Well, my friends, as production moves along smoothly, I thought I’d post up the first chapter of Soul Inferno. Remember, if you don’t remember what happened at the end of Soul Blaze, you can read the epilogue here.
Release date: May 1st 2015
“Your Majesty! Sky!”
I looked up from my book. Seffina was bouncing up and down happily in front of me.
“Dolphins, miss, dolphins!”
I smiled and set the tome down. I was glad to see her so happy. As I followed her to the railing of the ship, I caught a glimpse of my former school mate heading in the opposite direction.
Yes, happiness was certainly at a premium on this boat.
As Seff squealed with delight at the sleek, grey creatures riding the bow wave, I watched her closely. After a week at sea, her young demeanour had begun to brighten once again. She regarded this trip as an adventure and had seemed to manage to forget the reason behind it. Keeping her with me was the only way to keep her safe after ex-Governor Ryman had tried to use her to get his throne back. Before Eleanora had shot him in the back, he’d revealed that he had an informer in my palace, someone who would carry out what he had failed to do.
When that informer had remained hidden, I’d decided that no one could be trusted with Seff’s safety, and had brought her along with me on my diplomatic visit to the Tsalskinese Empire.
Leaving the young girl at the railing watching the dolphins, I sought out the shadow who haunted the vessel along with me. I found her standing at the back of the ship, clutching a small posy of flowers. With her eyes closed, she murmured some words that I missed and then dropped the posy overboard.
She’d done this every day we’d been at sea. I knew what came next and carefully sat down next to her to help.
Wordlessly, she passed me some fern fronds as she began to braid other flowers into a chain. I clumsily wove the fronds together to make a small basket for the braided flowers, and when both were complete, she set a stick of incense burning amongst the petals and whispered, “Jiwaku, selalu utuh.”
She opened her faded eyes and looked up at me for the first time since I’d approached her. As usual, she looked drained after this small ritual. I squeezed her hand.
“You want another lesson?” she asked tonelessly, and I nodded.
Rain had been teaching me basic Tsalskinese since we’d left. I’d noticed that it took her mind off of our leaving, and the reason behind it. It also helped distract me from what was coming.
I found myself learning speedily, as Rain was an excellent teacher and seemed to love speaking her native language. Her eyes sparked back to life occasionally as I repeated a sentence to her, or corrected my own mistakes. In those few seconds, I caught a glimpse of the Rain that had existed before her soul mate’s death.
Ispin had been researching Seff’s family tree after noticing something familiar about her. When he’d discovered she was the remaining living descendant of Lotheria’s last Queen, Fleur, Ryman had seen his opportunity.
I’d stopped him from leaving the palace with Seff, but I’d been too late to save Ispin. He hadn’t expected Ryman to come at him with a blade, and although Ispin had been an excellent mage, Ryman had the strength of a mad man behind him and left my friend bleeding to death on the library floor. Rain and I had gotten to his side in time to hear his last words, but even with the power of the Queen and my lightning, I hadn’t been able to save him.
“Sky?” Rain was looking at me strangely, and it suddenly struck me that I’d been sitting on the deck, unmoving, for several minutes.
I opened my mouth to respond, but before I could, one of the sailors hollered down the most wonderful word imaginable.
Seff, still watching the dolphins, screeched in delight at the horizon. Rain and I stood stiffly, aching after sitting on the hard wooden deck.
“When we arrive at the dock, there will be a delegation,” she said. “Look presentable.”
She turned and walked towards her cabin. I’d gotten used to such dismissals and thought nothing of it as I entered my own. My ladies in waiting were already present.
“Your Majesty,” Nillia and Arianta swept into low curtsies. Sojaya inclined her head. “Which dress would you prefer?”
They’d spread out a selection of my gowns on my bed. I groaned and dropped into a chair.
“One with breeches and boots,” I sighed.
“I told you,” she said to the other girls.
Nillia rolled her eyes.
“Mistress, you can’t greet the Tsalskinese delegation in breeches.”
“It’s true, miss,” Arianta piped up. “It’s been a long time since I returned home, but I remember their… attitude towards Lotheria only too well.”
Rain had warned me of this. She had said that the ruling family of the Tsalski Islands looked down upon the monarchs of Lotheria, as they were decided by reincarnation instead of a bloodline. I was hoping that in the thousand years since, they might’ve changed their tune.
“The green one, then,” I replied listlessly.
Sojaya lifted the green silk delicately as Nillia and Arianta helped me out of my plain cotton dress. I slid into the green one, enjoying the feel of the slinky material. It had grown increasingly warmer as we crossed the sea, and cotton had started becoming uncomfortable to wear. As Sojaya did up the laces of my bodice, Nillia rolled my hair into a neat bun, curling the hair that fell free with her magic. I saw Arianta turn away to fetch something else.
“No,” I said when she approached me with a velvet box. “No crowns. They know who I am.”
She ignored me and opened the box. A delicate silver chain rested inside, a single emerald adorning it. It was a lot different to the circlet I normally wore; heavy, intricate silver encrusted with gems. It hurt my ears after only a few minutes and so I did all I could to ‘forget’ it.
As the other girls finished their tasks, Arianta carefully fastened the chain around my head, so that the emerald hung between my eyebrows. It was a lot less cumbersome than my silver circlet.
“Where did this come from?” I asked, and there was no way I could’ve missed the look all three of them traded.
“The king,” Sojaya finally said when it became clear the others wouldn’t answer. “He had it made for you before… before…”
For once, Sojaya faltered. She didn’t have to continue though. I knew when Phoenix would’ve had it made it for me. However, our wedding had never taken place.
When the girls turned away to attend to their own looks, I carefully touched two fingers to the emerald. I expected to feel something, knowing that Phoenix had had this made for me, but all I felt was a stone, cold and hard.
I needed to emulate it if I was going to win over the Tsalskinese Emperor. As I’d learnt more and more about Emperor Myrikan, I’d found myself wondering if Surac or even Sudafrae would have been a better choice than the Islands. However, it would’ve been seen as incredibly rude to turn my little ship around and sail for the other countries.
Besides, through some strange fortune, I’d already paved my way into the Emperor’s good graces by gifting him with the skeleton of the Ularair that had attacked my city. It had been shipped over shortly after I’d killed it, stripped of its meat, the scales stored in a separate casket that accompanied it. I still wore one around my neck; the beautiful green colour of it reminded me of my own magic, and I would fiddle with it when deep in thought.
I did so now as we drew closer to the docks. I felt the emerald on my brow tremble in the sea breeze, my skirts ruffling around my legs. Silk had been a good choice, though I could still feel the suffocating heat pressing against my skin.
As our boat knocked gently against the pier, several men waiting on the docks began to secure my vessel. I waited anxiously; stable ground was beginning to look very inviting. However, I managed to wait until a ramp had been lowered from the ship to the wharf before I staggered down to the people who had come to greet us.
“Welcome,” the first man said in Tsalskinese. “We hope your journey wasn’t too arduous.”
It was a test. Rain had forewarned me on the ship that they wouldn’t expect me to speak their language, and would use that to be offended. The Tsalskinese were a proud people who had looked down on Lotheria for thousands of years. From what I’d managed to gather, I was the first monarch to journey to the Islands.
“I thank you,” I replied in the same language. “The journey was long but not stressful. I like being on solid ground though.”
Whilst I was far from mastering their language, I had picked up it faster than I had expected. Though I cringed at my terrible accent, I saw several of the people smile widely as they heard me speak. The man who had first spoken had not allowed any expression to cross his face.
“If you will come with us, we will take you to your pavilion. Emperor Myrikan will be meeting you this afternoon.”
I nodded graciously and stepped into the litter that awaited us. Rain had stopped to look at the city and I found myself following her gaze with my foot perched on the edge of the cushioned vessel that would carry us to the palace.
The capital city of the Tsalski Empire was older than anything in Lotheria. Built on the slopes around the sea, Kella Sur sprawled as far as I could see, until it disappeared over a ridge. The large road we were following was hewn from rough black rock and was lined with gates that led to large estates.
“The Road of a Thousand Hairans,” my guide said in basic Tsalskinese, naming their highest currency. “Our wealthiest residents live along this stretch.”
Whilst I could see within the wrought iron gates, I couldn’t see the house that resided beyond. Instead, I saw manicured gardens and fountains. I guessed that the houses were so far back we couldn’t see them.
Few residents were out and about on the Road and the ones that were stared openly as we passed, trying to peer inside the maroon curtains of the litter to see who rode within.
“It is quiet this morning,” I said to our guide as we were carried further up the Road.
“Our markets are the busiest section of the city,” he replied, looking out of this side of the litter. “They are located to the south. I’m sure you can explore them later.”
As he finished speaking, I noticed several guards in white plate armour join our procession. They carried halberds, long spears with a blade on the end, and as I’d already begun to sweat beneath my silk, I couldn’t imagine how hot the soldiers were.
“Protection,” our guide explained. “We cannot let a royal through the streets without some security.”
I nodded silently and peered out of the curtain. Rain and Seff were on either side of me and whilst Rain stared straight ahead, having seen it all before, Seff’s head was revolving in all directions, trying to take it all in. I doubted she ever expected to find herself here.
As the Road began to incline, I noticed the increased presence of the white guards. This meant we had to be getting closer to the palace. I resisted the urge to stick my head out to get a proper look.
I was proven correct as an enormous dome appeared over the top of the ridge. It was forged, Rain had told me, from pure crystal, mined from one of the northern Islands. Gates rose before us, though they had been opened to allow us to pass through and whilst I had been taken aback by the estates on the Road of a Thousand Hairans, it was nothing compared to what lay beyond the palace gates.
The road changed from rough black rock to smooth white marble, lined with channels of clear water. Lilies floated on the surface, creating small ripples as tiny insects landed on the broad leaves. Beyond that, green lawns stretched to the palace walls, which were wide enough to accommodate a path around which the white guards patrolled. But the palace itself took my breath away.
Consisting of several pavilions, the palace was made of white quartz and crystal. As we drew nearer, I could see golden veins twisting through the stone, glinting in the overhead sun. Palace attendants wearing colourful sarongs carried silver platters, bright bouquets of exotic flowers and glass jugs filled with chilled wine through the cool shade of the stone. There were no doors as we entered, instead the palace stood open to the elements, the quartz columns hoisting the carved ceiling high above our heads. As we entered, the attendants stopped what they were doing and bowed low. I inclined my head gently in return.
The man we were following lead us to a large pair of double doors. These were made of solid wood, mahogany perhaps, and I got the impression that when these were locked and barred, they stayed that way.
It came as no surprise to me then, when they were opened to reveal the throne room of Emperor Myrikan. The crystal dome I’d seen from outside presided over the hall, throwing a circle of concentrated sunlight onto the floor. Banners of coloured silk had been wrapped around the six columns that led to the raised stone dais, similar to my own in Lotheria, though this was decorated lavishly with flowers. It only had one throne, inlaid with mother-of-pearl and gold, and it hit me with a jolt that my own dais would only have one throne also by the time I got back.
“You are the first monarch to journey to the Islands,” our guide said. “Neither Arietta nor Fleur bothered.”
“I see that as a mistake,” I replied carefully.
The man turned back to face me, his dark eyes searching mine.
“You are a strange Queen,” he said finally.
“And you are a stranger Emperor,” I told Myrikan.
He hesitated for a moment, testing my resolve. Then he laughed, and threw his arms wide.
“You are clever,” he said, now in Basic. “How did you figure it out?”
“The way you walk,” I replied in the same language. Attendants were rushing towards the emperor with a cloth-of-gold cloak and crown. “You walk the halls of your palace the same way I walk mine.”
“One monarch to another… you are the fastest to guess my secret so far.” He seated himself upon the throne as an attendant reverently placed the crown on the Emperor’s wavy dark hair. He stroked his beard to a point as my ladies-in-waiting and Rain curtsied. “And so, my lady, I must ask… what brings you to my islands?”
He gestured to a bench sitting beside him, as another servant placed a colourful rug on it. I sat as fresh fruit was brought to us, mulling over my answer.
“I merely came to observe the Jewel of the West,” I replied sagely, plucking a piece of mango from the platter. “As you’ve already informed me, my forebears missed their opportunity to do so.”
He laughed heartily. “’The Jewel of the West’… I like that. But really, Your Grace, why?”
I glanced towards Seff and the others. Myrikan followed my gaze.
“Of course, how rude of me. In my excitement at your visit I’ve forgotten my manners.” The Emperor swept to his feet, his lacy gold cloak fluttering behind him. “My lady, Leria, your parents will be thrilled that you have returned home.”
Rain stiffened as her true name was revealed before everyone.
“If it please Your Excellence, I go by the name Rain now.”
“Of course, your Academy’s tradition of changing the names of their students continues,” he bent and kissed her hand, and for the first time in weeks I saw Rain smile.
“Not anymore,” I murmured.
The Academy had finally resumed operation under the tutelage of Professors Yu and Alena. The mages who had started at the Academy this year had kept their original names, including those who had come from the human realm. I briefly wondered what the human mages would think of me, their human-born Queen.
I introduced Sojaya and Nillia next. The Emperor already knew Arianta, as her family resided on the Road of a Thousand Hairan.
“And is this…your daughter?” Myrikan asked, holding Seff’s small hand in his.
“I’m afraid not,” I said, smiling. “Emperor Myrikan, may I introduce to you Seffina, the last remaining descendant of my predecessor, Fleur?”
“My lady Seffina, what a pleasure.”
Seff curtsied like Arianta had taught her, but kept her eyes on the floor. Myrikan certainly made for an impressive figure.
The Emperor was now beckoning to an attendant.
“Would you please show Her Grace’s ladies to the Lotus Pavilion?”
“Of course, Your Majesty,” the attendant murmured.
As the attendants filtered from the room, my ladies and Seffina with them, the Emperor perched on his throne again, gesturing for me to sit down also.
“And now, my lady… perhaps you’d like to discuss the brewing war in your country?”
Luckily I was halfway through sitting down, spreading my skirts so I didn’t sit on them and crumple the silk. In doing so, I was looking at the floor, and was able to hide my surprise.
He knows about the war!
I recollected myself, picking up the mango I’d abandoned.
“War?” I asked innocently. “What do you mean?”
His eyes met mine, and I saw none of the pleasant man he’d been when we first sat down. Now I saw an Emperor, ruthless and cold. He was the descendant of many Emperors and Empresses. He’d been taught to rule since he could walk.
“My lady, I believe discussions will go faster if we don’t lie to one another. Lotheria is on the brink of war. After your fiancé left you and returned to the North you’ve both been fighting over… something. That is the part I’m yet to work out.”
“You have spies in my country.” I accused, feeling anger bristle beneath my skin.
“And you in mine,” Myrikan began to peel an orange. “We caught several last week. Never fear, they’re mostly intact. We’ll even ship them home to you.”
Theresa, I cursed. She’d tried to place spies in another country without consulting me first. She’d be getting an earful when I got back.
I kept my face blank as the Emperor began to eat the orange. I’d known this was coming, this hostility. He could be charming, welcoming, pleasant, but I could see the cold, calculating persona that was always present underneath. The Tsalskinese were an old, proud people. They’d had the same ruling family for hundreds of years. Myrikan was the son of the last Emperor and had been groomed since birth to take the throne.
I’d been told I was Queen at the age of nineteen in an office.
Rain had explained that their hostility stemmed from their disapproval of how our rulers were picked. In their eyes, reincarnation was an unreliable way of choosing a monarch, and now, facing down the Emperor who was born from a long line of royals, trained in all the subtle arts of ruling, I found myself beginning to agree with them.
“Any Lotherian spies you’ve found were placed here without my authorisation,” I said tersely, abandoning the fruit. “I apologise.”
Myrikan waved it away, continuing to snack from the platter between us.
“The war.” He prompted.
I heaved a sigh, dropping my calm façade.
“King Phoenix has split Lotheria in half. I cannot allow such a grievous act to go unchallenged.”
Myrikan’s features immediately melted into soft sympathy. He picked up my hand and patted it gently.
“Of course you cannot, my lady. I would be enraged if someone had the audacity to take my Islands from me.”
I let him take my hand but didn’t believe his act for one second. Sure enough, he pulled me in closer.
“If you would tell me what started the altercation…”
I carefully slipped my hand from his.
“An argument between lovers,” I alluded. “If you would excuse me, it has been a long journey.”
He looked slightly put out by the turn of the conversation, but nonetheless rose gracefully from his throne.
“My servants will show you to the Lotus Pavilion. My Lady Sky,” he bowed deeply to me. “Please don’t think of me as your enemy. I want to be your friend.”
I nodded but turned away and followed the servant without saying a word.
I may have left a brewing war, but I felt like I’d jumped into a snake pit. Right now, I couldn’t tell which was worse.