A book can take many forms before it is "finished", so I won't say this is the definitive version of Chapter 1 of my new book Wind Rider but this is the version I've been sending out to agents to read. So, without further ado, and with no promises that it will never see another edit or rewrite, here are the first ten pages of Wind Rider.
You might think being a prince would make you feel special, but let me assure you, nothing could be further from the truth. When you are next in line for the throne, it doesn’t matter who you are, what matters is who you will become.
Even my name felt insignificant aside the titles that preceded it.
Lord of the Deep Forest, Protector of the Skies, One that Rides in the Heavens, Guide of the Watersource, Master of the Quileel, Son of King Alendar and his chosen Queen Vilsavia, Prince Mikel Stovarish.
Perhaps that’s why I looked forward to being a hostage.
The Gathering brought the three great kingdoms of Redoun together to reestablish the treaties that had kept peace in our land for ages. After each kingdom arrived at the Truce City, they offered their firstborn as a hostage for the duration of the Gathering. The first penalty for any that broke faith would be the hostage’s immediate death.
I didn’t really expect to be killed. The Gathering was all pomp and ceremonies, a charade of unity of supposed equals. False, but everyone played along just the same. Like a withered tree that no longer bore fruit, the Gathering was kept from the axe because it still served as shelter from a storm.
In truth it was my people, the Lorians, who initiated the first Gathering hundreds of years ago and were the ones with the strength to ensure its success. For we were the wind-riders. Our steeds were the children of the sky, the Quileel. Massive winged serpents who weaved through the sky like golden threads in a blue, silken cloth. They had infinitely more grace and beauty than the lumbering Kon’Char gods, the Gorath, who rooted through the mountains like furry pigs. And unlike the Matik's gods the Naturik, the legendary sea monsters no one had seen for generations, we had no reason to doubt their existence or their power.
Our capital, Bikal, was in the canopy of the Verograd Forest on trees the height of mountains. It was inaccessible to the Kon’Char, a people tethered to the ground by their stone towers, and was sheltered from the Matik pirates who rode on the waves of the Maruzin Sea. The location was fortunate for us, for even though the Kon'Char were as deferential as the Matik were abrasive, we knew both were not to be trusted.
I knew the Lorian impressions of the Kon’Char and Matik were as solid as rock and as deep as the sea. They were spoken of so much there had to be some truth to them. After all, as we say, only clouds appear out of thin air.
My guard Elias, however, appeared to think otherwise.
“She’s not so bad.” He said to me while we waited in the open and airy meeting hall for me to be handed over. The stilted, formal conversation of the delegates barely cut through the rush of wind and screaming gulls outside. The noise was distracting for the delegates, but it provided cover for our whispered conversation.
“Not nearly as ugly as those fish they eat.” Elias continued with a laugh.
“What are you talking about?” I eyed the slithery Matik pirate princess who was my fellow hostage. The princess, for her part, stared out the windows towards the ocean horizon.
“Not what.” Elias whispered back. “Who.”
“The girls?” I was incredulous. Elias was only two years older than me but seemed to be a decade apart in terms of his interest in girls. Still, he had been with me since I was a babe, and if I was ever allowed to say so openly, I would call him my friend. I humored his obsession, even though I didn't share in it. There would be no point anyway even if I did. Finding love was not part of the plan for me.
“Too tall.” I declared.
“The taller the tree, the more there is to climb.” Elias grinned so broadly I swore I could hear his face stretch.
“Ugh.” I nodded towards the Matik princess. “What about that face? She looks like a Kon’Char skunk with that ratty hair.”
“I’m not talking about the princess.” Elias quickly replied. “The one behind her. The attendant with the silver hair.”
I took a glance at the row of attendants behind the Matik princess. Of all the disdainful things Lorians said about the Matik, “ugly” was not one of them. They were all tall and slender, with arms and legs as supple as the branches of a willow tree. Their skin, the color of night, was perfectly smooth, their large, luminescent eyes shining in the light of the room. But in truth, something about their perfection bored me. The Matik princess had a far more interesting look, although I am sure she would not consider my opinion a compliment.
Her name was Inaka, the Princess of the Maruzin Seas, the largest and most powerful of the group of pirate fleets that once ravaged the Redoun coast and turned many a Kon’Char city into rubble. She was tall, but more in a gangly way than her attendants. Her long, curly hair poured out her head like a waterspout, which did nothing to hide the curious splotches of pale skin that encircled her eyes before descending in tear-shaped lines down her face.
There were rumors that her appearance greatly humiliated her father. One of my gossipy matrons told me her father was so ashamed of his daughter's strange appearance that he might just leave her with the Kon’Char when the Gathering was done. I chastised my matron for her stupidity in believing such a thing, but it did leave me wondering what was said about me in the dark hallways of Redoun’s kingdoms. Especially what was said in ours.
“I suppose she’s pretty.” I said about the silver haired attendant, who was openly trading looks with Elias now. “Too bad you have to cut her throat if the Matik break faith and start a war.”
“War.” Elias scoffed a little too loudly. “There hasn’t been a war for ages.”
Elias's voice clipped off at the sight of a quick, subtle twitch of my matron’s hand. It took only a flick of her finger for us to know that now was the time to be quiet and attentive. I didn’t learn many lessons from our matrons but knowing when and where to shut up was one of them.
I made eye-contact with Princess Inaka, who noticed my stare and returned it with a sour look. I decided to be the better person and pretended not to notice.
I turned my attention to the Kon’Char Prince, a stocky little boy named Gou. Gou nodded and smiled endlessly as the adults spoke, but often in the wrong direction of the conversation. It was as if he was sleeping with his eyes open and in the midst of some pleasant dream. Probably a typical Kon’Char one involving a banquet of some sort.
I wondered if he was under the influence of the same Kon’Char magic that kept their gods, the Gorath, asleep during harvest so that they wouldn’t lay waste to the Kon’Char storage halls. As my first time as a Kon’Char hostage I didn't know what my accommodations would be like, but I was sure I would have more than enough food.
As Inaka walked forward to be claimed by Elias and his guard, I couldn’t help but poke him in the ribs just before I was led to my “captors”. I nodded to the line of attendants following Inaka, their gossamer gowns shimmering like ripples in an Azul lake.
“Are you sure you have the strength to fight them off?” I said.
Elias took a quick glance at the silver-haired attendant. The smile she tried to hide from him could’ve beamed across the Maruzin Sea back to our City.
Elias grinned at me. “I hope not.” He said just before bowing to Inaka.
I shook my head as I walked with my entourage to the Kon’Char delegation. Gou broke rank from his entourage to amble over to me. His Kon’Char matron almost stumbled over herself to stop him as the waiting Matik captors watched in disbelief.
“I saved some sweets for you in my room.” Gou said with a loud, squeak of a voice and with a fleshy hand held outward.
I stared at his hand like it was a fat, dead bird. After a quick pinch from my Matron I took Gou’s hand and shook it.
“Thank you, Prince Gou.” I said after I recovered from my surprise. From Gou’s beaming face you would think we were simply on holiday from our respective kingdoms.
Gou shook my hand vigorously until his matron led him back to the Matik delegation. I was taken to the Kon’Char, who were dressed in their ceremonial armor and were led by the influential and powerful Lord Cree. Unlike his attendants, Cree was unarmored and unarmed, and bowed deeply as he spoke.
“I will guard your life with mine,” Lord Cree said with eyes towards the floor, “and will take it without pain if the Lorian break faith.”
Lord Cree led me to my quarters in the Kon’Char wing of the great tower and watched over me for a week. Despite his grim face he was a kind and generous host, and took me sightseeing around the Truce City, something I was sure my own masters would never do. I saw nothing of my fellow hostages or my own mother and father, until the night of the celebratory feast that ended the Gathering.
I was looking forward to the feast, but after one look at the seating arrangement I lost my verve for celebrating. My chair had to be a subtle joke at my expense, for it was twice my height and width. Even for a Lorian, I was rather short. I almost had to hop down to the floor in order to stand when my parents took their seats with the other royalty. To make matters worse, the sour-faced Princess Inaka sat directly across from me. She gave me a smirking smile as she settled into her place at the table. She fit the tall chair much better than I, and I knew this was her way of letting me know it.
In order to make myself look bigger I stretched out my arms onto the armrests and sat forward. Unfortunately, all this accomplished was to cause my spectacles to fall out of my tunic and onto the table. This was doubly embarrassing for me. No far-sighted Matik would ever wear spectacles in public. If anyone noticed me dropping them, they were polite enough to pretend not to. All except for Princess Inaka. She stared at the spectacles with a wide grin. I quickly shoved them into one of my pockets and sneered at her. It was just the first of many silent signs of contempt we shared during the meal.
The feast began with a great many toasts, starting with Inaka’s father, the Matik King of the Free Seas, a tall and robust man named Ghati Ultalek. It was almost impressive how many barbed comments King Ghati could pack into such a short speech, which produced more than a few uncomfortable moments. Next was Gou’s father King Roland, who received many genuine laughs and rounds of applause during his speech. My father was last.
His speech was full of slurred slogans about shared responsibility and the common duty of all peoples in upholding peace. No doubt written by his scribes to inspire confidence in his leadership, it appeared to have the opposite effect on the audience. I cringed as every meticulously placed word and phrase was undone by my father's wine-soaked tongue. I couldn’t bear to watch him, but in turning away I unfortunately faced Inaka’s smirk once again. After the speech my Kon’Char attendants clapped wildly and complimented my father’s eloquence. Inaka’s handclaps were more like the slow and rhythmic ticking of some great clock.
Shortly after the last toast King Ghati left with most of his Lords. This, like much of what happened this week, was part tradition and part political theater. Even the most amiable Matik King needs to show his subjects that, while he will agree to compromise for the good of all, he doesn’t need to like it.
Although I couldn’t quite tell from my seat, it looked as if none of his food had been eaten, and his departing gifts of fine lacquerware and ornaments decorated with glittering abalone were somewhat carelessly left on the table in his absence. The Matik delegation was about to pass us when I noticed one of King Ghati’s captains saying that his daughter was nearby. Inaka did not stand up to greet her father, but instead seemed to shrink as if trying to hide from him as he walked by her. King Ghati looked down at the back of Inaka’s chair without stopping.
“She’s a Lorian hostage.” He said to one of his captains with a dismissive wave. “Let them kiss her good night.”
I looked back at Inaka. It was clear she heard what her father said, and that I did too. But the way she looked at me you would’ve thought I was the one who said it.
Inaka immediately flicked a pea at my face. It hit me in the mouth and almost flew down my throat.
I replied to her attack by flicking a nut right between her eyes. She was mistaken if she thought she could best a Lorian in marksmanship. But I had no response when Inaka filled her mouth with juice and spit it in a perfect, rainbow of an arch into my cup.
“It’s time for the children to retire to their rooms.” The matrons abruptly and somewhat unsteadily announced at the sight of Inaka’s fountain. It was an unfortunate choice of words, for although the sleepy Prince Gou and the actual children at our table readily complied, Inaka and I refused to move from our seats. I jerked out of my matron’s grasp, grabbed my fork and let it fall to the floor, staring at Inaka as I did so.
“Whoops.” I declared loudly. “I dropped my fork.”
Inaka showily picked up her fork and held it high. For a moment I thought she was going to throw it in my face.
“So did I.” Inaka replied as she let it drop. We both moved under the table and stared at each other. This was our last chance to let the other person have it before we were dragged back to our rooms, so we fired with the heaviest ammunition we had and spoke at the same time.
“It’s past your bedtime fish-face.” I growled.
“Why don't you slither back home you little cloud worm.” Inaka hissed.
I thought I got Inaka good, but she came better prepared to end the fight than I did. Not only did her words sting, she punctuated her insult by flicking the tree nut back at me. I heard a strange whining sound as it left her finger, and my ears filled with an enormous roar as it hit me right between the eyes.
The next thing I knew I was on my back. I laughed at the thought that a little tree nut could knock me out of my massive chair and onto the floor. But the sight of others lying on the floor drove the humor from my mind. The horror that greeted my eyes and the smoke that filled my nose made it clear something far more powerful than a tree nut had knocked me to the floor. The Kon’Char matron now lying next to me gave no answer when I asked her what happened. She only stared blankly at me and did not move when I nudged her. I pulled back from a sharp, stinging pain in my finger as my hand touched her dress.
My hand was caked with dust and lined with blood. I winced as I pulled a sliver of glass from the side of my palm. Muted shouts and screams cut through the buzzing sound in my ears as I fumbled helplessly for my glasses.
I gave up my search and wandered around the once glorious dining hall, which was now littered with chairs and tables both broken and burning. The life and laughter that once filled the room was replaced by destruction and death. The heavy tables and chairs were blown to pieces. I saw one woman, her face blackened, walk toward an exit in a daze before slumping to the floor. Her skin and clothes were so burned I couldn't tell if she was a Matik, Kon’Char, or a Lorian.
I was covered in bits of wood, glass, and food. My foot hit what I thought was a leg of roasted pig. I looked closely at the meat, and saw five long, human fingers attached to the end of it. Looking at the arm, I realized that if I didn’t go under the table to curse at Inaka before the explosion I would probably be dead right now.
I dragged my feet towards the place where my mother and father sat. The floor was strewn with debris. I couldn’t tell if I walked on the dinner or those that dined on it. I stopped at the sight of my mother’s feet, one with a bloodied shoe on it, the other twisted as if it were frozen in the middle of a dance. What was left of my father was still in his chair, still holding a cup in a lifeless hand. I stared at the cup as it emptied onto the rubble, drip after drip, until all the wine was gone.
As I listened to the screams of pain that swirled around me like a hurricane, I knew only the banned weapons of the past could have cause this much destruction. This was no accident. Hundreds of years of peace had just ended in the blink of an eye.
“Why?” I thought as fire began to claim the room.
But when I saw a bloodied Matik guard coming at me with a knife, my question was quickly forgotten, and I learned my first real lesson about war. When someone comes to kill you, it doesn’t really matter why. The only thing that really matters in that moment is whether you are going to live, or whether you are going to die.