Flood and Fire is a fantasy/romance/mystery. (I know, I know… did I have to cram so many genres into one novel?) It is completely separate from my other novels, set in a different world, with different characters, and in an entirely different time period (Bronze Age). This novel, currently unfinished because I’m working on the Hearts & Thrones series, won the 2012 Daphne du Maurier award. Here are the first ten pages. This is a draft, and the pages are likely to change when I finish the novel.
First ten pages
Taya trotted her black mare past the Hrappan townsfolk, dismayed by their cold stares. She hadn’t expected so chilly a reception. It’s not who you are that bothers them, she told herself. It’s what you represent.
The sunlight was fading when she reached the Hall of Judgment, where a haughty-looking servant in belted indigo and gold armbands awaited her on the steps. Taya dropped lightly from the mare’s back and brushed the travel dust from her clothes. She’d come in full Coalition regalia, as per instructions. Over her short riding pants, she wore a green robe of soft cotton. A belt of worked silver with a fire agate mounted on the buckle encircled her waist. Her hair was pulled up into a fan-shaped headdress, and her arms jangled with bracelets—silver, since her people did not wear gold.
The servant’s gaze raked her. “You must be the drain-cleaner we sent for.”
Taya blinked in surprise. “Not a drain cleaner. I’m Coalition.”
“Ah. Coalition,” said the servant, taking the mare’s reins. “I never would have guessed.”
Taya’s cheeks warmed. Her first mission, and already she was making a poor impression. She’d thought at least a servant would show her some respect.
The servant straightened. “What am I supposed to do with that?”
Lumbering up the stairs was Piru, her pack elephant. Taya had grown fond of him on the journey. He was a dwarf variety, no larger than her mare, but tame and loyal, and strong enough to carry ridiculously heavy loads. “Have you never seen a pack elephant? Put him in a stall next to the mare.”
The servant ignored her question, eyeing the saddlebags on the animal’s back. “How many green robes and headdresses do you need, exactly?”
“The elephant is here to carry Hrappa’s tax payment, not my personal items.” The servant ought to know that, if he worked for the magistrate. The Coalition was saving a trip by sending the elephant with her; she would escort the payment back when her mission was complete. “Has my partner arrived?”
“He arrived yesterday.”
He. Her partner was a man, then. Taya didn’t care one way or another, so long as he was competent, but she’d been curious.
The servant circled the elephant dubiously. “Where’s the lead rope?”
“You won’t need one. Just take the mare and he’ll follow her. His name is Piru. Give him a good feed of hay and scratch him behind the ears.”
The servant’s eyebrows rose. Apparently ear-scratching wasn’t part of his usual roster of duties.
Poor Piru. Maybe Taya would be able to make an occasional visit to the stables herself. “Is my partner available for me to confer with before I see the magistrate?”
“No, the magistrate wants to see you immediately. Your partner is with him.” The servant pointed. “Straight inside, first hallway on the right, second door on the left.” He gave a whistle and a boy padded up the steps. The two of them conferred a moment, and the boy took the mare’s reins and led her away. Piru started to follow but hesitated, turning his gray head to Taya in confusion.
“Go on,” she urged, and Piru trotted off, ears flapping. Taya smiled.
She straightened her headdress, noting with exasperation that several locks of her hair had come loose. She tried shoving them back in, but then other pieces fell out, and she decided just to leave it be. She wouldn’t make a perfect impression, but then how could she be expected to after traveling all day?
Aside from its huge size and arched entryway, the Hall of Judgment was like most Hrappan buildings, a flat rectangle of baked brick. The building was stuffy inside, but now that the sun had dropped below the horizon, it should start cooling off. Taya turned into the first hallway on the right and looked for the second door on the left. It was guarded by a lightly armored man with a bronze mace at his belt. She caught the guard’s eye, and he nodded, granting her permission to enter.
The room was unexpectedly large. A gentle breeze threaded through two windows overlooking a leafy courtyard. A high seat rested upon a raised dais, undoubtedly the chair from which the magistrate handed down his decisions, but it was empty. Three men sat around a table in the center of the room.
One of the men was old and sick—disturbingly so. His stomach was bloated and misshapen, his hair lank, and his face sweaty, as if sitting in a chair was a great effort for him. Taya suspected he was near death.
The man sitting next to him was young and healthy. Both of them bore the facial tattoos of the ruling caste and were well dressed. The third man, who had his back to her, wore Coalition green-and-silver and was obviously her partner. Seeing him, her anxiety about the mission eased a little. He looked like the sort of man one could depend on—tall and strong, with a confident manner. He was a quradum, one of the Coalition’s magic-using warriors, and his role was to protect and advise her. Given the hostility of the townsfolk here, she might need the protection he offered. As for advice, she welcomed guidance on her inaugural mission. She hoped her partner was as seasoned as he looked.
The younger man stood to welcome her but the sick man only gave her an apologetic look. Taya gathered he was not capable of standing. Her partner rose, too, with leonine grace. As he turned, she moved towards him eagerly, then froze in shock.
She knew that face.
Even if she had been uncertain in her recollection, the facial tattoos were unmistakeable. The sunburst on his forehead and the lines just beneath his eyelids, all in dark red, marked him as a member of the royal house. She was looking at Mandir isu Sarrum. Taya felt sick.
Recognition dawned in Mandir’s eyes as well, and he went as still as an onager jack who catches the scent of a lion in the grass.
“Welcome to Hrappa,” said the older man, in a weak voice that carried the echoes of well-worn authority. “I am the magistrate Ashur isu Dayyanum. I’m sorry I cannot stand to offer you a proper greeting. I have been ill these past seasons.”
Taya tore her eyes away from her partner. Manners first. “My name is Taya. I’m sorry you’ve been ill.” She approached the table and held out her hand, pressing her five fingers to the magistrate’s. “Have you seen a Coalition healer?”
“I have,” he said gruffly. “They can do nothing for me.”
“I’m sorry,” she said again. That was an unfortunate truth about the Coalition. There were some things magic simply couldn’t do, some conditions the life-goddess couldn’t, or wouldn’t, heal.
The magistrate continued, “This is my son and heir, Kalbi isu Dayyanum.”
Taya touched fingers with the son. Their names, Ashur and Kalbi, were interesting. “Traditional” names, the people called them, but since joining the Coalition, Taya had learned that such names were actually remnants of the forbidden language, the mother tongue. Parents had handed them down for generations, having no idea what it was they were preserving. Her own name, Taya, had no such significance; it was from the river tongue and of modern origin.
“And… you already know your partner?” said the magistrate. “I was led to believe you would be strangers to one another.”
Taya turned to Mandir, folding her arms to indicate she had no intention of touching fingers with him.
“Indeed,” said Mandir, mirroring the gesture. “Taya and I have not seen each other for a number of years, but we trained together as children.”
“Such fond memories,” said Taya. “Mandir almost killed me once.”
Mandir forced a laugh. “The follies of youth.”
“I know, I know,” said the magistrate. “I could tell you such stories about my misspent days.” He indicated the empty chair. “Have a seat. We’ve business to discuss.”
Taya sat, edging her chair away from Mandir’s. How had this happened? Mandir was a year older than her, but he’d entered the Coalition the same year as she had, and he’d been sentenced to a Year of Penance for his crimes. That should have put him a year behind in his instruction. He should not be a fully qualified quradum! In silence, she fumed. Someone had bent the rules for him. Mandir was the son of a prince, and once again his connections had saved him from having to face the consequences of his misdeeds.
She longed to toss a barb in his direction—So, Mandir, how was your Year of Penance?—but she contented herself with shooting him a nasty look.
He was looking her over in an appraising manner, which angered her even more. He’d always coveted her body, even as he’d insulted everything else about her. Well, let him look. Let him see the green robe and silver belt that showed she was every bit his equal despite her low birth. Let him see the fire agate that marked her as a fire seer. Caste didn’t matter in the Coalition, only ability.
Boldly, she scrutinized him in return, searching for physical flaws, but she was disappointed. His hair and clothing were perfect, not a strand out of place, and her onetime hope that his gangly teenage body would over-mature into coarseness had not come to pass. Instead, he’d filled out into a man with size and muscle and sleekness, putting Taya in mind of a jungle cat. And never forget, Taya told herself, like a jungle cat he’ll stalk you in silence and pounce on you when you least expect it. She knew better than to trust him, ever.
His eyes were the color of overripe wheat, his hair dark as a monsoon cloud. She tried to stare him down so he’d know she was no longer a scared fourteen-year-old farm girl he could play cruel games with, but there was more in his eyes than just arrogance. Was it fear? Surely he had nothing to fear from her, unless it was the fact that she would not hesitate to go to the authorities if he overstepped his bounds. The Coalition might not forgive his excesses forever. But that was his problem, not Taya’s. He’d made a mess of his life by messing up other people’s lives. Three people had been expelled from the Coalition, their magic permanently destroyed, because of him. He’d gotten off easy, and he deserved no pity.
Mandir turned to the magistrate and said, “Tell us about the suspected jackal.”
Taya blinked. She needed to focus on the mission, not on her partner, but she couldn’t help noticing, now that she was over the initial shock of seeing him, that his voice had changed too. It had deepened into a rich, velvety tenor.
“Three people have been murdered, all of them killed in ways consistent with a jackal,” said the magistrate. “Two by fire, one by flood.”
“Who was the first victim?” asked Taya.
The magistrate’s head dipped. “My younger son Hunabi.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” said Taya. “How was he killed?”
“Burned alive in the middle of a cotton field.”
“How many children had you?”
“Two sons, Kalbi and Hunabi.” He indicated the young man sitting next to him.
Taya nodded. Ruling caste families were typically polyandrous, with their sons marrying the same woman in order to keep family estates intact. It was a situation that caused tension if the boys did not get along. “How many years separated Kalbi from his younger brother?”
“What was the nature of the brothers’ relationship?”
“I am no jackal,” broke in Kalbi. “I did not kill my brother.”
“I was not making an accusation,” said Taya. “I’m collecting information.”
“The boys were close,” said the magistrate. “They fought once in a while, but mostly they were in harmony.”
“Were they married, or contracted for marriage?”
“A contract was under negotiation at the time of Hunabi’s death. We have set it aside while our house is in mourning.”
Taya exchanged a look with Mandir. The marriage contract might be significant; it would need investigation. “We’ll need details on the marriage contract. What about the other murders? Who were the victims and when did they occur?”
The magistrate opened his mouth to answer. Then a shudder wracked his body, and he closed his eyes.
“Are you all right?” asked Mandir.
“No.” The magistrate turned to his son. “Fetch my attendants. And Rasik.” Kalbi leapt from the table and hurried from the room. The magistrate continued to speak, his voice thready and weak. “The other two victims were girls. The daughters of the cloth merchant Bodhan isu Kasirum and the farmer Zashkalim isu Ikkarum. I will assign Rasik to you. He is my clerk, an educated servant, and he knows all the particulars in these cases. He will guide you around the city of Hrappa as you hunt your jackal.”
Footsteps alerted Taya to Kalbi’s return. Another man was with him, the servant who’d taken her livestock at the front steps. The servant frowned, folding his arms in mock indignation. “My lord, have you been at the whiskey again?”
“If only, Rasik, if only,” said the magistrate. “Leave me for the attendants. I want you to put yourself at the disposal of these Coalition representatives. Set them up in their guest houses, see that they’re fed and looked after, and show them around town tomorrow morning.”
Rasik made a face. “Perhaps Sukal, or Illia—”
“No, Rasik, I give this task to you. And mind your tongue. You know the Coalition. They burn people alive.” He turned back to Taya and Mandir. “He’s mouthy but capable. Forgive his indiscretions. Servants with his skills are nearly impossible to replace.”
More servants arrived, bearing a litter, which they squeezed through the narrow doorway. Something about the magistrate smelled strange, like rotten fruit. It was disconcerting. Taya was relieved when Rasik beckoned her and Mandir from the room.
Taya followed Rasik out of the Hall of Justice and across the street to a line of small residential homes. From the outside, each appeared to be a simple rectangle with a wooden door.
“I’ve got you in adjacent houses,” said Rasik. “They share a courtyard.” He opened the door of the nearest and entered. “This one is the lady’s.”
Taya followed. The house was small but serviceable. The main room, clean and well swept, had a table and chairs and some shelving, which, to her surprise and pleasure, already held her saddlebags. At the other end of the room was a simple bed: a straw pallet on a wooden frame made up with blue cotton sheets. Windows opened out onto a courtyard. She took a brief look at the washroom, which contained an empty basin, a clay ewer filled to the brim with fresh water, a toilet, and a drain leading to the sewers outside.
“An attendant will draw your water daily,” said Rasik. “If you need more, the well’s just south of the Hall. Here’s the courtyard.”
He led them through a second wooden door into an outdoor pavilion, where a stunning Amaltas tree spread its green canopy over a carved stone table with matching benches. The tree was not yet in flower, but Taya could only imagine how lovely it would be when its golden blossoms overhung the courtyard. The space was fully enclosed by Taya’s house and three others just like it. The cool evening air pricked Taya’s arms. The house had been stiflingly hot, and probably always would be in the evenings, except in inclement weather. She noted a cook-pit and some flowering bushes.
“I’m sure you’ll want to eat outdoors on a day like today,” said Rasik.
Taya eyed Mandir. “Actually, I prefer to eat indoors.”
Rasik shrugged. “If you enjoy sweltering.” He indicated the doorway to the house on the right. “Your home, sir. It’s identical to the lady’s. The other two are empty. Someone will bring dinner shortly.”
“Will the other two remain empty?” asked Mandir.
“As far as I know,” said Rasik.
“Inform me at once if anyone is to take up residence in them.”
“Thank you,” said Taya. “You’ve been most helpful.”
“Of course,” said Rasik. “Try not to set anyone on fire.” He turned and left through Taya’s house.
After one last, longing look at the breezy courtyard, Taya headed indoors.
“Where are you going?” called Mandir.
“Inside,” said Taya.
His footsteps sounded on the stone behind her. “We should eat together, in the courtyard. We have things to discuss.”
“On the contrary. We know nothing about the case so far.”
“Not about the case,” said Mandir. “Other things. It’s been five years.”
“There’s nothing I want to discuss with you.” Taya avoided eye contact and held her speed to a walk, knowing Mandir was the sort of predator who would respond to flight by giving chase. She reached the house just ahead of him, closed the door in his face, and slammed down the bar.
He tried to open the door, discovered he could not, and pounded on it. “Taya! Let me in! I’m your quradum!”
Taya’s heart beat wildly. To provoke Mandir was madness, but she had to establish some boundaries. Without limits, there was no telling what he’d do. “I’ll see you in the morning,” she called through the door.
The pounding stopped. She waited by the door, hardly daring to take a breath, until she caught a glimpse of movement through the window. Mandir was actually leaving. He crossed the courtyard to his own house, went inside it, and disappeared.
Taya breathed a sigh of relief. She went to her saddlebags to begin unpacking. As she searched through them for the most critical items, she kept vigil at the window to make sure Mandir wasn’t coming back. She was just pulling out her silk dress when she realized where he might have gone instead. She ran to the front door just in time to see it fly open with a bang.
Mandir stormed across the tiny house like an enraged bull. “Don’t ever bar that door to me again,” he said, removing the bar from the courtyard door.
Taya clenched the silk dress in her hands. “Don’t you come barging into my house!”
“I am your quradum,” said Mandir. “As your assigned protector on this mission, I require free access to your person at all times.”
“Access to my person,” Taya repeated incredulously.
“At all times.”
“I trust I get to keep my clothes on?”
Mandir grinned. “Your mind goes some funny places, banana girl.”
Taya despised that nickname. She hadn’t even grown up on a banana farm; her family grew date trees. Mandir had never bothered to ask about her roots. He’d just made assumptions.
Mandir pointed to the dress in her hands. “Is that your silk?”
Taya glanced down. She’d nearly crushed the dress in her hands. “Yes.”
“Flood and fire! Have you no respect for fine fabric?” Mandir took it from her, gently shook it out, and laid it on her bed, straightening the wrinkles. “Also, your hair’s a mess.”
“Thanks for noticing,” said Taya. “So how was your Year of Penance?”
“Enlightening.” Mandir pulled out a chair and sat down, making himself at home.
Taya fumed. Clearly her old nemesis hadn’t changed a bit. “You never served it.”
He looked up in surprise. “Of course I did.”
“You couldn’t possibly have!” cried Taya. “If you had, you would have missed a year of your studies. You would have become a qualified ilittum not this year but next year. Yet here you sit in your green and silver.”
“When my Year was up, I spoke to the Triarch about my situation and was granted an accelerated schedule of classes that allowed me to finish on time.”
Taya frowned. That might actually be true. She didn’t doubt Mandir could learn the material faster than anyone else; he’d been the top student in nearly every class at Mohenjo Temple and mocked her while she’d struggled with the basics of reading and writing. But it wasn’t fair that he was always being granted special dispensation. People of low caste made one mistake and they were out. Mandir made mistake after mistake and was granted what seemed like an unlimited number of do-overs, plus extra opportunities to catch up when he was behind. Caste wasn’t supposed to matter in the Coalition. But in some ways it did. “Funny how you always seem to bounce back,” said Taya. “Yet there were three Coalition boys who were expelled because of you.”
“Honestly, Taya,” said Mandir. “You don’t care a fig about those boys.”
“You’re right I don’t care about them. I care that you weren’t expelled along with them.”
“How long are you going to carry that grudge?” asked Mandir.
Taya ignored the question. She had every reason to hold a grudge against someone who’d tried to kill her, and for as long as she deemed necessary. “Is this your first mission?”
“Wonderful,” she muttered.
“Your first as well?” asked Mandir.
“Relax, we’ll do fine. You always worried too much.” His eyes dropped to the fire agate on her belt. “So you’re a fire seer now.”
“I know you thought I’d never amount to anything—”
“I never thought that,” said Mandir.
“Let’s put it another way,” said Taya. “You tried very hard to make sure I wouldn’t amount to anything.”
Mandir said nothing. Apparently he wasn’t going to argue with that one.
“You can get out of my house now,” said Taya.
Mandir didn’t move. “I’m not the boy I was five years ago.”
“I’m not the girl I was then either.”
“Just because you’re a fire seer doesn’t mean you can order me around.”
“I’m not ordering you around. I’m telling you to leave me alone when we’re not working on the mission,” said Taya. “And I can see you’re exactly the boy you were five years ago.”
“Trust me, there are a few differences.”
Taya looked him over. Indeed there were a few differences, not that she cared. She liked men who respected her, who didn’t see farmer caste girls as worthless pieces of trash to be laughed at, fucked if they were pretty, and then tossed away. “I know what you are, Mandir. We’re not having dinner together, or speaking to each other at all other than what’s required for this mission. And after the mission, we’re parting ways forever. I’m letting the Coalition know I won’t be partnered with you again.”
Mandir leaned back in his chair. “That how it’s going to be, then?”
“That’s how it’s going to be.”
“Well, I’m taking dinner in the courtyard. It’s like an oven in here.” He rose, walked to her front door and barred it, then headed for the courtyard door. “I’m barring the doors of the empty houses. Keep your courtyard door unbarred at all times. That’s an order from your quradum. There’s a jackal on the loose, and I need to be able to reach you. Understand?”
“If you’ll stay out,” said Taya grudgingly.
He held up his hand in a touching-fingers gesture. “Good night, banana girl.”