The following is a preview of The Twisted World Book I: The Dusk Harbinger.
The High Matron, Amatine, knelt before the waiting acolytes. She always found herself smiling at these first classes. They were so fidgety, so small, and so in love with their new power. If she was honest with herself, she was in love with it too.
The tower room was broad and mostly bare. Dark yellow curtains blew in from the open windows. A long carpet ran the length of the room, and the children knelt there in their groups. At the far end of the room, two Junior Lansers flanked the door, watching over it all.
The children were arranged by elements; water and ice sat together at her left, flame and heat in another group to the right. Behind them, the hybrids flocked together. They would bond tightly, she knew, outcasts before they came to Lanser’s Hill and found so many others like them.
She felt an affinity for her own element, certainly, and longed to drill with children just discovering this kind of glorious work. “I will tell you today of the history of Lanser, the history you now join. What comes after will be written by each of you. Today we’ll talk of what came before.” She settled her hands on her knees and sank back on her heels. “Tell me, who was the first?”
No one answered her.
A little girl with long black hair made a flame dance on her palm until a Junior Lanser fixed her with a forbidding look.
“No one knows?”
“Basceran,” said a young boy. He was a little older than the rest, sitting with the icewrights. He looked bored, annoyed.
“Basceran, what?” she said coolly.
“Basceran, High Matron.” The boy yielded, but there was willfulness and flippancy in his tone.
She smiled inwardly. Spirited. Promising. “He is correct. First was Basceran. How was he made?” She waited a moment in silence before she moved on, but she let the smile slip back onto her face. “His mother was Queen Raelle of Lanser. She lived in this very same place. Before it was our temple, it was her castle. She and King Perse ruled this land and it was a mighty kingdom. It stood strong against all enemies. Queen Raelle fell asleep one day and awoke to hear the birth of a Twist. What do you think she did?”
“Stayed still,” the flamewright girl said carefully.
Amatine nodded. “Like all good children of Su Nobieta, she knew to stay very still when a Twist comes. They move too quickly and swallow you up if you are careless. The Queen waited for the Twist to come and as soon as it held steady, she crept away on hands and knees, with her hair standing out on end.”
One of the windwright girls flourished her fingers aimlessly, channelling wind across them. The little boy sitting in front of her gasped as his hair blew out all around his head, standing on end, just like Raelle.
They laugh now, she thought. Junior Lansers detached themselves from the wall and hushed the acolytes. Wait until you watch a Twist turn an animal inside out before your eyes, or turn your mother to stone…
“Everyone knew Queen Raelle was with child, but she didn’t want to alarm anyone. She kept the story of the Twist a secret, to protect her baby. She was afraid he would be different. She didn’t say a thing to anyone, and secured the baby’s place in Lanser as the heir. Basceran was born different, to be sure, but he was beautiful and whole. As he grew, they discovered his gifts, and called him the Prince of Light. Through trial and error, Basceran learned the forms, which you will learn here. He built the strikes and he channelled pure, white light. He grew tall and strong, and eventually he was so skilled, he could awaken the skill in others.
“Queen Raelle was the very first student. They say Basceran had only to lay his hands on you, and skill would awaken. He touched his mother and she learned to work fire, just like you do.” Amatine gestured to the gathered flamewrights on her right.
They grinned and tittered, favored by the attention.
Something tired chimed in her heart. It’s all games now, all play. You’ll understand, someday, and lament it. “Raelle’s wrought fire made a heat that could char bones and melt metal.”
The children fell silent, eyes wide as they listened.
“They used their new power on the Kaspuhks,” Amatine said in a low voice. “The ghost army. They rode the cool mist in the twilight and the dawn. Kaspuhks would steal into men’s bodies, through their breath or an open wound and make them part of the undead army. They could possess you, steal your soul right out of your eyes and leave you blind, or sneak into you through a cut off arm or leg. You had to be on guard against them at all times.”
Her audience was entranced; some terrified, some delighted.
“When the undead army of Kaspuhks rode on Lanser’s Hill, Basceran met them head-on. He stood at the gates, arms outstretched, and called out for the entire kingdom to witness. He brought forth light, searing into the dusk, and burned the Kaspuhk haunted soldiers in their armor. Then, Basceran and Raelle taught others to work those elemental forces. That’s when he built the school at Lanser’s Hill to teach others. Basceran built this very tower and made his castle into a temple. The students helped them fight unruly spirits and defend the Pure Living. Who are they?”
“We are,” a skinny little boy said.
“We are,” Amatine agreed. “The Pure Living were safe in Lanser, but the ghost army still roamed the world, stealing souls. Basceran and Raelle rode with their students, making their own army. They cleansed the countryside of them. When they finally returned, Raelle told Basceran the terrible news. She said his father, King Perse was possessed by Kaspuhks. While Basceran watched, while the King slept, she put her hands on the King’s head and burned him from the inside out. Basceran watched her kill his father. Basceran was sad over the death of the king, but he knew the greater good had been served. He was a good man, and he never wanted to see anyone suffer.” Amatine’s voice dropped low, conspiratorial. “But now that the Kaspuhks were dead, Raelle turned her greedy eyes on the living enemies of Lanser. She told her son that they must ride against the neighboring kingdoms, laying them to waste.”
Some wise child shook its head, disappointed.
“If Basceran was sad before, he was doubly sad now. He realized the power he held was dangerous, and had corrupted his mother. He even suspected that perhaps the king had never been possessed at all. So what did he do?” Amatine asked.
No child spoke. She had their attention fully. Not so fidgety now.
“He gathered all of their students before the Queen’s throne. ‘Even the Prince of Light can be blind’, he said to her. ‘You are possessed by a demon of your own, the demon greed.’ But Raelle refused to stop. ‘Gods opened the wall between worlds,’ Basceran told her, ‘And gods gave me this power. No god, no creator of Man would ever see this used against his own creation. May the gods forgive me this evil act- I take it up to spare us all. No Lanser will ever act against the interest of Man.’ He grabbed his mother by the arms, embraced her, and wrought the most terrible, beautiful light. It engulfed them both, burning them down to ashes. His conjure was so great, it caused a small, stable Twist to open on that very spot, simply radiating light. The Lansers sealed this off as a tomb, and now it’s known as the Temple of Basceran. It is many floors below us, still sealed, even now. Today, you embark on the path to become a Lanser. Today, you begin to understand the purpose of our power; we serve Man. No king, no queen, no politicking. Man. Do you understand?”
The children before her nodded, hushed.
You don’t, she thought. You will, someday, and I’m sorry. “The world needs your strength and your power. Study well, and your gifts will be a service to all men. Make me proud.”
Piotr was done with it. All of it. He’d been done with this town and its people since he was small. He never really wanted to leave, but he certainly didn’t want to stay. They called him Simple Piotr, or Piotr the Shadow, because he couldn’t be moved to care. He ate when he was hungry; whatever was on his plate would do. He drank when he was thirsty. For him, water was as good as the finest wine. He slept when he was tired, woke when he was rested, and lived as he liked, the best that he could.
He was the only child of Lib Carlyle, a well-to-do cloth merchant in Avessa. Born in the dead of winter, he was fussed over and welcomed into the family order like a tiny king, celebrated and showered with gifts. His mother and father proudly showed off their newborn, a delightful pink bundle with the softest blond hair and liquid blue eyes. All of the neighbors agreed he was perfect.
As the spring and then summer rolled in, their delight faded. The baby’s white-blond hair darkened, first to an acceptable flax, then a passable deep gold. When it settled on an even, lusterless sandy brown, Jaene Carlyle began to look at her husband suspiciously.
“It must be from your family, ” she said, dumping the toddler in his crib with a disappointed look. “There’s certainly no plain on my side.” Jaene was proud, beautiful, and had everything a merchant’s wife could want.
The boy’s sparkling eyes faded until they were no more remarkable than mud.
Now his father, Lib, looked at Jaene in a new light. “He doesn’t even look like me,” he said as he combed his dashing steel-and-silver hair back. He regarded himself in the mirror. “He looks more like that traveling peddler who put new bottoms on your cooking pots last year. New pot-bottoms indeed.”
Lib Carlyle was a stylish man, fastidious in his appearance. Lib considered himself and his family the best testimonial for his products, and he clothed them like royalty. He wore the finest clothes made from the best bolts he had to sell. He dressed in gleaming, deep-dyed suits and embroidered waistcoats. His shoes were always polished to a gloss, not that he could ever see his feet. Lib was big, bold and well-liked. He expected to someday become mayor of Avessa, with Piotr to follow him.
Avessa was a flourishing seaside town in the country of Sollerus. Homes and shops in the town proper were well-kept, built of smooth grey slate that matched the Solleran Sea. Buildings grew up, not out. The narrow streets were shaded and pleasant, and the sea breeze whistled between the close-packed houses. Because of the deep, well-sheltered harbor, the town was prosperous enough for a Lanser’s Temple. They even had a year-round teacher educated in Sollfalen, for the Learning Hall.
By the time Piotr could speak, Lib had abandoned this particular dream. The boy was just so plain. Little Piotr was entirely immersed in his toys, rarely noticing his parents. He spoke later than other children. He had to be coaxed into conversations, and almost never sought to be held or cuddled. He didn’t talk back, or show any sort of spirit. He didn’t have that spark, that twinkle the Carlyles expected of their only child. He had neither the charm of Lib nor the beauty of Jaene.
The Carlyles revised their expectations for their son. He grew up lanky, and plainer every day. They decided the best they could hope for was a brilliant intelligence hidden behind that quiet, still demeanor, and so sent him to the Learning Hall in town.
Piotr himself didn’t understand the fuss about what he did. He sat in his classes all winter, watching the rain fall and the fog roll in off the sea. He tried to do as he was told, but he never was really able to focus. His mind always slipped off, a thousand miles away. He was sailing the Solleran Sea or running through the fields in his head when he sat at the table with his schoolmates. He took his seat in the Learning Hall and listened when it interested him. He looked out the tall windows when it didn’t. His marks were either abysmal or amazing, but he didn’t care. Either way, he must go to school, and so he did, even though the other children teased him at first. Piotr the Shadow, a reflection of a real boy. Slow Piotr, who could never pay attention, Simple Piotr who didn’t care if he ate dandelion flowers from the Learning Hall lawn or some fine imported delicacy at a summer feast. The teasing didn’t last long, only because Piotr wasn’t bothered by it. Their barbs and stings fell away. He loved none of them, and none of them loved him. He hated none of them either, and so Piotr came to be another part of the scenery for the people of the town.
Lib grew older and wider, while Jaene blossomed into a grand society matron, known throughout Avessa for the lavish parties she hosted for Lib’s business partners. The Carlyle house began to reflect their changing status, becoming more opulent and less friendly to a small boy. The parties often stretched into the early morning.
Piotr was never expected to help entertain as obedient children should. He never had to prepare music to play, essays to recite, or even learn to shake hands and introduce himself properly to guests. It was obvious that Piotr wouldn’t charm. It was easier for his parents to pretend that all was well when their odd, disappointing boy was away.
He was free to wander anywhere he liked. At first, he just played in the narrow, landscaped courtyard between their fabric shop on Acheter Street and their tall, grey stone house. As he grew, he pushed out into the wide yard behind the house and the grounds beyond, chasing the clucking chickens, then into the barn with the shaggy, stupid ponies and the fields where the goats roamed. Outside, he felt like himself. Even the stable hands and servants knew to leave him be. He left behind his frilly collars, lacy sleeves, and polished boots. He borrowed a simple shirt and patched pants from one of the housemaid’s boys and ran off, often with no shoes at all. It wasn’t surprising to find him a mile or two out of Avessa, wandering the fields of sippanela leaf as it curled and turned brown in the sun.
He knew all the different birds of the seaside. He was familiar with all the stars in the sky. He knew when the fog rolling in meant rain, or hail, or just a hazy morning, but he could never remember to be home for dinner.
Piotr grew up sullen and quiet. Lib had wanted a tailor’s apprenticeship, as that was close enough to his own work. But he dared not approach Val Rossi on the matter, and Val Spinna had politely but firmly refused, and offered by way of excuse that he had two apprentices already. Nevertheless, Piotr must be kept out of trouble, so he was apprenticed to Avessa’s blacksmith halfway through his sixteenth year.
The blacksmith was short, incredibly hairy and tanned dark. His name was Willard Ransom, but everyone called him Little Willie. He was loud and known to be consistently too drunk or hungover to accomplish a decent day’s work.
“Never make me look bad, son,” he explained. “All I ask, all any boss will ask of you. If I work slow, you work slower. If I miss a stroke, you miss two. Think you can manage that?”
Piotr nodded and Little Willie kitted him out with a too-short apron and instructed him to tie back his loose hair.
“Now, don’t catch on fire and don’t break anything. See you first thing in the morning.”
Little Willie’s smithy was on the furthest edge of town. It backed up to the street, so the wide doors opened up on a view of the open sea and brought in the clean wind. Avessa’s famous fog burned off early that morning and the wind poured in, sweeping up skirts and tearing at the curtains that hung in open windows.
Piotr arrived at the smithy early, his lunch pail in hand. Willie had slept in a crumpled, stained heap up against the big doors. He said later that this was because the hefty padlock was broken and he was afraid of thieves. Piotr did recall later that even though the padlock was “broken”, Little Willie slowly stood and began fumbling hopelessly for the key.
Willie swayed on his feet like a top winding down. Piotr watched him struggle, trying to fit huge hammy fists into his tiny pockets. The little man wore a heavy, ornate hammer on his belt, presumably to defend himself, as every man in Sollerus was expected to do, but it mostly got in his way. He wrestled with his pocket, spinning in a circle. Finally, the barrel-chested man gave up, his hands falling to his sides. His dark, thinning hair fell greasily over his tan forehead and he sighed, puffing his round cheeks out. Piotr leaned back from the reek of last night’s sippanela and whiskey.
He looked up, noticing Piotr there for the first time. He scowled and squinted up at him through one bloodshot eye. “Do you work for me?”
Piotr nodded. “You hired me yesterday.”
Little Willie squinted his other eye at Piotr. “I was drunk yesterday,” he said, suspiciously.
Piotr shrugged. “I wasn’t.”
Willie almost smiled through his dense, overgrown black moustache. “If you work for me, then get these damn keys out of my damn pocket and open these damn doors.”
Piotr set to his task, and flung the doors wide open. An older boy sauntered in the front gate, as greasy as Willie, his eyes just as bloodshot. His hair was long only in front, falling over his large, owly eyes. His nose had been broken and healed badly. His nails were black and split. A slim, ragged-looking dirk in a stained, worn sheath hung at his hip. He slapped Willie’s outstretched palm and spit a stream of sippanela juice on the floor.
Piotr eyed the older boy’s weapon. The Law of Arms was old; his father said the Law was antique, and yet both these men obeyed it. The Law stated that any man old enough to shave should carry a weapon, anything with which he might defend himself. He was expected to protect the women of his family, unless they chose to defend themselves, as some widows and maids-by-choice might do. The world was full of monsters, and no man could ask his king to always protect him. A Twist might emerge anywhere, and could birth unearthly horrors at any time.
A man was allowed to choose his own weapon, and the choice of weapon spoke volumes about the man. Coach riders often carried a blunt mace, to knock raiders away from caravans. Hired men and mercenaries bore glamorous blades, each jewel set in the scabbard telling tales of their bravery, their audacity. Lister’s ratty little dirk said a lot. It was a stealthy knife; a barroom widow-maker. He fought with the other Dockside rats in a grim, deadly game; cutting each other over gambling debts, over maligned honor, or just a cross-wise look. It said he was a sneak, a thief. A slender rabble-rouser’s pigsticker told Piotr everything he needed to know.
Willie coughed and pointed at the young man. “You know Lister?”
Lister was looking him over just the same. He saw that Piotr was unarmed, and judged him instantly.
“Lister’s my bellows monkey.” Willie clapped the slinky young man on the back. “A smithy runs on heat, and this skinny son of a bitch ain’t good for nothin’ else.”
Lister spit again and grinned. A few of his teeth were missing. He looked Piotr up and down, with an ostentatious scowl. He tipped his head, inclining it toward the workshop. “Let’s get to it, fancy boy.”
Lister worked the bellows and turned the huge open room into an oven. Willie took Piotr in close to shout instructions over the roaring heat, liquor oozing from his pores. Piotr quickly came to love the seaside wind for drying the sweat on his brow and making Willie’s stench bearable.
Piotr came to understand Willie’s choice of weapon as they worked. His blunt hammer was fine, unmarred, but completely without ornament. Piotr had seen examples of Willie’s finer work in the shop, but his own weapon was as simple as possible. It wasn’t the weapon of a man who boasted, but an efficient tool. In his hands, however, it would be ungodly. His bandy chest and massive arms were pure power from pounding metal all day. He could slap the hammer down as quick as lightning. He would be as deadly with it as any soldier with a sword.
The first day ended earlier than any other workingman’s day in Avessa. Not an hour after other tradesmen and merchants were eating their lunch, Willie and Lister were already tuckered out, sitting on crates outside the big doors, passing a foul-smelling sippanela pipe between them. They were both greasy with sweat and blackened from smoke. Little Willie cradled his head in his hammy hands. Lister leaned back, his long legs stretched out a mile. He whistled lewdly at the baker’s daughters across the street.
Piotr stood behind them both, just inside the doors. He breathed in the stink of the fires and the clean tang of the sea. His muscles trembled, unused to this new work. He watched the two men for a while, letting the wind refresh him.
Little Willie half-turned on his crate and waved at Piotr. “Get your ass out here and come holler at girls with us. Don’t you know anything?”
Piotr left his heavy apron and gloves and hunkered down on the gravel near Willie’s feet. “I don’t see any worth hollering at.”
Willie and Lister both guffawed, neither believing him.
Willie snorted. “Bullshit. You do like girls, don’t you?”
Piotr only frowned at him. He had to admit, it wasn’t entirely true. Autumn was yet around the corner. Dresses were still light, cut in the more revealing summer fashion and the colors were bright and simple. All of the town women and girls were still wearing their hair pinned up high off their necks. The streets were full of ladies, like falling flowers, awash in color and mirth as they called to each other and gossiped back and forth. They carried little purses on their wrists, bearing small, scented visiting cards and embroidered handkerchiefs. The young ladies of good families spent their afternoons visiting the older married women, attempting to curry favor and increase their status. Piotr’s mother received some young woman almost every day, women looking to ensure their consideration when the fate of the Carlyle fortune was decided.
Lister leaned forward and spat in the street.
A lovely redhead passing by yanked her skirts back and stumbled a few unladylike steps away. “Mongrel!” she cried.
Lister barked at her. “You have no idea.” He waggled his eyebrows and grinned. He and Willie laughed.
Piotr felt himself carried away. These tradesmen, this was their life. A rough cycle of a few hours’ work, a long afternoon of drinking, a longer evening of chasing women. The incredible sweat and strain of the day was printed on his mind, unforgettable. It had a simple, decent quality he could understand and appreciate. It was uncomplicated, and perhaps that was what he loved most of all. Willie sent him home aching and exhausted.
He joined his parents just in time for a late afternoon meal. As he slurped tea he looked at his father through new eyes.
Lib carried no weapon at all. He always said the Law of Arms was for the lower classes. He never bothered with his own defense, letting his money do it for him. He hired a guard to carry for him whenever he traveled, and boastfully claimed to be above any possible danger while in town. His father was too proud, too big to be afraid. Avessa was stable, having been without a Twist for generations. Lib dismissed such fears as irrelevant, below him.
Even though Piotr was old enough to be apprenticed, old enough to be called a man, he remained unarmed. But his father’s insistence wasn’t enough to keep him from dreaming of a sword. Nothing fancy, not even glamorous. As he ate, he turned the bright blade over in his mind, imagining it under Willie’s hammer, orange-hot and spitting sparks as the blacksmith crafted it. He did not imagine jewels or wirework, just a hilt wrapped in new leather and a long, straight blade. Something honest, he thought. Something pure. He pushed away from the table, feeling uneasy. His father didn’t even look at him, and that made it easier.
Piotr abandoned the sea and the fields for the next few weeks. They no longer called to him, they seemed all but mute. He ate voraciously, worked hard, and slept like the dead. His mother stopped the maid from trying to limit him to one plate at breakfast. She learned quickly to leave the cooking pots at his elbow so that he could refill his plate faster. Piotr put away enough food for three, and washed it down with huge mugs of fresh milk. He barked angrily at Jaene when the maid brought the milk after the cream had already been skimmed. They just double buttered his bread and then got well out of his way. He was fed, clean, dressed and helping Lister warm up the smithy before his father even awoke.
He learned to smoke sippanela with Willie, and Lister taught him how to spit it without slobbering all over his own chin. He learned to swing a hammer, to call at girls, and how to feel like someone at the end of the day. Piotr no longer felt like a shadow. He rarely saw his family. He saw Jaene at breakfast, and his father at Sunday dinners. Lib had less and less to say to him over these meals.
Piotr felt energized, like a hulking, snorting, eating animal. His body craved the work, his mind craved sleep, and he resented any time spent between the two.
Piotr looked up from a turkey leg half stripped to the bone to see his mother and father staring down the length of the table at him. “What?” he asked through a mouthful of meat.
“Darling, there is grease on your chin.” Jaene offered him a napkin with an embroidered edge. Her lips were pursed tight.
“Probably.” Piotr dropped the cleaned bone on his plate and sucked his fingers clean.
“Son,” Lib sputtered, his fork forgotten in his hand, “What is under your nails?”
Piotr shrugged and pulled the other leg off the gleaming bird. “Most likely dirt.”
Jaene covered her mouth with her hand. “Oh, dear.”
His mother and father exchanged a look he pretended to not see. They finished quickly and retired to the sitting room for tea and cake, leaving him in peace. Piotr wasn’t bothered. He could feel the change in himself, the coarseness, the rough honesty that came from his mouth.
He’d never been afraid of hard work before, and this work suited him well. He was a few months into his apprenticeship, and Willie still didn’t let him touch much of anything. But he hauled, strained, and sweated in no less respectable fashion than Willie or Lister did. He loved the look of his rough, blackened hands. He wanted more.
Piotr still stole away almost every afternoon. The smithing was finished early in the day, and even though Willie and Lister invited him along for an evening of drinking, he felt most comfortable alone. He still felt more real near the two of them, but never quite at ease. Sometimes just the nearness of four walls around him was enough to make the outdoors beckon in a way he couldn’t explain.
On his way home, he passed the Learning Hall; the grey stone walls butted up to the street on one side, then spread out in a broad, tree-covered lawn. Among the trees, a class of young children sat with their teacher, arranged in a crescent shape around her. Valla Rees had been the teacher when Piotr was small as well, and he couldn’t help his curiosity. He crept across the lush grass and hid among the trees, listening close.
She looked no different. Valla Rees still wore her buttery blonde hair in one enormous braid down her back. She sat primly, with her fine silver skirt spread out smoothly on the fragrant grass. A salty sea breeze ruffled her skirt and toyed with her hair.
“And who was the first?” she asked.
No one answered her.
“No one knows?”
Piotr watched her kind face from under the low hanging boughs.
“First was Basceran, the very first warrior priest. He channelled light in the darkness.”
A few children muttered, remembering. Piotr remembered too.
“He was the trueborn prince of Lanser. And how was he made?” She asked.
“Twist!” One of the children shouted.
She nodded. “Queen Raelle, his mother, fell asleep in an open field on a hot summer day. She awoke to the terrible clatter of an emerging Twist.” Her face grew grave. “What does it sound like?”
“Like breaking glass!” a child yelled.
“Like eating bones!”
Valla Rees nodded. “And what do you do when you hear it?”
“Hold still!” they chorused.
“Get away!” a little boy cried.
“Leave a marker!” cried another.
“Tell a mama!” A little blonde girl said.
“You do all those things, you’re right,” she said, smiling at them. “So who is going to be a Lanser when they grow up and protect us all?”
Summer faded and autumn took the last of the high heat. The fog clung to the earth all day, thick and wet. Girls bundled up in heavy dresses and long coats weren’t as much fun to holler at, but they all did their best.
Forge-side was best as the autumn passed and winter began to creep in. On the coast, Avessa never got very cold, but the wind coming off the Solleran Sea could be brutal and cutting. The waves were white-capped and choppy, the sailing treacherous. Supply ships and trader vessels came less often.
One particularly grey day, Piotr flung the workshop doors open wide, cold wind tearing at his coat and scarf. Willie and Lister shouted for him to close the door. Piotr ignored them both. Once the forge was hot, it would be unbearable with the doors closed. They both stink like unwashed livestock anyway, he thought.
“It’s cold, you idiot!” Willie packed the bowl of his pipe. He cupped his hands around it carefully and lit it on the open flame of the guttering oil lamp on the workbench, iron filings swirling around his feet. He shrugged his arms deep into his coat pockets and brought his chin to his chest, pipe dangling off his lip as he tucked in tight against the wind.
Lister shook as he tried to stoke the fire. He shot Piotr an irritated, bloodshot glance. “Shit, Piotr, truly. It’s cold as Hell and I’m in no mood.” Lister’s hair had grown long and lank and he pulled it back in a loose tail.
Piotr took one look at those red, rummy eyes and shook his head. “Work faster, you’ll warm up.” Piotr hung his heavy grey coat and scarf on the wrought iron hooks by the door. He rubbed his hands together.
Willie crooked a finger at him. “Fine then, smart ass.” He led Piotr and Lister through the workshop to a pile of old equipment. It was neither fine nor poor, just medium-grade metal worked for function, with no frills or decoration. It lay on the floor like broken eggshells; a dented chest piece, short swords bent out of true, a helmet nearly folded in half.
Lister looked on, mouth agape. He took the helmet in his hands. “Gods, what happened to this guy?”
Willie snorted. “Don’t flutter, you princess. Horse tromped on the gear. Some idiot watchman left it lying about.”
Lister tossed the helmet to Piotr. “How amazing if someone’s head had been in there.” He smacked his fist into his palm. “He’d have been turned to paste.”
“Don’t talk about things you don’t know, you idiot. Is that fire stoked up yet?” Willie snarled.
Lister grumbled and shuffled back to the forge.
Willie pushed a hammer into Piotr’s other hand. “Since you woke up all bright-eyed today, you’re doing it. Fix it.” He spat on the floor at Piotr’s feet. He hoisted himself up and sat on an overturned barrel by the forge, eyeballing him.
Piotr was very aware of being observed, but he tried to focus on the helmet. It was simple, just enough protection to save a life in a pinch. It was lined with plain muslin, no padding. Nothing fancy. The lining was filthy; it was probably handed down between guards for years. Willie always says to start with the use, and work your way from there… He looked at it a long time. Resolved, he took it back to Willie. “I can’t fix it. It needs to be remade. Even a farmer would need stronger gear than this will be, if we try to fix it. The watch will keep it forever, too. It should be worth a bit to them.”
Willie nodded, then inclined his head at the dented chest piece. “And that?”
“I can pound that out, no worry.”
“Get to it.” Willie threw the helmet aside and folded his arms across his barrel chest.
It was mid-afternoon before Piotr felt confident about the chest piece. He knew he was working slow, but he wanted it to be right. It was his work after all, not Willie’s this time. The swarthy little man seemed to approve, but said little, tossing him a slightly bent gauntlet to reshape. Piotr took the silence as praise and happily started in on it.
Willie and Lister came and went throughout the day. Once, Lister came by with some flat bread and Piotr devoured it. Willie stopped to check his work, leaving a mug of beer on the workbench. Piotr tossed it back in two long swallows that left his throat burning and his belly full.
He worked until he sweated and his arms trembled, until finally, all that could be repaired was complete. Everything that needed to be replaced was in a separate pile, ready to go back to the head constable for price negotiation. Willie would deliver it all in the morning, and whatever he managed to convince the constable to replace, he would manufacture.
Piotr’s arms were singing, wobbly down in their core. His back was trying to join in the chorus. He put both hands behind him, grinding his fists into the small of his back, and leaned backward as far as he could, listening to the crackles and pops.
The boys were sitting outside. Lister was watching the clouds go by and Willie was smoking from his pipe, more out of habit than desire. There were no girls to holler at on a cold day like this one. Willie scooted down the length of the crate he sat on to make room for Piotr to join him.
In silence, they looked over the angry sea side, over the cliff past their stretch of street. The clean air was beyond crisp, brittle almost. The sweat dried on Piotr’s skin immediately.
“You’re a bit long and narrow for this kind of work,” Willie said slowly. “Your muscles are small, they don’t look like much, but you’re tougher than you look. And you might not be as stupid as people want to believe.” He re-lit his long, curving black pipe and passed it across to Piotr. “How do you like the work?”
Piotr took a draw and held the smoke just a moment before passing the pipe back. He exhaled through his nostrils, and crossed his arms over his chest, tucking his hands in away from the wind. “I like it.”
Lister looked at him and grinned.
Willie nodded. “Your father wanted this to last about a year. He said it would put you in touch with the common people. He told me that, right to my face.”
Piotr looked down at his feet.
Lister snorted and took the pipe from Willie. He stalked back inside the workshop, grumbling under his breath.
“What I’m saying is…” Willie’s eyes were far away, on the sea and the roiling, white-capped waves below. “You never act like Lister and me are common. You’ve got some sense your father doesn’t.”
Piotr felt a smile tug at his mouth.
“If you wanted to stay, after the year is up, you could. We’ll have enough work, and Lister doesn’t mind you. You’ll get stronger, and I can teach you all kinds of things. Not just this horseshoes-and-kettles shit, either. Some fancywork, make some real coin. You might even have your own shop someday.”
Piotr shrugged, unsure of what to say. He wanted to pick the little fat man up and swing him around, shouting “Yes”, but that seemed undignified.
“No matter where you go, people always need things fixed. As long as you know how to make things, you can always put food on your table.” Willie got up slowly, his heavy hands pushing on his knobby knees. “Think about it, anyway. Lister an’ me are going to the pub. Close up when you’re done.”
Piotr sat in the cold and watched them leave, the long, skinny young man and the short, fat old man. They left the gate swinging behind them, not open, not closed.
He shut the shop down for the night, neatly arranging his tools, and closed the doors and gate. He made his way through town to Acheter Street. He managed to avoid his father that evening, sneaking up the back stairs and falling asleep almost as soon as he hit the bed.
In the morning, he splashed some water over his face and pulled on some moderately clean clothes. He had slept late, and breakfast had already been served. Piotr took his seat without greeting his mother or father, tucking straight into his food.
Lib wore a fine new red coat, and talked proudly of a trade agreement with some craftsmen to the East, some place Piotr had never heard of. They made a fabric like no one had ever seen, according to Lib. In the spring, he would travel to their remote village to inspect their product and make them an offer. He hinted that he wanted Piotr to join him.
Piotr shoved another biscuit in his mouth and grunted by way of reply.
“It’s a great opportunity,” Lib said carefully, exchanging a look with Jaene. “This is how it’s done. You’ll get to see the process from the start, where it all comes from.”
Jaene nodded, touching Piotr’s hand. Her eyes shone with encouragement.
Piotr looked at her a moment. “Your maid is doing your hair differently.”
Jaene beamed. “Well, yes. This is how they’re doing it in the capital. I wanted to keep up with the fashion.” She patted her iron-grey curls. They stacked up high on top of her head and then cascaded down her neck.
“It looks nice.”
Jaene smiled, her eyes softening. “Thank you for noticing.”
Lib grunted, loud and indignant. “Are you even listening?” His freshly shaven face was red around the cheeks. “This is important.”
“May I be excused?” Piotr pushed away from the table and took his dishes to the sideboard. He grabbed one last biscuit and stuffed it in his mouth before vaulting up the back stairs to his room.
Willie’s was closed for a week at the turn of the year, for Honabel’s Dream. The newborn god Honabel’s moon was a bright green jewel high in the sky, ascendant. The turn of the year was her season and there were feasts and festivals all over Sollerus in her name. She was the god of all things new, and the maker of time. They prayed that she might consult the god of dreams, Sea Eyes, and dream a better year into being. It was traditional to gather with family and pray for Honabel’s Dream together. Willie had a daughter and some four or five grandchildren to visit up north, in Limerock. Lister’s mother had just given birth to his newest brother, the latest of eight, and he wanted to take a horse to Sellesfurth and visit them.
For Piotr, the week seemed like a year, stretching out before him. He wandered Avessa as much as the weather would allow; otherwise he stayed in his room, waiting against time.
There was a heavy knock at the door. Piotr said nothing. He sat at the window, watching a thin, petulant snow try to cover the ground outside. The door creaked open.
His father’s well-dressed bulk filled the doorway. “I want to speak with you,” Lib said. His hands hung at his sides.
Piotr stood to face his father.
“I’m not sending you back to Willie’s after the holiday,” Lib said, looking over the top of Piotr’s head. “You’re not going back.”
Piotr clenched his fists. “Why?”
“Your mother and I have spoken, and we think it’s for the best,” Lib said, steel in his voice. “We don’t like who you’ve become. You’ll come with me in the spring and I’ll show you how gentlemen provide for a family.”
Lib looked at him sharply. His large black eyebrows knitted together. “Mind me, now.”
Piotr ground his teeth, throat stinging. He waited, but Lib had nothing more to say. Finally, his father left, closing the door behind him.
The walls suddenly felt very close. Piotr saw the trees whipping in the wind outside his window and keenly felt the urge to wander. He picked up his boots to pull them on and found himself throwing them across the room in a sudden outrage. All the needs, all the expectations hung on his neck like a noose, waiting for someone to tighten it.
It warmed up a bit a few weeks after the turn of the year. Piotr spent as much time as possible out of the house, with its close walls and peering mother. He bundled up against the still-fierce wind and wandered the fields beyond Avessa, forbidden to go to the workshop. His mother complained that he haunted the town like a ghost. He felt like one.
His mother woke him early one spring morning. He became aware of her tiny weight as she sat next to him, smoothing the hair off his forehead. He woke with a start, then settled back.
“What do you want?” he asked, his voice gruff with sleep.
“Why should I need an excuse to see my son?” she said innocently, a flush high on her thin cheeks. She was dressed in a fine, green-gold gown, with long sleeves and a high, fitted neck. Her hair was elaborately curled and worked through with brightly dyed feathers.
Piotr frowned. “Are we having company?”
She smiled. “Why do you ask?”
“You look like we are.” He sat up against the upholstered headboard and rubbed his face. He desperately needed a shave.
Jaene dropped the pretense and stood, hands on her hips. “Val Rossi is here. The tailor. We’re having some suits made for your trip.”
Jaene clucked at him. “I had to offer him an extra kingsmark to show up at this hour. It was the only way to catch you before you disappear for….wherever it is you go all day.” She straightened her sleeves and smiled at him, her eyes cool. “We’ll be waiting downstairs.”
Val Gen Rossi was a compact, smooth-headed older man from the capital. Local gossip held that he had once clothed royalty there before securing his fortune and retiring to Avessa. He wore his clothes in the style of the last reign. Some said it was because he was a traditionalist. Some said it was because he wanted everyone to remember he was a big fish in Avessa’s small pond.
His suit was a deep, dark blue, some fabric that shone in the lamplight. It was carefully cut to conceal his expanding midsection. Heavy lace cuffs dripped from his sleeves and down his narrow chest to his wide waist. On a fine chain belt dangled a tiny knife, no longer than a finger. He wore a huge brooch at his throat, some crystal clear stone the size of a baby’s fist mounted in finely wrought gold.
Piotr suppressed a shudder.
“Ah, the young master.” Val Rossi stopped pacing at the foot of the stairs and smiled up at him, a perfectly oiled expression.
Piotr stumbled down the remaining steps and shook Val Rossi’s soft, plump hand. “Val Rossi.”
“Your mother tells me you need new things.” Val Rossi plucked at Piotr’s rough muslin shirt, clicking his tongue.
Piotr saw Jaene watching from the sitting room, pretending to sew. He glared at her over Val Rossi’s shoulder and she turned away, blushing.
Val Rossi snapped his fingers and an assistant appeared, a mousy little boy of about ten, carrying a handsomely bound book, a thin glass pen and ink to take notes.
“Arms out.” Val Rossi patted at Piotr’s ribs and he complied. He was measured; chest, arms, shoulders. Val Rossi clucked and fussed all the while. He dictated to his assistant in low tones. “Bigger than I remember,” he murmured. “You’re turning into some sort of barbarian, young man.”
Jaene piped up from the sitting room. “That’s exactly what we don’t want, Val Rossi.”
Val Rossi smirked at Piotr and rolled his eyes. “Valla Carlyle, one doesn’t pay my fee to have anything less than the best.”
Piotr squeezed his eyes shut. He stood there, bare feet freezing on the tile floor. He was measured from every angle, posed and turned like a doll. Finally, the tailor clapped his hands. The mousy little boy ran off through the front door, back down the street to Rossi’s shop.
Jaene snapped her fingers and the maid materialized at the tailor’s elbow with a glass of red wine, a plate of tiny cakes and sliced fruit.
“Thank you, Valla Carlyle,” Val Rossi purred. “I’m famished.” He took his glass and drained it, packed away a few cakes as well. “Breakfast, Piotr?”
The thought of wine and all that sweet on an empty stomach made Piotr’s throat feel sour. He declined with the shake of his head.
“We should talk color, young sir.” Val Rossi licked his fingertips and sucked on a slice of strawberry.
“I don’t care.”
“Color says everything, my man.” The tailor paced around him, scrutinizing him. “Color tells the world who you are. Color declares your soul. It can impress, or depress, in the hands of a master, which I am.” He winked lewdly. “And how do you feel about a wide, wide belt?”
Piotr shrugged. “I… don’t care.”
“Maybe a sash, instead of a belt.” Val Rossi lifted Piotr’s arms away from his sides and leaned back, squinting at him.
“Wait,” Piotr turned to him. “No. I want a belt. I’ll need it when I carry a weapon.”
Val Rossi laughed. “Oh, no, darling. Your father is adamant that a gentleman doesn’t carry. It is hilariously old-fashioned, anyway.” Self-consciously, his doughy hand tapped the wee knife at his belt. “You won’t have a place for a blade with these designs, unless it’s something like this.” He fondled the tiny jeweled knife. It looked more like a charm than a weapon.
Piotr put a hand out, stopping him. “If a man can shave, he’s supposed to be able to defend himself. The rule is that if you’re a man, you have a weapon. That’s what they say.”
Rossi opened his hands apologetically, tragically smooth. “Your father insists, sir. As much as I understand the need, personally, to be fashionable, he says it’s for the lower classes, or those who cannot pay to be defended. I don’t think you’ll ever have to worry about that.”
There was a heat in Piotr’s head, a fine point of it right between his eyebrows, something forge-hot and painful. “I was thinking-”
Val Rossi cut him off with a gesture. The tailor smiled patiently, but the look never made it to his eyes. “I’ve told you what your father wants, darling. It’s his kingsmark today, isn’t it?” The tailor draped a shimmering sash around Piotr’s waist. He marked a fold with a pin and then winked at him. “I believe we’ve fulfilled our commitment.”
Piotr swallowed the urge to curse at him. He stomped up the stairs and slammed the door, but he could still hear his mother apologizing downstairs. It only took him a moment to pull on his boots and his heavy coat. The need for air was almost overwhelming.
The turbulent spring faded. Piotr lay on a pile of hay in the barn, ignoring the ponies that wandered aimlessly around him. The animals of his father’s farm had gotten used to his presence at any hour of the day, napping in the field or the barn whenever the mood struck him. He found it easier to spend his time in the company of animals than nagging family. No one ever seemed to notice that he ranged further and further afield the more questions he got at the table. Piotr couldn’t think of it without shuddering. The thought of owning his father’s business felt like the noose slipping around his neck again. The thought of taking the seat at the head of the family’s table tightened it further. When it felt too tight, he snuck away to the fields beyond the town, to wander through the golden wheat or past to the orchard, to scramble up a tree and let the day worry itself into night. If asked, Piotr would have told his family that he felt no desire for his father’s work, that he only liked animals because of their silence, that he only liked the fields because of the solitude. But no one asked.
Some headstrong pony headbutted him, rolling him off the hay and onto his knees. Piotr didn’t care. He dusted himself off and left the barn for the yard behind the house. An apple tree hung low with fruit, but none anyone else would eat. The apples were mealy when raw, tasteless when cooked, without a decent tang or sweetness. Piotr knew they would fill his growling belly and that was enough.
A shouted curse stopped him. His father charged across the yard, flustered and swearing. The heavy ruffled lace collar at his neck was darkened with sweat. Piotr supposed his father was upset about something, but the words droned on and on. He studied his father’s florid face, the crackles of veins by his nose, the sweat on his pale, wrinkled brow. His father had been drinking, but that was no matter. Piotr liked his father the same, drunk or sober, and that was not much at all.
His father took him up by the collar and marched him across the yard to the rain barrel. Before Piotr could protest, Lib had him bent over and dunked his head in the barrel, soaking his light brown hair. “Slick that mess back and comb it,” he cried, pulling an ivory comb from the inside pocket of his best dark-blue coat. “It looks like a duck’s ass in the back and a rooster’s comb on top.”
“It looks fine,” Piotr wiped water out of his eyes.
“Here!” His father mashed a lavender-scented handkerchief onto Piotr’s face, trying for spotlessness. Piotr dropped the comb and took the handkerchief, wiping the water off his face. With a curse, his father bent and retrieved the comb, huffing perilously, and raked it through Piotr’s hair. “It’s not fine, it’s full of hay and you smell like horseshit and lamp oil. Wipe behind your ears, too. You look like some tinker’s bastard. I have a house full of clucking hens and the guest of honor looks like some dusty tramp.”
“Hens?” Piotr finished with the handkerchief and let it fall. He eased his wet collar where it clung to his neck.
“The Barrys!” his father nearly screamed. “You’re a grown-up baby sometimes, Piotr. Dinner? Tonight? You remember?”
“Oh, the ever-fucked gods,” his father cursed, then looked around, guilty, afraid he’d been overheard. “Didn’t you notice…never mind. Just go up the back stairs and change into something more fitting. Wear one of those suits I paid a fortune for; they’re just gathering moths. Mind you don’t track in dirt on your mother’s good rugs, she’ll skin us both. If you go in there looking like some kind of farmhand, little Elise Barry will surely run off, and we’ll never manage to arrange a bride for you. Gods know none of the town women would have you.”
Piotr felt the noose again, snug on his throat. He said nothing else to his father. It was obvious the man was in no mood for listening. He shook out his hair and hitched at his wet collar. Little Elise Barry would like him as he was, or she wouldn’t. All the fine clothes in the world wouldn’t change who he was.
Piotr walked straight into his mother’s pristine sitting room. Every seat was completely rounded off with embroidered cushions. Embroidered samplers hung on almost every inch of wall space, all worked by Jaene. Each design was fussy and precise, much like his tiny, fastidious mother. She was perched on the edge of the light red sofa, cushions piled high at her back. Her hands were folded tightly in her lap, and two high spots of color bloomed on her thin cheeks when he entered the overly warm room.
She bit down on her pursed little lips and then softened, an artificial motherliness brought out for the company sitting next to her. She rose and smoothed her deep yellow skirts, adjusting her fashionably fitted sleeves before extending her hands to him. “Dearest Piotr,” she said, “won’t you come and greet your guests?”
Piotr ignored her outstretched hands and shrugged.
Jaene bloomed pinker, and touched at her pinned up hair nervously. “You do remember the Barrys?”
Val and Valla Barry were livestock farmers who had inherited a great deal of land and money. Val Barry was much like his own father, over-fed and over-drunk. Valla Barry was plumper than Jaene, with hair more grey, but the look of disappointment on her face seemed very familiar.
Behind Valla Barry there came the telltale swish of skirts, and in a flurry of light pink silk and golden curls flew little Elise Barry, little no more. Ripe and long-limbed, she crossed the room like a dancer, all hips and long arms and deeply glistening eyes.
She came to him in a heady haze of scent, something he couldn’t put his finger on, but he was sure he would never forget it. A tantalizing blush spread on her cheeks and down her neck to her chest, to the edges of her low-cut gown. Her skin was milky and smooth, showing off her sweet pink blush to beautiful effect. Curls showered around her face and shoulders, springy and gleaming. She lowered her eyes as she met him, and slipped both of her slim, pale hands in his. She looked up quickly, thick lashes batting, and took a drink of him with her eyes. The little girl he remembered running through the fields with chains of daisies in her blonde hair was nowhere to be seen.
“Oh, dearest Piotr,” she breathed. “We are SO pleased.”
Piotr stared at her far longer than was appropriate, but he couldn’t look away. This creature was like some sort of caged bird, so beautiful and showy. Still, her hands were so soft and warm…
Valla Barry and his mother were clutching hands, eyes alight as they watched. Val Barry pretended to bristle at Piotr’s impertinence, but Piotr could see the man’s glowing pride in his daughter and her charms.
Lib joined them then, wiping his forehead with the dirty handkerchief. “Shall we eat?”
Elise took her seat with the grace of a cat, weightless and perfect. Each motion was like water, smooth and gliding. Her long fingers enfolded her tiny cordial glass and she sipped delicately, her pink tongue darting out to touch her lips after. Piotr was transfixed by Elise, unable to look away, or unwilling. The parents watched the two of them eating elbow to elbow, then fell to scheming.
Val Barry seemed certain that after they were married, the farmland between the Barrys and town could be bought for a pittance, and both families’ estates expanded. “Perhaps they’ll even call this ‘Barry’s Hill’,” he exclaimed, tossing back his duckberry cordial.
Piotr’s father laughed unkindly. “You’ve no sons, my friend. It will be Carlyle’s Hill ‘fore long.”
Valla Barry had taken a second helping of both the roast goose and the blackbird pie, and she washed it down with more cordial than was good for her. “Now, Elise’s oldest sister, she had twins right off. A year to the day of her wedding to that lovely Allen Painter. Neither of the twins survived, but that was the fever. You can hardly blame that on her. Those twins were perfect and plump, just the sweetest little angels. Though, she was fit to split with the birthing of them. Not a whole year later, twins again, and there aren’t healthier children than those two. All of Elise’s sisters have twins. It runs in our family.”
Piotr’s mother beamed, fascinated. “Oh, Piotr, can you imagine?”
Piotr stared across the table at his mother, his mouth hanging open. He felt a sharp squeeze on his thigh and his leg kicked involuntarily. His boot connected squarely with Valla Barry’s chubby shin and she cried out. Piotr apologized quietly, ignoring his mother’s agonized look. The fathers went on drinking. Valla Barry took another glass of cordial from the housemaid and started a fresh tale of multiple births and horror.
Piotr looked over at Elise, who met his eyes, a bold, naked look that sent his heart racing. Gently he folded his hand over hers and moved it out of his lap.
She licked her lower lip. “Is there something wrong?”
Piotr nodded, easing his collar off his neck. The noose was tighter than ever, even if it was sweeter now. Things are moving so quickly. He turned in his seat, facing Elise, ignoring everyone else. The room went quiet, but Piotr paid no mind. He didn’t care about anything else at the moment. He rested his arms on his knees, leaning in close, and she bent her slender, milky neck to hear him. Piotr spoke quietly into that perfectly curved ear, nestled in deep golden curls. “Is this even what you want?”
Elise leaned back, her blue eyes lit by frantic fire. “Oh, Piotr, it’s all I’ve ever wanted.”
He pulled away too quickly, repelled. He tried to mask it with a smile. This is what she wants? He looked around the room, unable to find the appeal in replacing his parents in a copy of their life. This is a show, he thought. A pretend-life. This shining creature would trade one cage for another without a second thought, he realized. She would never feel the noose tighten, and never understand how it felt for him. She would never know to stroke his forehead in the dark and listen to Simple Piotr, Slow Piotr, Piotr who didn’t care. He patted her hand, folded his napkin and finished his meal.
That night, in the dark, Piotr the Shadow, having been done with it all for so many years, left his father’s house, never to return. He carried on him a plain suit of clothes, a fine grey wool coat, a handful of kingsmarks and a pair of sturdy shoes. The rest would work itself out, or it wouldn’t. Either way, Piotr didn’t care.
Sadah pulled the curtain shut and leaned against the doorway. She closed her black eyes. She was unwilling to watch the backs of her family as they left her behind. The pity on her mother’s face stung in her throat and brought a dusky flush to her dark cheeks.
She took one twirling step toward the hearth and reached, balanced on her toes, her arm flowing out like a stream from her shoulder. One touch and the clear, delicate vase on the sandstone mantel swayed and toppled, crashing to the floor. Beautiful. Each shard caught a bit of lamplight and reflected it back at her, winking. Sadah smiled at the glittering shards on the floor and felt her rage abate.
The vase had been a gift to her mother, when her father courted her, when she sang alone during her first Song Season. They said that every unmarried man in the cave was moved to love her mother by the strength of her song, and the beauty of her perfect face. Her father had to fight all of them to get to her mother’s side, and from that moment, they were never separated. It was Clan Loc’s favorite love story, but Sadah’s mother always made sure to say that love wasn’t everything. “A woman can live without,” she would say, and her eyes would hang up on the scar at Sadah’s throat. Sadah said nothing, as always, just peeked out from behind the dark wave of her hair.
Her parents and her tall, slim brothers had all gone to the Chamber. The sun would soon be up everywhere but the island of Afram, and today’s worship would start right as the sun rose out over the water.
The Chamber was enormous, a natural cavern deep underground in Afram, below the dead volcano. A tall chimney rose out of the earth, high into the sky. It was blocked with spent lava but hollow within. Chambers like bunches of grapes were linked by long passages, lit by glowing lichen in shallow pools that grew along the ancient raised paths. The high entrances to the caves let in what scarce light they could. No matter the week or the season, Afram was always in darkness, in the eclipse-shadow of one of the Five Children, the moons.
The central chamber was the Song Chamber; the theater, the networking center of all tunnels away into the depths of the mountain. The concentric rows of seating had been sculpted out of the cave itself, polished and finished, deep rows of benches that rose to the ceiling. At the very lowest point, there were no seats, only sand. The poorest clans gathered there, or the clans with the weakest or singular voices. Better singers meant honor, so they competed to earn status with their performances, hoping to move up through the Chamber.
The next ring, raised up slightly, was for those smallest clans with status, small but not inconsequential, new families or families recovering from a dishonor. This was the first row with deep carved benches to sit on, in rings around the sandy chamber floor. Oil lamps hung on posts at the end of each row, bringing a liquid gold glow to the dark skinned elves that sang there.
The second row ran around the first, even higher, and some of the best singers in Afram raised their voices there. These clans were all gifted with the double-voice, long a dark elf trait. They could sing their own melodies over a harmonic tone underneath, doubling the sound and making intricate, lacy verses that raced and tumbled over each other. The benches here were no finer than the first level, but looking down on the lower clans was reward enough.
The highest tier, Sadah had never seen, but rumor had it that food was served and cushioned couches cradled those wealthy clans like the Dray and Kisk, those with the most favored singers on the island.
Clan Loc wasn’t the poorest, nor the most wealthy. They worked hard during the Song Season to prove their worth and honor, clinging to their position on the second tier. Sadah’s mother, Maloryn, was the clan’s pride. Sadah had expected to eclipse her this year, to take the lead when Clan Loc added its voice to the whole of Afram. She had expected to cover her like a moon. Now Clan Loc depended on Maloryn again.
The last few months had been difficult, Sadah allowed herself to acknowledge. The accident had been like the coming of the floods. One moment, Sadah was young, in love, a powerful singer with an amazing memory. She had been taught from birth the history of Afram and of the Overworld beyond. She had been born a perfect, round baby, and even cried in two melodic voices. She had been coddled like a princess, given the best her clan had to offer, the best of everything. She’d been courted like a queen, suitors banking on what she would be, the honor she would bring. She was groomed for beauty and performance, taught to move and look and intone just like her beautiful mother. In her sixty-second year, it was all washed away, like the flood water. She was drowning in the lack of it.
The adjustment is …ongoing, Sadah decided, as she looked down at her feet. Between her black leather shoes, the winking jagged glass sparkled up at her. It was change. It was possibility. It was an accident.
Only it wasn’t, and she knew it, and neither had her accident been, and she knew that too. The old beast, rage, peeked its head out and bit her, hard. Lately the only way to send it back to sleep was to break, to rend, to tear.
She closed her wet eyes and breathed in slowly through her nose, out through her mouth. She willed her petulant, angry heart to sleep once more. The sensible, quiet heart awoke slowly, slower than she would like. Sadah realized now that she’d been spoiled, and it had damaged her ability to endure. Her task now was to learn how to feel and yet persist, how to endure what she shouldn’t have to endure. Feelings could get you killed, she thought. She resisted the urge to touch her scar.
She pushed her wavy black hair behind her long, pointed ears and knelt, picking up each shard and tucking it into her apron. Her hand paused over a long, curving angle of clear glass. A smile twisted slowly across her lips as her fingers tightened on it. She finally dropped it in the apron with the rest and dumped them in the waste bin. She swept up the tiny glitter left on the floor, and ran her palm over it again and again, making sure no little bits were left. The pleasure had faded and now there was only regret.
Now that the glass was cleaned up, her hands were restless. She wrung them on her apron, tense and irritable. Her family would be walking from the tunnels into the Chamber now. It would be filled with the warm light of oil lamps. They would be ascending the carved steps of the amphitheater, to their row, about halfway down. They weren’t at the base with the poorest of them, and not the top rows that only the oldest and richest families could afford. They would take their seats on the smooth, deep sandstone seats, tucking their finest clothes around them. They would listen while the surplus was announced, while the highest Aframi officials addressed the collected families and clans, while they decided how many would stay and how many would go.
Then the lamps would be turned low, and their voices would raise. First would be the singers on the floor, often the infirm or the poor singers, or those afflicted with only one voice. Then the first rows would join in, stronger singers or slightly wealthier families, blending their voices into the mass of sound rising from the floor. The huge cavern, deep underground would fill with sound, palpable and vibrating. The higher rows, with their double voices would fling their tones around the base note, until all the women of Afram had opened their mouths and expelled pure magic, beginning another Song Season while the floods raged overhead.
They will be singing, thought Sadah, and I should be with them. She untied her apron and resisted the urge to throw it, instead folding it neatly and laying it on the sandstone table. She brushed her hair back from her face and wished her fluttering hands to still, to not touch her scar, to not break and smash and rage.
The accident had happened in the early summer. The clan was still on the surface then, gathering and planting, preparing for the floods. It was easier then. The clans were spread out all over the island, working to stockpile resources. There had been fewer people around, so fewer stares, fewer sympathetic comments and pitying looks. There was, however, her father’s complete lack of acknowledgment, and her mother never stopped the litany of “A woman can live without”. She heard it so often, Sadah soon came to believe that a woman could live without anything, perhaps even her own life.
She pushed through the main room curtain and into the low chamber of her sleeping cell. It was just large enough for her thin pallet and the brass-bound chest she kept at the foot of the bed. Inside was her new collection of short scarves, purchased by her mother from the Overworlders. Her mother never said they were there to cover the hideous, curving scar on Sadah’s throat. She didn’t have to.
A delicate green scrap folded thin and tied neatly in a bow around her neck highlighted the deep color of her skin and eyes. Whether she wanted to admit it or not, she felt cleaner somehow with the scar covered.
She smoothed her dress and tried to still herself. The accident could not be undone, nor could she go to the Chamber and dishonor her family or her clan. There was nothing she could undo, and many things yet to be done.
Sadah set all five places at the table. She poured cool water into all of the mugs and ladled sweet potato soup into the dark-glazed tureen and surrounded it with fine red candles. The heeler lizard had been skinned, jointed and brined the night before, and she’d set it in a deep roasting pan this morning. She dressed it with herbs and laid it on a bed of quartered onions. Heeler lizard was notoriously tough, but Sadah had learned its tricks. Her housekeeping had gotten better since the accident. Leftover flat bread from last night wouldn’t be dishonorable. It wasn’t too chewy or tough yet. Surface plums, compounded with honey and creeper mint made a decent jam, spooned into small dishes and garnished with paper-thin slices of tart black apple.
She took the roasting pan off the coals carefully. She smothered the coals, briefly filling the kitchen with fragrant smoke. She checked the heeler with a fingertip, pressing on the meaty breast and feeling just a little give, not much. Perfect. She bumped her finger against the hot metal of the pan and felt it blister instantly. She didn’t cry out, but her rage answered loudly, just below the surface. It wasn’t gone. Only sleeping.
With considerably less pleasure and care, she dumped the heeler onto a large platter and placed it near the head of the table. She placed two bottles of wine at her father’s place, and the cork-knife to open them.
She sat at the right hand of her mother’s place and cradled her burned finger. The candles still needed to be lit, forks and knives placed at the table. Her hair should still be put up, and the traditional plague-torch lit by the door.
She closed her eyes and breathed deeply, ignoring the steaming succulence of dinner before her, focusing on the cool, salty smell of the cave. All year the clan worked and scrimped on the surface, stockpiling for this golden season. It was good to be back. The pressure and the pity melted away as she sat quietly in her family’s ancestral home.
The luminous yips and trills from the Chamber echoed through the cave, turning the traditional First Day songs into unearthly ghost tones. Her throat ached to join them. Her lungs expanded readying a deep, eager breath. She held it trapped behind her lips. Her eyes stung with the loss of it, and all that escaped was a broken, grating sob.
She bit it off angrily, embarrassed at her own self-pity. She forced herself up on her feet. Sadah set her jaw and went to her quarters, using her mother’s old silver comb to pull the snarls out of her wavy hair and pull it back into a smooth tail. She braided the tail into many small braids and then wound them into a tight knot at the back of her head. She pinned it tightly, perhaps more than necessary. Order. Order was needed. Busy hands and things in their place would soothe her.
She pushed her room curtain closed and made sure the others were all pulled closed as well. Her brothers’ mess wasn’t going to mar their meal. All of the sleeping rooms radiated off the dining area, as was traditional. The room in which a family or clan broke bread was more important than the space of any individual.
Just like the sorrow of the individual, thought Sadah. It can’t be more important than the honor of a family. A woman can live without, she reminded herself. But without what?
The last echoes of First Day song were fading as she finished dressing. She buttoned her crisp white blouse as she ran to the doorway, whipping a slim brand out of the hearth fire to hit the plague-torch. Mother would flip over if it wasn’t done. It burned an herbal oil believed to ward off disease. In the close environment of the cave, a plague or illness could cut through the clans like a scythe. No one really believed the plague could come again, but old things provided old comforts.
She tightened the belt on her skirt just as the curtain parted and her family entered, sweaty and unsmiling. Their faces fell further when they saw her, but only slightly. Sadah knew they’d be making the best of it tonight, and she vowed to do her part.
She gestured to the table and her mother nodded her approval. Sadah felt her face glow.
“You removed ALL the poison glands?” Maloryn asked.
Sadah rolled her eyes.
Maloryn patted her daughter’s shoulder and stood next to Sadah’s father at the head of the table. Sadah fell in at her right hand, then the boys, Asmon and Baby Tem. Maloryn took a moment as they stood behind their chairs, looking around the room. She looked at the place on the hearth where the vase used to be and raised her eyebrows, looking at Sadah. She almost spoke, bit her lower lip, then shook her head. Instead, she began the prayer song.
Sadah’s father Rey was wide and thick-shouldered, with a beard that touched his chest, shot all through with grey. He made an interesting figure, swaying slowly to the elegant music her mother made. Maloryn’s twin voices lilted and warbled, raising a song that would carry beyond to the afterlife. Asmon and Baby Tem swayed, not quite as in time as their father, but moved by the song nonetheless. Sadah wondered if keeping silent was as hard for them as it was for her. Maloryn brought the song to a piercing clear close, and they all clapped, giving the prayer wings and wind that it might travel further. She beamed at her family.
Rey raised his hands. They took their seats. He uncorked the wine and Sadah poured it. He carved, while Maloryn passed plates. When each of them was served, they waited patiently for Rey to begin before they tasted. Less than this courtesy would dishonor his station as the head of this household.
Silence stretched a long time to Sadah’s ear. There was just the clink of forks on plates and the hungry grunting of her burly father. He was obviously in a foul mood, but he waited for Maloryn, however impatiently.
Finally, Maloryn sat down her fork and smiled diplomatically. “I thought the ceremony was lovely this year.”
Asmon and Baby Tem took their cue and began talking quietly among themselves. Only two minutes apart, they lived in their own world. They never left Sadah out, even though she was a good five minutes older than the two of them. They were both lean, long, and fierce. Sadah had her mother’s build; smaller, softer, and overfleshed. When her brothers were together, Sadah always felt alone.
Rey fell in with a loud grunt. “It was shit and you know it. You, though, you were lovely, Mallie, singing your little heart out.”
Maloryn flushed, obviously pleased. Sadah envied how her eyes crinkled when she smiled at father’s bluster.
“Did you see those lazy Clan Haros? Not a one of them even out of breath out there.” Rey shoved his plate away for effect, but fell to eating again immediately. “It was garbage. They weren’t even trying. I tell you, their share was even smaller this year than last, even though Haro Kan swears up and down they worked as hard as anyone on the surface. I say the truth is the truth, and a small share means we all suffer. We’ve never had a surplus so high.”
Maloryn shook her head and gestured to her soup bowl. “Rey, we can’t blame the whole surplus on the Clan Haro. I’m sure others fell short this year too.”
Rey stroked his greying beard with one hand. “Well, it certainly wasn’t us. I know we gave as much as any of the wealthier families this year. Someone is dragging their ass, and it isn’t Clan Loc.”
Asmon snickered. “Why do they keep calling it a surplus if we’re always short? It’s not really a surplus anymore.”
Sadah gestured at him, her open palm pushing down, the signal to stop speaking. Even at sixty-two, her stupid brother had no manners. Children weren’t supposed to speak before being addressed, certainly not at a holiday feast. If tradition fell away for convenience all year, it was still upheld on a day like today.
Maloryn quieted them both with her upraised hands, finely wrinkled and dark, dark brown. “Sometimes the old ways are best. We always used to have a surplus of stores for Song Season. Perhaps we’re all just hoping to have one again.”
Rey stroked his beard again, getting soup on his palm.
“Still, It’s more than we’re used to, that’s for true. But it’s for the good of us all. The stores won’t last if we don’t send them, and it’s only for the season. We all know how fast it seems to pass.” Maloryn smiled wearily at her husband.
There was quiet again, and Sadah looked at the full plate before her. After tonight, food would be rationed carefully. The choicest portions would go to those singing in the Chamber, telling the stories of the clans for hours on end. After tonight, there would be someone in the Chamber at all hours, filling it with sound and keeping the stories alive.
“Still, you don’t see Clan Haro sweating it.” Rey drank deeply of his wine and then refilled Maloryn’s glass. “I don’t think a one of them has ever taken a turn at being surplus, and that old maid of theirs, what’s her name?”
Maloryn shook her head. “I know who you mean.”
Rey raged on. “Never bonded, either, growing the clan. She’s just sitting there, not getting any younger. She’s soaking up food and drink and she’s never taken a turn. You know they say she refuses to bond?”
There was a horrified silence at the table.
“Never a turn at surplus,” he grumped, “Never to bond, and a terrible poor singer. Mark my words. A drain like that’ll be the end of us. We won’t need plague to wipe us out with a generation like that coming around. ” He sat back, finally tired.
Baby Tem, not at all a baby, but still the last born, cleared his throat.
Maloryn nodded at him.
“I’ll go again,” he said brightly, his eyes clear and eager. “I don’t mind.”
Maloryn shook her head immediately. “Absolutely not.”
Rey agreed silently, stroking his beard.
“It was just last year,” Maloryn told Tem gently. “It’s not our job to shoulder all the burden.”
Tem’s face fell. Clearly he’d been hoping to be chosen again. He’d come home from the Overworld with a thousand stories and good gold in his pockets. His Overworld employer had given him a fine sword and a compass that Tem had then given to the clan elders, buying all of them a good deal of prestige and honor.
Sadah couldn’t eat. Without waiting for permission, she left the table and swept through the kitchen curtain.
Her family fell silent on the other side, though Sadah could still hear her father grunting in displeasure. There were no secrets in the door-less clans, but there were always things left unsaid. They finished their meal, and Sadah worked on washing up. She heard the whisper of the curtain and smelled her mother’s perfume.
“I’ve sent the boys back to the Chamber to listen a while,” Maloryn said softly. “I thought you might like the quiet.”
Her mother slid an arm around Sadah’s soft waist and rested her chin on her shoulder. “Do you want to talk?”
Sadah shrugged her mother off and pointedly rolled her eyes.
Her mother colored dark, her crow’s feet wrinkling. “I know, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean…”
Sadah took her mother’s beautifully weathered hands in her own plain, smooth ones. She shook her head, frustrated.
Her mother smiled kindly, her eyes sorrowful. “No one has better ears than I do. Just try.” She turned her head and brought Sadah close to her long, pointed ear.
Sadah tried to shape her breath, tried to give it voice, but her ruined vocal cords betrayed her will. Her silence wounded them both.
Her mother smiled bravely, and kissed her cheek, right over the dimple. “Go get my book, my fresh little pumpkin. I can’t have you trapped in there all alone.”
Maloryn’s journal was one of her prized possessions, fine Overworld paper bound in heavy, fragrant leather. Maloryn flipped to one of the remaining blank pages, and passed Sadah the ink pot and quill.
They didn’t talk long. Sadah printed the answers to mother’s questions, and her mother was a quick reader.
-Father thinks I’m like a Haro.-
Her mother blushed and shook her head. “He does not. He’s just worried about you.”
Since the accident, her mother didn’t say. Sadah could hear it anyway.
-I can’t sing.-
Maloryn was quiet a moment. “I know.”
Maloryn shook her head. “We must keep faith, baby. We don’t know that for sure. A woman can live without,” she said hollowly.
Maloryn looked Sadah full in the face and then crushed her in a hug. “Please don’t hate me because I don’t know what to say.”
Sadah tucked her nose in near her mother’s ear. A breath of perfume took her back to infancy. When her mother let her go, she wrote, -I won’t stay unbonded, and Haro Fordan won’t have me.-
Maloryn rubbed her cheeks, sniffling. “There are plenty of poor singers who manage to bond and pick up the path, my baby. We don’t know what’s coming for you.”
-No one will have me.- she wrote, and tears stung in her eyes.
“You don’t know that yet, Sadah. You have all the time in the world to find your bond. Truly. There is no shame in putting off your bond. Our family will survive.” Her mother smiled sweetly.
-I’m going with the surplus.-
Her mother’s face turned stormy. “You’re going to bed. You’ve had a hard day and you’re very tired. I won’t hear anymore foolishness today.”
Sadah leaned in to write and her mother snatched the quill out of her hand. “To bed I said. NOW.”
Sadah stalked to her room, yanking her curtain closed. The urge to break rose high in her throat, making her face burn. She threw herself down on her pallet and buried her face in her blanket. She could afford some hot, self-pitying tears today.
She woke some time later. The small oil lamp next to her had flickered down low, almost empty. She lay on her back a while, looking at the curved ceiling and listening to the cave. The boys must be asleep already.
Faintly she could hear her mother and father in their room, speaking quietly. Sadah was no child; she knew the talk of two bonded people in their bedchamber was no one else’s business. Before she could turn her attention away, she heard her name and sat up on her bed on one elbow.
“I found it all swept up, shattered like… like it was nothing. She knows how much that means to me. Why didn’t she say… why didn’t she show me? It’s like she’s in there all alone and doesn’t even want us with her.”
Her father was grumbling. “For the gods… I don’t want to talk about this. Now… come here and take that off.”
There came a brief smack of a hand being dismissively pushed away. “Rey, I’m serious. I don’t know what to do for her. I don’t want to lose her, but what will she do?”
He snorted. “Sit in the corner unbonded, I guess, and wait for us to all die.”
“Shut your mouth.” Maloryn’s whisper was harsh, wounded. “How can you say something like that?”
“Come along, Mallie, what do you want me to say? She can’t join the path to a stronger clan until she bonds, and no one will bond with a woman that can’t keep the story, no matter how pretty she is.”
Sadah covered her mouth. The sound of her mother’s rhythmic, soft crying hurt in her chest. Even in sorrow, Maloryn’s voice was doubled, a high keening sound layered over a lower buzzing undercurrent.
“It wasn’t supposed to be like this,” Maloryn said, barely audible through the curtains.
Rey softened, his voice deliberate and calm. “I didn’t want this for her, or for us. This isn’t the honor we were meant to have, but… maybe she has a point.”
“You just can’t wait to have her shame out from under your nose. This is so typical, Rey.”
“Hey. Hey.” Her father’s voice mellowed until her mother grew quiet. “I’m just telling you the girl should have a life, whatever that means anymore. Sitting here, worthless, watching the rest of us move down the path. That’s just…. wrong.”
“Don’t touch me,” Maloryn hissed. “I don’t even want to see your face right now.”
There was shuffling, and the heavy whisper of curtains parting. Her father left the bedchamber.
Sadah forced her own eyes closed and feigned sleep, just in case, but no one came to look in on her.
And thus ends our sample for The Twisted World Book I: The Dusk Harbinger. Find out what happens to Piotr and Sadah right now, only on Amazon.