Friday, 16 November 2012

Markan Sword - sample chapter (Marka subplot part 2)

And the second part of this sample chapter.  Fingers crossed, Markan Sword will be released in December.


Marka - Part II

"Alovak?"

Zandra lifted the alovak can and smiled at the two ladies in her sitting room.  One of the palace sylphs had brought the alovak in a few minutes earlier, but her offer to pour had been politely declined and the servant dismissed from the room.

Zandra very much wanted to keep her conversation today private.

Hulen Shayler, head of the Mercers' Guild immediately nodded and her companion, Tamsin Mochna, senior wife to Supreme Councilor Olista, gave a verbal reply.

"No Jenn?"  asked Hulen.

Zandra finished pouring and smiled.  "She's with Marcus.  Whenever he's free, she's never far from his side.  Quite touching, really."

"A good, loyal sylph," added Tamsin, her graying brunette hair swaying as she nodded in approval.

"Sometimes too loyal," added Zandra.

Her companions laughed and Zandra laughed with them.  Of all her network in Marka, she trusted these two most of all.  Olista, and hence Tamsin, wanted to see Marcus on Marka's throne and had worked to that end from the beginning.  Hulen had ambitions, lusting after the President's Chair of all the guilds and believed - correctly - that Zandra offered the best route towards realizing that goal.

"Had I known, I might have brought Ylena," said Tamsin.  "She's grown used to being a personal sylph now."

"I'm sure your sylph is enjoying her free time at your villa."  Zandra smiled.  "Besides, much safer for our discussions to remain beyond the reach on long ears.  To some, our words are treason and we never know who reports to whom."

"True."  Tamsin nodded.  "But Ylena has been with us for many years."

"As a general domestic slave," said Hulen.  "With respect, but she is getting a little old for such a large change in role."

Tamsin grunted.  "Both Olista and myself are getting a little old for buying new sylphs.  Any such unfortunates will still have many years of life ahead of them when we are dead.  I rest that is a greater unfairness than the temporary strain of learning a new job.  Sylphs, especially infertiles, find changes in ownership distressing."

Hulen shrugged.

"I trust Emperor Zenepha is not too stressed when his job changes," said Zandra.  "He has been very quiet of late."

Hulen and Tamsin nodded together.

"He felt last year's events showed an error of judgment," said Hulen.

"He fears the people are losing respect, that soon they will grow restless and demand a proper emperor," said Tamsin.

"But who?"  asked Zandra.

"Well, he had the sense to replace the Sandesterans with your husband's people," pointed out Tamsin, "so he must favor Marcus over any other claimant.  And if he abdicates, he can choose his successor."

"The word is that he cannot have children," said Hulen.  "No future claimant from his seed.  I also believe he will choose Marcus to succeed him.  And I do not say this because of your hospitality."

"I respect your candor," replied Zandra, "and am gratified you both think this way.  Has Olista ever mentioned a potential abdication?"

Tamsin pulled air in over her teeth.  "We had hoped that Zenepha would prove rather more malleable once the Sandesterans left the city, but the boy's found his feet now and is more than comfortable with power.  He certainly feels no need for any hand-holding from us."  She grimaced.  "Even though I doubt if he's forgiven Olista for his manumission."

"Strange creature," smiled Hulen.  "He has helped fuel the debate among the sylphs."

"Some debate," said Tamsin.

"I agree," said Zandra.  "I suspect that the wild sylphs are only begging the city sylphs to reject their collars because so many of their own wonder about taking one."

"Surely not," murmured Tamsin.

"How many city sylphs have asked for manumission?"  asked Zandra, quietly.  "A few of the scouts have discussed it, but even the most vociferous has not dared take the actual step.  I fear Zenepha very much remains an exception."

"And he did not ask for his manumission," said Hulen.

Tamsin nodded.

"On the other hand, lots of the wild sylphs, and not just their infertiles, appear confused on the subject," continued Zandra.  "Some scouts have won hearts among the Free Tribe.  Sandev couldn't hide her surprise when one begged for a collar, which she refused to grant."

Hulen nodded.  "A wild sylph girl has gone for her scout?"

"Janin."  Zandra smiled.  "Sandev has given her blessing to a union, but she won't enslave a wild sylph."

"Janin used to be a beggar."  Tamsin's blue-green eyes sparkled.  "Perhaps he will ask for manumission."

Zandra barked a quick laugh.  "Or perhaps he's already had enough of freedom.  Among the scouts, he's one of the loudest voices urging sylphs to keep their collars.  Two generations, possibly three, and the so-called 'Free' Tribe will be nicely civilized and wondering why they ever made any fuss about collars.  Choosing Kestan as leader was but a first step along the road of domestication."

"We shall see."  Tamsin laughed.  "Speaking for myself, I remain unconvinced.  Sylphs are never easy to predict.  But let us speak of Sandev.  She has remained ominously silent on the subject of emperors since she returned home."

"She's become something of a sylph collector," remarked Hulen.  "Hasn't she brought some Eldovan infertile home with her?"

"There are certainly a few sylphs at her villa now," said Tamsin.

Zandra said nothing.  However many sylphs Sandev collected was none of her business; she wanted to be certain Sandev would not stand in her way when the time came to put Marcus on the throne.

"I'm concerned what the gwerins are teaching Salafisa," she said.

Tamsin and Hulen stared at her for a long moment.  Clearly they had forgotten one of Marcus's sylphs had birthed a gwerin.  People already mistakenly assumed the youngster belonged to the throne.

Tamsin recovered first.  "They will teach her loyalty to the throne.  It is a gwerin's task to advise whoever sits on that throne."

"Will they advise Zenepha to abdicate?"  asked Zandra.

"Not immediately," replied Tamsin.  "But neither will they stand in his way if he decides to take that route.  After all, Marcus is hardly a monster and he does at least have a legitimate claim to the throne.  Unlike Zenepha."

Zandra leaned forward.  "Then we must make plans to encourage the sylph to step down," she said.  A smile blossomed.  "More alovak?"

***

Kaira slipped through the crowds, wearing a small though happy smile.

Now the late spring wind had finally dropped, the sun warmed Marka.  Thankfully, the heat had not yet grown too uncomfortable, when haze danced in the streets and people avoided the noontime.  Blue skies, calm weather and increasing warmth all helped buoy Kaira's mood.  Life treated her well.

Governess to the Vintner's children for the past five years, she had long since resigned herself to living in Marka, rather than Calcan.  But she had known the Vintners were headed to Marka before she took the job.

A job she loved.

Born to a middling-successful trader twenty-four years earlier, the youngest of seven daughters and five sons, she learned early to compete for attention.  Older siblings had previously owned all her clothes while growing up, but she was otherwise treated no differently.

Raised to respect certain standards and educated to the best of her ability, her parents were overjoyed when she won her place with the Vintners.  Alone of all her siblings, she would choose her own husband, rather than having a continuous parade of eligible partners suggested by her mother.

And, since arriving in Marka, she had found someone.

Also twenty-four, Basren worked in the main library.  Unlike the library in Calcan, the mostly old men who looked after the books and records in Marka guarded their charges like over-protective bears.  Books could be read, but not removed.  With few exceptions.

Not that many people used the library.  Kaira had been researching lessons for the Vintner children the day Silmarila came to reclaim her books.  As far as the librarians were concerned, those books now belonged in the reading room and raised voices echoed around the huge vaulted chamber of the main room.

The gwerin had retreated, but returned within the hour, this time armed with several large purple-cloaked guardsmen and an edict from Zenepha.  Intimidation carried the day and Silmarila successfully reclaimed her books.  The guardsmen took several trips to load the carriage and the gwerin had to walk back to the palace.

Kaira and Basren had found the entire episode hilarious, and this shared humor had brought them together.  Kaira had never thanked the gwerin, but she doubted if Silmarila would understand anyway.

They shared a similar sense of humor, and Basren always found a way to make her laugh.  Kaira liked the slim young man straight away, and their relationship flowered from that moment.  She was headed for the library now, and hoped for a long chat with him before returning to her duties at the palace.

She dodged an urchin running as fast as he could from a stallholder with a stick, turned a corner, and the library stood before her.

She would never understand why she felt so nervous before meeting Basren; even knowing he felt the same way made her no better.

As Kaira mounted the steps to the studded oak doors, calm yet pitiless eyes watched her every move.

***

"Zenepha is wavering, which is no good for the city."

Sandev watched Marcus Vintner, claimant to the Markan Throne, push dark-brown hair away from his eyes.  His infertile sylph, Jenn, stood patiently beside him.  She stared around the room, finding Sandev's study interesting.  Her own sylph Caya stood to one side, waiting for orders.

"Zenepha receives the very best advice," she replied carefully.  "He will step aside when the time is right.  Everybody knows he is only a caretaker.  We made that clear even before his coronation."

Marcus stared into his empty alovak mug.  "The Senate still stands against me.  That is obvious by the moves to keep Zenepha where he is."

Sandev must remember that this man was no fool.  And whatever he missed from Marka's political pulse, his wife Zandra caught.

"You are popular in the city," replied Sandev.  "The Supreme Council want you on the throne, the guilds are prepared to support you once Zenepha steps aside and even the Imhotep is ready to see you in your rightful place."

Marcus glanced at the shelves of books rising behind the desk at one side of the room.  Sandev had received him in the study because decorators and painters worked in the main living room.  Even so, her study offered as many comforts.

His gaze met hers and held firmly.  "My victory is assured if even the Imhotep is on my side."

"Though you must realize that he pretty much respects whatever Djerana has to say on the subject."

"Djerana, yes."  Marcus shook his head.  "Ilven do not usually hold so much power over human decisions."

Sandev laughed.  "I think Djerana would be horrified if she knew.  Sadly, the Imhotep is obsessed with our resident ilven; thankfully that feeling is not reciprocated.  You are empty."

Marcus raised a hand and began to say he needed no more, but Sandev had already turned.

"More alovak please, Caya."

The sylph stood slightly to one side inclined her head.  "At once, anya."

Sandev sighed when the sylph had gone.  "She has hardly left my sight since my return."

Marcus glanced at the door and subconsciously ruffled Jenn's hair, before resting his hand protectively on the infertile's shoulder.  "She missed you."

"I know.  She's not exactly climbed into bed with me, but she sleeps immediately outside my door.  Worse than an infertile, now."  Sandev peered across the table.  "No insult intended, Jenn."

Marcus's own sylph smiled, but she gave no reply, awed by the woman's great age, if not her power.

"She even stays in the room when I use the Gift," continued Sandev.

"Rare in a sylph, that," remarked Marcus.

"Non-existent, in fact," replied Sandev.  "Before now."

The clepsydra chose that moment to gurgle, which caught Jenn's wide-eyed attention, her earpoints slanted sharply forward.  Marcus patted her arm absently and the infertile soon relaxed again.

Sandev noted the speed of the sylph's reaction, but said nothing.

"Zenepha," said Marcus.

"He won't go until he's ready."  Sandev shrugged.  "We never realized how seriously he would take his duties."

"The gwerins have taken to him."

"It's the gwerins' task to serve the throne," replied Sandev.  "No matter who sits there.  And before you complain about that again, remember that you do have considerable influence with them."

Marcus nodded.  "Thanks to Eleka."

Sandev smiled.  "Thanks to Belaika too; it was perhaps unwise to let him out of the city."

"Belaika begged to go into the field; he has reasons of his own."  Marcus had no intention of telling Sandev why his sylph had been so insistent about traveling to Eldova with Kelanus.

As Belaika and Eleka were Salafisa's parents, the older two gwerins in the palace gave them the same respect they would their own parents.  Apparently all gwerins behaved in this way.  Compared with sylphs, gwerins lived long, and the pair belonging to the throne behaved like children towards Eleka.  Despite their great age, Eleka seemed to take their attention well.

And Marcus understood why Sandev voiced her regret that Belaika had left the city.  Silmarila was close to Eleka, but Samrita regarded Belaika with a shade more respect.  Perhaps because she had met him first, or because he had earned the Shadow Riders' respect over the banner.

"Then you must use the available tools," said Sandev.  "Eleka can increase your influence over Samrita and Silmarila."

"A strange weakness in gwerins."  Marcus smiled.

Sandev shrugged.  "Exploit it.  But remember that the weakness is there when you take the throne, in case another sylph produces a gwerin."

"How common is it?"

"Not likely in Marka," replied Sandev.  "But someone else might have a gwerin and her parents out there somewhere."

She had the answer, but was not about to enlighten him; such replies usually raised even more questions, concerning how she came by her information.  Besides, her sources were thousands of years old and sylphs might have adapted since then.

"Then I'd better take Eleka to the next meeting."  Marcus smiled and looked down at his infertile.  "Hope you understand, Jenn."

"You might take both of us, enya," replied the infertile.

Sandev laughed.

The door opened and Caya came through, carrying a tray.  She set it down and stood back, waiting for the alovak to brew a little more.

Sandev looked at Jenn and suddenly found her unwavering silver stare unsettling.  He abandons me too much now, it seemed to say, do not make my task harder than it is already.  She blinked and almost asked aloud what task Jenn already found difficult.  Foolishness, Jenn was just an infertile.  But Sandev averted her eyes first.

A moment later and Jenn was just Jenn again, an amiable infertile who liked to stay close to her owner.  One who thought of little beyond her immediate task and when she might be petted again.

Sandev covered coming second in the battle of the eyes by turning to Marcus.

"Alovak?"  she asked.

***

Nedilen walked towards Marka's gates, staff tapping on the ground, green hood of his yellowflax cloak pushed back from his head.

His earpoints, freed from the constraints of the hood, twitched forward in curiosity.  He had seen towns on his travels, but nothing so grand as this city.  Buildings loomed over the patrolled walls and he shivered as a primeval instinct warned him to stay away.

And he pretended he could not see the huge black pyramid, stretching to the clouds.  How could humans build such things?

But he must press forward.  He had waited three years for this moment.

Nobody paid him much attention and travelers were much more tolerant of his presence than he had expected.  Many gave him surprised glances, perhaps wondering why he wasn't with a human, until they saw his uncollared neck.

Other sylphs were the worst: they stared as if he had grown an extra head or something.  They usually watched warily, and pity often shone in their silver-gray eyes, but none ignored him.  They could not possibly know his reason for coming here, so why did they pity him?

For his own part, his gaze slid away from collars.  How could they bear the things and the low status they represented?  Yet these sylphs all wore them with obvious pride.  Nedilen would never understand why they did not hang their heads in shame.

He had nearly reached the gates, where two guards stood in the portal, nodding people through after a cursory glance.  Would they let him in, or refuse entry because he was a so-called wild sylph?

He warranted no more than a quick glance.  Not even challenged.  He paused and the guards, one with brown eyes and the other with blue, looked back at him.

Nedilen decided the one with gentle brown eyes was probably the more intelligent of the pair.

"Do you sing my tongue?"  he asked.

"He can't even sing in his own tongue," replied the blue-eyed guard, speaking in what sounded like fluent sylph.

Nedilen should have guessed the dialect would be different here.  His attention switched to the sylph-speaking guard.

"I look for my son," said Nedilen.  "He was taken and I think he is here."

"This is a large city."  The sylph-speaker shrugged.  "Have you his name?  There are certainly wild sylphs here."

Nedilen's heart leapt.  Wild sylphs would not be in Marka unless forced to be here.  "His name is Tilipha."

The guards were suddenly wary and exchanged looks.  Even the one with brown eyes recognized the name!  This father's hope strengthened.

The blue-eyed guard nodded towards a door.  "Go through there and ask for Janin.  He should be able to help."

The sylph nodded thanks and pushed the door open.

Another guard sat behind a desk, checking paperwork.  The mysterious gift of reading, Nedilen supposed.  The room smelled of human and paint.  He sniffed the air carefully.  Could he also smell sinabra?

The guard lifted his head and burbled something quickly in his strange language.

"I look for Janin," he said.

A new voice came from behind him.  "That's me."

Nedilen spun on his heel and blinked.

To judge from the silver-gray eyes and long earpoints, the apparition was a sylph.  The creature's hair and skin were painted gray, green and brown, and vivid black slashes crossed face and chest.  The paint left no hint of blue skin anywhere.  The paint smell almost masked the natural sylph odor, or sinabra.

Nedilen's gaze flinched away from the leather collar.

"I am Janin," said the strange sylph, speaking slowly.

"The guards sent me here.  I look for my son and they said you can help.  His name is Tilipha."

Janin smiled.  "Can do better than that," he replied.  "I will take you to him."

Renewed hope flared stronger.

He would see his son again.

***

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