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Excerpt: Secrets of the Sands by Leona Wisoker Part 5

Over a five day period, thanks to Mercury Retrograde Press, I will be excerpting portions of Secrets of the Sands by Leona Wisoker.

Part One is here.
Part Two is here.
Part Three is here.
Part Four is here.


They walked through hallways and around corners, turning this way and that, seeming to go in circles, until Idisio once again conceded himself lost. At last he saw a familiar portrait. Confirming his guess, they paused before an unremarkable grey door.

“Yes, you’re expected,” one of the guards said, deadpan, and once again they walked through the door into the presence of King Oruen.

The royal robes of public appearance were draped almost carelessly over the back of the king’s chair. The king, now simply a thin, gangly man in breeches and tunic, half-slouched in his chair, looked up as they entered and pointed silently to seats. Without protest this time, Scratha sank into one and motioned Idisio into another.

“Lord Oruen,” Scratha said. “Once again, I am here at your summons.”

“And once again,” the king said, “I’m holding back an urge to throttle you, Cafad.” He held up a sheet of parchment that showed signs of having been crumpled and carefully smoothed back out. “What are you trying to do to me?”

“You benefit from this arrangement, Lord Oruen.”

The king looked at the letter again, shaking his head slowly. “The other desert families will have a collective stroke when they hear of this.”

“Let them twitch,” Scratha said. “Your steward already has a brief version of the letter in your hand. No doubt he’ll spread the word before the news loses its value.”

The king’s gaze sharpened into a glare.

“You’re a fool,” he said, then: “No, you’re not. You’ve made it impossible for me to refuse. Nobody will believe that I turned this offer down. Damn you, Cafad!”

Scratha’s only answer was a shrug, hands spread wide.

“What did you put in the steward’s note?” the king demanded.

“That I ceded you stewardship of my lands while I am working off your displeasure,” Scratha said, emotionless. “Nothing more. The name change I put to you alone.”

Idisio tried not to choke audibly. A desert lord was giving a northern king authority over his entire holding? Collective stroke would be a mild reaction, under Idisio’s admittedly limited understanding of southern politics. And as much, if not more, ire would be directed at the king for accepting as at Scratha for offering such a thing.

But the king was right: nobody would believe he had turned down such an opportunity.

The king stared at Scratha for a while, fingers nervously working the edges of the note in his hand as if he longed to rip it to bits.

“Very well, then,” he said at last. “I accept. I’ll guard your lands from intrusion while you’re gone. You do realize the implications of your offer?”

“I do.”

“As for the name change—are you sure you want to do that?”

“I can’t very well collect history, observe culture, and send useful reports if the people I speak to are busy fawning on or fearing me as a desert lord,” Scratha said. “It’ll be hard enough, in the northlands, for me to pass at all without being attacked. I’ll probably be relying on my servant in some areas.”

Idisio did choke this time. Up to this moment, he hadn’t considered anything of his role beyond a hazy supposition that he’d be tending to Scratha’s horse, cooking him supper, mending and cleaning his clothes. Not that he knew how to do any of those things, but he’d figured it would all be easy enough to pick up along the way.

His strangling noise drew a brief, amused glance from the king. “I see you haven’t mentioned that idea to your servant yet.”

“There hasn’t been time,” Scratha said.

“At least you took time to clean him up before dinner. I’m grateful for that. And I hope you’ve also taken the time to caution your young thief against stealing anything while on palace grounds.”

In the following silence, Idisio could feel all color draining from his face, and Scratha looked completely at a loss for words.

The king managed a tired smile. “I’d be a fool if I didn’t inquire about a servant that looked as if he’d been picked up straight from the dustier streets of Bright Bay just before arriving—especially as you’ve never taken a servant before, Cafad. I thought you understood by now that I’m not a fool.”

“Indeed,” Scratha said. “My apologies, Lord Oruen. I seem to have forgotten.”

“You’re not the only one that forgets.” The king sighed. “Why, if I may ask, that choice of name?”

“Gerau was my s’enetan’s name,” Scratha said.

The king nodded. “Honoring your grandfather’s memory, I can understand,” he said. “And— forgive me—sa’adenit? I know you’re no fool yourself, but don’t you mean s’e deaneat, son of a desert family?”

Scratha looked grim. “I said what I meant.”

“There aren’t many who understand the old languages anymore,” the king said. “Most people won’t know what you mean.”

“All the better,” Scratha said. “Anyone who understands that word is dangerous.”

Idisio had held his silence for too long. Questions were crowding in his throat, becoming painful. He burst out, “My lord, Sire—what does it mean?”

“Ah,” the king said, smiling again as his gaze shifted to Idisio. “This one, at least, is safely ignorant, if there is any such thing.”

Scratha shook his head, brooding, and said nothing.

“What does it mean?” Idisio repeated.

The king answered, as Scratha sat silent. “It translates to ‘Blood on the Sand.’ The sa’a at the beginning marks it as matrilineal, where a line run by male parentage would call it se’edenit. It comes from an old verse. I learned it as a child, but I probably received a poor translation. Here’s best I can recall.” He began to chant in a hoarse voice:

When the desert sleeps

It does not forget its secrets

It does not forgive the blood

The blood that was shed without cause.

Stone grows cold and flowers close

But the desert remembers the warmth of life

The warmth of the blood as it fell to the sand.

The blood on the sand may disappear

But the desert does not forgive the death.

With the sun’s awakening the blood flows fresh

And the killer is damned by the desert

Because the desert does not forget

And the desert will never forgive.

The king paused, then repeated softly, “’The desert will never forgive.’ That verse always gave me chills.”

Idisio nodded fervently in agreement, goose bumps running up and down his spine.

“That was a poor translation,” Scratha said. He had crossed his arms during the recital, and still looked distinctly displeased. “It’s much longer than that, and more explicit. Northerns like to water everything down. But that version serves the point.”

“It’s a call for vengeance,” the king said quietly, his gaze fixed on the desert lord. “A thoroughly ugly call, at that, when it’s translated without what you call ‘watering down’ the words.”

“I will find the hand behind my family’s slaughter,” Scratha said, equally soft and calm, but madness flickered in his eyes again. “I will have their blood in equal measure. Never think I’m giving that up, however far you send me. Who knows, maybe the northlands will have clues I couldn’t find in the south. Stranger things have happened in this world.”

The king opened his mouth, checked, then sighed. “King’s Researcher Gerau Sa’adenit it is, then. I really hope you’ve thought this out, Cafad.”

“I have,” Scratha said, and stood. With two long steps he loomed over the king; then he knelt and held out his hand, palm up, offering a heavy silver ring with what looked like a family sigil stamped on the face.

Oruen stared at it for a moment, as if the desert lord were offering poison; then he reached out and picked the ring gingerly from Scratha’s palm. “I’ll tell people you’ve gone to the Stone Islands,” he said, not taking his gaze from the ring. “At least I can give you that much protection against gossip.”

“As you wish,” the desert lord said, sounding supremely indifferent, then stood, retreating as swiftly as he had advanced. “May we retire, Lord Oruen?”

The king waved a weary assent, sinking further into his chair. The last glance Idisio had of the king showed a deeply worried expression and a note once again crumpled between royal hands.

They didn’t return to their room, as Idisio had expected. Instead, his lord guided him through another seemingly endless march. They turned and twisted through various hallways, climbing a shallow flight of steps and then descending, several changes of direction later, a rather longer set of stairs.

The air grew noticeably damp, and Idisio put his arm over his nose to ward against the increasing tang of mold and mildew. The space between the guttering wall sconces grew until islands of light lay ahead and behind while they walked in darkness. The hallway narrowed, too; eventually Idisio could put his hands out to either side and feel the walls. And then the passage tightened further, until he could extend no more than elbows.

Finally there were no more torches ahead: only cold, unbroken silence and empty, dark, stinking air.

“My lord?” Idisio ventured, keeping his voice just above a whisper, hoping his growing panic wouldn’t show in the low tone. This place felt foul; although no smell of blood or refuse registered in his nose, an itching nausea seemed to lurk in the very air.

Something bad happened here. Lots of bad things.

Idisio felt as though the dead crowded close, their slimy hands caressing his arms and back and legs.

The noble made a low shushing noise and went on, his feet making no noise on the pitted rock that had long ago replaced smooth stone underfoot. Idisio drew breath, cursing himself for a fool, and followed, one hand out to avoid running into his lord from behind.

And then something stirred, something deep and wild and formless; there came a shriek that had no sound and a moment of grey eyes staring desperately into his own. Scratha’s hand, latching onto his wrist, jerked him back to the moment and almost brought the held scream from Idisio’s throat. With a faint whimper, he followed the man’s tug to the left.

To Idisio’s intense relief, the feeling of foulness faded with each step they took. Scratha walked behind him from that point on, steering with one hand on Idisio’s shoulder. Every so often Scratha tugged him to a brief halt, nudged a little faster, or turned this way or that, all in complete darkness. At times Scratha reached to touch, push, or pull something hidden, provoking muted clicks or distant grinding noises.

The floor finally sloped sharply upwards, and the air freshened, feathering Idisio’s hair. The darkness became that of an open, cloudy sky on a moonless night.

“Wait here,” Scratha said in a low voice, and slipped back into the passage.

Idisio stood still, trembling with relief, and stretched his arms out full in all directions, just to prove to himself that he could. Returning, Scratha made an odd noise that might have been amusement and nudged Idisio’s shoulder.

“Come on. We’ve a walk yet.”

Idisio couldn’t hold back a groan. More walking sounded as welcome as an asp-kiss.

“Where are we going, my lord?”

“We’re leaving. I’ve arranged everything to be left at a safe spot not far from here. And don’t call me Lord any more. I’m Gerau Sa’adenit, Master Gerau to you, now.”

“What happened to first thing in the morning?” Idisio muttered.

Behind them, the Bright Bay Watch-Tower bells sounded the midnight hour. Idisio cast an aggrieved glare towards the sound and stomped after his new master.


ABOUT THE BOOK
A THIEF CHOOSES THE WRONG VICTIM.

A DESERT LORD ABANDONS HIS LANDS

A YOUNG WOMAN ACCEPTS A STEWARDSHIP.

THEY ALL FIND THEIR DESTINY ON THE SANDS.

Idisio cuts the wrong purse and finds himself bound to serve a desert lord who just gave up his wealth, his lands, and his name to wander. His new master is the lone survivor of a massacred family and might be insane, but serving him is better than life on the streets.

Lady Alyea accepts the king’s mission to assume stewardship of the desert lord’s abandoned fortress. But the southern desert is a harsh world of violence, suspicion, and politically tangled family clans who worship the old gods. All her courtly manners are useless as she struggles to gain status in a deadly race for a prize she doesn’t fully understand.

Out on the sands, the harsh glare of the sun reveals more about the world—and themselves—than they ever wanted to know.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Leona Wisoker is the author of the fantasy novel Secrets of the Sands, Book One of Children of the Desert. Her work is fueled equally by coffee and conviction; she has been known to take over the entire dining room to deconstruct a difficult novel-in-progress. Addicted to eclectic research and reading since childhood, she often chooses reading material alphabetically rather than by subject or author. This has led her to read about aardvarks, birds, child-warriors, dragons, eggs, faeries, ghosts, horses, and many other random subjects.

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