Lamia burst like a shattered glass into the scream and scouring heat of desert wind, loosing the power that had lived in her ever since she had returned from the Refiner of the Desert. Her fire lashed across the wide plaza atop the Spire where she had held court over her city, Jawasar, Jewel of the Desert, city of justice, and fear, and sorcery.

Hassan flinched as it passed over him. He had been standing closer to her than any except the ragtag heroes who had ended Lamia, and they had thrown themselves on the ground to let it pass over them and hidden their faces from the light. There was enough of her power in him that he was unhurt, but even years of service had never made Lamia’s fire comfortable.

He took a moment to marvel at their boldness and inventive wit in tricking the prophecy into truth so unexpectedly. They had seemed like harmless supplicants when the herald led them from the central stair across the lily-pad spread of the wide plaza that balanced impossibly atop the Spire to stand before Lamia and the court: an old man with cataract-clouded eyes and beard the color of milky tea shepherding two nervous youngsters, brother and sister maybe or betrothed not yet certain of each other. If Hassan had realized what they meant to do, he could have killed them in a moment, or warned Lamia and let her do as she wished. These had not been the first assassins to come for his old friend.

They had done it in the moment when their turn came to petition Lamia, before even Hassan realized what they meant to do. The girl tossed her shawl over Lamia so that the black cloth dusted with embroidered stars made ‘a sky of black and stars under the sun.’ The old man played his two-reed flute so sweetly, high and bright and soft at once, that any listener would have agreed that ‘nightingale and morning’s lark sang both together,’ and before Hassan could move, the boy drove into Lamia’s heart his sword of porcelain ‘tempered in fire without one hammer’s blow.’

So perished Lamia, dread sorceress of Jawasar, Hassan’s queen, friend of his heart since they were houseless urchins on the streets, and her ending was fit for songs made in the honor of the three heroes that had murdered her.

Now the heroes were climbing to their feet and looking at Hassan, the two with eyes to see. Looking just at him while the rest of Lamia’s court shouted and dashed in circles like chickens. Did they expect a fight? He could not give them one.

To kill them would be easy as plucking a flower from the dirt, but why would he?

He could not bring Lamia to life again after her fated end, and killing three fools would not keep Jawasar as it had been under her rule. Hassan had loved her, but his eyes had still been clear enough to know how the world saw her, the horror of her power and her magic and her intolerance of human weakness. It was easier to think of that now, in the way that it was easier to see after stepping from too bright sun into a shaded room. Lamia was not here to blind him anymore.

Perhaps they had expected him to collapse like the Sinless Ones of Lamia’s guard, who lay like tumbled statues on the stones of the Spire plaza, their spirit gone in the wind of her passing.

Instead, Hassan departed. Ten running strides and he was off the Spire’s un-railed edge and falling to the city far below.

The Spire was so tall that it stood well above even the outer walls at the city’s rim, and the bowl of the city spread beneath him as he fell. The dust-colored brick of the poor quarters at the rim that suffered the full force of the wind from the desert, the thousand-colored awnings of the markets and the blue-tiled roofs of the middle quarters below, the green and mirrored pools of Paradise in the flat plain at the foot of the Spire sheltered far beneath the parching heat of the wind off the sand. The fall was long, and Hassan had time to feel the different qualities of the bands of air he fell through; the cutting cold at the Spire top, the heat and grit of the wind off the desert’s surface, the stillness of the lower airs that the bowl of the city sheltered.

He was down in the cool moisture of the richer quarters of the city before the magic took, and the unseen wings Lamia had hung on him, that burned with night’s cold, caught like hooks under his shoulder blades and let him land cat-steady on his feet among the gardens Lamia had set around the impossible Spire that was her palace.

The perfume of flowers still opening in the morning enfolded him, and birds chirped a counterpoint to the soft sound of so many fountains.

Hassan looked up at the tower he had departed so quickly. The sunset stone was shot through with spider-web veins of gold and silver, all the old prince’s treasure melted into mortar. He remembered how Lamia had strode down from the desert gate to the old prince’s doors on that first day when she came back to scour the city; how the prince had closed them and refused to give her audience; how she had laughed and waved her hand as if to brush off a fly, and the doors of aromatic cedar had splintered; the statues had melted, the stones had shattered, and all the ruined rubble of the palace had risen and danced on the wind of her power and built itself into the Spire, lofty and impossible, a fitting palace for a sorcerer queen.

She never said what she had done with the old prince and the advisors foolish or brave enough to stay. Perhaps their bones were somewhere in the Spire’s walls, or she had turned them all to dust or fire or lonely desert vultures with that wave of her hand.

Would the Spire survive Lamia? The Sinless Ones had not, but there was less that was real left in them than in the stone and metal.

The people inside were already breaking, abandoning the loyalty and duty they had owed Lamia and the city. Through windows, Hassan could see the news that he had leapt ahead of race down the tower, and servants and administrators had begun to trickle out into the square at the foot of the Spire where he had landed.

They looked at him, uncertain, and looked away and downward when he gave them no sign. They still saw the queen’s executioner, the flowing white coat and loose white trousers that would turn any blade, the greatsword on his back, the half mask that set his mouth steely and expressionless beneath his dark eyes.

Others looked out from the windows and did not flee, and some of those saw him too and shouted down at him and at the ones who ran. They shouted curses and charms against demons at him, and then jeers at his failure, shame that he lived when his mistress was dead; called him coward, soulless, soul-eater, offspring of plague and the eaters of the dead. They shouted curses for Lamia too, half-laughing at that transgression that might have been death a few degrees of the sun earlier, and when one thin-lipped man went too far and called Lamia the bastard bitch of a jackal, Hassan spoke a word she had taught him once, and the thin-lipped man fell out of sight below the window with a hand clutched to his chest.

He should go. Those words would not be the worst slander on Lamia today or any day after, and he did not want to kill everyone who must speak that way to stay safe in the new Jawasar that was being built even now over Lamia’s tomb. He had made himself into the servant she required, but there was no service left for him now, and no escape from what he had made himself to do. He would go, lose himself on the sand or take his mask off and travel to a far eastern city where the princes wore tall square hats and yellow robes and no one would know the meaning of his clothes.

From Lamia’s gardens, he walked up a gentle hill to the wide streets and green gardens of Paradise, the quarter bordering the old palace that had been filled with the high-walled estates of the great nobility when he and Lamia were children.

Hassan remembered the warmth and roughness of those walls under his bare feet and hands as she and he had climbed, hoping for a glimpse of jewel-bright birds among the trees. He remembered the sweetness of stolen persimmons and the pain of being beaten for stealing; a time when the red of pomegranate juice had stained their mouths and the noble guards had laughed that it matched the blood on their backs after the lashing.

There were no laughing guards or walls here now. Lamia had humbled the nobility and sent them out to the windswept edges of the city. She had torn down the walls and given the grand estates to the poor she raised up, so that ten families enjoyed each great house and still lived so richly Hassan the child would have thought them kings wealthy beyond measure.

There were no guards, but a huddle of young people gathered nervously, holding swords looted from fallen Sinless, hatchets and sickle-knives from garden sheds, to block his way. A leader stood forward, a fat beautiful young woman, obviously terrified under resolve as thin and rigid as a knight’s steel armor. She shouted at Hassan.

“Hand of the tyrant! You have done crimes and terror on all Jawasar. For our families, we will kill you.”

They all took up the shout. “For our families!” and rushed him at once.

Hassan understood. These were the favored youths of Lamia’s city. Whatever came after, their families would be suspect. Their kin needed a sign of faith with the liberators to keep them safe, and these brave children were the sacrifice.

He stood still for their charge and did not draw his sword.

The beautiful leader ran ahead of the rest, and Hassan met her with a leaping step inside the reach of her hatchet. He threw his left arm round her waist and held her close. With his right, he drew the dagger from his belt and cut deep, scarring lines across each cheek to give her a token of bravery. Then he stepped back and hammered his fist just below her breastbone. He was strong enough that her fat was no armor, and she doubled over and fell down wheezing.

The rest were on him then, and he was less careful with the badges he offered their bravery. He caught arms and broke them; boxed ears and rattled skulls. He could give his full attention to each one in turn while his white coat and trousers shook off blade and club as easily as a slant roof shedding water, and so he flowed through the crowd of youths as smooth and precise as a routine in the practice yard. When one young man dropped a straight sword from a nerveless hand, Hassan caught it and laid about himself with the flat. It would break a bruise and even cut enough for show but not do any mortal wounds.

It occurred to him, briefly, that it might be more human if he regretted harming these innocents, even if they were trying uselessly to harm him in turn, but there was no room for that thought in the flow of his fighting, and he had spent half a life making himself into a weapon. He could not make room for the idea he should cease being one.

Most of the youths were smart enough to take their wounds and not rise up again. Hassan pinned one who was not to the dirt with the sword though his foot and left them all groaning and shouting for help. None followed him out of Paradise.

He walked from the gardens up winding streets, out of the cool wetness at the city’s lowest point into the warm but still tolerable air of the middle city filled with scents of spice and dung and packed humanity under the sun. Pepper and grilling meat should have been the strongest scents in the fifth-wind market, one of the sixteen great markets he had seen as rings of rainbow banding the sides of the city while he fell. But as he came to the wide clearing in the narrow streets, half of the stalls were gone, dismantled and removed while the uncertainty lasted, and the ones that remained were guarded by worried stallholders with makeshift weapons. There were no customers.

The news of Lamia’s end had run ahead of him, heralded by the collapse of the Sinless Ones who had guarded the market from thieves and law-breakers.

They had been Lamia’s greatest triumph: lawkeepers without favor or cruelty, soldiers without fear, and her great monstrosity, these things emptied of themselves to hold only what Lamia put into them.

She had done it first to the old prince’s soldiers, the ones who would not flee or submit to her but endured fire and sorcery to cut her down. Later, she had built up the ranks with the bodies of assassins and criminals who would not be reformed; those who escaped Hassan’s blade.

She emptied them of everything, names, memories, thoughts, and desires, and filled them with her will for justice and the tireless strength of the desert wind that she commanded. They felt no pain, took no wound from any blow; smiled just a little, always.

They had kept the markets ordered to Lamia’s law, made sure that poor old people were not bullied into forgotten corners, stopped bribes or rents from being taken on stalls, enforced fair prices and Lamia’s words that all who wished to sell would have a fair place to do it.

While the Sinless Ones now lay in the streets where they had fallen, thugs strutted the market, openly wearing the token of the quarter’s thief-lord, a homespun headcloth with one half dyed roughly black. They went free and fearless, now that the ones who had hunted them to the shadows and seized their smuggled goods were broken with Lamia’s death.

One of the thugs pulled an unpleasant face at Hassan and pointed with his knife. “Get gone, Vulture. We’ve no carrion for you here, no souls in those jackal-spawned statues for you to eat.”

Hassan went where the knife pointed. He did not want to fight anyone. Whatever anger he had once felt had burned away in years of seeing how much more Lamia’s justice could do than his bloody dreams of getting even had ever dared, and her death had not returned his fire. He could not fight or threaten the city into being good, and the soldiers who had tried were dead with Lamia. He only wanted to go.

He was not surprised when more thugs closed off both ends of the narrow alley they had sent him down. They had only small weapons, knives and cudgels and reaping hooks, but they held them with the ease of practice. It was to be expected that they would not forgive the years of fear and difficulty the Sinless Ones had given them; the hundreds of their fellows Hassan had beheaded at Lamia’s word. They must think he was just one more broken toy, with only a little more of himself left than the Sinless Ones. There had always been rumors that she had devoured his soul in order to become a sorceress.

Hassan let them come close, catcalling him and joking with each other, before he drew his sword that made the air scream. The blade was blackness that drank light. The edge, sharper than glass, burned white, hotter than the refiner’s fire. It flowed in waves like a serpent or a frozen rivulet. Lamia had called it Tongue of the Night Wind when she pulled it from a starlit sky into his hand.

The first thief stumbled into range, pushed by her fellows who had not seen the danger. As always, Hassan felt no resistance when his blade passed through cloth, flesh, and bone. Lamia had always tried to make things easy for him.

After a few thieves fell in blind terror, the rest fought him like weasels, mad and tireless. They learned quickly that they could knock his sword aside if they hit the flat and not the edge, and some of them were fast enough to live through a downward stroke that way.

Hassan swung across them at waist height. Let them jump, fall, or die. Five did as he wished, but another man came from the side and struck Hassan’s wrist with an iron-banded cudgel, where his invulnerable coat billowed open. Hassan lost half of his grip on the sword and stumbled forward. Another thief leapt on his back and stabbed down where his neck was open. The strike was not true, and it slid forward off his collarbone, but the cut burned.

He roared beneath the mask and spun his sword like a fire-dancer’s torch. He took off the arm that had wounded him, and his fury threw him forward, heedless. Let them cut him if they were brave enough!

The thieves died quickly under his anger, but he could feel blood dripping down his shoulder from the long shallow cut as he walked on and red stain spread across the right side of his white coat.

He made himself ignore the spreading wetness, the way it felt as if it were draining the vigor from his limbs. He pressed on, up the slope and outward toward the city’s rim. This high, he could taste grit in the hot wind that never ceased its blowing while the sun was up. It was the taste of childhood, of thirst as constant as the wind, of dust that got inside his clothes and rubbed him raw. It was the knife-sharp sight of water-sellers tipping half a measure into the dirt in front of him when they saw a boy had nothing but hands open to beg. The sound of their laughter and the feel of their spit in his face when he and Lamia had been too young to understand why people were so cruel.

The four-story mud-brick tenements of the outermost ring were the same as ever, but the fountain of clear water, where six jets from the mouths of bronze frogs and fishes arced to meet and crash down in the center of a wide pool, was no part of his memory. It was Lamia’s, and it would last even if none of the rest of her magic did. She had told him when she called the first spring from the dry earth of a wallside quarter that she had made the Refiner promise her that the springs she founded would not fail or become unclean for many lifetimes after her own.

Had it told her how short her life as a queen would be?

A gaggle of children played in the fountain, splashing and jumping over the bronze animals or ducking under the jets and laughing when they lost their footing and splashed into the water with a slap. They looked so carefree. Lamia had done that much at least, among the horrors. Even the poorest would never know the choking thirst and the water-debt that had been their lot when she and Hassan were young.

The children ran as he came close, and he was not sure whether they ran from him or from the warriors who came behind. These hawk-nosed, sharp-eyed fighters would never know the debt either, but they resented the reversal of fortunes its absence allowed. They bore the tokens of old and storied houses: the burning arrow, the lion-chariot, the rain of stars. They wore no mail; they knew his sword cared no more for steel than cloth, but they came still in fighter’s stances, light on their feet, with long swords elegantly curved or with heavy double-handed blades made for killing horses.

They came at him thirteen strong, heirs and cousins of family heads he had struck off in the first days of Lamia’s rule, when she had little patience for complaints even from those who she had despoiled of everything. There was no need to ask why or try to make a peaceful settlement. This was vengeance, and he deserved as much as they could do to him, no doubt.

His sword was less of a power here, against fighters who were truly trained and practiced. They knew the twirling step and dance that went with those curved swords, the backward falling roll that escaped his waist-height sweeps, the pressing parry of their points against the spine of his blade to push it out of guard.

They were cautious and respectful, and they worked together, probing his defense, giving him space to swing and rushing close enough to strike in the wake of his blade. They goaded him like wolves taking big game; like rats with a dog. He tried to be still, make them come, but three hung even farther back and began shooting at him with their short-limbed rider’s bows.

An arrow whined past his face and made him flinch enough that two swordsmen came close enough to land hits. They did not cut the white cloth, but he felt the impact hard enough to bruise and rattle his bones.

Two more arrows hit him, high on the left shoulder and low in his belly. They fell away, but blood spotted where they had pricked him—through the armor Lamia had made to be proof against all harm. That magic too was failing, and that meant Hassan could not trade blows with these noble warriors until he grew tired.

It had been a long time since he feared anything, since he imagined there were things left that could hurt him through all the magic Lamia had laid on him; hurt him more than what was left of her already did.

This new fear sang in his blood now and made him leap.

He jumped back into the fountain’s pool and swept the burning edge of his blade through the water. Steam boiled up in a white cloud, and the archers cursed to lose their target.

He had only a moment. He put the cold heart of his sword into the nearest jet of water and willed it to drink deep. The water froze in a breath, and all the jets and the torrent where they met and fell were ice.

Hassan ran up the frozen arc just fast enough. The nobles burst through the steam in a tight knot, with blades in all directions. All but where he was. Their warning was the crack when he stamped his foot down, and they looked up to see him fall back among them. He spun, and blood fell into the crystal water.

The steam cleared quickly as the ice melted, and when the archers saw what Hassan had done to their comrades, they departed, though one made him a grudging half-salute.

As Hassan continued up toward the gate, the street switchbacked to climb the steepest part of the city’s slope. Behind him the fountain’s jets ran crystal clear again and fell into a pool stained red with so much blood.

Hassan walked on and up, past even the poor shelter of the tenements, among the lean-tos and tents of the poorest who lived between the city proper and the low outer wall, all the way to the gate he had chosen, the archless gate that opened to the deep desert.

The Desert Gate of Jawasar was pillared by two great statues. Once they had boasted the faces of great princes, forbearers of the old prince, and their swords had crossed to make the gate’s arch. No more. Lamia had scoured them faceless with the desert wind and worn their swords away to open hands, welcoming the tired and desperate to refuge in her city. It had been the first change she worked when she returned to Jawasar after the fire.

Hassan had thought she was dead in the sandstorm that began the day after she left on her mad quest and did not end until she returned. But still he had watched from the wall each morning until the dust blinded him or guards chased him away.

For nine days he had watched.

He had not believed, but he had wanted to believe, that his friend, who had been so strong, so brave and kind and greathearted, had not been broken by the city; by thirst and debt and the death of those around them who grew too tired to struggle.

He had not believed, but it had been true.

On that tenth morning, Lamia walked back into Jawasar, wearing the wind of the storm like a cloak spread out behind her, black hair dancing like charmed serpents, bright fire in her eyes, and her lips spread in the smile of a hunting cat.

Hassan had cheered and cried and wept and praised the Nineteen Fortunes for returning her. Only later was he made to understand what she had paid to the Refiner of the Desert for the power to remake her city.

She remembered her mother’s words, Hassan’s name and his face and that they had been friends, and all her plans for doing right that she had dreamed on nights when cold stars and a dry throat kept her from sleeping. That much she still had, and no more.

After that day when she returned, Lamia never laughed again, or wept, or slept, or hungered. She never understood emotion in the faces of the people she met and ruled, or understood why they loved one thing and hated another, or knew the simple needs and lives of friend or enemy. She did not remember the pains and little joys that had been her first refining; did not remember the deaths that had sent her to the desert. She knew what should be done, and she had power and will to do it, but she did not remember why. That much of her humanity was gone in the Refiner’s fire; traded for the wind and the power of sorcery.

Now Hassan looked back over the city she had remade, to the Spire that stood only a little higher than he was now. Was it trembling; breaking with all the rest Lamia had built?

Through the archless gate, Hassan saw a cloud of dust approaching, and knights rode out of it in bright mail and pointed helms, carrying banners of golden bird against a red sun.

The device of the old prince.

This must be the following of the young heir, not young now, who had accepted exile instead of death or purity as a Sinless One.

Even called by the swiftest messenger-bird or mirror-signal, the heir could not have made the journey in the time since Lamia died. He must have been waiting at the closest oasis, waiting to hear whether the gamble he had taken on prophecy and a trio of vagabond heroes had been rewarded, and indeed it had. The city of his fathers was open to him, and here was the last sword left to defend it, fleeing as the heir’s vanguard reached the city.

The vanguard must have recognized Hassan’s white clothes, his long sword, his steel mask, when they saw him fifty paces outside the gate. They came with spears leveled, but their recognition had not prepared them for his speed.

He cut the head from the first spear and let his sword pass through the rider, just above the horse’s neck, as she rode past still grasping for her sword.

He pushed the second knight’s point into the sand and ran up the shaft, cut the knight’s head off, and kicked the spouting corpse from the saddle.

He swung into the knight’s empty saddle and spurred his new mount straight at the approaching column. If they meant to stop him, he would ride through them like the storm.

The heir’s knights were skilled and unsentimental. A bowman put two arrows into Hassan’s horse, and four spearmen rode him down as he jumped clear.

The impact knocked him sprawling on the sand. As they passed him, the knights drove their spearpoints into the sand and vaulted from their saddles over the long spearshafts. Then they were on him, pinning him with their spears before he could rise. He felt the spearpoints slowly tearing through his white coat and trousers, sliding deeper into him as the magic failed. The pressure pushed him down, and it seemed as if the more-than-human strength Lamia had given him was fading too.

The heir himself dismounted and came to look at Hassan. He had fat cheeks laid on the sharp face of old nobility, a long mustache, and his breastplate and pointed helm were gilded. He stepped next to Hassan’s head on spur-jingling boots and kicked him hard in the face, enough to knock the steel mask loose.

“So, Murderer,” he said, “you did not die with your bitch mistress. That can be remedied. It will please us to hear you beg first. Twist,” he said to his knights. “Whenever you like,” he said to Hassan. “This will be a good beginning to my reign.”

Hassan rolled his eyes, and there, above the rim of the city, he saw the point of the Spire black against the bright sky. This time, he was sure it trembled.

The knights shifted their pressure away from his vitals, now that the prince had asked for a show. This was his last chance. If only the fall came now. One last shock to give him an opportunity. Let it happen now. All the magic was failing. Soon it would only be the springs left. Let it happen now.

He felt the earth shudder once under him, and he spoke in the moment between flash and thunder.

“You will reign over nothing but dust and ashes.”

The earth bucked and shook. Horses screamed, but they were lost in the sound of the Spire coming down, still overwhelming even so far from the center of the city; like a whole rainstorm condensed into a heartbeat.

The knights pinning him stumbled as his clothes, now drained of Lamia’s magic, lost all resistance. Hassan shoved himself against the spears’ blades, driving them through himself and out, off his ribs into the sand. He stood.

He ran.

He would not get far. He was weak and bleeding, and they had horses once they could quiet them. Maybe he could have stolen a weapon and killed the heir, but that would have been only a gesture; no more important than torture before an execution.

He ran into the desert. He did not need to get far; only far enough for a storm to find him and find the blood offering already pouring in sluggish gouts from his wounds.

He would ask the Refiner what he must pay to let a brave, kind, greathearted woman live once again, in a city that might not break her this time.

Read Comments on this Story (1 Comment)

R.K. Duncan is a queer polyamorous wizard and author of fantasy, horror, and occasional sci-fi. He writes from a few rooms of a venerable West Philadelphia row home, where he dreams of travel and the demise of capitalism. In the shocking absence of any cats, he lavishes spare attention on cast iron cookware and his long-suffering and supportive partner. Before settling on writing, he studied linguistics and philosophy at Haverford College. He attended Viable Paradise 23 in 2019. His occasional musings and links to other work can be found at rkduncan-author.com.

Return to Issue #330