Fantasy

Joinings: A Seared Sky
Joinings

Title: Joinings, A Seared Sky (Book 1 of the trilogy)

ISBN 13: 978-1-909-163-300

ISBN 10: 1909163309

ASIN: B00J9OUE9U

Published 30 March 2014 by Fantastic Books Publishing

An ill-timed omen sends a malicious leader on a hazardous quest that will alter everyone it touches.

When the Skyfire arrives early, Dagla Kaz sets out for the ancient homeland to harvest a new Godwood and exchange Virgin Gifts. He must lead his pilgrims hundreds of leagues over pirate-infested seas, across hostile lands, and return triumphant before the seared sky dies back to normality.

In his father’s absence, the renegade Aklon risks torture and death to bring justice to the people. Mindtalk with a wise woman on the distant mainland has opened his eyes to the evil underlying the society he inhabits. And, whilst seeking truth, he finds a soulmate in the most unexpected place.

Seeing his daughter Tumalind wrongly chosen as a Virgin Gift, religious fanatic Aglydron follows the mission to right the wrong. Okkyntalah, her betrothed, helps kidnap the rightful victim to take her over unknown seas and lands, facing violent death at the end of their journey.

See the foot of this page to read the first chapter.

Available in paperback and digital editions via these links: (just click on the supplier’s name to reach the correct page)

Fantastic Books Publishing.

Amazon (your local store).

Barnes and Noble

Ask David

Partings; A Seared Sky
Partings, Book 2 of A Seared Sky

Title: Partings; A Seared Sky (Book 2 of the trilogy)

ISBN 13: 978-1-909163-48-5

ISBN 10: 1909163481

ASIN: B00MW6ENB2

Published 19 August 2014 by Fantastic Books Publishing

Mistake follows mistake, but the despotic leader is determined to carry on a quest that risks disaster for all but promises reward for him.

In spite of signs he may be wrong, Dagla Kaz goes ahead with the pilgrimage. Events expose the unexpected fate of his daughter, Jodisa-Li, bringing violent threat his life. Different versions of history raise serious doubts, but he still pursues the Skyfire, only to see his Virgin Gifts captured by wild men. Will he recover them intact so his mission can continue?

Convinced the time is ripe for his planned uprising on the island, Aklon-Dji acts, causing civil strife and a dangerous confrontation with an army vastly outnumbering his own forces. Will his concern for justice and his willingness to trust people result in danger to his paramour, Shoarhn, and in his capture and painful death?

Beset by assassins, Okkyntalah is forced into a foreign war. Wounded, he seeks the help of brave and talented women to counter fatal threats. Pursuing their dreams, he and Tumalind, face great danger, hardship, and enforced separation. Will her courage and resourcefulness allow her to remain loyal to Okkyntalah and will his tenacity rescue her from the dangers she faces?

A Seared Sky is a trilogy, and none of its parts was intended to be read in isolation, or out of order. Book 2, Partings, assumes readers have read book 1, Joinings.

Available in paperback and digital editions via these links: (just click on the supplier’s name to reach the correct page)

Fantastic Books Publishing.

Amazon (your local store).

Barnes and Noble

Ask David

Convergence; A Seared Sky
Convergence; A Seared Sky (book 3 of the trilogy)

Title: Convergence, A Seared Sky

ISBN 13: Currently in ebook form only – to be published in paperback shortly.

ISBN 10:

ASIN: B00R6AXM5W

Published 17 December 2014 by Fantastic Books Publishing

The entire world is in danger and one woman must face the ultimate sacrifice in order to save it.

Wise woman, Ivdulon, finally discovers how the world is in danger, but only young Tumalind, a gifted female mindtalker, has the means to save it.
Dagla Kaz, fanatical High Priest, fights to prevent changes that will undo all his power and prestige, engaging with evil forces to get his way.
Aklon-Dji, fighting to save the future of his islanders, faces war, treachery and violent death to bring justice to his land and security to the woman he loves.
Tumalind, gifted and brave, faces unknown terrors and the peril of utter destruction for herself, as she sends her beloved Okkyntalah into great danger in hope of saving the world from evil.
A Seared Sky is a trilogy, and none of its parts is intended to be read in isolation, or out of order. Book 3, Convergence, assumes readers have read book 1, Joinings, and book 2, Partings.

Available at present only in digital form via these links: (just click on the supplier’s name to reach the correct page) However, the intention is to publish it in paperback form in the near future.

Fantastic Books Publishing.

Amazon (your local store).

Barnes and Noble

Ask David

A Seared Sky: The series as a set.
A Seared Sky, trilogy available as a set.

For those who love their eReaders, the whole trilogy is now available as a set at a discounted price. You can obtain this special offer only via the publisher, Fantastic Books Publishing, by clicking on this link.

 

 

As a bonus, if you buy any of the books listed above, you’ll be supporting a worthwhile charity, as 10% of all proceeds are donated to ActionForM.E., a charity that supports people suffering from ME/CFS. Thank you.

Chapter 1

PERILS OF OFFICE

Someone had betrayed him. Otherwise, how had they found him? Aklon-Dji glanced over his shoulder and counted seven in the pack; three were Holy Ones. All bore arms, but only two carried bows. His dipping and zigzagging wasted their arrows. But he couldn’t run forever. He must hide soon. The Mire would suffice, with its tall reeds and unreliable tracks through the wetlands. Would they have planned for that? The Holy Ones weren’t noted for strategy, so a trap seemed unlikely. More probably, they’d discovered one of The Few and tortured him or her and acted impulsively on whatever details they’d burned and carved from that unhappy flesh. He worried about who they’d broken.

Not the time for such concerns, though the thought of one of his disciples suffering was heart-breaking. He loved them all. But if he didn’t escape soon, they’d kill him, or worse, make him captive. Dagla Kaz had increased the price on his head a hundredfold, making it worth the risk of taking him alive.

He jumped a narrow stream. A good sign: slow-running ground water flowed at the edges of the Mire. They’d be reluctant to follow him in there. He glanced again, and, as he turned, an arrow sliced the skin at the top of his left arm. The archer was a female Regular. Would that he could convert her to The Few. He’d have need of such skill come the start of the Cause. He registered her face for the future; a soldier of his father’s army. How loyal, though, and how easily converted by truth?

Ahead, a clump of tall rushes promised sanctuary after the chase across the plain. He was beginning to tire after two leagues of swift pursuit. The hunters were strung out; some, a few hundred paces behind the leading pair.

A male Holy One, evidently more pious than usual and intent on glory, put on a burst of speed and passed the two Regulars in the lead. The naked man ran as though possessed, clearly intent on cutting off Aklon-Dji’s escape before tall reeds and foul waters concealed him. Already the foul stench filled his nostrils, making breathing difficult. He gulped in deep breaths nevertheless; the sickening stench no match for the threat of death by prolonged torture.

The Holy One was on his heels as he rounded the clump. Two hundred more paces would set him in the first outliers of the Mire itself. Stand upon stand of reeds and rushes, even taller than him, forming a maze where he could truly lose them.

Aklon-Dji checked. He faced the Holy One, sword drawn. The man seemed suddenly perplexed, as if he hadn’t considered the consequences of his actions. Aklon-Dji, feeling nothing but loathing for this class of Follower whilst hating the need to kill, skewered him without resistance. He jerked his sword free of the man’s corpse. Snatched the other weapon from his assailant’s limp hand and ran on before others could fall on him.

He put on a last spurt, fear of torture and its consequences for The Few pushing him beyond even his normal endurance. The original pack leaders, perhaps inspired by hopes of glory, were gaining. Aklon-Dji stumbled over the rough ground and almost fell. He must concentrate. Must keep alert. But there was some intrusion into his body, something working to detain him. He could feel his heart slowing, his breathing becoming laboured. The small wound on his arm throbbed.

Poison. The arrowhead must have been dipped in one of the aconite preparations: the one that killed or the other, which would leave him unable to move but more sensitive to pain? That depended on who’d prepared it. But, judging by the speed of its action, it would soon succeed one way or the other.

‘Breathe shallow and fast, Aklon. It’ll help. Concentrate. I’m with you.’

The voice in his head was comforting. Surprising but good to know Ivdulon was with him in this danger. Ahead, reeds and rushes waved with more than merely his stumbling gait. He knew he would collapse. And the hunters were close. Close enough for him to hear their calls and threats.

A few more paces. He felt almost finished. The day fading, but his mind alert enough to know approaching dusk alone did not take the light.

‘Hold on. I need you, Aklon. Hold on and run. Keep your eyes open. I can see for you, even if your own vision fades. Trust me. Stay with me.’

He had no choice. He must trust Ivdulon; a man he’d never met, a man he spoke to in his mind. A man who lived far away, on the mainland. He could no longer see; his world a blank, black void. But he kept turning, twisting, running still. His legs had lost all feeling, the ground beneath his feet no longer solid. But still he ran. Whether he ran round, or through, obstructions he had no way of telling. Whether they still pursued him, he didn’t know. He ran. Blind. Dead, to all intents and purposes. A dead man running for his life.

Something made him slow and turn left. Run. He felt the imperative to turn again. Run a short distance. Turn again. Run again.

From nowhere, it seemed, a familiar voice intruded into his mind.

‘Take care, Aklon. I love you, despite your betrayal.’

Of all the women in his life, why his sister? And why now?

Then all was black and nothing.

#

Jodisa-Li, silent and attentive outside her father’s door, was abruptly aware of her brother in great danger. She hoped he’d take care. The moment vanished as suddenly as it had come; leaving her unsure she’d experienced it.

The present called her back to why she lurked. Anxious to know what brought the Astronomer with his worried look and a message of doom in his eyes, she risked the High Priest’s wrath and listened and watched through the gap, silent and still as bone.

‘And you are certain, Jhonaht? Utterly convinced of this?’

The Astronomer rubbed his forehead and transferred sweat from his palm to the dun linen of his tabard before he nodded. ‘Yes.’

‘I’ll have the skin scorched and scraped from that fat body of yours if you’re wrong.’

‘I’m as positive as I can be, Dagla Kaz. We both know the prediction’s for next cycle. But I’ve watched eight nights in a row and can only conclude this is the spark of Ytraa’s Skyfire. What else can it be? I might’ve waited a few more days before approaching you. But you, of all people, know how short is the time.’

Her father strode the hard earth floor of his stark cell in the very centre of the house, circling the entrance to the Pit of Secrets. Purple silk flapped about his thin thighs and his feet slapped the ground, echoing his turmoil; the sound emphatic against the still background of early evening. Only raucous cries of ubiquitous seemeeuws, diving and squabbling for scraps of food on the seashore, filtered through the inner walls, as most of the town sat for their evening meals.

One of the kitchen slaves signalled from the end of the corridor. Jodisa-Li waved her away, welcoming the excuse to intrude. She knocked and opened the door without waiting for a reply.

‘Father, your meal…oh, sorry.’ She stopped in the doorway, pretending to discover him preoccupied, and made to withdraw.

‘Come in, Jodisa. I need a sound, uncomplicated head to help me.’

Jhonaht stared at her with puzzled surprise but snorted involuntarily at the High Priest’s insulting implication.

‘A fresh pair of eyes and ears, Jhonaht; that’s all.’

She saw Jhonaht’s irritation subside and he nodded brusquely at her, his eyes scorching her body. She waited for his gaze to return to her face and smiled to set his pulse racing.

‘What is it, father? The meal’s ready.’ She smiled again at the Astronomer. ‘You’ll stay and dine with us, Jhonaht, of course.’

‘Oh…I…well, why not? Yes, I will.’

She nodded and waited for her father.

‘Our Chief Astronomer, learned and gifted with sight, declares that Ytraa’s Skyfire has appeared. I need your level-headed thoughts to…’

‘But it’s not due till halfway through the next cycle! It’s nine portions early if it’s here now. How sure are you, Jhonaht?’

He sighed his frustration at having to explain to her; a mere girl, virgin and untested.

‘The last Skyfire ended two hundred and forty two cycles ago, as you know, Jodisa-Li. There should be two hundred and forty three cycles between. However, I’m as sure as I can be that this new brightness is the first spark of the Skyfire. I even had the Holy Ones indulge in some of their unspeakable…I’m sorry Dagla Kaz, but as a man of reason I can’t pretend to hold with divining the portents by staring at pulsating entrails drawn from the living belly of some poor unfortunate man or woman. They disembowelled three and declared themselves satisfied the auguries were favourable. I can be no more certain, considering we all accept it’s early.’

‘Jhonaht’s convinced; the Holy One’s appear content. I can’t see what better proof you could have, Father.’

Her confidence pleased Jhonaht but she stared doubt at him, calculating, so he replaced his beaming smile with the uncertainty she preferred. Dagla Kaz stopped pacing and gazed as though not seeing her, seeming distracted by her comment. He made up his mind, his eyes signalling release from doubt as they firmed with conviction. For the briefest moment, he smiled at her before his features clouded with puzzlement.

Jhonaht couldn’t take his eyes off her. They were gaping not at her body this time but what concealed it. Her ceremonial, jade-green silk tabard, belted with a cord woven from threads of rare myllth, mixed with her own red hair, sat well on her. Falling to mid-thigh, it permitted male eyes to trace the green, red and black dragon from its tail, coiling her ankle, up its body to the hem, beneath which, it breathed flame towards the place so many desired. She watched the man of science raise his eyes to the deep V-neck, where bright floral tattoos adorned her breasts.

Jodisa-Li understood their surprise. ‘I know it’s out of place. But the old woman from the harbour side came to finish the embroidery and I thought you’d like to see how I’ve spent so much of your coin, Father.’

She gave him a mischievous grin and twirled for inspection.

‘Worth every gold crown, Jodisa; it graces the body that graces it, don’t you agree, Jhonaht?’

The fat astronomer grabbed the opportunity to study her openly and took his time to agree.

‘And, since we must accept Jhonaht’s conclusion, you’ll wear it sooner than expected. But take it off now I’ve seen it.’ He stared for a moment at the black space below him and, like a man gathering courage to leap a wide chasm, breathed deeply.

‘Are you well, Father? You appear troubled.’

‘Troubled? I feel like a man condemned. I’ll have to call a Special Gathering within days; for the Choosing.’

‘So soon?’

‘Aware that the Skyfire was due next cycle…’ He glowered at Jhonaht as if the early arrival were his fault. ‘…I’ve been studying the secret texts again, consigning routes and reports of past pilgrimages to memory…’ Again, he glanced involuntarily at the gaping hole at his feet, ‘… and, if I’m to achieve the exchange of the Virgin Gifts and return with the new Godwood in time, I must set off before the close of the next two sixdays. As you rightly observed, Jhonaht, there’s no time to lose.’

‘But must you really do this, Father? I mean, it’s not as if you actually believe in all that nonsense about…’

‘Hold your tongue, girl! Are you trying to…?’

‘Sorry, Father.’ She bent both knees, until she crouched in an uncomfortable curtsy. The back of her open left hand briefly touched her small nose and generous mouth, in a gesture of supplication. ‘I’ve sent the slaves to bathe in the sea, knowing you needed peace and quiet. There’s no one in the house to overhear. Jhonaht and I know how you feel.’

‘Nevertheless, it doesn’t do to voice such things, Jodisa.’ His abrupt anger, born of his fear of discovery, evaporated in light of her assurance and he gestured her to rise again. ‘The common people need their faith, my child. Learning that their High Priest’s a charlatan might not prove to be in my best interests, it might even seriously undermine my control.’

Jodisa-Li smiled wryly, emboldening Jhonaht into voicing his thoughts. ‘Your contempt for the herd and your callous disbelief never cease to amaze me, Dagla Kaz. At least my scepticism’s born of study and knowledge. Yours appears to be no more than a general scorn for those who believe in things you don’t. It mystifies me how you’ve never let it slip in public. How many people actually know?’

‘We three, and that loathsome betrayer, Aklon-Dji. It’s possible Tryonta, bearing in mind the duties he performs on my behalf, may have the merest suspicion. I play my part, as you know, with enthusiasm.’

Jhonaht shook his head, apparently unable to comprehend his relish for the role.

‘Why, Jhonaht? Don’t be so naïve. I have power, position and wealth. I can order death, life and partnership. I have respect wherever I go, or fear in its place. That garment adorning Jodisa cost more than most earn in two cycles. Her tattoos are the finest available and were three times the price of her tabard. I can cope with a little double-dealing to maintain that level of influence and affluence.’

‘It seems your time’s come to pay. Think about it, Dagla Kaz, you’re going to have to select three unwilling virgins to take nearly four hundred leagues across hostile lands. In Choshinahm, you’ll have to persuade those ignorant savages to hand over three of their virgins, if they have any. You’ll have to recruit an army of willing labourers there, prepared to bring back a chunk of tree two manlengths wide and more than a manheight deep, knowing they’re unlikely to return home. And you’ve to complete all this before the Skyfire fades. Rather you than me.’

‘You think I don’t know all that?’

‘Of course. I just wonder if the continued pretence is worth the effort. I prefer my lonely watch on the mountain and the loyal service I receive from the Holy Ones and their compliant slaves.’

‘Service that would cease if the people knew what we know.’

Jhonaht flinched.

‘Come and eat. I’ve cooked your favourite, Father. It’ll get cold.’

She turned and walked narrow passages, between walls of woven redwillow, to her room. Dagla Kaz and Jhonaht continued to the front of the house, from where aromas of cooked food percolated.

Jodisa-Li quickly replaced ceremonial with practical. Though the plain deep red tabard of fine cotton was no more demure. Fastening bone pegs through leather loops, as she returned to the two men, she permitted Jhonaht a glimpse of forbidden flesh. Dagla Kaz moved away from the open window as she entered.

‘Making sure no one’s lurking within hearing distance, Father?’

He nodded a smile of complicity at her as she busied herself, placing woven rush mats on the wooden surface and collecting knives and spoons for the meal, and turned his gaze on the Astronomer. ‘Lust, Jhonaht, for my daughter?’

‘She has a fine body, Dagla-Kaz. Is there a man on the island who doesn’t dream of sharing it? My interest, of course, is purely aesthetic.’

‘Of course.’ He released the bronze clip of the belt circling his tabard and indicated Jhonaht should do likewise so they might eat without discomfort.

They sat at the scrubbed wooden table. Jodisa-Li brought the thick shellfish soup her father so loved, ladling the steaming fragrant mix from a glazed earthenware pot into deep bowls of smooth ebony.

Dagla Kaz tasted, nodded his approval and responded, at last, to Jhonaht’s challenge. ‘I’m ready to pay, Jhonaht. Liar and cheat, I may be, but thief I am not. I wouldn’t rob the people of what they consider to be their right.’

‘In any case, they’d probably cast us all, stripped, whipped and skinned, from the top of the Monument if you didn’t go.’

‘That is a danger, Jodisa. They do possess such an unfortunate manner. They will believe everything I tell them as if it’s the absolute truth, and follow my directives to the letter. Most tiresome. I did actually consider hiding the reappearance of Ytraa’s Fire, you know. I thought I might act surprised. But those pious, self-righteous Holy Ones keep their own records; Keepers of the Mysteries, indeed! Crude and incomplete as their records are, they know now of Ytraa’s Skyfire so, of course, they’d never permit it. In any case, its sudden unexplained appearance would almost certainly cause panic amongst the people. And I do so dislike chaos, you know.’

‘Just an old softheart, really, aren’t you, Father?’

‘Soft as ebony, hard as silk, as they say. Though I doubt they comprehend the irony.’

‘Don’t underestimate them, Dagla Kaz. Ignorant, ill-informed and vulgar they may be but a few show signs of remarkable native intelligence. By the way, talking of ebony, is that new lot seasoned yet? I need a new Staff of Office and I’d prefer one with weight and hardness. It gives an instructive blow such a solid message.’

‘You wouldn’t hit anyone with your Staff, Jhonaht. I’ve seen you avoid communal punishments where the victim faces nothing worse than a reed wand.’

‘You see my difficulty, Dagla Kaz? Even your daughter denies me the authority of my rank. How am I to control the people in your absence?’

‘You won’t have to. I intend to appoint that appalling rhaat, Kaz-Ca-Wesdan, as my deputy.’

Jodisa-Li almost dropped the stone slab, with its grilled antelope steaks, in surprise. ‘Not that horrible little turd from Morstahn, Father? He’s loathed by everyone.’

‘Precisely. Enough ambition to make him attempt to replace me in the minds and hearts of the people whilst I’m away but insufficient wit or wisdom to understand that everything he does will make me more appealing to them. By the time I return triumphant, they’ll recall me only as a beneficent and merciful leader, gifted with intelligence and wisdom. My occasional lapses of the past will be forgotten under the wave of relief at the removal of such a dreadful dictator.’

‘You really are the most awful bowelcreep, aren’t you, Dagla Kaz?’ Jhonaht clearly feared he’d stepped over the boundary of their relationship, as the High Priest glanced at him with a malevolence that had him trembling.

‘What an extraordinary expression for one so educated, Jhonaht. But, I confess, quite justified. Now, Jodisa, what have you done to this antelope? I’ve rarely tasted meat so tender and succulent. You cook so much better than those good-for-nothing slaves.’

‘You shouldn’t tease Jhonaht so, Father. You know he’s terrified of you. It’s really very wicked.’

Dagla Kaz regarded the Astronomer with his penetrating gaze. ‘Is he? He’s nothing to fear from me but that I might ask too much of him and be seriously displeased should he fail.’

Jhonaht dropped his stare and expelled a loud sigh as Dagla Kaz shifted his gaze back to Jodisa-Li.

‘But you’re not frightened of me, are you?’

‘I was, as a child. I know you better now, Father.’

‘Well enough to know that, though you must be in the ranks of those who’ll provide the Virgin Gifts, for the sake of appearances, you won’t be one of the Chosen.’

Jodisa-Li bowed her head. ‘I understand that I can’t bring you such honour, Father. I daily pray to Ytraa to forgive my wickedness and beg Ytraa to deliver me from the terrors of eternity spent in the bowels of Mhortag. I now ask your forgiveness for depriving you of your share in the honour my selection would have brought our family.’

To her surprise and, evidently, Jhonaht’s, Dagla Kaz laughed at her genuine apology.

‘Honour and prestige are of no matter in this, my child. Your grief and remorse at your lapse do you credit but I seriously doubt that Ytraa, or any other deity, would have you suffer in eternity for a transgression not entirely of your own making. Indeed, I applaud the spirit that caused it. But that’s not why you won’t go to Choshinahm. You, my sweet Jodisa, are my sole heir. To you falls the task of continuing the glorious lie. That is why you won’t be Chosen.’

‘What if the drummer beats me out?’

‘He won’t.’

‘Father, I’m honoured that you consider me worthy to succeed you, but what about Aklon…?’

He glared at her so fiercely that she quailed. ‘Don’t even mention his name in this house! He is lower than the dust, less than the smallest nothing. He does not exist.’ His manner softened as abruptly as it had erupted. ‘You, you are the one, Jodisa. Not that…that renegade.’

Jhonaht glanced at her, frowning.

‘You wonder why Jodisa risks my wrath, Jhonaht. But I know her well; she has now confirmed, before a witness, her own position. My children share a distinguished and able father. Their mothers, however, whilst equally beautiful, differed in important ways. Jodisa’s dear mother was blessed with pragmatism and common sense. That reprobate boy, who is no heir of mine, was born of a mother whose mind was softened by romantic notions and dreams of tenderness that have no place in those who aspire to leadership.’

Jodisa-Li loved her brother but thought him a fool; his loss was her gain. She smiled as she poured each of them a goblet of the casked wine Dagla Kaz had kept by from the last shipment. Fruity, mellow and clear gold in colour, it had a taste of wild redberry mingled with the sharper flavour of southern grapes.

‘Good. Very good. How are the new vines developing, Dagla Kaz? Are we soon to have our own wine from the grapes that produced this nectar?’

‘Another season should see a harvest good enough to match even this vintage. I look forward to consuming it on my return from Choshinahm. You’ll be part of that celebration, Jhonaht, standing side by side with me as returning heroes from the ancient land of our beginnings.’

A little slow to grasp the meaning of this prediction, he looked at Jodisa-Li. The gleam of humour in her eyes brought understanding and he turned to question the High Priest. ‘You want me to go with you?’

He merely inclined his head.

‘Why, Dagla Kaz?’

‘When it becomes clear that your prediction is wrong, I want the pleasure of demonstrating to you, and the rest of the party, the error of your ways. On the other hand, once it’s obvious that you’re right, I will enjoy the honour of permitting you to praise my perspicacity in trusting your dubious assurances.’

Jhonaht seemed unable to decide whether he was being serious. ‘Surely, I’d be better placed here so I can help calm the populace once the Skyfire is generally known?’

‘No, Jhonaht. You will come with me.’

Jodisa-Li sauntered round the room and plucked the hem of her tabard. Jhonaht seemed driven to follow her movement.

‘For a man who claims to revel in his rational mind, you seem strangely attracted by the carnal qualities of my daughter. As her father, I’m immune and I’d supposed you to be equally unmoved. But you’re as captivated as every male on the island. Perhaps a period of hardship and travel will lessen these desires. For, understand me well, Jhonaht; she is not for you. Come the time, Jodisa will join with many but you will not be one, unless she astounds me and chooses you, of course.’

She stopped before the Astronomer, considering him with that expression she knew drove men wild.

‘I…I find her aesthetically pleasing, Dagla Kaz. Lust isn’t part of my admiration. I look on Jodisa-Li as I might on a well cut gem, a still lake reflecting mountains, a fall of crystal water cascading over sharp dark rocks. She’s an object of pure natural beauty; carnality has no place in my appreciation.’

‘Jhonaht begs us believe his eyes make no connection with his loins when he looks at you.’

She took two steps back. ‘Really, Jhonaht?’ Her fingers curled the hem of her tabard. ‘You’ve no wish to enter where my dragon breathes fire?’

His gaze fixed on her promise, tantalizingly concealed. He licked his lips and swallowed. She giggled, assigning her female influence to the realms of silliness as she released the hem and, with it, his eyes.

‘You’ve grown and matured since I was last here, Jodisa-Li. How many hearts will you break? How many will dream and know they’ll never satisfy their want? You know my feelings on the foolishness of women, Dagla Kaz. Your daughter’s the exception that proves the rule. If only there’d been one such when I was a young man…’

‘But there was.’

Jhonaht breathed in deeply. ‘The past is dead, and Jodisa-Li’s mother with it, Dagla Kaz. I’d rather not revisit it.’

Her father glanced at the Astronomer with what she thought might be a flicker of sympathy.

‘If you’ll excuse me, Jhonaht, I’ll spend a while in prayer and meditation in my cell.’

‘I thought you didn’t believe in all that…’

‘A man may know God without the irrelevance of religion.’ He walked slowly to the open doorway, seeming suddenly born down by the burdens of office.

‘Sleep well, Jhonaht. Come sun up I’ll need you to send emissaries for me, make suggestions, and contact those we need consult about our trip.’

The Astronomer nodded his acknowledgement and Dagla Kaz left.

Jhonaht turned to Jodisa-Li. ‘And do you pray also?’

‘I see no reason to adopt that demeaning pose in private, Jhonaht. When alone, I speak with Ytraa in my own way. But, when the eyes of Followers are on us, it doesn’t do to disappoint, does it?’

‘So sceptical so young.’

‘I’m young as a new born babe, Jhonaht; old as the sea. Father’s prepared me long and well for my future. Eons ago, I lost what innocence I had. You know well enough my cause for scepticism and you know the suffering…’ She stopped, unable to continue her line of justification, struggling to control emotions she was reluctant to display. ‘You know much, Jhonaht, but even you’re not privy to all my indiscretions. Nor do you know the many secrets lying in the darkness beneath Father’s cell. Such reports and accounts might rob a gentle man of his sanity. They turned Aklon to heresy and rebellion. If I’m sceptical, it’s because the knowledge I bear makes me wear disbelief as a defence. Come, I’ll take you to your room and, regardless of your desires and perhaps my own, retire alone. We’ve much to do tomorrow, and little time.’

‘You seem to delight in making my head swim.’

‘I delight in many things.’ But she emphasised the natural sway of her hips, as she led him to his room.

If you’ve enjoyed this excerpt, why not read the rest either on your eReader or in print? The details of how to get hold of a copy are above. Enjoy the read!

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