Read An Excerpt
The Royal Palace, Rasailles
“Throw!” came the command from the green.
A bushel of fresh-cut blossoms sailed into the air, chased by darts and the tittering laughter of lookers-on throughout the gardens.
It took quick work with her charcoals to capture the flowing lines as they moved, all feathers and flares. Ostentatious dress was the fashion this spring; her drab grays and browns would have stood out as quite peculiar had the young nobles taken notice of her as she worked.
Just as well they didn’t. Her leyline connection to a source of Faith beneath the palace chapel saw to that.
Sarine smirked, imagining the commotion were she to sever her bindings, to appear plain as day sitting in the middle of the green. Rasailles was a short journey southwest of New Sarresant but may as well have been half a world apart. A public park, but no mistaking for whom among the public the green was intended. The guardsmen ringing the receiving ground made clear the requirement for a certain pedigree, or at least a certain display of wealth, and she fell far short of either.
She gave her leyline tethers a quick mental check, pleased to find them holding strong. No sense being careless. It was a risk coming here, but Zi seemed to relish these trips, and sketches of the nobles were among the easiest to sell. Zi had only just materialized in front of her, stretching like a cat. He made a show of it, arching his back, blue and purple iridescent scales glittering as he twisted in the sun.
She paused midway through reaching into her pack for a fresh sheet of paper, offering him a slow clap. Zi snorted and cozied up to her feet.
It’s cold, Zi’s voice sounded in her head. I’ll take all the sunlight I can get.
“Yes, but still, quite a show,” she said in a hushed voice, satisfied none of the nobles were close enough to hear.
What game is it today?
“The new one. With the flowers and darts. Difficult to follow, but I believe Lord Revellion is winning.”
A warm glow radiated through her mind. Zi was pleased. And so for that matter were the young ladies watching Lord Revellion saunter up to take his turn at the line. She returned to a cross-legged pose, beginning a quick sketch of the nobles’ repartee, aiming to capture Lord Revellion’s simple confidence as he charmed the ladies on the green. He was the picture of an eligible Sarresant noble: crisp-fitting blue cavalry uniform, free-flowing coal-black hair, and neatly chiseled features, enough to remind her that life was not fair. Not that a child raised on the streets of the Maw needed reminding on that point.
He called to a group of young men nearby, the ones holding the flowers. They gathered their baskets, preparing to heave, and Revellion turned, flourishing the darts he held in each hand, earning himself titters and giggles from the fops on the green. She worked to capture the moment, her charcoal pen tracing the lines of his coat as he stepped forward, ready to throw. Quick strokes for his hair, pushed back by the breeze. One simple line to suggest the concentrated poise in his face.
The crowd gasped and cheered as the flowers were tossed. Lord Revellion sprang like a cat, snapping his darts one by one in quick succession. Thunk. Thunk. Thunk. Thunk. More cheering. Even at this distance it was clear he had hit more than he missed, a rare enough feat for this game.
You like this one, the voice in her head sounded. Zi uncoiled, his scales flashing a burnished gold before returning to blue and purple. He cocked his head up toward her with an inquisitive look. You could help him win, you know.
“Hush. He does fine without my help.”
She darted glances back and forth between her sketch paper and the green, trying to include as much detail as she could. The patterns of the blankets spread for the ladies as they reclined on the grass, the carefree way they laughed. Their practiced movements as they sampled fruits and cheeses, and the bowed heads of servants holding the trays on bended knees. The black charcoal medium wouldn’t capture the vibrant colors of the flowers, but she could do their forms justice, soft petals scattering to the wind as they were tossed into the air.
It was more detail than was required to sell her sketches. But details made it real, for her as much as her customers. If she hadn’t seen and drawn them from life, she might never have believed such abundance possible: dances in the grass, food and wine at a snap of their fingers, a practiced poise in every movement. She gave a bitter laugh, imagining the absurdity of practicing sipping your wine just so, the better to project the perfect image of a highborn lady.
Zi nibbled her toe, startling her. They live the only lives they know, he thought to her. His scales had taken on a deep green hue.
She frowned. She was never quite sure whether he could actually read her thoughts.
“Maybe,” she said after a moment. “But it wouldn’t kill them to share some of those grapes and cheeses once in a while.”
She gave the sketch a last look. A decent likeness; it might fetch a half mark perhaps, to the right buyer. She reached into her pack for a jar of sediment, applying the yellow flakes with care to avoid smudging her work. When it was done she set the paper on the grass, reclining on her hands to watch another round of darts. The next thrower fared poorly, landing only a single thunk. Groans from some of the onlookers, but just as many whoops and cheers. It appeared Revellion had won. The young lord pranced forward to take a deep bow, earning polite applause from across the green as servants dashed out to collect the darts and flowers for another round.
She retrieved the sketch, sliding it into her pack and withdrawing a fresh sheet. This time she’d sketch the ladies, perhaps, a show of the latest fashions for—
Across the green a trio of men made way toward her, drawing curious eyes from the nobles as they crossed the gardens. The three of them stood out among the nobles’ finery as sure as she would have done: two men in the blue and gold leather of the palace guard, one in simple brown robes. A priest.
Not all among the priesthood could touch the leylines, but she wouldn’t have wagered a copper against this one having the talent, even if she wasn’t close enough to see the scars on the backs of his hands to confirm it. Binders’ marks, the by-product of the test administered to every child the crown could get its hands on. If this priest had the gift, he could follow her tethers whether he could see her or no.
She scrambled to return the fresh page and stow her charcoals, slinging the pack on her shoulder and springing to her feet.
Time to go? Zi asked in her thoughts.
She didn’t bother to answer. Zi would keep up. At the edge of the green, the guardsmen patrolling the outer gardens turned to watch the priest and his fellows closing in. Damn. Her Faith would hold long enough to get her over the wall, but there wouldn’t be any stores to draw on once she left the green. She’d been hoping for another hour at least, time for half a dozen more sketches and another round of games. Instead there was a damned priest on watch. She’d be lucky to escape with no more than a chase through the woods, and thank the Gods they didn’t seem to have hounds or horses in tow to investigate her errant binding.
Better to move quickly, no?
She slowed mid-stride. “Zi, you know I hate—”
Zi appeared a few paces ahead of her, his scales flushed a deep, sour red, the color of bottled wine. Without further warning her heart leapt in her chest, a red haze coloring her vision. Blood seemed to pound in her ears. Her muscles surged with raw energy, carrying her forward with a springing step that left the priest and his guardsmen behind as if they were mired in tar.
Her stomach roiled, but she made for the wall as fast as her feet could carry her. Zi was right, even if his gifts made her want to sick up the bread she’d scrounged for breakfast. The sooner she could get over the wall, the sooner she could drop her Faith tether and stop the priest tracking her binding. Maybe he’d think it no more than a curiosity, an errant cloud of ley-energy mistaken for something more.
She reached the vines and propelled herself up the wall in a smooth motion, vaulting the top and landing with a cat’s poise on the far side. Faith released as soon as she hit the ground, but she kept running until her heartbeat calmed, and the red haze faded from her sight.
The sounds and smells of the city reached her before the trees cleared enough to see it. A minor miracle for there to be trees at all; the northern and southern reaches had been cut to grassland, from the trade roads to the Great Barrier between the colonies and the wildlands beyond. But the Duc-Governor had ordered a wood maintained around the palace at Rasailles, and so the axes looked elsewhere for their fodder. It made for peaceful walks, when she wasn’t waiting for priests and guards to swoop down looking for signs she’d been trespassing on the green.
She’d spent the better part of the way back in relative safety. Zi’s gifts were strong, and thank the Gods they didn’t seem to register on the leylines. The priest gave up the chase with time enough for her to ponder the morning’s games: the decadence, a hidden world of wealth and beauty, all of it a stark contrast to the sullen eyes and sunken faces of the cityfolk. Her uncle would tell her it was part of the Gods’ plan, all the usual Trithetic dogma. A hard story to swallow, watching the nobles eating, laughing, and playing at their games when half the city couldn’t be certain where they’d find tomorrow’s meals. This was supposed to be a land of promise, a land of freedom and purpose—a New World. Remembering the opulence of Rasailles palace, it looked a lot like the old one to her. Not that she’d ever been across the sea, or anywhere in the colonies but here in New Sarresant. Still.
There was a certain allure to it, though.
It kept her coming back, and kept her patrons buying sketches whenever she set up shop in the markets. The fashions, the finery, the dream of something otherworldly almost close enough to touch. And Lord Revellion. She had to admit he was handsome, even far away. He seemed so confident, so prepared for the life he lived. What would he think of her? One thing to use her gifts and skulk her way onto the green, but that was a pale shadow of a real invitation. And that was where she fell short. Her gifts set her apart, but underneath it all she was still her. Not for the first time she wondered if that was enough. Could it be? Could it be enough to end up somewhere like Rasailles, with someone like Lord Revellion?
Zi pecked at her neck as he settled onto her shoulder, giving her a start. She smiled when she recovered, flicking his head.
“Yes. Though I’m not sure I should take you to the market after you shushed me back there.”
Don’t sulk. It was for your protection.
“Oh, of course,” she said. “Still, Uncle could doubtless use my help in the chapel, and it is almost midday…”
Zi raised his head sharply, his eyes flaring like a pair of hot pokers, scales flushed to match.
“Okay, okay, the market it is.”
Zi cocked his head as if to confirm she was serious, then nestled down for a nap as she walked. She kept a brisk pace, taking care to avoid prying eyes that might be wondering what a lone girl was doing coming in from the woods. Soon she was back among the crowds of Southgate district, making her way toward the markets at the center of the city. Zi flushed a deep blue as she walked past the bustle of city life, weaving through the press.
Back on the cobblestone streets of New Sarresant, the lush greens and floral brightness of the royal gardens seemed like another world, foreign and strange. This was home: the sullen grays, worn wooden and brick buildings, the downcast eyes of the cityfolk as they went about the day’s business. Here a gilded coach drew eyes and whispers, and not always from a place as benign as envy. She knew better than to court the attention of that sort—the hot-eyed men who glared at the nobles’ backs, so long as no city watch could see.
She held her pack close, shoving past a pair of rough-looking pedestrians who’d stopped in the middle of the crowd. They gave her a dark look, and Zi raised himself up on her shoulders, giving them a snort. She rolled her eyes, as much for his bravado as theirs. Sometimes it was a good thing she was the only one who could see Zi.
As she approached the city center, she had to shove her way past another pocket of lookers-on, then another. Finally the press became too heavy and she came to a halt just outside the central square. A low rumble of whispers rolled through the crowds ahead, enough for her to know what was going on.
She retreated a few paces, listening to the exchanges in the crowd. Not just one execution—three. Deserters from the army, which made them traitors, given the crown had declared war on the Gandsmen two seasons past. A glorious affair, meant to check a tyrant’s expansion, or so they’d proclaimed in the colonial papers. All it meant in her quarters of the city was food carts diverted southward, when the Gods knew there was little enough to spare.
Voices buzzed behind her as she ducked down an alley, with a glance up and down the street to ensure she was alone. Zi swelled up, his scales pulsing as his head darted about, eyes wide and hungering.
“What do you think?” she whispered to him. “Want to have a look?”
Yes. The thought dripped with anticipation.
Well, that settled that. But this time it was her choice to empower herself, and she’d do it without Zi making her heart beat in her throat.
She took a deep breath, sliding her eyes shut.
In the darkness behind her eyelids, lines of power emanated from the ground in all directions, a grid of interconnecting strands of light. Colors and shapes surrounded the lines, fed by energy from the shops, the houses, the people of the city. Overwhelmingly she saw the green pods of Life, abundant wherever people lived and worked. But at the edge of her vision she saw the red motes of Body, a relic of a bar fight or something of that sort. And, in the center of the city square, a shallow pool of Faith. Nothing like an execution to bring out belief and hope in the Gods and the unknown.
She opened herself to the leylines, binding strands of light between her body and the sources of the energy she needed.
Her eyes snapped open as Body energy surged through her. Her muscles became more responsive, her pack light as a feather. At the same time, she twisted a Faith tether around herself, fading from view.
By reflex she checked her stores. Plenty of Faith. Not much Body. She’d have to be quick. She took a step back, then bounded forward, leaping onto the side of the building. She twisted away as she kicked off the wall, spiraling out toward the roof’s overhang. Grabbing hold of the edge, she vaulted herself up onto the top of the tavern in one smooth motion.
Very nice, Zi thought to her. She bowed her head in a flourish, ignoring his sarcasm.
Now, can we go?
Urgency flooded her mind. Best not to keep Zi waiting when he got like this. She let Body dissipate but maintained her shroud of Faith as she walked along the roof of the tavern. Reaching the edge, she lowered herself to have a seat atop a window’s overhang as she looked down into the square. With luck she’d avoid catching the attention of any more priests or other binders in the area, and that meant she’d have the best seat in the house for these grisly proceedings.
She set her pack down beside her and pulled out her sketching materials. Might as well make a few silvers for her time.
14th Light Cavalry
To read Erris’ chapter and more, find SOUL OF THE WORLD in stores June 27th from Orbit Books!