The Dragon’s Price

[This is the opening of a novel that could be a stand-alone, or could have a sequel or two. If it becomes a series, the series title is “Signs of Power.”]

The sign-reader sat quietly in the corner, huddled over a mug of dark beer, staring down into the liquid. He was not exactly thinking about the girl he had just identified, and what was to become of her, but neither could he think about anything else; the awareness that he had set her irrevocably on the path she would follow for decades, perhaps for her entire life, left no room for other concerns.

But he could not really think about her, all the same; his mind was too muddled for that. Every time he tried to tell himself that he had condemned her to what amounted to slavery, he was reminded that she would be honored, that she would wield powerful magic that was necessary to the community, that her role was essential to the survival of her people.

But she would have no choice about it; the people who lived under the Dragon’s Breath could not afford to let her choose.

And she might even enjoy it; she would be grown by the time she was brought to the temple, no longer the scared child he had seen that afternoon.

None of this was new to him; he had been wandering these lands for twenty years and more, identifying all those touched by the Dragon’s Breath, and had asked himself every possible question, thrashed out every possible outcome, a hundred times.

He just hadn’t yet arrived at any really satisfying answers.

He looked up at the sound of a door opening and voices conversing quietly; he could make out none of the words, but thought the accents sounded local. Probably just someone come to the public house for a drink, he told himself, and dropped his gaze back to the beer.

He lifted the mug and took a swig.

When he lowered it again he found himself looking at a thin man in a damp brown cloak, who was staring directly at him from the entryway. The stranger stood somewhat hunched, with his hands clasped at his breastbone; the face half-hidden by the hooded cloak, and the fingers folded on his chest, were almost inhumanly white.

The sign-reader stared back for a moment, then lowered his beer and said, “Can I help you, friend?”

“They say you’re a sign-reader,” the man said, in an unsteady tenor.

The sign-reader sighed and brushed the hair from his forehead, exposing the indentation there, a thumb-sized depression like the healed-over socket of a lost third eye.

“I assume even you can read that sign,” he said.

“I heard… I mean, yes. Then you are a sign-reader.”

“I am. Why?” He was fairly sure what he was going to hear; some local youth had acquired an odd scar, or a babe had been born with a caul, or perhaps an old woman had had a strange dream, and the family wanted to know what it meant.

“A child… a child has been born. My nephew. My sister’s child. We aren’t sure whether he’ll live.”

“He has a mark of some kind?”

“It’s more… it’s not just a mark, sir. Could you come and see, please, and tell us what we should do?”

The sign-reader sighed deeply and looked down at the beer.

Duty called. The babe was probably just an unhappy mishap that would be dead by dawn, the result of a bad mix of bloodlines, but there was always that chance that he was something more, something marked by the Dragon’s Breath, tainted with the magic that kept the Restored Lands alive, just as the sign-reader himself was.

His magic was to read the signs of the Dragon’s Breath, and his duty was to use this whenever he was called upon, so he would have to go – but that didn’t mean leaving his beer. He lifted the mug and gulped until the last drop had trickled down either his throat or his beard, then let the vessel fall back to the table. He rose, wiping his mouth with the back of one hand and scooping his coat and hat up from a chair with the other.

“Show me,” he said.

The man in the cloak turned to lead him to the door, but then the landlord was there beside him. “Sir, about the…”

“I’ll be back tonight,” the sign-reader said, cutting him off. “We’ll settle my bill in the morning.”

“Oh, we could find you a bed…” the stooped man began.

“No,” the sign-reader said. He turned to the landlord again. “I’ll be back. I’ve left my bag upstairs.”

“Is there anything you need, to judge the child?” the cloaked man asked.

“No. Lead on.”

The man ducked his head in something that might have been either a nod or a bow, and hurried down the entryway to the front door, tugging the hood of his cloak up to cover his head better.

The sign-reader donned his own coat, glad now that he had not bothered to remove his boots before getting his beer, and clapped his hat on his head.

The cloaked man lifted the latch and swung the door inward; a swirl of cold mist blew into the entryway, and the sign-reader pulled his coat tighter as he followed the other out into the foggy chill of a marsh-country night.

The Fall of the Sorcerers: Mareet Saruis

[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.  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.

“Father?” 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

“No,” the blond stranger said gently, in a voice that did not match his strong features. Despite his foreign complexion he spoke flawless, unaccented Walasian. “I am Barzal of Blackfield, and I’ve just bought your contract from Lord Salchen.”

“But… where’s Father, then? He was to negotiate the terms.” 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 – Lord Salchen, she belatedly realized. He looked somehow different than he had when last she saw him…

“Your father isn’t here,” Barzal said. “This 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.”

Her eyes turned forward and upward and met his again. “No, it’s the sixtieth of summer in the twenty-second…” she began.

“No,” he interrupted firmly. “It isn’t. You simply don’t remember the two and a half years you have dwelt here.”

She stared into those blue eyes, trying to disbelieve him, but she saw no hint of uncertainty or deception there, only sympathy – it seemed odd that eyes the color of ice should seem so warm. She looked to Lord Salchen for confirmation.

“He’s telling you the truth, girl,” Salchen said, in a tone of utter indifference. “Will 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.”

“I’m not sure yet, my lord,” Barzal replied, without turning his gaze from her face. “Let me see how young Mareet is faring before we decide.”

“What does it matter?” Salchen said. He smiled crookedly. “If 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.”

At that Barzal finally threw Salchen a quick glance. “Had your fill of her? That’s hardly what you said when we were discussing her price.”

“Ah, but that was business! And besides, now that I know I’ll never again have the opportunity to…”

“Yes, I’m sure,” Barzal said very loudly, cutting off whatever Salchen had been about to say. He met Mareet’s gaze again. “Are you all right, girl? Can you stand?”

She realized she was still slouching in a most undignified manner, and forced herself to sit upright.

“I think so,” 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 – 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.

“I mean you no harm,” Barzal told her gently. “You need not fear.”

Her blood stirred at that, and her head cleared. “I do not fear you, sir,” she said, “but 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.”