This story first appeared in the September 2009 issue of IGMS.
There is also an audio version available at PodCastle.
Judgment of Swords and Souls
Layla bas Layla’s breath came raggedly and her blue silks were soaked with sweat, but she was pleased with her performance. Ten beheaded in threescore water-drops. She lowered her forked sword.
The clay-and-rag dummy skulls littered the packed-dirt training yard of the Lodge of God. Boulder-faced Shaykh Saif kicked one aside. He wore the same habit of silk blouse and breeches as she – he had been a member of the Order for thirty years longer than she — but even smiling, his craggy features somehow made the bright blue garments seem muted.
“Only seven-and-ten years old, and you’re better with the forked sword than I was as a Dervish in my prime. And I was the best, God forgive me my boasts!”
Layla bowed and sheathed her sword. She ran a hand over her stubbly head and wondered idly how it would feel to have long hair like the women outside the Lodge of God.
As if he sensed her thoughts, Shaykh Saif’s smile faded. “Almighty God willing, someday perhaps your soul will be as disciplined as your sword arm!” There was a reprimand in his eyes as well as his words.
Layla fingered the red silk scarf wound around her blue scabbard, the only difference between her garments and her teacher’s. It was the cause of the discord that was tearing the Lodge of God apart.
She said nothing.
The Shaykh shook his head. “Child, again I say you must repent this willfulness! Seven years now have I known you. I cheered as loudly as any when you moved from student to Dervish. Your skill, your martial focus — you are unique in this Lodge, and not only because you’re female. But this scarf — it disgusts me.”
Disgust. A hard word for her to hear — nearly as hard as if her grand-uncle, the High Shaykh, himself had said it. “Shaykh Saif, I –”
“No, child, I’ve heard your reasons. An oath to your mother, God shelter her soul. What you owe her. But what of your obligations to High Shaykh Aalli? For forty years your grand-uncle has, praise God, been High Shaykh of this Lodge. But by his own words, his time in this world is almost at an end. His rivals see a chance for power. That is why they have called this tribunal against you. Every day that you wear the forbidden color you undo the work that High Shaykh Aalli has done, and you strengthen his enemies. Shaykh Rustaam has taken up your cause, yes, but you deepen the fractures in the Lodge of God so that it may well split asunder. Dervish fighting against Dervish, and over what? A scarf? A red scarf?”
Layla shot her eyes downward during the scolding. She’d thought this training session was meant to help soothe her before the tribunal. Now she saw that it was just another attempt to convince her to break her oath. “I swore to my mother, O Shaykh, that I would wear her scarf when I came of age. I’m a Dervish now and no longer a student. I will keep my oath, and God piss on the man who tries to stop me.” The curse was awkward in her mouth and she regretted it as soon as she spoke it.
“These words from you? God forgive you! You’ve spent too much time talking with caravan guards! I warned your grand-uncle to lock you away when men visit!”
“May God forgive me my careless tongue.”
“Almighty God forgives us all our failings, child. But you must smother this obstinacy. For it was not put in you by God — know that for truth.”
Layla knew it, but she did not feel it. And try as she might, she could not find the shame that should have been there. She bit her lip and fell silent again.
Shaykh Saif’s expression grew cold. “I see that my words still mean nothing to you. May it please God to show you your error before your foolishness rends this Lodge in two! In any case, you’re Shaykh Rustaam’s problem now.” He turned his back to her. “Go bathe. The tribunal will commence within the hour and since you still parade the Traitorous Angel’s color, your appearance is already offensive.”
Layla fought back hurt words. She bowed to Shaykh Saif’s back, and returned to her room to prepare for judgment.
Layla’s fingers dug anxiously into the potash-and-olive soapcake as she scrubbed away the training yard’s grime over a pail of spring water. A thousand thoughts raced through Layla’s head, but she took a deep breath and rerouted them like a general commanding soldiers. Only one topic mattered — her mother’s scarf.
For a long time Layla just stood there, water dripping from her body as she stared at the thing, which was spread like a scarlet serpent across her simple reed sleeping-mat. So much trouble over three feet of silk!
The Heavenly Chapters said that the Traitorous Angel, who was cast out of heaven by God, wore red robes. Many in the Order took this to mean that red was unclean, and long-standing tradition banned it from the Lodge, even if scripture itself did not. To most of the Lodge’s students, Dervishes, and Shaykhs, the matter was clear — and her recent insistence on wearing the forbidden color was simply proof that female vanity ought not taint the Lodge of God.
But as her mother lay dying she had given the scarf to Layla, to wear on her seven-and-tenth naming day. And Layla had sworn in God’s name that she would wear it always. In the end, that was all that mattered. That the Order considered such oaths petty and profane, and that her mother hadn’t known what pain the oath would cause, did not excuse Layla. Her last words to her mother had been a promise. O Believer! God hears your every word, and will weigh your lies against your promises. She repeated the bit of scripture again and again in her mind as she donned her blue silks and wound the red scarf back around her scabbard.
On the short walk to the tribunal hall, one of her grand-uncle’s student-attendants ran up to her, huffing. Layla’s heart jumped in her chest. “What’s wrong? The High Shaykh? His illness has not worsened?”
“The High Shaykh, praise God, is better than he’s been in days. His speech is clear and he insists upon presiding over the tribunal himself.” The young attendant tried and failed to keep his eyes from Layla’s scarf. “He bid me fetch you and says he must speak to you before the proceeding begins.”
Layla nodded and silently thanked God that her grand-uncle was fighting the illness that threatened to claim him after nearly a hundred years of life. She followed the attendant to the High Shaykh’s house.
A pack of students hovered about her grand-uncle’s divan. As soon as Layla entered, though, he dismissed them with an irritated motion. The youths shot surreptitious looks at her scarf as they left.
If they can’t discipline even their eyes, they will never become Dervishes.
She looked at her granduncle and saw the white-eyebrowed old man — old even then — who had kissed the top of her head and given her sesame candies when she’d arrived at the Lodge as a terrified orphan.
He would not kiss her now. Before anything else, she was a Dervish and he her High Shaykh. He raised a bone-thin arm in greeting and spoke in his usual to-the-point manner.
“So, my child. A tribunal. Before it begins, I must ask you again: why do you do this?”
“Because, O High Shaykh, my mother, God shelter her soul, pledged me to it.”
Her grand-uncle took a rattling breath. “I dandled your mother on my knee, child. My love for her was great, which is why I brought you into this Lodge. But the Heavenly Chapters tell us ‘No man or woman can be closer to you than God.’ Would you displease Him to fulfill an oath to your mother?”
“Forgive me, O High Shaykh, but my oath to my mother and my oath to God were said with the same words. And . . . forgive me, but I am not certain that wearing red in the Lodge is truly forbidden.”
“You are right, child, that there is nothing in the Heavenly Chapters that says in so many words that a Dervish must not wear red.” Her grand-uncle spoke carefully, though each word clearly caused him pain. “As with so many of the Lodge of God’s Traditions, this is a matter of interpretation. Still, I could command you to remove that scarf.”
He winced and fell quiet. Layla hated herself for hurting this old man whom she loved. Her grand-uncle breathed in and continued, and she had to strain to hear him. “I could command you, but it would not be right. For you are a Dervish now. In ambiguous matters such as these, you ought to make some of your own rulings. Shaykh Rustaam, of course, agrees.”
He stood up shakily, but as his voice took on the High Shaykh’s formality, it gained strength. “I ask, then: Do you swear before God, O Dervish, that you have made this ruling in love of and obedience to Him?”
O believer! Honor your father and your mother and you have said a thousand prayers. Layla had repeated that section of the Heavenly Chapters countless times over the past year. “O High Shaykh, I do swear it before God.”
“So be it. Would that it could end there, but Shaykh Zaad will not let it.” He was her grand-uncle again, and his voice was weaker than ever. “God help me, child, sometimes I think this is just not the place for you.” He leaned against the wall and ran his fingers over a map that adorned it. Layla’s eyes danced about the city names as they had a hundred times before. Dhamsawaat. Kez. Tamajal. Shaykh Rustaam had told her stories of each, but swore that stories were not enough. Her grand-uncle sat back down.
“Still, all is always as God wills it to be. I’ll see you in the tribunal hall, child, and God willing this will end peacefully.”
Layla thanked her grand-uncle and backed out the doorway bowing. Again, confused and fearful thoughts threatened to overwhelm her. She had to keep her oath to God and her mother — there was simply no other way. But at what cost?
Layla stepped out into the warming midday air. She hadn’t walked ten yards toward the tribunal hall when someone grabbed her from behind and pinned her arms to her body.
“Wake up, now! A drunken cripple could’ve taken you unawares with your head in the clouds like that!”
Before she could begin to struggle she was free again, and tall, long-haired Shaykh Rustaam spun her around to face him. “You’ll need your wits about you when you walk into that hall. Shaykh Zaad isn’t a man to take mercy on a sleepwalking opponent.”
Shaykh Rustaam had always been Layla’s favorite teacher. She was glad to see him before her tribunal. “O Shaykh! May God forgive me, for I have brought discord to His Lodge!”
Shaykh Rustaam toyed with his thick black moustache and gave a pained smile. He then herded her toward the tribunal hall, speaking softly. “Listen to me, Layla bas Layla. You are already a great Dervish — better than any man in this Lodge with the sword, and purer in regimen than those men who would call you heretic. But this is a much bigger poison-pot than you could have cooked up alone. This bit about the red scarf is merely the bushel that proves the camel’s bad back. This tribunal is truly meant to determine one thing — which man holds power in the Lodge of God. This day has been coming for some time now.”
They reached the Lodge’s plain-faced main building. The area about the great brass-bound double doors bustled with students and Dervishes who conspicuously averted their gaze from Layla and her Shaykh.
Shaykh Rustaam halted. “Just tell the truth and don’t let Shaykh Zaad cow you. God is with you, for ‘God smiles on all men, but smiles on the righteous man twice.’ Your case is just. Take strength from that.”
The Shaykh headed for an onion-arched side entrance while Layla walked on through the great double doors alone.
The tribunal hall was a simple space — one large, open room with great carpets spread for the scores of students and Dervishes at one end, and a low stone platform for the Shaykhs at the other. Layla sat alone in the hall’s center, the assembly murmuring behind her and the Shaykhs staring down before her.
Her grand-uncle sat on a juniper-wood divan atop the platform, elevated slightly above the simple seat-cushions of the senior Shaykhs. Those three sat cross-legged before the High Shaykh — Shaykh Rustaam, who winked at her affectionately; Shaykh Saif, who as recorder would stay silent during the proceedings; and lastly, staring at her as if at a sucking-beetle found in his pallet, Shaykh Zaad.
Layla looked back toward the assembly, anxious to avoid Shaykh Zaad’s gaze. But then she saw Hakum. A Dervish barely older than she, he was one of Zaad’s most fervent supporters. He scowled at her. He was tall and powerfully built, but Layla had outsparred him twice. It was Hakum who had first run to Zaad to report Layla’s scarf. As she frowned at him, he did not look away, but deepened his scowl and put his hand to his swordhilt. Then Shaykh Saif was speaking, and Layla focused on the matter at hand.
“‘Let your trials serve justice, not pageantry’ say the Heavenly Chapters! It has always been so with the Order’s tribunals. And so, we lay the matter out plainly now: The Dervish Layla bas Layla has been called to tribunal by Zaad, Shaykh of the Lodge of God. May God, who alone knows what is true and what is false, guide us to a just outcome. Shaykh Zaad?”
“I beseech God’s blessings on us all, and may God guide us to justice,” Shaykh Zaad invoked. “Layla bas Layla, seven years ago, you were brought into the Lodge as a student. Only last year, you donned the blue silks of a full Dervish, which have been granted to only three females in the Order’s distinguished history. And how have you repaid the Lodge of God?”
Shaykh Zaad paused and frowned. His slow, cold speech reminded Layla of a lizard’s slither. “Indeed, how have you repaid Almighty God Himself? This scarf. This red scarf. Wearing the Traitorous Angel’s color would be foul on Dhamsawaat’s decadent streets, let alone in the Lodge, where our Traditions ban it. What justification can you have for this blasphemy?”
Layla had made an oath to God and her mother. An oath. How many times had she repeated that to herself? With the eyes of all the Lodge on her, all she could do was tell Shaykh Zaad the same thing again in different words.
“As I’ve told you before, O Shaykh, this scarf was given to me by my mother, God shelter her soul, the woman who brought me up to piety and led me to the Lodge of God.”
“More’s the pity,” Shaykh Zaad interrupted. Layla made herself wait for his nod before continuing.
“As she lay dying I swore to her, before God and His Angels, that I would remember her by wearing her scarf. My mother was a believer, but an outlander. In her country, such a scarf is passed from mother to daughter and –”
Shaykh Zaad snorted and spoke scripture as if lecturing a child. “‘For God, the whole world is but a footstep,’” he quoted. “God’s law knows no borders. The scarf is red. And red is the Traitorous Angel’s badge. Nothing could be simpler.” Beside Zaad, Shaykh Saif nodded solemnly.
Layla spoke quickly, knowing that she would falter if she hesitated. “While the Traditions do say that wearing red is forbidden by God, O Shaykh, you know better than one so ignorant as I, that this is largely based on opinion. There is nothing explicit in the Heavenly –”
“Opinion?” Shaykh Zaad moistened his lips and smiled a smile that made Layla afraid. “I am twenty years a Shaykh, and you are barely a Dervish, girl. As far as you’re concerned, I determine what is blessed and what is forbidden.”
There was a loud scraping as her grand-uncle shot up from his divan, with none of the usual wincing. “Watch your tongue, Zaad!” He had not sounded so strong in months. “Do not forget that all power comes from God! I will not have usurpers of His authority sleep in His Lodge!” He sat back down, clearly exhausted.
Shaykh Zaad barely hid his irritation. “Of course, O High Shaykh. Forgive my careless words — they were spoken in anger.” He turned his gaze back to Layla and she felt as if a sword were pointed at her. “You were telling us, child, about your learned scholarship — you who can hardly read the Heavenly Chapters. Please, continue.”
Shaykh Rustaam replied before Layla could. “She is not a scholar, Shaykh Zaad. But I am. ‘O believer! Know that God is the fairest judge and the most doting father’ say the Heavenly Chapters. Come now, brothers. We all know the truth. The girl has always been pious in her conduct. We have all seen the miraculous speed with which she moves and leaps, and her prowess with the sword. If you’re honest with yourselves, you see God’s hand at work in her uncanny skill.”
“Ha! That the girl has a strange strength I grant,” Zaad said, “but her power comes not from God, but from the Traitorous Angel. No doubt this is why she wears his badge of wickedness!”
Layla held her tongue, though it wasn’t easy.
Shaykh Rustaam smirked. “O Zaad, God knows you’re a veritable scholar of wickedness! Still, at its bottom, this is where we are: the girl is a full Dervish, however young. She has made a fair ruling, given the Heavenly Chapters’ ambiguity. A valid if provocative interpretation.” He stroked his moustache. “I find Layla’s daring paradoxically pious in its way — for ‘Above all are love and bravery blessed,’ and ‘He who honors his mother hath a feast set him in Paradise.’ The Oasis Shaykh, God shelter his soul, taught –”
“Keep your heretical interpretations to yourself!” Zaad spat.
Shaykh Rustaam frowned. “The Oasis Shaykh was a revered saint who –”
“He was the degenerate founder of a degenerate school! A lover-of-boys who thought himself a mystic!”
“Zaad!” Her grand-uncle shouted as loud as his feeble lungs would allow. He was on his feet again.
Layla could not quite sort out all the hollering that followed. She’d always been bored by books and the Traditions, by scrolls and sermons. Even her command of the Heavenly Chapters wasn’t what it ought to be, she knew. For seven years now, she’d spent every moment she could in the training yard or the archer’s copse or the pool of hardening. This back-and-forth of saints and scriptures meant little to her. But in Zaad’s eyes she saw something that she knew well enough. Rage.
Again her grand-uncle’s reedy shout cut through the other Shaykhs’ voices. “Disgraceful! I will not have the Lodge of God torn apart in these disputes! In God’s name, I –”
His words stopped as his eyes bulged out and he fell back in his seat. He sucked in a breath and Layla was close enough to see him grit his teeth. With every bit of discipline her training had given her, she kept from leaping to his side. Such a display would weaken his hand, and in this hall he was the High Shaykh, not her grand-uncle.
“We . . . will . . . adjourn.” Her grand-uncle bit the words out and put his hand to his chest. Two attendants half-carried him out of the room. Shaykhs Saif, Rustaam, and Zaad followed the High Shaykh.
After a long, shocked silence the hall began to clear.
“No! No! He can’t be dead!” Layla wailed. She sat on a large rock near the archer’s copse with Shaykh Rustaam who, with strong arms and a vial of salt-and-violet had twice now kept her from collapsing.
His own eyes shone with tears that did not quite fall. “Listen, child. High Shaykh Aalli scolded me often, but without his guidance I’d never have become a Shaykh. I loved him and I feel his loss — for ‘Death is only a loss for the wicked and the living.’
“Yet if we would honor your grand-uncle’s memory, there is work that falls to us — work that leaves us little time for grieving. You recall what the Lodge of God’s Traditions mandate in a situation such as this?”
Layla’s memory struggled through grief and neglected lessons. When the answer came to her, she gasped. “The Judgment of Swords and Souls!”
“So your learning isn’t so poor as some wagging tongues say! Yes, the Judgment. Zaad, in his lust for power, insists upon determining the new High Shaykh immediately after your grand-uncle’s funeral.”
At the word ‘funeral,’ Layla felt a sob rising up in her, but she smothered it and clenched her jaw.
Shaykh Rustaam went on “The Judgment is a matter between Shaykhs. Its contests of swordplay and piety act as arbiters between us and help us find our leader. But we Shaykhs are measured by our pupils as well — and so we are accompanied in the Judgment by a Dervish of our choosing. Zaad will bring that little-shit-in-a-big-man’s-body, Hakum. And I’ll bring you. Now, I ought not ask this — for High Shaykh Aalli’s sake I should protect you. But the Lodge that he has built needs your help.” Shaykh Rustaam stood.
Layla winced and again felt weakness creep in. But there was no time for it now. She rose and she and her teacher walked side-by-side. “I mourn my grand-uncle, O Shaykh, but Shaykh Zaad must not become High Shaykh. To tell truth, my grand-uncle spoke of your someday taking that place.”
Shaykh Rustaam’s eyes shone again. “Me? High Shaykh? Truly? And here I thought he had cast me in the dross-pile for a hopeless libertine! Nonetheless I loved him. And I’m proud to see that his grand-niece has made a fine Dervish. Daring! Honest! And ‘pointed,’ as the Traditions say a Dervish must be, ‘like God’s own sword at the heart of injustice’!” Her teacher had recaptured a bit of his bombast, and Layla drew strength from it as she walked.
They entered the burial yard.
From the small minaret above the High Shaykh’s house, the funeral-caller cried out scripture about souls weighed on golden scales and the brevity of men’s lives.
Death-rites at the Lodge were simple, with none of the trilling and sweets that she remembered from her mother’s funeral. Within the Order, the rites grew simpler the more venerated the deceased was, so that the funeral for a High Shaykh was a very brief affair. Quiet recitation from the Heavenly Chapters, a plain white winding sheet, a cup of clean water passed about the mourners’ mouths.
Layla could not focus on even these simple, pious gestures. Her thoughts kept returning to the Judgment of Swords and Souls. A strange giddiness crept over her and she had to keep herself from smiling. In an hour’s time she would have a sword in her hand, and all of the intrigue and ceremony would be beside the point. She would prove with her skill that the Lodge of God belonged to her and those she loved.
Before an hour had passed, the ceremony was over and she was walking toward the training yard. Shaykh Rustaam fell in beside her. He diverted them, taking an indirect route.
As they walked, he twirled his sword between his left and right hands, an old Order exercise for mind focusing and wrist limbering which he’d always performed with a unique flair. But the Shaykh displayed little of his usual mirth. “Listen closely; I want to be sure you’re clear about how the Judgment will proceed. After the opening invocation, the middle tambour will sound and you and Hakum will duel until one of you is disarmed and yields, or Shaykh Saif sounds the low tambour to signal a breach of rule. You may wield no weapon other than your body and your forked sword. To blind, cripple, or kill is to forfeit victory. When the duel between you Dervishes is over, the high tambour will sound and then Zaad and I will cross swords, bound by the same rules.”
“What if I lose?”
“You won’t, God willing. Regardless, the outcomes of both Sword-Judgments are considered mere preliminaries to the Judgment of Souls that follows. After the two duels, Zaad and I, our spirits strengthened or weakened by our own contest and that of our pupils, will have a battle of closeness-to-God. A weaponless duel, of gazes and all that lies behind a gaze. It is the Judgment of Souls that truly determines the contest’s winner.”
It was as strange a notion to Layla as when she’d first read about it. Still, beneath all the words it meant that, between the contesting Shaykhs, the best and most pious warrior would become High Shaykh. Which surely meant that Shaykh Rustaam would win. She smiled and said so, but Shaykh Rustaam sheathed his sword and frowned at this.
“It’s not so simple, Layla. With High Shaykh Aalli gone, God shelter his soul, the Lodge already half-belongs to Zaad.”
“But if we win the Judgment, then things will be different!”
Shaykh Rustaam ran one hand over his moustache. “Perhaps. At least, if we win the Judgment, I will be High Shaykh in name. But don’t put too much faith in even a zealot’s adherence to inconvenient old codes. Too many men here are loyal to Zaad. The Lodge’s troubles will have just begun. Still, if we lose . . .” He held Layla’s gaze. “It won’t be easy for you. Your grand-uncle’s authority protected you from . . . many things. If we lose, I’ll be under Zaad’s authority, and I won’t be able to protect you.”
Layla took a moment to think about what that might mean. But it changed nothing. “I understand.”
Shaykh Rustaam’s solemn stare broke into a smile. “But why do I speak so grimly? God forgive me my boasts, but I could defeat two Zaads even if I missed my morning tea and yogurt. No reason for fear, child!”
They arrived at the training yard and Layla hoped to Almighty God that her teacher was right.
Two hundred men and boys — students and Dervishes alike — stood forming a large circle around the training yard. Even more men than had been at the tribunal. The entire Lodge, in fact. It was as she had expected.
The crowd parted as she and Shaykh Rustaam made their way into the circle. Layla ignored the murmured words that followed her. She stepped into the circle and saw that Shaykh Zaad and Hakum were already nearing its center. Beside her, Shaykh Rustaam said nothing, but flashed her a grim smile as they went to stand face-to-face with their opponents.
Shaykh Saif, acting as judge, stood just inside the circle. He held a small mallet over a three-tiered tambour. He called out in a clear, thunderous voice “‘If there is no High Shaykh, there is no Lodge of God’! So say our Traditions. So it is that we gather here to . . .”
He said more words, but Layla did not really hear them. She studied Hakum, weighed different opening gambits. She gripped her swordhilt and nearly jumped when the middle tambour sounded.
Hakum wasted no time in beginning his attack. He was one of the biggest Dervishes in the Lodge, and the savage blows Layla parried were jarring. Her teeth rattled. But she was confident.
She’d bested Hakum each time they’d met in the training yard. He fought now as he had then. Still believing that raw strength was enough against her. She watched his hacking sword arm with disdain. Waited for her chance.
He kicked her left shin. Hard. Layla hopped back two steps and nearly buckled from the pain. Hakum pressed the attack, but she gave no more ground. She saw her opening. She slashed out once and sliced open Hakum’s forearm. Another swift blow knocked his sword away.
As Layla expected, he scrambled for his lost weapon. But then, without retrieving his sword, he turned awkwardly and swung at her. Was the angry fool venturing his bare hands against her? She brought her arm up in a scornful block.
And felt a blade bite deep into her flesh. A second weapon! The dog had a palm-dagger! A coward’s weapon, and blasphemy to bring into the Judgment. The pain seared. Surely Shaykh Saif would call this a breach of rule and sound an end to the duel. The Traditions demanded it. But she dared not turn to catch the Shaykh’s eye.
And the low tambour did not sound. A few feinting steps brought her into Shaykh Saif’s line of vision, but he just stared at her coldly. Of course. Even the Traditions did not matter to him so much as a unified Lodge. He had chosen not to see the dagger.
So this is how things stand.
The wound in her arm burned, but she had her sword and Hakum had only a tiny dagger. There was no contest. With two vicious but careful slashes she disarmed him a second time. She slapped his face with the flat of her blade for good measure before she cried “Yield!”
The big, sour-faced Dervish breathed heavily. He did not speak or move.
“Yield!” Layla repeated.
Another silent moment. Then Hakum bowed stiffly to her. With murder in his eyes, he mumbled, “I yield.”
As soon as the words left Hakum’s mouth, the high tambour sounded and Shaykhs Rustaam and Zaad stepped toward each other, swords drawn.
The forked sword of the Order was a slashing weapon, but Shaykh Rustaam thrust his out before him. He easily kept Zaad at a distance. Then Shaykh Rustaam darted his sword-tip almost past Zaad’s own sword. Zaad clumsily turned away the blow, but he was in a desperate defensive position now. Shaykh Rustaam drove him back a dozen steps with a whirling attack that made his one sword seem like three.
Shaykh Rustaam toyed with Zaad, wearing the older Shaykh down. Zaad was not unskilled with a sword, but Layla thought her teacher had boasted true — it would take two Zaads to even challenge one Shaykh Rustaam.
Again and again the two swords crossed in parries and flurries of blows. Shaykh Rustaam touched his opponent five or six times to Zaad’s one. The older Shaykh managed to get in one more accurate slash at Shaykh Rustaam’s arm before Layla’s teacher knocked the weapon from Zaad’s hand.
There was no question who would win the Judgment of Swords. Shaykh Rustaam still held his blade and his forearm was marred only by two small slashes. Shaykh Zaad was disarmed and his silks had been sliced open in a dozen places. Still, Zaad smiled as if some comforting thought kept the pain from him.
Shaykh Zaad moved to recover his weapon. But Shaykh Rustaam pointed his own sword at his opponent’s throat. “YIELD!” the younger Shaykh boomed. Zaad still smiled when he ought to have been furious. “I yield.”
Shaykh Rustaam nodded and sheathed his sword. But something seemed wrong. He’d barely exerted himself in defeating Zaad, yet sweat poured down his face, and his breath was now coming sharper and quicker.
All three tambour-tiers sounded in quick succession, and Shaykh Saif intoned “Thus ends the Judgment of Swords! But the Heavenly Chapters say ‘The strong soul of the believer can stand against seven swords.’ Prepare, O Shaykhs, for God’s Judgment of Souls!” Again Shaykh Saif struck the three tiers of the tambour.
Their gazes locked, the two Shaykhs moved in unison. Each took one long step back from the other and sank down to sit cross-legged on the packed dirt. And then Layla knew something was wrong. Though he held Zaad’s gaze, Shaykh Rustaam was sweating and breathing harder than ever. It wasn’t battle fatigue. Layla had sparred with her teacher countless times, and she’d never seen this.
The two Shaykhs continued to stare at one another, their souls in a strange silent duel. But after a few long moments, Shaykh Rustaam began to swoon, and he huffed as if he’d been running for hours. It made no sense. Except –
Just as the thought formed in her head her teacher swooned again, as if he couldn’t breathe. He righted himself and kept his gaze hard on Zaad, who suddenly seemed, behind his own strange stare, to be afraid.
Then Shaykh Rustaam collapsed.
It was the only explanation. Caring little for propriety, she scrambled to his side as Shaykh Saif sounded the high tambour and shouted words about victory and God’s Judgment.
When Layla reached her teacher, she saw that Shaykh Rustaam would never breathe again.
Poison was the most reprehensible weapon in existence, according to the Traditions. Zaad visibly withheld a smile as he looked on Shaykh Rustaam’s body. In his eyes she saw her suspicions were right.
But if she was close enough to see the signs, surely Shaykh Saif was. Layla turned to him. “What . . . what could cause this, Shaykh Saif? Only an envenomed sword!”
The assembly murmured around them. Shaykh Saif’s look was dark, but he said nothing.
Zaad turned toward her and shrugged. “His wicked soul shriveled when it stood unmasked before a servant of Righteous and All-Scouring God! Such things have happened before in the Judgment of Souls.”
“No. No!” She was screaming, and she did not care. “This is wickedness! This is no fair Judgment! This is murder!” She fell to her knees beside Shaykh Rustaam’s now lifeless body.
Shaykh Saif knelt next to her and spoke softly. “Be still, child. It’s out of our hands now. This is why we have the Judgment. The Lodge must shed its diseased limbs so that the body does not die.” He knew that Shaykh Rustaam had been poisoned. But even this wouldn’t cause him to act against Zaad. Layla saw it in his eyes. A united Lodge of God. He placed a hand on Layla’s shoulder.
She jerked away from his touch and stood. “Zaad is the diseased limb!” she screamed, “A user-of-poisons, as disgraced in the Traditions as the blasphemer – you all see this, yet you say nothing!” A last bit of something careful and thoughtful in Layla seemed to burn and blow away like ash. She turned to Zaad.
“Poisoner! Son of a whore! God piss on you, murderer!” They were the words of caravan guards, and Hakum snarled at them, but Zaad restrained his pupil with a raised hand and smiled.
“I forgive your angry words. You are a girl, taught by a heretic and a soft old man. You cannot be blamed. But an influence such as your cannot be allowed to remain –”
Zaad would not strike her. He did not need to. He would simply cast her out of his Lodge coinless, friendless, and dishonored. Her grand-uncle and Shaykh Rustaam were dead. Their enemy had won.
She could not let it be this way.
She focused on her breathing, her blade, the mocking Shaykh across from her. Zaad had killed Shaykh Rustaam, who had shown Layla how strong she might be. But if her teacher could look on now, he would see her strength. Her sword appeared suddenly in her hand. She flew at Zaad.
Before the Shaykh or his pupils even got their weapons up, Layla’s sword made three deep cuts at Zaad’s neck and shoulders. He gurgled as he fell. Then he stopped moving.
The assembly rang with men’s shouts and the drawing of swords. Shaykh Saif bellowed her name. Hands clutched at her. Her blade bit into flesh again and again. Hakum fell before her, clutched at his bleeding gut. Her sword flashed. She heard screams, watched a man’s severed fingers arc through the air.
Whether her power came from God or from the Traitorous Angel, Layla was faster than any man at the Lodge. She bolted through the stunned assembly, out the great double doors, and into the cool night air.
Layla ran down the rocky path that led away from the Lodge. The shouts slowly grew more distant behind her. She headed off the path and down into the stony hills. Picking her way among the rocks, she ran for an hour before stopping beside a great gray boulder. She held her breath and listened for sounds of pursuit, but heard none. She allowed herself a few huffing breaths and put her hand to her swordhilt.
Merciful God, please, no! This can’t be!
But it was. Brushing against her scabbard, her fingers touched only leather. No scrap of silk was wound there. During the Judgment, or when she’d killed Zaad, or perhaps when she’d fought through the assembly — somewhere she had lost her mother’s scarf.
Her grand-uncle. Shaykh Rustaam. Her home in the Lodge of God. Her oath to her mother. All lost. And what did she have? Revenge? Shaykh Zaad’s death meant little enough, when she thought on it. How she had burned to kill him! But now his allies — men who called God’s name as they took what they wanted — would run the Lodge, even if Shaykh Saif became High Shaykh in name.
Her life in the Order was over. She would never become a Shaykh as she’d once dreamed. And she had maimed and killed men. Other Dervishes. She’d done it simply by reaction. It wasn’t as hard as the Shaykhs had made her believe. She felt no shame thinking on Hakum and . . . Yusef, had it been? Mahmet? Others whose names she’d never retained had gotten in the way as well. No shame. But her eyes stung and her stomach clenched.
Layla inspected herself. Bruised and cut. Her blue silks tattered and stained with blood. She could not continue to wear them, and not only because they were ruined. She was no longer a Dervish.
She thought of the map on her grand-uncle’s wall and all the cites listed there. She quickened her pace through the hills. Saints starve, robbers roast lamb. More caravan guards’ words she shouldn’t have heard. Layla weighed them heavily now, her hand on her sword.
She had to go somewhere. And three days’ walk from the Lodge of God was a soft city full of rich men — a whole new world, full of bolts of red silk waiting to be taken.