The gallery that led from the main palace to the Council Hall had never stretched so long. Perhaps, if the Wheel favored her, this was as close as Naime would ever come to understanding what it felt like to walk to the gallows. Her father strode some distance in front of her, his steward and his favorite Lightbringers flanking him, as three more attendants walked between her and him in an arc. The Lightbringers’ mage orbs lit their progress through the hall, which remained untouched by dawn’s wan light. Her father walked as though he were strolling through the park at leisure, and not heading for one of the most momentous encounters of Naime’s life. He seemed himself today. Though what she considered normal for him now was not what it had once been.
He’d been a man of confidence and strategy. His plans and schemes were so well laid the High Council rarely knew what was happening until it was far too late to change things. Then he would simply weather the storm as the Council erupted into chaos. That was how he had handled their bickering, their currying for favor, their divisions. He ignored them and did as he wished. Now, when his emotions were stoked, he became confused. Sullen. Temperamental. Words Naime never would have used to describe him before her mother had died and taken something of him with her. Before a lifetime of breaking open minds finally began to break his own.
It should have been many more Turns before she had to consider taking over the rule of Tamar in earnest, more time to shape the Council in her favor. But the Wheel did not turn for comfort, it turned for balance in all things. With balance came hardship in equal measure to joy, and Naime had enjoyed more than her fair share of ease.
She sensed the coming of balance in her life as she might have sensed a storm on the horizon, the same edginess shaped her moods and thoughts, the same feeling of excitement and fear.
Behind her, someone’s muffled steps scuffed the carpet and she sighed as her cousin, Ihsan, reached her side and slowed his pace to match hers. She took his offered arm and lifted her eyes only to glance at him.
“Running is unseemly.”
“I know,” he said. “Forgive me.” His skin was pallid, his eyes red rimmed, and his brow set with lines of tension. The nightmares had returned. Naime swallowed any further admonition and focused on her father’s broad back.
Ihsan avoided all palace functions and duties as much as he could. Not out of inherent laziness or selfishness, as so many assumed. Ihsan’s misery balanced her contentment, and he was long overdue for his own equal measure of joy. Before he had moved from the palace to the city, she had been present for some of the nights the nightmares plagued him. They were beastly things that gripped him in a world of memory, pain, and fear like nothing she had ever personally experienced. They came most often when he was forced to face the Council. To face the Grand Vizier, as he would today.
“Thank you for coming, San,” Naime said. He nodded once, though he remained stone-faced and silent as they walked. The expression was almost comforting, as it had dominated his countenance for nearly a decade. Despite his seriousness, she felt less isolated with him—he understood what she wanted in a way she was not certain her father did. Not anymore.
Their procession reached the Council Hall doors, as tall as two men and made of gold leaf latticed wood. The Lightbringers, first-level fire mages, moved away from her father to open the doors. The long, rectangular room was tiled with the swirls and colors of the Wheel. The ceiling soared, domed above them and painted with geometric formations of the sigils for each magic House, each of the six spokes of the Wheel. It was meant to be a room where equity reigned, a place where everyone was represented.
Generations ago, that had been true. But power and fear had brought war, had broken the Wheel, and now the Council was made up of men whose power lie in wealth, in oppression by avarice, in customs and old ways that were comfortable.
Naime squeezed Ihsan’s arm, and he reciprocated. Her whole body was her heartbeat, a cage that barely held her together.
This Council meeting held promise, for all the things she hoped for Tamar, and dread, for the threat of seeing all those hopes pulled out of her grasp.
The Sabri family line had ruled Tamar, and before the Sundering War, the Old Sultanate, for generations uncountable. Their blood was spun of the First House, a birthright of air and beginnings, dawn and change. Her mother had called Naime her little light, had told her from her earliest days that she would be the first woman to rule Tamar in her own right. That she would be the change and the balance the Wheel demanded to correct the wrongs of her ancestors.
But now she was gone, and Naime feared her father’s mental decline would take him too. Alone, Naime would rule a Council that saw her as nothing more than a steppingstone for their sons to the Sultan’s seat. She must not fail. She would not, and today brought the first test she must pass.
Naime paused in the doorway to the hall. Already nervous, skin alight with the cold fire of anxiety, Ihsan’s tension only worsened hers. Her father continued down the aisle toward the padded bench in an ornate alcove at the far end. The Viziers bowed as he walked, followed only by his steward, between the rows of seats to either side. They lowered their heads and spread their hands palm up before them, offering and receiving balance. Naime surveyed the Viziers surreptitiously as she waited for her announcement. They could not all be present today, which was not unusual, they had estates, land, and people to manage.
Of the thirty-six Viziers, only twenty-four were present. And at first tally their number was comprised of a suspicious majority of the Grand Vizier’s supporters. That did not surprise her. The Grand Vizier was a man who planned as carefully as her father once had.
Beside her, Ihsan exhaled audibly, and when she glanced at him, she just caught his gaze slipping away from the Grand Vizier, who stood nearest to her father’s seat. The steward announced Naime and Ihsan, and the men of the Council remained bowed as they walked toward her father. Ihsan’s skin grew cold beneath her hand as they approached the end of the hall and the Grand Vizier. Naime gripped his wrist, reminding him to constrain his magic, and the ice of his power sank away.
They sat, she on the end of a long bench set at a right angle to her father’s place, within reach of him. Ihsan slid beside her. Each person in the room sat closer or farther from the Sultan as dictated by their rank. She would always be closest, then Ihsan, second in line for the Sultan’s seat. In the center of the bench opposite them, the Grand Vizier sat one seat closer to the door than Ihsan. He would not be happy until he sat in front of them all, and there wasn’t a person in the room who didn’t know it. Many even supported it.
Behram Kadir, Grand Vizier of the High Council, was a Sival of the Fifth House and master of its charisma and gift for lies. He had once been her father’s best friend, but now sat as his most powerful rival. He wore the guise of trusted adviser so comfortably that even her father was sometimes fooled. Especially now, when the Sultan’s confusion more frequently surpassed his sense, and he reached for the familiar to feel settled, to push back the remnants of other minds that overshadowed his own.
“The Sultan, Princess Sultana, and Sehzade have arrived. I call this Council to session.” Kadir executed a formal bow, with hands spread, then took his seat, beside Yavuz Pasha, the palace secretary, and beyond him the Vizier of Finance, Esber Pasha.
When Ihsan had come to live at the palace, they had decided they would never call Behram Kadir by his first name, which would suggest respect, humanization they did not think he deserved. He had been Kadir to them both ever since. Once he had arranged his crimson robes to his liking, he smiled at Naime. She acknowledged him only with a tilt of her head.
Though she shared her father’s gift, and affinity, for plans and schemes, she could not treat the Council as he had. She was not a man, not a prince, whose temper would be seen as strength or whose unusual methods might be seen as visionary instead of disruptive. Neither was she a princess the way they believed she should be. They believed her indulged, spoiled, given too much freedom. Because she was also her mother’s daughter, a lowborn woman who had made her way to the top tiers of the University on her wits and tenacity alone. In so doing, Naime’s mother had attracted the notice of the most powerful man in Tamar. Two of them, actually.
Naime shifted her gaze from Kadir to her father. He had married her mother against the wishes of the Council at the time, and she had turned many traditions on their head. A legacy Naime intended to continue, when the time was right.
“Today is a momentous day,” her father said, and a familiar spark of mischief lit his eyes, one that hinted he was about to announce something he knew would displease the Council. It was the same look he had worn when he watched her and her mother plot Naime’s rise to the Sultan’s seat. “My daughter has completed her fourth full Cycle of the Wheel.”
Then came an eruption of polite, unenthusiastic applause. Twenty-four Great Turns of the Wheel had passed since her birth—she was of age. No longer to be a semi-silent bystander in the High Council meetings. She was permitted to speak, to address them as a superior. It also meant she could marry. This day heralded the beginning of the race for her to take control of the Council before they managed to marry her to one of their sons.
Naime’s body was still and charged all at once, as though something shivered beneath her skin and would burst forth at any moment. She had to remember to breathe deeply to keep herself calm and focused.
“It is my wish that the Princess Sultana begin addressing the Council in my stead, to prepare her for ruling.”
A discontent quiet lingered, and Naime was aware of each meaningful glance, shifted seat, or quiet cough of surprise. She stood, hands folded to hide her desire to fidget under their scrutiny. Kadir’s dark eyes fixed on her, a tiny smile on his mouth. He was as capable of hiding himself from those around them as she was, though in a different manner. Air gave the gift of composure. Fire gave the gift of deception.
“It is my honor to stand before the High Council and its wise Viziers. I hope our future work together provides only prosperity to Tamar and its people, who look to us for balance and temperance.” She bowed, spreading her hands. It would be the last time she bowed to any of them. She wondered if they realized that. If they knew what she intended.
More quiet applause trailed her declaration.
“Of course, I have also reached the age to marry.” She used the tiniest thread of her power to lift the sound of her voice. She wanted what no Sultana before her had managed. Not to be the stepping block for a new Sultan, but to be ruler herself. Her father, in his moments of lucidity, approved. They had spoken of her plans for the future, for holding back the Republic and uniting the Old Sultanate again to reenergize the Houses. This was the first step toward those goals—controlling the Council. Yet she took it without her most powerful ally, because her father’s age had been a more insidious enemy than any she faced in the Council now.
She let her words hang in the air. The night before, she had rehearsed every word, every subtle movement, every glance. It was best to let them rejoice, to approve, to hand her their weaknesses, before she revealed her true move.
Kadir stood. He held his staff of office in one hand and leaned on it slightly to support his weight off his left leg. He’d been injured in an accident a decade ago. It had left him with a severe limp he tried to hide and a crescent scar marring what many still considered a very handsome face.
“May your next four Cycles be as well as the first, Princess Sultana. The High Council has considered it an honor watching you grow to womanhood and are confident you will make a fine Sultana for whoever succeeds your father. The Council will submit a list of appropriate candidates to you,” he addressed the Sultan, “as soon as possible.”
Naime did not miss the calculating look in his brown eyes. She knew his son would be at the top of the list. The thought turned her stomach.
“Please do, Grand Vizier.” Naime cloaked herself in her power, warding her tone and her body against the imminent backlash. “But also, please be aware that my betrothal may be delayed in the near term by our alliance negotiations with Sarkum, which the Sultan has appointed me to oversee.” It was not what she wanted, to flaunt her father as a kind of shield. But it was not time to stand under her own power, there was not enough of it yet. They still thought of her as a girl, a pretty ornament in the palace that would be handed off as a kind of goodwill token to whoever was chosen to succeed her father.
Admirably, Kadir managed to contain his surprise. Only one peppered brow rose, and his fingers tightened against the scepter. The corner of Naime’s mouth curved up in response. He saw, and his brow lowered and fingers loosened.
The other Council members began to stir. A few of those she knew to be moderate leaned in to whisper to each other. The Council had refused to look at the alliance terms she had drafted, because the Grand Vizier convinced them there was little point, that an alliance with Sarkum, their eastern neighbor, was foolhardy.
Only a very few of those closest to her knew she had already sent a letter to Sarkum, suggesting the alliance, requesting the presence of a delegate. She had stamped it with her father’s seal and sent it with his approval turns ago. Sarkum and Tamar had once been united under the Old Sultanate, before the Sundering War. It was time to heal old wounds and bring them together again.
The Sundering War had come at the behest of Naime’s forefathers, after court-sanctioned atrocities committed by the destruction magic of Sixth House mages. Destruction mages were murdered or driven from Tamar, and were still regarded with fear and superstition, even so many generations later.
Uniting with Sarkum meant bringing back Sixth House power. Despite that it would once again balance the Wheel and mend what was broken, Kadir would never agree, and he controlled the Council majority. He was as tied to history and tradition as the most crumpled of old greybeards, unflinching in his adherence to the earliest edicts of the Tamar Sultanate. So, she had set the Wheel in motion before they could stop its turn. Now she must maneuver obstacles into their path to give herself time to complete her plan, to complete an alliance and take her father’s place on her own.
There was a pause as the Council chattered amongst themselves, Kadir waiting for Naime to elaborate, Naime smiling serenely at him. He was no fool. He would not underestimate anyone until he knew it was a safe.
For more than a decade, Naime had watched Kadir bully and manipulate his way to the position of Grand Vizier. Watched him slither his way out of crimes, manage unfailingly to hide the literal and figurative blood on his hands. Forced to stand idly by while Kadir used every opportunity to garner power for himself in the Council, appointing governors more loyal to him than to their country and their Sultan. Finally, after so long, it was time for her to break him over the Wheel as her father had never had the heart to do. Watching him now, stiff and chaffing under the fact she was momentarily in control of the room, was her first real taste of revenge. It banished her nervousness and replaced it with determination that settled her.
“I apologize, Sultana Efendim, but I seem to recall that the Council did not support alliance negotiations,” Kadir said, and the Council quieted in anticipation. He smiled. She smiled back, tilting her head in a slight approximation of deference.
“If the Sultan had required the Council to support negotiations, I am certain he would have sought their approval. But he is quite sure of his decision.” She smiled to her father, and he nodded. Sarkum had not responded yet. If she had an actual delegate to present, things would have gone much more smoothly. To maintain her command of herself and the room, she had to bury the skittering unease Sarkum’s silence caused her.
“We had hoped to present the matter again to the Council today, but I am afraid the Sarkum delegate has been delayed in coming.” It was a small lie, one she hoped would prove in the end to not be a lie at all, or everything she planned would be for naught.
Naime had never experienced the depth of silence that fell over the Council Hall in the moment that followed her declaration. It was as if she could feel each word sinking slowly into their understanding, like small stones in vast water, until they hit the bottom and stayed, kicking up clouds of sediment and disapproval. Then at once, the men leapt to their feet in outrage and disbelief, all shouting over each other, and Naime’s breath left her in a rush. Her father moved as if to rise, expression tight with alarm. Naime stepped to his side, but not onto the dais, and touched his hand as she smiled. “It’s all right, Father. Be at ease. I am here.”
He smiled back, relaxing into his seat. Ihsan turned to her, concern and bitter amusement in his pale hazel eyes. “And now?”
“Let the typhoon blow itself out, Cousin,” she said, and remained as she was, her fingers against her father’s hand, waiting. Kadir managed to bring the Council under control, shouting and even going so far as to release his hold on his magic enough that the temperature of the room raised a few degrees. Ihsan shuddered, his hands tightening around his knees, but he rode it out in silence. She was proud of him for his effort and felt shame for needing him with her on this day, when it caused him obvious discomfort.
Naime frowned at Kadir when he finally turned. The Council sat, one by one, but war still raged in their expressions, even those few she had hoped might be willing to listen. But outrage was infectious, and it had spread before her reason could. Always, fire faster than wind. Kadir’s special talent.
“Sultana Efendim. I am certain I misheard you—”
“You did not. The Sultan and I intend an alliance with Sarkum. The letters have already been sent. I will not aggrandize myself by lecturing into the vast wisdom of the Council, as I am certain they are aware the Republic is on the move. Already the Eannean Islands have been swallowed whole, and the Republic has outposts against the northern border of Sarkum. They mean to wipe out mages.”
She paused to allow the dire proclamation to quiet tempers. “We are not strong enough to stand against them. An alliance with Sarkum is not only long overdue, but vital to our survival.”
“Sultana Efendim. The Republic has given no indication that it means to go to war with us.” Kadir spoke as if to a silly child, thinking he might provoke her into losing her temper, no doubt. A show of temper or pique would ruin her credibility.
Though his tone and placating smile made her furious inside, she swallowed the desire to correct him or insult him back. When she replied she did so in a cool tone helped into existence by a thread of her magic.
“Yet I will not wait until their armies and machines have descended into Narfour and taken the palace before I enact countermeasures. I know the Grand Vizier sees the wisdom in being proactive.” She stood tall, though she was still shorter than many of the Viziers, keeping her face calm and neutral to match her voice and veil her exasperation. She could not be the only person in the room who understood the imminent, if not direct, threat?
“And what will you do when Sixth House mages unleash death and disease in the streets? Will that help us against an enemy?” one of the other Viziers shouted. He did not have courage enough to stand and make himself known, but she focused in the direction his voice originated.
“Superstition and old wives’ tales are not solid foundations to make decisions upon,” Naime said. “Especially decisions regarding an entire nation.”
“Destruction mages?” Her father shifted, growing more agitated at the mood in the room. When she looked at him his brows were drawn together as he peered at the faces around him. He no longer always understood where to take his cues from, and his uncertainty now led to temper or fear. Rumors in the palace spoke of him getting confused easily, but as far as she knew, no one understood how far gone his mind was to his illness. Not yet. She had to keep it a secret as long as possible.
Naime cut her gaze to Ihsan, who went to the Sultan’s other side, leaning down to speak in low tones, trying to calm him before he gave any more sign he was disturbed.
“These are not old wives’ tales, Sultana Efendim.” Kadir turned and directed his speech at the Council, fanning the flames of their discontent. “You dishonor the history of your own family and the decision they made to end the Old Sultanate. Thousands died to free us from the dangers of the Sixth House. You would undo that now for protection against an imagined threat?” He tapped his staff against the marble floor and waved his other hand in dismissal. “Even if the Council agreed with this, we are far too vulnerable. There are no Third House mages alive. Rumors say even in Sarkum none exist. There is nothing to counter the vile magic of the Sixth House. I cannot accept this, Sultana Efendim.” Kadir’s voice grew in volume until the last words. The Council cheered him on.
Naime exhaled the building frustration that ate a windswept hole in her temper. Her fingers curled into the white and blue fabric of her entari as she imagined wrapping her hands around his throat. Kadir turned from her to her father, and smiling, said, “You would never agree to allowing Sixth House mages in the palace, would you, Sultan Efendim?”
“What?” Her father launched from his seat, and only Ihsan’s nearness allowed him to grasp the Sultan’s arm before he went over the edge of the dais. “Of course not!” His brown eyes were wide with fear and confusion when he looked at Naime. The expression made him seem more child than man, and defeat prickled through her, until she felt small, and hopeless. “What is he saying? What are you doing?”
“Father.” She kept the desperation out of her voice, trying to soothe him. She needed to get him out of here, away from them, immediately. “You agreed. You sealed the letter I sent to Sarkum. It is necessary to balance the Wheel. You know that. Do you remember, we talked about this—”
“No!” he said, sharply. Naime grit her teeth. She had spoken to him, said the same exact thing, for three small turns, every night. But her hope that it would make him remember when she needed him to had been in vain. Ihsan tried to murmur encouragement to the Sultan but he twisted out of her cousin’s grasp. “No, absolutely not. Behram, what is going on?” he said to Kadir, whose face shone with serene triumph. Naime squeezed her hands into fists.
“Sultan. Be at ease. The Council will handle this.” Kadir bowed deeply, a gesture of profound humility, yet it oozed only arrogance from Kadir.
“Yes,” the Sultan said, visibly calming as Kadir straightened. “Yes, that will do.”
Ihsan helped him as he fumbled to find his seat again, his gaze flashing to Naime’s then to the doors. She put her hand on her father’s shoulder. He patted her hand with his and smiled at her as if nothing at all had happened. As if he had not just destroyed her best hope to secure the future of Tamar. And her own.