Mid-Month Novel Excerpt: Sacrifice

Once per month, I’ll publish an excerpt of one of my novels, and I hope you’ll be intrigued enough to buy the rest of the book.  I began this practice in February. Unlike the free fiction I put up every Monday, the novel excerpts will remain on the site.  If you want to read the opening to the previous six novels, click here.

This month, I’m sharing Sacrifice with you. Sacrifice is the first book of my Fey series. The original Fey series has five novels. Then saga continues with The Black Throne seriesAnd, for those of you who are going to ask, the saga will continue with The Place of Power Series in late 2013. That shouldn’t daunt you, however. The story of the first five books does wrap up, as does the story in The Black Throne seriesI promise: You won’t be left hanging.

I’ve put ordering information at the end of the excerpt. First, however, is the back cover copy, followed by the excerpt itself.  I hope you enjoy reading Sacrifice.

Their armies have conquered half the world. Now they want the rest.

The Fey, known for their beauty and their warrior magic, have set their sights on Blue Isle. They should conquer the Isle quickly; its people, simple and religious, have never known war.

On the eve of the invasion, Jewel, the granddaughter of the Fey’s all-powerful Black King, has a frightening vision, one that ties her fate to the Isle forever. Still, she helps her father Rugar head the invasion force.

The force meets a surprising resistance. Nicholas, heir to Blue Isle’s throne, has always dreamed of battle. Normally, he would be no match for the powerful Fey. But Blue Isle has a secret weapon—a weapon no one understands, a weapon that could stop the Fey in their tracks.

Nicholas must find a way to harness this amazing power. Jewel must find a way to thwart him. To survive, one of them must make the ultimate sacrifice.

A fast-paced, vibrant novel, filled with memorable characters, Sacrifice begins a saga that will take readers to a richly imagined world, filled with magic, treachery, and unexpected love.

THE SACRIFICE

THE FIRST BOOK

OF

THE FEY

Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Copyright © 2011 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.

Published 2011 by WMG Publishing

Cover Art Copyright © 2011 by Dirk Berger

Cover Design Copyright 2011 WMG Publishing

First Published 1995 by Bantam Books

 

THE VISION

ONE

The little girl slammed into Jewel at full run, then slid and fell on the wet cobblestone. The girl sat for a moment, her skirts wrapped around her thighs, revealing the pants-like undergarments the Nyeians insisted on trussing their children in. Jewel hadn’t moved. Her hip ached from the impact of the girl’s body, but Jewel didn’t let the pain show.

She hadn’t expected to see a child on the narrow, dark streets of the merchant center of Nye’s largest city. The stone buildings towered around the cobblestone road. Even though the sun had appeared after a furious thunderstorm, the streets were just as dark as they had been during the sudden downpour.

“Esmerelda!” A woman’s voice, sharp and piercing, echoed on the street. The bypassers didn’t seem to notice. They continued about their business, clutching their strange round timepieces as they hurried to their destinations.

The little girl tugged on her ripped skirts and tried to stand. Jewel recognized the look of panic on the child’s face. She had felt that herself in the face of her grandfather’s wrath. Jewel took two steps toward the girl and crouched, thankful that she was wearing breeches and boots that allowed such freedom of movement. “Why were you running?” Jewel asked in Nye.

“Felt like it,” the girl said.

Good answer. Nyeian children didn’t play enough. Their parents didn’t allow it. The girl had courage.

Jewel extended her hand. The girl stared at it. Jewel’s slender fingers and dark skin marked her as Fey, even more than her upswept eyebrows, black hair, and slightly pointed ears.

“Esmerelda!” The woman’s voice had an edge of panic.

“She won’t like your being dirty,” Jewel said.

The little girl’s lower lip trembled. She reached for Jewel’s hand when a screech resounded behind them. Jewel turned in time to see a woman wearing a dress so tightly corseted it made her appear flat, swing an umbrella as if it were a sword. Jewel stood and grabbed the umbrella by its tip, pulling it from the woman’s hand.

“You were about to hit me?” Jewel asked, keeping her tone level but filled with menace.

The woman was a few years older than Jewel, but already her pasty skin had frown lines marring her eyes and mouth. Her pale-brown eyes took in the thin vest that Jewel wore in deference to the heat. “What were you doing to my child?”

“Helping her up. Have you an objection to that?”

The woman glanced at her child. Jewel stood between them. Then the woman bowed her head. Her brown hair had touches of gray. “Forgive me,” she said, not at all contrite. “I forgot myself.”

“Indeed.” Jewel put the tip of the umbrella on the cobblestone and leaned her weight on it. Sturdy thing. It would have made a good weapon, and she had no doubt the woman had used it as such during the recent conflict. “Forget yourself again, and your daughter may lose her mother.”

“Is that a threat, mistress?” The woman brought her head up, eyes flashing.

“Mistress.” Nye term of respect. The Fey did not believe in such linguistic tricks. There were other ways of keeping inferiors in line. “You’re not important enough to threaten, my dear,” Jewel said, using the linguistic trick to her own benefit. “I was merely warning you. As a kindness.”

She knelt beside the little girl again. The girl’s eyes were tearstained. “Don’t hurt my mommy,” she whispered. “I didn’t mean to bump you.”

“I know,” Jewel said. She adjusted the girl’s heavy skirts and helped her to her feet. Then she handed her the umbrella. It was almost as tall as the child. “You just remind your mother that we are no longer your enemies. You have to learn to live with us now.”

The mother watched Jewel’s every movement. Jewel brushed the dirt off the child’s skirts, marveling at the thickness of the fabric. Jewel would suffocate in clothing like that.

“You might also want to let your mother know that pants are more practical for children, male or female.”

“I thought you weren’t going to change our customs.” The woman spoke again, her tone full of bitterness, even though she bowed her head again in the submissive gesture the Fey had commanded. Jewel thought of challenging her on her rudeness but decided the battle wasn’t worth her time. She was already late for the meeting with her father.

“We change only the customs that interfere with healthy, productive living. Children are born to move, not mince like some expensive fop at a Nye banquet.” Jewel smiled and reached a hand under the woman’s chin, bringing her head up so that their gazes met. “She wouldn’t have run into me if she had been dressed properly.”

“You have no right to change how we live,” the woman said.

“We have every right,” Jewel said. “We choose to allow you your customs because they keep you productive. You are the one without rights. You lost them six months ago when my grandfather became the leader of Nye.”

Finally the panic that had been missing from the woman’s face appeared. Her round eyes narrowed and her mouth opened just a bit. “You’re the Black King’s granddaughter?”

Jewel let her hand fall and resisted the urge to wipe her fingertips on her breeches. “Aren’t you lucky I was in a good mood this morning? Threatening me is like threatening all of the Fey at once.”

The woman’s face flushed with terror. She grabbed the little girl and pulled her close. Jewel ignored the gesture. She took a loose strand of the little girl’s brown hair and tucked it behind the girl’s ear. “Take good care of your mother, Esmerelda,” she said, and continued down the street.

At the corner she glanced back, saw the woman still standing in place, the little girl clutched against her side. Jewel shook her head. The bitterness would get the Nyeians nowhere. They were part of the Fey Empire now. The sooner they all realized it, the better off they would be.

Jewel clasped her hands behind her back. The air was warm and muggy after the storm, except in the shadows of the great buildings. Her grandfather had taken the greatest, the Bank of Nye, and made it his own. Four stories of stone standing like a palace in the merchant section, the building was the closest thing to a palace that the Nyeians had ever made.

The streets were nearly empty for midday. The half-dozen Nyeians gave Jewel a wide berth as they passed her on the street. The Fey guards standing in front of each Fey-occupied building nodded to her as she passed. She nodded in return.

Six months since the Nyeians surrendered, and still her grandfather felt the need for guards. Six months without fighting, and she was growing restless.

Like her father.

He had a plan for the next battle. She was ready, even though her grandfather wasn’t sure if the entire force was ready to move again. Her brothers didn’t think so, but they were young. The last year of the Nye campaign had been the first time any of the boys had seen battle.

Jewel had fought since she was eleven—nearly seven years—and she had never progressed beyond the Infantry, much to her father’s and grandfather’s dismay. Her brothers were delighted. They all assumed that her lack of Vision would mean that she would be passed over as heir to her grandfather’s throne.

She hadn’t told any of them about her strange dreams. She hadn’t even visited the Shaman about them.

Finally she arrived at the Bank of Nye. It stood in the center of a cobblestone interchange. Sunlight touched a small corner of the stone, causing it to heat, and steam to rise from the wet. Through an open window she could hear her father’s voice mingling with her grandfather’s.

They were fighting, just as she knew they would be.

Every time her father mentioned moving beyond Nye, leaving the Galinas continent and heading out to sea, her grandfather objected. The next place to conquer was an island in the middle of the Infrin Sea. Blue Isle had been a major trading partner with Nye. It had also done some business with countries on Leut, the continent to the south. Blue Isle was a gateway that Nye could never be. But it was a gateway that the Black King believed the Fey were not ready to use.

Jewel knew better than to interrupt an argument between her father and her grandfather. Her father had asked her to wait for him, and wait she would. Outside.

Jewel sat on the flagstone steps and propped one booted foot against the wall across from her. She leaned against the cool stone walls, not caring that the roughness of the stone pulled strands of hair from her braid. This was as close as she could get to the open window, but even if she closed her eyes and concentrated, she could not make out the words.

No one else realized the importance of the battle within. Nyeians scurried by, moving as quickly as people could in six layers of clothing, their round faces red and covered with sweat. Jewel had often joked that the Nyeians had lost the war because they didn’t know when to take their clothes off.

Not that the wars had hurt business in Nye. The shops were open, and the street vendors hawked wares as if nothing had happened. Fortunately, the bank was on a street filled with other austere stone buildings, a street where no vendors were allowed. She wouldn’t have been able to hear anything at all if the vendors had been camped on the cobblestone.

The Nyeians ducked in and out of shops without once glancing at the open, gaily colored flags outside. The flags indicated the type of merchandise—blue for items made in Nye, yellow, green, red, and purple for items made in other countries. The Bank of Nye had transferred its business to the brick building directly across the street, and more than one trader had entered, a money pouch clutched tightly to his hip.

Jewel closed her eyes and a wave of dizziness hit her. The world tilted, and she suddenly felt great searing pain burning into her forehead. Her father shouted, “You’ve killed her!” and a voice answered in a tongue she did not recognize. Then he shouted, “Someone help her! Please help her!”

Her breath came in ragged gasps. She opened her eyes. A man leaned over her, his eyebrows straight, his hair long and blond. His features were square. He was neither Fey nor Nyeian. His skin was pale without being pasty. He had a rugged, healthy look she had seen only in the Fey, but his features were stronger, as if drawn with a heavy hand. He spoke to her in that strange tongue. Orma lii, he said, then repeated a different word over and over.

He cradled her in his arms, holding her with a tenderness she had never felt before. Then the scene shifted. The strange man still held her, but she wore her father’s healing cloak.

A Healer slapped a poultice on her forehead. It smelled of redwort and garlic, and stopped the burning from spreading. “She’ll live,” the Healer said, “but I can promise no more.”

“What did she say?” the strange man asked. His Fey had an odd accent.

“That she’ll live,” her father replied. He was speaking Nye. “And maybe little more.”

The strange man pressed her closer. “Jewel.” He kissed her softly. “Ne sneto. Ne sneto.”

She reached up and touched him with a shaking hand. This night was not how she’d dreamed it would be.

Then the world shifted back. She had moved down two steps, and her forehead tingled with remembered pain. Her throat was dry. A Vision. A real Vision, powerful enough to make her lose her place in the present.

Her heart was pounding rapidly against her chest. She had never heard her father sound so terrified. Nor had she ever seen anyone like that man. His pale skin, straight eyebrows, and blue eyes marked him as not Fey, and his square features and appearance of health meant he wasn’t Nyeian. Yet he knew her well enough to cradle her with love.

The bank door slammed open and her father stormed out, his black cloak swirling around his legs. He was among the tallest Fey, and he usually used that height to great effect. Now, though, he seemed even taller than usual.

Jewel had never seen him this angry outside of battle.

She made herself swallow, wishing she had something to ease her sudden thirst. Then she got up slowly, afraid the dizziness from the Vision would return.

“So he said no, huh?” she asked. She had to look up to see his face.

“He said yes.” Her father bit out the words as if he resented them.

She frowned. “Then why are you angry? You want to conquer Blue Isle.”

Her father looked at her. His eyebrows swept up to his hairline, his eyes fierce. “Because he said I am making a mistake. That I am fighting because I am addicted to slaughter, not because I want to add to the Empire. He said it would be good for me to die on the battlefield so that I don’t bring that taste for death to the chair of the Black King.”

Harsh words. Too harsh. The fight between the men must have been deep. “He was speaking in anger,” she said.

“He believed it was truth.” Her father stomped down four stairs, then stopped. At this vantage she was as tall as he was. “No matter what he says, I am taking you with me.”

“What about my brothers?” Jewel asked. The last time her father had taken her on a campaign, he had done so that she might care for the boys.

“They’re too young for this trip. Meet me in my quarters tonight and bring the Warders. We have a campaign to plan.”

He turned his back on her and continued down the stairs. When he reached the street, the Nyeians backed away from him. He hurried across the cobblestone, his cloak fluttering behind him.

Jewel braced one hand against the wall. The dizziness was gone, but a disquiet had settled into the pit of her stomach. She had had her Vision after her father had decided to go to Blue Isle. Were the two connected?

She shook her head. She knew better than to make such speculation about Visions. They existed to guide leaders. She should be happy she had a Vision of such strength. It settled a fear that she would never have the power to be Black Queen.

In spite of herself she felt an odd joy. Her father would take her on her first real campaign—not as a soldier and caretaker for children, but as a leader. One who would help plan.

No matter what her grandfather said about settling, he was wrong about one thing: the fight was in their blood. The restlessness she had felt for the last six months would be put to good use.

She pushed herself away from the clammy stone wall. The face from her Vision rose in her memory.

“Orma lii,” she whispered, even though she didn’t know what it meant. She was going to face her destiny as a Fey should, in full battle gear, weapons drawn.

 

THE BATTLE

(Nine Months Later)

TWO

 

The thick, heavy clouds made the afternoon as dark as night. The rain fell in sheets, the huge drops thudding as they pummeled the muddy ground. Nicholas’s hair was plastered to his face. A moment outside and he was soaked. No one had seen him step into the courtyard. Lord knew what kind of trouble he would get into for going out into the rain.

The servants had to protect the young Prince from himself, at all costs. Even if he didn’t want the protection. He was eighteen, more than old enough to make his own decisions.

His hand brushed the hilt of his sword. The sheath was tied to his leg, the leather thongs chafing against his skin. The jeweled hilt was slick. Fighting in such conditions would be dangerous, but he welcomed the challenge.

The courtyard was empty except for a thin cat running for shelter. The stable doors were closed, and lights burned inside. The grooms were working with the horses. The servants’ quarters were mostly dark, except for Stephen’s cabin up front.

Stephen was an old man who had served as swordmaster for the royal family. He had taught Nicholas’s father to use the sword decades ago and then had had no duties until Nicholas had turned fifteen. During those years Stephen had become a scholar, studying the history of Blue Isle. He had also become an expert in Nye culture, then had turned his attention to what he called the next threat: the Fey.

Nicholas didn’t care what kind of threats he faced as long as he learned to fight. Stephen had been teaching Nicholas for three years now, and though Nicholas had become proficient, he still couldn’t beat his swordmaster.

The shutters were closed, but a light burned within. Nicholas knocked. He heard a chair scrape against wood, and the bolt go back before the door swung open.

The flickering candlelight added depth to Stephen’s wrinkles. His short gray hair was tousled. He was wearing his winter sweater and a pair of heavy pants, even though it was the middle of summer. “By the Sword,” he said. “You’re drenched. Get inside before you catch your death.”

Nicholas pushed the hair off his face. His hands were red with cold. “No,” he said. “Come out. We have practice.”

“Not in this weather, we don’t,” Stephen said.

“I have to learn to fight in all conditions,” Nicholas said.

“But I don’t have to teach you unless the sun is shining. Now, come in and dry off.”

Nicholas stepped inside. Stephen was the only servant who could speak to him with such disrespect, probably because Stephen was the only one whom Nicholas actually trusted.

The air inside was warm. A fire burned in the fireplace, and a book was open on the table. Stephen kept his quarters spare but comfortable. “What were you thinking?” Stephen asked. “You know we never fight in such weather.”

“It’s been three days,” Nicholas said. “I’m tired of being inside.”

“You’ll be inside until the storm breaks.”

“But we don’t know how long that will be. It never rains like this in summer.”

“I know.” Somehow Stephen made the two words sound ominous.

Even though Nicholas longed to warm up near the fire, he wouldn’t let himself go any farther without Stephen’s invitation. Stephen had only so much space in his single room. He filled it with the table, three chairs, an end table, and a pallet on the floor. A wardrobe stood against one wall. The others were decorated with swords and knives, all different shapes and sizes. Stephen claimed they had once been used in battle, but Nicholas doubted that. Blue Isle had never seen much fighting—even the Peasant Uprising wasn’t a real war, according to the Nyeians who visited the palace. Nicholas liked to think that Stephen made up the stories of battles to give himself a purpose. After all, the King really didn’t need a swordmaster. Nicholas was learning the art because anything was better than spending his days in a room with Auds.

“Come on in,” Stephen said. “I’ll give you some mead.”

Warm mead sounded good. Nicholas removed his dripping coat and hung it on the peg behind the door. He shook the water from his long hair like one of the kitchen dogs. Stephen sputtered as he was sprayed, and wiped his face.

“They should have an etiquette master for young Princes,” Stephen mumbled.

“Sorry.” Nicholas grinned. He could never have done anything like that in the palace. Someone would see and report back to his father. Nicholas never quite measured up to his father’s wishes. His father wanted Nicholas to be a scholar, to know all he needed to know about the realm. Nicholas wanted to ride horses and win sword fights, and impress women—if only he knew any women to impress.

Stephen went to the fireplace, grabbed a stone mug from the rack on the side, and dipped it into the pot of mead warming at the edge of the fire. He used a cloth to wipe off the end.

Nicholas took the mug, then took a sip. The burning-hot liquid coursed through him, warming him as it went. He liked Stephen’s mead. It was sweet, as mead should be, but Stephen always added butter, which he stole from the buttery. It made his mead so much richer than the King’s.

Stephen closed his book, then sat at the table. He kicked out a chair, which Nicholas caught with his free hand. Nicholas sighed. “I guess this means we aren’t going out.”

“I am an old man,” Stephen said. “I believe in guarding my health.”

“Then maybe we could do some close maneuvers inside. I’m still not as good with a dagger as I would like.”

Stephen grinned and glanced around the room. “I value my possessions,” he said.

Nicholas did not grin back. He wasn’t sure if Stephen had insulted his progress or not.

“And you are doing just fine with a dagger.” Stephen rested his arm on the closed book, his hand clutching his own mug. “I think now you are a match for any swordsman who would challenge you.”

“Even someone from Nye?”

“Anyone,” Stephen said with the same solemnity he had used before.

Cold water dripped off the tips of Nicholas’s hair onto his wrists. He adjusted his position so the drops ran down his back. “You really think I’m that good?”

“I think so. Now it’s only a matter of practice.”

“Great,” Nicholas said. He took another sip of mead. He had never expected to receive Stephen’s full approval. But Stephen was acting oddly today. “Something’s bothering you, isn’t it?”

“The weather,” Stephen said. “I have lived in Jahn most of my life. I have never seen summer rains like this.”

Nicholas shrugged. “Things change.”

“That’s what I’m afraid of,” Stephen murmured.

“What do you mean?”

Stephen shook his head. “An old man’s wanderings on dismal summer days. When the sun returns, I will be myself again.”

“I hope it comes back soon,” Nicholas said. “I am getting restless.”

Stephen smiled. He set his mug down, the muscles rippling in his thick arm. “You wouldn’t be if you studied as you were supposed to.”

Nicholas grimaced. He glanced at the single, shuttered window, then at the glow of the fire. The heat was pleasant, although he was shivering from his wet clothes. He hated the lights in the middle of the day, and he hated to be restricted. Sometimes he worried that all of his practice, all of his work, would fade away. He would lose his skill because the rain forced him indoors for days.

“I am too young to spend the rest of my life in a room,” Nicholas said. “Besides, my father isn’t that old. He’ll live a long time. I won’t become King until I’m older than you.”

Stephen raised a grizzled eyebrow. “Older than me.” His tone was flat, as if the choice of phrasing had bothered him. He leaned back, tilting his chair on two legs, and frowned at Nicholas. “Have you ever thought that your father might need an adviser?”

“My father has a hundred advisers.”

“All with their own agendas and concerns. You would be the only one who would share his concerns.”

“Me?” Nicholas took another sip of mead. The liquid had cooled and was thick and sugary. “He would never listen to me.”

“On the contrary,” Stephen said. “I think he would welcome your advice.”

Nicholas stood and paced around the small room, leaving boot prints on the wooden floor. He couldn’t sit with the thought. His father, listening to him. How very strange. “Has he told you this?”

“Not directly,” Stephen said. “Mostly he wishes aloud that you were able to converse with him on several subjects.”

Nicholas had heard that, too, and had taken it as nagging. Since Nicholas’s mother had died, his father had worked as hard as he could to raise the boy well. Even though servants, and later his stepmother, had done the actual work, Nicholas spent some time every day with his father. The affection between them was genuine, but Nicholas had never thought that he could be his father’s equal.

“You’re just trying to get me to study harder.”

Stephen shook his head. “I am just trying to get you to think. Three quarters of swordplay is mental, you know. The more you use that brain of yours, the better horseman and swordsman you’ll be.”

“I do better when I’m not thinking about what I’m doing,” Nicholas said. He stopped beside the fire and let the heat radiate through his wet clothing.

“You do better when you are so practiced, so used to thinking about it, that you put no effort into the thought. Imagine if you were that way on affairs of state. You are already a better swordsman than your father. You could be a better statesman, too.”

Nicholas grinned at Stephen. “You know how competitive I am, and you’re using it.”

“Yes,” Stephen said. He glanced at the shuttered window. The drum of the rain on the roof almost drowned his words. “I think it’s time we all do the very best we can.”

 

THREE

Rugar stood on the prow of the ship, his hood down, water pouring down his face. The rain felt cool and good. He had forgotten the feeling of power it gave him to control the weather. The Weather Sprites had done his bidding to perfection.

By morning the rain would break, and the Fey would be scattered throughout Blue Isle.

If the maps, the Navigators, and the captive Nyeian were right.

Rugar pulled his cloak closer. They should have spotted land by now. The year-old charts suggested that the Stone Guardians were near, yet the view was the same: choppy gray water in all directions. The downpour ruined Rugar’s visibility, but he had Beast Riders circling—three Gulls, stolen from his father’s private force.

Rugar pushed his wet hair off his forehead. His cloak had been spelled to repel moisture, but sometimes he liked the feel of the water on his skin. His bootmaker’s magick hadn’t been quite so skillful. Rugar’s feet were soggy blocks of ice, chafing against the leather. The wind was slight—just enough to push the ships forward without the crew’s resorting to oars or spells.

The ship groaned beneath him, the wood creaking as the prow cut through the waves. The steady drum of the rain drowned out the sound of water splashing against the sides. Rugar clasped his hands behind his back. Normally, he liked travel, but sailing was different. Riding from country to country allowed him to fantasize about conquest, but he had never seen Blue Isle, had only heard about it through myths, histories, and the Nyeians, who were notoriously untrustworthy. Rugar’s father, the Black King, didn’t even believe the common knowledge: that the Islanders had not seen war. But Rugar believed it. Who would attack that Isle? The Islanders had been smart. They had traded with nearby nations, given them favored status even though (the Nyeians said) the Islanders did not need the goods in return. The Isle was completely self-sufficient.

It was also between the Galinas continent and the Leutian continent. The best point from which to launch an attack that would bring the rest of the world into the Fey Empire. The Fey had already overrun three continents since they’d left the Eccrasian Mountains centuries before. They should not stop simply because they’d reached the end of Galinas. It was Fey destiny to continue until all five known continents belonged to the Empire.

The fact that Blue Isle was rich made the idea of conquest all that much sweeter. Within a few days the Fey would own Blue Isle. Rugar would own Blue Isle.

The Black King would apologize for doubting his only son.

A gull cried overhead. Its caw-caw echoed over the rain and the splash of the waves. Rugar looked up to see one of his own men on the gull’s back, his lower body subsumed into the gull’s form. Only the man’s torso and head were visible, looking as if he were actually astride the gull. The gull’s own head bent forward slightly to accommodate the unusual configuration, but that was the only concession to the difference. The Rider and the gull had been one being since the Rider had been a child.

Beast Riders were kin to Shape-Shifters, but like a Shape-Shifter, once the alternate form was chosen, the Rider could not be anything else. The Riders chose the time and place for each Shift, but their moods were always governed by the creature they chose to share their Shape with. Rugar did not understand what forced a Riding child to choose a gull instead of, say, a horse. Yet he was grateful that some did; he was getting tired of the complaints of the landed Riders. Those that Shifted into horses had worn their human forms all during the trip. They were pacing belowdecks, threatening that if they didn’t return to their equine forms soon, they would lose the ability to do so ever again.

Since Rugar had heard these complaints on every campaign he had ever been on, he ignored them. But in such close quarters, his ability to ignore was growing thin. He now wished he had placed the remaining Riders on one of the other ships, and kept only the gull Riders with him. Even they weren’t as useful as he would like. Because of their odd physiology, Beast Riders could travel only short distances in their altered form. Rugar would have loved to have sent the gull Riders all the way to the Isle when the ships had set sail, but that would have killed the Riders if there were no places to land along the way.

Rugar stared straight ahead, as if by concentrating he could make the Stone Guardians appear. No one had spoken to him all day. Since the rains had started, no one had spoken to him at all, except when they needed something from him. He checked on the Warders, as he did every morning, trying to avoid the Nyeian they kept in thrall. So far, everything had gone smoothly.

Just as he had planned.

The gull cried again and dived toward the ship. The Rider held on to the neck feathers with his tiny hands, as if he truly had to balance on the creature. Riders always pretended to Ride, even though they became part of the animal. The gull swooped around Rugar, then landed on the deck, skidding a bit on the wood.

He looked down at the creature. The gull Rider, Muce, let go of the neck feathers, straightened his arms as if they were cramped, and tilted his head until he could see Rugar. Then Muce grinned and slowly grew. As he stretched to his full height, the bird’s body slipped inside his own. The gull cried as if in protest. The cry halted as the bird’s features flattened against Muce’s stomach.

Muce, in fully human form, was taller than Rugar, but had a broadness that seemed almost unformed. Muce’s dark hair, including the hair on his chest, had a feathered quality, and his fingernails were long, like claws. His nose was not tiny, as a Fey nose should be, but long and narrow, hooking over his mouth like a beak. The nose, combined with his dark eyes and swooping brows, gave his face a nonhuman cast.

He was naked, but didn’t seem to notice the rain.

“The Guardians are ahead,” he said. His voice had a nasal quality. “Beyond them is the Island.”

Rugar grinned. “So our schedule is right. We will be there tomorrow.”

Muce shrugged. He glanced over his shoulder at the water before them, a furtive, birdlike movement. “From the air it looks as if there are no passages through the Guardians. The water froths, beats against the rocks, and then deadends. I swooped down and saw crevices, but the waves reared at me like live things. I don’t think one ship will survive, let alone an entire fleet.”

“The Nye had to trade with the Islanders somehow,” Rugar said.

“Perhaps there is an easier way. The Nye have no reason to tell us the truth.”

“No one lies to the Fey,” Rugar said.

Muce shuddered and, Rugar suspected, not from the cold. The Fey had a gift for torture.

“You need to gather the rest of the Gull Riders and see if they can spot a way through those rocks,” Rugar said. “The more backup we have, the better off we will be. These ships need to go through intact. The Islanders have never experienced battle. We’ll teach them what war really is.”

“It sounds like a slaughter,” Muce said.

“A morning’s worth,” Rugar said. “Once they see that they have no way to defeat us, they will capitulate. The Guardians are our only obstacle.”

“All right,” Muce said, although he sounded doubtful. “I will gather the others and see what we can discover.”

Without waiting for a response, he stretched out his arms and slowly shrank to his gull form. The gull, as it appeared from his stomach, finished the cry it had been making when it absorbed. It took a few tiny steps backward before launching itself into the air. Muce grabbed the feathers he had held before and, as he flew away, did not look at Rugar.

The gray skies and thick rain drops obscured the Gull Rider quickly. Rugar watched it go. He clenched his fists. He hoped that what he had said to Muce was the truth. Rugar had had no Visions since the ships had sailed.

He had expected to have a Vision before now. As the ships drew closer to Blue Isle, he had thought the proximity would draw more Visions from him or expand on his last Vision, the one that had brought him there. He had seen Jewel—as a woman fully grown—walking through the palace on Blue Isle as if she belonged there. But that Vision was nearly four months old now, and he had not had another one. For a while he was afraid they were going into this battle Blind. Then he had practiced making tiny Shadowlands, as he used to do as a new Visionary. The Shadowlands would capture the cups he had placed in the room and conceal them in a space he had made, proving that his powers were fine. On this trip, then, the Mysteries had given him only one Vision to plan with.

He had spoken to no one about his lack of Vision, not even the Shaman who had consented to go on this trip. Visions were unpredictable things. Perhaps, once he was inside the Stone Guardians, he would be able to See Blue Isle clearly.

No one has conquered Blue Isle before. His father’s voice rose out of the mist. The Black King’s arguments had haunted Rugar since the ships had left Nye.

No one has tried, Rugar had replied, even though he knew he was wrong. The Nyeians told stories from the dawn of their history which told of a force of long boats, twenty strong, that had been turned away from Blue Isle. The stories were so old that some thought them myths.

When his father had learned of that attempt, his protests had become even stronger. The last fight, when the Black King had learned that Rugar was taking Jewel, had been blistering.

She is the only hope for the Empire. His father had leaned on the heavy wooden desk in his office at the former Bank of Nye. You cannot take her from here.

I can do as I please, Rugar had said. She is my daughter.

And if you fail, what then? If she dies, what will we do? Her brothers are too young, and at their births the Shaman did not predict great things. Jewel will be greatthe best Black Queen of all. If you allow her the opportunity to become Queen.

Rugar had taken a step toward his father. I saw a Vision of Jewel happy on Blue Isle. Have you had any Visions about this trip?

His father had not replied.

Have you?

A man does not need Visions to know you’re making a mistake, the Black King had said. We need a rest. We’re no longer ready to fight.

So you have seen nothing, Rugar had said. Nothing at all.

Rugar took a deep breath. Rain dripped off his nose onto his lips. The water was cool and tasted fresh. Rugar had had the Vision; his father had not. Rulers followed Vision, even if it was someone else’s. Rugar had reminded his father of that, even though it had done no good.

He still made this trip without his father’s permission.

But permission didn’t matter. Rugar had seen Jewel walking the halls of the palace. He knew the history of the Isle. He would fight the easiest battle in the history of his people.

The Fey would own Blue Isle within a day. The Islanders wouldn’t even know they had been invaded until it was too late.

Here’s how you order the rest of the book. The ebook is widely available.  Here are the links to Kindle, Barnes & Noble, and Smashwords. Other ebookstores should have it as well. You can also order the book from Audible.com in an audio version. A trade paper edition of the book will appear in September, and I’ll put ordering information here at that time.

 

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