Ooooh. Here already. If this was a novel, I’d put this writing aside for a day or two and then re-read and edit it. I think it would be better. However, the whole idea of a weekly serial is it comes out every week. It’s good discipline for me to be inflexible with my writing schedule.
Over the next couple of weeks, I will go back over the whole novella, edit it and append an epilogue (basically to tie up the Elodie situation neatly). That will be what I publish. I think the name will be ‘Regime Change’ with ‘Long Island Athanate’ as the series name in case I write more with these characters. I may need to add a couple of lines of explanation and background of the Athanate for those people for whom this will be the first experience of the Bite Back world.
Next serial…we’ll see. Certainly posting a serial on this blog has been popular enough to keep going in the way I have. Something different perhaps. Comments below 🙂
What else? The Angel Stakes audiobook has been paid for and Audible/ACX have acknowledged and processed the payment, which only took 10 days(!). Next step is their internal technical and checking processes, which have taken a couple of weeks for previous audiobooks. I’ll post of FB and here when it’s finally published.
Mandaviran, Warder’s Court, South Prospect, Brooklyn
“You’re familiar with the kinirak,” Skylur says. “Good.”
“Flavia is an old House. Not old enough to lay claim to a place in Itrexia, but old enough that the rituals of the Mandaviran are the heart of our physical training.”
Skylur has lit a rush candle and placed it in the very center of the Mandaviran. It gives off a fragrant scented smoke: sage and cedar wood, cypress, thyme and lemon.
“You know then—”
“Yes,” Livia interrupts him, indicating the candle. “When the flame dies, we fight.”
They move opposite to each other, and begin stalking the sandy circumference of the Mandaviran anticlockwise.
“Is this consecrated?” Livia says. “The old tales said that only a king might consecrate a Mandaviran, and so the last one vanished with the fall of Itrexia.”
His face is still, but breath huffs out of Skylur. “The old tales are right, as far as they go. Yet this is a true Mandaviran.”
“So there is truth when they also say the king escaped the fall of Itrexia and became a god in another land, where he was worshipped—”
“We’re not here to discuss old tales of the Athanate. We’re here to resolve the future.”
“Not yet. The flame has not died,” Livia says. Then she quotes from a classic Athanate text. Julius recognizes it as a poem called The Fall of Itrexia:
We saluted the king
And stepped the sacred circle.
Yet still, proud Itrexia fell,
When our feet had worn all paths to dust.
“None of the poets you have read were ever there, Livia. It wasn’t the observance of rituals or the arbitration of disputes that ground Itrexia to dust. The city died by assault from human kingdoms, in blood and flames and screams. You asked me what wakes me in the night. Now you have your answer.”
“And are we so much different then?” Livia asks.
“Perhaps not. But it remains that I must rule, or risk the greatest of disasters for Athanate and human alike. And in pursuit of that, I’ll allow no one to stand in my way on the path I’ve chosen.”
Livia is silent for an entire circuit of the Mandaviran. The rush candle still burns, but the wisps of smoke are growing thinner.
“Is this my korheny then?” she says.
Julius shakes his head. She’s proposing offering her life as a sacrifice.
Skylur remains silent, so Livia continues formally. “I offer my life in exchange for all the hidden Athanate Houses of Long Island, Athanate and human alike. Take my life, Altau, and spare theirs.”
Julius is so close to completion. Elodie is not healed yet, but he’s nearly reached a stage where he can risk leaving her to sleep. Which will give him enough time to offer himself as korheny. It’s his role, he can’t let Livia do this. He can’t. The thought of her dying is like hot coals burning in his chest.
Just a few moments more, that’s all he needs.
“No,” Skylur says.
Livia kicks sand over the candle, extinguishing it, and attacks in a blur of movement.
Julius is so much younger than Livia and Skylur, so much less powerful, he can barely see the blows they exchange for their speed. Blade screeches across blade, sliding off pelea, making a wicked hiss through the empty air. Sand explodes from their steps as they stamp and twist and turn and thrust and swing at each other.
And they part, springing back. Already, sweat glistens on their bare skin. Their lungs heave to feed their muscles.
To Julius’ eye, Livia looks more the part of a fighter in the Mandaviran. Honed to perfection. Deadly. Skylur’s body seems…unexceptional. And yet Livia believes herself so outclassed, she might as well make this her sacrifice.
“Is there no way?” Livia says.
“There is one way,” Skylur replies, “and that is through me.”
Does he mean that only if he dies will the Long Island Athanate survive?
“You’re no different from Basilikos, really,” Livia says, “except by your preferences for your physical needs. You believe you’re superior to humans, and on top of that, to all Athanate as well. Which of us is worse?”
Skylur simply smiles. “But who will judge me?” he says. “And as for you, are you above judgment, Livia? Who will sit in judgment of you?”
“Not humans, as you would have it!”
She strikes out again. The exchange is swifter than the last, a blur of confused motion to Julius.
Livia is bleeding when they part. A cut across her belly. Not deep as far as Julius can judge. The thought of the kinirak’s blade passing just an inch or two deeper makes him ill.
“Not humans in judgement of you,” Skylur says. “Not the Hidden Path party, not Basilikos, not Panethus.”
Livia snorts. “It appears I’m left with only you, Altau. In the Mandaviran.”
Another blinding exchange of blows.
Livia has another cut, on her chest. Skylur is untouched.
He can’t let this go on. Julius has to move. Now.
His moving brings Elodie back to consciousness.
Her mind is full of confusion and fear and a wrack of emotions he can’t spare the time to untangle.
But she’s still his responsibility.
“Elodie, listen to me,” he whispers. “Listen, and trust me. You’re on the way to healing. You’re going to be fine. I can’t go with you all the way. I’m sorry. I know I should, but I can’t. There’s something I have to do. You’ll sleep now, and someone else will be with you when you wake. I’m sorry. You are so brave. I wish I could have stayed with you.” Julius rests his forehead against hers, and with their minds touching, gives her a little push that will send her into a deep, restful sleep.
“May your life be long and full of joy,” he says as her eyes close again.
He lays her down gently on the floor, and turns to the Mandaviran.
“Stop!” Livia says, and he stops, on the very edge of the sand, as if her hand had prevented him.
“No one else may enter the Mandaviran,” Livia says.
Even now, the force of her will is stronger than he is.
“You wouldn’t have to be toru any more,” Skylur says, “if I killed her.”
“No!” The word is torn from Julius. “Don’t hurt her. I offer my korheny. Take my life in exchange.”
“No,” Skylur says and Livia lunges forward again, her kinirak slicing upwards to gut Skylur.
But he isn’t there. He spins away and lashes out with his pelea, striking Livia on the side of her head.
She collapses, stunned, face-first into the sand.
Skylur grabs the straps that fasten her pelea and lifts her, drags her, until she is kneeling, swaying at the edge of the Mandaviran, in front of Julius.
“Judgment is due, Livia,” Skylur says. He lays the blade of his kinirak alongside her neck. “You offered me korheny in return for the lives of the Long Island Athanate, who elected you to rule them. But I don’t value your death against what I might do to them. This hidden community that is no longer hidden has its own value to me. They are in no danger if they give me their oaths, or leave for Ireland. I truly hope they stay. As your toru said, they are a sort of model for the Athanate world at large.”
Julius mirrors Livia’s position, kneeling.
“Stay out of the Mandaviran,” Livia mumbles, her eyes slowly clearing after the disorienting blow to her head.
He’ll stay out for the moment. If Skylur kills her, then he’ll enter the Mandaviran and die on the blade of Skylur’s kinirak.
“You come here to the Warder’s Court, in justified fear of your life,” Skylur goes on, “and almost immediately, you ask about the disposition of those Houses sworn to you. Panethus and Basilikos equally. Humans and Athanate. A strange attitude for a Basilikos House to take. Almost as strange as setting up your toru as a Panethus House.”
“It amuses me,” Livia’s voice is scratchy, but still defiant. There’s blood leaking from the corner of her mouth.
Skylur’s lips thin. It’s not a smile exactly.
“And you’ve told me what wakes you at night, Livia, House Flavia. In great detail. The screams of your House, your Athanate, your toru and marai dying in the flames. The smells and sights you have described so vividly.”
Livia does not speak.
“Describe, what a wonderful word. Your pelea describes your arm. It tells me the length and thickness and shape of your arm, even while it hides what is beneath. The vulnerable part. Why do those remembered screams wake you at night?”
Skylur sinks down on one knee behind her. His blade still rests against her throat.
“Because you failed them.” He speaks into her ear. “They looked to you for safety, those little farmers, and you failed them. That’s what wakes you. And why are the lives of the Long Island Houses so important? Why did you stay here, rather than fly away? Because they look to you for safety and you fear failing them too. You will do anything to keep them safe.”
Livia’s eyes close. She’s still panting from the fight, sweat trickling down her face. When she speaks it’s very quiet. “You’d base all your decision on one unremarkable quirk of my character?”
“Unremarkable? Not all the darkness in the world can extinguish the light of one candle.”
“You’re insane, Altau.”
“Maybe I am. I see visions of salvation, and I will follow them as single-mindedly as Elodie Villiers did.” Skylur sighed. “I will not stop or turn aside, neither I will let anyone stand in my way. But enough of this challenge, I have tried emotion, reason, logic and the Mandaviran with you. If I have failed then I must challenge Julius instead.”
“No!” Livia flinches and the razor blade of the kinirak nicks her throat, breaks the skin.
“No,” she says again, holding still. “I’ll do what you want.”
“Are you sure? You may not want to pay the price.”
Carefully, she nods her head. “I will change, Altau. I will mold myself to your requirements. I will become Panethus. Spare him.”
Skylur laughs. The blade moves away. There’s a hiss as he sheathes it in the sand.
“House di Firenze, attend,” he says.
Julius nods acceptance of his role of witness to an oath. Anything to save her. He has no idea how Livia would be able to change, nor how Skylur would monitor or enforce it, but at least it buys time, and a desperate man will take that.
“Livia, House Flavia, are you willing to do my bidding?” Skylur asks.
Livia’s breathing is gradually slowing. Her eyes are focused on something beyond Julius. “I am, Altau,” she says.
“Good. Then under the aegis of the authority invested in me as Master of House Altau, I hereby appoint you Diakon of House Altau. You are to immediately establish, continuously maintain and always enforce the domain of House Altau in New York State, fixing the mantle in Manhattan, or such location as we shall agree.”
Julius is stunned. Not only does Skylur want Livia to be Panethus, he wants her to be his Diakon. His mouth opens but no sound comes out.
“You will, through cooperation with others sworn to me, protect the territory of House Altau, currently all North America, or such extent as we shall later agree and claim. You will, with due dispatch and in full cognizance of Athanate laws and imperatives, communicate to all parties that House Flavia, a House that declares its abidance by the ancient creed known as Basilikos, accepts and agrees this commission and will remain fully and at all times within the loyalty and mantle of House Altau.”
Livia’s eyes are wide and disbelieving, searching the space around them as if looking for a sign that this is all a ruse.
“You will immediately make such script as shall render this oath as a warrant before the Assembly, or other body of Athanate as may later be lawfully designated to have authority.”
There is a shocked silence.
“House Flavia?” Skylur gently prompts.
“I accept,” she says. Her voice shakes. “I swear, on my Blood, to honor this commission, and to return oath for oath, faith for faith, Blood for Blood, life for life.”
“I grant the position, obligations, rights and privileges within my gift and contained in this oath,” Skylur says.
“My Blood is yours,” Livia whispers.
Skylur pulls her head back and sinks his fangs into her throat.
Her breath hisses in sharply. Then it’s her turn. Skylur’s throat is offered. She bites, delicately, pulls his Blood in through her fangs. Licks his flesh to speed the healing afterwards.
“It is done,” they both say.
Julius manages to stutter: “So witnessed.”
Skylur stands and begins to unstrap his pelea. He looks enormously satisfied.
Numbly, Julius helps Livia with hers. Then, ignoring her protests, he cleans her wounds, running his tongue along them so his bio-agents will close the gashes.
“You are crazy, Altau,” Livia says. “Why?”
Skylur is cleaning his pelea and kinirak before storing them back in the cabinets.
“On a purely practical level,” he says, “My former Diakons, Houses Bazhir, Tarez and Trang, have their hands full with their territories, so I have no Diakon, and I need one. I find you suitably qualified.”
“Even as Basilikos?”
“Especially as Basilikos. Whatever the composition and leadership of the current Assembly, I will lead the Athanate in Emergence. That needs to be not some Athanate, but all Athanate. Emergence will break over us faster than we can react. I do not have the time to convert all Basilikos to Panethus, any more than I have the opportunity to achieve the same thing with conflict. The only path left to me is to lead all Athanate, whatever their creed, so I better get used to it. And on a minor point, keeping you as my Diakon will make running my domain here in New York easy. You will see to that, won’t you? Both of you.”
“The House style is to call me Skylur, Livia.”