[The working title for this novel is The Golden Wyvern, but since I’m almost a hundred pages in without having ever once mentioned any wyverns, golden or otherwise, that may well change.Â I’m referring to it here by the series title and the name of the viewpoint character. The following excerpt is the opening scene of the story.]
She found herself looking up at a man’s face, but it was neither her father’s, nor that of Lord Salchen, the wizard to whom she was to be apprenticed. This was a stranger’s face, broad and bearded and blond, with intensely blue eyes that were staring into her own. His skin seemed unnaturally pale, though a slight flush reddened his brow, and his deep-set eyes appeared almost inhumanly large.
â€œFather?â€ she asked, turning her head away from that fearsome gaze, trying to make sense of her surroundings. She was not sure whether she had just awakened, or undergone some more curious transition
â€œNo,â€ the blond stranger said gently, in a voice that did not match his strong features. Despite his foreign complexion he spoke flawless, unaccented Walasian. â€œI am Barzal of Blackfield, and I’ve just bought your contract from Lord Salchen.â€
â€œBut… where’s Father, then? He was to negotiate the terms.â€ She did not look at him, but at the room in which she found herself.
She was in a stone chamber, one that looked somehow familiar, though she could not remember where or how she might have seen it before. Sunlight slanted through a row of windows in one wall, illuminating rich red-and-gold carpets and a row of heavy chairs of what appeared to be finely-carved walnut. A strange, acrid odor hung in the air.
She was sitting in one of the chairs, slumped down in it, her hands clutching the arm-rests, and the big blond man was standing just a foot or two in front of her, looking down at her with an expression of concern. He was, she realized vaguely, finely dressed, in green velvet and yellow satin, and carrying a carved walking stick.
At one end of the room, a dozen feet away, stood a black-robed, black-haired figure â€“ Lord Salchen, she belatedly realized. He looked somehow different than he had when last she saw him…
â€œYour father isn’t here,â€ Barzal said. â€œThis isn’t what you think; it isn’t when you think. I’m afraid I’ve taken the liberty of erasing your memories of the last two or three years. This is the eighth day of spring in the twenty-fifth year of the Emperor at Orz.â€
Her eyes turned forward and upward and met his again. â€œNo, it’s the sixtieth of summer in the twenty-second…â€ she began.
â€œNo,â€ he interrupted firmly. â€œIt isn’t. You simply don’t remember the two and a half years you have dwelt here.â€
She stared into those blue eyes, trying to disbelieve him, but she saw no hint of uncertainty or deception there, only sympathy â€“ it seemed odd that eyes the color of ice should seem so warm. She looked to Lord Salchen for confirmation.
â€œHe’s telling you the truth, girl,â€ Salchen said, in a tone of utter indifference. â€œWill you be leaving immediately, Blackfield, or shall I have something fetched? I still have a decent vintage or two in my cellars, or if you prefer your homeland’s abominable beverages there may be a cask of ale somewhere.â€
â€œI’m not sure yet, my lord,â€ Barzal replied, without turning his gaze from her face. â€œLet me see how young Mareet is faring before we decide.â€
â€œWhat does it matter?â€ Salchen said. He smiled crookedly. â€œIf you’re going to obsess about her then you might as well be on your way, and make a start on your journey; you’ll be dreadful company. I’ve seen you fixate on ideas in the past, and whenever it happens you can’t speak of anything else for days. I’ve had the girl in my home for the past two years, and have had my fill of her. I’ve no desire to hear you prattle about her.â€
At that Barzal finally threw Salchen a quick glance. â€œHad your fill of her? That’s hardly what you said when we were discussing her price.â€
â€œAh, but that was business! And besides, now that I know I’ll never again have the opportunity to…â€
â€œYes, I’m sure,â€ Barzal said very loudly, cutting off whatever Salchen had been about to say. He met Mareet’s gaze again. â€œAre you all right, girl? Can you stand?â€
She realized she was still slouching in a most undignified manner, and forced herself to sit upright.
â€œI think so,â€ she said. She set her feet firmly on the carpet.
Barzal stepped back, giving her room, and she pressed firmly on the chair arms, rising to her feet.
She was displeased to find that she was not entirely steady; she saw Barzal’s hands come up as if to catch her, and she straightened up, throwing her shoulders back, to make plain she did not need any assistance from some oversized foreigner.
Her head swam, but she remained upright, not allowing her legs to tremble.
It was only when she stood, and felt her clothing rearrange itself, that she noticed that she was not wearing her best dress, the dress she had put on â€“ not that morning, if the foreigner was to be believed, but the morning when she came to take up an apprenticeship. Instead she was wearing a simple white cotton shift, with nothing underneath; the hem of the skirt reached a few inches below her knee but stopped well short of decent ankle length, and the sleeves ended at her elbows. Her feet were bare. Her hair was pulled back in a simple ponytail, rather than properly bound up.
She blushed at the sudden realization that she was standing so boldly and indecently before these two men; she felt her cheeks go red.
â€œI mean you no harm,â€ Barzal told her gently. â€œYou need not fear.â€
Her blood stirred at that, and her head cleared. â€œI do not fear you, sir,â€ she said, â€œbut I value my self-respect, and I do not understand why I am standing here half-clad, and being treated as… as something less than a free woman of the Empire.â€