Busy, busy, busy. It’s a busy month all around, I must say, and I’m not talking about National Novel Writing Month (though it’s certainly appropriate for this post). While many writers are out there right now scrambling toward 50,000 word goals, I’m caught dead in the midst of the marketing part of the publication program.
The time is close and getting closer, as they say. Two weeks, dear friends. Two weeks until November and the time of thanks have slipped us by. Two weeks until December and the Christmas rush begin (although the songs have already begun). What’s more, in around two weeks “The Hollow March” will be up for distribution in both e-book and print editions, ready and waiting for the fantasy lover in your life.
That is, lover of fantasy in your life. Not someone with a diverse selection of fantasies to pull from for the holiday season. If that’s your thing, well, a very interesting and merry Christmas to you both. Cheers.
Yet what is a book without a little pre-launch taste? We’re another week closer and that means it’s time for another special pre-launch feature for your reading pleasure.
So far these little “sneak peeks” have given you a look at the empire of Idasia (via a lovely map by one Nathan Hartley), in which the book is set, as well as a touch of the surrounding geography, the book’s summary, and a look at a few of the roughs being considered for the cover art. Of course, more on both will be coming soon, but in the meanwhile, I thought it was about time I slapped together the biggest bit of pre-launch material yet.
So without further adieu I give you the opening chapter of “The Hollow March”—a prologue fraught with a dash of intrigue, a good dose of character, and a pinch of magic to top it all off. It should give you a good taste of my style, and a touch of the work’s themes, so I do hope you enjoy…
“Man tames not vengeance; vengeance breaks the man.” ~Idasian Proverb
Life falters, but blood is eternal.
Such is the pain everlasting when one sees their blood bound up before them and put to the pyres of humanity’s injustice. The crowds roar, but the child weeps evermore. It is easy to dismiss when it is not their blood to be spilt. It is painless to roar with the crowd. Only later, when the sickness turns to them, do they ever shed a tear. When it is their father burning.
Egotistic creatures, men. Glacial beasts.
Usuri felt cold as the doors creaked shut behind her, neither her furs, nor the bodies and hands pressing her on enough to warm the lingering feeling. It pervaded every crook of her body, swimming through heart and mind in equal measure. The world was a haze. Days had passed in such a way. She was certain years would pass in much the same.
She marveled at how the light caught the armor of her escorts, reflecting every aspect of the room, like a mirror on the world. The red of the rugs formed a bloody sky, while the marble swirls of the ceiling formed a bottomless and hypnotic ocean. Clank-clank-clank. The world rang with every step. Its guardians were stoic, like the statues lining their path. She debated if there was any life within them, and marveled at how easily it might be taken.
Three days had passed since they plucked her from her home—one of her homes. She had puttered around for days before, hungering, thirsting, but without the will to quell either. They had thought her a wretched thing, and it was not her place to say they were wrong. At the time, she had done little to stop them. In its way, the canvas hood they had slipped over her head had been oddly comforting.
In her wake, the trail was paved in grime. Her feet, as bare as she felt inside, had grown black as ash. They looked like the smoldering embers of a crumbled home—and everything they touched, they marked. The world around her was too perfect, too orderly. A little chaos could go a long way.
Father had taught her that there was a little of each in everything. Order and chaos, the sustaining balance of all. It was the reason the world marched on. In taking, one also gave of himself, and such was the principle that guided secrets far older than any of these creatures could still rightly fathom. She understood the balance, and took upon herself the mantle of chaos, but the balance had not availed her and it had not saved her father, and all that disarray had swam around them both and bit them when they least expected it, dragging her father down into the darkest depths. She might have screamed. She had, when the memory was still fresh. It caught in her nostrils and died, a burbling nightmare of regret, like the stench of so much broiling flesh.
With every step, the devil at the end of the trail grew closer. He was a distant figure, chill, rigid, but vibrantly garbed. It drew one in, lured away from the haunting hollows of his eyes—and then they were there, no longer the looming danger, but the present. His gaze was inescapable. It was narrow—marked by a false sense of tender docility, but in truth pointed, hawkish. He was accustomed to being the predator. They all were.
Theirs was a mundane world. She was there to break the boundaries of that simple logic.
The predator circled, gauging her. The others stepped back to give him room. He wore no armor, because he had never needed it. Observation was his art, as was the summary decision, but execution? This was a man that had servants at his beck and call from the day he was born. His hands were stained without the blood ever touching them. In tapestry as well as motion, he saw himself as a lion. Generations of his family had thought the same, and one after another they hoisted up the yellow and the red, letting their kitten waft in the breeze, as though by will alone they might make it fierce.
A man lurked at his back, skulking between the statues with a panther’s macabre. There was a killer, born and bred. Such must have been the sort that fell upon her father, though they played pretend with their silver rings. Men justified a great deal with the conviction of religion, and vindicated the worst of men at the worst of deeds so long as it met their good god’s evasive plan.
Overhead, she spied the very banner dangling from the rafters, though it was a much older version of the beast. It bore the same yellow lion, but with a bird’s head, its claws raised and jaw wide, backed by the bloody sun of their ancestors. Mementos of a house long dead. This beast styled itself a king, the crown still hovering above its head, the staff draped over its shoulder.
The modern lion bore no such dignities. Its crown had long been stripped, though the claws remained. They had rent a friend asunder and sought him yet through wood and dale.
She followed the modern lion with her eyes, until he disappeared completely at her back. Slowly, her eyes drew back to the end of the room, and the long, narrow portrait that dangled crystalline before the sun. Even the form in which the nobleman looked upon the outside world spoke volumes. The portrait was the only window and through the image of a saint the world was colored, light filtered and expunged in a dim array of earthen tones. A single point of yellow light above the saint’s head offered the only sample of reality.
Air shuddered as wrinkled fingers swam toward her. They paused mere inches from her back, hovering. Then they fell away, apparently thinking better of it. The nobleman stopped just behind her. When she closed her eyes and concentrated, she could hear the beating of his heart. It was…troubled.
“You do not look well, milady,” the noble spoke. “I trust my accompaniment did not inconvenience you…?”
There had been four when they took her. One broke from the others when they arrived. One never left her home.
His hand had caressed her skin, while his eyes roamed deeper still. He saw the bronze of her skin and the storms of her eyes, focused instead on the swell of her breasts. If he had merely sought to take her, as the others had, there would have been no issue. Instead, he lingered. So she had coiled her arms around him, pressed her lips to his, and reduced every ounce of moisture in his body to dry ice. She made it slow, too. One had to make sure the others saw the lesson.
Usuri shook her head.
“You have my condolences, and I assure you, lady, no harm will come to you here.” He ignored the soft chuckle that left her. “I knew your father, you know. Good man. Wise man.”
Dead man. Usuri could still picture him every time she closed her eyes, and she could smell the fire she had never gotten to see. If only…
It was another gift from men who thought themselves as dangerous as this one.
“Mistakes consumed him, though. I’ll not dance about it. He took his voice and he spread it too far—and in these days, such a voice as his cannot be tolerated. An enemy of the Church…well, you know. I know.”
Again the chill came on, such that she shuddered from its onslaught. Icy flames licked across her palms and she became aware of her own nails digging into her skin, fists clenched. The saint smiled at her from the sky, in his pompous mockery of piety. That man had found eternity in humility and peace. Yet it was a façade. He was laughing at her, as they all were. Laughing at the little devil girl. Her time was done.
“But I have a proposition. You seek what anyone would seek in such maddening courses. I would assist you, shield and endorse you, to our mutual benefit. I assure you, we have common cause here, and I have considerable resources—”
When she pried loose the fingers of her right hand, sparks coursed to the tips and rained down tiny bolts across the floor. It sent an unpleasant tingle through her raw knuckles. Everyone hopped back as she turned, anticipating devastation. The men had their swords drawn, but she paid them no heed. She merely rubbed at her hand, caressing the spreading numbness. She looked at the nobleman, let her smile spread ominously, then looked back to her hand.
She saw the doubt in the nobleman’s eyes but, clearing his throat, he pressed on. “I know you have no reason to trust me, but I assure you this house, and all those in it, are not as the gryphons that surround us. This is not a circled home, milady, and when the day comes that their head is stricken, the wild claws will turn on us as sure as you. And this, I fear, is not so long off.
“Great forces assemble against us, Lady Usuri, whether you know it or not. I think of this land, and I weep for what shall come to pass. Ever are we in blood, but nothing spills it so readily as those blades steeled by zealous devotion. Some find phantoms where there are none—as in the case of your father. Left to their hands, they would deliver us back into the age of stones, with a patriarch as lord and master, the circle set to bind our hands as well as our throats. Where true evil resides, they move astray. The seed has blackened. They would ruin this nation, were they to sit the throne.”
Ruin us or ruin you? In your mind—are they one and the same?
Usuri’s father was already dead. The nation her mother had called home was in bondage to an empire far more vast and vicious than the swath of log-choked rivers and farm-laden plains this one dared to call a home. Her people, that is to say, those things that could do as she, mysterious and powerful as the world so adored to make them, were broken, shattered and gone. Like the sun setting in the east, their time had come and gone, and those that remained were left to lie down and die, or to be baptized in fire.
“What I ask is not an easy burden to bear. Could you kill, Usuri, for those that are dead? Could you kill, that many more would live?”
There was a certain lunacy to the request. Imperial claws were not the only bloody things about, nor were they the only ones to rake at the stability of her life. One took her father, the other a friend. Her dear boy had been set to the road, to wander and be lost amidst the horizon, forever stalked by hungering blades. The Cullicks had not killed the boy, but they meant to, and that was a sin as grievous as any other.
Her stare was a ghostly thing, which pierced both flesh and bone as readily as cloth. She laughed. It echoed among the statues and the walls. It was a soft thing—like a child’s. The nobleman seemed unmoved, impassive to her madness.
“Ohhh…” she hummed, until words finally found her. “I think I can.” Without thought, without guilt—till long the deed is done. “These fingers,” and she held them dangling before her, “can quake the very earth. I can whisper death on the wind. And they, and you, will know the ails of assailing such a woman as I.”
The man’s smile was feline. “And I?”
“And you. Dear count, you want, but give little. You’ve wronged, and until that wrong is righted, you risk more than kingdoms…”
The practiced muscles of the count’s face flexed, first in surprise, then feigned ignorance. Illuminated in the shadows of his saint, he shook his head.
“I am certain I have no idea of whom you speak.”
Then her words came without speech and her eyes scorched the confines of his soul, and even his practiced forms of the nobles’ precious Jurti gave way to fright. It was momentary, but she did not miss it—the twitching frown, parting in a soundless gasp, and the recoiling, frantic darting of his eyes. There was but one word, but she knew he knew what it meant. There was but one negotiation she would make and he would take it or he would burn, and everyone else would fall, even without his “patriotic patronage.” She burned that word into his mind with force of will alone, until the man within was nearly fallen to his knees and praying like some priestly fool for a mercy that would never come.
Matair. For her, it was the one name left with any meaning.