Since basically everyone on this side of the pond is not working today, here's an excerpt from Bradley P. Beaulieu's The Winds of Khalakovo to occupy you for a while, courtesy of the author. For more info about this title: Canada, USA, Europe.
Here's the blurb:
Among inhospitable and unforgiving seas stands Khalakovo, a mountainous archipelago of seven islands, its prominent eyrie stretching a thousand feet into the sky. Serviced by windships bearing goods and dignitaries, Khalakovo's eyrie stands at the crossroads of world trade. But all is not well in Khalakovo. Conflict has erupted between the ruling Landed, the indigenous Aramahn, and the fanatical Maharraht, and a wasting disease has grown rampant over the past decade. Now, Khalakovo is to play host to the Nine Dukes, a meeting which will weigh heavily upon Khalakovo's future.
When an elemental spirit attacks an incoming windship, murdering the Grand Duke and his retinue, Prince Nikandr, heir to the scepter of Khalakovo, is tasked with finding the child prodigy believed to be behind the summoning. However, Nikandr discovers that the boy is an autistic savant who may hold the key to lifting the blight that has been sweeping the islands. Can the Dukes, thirsty for revenge, be held at bay? Can Khalakovo be saved? The elusive answer drifts upon the Winds of Khalakovo...
And here's the book trailer:
You can find out more about Bradley P. Beaulieu on his official website.
Even while pulling Grigory to safety, Nikandr watched in wide-eyed horror as the yacht slipped from view. A great cacophony of snapping wood and rigging followed. Grigory was finally pulled up to solid ground. He immediately stepped to the edge of the perch, screaming in rage and confusion. Nikandr tried to hold him back, but Grigory shoved him away.
Father and Ranos arrived and ordered the streltsi to escort everyone inside. “For your cousin, if not for yourself,” Iaros said to Grigory when he appeared reluctant to leave.
Grigory looked at young Ivan, who stood nearby shaking with fear, though he was clearly ashamed of it.
“Stop your trembling,” Grigory said, “and get yourself inside.”
Ivan looked afraid to take a single step.
Ivan shivered, looking smaller than a boy his age ought to, and then complied.
To Nikandr’s surprise, Grigory pulled himself taller and faced Father like an equal. “I will not hide indoors like some shivering child, not while there is any chance of survivors. My men and I will accompany the effort to save them.”
This was of course a demand that a rescue effort be waged, for no mention of one had been made so far. Grigory had always been a bold young man—he was Stasa’s son after all—but he had never seemed so much like his father as he did just then.
Father did not balk at Grigory’s tone. He merely nodded and turned to the sotnik of the streltsi. “Take the ships. Have the Broghan scour the area around Radiskoye. The Tura should search the rest of the island. And have men accompany Grigory to the harbor. Send two waterborne ships to the cliffs and have them search for survivors.”
“Father,” Nikandr interrupted, “let me take the Broghan down to the sea. Help from Volgorod will arrive too late.”
“Nyet. The winds at the base of the cliffs are too dangerous.”
Grigory stepped forward and pointed a finger at Father’s chest. “No effort will be spared, Khalakovo.”
Father turned calmly. “Take yourself away, Bolgravya, before I have you dragged and thrown in with the women.”
Grigory glanced at the nearby ships, knowing that any delay could mean the lives of his family below, and then he turned crisply and strode away.
“We cannot risk it,” Father said once he was out of earshot.
Nikandr lowered his voice. “But if there’s any chance that some survive, we should take it.”
“Nikandr is right,” Ranos said. “And despite Grigory’s brashness, think on what is going through everyone’s minds. It’s bad enough this happened in front of the entire Grand Duchy. If we’re to save any face, we need to show our best effort.”
“I cannot risk more lives,” Father said.
“Nikandr has done it before, Father. With Jahalan and Udra, he’ll be safe.”
Father hesitated, his gaze wandering to the smoke trailing up from the base of the cliff. He stepped forward and took Nikandr by the shoulders, and then pulled him into a tight embrace. “Go.” He kissed Nikandr on the forehead. “Save what can be saved, and come home safe.”
And with that Nikandr was off. Grigory and the three Bolgravyan windmen who had leapt to safety joined him. Jahalan and Udra were already waiting near the ship. They assembled a crew from the available men and pushed off as soon as they were able.
Once the mooring ropes were released, a half-dozen men used poles to push the ship into the wind. Nikandr took the helm himself and ordered the sails set along all four mainmasts.
Flying this close to an island always held its risks. A windship, unlike a waterborne craft, had three keels, each of them a shaft of obsidian running through the center of the ship. One ran lengthwise; one ran from the starward mainmast, through the ship and down the seaward mainmast; and the final one ran from the landward mainmast to the windward. The ends of each shaft were attuned to the aether such that it would align in a particular manner, each end pulling along ley lines drawn by the complex arrangement of islands and sea. This close to a cliff face, the currents were little more than whorls of aether, shifting and swirling with no discernible pattern. This was the reason eyrie landings were so difficult and the most seasoned pilots were called upon to perform them.
If it were only the aether that they had to contend with, Nikandr would not worry so much; it was the added danger of the wind, which was at best unpredictable, at worst deadly. There was little to do about it now, however. They could not abandon any survivors to the seas, no matter what the risk might be.
Udra willed the Broghan to descend. Jahalan summoned the winds to push them away from the cliff face, but already they were being blown back toward it. Nikandr used the three levers on the bridge to control the ship’s alignment. Jahalan could only do so much; he used his bonded wind spirit, a havahezhan, to manipulate the winds, but fine control was impossible, so it was up to Nikandr to harness them properly and guide the ship away from the looming rock.
Finally they approached the sea. Spikes of rock jutted up from the water like the ragged teeth of a leviathan lying in wait just below the surface. Stasa’s ship lay in ruins between two of them, the massive hull shorn near its center. The masts were crooked and broken like the trunks of once-proud trees following a terrible cold snap. White, frothy water rose and fell with the surf. Bitterly cold spray flew off the crest of every wave and was thrown against the ship, against the exposed skin of the crew.
Men crowded the gunwales and scanned the water for any sign of survivors. For minutes on end, Nikandr struggled with the rudders, fighting the tendency of the wind to send them toward the rock. Jahalan was doing his best, but even one as strong and skilled as he could not coax the havahezhan bound to him indefinitely, especially when there were so many other wind spirits gathered in places like this, ready to foil the wishes of the Aramahn masters.
“There!” Grigory shouted from the gunwales. “Near the rock! Two of them!”
Grigory pointed toward two men who were clinging to the rocks, too weary to pull themselves higher.
“Ready—” Nikandr lost his breath when the wind threw the cold ocean spray into his face. “Ready the ropes!”
Four of the crew shimmied along the landward mainmast, carrying ropes that were fed to them from the deck. Nikandr ordered men to the windward mainmast so the ship’s delicate balance would be maintained. There was no need to speak with Jahalan and Udra. Jahalan knew his part—to keep the winds as steady as he could—and Udra stood ready to right the ship as the new weight was taken on board.
The wind buffeted the ship, first away from the rocks, then toward, then fiercely downward. All the while Nikandr guided the ship steadily closer to the stranded men. The crewmen on the mast heaved the ropes toward the rocks, but they had to be reeled in, because the survivors were either too weak to leave the safety of the rocks or too scared to brave the waters.
The cliff and the tall, jutting rocks prevented them from moving directly above the men, but Nikandr brought the ship as close as he dared.
The sound of the wind fades. The numbing cold and the tug of the wind soon follow until all of his senses have been robbed from him.
Until there is nothing.
Nothing save for a keen yearning. A summons.
It tugs at his soul. It clambers for life. It is a need so great that it threatens to overwhelm him. It is the call of the spirits beyond the veil. One has reached through and taken hold of his soul, but there are many, many more, ready to scratch and claw in any way they can for the life that lies within him.
The world slipped into view.
Grigory shouted from the gunwales. “What are you doing? Bring her in closer!”
Nikandr realized the Broghan was slipping away from the rocks, but he didn’t care. Jahalan was clearly concerned over Nikandr’s actions, but he continued to command the winds as he always had—with a steady hand.
He rails against the hezhan that hungers for him as others approach. Several men have already succumbed. Surely more will follow if they attempt to save the men on the rocks. Soon, if he allows it, the entire ship will be lost to the hunger of the spirits.
One of the two crewmen on the mast slipped free and fell to the white-capped waters below. Another man standing on deck near the head was screaming, scratching at his face, leaving dark runnels of blood. Nikandr understood what was assailing them. He also knew they had to flee, now, before they were all consumed.
“Rise, Udra, rise! Jahalan, hold steady!”
The ship rose immediately as the winds shoved the ship toward the rocks. Jahalan was ready—he commanded his havahezhan to thwart the elements yet again.
Grigory’s eyes went wide. “Are you mad?” He stalked over from the gunwales, his eyes in a craze. “You cannot leave! They are just there!”
“We cannot stay,” Nikandr replied, unable to articulate what had just happened.
“Your own man has fallen in the waters!”
When Nikandr did not reply, Grigory pulled the ornamental kindjal from its sheath at his belt and stalked toward Nikandr.
“Take her back!” he shouted, but before he could come within striking range, three streltsi swarmed in and seized his arms.
Grigory’s countrymen broke away from the gunwales, ready to help their Lord Prince, but the crew of the Broghan took them by force, preventing them from interfering.
“I am a son of Bolgravya! You will release me!” When they did not, Grigory turned to Nikandr. “Turn back, coward! There are lives to be saved!”
Despite Grigory’s pleas, Nikandr knew he could not, and though his face burned with shame from the screams of the men below the ship, he would not throw away a ship—along with the lives of a score of men—when the spirits themselves had somehow risen against them.
* * * * * *
“My Lord Prince?” Isaak, the palotza’s seneschal, was standing in front of Nikandr with a look on his face that made Nikandr wonder just how long he had been standing there.
Nikandr had always been a sure-footed man, but he’d had a terrible case of vertigo ever since his return to solid ground. It was another symptom of the wasting, one often associated with the latter stages of the disease, but Nikandr hoped that it had somehow been brought on by his strange experience and that it was merely lingering because of his condition.
He couldn’t get the scene from the Broghan out of his mind.
The crewman who had been attacked by the spirits, an old gull with a wide jaw and heavy growth of beard, was standing nearby. He was pressing a bloody kerchief against his self-inflicted wounds. He looked at Nikandr with something akin to solidarity—he understood Nikandr’s confusion—yet at the same time he looked embarrassed, as if he felt weak for admitting that he had succumbed to this unexpected attack.
It mirrored Nikandr’s own feelings precisely.
“I’ll be fine, Isaak,” Nikandr said. “I’m only a bit shaken. Where did you say I could find my father?”
“I said His Highness would find you. He asks that you retire to the Great Hall to assist Ranos in staving off the wolves, as he put it.”
“Where has he gone?”
“Have you heard a word I’ve said?” Isaak asked.
The sounds of screaming came to Nikandr again. Closing his eyes only made matters worse.
Isaak stepped forward, lowering his voice. “Are you quite well, My Lord Prince?”
Nikandr waved him away. “It’s nothing.”
“There is trouble afoot, My Lord. Your father, the Duke, is with the Matra, and he’ll return as soon as he is able. If you’re well, as you say, then best you get to the Great Hall now, before things turn sour.” He turned and walked briskly away, and when he reached the end of the hallway, he turned. “The Great Hall, My Lord, the Great Hall.”
Flanked by the old seaman, Nikandr made his way there. The doors stood open, and Nikandr entered as an argument played out at the head of the hall. Some noticed his entrance, but they remained silent as Nikandr and the crewman made their way to the dais. The screams of the men on the rocks, the silence as his man slipped free of the mast and fell to the sea, the clawing feeling he’d experienced as if his very soul had been held in the balance, all of it still swirled within his mind as if it were still happening.
He paused, nearly retching at the discontinuity. He took deep breaths as Ranos shouted over the noise of the crowd. “I have told you thrice, Vostroma. We have secured Radiskoye, Nikandr and Grigory are attempting to find any survivors, and our Aramahn are searching for signs of foul play.”
“Foul play?” Zhabyn barked. “Can there be any doubt?”
“Spirits have crossed randomly before, Duke.”
“And if you believe that’s the case here, then you’re less prepared to follow in your father’s footsteps than I thought.” Zhabyn stabbed a finger toward the eyrie. “What happened out there was murder. No more, no less.”
Nikandr reached the dais. When Ranos took note of him, he tipped his head, indicating Nikandr should join him. “We don’t know that yet. Your blood is boiling, I know. Mine is as well. But we can discuss this further once more is known.”
Voices rumbled about the room, clearly perturbed that Ranos was questioning the obvious.
This came from Duke Leonid of Dhalingrad, a heavyset man with a crooked shoulder and a long white beard that shook as he spoke.
“You wish to discuss when the Grand Duke himself has been murdered on your very doorstep? This is a time for action, not wandering about asking polite questions while you hide your cock with your hand.”
“Spirits cross when they will, Dhalingrad,” Ranos replied.
“Not only when they will,” Duke Leonid said. “They can be summoned, as you very well know. It happened to your brother. This might have been planned days before Council”—Leonid opened his arms wide—“from within these very walls.”
Ranos’s face turned hard, mirroring Nikandr’s own feelings. “If you have something to say, Dhalingrad, you’d better come out from hiding and say it.”
“Dhalingrad hides behind nothing!”
Then, striding through the open doors at the rear of the hall, came Grigory, his face a study in anger and indignation. When he reached the open area before the dais, he spit upon the floor and pointed his finger at Nikandr. “You have much to account for, Khalakovo.”
Before Nikandr could speak, Ranos strode toward him. “Watch your step, Bolgravya.”
“I will not, not when my father burned before my eyes, not when my blood has been offered to the sea.”
“I told you what happened, Griga,” Nikandr said.
Grigory’s look hardened at the use of his familiar name. “Do you expect me to believe that hezhan were attacking you?”
“When your own Motherless slaves say they felt nothing?”
“I felt the hezhan as I feel my own thoughts. They were clamoring for us. Our man felt the same.”
Nikandr motioned for the crewman at the head of the crowd to speak, but before he could summon the courage, Grigory scoffed. “He will spout any story you’ve fed him.”
“I saved lives, including yours! They took one of my own men.”
“Then you should be doubly ashamed for abandoning him!”
Voices were raised, people taking sides, others looking for answers. Nikandr saw Borund, standing near his father. They had grown up together, had attended many Councils with one another. Borund had spent a summer on Khalakovo, and Nikandr had done the same on Vostroma. He was Nikandr’s closest friend among the aristocracy, a man Nikandr considered a brother. Ever since Borund’s arrival their relationship had been strained, different. Nikandr had written it off to his own reticence to marry Atiana, but the look on Borund’s face… He was staring at Nikandr as if he were looking upon a coward, as if he were ashamed that he had ever considered Nikandr a friend. It was a strange reality to be faced with, and it made Nikandr realize just how dangerous a position they were in. Tensions had been high. Distrust and the urge to look after one’s own family had been rising above the long-fought-for solidarity among the Duchies. If Borund were looking at Nikandr in this manner, what must the other dukes be thinking, especially those from the south, who typically aligned with one another?
An echoing boom resounded through the room—once, twice, thrice. Everyone turned toward Zhabyn, who was slamming the heel of his boot against the wooden floor. Once quiet had been restored, he nodded to Nikandr. “Tell us what you know.”
Nikandr complied, at least so far as he was able. Grigory interrupted several times, but each time he did Zhabyn stomped his foot, cowing the young man back into silence. When Nikandr was done, Zhabyn turned to the crewman and asked the same of him. And finally, it was Grigory’s turn. He relayed the events at the base of the cliff, painting Nikandr as a man more craven than anyone the islands had ever seen. It would seem, by the time Grigory was done, that Nikandr was responsible for everything from the presence of the suurahezhan to the very blight that threatened their way of life. Perhaps that was Zhabyn’s plan, to allow Grigory to paint himself into a corner with his own words, relieving the pressure that was building on Nikandr and the Khalakovo family. Then again, given Zhabyn’s disapproving look toward Nikandr when Grigory finally fell silent, perhaps it wasn’t.
“This is strange business,” Zhabyn said to Ranos, essentially waiting for an official reply.
“Khalakovo was hurt as much as anyone by what happened here today.”
“As anyone?” Duke Leonid said. “I think not.”
The silence in the room yawned like a sleeping beast preparing to wake.
“Don’t mince words, Dhalingrad,” Ranos said quietly.
Before Leonid could continue, Duke Yegor of Nodhvyansk stepped out of the crowd, his arms wide. Yegor was young—Ranos’s age—and still impressionable, but his family had always been a friend of Vostroma. “He’s saying what we’re all thinking, that the one man who stands to gain the most from Bolgravya’s death is the man hosting this Council.”
Ranos moved to the edge of the dais, perhaps ready to challenge Yegor for such an insult, but before he could, Father’s voice called out from behind him.
“You’re saying I would kill my oldest friend?”
Nikandr turned to find his father standing in the doorway that led to the hall’s antechamber. Before him, sitting in a padded chair fitted with wheels, was Mother.
The entire assemblage went deadly silent and took to one knee. Father pushed Saphia Mishkeva Khalakovo forward, the wooden wheels thumping over the floorboards, until he reached the edge of the dais. When he stopped, everyone rose to their feet.
“You’re saying,” Father continued, “that I would risk my youngest son and his new wife? You’re saying I would risk the lives of my own wife, my elder son, even yours to a rogue spirit such as that? I would sooner have fired a musket into Stasa’s chest than release a creature like that into my family’s midst.”
Yegor opened his mouth to speak, but there came from the wheelchair a voice so rarely used it croaked with every utterance. “I have conferred with the other Matri,” Mother said. The effort, as small as it was, proved taxing; she breathed rapidly several times before continuing. “The crossing of the suurahezhan appears to be spontaneous.”
As she recovered herself, Grigory opened his mouth to speak, but Father stomped his foot down hard, forcing him to silence.
“An investigation will be conducted, and as we are on … Khalakovan ground, my son Nikandr … will undertake it.”
The room began to murmur.
“We will share with you our findings … but until such time as it is complete … you will remain welcome guests … of Radiskoye.”
Zhabyn Vostroma bowed his head. “Forgive me, Matra, but have all the Matri agreed to this?”
Nikandr saw his mother smile, and it was wicked. “They have, Vostroma.”
Grigory pulled Ivan from the crowd and placed the young man before him. “Forty of our countrymen are dead!” Grigory’s face went beet red. “Someone must pay!”
“And they will,” Iaros said. “Khalakovo will find those responsible.”
“Then start with your son! He left two of my men to die on the rocks below like a baseless thief!”
Father glanced at Nikandr, but it was Mother who spoke. “My son has answered your questions. There was a tear in the aether … made, perhaps, when the suurahezhan returned to the world beyond.”
“I felt nothing,” Grigory said.
Saphia laughed, and her face pulled back into a rictus of a smile. “Tell me, Grigory, when was the last time you spent time in your Matra’s chamber?”
Grigory’s face went red. “I don’t have to touch the aether to know a lie when I hear it.”
“Speak to your Matra. Discuss with her what happened. Until then, speak no more of my son.”
Grigory opened his mouth to reply, but Father spoke over him.
“And Khalakovo will find who is responsible, good Prince. Have no fear of that.”
The entire room went silent. Grigory stared at Father for a long time, clearly enraged at being treated like a pup.
“It had better be soon.” And with that Grigory marched from the room. Even with all his confidence it was strange watching him leave. Bolgravya had always had the largest retinue at Council. It felt like a herd of men should be leaving with him, but besides Grigory there was only the one sorry remainder of their strength: young cousin Ivan.
Nikandr expected the tension in the room to drop, but strangely, it intensified.
Duke Heodor of Lhudansk, a squat man with a piercing gaze, cleared his throat. “If there’s no one who will say it, then I will. We need to consider who will fill the seat of Grand Duke.”
Father gave no outward sign of emotion at Heodor’s words. He, as the eldest reigning duke, should fill the imperial seat, but with Stasa’s blood staining their house, the vote would be in question.
Duke Andreyo of Rhavanki shook his fist angrily. “The Grand Duke is dead not an hour, and you’re calling for his replacement?”
“There is no sense ignoring what needs to be done,” Heodor said.
Yegor pointed to the dais. “You might as well stand behind Khalakovo now, Lhudansk.”
“Nyet, Heodor is right,” Zhabyn said. “The Grand Duke is dead.” He turned to Iaros, looking up at him on the dais as if he were a son who had disappointed him. “But the cause is in doubt. A vote cannot be held until the matter is settled.”
Several of the dukes nodded, and Father nodded along with them. Nikandr knew his father well enough to know he would gladly take the mantle of Grand Duke, but he was also wise enough to realize that others would not be pushed. A week would pass, perhaps more, and they would find out what happened in the eyrie. Then, a vote would be held and honored.
“We will wait,” Iaros said. “There is much to be done in any case, not the least of which is my son’s wedding day.”
There were a few somber nods among the crowd, but most eyes turned to Zhabyn, whose rigid stance had not changed. “It would be best, I think, if the wedding were postponed as well.”
Iaros eyed Zhabyn for long, uncomfortable moments, but it was Saphia that Nikandr watched closely. This was a grave insult indeed. Saphia had been the one to finally convince Zhabyn’s wife, Radia, that the marriage would be in the best interests of both families. It would benefit them at a time when their strength was dearly depleted.
The decision, strictly speaking, wasn’t Zhabyn’s to make. The Matri had arranged it, and by tradition, only they could undo it. But Radia had never been a willful woman; if Zhabyn declared the marriage to be dead, she would follow, and then there was little Khalakovo could do except hold the offered ships and trade agreements as bait.
When Saphia spoke again, she spoke slowly and deliberately. “Plans have been made, Vostroma. Documents have been signed.”
Zhabyn didn’t flinch. “Winds change, Matra. Should we ignore them when they do?”
Saphia seemed to lift herself up higher in the chair—an act that would take a supreme amount of will in her weakened state. During the pause that followed, the entire room seemed to lean forward. Finally, Saphia nodded once, politely, though there was no graciousness in the dour expression on her face. “A small delay will hurt little.”
And with that she reached up and patted Father’s hand, which rested on her shoulder. Father then turned her chair around and strode from the room, Ranos and Nikandr behind them.