The release of Dragonshade, my next epic fantasy, draws ever close. So it's time to reveal a few chapters...
Click here to read Chapter 1
Dragonshade (The Secret Chronicles of Lost Magic)
Eighth year of King Amar-Sin’s reign
5,847 years ago…
Heduanna ascended the steps, pausing at each terrace to catch her breath. The fits always took their measure of strength, and her recovery was taking longer this time. The priestesses had permitted her to leave her bed that morning, thank the goddess. She wasn’t sure what was worse, their endless fussing or the dull conversation.
Dusk crept closer now, and a hush descended over the city. Azzuri, the blue city, named for all the lapis lazuli – a precious blue stone, flecked with gold – that decorated walls and city landmarks, spread out like a blanket of clay brick houses. Each of the palace’s five terraces allowed an impressive vista that stretched all the way to the southwest, as far as the eye could see. The Great Uryphat River wove like a serpent and marked the southern edge of the city. Mud-brick houses lined the shore on the other side, but farms dominated there, taking advantage of the fertile plains of river soil to grow the city’s vegetables and grain. The half-moon reflected on the river, along with the dancing flames of night lamps as they were lit by the city guard. Fishing boats skimmed the river’s surface to begin the night’s catch.
A deep resonant dong rung over the city, followed by another. Heduanna shifted her gaze to the temple and the tall blue obelisk in the temple’s courtyard. The bell hung at its very top and would ring six times to mark the hour – dusk. Heduanna took a deep breath of cooling air before moving on.
She needed to ready her appearance. Her father would want her to look the part of princess, not a wet water rat fresh from the royal pool. Heduanna bit her inside cheek. He would be eager to know the latest news from her visions – and there was much to tell. If only she could speak with her father privately, without the sniveling high priest and his minions.
She clenched her hands. Her natural capacity for foretelling future events was a gift valued by her father, and the entire city, but the weight of responsibility made her leaden with worry. Azzuri's fate was within her sight. What if my interpretations are wrong?
Heduanna came to the terrace where her suite was situated. Only one more level rested above – the very top where the palace temple, made entirely of lapis lazuli, watched over the city, and where the goddess herself resided. The Goddess Phadite of Azzuri was the only deity in the realm who stood for peace, harmony, and balance. Pilgrims visited from all over Zraemia and beyond in an effort to appease the goddess and to bring about order in their own warring cities. But peace proved rarer than gold and the blue stone coveted by all Zraemians, and Phadite scarcely granted such wishes. War remained a stubborn reality for most cities.
Heduanna’s father-king had ruled Azzuri in relative peace for nearly two-score sommers. Yes, there were border skirmishes, and fragile alliances frequently necessitated military support. But true war for Azzuri was now a memory, albeit a recent one, and Heduanna had little doubt the goddess had a hand in it.
Touching the warm stone of the palace walls, Heduanna took another deep breath. Her gaze fell on the horizon toward the east now a deep purple, the colour of amethyst she loved so much. This was an important part of the day – that mysterious shift, a strange transition from one thing to another.
Nighttime was her time to play, and give praise to the goddess’s other dominion – love. Lovemaking was strictly forbidden during her healing. Perhaps tonight she would prove well enough to play once more. A familiar thrill twirled up from her centre and spread to her fingers and toes. She shook her head and pushed the lust-sparked desire aside. Other matters demanded her attention.
A soft mew shifted her gaze downward where a spotted cat padded softly toward her. Heduanna smiled. “Hello, Smite.”
The cat purred as he wove through Heduanna's legs. She bent to stroke his warm coat, and his purr grew louder. “Good rat-hunting, my friend.” She stood too quickly, and her head spun, making her grasp the wall once more. She focused on her breathing again as she watched Smite stalk down the terrace steps like a spy, and the dizziness settled.
Inside her reception room, the sconces had already been lit and the scent of frankincense filled the lofty space. The priestesses were gratefully gone, and Heduanna’s servant and dearest friend, Kisha, greeted the princess with a warm smile.
“Heduanna!” Kisha rushed toward her, a tablet in one hand, she lightly kissed Heduanna’s cheek. “Are you well?”
“Much better. Almost my normal self. Though a cup of wine might be in order.”
“At once. Come sit. I’ll get figs as well.” Kisha moved her long plait over her shoulder and put the clay tablet on the table by Heduanna’s settee before disappearing into the little kitchen.
Heduanna reclined on the purple-dyed cushions and admired the vase of freshly picked henna flowers Kisha would have arranged in her absence. She pointed at the table when her servant returned carrying a cup of wine and a small platter of figs. “What were you reading?” It was rare for a servant to be able to read at all, but Kisha was the fifth daughter of a noble family from the city of Urk. Her father-commander had led a rebellion against Heduanna's father-king's authority in Urk years ago. Kisha's father had been executed for his efforts, and his daughter made a slave and sent to the Azzurian palace to be hand-servant to the princess. They'd become fast friends. Without a mother, and with a slew of royal cousins who despised her, Kisha had cured Heduanna's loneliness.
Kisha looked down at the tablet, smiling. “Your poetry. It's beautiful.”
“I’m glad you think so.”
“I especially like this verse.” Kisha cleared her throat. “Together we shall rise, valiant and brave, to smite our darkest threat.”
Heduanna allowed herself a grin. “It’s for the festival.”
“Is it prophetic?”
Heduanna nodded.“I wrote it the very day of my seizure.”
“I hope King Amar-Eshu doesn’t read too much into it.”
“It's not my concern if he does or if he does not. I only wish for my people to enjoy it – my father, my brother Sargan, you.”
“I look forward to your recital.”
“Yes, well, right now I must be preened. Father wishes me to meet with him and that sniveling high priest. You can start with my hair, perhaps the silver comb – a simple adornment. I’ll wear a pleated linen dress, the blue one I think.”
Kisha nodded and set to work, brushing the princess’s hair before they moved into Heduanna’s bedroom so Kisha could apply the princess's makeup, help her dress, and arrange her jewels. All the while Heduanna sipped wine and chatted pleasantly about palace gossip she’d missed during her convalescence.
“It’s so good to talk. I’ve spent three days trapped in my bed with no one but the stuffy priestesses. I've missed you,” Heduanna said.
“Of course. I’ve missed you too. Are you sure you’re well enough now? You look pale.” Kisha applied a dab of myrrh mixed with cinnamon to Heduanna’s neck, arms and feet, before moving to the trunk, etched with elaborate designs, at the foot of the large bed to withdraw a new pair of leather sandals.
“I don’t wish to dwell on my health, it becomes rather tedious.” She allowed Kisha to fit the sandals, secretly enjoying the tickle of her servant’s nimble fingers on her feet. “And how's the new boy?”
Kisha looked up with raised eyebrows. “He yearns for you, Princess.”
“Of course he does. Perhaps you should hint that he could visit me tonight?”
Kisha’s mouth fell open as she flung her plait back over her shoulder. “Is that wise? You’re still recovering. Your father wouldn’t—”
“It would do me good. Besides, I need to groom more of them now that Addu is kept so busy.”
Kisha gave her a troubled glance. “Addu may be jealous if he hears of it.”
“And well he should be jealous.” Heduanna smirked.
“Perhaps you need to leave Addu and your other guards be, Princess. They’re supposed to protect you, not kiss you. And I’m not convinced you’re ready to exert yourself yet. You need to build your strength.”
Heduanna stretched as she stood to assess her image in the bronze mirror, adjusting the amethyst pendant so it nestled snuggly between her breasts, clearly visible thanks to the low cut of the top. “My body could do with the exercise. My mind could do with the thrill. And it would please the goddess.”
Kisha sighed. “I will let the new boy know, then.”
“Do that. Now, a little more lip rouge and I shall go to my father.”
Heduanna’s sandals brushed lightly on the tiles. Out in the desert the night would grow chill, bringing cool air to the city by dawn, but for now, warmth from the palace walls still emanated. Heduanna pressed her hands to the vast stonework as she walked, enjoying the heat and how it enriched her perfume.
Her heart quickened at the thought of her visions and what she must reveal to her father. Being so close to the goddess gave her certain urges. One of them, a strong desire for peace. The visions never sat lightly with her – war was imminent and the thought of it being the prophesied Gedjon-Brak made her stomach churn.
Around the palace, the servants were busy lighting the last of the sconces. Heduanna looked for the new boy, but he wasn’t among them. On the lower terrace, she walked across the grand courtyard, through the silver room, next the Hall of Gold, then along the dim passageway until she arrived in her father’s suite. It wasn’t supposed to be his suite. The king was meant to occupy the rooms set out for him on the upper level on the same terrace Heduanna and her brothers occupied. But her father had taken up residence here on the lower level after Heduanna’s mother-queen died, and Heduanna suspected he would never return to those rooms again.
Inside the king’s ornate reception room, her father sat at the large cedar table. He wore a simple linen skirt, and a gold sash across his front and back. His sandals were plain. On his face a thin stroke of kohl lined each eye. He wore no jewels aside from the circle of cedar-wood knot beads he clasped in his hand, and the ring of lapis lazuli on his right index finger. The ring that marked him as king. Her father was different to other kings who paraded an abundance of gold, silver and gemstones, but his very presence instilled admiration in everyone he met.
Seated opposite was the high priest, Grand Blessed Lipit. A tedious old crab whose shoulders slouched permanently. He had narrow eyes and a beak-like overbite. Upon his bald head he wore a simple band with three griffon feathers, the only animal-wear a priest could assume, indicating his status as high priest. He watched Heduanna with his small eyes that squinted as he scrutinised her. Heduanna chewed a lip. Something about the Grand Blessed always made her uncomfortable.
Beside him sat his second, the Arch Priestess, Blessed Siduri, slightly younger but equally tedious. She wore two feathers in her band, which looked tight on her mass of short grey hair.
Next to Siduri perched the young novice; he also wore short cropped hair like all priests did, and a full linen tunic tied at the waist, but only one feather in his headband indicated his status as novice. He was handsome but for the zealous look of holiness that burned in his gaze. Heduanna’s eyes lingered on him. His name, if she recalled correctly, was Belanum. He had recently come to his position as the high priest’s undersecretary, so he must have shown much promise already. When she’d first met him Heduanna wondered whether she should seduce him. The whole notion had an air of taboo about it and it excited her to think she could convince a dedicated man of the call to come to her bed.
“Daughter.” Her father sat with straight shoulders, his eyes were the colour of fire, like her own, and like her brothers’. Heduanna was happy to note Qisht was not hovering by her father's side. At least she wouldn't have to contend with him as well as the stuffy priests.
“Father.” She walked to the king and bent her knee to kiss the ring on his hand before standing to face the old man and bow her head. “High Priest.”
The old man nodded, his tall griffon feathers almost touching her.
Her father gestured to the available chair next to him. “How are you feeling now?”
“I am well.” The king’s eyes held warmth, but Heduanna looked away. “I know you’re eager to hear of the visions.”
“Very eager. What more has the goddess revealed about Gedjon-Brak?”
Already her father referred to the war, the Great War to Come. The war to end all wars – Gedjon-Brak. A sudden sickness stirred in her stomach. It was peace she longed to talk of, not war, but it was not peace the goddess had revealed. A flash of fire and blood filled her mind, and she blinked the violent image away.
The high priest gazed at her with small squinting eyes. “We of the temple are also eager to hear your news, Princess. Once you share your knowledge we shall study the Aurannan, and any other relevant tablets. It is imperative we discern all possible meaning.”
Heduanna cleared her throat. “Gedjon-Brak… draws closer. Phadite has shown me it is true.”
Lipit’s wrinkled face paled. “Has the goddess revealed an outcome of such a war?”
“She has not. The aftermath remains clouded. I do not believe even She knows the likely eventuality.”
“And what of our advantage?” The king shifted his attention to her. “Has She revealed more of this mysterious ally who will aid our cause?”
“Which great Zraemian city can we put our trust in?” the arch priestess asked.
Heduanna took a shaky breath. All three priests and her father looked at her with heavy expectation. “Our Zraemian allies will remain true.”
“Our current allies will not be enough to defeat Urul.” Her father’s frown was barely there, but there nonetheless.
“Perhaps the goddess intends to aid us with her very own hand.” The high priest’s gaze rose to the skies. “As it is written in the Aurannan—”
“Perhaps, Grand Blessed, but such a thing is beyond our control,” the king cut in, shifting in his seat to look more intently at his daughter. “This ally – Phadite’s messages have made it clear they are our means to victory. What more did She reveal about them, daughter?”
Heduanna clutched her hands together, her palms grew sweaty. “They are a foreign people.”
The High Priest frowned. “Foreign? Desert tribes?”
“Surely not the hill tribes,” the old man scoffed.
“Perhaps she means Praeta. They’ve aligned with Azzuri.” The priestess looked at the king. “Are the Praetan boat-builders still studying the trees?”
The priestess’s lips were pinched as though she was holding her laughter. The three of them sat with too-smug expressions on their holier-than-thou faces. Heduanna’s cheeks flushed with anger. The last time she had a vision the goddess told her a strange message, odd, but clear. The boat builders of Praeta were to study the form of the river fig's seed pod. It was imperative to their cause. The priests had thought Heduanna mad.
“The Praetans make progress,” the king said, flicking the band of knot beads he held in his hand. “But, they are Zraemian, not foreigners.”
“Only just,” Lipit scoffed.
“And they are not a war-faring people,” the king added.
“Perhaps the sea-peoples to the south?” Belanum asked, his voice was confident for one so young.
“No,” Heduanna replied. “These people are a tribe entirely unknown to us. They exist to the west and north. A foreign people, uncivilised and savage, but tall and strong. So menacing in war even their women partake in the practice.” Heduanna glanced at her father. “The goddess has shown me they will form your new army and lead you to victory.”
“Women and barbarians?” The high priest was squinting those beady little eyes again. “Are you sure this is an accurate interpretation of the vision, Princess?”
“There’s no mention of such a people in the Aurannan,” Siduri said.
“It seems unlikely,” Belanum added. “There’s naught in our history that tells of anyone other than hill tribes existing to the north-west.”
Heduanna raised her chin. “It is what the goddess has shown me. It was as clear to me as the dirt under your fingernails.”
The novice flushed and curled his fingers around the clay tablet in his lap.
Heduanna licked her lips. Now to tell them the harsh truth. “The goddess showed me we will find them over the Sea of Death.”
Silence filled the moment, broken only but the crackle of flame from the sconces lining the wall. The potted palms cast spidery shadows along the gilded panels. An elongated claw here. A menacing maw there.
The high priest and his second looked wide-eyed and their complexions seemed to pale in the dim light.
Heduanna couldn’t blame them for their fear. No one knew what, if anything, existed on the other side of the Sea of Death. Its waters were filled with the debris of ships that had tried to find out. And the priests had declared centuries past the Overworld existed there, protected by monsters of the deep, amongst other things, that would crush any man alive who attempted to discover it. The Sea of Death was the funeral place for kings and queens, and any noble who could afford the high tariff the priests charged for the rite.
Heduanna had seen it once, many sommer’s past when her mother died. She remembered the pale skin of her mother’s embalmed corpse resting on a bed of dark seaweed. The priests rowed her out until the horizon swallowed her and then left her to make her journey to the other side, to meet the gods in the Overworld. The water was so dark that day it seemed almost black.
Heduanna shivered. The idea of crossing those dark waters made her skin crawl too, but that is what the goddess had shown her. She had to tell them the truth.
Finally, Heduanna’s father spoke, his deep voice calming in its simple authority as he stroked the circle of beads on his hand once more. “How far?”
Heduanna shook her head. “A long way. Their lands are different. High mountains thrust out of the sea like rock towers. Their land is green, like the forests of Bablim, not brown like ours. They do not speak our language.”
“These people,” the high priest said, a frown drawing his sparse grey eyebrows together. “They will come to us readily? They will come and fight our war?”
“Excellent question, Grand Blessed.” Siduri barely managed to hide her scoffing tone. “They will be altogether foreign, if they exist at all. How are we to communicate with them?”
Heduanna licked her lips. “The goddess is above such ignoble details as human contracts and negotiation. I only know they will join us when it is time. Ten thousand of them.”
“Ten thousand!” Belanum hissed with wide eyes.
“Very well,” her father said, a little forcefully. “Was there any other message from the goddess?”
Heduanna looked to the floor. There were other messages. Other visions. Especially about herself and how at some point Heduanna herself would sit on a seat of great power. But the specifics of that vision remained unclear and it was something she knew intrinsically she should keep secret, especially from the ears of priests. “No, Father. There were no other visions to answer your questions.” She lifted her chin. “Do I have leave to go?”
Her father appraised her. His eyes running along her shoulder line. “You are a woman now, daughter. It is time I gave mind to your marriage.”
Heduanna bristled. She’d been a woman for quite some time. Most princesses would have been married two or three years at her age. The time would come, but she’d hoped she could delay it for another sommer at least. Heduanna had no wish to discuss her marriage yet, and especially not in front of the meddling priests.
Her father picked up a clay tablet from the table, bouncing it up and down in his hand. “I received word from your brother this morning.”
It was her turn to frown. Why was her father talking about Hadanash and her marriage in the same breath?
“He is eager to return. He has ideas to bring peace between Urul and Azzuri. He suggests if King Amar-Eshu acquired your hand in marriage, a lasting peace would follow. Did your visions notify you of such?”
The sickness converted to swirling bubbles. How dare Hadanash try to negotiate her marriage. Only her father-king had such a right. Anger flared, and she forced her clenched jaw to relax. Her brother would return too soon to admonish her and tell her what to do, and to torment Sargan.
The king looked at the clay tablet still clutched in his hand and then shifted his gaze back to her. “Well, daughter? Did the goddess reveal to you your future husband?”
Heduanna glanced at the priests, Belanum still wore a poorly disguised smugness. “No, she did not. I have no such knowledge. And I find it impertinent in the extreme that brother-prince Hadanash would take it upon himself to plan my marriage.” She shouldn’t have spoken out in front of the priests. Sometimes her anger got the better of her. She clamped her lips together.
“Nevertheless, such an alliance would benefit Azzuri, Exalted One.” Was that a smirk on the high priest’s face?
Heduanna’s heart raced with renewed anger. This dried up prune had no right to an opinion on such matters.
The king shifted on his chair and resumed playing with the knot beads. For once a glimmer of weariness cast a shadow over his eyes. Heduanna’s heart softened. Ruling the city was an exhausting and often thankless task, and it was one he had to bear alone. Heduanna stopped her mind from venturing toward a familiar path. One filled with dreams of how life could have been different if her mother-queen were still alive.
“Father, I will leave this matter in your hands. But please know, the goddess remains silent on the subject of my marriage.” She shot the priests the briefest of glares.
The king nodded. “You may go.”
She bowed her head and turned her back, failing to give the requisite farewell to the priests. The anger had quelled to some degree but it would return. She would need some relief tonight, and I shall have it. How dare her brother try to rule her. She, a god’s hand and a princess of the royal palace of Azzuri.