Diamond Stained (Secret of the Jewels One)
The black gloves creaked. The dyed-sable minx leather gleamed. Ōbhin examined them, searching for the crimson stains he always expected, even dreaded, to find on them.
Every morning, he oiled the gloves, keeping them flexible. He never found the blood.
He could still feel the hilt of the dagger in his hand. Feel the impact of blade against flesh. Niszeh’s Black Tones, will it ever leave me?
He shifted as he leaned against the stark-white bark of the oak tree rising above him. Its limbs were drenched with the vermilion he expected to find on his gloves. Broad, red leaves, veined with dark rivulets of scarlet, rustled in a soft breeze. The entire forest appeared stained by violence, the trees corpse-pale. The sight sent a shudder through the young man.
His dark eyes squinted, thickening the worry lines spreading from the corners across his olive-brown face. His skin marked him as foreign as the strange trees found in the heart of the Upfing Forest. His chainmail coat creaked, the smell of pig oil mixed with a hint of iron rust; the scent of a warrior.
“You lookin’ alive, there, Ōbhin?” asked Carstin. The Lothonian sidled up, a friendly grin on his lips. He had the air of an easy-going man with a smile that took nothing seriously. He puffed on the blackroot cigar, dried leaves and herbs wrapped in dark leaf. Coals flared to life at the tip. Smoke curled out of the corners of his mouth.
“Just waiting,” Ōbhin answered, his accent giving a lilting twist to his words. He came from across the sea, a mountain kingdom full of breathtaking vistas. And trees that were their proper color, he thought.
“They say Elohm and his devas fought against the Black here,” said Carstin. “Why all them trees look bleeding. Ripped out the Black’s heart and dropped it here. The Red Heart of the Forest, you see.”
“Talkative as always,” snorted Carstin, teeth gripping his cigar. He was young, like Ōbhin, barely past his twentieth summer. The cigar made him seem older, grizzled. “You’re lucky I can talk enough for the both of us.”
“Lucky indeed,” Ōbhin said.
“Yep, I got all the Patience the Fathers of Elohm harp on ‘bout. Why, my blood might run Yellow.”
“Does Lausi sing in you?” asked Ōbhin, his left hand falling to the pommel of his curved sword, called a tulwar across the sea. He brushed the emerald set in the pommel, felt the gold wires wrapped around the jewelchine. Though only containing twenty-two springs, an umbral weight seemed to press on his shoulders, his eyes shadowed.
Carstin chuckled. “Foreign gods got no power here. This is Elohm’s land.”
Ōbhin’s mood fell as he glanced through the trees to the distant clearing. There, three tents were pitched on the torn-up ground. Bits of ruins peeked out of the dirt, walls crumbling, weathered to mangled stumps. Looming over all was the largest ruby Ōbhin had ever seen. It was twisted like some giant had found it molten and torqued. It thrust ten cubits out of the earth, and who knew how much was hidden beneath the soil.
A shiver ran through him. He felt the Tones reverberating around here. The notes that echoed through Creation and were trapped in gems. What Carstin called “foreign gods” were the personification of those notes, the seven good and the one Black.
“Handsome Baill’s comin’ back,” said Stone, the hulking man leaning against another tree, his maul’s blunt head resting between his feet. Other members of their band shifted as the archer slinked through the scarlet-bright brush towards them.
Ōbhin squinted, twisting the scar that accented his right cheek, a puckered white on the brown-olive of his features. Sometimes, he wondered, how he’d ended up in such a motley band. How had his life led him to rob fat merchants and drunk priests?
Once, he’d protected kings.
He glanced down at the gloves. No stains.
“Look alive,” growled Ust. The broad-shouldered leader of the band of highwaymen ran his hand through his greasy, brown hair. He had pale skin like the rest of the Lothonians, a washed-out beige. His thick beard bristled with a feral eagerness. “Well?”
“Yes, yes, wot you see?” asked Hook. He was second in the band. He gesticulated with his namesake thrusting from a cap of leather strapped to the stump of his left arm. It gleamed as it caught an errant flash of spring sunlight. “How many are there?”
“That fat scholar brought a single strongarm,” said Handsome Baill, his upper lip split by a defect, giving his bluff face an unsettling gaze. His words lisped, his S’s elongated. He snagged his yew longbow from where it leaned against skeletal bark.
“Just one?” Ust asked, glancing at the three tents. “That’s it? You’d think a scholar be smart enough to have more protection after pissin’ in the Brotherhood’s beer.”
Hook wheezed with laughter while chuckles echoed from the other bandits. Counting Ōbhin, they numbered thirteen.
“Well, I ain’t gonna complain ‘bout earnin’ easy coin, Colours no. Eh, boys?”
“That’s right, Ust,” Hook said, a big grin on his face. His crooked nose and flat face gleamed with oily fervor. “Just go in ‘n grab him.”
Ōbhin stroked the emerald jewelchine.
“Glad for that,” Carstin muttered to Ōbhin. “Didn’t want to bleed on this one.”
“Just one? That’s strange,” said Stone, his words tumbling out. The big man gave a nervous look at the woods. “You sure there ain’t more hidin’ around?”
“Sure,” Baill grunted as he limbered his yew bow, his powerfully muscled right arm, twice as thick as his left, bent the stave to a taut curve so he could string it. Stone was the only other man in the band who could pull back the powerful weapon.
“But, I mean,” Stone continued. “Seems too easy.”
“Shut it,” Whiner Creg hissed, glaring at Stone. “Just three of ‘em. You could go ‘n brain them all with that big hammer. The rest of us could sit on our backsides and enjoy these beautiful woods.”
“‘Course you want to stay back,” Carstin said. “Can’t get stuck sitting on your arse, Colours no.”
Whiner Creg shrugged, the skinny man wiping at his runny nose. Snot stained his leather gauntlet in sticky lines.
Ōbhin grimaced, glancing down at his sable gloves. “Let’s get this over with.”
“Ah, the great and mighty Ōbhin has chimed in,” Ust said, his lips sneering, beard bristling.
“Great and mighty!” Hook said, then cackled as he capered.
Ōbhin fixed a hard stare at his leader, his thumb tracing a gold wire.
“I have half a mind to send you down there by yourself,” said Ust.
“Better than standing here listening to Hook wheeze himself to death.”
Ust grinned. “True. Shut up, Hook.”
“Right, right, sorry,” Hook said, his head bobbing, an unctuous grin spreading on his lips.
Handsome Baill nocked his first arrow.
“Still, what if they’re hiding?” Stone asked, the giant of a man squirming in his splint mail armor, the banded strips of iron creaking.
“Elohm’s Colours, find your balls,” Whiner Creg said. “Let’s go. My feet are gettin’ sore standin’ here.”
“Kill the strongarm,” said Ust, his lips parting in a grin, revealing brown-stained teeth. Bits of Tethyrian weed were stuck in the gaps. “Don’t touch a hair on the scholar and the woman.”
“How is this possible?” Avena asked for the dozenth time. The pair stood alone. The moment the artifact had been found that morning, Dualayn had sent the laborers, woodsmen recruited from a village on the edge of the forest, home.
“How indeed,” Dualayn Dashvin said.
Avena glanced up at the older scholar, her light-brown hair, wrapped in a mauve ribbon, falling in a braid down her back. She wore a plain, dark dress with a high neckline, the sober outfit a proper young woman should wear. Her skirt and petticoats rustled as she shifted her stance on her heeled shoes. Her red-painted lips pursed in a question beneath her dainty nose.
“It is two different gems grown as one,” she continued. “Have you ever seen anything like this, Father?”
“No, I have not, child,” Dualayn said, a tremble to his voice. “This may well predate the Shattering.”
A chill ran through Avena. The Shattering, when Elohm, the God of the Seven Colours, had confronted his nemesis, the Black. The cataclysmic clash of energies was said to have broken lands far to the east and almost destroyed the world.
“Elohm, let your Seven Colours polish us with your purity and cleanse the Black from us,” whispered Avena beneath her breath. Growing up in a church-run orphanage had stamped piety on the young woman. “Truly, Father?”
“Truly,” he said. A smile spread across the older man’s plump face. His soft hands grasped the strange jewelchine they had uncovered. Bits of dirt still clung to the entwined emerald and amethyst. The green and purple gems spiraled around each other in a helix pattern while threads of gold were embedded in the jewels.
It was like they grew around the metal wiring, thought Avena. She was familiar with jewel machines, commonly called jewelchines. One didn’t study beneath one of their greatest pioneers without picking up a thing or two.
“I didn’t even know an emerald or an amethyst could get that big,” Avena said, her heart pounding a rapid beat. She trembled as she stared at the object sitting on the worktable. At one cubit tall, a little longer than the length of her arm from elbow to fingertips, the jewel was massive.
“The largest is the Topaz Staff of Roidan, but that is an artifact from before the Shattering, much like this and that ruby outside,” said Dualayn. “The largest natural gem is a diamond the size of a pig’s heart. I saw it visiting Ondere’s capital. Imagine the light that could be fashioned from it.”
“What do you think this is?” Avena asked. “What purpose could this have been used for? It is such a large gem.”
“Emerald and amethyst mixed,” Dualayn murmured, his hand sliding through his thinning, graying hair. “Preservation and protection together.”
There were seven Colours of Elohm, each representing seven Virtues, and each had a gemstone associated with them. Emerald, Green, was Forgiveness, the preservation of bonds, the stability that allowed humans to continue on after mistakes were made. It was associated with strengthening and the earth. Amethyst symbolized Modesty, the protection of virtue and securing chastity. Locks and binders were made with them.
“Maybe it is a chest,” Avena said. “What if the two parts unspool to reveal contents being protected and preserved?”
“Perhaps,” Dualayn said. “I suspect this is what Naynee Guhin referred to as a Recorder in his Treaties on the Anteshattering Civilization. We’re standing over the ruins of one of the great cities. Perhaps lost Koilon.”
Avena swallowed, her eyes flicking to the hard-packed earth and the hole that led down into the library. It was strange down there, the floor smooth beneath the dust. It looked like the stone had been poured. They hadn’t explored far before finding the artifact sitting amid the collapsed ruin of a table.
“A Recorder?” asked Avena, her mouth suddenly dry. “What does it . . . record?”
“Knowledge,” said Dualayn. He ran a soft finger across the surface, his eyes trembling. Hope burned in them. He plucked his monocle from the dark waistcoat he wore buttoned over his portly frame. He placed the glass lens, attached to a chain of fine gold, before his right eye. He squinted to hold it in place as he leaned forward.
“You think this will save her, Father?” Avena asked, trembles racing through her slender body.
“I can only hope.” With a careful caress, he stroked an exposed bit of gold wire.
Light blazed from the heart of the Recorder. Avena gasped, stepping back two steps, her head brushing the sloping roof of the canvas tent. From the top of the device, a beam of golden light somehow made a ball of liquid radiance. It rippled for a moment, then curious symbols appeared on it, glyphs or letters that appeared to be pressable buttons.
“Old Tonal,” whispered Dualayn as he leaned forward. “The precursor to our modern alphabet. See there, the shape of that letter is reminiscent of our G. And there, the sweep of that . . . Can you see the S in it?”
Avena swallowed, leaning forward. Her heart leaped with joy. If this could hold the knowledge of restoring Bravine Dashvin’s mind, it would revolutionize the burgeoning field of jewelchine healing. New methods to reverse injuries too severe for Dualayn’s inventions to cure. Or the ability to fix deformations and congenital defects the topazes didn’t affect.
“My child, I think—”
“Trouble,” rumbled Ni’mod.
Avena squeaked. She’d forgotten their hulking bodyguard stood at the tent’s entrance. He’d shown no interest in the Recorder after setting it on the table. Instead, he stood with the stoic presence of a weathered boulder, all muscles and brutal strength. A faint curl of steam rose off his bare, ebony chest, especially from the deep scars crossing his torso. His green eyes, the bright color contrasting with his dark skin, almost seemed to blaze.
“Armed men approach. I smell blood on them.”
“Oh, dear,” Dualayn said.
Diamond Stained will be out on April 28th! You have to read this book because of the fantasy adventure and the enthralling characters!