Wednesday, 31 August 2011

About the Sylphs - Part IV

Fourth and final instalment of the brief introduction to sylphs.  These instalments will eventually be merged and given their own page above.
***

ABNECUL APIRAC SARA
(SIMPLE INTRODUCTION TO SYLPHS)
IV
Necul Setanalva
(Sylphs on the Ilvenworld)
Sylphs arrived on the ilvenworld with humans.  At first, life for sylphs continued as normal, until the initial civilisation collapsed and contact with the Ark was lost.

When humans descended into barbarity, most sylphs melted away into the extensive forests unpopulated steppes, and only returned to human overlords as civilisation began its long reconstruction.

The ilven taught sylphs how to be independent.  Even today, large colonies of sylphs are near every ilvenhome and sylphs often serve ilven, if in a less direct sense than they served humans.  Many more sylph colonies remain independent of human or ilven contact.

But most sylphs returned to human ownership, driven by instincts they cannot control.  Humans are more likely than ilven to provide the security all sylphs crave.

The division between enslaved (or civilised), and free (or wild) sylphs continues to this day.

Wild sylphs are proud of their independence.  Although customs vary from colony to colony, all are usually democratic and elect their leaders (for life, rather than for fixed terms).  Infertiles (except gwerins) are not treated as equals.

Wild sylphs are happy to trade with humans and human laws usually respect wild sylphs' freedoms (even if these laws are often ignored, see Markan Throne, Chap. II).  The wild ones often sell surplus infertile sylphs to humans and many trade male sylphs between each other.  This latter trade is thanks to wild sylphs frowning upon the practice of males marrying litter-sisters (encouraged in some human societies) and litter-sisters being very reluctant to part.  In some colonies, this debars the male from standing for election in his new home, but not in others.

Recently, a new sylph tribe elected a human to be its leader.  Quite how this will make changes remains to be seen (see Markan Throne, Markan Empire).

Civilised sylphs again fill most menial tasks in human society.  Over most of the world, a few families have become experts at selecting and breeding sylphs.  Generations of sylphs have served generations of these families.  The loyalty is mutual and, usually, respect goes both ways.

These families provide most of the sylphs in human society today.  Domestic sylphs remain popular; bonds between owner and owned are close.  Sylphs carry out much arable farming, animal husbandry, menial manufacturing tasks and (in a few places) scholarly work.  Their flexibility is recognised and utilised.
***
Necul Duracdurona
(War Sylphs)
Although pacific creatures, sylphs are not mere innocent victims who get caught up in war.  Until recently, the generally accepted human rule was to never involve sylphs in wars.  They rarely make good soldiers.

However, being non-warlike does not mean cowardly.

Calcan, and more recently the Markan Empire, use sylphs among their armies, and not only as officers' servants or camp attendants.

Many sylphs - of all three sexes - tend the wounded and are professionally trained in that task.  Although exposed to the full horrors of war, they are not quite as involved as the next group.

Sylph scouts are regarded by many as an abomination.  They were not forced into existence (sylph nurses were suggested by humans), but were volunteered by a very small group of sylphs.

The Sylph Scouting Corps grew exponentially in the first twenty years of its existence.  Just five sylphs passed from the first intake.  The training is long and arduous, as sylphs have to learn everything about tracking, communications, how to "read" an army, learn about every weapon in existence and how to discipline themselves in battle.

Within weeks of first running with an army, sylph scouts had proved themselves and are now an integral part of the Markan Empire's armies.

Scouts do not actually fight, but they do lead men to their deaths and this troubles the consciences of many - human and sylph.
***
Necul Habyatlana
(Ship Sylphs)
While humans tried to rebuild their civilisation and the old technologies were lost, the Gifted showed a way by which ships could safely navigate.

The ilvenworld teems with life elementals and all hope that Siranva will turn them into ilven.  Life elementals are in everything: souls of all living things are - or were before they became souls - life elementals.  Inanimate objects also have a life elemental and it is believed that even the ilvenworld has its own elemental.  Free - that is unattached - elementals can sense others.  So a free life elemental can sense rocks and other dangers to ships.

However, elementals cannot communicate directly with the living except through a proxy.  The best sort of proxy is a living creature, but its soul is already an elemental and there is room for no more.

But there is something different about sylphs.

Sylphs are a construct of two species.  Despite this duality, sylphs only have one soul, but there is the potential for two.  This is the gap elementals can use.

When a ship is built, the Gifted invite an elemental to adopt the ship as its own and form a bond with a sylph (humans use infertiles for this, but any sylph can potentially become a ship sylph).  Elementals assume the name of the ship and sometimes take further ships of the name while waiting for Siranva.

This elemental can communicate with the ship's crew through the ship sylph.

Outsiders often refuse to believe this is possible, and many seafarers assume the sylph is the ship, but the two are discrete entities.  Like sylph scouts, they have made themselves indispensable.
***
I Kinita o Necul
(The Gift and Sylphs)
When humans first arrived on the ilvenworld, Siranva picked ten out and granted them a gift, The Gift.  This was also offered to sylphs, but turned down.  Sylphs did not believe they should have such power.

However, it is now obvious that the Father gave something to the sylphs.  They can detect the use of the Gift and sense its practitioners.  Because the power that forms the Gift is the same as that forming sorcery, sylphs can also sense sorcerers.  However, they cannot differentiate between practitioners of the Gift and sorcery.  Not a thing the sylphs like, but now it has been identified, humans are already working out ways to use it to their advantage.

The sylphs are not complaining.
***
Saterula
(Variations)
The treatment and status of sylphs varies from place to place.  For wild sylphs - who no longer fully trust humans, if at all - official protection is often a thin veneer that is frequently abused.  The authorities sometimes turn a blind eye to slavers, or refuse to prosecute them when caught.  In some places, slavers are encouraged.  Sylph breeders are always looking for fresh bloodlines and wild sylphs fetch high prices.

Civilised sylphs are also treated differently from area to area.  Most have a low status, usually that of slave, but there are exceptions.  Some lands outside the Markan Empire do not practise slavery, but that does not mean that sylphs are necessarily treated much differently.

Lands to the west (Eldova) and south (Imperial Republic) of the Markan Empire are very strict with sylphs, but discipline is quite lax in the eastern provinces (Calcan, Sandester, Trenvera).

In a few of the southern lands, sylphs can even possess their own slaves, though this is rare.  However, sylphs permitted to speak before ruling councils, or even join ruling councils, are rather more common in the southern lands (south of the Imperial Republic!) than further north.

In the arctic lands (eg, Frodger, Kelthane), all must struggle equally for survival.  Here too, sylphs enjoy a higher status than is usual elsewhere.  Collars are rare in the north.
***
Astrita
(Conclusion)
This covers much of the evolution and variety of the sylph domain.  There are bound to be errors, omissions and oversights.  As with all fiction, ideas lead to further ideas and sylphs are flexible enough to accommodate almost anything new I might come up with.

With luck, this pamphlet explains at least something of the sylphs and the influences on their behaviour.

Nicholas A. Rose
April 2008
August 2011 (rev III)

Other influences:
Brave New World, Huxley
Genetics and Ethics, The Wellcome Trust
Bioethics, The Wellcome Trust
Utopia, More
***
***

That pretty much concludes the introduction to sylphs.  Another pamphlet, about the training and care of sylphs, will appear in due course...

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

About the Sylphs - Part III

Continuing my series of posts about the how and why of sylphs.  Don't forget to read Parts I & II, posted last week.
***

ABNECUL APIRAC SARA
(SIMPLE INTRODUCTION TO SYLPHS)
III

Enanina
(Gender Ratio)
Of the three sexes, females and infertiles are born in litters, males individually.  Females are born as twins or triplets; infertiles as triplets or quads.  As the three sexes are conceived equally, this works out as fifteen females and twenty-one infertiles to six males at birth.  Infant mortality is higher in infertiles, so the ratio falls to seventeen infertiles to six males by age five and thereafter remains constant.

Litter-sisters form a close bond that lasts for life.  This is so important, that litter-sisters often marry the same male, although this is frowned upon among wild sylphs.  However, litter-sisters are rarely separated among wild sylphs (they prefer to trade males between colonies, rather than break a sisterly bond), which is not the case for enslaved sylphs.

Infertile sylphs also prefer to keep their litter-sisters close, though again this is unlikely in human civilisation.  At some studs, infertiles are separated at birth to help prevent the bond forming between litter-sisters.

***

Neculen Hisa
(Male Wound)
Male sylphs are born individually.  They become aware of the lack of litter-siblings by about two years of age.  Although the "wound" is nowhere near as deep as for infertiles (see below), male sylphs only find a cure for it through marriage.

Unmarried adult males are rarely fulfilled and often deeply unhappy.  Males form a very tight bond with their wife or wives when they marry and the institution of lifelong mating is more important to them than it is to females.  This need ensures male loyalty to wives and family.

***

Neculin Hisa
(Infertile Wound)
Mentioned above, this occurs when parents distance themselves from their infertile offspring.  This is an inheritance from the old sylphs, when infertiles were the preferred prey of predators.  It serves as an emotional buffer for the parents.

But nobody told the infertiles that.

By age five, infertiles realise they are not going to be treated the same as their fertile brothers and sisters.  Although they can accept a lower status, being shunned is deeply unpleasant.  Parents usually do not name infertile daughters.

In wild sylph colonies, infertiles form their own sub-society.  They serve their colony, but know they are excluded from the running and control of it.  They name each other and, as one small way of getting back at the breeders, keep those names secret among themselves.

With the civilised sylphs, infertiles are usually sold to their owners at about the time the infertile wound occurs.  They form close bonds with their new owners and are usually named by them.  [There is an increasing trend in studs for infertiles to be named before sale, but this is done by human intervention, rather than volunteered by sylph parents.]  No matter how they are treated, infertiles quickly become fanatically dedicated to their owner.  Unfortunately, this does not always have a happy ending, as they tend to love their owners far more than their owners love them.

However, the infertile worldview believes that negative attention is better than no attention.

***

Necul Caricha
(Genetic "Throwbacks")
Given the manipulated genetic history of sylphs, it is unsurprising that throwbacks (or sports) occur.  The most common type of throwback happens when some of the older sylph construct characteristics show through.  As with the other oddities, these usually manifest in the infertile gender.

Rounded ears are fairly common.  These sylphs are unable to express themselves using ear-points.  They tend not to be trusted by other sylphs, perhaps because they can hide their feelings, should they wish.

Tawny eyes, which are not cat-slit, are also fairly common.  The main drawback for these sylphs is that they cannot see (as well) in the dark.

From a human point of view, neither of the above differences is important.

Sometimes sylphs who closely resemble the original sylphs are born.  They are usually deformed, with poorly formed wings (much as the original infertiles).  As the original sylph forms so little of the new genome, these rarely survive long.

The most important throwback is the gwerin.  These are so different as to form a sub-species in their own right.  Genetically, these look more to their human inheritance.  They are pale-skinned and red-blooded.  All are infertile, and grow to a similar height as normal sylph infertiles.  From their sylph parents, they usually inherit cat-slit eyes (but not the irises) and manoeuvrable ear-points.

Unlike other infertiles, gwerins confer much honour on their parents.  Valued by humans, gwerins are very intelligent and usually become advisers to rulers or nobles.  There is jealousy because of their intelligence (from humans, not sylphs), so they usually need the protection of rulers.

Gwerins revere any sylph parent of a gwerin.  As they are so long-lived, their own parents are gone long before a gwerin would like, so all parents of gwerins are treated with the same respect.  Rare, gwerins are highly sought after, but they can be more mercurial than ordinary sylphs.

Among wild sylphs, gwerins always attain great rank in their own right.

***

Vuna
(Diet)
Sylphs are able to eat almost anything.  They enjoy a wide variety of plants and these form the staple of sylph diet.  Though able to eat grass and leaves, and gain nutrients from them, they are not digested very well.

Sylphs are fond of fish and fowl, but tend to avoid red meat.  They can and, as a last resort, do indulge in red meat, but like grass and leaves, this does not agree with their digestion.

When food is scarce, sylphs slow their metabolism, which prolongs life, but even they eventually starve.  An overfed sylph does not get fat, but his metabolism increases.

Choca [chocolate!] is the enslaved sylphs' favourite treat.  A sylph will do (almost) anything to get his hands on the stuff, but over-indulgence has consequences on a sylph's delicate digestion.  Withdrawing the treat is the worst punishment (almost) a sylph can imagine.

***
***

The final part will be posted tomorrow.  All four parts will be combined and granted their own page above... eventually!

Sample Sunday: Markan Sword Chapter One, first draft

Also for your enjoyment, Chapter One from Markan Sword.  Again, this is a first draft, so errors here and there!

***
Chapter 1

Lucky Escape


Reshiad wondered if he would see his seventeenth birthday.

Today had begun like any other, with washing and early morning chores, before heading out to check on the livestock. Today, he and his father intended to take a couple of sylphs and repair one of the stone walls; sheep enjoyed obstacle courses and eventually pulled down any wall, no matter how stoutly built.

Breakfast, with his father, mother and only sister still living at home, was eaten quickly so father and son could get on with the wall. Sylphs padded around the table, serving the simple meal.

Then, the soldiers came.

Oh, they had heard rumors. Boys disappearing if they were a certain age, some reappearing a few days later, unharmed, but others never came back. There were darker tales too.

Farms burned and people murdered if they resisted. Few believed these tales, but they persisted, whispers in corners and over mugs of ale.

The Prefect's census was going on at the same time. His father had filled out the form under the diligent eye of a bureaucrat, whose gaze turned Reshiad's way more than once...

His sister Lien saw the soldiers first, as her seat faced the window.

"Father!" she cautioned.

Wajrun took one look and dragged his son to his feet.

"They've come for you!" he hissed. "Go now. Quickly!"

Reshiad needed no second prompting. Leaving everything, he slipped out of the kitchen door and began running as soon as he came around the side of the barn.

"Boy!" A stentorian voice, used to command. "Stand where you are!"

The words only spurred him to greater speed. A horse whinnied in frustration and Reshiad risked a look over his shoulder. A couple of sylphs had somehow managed to get in the way, slowing the pursuit.

Thank you Manto and Kinto, he thought.

One of the sylphs cried out, caught by a boot or riding crop. He did not look over his shoulder to see. Sylphs were used to rough treatment, always part of their lot. Not that he agreed it should be this way of course.

He looked to the nearby forest. Once in there, he was safe and free. Shouts from the farm faded, but a new sound intruded.

Hunting dogs? Who was hunting now?

Then he realized. He was the quarry.

Reshiad increased his pace and didn't relax even when he reached the forest. If they were using dogs, he must get across the river. Called the Foam Race River for good reason, he knew only one quiet pool, where the raging torrent was placid before continuing its race towards a distant lake.

Barking grew louder and he knew they had his scent.

He dodged trees as best he could and jumped over anything on the ground that might trip him. Even so, he was sent sprawling more than once as a bramble or ivy snagged an ankle or caught his toes.

At first, the river sounded like a hiss, but the sound steadily grew to a roar as water thundered through gorges and piled across rocks. He almost fell in as trees abruptly gave way to one of the gorges, where water whipped to foam was flung high into the air before falling back.

If he went in here, he would die.

He must flee downriver.

The going was even rougher and he scrambled down treacherous rocks, footing precarious on the slippery surfaces. Even over the thundering river, he heard the hunting dogs. They were gaining on him.

Reshiad glanced across the river. Surely not movement on the other side? Were hunters there too? He slipped on the rocks and bounced for a little distance before regaining his footing.

Barking behind. Barking to the side.

A flash of movement as something ran along the opposite bank. Friend or foe? A census. Boys of a certain age never came back. Reshiad assumed that whatever happened to them was unpleasant.

The barking grew louder and nearer.

With courage born of desperation, he threw himself into the river.

He twirled and spun in the water, fighting to reach air. Wet was easy to deal with but, oh the cold! And blackness below. He struggled to lift his head as a leg broke the surface. The current pulled him under.

Spots danced across his vision and his lungs ached. Fear faded and acceptance of the inevitable came. The light above called to him and he stretched toward it, vaguely aware of arms reaching out for him.

Sudden pain, and everything went black.
***
Reshiad opened his eyes.

This was not what he expected from paradise. His head throbbed and a shoulder ached. He lay on a blanket, which in turn covered something soft, and another blanket was pulled to his chin. Though they looked clean, they smelled strongly of sylph, and sinabra hung in the air.

He blinked at the mixture of tree roots and dirt above him, barely incas away. He turned his head and tried not to groan at the flash of pain.

He lay in a strange cave, hollowed out from the bare earth. A recess similar to the one he was lying in was opposite, with a narrow walkway between. Leaves hung to dry from the ceiling and ragged edges showed where parts had been torn free, for whatever purpose.

He pushed the blanket aside and realized his clothes were gone. He glanced around again, but there was no sign of his breeches and shirt. He felt under the lower blanket, but more leaves and grasses were stuffed underneath to make his bed more comfortable.

Woodsmoke tickled his nostrils, so he wasn't alone. He would remember making the dugout and lighting a fire. Besides, his hair was still damp, so there hadn't been enough time.

The dugout darkened as someone entered and Reshiad stared.

The newcomer wore snug short breeches and was painted gray, green and brown. Earpoints twitched forward and cat-slit silver-gray eyes widened. A sylph, despite the strange coloring. The only normal thing about him was a leather collar, with a nametag appended.

"Awake now?" asked the newcomer.

Reshiad nodded. He stared as a second sylph entered the dugout. This one wore a shirt as well as breeches, and was not painted. The infertile at least looked normal, until he realized she wore no collar.

"Has the boy got a name?" asked the painted sylph and his earpoints twitched a little.

"The boy" spluttered and his eyes widened in outrage. "How dare you?" he snapped. "You will tell me your name and that of your owner. Now."

Sylphs at home were always respectful and obedient, knowing they would get what for if they dared step out of line. They all lowered their eyes to him, none daring to meet the gaze of a freeman. These two were different. The painted sylph looked amused - even his earpoints twitched. When Reshiad used this tone of voice to other sylphs, their earpoints always wilted.

The reaction of the infertile was even more bizarre. Her eyes hardened and her earpoints slanted forward. Anger, from a sylph?

"He saved your life," she said, indicating the painted sylph. "The least you can do is give your name. Or we might put you back where we found you."

"I am Reshiad Wajrun Helzar," he replied.

Both sylphs blinked. "Does Awen Adelbard Haist mean anything to you?"

Reshiad shook his head. "Nothing. Should it?"

The painted sylph pulled himself together and shrugged. He exchanged a look with the infertile. That was strange too; breeders and infertiles rarely had much to do with each other.

"Now you have my name, you can at least return the courtesy," said Reshiad.

"I am Neptarik and my companion is Tektu."

"Just Neptarik and just Tektu?"

The infertile scowled at him again, behaving in a most unsylphlike manner.

Neptarik shrugged. "Neptarik-y-Balnus."

"And?" He turned his attention to the infertile.

"Tektu-y-Neptarik," she snapped.

Reshiad stared. "You belong to him?" he squeaked.

"Long story," smiled Neptarik.

"One you are not about to hear," added Tektu. She glanced at her companion. "I will see if his clothes are dry yet."

Reshiad blinked again. There was no hint of deference in the infertile's tone. A strange pair. Once Tektu was gone, he turned his attention to Neptarik. Strangely, he suspected the male sylph might be easier to converse with.

"What is it you want of me?" he asked.

"Probably nothing," replied Neptarik. "After pulling you out of the water, I did not want to leave you to the soldiers after all the effort of saving your life."

Reshiad inclined his head and wrapped the blanket around himself as he swung free from the recess. "Thank you for that. Why did you ask about the name? Um, Awen."

"The oldest son of the last true Prefect of Turivkan," replied Neptarik. "He had two sons and the present Prefect wants them dead."

"Why?"

"You ask me that?" Neptarik's eyebrows and earpoints rose in unison. "A mere sylph."

Reshiad eyed the sylph's paint. "That word does not begin to describe you," he admitted.

Both turned as Tektu rejoined them, carrying a bundle. "Damp here and there," she said, "but wearable."

Neptarik looked Reshiad straight in the eye. "We will give you privacy to dress," he said, before leading Tektu back outside.

Reshiad's shirt and breeches smelled faintly of smoke, but were mostly dry and warm from the fire. His boots were still damp, but he stamped his feet into them and felt a lot more cheerful. His jerkin went on next, followed by his belt. He was surprised to see his knife was still there.

He crawled from the dugout and eyed the two metal trowels. Surely the sylphs hadn't dug this using just those? He felt grudging respect for them if such was true. Once outside, he took deep breaths of clear air. Sylph sinabra was all very well in small doses, but the air inside was cloyed with it.

From beside the fire, Tektu stared at him with barely concealed hostility.

"Where is Neptarik?" asked Reshiad.

For a moment, he thought the infertile was about to ignore him, but she shrugged her shoulders.

"Looking around," she replied. "Making sure the soldiers are not coming here."

Reshiad glanced at the fire; the sylphs must be using very dry wood, for there was next to no visible smoke. "Do you think they might?"

Another shrug. "If I start to run, you had better keep up," she replied.

"Why are you helping me?"

Tektu looked him directly in the eyes. No infertile would dare hold a human's gaze this way! Why was she different? "Now that is a very good question," she said, after a long moment. "To which I have no answer."

Reshiad did not believe her. He couldn't quite put his finger on what it was about her that bothered him so much, apart from the fact she acted nothing like an ordinary infertile. Or any other sylph.

He jumped as Neptarik abruptly materialized and pretended he had not noticed Tektu's smile. He masked irritation as the sylphs conversed in their own language and wished he had taken the time to learn more of it. He only caught one or two words, but not enough to follow the conversation.

"I'd like to know what you want with me," he told them, "when you've finished jabbering away."

Both sylphs looked at him.

"You are both from further east," continued Reshiad. He pointed to Neptarik. "Marka?"

"Calcan."

"Why are you here?"

"Told you. Looking for the boy who should rightfully be Prefect. Sixteen years old. Hazel eyes. Dark hair." Neptarik paused.

"Lots of boys have hazel eyes and dark hair," countered Reshiad. "Especially around here."

"You were five when evacuated from the palace," said Neptarik.

Reshiad laughed. "You have the wrong boy. I cannot remember much from when I was five, but I remember my sister being born and she is four years younger than me. Before the time you say I was taken from the palace."

The painted sylph shrugged. "Perhaps."

"And I would remember having my name changed." Reshiad gave the sylphs a level look. "You know your name from very young, maybe even before you can speak."

"Awen," said Neptarik.

"Reshiad," insisted Reshiad. "I'm not the boy you seek."

"Put him back where you found him," interrupted Tektu. "Or hand him over to the soldiers. There might be a reward. Choca."

Neptarik subconsciously licked his lips.

"I'm not a commodity to be traded," snarled Reshiad.

"If choca is involved you are," said Tektu.

"Enough, Tektu." Neptarik's voice was quiet, but the infertile immediately subsided. The male sylph regarded the human boy for a few moments. "Very well then," he said with a shrug, "wait a little longer and I will take you home. Tektu, get ready to move on. Reshiad's home is on our way."

Tektu disappeared into the dugout.

"Why are you looking for the real Prefect's son?" asked Reshiad. "Why now?"

"My owner wants the real Prefect's son," replied Neptarik. "We want him alive because Dervra wants him dead."

"To cause trouble?"

"More for true justice. Boys your age disappear and we do not think that what happens to them is very pleasant."

Reshiad looked away. "I'm glad it's not me."

"It could be."

"So your owner sent you out here to look for someone who might be him. Anybody could claim to be... whatever his name is."

"Awen Adelbard Haist." Neptarik shrugged. "Until we find him and manage to get people behind him, these killings will continue. All very cruel."

"He might already be dead," said Reshiad. He saw Neptarik's earpoints suddenly twitch up, sag down and jerk upright again. The human boy leaned forward. "You know more than you're letting on."

Neptarik was saved by Tektu. She left the dugout carrying blankets and the leaves that were hanging from the ceiling. The sylphs quickly divided the blankets and leaves into two bundles, securing a trowel in the middle of each.

"Neptarik." Reshiad used his firm no-nonsense voice. It usually worked well with his father's sylphs. "Tell me about Awen."

Neptarik ignored him. "We should leave now," he said. He looked at the dugout. "We might need it again."

Reshiad sat back and watched the two sylphs maneuver branches across the entrance. When they finished, nobody could tell there was a cave here. If not for his anger at being ignored, he would admire the sylphs' skill at concealing it.

"Tell me about Awen," insisted Reshiad.

"Want me to put him back in the river?" asked Tektu.

"Shut. Up." Reshiad scowled at the infertile.

Tektu glared back. "No."

Reshiad lifted his hand...

...and was suddenly airborne until he crashed back into the ground. Tektu stood over him.

"If you ever lift a hand to me again, I will break every bone in it," she said, voice calm.

"Enough, Tektu." Neptarik turned to Reshiad. "It might be wise if you try not to attack her. She can get irritable now and then."

Reshiad surreptitiously rubbed his hip and avoided Tektu's eyes.

Neptarik turned back to Tektu. "I will lead, you follow."

"You should discipline your sylph more often," said Reshiad. "Sylphs do not act like that."

Neptarik smiled. "Leave the when and how to me. Keep your hands to yourself; we are not on your father's farm."

They left the small camp in silence.

Reshiad followed Neptarik, marveling as the sylph appeared and disappeared, thanks to his paint. Without the sylph's movement, he would be unable to see him at all. He was less happy with Tektu bringing up the rear. What was she? That throw had hurt, but she couldn't be strong enough to hurl him into the air.

"We must cross the river," he pointed out.

"We know," growled Tektu from behind. "Keep moving."

Neptarik dodged this way and that, pausing occasionally to listen. The sound of the river grew gradually to a roar. The sylph dodged rocks, keeping his footing easily, unlike the unfortunate Reshiad, who slipped a few times.

"You don't mean to cross here?" squeaked the human boy.

He stared wide-eyed at ragged rocks with the water foaming between them. Wet, green and black with growth, the rocks looked very, very slippery.

Neptarik leaned close. "Put all your weight on one foot at a time. Think and look before you move."

"I'll be in the water," protested Reshiad.

Neptarik shrugged and pointed upriver. "There's a road through the forest fifteen milas that way, and a bridge, if you prefer to go around." He pointed across the river, roughly in the direction of Reshiad's home. "My owner is that way and it is the way we go from here."

Reshiad tried and failed to see exactly where Neptarik placed his feet, but the sylph moved like a dancer, across the river before the boy was fully aware he was moving.

"You moving today?" growled Tektu, from behind.

Reshiad glanced over his shoulder, then looked back to where Neptarik waited impatiently on the other bank. He stared at the water and rocks.

"If you do not start moving, farmboy, I will leave you here and you can walk around."

"What are you?" Reshiad's gaze searched the sylph's face.

Tektu sniffed. "If I charged for that question, I might get rich. Now get over that river."

All weight on one foot at a time. Reshiad picked a likely looking spot on the nearest rock and stepped onto it. He was grateful for his boots; the rock had sharp edges and he wondered how the barefoot sylphs coped with rocks.

He looked for his next foothold and tried to ignore the water foaming between his rock and the next. He stepped across the torrent and imagined the river rose up to take him. Momentum carried his other foot forward to the next rock, but he only leaned against that one; his weight was on the rock behind, as Neptarik had suggested.

He glanced over his shoulder to see Tektu watching him impatiently. Those silvery-gray eyes glittered at him, perhaps willing him to fall in.

The infertile wasn't his problem right now, crossing this river was. He put pressure on his forward foot. Slippery, this rock would not hold him. He shifted position and tried again.

"Come on, farmboy," urged Tektu.

Reshiad resisted the urge to snarl or swear at her. A good kick from behind and he would be in.

There was no turning back.

That last thought almost froze him to the spot, but he fought the sudden panic. Shifting position again, he decided that was a good spot. He transferred his weight by moving his body forward...

...and was gone.

For a moment he dangled, aware of something holding on to the back of his jerkin, pulling him backwards and onto the safe rock. He panted and looked over his shoulder.

"You are strong," he told her. "Thank you."

Tektu shrugged, but her expression was neutral, an improvement on disapproval. "Careful," she cautioned. "Try that rock instead."

Two more steps and Reshiad was faced with something more than a pace wide. The river was not whipped to foam here, but the water moved swiftly. This was more than a step and, as the boy looked across to the next rock, something of a leap of faith.

"Is it slippery?" he called to the waiting Neptarik.

"Yes," came the morale-sapping answer.

Reshiad paused. "I'll have to jump it," he called.

"Fine. I did too."

Reshiad blinked. "I'll be off the other side," he pointed out. "I'm probably twice as heavy as you."

"Too well fed," came from the doom-monger behind.

Neptarik jumped nimbly back onto the last rock and moved to one side. He tapped a spot immediately in front of him with a foot. "Aim for that," he suggested.

"And?"

"Keep your eyes open and get ready to hang onto the far bank."

"What?" Reshiad shook his head.

"Keep your weight forward as you jump," continued Neptarik, "so no backward slips."

"Go on," urged Tektu.

Reshiad took a deep breath, and flung himself forward. Hitting the rock, his leading foot immediately slipped from beneath him and his upper body leaned forward. So near, yet he would still end up in the river.

Abruptly, vaguely aware of a hand somewhere on his lower back, his speed increased and he flew across the last step to crash into the far bank. Remembering Neptarik's urging, he clung on.

"Now climb!" shouted Neptarik.

Reshiad did as he was told and finally pulled himself to relative safety. He lay panting on his back and stared up at the gently swaying treetops. He was vaguely aware of the two sylphs pulling themselves up.

"Well," he said, "thank you for getting me across."

Neptarik grunted something before slinging his small pack across his back again. Tektu rearranged hers and stared down at him. The familiar glower was back.

"Why are you resting there?" she asked him. "The hard part is done now. Besides, do you want to get home?"

Pulling himself to his feet, Reshiad resisted a growl.
***
Reaching the edge of the forest, Neptarik pointed.

"Over that way," he said.

Reshiad nodded, but said nothing. He left the sylphs and trudged across towards his home in silence. The late afternoon sunshine bathed everything in a warm, pink glow and he hurried ahead.

When the buildings came into sight, he heaved a sigh of relief. For some strange reason, he imagined that they might have been burned. That the soldiers had not taken their frustration at his escape out on his family was a small miracle.

He glanced back at the forest, but there was no sight of his two rescuers. At least Neptarik would be invisible with his paint, but he thought he should still be able to see Tektu.

No doubt they had moved on.

When he saw the sheep, he knew something was terribly wrong.

That one might be resting was normal enough, but the woolly mounds lay everywhere and not one raised its head as he approached.

Crimson stained every fleece. Every last one had been slaughtered, even the lambs.

Reshiad gritted his teeth and increased his pace.

No smoke rose from the chimneys, where his mother should be cooking a meal by now, or heating water for baths. None of the sheepdogs raced out to greet him, as was normal.

Nothing but silence.

When he entered the farmyard, Reshiad took one look and began to scream.
***
Revulsion shone in Neptarik's silver-gray eyes as he looked around the farmyard. Tektu wore a bored expression as she looked at each human and sylph corpse in turn, ignoring the clouds of flies.

"Why?" Tears streamed down Reshiad's cheeks, but anger shone in his hazel eyes.

Neptarik shrugged. "Maybe because they resisted. Maybe because you got away."

"So it's my fault?"

The male sylph eyed the boy. He had seen this sort of reaction before, even suffered from it himself. "The fault of the men who did this," he replied. "And the man who sent them."

"Because they think I might be this... what's-his-name."

"Awen Adelbard Haist," said Neptarik. "Yes, they think you might be."

Muscles in Reshiad's cheeks twitched. "You knew, didn't you?"

"No." Neptarik kept his voice quiet. Beside him, Tektu tensed.

"You knew they killed people who resisted!" shouted Reshiad.

Neptarik spread his arms. "I did not know they would come here to kill your family," he protested. "Once they saw you, I believed they would carry on hunting you."

"All the time we were yapping, my family was being murdered!"

"Shouting at Neptarik will change that?" Tektu stared at the human boy, more than a hint of aggression in her eyes. "The soldiers killed your family, not us. Soldiers sent by the Prefect."

Reshiad stepped forward.

"You have my sympathy," continued Tektu, expression and earpoints hinting her words were a lie, "but if you lift that hand any higher, remember what I said to you last time you did that. Lift your hand to the Prefect."

Reshiad gave a bitter laugh that was almost a sob. "The Prefect? How can I lift my hand to him?"

Tektu looked at Neptarik.

"Come and speak to my owner," said the painted sylph. "He might help." His earpoints wilted and he inspected a fingernail, as if embarrassed.

"Might?"

Neptarik shrugged.

Reshiad looked from one sylph to the other. "Where is your owner?" he asked.

"A day or so away, if we move fast," replied Neptarik.

Reshiad looked at the sky. "It will be dark soon. And we must bury the dead."

"We?" whispered Tektu.

"Yes," said Neptarik, giving the strange infertile a furious look. "We'll help you do that."
***
"Thought you said you could run."

Reshiad grimaced at the tone of near contempt in Tektu's voice. "I didn't realize you meant all night," he grumbled. An oilskin was wrapped around his small bundle. He had not taken much from his home, just a couple of blankets and a change of clothes, all wrapped around a firebow. His knife hung from his belt, and a sling was tucked into a pocket. A flexible saw was wrapped around his waist, a narrow strip of metal that looked like a shiny length of string, but it would cut through wood as easily as a sharp knife through cheese.

"Lucky those soldiers are not still here," replied Tektu. "They would catch you otherwise. Annoying after all the effort we have put into you."

Reshiad almost squealed when a shadow transformed into Neptarik.

"The way is clear for milas," said the painted sylph, using the human tongue for Reshiad's benefit. "But keep quiet; you never know if I missed anything."

Although he heard sincerity in Neptarik's voice, Reshiad doubted if the sylph missed a thing.

"We will carry on to the next byawta," continued Neptarik, "and rest there."

"Next what?" asked Reshiad.

Neptarik shrugged, ignorant of the human word he wanted.

"Means a cave we dug ourselves," said Tektu.

Reshiad was encouraged to run on again and feared he might die before they reached the dugout. They ran beside the road, ready to jump into the ditch at the side to hide from any soldiers. From anyone, Reshiad suspected.

When the road led into forest again, the sylphs turned aside, Tektu now having to fully guide the night-blind human. Not even starlight penetrated here. Soon, the sylphs were pulling branches clear from the next dugout.

"How many are there around here?" asked Reshiad, without even a glow from sylph eyes to show him where they were. "The, ah, byawtas."

"Byawtula," corrected Neptarik, absently. "One is byawta, more than one-"

"All right, I'm not altogether ignorant." Reshiad failed to keep irritation out of his voice.

"Mind your head as you go in," said Tektu, helping the boy to the entrance. "You can crawl into the right. Do your best with your blankets."

Reshiad fumbled with his blankets in the dark and was grateful sylphs were more or less the same height as humans. If they were all infertile-sized, he might not be able to straighten out properly. Even so, once he was comfortable, he turned his face to the wall and hoped Tektu would not overhear him weeping for his dead family.
***
"This is Merley," said Reshiad, looking about him.

Walking beside him, Tektu nodded.

Merley was a little too large to be called a village, yet too small for a town. Houses, a couple of inns and a handful of shops crammed in the single road, with more houses erected in no order behind. A river flowed nearby and fields surrounded the buildings.

Neptarik had ranged ahead very early, returning with the welcome news that there were no soldiers in Merley. Then, he was gone again and Reshiad hadn't seen him since.

Reshiad had visited Merley several times, but this was the furthest he had ever been from home. He glanced at the road that led further west.

"This way," said Tektu, turning between one of the inns and a blacksmith.

She led him to the stables at the back of the inn, where Neptarik, still painted, waited for them.

The male sylph grinned at Reshiad. "Welcome to the Willam's Leap," he said. "The beds are more or less comfortable, but the ale is a bit, well, off."

"Why did you bring me to the stable?" asked Reshiad. Several horses filled the stalls, and a hint of sinabra warned him that sylphs were about. Probably helped the stablers by polishing tack and mucking out.

Neptarik's smile remained in place, though his earpoints betrayed his irritation by a violent twitch. "Discretion," he replied. "You never know who might be watching in the common room. Spies looking for boys of a certain age, perhaps."

Tektu gestured with her head towards the upstairs windows. "Mya is with him?"

"Yes."

The infertile sniffed. "Then I will wait out here."

Neptarik turned his attention back to Reshiad. "Coming?" he asked.

The boy followed the sylph into the back of the inn and up a narrow servant stair, emerging beside a door leading to one of the back rooms. Neptarik opened the door and indicated Reshiad should lead the way inside. The sylph came in after him and closed the door quietly.

Reshiad's gaze flickered around the room. Despite being a back room, it was one of the largest the inn offered, with doors leading off to the sleeping chambers. This was a dining room and two men were sat on the far side of the polished table, light from the window framing them, but not obscuring them.

Both men looked like soldiers, one older than the other. The younger man was perhaps twenty or so, with blue eyes and dark-brown hair that curled over his ears. The other boasted similar hair and eye color, but he was more heavily built and lines showed around his nose and mouth.

A female sylph crossed the room to Neptarik. A quick touch of fingertips and foreheads, then the pair parted again. Reshiad knew immediately that these two were emotionally involved.

"Alovak please, Mya," said one of the men. "For three."

"Se bata."

Reshiad relaxed. At last, a more normal human and sylph relationship.

The younger man leaned forward and leaned his elbows on the table. "I am Verdin Branad Vintner," he introduced himself, "and this is Balnus Kenta Pinton.

Reshiad smiled and nodded his head. "I am Reshiad Wajrun Helzar," he replied.

The smiles remained in place, but Reshiad sensed they were somewhat more forced.

"Not Awen Adelbard Haist?" Verdin had a definite edge in his voice now.

Reshiad shook his head. "No."

Balnus turned his full attention onto Neptarik and the sylph's earpoints wilted a little. Reshiad was pleased to see that something fazed the creature.

"The explanation," began Balnus, "had better be outstanding."
***
***
I trust everybody enjoyed the sample chapter.  As always, feel free to comment.

Sample Sunday: Markan Sword Prologue, first draft

Book III of the Markan Empire trilogy, Markan Sword brings together the threads of the previous two books and brings the struggle for the throne to an end.

Below is the Prologue.  It's the first draft, so is subject to (potentially massive) change, and there may be the odd typo here and there...

Read and enjoy!  Comments are always welcome.
***

Prologue
I: A New Task
Neptarik-y-Balnus walked cheerfully along the street, one hand resting on a full purse. He wondered where Tektu had wandered off to, having left quite early during the gambling.

His night was all the more successful because Mya had stayed in. She was one of the few who could out-gamble him. Apart from the dent to his pride when he was beaten, it didn't matter too much now they were married to each other.

Tektu had wandered away because she had no interest in gambling. She had only come out because she was uncomfortable in Mya's company. Mya had stayed in because she was uncomfortable in Tektu's company. It was only after he and Mya had agreed to marry that they learned he was stuck with Tektu.

As Neptarik was responsible for Tektu losing her last owner, her allegiance had shifted to him. And there was not a single thing either of them - meaning Neptarik and Tektu - could do about it. With terrifying honesty, Tektu assured her new owner that she would far rather have torn his throat out when she still had the chance. Too late now.

Neptarik was astounded by what had happened and Mya horrified. Tektu more bemused than anything else. She had never during her long life belonged to a sylph. But it was not that simple.

However reluctant, Tektu was bonded to Neptarik, but Mya had married him. Mya hated Tektu, because Tektu had killed her owner. The pair stayed as far apart as possible, but Neptarik was caught in the middle of the mess.

Passing an alley, he suddenly had something else to worry about.

A pair of strong human hands grabbed Neptarik and pulled him into the alley. Before he had chance to react, the sylph was thrown to the ground.

Rolling, he assessed his situation.

One of the three men was a bad loser, because he had been gambling with the sylph earlier.

"Grab that purse," he demanded.

"Grab the sylph first!" exclaimed another of the men.

Tektu had surprised Neptarik once, but he had learned his lesson well and adapted. He jumped to his feet between two of the men and, as both moved to grab him, he twisted away. The two men clashed against each other, grabbing for a sylph who had moved.

Their leader drew a knife.

Neptarik contorted again to avoid the slashing blade. One of the men came too close to his leader and screamed as he was cut. Another twist to avoid a punch, that instead landed on a human.

Neptarik began to enjoy himself.

So often the way with fights, it was over almost as suddenly as it had begun. Two men groaned and writhed feebly on the ground, while the third man's screams had reduced to whimpers and sobs as he clutched the stabbed area.

Knowing the City Guard would soon turn up, Neptarik checked his purse and dusted himself down. Nobody would believe a lone sylph had bested three humans and if these were stupid enough to claim it, they would be a laughing-stock.

He bowed to the three men. "Thank you for the ebatela practice," he said in his light sylvan voice, and left the alley.

"Impressive," said a new voice, speaking in sylph.

Neptarik turned and only relaxed when he recognised Smudge. The dark birthmark after which she was named spread like an ink stain across her right cheek from nose to ear. Spots were visible on the ear-point itself.

He shrugged. "How long have you been there?"

"Only just got here," she replied. "Enya wants to see you."

"I might be busy."

"Perhaps. But I checked."

Neptarik's ear-points slanted forwards and he frowned. "You should know that a smart sylph is soon a smarting sylph," he said.

Smudge humored him with a smile, but her ear-points barely twitched. She clearly did not respond to threats.

"What is it this time?" asked Neptarik.

"Enya will explain," replied Smudge, as she led the male sylph back towards the palace.

Somehow, Neptarik knew he would get no other answer.

Smudge left after depositing Neptarik in the room he recalled from last year. The scout nodded to his owner Balnus, and to Verdin, who were waiting for his arrival.

"Now Neptarik's here," said Balnus, "will you now explain why you called us at this time of night?"

"I apologize for the lateness of the hour." Morran Fynn's smile did not touch his pale-blue eyes. "But the news is fresh."

"Is this about the Sandesterans being recalled?" asked Balnus.

"No."

"Do you know what that's about?" Balnus turned his attention to Verdin. "I thought that claim was renounced."

"Me too." Verdin shrugged. "Nazvasta is responsible for the recall."

"But that is not why you are here," interrupted Fynn.

"Enlighten us," suggested Balnus.

"The Shadow Riders warn me that Dervra rules in Turivkan."

"Old news," murmured Verdin.

Fynn gave the young man a level look. "Dervra has also announced a census," he continued.

"And this causes you sleepless nights?" Verdin arched an eyebrow.

"Something like that." Fynn clasped his hands together. "But this census is causing some unrest among the people. Boys of a certain age are being taken away."

"Perhaps Dervra needs more soldiers."

"Perhaps." Morran's eyes were calm. "But boys born in just two years are being taken away. Ah, sixteen ninety-six and sixteen ninety-eight."

"That's very specific," muttered Balnus.

"Significant too," added Fynn. "The old Prefect's sons were born in those years, which suggests they are still alive."

"Why is Dervra moving against them now?" asked Verdin.

Fynn spread his hands. "Who knows why the Gifted act at the time they do?"

Neptarik was not alone to shudder. Nobody liked to be reminded that Dervra was Gifted as well as a sorcerer.

Fynn continued. "I suspect that the boys are quietly disposed of, but the people do not know that yet."

"They soon will," said Verdin.

"Yes they will, and no need for you to tell them. When the inevitable happens, we will need one or both of those boys at the head of the rebellion, ready to take their rightful place."

Verdin laughed. "If Dervra cannot isolate them, what chance have we got?"

Fynn smiled. "Both boys are dark-haired and hazel-eyed. Names are Awen and Warlon."

"Like they use those names. I doubt if they are even aware of who they are." Verdin's eyes flashed.

"You are quite right," replied Fynn. "But unlike Dervra, we have some contacts in Turivkan who do know. What's the matter, Neptarik?"

The sylph had been scowling at the floor and he now looked up. "I'll be falling behind on battle stars," he complained. "Missed one for last year, and from the siege, mine's the only silver one."

"Battle stars." Fynn blinked. "You don't get paid any more for them," he countered.

"Not the point." Neptarik's ear-points twitched violently. "The loss of honour alone..."

Fynn's were not the only eyes to glaze over as the scout warmed to his theme.

***
Moments after Neptarik had been taken out of the room, still complaining about his bloody battle stars, Smudge returned carrying an alovak can and two large mugs. She placed them on Fynn's desk before eyeing the rug before the fireplace.

"All right, Smudge, you've had a long day," laughed Fynn. "I'll pour when he gets here."

Smudge nodded thanks and quickly made herself comfortable in front of the fire, which had been allowed to burn down. Already long past her usual bedtime, she was quickly genuinely asleep.

A quiet tap at Fynn's door brought her head up again though.

"Come!" called Fynn.

General Kelanus of Marcus Vintner's army, surely favourite to replace Mikhan as Marshal of Marka, entered the study. He glanced at Smudge before taking the easy-chair before Fynn's desk.

"Alovak?"

Kelanus nodded his thanks.

"Are the Eldovans amenable to our suggestion?" asked Fynn, as he poured the dark liquid.

Kelanus leaned forward to take his mug. "Very," he replied.

"Grasping power for themselves, do you think?" Fynn closed his eyes to savour the alovak's scent. He heard, rather than saw, the other man's shrug.

"Mirrin doesn't strike me as that kind of man."

Fynn reopened his eyes. "They never do, until it's too late."

Kelanus shrugged.

"What about Janost?" pressed Fynn.

"There are some honourable men, but Janost works to his own morality."

Fynn changed the subject. "The difficult part is finding one of the Gifted with the skills you require and who is willing to help. Tahena does not have the necessary skills?"

"Alas, no." Kelanus grimaced. "But she insists on coming along anyway."

Fynn smiled. "I doubt if she would be happy left to rot on your estate."

"What estate?"

"Another problem." Again, that quick smile. Fynn changed the subject again. "Many of those returning to Eldova will be killed. My feeling is that Hingast... ah, Ranallic... will not be eager to see them return. After all, they were abandoned."

"Who would believe them?" asked Kelanus.

"Many, I'm sure. Their leader returns with so few and then large numbers of other survivors suddenly appear. And all telling a tale very different from the official line. I am certain there would be some unrest."

"All the more reason to find a Gifted willing to help."

Fynn nodded. "Agreed. But Sandev will not agree."

"Why not ask Grayar?" suggested Kelanus. "It will be nearly winter if we must walk to Eldova."

"There has been a development in Sandester," replied Fynn. "I suspect Zenepha will want you to take over as Marka's Marshal."

"Sandester?" Kelanus scowled. "Nazvasta causing trouble?"

"Potentially. He's recalled the Sandesterans."

Kelanus shook his head. "All the more reason to take Ranallic down now. The army stays here; you only lose me and then only for a short time."

Fynn pursed his lips. "We must resolve the Sandesteran problem quickly. You might still be in Eldova before winter's end. It is something."

"You don't need me for that. I doubt if I'd leave Sandester alive if I returned there."

"Maybe not."

"There's another thing." Kelanus paused. "Belaika knows. How..." He shrugged. "That's sylphs. Insists he should come along."

Fynn tapped his fingers together. "Let him."

***
II: Nightmares
Belaika-y-Marcus sat up in his blankets and wiped sweat off his face.

Eleka's arms snaked around her husband and held him close. "Again?" she asked, voice soft.

Fighting tears, Belaika nodded. "Always the same. Haema dead, Gajaran whispering that I am evil."

Eleka stroked his ear-points, hands so gentle that at first he barely felt their touch. Slowly, he calmed and arched his neck so she could get a better hold. "Never evil, not you."

"Kelanus is going to Eldova," said Belaika. "I must go too."

"I know." Eleka did not stop her gentle stroking. Just to soothe, not enough to... She blushed.

"It is the only way," he insisted.

"Yes, Icca." Eleka smiled and continued with slow, deliberate strokes. His ear-point muscles relaxed and stiffened as they twitched. He grew more content with every stroke.

This nightmare had plagued him ever since his return from the Western March. If not for him, Haema would still live. If not for his foolish hope for a second wife, Haema would not have been with him that fateful day. If-

So many ifs. But he refused to believe her death was not his fault.

And this other nonsense, about the scouts being evil. Eleka almost tensed, before realising that Belaika would pick up on it. Sandev should stripe that Gajaran from neck to knees for spreading such nonsense.

But even Eleka conceded Gajaran had reason to feel this way about the scouts. A dead owner, possibly thanks to sylph scouts giving directions.

Such an event would colour her own view. What if Belaika died? Would she blame Marcus Vintner for allowing sylph scouts to exist in the first place?

No. Even had Belaika personally directed the soldiers who killed Gajaran's owner, it was still not his fault. At least, he was not evil. And Gajaran had a new, better, owner.

How could she ease Belaika's mind?

***
III: Eldova
The man who called himself Hingast looked down at the sleeping baby that was supposed to be his and smiled. He wasn't quite sure what the result of any real union between Ansin and himself - or any of the dead Hingast's three wives - would actually be. But the sleeping babe was the real Hingast's get.

The man had ignored his older two wives, concentrating on his third, so the man who now called himself Hingast had been forced to emulate that.

The man who almost believed himself to be Hingast had been in Eldova before and had been an officer in the army. When the real Hingast had come early to his throne, he had been there to help whisper in the man's ear.

Before he moved on to new pastures.

And now he was back, this time the most powerful man in Eldova, which was something. Even if he must wear another man's face as his own.

"They always look so peaceful when asleep," said Ansin, stepping forward.

The man who called himself Hingast snaked his arm around the girl's middle. And she was a girl, not yet twenty. He must be careful. Any slip, and he would be unmasked.

Never again. He had been uncovered once before, many years before, when a... predilection was discovered by people and he was forced to murder his way out of trouble.

He was more careful now. People were growing more sophisticated and he knew some already suspected the truth.

"Peaceful and beautiful," he replied. He hated treating the older wives so badly. In fact, Hingast's first wife would be his preference out of the three; she had filled out very nicely. Sooner or later, he would make it so.

"What will happen now?" asked Ansin. "We have lost so many men, it will be hard to replace them."

The man who called himself Hingast winced. More importantly, Eldova had lost three generals, the entire head of the army removed at once. At best, captured, to be ransomed back in the future. For gold, or the promise of peace and a dropped claim?

He enjoyed being a claimant. "More survivors may trickle in," he said. He hoped not; they would tell a very different story than that he had put about. His fellow returnees were content to go along with the official story, or else be shown as cowards who chose flight over fight.

The game was not over.

"Marka may attack us," continued Ansin. "The men you promoted are not as good as those we lost."

That was true.

"A Markan army must cross the Barren," he said. Again, a wince.

The real Hingast had spent most of his sixteen year rule depopulating and destroying the lands that surrounded Eldova. The land was planed with softwood trees, which had turned the soil so crops could no longer grow. The aim was to stop any invading army from living off the land, and even the wood was useless for making the war-machines and siege-engines any potential invader would need.

It also meant the slaughter and mass movement of huge numbers of people, which in turn caused prices in the slave markets to collapse. Followed by starvation for many and the highest proportion of enslaved humans anywhere on the continent.

Not good. Sylphs existed to be slaves, not humans.

Everywhere, the signs of avoidable neglect stood out. Mostly human urchins infested the streets and were probably responsible for most of the crime. He was sorting that problem by copying the sylph-emperor's ideas.

In Marka, Zenepha seemed to have a good feel for running a city.

The guilds had been denuded of people for the army, so the man who called himself Hingast had encouraged them to employ more women and even the older urchins. Trade and commerce must flow again.

Fortunately, the parts of Eldova Hingast had not ruined were fertile, so food shortages - caused by a lack of young men to farm - should not be repeated this year. Most of the surplus sylphs had ended up on the land, where they happily sowed and tended crops.

Once again, the man who called himself Hingast offered up a silent prayer glorifying Zenepha. That sylph was a godsend.

Marka might not attack, but he suspected one man would have something planned.

General Kelanus.

"A pity Dervra seems to have left us," remarked the man who now called himself Hingast.

Ansin sniffed disapprovingly. She did not like Dervra. Not very many people did, even if a goodly number had cause to thank him for what they were, or what they had managed to achieve.

The man who called himself Hingast thought for a few moments about Dervra. The man no doubt lurked further east, hiding in the stronghold where he believed himself safe. Turivkan was anything but safe, all but surrounded by enemies and potential enemies.

At least that was not his problem.

"The Markans won't worry us here," he said, at last.

He worried about returning Eldovans, and he began to plan what to do should any appear.

***
IV: SANDESTER
"Support for our claim in Marka falls day by day." Kana Santon shook her head. "Those not for Marcus are behind Zenepha, united in their desire to prevent him taking the Throne, yet unable to agree on who should take it."

Nazvasta grimaced. He was not in his study, but the palace. Carpeted floors were normal here, to help insulate against the bitter cold that could persist into early summer, despite the lack of north-facing windows or doors.

A fire crackled cheerfully on the hearth and servants stood ready to keep it fed with fresh wood and coal. The ceilings in the palace were lower than in many other grand houses, again to help retain heat.

"So your attempts to garner support failed," he remarked.

Kana snorted. "I would have enjoyed considerable success if Verdin laid his claim, but he has followed his father's example."

Nazvasta's eyes flickered aside briefly. "Quite. He seems to have thrown his lot in with Marcus."

A sneer briefly turned Kana's lip. "He fancies himself as the man who will rebuild the empire. Pah! To think that he is my son."

Nazvasta leaned back, rested his elbows on the arms of his chair and clasped his hands together, fingers interlaced. Re Taura tamed by Marka, thanks to Verdin. Ambassadors exchanged between Marka and former prefectures, thanks to Verdin. Other prefectures joining with Marka, thanks to Verdin.

Kana might be dismissive, but Nazvasta knew Verdin was doing very well. He would make use of the boy, he clearly had a flair for diplomacy.

"How secure is Zenepha?" he asked, quietly.

Kana's grey-blue eyes were troubled. "Away from his Supreme Council and Senate supporters, not very," she replied. "Marcus and Kelanus outmanoeuvred him over Re Taura. Worse, Zenepha has begun to doubt himself."

"We offered Zenepha our support." Nazvasta tapped his fingernails together.

"Will you raise the dragon's head banner?" Kana's eyes were unblinking.

"If Zenepha abdicates?" Nazvasta paused. "I expect so."

Kana smiled and leaned forward. "You can count on my support."

Nazvasta did not return the smile. He hoped Mikhan Annada was up to the task that now faced him.

***
V: ASSASSIN
Dervra relaxed in his small study, where nobody would disturb him. Perhaps Marlen, if he brought really dire news. The room was sparsely furnished, with a desk and two simple chairs, a single painting of a snow-capped mountain above a hearth on which no fire burned. A single rug covered part of the stone-flagged floor and pale beech panels lined every wall to the ceiling.

Behind one of those panels was a door leading to an escape tunnel, but Dervra had never tried to work out how to get into it. He had more entertaining methods of escape, should such ever be needed.

A row of books lined the mantel; a carved wooden lion formed one bookend and a stone dragon the other.

Dervra had one chair, his guest the other and two mugs of alovak steamed gently on the desk between them. His guest had dark curly hair, dark-blue eyes and the pale skin that would ensure near anonymity in Marka. Of course, that was where his guest hailed from, now sat perfectly at ease.

Few people were so comfortable in Dervra's presence.

A closer look revealed oddities. The guest seemed relaxed, but there was a certain tension about the set of narrow shoulders and an air of watchfulness around the eyes. All movements were sinuous and graceful; sylphlike or perhaps effeminate.

Dervra could not care less which.

"I trust your alovak is to your taste?" he asked, as he reached into a desk drawer.

His guest tensed until he saw that Dervra had pulled free some miniature portraits. "Good alovak." The voice was soft, but had an edge to it, as if the speaker tried to disguise its true sound.

Dervra nodded. His guest had not touched his alovak, probably thanks to a suspicious nature. "These are the people I want you to kill." He pushed the minatures across the desk.

Dark-blue eyes locked momentarily with Dervra's before the assassin leaned forward. The gaze flickered across the pictures before the guest sat back in his chair again.

"Many have balked because women and children are to be killed as well as the man," said Dervra.

The assassin shrugged.

"Do you need the portraits?" pressed Dervra.

"No." A long forefinger tapped against the assassin's own head. "They are in here now."

Dervra gestured towards the portraits. "You will eliminate all these people?"

"Yes."

Dervra smiled. "Excellent."

He reached into the drawer, again the assassin tensed until the canvas bag was on the table.

"Feel free to count it," invited Dervra, "I will not feel insulted. Two hundred in gold."

The long forefinger touched the bag, before the rest of the assassin's fingers wrapped around it. A moment later, the gold was gone.

Dervra grasped his alovak. "A moment, and I will take you directly to Marka. But first a toast to your success!"

The assassin lifted the mug and even touched it to lips, but Dervra was certain not a drop passed into the mouth. Disposing of this one once the task was completed might not be as easy as he hoped.

***
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I hope everybody enjoyed the sample!  Chapter One has also been posted...