Thought I’d share chapter 1 of Tainted, the second book in my trilogy, Lisen of Solsta. The first book, Fractured, can be found at Amazon in both print and Kindle, Barnes & Noble for Nook, and nearly every other e-book distributor (best search is my name, D. Hart St. Martin) or on Smashwords (a really great site for publishing electronic books in multiple formats–highly recommend it). I have also blogged extensively about it previously.
Briefly, seventeen-year-old Lisen Holt only begins to realize that her life is fractured after a sorcerer abducts her from a California beach and brings her home to Garla. She awakens at Solsta Haven, a spiritual refuge from Garlan society. The sorcerer, Hermit Eloise, has returned Lisen’s body to its true form—that of a human-like marsupial. She then restores Lisen’s memories of her first ten years in Garla, leaving her earthly existence behind but not forgotten.
Although she is Lisen of Solsta now, questions haunt her—questions Eloise refuses to answer. Who are the parents who left her at Solsta? Why did Eloise send her to Earth? And what is so important about her that Eloise has manipulated so much of her life? The answers will propel Lisen into a quest for a throne, and all that will stand between her and her birthright is her matricidal twin of a brother.
The story continues in Tainted, book 2 of the Lisen of Solsta trilogy, when Lisen and Korin travel to Thristas in the hope of finding safety in the anonymity of the desert, beyond the scope of Lorain Zanlot’s spies. There, Lisen learns about the ways of the desert and its people. The Thristans see Garla’s Empir as less their so-called “Protector” and more an extension of those who forced them into “exile” in the first place. They suspect any Garlan, and in order to prove their commitment to the Tribe, Lisen and Korin must volunteer to participate in the spring Evennight fertility ritual of Farii. This night changes everything for Lisen, and she returns to Garla to finally face her brother with a brilliant but damning plan in mind.
BACK ON THE ROAD
Three days. Three freaking days of waiting, mostly alone, in this little stone room with no windows, not even a television. At least a TV would have given her something to look at. Not even a book to read. There were scrolls, and many had been offered to her, but they were all religious—hermit stuff—nothing that would have staved off the boredom. And the holder. Ah, yes, the holder. Nalin came and went, which seemed odd to Lisen because hadn’t he told her that the recognition of him, not her, could be their undoing? Maybe he’d found another hidden place, hidden from her but also from others. Regardless, he had his freedom, but not poor Lisen of Solsta. She was stuck; after weeks of possession with two souls locked up, inescapable, inside her, now her body was locked up instead. Damn.
And she hated this body. She’d tried. She really had. She’d tried as hard as she could to accept the lack of what she considered to be real breasts, to accept the fur on her belly and the pouch where a bellybutton should be. She’d gone along with all of their plans for her life, all of the things that they all found quite natural and normal, but the romance of it all had worn off and now she was left with just an ugly flat-chested, no-breasted, furry-bellied, open-holed body. Yuck.
“You know who would have loved this,” she said, standing up and pacing around, pontificating in English to the walls, essentially her only companion these last days. “Dad would have loved this. I remember him coming home—what was it? A year ago—all excited about something one of his physicist friends at Cal Tech had told him. About how there might actually be alternate universes, and maybe even portals through time and space. I remember him saying, ‘You know, Lees, science fiction may not be fiction anymore.’
“Did Eloise the Slippery tell me the truth about there being no way back? I mean, how does she know? What if I could go back? I could prove to the entire scientific community that there are other worlds with people just like us that you don’t need rockets to…get…to.”
She stopped. “Shit, if I went back there, I’d be the freaking ‘Kangaroo Girl.’ Great.”
She sat back down, wondering how much longer they’d have to wait for Korin to return. He was the only bright star in the dark night of what had become her life. The only thing worth sticking around for—her Captain Cutie. That and her eighteenth birthday, which, she had realized after making such a point of it with the holder, meant nothing in Garla. She’d already reached her “majority” at sixteen as far as they were concerned here. Made her wonder why her brother had waited so long to off their mother.
She froze at the sound of footsteps. Nalin was bringing their breakfast. After two days, she knew the routine. She’d hear him get up, pull on his tunic, and all the while she’d pretend to still be asleep. After a half hour or so, he’d return with a tray of food, the same sort of food she’d grown used to in her childhood at Solsta Haven. Despite the grandness of this place compared to the other two havens, the routine and the daily fare from the kitchen remained familiar. She was, however, denied the opportunity to actually participate in the routine.
The latch lifted, and she sat down on her cot and watched as Nalin pushed the door open with his shoulder, a tray in his hands, and then urged the door closed again with another touch of his shoulder.
“Good morning,” he said, as usual a little chilly this early in the day, and he set down the tray on the small table between them and settled onto his cot. “Sleep well?”
Every morning the same routine, as predictable as the haven in which they sat. Three “good mornings,” three breakfasts with Nalin eating very little and Lisen scarfing down all her stomach could hold. It was like she hadn’t eaten in weeks. No, wait, I haven’t eaten in weeks. She smiled at her little joke.
“Lisen?” Nalin asked, and she shared her smile, but not the joke, with him.
“Yes. Yes, I did sleep well. Thank you.” She scooted closer to the table, grabbed the worn wooden spoon, scooped up some of the warm oatmeal-like cereal and put it in her mouth.
“You’ve improved so much,” he commented, picking at the small chunk of bread he’d brought for himself.
“I have,” she began, but the cereal nearly got away from her and out onto her chin. She closed her mouth, wiped the little bit that had escaped to her lips off with one finger. She swallowed and then continued. “I have, haven’t I.”
She looked at him, saw him for the first time since their first encounter after the dispossession. When he’d walked in then to check on her, she’d already crawled into bed, exhausted and finally able to sleep. To her eyes he’d glowed like an angel, with his flowing blond hair and a smile that had broken through at the sight of her, sane, like sunshine through clouds. She shook her head. Enough, Lisen. You’re going all ga-ga, and you’ve got enough of that in your life.
“So,” she said to distract herself from the foolishness, “what happens once Ko…Captain Rosarel, I mean, gets back?”
“We’ll see when he gets here.”
“And until then, I’m locked up in here, the mystery person in the infirmary.”
This inspired a little snort from the young noble. A chuckle? Lisen wondered.
He brushed a loose strand of hair back behind his ear. “The less those hermits out there know, the better. What you look like. Why you’re here. Means they won’t be able to tell Lorain’s spies much of anything except that someone was here and now they’re not.”
“I know,” Lisen said. “You’ve told me before. You know what I think? I think it’s just to get back at me for the fact that you couldn’t ride with us to Halorin.”
She had hoped for another smile at this reference to his unwilling role as distraction to her brother, Ariel—the brother she’d never met but whose destiny would allegedly produce all sorts of evil if he were allowed to survive. Instead, she watched as Nalin closed up, his light blue eyes chilling to frost. Only then did she realize what she’d said; she’d reminded him that he hadn’t been there when Jozan, his good friend—and hers, too—had succumbed to a knife wound delivered by one of her brother’s spies. Or one of Lorain Zanlot’s, her brother’s lover. The two names were practically synonymous in her mind. The fact that Lisen had dispatched the spy, managing to survive; that Korin, her captain, had removed the threat of the first spy’s companion; that the secret of her existence had appeared to have survived intact—none of these things mitigated Nalin’s pain at the loss of his friend. Perhaps it was because only two weeks had passed between the time he’d found himself forced to adjust to the assassination of his mentor and Lisen’s mother, Empir Flandari, and the night of Jozan’s murder.
“Sorry,” she said softly, eyes down, staring at her food. She wasn’t very hungry anymore.
“No, no. Don’t be sorry,” he said, waving her off. “You’re the Heir-Empir and should never apologize for anything.”
He had no idea what statements like this did to her. It got her feeling all gooey inside, and not the good kind of gooey. She’d been the Heir Empir for how long? For her it had been barely a month since her return from Earth, and thinking of parentage, her parentage, always brought her back to the Holts who’d loved her and guided her and pretended they were her parents for seven years. And God, how she missed them. Stop it, she ordered herself and forced this painful thinking to a part of her brain that could cushion the hurt.
“So, what’s the plan?” she asked, moving on.
“I’ll be returning to Avaret, of course.”
“Of course. And me?” She knew the answer, sort of, considering that Nalin had let it slip that Korin had headed off to the desert as soon as he’d dropped her onto the cot where she now sat.
“You and Rosarel will head for Thristas. The captain has this idea that Garlan spies will find it difficult to trace the two of you once you’re over the Rim.”
Lisen nodded. “That’s what he thinks. What do you think?” Nalin and Korin hadn’t agreed on much of anything during the short time that she’d known them. It seemed that Korin prevailed because he came up with the more devious and, therefore, the more effective plans.
“He’s right,” Nalin replied. “Thristas is like another world. And although I wouldn’t say Lorain has no Thristan in her employ, I don’t know why she’d need one. Until now, of course.”
“Which means that it could take her time to find one.”
Nalin leaned in towards Lisen, and in his most intimate gesture ever, he touched one finger to her forehead. “Precisely.” He popped back, and she suspected he’d surprised himself more than he’d surprised her.
“That must mean I’m learning, my getting that,” she said in an attempt to move past a moment that had breached the current boundaries of their relationship.
He nodded. “You’re learning,” he replied.
Then, the awkward moment blew wide open, obliterated by someone bursting in through the infirmary door. They both looked to the door, and only as he slammed it behind him did Lisen recognize the intruder. Korin, she thought with a gasp. Then, “Korin,” she said, unable to look away from him.
“Yes, my Liege,” the captain replied, pulling a chair up and sitting down between the two cots—Nalin’s and hers.
She shivered. “What the hell happened to your eye?” She’d been aware of him with them in the carriage those last days before reaching Rossla, but she had never really been able to focus on him. She did, however, recall noticing something amiss, just not having the ability to identify it. Now she saw—a black patch over his left eye.
“An accident, my Liege,” he replied.
“When?” Lisen asked, needing to know now and not later.
“The night of Heir Tuane’s murder. It’s nothing.”
“Also nothing,” he replied with a wry grin. “It’s gone.” He shrugged. “I’m adjusting.”
“And like Jozan, it’s gone because of me?”
Korin sighed. He seemed uncomfortable under the glare of her attention. “Spies usually travel in twos, sometimes threes. That night there were two, and the companion of your assailant followed me when I left the inn. She fared far worse than I, so I have no complaints.”
“I’m…I’m so sorry,” Lisen managed and saw Nalin’s quick glare at the apology. If it weren’t okay for her to apologize to a noble, how bad must it be to do so to a lowly captain of the Guard? She didn’t care, and she shot Nalin an equally quick glare back, then returned to Korin.
“You seem more yourself, my Liege,” Korin said. Lisen noticed now that his face, with its streaks of grime, reflected a long, dirty ride, through the night most likely given his arrival so early in the morning.
“Nearly,” she replied.
“Then the possession…?”
“Jozan is gone,” she said, “three days now.” She spoke bluntly to avoid any confusion.
“Good,” her captain said. “That’s very good.”
Did she see a smile hinting at the corners of his mouth? Yes, she decided. Definitely a smile.
“Captain, she appears better than she actually is,” Nalin said.
“My lord, I’d prefer to hear it from her,” Korin stated brusquely. “My Liege?” He turned his attention fully on Lisen, and she squirmed a bit.
“I’m fine,” she stated flatly.
“Then let us discuss why I’m here.”
“I know why you’re here,” Lisen said. “You’re here to take me to the desert.”
“Aye, my Liege.”
The holder no longer existed—only this man of the dark hair, the dark patch over what once had been a dark eye. And something else, something in his manner she couldn’t define. A quickness of thought, not out of character, but more pronounced somehow.
“I think it would be wise if we leave today, immediately.”
“No,” Nalin declared, and Lisen turned to him, away from the enticing enigma with the missing eye, and she got the chilly eyes again.
“Nalin, I’m ready. The sooner, the better.” So much moving about. So many farewells to one place after another.
“You need more rest, more time,” the holder insisted.
“I don’t have more time,” she replied, her voice softened to soothe the holder’s objections.
“I’ve brought appropriate apparel,” Korin said and tossed the pack he’d carried in with him to her. She caught it and nodded. “The outer robes are for when we’ve crossed the rim. Besides that, you may wear whatever you please.”
“Thank you.” She wanted to thank him for his sacrifice, too, but she’d already caused him enough discomfort about it.
“My Liege,” Nalin pleaded, reaching a hand across the table between them to touch her arm.
She pulled away. “No. You said it yourself. The longer I’m here, the more vulnerable the hermits will be when questioned and the easier it will be for someone to know for sure that I was here, why I was here. I’ll be safer in Thristas.”
“Are you sure you’re able to travel?” Nalin asked. She could tell this was the last protest in his arsenal.
“I’ll be fine,” she replied. He looked so sad, and she couldn’t figure out why this moved her so.
“All right,” he whispered.
“Good. You,” Korin said, pointing at her as he rose from his chair, “get changed, and we’ll meet you outside.”
“Outside? Really? Outside?” She spoke with sarcastic enthusiasm, but neither of them responded. Nalin simply rose, and the two of them left her so she could change into traveling gear.
She dressed quickly, slipping out of the nightshift she’d worn for far too many days, pretending to be sick when she was not. Remnants of Jozan remained—she’d lied to Korin about that—but the effect was minimal. She couldn’t wait to get out of this room, out into the world again, even if what that meant was escape into the unknown of the desert.
Once she finished, she threw the pack and its remaining contents over her shoulder and stepped to the door. There she paused and looked back at the room. A small room, this prison of hers, but she had let go of Jozan here and been freed of possession—a miracle if she could believe what everyone else seemed to believe, that very few possessions ended well. Lisen knew she had been lucky that the Other smothering her soul had also been a woman of strong will. A woman who, in the end, had shown Lisen the truth of the man she would likely be obligated to marry one day. He wasn’t a bad man, this Holder Nalin Corday. He was rather good looking with his pretty blond hair and baby-blue eyes, and the sense of humor and the strength of character which Jozan had claimed he possessed had manifested themselves in the last couple of days. Sort of. Sometimes, though, Nalin Corday could be just plain boring.
Lisen sighed. One last look as she realized she would never forget this room nor what had transpired here. Too many deaths. This must end.
She opened the door and found the holder there waiting for her. They stood alone in the hallway, staring at one another.
“The captain and I have firmed up the plan,” he said. “He’ll fill you in.”
“How long will I stay in Thristas?” she asked.
“He’ll bring you back in time for the Council session in May. He hopes to have you prepared physically and mentally by then to confront your brother. He tells me you’ve grasped the skills; you just need more practice.”
“I’ve killed one man,” she countered. “What makes you think I couldn’t challenge my brother now?”
The holder shook his head. “You need to heal. Hermit Teran was very clear. The possession left you weak emotionally, and the enforced inactivity affected you physically as well.”
All bravado aside, Lisen was beginning to feel a little lightheaded out here in the world. Back there in the infirmary, just a door away, the four rock walls had provided her with a sense of inner solidity. Now, out where she might at any moment run into others, she felt disconnected from her surroundings, this hallway alone potentially more space than her still slightly scattered soul could manage. But she refused to let on.
“So Korin will fill me in.” Her words sounded hollow, unreal.
“Yes. And he’s assured me that he will let me know if anything happens on your end.”
“Sounds like the two of you have everything figured out.”
“Not everything,” Nalin replied, “but everything we could think of. It’s all subject to change of course.”
“Of course.” Then, silence. Lisen surrendered first. “Well…I guess I should be going,” she said, feeling there should be more to this, but there wasn’t.
“Yes, I suppose you should,” the holder replied.
She didn’t know what she was looking for. Some acknowledgement of what they’d been through together? A magical word that would make the prospect of spending the rest of her life in this wretched world less unpleasant because he was in it?
But the magic never arrived, and at last she simply nodded and stepped past him down the hall. She’d nearly made it to the turn when he called out.
She turned back, waiting. For the magic. “Yes?” She looked at him—this proud, golden holder of Felane with the deep blue eyes—and waited for him to speak.
“May One Be, Lisen of Solsta.”
Nope, that wasn’t it, but it was something, and it required a response. So, after a brief hesitation, she said, “One Is, Nalin of Felane.” Then she turned again and left him there, alone, in the hall.