As some of you may already know, author Bradley Beaulieu recently announced that he and Night Shade Books have parted ways. Beaulieu will be self-publishing The Flames of Shadam Koreh, the third book in his Lays of Anuskaya series, as well as rebranding the previous two installments (The Winds of Khalakovo and The Straits of Galahesh) with brand new covers. To help fund this venture, Beaulieu has launched a Kickstarter, which, at the time I’m writing this, has already reached its initial goal. However, you can still help the author reach some of the (very neat) stretch goals and score all three books at a very reasonable price.
If you’re not familiar with the author or series yet, I invite you to read my reviews of The Winds of Khalokovo and The Straits of Galahesh, as well as my review of the excellent Strata novella Beaulieu co-wrote with Stephen Gaskell and the interview I conducted with Beaulieu and Gaskell.
And if that’s not enough, I’m also very proud to share the following excerpt from The Winds of Khalakovo. Here’s “The Dance” – one of the most memorable scenes of the entire Lays of Anuskaya series so far.
The day continued with Nikandr meeting and greeting each and every member of the Vostroma contingent except Atiana, which included, unfortunately, Mileva and Ishkyna, who seemed too polite and much too pleasant. He kept eyeing them, wondering what they were up to, until it occurred to him that that might be exactly what they were after. He tried to ignore them after that, but it was impossible—one or the other or both kept inserting themselves into his conversations.
It felt as though the rest of his life would be spent answering questions about his plans for Atiana, his plans for family and livelihood. It was endless and painful beyond description, not in the mere voicing of it, but in light of the fact that he doubted he would live to see those years. The wasting was growing within him. He knew this. And despite whatever small hopes he might harbor of finding a cure, he understood deep down that he might very well die before he saw his first child born.
Eventually—thank the ancestors—it was time to prepare for dinner. He changed into the shirt and kaftan made for him for this night. He kept his own boots, however. There was to be a dance, and he would not engage in battle with Atiana wearing unbroken boots. After downing a healthy portion of the elixir—and an herbed biscuit to mask the odor—he left for the grand ballroom.
When he arrived, he was taken aback. He knew the celebration had been cut back in favor of the wedding itself, but this? The ballroom could hold nearly five hundred, and ten years ago it would have, but the room before him had tables for a third of that, perhaps less. They were widely spaced over the floor, making the room look anemic, and though it was clear that Victania had tried to cover for this by decorating each table with towering arrangements of fresh flowers, it still seemed like something that would cause insult to a man like Zhabyn Vostroma.
Victania entered the ballroom a moment later. A smile came to Nikandr’s lips, decorations forgotten, as she wove through the tables toward him. She wore a dress of bronze, sewn with pearls patterned into a school of tiny fish. Hair the color of dark walnut was pulled up into an impeccable bun, revealing her delicate neck and the iridescent quality of her chalcedony soulstone. She looked grossly thin despite months on a special diet of fatty fish and goat and fibrous foods like celery and radishes and asparagus, but there was a gleam in her eye, a flush in her cheeks, that hadn’t been present even that morning.
“Nischka, Nischka, Nischka.” She took both of his hands and swooped in to kiss him once on each cheek. “Let me have a look at you.”
“There’s nothing to see, sister.”
“Ah, but there is!” She took him in from head to toe, an approving smile on her face. “You’re actually presentable once you’ve been thrown in a bath and given fine clothes.”
“I am little more than an oaf in costume. You, however, are stunning.”
She favored him with the smile the two of them reserved for one another. “So good of you to notice.” She turned toward the room, smile faltering. “I hope it’s all right.”
He squeezed her hand. “It is more than I could have hoped for. Truly.”
“If you would hope for anything, Nischka”—she glanced toward the ballroom’s entrance—“hope for another bride. It’s almost too late…”
He nearly laughed, but Victania was staring to one side, her nostrils flaring momentarily. She seemed confused, and then an expression of disbelief came over her face. She looked him over as if she’d just seen something she had completely missed moments ago. She had probably done the same thing while looking into her mirror, coming to grips with the fact that she had the wasting. He knew he couldn’t hide the disease forever, but he couldn’t let it be known now, not with the wedding so close at hand.
Before she could say anything he squeezed her hands and said, “I’d better find my seat.”
As she stared into his eyes, her expression softened. She knew as well as he did how important this wedding was for their family. “Well, dear brother, if you’ll excuse me, I have a function to attend to before—how did you put it this morning?—it dashes against the rocks?” And then she was off, headed toward the great fireplace, snapping her fingers at two servants setting the silverware.
Nikandr breathed a sigh of relief as the ballroom continued to fill. On the dais at the head of the room, Nikandr’s father stood next to Zhabyn, both of them sipping kefir, looking as stiff as Nikandr could ever remember. They had never been comfortable with one another, and despite whatever words Zhabyn had spoken to Nikandr in private, the looming marriage seemed to be pushing them further apart.
On a golden perch behind the head table was a large rook. The bird was preening itself, which meant Mother had not yet assumed the bird’s form, but she would when the time came.
Nikandr wondered when Atiana and her two henchmen would arrive, but then, as if he’d summoned them by the mere thought, she swept into the ballroom wearing a stunning white gown. Her hair was powdered and piled on top of her head, and she looked as if she were balancing it, like it would topple down if she were to tilt her head in the smallest degree. Her skin was powdered as well, with a small amount of rouge applied to her cheeks. She wore rubies at her ears and wrists, and her soulstone hung from a beautiful gold chain at the nape of her neck. Atiana turned and sent a small but insistent wave into the hallway, and Mileva and Ishkyna strode in, each of them a near perfect simulacrum of their sister.
Victania greeted them, though she was anything but warm. There was still a bit of protectiveness to her that Nikandr was secretly appreciative of. It was better than Ranos’s constant haranguing about making children.
“Now how could you resist a woman like that?” Ranos stepped by Nikandr’s side, and put his hand on his shoulder. Nikandr looked at Ranos, who had a huge, childish grin on his face.
“Tell me, brother. Which one is Atiana?”
Ranos considered them, the bridge of his nose pinching. “You have me there, but I tell you truly, any one of them would do.”
As the last of the guests were arriving, Ranos and Nikandr wove their way to the head table. The contingent from Vostroma was respectable, but they were dwarfed by the Khalakovos, who had traveled from all seven islands and beyond to see Nikandr’s new bride. Only Mother was notably absent, but she was much too infirm to attend a function such as this for more than a few minutes. Better she stay in her cold basin deep beneath the Spire; as old as she was and as long as she’d been controlling the aether, that was where she was most comfortable.
Everyone was seated—from highest ranking to lowest—and then food was rushed in by dozens of servants wearing simple black kaftans and dresses. It was interesting to note just how many people dove into the meal with a recklessness that spoke of ravenous hunger, particularly among the socialites and lower-ranked royalty. How many had forgone one or two meals to save a handful of rachma? Most had probably not eaten this well in years, even though they were of royal blood. One woman even took bread and slipped it into her knit purse, a woman Nikandr knew to be married to a wealthy merchant. At least, he was wealthy at one time… With the blight and the increasingly bold attentions of the Maharraht, their families’ fortunes may well have reversed. It had taken quite some time for the blight’s effects to trickle their way upward, but it was clearly being felt by everyone now.
Nikandr’s appetite was not strong, but with so many people watching he forced himself to eat. It probably wasn’t a good idea, considering the dance that would immediately follow dinner, but Atiana was eating healthily, and something in him wouldn’t let her beat him, even at something as simple as that.
When dinner finally ended, the center of the room was cleared. As was custom, Nikandr walked out to the empty floor and held his hand out as the crowd gathered round. The rook on its perch seemed to be watching intently now—Mother had joined the festivities, however briefly.
A lute and a harp and a skin drum took up a dancing song as Atiana stood and made her way toward him, pulling pins from her hair as she came. The crowd whooped as her long hair fell about her shoulders, giving her a wild and most unladylike look. Her words from the eyrie rushed back to him. I look forward to it, she’d said. As simple as that. But the words had dripped with meaning.
She arrived at the center of the floor, but rather than take Nikandr’s hand and wait meekly for the dance to begin, she pulled him into a tight embrace, the typical pose dancers took for this particular song.
The crowd laughed. Nikandr felt his cheeks flushing, partly from the embarrassment of Atiana taking the lead, but more so from the sheer surprise of this woman—who had always been the meekest of the three—taking charge of the situation. He found himself not only impressed, but attracted to her. She was turning out to be vastly different than the girl from his memories.
“Are you so eager to dance?” Nikandr said as the dance began.
The scent of jasmine and facial powder laced the air as she leaned into him, chest to chest, and whispered, “Not to dance, Nikandr Iaroslov, but to teach you a lesson.”
“And what lesson is that?”
“That a Vostroma is no woman to be ignored.”
“Were you ignored?”
“Avoided. Snubbed. Choose the word you wish.”
He found a smile coming to his lips, but he suppressed it. “And a dance will even the ledger?”
“Nyet.” As they stalked in the opposite direction, she leveled upon him a steely gaze. “It merely begins to tip the scales, Khalakovo.”
As the drum sounded a heavy beat, she spun on one heel and stood straight as a sword, her hair flaring before falling about her shoulders. All was silence. The preliminaries were over, and now the real dance would begin. The story the song painted was one of a young man and woman—two people that had wandered through life, searching for love but never finding it. It detailed a defining moment in their lives, one in which each of them saw through to the heart of the other for the first time, and their love began to blossom.What followed between the two lovers was grand, and the music played it so, slowly at first but with a steadily quickening rhythm.
Atiana spun in a circle and took one step forward. She kicked her outer leg in a high arc, over Nikandr’s head as he dropped to a crouch. He balanced on the balls of his feet as she stared down at him.
And there came that wicked little smile. The one she used when she wanted him to know that she’d tricked him. No one else would even notice, but Nikandr knew it all too well. The smile he’d suppressed earlier returned, and this time there was nothing he could do to stop it. Atiana had come to dance, and he had not been tested in a very long time indeed.
As the lute and harp strummed a heavy chord, the crowd collectively clapped. In time, Atiana spun and brought one leg low over the ballroom floor, her dress flourishing as it did so. Nikandr jumped into the air, clearing her sweeping leg, and kicked both legs out, touching his toes with the tips of his fingers.
A collective gasp filled the room. Nikandr had jumped very high, partially to impress, but also to let Atiana know that he had accepted her challenge.
The second chord came, the crowd clapped, and Atiana repeated the low sweep of her leg. She was very good, Nikandr realized, her motions fluid. No doubt she had practiced only to drive her superiority home in front of as many people as she could manage. Nikandr jumped again, and the crowd murmured.
The progression continued, Atiana spinning, Nikandr leaping, as the pace of the music increased. It was a time where the two lovers were exploring their emotions after being lonely for so long, a celebration of their newfound love. The clapping came faster, the music more lively. The crowd became more animated, some people yelling “Hup!” as Nikandr leapt and kicked his legs straight out.
Typically the woman, even if she were more fit or a better dancer, would end the dance when she saw her partner begin to flag. Atiana would do no such thing.
Nikandr was no stranger to this dance, and certainly not to dancing in general, so he was able to continue for quite some time, but the demands on the male partner were great. His stomach began to tie in a knot and the muscles in his legs tired as the crowd clapped in a frenzy and the music marched on.
Still, Nikandr thought, her efforts would be taking their toll. Part of him hoped she would slip or be unable to sweep her leg, or that she would simply stop, her breath coming too quickly, but another part hoped that the challenge would not be so easy.
Nikandr’s breath came in ragged gasps as he dropped to the balls of his feet, ready to launch himself into the air once more. His thighs began to burn as if they’d been replaced with bright, molten lava.
He launched himself once more. And again, knowing he had only a few more in him.
And Atiana knew it. He caught that same little smile as she spun around once more.
She would fail, he told himself.
She would stumble.
She would fall.
Nikandr pushed himself harder than he ever had. He sounded like a wounded animal as hard as he was breathing, and he barely cleared her leg as he leapt into the air. He was no longer able to touch his toes, and he couldn’t extend his legs completely. It was an embarrassment to the form.
He could neither leap high enough, nor fast enough. He raised himself up, but Atiana’s leg caught his ankles, sending him sprawling to the floor.
The crowd went mad, clapping and yelling and laughing, some sending piercing whistles about the room.