I didn't intend to work much on my vacation the past few weeks, but every once in a long while, the story just jumps on you and it doesn't feel like work. As a result, I finished three chapters of Of Sea and Shadow (coming this winter)!
One of the chapters won't really go into the book. It's a world-building chapter, centered around events occurring a thousand years before the main plot. But it was a cool scene, and it helped me to try out some ideas on paper, so I wrote it.
It wasn't bad, so I'm posting it here. For your...perusal.
This chapter is in the world of Of Sea and Shadow, in the early days of the Aurelian Empire. It should help you get a decent glimpse at the direction I'm taking this.
Hit the jump to enjoy!
Once, Sazean Redfist had been unbeatable. When he was young, he had never lost a challenge, but age was catching up to him. He had lost matches to three other Clan Champions in the past year alone, costing his Clan pride, respect, and a herd of pigs.
This time would be different, though: this time, he couldn’t afford to lose. Not against these foreigners, these Outsiders from across the Endless Sea. His Clan would never bear the shame.
He dropped the straight razor into his pail of water, and then ran a hand over his newly shaved scalp. Smooth as a baby’s. He picked up the mirror of polished bronze from the stand next to him and examined his work, twisting to see every angle.
He hadn’t missed a hair. Every other warrior among the Thousand Clans kept their hair long, out of pride. Fools. None of them understood that pride was worthless. Only victory mattered. And when he got a fistful of their long hair in the middle of a battle, victory was his.
He kept a short beard, though. Pride was one thing, but a beard was about dignity.
Sazean strapped his hands into a pair of thick red leather gloves. He had sewn them from the hide of a young behemoth that he had hunted in person, then dyed them every day with drops of his own blood. After a few months, they had begun to hum with impossible strength. And when he wore him, the power of the behemoth was his own.
When he was young, he had never lost a challenge.
Together, the gloves were his izzei, his instrument of spirit, what the Outsiders would call his ‘Vessel.’ They called him Soulbound, and they sent their own Soulbound to face him.
Three Soulbound warriors of the Outside had stood against him since the landing of the Outsiders, over six moon-turns ago. The blood of those fighters now dyed his gloves an even deeper red.
Today, he would bleed a fourth.
Sazean flexed his hands inside the stained leather, chanting a mantra of focus inside his head. He mimed a few punches, imagining the brown face of the Outsider King splattering on the end of his fist.
He was strong. He was powerful. He was ready. He would fight from sunup to sundown today, until the circle flowed with blood and his fists weren’t the only part of him that ran red. Sazean wouldn’t set foot out of the circle until the Outsiders ran out of men to face him. Even if the Outsider King—the man they called the Emperor—stepped up to face him, Sazean would tear his head off.
The Emperor pushed aside the tent flap.
He strolled inside Sazean’s home as though into his own Outsider palace, running his dark-eyed gaze over the dueling champion like a butcher selecting the best cut.
He was a dark man, skin and eyes of a deep brown, and as bald as Sazean. Even his eyebrows were missing—he might be entirely hairless. He wore a billowing, intricate garment that seemed to be woven of liquid metals: his jacket shone with the noon-bright flash of gold, his shirt glittered with the sunset richness of copper, and beneath that, Sazean caught the starlight wink of silver. His loose golden pants had been slashed up the side, showing even deeper layers of steel, iron, and bronze.
Sazean froze, fist extended at the end of a punch. He would be happy to face this Emperor in the circle, where everything was fair and even, but in his own tent? How had the Outsiders even known where to find him?
“How have you come to be here?” Sazean asked harshly, lowering his fist. He spoke in his own tongue; no one he knew had mastered more than a few words of the Outsiders’ crude language.
“You step into the circle against me today, Redfist,” said the Outsider King. “I decided to speak with you before it all begins.” He spoke the language of the Thousand Clans flawlessly, as though he had been born to it. Sazean had the uncomfortable feeling that this Emperor might speak it better than he did.
He stepped up, looming, forcing the King of the Outsiders to look up to him. “If you want to keep me out of the circle, you will need a sharp knife. And strong poison.” He grinned, showing off his teeth. His two top incisors had been painted red, the better to intimidate his opponents.
The Emperor didn’t look intimidated. Not by Sazean’s size, nor by his bloody grin. The dark-skinned man smiled slightly.
“Keep you out? No, Sazean Redfist, I would have you fight for me.”
The Emperor pulled gold from a golden pocket: a small coin, printed with his own face on one side. He set it down on the table, next to Sazean’s razor and his flickering candle.
The champion duelist sneered at the coin. Bringing gold was one of the few things the Outsiders had done right—it was used as currency across the Endless Sea just as it was here, with a few minor differences. With the amount of gold in the Emperor’s coin, Sazean could buy a new greatwolf to ride into battle.
But the Redfist was worth more than a simple mount. Much more.
He started to say so, but the Emperor wordlessly pressed a second coin on top of the first. Then a third. Then he was stacking them two and three at a time, until the tower of gold almost reached Sazean’s nose.
“Did you bring the whole mine with you?” he asked, with a forced laugh. But he was finding it hard to take his eyes off the tall golden stack. With one of those coins, he could buy a greatwolf, with change left over. With the whole stack, he could buy…
He couldn’t think of anything that would cost that much gold. A whole forest full of greatwolves, maybe, though the wolf-breeders would be happy to part with their entire stock for less than half this amount.
It struck him that the Emperor had given him these coins without securing his agreement first. Sazean grinned again, more genuinely this time.
“I fight for myself,” he said. “Not for the Clan, and not for you. But I would be glad to keep your gold.” He settled back into his chair, still wearing an amused smile. “Take yourself from my tent, and leave your bribe behind.”
The Outsider King’s face wrinkled in confusion. “Bribe? Ah, I see.” He snapped his fingers, as though he had just figured something out. “You mean this distraction.”
Then he smashed his fist into the stack of coins, sending a shower of gold spraying into the side of the tent. In spite of himself, Sazean flinched.
The Emperor leaned down, his huge eyes cool, still smiling politely. “That was not a bribe. That was a pile of garbage. That was a pittance. That is what I toss to a beggar when I’m feeling tolerant. When you work for me, that useless metal won’t be worth the effort it takes to bend over and pick it up.”
With his eyes still locked on Sazean, the Emperor reached one hand into his jacket and pulled out a much larger circle of gold. It was a circlet, rising in spikes and waves around the rim and empty in the middle. A golden crown.
The prize for today’s duel.
When a duel between two Clan Champions ended, the winner was gifted with a crown of gold to show his dominance. Usually, the crown itself was wood or copper, brushed on the outside with a thin layer of actual gold.
Sazean didn’t have to touch this crown to know that it was pure, through and through. This King would not dirty his hands with anything less.
“A bribe, Sazean Redfist, is something that has value. I do not merely offer you coins. I offer you victory. “ The Emperor straightened. “When you fight for me, you fight for the winning side. You will never lose again.”
This King of the Outsiders was confident, that was certain. And Sazean had to admit, if only to himself, that the display of gold was impressive. But promises were cheap.
“Once, I did not know the taste of loss,” Sazean said. “But those days are far behind me. Your words will not help me defeat a stronger, younger man.”
He had never said as much to anyone else before. Admitting his own weakness would make him look like a coward in front of the other Clan Champions, and that would in turn only invite more challenges. But this Outsider wouldn’t tell anyone who mattered.
The Emperor smiled gently. He looked twenty years younger than Sazean, so the expression should have seemed mocking, but instead it somehow reminded Sazean of a kindly grandfather smiling down on a favored grandson.
“I would say, then, that your greatest opponent is age,” said the Outsider King. “Would you agree?”
Sazean gave one brisk nod.
The Emperor tucked his hands into his golden jacket. “Did I not say, Sazean Redfist, that you would never lose again?”
When dawn came, Sazean walked to the circle with the rest of the Thousand Clans.
Today’s circle was a huge loop of white paint, at least fifty steps across, inscribed at the top of a towering mesa of gray stone. Men of the Clans stood outside the paint, prepared to shove the combatants back inside if they strayed outside the pale boundary. Most fights were decided without breaking the circle, but it was known to happen.
Half of the circle was surrounded by fighters of the Thousand Clans. Many of them were men he had faced himself, standing on this very stone: Junzen Threeleaf, Erzos Steelskin, Kazra Bladewalker. Those were only three of the Clan Champions on display, and three of the men who had tasted his red fist. The Clans screamed and raised weapons, trying to scare off this Empire of Outsiders with sheer noise.
On the other side of the circle, he found a very different display.
While the Clans had packed out their side with fighters and killers and simple observers—men and women who thirsted for spectacle—the Imperial side was looking sparse. The Emperor himself was not in attendance, but in his place, he left six strange representatives.
A woman even darker than her Emperor tightened the strings on a long wooden instrument, purring to it in a low voice. From here, Sazean imagined he could hear the low rumble of the instrument’s answer.
A pair of tall men in long black cloaks, with skin whiter than summer clouds. They were so similar they could have been brothers, and their coats flexed and bulged as if a pack of monkeys fought to escape from inside. They watched the crowd of the assembled Clans, eerily silent.
The biggest man Sazean had ever seen loomed over the brothers in black, a green sapling clutched in one fist like a walking stick. On his face, he wore a wire frame that held glass lenses over his eyes, and he watched the Clans through the glass with evident interest.
Another woman, her long blond hair tied back in a braid, waited with a casual smile and hands in her jacket pockets. Three animal skulls circled her head, floating in the air like a grisly halo.
The last Champion of the Empire was a little girl, maybe eight years old. She held a bow that looked like a toy, carved from bright red wood and etched with letters that Sazean didn’t recognize. She plucked the crimson string, giggling to herself.
All of them wore gold crowns on their head, identical to the one the Emperor had given Sazean. The others of the Thousand Clans shouted and jeered at the sheer presumption, but Redfist saw them as they were: six Champions just waiting for a duel.
He turned his eyes back to their equipment. A stringed instrument, two black jackets, a living staff, a trio of skulls, and a red bow. Vessels. All six of them were Soulbound, then, and not one showed a trace of fear. He wouldn’t want to fight any of them alone in the circle.
Good thing he didn’t have to.
He walked away from the Clans for fifty steps, placing the Emperor’s golden crown on his head as he did. Then he stopped, turned, and faced the assembled mass of his friends, his family, his rivals, his enemies. He faced them from the Outsiders’ side of the circle, standing as the Emperor’s seventh Champion.
He flexed both hands, feeling the power of the behemoth flooding through him. Once, twenty years ago, Sazean had laid a grown bear flat on its back with one punch. He had thought that sort of strength behind him.
But today, his joints did not ache. His old scars had loosened their grip, and his eyes were sharp enough to pick out the feathers on Junzen Threeleaf’s headdress. Thanks to the Emperor’s strange magic, he felt like a young man of twenty-five summers. And he was ready to prove it.
Sazean grinned his bloody grin and pounded his gloved fists against one another.
All of it.
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