The Emperors Knife - By Mazarkis Williams


Hands 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