Smugglivus

Everything In The World Wants Something – A Crown of Stars Short Story by Kate Elliott

Welcome to Smugglivus 2017! Throughout this month, we will have guests – authors and bloggers alike – looking back at their favorite reads of 2017, looking forward to events and upcoming books in 2018, and more.

Next on Smugglivus: we are DELIGHTED to host a new Crown of Stars short story by Kate Elliott as a Smugglivus gift from the author to our – and her – readers! But first, an intro from Kate:

If I may be personal for a moment, 2017 was the twentieth anniversary of the publication of King’s Dragon, the first volume of my seven volume epic fantasy series Crown of Stars. This multi-volume novel was a huge undertaking, in part because of the complexity of the plot lines and the sheer number of characters, but also because I wrote it while my children were young and my spouse was in graduate school and later in a job that involved a lot of travel. Crown of Stars justly deserves the appellation of being the most “kitchen sink” of my series since pretty much anything fantasy-related can be found in it, from an arcane and difficult to learn magic system based in astronomy to the humble lives of common people who are caught up in world-shaking events. So many readers wrote me begging me to make sure that something horrible happened to the main villain, Hugh, that I knew I couldn’t disappoint them; there’s something weirdly satisfying in having the power to make a reader hate a character who, after all, does not actually exist.

I didn’t really write anything about Crown of Stars this year (here’s a link to an essay I wrote about it in 2013, even though the year marked a major anniversary, even though the series has to some extent defined my career. 2017 has proven a rough year for many, and for me too it’s been a slog through a morass of professional and personal (as well as political) mires that have left me exhausted.

But last spring something lovely happened that I want to share with you. A year or two ago I got involved with The Pixel Project, a campaign that works to end violence against women. Among other things I had offered up a couple of “drabbles” as fund raisers: a person could buy a drabble and ask me to write 100 words on a subject or story prompt of their choice.

I was charmed to be asked to write a drabble that would give a glimpse into the early lives of Prince Sanglant and his younger sister Princess Theophanu (they also have a sister Princess Sapientia, with whom they share a more complicated relationship). Sanglant is a major character and Theophanu an important secondary character in the Crown of Stars sequence. While they are both adults in the series, it is clear they share a genuine bond of affection in the midst of often deadly court politics. So the idea of writing a tiny drabble of a piece about some shared childhood adventure delighted me.

I’m not known for writing short stories or even short novels. Thus, the 100 word drabble turned into a 2500 short story. That’s a drabble for an epic fantasist, right?

The story stands alone and needs no preliminary explanation. If you’ve read Crown of Stars you’ll pick up on some foreshadowing; if you haven’t you can enjoy it purely for what it is.

I share it with you as part of Smugglivus, a gift for the season.

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Everything In The World Wants Something: a Crown of Stars prequel story by Kate Elliott (April 2017)

Every autumn the itinerant court of King Henry sojourned for a month at the royal villa in Istawald, a particular favorite for its productive orchard and ample pastures for cattle, which meant the entire court could feast for days.

On the morning after the day the court arrived with its wagons and dust, Prince Sanglant sneaked out of the residential wing at daybreak. He had to do it that first morning because all the servants and courtiers were still busy getting everything settled; by the afternoon his time would be fixed and supervised and he’d have no chance to explore.

With a loaf of bread and a wedge of cheese begged from the kitchen he crept out of the main compound and past the stables and herb garden to the gate that led into the orchard. He was twelve now, and he couldn’t remember how many years ago he had discovered the trail and where it led.

This morning he had barely squeezed under the outer gate and through a gap in a concealing hedgerow when he heard the patter of feet. He turned to see a girl hurrying after him, tugging a cloak over her shoulders against the chilly air.

“Sapientia said I mustn’t come,” said his little sister Theophanu. “She says we’ll get in trouble. She says I’m too small and it’s too far to walk. But you promised.”

He considered her. She was a stout seven year old, serious and determined. It would go slower with her along, and they would get caught if they got back so late that they missed the afternoon session with their tutors.

Then she smiled at him–a rare treasure she offered only to her most favorite people–and took his hand.

“I did promise,” he said. “Come on. I’ll help you up the steep parts.”

It was a long walk, first through the neat walkways of the inner orchard with its fruit trees where the royal clerics debated the finer points of philosophy and the king argued with his noble companions about tolls and taxes. The late apples still bore some fruit not yet harvested but mostly the storerooms were full, awaiting winter’s scarcities. Beyond the carefully tended paths of the royal orchard lay an older orchard of quinces, nut trees, and winter-growing medlar, still bearing but wilder in appearance, ringed by shrubs and brambles.

She’d let go of his hand, stumping along in his wake, falling back.

“Are you tired?” he asked.

“No,” she said, hastening to catch up. “I’m not tired.”

He thought about suggesting they rest on a nearby stump but she would hate the implication that she couldn’t keep up, so instead he slowed his pace and paused occasionally to point out interesting sights to be seen here deep in the oldest part of the orchard: a stone-lined pool long since dried out and abandoned; the remains of a gazebo so old that all that was left was a circular depression and four broken pillars whose carved griffins were obscured by moss; a huge boulder quite out of place amid the dense growth of trees.

“I think a giant dropped that big rock here,” he said.

Her eyes narrowed as she scanned the ground. “Then where are the giant’s footprints? There should be footprints.”

“It happened a long time ago.”

“Then how do you know it happened at all?”

“Don’t you wish it had happened like that?”

She furrowed her brow. Unlike their sister Sapientia she liked to think about her answers rather than blurt them out. “What use is wishing? You’re older than Sapientia, but all the wishing in the world won’t make you heir in her place.”

He shrugged. “Being king seems like a lot of dull work to me. I’d rather be something else.”

“Like what?”

He didn’t want to talk about that. He’d known since he was six years old that he was destined to fight and eventually die for the kingdom, and since there wasn’t any way to change that fate he didn’t bother to worry about it. “I don’t know. What do you wish for, Theo?”

She sighed and, rather than answer, gestured to the trail. “Do we keep walking? Or are we almost there? Not that I’m tired! I’m just hungry.” Under her breath she added, as if reminding herself, “Sapientia would be complaining by now but I don’t complain.”

He pretended he had not heard the last comment. “We’re almost there.”

A little farther up the path they finally hit a rugged hillside that seemed to erupt out of the ground like a dragon that had been trying to break free before being turned to stone. Theophanu scrambled gamely up the rocky slope after him, breathing hard from the exertion, but she did not utter a single word of complaint. When they reached the top of the hill she gasped with excitement, and he grinned to see her wide eyes and astonished expression.

“What are they?” She pointed to three columns of striped rock that stuck up from the spine of the hill like trees made of rock had sprouted out of the earth. The tallest was as thin as a spire and looked likely to collapse at the first gust of wind. The shortest had sprouted plants along the many cracks worn through its surface, giving it the look of an old man going bald in patches. The third, standing between them, was easy to overlook: it rose about the height of three men standing one atop the next and had a broad crown like a tower’s castellation.

“I call them the three giants,” he said, watching her face to see her reaction. “The ones who rolled that big rock down the hill into the old orchard.”

“You just made that up right now about the giants and the rock,” she accused him. “Because I didn’t believe your other story.”

“I did just make it up right now,” he agreed with a laugh. “But there’s a secret. Come on.”

“A secret?”

“Can you climb?

She examined each rock column in turn and finally, reluctantly, said, “Not the tall one.”

“I can’t climb that one either, and there’s nothing but centipedes and spiders inside the short one.”

“Inside?” Her mouth gaped wider.

“There’s a big hole in the center that goes down so far into the ground you can’t see the bottom, like a well, only deeper. I smell water down there, and I’m sure I heard voices. Everyone knows there are goblins alive way down there who live in the dark and never see the sun.”

She elbowed him. “You’re just saying that to scare me. Are we going to climb the middle rock?”

“Yes. Stick close to me and I’ll help you up the steepest part.”

Now he wished he’d brought rope but he always brought only a pouch of food because he didn’t want anyone in the royal court to suspect the risk he was taking. The king kept a careful eye on his children and especially on his eldest son, the one who could never become regnant but for whom his father held a special affection regardless. Such a boy had a full regimen of lessons and training but wasn’t to engage in reckless mischief. That’s why he came here alone. He didn’t want to get any of the other court children in trouble.

But after all it was so much more joyful showing his little sister the hand and foot holds that curved around the side of the middle column. There was a ledge, like a wedge cut out of the rock, where they scrunched in, knees against their chests, and shared the bread and cheese. From this vantage they stared north across a green wilderness of forest that bore not a single sign of human life. The chill of the morning had eased, and the sun shone overhead with cheerful warmth as scraps of cloud drifted past.

“We never travel that way,” said Theophanu, nodding toward the wilderness.

“Past that forest lies the northern sea. There used to be a port there but it was burned twenty years ago by the Eika.”

“Are the Eika really monsters, like people say?”

“I think so. I’ve never seen one but the soldiers who fight them say they are, that they’re shaped like people but have skins as hard as iron.”

“What do you think the Eika want?”

“Maybe they don’t want anything. Maybe they just like to burn things and kill people.”

“Everything in the world wants something,” she said in a solemn tone. “Trees want to grow. Spiders want to spin webs. So even if they’re monsters the Eika must want something too.”

“What do you want, Theo?” he asked, intrigued by the way her thoughts kept diving as into a deep, silent well.

She shrugged and looked away.

He’d never had enough patience to sit still for long periods of time. He had to keep moving. “Do you want to go back down? The climb gets trickier from here.”

Her lips pressed together as she lifted her chin stubbornly. “I’m going all the way to the crown, with you.”

He made her go first, thinking he could catch her if she fell although probably they would both fall to their deaths. Up over a hump of rock to another, narrower ledge, and then a last steep climb up a vertical face . . .

“Look here,” she said, tugging at a tangle of vines grown over at the back of the ledge. “It’s a ladder carved into a crevice in the rock.”

And she was right. She’d discovered a route he’d overlooked all this time, because he’d been distracted by the danger and excitement of the riskier climb up a cliff face with a gulf of air beneath him. Tiny stair-step ledges were carved into the stone, edges worn smooth by time and rain and wind. They clambered without trouble up a tight channel not much wider than his shoulders. At the top the passage turned into a narrow tunnel, took two sharp twists, and brought them out on a slab of rock like a pier stuck out over the air. The view was amazing, nothing but air and sky, the rippling carpet of trees, and in the distance to the south the royal villa from which they’d come. The garden and stables and two-story wood palace looked neat and safe, children’s toys lined up just right. The royal banner flew from the central tower, announcing the presence of regnant and court.

He turned away from the view and climbed down into the central area, a flat terrace about ten paces across. Once a small structure had been carved into the rock but the roof had long since fallen in and now its circular chamber lay open to the heavens. Maybe it had been a pagan temple abandoned when its worshipers accepted the true faith of Our Lord and Lady. Maybe a hermit contemplating the Chamber of Light had once lived up here, away from the beguilements of the world. But Sanglant liked to think that a long time ago this had been the frontier, and that brave sentries stood watch here, risking their lives to keep the kingdom safe against the threat of invasion.

The remains of a hearth stood against the south wall, filled with a layer of debris built up since he’d cleaned it out last year: dry leaves, fragile twigs, a few dead bugs, and a scrap of curled parchment blown so far for so long that it was impossible to read its smeared writing. On the bare stone, beneath the debris, was the object that amazed him most: a salamander carved out of a massive blue gem and melted into the rock so all of his previous attempts to chip it free had failed. When he set his hand on it and closed his eyes and really listened he was sure he felt a distant pulse like a sluggish heartbeat and a faint crackling like the memory of fire.

But that was surely just his imagination. There was magic in the world, everyone knew that, but the church had named it too treacherous for everyday people to dabble in so only the learned clerics studied such perilous arts.

“Did you see this?” he said with his hand still cupped over the salamander, surprised at how eager he was to share the marvel with her.

When Theophanu didn’t answer he jumped up and swung around, suddenly afraid that she’d fallen.

But there she was, still perched easily on the slab of rock, still staring back the way they’d come toward the royal villa and the royal banner.

“All the wishing in the world won’t make you heir in her place,” she said in a low voice.

“I know,” he said, “but I don’t want to be king.”

“I wasn’t talking to you,” she muttered, and then her expression darkened into a frown and she stood. “Don’t tell anyone I said that.”

He studied her face with its smooth mask of an expression, hard to read, but also the way she had one arm elbow stuck out, taking up room, and the other arm pressed against her side like she knew she needed to keep her thoughts pinned close to herself.

“I never would. It’s not easy being the younger sister, is it?”

The wind blew strands of hair across her eyes, and caught the hem of her cloak, making it dip and rise like the flutter of wings. For an instant he saw something hard in her, concealed by her mask of calm, but when she blinked, it vanished.

“I’m all right because you never let anyone tease or bully me, not even Sapientia,” she said.

“And I never will.” He smiled. “Now come down here. I want to show you something marvelous. You’ve never seen anything like it before.”

She jumped down and knelt where he showed her. He brushed the leaves away to expose the strange carving.

“Oh!” she said on a breath of wonder as sunlight sparked a constellation of tiny lights like a net of pinprick gems woven inside the gleaming salamander shape.

Her delight made the whole day worth it, even when they got back late and were caught, and he had to confess the whole to their very annoyed father. Of course she was forgiven, being the younger led astray, although she was sent to bed without any supper.

“I expect better from you, Sanglant,” lectured the king. “It is your duty to be responsible for the people in your care, such as your younger siblings. And the soldiers you will someday command. You must learn to be prudent, not reckless.”

But that look on Theophanu’s face stayed with him when he was made to kneel on the hard floor all night in prayer with a cleric in attendance. Wondrous things existed in the world, and they were worth seeking out. If you wanted to find them. If they wanted to be found.

copyright@ Kate Elliott

Born in Iowa, Kate Elliott grew up in rural Oregon and learned to clean
out stalls and shovel out manure early, thus preparing her for adult
life. Over an almost thirty year career she has published twenty five
novels (SO FAR), one collaborative novel (with Melanie Rawn and Jennifer
Roberson), and a short fiction collection. She’s been a nominee for the
Nebula, World Fantasy, Norton, and Locus Awards, and her novel Black
Wolves won Best Epic Fantasy Novel in the RT 2015 Reviewers’ Choice
Awards. Her spouse’s work as an archaeologist has allowed the family to
live in Mexico and in Denmark and to travel, and finally forced her to
move to Hawaii where she took up outrigger canoe paddling.

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