Excerpt from Carmae

Below is the first chapter of my young adult fantasy novel, Carmae, in which Ryoma, our half-daemok protagonist, robs a nobleman in Kopia Kingdom.

 

CHAPTER 1

“You know what I hate?”

Oh boy.

“People who are richer than me.”

You mean everyone.

“I mean, people who can afford things like that giant window over there.” The hooded figure pointed to the window in question, across the length of Mr. Larz Desmond’s office and stretching from floor to high ceiling. The figure himself sat near that ceiling on one of the two wooden beams that crisscrossed roughly twenty paces above the floor. His legs dangled over the edge, swinging back and forth without rhythm below him. His sword rested awkwardly on the wood at his side, jabbing into his stomach.

“What is the point of that window anyway?” the figure said to thin air.

To show off? came the response in his mind.

“If I had that much money, I’d spend it on bread.”

Bread. Really?

“An endless supply of bread!” The hooded figure spread his arms wide to his sides, leaned back, and felt his stomach drop as he went too far. He clamped his hands down on the beam, barely preventing a painful drop.

Don’t fall.

The figure chose to ignore that comment.

He raised his hand off the beam to find his glove coated in dust. Grimacing, he shook his hand to clear it, and only then noticed the cobwebs clinging to the corners of the room. He felt the urge to sneeze, and pressed his hand under his nose to force it down.

He peered over the edge, and for the umpteenth time got a good look at what was below him. A large, lush carpet covered the floor, reds and golds swirling together into something of a design. Shelves lined the right side of the room, each packed tightly with books. The opposing wall housed a fireplace, made of what had to be the finest stone money could buy. Why would anyone have to buy stone when there was plenty on the ground, the figure wondered.

In the middle of it all sat a large desk, neat and tidy. The surface was shined so brightly that it reflected the nearly blinding orange light of the rising sun. The figure raised his hand to cover his eyes.

“The window lets in too much light—how can anyone see—“

Would you stop speaking out loud? This is a stealth mission, Ryoma!

Ryoma sighed, blowing the air up past his nose and into his hood, causing his red hair to fly up from his face. “No one’s up yet, TK. The house is asleep.“

Ryoma’s mind was suddenly flooded with images from his own perspective of men covered in metal armor, with large swords at their hips. Talking in small groups, the guards’ eyes were not alert enough to see the hooded figure duck through the shadows just out of sight.

Remember them? It’s a good thing I watch out for you, Takeru replied inaudibly.

Takeru was Ryoma’s dragon companion. The two literally shared thoughts with one another. The images of the guards was followed by an image of Takeru’s large, red head shaking from side to side.

You’d never get anywhere without me.

Yeah, yeah. Ryoma chose to answer in his thoughts. Just because you can see through my eyes doesn’t mean you—

Actually, it does, Takeru finished. Now, pay attention. Remember why you’re here.

I know why I’m here. Ryoma’s mission was simple—retrieve a very valuable diamond from a Mr. Larz Desmond. The diamond was believed to be locked up somewhere in his study. Ryoma had made it into the study, no problem, but after a quick examination, he found that the diamond was well hidden. Supposedly, Desmond was paranoid about this diamond, and could not go for long without checking on it. Rather than turn the study over trying to find it, Ryoma (at Takeru’s request) chose to hide in the rafters and wait for Desmond to reveal its location.  

The waiting was the hardest part.

Patience, Takeru said.

A low grumble escaped into the otherwise silent room. Ryoma saw Takeru scowl at him in his mind’s eye.

What? Ryoma asked, raising his hands. I’m hungry!

You should’ve eaten befo—

The door to the office swung open with a low creaaaaak. Ryoma felt his balance leave him, and once more slammed his palms down to keep from falling.

“Daddy, I know I left Francis in here somewhere,” a young boy’s voice said before yawning.

“Junior, are you sure? You know you’re not allowed to play in Daddy’s study.”

Ryoma pulled his feet onto the beam as silently as he could, arms out to keep balance. People are awake? Now?!

Told you! Get to the edge and hide.

Ryoma did so, silently moving to one of the walls where the shadows were thickest, kicking up dust in the process. He had to bend his knees to get the end of his cloak to cover his feet. Fortunately, the cloak was a dark brown, and would hopefully blend in with the wall.

From where he stood, Ryoma could see the open door. A young boy walked into the room first, followed closely by a tall man in a bathrobe. They looked very much alike— they had to be father and son. Junior, presumably Larz Jr., seemed to be about six or seven, clutching a blanket in one hand and his father’s hand in the other. He had a crop of blonde hair that caught the light as he walked, and his face seemed thin and a bit narrow. He seemed like he could run quickly if he had to.

His father, Larz Desmond, was much the same, except his hair was brown instead of blonde. He had a long face, with high cheekbones and a sharp nose. Despite the early morning, his eyes darted around the room, seeming to check every inch of it in an orderly fashion. For a second, his eyes passed over Ryoma. He froze, barely breathing, but if Desmond noticed him, he gave no indication.

“Francis is the stuffed bear, right?” Desmond asked, walking further inside.

“Dragon,” Larz Jr. corrected.

“I don’t think he’s here,” Desmond said. “I would know if one of your toys was in my study.”

“I was playing with him under there,” Larz Jr. said, pointing to the desk.

Desmond paused, his mouth pressing into a firm line. “You’re definitely not supposed to be going into Daddy’s desk, Junior.”

The young boy tightened his grip on the blanket. “I was only under it.”

Desmond’s voice softened. “Well, let’s check and see. If not, we’ll look in the morning, all right? Daddy needs to get some rest.”

“Okay.”

Desmond walked with his son toward the desk. Ryoma had to strain his neck to keep an eye on them. His leg was cramping and he suppressed a groan.

Desmond went behind the desk and pulled the chair out. “Under here, right?”

“Yes,” Larz Jr. nodded.

“Let me see.” Desmond dropped to all fours, and crawled under the desk, emerging a moment later, empty handed. “Sorry, Alastor, he’s not under there, Come on, let’s get you back to bed, okay? We’ll find Frank in the morning,” he said with a tired smile.

“Francis,” Larz Jr. corrected again.

What kind of name is Francis for a dragon? Takeru asked, but Ryoma ignored him.

“Was that your mother’s idea?” Desmond asked.

“Mommy said it was cute.”

“Of course she did,” Desmond shook his head before resting a hand on Larz Jr.’s back and guiding him toward the door.

The two of them passed under Ryoma. I hoped he would check on the diamond, Ryoma thought.

“I need to check one thing of my own,” Desmond said at the door. “Alastor, take your brother back to his room. I’m sorry he woke you up.”

A yawn answered from outside Ryoma’s line of sight. “Yes, father. C’mon Larzy, I’ll tuck you in.”

Ryoma heard their footsteps move down the hall as the cramp in his leg grew tighter. He tried to shift his weight to relieve it, but once more nearly lost his balance. He ground his teeth together, and sucked a breath through his nose.

Desmond closed the office door behind him and walked back into the room. At about the midway point between the desk and the door, Desmond stooped over a seemingly random spot in the floor. He dragged his finger across the carpet, a fine cloud of dust floated into the air.

Ryoma’s heart sank. More dust, he groaned.

Desmond rubbed his fingers together, clearing the dust away. He looked up at the ceiling, one of his hands fingering something under his robe. His eyes passed over Ryoma once more. Ryoma held his breath. Surely he’d been seen by now. A moment passed, painfully, slowly, and then another. And another…

“The maids are not pulling their weight,” Desmond grumbled.

Ryoma silently released the breath he had been holding, and tried to shift his weight. The cramp in his leg tightened some more.

Desmond changed directions and went toward one of the bookshelves. He ran his fingers along the spines, before stopping at a seemingly random one. He pulled it out and opened it, revealing pages that were cut in order to hide something within. Ryoma strained his neck further, trying to look over Desmond’s shoulder.

A small safe was inside the book.

Desmond walked to his desk and reached into one of the drawers, pulling out a small, golden key. He stuck the key into the safe, and turned it.

I found that key in the drawer when I looked! You said it was worthless! Ryoma felt cheated.

Pay attention! Takeru hissed. Desmond’s not done.

Desmond swung open the door of the safe. Inside was not a valuable diamond, but instead another, larger key. It was roughly half the length of Desmond’s hand, golden in color, and the shaft was thin. It looked like it was meant to reach through something narrow. He pulled it out, running a finger idly over the inscriptions carved onto the edges. Ryoma squinted, but couldn’t make out any of the symbols.

Desmond paused, drumming on the key with his fingers. Then, as if deciding on a course of action, he walked toward the unlit fireplace. A fireplace that, now that Ryoma looked closely, had no soot or ashes in it. In fact, there were no logs to be seen anywhere in the room.

The man stooped over the fireplace, and stuck the key between a small gap in the rocks. He twisted it, and one of the rocks popped up. A door.

Not bad, Ryoma admitted.

Bet you never would’ve found that on your own.

Ryoma bit down a retort, but as he did, his knee exploded with sharp pain. He needed to move his leg, now! He straightened it out into the open air, shifting his weight, but that pushed him off balance, and he found himself leaning too much to compensate. He moved too far forward and there was nothing to grab—

He fell.

The floor rushed up to meet him.

SMACK.

The air in his lungs whooshed out of his mouth.

Good one, Takeru commented.

Ryoma snapped his head up, and saw Desmond standing in front of the fireplace, looking just as surprised as he was. However, Desmond now held a sword in his hand, and Ryoma could see a small sheath under his robes. With the way Desmond held the blade, it wasn’t just for show.

Desmond’s armed?!

Desmond found his voice first. “I must say, when thieves rob me, they usually do not fall from the ceiling.”

Ryoma coughed and pushed himself to his feet. Once standing, Desmond gave a small gasp.

“You’re a daemok,” the man mumbled.

Ryoma’s eyes flicked toward the desk, where he could see a bit of his reflection in its shiny surface. His hood had fallen, exposing his mane of bright red hair and even redder eyes.

“Half-daemok,” Ryoma answered, drawing his own sword.

“And a child at that!” Desmond continued, still in awe.

Ryoma’s cheeks burned. “I’m fourteen.”

“You look about eight.”

Ryoma scoffed, but Desmond continued, “You’re the half-daemok that’s been making a stink in the Guilds, aren’t you? You do jobs cheaper than your competition, making some very dangerous people very angry. I had no idea you were a child, however.”

I didn’t know I was well-known.

Neither did I, Takeru answered.

Desmond stepped closer, and his eyes flicked to Ryoma’s sword. Ryoma followed his gaze, and saw that, even in the orange light, the sword shined a faint blue.

“A blue blade,” Desmond said. “Very valuable. Must be of the finest materials. Did you steal it?”

“It was my father’s.”

“Did Daddy teach you to use it?”

“I can fight,” Ryoma answered, his hand gripping the sword a little tighter.

“I sincerely doubt that.”

Ryoma let out a cry and charged Desmond, flinging his sword in a wild arc, aimed square at the noble’s head.

Desmond casually side-stepped the strike.

Frustrated, Ryoma spun, his sword aimed at Desmond’s neck. Desmond’s sword moved to block, and the clash of metal rang out. Desmond’s sword flicked upwards, Ryoma ducking out of the way. He felt a sharp pain in his shoulder, and saw that Desmond drew first blood. Golden blood.

“Gold?” Desmond asked.

“Half-daemok, half-elf,” Ryoma grunted, swinging his sword once more.

Desmond jumped out of the way of the strike, landing on one foot. The other crashed into Ryoma’s chest, knocking the wind out of him (for the second time) and pushing him backwards. Ryoma felt the desk smash into the small of his back. Seeing Desmond’s sword flashing again, Ryoma jumped onto the desk, sliding on the smooth surface and kicking over pens, ink, and paper before landing on the other side, narrowly avoiding an awkward landing on the desk chair.

The physical desk between them gave them both a moment to catch their breath. Desmond kept his sword tip pointed at Ryoma’s chest, while Ryoma held a hand to his shoulder. He could feel the blood seeping into his glove.

“Your sword skills leave much to be desired,” Desmond critiqued. “You lack form and finesse.”

“Are you giving me advice?”

“Children need a good teacher.”

Heat rose in Ryoma’s chest, color rushing to his cheeks.

“Why are you here?” Desmond asked.

Ryoma said nothing.

“The diamond, yes,” Desmond continued, “but who hired you?”

Guild rule number one: never reveal sources.

Desmond’s eyebrows knitted and he closed his eyes. “Not going to speak, huh? Very well. Few people know about the Desmond Jewel. Whoever hired you must be within the family. But who would…Ah!” He snapped his fingers. “Harrison?”

Crap. “No,” Ryoma replied, no conviction in his voice.

Desmond continued as if Ryoma hadn’t spoken. “I never thought he would be this petty. My own brother sending a half-daemok to rob me. And a child, at that.”

Ryoma sharply inhaled at the “c” word.

Don’t let him get to you, Takeru said.

“You won’t get out of here alive, you know,” Desmond said, as if he was stating a well-known fact. “I have guards all over these grounds. All I have to do is yell and they’ll come running.”

“Then why don’t you?”

“Because I don’t need them to defeat a child,” Desmond said, matter-of-factly.

Desmond moved at the same moment Ryoma did, the two of them circling around the long desk. Their blades met in a loud CLANG, with enough force for both of them to stumble. Ryoma found himself all but on top of the fireplace.

Near the open trap door.

Ryoma!

Ryoma dove toward the fireplace just as Desmond swung again. Ryoma peered into the trapdoor, and was dismayed to find a second safe inside, this one with a combination lock.

“Only I know the combination!” Desmond cried from just behind Ryoma.

Ryoma twisted as Desmond’s sword came down, striking the rock where Ryoma’s head had been seconds before. Ryoma jumped to his feet, tackling Desmond with all his might. The two fell to the ground, Ryoma on top of Desmond’s body. Straddling him, Ryoma aimed his sword at Desmond’s throat.

“Combination?” he asked.

Desmond spat in Ryoma’s face.

“Don’t tempt me,” Ryoma growled, pressing the blade onto Desmond’s skin, a red bead of blood dripping down Desmond’s neck. Desmond’s eyes remained locked on Ryoma’s own, the half-daemok refusing to look away first.

Seconds passed.

Then, Desmond laughed.

“You won’t kill me,” he said. “I won’t give you that combination because I am in no danger. I can see it in your eyes—you are not a killer.” He laughed again. “Imagine that, a daemok afraid to kill!”

Heat flared in Ryoma’s cheeks. He bent close, and lowered his voice.

“Care to test that theory?”

“Don’t need to.” Desmond smashed his forehead into Ryoma’s face. Stars flooded Ryoma’s vision, and he heard his nose crack. He howled, hands raised to his face. Something came up under his chin—a fist! Ryoma was pushed off of Desmond by the blow.

When the stars cleared, Desmond’s sword plunged towards Ryoma’s neck.

Ryoma!

Ryoma jabbed his sword at Desmond’s chest.

Ryoma could feel the blade cut through skin and flesh, wedged between bone. The skin gave away as easily as firm butter. Blood bubbled up onto the blade, and Desmond gave a strained, wretched cough as blood filled his mouth. The blade twitched in Ryoma’s hand, and he dropped it. Desmond’s body fell back, collapsing to the ground. He gave a shuddering, wheezing breath, eyes rolling back in his head. His body shook and then went still.

Dead.

Ryoma released a breath he didn’t know he was holding. His whole body slumped.

“I—“ Ryoma breathed. “I did it.” Shock quickly changed to satisfaction. Satisfaction and pride. “I did it!” he repeated, his voice growing stronger. He raised a fist into the air, and whooped. His first kill! Many times he had thought about what it would be like— which kind of terrible person would die at Ryoma’s blade. Now, he had done it!

“Dad! I found Francis! He was under the—“ A familiar voice cut through Ryoma’s thoughts. The voice shattered on itself. “Dad!?”

“Father!?”

Ryoma spun toward the door. A young boy, clutching a red stuffed dragon, and his mirror image, ten years older, stood in the doorway. Larz Jr. and what had to be his older brother. The stuffed animal fell from the boy’s hands as he raced into the room, tears flooding his eyes. “Dad, you’re bleeding! You’re bleeding real bad!”

“No, don’t run in there!” The older boy cried, hot on the heels of his brother. For a brief, terrible second, his eyes locked with Ryoma’s. There was something hot in the teenager’s eyes. An anger so powerful, so passionate, that it seemed ready to break him apart.

Regret smashed the pride he felt only seconds before. Ryoma had not just killed an innocent man, but he had taken a father away from his sons. Because of Ryoma, this family would have to grow up without a father.

Like me.

Bile rose in his throat.

Get out of there! Takeru cried.

A guard rushed into the room, his mouth open in a shout for reinforcements. His blade was drawn. If Ryoma didn’t leave now, he would be overwhelmed. He pushed himself to his feet, and saw the still open trap door in the fireplace. Inside lay the reason he had come here. The reason he had killed. The diamond.

Ryoma reached into the trap door, pulling the safe out. It felt heavy in his hands.

Voices raised, and men flooded into the room. There was only one way out.

Ryoma turned to the window, cradling the safe in his hands. He felt tears in his eyes, and tried to blink them away. Larz Jr.’s wails pounded in his ears.

Ryoma? Takeru asked, almost hesitant.

What? Ryoma used his arm  to cover his eyes.

Is this the life you want to live?

Ryoma hit the window, felt a moment of resistance, before the glass shattered around him. He fell through the air, the sound of the glass drowning out the other voices.

I don’t have a choice.