The King of Koraha

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THE KING OF KORAHA


WARNING!! Spoiler Alert for The Eyes of Tamburah and The City of Zirdai


Chapter One



Ever since Shyla was six circuits old, she'd wanted to visit all the vast underground cities of Koraha. At that time, her world had been very limited. Raised in a monastery by the Monks of Parzival for eighteen circuits, she'd only ventured out to the nearby city of Zirdai on the rare occasion. Her desire to travel never dimmed as she researched the history of each city, their various famous and infamous inhabitants, and catalogued the underground wonders of Koraha. In her dreams, she'd plan her visits, listing the sights that shouldn't be missed.

It was a nice bit of dreaming that failed to factor in one crucial detail--visiting those cities required traveling over the hot sands of the desert for far too many sun jumps in a row.

Far, far too many.

Now, Shyla trudged up yet another sand dune, hot, sweaty, and tired of the unending vermillion sands that stretched out in all directions. They were endless, rippling out to the horizon and beyond. As Shyla followed a step behind Lota, she wondered, not for the first time, how in the seven hells the caravan owner knew where she was going.

According to Lota, there was a road underneath the layer of sand. And Shyla had to admit--grudgingly--her dillo leather boots didn't sink in quite so deep. A good thing, as walking would require more effort if she sank up to her calves with every step.

Shyla glanced back at Lota's caravan trailing behind them. It was considered an average size, with fifteen wagons filled with goods and one for Lota's family. Each wagon had its own driver and was pulled by two gamelus. Then there were eight extra people that Lota referred to as her "muscles." They performed various jobs like taking care of the gamelus during stops and unloading and loading merchandise. There were also eight guards, counting Shyla and Rendor. Actually, as a former captain, Rendor should be counted as three at least.

Opposite her point guard position, he marched in the rear guard location, scanning the sands for potential threats, but he caught her gaze and smiled. The warmth inside her heated, and it had nothing to do with the sun jumping toward apex. She returned his smile, wishing for the millionth time they could have some privacy. But the travel shelters along the route only supplied protection from the killer heat and the cold darkness, with nothing fancier than a communal scattering of cushions.

There were two ways a person could travel across the vast desert that blanketed Koraha. Either you hired a guide, who arranged everything and escorted you safely to your destination, or you signed up with one of the many caravans that crisscrossed the world. Hiring a guide cost an outrageous amount of osmiums so only the deep-level wealthy could afford it. The second option gave you two choices: you either accompanied the caravan as a passenger or you joined as a worker, the latter being the cheapest way to travel and the easiest way to blend in. Too bad it was almost impossible for Shyla and Rendor to travel incognito.

As a sun-kissed, she stood out. Her sun cloak's hood helped hide her blond hair and kept the harsh rays of the sun off her chestnut-colored skin. However, she'd decided before this trip that she'd no longer worry about what other people thought of her. She hoped the citizens of Qulsary, the capital of Koraha, no longer believed that sun-kisseds must be sacrificed to the Sun Goddess right after birth. The new Heliacal Priestess of Zirdai had already outlawed the abandonment of sun-kissed babies on the sands.

Thinking about the new priestess, Shyla grinned. Not only was the woman a sun-kissed, but she was Shyla's mother. A pulse of love swelled in her heart. After years of thinking she had been abandoned and rescued by the monks, Shyla now had a family. Which she'd promptly left behind in Zirdai. Not because of her desire to travel. No. Because the King of Koraha had ordered her to report to him in person.

The knot in her stomach tightened and her gaze returned to Rendor. He too failed to blend in. At one hundred and ninety centimeters tall, Rendor was broad shouldered and pure muscle. And he was all hers. His solid presence helped steady her nerves but couldn't banish her fears completely.

What if the King had her arrested as soon as she arrived? There was nothing Rendor could do in that situation. She and her Invisible Swords had overthrown Zirdai's Water Prince and Heliacal Priestess--two very corrupt and power-hunger people who deserved to be usurped. Unfortunately, two hundred and sixty-four people died during the defeat--many of them Shyla's good friends.

Was the King worried her organization would set their sights on him? As far as she knew, he wasn't a despot. He was over eighty circuits old and preferred to rule from a distance, keeping an eye on the cities through the monks. The King only interceded in a city's politics when their tax payments stopped. Then he would send his legendary soldiers to deal with the problem. Otherwise, he seemed inclined to leave the cities alone, which had been unfortunate for Zirdai when it desperately needed his help.

To keep from fretting, Shyla concentrated on the fact that the King's emissary had investigated the events leading to the change in leadership and had approved Jayden as the new Water Prince and Kaveri as the new Heliacal Priestess. Yet Shyla's thoughts kept circling back to why the King wanted to see her.

Perhaps she should be more concerned about the sun nearing the danger zone. They had usually found shelter by now. If they were caught on the surface between angles eighty and one hundred, they'd be cooked alive. A few of the drivers muttered unhappily as other members of the caravan exchanged worried glances.

Shyla scanned the pink sky, searching for flocks of velbloud. The fuzzy white creatures rose into the air about twenty angles before apex to escape the killing heat, remaining attached to the sands by their long tethers. Tethers she'd used once in desperation to ascend with them. If it hadn't been for them and Zhek's healing goo, she would have died and joined the Sun Goddess.

"Beacon spotted," Yegor, Lota's husband, shouted. The tension dissipated as everyone relaxed.

"'Bout time, Yegor," one of the drivers called in a teasing tone. "Thought you'd gone sand blind."

"I wish," Yegor shot back. "Then I wouldn't have to see your ugly mug every sun jump." Laughter rippled through the caravan as Yegor urged his gamelu team to pick up the pace.

Yegor drove the first wagon, which contained his and Lota's two children. Actually, "contained" wasn't quite accurate as the little boy and girl rarely rode inside, preferring to either cling to the sides, lie on the roof, or ride one of the gamelus--which they had all named.

Shyla squinted through the brightness. Good thing they hadn't depended on her to find the tall obelisk that marked the entrance to a travel shelter. Even though they rose high above the dunes and had been built of black granite to contrast with the reddish-orange sands, they were still hard to find.

Lota led the caravan over to the beacon. As soon as they reached it, everyone burst into action. The gamelus were unhitched and brought over to the stone corral. They were given water and brought under the massive sun shade made from velbloud skin that the muscles erected. The gamelus were well equipped to handle the killing heat during the danger zone, however, due to the extra effort they expanded pulling the wagons, the shade allowed them to recover from their exertions faster.

Once the animals were settled, everyone climbed down the ladder into the shelter. Before joining them, Shyla scanned the horizon one more time, using the power of The Eyes to sense if there was anyone nearby. Not that she expected attackers to be hiding in the desert this close to the danger zone, but the shelter only had a single exit, and if it was blocked, they could be trapped. When Shyla had mentioned this to Lota and the other guards, they'd shrugged it off, unconcerned about the possibility. Only Rendor had understood the danger.

Satisfied they were alone, she descended into the cooler air. It was a straight shot down, ending in a long rectangular chamber about seventeen meters underground. By the time she reached the bottom, the temperature had dropped to twenty degrees Celsius. She waited at the base of the ladder for her eyes to adjust to the semi-darkness. The yellow glow from the druk lanterns hanging around the chamber were weak compared to the sunlight.

Once the black shapes inside the shelter solidified into people, Shyla nodded at Rendor, giving him the all-clear signal. He had waited nearby with his hand on his sword just in case. This habit of theirs amused the other guards, but they didn't know what magic could do. They had no idea that magic wielders could hide under the sands or disappear inside a dune.

The chamber was about five meters wide by fourteen meters long and identical to every other shelter they'd stopped in since Zirdai. Cushions for sleeping and sitting littered the floor. A few long low stone tables lined the walls. There wasn't a collection station. No one wanted to haul nasty-smelling buckets to the surface. Those who needed to relieve themselves were encouraged to go behind a sand dune before entering the shelters.

Shyla and Rendor headed to an empty sleeping cushion, weaving through the small clumps of caravanners. Some were already sprawled on cushions, others shared meals and gossiped, while a few rolled dice in order to pass the forty angles until the surface cooled to a safer temperature. Unaware that Shyla and Rendor had been involved in the turmoil in Zirdai, they didn't pay them much attention. Only Lota and her husband knew the truth because Shyla had wanted to be honest with the owner.

Once they reached the cushion, Rendor stripped off his sun cloak. Underneath he wore a sleeveless tunic. The soaked fabric clung to his well-defined chest. She relished the view as he wiped the sweat off his face, watching his muscles flex. Before he could catch her ogling him, she removed her own cloak.

Shyla welcomed the cool air that caressed her overheated body, sighing with relief. Too bad the water in her water skin was beyond tepid. Any hotter and she'd use it to make tea. Rendor handed her a couple rolls of velbloud jerky.

Taking her blanket from her pack, she spread it over the stained and lumpy cushion before lying down. Rendor joined her. This was one of the few times they spent together in relative privacy--not that they could do anything other than talk quietly and sleep.

"I don't think I'll be able to take fifty more sun jumps of this," she said, snuggling close, breathing in Rendor's unique spicy scent.

"This?" He squeezed her tight for a moment.

"No. The endless sameness sun jump after sun jump for the last twenty jumps."

"Traveling the world not as glamorous as you'd hoped? Or is it the lack of rebellions to lead? I could ask if the others want to overthrow Lota and her husband to generate some excitement," he teased.

"All right, you made your point. I just..." She searched her emotions.

"You just want to be there."

"Yes! The wait is killing me. Why couldn't the King say why he wished to see me?"

"It could be standard procedure when there's a change in leadership. Maybe he wants to get the details from a reliable source. Or to thank you for your help."

"Or to arrest me for murder."

"Ah. Tell me again how many people you personally killed?"

None, and he knew it. "You know what I mean. They died because of me."

"No, they died because the Heliacal Priestess set off gas explosions."

"Because she wanted me."

"She wanted The Eyes of Tamburah. It didn't matter whose eye sockets they were in, she was going after them regardless. You have to stop blaming yourself."

Except if it hadn't been for her, Ximen, Elek, and Lian wouldn't have been on level ninety-seven when part of it collapsed, killing them.

Rendor must have sensed the direction of her thoughts. "You're not going to be arrested."

"And if I am?"

"Then I'll rescue you."

She smiled at his confident tone. "What if I'm guarded by one of the King's elite squads?"

He huffed in derision. "I'll still rescue you. Just might take me a few more angles."

"Their fighting skills are legendary. They can't be beat."

"Everyone can be beat, sunbeam. And I would be highly motivated." His words hummed in the air like a promise.

No doubt the big brute would try. She gave Rendor a quick kiss. "Thanks."

His voice dropped to a husky whisper. "Thank me again when we're alone."

She nibbled on his ear before saying, "That'll be in fifty more sun jumps."

He groaned.

"Do you still think it's not that long?"

"Can't talk. I'm sleeping."

She'd punch him, but she'd end up just hurting her knuckles.

***

After the sun moved from the danger zone, the caravan continued its journey. Once again trudging through the sands, Shyla scanned the horizon. The routes between the cities of Koraha were lined with shelters. However, with the constantly blowing sand, you'd never know they were well traveled. The only time the sand stopped moving was when the sun reached the apex of its jump. Most times a steady breeze blew the grains, but on rare occasions, they were blasted by a howling sandstorm.

When the sun hung low in the sky, Lota stopped them at another shelter. This time the wagons were parked in a circle to keep the gamelus inside. The sun shade was draped over all the wagons, creating a thin ceiling for the herd. It also blocked the wind and trapped the sun's heat emanating off the sands and off the animals. Enough warmth so the guards on duty didn't freeze.

Shyla admired the design as she circled the outside of the hut during the start of her twenty-five-angle shift to protect the wagons, checking that all was well. Then she turned her attention to the wider surroundings. The starlight from the Five Brothers constellation illuminated the sands just enough to spot the approach of any sand pirates without having to use a druk. But Shyla still used her power to seek the souls of any hidden attackers. Rendor and the others were just a shout away. He wouldn't admit it, but Shyla knew he remained awake when she was guarding the wagons.

Satisfied no threats lurked nearby, Shyla practiced manipulating the sand with her magic. Sand was a powerful weapon, and she still hadn't mastered moving large quantities of it. Starting with the easiest task, she focused on her footprints in the sand and used the magical command return. Her prints disappeared. Then she moved on to the more difficult task of hiding her body underneath the sands by creating a furrow she could lie in before settling a layer of sand over herself so the ground appeared to be undisturbed.

So far, her attempts to walk through a dune had not been successful, but not for lack of trying. Shyla climbed to the top of the nearest dune. Using her magic, she removed the sand underneath her feet so she sank down into it. At least she no longer panicked when the sand closed above her head. In fact, she took a moment to savor the protection and warmth that built from her body heat. However, when she focused on creating an exit in the side of the dune, the sand exploded from the hole instead of pouring gently out. The noise alone would alert anyone nearby that something strange was going on. Stealth was key for this maneuver. Frustrated, Shyla smoothed the gaping hole, returning the dune to its unblemished state. Jayden had done it with nary a ripple. Then again, Jayden also had eighteen circuits of practice. Except now his magic was gone.

As the new Water Prince, he couldn't have an unfair advantage over his citizens. Shyla didn't regret taking his magic from him. Her worries focused on how he would handle the job without his power. Mojag promised to keep an eye on him from a distance. The boy hadn't forgiven Jayden for betraying the Invisible Swords. And Aphra, Jayden's new archeologist, also said she'd watch him for signs of trouble. The citizens of Zirdai deserved a qualified, compassionate, and incorruptible leader.

When it grew too cold, she ducked inside the hut to warm up and check the gamelus. They had curled up together with their long legs and snouts tucked in tight, looking like an oversized yellow bush. A few gave her sleepy half-lidded looks. Shyla wondered how anyone could tell them apart. But Faizah and Anwar knew them all by name. Come to think of it, so did Rendor.

Once warm, she returned to practicing with the sand until Rendor arrived to take his turn. Another reason she enjoyed guard duty was when he pulled her close and kissed her like he hadn't seen her in circuits. Heat immediately speared her and she deepened the kiss, wrapping her arms around him.

Rendor's sense of duty always kicked in and he broke off the kiss to scan the surrounding desert for trouble. She rested her head on his chest and just soaked him in, listening to the thrum of his heart.

"Go inside and get warmed up," Rendor said.

She reluctantly let go. If she pushed to remain with him, he'd insist she get some sleep. If she stayed despite his protests, he'd physically escort her to the shelter. She could use her magic to stop him, but she'd never do that to him. In fact, she'd promised not to use magic on him without his permission. Unless it was an emergency. As for the power of The Eyes, she didn't need to read his thoughts and emotions. Over the last two hundred and twenty-seven sun jumps they'd been together, she'd learned to read his body language pretty well. Besides, she already knew his heart.

"Go," he ordered.

He wasn't in charge, but he could out-stubborn her. So she stole another kiss and went into the shelter.

***

The sun jumps blurred together, piling up. Shyla was both comforted by the routine and frustrated by it. Soon after they left the travel shelter at the start of their fifty-second sun jump of travel, Shyla sensed a strange thickness to the air. Beside her, Lota appeared unconcerned. Shyla glanced back at the other guards and caravan drivers, but no one acted anxious. The kids were having fun pretending to be racing the gamelus. Yet there was a hum of anticipation and excitement that danced on her skin.

It took her a couple of angles to spot the small shapes in the distance. Monks? Had they traveled close to another city? The monasteries were always built near a major city so the monks could spy on the people and report any problems to the King. They also wore special clothing that blended in with the color of the sand when they were out on patrol.

Rendor moved up from his position, joining her. "Do you see them?"

"Yes."

"I count ten," he said.

"I see a dozen."

"There's eighteen," Lota said.

"Are they monks?" Shyla asked her.

"Not out here."

"Sand pirates?" Rendor gripped the hilt of his sword.

"No. They don't strike in sunlight, and they wouldn't be lying half buried in the sand."

Shyla squinted. The woman had a keen eye. "The King's guards?"

Lota scoffed. "No. If the guards ever bothered to leave Qulsary, they wouldn't hide." She paused. "We are near a major crossroads so there are travel shelters in each direction."

"Who could they be?" Rendor asked.

"I've no idea, but they're lying in wait for us." She signaled the rest of the guards to get ready. "I hope you two are as good as you claim. This is going to get rough."

Australia/New Zealand release date: 1 December, 2021 HQ Young Adult Australia
Rest of the World release date: November 22, 2021 Maria V. Snyder Publisher

For ALL my Readers, you can find pre-order links for THE KING OF KORAHA HERE:


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