darting to her lips , and for what seemed like an eternity, the little girl just stood and stared, her eyes wide and wild. Then, without warning, she flew to her knees and bowed her head to the floor.
“No!” Behzad gasped, darting for the child.
“No, Bahiti, no!” he added, pulling the child to her feet.
“But he’s my king!” Bahiti cried. “I can’t just—”
“He’s also an enemy of the empire. No-one can ever know he’s alive.”
“If the Shah finds out, Bahiti,” Reza added, “he will order for Karim’s head, and gods only know what he’ll do to us for harbouring him. No-one can ever know, do you understand? This is really important.”
“But…” Bahiti began, turning to Karim.
Karim nodded in response. “They’re right. No-one can know. For now.”
Grinning, Bahiti nodded, but soon, her grin began to fade as tears welled her eyes, and fighting Behzad’s gasp, she hurried towards Karim and hugged him tight.
“There, there,” Karim said, stroking the little girl’s hair. “It’s alright. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you, but I had to keep it quiet.”
“But that is no longer an option, I’m afraid,” Behzad added. “We have to think of—”
“Why isn’t it an option?” Reza interjected.
Frowning, Behzad turned to the man. “What do you mean?”
“You didn’t speak to anyone on the way to me, did you?”
Behzad shook his head. “No.”
“No, exactly. Neither have you told that tale to anyone, have you?”
Again, Behzad shook his head. “No.”
“No, exactly. I haven’t either, and, knowing your father, neither would he have. The people in this stable right now are the only ones to know the truth, and can know the truth. Except your father, of course.”
Behzad turned to the man square. “So, what’re you saying?”
“I’m saying we sit on this.”
“Your father returns in eleven days. We wait till his return and mention this to him.”
“Behzad, these two have been with us for over three months, and only now you piece it together. There is no reason for haste. We wait eleven days, let your father return, and discuss it then. The only real challenge I see now is for us all to keep calling Karim Amon. One slip and it’s all over.”
“All the more reason to send word to Father!” Behzad stressed. “Now!”
Reza shook his head. “Your father’s at the palace. In that place, the walls have ears. There’s no message we give that won’t be overheard, and given the importance of his visit, nothing short of a catastrophe will bring him running back. No, our best course is to keep things calm and wait for him to naturally return.”
Behzad stared hard at Reza, clearly pondering the man’s words.
“You know I’m right.”
Behzad moved to speak, but instead sighed and shrugged.
“Fine,” he said. “Eleven days.”
“And then?” Karim asked.
“And then we see the best course of action,” Reza replied.
“How do I know…?” Karim began, but fell silent.
Old Reza smiled. “How do you know you can trust my master on this?”
Karim held his peace, letting his gaze answer the question instead.
“Because if this gets out, we’ll be almost in as bad a spot as you. Even if we tell the Shah ourselves, you’ve been here for over three months. We’ll be under suspicion of planning something nefarious with your secret and only coming clean because our plans failed. Such a cloud will never leave us, and will eventually prove our downfall. No, you can trust us.”
Once more, Karim moved to speak, but then breathed deep and nodded. “Very well.”
“Well, I don’t know about you two, but I need a drink,” Behzad growled, and shaking his head, headed to the door.
The others grinned and stepped forth after him.
“So, who’s Amon?” Bahiti asked.
“A friend,” Karim replied. “He pretended to be me so I could escape. So, I’ve pretended to be him.”
“Oh, so he was a royal guard!”
Karim nodded. “Yes, he was.”
“And for the next eleven days, he’s still here,” Reza stressed as they reached the door, one that was being pulled upon by Behzad.
“I know, I know!” Bahiti cried.
“Good!” Reza replied. “Now, come, I have a bowl of ice cocoa waiting for me.”
“Wait, what?” Bahiti cried, her eyes wide.
“Oh gods… Fine, you can have some, too.”
“Yay!” Bahiti cried and raced through the door.
The three men exchanged glances as they chuckled, then stepped forth after the little girl, Behzad closing the door behind them.
As silence fell upon the room, the great griffin Zarin turned from the door to a darkened corner where a pile of hay lay, and nestling down, she kept her gaze upon the pile and waited. After what seemed like an eternity, a dark figure rose, glared at the great bird, then hurried for the door.
Snarling, Mona Hedayati barged into one of the many drawing rooms of the lavish manor that was her familial home, the fierceness of her gaze making clear the depth of her displeasure.
“This had better be good, Arman,” she growled at the man standing across from her, his head bowed low.
“Forgive me, Mistress,” Arman replied, his head bowed still. “But I think you need to hear this.”
“Hear what?” Mona muttered, tearing her gaze from the servant to face the only other being in the room. “And who are you?”
Smiling, the man bowed. “My name is Mahdi, Mistress.”
Smiling still, the man stood tall. “Well, I fear I bear some—”
“Just a moment!” Arman cried, then darted past his mistress to close the door, but not before pausing to confirm none were in the corridor beyond.
Mona watched the man in silence, the hairs on the back of her neck rising as the door finally closed. Then, as Arman turned and caught his mistress’s eye, he shrugged.
“Can’t be too careful,” he said.
“Careful of what?”
Arman moved to talk, but instead turned to the other within the room. “Proceed.”
“Arman, I asked you a question!” Mona snapped before the man named Mahdi could speak.
“Mistress, please,” Mahdi began, “if you’d just–”
Mona raised a finger to the man, her gaze upon Arman throughout.
“Well?” she soon snapped.
Arman turned to the man named Mahdi, then sighed and returned his gaze to his mistress.
“Karim Nour-al-Din,” Arman replied. “He’s still alive.”
“What?” Mona cried. “Don’t be ridiculous! I served his head to the Shah! I served him all their heads! You were there!”
“The head you served was his royal guard’s, Mistress,” Mahdi replied.
Mona turned to the man. “And just who the bloody hells are you?”
“He’s a servant of the Behnams, Mistress,” Arman replied. “He overheard Behzad Behnam talking to a slave he bought from your victory stock, the one his father bought him as a present. Remember, Mistress…?”
Frowning, Mona stared hard at her servant as she sought to recall that which Arman mentioned.
“It was during the celebration the Shah threw for your triumphant return,” Arman continued. “Behzad had gone to survey the slaves rather than attend the ceremony, then you and–”
“I remember,” Mona said at last. “The snarling man slave and the little girl beside him.”
“That’s them!” Mahdi cried.
Mona turned to the man. “And you’re here to tell me that man is Karim?”
“Yes, Mistress.” Mahdi nodded. “I heard him admit it with my own two ears.”
Slowly, Mona turned to face the man square, and as she did so, a deep chill swept through the room.
“Mahdi…was it?” Mona said at last.
Eagerly, Mahdi nodded.
“I don’t like liars, Mahdi, and I especially don’t like lowly slaves coming into my home and calling—”
“I’m not a slave, Mistress,” Madhi interjected, and from the corner of his eye, he watched as the man named Arman winced at him.
Mona cocked her head to the side, a soulless smile upon her lips. “Did you…just…interrupt me?”
Mahdi licked his lips, glancing at Arman as if for aid.
“Did you just interrupt me, Mahdi?” Mona repeated, taking a step forth.
“Mistress, please,” Arman said, “he didn’t mean anything by it, he—”
Mona held a finger up at her servant as she took another step forth.
“I asked you a question, Mahdi,” she said, taking another step. “Did. You. Just. Interrupt me?”
“I…uh…I mean…I didn’t…uhm…”
Mona took another step, the smile on her lips widening as the chill in her eyes grew.
“He’s not our slave, Mistress,” Arman added. “He belongs to the Behnams.”
“But do they know he’s here?”
“No,” Mahdi replied, shaking his head. “No, they don’t.”
Mona’s smile grew wider still, her eyes parching Mahdi’s throat as a chill hand seized his throat. She was now close enough for Mahdi to feel her breath.
“Interrupt me again,” she said, her voice barely above a whisper, “and you are never leaving this place. Understood?”
Eagerly, Mahdi nodded. “Yeah. Yeah, understood.”
“Good…” Mona nodded. “Very good.”
Then, she turned and sauntered towards the table at the centre of the room, a deeply perturbed Mahdi swallowing hard as he wiped his hands upon his trousers.
“So,” Mona added, spinning round as she reached the table and leaning upon it. “What proof do you have of Karim being this salve?”
“Well, uh,” Mahdi began, clearing his throat, “I overheard he and Behzad speaking, and—”
“So you have nothing.”
“No, Mistress,” Mahdi pleaded, “I heard them clearly, they—”
“You have nothing.”
Mahdi moved to speak, but sighed and fell silent as ordered.
“Mistress, if I may,” Arman began.
“I don’t see Behzad Behnam as one who would make wild claims without being able to support them…”
“Yes!” Madhi nodded, pointing at Arman. “Exactly.”
“…so I think it prudent to assume he is capable of defending this claim.”
Mona raised her chin to the man, her eyes narrowed to slits.
“And even if he has nothing compelling,” Arman continued, taking a step forth, “his father is adept at the games of Court. Were Behzad to provide him with something like this, and with even only a semblance of truth to it, the damage that man would do will be immeasurable.”
“Hrm…” Mona muttered.
“I think we must tread carefully, Mistress,” Arman said. “We can’t risk otherwise.”
Mona stared at her servant a spell, then turned to Mahdi. “Who else has he told?”
Madhi shook his head. “No-one, Mistress.”
“No-one? You’re sure.”
“Yes.” Mahdi nodded. “He’s waiting for his father to return first.”
“Return from where?”
“No doubt the Shah summoned him,” Arman replied, “much like he summoned your parent, Mistress.”
“Ah,” Mona nodded, “you mean the white foreigners with pointy ears.”
“Yes.” Arman nodded. “The Shah seems intent on impressing them.”
“Hrm…” Mona muttered, “so we have…what, ten days before he starts blathering?”
“It would seem that way, yes.” Arman nodded.
“Hrm…” Mona muttered, staring into the ether. Then she turned to Mahdi.
“Leave us,” she said, her tone making it clear it wasn’t a request.
“But…” Mahdi began, “my—”
“You will be paid later, man.” Arman growled. “Leave!”
Mahdi turned to Mona, and as their eyes met, the chill returned. Swallowing hard, the servant bowed and hurried to the door before opening it and stepping through and, bowing once more, closed the door softly.
“How much did he ask for?” Mona asked after a spell.
“Five hundred gold, Mistress.”
Mona blinked hard, turning to her man. “How much?”
“Five hundred gold,” Arman replied.
“Arman, have you lost your mind?”
The servant smiled. “Given the circumstances, Mistress, I thought it prudent to ensure his silence.”
“Yes, but, five hundred gold?”
Arman shrugged. “Well, there’s no telling what would happen to him between here and the Behnam residence. I hear there’s been a spate of robberies lately.”
“Ah.” Mona sighed, smiling. “I should’ve known you had a plan.”
“Always, Mistress.” The man smiled.
Shaking her head, Mona breathed deep, but as she let out a sigh, her smile faded.
“So Karim is alive, then,” she muttered.
“It would be prudent to think so, Mistress.”
“The clearest course of action will be to end Karim before anyone knows of this,” Arman offered.
“Clearly!” Mona replied. “But Behzad’s going to have him tucked away tight!”
“Then, we need to force Behzad to bring him into the open.”
“How? The Shah’s made it clear he wants nothing untoward happening in the city for as long as these foreign guests are around, and the day they leave is the day the Behnams head home!”
“Yes, Mistress,” Arman nodded, “I’ve been trying to think of a suitable ruse that won’t earn the displeasure of the Shah, and while I haven’t thought of anything, I’m sure there is something we can plan to force his hand.”
“And even if we do kill the little bastard, who’s to say this proof Behnam has will die with Karim?”
“I…” Arman began, but soon fell silent.
“Exactly. You were the one saying we should be prudent in our assumptions, weren’t you? So, what makes you think killing Karim will be the end of it?”
“So, what does Mistress suggest?” Arman asked. “Kill them both?”
Mona gritted her teeth, staring hard at her servant as she did so.
“Mistress!” Arman gasped. “The Shah is fond of his father! If that boy dies, there will surely be an inquisition. A thorough one!”
“Then we make it an accident!”
“There’s no way we can make his death an accident and not have his father look into it!”
“Then, you’re just not thinking hard enough!”
“Mistress, please! We can’t—”
“I’m not losing everything, Arman!” Mona barked. “Do you hear me? That little shite isn’t taking all I’ve worked so hard for away from me! He dies! They both die! Do you hear me? They both die!”
“How, Mistress?” Arman pressed. “How?”
Mona moved to speak, but her mind was a blank. Kissing her teeth, she spun about as she wracked her brain for the best course of action.
Then she saw it, a painting on the wall. Her first griffin. And the moment she saw it, she knew precisely what to do.
“Arman,” she said, slowly turning to her servant as a soft smile parted her lips.
“Did you not tell me the other day that Behzad’s been riding his griffin of late?”
“Yes, Mistress,” Arman nodded, “he has.”
“And the Shah’s planning a grand aerial display for the foreigners, right?”
“Why, yes, but I don’t see how—”
“How eager do you think the Shah would be were someone to suggest an aerial display between the only midnight hawk for miles, and little old me?”
“What do you mean? Why would…?”
As his words died in this throat, Arman began to smile.
“I see.” He nodded. “An accident, in full view of everyone. Including the Shah.”
Mona’s smile widened.
“Clever, Mistress. Very clever.”
“Hm, isn’t it just.”
“How do you intend to convince the Shah of this, though?”
“We send word to my father. I’m sure he and Mother will think of something.”
Grinning, Arman nodded. “I’m sure they would.”
“Go make preparations to send word to Father. I’ll provide the letter shortly.”
“At once, Mistress.” Arman bowed, then spun on his heels and hurried to do his mistress’s bidding.
As the door closed, Mona stared into the ether as a deep sneer twisted her lips.
“You should’ve known better than to cross swords with me, Behzad,” she growled. “You should’ve known better.”
Then, with her sneer firm on her lips, the scheming woman marched forth, the words for the missive to her father already forming in her mind.
Sitting in his carriage, Omid stared out the window beside him as a now familiar hand gripped his heart tight and refused to let go. Once more, his mind turned to the Shah, and that bastard of man, Ramin Hedayati, as he spoke words that may well spell the doom of his only son.
“You promised me, Omid!”
Clenching his teeth against the ache in his heart, an ache that mirrored the deep pain within those spoken words, Omid turned to his wife as she sat near the opposite door. Her eyes were bloodshot, her handkerchief clenched tight in her hand.
“You said you’d speak to him,” his wife continued, her voice quivering as her tears fell anew. “You promised me!”
“And I did, my dear,” Omid stressed. “I did!”
“Then why did he give that order?” Farah cried.
“Because of Ramin!”
“Ramin is not the Shah!” Farah shrieked. “He is not the Shah! You promised you’d speak to the Shah! Why didn’t you speak to the Shah!”
Shaking his head, Omid shuffled towards his wife to hug her tight.
“No!” Farah cried, fighting her husband’s embrace. “Get off me, no!”
With each cry, the heart broken woman rained blow after blow upon Omid’s chest, each blow fiercer than the last, till at last, he retreated.
“Don’t touch me!” Farah seethed, glaring at her husband.
“Farah,” Omid said at last, “as the gods bear me witness, I spoke to him. I did! And he gave me his word, there would be no reason for us to showcase Zarin.”
“Then, why is he demanding we bring her?”
“Because of Ramin!”
“Ramin can’t countermand the Shah, Omid!” Farah thundered. “I may not be as good as you in the game of Court, but even I bloody know that!”
“And if he were to force the Shah into a corner?” Omid replied. “Force him to choose between saving face and keeping his promise to me? A promise he made only to me, and in secret, what do you think the Shah would choose?”
Farah moved to speak, but no words came.
“Exactly!” Omid added. “He and Daria spoke to those foreigners behind the Shah’s back, told them all about Zarin, and when they mentioned it to the Shah, Ramin was there extolling Zarin’s virtues so much the Shah couldn’t refuse their requests for an aerial display!”
“But…” Farah replied, utterly confused. “That would mean they just displeased the Shah.”
“Why? I know they hate us, but why would they stretch their necks out so far? They must know the Shah will find a way to make them pay for this.”
Omid moved to speak, but instead shook his head.
“What is going on?” Farah asked. “What aren’t you telling me?”
Sighing, the tired man turned to his wife, grasping her hands as he did so. “I wish I knew, my dear, and that’s the hones truth, but the fact remains the Shah has ordered us to prepare Zarin for an aerial display tomorrow above his palace courtyard, and that snake Ramin is to blame.”
Farah held her husband’s gaze, and as she did so, her eyes began to glisten once more.
“They’re going to kill my son,” she soon said.
“No.” Omid shook his head and raised a hand to his wife’s cheek. “Farah, no. Don’t think like that. He’s been training, remember?”
“Yeah, with a harness!”
“No.” Omid shook his head once more. “Reza let me know in his last note that Behzad’s now riding without a harness. Have faith in your son, Farah. Have faith in Behzad. It’s just an aerial display, remember? There will be no battle. Have faith in him.”
The heartbroken woman grasped the hand upon her cheek with both of hers. “You really think he’ll survive?”
Omid smiled. “Have faith, my dear. Have faith.”
Farah stared at her husband with pleading eyes for what seemed like an eternity, till at last, swallowing hard, she nodded and smiled. “Yeah. Yeah, I will.”
“Good.” Omid nodded. “Good!”
Nodding herself, Farah wiped her tears and turned to her window, but the moment her gaze was turned, Omid’s face fell. It was not a lie, what he’d said, not entirely, but what else could he have said? And so, gritting his teeth, Omid shuffled back to his window and stared through it.
“Have faith,” he though, his voice bitter. “How in the hells is that going to save my son?”
The journey forth soon became the most unpleasant the couple had had for a long while, for while one was desperately clinging to hope, the other was fighting the despair seeking to drown him, with the silence within the carriage some small comfort to the both of them.
Then, at last, they reached their manor, and as it rolled to a halt, Omid opened his door and leapt out.
“You go see Behzad,” he said, turning to his wife. “I’ll be in shortly.”
“Why, where are you going?”
Omid moved to speak, but stopped and smiled. A lie would do no good here.
“I’m going to see Zarin,” he said instead.
Farah slowly sat tall as her face fell. Then she shook her head. “No! Omid, no! You can’t ride her! I am not going to—”
Omid widened his smile as he softened his gaze. “Trust me, Farah, alright? Trust me! Please. You will not lose either of us, I promise. Alright?”
His wife stared at him in silence a spell, then nodded at last. “Alright.”
“Alright.” Omid nodded, then turned and marched forth.
Humming softly, little Bahiti watched as Karim cleaned and mended the griffin saddle, the soft smile upon his lips slowly drifting to her as she swayed from side to side, but as the door slowly swung open, she turned, her brow furrowed deep.
“Who…” she began, but the moment she laid eyes on the two men at the entrance, a sharp gasp escaped her lips as she scrambled to her feet and bowed.
“Welcome—” she began, but a sharp cry stilled her tongue, and as her brow furrowed deep, she turned to the griffin, and what she saw made her slowly straighten.
For as long as she’d know the griffin, its gaze, no, its very demeanour, had been fierce and full of such confidence, but as she stared at the great bird, it was as if she was looking at a completely different griffin, for the one before her eyes was…cowering! And with a gaze filled with something Bahiti couldn’t quite place.
“Ah, Zarin, my dear,” the master of the manor said, wandering forth as Reza closed the door behind them, “forgive me, I should never have stayed away for so long.”
In response, the great bird let out a single chirp, one as soft as it was heartrending, and shaking her head, she lowered her gaze before turning to the man named Omid once more, and as Bahiti stared at the great bird, she knew at last what it was she had seen her eyes. It was shame.
Frowning deep, Bahiti turned to Karim. His gaze mirrored hers perfectly, and with a shrug and a shake of the head, Bahiti turned to the scene before her once more.
Omid now stood before the griffin, stretching out a hand to caress the great bird’s head, but as he did so, Zarin recoiled, repeating the same heartrending chirp over and over again.
“Will you not greet me?” Omid said.
The great bird shook its head and cowered once more, its soft cries unending as it kept its gaze firmly upon, the floor.
“Zarin,” the man named Omid stressed.
Once more, the griffin shook her head, cowering even more.
Sighing, the man reached for the griffin’s head and, ever so gently, turned her gaze to his.
“Envy makes monsters of us all, Zarin,” he said, his voice soft. “If anything, I should be apologising to you. I should’ve known better than to allow her come so close when she was with child.”
“Wait, what?” Bahiti began, but a sharp stare from Reza stilled her tongue.
“It’s alright,” Omid continued, a smile upon his lips as he caressed the great bird’s face. “Really.”
The griffin stared at her former master a spell, then, without warning, rested her forehead against Omid’s, her silky soft feathers rustling as she rubbed her forehead against Omid, her chirps happy as Omid chuckled and stroked the great bird’s head.
Then, standing tall, she gave a sharp cry and nudged Omid toward the riding saddle hanging on the wall not far from her.
Laughing, Omid shook his head. “I’m afraid my riding days are over, my dear. My back can’t take the strain anymore.”
Almost at once, the griffin’s joviality began to fade, her shoulders sagging as she lowered her head, her chirps sad once more.
“No,” Omid said, his voice firm as he held the bird’s head high and their gazes locked. “No. I have never blamed you for what happened, and I never shall. You hear me? Never!”
A heavy silence fell upon the room, and for a spell, it seemed neither master nor griffin was aware of anyone save each other, and as the silence grew, Omid’s smile returned. Then, as his smile widened, he began stroking Zarin’s head once more, his gentle caresses drawing a deep purr from the griffin as she closed her eyes and sighed.
“I must beg your indulgence though, Zarin,” Omid said after a spell, holding the griffin’s head in both hands as he stared deep into her eyes, his smile long gone. “There is something I must ask you.”
The great bird stood tall, the fierce gaze she was known for now returned.
“Behzad is to ride you to the palace tomorrow—”
“Woah!” Bahiti cried, turning to Karim.
“Wait, what?” Karim added, his gaze going from Omid to Zarin and back. “Ride all the way to—”
“This does not concern you, Amon!” Reza snapped in a voice that brooked no insolence. “Be quiet.”
“I need you to bring him back to me, Zarin,” Omid continued. “Please. I know he is hers, but he is also mine. Protect him, please. Whatever it takes. I can’t lose him. Will you do that for me?”
The great bird stared deep into her former master’s eyes, and rising, she squared its shoulders and gave a single loud cry.
Smiling, Omid nodded.
“Thank you,” he said, then rested his forehead against her breast. “Thank you.”
“Now, I must return,” he added as he straightened. “I have yet to tell Behzad the news.”
Then, breathing deep, the tired man turned to leave.
“No, wait,” Karim said, stepping forth and reaching for the man.
As he did so, the great griffin turned slowly toward him, a low throated gobble emanating from her. It was the first time Bahiti had heard the bird threaten Karim so clearly.
Stopping, Karim lowered his hand, his eyes darting from Omid to Zarin and back before standing tall.
“Please, sir,” he said at last, bowing as he spoke, “what did you mean when you said Behzad is riding her to the palace tomorrow?”
“What do you think I meant?”
“But…he can’t! He’s barely mastered riding without a harness. To ride that long on a bird like Zarin…he’ll fall!”
Omid turned to stare at the man square. “And do you not think I know that?”
“Then, why are you making him do this?”
“Amon…” Reza warned. “Watch your tone.”
“It’s alright, Reza,” Omid added, nodding at Reza. Then he turned to Karim once more.
“I’m not making him do this, Amon,” he said as he took a step forth. “You are.”
“What?” Karm frowned.
“Yes, Amon. Or should that be Karim?”
A deep chill ran through little Bahiti, her lips agape as she forgot for a moment how to breathe.
“What?” Omid continued, a cold smile upon his lips. “Did you think it mere coincidence that you’re standing here? Did you think it coincidence that you were in that exact cage back at the market? I arranged for you to be there, boy. I know my son, and I know your pride. I knew all I had to do was get him to your cage and he would doubtless pick you. And now, here I am, about to lose my son, because of a blasted promise I made your father.” The man shook his head. “You have no idea how much I curse that day.”
“Wait…” Karim gasped, “you arranged this?”
Omid held his peace, glaring at the man.
Stunned, Karim turned to Reza. “You knew?”
Reza held Karim’s gaze a spell, then raised his chin and nodded. “My orders were to get to your cage and keep the slavers busy long enough for Behzad to warm to you.”
Omid shrugged. “Had Reza bought you outright and the truth about you be revealed, it could be claimed we knew who you were all along, why else would he have straight to your cage to buy you. But if—”
“But if you bought me as a present, you can claim coincidence…” Karim muttered, lowering his gaze as he stared into the ether.
Reza nodded. “Yes.”
“Good gods,” he breathed. Then he turned to Omid once more. “Wait, what did you mean when you said you were going to lose your son because of me?”
“The Hedayatis know about you, boy,” Reza replied as Omid glared at him. “They’ve arranged for an aerial display tomorrow between Behzad and Mona. In full view of the Shah.”
“They’re going to kill him,” Omid continued. “They clearly know he knows about you, and are looking to silence him, then silence you.”
Kaim stared at the man, his brow furrowed deep.
“Were it not for my honour, I would sell you this very night,” Omid continued, “but a vow is a vow. However, should my son survive this, I shall be moving you out of the city, and out of sight.”
Then, without another word, Omid spun on his heels and marched towards the door, and as Reza pulled it open, the master of the manor marched out of the stable, Reza slamming the door loudly behind them.
Bahiti turned to Kairm, her heart in her throat.
“Amon?” she said after a spell.
Breathing deep, Karim turned to the little girl. “I need a favour, but it’ll get you in a lot of trouble.”
The little girl shook her head. “I don’t care.”
Karim smiled. “Good. Now, listen close.”
As they marched on in silence, Reza glanced at his master. The haggard look on the man’s face tore at him like nothing else.
“Do you think he believed us, Master?” he said at last.
“What?” Omid frowned.
“Amon,” Reza replied. “Do you think he believed us?”
Stopping at last, Omid breathed deep and turned to the stables behind them before letting out a long, ragged sigh. “He has to.”
Nodding, Reza turned to the stables himself.
“You really think they know?” Reza soon asked, turning to his master.
Sighing, Omid nodded. “What Ramin did was reckless beyond measure. It would’ve taken something really bad to have forced his hand like that, and Amon being who he is fits too perfectly.”
“Yeah, I supposed it does,” Reza muttered. Then his gaze hardened. “Given the timing of their actions though, it’ll mean someone here told them.”
At those words, all warmth faded from Omid’s eyes. “Yes, I suppose it does. You think you can find out who?”
Old Reza nodded. “Yes.”
“Good.” Omid nodded. “You know what to do when you find them, don’t you?”
Reza nodded once more. He knew precisely what to do once he found the traitor.
Then, the man sighed. “It’s late. I’m going to go to Behzad and Farah. Why don’t you go to bed? Come find me in the morning, and we’ll see where we are then.”
“Of course, Master,” Reza said, then bowed. “Good night.”
“Good night, Reza,” Omid replied.
And with nothing left to say, the two men parted ways, the weight of their thoughts bearing heavy on their shoulders.
Slowly, Omid rolled onto his back, a soft sigh escaping his lips. Sleep had been fleeting, and now refused to grace him entirely. But he knew he needed some, for soon, the spectacle of the day would begin.
Sighing, he turned to his wife, her back to him as her side rose and fell ever so softly, and once again, he felt a tinge of guilt. He hated keeping her in the dark, always had, but this was for her sake. And their son’s.
“Doesn’t make it any easier, though,” he thought to himself as he turned to the window, one whose thick curtains kept much of the light out, and as he stared, he began to wonder how long till morning.
Then, a loud knock came at the door.
“Master, we have trouble!”
“There’s your answer,” he muttered as he slowly rose.
“Master!” the voice cried, then the knock came again, this time more frenetic than before.
“Mmh?” Farah stirred as she slowly rose, her thoughts still clouded by sleep.
“Wha…?” Farah began.
Turning to his wife, Omid placed a gentle hand upon her shoulder.
“Farah, something’s happened,” he said. “Reza’s at the door.”
“What?” Farah replied, the remnants of sleep banished by her husband’s words.
“I don’t know,” he replied. “Grab your robe, I’ll go see what the problem is.”
Then, he rose, gritting his teeth as he marched toward the door, and with a deep breath, he swung it open.
“What is it?” he asked. “What’s happened?”
But though those were the words upon his lips, his eyes asked a different question.
Going to one knee, Reza bowed. “Forgive me, Master, but…something’s happened, and I…I need you to come see this.”
Then he raised his gaze, and as he stared, he answered with his eyes the question his master had asked with his.
“So, it has begun,” Omid thought to himself, and standing tall, he turned to his wife.
“Come,” he said. “Quickly.”
Reaching their son’s room. Omid held his breath as Reza knocked, paused, then knocked again. Then, after another pause, the door opened. Then, once inside, Omid watched as his son closed the door behind them.
“Well?” Omid demanded, glaring at Behzad. “What’s the meaning of this?”
“I…” Behzad began, but turned to Reza, who nodded in response.
Breathing deep, Behzad nodded and turned to his father.
“Father, don’t be angry, alright?” he began. “Please. He did it to protect me.”
“Who did what?”
Behzad moved to speak, but fell silent and led his parents deeper into his room, and as they rounded his bed, Omid saw at last the little girl kneeling there with her head bowed low.
“Bahiti?” Omid frowned, then turned to Behzad, his gaze fierce. “Behzad, what is she doing in your bed chamber?”
“It’s not what you think, Father,” Behzad replied, then turned to the little girl. “Tell them.”
The little girl was shaking, her fists gripping her dress tight, and with a bow, she shuffled to face Omid and Farah square, then breathed deep.
“I…Amon asked me to st…to steal Behzad’s clothes for his ride today and—”
“What?” Omid cried.
“Father, please!” Behzad said.
“What in the hells for?” Omid barked at the cowering girl.
“He…” the little girl replied, “he’s taken Zarin and—”
“What do you mean, taken?” Omid thundered. “Are you telling me he’s stolen my—”
“Father, please!” Behzad pleaded.
“I’m afraid it’s true, Master,” Reza added, calling all eyes to him. “Zarin is gone, along with Amon. The guards said they saw someone who looked like Behzad ride Zarin out not long before dawn. They’d assumed Behzad wanted an early practice on her, and thought nothing of it.”
“Amon didn’t steal her, though!” Bahiti stressed, her eyes darting between those before her. “He’s taking her to the palace. He’s going to pretend to be Behzad and do the air…fly…thing so Behzad doesn’t have to. He asked me to get Behzad’s clothes so he can look like Behzad, and then asked me to come back and make sure Behzad doesn’t leave his room so nobody realises.”
“How did you get into my son’s room?” Farah demanded.
The little girl’s face fell as she lowered her gaze. “My…father was a thief. He taught me how to pick locks and a…few other things.”
“I see. And Amon knew?”
Bahiti nodded. “He saw me pick the lock of my chains once. He and I became friends after that.”
“This is getting us nowhere,” Omid growled, then spun to Reza. “Reza, summon the guards. We—”
“Father, no, please!” Behzad cried before stepping between the men. “Please! Hear me out! If we take action and the Shah hears, will he not punish us? Zarin is a royal gift, after all, and having her ridden by a slave is an insult to the crown, is it not? Granted, we had no knowledge of his actions, but I doubt that would matter, or would it?”
Omid moved to speak, but held is peace at the last moment, pursing his lips instead.
“So, what do you suggest?” he said at last.
Behzad stood tall. “Amon’s pretended to be me, so I pretend to be him. We keep up the pretence till after the display, then Amon and I swap clothes and carry on as if nothing happened.”
Omid stared hard at his son.
“That is a big ask, Behzad,” he said at last. “Do you really think Amon can fool people into thinking he is you? You two look nothing alike!”
“Ah,” Behzad smiled, “you’re forgetting my riding helmet. With that on, he should be able to do it easily enough, at a distance. He and I are not that different in stature, remember? And on a griffin as fast as Zarin, no-one will have a chance to get a close enough look to tell the difference.”
“Father, I see no other way through this.”
Omid glared hard at his son, then breathed deep and stood tall.
“Very well,” he said, then turned to Reza. “Get him some of Amon’s clothes, and something for his head. He shall accompany us to the palace, and will remain by your side at all times.”
Reza bowed at his master. “As you command.”
“Good.” Omid nodded, then turned to his wife.
Farah was staring at him, and with eyes as steel. Did she know the truth?
Gritting his teeth, Omid reached for his wife.
“Come, my dear,” he said. “We must hurry.”
Farah stared at her husband’s hand a spell, then turned to him, her gaze unchanged, aid with nary a word, took her husband’s hand.
“All of you, get to it!” Omid snapped, turning to the others. “We leave shortly!”
Then, without waiting for a response, Omid headed for the door and led his wife from the room as Reza hurried forth and opened the door for them.
The march back to their room was as cold as it was silent, the air about the pair stifling in no small measure, with Farah’s gaze firmly forward, her back straight and her gaze fierce, and it wasn’t till the pair were back in their room and their door firmly closed that she spoke.
“You planned this, didn’t you?” she said as Omid turned from the door.
“What?” Omid frowned.
“Don’t toy with me, Omid,” Farah replied, shaking her head as she spoke. “I know you. You didn’t go to the stable to speak with Zarin, you went to speak to Amon. You planned this, didn’t you?”
Omid smiled at his wife. Yes, she did know.
“It’s not what you think,” he said at last.
“Don’t lie to me, Omid.”
Omid shook his head and wandered towards his wife. “I’m not. I really was going to the stables to see Zarin. I wanted to have her look after Behzad. Then Reza found me, and when I told him what had happened at the Shah’s, he told me something, something that explained everything.
Farha frowned at this. “What?”
Stopping before his wife, Omid smiled. “Amon is Karim Nour-al-Din.”
Farah stared in silence at her husband a spell, her gaze one of utter bewilderment.
“Forgive me, what?” she said at last.
Omid’s smile grew. “Amon is the last surviving member of the Nour-al-Din line of kings.”
Farah shook her head. “That can’t be true.”
“But…Mona presented all the heads of…”
Then, as the full extent of her husband’s words dawned on her, Farha gasped as her eyes went wide.
“Oh my gods, of course!” she gasped, gazing into the ether. “This was never about us!”
“No, it’s not.” Omid shook his head. “I think Ramin and Daria believe Behzad know of Amon being Karim, and are trying g to silence him. And I expect them to make a play for Karim’s life later.”
“Gods!” Farah gasped. Then she turned to her husband once more.
“But if that’s true, why in the world would you send Karim out there dressed like Behzad?” she cried. “Do you not think the Shah will notice?”
Omid smiled. “Firstly, I didn’t send him. I merely used words that would appeal to his sense of loyalty. If he were caught, we can still claim we had no knowledge of his actions, and the boy himself will back us on that–”
“That’s a poor defence, and you know it.”
“It’s still some defence.”
Farah moved to speak, but fell silent. Then, breathing deep, she folded her arms and stared hard at her husband. “And the second?”
“Second,” Omid replied, sauntering towards his wife, “which would you rather lose? All of this…” he gestured at all that was around them, “or your son?”
Farah held her husband’s gaze a spell, then a slow smile parted her lips.
“Come,” she said at last. “We’re going to be late.”
Omid’s smile grew to a grin.
“Yes,” he nodded, “let’s hurry.”
And with that, the pair began preparing for the day ahead.
Gritting his teeth, Karim gripped the blade by his side tight as he flew on atop the great midnight hawk. His clothing chaffed and his helmet fit a little too tightly, but none of that compared with the raging turmoil within him. He’d told Bahiti he was doing this to save Behzad, to spare their young master from a horrid end, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.
“They’ve arranged for an aerial display tomorrow between Behzad and Mona.”
Those words had echoed in his head over and over since Omid Behnam had said them and he’d realised what he must do.
“I’m going to kill you, Mona,” the young prince seethed. “For everything you’ve done to my family, to my people, I’m going to kill you in full view of your Shah.”
And that was his goal. Not loyalty to some spoilt brat, no, vengeance, true and plain. The mere thought of it made his whole frame quiver, for it was a wish he’d begged of the gods over so many nights, and now, at last, he would get his chance.
A single cry from the griffin beneath him drew Karim from his thoughts, and lowering his gaze to the great bird, he felt once more the tinge of guilt that had plagued him since the thought first formed. Were he to succeed, the Behnams would lose everything. Their status, their wealth, and possibly even their very lives. Was he truly prepared to visit such misfortune on a family that had not once treated him like a slave? And then there was Zarin. Were he to succeed, she would never be with her master again. It would break the great bird’s heart, and griffins have been known to simply lay down and await death upon the loss of the one they’d bonded with. Was he truly prepared to damn her to such a fate?
Gritting his teeth, Karim stared on at the great bird before reaching forth a hand and gently caressing her nape. It would be a cruel sentence, to be sure, but to not see this through, to leave his family, his people unavenged, is that not a greater injustice?
On and on, the thoughts flowed in the young prince’s mind, his guilt growing and waning as the battle raged within him, till at last, he saw the grand palace in the distance. There was no turning back now.
“I guess that settles it, then,” he muttered, and settled into his saddle.
Sitting astride her griffin, Mona bit back a smile as she watched the dark bird in the distance grow nearer.
“About time he showed up,” she muttered, donning her safety helmet amidst the gentle sound of lazy wings beating, and as she secured it, her smile broke free at last as she lowered a hand to the hidden pouch sewn into the front of her jerkin, and then to the hollow tube hidden up her sleeve.
Then, she grasped hold of her reins and waited for Behzad’s arrival.
At last, Karim reached the palace, with the object of his hate right before him. Gripping his hidden blade tight, the seething prince fought hard against the rage coursing through him. Not yet, her Shah must see this. Not yet…
“Took you bloody long enough!” came a curt voice from beneath Karim, drawing his gaze to the griffin rising from the below, and upon whom sat a man dressed in ornate finery and wearing a look of utter disdain. “You’re lucky the Shah isn’t here yet.”
Then, the man’s scowl deepened. “Did you get dressed in the dark, or does your family no longer have the coin to buy you clothes that fit.”
“What does it matter?” Mona snapped. “He’s here, isn’t he?”
Biting his tongue, the official turned to Mona to hold her in his most contemptible glare, only to face an icy stare in return.
“Harrumph!” the official soon added, turning from Mona and pulling his griffin higher till he hovered fully above the pair.
“I trust it’s not too much to ask for you two to sit quietly and await the Shah’s arrival, then?”
Karim glared at the man and turned to Mona. She was staring at him with a smile that was devoid of warmth.
“Keep smiling, bitch,” he thought. “Keep smiling till the very end.”
Then, breathing deep, he pulled his hand away from his blade and turned Zarin towards the gathering below and fought to calm his nerves.
“Hurry!” Farah hissed as she darted up the steps.
“I am hurrying!” Omid hissed, rushing on after her. “But my back is killing me, you know!”
“Manage, Omid, manage!”
Reaching the top at last, Omid sucked in breath and gritted his teeth against the crippling pain that had gripped the entirety of his lower back, and clenching his fists, he forced a smile forced himself tall before sauntering as best he could towards his wife, nodding at the nobles and officials he passed as he went. Then his eyes fell upon the Hedayatis, and for a moment, time stood still. The pair noticed him, and, smirking as one, nodded in greeting. It took all Omid had to force a smile to his lips and nod back.
“Soon,” Omid thought. “You’ll get yours, you’ll see.”
Then, he moved to hurry to his wife’s side, but as he did so, the royal trumpets sounded, announcing the arrival of the Shah.
“About bloody time,” Mona growled.
“What your tongue, woman!” snapped the official above her, then cleared his throat and pulled free a paddle before raising it to his lipa.
“Welcome, honoured guests, and gracious nobles, to this wondrous day!” he said, the enchanted paddle in his hand sending his voice far and wide. “Today, we celebrate…”
Ignoring the man’s words, Mona turned to Behzad, and as her smile returned, she inched her fingers beneath her sleeve and slowly began pulling the tube hidden up her sleeve out.
Karim listened in grim silence as the official droned on, gripping his reins tight to keep his hands in check.
“Mother, Father,” he whispered, closing his eyes and bowing his head slightly, “grant me strength to see this through. Let my aim be true that I may at last give you rest.”
And then, letting out a deep sigh, he opened his eyes and waited for the official to finish.
“And now!” the official barked at last. “Riders! To your stations!”
“It begins,” Karim thought, and pulling on Zarin’s reins, guided the griffin skywards towards the blue balloons high in the sky above them.
Reaching them at last, the young prince allowed his eyes to wander to the red balloons arrayed before them. A race course, with many twists and turns, with the first bend not too far away. That’s where he would strike. Zarin was the faster griffin, for she was a midnight hawk, and Mona’s griffin was a normal snow crown, so it wouldn’t be an issue to get in front. Then, all he had to do was slow Zarin down enough for Mona to get close, and once they take the turn together, he’d strike.
“Then it’ll be over,” he whispered.
Yes, it was a good plan, and now, all he had to do was carry it out.
Karim gripped Zarin’s reins, leant forward, and held his breath.
“Hya!” Karim cried, whipping Zarin’s reins, and with a cry, the great griffin shot forward, a similar cry emanating from Mona’s as he too raced forth.
But he was a smidgeon slower on reacting, giving Zarin all the time she needed to dart in front, and with a triumphant cry, the great griffin leant into her charge and made to widen her lead.
“Slow down, Zarin,” Karim said, pulling on her reins slightly, “not too far forward.”
At first, the feisty griffin fought her rider’s command, but as he pulled tighter on her reins, she relented, but not without letting her feelings known.
“I know you want to win,” Karim said, lying prone upon the great bird, “but I need you to follow my lead, alright?”
The deep growl from the griffin told him he only had her loyalty to a point, and in spite of himself, Karim couldn’t help but smile at the great griffin’s thirst for victory.
“Just take it easy,” he soothed as he turned round to see how close his quarry is. “I just need you to…”
At first, Karim could not make sense of the tube in Mona’s hand, but the moment she raised it to her lips, his blood ran cold, and as his eyes went wide, he tensed for the attack that was to come, timing his dodge to perfection to avoid the dart that sailed towards him, and with his heart racing up his throat, he watched as the dart thudded against the feathers upon Zarin’s nape.
“No, Zarin!” he gasped, reaching for the dart.
But he needn’t have worried, for the griffin’s feathers had shielded her from the dart, catching it easily and keeping its poisoned tip from her flesh, and as Karim pulled it free, he sighed with relief as he realised it didn’t go deep enough to hurt the midnight hawk.
Then, he raised it to his nose and smelt it, and as he did so, he felt his whole frame go numb. He knew the poison, he knew it well. At this dose, it wouldn’t even constitute a mild inconvenience to a midnight hawk, but to him, it would be enough to slow down his heart and his breathing, and, crucially, rob him of his limbs, and at this height, if he cannot hold onto his reins…
“That bitch is trying to kill me!” he gasped, turning to Mona once more.
He could only watch as she reached down her jerkin, a deep scowl upon her lips as she pulled free another dart and began slotting it into the tube. Then she raised the tube to her lips.
“Damn it!” Karim spat and pulled Zarin’s reins downward as hard as he could. “Dive, Zarin! Now!”
The great griffin shrieked in protest, but quickly pulled her wings in and plummeted towards the earth, a second shriek following hers as Mona’s griffin did the same.
“What are they doing?” Omid heard one of the foreigners mutter.
“It’s probably part of the display,” muttered another.
“Well, what else would it be?”
Omid knew precisely what it was, and it left him with a deep chill. Mona had made a direct play for Karim’s life, and now Karim was trying to evade her. Reza had asked him if she would go that far, and he’d dismissed him, saying she wasn’t that stupid. Gods, how wrong he was. Now, all he can do is watch and pray he hadn’t sent Karim to his death.
“Zarin,” he whispered. “Keep him alive, Zarin.”
Weaving through the air, Karim’s thoughts raced as he desperately sought a means to become the hunter, but nothing he’d tried thus far had worked. Keeping out of the woman’s range was impossible for her blow gun was doubtless enchanted; no matter the distance, the darts always reached him. Neither did he succeed in getting behind the woman for any meaningful length of time, for her and her griffin moved as one, while Zarin fought him at every turn. It required more subtle manoeuvring than he could manage to get behind her at the speed they were at and stay there, and he knew it. But he had to do something!
“Think, damn it, think!” he cried as he glanced behind him once more, and sure enough, Mona was readying for another strike.
“Gods damn it!” he yelled and beckoned Zarin to bank right, and, as with all the other times, the great griffin fought his grip, but soon obeyed.
Except, when they pair at last began to turn, Karim felt something thin and sharp strike the back of his hand, and as his heart raced up his throat, he looked down.
There was dart embedded into the back of his hand, and as he stared at it, he began to feel his grip beginning to loosen.
“Oh, gods,” he gasped, and turned to stare behind him once more.
The woman’s eyes were wide, and she wore the grin of a victor.
He’d failed. He would never again get the chance to avenge his family, and instead would join them in shame. It was a thought that broke his heart, a single tear running down his cheek as he felt his whole frame begin to go numb and him beginning to slip from the saddle.
“Omid! Omid!” Farah shrieked, grasping her husband’s arm before pointing to Karim as he fell from the sky. Worse, Mona’s griffin was harrying Zarin now, as if keeping her from going to Karim’s rescue.
“Oh, gods, he’s going to die!” Farah added.
“This really is most unfortunate,” Ramin Hedayati called out, drawing the couple’s gaze to him. “It might be best for you to look away, my dear.”
The couple glared hard at the man before turning to the sky once more.
“Zarin, do something!” Omid hissed. “Save him!”
The feeling of triumph was something Mona could never tire of, and as it filled her every being, she grinned as she basked in its glory. Tearing her gaze from the midnight hawk as her snow crown chased and harried it, she watched as the fool Behzad plummeted to his death. Any moment now, it would be over. Granted, it hadn’t worked as smoothly as she’d hoped, and granted, the Shah would likely dream up some punishment for her attacking the fool, but it would be nothing compared to him learning the truth. She’d endure and rebuild. As for Behzad…
“So long,” she sneered, “Behzad Behn—”
Just then, an ear-piercing screech rang out, startling her so much she pulled on her griffin’s reins without realising, and in that moment, as her griffin obeyed her command and slow his speed, a great shadow fell upon her. It was only then she realised just where the shrieked had come from, and she could only watch in stupefied wonder as the great griffin named Zarin performed a perfect barrel roll over her before diving to the earth, a second shriek emanating from the bird as it dove.
“Oh no, you don’t!” Mone gasped, coming to life at last. “Omar, go!”
Unable to breathe, Omid eyes were transfixed upon the streak of midnight blue racing for Karim, the snow crown that was Mona’s griffin racing after it. But Karim was close to the earth, Zarin had only moments left before it was too late. He knew his griffin was fast but…
Then, Zarin’s shrieks rang out once more, her fury and frustration plain as she flew forth with little care for her own safety, closing the distance with an unearthly speed that shocked even Omid. She might make it. Dear gods, she might just save him!
“She’s not going to make it!” Farah gasped beside him.
Omid shook his head. “She’ll make it.”
“Omid, she’s not going to make it!”
“She’ll make it, Farah, she’ll make it!”
“No.” Farah shook her head, her face ashen. “It’s too late.”
“No, it’s not, she…”
But Omid could no longer say the words, for though his heart clung desperately to hope, what his eyes told him was he needed to look away. Now.
And then, Zarin’s shrieks rang out once more, save this time they were followed by an echoing boom, one that startled all who heard it, and what followed was a sight none gathered, not even Omid himself, had ever witness of a griffin, for in that moment, when Karim’s death was assured, the great griffin Zarin reached a speed unseen by anyone, and with one last desperate lunge, she grasped her talons about Karim, pulled him close and covered them both with her wings before forcing her whole frame into a frantic roll that sent her bouncing off the soft earth, crashing through posts, carts and guards before slamming through the Shah’s prized hedge sculpture, obliterating it entirely as she slid at last to a halt.
A deathly silence fell upon the gathered nobles as they watched the feathered heap with bated breath. None moved, none even blinked as they waited for some signs of life. Then, at last, Zarin’s wings parted to reveal her rider lying prone upon her, but he seemed lifeless, unmoving.
“Oh, no…” Farah said, a hand to her lips as her voice quivered.
Then the rider’s head rose.
A thunderous roar erupted from amongst the noble gathering, with many leaping to their feet, their fists clenched in euphoric joy as they squealed and bellowed at the noble griffin’s triumph.
“She did it,” Farah said, the disbelief in her words matched squarely by the relief echoed within them. “Dear gods, she did it!”
As for the griffin, she set down her rider with the greatest of care before searching the skies, and as her eyes fell upon the lone snow crown above, she stood tall, opened her wings wide and cried out in absolute defiance, her cries carrying higher than nobles’ cheers.
Slowly, Omid smiled and turned to the snow crown. “Oh, you’re in for it now. You’ve made her mad.”
Mona stared in stunned silence as she watched the nobles leap and rejoice. It was an outcome she did not expect, but one that filled her with rage and worry in equal measure. If the nobles were this invested in Behzad’s survival, to harm him now would surely draw the wrath of the Shah, would it not?
With bated breath, she turned to the Shah. Unlike the nobles, he was seated, is face as serene as ever, and his eyes upon her. It was clear from his gaze he disapproved of her actions, but he had made no move to end the display. Perhaps she could still…
The infernal griffin’s cries rang out once more, drawing Mona’s gaze to the beast. But she was not prepared for what she saw. The griffin was mocking her, its wings wide as it called out to her in defiance. It was an insult that boiled her blood in an instant.
“Filthy creature,” she snarled. “You dare challenge me?”
Then, she noticed the nobles’ cries were dying down, and frowning, she turned to them. They were all watching her closely.
With her frown turning to a snarl, she turned to the beast once more as her mind sought the best way out of this mess. It was then, at last, she noticed the griffin’s injuries. Blood poured down one of its wings, its left eye was closed, and it held its right leg gingerly off the ground. The creature was in pain, a great deal of it.
“Hrm…” Mona muttered as a delicious smile parted her lips, then she turned to her griffin.
“The nobles want a spectacle, Omar,” she said, patting her griffin. “What say we give them one?”
The griffin’s low clucks were all the response she needed, and as her smile widened, Mona gripped her reins tight and leant forward.
“Go!” she cried, and without hesitation, the snow crown shot forth, his cry carrying far as he flexed his talons ready for battle.
As they came close to the midnight hawk, however, the griffin lowered its head and began beating is wings rapidly, the frenetic flaps kicking up dust, dirt and leaves in every direction.
“Damn it,” Mona seethed as she pulled on her reins and shielded her eyes.
Then, as a large frame flew past her, the now familiar shriek of the griffin rang out, except as Mona opened her eyes and turned to the sound, she felt herself being hit in the face by clumps of dirt and grass.
“Gah!” she cried, spitting furiously before wiping her lips and tongue free of the dirt there.
“Damn bird!” she yelled, raising her gaze skywards to witness the midnight hawk climbing at breathtaking speed as it flew directly towards the sun.
On instinct, she turned to where the griffin had once stood.
There was nothing but a pile of grass and hay.
Cocking her head to the side, Mona raised her gaze once more, squinting as she did so. There was no body in Zarin’s talons, but with the sun in her eyes, she couldn’t quite see the saddle upon the griffin’s back. Could Behzad have recovered?
“I’m not taking that chance,” Mona growled, shaking her head. “Omar! Go!”
With a single cry the snow crown leapt skywards after his quarry, climbing with every ounce of strength he could muster.
As they climbed, Mona kept her gaze squarely upon her quarry, shielding her eyes as best she could. That the bird could still fly at this speed given its injuries was a feat worthy of praise, but injured it was, and sooner or later, its injuries would begin to sap its strength.
Then, as if on cue, the griffin began to slow.
“Got you!” Mona grinned as they began gaining on the midnight hawk.
Biting back a chuckle, the scheming woman pulled free her tube from beneath her sleeve, a dart already inserted, and licking her lips, she raised the tube to her lips to resume her assault. And it was then at last, she realised the true cunning of the griffin that was Zarin, for as she neared the griffin, she began to see the griffin’s saddle more clearly, and with it came the realisation that the saddle was empty.
“What the…?” Mona gasped, pulling on Omar’s reins, before turning her gaze to the earth below, only for her blood to run cold as she watched two beings slowly help a third away from the pile of hay and grass she’d previously dismissed.
“No!” she screeched. “No, no!”
Without pause for thought, the panicked woman turned her griffin about and forced him into a dive, her eyes fixed upon the fleeing trio.
“You are not getting away from me, Behzad!” cried through gritted teeth as her griffin dove with all speed. “I don’t care how many I have to tear through, you are not leaving this place ali…”
But her words were cut short by a shadow that drew over her from behind, and just as she moved to raise her gaze, a pair of taloned feet lunged down from above.
“What the…!” Mona gasped, and within the short window it took for those words to leave her lips, she watched as one taloned foot gripped Omar by the beak while the other latched onto his head, and in that brief moment, the stunned woman felt a deep chill overcome her.
It was an attack her father had taught her, one she had used a great many times herself, and as a startled cry emanated from Omar, Mona made to lunge for the Zarin’s feet, her eyes wide and her gaze rising as she did so. But it was too late, and she could only watch as the great midnight hawk stiffened its legs and dove to the right.
For a brief moment, time stood still as a sickening crack filled Mona’s ears. The instant she heard it, she knew what it was, but even with that knowledge, her mind refused to accept what had just happened, and it wasn’t till Omar’s wings stopped beating and the pair of them began falling form the sky that she finally accepted that she had just been bested by the midnight hawk that was Zarin. She couldn’t even scream.
“Ramin, what’s going on?”
Omid turned to his wife. The pain in her eyes mirrored his square.
As one, the pair turned to Mona’s mother as she watched her daughter plummet from the sky.
No parent should have to watch their child die, and as Mona fell, the Behnams’ hearts broke as they watched a hysteric Daria Hedayati cry, scream and tug at her husband, who stood in utter terror as they watched it all unfold, and soon, there came a time when the only sound to be heard was that of Daria Hedayati as she screamed against the fate of her daughter till at last, her daughter hit the earth, and her mother fell to her knees, weeping uncontrollably.
A heavy silence fell upon the gathered as they all turned to the grieving mother, her haunting wails scoring each and every person who heard it.
“Go to your daughter,” the Shah intoned.
Coming to life, Ramin Hedayati bowed to his Shah and, pulling his wife to her feet, made his way toward the exit, his wife held close throughout.
Everyone watched the pair leave, none saying so much as a word.
“Honoured guests!” the Vizier cried from his place behind his Shah, a sad smile upon his lips. “As I’m sure you’ve surmised, there has been a terrible accident. Forgive me, but I must ask you to follow the guards while we…take time to understand just what happened here.”
The foreigners glanced at each other, some turning to Omid and Farah, before turning as one and heading for the exit, two of the royal guards leading the way. Once they were gone, the remaining nobles began taking their leave.
“Omid, Farah,” the Shah intoned as the pair began making their way towards the exit.
As their names were called, they stopped and turned to their Shah.
The pair exchanged glances, then hurried to their Shah, and as they reached his side they bowed as one, then waited with bated breath,
The seated royal said nary a word till they were alone. Then, breathing deep, he turned to face them square, his face as serene as ever.
“Your feelings must be mixed,” he said. “Your son lives, yet I’m sure even you were moved by Daria’s tears.”
The pair nodded.
“It is a place no mother ever wishes to find herself,” Farah added.
“Quite right,” the Shah muttered, then sighed and gazed into the ether as he began stroking his silvery beard.
“Then, there’s the effect of this whole sordid affair,” he soon added.
“Your Eminence?” Omid frowned.
The Shah gestured at the exit. “Those foreigners. We stand to make a fortune in trade with them, not to mention the wealth of knowledge our mages can learn from them. I worry Mona’s death would impress upon them the notion we are but barbarian,”
“Surely, Your Eminence, they’d know it was an accident,” Omid offered.
“Perhaps,” the Shah nodded, “but I think it would smooth things over to offer them something they’ve been craving since their arrival.”
The couple exchanged glances.
“What do you have in mind, Your Eminence?” Farah asked.
“Griffins,” the Shah replied. “They’ve been enamoured by them since their arrival.”
“Ah!” Omid grinned. “Of course. They did say they don’t have griffins in their home kingdom.”
“Precisely.” The Shah nodded. “I had ordered the Ministry of War to have ready the finest breeding pair they have, just in case. It would seem we shall have need of them after all.”
“Your Eminence’s foresight is truly to be commended,” Farah added, bowing as she spoke.
“Hrm, quite,” the man muttered, stroking his beard.
Then he turned to the pair square. “There’s just the small matter of a trainer.”
A cold hand gripped the couple’s insides as they wilted under the Shah’s piercing gaze. There was an edge to the Shah’s words now, one both Omid and Farah felt keenly.
“A trainer, Your Excellence?” Omid asked, forcing as honest a frown as he could.
“Yes.” The Shah nodded. “That was a courageous display by your son, Omid. I think it fair to say that slave you bought, the one who’s been training Behzad to ride, is quite the trainer. What was his name again…?”
Omid swallowed hard as the cold hand’s grip tightened.
“Amon, Your Eminence,” he said.
“Yes…yes, Amon. Interesting name. Well, I trust you see no issue giving him to them. For the good of the empire, I mean.”
Forcing a smile, Omid nodded. “Of course, Your Eminence.”
“Excellent.” The Shah nodded, then turned his gaze forwards. “You may go now.”
The pair bowed and turned, then made their way towards the exit.
“Oh!” the Shah called out, bringing the pair to a halt. “Tell your slave from me. The life with these…Shimmering Tower people, I hear, is quite pleasant. So pleasant, in fact, that it would be understandable if he never returned.” Then he turned to the pair. “Yes?”
As the blood drained from their faces, the couple nodded at their Shah.
“Yes, Your Eminence,” Omid replied.
“Yes,” Farah added.
“Good.” The Shah smiled. “Now, go to your son.”
Once more the pair bowed, and as one, they spun about and made for the exit.
“Are you telling me he knew?” Farah hissed.
“Hush!” Omid replied in much the same manner. “Let’s just get out of here before he changes his mind!”
“Breathe, Amon,” Reza urged, rubbing the stooped over prince’s back. “Just breathe. Let the poison run its course. I know it’s hard, but try.”
“Ah, I see you’ve changed his clothes,” Omid said as he and his wife arrived. “How is he?”
Rising, Reza smiled. “He’ll live.”
“She gave him just enough to paralyse his limbs,” Behzad added, coming to life from the stoop he was in by Reza, “but not enough to cause any lasting effects.”
“Clever.” Omid nodded. “Enough to do the job, but not enough to have its effects noticed.”
“Hrm…” Omid muttered, then stooped before Karim, a smile upon his lips. “You have my thanks, Amon.”
Karim shook his head as a tired sigh escaped his lips.
“Save it,” he whispered. “I came here to kill her, not to help you.”
Omid’s smile grew. “Well, seems like you succeeded in both.” Then he frowned and rose, turning Reza. “Or rather Zarin succeeded. Where is she?”
Reza’s smile widened. “She’s being tended to in the Royal Aviary, Master. Come, I’ll take you to her.”
“It’s alright, Reza,” Behzad replied. “I’ll take them.”
“Ah, there you are!” came a cry from the behind Omid, and turning, he watched as two of the foreigners approached.
“Your King mentioned—” began the one at the fore.
“Shah,” corrected the second.
“Apologies.” The first foreigner smiled as they reached the group. “Your Shah mentioned you are to provide us with a griffin trainer, the man responsible for that glorious display we saw earlier.”
“What?” Behzad gasped as Reza and Karim turned to Omid and Farah, their gazes filled with questions.
“Netha…” the second foreigner muttered. “Someone died, remember?”
“Uhm…yes…well…” said the first foreigner, her cheeks reddening as she spoke, “before that part.”
Then she turned to Behzad. “I take it you’re this A…mon….”
The woman’s words faded as she beheld Behzad’s garb. Then, frowning, she turned to Amon, her eyes upon his clothing.
The standing couple exchanged glances before turning to the woman.
“What’s wrong with you?” she asked at last, her gaze upon Karim still.
“He ate something that didn’t agree with him,” Reza replied.
“Did he now?” the woman replied, her frown deepening.
“Hrm…” the woman muttered, then stepped forth and placed a hand upon Karim’s shoulder, and though he moved to shake it off, her grip was as steel, and as the woman closed her eyes, the worried prince turned to Reza and the others.
But soon, a cleansing warmth washed over him, and as it faded, he felt his strength rapidly returning.
“There!” The foreigner grinned. “Though, I would desist from eating poisonous meals for a spell, if I were you…”
Omid and Farah exchanged glances once more before turning to the others.
None said a word.
“Well,” the foreigner continued, “I’m more than happy to carry on the pretence, but, in truth, I am famished! So, I shall say what I came to say, and shall return to the others. We leave tomorrow at dusk. Our Magister sees no reason to tally any longer, and I agree with him. This is no reflection on you or your people, but we have much we must do. Be sure to be at the docks at first light. Alright? Alright, then!”
And with a bow, the foreigners turned to leave.
The gathered watched them leave, but as they were about to drop out of sight, the one named Netha stopped and turned round, a mischievous smile upon her lips.
“I know I’m not supposed to ask this,” she said, “but any chance you might wish to part with that bird of yours?”
“Netha!” the other gasped.
“What?” Netha gasped, turning to her companions. “We’re getting brown ones! Didn’t you see how much slower that other brown one was? Which would you rather have, hunh?”
“I’m afraid Zarin is not for sale,” Omid called out before the other could answer. “Not now, not ever.”
“Bother.” Netha pouting, then sighed. “Can’t say I blame you, he is rather gorgeous.”
“Oh!” Netha replied, her smile returned. “How about an egg then? Or two?”
Smiling, Omid shook his head. “It would pain me greatly to part with my son. I can never inflict that pain on Zarin.”
“Oh, come now! Just one—”
“No. Forgive me, but no.”
“Netha,” the other foreigner urged. “He said no. Let it be.”
“But…” the one named Netha began, her frustration plain.
Then her smile returned. “How about some of her essence? Her blood for example?”
“Excuse me?” Farah asked, frowning deep.
“Oh, don’t look at me like that! I’m a summoner, not a necromancer! I just want her to see if I can infuse the eggs from our griffins with some of your griffin’s essences. Who knows, in a few generations, we might just have griffins that rival yours!”
Omid moved to speak, to deny the request outright, but then her remembered his Shah’s words, and smiling, he shrugged. “Why not.”
“Excellent!” Netha grinned.
“Omid!” Farah hissed.
Omid turned to his wife, his smile wooden as his eyes said words that were best kept from his lips.
“You will send us some along with our Amon friend, won’t you?” Netha continued.
Nodding, Omid turned to the woman. “Of course.”
Netha’s smile grew.
“In that case,” she said, turning to Karim, “see you tomorrow!”
Then, with a nod, she turned and left, her companion hurrying after her. The silence that followed was not to last, however.
“So,” Karim growled, turning to Omid, “you’ve sold me.”
Omid smiled as he turned to the seated noble. “The Shah knows, Amon.”
“Knows what?” Karim frowned, but his frown was fleeting, swiftly replaced by a wide stare as the blood drained from his face.
“Exactly.” Omid nodded. “I wager the reason he allowed Mona do all she did was he was hoping she’d kill you and rid him of his little conundrum.”
“Conundrum?” Behzad frowned.
“Well,” Omid replied, turning to his son, “a lot of people resented how…uhm…Amon’s people were crushed. The Nour-al-Din line of kings has always been held in high regard by many around here. If word got out that one still lived, that would prove…problematic.”
“So, why doesn’t he just kill Amon and be done with it?” Reza frowned.
Omid shrugged. “My guess, he’s one of those not happy with how the line ended. But, given how often Karim’s father spoke openly against him, he can’t very well let that be known.”
“So he sends me off to a foreign land to be forgotten?” Karim spat.
“Yes.” Omid nodded, turning to Karim. “And to give you a chance at a new life.”
Kissing his teeth, Karim looked away, his anger plain.
“Amon, look at me,” Omid added.
Karim did not.
“Look. At. Me.”
Huffing, Karim did.
There was a coldness to the man’s gaze, one that grew in intensity in each passing moment, till at last, the man stood tall and raised his chin.
“Wake up to reality, boy,” he said. “Your kingdom is gone, and your line is dead. Entertain whatever thoughts of revival you may need to carry on, but know that you are not the first to wish to break their kingdom free of the empire, and you won’t be the last. But none have succeeded, and many have died trying, most with a knife in their back, or a poisoned chalice in their hand.”
Gritting his teeth, Karim lowered his gaze.
“Do you know why they all failed, boy?” Omid asked.
Karim held his peace as he fought to keep his anger under thumb.
“I asked you a question.”
Still, Karim refused to answer.
“Answer,” Reza growled. “Now.”
Snarling, Karim turned to the man, who held his heated glare with a cold stare of his own, till last, kissing his teeth, he turned to Omid once more.
“No, I don’t,” he sneered, “though I guess you intend to tell me.”
Omid smiled, but there was no warmth in it.
“Hubris, boy,” he continued. “They each though they could achieve the impossible right under the Shah’s nose, yet they are all dead, and the empire still stands.”
Then Omid stooped to stared deep into Karim’s eyes. “Do you know what makes your hubris even more galling, though?”
Gritting his teeth once more, Karim shook his head.
“I just told you the Shah knows about you, and you still think you can remain here and free your people. Just how stupid are you, boy?”
With his anger straining on its leash, Karim leant forth.
“I will not abandon my people,” he seethed. “Do you hear me? I don’t care if it costs me my—”
“If you stay here, we’ll be burying you before the week is out,” Farah interjected.
In response, Karim turned to the woman.
“If you leave, though, who knows what you’ll find…what you’ll learn.”
“Dying here will earn you nothing, boy,” Omid continued. “Swallow your pride and live. Or is that not what your parents would want for you?”
Karim glared at the man before him as every fibre of his being screamed rebellion. But he knew in his heart he had no choice but to leave. The man was right –if the Shah knew about him, it was only a matter of time before a blade made its way into his back.
“Bahiti?” he said at last.
“Oh!” Omid cried. “Gods, I’d forgotten about her. Uhm… Tell you what, I’ll go speak to the foreigners, convince them to allow he follow you.” Then he turned to Reza. “Will you be alright with that, Reza?”
The old man smiled and shrugged. “I’ll live.”
“Excellent!” Omid grinned, then turned to Karim once more. “So, you’ll be leaving?”
Breathing deep, the seated prince nodded. “Yes, I’ll go.”
“Splendid!” Omid cried, then turned to his son. “Now, let’s go see Zarin, shall we?”
With a grin, Behzad rose. “Follow me.”
“Excellent,” Omid said.
“Actually,” Farah said as Behzad moved to leave them on, “maybe I should stay here.”
Omid stood still as he stared deep into his wife’s eyes, till at last, a slow warm smile parted his lips.
“She doesn’t hate you, you know.”
Farah smiled at her husband.
“Yes, she does,” she said, then she caressed her husband’s cheek. “Go on. I’ll be here when you return.”
Omid breathed deep and let a deep sigh. Then, nodding, he turned to his son.
“Lead on, then,” he said, gesturing to the exit.
Behzad’s gaze went from his father to his mother, his confusion plain, but, knowing better than to pry, he spun on his heels and headed forth.
But then, after their third step, Omid stopped and slowly turned.
“Reza,” he said, his voice grave as he turned, all mirth gone from his face. “What we spoke about the other night…”
Reza rose, the chill of his gaze mirroring his master’s square as he nodded. “I know all I need to know.”
Reza nodded once more. “It’ll be taken care of tonight.”
“Excellent,” Omid replied in a voice that sent a very real chill down the spine of every single other person who heard it.
“Omid?” Farah asked, slipping a hand into her husband’s.
Forcing a smile, Omid shook his head. “It’s nothing.”
Then, before she could utter a word, he turned to his son. “Well, lead on, son!”
Behzad grinned at his father. “This way, Father.”
And with that, the pair marched forth, eager to be united once more with the great midnight hawk.