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.