If you read S.A. Chakraborty’s The City of Brass and you cannot wait to get your hands on the next book in this buzzy fantasy series, take a peek at an exclusive excerpt from the second book in The Daevabad Trilogy, The Kingdom of Copper. And look for it on bookshelves January 2019.
Excerpt: The Kingdom of Copper By S.A. Chakraborty
It was very quiet inside Emir Muntadhir al Qahtani’s apartment.
Banu Nahri e-Nahid paced the room, her bare toes sinking into the sumptuous carpet. Upon a mirrored table, a bottle of wine rested beside a jade cup carved in the shape of a shedu. It had been brought in by the calm-eyed servants who’d helped Nahri out of her heavy wedding clothes; perhaps they’d noticed the Banu Nahida’s trembling and thought it would help.
She stared at the bottle now. It looked delicate. It would be easy to break it, easier still to conceal a glass shard under the pillows of the large bed she was trying not to look at and end this evening in a far more permanent way.
And then you will die. Ghassan would put a thousand of her tribesmen to the sword, make Nahri watch each one, and then throw her to his karkadann.
She tore her gaze from the bottle. A breeze came from the open windows, and she shivered. She’d been dressed in a delicate blue silk shift and soft hooded robe, neither of which did much to ward off the chill. All that was left of the overly elaborate outfit in which she’d been wed was her marriage mask. Made of finely carved ebony and secured by copper clasps and chains, the mask was engraved with her and Muntadhir’s names. It was to be burned upon consummation, the ash marking their bodies the next morning proof of the marriage’s validity. It was—according to the excited Geziri noblewomen teasing her earlier at the wedding dinner—a beloved tradition of their tribe.
Nahri didn’t share their excitement. She’d been sweating since she entered the room, and the mask kept sticking to her damp skin. She pulled it slightly loose, trying to let the breeze cool her flushed cheeks. She caught the reflection of her movement in the massive bronze-edged mirror across the room and averted her eyes. However fine the clothes and mask, they were Geziri, and Nahri had no desire to see herself in the garb of her enemy.
They’re not your enemy, she reminded herself. “Enemy” was Dara’s word, and she was not going to think about Dara. Not tonight. She couldn’t. It would break her—and the last Banu Nahida of Daevabad was not going to break. She’d signed her wedding contract with a steady hand and toasted Ghassan without trembling, smiling warmly at the king who’d threatened her with the murder of Daeva children and forced her to disown her Afshin with the crudest of charges. If she could handle all of that, she could handle whatever happened in this room.
Nahri turned to cross the bedroom again. Muntadhir’s vast apartment was located on one of the upper levels of the enormous ziggurat at the heart of Daevabad’s palace complex. It was filled with art: paintings on silk screens, delicate tapestries, and finely wrought vases, all of which had been carefully displayed and all of which seemed to carry an aura of magic. She could easily envision Muntadhir in this wondrous room, lounging with a cup of expensive wine and some cosmopolitan courtesan, quoting poetry and bantering about the useless pleasures of life that Nahri had neither the time nor inclination to pursue. There was not a book in sight. Not in this room, nor in the rest of the apartment she’d been guided through.
She stopped to stare at the closest painting, a miniature of two dancers conjuring flamelike flowers that sparked and flashed like hearts of ruby as they twirled.
I have nothing in common with this man. Nahri couldn’t imagine the splendor in which Muntadhir had been raised, couldn’t imagine being surrounded by the accumulated knowledge of millennia and not bothering to learn how to read. The only thing she shared with her new husband was one awful night upon a burning ship.
The bedroom door opened.
Nahri instinctively stepped back from the painting, pulling her hood low. There was a soft crash from outside, followed by a curse, and then Muntadhir entered.
He wasn’t alone; indeed, she suspected he might not have made it alone, for he was leaning heavily on a steward, and she could practically smell the wine on his breath from across the room. A pair of female servants followed, and Nahri swallowed as they helped him out of his robe, unwinding his turban with a number of what sounded like teasing jests in Geziriyya, before leading him to the bed.
He sat heavily on the edge, looking drunk and somewhat stunned to find himself there. Heaped with cloudlike linens, the bed was big enough to fit a family of ten—and given the rumors she’d heard whispered about her husband, she suspected he’d filled it on many an occasion. Frankincense smoldered in a corner burner beside a chalice of sweetened milk mixed with apple leaves—a traditional Daeva drink brewed for new brides hoping to conceive. That, at least, would not be happening—Nisreen had assured her. One did not assist Nahid healers for two centuries without learning a number of nearly foolproof methods to prevent pregnancy.
Even so, Nahri’s heart beat faster as the servants left, closing the door softly behind them. Tension filled the air, thick and heavy and at awkward odds with the sounds of celebration in the garden below.
Muntadhir finally glanced up, meeting her eyes. Candlelight played on his face. He might not have had Dara’s literally magical beauty, but he was a strikingly handsome man, a charismatic man, she’d heard, one who laughed easily and smiled often…at least with people who weren’t her. His thick black hair was cut short, his beard stylishly trimmed. He’d worn his royal regalia for the wedding, the gold-trimmed ebony robe and patterned blue, purple, and gold silk turban that were the hallmarks of the ruling al Qahtani family, but he was dressed now in a crisp white dishdasha edged with tiny pearls. The only thing detracting from his careful appearance was a thin scar dividing his left eyebrow—a remnant from Dara’s scourge.
They stared at each other for a long moment, neither one moving. She saw that beneath the edge of drunken exhaustion, he too looked nervous.
Finally, he spoke. “You’re not going to give me plague sores, are you?”
Nahri narrowed her eyes. “Excuse me?”
“Plague sores.” Muntadhir swallowed, kneading the embroidered covering on the bed. “That’s what your mother used to do to men who looked at her too long.”
Nahri hated that the words stung. She wasn’t a romantic—on the contrary, she prided herself on her pragmatism and her ability to set aside her emotions—that’s what had led her to this room, after all. But it was still her wedding night, and she might have hoped for a word of kindness from her new husband; for a man eager to touch her, rather than one worried she would curse him with some sort of magical disease.
She let her robe drop to the floor without ceremony. “Let’s get this over with.” She approached the bed, fumbling with the delicate copper fixtures holding her marriage mask in place.
“Be careful!” Muntadhir’s hand shot out, but he jerked it back when he brushed her fingers. “Forgive me,” he said quickly. “It’s just—the mask clips were my mother’s.”
Nahri’s hands stilled. No one in the palace ever spoke of Muntadhir’s mother, Ghassan’s long-dead first wife. “They were?”
He nodded, taking the marriage mask from her hands and deftly unhooking the clips. In comparison to the opulent room and the glittering jewelry they were both wearing, the clips were rather plain, but Muntadhir held them as if he’d just been handed Suleiman’s seal ring.
“They’ve been in her family for centuries,” he explained, running his thumb over the fine filigree work. “She always made me promise to have my own wife and daughter wear them.” His lips quirked into a sad smile. “She said they brought good fortune and the best of sons.”
Nahri hesitated and then decided to press forward; long-lost mothers might be the only topic they had in common. “How old were you—”
“Young,” Muntadhir cut in, his voice a little raw, as if the question caused him pain. “She’d been bitten by a nasnas out in Am Gezira when she was a child, and the poison stayed with her. She’d have the occasional reaction, but Manizheh could always treat it.” His expression darkened. “Until one summer Manizheh decided dawdling in Zariaspa was more important than saving her queen.”
Nahri tensed at the bitterness lingering in his words. So much for a connection between them. “I see,” she said stiffly.
Muntadhir seemed to notice. A flush came to his cheeks. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that to you.”
“It’s fine,” Nahri replied, though in truth she was regretting this marriage more with each passing moment. “You’ve never hid how you feel about my family. What was it you called me to your father? The ‘lying Nahid whore’? The one who seduced your brother and ordered my Afshin to attack your men.”
Muntadhir’s gray eyes flashed with regret before he dropped his gaze. “That was a mistake,” he said, defending himself weakly. “My best friend and my little brother were at death’s door.” He rose to his feet, moving toward the wine to pour himself a cup. “I wasn’t thinking straight.”
Nahri dropped to sit on the bed, crossing her legs under the silk shift. It was a pretty thing, the fabric so thin it was nearly sheer, chased through with impossibly fine gold embroidery and adorned with delicate ivory beads. At another time—with another person—she might have delighted in the teasing way it brushed her bare skin.
She was decidedly not feeling that way now. She glared at Muntadhir, incredulous that he believed such an excuse to be sufficient justification for his actions.
He choked on his wine. “That’s not helping me forget about plague sores,” he said between coughs.
Nahri rolled her eyes. “For God’s sake, I’m not going to hurt you. I can’t. Your father would murder a hundred Daevas if I so much as put a scratch on you.” She rubbed her head and then held out a hand for the wine. Maybe a drink would make this more bearable. “Pass that over.”
He poured her a cup, and Nahri drank it down, her lips puckering at the sour taste. “That’s awful.”
Muntadhir looked wounded. “That’s an antique ice wine from Zariaspa. It’s priceless, one of the rarest vintages in the world.”
“It tastes like grape juice that’s been passed through a rotting fish.”
“A rotting fish…,” he repeated weakly. He rubbed his forehead. “Well…what do you like to drink then, if not wine?”
Nahri paused but then answered honestly, seeing little harm in it. “Karkade. It’s a tea made from hibiscus flowers.” The lump grew in her throat. “It reminds me of home.”
She frowned. “What?”
“Isn’t that where you’re from?”
“No,” she replied. “I’m from Cairo.”
“Oh.” He looked a bit nonplussed. “Are they close?”
Not at all. Nahri tried not to cringe. He was supposed to be her husband, and he didn’t even know where she was from, the land whose essence still flowed in her blood and beat in her heart. Cairo, the city she missed so fiercely it took her breath away at times.
I don’t want this. The realization, swift and urgent, swept through her.
Nahri had learned the hard way not to trust a soul in Daevabad. How could she share a bed with this self-centered man who knew nothing of her, let alone hope to one day possibly share a throne?
Muntadhir was watching her. His gray eyes softened. “You look like you’re about to be sick.”
She did flinch now. Maybe he wasn’t completely blind. “I’m fine,” she lied.
“You don’t look fine,” he countered, reaching for her shoulder. “You’re trembling.” His fingers brushed her skin, and Nahri tensed, fighting the urge to jerk away.
Muntadhir dropped his hand as though he’d been burned. “Are you afraid of me?” he asked, sounding shocked.
“No.” Nahri’s cheeks burned with embarrassment, even as she bristled. “It’s just…I haven’t done this before.”
“What, slept with someone you hate?” His wry smile vanished when she bit her lip. “Oh. Oh,” he added. “I had assumed that you and Darayavahoush—”
“No,” Nahri said quickly. She couldn’t hear that sentence completed.
“Things weren’t like that between us. And I don’t want to talk about him. Not with you.”
Muntadhir’s mouth tightened. “Fine.”
Silence grew between them again, punctuated by the shouts of laughter that drifted in from the open window.
“Glad to know everyone’s so happy we’re uniting our tribes,” Nahri muttered darkly.
Muntadhir glanced at her. “Is that why you agreed to this?”
“I agreed”—her voice turned sarcastic on the word—“because I knew I would otherwise be forced to marry you. I figured I might as well go willingly and take your father for every coin of dowry I could. And maybe one day convince you to overthrow him.” It probably wasn’t the wisest response, but Nahri was finding it harder and harder to care what her new husband thought.
The color abruptly left Muntadhir’s face. He swallowed and then tossed back the rest of his wine before turning to cross the room. He opened the door, speaking in Geziriyya to whoever was on the other side. Nahri inwardly cursed the slip of her tongue. Her feelings toward Muntadhir aside, Ghassan had been hell-bent on marrying them, and if Nahri ruined this, the king would no doubt find some ghastly way to punish her.
“What are you doing?” she asked when he returned, anxiety rising in her voice.
“Getting you a glass of your strange flower tea.”
Nahri blinked in surprise. “You don’t have to do that.”
“I want to.” He met her gaze. “Because, quite frankly, you terrify me, wife, and I wouldn’t mind staying on your good side.” He retrieved the marriage mask from the bed. “But you can stop shaking. I’m not going to hurt you, Nahri. I’m not that kind of man. I’m not going to lay another finger on you tonight.”
She eyed the mask. It was starting to smolder. She cleared her throat. “But people will be expecting…”
The mask burst into cinders in his hands, and she jumped. “Hold out your hand,” he said, dumping a fistful of ash into her palm when she did so. He then ran his ash-covered fingers through his hair and around the collar of his tunic, wiping them on his white dishdasha.
“There,” he deadpanned. “The marriage has been consummated.” He jerked his head at the bed. “I’ve been told I toss and turn terribly in my sleep. It will look like we’ve been doing our part for peace between our tribes all night long.”
Heat filled her face at that, and Muntadhir grinned. “Believe it or not, it’s nice to know something makes you anxious. Manizheh never showed any emotion, and it was terrifying.” His voice grew gentler. “We’ll need to do this eventually. There will be people watching us, waiting for an heir. But we’ll take it slow. It doesn’t have to be a horrible ordeal.” His eyes twinkled in amusement. “For all the handwringing that surrounds it, the bedroom can be a rather enjoyable place.”
A knock interrupted them, which was a blessing, for despite growing up on the streets of Cairo, Nahri didn’t have a retort for that.
Muntadhir crossed back to the door and returned with a silver platter upon which a rose quartz pitcher rested. He placed it on the table next to the bed.
“Your karkade.” He pulled back the sheets, collapsing into the small mountain of pillows. “Now if I’m not needed, I’m going to sleep. I’d forgotten how much dancing Daeva men did at weddings.”
The worry inside her unknotted slightly. Nahri poured herself a glass of karkade, and, ignoring her instinct to retreat to one of the low couches arranged near the fireplace, carefully slipped into the bed as well. She took a sip of her tea, savoring the cool tang.
The familiar tang. But the first memory that came to Nahri wasn’t of a café in Egypt, it was of Daevabad’s Royal Library, sitting across from a smiling prince who’d known the difference between Calicut and Cairo quite well. The prince whose knowledge had drawn Nahri to him in a way she hadn’t realized was dangerous until it was too late.
“Muntadhir, can I ask you something?” The words burst from her before she could think better of them.
His voice came back to her, already husky from sleep. “Yes?”
“Why wasn’t Ali at the wedding?”
Muntadhir’s body instantly tensed. “He’s busy with his garrison in Am Gezira.”
His garrison. Yes, that’s what every Geziri said, almost down to the word, when asked about Alizayd al Qahtani.
But secrets were difficult to keep in Daevabad’s royal harem. Which is why Nahri had heard rumors that Zaynab, Ali and Muntadhir’s sister, had cried herself to sleep every night for weeks after her little brother was sent away. Zaynab, who had looked haunted ever since, even at the wedding festivities this evening.
The real question slipped from her. “Is he dead?” she whispered.
Muntadhir didn’t respond right away, and in the silence Nahri felt a tangle of conflicting emotions settle into her chest. But then her husband cleared his throat. “No.” The word sounded careful. Deliberate. “Though if you don’t mind, I would rather not discuss him. And, Nahri, about what you said before…” He glanced at her, his eyes heavy with an emotion she couldn’t quite decipher. “You should know that when it comes down to it, I’m a Qahtani. My father is my king. I will always be loyal to that first.”
The warning was clear in his words, uttered in a voice that had lost all hint of intimacy. This was the emir of Daevabad speaking now, and he turned his back to her without waiting for a response.
Nahri set her glass down with a barely concealed thud, feeling the slight warmth that had risen between them turn to ice. Annoyance sparked in her chest.
One of the tapestries across the room shuddered in response. The shadows falling across Muntadhir’s form, outlining the palace window, suddenly lengthened. Sharpened.
Neither surprised Nahri. Such things had been happening lately, the ancient palace seeming to awaken to the fact that a Nahid dwelled within its walls again. Nahri raised her hand, and the tapestry and shadows stilled.
It was best that Muntadhir didn’t know everything his new wife could do.