Here's your friendly reminder of the release dates for At the Feet of the Sun. Chapter Two is below! (Missed Chapter One?)
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 TWO!
‘Galaroo goygillarrah foh’
The morning after the comet, Cliopher had an unexpected appointment requested by Aioru.
He agreed to it, of course—Aioru was currently the Minister of the Public Weal, and of those Cliopher informally considered his apprentices in the way of governance and bureaucracy, the one he planned to succeed him—but he was puzzled that Aioru had given no reason for the request.
Tully, Cliopher’s appointments secretary, could give no further explanation either. “I’m sorry, sir,” she said. “It didn’t occur to me that he needed to give a reason.”
“He doesn’t,” Cliopher assured her, frowning at the terse “S. Aioru” on his schedule. “Did he say how long he thought the meeting would be?”
It was Cliopher’s practice to give a quarter-hour to meetings with no explicit purpose. If someone couldn’t say their piece in that time—if they couldn’t state their problem, at the very least—then it was unlikely the problem was ready to be resolved, and Cliopher could do best by helping them speak out some of their concerns and suggest ways to figure out what they really wanted.
A quarter-hour usually sufficed for this, whether it was at the open courts where anyone could come petition him for something, to a meeting with one of the princes who governed the world’s provinces.
Aioru knew that.
Cliopher felt, obscurely, that Aioru’s request for a meeting (not, he noted, an audience) was something of a puzzle.
A challenge, even.
Challenge-songs were threaded through his culture. He wasn’t sure about Aioru’s—the younger man was from inland Jilkano, and Cliopher did not know very much about his customs bar a handful of ideas Aioru had brought forth to the great work of restructuring the government—but then, did he need to be?
There was something here. Either Aioru wanted to resign, or—
It wasn’t as if Cliopher had kept it a secret that he considered Aioru a worthy potential successor.
“Clear the rest of my morning,” Cliopher said to Tully, setting down the appointments calendar. The other scheduled appointments were none of them urgent, and indeed most could probably be dealt with by his underlings in the Private Offices of the Lords of State.
“There’s the Ouranatha at noon,” Tully pointed out. “They insisted, sir.”
Cliopher carefully did not make a face. “Yes, and the Council of Princes after.”
Neither of those could be handed off, alas.
“I’ll move the rest,” Tully promised him, and he left her in the reception room and made his way through the warren of rooms that comprised the suite of the Lord of Zunidh, which was somehow Cliopher’s home.
House, anyway. Home was on the other side of the world.
Cliopher dealt with the morning’s reports, and then sat at his desk in his study and cleaned out his writing case. It had been a gift from his Radiancy, and held more than it should have been able to.
His Radiancy was a great mage, and the subtle magic of space and organization—nothing near as flashy as the infamous poet Fitzroy Angursell’s splendid and storied Bag of Unusual Capacity—had never failed.
Cliopher sorted through pens and brushes, inks and inkstand, rosewood-handled penknife (a gift from Ludvic) and perfectly-fitting inset folders (a gift from Rhodin). He refilled papers, envelopes, sealing wax, seals. Quills and metal nibs … all the tools of his trade.
There was a secret compartment on the back side of the case, where he kept a handful of notes from his Radiancy. Cliopher pulled them out, a little embarrassed at keeping them—it was not as if even the most informal were truly personal—and was surprised for a moment when his hand touched on a book.
He drew it out, wrinkling his nose when a waft of dust made him sneeze. Not all of Fitzroy Angursell’s poetry was banned—and Cliopher personally did not think any of it should be; even the most seditious was a truer commentary on the mechanisms and failures of government than practically any academic monograph—but it would not have been appropriate for him to display this particular book.
He flipped through the small volume, smiling at the familiar verses, the sketches of music, and imagined being no longer head of the government, and free to … well.
He’d already long since memorized all these songs and poems. They’d been welcome companions on long nights of hard work, cordial fuel to keep the embers of reform burning through the long years of dispiritingly incremental change.
Perhaps one day he’d be free to write his own monograph explaining just how invaluable these banned poems and songs had been for his most-lauded reforms. He slid the small volume back into place, or tried to: it caught on what turned out to be the only letter his Radiancy had so far sent after leaving on his quest.
Or at least, the only one that had so far arrived. From the witness of this letter, his Radiancy had crossed over to Alinor, and the postal system there was nowhere near as refined or effective as the one on Zunidh.
Cliopher pulled out the letter and carefully smoothed out the rumpled pages. It was a strange letter, evidently written in haste, and though informal, almost casual, it was not … it was still not personal.
My Lord Mdang, it began, and continued with an injunction to share the contents with Ludvic and Rhodin, the Commander of the Imperial Guard and deputy commander (and Imperial Spymaster), who were also two of the senior members of his Radiancy’s household, and Cliopher’s friends.
Cliopher had been glad to receive the letter from his Radiancy, glad at the sense of heady freedom in the swiftly written letters, the elliptical comments, the fleeting reference to a lead on a potential heir …
That was the purpose of his Radiancy’s quest, after all. And Cliopher was his Viceroy, the person he’d left in charge: he needed to know the progress of the search for an heir. So did Ludvic and Rhodin, and indeed he’d judiciously conveyed the information on to the Council of Princes and the Elders of the Ouranatha and other officials of the Service.
Cliopher had no cause to be disappointed that it was not, in fact, personal.
He put everything back into his writing kit, and turned his thoughts to what he would do if Aioru did not wish to stay on in the Service.
His glance went to the books of Protocols on one of the bookshelves. Protocols for disaster after disaster, everything Cliopher or his department had been able to think of, so that if something terrible happened there would be a ke’ea to follow.
He shook his head, smiling at himself. He’d noticed Islander words were coming more and more into his mind, even his vocabulary, as his thoughts were turning more and more towards home, towards what he would do when he was no longer Cliopher Lord Mdang, Viceroy of Zunidh and Hands of the Emperor, head of the Imperial Bureaucratic Service, acting head of state—but only everyone’s Cousin Kip, the rising tanà. The one who’d left.
He would be the one who came home, eventually. He had promised them—promised himself—that.
If Aioru wanted to resign or move laterally, Cliopher would manage. His government would manage.
The government would manage. Soon enough it would not be his.
Cliopher had come back from a whirlwind visit home via a long series of legal cases requiring him to act as supreme judge, and he was tired.
The day—not even a day, a night—at home had been splendid. He had wanted to take the occasion of his cousin Enya’s restaurant opening for a real visit, but the requirements of being Viceroy had gradually absorbed all of his planned holiday, and it had only been an accident that he’d been able to steal enough time to get to Gorjo City for a single, dreamlike night.
He was still not sure if it were the mad exhilaration of playing truant from his responsibilities that had led him to feeling, for the first time, as if he truly belonged, as if he had been accepted, as if his rank in the wider world had finally translated to some form of status at home. He had even been invited to sit with the uncles.
It had been wonderful, and it was not anywhere near enough.
And he knew, for it had always been the case before, that if he’d stayed longer—even three days—the bright perfection of that one evening would have faded, would have diminished, into something full of ordinary goods and ordinary complaints, and the business of ordinary life, and … well.
The truth was, he was almost ready for those, too. He wanted his mother to complain about his hair being too short and his clothes too fine; he wanted his aunts to gossip over his romantic relationships and lack thereof; he wanted to go to the pubs and cafés with his old friends; and he wanted his friends from Solaara to be there, too.
And … and he wanted some things that were still treasonous, even now.
At any rate, there was still work to be done here.
Cliopher was tired.
And … a day (a night) at home, an hour or two sitting with the uncles, still deferential because for all he was Viceroy of Zunidh, wearing court costume of ahalo cloth and pearls, he was, still, always, the one who left …
It had not been enough.
It had been enough for him to taste what home could be, once he retired. Once he stayed.
It had been painfully difficult to return to those heartrending, terrible trials, judging the worst of crimes and wondering if the people who committed them were truly the worst of people, wishing he had the energy to come up with a better justice system and knowing he did not.
That was a bitter mouthful to swallow. Being tired had never been reason to stop before.
But he was tired. He wanted to go home.
He wanted home. And he wanted people there who were not there, who could not be there, and he did not know what to do.
He had been entrusted with the world, with this fire at the heart of the Palace, and so he put on the robes of judgment and listened with all the intelligence and compassion he could to the plaintiffs and defendants, and he tried, he tried. His heart was sore, and he missed his Radiancy, and he felt guilty for missing him, for his Radiancy was free from the weight he had carried for more than half his lifetime, and surely Cliopher could bear it another handful of months.
And so he did what he always did: he set himself to the task before him, and performed it to the best of his abilities.
And if part of that task were to slowly and carefully unwind his multitude of positions and responsibilities and delegate them to others—
He felt guilty for his relief. He was not doing this to make his life easier, but because it was proper, better, right. His goal had never been to be king of the world. He was, in the customs of his people, the tanà, who was not the chief or the paramount chief, but to whom, when he spoke, the chiefs listened. He Held the Fire: he did not run from its burn.
Part of holding the fire was teaching others to light and tend their own, and whenever he felt guilty about handing over yet another aspect of his job to someone else, he reminded himself of that. It was not about him.
It was about all those who came after him and his Radiancy, who would not hold the entire weight of the world upon their shoulders.
He still felt guilty, whenever he realized he had another quarter-hour in his day that was no longer devoted to five different tasks.
Aioru came in at the third bell precisely. He had dressed up, in the finest version of the Upper Secretariat uniform; the only departure was the addition of a bracelet made of woven silk and wooden beads. He looked better in the deep ochre-brown robes that Cliopher ever had.
“Good morning, sir,” he said when he entered the office.
Cliopher regarded him for a long moment, noting the slight nervousness in his bearing, the cautious excitement in his dark eyes, the thick sheaf of papers in his hand. His own heart started to beat a little with anticipation. This did not seem as if Aioru were about to resign and go home.
“Good morning, Aioru,” he replied, and stood up from his desk. “Come with me.”
He led the younger man through the austere, elegant rooms he did not use until he landed in his private study. He had already told Franzel, his majordomo, to serve them with tea there, and the pot and cups were laid out on a table between two comfortable chairs. Aioru followed him with watchful, curious eyes.
“Sit down, please,” Cliopher invited him, gesturing at the second chair as he took his own. “Have you ever had tea before?”
“This type is usually taken with lemon. Some people like it with honey,” he told him, gesturing at the condiments. He poured the fragrant copper-hued beverage into the cups, dropping a thin slice of lemon into his own and half a teaspoon of clear honey. Aioru watched him carefully and then—Cliopher was very pleased to see—tasted his drink before adding the lemon.
In some ways, that indication that Aioru would think things through for himself was all he needed to know. But—
He still needed to be sure that Aioru wanted what Cliopher thought he did.
He smiled politely at the younger man. “To what do I owe the pleasure of this meeting?”
Aioru hesitated. Cliopher made sure his posture was relaxed, affable, approachable, respectful, and waited.
He waited, at ease with himself, listening to his heart beating with steady curiosity, rising hope. Cliopher had spent a long, long time learning how to sit like this, open to whatever came to him.
Look first, listen first, his Buru Tovo had taught him. Questions later.
He had discovered, over his years in the Service, how powerful that simple mantra was. Look first, listen first. Think for yourself, see what there is to be seen, hear what people say and do not say, look at what they do and what they do not do. And then ask whatever questions are necessary.
And thus, having asked his open-ended question, Cliopher asked no further leading ones. He waited to hear what Aioru would say.
And he watched what Aioru did.
Aioru sat there, sipping his tea, betraying his nerves by his slightly-too-wide eyes and his painfully upright posture. Aioru was no aristocrat, and had grown up in a squatting culture: he was comfortable with Solaaran furniture, of course, by this point, but he had been the champion of alternative desks from his earliest days in Cliopher’s offices.
That had been one of the first indications, to Cliopher, that this young man had a spark of something worth cherishing very carefully. For one thing, Aioru had been very young—if he did not mistake the matter, Aioru still held the record for the youngest successful application to the Imperial Service—and for him to have been confident enough in himself and his ideas to suggest desks that could be used standing or squatting?
Oh, Cliopher could remember the ache in own legs, the small of his back, when he had first gone to Astandalas and been confronted with sitting at a desk for all his working hours. When Cliopher was growing up, the schools at home in the Vangavaye-ve—even in Gorjo City—even at the University of the Wide Seas—had been strongly inclined towards squatting and sitting cross-legged on the floor.
He crossed his feet the other way, and Aioru took a deep breath, set down his tea cup, and said: “Lord Mdang, sir, I’d like to be considered for additional responsibilities.”
Brief, polite, and to the point. Cliopher approved.
He took another sip of his own tea. Aioru was clearly tense, but also solid, settled in this decision. Now that he had made his move in this conversational game, he waited, his hands folded in his lap so they would not tremble very obviously.
Cliopher had spent a long time observing those around him, and he had watched Aioru grow into himself as he grew into an adult, and he knew the younger man’s habits and tells.
Cliopher had been working to this point for more than half of his life. So had Aioru—he had been hardly sixteen when he joined the Service, and was now in his early thirties, with a lifetime ahead of him.
He savoured the moment, which hung there, as full of possibilities as that moment when you turned the sail to the wind but had not yet released the painter—and then he smiled with his full heart on Aioru, and said, “What part of my job did you want, exactly?”
Aioru blinked rapidly. His hands were tightly clenched upon each other, his knuckles nearly white. He had deep brown skin, and curly black hair he had been slowly growing out over the past year: it now stood in a three-inch cloud all around his head. “Sir,” he whispered.
Cliopher could not help himself, and laughed. “Come now, Aioru! We both know you’ve been working towards the chancellorship for as long as it’s existed as a position. If you’re ready—”
“Do you think I am, sir?”
“Do you think you are, Aioru?”
The question hung there. Cliopher held onto the rope, waiting—
Aioru lifted his chin and met his eyes. “Yes.”
—And let go.
His heart caught the wind and leapt forth, over the waves, into the open ocean. All his being seemed to say yes.
But he was not only the Islander who could jump into his canoe and sail across the lagoon when the mood took him. Cliopher had worked far too long and too hard to not be sure.
He was sure of Aioru’s skill and knowledge and ability and competence. But was he ready?
Cliopher had spent more than three-quarters of his life studying to be tanà, and it was only in the past few months, since his Radiancy had left on his quest for an heir and Cliopher had been left holding the world on his shoulders, this fire in his hand, that he had been absolutely certain that he was ready to go home and leave all this power and glory for the quieter, less visible responsibilities awaiting him there.
Aioru was watching him attentively.
He had been impatient, when he first came to the Service. Cliopher remembered sitting down with him, talking about looking first, listening first, questions later.
Aioru had not learned any of Cliopher’s dances, nor more than the handful of sayings from the Lays that Cliopher had chosen to share with his people here, but he knew almost everything else about being a tanà. Certainly more than Cliopher himself had, at thirty-two.
He’d been thirty-two when Astandalas fell. He’d thought he’d known so much, and he hadn’t.
Oh, it was a long time since then, and the world had changed.
Cliopher said, “Tell me a story about why you want this position.”
Aioru glanced at the sheaf of papers and then back up at him. “Sir …” But then he frowned slightly, and his face cleared. “You already know all my … official skills, of course.”
Cliopher waited, sipping his tea, while Aioru gathered his thoughts together. He’d evidently been prepared to go through the logical arguments first—and why would he not have expected to?—and was now sorting through what story he might tell.
At last Aioru said, “There is a proverb in my tribe: Galaroo goygillarrah foh. Literally I’d translate it as, The man who came looking for the sea. Usually people would say it means something like, Dreaming makes you foolish.
“My tribe’s territory is the very centre of the Hutabarrah, the Great Desert Basin of Jilkano. We are as far away from the sea as you can get, and traditionally there would never be any reason to go there. The closest someone might get is a medicine man on a vision quest going to the mountains that encircle the Hutabarrah. If you climbed up maybe you could see the sea, I’m not sure.”
Cliopher nodded, putting this together with what he knew of Aioru. Inland, yes—and tribal, yes. Aioru had come into the Service late enough that although he’d certainly faced suspicion and condescension for his origin, he hadn’t had to hide it.
“The phrase is used to mean someone who’s an idiot, naive, a fool, doing something difficult and impossible. Don’t be a fool, don’t go looking for the sea, don’t be like the man who came looking for the sea.”
Aioru paused to sip his tea. He looked seriously at Cliopher. “We had stories that long ago we’d been part of an empire—connected to the outside world—but it was really only in my father’s day that we started to be part of things again. The coastal princes started to send surveyors out, looking for ores and gems and the like. At first there were not many, and they were welcomed, shown how to live in the desert.
“Then someone realized there was gold in our territory, and the Prince of Jilkano-Lozoi sent people to build a mine. They brought soldiers with them, and the things they needed for a small town, as well as caravans to travel safely across the desert. We were less happy with that, because we were not consulted, and they had built their mine close to a sacred site of ours.
“That was when I was young. There was some violence back and forth, and other forms of conflict, not too much but enough for people to get worried. Eventually it was decided that some of the tribe’s children should go to the little school the miners had set up for their families, and learn Shaian so that communication would be easier. I was one of them.”
Cliopher nodded in encouragement, and poured them each another cup of tea.
“I learned quickly, and soon was among the most fluent. Often I had to act as a translator, for the miners wanted to expand and the elders of my tribe did not wish them to. There came a kind of stalemate, and the miners, we learned later, sent off for assistance.”
Aioru smiled at him with a sudden brightness. “You came.”
“I remember,” Cliopher said: the heat, the stark beauty, the wrangling between self-assured miners and the local tribe, the surprise everyone had shown when he had supported the tribe, the eventual agreement that had created a flourishing mixed community there in the desert.
“You may not remember me,” Aioru said modestly, “except perhaps that there was a boy who interpreted for you. But I was that boy, and I remember you: how carefully you listened, how polite your questions were, how interested you were in what we had to say. I thought it was amazing.
“You were interested in me, too, this tribal boy learning Shaian and maths and so on in the mine school. When I asked you how you came to your position, you told me all about how you were from as far away as me, and how you’d written to the governor for the examination books, and that even though you’d failed at first you persisted until you won a place.”
Cliopher had undoubtedly told that story to many young people in hinterland villages and tribes around the world. He remembered that trip, even vaguely remembered the boy, but he had never imagined it was Aioru.
“My elders knew I wasn’t translating everything when I started asking you about that,” Aioru said. “They made me tell them, and then they told me, Galaroo goygillarrah foh! Don’t be a fool, boy! The sea is not for you.”
“We call it chasing a viau,” Cliopher murmured. “They all said that to me, too.”
Aioru smiled at him, a tight, shy, conspiratorial expression. “Before you left, sir, we took you on a small tour of one of our special places, which we hadn’t shown anyone for a long time—there was an old legend about them—that’s not relevant. The Kirralah, we call them: great water-sculpted stones that stand out from the desert, from long ago before people lived there, when our desert was the floor of a sea. We say they are the very centre of the Hutabarrah, the navel of the world.”
Those Cliopher remembered very well. Half a dozen or so red and orange sandstone monoliths, tall as mountains, curved and carved by wind and rain into immense, sinuous shapes without obvious meaning but enormous, incontestable significance. They were sacred, beautiful, nearly unearthly.
“I am so honoured to have seen them,” he said. “And seen them twice, actually. Once that trip, and once after the Fall, when I was crossing Jilkano trying to find my way home …”
Aioru nodded solemnly. “You told us that story then, too. How you had walked across the Hutabarrah along the songlines, tribe to tribe, following the stars home. How our ancestors had laughed when you asked them for directions to the sea.”
Cliopher startled. “You mean …”
Aioru’s expression was glimmering with amusement, though it was serious enough as well. “Yes—you were the man from the proverb! We all realized it—surely you saw how surprised we were?”
“I thought it was just because of the strange difference in time—that I could remember crossing the desert in a time generations upon generations back in your tribe’s history.”
“Well, that was surprising too, of course. But really it was that you were the man from the proverb.”
Cliopher sat back, digesting this. “There have been many over the years who think me the consummate fool, it’s true.”
(So many people, over the years. Still—always—he was chasing that viau, looking for that sea, dreaming dreams no one else did.)
Aioru smiled slowly. “Sir, that’s not what I mean.”
“You must be prepared for it.”
“Oh, I’ve been called a fool many times over,” he said airily. “No, sir: you don’t understand. You were the man from the proverb—the person I’d always been told not to imitate—the man who came looking for the sea—and then I learned that you found it.”
Cliopher considered that. And then he said, “Tell me what the sea is that you went looking for, Aioru.”
And oh—what an ocean of possibility it was!
Look for Chapter Three next Saturday! And don't forget, you can 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!