In a dark land of fickle gods and fantastical creatures, a warrior who was once a princess learns that there is no magick stronger than a parent's love – and, sometimes, no curse more deadly.
Fresh off the heartbreak of her encounter with the Red Rock People, the warrior woman Shaala determines to leave the desert and its harsh dictates behind once and for all. But before she can break free of her past, she must first help a creature out of legend break free of his, and find justice for a sorceress's lost daughter in the process.
Shaala stumbled up the side of another dune, her feet sliding on the sand as she struggled for purchase. She slipped and fell to her knees yet again, the sharp, angular grains digging into the exposed flesh of her legs, breaking open layers of old scabs from numerous earlier falls. She didn’t feel the pain—she never did—and there was little blood, now. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d had water—three days ago? Four? Whenever that gods-cursed horse had spooked at a skink and thrown her, running off with all her supplies. It had been sheer luck that she’d had her staff in hand and not strapped to the saddle, or she’d be without a weapon, as well.
Not that the staff had done her any good. She’d been able to split the six-foot length of wood into twin sooma and use the spring-loaded blade from one to spear a sand snake, but its flesh was poisonous if not cooked and the small bit of moisture she’d gotten from its blue-black blood had only made her thirstier.
As much as she wanted to blame her current predicament on the horse she’d gotten from the Red Rock People, she knew her own guilt was as much at fault as any chance encounter with a giant skink. The large lizards were carnivorous, but even a giant one would have a hard time taking down a horse, let alone its armed rider. But of course the mare hadn’t known that, and had only done what dumb instinct had directed it to. Shaala had no such excuse for her own idiocy—she was here in the middle of the Great Waste without food or water because she’d killed a man who looked like her dead lover, for the capital crime of daring to care about her.
Well, Khal could tell her what a fool she’d been when she fell for the last time, rising only to join him in the afterlife as one of his many wives. Or would he be Khaleedalmud to her again, withholding the diminutive because of her betrayal? It was perhaps the best fate she could hope for; even in paradise, she doubted that a disgraced Sultan’s daughter would be rewarded with the hand of her true love, a mere stable boy.
Realizing that her fear-tinged thoughts were becoming scattered and disjointed, Shaala closed her eyes and took a deep, centering breath in through her nose. As she exhaled the fear out between parched, cracked lips and a swollen tongue, she felt her mind sharpen, the dross of hunger and thirst falling away. She knew the clarity would only be temporary, fading again as the sun beat down mercilessly on the dark hair of her uncovered head, but hopefully it would last to the next rise, and she’d be that much closer to her destination—the Bone, a vast chain of mountains that split the continent like a gash from heart to liver and formed the western border of the deserts that she had once called home. Once, but no more; there was nothing here for her now save sand and death, and the memory of death. It was time to move on, to lands where wealth was not measured by the length of your name or the depth of your wells, and women were free to choose their own fates. If such places truly existed outside the tales of those who sold fantasies for a living.
Shaala had set off across the sands days ago to discover the truth of those tales for herself. But to escape the strictures of desert life, first she had to escape the desert.