The following is an excerpt from my upcoming novel, Trial by Fire, the first book in The New Earth Trilogy. Sign up for my weekly newsletter here to receive updates regarding the story and your chance for a free Kindle copy on December 13th! If you haven’t read chapter one, check it out here.
“How do you know?”
“You should have seen him with the boar. He’s ready.”
“But what about his impulse to help the Kiowa? We can’t have him causing unrest if he holds the position.”
“It was noble, really. He may be approaching manhood, but he still has the tendencies of a boy. That’s what the training’s for. Plus, do we even have time to be debating this? The prophecy seems to be coming true.”
“Prophecy? I’m not so sure I want to rule the people of Mandina with the guidance of some ancient script.”
“Say what you will, but Archemon seems to think that everything will come to pass. It’s not a matter of ‘if’ so much as it’s a matter of ‘when.’ And if he’s correct, which I’ve come to find he usually is, ‘when’ is going to come quicker than we’d like.”
“‘Than we’d like’? Ha! I’d like none of this to happen at all.”
“You know what I mean.”
“Unfortunately, I do. So, what now? How would the training start, place him under Archemon’s tutelage? I’m wary of putting him with someone who has dissenting beliefs, especially after your son’s actions at the place of the unknowing.”
“We have to trust him; there’s no other choice. Listen, I’m your advisor, the Royal Caligriph, and I advise you to begin the training. Now. A moment wasted is another Mandinan dead. Do you want blood on your hands?”
“Stop with your sensationalism! I understand the weight of our predicament. If we disappear from Terra, who’ll be left to pick up the task? If this is the only way you think we can survive this, then so be it. Start the training. But I don’t want him to know about the full prophecy, not yet. It’s too much of a burden for such a young man.”
“Agreed. You won’t be disappointed.”
“Ha. You forget that I’m the King of a proverbial sinking ship. To me, every day is a disappointment.”
Usifi walked behind Quin as they snaked through the Royal Building’s passageways, walking up stairs and winding their way higher toward the Royal Chamber. It was only the second time he’d ever been to the inner workings of the King’s dwelling, and the first time he’d been invited.
He’d last seen the Chamber on a bet, a long time ago. When Bantu and he had been much younger but only slightly more naive, his friend had dared him to enter the sacred home of the King, if nothing more than to see if he’d get caught. Usifi, never one to back down, accepted without a thought, and with no plan in mind, trudged across the city and to the Royal Building placed behind the Keep.
He’d made his way to the door of the King’s dwelling in much the same manner as now, except that back then, his pulse had raced and his hands had shaken. “You know, they kill anyone who’s caught entering unannounced,” Bantu had called after him as left for the Royal Chamber. The words of his friend had echoed in his mind the entire way.
Now, however, as they drew closer to the entrance, he noticed his heart quickening again, similar to the memories in his head. Maybe Bantu was wrong, and instead of killing people who entered unannounced, they killed people who showed signs of dissension. Usifi shook the thought out of his mind and focused on Quin’s plodding steps and the sudden radiance of the Great Hall.
The small string of passageways opened into a vast, cavernous space adorned with banners hanging more than thirty paces from floor to ceiling. Looking up, Usifi could see a domed roof sloping upward, rising to a large hole in the center, cut out to let in the yellow Mandinan sun. The rays basked the hall in an aura that made the entire room feel like it was pulsing, light reflecting off gold inlays and highlighting the breathtaking tapestries.
The Great Hall was otherwise bare, the expansive, circular room empty save for the precious stones, metals, and art that outlined the walls. It was a testament to the wealth of the Royal Family to have a structure of this size house nothing inside. With the population of Brekken growing, only the most well-off families could afford to have any space at all.
Usifi whistled. “You could play an entire tournament of bala in here,” he said out loud.
Quin laughed. “The Great Hall could fit the whole population of Brekken and still have room to play a few games of bala,” he said, exaggerating.
As they inched closer to the massive double doors on the other side, Usifi took Quin’s response to be one of good cheer and decided to press his luck. “So, why are we here, anyway?” he asked.
Quin glanced at Usifi and let out a coy smile, a gesture that was fit for a lion. “It’s not for me to say,” he replied.
Usifi gulped. He wasn’t sure he liked the look Quin gave him, and he especially didn’t like the non-answer. Deciding that it was best to focus on whatever lay ahead, he remained quiet as they approached the king’s doors. When they arrived at the entrance, Usifi’s breath was taken away again.
Massive, double-wide doors covered the entryway, stretching thirty paces to the ceiling. Just like the doors to the Keep they were painted red, but unlike the Keep, they contained giant pieces of stained glass at even intervals. Without looking, Usifi knew that the panes told the entire story of Mandina, from the Awakening at the hands of the Celestial to the construction of their city to the time of the present King, Lord Rackem.
The story spoke of learning and understanding, of math, astronomy, astrology, and geology. It painted the picture of the first alchemist, Zenon, and his discovery of stone manipulation. It told the tale of the stars, and the navigating of the waters, and the spreading of the Mandinan culture from Brekken to the four corners of the world. And then, when the ice caps began to melt, it documented the continued exploration of Terra as she began to lift her icy skirt.
A twinge of pride swelled through Usifi, and Quin felt it too. Out of all the mammals in the world, out of all the tribal humans that had a chance to flourish, it was Mandina who’d risen in a spark of culture. As both their eyes followed the stained glass to present day, the doors let out a loud creeaak! and began to swing inward, as if the Chamber itself knew they’d arrived.
The inner room was dark, and it took a moment for Usifi’s eyes to adjust from the dazzling opulence of the Great Hall. The sun had since gone down, and there was no light in the room except for the flickering of flames against the wall.
He couldn’t see where the voice was coming from—his eyes were still adjusting—but he knew the exact owner of the sound. It was his father.
“Father,” he said, confused, “I didn’t expect you to be here.”
“To expect everything or nothing is better than to expect only some things,” Salem replied.
Usifi recognized it as one of the tenets of the Caligriph, one of the founding beliefs of the first explorers. By now, his eyes had adjusted and he peered around the Royal dwelling in search of his father. He was shocked to see that while the Great Hall was one of extravagance, Lord Rackem kept his dwelling sparsely decorated, a place of quiet contemplation and solitude. Circular in nature, the stone floor was covered with an array of mismatched rugs and furs, making the ground soft to the touch. A fireplace was built into the center of the room, flickering and dancing its light against the infinity wall, no corners anywhere.
Sitting around the fire was his father and the King. Diverting his gaze from the eyes of Lord Rackem, Usifi glanced up at the ceiling and noticed that it was built in converse to the roof of the hall. While the previous room was upward sloping, creating the perception of magnificence, this one sloped downward, giving off a cave-like feel.
“Usifi, sit,” Rackem said, pointing to a spot opposite the other two. Quin pushed him forward but remained stationary, standing watch over the entrance.
Usifi obeyed and came to rest at the edge of the fire, folding his legs under him in a sitting position. He looked at his father and then at the King.
Rackem, dressed down for the evening, wore a loose tunic, leather brown pants, and the Crown of Song around his head. A large, barrel-chested man, he sat with his hands resting on his stomach. Usifi’s father was positioned to the left, dressed in the understated robes of the Royal Caligriph.
“Usifi,” his father began, “we’re here to talk about your actions on—and after—the expedition.”
Usifi’s heart skipped a beat. Maybe all of this really was about his heretical discussion with Bantu and Nacine. The last thing he wanted was to implicate his two friends. “Father, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to,” he began to say.
The King smiled. “We know you didn’t mean to. But if your father had been paying more attention, you wouldn’t have needed to at all.” He got up, moved around the fire, and slapped Usifi on the back. “Killing a boar from that far off? Even I couldn’t do that at your age!”
“I don’t think you could even do that now,” Salem said.
“Quiet you; I thought you were here to advise.”
“I am. And my advice is that you never try to knife a wild boar from that far off.”
Rackem roared with laughter and squeezed Usifi’s shoulder. “Humor. Yes, we could all use some humor.” His face became serious, and he moved away from the father and son, peering out the lone window opposite the entrance.
“Usifi,” he said, back still turned. “I’d like to tell you a story.”
Usifi looked at the King, confused. “Ok,” he said, not understanding where Rackem was steering the conversation.
“My father, gods rest his soul, was a great man, and an even greater king. But of course you know this, the songs we sing of him say so. Well, I’m here to reiterate the fact that it’s true: He was great. He led our people through a gilded age of advancement that rivals even that of the Awakening.”
Usifi raised his eyebrows in surprise. The Awakening was the ultimate. Nothing was supposed to compare. Mandinans weren’t allowed to liken it to anything. The King didn’t seem to notice, or care. He continued to speak with conviction.
“Whether you believe it or not, Brekken was beginning to crumble during the time of Lord Aramark, my uncle. No, not physically. There were no signs that we were a failing people, but the inner working of our State was corrupt and full of madness. Pure madness. My father, Lord Aramark’s brother, witnessed unspeakable acts on behalf of the Crown, and before long, he couldn’t take it.
“So, at the bequest of the people, he took control of Brekken’s army and led it against the King, winning the throne. He was given totalitarian power over the Mandinan people within a matter of months, and it fell on him to lead us to continued prosperity. But soon came the whispers. He did it for personal gain, some said. He’s more of a lunatic than Aramark ever was, others mumbled. Behind closed doors, mind you!”
Rackem was overcome with fervor and he slammed his fist on the room’s dining table, angry at the aging words against his father. Usifi jumped back in surprise, unsure how to react. Slowly, he re-assumed his seated position and listened with open ears and open eyes.
“But my father knew,” Rackem continued, sharp focus in his eyes, “what others did not. He saw Aramark slit the throats of primitive babies. He took orders that demanded he burn entire villages of lower-forms. And he was told to silence any dissenter of the King’s policy. Where were the people then? Who else would be willing to bear witness to such atrocities?” He looked at Usifi as if he truly wanted to know.
Usifi opened his mouth but was cut off by Lord Rackem’s rant. “But still my father continued. He never gave up leading the Mandinan people, because he knew that what he was doing was right. It was for the benefit of Brekken, and not just for the personal benefits that come from short-sighted greed.”
As quickly as he’d started, Lord Rackem stopped and turned to stare at Usifi. Salem remained motionless throughout the entire story and continued to do so even now, here in the awkwardness of charged silence. Usifi looked around and thought, trying to muster the correct response. The sparse chamber, darkening with the blanket of night, provided nothing.
“Well,” Usifi said, “isn’t that a testament to his conviction? Even the songs point to the strength of your father’s beliefs.”
Rackem laughed. “Well said, very well said. Yet still, you speak of conviction and say it without any conviction yourself. Believe what you say, son! You have to believe. For our sake.” He turned to Salem and raised his eyebrows, shrugging his shoulders.
“Son,” Salem said, rising to take up a position next to the King. “The future is murky, dark indeed. Even the wise Archemon is unsure where Mandina’s headed. But one thing’s for sure: We’ll be facing hard times. We’re always facing hard times. Maintaining balance is a challenge, but the provocations will continue to grow. It’s been written.”
It was now Usifi’s turn to shrug his shoulders at his father. “Written?”
Salem ignored his son. “Usifi, now’s the time. We’re beginning your Royal Caligriph’s training.”
Usifi, shocked at his father’s words, stood and took a step toward the two men. “But father, you’re the Royal Caligriph. You serve the King well. I wasn’t expecting to start my training for a few years, at least.”
“Are you saying you’re not ready, then?” Rackem asked, his physical form a hulking contrast to his quiet demeanor.
A quick fuse of rage ignited within Usifi, and he stared the King in the eyes. “I’m ready. I’ve always been ready.”
“So you think,” the King said, turning to pour himself a glass of barleywine. “I told you the story of my father for this reason: What we face ahead, what you’ll face, alone and in the dark, requires such strength of conviction that I’m worried it’s not in the capacity of a human to have.”
“I’m not just a human; I’m Mandinan, part of the most powerful civilization on Terra.” Usifi’s chest swelled with pride.
“That you are,” Salem agreed. “And your duty requires the entirety of your Mandinan heart.”
Usifi felt like the men were keeping something from him, but he figured that the job of Royal Caligriph would be hard enough, and that the King and his father were speaking in hyperbole to ensure he took his training seriously. “I’m ready,” he said, reiterating his belief.
Lord Rackem laughed again, harder than before. “No one’s ready. No one can prepare for what they don’t know, but we’ll teach you the best we can.” He nodded to Salem, overtired, his body receding in stature and looking weak in nature. “It’s time for me to retire.”
“Usifi, rest tonight,” his father said. “Tomorrow, report to the astronomy tower. Your training starts at first light.” Salem motioned to Quin, who placed a hand on Usifi’s shoulder.
“Come, I’ll escort you home,” Quin said, a gentle softness in his voice.
It was not until Usifi heard the subdued voice of the King’s most efficient killer, his father’s right-hand man, that alarm bells began to sound in his mind. Maybe the warnings of his father and the King weren’t sensationalist talks aimed at scaring him, after all. Could they be alluding to something terrible on the horizon? Usifi was unsure, and for the first time since he’d returned from his expedition, he began to doubt himself.
I hope you enjoyed the excerpt from my upcoming novel, Trial by Fire, the first book in The New Earth Trilogy. Remember: Sign up for my weekly newsletter here to receive updates regarding the story and your chance for a free Kindle copy on December 13th!