Get ready for an epic story of romance, tragedy, adventure, battles, riddles, deadly stakes… okay, we admit, the list goes on. This story is just INCREDIBLE. And today’s title has it all! THE BIRD AND THE BLADE is a historical fiction standalone that reads like some of our favorite epic fantasy series in all the best ways. And also left us an emotional mess at the end, but… we’ll discuss that later, once y’all have fallen in love with it, too.
I just need to prepare y'all for @MeganBannen's #TheBirdAndTheBlade 🐦🗡️ because this book WRECKED ME, and I need everyone to order it so we can sob in the corner together in a few weeks when it comes out. Yes? Yes.
👇👇👇https://t.co/YHmCdT9Swm @EpicReads pic.twitter.com/sxLmLaf7fg
— Austine / NovelKnight 🐉 (@AustineDecker) May 17, 2018
You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll wonder how all of this amazingness was fit into a single book… and then probably pick it up again for an immediate re-read to see everything you missed the first time around. Yeah, it’s one of those.
THE BIRD AND THE BLADE goes on sale June 5th (and we cannot WAIT to hear what you have to say about the ending—we’re still pretty shaken up about it), but for now you can get started and read the first two chapters below! Don’t say we didn’t warn you…
Part One: The First Riddle
THE CITY OF KHANBALIK, KHANATE OF THE YUAN DYNASTY
A guard waves Timur and me through the north gate of Khanbalik without question. Apparently, we don’t seem like the sort of people who threaten the safety of the Great Khan of the Mongol Empire, which is hilarious when you think about it. Timur Khan of the Kipchak Khanate isn’t a threat to the Great Khan? Really?
Granted, Timur is the overthrown khan of the Kipchak Khanate, and the Great Khan’s brother, Hulegu Il-Khan, is hunting him down like a dog. But still.
My body sags with relief as we take our first steps inside the city. Again, the irony is not lost on me. Timur leans his great bulk too heavily on my bony shoulders as we walk. He needs to eat. So do I, for that matter. The constant need to eat also weighs too heavily on my bony shoulders.
Maybe it’s the fault of my empty stomach, but I suddenly remember in stunning detail the sight of Khalaf crouched before me in the cart last autumn, holding out an apple, the instrument of my doom. That apple would taste fantastic right about now. But I have no apple or any other food for that matter, so I keep us moving.
There’s so much to see as we trudge ahead: fine houses with red-winged rooftops, lush gardens, and a staggering number of silk-clad pedestrians. And since Timur and I have only one decent set of eyes between us—my own—it’s up to me to search the faces around us on the street.
“Slow down, girl,” Timur says. The hungrier he gets, the more he tries to mask it with rough authoritarianism. The hungrier I get, the more I want to yank him by the beard. It’s not pretty, but there you have it.
“We’re never going to find him here,” I say as I wipe a ticklish strand of hair out of my face. Even caked in sweat and dust, the baby-fine wisps defy gravity.
“Don’t be a pessimist. We’ll find him.”
“Says the man who can’t see.”
A year ago, I would not have dreamed of speaking so insolently to the khan, but months of traveling in exile and deprivation by his side have bound us together in surprising ways. He may once have ruled over his own sprawling piece of the Mongol Empire, but, from my perspective, he’s just my grumpy old goat.
He stops to glare at me and, while I know he can’t see me clearly, I wither. Even gaunt and impoverished, the man has eyebrows that can command armies. It’s his son I’m talking about here, and my… well, I’m not entirely sure what to call Khalaf in relation to me, but it’s big and important and much larger than my selfish irritability. I bow my head and say, “Sorry.” Timur folds his arms. I roll my eyes and add, “My lord.”
He nods and lets me lead him again. As I’m calling him old goat in my mind for the thousandth time, he squeezes my shoulder and says, “It’ll be all right, little bird. Just keep looking.” My heart cramps as hard as my stomach.
The streets of Khanbalik are wide enough for seven horsemen to pass abreast, but I still feel penned in like a rabbit in a trap. As the sun wheels toward the western walls of the city, a constant, low-grade worry eats at my insides.
I’m pretty sure I’m going to die.
I know, we all die, but my dying feels imminent. It’s breathing down my neck like an eager, wet puppy.
A sedan chair floats by on the shoulders of six slaves, its silk curtains as opalescently pink as a sunset. It reminds me of home, the way the elite rode through Lin’an in sedan chairs just like this when there was still a Song Empire and I lived in it. I stare after it longingly until a young man brushes past me, waking me from my reverie. He’s humming a familiar tune under his breath: “Mòlìhuā.” Jasmine flower. I turn my head as he walks away, and my entire body freezes.
My brother’s gait, his frame, even the rakish tilt of his black cap, the way his thick braid sways behind him—all of it as familiar to me as the song he’s singing. I’m about to run after him, to shout his name, when Timur tugs my sleeve.
“What?” he asks, hopeful. “Is it him?”
I glance at Timur for an instant, just enough time for the boy who could not possibly be my brother to disappear into the crowd. Irrational disappointment weighs me down, heavier than Timur’s thick arm. “No, my lord,” I answer, squinting into the crowd. “I don’t see your son.”
We head south toward the Great Khan’s palace just because that seems to be the direction in which most people are moving, but my mind keeps drifting to Weiji, who’s been dead for nearly three years. He began haunting my dreams the night I first met Khalaf, but the possibility that I could see my brother’s ghost here in the living world gnaws at me. It wasn’t him, Jinghua, I try to reassure myself, but it feels like a lie. In all honesty, I want it to be him. I want my teasing, obnoxious brother back.
The growling of my stomach distracts me, and since I haven’t been ashamed to beg for months, I pull Timur toward a food cart that wafts of duck-filled heaven. “Try to look pathetic,” I whisper to him. It’s more for the sake of formality. He’s looked effortlessly pathetic for some time now. To the dumpling vendor, I plead, “Sir, could you offer a meager bite to hungry strangers?”
The man snorts. “Why would I give anything away when I can make a full week’s profit at the execution?”
I feel like I’ve swallowed a brick. Timur’s grip stiffens on my arm.
“What execution?” I ask, dreading the answer.
“Another prince tried to answer the khatun’s riddles and couldn’t. Just this morning he beat the drum in the market square to announce that he was mad enough to enter the contest; then he failed just like the rest of them. Turandokht Khatun is having him executed tonight.”
“Who is it?” I ask. By now, Timur’s hand on my arm has become viselike. “The prince to be executed. Where is he from?”
“Balkh? Kerman? Sarai?” The man shrugs. “Who knows and who cares? It’s great for business.” He pushes the cart ahead so that we can no longer keep up. Timur and I come to a halt and let the growing throng of people buffet us like a paper boat on a river.
“Sarai. He said Sarai.” Timur’s voice thickens.
“He also said Balkh or Kerman,” I say, trying to remain calm. “I’m sure it isn’t your son, my lord.”
Timur goes alarmingly silent. My own anxiety is growing by the second. Our combined losses form an army of misery and grief in our wake as we follow the stream of people heading south until we find ourselves packed into a crowd at the northern end of Khanbalik’s market square. At the far edge sits the imperial compound, its roof tiles gleaming in the twilight like the iridescent scales of a fish. Between us and the palace stands a dais with several white taffeta pavilions at its feet, all heavily guarded by the Great Khan’s red-and-black-clad warriors. The gong in the bell tower glints in the torchlight on the southeast corner of
the square, while the drum tower looms like a giant sentinel on the southwest corner.
In my mind, I try to picture Khalaf climbing the steps to beat the huge drum over our heads. It’s hard to imagine him doing anything so dramatic as that. Maybe he didn’t.
I hope he didn’t.
A dignitary draped in gold silk steps out of one of the pavilions and puffs his way to the top of the bell tower. Recognition bowls me over. It’s Zhang, a man I’ve known since before I was a slave, back when he came to Lin’an three years ago. I don’t want him to see me as I am now, so I shrink into Timur’s bulk as if the old goat could hide me. I know it’s unlikely that anyone would take notice of one puny girl in a crowd this size, but I feel like a bug just waiting to be squashed by a boot.
The crowd hushes as Zhang unfurls a silk scroll and reads a proclamation.
“As chancellor of the empire, I speak for the Great Khan, the Son of the Eternal Blue Sky. No prince shall be allowed to wed Turandokht Khatun who shall not previously have replied without hesitation to the riddles that she shall put to him. If his answers prove satisfactory, she will consent to his becoming her husband. But if the reverse, he shall forfeit his life for his temerity. This the Great Khan has sworn to the Earth and to the Eternal Blue Sky.”
A simmering wave of anticipation ripples through the crowd. I can feel Timur’s worry streaming off him, matching my own unease.
“The prince of Hormuz has this day beaten the drum, faced the trial, and failed. According to the Great Khan’s sacred oath, let him be put to death!”
The prince of Hormuz. Not the prince of the Kipchak Khanate. Not Khalaf. Tears of relief prick at my eyes. “Thank the Eternal Blue Sky,” Timur breathes as he sags against me. It’s an odd sentiment from a Muslim convert, but I’m not going to nitpick.
The funeral procession appears out of the palace gate beginning with a swarm of shamans dancing and jingling and beating on their drums. As they spin back and forth, their many-colored ribbons fly out all around them. The bells and mirrors sewn to the ribbons clink and flash firelight from the torches. They hold their drums high before them, beating them so hard I can feel the reverberation in my chest, mimicking my heartbeat as they make their way down the aisle that cuts through the crowd.
Just behind the shamans, eight slaves carry in a magnificent sedan chair curtained in silk brocade, girded by a unit of the Great Khan’s personal guard. They tote it up a flight of stairs to the dais, where they set down their burden. Two of them pull back the curtains to reveal within a haggard man whose beady eyes are nearly lost in the tired folds of his face. Once, he was fat. Now he is clearly wasting away.
“Is that the Great Khan?” Timur asks me.
“I think so.”
“How does he look?”
“Unwell, my lord.”
Timur clicks his tongue against the roof of his mouth, and I know what he’s thinking. If he had made an open play for the throne of the empire, he’d now be in a position to rule the world. Instead, he’s a beggar, as haggard as the Great Khan but a lot poorer. Hindsight is a curse.
I should know.
The crowd kneels before the sickly man on the dais, and I follow suit, yanking Timur down with me. “Fanatics,” he mutters as his knees pop. I know how he must hate bowing before the Great Khan, but I shush him so he doesn’t get us both killed before we manage to find Khalaf.
Lines of the Mongol elite file in and kneel on cushions inside the pavilions. Grim-faced warriors surround another sedan chair held aloft by eight more slaves, as nameless and faceless as I have been. They carry it to the top of the dais, setting it to the right of the Great Khan. When they pull back the curtain, there is an audible gasp from the audience. Like the sun bursting through the thick clouds of winter, Turandokht Khatun steps out.
The pale, pregnant moon crests the top of the city walls and bathes her so that she appears to glow. She wears a long robe of rose silk with cuffs and edgings embroidered in gold thread. The open red-and-gold brocade jacket over the robe shimmers in the moonlight. There is a tall, cylindrical headdress strapped to her head, two feet tall, oxblood red, adorned with gold brooches and a fine peacock feather at the top that billows sinuously in the breeze.
All that finery, and she would be just as breathtaking if she wore no more than rags. The skin that hugs her round cheeks is taut and perfect. Her dark eyes shine with intelligence. Her full lips pout beautifully below her tiny nose. Everything is in proportion, every feature of her face an homage to beauty. She stands erect before the people of Khanbalik, as exquisite as an ornate sword.
This is the girl Khalaf intends to marry. It’s uncharacteristically mercenary of him, but desperation does that to a deposed prince. He needs to save the Kipchak Khanate, so he’s going to try to marry the most powerful woman in the empire. I know this, but looking at Turandokht now, it’s hard to think of my own feelings for Khalaf as anything other than laughable. She’s more than simply lovely. As she towers over her father, there’s no escaping her dazzling self-assurance, the power that practically oozes off her skin. What am I compared to Turandokht? Nothing, that’s what. I have always been nothing in comparison to her. Khalaf isn’t blind. He’ll see that, too.
“All rise!” Chancellor Zhang calls out, after which people get to their feet, buzzing with excitement. Clearly, something unusual is going on.
“What’s the big deal?” Timur asks as he struggles to his feet. “She’s just a girl.”
Just a girl? I swear, the man never learns. I catch a snippet of conversation from one of our neighbors and translate it from Hanyu into Mongolian for him. “It seems this is the first time Turandokht has personally attended an execution.”
“Very big of her,” Timur comments drily.
“My lord,” I warn him. He grumbles, but he cuts the snide remarks. For now.
Turandokht surveys the assembly before her and waits for the world to go still and silent before she speaks, her alto voice cutting through the air like a bell.
“Today marks the failure of the twentieth prince to prove himself worthy to rule beside me. And yet I continue to hear arguments in favor of my marrying for the peace and security of the empire. Do you not see that my marriage would lead to the antithesis of peace? Should I bear children at great risk to my own life? And what then? None of us is ignorant of such stories of ambition from every kingdom, from every land. We have witnessed what fighting happens between father and son or brother and brother.”
“I hope you’re listening to this,” I mutter at Timur, who harrumphs in response.
“Some of you would have it that the heirs of Genghis Khan’s son Ogodei are the rightful rulers of the empire. You forget how Ogodei stole his sisters’ lands. You forget that he attacked his sisters’ people and sent his men to rape every girl over the age of seven from sunup to sundown before he sold them into slavery.”
I’ve never heard this horror story before, and I glance up at Timur to see if it’s true. He looks uncomfortable. “Ugh!” I hiss at him in disgust. He shushes me.
“Some of you believe that the descendants of Genghis’s son Jochi are the rightful heirs of the empire, but they have colluded with the disgraced line of Ogodei to ruin our peace—your peace. This is how the matter of succession is handled by men.”
I sense Timur’s outrage flaring like a lit rocket behind me. Jochi was his grandfather. “Don’t do anything,” I murmur over my shoulder. “We need to find your son.” Timur exhales audibly, blowing hot air over my head, but he keeps his cool.
“It is the descendants of Genghis’s youngest son, Tolui, who have united Zhongguo, north and south, and brought the Persians back into our fold,” says Turandokht, as ethereal as a goddess from her marble dais. I grit my teeth at her use of the word “Zhongguo,” as if the Yuan Dynasty had the legitimacy and superiority to equal the Song.
“Tolui’s heirs have brought you peace and prosperity,” she continues. “As Tolui’s grandchild, I am not moved to violence, if only men would desist in assaulting my liberty and leave me and my father to the ruling of this empire. Today, I renew my vow to our gods that I will marry no man so unworthy of you, my people.”
I hate that what she’s saying makes sense. I hate the fact that, if Khalaf’s life weren’t at stake or if my brother weren’t dead, I might even be sympathetic toward her. Most of all, I hate how much I envy her—her beauty, her power, her intellect, everything she has that I don’t. My jealousy of her is like a tiger; it could devour me.
She glides to her chair and lowers herself onto the seat, placing a hand on each chair arm like a hunting bird on its perch. “Let the prince of Hormuz pay the price for his pride,” she declares, and it chills me to think she might one day say these same words about Khalaf.
The sound of another shaman’s drum comes from the palace as the gates spit out the prince of Hormuz flanked by six Mongol warriors. He’s painfully young, with delicate lips and large hazel eyes. Behind him come four executioners, two of whom carry a long shroud between them and two who lead four fine horses. Turandokht’s face is devoid of emotion as she nods her head at them. The prince closes his eyes. His lips move in silent prayer as the first two masked men situate him in the center of the shroud. One of them pulls up each end, completely enveloping the boy, while the other sews him inside with an efficient flicking of needle and thread up and around the fabric. Once he is secured inside his shroud, they ease the prince down until he lies on the ground.
“Don’t look, little bird,” Timur murmurs, his beard tickling my ear.
But I watch it all.
The prince of Hormuz screams in agony as the other two masked men lead the horses over the sewn-up heap on the ground to trample the boy’s body. There is the sick percussion of hoof against flesh and bone, and the conflicting cheers and cries of protest as the prince’s body stills at last. Zhang rings the bronze gong beside him to signal the boy’s death with a solemnity he enjoys a little too much.
There is no way I am going to let Khalaf end like this. No earthly way.
For a full half hour afterward, Timur and I are stuck, packed in like rice in a rich man’s bowl. “We’ve got to find Khalaf,” he growls. “And when we do, I’m going to strangle the life out of him.”
I give a humorless laugh. “That kind of defeats the purpose, doesn’t it?”
“It’s the difference between stupidity and justice. Don’t quibble with me, girl.”
There’s a commotion near the drum tower, a series of gasps and exclamations. “What is it?” Timur asks, but with very little interest. Really, nothing matters at this point but Khalaf.
Khalaf, whom we have not found.
Being without him these past few weeks has planted a constant, dull longing inside me, so entrenched I can feel it in my spine. You’d think the bustling streets of Khanbalik would alleviate the loneliness, but the ache is more acute here. It’s just so easy to imagine him studying the architecture or trying to identify the trees of the Great Khan’s arboretum.
A tall man nearby shakes his head and says, “Unbeliev-
able. The prince of Hormuz not dead an hour, and there goes another one.”
I jump up, but I still can’t see anything. It’s not until heads move and bodies turn in just such a way that for one instant, I see him—Khalaf—standing at the base of the wooden stairs leading to the top of the drum tower. Dread robs me of breath. My pulse pounds in my ears.
“It’s him,” I tell Timur, my voice floating high, completely unmoored. I grab the old man’s arm and yank him toward the tower as Khalaf ascends the steps.
“Go!” Timur bellows, pushing me forward. I spring ahead to swim through the crowd without him. Angry protests fall in my wake as Timur does his best to follow.
Khalaf reaches for the mallet tethered to the platform.
“Move!” Timur shouts. I’m not sure if he’s yelling at me or the people in my way or both. I’m almost there, close enough to see Khalaf swing back the mallet.
“No!” I scream as I burst through to the front of the crowd just in time for Khalaf to bring the mallet down against the taut skin of the drum. He beats it three times—Boom! Boom! BOOM!—so loud it bounces off the palace walls. My cry outlasts the echo of the last percussion by half a second, long enough for Khalaf to hear me. He turns and looks down.
For the span of several breaths, we stand ten feet apart, he above and I below. We stare at each other as if the rest of the world has disappeared. I’ve crossed deserts and mountains to find him, and now here he is, a thousand times cleaner than I’ve seen him in months, with his hair combed and braided into glossy loops behind his ears in the Mongol style. He’s wearing a robe of pale blue silk rather than his customary plain wool. He may as well be the sun clothed in the sky. Seeing him in the flesh, alive, hones my pent-up loneliness into a point that jabs me hard right underneath the breastbone.
And all I can think to say is “Cān jiàn Diànxià.”
A very formal hello.
A crevice of incredulity deepens between his eyebrows before he rushes down the stairs. He takes me by the arms, and I can feel the heat of his hands through the fabric of my threadbare sleeves. It takes every ounce of decorum I can muster to stop myself from throwing my arms around him and burying my face in his neck. Given what happened the last time we spoke, that would not be a wise move.
“What are you doing here?” he asks, bewildered, as he pulls
me away from the crowd to the foot of the tower. “Is my father with you?”
“I’m here,” Timur answers for himself, pushing past the onlookers.
Shouts strike up from the pavilions. Turandokht’s guards are coming for the man who beat the drum.
Khalaf releases me and looks at Timur in horror. “You followed me? What were you thinking? Hulegu Il-Khan’s men were looking for us not fifteen hundred li west of here in Ordos. I barely escaped capture, and I’ve had to stay off the trade routes ever since. It’s taken me ages to get to Khanbalik. I’m certain our enemies must have arrived by now. It’s incredibly dangerous for you here.”
Timur’s face falls into its familiar, stony scowl. So much for family reunions.
The sound of marching footsteps approaches quickly, and the crowd begins to part to make room for a unit of guards coming to take Khalaf away.
“You have to go,” he tells us.
“Like hell,” says Timur. “You’re coming with us.”
“It’s too late for that.”
“I am your lord and khan, and you will do as I say.”
“I’m trying save you,” Khalaf says, his frustration on full display. “And the Kipchak Khanate. And… and her.” He turns back to me as the guards arrive.
“What man is it who beat the drum?” one of them asks.
“I did,” Khalaf answers, but he’s still looking at me.
I don’t know what to do. I’m terrified that if he takes his eyes off mine or if I tear mine from his that he’ll be lost to me for good.
“Only men of royal blood may offer for Turandokht Khatun,” the guard says, eyeing Khalaf doubtfully. “Any commoner who beats that drum dies on sight.”
“Then it’s too bad for you that I was born a prince,” Khalaf replies.
Timur curses when he hears his own words coming back to haunt him. There was a time when I would have said that it served him right, but those days are long gone. The guard rolls his eyes and tells his companions, “We’ll let Chancellor Zhang sort this out.” To Khalaf he says, “You will come with us, please.”
Each of those statements is a death sentence. If Zhang is the one sorting this out, they may as well run their lances through Khalaf where he stands.
“Don’t do this, my lord,” I plead with him.
“Sir?” the guard asks.
“I’m coming,” Khalaf says, but he hasn’t turned away from me. There’s fear in his eyes, and his fear is my fear. “Will you do me the honor of taking care of my father if—”
I put up my hands to stop him from finishing that sentence, as if my preventing him from saying the words will erase the possibility of his death. Inside, I rage against the idea that his life could end here, now. I resist it as hard as I’ve fought against my own death. Harder even. “I will,” I tell him. “I promise.”
He holds out his hand, the one that offered me apples, that gave me a dagger, and I put my hand in his. His thumb strokes my skin just once, the same gesture that led in a roundabout way to his dumping me and Timur in the Chagatai Khanate. I don’t care that the feeling it inspires is why everything has gone wrong from Sarai to Khanbalik. I want his thumb to stroke the back of my hand for the rest of my life.
“Forgive me,” he pleads.
“There’s nothing to forgive,” I assure him, doing my level best not to start bawling. I know full well that he’s not apologizing for the fact that he just entered a contest that could very well end in his death. He’s referring to what happened back in the Chagatai Khanate the night he abandoned us. He has only one thing to be sorry for. I have a million.
“Sir.” The guard is out of patience with the lengthy goodbyes.
Khalaf presses my hand one last time before releasing me. He throws his arms around Timur, hugs him fiercely, and kisses him on each cheek. Then he lets go of his father and walks away with the guard. Timur and I stand there, gaping in powerless misery at the back of his head, when, suddenly, he stops and turns back to look at us.
“Sir,” the guard spits, grabbing him by the upper arm. Khalaf pulls himself free. His face tightens as if he were in physical pain, and my whole chest tightens right along with it.
“‘And wilderness is paradise now,’” he says. He holds my gaze, begging me with red-rimmed eyes to understand his meaning before the guard jerks him away. This time, he doesn’t turn back. I feel as if someone has reached down my throat, ripped out my backbone, and left me a hollow shell.
“‘And wilderness is paradise now’? What is that? What the hell is that supposed to mean?” Timur asks me, grasping at hope that these words contain some hidden message, something that’s going to save Khalaf from death.
“I don’t know, my lord,” I answer, and it’s true. Those may have been Khalaf’s last words to me, ever, and I don’t understand what he was trying to tell me. I look to Timur for guidance, but he has devolved into his mountainous state, the unmoving posture he assumes when everything has gone to hell. The people who witnessed Khalaf’s entry into Turandokht’s trial are staring at us, and I remember the promise I made to him only moments ago to take care of his father. I tug on Timur’s sleeve and say, “We should get out of here.”
“What’s the point?” Timur replies in a dead voice.
For Khalaf’s sake, I am grimly determined to hold it together. “Your son is still alive, and we are still alive. It’s not over yet.” I pull him away from the onlookers, closer to the dais, so that we’ll have a decent view as Khalaf faces his trial.
“I can’t see much,” Timur admits, looking out over the crowd.
“I know, my lord,” I tell him, anxiety hanging from my bones like wet sheets. “I’ll be your eyes as best I can.”
From our new vantage point, I see a small procession making its way to join Chancellor Zhang. It consists of only three old, pompous men.
“There are three men climbing up the bell tower,” I narrate for Timur. “They look like scholars.”
“I think so.”
Another guard unit escorts Khalaf to the foot of the dais as if he were a dangerous criminal. Do they think he’ll flee? And what would they do to him if he did?
“There he is,” I tell Timur.
“How does he look?” The man sounds desperate. I know the feeling.
“Calm” is my answer, but it doesn’t come close to describing him. Even from this distance and even though Khalaf is dressed in remarkably humble clothing compared to the imperial court, he is radiant. I imagine the other princes who came before him, dripping with jewels, touting their carved bows and brilliant scimitars, each trying to outglorify the next in riches and luxuries. I’m certain Khalaf puts them all to shame. He doesn’t need to act the part. He is the part.
I’m giddily tempted to race into the center of this spectacle, grab him by the arm, and yank him all the way to Lin’an. If we wouldn’t be killed on the spot, I just might try.
The rest of the players are already present. Turandokht and the Great Khan sit on their ornately carved chairs. The dignitaries kneel once more on their cushions. Chancellor Zhang smiles smugly beside the judges from his lofty place in the bell tower. He clears his throat and begins the trial.
“On behalf of the Yuan Dynasty and the entire Mongol Empire, I welcome you to your death, sir,” he says. The snake. “You have signaled your intent to wed Turandokht Khatun at a most auspicious moment, as we are already gathered together to witness the failure of another man much like yourself.”
“Are you the prince who would marry my daughter?” asks the Great Khan. His voice is weak and brittle, his mouth a crooked line, livid against his clammy skin.
“I am, Son of the Eternal Blue Sky,” Khalaf answers. His voice lilts with his Kipchak accent, so intimate and familiar to me in a city full of strangeness and strangers that I wish I could snatch the sound out of the air and tuck it into my pocket.
“You are young,” says the Great Khan. “Not as young as the last one, but young all the same. How old are you?”
“I am nineteen, my lord.”
“As a Mongol, I have the decency to abhor death, and I don’t wish to see another this night. Go home.”
I hear Timur’s intake of breath, which matches my own. For one blissful second, hope surges in both of us, until Khalaf replies, “Son of the Eternal Blue Sky, I have come to Khanbalik to face Turandokht’s riddles, if it please you.”
His self-condemnation flattens me, and there’s nothing I can do about it.
“It does not please me.” The Great Khan leans forward. “Do you know war? You appear strong enough. Can you fight?”
Khalaf’s stance widens. He nods, and there’s something in the simplicity of the gesture, some physical grace that conveys the fact that he is deadly when armed. “Yes, my lord. I have known war, and I am able to fight.”
“Then let me advise you to give your life honorably on the field of battle in the cause of expanding our glorious empire to all the nations of the world.”
“He’s got that right,” Timur mutters.
“As I understand it, my lord,” Khalaf answers, “Turandokht Khatun merits the sacrifice that I am willing to risk.”
It hurts—physically hurts—to hear these words waltz so easily from his mouth. She merits him.
From her high place on the dais, Turandokht shakes her head. “Have you come to Khanbalik to kill yourself?” she asks Khalaf. “If not, you must understand that should you persist in battling my intelligence, you will die.”
“My khatun, you freely admit to your intelligence. Do you not see that a wise king must treasure such a gift in his wife and the value a great intellect would bring to any kingdom?” The softness of Khalaf’s voice stands in stark contrast to Turandokht’s grandeur, and yet it’s strong enough to bounce across the market square and crush me.
The Great Khan inclines his head. “Well said. Forgive me, I did not catch your name…?”
I feel Timur stiffen as Khalaf replies, “Does my name matter?”
“We do not, as a general rule, allow beggars on the throne, though you are no beggar, I think. Enough. Where is your kingdom? What man is your father?”
“If I solve the riddles, and it is discovered that I am no prince, you may break my body and rip my flesh from my bones.”
Khalaf has just made the most solemn of Mongol oaths. His words comprise a sacred, unbreakable vow. I can’t believe this is happening, that he cares more for his principles than his own life.
Zhang laughs. “Look at him. He’s like a pig that’s willingly crawled onto the block to be butchered.”
I want to wrap my hands around that man’s neck and strangle the life out of him, but my abhorrence of Zhang wraps itself up with my own self-loathing. I may want to rip the smile from his face, but at the end of the day, he’s no worse than I am, is he?
“If you truly wish to die, let it be so,” the Great Khan tells Khalaf. He reaches out a palsied hand and sets it on Turandokht’s wrist. “He’s beyond reason, Daughter. Offer the trial.”
Zhang tsk-tsks at Khalaf. “The men who were the prince of Hormuz’s executioners tonight will be your executioners tomorrow, sir, and it will be your body sewn into a bag and trampled.”
The memory of the other boy’s execution floods my mind, morphing into images of my brother’s bloodied ghost. Zhăng-
xiōng, please, I beg Weiji’s spirit. Don’t let Khalaf die like this.
Turandokht’s fine features look as if they have been carved out of ice, and even that is lovely. She gives Khalaf a long, hard look. He returns her gaze with his own beatific Khalaf-ness.
“The first riddle, then,” she says.
Timur sucks in a breath but doesn’t release it. Terror makes my heart beat so hard in my chest that I’m finding it hard to breathe, too. I hate this powerlessness, this inability to act. Nothing I do helps Khalaf or Timur or Weiji or anyone I’ve ever cared about. It’s like I’m going through my whole life with my hands tied behind my back.
Zhang unfurls a silk scroll and reads the same edict we heard just an hour ago. When he’s finished, he rolls the scroll up and neatens it on the palm of his hand before addressing Khalaf. “You will have seven minutes to answer each riddle,” he explains. “Should you fail to answer correctly each riddle by the end of seven minutes, you shall forfeit your life. Do you understand?”
“I understand,” Khalaf answers, his soft voice incongruous in the expansive market square, the beating heart of a city that is the beating heart of the empire.
Turandokht says, “The first riddle is this:
“She is the dragon with an iridescent wing
Stretched taut across the bleak and yawning void
To whom the hollow human heart must sing
When, with it, like a cat with prey has toyed.
“She only lives in shadow’s heavy hue
When, invoked by man, is night her reign.
So every dusk gives birth to her anew,
And every dawn destroys her once again.”
“Seven minutes,” Zhang announces.
As Khalaf bows his head in concentration, my mind spirals, thinking of all the things I could have done to stop this from happening, of all the little missteps along the way that led to this. But it was a long road that brought us here, and, to be honest, I’m not sure where the road began or at what point I put my foot on the path and took my first step toward disaster.
Do you think you’re up to solving these riddles? What did you think of THE BIRD AND THE BLADE?! Tell us in the comments below!