Judgment of Swords and Souls
by Saladin Ahmed
Layla bas Layla's breath came raggedly and her blue silks were soaked with sweat,
but she was pleased with her performance. Ten beheaded in threescore water-drops. She lowered her forked sword.
The clay-and-rag dummy skulls littered the packed-dirt training yard of the Lodge
of God. Boulder-faced Shaykh Saif kicked one aside. He wore the same habit of
silk blouse and breeches as she - he had been a member of the Order for thirty
years longer than she -- but even smiling, his craggy features somehow made the
bright blue garments seem muted.
"Only seven-and-ten years old, and you're better with the forked sword than I was
as a Dervish in my prime. And I was the best, God forgive me my boasts!"
Layla bowed and sheathed her sword. She ran a hand over her stubbly head and
wondered idly how it would feel to have long hair like the women outside the
Lodge of God.
As if he sensed her thoughts, Shaykh Saif's smile faded. "Almighty God willing,
someday perhaps your soul will be as disciplined as your sword arm!" There was a
reprimand in his eyes as well as his words.
Layla fingered the red silk scarf wound around her blue scabbard, the only
difference between her garments and her teacher's. It was the cause of the discord
that was tearing the Lodge of God apart.
She said nothing.
The Shaykh shook his head. "Child, again I say you must repent this willfulness!
Seven years now have I known you. I cheered as loudly as any when you moved
from student to Dervish. Your skill, your martial focus -- you are unique in this
Lodge, and not only because you're female. But this scarf -- it disgusts me."
Disgust. A hard word for her to hear -- nearly as hard as if her grand-uncle, the
High Shaykh, himself had said it. "Shaykh Saif, I --"
"No, child, I've heard your reasons. An oath to your mother, God shelter her soul.
What you owe her. But what of your obligations to High Shaykh Aalli? For forty
years your grand-uncle has, praise God, been High Shaykh of this Lodge. But by
his own words, his time in this world is almost at an end. His rivals see a chance
for power. That is why they have called this tribunal against you. Every day that
you wear the forbidden color you undo the work that High Shaykh Aalli has done,
and you strengthen his enemies. Shaykh Rustaam has taken up your cause, yes,
but you deepen the fractures in the Lodge of God so that it may well split asunder.
Dervish fighting against Dervish, and over what? A scarf? A red scarf?"
Layla shot her eyes downward during the scolding. She'd thought this training
session was meant to help soothe her before the tribunal. Now she saw that it was
just another attempt to convince her to break her oath. "I swore to my mother, O
Shaykh, that I would wear her scarf when I came of age. I'm a Dervish now and
no longer a student. I will keep my oath, and God piss on the man who tries to
stop me." The curse was awkward in her mouth and she regretted it as soon as she