I'm so excited for you all to read my new book! It's been so wonderful to spend time with Cliopher and his friends (and family, can't forget the many, many Mdangs) and I am looking forward to sharing the story with you. I'm in the final stages now so I'm ready to re-set the release dates. I had to push it back slightly--Hurricane Fiona was a factor--but that just gave me time to add in a few cool details.
Without further ado:
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 One!
The Comet He'eanka
The bells of the Palace of Stars were barely audible outside its walls. Cliopher Mdang, Viceroy of Zunidh, listened to the faint, falling tones of the midnight bell until the echoes faded, then turned away from the looming bulk of stone behind him to walk through the empty gardens.
His sandals crunched lightly on the gravel, echoed a moment later by the feet of his two guards, the soft thump of the butts of their spears. Ato and Pikabe both thought he should be in bed, but they had said nothing when he’d left his rooms and descended the back stairs to the outside door.
They passed by several patches of glimmering pale blossoms, sweetly fragrant in the still, warm air. It was deep into the dry season, this part of the world: someone must be watering them, for there to be so many flowers in bloom. A handful of pale green lunar moths, the size of his hand, dipped from blossom to blossom.
He ducked under the arch made by the lower branches and aerial roots of a cascading bearded fig. Roosting birds, disturbed by his passing, shifted and muttered to each other before settling down again. He scuffed at the dead leaves in the hollow below the branches, the earthy scent masking the earlier flowers. He breathed deeply in, out, releasing the tensions of the day. It had been a productive day, but a long one.
It was, he knew even without hearing the bells, rather too late for him to still be out here and not in his bed. He had the Council of Princes the next day, and that was always fatiguing. But he had not been able to resist the lure of the comet he’d been told was visible.
On the other side of the great fig was a little outpost of the Imperial Botanical Gardens, which mostly curved around to the south of the Palace. The gardens stepped down the ancient volcanic plug upon which the Palace was built to the River Dwahaii at its feet. In a bight of the river were well-managed floodplains and a system of dykes and pools where the collection of moisture-loving plants was kept. Cliopher kept meaning to go down and see the waterlilies again—they did not wait upon the wet season or the dry in equatorial Solaara—but somehow never found the time.
There were too many days, like today, where it was only now, in the quiet midnight, that he managed to get out-of-doors at all.
He walked through the curving beds, a few lights set low down guiding his steps. He did not like to think he was so inattentive to his surroundings that he would wander unwittingly off the gravel paths, but it had to be said he had, once, stepped on a very rare orchid just about to bloom.
(The curator in chief of the Botanical Gardens had not been very impressed by his defence that there had been a spectacular meteor shower that particular occasion. The little magic lights had been placed well before his next night-time excursion, a week or so later.)
At the very edge of the cliff was planted a tui tree. It was, he believed, the only one to grow east of Nijan and west of the Isolates: their presence was a marker that Wide Sea Islanders lived or had lived in a place. The trees were native nowhere on Zunidh, but the flowers were used in certain ceremonies, and cuttings had been taken from island to island all across the Wide Seas in the great voyages of settlement.
Cliopher did not pretend, even to himself, that there was any great universal symbolism in the fact that this particular tree had only started blooming in the past few years, when he had finally found his way to claiming himself and his culture even here in the Palace and bureaucracy of which he was so much a part.
The flowering was due to the fact that he had finally thought to ask an Islander botanist what she thought might be the problem. On her recommendation he had brought soil from under a thriving, blossoming grove of the trees at home, in case there was some crucial microbial lifeforms that his tree was missing. The tree had perked up noticeably within a week.
Nevertheless—it had been such a wonderful surprise, last year, to come out one evening when he was particularly missing home, and discover the first few shy blossoms. Microbiota or not, he rejoiced.
He was missing home tonight.
A tui tree starting its bloom was the signal to look out for the kula canoes coming across the Bay for the great festival of the Singing of the Waters. The story was that the trees blossomed, each year when the trade winds across the Wide Seas shifted direction, to show they were waiting patiently for the He’eanka, the ship of Elonoa’a, to return home.
So many of his ancestors must have done the same, waiting for a wandering relative or lover or friend to return from an expedition of trade or discovery.
Cliopher had no reason to expect anyone to come here. His family back home were waiting, not exactly patiently, for his boat to come home.
He leaned forward to breathe in the fragrance of one half-unfurled flower. The glimmering white petals seemed to chide him. He bit his lip as the rich chocolate scent made homesickness nearly overwhelm him.
He did not expect anyone, it was true. But like the tui trees, blooming every year regardless of who came or did not come, Cliopher was waiting for someone.
His lord and friend, the Last Emperor and Lord of Zunidh whose Viceroy he was, was away. Travelling.
Looking for an heir according to an ancient custom that had let him escape the confines of his Palace, his role and his rank and all that went with them.
Cliopher had stayed behind, of course. (Of course.) His Radiancy had entrusted the government of the world to him. Someone had had to ensure that the preparations for the transition of government to his Radiancy’s successor went smoothly, and that someone was Cliopher, who had dedicated the majority of his life to the reconstruction and reformation of the government.
Like the tui tree, therefore, he waited.
He was finding it hard to be patient.
Many years ago, someone had placed a bench under the tree. Cliopher sat down on it, glancing once to see that Ato and Pikabe had settled themselves at parade rest behind him—even after several years of being guarded, he could not quite ignore them—and regarded the prospect before him with a certain degree of satisfaction.
The land fell steeply away below his feet, all shadows with a few sparkling fireflies garlanding the rocks. At the bottom of the cliff was the run of water gardens, barely illuminated this time of night, and beyond them the thronging, busy neighbourhood of the Levels, lit with magic and torches of many colours. A few great red eyes suggested bonfires.
Bonfires always, to his eyes, meant a feast, a festival, a party.
He felt a stab of envy.
Sometimes he badly missed casual fun. He hated this life as a great lord, guarded and cosseted and kept well away from whatever drunken shenanigans were happening down there in the Levels.
Beyond the city were the inky meanders of the River Dwahaii, and beyond that the cultivated plains, and beyond that the great glimmering line of the sea.
He put his elbows on the backrest of the bench and tilted his head up to look at the sky. The young moon was already hidden behind the Palace to his rear.
The stars were not what they had been when he crossed the Wide Seas in the years after the Fall, when it was just him and his little boat in the entire compass of the horizon; nor as he had seen them on quiet nights camping out on the Outer Ring islands on holidays back home; but they were as brilliant as any others he had seen since.
Solaara was farther north than the Vangavaye-ve, just above the equator. The northern pole star, Le’aia, was visible, a handbreadth above the horizon. A ziva’a, he thought, putting out his hand for a moment to measure its altitude as he had been taught.
He glanced at Ato and Pikabe, smiling sheepishly. Ato was looking away, into the gardens behind them, but Pikabe caught his eye and smiled in return. “Do you see the comet, sir?”
It was hard to miss: four ziva’a above the horizon, a little south of east, in the heart of the square forming the body of the Fisherman. The tail pointed east and down, and the nose was into the great band of bright stars called Lulai’aviyë, the Wake.
“There, in the Fisherman,” he said, pointing.
“We call that the Hunter,” Pikabe said. “Different cultures, I suppose.”
Cliopher chuckled. “I suppose so, yes.”
“What are other constellations do you have, sir?”
He looked up. There, just barely visible over the southern horizon, was Nua-Nui. “That one is the Great Bird—his beak points the way to the southern pole. Between him and the Fisherman—your Hunter—is one called the Shell.”
“What kind of shell?” Ato asked.
“It’s the general word for shell,” Cliopher replied, his eyes catching the familiar doubled arc, though the lower half was very faint. “A common, ordinary white shell—the kind you find on the beach by the thousands. Clam-shells, usually, though it doesn’t matter. Could be a cowrie.”
“We call that one the Water-Witch—there’s her staff,” Pikabe said, pointing to another star that Cliopher’s reckoning did not include in the constellation.
“We have a water-witch in our stories, too—Urumë, the Sea-Witch, we call her—but she doesn’t have a constellation named after her.” Cliopher found the tight ring of stars over the Emperor’s Tower in the middle of the Palace. “There, that’s Tisaluikaye—‘the Island that Swallowed the Sea’. It’s the full name for a tisalë, an atoll, you see, which is a ring of coral around a lagoon. The story goes that the first atoll was created by the Sea-Witch when she had a fight with the sea.”
“The Island that Swallowed the Sea. I like it,” Pikabe said, laughing.
“There’s also the Island the Sea Spat Back—Moakiliye—moakili is the word for an uplifted coral island, one where an old reef, turned to stone, emerges back out of the sea from tectonic upheaval.”
“It’s not really called the Island the Sea Spat Back,” Pikabe objected. “Not really.”
“Moa’a is a word for the sea,” Cliopher explained. “Kilito is the word for spitting back or rejecting something, and ye is a suffix that means island. So: Moa’akilito-ye is the original one, it’s one of the Agirilis.”
“We call that ring of stars the Ring,” Ato said, and winked so quickly Cliopher was not sure he’d seen the gesture. Perhaps the stolid guard had just twitched …?
“We call it the Turtle,” Pikabe said. “In the beginning, the old men say, Turtle dove down into the muck at the bottom of the sea and brought up mud to be made into land, and as a reward the Creator put him up in the sky as a constellation. It’s always a good idea to be polite to turtles, the old men say.”
“I shall bear that in mind,” Cliopher promised gravely. “What do you call the River of Stars?”
The name for the wide band of stars was one of the few Shaian astronomical terms he knew. There had never been any reason, and little apparent point, in studying star lore after he left home. In Astandalas the stars were of another world, and anyhow masked by the lights and smoke of that great city, and in Solaara he had never felt the need.
As he looked at the sky the old Islander names stirred in his mind, teasing at the tip of his tongue. There was the long, undulating constellation of Au’aua, the Great Whale, her eye the brightest star in the northern sky. There was Jiano, one of the Sixteen Bright Guides, riding high above the shoulder of the Fisherman, the star for whom the current Paramount Chief of the Vangavaye-ve was named. And there, rising in the south of east (remāraraka, his great-uncle’s voice said in his ear, the direction from which the long-tailed cuckoos come), Furai’fa, the ke’e of Loaloa, Cliopher’s own ancestral island in the Western Ring.
“We call it the Path of Straw,” Pikabe said. “The story goes that Turig, the god of beer, was cold one night so he went to the house of his brother Ardol, the god of farming, and borrowed a bundle of straw to take back to his home. But he was so drunk he spilled half the straw along the way home, and that’s what we see. Ardol lives in the east and Turig in the west, because Ardol has to wake up early with his animals and that way Turig always knows to follow the Sun home. The path curves because he was so drunk.”
Cliopher laughed, as did, surprisingly enough, the usually-taciturn Ato. “We call it the Path of the Cranes,” Ato volunteered. “That’s the way they migrate, where I’m from, way up north.”
“What about your people, sir?” Pikabe asked. “Do you say the River of Stars, too?”
The Sea of Stars or Sky Ocean was the name for the sky, and though he had heard that Isolate Islanders called it the Great Current, Cliopher’s great-uncle, his teacher of the old ways, had taught him Western Ring names and knowledge.
Cliopher heart warmed at the inevitable thought of his Buru Tovo, who had gotten on the sea train at age ninety and come halfway around the world to see what people were saying about his wayward great-nephew. He smiled up at the stars.
“Our name for it is Lulai’aviyë. Lulai is the word for ‘the light in the wake of a canoe’—there’s a kind of phosphorescence that you see in the ocean at night, sometimes, that glows when you disturb it—and Aviyë are the Ancestors, the first of the wayfinders. So it means ‘the Light in the Wake of the Ancestors’ Canoes’.”
He traced out the line of the Wake until it disappeared behind the dome of the Palace. It had been so long since he thought about these names, these stories. Cliopher’s voice went a little quieter as he went on.
“The old name for the Wide Sea Islanders is Ke’e Lulai’aviyë, or just Ke’e Lulai. The people who live Under the Wake. It points more or less in the direction of the Vangavaye-ve, and most of our islands lie under its path.”
No one had used that name for the Wide Sea Islanders in centuries; he had never heard anyone at home say it besides the elders, when the Lays were sung. They were Islanders now, not the voyagers, the wayfinders, the great seafarers of legend. They still sailed the Wide Seas, but in Astandalan-style ships, not the great double-hulled parahë of the ancient past.
Traditional outrigger canoes, vaha, were used inside the Ring, from island to island within the Vangavaye-ve itself. Even the boat Cliopher had made according to the ancient pattern an old woman had taught him, which had taken him more or less safely across the Wide Seas, was intended for a local fishing canoe, not a deep-water oceangoing vessel. He had seen parahë in paintings and in carefully reconstructed models at the University of the Wide Seas museum, and once sunk fathoms deep off the coast of sunken Kavanor, but never under sail.
He had not been down to the Imperial Museum of Comparative Anthropology for ages, either. At one point the curator of what would eventually be renamed the Western Galleries had asked him for advice regarding that sunken parahë, with some vague indication there would eventually be an exhibit containing it.
At some point he should find the time to go and see what had been done.
“Do you have a story about comets, sir?” Pikabe asked.
In the east, the comet hung apparently motionless in the sky. Its wake was almost as luminescent a green as the lulai around a reef, if fainter. The Ouranatha—the priest-wizards of Solaara, who counted astronomy as one of their arts—had said that it would be visible at night for nearly a full month.
If he were home, and the tui trees had started to bloom today, the month would be the time taken by the lead-up and full extravagant feasts and songs and dances of the Singing of the Waters.
It would have been a likely occasion for the greater festival, when the full dances were performed by the lore-keepers. A year when the Wandering Star was seen? Assuredly a sign for the greater festival.
The trouble was, for the greater festival to be held, each and every lineage and their lore-keepers had to be prepared for the full dances. And the Mdangs were not.
Because the tana-tai, Cliopher’s Buru Tovo, was in his nineties, and the tanà, Cliopher’s Uncle Lazo, had a lame knee, and Cliopher himself, the rising tanà, was not there.
He breathed in, out, tasting the tui blossoms, the warm, still air, his eyes on the comet.
In years past he had not gone home because the most important of the annual court sessions started very soon. This year, with his Radiancy away and the court in recess, Cliopher was nevertheless obliged to be present as acting head of state.
“The soothsayers say a comet means change is coming,” Ato supplied from behind him.
Cliopher was once again surprised Ato spoke. “That’s obvious enough this year,” he said, though not unkindly. It was the last year before the Great Jubilee of his Radiancy’s reign, when he would be stepping down as Lord of Zunidh in favour of whatever successor he managed to find on his current quest.
This was something Cliopher tried very hard not to worry about. He could do nothing but wait for his Radiancy’s return with his chosen successor.
Wait, and prepare Protocols for every possible eventuality he could think of.
Wait, and … work. There was always work.
Even if his job was to ensure that the government ran smoothly. And who knew what sort of experience said successor would have? His Radiancy’s primary criterion concerned magic, not governance.
Pikabe chuckled. “We call them bearded stars, though one story is that they’re lost cattle from Ardol’s herds, which Turig let out one day and they haven’t been able to capture again. Shooting stars are his chickens, coming home to roost.”
“Turig sounds like a great troublemaker,” Cliopher observed.
“He’s the god of beer, what can you expect? We hold many festivals in his honour.”
Cliopher stared at the comet. He wasn’t sure if he had ever actually seen one before.
There had been great excitement about the expected appearance of one, at some point, but he seemed to recall it had been cloudy every time he’d tried to go see it. He had always wanted to see a comet: he had always loved the stories told of them in the Lays and by his father’s mother, the great storyteller of Cliopher’s family.
He couldn’t tell if the picture he had in his mind was from some painting he had seen, somewhere in the Palace or some museum, or of a real event.
It was a truly beautiful evening, the air cool and for once lacking the humidity that usually plagued Solaara even in the dry season. The last few weeks before the rains came was Cliopher’s favourite time of the year here, despite everything.
The comet, the Wandering Star, the He’eanka, hung in the air like something painted onto the firmament of the heavens, as the Ouranatha astronomers said.They held the stars were fixed in their circuits, not the variable Sky Ocean of Cliopher’s people.
“There’s a story,” he said eventually, fishing out the Shaian words with some effort. “It’s said that the comet, which we call the Wandering Star, He’eanka—in the story there is only one, which we see at different times and at different angles—is the ship of Elonoa’a. He was a real person, the last of the great Paramount Chiefs at the time when the Empire came to the Vangavaye-ve.”
“The Seafarer King,” said Pikabe.
Elonoa’a was probably the greatest of all the Islanders, and certainly the best-known. There was a famous classical play called Aurelius Magnus and the Seafarer King, and their adventures had been an increasingly popular subject for various more contemporary plays and novels. No doubt it was a kind of compliment to Cliopher and his Radiancy.
Not that Cliopher was all that much like Elonoa’a, the greatest navigator and explorer of his people.
The Islanders would still have been the Ke’e Lulai, then, for this period was the end of the voyages and the beginning of the settled years, when the Islanders became one people among many of the Empire of Astandalas, and by no means the greatest.
Elonoa’a was the last of the Paramount Chiefs, and the one who led the last Gathering of the Ships—the meeting that in later years was re-enacted as part of the Singing of the Waters—to decide to join in alliance with Astandalas.
“Elonoa’a became a great friend and companion of the Emperor Aurelius Magnus. After the emperor went to the House of the Sun, as we say in our stories, Elonoa’a took a parahë, a voyaging canoe, with a crew of thirty-two, and set sail to go find him.”
That was what it said in the Lays of the Wide Seas. Astandalan histories said that Aurelius Magnus just disappeared one day, never to be seen again, and did not mention anything further of the Wide Sea Islanders who had been his allies except in subsequent tax records.
Aurelius’s brother Haultan became the next emperor of Astandalas, and brutally forced an end to the wars Aurelius Magnus had been fighting. Haultan’s idea of rule, afterwards, had been hard for everyone, and shaped the nature of governance for the next thousand or so years, until the Empress Dangora V’s reforms.
There were parts of Haultan’s philosophy and practice of government that Cliopher was still fighting against, even now.
Shaian folktales said that Aurelius had been stolen away by the Sun on account of his magical prowess and physical beauty, and occasionally mentioned his great friend the Seafarer King who had been said to dance through flames.
Cliopher was a Mdang, and knew better: the Mdangs Held the Fire, and Elonoa’a had been Kindraa and therefore one who Knew the Wind. Kindraa dances were not over the burning coals, but used ribbons of plaited feathers to delineate their knowledge. It was as hard to dance properly, but not nearly as visually spectacular as the Fire Dance. Though perhaps Cliopher was a trifle biased on the subject.
“You can see the wake of his ship, the He’eanka, which he named after the Wandering Star,” Cliopher said, indicating the comet’s tail.
(And did the tui trees know, somehow, that their beloved He’eanka was close enough to see, though never close enough to touch?)
“It’s said that when you can see the comet it is because Elonoa’a is searching our portion of Sky Ocean, and that wherever his ship is pointing will have good fortune come to it.”
“A good story,” Pikabe said approvingly. “Especially as it’s pointing towards us!”
Indeed it was: the arc of the Wake passed right over the Palace towards the distant southwestern point where the Vangavaye’ve lay in sunlight on the other side of the world.
Cliopher was glad he’d told that story. He had always been very private about his culture, after so many years unable to share it in the strict culture of the court without courting social ruin, and … and it had been private. These stories were far too close to his heart to be put on vulgar display.
But oh, it hurt that he had to go to his rooms and read over the Lays by himself, when it should have been an occasion for everyone around him to sing and dance and cry forth the same songs that were echoing in his heart and mind, his blood and bones and soul.
Cliopher was not a chief or a paramount chief at heart: he had much preferred standing to the side to this sitting on the throne.
Elonoa’a had followed Aurelius Magnus as friend and guide and counsellor. It gave him heart that he followed in that most illustrious Islander’s wake, even here in this Palace so apparently remote from anything truly Vangavayen.
It had been easier when he stood beside his own lord and emperor. It was good to reminded by the comet that when Elonoa’a had been parted from his friend, and being Kindraa and the great navigator, had taken his ship and called up a wind that could blow him quite out of the world and into Sky Ocean.
Cliopher could not call up such a wind. There was no parahë left in all the Wide Seas that could sail even the mortal ocean, nor thirty-two sailors who could sail it. And his Radiancy, Cliopher’s Radiancy, was not lost in the House of the Sun, but questing under his own power and his heart’s calling. Any rescuing he had needed from Cliopher had already been accomplished through his efforts at friendship and guidance and counsel, and the long, grinding work of bureaucracy and systemic change.
And he was not actually Elonoa’a, living in the time of legends.
Cliopher was a Mdang, and he Held the Fire. He could hold this fire he had been given to hold, tend this hearthfire at the heart of the world, and when his lord, his emperor, his Aurelius Magnus, came home, Cliopher would be waiting for him.
He looked up again, at the comet and the Wake. Even so far from home, here on the other side of the world, he still laid his head below Lulai’aviyë.
Speaking of which—
“I suppose it’s time for bed,” he said, and stood up.
“Council tomorrow,” Pikabe agreed, as he and Ato smartly fell into place.
Cliopher did take some small advantage of his rank, however, by carefully plucking a flowering branch from the tui tree to take inside with him. It was good to have a reminder of what it meant to be patient. It was not his natural state.
Chapter Two will be posted NEXT Saturday! [Edit: Read it now!] And for the entire thing: you can preorder AT THE FEET OF THE SUN for early release (November 21st) in all ebook formats! Also, don't forget to join the HOTE Support Group Discord for exclusive bonus content and real-time news and updates!
Wonderful, beguiling beginning, can’t wait to go on with it!