QSFer Steve Turnbull has a new queer fantasy book out: Rebel Dragon.
What value is freedom when you can’t even ride a dragon?
As the life of a slave goes, Kantees doesn’t have it too bad. Being responsible for a racing dragon means her existence is more than just drudgery and fear, even if her life is at the whim of her masters and their rules.
But when her dragon wakes her in the middle of the night Kantees forced to make a life-or-death decision that breaks her masters’ rules and means her own life is forfeit.
Escaping on the back of dragons, with a hodgepodge of unwelcome associates, she attempts to right a wrong that can never be fixed. Until, ultimately, she must put her own life on the line to keep the freedom she has stolen for herself.
Steve is giving away an eBook copy of VEONA: A short story set in the same world, although it’s a prequel to a different series… (Confused? You will be…). For a chance to win, comment on this post below.
The floorboards trembled beneath her and she came awake with a jump.
The air in the eyrie was cold against her skin, and the light of the smaller moon, Colimar, shone red through the arched window in the tower’s stone wall. It was still deepest night.
Must have been a dream, thought Kantees, as she re-adjusted the thin blanket and tried to burrow deeper into the pricking straw. The boards beneath her shifted again and there was a quiet grumble. Oh, by the Mother’s milk. What now? Stupid animal.
She contemplated doing nothing, pretending not to wake up. Maybe Sheesha would lose interest and go back to sleep. The boards jumped again and Kantees groaned.
“Go back to sleep, Sheesha, it’s not even close to morning,” she hissed through the cracks. There was nothing to see since the gaps were smaller than her finger-width and there was no light down there anyway. Her reward was to have the boards bumped three more times. Sheesha must be stretching.
While Sheesha might be an animal, he was cleverer than most, even those of his own species. But that didn’t stop him behaving like a spoilt child, like little Jelamie, the mistress’s youngest. He was always getting into things and places he shouldn’t.
Sheesha snuffled at her. The noise he made when he wanted something. Perhaps he’d spilt his water bucket again. He was forever doing that with his tail; it was like he didn’t even know he had it.
Maybe it was important. What if Sheesha was ill? If there was a problem with her charge and Kantees ignored it, there’d be trouble.
“And,” she said, “if there’s nothing wrong, I’ll make trouble for you.”
Kantees climbed to her feet. Her eyes were adjusted to the dark and she could see the mounds of straw and the dark shadow that was the path through them. The hole in the floor to the lower level was a black pit. She picked up the gauntlets and slipped her fingers into the soft leather, then donned the protective hat. Sheesha had never attacked her but it was better to be safe than sorry. The zirichak had never woken her in the night either.
Before he had learnt to fly, Sheesha had been very demanding and very annoying. Kantees was glad those days were long past and, what with Sheesha and Jelamie, had decided she was never going to have any children. Even if the master chose someone for her to marry.
Not bothering with the stairs, Kantees grabbed the rope, swung out, wrapped her legs around it and slid to the next level. After all these years she barely noticed the smell—she would be mucking out in the morning—but was almost knocked over when Sheesha rattled over and nudged her in the shoulder. He was almost twice her height.
Automatically Kantees reached up and scratched beneath the feathers in the place Sheesha liked the most.
Sheesha pulled back. In the dim light the zirichak waddled back—he was far more elegant in the air—brought his hook-beaked head down to Kantees and, with one eye, stared at her.
Kantees had no idea what he wanted. This behaviour was completely new.
“What?” hissed Kantees, as if Sheesha could understand, which was ridiculous because ziri were just animals, to be raced by the masters.
Her train of thought was interrupted by the distant sound of an arrow. It was only a momentary whine; it ended with a thump.
Sheesha turned his head and lifted it as if he were looking out of the window.
Taking care not to trip on the hobble chain that prevented Sheesha trying to fly inside, Kantees hurried across to the open hatch. She stuck her head out into a freezing breeze. Squinting, she tried to see.
With only Colimar in the sky, lying close to the horizon, the shadows were long and deep. But at least the sky was clear—if it hadn’t been she would have been able to see nothing. As it was, she could make out the shapes of the buildings—she was familiar with them, anyway—but hanging in the air near the wall was something huge like a growth.
She shook her head and looked again. Was she still dreaming? A great bulbous shape, where the light caught it there were bumps and lines that looked, for all the world, like leaves. But leaves as big as a house. It couldn’t be a tekrak; they never grew that big. But her eyes said it was.
And hanging beneath it, some sort of construction that was hard to make out. And from that, shadowy human shapes were jumping onto the main wall.
Sheesha bumped her in the middle of her back, knocking her forwards onto the deep windowsill.
Kantees turned and stroked the huge head, and made settling noises. “It’s all right, nothing to worry about.”
Nothing for us to worry about. They were heading into the main building. It was nothing to do with her. If the masters wanted to fight, why should she care?
She stared out once more at the massive tekrak poised above the wall. No family she knew of had such things. Even now she could scarce believe what she was seeing. Could the Slissac have returned to put all the Taymalin to the sword?
The master and mistress, Lord and Lady Jakalain, were decent people even if they had no idea how to bring up children, nor did they treat the slaves badly. Every one of the Kadralin knew how lucky they were, they knew the stories about families that punished their slaves for the slightest crime, and even killed them for pleasure.
Kantees enjoyed her life looking after Sheesha and some of the other zirichasa. If the Jakalain were killed, what would happen to her? What would happen to Sheesha?
Perhaps the castle would be taken over by another family who would not be decent.
But what could she do? She was here in the Ziri Tower, and by the time she got to ground level and across to the other side it would all be over—and she might well run into a raider. Then she would be dead.
Sheesha prodded her in the back again.
Kantees turned round slowly. She knew Sheesha was intelligent, at least for a zirichak, but he couldn’t possibly understand what was happening. Surely he did not want Kantees to ride him? For a start, that was a hanging offence and Kantees was quite fond of her life. That also meant Kantees had never flown, although she knew all the equipment and had sat in the saddle holding the reins. Never mind she was a slave.
She looked out of the window again to see more men on the wall now.
But she dared not—it could mean her life. It wasn’t fair. Why couldn’t someone else make the decision? Why hadn’t any of the other zirichasa noticed? Why hadn’t any armsmen seen what was happening? That was their job.
Because they’re dead.
Kantees let out a cry of angry frustration. She turned and pushed Sheesha’s head out of the way as she half ran to the tack room. It was too dark to see but she had everything in its correct place and knew where to find the lightest practice saddle.
Sheesha was crouched and waiting with his head down for her to slip the bridle over.
It took a couple of minutes to get the saddle in position and strapped firmly. What a laugh it would be if she took off and then slipped and fell to smash her head open on the rocks. Ha.
The one thing she didn’t have was a flying suit. Why would she? There would be almost nothing between her and the freezing air. If she didn’t fall, she would probably die of the cold. At least the protective hat would help keep her head warm.
Pulling the last strap tight, she paused. Sheesha dipped his chest so his wings were folded high above them, his claws scratching on the boards. Kantees went to the wall and unhooked the chain that ran from there through the metal collar to the cuffs on his feet. She was a little nervous. He was acting so strangely. There were tales of zirichak killing their keepers, but that had never happened here as far as she knew. Those keepers probably had mistreated their charges.
The chain rattled as it went through the cuff. There still hadn’t been any noise from outside. What was she going to do when she got out there? She had never been in the main parts of the castle—except the kitchens. She did not know her way around.
For the hundredth time, it seemed, she wondered what she was doing.
Then it occurred to her. Why hadn’t the warning bell sounded? It was mounted on one of the side towers and would wake everyone. She opened the great doors that were big enough to let Sheesha fly, then went back to him. She could see by the way he kept dipping his head he was impatient.
She was about to commit a capital crime. She would be hanged for it.
Sheesha squawked and shuffled in his crouched, cramped position. Perhaps she could claim, in her defence, that Sheesha had demanded she ride him.
Somehow she did not think that would be very convincing.
She slipped her right foot into the stirrup and brought her left leg up and over. The straps were too long so she shortened them so she could rest her feet firmly. She sat awkwardly and grabbed for the belt that held the rider in position. Sheesha edged towards the door, his great wings moving forwards to hold up his body. Kantees grabbed the reins and pulled them back, not too tight but just taking up the slack along Sheesha’s sinuous, feathered neck.
It was then she remembered he always gave a loud trumpet whenever he launched himself into the air.
Announcing his emergence into the world, like a challenge.
The attackers would know and they would shoot their arrows, at the very least they would hit Sheesha and that would be enough to kill him.
Sheesha reached the edge and raised his clawed wings to hook them into the frame above the opening. His head poked out and she could see him surveying the air.
Then she was flung back as he dropped into the dark.
I really must write a new one some time…
When he’s not sitting at his computer building websites for national institutions and international companies, USA Today bestselling author Steve Turnbull can be found sitting at his computer building new worlds of steampunk, science fiction and fantasy.
Technically Steve was born a cockney but after five years he was moved out from London to the suburbs where he grew up and he talks posh now. He’s been a voracious reader of science fiction and fantasy since his early years, but it was poet Laurie Lee’s autobiography “Cider with Rosie” (picked up because he was bored in Maths) that taught him the beauty of language and spurred him into becoming a writer, aged 15. He spent twenty years editing and writing for computer magazines while writing poetry on the side.
Nowadays he writes screenplays (TV and features), prose and computer programs.