Usually my main teaser is the first chapter of the upcoming book, but in this case, I wanted to do something farther in that gave more of a sample of what would be forthcoming in book five of The Tue-Rah Chronicles.
In case you’re wondering, it took several hours with All I Want for Christmas Is You blaring in my earbuds before I finally got this worked out. There were quite a few alternatives for this teaser, and I am probably going to share more as the story progresses.
So, without further ado, let us begin.
Above the City, Beneath the Stars
Amelia drew in a deep breath as she stepped out onto the balcony. The party showed no signs of slowing. It would probably go all night. Perhaps into the next day. But she needed a moment. Just one. Maybe two.
The night air within the envirodome remained a steady 65 degrees. Only a little cooler than daylight. Pleasant enough, especially now that all scents of blood and death had been washed away in the newly unleashed river’s flow.
Up above, the stars glimmered, but she couldn’t catch even a glimpse through the shimmering energy barrier. Especially not with the silent fireworks exploding around the buildings and sending out cascading tendrils of colorful lights and all sorts of scents from jasmine to lime to gladiola to salt water. It had probably been centuries since anyone had celebrated this way here. At least any of the slaves and serfs.
“Why am I not surprised to find you here?”
Her elmis pulsed and tingled in response, just his voice enough to make her tighten and smile now. She remained facing away from him as that “Two possibilities. You know me, and I left you a psychic bead.” She turned then.
Shrieking crespa, he made her heart twist and dance now. That black and silver-green brocaded surcoat highlighted his muscular frame. And he knew black was one of his best colors. Especially when the garments were this well-tailored. It was that look in his eyes, that spark and hint of mischief though that really set her spinning though. That and the smirk. Shrieking crespa indeed.
“Yes. That psychic bead.” He offered her a crooked rueful grin as he approached, a salt-rimmed goblet in each hand. “Drove right between my eyes when the question came to my mind. It was more forceful than you intended. Unless you’re angry with me and have yet to tell me.”
She laughed. Ducking her head, she tucked the loose strands of hair back over her ear. “You’d know if I was angry. I suppose I have more work with the psychic beads. They’re a lot more delicate than psychic stones.”
“They are indeed. Best not to leave any messages for those who can’t heal rapidly. I’ve never seen them used as weapons before this, but there’s untapped potential there. I especially love the irony of them being attached to the question ‘who wants me dead?’ or something similar.”
Pursing her lips, she shook her head and reached up to touch his forehead. Not a trace of a mark marred his skin. In his current state of rest, he had a few wrinkles around his eyes and a slight crease across his brow. Minor signs of aging that still belied his true age. Certainly no indication that a silver psychic bead had tried to blow through his skull. “I’m sorry all the same.”
He lifted his broad shoulders in a light shrug. “Nothing they make here is the way it used to be. They can’t even get the wine right.”
“And yet you brought two goblets. Are we pouring them off the side into the river?” She canted her head, rather amused.
“No. This isn’t wine. It isn’t right, but it isn’t bad either.” He offered her the one rimmed in salt with a large orange slice on the edge, the green liquid fizzing around the ice. His had almost twice the salt and a far murkier coloration as well as some dark-red liquid she didn’t want to contemplate. No fruit slice either.
“Thank you. It looks a little like a margarita.” She frowned as she sniffed it. “But it doesn’t smell like one.” Taking a tentative sip, her eyes widened at the thickness of the liquid. It had the consistency of a chilled hot chocolate, but the taste was an overpowering mixture of salt and sour. Tears formed in her eyes as her mouth puckered. “Oh!” She blinked. “Oh.”
That grin of his pulled even more crooked. “You like it?”
“I—I don’t know what to think of this. That—that’s an experience.” She grimaced, the words coming out strange and garbled because she couldn’t fully open her mouth. “Very memorable.”
“Do you want to try mine?”
She narrowed her eyes at him. That sounded like a trap. “How drunk will it make me?”
“Not much more than yours. Which is probably not at all. As long as you take the salt with it. Though you should be warned, I like mine more.”
He lifted his domed goblet with almost twice as much salt on the rim as if in toast, then offered it to her. “Just more.”
Accepting it with her left hand, she took a tentative sip. The salty iron-filled liquid exploded in her mouth, far more spicy and sour, almost foul and yet somehow not thoroughly disgusting. Grimacing, she shook her head violently. “Naatos Alaric Ghengis Ezro!”
He shook his head, laughing. “Why do you keep adding to my name?”
“Because Naatos Ezro is too short a name when I need to get your attention.”
“You could use all of my titles.”
She fanned her mouth. That aftertaste was one of the most potent she’d ever encountered. “Is that blood in this drink?”
The corner of his mouth lifted a little higher. “Cabiza blood.”
She clicked her tongue. “No wonder it tastes so angry.”
“Sometimes they serve it with the venom as well.”
“I bet AaQar would put it in tea.”
She tried to moisten her mouth to eliminate the heavy iron taste, then took a drink from her goblet. “Well, my drink tastes perfectly balanced now.”
“It actually tastes sweet.” She frowned as she took another sip. It was almost enjoyable. The fact that he had brought it to her made her like it all the more. He and his brothers probably wouldn’t like actual margaritas. Although Laachtue probably would. Some of the others as well. “I didn’t mean to take you away from your party though. I’ll be ready to go back down soon.”
“I am not overly fond of leaving you alone up here. But it’s for the best. There are too many people present.”
“Shocking for a party involving the whole freed city.” She nudged him with her hip.
He bumped her back. “You’ll come down when it’s time for the more formal elements, of course?”
“Of course.” She took another sip. Her eyes watered. “I just needed a few minutes to breathe. There’s a lot of feelings down there, and I don’t know how to block people well enough without cutting everything off. And while this healing insists on being interminably slow, I don’t want to risk it.”
“While I want you present to be honored with the rest of the family, I understand if that is all you can manage. Don’t overextend yourself if the cost is that. You played a great role.”
“Well now you’ve made it a challenge so of course I must make it.” She shook her head as her eyes watered even more. “Balanced or not, this is a highly opinionated beverage. Beautiful night though. More or less.”
“More or less?” He raised an eyebrow. “Given all that has happened, I’d have expected you to see it as more.”
“It’s good.” She laughed a little as she glanced up at the sky. “It just feels strange not seeing the stars. That’s all.”
“You want to see the stars?” He took her goblet. “We can see the stars.”
“I—” She pulled back with surprise as he set the goblets on the ledge and then climbed the steel plates to the top of the tower. It wasn’t much more than twelve feet, but still—the fine clothes didn’t impede him at all.
She followed, a little slower. Her long orange-red skirt trailed about like streams of living fire, but it didn’t hinder her movement much unless she snagged the fabric on a corner or edge.
“If you had waited for me, I would have helped you up.”
“I know. But I can climb.”
“Can you? I hadn’t noticed.” He helped her up onto the top of the tower and then stepped to the middle. “You’re always so stationary and motionless.”
She folded his arms. What was he going to do next?
Lifting up on his toes, he pressed his hand against the energy barrier. It blistered and hissed as it slowly receded. A faint burning scent spread out as the edges of the energy barrier peeled back in brightened lines.
“Does that hurt?” She lifted her brow as she studied him.
He gave his hand a brisk shake and then jumped up onto the thin metal platform situated directly above the tower and above the energy barrier. Stooping down, he canted his head. “You aren’t going to follow?”
She pursed her lips as she studied the distance from the top of the tower to the top of that thin platform a little over eight feet above her head.
“Can you not jump?” His crystal-blue eyes sparked with amusement.
“I’m thinking I can see the stars just fine from here. Thank you for the window.” She folded her arms.
He clicked his tongue at her. “Do I have to drag you up here?”
“This started off so romantic.”
“Has it stopped being romantic?” His crooked smile pulled a little higher.
“Give me your hand, you enormous sikalt.” She jumped and caught hold of his arm as he grasped her elbow. Before she swung, he hauled her up and set her easily on the top of the metal platform. Her heart fluttered a little faster, and the heat was already returning to her cheeks, spreading from her core.
“You like me.”
She pressed her lips in a tight line as she peered up at him. It wasn’t possible to keep the smile away entirely. Mindreader though she was, she doubted she’d ever be able to beat him or anyone in a game of poker or binar. “You are such a showoff.”
“Only because it works.” He slid his arms around her. “It’s been too long since we danced together.”
It certainly had. She twined her arms around his neck and swayed with him. The music from the celebration pressed through, softer, muted. The drum beats and deeper-voiced instruments rumbled against the energy barrier, a song more felt than heard. Not entirely romantic in sound but pleasant and beautiful because of who she was with.
Up above, the stars shone bright, a myriad of pale colors. The night stretched out around them, beautiful in its calm, the unimaginable potential of this world and its peoples seething and simmering. His breath caressed the curve of her neck and the shell of her ear. Could there be anything better?
Maybe. But not now.
He held her close, and she leaned up on her toes to hug him tighter. “They’ll be looking for you soon,” she sighed.
“They can look all they want. It’s for the best if they don’t assume I’m always available when they want me.”
She pulled back enough to look him in the eye. “They admire and respect you. That’s why they want you to be king.”
His eyebrow arched. Maybe he hadn’t realized she had heard those rumors. It was hard not to hear them though. “You don’t sound surprised.”
The freeing of Darmoste had been stunning. Especially to Vawtrians who did not realize that it was possible to hold a separate form for more than a couple minutes. Who had no knowledge of their heritage or their true power. They’d looked at him and his brothers as if they were the reincarnation of ancient heroes or gods. Some measure of unease prickled through her because of that. The way that Naatos had dispatched the potentate, the display he had put on with his brothers and the enormity of the victory as well as the dramatic revelation of vigilante justice had sent shock waves throughout the entirety of Darmoste.
That little spasm of fear cut through her again. No. He had earned her trust, and this wasn’t at all like Libysha. She tried to swallow the sour taste that filled her mouth as she chose her words carefully. “If you had shown up in Libysha the way you did here, it would have been very different. At least in how I responded to you.”
“Were Libysha like Ecekom, you’d have been too busy forming your own ill-advised and incompetent but enthusiastic rebellion.”
She laughed as the dance led her to the edge of the platform. “I would hope so. But I sometimes wonder if I wouldn’t have been tempted to go along with them because they were my family.”
He shook his head, chuckling. “You have no respect for kings or emperors. You’re narrowly focused on a thin set of principles that run all the way to your core. Which is not such a bad thing. Most of the time. It’s part of what will make you a good queen.”
“What?” She pulled back to the center of the platform, staring at him incredulously.
“They want me to be their king. How could you think I would ask anyone else to be my queen?”
“They said Vawtrians used to choose their rulers based on merit. You said the same. That’s why they wanted you as their king. That makes sense. I don’t. QueQoa told me all about how rulers were chosen in your day. If your goal is to return to the old ways, then you can’t make exceptions for me. Tilfan was a weak leader who was indulged in every whim and challenged in no way great or small. But he was at least trained. He just had a weak character. You can’t make me queen simply because I’m your wife. Your people deserve a good queen.”
He blinked as if considering this for the first time. “You think you wouldn’t make a good queen?”
She lifted her arms in a long shrug. The long flowing train and sash fluttered in the cool wind. “I have no training, no education in such leadership. Being queen is a serious responsibility, and most spend their lives preparing for such tasks. I spent mine learning to be an executioner.”
“You will make a far better queen than executioner.” He smiled as he drew her back in front of him, his hands on her waist.
“That isn’t saying much.” She smirked at him as she shook her head. “No. Your people need leaders who can show them the way out of this nightmare of disease, poverty, and slavery. Leaders who can stand against whatever challenges may come. Disputes and letters of contempt alike are sent with blood and settled in broken bones and shattered spines. I can at best injure and strike someone unconscious in formal kuvaste. And I don’t think soul ripping is something I should advertise or indulge in beyond the given parameters. These people deserve good leaders who will keep their best in mind. Always. They have been put through fire, floods, famine, and fragility. The essence of who they are has been stripped away. Their culture is not mine. I barely know my own. What I can offer is compassion and empathy and dedication to working as fast as I can to learn my people’s healing arts. Those things alone do not make me a good queen.”
He cupped her chin. “It is a serious responsibility. But you are a swift learner as well as a mindreader. All that you need to learn to be queen you can and will learn given time. And loath as I am to admit this, your actual skills may prove useful. They—contrast mine and complement them.”
She chewed on the inside of her lip as she contemplated this. “If I am fit to be queen, then I’ll earn their trust and they’ll want me. If they don’t, then I have no business ruling regardless of whether I’m married to you. Laachtue and Selswan are both better qualified than I. I can certainly fulfill other diplomatic duties and learn other ways to serve. But these people need good leaders. I am inexperienced, and I made an utterly dreadful princess. I’d rather not be banished again.”
His expression darkened. “I would never banish you.”
“I don’t intend to press that, but I’m sure I could find a thing or two that might make you want to banish me.”
He shook his head, scoffing. “The first rule of being a good leader is never to make public proclamations or rulings that are easily overturned. Banishing you would mean first I had to convince WroOth it was the only course. Otherwise he’d bring you right back, and that would undermine my authority in a far greater way than having a recalcitrant spouse.”
“So it wouldn’t be because you like me too much to send me away. It’d be because your little brother would make you look ridiculous? I’m so glad to know where I stand in all this.” She grinned up at him.
“Crespa, help me.” He blinked as he pulled her close once more. “One of these days I insist we have a night of passion and connection without conversation.”
“You do like to ask for the impossible, don’t you?”
“No more than you, you ridiculous onion fish.” He spun her around and then drew her back in time to the music. “Keep this up and you’ll make me reconsider my offer to make you queen.”
“Look who’s being sensible and listening to my advice—” She paused as a familiar deep purr reached her ears. Turning, she looked toward the opening in the energy barrier as a large silver furred creature leaped up.
“Cassio!” she shouted with delight. “What are you doing here?”