The Emperor's Knife

Mazarkis Williams


H ands found Sarmin through the confusion of his dreams and the tangle of his sheets. Large hands, rough, closing around his arm, his leg, encompassing him, lifting. In confusion he saw the world move around him, night shades sliding over sleep-blurred eyes. He saw the trail of his bedding, a palace guard bending over Pelar’s bed, Asham’s bed, a man lifting little Fadil, another with baby Kashim in the crook of his arm. And Beyon, his eldest brother, led away, barefoot, wide-eyed.

A palace guard carried Sarmin on a broad shoulder. Two more walked behind, and more ahead. He almost fell asleep again. He yawned and tried to snuggle, but something kept him awake, something grim behind the men’s blank faces. They took him up a long, winding stair, so many steps he thought it must reach to heaven-but it ended at a single door and the small room beyond. Without speaking, the man who carried Sarmin set him upon the bed, wide enough for him and all his brothers, though when he looked, his brothers were not there.

“Why?”Five years had not armed Sarmin with enough words for his questions.

The guardsmen left and shut the door. He heard the lock turn.

Sarmin would have slept, even then, even there in that strange room, but for a high and distant wailing. Kashim! His smallest brother cried, and no nurse came to quiet him.

He left the bed and pulled on the iron door handle. “Release me!” A small anger woke within him. He shook the door again and shouted, using the words Beyon would say when crossed: “I am a prince! My father is the light of heaven”

Silence. Only the thin wail of the baby reaching out, reaching up.

Sarmin looked about the room. Beside the bed they had left him a chair, set beneath a slender window. He clambered up onto the seat, stood on tiptoes, and pressed his nose to the window’s alabaster pane. Nothing, just a faint blur of light offered through the translucence of the stone. Kashim’s cries came clearer, though. He was outside, far below.

The hand Sarmin put to the window trembled. He wanted to break it open, to see clear, but fear held him, as though it were fire he thought to push his fingers through. Another screech and anger swallowed fear. “I am a prince! My father is the light of heaven!”

The thin pane fractured before his blow, falling in pieces onto the sill beyond. He saw only the night sky, bright with stars, until he hauled with all his strength and drew himself higher.

Torches burned in the courtyard beneath the tower, a dozen points of dancing light in the stone acres below. Figures lay on the flagstones, dark shapes in the circle of firelight, small figures, smaller than the guards who held the torches. A man stepped into the circle, picking his way over those still forms. He held a baby, white against the blackness of his cloak, naked against the night. Kashim, howling for his bed, for kindness, for arms that loved him.


The man moved his hand over Sarmin’s brother. Over his neck. Something glittered in his grip. And Kashim fell silent, in the middle of his cry, just as when Mother Siri would stopper his little mouth with her breast.

The man glanced once at the tower, at the window, his look unreadable. It would be unreadable at any distance. One more? Did the knife-man perhaps think his work unfinished? He set Kashim on the ground, among his brothers, and Sarmin fell back into the darkness of his room.

Chapter One

Twenty paces to the north, fifteen to the west. Enough to bound a room, but few to encompass a man’s world. Sarmin knew every color and touch of his soft prison. When he extended his fingers they found no iron bars or cold dungeon stone. Only the curving scrollwork along the walls, the gods fixed upon the ceiling, and the flowers carved into the door marked his barriers. Nevertheless he could not leave. He paced, his bare feet deep in silken carpet.

Only silk can bind a royal.

But other things bound him too. His memories. His dreams. His mother, sitting now on a low bench, waiting for his acknowledgement. These threads caught him so tightly that sometimes he couldn’t breathe.

He paced, and his mother said nothing. She only fingered the blue gem around her neck. After sundown it would burn like blue fire in the lantern light. He remembered it dangling before his childhood eyes when she pulled the soft covers around his chin at bedtime.

But that was two lifetimes gone, and other things occupied her now. She came seldom, even in the day.

Sarmin settled on the edge of his bed and reaccustomed himself to his mother’s face. Save for some spidery lines about her mouth, she could be as young as he. Hair dark as calligraphy fell around her bare breasts. They proclaimed her two sons, born alive. Even if Sarmin had perished with the others, she would have the right to show where he once suckled.

The idea of such intimacy seemed absurd to him now. Her eyes wrote a story of ruthless choices, her pupils the quill-tips. Yet she spoke humbly, as befitted a woman. “I am concerned for the emperor.”

The emperor. There was something yet unbound within Sarmin after all. He felt it stir beneath his ribs. “What ails my brother?”

A flicker at the edge of her mouth. “None of his wives has quickened. We have prayed and sacrificed, and yet there is no heir.” A wrinkle of her kohl-thickened eyebrows. “I am frightened for him.”

Sarmin imagined Beyon’s wives scurrying through the palace with both breasts covered, the scorn of the Old Wives heaped upon them. The free thing inside him twisted again.

“Then I am concerned as well, but I know nothing of medicine.” Sarmin spoke the truth. He knew only this room and the five books it contained. Those books held everything he would need to know if his brother died: the histories, the gods, how to eat roast pimicons with a tiny spoon. But that was not the reason for his reply. His soft room didn’t fool him into thinking the palace had no sharp edges.

She watched him. He laid his hands on the cool fabric of his sheets and waited.

“I have found you a wife,” she said.

His hands curled around the silk.

To everything there is a season. A time to be born, and a time to lie still in the courtyard with your blood draining through a slit throat. A time to pace. Fifteen by twenty, fifteen by twenty. Time enough to pace, to walk off youth, to count away a hidden lifetime. A time to marry.

“My son?”

My son.

“If it is time, then I will marry. Emperor willing.” The last he said with emphasis.

It made no difference to her. “I will make the arrangements.” She stood, whip-thin, one eye reproving him. “Do you not stand when the Empire Mother stands?”

Sarmin hastened to his feet. Etiquette. It was a small title for a most heavy book, the largest of his five. He even knew the page, four hundred and eleven, two hundred and six pages beyond the eating of pimicons: “Rarely is it seemly for a noble man to notice a woman at court, but when a woman ranks sufficiently high above one, even the nobly born must offer courtesies.”

She turned from him and went to the door. There had once been warmth at partings, in a time before the world shrank to this single room. He remembered softness and enfolding arms as one remembers a taste or scent. Maybe it had never been so. In many empty hours he named everything “before” a false dream, the delusion of a sick mind. But now…

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