Beyond the Moon Sea - Sample

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"Play your pieces, no matter how insignificant, as if any could win you the game."
Matron Vanta in Wisdom of the Matrons,compiled by Jevan Lor’Vakayne, Son of Savra.
Chapter 1


Kores had yet to see the ritual victim.

A northern breeze chilled his skin as he squinted at the setting sun. Bronze hairs stood on end, cracking the pattern of gray lines coiling about his arms. The scarlet silk scarf about his neck lifted away, as did the scarves of the other men in the crowd, flapping in the inconstant wind. As one, the crowd lifted its arms, exposing armpits and sides to the cooler air. Ash-laced sweat and ritual oils seeped into their pristine white loincloths, turning the fringes gray. A drop of lilac-scented oil trickled from Kores's right temple and down his cheek, through the symbols traced on his skin. He wiped the oil away with the back of his hand, smudging them.

He resisted crinkling his nose as the scent of sweating bodies, lilac, and ash wafted deep into his nostrils. He’d suffer any odor to be at their ritual.

The witnesses—a group of twenty to thirty men, women, and children of the Wedoni tribe—sat huddled together, facing north from the south side of a grassy, windswept hill. To the west, fields of long grass tumbled down to the city walls and the terraced facade of Toruk, a great walled city surrounding the bay. Toruk’s white stone face descended toward a sparkling bay. The sun was setting between the bay’s rocky arms, which held back treacherous and fierce waters. Hundred-foot-tall stone spires stood watch between the arms. Waves whittled away at them, and one day they’d crumble, but for now, tiny white sails safely dotted the bay.

Celebration pavilions and tents dotted the pastures between the city gate and the sacred mound. The cooking pits were already red with hot coals. A creeping forest of vines and tall, thin trees surrounded the sacred mound to the south. Cool shadows darkened the ground beneath the canopy.

A large copper cauldron sat at the mound’s pinnacle. That was where the victim would appear, where they’d perform their ritual sacrifice.

The sun had baked Kores all day, and he’d little to show for it but sweat. He jotted another entry in his battered leather-bound journal. Since starting the vigil ten hours ago, every entry was like the one before it:

Late afternoon. No sign of the victim. No candidates or electors. No sign of power.

He glanced at the previous entries—a mantra of his only reason for being there. The Ulsic Schools wanted him in the west for knowledge of sea-going vessels and trade for grain and foodstuffs—anything to stave off famine on his home continent of Nenelassa. The Wedoni knew no hunger, even the poorest of them. Their wealth was beyond the Schools’ dreams.

But Kores was there for a reason of his own. He underlined the word power in each entry.

“Sayin selada. Sayin otreda,” a man among the witnesses chanted.

The witnesses repeated the chant in hushed tones. As one, they looked to the west and held their bronzed hands up to the diving sun as its rays cut across the sea, the white marble city of Toruk, the surrounding hills, the plains, and struck the Solumma Range. The sun’s rays were so dense that a tiny boy stood up and tried to grasp one. The Wedoni had waited all day for this moment, when the sun’s light—Sayin’s light—shot out over the world like spears, a last volley through Solumma’s mighty peaks and into the land of death, a vast expanse that had once been Sayin’s own empire.

“If not for Saylassa,” Kores whispered out of habit. He made note of the chant, translating as best he could. Sayin departs. Sayin returns.

He sketched an outline of the peaks, trying to capture the way the sun struck them at this time of year. Solumma was what the Wedoni called the mountain range. Tall and brooding, the range stood like a breaker against the gray death that reigned on the other side. The word meant a high bank, but these were lofty, impassable mountains.

Kores knew the range by another name: the Western Waste Range. That was its official name within the Ulsic Schools. Its proper name. His own people named everything north of Nenelassa by its relationship to the Waste. No matter the passage of time, the gray waste, the sucking vastness of it, never let them—or the Wedoni—move on. He rubbed at flecks of ash on his arm. No, it was here with them even after two and a half millennia.

“Solumma,” he whispered. The children near him whispered it back. He flashed a grin at them, and they giggled. They were not yet immune to his charms.

He rubbed the pencil between his fingers, considering what to name the sketch. The work he did was for the Schools, and his oath to it had carried him to this far-off land. That oath had paid for his steward, his team, the journal, and even the little pencil between his fingers. By oath, every word he wrote was theirs. He knew what he ought to write but a natural rebelliousness roused itself. It took so little. He chuckled to himself and wrote “Solumma” beneath the sketch. He basked in the dying sun’s light and grinned.

So be it.

He was unconventional. Infamous, even. Not like anyone would ever read the journal. He’d already violated the headmaster’s command by removing his jacket, the one with his master’s insignia, but the Wedoni had required that he dress as a witness if he wanted to attend their ritual.

Over the years headmasters had warned him not to get too close to the peoples he studied. Kores could never heed his superiors in this matter. Gadrey, the current headmaster, had pleaded with him to obey, just this once. Kores didn’t enjoy pressing the man, making him look a fool to his council, but he couldn’t be otherwise.

“Can’t help myself,” he said under his breath.

A girl, one of his host’s grandchildren, fascinated by his sketch of the range, reached over to trace it with her finger. She popped up from her seat to trace the real range with her two hands. She giggled as one of the older women waved her down. The other children snickered at her and huddled closer to watch Kores draw. He suppressed a laugh and nodded at the women.

As the sun touched the horizon, a group of ten elders appeared, marching over the sacred mound’s west side. White-haired and shriveled like dried dates, they played taut leather hand drums, deep-throated flutes, and white ox horns. They filled the air with raucous, rambling music. The witnesses clapped to the awkward rhythm. Men stood and danced, gleaming like crescent moons in the brilliant light, as the elders sat on the grass near the cauldron.

Kores stole precious moments to write the details in his journal. The Wedoni seemed transformed. Gone were the shrewd merchants, the richly dressed masters of marble palaces, fishing fleets, and a populous city-state. A strange people had replaced them as they performed this cosmic play. He drove the pencil through oil, ash, and the sweat of his hand, recording every thought. The clapping quickened, and he looked up. He wanted to clap as well, but pencil and journal held him captive.

A balding elder with stubborn white hairs plastered across his crown stood up from among the Wedoni elders. Shrunken with age, his wiry body tensed and tightened as he blew on a curled, black ram’s horn. The blast filled the air with more sound than a horn that size should have been able to make. The man blew the horn four more times. A shiver ran through the crowd; witnesses shook out their hands as if releasing hidden energy. Young children whimpered, fearful of the shuddering sensation washing over them.

Power. It had to be.

A final blast hushed the crowd.

Kores’s host approached the copper cauldron. Bulek Nahran was a stout, heavy man with a square slab of a face and a slim topknot of yellow-white hair crowning his head. A long scarlet tunic draped his bulk. He carried a three-foot-tall, cylindrical black urn. Standing beside the cauldron, the urn slid through his thick, meaty fingers, and landed with a sharp clang on a stone pedestal. He removed the lid, and dust lifted away from the stone’s lip like an exhalation.

Just that morning, Kores had sketched the urn. It sat, day after day, alone and venerated, in the Nahran clan’s sanctuary. The urn never left its pedestal, except on this day, the Wedoni’s most sacred day. In that marble-lined sanctuary, the Nahran women had opened the urn and adorned the men’s bodies with lines drawn in its gray dust. They’d spread oils through Kores’s bronze hair, slicking back its thick waves, forking his beard into three sections, and painting unfamiliar symbols all over his body. There were no other symbols on the estate—neither in tapestries, nor rugs, nor carved into stone. An elder woman of the Nahran had explained that only their women could keep and teach such knowledge, and they revealed it at the annual ritual. The whimsical symbols meant nothing to Kores. He’d noted them in the journal, anyway.

On this most sacred day, the elector women would choose men to procreate with. It was for this—to know how they made their choice—that Kores would sacrifice the last sliver of respectability he had as a master of the Ulsic Schools.

He squinted at the sun boiling on the horizon. Surging crests of mountainous waves sliced through the steam. A rush of wind from the bay lifted wisps of gray dust from the urn’s narrow mouth. Motes spiraled, carried up by the warmer sea air.

Gray flecks alighted on the open page before him, where he’d made a note of the ram’s horn and the inner tremor he’d felt with its blast. His bones still shuddered, the strangest sensation. He blew the dust away respectfully. Dust of the dead. The Waste had consumed Saylassa—the largest and central continent—twenty-five hundred years ago. Saylassa, the golden and eternal. The words of blessing quivered on the tip of his tongue, but he didn’t speak the phrase. His mind couldn’t resist, though, and the words manifested in his thoughts.

If not for Saylassa.

The words were a prayer or a curse. He’d seen what Saylassa looked like now, and he thought it a curse. Solumma’s lofty peaks had protected the Wedoni from the destruction, and yet these people brought Saylassa’s remains, that incomprehensible death, into their lush green lands bounded by life-sustaining bays and inlets to serve a mysterious purpose in their ritual. They venerated the dust, but Kores didn’t think it possessed any power.

An elder stood and uttered what sounded like a prayer. Kores squeezed his pencil. He’d not heard the words, but everyone else had, and they clapped in response.

The ritual could begin.

A pair of girls with braided yellow hair and long, narrow bodies dressed in white cotton dresses, bearing no adornment or symbol, approached the cauldron. Kores glanced about, but the Wedoni only smiled at the girls. He shuddered. Surely, they were not the sacrifice.

Each pair of girls carried a copper vat between them. They stood at the cauldron and lifted their vat to the rim. A thick, gulping, plum-red stream flowed from the vat into the cauldron. The girls waited until the last drops emptied into it, then stepped away. Four more pairs of girls did the same, each emptying their own vats into the cauldron. Bulek inspected the contents before he waved the girls off, then sat on a small wooden stool of ebon wood, taking his place with the other clan leaders.

A crone stepped out from the elders, a copper ladle in hand, and stirred the pot. She was the eldest woman of the Nahran and had birthed twenty-three healthy children. It would have been a miracle amongst Kores’s own people for so many children to live, but here, it seemed normal. So long as the Wedoni performed the rituals and followed the customs, they thrived.

Fuzzy white hairs floated about the crone’s head as she gazed into the cauldron. She raised the ladle, bright and dripping scarlet, over its rim. Her left hand, curled into a claw, reached through the urn’s neck. A dusty cloud erupted from the urn’s mouth when her hand reemerged from its depths. She sprinkled the dust into the ladle’s bowl, dipped the utensil back into the pot, and stirred again. Three times she mixed in the dust of Saylassa, the dead with the living.

“If not for Saylassa,” Kores whispered, stilled for a moment from his note-taking and thinking. Once the dust cleared, Kores noted the details of the crone’s actions. His little finger brushed away the pencil’s lead splinters from the bone-white paper.

The horns blasted again, and the witnesses shivered with each bellow.

The candidates, a hundred Wedoni men, processed toward the cauldron from the east side of the hill. Dressed in white loincloths, but without scarlet sashes, they stomped their feet in unison with the horns, clapping and chanting. Whorls of gray symbols snaked about their tan bodies and thick ropes of straw hair coiled around their necks. They’d trimmed their beards along their jawlines, sharp and clean, with the fronts oiled and braided into three strands. Eyes of amber, hazel, and walnut blazed in the late afternoon sun. The Wedoni were a handsome people, lean and strong of limb. Kores was certain they had Alcar blood.

Five mature Wedoni women, the electors, approached from the west and stood across from the candidates. Ankle-length linen skirts decorated with strips of red fox fur and strands of copper beads clung to their wide, swaying hips. Thick bands of beaten copper adorned their wrists and arms. Bright strands of burnished gold streaked the towers of yellow hair twisted above their heads, held in place with wide copper circlets. More bands of copper fanned out over their bare bosoms. They wore no adornment on their faces.

Kores felt the end of the page and turned to a fresh one. He drank in every detail, and the pencil continued its journey across the pages of the journal.

He glanced to the left where the forest line ended. Through a curtain of oiled hair, he observed the shadows. Had it been a beckoning motion? He swallowed the stub of a pencil in a white-knuckled fist. It must be Verko, the Headmaster’s lackey, spying. Verko had watched Kores’s every move from the first day they’d set foot on the skiff that carried them across the Straits. Kores strained to see against the encroaching darkness, but there was only the play of light and shadow through the forest’s limbs and trunks.

The crone cried out in a high-pitched squeal.

The pencil jerked across the page. He’d been deep in thought, preoccupied with the forest’s edge. The woman's words meant nothing to him, but the candidates stomped more vigorously, building up a sweat, and the electors clapped and swayed, copper jewelry clinking. He rubbed away the jagged line as best he could, but his oily, sweaty fingers just turned it into a huge smudge. Turning the page, he wrote a heading at the top of the new one.

All but the drums quieted. The thrum slowed and deepened, like a massive, beating heart. Kores took advantage of the break to fill the page with notes. Bulek’s clan pressed around to watch him write. They didn’t know his letters but smiled as the pencil danced across the page.

Though literate—any Wedoni child could read a ledger—the Wedoni had no tradition of writing their tales or poems. They spoke or sang them. To them, writing was a base task for keeping the accounts of trade. Only the voice of a thinking person could utter ineffable thoughts and feelings. The children giggled to see so many words strung together on a page.

As the sun’s rays reached their sharpest angle and shone through two tall peaks at Solumma’s center, the crone held her hands to the sky. The facade of the range appeared aflame. To the north of the two peaks, a rush of gray dust rose into the sky like a giant wave crashing into a cliff. More waves followed, and the mass of dust joined with the clouds. A titanic form took shape, a challenger to the dying sun.

Grinning children patted Kores. He was beaming, eyes watering from the sheer joy of it. Even though he knew the source of those dust waves, awe filled him.

The Wedoni shared his emotion, every eye wide and breath held. The dust waves must have been a good omen, because the crone motioned to a clutch of women well past their fertile years. Clad in long, tent-shaped hoods made of woven straw, the women held out copper bowls, and the crone filled them with the cauldron’s contents. As one, these holy women, keepers of the clan’s history and mysteries, stepped toward the five electors, the current mothers of the Nahran clan.

Each elector accepted a bowl and held it up, voluptuous bodies swaying in their shadows. Then, each drank from her bowl, and returned it empty to a holy woman. One elector wiped her lips and brushed her hand on her skirt. A long trail of bright red streaked across it. Kores stared at the blemish, and an idea formed in the back of his mind, the pieces of legend and myth arranging themselves for his understanding.

The Wedoni were blood drinkers.

Kores had expected a ritual sacrifice; a human body on an altar, and then the eating of it. But now he understood.

It wasn’t human flesh they ate, but blood.

His stomach tightened. There was enough of it to feed the entire clan. His pencil hovered over the page, and he glanced at the shadowed wood. The discovery should disgust him, but he’d not judge how a people found their power. He recorded the event, avoiding complicit words. That anyone might think he favored these people…

He despised himself for his momentary cowardice, but he’d remember, and would write it in a book later. Every detail.

The electors raised their hands to the dying sun, lips blood-stained, eyes wide and shining as if the sun gave them secret wisdom.

Kores watched but saw nothing. His confidence ebbed. Was this another fool’s quest? Was the headmaster right about him? His hand rested heavy against the page as frustration rippled through him.

“Just wait,” he said under his breath, wiping away the cold sweat beading on his face.

Chapter 2

Kores tugged on his beard, impatient for what would come next. The Wedoni just looked to the setting sun, bound by a silence he couldn’t perceive. Even the children looked on, rapt. He stared down at his darkened notes, trying to ignore the dancing spots left in his vision by staring too long into the western horizon.

A single drum thumped, and the candidates formed into a line. The first man approached the cauldron, and the crone held the copper ladle up to him. A fit young man, handsome of face and form, he cupped the ladle with his hands and gulped down the contents with relish. One by one, the candidates drank. Blood, sometimes clots of it, dribbled through their beards and down their necks, snaking through their chest hairs. As the last man guzzled his portion, the drums stopped. The horns blasted, filling the air with an unrelenting throb.

The men stood in rows of ten, arm’s length apart, marching in place. Their eyes darkened and glazed over into a far-seeing stare. Others stopped moving altogether. This was their moment of ecstasy.

The electors moved toward the candidates and the horns stopped. All went still. Kores’s heart pounded in his ears as expectation heightened. He closed his journal, one thumb lodged within the closed pages to keep his place. Here, at last, he might see the thing he’d come west to find. Power. Enchantment. Divinity. The ignorant would call it by the cruder name of magic, but this was no trick or illusion.

Lost in their reveries, the candidates stared past the setting sun to where the Siren cluster shimmered into view above the fire-red sea. The electors, as tall as the men, moved through them, swaying as they walked, sometimes touching them. One waved her hands in front of a man’s eyes, assessing the truth of his ecstasy. The women inspected each of the men in this way as the sun blinked at the horizon.

Three Wedoni men fell out of ecstasy. Their faces turned down upon realizing they’d failed so early. They walked away in silence toward the celebration tents. Minutes later, another batch left, until only five remained staring into the unknown. The electors each claimed a man, taking him by the hand and leading him away to a large tent designated for their sacred purpose.

The Wedoni lit torches as the sun became a mere glow on the horizon and the stars emerged.

“Sayintae,” a boy said. Kores just nodded and smiled at the boy. They’d been calling him sayintae since he’d arrived. The boy insisted, motioning to the cauldron. Kores’s throat tightened. The witnesses were forming a line. They, too, would drink from the cauldron. The children sang out the word, encouraging him. Hands pressed on him to stand and follow.

He looked at the forest’s tree line but saw nothing. His innards twisted and writhed like the vines and trunks. The crowd made its way to the cauldron. Kores hugged his journal to his chest as the Wedoni flowed around him. The last time he’d become too involved with a tribe, he’d spent ten years with the Juula, unaccounted for and presumed dead. More recently, there’d been his time with the Cascar. Three years he’d spent with them, traversing the border of the Waste. Then, there’d been that time with the Kinari. And the Havic before that. A parade of peoples, rituals, histories, and garb passed through his mind, each memory claiming a part of his long life.

His actions would displease the headmaster and council if he once again veered from their clear directives, but he wasn’t averse to bending their rules, skirting their meaning. He stuffed his journal in the leather satchel slung across his chest. One last time, he looked over to the woods and saw nothing but shadows under the low trees.

Headmaster Gadrey always reminded Kores he was only a cartographer. More than that, he was no arcanist to understand the secret workings of power. Did he think himself an Alcar, a divine being? This last question had come from the master’s council and seared Kores’s mind with frustration. All he wanted from the Wedoni was to know their practice of power. Taking part in their rituals was the first step to gaining access to their secrets.

The Wedoni children urged him on.

His feet moved, deciding for him.

The lilac in his oiled hair mingled with the cauldron’s rusty aroma. His nose twitched, but he stilled any sign of disgust. The crone presented the ladle, heavy with blood, to his lips.

The Wedoni murmured as one: “Sayintae.”

Sky-man. Or was it sun-man? The cool metal of the ladle pressed to his lips, and hands patted or stroked his back and arms. He looked up to the sky, to the brightest stars peeking through the evening clouds. It was best not to look at the ladle. His lips parted. The liquid, warm and metallic, filled his mouth, and he swallowed. His tongue ran over his lips, taking in the last drops. It was fresh. Someone wiped his chin.

The Wedoni nodded their approval.

Moshe den atto,” the crone said. Men of the rings. She grinned at him with blood-stained teeth. He swallowed again to clear the taste.

The mature women, full lips the color of ripe cherries, looked him over and nodded. What did they see in him? He felt no different, just giddy with the thrill of yet another initiation. His hand felt for the journal, itching to write his experiences before they became a hazy memory.

When all the witnesses had had their taste of the cauldron’s brew, Bulek’s daughters took Kores by the arms and led him toward the fires. Torches blazed along the path, blinding him to the depths of the surrounding woods.

He paused. Bodies hung from posts along the forest’s edge. Colossal heads with heavy yellow tusks hung from hooks nearby. He sighed. That it was boar’s blood in the cauldron would make no difference to the headmaster and his council. The ritual would still disgust them.

Another set of posts loomed in the darkness, and he moved toward them.

“This way, sayintae,” the women said, stroking his arms. They kept him on the path. He looked over his shoulder, but one woman turned his head, cooing the title they’d given him.

He’d come west with the vague clue that the Wedoni ate their enemies in ritual ceremonies, but he’d yet to meet anyone in the fair seaside city who seemed a flesh eater. Or a blood drinker.

But they had drunk blood. He’d drunk it.

Only boar blood, he reminded himself.

He swallowed again. The tang clung to the back of his throat. He gripped the satchel holding his journal. He’d give anything for solitude to make notes and think, but he was a polite guest. The Wedoni would feast for days, but he’d only be there for the first night. His stomach fluttered. As always, like previous missions, too many questions remained unanswered. He’d been with the Wedoni for seven months. The headmaster’s council estimated it would take two months to make connections with the region’s merchants. They hadn’t been wrong, as Bulek and his clan were eager to trade with outsiders.

But once again, Kores had overstayed the mission’s requirements and chosen to pursue his own agenda. The Wedoni had been reticent to share the details of their history and the nature of their power. The rumor among the few masters who’d studied the western tribes was that the Wedoni were ageless. Crones and elders cackled together by a fire. He could at least dispel that rumor upon his return.

Children danced and played between the fires, chasing each other with switches. Butchered boars twisted on iron spits over red-hot coals and billowing smoke. Young men turned them under the careful watch of an older man. New fires burned bright, crackling and whistling as the flames ripped open strands of spicewood.

Bulek’s daughters sat Kores by a fire, and the rest of the clan swarmed him. They bade him farewell with necklaces of copper beads and feathers. They kissed his cheeks and his forehead, patting and stroking him. Young men clad in white tunics, next year’s candidates, with necklaces of white flowers piled about their necks and chests, served him chunks of spice-drenched boar and a cup of intoxicating drink. Drums thumped and deep-throated flutes blared, drowning out all other sounds.

Kores took a bite from the boar, its juices running down his chin and beard. The spices heated his face, clearing his head. He breathed out hard. The nearby Wedoni chuckled.

As the night progressed, the fires singed his eyes with their brightness. Shadows and shapes stamped themselves in his mind. He blinked in vain to clear the images. He moaned. His head swam. A server poured more of the liquor into his cup. Those at his fire stared at him, their eyes fierce and bright. They chuckled or grinned as the flames stretched and contorted, creeping in on him, and in the fires, he thought he saw the shapes of men, not boars. He shook his head.

“Won’t you dance, sayintae?” a man asked him.

Kores shook his head. He didn’t think he could stand. Memories of past initiations haunted him from the shadows. How many had there been? Twelve? Thirteen? Tribes as far off as the Juula and as near as his own Dalmothi had ushered him through the first stages of their power rituals. On Kores’s twelfth birthday, his grandfather had walked him to a promontory on Mount Atrea, overlooking the Straits. With the sky clear as could be, they’d stared over the narrow gap between Nenelassa and Saylassa, over the haze of gray that went on forever to the North.

“It’s green,” his grandfather had said. “Don’t you see?”

Kores had shaken his head.

“There, far. Try hard.”

And he tried. His grandfather wouldn’t move until he saw it.

It had seemed to him then that the ritual was one of hope. If you couldn’t hope to see the green, then you’d never see it. He’d nodded, humoring his grandfather.

“Yes, Grandfather. I see it now. It is green.”

Intense red bodies danced about the fires. He blinked, and the bodies blazed gold and orange with trails of lava-red sweat cutting through the symbols on their bodies, distorting them. Then everything turned red again, blood surging through their bodies like spring rivers. The beating of their hearts joined with the thrumming of drums. He looked down into his cup, and only blackness swirled within. He emptied it, and trailing the burn of alcohol, tasted a familiar tang.

“It’s red, Grandfather,” he whispered to himself.

The throbbing beats overtook his body. His mind and his senses drifted with the red and yellow streams. Before he knew it, he’d risen to dance, stomping and clapping to their rhythm, one with their song.

This couldn’t end well, but he didn’t care.