For your reading pleasure, here is 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 the first 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.
Late summer dusk hung like a pearly veil over the spires and towers of Verenzza. The glare of the day, hot and bright as the marble mined in the far reaches of the Gelon Empire, fell away. Even the water lapping the ancient piers hushed, as the borders between wave and wood, sky and earth melted. The shoremen, teams of bronze-skinned, shaven-headed Xians, moved slowly through the slow spiral coiling of ropes, the dance of knots, the lifting of crate and barrel. Above them hung a moon just past half full, the lesser part still holding its secrets. Bright and dark alternately patterned the water.
The ship glided between the jetties, past barges and slavers, jooks and pleasure craft, its single sail limp, its oars barely touching the barred ripples. Moon and twilight touched the craft, its sides like oyster silver, the spars and ropes to beaded pearl. No Verenzzan ship this, with strange symbols carved like amulets into the prow. Every line of her breathed out a rare perfume, as if she had just drifted down from the glory fading in the western clouds.
The shoremen paused and watched, caught for a moment. Then the light shifted, and the ship diminished, swallowed by the brine-laced shadows, one more sea-wracked craft limping into harbor, using the tidal current to spare its crew.
In short time, the ship was moored and anchored, the fees paid to the Emperor’s harbormaster. Tomorrow the shoremen would return to unload the cargo, but by now, ink stained the silver. The moon paled against a milky banner of stars.
Soon the deck was empty except for the watch. Within the oddly shaped cabin, light flickered, softly gold against the silver-black night. A half-grown boy clambered up the rope ladder from below, moving slowly, pausing before the final reach and haul to gain the deck. He wore ragged-hemmed drawstring pants several sizes too big for him, his hair a tousled fall of night. The skin over his thin ribs was unmarked, velvet, as if the dust of the faroff lands still clung like a perfume. He moved to the cabin door with an odd, liquid grace, a grace practiced and hidden from ordinary eyes.
A woman’s voice murmured within the cabin, clear as the sky after a storm, each syllable echoed in measured precision. The boy tapped, listened, went in.
The captain’s cabin, never spacious, had been divided with a patched curtain like a map of ports and lands, scraps of brocade and homespun, greasy suede and camel’s-hair cloth from far Azkhantia.
The woman sat on the single bed, built snug into the side of the cabin, narrow and spare, its mattress pressed like sandstone into the wooden frame. An oil lamp hung beside her shoulders, and she held herself calm and straight. The golden light burnished her skin to bronze, gleamed on the high cheekbones, the long knife-slim nose, the huge shadowed eyes. She wore a loose hooded robe, desert-style, covering her from wrist to throat to toe tip. On her lap, she held a book, tipping it to catch the light. White salt crystals stiffened the leather covers.
The captain sat on a three-legged stool at a respectful distance. Wind and sun and years had sculpted his face into a map. He wore the memories of a dozen battles, a hundred moments of storm and sword and betrayal etched into his flesh.
“Come in, then, lad,” the captain said. “It’s one last time.”
The woman did not paused in her reading, nor did her steady gaze leave the page. The boy bowed wordlessly to the captain. His former grace abandoned, he crossed the room in three steps to lower himself to the floor at the woman’s feet. Only now, in the natural spacing between one phrase and the next, her breath left her in a sigh.
Zevaron, my son, we have made it this far. He felt her thought like a prayer of thanksgiving, a flare of guarded triumph, her love a silken ripple warm over his skin. Behind his eyelids, he saw her like a flame, now dark against the Geloni night, now blazing through the centuries.
Zevaron remembered the first time they had sat like this, the three of them, how his mother had bargained for his safe passage. Not in so many words; she never wasted her strength uselessly.
The captain, they knew, had been told only to bring the woman as a gift to the governor of Verenzza, a distant cousin to the Emperor. A princess of the sand people. Nothing had been said about a child, let alone one old enough to be put to work. Zevaron was older than he looked, for the men of his people were slow to reach their full growth. The desert and the mountains had shaped their bones slow and hard. He might survive below at the oars, but a thousand deaths might take him, thirst and disease and the quick savage fury of the older men.
Sand-rats, the sailors called them. The captain had transported slaves before, he knew how to beat down their strength with exhaustion and thirst, with terror and lack of sleep. Already he had resolved that at the first hint of insolence in the woman, he would throw her cub into the galley with the others. Let her watch him sweat and bleed and waste to bones. See what her sand-rat magic could do to save him then. All this Zevaron had read in the captain’s face as he approached them, standing together in their chains besides the bales of silk, the caskets of cinnamon and white pepper, of sandalwood resin and raw amber.
It had not happened. She had approached him carefully, but not with any wheedling requests, any ploy at seduction or attempt at influence. She did not offer her favors for either her own benefit or that of her son. Instead, she asked, in his own language, pure but accented, if he had any books written in Geloni which she might borrow.
Even now, Zevaron remembered the shifting fear in the captain’s eyes. He was no coward, but a skilled sailor, a crafty fighter, able to handle himself upon both sea and land. That a slave, and a woman at that, and a sand-rat, could read his own language went beyond the imaginable. That she might, with such gentle courtesy, as if he were a prince of princes, struck him dumb for long moments.
He had handed her the salt-battered volume left behind by a merchant passenger as too damaged to be worth the cargo space to market. She had taken it in her long, slim hands. Sores and scabs covered her wrists, just like on all the other slaves, but different, as if they did not belong there, were no part of her, and she might brush them off at any moment. She had opened the book, holding it carefully, turning the brittle pages until she came to the title. There was an illustration there, a woodcut of a lion and a gigantic serpent in mortal combat.
“Ah!” she had said, as if a cool, spice-laden breeze had just brushed her cheeks. “It is a history of the founding of the Gelon Empire. I cannot imagine a more fitting or gracious gift than its loan. May you be graced in return.” Her voice rose slightly in pitch, as if she would say more, say graced by whom. The captain had blinked, and in that instant, the faint aureole of light about her head vanished, leaving only a thin, small-boned desert woman holding an old book. “Will you honor us by reading it together as a rest from your labors?”
The captain had allowed that he could. Zevaron had gone below with the others, knowing his mother had bought him this haven at the end of each day, a time when he might come aloft and feel the sea air free upon his skin, and rest his eyes upon the rising moon.
She would read aloud, so slowly and clearly that her words hung in the air. After they were done, she would hand the book and the lantern to the captain. He would take them away, to his own side of the curtain of many colors and study the letters, the spoken words still fresh in his mind. Zevaron noticed how she did would not shame him. She offered a gift, and allowed him to choose what to do with it. Another man might have left the book in her hands, or shoved it into a corner, but another man would not have hoarded it or peered into its illustrations, or laboriously traced out its letters, having memorized the text.
Zevaron returned below, as he had every other night of their voyage, and hauled himself into his hammock. His young body, exhausted and poorly fed, as on every other night of the voyage, craved sleep. Sometimes it was a struggle to remain in the attitude of alert calm, listening to his mother’s voice. The cabin was warm and close. It was a practice, just as it was to move as he had been taught from earliest childhood, like a snake across the sand, like a panther on the heights, like a dolphin beneath the waves. Waiting, watching, flowing with unseen currents. In those secret, stolen moments, he would glance up at his mother, see the faint silvery aureole of light, sense the power residing in her, borne by her.
They called her a princess of the sand people, these Geloni upstarts who came swarming over the mountains or up from the beaches with their chariots and men as numerous as locusts. They did not know what she truly was.
In his mind, Zevaron recited his mother’s name so that he would always remember. Tsorah. Tsorah daughter of Rebah, of the pure unbroken line of san-Khored.
And his own name, for the sailors, from spite or pity, had told him that it would be taken from them.
I am Zevaron son of Tsorah of the house of Khored, blessed be his memory. All other Shield-lines might trace through father or mother, but Khored followed spirit, not blood.
They had neither time nor chance to speak; the captain’s trust did not extend so far as to leave them alone together. He must understand her through her actions, interpreted through the memory of everything she had taught him. He watched the way she held her shoulders, the curve of her neck as she bent over a damaged page. He read the messages in the pattern of her breathing. At night, in his hammock, between the guttural snoring, he unwrapped each memory, studied its meaning. Thought of the light she carried.
Sleep danced beyond his reach, propelled by the racing of his heart. They were come to the end of the sea-voyage, to the rhythms and fragile order of this time. He had no doubt that tomorrow they would be separated. The captain had no reason to do otherwise, to waste the sale of slave, even one so undergrown as he. There would be no personal animosity, no perception of betrayal of what Tsorah had given him.
He might make a break for freedom, though he knew nothing of Geloni cities. The history his mother had read aloud had spoken in flowery, rhetorical language of battles and treaties, of the honor of a few and the silence of despair of the many. He had no illusions that his spoken Geloni would allow him to pass for a street urchin, even if his coloration did not give him away.
Wait, her whisper brushed his mind. Wait and watch. We have come this far, through the sack of Valoni-Erreth, through the fire and thirst, across the salt sea. Watch and hope.