Previously, I've posted the prologue to my newest fantasy novel, Rebel Elements. Here's a sneak peak at chapter one: Skycaller.
The paddy water swirled around Bayan’s tanned brown shins as he stepped to the next row of rice seedlings. He nudged a few green stems with his double-pronged wooden baton to see whether they had rooted well. They had.
He paused for a cool drink from the water skin he carried on his belt. Gnats buzzed, and frogs chirruped at the edge of the water. The day was already sticky, and the warm season not yet arrived.
He liked it over in the corner of the block of paddies. No one watched him or looked at him from the corner of their eyes, as if waiting for a sudden reprimand. Why did everyone assume he was exactly like his father?
Probably because his father was still their employer, no matter which position Bayan currently held. At fifteen, he’d worked in the fields for five years, learning the skills he would need to become the field supervisor for all the crops on his father’s farm.
He looked forward to the responsibility. His father was a wealthy and highly respected man in Pangusay, but Bayan wanted to succeed on his own terms. Being seen as his father’s son wasn’t his goal in life, after all. Bayan had big plans for himself which didn’t all involve farming.
Bayan twiddled his pronged stick, grinning as he thought of Imee. She was beautiful, and her laugh was pure music. He always tried to think of something funny to say, so that when he and his father traveled into Pangusay proper, to meet with Imee and her father at the trading market, he could hear her laughter again. She warmed all the right parts of him whenever she was close. She seemed to know it, too.
Suddenly, Bayan's mind slipped from his pleasant reminiscing. What had drawn his attention? Had someone called his name from across the paddy? He turned and saw the other workers bent to their tasks.
Then, in the murky water, he saw the ripple of an approaching swamp viper, barely noticeable as it arrowed toward him. Bayan searched for the viper’s prey, and saw a small cloud of jujufish fry nibbling imperceptibly at the skin of his ankles. The snake, nearly as long as Bayan was tall, disappeared among the seedlings. Bayan’s adrenaline rose. He knew the venomous beast could strike him by accident as it hunted its piscine meal.
The surface of the paddy stilled, hiding the serpent’s approach. Bayan backed toward the low bank, and the jujufish followed.
He gritted his teeth and grimaced, peering into the water. “Where are you?” he whispered, holding his pronged stick over the water like a spear.
The snake struck in a murky blur. Bayan drove his wooden weapon downward and jammed it into the mud at the bottom of the paddy. He leapt toward the bank in long splashing strides, expecting a bite on the calf at every step.
Dripping with muddy water, Bayan crouched at the edge of the paddy with the dry forest at his back. He stared at the water, but saw no sign of the snake. He’d have to go back in for his baton; he didn’t want to carve another one.
Then his eyes fixed on the prong jutting from the paddy and the tiny green shoot which sprouted from its handle. A new kind of fear shot down his spine. With a nervous gulp, Bayan slipped back into the paddy. He pulled the baton from the mud and turned again for the bank, keeping his actions casual. Only as he stepped from the paddy did he notice the weight dragging at his arm. The swamp viper’s skull was skewered by one of the prongs on his baton.
Bayan strode away from the civilization of the farm and slipped into the trees, dragging the snake’s corpse with him. His breath went ragged as he struggled to contain his emotions. They were the source of his problem, after all. Every time he became highly emotional, something like this happened. Once, he had set the corner of a shed on fire and barely had time to urinate the small flame to death before one of the farm workers rounded the corner. Another time, he had made the surface of an entire paddy turn hard and cold to the touch. Luckily for him, no one else had been around, and the hard water had returned to normal before anyone discovered the change, the rice none the worse for wear.
Bayan knew what was happening to him, and he hated it. He was turning into a Skycaller. If Imee ever learned of his condition, she’d drop him from her life like a hot coal.
Months ago, when he’d realized what triggered his magical outbursts, he’d tried to suppress his emotions. The magical events began a year ago, and according to the legends of the Skycallers, Bayan only had nine more to withstand before the magic abandoned him entirely, finding him an unworthy vessel. He didn’t care about being unworthy. He cared about marrying Imee and taking over his father’s prosperous farm. He cared about living his life the way he chose. No stupid magic was going to steal his dreams.
Bayan arrived at his destination: a crumbling, natural rock wall, deep in the forest, formed from the same volcanic runrock that shaped the spined mountains to the north. At the wall’s base grew a massive vine, thicker than his leg. It spread up the wall, tendrils clinging to rocky outcrops, wedged into crevices. Across the face of the wall grew ten enormous, deep red pitcher plants, nearly as deep as his arm could reach, should he be foolish enough to do so. One of the pitchers was sewn shut with catgut, and a hollow vine pierced its rounded bottom and curled down to a barrel in a protective box on the ground.
He let out a slow breath. “Hello, Gamay. I need your help with something.” He shook the snake’s corpse to the ground, put his knee against the baton’s shaft and, with effort, snapped it in half. “I know this isn’t what you like to eat, but I’ll give you the snake too, to make up for it.”
He scaled the wall and slipped the pieces of the broken prong and the snake’s body into one of the higher pitchers, avoiding the clear, thick, sticky liquid that oozed over his gifts. He knew it wouldn’t harm him if he cleaned it off soon, but the ooze left a distinct, spicy scent, and he didn’t want anyone smelling Gamay on his hands and coming out to poke around in her pitchers.
Back on the ground, he glanced one last time at the enormous pitcher plant and headed into the trees to hunt for a nice hardwood from which to carve a new baton. Maybe he could get Dakila to spar with him later and work off some of the tension clogging his mind. Dakila’s aunt had married the Waarden schoolteacher, and Dakila had been a quick study when it came to Waarden unarmed defense techniques. He’d been Bayan’s defense instructor at school, and Bayan had been his best student. Now that Bayan was training for a vocation, the two enjoyed beating the guts out of each other regularly.
Yes, that’s just what I need. Some pain to distract me from my disintegrating life.
“Bayan, where have you been all afternoon?” asked a creaky voice. Bayan halted at the corner of a storage house and found himself before old Sanakit, a veteran farmhand. Bayan pushed down his nervousness. Suppressing his emotions again, so soon, was difficult.
“Why? Did I miss something?” Bayan tried to sound both innocent and curious.
Sanakit stepped closer, and for once, the older man wasn’t smiling; untanned lines striped the skin near his eyes where he usually had laugh wrinkles. “That imperial surveyor is back.”
“The one who mapped the roads around Pangusay last month?”
“Yes. But he’s not mapping roads now.”
“What’s he mapping?”
Sanakit grinned, revealing straight but yellowed teeth. “Nothing. He’s looking for a place to build a bridge across the Mambajao.”
“What? No one can build a bridge across the Mambajao. That’s why we have the Sand Guides.”
“That is what we have told him, but the fat man with the pretty hair says he knows it can be done. Something about imperial magic.”
At the mention of magic, Bayan’s stomach flipped and dropped. He shut his eyes and willed himself to be calm.
“Are you well?” Sanakit asked.
“Yes, fine.” Bayan released a slow breath. “So, the workers who abandoned my paddy have all gone down there to gawk instead of lounging at the swimming hole. Is that what you’re telling me?”
Sanakit grinned. “They would not have abandoned the paddy if you had been there. You sneak off to see Imee again?” Bayan lowered his eyes. That had been his excuse the last time his magic had gotten away from him, and now he was stuck with it. “Ha-ha!” the old man crowed. “Best your father marries you to that girl soon!”
“I need to fetch back my workers. If you’ll excuse me.” He brushed past the man and took the broad dirt road toward the river. Sanakit cackled behind him.
Bayan made his way down the road to the river’s bank. With his feet planted on the rich, dark mud bordering the Bank Road beside the green expanse of the Mambajao, he looked upstream and downstream for his missing workers. To the south, toward the ocean, the high banks of the river lowered until they were nearly nonexistent. The fields down that way had no need of artificial flooding, since the river spilled over everything in its path. To the north, the land rose and became rocky and dry. Pangusay proper was perched on a hill above the river delta, as were the farmers’ permanent houses, kalabao pens, and anything else they wished to save from washing away.
Upstream, Bayan saw a gathering of people. Most wore the traditional undyed cloth of farm workers, but he spotted a few splashes of bright color: the strangely feminine imperial surveyor and his entourage. Bayan turned reluctant feet in their direction. He knew his father and the other Sand Guides would be angry at the prospect of a bridge across the Mambajao River. Only the Sand Guides had the focus and dedication to learn the complex stick-patterns that marked areas of safety among the quicksand of the river delta. The nearest river crossing to the north was two days away. Any trade or travel headed east from Pangusay needed the Sand Guides, therefore, to safely cross at low tide.
The imperial surveyor’s bridge would end the need for the Sand Guides and their tolls. Bayan knew his father would not miss the income. He only guided travelers a few times a month, but most other guides risked their lives twice a day for the money they earned and relied upon to feed their families. And all of them took great pride in their ability to guide safely.
The rest of the farmers and townsfolk, however, might take a different view. A bridge would allow them to carry their own goods to the next town’s market whenever they wanted, at no charge.
Bayan braced himself at the sound of raised voices. I’m just here to gather my workers, that’s all. I need to get out of here quickly.
The Bank Road was completely blocked by the surveyor’s fancy purple carriage, an imposing silverwood-trimmed structure twice as high as any farm wagon, with a team of four blue-gray horses and a sturdy roof laden with traveling boxes. Bayan shook his head, unable to fathom riding in such a monstrosity.
The surveyor himself was surrounded by his entourage, a set of seven nearly identical men with curly brown hair atop pale faces lit by dark eyes. One young man, slighter than the rest, had darker skin and wore a simple cream tunic and pants. Bayan had seen the group in town before—a group of industrious assistants who took measurements and paced distances. Now, however, the seven Waarden men appeared distinctly more martial as they guarded the plump, bewigged surveyor with their hands on their sword hilts. They stood impassive as several angry villagers clustered in front of them.
Bayan spotted his four missing workers lurking near the back of the crowd. He approached them, touching the nearest on the shoulder. “Tammay,” he said, attempting to copy his father’s confident tone, “you need to get back—”
“Bayan!” called his father.
Stomach roiling with uncertainty, Bayan turned toward the authoritative voice. “Yes, Father?”
“Come here. I want your opinion.”
Startled, Bayan momentarily forgot his fears. My father wants my opinion, in front of all these people? In front of an imperial surveyor? He stepped away from Tammay and threaded his way through the small crowd.
Datu stood in the center of the crowd with several other Sand Guides, while Isagani Magittang stood with a few local merchants. Bayan swallowed and joined his father.
“This is my son, Bayan,” Datu told the surveyor. “He is a farmer, but he does not guide. As one who would live his life with your bridge spanning the Mambajao, let us ask him what he thinks.”
Bayan felt the weight of many eyes upon him. He studied the surveyor. The man was short for an imperial, not much taller than Bayan himself, with light skin and impossibly pink cheeks that were plump without becoming jowly. Akrestoi, maybe? Hard to tell. His hair was a glorious bouffant of golden curls, and his clothing fluttered and winked with bright, lacy trim and bits of brass.
The surveyor eyed him for a moment through dark blue eyes, then spoke in accented Bantayan. “A good day’s greeting to you, Bayan. I am Philo Sallas, Imperial Surveyor and Cartographer to His Imperial Majesty Jaap voorde Helderaard.”
Bayan nearly laughed; the man’s voice was as high and girlish as Lailani’s, Bayan’s youngest sister. Managing to keep a straight face, he replied in the Waarden tongue, which Dakila’s uncle had painstakingly taught him in school. “A good day’s greeting, Master Philo. Balanganam has been part of your empire for seven years. Why did you wait so long to offer us a bridge?”
Philo’s painted eyebrows rose, and some of his guards shot each other pleased glances. “That’s a fine Helderaard accent you have; your teacher has been diligent. But to answer your question, my offer comes now because I’ve only just arrived here,” the fancy man replied, also in Waarden. “I’ve been mapping my way through Balanganam for all of those seven years, so the empire can bring your High Ways up to imperial standard.”
Bayan was not amused; he and everyone he knew had continued living as if the empire hadn’t taken over Balanganam, ever since the Danatu had signed his nation’s heritage and governance over to Emperor Hedrick. Being reminded of it by an imperial felt like a kick to the gut.
The surveyor spoke again. “Why do you choose to speak to me in my own tongue?”
Bayan glanced at the older people surrounding him. What schooling they’d received by the time they were his age had all been in the Bantayan tongue, not Waarden. “Most of these folks never learned it. With a smaller audience, maybe you’ll be more likely to tell the truth.” Out of the corner of his eye, Bayan saw Isagani smother a grin; he knew the merchant was fluent in the imperial tongue.
“I’m heartbroken at your opinion of us.” Surveyor Philo placed a beringed hand over his heart. “I see no reason whatsoever to lie to any of you. I’m here at the emperor’s behest, so that your lives might be enriched by his bounty, in exchange for the exotic and mouthwatering foods you supply to the empire. Among other things.”
Bayan crossed his arms. “What makes you think our lives need enriching? We’re doing just fine without you.”
“I meant no offense,” Philo countered. “But can you tell me truly that every man here would turn down the chance to prosper further, simply because it was I who offered them the opportunity?” He pointed to the far riverbank, as if indicating the bridge’s benefits.
Bayan resisted the urge to look at his father, Isagani, or anyone else. Meeting Philo’s eyes, he replied, “No. We enjoy success here in Pangusay as much as anyone else. But you won’t be offering the Sand Guides prosperity, will you?”
Philo smiled. “Ah, Bayan, if I could tell you the dozens of times I have had this conversation in other Balanganese towns. It is true. The men would not earn their guiding fees. But someone has to help construct the bridge, do they not? Who could possibly be persuaded to give up their jobs and accept imperial labor rates on such a project? And, once the bridge is complete, increased trade will surely bring more jobs to Pangusay. The future is always uncertain, my son. But that uncertainty can bring good as well as bad.”
Bayan hadn’t thought about how the town would change with increased trade. He suspected that the surveyor was right about more jobs coming into the area; perhaps Philo really had seen this situation over and over during his seven years in Balanganam.
Reluctantly, he nodded. “You’ll convince them more easily if you can explain how the bridge can be built. We haven’t built one because the river is too broad and because the Mambajao floods for months at a time. Won’t that stop you, too?”
Philo turned to look at the river, dark and smooth, low against its banks. “We have a few talented individuals, rare even across the breadth of the empire, who will make an easy task of building a bridge strong enough to withstand flooding. Not a quick task, mind you, but easy enough that I can guarantee success.”
Bayan frowned, envisioning complicated masonry techniques. “What sort of talent do they have?”
Philo smiled in triumph. “Magic. They can manipulate stone, make it strong enough to hold up against high waters and floating debris. If you have smaller tributaries in the area that I haven’t discovered yet, I’m sure we can arrange…”
Bayan couldn’t hear him anymore over the terrified buzzing in his ears. The empire has magic. Everywhere I turn, magic is pulling me away from the life I want!
His skin felt tight and hot, his fear and frustration overfilling him like too much water in a weak water skin. He whirled to go, but his first step sent him plummeting through an explosion of stone chips and dirt. He landed in a confused heap at the bottom of a sheer-sided crevasse, as voices above him cried out in surprise, shock, and confusion. He scrambled to his hands and knees on the uneven soil and looked around with growing fear.
He’d done it again. Only this time, he’d blown a hole in the ground with his magic, in front of dozens of witnesses. After such a display of magic, there’d be no way to avoid being sent to the ridges with the Skycallers. His heart thudded against his ribs, and he ached with the need to see Imee one more time before he was sent away.
“Bayan?” his father called. His voice sounded hoarse with shock and dust. “Bayan, what is this? What is happening?”
Bayan sat back and hung his head while tears seeped from his eyes.
“Pull him out,” Philo urged. “He may be hurt.” The end of a fibrous rope landed on the ground next to Bayan’s foot.
Can’t I just live in this hole forever? The moment I get out of here, my life will be over. In spite of his despair, Bayan reached for the rope. Strong arms hauled him up, and when he reached the top of his hole, he saw that a pair of Philo’s guards had muscled him up. He dropped the rope and stood, head lowered.
“Thank you, Fabian, Frits,” Philo said. Of Bayan, he asked, “Son, are you hurt?”
“Bayan, answer me,” Datu demanded, eyes wide. “Did you do this? Are you a Skycaller?”
The tone of accusation in his father’s voice stabbed deep. I didn’t do this to spite you, Father! I didn’t want to do it at all! Yet he couldn’t bring himself to speak, to give legitimacy to the horrific fate that waited to clutch him away from his life.
“Bayan! What possesses you? Answer me!” Datu shook Bayan’s shoulder roughly.
“Son? Are you home in your skull?” Philo asked.
“Bhattara na,” Bayan finally muttered, lips numb with despair. “I am a Skycaller.”
Datu threw his hands into the air and chanted the first few words to a song of lamentation. The farm workers gathered in clusters and muttered to each other.
Despite his father’s distress, Bayan thought Isagani had the worst reaction. The merchant looked away and shook his head. His body language spoke of regret, and Bayan knew he’d lost Imee forever.
“No,” Philo chirped. “This young man cannot be a Skycaller.” Bayan raised his head, shocked.
Chaos swirled around him as voices called out in questioning and accusatory tones. Bayan dared to feel hope. Was there some imperial rule that had banned Skycallers seven years ago, as they were banned in Pinamuyoc? Perhaps no one had learned of it, this far south.
“Under the rules of the Empire,” the surveyor continued, his high voice shrill over the crowd, “any person found to possess the gift for elemental magic belongs to the emperor himself, immediately and for eternity. Bayan is not a Skycaller. He is a Duelist.”