Here’s a sneak peek of the my YA Fantasy novel, Blood Heir. My personal goal is to begin querying by year-end 2017 (makes it that much more official now that it’s out there on the net!). This is an excerpt from (the current draft of) my opening chapter.
The prison bore striking resemblance to the dungeons of Anastacya’s childhood: dark, wet, and made of unyielding stone that leaked grime and misery. The only difference was that, this time, she was not a prisoner.
The reminder brought her little comfort as she followed her escorting guard through the corridors, their boots clacking sharply against the rough stone floor, their breaths misting in the cold, dank air. Ana wrapped her cloak tightly around her, nails scraping against the once-lush furs that had worn thin around her hood.
Papa would have told her that this was a place filled with demons, where the darkest souls and evilest men were held. Even now, almost a year after his death, Ana found her mouth running dry as she imagined what he would say if he saw her here.
Thoughts of her father stirred dark whispers in her mind. They mingled with the mutterings and high-pitched hisses of prisoners from deep within the cells, rising into a frenzied chorus in her head: Monster, murderer, monster, murderer.
Ana shuddered, but kept her gaze straight ahead. Monster and murderer she might be, but that had nothing to do with her task at hand.
She was here to clear her name of treason. And it all started with finding one prisoner.
“I’m telling you, he won’t give you nothing.” The guard’s coarse voice pulled her from the whispers. “Racked up debts as high as the Salskoff Palace walls before he was caught.”
He was talking about the prisoner. Her prisoner. Ana straightened, grasping for the lie she had rehearsed over and over again. “He’ll tell me where he hid my money.”
The guard gave her a sympathetic glance. “You’d best be spending your time somewhere nicer and sunnier, mi dama. More’n a dozen nobles have bribed their way in to Ghost Falls to see him, and he’s given ’em nothing yet. He’s made some powerful enemies, this Quicktongue.”
A long, drawn-out wail pierced the end of his sentence, a scream so tortured that Ana’s hairs rose. The guard’s hand flitted to the hilt of his grayglass sword. He gave a nervous chuckle as the sound died. “Cells are gettin’ full of ’em Affinites. That’s what happens when they’re good business. We’ve got a good selection right now, you know.”
Ana studied the guard, running her eyes over his leather boots and thick furs. The prison guards in Cyrilia were growing fat from the bribes they accepted. Bribes from Affinite slavers, who paid to take away the Affinites filling Cyrilia’s prison cells. Perhaps he was hoping he could convince her to pick up an Affinite on her way out, pad his wallet for a bit of extra booze tonight. No wonder he was being so ingratiating.
That would change if he knew what she was. Her eyes settled on the vial of green-tinged liquid that dangled from his buckle, its tip curved like the fang of a snake.
“Deys’otrav, mi dama,” the guard said gravely, following her gaze. “Blocks an Affinite’s powers.”
She didn’t need his explanation to know what it was. Not when she had spent her entire life choking down its spice-tinged taste and lying on her bed, delirious and feverish and sweating from its aftereffects. Her caretaker, Vladimir Sadov, had forced so much of it down her throat that she’d started developing a tolerance to it. As the years passed and her Affinity grew more powerful, Ana had needed stronger doses to subdue the monstrosity she’d been born with — a monstrosity, even in Affinites’ terms.
Sadov’s silky voice crooned to her from the darkness. Deys’otrav is used to protect you. To protect us all. Affinites can be dangerous things.
Bile rose to her tongue, and she pulled her hood further over her face.
“You all right?”
She realized that the guard was peering at her. “Yes.” She forced her tone to be bland. If there was anything Sadov had taught her, it was that to show emotion was to show weakness.
Ana ignored her twinge of unease, turning her thoughts instead to her brother. The dungeons, the guard, the whispers, and the memories they brought back — she’d endure it all, and endure it a hundred times over, if it meant she could see Luka again.
Her heart ached as she thought of him, but Ana abruptly cut off the thought. Her grief was an endless black hole; it wouldn’t do to sink into it now. Not when she was so close to finding the one man who could help her clear her name.
“Ramson Quicktongue,” barked the guard. “Someone here to collect.” A jangle of keys; the door ground open with a reluctant screech. The warden turned to her, raising his torch, and she saw his eyes rake over her hood again. “He’s inside.”
Ana threw back her shoulders and stepped into the cell. She resisted the urge to gag. The rancid smell of vomit hit her, along with the stench of human excrement and sweat.
She barely recognized the man on whom she had pinned all her hopes for the past few months. In the farthest corner of the cell, a figure slumped against the grime-covered walls. His shirt and breeches were torn and bloody, his wrists chafed from the manacles that bound him to the wall. He raised his head of matted dark hair, and she saw that his face was covered in a filthy beard.
His eyes, however, focused on her with sharp intent. He was young — much younger than she’d expected for a renowned crime lord of the Empire. Surprise twanged in her stomach.
“Quicktongue,” she said, testing her voice, and then louder — “Ramson Quicktongue.”
A corner of the prisoner’s mouth curled in a smile. “It’s not every day that I get a beautiful lady visitor.” His voice was smooth, and he had the faint lilt of a crisp, high-class Cyrilian accent. “What’s your name, darling?”
The question caught her off-guard. It had been nearly a year since she’d exchanged pleasantries with anyone at all. Anastacya Mikhailov, she wanted to say. My name is Anastacya Mikhailov.
Except it wasn’t. Anastacya Mikhailov was the name of the Crown Princess of Cyrilia, charged for murder and treason against the Cyrilian Crown eleven moons past.
Ana tugged her hood further over her head. “My name is none of your concern. How fast can you find someone within the Empire?”
The prisoner laughed. “How much can you pay me?”
“Answer the question.”
He tilted his head. “Depends on who you’re looking for. Several weeks, perhaps. I’ll trace my network of wicked spies and black-hearted crooks to your precious person of concern.”
“I don’t have several weeks. You would need to do it in two.”
“You drive a hard trade, my love.” The prisoner grinned, and Ana narrowed her eyes. Already, he was everything she hated: sleazy, arrogant, and dishonorable. He was playing with her, finding amusement in her desperation when he had no idea who she was and why she was here. “Luckily, I don’t. Let’s make a deal, darling. Free me from these shackles, and I’m yours to command. I’ll find your handsome prince or worst enemy within two weeks, be it at the ends of the Nandji Desert or the skies of the Kemeiran Isles.”
“No.” She could guess at how these dirty, conniving criminals worked. Give them what they wanted and they’d stab you in the back faster than you could blink. “I’m looking for a man. A Cyrilian alchemist. He practiced medicine at the Salskoff Palace some time ago.” She paused, and dared a wager. “Tell me where to find him, and I’ll free you.”
“Ah,” Quicktongue said, and her heart leaped. “Him.” He cocked his head, focusing on her with a sly smile. With one hand, he beckoned her closer.
“Come closer, darling,” he crooned. “We don’t want the nasty guard to hear our secrets, do we?”
She chanced another glance at the guard, who was standing outside the cell and watching their exchange with a frown. He quickly looked away.
She didn’t trust him. Ana looked back at the conman. She didn’t trust him, either. But … he had something she wanted. And he was a trained negotiator. She would have to play along for now.
Ana took a step forward. She bent slightly, holding her breath as the stench of his unwashed hair hit her.
Quicktongue leaned closer. His smile had dropped; his tone was low when he spoke, his earlier nonchalance replaced by a sense of urgency. “The keys are hanging outside, by the door. Help me get out, and I’ll give you whatever information on whomever you want. Face it, love: even if I tell you exactly where he is, you’ll never find the alchemist on your own.”
Ana leveled her gaze to his. Beneath the torchlight, his eyes darted around her face with the hard-edged glint of intelligence. Even his nose was slightly crooked, bringing to mind the tricksters she’d read about in her childhood books.
“No,” she said. “I know what you are, Quicktongue. You’ll disappear as soon as you’re free. You’ll give me my information first, and then I’ll help you.”
“We’re at a stalemate, then, aren’t we, love? You don’t trust me to uphold my end of the bargain, and I don’t trust you to uphold yours.”
He was stalling, perhaps playing with her. She would have to be patient enough to play along. She had something he wanted: the keys to his freedom, quite literally. She would simply have to find a point of leverage and push hard enough so that he broke first. That was the first rule of bargaining that Papa had taught her. “How disappointing,” she said, leaning back. “Seems like they were right about you. All talk and no substance.” She thought she caught a flicker of amusement in his eyes as she made to stand up.
“How insulting. Find someone else to help you with your little quest, then. There’s nothing in it for me.”
Irritation wrapped its hot grasp around her. She was no diplomat; unlike Papa and Luka, she’d never needed many words when she’d spent an entire lifetime behind the Salskoff Palace walls, with all of the servants so terrified of her that they bowed to her every whim and fancy.
Besides, when it came down to it, she could always use brute force.
At the thought, her Affinity stirred. Tendrils of her powers reached out to the blood rushing through Quicktongue’s veins. At her will, every drop of blood in his body could be hers to command. She could easily disrupt the flow, rattle him up a little to wipe that smirk off of his face.
She pushed down those thoughts. Her Affinity was only something to be used as an absolute last resort. The slightest stir of her power darkened her pupils to crimson, giving her away as an Affinite. If she was discovered, the guard outside would certainly employ his deys’otrav to good use.
She could still threaten Quicktongue, though. Just enough so that he would take her seriously. “Listen to me, you arrogant bastard. I could tear you apart, limb by limb, if I wanted to.” Just using those words made her sick, but she pressed on. “Does that make the stakes clearer for you?”
Quicktongue narrowed his eyes, his gaze honing in on her as though he were trying to figure out a particularly difficult puzzle. He leaned forward, and it was all Ana could do not to back away. “Limb by limb,” he repeated, the words like a caress on his tongue. “Is that so?”
She was so focused on her response that she didn’t see it coming.
Quicktongue’s hand darted out and flicked the hood off of her head.
Ana stumbled back, but the damage was done. Ramson stared at her eyes, his expression morphing from one of amusement to one of utter terror. “Deities,” he gasped, his hands flying to his throat. “Affinite—help!”
Before she could fully realize that he had set her up, sharp footsteps sounded behind her.
Ana spun. The guard raised his blade, the green tint of deys’otrav catching in the torchlight.
She dodged. Not fast enough.
She felt the sharp bite of his blade as she tucked into a roll and sprang up, on the other side of the cell. Without looking, she could feel the trickle of blood from the gash that had opened on her forearm.
Blood. Her Affinity lingered, reaching out to the bonds that called to her. She crushed down the urge, a moment too late.
The guard’s eyes widened. He’d caught sight of her reddening pupils.
It was a strange reaction; her friend, Yuri, had once likened it to a drunkard’s flush after he’d had a drink. Ana supposed blood was her liquor: intoxicating, beckoning, always making her hunger for it yet never leaving her satisfied.
The guard was backing away towards Quicktongue’s corner, as far as possible from her. He pointed his dagger at her like a talisman at a demon, his lip curling with disgust and fear.
Ana swiped a finger across her wound. It came away crimson and wet, yet there was a smudge of green-tinted liquid mingling with her blood.
Deys’otrav, her senses screamed at her. He had poisoned her. Her head spun at the sight.
“You move and I’ll cut you again,” the guard warned, his voice unsteady. His gaze darted to her eyes, their crimson sheen no doubt reflecting beneath the torchlight. “You filthy Affinite.”
Before either of them could do anything, there was a jangle of manacles and a flash of filthy brown hair. Faster than an adder, Quicktongue locked his chains around the guard’s neck.
The guard let out a choked gasp as his hands scrabbled at the chains that now twisted tightly around his neck. From the shadows behind him, Ramson Quicktongue’s smile sliced white.
Quicktongue turned to Ana, holding the struggling guard to him as one would a lover. His expression was now predatory, his earlier nonchalance sharpened to the hunger of a wolf. “Now, let’s try this again, darling. The keys should be hanging on a nail outside the cell door — standard protocol before a guard steps into a cell. The set for my chains are the fork-shaped iron ones, fourth down in the row. Unlock me, and I shall give you your alchemist, and we both get out of here unscathed.”
Despite herself, despite the resolve and the voice that told her to be strong, Ana was shaking. she pressed a hand against the rough stone wall, her gaze darting between Quicktongue and the guard. The guard’s eyes flashed as the whites of his eyes showed. Spittle bubbled at his mouth.
Quicktongue was the most infamous, dangerous conman in the Cyrilian Empire. She had known this when she had come searching for him. Yet she had never expected him, a prisoner shackled to the stone walls of Ghost Falls, to get this far.
Unchaining him would be a terrible, terrible mistake.
“Come, now.” Quicktongue’s voice grounded her to the horrifying choice. “We don’t have much time. In about two minutes, the next shift will be here. You’ll be thrown into one of these cells, and auctioned off on the Affinite black market. And I’ll still be here.” He shrugged and tightened his chains. The guard’s eyes bulged. “If that’s the scenario you prefer, then I must say I’m disappointed.”
The shadows in the room were swaying, contorting. Ana blinked rapidly, trying to steady her racing pulse. Despite her tolerance, the deys’otrav was slowly but surely starting to work its effects.
Think, Ana, she told herself, clenching her teeth. Her eyes darted around the cell.
She could torture the conman. The deys’otrav was in her bloodstream, but it was a small scratch, and it would take about twenty minutes before she was completely incapacitated. She could use her Affinity on him, draw his blood, threaten him, and get the location of her alchemist.
Tears pricked at her eyes, and she shut them against the images that threatened to crowd into her mind. Amidst all her memories, one burned as brightly as a flame in the chaos. You’re not a monster, sistrika. It was Luka’s voice, steady and sweet. Your Affinity does not define you. What defines you is how you choose to wield it.
That’s right, she thought, drawing a deep breath and trying to still the shaking in her arms and legs. She was not a torturer. She was not a monster. She was good, and she would not subject this man — no matter how black his intentions — to the same horrors she had once been through.
Which left her with one option.
Before she knew it, she had crossed the room, snatched the keys, and was fumbling at the conman’s chains. They fell with a click. Quicktongue was instantly on his feet, rubbing his chafed wrists. The guard’s body slumped to the floor, his breath wheezing through his half-open mouth.
A wave of nausea rolled over her. Ana blinked rapidly, trying to clear the haze from her eyes as she clung to the wall. “My alchemist,” she said. “We had a deal.”
“Ah, him.” Quicktongue strode to the cell door and peered outside. “I’m going to be honest with you, love. I have no idea who you’re talking about. Goodbye.” In the blink of an eye, he was on the other side of the bars. Ana lurched forward, but the cell door grated shut with a clang.
Quicktongue jangled the keys at her. “Don’t take it too personally. I’m a conman, after all.”
He threw a mock salute, spun on his heels, and disappeared into the darkness.
Full copyright applies to Amélie Wen Zhao (original author of this work).