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"There should have been a sunset painted red, a blood moon, or a shower of falling stars. There should have been howls at dawn and portents over the temple skies."

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Anjur is a nation long held captive. Under the yoke of a neighbouring empire, their only chance at freedom lies with their Ajani, the champion set to battle Dailn’s chosen Warrior. But when the Ajani and his family are murdered, only one survivor remains to pick up his spear.

Suali–the Ajani’s older sister–middle-aged, trans, and never raised to be a hero, has become her country’s only hope.

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This story was originally published in an anthology a few years back, but I wanted to share it more widely now that I have the chance to do so! You can find it here for a small price if you want to download it on Kindle (sorry I couldn’t set it for free, but Amazon didn’t let me!) or you can just read it here. And, if you enjoy it for free on here, I have a Ko-Fi set up if you feel like sending me a little treat. Oh, and it’s up on Goodreads and Storygraph, for those of you who like to keep track of things! Anyway, without further ado, enjoy the story!

“You are too old for this, my friend.”

Anjay’s voice was as soft as his footsteps, though the rattle of the tea set betrayed his approach. Suali had known he would come. It had been as certain as the setting of the sun.

“Perhaps.” Her voice was halting and thick with grief. “But I have magic. As did my mother, and her mother, and her mother’s mother before her. Magic was never meant for men alone, and it is time this is acknowledged.”

She heard him shuffle behind her, putting the room to rights. Her oldest friend had never fully shed the habits of his previous station, and no amount of admonishment on her part had ever helped. She had learnt to accept that he would always bring her tea and tidy her pillows.

When he came to settle by her side at the window, Suali fell back against the cushions. He wore a caftan and loose pants that would have looked plain if she’d not had her tailor make them, embroidering the neckline and cuffs in gold to offset the dark brown of his skin, and going some way toward softening the severity of his beard.

“They will say things about you, Suali. Unkind things.”

Suali knew the truth of his words. He took her hand, a gesture of fondness allowed by age if not station, and she let her eyes fall closed.

“And once, as a young woman, I would have cared. But their words will not hurt me. I have learned to love myself and have been loved in ways their closed hearts may never understand.” The grief weighed down her words. The goal ahead of her would carry her through such sadness, but it was an intangible strength.

“You are still a young woman,” Anjay whispered, leaning to kiss her hand.

She laughed, her chest loosening by a degree. “You are a terrible flatterer, Anjay. I am too old to pretend. Look—even my hair agrees.” She pointed at her temples, where her black curls were turning to grey.

“I went white when I was still in my twenties,” he countered. “You cannot use your hair as an excuse.”

“I am almost fifty, I think old is catching up with me rather faster than either of us expected.”

She saw his smile as she turned back to the window then caught her reflection in the panes of glass that now gave onto night. Her grief was evident in her lack of make-up, the offending shadow at her jawline, and the unrestrained coils of black hair framing her face. Even with her father’s deep brown skin, she looked like her mother: a striking woman with skin so black as to shine silver in moonlight and full lips made for smiling.

“You are still beautiful, Suali. Like the finest wine you get better with age.”

She laughed again, surprised by how easily the sound came.

“And you are still a terrible poet.”

“You would not have told Ulnar that, if he had said such things to you,” he protested jokingly.

“That is true, but he had married me and earned the right to be a less than competent poet.”

Anjay shook his head sadly. “He would tell you not to do this, Suali. He would tell you to keep yourself safe, to keep your secret like your mother and all your ancestors. The people… They are not ready. They will not accept a woman as their Ajani. The king will see to that.”

Tiredness and grief tugged her lips downwards. Beyond her reflection in the window she glimpsed the stars. When her gaze found Anjay’s again, her eyes were filled with determination.

“I will not give them a choice.”

***

 

There should have been a sunset painted red, a blood moon, or a shower of falling stars. There should have been howls at dawn and portents over the temple skies. There should have been blood. Broken vases and upturned chairs. Disturbed furniture. Torn clothes.

But there had been nothing.

A day ago, the clear night had been punctuated only by a child’s coughing, the moon bright as he struggled to sleep. Sunrise as beautiful as always – so common as to go unnoticed – the skies painted in familiar hues of blue and orange and pink.

In the aftermath, nothing was out of place. The bowl of bright blue water-lilies undisturbed on the table. Her brother’s sword and spear on the rack by the door, polished and resplendent, the morning sunlight glinting on the metal. Nooa’s jewellery in its display cabinet. Scrolls piled on Jakir’s bedside table, as though his voracious appetite for knowledge could somehow keep sleep at bay.

When Suali entered the bedchamber, wondering why Nooa had not come to check on her son, she had thought nothing amiss. The woman’s eyes were closed, her face peaceful, her husband’s arm around her as they slept. It had taken Suali too long to realise it was not sleep, but a macabre mimicry of it. No soft rise and fall of breath, no gentle sighs. There had been nothing.

She had screamed until the guards came, until Anjay pulled her away, his arms surprisingly strong. She had run to the children’s rooms then, but Ayuu and the twins were as still as their father and stepmother, teenage bodies frozen in time and death.

Only little Jaypoor lived, Nooa’s only child, six years old and ill with an Eastern fever that had already claimed many lives. Jaypoor would live – he had to – but he had no family left other than his aunt. In the midst of her pain, his survival was a balm on her soul.

Suali wasn’t sure where she’d found the strength to come back to her brother’s bedchamber. Incense now burned at the corners, candles holding back the night, silent guides for Jakir’s and Nooa’s souls so they may find their way into the afterlife.

 She ached to speak to Jakir, to reminisce about their training, the way she had always bested him with a spear as he bested her with a sword. She wanted to speak of the dragon magic that slept inside their souls, waiting only for them to reach for it. She wanted to speak of the armour that had once been meant for her to wear.

Until the day she had spoken her truth, that she was no man but a woman. They had accepted her, but she’d had to abandon the armour and the spear, foregoing her sword and the sparring matches with her little brother. She had set down instruments of war and picked up musical ones instead. She had loved them fiercely, with their beautiful melodies, but she had never entirely been content in what she had lost.

Suali hesitated as she reached for her brother’s spear. Their family’s spear. It should have been hers. If her people had recognised women as everything they could be, then she would have been the Ajani, not Jakir.

Now, she had to make them see. They would have to recognise her power, or they would fall. The tournament against Dailn was only three weeks away, the freedom of her people hanging by a thread.

It had been a hundred years since the war, a wound kept raw and weeping by the treaty’s cruel terms. Ajnur had been losing–had still lost–but the strength of the warrior they’d been gifted by the dragon-god’s grace had been almost enough.

The Ajani had appeared amidst a battle more akin to a slaughter, turning the tide with new, sacred magic, with prowess to rival Dailn’s enhanced warriors. He had been striking and powerful, enough to earn a victory and the respect of his enemy. Dailn, who honoured strength above all else, had offered the warrior a duel. A chance for Ajnur to prove itself at last.

It had not been meant to bring a true end to the war, only a truce. Though if Ajnur could prove themselves a hundred times over, if the Ajani could demonstrate their strength was no passing whim, then there would be both peace and freedom. But where the Ajani had to win a hundred times, Dailn needed only a single victory to triumph.

For a hundred years bar one, the Ajani had always been victorious, their spear and magic enough to fell even the mightiest foe.

This year was the final year, the final victory, and the taste of freedom had been on everyone’s tongue, the brightness of it in everyone’s eyes.

Only Jakir Davaamhati, the last Ajani, was dead, and so was his eldest son. Suali had no doubt that she and Jaypoor would be dead too, if not for the boy’s fever that had kept them away from the dinner table that night. A poisoned meal meant to take them all.

Suali closed her hand around the spear’s shaft, her magic waking at the feel of the sacred metal. She knew its song well, though it had been quiet for years. She had no words for how it filled her, bolstered her. She knew only that it was time. Time to reclaim all of herself. Time to free her country once and for all.

***

 

The King would not see her. He had made it quite clear that a grieving woman’s place was not amongst men, and certainly not at court. Grieving women were unseemly things that should keep themselves and their tears where they would not disrupt anyone. Suali had crumpled the message that told her just that, her face impassive while inside her rage burnt cold and hard, shaping itself into courage and determination. Anjay had wanted to come with her, but Suali knew she needed to do this alone. She could not afford to show even a shred of weakness in this upcoming battle.

It was morning, early enough that Court would not be in full swing yet, but not so early that there would be no-one to bear witness. She had shaved, styled her hair with an elegant silver band, and wrapped herself in a white gown for mourning and a red sash for battle. Under her slit skirts she wore cuffed pants, and at her wrists her bangles sang with every step.

Suali felt the gazes falling on her as she crossed the palace, curious and shocked, outraged and appalled. She did not return their looks. Her pace clipped but calm, her eyes focused ahead.

The guards at the audience chamber’s door fell back when they saw what she carried. They knew better than to stand in the way of the one who could wield it. She opened the doors herself, stepping into the room.

She had always adored the audience chamber, with its gilded walls and mosaic floor shining in the sunlight pouring in through the glass roof. Water ran around the room from the fountain-throne, cooling the air. Columns flanked the sides, colourful chiffon curtains hanging between them and fluttering in the breeze.

A murmur went through the assembled crowd, the courtiers falling quiet as their eyes went wide with shock. Some tried to step forward but Suali did not so much as glance at them, not stopping until she stood at the foot of the steps to the throne. She did not kneel, even when the King’s eyes hardened, his fury barely contained. The Ajani never knelt.

“What are you doing here, woman?”

She scowled. “I asked for an audience, your Majesty.”

“Your request was denied.”

“You had no right to deny it.”

The crowd gasped. The King all but snarled. Tujnathi was her junior by fifteen years. She remembered well the nightmare he had been as a child. His parents had forgiven him everything as his tutors and nurses struggled to school some discipline into him.

Tujnathi had always resented the power her family wielded. He’d hated that the Ajani was all but worshipped as a demi-god, his family allowed to live in the palace and enjoy all the luxuries reserved for the nobles. For all they were heroes, the Davaamhati were not of noble blood. The first Ajani had been a commoner boy and, for all the praise and luxury they were afforded, they had never received a title. The Kings had assumed it would keep them controlled.

“You are grieving, woman, and your mind is muddled. Get yourself back to your quarters before I have you removed for disturbing Court.”

The thudding of the spear’s butt against the stone floor was the only answer Suali deigned to give. Magic rippled around the room, reversing the flow of the water, and holding the curtains still. Suali released her spell after a few seconds, her eyes hard.

“The tournament is in three weeks, Majesty, and my nephew is too young to fight. Without an Ajani, we will lose and fall under Dailn’s control. I may be old, and I may not have trained in a long time, but magic is in my blood. It has always been in the blood of my family, of my mother and her mother before her.”

More gasps echoed. It was folly for a woman to claim she had magic. But she had just demonstrated her powers. She knew what they would say, like Anjay had warned, but for now there was only silence.

“We do not need an Ajani to win this ridiculous tournament!” the King snapped. “I have my own champion. We will no longer require your family’s services once we are free, so I would advise you pack your bags sooner rather than later.”

Suali’s blood went cold. The King had another champion in mind? For how long had this folly possessed him? “You cannot do this,” she said, voice wavering. “You do not understand the power the warriors of Dailn possess. If one of our own fights and they are not an Ajani, then we cannot win!”

“Enough! I did not ask for the opinion of a woman. This year we will be free of Dailn and we shall do it by the power of our own strength.” His eyes were cruel when they looked at her. “Your family always wanted glory,” he added in a low voice. “I know you all lust after this throne. I have taken steps to ensure it never happens. I will show the kingdom that I am the strongest ruler they could have hoped for and they will put all their faith in me.”

Suali said nothing, forcing her back to stay straight. The glint in his eyes told her everything she needed to know. Only there was nothing she could do. No vengeance she could take. It would not bring her family back either way. She did not take her eyes off the King.

“I suppose your Majesty will do what he thinks best. Let’s hope that the gods who once kept us from the tyranny of Dailn are still kind enough to smile upon us even as we act like foolish children.”

Before the King could speak, Suali turned, the spear once more striking the floor, magic rippling from her. She walked out, head held high even as tears pricked her eyes. She would not give him that. She would give him nothing.

Instead, she would give everything to her country.

***

 

“What madness has taken him? He won’t even say who he’s sending!”

Suali would have been shouting if not for the six-year-old asleep next to her. Sharul—Anjay’s husband—sat opposite her, cooling the child’s forehead with a cloth. Anjay was pouring tea, clicking his tongue in displeasure.

“Anjay if you say ‘I told you so’ I will…”

“You will what?” he asked, depositing a cup next to her.

“I don’t know. I’ll have to think about it.”

Sharul chuckled, and Suali wanted to pretend that everything was normal. But even if she could, the sobbing from the adjacent room would have shattered the scene. Ayuu’s fiancée, Lheena, had come from the city the second she had heard the news. Her keening and tears had filled the halls since. At seventeen, she thought her world had ended.

Suali couldn’t blame the girl, remembering all too well the intensity of her emotions at that age. She had given her a place to stay until the funeral, knowing that she would now also have to worry about her future. Marrying into the Davaamhati family would have guaranteed her a good life, but all that was gone now.

Suali sighed, stroking Jaypoor’s hair gently.

“I need to find someone to practice with.” In the silence, her voice was too loud.

“Suali,” Anjay started, “the King will not let you fight. What good will training do you?”

“He will not have a choice.”

“He has made his choice, my friend,” Sharul said, voice thick with sadness. “He will not permit your family to triumph over Dailn. He fears for his power, fears that if an Ajani wins Ajnur’s freedom, he will lose the crown. He does not see that your family has no interest in ruling.”

Suali passed a hand through her curls, seeking comfort in the familiar gesture. The grief weighed heavily on her, taking a toll not of tears but of energy. Tears had been her companion when her husband had died. Now there was no time for them. She missed Ulnar dearly in that moment, wondering what he would have told her to do. What would he have thought of her suspicions?

She knew the answer to the former question, if not the latter.

Always be yourself, my sunshine bloom, no matter how the world looks at you. You owe them nothing, but you owe yourself everything.

On another day, Suali would have smiled at the memory of how he had loved her without question when she was still trying to learn to love herself, but on this day her lips were stiff with repressed sorrow.

“I cannot let him doom us all. My brother, my father, his father… So many have fought for this day to come. I won’t let it go to waste. Magic is not only for men, the gods always had more sense than that, and it’s about time we did too.”

Sharul and Anjay exchanged a glance before a gasp from the doorway drew their gaze. Lheena stood there, one hand held out to Suali. The smallest flame burning within her palm.

“You too?” she asked, voice trembling, not with fear, but with hope.

Suali smiled.

***

 

Mourning was made no easier by clear skies and the languid energy of hot summer days. There was no comfort to be found in the light when your beloved dead were waiting for the pyres to take them. There was no time to mourn when the future of your country rested in your hands. The three days leading up to the funeral had been long and agonising. Jaypoor’s fever had broken on the morning of the third day, only a few hours before the pyres were due to be lit.

The subdued tears of adults had been replaced by the wailing of a child that still echoed in Suali’s ears, his distress breaking what was left of her heart. None of this should have happened. There should not have been an orphan boy in a palace devoid of its Ajani.

 Everyone who was anyone had come to the funeral: nobles and decorated officers, Radiants from the highest temples, ministers and favoured artists. The pyres were set on the terraced roof of the central palace, a place reserved for the deaths of royalty and nobility. Around the palace, people gathered, faces filled with worry. They knew their fate was uncertain now. The fear in their eyes fuelled Suali’s determination

Five pyres for five bodies, wrapped in white cloth as the sun set behind the mountain, stars blinking to life overhead. Five pyres for five lives lost. Five pyres for five sorrows like so many weights in her soul. Five pyres, and five betrayals.

Suali would never look at the world or at her King the same way. For she knew a truth that could not be spoken without risking the lives of all she loved. Standing by the pyres, Suali did not cry, did not break down and weep like others might have done. She was Ajani, and tears would have to wait.

Still, she thought it should have been easier to grieve with all the practice she’d had. Her youngest sister, her parents, her husband, and, of course, friends. But grief, she had learnt–and it seemed, was still learning–was not a skill. Grief was an emotion, and as such, could not be practised. Set aside, yes. Ignored, yes. But not mastered, not without ripping away a part of yourself.

Anjay and Sharul were not far behind her, their presence a reassurance. Lheena was further back, her grief made worse by the lack of recognition it received. No-one wanted to see the pain of an unmarried girl.

Suali did not remember being handed the torch, but the rough wood was in her hand.

She stepped forward, first to her brother’s pyre. Heat washed over her. She wished it would burn away her grief as the sound of flames rushed through her. All it burnt was her foolish hope that this was a nightmare she could wake from.

She whispered soft words for Nooa, whose own family had already embarked on their final voyage. Tears almost fell when Ayuu’s pyre burnt bright, Maliah’s and Sana’s shining in all the ways they never could.

Afterwards, the evening became a blur of condolences and mourning gifts she neither needed nor wanted. So many hollow words. She felt dazed, lost. She watched Jaypoor stand, unflinching, by the pyres, tears staining his face. The boy had been forever changed, and she only hoped she would know how to guide him through his pain, anger, and sorrow in the coming years.

If she survived.

The thought struck her like a blow, and she turned away, going to lean over the railing, taking in the crowd below. Candles and torches lit up the city, each light someone’s prayer. Her hand went to her throat, to the metal disc stamped with the Ajani’s symbol that she had claimed from her brother’s body. She felt old and tired, alone in this battle. But looking at those lights, thinking of all the lives below, Suali found a new strength. This had never been about her. It wasn’t even about Ajnur when taken as lines drawn on a map: it had always been about the people of Ajnur. Suali left the funeral without another word, disappearing like a white-clad ghost back inside the palace.

She would not fail her people.

***

 

Grief, Suali had long since learnt, was like a well-trained dog capable of sitting to one side if commanded to, waiting for its master’s attention. Much as a dog, you could not so easily get rid of it, but you could train it to not bother you until you were ready to interact with it. Suali was most definitely not ready, so the dog sat banished in the corner.

Her travel bag was packed, waiting on her desk, her case already in the carriage. She would not spend another night in the palace. She didn’t trust the King not to act against her. She had neither drunk nor eaten anything that had not been part of the buffet, and already she could feel a veil of paranoia falling over her. She needed to leave.

When Lheena was shown in, Suali had been by the window, seeking solace in the moonlight. Both of them still wore their mourning dresses, white now stained with smoke and ash, Lheena’s face streaked with kohl.

“My lady?”

“We are leaving the palace tonight,” Suali told her, each word measured and practised. She turned from the window, slipping the box inside the bag. “The essentials have already been packed and are waiting on the carriage. We are going to my family’s winter estate.”

“You wish me to come with you?”

“Why would I not? It is hardly proper for me to leave alone, and it would only seem suspicious. Further, you need the space to learn and control that fire of yours. You’ll make a decent training partner.” Suali held the girl’s gaze to show that she was entirely serious.

Lheena’s features cycled through several emotions, all underlined by grief, before settling on anxious excitement. Suali did not miss the way the girl glanced down at her hands, at the power they held. It was time, at last, to break free of the rules she had always hated.

***

There was no time for rest in the arena.

Suali ached to the very tips of her hair and fingernails, yet she refused to lower the spear and ask for a break. The heat was sweltering but she had been born to it, to a mother who hailed from a realm of endless summer. It was in her blood, like the magic, and Suali kept pushing.

Mual, who had come to train her, was older than her still, but he had not spent the last decades tending to gardens and living the soft life of a noble woman. He was still as corded with muscles as Suali remembered him, as towering as always. His thick black mane had been replaced by baldness, but his eyes were just as sharp and alive. Few others could have trained an Ajani and she remembered still how he had handled her and her brother when they were younger.

“Left arm up, you’re dropping your guard!”

He lunged at her and she barely had the time to adjust her grip before his sword was clashing against the spear. He was using a Dailnish weapon, and the weight of it almost sent her reeling back. But she kept her footing, twisting the spear to dislodge the sword, whirling the butt around to catch him in the head. She was too slow, and he moved out of the way, but it was progress at least.

“Lady Davaamhati,” Lheena’s voice echoed around the courtyard. Suali and Mual separated.

“What is it, Lheena?” Suali asked.

“The armourer is here. She said she knows she’s a day early, but she wanted you to have it as soon as possible.”

A tired smile painted itself over Suali’s face. A little over a week to go and now her armour waited for her. There was a flutter of excitement, almost enough to eclipse the fear. The responsibility on her shoulders was hard to ignore. The cost of failure terrifying.

“Let’s see this armour, shall we? And hope I can still stand once I am in it.”

Mual laughed. “You are doing better than you think. You were never about strength anyway, even when you were younger.”

“But I used to be faster,” Suali pointed out as they stepped back inside the estate, windows wide open and inside shutters closed in an attempt to keep the heat out.

The armourer was a tall woman with skin darker even than Suali’s and arms as thick as her thighs. She was standing next to a mannequin covered by a canvas sheet. Suali felt her heart skip a beat. At first, she had gone to the woman asking only for amendments to her brother’s armour; but the armourer had taken one look at Suali and then the armour before declaring it would be useless. She could make something better from scratch.

Suali had accepted, although not without reservations. The armourer grinned at her in place of a bow, giving her the same appraising look but this time, it had nothing to do with armour-making, as far as Suali could tell. It wasn’t exactly a look she disliked, though it had been a very long time since she received such a glance.

“It is ready?” Suali asked.

Adjua only nodded, pulling the canvas off the mannequin in one fluid motion. Suali gasped, a trembling hand to her lips.

It was everything she could have dreamt of and more. Tentatively she stepped up to it, laying a hand on the beautiful craftsmanship. The woman’s talent should have made her worthy of being a royal armourer.

“It’s perfect,” she whispered, voice thin, eyes moist with tears she had not expected. “It’s absolutely perfect.”

“Let’s get you in it, shall we?” Mual said, and Suali had never been so certain she was on the right path.

***

 

The tournament was not going well. The King’s champion was no match for the enhanced warriors of Dailn, men and women ordained for battle by the stars and given potions and concoctions to prepare them from childhood. In his box, the King had a white-knuckled grip on the arms of his throne. Across the duelling ground, Dailn’s Emperor smiled almost sadly as victory danced in his icy blue eyes. The Ajnurians had escaped Dailn’s conquest for nearly a hundred years, but nearly wouldn’t be good enough. With their Ajani dead, there was no way they could win. Soon, this realm would belong to Dailn, another neighbour fallen to their conquest.

Ajnur’s champion fell to his knees, left arm bleeding, helmet knocked off. His face was gaunt, drawn with pain, eyes filled with the realisation of his failure. There would be no victory or glory for him. There would be no freedom for his people. The Dailn warrior lifted his sword for the final blow, his movements almost hesitant.

“Enough!”

Magic rippled through the space, sending the banners fluttering. The crowd gasped. Both monarchs were on their feet, eyes wide as a burst of flames cut a path through the barricades into the arena. Through the smoke a figure appeared, stepping slowly out the flames.

The armour looked like it came out of a legend: blue tinged metal shaped like dragon scales covered the figure from head to toe. Every scale was beautifully shaped and polished, allowing for smooth, fluid motion. The helmet was a beautiful piece in the likeness of a dragon’s head. Only the impression of a curve at the breast indicated that it was a woman wearing this armour.

As the warrior stepped into the duelling ground, another silhouette emerged from the smoke behind her. This woman wore no armour, but her dress was like a living flame, her hair pinned up in an elaborate, coiling braid. Between her hands danced something she should not have possessed: magic.

The crowd was stunned and silent. Dailn’s champion stood motionless, the final blow waiting to fall.

“Who are you?” Emperor Jortek demanded, his voice holding back his anger far less efficiently than his expression.

The newcomer did not remove her helmet as she turned to face him.

“I am Ajani Suali Davaamhati. I stand here as Ajnur’s champion.”

“Your champion is already in the arena!” the Emperor bellowed. “And about to lose his fight.”

“That is no champion of my people,” Suali replied, her voice sure. Behind her, Lheena held her fire ready. If she needed to, she would stop Dailn’s warrior from ending a fight against the treaty’s rules. “He is but a soldier sent to his death. When the treaty was signed, it was agreed that the strongest Dailn warrior would fight against Ajnur’s Ajani. Those were the terms set and they shall be the terms respected. This man,” she pointed at the noble clutching his wounded arm, “is no Ajani. He possesses no magic in his blood and does not wield the spear of the dragon. He is not the man your champion was due to fight. That fight, if you would call it that, was nothing but a farce you allowed yourself to participate in.”

The Emperor paled, jaw clenched. Suali saw in his eyes that he had more honour than her own King. He would not break the terms of the treaty. Such a victory would mean nothing. It would risk a war no-one wanted.

“What say you, King Tujnathi?” Jortek’s voice carried easily over the arena. “What explanation do you give for trying to make me breach the terms of the treaty? Was this to be a trick so you may wage war against my people?”

Suali did not turn to her King. She could not bear to look at him. Her vision would only be filled by the flames of the pyres that had taken her family.

“I believed the Ajani line dead!” he exclaimed, his voice almost hysterical. “Women cannot possess magic. They cannot be Ajani!”

Lheena stepped forward, facing the king. Three weeks of training had made her bolder, taught her to hold her head high.

“Then how would you explain this, my King?”

Suali felt the heat of the flames as they roared to life in Lheena’s hands. At the same time, Suali slammed the spear down on the ground, letting her power ripple out for a second time — the way Ajani had always demonstrated their power. There were tentative cheers from her people.

“This woman does seem like an Ajani to me,” Jortek said, voice edged with a respect Suali had not expected. He turned back to her. “Women fight as well as men in my country, Suali Davaamhati. Where we first came from, not fighting meant not surviving. I will not forbid you this duel just as I will not allow myself to break the terms of a treaty signed by my ancestors. Our word, once given, cannot be taken back. We promised your people freedom if you could prove yourself stronger than us for a hundred years, and so it will be.” He turned back to the arena, motioning for some soldiers at the edges. “Remove the impostor and prepare the fighting space!”

Suali smiled. It was time.

***

 

Suali had known she needed to keep the fight short. She was older, less practised. She would tire more easily, her weaknesses becoming obvious as time passed. She threw herself into the fight with a ferocity fuelled by grief, by the betrayal that had rent her heart. She was the dragon-god given life, her magic bright and strong, her spear sure in her hands. As weapons clashed, she whispered their names under her breath.

Jakir.

Nooa.

Ayuu.

Maliah.

Sana.

She fought for them. She fought for Lheena. For Anjay and Sharul. For Jaypoor, who would grow up an orphan. But he would have her. He would have his country. He would have everything she could give him.

She fought because something deep within her soul had always known this day would come. A vicious, hurting part of her had always waited, craving to be unleashed. Now, she gave it free rein.

Her armour of dragon scales caught the light, almost blinding as she whirled and pushed herself, thrusting her spear and parrying, ready to take advantage of every moment of weakness. She could tell the Dailn champion was surprised. He stumbled here and there, off his game as his guard faltered. Fighting an Ajani was not like fighting anyone else. They were faster, stronger, their magic shaping them for battle. When Suali saw her final opening, she lunged for it. No more than ten minutes had passed, but she could feel herself tire. Some part of her, beyond her exhaustion, noted that her opponent’s surprise looked more like hesitation, as though he was holding back. But Suali did not stop to think, instead slamming into him, sending his sword tumbling and his helmet flying off as he fell to the ground. The point of her spear came to rest at his throat.

The world held its breath as she looked down at the blond warrior beneath her. He was young enough that he could have been her son. He held her gaze with clear blue eyes as he faced his death. There was no regret in his eyes, even though he was about to pay with his life.

“Do it,” he whispered, and in the complete silence she wondered how far his words carried. “Be free.”

The crowd was waiting with bated breath for her to end it. For the fate of a people to be decided.

Freedom was a single stroke away. But it would be a freedom paid for in blood. A hundred lives lost because people never learnt, never changed.

Suali raised her spear. The young warrior didn’t close his eyes or flinch, not even when her spear planted itself in the ground next to his head. In the shocked silence, she could have sworn she heard relieved sobs.

“What are you doing?” Tujnathi shouted. Suali did not acknowledge him, instead facing the Dailn Emperor who stood, eyes a little too wide.

“Will you recognise my victory and free Ajnur at last?” Her voice was thunder in the silence.

The Emperor pulled himself up, hesitating but for a moment. She saw it now: the blue eyes, the sharp jawline, the cut of the nose. She did not need to look back at the fallen warrior to know who he was.

She understood then why he had seemed to be holding back. He had been made for battle, and yet he had chosen peace instead.

He could not have lost against a mere man, for it would not have been believable, and he had been ready enough to strike down his first opponent. But against the Ajani, it was virtually expected that he would lose. She liked to think she would have won even if he hadn’t held himself back, but it hardly mattered now.

“I will. Ajani Suali Davaamhati, on this day you have won the hundredth battle against the Champions of Dailn and won your realm’s freedom from us. But not only did you win, you showed mercy for an enemy. Know that my family forever owes you a debt, and that too, shall never be forgotten.

“Today, for the last time, our countries have fought. Today, this arena should have seen blood, but instead you chose to show us a better way forward.”

The silence broke into raucous applause. Suali’s name was cheered and “Ajani” became a chant. She did not turn to face Tujnathi, but instead turned and held her hand out to the young man behind her. She pulled him to his feet. He was grinning, the smile splitting his face in two. In his clear blue eyes, Suali saw the future of their nations, a future made of children far wiser than their parents could ever have imagined.

Then Lheena had her arms around her, holding her close, and Suali embraced her tightly.

“I always thought it strange that Ajnur women did not have power,” the young man said.

“We were simply not allowed,” Lheena replied, detaching herself from Suali.

“What changed?”

“She did,” Lheena said, gesturing at Suali. “She changed it all.”

Suali allowed herself a smile. “It is only the beginning. And I did not do this alone,” she said nodding at Lheena before turning to walk away, from the crowd and the cheers.

She left behind two young people who might form a friendship on the ghost of a battlefield. As she walked, she pulled her helmet off and, at last, Suali let her tears fall.

END

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