Monday, August 11, 2014

The Seven-Petaled Shield - More Early Opening Chapter

For your reading pleasure, here is the second part of a very early opening chapter to The Seven-Petaled Shield. I've left it just as I wrote it, without attempting to bring spelling, name usage, place names, and the like, into congruence with the final, edited version. For myself, I find it fascinating to see how an author develops the characters and story. I hope this is interesting and rewarding to you, too.

This is one of several sketches and out takes, which will be archived under "Read A Story" as I post them here.

You can buy the book at the usual places, your local bookstore, Barnes & Noble, Amazon, or Powell's.

Chapter 1 (continued)

Zevaron took his breakfast before dawn with the other seamen. Someone had gone to shore and brought back fresh bread and fruit, small tart plums and dried figs.  The bread was coarse-grained, chewy with ground nuts.  Some kind of spice had been added, one Zevaron couldn’t identify.  Night had masked the strangeness of the place, but day could not keep it out.  Even the wooden sides smelled different here in port, and without the constant battering of waves, the ship seemed to be frozen in place.  The sailor who had warned him that he would be given a new name, a slave’s name, perhaps the name of a pet animal, cuffed him on the shoulder, not unkindly.

“No oars today, eh lad?”

From above came a shout.  The seamen swarmed up the ladder, Zevaron with them, and he got his first view of a Geloni city, a riot of brightness in the rising sun.  He had seen the wharves and jetties, with all the myriad craft, only as shadows.  Now shape and color assaulted him.  The sails were not only unbleached white but red and striped, the prows painted and adorned with carven images of women and or fish-tailed kings or strange beasts.  All around, boats were being loaded and unloaded.  Men bowed under their burdens, sacks and crates and barrels, their skins gleaming like polished metals, copper and iron and alabaster.  Carts rattled along the wooden jetties.  Zevaron had never seen onagers before; the desert tribes, including his own people, used ponies or camels.  The smells of brine and tar mingled with a thousand others.

For the next two hours, he had little attention to spare for the wonders of Verenzza.  Under the captain’s watchful eye, he hauled and carried and stacked, along with the grown seamen.  As usual, he made no complaint at weight or awkwardness.  Men in robes of pale yellow and red-trimmed white met with the captain and bargained, gesticulating toward the ship and the growing pile of cargo.  Zevaron supposed that they were arguing over whether they were about to receive the goods they had contracted for.  In the end, the city merchants departed, and the captain carried on board several small metal coffers.

Zevaron came on deck as he was bidden.  His mother stood there.  She wore her usual robes, stiff with dust and grime, but her hair was braided tight against her skull and then falling in a dozen wetly gleaming plaits. 

The captain hurried Zevaron and Tsorah onto shore.  He took them himself, as if he feared failure in another.  Zevaron tasted the man’s fear, his fascination, the fever to put an end to it.
Tsorah followed him like a shadow.  Zevaron, his chains clinking, struggled to keep up.  Beyond the docks for loading and unloading, the warehouses, he recognized taverns, the tang of stale, unfamiliar wine, a house that might be a brothel.  The paving stones bruised his bare feet, used to sand and wooden deck.  He slipped once or twice. After the clean salt air of their voyage, the city suffocated. 
One street led to another, broadening, rising.  The captain did not slow.  He quickened his pace, like a burden beast turned homeward to a full manger.  

 Zevaron, hardened by labor, climbed easily.  Tsorah moved like a shadow, liquid.  Only the catch of her breath and a delicate flush across her cheeks betrayed the effort of her exertions after so many weeks of inactivity.  Once she raised one hand, as if to press it to her heart, but she jerked it away.
He had been born and passed his childhood in a city. Verenzza surprised him, the tang of water everywhere, the trees, the gardens of riotous brilliance, red and orange and deep blue, yellow and purple, colors he had no names for.  Flags and pennons trailed from balconies, long ribbons intertwined with dangling ivy, strange and sensual.  The fragrance of the blossoms filled the air, and no where could he scent the acrid desert dust.

The governor’s mansion rose on pillars of shimmering white-gray marble from the tallest hill.  The cobbled road took them between terraced gardens.  Men in smocks and knee-length pants looked up from beneath straw hats as they passed. 

Pairs of men with sheathed short swords waited at the gates to the grounds and at the entrance to the house itself.  Here a steward of some kind came out and spoke with the captain.  Zevaron was not used to hearing so much Geloni; the seamen had spoken trade polyglot intermixed with a few phrases of gutter Geloni.  The language, from the mouths of native speakers, had a different cadence from the formal intonations he had studied.  Here it was a living tongue in all its inflections, its subtle nuanced references to rank and power.  Like Gelon itself, he suspected, the history of the Emperors had shaped the very language.

“What are you doing here with these,” the steward raked Zevaron and Tsorah with a sneer, “persons?  We do not purchase slaves straight off the boat.  You have come on a fruitless errand.”

“I’m not here for my own pleasure, but at the command of Ar-Nemeesh-Varon, governor of Varoni-Erreth.  He sends these two royal captives as a gift.”

“Don’t try your jackal tricks on me! No one of the rank and  breeding of His Excellency would entrust a mere seaman with such an errand.  Likely, she’s a whore you picked up yourself and now that you’ve tired of her, you think you can sell her for far more than she was ever worth to begin with.”

The captain’s shoulder muscles bunched and he shoved his chin out.  “D’you take me for such a fool?  Nemeesh’s nephew was all set to take them, but one of the sand-rats stabbed him in the belly the night before.”  He did not elaborate further, either the Geloni noble’s lingering death by suppuration or the fate of the rebel assassin.

The steward shifted uneasily, as if fearing that one of the two prisoners before him might leap for his throat, curved desert blade in hand.  Zevaron kept his gaze lowered.  He had learned to walk with inward purpose, but he had known little of fighting.  Most of it was over and the cities fallen by the time he was old enough to hold a knife.  Still, in his mind, he pictured how such an attack might proceed, where he might step, the weight of the blade, the smooth arc of the strike.  He would slash, not pierce, drawing the sharp edge along the man’s fat belly –

Like a waking dream, a vision filled the space behind Zevaron’s eyes.  The fat steward crumpled to the floor, blood spattering the pristine walls, the captain recoiling and then running for his own skin.  Zevaron grabbed his mother’s hand, felt her slender fingers tighten like steel around his own, sprinting back the way they had come.  The mansion in an uproar behind them, as if their footsteps left a wake of fire, confusion and despair.  ‘To the hills!’ she would cry, away from the harbor and into the winding streets, the markets thronged with townsmen and traders from a dozen different lands, whether their own origins would bring no remark –

“– a princess, you say?” the steward asked.  Lost in his vision, Zevaron had missed a portion of the exchange.  “Then where is her crown?  Her jewels?  You don’t expect me to believe that such an important personage, such a noble and valuable prisoner came all the way from Erreth-Varoni in a filthy robe and bare feet!”

The captain shifted his weight from one foot to the other.  The flush on his features darkened.  His hands clenched and unclenched.

The steward took a step closer.  He was taller than the captain, so that the captain had to raise his eyes or else stare at the other man’s chin.

“I – they are back at the ship,” the captain said.  “Where I have kept them safe.”

And hidden, doubtless for the purpose of taking whatever possessions had been sent with Tsorah for himself.

“I’ll go and fetch them now, all right?”  The captain inched back toward the door.

“An excellent idea.”  At a gesture from the steward, the two household guards stationed the gate stepped forward.  They were armed.  “These good men will defend you against any petty thieves who might happen upon you during your return.”

The captain left peaceably enough, a guard to either side.  The steward made a harumphing sound in his throat, then turned back to Tsorah and Zevaron.

“Not much to look at, are you?  I don’t suppose you understood a word of what we said?”

Zevaron was tempted to reply, but his mother kept silent.  She only bowed her head slightly, a gesture which was as much the acknowledgment of an inferior’s service as it might have been the submission of a slave.

An under servant of some kind bustled around the path from somewhere in back of the building.  He wore the same sort of belted tunic as the steward, unadorned, and he clasped his hands in front of his waist.  With his pinched features and white knuckles, he seemed to be wringing his hands in anxiety.  He bowed to the steward.

“Here are two slaves from the Spice Lands, sand-rats to the core, I’ll warrant.  The ship’s captain who dumped them here says they are noble captives.  What a joke!  If it were up to me, I’d just send them down to market for whatever we can get, but it’s not for me to say.  Well, we can’t send them up to the master looking like this.  Take them to the lower bath and clean them up as best you can.  I’ve sent Rov and Arnuld off for the trunk that came with them.  If there’s no decent clothing there, you’ll have to use household robes.”

The under servant bobbed his head and wiped one hand across the other.  “No problem at all, sir.  Shall I shave them?”

Zevaron started, but suppressed his reaction, since his mother gave none.

The steward shook his head and made a gesture with one hand.  “I don’t want them to look Geloni, for all their coloring.  Keep some exotic allure.  Get one of the women to comb her hair out, or at least oil it.  The boy can stay as he is.  The bare chest is nicely barbaric.  Have them ready shortly before midday, that’s a good lad.”

The under servant looked at them, hands folded across his chest, and heaved a sigh before gesturing them to come.  It was an exaggerated movement, as if he did not expect them to understand.  He led them around to the back, where they washed their feet in a stone basin before entering the house.  Now that they were in Gelon, the fragile order Tsorah had bought was gone.  They might be separated at a moment’s notice, sent far away from one another.  There was so much he needed to know!

I am not important, he reflected. It is she who must survive in this place.  I must do what I can to aid her.  For all her beauty, her intelligence, her strength, she was still a captive, one lone woman in this foreign empire, this place of white marble and flowers.

As he bent to wipe his feet on the coarse cloth, he spoke to her in their own tongue.  “I will not leave you,” he inflected the word to mean, abandon.

“Speak Geloni,” she said gently, “or they will think us savages, knowing only our own language.”

“I’ll none of your gabble here,” the under servant barked, but the boy heard the fear behind his words.
Sand-rats.  Sand-devils.  Uncivilized beasts from beyond the borders of the Empire.  Who knows what they are capable of?

Zevaron bowed and answered in accented but grammatically pure Geloni, “I apologize for any offense I might have given.”

The servant hesitated before responding. He sniffed.  “Save your pretty manners for the master.  Come on.  We can’t keep him waiting!”

They followed him along a simple corridor, with walls of smooth pale stone pierced by open slits, to another chamber. The chamber was hexagonal and domed.  Panels of glass had been set between ribs of some metal, flooding the space with light.  From here, they descended a short flight of stairs, down a complicated maze of corridors, to a small, stone­-walled room that smelled faintly of damp and sulfur.  It was divided in two by a curtain suspended from an overhead rod.  Each side had an enormous basin set in the floor, easily large enough to accommodate a grown man.  Zevaron had never seen such a capacious vessel for washing.  All his life, he had bathed either in the river or with a small tub and sponge.  A woman in plain servant’s tunic and apron looked up from scrubbing one of the tubs with a pumice stone.  The servant gave her a string of orders in pidgin Geloni.

In short order, the basins were filled half way with water, and a basket of soap chips and towels brought.  An elderly woman in a turban took Tsorah behind the curtain.  Splashing noises and low, feminine murmurs followed.  The under servant directed Zevaron to strip and immerse himself.  The man apparently didn’t intend to participate in the bathing process in any way, but stood, arms folded across his chest, eyes fixed upon the upper corner above the tub, lips pursed in an expression of unmistakable disapproval.

The water was surprisingly warm, the curling vapors bearing a faint reek of sulfur and iron.  Zevaron leaned back, taking a moment’s ease as the heat sank into the tense muscles of his back and shoulders.  It was all he could do not to sigh aloud. 

From the other side of the curtain came the coo of women’s voices, low laughter.  He couldn’t make out the words above the rustle of fabric and water splashing.

“Hurry up!” the under steward snapped. “I have more important work than standing here while you 
go to sleep and drown!”

Zevaron picked up one of the soap chips.  At least, he thought it was soap, but the texture was far smoother, almost greasy, than the lye-and-oil soap which was all anyone could make during the last few years of siege.

“You don’t eat it,” the under steward sneered.  “You take one of the cloths, work up a lather, and rub it over your body.  You have taken a bath before?”

“I’m sorry,” Zevaron said hastily.  “It’s just such fine soap.”

The under steward sniffed but made no further comment as Zevaron began washing himself. The soap made a creamy lather.  It stung the abrasions and small cuts which had accumulated over the weeks of sea voyaging.  He supposed it would do them good.  It took two of the palm­-sized chips to clean both skin and hair.  While he was rinsing for the second time, another servant entered with a bundle of white cloth.  It consisted of a loose, sack-like garment hanging just below his knees, a rope belt, a twist of loincloth, and rope sandals.  There was also a long-tined wooden comb. 

“See if you can comb out those tangles,” the under steward said.  “If not, we’ll have to cut them off.  You’ll look more ordinary, but it can’t be helped.”

More like a Gelon, Zevaron thought.  He could not be sure if this were a good thing or a bad thing.

By the time Zevaron had finished drying himself, dressing, and yanking the comb through his hair to the satisfaction of the under steward, news came that the chest of possessions had arrived.  He was set to wait just outside the bath room.  Without any task, any focus of concentration, the thoughts he had managed to hold at bay returned once more.

On the ship, it had been easy to pretend that he and his mother were prisoners, the captain’s “noble captives,” and not slaves.  Now he wore the tunic of a Geloni slave.  He waited as he was bidden, his fate in the hands of uncaring strangers.  He could distract himself by imagining himself leaping up, finding his mother, racing hand-in-hand from these pale stone halls – to what?  He did not seriously believe they could hide in the city, although desperation could accomplish much.  They were strangers, outlanders.  Even if their appearance, their honey-colored skin and dark hair, the lean hard Meklavaran lines of their faces, did not betray them, the first time they spoke, they would be discovered.  There might be others of the People in the city, and they would never know.

They would never get that far.  They had been lucky, but it was unwise to count upon luck.  Men must create their own, waiting for the right opportunity.

Zevaron was roused from his thoughts by a sound he had never expected to hear again.  Little brass bells chimed sweetly.  A party swept around the corner, led by the steward himself.  Zevaron scrambled to his feet.  For a long moment he did not recognize his mother standing in front of the serving women.  She wore a robe of rippling white silk.  He had never seen it before, and yet he knew it was hers.  The cut, the very weaving spoke of Meklavar, with the subtle pattern of the Shield shimmering along its folds.  Beneath the sheer white hood, her hair had been braided and dressed with ornaments.  Tassels, each tied with a tiny bell, hung from her braids and the ends of the corded belt.  She carried herself with her usual grace, her chin lifted, face smoothly dispassionate. 

Beneath the white silk, her skin glowed, not just with the warmth of the bath, the scented oils which perfumed the air.  A faint golden aura surrounded her.  She was like a queen out of legend, Khored’s own bride.  Zevaron wondered if the Geloni could see it, too.

“You walk there,” the steward said, pointing to a place behind and to the side of Tsorah.

Zevaron ducked his head and followed obediently along the pillared hallway, beside an inner courtyard where fountains made rainbows in the morning sun.  Geloni ladies in elegant pastel gowns paused, peacock fans quivering, to watch them pass.  They ascended a set of broad, low steps and went inside again.  The walls here were painted in murals of eagles soaring above snow-dusted mountains, of mountains spewing forth fire, of battleships and onager-drawn chariots.  The pictures were lavishly tipped with gold and inset jewels so that the molten rock glowed as if with its own inner fire.

They paused before a doorway, double panels of intricately carved pale wood inlaid with silver and mother-of-pearl, mosaics of obsidian, coral, and jade.

The steward paused, one hand upon the latch, and turned back to them.  “I don’t expect you to know the proper Geloni way to behave.  For your own sakes, remember that His Excellency is a man not easily roused in temper, but that slow anger can be terrible beyond imagining.”

Without waiting for an answer, he opened the door, slipped inside.  A moment later, he gestured for the rest to follow.

It was only then, as he stepped into the audience chamber of the governor of Verenzza, that Zevaron noticed that his mother’s wrists were chained together.

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