I’m seventeen chapters into Gilded Treason, having finished an outline of 951 years of Gyran History of Gyre. Drinith and her companions arrive in Gyre in 948, the events of Greater Evil occur in 949 and Gilded Treason takes place in 950. (The apparent discrepancy a keen reader might notice is due to the Gyran calendar having a zeroth year.)
I’m busy ignoring all the hype about AI and chatbots. Its visual equivalents looked impressive to me at first, but their images come across as cut from the same cloth, almost if they are done by one artist with the same strengths and weaknesses (which, I suppose, they are). I’m sure at some stage AI-written books will become best sellers and win awards. I’m certain more commercially minded authors are experimenting with it already to relieve some of the dreary business of writing. Already some short story magazines have had to stop accepting unsolicited manuscripts due to the amount of AI spam pouring into their submissions systems. And I guarantee within six months to a year, I won’t be able to watch anything on Youtube without being besieged by ads about how I can make millions writing with AI. Can AI ultimately fake human experience on the page? For many readers (and I include myself among them), possibly. There are a lot of books out there and a lot of keen observations of human life, a lot of fine prose. I read old science fiction and down through the years more modern stuff I thought to be new and fresh and revelatory turned out to have been done in some fashion already fifty or sixty years ago. Simply put, original writing is subjective. It only has to be original to the reader. I could easily read something by an AI and think it thoroughly original simply because I haven’t come across it before. There’s not some supreme observer keeping score on what is new and what has been done before.
Of course, there is a way to do this in a fair and objective fashion. If we programmed an AI…
[P.S. I didn’t use a chatbot to write this. I’m a 100% organic writer. :)]
In Gyre, true power rests in the Parliament of Merit, the Ducalion of Gyre being merely an impotent figurehead. However, despite the pretence of all meritocrats being equal, matters related to the seccurity of the state in the broadest sense are delegated to a select group of the most influential and popular among them. This shadowy commitee is known as the Vicenary Jury. It is also nicknamed (somewhat degoratorily) as the Iron Circle.
This group originally consisted of the Ducal Steward, a single cordent general, the Grand Parsimon (the state’s finance minister), the Justiciar General (chief judge), the Dragon Keeper, and fifteen jurists. However, as Gyre grew and its interests spread to Noster and beyond, the number of officials increased, squeezing the number of jurists until only five remained.
The jurists are elected by secret ballot during Crevastival for a term of one year. Every meritocrat is a potential candidate. The result is never formally declared, but any meritocrat worth the title makes it their business to know the identities of the winners.
At the time that Drinith first arrives in Gyre, the Vicenary Jury consists of:
The Ducal Steward who acts as chair
The Grand Parsimon
The Justiciar General
The Dragon Keeper who manages the meritocrats’ dragons and is in charge of the defense of the airspace around the city
The three cordent generals
The Intelligencer General
The Ambassador General
The Governor General, responsible for the administration of Gyre’s colonies
The Inspector General, in charge of customs
The three conflagration marshals who manage Gyre’s mercenary armies
Five elected jurists
As a rule, its proceedings are secret. No minutes are recorded, no written annals kept. Its orders percolate through the Meritocracy in whispers. Its meetings, held in strictest privacy, are conducted in a chamber deep under the parliament building. No outsider is allowed to enter. According to rumor, the members themselves take turns to clean it. Few outside the Meritocracy are even aware of its existence, but it is an indelible menacing presence in meritocrats’ lives. Even its members fear it.
Diane Donovan, Editor, Donovan’s Literary Services published a review of Fatal Shadow. The same review is also published in the MidWest Review.
“From ambushers and assassins to the evolution of more than one conspiracy that places Drinith in the middle of battles she didn’t even know were being fought on different levels, Noel Coughlan creates a fantasy force to reckon with.”
Lexie Foxe from Reader’s Favorite also published a review.
“Fatal Shadow is an excellent opening to what promises to be an exciting fantasy series, with danger and action around every corner and deep and coherent lore binding the work together.”
Trapped in his chrysalis of waterproof fabric, Frater Yory could do little except read the slim pamphlet he had brought over and over, until every word, every syllable, had been stamped into his consciousness. The mournful poetry of the exiled Rhumgadian poet, Versifer, captured his own melancholy perfectly. Here he was, clinging to a dragon’s tail ten thousand leagues from the golden halls of the Panatheneum, risking his life for another book and the knowledge it contained.
In between readings, he fell into the habit of staring at his wrist attracton, a wondrous gizmo, about twice the size of a Nosteran ducat, that told not the time but the location of its wearer in the huge void between worlds known as the Crevast. Yory had begun to despair that it had malfunctioned when the shrill ring of its alarm filled the tent. Turning it off, he strapped on the slim backpack holding his folded glider and the belt containing the tools of his trade. He threw a cloak over his matte black armor and slipped on his mask. He tucked the poetry book into a bag on his belt. It didn’t feel right to abandon a book, no matter how common and well read.
The wind ripped away the tent as soon as Yory cut through it. He watched it dance and writhe on the breeze until it shrank into the inky distance, then turned his attention to the black, hulking edifice standing before him. Its tens of slits flickered invitingly, but it was no inn. It was the sterncastle of a saddledeck and the scaly hillock on which it stood was the back portion of a dragon, the Baleful Shade. Yory stepped toward it, careful to hook his boots into the creature’s scales to avoid following his tent into the void. Beyond the dragon, villages lit up the curtain of cliffs at the brink of the continental shard of Magmel. Ahead lay the fabled city of Shamta, gleaming like a cluster of blue-white crystals. Yory had to recover the book and escape before the dragon reached it.
Reaching the sterncastle, he gently lifted one of its gunport flaps and peered inside. Two of the crew lay facedown on the deck. Another was draped over a cannon. Surely they couldn’t have passed out from drink. They emitted not the slightest hint of a snore, which was unusual and slightly alarming.
The port was too small for him to enter, so he used the gunports to climb up to the top deck of the structure. More unconscious crew littered saddledeck. Loose and torn sails billowed in the breeze and whipped about unsecured ropes. If pyrates had attacked the dragon, Yory surely would have noticed.
He crouched beside the nearest insensate man and turned him over. The draker was cold to the touch, but showed no sign of injury.
Whatever had happened, it made Yory’s recovery of the book even more urgent. He located the open hatch to the hold and descended the ladder.
He found the door of the chamber where the book was stored ajar. A metal pick protruded from the chest’s lock.
A thud behind Yory made him turn around. The bald, thin man standing before him was accoutered in similar fashion to Yory, except the stranger hadn’t bothered to wear a mask. He must have supposed he didn’t need one, having murdered any witnesses.
“It’s rather dangerous to leave the chest’s lock in that state,” Yory said, trying to sound casual. “The lock is booby-trapped. What department are you?”
The man’s sneer deepened. “Pyratical Studies.”
“I’m Pre-Cataclysm,” Yory said, doing his best to wring the tremble from his voice. “The book falls under my department’s remit.”
“Nonsense,” the stranger said. Metal quills protruded between his fingers like claws, each sharpened nib containing whatever toxin he had used to massacre the crew. “The tome is a copy of a Pre-Cataclysm original. It was part of the Emperor of the Void’s library and, as such, is the rightful property of my department.”
“I can’t believe any member of the Panatheneum would massacre the crew of a dragon for a book, no matter how precious.” Yory knew even as he spoke, it was a mistake, but anger had gotten the better of him.
“I’m Pater Viliber. You may have heard of me.”
Yory had. Pater Viliber was famed across the Panatheneum for his exploits. He had retrieved many rare tomes, often in the most challenging circumstances.
“You have, I see,” Viliber said. “Well, I spilled much blood to earn that reputation. I have killed hundreds, thousands, in the service of the Panatheneum. Your squeamishness is why you’re doomed to fail. You don’t want it enough. You must be a silly little frater on his first mission. Why do you think your mentors trained you to kill? We’re fighting a war to preserve knowledge and wars have casualties. The lives on board this dragon are inconsequential compared to the survival of this book. Besides, I only killed the crew of the saddledeck, not the cinchdeck or the headstall. I’m getting out of here before the dragon perches. I suggest you do the same.”
It was the dismissive way he turned his back that spurred Yory to draw his knife and lunge at him. “That book is my department’s, you thief!”
An array of glinting nibs jabbed at his face, forcing him to jerk his head back. A kick to the stomach sent Yory sprawling backward against the chest. As he tried to rise, Viliber pounced on him, his quills aimed at Yory’s eyes.
“I tried being collegial and letting you live, and this is how you repay my generosity,” Viliber said.
Yory forced himself to look from the nibs and stare into Viliber’s cruel eyes. “You said I needed to toughen up. You were right. I never imagined I could ever kill people in cold blood like you. Teach me. I’m a librarian already. Accept me into your department and I will do my best to be worthy of your trust.”
The nibs wavered as Viliber cogitated, no doubt calculating if Yory was worth the effort. “I’m sorry, Frat. I work alone.”
“I’m sorry, too,” Yory said, yanking the pick from the chest lock. The booby-trap exploded, punching a hole in Viliber’s side. Yory crawled from under the groaning man, thankful his foe’s deadly quills lay scattered on the surrounding floor. Flinging open what remained of the chest’s lid, he grabbed the book wrapped in cerulean silk from its resting place and raced out the door.
Viliber loped after him, listing to one side as he pressed a bloody cloth to his wound. “I’ve changed my mind. Your gumption has impressed me. Give me back that book and I’ll arrange your transfer to Pyratical Studies as a pater.”
Several loud thumps came from the deck above, followed by the thud and scuff of boots against the boards. Yory paused at the bottom of the ladder to the saddledeck, glimpsed the distant belly of a dragon through the open hatch. The Baleful Shade’s headstall must have signaled Shamta that its saddledeck was under attack, spurring the city to dispatch a boarding party to investigate.
As Yory dithered over what he should do, a humming ball of metal rolled between his feet. Viliber’s distant horselaugh mocked him as he raced away from the bomb. It exploded with a blinding flash, its loud boom knocking Yory to the floor. As the rain of wood fragments subsided, Yory glanced behind him. The ladder was gone and in its place, an enormous hole had been gouged in the decks. From somewhere above came panicked and angry shouts.
“You could have damaged the book,” Yory whispered to Viliber who stood on the opposite side of the hole.
“Take it as a sign of my confidence in your abilities, little Frater. It’s a pity your glider is busted.”
One of the folded wings hung limply from its backpack, broken and tattered. In disgust, Yory hit the release catch where the straps crisscrossed his heart and let it drop to the floor.
“Have no fear,” Viliber said, gesturing with his hand. “Your efforts are not in vain. My glider is in working order. Just give me the book and I will safely take it away from here.”
A rope dropped from above. At any moment, the boarding party would ascend.
“No time to wait,” Viliber insisted. “Give me the book.”
Yory leaped at the rope, grabbed it, drawing gasps and astonished cries from the soldiers above. As it swung near the far side, he let go, depending on his momentum would carry him across the gap. He rolled across the floor, slammed into Viliber and punched the clasp on his foe’s glider pack. Yory reached for the falling pack but abandoned it to block Viliber’s dagger as it swept toward him. While the two rivals grappled, more ropes descended. Soldiers armed with springbows slid down them. As they took aim, Yory seized Viliber and spun him into the path of their weapons. Several bolts dinged against Viliber’s armor, but one struck the back of his head, leaving a look of utter shock on his face and a triangular point peeping out of his slack jaw.
Yory used the dead man as a shield against a second volley while he slipped on the glider pack and grabbed a bomb in Viliber’s belt. As the soldiers struggled to prime their weapons for a third time, he dashed into the nearest compartment, and, yanking the pin from the bomb, tossed it against the wall with too much force. As it rolled back in his direction, he threw himself clear of its path. It passed through the doorway, eliciting cries from pursuing soldiers, only to reverse course with a whack back into the room.
As it rolled over to the outer wall, Yory covered his head with arms. The pulverizing force of the explosion reverberated through him. The air was thick with dust and splinters. Something heavy fell on top of him. Raindrops dampening his face helped him shake off his daze, and he crawled from under the fragment of wall or roof—he couldn’t tell which. The outer wall had been ripped away and nothing lay beyond except black, rainy void. Still clinging to the book, he released the unfolding mechanism of his glider and its wings spread out behind him. It didn’t look damaged, but could he be certain he could rely on it?
Yory didn’t wait to find out who had shouted or what they were aiming at him. He leaped into the slobbery darkness. A great wing rose in front of him like a tsunami of leather, forcing him to bank hard to the right. He squeezed through the narrow gap between the saddle and the wing until the latter fell away. As he glided away from the Baleful Shade, he glimpsed the holes punched in its saddle by Viliber’s bombs. The lights of its headstall and saddledeck blinked urgently at each other, while the headstall of the second dragon flying by its side no doubt observed the conversation. At any moment, one or both of the dragons might pursue him.
Yory steered for Magmel—it didn’t matter where. He hadn’t enough lift to reach the top of the cliffs, so he picked a broad ledge to land on. As he drew closer, he realized it was wider than he had imagined. There were several irrigated fields where he could safely land. As soon as he touched down, he unwrapped the book’s blood-spattered silk cocoon with trembling hands and sighed with relief. The ancient cookbook was undamaged.
A lie made Drinith one of Gyre’s rulers. It secured the city state’s support against her enemy, the tyrant Magian the Infinite. Now it threatens to destroy her.
Drinith voyages to Gyre’s bitterest rival, Ophigee, to convince its rulers to join the fight against Magian. But her audience with her hosts turns into an ambush.
Quick thinking wins her a reprieve from the execution block, but the route to salvation may well prove more treacherous than anything she has faced before. Everyone who attempts the journey she must undertake vanishes without trace. Can she succeed where they failed and uncover the secret that threatens not only Ophigee but her adopted homeland?
Greater Evil is the second book in the Champions of Fate, an epic fantasy series with fast-paced action, intriguing characters, and imaginative world-building. The ebook (Amazon only) and paperback are available HERE
The first book in the series, Fatal Shadow, free until 4th March, can be found HERE.
WARNING: THIS CHAPTER CONTAINS SIGNIFICANT SPOILERS FOR FATAL SHADOW, BOOK 1 OF CHAMPIONS OF FATE. IF YOU HAVE NOT READ IT YOU CAN CHECK OUT SAMPLE CHAPTERS FOR THAT BOOK HERE.
The distant chime of the doorbell made Drinith freeze in the middle of turning a page of the notebook. She reflexively glanced across her study at the bookshelves that hid the secret escape door. The ridiculousness of her reaction made her laugh out her held breath. No assassin would announce his coming in such a fashion. She had become much too paranoid.
She glanced with irritation at the bare walls. When Epmar, her predecessor as Meritocrat Hax, retired to a country estate on the shard of Noster, she had taken everything that had once adorned them with her. The empty hooks mocked Drinith’s failure to stamp her presence on the room. She had filled only two hooks in the year since Epmar’s departure. Impaled on one was a straw doll, frayed and battered and missing its flower crown, that Quiescat had insisted she must keep. The other bore a large brass map of her home shard, Rhumgad. The kingdom names and boundaries etched on it, from the highlands in the north to the basin of the Wandering Sea in the south, had been swept away by Magian the Infinite’s armies around the time of her birth. One day, Drinith would return to wrest Rhumgad from his iron grip and restore her realm, Kaplar. But for now, she must content herself that the blockade of his empire by Gyre and its allies had stymied his greater ambitions.
Smoothing a crackling page, she let her attention return to the notebook.
A great cauldron simmers on a fire. The chunks of wood beneath are shaped like dragons. As the cauldron nears boiling, bubbles disturb its fizzing surface, each warped by a different smiling face. The tops of the bubbles curve like talons. As they sink again, they whisper too softly to understand. More and more bubbles rise until the faces become a froth; their whispers expand into an impossible roar. A shadow is visible in the foam. A hand and forearm, green-black, delicate and feminine, rises out of the spitting churn. The dragons beneath rise and the cauldron overturns, spilling its boiling water across the floor. The draining liquid reveals a gleaming dagger. Its pommel has an amethyst engraved with a dragon’s head.
It was one of four prophetic visions of Versifer, the late poet and Oracle of Godsdoor. And friend, though the notion made Drinith queasy given that she had spurned his romantic advances. He had believed the arm in his vision belonged to her. She and Quiescat read the prophesies almost every day, hoping to decipher them. She could recite most of them without recourse to the book, but they remained as enigmatic and sinister as ever.
Before the visions, brief notes, lines of unfinished verse (often scratched out), musings, reminders, and doodles littered the pages—the flitting ramblings of a restless mind. The leaf after the last vision had been ripped out, wounding the book. Versifer must have written the poem he had dedicated to her on it. She should have never asked him to burn it. She longed to remember the words, but she had been too mortified to take them in when he thrust the poem upon her. If she had known what was about to happen to him… After the missing page, the book was blank, untouched by his quill, a painful reminder of a life cut short.
Hearing Fenvar’s signature sequence of soft raps on the door, Drinith tucked the book into a drawer and straightened the documents on her desk. “Come in.”
The door opened just wide enough for the butler to step across the threshold. Drinith wondered how she maintained such an immaculate appearance. Her snowy bowl crop never had a stray hair. Her teal and black uniform was always crisp and clean, though she worked from before dawn to late into the night. Drinith had been fortunate to keep her services, and Fenvar hadn’t followed her former mistress, Epmar, into self-imposed retirement.
“Meritocrats Aretro Falier and Thaxen Savarel have come calling,” Fenvar said. “I showed them to the parlor and arranged refreshments.”
Aside from a brief introduction at a ducal reception, Drinith had no interaction with Aretro. As Ambassador General, she had negotiated truces with most of Gyre’s adversaries in the Short War. But success in Gyre always drew suspicion. Her accomplishments had earned a diverse assortment of detractors among her peers, who damned her as a self-aggrandizing appeaser. Rumors swirled in the dark corridors and alcoves of the Parliament of Merit that she might soon be ousted.
Thaxen was a different matter. The position of the Meritocracy’s Intelligencer General was impregnable. She was too useful to Gyre and too dangerous for any potential rival to contemplate moving against her. Thaxen had never made a social call to the Hax Mansion before. Instead, when she had needed to speak to Drinith, Thaxen had simply summoned her with the thinnest veneer of politeness possible. Drinith chafed at Thaxen’s overbearing influence over her, but extricating herself from it would make a dangerous enemy.
Something serious must have happened. Gyre’s coalition against the tyrant Magian might have unraveled.
“Inform them I shall join them shortly,” Drinith said. “Ask Quiescat to meet me outside the parlor.” Though she leaned on his counsel, the meritocrats, jealous of their lofty status as oligarchs of the Halcyon Republic, would take offense if he wandered in and plunked himself down beside them uninvited.
Fenvar slipped away with a graceful bow. Drinith lifted her medallion headpiece off its stand. It bore the sigil of the House of Hax, an alerion taking flight. Resting it on her head, she took a deep breath and headed for the parlor.
Quiescat awaited her by the entrance. Despite his customary white cowl and receding blue hair, the dark eyes the preservators had given him made the lean Rhumgadian lowlander look like a stranger. In a sense, he was. He hadn’t yet recovered from the loss of his oracular gift.
“Let’s get this over with,” he muttered. He pushed open the doors and stepped out of the way for Drinith to enter first.
The parlor always felt to Drinith like a hostile courtroom. While she bristled at the condemnatory stares of her Hax predecessors in their ornately framed portraits, the prospect of banishing Epmar’s ancestors to a less frequented corner of the mansion made her uncomfortable.
The two meritocrats sat together on a couch. Aretro’s medallion headdress, bearing her emblem, the centicore, peeped out of a burst of whitening red curls. Despite her fiery orange complexion, her large laurel green eyes gave her face disarming sincerity and softness.
Thaxen provided a striking contrast. Dark of hair, her gray face with its chiseled lines made her a forbidding presence at the best of times. Her emblem, the mandrake root, hung proudly on her broad forehead.
“I hope you don’t mind,” Drinith said as she swept inside and shook their hands. “I invited my steward to join us.” She alighted on the couch across from her guests.
Aretro’s eyes bulged with surprise. A mirthless grin creased Thaxen’s harsh face, but irritation smoldered in her black eyes as she regarded Quiescat. “It’s always a delight to meet the Oracle of Godsdoor.”
“I’m no longer an oracle,” Quiescat said stiffly as he took a seat.
“True, you now lack the prophetic gift associated with the position, but surely there’s nobody more qualified to claim the title. Do you harbor no hope of returning to your temple?”
“Its charred ruins, perhaps.”
“To business,” Thaxen growled, knitting her fingers together and turning her attention to Drinith. “Aretro has a problem that you may be able to help resolve.”
Aretro nearly choked as she swallowed the mouthful of cake she had been chewing. “Yes,” she croaked. She sipped her tea and locked eyes with Drinith. “We have convinced most of our opponents in the Short War to bring the conflict to a long overdue cessation and join our blockade of Rhumgad. It’s in all our interests to check Magian’s ambitions.”
Thaxen’s small mouth tightened. “All except the Shopkeepers.”
Aretro directed a sideways frown at her colleague. “Yes, the Ophigeens intend to fight on, distracting us, diverting resources from our campaign.”
“But, surely, facing the combined strength of their four rivals, their logical course is to make peace,” Quiescat said.
“The other republics, Numenal, Laxur, and Helifer, have entered a truce with us,” Aretro said. “But they restrict their cooperation to Rhumgad. They won’t coordinate with us in defending against Ophigeen aggression, much less take offensive action against them. Pro-Short War factions remain powerful in all the republics, including our own. Push our coalition too far beyond its stated goals and it will splinter.” She took another sip of tea. “To secure the Ophigeens’ aid or, at least, the end of their active hostility, we must show them a truce is in their interest.” All the while she spoke, her gaze remained fixed on her host, demanding reciprocal attention. Shying from its intensity, Drinith focused on pouring herself some yellow tea.
Thaxen studied the fireplace to conceal a burgeoning smirk. Oblivious, Aretro continued. “The Ophigeens are a vain people, convinced of their moral superiority.”
Drinith sipped from her cup before her own smile could slip out. Aretro’s description applied equally to many Gyran meritocrats.
“I’m sure they are most moral for slavers,” Thaxen quipped.
“They are mistrustful and quick to take offense,” Aretro said, still focused on Drinith. “The assurances of Gyre won’t convince them to help us. But you might persuade them.”
An icy chill raced up Drinith’s spine. “What do you mean?”
“You uncovered Magian’s plot in Gyre,” Thaxen said. “You defeated his assassins. You are the rightful heir to a realm brutally subjugated by him. You understand better than any other meritocrat the threat he poses.”
“The Diarchs of Ophigee have formally invited you to visit their court,” Aretro said. “They are offering you a chance to convince them that Magian poses a genuine threat.”
“Then I must take it,” Drinith said, repressing the urge to spring from her seat. “How soon must I depart?”
“A dragon, the Piquant Buss, will depart for Ophigee tomorrow morning.”
“We’ll be ready,” Drinith promised.
Thaxen and Aretro exchanged glances. Aretro cleared her throat. “The Ophigeens are prickly at the best of times.” She grimaced. “Their invitation extends to you alone. You may take whoever you choose on the journey to Ophigee but the authorities there won’t permit them to disembark, not even a personal attendant.”
“Apparently, they abide no servants except their own slaves,” Thaxen said. “Status based on inheritance is an abomination, or some such nonsense.”
Quiescat bolted upright. “No!”
Before two meritocrats’ disapproving glares, he faltered, mumbled apologies, and slumped back in his chair. Ignoring the demands implicit in their scowls to reprimand him for his impertinence, Drinith said, “It doesn’t sound very safe. Assassins still stalk me.”
Quiescat seized upon her point. “Exactly. She’s under constant threat from Magian.”
Queasy dismay gripped Drinith. Not only had Thaxen mocked Quiescat’s negligible combat prowess, but, far worse, she had insinuated that he and his adopted daughter might be lovers, an insult sufficient to provoke a lesser man to retaliate. Thaxen wouldn’t tolerate any slight, no matter how deserved, and her enmity could be as lethal as any poison. Quiescat folded his arms and fumed in silence. A smile slid onto his face. He must have taken some consolation in his refusal to be goaded.
“The Ophigeens guarantee your safety as long as you remain their guest,” Aretro said.
Thaxen smirked. “If Magian kills you while you’re under their protection, they’ll be honor-bound to join our coalition against him. So your death won’t be in vain.”
Drinith bristled. Why did Thaxen toss about gibes with such abandon? Did Quiescat’s presence really rile her to such petulance? More likely, Thaxen intended her mockery as a reminder she was the Intelligencer General and would brook no challenge from anyone. Drinith would later make clear to Thaxen she wouldn’t tolerate casual bullying and humiliation under her roof. But for now, with Quiescat and Aretro present, it was best to keep silent.
“It won’t come to that,” Aretro promised. “The Ophigeens will ensure your safety from hostile third parties. Our ambassador to their court, Griman Epitan, will guide you during your stay. She’s well versed with their customs and will ensure you don’t fall foul of their etiquette.”
“I will go,” Drinith said.
Thaxen stood. “We’ll leave you to prepare. Come, Aretro.”
With a regretful nod, her companion put aside her half-eaten scone and bowl of tea and plodded toward the door. Drinith and Quiescat rose from their seats.
“Oh yes,” Thaxen said. “There’s another matter I need to discuss with Drinith. A private matter.” She shot a glare at Quiescat.
“Perhaps, Quiescat, you might show Aretro our library.” Drinith said. “I understand she is an avid potter. There’s a fine collection of tomes on the subject that might interest her.” Drinith, being incurious about the craft, didn’t know if the works would prove of value to a renowned expert like Aretro, but her guest looked pleased with the prospect. It occasioned her first genuine grin since her arrival.
Drinith kept silent until the door clicked shut. “Some of your comments were in poor taste, Thaxen. In particular when you compared Quiescat to a courtesar.”
Thaxen shrugged. “Frankly, I don’t care if I offended him. He forgets his place.”
“And what about offending me? Am I not a meritocrat like you?”
Thaxen showed Drinith a razor-thin smile. “I’ll remember, if you will. I promised Epmar I’d look out for your welfare. Quiescat’s former oracular ability doesn’t entitle him to special treatment in Gyre. And you were gifted your position by your predecessor. You’re an outsider, a foreigner. Your royal ancestry, your claim to the Blood Crown of Kaplar, places you under suspicion in a republic that despises the very concept of monarchy.”
“If I’m so mistrusted, why was Epmar permitted to make me a meritocrat?”
“You can use a thing and suspect it at the same time.”
“And I’m a thing.”
Thaxen pursed her lips. “I’m simply observing the reality of your position. You can’t afford to flaunt your exoticism before our colleagues and, dare I say it …”
“Eccentric weakness. A meritocrat is a leader, not a follower. She is nobody’s puppet.”
Drinith raised her chin. “You pulled Epmar’s strings.”
“She could have cut those strings if she chose, but she refused to turn her back on her house, her people, and her state. She is a genuine patriot.” Thaxen’s eyes narrowed. “I cannot say the same of you yet.”
“You question my loyalty, my word!” Drinith fumed.
Thaxen cackled. “You may have committed your head to Gyre, but your heart’s fealty perhaps lies elsewhere.” She prodded Drinith’s chest. “Don’t deny that old dream of reclaiming your lost realm doesn’t smolder in there somewhere. You must extinguish it before somebody stamps it out for you. You’re a meritocrat now. Like your oracle’s temple, Kaplar’s dead; another autocracy best forgotten.”
Drinith bit back her anger. Best not goad Thaxen too much or she might follow through on her implied threat to Quiescat.
Thaxen’s gaze roamed the portraits on the walls, fixed on one. Ambling over to it, she gave the impression of studying it in detail. “This trip will help you. You’ll be free of Quiescat’s influence while you’re in Ophigee. You’ll learn to depend on yourself. Then, when you return, you’ll be ready to put him aside. Pack Quiescat off to one of your country estates to enjoy a well-deserved retirement. The gossips can sharpen their tongues at someone else’s expense.”
Perhaps she acted in what she considered to be Drinith’s best interest, but her ultimatum was no less stinging. “I’ll make my own decisions about my servants, thank you.”
“Of course,” Thaxen murmured, continuing to scrutinize the portrait. Why should its subject be the focus of her fascination? Drinith didn’t even know the woman’s name, much less her history.
“That’s your right as a meritocrat and the head of your house.” Thaxen turned a vexed gaze toward Drinith. “Just make sure your servants serve you and not the other way around.” She strolled over to the door. Opening it, she paused at the threshold. Without looking back, she said, “Good luck in Ophigee. I’ll collect Aretro. No need to show us out. You’ve enough to do.”
In the instant of Drinith’s hesitation, Thaxen sauntered away, leaving her threats to weigh on the air like a coming thunderstorm.
Quiescat was Drinith’s father in all but name. She couldn’t send him away. He was one of the few people she could trust. She’d be a fool to relinquish his sage counsel. There must be some compromise short of banishment that would sate Thaxen and Quiescat’s other shadowy enemies in the Meritocracy. There had to be.
Her cheeks warmed as she remembered her elevation to a meritocrat. Her exultation felt so naive now. No matter how high she climbed, the ground always shifted beneath her, threatening to topple her.
As I’m planning to launch Greater Evil on 28th February, I thought it worthwhile to do a bit of an introduction/refresher to sailed dragons used to travel across the vast distances of void between shards.
The crew of such dragons are known as drakers. Originally, they hailed from the fabled Aerhaunt Archipelago but they spread across the Crevast and mixed with other cultures, leading to most crews have diverse ancestories. They regard themselves as distinct from the peoples living on shards and refer to them as Landlubbers. They worship dragons rather than gods.
Though fiercely independent, they have built many powerful kingdoms in the past. They were unified briefly under the Emperor of the Crevast, but his empire fractured after his mysterious disappearance. Gyre and Ophigee are two successor states. During the Crevast Empire period, the peoples of the shards called them pyrates, a name that now only applies to those who engage in illegal activity.
Typically, the vessel on the back of the dragon is called the saddledeck. The saddlemaster is the senior officer on the saddledeck. From most viewpoints, it looks like a ship and most parts of it are named using nautical terms. However, the hull has two keels allowing the saddledeck to straddle the dragon’s back. The dragon’s dorsal spikes stick through the hull giving the saddledeck some added ‘grip’. A strap around the dragon’s midriff is critical to keep the saddledeck secure.
This strap is protected by the cinchdeck, a series of connected compartments across the dragon’s belly. These compartments can be used for transporting people or goods. The cinchdecks of most drake-o’-wars are equipped with cannons. The cinchmaster is in charge of the cinchdeck.
The headstall is a structure under the dragon’s frill that extends in a band around the dragon’s head. A key part of it is the pineye, the compartment from where the captain commands. Generally, the pineye is easy to spot because of its large, hemispherical window. The whisperers are also based in the headstall. They are the drakers who communicate directly with the dragon by crawling into the dragon’s ears. They are treated with reverence by the rest of the crew and are paid in dragon wax.
Because the headstall is subject to the movement of the dragon’s head, navigation is managed in a compartment in the saddledeck’s quarterdeck called the whereabout. This contains an attracton, a ‘compass’ which is pulled toward different shards to varying degrees based on their relative positions. The whereabout also communicates with the headstall by means of signal lights. Commands are relayed to the cinchdeck by speaking tubes.
The dragon must bend back its head to facilitate boarding of the headstall from the saddledeck. The gap between them is bridged by the springboard. During flight, the headstall, saddledeck, and cinchdeck are physically isolated from each other so trust between the captain and his two senior officers is critical.