By the time this posts, Fire on the Mountain should be wrapped up and on its way out to my beta readers. And then on to my wondrous, fantabulous editor, Amy!
I love that the final stages of indie publishing don’t take a year and a half. I’m still on target for an April first release, provided no major structural issues are discovered in editing. I’m getting very excited. If you still haven’t read book one, WHY NOT? (you do know it’s free right?) Hope you enjoy this sneak peek!
The alley swallowed the boy like a snake devours a mouse. Invisible in the deep shadows, he paused a moment to look behind. His palms dampened. His temples throbbed with the wild rhythm of his heart. He strained to catch any sounds of pursuit but could hear nothing over the rasp of his own breath.
He had to remain calm. Sucking in great draughts of air, he closed his eyes and willed his muscles to relax. Twilight lay silent all around him, the air damp and chill. He pulled it deep inside, letting it revive his body. Then, inching forward, he peered around the edge of a building.
There it was!
He jerked back, steadying the trembling in his hands. One more deep breath, then he dropped to his stomach and surveyed the scene more thoroughly.
The prize was there in plain sight, just as the rules demanded—the first of three slender wires swiped from Mr. Nimi’s forge, bent into rings, and tied with a bit of yellow cloth. It rested along the top of a doorway belonging to some unsuspecting shopkeeper. The street before it was vacant, but he knew Bantu or one of the other boys could not be far away. He only hoped his own teammates had hidden their blue-flagged rings as well.
The boy looked the situation over carefully. Retrieving the ring from such a height would be a challenge, but waiting for help was so distasteful that he discarded the idea immediately. Apart from his scant patience, he did not relish sharing accolades with anyone. He scowled with frustration and drummed his fingertips on the street. There had to be a way!
His hand dropped to the bulge in his pocket and he pulled out a wooden flute. His father had given it to him only two days before with a firm admonition to take care of it. It had belonged to his grandfather. He squeezed it thoughtfully. The instrument extended his reach by the width of two hands spread thumb to pinkie. He would have no trouble reaching the ring now.
Back at the corner he surveyed the street one more time, his body posed, his muscles taut. Still no sign of the enemy.
He burst from his hiding place, bare feet pounding the packed earth. He caught a glimpse of someone darting from an alcove but he was already past. He honed in on his target, lined up his flute. A flick of the wrist and he had it!
The ring slid down over his hand. He wrapped his fingers around it tightly and beat his way down the street, crowing with laughter. Just a few more blocks and he would—
A dusky figure sprang from an alley and bore him to the ground, knocking the instrument from his grasp. “You’re finished, Quon!”
With a growl of frustration, Quon retrieved his flute and slapped the ring into the boy’s outstretched palm. “You cheat, Bantu,” he protested. “You single me out every week.” It was the third time in a month that his best friend had ended his game, a fact that chafed against his pride like sandstone. “Chase someone else for a change.”
Just enough light remained to make out the gap in Bantu’s wide smile. “I do not have to cheat when you are as easy to anticipate as the summer rains.”
The competition was a weekly ritual. Since the beginning of his apprenticeship to his father three years ago, Quon’s free time had diminished. The carriages his father crafted were in demand by some of the richest lords in the empire. Quon’s days were filled with sharpening tools, running errands, sweeping up wood shavings, and a hundred other tasks. But once each week, when chores were finished, when the workshop was put in order and supper eaten, Quon and his companions still clung to their favorite contest.
Bantu laughed. “I knew exactly what you were going to do. You always go by way of Mr. Sumoki’s shop, so you had to come through here. I am not sure if it is the smell of baking bread or the sight of Mr. Sumoki’s daughter that turns your head.”
Quon felt his cheeks grow warm. Every time he visited the bakery for his mother, Emi Sumoki would smile at him and ask about his family. Then she would listen politely as he shared some small treasure or chattered about topics dear to him. Only an hour ago he had showed her the new flute. It never occurred to him that the young woman would have little interest in a thirteen-year-old boy. He knew only that she was lovely and attentive, so his feet often carried him past the bake shop where he peered through the window in hopes of catching a glimpse of her.
“You are too predictable.” Bantu grinned.
Quon let his friend pull him to his feet and they made their way back to the ring’s hiding place. Quon had to sit out the rest of the game, but he watched as Bantu caught two more boys before a pair of them outmaneuvered him and escaped with the ring. Together the friends jogged to the giant fir tree near the marketplace. Theirs was the last ring to arrive. Bantu’s team had won again.
A few of the victors flaunted their success, but the banter ended quickly. Though the sun lingered a bit later each evening, it had long since put itself to bed, and the demands of the work week urged the boys to do the same. They had all outgrown the idle years of childhood.
Quon bade the others farewell with a confident grin and a parting shot. “Just wait until next week!” Then he and Bantu departed together, winding their way through the labyrinth of streets.
Quon had once climbed the roof of the temple just to see the city as the gods viewed it. Merona’s roadways resembled a web stretched across the ground and contoured to the roll of the land, but no spider ever designed a home so haphazardly. The lines twisted the neighborhoods into geometric oddities, with no angle ever repeated twice. The buildings, however, followed a uniform code. Low and square, they seemed to bow before the splendor of the imperial palace that dominated the center of the city.
From his high perch, the mud brick dwellings had appeared to pool across the plain. The city’s northernmost edge faced the Kapri Mountains, which started at the North Star and passed between the city and the setting sun. In the east, cultivated fields piled one on top of another all the way to the sea. The city’s western edge hugged the curves of the powerful Chin-Yazi River, and directly south lay the river’s spreading mouth. Only the sun knew what lurked beyond the circle of the horizon, and it remained steadfast in its secrecy.
Eventually the boys emerged at the waterfront where Bantu now trained with a river captain. “Did Mr. Malini say when you could start sailing with him?” Quon asked.
Bantu’s words held disgust. “Of course not. All I do is scrub the deck, scrub the dock, load the cargo, unload the cargo, and every other menial task the master has no wish to bother with. I am heartily sick of Malini Shipping.”
Quon grimaced. “I prefer such mindless chores. When my father instructs me in the skills of carriage making, my fingers grow thick as bananas. The tools feel all wrong in my hands and the wood splits out of sheer belligerence. Then my father grows impatient.”
Quon loved his father and tried hard to please him. He knew how much pride an artist took in passing on his trade, but the apprenticeship fit Quon like an ill-shaped garment. No matter how he tugged and stretched, it never hung quite right. He told himself that as he gained experience he would become a better craftsman. Conviction, however, was slow in coming.
He sighed. “I would trade it all for something I could throw my soul into.”
“I would be pleased with just a single hour on the river,” Bantu grumbled.
One corner of Quon’s lip quirked upward. “All your life you have longed for the open water. A single hour would leave you ravenous, craving more just as a shark thirsts for blood.”
Bantu flashed his gap-toothed grin. “You make me sound like a predator.”
“You have all the patience of a starving wolf,” Quon quipped. “But if you can tame your appetite, a rewarding career awaits you.”
Bantu did not miss the note of longing in his friend’s lighthearted words. “Cheer up, Quon. Your apprenticeship may yet surprise you.”
Quon hoped so. He had no other recourse. “See you next week?” he asked.
“I will be there.” Bantu slipped inside the door of the shipping office where he kept a room beneath the eaves. Quon continued on, traveling streets as familiar to him as the lines on his own palm. His childhood had been spent exploring the city’s every corner. From the squalor of the poorest neighborhood to the busy clamor of the waterfront, from the shops of the craftsmen to the wealthy governors’ villas—he loved Merona. He belonged here.
His own house was in sight when his thoughts were disrupted by a soft, urgent summons. “Quon?”
The baker’s daughter stepped out of a dark alley, her long black hair swaying with the evening’s breath. His heart leaped at the unexpected encounter. “Miss Emi?”
“Shhh…do not speak!” The young woman tugged him into the shadows and anxiously scanned the street. “They will hear you. Quickly! You must come with me.”
She led him back the way he had come, darting around corners and into the blackest side streets. Her movements were liquid moonlight. Quon was too mesmerized to feel any fear. But when Mr. Sumoki met them outside the bake shop and ushered them into a back room without the aid of a single light, fingers of alarm began to prod the back of his scalp.
“Quon, your parents have been taken into custody.” Mr. Sumoki said.
“What?” he exclaimed. “Why?”
The baker hushed him. “We are not certain that you are safe, even here.”
Quon heard the rustle of straw bedding. His outburst had disturbed the children sleeping in the loft above them, and he knew mud and thatch did little to shield their conversation from the street. “Why?” he asked again, softer. “What have they done?”
Mr. Sumoki sighed. “It seems your father failed to build a carriage that could withstand the abuse of a drunken fool. The youngest son of Lord Tamlin died this afternoon in a wreck of his own making. Witnesses claim he whipped the horses to reckless speeds. The carriage overturned and rolled into a tree that had not the decency to make exception for a wealthy, spoiled dandy. In his grief, Lord Tamlin ordered the tree chopped down and both horses killed. Then he called for the arrest of your parents.”
Quon digested this information slowly, his mind wrestling to make sense of what it meant for his immediate future. “Surely they will not be detained for long. I can manage the shop while Father is away. I cannot fill orders, but I can maintain the books and make small repairs. Perhaps I might stay with Bantu’s parents.”
Mr. Sumoki shook his head. “I dare not place them in danger.”
“They will not be in danger.”
“You do not understand,” Mr. Sumoki insisted. “Lord Tamlin has the ear of the emperor. Your parents’ sentence was swift, their punishment brutal. Quon, your mother and father are dead.”