The Second Book of the Norothian Cycle, and the sequel to “ The Sable City.”
After a narrow escape from the Sable City, Tilda and company have arrived in Souterm, where the Duchess Claudja is able to contact the Emperor and announce that her home realm of Chengdea has accepted the Code. While such an acceptance may stave-off invasion by Ayzantine forces, King Hughes of Daul will not take the betrayal well, and a new war threatens to erupt between the Empire and the River Kingdom.
Meanwhile, Nesha-tari learns that she must perform additional tasks for her Blue Dragon Master before she will be allowed to return home. Together with others in the Dragon’s service, the sorceress must enter the murderous world of Ayzant politics, where Crown, Church, and Cult vie for power.
Epic fantasy, Muskets & Magic. Historical fiction in a fictional world.
Excerpt: Death of a Kingdom
**Content warning – contains scenes that are not suitable for children**
The sailor’s name was Nalin, and though the vessel on which he crewed was Ayzantine, he was a native of Port Blacksand on the Upper Noroth Channel. Ayzant press gangs however seldom made inquiries regarding national origins when dragging men out of waterfront taverns. Nalin had thus “joined” the crew of the Gecko six months ago in the Martan port of Thubas on the southern, Kandalan side of the Channel.
His time with the Ayzants had been predictably harsh and frequently brutal, with nothing to recommend it until very recently. On this leg from Larbonne to Roseille things had improved in Nalin’s view, not because of any lightening of treatment by the ship’s officers, but because of a passenger who provided something much better to look at than flapping sails and windswept sea. Nalin knew nothing about the woman, not even her name for the officers only reverently called her “Madame” on the all-too-infrequent occasions when she appeared on deck.
Nalin never got more than a glimpse of her, but it was obvious she was far more precious than anything else in the hold of the barge-like vessel as it waddled its way east around the Chirabis peninsula.
She was dressed in a Zantish fashion the few times Nalin saw her, wearing an unfortunately-roomy cloak the color of sand, belted at her slim waist and hanging over her knees to reveal only boots. A deep hood obscured her face at all times. Yet as she was the only woman aboard the Gecko, her modesty only increased the fascination. The ship was not a day out of Larbonne before the crewmen were plotting ways to get a better look at her, at a minimum.
The woman was most uncooperative, spending the great majority of the journey sequestered in her cabin, refusing even the Zant captain’s nightly offers to dine with the officers, or in his stateroom. Nalin had heard the officers talking about her as well, and knew that whenever one of them brought the woman her meals (a task which was never delegated to a crewman), she never failed but to answer the door in her full cloak and hood. Other than a few quick appearances on deck for a breath of air the woman was scarcely seen, and the officers and crew alike grew surly. There were severe beatings dispensed for very minor offenses.
About a week out of Larbonne however, Nalin’s luck and mood improved.
As the Gecko moved around the Chirabis the vessel was obliged to remain far off shore for the peninsula was nearly surrounded by various rocks and bars that had added to the historical seclusion of the place. This ship was forced to anchor on cloudy nights, but with clear weather she would stay her course with a man in the crow’s nest keeping his eyes on the land, and sounding a bell for the helmsmen if the ship started to drift in. Nalin had a good pair of eyes and he had been assigned the second shift of the night-watch, meaning his sleep was broken in the middle. He further detested the duty as the top of the foremast was freezing by night, but after a week when the gray light of dawn was only beginning to touch the eastern horizon one morning, it all became worthwhile. It was then that the mysterious passenger made an appearance just for him.
Nalin first saw nothing but a moving shape down on the foredeck but he knew immediately that it was her, as she alone did not move with the habitual rolling-gait of someone accustomed to shipboard life. Nalin hunched low at the railing of the crow’s nest, fatigue and discomfort forgotten.
She walked directly to the prow, still hooded in beige and trailing one hand along the gunwale. She seemed to look around the deck, but did not lift her gaze to look upward. Thinking herself alone she faced forward toward the hint of light breaking over the horizon, and drew back her hood.
Nalin was behind and above her and so saw only lustrous curls black as the night cascade around her shoulders as she shook them from her hood, surprising him as he had never suspected she possessed such a dazzling head of hair until he saw it falling far down her back to her narrow waist. In fact, it reminded Nalin more than anything of a Thuban dancer he had once seen in a fancy theater on one of the few occasions in his life when he’d had a few silvers to rub together. That dancer had worn little apart from her own incredible hair, coyly shielding her voluptuous body with it, and until this moment she had been Nalin’s very ideal of a womanly form. He found that he was hardly breathing, and without his grip on the railing he likely would have pitched headlong out of the nest as he bent forward over it, particularly when the woman below him held her arms out to her sides, arched her back, and stretched with a fluid, feline grace that put the remembered movement’s of the dancer in Nalin’s head to shame. Roomy cloak or no, there was nothing Nalin would not have given at that moment to have witnessed the maneuver from the front.
The woman settled her arms at her sides, took a last look toward the lightening sky, and then turned while reaching to draw in her hair with one hand and raise her hood with the other. The moment froze for Nalin as for the first time he looked upon her face, feeling a weakness in his knees and a growing strength elsewhere. Nalin saw dusky skin and fine features, but what struck him like a cat-o’-nine to the back (a sensation with which he was sadly familiar) was her eyes. They were liquid and bottomless, colored a sharper blue than Mirror Lake in Nysh on a cloudless day. Despite the distance and the darkness of pre-dawn it seemed Nalin could see her eyes perfectly, almost like they were lit from within.
He slowly realized it was not time that had frozen, but the woman. She had glanced up, seen him, and halted in her tracks. For a moment they stared at each other.
Then she was moving again, raising her hood and almost scurrying back to the stairwell below, out of Nalin’s sight. He felt her departure like a physical loss and stood trembling in the crow’s nest for long minutes, the surreptitious snap and rustle of the rigging all around him and the endless roll of the sea lost beneath the sound of his own beating heart. Nalin knew that the woman was only staying aboard the Gecko for a few more days, she would be disembarking in Roseille. He knew further, for a certainty, that he would be doing the same.
Escaping the Gecko proved ridiculously easy.
Among Channel sailors of the sort who tended to run afoul of press gangs, it was appreciated that Ayzantine ports were notoriously bad places to jump ship. Roseille was not truly Zantish, being an old Daulic city captured some decades before, but it was close enough to be equally dangerous. A press gang was about the least of hazards in a city that was home to the Ruby Throne’s royal army “recruiters,” Ayonite Fire Priests, and Cultists of a dead Dragon. As a result, the attention of the Gecko’s officers on their crew was lax in port, and none of them noticed as Nalin joined the first group of sailors crossing the gangplank to the docks. The men set about securing lines in the berth, save for Nalin who slipped quietly away.
He hid himself behind a row of barrels, and though other crewmen saw him go they remained silent as there was a sort of professional courtesy among impressed seamen. Nalin did not have to wait long before the woman who had become the whole purpose of his existence appeared at the Gecko’s railing and marched down the gangway, head bent and cowl lowered to conceal everything apart from her chin, and the delicate swan bend of her neck.
The captain came down immediately behind her, speaking urgently and trailing the ship’s officers like a line of ducklings. The woman halted on the dock and turned on the man, speaking harshly though her voice was as music to Nalin’s ears. The words were in Zantish and Nalin knew only enough of that tongue to respond to shipboard orders, but the result was clear. The woman strode off while the cowed captain and his bunch sulked, watching her leave just as did the rest of the crew both on the dock and lining the railings. While all attention was focused on her beige figure, Nalin slipped away behind stacked cargoes, reaching the stone quayside where the docks met the streets just ahead of the woman who then became his quarry.
He followed as she made her way through the town, hardly noticing his own surroundings. Roseille, which the Ayzants pronounced “Ro-zell,” was not among the finer port cities on the Channel, though it had been at one time. The place was low-lying, built beneath an ancient dyke along the Rose River, and the streets had an old moldy smell as if they never quite dried-out between the frequent floods. The surfaces of the streets were raised stone but the low gutters were all thick with mud, which in turn was tracked about all over to smear the plank sidewalks and the entryways of buildings.
The buildings themselves were a mix of old Daulic houses and newer Ayzantine structures. The former were mostly of stone, though windows on the street level were bricked-up while those above them were covered with iron bars or grills. Wedged rudely among the old buildings, some clinging to broken walls and foundations, were rough Ayzant hovels of mismatched lumber and whorled planks fished-out of the river. There were far more taverns than stores, though few men lingered before either as the streets were nearly deserted. Such citizens as Nalin saw went about in groups of four or five, grim-faced men in rough homespun clothing, openly carrying long knives at their belts or stout cudgels on their shoulders.
The woman Nalin followed steered clear of these parties, crossing the street several times to avoid them while he did the same a half a block behind her. The men thus bypassed frequently stopped to look at the woman, their swarthy Zantish faces or the paler complexions of ethnic Dauls breaking into grins while the men elbowed each other and chuckled. Nalin felt a surge of resentment, almost of possessiveness, and if it had been a lone man behaving in such a way he may well have run afoul of the fish-gutting knife hanging at Nalin’s side.
Nalin’s woman eventually reached an intersection of main streets bordering a sort of barren park with a few scraggly trees growing around a monument on a huge pedestal. The statue was, predictably, that of a great dragon rearing back on its haunches. Probably Ged-azi the Red, who had been dead for centuries but was still worshipped by the Zantish Cultists that were a force in the city. The statue was in rather rough shape though, with red paint flaking from its back and head, and one gargantuan wing broken-off and lying as a heap of rubble atop a splintered tree. The crash must have happened recently, for fading green leaves still clung to the branches protruding from the pile.
Nalin and the woman he followed had arrived at the back of the square park, and after looking on the statue for a time she moved around the area staying close to boarded-up buildings that looked derelict. At one point she halted and seemed to look out toward the front of the statute, though Nalin could not be sure owing to her maddening hood. He thought he heard voices from that direction but the woman did no go that way. She slipped into an alley and Nalin rushed forward to follow.
He skidded to a halt just where the woman had paused, and he also stared at the front end of the statue and the park. There beneath the loom of the stone dragon was a crude campsite of Ayzant soldiers, lolling about around a small campfire in front of patched and dirty tents pitched in no particular order. The men spoke indolently and loitered about, as alike in their expressions of boredom as they were in their black ring-mail and steel helmets. Swords and spears were stacked casually in pyramidal piles and the soldiers were at ease, though it was apparent there had been some excitement here lately.
There was a scaffold of bound logs at the edge of the street before the stone dragon’s unseeing eyes, and from the cross-bar four figures hung at the ends of ropes. The corpses were beginning to swell and blacken, but Nalin could see that they had been men with shaven heads, some tattooed with orange-and-yellow flames. The robes hanging on the elongated bodies were the typical red worn by Ayonites, priests of the Burning Man.
Nalin was puzzled, but he reminded himself that he had no interest in Ayzant politics. Besides that, he had a much more important thing presently on his mind. He hurried into the alley where his woman had disappeared, growling in disgust as it quickly became obvious the soldiers were using the place as a latrine. He held his breath and stepped carefully, wondering how his fine lady had passed this way without retching.
He arrived at a junction further down the alley and felt a moment of panic, but looking to the right he saw his quarry exiting onto another street. As she disappeared again Nalin ran after her, only slowing to peek around the corner. They had circled around to the street fronting the monument square, and after crossing to the far side she was moving back toward the statue. Nalin waited before scurrying out himself and following at a distance, staying close to buildings so he could dive behind a stoop or into another alley if she looked back.
They again neared the front of the square and from this side Nalin could see mottled, swollen faces of the hanging priests. Though he had no desire to look too close, he did notice that each had a sign of some kind on its chest, apparently nailed there. Dried blood obscured the lettering, and Nalin could not read in any case. The woman spared no further attention in that direction, but only turned left up the boulevard away from the dragon statue, screened by the scaffolding from the soldiers in the square.
Nalin hurried to the corner and peered around it to find his woman standing in a cul-de-sac, her hood turning as she looked around. The sides of the dead-end street were lined with long timber buildings that had the look of barracks, painted with entwining red dragons, though without particular skill. Details of claws and faces had faded, and the dragons all looked smeared and blurry. The barracks did not seem to be occupied, for the cul-de-sac was deathly quiet.
Up at the head of it was a much grander building, or at least the remains of one. The massive stone facade rose above its surroundings, though the carved dragons atop it were blackened by smoke, and flames had stained the walls above every window and the great, gaping doorway. The place had obviously been a Cult Hall, probably the main one in Roseille, but gray sky was now visible through the window holes showing that the roof had collapsed within. Only the outer walls and the grand facade still stood.
Nalin heard a thud and laughter behind him, and he crouched while reaching for his knife. It seemed a crow had landed on one of the dead priest’s shoulders and a soldier had thrown a rock at it. The bird squawked and flew off to general merriment from behind the gallows. Nalin turned back to the cul-de-sac just in time to see his woman leave it, passing into the burned-out Hall through the gaping front door.
He hurried after her to the end of the street, crossing the ash-filled courtyard strewn with rubble to peer around the doorway beneath an iron hinge with only a charred chunk of the door still attached. Enough of the second floor was intact at the facade to shadow the entryway, and Nalin saw only a trail of footprints in the ash leading through an inner set of blackened doors. He scurried forward, obliterating the woman’s small prints with his own much larger ones.
He peered around the second set of doors as well and found her standing out in the middle of what had once been a great chamber, but was now a jagged ruin open to the sky. A double row of smoke-stained columns ran down the middle, though several were broken or else had fallen over entirely. The remains of charred wooden pews lay everywhere, and the railings and whatever decor had adorned the high altar across the way were only ash. Nalin gave it all only the most cursory glance before focusing on the woman who stood with her back to him, staring at the altar. For the first time he began to consider just what his intentions were.
She could scarcely have come to a more secluded place, perhaps that was what decided him. Nalin stepped silently around the inner doorway, hardly aware that he had slipped his knife from its sheath and into his hand. He held the blade flat against his leg as he crept forward, heart beating hard. He released a pent-up breath that came out through his teeth almost like a wheeze.
The woman heard him and turned, still paces away from him though Nalin felt that if she ran he could catch her. He felt like he could catch a gazelle. His limbs and chest were keyed-up to an almost painful tension, a tension that demanded release. The woman had crouched back but as she looked toward Nalin she seemed to relax, and she stood up straight. She raised her chin enough to peer at him from beneath the edge of her hood, blue eyes shining in the shadows. Her nose twitched, but her beautiful features remained otherwise composed. Nalin took one step closer, and strange to say she smiled faintly and narrowed her eyes.
She said something in Zantish. Nalin recognized the words for “sailor” and “ship,” and he nodded. She said something else and when he made no response, she raised one gloved hand and beckoned him forward.
Nalin was stunned, his breath hard and rasping, but his feet shuffled forward of their own accord. Somewhere in the back of his mind something was screaming in alarm, but he throttled it into silence just as he would have done to the woman smiling at him. He was lost in her blue eyes. As he neared her she drew back her hood, tumbling out the luxuriant black tresses of her long hair. She removed her gloves, one finger at a time, and Nalin felt light-headed and almost drunk. He was right in front of her and his senses filled with a sweet smell like a voluptuous desert bloom. The knife still in his hand was no part of his world.
He could only see her eyes and her perfect smile as she touched him, running a satin-soft hand against his rough cheek. She leaned against him and Nalin gasped at the feel of her body all along his own. His eyes closed and he felt her nuzzling his neck with her nose, sweet-smelling hair brushing his mouth, then the merest tickle of a tongue flicking against his throat. He shuddered and muttered something, what he didn’t even know, and he felt her lips, then perfect teeth, against his throat.
Someone grabbed Nalin by the collar and jerked him backwards off his feet, throwing him to the floor with a grunt and a great puff of ash. A big fellow with a black steel breastplate and a heavy sword sheathed across his back stepped forward with a swirl of crimson cape. He gave Nalin’s woman a hard shove on both shoulders, sending her to the floor as well.
Nalin growled and clutched his knife, intending to bury the blade in the back of the man’s head as he wore no helmet above his armored chest. But Nalin froze as he glanced toward the woman now splayed before the tall fellow, for she had changed profoundly. No longer a dark-haired Thuban girl, she was now something else with a tawny mane about her face of inhuman features. She had a pronounced jaw that was almost a muzzle, and her clenched teeth were huge and sharp. Her ears had become pointed, almost triangular, and her sloping forehead and sharp-boned cheeks seemed covered with a fuzz that thickened to fur even as Nalin stared. Only her blue eyes were recognizable, all else was something cat-like, almost leonine.
“Karza!” she growled at the armored man as though it were a name.
“Nesha-tari,” the fellow said, then added something in a language Nalin did not know nor even recognize. The man looked over his shoulder at the sailor. He was dark as a Martan or Zant but quite tall and barrel-chested for either, with jet-black hair swept back from his temples save for one lock bound with gilt wire. He wore a brush of moustache and his face was haughty, though his small, dark eyes glittered with what looked like amusement.
“What by the Ennead is going on?” Nalin sputtered in the Channel-speak dialect typical of sailors, a pidgin of many coastal languages with some Karkan thrown in.
“You just about got yourself ate,” the man said roughly in the same tongue, turning to face Nalin though that put his back to the crouching creature. Nalin saw that its hands, which had tenderly touched his face just a moment before, now ended in fearsome claws. The limbs of what had been a woman seemed to have shortened even as her body had elongated, leaving her awkward in bunched-up sleeves and leggings.
“What is that beast?” Nalin demanded, pointing with his trembling knife.
“It is complicated,” the soldier said. Nalin could now see the man’s armor was stenciled in red with the Ruby Crown of Ayzantium, and his shoulders were adorned with the bars of a high-ranking Kingsman. The man looked at the knife, reached out one hand in a heavy leather gauntlet adorned with steel studs on the knuckles, and took Nalin firmly by the wrist. He met the sailor’s eyes.
“She, it, was going to eat me?” Nalin stammered, and the officer nodded.
“She was, but I will not permit it.” He reached out with his free hand, without a gauntlet, and pinched the flat of Nalin’s blade between a finger and thumb. “Might I borrow this?” the man asked, though the jeweled pommel of his sword indicated he possessed a fine weapon of his own. Yet Nalin only nodded and let go of his knife.
The officer smiled and smoothly flipped the blade to hold it by its handle.
“Thank you very much,” he said with a smile, then while keeping a grip on Nalin’s wrist, he smoothly cut the sailor’s throat.
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