The First Lesson - Excerpt
Happy New Years Eve 2021! Here is an excerpt from 'The Redsky Cycle', the first novel in a trilogy written in the spirit of 'The Hunger Games', 'Earthsea', and 'Red Rising'. Given the upcoming 5e launch, I want to share as many details about the lore of Dema as fast as possible. While a writer never truly finishes a book, this latest version is in a state that newcomers can use to easily explore a slice of the world of Redsky. So, while official work with an editor on the first book is still a ways off, enjoy my early-access form of the narrative.
This excerpt shows Jayne in the early days of her servitude to the Prefect of Yaras. The other excerpt has Jayne thrown into the middle of the action on her adventure in the Midnight Isles.
The current plan is that the full 80k+ text of Book One will be hosted on this site for free to all supporters of the Kickstarter until it's time to publish Jayne's story officially. Thanks for starting this adventure early with us. While you can guess the winding path Jayne's journey will take, her ultimate fate rests in the hands of readers like you.
Chapter 4. The First Lesson
2/30 Duaplanta, 13 LS
16 Days Into Thralldom
I scrub a freezing glass cube with glowing particles floating in the center before putting it down on the table. I wipe my brow. My hand comes away slick with sweat. I hate cleaning. I hate Ioneth. I hate his smug face. I hate his brooms. I hate his cleaning rags. I hate the closet where the brooms are next to the rags and the rags are next to the brooms. I hate that House Mistress pulls an endless number of new tools out of her servile butt and then sicks duties on me like an oytuk on a defenseless mare.
I hate the solar hour bell that tells these people how to live their lives. I hate it because it lies to me. The major cleaning is only supposed to take a half of the day, which should ideally give me the other half to handle the rest of the meal prep and scrubbing, or figure out how to escape. This is patently false. The chores always pile up so there’s more left to do than when I started.
So, I get to hate cleaning from when I wake up to when I go to bed. I hate it when it’s cloudless or in a downpour. I hate that House Mistress shouts “Work!” at me when she makes her rounds. What do you think I’m doing? If I say I’m going as fast as I can, I get the old, “Sounds like your problem, not mine,” from her. Work is breaking in a new virse, not washing dishes until my fingers look like the pruned old men who dine with Ioneth as guests at every meal in the feast hall.
And by the moon, do I hate Ioneth’s guests. I hate that just because the rest of the staff and I put enough food in front of them to feed a village they assume they have to eat all of it. Only once did I look a guest in the eye and let on one speck of the disgust I have for them register. He made an offhand comment to House Mistress about how Ioneth should buy more respectful help, then left.
The next day I had a new job – washing out the chamber pots.
I no longer see the walls of the larder, or the fifteen bedrooms, or the gardens that need endless pruning because the pode has a taste for Dayland plants that need way more sunlight than what Yaras can offer. Hyacinths are pretty. So are Devil Tails, and Sun Rubies. I just hate that House Mistress made me memorize the names of these and two dozen more, and the schedules on which they are to be watered. Something about caring for plants this intensely that you can’t eat makes me, well, hate.
I hate that there are not only chores that I know I don’t know anything about, like the prepping of his exotic foods, but chores I don’t know I don’t know about. Who knows what they’ll think up next?
And I hate how all this hate makes me seem like a hateful person. I’m not like this, I swear. It’s the type of burning distaste that comes after doing this for years, even though it can’t have been more than a moon cycle. Somehow this is worse. My Abjection flared up the fourth morning, and ever since, I haven’t wanted to get out of the cot. I skip meals. I wish I could sleep for a year and let the Eldertech polish itself.
Oh, yeah. The Eldertech. Eldertech is a term for any abnormal item normal people can’t explain. Adventurers and scholars pull Eldertech from ancient city ruins, track Eldertech down in forgotten underground vaults, unearth Eldertech from shifting sands in the Sunbleak Wastes.
Sometimes it’s something like an axe impossibly light and sharp enough to cut through rock. Sometimes it’s a metal jug that fills itself with water if you leave it in the open air long enough, no rain or river required. Stuff like that. Nobody knows who made it all, and nobody has found the raw form of the material most Eldertech is made of. Everyone values it for the benefits they may give. The entire Archivist people are obsessed with collecting it. It’s their religion. An Archivist big shot used to swing by the tribe meeting grounds to barter for whatever the Dawnraiders pulled from forests or stole from humans. He just went by ‘The Archivist’, no given name. He used to tell me stories of the frost spires of Etherea. I wonder whatever happened to him?
What does Eldertech have to do with me, in this moment? Nothing. Except I have to dust and handwash a mountain of it. Ioneth has made it a mission in his life to accumulate as much random crap as he can and store it in the basements of the villa. Presumably it’s to keep it away from the Archivists or something. There’s no organized way to how he stores it, either. Just piles and piles that need to be maintained.
It’s alright, though. The cube was the last piece in this cupboard. At least today’s Eldertech cleaning is done. I trudge up the staircase back into the villa as the midday bell rings.
My only relief is that Raddox and Vaygo are beginning the next stage of their lessons right now, and I’m expected to sit in and make sure they behave. Then it’ll be back to the cleaning.
I just hope it doesn’t make me sound weird to say how lonely I’ve been feeling. There are other people around me, but I just don’t know how to live this way. I remember big dinners with all the others of the yurts in our tribe. Now it’s a meal of flavorless leftovers alone in my room. Where’s the spice?
I should be surrounded by friends. I’ve always needed time to regain my energy after a big gathering, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t like the idea of them. It’s like I can’t be satisfied with where I am or where I could otherwise be. The Hegemony stole my chance at growing up normal.
I don’t know. Maybe I wouldn’t have been able to enjoy myself even if things were normal. I guess what it comes down to is that I don't think I'm a fundamentally happy person, and I have no clue how other people live as shiny lives as they do.
I pass by another house servant, Vella, scrubbing the floor with water that smells like citrus. Her fair hair is tied in a virsetail that sways as she works. Only Ioneth has the wealth to wipe down his hallway with imported fruit.
Have you ever felt like you were born into the world too late? That the most promising times have come and gone, and all that’s facing you and the people you care about is a long, slow decline from what could have been to what’s waiting? I get that feeling when I look at Vella. I’ve tried to start a conversation a few times, but she never says more than a few passing words.
I learned from the other staff that she is a second-generation thrall. Her eyes don’t have any fight in them. This is all she knows. She shares a name with the founding heroine of all Nightriders, but her life is anything but heroic.
I say, “Let me know if you need help replacing the candles in the feast hall tonight.”
“Thank you.” From that tone, I don’t think she’ll take me up on it. Why should she? She’s been used to this workload her entire life.
Now, of course there’s the idea that I could be doing this work for the rest of my life. Is there any future in that? I think everyone has a purpose if their work is honest, no matter what that is, but it has to be working for yourself. Ioneth owns every bead of sweat that runs down the back of my shirt, every muscle sore from scrubbing or stirring. I might as well be pushing his marble desk up Little Brother only to have it roll back down at the end of every day. Could I do this forever? No. Escape burns in my heart.
“Stay strong, Vella.” I say, patting her on the back. “Some of the happiest days of our lives haven’t happened yet. We have so many surprises and interesting times to look forward to.” It’s what my mother always used to say when we were short on food while we fled the Krypteia.
There’s a bit more emotion in her voice when Vella replies, “I hope not, Jayne. It’s a curse to live through interesting times.”
I find Aeliana and the twins in the same courtyard of the villa I saw her on the first day. She sits by the koi fish pool and rock garden.
I’ve cleaned this part of the villa at least five times since I got here. I think about the koi more than I should. Ioneth imported them all the way from Deonar. He barreled them up and shipped them to a place so far away, the sun they were born under doesn’t shine for more than a few hours. What a journey that must have been for the koi. If we returned them to Deonar, would any of the fish friends they left behind believe them about what happened? Or do these koi not remember anything besides where they are now. I bet they don’t know how their feeding and mating and fighting in this fragile little pond is all for Ioneth’s amusement. Not that he pays attention to it. Now that it maintains itself, I’ve seen him check in on the koi maybe once.
Kind of like his children. For all his investment into their futures, he doesn’t particularly show direct interest. Twins aren’t uncommon for Nightriders, but it is uncommon for them to look so unlike their parent. Must be the mother’s side. Not that Ioneth is married. The boys were from a hushed-up affair involving The Purple Lantern, at least according to the staff’s rumors. Ioneth apparently indulges in intimacy a bit too much when he’s not running administrative affairs. Raddox and Vaygo both have the same three-ridged brows, bright green eyes, and athletic build. They would be almost impossible to tell apart, except that Raddox likes to keep his brown hair long and unkempt, while Vaygo has his shaved to his ridges.
Personality-wise, they couldn’t be more opposed. There’s a restless energy to Raddox, the kind that keeps him moving from one activity to another seemingly on a whim. Vaygo listens far more than he speaks, and most of his speech comes in questions.
“I want to go riding today instead,” says Raddox as he flicks pebbles into the koi pool. “I just don’t get when we’re ever going to use this stuff.”
“History is the bedrock on which all great things are built.” says Aeliana, patiently. Vaygo sits by her side, his eyes scanning down a scroll. I bet I’d be engrossed like that if I could read. No, wait, it’s just a series of sketches. I try to peak over Vaygo’s shoulder and see, but he rolls it up too quickly and sticks it back into Aeliana’s satchel. When he sees I was trying to look, he gives a shy, soft smile and says, “Sea monsters!”
Aeliana taps the ground with her pointer stick. “We’re beginning now.”
They both sit at her feet. Aeliana draws a broad square in the sand of the rock garden, marking in short strokes. It resolves itself into landmasses. She draws one large line down the center.
“The Daylands and the Nightlands. Vaygo, take a stick and draw me where the sun is.”
Vaygo makes a circle in the bottom right of the sandbox. “Now, how far west do you think we are based on how much light we get?”
Vaygo draws a smaller circle about two thirds to the left of the center line. “Good,” says Aeliana. “You’ve been practicing your angles and measurements. Draw the path of the wandering moon from The Mountains of the Moon to the Midnight Isles.”
“I can do that!” says Raddox, seizing the stick. He draws the circuit. Raddox has a thing for all Nightrider culture, which I can appreciate. The forwardness can be a bit much, though.
After he’s done, Aeliana pulls a honeycomb from her satchel and wags it in front of the boys. “The first one to say all six peoples of Dema wins.”
Vaygo barely has time to open his mouth and breathe in before Raddox fires off: “Nightrider, Archivist, Wakewalker, Featherfolk, Sporespawn, and, and,” He pauses.
“Human.” says Vaygo, pointing at Aeliana.
“Right, sorry Aeli.” Aeliana tosses him the honeycomb anyway. He catches it and pops it into his mouth. Vaygo looks disappointed, until Aeliana plucks a second one from the satchel and hands it to him.
“Every people has their own homeland, balanced to be perfect for them to live in. Sometimes they’re friends, sometimes not. This is the way it’s always been. That doesn’t mean you can’t visit the others, or that they don’t converge in places like Mundi. I want you to be ready for their customs if you are picked to travel there. That’s what we’ll cover over the next few weeks.”
“So why are there humans in the Nightlands now? Besides you and Errol, I mean.” asks Vaygo. “Aren’t they not suited to the dark?”
“The war,” whispers Raddox.
“It’s true, they are out of their comfort zone here. Do you want the Hegemony’s version or the truth?” says Aeliana. She can ask that? “The teachers at The Scholasta do not produce the brightest kids in the world by making them memorize endless facts, even though that is exactly what I’ll have to ask you to do to prepare for the Maturate Ceremony. But you must learn to reconcile competing information and come up with your own views. This is the start of it.”
“Give us both sides,” says Vaygo.
“The official tale goes like this. A generation ago, there was a Dawnraider who was so strong and charismatic that he unified all of the tribes of the Moon Realms.”
“The King of Darkness.” smiles Raddox.
Aeliana nods. “He called upon the Freesteeds of the western plains, the Cairnkeepers of Tallon, and your people, the Hardhooves, to join him in launching the biggest invasion Dema had ever seen. He wanted the wealth of the Light Plains, where humans are from. You need to follow me for the next part.”
The boys scurry to their feet. I try to keep several paces behind. Aeliana leads us out of the courtyard towards the stables adjacent to the servant’s quarters. Stables are where city-folk apparently keep their virses. Virses with their own houses. Wild.
The six thoroughbreds in the small stalls would be worth a lot of cattle out in Dawnraider territory. Ioneth probably pays for the best. Their coats are short-haired and cream colored, typical for the Hardhoove breeds. The stables smell of manure and animal sweat. If I close my eyes it’s almost enough to take me back home.
“Imagine tens of thousands of riders, each with two or three virses, in a battle line stretching across the horizon.” Aeliana whispers in her best storyteller voice. “On the far side of the field are you and your friends. You’re a human soldier who has never been ten miles from your farm before this, standing next to men who are really just boys, too. It's been raining for three days straight. Nothing but muck and mire that you can't scrub out of your armor no matter how hard you wash. Maybe you have a wooden spear, and a scratchy leather cap two sizes too large for your head. You’ve never seen a virse before, much less fought folk you only know as foreign monsters out of the tales you heard growing up. Your kingdom called, and you have answered. For all the good that's about to do you.”
She swoops her hands above her head and wiggles them down on Vaygo’s head. “A cloud of arrows thick enough to walk on falls across your battle line. Men collapse to your right and left, the arrows cracking, clanging, their cries drowned out by the beat of hooves rolling toward you. Suddenly you smell something in the air. Fear, sure, and the coppery taste of blood, because you've bit your tongue in your haste to raise your shield. But also the inescapable musk of a thousand pelts and the sweat of the virsemen's vanguard. The Nightriders, screaming with their hair flowing in the wind, wave curved swords as long as you are tall, and bear down on you faster than anything should move. The two lines meet...” Aeliana makes a crashing sound with her mouth.
Raddox looks impressed. “Battles are cool. Can we ride them right now?”
“You’re not trained enough for these virses. Ask your father for a smaller mount and I will find you a riding instructor.” Not big enough? I was already in the saddle forever when I was Raddox’s age.
Aeliana strokes one of the virses on its broad nose. It whinnies. “There were plenty of battles. Soon the horde was strong enough to lay siege to Mundi, my home city. The King of Darkness captured it and seized everything of value he could, bringing it back to the Moon Realms. He then rode on and fought the kingdoms of Scintilla, Abresia, and Deonar for many years,”
“Were you alive for that?” says Vaygo.
“I was a baby,” says Aeliana. “Come, back to the courtyard.”
Goodbye, virse friends. I’ll return soon to break you out, and we’ll all go riding from Yaras like the law is chasing us. Which it will be.
When we’re back in front of the rock garden, Aeliana draws three circles on the eastern part of the sand. “The human cities proved resistant, and for all the terror The King of Darkness struck into the hearts of the humans, their walls would not fall. It still shook them to their foundations. The kings and nobles of these places were overthrown by a commoner revolt. Eventually, the human cities united into one force with a commoner Emperor at its head. So formed the Solar Hegemony. No human greater or lesser than any other, the emperor ruling as First Among Equals. At least in theory. They pushed the King of Darkness out and beat him back to Mundi, which they recaptured in time. This Solar Hegemony waited at the limits of the sun, deliberating whether it would be wise to attack back into the Moon Realms, especially when they considered the three peoples of the Nightlands somewhere just above demons and just below animals.”
Vaygo frowns. “Do you think we’re evil?”
“You two? Never. Nightriders are no more evil than any thinking folk, though I for one believe guilt flows from one generation to the next forever until it is addressed,” says Aeliana, handing him another honeycomb.
That’s where I disagree with you, oh wise tutor. Why should we be held hostage to the sins of our elders? Some things should be forgiven if enough time passes.
“The King of Darkness didn’t give humanity long to sit around and talk. Soon, he struck out again with a new force to retake Mundi. Only, Emperor Remus and his greatest general Gawain were prepared for him. In the Valley of Tears, in front of the world, Gawain broke the horde into a hundred shards and slew the King of Darkness. From that day on, the humans swore to never let their enemies get the upper hand again. They launched their invasion of the Moon Realms. No force was strong enough to fight them off. And here we are.” Aeliana puts down the stick and motions to me and the sand. I take the sand rake from the wall and smooth out the lines she drew.
Aeliana’s jaw tightens. “Now, think of how many Nightriders died in the wars with The Hegemony. The King of Darkness said he needed control of the Light Plains to prosper, or all Nightriders would wither. Is it right to take from others if you are trying to help your loved ones survive? If it is, was the Solar Hegemony right to defend itself?”
The boys let that sit for a minute. Vaygo finally says, “It was a tough situation. I don’t know what I would have done if I was the King of Darkness or Emperor Remus.”
“I do. I would’ve done what father is doing right now,” says Raddox. “He saved the strength of the Hardhooves for another time. One day we’ll get a new King of Darkness and force all Daylanders out.”
Aeliana tolerates talk that’s negative towards the Solar Hegemony because many feel that way. I take it she is one of the Mundi humans who has little love for the oppressing weight of the 'Hegs. Usually criticism is not said so openly. Raddox could get into a lot of trouble if an officer was walking by.
She says, “It’s not that simple. Emperor Remus is promising to raise the quality of life for everyone in these lands. Build new towns and roads. Reward the war heroes. Make the Moon Realms more like the kind of place that all should want to live in. If the Hardhooves become a group of people following beliefs you don’t agree with, would you leave, or stay and try to change their minds?”
“I’d stay.” says Vaygo. “It’s our group. You can’t know that you know what’s best without everyone else. If they’re right, they’re right. But if I’m right, I’m still weaker alone. Things could take a long time to get better.”
“Only because people take a long time. It doesn’t have to be that way. If the Nightriders here don’t want freedom, I’d leave and find the ones that do.” says Raddox.
Count me in. Except, it’s easy to say bold words when you’re the boss’s son, Raddox.
Vaygo says, “I don’t know. Our lives haven’t really gotten worse since the Hegemony took control. If anything, it’s better. We have all this new space.”
“That doesn’t excuse how many other Nightriders are suffering right now,” says Raddox, crossing his arms. “There’s a whole war still going on out there with the Hegemony and the other tribes. The 'Hegs may say everyone is equal, but there's never been more slaves. So your argument is dumb.”
“You’re dumb.” says Vaygo, flicking sand at him.
Raddox says, “No, this is dumb. Imagine if father was throwing a party with all our friends, and there was a huge fire going out of control in the basement. I come running upstairs saying a whole lot of people are going to be worse off really soon unless we do something, and you’re standing there basically telling me there’s no big problem because you just got a sandwich and don’t smell smoke yet.”
Vaygo’s brows furrow. He takes time to formulate long thought-out answers, which usually leaves Raddox with the last word.
“These are questions we’ll discuss more over the coming weeks. Besides,” Aeliana says, “There is nobody left who could take The King of Darkness’s place.”
“I thought he had a thousand heirs.” says Vaygo.
“More like a hundred. He took a wife from every tribe, and had many more mistresses. But the last of them were hunted down by the Krypteia in the hinterlands last month. None are left.”
Aeliana talks a bit more about the first wave of human colonists set to come into the Moon Realms to plow fields and bring the light. Then she ends the session with, “We’re taking a little field trip as soon as possible. I think I have a way for you all to better frame your attitudes towards things.”
I make my way to the kitchens and spend the rest of the light hours peeling potatoes.
I can’t stop thinking about what Aeliana said, though. ‘None are left.’
That’s where you’re wrong, Aeliana. There’s still at least one more heir left, and she's trapped peeling potatoes and washing out the chamber pots.
Here’s the thing about fathers. In an ideal world, you have someone who can take care of you. Show a strong example. Pick you up when you fall from a virse. My father was none of these things. He never made an effort to get to know me during the few times I ever saw him visit our sub-tribe’s territory. That battle against Gawain was the end of the big guy. In the stories, the heroes with the royal blood have great destinies to fulfill. They’re protected from losing anything because of their birthright.
Well, I’m here, born in the first place, as an insurance. There’s nothing special about the shadow blood. Having the ‘royal’ lineage I do may mean a lot to some people, but the whole concept is rigged. The hundred heirs were drawn from every sub-tribe. My father sowed as wide a field as possible not because he cared about what would happen after he died, or because destiny would give his children invincible armor. He did it so he could consolidate power and convince everyone he needed to that they had the same long-term interests.
Put yourself in my place. Imagine being persecuted for something as arbitrary as that? When the Moon Realms were invaded, and our homelands fell, we heirs stuck together as a group, only scattering too late into little cells like Maas, mother, and I. We’d go from safehouse to safehouse, riding off in the middle of the night, one step ahead of the Krypteia. The Hegemony's secret police was ruthless getting to my half siblings. I’d hoped a few other heirs were out there, but if Aeliana is saying the hunt is over like it’s a foregone conclusion, then that’s that. The world only knows what the truth appears to be. That the shadow line is ended.
For the better. My father was unjust for starting these wars in the first place. I’d never want to take up his mantle. I just want to get back to the few Dawnraiders that are still riding and let this whole invasion die out. If Emperor Remus wants cobblestone roads, he can build them. Doesn’t mean I’ll use them. What good is a path that’s already laid out for you?