Fantasy Fiction posted March 23, 2021 Chapters:  ...11 12 -13- 

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Ilati encounters the younger prince of Sarru.

A chapter in the book The Lioness of Shadi

The Prince of the Closed Hand

by K. Olsen

Ilati has survived the destruction of Shadi and started on the path to power. Now they come to Sarru, where they may need to decide who next takes the throne.

The man who stood on the other side of the now open door was a contradiction in terms. His bearing was proud to the point of haughtiness, his lips cruel and unforgiving. He had the pointed beard favored in Ulmanna and a long scar across one eye that bisected his dark eyebrow. The polished bronze of his breastplate emblazoned with the winged bulls of Sarru and the purple of the tunic beneath told Ilati exactly who this warrior was, though he was not adorned as thoroughly as Prince Hattusa and smelled of metal and smoke instead of sweet oil and perfume. 

Prince Zidanta looked into her eyes with a piercing gaze softened by the unexpected: tears. They smudged the kohl he wore around his eyes to guard them from the blinding glare of the sun, leaving dark streaks down his cheeks. There were no indications he even recognized her disfiguring scars were present.

“I am looking for a singer,” he said, voice dark in timbre and rich, though roughened by his tears. The cold and calculating Prince of Ulmanna, famous throughout the Sarrian Empire for his black heart, seemed entirely absent in the man she was facing. 

Ilati’s hand tightened on the door, nerves eating her alive from the inside out. She had grown in Shadi’s palaces, where the military predations of Sarru’s younger prince were well known. She was certain there was a more cautious way of speaking to such a powerful man, but what leapt out of her mouth instead was, “I did not mean any harm.” She knew without looking that her friend and young Roshanak had appeared in the room behind her, both tensed and uncertain as to whether the man was friend or foe.

“It was you I heard singing over the wall of the garden?” the Prince said, his voice an imperious demand that seemed far more in character. He seemed to regather himself like a warrior donning his armor, a hardness setting into his features. 

Ilati knew there was no sense in lying at this point. If it brought her grief, she would deal with it. “It was, great Prince of Sarru,” she said softly. Flashes of the Nadaren warriors who had destroyed her home flickered at the corners of her vision when he stepped forward. Suddenly she was hyper-focused on the leaf-bladed broadsword through his sash, accompanied by a dagger in its sheath. If he wanted to do her harm, she was a dead woman, and if her barbarian friend leaped to her aid, so were Shir Del and Roshanak.

Prince Zidanta pulled out a square of undyed linen and dabbed at his cheeks, carefully removing the streaks without smearing them. A softness flashed briefly in his features as he looked at her, as if touching the tears reminded him of their inspiration. “I feel your grief in every bone, woman of sorrow,” he said before clearing his throat. “Is pain all your voice knows?” 

“No,” Ilati said, trying not to tense even as she regarded him with all the caution she would give a wounded lion. The jarring difference between this and what she had heard of the silver-tongued asp of a man made him seem doubly unpredictable. 

Face him as you would the evil that is Nysra, she told herself, straightening her back as she looked into those piercing eyes, his the color of stormclouds boiling with floodwaters. Before a lion, a hunter cannot show fear.

“Sing for me,” he said. This time it was not a command, but a request, even if it was phrased as an order. 

Ilati steeled herself as much as she could, motioning to Shir Del and Roshanak that it was alright. The barbarian warrior pulled her daughter back against her body, almost pulling the young girl from view. “Follow me,” Ilati said, closing her hands so that it would be harder for the man to see that her fingers were trembling in fear. The only thing steady as she led him out into the gardens where the lyre waited was her voice. Her heart quivered in her chest like the wings of a hummingbird. 

To her enduring surprise, Zidanta followed without question or protest, taking a seat on the bench in the gardens. He cocked his head slightly to one side, studying her without the pitying gaze his brother had fixed on her. The prince seemed oblivious to her scars.

“What would you hear, great prince?” Ilati asked as calmly as she could manage. Her hands trembled against the strings of the lute as she sat beside him on the bench. 

He shook his head. “One does not dictate art.” 

Despite herself, Ilati smiled faintly. “You have not met many kings,” she said, relaxing. “It is always men of power who demand songs of praise.” 

“I do not require praise. It is flattery, empty and meaningless,” Zidanta said. He seemed to relax here in the garden where it was only the two of them. “Sing me something beautiful.” 

Ilati took a deep breath, a song already springing into mind. She closed her eyes and visualized the broad city streets of her destroyed home in the days when it lived, walking along the carefully tended banks of the sacred river. Her fingers, quivering though they were, quickly gained confidence as she plucked the strings of the lyre, tapping the wood frame with her thumb for percussion to punctuate phrases. She sang him not the temple hymns or praises of the kings of Shadi, but the simple melody of women washing clothes in water drawn from the River Esharra. 

Her loss colored it with longing, spilling into every syllable. Suddenly she wished desperately for the bright and hopeful days where she heard women sing to charm their husbands, to tease their children, all as they worked at their chores within sight of Zu’s ziggurat. It was not so fickle as the love of the goddess who claimed to adore Shadi above all other cities. The words that flowed from her lips were golden, almost glimmering in the air as they wove an mesmerizing enchantment around Zidanta. Her voice had always been the most beautiful part of her and the gift of the Mother of Demons granted it an even greater ability to pass on the emotions she felt. 

She kept her eyes closed as she painted pictures of turquoise bracelets jangling on the wrists of passing priestesses, the rhythm of the bricklayers, the hawking of merchants, the everyday labors of the farmers bringing their harvests into the great city of her birth. She blessed him with images of the grand palace, seen not from the familiarity of her own eyes, but the awe of common laborers who passed the great sun of the Inner Gate, gold inlaid into the doors of cedar wood that protected the halls made famous beyond all others by Ilishu the Conqueror. 

In that moment, the song pushed her into fearlessness, and she felt the great king’s blood burning in her veins. 

The last note, a plucked string that seemed to linger in the air like a descending feather, dissipated into the summer air. Ilati opened her eyes to see Prince Zidanta staring at her with unabashed awe. “Was that pleasing, great prince?” she asked softly. 

The cold, cruel man smiled with such warmth that Ilati felt her breath catch. “I could listen to you sing from now until the world sinks into the Abyss,” Zidanta said. “And even as I walked into the darkness of the underworld as the waters rose, I would beg for even just one more note from your lips.” 

The sorceress blushed at that and looked away, turning her attention to the singing birds perched in the fig tree that grew near the center of the garden. “I thought flattery was empty.” 

“This is not flattery,” he countered. “It is a truth in the cosmos that not even a god could change.” 

“Blasphemy too?” Ilati said, a faint smile forming. 

“Let the heavenly ones plunge me into a torrent of fire, so long as I may listen to you,” Zidanta said softly. “When you sang, visions opened within my mind. I saw Shadi, oldest of thrones, the seat of the great kings of Kullah, and the love of a daughter for her mother-city.” 

Ilati could feel her ears burning, though her flushed cheeks barely showed on sienna skin. She knew him by reputation: Zidanta was not a man of sentiment. Was this the magic of the Mother of Demons, some charm that the Howler of Night Winds wove through her? 

His eyes seemed clear when she met them again. If he was bewitched, it had not mired his mind. “Thank you for your gift, gracious lady,” he said with a smile. “May I ask your name?” 

“Ilati,” she answered. Eigou had used her true name, so he had some confidence that she would not be discovered and harmed. 

Something flickered in Zidanta’s expression for a moment, but Ilati was not certain what it was. “A fine name,” he said with something approaching care, gray eyes thoughtful as they studied her scarred face. “I have only heard it once before, in the palace of your city.” 

He knew. Ilati felt a distinct knot settle in the pit of her stomach. She would have to handle the man with the attention she might give to a hot coal in her hands. “Did you know her well?” 

Zidanta’s smile returned. “Not half so well as I wished after seeing her among the gardens of Shadi’s king. I was young then, not even a man, and beauty such as hers is as rare as rubies. I would remember her anywhere, though I had not heard her sing until today.” 

Ilati felt the blush returning, overpowering her fear of consequence. “I did not know you had come to Shadi, noble prince.”  

“My father thought it would do me well to learn cuneiform from those who began its use,” Zidanta said. “I was there two years in the company of the sons of Amar-Sin, most brave and just as they were.” He offered her a smile. “I loved Shadi. There I could be a boy playing in the rushes, not a prince standing at the precipice of the throne.”

“How strange. Many call you cruel,” Ilati said softly, though she kept reproach out of her tone.

“To them, I am,” Zidanta acknowledged openly. “This is as my father wills it: Hattusa is the open hand, the generous and the noble, one who lingers long on poetry and is famed for his kindness. I am the fist, hard and punishing as it drives away all evils that would come to Sarru. But where a hand has many tasks and may divert from brutality, a war-like prince may never rest upon his accolades without his destruction greeting him.” 

“There is bitter myrrh in your words,” Ilati murmured, catching a hint of the resentment Eigou had warned her was buried deep into the heart of the king’s second son. 

“As it should be, lady,” Zidanta said. His eyes found her gaze again, still dark like the clouds that brought floodwaters. “Myrrh is for funerals, and I have seen more of those than any other man in my father’s kingdom, friend and foe alike.” 

“I understand,” Ilati said quietly. In her thoughts, the last days of Shadi played as phantom pandemonium. It was the smell most of all that stayed with her, the wretched stench of the dead left dismembered and unburied in the summer heat. “I understand.” 

A warm hand touched her shoulder like a feather, as if Zidanta was afraid that to apply even the slightest pressure might shatter her. At least, that was Ilati’s first impression, but the thought changed when she looked up and saw the shadows around his eyes. The gentleness was not fear of her fragility: it was sorrow of his own. 

“It is not a thing I would wish upon my worst enemy. It grieves me that the lotus of Shadi has endured it.” Zidanta sighed, releasing his pain in a single breath. He moved his hand from her shoulder carefully. “Thank you for sharing your grief and your joy with me, peerless lady.”

Ilati managed to calm her trembling heart, pushing the echoes of Shadi back to the corners of her mind. Suddenly, the sword and knife of Prince Zidanta seemed far less dangerous, though she knew that could easily change. He was a man who had suffered loss as she had. There was plenty of room in her heart for sympathy. “Does a prince give thanks for what is ordered?” 

Zidanta smiled faintly at that. “If he is wise,” he said, rising to his feet. He extended a hand to her, not that she needed assistance rising from the bench.

It occurred to her then, as she laid her hand atop his, that Zidanta had said or shown nothing in response to her scars. It was as though he could not see them at all. “Fine courtesy for a marred woman,” Ilati murmured.

The prince gave her a long, measuring, calculating look at that comment. “I see a flower of an ancient line, a grace that comes from knowledge and power, a light appointed to the earth by the sweet goddesses who tender brightness to illuminate the dull drudgery of this world,” he said. “Nor are you here in Ulmanna now by accident. Soothsayers and prophets spoke of a star rising in the east. I think I see it here, glimmering in your aspect.” 

“Flattery becomes you,” Ilati said.

A knock on the door, this time most certainly Menes, stirred Ilati and Zidanta from their private moment. The prince discreetly cleaned off the last of the tear-smudged kohl on his face.

Shir Del caught Ilati by the arm as she passed back into the living quarters, safely out of the garden. “Are you well?” the hardened warrior woman asked. 

“I am,” Ilati promised. “If Menes is here, Eigou has sent him. That means we attend to the king.” 

The rider grimaced at even the thought, pulling her young daughter tight to her body. Roshanak made no sound of protest, no doubt sensing the worry that wound the three of them tighter and tighter. 

Menes opened the door, dark face creasing in relief to see them all well. His expression hardened at the sight of Zidanta intruding into the room, but he disguised it with a deep bow of deference. “Mighty prince, your father summons you and our party to dine.” 

“This is good,” Zidanta said firmly, again stepping into the invisible armor he wore. “I am ever my father’s servant.” 

The faint trace of bitterness to those words was impossible to escape. Ilati felt a twinge of sympathetic pain for him. What life was it to ever be at the beck and call of another, drowning fields in blood at a word from one’s master? She silently wished Zidanta had been given his brother’s fortunes. Not the throne, necessarily, but the ability to enjoy art and music, to be for once the generous soul rather than the grasping fist. Zidanta was in a prison that was not of his making, and her song had been only a brief escape.

Ilati - Once priestess and princess of the Kingdom of Kullah, now a lone survivor of Shadi's destruction and servant to the Mother of Night Winds
Menes - Charioteer and warrior from Magan, Ilati's protector
Eigou - One-eyed sorcerer who knew Ilati's grandfather and is teaching her magic
Shir Del - A wild warrior woman practically born in the saddle
Roshanak - Shir Del's daughter, a daemon trapped in the body of a child who would have been stillborn
Zidanta - prince of Sarru, the kingdom to the west of Kullah, hard-hearted and dangerous
Hattusa - Zidanta's older brother and chief rival, generous and kind.
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