Good day, noble readers.

I’d call it a great, brilliant, too-exciting-to-sit-still sort of day.

A million reasons make it so, but for one, I just finished the first draft of my next book (the fourth book in the Five in Circle series). The next and last book of the series is begging to burst forth. But for now, all the plot lines hang on the tipping point, the characters looking into the fires that could kill them. Will they choose the dangerous, noble path, or run in fear?

I know which you would choose.

But for now, while the editing process for that book starts, let me not leave you without a little something. Fire Above is finishing up at the formatter and so on, soon to break free. While others will have to wait, for you, another advance chapter. (If you haven’t already done so, you can read the prologue here and Chapter 1 here.)

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Fire Above

Chapter 2: Errand

 

By the time I reached the castle gates, my arms, back, and legs ached and burned. I wondered who would be there to collect my nephew, and joyously it was her. I caught sight of my love even as I approached the castle, our eyes leaping over the distance. A smile bloomed on her face, and I could feel mine match. My steps, plodding and painful, now flew, like running on springy moss, my fatigue vanishing. The other slaves, and even the lord waiting for deliveries, faded until the lord puppeted me, stretching my arms out to hand over my nephew to my love. Despite my trembling arms, I would have held onto my nephew if the lord hadn’t puppeted me to give him up, and if the slave hadn’t been her.

Seeing I was puppeted, my love leaped forward to take my nephew. Her eyes reassured me, daring enough to tell me she would keep him safe, folding him into a cuddle and striding boldly past the lord. The lord scowled but followed. When she go of my body, I trotted around and in the cook’s door, through the maze of hallways toward the throne chamber, to the small room next to it. I knocked and waited.

My father opened the small door and his eyes lit up for a brief second. He must be alone. We were still in the hall, though, so I said, “I live to serve.”

“I live to serve,” he said, moving aside and ushering me in.

His office always looked the same. Fireballs hovering in the corners cast flickering but bright light around the small room. Baskets of tally sticks lined the room in an order only he understood, stacks of the thin sheets of metal the lords used to hold language on the one table in the room. No chair or decoration. Looking like a storage closet, this room saw most of the information about the empire.

Inside, my father relaxed a hair. He gave me a half-smile and put one hand on my shoulder. “Where were you?” he said in low tones. “They need a runner to go to the far southeast village.”

“The lords wanted to collect a package from oldest brother’s house,” I said. “They Called his youngest.”

“Already?” he said, his eyes falling. All three of my grandsons, I heard him think. I thought I had more time. He thought about telling me something else, something serious. Once again I considered telling him I could hear his thoughts, so he might as well just talk to me. Once again, I rejected the idea. My ability was close to magic, and everyone knew only lords could use magic. I loved my father, but didn’t know how he would react.

He was thinking something about my nephew, about me and my two brothers. My father had taught me how to separate my thoughts, and he was such an expert I couldn’t always figure out what he was thinking. Something about how my nephew would be taken away forever?

I clenched my jaw. My other two nephews had been Called earlier this year. Only a cycle apart, both were just starting to look like adults. At least my brother had the one daughter left. At least he’d get to see one of his children grow up. My attempts to echo the common wisdom broke down. Don’t the lords have enough slaves already? I banished the thought as soon as it popped in my head. You never knew when a lord might jump into your mind.

As if I had summoned the lords, my father’s face slackened. He moved past me just as my own body was puppeted. Our bodies walked out the door and into the throne chamber. It was difficult to look around without moving my eyes, but I practiced. Several slaves stood slack-faced along the walls. After serving in the palace for a while, some slaves always looked like that, puppeted or not. I stuffed the pride of knowing my father was almost the only one still himself. My oldest brother was in the throne room, guarding one of the doors. I moved quickly toward the throne and couldn’t see more.

The Queen looked fully like one of us, so she must be in a good mood. My father once told me the lords looked like us to help slaves be less frightened. I wouldn’t say it helped much.

Our bodies fell flat on our faces. I would have yelled in pain if I could have. The stone floor was clean, at least. I hoped I wouldn’t bleed on it.

“I live to serve,” my father and I said in unison. Our bodies rose to kneel.

The Queen looked at her Right. “You insisted on this runner? He looks a bit taller than the others, but not much else.”

The Right said quickly, “There was no delay.” She shrugged. “Your pet pointed out that this one received training in fighting, which might be necessary.”

The Queen peered at me, and I hid my thoughts as deep as I could as she brushed across my mind. “Acceptable,” she said as my body rose to standing. “Get him ready and on to village six. Tally all beast herds, ill and well, as well as beast herders. Sample the herds, the herders, and anyone else involved with the herds. You,” she said, indicating my father as his body stood, “give him what he needs to return swiftly.”

Our bodies turned and left. Two other slaves hit the floor as we left the throne room, but I wasn’t paying attention. I noticed her standing against the wall. She was beautiful as always, and not slack-faced. But I was. I longed to wave, to say something, anything to catch her attention. Would she look at me, share our secret smile? Knowing it was impossible, I threw my full concentration into imagining my hand waving at her, the smile she would give me in return. I could see it in my mind.

My left hand twitched, and I felt a faint surprise that wasn’t my own. My love didn’t seem to notice at all, maybe wasn’t even looking at me, it was hard to tell. The puppet feeling slammed into me fresh, and I marched out of the throne room and back into my father’s office.

Once there, his face perked as he took control of his body. He picked up a blank tally stick, a small metal rod, and a metal sheet. He turned to look at my face and glanced at the doorway, where the lord waited. Did I see a flash of sadness in my father’s face? He must have been able to see I was still puppeted, but why would that make him sad? From my hiding place, I was too scared to try to read his mind.

“Your supplies, runner,” he said. He held up the metal rod, thick as his thumb and long as his arm. “To use, you press the sampling rod into the side of the neck, like this,” he said, demonstrating on his own neck. The rod hissed sharply, like a drop of water thrown into a fire. “Hold it until the hissing stops, then remove.” He held up the metal sheet, writing side out, and looked me square in the eye. “This is for the lord only. You must arrive in two days. You will keep this hidden from any slave that can read with your life.”

I was glad then of the puppeting, so I couldn’t move a muscle. I kept my thoughts as deep as I could, everything else calm and empty. My training served me well as I held in my shock. What was he doing? He risked his life by showing me this, knowing I could read it myself.

He held the sheet, hand shaking slightly. I cowered in the hidden place in my mind, expecting the lord to walk in to at least beat him for his sloppiness. Pet or not, he could be killed. Apparently the lord wasn’t paying attention. When my father finally lowered the sheet, I kept my mind deeply hidden, not daring a single thought’s escape.

My father took a breath and continued. “This tally stick is for the beast herders,” he said. “Return with it, the sampling rod, and whatever the lord gives you when told.” His eyes flickered. It was the look he had when he debated with himself over something. But the only thing he said was, “That is all.”

He had decades of practice hiding his mind, and I was puppeted. But I heard the next thought clearly.

I love you always, my son.

I wished I were braver, to try to have him hear my response. But I kept my thoughts behind a wall, not daring to risk the lord overhearing me think, I love you too, Father. My body walked out the door and out of the castle, running as soon as it was out. The lord didn’t follow, and I got control of my body back. I reached into my bag as I ran, eating the meager provisions. Tucked away was a little greenfruit. My father must have done something illegal to sneak that in, but that seemed paltry after what he had done in his office.

As I ran, my mind raced faster. Why had my father risked a fire whipping to show me that sheet? He knew I could read, and if the lords found out I’d read the sheet, we would both be killed. What was he trying to tell me? I couldn’t wait to get back, pull my father to a place we could talk, and figure out what was going on.