New Book: The Breath Before Falling

Book 4 of “Between the Stars and the Sea” is almost ready.

Here’s Chapter 1!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Sweat pasted her hair to her head, trickling with painful deliberation down her back. Ananuenya shrugged, trying to stop its ticklish progress. Finally she reached around, thumping at her back, ignoring the looks from her friends. Kinithcallan wasn’t far now, but the patrol had been pointless, and her patience was frayed.
The rolling Midlands clung to their colours even under the glaring sun. Bright leaves rattled overhead, forming inviting green caves that burrowed into the distance. Between the stands of cheerful poplars were fields of crops, or meadows populated by grazing animals, defined by tidy fences of stone or rail. Those who worked the land didn’t seem unduly troubled by the Zindali occupying the keep. Her people had been carefully going out to the local villages in small numbers in order to get some sense of place, occupy bored warriors, and win good will. The locals were placid, Niyan said, and happy to sell when opportunity came.
As docile as their sheep. But the war hadn’t come to the Midlands. It laid its weight against the provinces, and the hard people there. It was what they fought for, she supposed: to keep as much land free of the war as possible. Still…
Still. She closed her eyes. As the light behind her eyelids flashed red and black it brought battlefields, like images under lightning. Slaughtered villages. Caravans burned on the roads. The melting snow relinquishing rotting corpses.
Ean let out a happy sigh. She opened her eyes and they broke the last cover. Kinithcallan stood on the top of a long sweep of hill, kept free of trees by its diligent residents. It was squat and graceless, but sturdy. Currently it was home.
“You’re getting soft, Ean,” Keyad laughed. “A few nights sleeping rough and you’re longing for a soft bed.”
“It’s the wine I want, and you want the same, I know it.”
“Good wine. Not this northern horse piss.”
“Horse piss this time, Keyad? You’re developing a taste for it. Last time it was cat piss,” Aousi wiped the sweat from his eyes.
“Oh, it’s just too hot to argue. Yes, horse piss is a step up from cat piss, you’re very right.”
“A small victory is a victory nonetheless.” Aousi looked pleased with himself.
“Take it where you can. As soon as he tastes the stuff the battle will be joined again.” Ean laughed.
Dust rose in a bright yellow cloud. Her horse snorted and shook his head. He was a bit of a bumpy ride. She hoped that Yos was enjoying his rest, because she was paying for it. Her eyes searched the walls and saw a scattering of figures at watch. Her banner hung, twitching in the scant breeze. All seemed peaceful. All was peaceful. It made her suspicious.
She breathed a little more deeply passing into the cool shadows beneath the walls. The crash of the gate closing behind them lifted a little tension from her shoulders.
“Zaindhafa, welcome home,” Shoduin was instantly at her side.
She dismounted and handed off the reins to a stable boy. “Any news?”
“Messages have come. I’ve started to organise them in your chambers.”
She knew the very specific expression beneath his mask of competent aide.
“Riya’s patrol returned safely?” she asked as they started up the stairs.
“Yes, Zaindhafa.”
“Will you ever call me Ananuenya again?”
“I can’t imagine so, Zaindhafa.”
“One day you’ll slip, and I’ll win my bet.”
“Now it’s a matter of honour, Zaindhafa.”
He was teasing her, his merry eyes giving away his jest.
She let her pack fall by the door. She’d been given a set of rooms that had left her missing the cozy walls of her tent for the size of them. Her restlessness had even woken Tija. Initial misgivings had made way for cautious contentment. They were quiet, far from the crashing and thumping of the workings of the keep. And the lady who had lived here before had an elegant taste in tapestries and embroidery. When her mind was too busy and Tija was asleep she could follow the animals bounding beneath the canopies of leaf and flower, both real and fanciful.
“I’m not quite finished,” Shoduin said.
“Go find Riya. Enjoy the afternoon.”
“Zaindhafa, I can do my work.”
“It’s my gift to you. I’m sure I missed your birthday.”
He looked at the invitingly open door.
“I can work my way through all of this.”
“Thank you, Zaindhafa.”
Duty didn’t slow his retreat. Once he was gone she closed her eyes and breathed. Silence, and an afternoon, perhaps, when her thoughts could be as still as the room.
She pushed the windows open, gritting her teeth against the sound of metal grinding on metal. Fresh air, now tinted with the smell of metal, flitted through the dim chambers. The silk hanging near the window flared out, its shining birds taking flight. The keep had been abandoned for some time. It had belonged to the Whysseri, then changed hands, and the last family had left it when rumour of fighting tested their courage. The fight hadn’t come, but they hadn’t returned. No one had told her its recent, spotty history for some time, hungry for a secure place to sleep.
It isn’t like I would have denied them.
They might have been her chambers, had things been different. If so it wouldn’t have been so happily decorated. It would have been more…prison-like. An invisible prison. It felt odd to live there, in that light. But she still wouldn’t have denied them.
Sunlight dappled the keep with something close to beauty. Beyond the walls the land rolled away until it became a blurry grey haze. A few white clouds puffed across the sky. The war had never felt farther away. That they stayed so long in one place, that they hadn’t been drawn into another desperate battle…Rumour had it that the empire had finally lost its teeth, and the war was ending. Messages from all quarters were the same: quiet, small battles, and little imperial presence. Despite the early, kind spring, there had been time to rest.
So why don’t I feel reassured?
The sound of Tija’s bold stride announced her before she entered.
“Ani.” She bustled in with a cold mug. She’d taken to Zindali dress when she’d realised most of their time was spent riding. After learning that they would stay at the keep for some time she eagerly traded trousers for Zindali dresses, conjuring fabric and thread by some sort of magic. Ananuenya felt a little envious of the pretty result. Today it was a dress of deep, rusty orange, with impeccable embroidery around the neckline. She thought about asking if Tija could make her a shirt, maybe, or a vest. Her own were getting embarrassingly threadbare.
“Tija, how fares the keep?”
“These women!” She waved an exasperated hand. Ananuenya found herself seated. The mug of cider was thrust into her hand. Her mouth watered, and she started to work at draining it.
“Mad for love, that little maid, but no, nothing.”
“You will overcome.” She pried her boots off, wiggling her feet. A moment later she felt strong fingers kneading her shoulders. She closed her eyes.
“She is plaything.” Tija dropped a quick kiss on her cheek and started unbraiding her hair. “Have forest in here.”
“Sleeping rough.”
“Goddess sleep in dirt.” She made a sound of dismay.
“Not a goddess.”
“My Vogesh.” She laughed when Ananuenya squirmed.
Vogesh. Shev’s convenient lie. Shortly after they’d arrived in Orimian, with the comfort of dark all around, Ananuenya had explained the truth to Tija. She’d worried that Tija might do something with the knowledge, maybe to win back her place with her people.
“No care,” she had replied.
“The Dorshan—”
“I see beasts. I know Ani. No care.”
Shev asked after her in every message she had from him, and sent money and spoils for her, trying to fill the bottomless well of pain between them. Tija sometimes looked as though she wanted to speak, but in the end she couldn’t seem to bring herself to ask after him, nor anyone else among her people.
“Queen, then. Southern Queen.”
“No crown, though.”
“What it means, you say ‘not a queen?’ Power to choice…choose. What it means. Only queen have choose. Choice. Queen or not queen.”
“There’s only one throne in Rahal, and King Teimar sits on it.”
She closed her eyes again, while Tija brushed out her hair.
“I don’t think she understands,” Shev had said. The harsh northern wind off the Breaks had been laced with ice. By that time the camp was almost empty, her allies going to winter where they could. Shev’s eyes were on the pinpricks of lights that made up the Dogs’ camp. “I’d already thought about going south, or sending her to you. To someone who would take care of her. Just…not like this.”
“Shev, brother…”
“She’s like you. Like Kavi. It will be safer for her.”
It wasn’t the whole truth. They both knew it.
“You can’t come.”
“The Fedic is my home. They need me. My brother is here.” He looked at his hands, helpless. “I told her…I don’t think she understands.”
“What would you have of me, brother?”
“Give her a place in the world. Freedom. Like you do.”
So Tija found her place, tending Ananuenya and sharing her bed, warming it when loneliness or lust took them, looking for lovers when the opportunity came. It felt good, too good, having someone to lay with, without the weight of love.
“Do you think I could have a bath?”
“Tch. Not my first day in your chamber, woman.” She waved a hand at a pile of fresh clothes. “Your back? Need help?”
“It’s better. Thank you. There was a convenient rock that did the trick.”
“Hmm. Don’t need little maid, then.” Her hand slipped into the collar of Ananuenya’s shirt. She couldn’t help the hitch in her breath. “Play with my Ani.”
She caught her hand and kissed the back of it. “I’ll try to keep pace.”
Tija kissed her properly. “Maybe tonight you win.” She laughed. “Go. Water hot. Scrub you up. Later turn sheets.”
They had makeshift baths near enough heat and water as to minimise the inconvenience to the baffled northlander servants. She suspected Tija had browbeaten them into preparing it. As promised, she’d made sure there was hot water ready. The woman in charge of the servants showed her in, a little frown of worry wrinkling her brow.
“Ain’t healthy, my lady. Ain’t a bit, especially as there’s men in there time to time.”
“Please remember me in your prayers, Imrata.”
It could scarcely be called a bath. It was nothing but a scrubbed stone box, with two high, narrow windows to light it. But at least it had tubs. She sank into one with a happy sigh, leaning her head back against the edge, letting the water ease her aches and work on her sore back before she had to begin scrubbing properly.
What an ignoble injury. Two days in bed for the sin of twisting wrong when picking up her own saddle. When she’d complained about the foolishness of being laid up by such a thing Keyad and Aousi had built an elaborate tale about rescuing princesses. She was half afraid they were serious about spreading it as the real story. The rest of her aches were old ones; it had been a little while since she’d had to visit a healer.
She leaned forward, inhaling the warm, damp air. The surface of the water stilled. The silver feather around her neck danced and spun against the dark.
Where are you, Heth? Are you warm? Are you safe?
Water dripped down her cheek and she brushed at it idly. It came again, like yearning fingers, trying to comfort her. She resisted the urge to wrench herself free, instead forcing herself to offer it her hand. In the slanting light it played over her skin.
“I think I have to go.”
The water slid back into place. She finished cleaning herself and dried quickly, listening to the drips slow and finally stop. When she looked over her shoulder the room was small and normal.
“Anani?” Ean stuck his head in. “Come on. You can’t hide in here forever. Everyone is hungry.”
The hall meant for feasting reminded her vaguely of the halls in the great house of Vayi. Not so bright and airy, and they’d had to banish the animals and have the floors cleaned, but it had a high roof, and room enough for her people to eat together, as much as possible.
“Anani?” Ean was looking longingly at the food in front of him.
She searched one last time, half expecting they wouldn’t come, but finally spotted Riya and Shoduin hurrying toward them.
“Welcome home, Dhafa.”
“And you, pup. You had us worried.”
“They had some fast horses.”
The room started on their meal. Tija was making hopeful eyes at the maid as she ate. She thought the maid was, in fact, mad for love, and her looks in return were shy but full of longing. And Tija was a force of nature.
“Four days faster?”
She wasn’t worried that Riya had made mistakes. She was too experienced, and her patrols followed her with enviable discipline.
“It was only a little bad luck.”
“It’s good to see you safe, pup.”
“Fresh air is good, but sturdy walls are better. Will we be leaving soon?”
She looked at the surface of her wine. Conversation had suddenly become very quiet just around them. No news was truly secret in such a small place. They all knew about the letters.
The Endless City. She’d wanted to see it since childhood, and now Bertili and the others were asking her to come to Yrinas. The Dogs were eager. They were too long in the fields, they wanted a rest. They deserved one.
And still…If she abandoned the field, what did that say? She was sure that the war wasn’t over. She should be out here. Yrinas would be there when the empire was driven out of their borders. When she had the victory she promised.
Riya was looking at her, her eagerness barely restrained. Even so there were lines of care about her eyes, and a stillness that sat oddly on her young face. If they didn’t have to patrol, if they didn’t have to forage and ride, and camp…If they didn’t have one eye on the empire, and the other on the River…
“Would you like to see Yrinas?”
“That would be amazing!” A broad, excited smile lit her face. In Yrinas, with Shoduin to take care of her, she could blossom.
Ananuenya leaned against Ean. He made a surprised sound and draped his arm across her shoulders.
“Are you busy tonight?”
“What do you need?”
“Company going through letters.”
“Doesn’t Sho—Never mind. Niyan and I will be glad to help.”
“Of course I would be happy to help, Zaindhafa,” Niyan said pointedly. Ean smiled charmingly and Niyan gave a long-suffering sigh.
“Bring wine. The horse piss, not the cat piss.”
Her room was cooler by the time dinner was done. Tija went off to chase her maid and avoid Ean and Niyan, who came along shortly after, and they started into the letters and the wine.
Her lanethin had good news. In the years since Deyev he’d done as requested. He’d dug her spoils into various interests in Sistersport, Deyev, Yrinas, and even Tharsi. It seemed as though she could afford to replace her clothes, if she could find some to buy.
“I keep waiting for bad news,” Ean said, setting aside a letter. He passed over a small velvet bag. She could feel the movement of a chain inside it. She tipped out a king’s ransom in gold and precious stones.
“Shev is taking rich prey,” she said, picking out an emerald and holding it up to the light.
“It’s hard not to feel a bit suspicious,” Niyan admitted. She looked from him to the emerald. “About the abundance of good news,” he added.
“The Rahali certainly want it to be over.” She repacked the bag. “Bertili and Veyonas are both in Yrinas, and Thierrul will be summering there. They say the push for appeasement is getting stronger.”
“Appeasement?” Ean laughed. “Let’s finish them and go home.”
“You can see why they would wish it,” Niyan said. “War is expensive, and there are still many men whose fortunes improve with imperial help.”
“Traitors,” Ean scoffed.
“It should be that simple. There are good men who just want an end to it. What worries me are those who are willing to sacrifice the provinces to save Yrinas and their own lands.”
“You know Yrinas, Niyan. I want you to leave ahead of us. I want to know a little of what’s happening there. There’s a particular man causing trouble. I want to know what it will take to quiet him.”
“It has been a little while, but I know some people there.”
“Don’t lose Ean.”
She turned to a letter from the regents in Vayi.
“I can stay.”
“No more horse piss, if you go.” She frowned at the letter, an anxious hand clawing at her heart.
Don’t be stupid. You aren’t a child.
“What is it, Anani?”
She handed it to him.
“Ean?”
“Ganamanin is married.”
She drained her cup. “Some new way to torment me.” Ean gave her shoulder a squeeze.
“It’s unlikely he’s doing it for companionship,” Niyan said. “If he has an heir, and something happens to you, even if he can’t take the title, it could fall to his firstborn.”
“He only exists in name now,” Ean said. “He’s a hollow mask.”
“He will have spent this time gaining support. In times of trouble people will choose what they know.”
“You think I should petition for his name to be erased.”
Niyan nodded. “To be safe, yes.”
She expected a protest from Ean. When she looked his way he gave her a small shrug.
“If it’s time…Claim your birthright.” He waved his hand. “Get a better roof over us.”
“Maybe so.” She shivered, wriggling uncomfortably in her chair.
“It isn’t that terrible.”
She elbowed Ean.
“Does your back still hurt?” Niyan asked.
“No, just feel a little odd.”
He stood, striding toward the door.
More wine will fix anything.
She leaned forward, reaching for the pitcher.
Burning pain shot through her shoulder. She fell forward over the table, grabbing blindly for her back. Her fingers brushed over a short, light bolt.
“Anani!”
He helped her sit. “I have you. I have you.”
Niyan was shouting for guards. She heard horns sounding.
“It’s all right. It’s just…it hurts.”
He examined her carefully. “Not bad. Long way from the heart.” She nodded, gripping the table. “Wait here. I’ll call for Espery.”
He crossed to the door, already shouting for help. His voice set off a ringing in her ears. She frowned, shaking her head to clear it. Her eyes followed the length of her arm. She commanded her fingers to flex, and she saw that they did, but she couldn’t feel them moving. A strange, icy sweat rolled over her, numbness spreading in its wake.
It’s not that bad it’s not that bad something is wrong
“Ean.”
Her tongue fumbled the word. She saw him turning. That ringing filled her head, each breath squeezed her lungs tighter. A slow blink, and there was a sharp pain in her cheekbone and she was on the floor. Ean turned her over. She saw the little bolt bounce away on the floor, and it felt like an eternity later that she heard the sound of it. She tried to breathe, reaching for her throat, clawing for air. Ean grabbed her hands. She saw it, but couldn’t feel it.
“Hold on! Anani..don’t go.”

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