Here's your friendly reminder of the release dates for At the Feet of the Sun. We're getting very close--less than three weeks to go! Chapter Three is below! If you missed, them, you can find Chapter One and Chapter Two on the two previous blog posts.
Early release if you buy directly from me (all ebook formats): November 21st, 2022
General release: December 1st, 2022. Preorder is now available on Amazon, with the rest of the vendors following soon.
Please note these are both for the ebook! Print formats do not have pre-orders available, but will be available to buy on these release dates.
(Haven't read THE HANDS OF THE EMPEROR yet? Get it here!)
AT THE FEET OF THE SUN (Lays of the Hearth-Fire #2)
Cliopher Mdang has been appointed Viceroy of Zunidh by his beloved Radiancy, the Last Emperor, who has now left him behind in the Palace to safeguard the world during his absence on a quest to find an appropriately magical heir. When he returns, he will abdicate, and Cliopher will at last retire, satisfied with having achieved most of his life's political goals--even if his long-suppressed personal dreams are starting to bubble up.
(Surely he used to have hobbies besides running the government?)
All he has to do is wait patiently for his lord's return... until adventure quite literally hits him from behind, and what was once safely hypothetical becomes intensely real.
Cliopher has always followed the stars of his chosen course: the epic oral histories of his people, the poetry of the rebel poet Fitzroy Angursell, decades of devotion and service to his Radiancy... They were enough to change the world. But are they enough to guide Cliopher home?
With all that practical stuff out of the way, here's the fun part: A sneak peek at Chapter THREE! (PS These are pre-copyediting, so thanks to those who have pointed out typos!)
A New Ocean
It was one of the best conversations Cliopher had had in a very long while—perhaps one of the best he had ever had. Aioru had never been shy about telling him ideas, which Cliopher in any case had often solicited from him as well as others in his various departments, but there was a difference between the diffident suggestion for a tweak, and … this.
This was the vision Aioru unfolded for him of what the world could be.
Cliopher listened, rapt, at points, and at others found himself leaning forward, asking question after question, following up hints and suggestions and trains of thought. Aioru answered hesitantly at first, a little bashfully, until at one point he said, “Sir, are you sure this isn’t—too much?”
“Too much?” Cliopher laughed: of course he laughed, loud and heartily, such as he very rarely laughed in the Palace. “Oh, Aioru, this is splendid!”
Aioru had spent most of the past half hour, if time had any meaning—Cliopher had certainly not been paying very much attention—explaining all the problems with the justice system as it currently stood, and how reparative justice was far better than retributive. He was from a very harsh environment: it was rare for the community to decide to send someone out alone into the desert, and much more common and critically important to work out how to restore the broken lines snapped by the crime.
Cliopher wished … not that he’d thought of it, because he would not have come up with this, but that he’d been able to begin thinking about it.
There had been other things to do, first. So many things.
“I’m going against what you’ve done,” Aioru said doubtfully. “You’re not … angry? Or no, angry isn’t the right word … upset?”
He felt a twinge of regret. Chagrin, even. But only a twinge, because he had done his best. He had. And it was because of what he had done that Aioru could do this: and that was a legacy he could be proud of. He smiled at Aioru.
“I have recently come back from a tour of all the principalities as supreme judge. I am absolutely not upset that you have some better ideas.”
“I don’t want you to think I don’t appreciate what you’ve done, sir.”
Cliopher forced himself to sit back, take a breath, listen to what Aioru was saying and not saying. He sought out a metaphor to explain his views.
As they always did, the Lays provided him with a guide.
“We have patterns in our histories,” Cliopher said. “It is the Islander tradition to look to those who came before to show the way to those who came after. One of the patterns in the Lays concerns what happens when a chief or a lore-holder hands over the primary duties to those who come after.”
“And what do your patterns say?” Aioru asked, peering down into his tea cup as if it held answers. Cliopher waited, for it seemed as if the young man had something else to say; finally, Aioru added, “In our stories that does not always go well.”
Nor did it in the historical record of Astandalas, and it had been known to be a bit precarious, this handing-over of power, in Solaara since the Fall.
Over and over again, the Lays told a story—of the gods, perhaps, and those other beings who peopled Sky Ocean—and then told it again, this time as exemplified by the great mythic heroes of the legendary past—and then again, as one or another historical human being looked to the Lays to guide their actions and dance the same pattern once more, in a new way.
“It’s a very important pattern, in the Lays—the Lays of the Wide Seas. Two stories speak to me. One.” He lifted his hand, and brought the efetana out from where it had lain hidden by the collar of his robes. “This is the efetana, fire coral, to represent that I am the tanà.”
“You Hold the Fire.”
“Yes.” When he had started giving Aioru more responsibilities, he had spoken about that position and how it related to his understanding of his work in the Service. He could see, looking at Aioru now, that he was also remembering that conversation.
Indeed, Aioru did not wait for him to go on. He said, “You said that your duty—no, not duty—your calling was to light and tend fires, and also …” His shoulders relaxed, and he smiled shyly. “And also to teach others to light them and tend them.”
“Ember to ember, I pass down the fire that was given to me. Each fire new, each fire old.”
Aioru blinked hard for a moment. “And the other pattern?”
“This comes from … every story, practically. My people, the Wide Seas Islanders, were great voyagers—we sailed across the Wide Seas, finding new islands, naming them, settling them. That pattern is a fundamental one: the idea that there might come a time when you go looking for a new island.”
Cliopher was a little surprised to realize his own hands were trembling. He would have thought the fire analogy …
But it was this story that made his hands tremble and his heart thud in his throat.
“The other pattern is to acknowledge that there comes a time when it is time for someone to leave the island you have settled and find a new one.”
Aioru set his tea cup down sharply. It clacked on its saucer. “Sir.”
Cliopher met his eyes squarely. He was not able to smile, but he hoped it was as obvious in his eyes as it was in his heart that he meant every word of this. “Aioru, I have brought us to this island. Now it is time for you to look out at the horizon and seek a new one. I built the ship that brought us here, but it is not necessarily the ship that will take you to the next. No. I am not upset to hear your thoughts. I am proud.”
Aioru’s voice trailed off. They looked at each other for a long, intent moment, and then Aioru flushed and he murmured a long passage in his own language. Cliopher waited, listening to the unfamiliar rhythm of sounds and tones, and it came to him with a sudden, confusing shock, that even as he had waited for Aioru to be ready to claim this fulness of his vocation, so too those at home must have been waiting for Cliopher.
For a moment he felt as if the wind had thrown him back against the mast.
It was a sailing term, being taken aback. Not something that happened on Islander boats, with their triangular or claw-shaped sails, but something he had experienced once, on a square-rigged Astandalan ship.
When he was a young man, full of dreams and ideals, certain of his course, he had worked his passage from the Vangavaye-ve to Kavanor. He had sailed on one of Astandalas’s huge lumbering trading ships, with acres of sails and an isolation from the sea against the hull, the wind in the rigging. Cliopher had not liked the ship, nor most of the crew, but he had done his best.
Cliopher had been young, and fearless—reckless, even. He’d had the voices of his Varga cousins in his ears, laughing at him for being too safety-conscious, too timid.
He was the only one who had decided to go to Astandalas, to leave the expansiveness of the Wide Seas, familiar from their Lays if not from their own experiences. Looking back on it now, he could see how his Varga cousins had been jealous of his daring, shamed by their own refusal to go so far, take such a risk. But at the time …
Oh, at the time he had heard only the jeers and the laughter, and so when he climbed high up in the rigging of those Astandalan ships, he had eschewed any sop to prudence.
He had, understandably, been given the worst jobs, the most dangerous and vertiginous.
He had not had a rope around his waist when the ship was taken aback.
He was on the bare mast leading up above even the crow’s-nest look-out, reaching up to the magic-lantern on its peak, when the contrary wind caught the front of the sails and pushed them back against the masts.
The whole ship had shaken and juddered and groaned as it came to a ferociously unpleasant and unnatural halt in the water.
Half the crew had fallen over; at least one had fallen overboard.
Cliopher had not fallen. He had been watching that shadow, that ruffle across the face of the sea, and he had held onto the loops that held the magic lantern in place, and he had been shaken to the roots of his soul, but he had not been thrown off.
Someone always leaves, Buru Tovo had told Cliopher when he’d asked him for stories about Elonoa’a.
But why did they go? the young Kip had asked him, listening to the full cycle of the Lays over and over again, worrying at the stories of Elonoa’a and his crew on the He’eanka and that strange story of Elonoa’a’s dear friend, the Emperor Aurelius Magnus, who had been stolen by the Sun. Whom Elonoa’a had gone seeking after, in that ship that became the comet, the wandering star, the He’eanka.
You tell me, Buru Tovo had said, settling in to whatever task they were undertaking.
I will go one day, Kip had declared, though no one had gone very far, not in his family. I will find out.
And who will you be?
Another question that had echoed in his heart, down all the years since then.
I will be as the third son of Vonou’a, he had declared proudly to Buru Tovo and to anyone who would listen. I will sit at the feet of the Sun.
What will you bring home?
He’d been unable to answer anything beyond A new fire, of course!—for the third son of Vonou’a had gone to the House of the Sun and brought home fire, the first flame of that same fire Cliopher had learned to light, and the lore and the Lays that were the fire of culture he had tended his whole life long.
When he had met that old man, that odd seller of shells, that god, in the market on Lesuia, the efelauni—for there were enough stories of such odd, god-touched shell-merchants around the Ring, that they had their own name—the efelauni had challenged him with the questions from the Lays, and asked him also that same question that had been ringing in Cliopher’s ears since the first time he had heard Buru Tovo ask it.
What will you bring home from the House of the Sun?
A new life for the hearth of the world, Cliopher had said that time, and thereby won an efela of forty-nine sundrop cowries, the efela nai, and the weight of legend.
Well. He had brought the fire home. He would be a poor tanà if he did not share it.
Aioru stopped his recitation, and lifted his head. He had tears standing in his eyes, and he very carefully and cautiously set the tea cup and saucer on the side table before he set his hands flat on his knees.
They sat there, looking at each other, not saying anything, until Aioru leaned forward and said, “In that case, then, sir, I should like to suggest we entirely separate the auditing department from the government. You should not have been doing that, sir, and I certainly ought not! The Lord Emperor should not have let you do it—it is a clear conflict of interest.”
For a moment Cliopher could only sit there, stunned.
And then he sat up, all the way up, let go of anything resembling professional distance and decorum, rallied himself for a real discussion, grinned in what was probably a somewhat feral manner, and said, “Go on. Tell me more.”
And so Aioru did: all the way until the noon bell rang and Tully knocked on the door and said, “Sir—sorry to interrupt—the Ouranatha.”
Aioru stopped, a little embarrassed at his enthusiasm now that he’d been interrupted. Cliopher laughed and clapped his hand on the other man’s shoulder as he stood and gathered himself together for this meeting. “You don’t need to come to this one,” he said. “We’ll hardly be finishing the budget today. I’ll see you at the Council of Princes meeting this afternoon.”
“Yes, sir.” Aioru hesitated; Cliopher turned back from the door, enquiringly. “Sir—how—that is, when does this become official?”
One of the things Aioru had pointed out was the obscenely vast amount of power Cliopher currently wielded, given that he was both Viceroy and also still Lord Chancellor and thus head of the Imperial Service.
He considered the general protocol for such things. “Do you have a preference? I believe we should give unofficial notice to the various pillars of government today, then make an official pronouncement to the Private Offices—if you’d like to tell them unofficially now, please do so. We’ll have to meet with the person you want to succeed you as Minister of the Common Weal, as well. Perhaps you can arrange that while I’m with the Ouranatha.”
“Whom you should not leave waiting,” Aioru said, grinning at him suddenly. “The princes won’t be over-pleased that you tell the Ouranatha first. Good politics, sir.”
“Thank you,” said Cliopher, smiling back, quite as if they’d planned it.
Inside the council chamber the nine Elders of the Ouranatha were gathered around an oval table. They had left the seat at one end for him; his secretaries and their various attendants were settled at tables to the side.
Cliopher swept in and gave them a courteous partial bow. The Ouranatha was the collective name for the upper college of the priest-wizards, who as a body were one of the five pillars of the government. The Elders were theoretically equivalent to the Council of Princes and the High Command of the Imperial Guard, and thus while a step down from Cliopher’s current position, only that step down.
“My apologies for my tardiness,” he said as the Elders returned his greeting. “I was meeting with my successor to the chancellorship. Please, sit down.”
They all did so except for the Elder opposite Cliopher, who remained standing.
Cliopher inclined his head in their direction. “Would you like to speak first, Elder?”
“Thank you.” The Elder’s voice was a mellow contralto. The Ouranatha wore a uniform of loose, floor-length robes in a deep, somber grey, with hooded mantles in silvery grey overtop. The Elders added carved metal masks. Cliopher found the intricate silver masks eerie; he was secretly grateful he had very little to do with the Ouranatha, generally speaking. Even this year without his Radiancy, who was the highest priest and chief wizard of the world, he had managed to keep to only the ordinary meetings and status reports. The Mother of the Abbey of the Mountains, a wizard from Old Damara, was seeing to any magical problems, none of which had been serious enough to involve Cliopher at any level beyond reading reports.
Even better—for to become the Viceroy had required an excessive number of ceremonies of purification, which had been onerous—he didn’t even have anything to do with the two chief priest-wizards. They were busy with the rituals and ceremonials of their calling, which did not, thankfully, involve him. Thankfully, the preparations for his Radiancy’s abdication and the coronation of his successor (whenever he returned with one—but Cliopher could not begrudge his lord this adventure) had not yet required Cliopher’s involvement.
“I hope there is nothing amiss with the magic of the world?” he enquired politely, when it appeared nothing more would be forthcoming.
The Elder opposite shook their head. “No. All is well. All waits, but patiently.”
“I am glad to hear that.”
He waited again (if less patiently than the world according to the Ouranatha). His papers were in a neat stack before him, outlines of arguments regarding the Ouranatha’s annual budget. They would not get through it today—they never did—but he did need to ensure he had more or less aligned their priorities with his when it came to finances. Even workers of magic had to obey certain fundamental laws of economics.
The Elders regarded him through their masks, a circle of near-identical figures. Cliopher was reminded of shamans back home, and refused to shudder at the thought. He had had little to do with the shamans, either, except for a few encounters as a youth when he had studied the old ways with his great-uncle. The Mdangs Held the Fire, but his great-uncle had felt he should know the basic studies of each of the great lore-keeping lineages.
The Ela, Those Who Went Furthest, adopted anyone interested in shamanism into their lineage. It was a little surprising that none of Cliopher’s fifty-nine cousins had been so inclined, actually.
And still the Elders of the Ouranatha said nothing. Cliopher kept his eyes up and his posture and expression patient and attentive, and ran through his arguments about their budget in his mind.
“Did you go to see the comet last night?” the Elder said at last, sitting down.
This was so far from the question of the amount needed to maintain their buildings in the city that for a moment Cliopher could only blink in surprise. After a moment he collected himself. “Yes, I did,” he replied, and then, when the silence seemed expectant, added, “Thank you for letting me know about it. I’m afraid I have been far from attentive to Sky Ocean of late.”
The silence took on a strange crystalline quality.
Cliopher caught his breath, unsure, but he refused to be embarrassed for using the names he had grown up with, for calling the stars according to his people’s traditions.
The Elders almost certainly thought him an overweening barbarian (other members of the court had never shied away from saying so), but Cliopher was the duly appointed and ceremoniously anointed Viceroy of Zunidh, and out of respect for their own traditions and for his Radiancy if not for himself they would keep their opinions to themselves.
The Elder opposite leaned forward slightly. Their mask gleamed in the lights illuminating the room. “And where was the comet, when you saw it?”
This was a long way from the budget, and Cliopher was well aware that the Ouranatha had insisted that the meeting fall between noon and the first hour, and only noon and the first hour, that day. Still, they were priest-wizards, and that meant their priorities were different than his.
Perhaps if he gave them this they would be more inclined to give him some leeway there.
He repressed a sigh and instead nodded politely, but his irritation came out in the defiant use of Islander names. “I do not know your name for the constellation. My people call it the Fisherman, and the comet, whose name we say is He’eanka, was near his heart, with its nose pointing into the Lulai’aviyë, what you call the River of Stars, over the Palace and towards my home island.”
A very soft murmur ran around the table, with the Elders nodding to themselves as if in confirmation of something. Cliopher held himself in his court poise despite his unease.
“Can you name many stars in Shaian?” the same Elder asked him.
“I have never studied them,” Cliopher replied.
“And in your own language?”
It was rare, even for a hinterland tribesman—which Cliopher, for all that his family were solidly middle-class urban professionals, nevertheless was—to admit they had kept use of their own language instead of the Empire’s Shaian.
Even without the strange effects of the Fall of Astandalas on the flow of time, it had been nearly two thousand years since the Vangavaye-ve joined the Empire, and admittedly it was only those out along the Outer Ring who grew up with it as their primary language. Cliopher himself had only gained fluency as a teenager, sitting at his great-uncle’s feet.
Well. If they wanted him to answer according to his traditions, by the gods he would answer in terms of his people’s traditions.
“I am not Nga,” he said, smiling but serious. “I do not Name the Stars; I am a Mdang, and I Hold the Fire. My knowledge is, you might say, practical. I know the Sixteen Bright Guides and the forty constellations of the year, and the rising and the setting of the stars whose paths mark the islands it was necessary for me to know.”
Loaloa, his ancestral island, was one of the boundary islands of the Western Ring. He had been able to stand at the Leaping-Place, where the spirits went to join the ancestors in the ancient homeland after their sojourn on the island of the dead, and name each star-path leading to every major island of the Ring and also the major islands and archipelagos across the Wide Seas.
He could draw up the images in his mind’s eye even now; even if he wondered how accurate he would be. The traditional knowledge lay quietly in the back of his mind, parallel and distinct from the trained memory and habits of thought of a career bureaucrat. One focused on writing and numbers and organized paperwork, the other on the oral recitation of ancient songs and the physical embodiments of knowledge in dance and design.
Yet when he danced each morning, the songs came to his lips, and the steps to his feet, and the words were in language, not in Shaian.
The Elder said, “And where is your island, your excellency?”
Cliopher gave them a long look, then raised his hand and pointed behind him and to the right in the direction of home, which he kept in a corner of his mind.
It was a matter of pride to any Islander raised in the old ways that they always knew where their island was.
He had lost his way, a few times. Typhoons had blown him off course, when he had sailed home across the Wide Seas in the strange years after the Fall. He had never felt so entirely bewildered as the first time he had washed up on an island after capsizing and realized that in the tumult and terror of the storm he had lost himself. His island was gone, and it was not until he had finally cracked the riddle of the fire dance and been able to place himself in the Wide Seas again that he had been able to reorient himself.
And then in the next storm he had once again lost it, and again and again.
But he had found his way in the end, and since then—however tenuous the intimation, however much he had consciously ignored it—he had never quite lost his sense of home.
His silent, confident gesture caused another susurrus of murmuring, the Elders turning to each other in pairs. Only the Elder at the far end, opposite him, sat unmoving. Cliopher felt distinctly perturbed by this. Just what had the wizard-priests been up to?
“Lord Mdang,” the Elder said, “you have always been respectful to us. Your traditions are not our traditions; your gods are not our gods; your stars are not our stars. A comet comes and goes and crosses above the paths of many men and women, many lands and many peoples. It can be read in many ways.”
They paused there, glancing around, if the movement of the mask was anything to judge by, at the other Elders. One after another nodded meaningfully. At length the Elder who had spoken turned to face Cliopher squarely.
“Lord Mdang, you mentioned your successor?”
“Yes,” he said, as if this was not new. (It was not: he had been nurturing Aioru towards this eventual point for years.) “Aioru of the Kallarrahroo will be taking on the position of chancellor.”
Another pause; another silent regard; another circle of masked faces nodding one after the other. Cliopher felt the hair on the back of his neck rise.
“Lord Mdang,” the Elder said a third time. “This comet means many things to many people. It heralds change to us all. No surprise there when it is the year that the old order changes to a new one, when the Lord Emperor returns with his heir, when you hand over your authority. May we ask what it means in your tradition?”
He said, “It is said to be the ship of Elonoa’a, last of the Paramount Chiefs before the coming of the Empire, ally and comrade and great friend of the Emperor Aurelius Magnus. It is said that when Aurelius Magnus went to the House of the Sun, his friend Elonoa’a took ship with a crew from the Vangavaye-ve and went to find him. Since then they have sailed across Sky Ocean on their quest. When the comet becomes visible it is said that Elonoa’a is searching in our quarter of the sky. Whether he found Aurelius Magnus or not our stories do not say.”
The Elders nodded again. The one at the end said, “According to all our readings, in the bones and the smoke and the ink on water, in the hands of the casters and the dreams of the dream-walkers and the visions of the seers, the comet has come for you.”
Cliopher stared at them, nonplussed.
They, being priest-wizards and therefore delighting in ambiguity and rendering their audience disquieted, waited silently for him to absorb this.
Finally he came up with, “I thank you for the message, although I do not know how I can be of such interest to the gods.”
All the stories said it was a very dangerous thing, to be of such interest to the gods.
He hoped he didn’t blanch too obviously at the thought. They didn’t say anything, so he went on. “With regards to the budget—”
“We accept it,” said the Elder at the end of the table, with an airy wave of their hand. “There is a total eclipse of the Sun that will fall on the tenth day of the tenth month of next year, the thousandth of Artorin Damara’s reign according to the ledgers we have kept. This is the date set by the heavens for the abdication of his Radiancy, the Sun-on-Earth. We will present the tables of ceremonies to your offices soon, your excellency.”
“Ah, thank you,” he managed. “And … are you willing to sign off on the proposed budget?”
“Yes, yes,” the Elder said, gesturing at one of their own attendants, who hastened over to Cliopher with a stack of papers, all already properly signed and sealed. “You understood that we would need more funds for the increased ceremonies this year, and we have no other points that need to be raised at this time.”
Cliopher flipped through the stack to see that the Ouranatha had, in fact, done what not a single other government body in his entire career had ever done, and accepted the first iteration of a budget.
“Lord Mdang,” said the Elder, as they all shifted as if wanting him to give them permission to depart.
He could barely form words out of his shock. “Yes, Elder?”
“The comet has come for you, but not only for you,” they said. “Remember that.”
The rest comes out on the 21st! Don't forget to order the book here if you haven't already. You're also very welcome to join the HOTE Support Group Discord for exclusive bonus content and real-time news and updates!