Snippet 2 – Storm of Tears

For all my amazing fans…

Here is a snippet of Storm of Tears, the third novel in my epic fantasy series!

Chapter One

The Skyland of Tlele, Lheshoa 20th, 399 VF (1960 SR)

How far will he go for knowledge, Ary?” Chaylene asked her husband, biting her lip. She trembled against him, feeling his heart thundering beneath his rib cage as she clutched him in the darkness of their bedroom.

Ary stared at her. “Estan?”

“Yes.”

“Why do you sound concerned about Estan?” Ary asked, pulling away from her. “And not . . . Theisseg’s warning?”

Her husband’s latest dream of the Dark Goddess Theisseg frightened Chaylene to her core. The intensity of Ary’s words had her shuddering, fear cutting through her hangover’s headache. She didn’t understand how Theisseg’s sister, the Sun Goddess Riasruo, was returning. Once, Chaylene had believed Riasruo was a benevolent Goddess, that Theisseg was the one to be feared, but now . . .

“Well . . .” Chaylene bit her lip. Riasruo was a remote threat, but Estan . . . The words he had spoken a week ago still gusted through Chaylene’s mind, shaking her trust in their intelligent and serious friend.

“Tell me, Lena,” Ary said.

In the dim light of their bedroom, she could make out Ary’s forehead furrowing. His square jaw worked and his eyes narrowed. A few strands of his blond hair tumbled down across his tan-brown forehead. Her ebony hands gripped his broad shoulders. Running a farm at the age of ten, and then serving as a marine, had given Ary a body thick with muscles. She pressed her face into his chest, her blonde locks tumbling about her dark cheeks.

“Lena?” Ary asked, his strong arms engulfing her. The young woman closed her eyes. She felt safe held in his embrace. And he’s leaving me. Estan’s taking him away.

“It’s just . . .” Chaylene didn’t quite know how to voice her nebulous fears. Estan was obsessed with knowledge. He constantly poked and prodded, driven to uncover truth. “Sometimes, I fear he cares more about knowledge than others.”

Ary snorted. “He’s a good friend, Lena.”

Chaylene had believed that until Estan had threatened to reveal Ary’s secret if Ary didn’t heal Esty, Estan’s lover. Ary had forgiven Estan, taking it as a slip of the tongue in the heat of the moment, but for Chaylene the threat hung around them.

Estan knew too much about Ary’s past.

Her hand slipped down her husband’s stone-hard chest and touched the puckered scar on his side. During the Cyclone that had ravaged their home as children, Theisseg’s lightning had struck him there. Ary was Stormtouched. The Church of Riasruo had sent assassins to kill him. Chaylene herself had almost died in two of those attempts. Worse, their own country, the Autonomy of Les-Vion, imprisoned Stormtouched in the infamous Rhision Prison out on the skyland of Rhogre. Only a month ago, Investigator Archene Thugris, hunting for Stormtouched, had interrogated Ary, Chaylene, and the rest of the crew of the Dauntless after they’d battled a Cyclone.

Stormtouched were thought to be cursed by Theisseg. People feared they were controlled by Her, threats to the skylands. Chaylene should be equally as scared, equally as repulsed by Theisseg’s taint on her husband. But she loved him. She’d vowed to Ary’s own sister to protect him. She wouldn’t let anyone harm him. She knew the truth. It wasn’t a curse. What Theisseg had given her husband had saved Chaylene’s and other’s lives.

“Just . . . be careful when you travel with Estan,” Chaylene said, stroking his scar.

“There are more important things to worry about,” Ary said.

“I know.”

His right hand stroked her ebony shoulder. Unlike Ary, who was a full-blooded Vionese with brown skin and red eyes, Chaylene was half-Vaarckthian, her coal-black skin inherited from her dead mother, her blonde hair from her dead father.

“What does it mean, that Riasruo is coming?” Ary asked. “Does Theisseg mean there are more assassins after me, or is it something else?”

“I don’t know.” Chaylene bit her lip, thinking on the stories. “Neither Theisseg nor Riasruo ever soared the skies in any of the legends. They only appear in certain places. Like Mount Wraiucwii.”

“Where Iiwroa somehow betrayed Theisseg.” Ary sighed, his face furrowed.

Chaylene had no idea how Iiwroa, the great leader of the Hopeful Company, could possibly have betrayed Theisseg. Iiwroa was Theisseg’s enemy. However, Chaylene had learned, from Ary and his dreams, that the stories about the Wrackthar Wars and the origin of the Storm Below were not what the singers and storytellers had claimed.

There was a secret concealed by Riasruo’s Church.

“I’ll talk to Estan in the morning,” Ary said. “Maybe he’ll have an idea.”

“Yeah.” Chaylene couldn’t deny that Estan was intelligent and had studied the very esoteric secrets that had been thrust upon Ary when he was Touched. Her labored heart tightened knowing Ary had to leave her. “I wish I could go with you.”

“Me, too.” Ary stroked his thumb across the stump of his left hand. The pirate Nrein had cut off the top of his hand, slicing through his palm right above his thumb, which he still possessed, during the Battle of Grion Rift. If Chaylene hadn’t missed her shot . . .

Tomorrow, Ary would be officially discharged from the Navy, free to live his life as he chose.

Chaylene snuggled tighter against her husband, clutching him. She didn’t want to let Ary go. She wanted him to stay at Rheyion Naval Base. He was her only shelter against the winds of her guilt. Tears burned in her eyes. Her mouth opened, desperate to ask him to stay. To beg him.

She knew he would.

But he has to find these answers, she reminded herself. She couldn’t be selfish. The Church would never stop hunting Ary. If he freed Theisseg and ended the Storm . . . We can go home to Vesche and be farmers. It wasn’t her dream. Hers had died with Whitesocks.

The image of her pegasus—a majestic beast with a coat of cinnamon and wings of iridescent gray—rose in her mind. She had once dreamed of flying around the skies on him, seeing new wonders. Her body shook, throat tightening. Sobs burst out of her while tears poured down her cheeks.

Whitesocks’s dying snort echoed in her mind, his broken legs kicking as she stroked his neck, loving him until the light left his black eyes. Other nightmares filled her mind: Stormriders galloping at the Dauntless, the Vionese sailor glaring at her right before her pressure bullet punched through his skull, Ary kneeling over Estan while the pirate loomed.

As if sensing her pain, Ary held her tight.

“Will the nightmares ever go away?” Chaylene asked.

“I hope they do.”

Ary found his sleep after her tears had dried. She listened to his heart thud, his chest rising and falling beneath her head with his slow breaths. Chaylene feared what waited in her dreams. Whitesocks had been such a beautiful pegasus. Smart, intelligent, and loyal. Every day for five months, Chaylene had gone to his stable, curried his hide, checked his wings and hooves, and fed him an apple or plum. They’d flown through the skies together. He’d soared into the battle over the pirate fortress out of love and duty for her.

Right into an Agerzak arrow.

She stared at the window, watching the horizon lighten through the bubbled, imperfect glass.

A new day dawned.

*

The frustrating itch in the calf muscle of Estan’s leg drew him out of sleep. He reached down to scratch it. The sensation drove him wild. The prickling tingles radiated up and down from his knee to his ankle.

His fingers touched no flesh.

The shock snapped Estan awake, heart pounding ice through his veins. For a frantic moment, he fumbled to feel his leg and . . .

Groaned into full memory.

He lay on a narrow cot in the naval base’s medical building. His right leg itched even though the surgeon had amputated it above the knee. An Agerzak greatsword, wielded by the pirate Nrein, had ended Estan’s short career as an Autonomy Marine. Once, he’d believed he was destined to study at the great University of Rlarshon, to be a philosopher in the natural sciences and follow in the footsteps of his tutor, Fehun Rlarim.

Why are we disobeying the church and studying forbidden knowledge?” Estan had asked Master Rlarim as a boy. Pursuing it had driven Master Rlarim from the academic halls into the household of the Lord Mayor of Amion.

Knowledge should never be hoarded and only handed out with miserly annoyance like a merchant bemoaning the debts he must pay,” Master Rlarim had answered. “Knowledge is like the sun shining down on us. It should be free for everyone to enjoy. To drink in, much like the plants growing in your father’s garden drink in the sun’s rays for energy. Knowledge invigorates and illuminates. It is worthless if kept hidden. And, like the sun, it is not something that should be feared.”

Unless you’re a Stormtouched and Riasruo’s church sends assassins to kill you, Estan thought.

The itch intensified. Estan groaned through his clenched teeth as he stared at the infirmary’s dark ceiling, wishing he could scratch the severed part of his leg. Lieutenant Aychiov, the medical officer, had disposed of it into the Storm. Maybe some creature is gnawing on it. Ary had told a story of an amputee he knew who held that superstition. That is why it itches badly.

Estan recognized the weakness of his hypothesis, but it was hard to care. He groaned again and gave up on scratching at his ghostly limb. He wasn’t alone in the infirmary. The wounded of past battles occupied the other beds. Of the Dauntless’s crew, only the fierce Bosun and Ienchie, the sailor friend of Chaylene, recuperated with Estan. Those two had both been grieved to learn that their injuries had prevented their deaths when the Dauntless had mysteriously detonated during the Battle of the Rift. Even Estan, who’d spent considerable time thinking on nothing else, failed to understand how their ship could have been so catastrophically and suddenly lost.

His fingers absently scratched at his stump as he considered the Dauntless’s fate. He wished Esty, his Agerzak fiancée, had not been forced to leave by the medical officer. Her lively conversation helped to focus his mind from the burning itch.

Alone, he muttered to himself: “The only cause that makes rational sense is an explosion in the powder magazine.”

In the bow of the Dauntless, below the two forward ballistae, lay the powder magazine. There the clay shots, filled with black powder and a variety of fuses, were stored during sailing. During combat, a sailor would be in the magazine placing the shots into a canvas sling to be hauled up to the ballistae.

“I suppose the sailor could have dropped the shot,” Estan mused. “There is a theoretical chance such a mishap could break the glass fuse. My own observations show a shot can be dropped from clumsy hands without detonation. Of course, proper tests should be conducted with a variety of fuses. If there is a flaw in the way warships store their shots, then it needs to be found and—”

“Private!” the growling voice of the Bosun cracked through the darkness of the infirmary.

Estan’s stomach clenched. “Yes, Bosun?”

The large woman sat up on her bed. Though he could not see her face in the shadows, he was certain her one good eye was fixed on him. “Will you Stormin’ be quiet, or I’ll pick up your gimped body with my broken arm and carry you to the skyland’s edge. Do you know what I’ll do next, Private?”

“Cast me down into the Storm Below, Bosun.”

“I’m glad we understand.”

Estan swallowed. He really didn’t think the Bosun would follow through on her threat, but she did have large fists. . . He’d witnessed her use them effectively on the sailors of the Dauntless.

Estan kept his mouth shut for the rest of the night. He only wished his leg would stop itching.

*

Lheshoa 21st, 399 VF (1960 SR)

Zori came awake in a flash. She bolted up on her cot in the nearly empty barracks for the crew of the Dauntless. Corporal Huson and Zeirie, the only other women sharing the top floor with Zori, were dressing in their marine uniforms. So many beds were empty. The normal bustle, laughs, and groans of the others waking up were absent.

The hollow echo blunted Zori’s usual good mood. It was hard to be excited about a new day when she’d be saying goodbye to the crew of the Dauntless who perished when their ship was destroyed. To the women she’d bunked with for months. Despite the sorrow, Zori forced herself to smile, the way her mother would, to forget her pain.

It mostly worked.

She felt Corporal Huson’s eyes on her. Zori grimaced. The corporal never spoke but always watched, looking for some infraction to gig a marine. It wasn’t uncommon for her to report to the Bosun if a female sailor was too slow to rise or too sloppy in her dress. Zori didn’t care how slovenly she looked.

She was a scout.

Zori let her stretch linger, ignoring Huson’s studious gaze. She didn’t have to fake her insolent smile. The linen chemise she slept in rustled while her short legs dangled over the edge of her cot. Zori was the shortest member of the crew, and her body was slim and compact. It had given her many advantages while living on the streets after her mother died. She’d dodged the militiamen wanting to throw her in the workhouses and the pimps wanting to throw her in the brothels.

Zori loved the Navy. Mostly. She had three meals a day where she didn’t have gulp down her food like a sow at the trough, afraid someone bigger would steal it. She had a clean bed and friends she trusted to watch her back. She had Guts.

And she had Dancer.

There was such wonder in flying. The wind rushing past her face, whipping her short, blonde hair behind her while the flight muscles of Dancer flexed beneath her when the pegasus flapped his wings. She could spiral high up then dive to the earth, whooping and hollering.

It would be perfect without the fighting, she thought, the emptiness of the room pressing upon her.

Zori ripped off her dirty chemise, the corporal watching. Zori fixed Huson a hard look. Technically, Huson outranked Zori, but Zori was a scout. It would be futile for Huson to report her to Chaylene, Zori’s bosom friend.

Zori stuck her tongue out at the corporal before bending over to slowly dig through her chest of drawers for a clean uniform. Despite the chill in the barracks, her skin pimpling, she forced herself to take her time until she felt the corporal’s eyes leave her.

That’s right. I’m not one of your marines with a stick rammed up my backside. I’m a person who does what she wants. Zori paused. Mostly.

The two marines left Zori behind to head to the parade grounds for the final muster of the Dauntless. Ary would be there, and Guts would be looking so handsome and strapping in his red jacket. Zori grinned. She loved watching Guts march in his uniform. She didn’t care that his face was disfigured.

Dressed in her scout uniform—white linen britches bloused into her stiff, black boots, a knife tucked into her boot top, a starched linen shirt, not buttoned all the way to her neck, and a sky-blue jacket left open—she skipped down the stairs, passing the two floors the unmarried men lived in. They were as vacant as the women’s.

She burst out into the daylight.

*

Buttons proved a challenge for Ary now.

Only having four fingers and two thumbs made many mundane tasks more difficult. Fastening his red jacket was almost more than he could manage. His teeth ground as he struggled to pop the bone button through the eyelet.

“May I?” Chaylene, dressed in the navy-blue jacket of an officer over her white blouse and britches, asked. A few errant strands of her blonde hair, tied back at the nape of her neck, tumbled down her ebony skin.

“Fine,” Ary growled.

Chaylene’s fingers were nimble, working their way up the front, popping each button effortlessly through its hole. Ary noticed her cloudy eyes misting as she asked, “Did I ever tell you that you look handsome in your uniform?”

“Maybe,” Ary said, his back straightening.

“When I was a little girl, before the Cyclone, I sometimes pictured you in this uniform. Dashing and daring.”

“I . . . I didn’t know.” Before the Cyclone, it had been Ary’s dream to be a marine. He used to watch them drilling at Aldeyn Watch on the edge of their home skyland, Vesche. To the young boy, the marines were the epitome of brave and gallant, the Stormwall of the Autonomy. He’d pretended to march and fight with them.

Then he’d witnessed the Intrepid’s sortie against the Cyclone. Seven years later, and Ary couldn’t forget how insignificant the Intrepid had looked as she’d sailed before the wall of boiling clouds spanning the horizon. He’d clutched at the stones of the ruined watchtower, his heart hammering in his chest, afraid and excited all at the same time.

Then the Cyclone had struck Vesche.

He’d felt its terrible force as the Intrepid wallowed in the winds. Ary had prayed to Riasruo to protect the warship. The Goddess hadn’t answered his prayers. A false sun . . .

A different Goddess had heard Ary. He was struck by Theisseg’s lightning and had his first dream of the supposedly evil Goddess bound in chains of pulsing lightning, screaming in agony, and begging for her freedom. Theisseg wasn’t to be feared. Only pitied.

Ary feared Riasruo now.

She’d ignored Ary’s prayer and allowed the Intrepid to crash. The crew perished. Riasruo wasn’t the benevolent Goddess the Church claimed. She was a monster who sent assassins to kill Ary.

And they almost killed Chaylene.

Seeing the dead of the Intrepid had scarred young Ary. He’d vowed give up dreams of glory and become a farmer. Until Chaylene was drafted into the Navy, Ary had no intentions of ever donning the red jacket. But he did. He served. He fought as a marine for his country, and now his maimed hand had ended his career.

Almost six months. I hated it. He snorted at his thoughts. Now that it’s over, I so desperately want to stay.

It wasn’t just for Chaylene that he yearned to stay, but for Guts, Corporal Huson, Zeirie, Jhech, and Messiench. His marines. Ary had led them into battle first as their corporal, then their sergeant, and lastly as their adjutant-lieutenant. He ached to serve on the Adventurous and protect the remnants of the Dauntless’s crew.

Today was his last day as a Marine of the Autonomy. Tears stung his eyes.

Impulsively, he pulled Chaylene to him, holding her tight. After a moment, her arms went around him, clutching him, clinging to him. I’m abandoning them all, he thought.

“I’ll be fine,” Chaylene whispered, her voice cracking. She cleared her throat. “The Bluefin Raiders are done. The Eastern Fleet won’t have much to do but patrol. It’s fine. You have to go, Ary. You have to find the answers.”

“I know.”

“You’re my Bronith. You’ll find me again.”

Ary squeezed his eyes shut. Chaylene loved the tale of the moon nymph Eyia who’d dance down on a rainbow of light when both the red and blue moons were full. The mighty hunter Bronith spied her in a glade, captivated by her beauty. When dawn came, she had to return home upon the moonbeams. Bronith would not be deterred. He followed her into the sky where he chased her to this day, their constellations shining bright.

Ary cleared his throat. “My Eyia.”

After one more desperate heartbeat, they broke apart.

Ary buckled on his sword belt, a metal Stormrider sabre hanging from it. They donned their boots, Chaylene blousing her britches into the tops of hers. Despite being promoted to the rank of lieutenant, she was still a scout at heart. For Ary, tying his boot laces proved easier than buttoning his jacket. He couldn’t perform the task as swiftly, but he could pinch the lace between his thumb and the stump of his left palm while the fingers of his right fashioned the knot.

Dressed, the pair left their small house and separated for the day. Ary marched to the Dauntless’s parade ground, his back straight while his boots crunched on the gravel walkway. The sky was clear.

Corporal Huson had the surviving marines standing at attention. Ary’s eyes flicked from one to the other. Corporal Huson stood before them, the sabre-thin woman’s back rigid, her face severe and bony. She wore her blonde hair pulled back in a tight bun, stretching smooth the tan-brown skin of her forehead. She was Ary’s age, but carried herself like a spinster.

“Adjutant-Lieutenant,” she said, snapping a salute.

“Corporal.” Ary saluted back as he stopped beside her.

“I am afraid not all the marines are accounted for, Adjutant-Lieutenant.” Her small lips pursed tight as she glanced to her right. Estan limped across the grounds with a crutch, the end of his trouser leg pinned up to his thigh, his red coat buttoned tight. His face was twisted as he struggled forward. Esty, his Agerzak paramour, lurked on the edge of the field, watching with hands clasped before her.

“I think he’s earned his tardiness, Corporal,” Ary answered.

“As you wish, sir.”

Guts caught Ary’s gaze. The big man rolled his eyes, a smile crossing his lips beneath the fake leather nose he wore strapped to his face. He’d lost his real one fighting Stormriders a few months back. Though Ary was a large man, his young body strengthened by running a farm at a young age, Guts was even taller and broader in the chest. The hilt of an Agerzak greatsword peeked over his shoulder. The sword had once been Ary’s. After being maimed, he’d traded it for Guts’s sabre.

The other marines waited in stoic silence for Estan as his crutch thunked with every step. Not even Zeirie made a comment. Estan’s back was straight. His Stormrider sabre hung in a sheath at his hip. Ary felt his marines’ admiration for their compatriot. Estan may have been the rich son of a Lord Mayor, but he’d never hesitated to perform the strenuous and dangerous duty of a marine.

“Private,” Ary said when Estan arrived.

“Adjutant-Lieutenant.” Pain creased Estan’s face as he fell in formation beside Zeirie. The half-Agerzak woman gave Estan a nod.

Emotion clung to Ary’s throat as he gazed at his men. He’d fought and bled with all of them, even Zeirie. In some ways, they were closer to him than his siblings. He could never tell his brother Jhevon what it was like to brain a man with a sword. He could never describe to his sister Gretla the sheer terror of standing at the railing while sailing into the maw of a Cyclone.

His marines understood.

“I would give anything to continue serving with you,” Ary said, fighting against the burning in his eyes, his words hoarse. He had to be strong. He was their commander. He clasped his maimed hand behind his back. He stared each of them in the eye as he spoke. “You are the finest marines in the Autonomy. You have served in more danger and muck in your first year of service than most will see in four. Not once did you complain. Not once did you shirk your duties. You stood beside me before the Cyclone. You rappelled down to the docks of Offnrieth behind me. You came to my rescue when Chaylene’s pegasus was shot from the sky at the pirate fortress.

“I . . .” His words faltered for a moment. His throat closed. The world grew watery. “I am truly fortunate to have met you all. The Sergeant-Major entrusted your safety to me. I did my best, now I entrust it to Corporal Huson. I know she’ll take good care of you.”

“I will, Adjutant-Lieutenant,” the corporal said, and Ary caught a rare gleam of emotion in her green eyes.

Impulsively, Ary hugged the corporal. She was a stickler for formality. Rarely had she relaxed her discipline. Only once, after his maiming, had she called him Ary. Today, she broke discipline again and embraced him back.

After a moment, he released her, emotion fighting to be freed as he stepped before Estan and engulfed him in a hug. Chaylene may have had her doubts about Estan, but Ary knew the Vaarckthian would never betray him. They’d bled together.

Ary released his friend and came face to face with Zeirie. The woman had once bullied Chaylene for being half-Vaarckthian, slinging mud with others. That didn’t matter now. Zeirie was his sister. He embraced her.

“I’ll watch out for your wife, Adjutant-Lieutenant,” Zeirie whispered, returning his hug with a fierceness.

Ary nodded.

He embraced the quiet and burly Messiench next, the man’s rough beard scraping on Ary’s neck. Next, Ary engulfed the stout Jhech, the man slapping Ary’s back. Ary shuffled down the formation to stand before Guts. Besides Estan, Guts was Ary’s closest friend.

“Theisseg damn, I didn’t see it ending like this,” Guts said as they crushed each other with brotherhood. “Out of all of us recruits, you were the only one of us that wasn’t a fish scurrying before the shadow of the Sergeant-Major. Had you running the perimeter during our first muster.”

Ary grinned. “And if you hadn’t had a head stuffed full of ostrich feathers, you wouldn’t have laughed and joined me.”

Guts laughed, the rich, honest bass rumbling from him while his arms tightened. Ary didn’t mind his spine cracking.

“It’s not going to be the Stormin’ same without you, Ary.”

*

Zori snorted as the marines jogged by, led by Ary. Only poor Estan was absent. She caught Guts’s attention and shook her head at him. Guts flashed her a broad grin that made his fake leather nose shift unnaturally.

“Why are you running?” Zori shouted. “It’s our last day on the Dauntless. No one cares.”

“Ary does,” Guts answered as his smile fell.

Like Estan, Ary would be discharged from the Navy that day. A marine with one-and-a-half-hands wasn’t needed. But he would still be living on Tlele, waiting for Chaylene to return from the boring patrols on the Adventurous.

Three and a half years of boring sounds just fine with me, thought Zori.

Zori never expected to fall in love. That was something for heroines in the stories. In the real world on the streets of Sey, there wasn’t love. There was plenty of lust. It was nice snuggling up to a dumb, strong man on a cold night, protected in exchange for a short time pumping on top of her. Zori had always kept a good eye out for a big man who would defend her but not hit her.

Besides, she hadn’t minded the pumping. Sometimes, it had made her burn quite hot. She really enjoyed it with Guts.

With Guts, however, she wasn’t giving herself for protection. She didn’t have to give herself at all. She did it because she liked being with Guts. He was funny, with a quip or a joke that kept her entertained. Zori even pictured a future with him once their service was over.

Next I’ll be cooking him dinner like Chaylene does for Ary. We’ll be playing house and talking about children. Her hand touched her belly. A long-buried emotion rose, the pain of Amiria threatening to escape.

Zori stuffed it back down in her and focused on the present.

It seemed so alien to Zori, and yet she yearned for it. Guts had crept under her skin. Their star watching had only supposed to be fun. Her mother had always advised her to never love a man. “They’ll tell you such sweet lies in bed. They’ll tell you sweet promises that you’ll want to believe. Your heart will beat fast. You’ll think you’re in love, but it’s lies. Men never tell the truth. They just take and leave. So don’t let them hurt you. Don’t let yourself love them. Take their money, their gifts, and their protection. Take what you need from them before they grow bored and find another woman to deceive.”

Zori was glad she hadn’t eaten all of her mother’s bitter meal. While it had sustained Zori on the streets, seeing Ary with Chaylene had taught her that not every man lied and maybe, just maybe, Guts was like Ary.

Zori was taking the chance.

She whistled a bawdy ditty sung in the taverns of Sey as she strolled to the stables. The words would make Chaylene’s ebony cheeks blush darker. Her grin twisted her lips. Maybe I should sing it for her.

The Dauntless’s section of the Rheyion Naval Port felt abandoned. All the life had evaporated. She kept expecting to see familiar faces rounding a supply building. She whistled harder to prevent the sadness from dragging her into foggy mires, her back straight, her arms swinging. She popped into the kitchen to snag a hard pear. She tossed it in her hand as she kept walking to the stables. They were whitewashed like the rest of the buildings, though smaller. The stale, sour scent of dung tickled her nose mixed with the earthy musk of a pegasus.

“I was wondering if you were sleeping in,” Velegrin said as he stepped out of the stables leading Blackfeather, his pegasus. His blond hair was its usual bird-nest mess, his shirt rumpled. “Or maybe your scrawny foot had slipped between the cracks of the floorboards and you’d gotten stuck.”

“Scrawny?” Zori arched an eyebrow. “There is nothing scrawny about me. I am perfectly proportioned.”

“For an eleven-year-old.”

“Eleven?”

“Sorry, eight.”

The pear struck Velegrin in the face with a wet thunk. Velegrin laughed as he managed to catch it on the rebound. “Definitely eight. You could have thrown it harder if you were older.”

Zori groaned through her teeth. As Velegrin passed her, he held the pear up for Blackfeather to eat. The pegasus bit deep.

“That pear’s for Dancer,” protested Zori.

“Then why did you give it to me?” Velegrin asked.

“I threw it at you! It was an attack.”

Velegrin cocked his head. “So, I should give my attacker back her weapon? That hardly seems prudent. Better if Blackfeather enjoys his snack.”

The pegasus munched on the pear. His black-feathered wings, an oddity for a Vionese pegasi, fluttered and his tail swished. Velegrin scratched Blackfeather’s neck as he led his mount for a walk.

Zori’s shriek was an angry sow’s squeal mixed with a falcon’s screech. She stalked into the stables where the far-more-deserving-of-a-pear-than-Velegrin’s-stupid-pegasus Dancer waited. He neighed in greeting, his roan muzzle peeking over the top of his stall.

“No pear for you,” Zori muttered. “Mean ol’ Velegrin took it for his piggish pegasus. Can you believe that?”

A sob answered Zori. It came from the next stall.

The slim scout frowned then sidled a few steps and peered into the pen. Chaylene sat in the straw, hugging her legs, her eyes swollen red and tracks of tears staining her cheeks.

“Chaylene,” Zori whispered. She darted inside. “What’s wrong?”

“Ary’s leaving.”

Zori sank down beside her friend and put an arm around Chaylene’s shoulders. “What do you mean, he’s leaving? The Navy? I know it won’t be great not having him onboard, but—”

“Onhur. He’s leaving Onhur.”

“What?” Anger hissed out of Zori. “That Storm-cursed, downyheaded jackanape! How could he?”

Chaylene blinked at Zori, her forehead furrowing. “What?”

“I thought he was a better man than to abandon his wife. I mean, I thought that—” Zori clamped her mouth shut before bringing up Chaylene’s unfortunate infatuation with Vel that had caused so many problems for her marriage a few months past.

“No, he’s not abandoning me. He has to go. He needs to . . . learn things. Find a way to . . .”

“Oh . . .” Zori swallowed. She didn’t want to say the “S” word, but it gusted around them. Zori had learned about it when Ary saved Guts’s life after the fight with the Luastrian assassin two weeks or so before.

Chaylene nodded. “With Estan. It’s just . . . I don’t want Ary to go. I want to beg him to stay.”

“Then do it. Tell your man what you want.” Zori flashed her friend a naughty grin. “It did wonders for me and Guts. The man did not know what to do with his hands.”

Chaylene groaned, and Zori fought her giggle. She loved teasing her friend with earthy suggestions.

“Ary needs to do this,” Chaylene said. “I know he’d stay if I pressed him, but it’d be wrong of me. Another assassin will come. And . . . it’s all . . . too much . . .” Her body shook. “The Dauntless is gone. Captain Dhar’s dead. And . . . and . . .”

Zori noticed the bridle clenched in Chaylene’s hand. The leather creaked as Chaylene rubbed it against her tear-stained cheek.

“I came . . . in . . . and . . . he wasn’t . . . here . . .” Chaylene sobbed, her entire body shaking. “I don’t . . . know why I thought . . . he would be . . .”

Zori held her friend. She loved Dancer. He gave her so much freedom, an extension of her. With Dancer, Zori could fly. That was a marvel to the poor girl from the streets of Sey. To lose that . . . lose him . . .

Zori held her friend until the horns blew.

“Time for the funeral,” Zori whispered.

Chaylene nodded. She stood, dusting the straw from her backside then wiping her cheeks with a handkerchief. “I could really use a drink.”

Zori blinked. “It’s pretty early.”

Chaylene didn’t answer. She marched out of the stall, her back straight. Zori swallowed, a chilly wind gusting through her. Zori’s injury during the Cyclone had caused her to miss the fight at Offnrieth and the choking plague. When she’d returned to the ship, she almost didn’t feel part of the crew. They’d all been through something transformative. Now a foul, dark shadow covered Chaylene, obscuring some of her warmth.

Zori ached to banish it.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

To save the skies, Ary must die!

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