Chapter 1: Wake Up
Better the fangs of a friend than the claws of the cruel.
The cool night breeze, fresh and filled with the scent of new rain, brushes across my arms and face, as gentle as my mother’s touch. I float on the shifting sea of darkness — sleep inviting me towards its tranquil bays of quiet dreamy solitude.
The door at the far end of my room opens slowly; groaning inhospitably as though it wishes to repel whoever would dare to invade. As it swings open, it creaks louder on its hinges. An alarm warning me of danger.
Like hair touched by fire, all my senses are inflamed. The soft thuds of her boots on the stone floor resonate through the air. I know her gait.
The air is thick and hot. The walls draw in around me. She moves closer.
My muscles constrict, binding me where I lay. A sacrifice on a fluffy alter. Frozen. Useless.
Her hand goes over my mouth. The flesh is smooth and cool as the black waters of Kalura’s abyss. A knife touches my throat — the blade’s edge is so thin she might have rested the edge of a sadufet’s wing against my skin.
My eyes stay shut and I will myself to breathe gently, as though in deep sleep. Perhaps she will abandon me if she believes I’m not conscious of her presence. My heart’s pace is like execution drums. Her ears are keener than mine. I don’t know if she can hear my heart but I know she smells my fear.
“You’re awake, Tal,” she says, her sultry voice slicing through the silence like an arrow in the night. A deep purr resonates from the back of her throat. Claws extend from her hand — grazing, but not cutting, my cheek.
I remain as still as the dead, slowly inhaling through my nose. Her scent flows through my nostrils. I cannot find the tart smell of malevolence. There’s a cold musty smell of satisfaction wafting off her. The spicy aroma of glee, and… Blood. The scents of blood and death envelope her — thick as a cloud.
She holds the knife at my throat with the control of an artist. The blade is tight against my skin, but doesn’t cut. I force myself to resist the shudder building in my core. Even the most subtle move and my flesh will be sliced.
Where is my mother? I want to call out to her. To scream for her to save me.
I may die tonight, right here. My sheets dyed red with my fresh spilled blood, brightly contrasting my dark corpse.
Gods, for all the good in this world, spare my life. My face flushes hot, then a cold sweat breaks out on my brow.
“It’s simple,” she says. “A quick flick of the wrist and it’s over. It’s messy, of course, warm blood oozing everywhere, smelling like a gift from Sovule.”
She licks her lips, as though she can already taste the gore. “They wouldn’t look for you for days. I could burn your corpse and scatter your ashes before they notice you’ve disappeared. They might never notice.”
Ashes cannot scream. Neither can I. Am I already dead?
The blade presses harder against my skin — much more and she will cut me. I slowly pry my eyes open. The night obscures my view. I can make out little beyond the sharp features of her silhouette. The silvery moonlight reflects off her white fangs. They’re held in a wide grin.
“You’re lucky that I still have uses for you.” The blade’s pressure on my neck slowly decreases as though she’s fighting the urge to cut my throat.
She sighs wistfully. With graceful speed, she removes the knife and sheaths it. She leaves her other hand over my mouth.
“If you cry out, I will be forced to reconsider my decision.”
She uncovers my mouth and stands up, towering over me like a dark spirit from Vexaya.
I once visited the graveyards with my father. There was a sarcophagus with a lid, carved to look like the body of the dead Fal held within. At the time, I thought it was a statue of a sleeper on a bed of stone. I am that statue now. Unmoving beneath her gaze.
She leans down and kisses my forehead. Can lips draw blood?
“I take your life, but I let you live. Do not waste what is mine.”
My breath escapes me as the bed below me grows warm and wet.
She sniffs the air, her large ears perked up in attention. I wish I could crawl under my bed and hide, but I dare not move. She can draw her knife as quickly as she sheathed it.
My sister’s ears relax. She sighs.
“Maybe another night. Sleep well, Tal,” she turns and glides from the room. I am abandoned.
I gasp for air. I’m drowning.
I bolt upright in bed, my breaths quick and shallow. Nothing more than a dream. The dream about Zevalec. Just a dream. I have to calm down.
Why am I not calm yet?
Every rational part of my brain knows it’s only a memory. Gods, it happened ten damn years ago. Zeva says she barely remembers it — I don’t know how, but my sister doesn’t lie.
The coldness of that night echoes through my nerves. The sharpness of her claws and blade. I can still smell her hand over my mouth.
I was five — it shouldn’t be such a perfect memory. Though I suppose I can remember my grandfather’s death with clarity, and I was of a similar age when he died. No, it makes sense for death to be memorable.
Zeva didn’t kill or hurt me. It frightened me, but scaring someone isn’t a crime. My sister’s actions are always out of love for country and family. She had her reasons for what she did, and she hasn’t threatened me since… Not with death anyway.
I know all of this, so why cannot I calm myself?
I focus on my surroundings. Fexon once said it’s a good way to bond with the present, which is his pretentious way of saying calm down. It’s a stupid way to phrase it, but the idea works most of the time.
I’m lying on my back in bed. The mattress is soft — too soft from years of use. I should tell a servant to have extra stuffing added to it… No, I’m thinking of the future. I need to focus on the now.
Where are my blankets? I roll on my side to look over the edge of the bed. There’s a crumpled heap of blue and green fabric on the floor. I must have kicked them off again. It happens a lot when I have nightmares… That’s the past. Now. What is happening now?
Morning light is streaming in through the window, bright and warm. I sit up, yawning lazily, as I raise my arms over my head to stretch, letting my claws extend. The pull of the light strain on my muscles is pleasant. I take a deep breath through my nose, inhaling the scents of the day. The stink of the city accosts me through the open window. It takes me a moment to differentiate between the smells.
The acrid scent of soap — it’s washing day. The dingy smell of frustration — there’s rarely a morning the scent doesn’t permeate the entire city. The earthy warm smell of bread baking — Gump’s fangs!
I’ve slept too long. If the bread’s baking, I’ll need to hurry or I’ll be late to my lessons.
I swing my feet over the side of my bed, wincing as they touch the cold green stone floor. I rush to grab a brown tunic and trousers from my closet. I throw off my night clothes and slip the tunic over my head, then on come trousers and boots.
I glance at the lotion on the vanity at the far end of my room. There’s no time to oil my skin. Before the day is out, my skin will be flaking and blistered. No point in worrying. There’s nothing I can do about it now.
Fexon does not tolerant tardiness. If I’m late, Fexon will punish me… Er… Reinforce my understanding of the consequences of failing to honor a commitment.
I run down the hall to the stone stairs, taking them two at a time and I almost lose my footing. Whilst trying to steady myself, I accidentally pull down one of the tapestries hanging on the walls. It’s an expertly embroidered religious tapestry, devoted to the creation of the Wernashi. It’s richly colored threads of red, gold, and black combine to depict the moment Sovule pierced his own flesh to nurse the first Wernashi with his blood. Of course, out of all the tapestries in the hall, I had to knock down the one made by Jolamet.
I leave the tapestry where it’s fallen. The servants can fix it. I pray Jolamet doesn’t see it before they do. I have no time to put it back myself.
I swing open the side door, squinting as I step into the light. It’s only a short sprint to the Palace stables. The civa nut shells littering the stable floor crunch under my feet. Gensin waits with the hanasi, gently brushing the long neck of his beast.
Looking at Gensin’s somewhat plump figure, I can almost forget he fought in the war with the country of Snarod before I was born — before he became my bodyguard. The Snarodag are the sworn enemies of Wernashi. We’ve been at war with them for decades.
I miss the war stories he’d tell me when I was little. It made me want to be a Gul soldier like him. Impossible things sound rational to children.
Gensin doesn’t talk to me much anymore, but that’s the way of things. Servants aren’t meant to speak to their betters. It distracts them from their purpose. Mother says, out of kindness and respect for their work, it’s best to avoid giving servants occasion where they have to speak.
My hanas, Sunu, bobs her head when I get close, her eyes growing big as she chitters at me happily. I cannot stop myself from smiling even if I wanted to. She’s adorable. Sunu’s used the same pattern of chirps to greet me since she was a hatchling.
I walk over to her and run my hands through the thick fluffy red fur of her neck. It’s getting long. She’ll have to be sheared soon. Gensin climbs onto his hanas and patiently waits for me to get ready to go.
Out of habit, Sunu lifts her right foot so I can check for anything that could make it difficult for her to run. Gensin is obsessive about proper animal care. It can be annoying on days like today when time is short, but Sunu is worth a few extra minutes. I could make Gensin do it, but even my father says you shouldn’t trust someone else to care for your mount.
I do a quick check of Sunu’s right foot, then her left, examining the claws and pads for any abnormalities, and scraping off some dried dung with my claws. I hop onto her back as soon as I’m done.
“Where’s Segrex?” I ask Gensin after I’m seated.
“He went on ahead.”
“Your son couldn’t be bothered to wait for me?” I ask. I’m not surprised. Segrex does as he pleases and, in five years of lessons, he’s never been late.
“He thought you might like someone to explain our delay to Fal-Fexon.”
Maybe he’ll tell Fexon we’re going to be late because my father needed Gensin for something. I’ve been late twice this month already.
We ride past the Palace walls into the Fal district. Shimark is built on a hill with cliffs to the northwest and east. The Palace sits at the highest point — closest to Sovule’s realm beyond the sky.
The Fal district is a quick ride past the mansions and stables of the nobler citizens. Servants stay off the main roads and most of the Fals aren’t up this early. Once we pass the Fal Gate and enter the lower city our progress is slowed.
The Fal Gate sets us in the heart of Shimark. To reach the North Gate and the road to Fexon’s Hill, we have to ride across half the lower city. The North Gate is reserved for Fal nobles and Royals. Our servants can use it as well, but only with official clearance papers.
The merchant and peasant sections of the city crawl like an esgul hive. We avoid the market road, but even the side streets are bustling with merchants and craftsmen heading from place to place. The buildings on either side of the back roads are built so that, as they get taller, they lean forward until their roofs touch, making the streets feel like tunnels.
I have Sunu move as quickly as is safe with the crowds on the streets. We still get bumped and jostled. Sunu squawks at the offenders. We’re packed in so tight that we seem to ooze through the street.
Gump take these isken-smelling children of Vexaya. If I could make the people on the streets disappear, we could get through the city in half the time. I’ll be late for certain if we cannot move quicker. The streets feel like they’re getting narrower by the minute.
The Jal merchants on these streets know who I am, but none of them try and slow our progress more by offering me their wares. They used to, but they soon learned that I carry no money with me when I go to lessons. There are too many people who need it.
The street widens as we get closer to the Northern Gate. We pass Val beggars, and women with half-starved babies strapped to their chests. There are small hovels built against the sides of some of the buildings — rudely constructed out of rubbish, scraps of wood, and cloth. This section of the city smells strongly of the hopelessness and pain inherent to poverty.
It’s the war that makes these people poor. When we win, my father can lower their taxes and things will be better. May the Gods hasten the day.
The first sun, Shifal, is already moving towards its zenith and the second sun, Ralule, is peeking over the horizon as we finally leave the city and start out over the grassy fields towards Fexon’s Hill.
It’s an easy ride from here out and I push Sunu into a gallop to make up for lost time. She speeds across the ground in graceful leaps. Gensin has to work hard to keep up with us on his older hanas. I don’t care. He knows where we’re going. If I lose him, I lose him. Better than being late.
I can see the hill in the distance. There’s a small wood at the top. The sides are so steep that little grows on them. A narrow path has been carved out, snaking its way up.
I’ve traveled this path so often I could ride blind. I pass an orchard, three farms, and two hanasi ranches. If there was time, I’d stop and feed the hanasi chicks. Seeing them running around like little balls of fluff behind their fence always makes me smile.
Gensin catches up to me as I reach the bottom of the path to Fexon’s house. There’s a large stone pillar off to the left. It has a warning carved into it:
By order of the Sovereign, trespassing without Royal permission is punishable by immediate execution.
We ascend the path up the hill, which is lined on either side with skulls mounted on spikes. They used to scare me when I was younger. A few years back, Segrex and I had to set them back up after a windstorm. We named some of the skulls as we put them back on their spikes. They seem like old friends now.
We reach the top of the hill before midday. I’m not truly late, but Fexon says you should always be early to everything. He already has Segrex going through our daily exercises.
Fexon looks up at me for a moment, his dark eyes staring out from the white, wing-like patches that contrast the blackness of his face. The left side of his face is marred by a deep jagged scar that runs from his temple, past his eye, stopping just before his ear. It gives him a fierce look. The white diamond-shaped mark on his forehead contorts as he frowns, then returns his attention to Segrex.
Segrex is doing squats and smirks at me, his bright yellow eyes glowing with mischief — his skin is boring Kulshi grey and devoid of patterns.
“Finally awake? Or did you sleep through the whole ride?” he asks in mid squat, leaning forward to address me.
I growl with annoyance. Gensin once told me some Guls can sleep while riding by tying themselves into their saddles. I tried it a couple years back. Sunu’s gait is so smooth it feels like floating when she runs, so I was able to fall asleep easily. I didn’t tie the knots right and I woke up as I fell from her back. I sprained my wrist when I tried to catch myself as I hit the ground. I never tried sleeping on a hanas again, but Segrex still thinks it’s funny.
Fexon strikes Segrex’s back with his hand.
Segrex grunts and straightens. If Fexon had hit him much harder, he could have knocked Segrex over. Segrex is bigger than me, but Fexon towers over him and is built sturdy as a mountain.
Fexon looks at me and waves a hand over towards the hitching poll where Segrex’s hanas is already tied.
“Join Segrex after you’ve cared for your beast.”
“Can I have something to eat first?” I ask as I hop down from Sunu. “I haven’t had any breakfast yet.”
Fexon crosses his wrists in front of his face with his fingers splayed, then places them back at his side. “You may eat after your exercises. Poor planning will not gain you delays.”
I sigh, climbing down from Sunu. If I’d been here earlier, he’d have let me eat. My stomach groans in protest of the void growing within it. I should make Gensin keep food for me in his saddle bag so this doesn’t happen again.
As I tie her to a hitching post, Sunu lowers her head down and taps my back with her beak. I turn and she keeps her head low so I can reach it. I scratch around her curvy white horns. There’s a crack that looks like lightning on her right horn from fighting with a male hanas last mating season.
My fingers find a few bugs who have taken up residence on top of her head. Ugly purple blobs with short black legs. I pick them off and toss the pests to the ground.
“Don’t dawdle, Tal,” says Fexon.
I give Sunu one final scratch behind her ears, then run over to Segrex, who has started stretching in preparation for our daily run.
“How late did you wake?” he asks, lifting his left leg up past his head to stretch it. I envy his flexibility.
I tilt my head from side to side. “Late enough I could smell bread baking,” I say.
Segrex grins, “You should have grabbed some for breakfast.”
I wrinkle my nose in disgust, which makes Segrex laugh. I hate bread. It’s dry and grainy and flavorless. It’s worse than cooked fish.
“Nightmares again?” asks Segrex.
“Every time.” Whenever I wake up late, it’s always because of a dream. It’s not always the one about Zeva, though I have that one more often than I’ll ever admit to Segrex. He already hates her.
Segrex puts a hand on my shoulder. “Find me in your dreams and I’ll drive the darkness from them.”
I smile at him. It’s a kind thought, but, even if he was capable of entering my dreams, it wouldn’t make any difference with a memory. Besides, I need to be strong enough to fight my own battles, even if they’re dreams.
“You know the path,” Fexon says. “Run fast, but stay together.”
Segrex and I touch the backs of our hands to our lips in acknowledgement then set off running. The hill path is around a league in length - about a third of the distance from Fexon’s home to the city. It wouldn’t take a hanas long to run it, but at my best I can’t run even half the speed of a hanas. I certainly can’t sustain such a pace for long. Also, I’m hungry.
There’s a small hivalna up ahead, sunning itself on a rock, the sun glinting off its shiny scales. The creature is about half the length of my hand, not including its tail. I slow down just long enough to grab it and toss it in my mouth. Segrex, who is keeping up with me, sees me grab the lizard and crinkles up his face.
“You shouldn’t eat while you run. If you choke I’ll have to carry you back.”
I ignore him, enjoying the pleasant crunch of the hivalna’s bones in my teeth. It’s a plump little fellow - nice and juicy. The chewing does slow me down a little. Choking is a risk if I’m not careful as I eat and run.
Segrex uses my distraction to pull ahead of me. He’s older than I am and a little faster — mostly because he’s taller than me.
“Keep pace with me,” he calls.
I say a quick prayer to Sovule asking for Segrex trip over something. It occurs to me the Gump would be a better recipient of a prayer for mischief, so I ask him to trip Segrex instead.
We make good time on the path. Segrex almost loses his footing when some loose rocks shift, and I manage to pass him. I get back to Fexon first, but only by an arm’s length. Gods be thanked. A win is a win.
Fexon is eating a pela when we get back, using his long claws to peel back the fruit’s skin.
I hate pelas. The crunchy round blue fruits are far too sweet. There are two more next to him and I know this is what we have for breakfast.
I can already hear my stomach protesting. I am a predator. I should be eating fresh, blood-soaked meat, not fruit. I should have let Segrex win and used the run as a chance to hunt.
Fexon tosses me one of the nasty things. I catch it and take a bite of the sweet fruit. I want to gag, but I keep it down. I may hate the fruit, but it will sustain me until I can get something tastier. Zeva says warriors eat for sustenance first, pleasure second.
“Did you bring the books I requested from the library?” Fexon asks.
I flick the side of my head in frustration. “I knew I forgot something.”
Segrex chuckles. “Books and breakfast. We should thank the Gods you remembered clothes.”
I punch his arm playfully and bear my fangs at him. He snaps his teeth at me — he doesn’t have fangs.
Fexon puts a hand up and Segrex and I stop. “Tal, these lessons are for your benefit. It would be wise for you to take them seriously.”
“Why? I can read; the Palace has a library full of books. I can learn anything I want from them. We’re at war — who cares about philosophy or economics? Unless you’re going to teach me how to fight, why should I listen to you?”
Fexon’s brows rise. “You think fighting is all that matters in war? Is there no other useful thing I can teach you?” His voice is even and calm, but there’s a slight hint of the scent of mischief coming off of him.
I sense a trap, but choose to ignore my instincts. “I can learn everything else on my own.”
Fexon is sitting on a large crate. He stands up and opens it. He takes out two time glasses, filled with black sands. One is about a hand tall and the other is half that size. He also moves a large boulder in front of the crate.
“I’ll give you a choice. You can either hold the bolder to your chest until the sand runs through the short glass, or,” he reaches into his pocket and pulls out a pebble, red as fresh blood. “You can hold this pebble straight out in front of you until the last sand falls through the tall glass.”
I look at the pebble and the bolder. “Why should I pick up either?”
Fexon smiles and his ears twitch. “If you complete this lesson, you may decide what I teach you in the future.”
Now there’s an offer worthy of my efforts. It will be easy enough to rid myself of Fexon’s self-indulgent lectures and have him focus on important things. I point to the pebble.
“I’ll take the pebble.”
Fexon touches the back of his hand to his lips, then points at the bolder. “Segrex, you will lift the boulder.”
Segrex touches the back of his hand to his lips, accepting Fexon’s order without question. My teacher has Segrex and I face each other with the rocks on the ground in front of us.
Fexon flips the time glasses over, “Begin.”
I easily pick up the red pebble in my left hand and hold it out in front of me. Segrex is bigger than me, but he still struggles to lift the boulder to his chest. I smirk. I made the correct choice. I look over at the time glasses, but Fexon is moving them behind the crate where neither Segrex nor I can see them.
“Are you trying to cheat us, old man?” I ask.
Fexon looks at me with amusement and shows his fangs ever so slightly. “Do you question my honor?”
I want to show my fangs as well, but instead I just tilt my head from side to side.
“Just want to make sure things are fair.”
Gensin moves to stand behind Fexon where he can see the time glasses. I touch the back of my free hand to my lips in thanks. Gensin knows better than to cheat a Fal-Wernashi.
Segrex strains to keep holding the boulder — his arms are shaking. His pupils have narrowed to barely visible vertical slits, making his eyes look like huge yellow balls.
I grin at him, take my right hand, bring the fingers together to form a knife-hand, and tap under my chin. Segrex pupils expand and he makes a growling noise in the back of his throat — he can growl deeper than anyone I know.
He closes his eyes and takes deep breaths in through his nose, exhaling through his mouth. A strange calm settles over him. I don’t like it.
Fexon suddenly raises up the smaller glass. The sand is all at the bottom.
“Segrex, you may put the boulder down.”
Segrex opens his eyes, looks in Fexon’s direction and slow-blinks twice, then looks at me and continues to hold the boulder. He keeps eye contact with me as he stands there. Fexon said he can put it down, what in Gump’s name is he waiting for? My arm itches.
After a few moments, Segrex uses whatever energy reserves he has to slowly and deliberately place the boulder back on the ground. Who does he think he’s impressing? He moves to stand next to his father, Gensin. I begin to notice the weight of my own arm.
My arm starts trembling. I have no idea how, but the pebble is getting heavier. I reach out with my right arm to steady my left, but Fexon growls.
“No. Continue as you began.”
I put down my right arm and lock out my left elbow, gritting my teeth. Now Segrex is the one smirking.
“Need help, Tal?”
I grunt and look straight ahead, refusing to acknowledge him.
Fexon growls again. “Segrex, the boulder can take its place back in your arms if you wish.”
“Apologies, teacher,” Segrex makes the salute of submission.
Hearing him rebuked energizes me, but only for a moment. I start to itch all over. My skin is drying out and flaking, leaving a light layer of gray dust across my exposed flesh. I’m a janas-brained linonaya for not taking a few moments to put lotion on my skin before I left this morning.
I try closing my eyes, but it only emphasizes the complaints of my muscles. I open them again and try to find something to focus on. I cannot settle on anything for long.
The test has to be over soon. I count to two hundred and five in my head, but Fexon still doesn’t tell me to put down the pebble. I grit my teeth, my claws extending as my body is exasperated by the strain.
Sovule’s tits! I don’t care anymore. I drop my arm.
“I can’t keep doing this!” I exclaim and turn to face Fexon.
Fexon says nothing, but simply lifts the time glass from behind the crate. I watch with horror as the last of the grains of sand fall to the bottom. Mere moments and I would have won.
I lower my head, take my left hand and move it in a circular motion over the top of my head, before dropping it back at my side. Fexon grunts with satisfaction.
“Books alone will not teach you everything. The scars of experience leave lasting lessons.”
I keep my head down, “Yes, teacher.”
Smoke’s rising up from the roof of Fexon’s house. The scent of some sort of meat stew wafts through the air. I know he’s pure Wernashi, but Fexon shouldn’t ruin meat by cooking it like that.
Fexon looks towards his house, then back to Segrex and I. “Enough for today. Go on your way home. I expect the books to be with you tomorrow.” He must also be hungry for something besides pelas.
I touch the back of my hand to my lips, then follow Segrex and Gensin over to the hanas. Segrex doesn’t mount his hanas. He often stays back with Fexon after lessons. He reaches into the travel bag hanging from his hanas’s neck and pulls out a small jar, which he tosses to me. I catch it and open it. It’s oil. Not as nice as the creamy lotion I have at home, but it will help with the flaking.
“Can’t have you shedding half your skin on the ride back,” says Segrex.
I touch my hand to my lips, “Thanks.”
I rub a generous amount of oil onto my face and arms. My scales absorb the moisture greedily. I hand the vial back to Segrex and climb onto Sunu’s back, ready to head home. I sigh.
“What?” asks Segrex.
“Home’s always boring after lessons.”