Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Preview —

Take a look at the current WIP, if you like. This should be just about exactly the final draft; I find that for me, the beginning doesn’t usually change much as it passes from my hands through my agent’s and an editor’s. Presuming it gets an editor’s comments, of course.

This one is a bit unusual, though, because it didn’t start out as the beginning. It started out as the first part of Chapter 3. Then I was so charmed by Oressa that I made her the primary point-of-view character, demoting the character I thought was primary, and moved her introductory chapter up front as part of this promotion. I think this works well; substantially better than what I initially had in mind.

Anyway — here it is:

* * * *

Chapter 1

They were talking about her.

Oressa, tucked up in the tiny space underneath her father’s chair, hidden by the silk draped over the seat, breathed soundlessly through her mouth, tensed and relaxed all her muscles in turn to keep from getting painful cramps in her legs and back, and listened.

Oressa had known her father and brother and Lord Meric and Magister Baramis would be talking about important things. Her father never sent all his servants and attendants away unless he was wanted to talk to his closest advisors about things that were important. Sometimes these things turned out to be boring, as when her father and Baramis spent an hour arguing about whether to compel the dyer’s guild to sell dyes and fixatives at a low flat rate to a favored merchant house that had just brought in a load of Markandan silk – Oressa had vivid memories of being stuck for ages, listening to that argument.

She had guessed that this morning’s topic would be more exciting, though. She’d suspected her father would want to talk about Tamarist, or actually the Tamaristan ships in the harbor. She’d been right about all that. But she hadn’t guessed that she would hear her own name appear in the ensuing argument, or in what context.

The Tamaristan ships worried a lot of people. Oressa already knew all about that. Everybody knew the king of Tamarist had suffered a stroke or seizure or something and was probably on his deathbed, and so of course everybody knew that the Tamaristan princes were all positioning themselves for the fight over the succession. In Tamarist, the succession was always exciting unless the king declared which of his sons was going to be his heir and had the rest killed, and this time the king had collapsed too suddenly to do either, and from what Meric had said at least three princes looked well-positioned and ambitious enough to try for the throne. So now everybody was worried about Tamarist. There were a lot more ships than usual slipping back and forth in the Narrow Sea, Meric said, and Oressa gathered that lots of them had the slim lines and swept-back prows of warships rather than merchanters, and lots of the sailors who came ashore swaggered like soldiers.

But from what she’d overheard this morning, Oressa gathered that Baramis didn’t agree with Meric at all. Baramis doubted Tamarist actually intended to attack anybody on this side of the Narrow Sea. After all, he pointed out, sometimes merchanters did use sleek-lined ships, and many sailors swaggered. Anyway, hadn’t Meric heard? All the Tamaristan ships had abruptly recalled their sailors yesterday and sailed out, so apparently they were going home. Which made sense because every Tamaristan prince ought by rights to be more concerned with the succession at home than with foreign adventures. If the king died and his brothers started fighting over the succession, any prince on this side of the Narrow Sea would surely forfeit his chance at the throne. Did Meric think any Tamaristan prince was both ambitious enough to attack Whetsee and yet not ambitious enough to fight for his father’s throne?

Oressa thought all that might be true, but she didn’t like Baramis and she thought he sounded especially condescending this morning, so she was on Meric’s side. And anyway, she thought it would be better to worry about Tamarist and be wrong than not worry and be wrong about that.

Meric said all the ships acting in concert that way was not reassuring; acting all together was characteristic of ships under military command, not merchanters. Just because they’d sailed out yesterday didn’t mean they couldn’t sail in back tomorrow. He said a Tamaristan prince might very well consider a foreign base useful as part of his strategy for the struggle over the succession, and if he did, he would certainly think of Whetsee, and especially Caras. Everyone in Tamarist would know the Whetseen guardsmen and militia had been weakened by the plague of the past spring. It wasn’t the kind of thing that could have been kept secret, and anyway nobody had tried to hide it. They hadn’t realized, then, that there would be any reason to keep it secret.

The spring plague hadn’t really been too serious. It hadn’t come as one of the creeping red or purple or black mists that got into everything – those were the worst – but as a three-day rain of crystalline cubes, pattering down like fine white salt out of the bright, hot sky. Like salt, the crystals dissolved in water. Unlike salt, anyone who touched the crystals or drank the water in which they dissolved got first fever, and then chills and a higher fever with hallucinations, and then went into convulsions. Finally they died. Lots of people caught it, especially once it got into the city’s cisterns. But it killed so slowly that almost no one had actually died of it. Only hours after the rain finally stopped, the Kieba had sent a great cloud of tiny biting black flies on a stiff wind from her desert.

The flies had sparkled in the sun like black enamel and glass and their swarms had hummed in a descending chord of minor notes, so everybody had known right away that the Kieba had made them. Everyone had opened their shutters and doors to let the flies come into their homes. The insects had been especially attracted to anybody with a fever, but they bit everyone. The bites raised ugly welts that itched fiercely, but only a few of the flies would bite any particular person, and anyway both the welts and the itches faded in a few hours. The people that had been ill mostly got better after that, and anybody else who caught the fever mostly didn’t get so sick, and almost nobody died.

But even now, months later, the fever’s weakness lingered. People who’d caught it were slow to regain their full strength and endurance, and that meant the guardsmen and the soldiers and the militia, too. Whetsee was much less able to defend itself now than usual – especially in Caras, where the white-crystal rain had lingered longest. So with the sudden scramble of the Tamaristan succession added to the lingering effects of the plague, Oressa wasn’t surprised that Meric thought the Narrow Sea between Tamarist and Whetsee an inadequate barrier. She couldn’t tell yet whether he’d persuaded her father to be worried, too.

“It’s awkward for Tamarist to get a large force across the sea, but not that awkward, and if one of the princes wants to establish a foothold on this side of the sea, it’s a good time for him to get it done. And unfortunately all the Tamaristan princes have to know that,” said Meric, summing up half an hour of argument that had struck Oressa, in her cramped position, as unnecessarily repetitive.

“Prince Gajdosik is posturing,” said Oressa’s father, speaking for almost the first time since he’d sent away his attendants and told Meric to speak freely. His voice was worn, unmoved, flat with indifference. The chair creaked as he shifted his weight. “The desert is dry, the sea is wet, and Tamaristan princes posture. None of this is new. Gajdosik wants trade concessions so that he can show his supporters he is clever and would be a strong king, but it is unlikely he wishes to spend men and gold on this side of the Narrow Sea. Find out what he wants and offer him something he’ll settle for, and there’ll be an end to it.”

Gajdosik was the prince they all apparently thought was behind the appearance of those suspicious ships in Caras’ harbor. The king of Tamarist had a lot of sons and Oressa had never tried to keep them all straight. She knew Gajdosik wasn’t the oldest, but she was pretty sure he wasn’t the youngest, either. She dug her fingers hard into the muscle of her right calf, which was beginning to cramp after all, and wondered how much longer this argument would take.

“It’s not just posturing,” Meric said. “I’m sure it’s not, sire. What they want – at least Gajdosik and maybe one or more of the others – is a chance to pillage and maybe a foreign territory to exploit. You dead, their own man as governor, and our people hardly better than slaves: remember what Tamarist did to Haipastat, and that wasn’t so very long ago. Gajdosik’s an ambitious man: I don’t think he’ll settle for trade concessions.”

“In a year, in another month perhaps, our soldiers and militia will have regained their strength,” answered her father’s worn voice. “And the Tamaristan succession will be settled, or nearly so, I should expect. Perhaps we might consider ways in which we might delay an ambitious prince, if one or another of that brood indeed directs his ambition toward Whetsee. Gajdosik, yes,” he added, to Meric, Oressa assumed. “Or any prince. Well?”

“If Meric is indeed correct that a Tamaristan prince isn’t merely posturing, well, Oressa’s finally marriageable,” Baramis said smoothly. “Offer her to Gajdosik, or whatever prince it proves to be. I imagine that with such a prize promised to his hands, we’ll find a prince cares little about more general plunder.”

Oressa twitched so hard she rapped her head against the underside of her father’s chair, but luckily the sound was covered over by everybody else speaking at once.

Baramis was continuing, “Perhaps such an offer might help settle the succession, too, which would be useful. A token concession such as Oressa’s hand in marriage might be just the symbolic victory a prince such as Gajdosik could use to bring the Tamaristan armies under his banner. More than that, an offer of formal alliance with Whetsee, one gained without the need to spend men or gold, ought to be worth a great deal to any intelligent prince.”

There was a brief silence. Oressa bit her wrist to keep from making a sound.

“My sister is a token concession?” said Oressa’s brother, Gulien, speaking for the first time. Gulien didn’t ordinary say very much during these meetings: their father expected him to keep quiet and listen. Their father said: You should leave the arguing to your advisors, and decide, and then allow no more argument. But Gulien said now, “My only sister? We might think twice before giving Oressa away to any Tamaristan prince, intelligent or otherwise. We might also ask ourselves whether it is so wise to establish a formal alliance with Tamarist, however expedient such an alliance seems at the moment.” His tone was extremely mild, which Oressa knew meant he was furious.

“A signal honor, I should have said,” said Baramis smoothly. “But one that costs us, in practical terms, very little.” He turned to the king. “I’m sure you agree, sire, that there’s no benefit bestowing your daughter’s hand on any rich merchant from Carst or gilded Markand lordling. A prince of Illium might do us some good, but there’s no unwed Illian prince. No, sire, think on it: offering Oressa to a Tamaristan prince such as Gajdosik would be much more to our advantage. And the more aggressive the prince, the greater the advantage to us – so long as we are careful to channel that aggression. We have an opportunity to do that here.”

Oressa’s father said nothing. She imagined he had nodded or waved for Baramis to go on or looked at Meric – ah, the latter, because Meric said, “Well, sire, it’s true that a Whetsee princess might be just what Gajdosik needs to press his claim over his brothers.” From his tone, he actually agreed with Baramis. He never agreed with Baramis about anything. Oressa thought this was an awful time for him to start. But he said, “Getting Gajdosik away from Whetsee, getting him to go home and fight his brothers, would be perfect. The princess and an alliance might be costly, perhaps, but think of it as an investment. A civil war in Tamarist would give them a much better use for all their hot-blooded young men than sending them across the sea and against us!”

Gulien started to say something, his tone sharp, but then he stopped. For a long moment, no one spoke at all. Oressa thought probably her father had put up a hand for silence.

“Lord Meric, we will think over all you have said,” the king said. “Magister Baramis, we will consider your suggestion.” His tone remained flat, but it carried a finality that prevented anybody from trying to continue the argument. “Gulien . . . I will see you tonight. Later would be better, I believe. An hour before midnight will do. You will not speak of this before that time. To anyone.” There was a rustle as the king got to his feet. The chair creaked. “For the present,” said the king, “you may all retire.”

There was a murmur of acquiescence, followed by the low sounds of footsteps. The door opened, and the steps moved away. Oressa counted the steps and stayed where she was, bent low beneath the king’s chair, trying to ignore the sharp pain in her legs and the increasing ache of her back and shoulders and neck.

The door closed, a decisive little click. There was a pause. Then her brother said, his tone resigned, “All right, Oressa. Come out.”

Oressa crawled stiffly out from under the silk draping the king’s chair. She’d been too cramped for too long to stand up. She stretched her legs out gingerly, pounding her calves and thighs to unknot the muscles, concentrating on that so she wouldn’t have to look at her brother. She asked, “How did you know I was there?”

“Heard you. You little idiot.”

“Nobody ever catches me but you.” Oressa began to shrug, then winced and stretched her neck out to one side and then the other. Her neck hurt, her shoulders hurt – she was stiff all over, and angry. She glared at her brother. “Would you have told me? Or let them take me by surprise? ‘Oh, Oressa, guess what! You get to marry a Tamaristan prince! It’s so much cheaper than conceding fishing rights and he can wave you like a flag in front of his armies when he starts a civil war!’ Gods dead and forgotten!”

“Don’t swear, Oressa,” Gulien said automatically. But then he came to sit next to her. “If Father hadn’t given me leave to tell you tonight, I’d have written it out. Here, let me –” He came up on one knee behind her, and dug strong fingers into her shoulders.

“Ouch! Oh, that’s better. Thanks. Gulien –”

“It’s a stupid idea anyway. Marry you to Gajdosik? That’d be an act of war right there. He’d invade us just to force us to take you back.”

Oressa giggled. But then she said, “Well, it is a stupid idea. Anyway, I won’t do it. Marry a Tamaristan prince? I won’t marry Gajdosik or any of them. I’ll . . . I’ll . . .” A brilliant idea occurred to her. “I know! I’ll marry Kelian, quick before Father can stop me.”

Kelian was a young lieutenant in the palace guard. All the palace girls were determined to marry him, but so far he hadn’t shown special favor to any of them. But of course a mere lieutenant who fell in love with the only princess of Whetsee would be too shy to make the first declaration. Oressa knew he was just waiting for her to speak first.

But Gulien snorted. “You idiot. You will not.”

“He’s gorgeous and brave and nice to me and oh, yes, not a Tamaristan prince with a stupid name like Gajdosik! I’ll elope with him and then it’ll be impossible to marry me off to anybody.” She glared at her brother. “What? It’d work.”

“Father would kill Kelian,” her brother said succinctly. “He’d hang him and then he’d lock you up in the highest tower room until he could marry you off, which he would do so fast the gossip wouldn’t have time to get outside Caras. If not to Gajdosik, then to somebody else.” Gulien gripped her shoulders and shook her, gently. “Idiot. Probably Father will just dangle promises before Gajdosik for the rest of the year while we build up our strength and then marry you to some Whetsee lord at the last moment.”

“I don’t want to marry any Whetsee lord, either,” Oressa muttered. “I think Kelian is a much better idea.” But now that he’d pointed it out, she knew Gulien was right about her father’s response. She eyed her brother. “I’ll run away to Carst. No. To Illium. I’ll be a temple girl and carry the fire in the procession and dance around the sacred fountain every solstice and equinox – don’t laugh at me!”

“I’m not laughing at you.”

“You are. I can tell,” Oressa said darkly. She glared at him harder. “I won’t marry Gajdosik. I’m not joking. Get me out of this, Gulien. Get Father to see it’s really a stupid idea.”

Her brother looked at her.

“What?” said Oressa. “You agree with me it is a stupid idea, right? Gulien?”

“I’ll think of some other idea,” Gulien said. “But I don’t think it’s exactly stupid. I think Gajdosik would probably use you to seal an alliance with us, use our support to take Tamarist’s throne, and then eventually, if he’s really ambitious and has energy left over, invade Carst instead of Whetsee.”

“Oh, well, that’s all right, then,” Oressa said.

“The worst practical objection to that plan is, even if we support him, he might lose the fight with his brothers and then who knows what would happen?”

“Gulien –”

“Father probably had every possible move in the game figured two hours after we heard about the Tamaristan king’s stroke. Seizure. Whatever.”

This was probably true. Oressa glared at her brother. “You’d better tell me exactly what he says tonight. Or –” she cut that off. Maybe it would be better if she listened to that conversation herself . . .

“If you try to sneak into Father’s private rooms, they’ll catch you for sure, and then he really will lock you up in the highest tower.”

“Would I try such a thing?” Oressa laid a hand over her heart to show how shocked she was at this suggestion. She didn’t tell her brother that she’d managed this exact feat once before, when she was eleven, just to see if she could do it. She’d pretended to be a servant boy, and actually she’d come pretty near being caught and hadn’t even learned anything worth knowing. She’d sworn to herself she’d never try it again. But now she didn’t know. She was afraid Gulien wouldn’t tell her what their father said or did or decided, not if he thought it was better she didn’t know, not if their father ordered him not to. She couldn’t dress up as a boy anymore, not very successfully anyway, but she’d thought of two other ways she might get in if she tried. But Gulien was too good at catching her. She said, “You don’t need to protect me, you know –”

“You don’t try nearly hard enough to protect yourself! You’ve got to stop sneaking around, Oressa. If you’re caught once – just once – you have no idea how seriously Father might take this.”

Oressa found herself beginning to get angry. How could he say that? Of course she knew how angry Father would be – how could she not know – she knew better than anybody, better than Gulien did –

Her brother put a hand under her chin, lifting her face to make her look at him. He said seriously, “The next time I catch you, I’ll call you out right then, in front of everybody.”

“You –” wouldn’t, Oressa meant to say. But her brother looked very serious and she wasn’t sure.

“I would. I will.” Gulien let her go, rose, and stood for a moment with his fists on his hips, staring down at her. “I’ll check the hall is clear, Oressa. But this is the last time I’ll help you. You’re not a servant’s brat. You need to start behaving with a princess’s dignity.”

Oressa didn’t protest that she already did behave with dignity, most of the time, when anybody was watching. She got to her feet, ignoring the hand Gulien held down to her. Then she brushed the dust off her skirt, straightened her shoulders, ran her hands through her hair, lifted her chin, and put on a proper royal attitude like a cloak, or a mask. “You may check the hallway, if you like,” she said, as regally as she could. And once he had, she strolled away from Father’s counsel room toward her own rooms as though she could imagine nowhere at all she’d rather go.

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2 Comments Preview —

  1. Yune

    Thank for the sneak peak! I love the setting (I am incredibly curious about plagues and the Kieba) and yes, Oressa is utterly charming. Although I thought Gulien was pretty awesome too.

    Augh, now the agony of waiting for this to come out on bookstore shelves…!

  2. Rachel

    Ah, the REAL agony is waiting to see if my agent can sell this on-spec manuscript . . . after that, working through the actual publication process isn’t bad at all!

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