Moonsong – Prelude: Power

Because I am forced to be away from my home (and my computer, and all of my free time), I thought instead of giving another bit of Muramasa: Blood Drinker, I would give everyone a taste of what I wrote last year. This is the prologue to Moonsong, an epic fantasy story I began writing last year in pieces sent one at a time to the woman who would become my wife. Eventually the story grew so large (some 325,000 words) that breaking into volumes became necessary to pursue publication. The third I’m hoping to get to this fall, after I wrap up Muramasa.

The following bit I’m rather fond of. Since reading Eye of the World  I’ve always liked the idea of starting off a book with a villain. This one is effective as because, just like in Jordan’s classic, we don’t get to meet the big bag evil guy right away in the main narrative. I hope it stimulates your hunger for more!

Prelude: Power

“Tell me, Vindrel, what is power?”
Sarthius Catannel turned his head away from the window for a moment to regard Claire as she stepped across the threshold to the small room overlooking the courtyard. Below his shock of blonde hair, his green eyes stared at her with the same vacant stillness as when she had met the man years before. Never a word to acknowledge her, his lingering look held all the wisdom she needed to understand. She felt a chill and drew her robes around her body tightly. She saw that the window was open. Just a breeze then, she thought.
“Power, sir?” Vindrel, the captain of the guard for as long as Claire could remember, stood beside Sarthius, his uniform of blue and green and as crisp as always. He was one of the few higher-ups of the military staff that had been kept on after the old count passed away, probably because he had no family to speak of, and therefore nothing at stake in the politics of court. She envied him.
“Yes, power.” Sarthius stared out the window as Claire crept up to stand slightly beside him. “What does it mean to have power? To be powerful?” She could smell the fire in the courtyard below, and understood what was taking place. She didn’t want to look, but knew somehow she would. In the end, she could not avoid it. Then the smell would get worse.
“Power…” Vindrel looked down for a moment. “Power is the ability to exact your will. To do what you wish.”
Claire noticed the flintlock pistol that Vindrel openly carried, in defiance of divine law. There were rumors that Vindrel was a Promethean, or as they called themselves, Somniatel. Watching him stare out the window with his familiar stone-cutting gaze, she believed he could, in truth, be a member of one of the strange highland clans that as much as worshipped the technological apostasies of the Dark One, even though they lived like savages in wilds of the world. If it was true, it explained much of his retention with the young count; Prometheans were valuable sell-swords, just as much for their uncanny skills as for their lack of ethics.
“A good answer,” Sarthius said, “but not quite right, I think. A woodcutter chops down a tree because he wishes it. Is he powerful?”
“He is to the tree,” Vindrel said.
Sarthius cracked a smile. “So he is. What do you say, Claire?”
Claire felt a lump in her throat as the count’s empty eyes met hers again. “I think the woodcutter is not the powerful one in this scenario.”
“And why?” Sarthius said.
“Because he can’t chop down the tree. He needs an axe. It is the axe that has true power,” Claire said, doing her best to stand up straight and look the part of her position as grand cleric.
“Spoken like a true devotee of the Twelve,” Sarthius said. “I’d expect nothing less than an acknowledgement of the gifts of the gods of knowledge to man.”
“But it is the woodcutter who swings the axe,” Vindrel said. “The axe is just a tool.”
“Like you?” Claire said. The words came out with an unexpected venom.
“Aren’t we all?” Vindrel said, his face only hinting at offense. “It is Lord Catannel that is the wielder, even if the tools can think.” Vindrel’s eyes were narrowed in the bright light from the open window, drawing in shades of yellow to the common green that so many others possessed.
“I like this analogy,” Sarthius said. He gestured for Claire to approach the window. She swallowed, feeling the lump in her throat return. She stepped up beside the count, looking out the ornate stone portal to the courtyard below. There was a raging fire beneath a raised stone platform, a stage that usually served up executions in the form of hangings. That day, however, the deathly theater would not display such a casual disbursement of criminals. “The woodcutter has as much in common with the axe as the axe does the tree.”
“How so?” Vindrel said.
“The axe has no will. No real will, and like you said, power is the ability to exact your will, though it is more than that,” Sarthius said. “The axe is merely doing what it was designed to do.” He nodded to Claire. “By the god Ferral, of course.”
“Of course,” Claire said.
“But the woodcutter is also doing what he was designed to do,” Sarthius said. “He too is a tool, serving masters he does not even recognize as such. He cuts the trees because they have value to others, not himself. The trees are merely a means to some other end – his family and livelihood, perhaps.”
“That seems like life in general,” Vindrel said. “If you don’t mind me saying so, aren’t we all just serving some end with our actions?”
“I don’t mind. Better than groveling,” Sarthius said. “Everyone serves somebody else, thus sayeth Denarius the wise.” He cast a glance to Claire.
“Yes, you are correct, my lord,” Claire said. “Our place among all others is the gift of Denarius. His gifts are the foundations our society.” She looked down on the courtyard. Only a few people stood to witness what was going to happen. For what Claire expected to see, usually the most perverse residents of the city enjoyed bearing witness.
“The truly powerful do not submit to such notions, cleric,” Vindrel said. “They do what they will.”
“Exactly,” Sarthius said. “I knew I made a good decision keeping you on. The axe would only be truly powerful if cut the woodcutter, rather than the tree.”
“I don’t follow, grace,” Claire said.
“To be powerful, you must be able to make the wills of others conform to your own.” Sarthius gave her a smirk, but his eyes were as calm and still as ever. “To be powerful is to make the system into what you want it to be.”
“Such ideas are dangerous,” Claire said. “In the wrong company, of course. The same goes for your gun, Vindrel.”
“Are you the wrong company?” Sarthius said, raising his eyebrows.
“No my lord,” Claire said. “As cleric to your grace and the church of the city, I am merely giving advice for your dealings with the world. You have done much to further the church and its ministry, but there are men who prefer to judge according to words, and not actions.”
“I am lucky to have such a wise councilor,” Sarthius said. “Action… perhaps that is the last element of power. If you have the power to do something and never do it, who is to say you had the power at all? Yes, power only exists if you use it.”
“Otherwise a beggar could claim to be the greatest sorcerer in the world,” Vindrel said.
Sarthius chuckled, in a deep and scratchy tone. “Yes, of course. Let us observe an element of power.” He nodded toward the platform below.
The scattered crowd of mostly men began to hoot as the door to the dungeon was opened and the guards appeared, chains between them holding a young woman, her white flesh shining brightly under the noon sun. She was naked, and even from the heights of the small room, streaks of grey grit could be seen on her flesh.
Ardala, Claire thought as she watched the frightened face dart to the men of the crowd. It was only a few weeks prior when she had seen the same woman in the halls of the castle, busying herself with bed changes and cleaning. She was one of the few servants that didn’t seem totally worn down by the atmosphere of the castle. Eventually, all of them shared the same vacant eyes as the count. Claire wondered if her own eyes looked like that.
“I thought she talked,” Claire said.
“She did,” Sarthius said. “She told us everything, and with not much effort, I must say. The torturer was disappointed.”
“Yes, but she was lying,” Vindrel said. “There was nobody there when we went.”
“She was telling the truth,” Sarthius said. “I could see it in her eyes.”
“Then why are you killing her?” Claire felt sick as she watched the young woman being led up the steps. The fire blazed off the end of the platform.
“Because I am a man of actions, not words,” Sarthius said. “Whether she lied or not, the result was the same.”
“But do you have to?” Claire said. She squeezed back tears as a leather bag was placed around the young woman’s neck.
“I do,” Sarthius said. “Power does not exist unless you use it. This must be done. For her. For these men here. For all who would betray me.”
Claire turned away, covering her mouth. “You… Have no betrayers here, lord,” she said through a choke.
“Do you not wish to watch?” Sarthius said. “It is so rare that we can use such methods.”
“No, I don’t want to watch, lord,” Claire said.
“Then why did you come up here?” Sarthius’s eyes remained fixed on the scene outside.
“I just…” Claire took a breath and looked out the door. “Wanted to inform you of the death of King Graslund.”
“That is good news,” Sarthius said with a smile, still never taking his eyes away from the window.
“Yes,” Claire said. “It seems that his grief over the excommunication and banishment of his last son was too much for him, and he succumbed to his sickness.”
“The writ of ascension?” Sarthius said.
“It is being cleared by the high priest as we speak,” Claire said. “We can organize the coronation as soon as the writ has been acknowledged by all the other high lords.”
“Good,” Sarthius said. “It seems your job will require a bit of haste, Vindrel.”
“I’ll need a ship,” Vindrel said.
“I’ll give you more than that. I’ll write up some orders for Captain Daniels – or is he admiral now?”
“I think it’s a fitting time for a promotion,” Vindrel said, “Your highness.”
“I like the sound of that,” Sarthius said. “Claire, you may leave now, if this scene does not suit you.”
“Thank you, my l – your highness,” Claire corrected herself.
“Oh,” Sarthius said. “I have another stipend for your daughter’s studies.” He reached in his pocket and drew forth a small bag.
Claire looked at Vindrel, who seemed not to react. The bag, made of burlap and topped with a simple string, sat in Sarthius’s palm.
My daughter. Marriage and children were not permitted for the devotees of Verbus, the priesthood that managed the church itself. It was a critical position, and could easily be soured by the temptation of power, or so the scriptures said. The Church of the Twelve was the source of all knowledge in Diederon, and indeed the world, for outside of the divine continent the land seemed to be filled with warring savages: men who had forgotten the light of the Twelve Gods and their gifts to man. It was considered too great a risk for all parties to have children and also serve as the clergy for all other clergymen. The lack of family was why nobles tended to employ them as well. When you have heirs, you have ambition.
Claire’s daughter Maribel was the result of her failing at being neutral with the nobility. The girl’s father had been a prince in the warring kingdoms of the divine strand, the remnants of the last great holy empire, and that put her at great risk of harm from competitors to the twelve thrones. She had managed to enroll her daughter in a devotion path to Nostera, the goddess of healing, much younger than would normally be allowed, in order to keep her hidden away. This she kept a secret to all, even the girl’s father, but Sarthius had known almost as soon as she had accepted a position as minister in Cataling. Somehow, the count knew everything. He had come to her offering charity, but she understood what it truly was: a threat, and the sort of threat that keeps a woman up at night. That was part of his power, and that knowledge had been well-used against Claire. With her connections in the church, she had caused several key members of the nobility to be exiled as apostates, all with a mysteriously sharp drawing of guilt and evidence that Sarthius seemed to always know of.
Claire stepped forward to take the bag. At that moment, she saw, as if slowed in time, Ardala the servant girl being thrown naked onto the bonfire in the courtyard below. It seemed like she could not look away as a scream escaped her mouth. She felt her fingers clutching the bag, but turning away from the execution seemed impossible. Vaguely she felt Sarthius’s spider-like fingers around her wrist, holding her. Flesh blackened as smoke and flame enveloped the count’s victim. Silence in the crowd answered the woman’s tortured cries.
The bag of gunpowder around the woman’s neck finally exploded, ending her pain in a flash of fire and blood. Sarthius pulled Claire close and whispered with hot, sickly breath in her ear. It was like the hissing of a snake.
“Power. Remember.”

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