Into the tent of the great sultan, Suleil al-Malekhar, Khahid the Invincible strode, sword and knife on his hip; so trusted was he that he might carry a blade before the great Suleil. The guards had left them alone. For against Khahid the Invincible, they were like the carpet: to be trod upon without forethought.
The great Suleil approached Khahid the Invincible, slaughterer of the Gehi and Oh tribes, waste-layer of the Meliqi kingdom, destroyer of the horsemen of the Eastern steppes. Khahid, who had been invincible for longer than the great Suleil himself had been sultan, knelt. At which point the great Suleil, who was great in name only for he had never known combat, punched Khahid in the temple, felling him.
“Are you mad?” asked the great Suleil, shaking his hand.
“Eminence?” Khahid, who had never been defeated in battle — hence the title of so little words — spoke with his usual reverence. But behind it was something delicate as a woman’s thigh that suggested he already knew he was no longer invincible, especially after this encounter with the great Suleil, a light-framed man of no physical importance.
“I asked if you were mad.” The great Suleil, perhaps greater now for having removed the superlative from Khahid’s name, stood well within striking distance of the quite ordinary sword and knife carried by so extraordinary a man. “Are you?”
“No, Eminence.” The words carried little force, practically none.
“My scouts tell me you fled the battlefield. I would have had their heads removed but for the fact they all reported the same story. Khahid the Invincible saw the armies of the Dark Continent and fled. What say you?”
Khahid regained his knees. “There were so many, Eminence.”
“Eight hundred, according to the scouts. Hardly a threat to Khahid the Invincible.”
“Yes, Eminence.” Again, no force, as if Khahid the Invincible did not believe either his words or the sultan’s. Yet the great Suleil, once again displaying his greatness, did not bristle. Instead, he stepped closer to the man who had killed more than any other in history, mythology included.
“Rise.” The great Suleil, accustomed to commanding men, offered the word on a pillow instead of with the lash. Khahid obeyed, head bowed.
“Speak,” said the sultan. In the space between the great Suleil’s command and when Khahid did speak, a storyteller could have enthralled adults and children alike, regaling them with encounters of heroes and beasts, young lovers forbidden by station to act upon their passions, or the building of the world by gods sometimes jealous or angry yet always capricious, as gods often were.
Instead of a storyteller’s fancy, Khahid the Invincible spoke a single sentence. It was hardly a sentence at all, merely a thought framed with a minimum of nouns and verb.
“I am scared, Eminence.”
The great Suleil laughed, for surely it was a joke, something to ease the moment. After a simple bark, hardly a laugh at all, the great Suleil strangled it so that its death was sudden and violent, a killing of mirth.
“What could possibly scare Khahid the Invincible?”
“Eminence,” said Khahid, his voice stronger, though it was the strength of a kitten just turned cat, “in my youth, so many decades ago, I pledged my life a thousand times over to protect the sultanate. I am no scholar, but I am not so simple that I cannot count. I am near the thousandth and fear what will happen when I reach it.”
The great Suleil, once again displaying his greatness, paused. He considered the man who had waded into his enemies with the indifference of wading into the gently rolling surf of the inland sea, a man who was as great as the great Suleil himself. The sultan put his hand on Khahid’s shoulder. Khahid closed his eyes, which is why he did not see the great Suleil’s hand strike swift as a dune snake and draw the khanjar from Khahid’s belt. A circular stroke brought the knife up, and the great Suleil dragged it hard across Khahid’s throat.
Khahid’s blood exploded over the great Suleil, splashing his chest and face. Khahid gurgled and fell to his knees. His hands clutched his throat. In a moment the blood ceased to gush onto the carpet that had taken fifty artisans a year to weave.
Khahid looked up at the sultan. Blood only oozed from the slash that was almost already closed. Khahid rose, eyes wide but obedient.
“You are Khahid the Invincible,” said the great Suleil. “It is not just your sword that protects the sultanate; it is also your name. The day you become less than invincible you are worthless. I would rather slay your thousandth life right here than let our enemies believe for an instant they could.”
The sultan drove the blade into Khahid’s belly. Khahid could have stopped him a score of different ways that would not have so much as bruised the delicate sultan’s arm. With his stillness, the khanjar went deep, its hooked blade finding a host of viscera.
Khahid’s legs buckled, but he remained upright even when the sultan removed the knife. The great Suleil locked his obsidian-black eyes on the greatest warrior who ever placed a booted foot on the throat of an enemy and thrust the knife again.
Khahid brushed away the attack with butterfly softness, hardly upsetting the folds of the sultan’s sleeve.
The great Suleil handed the khanjar to Khahid, who took it and slid it into its sheath still wet with his blood.
“With your permission, Eminence,” said Khahid, “I shall take my leave and go meet the armies of the Dark Continent.”
“I await your return.”
The warrior turned on his heel and strode across the carpet, trailing a single crimson footprint that diminished in clarity with each step.
The truly great Suleil permitted himself the tiniest smile of satisfaction as he watched Khahid, once again invincible, walk purposely through the flaps of his tent toward legend instead of ignobility.
Robert J. Santa has been writing speculative fiction for more than twenty-five years. He lives in Rhode Island, USA with his beautiful wife and two, equally beautiful daughters. When not writing, Robert is the editor-in-chief of Ricasso Press. Technically, he is also the editor-in-chief of Ricasso Press when he is writing.