Amaya warned me about this.
I really want a new Selo & Inya adventure to be out every month on time without a hitch, but the fact of the matter is I wrote the first book while a on week-long vacation. Since then I've had to wrestle with the day job and then try to find the energy to write when I come home. Not an easy task.
So here's a peace offering for the delays you already know are coming. Picking up from where we left off with the prologue, I present the first chapter of Queen of Dust:
"One Month Earlier"
It was a perfect morning for walking. The sun was not yet high in the sky, the earthen road was clear, and the sweet-smelling dew of morning still glistened on leaves and blades of grass. Though her long dark legs were bare, Selo wrapped her arms in a pale woolen shawl and breathed deeply of the fresh clean air, savoring the smell of flowers in bloom.
Her companion, however, was not so blissful; Inya had spent most of last night at a small casino losing quite a bit gold and drinking far too much wine. This morning she walked as one still asleep, yawning every few minutes and struggling to keep her eyes open. As usual, she wore a traveling gown, simple in design and light in fabric, but long enough to cover her feet and hands. As Selo turned back to check on her, she saw Inya yawn again for the thousandth time.
“Really, Inya?” Selo rolled her eyes. “What time did you come in last night, anyway?”
“You mean this morning,” Inya yawned loudly. “I only got back to our room this morning.”
Selo shook her head. “And what was the damage? When I left the casino you appeared to be losing your gown.”
“I only lost fifty coins,” Inya scowled in protest.
Appalled, Selo abruptly stopped walking. “Fifty, Inya?!??”
“It’s not like I lost everything!” Inya protested.
“And it’s not like we’re talking about copper, Inya,” Selo gasped. “We’re talking fifty gold coins—enough to cover traveling expenses for months!”
“I’m sorry!” her tiny companion sulked. “I didn’t mean to get carried away like that. It’s been a long time since I visited a casino…and actually had money to spend!”
“You know, I’m really surprised to hear this from someone who hates sleeping outdoors,” Selo rubbed her temples. “Those fifty gold coins could’ve kept you in proper inns with room service for weeks on end.”
“It’s not like we still don’t have over two thousand pieces,” Inya reminded her.
“But think, Inya,” Selo pressed. “What about when we need safe passage on a ship or when we have to pass through a city where things are much more expensive? If there’s anything I’ve learned from all your tales of travel it’s that money is hard to come by, and life on the road is unpredictable enough.”
Inya was too tired and hung over to argue with her. “What can I do to make it up to you?”
“Well, for one, you can take me somewhere interesting,” the tall warrior sniffed. “The first town you took me to had a pleasure palace which was closed down indefinitely due to an ‘unspecified’ infestation. The second town—which was half the size of the first, mind you—had that dirty little casino as its only claim to fame. And as much as I enjoy a good walk, Inya, walking is all we ever seem to do.”
“First of all,” the herbalist began, tugging the slender rope around her donkey’s neck, “that casino was a heck of a lot cleaner than most—trust me. Second of all, I thought you liked walking!”
“Walking is great so long as we get to go somewhere. I want to go somewhere fun, meet some interesting people…you know, do something exciting.”
Inya raised a wary brow. “Careful what you wish for. Out on the road, ‘exciting’ can mean a lot of things.”
Both women slowed their pace as the road came to a fork. At the center of the fork was the tall statue of a woman. The statue seemed horribly out of place, for it was beautifully sculpted from smooth black stone and draped in fine red cloth…yet surrounded by dirt road and wilderness. Both of its arms were stretched out; the left hand held a wooden cup commonly used in drinking houses while the right hand carried a wooden bowl of large red grapes.
Selo blinked, never having seen such a thing. The statue resembled no deity she could recall. And there were no signs indicating what lay ahead.
“What in the name of…,” she murmured, trailing off.
“Ooooh!” Inya excitedly clapped her hands. “This is
!” Red Palm Village
Selo turned to look at her confused. “Red Palm?”
“Mm,” Inya nodded. “It’s home to one of the biggest wine breweries in Oon Sati. We must be just in time for the Festival of Life.”
Selo raised an eyebrow. “Festival…of Life?”
“Oh, yes,” her companion beamed. “For every year Oon Sati goes without war, the citizens of Red Palm throw a party celebrating the lack of bloodshed. They’re said to be a very welcoming group of people. Seeing as her left hand holds a wine cup, this road must lead into town, where the brewery is.”
Selo turned to where the statue’s right arm pointed. “And that road?”
Inya paused. “To be honest,” she finally replied, “I have no clue where that road leads.”
The Royal Hall of Utuwa, Antwari Nation
“My dear ladies,” Matawai began, in an uncharacteristic display of diplomacy, “don’t take this the wrong way; I value input from all of you. Onnoka and Kaiwani, the two of you are spies without rival. You have brought me consistently valuable information from beyond my borders. Lady Atemi, I remain forever grateful letting me know everything my generals talk about when I’m not around. And Kimmeka, though I was admittedly skeptical about the art of Bone Singing, I have come to appreciate your preternatural sight. But while no one in this Kingdom favored Ammetwa more than I, I’m afraid I cannot forego the conquest of Kuwari simply because I am absent one woman.”
“Your Majesty, we are not suggesting you cancel the attack, but merely that you delay it,” Lady Atemi piped up. She was the shapely young second wife of General Akwan, with skin like rich brown earth, and thick, wild black hair twisting and tumbling down her delicate shoulders. Matawai remembered the young woman’s wedding; her father had received a handsome dowry of twelve goats for her. And the night Akwan had first welcomed the young beauty into his home, it was said several young Antwari warriors stood in the marketplace and sang songs of mourning.
And it wasn’t just her beauty Akwan prized; Atemi was a commoner who could easily pass for royalty. She could read and write, and play the bone harp quite masterfully. She spoke in dulcet tones with the utmost eloquence, and was able to charm anyone in her presence.
It was precisely why Matawai had always valued her as a spy. Atemi could get anyone to talk to her about anything.
“And for how long would you suggest I delay it?” the Queen asked. Though she loathed admitting it, Matawai needed these people. The only reason she’d come this far was because of them.
“We would only need a week or so to free Ammetwa from prison,” Kaiwani spoke up finally. Matawai didn’t like this girl. Like her sister Onnoka, she had the tall, lean, dark-skinned beauty of a Southern woman. Unlike her sister, Kaiwani regularly shaved her head, no doubt for the ease of maintenance. But what bothered the Queen most were how the girl’s eyes lacked fire; they were like two gaping holes into a soulless abyss. Onnoka, though a reserved and private woman, was far more expressive than her sister, and her tone always sounded sincere. Kaiwani, however, kept her tone neutral and her face expressionless, thus Matawai found her impossible to trust.
She also noticed that Kaiwani never used honorifics when speaking to her.
“And why should we even bother?” the Queen shrugged. “Ammetwa was my favored assassin; no matter what I sent her to do, she accomplished it flawlessly and faithfully. But her record of late….” She trailed off, shrugging again.
“It is true Ammetwa has run into some recent difficulty,” Onnoka nodded, “but her loyalty has never wavered. She has endured great torment in prison and yet said nothing to the guards. The only reason she’s still alive is that King Miru hopes she will eventually break, but I believe she will die before she talks, Your Majesty.”
Kimmeka suddenly spoke up. The eyes of the eerie astrologer remained unblinking, and there was a ghostly hollowness to her voice.
“Kuwari has lost the favor of the gods,” she reiterated for the hundredth time. “A week will not change that. When the armies of Antwari attack, their kingdom will fall.”
Matawai inwardly winced. A part of her had always known she’d come to these crossroads sooner or later. Her ladies all watched her now with unflinching gazes. Sitting in a loose circle on ornate bamboo chairs, without even once sipping the very precious wine she’d procured just for this meeting, Matawai’s accomplices regarded her closely. Would she or wouldn’t she? Would she leave a loyal subject to die or finally repay that loyalty?
What she said next would determine whether or not she would last on the throne.
But when the Queen’s silence dragged on too long, Lady Atemi rolled her eyes and impatiently spoke up.
“Let us speak plainly on this matter,” she began bluntly. “We all remember how things were before Her Majesty came to power. I was sold to a man twice my age…for goats. Onnoka and Kaiwani were sold to a brothel for a bottle of wine. Ammetwa was orphaned and left to die. The only reason Kimmeka was spared such fates was that she was sent into the barren caves of this mountain to study the sacred arts. Judging by how thin and pale she is after all these years, however, I doubt her life was any better than ours.
“And last but not least,” Atemi raised an eyebrow, “Her Majesty herself was once sold into marriage to be a second wife. Granted, she was sold to a King, but she was meant to be a Queen in name alone. Yet look at her now; look at all of us. Look at what we can accomplish when we remain steadfast. It was Ammetwa’s hand which rid of us of so many obstacles. It was Ammetwa who turned our eyes to Kuwari. And it is Ammetwa suffering in prison because she risked her life to preserve Her Majesty’s throne.” She faced the Queen squarely. “She has earned a place by your side, my Queen. She deserves to stand with us the day our forces take Kuwari.”
Matawai stiffened slightly, her mouth pursing a bit as she tried to keep down the growing bile. For the very reasons Lady Atemi just listed, she would’ve preferred to leave Ammetwa to her fate. Matawai wasn’t too keen on keeping these women around forever; they were but a means to an end. Or at least, that’s what she initially thought.
Now it seemed she had best give in to their demand, lest they ally against her. Besides…with the right resources, there were other ways to keep accomplices in check.