Fun Project I'm Working On
Updated: Mar 22, 2022
This one's for me. I started off writing fantasy romance and at some point I'd like to get back into it, so this is my fun writing. Some scenes may stay, some will likely get deleted. It's a learning experience. Feel free to follow along as I work on the story and build a new world.
I'm sure no one will notice that I created this snazzy cover myself. ;-)
Kingmaker Part One
Copyright 2022 Paula Altenburg, All rights Reserved
The dragon boat sliced through the Shadow Sea.
Five-year-old Bastien St. John stood in the bow, grasping the gunwale in his small hands. He’d heard the Aramandez estate, the brightest jewel of the Overland isles, was crafted from diamonds and he was eager for his first glimpse of the famous shoreline to see if the rumors were true.
His mother had talked about its magnificence, and the upcoming celebrations, for days. The newborn daughter of Claude Aramandez, the Kingmaker—the first girl born into the Aramandez family in over a thousand years—was to be baptized. A formal betrothal announcement between Bastien’s older brother Salvatore and the new baby would also be made, and Salvatore proclaimed heir to the Overland throne.
Bastien cared about none of those things. They were St. Johns above all else. Their clansmen were Overland’s master builders. Weavers of shadow. The best in the world. Bastien intended to explore the Aramandez stronghold and find out what made it so special, because someday, he planned to build one even better.
Impatient, he stood on his toes and craned his neck, releasing his steadying hold on the gunwale, trying to see the skyline above the rolling black sea. The dragon boat dipped into the trough of a wave. He staggered but kept his feet underneath him.
“Be careful. The sea is restless tonight,” his mother warned him for the fiftieth time. She’d been sick for much of the voyage and the light of the stars above leached all color from her pale face.
“Quit hovering over the boy,” his father commanded. Her seasickness had earned his contempt. “A St. John does not cower in the bottom of the boat. If he wishes to stand, he will stand—no matter how restless the sea.”
“Then you won’t mind if Salvatore joins him,” his mother shot back.
There wasn’t much Bastien’s father could say about that. Not in front of their men. But Salvatore, his firstborn and heir, was far more valuable to him than Bastien. Bastien had heard his mother say so, many times.
The two boys had different mothers. That might have something to do with it, too. It was no secret that their father had loved Salvatore’s mother and been driven nearly mad by her death. Only the insistence of the king’s council that he required another heir had convinced him to remarry.
Twelve-year-old Salvatore moved forward at his stepmother’s summons, nimbly scrambling over the straining oarsmen while ignoring their good-natured complaints. He had blond hair and green eyes, and people said he looked like his mother, who’d been beautiful. He was friendly and outgoing, another trait they apparently shared. Everyone liked him.
Bastien, who was none of those things, adored him, too. In secret.
Salvatore swung onto the bench in the bow directly behind where Bastien stood. “Sit down. I can’t see.”
Bastien, who made a point of ignoring whatever his brother told him to do, particularly now, when he’d been given their father’s permission to stand, stuck out his tongue.
Salvatore shrugged. “Suit yourself, brat. It’s nothing to me if you fall in.”
It would be nothing to anyone except his mother. That was why Bastien intended to build a spectacular stronghold for her. He faced forward, placing Salvatore at his back, and strained to see what lay ahead. Nothing but sea. A few glitters in the distance, perhaps, that were more likely stars than land.
The boat schussed through the waves, almost silent except for the grunt of the men and the cut of their oars. Bastien quickly grew bored. They’d been in the boat for hours and made no headway. Not as far as he could tell.
Since he had nothing better to do with his time, he tugged a strand of black shadow from the recalcitrant sea. Centuries ago, when the worlds fell apart, Overland was built out of darkness under the guidance of the St. Johns and their clansmen. Bastien might be only five, but he’d already begun watching the men as they practiced their craft on the shores of the St. John estate. He knew how it was done.
The strip of black shadow resisted. Bastien tugged harder. The boat crested another wave and again dropped into its trough. Bastien staggered forward, unwilling to release his hold on the shadow. The tops of his thighs connected with the bow of the boat. He toppled overboard, flailing, his head and shoulders plunging into the sea…
To be surrounded by a nothing so absolute, his world ceased to exist. The sea had no bottom. No end. It held no life.
A face flashed into his head. It belonged to a man who’d come to Drente a year or so ago to plead with the king. He’d looked ancient at first, because his hair was snow white, but his face was unlined. The most remarkable thing about his appearance was his unhealthy eyes. They twitched and rolled, as if at odds with each other. It was whispered he’d dived into the Shadow Sea on a dare and the sea spit him out—but not before it had sucked out his soul.
Bastien’s stomach shriveled. He didn’t want crazy eyes.
A tight pressure bound him by the waist. A hand had his ankle. Seconds later he was free, dragged from the abyss. He gagged and spewed black shadow over the side of the boat. It gushed out of his mouth and his nose.
“You stupid boy!” his mother shouted at him. Her face, already pale, had gone as white as the hair of the wild-eyed man who’d dived into the sea. She ran her hands over his head and shoulders, trying to brush the remnants of shadow from his skin and clothing. She clasped him in her arms and kissed him, over and over, holding him tightly. Her voice broke, shifting to a whisper. “Stupid, stupid boy. Thank you,” she said to Salvatore, who clutched Bastien’s strand of shadow in his hand. He’d used it to anchor him until their father hauled him back on board. “You saved him.”
The men had all stopped rowing to watch the drama unfold. Bastien burned with humiliation.
“Get back to work,” his father growled at them.
Bastien was banished to the bottom of the dragon boat, forced to sit under the watchful eye of his mother. His first glimpse of the glowing Aramandez estate came as his father carried him like a baby from the boat to the crowded dock. Salvatore took the place of honor at their father’s side. Bastien’s mother trailed a few paces behind them.
His father set him on his feet on the dock and nudged him toward his mother, who took hold of his hand—another blow to his pride he knew he’d earned, but resented nonetheless. He forgot the indignity, however, as he faced the shore to begin the long climb from the dock and finally caught sight of the Aramandez stronghold. His eyes widened in awe.
Beacons of sparkling lights soared high above jagged black cliffs—thirteen gleaming towers, representing the thirteen island estates. Not even the stronghold of Drente, the political center of Overland, could make such grand claims.
The St. Johns led the procession up the winding path through the cliffs. By the time they reached the stronghold’s open gates, Bastien’s short legs trembled.
“You’re doing well,” his mother whispered, squeezing his fingers in encouragement. He chanced a peek. Her face hadn’t yet regained color and her palm was sticky and cool in a way that made him want to wipe his hand on his trousers, although he’d never dare do so with people watching because it was bad manners.
Chaos reigned as the procession broke up in the courtyard inside the gates. Bastien had never seen so many people in one place, before.
“Salvatore,” his father said. “Take your brother to the nursery to play with the other children. Keep an eye on him until I send for you.”
Bastien didn’t want to go to the nursery. He wasn’t a baby. But doing as he was told would get him one step closer to his goal, because the first chance he got, he’d make his escape so he could explore.
“Come along,” Salvatore said, taking him by the hand his mother relinquished. “We can teach the other children how to play Rogue.”
Bastien’s resentment cooled. Salvatore didn’t want to go to the nursery either, yet he managed to be positive about it.
The nursery occupied the third floor of the east wing. The smooth, wide stairs, gray and eroded in the middle, were unlike anything he’d ever seen.
“They’re made of stone that came from Otherworld,” Salvatore explained when Bastien asked about them. “The Aramandez estate is older than Overland. That’s why the stones are grooved—thousands of people have used them for centuries.”
Bastien couldn’t figure out how the stones had been fitted together.
Salvatore didn’t know, either. “What does it matter? Shadow is a better building material.”
Bastien wasn’t as sure about that. Shadow didn’t erode, true enough, but its weaves often loosened and came apart. Maintaining them on the St. John estate fell to the Leonettis, their clansmen. Stone looked as if it required a great deal less maintenance. Unfortunately, there was no stone on Overland to be had. The technique that was used to fit them together, though…
A round-cheeked girl, maybe fifteen years of age, waited for them at the nursery door. Bastien liked her smile.
Salvatore liked it, too. He gave Bastien a light shove. “Go play with the others.”
“What about…” Bastien began, digging his heels in, about to remind his brother of the game of Rogue he’d been promised, but Salvatore shot him a look that warned he’d be wasting his breath.
Why should he care? The less attention Salvatore paid to him, the easier it would be to escape.
The nursery held roughly twenty children, all close to his age. The sheer number of toys and playground equipment boggled the mind. Bastien wandered over to three boys standing close to a slide. His name was the only introduction he ever needed.
“So what if you’re a St. John,” one of them sneered. He had a big nose. “You aren’t first born. You aren’t even the son of a first wife.”
Bastien failed to see why that was a problem and said so.
The boy’s bug eyes smirked above the vast breadth of his nose. “You’ll never be king.”
Nor did he want to be. Again, not a problem. “No. I’m going to be a master builder.”
“As the St. Johns were intended.”
Bastien saw no insult in that, either. He did know when one was intended. He drew himself up in an attempt to make himself appear bigger, but he was small for his age and there was no hiding it.
While his antagonist made fun of his efforts, however, Bastien threw the first punch. The other boy screamed and fell to the floor. Blood dripped from between the fingers of the hands he cupped to his face.
Someone grabbed Bastien’s shoulder.
“Apologize,” Salvatore said.
Injustice burned Bastien’s eyes. Their family had been insulted. The other boy had it coming and now was making a show out of it.
He blinked. Hard. “No.”
Salvatore gave him a shake. “You will apologize. Now.”
The other boy’s nose had already stopped bleeding. The girl in charge of the nursery had grabbed a towel and begun wiping his hands and face. She wasn’t smiling anymore. She, too, looked at Bastien as if waiting for him to speak up.
He stood his ground. He wasn’t sorry. He wouldn’t apologize. The words would be empty and have little meaning. His father always told him that he shouldn’t speak unless he meant what he said.
So he kept his mouth shut.
The other children had also fallen silent. This was the second time today that Bastien could feel every eye on him.
Salvatore’s hand slid from his shoulder to underneath his arm. “Very well, then. You can sit in the confessional until you change your mind.”
The nursery’s confessional wasn’t an elaborate carved chamber such as the one in the churches on Drente and the St. John estate. It was a plain wardrobe painted in bright colors, with a single door, and it had one purpose only—as a quiet place for reflection. In other words, it was meant to punish disobedient children.
Bastien was fine with that. It was hardly his first confinement. He was equally good with the beating he knew he’d receive after Salvatore told their father what had happened.
He didn’t care. He wasn’t a liar.
The door closed. He heard the lock click into place. He settled onto the small stool in the darkness and kicked his heels against one of the rungs. He did not, however, waste time on quiet reflection.
The confessional was crafted from shadow. He could weave shadow. He could also tear it apart, although without as much skill. It took far more effort. He ran his small fingers over the wall, feeling for chinks. All he needed was one tiny crack, where the weave had sagged.
And there it was. He worked the tip of his finger inside. Then, he tugged the shadow to him. It parted. He widened the hole and his fingers sank through the wall. Then, his whole hand. He pushed harder.
Seconds later, he stood in a hallway. The door to the nursery playroom glared accusingly when he glanced behind him. Ahead were two more doors. He approached the first door on his right.
He gripped the door handle. It creaked, but didn’t object. The door swung open.
The room contained a single bed, a change table, and bassinette. The nursery at home, on the St. John estate, was almost exactly the same as this—a play area, separated from the bedrooms, which included a room for the nursemaid and newborn with its own entrance. This was the nursemaid and newborn’s room. The ceiling glittered with tiny speckles of light, emitting a low glow to lessen the gloom.
He crossed the floor to the bassinette. He drew back the mesh curtains surrounding it and gazed down at the baby. So this was Giselle Aramandez.
She wasn’t much. Red-faced and wrinkled. A wisp of colorless hair. He failed to see what the fuss was about.
Then, she opened her eyes.
They were bright blue and they shone, as if filled with the light of a thousand moons. He’d never seen anything like them. He’d never seen a baby up close before either, so maybe they all had strange eyes such as this. Maybe they needed them so they could see in the dark. She puckered her tiny mouth and stared at him. He hung over the edge of the bassinette and stared back, fascinated.
In the corner of the room, near the foot of the bed, shadow moved. Bastien’s heart began to pound. The sense of urgency that had brought him here returned.
He reached into the bassinette, tucked the blanket tightly around the baby, then carefully lifted her into his arms. Her head flopped to one side and he nudged it upright, bracing it against his shoulder.
The shadow shivered again. The baby in Bastien’s arms made a small sound. He had to hide her. He backed away from the shadow and whatever stirred within it, bumping into the wall. He plucked at it, unweaving its threads, then spinning them around him and the baby, but it wasn’t going to be enough to hide them for long. He tugged harder. The shadow tore and he stumbled through the hole he’d made.
A brilliant white orb lit up the sky, so bright it burned his eyes. Panic clawed at his stomach. He had no idea where they were or how they got here, but something hunted the baby and he had to protect her.
To his left, sea lapped at the shoreline. This sea wasn’t shadow, however. And the shore was covered in tiny stones—more than he could ever have imagined—that shifted precariously under his feet. A copse of trees loomed on his right. Sparse, gnarled, and unkempt, they looked nothing like the trees in the family gardens on the St. John estate. Broken limbs littered the ground. Shadow moved underneath them.
The trees offered shelter. And weapons.
He stumbled across the stones. Since climbing over scattered branches while carrying a baby was out of the question, he laid her on the ground at the base of a tree. She followed him with her eyes as he squatted on his heels and began to coax shadow from between exposed roots and tangled brush. He handled it carefully, weaving the fragile strands into a blind that he placed between them and the sea. Then, he picked up a broken branch and sat beside the baby, resting his chin on his knees, and waited.
Later, when he tried to look back on this day, he couldn’t recall much about the time that passed, or the strange things he saw while he waited, or even what he’d been waiting for. What he did remember was how the round orb of light sank in the sky, slowly swallowed by shadow.
And the man who appeared on the shore, next to the sea.
The baby began to fuss. Bastien clutched the branch in his hands tighter. He thought she might be hungry—so was he—but there was nothing for them to eat. The man must have heard her because he turned toward their hiding place. He walked closer. Bastien raised the branch, preparing to swing.
The man stopped a few feet away. He crouched down.
“Bastien St. John. I’ve come for my daughter,” he called softly.
The sense of danger that had twisted and knotted Bastien’s guts for hours slid away. He set the branch aside. They were safe.
He wasn’t prepared to give up Giselle, however. He lifted her into his arms, settling her head on his shoulder. Her small, puckered mouth made a soft, sucking sound that tickled his ear.
“No one will hurt her,” he declared. “She’s mine.”
“I can see that.” Amusement added a lilt to Claude’s voice. “Someday, she will be yours. But for now, she’s mine.” The amusement disappeared. His mouth flattened into a harsh line. “And I promise you, from now on, she’s safe.”