My fantasy novel releases next week! On the Majai’s Fury page, I’ve included a link to the first chapter. Here’s the first scene of the second chapter. (And oh, look! A sneak peek at a slice of the cover!)
More courtiers crowded the king’s conservatory than Taifa had ever seen in one place. She hadn’t been to the palace for several days — not since she’d witnessed the sacrifice — but when Raimi had sent word of the scar-face’s imminent arrival, Taifa’s curiosity had gotten the better of her.
The glass room made a wondrous reception hall for King Ezait on such a pleasant summer morning. Brightly clad noblemen and women clustered amongst the potted palms, mimicking the exhibition of fragrant tropical flowers along the artificial streams that gurgled from pond to pond. Birds screeched overhead, drowning out the murmur of voices, but still Taifa felt a flicker of excitement in the humid air. It seemed the whole city had heard the rumors.
Taifa followed her sister between gossiping groups along the side wall. Raimi tugged Taifa behind a row of potted palms not far from where King Ezait sat upon his throne.
“We can hear everything here,” Raimi whispered, “but we won’t be in the way.”
A watchful sentry noticed them with narrowed eyes then nodded and turned aside. Being known by the palace guards had its uses, Taifa decided, thankful it was on Raimi’s account and not her own.
A hush of stilled expectancy settled over the reception hall, and Taifa found her gaze drawn to the doors. Guards marched through, followed by a drab-looking man who could only be the foreigner. More guards followed behind. The man didn’t look that much of a threat to Taifa’s eye.
“He’s uglier even than rumor said.” Raimi clutched at Taifa’s arm.
Ugly? Taifa stared at the man. His dark hair, curlier than Juemat’s, flowed over his shoulders like waves on a beach. His tunic and trousers hung baggy and unadorned. Could they be made of natural wool? They must itch.
But his face …
Taifa caught her breath. She wouldn’t have called him ugly as Raimi had, but it was hard to know what his features truly were. Ritual scars circled almost half of his cheeks in an intertwining spiral. She cringed at the thought of the pain inflicted.
“Who could have imagined such a thing?” murmured Raimi. “I don’t imagine he was handsome to start with, and then to cut up his face like that. Why ever would they do it? Don’t they have eyes to see how unattractive it is?”
Indeed the man had eyes. Taifa was near enough to see the color — clear and brown, just like her own. Eyes that gazed at the king with no fear or uncertainty.
A guard saluted then broke the stillness. “Shanh of Ghairlazh requests audience with King Ezait.”
Not Seida’s Depakh, then. Much too young.
King Ezait waved a hand. “Let the man speak.”
For just an instant the foreigner and the king stared at each other. “I come with the authority of Azhvah.”
“Azhvah?” Raimi pulled at Taifa’s arm. “Who is that?”
“Oh?” The king glanced around as though judging his courtiers’ response. “What does your Azhvah care about me?”
“The god of Ghairlazh will be the god of all. He demands that you and your people bow to him of your own will so he may spare you.”
“Azhvah is his god?” whispered Raimi. “Spared of what?”
Taifa plucked Raimi’s fingers off her sleeve, scowling at her. “How should I know? Listen! We may learn.”
“Azhvah is no god of Nuomor. He may order you sheepherders about all he wants, but he has no authority here in this land.”
The foreigner inclined his head. “I understand your hesitation, but Azhvah does indeed have the power to carry through. This is not an idle jest.”
Raimi gasped and clutched at Taifa’s arm but a glare from Taifa squelched any comment she might have made.
The king made a show of yawning hugely. “Your threat matters not to me.”
“Hear and understand, King of Nuomor and citizens of this land.” The man turned, taking in a wider audience. “Azhvah has spoken. If you will not acknowledge him as your rightful god, he will be obliged to prove his supremacy to you.”
The king laughed. “You men of Ghairlazh are not so many that we need to fear you. You have no allies amongst the lands, whereas we have many. I say let your Azhvah do what he likes, and we will not even notice it here. He may blow up a big storm by your standards, but Nuomor has a strong sea wall.”
“The mardazh suspected that you might need time to consider. He instructed me to allow three days for a final answer.”
“Three days? I need no three days.”
The foreigner leaned closer, and Taifa thought his face looked sad. “You do not understand. A holy war would mean much damage to your land, and many people would die without need. Won’t you do what is right for your people and bow to Azhvah?”
“And what?” The king straightened up. “Your god is nothing to me. Why should I fear him? You are like a puny bug. One swat and it is gone. Even the itch fades in only a few days. I am not concerned about you and your god. We worship Majai. She will defend us.”
“Your goddess is nothing but an illusion.”
Taifa gulped as a murmur rolled through the reception hall. Raimi moaned and released Taifa, fluttering her hand in front of her face. Taifa spared her sister a brief glance and leaned forward. How would Majai respond?
The fountain behind the throne spewed water in all directions. The leaves of the palm tree kept Taifa from the worst of the spray, but a full shot of water landed on the king’s head. Taifa bit back a grin. The rivulets did little to bolster his authority. When she glanced at the foreigner, however, all humor fled her. Though the guards on either side of him looked as though they’d swum in the canal, the scar-face remained dry. Surprise flickered in his eyes.
Taifa realized her mouth hung open. Was his god more powerful than Majai?
“Azhvah has spoken,” the foreigner said so quietly that Taifa strained to hear. “These your people have heard and witnessed. May Azhvah be gracious.” He turned his back on the king and spread his hands toward the gathering. “If any of you would seek refuge in Azhvah’s name, search me out. Three days I will be in your city.”
Taifa held her breath and sank behind the palm, not wanting to meet his gaze. What was it about his face that compelled her so? Surely not the scars.
Courtiers whispered amongst themselves, glancing between the scar-face and the king. Some snickered.
“Go.” The king’s voice trembled, low and angry. “Do not return.”
The foreigner turned back to the king and dropped to one knee. “Please reconsider. These your people — ”
King Ezait lurched to his feet and pointed at the door. “I have spoken. Be gone. We have heard enough of your lies and threats. Guards!”
Four uniformed men, still dripping from the fountain’s antics, closed in on the scar-face as he turned toward the door. “I will go,” he said with a catch in his voice. “If you change your mind, contact me. You have three days. There is much to — ”
The man stared at the king for a long moment before turning. He strode out, guards flanking him. As far as Taifa could tell, they didn’t touch him. Perhaps they didn’t need to. Perhaps he was convinced he’d delivered the totality of his message and now went willingly.
“Kill him.” The king’s voice rang through the conservatory. His eyes narrowed as he took in his audience. “Remember the power of Majai, my people. She will not release you to such a fool’s errand. Stay away from the man.”
Surely a god powerful enough to divert Majai’s water stream could protect the foreigner against a few armed guards. Taifa studied the king as he settled back into his throne. If the king did not fear, why did his hands shake?
The whispers of the people turned into murmurs, and the murmurs strengthened into chatter with exclamations to punctuate it. Taifa turned to Raimi and discovered her sister leaning against the wall, eyes closed and face pale.
“Raimi, come. Let me escort you back to your cottage. You don’t look well.”
“I don’t want to die,” Raimi moaned.
Taifa pulled her upright and pointed her toward the door. “Why would you die?”
“He said … the ugly man said …” Raimi stumbled against a planter.
“Everything will be fine. You’ll see. In no time we’ll all have forgotten he was ever here.” She doubted it, but if it would comfort her sister, why not say the words?
Raimi clutched both Taifa’s hands, pulling the sisters face to face. “Do you think so? Are you sure?”
“You heard the king. We have men trained to fight and many allies. There is nothing to fear.” Taifa glanced around. Many of the courtiers had already left the conservatory. “Come, Raimi, we must go. I’ll see you to your cottage before I leave for the market. I can spare a cylinder of time.”
Raimi allowed herself to be guided around the potted trees and out through the double doors. Taifa steered her into the alleyway between the walled royal courtyards. The compound of Kiaros’s women lay at the far end.
“Where is the prince?” Taifa asked her sister. “I didn’t see him in the king’s presence.”
Raimi waved feebly. “He had to leave yesterday. And Juemat?”
“Away also.” But it seemed odd. Gibuin … Naidi’s current haibu — Juemat, Kiaros, all of them? What could have been more important to the king than having his favored men at his side while a crazed foreigner threatened? Perhaps not crazed. He’d seemed sincere. Of course, a person could be sincerely deranged.
Raimi pushed open the gate into Kiaros’s women’s compound. Five of his haibi sat beside the central fountain, their voices stilling as Taifa and Raimi entered. Five sets of eyes watched as the sisters crossed the patio to Raimi’s cottage. Taifa wondered how her sister could ignore their stares. If Juemat had other haibi — and of course he did — at least she wasn’t obliged to acknowledge them.
Taifa glanced at the sun before following Raimi inside. She could spare a few trickles of time. It wasn’t fair to leave her aunt Camiele alone for the entire market day, yet she could scarce abandon her distraught sister.
Raimi dropped into the first chair she came to within the cottage.
Staring at her sister’s wan face, a thought came unbidden to Taifa’s mind. “Have you a babe within?”
Raimi’s eyelids flew open and she straightened on the chair. A hand went to her flat belly. “I-I don’t know. Perhaps.”
“Not for want of trying?”
A faint blush warmed Raimi’s face. “Kiaros has been … most attentive.”
“Will it be worth it?” Taifa didn’t realize she’d spoken aloud until she caught her sister’s shocked expression.
“What do you mean? What heresy do you speak?”
Taifa’s mind scrambled for an acceptable answer, but none came to the forefront. “I wonder how they do things in Ghairlazh. Azhvah sounds like a different sort of deity than Majai.”
“It matters not. Majai belongs to us and we to her.”
Taifa shrugged. It was apparent that Seida had had less to do with the raising of her sister than of herself. “Don’t you ever wish you could travel as Maem does, and see more of Nuomor? Remember when Maem took us on the silk-buying trip to Jadizaino? The people worship Vuari there, and yet they are Nuomoran.”
Raimi shuddered. “It was all so foreign. I could hardly wait to get home to my familiar surroundings.”
“Not everyone lives as we do.”
“Those who worship Majai do, and the rest of them don’t count.”
Somehow Taifa was unable to let the subject drop completely. “In some places men have only one haibi.”
Raimi’s gaze flicked toward the door as though wondering who might have overheard her treasonous sister. “But I could not live without the blessing of Majai!”
Could she? Taifa wondered. Perhaps she already did.