Always a Jeridar

Today’s vignette goes back to “Serafina’s Saga,” seven years after the end of the visual novel. The visual novel is interactive, and therefore has a variety of possible endings; but this is the ending of my choice, and if I revisit Darzia in a later novel (which I intend to), then the circumstances will be as follows!

(Also, thanks to sillyraccoonknight for the inspiration of “cherry pie!” ).

***

Near the top of the Elborn tower, where rosy vines and chinder branches wove around stones and columns like threads of matching fibers, tendrils of red hair streamed from the window.

Serafina stood in her bedroom, looking down at the stone city that comprised Castle Krondolee. She remembered the first time she arrived here seven years ago, though it seemed like a lifetime. Before that momentous day, she had never ventured into human civilization. She knew nothing beyond the jungle, where the only question she asked herself each morning was whether she would survive or succumb to the dangers of Darzian wildlife. Sometimes, she still yearned for those days. Because now that she was only a few hours away from becoming Queen or Grand Princess, at least a thousand questions hovered in her mind at any given moment.

She flinched as the door creaked behind her. Only one person would enter without knocking, and that was her husband.

Reuben Jeridar.

She prepared herself to face him before turning around, even as she heard him take several steps and then close the door behind him. One would think that after seven years of marriage, Reuben’s ability to fluster his wife would have waned in effectiveness; but on the contrary, Reuben had only grown more skilled at stirring Serafina’s emotions, in every manner possible, and as frequently as he possibly could. She realized that some of the fault was her own. Reuben liked to play games, and he would have tired of the sport many years ago if she hadn’t played it with equal vigor.

Today’s circumstances, however, went beyond fun and games. Today the entire kingdom’s future lay on the line. A new monarch would be chosen between Reuben and Serafina. Either she became Queen, or he became King.

“Has the Royal Duma reached a decision?” Serafina asked, still not turning around.

“Not yet, cherry pie.”

As ever, he called her by her old nickname to incite an irritated response. Before they married, he liked to call her cherry tart. He claimed that “pie” was a more accurate description once he’d finally “gotten a taste.” It never failed to make her blood boil, and normally, she would have given him a proper retort. But this time, she refused to take the bait.

“Then why are you here?”

“Because I’m tired of pacing in circles downstairs.”

His fingers brushed the long red locks of her wavy hair, then tickled the bare skin of her arm. He leaned in close, his breath against her neck. His grip tightened around her waist.

Finally, Serafina spun around to face him.

Reuben’s coral eyes sizzled at her beneath dark lashes. His golden-red hair flowed down his shoulders and back into a black bolero top-coat. His body was small and lean, though not without muscle—a fact made all too clear by the slimness of his clothing or complete lack thereof. Beneath his short jacket, a tiny shirt covered only half of his rippling torso. Dark green trousers wrapped around the sharp angle of his hips and the curves of his thighs and calves.

Serafina tried not to focus on these things as she met his simmering stare. She despised the sneer ever-lurking on the edge of his lips, even as it made her heart beat faster.

“I keep thinking about what happened to Belatrix,” said Serafina carefully. She had rehearsed these words in her mind so many times, anticipating Reuben’s eventual entry. “The story makes no sense. Why would she run so deep into the jungle just to pursue some lone antelope? And why be so foolish as to stumble into a nest of spindle-vines? Surely an antelope wouldn’t have passed through one first.”

“My darling,” said Reuben, his hand returning to her dress, “not everyone knows the jungle as intimately as you do.”

“But Belatrix was smart, and a decent tracker.” Serafina struggled not to get distracted as Reuben played with the strings of her corset.

“She had lost her husband only two weeks before,” Reuben reminded her. He stepped closer, his gaze focused on her lips. “Perhaps she was distressed.”

Serafina firmed her resolve. “Awfully convenient, don’t you think? For the Queen and her Grand Prince to die so closely together?”

Reuben had gone quite still, his fingers cold against her arm. “My dear wife,” he said softly, “I don’t know what you’re suggesting.”

“You know exactly what I suggest,” hissed Serafina, and she felt her jaws gnashing as she bared her teeth. “I suggest that once again, a Jeridar destroyed the monarchy—just as one of your relatives murdered my parents.”

“I see.” Reuben took a step back and twiddled his fingers against his chin. “Now isn’t this a dilemma?”

***

Serafina and Reuben from the visual novel

Serafina and Reuben from the visual novel

Published in: on January 21, 2014 at 7:07 am  Comments (2)  
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Career Considerations Continued

So a couple of weeks ago I ranted against the concept of “careers” in a world/economy where artists are rarely rewarded for talent (at least not as much as their social connections) and strongly-skilled people in general often have to settle for simple, unglamorous jobs. I was pretty angry at the time. In short, I have been on the verge of giving up on my artistic endeavors altogether over the last couple of months. So I’m a little touchy about these topics.

But after a couple weeks of holidays, severe writer’s block, copious amounts of snow, and more time to sit and reflect than I knew what to do with, my feelings have calmed slightly (or at least been numbed by cold weather). And though I don’t take back anything I said in the previous post, I’d like to readdress those same thoughts in a slightly more positive and hopeful manner.

My ruminations all trace back to that moment when we are young and someone asks us, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” We’re generally inclined to give them some sort of answer. And for better or worse, that answer continues to linger in our heads as we mature into adults, and we feel like we should stick with it. “I am a doctor.” “I am a violinist.” “I am a writer!” But when something goes wrong, or we start to wonder if we might prefer to do something else, we start to feel confused and probably a bit guilty that we are not pursuing “that-thing-I-said-I-would-be.”

This has been an issue that confused me ever since I was a little girl. Well, I would usually have an answer for people. The problem was that it changed all the time. “I want to be an Olympic gymnast.” “I want to be an Academy-Award-winning-director.” “I want to be a video game composer like Nobuo Uematsu.” “I want to be a veterinarian.” “I want to be a best-selling novelist.” I wanted to be a lot of things. And in every single category, I wanted to be the best. My dreams were often quite specific.

By the time high school came to a close, I had to choose among my dreams. So I chose screenwriting. I wanted to write amazing stories and watch those stories come to life on a big screen. And though I don’t regret any of my time going to film school–which was a blast, and I learned a great deal–that decision has haunted me ever since, especially after I decided to move out of LA. Not because it was the wrong decision, necessarily. But because there wasn’t a right one.

The decision to become a film-maker haunted me because, until recently, I believed it defined me. I believed that if I did anything other than “making it big in Hollywood,” I was giving up on my dream. I was disappointing all those people who stared into the big blue eyes of my child-self and asked, “What will you be when you grow up?” Now I’m beginning to understand that the source of my dilemma was not the answer that I chose. It was the question itself. Can we only be one thing when we grow up? And if we change our minds, does that make us quitters?

Don’t get me wrong. I understand that some professions require strict discipline and long-term training–my first example of a doctor being one of those. Some people might also stop my line of reasoning with an argument like this one: “If you truly wish to master something, then you should dedicate a large portion of your life to learning and honing the skills of that craft.” I get it. There’s some truth to that notion. But let me challenge it with a different idea.

I had an incredible teacher in high school–we called him “Doc” Thompson–and he is the sort of teacher Hollywood loves to make movies about. He inspired and challenged every student who crossed his path. He constantly fought the system and tried to reform education. He made high-schoolers read Plato and Socrates  and he tried to engrave ancient wisdom upon our modern hearts and minds. But what I remember most clearly from his classes is not a quote from a Greek philosopher; it’s something he said one day in class. “Knowledge is a lot like Velcro. The more pieces of it you pick up, the better you start to understand how it all fits together.”

That’s a rough quotation. But hopefully you grasp its meaning. It illustrates a concept that I’ve only begun to appreciate in full after several bouts of “career confusion.” Sure, if we focus on just one profession and refuse to distract ourselves with other interests, then maybe we’ll become the “master” of that field. But what if we allow ourselves to constantly explore–to pick up new skills even if they seem entirely unrelated, to work odd jobs even if we’re over-qualified, to appreciate every piece of knowledge and craftsmanship that life throws at us–because maybe it’s all connected? Maybe once we pick up enough of it, we’ll have something sturdier and more useful than one side of Velcro? Maybe we’ll have a better understanding of the whole world, and our own roles within it?

I’d like to believe that life is about learning and exploring–that it’s okay to change our minds every once in awhile, or maybe even walk along in one big circle until we end up where we started. At least we’ll probably have an interesting adventure in the meantime.

Published in: on January 6, 2014 at 11:22 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Walking with Water

 Another vignette from the galaxy of Quantum Conscience, this time providing a glimpse into Amalek’s background.

***

Amalek Nikat from "Quantum Conscience"

Amalek Nikat from “Quantum Conscience”

The captain’s quarters of the Free Fin rolled and lurched as the oceans of Alqualin surged against its hull.

Amalek clutched the sides of his chair until his dark knuckles turned pale. He had known to expect rough movement on a traditional wooden ship like Captain Yorna’s, but this exceeded all expectations. He felt as if someone trapped him in a box and then threw it down a steep hillside. No matter how he tried, his body could not harmonize with the movement of the vessel. His stomach swayed and dropped while his limbs struggled to follow. Meanwhile his mind raced in many directions at once, wondering why the power of the ramming waves did not smash this wooden ship to pieces.

He heard a chuckle behind him, and fought to keep his gaze steady while he turned to view the observer.

Captain Yorna swaggered past with the graceful gait of a woman weathered by a hundred storms. She half-sat against her desk so she could cross her slender legs and sneer down at Amalek from a comfortable height. She wore a neoprene suit that wrapped her lean body like a big rubber glove, and its black surface bore the bright yellow stripes of an Alqualin captain. A leather cloak also suggested her rank, hugging one shoulder in the typical fashion of a high-sea sailor. She wore her auburn hair in dozens of tiny braids that spilled down her neck and shoulders like a dark waterfall.

As she studied Amalek from her perch, he wondered how he looked to her. He was twenty years old and fresh out of sea school, though people tended to mistake him for older. He had done his best to dress the part for the job. He wore a neoprene suit with the dark blue stripes of an average deck-hand. He had bound his long black hair in two braids that currently swayed against his chest. He tried to sit up and stare back at her with the same intensity she fixed upon him, but failed, because he could not shake the feeling that the whole world was spinning.

She laughed again, a coarse sound that somehow managed to beat back the roar of crashing waves. “Amalek Nikat. Don’t tell me this is your first time on a high-seas ship?”

“Of course… not.” He struggled with the last word amidst the sensation that his gorge was rising. “I just don’t remember it being so… unstable.”

Her amused sneer faded suddenly. “I selected you because I thought you were the best. High test scores, strong muscles, impressive stamina…”

“I am the first in my class,” he confirmed, sitting a little higher. But somehow his voice did not resound with the confidence he needed. “Ask me anything about this ship and I can tell you. It uses spider-thread rigging. I can tie a triple-noose knot in ten seconds. I can climb a—”

“You can’t stand up for ten hacking seconds without falling flat on your face,” Yorna snapped. “Tell me. Have you spent your whole life underwater?”

“Most of it,” he confessed. His stomach was churning violently now. He needed to close his eyes so he could stop feeling dizzy. But he tried to pretend that he was reflecting deeply upon his past. “I grew up in the underwater city of Balka Reef. But I’ve also spent time on submarines. And I’ve been on the surface on several occasions. Just not—”

He couldn’t hold it back any longer. He leaned over the side of his chair and heaved his breakfast upon the lovely red fibers of her carpet.

For a moment, both of them just stared in disgust at his body’s excretion. Then Captain Yorna snorted and shook her head. “I should have known better. Test scores mean nothing if you can’t walk with water. You won’t last a week on these waves.”

“I’ll adjust!” His green eyes were open now, his voice filled with the deep roots of conviction that even sea-sickness failed to eject. Now that he had finally vomited, he actually felt a little better, and met her gaze with fierce intensity. “Captain Yorna. You did not make a mistake. It’s true that I’ve spent most of my life underwater. I have swum the ocean’s darkest depths, and mastered every test that Alqualin Academy can offer. But I still do not know our Mother Okeanos.”

“You want to know the ocean, do you? Want to make her your mistress?” This time Yorna offered a gleeful cackle. “I can save you a lot of trouble, Amalek, and buy you a seaside prostitute. You might have more fun swimming her darkest depths.”

“I speak of Okeanos,” he snarled, “the spirit of Alqualin. I have lived in the ocean’s womb, surrounded by the silence of her dark depths, always within her but never beside her. I want to learn to walk with water as you do. I want to breathe fresh air and feel the sun upon my skin. I have read every book I can about man’s mastery over this planet. But I still feel like its servant. I want to see the true face of Mother Okeanos. And then I’ll decide which one of us truly reigns here.”

“Nice speech. Was that from your graduation essay?”

Captain Yorna still spoke with a note of mockery. But her voice was softer now, her gaze measuring. He gave up impressing her with flowery speech and held her stare with equal weight, ignoring the pitch and roll of the ship around him, forgetting about everything but his unquenchable desire to prove himself on the high seas.

She looked away first, and he felt a slight moment of triumph. But her voice had regained its tone of amusement as she said over her shoulder, “I’ll give you a week.”

Published in: on December 17, 2013 at 1:08 pm  Comments (2)  
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Sky of Teballai

This is another little scene I wrote as backstory for the characters of “Quantum Conscience,” my current project. Blaire is the main character. For the next few weeks or more, my vignettes will probably focus on the different planets and characters of “Quantum Conscience” (unless someone requests I write a vignette for a different story, and please feel free to do so!). I find it both fun and useful to write little scenes like this on the sidelines of the main story. A great deal might be left unexplained in each vignette, but such is their nature. I hope you find them interesting all the same!

*

We stood on a balcony of the Q’s tower, watching night smother the city far below. We were only fifteen years old, but felt that the world was ours for the taking. We were not far from wrong.

A fog hovered over the world, softening the edges of the stony landscape beneath us. Where the smoky plumes brushed light, colors blossomed in the mist: red, yellow, green. At the time I did not consider it unusual. Strange fumes drifted endlessly from the rocky depths of Teballai’s surface, harmful to breathe, but beautiful to watch. If we forgot to take our medicine—or, in the case of the less fortunate, could not obtain any—we developed raucous coughs and bloody noses from the toxic gases. But Veramus and I always took our medicine, because we were class Cypher-P. We had everything we desired, because we were too stupid to realize we should have desired more.

The winds bombarded our bodies, harder than usual. Our cloaks flapped against our torsos like furious wings. I took a swig of korkal. The bitter spirit burned down my throat and punched me in the chest. I let out a squeal of unrestrained delight.

Veramus only glared at me, his mouth a flat slash across his face. I watched his long dark hair whip around his head as if trying to yank free of him, and this made me laugh harder.

“Blaire, we should get inside,” he grumbled.

I barely heard him over the rising gale. Just for the crux of it I pretended I couldn’t hear him at all. “What was that?”

“I said we should go inside!” He spoke louder now, the muscles of his face tightening and making his forehead bulge. “Looks like we might get a wind storm.”

“Please Terra no,” I groaned. When wind storms struck, everyone had to go into their homes, shut all the doors and windows, and not come out until two days after the storm had passed. We depended on mechanical creatures called gorgans to run errands and clean up the city until it was safe for re-entry. The Q’s tower was a sturdy stone construction, so I never feared for my life. Rather, I dreaded the impending boredom of house arrest. “If that’s the case let’s stay outside for as long as we possibly can!”

“Hacking fool,” hissed Veramus. He might have thought I couldn’t hear him. But I did. And although Veramus often fell into grumpy moods, I rarely heard him sound so venomous. “You’ve had too much korkal. If these winds get any stronger they’ll throw you off the balcony.”

“Oh! I’ve always wanted to fly.” Laughing, I took another gulp of korkal. Then another.

“Idiot!” He made no attempts to hide his fury as he grabbed my bottle, ripped it from my fingers, and flung it off the balcony.

I watched with a mixture of horror and fascination as the glass flew far over the city, driven by wind. “That’ll hit someone.”

“As if you ever pause to think of the consequences!” He was yelling at me now. I stared at him in a state of helpless perplexity. His long, angular face was nothing but a series of sharp lines, slicing me from afar. “You can do whatever you want, and somehow you always get away with it. Why?

“Veramus, what the crux are you talking about?” The wind blew furiously now. I had to grip the balcony railing to keep my footing. Somehow, Veramus held nothing and stood as sturdily as the tower itself. “You’re a Cypher-P just like me,” I reminded him. “We can do whatever we want.”

“That’s not what I mean. The last test. How did you pass it?”

“Eh?”

“The last test!” He reached over and grabbed the front of my tunic, pulling me closer. In one sense I was grateful, because he provided an anchor in the wind. But his fingers tightened the collar of my tunic around my throat, and his dark eyes drilled into me without mercy. His hair lashed me like dozens of tiny whips. “I studied for months. Trained my mind to harmonize with the machine and enter the program. You forgot about it until the day before, and even then, you ran off to play pranks on the O’s instead of training. Then you got the best score!

“Who cares?” I wriggled a little, wishing to escape his grip, but realized that the wind would snag me if Veramus let go. I reached out and grabbed his tunic in return, a hand on his shoulder, like a brotherly gesture. But my fingers dug in as sharply as his, making him wince. “The Q wants us to harmonize with a hacking computer program. Who gives a shit? Maybe your problem is that you take everything too seriously. You make it so hard to have fun sometimes. Maybe you’re just a tight-ass and that’s never going to change.”

A strange look came into his eyes then. The wind stole my breath away. I’d never seen an expression like that on his face before. He looked at me as he might look at a dumb peasant on the street. No… worse. Truly, I thought he might throw me throw me off the balcony and be done with it.

Then his gaze shifted, and I realized he wasn’t looking at me anymore. He stared up into the sky. His eyes continued to widen, then his mouth dropped open slowly. “Blaire… look!”

I followed his gaze to the sky.

Something had changed. It took me a moment to realize what. The sky looked so different I almost didn’t recognize it. The fog had cleared. Beyond lay a vast expanse of endless darkness. But not just darkness. There were specks of light, hundreds—maybe thousands—of them, twinkling across the abyss. Here and there I saw larger orbs, with a hint of color, hovering as if on the edge of existence.

I felt dizzy. Veramus must have, too, for we clung to each other desperately, staring at the beauty above us in a state of terrified awe.

“What is it?” gasped Veramus.

“The night sky?” I said dumbly.

“Yes, but… those lights… that darkness… I feel as if it goes on forever. And it’s not empty.” I felt his heart pounding against his ribs.

“It’s amazing,” I agreed.

Then the wind surged, howling so loudly now we could no longer hear anything else, and we both began to fall.

Everything spun. My limbs flailed. My legs scrambled. Veramus and I clutched at each other. Fingernails raked across the stone floor. One moment I thought I was falling off the balcony—either to impale myself on the stones below, or somehow fly up into that endless expanse hanging above us. The next I saw walls around me, felt a door in my grasp, and noticed Veramus bracing his body against mine. We both grit our teeth and pulled with all our might, until I saw sparkling lights against my eyelids like the strange dots of the night sky.

Finally the door shut, sealing us in the tower, and we collapsed upon the floor.

For a long time we just lay there, catching our breath. The wind howled through the door, as if with angry curses, banging against the rock as if to break through and exact its revenge.

Then Veramus and I looked at each other. And for some reason I could not explain, grins burst across our faces.

“See?” I laughed breathlessly. “If we hadn’t stayed out that long, we never would have seen that.”

“Yes.” His eyes spun as he looked at me. “That was truly amazing. But what does it mean? I never thought there was anything above us other than the evil eye of Sol. Are there other forces of power out there?”

“You’re doing it again!” I cried, but shook my head fondly. “Don’t think about it so hard. Whatever’s in the sky, it’s pretty awesome, but has nothing to do with us.” I punched him lightly in the shoulder. “Now let’s find some more korkal!”

Published in: on November 26, 2013 at 11:05 am  Comments (1)  
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City of Lights

This might not technically be a vignette, but it’s a little piece of back-story I wrote for a character of my current project, “Quantum Conscience,” a sci-fi visual novel. So if nothing else, it’s a little glimpse into the galaxy where the story will be set.

*

Cikaiti. City of lights.

“Light is most precious where darkness presides.” This was a popular saying amongst the people of Cikaiti, because they knew that the name of their city led to grave misconceptions. Strangers visiting Cikaiti expected its brightness to blind them. Instead, they discovered a city covered mostly in darkness. Thick black clouds reigned over the entire atmosphere of Ludebba, Planet of Quiet, and wove the thickest webs of shadow over the grand capital, Cikaiti. Tourists who visited at the wrong time of year could linger in the city of lights for a full month and only glimpse a few shifting beams of sunlight, like the prongs of a rake scraping the spongy hills.

A little girl liked to play in these hills at night, for the people of Cikaiti did not fear the darkness. When Cikaiti became darkest, certain plants would unfurl and cast a glow from their bulbs, scooping out shadows and replacing them with velvety light. When this happened, the hillsides seemed to sparkle. The planet’s surface mirrored the stars above, until the heavens and earth blended together like spilled paint.

The young girl, Mierol, liked to search for a special red flower that only unveiled itself under certain constellations. Mierol’s parents had named her after this flower, the mieroldee, whose crimson petals matched the messy mop of hair on Mierol’s head. But Mierol did not spend any time studying star maps or trying to predict the mieroldee’s awakening. She enjoyed the ongoing search, and the occasional surprise of success. She liked to sprawl across the fibrous soil until she lost her orientation, and felt as if she swam with the stars. The earth would warm her back, for numerous micro-organisms thrived in the spicules beneath her.

Citizens of the planet Ludebba, like Mierol, understood that the appreciation of light arose from the predominance of darkness. They all anticipated the day of the Sun Bath, which only happened once a year, but not for the same reason as outsiders. Tourists who visited Cikaiti for the Sun Bath witnessed something quite normal: the sun came out, the clouds cleared, and light filled every crevice. City dwellers, meanwhile, stayed inside or wore protective lenses because the light overwhelmed their sensitive vision. They enjoyed—from a distance—the honey hue of the sunshine, and the emergence of every single plant which usually curled into the ground. On this day, the earth renewed itself. The plants drank every drop of solar energy and stored it for later. The spongy earth soaked the sun’s heat and swelled with fullness.

But one group of outsiders appreciated the significance of the Sun Bath more than anyone—more, even, than the citizens of Cikaiti itself. They realized that the plants of Ludebba had evolved to store solar energy more efficiently than any piece of man-made technology. They also knew that the plants would contain the highest amounts of energy on the first night after the Sun Bath. So on one such night, when Mierol was eight years old, the Pilfyres attacked.

*

Published in: on November 19, 2013 at 10:58 am  Comments (1)  
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The Hopeful Companion

A quick return to the tale of Edric the Wild….

*

Audrey walked quietly next to Edric, watching the low hills and tangled scrub of western Engla-lond become a silhouette of black bumps in front of the setting sun. For some reason, the shape of the horizon reminded her of a toad’s warty back, and she wanted to laugh. But the somberness of her companion stifled her budding amusement.

Edric seemed unaware of the humor, or perhaps anything at all, as his boots plodded methodically through the grass and his stare remained grim beneath brows of knit concentration. Once, he might have enjoyed leading a group of rebel Saxons into Wales for a surprise attack against the Normans. These days, he remained somber no matter what the occasion. He had good reason. His wife and true love had abandoned him without explanation. His country was being choked into submission by William the Bastard and his hordes of Norman soldiers. But that didn’t stop Audrey from wanting to see him smile.

Eventually, Audrey dared to raise her voice. “I heard that you asked Meirion to accompany you across the Welsh border.”

Edric made a small sound which might have been a grunt of assent, but otherwise kept trudging onwards without reply.

“I think you two will make a great team,” she prodded.

This earned a much louder grunt from Edric’s throat. “We’ll see.” He turned his head slightly, just enough to glance at Audrey. The dying rays of sunlight seemed to set his red hair on fire with color. “Why do you like him so much?”

Audrey shrugged, as if the question didn’t set butterflies loose in her stomach. “I don’t know. He makes me smile. And why do you care?”

“What? I don’t.” Edric looked away from her probing stare, then fell back into silence.

He did not notice that Audrey’s smile had stretched wider, so that now she grinned with unrestrained satisfaction.

*

Later that night, as she sat next to Meirion by a low camp-fire, her smile remained. He was talking about something—telling her some silly story about how he had once fallen off a horse and then chased it with a stick—but his words did not matter. What mattered was the twinkle of mirth always shining in his bright blue eyes, the optimism of his lilting voice, and the way he gave a funny jerk of his head whenever his short black hair fell into his eyes. She found it endlessly delightful, and the next time he did it, she realized she was laughing aloud.

He looked at her curiously through the drifting smoke of the fire. His smirk took on a curious quality as he lifted an eyebrow. “Are you laughing at me or the horse in this story? Or are you just laughing at me in general?”

“I’m laughing… because I feel like it.” When she calmed down, she fixed him with a steadier stare through the firelight, though her eyes continued to moisten with merriment. “You just make me want to laugh.”

“Ah,” he said, and his smile drooped slightly.

At that, she just laughed harder. “What I mean is… you make me feel joyful. Hopeful. In a way that no one else has made me feel except…” She took a moment to consider this. Then the moment stretched on, until the blackness of the night sky seemed to seep through it, and she dared not continue.

She tried to avoid Meirion’s gaze, hoping to drop the subject completely. She poked at a log in the fire as if her mind had simply wandered to more important matters. But his blue eyes continue to pierce her through the shadows.

“I suppose Lord Edric has always had a way of spreading hope,” said Meirion carefully, “even when his silvatici have lost their homes and fortunes and… well, everything.”

Audrey just snorted. Then she continued to stoke the fire and grit her teeth. She did not want to admit her own doubts and fears about Edric to anyone other than Edric himself, even if she was not yet ready to do so.

She did not want to voice the fact that the light shining from Edric had been extinguished some time ago, and she feared it would never return.

“Audrey.”

Meirion’s voice sounded so brusque, so uncharacteristically grave, that she flinched visibly. When she looked at him, no hint of his usual grin remained. “What?” she asked at last, even though she was afraid to hear the answer.

“I feel that you should… know something, though I hesitate to tell you.”

“What is it?” Her heart felt like a cold lump in her chest. The world had fallen into deathly silence, so that her ears seemed to ring while she waited for Meirion’s response. She had never seen him so serious.

“The other night… just before Edric announced that he would take us to Wales… I overheard him talking to Leofred. I did not mean to at first. But when I realized I could hear them talking through the trees, and they were unaware of my presence, my curiosity got the better of me.”

“Just tell me,” she snapped.

“Right.” He took a deep breath, gulped, then continued. “Apparently, Lord Geoffrey—forgive me, I should no longer call him ‘lord’—Osbern’s knight, Geoffrey de Faucon, made Edric a strange offer.”

A chill went through her body and settled in her bones. Geoffrey. The name of the man who had killed and tortured so many of her friends and neighbors. A man who had nearly taken her as a victim—not once, but twice—and yet she had escaped both times. A murderer whose golden eyes had stared at her as a hungry dog would look upon fresh, bloody meat.

“He said that he would kill Osbern FitzRichard, his own Suzerain, if only Edric would hand you over.”

She stopped breathing. She stared into the fire and thought she would gladly let it consume her, if Geoffrey was the alternative.

“The idea seemed to disgust Edric,” said Meirion softly. “But… I know that these are hard times, especially for him. I know that Edric has become… well. Different. A man who has lost his hope. And for that reason… I just wanted to warn you.”

“Thank you,” whispered Audrey. But the words were cold and empty. She didn’t want to thank him. She wanted to scream and yell and draw a sword on someone. She wanted anything other than the truth.

She did not hear him move closer. If she had, she would have shied away, afraid that in her distress she might grab his neck and strangle him. But then he leaned against her, ever so gently—just his shoulder against hers—and all feelings of violence melted away. She leaned her head against the crook of his neck, and listened to the gentle flow of his breath, and realized he had never finished his story.

“Tell me what happened to that horse, in your story,” she demanded.

“Ah yes! Well, you see…” And as he kept talking, she could hear the edge of a smile return to his voice, and that was all that mattered.

*

Edric the Wild cover

Published in: on November 5, 2013 at 7:24 am  Leave a Comment  
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That F***ing Wolven

I’ve been missing the Broken Balance series a great deal. And yes, I still intend to write Sands of Hanubi: Book 2, but somehow it keeps getting pushed back amidst a flow of other projects, and for that I apologize. Until then, here’s a vignette for those who wonder what Fayr and Sygmund have been up to ever since the events of Ashes of Dearen: Book 2. Um… spoiler alert if you haven’t read that book yet.

***

Sygmund struggled to step quietly as he entered Fayr’s tent, bringing a draft of frosty air with him. His entire body was stiff with cold, and his legs ached from riding a snow-bear all day. The huge, lumbering creatures scared him half to death, and he considered himself a brave warrior. But unfortunately, he understood why the northern clans had undergone the task of taming such ferocious beasts. Traversing the steep, icy crags of Buffridge was impossible without them.

As he crouched by the low embers of the fire and peeled off his frosty clothes, he wondered—not for the first time—how he had ended up on such a gods-forsaken corner of the world as this one. Many years ago, he served the prosperous nation of Dearen as an honorable knight. Even after the disappearance of safra, he had continued to lead a privileged life in the Dearen palace, where the walls still shimmered with beauty and the sun sent warm beams through the hallways. He had never gone hungry, and even when he suffered from the wounds of swordplay, he did so for an honorable cause.

Not anymore. His exhaustion and soreness came from riding a fucking snow-bear, and he had only done that in order to fish and hunt. For his efforts, he’d killed one hare and snagged two copper-back fish. Somehow he did not feel triumphant.

Then he looked over at Fayr sleeping in a thick bundle of blankets, and a fresh wave of warmth flowed through his limbs. Even now, despite great tragedy and loss, she looked as beautiful as the first day he ever encountered her in the Garden of Delights. He crept closer, not yet wishing to wake her, and watched the golden fire-light flicker across her skin. She still looked so young, as if in her early twenties, despite the fact she neared forty years of age. Most remarkable about the youth in her face was its ability to counteract her long gray hair. Once, when she ruled as Queen of Dearen, it had shone a deep, lustrous purple—an inherited trait from the goddess of joy. When Friva awakened and inherited a new body, the bond between her previous descendents shattered, leaving Fayr’s eyes and hair gray and ashen.

Sygmund lifted the blanket, allowing his gaze to rove her sleeping body as he slid into bed behind her. He pressed his chest to her back and felt her warmth spread through him. He wrapped an arm around her, ever so gently, so he could brush the gray hair from her face. He watched her eyelashes flutter as she swam in her dreams. His hand continued down the curve of her neck to the top of her chest, which pushed and pulled at his palm as she breathed. He tilted his head so his lips could caress her cheek while he breathed the soft, sweet scent of her body. Then his fingers wrapped around her breast.

Fayr inhaled sharply, then let out a sleepy whisper. “Sean…”

Sygmund recoiled as if slapped in the face. He would have moved more carefully if he could have controlled his reaction, but instead he flailed and flung the blankets off both of them as he shot to his feet.

When Fayr finally pulled herself from whatever ridiculous dream entertained her darkest fantasies, she opened her eyes to see Sygmund pacing shirtless next to the fire. She pulled the blankets back over her body with a murmur of complaint. “Sygmund. What’s wrong? Come back to bed.”

What’s wrong, she asked? He hardly knew where to begin. Everything was wrong. Everything was fucking wrong, and had been for years, but he endured it all because he loved Fayr dearly, and he wanted to make her happy. Yet in a single breath released while she slept, Fayr had dashed any remaining illusions that she had come to care for Sygmund more than her former husband: Sean Wolven, a man who had lied to her from the moment he met her, an assassin who killed her own brother, a mortal whose own sister embodied the god of wrath, Belazar. Fayr had barely been married to the son of a bitch for all of one year. Her relationship with Sygmund had lasted nearly ten years in its place. And yet she murmured Sean’s name while she slept.

He nearly said these thoughts aloud. He wanted to yell and scream at her, to kick at the fire and burn the whole tent down. After all, that’s what Sean would have done. Maybe a display of pure, frothing rage would arouse her dormant passion.

But he wasn’t Sean. And as he stared into the flames, contemplating his response, he thought of a different way to channel his anger. Something that would heal his own wounded pride, and wipe Sean from Fayr’s mind forever.

“I thought there was a… bug in the blankets,” he said at last. “Sorry I woke you.”

“Oh. Well, now that I’m awake, we might as well make the most of it.” Even her sleepy smile managed to drip with sensuality. She pulled back the blanket once more, then lifted her gown and opened her legs…

Knowing the true source of her interest made Sygmund’s stomach churn. “Maybe… we should talk first. How was your trip to town?”

Fayr’s face darkened immediately. She folded her legs and stared into the fire, its coppery flames reflecting a lost splash of color against her diamond-like irises. “Fruitless. It took me nearly all day to find a translator. By the time I started asking people if they had ever seen a young girl with white hair, they were all preparing to go home for the night.”

He nodded slowly, not surprised. Wherever they went, the story repeated itself. They struggled for a few months to get acclimated to a new setting and community. They began to search for Fayr’s lost daughter. And they found absolutely nothing.

“How was your hunt?” she asked weakly, as if that subject would be more cheerful.

“Fayr.” His voice was sharp, full of sudden resolve.

Fayr sat up straighter. “What?”

“I’ve been thinking. We’ve been looking all this time for your daughter. But we know so little about her. You only knew Kaylen as a newborn baby.”

Fayr stiffened. His words hurt her. But she needed to hear them.

“We have no way of guessing her current lifestyle, her personal motives, even her appearance—other than her white hair. She might even keep that covered, to pass as normal.”

“Are you saying we should give up?” she snapped. “Because if that’s how you feel, I won’t drag you along unwillingly.”

“No,” he said, though the fact she would cast him aside with so little hesitation threw salt into his wounded heart. “I’m saying we need to change our tactics.”

“You mean look for Er’Mekan?” Fayr shook her head. “Looking for a god would be even harder, I think. At least Kaylen is my flesh and blood.”

“I mean that we should look for Sean Wolven.”

This time Fayr jolted as if stricken by lightning. For some reason, he enjoyed seeing her react that way. For years now, they had stopped speaking of Sean, pretending that he never existed. At least if Sygmund forced Fayr to acknowledge the man who haunted her, she would remember how terrible he had been, and consider how any prospect of encountering him again was altogether horrifying.

“S… S… Sean.” The name that had drifted so effortlessly from her lips in sleep now struggled to roll off her tongue.

“Yes,” said Sygmund firmly. “He’s looking for Kaylen, too, isn’t he? He started the search long before we did. With all his Wolven prowess, perhaps he’s had some success. And something tells me he’ll be easier to find. He’s really quite… predictable.”

“He’s… he’s… he’s not the man he used to be,” gasped Fayr. “He gouged out his own eyes. He’s a wandering blind man now. Who knows where he might be?”

“Something tells me he will act as he always has—lying, killing, or doing whatever he must to get what he wants.” Sygmund felt a sneer pulling at his lips—one he wanted to hide, but failed to restrain. “Besides, maybe finding him would give you some amount of… closure.”

She blinked at him with surprise. He hated the hope he saw in her eyes, even though he sensed its reflection in his own gaze.

He planned to get closure from the reunion, as well. For if they truly managed to find Sean Wolven again, Sygmund would kill that fucking Wolven, once and for all.

 ***

Ashes of Dearen: Book 1

A red-eyed assassin, an unready princess, a sadistic politician, and an adulterous queen all desire the secret behind a magical dust known as safra. Safra is said to bring happiness, but these characters’ desperate attempts to obtain it will cost them all dearly. Their salacious and violent deeds bring three great nations to the brink of warfare. And little do they know, their scrambling efforts are being carefully watched by a much greater power: the gods behind the beguiling drug that ensnares them all.

Published in: on October 29, 2013 at 9:40 am  Leave a Comment  
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The Shrinking Woman

No vignette today, but instead a short story I wrote several years ago while emotionally lost and unemployed. I’m in a similar state now, once again. So this story really came back and spoke to me.

*

The Shrinking Woman

Every day she felt herself changing, but at first she couldn’t say how. People suddenly had trouble hearing her at work and would ask her, “Why don’t you speak up?” Her fingers started slipping on the keyboard and her typing abilities decreased with every passing day. The phone became awkward against her ear, so that she had to adjust it constantly during conversations and often missed whatever the other person said to her. Along with these discomforts, she became emotionally insecure. No one at work treated her with dignity anymore, so she wondered if they had ever truly respected her at all.

Finally, her boss called her to his office and pronounced, “You’re fired.” As soon as she heard the words, she realized they’d been a long time coming.

Back at her apartment, she began the meticulous process of applying to several jobs a day. But she found that the same irritations first experienced at work followed her to the comfort of her home. The computer keyboard became so awkward to her that she made dozens of typos in each cover letter that took hours for her to clean up. One day she got so fed up with everything she left the apartment on a long, long walk.

After a mile, she realized her shoes felt big and loose over her feet. “That’s funny,” she thought. “I know I’ve been losing weight but that shouldn’t affect my feet.” It was the first time it crossed her mind that her whole body might be shrinking.

She eventually learned to hold comfortable conversations of the phone by setting the device on “speaker” mode. In this way, she spoke to her mother weekly about her emotional predicaments.

“Don’t worry,” said Mom. “Something will work out soon. Besides, remember how unhappy you were at your old job. Everything happened because something even better is on its way, you’ll see.”

“But Mom,” she sighed. And she worked up the nerve to speak the truth. “I think with every passing day, I’m getting smaller.”

The other line was silent for a time. “What do you mean, smaller?”

“I … I don’t know how else to explain it.”

“Nonsense!” Mom laughed warm-heartedly. “Remember, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

She didn’t believe her mother was right this time, but she didn’t have a response, so she thanked Mom for the kind words and said goodbye.

Her contact with the outside world decreased rapidly over the next few months. When she found her frustrations on the computer increasing, and she received no responses to her applications whatsoever, she soon gave up applying to any jobs at all. To her benefit, she found her appetite decreased every day so that she required less and less food to satisfy herself. This saved her money on groceries. She also stopped going out in general, preferring to stay home and watch TV or read a book for hours on end. She ceased exercising, even though it was supposed to reduce her stress, because it often increased her frustrations with her body.

Simple tasks became harder and harder to accomplish. Her clothes became so large, everything but her T-shirts slipped right off. Dishes became harder to wash because she had trouble reaching over the sink. Taking out the trash became impossible because she didn’t have the strength to lift the trash bag.

Despite the unpleasantries, she did find that getting smaller had some benefits. The apartment, which once felt cramped and cheap to her, felt bigger and more luxurious all the time. She found items in small nooks and crannies she had long ago forgotten or dismissed as lost. Certain objects which once appeared ugly became beautiful and grandiose from her new perspective. Even so, these minor amenities were not enough to beautify her situation. She became so small that she could not reach her sink or wear her shoes. She developed painful sensitivity to light and sound and spent hours tossing and turning at night. When she was so small she could not even climb into bed, she crawled into a dresser drawer and slept amongst her own clothes. She ripped off small pieces of cloth to wrap around her nakedness, which concerned her less and less all the time, as there was no one around to see her. She stacked books around the house so she could continue to reach certain fixtures and devices.

One day her landlord came calling because she had neither paid her rent nor stepped from her room for some time. Not sure what to do, she ran and hid in the drawer. Naturally, he did not look for her there, and soon gave up searching. He left some sort of document behind for her but she could not reach it, and did not care to read it anyway. After all, what could she do?

The incident caused her great anxiety, and as she continued to find herself shrinking yet more, she grew increasingly terrified. She saw bugs all around her, which appeared to her as large as dogs once did. She wondered how long her shrinking would continue, until perhaps one day, she stopped existing altogether. One day she did not come out of her drawer at all, she was so scared of the dangers and humiliations awaiting her outside.

The day finally came when she was forced to come out, for the authorities were clearing out her apartment. Voices thundered in her ears from the other room, and she thought she heard her own mother speaking to a policeman. She knew it was only a matter of time before they searched the dresser and found her, but she felt it would be better to die than to face such embarrassment.

With great effort, she climbed out of the drawer. Clinging to the edge, she saw that she had become even smaller overnight. She had trouble climbing down the stack of books to reach the floor. She looked all around herself, amidst dustballs and a floor so full of indentations that it seemed to her a hilly landscape, and did not know where to go other than a small hole in the far wall. She had noticed it a long time ago, but had always been too afraid to go near it, certain it would be full of bugs or rodents. At this moment in time, however, she did not see any better option available. She started the long run across her bedroom floor.

The ground quaked as a man approached from the other room. She knew it would be too disheartening for her to look back at him, so she ignored the giant. The hole loomed larger and larger before her. Wouldn’t be long now.

A flameless explosion erupted beside her, sending a gush of air that knocked her from her feet. She looked back to see that the man had tried to stomp on her but missed by a centimeter.

“What was that?” someone asked.

“A weird-looking bug,” replied the giant.

“Did you get it?”

“I think so.”

She fought back her tears as she pushed herself to her feet and ran the last stretch towards the hole. Once upon a time, she worked a decent job and even possessed a fledgling career. Now, she was as lowly and pathetic as a bug to be squashed.

Her fear clouded by her misery, she crawled weeping into the hole in the wall. She kept walking into the darkness, even when she could not see where she was going, because she no longer cared. Finally, when she could not even see where she had come from, she collapsed into the dust and resolved to die.

Her tears dried on her face and exhaustion overcame her. She fell in and out of a soft, peaceful sleep. In her dreams, she heard a strange and beautiful music playing in the distance. The music consisted mostly of soft, childlike voices, accompanied by a strange rhythm like tinkering glass.

Sharp hunger eventually roused her from sleep, but by then she felt as if she might have lost her mind, for she continued to hear the music. Not sure what else to do, she followed the sounds through the thick blackness.

After a time she saw the glow of lights before her. The illumination was soft and colorful, like Christmas lights. Finally she stepped through the other side of the hole into a new world.

The music stopped. The band, a group of people her size holding instruments of broken debris, turned and looked at her with surprise. They stood in what seemed like a grand hallway, though it was only a crack between walls, lit by sparkling Christmas lights and decorated with an assortment of small household objects. Cheap jewelry garnished the walls, yet glittered like the most valuable of treasures. Plastic earrings glowed in the light like an element from another planet. Food crumbs were stacked on glistening coins of nickel and copper, appearing to her now as an incredible feast.

“Newcomer!” cried the little people. “Welcome!”

“W-what is this place?” she asked, fear and doubt creeping back into her mind.

“Welcome to the world of the shrunken people!” said the band leader. “We are so happy to see you. Please don’t be frightened, we know this takes a long time to adjust to. But I assure you that in time, you’ll come to love this land more than you ever loved your old one. You’ll find that plain things appear wondrous, and the greatest excitements can be found wherever you wish to look. The necessities of life will come more easily to you, and you will learn the truest contentment you have ever known. Please, come in and enjoy yourself.”

Her rational mind told her these little people must be depraved and pathetic beyond redemption. But deep in her heart, she dared to hope that maybe, just maybe, they were right.

Published in: on October 22, 2013 at 8:00 am  Comments (1)  
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Doomed Proposal

This vignette is from an unfinished urban fantasy of mine that, if I ever return to, I will probably rewrite completely. The plot of the novel was ridiculously complicated, but this scene should speak for itself…

*

It was a clear night in Las Vegas, and the Strip lay like a tangle of stars under their hotel balcony. Tourists bustled through the streets in colorful streams, entering one casino drunk and then coming out moreso. Cars gleamed with the flashing lights of the signs and showcases all around them. Girls giggled and men chuckled. The echoes of soft jazz and a bombastic symphony battled in the air. The spotlight of the Luxor pyramid shot into heaven like a laser zapping the moon.

Carmen laughed softly, pulling away from the railing and out of the lashing breeze. Her dark brown curls settled against the curves of her evening gown. Her black eyes twinkled as she turned them on Joel. “I forgot how magical it feels out here on the Strip,” she sighed. “Thanks for bringing me here, Joel. I guess I needed a vacation more than I thought.”

“I knew it would do you some good.” He reached up and brushed a stray curl from her cheek. His hand lingered on the curve of her jaw.

She laughed again, her voice a crystalline chime in the night air. “Oh, but you hate it here, don’t you? What was that you called the Strip one time? ‘The street of the walking dead?’”

Joel grimaced. “I’m not great with words.” He gripped her neck gently. “Anyway, it doesn’t matter what I think right now.” He brushed her lips with a kiss.

She became stiff in his grasp. Her eyes searched his desperately. “Why’d you bring me here, Joel?”

“I … I, uh …” He forced a gulp down his throat. “I needed a vacation, too, I guess.”

“Maybe.” She laughed nervously. “Not here, though. Being here feels more like work to you, doesn’t it?”

“Maybe, but I wanted it to feel magical. For you, anyway.”

He leaned away from her, but continued to grip her hand. His heart thudded painfully in his chest. His palm became slippery against hers. Fear burned up from his belly, clenching his throat. What he was about to do terrified him. But he couldn’t back down. Not now. Not this time. He had to stay strong.

“Joel?”

“Carmen … I love you very much.”

“I love you too, Joel.”

Then why did she sound so anxious? “The last few years with you have been a … blur. A good blur, I mean. A blend of great times and bad ones.”

She frowned.

He cursed under his breath. His speech wasn’t coming out the way he imagined it, but there was no going back now. He forged onwards. “What I’m trying to say is, it’s easy to lose sight of what’s important in life. Both of us lead very busy lives. We care a lot about our jobs. And our jobs are important. But being with you has reminded me that some things are, well, more important.”

His tongue felt like a block in his mouth. God, he really was terrible at speeches! He decided to stop now before he embarrassed himself further.

He began to lower to one knee.

Within the hotel room, Carmen’s cell phone rang.

Joel froze, his knee still hovering above the balcony floor. Carmen’s fingers tightened around his.

The phone rang again.

“I, uh … I better get that,” said Carmen. “That ring tone means Lucy.”

“Carmen …”

“Sorry, Joel.”

Her fingers slipped from his sweaty palms. She hurried through the sliding doors and into the cool air of their hotel room. She grabbed her cell phone at the last ring and swept it up to her ear. “Hello? Carmen here. Hello? Oh, Lucy! Thank God it’s you.”

Joel finished sinking to his knee, now for a much different reason.

“Yeah, yeah, it’s going well … Romantic? I guess so … I’m not really sure why, to tell you the truth.”

Joel twisted his head to glare at her, but Carmen turned her back to him. She lowered her voice into the cell phone.

“Come on, just tell me how Josephine is doing … Oh my God, who the hell switched her medication? … Damn that Harriet, I knew I couldn’t trust her! … No, you were right to call me, you were right. I can’t thank you enough, really. Put Josephine back on the meds I subscribed. Increase the dosage to 500 milligrams. If Harriet doesn’t cooperate tell her I haven’t finished her evaluation yet. You just tell her that. Thanks, Lucy. I know, I know. See you Monday.”

Carmen hung up and flung the phone onto the bed with a growl.

Joel got up and walked into the hotel room. They regarded each other a moment, silently.

“That was Lucy,” said Carmen.

“No kidding?”

“That stupid Harriet is screwing everything up, like I knew she would.”

“Hm.”

Another silence.

Carmen wrapped her arms around herself and shivered. “It’s cold in here, huh? Let’s go on a walk. That would be nice, wouldn’t it? Magical, maybe.”

He gnashed his teeth together.

“Yeah. Sure.”

Published in: on October 15, 2013 at 9:37 am  Comments (2)  
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The King and the Killer

In celebration of the release of the “Serafina’s Saga” animation and visual novel, this week’s vignette shows King Kallias and Xavier Wolven meeting for the first time. People have been requesting to see more Kallias and Xavier–so here you go! 🙂

This scene would take place in the time after the novella Grand Traitor and before the start of Serafina’s Saga.

*

A wiry young man sat alone in large room of stone next to a table piled with gold. He was sixteen years old, and the bejeweled crown upon his head had been so recently placed that his mop of short, candy yellow hair still struggled to hold it upright.

Kallias tapped his fingers upon the table, causing the gold coins on top of it to jingle incessantly. He didn’t mind the sound. In fact, he found it reassuring, and he needed all the reassurance he could get right now. He liked every physical indication of the gold piled in front of him, especially the bright golden glow it cast throughout the dull room of stone, or the sparkles that ignited where beams of sunlight from the window struck the coins directly. He formed a rhythm with the tapping of his fingers and the jingle of the coins, then started to hum a little melody with it.

When the door of his room opened, the melody died in Kallias’s throat with a whimper. His fingers stopped tapping and his body stiffened like a block of stone. His big amber eyes stared at the swinging entrance until the pupils widened into gaping black holes. He watched and waited, his tense body unable to move except to tremble, as a dark figure slipped through the opening.

The man before Kallias was tall and slender, and he seemed to move more gracefully than his own shadow. A long hooded cloak hung from his shoulders, covering most of his body in undulating swaths of black fabric. His soft leather boots barely whispered as he walked across the stones, and as his cloak billowed around him like wings unfolding, Kallias wondered if the stranger secretly flew. Then, just as quietly, he came to a stop in the middle of the room. His hands reached up—two appendages of pale, skeletal white flesh against the dark clothing—and grabbed the edge of his hood.

Kallias struggled to keep breathing as he watched the hood fall back. The shadows retreated to reveal a long, gaunt face with an ashy white complexion. Most startling against his pale skin was his deep black hair which flowed past his shoulders, and eye sockets so dark that Kallias suspected the use of powder to accentuate their sunken appearance. Little emphasis needed to be added to such eyes, however, the irises of which peered forward with sizzling red brilliance.

Just as Kallias began to wonder if he would ever overcome his awe in time to welcome his guest, the Wolven flinched and recoiled, reaching up to cover his eyes.

“Belazar’s blazes,” hissed the stranger. The god of wrath’s name, when spoken aloud, sent chills down Kallias’s body. “That gold is going to blind me.”

“Oh… you don’t like gold?” Kallias’s heart fell to his stomach. Goldons were his only leverage with a man like this. If the Wolven did not want them…

“I like goldons well enough,” grumbled the assassin. “But I prefer them in storage.”

“Ah, yes, of course.” At long last, Kallias found the strength to rise from his seat. He rushed to a window and grabbed the curtains, yanking them across the aperture. Darkness poured over the gold, extinguishing the lustrous glow from the room. Kallias sighed at the loss. But when he saw the Wolven relax, he decided the gesture had been worth it.

“So… you’re Xavier?” asked Kallias at last. “A Wolven assassin?”

The Wolven answered with a nod, so small it was almost imperceptible. But then he tilted his head and narrowed his red eyes at Kallias. “And you’re the new king?”

Kallias puffed up a little, feeling a surge of pride feed his confidence. In this Wolven’s presence, he had almost forgotten his own authority. When he lifted his head, the weight of his golden crown seemed to increase. “Obviously.”

Xavier should have bowed before him—but he did not. “How old are you?”

Kallias’s chest deflated again. “Sixteen.”

“I thought monarchs had to be seventeen years of age in this country.”

“Usually, yes. But Father’s death…” His throat constricted and his breath faltered. Then he planted his fists on his hips, glowering with all the strength of his thin golden eyes. “No matter. I am special enough to be an exception. One way or another I am the king, and you are in no place to question that.”

Xavier grew very still. Then the edges of his thin lips pulled up with a smirk. “You’re very brave to summon me in this fashion, with no guards to protect you. You must want me to kill someone quite important, yes?”

Kallias forced a swallow down his throat. “I don’t need you to kill anyone… at present.”

The Wolven’s smile quickly turned downward. His red eyes narrowed until Kallias thought he felt heat emanating from them. He moved forward ever so slightly, just one foot shifting while his body started to lean, yet Kallias fought the urge to turn and flee the room. “Then why am I here?”

“To… to… establish our friendship.”

Xavier’s eyes blinked and opened wide again. He drew back and studied the young king in silence for a short while. At long last he said, “Friendship?” and his tongue seemed to struggle with the word.

“Naturally.” Kallias didn’t know whether to feel better or worse about the fact he had caught the Wolven off guard. “I understand who and what you are. I know that you’ve killed monarchs before. I know that for the right price, you’ll kill anyone. And though most people around here are happy with me on the throne because I keep the treasury overrunning, I suspect there are those who might tire of me anyway, or become so greedy they want the throne regardless.”

Xavier’s face contorted, and then he began to chuckle. A genuine smile looked strange on the Wolven’s face, as if his muscles were not accustomed to moving in such directions.

“What’s so funny?” asked Kallias, purely curious.

“Only a Jeridar would be so greedy, and you’re the only left in Castle Krondolee. Isn’t that so?”

The words struck Kallias like a bucket of icy water. He bristled and turned away, hoping to hide his pain and discomfort.

He could still feel Xavier’s hot red eyes crawling over him. “I’ve upset you. I didn’t expect to. I thought Jeridars liked being on their own. Less competition that way.”

Kallias remained silent, his heart a frustrating lump in his chest that ached with every beat.

After another long silence, Xavier sighed. “Just tell me what you what you want from me. I didn’t mean to… prattle on. I haven’t talked this much in awhile, so I’m out of practice. Let’s just get to business.”

For one small moment, Kallias sensed something in Xavier that he had not expected from a Wolven, either. Something that no one else might have noticed, but Kallias saw it as pure as golden daylight, for he knew the emotion all too well. Loneliness.

The revelation finally gave Kallias the strength to straighten back up and look at the Wolven once more. This time, Xavier was the one who avoided his gaze. “Right: business. I summoned you here to give you this gold.”

The Wolven shifted uncomfortably. “Payment to a Wolven should only be given upon a job’s completion. And if you don’t want anyone dead, you have nothing to pay me for, anyway. My services are quite… limited.”

“I understand that. This gold is to ensure my own safety. If anyone else tries to hire you to kill me, then you can refuse them, because I’ve already paid you more. And if by Mallion’s miracles they can pay you more than I’m offering now—then I’ll pay you the difference.”

Xavier did not move or speak for a while. Kallias tried to read the Wolven’s face, but failed. Perhaps the Wolven himself did not know how to feel about this.

“I can’t accept it,” said Xavier at last. “It is not the Wolven way.”

Panic fluttered through Kallias’s stomach. “But… but… it seems like it should be. If someone can pay you for death, shouldn’t someone also be able to pay you for life?”

Once again Xavier blinked and stared at the king with wide open eyes. Then even his mouth started to gape open. “I… that’s…”

Seeing the Wolven so taken aback made Kallias hopeful. “Perhaps I can pay you to make an oath to Belazar? One ensuring my safety?”

Xavier bristled. His face twisted, his lips pulling back into a snarl. “Out of the question. Belazar barters in blood, and blood only.”

Kallias considered this. He reached up and twiddled his fingers against his chin as his mind raced for a solution. “Ah, I have it!” he cried out, face beaming with a smile. “I’ll hire you with this money to kill anyone who ever asks you to kill me.”

Xavier’s scowl dissipated. His red eyes flicked from Kallias, to the money, and back to Kallias again. Finally, a smile wound back up his face. “Now that… I can work with.”

 *

Novella prequel to "Serafina's Saga"

Novella prequel to “Serafina’s Saga”

The animated Episode 1 of Serafina’s Saga is now released on Youtube:

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