QSFer Amy Rae Durreson has a new Fantasy book out:
Overthrowing the Shadow that ruled Tiallat was only the first step. For rebel leader Iskandir, rebuilding his shattered country is an even greater challenge. A poor harvest, religious conflict, and years of tyrannical governance combine with the challenge of getting the soldiers of the Shadow’s army home and rehousing the exiled who are flooding back into free Tiallat.
Then people begin to get sick.
A thousand years ago, after the Shadow’s first defeat, a blight fell upon the north: a disease that killed more than the war itself. Now, as this plague returns, Iskandir must look north again to the newly awakened dragon Halsarr, a learned doctor and professor who wants no part in a new war. Even if Halsarr agrees to come to their aid, Iskandir is afraid of the truth he will expose. For the dragon Halsarr once loved a bold and reckless steppes elemental who later transformed into the lonely and powerful Dual God of Tiallat, the two-faced Lord who has been missing since the Shadow entered the country.
Reawakening Book 2
Chapter One: Audience
THE FIRST Iskandir saw of the knife was the sunlight flashing off the blade. He threw his arm up into its path to block it, more out of instinct than thought, and it spiked through the thin cloth of his kameez. Before it could break the skin, the knife shattered as if it were made of glass rather than polished steel.
Around him, the crowd that filled the Hall of Justice was scattering, screams and shouts layering into a roar of confusion. Iskandir barely heard them. Every old battle instinct in him was flaring up, and he lunged at his attacker, grabbing the man’s throat and forcing him up against the chipped wall. The frieze here was already damaged, painted roses peeling away from the dulled stone in faded strips, and more disintegrated into pale dust as the would-be assassin slammed into it.
“Who sent you?” Iskandir demanded. This was the tenth attack this month. Those aimed at him he could turn easily enough, but he was sick of patching his people’s wounds.
“The Fist of God is mighty,” the attacker gasped, his breath rasping. “He will strike you from the earth!”
“The Fist of God is dead,” Iskandir snarled. Even as he did, he hoped fervently that his words were true. A dragon’s fire and a desert’s ire had ripped the Shadow that bore that name into tatters, but it would be impossible to truly destroy such an ancient and vile spirit. Even now, Iskandir woke in the night to the memory of his brother’s screams and the Shadow’s gloating laughter ringing across the smoke-dimmed sky, sick at the thought that it might come for him again.
“This is God’s own country,” a quiet voice said by Iskandir’s shoulder, “and both his faces watch over us. Your false god is not welcome here.” Raif Suheylazad, Iskandir’s youngest and most trusted lieutenant, moved forward calmly and began to search the attacker for more weapons. “The Dual God protects Tiallat. You would do well to beg for his mercy, boy.”
The attacker tried to spit at Raif, but Iskandir pushed him harder against the wall, feeling the boy’s throat flex against his grip.
For boy he was, half-starved and mad as a sick dog, his pupils tiny with poppy haze. There was barely enough fuzz on his jaw to furnish a peach, and his chin was still round. His shoulders were narrow, and his pulse fluttered against Iskandir’s hand. As he met Iskandir’s gaze, he scowled defiantly and closed his eyes, muttering under his breath.
“No other weapons,” Raif said. At his signal, a guard came forward, and Iskandir finally released the boy. Flexing his hand to work the cramps out, he tried to steady his breathing.
He hated this.
When he could trust his voice, he turned around to look out across the Hall of Justice. The crowds that had been milling through it were now gathered at the far end, some glancing anxiously his way. Others were back to arguing again, and the noise level was steadily rising.
“Was anyone else hurt?”
“He came straight for you.” Raif offered him a wry half-smile. “The penalty of command.”
“I didn’t ask for it,” Iskandir muttered. A year ago he’d only been running an increasingly hopeless resistance movement. Now, with the old government collapsed or fled, his freedom fighters had to be civil servants and governors, and he had the weight of a country on his shoulders.
He deserved worse, when all was balanced and measured, but he was so tired of fighting off drugged children. Could the bastards who were sending them not understand that the Shadow was gone?
“You’re stronger than you look,” Raif commented. “Holding him like that. What happened to the knife?”
“Anything I wear in public has wire mesh sewn into its lining,” Iskandir lied, “but the blade must have been poor to shatter.” He needed to be more careful. He wasn’t ready to let people see his true face.
“At least we’re not the only ones struggling to find good blacksmiths,” Raif commented, kneeling down to sweep together the fragments of the knife. He hissed a little, and blotted his hand against his side. “Still sharp, even if it was defective.”
“They can rejoice in the knowledge they made one of us bleed,” Iskandir observed and offered him a hand. “To work?”
“We could cancel today. No one would blame you.”
“No,” Iskandir said, shaking his head. The acts of leaders mattered far more than their words, and he was angry, not shaken. “Let’s not give them any victories.”
Raif nodded, and they started toward the head of the hall. In the days of the shahs, this had been the palace’s law court. After the Savattin rising, the Shadow had lounged here and dispensed its own form of justice, letting its followers punish those they hated and thought unworthy. The Shadow had fallen here, too, in battle against the king of the dragons, and so Iskandir had reclaimed the hall. What better symbol of all they had lost and won?
He would not sit on the Dual God’s throne, though. He was not worthy.
Instead, he made his way quietly to the row of wooden chairs they had set on the steps of the dais, glancing up through the broken roof toward the bright sky. There had rarely been clouds over the city of Taila since the Shadow fell. Even this close to the autumn equinox, the sun blazed down on the ruins. For a moment, Iskandir let himself imagine it was another season, in some year before the Shadow came. He felt the sun warm him through, and hoped it would last. This would be a good year for a long autumn and a brief winter. They weren’t ready for the rains to come, not yet.
The sunlight reflected off the gong that stood on the edge of the dais, casting patches of brassy light into the shadowy, sand-filled corners. He wasn’t fond of the gong, but he liked the light, and the way that nothing was hidden from his gaze once he sat here. Raif and his other councilors had insisted they needed some ceremony, but Iskandir still winced as Raif struck the gong and its sound belled out, demanding attention.
“The Lord Protector, Iskandir of Rulat,” Raif announced, his voice as clear as the gong. “Bring forward your petitions.”
It always took a few moments of shifting and murmuring for the first petitioner to emerge from the crowd. Raif walked across while they were waiting, ignoring the chairs to stand behind Iskandir.
“I’d prefer it if you sat down,” Iskandir muttered at him.
“They’re here to see you,” Raif answered and laughed softly. “Besides, I’d rather watch.”
Iskandir bit back his comments about that. One day, he would find a way to make Raif live up to his potential. Not today, though, not when he had to deal with just a few of the troubles that were blossoming across his country now his people were no longer terrified to speak up.
Already the first man was pushing forward. He looked to be about forty, a little belligerent, and his cheeks a little too hollow for the shape of his face. “Sir,” he started, “I was in the army. I sent my family to my sister in Illiar so they could be safe from the Savattin. Last month we returned home, and found another family living in our house.”
It wasn’t an unusual story. Many people had been forced out of their homes by the Shadow’s followers, the Savattin, and many others had been dragged to the capital and forced into the army. When the Shadow fell, they had chosen between life here, where there was some hope of work, or returning home to villages devastated by years of conflict. When houses were still standing empty, it was easy to understand why homeless people might move into them. Luckily, those abandoned houses also offered a solution to this particular problem.
After that, more and more woes came pouring out of his people. Raif finally took a seat, but only so he could balance a scroll on his knee to write an account of what they were hearing. His pen scratched softly against the page as people stood forward to tell stories of death, injury, and heartbreak, looking toward Iskandir as if he held the solution to all their troubles in the curve of his hand.
When the Shadow had come creeping into Tiallat, it had done so in the guise of a revolutionary, whispering to the poor and powerless that those more fortunate than them deserved to be punished. With smooth and plausible lies, the Shadow had tempted them to condemn anyone who stepped outside the narrow and arbitrary definition of virtue it had designed. It had taught its followers that cruelty and intolerance were righteous. Now, even among those who claimed never to have been seduced by the Shadow’s promises, there seemed to be a yearning for extreme action. Iskandir had spent half his life trying to gentle and temper that urge, even in his own closest allies, and sometimes in himself.
More and more people were coming forward to tell their stories of twelve years under Savattin rule. Some things he could solve, like the disputes over property and the clashes that arose naturally from people living closely in bad conditions. Other stories, the bulk of what they heard in these courts, could only be recorded. Iskandir had no power to bring back the son stoned to death because he had stood lookout for resistance fighters bringing food supplies into the city. He couldn’t repair the once-kind smile of the girl whose face had been scarred by acid for standing a little too close to a boy from the next neighborhood. All he could do was take witness and arrest the more local or firmly identified culprits.
He had thought, when he started these hearings, that he would be able to deliver justice to a people denied it for so long. With all the chaos of the last few years, though, it was almost impossible to track the perpetrators of many crimes. Others were more complex—what verdict should he pass on the man who betrayed his neighbors to save his own children, or on the son who had saved himself by casting stones at his mother, but now repented and worked to support her, even though he himself must go hungry for her sake? Everyone had turned their backs on injustice at least once, simply to survive. Even he had fled when the Shadow rode into the capital with darkness dripping from its eyes.
If they were going to hang collaborators, they might as well start with him.
These days, his people came simply to tell their stories to a willing audience, and to hear what had happened to others. Finally, after years of necessary silence, they could tell the truth.
And so Iskandir listened and Raif’s pen went scratching quietly across the page, recording what could not be healed.
When the scarred girl finished choking out her story, Iskandir looked her in the eyes and asked for the one detail so many of them forgot, as if it didn’t matter. “What is your name?”
She looked up at him, letting her veil slip from where she was trying to hook it back over her ear after showing her scars. “Ecem, sir.”
“Ecem. And your brother?”
She swallowed hard, but she had been brave enough to tell the story. She wouldn’t falter now. He felt her determination, as fierce and hard as stone. “He is called Naim, sir. I do not wish to call him brother.”
“So witnessed,” Iskandir said. “He is no longer your kin under the law. He may make no claims upon you, and you may claim nothing from him. He is dead to you.” It was little more than symbolic, but symbols had meaning. He had learned that a very, very long time ago.
She sighed, a little shuddery noise of relief. “Thank you.”
Iskandir bowed his head. Her thanks made him very aware of the empty throne higher on the dais, and how unworthy he was to pass judgment on anyone.
“Sir,” she said, her voice very soft and uncertain, her hands twisting into her long skirt, “my cousin… she said, sometimes… she’d heard the Dual God watches this court.”
“The Bright Lord sees everything under the sun,” Iskandir said warily, falling back on religious platitudes, “and the Dark God looks where no light shines. He witnesses all.”
“I heard he acts,” she said, her hands knotting tighter, “after stories are told here. I heard he punishes sinners.”
“That’s just a story,” Iskandir said gently and caught his breath as she looked up. Her eyes were green, but there was no softness or promise in the color. Green should never look so bleak.
“He’s not my brother anymore,” she whispered.
Iskandir looked into those eyes and found it in himself to say, “God is always watching, Ecem.”
She bowed to him, drawing her veil back across her face, and backed away into the crowd, leaving him troubled.
Raif exchanged a look with him and leaned over to murmur straight into his ear. “If she kills her brother….”
“She won’t have to.”
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Amy Rae Durreson is a quiet Brit with a degree in early English literature, which she blames for her somewhat medieval approach to spelling, and at various times has been fluent in Latin, Old English, Ancient Greek, and Old Icelandic, though these days she mostly uses this knowledge to bore her students. Amy started her first novel twenty-one years ago and has been scribbling away ever since. Despite these long years of experience, she has yet to master the arcane art of the semicolon. She was a runner up in the 2014 Rainbow Awards.