Just a few more days and The Golden Princess will be here. For those of you who have pre-ordered, thank you.
For those who are waiting for the release or haven't heard of my novels,
Here's a sneak peek of what's inside.
Sarah burst from the enormous gilded doors, just as she had done on the first day of Festival every year since she could remember. Excitement vibrated through her body, invigorated by the late afternoon sunshine. Rosewater and jasmine floated on the air as she dashed down the stairs and across the crowded courtyard. Brushing by the central fountain, she didn’t care if the spouting lions splashed her with icy water. Sarah had to see the wagon, to touch it before it departed to join the parade assembling just outside the palace gates. As with every Festival, Sarah pretended she would be a participant in the glorious event, and not just another distant spectator.
She glimpsed the beautiful wagon through the milling crowd. Between the wagon and the palace gates, she spied Asul barking orders at his warriors as they struggled to assemble the House Azubehl’s contribution to the Parade of Princes. Behind them, drummers and trumpeters warmed up, filling the palace grounds with music. Soldiers herded gayly dressed dancers, acrobats, fire breathers, and plumed horses to the head of the line. Behind them milled a bedraggled pack of chained slaves, her Father’s slice of the booty from Hur-ar’s many wars against the steppe tribes. All of these would precede her father’s wagon, announcing the power of the House Azubehl.
She ducked low to avoid Asul’s eyes, and weaved amid the crush of Hur-ar’s high ranking warriors and royalty chosen to follow the Prince’s wagon. By following the prince’s wagon in the annual parade, they announced their fealty to the ancient and powerful House Azubehl.
Tended by a small army of slaves, the nobles clucked excitedly to one another. Broad silver trays piled high with exotic delicacies from across Hur-ar’s vast trading empire twirled and danced through the crowd. The struggling slaves beneath their shadows remained invisible to privileged eyes.
Sarah, however, was not invisible. Noblemen occasionally ogled her despite her golden veil, but Sarah knew her status as First Daughter and betrothed to the Crown Prince kept her safe.
Her father had arranged for his guests’ every appetite. Scantily-clad slave girls and boys, rented from the city’s finest brothels, prowled the lush gardens at the courtyard’s edges. As her mother had taught her many times, Sarah averted her eyes from the goings-on in the shadows. While Sarah had no illusions what the men did with the slave girls behind the garden’s thick foliage, she felt uncomfortable at the thought some of the girls were younger than her.
The enormous parade wagon resting before the sealed palace gates commanded her attention. Slaves hurriedly put the final touches on the family’s contribution to the Parade of Princes, the Festival’s opening event. Long ago, it had been a heavy wagon used for hauling trade goods and ore up and down the steep Cliff Road to the Black Fortress. Standing almost twice as high as a man, her grandfather had ordered it rebuilt decades ago. Ornately carved stairs replaced the mundane wooden loading ramp on its side. Silk bunting draped over polished wooden slats and interwoven with silver and golden threads, bore images of the House Azubehl’s great deeds. Wooden wheels were replaced with gilded bronze spokes encrusted with glittering jewels. Atop it all, two gold and ivory thrones sparkled in the sun.
This is where her father and mother would sit as two snow-white oxen pulled the wagon up the Avenue of Kings. Only the wagons of the King and Prince Hector, first in line for the throne, would proceed them. The rest of Hur-ar’s nobility would follow in order of their Court status. All the great houses were expected to participate, each displaying their wealth and might. The parade would terminate at sunset at the King’s Palace in the city center. There, a gala feast would rage until dawn, marking the official opening of the Festival of Gold.
Sarah looked about, making sure Asul wasn’t watching. The High Prince and his First Wife, her mother and father, had yet to make their appearance. Noblemen drank and laughed around her, ignoring the High Prince’s daughter lingering in the wagon’s shadow. The slaves tending the oxen paid her no mind, nor did those tasked with shoveling manure from the cobblestones.
Sarah reached up and caressed the silky bunting, still as crisp and bright as she remembered it as a young child. The wagon held a special magic for her. In her imagination, she pictured it one day transporting her beyond the palace’s gilded prison. She could count on her fingers the number of times she’d been beyond the palace walls. In those times, she had been concealed behind thick curtains in a wagon, on her way to and from the family’s country villa.
Impulse overrode good sense, and she scurried up the stairs.
Perched on her Mother’s throne, Sarah straightened her white silk and chiffon dress, pushed up her golden bracelets, and firmly set her gaze on the closed courtyard gates. If the force of her stare could open the gates, it would. She imagined what it would feel like to ride down the Avenue of Kings with the entire city’s eyes upon her. Sarah wanted to see the people, to experience Hur-ar’s vibrant sights and sounds.
Her mother would have none of it.
Laughter shook Sarah from her trance. Afraid Mother or Asul might have spied her, Sarah slunk down and peered around. The crowd paid her no attention, everyone focused on the party’s latest arrivals.
A court page cleared his throat and shouted above the chattering crowd, “Announcing Her Highness, Ashtoreth, Eighth Princess of the House of Azubelh, and her son Prince Bal-eeb.”
With disarming smiles and leering eyes, the freemen flocked to Ashtoreth’s side. The women of court fell back, whispering to one another jealously.
“Witch,” Sarah heard several of the women hiss under their breath.
Hiding behind her mother’s throne, Sarah could not tear her eyes away from the woman who had arrived into their lives like a whirlwind only a few months ago. Her father’s latest, and eighth wife, Ashtoreth had become a powerful force in court.
Fully in control, Ashtoreth waded into the crowd, goblet in one hand. Her dress looked as if it were spun from black spider web, originating from her full left breast and radiating across her body. Golden silk beneath the black strands afforded minimal modesty and accentuated each dangerous curve. Diamonds woven into the thin strands gave the illusion of morning dew clinging to the black webs. Long ebony hair fell down her right shoulder, glistening in the sun and barely concealing her right breast.
Beautiful, Sarah thought. And then, with a hint of unease, Powerful. She watched the way Ashtoreth drew men to her, and manipulated them with a look, or a word. Sarah frowned, considering her own body, wondering if men would ever look at her that way.
Then she caught the gaze of another. From behind his mother, Bal-eeb grinned at Sarah.
She blushed and turned away, slumping deeper into the wagon, back pressed against the chair.
Her heart thumped wildly. She slowly snuck a peek, but he no longer looked at her and mingled with the crowd.
People said Bal-eeb had already distinguished himself in battle against the Scythians. Broad shouldered and bare-chested, he wore only military sandals and the traditional ocher waist wrap of a Royal officer. Tall, with a bushy black mane of hair and thick oiled beard, he resembled his cognomen, The Lion. Her father’s younger officers flocked about him, as did many of her step-sisters. The handsome prince had caused a great stir among Prince Azubehl’s many daughters since his arrival. Many of her half-sisters openly wondered if marrying their stepbrother would be permissible.
Sarah hated to admit it to herself, but she thought of it, too. Though she never publicly showed it, her mother had been furious when Prince Azubehl had taken a new wife who already had a son, and one so old. Everyone knew this presented an immediate threat to Ezra, the First Son. Sarah wanted to hate Bal-eeb, but kept finding herself stealing glances at the handsome Sammujad.
Brash, arrogant and savage, Bal-eeb represented everything Mother taught her was wrong, everything the ancient teachings of the Narim, the god-men of the Black Fortress, rejected. To Sarah, Bal-eeb was like spring thunder in the mountains. She knew he should be feared, but she couldn’t pull her attention away from his power.
“All Hail Prince Azubehl and his beloved First Wife, the High Princess Meribeph!”
A flurry of activity in front of the palace’s great doors foreshadowed the imminent arrival of Mother and Father. Sarah knew she must leave the courtyard before Mother spotted her. Backing down the stairs and staying low, she tried to blend in with the crowd. Then, her right sandal caught a stair, sending her tumbling backwards. She grabbed at the wagon’s edge, but only snatched air. She closed her eyes and braced herself.
Corded muscles caught her. Sarah’s arms naturally fell across an iron neck.
When she dared open her eyes Bal-eeb smiled down at her.
“You must be more careful, princess.”
Sarah’s face turned bright red behind the veil. Her mind battled between the desire to crawl beneath the wagon and curl up and die, or perhaps, to stay right here in Bal-eeb’s arms.
“P-put me down.” She added, “Please,” and then cursed herself.
“Of course.” He set her down, but inched closer, trapping her between the wagon and his broad chest. He snagged a goblet from a nearby tray, eyes twinkling playfully. He smelled of wind and steel and smoke and every fantasy she’d ever imagined of life outside Hur-ar.
She smoothed her gown and hair, struggling to regain composure.
Sarah struggled to think of something, anything, to say. Her years of training under the stern matriarchs of Hur-ar’s oldest families did little to prepare her for the likes of Bal-eeb.
“Are you enjoying the party?” She asked voice cracking.
Bal-eeb emptied the goblet in one deep swig, and tossed it to the ground. He stepped even closer, further invading her space. “You talk much. All of you city dwellers love to talk.”
“Yes. I guess we do.”
Ironically, Sarah realized this was the most they had said to one another since his arrival at the palace.
He placed a palm against the wagon, blocking her escape, and leaned even closer. “You’re different from your sisters.”
“Oh, really?” Sarah swallowed.
“A man might find you desirable.”
Sarah held her breath; her heart pounded. Desirable?
He playfully fingered her hair and toyed with the delicate knot holding her veil in place. “Your hair. Your eyes. There are no women like you beyond the wall.”
Sarah glanced around, but no one in the crowd seemed to take notice of them. Unexpected excitement washed over Sarah as his warm breath caressed her cheek.
“Princess, you should not be here.” A stern voice came from beside them.
Sarah turned to find Asul locked eye-to-eye with Bal-eeb.
“Hello, Captain Asul,” she exhaled, simultaneously relieved and disappointed.
“Be gone, guard,” Bal-eeb gave Asul a dismissive glance.
“Princess Sarah isn’t supposed to be here.”
“Go away,” Bal-eeb glanced at Asul the way a mad dog does before it snaps.
“She’s coming with me.”
Bal-eeb drew himself up and turned to face Captain Asul. “When does a commoner give orders to a prince?”
Those who took no notice before now turned and watched the two warriors face off. Bal-eeb hovered over her like a predator protecting its kill, Asul the unyielding interloper.
Asul’s tone never changed, his face impassive. “I am under orders from High Princess Meribeph. Take it up with her.”
Even though she seemed forgotten, Sarah tried to flatten herself as much as possible against the wagon.
Bal-eeb laughed and stepped back. “Who am I to oppose the will of the High Princess?”
The tension broke as Asul grasped Sarah’s wrist and pulled her away.
The crowd began to chatter again like crickets after a passing storm. Asul led Sarah behind the columns at the courtyard’s edge.
“Sneaking about again, my princess?” Asul said gruffly once they were out of earshot.
“A proper princess doesn’t sneak, isn’t that what you tell me?”
“Then I guess I wasn’t sneaking.”
Thanks for stopping by this week for THE GOLDEN PRINCESS cover reveal. Its been a great promo. The novel is the late stages of editing, and will be released this spring. Keep watching this space for a official release date.
As a bonus to top a great week, enjoy this sample of the upcoming novel. Oh, and don't forget today is your last day to get both books in the CHRONICLES OF FU XI for free!
Part One: Afternoon
“The Age of Gilded Darkness rose and fell thousands of years before Yu the Great built his capital upon the Yellow River, before the Silk Road, or the Pharaohs laid the first stone of the first pyramid. That age came crashing down when the Emperor of Heaven turned his face from the unspeakable evil of men and gods, and pronounced a terrible judgement on both. He buried their empires, and cursed them to be forgotten for eternity. Millennia passed before men dared to stack stone once again, or remembered what it was to read and write.
“In the twilight of that forgotten age, one city stood above the rest in splendor and wickedness. Hur-ar, City of Gold, reigned at the edge of the Caucus Mountains, and challenged the Scythian Empire for domination of the steppe surrounding what men would one day call the Black Sea. Yet, even in that dark place an ember of hope was born. Here, a princess fell from a golden throne, and transformed by grace, became a flame of hope for a lost people.
- Emperor Fu Xi, First Sovereign of China
Chapter 1: Shadow over the Gates of Gold
It wasn't so much a city, as it was a lair.
Surrounded by jagged mountains and nestled deep in a three-sided canyon, Hur-Ar resembled the gaping jaws of a ravenous beast. The weak would find themselves consumed by her power, the foolish crushed under her might. This city would one day devour the world, of that the trader was certain. Here, a cautious man might survive, but a cunning man could make himself a prince…
…Or a king.
He walked between the worlds of steppe and city, lord of neither. Behind him lay the endless grassland ruled by terrible horsemen, the Scythians, masters of the west. Ahead rose Hur-Ar, the rising power in the east. The trader found himself trapped between two princes, each determined to conquer the world, each sworn to kill the other. Only one could emerge victor, and, at this moment, both needed his services. One slip, one misspoken word, and either would tear him apart. If he played his hand wisely, he would find himself on the winning side, not to mention considerably wealthier.
Half a dozen iron chains draped over his shoulder gently clinked with each step. Forged by his personal blacksmith, he relished the metal’s weight pressing against his heavy fox fur cloak. Only truly powerful men possessed iron. Most displayed it on their hip in the form of a blade, but not this trader. His personal bodyguards could carry their swords for all to see. He, however, kept his dagger sharp and hidden. The chains dangling over his shoulder spoke adequately regarding his power and status.
The trader had almost reached the wall when his men, following a few paces behind, began to laugh.
He turned and scowled. “You jabber like a bunch of hags. What do you find so funny?”
“We look forward to an evening of wine and whoring,” one of them replied.
The trader looked beyond them toward the west. “Have any of you fools considered glancing behind us from time to time?”
The six Sammujad bodyguards halted and considered their master. With slack expressions, they turned around and looked west from whence they came. The King’s Road cut straight through the wheat fields on either side, toward the Hur River. A few miles away, the sun began to dip behind the two massive towers that supported the Kupar Bridge.
“Are we being followed?” the biggest warrior asked.
The trader shook his head.
Mountainous men, shaggy black manes, and grizzled beards blended with their filthy furs, giving his men the appearance of spear-wielding bears. To enemies, they may appear fearsome, but the trader knew how stupid his bodyguards truly were.
Stupid is easier to control, he thought.
“Do you see dust rising above the fields?”
“No, my lord.” No hint of understanding graced the enormous man’s face. For a moment the trader considered trying to explain it to the oaf, but knew such an endeavor futile.
“Come here,” he curled his finger at them as if they were children.
The men crowded around the trader, towering over the little man. Not the least bit intimidated, he rubbed his bald head impatiently.
“Listen carefully. Where is our caravan?”
The warriors frowned at one another, and then at their lord.
“Where is our caravan?” he repeated.
One of them shrugged. “Back at camp where we left it, lord.”
The trader leaned in. “Why do we enter Hur-Ar?”
They shook their heads. “Because you wish to trade?” another replied timidly. The trader slapped him hard.
Cowed, the warrior dropped his gaze.
“Because I am buying, not selling.” He jingled the heavy purse tied firmly to his waist. “Having no caravan marks us as carrying gold, and that marks me for a knife across the throat.
“I don’t give a damn about the Festival. In and out by tomorrow night. We deliver the goods to base camp before Prince Tuma and his warriors arrive. And you know what happens when the Scythian prince is disappointed, don’t you?”
The mercenaries exchanged uneasy glances.
“No whoring. No wine. Stay close to me, don’t let anyone within arm’s reach. If you have doubts, kill first, talk later. I’ll pay any fines for bloodshed. This time tomorrow, we march out of these gates with our treasures, or face death under Scythian hooves.”
Without another word, he turned and resumed the march, his shadow, stark and crisp, led the way.
The sunset swept across the unbroken steppe and bathed the city wall and the mountains beyond in glittering glory. Only at sunset did Hur-Ar live up to its name, the City of Gold. Nestled at the bottom of a box canyon, sheer cliffs and rugged mountains protected three of it sides, but cursed the city to almost permanent shadow. Its only wall sealed its western access overlooking the Hur River, and beyond that, the Steppe.
Thick crowds milled before the closed gates, beseeching the captain for entrance to join the Festival of Gold. The annual celebration of the yellow metal, with its unrestrained debauchery and decadence, drew threefold the number of traders from the Steppe and beyond.
The trader gestured his warriors forward. With shoves and threats, they cleared a path through the riffraff who could not afford entrance into the city. He strolled casually forward, hands on hips. He relished the way his shadow towered against the giant gates, an omen that one day he would become a giant, a force to be reckoned with.
Flanked by two warriors, the gate captain crossed his arms and glanced the trader up and down. Resplendent in gleaming bronze armor and richly embroidered ochre waist wrap, golden ringlets laced his thin, oiled beard. The trader didn’t recognize this particular officer, likely a minor prince from a family in the King’s good graces.
The captain stalely recited the challenge he’d likely uttered thousands of times before, “State your name and purpose. But be warned: All who enter must pay the King’s tax. All who enter must come to trade.”
The trader bowed low. “I am Virag, Lord of the Marshes that surround the Great Sea, Master of the Limita, and friend of Hur-Ar.” From somewhere in the folds of his tunic, the trader produced a gleaming gold coin bearing the likeness of the city’s king and held it out to the captain. “Of course, I can pay the tax.”
The captain eyed Virag suspiciously and then reached for the coin. Virag quickly closed his hand, before slowly reopening his fingers, palm up, revealing not one, but two thick coins.
“I can pay the kings tax, and then some,” Virag purred.
The captain took them both. He tested each with a small bite, and grinned. He craned around Virag, perhaps to see if any wagons or carts followed behind. “Welcome, Virag. Do you come to buy or sell?”
Virag grinned and shook the rusty chains on his shoulder until the manacles clanged together.