True Gift: A #BookQW Excerpt

It’s Book Quote Wednesday (#BookQW) again, and that means another excerpt from A Wizard’s Sacrifice. The word today is WAIT, a word that appears in Ashel’s first POV chapter in the sequel to A Wizard’s Forge. Here we see what Ashel’s up to after the war that concluded in Forge, and the chapter gives a taste of Lathan religion.

(Spoiler Alert: if you haven’t yet read A Wizard’s Forge and hate spoilers, there is a major plot point from Forge in this excerpt!)

True Gift

Quills scratched and tapped, each rap on an inkwell a counterpoint to the gentle squeak of nibs and slither of papers. Once Ashel’s songs had held theatergoers enraptured. Now his lectures entranced students. Their gazes danced from desk to board, lectern to pointer, and he rewarded their attentiveness with a smile. Color rose in young women’s cheeks. The young men copied the tilt of his lips. The admiration warmed him like the sun, and he launched the next topic as confidently as he’d begin a new verse.

Then, one pair of eyes dropped to the thumb hooked round his belt. He’d begun hanging the fingerless stump there—not in the swagger people took it for, but because he didn’t know what else to do with it. Another gaze descended to the lone digit, and his gut clenched, toes curling in his boots. Like a flock of birds coming to roost, all eyes in the room wheeled from his face and landed on the maimed hand. Heat rising up his neck, Ashel rapped the pointer against the board again.

“‘What can we know of the way of trees?’ What does that line of scripture mean?”

A student raised her fingers. “It’s the reason Lieutenant Grossmont gave for choosing to make a treaty for Landing with the erin instead of the cerrenils. He figured humans couldn’t begin to understand the way a plant thinks, but the erin were at least sapient animals.”

Ashel chuckled. “That’s a heretic’s answer. I’m looking for the scriptural meaning.”

“But why do we have to view it through that lens?” she persisted. “Maybe he was just being practical. How can we communicate with trees?”

Ashel’s amusement died as he remembered Vic making the same argument over ale, amid raucous laughter and chatter in the Cobblestone’s tavern.

“We don’t,” he replied as Master Jahant came in and took a seat. “Not in the way you and I exchange ideas. But troopers who served in the war will tell you the cerrenils listen and will help, if it suits them. And when they choose not to help—what can we know of the way of trees? That line refers to the Kia, to the mystery of the old mothers. We know nothing of the cerrenils’ thoughts or motivations. But can we ever completely comprehend why our friends love us and our enemies hate us? Even Listeners can’t completely know those answers. Yet we have faith in our loved ones, and a kind of faith in our enemies too. ‘What can we know of the way of trees?’ The answer is: nothing. It’s not knowledge but faith that’s important.”

“But,” the girl said, “how do we know Elesendar told Lieutenant Grossmont to found the Erin Alliance?”

 “There’s that word ‘know’ again. Heretics will say they know the Elesendar is a spacecraft. They’ll point to the Logs and say, ‘These are historical records of the United Mineral mining ship LSNDR2237, which was sabotaged, leaving the crew marooned here almost three thousand years ago.’ Adherents to the Faith of Elesendar will say, ‘He is the Father of humanity, the cerrenils are our Mothers, and the Logs are allegorical and metaphorical, not factual.’ What heretics think is merely a ship in orbit around this planet, adherents believe is a god watching over our world. The truth is, neither heretics or adherents really know, and both groups must rely on faith, because we lack evidence either way.”

“What do you believe?”

Master Jahant’s eyebrows rose, but Ashel smiled. “The Logs make sense only when read as allegory, but ultimately, nobody but Grossmont ever knew his true state of mind. What’s important isn’t whether Elesendar truly spoke to him, but that Grossmont believed He did—he had faith—and after he met with the erin, they came out of the highlands every spring and allowed themselves to be shorn. You can choose to believe Grossmont was a pragmatist—or a lunatic for that matter. But I guarantee the Weavers bless him for a saint.”

The class laughed, and Ashel dismissed them.

Expression cheery, Jahant forded the outward flow of students. “Wonderful to see a history lesson garner such rapt attention, though our colleagues in Narath might be unhappy to hear you discussing heresies.”

Biting his tongue, Ashel flipped open his satchel and stuffed his lecture notes inside. “Only a weak faith is threatened by debate, sir.”

Jahant laid an arm across his shoulder. “And I encourage questions in my own classroom, but you’re not yet a Loremaster, and journeymen are supposed to stick to approved doctrine.” The master’s smile broadened. “But you have such a gift for lecturing—I’m honored the Harmony sent you to me.”

Mouth dry and sour, he ducked out of Jahant’s embrace. “Thank you, Master. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Of course.” The Guildschoolmaster closed his satchel and handed it to him, his eyes shrewd, regretful.

Outside the Guildschool, he passed yellow brick walls draped with ivy and crowned with potted trees. Mora straddled the Semena border, three hundred miles of dry grass between the city gate and the edge of Kiareinoll Fembrosh. Crossbows idle on their backs, guards on the parapets raised watering cans to greet passersby, yet all the greenery the city planted couldn’t conjure the deep shade of Fembrosh. Not in this yellow place. Yellow plain, yellow bricks and cobbles, even yellowed wallpaper in the parlor of his boarding house. In his room, the grimy walls and frayed carpet did little to ease his eyes. Splashing wine into a cup, he settled into a creaky chair, a boot on the windowsill. The day he moved in, a month ago as winter unfolded into spring, the river outside had reflected a sky brown with dust. The landlady had said it was from the vast steed herds, migrating north. Wait till we have a clear day, she’d promised. Today the sky was blue and endless. The water remained brown.

I like your view, Geram said.

Ashel swallowed a draught. One of the finest in the city, the landlady promised, when she still talked to me. Now she thinks I’m mad, always talking to myself.

Everybody talks to themselvesGeram replied.

Not like us.

No.

Geram, Ashel said firmly, as if shutting a door.

Ashel, the other man conceded.

The Archives at the Academy held an Ancient fable about a wizard who was haunted by his own shadow, defeated it by naming it. The wizard had sought to rejoin a split self, but Ashel and Geram named each other to try to separate, as they had ever since that terrible day in the Relmlord’s dungeons. Ashel gulped his wine, trying to drown the strident howls and sizzling meat assaulting his memory. His screams, his cooking skin and muscle, and Vendrael’s shrieks and burning flesh too. Elesendar forgive him, he’d felt nothing but satisfaction watching his torturer’s flesh burn, but since then, her screams had mingled with his own. Both memories became the chorus to Lornk Korng’s insidious whispers, which had slid into his ear, revealing the lie of his parents’ marriage. Ashel couldn’t say which agony had been worse, the burning flesh or the searing truth that Lornk Korng might be his father.

Geram had tried to block his pain during the burning, and something had gone wrong. Now, regardless of distance and time, they always knew each other’s mind. They whispered their names again, aloud. Sometimes, it worked. Not today—Ashel felt Geram push his eyes after a piece of trash floating on the river, his gaze lunging after it like a beggar diving for moldy bread.

I enjoyed your lecture today, Geram said after the detritus disappeared beneath the bridge. When I was a boy, the heretics used to gather in Aunt Celina’s tavern. I don’t remember anybody saying that belief by anybody but the believer isn’t important.

A memory slipped by, not Ashel’s, of a table full of youths and oldsters, teasing him as he passed drinks to them.

A tentative rap broke the reverie, and the landlady cringed past his threshold. “You have visitors, Highness.”

“Just Ashel, please,” he said.

“Of course, High—of course. They’re waiting in the parlor.” The landlady scuttled away.

His boots echoed on the stairs. She probably thinks Mother shipped me off here to get her lunatic son out of sight. Instead his Guild had pasted the shipping label on his head.

Your mother is meeting with the Eldanion Ambassador shortly, and I’m supposed to be there.

Anger stirred. Why couldn’t you just go home to Alna?

Your mother sends my aunt and uncle a pension. I can do more for my family Listening to patricians prevaricate, than hearing fishers’ fibs.

He began a retort, but his ire melted as he crossed the parlor threshold. “Melba!”

His Guild-sister, and oldest friend, flung her arms around him. “Master Jahant told me where you were lodged.”

“What are you doing here?” He looked between her and her companions. An older man wore his wiry hair dressed with clay and sculpted into a fan upon his head. On the woman, well-defined arms were crossed over a nearly bare torso. Only narrow leather strips covered small breasts set in a muscular chest.

She looks cold, Geram quipped.

An elbow jabbed Ashel’s ribs. “This is Joslyrn and Kelmair,” said Melba. “They’re Herders.”

Awe pushed out his right hand before he remembered the missing fingers. Awkwardly, he switched to his left. “Of steeds? My grandparents are horse breeders. I know it’s a sorry comparison, but . . . Shrine, it must be glorious to ride a steed.”

Joslyrn gripped the offered hand. “Do you think you could stay astride one, Highness?” He used his voice rather than mindspeech, as was common east of the Kiareinoll.

“I’d like to try,” Ashel replied aloud. People from the Semena plains considered mindspeech rude. “And please, Ashel is fine.”

“Might as well ride an ox as a horse,” Kelmair said silently. She kept her arms crossed, lips taut beneath narrow eyes. Angry weals circled her neck, and her head was shaven except for a glossy black topknot. 

She’s Caleisbahnin, Geram said.

Anxiety squeezed Ashel’s gut. “I’m pleased to meet you, but why are you here?”

Melba drew him to the sofa. “They have a proposition for you, to get you out of your debt.”

His debt. It seemed a small thing next to all he’d lost in Olmlablaire, but he owed Caleisbahn gamers a huge sum after one stupid, drunken night, a year and a half ago—a carefree time. “And how do they know about that?”

“Welsher,” Kelmair sneered.

“Kelmair, we’re here with honey, not salt,” Joslyrn said. “She has her own problems with the Archipelago, Highness, and my crew has its troubles, but there’s a way we could all help each other.”

What’s a Caleisbahn woman doing with Herders? Geram wondered.

Ashel voiced another question: “How did you find Melba, and me?”

“We met in Narath,” Melba said. “Joslyrn was there petitioning the Senate, and he caught my act at the Wind. We ended up chatting, and then I needed to get out here fast, so he offered me passage in exchange for introducing you.”

Ashel blinked. “Why did you need to get out here fast? And I still don’t understand how a Herder knows about my gambling debts.”

“The Guild expelled Wineyll.”

“What? Why?”

“They said she wasn’t meeting her quotas, but they haven’t given her any gigs, and she can’t bring in revenue if she can’t perform. There are some vile rumors circulating—it’s like the situation with her father all over again, and the Harmony doesn’t want any scandal.”

“They expelled her? She’s barely seventeen.” His anger stirred, amplified by Geram’s, over what Lornk had done to Wineyll in Olmlablaire. “Whatever those rumors say, the Guild should be sheltering her, not tossing her to the lupears.”

Joslyrn shook his head. “All the guilds are purging ranks, Highness, Herders included. Our guild demanded all Lathan members pay double the grazing fees or turn our herds over to Semena crews.”

“The Miners have culled too, and between the guildless and the discharged soldiers, Narath is full of trouble these days.” Melba said.

“You should be talking to my mother about all this.”

“I tried,” Joslyrn said, “but I couldn’t get an audience.”

“Melba, you could have connected him with Bethniel—you didn’t have to come all the way out here.”

“I would have, and Wineyll would have asked Bethniel for help too, but she’d already left town on some mission for the throne.”

“We have a different plan, Shemen,” Kelmair said.

Melba gasped, and Ashel stared at the Caleisbahnin, a cold knot lodged in his stomach. Shemen. In the Archipelago, shemen were men deemed unfit for the sea. Geram knew the insult from the Alnan docks, where boys would sneer it at the weak or cowardly. 

Melba cleared her throat. “While they were in Narath, Kelmair saw the Caleisbahn ambassador, and he told her the First will pay your debt if you spend a year at his court in Signon.”

“He wants to hire me as a minstrel?” he asked, trepidation snarled like wire in his throat as he glanced at Kelmair. Elite Caleisbahn commanders kept comely shemen in their harems.

Joslyrn nodded. “Yes.”

“The First likes music,” the Caleisbahn woman added, her lip curled.

“What’s your interest in this?”

“There’s a bounty,” Kelmair snapped.

Joslyrn’s eyes snapped heavenward. “Shrine, woman! Honey, not salt! Forgive us, Highness. The Caleisbahn ambassador offered to pay us if we brought you back to Narath. Until we pay the grazing fees, we’re outlaws. The money would clear our names and let us keep the herd.” 

He frowned, torn between a desire to visit the legendary Archipelago and suspicion that something nefarious was afoot. These people wouldn’t be here if he hadn’t succumbed to temptation—but then a lot of trouble could have been avoided if he’d had better control over his impulses.

“You want me to go to the Guild and ask permission to take this job?” he asked Melba.

“I do. The Guild cannot expel you, Prince Ashel. If you came back, it would force them to stop using flimsy excuses to purge everyone who isn’t one of the Harmony’s sycophants. Losing those fingers doesn’t prevent you from singing. You should be headlining in Knownearth’s capitals, not stuck out here teaching! If you were a Master, you could take any gig you wanted, including this one in Signon. Come back to Narath and demand the Minstrel performance exam, or the Loremaster composition section if you like. You could still lecture when you want, but music is your true gift.”

True gift. He flexed the maimed hand, and Melba’s nostrils flared. “Maybe I don’t want to be a minstrel,” he growled.

“Ashel, it’s not what you want—it’s what you are.”

Vic had said something similar last summer when she rejected his offer of marriage. A few hours later, his father had been murdered in front of all of them. Sashal’s blood, hot and sticky, had soaked Ashel’s garments and filled his heart with a white-hot rage. He still carried that anger, banked but smoldering. Fury sparked embers, each with a glowing face: Lornk and all the guards and torturers under his command. Mother, for wedding someone so vile—even if they’d never declared, she had let herself be wooed and won. And Vic. Some things are unforgivable. Shrine, Vic’s face floated out of that pit of rage too. All those times he insisted he didn’t blame her for his lost fingers—those were more wishes than truth.

Scowling, he stood. “Joslyrn, I’ll think about your offer. Melba, I’ll see you tomorrow.”

A nervous smile rippled the old man’s mouth as he stood. “Would you at least like to come and see the steeds? We’re staying at the steed paddock outside the city.”

His ire faded, replaced by longing. “Is it true you can cover a hundred miles in a day?”

“Half a day, if need be,” Kelmair sneered.

“Steeds like to run,” Joslyrn said. “We could let you try riding one. A grandchild of horse breeders should make the leap easily.”

They agreed to meet the next day after his classes, and he returned to his room, where he marked essays until the landlady brought supper. The fowl dry, the grains undercooked, he washed the food down with the rest of the open bottle, finished another while sitting in the dark, watching the river run black under dim stars. Stretched out on a too-short mattress, he welcomed Geram’s dreams of crashing surf and seabirds, salty skin and gritty sand, then yelped out of nightmares teeming with dungeon noise and stink. Heart racing, he rubbed throbbing temples as dawn burnished the carpet a bright coppery bronze, like Vic’s hair. Mornings like this, he’d wake wishing to find her beside him, that bright hair tickling his chest. But half his bed was cold, same as half his hand was missing.


If you enjoyed this chapter, you can purchase a copy of A Wizard’s Sacrifice here (released October 6, 2020).

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