For those who have wondering about the progress of Republic (the next novel with Amaranthe, Sicarius, and the rest of the Emperor’s Edge gang), I’m doing my final edits now and hope to send it off to my editor at the end of next week. the novel is now out! 🙂
Here’s a preview of the first chapter:
Republic: Chapter 1, Part 1
Amaranthe sprinted down the narrow, muddy trail, leaping past snarls of mossy roots and ducking leaves so large they felt like wrecking balls when they smashed against her face. The shouts behind her had dwindled, and she wondered if she might have outrun her pursuers.
A stone-tipped spear blurred past her ear, almost depriving her of a chunk of hair—and scalp. Ah, there was that pursuit.
The weapon slammed into the trail in front of her. It landed at an angle, and she almost impaled herself on the butt of it. Fortunately, a year of training with Sicarius hadn’t been undone by a couple of months of vacation, and she twisted to evade the obstacle at the same time as she ducked under a branch thoughtlessly growing across the path at eye level. She did bump into a bush before finding her way back onto the trail, and thin branches shuddered, raining droplets of water onto her head. Monkeys howled in the treetops, either irritated by her disturbance or entertained by her plight.
Amaranthe eyed the foliage to either side of her. Getting off this main route and finding another way to the beach might be wise, but the lush jungle grew denser than soldiers in a Turgonian infantry unit. And some of those spiky vines were just as dangerous. If she had thought to bring her sword, she might have cut a path, but she had gone to that village to trade, not to start a war.
She plowed onward, sticking to her trail and hoping to reach the lagoon before her pursuers caught up. She thought about hollering for Sicarius, but it was his presence on the island that had gotten her into this predicament. If he started slitting throats…
As Amaranthe leaped over another mossy log, something snatched her about the waist, yanking her into the foliage. She kept from yelping in surprise, but barely. And only because she had a hunch as to her captor’s identity.
Yes, the blond hairs on the muscular arm wrapped around her waist were familiar. As usual, Sicarius put action above words and hauled her several dozen meters into the jungle before pausing to discuss anything. He had a sword, of course, and used it to cut canes and vines, though he had a knack for weaving through the dense undergrowth as if he were simply pushing aside silk curtains. Having a woman—a woman who was more than ready to start using her own feet again—tucked against his side didn’t slow him at all.
Finally, he stopped, crouching in the hollow of a giant red tree that was broader than some of the shopfronts in Ink Alley back home. Amaranthe wriggled free, noting for the first time that he was carrying his black dagger clenched in his teeth, because he was—
“You’re naked,” she whispered. As much as she usually appreciated the view of those lean powerful muscles, it seemed foolish to run through the jungle without protection. She already had numerous gashes from those razor ferns. And the spiky vines? She would hate to have anything important punctured by them.
Sicarius removed the dagger. “I was fishing.” Despite the shouts of the male villagers racing past on the trail they had just left, his tone was as dry and unconcerned as ever. The dampness of his short blond hair attested to how recently he had left the water. “You assured me that you would find no trouble in the village.” His eyebrow twitched.
“And I wouldn’t have, but—”
Foliage rattled in the direction of the trail, and a clunk sounded, an axe sheering away a branch. Sicarius peered around the tree, lifting a hand for silence. The villagers must have realized Amaranthe had left the path.
She dug into her pocket and pulled out a crinkled piece of parchment, deciding it could do the talking for her. The yellowed sheet held a portrait of a face. The black ink had faded to dull gray over the years, but it was still possible to make out the familiar features. A younger and harder—at least to Amaranthe’s eyes—version of Sicarius without the recently obtained knot of scar tissue at his temple. She didn’t recognize the language of the lines written below the portrait, but she knew a wanted poster when she saw one.
Sicarius knew it too. What he thought of it, she couldn’t tell. Even though they had been friends for over a year and lovers for the last couple of months, she still struggled to read his angular face, one he’d learned to craft into an emotionless mask from his earliest childhood. When he did show emotion, it seemed a conscious effort, as if he was trying to please her by doing so, but when other things were on his mind, he grew as hard to decipher as a granite slab.
“Is there a way we can get back to the beach?” Amaranthe whispered.
“Yes, but there are men on it.”
“Men with spears?”
“Yes.” Sicarius gazed into her eyes, waiting, she sensed, to see what she wanted to do. He had been an assassin all of his life and still tended to think in terms of eliminating people as answers to problems, though he’d gradually grown willing to accept less violent solutions if she could propose feasible ones. Or unfeasible ones that she could finesse—or manhandle—into working, regardless.
“Lead us as close as we can get without being seen,” Amaranthe said, aware that the rustling of leaves and hacking of branches was drawing nearer. “Then we’ll… think of something creative.”
The other eyebrow twitched, his silent version of, “Oh, really? This should prove interesting, challenging, and crazy all at once.”
Without a word, Sicarius led off toward… hm, was the beach in that direction? Amaranthe didn’t think so, but he must want to throw off their trackers. This time, he let her walk, though he did glance back often to keep an eye on her, or maybe to ensure she wasn’t leaving a riotous trail of footprints for their pursuers to follow. How he could walk over the same ground without leaving a trace, she would never know, but she did her best to emulate him, stepping on rocks and roots whenever possible, hard items that wouldn’t hold a print. Nonetheless, he slipped behind her a few times to scatter dead palm or fern fronds over her inadvertent smudges in the mud. She kept from rolling her eyes at this overzealous tidying, especially since the sounds of their pursuers had grown more distant, though she did huff in exasperation when, without warning, he jumped several feet, caught a vine one-handed, and whisked himself into the canopy.
“I need a running start for that,” Amaranthe whispered, waving behind her, “and that’ll leave a long streak of footprints and broken branches.”
She stood on a boulder, the same one from which he had launched himself, and eyed the distance to the vine. It hung three or four feet above her and out several more feet, with some of those spiky ferns waiting below if she jumped and missed.
Sicarius gazed down impassively from a branch. Deciding whether she was whining or if she spoke the truth? Amaranthe propped a fist on her hip. He knew her physical abilities better than anyone else, even herself.
Sicarius bent and pulled the vine to the side, as far from his position as he could, then let it go. What was that supposed to do to help?
A distinct call came from the jungle a hundred meters back. The language was gibberish to her ear, but she guessed it to be the villager equivalent of, “They went this way!” Either way, it reminded Amaranthe of her predicament—if she didn’t follow Sicarius quickly, or if she allowed herself to be trapped, he would stop playing Hide and Sneak and start dispatching people.
“Amaranthe, now,” Sicarius whispered and pointed to the vine.
It was swaying back and forth like a pendulum. Oh, so that was his idea of help. Now, if she timed it precisely, she only had to jump eight feet instead of ten. Lovely.
She crept to the edge of the rock and waited until…
“Now,” he ordered.
Amaranthe jumped. The vine swung to its peak and started to fall backward. Cursed ancestors, she was going to miss it. She lunged out with one arm and caught it with the tips of her fingers. She closed those fingers like a vise. When gravity caught up with her, it jolted her shoulder, but she didn’t let go. She swung her other hand to the vine and climbed the twenty feet to join him.
“Hm,” Sicarius said, then rounded the trunk of the tree and headed out onto a thick limb on the far side.
Up here, the branches crisscrossed each other like a latticework—an agile squirrel might run for a mile without touching the ground. Oh, she realized. They were going to do that too.
“What do you mean, hm?” Amaranthe whispered, using her hands on the upper branches to help with her balance as she skipped along the narrow perches. “My performance didn’t even rate an ‘adequate’? Because you had to help with the vine?”
“Our lives have been indolent of late,” Sicarius observed.
Amaranthe grimaced. That hm had been a rating, a dubious rating, of her performance. “We’ve been on vacation, remember? And how much exercise can one get in a tiny submarine? Aside from certain bedroom activities, which I thought were actually quite vigorous and challenging in a cardiovascular way, surely as good for training as jogging around the lake.”
Sicarius kept skating through the treetops without so much as a backward glance. She thought she had gotten past trying to impress him at these physical challenges, but she found herself disappointed. Maybe she shouldn’t have balked. Maybe she could have made it if she’d had her original momentum. Maybe she shouldn’t have acted as if some sharp plants were the equivalent of phalanxes of upturned spears. Maybe—
Sicarius stopped to wait on a thick branch, with his sword arm wrapped around a moss-carpeted trunk. The canopy, thick and green above and below, hid them from the ground. As he watched her approach, his expression didn’t seem disappointed. In fact, was that the faintest hint of a smile?
“You’re teasing me.” Amaranthe swatted him on the chest.
“Yes.” He flipped his dagger so his forearm sheltered her from the blade, pulled her close, and kissed her. Not a long kiss, but there was certainly a promise of later in it before he drew back.
“Dear ancestors, Sicarius,” Amaranthe said, breathless from more than the exercise, “has being chased through the treetops by aborigines always been the key to putting you in an amorous mood? Or was it my talk of cardiovascular challenges that roused your passion?”
His dark eyes glinted. “Yes.”
She thought about kissing him again—surely they could spare another minute or two—but he pointed at something on the other side of the trunk. “We’ve arrived at the beach.”
They had? Amazing how disoriented one could become while running across branches. She would think more highly of squirrels when next she visited a climate that had them.
Using Sicarius to brace herself against—his chiseled flesh made a more appealing handhold than a mossy tree—Amaranthe leaned around the trunk for a look. And barely kept herself from groaning. No less than ten bare-chested, brown-skinned men stood at the lagoon’s edge with knives and spears in hand. Out in the water, two outrigger canoes carrying more spear wielders floated on either side of the oblong black hull of the submarine.
“You’ve formulated a plan?” Sicarius asked.
“Well, I would have, but you distracted me with that kiss. Now I’m going to need another minute.”
She smiled at Sicarius, but his face had lost its humor. A distant shout drifted up from the jungle floor. Their pursuers might have fallen farther behind, but they were still coming.
Movement overhead distracted Amaranthe. She lurched backward and might have fallen off the branch if not for Sicarius’s grip about her waist. A large green snake with black spots was slithering down the mossy trunk toward them.
“Uhm,” she blurted, pointing.
“It’s not poisonous,” Sicarius said, though he hadn’t looked up. Doubtlessly, he had noticed it when they first jumped into the tree. “It feeds on fish, birds, and small mammals.”
“Yes, but it’s big. And I…” Amaranthe tried to tell herself that there was no reason to worry if he wasn’t worried, but she couldn’t help but think of the last time she had dealt with a large snake. She had been naked and wounded, having escaped that awful alien ship and the more awful torture-loving Pike, and that cursed snake had wanted to eat her. She hated anything that reminded her of that time. “I’d prefer not to share a tree with it,” she whispered. “Mind if I borrow your knife?”
Sicarius tilted his head back, considering the snake. It did, she admitted, look like it might slither past without bothering them. “I can see your reason for alarm. It is similar to the green marshal, a snake also indigenous to these islands and one that is poisonous.”
Yeah. That was why she wanted it out of her tree.
Afraid the real reason would make her seem weak, Amaranthe braced herself to let the creature slither off the trunk and out onto one of the branches. She forced herself to return to the problem. Finding a way past those men without causing a massive throat-slitting. She needed a clever idea. Such as setting a fire in their village to draw them all back? The times she or her team had used arson before, it had never turned out well, usually causing far more damage than she had intended. How could she justify doing that to these people, especially when their interest in Sicarius seemed more about ridding their home of an assassin before he could hurt them, rather than collecting a bounty? What did these aborigines care about money, and to whom would they turn in a head, regardless?
“They are after you because they saw me,” Sicarius said.
Amaranthe didn’t know if it was a statement or a question, but she nodded slightly. “A scout ran in while I was trying to explain to the old medicine woman what it was I wanted to trade for. He raced into the chief’s hut and came out waving that poster and pointing at me and at the beach. I’m not quite sure how all those chaps got here ahead of me…” she tilted her head toward the lagoon, “but they did.”
“It is my responsibility then. I will distract them so you can swim to the submarine.”
Amaranthe shook her head as he spoke, but he kept talking.
“You can take it out beyond the lagoon. If you come up again on the other side of those rocks—” he pointed to a promontory jutting into the ocean at the end of the beach, “—I will attempt to join you. After nightfall, I might—”
Amaranthe hushed him with a finger to his lips. All those months they’d worked together, trying to save his son, she had never dared such an intimacy. She was pleased to see it worked, though his eyebrow was in danger of twitching to express indignation.
“If you try to distract them without simply… dispatching them, you might get yourself killed,” she said.
His chin rose. “We have not been that indolent.”
“Forgive me, you might get yourself injured, and, as you know from first-hand experience, I’m not the most skilled medic. We’re all alone out here, with a lot of days of travel to get to a civilized port. We’re still in a bind from our last mishap.” The pirates who had presumed to steal from them wouldn’t do so again—Sicarius’s justice remained harsher than she would prefer, but she’d had a hand in sending their ship to the bottom of the ocean, so who was she to judge? But either way, she and Sicarius had lost half of their provisions overboard.
“They are simple hunters. Those spears were designed for slaying boars, not men. I can deal with them without killing them or being injured.”
“What are you going to do? Call out to them from the wilds and tie them up one at a time as they come to hunt for you?”
“Precisely. It will be dark in an hour as well. A better time to hunt.”
“They know every inch of this island,” Amaranthe said.
“They don’t know me.”
“Oh? I’m sure that poster had some choice words to say about you in whatever language that is.”
Something disturbed a flock of birds in a tree twenty meters away. Colorful wings batted and a dozen tanagers flew inland.
“There isn’t time for further debate.” Sicarius pressed the sword into her hand, keeping his black dagger for himself. “I will distract them. You will take the sub out of the harbor.”
“Fine, fine.” Amaranthe stepped onto a neighboring branch for a better look at the rock promontory. “Where do you want me to wait while you’re distracting people?”
She didn’t receive an answer. He was gone.