Interlude

Azhara’d ibn Fadil ibn Karim ibn Rashadi al-Hakim stepped into the Sultan’s throne room. It was a vision of the Middle East wrest from the pages of a children’s storybook, a vast and empty chamber with a marble floor and bulbous, ivory-white columns that looked out across a fabricated view of rolling desert sands. It was not the world Azhara’d knew. It was not the world he loved.

The Sultan himself sat slouched atop his throne, an elaborate golden chair perched between the tusks of an oversized elephant skull. His night guard stood fanned out on either side of him, the tips of their gold-encrusted sabres peeking out from beneath their earthen shawls. As had been the case for the previous three mornings, Azhara’d was the first of the day guard to arrive. He did not like to be late.

“Ah, Azhara’d,” the Sultan lifted a hand in greeting, “good morning! I trust you slept well?”

Azhara’d nodded a reply. Much like his surroundings, the Sultan was nothing but a fraud, a man basking in glories that did not belong to him. It was not unexpected; while others had fled underground, abandoning their history and sacrificing their culture to spare their lives from cataclysm, Azhara’d’s ancestors chose to fight for their freedom. While others cowered in the shadows, they rose up against the lies of Kimah and Pleiades, refused the salvation of the Seven Sisters, and saw that the walls of Tiferet came tumbling down. Their name, their history, their customs carried a weight and an influence others would claim for themselves, knowing well that the average person, raised in darkness, was ignorant to the truth. Sultan? A real Sultan would have brought down the towers of Avalon, not supported them. A real Sultan would have freed his people from slavery, not given them the chains to bind themselves. A real Sultan would have joined Azhara’d in his morning prayer, not lazed upon his throne, waiting for the day to begin.

Such ignorance, however, was to Azhara’d’s advantage. It had not taken him long to earn his place at the Sultan’s side. He was a paranoid man who valued strength above all else. Old enough to have streaks of grey in his cropped beard, yet young enough that he believed the world owed him some great destiny, Khurshid Sultan (whether that was a title or an awkward attempt at a name, Azhara’d did not want to know) had ruled over Bolventor for all of six months — and, from what Azhara’d had learned, six months was considered an achievement.

Within half an hour, the day guard had taken up their positions and the Sultan’s advisors were kneeling at his feet. As always, the meeting began with talk of finances, of gambling profits and market trends, and vague metaphors for more questionable business ventures. Business was good, they said. Exports were high.

As discussion meandered on recent security breaches, Azhara’d felt the air next to his ear shimmer, the aether bend into the shape of a seahorse.

“I have to admit,” said Natalia Espinosa, her voice reaching into his thoughts, “I underestimated those kids.”

Azhara’d betrayed no outward sign of their conversation. “Or, perhaps, you overestimated local security,” he replied. “Our students play a dangerous game.”

“I’ve got my eyes on them, don’t you worry. We all have.”

And one of them in particular.

This interlude is also long enough to span two pages.

I spent ages researching Persian and Iranian architecture to try and get an image in my head of this guy’s throne room, but then I realised it was supposed to be inaccurate, so I just watched Disney’s Aladdin instead.