The Amber Revenant is out! This is the third book in my Red Wraith series, a historical fantasy (loosely) set in the 17th century.
You can pick up a copy here. For a preview, read on.
The ransom was written in the wind.
Genadi glided back to appraise his handiwork. Lines of yellowed leaves hovered in the breeze, their blades limp from the remembered pressure of the receding snow. The leaves spelled out a message—a terrible, righteous message—but it wasn’t quite right. If he wanted Europa’s rulers to pay his bounty, he’d have to strike a better balance between reason and threat.
He let the leaves drift back to the ground and looked about for inspiration. Spring wasn’t yet in bloom, but Angland’s coast was as cheerful as he remembered: whimsical water, rugged cliffs, and sheep speckling the landscape (both with their white wool and their brown leavings). The sight should have been calming. For anyone else, it probably would have been. Yet Genadi couldn’t forget how he’d spent his days here anticipating or enduring pain. There was no beauty in that.
A figure moved into view over the nearest rise—likely one of the local shepherds. Perhaps he felt Genadi trespassed on this land. Perhaps he wanted to fight.
One could hope.
“Morning!” the shepherd called in earthy Anglo. His clothing was correspondingly coarse, but his bearing spoke of self-confidence. “Are you lost, friend?”
“Am I your friend?”
The shepherd stopped and peered at Genadi, eyes narrowing. “A Mohammedan, are you?”
The shepherd squinted harder, likely looking for a brand. “All the same. Never seen one of your lot this far north. Not loose, anyway. Maybe you’re not lost so much as you’ve run off from the Higgins’ estate?”
Genadi’s lips twitched. “So the Higgins are still the local lords?”
“Aye. They pay good coin for my fleece. I expect they’ll pay better for lost goods.” The shepherd tipped his knotty staff forward as if merely brandishing it would decide the matter.
Genadi smiled in full now. “Tell me, ‘friend,’ can you read?”
“A bit.” The shepherd’s tone was equal parts proud and defensive.
“Good. I could use some advice. What do you think of this?” Genadi gestured at the ground, and his yellowed leaves rose back into the air, rustling faintly as they floated into their previous alignment. He rose with them. “Pretend you were a noble—one of the Higgins, say, grinding those that toil for them to dust. Would you be inclined to pay what I asked?”
The shepherd’s staff fell to the ground while his face went whiter than the sheepskin draped over his shoulders. He blinked once at the leaves, then again at Genadi. “Warlock,” the man murmured.
More leaves swirled up, funneling around Genadi’s dangling legs, over his chest, and along his arms as the wind grew chill and a sheep bleated from the next hill.
The sound broke the shepherd’s paralysis, and with a cry of his own, he found the courage to draw a knife and hurl it at Genadi. The shepherd’s aim was true, but the blade spun through Genadi’s chest without making the slightest impact, resisted only by the leaf it impaled on the way out.
Blanching again, the shepherd edged backward. “Ghost,” he amended in an even softer voice.
Genadi did nothing as the man spun on his heel and fled. No need for a fight after all—it was enough to be seen. Seen and feared.
No need for reasoning either. The first line was already perfect:
The seasons are mine. Only blood and treasure will reclaim them.
Nodding, Genadi caused each leaf to fur with frost and sent them fluttering toward the Higgins’ estate. Once they’d faded from view, he conjured another gust to carry him south. His old masters would be the first to hear his demands, but not the last.
There were many other slavers to hold to account.
In perhaps the greatest irony of his life, Naysin burned with fever.
Grimacing, he edged further from the blazing campfire. Six moons ago, atop the earthen peak of Saint’s Summit, he’d immunized the original people—the Hellani, the Kiksha, the Metica, and all the rest, including his Lepane kin—against disease. The cost had been terrible: fully one in ten of those he’d “cured” had perished on what had come to be known as the Day of Black Pus (so called because of the corruption that oozed from their pores). But those who’d survived would never suffer so much as a cold again, much less the plagues that had devastated their populations at far greater rates.
Not Naysin, though. He’d neglected to immunize himself. And now he was so sick it felt like his insides would erupt into flames at any moment.
Showing no mercy, Tay nudged him back toward the fire. “Nice try. Stay where it’s warm and keep your poncho on. I didn’t make it for decoration.”
“Why? I’m hot as a fire on my own.”
“Until you catch a chill again, and I have to massage your skin to stop your shivering.”
Naysin forced a mischievous smile. “Was that so bad?”
Tay rolled her eyes. As always, the motion highlighted her pupils’ milky coloring. Her foxlike hearing—sharper even than a blind person’s (or in her case, a formerly blind person’s)—had returned after the Day of Black Pus. And her equally keen sense of smell had never left. But her sight remained limited to what she could see through Xihuitl, a cantankerous, greedy gull. The bird was perched in a nearby tree, glaring at Naysin as he scooted marginally closer to the fire.
“Did the gull tell on me?” he asked.
“In his way, but I heard you first.”
The precise nature of Tay’s connection to Xihuitl remained unclear. The gull had formerly belonged to Quecxl, the Metican shaman whose healing powers had enabled the cure. Quecxl had called Xihuitl his nahualli, or animal twin—something similar to the guardian spirits Naysin’s kin put so much stock in. Tay thought the bird might be a minor reflection of her people’s gods, a living totem the Metican had somehow blessed with breath and flight. Whatever the truth of the relationship, it seemed to have transferred to Tay, perhaps through the links she’d established with Quecxl and the other shamans Naysin had summoned to Saint’s Summit.
She offered him her hand. “Can you stand?”
“Are you going to drag me if I don’t?”
Gritting his teeth, he gripped her hand and pulled. It didn’t get him anywhere. He’d meant to haul himself up, but when it became clear he couldn’t straighten his legs on his own, Tay raised him high enough to lean on her shoulder.
“You’re getting worse,” she noted quietly.
“It’ll pass. I just hope it doesn’t go on to you.” He hadn’t immunized Tay either. Most days he was glad of that. His dreams were already filled with too many shadowy forms writhing on the ground and leaking black sludge. And if his beautiful, deadly Dzuni girl had been among the one in every ten who’d never gotten back up … But if she became as sick as he was now—weaker than he’d let on until just a moment ago—would he regret his oversight?
She walked him to the furs she’d arranged beside the fire. “You’re sure you can’t do something about this? I know healing on your own is hard …”
“It’s still nearly impossible without Quecxl. Maybe more so—I don’t know that I’ll ever get back to what I was before Saint’s Summit. And anything I managed would probably leave me so tired I’d be worse off.” Naysin squinted as the fire’s heat assaulted his face. Then he chuckled.
“What is it?”
“You’re being a mother hen again. It’s like Saint’s Summit all over.” Except in that case, he’d been dying. Truly dying—gutshot, with little chance of recovery. “This is nothing compared to that. I’ll be fine. And really, I deserve worse.”
She swatted him on the head. “Stop it. We’re not doing that again.”
Not out loud, at least.
She was good at guessing his thoughts, though—her second swat was harder, but she softened it with a kiss. “You’re not allowed to brood about it either. It’s done. We’re an ocean away from all that.”
He nodded. Not because he agreed with her; he only had to close his eyes to return to the Day of Black Pus. But they’d come to the coast of Francia for something else. “You still can’t see her?”
Tay shook her head. “Your mother got the cure too—and endured it. I’m sure of that. But trying to pinpoint her energy among everyone else’s is …”
“Impossible. I know. Thank you for continuing to try.”
“Of course.” She grabbed a spare fur and huddled into it.
He winced. “I’m sorry I can’t keep the cold off us right now. When I’m better—”
“Shh.” Tay held her hand up, then rippled her fingers into the hand-praying signs she’d first shown him all those years ago in Dzune. Someone’s coming.
Is it my fathers? Enki and Enmul—the spirit of the first trapped inside the sand-and-stone body of the second—had kept their distance since Saint’s Summit. Naysin hadn’t noticed any sign of them in days. There was no reason for them to know creating the cure had diminished him. And even if they did, the old manitouk must realize they still had little chance against him when he was healthy; not with their magic neutered and inaccessible. If they’d noticed his illness, though, and guessed how much further it limited him …
It’s not them, Tay signed. The footsteps are too light. Xihuitl flew off his perch and circled up into the sky. Tay reached for her rainstick and leaned forward, no doubt gazing through the bird’s eyes. Xihuitl sees a pale man and a teenage girl—probably a farmer and his daughter.
That sounds innocent enough.
Tay shrugged but didn’t set down her rainstick. It looked harmless, carved with a subtle bird motif that evoked summertime in a different land. Yet twisting either end would produce a bone blade sharp enough to shear off a limb. Hopefully, that wouldn’t be necessary.
They’re coming this way? asked Naysin.
Tay nodded, throwing off her fur as she rose. Can you shield your face?
He frowned. The swirling, black-and-white brand surrounding his left eye was a telltale back in the “New” World. So was his smoky hair. But perhaps the legend of the Red Wraith hadn’t traveled this far. I’d rather not spend the energy.
It’s either that or you climb a tree and stay there until they’re gone.
Fine. Naysin breathed out, then in and gathered the necessary Kug to himself. Its essence would be invisible to the farmer and his girl, as it was to Tay and virtually everyone else in the world. Yet the lines of order allowed him to construct a small illusion, a softer, unmarked version of his face and hair. Instinctively, he matched this expenditure with an equal amount of Mir, using Kug’s chaotic counterpart to wash himself with a cooling breeze. The long-ingrained habit of keeping the two energies in equilibrium wasn’t as vital as it used to be; the headaches that resulted from an imbalance had lessened since his fathers lost the power to amplify them. But they still hurt, and he was uncomfortable enough as it was.
They’re about twenty paces away, Tay signed.
I can hear them now. The man was singing a wordless song with a pleasing rhythm. The girl chimed in on what passed for the chorus.
How do you want to handle it?
Without standing up.
Tay glanced back so she could roll her milky eyes at him again.
Don’t worry, I’ll be pleasant.
Maybe I should have made you climb that tree.
Maybe you should let me do the talking.
Tay grunted and pointed at the deer trail that ran through their campsite. A moment later, as Xihuitl reclaimed his perch above them, the man and girl rounded the nearest bend and came into view.
“Papa,” the girl said as the song died in her father’s throat. “Regarde.”
Grudgingly, Naysin reached for the extra Kug he’d need to translate the duo’s dialect and added the same measure of Mir to his private breeze. It had been several moons since he’d spoken with anyone but Tay—and even longer since he’d spoken in Franc.
The man gave Naysin a puzzled look. Tay was right—he seemed like a farmer: simple clothes, weathered face, and powerful hands. “We mean no trouble,” he said. “I hope you don’t mind us passing through your camp.”
“Not at all,” Naysin replied. The quicker this encounter was over, the better. Even tiny quantities of Kug and Mir were tiring for him right now.
The farmer nodded and motioned for his daughter to follow him. But while he kept his focus on Naysin, she seemed entranced by Tay. It made sense. Her multicolored poncho and feathered leggings undoubtedly clashed with the local fashions, and her short hair was probably almost as unusual.
It might cause some excitement when word spread, but that was fine. Naysin had no intention of lingering long enough for rumors to catch up to them. If only the two Francs would walk faster. The strain of maintaining his mask was increasing at a ridiculous pace; he’d felt diminished for a time after Saint’s Summit, but nothing like this. He was growing dizzy just sitting here.
And in yet another irony, the effort turned out to be a complete waste.
When the farmer and his daughter drew even with the campfire, she finally glanced at Naysin. Her mouth opened and her hand crept up to trace a circle around her right eye—as if she were mirroring his brand, the mark she shouldn’t have been able to perceive. More shocking still was the faint cone of Kug flickering in front of her face.
Naysin bolted up, then cursed his instincts as the sudden rise set his head spinning even faster. Even so, the giddy rush wouldn’t normally have pushed him over the edge. But he was falling before he realized exactly how feeble he’d become, and seeing darkness before his head hit the ground.
* * *
“You were right,” Tay observed when Naysin woke. “You’re bad at standing now.”
His mouth was too dry to reply; it felt like someone had stuffed a handful of sand down his throat.
“Here.” First, she kissed him. Then she tilted his head up and held a wooden cup to his lips. When he parted them, she dribbled in a few drops of acrid water and pulled back so he could swallow.
After several rounds of this, he judged himself hydrated enough to attempt a question: “Where are we?”
He could see they were in a small, one-room house that smelled vaguely of livestock. The fireplace radiated a heat he was glad of—his fever having swapped itself for chills again—and the blankets and furs piled atop him pressed down with a comforting weight.
But he had no idea where this cozy house was.
“Sabien—that’s the farmer who came through our camp—insisted we stay here while you recovered. He even offered you his bed.”
Naysin raised his eyebrows. “And you agreed?” It was hard to imagine Tay trusting a stranger so quickly. She must have been truly worried.
“He said his wife knows herbs. And I didn’t think another night in the cold would do you any favors.”
Probably not. Naysin caught another whiff of the water—was that rosemary he was smelling? Was it stronger on this side of the world?—and pushed it away. “Lucky me. What’s her name?”
“Sabien and Jaqueline … You’re able to understand them on your own?”
Tay shrugged and sat on the edge of the bed. “A little. I’m not really sure how. But you’re so good with languages—maybe you’re rubbing off on me?”
“I guess it’s possible.” Saint’s Summit had connected them in all sorts of ways. Or perhaps he’d just extended his translating weave to Tay without realizing it? Either was fine, as long as she didn’t get sick too. Gingerly, Naysin raised his head and looked around the house, studying it in detail this time. “It’s the next morning, then?”
“The next afternoon. You’ve been out almost a full day.”
He grimaced. Spirits and lakes, what a waste. “Who’s the artist?”
Delicate drawings adorned the dried-mud walls and much of the furniture. Sketches of animals mostly; Xihuitl, watching from a shelf, was flanked by images of an owl and a hawk. But several lords and ladies danced behind the table, and a battle scene raged above the door.
“The girl,” Tay said. “Robine. She was working on that wolf this morning.”
Naysin followed Tay’s finger to the snarling, half-finished maw in the far corner. “She’s good.”
“Very. Speaking of her …”
Robine stepped into the house a moment later, opening and shutting the door quickly. Even so, enough chilly air entered with her that Naysin shivered. He wondered whether he should try to hide his brand again but decided it didn’t matter. The girl had already pierced his disguise with her cone of Kug, and the mask had lapsed while he’d been unconscious, so Sabien and Jaqueline must have seen it now too. Resurrecting the deception would only result in more questions. Hopefully, Sabien had thought its initial absence a quirk of the light.
Upon finding Naysin awake, Robine stepped toward the bed and then stepped back, perhaps torn between asking him about his illusion and making an excuse to go back outside.
“I like your drawings,” he said. If he could lower her a guard a bit, maybe they could speak about each other’s magic.
“Thanks,” she murmured. She didn’t move closer until Tay gestured at a chair, though.
Naysin tried to guess the gangly girl’s age as she sat. Fourteen winters? Fifteen? No older than that. “Your family is very gracious for taking me in like this.”
“It’s no trouble.”
“Even so. I intend to repay your hospitality once I’m able.” He hesitated for a moment, trying to find the likeliest path. “Could I show you one of my carvings?”
“If you like.”
Naysin started to rise, instantly regretted it, and lay back down, closing his eyes until his head stopped swimming. “Tay, would you mind getting the raccoon out of my pack?”
“Sure.” She was already off the bed and opening his bag. After a bit of rummaging, she handed Robine the wooden figurine he’d finished just before taking ill.
“It’s well done,” the girl conceded.
“Thank you. Not as good as your drawings, but I enjoyed making it.” There was a time when he’d crafted without using his hands, paring down each piece with blades of Mir and strengthening the joins with patches of Kug. But whittling with anything other than a physical knife felt like cheating now.
“What’s a raccoon?”
“You don’t have them in Francia?”
Robine shook her head.
“They’re like a squirrel crossed with a cat.”
She smiled—that was progress. “I bet they’re clever.”
“Very. Too clever for their own good sometimes.”
“I like that kind of clever.” She bent her head to study the figurine’s back. “Are their tails really so big?”
Now he smiled—she sounded like she already knew the answer. “No, I took some liberties there. Well, my knife did. I didn’t realize the proportions were off until it was too late; the body was already too small.”
“Couldn’t you have trimmed the tail down?”
“Probably. But I didn’t see it right away. You seem to spy the truth of things faster than me.”
Too direct—Robine stiffened, then started to pass the raccoon back.
She nearly dropped it. “Are you sure?”
“As I said, I want to pay your family back for your hospitality. That’s just a start.”
“It’s not necessary.”
“All right … I guess. Thanks.” Robine considered the figurine again, then tapped the tiny Franc letters he’d carved into its base. “What’s that say?”
“‘In memory of Jehan.’ She was someone I knew who liked raccoons.”
Tay stirred at this. Not in a way that seemed jealous—she knew how much guilt he carried over what had happened to Jehan. But it must have been odd to hear the fur trader’s name again.
When Robine looked up, she was biting her lip as if considering something. A moment later, she blurted it out. “Can you read a message for me?”
The girl nodded and hurried to the shelf Xihuitl had claimed. They eyed each other skeptically until Tay clucked her tongue and the gull flew to her shoulder. Then Robine set the raccoon on the shelf and removed a small cup and stick.
Next, she strode to one of the few empty sections of wall but seemed to think better of marking it. Instead, she grabbed the top pieces of wood from the stack by the hearth and lined them up next to each other on the floor, creating a rough canvas for herself. Finally, she dipped her stick in the cup—which looked to be filled with ash—and began writing. From the way she kept pausing to cock her head and furrow her brow, Naysin assumed she was transcribing the words from memory.
Her accuracy was impressive. Only a few letters seemed out of place, and none in a way that caused him any real confusion.
“What does it say?” asked Tay. Her Franc was passable—especially considering her lisp. But her newfound skill with languages didn’t seem to apply to reading.
In this case, that might be a good thing. The message was horrific.
“Please,” a vaguely familiar voice said from the front of the house. “If you can read it, we might as well hear what it says.”
Naysin cringed almost as much as Robine at the sight of Sabien standing in the doorway with crossed arms, his gaze as cold as the air streaming in around him. Had her father told her to forget seeing the message she’d just recreated on the firewood? If so, it was too late. “It’s not fit for a young lady’s ears.”
“Fifteen is old enough to hear truth.” Sabien moved to let in a woman—Jaqueline, most likely. Mercifully, she shut the door behind her. “If you please.”
“All right.” Naysin cleared his throat and sped through the message: “It says, ‘The seasons are mine. Only blood and treasure will reclaim them. To buy back your spring, seven priests must carve a broken cross into their foreheads and throw the bloody knives into the ocean. To buy back your summer, five merchants must allow themselves to be shackled and whipped at the water’s edge. To buy back your fall, three nobles must melt themselves into a carriage of gold and drive it into the sea. And to buy back your winter, one royal must tar his heir into a ship and set it adrift. I’m watching.’”
Xihuitl squawked when Naysin finished, but no one else said anything. “Where did you see this?” he asked eventually.
Sabien grunted and stepped towards the annotated wood. Only after he’d thrown the pieces in the fire and watched flames cloak each one did he answer: “Two days ago, by the sea. We were on our way back from town. Robine said she saw a swirl of leaves that looked like writing. I told her to forget it, but it matches the stories. The Amber Revenant’s come to Francia. May God have mercy on us all.”