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. My apologies for the delay on this posting; sometimes life goes sideways.
To start with Chapter 1, click here.
Raskah had barely sent his discreet courier—bearing his latest commands to the commander in Ebon Stronghold—out a side passage to avoid being seen when word came that a pair of Blades had returned from their desert foray. Iron rod in hand, he swept down the stairs before sharing the news with his bloodkin. Both Blades, still dusty from travel and smelling of horse, knelt when he entered the audience chamber beside Court. Blade Hita rose first; she’d been a member of Raskah’s cadre long enough grow comfortable.
“You may go,” Raskah told her. “I’ll hear the report from Riner.”
He smiled at Hita’s confusion, and the embarrassment that pinked her cheeks. If she was to be paired with the newest recruit to his cadre, she’d best remember to set a more respectful example.
Blade Riner didn’t rise—didn’t even raise his head—until Hita the clatter of her iron-edged boots faded, and Raskah said his name. The Blade looked up and met his gaze directly. It was how the man balanced deference with confidence that pleased Raskah.
“What did you find, Blade?”
“My Velshaan, we found nothing but the stake and the shackles.”
Raskah blinked. “Nothing?”
Riner shook his head. “We rode directly to the killing sands. The stake was still there. The shackles were still there. But Comdar Shella was not. My Velshaan, there was no blood, no bone, no scrap of clothing. There was nothing.”
Someone had stolen the body. Or rescued her, still living. “Tell me everything.”
Riner repeated his facts, then added that they’d scouted the area for tracks and traces but found none. “The sands consumed her completely,” he ended in a whisper. “I have no other explanation.”
A shiver skimmed over Raskah’s flesh, and he hid the reaction by setting his iron rod across his palms and caressing the name-glyphs with his thumb. Shella had been fed to the sands eight days ago—long enough for the desert to kill her, but not long enough to erase all sign of her existence. “Hita knows better than to tell others of this. Do you?”
“Yes, My Velshaan.”
He nodded. “I assume you’ve moved your belongings into the cadre’s barracks in the compound?”
Riner nodded. “I’m honored you chose me, my Velshaan.”
“Remain in the barracks until I send for you. Tell Comdar Lamak that order stands for all the cadre.”
As Riner gave his obedient response, Raskah was already leaving the audience chamber. He climbed the stairs quickly, iron rod gripped in his fist, envisioning Shella’s corpse sinking into the ground as a susurrus of sand closed over it, as if the desert had literally consumed her. Then he imagined a crowd of faceless, nameless apostates lifting Shella out of death, carrying her away for their own purposes.
Then he thought of Cindra, still alive, in the Blade compound’s infirmary.
He paused before taking the last stairs that would bring him to the hall of his bloodkin’s private chambers. He didn’t care for the anxiety tightening his chest and trembling in his gut. It would have been better if Cindra had died along with Kiht. He’d been certain she would. It was bad enough she survived, and if Shella also lived—
The sound of arguments rolled from the corridor ahead. He couldn’t understand the words, but recognized the voices of his father and grandmother. Iron rod tucked under his arm, he climbed the last steps and looked down the hall. Layla stood outside the closed door of the bloodkin’s shared solar, her back to him and ear pressed to the door. Raskah took quiet steps toward her, then leaned against the wall beside the door.
“Spying cousin,” he whispered.
Layla turned with a start, her gold-stranded black hair flowing over her shoulder, then narrowed her eyes and stepped back from him. “Don’t tell me you’ve never listened in.”
In truth, it was usually Syrina who’d liked to play at spying when they were children, though she lacked the talent for finding interesting and useful conversations. Raskah shrugged off the memory and Layla’s accusation. “What is it this time?”
“Your father wants Pyrius back.”
“That’s getting old,” Raskah said.
Layla rolled her eyes. “It was getting old three years ago.”
Without waiting for more, Raskah opened the door and walked inside. Tarik and Marika were on either side of the long table, hands braced on the smooth juniperwood. Their overlapping words stopped and both turned to him.
Raskah forced a smile. “Demonstrating our Velshaan unity again, I see.”
“Stay out,” Tarik snapped, mouth twisting as if he’d bitten something sour before turning back to Marika. “He shouldn’t have any say in this decision.”
“You want to recall Pyrius from Exile?” Raskah asked. “Fine, as long as you intend to feed him to the sands when he returns.”
“We should instead be asking why we’ve lost our best commander and best training comdar in the space of a few years.”
“We didn’t lose them,” Marika said evenly. “We removed them when they became too possessed of their own power.”
Tarik crossed his arms. “Surely half a decade in Exile has convinced Pyrius of his limitations.”
“We will first see if a mere year was enough to convince your daughter of the same.”
Raskah stared at his grandmother, breath caught in his throat. Syrina—coming home from Exile. Coming home to him. He wanted to hold her so badly, it shamed him. He could not be so quick to absolve her.
“I see,” Tarik said, then nodded. “I’ll bring her home myself.”
Tarik left the solar with long, hard strides, not even pausing to acknowledge Layla when she at last stepped into the room.
“No, he won’t,” Marika murmured as she sank onto a divan and propped up her sandaled feet. “Grandson, you’ll assign a pair from your cadre to carry out the upcoming inspection of Exile Stronghold. We’ll use that opportunity to inform Syrina of our decision. I want to hear report of her reaction before we decide who, precisely, shall be fetching her home. After that mess Shella caused, we need to give SheyKhala something else to chatter about, and reconciling with your sister should keep flapping jaws busy.”
“I should be the one to accompany her,” Raskah said.
She kept silent, then shrugged. “Perhaps. Don’t antagonize your father in the meantime.”
Raskah waited for her to say more, but she turned her gaze out the window as if he’d already gone. She’d grown distant in the last few days, unwilling to speak with him much, disinclined to share meals with the bloodkin. Every time he’d caught her looking at him, it was with narrowed eyes and a puckered brow, as if anger worried her. And every time, he’d thought of Shella and the hopefuls. This time, the thought brought with it the same fluttering anxiety he’d felt hearing Blade Riner’s report.
Marika didn’t look at him when she continued. “That broken-down hopeful, Cindra, is looking to leave the infirmary tomorrow. She claims she will find the means to support herself, and I don’t for a moment doubt her resolve.”
“You spoke with her?” he asked, and hated the strain in his own voice.
“Of course. She needed to be told her training comdar used the attack as an attempt to stir unrest. Cindra understands why Shella had to be executed. Alas, her memory of that attack remains dim, but she has leave to petition me directly is she recalls anything important. Or if she feels threatened in any way.”
Raskah tried and failed to answer aloud, and stared out the window instead. Marika wasn’t going to accuse him. She would instead use Cindra to guarantee his future behavior.
After a long silence, Marika said, “I’ve assured the training comdars replacing Shella that there will be no more incidents involving the hopefuls.”
He gave a tight nod to indicate he understood.
“We will fund a search for those responsible for the attacks. I trust my personal attention to the matter will be sufficient to guarantee another incident will not occur.”
“I trust it will,” he answered in a hoarse whisper, then remembered Layla was still behind him. With as much control as he could exert, he turned from Marika, gave Layla a stiff nod, and willed his shaking legs to take him from the solar. Layla’s small, restrained smile disturbed him—left him wondering if his cousin had deduced the truth on her own, and fearing Marika had seen fit to enlighten her regardless.
The sands consumed her completely… Raskah paused in the doorway, wishing he could withhold the secret a little longer and knowing he dare not risk it now. So he turned back to Marika and said, “You should also know that Shella’s body has been stolen.”
Raskah felt greatly relieved when Marika’s expression betrayed nothing but shock untainted with suspicion or calculation. At least Marika still trusted him that much.