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.

***

Markan Sword - Sample Chapter (Marka subplot part 1)

And a final sample chapter, the first from the Markan subplot.  The italics in the first part are deliberate!


Marka - Part I

The two boys were sent to the darkened storage room to polish the sword.  They carried candle-lanterns and whispered ghost stories to each other, pretending they were too big and old to fear the dark.  Being boys, they could hardly resist practicing with the sword, one pretending to attack the other when they finished polishing.  When the Imperial Armorer arrived to give the weapon its monthly inspection, he sent the boys on their way, with an empty threat of a cuffing for disrespecting the ancient sword ringing in their ears.

The sword would not have minded being used for its intended purpose once again.

If it had awareness, which of course it did not, the sword would want to taste sweet, fresh blood, as in its distant youth.  To be used as a weapon of war, taking lives in its owner's service.

But now, it served as nothing more than a symbol.  Of government and administration no less, but still only representing some abstract ideal which had nothing to do with war.

Made from plain steel, its existence began in one of the many forges in Magiere.  It could tell a tale of more than seventeen hundred years; it had seen empires rise and empires fall.  It had seen yet more lands destroyed and ravaged, or annexed to stronger nations.  It knew the euphoria of victory and the bitter taste of defeat.

Lettering, etched into the blade, had been worn to illegibility centuries ago, and the copper inlaid to enhance the etching gone long before that.  The sword would miss the copper; though fresh blood had the metallic taste of copper.

Still the sword continued its existence, preserved only because of its illustrious owner, the man who had founded the first successful empire and began the long task of reintroducing civilization to a continent.

Whenever one of the man's descendants died, out came the sword, laid across the new emperor's lap to serve as a symbol and a reminder of what awaited whenever humanity abandoned order for chaos.

The sword had seen it all.  Hope, success, victory, failure, loss and defeat.  It had seen battles, it had seen hopes dashed.  Wherever the Founding Mark had gone, the sword went too, and was used, perhaps too well used, to steal lives and secure victory.

And now, as the Imperial Armorer completed his monthly inspection, the sword was again returned to darkness.  It had seen greatness pass and, if it had awareness, which of course it did not, would see greatness return.

But for now, alone in the dark, the Markan Sword waited.

***

Zenepha stared out of the window across rooftops towards the huge black pyramid that dominated the countryside and dwarfed the city built alongside it.  Despite his position of power, he felt troubled.

The Eldovans' siege of Marka had been broken and the enemy forced to return home.  The threat from Re Taura had abated, with the old mametain restored, the usurper dead and his army, if not disbanded, at least greatly reduced in size.

Lands bent knee to his rule, submitting once again to Marka's suzerainty, if not her direct authority.  The Shadow Riders had returned from their long self-imposed exile and reaffirmed their vows; two gwerins who remembered the last Markan Empire had come home and accepted their collars, with a third almost two years old and already beginning her schooling.

But worries furrowed Zenepha's brow.  Despite all his success, he still felt like a pretender, as if living a lie.  A sylph, sold as a chattel to Marka's Supreme Councilor...  His earpoints twitched.  No collar had graced his neck for almost two years and he still missed it.  No slave could be an emperor, even a sylph emperor, a caretaker before the genuine ruler stepped forward to take his throne.  A human ruler.

He failed to convince himself and squeezed his silver-gray eyes shut.  As his previous owner had pointed out to the Senate the day of his manumission, nobody really knew whether Zenepha had been born into slavery or not.

But surely all sylphs were born as property, the cost of their bargain with humanity, security granted in exchange for service, alliance with the more aggressive species, instead of competition and enmity.  Then wild sylphs had showed up and given lie to his belief.

Not even he knew his early history.  All left to him from his early days, from before, was a vague memory of a gentle touch and a strange tattoo of many black lines that permanently marked the inside of his left biceps.  He wanted to believe the touch had come from his mother.

He could not even remember her face.

He felt uncharacteristic anger rise as he considered his stolen memories.  Nobody knew the how or why, but he wanted them back more than anything else.  He needed answers that he believed to be his right.  Did he have a family who missed him?  Did his mother still live?  Zenepha ached for the knowledge to plug the gaps in his mind.

As emperor, he wanted to command the return of his memories.  Still unable to believe it, he whispered the mantra.

"By Siranva’s Wrath: Emperor of Marka, Dominator of the World, Guardian of the Key, Commander of the Shadow Riders, Lord Protector of Gwerins; His Imperial Majesty, Emperor Zenepha."

Opening his eyes, he blinked a couple of times and felt no different.  He still lived the lie.

Oh, he understood what had happened and even admired his former owner's cunning.  There were many claimants to the throne, but only the two with the strongest claims had been invited to Marka.  They met, they fought, and one captured the other.  A clear choice.

Except that someone else decided the defeated claimant was now an encumbrance and murdered him, triggering events that led to claims being suspended and an unwilling sylph thrust onto the throne of the most powerful land in the known world.

Trickery had been involved of course, not least of all to himself.  His old life had been quite comfortable, with a good owner and a loving wife, but he knew he could never return to that now.  Come what may, that old and familiar life existed only in the past.

He missed it.

"I am a sylph," he muttered, as if to remind himself.

That humans had allowed his coronation still amazed him.  Had his previous owner planned to make Marka a laughing stock?

But if anybody had ever laughed, it happened quietly and in private.

Had he really wanted to be removed from this unwelcome position, Zenepha knew he should have behaved very differently.  But no, he'd played along and trapped himself.

His values and loyalties transferred from his owner to his country.  He served Marka with the same diligence as he had Olista.  He no longer belonged to one man, but to an entire nation and he made it his duty to serve them.

Then the siege cemented his position.

He had been nothing more than the figurehead.  Yet people cheered him in the streets afterwards, soldiers cheered whenever he came close.  Everybody pretended that they couldn't see blue skin, or silver hair, or earpoints, or anything else that marked him out as being non-human.

They pretended they had a real human as emperor.

Which they did not, of course.

Sylphs regarded him with awe.  They had elevated him to something more than he deserved, treating him almost as a god and all but worshiping the ground he walked on.  Wild sylphs, freed by Marcus Vintner, held him up as an example of what sylphs could achieve without human ownership.  Civilized sylphs muttered that he was an exception, yet argued among themselves whether or not they should continue wearing collars.

Both groups of sylphs believed he stood with them.

But he did not.  The simple truth was that he stood completely, utterly alone.

Despite what people believed, despite what they wanted, it had begun to unravel last year.

His staunchest supporter, Marshal Mikhan, had advised him to guard against Re Taura.  Marcus's general had advised him to concentrate on the Eldovans.  Zenepha had taken Mikhan's advice which, even if not precisely wrong, had not proved to best serve Marka's interests, and for the reasons Kelanus had so eloquently pointed out.

Everybody now knew that Re Taura really had planned to invade, but Zenepha now understood that island country could never occupy a continent, could never force its way to a land-locked city, take it and, most importantly, hold it.

Those responsible for siting Marka had chosen their ground well.

Until the winter, he had hoped that the senior people from Sandester, from Branad Vintner's lands, actively supported him because they believed his rule was for the best.  They had ultimately shown themselves to be self-serving.  Recalled to Sandester, all bar Branad's son Verdin, who had proved himself very loyal.

Trouble would come from that province, even if Zenepha had been assured that nothing would happen while he held the throne.

That left Marcus Vintner in Marka.  Despite his name, Marcus was barely related to the Sandesteran Vintners, a cousin so many times removed that nobody could say they were even the same family.

Marcus had proved loyal, up to a point, but his hunger for the throne had not lessened one whit.  His wife, Zandra, had most of the guilds in her apron and Zenepha knew they continued to campaign for their accession.  He had used the Sandester Vintners as a counterweight, but now they had left for home, he stood alone against determined opponents.  He realized that the Calcan Vintners waited for him to slip, with no intention of catching him when it happened.

And they were right.

Sold to Marka's citizens as a successful foray instead of a lucky break, the Re Taura business had proved a serious blunder.  The Calcan Vintners had carried the day there.

Marcus Vintner's people (though not the man himself, who had cannily refused to commit one way or the other) had warned Zenepha that the Eldovans were the biggest threat.  Marcus Vintner's people who defeated and put the Eldovans to flight.  And Marcus Vintner's people who had now gone to Eldova to finish the job.

The people might still look to Zenepha because he was the emperor, but High Councilors and Senators alike saw that Marcus Vintner and his contacts decided almost everything now.

Zenepha gave a sylph's slow blink as he stared out of the window.

Only a question of time before Marcus replaced him.  Except that Marcus Vintner remained unpopular with the Senate.  Strange to think that senators, who had ridiculed the notion of a sylph emperor, were now his only counter against Marcus.

"Good morning, Majesty."

Zenepha turned on his heel and only just managed to stop himself from inclining his head.  The creature stood before him was far older and infinitely wiser than he could ever hope for.

"Good morning, Samrita," he replied.

Most people and a few sylphs thought Samrita a human at first glance, until they saw her earpoints and cat-slit pupils of her hazel eyes.  Both things showed a sylph connection, though there similarities ended.  Zenepha would never understand how sylphs could produce gwerins, throwbacks to some human inheritance everybody had forgotten about.

Or did not want to think about.

Gwerins were also highly intelligent and valued as advisors.  He had two.

The second of those gwerins slipped shyly into the room behind Samrita.

Silmarila was not shy, but she instinctively deferred to Samrita, something to do with the older gwerin being more experienced.  Samrita had served Emperor Kylist, great-great-grandfather to Emperor Rono.  And Rono was centuries dead, buried in the ashes of the second Markan Empire.

Both gwerins curtsied together.  It would be the only one he received from them today.  He might get called "Majesty" a few times more though.  For some reason, the gwerins didn't see him as a sylph, either.

"Nata should be here soon with sweetbread and fresh water," he promised.

Samrita laughed.  "We will have plenty to eat, I also sent Nynra to bring the same."

Zenepha smiled.  "Let us sit," he suggested.

Their conversation stayed light.  Weather, crops, the timber harvest.  Small talk, while waiting for their refreshment.

Nata, perhaps thanks to greater experience, arrived first.  She set her tray on the table between the three of them, and curtsied.

"Thank you, Nata."  Zenepha smiled.

The small infertile's earpoints twitched, she mumbled something barely audible, and fled.  Zenepha sighed.

"We were friends once," he said.  "On my free day, I always brought her some bread.  After becoming emperor, I offered her work here."

The gwerins exchanged a look.  "An act of kindness," said Silmarila, who already knew Nata's history.

"I applaud," added Samrita.  She cocked her head and all three heard the sound of ankle bells, growing stronger.  "Ah!  Nynra."

A moment later, the door opened again.  Even now, months after her arrival in Marka with the Shadow Riders, Nynra's looks still gave Zenepha pause.

The infertile came from the far north, where sylphs had adapted and changed.  Skin so pale it was almost colorless, with only a hint of blue.  Eyes and hair were almost white, rather than silver, giving her a somewhat startling appearance to the uninitiated.  Many in the palace believed Nynra to be some sort of phantom.  The other sylphs - and not just infertiles - regarded her with awe, and even humans showed her more respect than they might to other sylphs.

More importantly, Nynra wore no collar.  Both Silmarila and Samrita wore collars, made from red gold and encrusted with precious stones.  Nynra had adopted the Markan custom of ankle bells for domestic sylphs, but refused to wear a collar.  She hailed from Kelthane, where even infertile sylphs were free.

Yet she served.  Both Nynra and Samrita feared that the free could not serve a slave, but nobody had ever questioned their arrangement.  Zenepha happily left things as they were; at least one other civilized sylph in Marka did not wear a collar.

Unlike other servants, Nynra showed little obeisance, and Samrita made no move to dismiss her.  Now refreshments were served, the gwerins came straight to business.

"Mansard's elevation to Marshal has met with surprising approval," said Silmarila, her dark-brown eyes calm.  "With him being Marcus's man, I feared the Senate might not approve."

"Captain Crallin turned it down," said Zenepha.  "And Lance-General Kestan has had to take command in the field since Kelanus went west.  That narrowed the list of candidates."

"Just so," said Samrita.  "And a reward for Mansard after being pushed aside by the Shadow Riders."

Zenepha grimaced.  Until the previous autumn, Mansard had commanded the emperor's personal guard.  The Shadow Riders' return had rendered that personal guard redundant, and Fared had long since replaced Mansard.

"With all the Sandesterans returned home, we have little choice," he remarked.

"Very true," agreed Samrita.  "Trouble lies ahead from Sandester, I fear."

"Indeed."  This was the crux of Zenepha's dilemma.  He could renounce the throne in Marcus Vintner's favor, but that might spark rebellion in Sandester.

"They might settle for independence," added Silmarila, who had taken time to study Sandester and knew a lot more than Samrita about this subject.  "Bringing them back under the eagle will be Marcus's problem."

"But not a good start to his reign," pointed out Samrita, a little testily.  "He ascends the throne and is immediately faced with revolt."

"If he has any sense, he'll leave them to it," countered Silmarila.  The gwerin had enjoyed several long talks with Kelanus about military tactics and strategy, and eagerly absorbed her lessons.  She wanted no repeats of past mistakes.  "Whatever Nazvasta decides to do, the rightful heir is loyal to the throne.  Verdin is the key to pacifying Sandester.  And that will - would - be my advice to Marcus should he ascend the throne."

"The boy."  Samrita sounded unsure of Verdin.  "Young.  Eager.  Dangerous."

"All young men are dangerous," retorted Silmarila.  "This is why we guide them."

"If they listen."

Silmarila fell silent.  She knew the truth of that too well.  Despite the passage of centuries, she could not forget the pain.

"Verdin could plunge Sandester into civil war," continued Samrita.  "His father renounced the claim and Verdin respects that decision.  Nazvasta argues on a technicality that his brother's renunciation does not include him.  He is not a descendant."

Silmarila sniffed.  "A younger sibling," she said.  "An interesting point in law."

"We have no law to cover this eventuality."  Samrita's voice was gentle.

Zenepha marveled.  Humans would probably come to strong words and shouting matches while disagreeing, but these two gwerins barely raised their voices.

"Other than the law of inheritance."  Silmarila smiled.

Zenepha nodded.  "But it does not specifically state that younger siblings are descendants," he said.  "Only that they can inherit."

Nynra stared at him with her too-white eyes.

Samrita laughed.  "I forget that your former owner made you read those books."

Silmarila's smile was at best polite.  "Just so.  But how can a younger sibling inherit a renounced claim?"

"A very fine point in law," said Samrita.

"But a valid one."

Samrita grimaced.  "For it to be valid, we need a judgment first.  Trouble is, I doubt if Nazvasta would recognize any ruling from Marka not in his favor."

"Assuming that such a ruling was not," added Zenepha.  "A very high-risk strategy to seek one out."

Nynra spoke up.  "But why bother?  Your Majesty may reign for many years yet."

Everybody stared at the infertile.  Even Zenepha had almost forgotten she considered herself free, perfectly at liberty to join in conversations.

The male sylph forced a smile.  "Yes," he replied, vaguely, "I may."  He tried to avoid the gwerins' combined gaze.

"We certainly hope so," said Silmarila, after a long pause.  "But you must remember that our duty is to advise the emperor, whoever that might be."

Zenepha gave her a sylph's slow blink.  He hoped he heard no threat in those words.

***

Markan Sword - Sandester sample chapter (part 2)

The second part of my latest sample offering:


Plots and Plans - Part II

Mikhan Edric Annada, lately Marshal of Marka and now restored to his previous position as Marshal of Sandester, clasped his hands behind his back and stared out of the window across the city.

'Ranva's breath, but he had missed this view.

His office, despite being near the palace, looked towards the bone-white turrets of the South Gate, the most impressive entrance to any city he had ever seen.  Sure, Marka had its massive and awe-inspiring pyramid, but its entry gates were nothing special.

Sandester's South Gate was also known as the Pauper Gate because of the old tradition of expelling beggars and ne'er-do-wells from the city through it.  Not a tradition exercised today of course, in these humane and kindly times.

But seeing the gate reinforced the knowledge that he had come home.

"Two years, Paul," Mikhan said, still looking out the window.  "Two years and it's gone in a flash."

Mikhan's companion in the room stirred as the marshal turned away from the window.

Field-Captain Paul Tennan shrugged.  "At least you are back now," he replied, dark eyes thoughtful.  Married to Mikhan's oldest granddaughter, he suspected that his promotion to field-captain was partly due to that fact.  "Any more thoughts on who to promote general?"

Mikhan's blue eyes twinkled.  "Think you are ready for it?"

"Me?"  Paul gaped.  "I'm much too young."

"And more use at your present rank."  Mikhan laughed.  "Age is immaterial, experience and skill are more important.  I took overall command of the army before I reached forty.  Only a couple of years older than you are now when promoted to general."

"Bloodier times," muttered Paul.

"And incompetent leaders," added Mikhan.  He gestured out the window.  "Marcus Vintner Elder managed to besiege the city for a year and it needed new tactics to break him.  But break him we did, and the incompetents were cleared out."

"Or dead," added Paul.  He did not add breaking that siege had sealed Mikhan's reputation as a poliorcetic.

"We nearly lost everything to Marcus Senior," continued Mikhan.  Salin.  I lost my beautiful daughter.  Thirty years and the pain feels fresh every time I think of her.  "Imagine Calcan gaining control over all the ships passing in to or out from the Bay of Plenty, owning both Horns of Ramte."

"I imagine those Vintners might have the Throne by now," said Paul.

"Very likely.  But we threw them out of Sandester and they've never been back.  The younger Marcus doesn't have the same fire as his father.  More diplomat and politician than warrior, but no less dangerous for that."

"You worry that he might replace Zenepha as emperor?"  asked Paul.

"He will replace Zenepha.  And Nazvasta will rebel against him."

"And remove him from the Throne?"

Mikhan's shoulders slumped.  "That is the stated aim," he replied.

"But?"

Mikhan smiled again.  "Very perceptive.  Sure you're not ready for that generalship?  Maybe I should offer it to Drecan, or Indelgar."

"Indelgar might be the wisest choice," said Paul, eagerly seizing a straw.  "Not related to you and very experienced."

Mikhan waited.

"My question?"  prompted Paul.

"I don't think Nazvasta will be able to take the Markan Throne without fighting unless he moves before Zenepha steps down.  And he won't do that, because he offered his fealty.  Marka's Senate stands behind the sylph, but enough of them support Marcus should Zenepha fall.  Marcus is there, in place, and ready.  He's been politicking hard for two years.  The best we can hope for is some sort of continued independence for Sandester, reinforced with military victories."

"Some will see that as defeatism," said Paul.  "So many are tired of war."

"I know."  Mikhan nodded.  "But the reality is that war is inevitable when politics fail.  Trouble is, I believe that Nazvasta agrees with me, even if he dare not admit to it openly."

"What is it you want me to do?"

"Do?"  Mikhan's smile widened.  "You carry on as normal, but we must help Nazvasta in any way we can.  Kana is pushing Nazvasta hard to pursue the claim.  She believes that it is his duty, especially since Verdin is standing by his father's renunciation.  But whether Nazvasta has the drive and determination to win through is the bit we don't know.  The last thing we need, if we must offer our lives, is weak leadership."

"So there is still hope that we can win?"  Paul's dark eyes showed his renewed excitement.

"Of course we can win."  Mikhan spread his arms.  "There is always hope."

***

Three barrack blocks and a cookhouse surrounded the square.  Men formed an inner square, watching the last two men fight with practice-swords.  They might learn something while witnessing the fight.  Among the junior soldiers, these were the best swordsmen.

Using both hands on the practice-sword, Egran danced.  Swordplay and dancing were similar, though one of the two skills was a lot more deadly.  His opponent boasted excellent skills, and a telltale line of red across Egran's side showed where a hit had been scored, and where a fresh bruise would soon swell.

Many of these men hailed from Egran's Re Taura, but the rest hailed from other lands.  Even a smattering of Sandesterans, who had returned home from Re Taura and joined their own land's army.

Egran turned on his feet, feinted to one side, then whipped his flexible practice-sword against the other side of his opponent's chest, kept on moving and slashed again across the man's back.

"Enough!"  The sergeant overseeing the session clapped his hands.

Both men stepped back and inclined their heads.

Sergeant Tresker, Blade Trainer for Sandester's army, came forward.

"An excellent display, from both of you."

Both men inclined their heads again, but remained silent.

"Especially you, Egran.  I feel a promotion might come your way very quickly."

"Yes Sergeant, thank you Sergeant."  By 'Ranva, but Egran hated this submission.  He hoped that promotion would come quickly; he disliked starting again in a new army.

"Right, you shower!"  called Tresker.  "Dismissed.  You've got thirty minutes to get cleaned up for your evening meal."

Inside, at the row of wash basins, Egran found himself beside another Re Tauran with the look of a grizzled veteran.

"Wasn't you a red-tabber?"  asked the other man, voice little more than a growl.

"That was then," replied Egran.  "Just an ordinary soldier now."

A quick grin and flash of strong teeth.  "World turns in funny ways," grunted the other man.  "Thought you lot would've been looked after."

Egran snorted.  "Once the old mametain was back in charge, he had no need for us," he replied.  "He doesn't trust us; we were Nijen's men."

"Not much left of Castle Beren, so I hear," chuckled the other man.

"All the mametain's quarters are gone," said Egran.  "But the castle is still garrisoned, if no longer by us."

The other man rinsed soap off his face and dried himself.  He buttoned up his shirt and stuck his hand out.

"Name's Kullin," he said.  "Used to be a lieutenant.  Like I said, world turns in funny ways.  Yesterday I used the arse-rags, today I'm the arse-rag."

"I'm Egran."  He shook the other's hand.  "Like you said, the world turns in funny ways, but I reckon some of us can make something of what we've got now."

Kullin chuckled.  "Like your attitude," he said.  "We can make this our army, if we try."

The two men sat together for their evening meal.

"So what did happen at Castle Beren?"  asked Kullin, while chewing on something that might even have been meat.  "At the end I mean.  It didn't just fall down."

Egran considered his words carefully.  "Nobody is really sure.  Some reckon a secret weapon, planted by spies.  Others say sorcerers at work."

Kullin took another bite.  "What do you reckon?"

Egran's smile looked more like a rictus.  Nobody would believe the truth.  He wasn't sure he believed it.  "Spies," he said.  "That's my favorite."  Nearly the truth.  He didn't dare add those spies were sylphs.

Kullin's gray eyes regarded his companion neutrally.  "Spies with a secret weapon?"

"Yes."

"There's talk here about a secret weapon," said Kullin.  "Reckon these were the ones who tried it on Castle Beren first?"

Egran shrugged.  "So long as they pay us, I don't really care."

Kullin smiled.  "Some of those who fought alongside Marka say there's a weapon that rips men to shreds."

Egran stared.  "That sounds like it," he said, pleased for the diversion.

One of the cooks stuck his head into the dining hall, saving Egran from further questions.  "If anyone wants more, he'd best come through now."

***

Kern Ranja Tulhern blinked myopically at Marshal Mikhan and gestured towards some black powder.

"I've managed to duplicate your sample, Marshal," he said, voice surprisingly deep for such an inoffensive looking man.  "A question of getting the charcoal crushed finely enough and in correct proportion with the other ingredients."

"Excellent."  Mikhan smiled.  He recognized Marka's advantage as long as they held the monopoly for producing Aylos Jalan's firepowder.  "It is now only a question of allocating resources for industrial manufacture.  How long before you might arrange a demonstration?"

"Demonstration.  Um.  Yes.  Well, er..."  Kern blinked again.  "Maybe in an hour?"

Mikhan laughed.  "I feared you were about to say week after next," he replied.  "It will take me a day or two to gather the right people.  When I have, I'll let you know."

Kern smiled.  "More resources always sound good, Marshal."

"I'm sure they do."  Mikhan's deep-set blue eyes glittered.  "Just don't let me down."

"Of course not, Marshal."  The blinks came faster now and Kern dry-washed his hands.  "You can rely on me.  That you can."

Mikhan's smile warmed.  "So glad to hear it," he murmured.  He hoped the small man never saw his relief.  Armies fighting without firepowder would be severely disadvantaged in future.

A modern army needed another secret weapon, and that was Mikhan's next destination.

***