As promised, this is the other story I’ve put up for sale recently. It’s what’s technically known as a novelette — about 13,000 words — longer than a short story, shorter than a novella. The cover is by Jade E. Zivanovic (her Facebook profile). The first two scenes follow the break. If you’re interested in buying it, those links are provided, too.
Augan crossed the barren room, the sound of his boots echoing off the stone walls and floor. He knelt before his brother. Vecian’s stadium had been completed the day before—undoubtedly the reason behind this summons.
“Get up.” Vecian padded to the window and looked out. “Beautiful, isn’t it?”
“I suppose.” Augan stood. He glanced about for a bench to sit on, but his survey only reinforced the emptiness of the room. “Pity none of the soldiers are going out on campaign soon. A martial parade would be the perfect occasion to inaugurate the stadium.”
Vecian turned his head. His amber eyes stared, and Augan suppressed a shiver. Vecian wasn’t a predator, just a king as other kings before him, as their father had been, though their father had never been so lupine.
“Perhaps I can find another celebration.” Vecian tapped a finger on his chin. “A wedding, perhaps? You and—”
“I’m not seeing anyone.” Augan kept his tone curt; he didn’t want to talk about why, especially not with his brother.
“No? I thought you and that priest were happy together.” Vecian shrugged and turned back to the window. “No matter. Something else then.”
Augan crossed to stand next to Vecian. He spared a glance for the stadium: tiers of seats separated by broad promenades surrounded a dirt-covered oval, like a miniature practice ground exposed to spectators. At the far end a boxed-off seating area walled in a section from the arena floor to the topmost tier, to set Vecian apart from his people.
“You could declare a festival.” He motioned toward Vecian’s box. “Can’t you just see your royal banners draped everywhere?”
Vecian grinned. “Better yet—war games.”
“War games? I didn’t think General Lemul had brought any prisoners from the north on his last campaign.”
“He didn’t.” Vecian began to pace. “It would make games easier if he had. Remind me to talk to the general sometime. Meanwhile, we must have someone for our soldiers to face.” His voice dropped, and Augan could barely make out the mutters. “Not slaves—too weak, too few. They’d never fight the mages, certainly.” He whirled to face Augan. “We’ll have them fight each other.”
Vecian crowed and bounded back to the window. “It will be glorious. Blood and swords, shields and knives—the best fighting each other, showing who truly is the best.”
“Practice bouts, you mean?” Despite Vecian’s mention of blood, Augan couldn’t believe that his brother would expect the soldiers to turn on one another.
His brother stilled. “Did I say ‘practice’?”
Augan held one hand up in appeasement. “I only want to be certain I understand your will.”
“Then listen to my words.” Vecian lunged forward and grabbed Augan’s shoulder. His fingers dug into the joint, and Augan winced. “I want to see blood spilled. I want the soldiers to prove their loyalty to me, to vie for blessings from my hand. I want everyone to know that I rule.”
“Are there any who doubt?” Augan tried to keep his voice from shaking. Vecian hadn’t released his grip. Augan’s arm had only just healed from their last disagreement; he did not need a fractured shoulder.
“Any who doubt? Don’t think I don’t know that the mages would rule in my place if they could. They gather power that should come to me.”
Vecian shoved him away. Augan fell, and his tunic, still caught against Vecian’s fingers, ripped. Augan looked up at his brother; the violence was growing.
“The mages serve the kingdom; the spirits would not choose them otherwise.”
Vecian turned away, passing a hand through his hair. “Perhaps you’re right. The spirits wouldn’t—can’t—conspire like that.” He paused before the window to gaze at the stadium once more. “Still, the idea of these games pleases me. See to it, Augan. Make the first day for my stadium glorious.”
Augan got unsteadily to his feet. He didn’t dare push himself up and put pressure on his aching shoulder; he would not collapse in front of Vecian.
“As you say, my king.” Augan bowed stiffly, pivoted, and strode away down the corridor. He could feel his brother’s eyes boring into his back until he turned the corner.
Time to dump this into someone else’s lap. He’d find General Nalee and let her break the news to the other generals. They would follow orders.
Still, Vecian’s desire for spilled blood troubled him.
If Augan were to tell Nalee he planned to visit the Oracles, she would know that he was worried. Even the strongest soldiers feared to visit the Maze, and Augan was no exception. He fingered his torn tunic. Perhaps there were worse things to fear.
Nalee stared at the gameboard in front of her. The mage Colai’s last victory at constellations had been unexpected, and she wanted a counter to his strategy. The only one she’d found so far left her vulnerable on her flanks. He’d learned a lot through the years—must be because she was a good teacher.
Her aide, Takil, spoke from the doorway. “There’s trouble.”
Nalee shifted one of her minor stars, shook her head, and replaced it. “What is it this time?” She’d seen war and uprisings under three kings. Trouble kept her from getting flabby, even if it did not keep away the grey.
“Augan wouldn’t say,” he replied.
She looked up in irritation and saw Augan behind him. His tunic was torn at the shoulder. At her glance, he touched the tear then let his hand drop as if daring her to say something. “Fetch some wine,” she told Takil.
She waited for her aide to leave before she welcomed her visitor. The torn clothing was the most superficial of Augan’s changes—his face had grown thinner since she’d last seen him, and the lines around his eyes suggested he’d been frowning a lot recently. She greeted him, two hands outstretched to take his.
“It is long since you came for a visit.”
He waved his right hand. “Affairs of state.”
“Of state?” She raised her eyebrows. “I had heard rather other descriptions of the affairs that kept you busy. Is Kanarre finished with you then?”
The tension around his eyes eased, though he didn’t smile. “Your informants are slipping. Kanarre and I haven’t been together for three months.”
“She wised up, did she?” Nalee sat on a low bench and pulled him down next to her.
He didn’t meet her gaze. “The priests value their independence. She will advance faster without ties to the royal family.”
She cackled. “A pretty story, but I won’t press you.”
He started to speak, but she interrupted. “Here’s Takil with our wine. I think you’ll like this—I picked it up on my last campaign.”
“I don’t recall seeing wine on the inventory of spoils.” Augan reached for the cup Takil proffered.
She shrugged. “Your brother doesn’t care for wine, so I saw no reason to clutter the official tally.”
“I see.” He grinned and lifted his cup to her. “Life without pain.”
“Pain without death.” She gave the traditional reply and lifted her own cup. After sipping, she nodded to Takil. “You may go.”
Takil was disappointed, she could tell, but he’d learn why Augan had come soon enough. She waited until she heard Takil’s footsteps crossing the courtyard—a measure of his trust in Augan that he did not listen outside the door.
“Now, what’s this about?”
“My brother has asked for blood games to inaugurate his stadium.”
“Fights between warriors, blood spilled to wet the sand.”
Soldiers trained together; they did not turn on one another. She held her fury in. Her gut tightened, but she had too much practice hiding reactions from her soldiers to betray her anger to Augan now.
“No life without pain, then, even here at home. Are all my warriors to face each other?”
He picked up his cup again. “He didn’t give specifics.”
Nalee resisted the urge to slap the cup from his hand. The blue-glazed set had been a gift from Augan’s grandfather upon her first victory. She had fond memories of him both on and off the battlefield, and she saw no reason now to let his hapless descendants ruin that. She contented herself with dropping her hand heavily onto Augan’s shoulder. His reflexes were still good enough that he didn’t spill any wine.
“I taught you long ago to face your battles. My warriors are prepared to do the same. But if we are to fight, to die, we must have our orders.” Orders from a mad king, but orders nonetheless.
He rested his hand on his knee, seemingly oblivious to the cup of wine. “The fights are mine to arrange; they will not be to the death.”
No, they wouldn’t be, not with him in charge. Nalee tossed back another cupful of wine. She set the cup down on the table hard enough to chip the base. She’d mourn it later. “If I were not ready to die for my king, I would leave the army. When are the games to be?”
She shook her head. Nalee had spent her life carving out more land and subjects from the surrounding countries, ready to die for the kingdom and let mages gather power from her spirit. “Your father would be proud of you, but it’s your brother we both serve.”
He slumped forward. A heartbeat later, he placed his cup next to hers, sat up, and squared his shoulders. “Not your soldiers only, Nalee. All the generals must bear this equally. My heart tells me to have you bring your weakest, but I do not think Vecian would find this sufficient. Handpick a score of warriors and have each of the generals do the same.”
This was more like the youth she had trained. “It’s to be mass combat, then?”
“We’ll have a variety—decades, hands, and single combat. Maybe pairs as well. Send me your list, and rank each warrior in the different styles. I’ll plan the games to cover three consecutive days.”
She leaned back and looked at the ceiling, thinking. “How soon?” Mara—Vecian’s wife—was her best soldier. Put her in solo combat, or perhaps leading a decade. The twins, Faren and Velis, were off on leave right now, but there were others for pair combat.
Augan’s voice cut into her deliberations. “I’ll have to consult a priest for propitious times.”
“A priest, eh?” She didn’t bother smothering her snicker. “So you and Kanarre aren’t as finished as all that.”
“She isn’t the one I was planning to speak to. I am going to walk the Maze.”
Nalee swung her head to focus on him. He sought no simple answer then. “Without a guide? I hope the statues do not drive you mad.”
“I think we would do well to have guidance.”
Augan had not voiced one direct word of criticism of his brother, but he wouldn’t. Even the best of kings had spies, and Vecian was far from the best of kings.
She didn’t voice her doubts to Augan, any more than he had voiced his to her. “Would you like some wine to take as an offering?”
He took another sip and held it in his mouth. After he swallowed, he said, “Thank you. Those of the Maze would appreciate the hidden flavors that develop only with time.” He winked at her. “If I were still seeing Kanarre, I’d beg more of it from you.”
“How could she appreciate it when her taste runs to simple things like you?” She was rewarded by seeing him laugh, clearing all the tension from his face.
Augan didn’t stay much longer. Nalee watched him cross the courtyard and exit through the main doors to the street. She only hoped she had schooled him well enough for him to survive now. May the gods protect him out there. She stared after him until she heard Takil behind her.
She spoke without turning. “I’ll be going out.”
At least a couple of her fellow generals would be at the training grounds outside the city walls. Let them pass the word. “When I come back, I want to see my centurions. Make certain Mara is here. We have much to discuss.”
“A new campaign?” Takil paused in gathering the cups.
“Let’s hope it won’t come to that.”