Posted in News | Posted on 07-01-2013|
Thanks to holidays and cross-country moves, it’s been a while since the last update, so I’m pleased to have some news for you. I reviewed my editor’s edits for Beneath the Surface (an Emperor’s Edge novella that takes place between Books 5 and 6) and hope to get the final file back soon. I’ll send it off for formatting and hope to have it available this weekend. In the meantime, here’s a preview of the first chapter (yes, it’s a long enough novella to have chapters!).
Beneath the Surface
Sergeant Evrial Yara jogged past crew and passengers bundled in coats, their backs to the cold wind whipping down the Goldar River. A wan afternoon sun poked through the clouds, dappling riverbanks littered with soggy orange and brown leaves, but its rays did little to warm the air. Winter was on its way. Coal smudged the skyline to the north, promising a town waited somewhere ahead. Evrial didn’t know if the River Dancer was due to stop there or not. If it were…
“You could get off there,” she muttered to herself. A week ago, she never would have considered abandoning Sespian Savarsin, the young emperor who was being plotted against from all sides. That was before the truth had come out. “You don’t owe him anything. He’s not the proper heir.”
Realizing she’d spoken aloud, however softly, Evrial glanced left and right. Though she was earning curious looks from the people she passed, she guessed it was for her repeated laps of the lower deck rather than any muttered words.
Evrial grimaced as her gaze landed on the knot of jugglers practicing on the aft deck. Every time she passed them, they decided to make her a part of their exercises, tossing batons and clubs to each other over her head.
A pair of the young men smiled when they saw her coming again. One was juggling a trio of razor-edged knives, and he nodded to his comrade, indicating the other fellow should move closer to the wall so she’d be forced to jog between them as she made the turn. What was it about her that always drew the attention of idiots?
Without slowing her gait, Evrial skewered the blade juggler with a glare. “If you two sludge-licking toads so much as wave those knives in my direction, I’ll rip your apples off, stuff them like taxidermy ostriches, then hand-deliver them to your boss with the suggestion that they be incorporated into future juggling practices.”
That threat was a mouthful, especially given that she was breathing hard from her jog, but it was worth it. The brats shrank away from her path, muttering apologies as she passed. One’s face took on an impressively pale shade, given the bronze coloring of his skin. Evrial supposed being born into a long line of blacksmiths, where the men and women were all over six feet tall, came with occasional perks. Her shoulders were broad enough to swing a hammer, her back was strong enough to move an anvil, and her hands… well, she fancied making good on her threat wouldn’t tax them overly much.
“Ah, Sergeant Yara,” a familiar baritone called from a doorway. “I thought I recognized one of your classy threats.”
Maldynado Montichelu, formerly Maldynado Marblecrest, stepped onto the open deck, smiling and spreading his arms wide, as if he expected Evrial to jog into his embrace. His broad-brimmed black hat—an accessory made completely ridiculous by the addition of a giant plumed pink feather—couldn’t throw enough shadows to hide the chiseled features of his face. His high, well-defined cheekbones, strong square jaw, and liquid brown eyes that always crinkled with humor combined to create a visage that made women of all ages swoon. Evrial kept reminding herself that she wasn’t the type to fall for that sort—after all, that sort had never fallen for her—but he kept smiling warmly at her. It was all very disarming, so she reacted the only way she knew how when he fell into step beside her, giving her a pat on the back.
She snarled. “We’ve gone over the no-touching rule numerous times, have we not?”
Unlike the jugglers, Maldynado wasn’t quelled by her tone or her snarl. His smile grew wider, and he said, “Indeed so, but it’s been a few days since you mentioned it. I thought you might have changed your mind and decided to succumb to my charms in the interim.”
“Aren’t you and your charms supposed to be hiding in your cabin with the rest of your team?” Evrial left his side, ostensibly to run around a pair of acrobats practicing throws and airborne somersaults, but mostly to put space between her and Maldynado. It discomforted her that she occasionally found herself wondering what it’d be like to let his hands linger and where they might roam if given permission to explore. Her face heated, and she ruthlessly shoved the thought away. Though he might have shown her he wasn’t as foppish and dumb as he pretended, she knew he was only flirting with her because she resisted his advances, not out of any desire or true feelings. For one who so easily seduced women, she must represent a challenge.
Maldynado caught back up with her on the other side of a team of actors practicing the battle scene from some old tale. “The ice circus folks only visit the capital once a year; I doubt they’re familiar with the handsome face gracing my wanted posters.”
Evrial shot him an exasperated look. She might have figured out that he was more than a fop, but he certainly made it easy to forget. “The crew and some of the other passengers may be more frequent visitors. Though I suppose those well-to-do enough to afford steamboat tickets aren’t likely to feel inclined to risk themselves wrestling someone with such a meager bounty.”
“Meager.” Maldynado sniffed.
“It’s still only two hundred fifty ranmyas, isn’t it?”
“Well, yes, but I’m convinced the printer made a mistake and left off some zeroes. I’m sure if you brought me in, you’d find the reward more like twenty-five thousand ranmyas.”
“Careful, you’ll tempt me to turn you in.”
Evrial spotted someone walking down an outside stairway up ahead, a woman with locks of gray hair escaping a hood she clasped about her face. She glanced left and right, then darted into a doorway leading to the kitchen. Evrial slowed down, a discordant twang plucking at her enforcer senses. Only the crew used that door, and the woman had not been wearing one of the ubiquitous white uniforms.
“Turn me in?” Maldynado asked. “Before we’ve shared a night of passionate sheet tussling? You may find my skills are worth more to you than coin. Perhaps you’d wish to blackmail me into servicing your every whim, a sacrifice I’d be willing to make to avoid being arrested, of course.”
“Why must you be such an insufferable lout so much of the time?” Evrial headed for the kitchen door.
“It comes naturally, I suppose. Did you recognize that woman?” Maldynado was trailing along beside her.
Evrial was almost surprised he’d noticed the woman, though she shouldn’t be. She’d just been admitting to herself that he had half a brain under his soft curly brown hair. At least, it looked soft. She’d never touched it.
Focus, Evi, she told herself with a mental growl. “I couldn’t see her face, but she was acting suspiciously, don’t you think?”
“Indeed so. Her gaze went right past me without pausing to linger on my fine attributes. Very suspicious.”
“Would you stop that, already? It’s annoying.” Evrial eased the kitchen door open. The smells of baking pheasants, simmering soups, and sautéing vegetables wafted out.
“Sorry.” Surprisingly, he sounded like he was. “It’s a habit.”
“Yes, ma’am. I’ll attempt to do so.”
“Yes, Sergeant is the proper way to address me.”
Inside the kitchen, pots clanged, utensils rattled, and heavy knifes thudded against chopping blocks. Evrial eyed the tight aisles, searching for civilian clothing amongst the numerous white uniforms. Compact and efficient for river travel, the kitchen offered few hiding spots. A swinging door on the opposite end caught her eye.
“Will there be a point when I may call you Evrial?” Maldynado asked as he peeked over her shoulder.
“Not unless I lose my job.”
Which, Evrial feared, was a possibility. She’d been in trouble with her employer and her family when she’d taken off to meet Amaranthe Lokdon and her team of mercenaries. All she’d wanted to do was make sure the emperor was safe, but somehow she’d ended up embroiled in a kidnapping scheme and an assault on an underground lair full of business people plotting against the throne. All that might have been tolerable if not for the shocking news revealed at the end, that Emperor Sespian Savarsin wasn’t the rightful emperor at all, but the son of the deceased Princess Marathi and the former court assassin, a man who, as far as anyone knew, had absolutely no royal blood and no right to have a son on the throne.
When most of the staff’s backs were turned, Evrial eased into the kitchen. She hustled toward the swinging door, hoping to pass through without being seen. Only one woman lifted her head and frowned as she passed.
Evrial stepped into a corridor on the other side, its narrow utilitarian confines intended for crew rather than passengers. She glanced in both directions and glimpsed a woman’s slippers and the tail of a gray cloak disappearing up a ladder. Evrial jogged after the figure, climbing the brass rungs without making a sound. She paused on the next floor, didn’t see anyone in the service corridor, and continued up one more deck. A cart of laundry blocked her view of the corridor, but she heard the patter of soft footfalls. She climbed out of the ladder well in time to see the cloaked woman struggle to open a heavy hatch, almost upending a basket of salamis and flat cakes. Her hood slipped down to her shoulders.
Evrial sucked in a breath, recognizing the sharp-nosed face. It belonged to one the people who’d been seated at that secret business meeting. That made her one of the more prominent heads of the Forge organization, the people plotting to put a loyal figurehead on the throne.
Staying low, Evrial crept forward, a vague notion of accosting the woman arising in her mind. Before she’d reached the laundry cart, her target glanced back.
Evrial ducked, hoping she’d reacted quickly enough to stay out of sight. Hinges squeaked, and the hatch thudded shut. Evrial pushed the cart aside and ran to the end of the passageway. She eased open the hatch without trouble and peeked through the crack. The wide, wood-paneled corridor was empty.
“Emperor’s warts,” she whispered.
Cabin doors stretched along the walls in either direction, but they were all closed.
“She got away, huh?”
Evrial jumped in surprise, losing her grip on the hatch. It clanged shut.
Maldynado stood behind her in the corridor, his hat brushing the ceiling, the feather crooked against the wall. His broad shoulders brushed the walls as well, and Evrial caught herself staring at his collarbone and the hint of firm pectoral muscles revealed by the V-neck shirt.
“What?” Maldynado asked.
Evrial cleared her throat, embarrassed that he’d caught her staring. “I didn’t know you were following me.”
“You thought I’d loiter in the kitchen and graze off the appetizer platters while you wandered off, looking for trouble?”
“No, I mean, I didn’t hear you.”
“Oh.” Maldynado offered a bright smile. “Good. Basilard and Sicarius always tell me I have the stealth of a drunken elephant, but I think they’re hypercritical because they were born with cat’s paws instead of human feet.” He pointed his chin at the hatch. “Did you figure out who she is?”
Distracted by the idea of Sicarius having cat feet, it took Evrial a moment to answer the question. “One of the Forge women.”
Maldynado straightened, clunking his head on the ceiling. He barely noticed. “Really? The boss’ll want to hear about that.”
Yes, and Evrial wished her prey hadn’t eluded her so she’d have more information to share. “I wonder why this woman is sneaking around instead of simply going to the dining room for meals.”
“Maybe she knows we’re here and is worried we’ll flood her cabin with the river,” Maldynado said, “the same way we did with their under-lake meeting chamber.”
“Nobody’s supposed to know your team is here. Lokdon sent me to buy the tickets, everyone boarded after dark with their hats pulled low, and they’ve been sneaking out for their food. Although, some members have been roaming around of late.” Evrial eyed him up and down.
“What do you expect? Books is my roommate, and he’s got his papers all over my bunk. And on the floor. I can barely turn around in there. I ought to come sleep with you.” Maldynado wriggled his eyebrows.
“I have a roommate, too, you know. I don’t think your employer would care to listen to your spelunking attempts.”
Maldynado lifted his hands. “I was just talking about sleeping arrangements. I don’t know what you’re suggesting, my lady.”
Evrial snorted. “Let’s just go talk to her. If more Forge people than that old lady are here, and they know we’re here, we might be in for trouble.”
“Yes, I suppose it was too much to hope that we’d have a week’s vacation to recover from our wounds before arriving to that mess back home.” For once, Maldynado’s face held only grimness and not a trace of humor.
* * * * *
Amaranthe Lokdon darted from shadow to shadow, hugging the railing and avoiding the freshly lit lanterns burning on the steamboat’s hull. The wooden doors between those lanterns were closely placed at this end of the vessel, indicating the smallness of the cabins. Engineering lay right below, and the reverberations from the paddlewheel’s pumping pistons vibrated through the textured steel decking.
A door opened a few meters away. It wasn’t one of the rooms her team had claimed, so Amaranthe turned her back to it, propped her arms on the railing, and pretended to be fascinated with the farmlands drifting past on that side of the river. Though she gazed forward, she watched the door with her peripheral vision. A man and woman walked out, arms linked. They didn’t glance in her direction. Good. Amaranthe patted the brown paper bag tucked beneath a flap of her parka. It seemed she might get away with her discreet outing without having to explain herself to anyone.
After the couple disappeared down the nearest stairwell, Amaranthe trotted to her own door, holding her parka closed—and protecting the bag—with one arm. She slipped out the key and inserted it in the lock… only to find that someone had unlocked the door since she left fifteen minutes earlier. Sergeant Yara must have returned from her exercise session. That was all right. She probably wouldn’t betray Amaranthe to any fitness-obsessed assassins. Yara and Sicarius had never, insofar as Amaranthe had noticed, held a conversation.
She opened the door and stepped inside, a greeting for Yara on her lips, but she found herself face-to-face with Sicarius. Arms crossed over his chest, he stood in the center of the small cabin. He wore his usual fitted black clothing and knife-and-dagger collection. His cool expressionless stare had a where-have-you-been mien to it. Or maybe her imagination conjured up that nuance. Her guilty imagination.
Amaranthe pursued the age-old strategy employed by those seeking to avoid answering questions—she preempted them with her own unrelated rambling. “That’s odd. I distinctly remember locking this door before I left.” She tapped her chin thoughtfully. “And Yara is my only roommate and the only other key holder, but I don’t see her here.” She made a show of surveying the cabin. She peered under the lower of two bunks mounted on the back wall, then beneath a table bolted to the floorboards near another wall, and she finally pulled open the table’s single drawer to peek inside. “Nope, she’s not here.”
Amaranthe turned, intending to continue her show, this time checking behind the door, but found herself gaping at a new addition to her tiny cabin. Someone had bolted an iron bar in the corner so it hung horizontally a few inches below the ceiling. Two chains dangled from it. A couple of clunky iron balls with handles sat on the floor beneath the apparatus.
“What’s all this?” Amaranthe asked, though with Sicarius being Sicarius, she had a suspicion.
“There is something in your pocket.” Sicarius hadn’t moved from the center of the room, but his gaze had lowered—to the bulge in her parka.
“No, there’s not.” Amaranthe feared her attempts at evasion were in vain, but couldn’t bring herself to give up. Maybe if she could get him to go over and explain the new addition, she could slip her bag into that table drawer. It looked deep enough… “If this were Maldynado’s handiwork—” she tilted her head, trying to draw his eye toward the bar and chains, “—I’d assume it was some sort of apparatus for… sex play, but since we haven’t even, uhm, played in the bed yet…” Dear ancestors, what was she doing? She should have simply confessed. That would have been less painful. “…That would seem premature,” she finished weakly.
“It is for training,” Sicarius said, once again demonstrating his ability to mask his thoughts in the face of any commentary. “Since those of us with notorious faces have been ordered to remain in our cabins for the duration of the journey.”
Er, yes, that had been her order, so she could hardly balk at it. But his explanation offered an opportunity; maybe she could yet salvage this conversation. “Training? Care to demonstrate?”
Sicarius walked past her, though not without giving her an all-too-knowing sidelong gaze, and gripped the bar with both hands. His back was to the room. Perfect. While he performed a variety of pull-ups, demonstrating different grips, Amaranthe tiptoed toward the desk. With one hand still holding her parka flap closed, she eased the drawer open. Meanwhile, she kept an eye toward Sicarius, making sure he didn’t glance back. Emperor’s burst bunions, he didn’t expect her to do those one-armed chin-ups, did he?
“What are the chains for?” she asked when it looked like he might be finishing his demonstration.
She opened her parka flap slowly, careful not to rustle the bag. The man had the hearing of an owl.
“They can be used for abbreviated maneuvers while some of your weight remains on the floor.” Sicarius gripped the chains and demonstrated. “This may be necessary while you regain your strength.”
Amaranthe pulled out the crinkled brown bag, its bottom spotted with grease stains. A faint smell wafted up, teasing her nose. Cinnamon. She placed the bag in the drawer as fast as she could without making noise. Sicarius’s hearing wasn’t his only preternatural sense.
The chains rattled as he released them. Amaranthe slid the drawer shut, coughing to cover the rustle as the top of the frame scraped at the bag. The drawer snagged against something. She winced and started to reach in to adjust the bag, but Sicarius was turning to face her. She spun about, leaning a hand casually on the table and using her body to block his view.
“That’s very thoughtful of you to install that,” Amaranthe said, “but I thought we’d agreed to let the group relax and recuperate on this voyage upstream, considering the battering we’ve all taken.” She touched one of the remaining bruises on her neck. Though she preferred to forget about her wounds, and was glad they were fading, she thought he might be moved by compassion and forget about her suspicious behavior. “We’ll be in the capital in a few days, and we’ll have enough hard work to occupy us then. We’ll need to be fresh.”
“There is a difference between fresh and out of shape.” Sicarius strode toward her.
Amaranthe tried to force the drawer shut with her butt. That last inch wouldn’t budge. She spread her parka to further block the view of the cursed thing. Only when Sicarius stopped in front of her, less than a foot of space separating them, did she realize that the way she was leaning against the table, touching her neck with one hand, spreading her parka open with the other, probably looked like… an invitation. Sicarius might not have reacted to her “bed play” comment, but they had discussed a future that involved such things—insomuch as she could imagine him playing at anything. When she was ready, he’d said. If he thought she was ready to resume training, maybe he thought she might be ready for other activities. Amaranthe swallowed. Might she be?
Sicarius was gazing steadily at her. She couldn’t tell what thoughts lurked behind his dark brown eyes, but he didn’t seem annoyed or irritated—those emotions she could usually read in the extra degree of hardness to his jaw. He lifted his hands to touch either side of her waist. Her breath hitched. The warmth of his fingers radiated through her shirt. He stepped closer. He was going to—
Sicarius’s grip tightened, and he lifted her from her feet.
Amaranthe blurted a startled protest as he picked her up, rotated her, and set her down behind him. Sicarius slid open the desk drawer, plucked out the bag, and dropped it on the table. He arched a single eyebrow. It was all Amaranthe could do not to squirm and shuffle her feet like a child caught filching cookies from the kitchen.
“You risked being seen by security to acquire a bag of tarts?” Sicarius asked.
“They’re pastries, not tarts. Besides…” Amaranthe set a hand on her hip. “You risked being seen by security to acquire iron bars and chains.”
“I was not seen.”
“Neither was I.” All right, that was a lie. The baker had been making up a fresh batch for dessert, and Amaranthe had needed to offer her most charming smile to convince the man that some of the pastries had been hastily frosted and were in no condition to be served to the high-paying guests whose tickets earned them seats in the formal dining hall.
Sicarius’s eyes narrowed slightly.
“By anyone who would turn me in,” Amaranthe amended. “Anyway, you did a good job providing me with nourishing food on the trek from the Forge ship to the lake, and then again on the way to Port Dremel.” At least during that second part of the journey, they’d been with the rest of the team, and Basilard had foraged for late-season herbs to add flavor to Sicarius’s organ-delight meals. “I’m feeling much better, and there’s no need for such stringent dietary guidelines now.”
Sicarius’s grunt didn’t sound terribly convinced.
“On the other hand,” Amaranthe said, “you could stand to add a pound or two, after all those days of running you endured to find me. I have enough to share.” She opened the bag, letting more of those delicious scents waft out. “Would you like one?”
“I have no need for sweets.”
“You could take one to Sespian. As a peace offering.”
Sicarius eyed the bag, and for a moment Amaranthe thought he might do it.
“I do not believe he would accept a peace offering from me.”
Yes, though Sespian hadn’t pulled any more weapons on Sicarius, their new relationship wasn’t off to a brilliant start. Like a mother hoping to make two young brothers get along, Amaranthe had tried to put them together as roommates, but Sespian had traded berths with Basilard before ever stepping into the cabin.
“You have to keep trying,” Amaranthe said. “Be friendly in the face of his dark glares, and he’ll eventually grow weary of rejecting you. Why, just look at us. In a short ten months of sparkling smiles and effervescent one-sided conversations, I thawed your icy exterior and got you to profess your undying love for me.”
Sicarius blinked slowly.
“It’s possible we remember the events a little differently,” Amaranthe said. “The female mind has an interesting way of filtering reality.”
“Yours certainly does,” Sicarius said, a hint of dry humor finally infusing his tone.
Amaranthe rattled the bag and pulled out a flat round roll drizzled with frosting. “Seriously, you should take him one. It’ll be funny. It’ll warm the frosty air between you.”
Sicarius’s gaze went from her to the roll and back to her. “Funny.”
His monotone had returned, and she couldn’t tell if it was a question, but answered anyway.
“Yes, funny, because of the name.” Amaranthe hefted the sticky roll, but didn’t spot any sign of illumination in Sicarius’s eyes. She supposed a man who never consumed sweets wouldn’t know what the various types were called. “They’re emperor’s buns,” she explained. “Given his occupation, there’s all sorts of potential for humor, don’t you think?”
“Or for causing offense.” Sicarius clasped his hands behind his back. “I will stay here and see to your recovery and training.”
How… considerate. As much as Amaranthe appreciated his new interest in caring for her—and demonstrating that he cared for her—he’d been around a lot, first during their trek to Port Dremel and then hourly since they boarded. His eyebrow had twitched a good millimeter when she’d announced Yara would be her roommate. She’d shooed him out at bedtime the last two nights and had made him promise not to stand guard outside the door.
“I’d like it if you two reached an agreement, or working relationship at least, before we arrive in Stumps.” Amaranthe wondered what he’d say if she tried to make it an order. “We’ll need the team to be working flawlessly together if we’re to have a chance against our opponents.”
“Agreed,” Sicarius said, but he didn’t make a move toward the pastry bag—or the door. “I will approach him soon for a frank discussion.”
Sicarius hesitated. “Soon.”
She’d have to accept that as a start.
“If you do not feel ready to train physically,” Sicarius said, “we could play Stratics to hone your mental acuity.” He fished in the drawer and pulled out a box of tiles and accompanying roll-up game map.
Amaranthe supposed that was an improvement over chin-ups. “Fine, but if you sit over there and glare at me while I’m indulging in my sweets, I’ll shove a bun up your nose.”
Sicarius’s eyes glinted. “You may try.”
Huh. That sounded like a challenge. While he spread the map across the table, Amaranthe mused upon how that particular challenge might go if she tested him with it. She’d probably be the one to end up with baked goods lodged in her nostril, though it might be worth it if she elicited a playful side in him. Hm.
* * *