Thursday, August 11, 2016

The Chained Dragon

Two weeks ago I shared a little sneak peek of my next book, Son of Thunder. The response was pretty positive, which makes me happy. I've had some requests for more, and today I plan on delivering. I'm gonna share the entirety of that same scene. But, before I do that, I want to share something else. 
BEHOLD!

This beauty of a cover was done by the very talented Randy Vargas. I love it, guys. I feel like it's a perfect representation of both the story's protagonist and the setting.

That said, let me introduce you to both. The following is Son of Thunder's opening scene. Let me know what you think. And if you like it, the book will be available next month.

The Chained Dragon

Troi was skinny, with an unfortunate beak of a nose. He was often made fun of for his looks, though now he looked even worse than usual in the traditional garb of an ancient Sohlgain hunter.

To be fair to the boy, anyone might have looked ridiculous dressed as he was. The skirt wrapped around the waist, white with purple designs around the border, and leather sandals. That was it. It seemed doubly ridiculous when compared to the clothing of the watching crowd.
From the large doors of the building he walked in the middle of the group of four robed priests. With dark purple cowls pulled over their faces, they made a solemn procession to the corral.
The hushed conversations of the spectators were silenced at the sight of the skinny boy and his gilded spear.
The dragon shifted in a yawn. The chain around its neck rattled with the motion. Two frills of iron-colored bone, one on top of the skull and one beneath the jaw, framed a square face. The beast was about the size of a large horse, covered in dull, iron-gray scales. It stretched, claw-tipped feet, as large as the boy’s head, dug furrows in the ground as it settled itself.
Knobby knees shook as the boy gripped his short spear tightly. This particular spear was worthless against a dragon. The tip was no more than a dull, gilded point, and the shaft would likely snap if the boy tried a stab.
The small procession of priests and boy stopped in front of the snoring beast. One of the priests was carrying the battery. He lowered the small cube to the ground and unwound the thin chain that was attached to the top of the device.
The priest went to hand Troi the chain. Troi dropped the spear and almost dropped the chain as he bent to pick it up. He managed to regain his grip on the spear, his knuckles white as he stared at the sleeping monster and its iron scales.
Another priest nudged Troi, who let out a startled gasp, then slowly walked toward the dragon, spear in one hand, coiled chain in the other. He kept his grip on the chain loose so it uncoiled behind him as he walked. He stopped in front of the snoring beast and with a shaking hand he tapped his spear against an iron-colored flank.
The sound of steel on steel could be heard over the whispers of the crowd.
The dragon shifted, raising its head to consider Troi. It yawned and rose, shaking itself. Static discharge scattered into the sky as it stepped up to Troi and lowered its head until they were eye to eye.
Troi’s hand was shaking as he dropped his spear and took the looped end of the chain in both hands. He reached out cautiously and dropped the loop over the dragon’s top frill. Troi released the chain and a priest flipped a switch on the battery. Sparks flew up around the chain hanging from the dragon's neck and Troi jumped back. The dragon let out a breath that, to at least one boy in the audience, sounded like laughter.
Troi stood still, trying to keep his eyes on the dragon until a priest called to him to remove the chain. The dragon bowed its head and allowed Troi to pull the chain off. Once the chain was removed the dragon turned around, flicking its tail once, sending a cascade of sparks into the air. It returned to its previous spot on the ground and collapsed in a huff. Its snoring returned almost immediately.
The crowd began to applaud politely. Troi’s best friend Kyn put two fingers in his mouth and whistled loudly as Troi beamed with pride, lifting his battery over his head.
One of the priests pulled his hood down and turned to face the crowd, the polite applause trailed off as all focused on the priest. He began speaking, his voice deep and powerful. "Today Troi becomes a man. In time before memory, Lightning, the child of Wind and Fire, came to our land and spoke with the son of First Man and First Woman. Lightning gave him power, and from that power our great empire was born. Today, Troi has taken a charge from this beast, a son of Lightning, a child of power, and with this charge he has proven his place in Sohlgain."
He continued to speak as Troi was herded back into the visitor’s center to change. Berun Toirnach stopped listening. He had heard this speech enough in the past month.
Instead, Berun returned his focus to the dragon. The soft rumble of the beast’s not-too-quiet snoring filled the air and mingled with the conversations of the rest of the guests and the droning of the priest.
Eleven-year-old Berun stood underneath a canopy that had been set up to protect from the sun, as well as potential rain. With him under the canopy was his younger brother Rei, who was stuffing handfuls of chips into his chubby face, and their father, Jurou Toirnach, the emperor of Sohlgain.
"Father," Rei said, spraying chunks of chip, "who’s that?" The boy pointed with a dip-stained finger at a low-ranking court official.
Their father had been idly munching from a plate of vegetables while his attention drifted from the sleeping dragon to the other guests. He focused on Rei and followed the boy's finger.
"That's Official Gren. He's a very important man. Manages the export of produce to the Teev Kingdoms and the west." Their father had always impressed upon them the importance of station. Rei had always taken it more seriously than Berun. Probably because Rei was heir.
"So he's important enough to be invited?" Rei asked.
"This isn't exactly a court event, Rei." Jurou smiled at the child.
Berun hated that smile. It was the smile reserved for Rei.
Berun had been born to the second wife and tradition said the first born son of the first wife was heir. It wasn’t that Berun wanted to be heir. Being emperor did not look like fun, but he would have liked to have that smile turned on him every once in a while.
It also would have been nice if any of the four wives had managed to have another son. Not only did Berun have to put up with a palace full of sisters, but Rei tried to spend every possible moment with his older brother. It was exhausting.
"But Troi's family was important enough for you to get invited." Rei spoke loudly, and Berun noticed a few of the other guests trying to look like they weren't listening.
Berun did stop listening and returned to studying the dragon.
"Ber?" Berun jumped at the sound of his father’s voice.
"Yeah?" he said.
"Were you listening?"
"Of course. Um… what did you say again?"
"I was just asking if you thought Official Gren's daughter was cute. Rei seems to like her."
Berun looked across the the opening at Iva Gren. She was pretty, he supposed. Maybe a little fat. But she had a nice face. He shrugged in response. "Father?" He said, keen to change the subject.
"Hm?" Jurou acknowledged while chewing on a stalk of something green, still watching the official and his daughter.
"Do I really have to chain a wild dragon?" Berun asked.
Jurou looked down at Berun. "Oh yes. Tradition." He lowered his voice an octave and waved the vegetable in his hand like a scepter.
"Troi didn't have to catch a wild one," Berun said, slightly dismayed at the fear in his own voice.
"Troi is not my son." His voice was serious now. "Not that long ago, every young boy had to chain a wild dragon. Claim its charge. It was how the village knew he was a man. Don't worry, Ber. I did it at your age, just like my father, and his." He looked at the dragon, his face seeming sad somehow. "Just because the rest of our country insists on using these tame creatures doesn't mean we have to.”
Berun tried to keep the fear off his face. "You'll be there, right?"
Jurou's face softened and he placed a hand on Berun's head, ruffling the hair slightly. "Of course."
"Can I come?" Rei's voice cut through the quiet murmur of conversation that was filling the partitioned area around them.
The emperor looked at his younger son and smiled his heir-only smile. He would say yes, Berun knew. He always said yes to Rei. Not that he said no to Berun very often, but Berun's requests were never as demanding as Rei's.
Before Jurou could answer, a hand fell on his shoulder. He turned, his smile broadening.
"Sigurd!" he exclaimed, throwing his arms around the newcomer. The two men exchanged back slaps and laughed.
Looking around, Berun noticed several envious looks from some of the other guests. The emperor had spoken with a few of them politely, but none of them could compete with the affection given to Sigurd Trindi. Berun supposed the worst part for the others would be that Sigurd was a foreigner. A merchant from another country was the emperor's closest friend.
Berun didn't care what the rest of the court thought. He liked Master Trindi—he may have been biased, though, since he was also best friends with the man's son.
The two men were currently laughing about the cotton prices in Maviern. High cotton prices were supposedly bad for the Li'yun Nations’ economy, which was hilarious. Apparently.
Ogan Trindi, Sigurd's son, made his way around the laughing men and approached Berun. The young Trindi, like his father, was clearly a foreigner. Where Berun's hair was black and straight, like any Sohl, Ogan's was a light brown with a slight curl. Ogan's eyes were a light blue and seemed small on his face compared to the large brown eyes most common in Sohlgain. His build was also bigger, his shoulders broader than Berun's. But they were friends, and Berun didn't care if they looked different. Why should that matter?
"Hey, Berun." Ogan gave him a friendly punch on the arm. "None of your sisters come?" He looked around the fenced party space hopefully.
"Nope. Just us and Dad." He punched his friend back.
"Hey, Ogan," Rei said through a fresh mouthful of chips.
"Hey, Rei," Ogan said, his voice friendly. He always tried to be nice to the boy, even though Berun had told him he didn't have to. The kid was a brat. Berun knew it wasn't because Rei was the heir to the throne; Ogan was just nice to everybody.
Ogan turned his attention back to Berun after listening to an awful joke Rei had overheard from a palace guardsman. "Fifth chaining this month." He feigned boredom. "Do you think the Thunder Priests know the ritual is so boring?”
Berun smirked. Rei cocked his head in confusion. "Fifth?"
"Yeah, four other guys from our class turned twelve this month. None of them were important enough for Dad to get invited though," Berun said.
"Is that where you went last week?" Rei asked.
"Yeah, Kyn's chaining."
"Oh, I like him. He tells good jokes. I wish I'd been invited."
"I'm sure he would've invited you if he knew you wanted to go," Ogan assured him. "Seriously though, you didn't miss anything. They're all the same."
"Except ours," Rei said, puffing his chest out. "We get to chain wild dragons."
"What?" Ogan laughed, looking at Berun. He opened his eyes wide at Berun's expression. "Seriously?" he asked.
"Family tradition." Berun was ashamed at the quiver he felt in his voice.
"Just the way it used to be done," Rei added.
"Wow," Ogan said.
"Yeah," Berun agreed halfheartedly, "wow."
There was a small crowd gathering around Jurou and Sigurd now, so the three boys detached themselves from their fathers and went in search of others their own age. Now that the dragon was not the focus of his attention, Berun allowed himself to study the rest of the guests.
The majority of those in attendance were court officials of one capacity or another—judges and bureaucrats, along with several wealthy land owners and successful merchants. There were also a large number of executives from Troi’s father’s company. Berun recognized those by the way the court officials went out of their way to flatter them.
Around the perimeter of the party, along the fences and ropes that set this area apart from the rest of the dragon farm, were the bodyguards. Hired professionals, licensed thugs—all prized for their skill. Berun spotted his father's personal guard, Roland Glass, or Rowe, as he liked to be called.
Berun had decided years before that his father must really like foreigners. Rowe was a tall man, head and shoulders taller than most Sohl. His hair was blond, and too short for Berun to tell if it was curly or not. His eyes were a piercing gray-blue, like a storm-filled sky. His right eye was framed by horrible scars. Berun had asked after them once and been told they were from a fire. He had not asked again.
Rowe saw the boy studying him from across the party grounds and nodded politely. Berun liked Rowe. The man had been part of the palace staff for as long as he could remember. Not only was Rowe the emperor's personal body guard, he was also responsible for training Berun and his siblings in self-defense. And despite the man's cold exterior, Berun knew he cared about them. Berun waved before turning his attention back to the task at hand.
As they searched for their friends, they avoided the group of girls standing around the punch bowl. Ogan had a gift when it came to speaking with girls, but Berun had not been blessed in any particular way in that area. Ogan understood this, and for his friend's sake allowed the detour away from the watching feminine eyes.
Berun pretended not to notice the increased whispering among the girls as they passed at a distance. He could feel the eyes following him as they walked. Ogan waved cheerfully when he noticed the attention.
After a little searching they found their friend, Kyn Ueno. The boy's father was a judge, not especially high-ranking, but well respected. Kyn looked incredibly bored as he sat in a chair next to his mother, listening to his father and another court judge discuss something.
Rei began waving excitedly, jumping up and down as he did. A blob of dip fell off the chip he had grabbed at the last table they had passed and splattered on his silk robe. Kyn noticed the motion. He looked up at his mother, a pleading look in his eyes. The woman considered a moment, then nodded. Kyn slid off his chair and charged at his friends.
He threw his arms around Rei’s and Ogan's shoulders and immediately began telling a profane joke. Rei laughed loudly, food particles flying out of his mouth.
Their group slowly grew as they explored the party. Their classmates and friends followed the sound of Rei’s and Kyn's laughter. Before long there was a mass of young boys moving through the party. Loud whoops and inappropriate laughter drowned out the quiet conversations of the adults.
Some of the boys began wrestling, getting grass stains and dirt all over their dress robes and shirts. If Berun had been paying attention he may have caught the occasional head shake, but he wasn't—he was too busy enjoying the fun that is reserved for young boys not yet men.
Before too long, Troi exited the building dressed in something more appropriate for the current time period. The adults in attendance lined up to congratulate the boy on a successful chaining. Berun, Rei, and Ogan approached as Jurou reached the boy. The emperor held out his hand and Troi took it with his own still shaking hand.
"Grip it tight, son. Yes, just like that." The emperor winked at the boy. "That was well done, Troi. I remember my chaining. Never been more scared in my life."
"Really?" Troi asked, his voice shaking as much as his hand.
"Yes, but we face our fears in Sohlgain. I expect great things from you, young man." He put emphasis on the last word. Berun wondered if his father knew that Troi's ambitions amounted to living off his parents’ vast fortune and not much else.
Troi's face split in a grin. "Thank you, sir."
"Go play with your friends." Jurou slapped the boy on the shoulder warmly.
Troi rushed over and joined the other boys. They all talked over each other trying to congratulate him first. Those who had already had their chaining shared knowing words and secretive looks. After a while the conversation changed and they began offering advice to the boys who were yet to officially become men.
"Two weeks, right Berun?" Troi asked.
"Yeah," Berun answered.
"That's going to be one stone of a party," Kyn said.
"Yeah. I'm sure the palace will go all out for you," Troi threw in.
"I bet he pees himself," one of the other boys said.
"No he won't," Rei said, pulling his hand back to hit the boy.
Berun caught his hand before answering. "Too bad you won't get to see me chain anything."
The boy looked hurt. "I'm not invited?"
"I'm sure you'll be invited, but I won't be chaining anything at the party."
"What?" The question erupted from almost every boy in the group.
"Wild dragons," Ogan said, pride in his voice.
"That's right." Rei stood tall. "Me and my brother get to chain wild dragons."
The group fell into awed silence. Before chaos could reclaim control, a man in a black suit loomed above them. "Young princes," Rowe said, "it's time to go. Your father has meetings to attend." The body-guard waited patiently while the boys said their goodbyes.
"See you tonight?" Berun asked Ogan.
"Yeah, Mom's got to tutor your sister tonight. I think they're starting a new project in the archives. I'll be there."
"Great. See you then." Shoulder punches and insults were exchanged as Berun and Rei were led away.
They followed Rowe through the lavishly decorated visitor's center and out the front door. The Center had a large, circular driveway that led to the main road. Idling in front of the door was their father's car and the emperor himself, paying the valet.
He turned as they exited the building and opened the car door for them. "Have a good time with your friends, boys?"
"Yeah," Rei said, crawling across the seat to the opposite window. "Kyn told some good jokes. Want to hear one?"
"Maybe later." Jurou closed the door after Berun climbed in.
Rowe held the passenger door open for Jurou, who flicked his cigarette away before climbing inside.
"They were asking about my chaining," Berun said as Rowe climbed in the driver’s seat and put the car in gear.
"They were excited about the party," Rei added.
"Oh, it's going to be a big one." Jurou looked over his shoulder at his eldest son and winked. "Excited yet?" he asked with a grin.
Berun couldn't help it; he smiled back. "Yeah."