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[personal profile] glitterburn
As autumn died, the imperial guard turned against the Emperor and overthrew him. The dream interpreter was tied into a sack weighted with rocks and thrown into the harbour, and then the captain and a full company of soldiers marched through the palace to the prison in the courtyard.

Yunho had been awake half the night, still and silent in Changmin’s arms, and when he’d finally slept, his dreams had been of nothing. Grey, rolling, endless nothing. Changmin had taken the dream, but it tasted strange and bitter, and later he’d spat it out over the palace wall and watched it shredded in the teeth of the Black Wind that ripped along the great waterway.

Now Yunho sat at their jumbled collection of tables with the mismatched porcelain and the candle-stubs and the faulty timepiece, and he watched as the imperial guard bowed down to him, and listened as the captain hailed him as the daystar, lord of the horizons, His Serenity the Emperor.

“What of my father?” Yunho asked when the litany of praise ended and the soldiers all rose from the floor.

The captain met his gaze. “Your Majesty, he is dead.”

Yunho nodded, his expression utterly blank.

The coronation took place at noon when the shadows were deepest. Changmin wrapped himself in darkness and watched as Yunho became less of himself even as he became more. Out in the city, the people thronged the streets and hurried to the palace, the news passed from mouth to mouth. They clamoured at the gates and Yunho went to them, held out his hands as if to embrace them all, and he smiled and promised to bring peace and prosperity back to the Empire.

Changmin perched on the wall and whispered an ancient phrase, and after a while, the crowd dispersed without incident, the people going about their business happy and content. Pleased with the result, Changmin was about to slink away to the marble terrace when Yunho glanced around the outer courtyard, found him, and beckoned him.

So as not to startle the guards, Changmin took his usual earth-bound form and strolled out of one of the stables. Still they reacted, drawing their swords and clustering in front of Yunho, but then they retreated, staring in bewilderment at the rusting iron manacles around Changmin’s wrists.

“Blacksmith,” Yunho said, stepping around his guards, the imperial purple of his robes dragging through the dust, the ribbles of pearls suspended from his golden diadem clattering and swaying as he extended his hand. “A rasp, if you please.”

The blacksmith eyed the manacles and offered the opinion that a hammer might do the trick: “The iron is so old, Your Serenity, if you were but to tap them in the right place, those cuffs would disintegrate. Does Your Serenity wish me to demonstrate?”

“No, thank you.” Yunho smiled at the blacksmith and took the hammer. “I wish to do this myself.”

It took only three blows to release Changmin. The first shattered the chain. The second struck off one cuff; the third smashed open the other.

He was free.

Changmin tried to prostrate himself the way he’d seen other men do, but before he could complete the first bow, Yunho stretched out his hand. “Do not abase yourself in front of me, child of smokeless fire.”

“I am your slave,” Changmin said. “You freed me. I must serve you.”

After a pause, Yunho motioned to the blacksmith and the watching guards to move away. Only when they were out of earshot did he say, voice low and soft, “What if I wish to give you freedom?”

Changmin lifted his head, met Yunho’s gaze, and lied. “Then I would leave here and you would never see me again.”

Yunho curled out his tongue-tip to touch the corner of his mouth, a habit he had when he worried at a thought. “You would not come back?”

“No.” Changmin lied a second time.

Distress sparked in Yunho’s eyes. He looked down at the dusty ground. “I don’t want you to leave.”

“Then let me stay and serve you,” Changmin said, keeping his tone neutral to hide the surge of triumph.

Yunho smiled, brighter than the sun. “No more talk of service. You are my friend. My love. The keeper of my dreams.” He held out his hand and lifted Changmin to his feet. “You will be my chamberlain and whisper wise counsel when I need it. You will be my most beloved companion and grant me peace when we lay down to rest. Though hidden in shadows, you will rule with me, for the daystar needs the horizon to impose limits upon it.”

Changmin bowed his head. “If this is what you wish.”

“I do not wish it,” Yunho said. “I hope for it.”

*

Whispers followed him along the arcades and corridors of the palace. Rumour was kept busy feeding gossip. No one knew who Changmin was or where he came from, but everyone had an opinion. He came from the City of Jasmine, some said; no, said others, his home lay amongst the islands far to the east where sea-wyrms consorted. None could decide how he had first met the young Emperor, but all agreed as to why His Serenity was so captivated.

They believed Changmin was of the third gender. They stared at him in secret when he passed by, and he knew what they saw. Dressed in black silk, tall and slender, long-limbed and with skin as pale as a star, his beauty fascinated the court as much as his temporal power frightened them.

“They think I’m a eunuch,” Changmin said one afternoon. He lay on the stone flags of the rose terrace, soaking up the last trace of warmth left by the weak sun. The roses had long since flowered and faded, and now only thorns remained on the bushes cut back for winter.

“A eunuch?” Yunho sounded amused. He sat nearby within a pavilion, a brazier beside him giving off gentle heat and the fragrance of myrrh. Most of his attention was on a report from a garrison in the east, and when he’d finished reading, he folded the paper and returned it to the same gilded table his father had used for correspondence. “They fear your sharp tongue, my love. Eunuchs are known for their cruelty.”

“I am not cruel. Merely truthful.” Changmin rolled over and propped himself up on his elbows. “Is that cruelty?”

“To a courtier? Yes.” Yunho smiled. “But I would have you no other way. In this sea of sycophants and schemers, I need you to be my guiding light.”

Changmin sat up, his silks pooling around him like shadows. “As you wish.”

Yunho laughed. “Not a wish. A need. A desire. One I hope you share.” He rose from his chair and took a carved rosewood box from the table, then came down from the pavilion and knelt on the terrace beside Changmin.

“Here,” he said, presenting the box. “A gift.”

Curious, Changmin lifted the lid. Nestled within on a bed of velvet was a pair of cuffs of polished silver, curved and flared to show their decorative nature.

“Silver untouched by iron,” Yunho said when Changmin remained still and silent, uncertain how to react. “One each. So we never forget our time of imprisonment.”

Changmin nodded, still silent. This was not slavery, nor was it service. This was something else. He took one cuff from the box and Yunho held out his left arm, pushing up his sleeves of ermine and silk, turning his hand to offer the fine bones and vulnerable skin of his inner wrist.

When Changmin latched the silver cuff around Yunho’s wrist, he felt the world draw in tight around them as if they hung within a droplet of water, as if they were suspended within a ray of sunlight.

Yunho smiled and closed the second cuff around Changmin’s right wrist.

They sat together and admired the burning glitter of the silver, their hands clasped, their fingers entwined.

*

As the dreams foretold and the reports proved true, the Empire was dragged into war. Winter marched ahead of the gathering armies, a bitter harbinger of battle with its flaying breath.

Once the danger of the snow-bearing north-easterly wind had passed, Yunho ordered his troops into the ships that carried them across the great waterway. On the eastern shore, more soldiers waited, summoned from their garrisons. Their numbers swelled further as Yunho turned south into the heartland of the second continent.

Changmin journeyed at the head of the army, his white gelding a match in beauty for the black stallion Yunho rode. Where Yunho wore silvered armour and greeted his soldiers with smiles and rousing speeches, Changmin wore swathes of black fur over his black silks and glowered at everyone who passed beneath his gaze.

The serried ranks of men bearing iron amongst their steel weapons made Changmin’s skin crawl. The supply-carts with iron strips to strengthen their wheels and the iron cook-pots and other accoutrements made his back itch, and he would touch the silver cuff around his wrist to calm himself.

But the closer they came to the enemy, the more anxious Changmin felt.

Yunho’s dreams had turned dark again these last few weeks. The recurring dream haunted them both. In it, Changmin waded through a sea of blood, corpses grabbing at him to impede his way as he tried, frantic and grief-stricken, to reach Yunho. But always he was too late, and Changmin would fling himself out of the dream and retch it up, letting it curdle on the floor before he called upon a breeze to scatter it.

One morning, scouts returned from their explorations to report the presence of the enemy some twenty miles away. Between the two armies, they said, lay an ancient town. Now ruinous, it commanded a wide plain where the river had split into many forks.

While Yunho conferred with his generals, Changmin slipped away and caught onto the blustery breath of the north wind. He surveyed the land from on high, then flew further south until he spied the enemy. Their numbers were almost double the size of Yunho’s army, and their troops were rested and well fed from stealing from the nearby villages. But Changmin saw squabbles and factions within the enemy ranks, too many men who fought not for the upstart nobleman but for their own lords. They’d been promised easy plunder from the wealth of the City of Brazen Serpents. Instead the Emperor had come to meet them far from the safety of its walls, and they feared his wrath.

Changmin returned to Yunho’s side and repeated what he’d seen.

“A large army, but one divided,” Yunho said, looking at his generals. “This battle will be measured not in numbers, but by determination. Give the orders; we march for the ruined town. I want us to hold that plain by nightfall.”

By mid afternoon the town was secured; by evening Yunho had established a camp within its ruined walls, choosing an abandoned building in the old marketplace as his headquarters. Sentries were posted and soldiers were directed to their billets for the night. Many of them feared the ruins and clustered together in the marketplace, where fires were lit. Those brave enough to explore as far as the ancient theatre on the hillside came running back with tales of demons.

“Perhaps one of the djinn?” Yunho suggested when he heard the rumour.

Changmin went to investigate but found no trace of his kin. Instead he encountered a ghul, ragged and pale, its claws scratching at the marble seats as it crooned to itself. When it saw him it hissed and scuttled back into a hole, its unblinking yellow eyes gleaming at him from the darkness.

Ghuls often frequented ruins, but this one smelled of the mountains, not the plains. Changmin curled towards it. “Why are you here?”

“The battle.” The ghul’s voice was a slow, rattling exhalation. “Where the children of dust make war, I and my brothers and sisters come to feed.”

“More of your kind will come?” A prickle of uneasiness climbed Changmin’s spine and he resisted the urge to look around in search of other yellow eyes.

The ghul’s laughter sounded like vomit hitting the ground. “Tomorrow we will grow fat on their carcasses. You should join us, djinni. The flesh of men is sweet.” It paused, tilting its head. “But perhaps you know this already.”

Changmin spat in disgust and hurled himself away from the theatre. He went to the supply train and commanded the officer in charge to give him a sack of salt and the loan of one of his men. At Changmin’s direction, the soldier sprinkled salt around the marketplace and headquarters in a single unbroken line, except for the narrowest gap the span of a man’s hand.

“Ghuls fear salt,” Changmin said when he told Yunho what he’d done. “Be sure to bring the injured back to the marketplace, but tell your men not to disturb the line of salt. It will protect them.”

Yunho looked at him. “The djinn also fear salt, is that not true?”

Changmin bowed his head. “It is true, but I left a gap so I might pass through when we ride out together on the morrow.”

“Does it not hurt, to be almost surrounded by salt?”

“Not as much as it hurt to be imprisoned within an iron box,” Changmin said, “but yes, I feel it pressing in on me, and it is... unpleasant.”

“Then for a moment, let us step outside the ring of salt so we may both be free.” Yunho held out his hand, silver cuff glinting around his wrist, and Changmin went with him.

Just beyond the crumbled walls of the ancient town lay the ruins of a temple. Barely anything remained amidst the weeds and tumbled masonry save a single column, worn and cracked yet still standing. A pair of storks had made their nest on top, and the birds stirred and chattered to one another as Yunho led Changmin through the rustling grasses.

Yunho’s hands were cold against Changmin’s skin, but his breath was warm and his kisses hot. The fur slid from Changmin’s shoulders. He pressed back against the column, the fluting sharp and dark beneath his palms. They made love in silence, swift and urgent, and Changmin looked up at the stars, the night motionless and deep above them.

*

The first touch of dawn’s light revealed that the enemy had arrived at the far side of the plain. Scouts ran to and fro, and the soldiers formed up and marched from the town while officers bellowed orders.

Yunho rode out a short distance, Changmin beside him, and together they surveyed the land as the armies massed. Fear stroked icy fingers down Changmin’s back. The sun struggled to rise through the clouds smothering it, and it seemed to hang in the sky, a blood-red ball. Turning in the saddle, Changmin looked back at the ruined town, then he looked at Yunho, resplendent in silvered steel. Behind him was the standard-bearer, carrying the white and gold pennant of the imperial house.

The air was heavy, thick with a tension that had nothing to do with the coming battle. Changmin sniffed, recognising the shape of invisible currents, and knew a storm was being born. This was Yunho’s recurring dream, a warning cried across the seasons, and yet Yunho remained ignorant of his fate.

Only Changmin had the power to alter it.

“I can win this battle for you,” he said, the words spilling out in a rush. “If you wish it, I will call upon the south wind and bring a sandstorm to devour your enemies.”

The look Yunho turned upon him was one of surprise. “No.”

“Think well on your decision. You have never asked anything of me. Only wish it done, and I will grant you victory this day.”

Yunho shook his head. “I cannot. We shall win this battle if God wills it.”

Anger rose, and Changmin jerked on the reins of his gelding, walking it around in front of Yunho’s stallion. “If you will not have a care for yourself, at least think of your people! These soldiers—they follow you from love and duty, and you lead them to their deaths. What of their wives and children? An Emperor must care for his subjects. Why would you waste the lives of these men and bring needless grief to their families?”

“Is that what you think?” Disbelief and disappointment flashed in Yunho’s eyes. “My love, if I were to wish upon you, I would make slaves of us both. In serving my wishes, you would make me your slave. If I relied upon the power of a djinni to defend my empire, my people would become fat and indolent, knowing they were safe from all harm. They would not strive to improve themselves. They would fall into lethargy or become greedy. If a djinni can keep us safe, they will say, he can also make us rich. They would expect greater gifts from you, from me, and I would no longer be worthy of being called Emperor. I would be as much their puppet as yours, and a puppet is not a leader of men.”

Though Yunho spoke the truth, Changmin was still dismayed and tried to argue against it. “But you would be victorious!”

“That is not victory.”

Furious tears swam through his vision. Changmin tossed his head and snapped, “You are too proud.”

“Perhaps.” Yunho smiled. “It is a human failing.”

“Please,” Changmin said. “Reconsider.”

Yunho held his gaze. “I have thought on this every day since I ascended the throne. I will not ask anything of you, my love. The children of dust are born to die. This is our fate. If my men are to lay down their lives today, let them die as heroes, defending their women, their children, their home, their empire. Permit them to believe in triumph. Let them have hope.”

“Hope is for fools!” Changmin snarled, emotions strangling him.

“Then I am the biggest fool of all.” Yunho’s smile turned sad.

“No.” Furious, helpless, Changmin lashed out. “No. You are selfish.”

The silver cuff glinted in the eerie sunlight as Yunho reached out and stroked gentle fingers down Changmin’s cheek. “Maybe I am selfish, to hold onto you for so long. If you wish to be released, I—”

“No!” Changmin caught at his hand and clutched it in a fierce grip. “Don’t banish me from your side. Let me ride to battle with you today.”

Yunho withdrew his hand. “It is too dangerous. There will be weapons of iron everywhere. I would not have you exposed to such pain. Please, Changmin—stay within the limits of the town. I will need your counsel and your warmth when the fight is over.”

Changmin drew in an annoyed breath. “Is it your wish that I stay here?”

For a moment Yunho was silent, and then, with a measured look, he said, “Yes.”

Shock drove splinters of ice through Changmin’s heart. He had trapped himself, made himself useless, caught between his own anger and Yunho’s care. “Take it back,” he said, desperation edging his tone. “Let me go with you.”

“No.” Yunho’s expression was implacable. “Changmin, I wish you to stay within the town until I return.” He urged his mount closer and leaned in, one hand warm on the back of Changmin’s neck. “Be not angry with me,” he murmured, and kissed him, swift and passionate.

“I’m not angry,” Changmin whispered when they parted. “I’m afraid.”

*

The battle raged for most of the day.

At first Changmin paced back and forth along the city walls that gave a view of the plain, but all he saw was chaos. The clash of arms was unbearably loud; the shouts and screams of men and horses were worse.

Ghuls shambled through the streets, creeping from one dark place to the next, lurking beneath the arcades and moaning their delight at the sounds of battle. Changmin chased them away, expending his frustration by snapping at them until they retreated to the theatre. There they climbed to the topmost tier and looked out at the battlefield, chattering about what they saw.

Changmin drifted below them, tired and angry. He ignored their harsh, rasping voices, sickened by the way they took bets on whose flesh they would tear into first—perhaps this fat cavalryman or that young nobleman, or maybe even the new recruit who’d just shat himself with fear. The ghuls rocked with laughter as they described the scenes unfolding on the plain, and then they stirred, excitement sharpening, as the first of the injured were brought into the town.

“We cannot feast,” one of the ghuls said. “The djinni ordered salt to be poured around the marketplace.”

They grumbled and settled back down, a few of them cursing Changmin for depriving them of an easy meal.

“No matter,” they assured one another. “The bodies left abandoned on the field will taste even better. Imagine the soft flesh torn apart by hooks to spill out their entrails! How delightful. No need to blunt our claws on their armour or sneak past iron and salt and fire. Already corpses bloat the rivers on the plain. By day’s end we will have a feast the likes of which has not been seen for years!”

On and on they chattered. Disgusted, Changmin turned from them. About to slip through the circle of salt to question the exhausted men carrying their injured comrades, he stopped when a screeching cry went up. The ghuls rose as one, making a wild ululation.

“What?” Changmin flitted up the steps towards the top of the theatre. “What has happened?”

“The Emperor.” One of the ghuls grasped his arm, claws sinking in tight. “The Emperor has fallen.”

“No.” Changmin pulled free so fast that the ghul unbalanced and tumbled down the theatre steps. Ignoring its hideous shrieking complaint, Changmin plunged over the side and flew to the outermost limit of the town, where Yunho’s wish prevented him from going any further.

Changmin clawed at the walls and the earth and begged to be allowed out, but the wish held. That at least was a small mercy, for it meant that Yunho still lived. He could do nothing but wait, and he despised his helplessness and railed at the injustice.

Turning his fear into action, Changmin went back to the marketplace and helped the medics tend the injured and the dying. He used magic where he could, knitting together broken limbs, healing torn flesh, but he could do only a little.

“It is fate, my lord,” one of the medics told him, a soldier on the ground between them with a hole in his skull showing a slop of grey slime within. “I’ve seen men with barely a scratch lie down and die, while other men with grievous injuries got up and walked. Medicine is but a part of healing alongside faith and belief, and yet if a man’s time has come, no earthly power can intervene.”

Changmin closed the dead soldier’s eyes and turned away. Some of the ghuls had come down from the theatre and stared across the ring of salt, strings of saliva glistening from their chins. Rage beat back his growing panic. He would scatter the ghuls, send them screaming back to the mountains, but before he could step beyond the salt and summon the wind, horses came clattering into the marketplace.

Changmin froze, recognising the captain of the imperial guard. Two other mounts were with him, a limping grey mare and a proud black stallion. A body fell from the saddle onto the ground. When one of the medics hurried forwards, the captain snapped, “Leave him—he’s dead. Attend to the Emperor. Quickly!”

The medics surged closer, hands up to cradle Yunho’s broken body. Changmin pushed past the captain, swallowing the awful keening note that threatened to smash its way out of his throat. He could barely recognise his lover like this. Yunho’s skin was so pale it was like virgin snow, and around his waist was wrapped a trailing length of red silk.

No, Changmin realised; not red silk. White and gold. The imperial pennant stained scarlet with Yunho’s blood.

The captain spared Changmin a brief glance as they followed the medics inside the headquarters. “He led three attacks across the rivers, drove back the enemy and cut them down. He seemed invincible. When he rallied us for a fourth time, the standard-bearer rushed ahead and lamed his horse, and the pennant was lost. Even though the enemy swarmed all around, His Serenity refused to let it go. He threw himself against them and fought his way to the standard. He tied it around his waist, and then it happened. A blow from a sword, and when he wavered, another and then another. They would have pulled him down and trampled him in the mud, but then we got to him and pulled him free.”

Changmin nodded, not trusting himself to speak. He stood and watched as the medics laid Yunho on his bed and untied the pennant to reveal the extent of the damage. Stepping back, they debated with one another in low voices.

“Hurry,” the captain said, drawing his bloodied sword as if the threat of violence would aid their art. “Do something. Heal him!”

“They can’t.” Yunho turned his head, his face grey and waxen and his eyes glassy. He managed to twitch a finger, and Changmin came to him, knelt beside him. “Tell the medics to go away. They must save others.”

Changmin shook his head, smoothing trembling hands over Yunho’s cold brow. “They must save you.”

Yunho frowned slightly. “Send them away.”

“I’ll see it done, Your Serenity.” The captain gestured at the medics, and they all hurried from the room, leaving Changmin alone with Yunho.

An endless moment passed. Yunho’s breathing grew fainter. He was cold, so cold. Changmin tried to pour warmth into him, but it drained away to nothing.

Yunho blinked, focused on Changmin, and smiled. “I release you from my service.”

“No.” Tears ran down Changmin’s face. He held tight onto Yunho’s hand. “No. I don’t want to be free of you.”

“It is my wish. You have to obey me.”

Changmin gritted his teeth and made a negative gesture. “Please, my love. Let me bring back the medics.”

“No.” Yunho sighed, soft and resigned. “Let them save as many men as they can. No one wants to be known as the doctor who killed the Emperor. Let them do their duty elsewhere.”

“And what of your duty?” Changmin cried, rousing his anger to banish his sense of vulnerability. “You’re the Emperor. You have a duty to everyone. You can’t die, do you hear me? You can’t. I love you!”

Fury made him reckless. Rejecting the words of the medic, ignoring the prophecy of the dreams, Changmin called upon his magic and tried to heal Yunho. For a brief, glorious moment it worked, organs restored and blood renewed and flesh mended, but then everything was undone and Yunho broke again, snapped and torn, and Changmin howled in despair that he had caused his beloved such pain.

This is what becomes of the children of dust. They can be ruined so easily. They die so easily, and the children of smokeless fire can only grieve.

A sound at the door, running feet, and the captain burst in, wide-eyed and out of breath. “Your Serenity. My lord. The enemy is in retreat. Their generals are slain. We have won a great victory.”

Changmin turned on him, as vicious as a striking serpent. “You have won nothing!”

The captain dropped to his knees. He started to speak again, words fumbling from his lips, and then Yunho stirred and beckoned him nearer. “Victory? God be praised. Come close, captain, and tell me...”

Unable to bear it, Changmin whirled away outside. The marketplace was filled with the wounded and dying, and medics moved amongst them, doing what they could. The news of the victory had lifted everyone’s spirits and the atmosphere was one of quiet optimism.

Changmin almost choked on his sorrow and rage. He pushed through the gap in the ring of salt and drifted towards the battlefield. Blood soaked the earth and ran red in the rivers. Corpses lay tangled, some dead for long hours, others still warm. The ghuls crouched over their chosen victims and ripped at their flesh, rending limbs from bodies and feasting on internal organs.

Overhead, vultures circled, scanning the field with gimlet eyes. They flapped away from the pack of ghuls then folded their wings and dropped down to feed, sharp beaks snapping and tearing.

Changmin stared at them.

It would take a miracle to save Yunho. Changmin was only a djinni. What he needed was a god.

*

He left on a whirlwind, driving the pillar of fire south into the desert. Though centuries had passed since he was last there, Changmin found the temple again. The sand had all but covered it, and the sculpture that crowned the pediment had blurred beyond recognition. He ordered the dunes to slip aside, and the great doors of burnished bronze were revealed. Though they had slammed shut when he’d left, they stood open now, inviting him into the cool, shadowed darkness.

Changmin went inside. The air gathered around him, thick with promise. Sand hushed and trickled. He moved forwards with purpose, unfaltering, and prostrated himself before the statue of the god. When he got to his feet, he looked inside the libation bowl and saw that the bones of the slaughtered children had crumbled to dust.

A rustling, sliding sound rolled through the temple as Nasr wakened. Little ginnaya, the god said, you have returned. There was no smugness in his voice, nor even curiosity; just deep, endless patience. Do you have a prayer this time?

“Yes.” Changmin went back down onto his knees and bowed his head before the vulture-god. “I beg you to save the life of a man. Yunho, the Emperor of—of...”

Ah. Him. Nasr hissed and was silent as if considering. He already walks amongst the shadows. It is no easy prayer to answer, this one. I can give you another man to please you; one like him, strong and brave and handsome.

“No.” Changmin curled his hands into fists and thumped at the altar as if this would help his request. “It has to be him. Save him. Don’t let him die yet. Let him live and be healthy and happy and let him grow old.”

You sound like one of them, ginnaya. You sound human.

“I love him.”

Ah.

A pause, long and deep and cold. Changmin shook with a storm of grief, his tears dripping onto the stone floor.

Finally Nasr spoke. It is done.

Changmin looked up. “He lives?”

He draws breath, his heart beats, and his flesh mends, but now he needs a reason to live.

“He is the Emperor.” Changmin rose to his feet, unsteady with hope. “He lives for his people.”

Foolish ginnaya. For an instant, Nasr sounded amused. Your prayer is answered. Now give me your sacrifice.

Changmin stared. In his desperation, he hadn’t thought to bring anything suitable. Bowing once again, he said, “Great Lord Nasr, I will give you whatever you desire. Only tell me what you wish for, and I will bring it.”

I will take you.

The bronze doors slammed shut, sealing out the sunlight. Fire burst over the libation bowl, smoke roiling thick and black as it filled the temple.

Changmin screamed as it devoured him.

*

He woke in an ancient tomb, naked but for the silver cuff around his right wrist. His head ached and weariness lay over him. Changmin sat up. His face was crusted with sand, and when he ran a hand through his hair, runnels of grit worked loose and showered over his body. Hunger griped at him and he had an unbearable thirst. When he touched the earth, he felt only dirt. When he touched the walls of the tomb, he felt only stone.

Changmin found his way to the wooden door and pulled it open. The sunlight hurt his eyes and he turned away, blinking. Now he could see a pile of clothes placed on top of a carved limestone sarcophagus, and beside it, bread and sliced meat and a jug of water.

The urge to eat and drink was too great for him to ignore. He went over to the food and tore at the bread, stuffing it into his mouth. Water next, a great gulp of it, taken so fast he almost spilt it down his bare chest. The water was cold and had a faint metallic taste. It took him a moment to recognise it, and by then he’d eaten the meat. Salted meat; and when he tilted the jug to the sunlight, he saw the reddish tint to the water and realised it contained iron.

He stood there, waiting for the deadening pain as the salt and iron took effect, but nothing happened. Nothing except his stomach grumbling for more food. Puzzled, Changmin continued to eat, more cautiously this time, and then he drained the jug of water. When still nothing happened, he unfolded the clothes and got dressed. These were not the expensive silks of the palace but the garments of a commoner, with an old woollen cloak to wear over the top and a pair of scuffed leather boots.

Changmin ventured out of the tomb, shading his eyes with one hand as he looked beyond the necropolis at the brilliant white travertines spooling down the hillside. He was at Sacred City, far away from the temple in the Empty Quarter but only four days’ hard ride from the ruined town and the battlefield.

He glanced around and saw a horse laden with supplies tethered nearby. The animal lifted its head from cropping at the weeds and regarded him with no great interest as he approached. Changmin spoke to it, stroked its nose, and then unlooped the reins. Then he tried to mount up. It took him five attempts before he was successful, and this more than any other sign finally made Changmin realise what had changed.

He was human.

The knowledge drove deeper inside him with every beat of his heart. He tugged on the reins, turning the horse towards the road to the west, and caught sight of a great bird perched upon a stele.

It hunched there, claws gripping the tombstone, its gimlet eyes black and deep. It had a bald head and a ruff around its neck, and when it spread its wings, their span was huge and terrifying.

“Nasr,” Changmin whispered, and bent his head in acknowledgement.

The vulture launched itself into the air and flew away.

Changmin stared after it until the bird vanished from the sky, and then he pressed in his heels and the horse sprang forwards.

For four days he rode, feeling his new humanity with every mile. He pushed the horse to its limits, forcing himself to stay awake when exhaustion almost tumbled him from his mount, huddling within the cloak when the storm winds he’d once controlled blew over him with freezing rain and left him blasted with cold. Hunger and thirst were like nothing he’d ever known before, and yet on he went, driven to know what had become of his love.

Late on the fourth day, he found the relics of the defeated enemy, scatterings of iron that could do him no harm and corpses half devoured by ghuls and wolves and vultures. The horse drudged onwards, picking its way across scree and then down onto the plain, splashing through rivers that ran clear once more.

Changmin checked his mount and scanned the near horizon. The imperial army still made its camp within the walls of the ruined town. Weary and sore from so long in the saddle, he dug his heels into the horse’s heaving sides and urged it on.

It responded on a burst of speed. They raced across the plain, Changmin bent low to the horse’s neck, its mane streaming over his hands and brushing his face like smoke. Soldiers ran towards him, calling for him to stop, but he didn’t. He couldn’t.

The horse slowed to a trot and then came to a halt at the outer limits of the town. Changmin all but fell from the saddle. More soldiers hailed him, but fell back when they realised his identity.

“The chamberlain,” they said to one another, their words spreading throughout the town. “He’s returned. But where has he been?”

Though he could barely walk, Changmin forced himself not to run. “Yunho,” he said, and his voice rasped in his throat, strange and unwieldy. “Yunho.” It became a litany pushing him on, one foot in front of the other, and soon he came to the marketplace. The ring of salt had been remade, and this time it was unbroken.

He stepped over it and collapsed before the headquarters. “Yunho!”

The captain came out and stood on the threshold, astonished. “My lord!”

Changmin lifted his head. “Where is he?”

“I’m here.”

The captain stepped aside and Yunho appeared in the doorway. He was pale and wan, weakened but still vital, and though the memory of pain shadowed his eyes, he was alive and whole and perfect.

Uttering a frantic cry of joy, Changmin clambered to his feet and flung himself into Yunho’s arms.

Yunho caught him and held onto him, lifting a hand to press it against Changmin’s cheek. “You’re different.”

Overwhelmed, Changmin nodded. “Everything’s different now.”

“I dreamt you were far away in a temple of shadows,” Yunho said. “A great bird perched on the roof and you knelt to it. It pecked at you, and you let it tear you to pieces. Then I woke and heard your voice.”

Tears blurred Changmin’s vision. He let them fall. “You remembered your dream.”

Yunho smiled and drew him closer. “Only because you weren’t here to take it.”

They kissed, gentle and tender; a promise, a reassurance.

“You taste different,” Yunho murmured against his mouth. “My love, you even smell different.”

Changmin laughed through his tears. “Dust.” He stepped back from their embrace and brushed at his clothes. The gritty residue of the road poured free. “It’s dust.”





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