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The Skull Throne

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The Skull Throne

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Author: Peter V. Brett
Publisher: Del Rey, 2015
Series: The Demon Cycle: Book 4
Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
Sub-Genre Tags: High Fantasy
Avg Member Rating:
(21 reads / 12 ratings)


The Skull Throne of Krasia stands empty.

Built from the skulls of fallen generals and demon princes, it is a seat of honor and ancient, powerful magic, keeping the demon corelings at bay. From atop the throne, Ahmann Jardir was meant to conquer the known world, forging its isolated peoples into a unified army to rise up and end the demon war once and for all.

But Arlen Bales, the Warded Man, stood against this course, challenging Jardir to a duel he could not in honor refuse. Rather than risk defeat, Arlen cast them both from a precipice, leaving the world without a savior, and opening a struggle for succession that threatens to tear the Free Cities of Thesa apart.

In the south, Inevera, Jardir's first wife, must find a way to keep their sons from killing one another and plunging their people into civil war as they strive for glory enough to make a claim on the throne.

In the north, Leesha Paper and Rojer Inn struggle to forge an alliance between the duchies of Angiers and Miln against the Krasians before it is too late.

Caught in the crossfire is the duchy of Lakton--rich and unprotected, ripe for conquest.

All the while, the corelings have been growing stronger, and without Arlen and Jardir there may be none strong enough to stop them. Only Renna Bales may know more about the fate of the missing men, but she, too, has disappeared....



327– 332 AR

"Sit up straight," Kajivah snapped. "You're a princess of the Kaji, not some kha'ting wretch! I despair of ever finding you a husband worthy of your blood who will take you."

"Yes, Tikka." Ashia shivered, though the palace baths were warm and steamy. She was but thirteen, and in no rush to marry, but Kajivah had seen the reddened wadding and seized upon it. Nevertheless, she straight-ened as her mother, Imisandre, scrubbed her back.

"Nonsense, Mother," Imisandre said. "Thirteen and beautiful, eldest daughter of the Damaji of Krasia's greatest tribe, and niece to the Deliverer himself? Ashia is the most desirable bride in all the world."

Ashia shivered again. Her mother had meant the words to calm her, but they did the opposite. Kajivah was apt to be vexed when her daughters disagreed with her, but she only smiled patiently, signaling her daughter- in law Thalaja to add more hot stones to the water. She always held court thus, from the nursery to the kitchen to the baths.

Her subjects were her five dal'ting daughters—Imisandre, Hoshvah, Hanya, Thalaja, and Everalia—and granddaughters Ashia, Shanvah, Sik vah, Micha, and Jarvah.

"It appears Dama Baden agrees," Kajivah said.

Every head turned sharply to look at her. "His grandson Raji?" Imisan dre asked.

A wide grin broke across Kajivah's face now that the secret was out. "They say no man has ever offered such wealth for a single bride."

Ashia couldn't breathe. A moment ago she would have put this moment off for years, but... Prince Raji? The boy was handsome and strong, heir to the white and a fortune that dwarfed even the Andrah's. What more could she want?

"He is not worthy of you, sister."

All eyes turned to Ashia's brother Asukaji, standing in the doorway with his back to the women. It was not an uncommon sight. No man would have been allowed entry to the women's bath, but Asukaji was but twelve and still in his bido. More, he was push'ting, and all the women knew it, more interested in the gossip in a woman's head than what was under her robes.

All the women of the family adored Asukaji. Even Kajivah did not mind that he preferred men, so long as he did his duty and took wives to provide her with grandchildren.

"Beloved nephew," Kajivah said. "What brings you here?"

"My last visit to the women's bath, I am afraid," the boy said, to a cho rus of disappointment. "I was called to Hannu Pash this morning. I will be taking the white."

Kajivah led the cheers. "That's wonderful! Of course we all knew it would be so. You are the Deliverer's nephew."

Asukaji gave a shrug. "Are you not the Deliverer's mother? His wives and sisters, his nieces? Why is it none of you is in white, yet I should be?"

"You are a man," Kajivah said, as if it were obvious.

"What does that matter?" Asukaji said. "You ask whom Ashia should be worthy of, but the true question is what man is worthy of her?"

"Who in the Kaji is higher than Dama Baden's heir?" Ashia asked. "Fa ther wouldn't marry me into another tribe... would he?"

"Don't be an idiot," Kajivah snapped. "The very notion is absurd."

But there was doubt on her face as she looked to her grandson. "Who is worthy, then?"

"Asome, of course," Asukaji said. The two boys were nearly insepara ble.

"He is our cousin!" Ashia said, shocked.

Asukaji shrugged. "What of it? The Evejah speaks of many such unions in the time of Kaji. Asome is the son of the Shar'Dama Ka, beautiful, rich, and powerful. More, he can cement the ties between my father and the house of Jardir."

"I am of house Jardir," Kajivah said, her voice strengthening. "Your father is his brother-in-law, and I, his mother. What further tie is re quired?"

"A direct one," Asukaji said. "From the Deliverer and father to a single son." He dared to look into the room for a moment, meeting Ashia's eyes. "Your son."

"You have a direct one," Kajivah said. "I am the Holy Mother. You are all blood of the Deliverer."

Asukaji turned back away and bowed. "I mean no disrespect, Tikka. Holy Mother is a fine title, but it has not turned your black robes white. Nor my blessed sister's."

Kajivah fell silent at that, and Ashia began to consider. Marrying a first cousin was not unheard of in powerful families, and Asome was beautiful, as Asukaji said. He had taken after his mother in appearance, and the Damajah's beauty was without equal. Asome had her face and slender build, and he wore them well.

"Why not Jayan?" she asked.

"What?" Asukaji said.

"If I should marry a cousin as you say, why not the Deliverer's first born?" Ashia asked. "Unless he weds his sister, who is more worthy than I, Shar'Dama Ka's eldest niece?"

Unlike slender Asome, Jayan took after the Deliverer in form—broader and thick with muscle. He was not kind, but Jayan radiated power enough to make even Ashia flush.

Asukaji spat. "Sharum dog. They are animals bred for the Maze, sister. I would as soon let you marry a jackal."

"That is enough!" Kajivah snapped. "You forget yourself, boy. The Deliverer himself is Sharum."

"Was Sharum," Asukaji said. "Now he wears the white."

That very day, Kajivah set a fire under Ashan and dragged Ashia, Shan vah, and Sikvah before the Shar'Dama Ka, demanding they be made dama'ting.

But one did not make demands of the Deliverer and Damajah. Kajivah and her daughters were given white veils. Ashia and her cousins were sent to the Dama'ting Palace.

"It is good, sister," Asukaji said, as the girls were pushed toward the wait ing Damajah. "There is no reason why our father or the Deliverer should refuse your match to Asome now."

Kajivah did not seem satisfied, but Ashia could not see why. The Deliv erer had named them his blood and heaped honor upon them. Ashia had no wish to be dama'ting, but who knew what mysteries she might learn in their palace?

Kai'ting. She liked the sound. It was powerful. Regal. Shanvah and Sik vah were afraid, but Ashia went gladly.

The Damajah escorted the girls out of the great chamber through her own personal entrance. An honor in itself. There waited Qeva, Damaji'ting of the Kaji, and her daughter and heir, Melan, along with one of the Dam ajah's mute eunuch guards.

"The girls will be taught letters, singing, and pillow dancing for four hours each day," the Damajah told Damaji'ting Qeva. "The other twenty, they belong to Enkido."

She nodded to the eunuch, and Ashia gasped. Shanvah clutched at her. Sikvah began to cry.

The Damajah ignored them, turning to the eunuch. "Make something worthy out of them."


Nie'Damaji'ting Melan led them through the Dama'ting Underpalace. It was said the dama'ting could heal any wound with their hora magic, but the woman's hand and forearm were horrifically scarred, twisted into a fright ening claw not unlike those in the paintings Ashia had seen of alagai.

Sikvah was still weeping. Shanvah had her arms around her, her own eyes wet with tears.

You are an example to every other young woman in the tribe, her father told her once. And so I shall be harsher with you than any other, lest you ever shame our family.

And so Ashia had learned to hide fear and keep tears at bay. She was as terrified as her cousins, but she was eldest, and they had always looked to her. She kept her back arched proudly as they were brought to a small door. Enkido put his back to the wall beside the portal as Melan led through to a large tiled chamber. The walls were lined with pegs holding white robes and long strips of white silk.

"Remove your robes," Melan said as the door closed.

Her cousins gasped and hesitated, but Ashia knew it was foolish—and useless—to argue with a Bride of Everam. Keeping her dignity intact, she removed her hood and pulled her fine black silk robe over her head. Be neath, a wide strip of silk around her chest flattened the beginnings of her woman's shape. Her bido, too, was fine black silk, wrapped in a loose, simple weave for ease and comfort.

"Everything," Melan said. Her eyes flicked to Shanvah and Sikvah, still hesitating, and her voice became a lash. "Now!"

A moment later, all three girls stood naked, and they were taken out the far side of the room into the baths, a great natural cavern lit by wardlights in the stone far above. The floor was tiled marble, deep with water. Ornate fountains kept the water moving, and the air was hot and thick with steam. It put even Kajivah's baths to shame.

There were dozens of girls in the water, ages ranging from children to just shy of a woman grown. All stood washing in the stone bath, or lounged on the slick stone steps at its edges, shaving and paring nails. As one, they looked up to regard the new girls.

Ashia and the others were no strangers to bathing alongside other girls, but there was a frightening difference between these baths and those in the women's wing of her father's palace—here every girl's head was shaved bald.

Ashia reached up, touching the lush, oiled hair she had cultivated for a lifetime, in hope of pleasing her future husband.

Melan caught the look. "Enjoy the touch, girl. It will be your last for some time."

Her cousins gasped, and Shanvah put her hands to her head protec tively.

Ashia forced herself to let go, dropping her hands to her sides, drawing a calming breath. "It is only hair. It will grow back." Out of the corner of her eyes, she watched her cousins calm as well.

"Amanvah!" Melan called, and a girl Sikvah's age came forward. She was too young for a woman's curves, but her eyes and face were much as the Damajah's.

Ashia felt a wave of relief. Holy Amanvah was their cousin, firstborn daughter of the Deliverer and Damajah. Once, they had been as close as Asome and Asukaji.

"Cousin!" Ashia greeted her warmly, holding her arms out. It had been years since she had last played with Amanvah, but it did not matter. She was their blood, and would help them in this strange and unfamiliar place.

Amanvah ignored her, refusing to meet Ashia's eyes. She was years younger and inches shorter than Ashia, but her bearing made it clear she considered her cousins beneath her now. She moved with liquid grace, stepping around the girls to face Melan, meeting the nie'Damaji'ting's eyes boldly for a Betrothed.

"Here to study pillow dancing?" she smirked. It was common for young women, mostly from poor families, to be taken into the palace for pillow dancing lessons before they were sold to the great harem. Some were re turned to their fathers, brides that could bring a fortune in dowry. Melan nodded. "An hour each day. And an hour of singing. Another at writing, and a fourth to bathe."

"And the other twenty?" Amanvah asked. "You cannot mean they will be granted the Chamber of Shadows." Ashia's skin goosebumped at the name, and she struggled not to shiver despite the hot air.

But Melan shook her head. "The other twenty, they will study sharu sahk. They belong to Enkido."

There were gasps from some of the other girls, and even Amanvah's face lost its smug look.

Ashia suppressed a snarl. She was blood of the Deliverer. Enkido was but half a man. She might have to obey his instruction, but Nie take her before she think herself his property.

"Shave them, and teach them the bido weave," Melan said.

Amanvah bowed. "Yes, Nie'Damaji'ting."

"Thank you, cous..." Ashia began, but as soon as Melan left, Aman vah turned away. She snapped her fingers, pointing to three of the older girls, who immediately went over to Ashia and the others, leading them to the water.

Amanvah went back to a group of other girls, resuming an idle conver sation and totally ignoring Ashia, Shanvah, and Sikvah as the nie'dama'ting cut away their beautiful hair and shaved their heads. Ashia stared forward, willing herself not to feel the loss as her heavy locks fell away.

The nie'dama'ting came at her with a cake of soap and a razor next. Ashia froze as the girl lathered her scalp, wielding the blade with expert strokes.

Amanvah returned when they were finished. Kept her gaze above their heads, letting none meet her eyes. "Dry off." She pointed to a pile of pris tinely white, freshly folded drying cloths. "Then follow."

Again she turned away, as Ashia and the others dried off and followed their haughty cousin back to the dressing area. Behind trailed the same three girls who had cut their hair.

Amanvah walked past the many rolls of white bido silk to a lacquered box at the far end of the chamber. "You are not dama'ting." She threw them each a roll of the black silk from the box.

"Unworthy to wear the white."

"Unworthy," the older girls echoed at their backs. Ashia swallowed at that. Betrothed or not, they were blood of the Deliverer, not some com mon dal'ting.


Enkido was waiting for them when they emerged from the baths with thin, black silk scarves and robes over their bidos. Shanvah and Sikvah had stopped weeping, but still they clutched at each other, eyes on the floor.

Ashia boldly raised her gaze to meet the eunuch's eyes. She was blood of the Deliverer. Her father would cut off more than this man's cock if he dared lay a hand on her. She would not be afraid.

She would not.

The eunuch paid her no mind, staring instead at Sikvah, who shook like a hare before the wolf. He made a sharp, dismissive gesture. Sikvah only stared, uncomprehending, beginning to weep once more.

Enkido raised a finger sharply in Sikvah's face, causing the girl to gasp and stand up straight. Her eyes, wide with fear, crossed as they watched the finger.

Again, Enkido made the dismissive gesture. As if his finger in the air alone had been supporting her, Sikvah bent again, sobbing harder. This put Shanvah over the edge as well, the two of them clutching each other as they shook.

"She doesn't understand what you want!" Ashia cried. She couldn't tell if the eunuch was deaf as well as mute, for he did not look at her.

Instead, Enkido's hand whipped out, slapping Sikvah's cheek so hard her head struck Shanvah's and they were both driven hard into the wall.

Ashia was moving before she knew it, interposing herself between the eunuch and the other girls. "How dare you?!" she cried. "We are prin cesses of the Kaji, blood of the Deliverer, not camels in the bazaar! The Shar'Dama Ka will see you lose that hand."

Enkido regarded her a moment. Then his hand seemed to flicker, and she was launched backward, an odd tingling in her jaw. She heard more than felt the rebound of the rock wall as she struck it. The sound echoed in her head as she struck the floor, and she knew pain would soon follow.

But Shanvah and Sikvah needed her. She put her hands under her, struggling to rise. She was the eldest. It was her duty to...

Her vision blurred at the edges, then darkened into black.

Enkido, Shanvah, and Sikvah were in the same positions when she woke. It seemed a mere eyeblink, but the dried blood caking her cheek to the marble floor told another story. The girls had stopped crying, standing with their backs straight. They watched her with terrified eyes.

Ashia managed to push herself up to her knees, then rose shakily to her feet. Her face throbbed with more pain than she had ever known. Rather than terrify her, the feeling made her angry. Perhaps he might strike them, but the half-man would not dare kill them. He was just trying to make them afraid.

She set her feet, daring once more to raise her gaze to Enkido. She would not be so easily cowed. But the eunuch did not acknowledge her at all, simply turning away and walking down the hall, beckoning them with a wave.

Wordlessly, the girls followed.

Enkido stood before the three frightened girls in a large circular chamber lit only by dim wardlight. Like the rest of the underpalace, the floor and walls were stone, cut with wards and worn to a smooth polish by genera tions of use. The wards on the floor were arranged in concentric circles, like a marksman's target.

There were no furnishings save myriad weapons hanging from the walls. Spears and shields, bows and arrows, alagai-catchers and short melee knives, throwing blades and batons, weighted chains and other weapons Ashia could not even put a name to.

They had been forced to remove their robes again, placing them on hooks by the door, standing in only their bido weaves.

Enkido, too, wore only his bido. It was barely a strip of silk, for of course he had no manhood to cover. His muscular body was shaved smooth, cov ered in hundreds of tattooed lines and dots. It was a chaotic design, but Ashia sensed a pattern that was just beyond her ability to discern. There was a riddle in them. The Riddle of Enkido. Ashia had always been skilled at riddling games. Riddles were taught to girls at a young age, that they might keep their husbands entertained.

The mute Sharum took a sharusahk pose. The girls looked at him blankly for a moment, but as his eyes darkened, Ashia took his meaning and as sumed the same pose. Sharusahk was forbidden to dal'ting, but Ashia and her cousins had been taught dance as well as riddling. This was not so dif ferent.

"Follow him," she told the others.

Shanvah and Sikvah complied, and Enkido circled them, inspecting. He grabbed Ashia's wrist hard, pulling her arm straight as he roughly kicked her legs farther apart. She could feel his grip long after he let go and turned to Shanvah.

Shanvah cried out and hopped from the loud smack to the meat of her thigh, and then Enkido took the stance again. No fool, Shanvah was quick to resume her imitation. She was closer this time, but Enkido kicked her legs out from under her, dropping her to the floor. Sikvah jumped back at that, and even Ashia let her pose slip, turning to face them.

Enkido pointed at her, and that simple gesture made her heart stop. Ashia resumed her pose as Sikvah continued to back away. Eventually she fetched up against the wall and did her very best to sink into it like a spirit.

Once again Enkido took the pose, and Shanvah was quick to scramble to her feet and mimic him. Her feet were set correctly this time, but her back was not straight. Enkido grabbed the strands of bido silk that con nected the weave around her shaved head to that covering her nethers. He pulled hard, pressing a thumb into Shanvah's spine. She cried out in pain, but was helpless to resist as he pulled her back straight.

Enkido let go and turned toward Sikvah. The girl was backed against the wall in terror, hands covering her nose and mouth, eyes wide and tear ing. The eunuch flowed smoothly into the pose again.

"Pose, you little fool!" Ashia snapped when the girl did not respond. But Sikvah only shook her head, mewling as she tried to shrink away far ther into an unyielding wall.

Enkido moved faster than Ashia could have thought possible. Sikvah tried to run as he came for her, but he was on her in an instant, yanking her arm to turn the momentum of her attempt to flee into a throw. She cried out as she tumbled across the floor to the center of the room.

Enkido was there in an eyeblink, kicking her in the stomach. Sikvah was thrown over onto her back and hit the ground hard. There was blood on her face and she groaned, limbs limp as fronds of palm.

"For Everam's sake, get up!" Ashia cried, but Sikvah didn't—or couldn't—comply. Enkido kicked her again. And again. She wailed, but she might have been crying to a statue of stone for all the eunuch took heed. Perhaps he truly was deaf.

He didn't appear to be trying to maim or kill her, but neither was there any hint of mercy, or sign that the onslaught would end if she did not rise and take the pose. He paused after each strike, giving her the chance to rise, but Sikvah was beyond comprehension, crippled with fear.

The blows began to accumulate. There was blood running from Sik vah's nose and mouth, and another cut at her temple. One of her eyes was already beginning to swell. Ashia began to think Enkido truly might kill her. She glanced to Shanvah, but the other girl stood frozen, staring help lessly at the scene.

So fixed was the eunuch on Sikvah, he did not notice as Ashia dropped her pose, sliding silently to the wall. Sacred law forbade her or any woman to touch a spear, so she selected a short, heavy baton, banded with steel. It felt good in her hand. Right.

Years of dance told in the grace of her swift and silent approach, as she carefully kept unseen at Enkido's back. When she was close enough she didn't hesitate, swinging the baton hard enough to shatter the eunuch's skull.

Enkido seemed not to have noticed her, but at the last moment he twisted, putting his littlest finger against her wrist. Ashia barely felt the feather-touch, but her swing missed Enkido's head by a wide margin. His calm eyes met hers, and Ashia knew then he had been waiting, baiting her to see if she would defend her cousin.

Sikvah lay forgotten, a quivering mass of blood and bruise.

He would have killed her, Ashia thought, just to test me. She bared her teeth, pulling back and swinging again at his head, arcing her blow in from another angle.

It was a feint, and she spun before Enkido could react, moving to smash his kneecap.

But the mute eunuch was unsurprised, again sending her blow out wide with only the barest touch. Again and again Ashia swung the baton at him, but Enkido blocked her effortlessly. She felt a mounting fear at what he might do when he decided the lesson was over and struck back.

A moment later she learned, as he caught her wrist with the thumb and forefinger of his left hand, twisting. The hold was delicate, but Ashia's arm might have been set in stone for all she could move it. Enkido's other hand wove around her arm, a single hard finger poking her shoulder joint.

Immediately Ashia's arm went numb, falling loosely to her side as En kido released it. What had he done? She did not feel her fingers lose their grip on the baton, but heard it clatter to the floor. She looked down, will ing her fingers to clench, her arm to rise, but it was futile. She cursed the limb for its betrayal.

Enkido lunged at her, and she instinctively raised her other arm to shield herself. He jabbed a finger, and that arm, too, fell to her side. She tried to back away, but he struck again. Just a tap, and her legs would no longer bear her weight. She collapsed in a heap on the floor, head rebound ing off the stone like the clapper of a bell.

With an effort she rolled onto her back, her vision spinning as she watched Enkido stalk over to her. She held her breath, determined not to cry out as the final blow came.

But Enkido squatted at her side, reaching gently to take her face in his hands, as comforting as a mother's touch.

His fingers found her temples and pressed hard. The pain was beyond anything Ashia could have imagined, but she bit her lip till she tasted blood, refusing to give him the satisfaction of seeing her scream.

The fingers tightened. Ashia's vision narrowed, then began to blacken at the edges. A moment later, sight vanished entirely. For a few moments, there was a swirl of color, then that, too, fell away, leaving her in darkness.

Enkido let go the hold and rose, moving away toward her cousins.

She knew not how long she lay there, limp, listening to their cries. But then the shrieks and whimpers fell away. Ashia wondered if she had passed out, or the others had. She strained her ears, hearing gentle sighs, steady breathing, and a soft rustling.

A golden pall came over her vision like a sandstorm, and she began to make out vague shapes. However the eunuch had blinded her, it seemed not to be permanent.

Experimentally, she tried to clutch her numbed fingers. The jolt through her arm had little effect, but already it was a far cry from the seeming death of the limb minutes ago.

She could see the vague shape of the eunuch carrying one of her cousins off. Another was still lying nearby. Shanvah, she realized when her sight began to sharpen. The eunuch returned and carried her off as well. Ashia was left alone in the center of the room, twitching and struggling to con trol her slowly wakening limbs. Every thrash was agony, but so was her feeling of helplessness. And that, she would fight to the death.

The eunuch returned to her, a large blur of dark against the field of gold. She felt him lay his hand flat upon her bare chest, and held her breath.

Enkido pressed hard, compressing her lungs to force that breath free. When Ashia tried to take another breath, she found herself unable. He held her that way for a long time. She jerked and thrashed, trying to get her limbs to obey, to strike at him.

Still he held, and at last Ashia had not the strength or control even to thrash. Her slowly returning vision began to darken again.

Back to sleep, she thought, almost with relief.

But then the eunuch eased his hand slightly. Ashia tried to take a breath, and choked. Her lungs still could not expand fully. But she could take a short breath, and did. It was sweeter than any breath she had ever taken, but it was not enough, and so she took another. And another.

She found a steady rhythm in the short breaths, and again her vision began to return, her limbs to reawaken. But she did not thrash, focused solely on those fluttering, life-giving breaths.

And then Enkido eased his hand once more. She was allowed a half breath, and accepted it greedily, again finding a steady rhythm to compen sate for the missing half.

He raised his hand again, laying it gently on her breast. Ashia took a full breath, and knew it was his gift to her. No pleasure of her life could match the perfection of that single breath.

Then he pushed slowly down again. Ashia went limp, letting him force the air from her lungs. He raised his hand a moment later, and Ashia breathed again. For several minutes, she let him guide her breaths. After struggling so mightily for air, this was complete rest, letting Enkido breathe for her.

She thought that she might fall asleep to that soothing feeling, but he took his hand away, and began massaging her temples, tending the very spot he had brought such agony upon.

Ashia's return to sight increased rapidly now, the haze before her focus ing into the eunuch's muscular form. Ashia had never before seen a man without his robes and knew she should lower her eyes, but the tattoos on his body called to her once more. The Riddle of Enkido.

The eunuch's skillful fingers moved from her temples to her still-numb arm. There was a tugging feeling as he worked, but she could not feel his touch on her skin. But then there was a stab of pain that made Ashia jerk. She whipped her head around, seeing Enkido massaging a tiny bruise on her shoulder. An almost perfect circle of purple flesh where his fingertip had struck.

The pain faded quickly, spreading out into a gentle feeling of pins and needles as Ashia's limb came fully alive once more.

He turned slightly, and Ashia caught sight of a tattoo almost identical to her bruise on the eunuch's shoulder.

There were others on his temples, right where he had squeezed Ashia. Her eyes flickered over his body, following the lines that connected the points. There were many convergences, some great and some small. En kido next moved to a bruise on her lower back. She twisted to better see, but she had already seen its tattooed mate on Enkido's back.

She knew even before the eunuch began to work that her legs would soon be full of pins and needles as well.

He's teaching, she realized. The very lines on his body are the sacred text.

She looked up at Enkido, and his face as he massaged her injury seemed almost one of kindness. She reached out, tentatively touching the conver gence point on Enkido's back. "I see it now. I understand, and will tell the others... master."

Enkido bent toward her. For a moment she thought she was imagining it. But no. He held it too long.

Enkido bowed to her, as a teacher to a pupil, before scooping her up in his arms and carrying her, gentle as a babe, to the warm mass where her cousins slept. He laid her there, and brushed gentle fingertips over her eyelids, closing them for her.

Ashia did not resist, putting her arms protectively about her cousins and falling into a deep sleep.


They woke with a start. Enkido might be mute, but he could still bring thunder from the polished ram's horn at his lips. It felt like the very walls were shaking. The girls shrieked and covered their ears, but the noise did not cease until they were on their feet. Ashia had no idea what time it was, but they must have slept for hours. She felt refreshed, if still sore.

The eunuch replaced the horn on the wall and handed them each a towel, silently leading the way from his training room to the bath. They walked in a line, but Ashia stole glances back at her cousins. Shanvah's face was frozen, thoughts far away. Sikvah walked with a limp, drawing sharp breaths as they went down a series of steps.

As before, Enkido waited outside as they entered the dressing chamber. They could hear the trickle of the fountains while they unwove their bidos, but it was otherwise quiet. Indeed, they found the bath empty.

Shanvah and Sikvah looked about nervously, dwarfed by the great chamber. Ashia clapped her hands, drawing their attention. "Nie'Damaji'ting Melan said we were to have an hour a day in the bath. Let us not waste it." She waded out into the water, leading them to the largest, most central fountain. There were benches of smooth stone at the base where bathers could lie, immersing themselves in the hot flow.

Sikvah groaned as she lay in the steaming water. "There, sister," Ashia said, coming to her side to inspect the bruise on her thigh, gently massag ing as Enkido had done. "The bruise is not great. Let the hot water soak the pain, and it will heal quickly."

"There will be others," Shanvah said, her voice flat and lifeless. "He will never stop." Sikvah shuddered, her skin pimpling even in the warm air.

"He will," Ashia said, "when we solve the riddle."

"Riddle?" Shanvah asked.

Ashia pointed to the bruise on her shoulder. Shanvah had a matching one, as did Sikvah. "There is a mark just like this on the master's flesh. When struck, the arm dies for a time."

Sikvah began to cry again.

"But what does it mean?" Shanvah asked.

"A dama'ting mystery," Ashia said. "Melan said we were to learn sharu sahk. The Riddle of Enkido is a part of it, I'm sure."

"Then why give us a teacher who cannot speak?" Sikvah demanded. "One who... who..." She sobbed again.

Ashia squeezed her thigh reassuringly. "Fear not, cousin. Perhaps this is simply the way. Our brothers all came back from sharaj with sharusahk bruises. Why should we be different?"

"Because we're not boys!" Shanvah shouted.

Just then, the doors opened and the three girls froze. A group of Be trothed entered, led by Amanvah.

"Perhaps not," Ashia said, drawing the other girls' eyes back to her. "But we are blood of the Deliverer, and there is nothing common boys can endure that we cannot."

"You're using our fountain," Amanvah called as she and the others strode over. She pointed to a small fountain at the far end of the pool. "Black bidos wash over there."

The other nie'dama'ting laughed at that, squawking like trained birds. Amanvah was only eleven, but girls years her senior, some close to taking the white veil themselves, deferred to her, eager to curry favor.

Sikvah's leg had gone tense, and Ashia could sense Shanvah, too, was ready to bolt like a hare.

"Pay the chatter no mind, little cousins," Ashia said. "But come." She took each of them by an arm, pulling them gently to their feet and usher ing them away while she glared at Amanvah. "A smaller fountain and the laughter of girls is a cheap price for our hour of peace."

"Not girls," Amanvah said, grabbing Ashia's arm. "Nie'dama'ting. Your betters. Something you'd best learn."

"Why are you doing this?" Ashia demanded. "We are cousins. Our blood is your blood. Blood of the Deliverer."

Amanvah pulled at Ashia's shoulder, at the same time sliding a leg be hind hers. Ashia was thrown into her cousins, the three of them falling to the water with a splash.

"You are nothing," Amanvah said when they came sputtering out of the water. "The Deliverer has spoken, sending you here in black. You are the products of his useless, dal'ting sisters, fit for breeding wolves to run the Maze and nothing else. Your blood is not holy, and you are no cousin of mine."

Ashia felt her sense of calm slip away. She was two years older than Amanvah, bigger and stronger, and she would not be bullied by her younger cousin.

She struck the water, sending a splash that Amanvah instinctively threw a hand up to shield from her face. Quick as an asp, Ashia darted in and struck, fingers bunched and stiffened, for the point on her shoulder where Enkido's tattoo had been. The place she and all her cousins car ried bruises.

Amanvah gave a shrill, satisfying cry as she fell onto her backside in the water. The other girls froze, no one sure how to react.

Amanvah's eyes were wide as she stared at her numb, lifeless arm. Then she scowled, rubbing at the spot until the numbness faded. She flexed her arm experimentally, and it responded, if slowly.

"So Enkido has managed to teach you something of sharusahk already," Amanvah said, getting to her feet and taking the same stance Enkido had demonstrated the day before. She smiled. "Come, then. Show me what you have learned."

Ashia already knew what was coming, and steeled herself. If the Sharum can endure this, then I can as well.

The thought calmed her a bit, but did nothing to shield her from the pain as Amanvah administered the beating. She flowed around Ashia's punches as if she were standing still, and her own strikes were quick and precise, twisting and jabbing points meant to deliver maximum pain. When she tired of the game, she easily grappled Ashia to the pool floor, twisting her arm so far Ashia feared she might break it off. She strug gled to keep her head above water, and knew, to her shame, that if the younger girl wished to drown her, there was nothing she could to do stop her.

But Amanvah was content with pain, pulling at Ashia's arm until she had screamed herself hoarse. At last Amanvah let her go, dropping her with a splash. She pointed to the small fountain. Her eyes taking in all three of her cousins.

"To your kennel, nie'Sharum'ting dogs."


The horn sounded, and Ashia was on her feet before her mind was fully awake. She crouched in a defensive stance, presenting as low a profile as possible as she scanned for the threat.

No attack came. Enkido casually replaced the horn on the wall while the girls stood at the ready. There were five of them now, her cousins Micha and Jarvah joining them not long after the Damajah gave them to Enkido. The new girls were years younger, but seemed to adapt to Enki do's world the faster for it, and for the example Ashia set.

For months, Enkido's training room had been the center of their world. They slept and ate there, meals and rest earned only with pain. Lessons always ended with one of the girls nursing numbed limbs or worse mala dies. Sometimes they could not smell. Other times deaf for hours. None of the effects was permanent.

If he was pleased with them, Enkido would massage and stretch away their pain, restoring lost limbs and senses, speeding healing.

They learned quickly that hard work pleased him. And stubborn re solve. A willingness to continue even when hurt or in pain. Complaints, begging, and disobedience did not.

They had not been allowed a full sleep since that first night. Twenty minutes here, three hours there. The eunuch would wake them at odd hours and expect them to perform complex sharukin, or even spar. There seemed no pattern to it, so they learned to sleep when they could. The perpetual state of exhaustion made the first weeks seem a blurred dream.

Lessons with the dama'ting came and went like mirages in the desert. They obeyed the Brides of Everam without question. Enkido always knew if they had displeased one of the women in white, and made it known with out words why the mistakes should never be repeated.

I would kill for a full sleep, Shanvah's fingers said.

Most of the lessons the dama'ting gave were of little interest to the girls, but the secret code of the eunuchs, a mixture of hand signs and body lan guage, had been embraced fully. Complex conversations could be had in code as easily as speech.

Enkido gave occasional commands or bits of wisdom in code, but the eunuch still preferred to silently teach by example, forcing them to guess the full meaning for themselves. Sometimes days went by without a word in code.

But while it did little to foster communication with their master, it had become their primary means of communication with one another. Enkido, it turned out, was not deaf. Quite the contrary, the slightest whisper could bring pain and humiliation that kept the girls silent in his presence. Ashia was sure he had caught them speaking in code more than once, but thus far he had chosen to ignore it.

As would I, Ashia's fingers replied, shocked to find she truly meant it.

I haven't the strength to kill, Sikvah said. Without sleep, I may die. As usual, Micha and Jarvah said nothing, but they watched the conversation closely.

You won't die, Ashia replied. As the master taught me to survive on shallow breaths, so too is he teaching us shallow sleep.

Shanvah turned to meet her eyes. How can you know that? her fingers asked.

Trust your elder, little cousins, Ashia replied, and even Shanvah relaxed at that. Ashia could not explain, but she had no doubt of the master's in tent. Sadly, understanding did not give her endurance. That had to be earned.

There was an unexpected reprieve as Enkido made his most beloved gesture, pointing toward the towels. They must have slept longer than they thought. All five girls had a spring in their step as they collected their towels and lined by the door. The eunuch dismissed them with a wave.

Twenty hours a day with Enkido, as the Damajah commanded. Three more studying with the dama'ting. And that one, blessed hour between, when they were in the baths. The one place Enkido could not follow. The one hour they could speak freely, or close their eyes without per mission. Showing submission to the nie'dama'ting was a small price for the peace.

The Betrothed sneered at them in the baths, the halls, at lessons, laugh ing at the nie'Sharum'ting, as Amanvah had dubbed them. The black bidos forever marked Ashia and her cousins from the other girls in the palace. Even the dal'ting girls sent to learn pillow dancing seemed above them. They were allowed to keep their hair, and not beaten for their errors.

Ashia and her little cousins had learned to keep quiet and to themselves, passing unnoticed whenever possible, showing submission when not.

As usual, they were the first to the baths. The nie'dama'ting would not arrive for a quarter hour, but Ashia led them directly to the small foun tain at the edge of the pool, even though the water was not as hot, so far from the wards that heated it. There they washed the sweat from their skin, and helped one another massage sore muscles, sand calluses, and treat blistered skin. Enkido's lessons on massage and healing were in valuable in the baths.

There was a shout as the doors opened. The nie'dama'ting entered in a knot, and clearly a confrontation was going on at their center.

Ashia was not fool enough to stare, but she casually sat atop the foun tain, right by the flow of water, to grant a better view from the side of her eyes. Wordlessly, her cousins did the same, pretending to groom one an other as they watched.

This was not the first time they had witnessed the Betrothed fighting. They called one another sister, but there was little love among them, each vying for influence over the others and the favor of Amanvah. Outside, they used debate and logic, but in the privacy of the baths, where the Brides of Everam would not see, they were as apt to use cutting words, or even sharusahk.

The argument was between two older girls, Jaia and Selthe. They seemed ready to come to blows, but both glanced first to Amanvah, seek ing favor.

Amanvah turned her back on them, giving them permission to fight. "I see nothing."

The other Betrothed did the same, repeating the words and turning their backs until the older girls faced each other alone. Who will take the match? Ashia's fingers asked.

Selthe, Sikvah answered without hesitation. It is said she will soon finish her dice and take the white.

She will lose, and badly, Ashia disagreed.

Her form is strong, Shanvah noted. Micha and Jarvah did not comment, but they followed the conversation with their eyes.

There is fear in her eyes, Ashia said. Indeed, Selthe took a step back as Jaia moved in. A moment later, Selthe's head was being held under the water. Jaia kept her there until Selthe ceased struggling and slapped her submission on the surface of the pool. Jaia pushed her farther under, then let go and took a step back. Selthe rose with a splash, gasping for air.

Weak lungs, too, Ashia said. She was barely under the water a full minute.

"I see your fingers chattering, Sharum dogs!" Amanvah's cry snapped their heads up. The girl strode angrily their way, several other Betrothed at her back.

"Behind me, little cousins," Ashia said softly as Amanvah approached. "Eyes down. This is not your fight." The girls complied as Ashia raised her gaze to meet Amanvah's. The act seemed to double the younger girl's ire as she pulled up, close enough to reach out and touch.

The kill zone, Enkido's fingers had called the space between them.

"You saw nothing," Amanvah said. "Say it, nie'Sharum'ting."

Ashia shook her head. "The large fountain is not worth fighting over, cousin, but nothing you can do will make me lie to my master, much less the dama'ting. I will not volunteer the information, but if asked, I will tell the truth."

Amanvah's nostrils flared. "And what is that?"

"That the nie'dama'ting lack discipline," Ashia said. "That you call one another sister but do not know the meaning of the word, bickering and fighting like khaffit." She spat in the bath, and the other girls gasped. "And your sharusahk is pathetic."

Amanvah's eyes flicked to her target an instant before she struck, but it was more than enough for Ashia to block and plot her next three blows. The Betrothed spent two hours each day studying sharusahk. Ashia and her cousins spent twenty, and the difference had come to tell.

Ashia could have put Amanvah under the water as easily as Jaia did Selthe, but she wanted the beating to last, as had the one Amanvah deliv ered on their second day in the palace.

Two knuckles into the armpit, and Amanvah howled with pain. A chop to the throat cut off the sound, and Amanvah's eyes bulged as her lungs seized. The heel of Ashia's hand to her forehead left Amanvah stunned as the force of the blow knocked her backward into the water.

Ashia could have continued the beating, but she stayed her hand as Amanvah rose choking to her knees, coughing out bathwater. "If you walk away now, I will not have to tell the dama'ting you are fools, as well."

It was a goad, of course, forcing Amanvah to willingly prolong the beating, lest she appear weak in front of the other nie'dama'ting.

The other girls held their collective breath as Amanvah slowly got to her feet, water dripping from her skin. Her eyes promised murder, but they also told Ashia where she would strike next.

The eyes tell all, Enkido's fingers had said. Ashia stood calmly, breath ing in steady rhythm, her guard low, inviting the attack.

Amanvah was more cautious now, keeping her guard in place and using feints to set up her true attacks.

It was all to no avail. Ashia could see the moves before Amanvah even made them, blocking a series of blows without retaliating, simply to show the ease of it.

Up to their thighs in water, Ashia kept her feet planted, blocking and dodging with her upper body alone, but Amanvah needed her feet. It made her slow, and she soon began to breathe hard. Ashia shook her head. "You Betrothed are soft, cousin. This lesson was overdue."

Amanvah glared at her with open hatred. Wrapped in the soft cocoon of her breath, Ashia was calm, but she put a smile on her lips, if only to goad her cousin further. She already knew what Amanvah was planning, though she wanted to believe the girl was not so stupid as to actually at tempt it.

But in her desperation, Amanvah took the bait, delivering a series of feints before trying a kick.

Her legs already tired and underwater, the kick was pathetically slow. Amanvah was counting on surprise, but even that would not have been enough. Ashia caught her ankle, yanking the leg upward.

"One stupid enough to kick in water does not deserve the use of their leg." She struck hard, driving her stiffened fingers hard into a precise point on Amanvah's thigh. Amanvah screamed from the pain, and then the leg went limp in Ashia's hand.

Ashia spun her as she fell, easily slipping into a submission hold as she held Amanvah under.

Jaia tried to intercede, but Shanvah moved in without a word, striking two quick blows that collapsed the older girl's legs. She fell to the water, thrashing to keep her head above the surface. Selthe could have stepped in to help her, but she and the other nie'dama'ting stood frozen in place. Sik vah, Micha, and Jarvah lined up next to Shanvah, blocking their path to the combatants.

Amanvah thrashed at first, and then went still. Ashia waited for her to slap the surface of the water in submission, but to her credit, the girl never did. She knew she was the Deliverer's daughter, and even Ashia would not dare kill her in front of everyone.

She pulled Amanvah's head free of the water, letting her gasp a breath.

"Sharum blood of the Deliverer. Say it."

The girl looked at her in fury, spitting in Ashia's face.

Ashia did not let her draw another breath before putting her back under, twisting her arm painfully for long moments.

"Sharum blood," Ashia said, pulling her into the air. "Everam's spear sisters. Say it." Amanvah shook her head wildly as she gasped and thrashed, so Ashia put her under again.

This time she waited long minutes, her hands in tune with Amanvah's body. The muscles tensed one last time before consciousness was lost. When she felt it, she pulled Amanvah out into the air a third time, leaning in close.

"There is no hora magic in the bath, cousin. No dama'ting, no Enkido. There is only sharusahk. We can do this every day if you wish."

Amanvah eyed her with cold rage, but there was fear there as well, and resignation. "Sharum blood of the Deliverer, Everam's spear sisters," she agreed. "Cousin."

Ashia nodded. "An admission that would have cost you nothing, when I came to you in friendship." She let go her hold and stepped back, pointing. "I think it is the Betrothed who will use the small fountains where the water is cool from now on. Everam's spear sisters claim the large one."

She looked out over the assembled nie'dama'ting and was satisfied to see them all rock backward under her gaze. "Unless any wish to challenge me?"

Shanvah and the others broke their line as if the move had been re hearsed, giving room for a challenger to approach, but none was so fool ish. They made way as Ashia led her sisters to the large fountain, where they continued their bath as if nothing had happened. The Betrothed helped Amanvah and Jaia onto benches, massaging life back into their limbs. They watched Ashia and the others dazedly, their own bathing for gotten.

That was incredible, Shanvah's fingers said.

You should not have interfered, Ashia replied. I ordered you to stand back.

Shanvah looked hurt, and the others genuinely surprised.

But we won, Micha signed.

Today we won, Ashia agreed. But tomorrow, when they come at us together, you will all need to fight.

Copyright © 2015 by Peter V. Brett


The Skull Throne



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