“Possessed by a ghost who feeds on death, the undying assassin Ahjvar the Leopard . . .” (back cover copy for The Lady: Marakand Part Two)
I’ve been thinking for a while it might be interesting to present some sketches of the central characters in Marakand. With The Leopard coming out fairly soon and The Lady in December, now seems like a good time to do it. I’ll start with Ahjvar.
Ahjvar*, the Leopard, is the character who hijacked the plot, back when I was writing far too many drafts. The entirety of what became The Leopard was originally about someone else, with Ahjvar as a secondary character, a catalyst for the events that would fling that other person into the need for action. Every single path through that turned out to be a dead end and a miring slough, until I realized, with a road-to-Damascus burst of light, that my problem was that the other character was not carrying the heart of the story. Rather, there were two intertwined stories running together, and neither was about her. Her then-younger-sister, of whom more in a later character post, was in fact at the core of the Marakand-centred part of the story, and the other belonged to Ahjvar and Ghu. That was when, finally, everything fell into place.
Before that point, the Leopard was always a man heading for the city of Marakand to kill the Voice, but his reasons for doing so were various; he was always a man labouring under a curse, but the curse had several different incarnations too. (Hey, that’s actually a joke.) The moment I let him become the central figure, the moment I began, “The assassin’s house was reached by a mud path up along the cliffs from the village . . .” and, knowing nothing about her at all, sent young Deyandara to find him, the moment, having gotten rid of Deya for the time being, Ahj growled at his servant Ghu that he didn’t like red-haired girls, the bones of his history were there. Writing my way through the story became a matter of discovering what was growing from the seeds of what I already knew, within the broad outlines of the overall plot about the tyrant-goddess of Marakand.
So who is Ahjvar, in that first chapter? A misanthropic recluse living in a ruin on a headland, the folk of the nearby village suspect him of being a both a Praitannec nobleman from the tribes to the north, and, simultaneously and in complete contrast, an educated man, perhaps even a lawyer in the nearby city of Gold Harbour.** Either way, he seems to have the respect of his neighbours, who have no idea of his real profession. “A wise man and a kind one . . . A peaceful man, and a quiet neighbour,” they tell Deyandara, the messenger a goddess sends seeking him. This puzzles her, since she was sent to carry a message to an assassin outcast from his folk and goddess, and the man she finds does not seem to her to be wise, kind, peaceful, or quiet. But then, she’s on his bad side before she ever opens her mouth. He really does not like red-haired girls.
For much of his life Ahjvar has been an assassin in the Five Cities which, widely-scattered along the coast of the Gulf of Taren, had their origins in colonies planted by the Nabbani empire, which conquered the coast long ago, defeating the southernmost tribes of the Praitannec peoples who had until then been spread over all the lands Over-Malagru. Nabban abandoned the colonies, or gave up trying to control them, well before Ahjvar’s time, but the remaining free tribes of Praitan have never regained their lost territories. The five independent city-states are now oligarchies ruled by interrelated clans, with much internecine feuding. Ahjvar, under various names and in various cities, had been part of that for far too long. At the time of this story, the Leopard is mostly known to work for the clan-fathers of Gold Harbour and Two Hills.
To Deyandara, the first outside eye to encounter him within the story, he seems causelessly angry, aggressively rude, and chronically simmering on the edge of violence. “A godless outcast murderer . . . a city hireling, that was all he was.” But he disconcerts her. He lives like the common folk of the village and has an antique sword worth a king’s ransom. His manner can change abruptly; catching a moment of sombre introspection, she suddenly sees him not as “someone to creep up walls and murder fat old merchant-lords in their beds” but as a king’s champion (or what the Northrons of Blackdog would call a king’s sword) “. . . with the judgement of the Old Great Gods to prove in the outcome of battle, and his own death waiting.”
Ahjvar speaks of himself as already dead. He knows himself to be possessed and believes he should be put down like a mad dog; even on a good day, he suffers violent nightmares and has every reason to fear letting anyone near him, emotionally or physically. “Told you, get out of the house when I start screaming,” he tells his servant after injuring him, but Ghu persists in enduring him, to his own risk and for his own reasons.
And that brings us to Ghu, without whom Ahj would be just a murderous and tormented madman trapped in the nightmare his own existence has become, a catalyst for action on the part of others rather than a struggling hero, and better off dead, as he himself admits.
* Pronounced Ahzh-var.
**It doesn’t come into the story as it now exists, but Ahjvar at some point in his past did actually study Five Cities law (having time on his hands and wanting to learn to read court Nabbani), though that he was ever a practising lawyer is doubtful.