Saturday, 25 August 2012

Monday, 13 August 2012

Markan Sword Prologue V: Assassin

The last of my five posts extracted from the Prologue to Markan Sword.  This is the third volume of the Markan Empire trilogy and should be available before the end of the year.

Feel free to leave comments.

Enjoy!


 Prologue V: ASSASSIN

Dervra relaxed in his small study, where nobody would disturb him, except perhaps Marlen, if he brought really dire news. He kept the room 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.

A door lay behind one of those panels, 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, with a carved wooden lion forming 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, his guest hailed from those parts, and would fit in perfectly there. That guest now sat perfectly at ease. Few people were so comfortable in Dervra's presence.

A closer look revealed oddities. The guest seemed relaxed, but the eyes held a wary glint and those narrow shoulders looked tense. An air of watchfulness, ready for fight or flight at any moment. All movements were sinuous and graceful; sylphlike or perhaps effeminate.

Dervra could not care less which.

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

His guest tensed until Dervra pulled free some miniature portraits. The guest covered the small movement by speaking. "Good alovak." The soft voice held an edge, as if the speaker tried to disguise its true sound. But disguise never fooled Dervra.

He nodded. His guest's alovak stood untouched, probably thanks to a suspicious nature. Dervra respected a strong survival instinct in others. "These are the people I want you to kill." He pushed the miniatures 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 again.

"Many have balked because women and children are to be killed as well as the man," said Dervra. "Not to mention the sylph, of course."

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."

"Excellent." Dervra smiled. "Marcus Vintner and his wife Zandra. Three daughters, infant son and Marcus's beloved infertile sylph, Jenn." He raised a finger. "All of them."

The guest nodded, barely reacting as the targets were named.

Dervra 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 disappeared, secreted somewhere within the cloak.

"Make Marcus suffer as he loses his family. Drag it out, drive him insane." Smiling, Dervra grasped his alovak. "Soon, 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 knew not a drop passed into the mouth. A suspicious nature indeed. Disposing of this one once the task was complete might not be as easy as he hoped.

***

Markan Sword Prologue IV: Sandester

Getting there now!  Fourth of five postings, all extracted from the prologue to Markan Sword, third volume of the Markan Empire trilogy.

Feel free to leave comments.

Enjoy!



 Prologue IV: SANDESTER

"Support for our claim in Marka falls day by day." Kana Santon shook her head. "Those not for Marcus stand behind Zenepha, united in their desire to keep him from the Throne, yet unable to agree 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. And despite the palace being built into the hill.

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 had Verdin laid his claim, but he followed his father's example."

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

Kana smiled. "He fancies himself as the man who will rebuild the empire and in fairness, he's doing quite well so far. But he's running free from our control. What influence we might gain through his actions so far is being wasted. Remember though that he is my son."

"It is hard to forget the fact," smiled Nazvasta, leaning back. He rested his elbows on the arms of his chair and clasped his hands together, fingers interlaced.

"Re Taura tamed by Marka, thanks to Verdin," continued Kana. "Ambassadors exchanged between Marka and former prefectures, thanks to Verdin. Other prefectures joining with Marka, thanks to Verdin."

"The boy certainly has a flair for diplomacy," remarked Nazvasta. "He's doing very well without us. Perhaps we can make use of your son yet."

"I hope so," admitted Kana.

"How secure is Zenepha?" Nazvasta kept his voice quiet.

Kana's grey-blue eyes were calm. "Away from his Supreme Council and Senate supporters, not very," she replied. "Marcus and Kelanus outmaneuvered 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 faced a massive task to turn around support for Marcus Vintner, but he had overcome obstacles before, and could do so again.

One way or another, his claim would be settled.

***

Markan Sword Prologue III: Eldova (2nd draft)

Third posting of five samples taken from the prologue of Markan Sword.  I hope to have this third volume of the trilogy out before the end of the year.

Read and enjoy, please feel free to leave comments.


Prologue III: Eldova

The man who called himself Hingast looked down at the sleeping baby supposedly his and smiled. He must treat this child as he would any real son. The result of a real union between Ansin and himself - or any of the dead Hingast's three wives for that matter - would look nothing like this. The sleeping babe was the real Hingast's get.

After each had given him three daughters, the real Hingast had ignored his older two wives, concentrating on the third, in the now-realized hope of a son. The man who now called himself Hingast had been forced to emulate that. For the time being.

After almost two years, he now almost believed himself to be Hingast, permanently living his new role. He had been an officer in Eldova's army years before and, when the real Hingast had come early to his throne, he had been there to whisper in the man's ear.

Before he moved on to new pastures and new challenges.

This time, he had returned as the most powerful man in Eldova, a definite advance over his previous position. 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 people discovered a... predilection and he felt obliged to murder his way out of trouble. He'd only just managed to save his own life that time.

He took much more care now. People grew ever more sophisticated and he knew some already suspected the truth about him.

Fortunately, they did not want to believe logic and their own senses.

"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 rather than 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, almost 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 the one he had put about. His fellow returnees were content to go along with this official story, or else be shown as cowards who chose flight over fight.

But Eldova needed all her men. The game was not yet over.

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

That was unfair and not completely 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 lands surrounding Eldova. Fertile farmland planted with softwood trees, changing the soil so other crops could no longer grow. This prevented any invading army from living off the land, the wood useless for making war-machines and siege-engines any potential invader would need.

A terrible waste of perfectly good arable land; he needed years to reclaim and restore it to proper use.
Clearing the land also meant the mass movement of huge numbers of people, which in turn caused prices to collapse in the slave markets. Followed by starvation for many and the highest proportion of enslaved humans anywhere on the continent. Which then made a significant number of sylphs destitute.

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

Everywhere, signs of avoidable neglect stood out. Human urchins infested the streets and were probably responsible for most of the crime. They organized and lived off whatever the many indigent sylphs managed to bring in. As in Marka, so many sylphs, particularly the infertiles, decided that negative attention was better than no attention at all, happily joining human gangs that controlled and used them.

Copying the Markan sylph-emperor's ideas would solve the problem of surplus people and sylphs. He had made a beginning since his return the previous fall. He had so much to put right.

Fortunately, he had a good feel for running a city.

Eldova's guilds had been denuded of men 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. He had begun to move surplus sylphs out from the city and onto the land, where they happily sowed and tended crops.

Every day, there were fewer and fewer beggars. Crime, a canker in any human society, was relentlessly driven down by a mixture of sylph relocation and strict enforcement of laws.
But he must also keep at least one eye on Marka. The sylph-emperor might not attack, preferring to consolidate his position further east, but 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 had not liked Dervra. In fairness, 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 now called himself Hingast included. He gave Dervra a few moments' thought. The man probably lurked further north, hiding in the stronghold where he believed himself safe. Turivkan was anything but safe, all but surrounded by enemies and potential enemies.

Not his problem.

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

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

***

Markan Sword Prologue II: Nightmares (2nd draft)

Second posting of five, all samples from my current work in progress, Markan Sword.  This book completes the Markan Empire Trilogy.

Feel free to leave comments.

Enjoy!


Prologue 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 realizing that Belaika would pick up on it. Sandev should stop that Gajaran from spreading her 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 color 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.

To ease his mind, Belaika must go to Eldova.

***

Markan Sword Prologue I: New Task (2nd draft)

Now that I've begun work on the second draft of Markan Sword, I'm proud to share a few samples from the Prologue with you.  Be warned though: there are spoilers for those who have not yet read Markan Empire!  Feel free to leave comments.

Enjoy!




Prologue I: New Task
Neptarik-y-Balnus, one hand resting on a full purse, walked cheerfully along the street. Light-crystals set at regular intervals along the main roads in Marka helped night-blind humans to see, though few other streets were lit, and no alleys at all. Light-crystals, no matter how long lasting, were expensive.

Thanks to Mya staying in, his night had been all the more successful. One of the few who could out-gamble him, she had dented his pride in public several times. He supposed that didn't matter too much since their marriage.

Married. A small smile ghosted across his lips. The best thing that came out of Re Taura for him had been his marriage. At long last, he had a wife. The smile faded when his thoughts turned to the least expected thing that also hailed from his time on Re Taura.

Tektu.

Neptarik had thought her dead, until the creature turned up on the ferry from Taura City to Calcan, unwanted and unwelcome. Unable to pay her fare, Tektu had managed to bully her way aboard and then intimidated the ferry's ancient sylph into allowing her passage to Calcan.
And then the vile creature explained to Neptarik what happened when someone killed her owner.
He hadn't wanted to believe it then, and he didn't want to believe it now. Sat on the sidelines tonight, Tektu had quickly grown bored and wandered away from the gambling. Neptarik thought she might do well, glowering at and intimidating people into losing. But she had never shown any interest in cards.

She had only come out because she felt uncomfortable in Mya's company. Mya had stayed in because she hated being anywhere near Tektu. Only after he and Mya had agreed to marry did they learn Neptarik was stuck with Tektu. She had lost her previous owner, Nijen da Re Taura, and lost him under specific circumstances.

No matter how indirectly, Neptarik had caused Nijen's death. As the one responsible for Tektu losing her owner, her allegiance shifted to him. And neither of them - meaning Neptarik and Tektu - could do anything about it. With terrifying honesty, Tektu assured her new owner that she would far rather have torn his throat out while she still had the chance. But far too late for that now, even if she still harbored a wish to see him hurt.

The astounded Neptarik had acquired an unwilling and angry slave. Tektu had never during her long life belonged to a sylph and she still fought the new strictures. But more than that complicated matters.

Tektu might be bonded to Neptarik, however reluctantly, but Mya had married him. Mya hated Tektu, because Tektu had killed her previous owner. The pair stayed far apart when possible, Mya horrified that her husband had somehow "won" Tektu through some weird automatic lottery she did not understand. Caught in the middle of the mess, Neptarik could see no way out.

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, his eyes rapidly adjusting to the sudden lack of light.

Three men, two of them night-blind after staring along the lit street. One was clearly a bad loser, because he had gambled with the sylph earlier. And among the first to lose his money.

The bad loser seemed able to see better than the others in the gloom. "Grab that purse," he demanded.

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

Tektu had once surprised Neptarik, but the scout learned lessons well and adapted his skill. Jumping to his feet between two of the men as they 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 dodged a punch that instead landed on a human.

He 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 his slashed midriff.

Certain someone would have heard the man's screams, which meant the City Guard would soon turn up, Neptarik checked his purse and dusted himself down. He hoped he hadn't rolled in anything nasty, alleys were not usually the cleanest places in Marka. 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. The Guard would suspect the three men had been fighting each other, which up to a point was true.

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, relaxing only when he recognized Smudge, leaning back against a building, one foot casually tucked back against the stonework. The dark birthmark from which she had earned her name 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. She pushed off the wall and came fully upright. "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.

Neptarik knew he would get no other answer.

Smudge left after depositing Neptarik in the room he recalled from last year. Visitors still had to sit with their backs facing the fire, and with Fynn's large desk between them and him. The scout nodded to his owner Balnus, and to Verdin, both must have been waiting for his arrival.

"Now Neptarik's finally here," said Balnus, after giving his sylph an exasperated glance, "will you please 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."

"Anything to so with the Sandesterans being recalled?" asked Balnus.

"No."

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

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

"But it's 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. "This census is causing some unrest among Turivkan's people. Boys a certain age are being taken away and not being returned."

"Perhaps Dervra needs more soldiers."

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

"Very specific," muttered Balnus.

"Significant too," added Fynn. "The old Prefect's sons were born in those years, which suggests they are still alive. I doubt if Dervra's overlooked the daughter, but she might already be dead."

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

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

Not only Neptarik shuddered. 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're even aware of who they are." Verdin's eyes flashed.

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

The sylph had been scowling at the floor and 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."

"Not the point." Neptarik's ear-points twitched violently. "The loss of honor 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 favorite to replace Mikhan as Marshal of Marka, entered the study. He glanced at Smudge before taking one of the chairs before Fynn's desk.

"Alovak?"

Kelanus nodded his thanks.

"Are the captive 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 savor 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 honorable 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 will Sandev?"

"No. Why not ask Grayar?" suggested Kelanus. "It will be nearly next 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 this time next year. It is something else for you to consider."

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

"Maybe not."

"There's another thing. Tahena's not the only insistent one." Kelanus paused. "Belaika knows. How..." He shrugged. "That's sylphs. But he's told me that he will be one of the scouts."

Fynn tapped his fingers together. "Good idea. Take him."

***

Saturday, 11 August 2012

Writing Update

I'm very pleased to let you all know that the first draft of Markan Sword is complete.  And what a marathon it's been!  As any writer will tell you, the work doesn't stop here though.  There's the second draft and the editing to get through yet.

The four plotlines have to be checked for consistency and characters to ensure their physical attributes don't suddenly change from one chapter to another (or even from one location to another).

I'm still aiming for the end of this year for publication of Markan Sword, which completes the Markan Empire Trilogy.

Sallis ti Ath's fans will be pleased to hear that the third story with him as the central character is in the planning stages now, tentatively entitled Gifted Avenger.  This will plug the gap in Sallis's character development between Gifted Apprentice and Markan Throne.

I'll keep you all posted!

Be well all.