An Heir to Thorns and Steel is a serialized fantasy novel updating once a week for free on Tuesdays, and again on Thursdays and Saturdays if tips reach $15 and $20, respectively. Single reviews of existing stories posted to Amazon count for $5 toward the tip total.
Blood Ladders, Book 1
Though I knew I should make my exit, I couldn’t resist the map. I had never seen the archipelago. It was much larger than I’d anticipated, twenty-six islands of varying sizes, and they were each tinted either red, green, blue or gold. And it was while staring at this wealth of information that I discovered a severe deficiency in the linguistic education Kelu had spearheaded.
I couldn’t read.
The little circular marks, cradled in their alien diacritics, were indecipherable. They looked more like art than words. I had never realized how great a light literacy had shed on my world. To be deprived of it… I felt as if someone had blinded me. Dismayed I traced the ciphers on the vellum. They could be names, numbers, distances, notes… they could be anything. And I… I was helpless in the face of their opacity. Would that Chester were here to give me some basis for understanding…!
A faint heat bathed my back, and just as I began to puzzle at it a body slammed me against the wall, crushing my cheek against the map. My nascent struggles were quelled by an invisible force and then the hands clawed beneath my skin, digging up the magic there and yanking it past the scream in every particle of my being. My vision bled black, threatening to drown me as the pain flared from fingertip to fingertip, from crown to the tip of my heel. And the revoltingly intimate caress continued, slowed even, as if my attacker was savoring every lick of it.
When he released me I slid down the wall, half-crumpled near elegant feet glowing with the force stolen from me, shod in dainty sandals more appropriate to a woman. But then, he had very pretty feet, the bastard.
“Not a feast.” Such a smug voice. “But fair for an afternoon diversion. Get up.”
Just like that, as if it were some easy task. “I cannot.”
“‘I cannot, Master,’” he corrected. When I didn’t repeat it, he slipped his foot from his sandal and used his toes to lift my chin. “Come, come, new boy. For you are new, aren’t you, or you would know me. Address the blood-flag’s head correctly.”
I was not here to draw attention to myself. I closed my eyes and said, slowly, “I cannot, Master.”
“Better,” he said. “I suppose I over-drained you. But you were there and one gets… absorbed… in one’s pleasures.”
I had no idea how to respond to that without spitting on his toes, so perhaps it was for the best that he let my head drop back to the ground. “Strange of you to linger, though. Was it that you’d never seen a map before?”
Was he serious? But from the curiosity and condescension mingled in his voice, he was. I wondered anew at the elven penchant for arrogance.
“I have seen a map, yes,” I said.
“Then why do you stare so?” he asked.
He assumed I’d seen a map of the Archipelago, a reasonable assumption… as far as he knew I’d been born here, and the elves concerned themselves not at all with the rest of the world. What other map would I have seen, save Aravalís’s? As I struggled to frame an answer that would not reveal me, he crouched and lifted my face, and at last I was forced to look at him. As with every elf he shone; my fleeting impression before I averted my eyes was of blond and white and cream, of feline eyes a summer sky blue and generous lips a sensuous coral pink.
“Come now. You can’t be inarticulate. Some elf was taken enough with you to actually have these made for you.” His finger flicked against the frame of my spectacles. “Speak.”
“I wondered at the coloring,” I said.
“Master,” he reminded me.
“Master,” I said, maintaining a bland expression. They were just sounds, devoid of meaning. I could say them and not be demeaned.
“Ah, you are ignorant of politics,” he said. “What a pathetic master you had before me, to have coddled your weaknesses and yet left you uneducated about your betters. Well, let us rectify that, eh? Stand up.”
I managed to drag myself to my feet as he watched.
“Tch,” he said, shaking his head. “So clumsy. I see why you were discarded.” The cold that gripped me at his words made it to the surface for he continued, “Oh, never fear, frail mortal blossom. I’m far more magnanimous than the average petty lordling. I am true nobility. They are merely pretenders. Now… pay attention.”
I forced myself to turn and focus on the map when what I wanted to do was escape him at speed. But truly, the map was interesting.
“Here in yellow you have the islands controlled by the blood-flag Nudain. As you can see, Nudain is falling out of power, though they are nowhere near so poorly off as blood-flag Aresset with its lonely two island holdings. Vanel is also failing, here in blue. Suleris is red…” He caressed the entire middle of the map. “Leaving only Ekadet in the north.”
I squinted. Suleris held the third largest island and all the surrounding chains, but the two largest islands belonged to Nudain and Ekadet. “This is the capital?” I asked, pointing at the largest island.
“And Suleris doesn’t hold the capital of Aravalís,” I said.
He narrowed his cat-like eyes at me, mouth pinched. Then he smiled a smile I liked not at all. “For now,” he said.
“Nudain, Aresset, Vanel, Suleris and Ekadet,” I repeated. “What of Sadar?”
He snorted. “A minor power. He owns a single city. The only reason Ekadet hasn’t consumed him is that he’s not worth consuming.”
The words tipped off a memory: Marnen. Marnen e Ekadet… the man Kemses had been fighting in the line duel. I suppressed a grim smile. Port cities were never worthless, even in a country that appeared to be mostly coastline… apparently Erevar was not so minor a prize as was supposed. “And Sidithin?”
He laughed. “You know the sorcerer! Was he your last master, then? Somehow I can see him indulging your weak body and then casting it off for some newer whim. You are lucky he didn’t decided to turn you inside out to examine the color of your bones… or give you a fur coat and sell you to us as breeding stock for the genets. But no. He has no care for politics. Fortunately for him, as if he did we would all unite against him. Are you enlightened now?”
Not even a quarter as enlightened as I wished to be, but I couldn’t imagine revealing that I had no idea how to read. I opted instead for safety and said, “Yes, Master.”
“And you see the power of Suleris.”
In bright crimson, yes. Only Ekadet held close to as much land. “Yes, Master.”
“Good,” he said. “Time for you to return to the kitchens. But before you go–” He pressed me back against the wall, sealing my wrists to it before he leaned in and brushed his hands down my ribcage. And as I struggled to tear free of my invisible bonds, he petted the magic out of me and drank of it and I would have screamed if he had allowed it.
“Very nice,” he said. “Better than wine.” He waved a hand, releasing me. “Off you go.”
White white pain warred with atavistic revulsion and the latter won, propelling me from the study on trembling legs. It wasn’t until I’d reached the relative safety of the stairwell that I began to shake in earnest. My stomach had knotted, my muscles followed suit. I was on the fourth step, looking at the long, long fall down, when my knees gave way. I hoped with a grim resignation that whatever insult my tumble would inevitably bestow would heal before someone found me or surely they would wonder how I’d survived. And then my head struck the railing and I knew nothing more.
Well there was a map, but I took it out of my records to scan it and of course, unearthing it from the mess has guaranteed that I have lost it. Now I will have to scrounge until I find it again.
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