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 land of SheyKhala. A new chapter will be posted every Thursday until the novel’s publication in the summer of 2013.
To start with Chapter 1, click here.
Shella knew she was still weak from her injuries because it didn’t occur to her to question Syrina’s decision to lock her up. A Blade who wouldn’t look her in the eye had helped her to limp downstairs, below the stronghold, to a cell scarcely as deep as she was tall. Then he’d set a lamp on the floor and locked the solid iron door behind her—all before she thought to ask why. The cell held only a small covered pail in the far corner and a narrow bench that jutted from the wall. Shella wrinkled her nose at the pail, then straddled the bench and lay back to stare at the low and dark ceiling. Her hand moved to catch her nonexistent sword, finding nothing but air. Without the weapon and her leathers, she felt almost naked.
Facing down Syrina had exhausted her as much as her own gall had unnerved her. But the internal voice that had warned her against accusing Raskah in Court had been silent throughout Syrina’s questioning. Perhaps the truth had become an intoxication of sorts, robbing her of reason, leaving her to again await the whim of a Velshaan to discover if she would live or die.
“Heya, Ancient,” she said to the shadows. “Here I am, righting my wrongs, yes? Hasn’t gone well today. Any suggestions? A little help, maybe?” She waited, making faces to amuse herself in the silence. “Didn’t think so,” she muttered. “You’re just like the rest of them.”
Awhile later, after Shella had almost dozed off, the clatter of bootsteps on stone stairs roused her. She heard voices—both male—but couldn’t decipher the words. The squeal of neglected iron hinges sounded closer, probably one of the cells nearer the stairs. But Syrina had said she’d be hidden from the inspectors down here, and if the Velshaan had changed her mind, they wouldn’t be opening any cell but the one she was in.
Slow and controlled, Shella slid from the bench and crawled across the tiny cell. Her wrist throbbed, but she ignored it and every other hurt. All that mattered was reaching the small lamp before a sliver of light betrayed her presence. Another set of hinges whined, nearer than before, as she extinguished the flame with a quick breath. Total darkness surrounded her.
Footsteps stopped outside her cell. The outer bolt began to rattle before her sight adjusted well enough to see more than the faint glow of the man’s lamp beneath her cell door. Shella breathed slowly and silently through her mouth, balanced on her knees and one hand, unwilling to announce her presence with so much as the rasping of her shirt over her coarse bandages.
“It’s jammed, Comdar,” the man said. “Doesn’t look like it’s been opened in ages.”
“We’re not going to find anything anyway,” the other answered, his voice farther off than the first. “Check the last one, just in case, and we’ll call it done.”
Shella remained still despite her trembling muscles, until the footsteps faded away and a distant door slammed shut. Groaning, she lowered her head to the floor and tried to take in enough breath to calm her heart.
“I am too old for this,” she whispered, and pushed onto her knees. In total darkness, she felt her way back to the bench and hauled her sore body up. She laid back on the hard wood and wiped the sweat from her temple with hands that had gone clammy. “Definitely too damn old.”
Maybe Syrina thought too much had already been invested to in saving her life to simply hand her over now. Or she may have decided to inform her bloodkin directly. If Syrina sought to regain her bloodkin’s favor, Shella might be that opportunity.
“Oh, stop it,” she muttered. “You’re not that gods-be-damned valuable, Comdar.”
Secure in the knowledge that what locked her in at least locked others out, Shella let herself doze off, but came sharply awake when the cell’s bolt screeched open. Clumsy with fatigue, she lurched to her feet just as the door opened, and flung up her hand to block the sudden blinding light.
Her breath caught. Squinting, she lowered her arm as the man set his lamp beside the one she’d earlier snuffed out. “Pyrius?”
A smile appeared beneath his moustache as he straightened. “I hoped you’d want to see me.”
He held out his hands and she took them, drawing him into her arms. Though his body lacked the muscular bulk it had had before exile, his shoulder beneath her cheeks felt as solid as she remembered. It hurt when his arms tightened around her, but she said nothing. She didn’t want to give up his touch. His fingers brushed her face and lifted her chin. The long, lingering kiss warmed her with both memory and promise.
“Did you speak on my behalf?” she asked when the kiss ended, and he nodded. “I’m afraid I damaged your credibility, then, with the Velshaan.”
“Not at all.”
“I’m locked up.”
“Syrina had to hide you somewhere,” he said.
“She didn’t do a good job of it. Two men were down here looking around. The only reason they didn’t find me is because the bolt was jammed.”
Pyrius scowled. “It wasn’t, and they’ve never come looking down here before.”
“I wonder who sent them down here,” she drawled.
“Not the Velshaan. She gave me her word.”
“She’s not turning me out?” Shella sat on the bench to ease the ache in her ankle, but kept hold of his hand. “Why wouldn’t she?”
“She has her reasons.”
She hadn’t heard his voice in five years, but knew how it sounded when he was hiding something. “Reasons that have nothing to do with me.”
He shrugged, then waggled his hand.
“And you won’t tell me what they are.”
Scowling, he stared at the floor, and the hand Shella didn’t hold flexed into a lose fist.
“What’s wrong with your arm?” she asked. When he twitched his arm away, she caught his wrist and shoved the sleeve to his elbow, snapping the wrist laces. Before he snatched his arm back, she saw the pale scar, evidence of a cut newly healed.
“Is that what it looks like?” she demanded. “If it isn’t, want to lie to me about what it is?”
“I made a vow,” he said.
“You drew blood.”
When he nodded, still staring at the floor, Shella let her hand slip from his.
“You drew blood,” she repeated, “with your own iron.”
“Yes,” he whispered.
“How could you do that?” she asked, voice tight. “After everything they’ve done to you, what loyalty could you possibly have left to give?”
“Shella, you don’t understand—”
“No. I don’t. Blade vows be damned, I’m finished with the Velshaan.”
“Syrina is different.”
“She is Velshaan.”
“And doing what she can to save your life.”
“So she can use it up later.”
“You weren’t there!” She pushed to her feet and steadied herself against the wall rather than accept his outstretched hand. “You didn’t see what happened to my hopefuls. You didn’t hear them tell lies about it.”
“I saw what they did to you,” he growled, fists clenched. “And even if the gods absolve them, I never will. But nothing they did gives you right or reason to condemn Syrina. She is not her bloodkin. If you expect to stay alive here, Shella, you’ll have to trust me.”
“Trust you?” She snorted. “The first time you said that, I found you sprawled on the riverbank with a pretty little thing named Dari.”
Tension eased from his shoulders. “You only found me there because Giron brought you to the same hideout, hoping for the same thing.”
“I only did it to make you jealous.”
As the anger left her, so did the strength. She sank back to the bench and put her aching head in her hands. “I’m too tired to fight, Pyrius. And I’ve missed you too much to want to.”
He sat beside her. “Did you ever think we’d feel this old?”
“I’m not old”—she slapped his leg—”old man.”
Chuckling, he rested his arm around her shoulders and pulled her against him. She took his hand and, since he didn’t resist this time, examined the faint scar of his blood and iron vow.
“So,” she said after a sigh. “Convince me you’re right.”
“Syrina was exiled for a reason.”
Shella tilted her head. “That’s one point in her favor.”
“She’s scarcely older than a Blade-hopeful.”
“Tsk. Raskah’s not but two years older.”
“I’ve been closer to her over the last year than anyone ever gets to a Velshaan,” Pyrius said. “I didn’t offer my vow without reason. I serve her by choice.”
“No one bound by blood and iron has a choice.”
“She didn’t ask for the vow.”
“She obviously didn’t refuse it.”
“Shella.” He shifted so he could look directly into her eyes. “Don’t argue. Just listen.”
She pressed her lips together and raised her eyebrows.
Pyrius said, “I gave her my vow because she had chosen to trust me first. I’ll admit I didn’t sleep that first night, and wondered if I’d done something stupid I couldn’t take back and—listen,” he added when she opened her mouth to agree. “I don’t doubt myself anymore. Not after tonight. Not after she risked everything to hide you from the inspectors.” He kissed her hand. “Don’t condemn her now, Shella. At least give her the same chance she’s given you.”
“Cornered with guilt,” she muttered. “”Fine. You win. I’ll be nice to your Velshaan.”
“At least be civil.”
“Only for you, Commander.” She gave him an exaggerated salute that he returned with better snap, then she pulled back so she could look at him directly. The upward-cast light of the lamp wasn’t kind to him, deepening and darkening every crease and hollow Exile had inflicted. But it was the faint squint of his nightsighted eyes, the steadiness of his gaze, that made her reconsider the conversation they’d just had in search of what he was waiting for her to ask about. When the missing question came to mind, she felt her eyes widen and pulled in a deep breath.
“Don’t ask me about war tonight,” Pyrius said softly. “I wouldn’t have an answer.”
Five years ago, she never would have permitted him to cast that question aside. Tonight, she didn’t want to care. So she rested her head on his shoulder, brought his hand to her cheek, and closed her eyes. “Turn out the lamp, love. Let me fall asleep to the sound of your voice telling me what beautiful things you see in the darkness.”
“What I see,” he murmured, his lips brushing her forehead, “is the most remarkable woman the gods ever made.”