It’s day 4 of the Preorder Countdown – we’re half-way there!

Today’s treat is the exclusive, never before seen, unedited sample of the Last Dragon King’s manuscript! A sample of Chapter 5, starring Captain Fabius of the Soembing.


The ship’s boards creaked again. Captain Fabius winced at the sound. One hadn’t plied these waters for twenty years without recognizing when a vessel was close to shattering.
            His first officer shared in his concern. With his head tilted towards the creaking, he notched a quick note in his journal.
            “Are you sure we’re in the right place?” Fabius asked, for the fourth time.
            “Either that, or our navigator’s lost her mind,” the first officer replied, for the fourth time.
            Another wave, crested with thick white foam, struck against the ship’s bow with an unearthly wail. Hemmed in between the walls of the grey and black clouds, surrounded by whirlpools, water devils and water spouts, the Soembing stood reluctant against the dark wall of the Sea Maze stretching before it. Its engines purred quietly, just enough to maintain the course – whatever the course was in this forsaken place. Fabius insisted on them running all the time, even if the ship hadn’t changed position for three days, as they waited either for the navigator to correct her mistake, or, by some miracle, the wall of black clouds to open and allow them inside, as it always had, for the past two decades.
            “With all due respect, Captain,” the First said, looking at his notes, “I think it’s fair to say they don’t want us back.”
            “If we turn to Huating, we won’t get any pay for our trouble.”
            “If we move forward, we won’t get any pay ever again,” replied the First, his face soured.
            “Let’s stay a while more. I have a good feeling about today.”
            “Really?” The First raised his eyebrow, then glanced at the Sea Maze. “I’m surprised you’re able to have any good feelings around this place.”
            Fabius nodded in agreement and forced a smile. He knew what the First meant. For twenty years he’d sailed the Ship – in its various incarnations – across the “Divine Winds”, as the locals called them, and he’d never got used to it. The magic of the East always unnerved him with its alien ways, but this was something else altogether. On his first journey, he had been naturally wary of the random storms, the unpredictable currents, the insanity of the compass readings and star charts – all the things the more experienced sailors had warned him about before setting off. But he’d soon learned all of that was just a minor nuisance compared to the real terror of the Maze: the wailing.
            The clouds wailed and howled all through the night. Not the usual howl of a winter wind in the ropes – but a sound that could only be produced by a horde of tormented souls: a piercing cry of anguish, wordless but full of meaning, coming from a thousand suffering throats hidden somewhere in the black clouds. There was no hiding from it: it penetrated into the deepest cabin, into the cargo hold and engine room, through cotton wool and hands covering one’s ears, almost as if it wasn’t coming through the ear canals but entered straight through the brain.
            What nameless Spirits had been tortured to create this monstrosity, Fabius dared not imagine. But it suited what he’d suspected about the Yamato magic in general: abuse of souls, forbidding them from passing beyond the veil of the mortal world to do the bidding of the priests and the shamans. They thought they managed to keep this a secret from the Westerners, but Fabius had heard enough rumours and gossip over the years to piece together the truth.
            He stared at the cloud wall. What’s going on beyond it? The control of the Maze belonged to the government at Edo. Every year, the Dejima Oppertovenaar received an envelope from Edo with coordinates of the secret path leading towards the Kiyō Bay, sealed with the Taikun’s crest. The path was different each year – but it should have stayed unchanged until the next summer. Of course, that was before the civil war erupted in Chinzei, before the Gorllewin landed in Shimoda, before the Soembing was sent out to buy Dracalish weapons for a Yamato warlord… Had the rebels won without them, but didn’t know how to control the Divine Winds? Or was Edo in such chaos that nobody bothered to pay attention to keeping the path open?
            First was right to be concerned. But Fabius couldn’t help feeling the wind would soon change. Maybe it was something in the wailing coming from the wall of clouds – a quality he sensed, rather than heard. Or maybe he was just being stubbornly optimistic for no reason at all.
            “You’re right, it’s hopeless,” he said. “Tell Verle to plan a course for Temasek.”
He heard his men cry out in distress. He turned just in time to see a giant black wave break over the deck.


Excerpt Reveal – “The Withering Flame”, Chapter V

Yes, like George R.R. Martin, I too am still working hard on Volume 6 of my fantasy saga 😉 And just like Winds of Winter, it’s taking me much longer than I had hoped for. I had to do a massive rewrite of the first half of the book, and then life added its own share of delays… But now I have finally finished the new draft, and we seem to be back on track for a release this side of half-year!

To celebrate this milestone – and the release of a new Winds of Winter excerpt on GRRM’s site – here’s an excerpt from Chapter 5 of the new draft of “The Withering Flames”.
(minor spoiler warning, naturally)

The noblemen prison wing was packed to the limits. So many Mori Clan’s retainers had been arrested at the Terada-ya, that the guards had to cram them two each into a cell. Only one cell remained, at Koyata’s insistence, occupied by a single inhabitant.

It was to this cell that he was now leading his latest quarry.

“Here you are, Izumi-dono,” he said with a bow, showing the new prisoner in. Maki Izumi grunted and crossed the cell’s threshold.

“This is Miyabe-sama from Kumamoto,” Koyata introduced the cellmates. “I thought a pair of Southerners will get along.” He smiled and backed out. As soon as the grate slid shut, he rushed down the corridor, and up the stairs into another, secret hallway, hidden from view by a sliding wall with the painting of a pensive Butsu-sama, standing on the sea shore and putting a conch to his ear.

He shuffled quietly along the lightless hallway, to a location he had marked earlier. The hallway floor was pierced with small slits, covered with sawed-off bits of floorboards, at measured distances – one per cell; through those slits, Koyata was able to observe and listen in on everything that happened in the rooms below. He lay down and put his ear to the hole.

“…and what were you planning to do with it once you got to Edo?”

That was Master Izumi’s exasperated voice. Koyata smiled to himself – the plan worked perfectly. And he’d made it just in time to hear the juiciest part of the conversation.

“You know full well what our mission is,” Miyabe replied, snidely. “To free the court from the abominations that control it.”


       “Fools,” scoffed Izumi. “Now your men will be captured, and the sword will fall into the Taikun’s hands.”

So it’s a sword…

“And I suppose you’d rather we sat quietly in Kumamoto and did nothing,” said Miyabe. “Let your Master do as he pleased.”

“Shimazu-dono is doing what he believes is best for Yamato.”

       Koyata heard one of the men pace this way and that across the narrow confines of the cell. He pressed his eye to the slit – it was Miyabe, jumpy and agitated.

“Well I don’t trust anyone who’s dealing with one of them,” he said. “And don’t think I’d forgive him for what he did to Hosokawa-dono.

“Dōraku is different,” replied Izumi. “We would be nowhere without him. Look, Miyabe-dono.” He put his hands together in an entreating gesture. “In the end, we both want the same. A bright, prosperous future for our country, without the Fanged pulling the strings and without the barbarians ordering us about.”

There’s that word again. The Fanged. Koyata had heard this name spoken, always in secret, a few times already during his stay in Heian, but he couldn’t figure out what it might mean.

“Shimazu just wants the throne for himself,” scoffed Miyabe.

“He may want to rule, but he’s not after the throne. We remain loyal to the Mikado.

Loyal to the Mikado, huh… Just as Lord Matsudaira had predicted, the letter sent out by His Majesty Kōmei had been stirring up trouble. The daimyo should be loyal to the Taikun; not to whatever puppet occupied the symbolic throne in Heian’s Imperial Palace. Those were the rules – the rules that had been managing to prevent another Civil War for more than two centuries.

“Same difference,” said Miyabe.

Izumi raised his hands and shrugged. “If that’s what it takes… do you have a better candidate?”

“What about Mori?” asked Miyabe. “I heard his men are in town.”

“Chōfu is a lost cause,” said Izumi. “They tried, and they failed. Half of the retainers were brought into this prison tonight with me. Hear them now, wailing and cursing!”

He banged at the wall of his cell. A Chōfu samurai on the other side yelled at him in response – what, Koyata couldn’t hear.

“Yes! That’s right!” shouted Izumi. “Your little revolution is over before it’d begun!”

The man behind the wall yelled again, but Izumi ignored him and sat by the wall opposite. Miyabe lay down on the floor, with the straw pillow under his head.

“Izumi-dono,” he started, looking at the ceiling. Koyata prayed that he wouldn’t notice the slit – it was right above him. “Do you think we still stand a chance?”

“I don’t know, Miyabe-dono. I do know that Takashima-sama managed to destroy one of them in battle, and lived through it. And she’s only a girl, who’s barely come of age. Think of what real men, real warriors could do, with proper planning.”

Takashima! Koyata put a hand to his mouth to stop himself from gasping.

“How did she do that?” asked Miyabe.

“I did not get a chance to ask her, before those Aizu thugs took me away,” said Izumi. “I hope they got away safe.”

I’ve heard enough, Koyata decided. He covered the slit with the wooden plank, and headed back to the ground floor.

Koyata held his head in both hands, and rubbed his temples. “This is all giving me a headache,” he said, and took a chunk from the brown powder tablet he carried in a bamboo box at his waist. He had been ordering the medicine from Kiyō – it helped alleviate the stresses of his new job.

“So let me get this straight,” he said, after he finished chewing the medicine. “There’s a conspiracy of demons, living dead, who control the Taikun’s court and want to rule all of Yamato – and one of them was responsible for the abduction of Takashima Shūhan and Tokojiro Namikoshi from Kiyō?”

Tokojiro did mention some monstrous man in a red robe, torturing him… remembered Koyata. He had always assumed it must have been just another Rangakusha, corrupted and maddened by power…

Miyabe and Izumi exchanged glances and nodded. “I don’t know the other name, but if you’d speak to Takashima Satō-sama,” said Izumi, “she would confirm everything I told you.”

“And this… Dōraku, did you say? What is his role? Is he some other kind of demon?”

“No, no,” said Izumi. “He’s like the others, but – on our side. They call him the Renegade.”

“Or so he says,” added Miyabe, scowling. “All I know is that he used to be Mori-dono’s confidant, and then he betrayed him for Shimazu. I wouldn’t trust him with a blunt chopstick.”

Koyata swiped his hand across his face. “Do you have any proof of this?”

Izumi laughed, Miyabe rolled his eyes. “If we had, we wouldn’t be here,” said Izumi. “You think Shimazu-dono would just sit on a secret like this?”

“I do,” said Miyabe. “The old fox knows far more than he’s letting on.”

It was now Izumi’s turn to roll eyes. “That may be, but in this case we’re all just following hearsay. The only two Fanged anybody’s ever seen, and lived to tell the tale, are Dōraku-sama and the Crimson Robe. One of them is dead – the other in hiding.”

This was almost too much to take in. Koyata’s mind raced, as he struggled to connect the many pieces of puzzle he’d been gathering ever since the first incident in Kiyō. All the rumours, all the random bits of investigation, all the strange events he’d been hearing about… if a conspiracy of demons was the true explanation for everything, it certainly wasn’t the most far-fetched he’d ever come up with.

One thing he couldn’t still figure out.

“Why Heian?” he asked. “How does His Majesty fit into this?”

Miyabe looked at Izumi mockingly. “Yes, Izumi-dono, how does the Divine Mikado fit into Shimazu-dono’s plans?”

Izumi’s eyes darted to the sides, and to the ceiling. He knew, realized Koyata.

“Don’t worry, I made sure we are not being spied on.” He had the two noblemen moved to a separated cell, at the far end of the prison wing, and had checked twice that nobody would be able to use the floor slit without his permission. He hoped it was enough – though in Heian, everyone spied on everyone else.

“Let me preface this by saying that Nariakira-dono has the best Scryers in Yamato at his service. Even you’d agree on this, wouldn’t you, Miyabe-dono?” asked Izumi.

“I don’t know about best, but I’ve heard they are good,” agreed Miyabe.

“And those Scryers are all clear on one thing: the Mikado must be protected, at all costs. His life is in danger.”

Koyata scratched his head. “I know His Majesty and His Excellency are at loggerheads over the barbarian question… but that’s a bit much. The Taikun would never strike at the Imperial Capital. That would be attacking a God!”

Izumi raised his eye. “Do you forget your history? It happened before, and it will happen again. The Taikun’s army is heading for the city – and, for all we know, so do the barbarians. The Aizu are already in control. I fear the Chōfu forces were our last chance at securing the palace.”

Koyata stood up and turned their back at the samurai. He needed to think clearly, and their mocking, annoyed looks were getting on his nerves.

“Is there anything that can yet be done?” he asked.

“You… you would help us?” said Izumi.

“I must not be connected to this,” Koyata replied. “And you would have to stay here, to avoid suspicion.”

“That – that might work,” said Miyabe. “All we’d need is some sort of contact with the outside world.”

“I will let you know.” Koyata opened the grated door. “Tomorrow is the first day of Obon – I’ll be busy. But I will come back as soon as I can.” He stepped outside and shut the door. “I was not here. I heard nothing.”

The two noblemen nodded in unison.

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Yaldā Advent Calendar 2012 – Day 12 – excerpt from “The Rising Tide”


For Day 12 I have something for those of you who wait for Volume 4. Yes, it’s being written! I have just finished draft one, actually, and am now working on draft two. Here’s an excerpt from the current version. Keep in mind that as this is an early draft, the scene may change or even be removed from the finished manuscript. I tried to find something least spoilery 🙂 This will be somewhere at the beginning of the book.

(in other news: I just got all three paperbacks in post. They look really nice together! 🙂

There was fresh blood on Dylan’s boots.
It came from a puddle he had stepped into a street earlier. Or maybe from another, a block away. There was no way to know for certain; all the streets of Shanglin were bathed in blood.
He stepped over a dead body and stumbled over another, lying just beside it. He didn’t look down; not anymore. They all looked the same, anyway: stripped naked, mangled, slashed with swords and burned with gunshots. Only the sizes and genders differed. The conquerors of Shanglin did not discriminate. Old men, children, women… all were piled along the walls and blood-filled gutters. The dead, black window holes of the burnt-out houses stared down at the carnage in silent accusation.
Dylan didn’t bother to count the slain. How many people had lived in Shanglin before the war? Ten thousand? Twenty thousand? How many more gathered here fleeing from the besieging Imperial Army? Only a few hundred women survived, spared for the soldiers’ entertainment. Another hundred may have fled into the marshes. That was all.
There’s always war in Qin, he thought. Not like this.
He climbed the arch of a wide bridge spanning one of the city’s many canals, and passed Qin soldiers guarding the passage. They let him through without a word, or even a bow. Dylan was too numb to take offence, although he did make a mental note of the guards’ behaviour.
Beyond the canal lay the Tianyi Gardens, where the conquering army made their headquarters. Even here there were traces of destruction and fire, though all the dead had been removed from the paths, and blood scoured from the gravel. Rose and camellia bushes were cut down to make place for tents. Soldiers sat on moss-covered boulders and stone benches around ponds, playing ma jiang for bits of Cursed Weed and money. Gold and silver coins, looted from the city’s treasure houses, were strewn all over the grass.
No discipline at all, thought Dylan bitterly. This rabble would never have taken the city without our help.
The Bohan set his staff up in the main lecture hall of the great Library Pavilion, a long, two-storey building with eaves like sickle blades pointing to the skies. Dylan found him studying a large map; several other maps lay scattered around the floor and tables.
“Ah, Commodore Dí Lán!” the Bohan welcomed him with a grin and open arms. “Come, join us. We are planning our next stratagem. What do you think of moving on Chansu?”
“Another siege?” Dylan asked. He dismissed a servant who offered him a cup of tea.
“I know you Dracalish like moving swiftly, but this is how this war will have to be fought for now, until we push those vermin beyond the walls of our cities.”
“Perhaps it would be easier to capture the cities if the defenders were given a chance to survive.”
“You don’t approve of our methods, Commodore.”
“No, I can’t say I do. I will write a report of all that’s happened here to Fan Yu.”
Bohan stood straight, letting go of the map; it rolled up with a rustle.
“These… rats dared to stand against the Mandate of Heaven. They got what they deserved. Besides, they had plenty of time to surrender without bloodshed.”
“Plenty of time? The siege lasted less than a week – thanks to our guns and our dragons.”
And you will want them again for the next battle.
“That was a week too long.”
“Her Majesty will not take kindly to having her troops associated with this massacre.”
The Bohan smirked.
“Do not presume to deceive me, Commodore. I know your orders as well as you do. You are to provide us with any assistance we require, in defence of your country’s trade interests – and provide us you shall. Speaking of which, I will need half a dozen of your dragons to…”
“Enough!” Dylan slapped his hands on the table. The outburst surprised even him. The Bohan raised a sharp eyebrow. “My men are not butchers! You can capture your cities yourself. Huating is safe, and that’s all that matters for our trade interests.”
The Bohan blinked, and then laughed.
“You want to teach me about butchery? You, a Westerner? I know you. You’ve conquered, enslaved, destroyed entire nations all over the world. You’d destroy Qin if you thought this was in your… interests. Oh, but you’re too shrewd for that. You prefer to kill slowly.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. Certainly, the Dracaland army never did anything like you did here.”
“No. I don’t suppose so. Not yet, at least. But your Weed trade killed more of my people than any war. And how many died of famine in Bangla because you took their fields to plant the Weed? So don’t you lecture me about butchery, Commodore Dí Lán, unless you want me to get better at it. Play war like the nice soldier you are, and we’ll all be free to go home in no time. Isn’t that what you want?”
Dylan said nothing. He turned on his heels and stomped outside, clenching his teeth and knuckles.
“I will send my requests to your tent, Commodore!” the Bohan cried after him. “I expect a prompt reply!”