Friday, May 27, 2011

Storm Clouds Over Sexton (Sexton Chronicles, book 3)--first three chapters

Here are the first three chapters of the third book in the Sexton Chronicles series. Storm Clouds Over Sexton is available in paperback, hardcover, pdf, or epub from by clicking the cover of the book below. It's also available at for Kindle.

Chapter One

     It was late, the mug of wine on the table was barely touched, and Rolof did not feel much like a king. Or perhaps he felt too much like a king—weighed as he was with too many problems and too few solutions. He snuffed the candle on the table and stood in front of the open doors of his balcony, staring out at the moonlight on the waves over the Bay of Sexton. A breeze caught his copper hair, cooling his scalp. It would be warm again tonight and there were no clouds in sight. As was his habit when he could, he would leave the doors open and let the cool air refresh his body, if not his spirit.
      The problems of the kingdom could wait until the light of day. Perhaps he would be able to see a solution to the growing problems of too much rain in the principal city, too little on the farmlands surrounding it, and the growing—and illegal—spice importation, or smuggling, to use a better term—Crescens. An uneasy peace had lasted for more than three generations…once the two nations decided to ignore each other because they were too far apart in every way to negotiate.
      He removed his robe and draped it over the chair. The moon gave him enough light to move to the bed, which looked quite welcoming to his tired eyes. The blankets were cool, but would warm before sleep took him…
     …It was later, though he could not tell how much time had passed. Something woke him. Without moving, he listened. Moments passed and still he heard nothing. Perhaps one of his guards patrolling the corridor outside his chamber scuffed his boot as he walked by. Perhaps it was a sound from outside that drifted up… No…it could not be that. The balcony was a hundred or more feet above the rocks above the water. Birds flew by on occasion, and did not fly into the darkness of the room. They were never enough to wake him—simply part of the background sounds he loved.
      There were no more sounds, but he did not close his eyes completely. The troubles of the kingdom began to spin in lazy circles through his overtired mind. Moonlight still bathed the furnishings, so it could not be so late.
      His face tightened when movement from the balcony caught his slitted eyes. Other than magic—which was possible, though not probable, given Benecala’s presence in the castle—someone would have had an impossible climb to get there. Additionally, few knew where he slept.
      There was someone there. Rolof saw him climb over the rail in near silence. Like a shadow, the intruder swept into the room. He stood still as stone, taking in the details like a minion of death.
     Rolof could have summoned the guards with a shout. They would arrive in seconds, but probably not before the intruder escaped through the balcony doors or made his attempt at assassination. Besides, Rolof believed a king should be a leader, and the first defense in his own protection. Let the assassin play he game, he thought. I shall play my hand.
    A glint of steel from the blade of a knife flashed in the blue light of the moon. The intruder came closer to the bed, making no sounds. The blade came up over his chest. Rolof grabbed the hand behind hit, driving it down to the mattress with a soft sound and a flurry of feathers. He jabbed the assassin’s face with his fist—not once, but thrice in rapid succession. Blood flew—none of it his.
    The man fell back and Rolof threw the blankets aside. He leapt at his attacker, nearly dodging the blade as it came up in weak self-defense. The King threw his right fist into the surprised attacker’s face and grabbed the back of his head when he raised it instinctively. He drove the face down onto his fist and his knee into the man’s gut. The rush of air mingled with a cry of pain.
    Rolof picked him up: one hand on the man’s throat, the other on his stomach, and hurled him against the headboard of the bed. There was a loud crack as the man’s head met the unyielding wood. The King grabbed him by the throat and hurled him over the end of the bed, spinning on the balls of his bare feet before the other man’s body bounced on the floor.
    The door flew open and torchlight from the corridor flooded the room. Two guards ran in, drawing their short swords. They stopped when they realized it was the King smashing his fist into a face.
    The intruder was barely conscious, with blood covering most of his face. Rolof rammed his fist home one more time, then picked up the unconscious man and threw him on the chair next to the table. He looked at the guards and commanded them to hold him there.
   “Sire…are you unharmed?” the senior of the guards—a major—asked.
    Rolof nodded. He was scarcely out of breath, and untouched. His heart pounded in his chest, and his muscles longed to extend the fight, but he could make that pass with a little thought and a few more breaths.
    The intruder’s eyes were unfocused. Rolof looked at his face: high cheekbones, thin lips, sunken eyes, black hair, and dark skin. “What is your name?” The man had the presence of mind to pinch his lips tight. It seemed he had nothing to say. “Who sent you?”
    “Sire, do you want me to fetch Benecala?”
    Rolof saw the man’s eyes widen at the mention of the name. Not with fear, but with knowledge. So he knew enough to know the wizard, which might or might not mean anything. He looked Crescen, but there were many within the kingdom and the city. “Why did you want to kill me?” he asked mildly.
    The black irises in the man’s eyes were locked on his and there was an absence of fear in his voice when he spoke. “It was my mission. I have failed, and am found unworthy of paradise.”
    “What would happen to you in your country…if you made an attempt on the life of your king and failed?”
    “The same as here. Death.”
    Rolof smiled and shook his head. “You assume too much.” He looked at his guards. “Bind him, gag him, and put him on the next ship to Crescens. I care not if it is one of our ships, or one of those damned boats smuggling spice. Pay enough to guarantee his safe passage.” To the man he said, “Do not set foot on Sexton soil again, or I will have you imprisoned until your teeth fall out, your eyes cannot see, and your tongue dries in your mouth while you shout yourself voiceless asking for death.”
    Once they were gone, it took him quite a while to find sleep. When it came, he was grateful for it. The balcony doors remained open; he would not give up his breeze.
Chapter Two

   The King of Crescens slept on a bed in the middle of a large, airy room at the top of a tower. Light curtains fluttered in the pre-dawn breeze at the pointed-arch doors to the balconies. It was a peaceful sleep, uncluttered by dreams. And a deep sleep, as far as the assassin could tell, for the man did not move.
    He swept to the side of the bed. His feet made no noise crossing the intricately woven rug, its design standing out in the gloom like a message from the heavens he was not ready to understand…nor would he ever. The only sound was that of his knife sliding from the sheath, and it did not disturb the King. Strangely, the assassin was glad. This was a mission of necessity, not of hate or vengeance; he had no desire to bring fear to the old man’s heart before he stopped it.
    It was over in seconds. With neither hesitation, nor error, the assassin drove the point of the blade into the gray hair on the King’s chest and pulled his hand back—leaving the knife—before blood spattered him. Death was almost instant. With a light, respectful touch, he shaped the dead king’s face so it would look peaceful in death. He left the way he came in: by rope, down the sheer wall of the palace.
    In spite of the savagery of his act, the assassin hoped the dead King would be treated well in the paradise promised his people—something about virgins surrounding the eternal soul of righteous dead sounded good to his Sexton heart. He chuckled at the thought as he tossed his black cloak in a gutter and turned a dark corner. It would not matter what versions of heaven were available after he died. There was a notch in the Blue Hells—he was sure—where he would reside for the rest of time.
    Rajahd’een woke to a light tapping on his door. He opened his eyes and stretched. Before he asked who was there, or gave sign he heard the knock, he reached from under the sheet and shook the Sarah’s shoulder, the wife with whom he chose to sleep the previous night. She opened her eyes and smiled at him before wrapping the sheet around her waist—taking it from him with an impish look he found wildly attractive—and slipped out a side door.
    The knock came again, with urgency this time. “Enter,” he said. There was no trace of sleep in his voice.
    The tall doors opened. His father’s vizier of state affairs, and friend since boyhood, was in the hall. He waved off the others with him and walked into the room. The doors closed behind him as Raj sat up in bed. The man had never looked old before, at least not to Raj’s eyes. Now his long frame was stooped at the shoulders. His beardless face was pale, the dark eyes hooded, tired, and sad.
    “Greetings, your highness.” He bowed and winced as he straightened his back. “I beg you, dress quickly and come with me.”
    Raj’s head spun. “What has happened, Ben-Tahek?” Realization struck him and caused his heart to pause. “You greet me with the wrong title. I am but a prince.”
    “I am afraid you no longer have that luxury. Please. Rise, dress, and come with me.”
    He wept when he saw his father, dead. A single tear fell from each eye as he looked at his father’s body, still in the bed. The servants had done well. A fresh sheet covered him from the shoulders down—there was no sign of blood. His face looked peaceful, as if he died in slumber rather than the result of a shocking blow to the heart.
    “How did the assassin gain entrance?”
    Ben-Tahek’s voice was hushed, although they were alone in the room. “We think he came through from without.”
    “He scaled the tower?”
    “That is unlikely. There was magic involved, most probably.”
    “I would have felt magic…of any sort.” He took his eyes away from his father and looked at Tahek. “Show me the murder weapon.”
    “Are you sure you want to see it now? There are things to be done. You must accept the crown immediately—before word gets out of his death. Coronation can come later. For now, we have no king.”
    “I will leave matters of state to you, for the moment.” He raised his eyebrows. “I wish to see the knife that killed my father.”
    “Your will…” He walked to the door and opened it slightly. A moment later he returned, carrying the knife—clean of blood—on a silk pillow.
    Raj picked it up. It was heavy and not well-made. The steel was good: hard, tempered, and honed to a keen edge on both sides. “This blade is of Sexton make.”
    “So it would appear.”
    “You do not believe it?”
    The vizier shrugged. “That is not for me to decide, your majesty.”
    “I do not believe it. I see no reason for them to assassinate my father. Nothing for them to gain.”
    “If I might make so bold to suggest…”
    Raj looked away from the body on the bed and gazed into Tahek’s eyes. In that gaze Tahek saw an enraged son and a dangerous king. “Your job is to give advice, Ben-Tahek. My job, as of recently, is to decide whether or not to follow it. What is your suggestion.”
    “You are not aware, yet, of all your father knew. This afternoon we must change that. In the interim, let us hope the servants who found your father are wise enough to pinch their tongues. Rumor will spread like disease through the palace, and spill onto the streets.” He arched a gray eyebrow. “Faster than you would think.”
Chapter Three

   Clio was beaming. His friends were at the table in the big room set aside for eating—where he and Aemilia would feed their large family as soon as they made one—and he had the pleasure of lighting the little candles they made special for the top of the cake. It was a strange custom the Americans told them about—blowing out candles to celebrate the passing, or survival, of another year. And yet it was great fun.
    Aemilia was with child. The glow in her face was unmistakable. Andy, Tom, and John had a betting pool going…not that they dared share that fact with her. Clio wanted to join the pool but knew he was a dead man if he did, whether he won or not. If he won, she would find out about the money and demand to know where it came from, and if he lost she would want to know where it went. The bet was over the gender of the baby. Tom bet heavily that it was a girl. His theory was based on his—and his alone—belief that she was uglier pregnant than she was before…which meant her body was jealous of the beautiful little girl in the womb. It was boorish—and potentially life-threatening if they were caught—but they were having a great time with it.
    “Who’s birthday is it?” she asked.
    Tom and John pointed at Andy, who was pointing at Tom. “His!” Their voices came out as one, and Aemilia giggled.
    “We can’t have a party for all of you!”
    “Why not?” Andy asked. “None of us have any idea what it is…by our calendar. And we don’t really care.”
    “Then, happy birthday!” Tom raised his cup in salute to Andy and the others joined him.
    They sang the happy birthday song—which sounded awkward in Sextonese, at least to John’s ears—as Clio brought in the cake. The thing looked like something out of a Dr. Seuss book: three questionable layers, covered with questionable frosting of an unquestionably ugly hue of muddy brown, of questionable origin, and topped with candle stubs that should have been melted down—if resting on the cake didn’t do it—into one.
    “Yep,” Tom said with a smile. “Definitely Andy’s birthday.” He looked at Aemilia. “Did I mention that in America only the birthday celebrant eats the cake? To do otherwise risks bringing tragedy on the family.”
    Andy wasn’t going down alone. “He’s lying. Everyone eats the cake except the man having the birthday. It’s all part of the spirit of giving.” He looked at Tom as if to say, The first liar never stands a chance. “You guys give me presents because it’s my birthday…and I return the favor by giving all of you all of my cake.” He might have gotten away with the lie, but couldn’t resist the urge to stick his tongue out at Tom and John.
    Aemilia put her hands flat on the table and pressed her belly against it. She leaned in and glared at all three of them. “You will all eat the cake…or else.”
    “Cake, please!” Andy shouted. He blew out the candles so at least something in the room was shown at least a little mercy.
    Clio cleared his throat. “Do not let her condition fool you, gentlemen. In spite of my urging, perhaps even because of my urging, she was outside plowing the field an hour before you arrived.”
    “Someone had to convince that ass it wanted to pull.”
    “I’m trying very hard not to picture it,” Tom said. He cut the cake—pressing down on the knife with both hands when he got to the bottom layer, which was more like a crust—and put a piece on a plate. It was dense enough to make a fruitcake look fluffy. Wincing, he pushed the plate to Andy. “Birthday boy goes first.”
    In an obvious attempt to stall, Andy asked Aemilia: “What did you use to sweeten the dough?”
    “Lemmings’ tails,” she said with a straight face.
    “Lemmings’ tails?”
    John smiled. “Lemmings don’t have tails.”
    “They do in this world,” Tom replied. He didn’t know if they did or not, but the lie was worth it just to see the look of apprehension on Andy’s face change to something resembling terror.
    “Eat up,” Aemilia growled, “and tell me you like it!”
    “Wish I had a dollar for every time a woman ordered me to do that,” Andy moaned.
    The sound of horse’s hoofs beating on the road in the distance spared him from eating the cake. Tom and John went to the window and looked out. A single rider was headed their way. He wore a rd cloak—a soldier’s dress cloak, and had a white plume atop his shined brass helmet. Whatever he wanted, he wasn’t looking for a fight.
    “Why would a soldier come here?” John was the one asking, but the question was on everyone’s mind.
    “Not to attack us,” Clio ventured.
    “He’s looking for us.” Tom answered.
    “Then he doesn’t know who we are,” Andy said, thinking out loud. “Not if he’s coming alone.”
    “I have a sneaking suspicion…” Tom began.
    John rolled his eyes. “I hate your sneaking suspicions.”
    Tom ignored him. “I have a sneaking suspicion he’s going to bang on the door and tell us Benecala wants to see us.”
    With no one watching him, Andy seized the opportunity and hurled his piece of cake out the window on the other side of the room. “Betcha a gold Tom’s right.”
    “You’re on,” John said. He was never one to miss a chance to win a bet even though he never seemed to win. Ever the optimist, he was waiting for the happy day he would win money from Andy.
    Clio put his arm around Aemilia’s shoulders. In spite of the fierce look on her face, she was trembling. He tried to reassure her and whispered in her ear, “Do not be afraid, Love. Remember who we are with.”
    The soldier banged on the door. At a nod from Tom, John opened it. “Good afternoon, sir. What brings you?”
    “I am looking for…” His eyes widened. His tan face broke into a grin. “By the gods! I was told the three of you would be here, but… Well, frankly, I thought I was the butt of a joke. Which of you is Tom Benton?”
    No one moved until Tom stepped forward. “I am. What brings you here, Captain?”
    “Orders from his lordship, Benecala. He wishes to see you in the city immediately. The matter is most urgent.”
    “What matter is that?”
    The Captain’s jaw tightened and the smile left his face. “I was not given that information. I was told to give you the word, and to lead you to him.”
    “How do we know he’s for real?” Andy asked.
    The Captain nodded. “I was told to give you this.” He pulled a piece of parchment from under his belt and handed it to Tom.
    Tom looked at it and grinned. “It’s from Benecala, alright. Anyone trying to fake this would put a lot more in it to give it credibility.”
    “What’s it say?” Andy asked.
    He didn’t have to look at it to repeat it. “It says… ‘Say yes, damnit.”


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