QSFer Riley S. Keene has a new queer fantasy book out:
A bargain must be struck before the Age of Mortals can be truly realized.
For Elise, Ermolt, and Athala, the price is high. Not only do they have to find the dragons that have been hidden for centuries, but they have to kill them.
Their first stop is Jalova, home of Teis, God of the Sky, and their enemies the overseers, a group of thieves led by Merylle Callac, former High Priest of Teis.
Merylle wants help them, and her terms are simple – she wants revenge of her former God. Elise and her companions are more than willing to comply.
Will Elise, Athala, and Ermolt be able to slay Sirur with Merylle’s help, or will they face the wrath of Meodryt for their failure?
Bargain is the second book in the epic Heroes by Necessity series, a Dungeons-and-Dragons-esque take on the fantasy genre overflowing with rich world-building, diverse characters, and heart-pounding adventure.
Riley is giving away an eBook copy of “Ancients,” the first book in the series, with this post. Just comment below for a chance to win.
The aim of every child is to grow into an adult that won’t be a disappointment. To be faster, better, and more skilled than their younger self. To be a role model. To be a beacon of hope for children everywhere. Elise’s footsteps echoed off the buildings that surrounded her and she knew she failed her younger self.
Her skills of sneaking unheard through alleyways had degraded over the years. There had been no opportunity to use them, to hone them. But the biggest disappointment was the realization that the early morning dim was too gloomy for her to see properly. A cold realization crept up Elise’s spine. She was growing older, and she desperately missed the sure steps and keen eyes she had in childhood.
Regrets seemed to be a common occurrence in Elise’s life these days. And it wasn’t just the skills she lost or the aging of her body. It was the uncertainty, the fear, and the confusion. The anger. The bitterness. The way she questioned everything she’d ever known.
It was just three weeks ago that Elise and her friends had been imprisoned at the command of some unknown cabal. Three weeks since Elise had been forced to her knees before the executioner’s axe in Auernheim prison, with her friends right behind her, waiting for their turn at the gruesome game. Three weeks since they had followed a lunatic’s trail of corpses to freedom from the prison. Three weeks since they had killed Ingmar beneath the city and released Meodryt, the dragon of Ydia, from the binding spell that held it.
And while it had felt like much longer, it had been only two weeks since the notices with their likenesses and names had started to appear around town. They had spent some time trying to figure out their next course of action, and, ultimately, they had managed to flee their homes mere bells before the Temple of Ydia descended upon them.
The second time they were discovered and rooted out, the margin had been even narrower. Elise, Ermolt, and Athala were still clambering out of the back window when they heard the front door to their hideout collapse in under the assault of their pursuers.
That had only been a week ago, and Elise was paranoid for what would give away their position this time.
Of the three, Elise was the most competent when it came to living on the run.
Ermolt was no stranger to trouble with the law—he was always criticizing her methods for keeping them safe with some overblown story of a time he had to lay low for a few bells after a barroom brawl—but his troubles had never lasted more than a day or two. He was not prepared for a life on the fringes of society.
Athala had good instincts for fleeing when the opening presented itself, and she was smart enough to just follow Elise’s lead for the rest. As a result, Elise did all the actual work of being on the run while the other two just tried to keep themselves out of trouble while they waited for any further orders from Ydia. Or from Ydia by way of Meodryt.
This morning, like so many of the last few weeks, Elise was sneaking out early in the day, before the crowds would clog the marketplace with sharp eyes that may have seen a crude depiction of her face on a poster around town. The permanent shops in the Market District of the Upper East Tun always opened nice and early, giving her the opportunity to use what meager funds they still had to purchase what food she could find. Fresh fruits and vegetables were out of reach, as the farmers’ stalls didn’t usually arrive and open until too late in the day, and Elise refused to risk their necks for a handful of spinach. But the butchers and bakers were among those who opened their doors early, and Elise knew of a few grocers where she could get milk, eggs, and the occasional cask of freshly pressed fruit juice.
She was always careful to rotate what shops she visited. Even the most forgetful shopkeeper would eventually memorize and remember a face they saw every day. It meant their meager coin was burned through quicker as well, as it was unlikely for a shopkeeper to extend a discount to an unfamiliar person.
Elise’s first stop was at a bakery she hadn’t visited since their first week on the run. The man behind the counter was barely awake, and his penchant for trying to catch an extra bell or so of sleep with his head on the counter pinned him as a baker’s assistant and not the baker himself. Elise quietly purchased a loaf of bread and while the man stumbled into the backroom to wrap it in some thin paper, Elise entertained the idea of pocketing a few fruit-laden tarts that were left unattended.
The fresh tarts were coated with a thin sugary glaze that was still wet, and so would make everything in her pack sticky. A bit of sweetness would certainly brighten up her day. The sugary treats would also be bitter and heavy with the regret of her theft, and so Elise decided to leave the tarts be. Their situation wasn’t so bad as to begin stealing things anyway.
The baker’s assistant returned and Elise took the freshly-baked loaf from him. It was almost uncomfortably hot in her hands as she slipped it into the sack she carried. The loaf must have come out of the oven only moments before she entered the shop. She thanked the man and looked longingly at the sweet tarts once more. The urge to purchase one as a reward for not stealing was strong, but Elise’s will was stronger. She’d only brought enough coin for bread and meat, and she refused to take food away from her friends to feed her own insecurity.
Elise turned to leave, but what peppered the wall near the door caused her to freeze in her tracks. The wall was plastered with a bunch of aging notices. Most were advertisements for local events, and there were fliers for a musician’s performance at a nearby tavern. But right behind the door, where she hadn’t seen it on her way in, was a fresh, crisp official notice from the Temple of Ydia. There were two large words at the top: “WANTED” and “REWARD”. Just below the angry black words were three crude portraits. The first was of a tan woman with a strong chin and angry eyebrows. The second was a pale man with a huge mane of thick black hair and an enormous nose. The third was a mousy-looking woman with dark brown skin and high cheekbones.
With each iteration of this poster, the artist got closer and closer to capturing the true essence of the fugitives the portraits hoped to represent.
Elise tried to remain calm, but her heart began to race. It took a physical effort to avoid immediately pulling the hood of her cloak over her head to hide her features as she left the shop. Originally, Elise had intended to stop in at the butcher next door, but paranoia made her keep moving. The shops along the outskirts of the market were obviously where the Temple assumed Elise and her ilk would shop. And so with a firm set jaw, Elise made her way towards the shops closer to the Temple.
She wound her way through the market as the sun crested the horizon and lit up the sky. This approach was risky, especially as the dim chiming of the sixth bell clattered through the streets. An unplanned detour would mean that Elise could only skirt the Temple grounds for a momentary glance before she hurried back to their new home. It would have to be enough. If she arrived back any later than seventh bell, she risked the nosy children of her inquisitive neighbors catching sight of her.
Elise found the butcher she sought with ease. She had yet to stop at this particular location due to its proximity to the Temple, but the rod of steel in her spine urged her forward. The shop was brightly lit, with windows filled with expensive glass and oil lanterns nestled high along the ceiling. A paranoid look around confirmed the absence of notices from the Temple, and Elise felt a surge of pride at her correct evaluation of the situation. The Temple thought she was too scared to venture so close. Their incorrect assumption would equate to fresh meat for the three fugitives.
“Good morning!” a man, presumably the butcher, said with uncharacteristic enthusiasm for it being so early in the day. Elise smiled politely and made her way through the shop towards his position behind a spotless counter. She noted the lack of bric-a-brac and clutter that typically choked the movement of patrons. This place was high class indeed. “It must be my lucky day to have such a lovely young woman be my first customer! What can I get for you?”
“Just a small bit of round, minced if you please,” Elise said, trying to hide her chagrin at the butcher’s energy. She paused, looking at a special’s board where someone had written in a ridiculously cheap price for ham hock. “Unless your ham is particularly good today.”
“Ah, but of course it is!” The butcher gave her a big, toothy grin as he moved about behind the counter to fetch her requested cut of beef. “Finest pork in the city.” He gestured over to an opulent case on the opposite end of the counter. “Have a look and let me know when you see what you like.”
Elise struggled to come up with a way to de-escalate a situation where someone was too friendly, and came up short. Instead she humored the situation and made her way to the case. It was a new thing with heavy latches. Elise struggled to open the case. When she finally did, what was inside caused her to grimace. There were indeed a few sizable salted hams in the case, but she could tell at a glance it would not be long before they were irrecoverably spoiled. The color was a little too gray, and her stomach turned a little at the thought of bringing such a thing back to her friends. Ermolt would eat it, and probably had eaten worse than this, but Athala had a sensitive stomach and they couldn’t afford to have one of them doubled over with illness if they had to flee their hideout again.
“See any you like?” the butcher asked from nearby, his sudden and close boisterous tone making her jump.
“Many and much, but just the beef for now will be fine,” Elise said as she closed the case.
“Nonsense,” the butcher said with a deep laugh. “I refuse to let such a pretty woman go home hamless when there are so many good-looking specimens to choose from. I promise you, you will not find finer ham unless you go all the way to Lublis!”
“I’ll be fine without,” Elise said with a thin smile. She wanted to snap at him and point out the color of the meat, but such a thing would likely just raise the butcher’s ire. If she made an enemy of him now, and if he saw a poster with her face on it, he might go out of his way to tell the Temple of her trip to his shop. “It was just an impulsive thought.”
“No, I insist!” The butcher came around the counter and knelt beside the case, snapping it open with sure fingers. He stood over it for a moment, looking at the hams the same way some men regarded their children. “Ah, so many glorious cuts of pork. My wife insisted I sell them at such a reduced rate as she fears we have too many.” He paused, looking Elise over. “Perhaps I could interest you in a smaller ham if you are uncertain?”
“No, but thank you,” Elise said firmly, trying to keep from grinding her teeth. “A ham so fine as these should be a treat. I’ll remember this place and come back once my family has something to celebrate.”
The butcher paused, thinking for a moment before he finally closed the case. “Ah, perhaps you have the right of it.” He looked down at the case and patted it twice. “I will just have to look forward to seeing you again, then.” He straightened and grinned at her. “The autumn festival is only a few weeks away, yes? I’ll be sure to set my finest ham aside for you then.”
Elise smiled politely and nodded in agreement. She struggled against the urge to turn away as she felt him studying her face. He was just trying to take in the details in hopes of winning a repeat customer. She firmly hoped that he hadn’t given the same scrutiny to any wanted posters he might have seen recently. Flinching would only earn her suspicion.
She quietly paid for the package of minced beef as the butcher tried to ask after her family, seeking to pry details out of her that he could use to wiggle some more business out of her. Elise avoided saying anything of importance. She didn’t have the coin to spend to back up whatever lies she could come up with—buying a fine steak for an imaginary spouse, or a rasher of bacon for a picky child would have helped her blend in with his usual patrons, but it was not an expense they could afford.
Elise carefully deposited the heavy packet of beef into her sack, careful not to crush the bread as she did so. She tried to avoid leaving the shop so quickly that she would be remembered as rude, but as soon as the door closed behind her she broke into a brisk jog. The panic that accompanied every shopping trip was creeping up the back of her throat.
It had been three weeks since acting on the will of her God had caused her to be outcast and on the run from her own Temple. Elise was unsure how much longer she could stay hidden in this city, wondering if her next instructions would come before they were captured and imprisoned all over again.
Riley S. Keene is a pseudonym for a husband-and-wife writing duo. They live in the Pacific Northwest and enjoy the rainstorms, lack of sunlight, and excess oxygen that comes with it. Robert is in charge of the writing part of Riley’s books, and he has a love for video games and a dislike for pretty much everything else. Kristen is in charge of outlines and edits, and she loves gloomy weather and good books.