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Beneath the Haunting Sea
Author:Joanna Ruth Meyer

Beneath the Haunting Sea

Joanna Ruth Meyer




To Jenny—you’ll always be the Lewis to my Tolkien and for Aaron, my Faramir (they wouldn’t dare cut our scenes out of the movie).





Part One:



GODS AND MEN


But the gods thought them small and without knowledge, and did not like that mankind had been given love and they had not.






Chapter One



TALIA THUNDERED ACROSS THE PLAIN, HER HEAD bent low over her mount’s neck, the world a blur of dust and wind and exhilarating speed. The sun was just slipping above the peaks of the northern mountains, bathing the desert in liquid gold—already it burned blistering hot on her shoulders. She’d have to go back to Eddenahr soon, but she couldn’t shake the feeling that if she rode just a little faster she could leap into the sky, race the goddess of the air herself, and win.

But her mare couldn’t run forever. Talia pulled her to a walk and peered back toward Eddenahr, breathing hard. The city sprawled white and silver across the desert, a maze of blue-tiled roofs and white walls; the heat made it shimmer. Even from this distance the light refracted blindingly from the domes of the spired towers, and she had to squint, shading her eyes with one hand. Bells clamored in the dawn hush, calling up the sun.

She really needed to go back. Now.

Talia nudged her mare toward the city, wishing she could stay out here forever between the boundless earth and sky. Wind tugged her hair loose from its careless braid, whipping long black strands into her face. Sweat prickled at the back of her neck. She wouldn’t have time for a bath if she didn’t hurry, and appearing before the Emperor of half the world smelling of horse was probably not the best plan. Her stomach wrenched nervously as she touched her heels to the mare’s flanks.

Halfway back to the city, she spotted another rider coming toward her across the plain. She gritted her teeth, afraid it might be a palace attendant sent out to collect her—or worse, her mother.

But as she and the other rider drew near each other and reined in their mounts, Talia was surprised to see a young woman, elegantly dressed in flowing gold silk trousers and a sleeveless top studded with sapphires. The top was cropped short to show off her midriff, brown skin gleaming with sandalwood oil. Her black hair was pinned elaborately on top of her head and woven through with strands of gold. Her lashes were lined with kohl, her eyelids dusted with shimmering gold powder. Her beauty was unmistakable, untouchable—like a goddess of old.

“Eda,” said Talia at last, forcing herself to speak civilly, though everything in her wanted to wheel the mare around and gallop away. “What are you doing out here so early?”

Eda brushed a stray curl out of her face with one elegant hand, eyes narrowing. “Why has the Emperor asked you to breakfast?”

Talia’s mare fidgeted beneath her, “That’s none of your concern.”

“Isn’t it?” Danger lurked beneath her words, a thunderstorm about to break.

Talia couldn’t help but remember the first time she’d met Eda, half a lifetime ago when Talia’s parents had brought her to visit Eddenahr from their estate in mountainous Irsa. A peacock had gotten loose in the palace corridors and Talia had chased after it, laughing, losing one of her new silk slippers and tearing her too-long, brightly embroidered skirt. She’d bumped into Eda after an attendant scooped up the miscreant bird to return it to the garden. The other girl stood there frowning like an old lady, even though she was a gangly girl of eleven.

“It’s unseemly to run in the Emperor’s halls,” Eda had told her. “You disrespect His Imperial Majesty.”

Talia stammered an apology, but it didn’t seem to be enough.

“Who are you?” Eda demanded.

“Talia Dahl-Saida of Irsa. Who are you?”

“I’m the Countess of Evalla,” Eda said coldly. “Didn’t you ever learn to show deference to your superiors?”

Talia didn’t know what to say. She was the daughter of a countess—which made them equals as far as she could tell—and she hadn’t known then that this girl, barely older than herself, was Governor of the entire province of Evalla. So she’d dropped a confused curtsy and run back to her parents as quick as she could, hoping her path would never again cross with the severe child Countess.

But it did, and far more frequently than Talia could have imagined. Her parents were on the Emperor’s Council, and their visits to the capital of Enduena increased exponentially until they were in Eddenahr a vast deal more than they were in Irsa. Talia had to attend lessons with a dozen other courtiers’ children, spending nearly every day shut up inside, working through mathematical equations or memorizing historical facts or learning to dance, sew, draw. Eda was at every lesson, as she was considered too young to live in Evalla and govern the province on her own without a proper education—a fact that she deeply resented. She’d become Countess at the age of nine, when both of her parents had died of a vicious fever, but had been living in the palace ever since.

She was also rumored to be the Emperor’s bastard daughter. Talia had asked her father what that meant, and his answer both embarrassed and fascinated her; Eda’s mother had grown up in the palace and was a favorite of the Emperor. Her hasty marriage to the Count of Evalla and Eda’s birth barely nine months later had caused more than one raised brow. Whether it was true or not, Eda certainly considered herself royalty. And her opinion of Talia had never improved since that day with the peacock.

Out on the plain, the sun burning hotter and hotter with every degree it rose into the sky, Talia tried not to squirm under Eda’s scrutiny. The other girl always made her feel so small. “What do you want, Eda?”

“I want to know what the Emperor could possibly have to say to you.”

“Why do you care? Still waiting for him to admit he’s your father so you can feel like you have some worth in the world?”

Eda’s eyes burned with cold fire. “You will fall very low, Talia of Irsa. Then we will see how quick your tongue is.”

A fierce wind whipped up between them, hot and stinging with dust, and Talia had the sudden, horrible feeling that Eda’s threats were every bit as menacing. She shuddered; Eda smiled.

“I have to go,” Talia snapped. “I’ll be late.”

Eda made a little mocking half bow from her saddle. “Then go, and gods keep you.”

Talia nudged her mare on toward Eddenahr. But she couldn’t quite shake her sense of foreboding as she rode through the gate and the white city swallowed her up.