For all my amazing fans…
Here is a snippet of Storm of Tears, the third novel in my epic fantasy series!
Grand Admiral of the Imperial Fleet, Uickthio Rnuilsick, stood on the balcony at the rear of the Imperial Palace. The white marble beneath her feet, veined with scarlet, encased the entire exterior of the center of power for the Vaarckthian Empire. She stood, hands clasped behind her, her red officer’s jacket buttoned to her neck, her white trousers freshly laundered and starched. Polished, black boots squeaked as she shifted her weight to relieve the growing ache in her lower back. Age groaned against Uickthio’s stamina, wrinkling her ebony face and streaking her red hair with gray.
How much longer shall the Emperor make us wait upon his glorious folly? she thought.
The balcony overlooked the edge of Lake Bkeurn, the largest body of water in the skies, its silver-gray surface rippling with mist that washed against the beach. Qopraa, the capital of the Empire, was entirely lost to the haze, along with the farthest regiments of the Imperial Army. Three-quarters of the Empire’s might stood in formation before the palace. The Emperor’s scheme of constantly assembling his army for inspection was for this moment. For a decade, they’d assembled in the fall before returning to their winter barracks.
Hopefully, it had allowed the army to assemble for war without alarming the Vionese.
Uickthio clenched her jaw when Satrap Qozhnui Uulvigk strolled out through the double doors. His jowls shook as the man shivered. Thick ebony fingers adjusted the front of his crushed velvet doublet.
“Brisk, isn’t it?” Qozhnui, the Master of Secrets, said as he joined her, his tone almost jovial. But Uickthio knew the shark too well.
“A chill in the air stiffens the soldiers’ spines,” the admiral answered. “Is the Emperor finally deigning to join us?”
“Soon, Admiral. He must be perfect. Our troops will need to be inspired this morning.” His eyes flicked to the mist. “Especially on such an uninspiring morning. The weather controllers should be flogged for allowing fog to form on the lake.”
“The weather controllers were given no special instructions to maintain operational security, as you well know.”
Qozhnui laughed. “Yes, yes. But, still, such a chill. The poor lads look like wraiths instead of the brave soldiers of the Empire.” He glanced behind him. “Now where is the old boy? I want to get out of the damp.”
“And back to your wine?”
“Imbibing mulled wine while watching Lake Bkeurn’s fog is one of the greatest delights. If you would ever relax, you would discover that.”
“Someone had to plan this folly.” For weeks, since the Emperor had grown more certain that the foolish plan with the Bluefin Raiders would bring a fair wind, she’d plotted with generals, admirals, colonels, and captains, strategizing the invasion of the Autonomy of Les-Vion. War games were played. Predictions were made.
Their plans were made of delicate, Ethinski rice paper. The slightest pressure, and they would tear.
“I have good news to ease your endless worry,” Qozhnui said. “Last night, President Kalthin met with his cabinet. A letter of great urgency had arrived from the Admiralty Board.”
“The Autonomy’s admirals have not been fooled by our ruse and believe the ships we supplied to the Bluefin Raiders was an act of war.”
Uickthio’s cheek twitched. “How is this good news?”
“Kalthin and his advisers scoffed. They cannot dream we’d ever go to war with them. After all, trade has never been more prosperous between us. The president has rejected the Admiralty Board’s request for a state of emergency and the immediate ferrying of the southern militias to the border skylands. All he granted was recalling veterans to outfit a few ships. That will take weeks. You will have conquered much of their territory by the time they react.”
Uickthio snorted. “Liberated, remember?”
“Yes, yes. Liberated. A much prettier word, eh?”
Uickthio didn’t fly towards his bait. “How do you know what was said in the capital of the Autonomy last night? No ship sails so swiftly.”
The man’s smile grew.
“Yes, you have an engine that allows for instantaneous communication.” Uickthio pursed her lips. “It sounds useful for the military. In fact, I have a proposal written for the Emperor. The Navy would benefit greatly from faster communication, particularly during the invasion.”
The smile froze on Qozhnui’s lips. “Well, that would spread word of its invention. Soon the Autonomy would have it, and then its usefulness would be blunted.”
“To the Navy, or to you?”
“Why, both. And since you need my intelligence, you should be my most fervent ally in preserving its secret.”
“Well . . . I can see it from your point of view.” His jowls bulged like a toad’s croaking throat as he nodded. “Perhaps I could part with an engine. Your adjutant has Moderate Mist, yes?”
“I could communicate any relevant information to him. He can be trusted to keep this out of the Autonomy’s grasp.”
“That should suffice,” Uickthio said.
“Then I shall deliver—”
The doors crashed opened and out swept the Emperor. Veukni I Aepriqoigk possessed a warrior’s bearing, a tall man dressed in a red Naval coat and white trousers, his epaulets tied with knots matching the ones on Uickthio’s own shoulders, his boots polished to a gleam. He marched to the edge of the balcony and gazed upon his empire.
A loud cheer rose from the soldiers, their arms thrusting in the air, fists clenched, in salute. Uickthio felt the honesty of the love and affection the army possessed for their leader. The Emperor, while not a military genius, had learned one lesson from his mother, Empress Aepriqo I Vthuimnick: “To maintain the empire and expand its borders, you must have the love of your soldiers and sailors. Your generals can never unseat you if the troops love you more. Cultivate their affection, and you shall be the greatest emperor since Zhnavth overthrew the Republic.”
Veukni had embraced her teachings. He was constantly meeting with the troops. He walked among them, handing out gifts to the privates, shaking their hands, engaging them in conversation. He asked about their families and thanked them for their dedicated service to the Empire.
It was the only virtue Uickthio respected in her leader.
In private, he was vain and boisterous, convinced he had the genius and the ability to reclaim all the lands the Empire had lost. The Autonomy was just the start. He planned on reclaiming the Free Nests of the Soweral, the Ethinski Republic, and the Tribes of Zzuk. Uickthio knew the truth. They may win the war with the Autonomy, but they wouldn’t retake all of it. Holding the territory would be costly even with the Church of Riasruo’s blessing.
The Luastrian archbishopress, sent from holy Ianwoa, followed daintily in the Emperor’s wake, draped in her robes of pure white that contrasted with the dun-brown of her feathers. She stood at the Emperor’s side, giving official sanction to this war.
“My soldiers,” the Emperor called out, his voice a clear baritone that carried through the still air, “I see before me the finest men and women to have ever assembled. The strongest winds of your generation have gathered you on the shores of Lake Bkeurn for our Mother Empire. Your parents and grandparents and your ancestors, stretching all the way back to the dark days of the Wrackthar Wars, look upon you with pride.
“I look upon you with pride!”
A cheer erupted through the troops. A vast, roaring gust of zeal swept over the balcony and sent a chill through Uickthio’s blood. They do love him.
“I look upon you and am moved to weep at your bravery. The gallant soldiers of the Empire have never lost so long as they have kept the love of the great Motherland in their hearts. They never faltered when the entire faith of our people and their ancestors wished them fair winds. They never broke beneath the brutalities of war so long as the golden light of Riasruo shone upon them.”
Another cheer. Louder, swelling like a rising gale. Arms and weapons were lifted in unearned triumph.
The Emperor, standing tall, waited for the exuberance to die. “The Motherland has been weak. Traitors and rebels have broken our once proud nation apart. To the south, the corrupt government of the Autonomy of Les-Vion keeps our fellow citizens in bondage. Whether Vaarckthian, Vionese, or Zalg, they are taxed and oppressed by the corrupt President Kalthin. They yearn for liberty, and we shall deliver it!
“I promise you all that we come not as conquerors, but as liberators. The sons and daughters of the Autonomy yearn to rejoin the Empire. They wish to throw off the yoke of the tyrannical rebels and traitors. So I charge you to be faithful, brave, gallant, and just. I charge you to free our brethren so they may be welcomed back into the loving arms of Mother Empire!”
The third and final cheer slammed into Uickthio with the force of a hurricane. She almost staggered beneath the voluminous celebration. They believed their leader. Her pulse beat faster beneath her skin. The soldiers of the Empire had righteous conviction in their hearts, a zeal that would hurtle them into battle.
What if we can win?
Pride in her countrymen sang in her heart.
“Grand Admiral Rnuilsick shall lead us to victory!” proclaimed the Emperor.
Uickthio stepped forward. Tears burned in her eyes as she gazed out at the soldiers of Vaarck. I will lead you to victory, she promised every last soldier standing in the field. Their cheers lifted her spirits.
War had come, and she would see the Empire triumph.
The Skyland of Tlele
After the funeral for the Dauntless’s crew, Ary folded his uniforms on the kitchen table, smoothing his good hand over the wool. Chaylene sat nearby, nursing a glass of orange wine. A basket filled with freshly caught fish, red potatoes, and lemons sat beside her.
“Do you think this will take long?” Chaylene asked.
“Probably,” Ary answered with a shrug. “Paperwork.”
He had two red jackets spread out on the table, one adorned with the medals he had worn to the funeral a few hours before. He set that one aside. As an officer, Ary was allowed to keep his dress uniform even after his discharge. His medals clinked as he shifted it. He placed a white cotton shirt and a pair of blue trousers atop the dress jacket. The rest he tied up in a bundle with twine. He wore civilian clothes: a pair of brown denim overalls and gray shirt similar to what he had worn so many months ago when he’d ridden to Ahly for the Summer Solstice. Only the heavy sword belt and Stormrider sabre hanging from it were different.
Ary stared down at the bundle. “I can’t believe it’s over.”
“For you,” Chaylene muttered and took another sip of her wine.
Ary stiffened. His left thumb rubbed along the stump of his hand. “You’re right. It’s not over until we’re both free.” He placed his good hand on her shoulder. “I don’t have to go.”
“You do, Ary.” Chaylene set her glass down. “Don’t make this harder by offering to stay.” Her hand grasped Ary’s on her shoulder, squeezed. “We both need to be free of Theisseg. We’ll never have a life otherwise.”
“You are an amazing woman,” Ary whispered. His eyes flicked to the wine. His stomach tightened. “You are strong. I know it. It’ll be hard without you, but . . .”
“Just don’t stare at the pretty girls in . . . Where are you going?”
Ary blinked. “I . . . don’t actually know.”
“Well, when you get there, don’t stare at the girls’ fruits and forget about mine.”
Ary smiled, his eyes drifting to the swells of her blouse. “I’ll keep the memory of yours seared in my mind.”
Life warmed her eyes. “After dinner, I’ll make sure you have a memory to keep you warm on all those cold, boring nights spent with Estan and his teacher.”
Ary bent down and kissed her lips, which were sour with the orange wine. Her hand tightened on the back of his neck, holding him in place. Fires kindled as his britches grew tight. Ideas of picking her up and throwing her down on the bed gusted through his mind.
Mustering out can wait, right?
Chaylene broke the kiss. “There, that’s motivation for you not to linger at the quartermaster’s.”
Ary chuckled. “Yes, because the quartermaster’s warehouse has all the entertainment of an inn’s common room. Maybe a Sowerese Talesinger’ll be there.”
Chaylene rolled her eyes. “I didn’t think you liked Talesingers. That one in Ahly had you out of sorts, and you wouldn’t tell me why. I remember being annoyed with you.”
“His tale reminded me of my dreams.”
The mirth in Chaylene’s eyes died. “Another reason for you to go.”
Ary grimaced. How long until the Church learns of Wriavia’s death? How often did he report in? He died eight days ago. They’ll know in . . . He wasn’t sure how long it took a ship to voyage to Ulanii. Maybe a day or two before he’s overdue. Then what? Send another assassin?
Ary swallowed his dread that a new assassin would track him and harm Chaylene. He didn’t mention that fear, his eyes glancing at the glass of wine. She had enough storms lurking in her soul.
“I’ll hurry back.”
Chaylene nodded her head as she pulled the fish from the basket. Without the gas sac, it had no buoyancy and flopped onto the table. Ary’s mouth watered. Years of Chaylene taking care of herself while her mother drank had taught her how to make a savory meal out of lesser ingredients.
Ary hefted his bundle, the armory keys, and his bone sabre before marching out the door. Twilight lengthened the shadows of the whitewashed buildings of Rheyion Naval Port. High above, a lone shark drifted across the darkening skies. Ary gauged its size and relaxed; the beast was too small to be a threat to an adult. Shark attacks were rare, but the occasional child was savaged by a larger beast drifting out of the deep sky.
“Adjutant-Lieutenant,” Corporal Huson called out. The fading light made her tan features even more matronly.
“I won’t be for much longer.”
“You’ll always be a marine, sir.”
“I suppose.” Training and combat had smoked being a marine into his flesh like an ostrich’s haunch cured for winter.
“Would you like any assistance, sir?”
“I can manage. I only lost half a hand.”
Corporal Huson paled. “I didn’t mean to cause offense, sir.”
Ary chuckled. “You need to relax your spine sometimes. Don’t be so rigid.”
“The keel of a ship is rigid to provide the support. The marines require someone to maintain discipline. It is my . . . strength. So I shall exploit it to keep your men sharp.”
“You can relax?” Ary didn’t hide the surprise in his voice.
“Rarely. I have been schooled in . . . prudence.”
Ary almost pressed her, but a wariness entered her stance. Everyone deserves their secrets, he decided. “Well, I assume this is where we part ways, Corporal. Unless you have business at the quartermaster’s?”
“No, sir. I was on my way to the mess.”
Ary snapped a salute in farewell to the corporal then kept marching along. He passed between the warehouses full of supplies for the naval port. Centered amid them was the quartermaster’s office. No one enjoyed coming here. The Navy’s labyrinthine bureaucracy could punish a sailor who’d lost vital equipment, ruined his uniform, or failed to read the paperwork he’d signed. Ary hoped mustering out would be a simple process.
He feared it wouldn’t.
Nearly an hour later, he stumbled out of the quartermaster’s office, glad to be away from the tedium of filling out and signing his muster and pension papers. He leaned against the building’s wall as he stared at the sun vanishing behind a warehouse.
I lived my childhood dream for five months and twenty-one days. He glanced down at his maimed hand.
Estan, accompanied by the thump of his crutch, approached with Esty at his side holding a bundle of clothing. Estan wore a respectable waistcoat over a gray silk shirt and dark trousers, the right leg pinned up.
“Mustered out?” Estan asked.
Ary nodded. “Mind the quartermaster. If she gives you any issues, mention my name.”
“I hope you did not terrify the poor woman with that glower,” Estan said, a grin spreading on his dark cheeks. He glanced at Esty. “He frightened the quartermaster at Camp Chubris, too.”
“He does have the face for it,” Esty said, a smile on her pink lips. Her black hair, gathered in multiple beaded braids, framed her pale face.
Ary grinned back as he straightened from the wall. “Someone has to keep the quartermasters honest.”
Esty glanced at Ary then at Estan. “Ary, this is my husband.”
Ary blinked. “Uuuhhh . . .” He didn’t know what to say to the declaration from the slender Agerzak maid. “That’s . . . sudden.”
“Estan is my husband,” she said, hooking her right arm around Estan’s left.
A foolish grin spread across Estan’s lips. Ary couldn’t help returning it as Esty stated a third time, “This is my husband.”
“Well, congratulations,” Ary said, shaking Estan’s hand. “I didn’t know you went down to the temple. I would have stood with you, and I’m sure, uh, Chaylene would have . . . Well, she would have been happy to be there.”
“I fear you misunderstand,” Estan said, still smiling, his teeth flashing white between dark lips. “You just witnessed it.”
“I have declared it three times in front of a witness,” Esty said, her cheeks blushing scarlet. “That’s all it takes for my people.”
“Just . . . one of you saying it three times?”
“No, the woman says it.” She gave Estan a look, her expression melting into the same joy Ary had beheld on Chaylene’s face during their wedding. “The man doesn’t get a choice. It’s too important a decision to leave to them.”
“Agerzak men have little say over whom they marry,” Estan explained through his grin. “Generally, they make their preference known to the woman, but it is her decision. If she says the words, they are married. I suspect that it is another custom borne out of the struggles of her ancestors to survive beneath the Storm.”
“Our menfolk are too busy killing each other or playing pirate. Without us women forcing the issue, they’d be content to just whore around and drink.” Esty smiled at her husband. Estan’s joy shone as bright as the noon sun.
Ary’s heart was lifted by the couple’s happiness.
While still staring at his wife, Estan said, almost sounding like an afterthought, “We’ve found a ship. The Varele sails just after dawn tomorrow.”
“So soon?” Ary asked, the warmth deflating out of him.
Estan wrenched his gaze from his new bride. “Well, given the pressing circumstances, I believe it is prudent to reach my tutor with haste.”
Ary exhaled. “I suppose you’re right. Uhhh . . . where exactly are we going?”
“Master Rlarim dwells in exile on Thunely.”
Estan rose from his muddled dreams later that night to the painful itch in his leg. His eyes opened, and he stared up at the strange ceiling as he scratched at the bandage over the stump of his leg, wishing he could scratch at the missing flesh.
As the sleep vanished from his mind, he realized he was alone in bed. He felt the warmth of Esty lingering in the sheets but not her body. He cast his gaze across her dark bedroom above the Last Port Tavern.
The reason that she had a room here, her form occupation as a prostitute, didn’t bother Estan. To Estan, selling her body was no different than a strong man hiring out his labor to haul cargo or pull nets. She had assets—a lush form and flirty wit—she’d leveraged to survive. It was logical. Learning that she’d actually used illusions, one of Theisseg’s Gifts she possessed, to make her clients think they’d lain with her only made Estan appreciate her more. She had used her talents in a clever way to avoid an unpleasant task.
“Esty?” Estan called.
“Yes,” she answered out of the darkness. Her words were hoarse. Pained.
“What is the matter?” Estan sat up and groaned, rubbing at his thighs. His right hand brushed the linen bandages wrapping around his stump.
“I just . . . had a dream.”
The gloom retreated as his eyes adjusted. He spotted her sitting on the floor, leaning against the walls. The slight moonlight, a mix of red Jwiaswo and blue Twiuasra, picked out the naked curves of her body.
Night’s chill pervaded the room. Autumn gripped the southern skylands. While the days were still warm, the temperature plunged after sunset. Estan pulled the blankets around his shoulders before grabbing his crutch. Awkwardly, he stood on one leg, the crutch’s butt digging into his right armpit.
There has to be a better way than this, Estan thought, his mind always chasing new ideas. He stopped his drifting and focused on Esty.
He hobbled over to his wife and sank down beside her. Esty wiggled under his arm and blanket, leaning against him. His father would be apoplectic to learn that he’d married an Agerzak, spoiling his pure, Vaarckthian bloodline. A nasty, vindictive part of Estan wanted to write the Lord-Mayor of Amion a long, detailed letter about his new daughter-in-law being an Agerzak with keen intellect, who was also the sister of the most feared pirate in the last five years.
“Do you want to talk?” he asked.
Esty shook her head.
To some, it might seem strange that Estan loved the sister of the man who had almost killed him. It wasn’t logical, but, Estan was discovering, his heart didn’t care.
In the silence, he studied the profile of her face. His thoughts drifted to the day he’d spied her peering down into the Storm. Her beauty had stuck him with a physical intensity. Her pale, Agerzak skin contrasting with her dark hair had, along with the ample bounty of her bosom, attracted his interest.
Her intelligence, however, had captured his heart.
“Is it wrong of me to be glad he’s dead?” Esty asked after several dozen heartbeats.
“Are you glad he is dead, or relieved that you won’t have to wait in dread for the news of his passing?”
“I’m not sure.” Her voice was low. “I miss the boy who cared for me when our mother died. He would hold me when I had bad dreams and sing a song or recite a story to me to banish away my fears. The sweet boy was utterly consumed by his rage. Every time I saw him as an adult, he was harder, leaner, angrier. Less and less like my brother.”
Estan closed his eyes, hating the pain in her voice. He wished he knew a way to banish her pain and make her smile. He understood the principals of buoyancy in regards to the engines that powered ships, and the mathematics behind the force of gravity. He could debate the various theories on how the skylands hung in the air in seeming violation of natural law. He’d studied the celestial movements of the stars, could name the features of both moons, and could predict when the next seven solar eclipses would happen.
He had no idea how to talk to his grieving wife.
It seemed holding her as she cried on his shoulder was enough. It startled Estan to discover such a simple principal. It required little effort on his part, and yet it was such an important moment. He stroked her black hair as the window lightened and lightened. Dawn approached. Their ship would soon be sailing.
What a remarkable creature she is. Her birth has denied her the opportunities afforded me. If she’d had a tutor of Master Rlarim’s talents, she would have earned a spot at the University of Rlarshon or even the grand University of Qopraa.
Estan vowed to himself to see that Master Rlarim gave her such a tutelage.
To save the skies, Ary must die!
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