Servants of the Sands Prologue
PLEASE NOTE: this is a DRAFT. It will probably change before publication. Feel free to comment on what works and what doesn’t! 🙂
Servants of the Sands (working title)
Leona R Wisoker
Suanth 15, KY 1161
(Just prior to the opening of Secrets of the Sands, Book 1 in the Children of the Desert series)
“I’m going to ask her to marry me, Azni.”
Early morning light striped through the wide glass windows, broken into shifting patterns by a light wind moving through the flowering shrubs just outside. Cafad sat on a bright blue floor cushion, looking at the shadows, shifting his vision to focus on motes of dust in the air, picking out the spots in the room where the specks collected in whirling drifts.
The silence hung for a long time. Cafad looked at everything in the room by way of distraction: the sturdy wooden benches, the glazed earthenware vases filled with fresh and dried flowers, the shelves of jams and jellies and various pickled things in glass jars. Finally, giving up, he raised his gaze to the woman sitting on the other side of the low, thickly varnished harpwood table.
Azni was old, her long white hair braided neatly back and clubbed up into a stubby queue; her skin nearly matched the surface of the table between them, both in lines and in the dark, red- honey color. She wore a pale linen shivii, no shoes, no jewelry, no makeup; she’d always been one of the least ostentatious people Cafad knew.
She was regarding him with a skeptical expression, one eyebrow quirked high. As soon as he met her gaze, he felt color rising to his own face.
“And you came out here at the gods own hour to tell me this–why?” she said. “Do you want my blessing, Cafad?”
He dropped his gaze to the table and traced wood grain lines with a finger. “No,” he said. “I just–I wanted to know if you think it’s a mad idea.”
“To be completely blunt, from what you’ve told me, yes. She’s considerably younger than you are. She can’t possibly be experienced enough to rebuild Scratha Family. Or strong enough, come to that. You scarcely even know her! How can you ask her to lead a desert Family?”
He shook his head slowly, not looking up. “She won’t have to,” he said. “I’m going to settle in Bright Bay with her.”
“You’re letting Scratha Fortress go.” The flatness of the words spoke volumes. “You’re going to abandon your claim.”
“I might as well,” Cafad said. He drummed his fingers on the tabletop restlessly. “Azni, I make the trip south twice a year to keep my claim active, and the rest of the time I’m either here at your home or wandering around Bright Bay. I haven’t found anything about who slaughtered my family; nobody believes me when I say Sessin was behind it.” He glanced at the fine glass windows, scowling. “Everyone wants Sessin Family to be their friend–no, I’m not going on a rant again, don’t worry.” He splayed his hands across the table top, flattening them out. “I’m sick of the sneers, the laughter behind my back, the condescension. Everyone thinks I’m mad, Azni.”
“You are, a bit,” she said. He shot her a hard look; she shrugged. “It’s a bad idea, Cafad. Letting Scratha Fortress go will create a huge political hole. Everyone will want to claim it. You’ll set off an inter-Family war.”
“Let them squabble,” he said bitterly. “It would serve them right for all the snubs.”
“That’s childish,” she said.
His hands tightened into fists; he spread them out again with a conscious effort. “It doesn’t matter, Azni. I’m going to ask her. Today. I’ve already commissioned a ring. I’m negotiating the purchase of an estate on the northern edge of town; it belonged to one of the nobles who fell during the Purge. His family doesn’t want to stay in town any longer–bad memories; they’re moving north of the Hackerwood.” He grinned sourly. “It seems fitting for me to move in there, given that I’m leaving my former home because of the memories.”
She shook her head, frowning. “You have to announce it formally,” she said. “Call for a Conclave and present it there. Let the arguments happen safely in a teuthin. You can’t simply walk away and allow chaos to take over.”
“As soon as she says yes, I will,” he said. “I doubt my stepping away will cause as much chaos as you think, Azni. Nobody pays attention to me, after all. Nobody seems to care if Scratha Fortress sits empty until the end of time. They could have assassinated me a triple dozen times over if they cared so much about taking over the Fortress. That I’m even still alive speaks to how little they care.”
“As long as it’s claimed, and at least marginally maintained,” she said sharply, “there’s nothing they can do. Assassination isn’t as lightly handled as you seem to think—who have you been talking to? Besides, you’re not the most congenial company, Cafad–are you truly surprised that nobody seeks you out, after all the years of you snubbing and insulting them?”
He rose, unable to hold still any longer, and paced across the room and back with long, taut strides. “You’re baiting me, Azni,” he said, facing her again.
“Of course I am. Not that you’re listening, any more than you ever do. You’re Head of Scratha, Cafad. You have responsibilities, no matter that you’ve been avoiding them for years.” Her dark eyes were hard and angry. “How dare you throw that away? No, Cafad, you hold your peace and let me finish–I’ve been keeping this silent for a long time. You don’t seem to realize that your Family was important, that people have been waiting for you to get your head out of the sand and tend to your duties! You don’t have to restart the Fortress for that. You can set up in Water’s End and present yourself properly. Everyone’s been waiting on you to do just that–I certainly have!”
“Then you’re the only one,” he said sourly. “You still aren’t understanding, Azni–you can’t understand, you’re not a desert lord. I can tell what people are thinking, and all I’m seeing is contempt when people talk to me. Nissa is the only person I can trust–the only person who’s honest with me.”
He paced across the room again, breathing hard. Azni, although she wore a distinctly peculiar expression–she almost looked amused–didn’t interrupt.”Nobody takes me seriously,” he said. “I’m a joke. I’m the sole survivor of a murdered Family, and there’s no interest in finding out who was responsible for the murders. That tells me that one of the Families were involved–there’s a conspiracy to stay silent, there has to be, there’s been no damn effort to investigate–”
“Cafad, stop. It’s too early in the morning for me to listen to that rant again.”
“–fine.” Cafad turned away from her and went to one of the windows, staring out at the white-flowered fernleaf bushes, watching their feathery leaves swaying in the breeze. He tried not to look at the glass, tried to ignore it, but it colored everything he saw: Sessin. Sessin. Sessin made the window. Always Sessin. He couldn’t get away from their presence.
I won’t have a single godsdamned Sessin window in my new home, he told himself. I’ll break every one to bits, then find someone local to create replacements. Even if the windows are garbage. I’d rather look through distortions than be faced with Sessin manufacture every day.
“I’m going,” he said abruptly, facing her. “I have to. I have to, Azni, I can’t live this–this half-life any longer. I have to settle in one place. And I’m choosing Bright Bay.” He tried for a smile, felt it fail as her frown intensified. “Azni, please–don’t be angry with me. I have to do this. It’s the right thing to do.”
He grabbed up his cloak and went to the door.
“You’re being a fool,” Azni said.
“Won’t be the first time,” he said. “I’ll send you an invitation to the wedding, but I won’t mind if you don’t attend.”
He left before she could answer, slamming the door behind him.
* * *
Normally, the six-mile walk between Bright Bay and Azni’s home took Cafad nearly two hours; he never hurried, in either direction. Visiting Azni had always been a reprieve, a treat, a restful interlude.
This time, his pace quickened by anger, the trip back to Bright Bay took him under an hour. How dare she scold him like a child? How dare she disapprove of him? She didn’t understand. She wasn’t a desert lord–she was just a foolish noblewoman who’d run away from her Family to follow her lover. And she was old, as well–easily twice Cafad’s age. She didn’t remember any longer, couldn’t possibly remember, how it felt to be in love. She’d been alone for so long, and living in the north–she had no idea of what was happening in southern politics right now. She didn’t understand.
She’d never seen Scratha Fortress sitting empty and abandoned in the midst of a sizzling heat wave. Never walked the corridors, listening to the echoes, in the middle of the night; never stood atop the towers under a full moon and looked out across a depopulated land. Never looked at the storerooms and treasury of a dead Fortress with a growing realization that everything the contents represented was gone.
Why not sell it all and have done with the memories? Replace silence with the laugh of a beautiful woman, replace solitude with the warmth of her body pressed against his, replace desert drought with the ever present humidity of a port city?
Duty be damned. Duty hadn’t done his parents any good, in the end; hadn’t protected anyone in Scratha Fortress. They’d died, slaughtered by an invisible hand, and the other Families hadn’t done a godsdamned thing to find out who was responsible.
Who cared that he hadn’t met Nissa all that long ago? What did it matter? She was the first person to actually care about him as a person, instead of as a political symbol.
The streets of Bright Bay formed around him; he blinked, pausing mid-stride–not the first time he’d been so deep in brooding as to lose track of his surroundings, but it always startled him. To his right, five broad steps led up to a stubby brick building surrounded by a ridiculously wide wraparound porch littered with tables and chairs and sun-tents. Over a dozen of the chairs were occupied by people drinking from thick ceramic mugs: mostly coffee, some herbal teas, from the scents swirling through the air.
Thank you, Oruen, Cafad thought with bleak humor. Lifting the heavy restrictions on southern trade had been one of the new king’s early acts. Bright Bay’s economy was climbing sharply out of disaster as exotic items streamed into the city. So far, this was the only dedicated coffee and tea shop in the city, as far as Cafad knew. The raw materials were still madly expensive.
To his left stretched a row of slightly taller buildings, butted up against one another. An oversized thread spool hung above one door, a pair of wooden scissors over another; the next a shoe, and the last in the row a mask. Each of the shops had one large window facing the street and two long, narrow windows near the roofline; the shutters were all propped open, and the doors stood wide. The cobbler, a stout, red-haired man, sat outside his door, resoling a lady’s boot. He looked up at Cafad and waved genially.
“Good morning, my lord,” he said. “How are those boots suiting you?”
“Good morning, s’e Decobb,” Cafad said. “They’re wearing in nicely, thank you.” He took a step, then hesitated. “That one you’re working on looks familiar.”
“Ah, yes. You would recognize this set, I suppose. S’a Nissa dropped it off yesterday. That young lady does rather a lot of walking, doesn’t she?” He grinned at Cafad. “Quite the independent sort, your lady is. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen her with a servant at her side. Says she doesn’t need one.” He shook his head. “All I can say is, it’s a good thing the Northern Church is losing its hold on this city. You ought to speak to her, though, my lord. It’s still not a wise thing for her to be doing. The city isn’t safe, even for someone with her connections.”
Cafad scowled. “It’s none of your concern, cobbler.”
The man shrugged. “As you like, my lord,” he said. “Enjoy your day. Let your lady know I’ll have her boots done and delivered to the Golden Perch steward by end of tomorrow.”
“I’ll do that.” Still scowling, Cafad strode deeper into the city. How dare the man make such comments? Nissa was southern. She didn’t follow nonsensical northern customs. Of course she could take care of herself; southern women weren’t foolishly pampered and protected like northern women. Even the lowest servant girl in the south had a grasp of handling basic weapons.
I’d like to see someone try to lay hands on Nissa, Cafad thought with smug pride. I’d like to see how much is left of them afterward! She knew how to handle herself in a fight, certainly; she had to, given the underlying muscle to her body and the way she moved–alert, graceful–she’d been trained in aqeyva, the signs were unmistakable. Not at all uncommon for a southerner.
He cut down a side street. Time to go pick up the ring, and then find Nissa and–
His stomach lurched at what had to follow that and. He regained his composure and quickened his pace. I’m going to do this. I’m going to ask her to marry me.
He’d commissioned the ring from a jeweler in the metal-working district, not from one within the Seventeen Gates. He hated being inside the Gates, being under constant scrutiny by petty northern nobles with nothing better to do than to spy on their betters.
A handful of trinkets from the Scratha treasury had been enough to finance the ring–those had been eagerly snapped up by an aging, shortsighted noblewoman on the edge of town with more greed than sense. She hadn’t known just exactly what she was buying, or who Cafad was. She’d just liked the exotic nature of the items he’d presented. In truth, she’d probably overpaid, at least under southern valuation; but she was northern, and items from the south were still in high demand these days.
Best to ride that while it lasted. When Nissa said yes, he’d make one more trip to Scratha Fortress, hold the Conclave–Azni had been right about that much–then gather up everything of value and let the southern Families squabble over the leavings.
No–two trips. One to gather up items to sell, then one more for a Conclave–that way there are no arguments over who owns the contents of the treasury.
He stopped walking, taking stock of his surroundings. Once again, he’d lost track while he brooded, and his steps had gone slightly off course. He stood at one corner of an intersection in a worn and shabby commercial district. A bookseller, scribe-hall, and paper-goods craftsman had broken signs and boarded over shutters; the limner was still open for business, as was a glasscrafter’s shop.
Nissa had worked with glass before: a brief apprenticeship with one of the lesser, independent southern crafters. It hadn’t lasted long, just enough to leave her with unmistakable burn scars along her forearms and a fondness for well-done glasscraft, although she displayed the same distaste for Sessin products as he himself felt.
More than likely this particular crafter had already been struggling to keep his business afloat during the Purge, and was now about ready to drown himself in despair. There was simply no way for any small crafter to compete with the flood of Sessin imports at this point.
Nissa likes glass baubles. Maybe there’s something here I can give her, before I give her the ring. He went across the street to the glass-crafter shop. More than likely it would be a collection of rough garbage, but Nissa had a knack for finding unexpectedly charming pieces in back-alley shops like this. Surely he could do the same once in a while.
The interior bore signs of having once been a thriving business. Two walls were lined with mostly empty shelves; the enormous carpet, once noble shades of red and purple, had faded to a mottled burgundy that showed deep imprints where heavy tables had once stood. The street side of the room had two large windows, whose shutters were propped half open. Near the ceiling on the back wall, the shutters had been completely pushed back from two long horizontal windows to let in more light and air.
At the back of the room, a lanky man sat on a high stool, several pieces of glassware on the table in front of him. “Good morning, my lord,” the man said as Cafad entered. He rose from his seat and bowed deeply. “You honor my shop.”
“Greetings,” Cafad said, smiling. “I’m here to buy something nice for my lady.”
The man’s gaze flickered over Cafad appraisingly. “You’ll be wanting our best, no doubt,” he said. “We’ve some new merchandise just ready, as it happens. Fine, fine items, best in the city.” He pointed to the glassware on the table. “I was just deciding on pricing, my lord, so take a look and see what you think it’s worth to you. No doubt you’ve seen fine work many a time, and you look to be an honest man–you wouldn’t offer me a price below its true valuation, I’m sure.” He grinned, but his pale eyes held no warmth.
“I’m sure,” Cafad said dryly, amused by the man’s attempt to manipulate him, and crossed the room to study the indicated items.
There were two glass goblets, their bases and halfway up the stems stained a bright, regal red. The color continued in fading streaks up into the cup itself, giving it a wavering, striped appearance. Beside the goblets sat a shallow glass bowl, filled with loosely swirled patterns in shades of red and blue. The last of the items on the table was a vase: as tall as Cafad’s forearm was long, absolutely clear, with loops of glass laid in an ascending swirl of coils that became a perfect array of flower petals at the mouth of the vase.
Cafad ran a finger over the smooth surface of the bowl, frowning; it was fine work. Exceptional work. And it didn’t belong in his back alley shop. He picked up the bowl and turned it over. The mark scratched on the bottom was an unfamiliar one.
“Who made these?” he asked, not looking at the shopkeeper.
“I did, my lord,” the lanky man said. “I’ve made everything in this shop. Been working as a glasscrafter for thirty years now.”
He was speaking truth, but it simply wasn’t possible. Cafad put the bowl down, then went to the nearest shelf.
“That’s older work, my lord,” the lanky man said hastily. “It’s not nearly so fine–”
Cafad picked up a thick-walled vase and turned it over in his hand, studying the straight, undecorated lines and just barely bubbled glass. The same mark was scratched into the bottom of the vase as had been on the bowl. He set it down and looked at the other items on the shelf, which were all of roughly the same quality. Good work, for a small craftsman of experience: simple, well-done pieces with various swirls and decoration. The colors tended more towards light blue or yellow than the brighter shades, with a considerably rougher cutoff between colors than the subtle blending of the tabletop pieces.
He turned back to the table and met the shopkeeper’s gaze. The man was beginning to look anxious now, his skin a shade paler than it had been and his lower lip caught between his teeth. “My lord?” he said. “Is–is something wrong?”
“This, I believe you made,” Cafad said, waving a hand at the shelves. “That–” he pointed at the table. “That isn’t just better craft, s’e. That’s–” he hesitated, then made himself say it. “That’s Sessin craft.”
The man blanched. “No, my lord, no,” he protested. “No, I made every one of those pieces myself. I swear it!”
“Then who taught you these tricks, s’e?” Cafad asked, returning to the table. “I refuse to believe you went from that to this without help!”
“I don’t–I can’t–” The man paused, chewing on his lower lip, and glanced around as though confirming that they were alone. “I can’t speak of it. Part of my agreement was to keep–my teacher’s–identity silent. But I’m telling you the truth–I’ve made these items myself!”
“You’ve been stealing Sessin secrets,” Cafad said ominously.
“No! No, my lord, merely studying craft–”
“You’re not stupid enough to think that whoever’s given you these tricks is simply an accomplished crafter! What are you paying for these lessons?”
The man ducked his head, swallowing hard. “I can’t say, my lord,” he muttered. “I swore an oath. I can’t.”
“It’s your neck,” Cafad said. “I certainly won’t help you.” He glared at the items on the table, deeply tempted to pick them all up and smash them to bits; then it occurred to him that losing their monopoly on fine glass would hurt Sessin Family deeply.
Cafad grinned, deciding he could live with that.
“My lord, my lord, please,” the shopkeeper babbled, “it’s my last chance to make a living, lord, please, I’m desperate, I barely survived the Purge–you can see how poor this area is, lord, please–”
“I won’t tell anyone your secret,” Cafad said, still smiling, “but only because I hate Sessin Family so deeply that I’m amused at the thought of a traitor selling their dearly held crafting secrets to a tiny shop in the muddiest streets of Bright Bay.”
The shopkeeper flushed, his back straightening. “Not the muddiest, by far, my lord,” he said austerely. “We aren’t that far fallen yet.”
“I don’t care, s’e. I won’t say anything. But I’d suggest finding a less obvious way of applying your lessons–anyone with half a wit will know what you’ve done. I truly pity whoever was foolish enough to hand you those lessons. They’ll be paying a high price for their betrayal when they’re discovered.”
“Thank you, my lord, thank you–please, ahhh, take one of these items, no charge, allow me to express my gratitude for your forbearance–”
Cafad hesitated, looking at the vase. It was well done, and it represented a wonderful treachery–and Nissa would like that aspect of the matter. I won’t give this to her today, he decided. The ring is more important. This can be . . . a present for after she says yes.
“I’ll come back for the vase,” he said. “Set it aside for me.”
“I can deliver it to your home, lord,” the shopkeeper said quickly. “No charge, no trouble at all.”
“Very well. Take it to the fourth cottage at the Golden Perch.”
“The–the Golden Perch, lord?” The shopkeeper blinked, seemingly taken aback.
“Yes. Do you know where it is?”
“Y-yes, my lord. Yes. Of course. I–yes. Fourth cottage. I’ll have it there by the end of the day, lord.”
Cafad squinted at the man. “What’s the matter with you?”
“N-nothing, my lord. Nothing at all.” The man bowed deeply. “I–ahhh, I wish you a good day, my lord, I thank you for your presence–your–your presence graces–your grace–” He shut his eyes and shook his head, his throat working.
Cafad stepped in closer to the man. “Tell me,” he said, layering absolute command into the words.
The man gagged briefly, then babbled, “The Golden Perch cottages is–is where–the young lady who’s been helping me–she mentioned once that she has rooms there.” He sagged back onto his stool, one hand to his throat, shivering noticeably. “Oh, my gods,” he muttered. “You’re a desert lord, my lord. You didn’t say . . . you’re supposed to warn a man. . . .”
Cafad stood very still, staring at the man; thinking, with abrupt clarity, about the burn scars on Nissa’s hands–and her routine deflection of questions about her past. “This young lady,” he said slowly. “What does she look like . . . ?”
End of prologue. I repeat: this is a draft and subject to change. But I figured you folks would like the bit of extra background … 🙂