I’ve been celebrating the holidays and the new year with my own kind of giving – 8 weeks of extra stories and scenes from the world of Sword and Verse and Dagger and Coin. Each week I’ve unveiled a deleted scene or extra story from a different character’s point of view, and it’s all been leading up to this! Today is my birthday, and I’m celebrating by sharing with you Lilano, a novella from Mati’s point of view that tells the story of what happened to him and Raisa while they were out of town during Dagger and Coin.
If you’d like to see the other extras in this series, you can find them all here.
I’m not kidding when I say Lilano is a novella – it’s 132 pages long, so buckle in. 🙂 The reason I started writing this story was that Mati and Raisa’s adventures in the south had a big impact on the events in the capital during Dagger and Coin, and writing this helped to clarify timelines, emotional outcomes, and how the events in the two cities were connected. But I also enjoyed it a great deal, largely because Mati is a such an open-hearted character, and the events of Sword and Verse gave him a lot to contend with. He’s no longer a king, though he’s been told his whole life that a king was what he had to be. He’s dealing with his own sense of loss and inadequacy, while at the same time witnessing a transformation in the woman he loves as she grows into her power.
Lilano: A Novella
I HAD ONLY been to city of Lilano, at the southernmost point of Qilara, once before, at age eleven years old when my father had made me accompany him to the nation of Galasi for its youngest princess’s wedding. We’d stayed in Galasi for just three days; the wedding had been a dreary affair by Qilarite standards, as the Galasan drought had been in its eighth year then. It was hard to say which had disgusted my father more, the skimpy food at the wedding feast, or the way the rooms in the Galasan royal residence—even the king and queen acknowledged that it was not splendid enough to call a palace—were decorated with lines of script from the Galasan holy books of Karem and Doli. My father had pinched me each time my eyes had strayed to the walls during the wedding feast, and he had shown only the barest courtesy to our hosts.
On the way home, we’d stayed in Lilano for a Shining, and Father had been much more satisfied with the accommodations there. He’d made me go along with him when he toured the city. It was a stinking, muddy pit in the rainy season, but the way the people—mainly soldiers—deferred to him put Father in the best mood I’d ever seen him in.
I had less fond memories of that trip; the Commander of the South Company had assigned his best swordsman to work with me every day, and the man, a Scholar who turned out to be Del Gamo’s nephew, had taken an instant dislike to me. He seemed to delight in showing me up, though I was half his age and a third his size, and laughed off my bruises and cuts as training accidents. My father had already begun to call me soft, but after that trip it was a constant refrain. Once, when I was fifteen, he’d even threatened to send me to Lilano to train with the garrison there. Only Tyasha’s treason and subsequent execution had distracted him from that idea.
That long-ago trip had been on my mind a great deal while Raisa and I journeyed south along the coast by ship, then in a cart along the southern road. We kept to ourselves, hoping to arrive in Lilano before our absence from the capital was widely known. We travelled with six guards. I’d been careful to choose three Qilarites and three Arnathim, and I’d pulled the three Qilarites, Loftis, Meegin, and Dent, aside before we left the City of Kings to reiterate that I expected them to treat both Raisa and the Arnath guards with respect. And they mostly had, as far as I could tell, though I had sometimes heard one of the Arnath guards, Cauti—formerly of the Arnath Resistance—reminding the other two, Alvi and Liman, that they didn’t have to defer to the Qilarites any longer.
Each night, while Raisa and I huddled together in our little cabin on the ship, she whispered the questions she was loath to ask in front of the guards, and I whispered back all I could remember from my previous trip and the things I had read about Lilano.
When Loftis was in the carriage with us on the road, she pelted him with the questions that she wasn’t too embarrassed to ask, as he’d been born in Lilano and had come to the City of Kings at the age of ten. Maybe that was why he’d been so determined to leave the scribes and become a guard when the opportunity had opened up; Lilano was a city of military men, and that had seeped into his consciousness. That was the reason I had asked him to come, after all; his knowledge of the city, though outdated, might be useful. I’d made sure to have a talk with him up front about how I expected him to treat Raisa, but he’d so far deferred to both of us with a bearing that was more military than Scholarly. And he didn’t even cringe—though I did—when Raisa asked simplistic questions that showed how little she knew of the world outside the City of Kings.
It wasn’t her fault, of course. None of it was her fault. She hadn’t had a chance to learn those things, and here she was thrust into ruling a city, a nation, that she hardly understood. Gods, I hardly understood it and I had been training to rule since I was a child. There hadn’t been time, in the days since the council began, to teach her everything she needed to know. We’d been too busy putting out fires, both literal and figurative, and getting the people of the city fed. I’d brought all the scrolls about Lilano I had been able to find in the still-disheveled library, and she’d been reading them until her eyes were red, but it wouldn’t be enough. She didn’t know enough to do this job. Neither of us did.
The only difference between us was that I was aware of it, and she still had some hope.
At least four times a day, and ten times a night, I told myself that I’d been a fool, that even though an assassin’s dagger had been what sent us out of the capital in the first place, Lilano might be just as dangerous to Raisa for her ignorance and her birth.
The guards might have thought I was being overly cautious to insist upon disembarking from the ship at the port before Lilano and approaching the city from the road, but I wasn’t going to take any chances. Whoever had sent that assassin for Raisa might well be waiting in the Lilano harbor. I’d brought her south to keep her safe, and I would make sure we scoped out the situation before setting foot into the city.
And so we rolled in to a barely-respectable inn on the outskirts of Lilano at midmorning, three days after leaving the capital. I had to beg Raisa to wear the full-length veil of a Scholar wife that I had brought along for her disguise; I understood how repulsed she was by the idea of hiding who she was, but we had to lie low until Loftis and Dent returned from inside the city, where I had sent them ahead to do some reconnaissance.
I slipped into my old Scholar manners along with my old clothes, and approached the innkeeper a little ahead of Raisa, demanding rooms for myself and my wife and servants.
The innkeeper, a brawny fellow who might have once been a soldier himself, looked over the four guards behind us, all out of uniform now, and nodded toward Meegin, the only Qilarite.
“That one can stay in the common bunk room,” he said. “The others can sleep in the barn.”
Without looking at her, I reached down and gripped Raisa’s wrist. Sure enough, she’d been stepping forward to protest. But veiled Scholar wives never spoke to men who were not their husbands in public, and even if that had been changing of late, it didn’t seem like something that the innkeeper would be happy with. And, I reminded her with a squeeze, we were trying to stay inconspicuous.
“I’m afraid that won’t do,” I said to the innkeeper, pulling up some of the bravado I had worn as king. It had been a while since I’d had to use it, and it felt like putting on a too-tight vest. “I have heard of the unrest in Lilano of late, and I wish to have my men close by. They will stay in a room adjoining ours.” I pulled out my pouch and slipped him a healthy handful of gyots.
The man looked at the coins in his hand and grunted his approval.
I could practically hear Soraya’s voice hissing in my ear, reminding me that money was tight and I couldn’t afford to be throwing it away, but that was nothing next to the look Raisa would give me if I let the Arnath guards sleep in the barn.
My eyes took in the common room as the innkeeper led us through it and up to our rooms—only a handful of faces at this time of the morning, and all Qilarite. An Arnath girl jumped out of the way deferentially as we turned a corner; I frowned to see her green dress, but I towed Raisa along behind me. She would want to stop and talk to the girl, find out whether she was being treated well, whether the emancipation of the Arnathim had really happened in Lilano as the council decrees had ordered. But now was not the time.
As soon as we were safely in our room and I had slid the lock bar into place, Raisa ripped off the veil. “I’m not stupid,” she said, in a low, heated voice. “I wasn’t going to say anything to that girl.”
“But you were going to say something to the innkeeper.”
“Of course! How dare he act like–”
I stepped close and tugged the veil out of her hands. “I know,” I said. “But we have to be patient. We have to listen first, to find the best way to convince them to change.”
She frowned, and I knew why. That had been what I had done as king: listen, plan, introduce change slowly. It hadn’t been quick enough for her, for Jonis, for the Resistance. But it was all I could do, and it had almost gotten her executed and me deposed. All my machinations had made the Scholars Council that much more determined to make a point by whipping her and sending those raiders to the Nath Tarin. Every time I had tried to do the right thing, it had circled round and become the wrong thing, and I was terrified that this trip to Lilano would end up the same way. I’d wondered, a thousand times on the journey, whether it should have been Soraya and Jonis who came after all, or Jonis and me. Maybe getting Raisa out of the city was only giving the assassins an easier target.
But I also knew my Raisa, and I knew that she would say the same thing I would: we could not be apart again. Nothing good had ever happened when we were separated. It was more than superstition; it was fact. I needed her near me.
Read the rest of the story here: Lilano – A Novella by Kathy MacMillan