I should clear 10,000 words on Princess of Fire tonight, as I wait for more feedback from my beta readers to come in re: Shadows. Once again, I am not writing this draft in chronological order, but picking up a section that corresponds to scenes I already have in my head and running with it for as far as it will take me. So far it’s working.
I’ve found another abandoned fragment that’s not half-bad. This was another pass at restarting Mankin’s world, the first chapter of a re-imagined novel. It’s now obsolete and plays a little heavy-handed, but it’s not wholly bad. I think.
Copyright by Douglas Daniel, 2013.
Nakanu walked carefully. The moon was less than half full, and the streets of Canaas were dark. He carried a shuttered lantern, but it was closed; a bright light now would do more to mark him as a target than illuminate his way. He moved from shadow to shadow. The street was slick with rain, littered with refuse. It stank of rotting garbage and piss; he could guide himself nearly as well with his nose as with his eyes.
He paused to get his bearings at one intersection, which opened out into a small square with a public fountain its center. The water in the fountain trickled lazily from its clay-pipe outlets; it had been a dry month and doubtless the aqueducts that fed the city were low. The quiet sound of the water was the only noise Nakanu could hear, besides the beating of his own heart. All honest folk were abed at this hour, and the watch did not come to this quarter very often. At least, not in less than company-strength.
The rush came from three sides at once. Nakanu threw the lantern at one of the figures, even as he snatched his sword from its scabbard. The metal and horn contraption collided with the man’s head with a satisfying crack; the ambusher went down and the lantern clattered on the cobblestones with a sound that seemed thunderous.
Nakanu didn’t even wait to see if the lantern connected; as he drew he spun and caught the thrusting blade of the second man in a sweeping parry. The blades spoke harshly on each other, their conversation fast. Nakanu slipped the blade past the attacker’s guard and felt it sink home in meat. The man grunted and then seemed to sag as if he were a puppet dropped by its master.
Nakanu whipped his blade free, just in time to catch the sweeping cut of the third man. This bravo had cut across the corner of the square and arrived too late to help his mates; Nakanu heard him curse by the dark gods of Junir as he swung again and again at him. Nakanu parried and retreated, gauging the man. He was no devotee of the new swordsmanship, that was sure—his attacks were wide, all edge and no point. But he was strong and he was fast. Nakanu watched, waiting for an opening.
Something grabbed him about the torso as if he were a child, and lifted him up off the ground as easily. His feet dangled and his arms were pinned. A hot breath blew on his neck, as if a bear had stuck its muzzle close by his ear. He kicked backward, but his boot only bounced off a thigh solid with muscle.
“Hold him tight!” the bravo hissed. He lifted his sword.
Another figure sprang from one of the shadowed alleys. “Attau!” it cried. Nakanu saw a long blade catch the half-light of the moon. It sliced the bravo across the back. The man screamed in agony, his own cut interrupted. He stumbled about, whether to escape or to simply to see what had hit him, Nakanu could not tell. The newcomer cut him again; this time Nakanu saw the spray of blood and the ropy wetness of the man’s intestines as they spilled from his belly. A stink of feces and blood reeked. The bravo dropped his sword. He fell to his knees, hands clutching at his guts, and then toppled sideways.
The man holding Nakanu dropped him as if he were an unwanted toy. The nobleman hit the stones hard enough to knock the remaining breath from his body. The man—if such he were, for he was easily seven feet tall or more, and broad as a cask—stepped over him and lumbered toward the newcomer. The newcomer dodged a groping hand the size of a ham and retreated.
Nakanu found his sword and forced himself up. With a cry he thrust hard and sank his blade into the giant’s back. The big man stopped. He made an odd noise, like the whimper of a child; and then he turned. Nakanu had to pull his blade free to keep it from being snatched from his grip. The giant advanced on him.
The newcomer attacked. He thrust the giant through; Nakanu saw the first foot of the man’s long blade emerge from the giant’s belly, black with blood in this half-light. That should have been a killing thrust; but the giant merely whined again, and once more started to turn toward this new tormentor, as if he were a simple-minded cow responding to the flick of its master’s whip.
Nakanu attacked again. The next few moments were something from a nightmare; the two men piercing the giant over and over again, cutting him with a desperate fury. The giant staggered back and forth, trying to advance, trying to turn, but never trying to run away. Blood splashed Nakanu and spilled on the stones like rain.
At last the giant went to his knees, almost as if he grew weary of this game. Nakanu pulled his sword free and with both hands thrust it through the giant’s eye. The monster stiffened, shuddered, voided its bowels in a great, stinking rush, and died.
Neither Nakanu nor the newcomer said anything for a long moment. Instead they leaned on their swords and gasped for air. Nakanu half-expected to see the giant rise again, but the flow of blood around its body finally convinced him that the thing was dead. It was a relief.
“Tah,” the newcomer panted. His Bukani betrayed a slight accent. “They make them hard to kill in this city, don’t they?”
“Well met, Mankin,” Nakanu said. “It’s fortunate for me you finally caught up with me.”
The outlander merely grunted. “Nothing lucky about it. I’ve been following you for the last quarter-hour. You’re very loud, did you know that?”
Nakanu stared at the man. “What? And you didn’t come help me at once?” His brief sense of camaraderie with the foreigner evaporated.
“You were doing all right until meat-mountain here showed up.” Mankin bent down and recovered the lantern. It somewhat bent from its collision with the bravo, but the wick must have still been glowing; Mankin quickly blew it back into flame. He held it out and they examined the giant’s body.
The giant was well over seven feet tall, vastly muscled and heavy-boned. Its clothing was of the plainest cloth; its feet were bare. The expression on the thing’s dead face seemed to be some sort of wearied puzzlement, as if it had not managed to comprehend its own death. The face itself was broad, wide-mouthed with blocky teeth; but the eyes were small and animal.
Mankin looked across the corpse at Nakanu. “Construct?”
“Yes,” Nakanu replied, as he noted certain signs; the thickness of the giant’s thumbs, the attachment of its ears, the scanty hair on its body. “Very carefully made to look human.”
“Tah!” Mankin exclaimed. “The Masters need a little more practice on what makes a man, if this is the best they can do.”
“Obviously they thought strength and endurance more important than appearance,” Nakanu said.
They examined the other dead men. Mankin carefully searched their bodies, but found nothing. “Market thugs,” Nakanu said at last. “Half an imperial each, and maybe a bottle of rotgut into the bargain. The sort of trash nobody misses.”
“The Masters can send better than this,” Mankin said. “If they want us dead, why waste their money on this kind of garbage?”
It was strange to Nakanu as well. “Perhaps they were counting on the giant. Perhaps they were testing us.”
Mankin shook his head. “Perhaps this is a question for another time. Right now, what do we do with all the meat?”
They dragged the thugs’ bodies into an alley; but the giant stymied them. “We can’t lift him, or roll him,” Mankin said, “and I’m not going to waste all night figuring it out. We have an appointment to make.”
“So we do,” Nakanu said. He studied the position of the moon, reckoned it was not yet the Hour of Contemplation. “We’ll just have to see if our friends can do something about him.”
A little while later they entered a small court set off one of the side streets. All around the court ran wooden tenements, three stories high, with railed galleries. The end-posts of the buildings’ gables were all carved into the heads of hunjka, the spirit-protectors of the household. Nakanu was sure that, during the daytime, the place would be alive with the talk and shouts of the inhabitants, the play of children and the smell of cooking. At the moment, though, it was all silent, all sleeping. Nakanu was glad for the anonymity.
There was a narrow door at the back of the court, just where they’d been told it would be, close by the shrine and almost hidden by it. Nakanu could smell the lingering scent of flowers and fruits that had been laid that day at the feet of the Five-way God. The idol seemed to glower at the two men from the shadow of its wooden pavilion. Nakanu whispered a prayer word and raised a hand in respect as they passed; Mankin, being an outlander and ignorant of such things, ignored the god.
Nakanu knocked at the door, in the pattern he’d been given. A moment passed; there was the muffled sound of scuffling feet on the other side of the door, and a spy-hole opened up. Light from the hole washed over Nakanu’s face; it was a thin beam, but in the gloom of the courtyard it came near to blinding him. “Say your name,” a voice demanded.
“Friends of the Empire,” Nakanu answered, again as he had been instructed.
The spy-hole closed with a thud. The door opened, creaking on its hinges a little. “Inside, before you’re seen, by the gods.”
Nakanu and Mankin stepped inside. The door clicked shut behind them.
Within was such a blaze of light—several lamps burned brightly on a stand in one corner—that it took Nakanu’s eyes a few heartbeats of time to adjust. They were in a spacious antechamber, with plastered walls, festooned with painted twirls of ivy and pictures of swooping birds. The ceiling was high, crossed by strong oaken beams. The floor was more hard wood, polished so that it gleamed in the lamplight.
In the far corners of the room two crossbowmen knelt; they held their weapons leveled and ready to shoot. In their positions they had a perfect crossfire on the door. Another man blocked the door that led out of the anteroom; he was armed with buckler and long sword. All three were plainly dressed in the tunic and leggings of common folk; but by the way they held their weapons these were clearly trained men.
As Nakanu and Mankin blinked to clear their eyes, a fourth person approached, and stopped just out of easy sword reach. She was black, and more richly dressed than the others; she also wore a good coat of mail beneath her jacket. Nakanu reckoned the sword she wore at her side was worth a whole farm on his father’s demesne. The fact that the woman was a head shorter than either Nakanu or Mankin did not fool the nobleman; she moved with the easy grace of a sword-master.
“I am Tarthia vul-Pasar,” the woman said, “First Decarion of the First Company of the Cannaas Chapterhouse of Devotions. You are the lord Nakanu vul-Kameru?”
“I am,” Nakanu said.
They bowed to one another. The woman seemed to take in the stains on his and Mankin’s clothing, and their sweaty faces. “You’ve had trouble this morning?”
“We were attacked on the way here,” Nakanu answered. “We had to leave some bodies lying about. It looked to be a party from the Masters.”
The woman’s eyes widened at that. “Where?”
“At the Goat’s Fountain, I think it’s called.” Nakanu did not know Cannaas as well as some other cities. “East and south here.”
“I know the place.” She turned. “Kitumasi, take a detail of the brothers, make a clean sweep. Don’t leave anything that’ll raise questions.”
“Yes, Decarion,” one of the crossbowmen said. He hurried out.
Tarthia turned back to the two men. “We’ll make it like it never happened. Though if the Masters know you’re in the city….”
“No one followed us afterwards,” Mankin said. “I made certain of that.”
Tarthia looked him up and down. Perhaps she took in his accent and understood who he was. In any event, she nodded. “Very well. Come in, most noble sirs. The commander has been waiting most anxiously to speak with you.”
They were given water with which to, very briefly, wash up. Then they were conducted into an inner room. This chamber was expensively furnished, with rich tapestries hanging before the walls and carpets of great worth. Chairs had been set about a central brazier, although the bronze vessel was cold and fireless on this balmy night. In two corners of the room were another pair of Chapterhouse soldiers; although no arms were in sight, Nakanu had no doubt they could appear at need.
The commander of the Cannaas Chapterhouse rose as the two of them entered. He was a thin man, as tall as Mankin, which made him uncommon tall for a Bukani. He was simply dressed, although Nakanu noticed that his simple clothes were made of silk and the finest linen. His face was sharp and his eyes were sharp; even as he bowed in precise courtesy to Nakanu his glance searched him over. “I greet the noble son of a noble house,” the commander said.
“I am grateful for your courtesy, Commander Iterase, and for this meeting,” Nakanu replied, bowing in reply.
“I am to glad to have the chance to speak with you, Nakanu vul-Kameru,” Iterase said, his glance straying to Mankin again, “but who is this outlander you’ve brought with you? Is our conference fit for the ears of a barbarian?”
Nakanu resisted the impulse to glance at Mankin. The Attau, for his part, did not move, but stood easy, as if he did not understand what Iterase was saying. Nakanu was grateful for the man’s tolerance. He couldn’t count on it being endless, though.
“This is Mankin, of the Horse Lands,” Nakanu said. “He has served my father for ten years, five of those as his Chief of Scouts. My father appointed him my aide and assistant on this task.” He met Iterase’s eyes. “My father trusts him; if that is not enough for you, Commander Iterase, then perhaps this conference can end before it begins.”
“Ah,” Iterase said. He looked more intently at Mankin. “I see. Forgive me, I did not know him by his face, although his name is spoken often among the Chapters.” To Mankin he said, “Be welcome, Mankin of the Horse Lands.”
Mankin bowed his head to Iterase, correctly, much to Nakanu’s relief. “I thank the lord commander,” Mankin said.
“We have matters of import to discuss,” Iterase said to Nakanu. “Should we not begin?”
“Yes,” Nakanu said.
Nakanu and Iterase sat. Mankin stood against the wall behind Nakanu. The nobleman was glad of it; he wouldn’t have to watch behind himself.
Wine was brought. Nakanu took his cup gratefully, after the night they had had, although he only sipped the vintage. It was quite good, though. Iterase tasted it himself and smiled.
“A superior year,” he said to Nakanu’s silent question. “It was laid down in the coronation year of our most beloved Emperor, which makes it now a most rare vintage. As I recall, that year was blessed with superior sun in the southern provinces, and the grapes, as a consequence, were fat and sweet.”
“Indeed—you honor us with such a delicacy.” Since the Emperor had now reigned for fifty years, uncorking a bottle of something this prime was either generally reserved for a celebration or business of the utmost importance. Nakanu reckoned that this was certainly the latter sort of occasion. It was also, he supposed, a symbol of what they had gathered to talk about.
“And yet, as with all things mortal, this wine will not last,” Iterase said, rather wistfully.
“Of course,” Nakanu said. “Like the Emperor himself?”
Iterase nodded. “You come most readily to the point, noble lord.” He smelled the bouquet of his cup before going on. “To put it in plain words, the Emperor is dying.”
Nakanu had expected it; but the words still fell like a blow. “Is it sure, then?”
Iterase nodded. “Our agents at court have confirmed it—he will not live to see the winter.”
Nakanu did not saying anything for a moment. He was not yet thirty. Tulkas was the only emperor he had ever known. It was as if someone had said the very axle of the universe was about to taken away. “Is this common knowledge?”
“Not yet; the Court has guarded its secrets well. It cannot remain a secret for very much longer, however.”
“I understand now the urgency of your summons,” Nakanu said.
Iterase nodded. “Those of us who wish to see an orderly succession must join together and plan what we can do beforehand.”
“Have your agents discovered who the Emperor shall name as his successor?”
“Yes—Sha’ere, his granddaughter.”
The name did not surprise Nakanu, but he made a show as if it did. “Sha’ere? Why her? If I remember aright, she has not been to Court since she was a child. And she’s young, and female.”
“But she has ruled her northern demense in the Emperor’s name for the last five years, and ruled it well,” Iterase said. “She has never plotted against Tulkas, and she stood by him when Chusdasi raised his banner against the Emperor two years ago. Of the Emperor’s grandchildren, she is the most able. She would make a good Emperess; she has all the qualities Tulkas possessed in his youth.”
“If she lives,” Nakanu said. “Sha’ere has many cousins, most of whom are…odious. Many of them will not like being passed over in her favor.”
“Precisely,” Iterase said. “She will need all the support she can gather, from the moment she is openly named as heir. It is the policy of the Chapters to support the legal heir, for the sake of the Empire’s peace.”
And for your own position, Nakanu added silently. In the past the Chapters had been the power in the land; but too often different Houses had sided with different sides in the Empire’s civil wars, with the result that the Chapters now possessed but a shadow of their former influence. “Do the Chapters expect war to break out immediately?”
“Let us say that we hope that, by showing that the legitimate heir has a solid base of support, a great deal of unpleasantness may be avoided,” Iterase said. “That support must be evident the moment the Emperor makes his choice.”
“Of course,” Nakanu said. He sat back. “Please convey to the Governors of the Chapters that the House of Kameru will stand by whoever the Emperor designates as heir. I can also tell you that my father prays daily that the Emperor will choose well.” No need to mention that Sha’ere figured prominently in those prayers.
“As do we all,” Iterase said. “If the Collegium and the Concilium can see that Sha’ere—or the legitimate heir, if you prefer—is backed by strength, there will be less…temptation…to set aside the Emperor’s wishes and find another candidate.”
“I assume that the Chapters have been investigating the attitudes of the other great Families?” Nakanu said.
“I cannot speak of specifics,” Iterase said, “but we have made discrete inquiries. There are other Families that have declared their support of the heir, as you have; others who might wish to do so, but cannot commit themselves openly; and some others whom we believe, whatever their words to us, are scheming to back their own pretender. It is a difficult matter, very delicate and not at all clear, but we believe the majority of the Families will support Sha’ere.”
“There is another factor,” Nakanu said. “The Masters.”
Iterase glanced sharply at him. “Yes. I was told you had a run-in with them on the way here.”
“Perhaps,” Nakanu replied. “Of more importance is how they factor into the question of Sha’ere. She is no friend of theirs. We all know that the Masters will not hesitate to kill her, if they can.”
Iterase did not answer at once. “Let us say that the Chapters have taken positive steps to ensure that Sha’ere reaches Imer-brin alive to be crowned. Of course, nothing is certain in this pain-filled world, but we are doing what we can. And, in any case, we oppose the Masters at every turn.”
“As does the House of Kameru,” Nakanu said. “It appears, commander, that our interests coincide most closely in this matter. I will convey your words to my father.”
“More than words, my lord, are needed,” Iterase said. “We may need to act in concert, very soon. The year is already well advanced, and we have learned that Tulkas will be requesting that Sha’ere leave for Imer-brin soon. That will be the moment she will be the most vulnerable. We have a plan”– as he said this, he glanced at Mankin– “but we may need the assistance of your house to implement it.”
Nakanu followed Iterase’s glance. “Oh? How so, my lord?”
If I ever try to resuscitate this universe, I will probably not approach the story again from this direction. But this piece had some interesting elements, and, in particular, interesting characters that would probably carry over into a new version of the story.