Okay so I KNOW I have a novel due in 3 weeks.
And I KNOW I have two other books (Rust 4 and Cemetery Dogs) that’re aaaaalmost ready to launch and I should be putting my spare time into them.
And I KNOW that I won’t have time to work on this seriously for another year or two.
AND YET I WROTE IT. And I need your help.
This opening chapter is made of two scenes: a wide-perspective introduction to the world & current conflicts, and a close-in view of three assassins sneaking into a besieged city to kill a king.
I’m keeping both scenes. My question is – which comes first? Start wide, then pan in? Or start close, and pan out?
I’d love your opinions. If you’ve got five minutes, help a guy out?
CHRISTOPHER RUZ – EMINENT EMPIRE (WORKING TITLE)
Drop a smooth white pebble into a bowl of water.
Watch closely. It all passes in a heartbeat.
The pebble punches through the water’s surface and a crater forms, rippled, spreading outward toward the rim of the bowl. As the crater expands, the pebble vanishes, swallowed, plunging to the bottom. It leaves a void behind, a tunnel of scar tissue through fluid.
Don’t blink. Not yet.
The second law of natural physics states all things echo. Bone and stone, light and thread and steel and sound.
The void left by the pebble fills. Water rushes to occupy the space.
It spears upward, a finger of crystal jabbing, accusing, from the centre of the bowl. Then, at its apex, it shatters. A string of beads hanging, suspended, above a ruined crater.
This is Kharadbarain, City of Black Lanterns.
In winters it hibernates beneath a cloak of pearl. In summers it rots as foul waters sweep through the eastern inlets, where the great bowl of Kharadbarain meets the bayou. The grey slate rooftops of a million temples and hovels, faith-factories and meat-schools blanket the crater, hugging tight even as its slopes grow steep along the outer lip.
Some believe the crater was formed, centuries before, by a terrible explosion in the old mines recently uncovered beneath the city. Others blame an incident of sorcery, an invocation or act of worship gone wrong.
A smaller sect look to the moons – specifically, Dalle, the smaller of the two – and point to the shattering along its rim. Perhaps, they say, there was a time when the revolutions weren’t so precise. When Dalle and Troika passed close enough to click and bounce like billiard balls.
None of these theories explain the lance.
It stabs skyward from the epicentre of the Kharadbarain’s basin, not a tower of stone but hundreds of massive slabs of granite suspended in the air, twisting gently in the winds. A thousand engineers and ladder-slaves died constructing the rope bridges and serpentine stairways that link the stones, forming a path to the heavens.
The granite slabs shift and twirl but never collide. Nobody knows why. They have weight, and yet, they float. Nobody knows how.
The lance rises twice as high again as the outer walls of the crater. It’s so tall that, from the temple built atop the peak, one can see the armies of the Blind God Mallock forming defensive lines on the distant plains to the north, and the armadas of the Pleiosan bobbing hull to hull in a blockade that stretches across the entire eastern horizon, out beyond the line where the bayou meets the ocean. To the south, the encampments of the Mentat tribes. To the west, an army of mercenaries, tents without number scattered like seeds across the landscape.
And beyond them all, the churning, inky foulness of Mallock itself: a chained beast five miles wide, a mass of cattle-cart teeth and long wet limbs and blackness beyond black, a dark that sends men mad if they stare too long into its heart.
Even the soldiers of Mallock don’t look at their god. They face Kharadbarain, and wait.
Kharadbarain has been under siege for three years. The streets are quiet. The farms are dying. Chill autumn winds leave the streets paved with morning ice.
And in the temple atop the lance, the priests of Kharadbarain make plans.
Their own god listens.
The three assassins blessed each other as their skiff passed, silent and unseen, through a gap in the blockade.
First, between the Pleiosan frigates – an allied armada encircling the coastline, anchored and alert, cannoneers tensed, anticipating the klaxons that would call them to war. Then through the belt of sunken warships, Pleiosan and Kharadbarain alike, that marked the first and only encounter between besiegers and besieged.
The swells were larger there, crashing against the hulks of galleys and caravala, sawtoothed wounds in their hulls, mainmasts toppled, sails tangled in the wind. The waters were clear enough that when Pillar leaned over the edge of the skiff she could see all the way to the silt below. A shallow harbour that’d halted the Pleiosan advance and forced the beginning of the three year siege.
A siege that might be only hours from ending.
Slow, muffled oarstrokes took the three along the bends of the midnight bayou and into the forest of warships and wooden pylons that made up Kharadbarain’s port. A hundred soldiers patrolled the docks and another five thousand slept in nearby billets, waiting for alarms.
There’d been attempts to break the siege of Kharadbarain via the ports before. All had failed. All too grand, too inelegant.
The assassins were anything but inelegant.
Their skiff rode so low in the water it was barely more than a swell amidst dark tides. As they approached the docks the three abandoned their oars and lay flat, letting the tide bring them in. All were cloaked in black, weapons wrapped in waxed paper. They held hands in the dark and counted seconds, waiting for the patrols to turn.
“Twenty nine. Thirty.” Pillar’s sword lay against her chest, reaching from her collarbone almost to her toes. The night heat was stifling, sweat beading on the inside of the cloak covering her face, dripping into her eyes. “Count twenty more heartbeats, then we break for the dock.”
Beside her, Gentle nodded agreement. He wore no leathers, no skullcap, no boots. Only trousers of sealskin so tight they seemed bonded to his thighs, and the black striped facepaint that marked a warrior of god. “If I don’t make it, Mallok bless you both.”
The third assassin grunted, checking the straps on her bandoliers of knives. “Don’t need Mallok if you do your damn job.”
“Love you too, Wind.”
In the darkness, Wind grinned. The tallest of the three, she lay with her knees pulled to her chest, crushed inside the confines of the skiff. She reached out to touch Gentle and Pillar’s faces in turn.
“Cut deep,” she whispered. “Cut true.”
“For Mallok,” Pillar said.
Wind shook her head. “For us.”
The three slipped into the bayou, their eyes the only thing showing above the muddy surface. They swam soundlessly, leaving bare ripples in their wake. Two guards waited on the nearest pier in Kharadbarain colours, blue and opal. Ragged uniforms, poorly fitting – the city had been under siege so long that cloth was an impossible luxury. They were watching the distant flotilla and not the water at their feet, and didn’t see the three drift silently beneath them, into the labyrinth of boats, buoys and rotten pylons.
More patrols ahead, a pair of soldiers in each. Every patrol carried a brass lantern on a long pole; the light they cast was ghastly, shimmering, turning their flesh a sickening white without touching the cobblestones.
The three reached the shoreline and crawled out of the shadows, invisible, breath held, waiting for a patrol to pass. Ten quick steps took them into an alley between a fishmonger and a spicehouse, where they crouched together and wicked the worst of the bayou-slime away.
Pillar took Gentle’s hand, squeezed tight, felt the pulse thud in his wrist. “You’re excited.”
“Aren’t you? We’re off to kill a king.”
“Don’t get ahead of yourself. Still gotta climb that old bastard.” She nodded towards the lance. Far above the slate rooftops, the colossal ladder of stone spun, pulling taut against its tethers, relaxing, turning back. Weightless, but even as she looked at it she felt an incredible gravity holding her gaze, stilling her heart. “I don’t like it.”
Wind drew one slim knife, wiped the blade clean, studied the tang. Her expression was severe, thin lips pursed, eyes dark beneath the shadows of a heavy brow. “Too tall?”
“Everything’s too tall for her,” Gentle grunted. “Caught her in the barracks last night, swearing at the bunks because she couldn’t find a ladder.”
“Hilarious.” Pillar punched Gentle in the kidneys. He was only a head taller than her, but her husband lorded it over her at every opportunity. “No place for a king, is what I meant. Sitting up so high. How small do you think we look to him?”
Wind bared her neat white teeth. “Small enough so he won’t see us coming. You-” She jerked up, eyes wide, thin brows raised. “Patrol.”
The three pressed into the walls, cloaks drawn over faces, weapons low so they didn’t catch an accidental lick of lamplight. Two sets of footsteps. One striding long and heavy, the other short, struggling to keep pace. One man, one woman, Pillar guessed.
She met Gentle’s eyes across the alley, and her husband nodded.
No need to plan or debate tactics. The three had killed a hundred Kharadbarain soldiers between them since the beginning of the siege. Two more made no difference.
So long as they did it clean.
The patrol turned down the alley, boots crunching on autumn leaves dried black and fragile as glass. The man, taller, broader, took the lead. He walked with his head bowed, one hand on the pommel of his sword, eyes on the ground before him. Exhausted, dragging his feet.
Good. Shame the woman behind him wasn’t the same. Squat, muscled, chestnut hair pulled back in a tight bun, broad forearms shimmering in the un-light glare of her lantern. Alert. Nostrils flared, head twitching back and forth, taking in every angle. Picking up her squadmate’s slack, as usual.
Pillar almost sympathised with her. If only she hadn’t been wearing the wrong uniform.
Ten steps away. Five. Two. The lantern swung, casting its ghastly glow across the alley. Where it touched Pillar’s cheeks she felt it burn – not with heat, but with blasphemy.
Sweat pricked across the nape of her neck. She readied her sword.
The lead soldier walked past the trio without even a mutter of suspicion, and Pillar was about to relax when the woman carrying the lantern stopped, boots skidding. “The hell’s that?” she began, squinting into the shadows where Wind was crouched, hidden beneath her cloak. “That’s-“
Wind exploded from her hiding place, daggers swinging up, one in each hand, angling for the soldier’s throat. A flash of steel. Sparks in the night. The woman was fast, abandoning the lantern, her own sword swinging up to guard her face. “Andre! Help!”
Boots on stone. A clatter of glass as the lantern shattered. The first guard swung around, his sword a ribbon of moonlight, grimacing beneath his beard as he ran to join his partner. “Alarm! Alarm!”
Pillar swore. The pair were trapped in the alley, Gentle on one side, Wind and Pillar on the other, but they didn’t look worried. Instead they pressed back to back, the woman facing Gentle, the man jabbing at Wind and Pillar, forcing them to retreat.
These ‘Barains had fought Mallock’s soldiers before. They knew the codes and were willing to abuse them. That made things harder.
The bearded soldier, Andre, went on the attack, sword sweeping across the width of the alley, inches from opening Pillar’s guts. All she could do was deflect, sidestep. Scare him with a quick swipe across the eyes, so long as the tip of her blade didn’t touch skin. Wait for an opening. Behind Andre, the woman was doing the same, making Gentle dance with a series of quick, surgical jabs.
The codes of Mallock were simple and inviolate. Gentle couldn’t kill the woman driving him down the alley. No man of Mallock could even cut her in battle. None would dare – injuring a woman would be like injuring Mallock herself. As for Andre? No woman of Mallock would lower herself so far as to dirty her blade with a man’s blood.
The ‘Barains didn’t follow the same rules. Nothing more dangerous than people without a code, Pillar had learned.
They only had seconds before the docks flooded with soldiers, following the cries of alarm. It had to be fast. Pillar shot Wind a sideways glance, a terse nod.
The bearded soldier swept in, a desperate lunge that would’ve pinned Pillar through the midsection if she’d still been in the way. Instead she pivoted on the balls of her feet, turning sideways, Andre’s blade sliding alongside her ribs.
She dropped low, feet planted, and drove her shoulder into the soldier’s guts. His breath whistled out through clenched teeth as he folded around her.
Bowed beneath Andre’s scrambling, flailing weight, Pillar yelled, “Go!”
Wind leaped. She planted one boot in Pillar’s back – using Andre’s face to launch herself higher would risk breaking his nose, and her vows – and sailed through the air. Her knives were ribbons of moonlight and her teeth were bared in an animal snarl as she soared overhead, silhouetted against the stars, and then down, down, toward the woman keeping Gentle at bay.
She didn’t have time to turn, to scream, before Wind buried both daggers in her spine.
Her name was Wind because she chose it. Because she could be silent and swift when she wanted and a roaring hurricane when it was required. Because she moved so fast as to slip through the gaps between shadows and sunlight.
Wind bore the guard to the ground and yanked her blades free. Twin threads of blood hung in the air, spattering the alley walls.
The guard fell without a whisper.
“Isan!” Andre shoved Pillar away and spun back and forth, caught in a moment of indecision. Pillar moved to block the alley mouth, blade in hand, pulse pounding in her temples, reading the terror in his eyes.
Only two choices, friend, she thought. Run, or save your partner? Die a hero, or live as a coward? It’s always one or the other. Choose, friend. Choose.
The soldier never has his chance. Gentle stepped over Isan’s body, inside Andre’s reach, grabbed him by the hair and jerked his head back so hard that the wet snap of vertebrae echoed off the alley walls.
His name was Gentle because he wasn’t.
The soldier hit the cobbles, foaming at the mouth, boneless. Gentle kicked him into the corner while Wind dragged the dead woman, tucking her beneath drifts of garbage.
Hidden enough, Pillar thought. They only needed an hour.
No shouts of alarm in the alleys. No pounding of footsteps. “Seems we got away clean,” Wind muttered. “Somehow.”
Gentle grinned. “We’ve got a god’s luck on our side.”
“Hope that carries us all the way to the king.” Pillar huffed, all the air smashed from her lungs by the dead guard. She looked back and forth between her husband – Gentle, cleft-jawed, sweat-gleamed, swaggering and invincible – and her wife – Wind, slick with blood up to the elbows, dark eyes made darker with kohl, blades snaking in her hands, hypnotising.
She loved them both so much it ached in her lungs. Now she was leading them into Kharadbarain’s heart. Into the home of the enemy.
This night would make the three of them heroes, or corpses.
No time for second guessing or regrets. They had a king to kill. She patted Wind and Gentle on the arms in turn. “I figure we’ve got an hour before the whole harbour is locked down. So.” She licked her lips, wondering which of them she’d kiss first when they returned from the Kharadbarain royal chambers. “Which one of you beautiful bastards wants to piggyback me up the lance?”
So, the question! Start wide, then zoom in? Or start close, then zoom out? I’d love to hear what you think.
Thanks for reading my work, and stay awesome!