Wednesday, September 18, 2013

A Preview of Fallen Rise

Here is Chapter Two from Fallen Rise, the low-fantasy novel on which I'm presently working.

Chapter Two
Hali, as she was known here, lay on the sweat-stained bed, staring up at the cracked plaster ceiling. She wished a breeze would blow in and wash away the stench of him beside her, reeking of sweat and stale ale as he was. He was passed out, thankfully.
She sat up and rolled her legs off the bed, the thin sheet falling from her. She dug around in the man's clothes and pulled out the small leather belt pouch that most men of his station carried. She tried to judge the value by hefting it in her hand, and it made a satisfying enough jingle. She got up off the bed and stalked her way toward her vanity, the piece in a condition resembling nothing like its former glory, with its pots of perfume and gilt of gold.
The mahogany vanity's once-delicate lines were now marred and scarred. Eight months ago, she had dug out the gold inlay with her dagger so that she could sell it to a goldsmith. The bastard had only given her twenty silver donas though it was worth thrice that, and it had taken her almost three days of nonstop work to get all of the accursed stuff out. At the time, it had seemed worth it, but now as she looked at the mangled vanity in the soft, blue glow of the sisters she was having second, nay, third thoughts. It was the last of the furniture she had brought with her on her trip north across the sea, a gift from her mother at her coming of age, and she had been loathe to part with it, though in her desperation vandalism had not been out of the question. The inlay had been worth just as much as the furniture piece itself, so she had sold the gold and kept the vanity, staving off collection for another two weeks.
She still had the dagger.
There on the vanity, amid the empty wine bottles, pots of stage pancake and powders, several vases held fresh flowers given to her after today's performance by some of the theater's patrons. She had been using these in a vain attempt to try and cover the stink that her customers left behind. The patrons were not her customers, not in the same sense as the snoring form presently on her bed, but rather they were more noble-minded theater-goers who didn't know that, for an extra coin or two thrown to Kalino, they, too, could have their way with her. They were usually lowborn, boys with notions more romantic than realistic, their blood running fire for her and it more noble than they suspected her own to be. She led a few of them on when they visited her, playing the role of chastity for them, of courtship and interest. In return, they showered her with gifts of candy and flowers, comparing her to the high Haelee, unknowing that her real name was in part an ancient derivative of the same, ignorantly remarking how close her name was to that of the goddess of beauty and lust. The little dramas she played with these men made her feel good about herself, at least for a short time, but even she recognized that in their own way, these men were also paying her for her company. After a while she would grow angry, bored or depressed with the games or the players, and she would eventually send them away, heartbroken.
The candies, Kalino confiscated. The flowers were the one extravagance that he allowed her, saying that they gave the place class, and always with his sarcasm dripping, desperately trying to dig under her skin. She wouldn't lower herself to be baited by him, but that one word always burned bitterly on her mind. Class.
She pulled some flowers out of their vase and laid them aside before emptying the coins from the pouch, dropping all but two of them into the ceramic vessel with watery plunks. She thought about taking them all--maybe she could buy some proper perfume and keep it hidden from Kalino--but she thought better of it. Best that this man believe that he had spent the money in a drunken stupor rather than that she had stolen it. She then replaced the flowers and preened over them in an attempt to make them as pretty, and innocuous, as possible in the half-light.
The man rolled over. Hali straightened up and hid the pouch behind her, running the other hand up into her straight, raven hair as a visual distraction, for she knew a little about sleight of hand from working with Anabren the Magician downstairs on Norcene's stage.
Occupy their eyes and you can commit murder, Anabren had told her, and they'll even applaud you for it. Hali's problems had never lain in occupying the eyes of men.
When she saw that he had only stirred and hadn't waked, she stalked back to his pile of clothes and replaced the pouch where she had found it. She then stooped down and picked up the pewter mug of ale that he had left beside the bed, and she downed the hot dregs that remained there--holding the cup up for almost thirty seconds for those last few precious drops--before setting it down again. She glanced over at the vanity, but she knew the bottles there were empty because she had checked them earlier. The alcohol helped to dull the experiences of being an independent woman, and she was stone sober in comparison to the man on her bed. She hoped the next customer would bring a bottle of wine.
I should insist upon it from the regulars, she thought distantly, almost too casually.
With a near-silent sigh, she made her way to the windows, one of the few remaining sober pleasures of Hali's short life. Her room was on the southwest corner of the theater, on the third floor, and the corner windows offered her pleasant vistas from both directions, but tonight was foggy and grim. To the south, Sapphire Road ran up along the cliffs, but she could barely see the Coliseum through the mist. To the west, across the rooftops of a few low buildings and the city's seawall, the vista was of the mouth of the river where it met the sea, and sometimes she could see the masts of ships docked along the river wharf, but tonight she could barely see past the building across the street.
She spread the thin wool curtains of the west window and looked out over what she could see of Anchorest, leaning against the sill and crossing her arms over her breasts. She closed her eyes and listened to the din coming from the inn next door, imagining the happy faces of the customers as they drank, sang songs, and spun stories by the river. She had passed many a night there at the Portly Peacock, spending money that she didn't have.
It's where she had first sought out Kalino. On her second day in the city, she had bumped into a man in the Bazaar of Fehras, and they struck up a conversation. He told her where the local thespians ate and drank, and he had directed her to the Peacock and specifically to Kalino by name. He runs a theater for my cousin, Norcene, the man had said. Kalino is a right upstanding fellow, and 'tis my oath.
"Oath," Hali now echoed in whisper as she lighted upon the memory.
Kalino had been kinder, then. He had bought her many dinners and even more drinks over that week, flattering her, while she played the part of the young coquette, reluctant to get involved in the theater. And it was only a part. Her only passion lie in acting, in the make-believe, and fantastic. A career as an actress had brought her here from hundreds of leagues to the south. She had manipulated Kalino for the job, or at least that is what she had believed at the time. Now, she wasn't so sure that she hadn't been the one that had been manipulated.
By the end of the week, the part of coquette called for her to relent and she had accepted his offer of a job on his stage. She has since come to regret that decision, but then her cup was now overflowing with regret.
Kalino had helped set her up in a nice apartment on Merchant Road, an open, airy space with balconies that offered resplendent views of the city rising before her. She had allowed Kalino into her bed and into her life, and he allowed her into his deep pockets. He sponsored expensive acting and singing lessons. He had also helped her out of a bind with two Coliseum bookmakers. She had made large bets that she could not cover, and he had stepped in and paid them off. It was then that she had told him who she really was, or rather who she had been, and that was when Kalino underwent a significant personality change. He produced a ledger with every expense listed within, and the grand sum staggered her. It was more than she had, and more than she would see in six years as an actress. She was devastated, but she had no choice but to push forward.
In an effort to reduce her living expenses, she left the beautiful apartment and accepted a room at the small, run-down theater. Kalino was charging a high rent, and soon Hali had found her debt steadily escalating instead of trickling away.
Every day he pounded her door, demanding a payment she did not possess. At first she staved him off by pawning jewelry, selling all of the furniture of her birthright save the vanity, selling her formal clothing, and in a final act of desperation, digging the gold out of her last piece of furniture which was now as battered and worthless as she felt. No, vandalizing the vanity was not her final act of desperation. That was now a nightly mass, performed for the masses, a curtain call for her soul.
Her carriage and bearing made her exceedingly popular among the patrons and customers, and it didn't help her present plight that Norcene's specialized in the most lowbrow of productions. She was performing in silent slave roles, which required her to be half exposed, for the slaves in Anchorest wore bracers on the wrists and a long, unisex skirt that fell to the top of the foot called a samal, and nothing more. It was a further degradation by Kalino, and it doubled as his method of allowing potential customers to get a glimpse of what they were paying for, or at least that is what she had come to believe.
Shame and pride kept her from turning to her House for help out of her current problems, even though they could have made those problems instantly disappear. She couldn't face the other nobles, for she was now a sullied woman, and it would have thrilled her mother to no end to know that Hali had been an abject failure at her independence. She wouldn't give her mother the satisfaction of being right.
Hali took a deep breath of the salty, damp air and it helped to blow away the dust of her memories. She had hoped that the view would cheer her, but the fog only served to remind her of the trap she was presently in.
She heard a laugh and saw two men passing under her window, arms slung about each other in staggering support, as they left the Peacock and headed south on Sapphire. She watched them disappear into the gloom.
Not for the first time, Hali wondered if she would survive a fall from this height, though she didn't think the third floor would be sufficient to carry out such a noble deed. She wasn't frightened by the leap. Stepping out onto the edge like Inyanere, chastely turning to her captors in defiance, closing her eyes, stepping back, falling... All of that was easy, and she had entertained surreal fantasies of it almost nightly. The fifth act ended in tragedy and not a dry eye in the house!
I shall have to be higher, she thought to herself.

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