The future is not so mysterious, to those of us who know how to read the turning roof of the sky. When that array of glittering stars beckons you to the gilded paths of fortune, you know you are destined for greatness.
Still, bracing myself on an outcropping of black rock, the remnant of some ancient volcanism or arcane calamity, I wondered if perhaps the stars had other plans for me. I stood blinking into the westering sun at the rim of a shallow valley deep within the desert of Ketz, buffeted by a wind like a belch from a reeking furnace. I wrapped my keffiyeh tightly around my face, but the sand still ground in my teeth as I clamped my mouth shut.
Despite the fearful wasteland, the promising allure of ancient treasure beckoned before me. A hill of black and red stones loomed above the shimmering desolation, crowned by a squat flat-topped tower seemingly as old as the Ketz Desert itself. Azzah’s Tower—just where I had calculated it must be. Even through the drift of centuries, polar Cynosure had pointed me true on my star charts.
A short slide back down the slope deposited me in the minimal shelter of the defile that wound like an ancient road toward the tower. My minders awaited me beside their camels, a company appointed by the satrap himself to ensure I read my star charts accurately. Four were warriors, clad in layers of ochre leather and black cloth and bristling with the tools of their trade—scimitar, dagger, and a keen impatience for a halfling astronomer.
Najh Semekh, their captain, a human with a touch of the ifrit in his brassy hair, sneered down at me with impatient disdain dulling his chestnut eyes. Resentment pinched his brow and darkened the planes of his face. I imagined he thought himself handsome and witty, but after four weeks in the desert I’d grown weary of his counterfeit charm. As a scout in the satrap’s service, he claimed familiarity with the Ketz’s trackless waste, but it was I who predicted the tower’s actual location, not he.
“What do you see yonder, thief?” Najh inquired. “Is this the right place?”
I allowed a smile to blossom and inclined my head in a semblance of a bow. I still bristled at the epithet “thief,” as it was hardly a fitting title for Haron esh Kazzar, palace astrologer. It was perhaps accurate, however, for I’d been caught in the satrap’s personal library with an armload of scrolls and a thin, rare volume of star-lore tucked in my sash. One parchment of particular interest detailed possible locations for the time-lost tower. Explaining that I had intended only to borrow the items in question for an evening of study failed to move the guards, the magistrate, or indeed the satrap himself.
“A tower, just where your ancient survey map indicated. In a few short hours, the sign of the Stranger will rise behind it, and you will have your proof. Of course, there’s only one among us who can ultimately confirm that we have found Azzah’s fabled tower.”
I pointed to our final companion, kneeling beyond the circle of Captain Najh and his warriors. Shaba Alemas, a human in a sand-colored robe befitting a hermit, was compact and muscular; even her long black hair had been braided close around her head. Her exact age eluded me, for the elements had etched her skin, but a youthful vitality remained in the flash of her topaz eyes. Where Najh chattered constantly, hers was a more phlegmatic demeanor. Now she knelt in prayer, her sun-dry lips moving in silent communion with the goddess she served—Sarenrae, the Dawnflower.
I held little patience for the cult of the Dawnflower—they placed such importance on the sun’s course across the sky that they consigned the rest of the stars to a lesser role. But Shaba Alemas seemed to me touched by starlight. I saw its delicate tracery along the rough line of her jaw and the pale whirl of her eyes. Despite her rustic appearance and stolid devotion to her goddess, she would rise to great things someday.
The satrap, hungering for war with the north, encouraged the more militant devotees of her holy order to fits of zealotry and righteousness. I had naturally assumed Shaba one of these at first, for she held her chin high and spoke of Sarenrae’s great divinity. However, she armored herself with only her faith, a homespun robe, and a scimitar she strapped to her belt but never drew.
Shaba ceased her prayer and fixed me with a penetrating look.
“This is the place. Fate and our astrologer have led us true.”
Najh laughed, the short bark of a jackal.
“Indeed, and I suppose my efforts leading us through the desert were inconsequential?”
Shaba inclined her head and lifted one knotted brow.
“You and your men have my utmost thanks as well, Captain Najh.”
The corners of Najh’s mount twitched in estimation of the value of Shaba’s gratitude. I had seen similar expressions on my own Aunt Jaffira’s face when receiving poor bids for her camels. If Shaba noticed, she made no remark, but stood and prepared to remount.
“You think it’s fate that brought us here, Sister Shaba?” I asked. “In truth, I supposed my destiny might lead me to a less wretched spot.”
Every scholar is a thief at heart.
“Fate and destiny aren’t the same, astrologer. I thought you of all people might understand that.”
“So fate is living out your days in the desert with a few crazy followers, and destiny is to be well-remembered for it?” I laughed, but Shaba found no humor in my jibe.
“Azzah was a devoted servant of the Dawnflower,” Shaba said, “and his final words will heal the rift in my church. This is his destiny. And it’s also mine.”
As if in mockery, a camel suddenly brayed, and the other beasts stamped in sympathetic restlessness, crunching the gravel of the narrow defile. The wind died, and in the odd stillness my heart thrashed in my chest. Something was wrong.
Where there had been none a moment ago, a cloud moved across the sun, plunging us into shadow. One of the soldiers cried out as a rush of hot air returned, blasting down the gully counter to the previous wind. In the premature night, there was the whooshing of a great bellows. Immense pinions fretted the sky, and a carrion-stench fouler than the backside of a camel clawed at my throat. The camels groaned in terror even as the sun returned, and the soldiers struggled to control them. Only Shaba’s beast remained placid.
A great shriek ripped open the cobalt sky, forcing our hands to our ears. One of Najh’s soldiers lost the battle with his mount, and the creature raced from the defile, bleating in terror, dragging the poor man behind. Shaba moved with phenomenal speed, hurtling into the open after the fleeing beast.
“No!” I shouted, knowing the death that wheeled through the vault of the sky. It was the great terror of the desert, a bird of prey that dined on elephants and camels as well as unlucky travelers and foolish seekers.
Fright numbed my good sense, and I raced after Shaba, though my legs didn’t carry me so fast up the scree. Najh, his eyes wide with surprise, made no move to follow even though it was his man in peril. From the corner of my eye, I witnessed a curious gleam in the captain’s eye and doubted it was from tears shed for his soldier.
I slid down the other side of the scree to the heat-blasted stones of the plain. The bleating camel and its doomed rider had already traversed a hundred paces in the opposite direction from the tower, but was still well within view of the vast black bird that rushed from the east like a hungry cloud. The cruciform spread of its ink-black feathers cut a hole in the vault of the sky. The copper flash of its hooked beak like the prow of a merchant ship dazzled my eyes. Shaba ran ahead of me, the ragged edge of her anchorite’s robe dragged the ground and cast small dust devils in her wake.
I cursed myself as a fool for following. What was it to me if Shaba met her end in the gullet of a roc? Surely we could still collect whatever artifacts the satrap wished us to acquire without her help. I didn’t relish the thought of the trip back across the desert at Najh’s mercy, as I suspected he was as tired of my company as I was of his, but that alone was no reason to risk my life.
No, in truth, it was the starshine in Shaba’s eyes that drew me. Few of us are touched thus by fate, or destiny, or whatever the dour hermit chose to name it. To lose her to such ignominious circumstances would be a tragedy.
Shaba, focused on saving the soldier, ran headlong into the roc’s path. I’d thus far avoided calling upon my star-granted gifts within Najh’s sight, lest he think me capable of completing this expedition by sorcery alone. Yet I wouldn’t stand by as the hermit tried to martyr herself.
The heavenly motions of the stars are ever smooth, without the slightest hitch or friction. It was this aspect of the sky that I took into myself and then cast out, into the sands in front of Shaba, making them as slick as oiled glass. Her feet slid out from under her, and she fell hard to the ground just as the great black roc dived.
The camel and its hapless rider were beyond my help, and the bird snatched them into the air with an exultant screech that nearly made my ears bleed. Enormous feathers fluttered over the desert, each worth a sizable amount of coin to the right buyer. I calculated the risk of collecting at least a few, but the roc, unbalanced with its struggling load, still wheeled overhead.
I crawled to Shaba and touched the hermit upon the heel.
“We must crawl back to the defile. Slowly, before it notices us.”
“I could’ve saved that man, halfling.”
I shrugged, indicating with two fingers crooked into a beak-shape what her likely fate would have been.
“I suspected you had a gift with sorcery,” she said, her eyes still fixed on the circling roc.
“Don’t tell Najh. He’ll expect miracles.”
What might have been the ghost of a smile tugged at the corners of Shaba’s mouth.
“We need you in Azzah’s Tower, sister. I’m not going in there with just the satrap’s men.”
“Aren’t you the satrap’s man?” she sneered.
“Only as much as it pleases me to be.”
“You’re a curious one, Kazzar. I haven’t decided to what purpose Sarenrae has fated us to meet.”
“Perhaps to many purposes, Sister Shaba. My fate is guided by more than one star.”
The roc, still clutching its prize, turned toward the tower. It alighted there, tearing into its meal and shrieking out across the valley. The dying sun silhouetted a gobbet of meat as it vanished down the roc’s feathered gullet. Deep in my belly, there came a fluttering of tiny wings.
“The roc has picked a most inopportune place to nest.”
Shaba nodded, her smile growing.
“But sorcerer,” she said quietly, “did you remark upon its eyes as it circled past us? Milky as quartz. Its beak is cracked with age, and its feathers droop most raggedly.”
The news warmed my spirit like a gallon of Taldane brandy.
“If it’s blind, then we might be able to approach the tower after all,” I said. “As long as we’re quiet, of course.”
“And the wind is in our favor. It is fateful.”
The fervor in her stony blue eyes again befitted not so much an anchorite, but a martyr.
We crawled back to the defile, where Najh received us with callous relief that we had survived.
“Hulf was a good soldier,” he said, his sincerity vaporous enough to see through.
“Sister Shaba did all she could to prevent his death, Captain,” I replied. The man had plenty of reason to dislike me, but the look he cast at Shaba’s back as she walked away tingled my spine with the breaths of a thousand sand-spiders.
“Leave the camels here,” Shaba commanded, tying the reins of her camel to a horn of rock. “We can proceed to the tower on foot.”
“With the roc up there?” Najh asked, clearly chafing under orders that weren’t his own.
“It’s blind, or nearly so. If we proceed slowly and quietly, we’ve got hope of gaining entry to the eastern vestibule undetected.”
Najh crooked his jaw, weighing Shaba’s plan, his eyes lit with calculation cold enough to bring snow to the desert. Then he nodded. As he turned to lead his remaining men down the defile after the priest, I saw that his fight to control his mount had left his tunic askew, revealing a patch of flesh at the base of his neck. There on his bare skin was a symbol scribed of darkest hues: a drooping rose bisected with a needle.
I had learned something of my family’s trade before the stars called me away. Camel trading. Caravanserai supply. The selling of secrets. At Uncle Ilnario’s knee I had learned of the true centers of power in Katheer, and that not all of them resided in the satrap’s palace. The Pierced Rose was a sign of one of the most notorious mercenary gangs in all of Qadira. Indelicate thugs, those wearing the Pierced Rose relied mostly on their reputation for violence to solve problems. To find that Najh was one of their number was no small omen of trouble.
And I placed great significance in such signs.
The defile descended into shadow as the sun burned itself out along the broad horizon. We left the camels behind, secured within a circle of boulders. The hermit-priest of Sarenrae, Shaba Alemas, led our company by several paces, her coarse robe furrowing trails in the black and yellow dust. Two of the satrap’s soldiers followed, casting nervous at the sky in fear of the great roc’s return. Captain Najh came next, striding with a wary grace like a desert cat on the hunt. I—palace astrologer, sorcerer, and accused thief—shuffled along ignominiously at the rear. Najh watched me closely, lest I develop a sudden proclivity to flee the vicinity of Azzah’s ancient tower and seek the safety of the night.