Bors stepped between Roshad and the warriors. "This man is no thief, Erzhan. I go with him of my own free will."
The captain—Erzhan, presumably—chuckled without humor. "This sorcerer has cast a spell on you, my prince. Your father warned us of as much."
Bors glared. "Do I look enchanted to you?"
"Running off with some street thief? Abandoning your tribe?" Erzhan snorted. Roshad got the feeling the man did that a lot. "But it doesn't matter what I think. Your father tasked us with bringing you back, and that's what we're doing."
"Not while I live!" Roshad stepped out from behind Bors's armored bulk.
Erzhan shrugged. "That was always an option." He turned to his archers.
Metal sang as Bors's sword flew free from its sheath. In three steps he was across the intervening distance, the long, straight blade hovering still and horizontal an inch from Erzhan's throat. The captain blanched.
Bors's voice was the rumble of a distant storm. "You overreach yourself, Captain." He lifted his gaze to the other warriors. "If any of you touch this man behind me, you die. Either here, by my blade, or dragged by your heels across the stones of the steppes until your own mothers won't recognize you. I will not repeat myself."
There was a tense pause, and then bows lowered and hands moved from hilts. Heads bowed.
"Good." Bors looked down at the captain. "And you, Erzhan?"
Erzhan was sweating from more than just heat now, but he managed to keep his voice from cracking. "All respect, my prince, but you're not hakan yet. Your father still holds the Horse Throne. And it's from his lips that this order came. We must bring you back or die in the attempt."
"I know which option I prefer," Roshad suggested.
Bors didn't answer, just stared expressionlessly down at the soldier. At last he stepped back and sheathed his sword.
"Then you'll bring us back," he said. "Both of us."
∗ ∗ ∗
They rode north from the Gate of Winds, the red sandstone walls of Karazh's capital shrinking rapidly behind them. Ahead, the steppe rolled off into eternity, the bunching hills like waves, giving the Grass Sea its name. It was still early summer, and everywhere was a carpet of green.
They road in silence, Bors and Roshad riding double on a mare commandeered from one of the warriors. Beneath his veils, Roshad did his best to match Bors's calm, to give nothing away to their captors, but inside his emotions roiled. All he'd ever wanted was to ride away from the city with Bors's arms locked tight around him, but not like this. Never like this.
The road curved around a low hill, and the camp came into view. Hundreds of tents and round-walled gers spread back through the shallow valley, their white felt walls gleaming. Long streams of colorful pennants flapped from every roof's apex like helmet plumes.
Between them moved horses—whole herds of them, of every color and description. Many were in use by the tribespeople, being groomed or trained or used to haul goods, but still more wandered seemingly unattended. Several came to investigate the new arrivals, and Roshad watched in fascination as the soldiers nodded to the animals as if they were sentries.
No one dismounted as they rode through the settlement. Several curious onlookers—humans, this time—stopped what they were doing to watch the procession, and Roshad felt their eyes on him. Bors's armor was similar enough to the soldiers' that he likely wouldn't have attracted attention even if these hadn't been his people, but Roshad's face-veil and wrappings were unmistakable. Even backwater nomads knew about the Iridian Fold. He searched the watching eyes for judgment, but found only that expressionless regard that so infuriated him on Bors.
In the center of the encampment, a small stone curtain wall six feet high marked the edge of the smaller tents and the beginning of a large ring of open space, bare save for the ubiquitous wandering horses. In its center stood a structure that Roshad couldn't properly call a tent, or even a pavilion. Walls of stone twenty feet high were capped by conical felt roofs, and smaller fabric outbuildings clustered around its sides in an amorphous explosion of canvas.
Erzhan must have caught his widened eyes, because he snickered. "Like that, city man? A gift from your Water Lords, who know how to pay proper respect to the horse tribes." He dismounted.
Bors and Roshad followed suit. Several of the soldiers looked like they might take hold of the prisoners, but Bors's glare drove them back, and they settled for spreading out ahead of and behind them. Erzhan took the lead, speaking to the two guards at the front door, who saluted with fists to chests and stood aside.
Inside, Roshad couldn't help but rubberneck. The hall they walked through might have been in any conventional castle or fortress, yet while some arches led off to similar corridors, others led into canvas tent-rooms, or simply out onto open grass, without so much as an awning.
"The Trade Palace is shared by all the horse tribes," Bors murmured. "The stone foundation came from the city, but your lords knew better than to presume what the tribes desire, or to build to any single han's specifications—even my father's. Whichever tribe resides here completes it as it sees fit, then breaks it down when they move on."
Roshad only nodded.
The corridor ended in a set of bronze doors, each embossed with a rearing stallion. Two more guards stood at attention there, but before Erzhan could speak, they caught sight of Bors and swung the doors wide.
Roshad expected a great hall, tall and dourly majestic, or perhaps a cushioned seraglio. Instead, he found himself in a tent—a stone-floored one, to be sure, but still little more than a larger version of the gers they'd passed on the way in. One wall was open, its canvas drawn back like curtains to reveal the sunlit grass of a parade ground where several people were at work training horses.
A wooden throne stood on a raised platform against the far wall, its arms and back carved into the shapes of horses. A man sat on that chair, facing out at the training yard. As the warriors entered, he turned.
Roshad froze, and might have taken a step back if not for Bors's hand on his arm.
The man on the chair was tall, his armor like Bors's but richer, the lacquered scales a deep burgundy. Stylized horseheads adorned the steel bracers on his forearms and the clasp that held the long fur mantle over his shoulders. Twin axes lay crossed in his lap, yet none of these were what took Roshad aback.
The face he turned to them was steel, molded into the long moustaches and beard of a patriarch. It extended from his conical helm down to his chin, where it met the chain coif around his neck. It was polished mirror-bright, turning the holes for his eyes into darkened pits.
A litchina. Gods above. Bors had shown Roshad his own war mask once, the smooth lines modeled on his own expressionless face. He carried it everywhere, but Roshad had never seen him wear it, as a Horse King wearing his litchina meant one thing, and one thing only.
He was ready to kill.
Hakan Temir Kaskyrbai stood, taking an axe in each hand. The steel-encased head nodded minutely, and the soldiers who had surrounded Bors and Roshad stepped back.
"So," the hakan said. "This is the man who would steal my kingdom."
Roshad groped frantically for a response, but Bors squeezed his arm warningly and spoke instead. "He steals nothing, Father."
"Doesn't he?" One axe rose to point at them. "I see a thief who would break my line, who would see the greatest of the tribes fall to internal bickering, and let some lesser han take the Horse Throne. And you, my only son," the axe head drew a line between them, "you chain yourself to him like a dog on a leash."
"Watch your words." Bors's tone was suddenly as hard as the hakan's, his face a mask of its own. "You are my lord and father, and I honor you with every breath, but you will not insult me again, nor the man that I've chosen."
A laugh, ringing behind steel. "Or what? You'll draw your sword and strike me down, here in the heart of the Trade Palace?" The hakan laughed again, but this time it sounded to Roshad like the mockery was turned inward. "Split hooves, boy, isn't that all I've ever asked?"
The hakan seated himself once more on the wooden throne. He waved one of the axes dismissively. "Leave us. And send in Ulzhan." Roshad started to turn, and the axe shot forward. "Not you."
A moment later, the three of them were alone, save for the trainers continuing unperturbed on the far grass. The metal face regarded Bors and Roshad silently for a long moment, and Roshad suddenly understood at a visceral level why the Horse Kings wore the litchinas. That blank, expressionless stare was more terrifying than any grimace or battle cry.
"The Iridian Fold," the hakan said at last.
"It's a noble calling," Bors said. "You've said so yourself, when Koshkin left to join them."
The hakan nodded. "So it is. And you think that matters?"
The question caught Bors short. "But—"
"How many great tribes are there, Bors?"
"And which is the greatest?"
"Kaskyrbai. The wolves of the steppe."
The hakan nodded. "You've known that all your life, haven't you?"
"And that's the problem." The hakan took both axes and set them down on the arm of the throne. "You're young, Bors. You've been raised as heir to the greatest of the tribes, but you didn't watch what your grandfather—my father—had to do to take the Horse Throne. I grew up in the middle of it, the blood and shit that coated the steppes. The hans of the other great tribe are as proud as us, boy. They cede us respect because they have to. Because I've kept us strong. But if we show any weakness, they'll slaughter us. And then they'll slaughter each other, until the last one to fall from his saddle and land on this wooden chair can call himself hakan."
Someone pounded once on the bronze doors, and the hakan looked up. "Enter."
The doors opened, and a woman stepped through. She was big—only a few inches shorter than Bors himself—and wore armor of brown and gray, topped by a fur-lined helm. A huge sheath on her back held a recurve bow, and a longsword swung at her waist. She spared Bors and Roshad only the briefest of glances as she stalked past and knelt at the foot of the platform. "Hakan."
"Rise, Ulzhan." The hakan gestured for her to ascend and take up a position next to the throne, and now Roshad felt the frank appraisal in her gaze. He was momentarily glad for his veil—he could never have matched the expressionlessness of these damned nomads.
The hakan spoke. "What's your name, city-man?"
The steel face bobbed agreeably.
"And are you perhaps the son of a Water Lord, Roshad? Or maybe a prince of the East with a thousand camels in your caravan? No, wait—you're the sixth reincarnation of Sogys Taramai, here to lead us all off the steppe and into the Land of No Winters."
Roshad felt his face burn, and only Bors's grip on his arm and the knowledge of a thousand horse warriors in the surrounding camp kept him from spreading his fingers and letting the fire flow, torching the old man with the metal face and the stupid, flammable throne.
Bors's voice was quiet. "I love him, Father. And he loves me."
"And I love you, boy." The hakan shook his head. "Which is why I'm giving you the chance to save his life."
"What?" Roshad and Bors spoke in unison. Even as the shock coursed through him, some small part of Roshad smiled to see how quickly he and his szerik were growing together.
The hakan waved at the warrior next to him. "You've known Ulzhan since you were a child, Bors. Her father was the greatest captain I ever had, and already she's nearly matched him—with the horses, with the bow, and as a combat leader."
The woman inclined her head slightly at the praise.
No wonder she's good with horses, Roshad thought, she's got the face of one. But of course that was just his anger speaking. In truth, the woman was unremarkable, save for her size and the way she stood like a crouching lion, ready to pounce.
"Tomorrow at dawn, you will slit palms and marry Ulzhan, binding your blood with hers. Then you'll take up the Succession Sword and strike me down. Together, with me to advise you, you and she will lead our tribe to greatness."
"And if I refuse?"
The hakan picked up one of his axes and pounded twice on the platform with its haft. Suddenly the doors were open, and the room was full of dark-eyed steppe warriors.
"Then your city-man dies, and you marry her anyway."
"Bors!" Roshad grabbed tight to the man's arm, but his szerik paid him no attention. The bigger man's gaze was fixed on the hakan.
"I was born to be hakan," Bors said. "And you would make me a slave."
"All kings are slaves." The hakan sighed, then reached up and pulled off his litchina. The man beneath it was surprisingly young—no more than twenty years older than Bors, with plenty of black still in his long mustaches. He had the face of a hard man, yet the gaze that met Bors's was strangely soft.
"We both knew this was coming, Bors. I'm glad you found love, and I let you play as long as I could. But it's time to grow up."
Bors said nothing. The silence carried.
Roshad ran frantically through escape scenarios. Fire, that was good—fire scared people, called out to the animal instincts in them. He'd flame the old bastard—or better yet, the tent canopy above them, set the whole palace on fire. While the soldiers scrambled to put it out, he and Bors would race out the open side-wall, leap onto the horses that were being trained, then gallop through the camp and back to the city before anyone could stop them. Once there, they could hole up until a suitably large caravan was leaving the city, then—
Bors reached up to his chest and disconnected the chain, handing the end back to Roshad.
Roshad did his best not to grin beneath his veil. He and Bors only removed their chain when they were about to pull a particularly tricky stunt. He readied the spell.
"It's over, Roshad."
Roshad looked up at Bors. The man wasn't reaching for his sword. He wasn't tensing to move. Just looking down at him, mouth drawn tight. "What?"
"He's right. This time that we've had... I would have loved to be your szerik. But I have to do this."
"Right. Of course." Roshad searched Bors's face, looking for something—anything. This had to be a diversion, to catch the soldiers off guard. Later, Bors would kiss his brow and apologize for having said such a thing, even as a front.
But Bors was shaking his head. "No tricks, Roshad. Not this time. The city is your world, and I love you for showing it to me. But this is mine."
Gods, could he actually mean it? Roshad's stomach lurched. "I won't leave you." Smoke began to rise from his clenched fists. "I'm not scared of them."
"This isn't about fear." Bors's face was the same mask as the others, but now his eyes, always so full of emotion and expression for Roshad, held something indecipherable. "If you ever loved me, you won't make anyone hurt you." He took Roshad's head in his hands, and leaned down, pulling their foreheads together.
"Go now, Rabbit. Please. For me."
Then he let go and stepped backward, becoming one with the mass of soldiers. A sea of blank faces stared back at Roshad.
"If he's still here in three breaths," the hakan said to his soldiers, "shoot him."
Then tears blurred the scene, and Roshad turned and fled.
Coming Next Week: Desperate measures in Chapter Three of James L. Sutter's "Boar and Rabbit"!
James L. Sutter is the Managing Editor for Paizo Publishing and a co-creator of the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. He is the author of the Pathfinder Tales novels Death's Heretic and The Redemption Engine, the former of which was #3 on Barnes & Noble's list of the Best Fantasy Releases of 2011 and a finalist for the Compton Crook Award for Best First Novel. He's written short stories for such publications as Escape Pod, Apex Magazine, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and the #1 Amazon best-seller Machine of Death. His anthology Before They Were Giants pairs the first published short stories of science fiction luminaries with new interviews and writing advice from the authors themselves. In addition, he's published a wealth of gaming material for both Dungeons & Dragons and the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, including such fan-favorite Pathfinder Campaign Setting books as Distant Worlds and City of Strangers. For more information, check out jameslsutter.com or follow him on Twitter at @jameslsutter.
Illustration by Eric Belisle