Tongue of Ash, Heart of Bone – Chapter One

I don’t normally post my NaNoWriMo novel as I go, but what Wendig wants, Wendig gets. Behold the awful majesty of a first draft.

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When the message came from the king, Kira was in the middle of copying a spell, her long sleeves tied behind her back so that they wouldn’t smudge the dark red ink. It was a defense spell, because word from the western border had come that Elaushana’s great armies were stirring, and the king did not desire to be unprepared should their gaze fall on Ismira. Kira had been drawing the spells out, one after another, since the prayer bells had rung before first light, the delicate symbols of the heavenly tongue coming more easily to her than they had when she was a child learning their use. Only when she finished the scroll and reached for a fresh paper did she notice the messenger standing near her chair in the old library’s copy room, the other scribes toiling around her in a silence made vaster by the height of the arched copper ceiling above them. Kira held a finger to her lips, cleaned her pen and put it away in its wooden case, then untied her sleeves and beckoned for the trembling man to follow her outside.

They stood in the hall of the spellmakers’ temple, its walls adorned with the complex patterns and pictures that had protected the building for hundreds of years. The messenger bowed and Kira gestured at him to speak.

“The king summons you to his meeting chambers,” the man murmured. “I am sorry to have disturbed your work.”

Kira considered this with a frown. What could the king want with her? She searched for the voice she rarely used in her quiet life as a scribe. “I am at his disposal,” she said. “Lead.”

The messenger guided her out of the temple, whose soaring towers and arches gleamed gold in the late afternoon light. Kira realized she hadn’t eaten since breakfast, but pushed the ache in her gut away and focused on the moment. They walked through the streets of the capital, the bright banners on shops and homes flicking in the wind, smooth stones underfoot, down to the gates of the great castle where the king and most of his wives and children resided. The walls around the compound were tall and sturdy, painted with the same spells that protected the temple, which even now a group of scribes were carefully retouching with fresh red inks. She wiped a bead of sweat from her face, glad that the day was sunny instead of plagued by rain that might sabotage the scribes’ work. The coppery green smell of the ink soothed her nerves, which were prickling her skin even as she controlled her breathing and mentally repeated a mantra to calm them.

Inside, the halls were a flurry of activity as usual. Kira dodged courtiers in their stiff formal hats, skirts flared and dragging behind them to be arranged and rearranged by servants trailing in their wakes. Other messengers darted to and fro like honeybirds, weaving in and out of the crowds to vanish through doorways or out into the warm sunshine. Servants mostly stuck to the stuccoed walls, avoiding the eyes of the nobles and hurrying about their own tasks as briskly as they could. Kira knew many of them had been awake since before her, and stifled yawns attested to their labors. One young girl fumbled a tray of fruits, which clattered to the white stone floors and elicited titters from a preening woman in a blue dress, but glares from the manservants who were changing the oil in the lamps lining the walls. Kira paused to help her, picking up a pair of bruised fruits before catching the eye of the messenger she followed and remembering her task. She shrugged at the hapless maid and handed her the food with a smile.

The king wasn’t in his usual meeting chambers, which led to a spirited sotto voce debate between her guide and another servant, who was polishing the great wooden table in the center of the room. He had left recently, apparently, and not in good spirits.

“Let me,” Kira interjected. She took a deep breath and released it in a puff of steam onto the surface of the table, then carefully drew a pair of runes in it with her fingertip. She felt a brief tugging sensation towards the northern side of the castle, which disappeared as the rune dissipated.

“He is that way,” she said, pointing.

“Probably in his study, as I said.” The servant went back to his polishing, hesitating at the area where Kira had spelled before briskly rubbing his rag over it.

The messenger walked in front of her, but she knew their destination, the rooms and corridors drawn into her memory like a sigil. If anyone wondered at the scribe in her worn dress with wrinkled sleeves, hair plaited and bound with simple strips of fabric instead of hidden by a modest hat, stalking the halls of the royal family’s private wing, they did not stop her to ask. She was deposited in front of the door to the king’s study with a bow, the servant knocking for her and then dashing away on some other errand.

“Come in,” a booming voice called, so she unhooked the latch and pushed the door in, entering and closing it softly behind her.

King Justice Amrim Lianakin stood in front of the window, looking out over the city of Vania spread below them like a painting. His hair was graying, but his beard was still black as soot, his hawk’s beak of a nose curving over a bushy mustache. Wrinkles cracked the edges of his eyes, and the hands he clasped behind his back were more gnarled than she remembered, the skin paler. Still, he stood straight as a tree, and suddenly she was a child again, fighting the urge to run and wrap her arms around his legs, knowing that he would chastise her lack of decorum.
He glanced at her over his shoulder and nodded. “Kira. You’re always so quiet.”

Her personal name. This would be informal, then. “Father. You summoned me?”

“I did. How is our stock of spells?”

“It grows.” Surely this wasn’t why he wanted her; he spoke regularly with the master scribes, and would know their progress.

“Your spellwork is very fine, I hear. A steady hand, and a keen eye.”

“I have been told so,” she said.

He moved away from the window, his steps muffled by the thick woven rug. A table stood nearby, and he rested a hand on one of the papers littering its surface. His fingers tapped it, a tic she knew meant he was thinking, but she couldn’t see what was written on it from so far away.

“I will be brief,” he said finally. “Elaushana has taken Alnor, and Borun. We can no longer doubt their intentions.”

Kira knew Alnor bordered Elaushana on the west, and Borun could only be reached through Alnor, to the north. They were small countries compared to Ismira, but as it was, Ismira served as a buffer between Elaushana and the other countries in the region; if Parandor were to fall next, they would be flanked on three sides.

“What of our allies?” she asked.

“Parandor is pledged to our aid, if we are to theirs,” he said. “Logoria and Torpin are… Waiting.”

They were farthest from danger, so this was sensible, if unfortunate. “And Muria?”

“They demure, as usual, with talk of limited funds and the need for neutrality.”

Meaning they feared to take sides, small as they were. But none of this explained why he wanted her, Kira thought. She was the youngest child of his third consort, afforded the luxury of freedom that came with royal blood and a complete lack of proximity to the throne. Her breath caught in her throat; was she at last to be betrothed, married off to some lordling to secure an alliance?

“The gravest report has only just reached me,” the king said, looking down at the paper under his fingers. “Their spellbinder has… We are not certain how it has come to be, but he leads their armies on the back of Colrath the Silver.”

Kira’s hand flew to her mouth. The dragon? Tales said his breath could burn as fire or ice, and the spread of his huge feathered wings could darken a whole valley at midday. If this mage had controlled him, then his power must be vast. And if Colrath had joined the Elaushanans of his own free will, their peril was great indeed. But suddenly, Kira knew what he wanted of her. Not marriage. Not yet.

“I must find Kala,” she said.

Her father nodded. “I have prepared you an escort. You will ride at dawn to Merryport, and from there sail to Perlsea, where she was last seen.” He walked over and rested a hand on her shoulder. They were almost of a height; she hadn’t realized she had grown so much since she last saw him.

“Ancestors guide you, daughter,” he said softly. “You must succeed, and soon, or Ismira may fall.”

Kira nodded, and he moved back to the window, once again clasping his hands behind his back. She was dismissed. Feeling light-headed, she left the room, quietly closing the door.

Kala. Her sister, her twin. Greatest warrior of Ismira. Wielder of the spear Rathsbane, Dragon-Killer. And missing since their brother Andel’s wedding two years ago.

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