Ramping up for our super special awesome Friday, October 9th release date, I present to you a teaser from Chasing Nonconformity. This teaser will be … the prologue!
A bit of background — this actually started off as the first chapter of the book, but a few beta readers were concerned with the idea of starting the book and not being in main protagonist’s POV. So I moved the chapter to later in the book, but it didn’t really work in terms of pacing. I eventually ended up making it the prologue, since prologues can get away with crazy shenanigans like being from a new character’s POV.
Anyway, here it is in all its prologue-y glory. Read, laugh, enjoy.
Electricity crackled along the curved blades of Sebara’s twin electro-scimitars as she wove them around her body in intricate patterns. From high above the imperial palace training grounds, the midday sun blazed down on her head and warmed the sand beneath her bare feet. Her tanned skin was slick with sweat beneath her sleeveless white tunic and pants, and strands of her long black hair—pulled into a high ponytail—stuck to her neck. But Sebara, who had lived her entire life on the desert planet Rakor, barely noticed the sweltering heat as she leaped through the air and slashed down her scimitars as if decapitating an unseen foe.
Then she caught a glimpse of movement at the courtyard gate—a statuesque woman in black and gold armor was marching toward her across the sand. Sebara slid her blades into the scabbards on her back, crossed her fists against her chest, and sank into a deep bow. “General Zandara,” she murmured. “You honor me with your presence.”
“Rise,” the general said.
As she straightened, Sebara tried not to let her apprehension show. This was the first time the leader of the Rala’kamil—the elite all-female military order charged with protecting the Rakorsian imperial family and their allies—had spoken to Sebara since she’d become a cadet three years ago. What does she want? Sebara wondered. Have I done something wrong?
“You train with great enthusiasm,” the general noted.
I’ve definitely done something wrong. Cautiously, Sebara said, “I enjoy practicing. A Rala’kamil cannot be too skilled with her blades, or too in tune with the physical limits of her body.”
It was a direct quote from the Rala’kamil training manual, which was sure to please the general. In truth, Sebara practiced obsessively because she loved the rush of exhilaration fighting gave her. But that’s not the sort of thing you admit to your commanding officer.
“I’m pleased to see you’ve taken your lessons to heart,” Zandara said. “Now, for the reason I’m here—I have an assignment for you.”
Sebara instantly sank into another bow. “I am ready and eager to serve the empire.”
She made sure to keep her tone and expression neutral, but secretly she was elated. She’d only graduated from cadet to Rala’kamil three nights ago, on the eve of her eighteenth birthday, and had expected to wait several months before receiving her first assignment. I wonder who I’ll be guarding? Probably some minor dignitary on one of Rakor’s tributary worlds. Or maybe a planetary governor’s wife?
“Your task,” Zandara said, “is to serve as bodyguard to his imperial highness Prince Trystan Gara’dar, second son of Emperor Ka’zarel.”
“No!” Sebara blurted.
She immediately clapped a hand over her mouth, horrified at her outburst. But Zandara just sighed, rubbed the bridge of her nose with a pained expression, and said, “I assume you’ve heard the rumors?”
“I have,” Sebara admitted. “Apparently the prince is … eccentric.”
The general snorted. “That’s a very diplomatic way of putting it. Perhaps you’ll succeed in this assignment after all.”
“If I may ask—why choose me? Surely there are more qualified Rala’kamil.”
“I would like to say it’s because you graduated first in your class, and because your instructors have told me you are an intelligent and promising young woman with admirable passion and drive. And while those things are all true, the real reason is that Prince Trystan has gone through more guards than I can count, and I’m running out of Rala’kamil to assign him. You’re the most qualified Rala’kamil at the palace who has not already guarded him and subsequently begged me for a transfer, and so you are receiving the assignment.”
Although Sebara had never backed down from a challenge in her life, she still found herself daunted at the prospect of guarding the thirteen-year-old prince. From what I’ve heard, he’s not just eccentric, she thought. They say he’s a sensitive, overly-emotional boy who spends all his time reciting poetry and chasing flutterers in the cactus gardens. In other words, he’s the exact opposite of what a proper Rakorsian prince should be.
“Is there a problem?” Zandara asked.
Sebara swallowed her reservations and bowed a third time. “Not at all, general. I am honored to accept this assignment.”
“Good. Report to Prince Trystan’s quarters immediately. The emperor has demanded his presence in the throne room, and it is not wise to keep the emperor waiting.”
Sebara nodded. Then she turned and sprinted out of the courtyard, kicking up clouds of golden sand in her wake.
* * *
After changing out of her sweat-stained training clothes and into her black and gold body armor, Sebara traveled by aircar from the Rala’kamil barracks to the palace.
The Rakorsian imperial palace was massive and sprawling, built on the shores of a crystalline lake at the center of an oasis deep in the Valdarik desert. It was comprised of several dozen buildings—ancient, beautifully preserved structures with soaring archways, massive stone columns, colored glass windows, and mosaic tile floors—connected by winding walkways lined with frond-leafed trees and flowerbeds.
Sebara left the aircar parked on a stretch of gravel beside the lake. She hurried up the stone steps into the South Wing and strode quickly through the wide, airy corridors toward the imperial suites. On the way she passed servants dusting and cleaning, courtiers going about their business, and Skin Slicers—the emperor’s personal elite fighting force—standing guard outside important rooms.
Finally, she turned a corner and found herself facing the twelve-foot-high, bronze double doors that led into Prince Trystan’s private chambers. Two muscular Skin Slicers in red and gold armor flanked the doors. Sebara took a deep breath, then marched up to the intimidating pair.
“I am Sebara of the Rala’kamil,” she announced. “I have been assigned to protect Prince Trystan. Open the doors.”
Before she’d joined the Rala’kamil, Sebara would have never dared to raise her voice in a man’s presence. But now she could speak to most men as their equal. She was very much enjoying her new freedom of speech, although she would never admit it aloud.
One of the Skin Slicers nodded, and the other slapped his hand against a DNA scanner on the wall beside the doors. The gilded sunburst pattern in the center of the doors split in half as the bronze panels slid into the walls. Her head held high, Sebara marched through the opening, between a pair of braziers burning sweet-smelling incense, and into the prince’s sitting room.
The room was bathed in golden sunshine streaming through floor-to-ceiling windows that overlooked the sparkling lake. The walls were covered in silken hangings and colorful paintings, and the mosaic tile floor was cushioned with layers of woven carpets. Elegant vases with fragrant flowers, benches strewn with decorative pillows, and tables covered with messy stacks of paper were spaced throughout the room.
The young, golden-haired prince of Rakor stood beside an easel in front of the windows, enthusiastically splashing a paintbrush across a large canvas. His sun-kissed face was speckled with paint, as was his yellow sleeping robe.
“Your Highness,” the Rala’kamil said formally. “I am Sebara. I have been assigned as your new bodyguard. It is my deepest honor to serve you.” She crossed her fists against her chest and bowed so low that the tip of her ponytail brushed the carpet.
The boy didn’t even glance toward her—his gaze was fixed on the painting.
“Your Highness,” Sebara tried again. “I am Sebara of the Rala’kamil. I have been assigned to …”
She trailed off. The prince seemed utterly oblivious to her presence.
Losing her patience, Sebara snapped, “Prince Trystan!”
She instantly regretted her harsh tone, but the boy just turned, stared at her for a few seconds, and then grinned.
“You must be Sebara!” he exclaimed. “Mother told me I was getting a new Rala’kamil today. It’s absolutely wonderful to meet you!”
“I … you as well,” Sebara said awkwardly. “Your Highness, the emperor has requested your presence in the throne room. We should leave immediately.”
“Yes, yes, right away,” the boy said. “But first you have to see my masterpiece!” He beckoned her toward him with his paint brush. “I’m very proud of it, and no one else besides Mother has been interested in looking at it.”
Sebara had a strong feeling he wouldn’t take a single step toward the throne room until she looked at his painting. Sighing inwardly, she strode over to the easel.
When she reached Trystan, he tilted his head and stared intently up at her face. “You have lovely eyes,” he said. “They’re as dark as shadow opals, and look as if they hold as many secrets as the sky holds stars.”
“You’re welcome!” The prince turned back toward the easel and jabbed his paintbrush at the canvas. “What do you think?”
Sebara stared at the painting. The abstract swirls of color were meaningless to her, although she did find them surprisingly pleasing to the eye. “What is it supposed to be?” she asked.
Trystan threw his hands in the air, nearly knocking over the easel. “I am attempting to capture the soul—nay, the very essence—of Rakor itself!”
“The essence of Rakor is a bit … chaotic.”
He laughed. “My mother says life is chaos. Things are always swirling and changing, no matter how hard you try to keep them in place.”
“I’ll be sure to keep that in mind, Your Highness.”
“Good,” Trystan said, smiling. “I can tell we’re going to get along splendidly, Sebara.”
She bowed. “As you say, my prince.”
“My last Rala’kamil wasn’t nearly as nice as you,” the boy continued. “She would never look at my paintings. She wouldn’t listen to my poetry either. In fact, she barely even said a word to me.” Lowering his voice confidentially, he added, “I think it was the Wokzmar incident that pushed her over the edge and made her ask for reassignment.”
“What happened?” Sebara asked, curious to find out what the prince had done to drive away his former bodyguard.
Trystan blinked. “Wait, you actually want to hear the story?”
“I wouldn’t have asked if I didn’t want to know.”
“We are most certainly going to get along,” the prince proclaimed, bouncing on the balls of his feet. “Okay, well, as you probably know, the dictator of Wokzmar—Kzagmar the Lesser—visited a few weeks ago.”
Sebara nodded. “I remember passing him in the halls. He was … fearsome.”
Trystan laughed. “If by ‘fearsome’ you mean huge, hulking, and hairy, with talons longer than my hands, then yes, that’s who I’m talking about. Anyway, Father was holding a departure banquet for Kzagmar before he returned to his home planet. During the banquet, Mother made a particularly amusing joke in which she compared the Tetrarchy High Council to a troop of snitzni monkeys, and I laughed. Unfortunately, I laughed while the dictator was talking, which is apparently a horrible insult in Wokzmarian culture. So he challenged me to a duel to the death.”
“You fought him?” Sebara demanded.
Trystan shuddered. “Of course not! Violence appalls me. I have no interest in hurting anyone.”
It appears the rumors were right, Sebara thought. He is little more than a soft-hearted child. Kari save Rakor if this boy ever sits on the imperial throne. Putting her glum thoughts aside, she asked, “How did you avoid the duel?”
“Mother had the dictator thrown out of the palace. Actually, first she tried to have the sun priests burn him on their sacrificial pyre, but Father said he needed him alive for trade reasons.” Trystan stared down at his paint-stained hands. “That wasn’t the end of it, though. Father was furious with me. He said I had disgraced both him and the empire by refusing to duel.”
Although Sebara had no idea how to relate to the boy’s bewildering dislike of violence, she understood the shame of disappointing one’s father. On the day she’d left home to join the Rala’kamil, her own father had condemned her choice and accused her of abandoning her duty to her family. They hadn’t spoken a word to each other in three years.
“It is my opinion,” she said, “that sometimes children must risk their parents’ disapproval in order to do what is right for them.”
Trystan’s eyes widened. “I feel the same way. You’re very wise, Sebara.”
“If you say so, my prince.”
“I do say so,” he declared. The boy took a deep breath, released it, then said, “Right! Enough melancholy for one morning. You wait here while I get dressed, and we’ll hurry to the throne room. No point in upsetting Father any more than I already have.”
The prince disappeared through a door at the end of the sitting room, leaving Sebara standing beside the easel, her head spinning from his mercurial moods. What a strange boy, she thought.
While awaiting his return, Sebara re-examined the painting. It’s really not bad, she thought, smiling slightly as she hovered her fingers over the colorful swirls. I still maintain it looks nothing like the essence of Rakor, though.
She strode over to a large gilt table overflowing with sketches and canvases, and surveyed the prince’s artwork. These are surprisingly good. If only princes were supposed to spend their time on meaningless pursuits like art, instead of doing more important things like learning how to fight and how to rule …
Just as Sebara was admiring a beautiful sketch of two Rakorsian girls sitting by a fountain holding hands, Trystan returned. The boy was now outfitted in lavish crimson and gold robes, complete with ceremonial golden shoulder spikes.
“How do I look?” he asked, wriggling his shoulders uncomfortably under the thick fabric.
“Like a prince of Rakor,” Sebara said truthfully.
She waited for him to lead the way, but Trystan looked expectantly to her, so Sebara shrugged and proceeded out the doors with the boy at her heels. The Skin Slicers sank into deep bows as Sebara and Trystan walked past.
“Your Highness,” the guards murmured in unison.
Trystan waved a hand distractedly at them as he said to Sebara, “You know, I’ve never understood why everyone calls me ‘highness.’ Is there someone out there who’s a ‘lowness?’ Not to mention Rakor is an overwhelmingly flat planet, being mostly covered in desert. There really aren’t very many high places. Except the sand dunes, I suppose. And there are a few mountain ranges over on the eastern—”
“Perhaps we might discuss this at a later time, my prince?” Sebara suggested. “Preferably when we are not late for an appointment with the emperor?”
“Excellent idea, Sebara,” Trystan said, tugging at one of his shoulder spikes so it stopped scratching his neck.
They walked quickly through the ornate palace corridors, past soaring stone arches, twisting columns, and sapphire pools in sunny courtyards. Servants and planetary governors alike bowed deeply when the prince approached, and whispered behind his back after he had passed.
Finally, they turned a corner and entered the throne room’s antechamber, where grandiose golden doors—flanked by a pair of Skin Slicers—were set into a wall carved with images depicting several thousand years of Rakor’s bloody imperial history.
“My name will be up there one day,” Trystan murmured, gazing at the wall. “Assuming my brother stays in exile and Father names me his successor, of course.” He shuddered, as if the idea of being named heir to the throne of Rakor would be a horrible fate.
Then Trystan stopped mid-stride, gasped in delight, and fell to his hands and knees on the stone floor. One of the Skin Slicers coughed, as if fighting back a laugh.
“What are you doing, Prince Trystan?” Sebara whispered, flushing red with embarrassment.
Trystan traced his finger along a golden vein in the red stone floor. “I had no idea they replaced the quartzine in here for Machura marble!” he enthused. Pressing his ear to the floor, he added, “They say you can hear the song of the universe in Machura marble if you listen closely enough.”
The other Skin Slicer snorted.
“Please get up, Your Highness!” Sebara begged.
The boy showed no signs of moving. So Sebara crouched down, grabbed his arm, and hauled him upright.
Trystan gaped down at her hand on his arm, then up at her. “Are you allowed to grab me?” he asked.
“Yes,” Sebara said, hoping that if she said it confidently enough, she would make it true. Releasing his arm, she added, “Shall we continue into the throne room? The emperor is waiting.”
Trystan grimaced, then reluctantly started walking toward the golden doors, which swung open at his approach. He led the way inside, with Sebara trailing a few respectful steps behind.
They started the long walk toward the throne, passing through a forest of forty-foot-high, intricately carved stone pillars supporting the coffered metal roof high above their heads. If the architect was attempting to make visitors feel tiny and insignificant, he did an excellent job, Sebara thought nervously.
As they passed the fifth pair of smoking braziers, a deep voice boomed from the dais at the far end of the room: “And so my worthless son finally slinks into my presence!”
Sebara looked toward the dais. She had previously only seen the emperor at a distance, either on the news or when he gave speeches from his balcony. Close up, Ka’zarel Gara’dar cut an imposing figure, standing tall in front of his golden throne wearing lavish crimson robes, a sun-shaped crown, and a dark scowl.
Trystan stumbled to a halt. “Father, I apologize for—”
“You dare address me from so far away?” the emperor demanded, his gray eyes flashing. “Come here!”
Trystan and Sebara hurried to the end of the carpet. When they reached the steps to the dais, they stopped, crossed their arms against their chests, and bowed deeply.
“Better,” Ka’zarel snapped. “Rise.” The emperor’s gaze flickered to Sebara, then fixed upon his son. “Now you may speak.”
“I apologize for making you wait, Father,” Trystan said, his eyes downcast. “I was … preoccupied.”
“Of course you were,” the emperor said, sneering. “Luckily for you, the subject of this audience is the more unsatisfactory of my two offspring—which, at present, is your brother. Although I have every confidence you will find some way to surpass Varrin again. You are, if nothing else, consistent in being a staggering disappointment to me.”
“Yes, Father. Sorry, Father.”
“Look at me when I talk to you!”
Trystan hastily looked up at his father, balling his fists at his sides. The golden spikes on his shoulders quivered.
“You are spineless,” the emperor proclaimed, his upper lip curling in disdain. “If only you had your brother’s courage, and he your obedience.” Ka’zarel took a step back, sat on his throne, and barked, “Fino’jin!”
A tall, muscular, middle-aged man with a rough-hewn face covered in unsightly scars stepped out from behind a pillar. Sebara knew the commander of the Skin Slicers by reputation only—a peerless warrior and a fearless leader, possessing an almost fanatical devotion to the emperor. Like all Skin Slicers, Fino’jin wore red and gold armor, and the hilt of an electrified longsword gleamed over his shoulder.
Fino’jin clomped over to join Sebara and Trystan in front of the throne. Crossing his fists against his chest, he bowed swiftly to the emperor and said in a gravelly voice, “I live to serve.”
Ka’zarel nodded, then returned his attention to Trystan. “Fino’jin tells me your brother has recently lost his mind,” the emperor said. “It was bad enough when he was flying around the galaxy as a lawless mercenary, but now he has supposedly allied with a Ssrisk and a terrestrial!”
“A particularly devious terrestrial, my lord,” Fino’jin said. “She has poisoned your son against you. Every day he spends with her is a day he drifts further from your grasp.”
The emperor’s knuckles turned white as his hands tightened on the throne’s gilded arms. His eyes still on Trystan, Ka’zarel said, “Fino’jin’s report has led me to realize I have left this matter unattended for long enough.”
“What matter is that, Father?” the boy asked cautiously.
“I need an heir. Varrin is smart, strong, and courageous—everything you are not. But he is out of control and beyond my reach. Which is why I am tasking you with a mission: find your brother and return him to Rakor.”
Sebara realized she was gaping at the emperor, and hastily averted her eyes.
“How am I supposed to find him?” Trystan asked helplessly. “I’ve never even left the palace! I have no idea how to track someone across a cactus garden, let alone across an entire galaxy.”
“I am well aware of your incompetence,” the emperor said. “That is why Fino’jin will be assisting you.” He glanced at the scarred Skin Slicer. “Tell my son about the shuttle.”
Fino’jin fixed Trystan with a sharp look. “After ex-Admiral Kratis flew his battle cruiser into Tetrarchy-protected space and got himself killed, Prince Varrin stole a shuttle from Kratis’s ship and escaped. Since the shuttle is Rakorsian, I can track it. It should lead us straight to your brother.”
“Once you locate Varrin,” Ka’zarel said, “you will convince him to come home.”
“I will?” Trystan squeaked.
“Don’t interrupt! You are always tormenting me with your flowery turns of phrase—use them on your brother instead. Perhaps you can succeed where that fool Kratis failed.”
“And if I can’t?”
“Even if you fail,” the emperor said, “at the very least it will get you out of the palace and away from the empress’s coddling. Perhaps the vacuum of space will awaken your masculinity in a way the oases of Rakor clearly cannot.” Ka’zarel clapped his hands once, sharply. “Report to the royal spaceport. You lift off in an hour. Now get out of my sight.”
The boy flinched. Then he bobbed his head, turned, and hurried back down the long carpet. Sebara bowed to the emperor and strode quickly after Trystan. As soon as the prince and his bodyguard crossed the threshold, the golden doors slammed shut behind them.
Trystan instantly bent over, hands on his knees as he gasped for breath. Sebara felt like doing the same, but knew the Skin Slicers flanking the doors were watching them. “Your Highness,” she said quietly. “Perhaps you might prefer having your panic attack in a more secluded area?”
He nodded and straightened. They hurried from the antechamber and stopped in the first empty corridor they found. The boy slumped back against a stone pillar and clapped a hand over his face. “How in Kari’s name am I supposed to convince my brother to come back to Rakor?” he moaned. “I was eight years old when he left! What if he doesn’t recognize me? What if he does recognize me, but still doesn’t want to listen? What if …”
Sebara blocked out his rambling—she was busy trying to come to terms with the abrupt new trajectory her life had taken. I knew protecting the prince wouldn’t be an easy task, but I never expected to be sent off on a secret mission to recapture the lost crown prince on my first day!
Trystan suddenly dropped his hand from his face and stared wide-eyed at Sebara. “What if Varrin tries to kill me? I know they say blood is the strongest bond, but technically we’re only half-brothers!”
Sebara took a deep breath and straightened her shoulders. “Your brother is not going to kill you,” she said firmly.
Trystan’s blue eyes widened with hope. “He’s not?”
“No. Because if he tried, I would stop him. I have sworn my life to protect you, Prince Trystan, and I will not fail you.”
“But what if Varrin kills you first?”
“Commander Fino’jin would protect you.”
“What if he kills you and Fino’jin?”
A muscle twitched in Sebara’s jaw. “Then I would suggest you run as fast as you can in the opposite direction, and hope your brother’s aim is off that day.”
Chasing Nonconformity comes out this Friday! Mark your calendars!