Here is the opening chapter from The Fire Seer, available now at Amazon and coming soon to B&N, iBooks, and Kobo.
Chapter 1: Hrappa
Taya trotted her black mare past the flat, unwelcoming stares of the Hrappan townsfolk. She faced forward, reminding herself not to take it personally. It wasn’t who she was that bothered them. It was what she represented.
The sunlight was fading as she rode up to the Hall of Judgment. 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 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. “No, I’m Coalition.”
“Ah,” said the servant, taking the mare’s reins. “I never would have guessed.”
Taya’s cheeks warmed. Sometimes she didn’t notice right away when a person was being insincere.
The servant straightened. “What am I supposed to do with that?”
Lumbering up the stairs was Piru, her pack elephant. He was a dwarf variety, no larger than her mare, but tame and loyal and incredibly strong. “Put him in a stall next to the mare. Has my partner arrived?”
“He arrived yesterday.”
He. So her partner was a man. 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 don’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 gave her a look that said, I’d sooner rub a sand viper’s belly.
Poor Piru. Maybe Taya would be able to visit him in the stable herself. “Is my partner available for me to confer with before I see the magistrate?”
“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 whistled, and a boy padded up the steps. The two of them spoke briefly, 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 other pieces fell out, and she decided just to leave it be. She wouldn’t make a perfect impression, but 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 would cool 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 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 protection. As for advice, she welcomed any 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 toward him eagerly and froze in shock.
She knew that face.
Even if she had been uncertain in her recollection, the facial tattoos were unmistakable. 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 for your condition?”
“I have the Curse of Lalan. They can do nothing.”
“I’m so sorry,” she said. If he had the Curse, there was, indeed, no cure. It did not spread from one person to another, but it was lethal.
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 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, as if she’d made a joke.
“Ah,” said the magistrate, taking it as one. “I could tell you some stories about my own 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 glare.
He was looking her over in an appraising manner, which irritated 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.
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. 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. Until she could clear him, the elder brother, Kalbi, would be a suspect. 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 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 daughter of cloth merchant Bodhan isu Kasirum and the sister of 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,” said the magistrate. “I require you to place yourself at the disposal of these Coalition representatives. Set them up in guesthouses, see that they’re fed and looked after, and show them around town tomorrow morning.”
Rasik made a face. “Perhaps Sukal, or Illia—”
“I give this task to you. And mind your tongue. You know the Coalition.” He turned back to Taya and Mandir. “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.