Exiles on the run. Divine rulers fighting to control the desert’s elements. Dead people secretly walking the sands in search of redemption…
Sand of Bone is the first of two (maybe three…?) novels set in the desert world of SheyKhala. A new chapter will be posted every Thursday until the novel’s publication in the summer of 2013.
Raskah watched from the shadows, one sandaled foot resting on the stone bench, his back braced against the rough mudbrick wall of the barracks. The fierce afternoon breeze pushed into the shade, through his pale linen robes, to parch his skin. Here, where the land sloped toward rocky plains, and no protective walls hid the wind-scoured landscape, few niceties blunted the desert’s true severity. More and more over the last year, as the mood within the palace grew colder, he looked forward to the hours he could spend here in the Blade compound. He’d never be able to join in their training—nor would he want to—but appreciated watching the Blades sweat and drill and bleed on his behalf.
He scrutinized the men and women sparring in the roped-off arena before him—all clothed in stiff leather jerkins over supple leather trousers, all shod in heavy iron-edged boots buckled just below the knee. None younger than nineteen or older than twenty-four, these hopefuls were the ones who’d completed three years of open-hand and weapons training, endured field and survival simulations, passed just enough coursework in history and mathematics to be considered educated, and shown the ability to take commands—and to command, when necessary. These were the hopefuls preparing to be branded full Blades within the fortnight.
Though all his bloodkin took interest in those determined to swear their lives to their homeland of SheyKhala, Raskah’s attention had grown sharp. Already he’d watched three close bouts that had made him hold his breath, sent sweat trickling down his back, and pushed every other concern out of his mind. He scanned the sparring pairs until he found a fourth bout that promised an exacting battle between skilled equals, a pair he’d watched before.
Slender and sleek as an obsidian shard, the woman fought with ruthless grace against a young man—shorter, stockier, less reach—who had nonetheless bested her twice today already. Strands of dark hair stuck to their foreheads and cheeks. Sweat shimmered on their bare brown arms as they faced off, each holding long and short sticks as if they were swords and daggers. They moved side to side, rocked front to back, light on the balls of their feet as they tried to read their opponent’s rhythm without slipping into one of their own.
Suddenly she attacked with a flurry of cuts and thrusts that drove him back five paces, stumbling over another Blade-hopeful, and he barely caught her last strike with an upward block. Then he countered with force, and kicked an iron-edged boot toward her ribs. But she closed the distance, caught the man’s leg in the crook of her arm and twisted, sending him to the ground face-first. A heartbeat later, she jabbed her longer stick between his shoulder blades: symbolic death.
Then her sharp features softened with a grin and she released his leg. He rolled to his feet and brushed the sand from his face, smiling back at her. They both tucked their wooden weapons under their arms, wiped sweaty palms on their already-stained jerkins, then readied for another bout.
Slowly, soundlessly, Raskah released the breath he’d held. His muscles strained against the winding anticipation that made him feel exquisitely alive, that made him want to stride into the arena and stand amidst the Blade-hopefuls as they struggled and fought to be the best. He forced his shoulders to relax, his jaw to unclench. His hand was steady when he brought a glass goblet to his lips. The pale wine tingled over his tongue, leaving an aftertaste of apricot and almond. A second drink steadied him enough to trust his voice.
“What do you think, Lamak?”
The Blade who’d waited nearby in silence took a single sharp step closer and adjusted the copper armbands that marked his rank as comdar. “They’re a decent lot, my Velshaan. That one, in particular, shows promise, I think.”
Raskah glanced in the general direction Lamak pointed, not bothering to pick out one face from the crowd. “Someday, perhaps. For now, it will be Riner.”
“As you wish, my Velshaan,” Lamak said after a brief pause.
“Of course,” Raskah murmured. Lamak wasn’t pleased with Raskah’s decision to add another Blade to his cadre, and Raskah knew why. Young Riner was an ambitious Blade with skill enough to back it up. Lamak, who led the cadre, didn’t like the competition.
A piercing whistle brought the Blade hopefuls to an abrupt halt, every one of them standing still and attentive as Comdar Shella ran her hard gaze over them.
“Weapons down,” she shouted, “and line the ropes!”
A strong “Yes, Comdar!” echoed off the barracks as the hopefuls rushed to obey.
Raskah handed the wine goblet to Lamak and pushed from the bench, taking up the iron rod that had rested across his lap. With measured steps, he left the shade and approached the arena as Shella gave the hopefuls a final inspection before dismissal. The moment she raised her gaze to him, he stopped and braced his iron rod between his feet. He knew the effect of his pose—the thin tawny veins in his black hair burnished by the sun, his ivory linen robes stirring in the breeze, his deep amber eyes scanning every face that turned his way—and permitted himself to smile at the awe given to him.
He ran his thumb over the three raised glyphs on the iron rod. Rah-ska-ah. Velshaan—one of five bloodkin who ruled the deserts and deltas of SheyKhala. Descendant of the gods, nineteen generations removed from the sacred ancestors who had drawn the Great River from its underground home, who had given their children the ability to link intent with elemental command, who had tempered metal with their bare hands to create an iron coveted by every bladesmith of every land that knew of SheyKhala’s existence.
Raskah. The man who didn’t have the one thing he wanted.
Comdar Shella gave him a swift salute as her hopefuls quickly knelt, then she stared directly at him with eyes framed by creases born of decades of squinting against the desert sun. Her direct gaze lasted longer than formality required, though not long enough to breach that same protocol. Raskah gave her only the shallowest of nods. She returned it with a bow just barely deep enough to be respectful, as if she were dismissing him from her notice.
Lamak came to his side as Shella resumed her inspection. “The comdar,” he said tightly, “should set a better example.”
Raskah shrugged, his gaze following Shella. If she hadn’t been exceptionally skilled at training Blades, she’d have been stripped of her rank years ago. Her arrogance alone would have been cause enough, but she never quite toed over the line to insubordination. He usually took satisfaction in knowing the worst of her behavior had been quelled by the exile of her lover some years past. But with his senses honed by the fighting, the thought stirred anger that couldn’t be vented. His own sister had also resided in Exile Stronghold for the last year. Not once had she asked permission to return home. Not once—not since the day her exile was decreed—had she begged forgiveness. He’d been wrong to expect it.
Sister, companion, deserter, apostate…
“The fourth man in the line,” Raskah said softly. “His name is Kiht.”
“For your cadre?”
“The woman beside him is Cindra. Bring them both to me tonight. Discreetly. As before.”
“M-my Velshaan, there will be questions if I—”
“Not if you do it properly.”
Lamak pressed his lips together and squared his shoulders. “Yes, my Velshaan.’
“Good.” He forced himself to turn away from the hopefuls and headed from the training grounds. With unthinking ease, he returned the nods and salutes of Blades he passed, his mind coiled tightly around memories and anticipation. By the time he left the austere barracks behind, and passed between the veranda-wrapped quarters reserved from comdars and commanders of higher esteem, even the sand sifting through his sandals became a sensual caress.
The three other Blades of his cadre waited at the archway leading from the compound into the walled city of Prime. Though they leaned against the wall, chatting and laughing, their tension and vigilance was unmistakable. They began moving for the horses before a one of them looked Raskah’s way, as if they could sense his approach. One held the reins for Raskah as he mounted. His tall, dainty-legged horse was like a glass goblet—beautiful, valuable, to be used sparingly. The Blades’ horses—muscled, solid, restless—were as coals awaiting oil.
Raskah waited until Lamak had settled in the saddle, then summoned him to his side. The comdar turned his horse so he could face his Velshaan, their knees almost touching.
“Why did you hesitate?” he asked with the soft, smooth tone he knew discomfited Lamak.
Lamak stiffened. “My apologies, Velshaan, but—”
“They…” Lamak swallowed and looked down at the reins clenched in his fist. “They’re Blade-hopefuls, my Velshaan. Blades protect hopefuls.”
“From what, Comdar? From the Velshaan they are sworn to obey?”
“No, Velshaan,” he whispered.
But Raskah noted the flexing of the man’s jaw, the shallow rise and fall of his chest. Knew Lamak was remembering the pair of street fighters whose names Raskah never knew. Raskah had made an error that time, had lost control. It wouldn’t happen again. Not with skilled Blade-hopefuls. And Lamak didn’t merit any such reassurances.
“Don’t forget to fetch Riner in the morning,” Raskah said, “and we shall ask him what his choice would have been.”
Lamak’s head jerked up, and his horse sidestepped in response. “I serve my Velshaan,” he said. “Without fail. Always.”
“Of course.” Raskah graced him with a smile, then turned his horse toward the heart of Prime Stronghold, of all SheyKhala. Toward the pale stone palace that was home.
It was a simple thing to acquire the privacy from his bloodkin that Raskah needed. His father Tarik had already planned to spend the evening with several Blade commanders, in a downstairs chamber adjacent to the Court, where they’d haggle over which hopefuls would be assigned to their ranks after the brandings. That meant his grandmother would perform her nightly review of reports—from the shahrin who ran various holdings, from commanders on the borders, and from spies across SheyKhala—within easy listening distance of the commanders’ negotiations so she could later criticize how Tarik managed the debate. And his cousin had opted to attend the night market that very evening, thoroughly pleased Raskah had finally remembered to refer her to an exceptional artist who worked almost solely with obsidian. Clearing the palace’s residential wing of servants was as easy as a single command.
On his balcony, alone and unseen, Raskah watched the last shard of sun glide behind sand-blown cliffs barely visible in the distance beyond the stronghold’s walls. Warm lamplight seeped from the chamber behind him. He didn’t need the light—his nightsight was faultless—but the flame of an oil lamp gave blood and iron and skin an extraordinary sheen that nightsight could not.
In the empty courtyard below, granite pathways cut between glossy mounds of night-blooming jasmine. Ripples of silver and shadow slid across the gazing pool in the courtyard’s center, roused by the breeze that shifted every sunset to bring the earthy scent of the Great River into the palace. Not too many years ago, the courtyard would still echo with young voices. He and his sister Syrina, laughing and teasing and sharing secrets. There ought to be a child in the courtyard again by now—a Velshaan toddler just learning to call him Papa, with pale yellow eyes that would eventually darken to deep amber, with wispy black hair that would gain its gold strand by strand with age. With a mother and father—sister and brother—able to rule the elements as no Velshaan had in three generations.
Raskah closed his eyes and put the image away, forcing his thoughts onto the minute sensations so easily forgotten in the day-to-day babble. His feet, bare of sandals, pressed against the polished wood floorboards. Loose trousers barely brushed his legs, the hems just touching the tops of his feet. Brass plates of his belt, warmed by his skin, rested heavily at his hips. His fingertips stroked the balcony’s marble ledge with feather touches. And the breeze sliding through his hair, tickling between his bare shoulder blades and cooling the nape of his neck, was a caress he could almost believe intentional, aware, seeking his answer and direction…
He unclenched his fists, opened his eyes, and cast a glance at the opposite end of the shared balcony, to the glass-paned door leading to Syrina’s empty chambers. Without her, the winds would never know his touch. He would never know their strength. The winds, the sands, the stones, the fires of SheyKhala—all beyond his reach. None of it would be his unless, until, Syrina agreed to join him, as their ancestors intended for the Velshaan. But she had told him he couldn’t be trusted, turned her back on their love, and expected him to permit it. She had refused him.
The click of an opening doorlatch tugged him from the acrid memory, and he exhaled the bitterness on a long breath between pursed lips before looking inside. Lamak entered the room first, meeting his gaze in silent question. Raskah gave a slow nod as he stepped from the balcony into his main chamber, still raw from remembering Syrina yet mastering the tension straining his muscles.
Then Lamak pushed Cindra into the room, and pulled Kiht in behind her. Raskah’s heart slowed, his vision tunneled, and every moment became worthy of attention.
Blindfolded, hands bound, the Blade-hopefuls stopped the moment Lamak released them in the chamber’s center. They wore the unadorned leathers of any hopeful, their belts empty of weapons. Both stood tall as if unafraid, but their mouths betrayed their dread—lips slightly parted, barely downturned—as if robbing the hopefuls of sight gave in return the gift of truth.
“Kiht,” Raskah said softly, giving the ki a soft rumble deep his throat, then added an archaic trill to the r when he said, “Cindra.”
A rapid breath from each of them before they answered, “My Velshaan.”
“Do you know why you are here?”
“No, my Velshaan,” Cindra answered, and Kiht shook his head.
Raskah took another step forward, then remembered Lamak. The Blade-Comdar stood between the hopefuls and the door, feet braced as if the gods themselves couldn’t uproot him, hands tucked properly behind his back, gaze shifting from Raskah to the captive pair.
“Comdar, you will leave.” Raskah ignored the hitch in Kiht’s breath. “Now.”
Lamak lifted a bootheel, but didn’t complete the step. “My Velshaan, if I—”
“The command will not be repeated.”
Two heartbeats. Three. Then Lamak turned sharply and strode from the chamber with a clatter of iron-edged boots, quietly pulling the door shut behind him. Six heartbeats, then seven. At last, Lamak’s bootfalls faded down the corridor. Eight heartbeats. Nine. Ten.
“Kiht, what did the comdar tell you?”
“My Velshaan, only that I should obey you.”
Raskah stepped closer. “And you, Cindra?”
“The same, my Velshaan.”
Closer still. “Obey what?”
“He didn’t—” Her brow creased above the blindfold. “My Velshaan, if I have offended—”
“You’ve done nothing wrong.” He touched a finger to Kiht’s shoulder, and Kiht flinched. “Be still,” he murmured, then traced his finger over the young man’s shoulder, over the shirt’s neckline, to the bare skin beneath his jaw. Tension—almost disobedience—replaced Kiht’s shivering. It made Raskah smile. I hold you, I free you. Control, restraint.
“By all report,” Raskah said as he loosed the knots binding Kiht’s hands, then began on Cindra’s, “you both have your comdar’s favor, and for good reason. I wish to see it for myself. So you will fight each other with everything that makes Shella claim you’re among the finest hopefuls of her lifetime. You will fight until I decide you’ve fought enough, and I will help you to do so properly. Understood?”
They echoed each other’s submission, though Cindra reached for her blindfold. Raskah caught her hand and loosed the blindfold himself to reveal dark eyes squinting with wary confusion. That confusion hardened when he shoved the linen between her lips and cinched the knot behind her head. She leaned away from him, but held his gaze. Just as Syrina had.
Kiht clenched his fists as Raskah gagged him as well. Eyes widened when Raskah pointed them toward the table that had been pushed against the wall, and the pair of daggers resting atop it. They were beginning to realize what he had commanded, and fear what he expected.
He backed away as Cindra and Kiht took up the weapons, imagining what they wished they could say to each other, and took his seat on the divan set in the corner after retrieving his iron rod. Everything else—his working desk, his chairs, his plush carpets—had been set against the walls, leaving ample room for two fighters determined to best each other. Raskah’s breath quickened, his fingertips began to tingle, when the hopefuls he’d chosen took halting steps toward the room’s center.
Circling, testing strikes, hesitations and retreats—neither one committing, neither one attacking. When Raskah stood, iron rod in hand, they stared at him, breathing hard, as if they’d actually done something interesting. Kiht’s brows were drawn with worry, but Cindra’s gaze narrowed. She dropped the dagger and backed away.
Defiance. Refusal. Just like Syrina.
Raskah felt his control thinning, stretching into finer filaments as his vision narrowed. He swallowed his first impulse before acting on the second. “Perhaps,” he said softly, “you do need me to show you.”
He swung the iron rod fast and hard, catching Kiht just above the knee. The hopeful staggered, and Raskah swung again. Kiht’s muffled cry sang to his buried fury. When Cindra moved to help him, just as he knew she would, Raskah grabbed her by the throat—waiting for her to fight against him, knowing she wouldn’t dare. Then, trembling with the need to do more, he released her and nudged the fallen dagger’s hilt with his bare foot.
“Now,” he whispered. “Or I shall keep teaching you until you learn. You wouldn’t want Kiht to suffer for your failure.”
One heartbeat. Two, three. Raskah waited until she bent to retrieve the dagger—until Kiht answered her silent question with a nod and squared his shoulders—before returning to the divan. He leaned back on the cushions, his iron rod in hand, and watched the fight go from timid to vicious with a few well-placed cuts. And when Kiht at last landed the kick he’d missed that afternoon, Raskah saw only his sister’s face twist with pain.