Wednesday, July 24, 2013

M.L. Weaver #1: The Lightness of Dust: Chapter 1 Excerpt

Here is the first of three excerpts today from M.L. Weaver's Lightness of Dust! Come back at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. for the second and third!

Chapter 1: Ocean’s Children

“I will belong to the gods before you return!”  Kere’s voice rose as the weight of Telamon’s words bore down on her, blurring his face through tears.  “My father will see it done!  I expect him…”  Sobs choked her into silence.

“To wed his daughter to a fisherman?  A hired fisherman at that, with no vessel to claim as his own?”  Telamon spat the words.  Pain twisted his face, and with it, her heart.  “Even if the fleet were to sail without me…he would not allow us to marry!”

Telamon took a faltering breath and continued more softly.  “Forgive my harsh words, love, but wealth and power are the only the languages that your father recognizes.  And though he has little of either, I have even less.”  Kere knew he spoke the truth; she made no reply.

A spasm drove her fingertips into his flesh until pain forced Telamon to pry her hands away.  The man she had loved since before the dawn of her memory rubbed his arm.  Blood came away with his palm.

“My love, I’m sorry!”  Kere gestured for him to kneel at the waterline. With the sea lapping over their thighs and swirling her thin dress she poured foaming water from her cupped hand to wash the blood away.  Eyes half-closed and vaguely searching the horizon, Kere brushed her fingers over the wounds.  Once, twice, again, until the wound was closed; thin white lines traced the curved arcs of her fingernails against his dark skin.  Telamon examined his arm and looked at her expectantly.

“You left scars…are you feeling unwell?”

Her lips brushed the raised flesh where she had pierced him.  “I was put here to heal, my love.  The scars are to be my reminder that instead I hurt you.”  Her hand hovered over his arm.  “Do you wish that I remove them?”

Telamon gently lifted her hand away.  “No,” he replied.  “It will serve as a reminder for me, as well.  While I am away.”

“A reminder of what?” she asked.

Cradling her hand in his, he wrapped a bracelet around her wrist and tied it snugly.  “A reminder of my promise,” he answered.  Kere’s breath caught in her throat; the significance of his gift overwhelmed her.

“Telamon…” she began, but no further words came.  Around her wrist coiled a thin strap of fine leather.  Colorful polished shells, small and beautiful, hung evenly spaced along its length.  No scarce metal formed its construction; even so, her shallow breath quickened.  Perhaps mistaking her silence for disapproval, Telamon spoke quickly.

“It should have copper, and the strap is too narrow…” He was forced to abandon the thought, for Kere embraced him and put an end to his criticism of his own efforts with a deep kiss.  Every denigration of his gift was, to her, a denigration of their love.  When she released him, he continued.  “I thought this would be best, even if I had the means for a proper one.”  He put out his hand in a silencing gesture when she tried to speak.
“Luwos,” he spoke of her father, “will not notice this trinket.  A marriage band, though…that he would notice.  He sees only the values of things, and not their meanings; his blindness is our opportunity.  Let this mark you as my own with the first promise that when I return, no matter who might object, we shall be wed.”

Clever, she thought, clever and dear and perfect.  Kere kissed him again, and when she reluctantly pulled her lips from his it was she who spoke.  “I’m sorry to disappoint you, my love, but the first promise was mine.”
Telamon studied her through narrowed eyes.  Kere laughed at his bewilderment and only when the good nature of his expression slipped did she answer his unspoken question.  “On the day we met.  Don’t you remember?”

A whirling mass of sea birds exploded into the air as his laughter boomed across the water.  “Gods witness the oaths of children!  We were five years old!”

Fixing an expression of feigned injury on her face, Kere pouted. “I knew you were the one I would marry that day.  Are you saying that you didn’t?”  She enjoyed the growing discomfort in his eyes.  Though his lips moved no sound emerged.  Kere lifted her wrist to his face and shook it with a musical rattle.  “Never call it a ‘trinket’ again.”  She spoke with fierce intensity.  “Of all the shining treasures hidden deep in the Sanctuary, I would love none more than this.”  She grasped his hand tightly and pulled him along.

They moved down the shore in silence for a time, listening to the fading sounds of the port behind.  Waves shattered into foam against the Keswiq, a great wall of rock that towered black and immovable above the city.  It was widely believed that if one prayed at its base, the stone itself would propel the message to the gods and even silent entreaties would be received; Kimber herself was said to sit atop the cliff and watch herself undulate across the world on nights when her sister lit the waves with her gentle glow.  Telamon gazed thoughtfully at its silent face as they approached.

“Did She keep me ashore that day?” he asked.  The words whispered; Kere did not know whether she spoke to her.  Or does he ask his father? Or Luna?

The shrieks of gulls overhead nearly drowned out her response.  “Why do you ask that?  What day?”  She knew, though, that there could be only one day he would speak of in that tone.

Telamon did not look at Kere, but spoke with his gaze fixed firmly on the Keswiq.  “The night before it happened, I promised the gods that I would do whatever they required of me, so long as they put a ship in my path one day.  A ship of my own.”  A deep breath filled his lungs.  “When Father woke me in the morning, I was ill.  My legs would not support me long enough to dress.  I insisted that I was strong enough to join him…he was a sturdy man who never let sickness or injury stand in his way, and I feared his disappointment most of all.  But Father put me back to my bed and pulled my blanket tight around me.  ‘I promise you will make the next trip with me,’ he whispered in my ear.  He kissed me goodbye and went to his ship.  And Mother and I were alone.”

The sea blurred in Kere’s eyes.  She wondered why he hadn’t shared this story before.  Her own memory of that day remained clear; it was the night, and the prayer, that were new.   Is the thought of his father coloring this voyage?  Is he afraid that he, too, might never return?

“When I asked for a ship of my own, did I send my own father beyond, Kere?  His ship would have been mine one day, and therefore not a ship of my own.  Did the gods answer my prayer after all, just not in the way that I’d expected?”

“The gods would never do such a thing!” she cried.
He looked at her with an expression she’d never seen him wear.  “Oh?  Have they never sent a man to his doom, then?”

The depth of his bitterness toward the gods shocked her.  “If the gods don’t witness the oaths of children,” she reminded him with a rattle of her bracelet, “then do you truly believe they would run through a man’s heart a spear wrought from the prayers of his own child?”  Kere embraced him tightly and ran her fingers through his long hair while he continued to look into the distance.  Does he see his father?  Or the ship broken in dark water with the bones of five men entombed within its pitch-smeared hull?   His next words answered her questions.  “Sometimes I dream about it, and in the dream I sleep, tucked into my warm bed by my father, as he sinks to the icy depths despite his struggles to reach the storm-churned surface.”

The loss of his father had been Telamon’s greatest tragedy.  The next-greatest loss was that with the ship had gone Telamon’s best future on the water.  In his family for generations, it was long paid-for and belonged outright to the family—a near-impossible feat when timber for ships was dear and the metals for payment even more so.  Now Telamon fished for a miserly old man as the least of the four-man crew.  He earned barely enough to care for himself; if insufferable mourning had not taken his mother a year after the waves claimed his father, responsibility for her care would be his now, as well.  The task would be impossible.

Her fingers twisted the bracelet around her wrist.  What price did he pay for this?  The shells, of course, could be had at no cost save the walk along the shore; the polishing might be done with sand and water for no more than one’s time.  The leather, though, spoke to the depths of his commitment.  Leather could, of course, be had cheaply enough if one was not too careful about the quality.  But she had seen fine leather before and recognized it wrapped against her skin; materials such as this, carefully prepared, darkened and sealed with oils, cost more.  She knew that a man on a small boat earned enough share of the catch for shelter and food.  But not a great deal of food, and not of great quality or variety.  Kere thought of the hunger he must have endured, how he must have strained to carry his share of the work at sea with too little food to sustain him, all so that he could afford to wrap a few bits of leather and shell around her arm.

She lifted a loaf of hard-crusted bread from her knapsack and tore away a small piece before offering the rest to him.  She noted how eagerly Telamon tore into this simple food.  Shame welled in her breast at the memory of feeding a similar loaf to the seabirds on a recent outing, and of how he hadn’t complained when she’d insisted they throw the entire loaf, piece by piece, into the air for the circling gulls to fight over.

“We could leave this place.” She watched the water whirl in the small pools among the rocks as the sea left them, not daring to see in his face the wounded pride that her words would cause.  His arm stiffened against her side; her hand now the one being crushed.  She whimpered reflexively and Telamon released her hand.  He turned, jaw tight, eyes cold.

“And go where? To some small village, where we could raise our children with too little food, thin and ragged clothing?  Or to another city, where I could find work as the lowest hand on a tiny ship?  Where I still would not have means to provide for you?  Tell me, where?”  Barely controlled frustration seethed from his tongue.

Though Kere knew that his anger was not directed at her, before she could control herself his anger was reflected back at him in her words.  “Anywhere!”  Defiance fueled by fear and driven by doubt welled inside her.  “I…I could charge for healing.  I would never take advantage of anyone in need, but I could earn enough.  Together we could provide enough to raise a family.”  To even think such a thing made her stomach clench.  To trade for material wealth what the gods had given freely was sacrilege.  Every child knew the story of Demir Anil, who had been blessed with the gift of foreknowledge, and whose end was still used by parents to caution their children.

At first Anil had shared the gift freely, telling any who asked whether they should sail on a certain day, or give a daughter in marriage to this family or that, or what outcome they might expect from a given course of action.  He always made certain to shade his answers so that the listener would choose the most advantageous option and still believe it had been his own idea.  Eventually, however, Anil had no time for his own family or his own life.  He began to require payment for his visions; with all of his time devoted to prophecy he had little time left each day to earn a living.  As his fee increased, so did demands for more straightforward prophecies.  Eventually Anil ceased directing the actions of the seekers, and instead told them exactly what he saw.  In many cases seekers misinterpreted his words and made disastrous choices.  In the end, Anil’s children were torn to pieces before his eyes by an angry mob, and he himself was fed alive to ravenous dogs.  Though Kere saw an entirely different moral to the tale, most ascribed Anil’s fate to his exploitation of the gods’ gifts, as apparently did Telamon.

He wheeled to face her.  “Never speak so again!  You shame the gods.  You shame yourself.”  The force in his voice softened.  “A man who relies on his wife to live?  You shame me.  And you would risk all for a few foolish hopes.”

“I’m sorry, Telamon, I wish I hadn’t said it.”  She reclaimed his hand, but she was not sorry.  Their only option was to leave together.  If they stayed her father would never allow the marriage.  If Telamon left with this year’s copper fleet her father would force her into the priesthood.  Sell me to it, she corrected herself.  Luwos’ grasping heart would never let a talent like hers go to waste, and for a man like her father, wasting her gift meant sharing it without profit.  If he could not force her to bleed the wounds of the aged and infirm he would squeeze the priests, who would gladly trade treasure for the legitimacy her ability would bring to their order.  But to allow his only daughter to marry without advantage would be to bring the other fishermen closer to his own level, even if his station was exalted only in his own eyes.

The sea receded.  When they arrived at the tide pools Kere and Telamon walked together through the microcosms of sea-life that lay scattered like droplets across the earth.  One droplet harbored an exotic round shell; flattened in profile, its wide red-mottled segments overlapped to form a flexible armor that protected the soft body beneath.  In another droplet, wisping away under the assault of wind and sun, three tiny fish swam an endless circle searching for an escape that would not exist for hours to come.  If they survived the predations of sea birds until then.  Seven-armed stars, called Lunafish by superstitious sailors, dotted watery depressions in a universe of colors and textures.  Only through the mercies of scavengers and the setting sun did the helpless creatures, trapped in abandoned moments, survive.  Shattered crab shells, remnants of a morning feast, lay hollow on the rocks.

Neither Kere nor Telamon spoke as the ocean crept away.  They didn’t want to acknowledge the heartbreak that lay ahead.  Kere flitted from pool to pool and soon the towering rock echoed with squeals of delight at each new creature she discovered.  Playing as they had long before, Kere and Telamon released for the moment the dread lurking in their hearts and became children again.  A cloak of seaweed, a mass of tangled leaves and spongy floats draped across the back and arms, transformed the boy into a fearsome, dripping sea monster.  Imaginary ships succumbed to the mighty onslaught of its grasping tentacles and gnashing beak.  The girl, cupping small creatures in her water-filled hands as she carried them back to the ocean, was reborn as Kimber, the gentle goddess of healing and the sea.  A blue-speckled crab left its perilous refuge in the care of the young goddess; it returned to the sea with its beak-riven carapace whole once more.

The fading sun invited the ocean to reclaim the broken territory so recently abandoned.  Pushed by the advancing moon, the water returned; as it did, so too did the worries of the young man and woman to displace the joys of the boy and girl.  Perched on a stone ledge above the high-water mark, they clasped their hands together and listened to the renewed roar of the water.  Cool mist wet their faces with each surge.

Hating herself, but no longer able to delay, Kere broke the silence.  “When must you leave?”

“On the third day from this.”

They would have less time together than she had hoped, but more than she’d feared.  “And the lands you’ll sail past?  Are they friendly?  Are their waters safe?”  Kere dreaded that grasping kings and preying pirates would beset the ships.

Telamon stroked her dark hair.  “For the first few weeks we can travel near enough to shore to be under the protection of local navies, such as they are.  At a cost, of course, but we will carry enough extra cargo to part with in such cases.”

Had Telamon not used the phrase ‘the first few weeks,’ Kere might have been reassured by his answer.  “And after the first few weeks?”  She immediately saw that he hadn’t intended to draw attention to what he must tell her next.

“After the first few weeks,” he said, drawing her closer, “we will enter another sea.  You’ve heard stories from the last voyage of the fleet?”  Kere nodded but they had been much younger when the fleet had last sailed.  The tales seemed impossible now.

“I’ve spoken with traders who come from across our own sea,” he continued.  “They speak of water seemingly without shores to hold it together.  If the sun were hidden by clouds for long enough, a ship might wander, lost, until long after its crew consumes the last of its clean water and food.”

This is why he thinks of his father today, she realized.  I must not make it worse for him.  “Surely that can’t happen.  The sun always reveals itself, eventually.  And the city will make the proper offerings at the Sanctuary, I’m sure.”  She hoped that more certainty filled her voice than resided in her heart.

“Of course,” he assured her.

The looming reality of his departure settled on her.  “How long will I wait until your return?”

Telamon nodded, acknowledging her acceptance.  “Two months at sea should see us to the land of copper.  If the gods are generous, the goods we take for trade will not spoil or be otherwise found wanting, and we can offer them in exchange for the metals.  If the people there accept our offers we could be pointed home after a week.  Perhaps sooner.”  He tapped a pebble against the ledge for a few moments.  “If the gods withhold their favor, or our cargo is not highly desired, then we will have to trade for the raw stone and work the copper from it ourselves.  Another two months, then, to crush the rock by hand and burn out the metal hidden within.”

“Why not just bring the stone back whole and burn the metal out here?” she asked.

“I wish it were so easy, love.  There is very little of the metals we seek in the stone itself.”  He chose a rock larger than his fist from those scattered about their perch.  Offering it to her, he said, “Imagine that this represents all of the stone that we could fit into the ships.”  Kere took the stone and nodded.  Telamon held out a pebble smaller than the tip of her finger.  “This represents the amount of metals hidden within the other.
If we were to return with all of that worthless stone filling our holds, there would be no profit in the voyage.  Do you understand?”

Kere did.  “Then two months, or four, before you turn for home.  Another two months to return?”  Up to half a year gone.  It was a dismal thought.  But it must be done.

Telamon hesitated.  “Actually, it will take at least three months to get home.”

So long?  She forced an uncertain smile through her disappointment.  “Why three months to return, when two are enough to get there?  Does it not take the same time to leave as to return when you fish off the shore?  Surely the breadth of the sea doesn’t depend on which direction you cross?”

The kindness of his reply, free of criticism of her lack of knowledge, comforted but did not reassure.  “The winds will be with us when we depart; we can sail a straighter course,” he answered.  “When we turn back, the winds will oppose us, forcing us to take a longer path.”  Kere was not certain that she understood completely, but as long as Telamon understood she would be satisfied.  “And there is the matter of returning with more than the ships’ own weights in cargo.  They’ll wallow lower in the water.  Move more slowly because of it.”

He pulled her tighter against his body and wrapped his light cloak over her shoulders to shield her from the cooling breeze now gusting from the water.  “But if my will were an oar or a sail, the return would be shorter.”

Kere gently kissed him.  Their lips lingered, both wanting more than this but neither wanting to taint their future together by appearing before a priestess having already known each other.  When the moon dipped beyond the Keswiq they returned to the city.

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