Book Excerpt: Fire in the Dawn by Justin Fike

Fear not the blade,

Nor the hungry fire.

The coming storm,

Nor the hidden hand.

You need only fear the tyranny of memory;

The cries of all the restless ghosts

That dwell within your past.

— Kelriad, the Starson, first emperor of Tiira


1


“Where is that lazy quarra?”

Mistress Alin’s voice echoed through the passage, preceding her arrival like a train of Sonsa girls before an emperor. Kyren’s hand tightened on the brush he held, but he continued scrubbing the panels of the hardwood floor in slow, even circles. He felt the vibration through the floor as she rounded the corner and strode up the hallway towards him.

The Mistress was a stocky Go’gin woman, with bones like the shaft of an ox cart. She was not loved by the small staff that maintained the castle’s empty halls, but her temper was well respected. Gossip held that she was born wearing the white kama of the Rai’gin in a fishing village on the coast of Hayan, but had risen to the ranks of the Go’gin through marriage. Some found the tale unlikely, but none had the courage to confirm it with Alin herself.

“Ah, Kiri, have you seen Rana flitting about lately?”

“No, Mistress.”

He was careful as ever to keep his voice flat and dull, vacant of energy.

“No, Mistress. Yes, Mistress.”

Alin cuffed him with the back of her hand in what she likely thought was a light, corrective tap. The blow snapped his head to the side and left his ears ringing.

“Bah! Can you not speak a proper sentence every now and then? Stars above, sometimes I wonder why I keep you on here at all.”

You keep me on here because without my help you’d foul every ritual and custom set by the Can’Caren by lunchtime, and see e’Yazen’s blade remove your void-cursed head from your shoulders by fifth bell…Mistress. Kyren  took a slow breath and began moving his brush in slow circles once again.

“Yes, Mistress.”

“Oh never mind the floor. The Taijo will return with his advisers within three bells at the most, so the guests and supplicants will arrive even sooner. The Red Sky must be made ready for their arrival.”

We both know that the only things that sot cares to hold today are a cup of wine and a pair of breasts. Kyren scrubbed hard enough to leave a scattering of bristles on the floor.

“This is important, Kiri. Do you understand that? An important day, for more than just this faded hall.”

Alin’s voice turned soft, underscored by a note of fear. Either one would have been unusual, but he understood their cause well enough. The Taijo, lord Shoni e’Yazen, had remained in the countryside all through the long winter, preferring the freedom of wine, women, and the hunt that his family’s estates afforded him to the icy fingers of the mountain winds that clutched at the city he governed. Shoni was largely content to leave Oraya to tend to itself, but the approach of spring had brought out a flush of green buds on the cherry and magnolia trees, and the birch and alder stretched their limbs and shook frost from their branches as the res stalks sprouted blossoms ready for harvest.

Soon the mountains would bloom, and the Shisingara festival that celebrated the spring harvest would bring a flood of visitors and fresh commerce to the city. The Taijo had little choice but to hold court to address his citizen’s concerns that had lain dormant through the winter. Few lowlanders braved Cania’s ice and snow, but soon the festival would draw many visitors and dignitaries northward, and it would not do for them to find crime, corruption, and whispers of discontent growing thick among Oraya’s spring blossoms. But these were Kyren’s thoughts. As Kiri he could only smile up at her and think of nothing in particular as he continued scrubbing at the floor.

“Did you hear me, you fool? Leave the brush and prepare the Hall for the Taijo. I want it spotless by fourth bell.”

She grabbed the back of his tori like the scruff of an errant pup and tossed him on his way. Kyren made a show of stumbling for balance, tripping his left foot over his right heel before catching himself against the wall. He never missed an opportunity to further entrench his reputation as a dim-witted buffoon. It wore on him, but it was a small price to pay to keep himself and his father alive for another day. He bowed low to the Mistress, then went to attend to his new assignment.

“Oh, and Kiri,”

Alin’s voice caught him before he took a second step.

“Yes, Mistress?”

Kyren turned. Head bowed. Eyes to the floor.

“If you do see Rana, tell her that she must be ready to attend to the Taijo’s every need after her performance. His every need, you understand? Those words exactly.” Her voice was tired, but firm.

“Yes, Mistress.”

Kyren bowed to hide the clench of his jaw. Rana had played the shao’sa for the Taijo on his last visit to the Red Sky, and Kyren had seen the way the man’s eyes tracked her every move and gesture. He did not think Alin would have given such an order if the Taijo had left her any choice, but that gave him scarce comfort. He turned and walked down the corridor, rounding the corner before she could heap any more unpleasant tasks on his shoulders.

The rooms and hallways of Hinoji Castle were empty, as always, though his mood was sour enough that he did not appreciate their faded splendor as he usually did. He stormed down long hallways of cedarwood, past guest chambers once richly appointed in silk and inlaid furnishings, their dark teak and brightly painted frescoes now dulled and forgotten with age. The air smelled of mold and the leavings of mice, and the midday starlight illuminated the dust that hung in the air and sat thick on every surface.

The guest chambers of the ancestral home of House Cania had once been famed for its t’san-marked doorways. Their script would fill the room with the fragrance of mountain flowers and play soft music in welcome whenever a new guest entered. Despite their fame, the great expense of maintaining them had been the first of many things cast aside by the Taijo in the days that followed the fall of its true masters. The echo of his footsteps was the only sound that broke the silence now.

As he passed the Chamber of Tranquil Harmony, his favorite because of the view it offered of the now-wild gardens at the heart of the castle grounds, he spotted several bare spaces on the floor. The chamber had boasted a large teak clothing chest bound in gold, and a painted screen depicting hunting scenes from the rule of Emperor Shozen e’Cania.

Now the floor where they had stood was empty. Kyren hated to see this fresh evidence of the robbery that funded the Taijo’s excesses, but he kept his face still and vacant. It was unlikely that he would encounter another member of the castle staff here, but there was no reason to risk exposure.

He shifted his kama as he left the room behind. He hated the scratching of the course linen, the sweat it left on his neck, and the stale weight that pulled his head toward the ground in summer. The law required all Rai’gin to wear the kama whenever they were in public, but it said nothing about learning to enjoy it. Thankfully the other servants saw his constant adjusting of the heavy white scarf as just another odd but excusable expression of a simple mind, like his habit staring at the clouds of swallows roosting in the castle eves, or his occasional drooling.

At the end of the hall, he turned left through the archway leading out into the gardens. They had once been a marvel, a true sanctuary of harmony in celebration of the balance of the elements. The branches of the magnolia and cherry trees that lined the path had knotted themselves together overhead, blocking the view of the stars that had once been carefully maintained. Thistle and tall grasses hid the carefully positioned rocks that marked the boundaries of cultivated flowers and beds of moss, while thick clumps of algae and river weeds choked the many streams that ran throughout the grounds into silence.

The spring air from the mountains filled his lungs with the faint perfume of the new buds on the trees, but beneath it he could also smell the decay of all the blossoms that had come before them rotting in layers on the ground. Soon these new buds would bloom, fade, and fall to join their ancestors in the muck that squelched beneath his sandals. He thought it a fitting symbol of his current state.

He walked down lanes framed by cypress and white fir. Their branches stretched to crowd the path, reveling in the freedom of long years passed without pruning. His steps carried him around the edge of the pond at the heart of the garden; its waters kept clean by the cycling of fresh water from the An’uen river just beyond the wall that loomed to his right. In the second era Jonin e’Shadra had remarked that Hinoji’s pond was precisely the right size to allow a man to contemplate his life as he circled it, yet no so long as to leave him depressed by the end. It had been known as the Pool of Reflections ever since.

As a boy he loved to play in the pond’s shallows to escape the summer heat, despite the fact that he had nearly drowned in it one summer. He had been caught by the pull of the drain at the base of the wall while attempting to show his cousins that he too could hold his breath for the full length of a kestri’s song, and was only saved by the efforts of a vigilant gardener. His father had ordered a grate placed across the drain, but as far as he knew that was yet one more thing left undone in the wake of the White Dawn.

He would have given anything he possessed to dive into the water again, but he doubted even Kiri’s reputation for clumsiness would spare him a beating if he did so. Sometimes he stood at the waters edge and closed his eyes until the cries of the jackdaws and magpies who made their nests in the wild garden became the laughing shrieks of a boy splashing and diving in the heat of the day.

Today afforded him no time for self-indulgence, however. He passed through the garden and entered the Hall of the Red Sky, the central building of the castle complex where the library, kitchens, and great hall stood. He paused to wipe all the mud from his sandals before entering. The empty hallways, now stripped of the rich carpets that had once covered their floorboards, bore the dirt of other servants who showed little concern for the tracks they left behind, but Kyren refused to contribute even a single speck of dust.

You will not stop today, Kyren, he ordered himself as he walked the silent corridor. He passed the empty rooms of the family quarters on his left and right; their doors cracked open in a futile attempt to keep the scant furniture and tapestries that remained from growing musty. There is nothing for you there.

Yet as he reached the fourth door on the right his steps veered off course as if guided by another’s will, and he stepped inside his old room once again.

Thankfully it had not been changed since his last visit. The bed remained against the far wall beneath a window which had always let in enough light to wake him by sixth bell. It was too small for him now but had seemed larger than a river barge when he last slept in it all those years ago. All of the other furnishings — drapes, linens, rugs, wardrobe and toys — had been taken and sold long ago. He crossed the open floor and sat down, leaning his head back against the wall beneath the latticework of the window to look up at the ceiling overhead. He took in the mural that his father had commissioned there, a recreation of the alignment of the stars on the morning of his birth.

The silver of the Night Court spread out in a rich canopy, while Velyrr led the first of the Day Court in a line of golden fire that burned all along the edge of the ceiling above the far wall, announcing the onset of his first day. That morning Velyrr had been flanked by Belar and Shorel, the twin fires of Justice and Wisdom, a very auspicious omen indeed, for all the good it had done him so far. His father had once told him he had wanted Kyren to always have this reminder of that day, so he would know how special it had been and awake each morning certain of his place in the world. Who could have known that looking up at it would bring him far more pain than joy in the years to come?

Kyren closed his eyes and allowed himself a moment to rest in the warm silence. He only truly remembered the last of the five summers he had spent within these halls, but it was by far the best and brightest memory he possessed. He recalled the scent of fried res cakes rolled in cane sugar and cinnamon, the happy shrieks of his cousins as they burst into his room to pounce on his bed and drag him outside to join their games. Through it all there was his mother Liani’s face framed against the mural overhead she sang him a lullaby and left him to dream.

Liani had loved these halls. She always pressed his father to bring the family back to Oraya in the summer to escape the heat of their residence in the imperial capital of Koyro. Kyren would have given all the blood in his veins to go back to that moment and force his father to listen to her on that year of all years, but Lavren loved the ebb and flow of politics and court life. With the mounting tension and whispers of unrest growing in the capitol he had decided to remain close to the Imperial seat despite Liani’s misgivings.

Kyren fought to hold to his happy memories and search out new ones, but they began warping and drifting like smoke as they always did, until he was standing among raging flames and choking black clouds as their home in Koyro burned around him. His ears rang with the screams of children and servants as the fire came for them. He felt the heat blistering his skin as he coughed and fought for breath that would not come.

He stumbled to his feet and shook the nightmare from his mind as he strode from the room. Officially, the White Dawn Rising that had swept the sitting emperor from the Throne of Midnight and Morning had been the will of heaven made manifest, a cleansing that had righted the imbalance that threatened the ancient traditions and customs of Tiira. House Cania had been the only one of the Elder Houses stubborn enough, or loyal enough, to stand against the coup, and they had paid the price in blood and fire. None had dared to challenge the Sho’gin’s rule since.

I hope your damned pride keeps you warm among the stars, honored grandfather.

It was not the first time he had wished that Beren had stood aside that day, though he would never be foolish enough to say so in his father’s presence. “Our House alone paid the debt of honor owed by all the Eldest,” Lavren was found of saying with bitter pride. It was true enough, but Kyren often thought that the price of House Cania’s silence would have been far easier to bear.

His steps slowed to a more respectable pace as he approached the end of the corridor. Beyond he saw the first of the crimson pillars that disappearing into the vaulted expanse of the Hall of the Red Sky. He forced himself to return to the present. His thoughts were drawn in dark directions by the upcoming audience. Watching another sit the throne that was his father’s as he drove Cania further towards corruption and crisis was never pleasant, but allowing those feelings to surface would only draw attention he could not afford. He gathered up the memories of the morning and buried them deep in a layer of self-control.

You are Kiri. The familiar phrase forced his shoulders down into a slouch. You were born from nothing, the only son of a Rai’gin pig farmer. His eyes drifted out of focus and the corner of his mouth fell slack. You have no House, you have no name, and if you hold to any hope of vengeance, you must live through today. With his disguise wrapped around him like a sodden blanket, Kyren stepped into the great room to prepare it for the Taijo’s arrival.


 Fire in the Dawn: The Twin Skies 

By Justin Fike

A prince in hiding. An empire in turmoil. A gathering storm.

Kyren e’Cania is the last son of a fallen House, raised in secret in the shadows of the city his family once ruled.

Trained by his father in the ways of his people, Kyren has avoided the notice of the tyrant who murdered his family by never giving anyone reason to suspect he is anything more than a nameless peasant.

But when an ambitious noble sets dangerous events in motion, Kyren must find a way to reclaim his heritage and unite his people, before everything he loves is swallowed by fire and sword once again.

About the Author

Scott Mullins is a freelance writer and digital content manager. When he’s not finding ways to distract himself from writing his novel he writes killer copy for companies all over the world. Connect with Scott on Twitter @ScottMullins86 or LinkedIn. He’s always looking to connect with other writers.