Saturday, 9 February 2013

Sacred Breath Book #5 Sneak Peek

Please enjoy this preview of the first chapter of Tides of Tranquility! 

Chapter 1: New World Order

Stop punishing yourself, love. You do not deserve to live your life in exile.
Blinking, she rubbed her temples in an effort to concentrate. She gazed around at the towers of irregular crystallized spikes which surrounded her in the oval chamber. Sitting waist-deep in a warm pool of volcanically-heated hot springs, she stared blankly at the trickle of water cascading over rocks and into the small pool. She hummed softly to herself, trying to feel the quality of the air vibrating through her vocal chords. Steam rose from the spot where the droplets of cool sea collided with the heated lagoon; she watched the steam hang in soft clouds around her body. She hummed louder, trying to use the sound waves to distort the steam. It was easy to use her singing to manipulate objects in the water, but creating the same effect in the air was like shooting feathers out of a gun. She needed more precision and power.
For how many years were you at the helm of this country? Now you’ve been reduced to this?
Elandria could not tell anyone that she had been hearing voices. She could not relate how the voices echoed through the caves, distracting her from her tasks. With her personal penchant for mental illness, and her family history of rampant suicides, she was afraid that her sister would worry. Considering the current state of affairs, the last thing she wanted to do was cause Aazuria additional stress. The woman was so busy that Elandria scarcely saw her; she was lucky if her sister visited even once a month. If it were not for the hundreds of letters from Trevain, she would not have any idea of what was happening at the palace. His letters had been her only comfort, until Mother Melusina had recently found them and taken them away. She was forbidden from contact with men whatsoever, and apparently, the written word was considered contact. It did not feel that way to her. Confined to Gypsum Cavern for five years, she felt worlds away from her family; but she was here for the purpose of penance. For atonement. Emitting another sound from her lips, she tried to maintain a single note for as long as possible.
You were the one who built that palace. You made this nation into what it currently is!
She choked on her note.
Although she missed her sister, she knew that Aazuria was traveling all over the undersea world to make sure that the realms under her rule were running smoothly. The former Japanese queen, Amabie Mizuchi, had been named Empress of Oceanus, acting as a neutral and esteemed figurehead for all the submerged nations to honor—but everyone knew that Aazuria was the true force to be reckoned with. She was widely credited as the hero who had led the charge on Damahaar and liberated the watery world from the clutches of the Clan of Zalcan, all those years ago. Some skeptics chose to attribute the victory to Vachlan Suchos, the Destroyer of Kingdoms—many said that without his preliminary weakening of the stronghold, and his less-than-savory connections, the war would never have been won.
Both viewpoints were correct.
Breathing deeply, Elandria tried to still her mind and quell her loneliness. She had work to do! It would not do to fantasize about home. Gazing intently at the swords of crystal, as though her blazing eyes could somehow melt them, she released a second frequency from her throat, slightly more high-pitched than the last. She held the note for several seconds, hoping that she would finally be successful. She stared at the dark quartz, imagining that she saw the spears shuddering. She had been attempting this simple task for hours. The interruptions from the voices in her head were not helping.
Adlivun was just a hole-in-the-wall. You elevated us to the status of an internationally recognized country. You put us on the map, once and for all! What did she do? She riled everyone up. She caused a big commotion, disrupting your carefully achieved peace. She led hundreds of people to their death; no Adluvians died needlessly in battle when you were queen!
It was only one voice, really, but it was a particularly frustrating one. It reminded Elandria of someone she wished to forget—someone who had died a long time ago. While he lived, he had caused her nothing but pain and suffering, and now that he was dead, his voice seemed to remain immortalized in the back of her mind. He had become her conscience. He had become her madness. Once, she had chosen to stop speaking altogether to protect her mind from his intrusions; she had accepted that she could not protect her body, but decided that her mind was her own.  Now, it seemed that her thoughts were no longer off limits from his exploitation—even from beyond the grave. She could not deny that he was a part of her. A crucial influence in her upbringing, and meshed into her very flesh and blood. Perhaps she would never be able to escape his oppression. Being alone so much brought the horrors he had inflicted upon her to the front of her brain.
You spent ten years by his side and she just swept in and stole him away! Isn’t that just like her? You are the true queen—you are his true wife. You should be ruling Adlivun, Elandria.
“Get out of my head!” she screamed, rising to her feet. She lifted her hands to cover her ears, her wet, dripping sleeves plastered against her arms. She could bear a thousand voices of insanity quarreling in her mind, as long as they did not mention Trevain. The memory of what she had lost was too fresh and too tender to be prodded. Would any amount of years be enough to cleanse her heart of the warmth it had known? The warmth it would never know again? She could feel her composure crumbling. She could feel her insides falling apart. “Leave me alone!”
Face the truth, my dear. He belongs to you.
“No, he doesn’t!” Elandria snapped, in a shriek that caused all the crystalline spikes to instantly shatter. She looked around in surprise at what she had done. The explosions had sent shimmering shards and dust of sandy quartz hurtling into the warm pool. The pieces floated on the surface, bobbing gently and glimmering in the low light. After laboring intently for hours to inflict even a tiny amount of damage upon the solid structures, she had somehow managed to instinctively destroy them in a burst of emotion. She raised her fingers to her throat, absent-mindedly rubbing her voice box, which was growing stronger every day. Her mentor often said while an opera singer on land could shatter wine glasses or windows, an opera singer in the water could shatter bones. Her chest heaved with panting breaths as she surveyed the carnage.
“He was never mine.”

*                *                *

By age fourteen, Varia had grown taller than her mother.
Trevain was often uncomfortable with how mature the young girl seemed—her childhood seemed to have vanished in the blink of an eye. He had not even gotten a chance to create some memories of what she was like as a kid before she had erupted from her little chrysalis and morphed into the skin of a strange young woman. Although slender and pretty, her stormy expressions gave her an air of severity. She carried herself with a sophisticated, royal poise that was reminiscent of Aazuria, and if he had not been instrumental in her conception, he would have guessed that she was surely at least a century old. He felt himself constantly trying to impress her and gain her favor, or trick her into smiling.
Despite his best efforts, she remained distant and untouchable. Trevain was not even sure whether she really loved him. He had the constant impression of having done something horribly wrong which had deeply offended her; was it this way with all teenagers? Had he done something so injurious? For that matter, was it this way with all women? Aazuria was even more distant than her daughter—he was not sure that she thought much of his parenting skills. This saddened him.
He really tried his best to be a cool dad.
These were his thoughts as he stood in Varia’s doorway, observing the young girl as she read an intimidating-looking book in her maroon armchair. He knew that Aazuria had hired some of the best professors in the world for their daughter’s education, and many were surprised with her already vast knowledge and aptitude for learning—especially considering her unique upbringing. Varia was professional and courteous with all of her instructors, always completing her assignments punctually and methodically. She rather reminded him of a robot. He often wondered if there was anything she was passionate about, or whether she would continue in this hardhearted fashion.
“Are you still reading Crime and Punishment?” Trevain asked her gently.
She did not even glance up from her book to respond. “No. Finished that last week. This is A Clockwork Orange.”
Trevain frowned. “Is that for school? Which of your teachers assigned it? I’m not sure you’re old enough to be reading that sort of thing. I didn’t read that until I was…”
“This is personal reading,” Varia said, lifting her chin to contemplate him. Her different colored eyes were always a curious sight to behold. Her blue iris was filled with innocence while her green one was mysterious and predatory. “Mother recommended it to me.”
“I see. Well, if she thinks you’re ready for it…”
Varia smiled. “Mother killed a man in front of me when I was eight. He embraced me, calling my name as he bled to death. I watched him drowning in his own blood. I think I can handle a bit of light reading, Father.”
Trevain lowered his gaze, feeling foolish. “I’m so sorry, Varia.”
“I’m not,” she answered in a low voice. She stared thoughtfully at a sketch on her bedroom wall. “I was directly responsible. Mother asked my permission—she wouldn’t have done it without my endorsement. I wanted him gone, even though he was the only man I had ever known. The strange thing is that he believed I adored him until his final breath. He never even knew my real name. At least I learned how to be an excellent actress from that whole situation.”
“Things are different now. Our enemies are gone for good. You’ll never have to suffer anything like that again,” Trevain promised. He wondered if she had used up all her energy in playing the role of daughter to his enemy—was there anything of a child left in her? Were they to be friends and equals now, business associates perhaps; had he completely missed the opportunity to be a father?
“That wasn’t the worst thing I ever suffered,” Varia said quietly, returning her eyes to her book. “It seems to me that a lot of people have been through far worse. The world is just full of awful people.”
“I really think you should stop reading that for now,” Trevain said sternly. “I don’t care what you’ve seen or suffered—you don’t have to address these serious issues now. Put a bookmark in it and pick it up again when you’re a bit older.”
Varia glared up at the man silently. She considered slamming the book closed or making a scene, but instead, she carefully allowed the pages to flutter softly closed. Elegantly unfolding her legs from beneath her, she rose from her armchair and glided over to her frozen bookshelves. She obediently placed the book on the shelf before turning to look at her father sweetly.
“It’s funny,” she said in a bitterly mellow tone. “The man who died when I was eight did not order me around nearly as much as you do.”
 “Varia!” Trevain said in horror.
She smoothed her dress and pushed her shoulders back as she regarded her father. “I will not apologize for speaking the truth, even if it offends you. I am the Princess of Adlivun and I am expected to read all there is to read and know all there is to know. I don’t have the luxury of being the happy little girl that you want me to be. Stop treating me like a fisherman’s daughter. Maybe I’m not the way you imagined, but you’re not the way I imagined either. We may be amicable, especially in public, but please leave me alone.”
Trevain shook his head, evidently wounded by her harsh words. “Go to bed, Varia. We have to wake up early tomorrow to go to the islands and greet your mother at the airport. I already got her some flowers.”
“She’s not coming home tomorrow.”
“What?” Trevain said in surprise. “She’s finished her business in Atlantis.”
“Didn’t you get her text? She’s visiting Grandma in Bimini for a few days.”
Trevain fished his phone out of his pocket and frowned when he found no communication from his wife. This was just like her—forgetting to inform him of her change in plans. He did not betray his disappointment and frustration, but simply nodded. “I see. Well, goodnight, Varia.”
The girl had obediently crawled into bed, pulled the covers up to her chin, and closed her eyes. “Goodnight, Father.” She listened to his breathing as he closed her door. His footsteps echoed through the hallway, carrying him to his room. When she heard the sound of his door closing, Varia opened her eyes and tossed the covers off her body. She bolted to the window of her room and carefully slid it open, making sure that she made no noise. She could not alert the guards in the corridor.
Heading over to her bed, she retrieved some climbing gear from under her mattress. She moved back to the window and stuck her head outside, watching for patrol guards or anyone out for a midnight stroll in the wintery capital of Romanova, which had once been known as Upper Adlivun. Since the war, the city had truly been the “New Rome” at the heart of the Oceanic Empire. The name was also significant in honoring the lost grand duchess, Anastasia Romanova, who had never been found. Adlivun had been fortunate in recovering its own lost princess—and now she intended to sneak out of a window and plunge into a puddle of mischief. How better to appreciate the precious state of being alive? Young Anastasia would certainly have done the same thing, if she had been given half the chance.
The moon was high in the sky, shining off the snowy glacier on which the parliamentary palace had been built. It was bright enough for anyone to see her activities, but she was sleek and lithe. Hooking her climbing gear on her windowsill, Varia checked to make sure it was firm before lowering herself through the opening. She slid down quickly, several feet, until she came upon a horizontal pipe. Releasing the rope and grasping the metal cylinder, Varia soundlessly shimmied across the outside of the castle. She pulled her feet up, hooking them around the pipe to avoid being seen as she passed the windows of a few rooms.
When she finally reached her destination, she hung from the pipe and used her foot to knock on a certain window. Hearing no answer, she groaned and kicked the window again. Her fingertips were getting quite cold from clinging to the frosty pipe. When there was still no answer, Varia removed one hand from the pipe in order to try and force the window open. At the same time as she pulled, the curtain parted and the window slid sharply open. Due to the fact that her weight had been distributed between the pipe and the window, she found herself losing balance. She slipped from the pipe, but before she could fall three stories to the icy ground below, she found a strong hand seizing her forearm.
She exhaled in relief and laughed a little, gripping the forearm that had grabbed hers. Her partner-in-crime pulled her back into the window, helping her through and closing it behind her. Varia could not seem to help giggling at the double-thrill of nearly falling to her death (or grave injury) and defying her father’s wishes.
“You nearly gave me a heart attack!” Glais complained. He grabbed her hand and pressed it against his chest. “See? Dammit, Varia, if you die from falling out of my window, they’ll hang me for murdering you or something.”
“Oh, come on,” she said, ripping her hand away from his chest and hitting him in the arm. “Don’t be so paranoid. Did you get the stuff?”
He hesitated.
“Umm, yeah. But I’m not sure that we should use it. Seriously, Varia—I’m really sick of you getting me into trouble. If your dad knew what you wanted me to do to you—he would behead me. Literally behead me.”
Varia grinned, finding this imagery quite amusing. “Obviously. That’s part of the whole reason I want to do it.”
“Because you want to see my head rolling around in the snow?” Glais asked glumly.
“No, silly. Because I like the way it feels to piss him off. So where do you want me? Over here, on your bed?”
Glais leaned against the window, his breath fogging up the glass. “You insane girl! I can’t believe this. You’re going to get me flayed alive.”
“You’re such a baby,” Varia said with impatience. She rolled her eyes and grasped the hem of her shirt and began lifting it over her head.
“No, no, no,” Glais said, rushing to grab her wrists. He seemed frantic in the moonlight. “Really think about this. Once we start, there’s no going back. What if you change your mind? We might be different people when we’re grown up, and we might regret this.”
Varia gave him a determined look. “I know who I am, Glais. I’m the girl who was born at the bottom of the earth. Maybe you don’t know who you are yet, but I do. I told you I wanted this, and you promised you’d do it for me.”
“I’ll do it,” he said timidly, “but are you sure we should do it tonight? I have practice tomorrow and I should probably get some rest…”
“Yes, tonight!” she insisted. “Besides, you’re swift and strong—easily the best athlete in your sport and age group in Adlivun.”   
“I don’t want to be the best in Adlivun. I want to qualify for the Olympics!” he protested.
“You will. I’ll help you train and be there to cheer you on,” she promised. “Please, Glais? I never ask you for anything. This is really important to me.”
He nodded in defeat. “Fine. Are you sure you trust me? It’s going to hurt. A lot.”
“I don’t care about pain,” Varia boasted.
“But I don’t want to hurt you.”
“You hurt me all the time when we’re sparring. What’s the difference?” she asked irritably.
“Varia, you’re a princess. Eventually, someone’s going to find out. They’ll know it was me. Your father is going to tear me into a million pieces and then roast those pieces as prime rib and sirloin steak on his barbeque…”
“For Sedna’s sake!” she shouted. “I want a tattoo just like yours. Are you going to give it to me or not? Because if you won’t, I’ll find someone who will!”
His shoulders sagged in surrender. Glais lifted a hand absentmindedly to touch his own tattoo, the triple-moon of Adlivun that he had inked on his neck. It was in precisely the same spot as his father’s tattoo; as his memories of the man had faded, he often found his thoughts dwelling on that symbol, and had decided to get a matching one to honor Bain’s memory. He wanted to think of his father every time he looked in the mirror; he wanted to be more like him. His art instructor had mentioned the traditional Japanese method of using bamboo needles to create a tattoo. Some of his Ningyo friends in Adlivun knew the irezumi method and had been willing to teach him. He had not anticipated that the stubborn princess would become obsessed with his body-art, constantly touching his neck and begging him for one of her own.
He had difficulty refusing Varia anything she wanted.
“Maybe it would be better if someone else did it,” he told her, although the thought gave him a slight nip of jealousy. “I’m not the greatest artist. There are people in Adlivun who have been practicing for hundreds of years! I have only ever done this one tattoo on myself.”
“I have seen you draw on the skin of your friends,” she argued. “That one time you gave Kaito a dragon tattoo.”
“In ballpoint pen! For Halloween! With his mother’s permission!”
“Oh, Glais,” Varia said with a sigh. “You are such a good boy. It’s so disappointing.” She moved over to his bed and pulled her shirt off before tossing herself onto the duvet. She pointed at her back. “Come on. It’ll be awesome! I give you artistic liberty to make it as fancy as you want.”
“Okay, Vari,” he said with a deep sigh. “Have you considered how this might limit your acting?”
“Lots of famous actresses have tattoos,” she argued. “Most of my theater work is in period costume anyway. I won’t have to appear semi-nude unless it’s for movies or TV, and then they can just use makeup or editing. Besides, it’s not like I’ll get to act much once I have to help run the country. See? I have thought about this.”
“Okay,” he said meekly. “Do you really want the Adluvian triple moon?”
“Yeah,” Varia said, resting her cheek on the pillow. “People say that the ocean isn’t constant, but it is. The tides are always changing in response to the moon. People say that the moon isn’t constant, but it is. It’s only our perception of it that changes. I love the triple moon symbol and what it signifies. The maiden, the mother, the crone. How could I ever grow out of something that represents life as a cycle from birth to death? I would still want this tattoo, even if it wasn’t the symbol on the flag of the nation of which I am a princess. But it is.”
Glais nodded, moving over to his desk to get his supplies. “I hope you like it, Varia. I’ll do my best.”
When she felt the warmth of his hands against her cold skin, she closed her eyes. The soothing touch was soon followed by the jagged prick of sharpened bamboo. Somehow, this still had a calming effect on her nerves. She wondered if her mother would be angry. Nonetheless, she knew that she needed to do this for herself. It was an act of patriotism, cementing her commitment to her country and to herself as an adult. She needed to get this tattoo to prove to herself that she was ready to make important decisions that would affect people, or possibly scar them for the rest of their lives. She needed to remind herself that some consequences were permanent and inescapable.
The traditional needle bored into her flesh. Again and again, she felt it pierce and jab. She could tell that even though Glais was emotionally hesitant, his hands were firm and true. He was supremely skilled with a paintbrush, skilled at fencing with a saber, and skilled at this combination of the two. She wondered if she was the first modern princess to ever get a tattoo of her country’s symbol. Excitement flooded her chest with every puncture. She felt the bamboo blade lift from her skin.
“God, Varia. I can’t do this. What if I screw up?”
She opened her eyes, glancing over her shoulder to send him a smile. Glais was only 18, and still unsure of himself in many ways. But she was sure of him; all the marks he had left on her person up until this point had been positive. She trusted him implicitly. “Don’t worry,” she told him, reaching out to squeeze his knee. “I have always loved your art.”