Thursday, November 1, 2012

Cephrael's Hand by Melissa McPhail

"All things are composed of patterns..." And within the pattern of the realm of Alorin, three strands must cross:

In Alorin...three hundred years after the genocidal Adept Wars, the realm is dying, and the blessed Adept race dies with it. One man holds the secret to reverting this decline: Bjorn van Gelderan, a dangerous and enigmatic man whose shocking betrayal three centuries past earned him a traitor's brand. It is the Adept Vestal Raine D'Lacourte's mission to learn what Bjorn knows in the hope of salvaging his race. But first he'll have to find him...

In the kingdom of Dannym...the young Prince Ean val Lorian faces a tenuous future as the last living heir to the coveted Eagle Throne. When his blood-brother is slain during a failed assassination, Ean embarks on a desperate hunt for the man responsible. Yet his advisors have their own agendas, and his quest for vengeance leads him ever deeper into a sinuous plot masterminded by a mysterious and powerful man, the one they call First Lord...

In the Nadori desert...tormented by the missing pieces of his life, a soldier named Trell heads off to uncover the truth of his shadowed past. But when disaster places him in the debt of Wildlings sworn to the First Lord, Trell begins to suspect a deadlier, darker secret motivating them.

Melissa McPhail is a classically trained pianist, violinist and composer, a Vinyasa yoga instructor, and an avid Fantasy reader. A long-time student of philosophy, she is passionate about the Fantasy genre because of its inherent philosophical explorations.
Ms. McPhail lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband, their twin daughters and two very large cats. Cephrael's Hand is the multiple award-winning first novel in her series A Pattern of Shadow and Light.

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The dark-haired man leaned back in his armchair and exhaled a sigh. He was troubled, and his dark-blue eyes narrowed as his mind raced through the possibilities still available, each branching with a hundredfold new and varied paths. It was impossible to try to predict one’s future—what a lot of nonsense and wasted time was spent on divination and augury!—when so many paths were in motion.
Much better to mold the future to one’s own desires.
Shifting his gaze back to that which troubled him, he reached long fingers to retrieve an invitation from his desk. The missive was scribed in a male hand upon expensive parchment embossed with the image of an eagle. It was the royal standard of a mortal king, but this concerned him not at all; what troubled him so deeply was the signet pressed within the invitation’s wax seal.
A rising breeze fluttered the heavy draperies of his ornate bronze-hued tent, whose peaked roof provided coppery illumination beneath the strong afternoon sun. He glanced over at an ebony four-poster bed and the exquisite woman lying naked behind its veils of gossamer silk. They fluttered in the breeze along with her raven hair where it spilled over the edge, one supple breast left visible for his pleasure. He knew she wasn’t sleeping, though she pretended it so to give him time with his thoughts.
He looked back to the seal on the parchment in his hand. It was a strange sort of signet for a prince. He wondered if the man had any idea of its significance?
Surely not. None of them ever remember, in the beginning. Yet if the seal was true—and how could it be otherwise when none but the pattern’s true owner could fashion it?—then he had very little time to act. Twice before he’d come upon a man who could fashion this particular pattern, and each time his enemies had reached the man first. This time would be different.
The drapes fluttered across the room, and a shadow entered between their parting. Not a shadow, no. Something. The air rippled into waves as heat rising from the flames, and a cloaked figure materialized, already in a reverent bow. “First Lord,” he murmured.
“Ah, Dämen.” The dark-haired man waved the invitation gently. “This is quite a find.”
Dämen straightened and pushed back the hood of his pale blue cloak, revealing a face like a mask of polished steel; metal yet living flesh. “I knew you would be pleased.”
The First Lord returned his gaze to the pattern. As he studied its twisting, sculpted lines, which formed a complicated endless knot, he glanced up beneath his brow and inquired, “These invitations were sent broadly?”
“To nigh on four corners of the globe, ma dieul,” replied the Shade. “Four-hundred invitations, maybe more.”
The First Lord frowned. “Unfortunate, that. This pattern cannot help but garner notice. The others will certainly recognize its substance. It will draw their eye to him.”
“That could be fortuitous for us if it lures them into the open,” Dämen offered.
“No, this Thread is too intelligent. They will send others to do their bidding.” He lapsed into thoughtful silence.
After a moment, the Shade prodded gently, “What is your will, ma dieul? Shall I retrieve him to safety?”
“No—assuredly no,” and he enforced this order with a steady gaze from eyes so deeply blue as to be ground from the purest cobalt. “Balance plays heavily in the life of any man who claims this pattern, and we cannot take the chance of losing him again.”
“The others will not hold to such restrictions, ma dieul,” the Shade cautioned.
“More to their error,” the First Lord returned. “If I’ve learned anything from past losses, Dämen, it’s what not to do.” He tapped a long finger thoughtfully against his lips. “We must bring him in carefully, slowly, for the revelation will not be an easy one.”
The Shade frowned, his chrome-polished features perfectly mimicking flesh. “Your pardon, First Lord, but if he did not Return with the onset of adolescence, what chance remains?”
“A slim one,” the dark-haired man agreed, knowing the chance was so minute that it would take a great tragedy to draw out his Return. He regretted the future in the making. Often times of late, he regretted the future more than he did his long and tragic past. The First Lord pursed his lips and shook his head, his eyes determined, though still he hesitated. There was no question of the need, but life was a precious, tenuous thing. He regretted every one over the countless years which he’d been forced to end. Still, he’d waited too long, planned too carefully…sacrificed too much. Mercy was a virtue he could ill afford. “I fear steps will have to be taken.”
“Well and so, ma dieul,” the Shade replied, and there was much not said in his tone. His gaze conveyed his unease.
The First Lord needed no reminding; he would have to be so precise in this planning. Every detail, every possible ramification must be considered, for the moment the man crossed that ephemeral threshold they called the Return, he would become like a beacon for their enemies’ vehemence. And that was something no mortal could survive. His mind spinning as he conceived of his plan, he settled his cobalt-blue eyes upon his Lord of Shades and detailed his orders.
The Shade bowed when his master was finished. He did not relish the tasks ahead, but his obedience was beyond question. “Your will be done, ma dieul,” he murmured. Then, straightening, he faded—there was no other means of describing the way his form shifted, dissolving like dawn shadows until nothing remained where something had been only moments before.
His most pressing matter thus decided, the First Lord tossed the invitation aside and turned his gaze to the glorious creature awaiting his pleasure on the bed.
The woman stretched like a cat and then settled her vibrant green eyes upon the First Lord. “Come back to bed, ma dieul,” she murmured in a silken voice akin to a purr but echoic of a growl, “for I have need of you.”
He returned her a lustful look. She was a feast for his senses in every possible way. “And I have need of you,” he replied in a rough whisper, his desire filling him. Lifting his own naked body from his chair, he returned to her.
 
Leilah n’abin Hadorin, youngest daughter of Radov abin Hadorin, ruling prince of M’Nador, stood trembling on the balcony that overlooked the vast gardens of her father’s palace in Tal’Shira. She lifted a shaking hand and touched her cheek where an angry red handprint flamed. He’s never hit me before, she thought as tears leaked from her dark brown eyes.
But he’s never caught you eavesdropping while he plotted with the enemy, either.
Considering the circumstances and her father’s ill humor of late, a single slap in the face was a mercy.
‘Fool girl!’ she heard her father’s acid hiss, his dark eyes flamed with fury. ‘You’re lucky I caught you spying instead of one of Bethamin’s Ascendants or their Marquiin! Get you gone from my sight while I consider how to deal with you.’
Leilah wiped her cheeks, wet with tears, and choked back a sob. She hadn’t been spying, in truth—though to be certain she’d overheard far too much of the conversation to deny the accusation with any conviction—nor could she tell her father why she’d been hiding in his study. Radov had never been known for his compassion, but since the Ascendants of the Prophet Bethamin arrived in Tal’Shira by the Sea, he seemed to have lost all taste for it.
What does it mean that he considers an alliance with Bethamin?
Nothing good, of that she was certain.
The Prophet’s teachings had been banned by M’Nador’s neighboring kingdom of Dannym, and the Queen of Veneisia had issued an official censor, which was practically the same thing. M’Nador had long been allied with Dannym and Veneisia; that her father spoke of an alliance with Bethamin could only mean he intended to betray his other allies.
The thought chilled her. Even now, both kingdoms supported M’Nador in their war against the Akkad, sending troops and supplies, even precious Adept Healers who were few enough in number that releasing even one from the service of their own kingdom was a noble sacrifice.
And now my father allies with Bethamin.
Leilah didn’t like the Prophet; every time she listened to his teachings, she came away feeling cold inside. Since Bethamin’s Ascendants and their gauze-shrouded Marquiin had come to Tal’Shira, the sun hadn’t once appeared from behind the overcast that had arrived as if part of the Prophet’s entourage. The palace staff had grown edgy and fretful and talked in whispers now, and her father’s Guard had become increasingly sharp-tempered, just like their monarch. Leilah saw how everyone was falling prey to the mantle of gloom that surrounded Bethamin’s minions, yet apparently she was the only one who did.
She thought of the Marquiin again and shuddered.
They were Adept truthreaders—or had been, once; for they weren’t like any of the other truthreaders she’d met. There was a darkness about the Marquiin, a sense of cold malice. Everyone said that truthreaders—real truthreaders—couldn’t lie, but Leilah wouldn’t trust a Marquiin for the whole Kandori fortune. She couldn’t bear to even approach the mind-readers, for they all exuded a sour stench that made her wonder what foulness was hidden beneath the grey gauze that covered them from head to toe.
Even before she learned of her father’s planned alliance, she’d tried to speak to her older sisters about her fears—that is, the two not as yet married off to sheiks or Avataren lords—but they’d complained she was hurting their heads with talk of politics and sent her from their solar. Her brothers were all long gone, seeking their fortunes in foreign lands or leading her father’s armies into battle against the Akkad, but she doubted they’d believe her anyway; they all thought of her as ‘little Lily,’ as if she was still running around half-naked splashing in the palace fountains and not a girl of sixteen, of birthing age.
That was the other problem, the reason she’d been in her father’s study without his knowledge: to use his personal seal. Her own letters were meticulously read by her father’s spies, but his seal was never disturbed. It was imperative that her letters left the palace under this guise, else… Even as a shuddering sigh escaped her, she smiled through her tears at the memory of her true love Korin’s handsome face, of his sultry dark eyes and his amazing lips, of the feel of his hands on her bare skin…
It had been almost a year since she’d seen Korin, for as soon as her father learned of her interest in him he’d banished the boy from the kingdom. The moment still felt as devastating in memory as it had upon its experience. Then had come Fhionna and her dangerous plan, the secret letters ferried back and forth, the promise of rescue…
Soon none of this will matter, she tried to reassure herself. Soon he will come and whisk me away, and we’ll sail as far east as the seas will take us. There, we’ll raise children and goats and live happily in solitude, needing nothing but each other.
Smiling, sighing at the thought, Leilah dropped her hand to the little purse at her side where she kept his secret letters and—
Oh no!
She spun around looking for the handbag. It was gone! Abruptly she remembered falling in her father’s study after he’d struck her. She’d felt something catch and tug, but the moment had been too shocking to notice much else. The little chain must’ve caught on the edge of the table.
With a sick feeling of dread, Leilah realized her purse was still in her father’s study. It wasn’t only her and Korin who would face her father’s wrath if he discovered those letters; Radov would stop at nothing to unearth her accomplices. Fhionna and Aishlinn would eventually be hunted down and given fifty lashings just for ferrying the letters back and forth, and that’s if they survived their own capture.
Shaking for a different reason now, Leilah knew she was doomed if her father found those letters. Coupled with her act of ‘spying,’ the letters would brand her a traitor in her father’s eyes.
She caught her lower lip between her teeth in a horrible moment of indecision. She’d been sent away in no uncertain terms so her father could receive Bethamin’s Ascendant and his Marquiin in his chambers, but perhaps if she was very quiet…if they’d
moved to speak in the adjacent gallery instead of her father’s personal study as was Radov’s usual wont, if she didn’t so much as make a peep…perhaps they wouldn’t even notice her returning for her purse.
Leilah rushed back inside the palace and headed down the long, wide passage toward her father’s chambers. In truth, she would rather face the lash for disobedience than feel the force of her father’s wrath should he learn of her illicit love affair. If Leilah was discovered in that act of defiance, being sold to Avataren slavers would be a mercy.
The two guards on duty outside her father’s chambers eyed her dubiously as she entered, but they didn’t stop her. They’d probably enjoy watching the lashing, she thought resentfully, though what she would’ve done if they’d prevented her from entering she didn’t know.
She slipped on tiptoes close to the wall of the large anteroom toward one of two doors that opened into her father’s study. Pressing an ear to the door, she heard nothing, so she slowly turned the handle. Hope welled in pulse with her anxiety. She might just be able to slip in unnoticed…
Even as she made it inside, she saw her little purse across the way, half-concealed beneath the armchair, exactly as she’d imagined. The room was empty, but the doors to the gallery were open. She would have to pass them to reach her purse. Heart pounding loudly in her ears, Leilah rushed across the room, but just as she reached the open doors, something made her pause.
She stood transfixed an inch from the portal’s edge, her heart beating so loudly it was deafening. Waves of chill air seeped from the gallery, heavy and dense, laden with malevolence. Leilah shrank from its touch. That was when she heard the moaning. It seemed a wail not of mortal death but of a dying soul; even more frightening was the sure certainty that the horrible moan came from her father.
As if caught in a dream, Leilah felt herself drawn inexorably forward. She felt powerless to stop herself from looking. Slowly, she inched her head around the edge and saw… she saw…
She saw.
And then she ran.