Teagan Kearney/G.N. Kearney: Writer: November 2017

I did it again!

The day your book is published is an exhilarating and nervous one. You sigh with satisfaction because you've somehow managed, after a lot of sweat and tears, to achieve something you could only dream of ten years ago. Then, with your fifth (or is it your sixth?) coffee in hand, you check the websites, make sure your promo links work, and check the websites again, knowing you'll be doing this all day.

Okay enough with the introspection, here's the first chapter of Stars & Ashes, Book One in the Saoirse Saga. If you like it, here's the link:  The book is $0.99, and I'd love it if you enjoyed the first chapter enough to pop over and follow Kia's thrilling journey!

Chapter One: Invasion

The class of eight and nine-year-old girls and boys, their faces rosy with effort and eyes shiny with pleasure, straightened their thin brown tunics, wiped a hand or two across a sweaty forehead, stood tall, and bowed to the teacher.
Kia returned the bow. They were eager to please, and it took nothing but a kind word of encouragement for them to blossom. “Thank you, disciples,” Kia intoned the solemn, formal dismissal, then couldn’t hide her smile. “Okay, you’re dismissed, off you go. Don’t forget your homework.” Her eyes twinkled with satisfaction.
The ordered formation broke and became a fluid mass of grinning children surging for the practice hall door.
Little Diago threw her a wave and a wink as he went, making her laugh. The lad showed a lot of promise, and Kia thought he had a bright future if he practiced, which she could tell he didn’t always do. A swift glance around the hall—neatly stacked mats, the floor swept—and satisfied everything was as it should be, she tossed her waist-length pale-blonde plait over her shoulder and headed out pleased with the afternoon’s class.
The srilao hall was in the older section of Sestris amid the narrow, cobbled twisting streets near the port, and the temple was close by. Late afternoon and the city dozed, dreaming slow dreams in the warm lull between noontime and evening, though the streets were never completely silent.
She had time to stop and make an offering to Cossanta, the golden four-armed patron Goddess of srilao devotees before buying the sweetfruit and berries for the tart her mother wanted to make that evening.
Training for the Southern Continental Championships last month was the hardest thing she’d ever done and winning had been beyond her expectations. The Goddess deserved as many offerings as Kia could manage. Returning to Sestris, standing in the packed town square under the blazing midday sun, and hearing the roaring cheers as the Head Elector—her proud father—placed the golden medallion around her neck, had been dizzying. Yet the class of under ten-year-olds was the most rewarding assignment she’d been given in her training to become a srilao teacher.
Srilao was both a martial art and a dance form, and practitioners were fighters, gymnasts, and dancers who could earn their living performing and teaching in any of the three branches: champions were those who proved they possessed superior skills in all the forms.
She’d put the key in the lock and was studying the round metal symbol on the door, her gaze tracing the three whorls emanating from the center, about to turn the key when the siren screamed, sending every startled seabird in the vicinity flapping into the air. Later she would remember that moment; how the city crouched, waiting, how time elongated, the feel of the cool gray metal in her hand, the grain of the pale ashwood door, the warm breeze stirring the hairs on the back of her neck. When birds fly, something this way comes. Beware, the old saying went. Her other hand clutched the medallion underneath her tunic. She would remember because nothing was ever the same afterward.
At first, the ear-piercing shriek confused her. Then the world stopped. This rhythm of wailing blasts meant one thing—invasion. The thought ignited a chain reaction, and she twisted the key, hearing the lock click, stilling as a fleet of low flying craft skimmed the rooftops, and a wave of heated air buffeted her. A single thought. Home. She needed to get home. Her mother was strong and capable, but the twins would be scared.
The synchronized regulated thud of boots was loud in the thrumming silence after the siren, and she froze at the sight of the menacing line of black uniformed soldiers. They marched, six abreast with weapons raised, along the narrow street toward her, herding a bewildered frightened crowd in front of them.
“Citizens of Sestris, this is the Nadil-Kuradi Empire taking control,” an emotionless voice boomed. “Please leave your houses, head for the main gate, and wait outside the city walls. Those disobeying this order will be shot.” The soldiers marched closer.
She was too late. Dark visors hid their faces, but she’d no doubt one, or more, had their phaserifles trained on her. Kia thrust the key in her pocket. How polite and typical of the Xaruntian conquerors to say please as they ordered you to surrender or die, she thought, fighting the blind panic threatening to overwhelm her. She recited the pre-fight invocation under her breath, pulling on every bit of training she’d learned since childhood to stay calm. Bit by bit the black wave receded, and she continued putting one foot in front of the other.
The srilao practice hall was near an intersection, and as she passed the shops and houses, doors opened and more people joined the shuffling fearful throng, accompanied by the loud, monotonously repeated command to comply. As they neared the main gate out of the city, the streets were packed. The normal city smells of street flits, food stalls, sea or sand—depending on the wind; the mix of innumerable odors given off by a city full of people was replaced by the acid scent of fear. Everyone had seen the holovid or heard about the Urkat massacre where every house, village, and city on the planet had been obliterated on the orders of the Emperor Teyrn because its inhabitants had defied the might of the empire. The message was clear, and no Sestrian was foolish or brave enough to try that stunt.
Kia shot a look behind her. She saw a second, and then the third row of armed soldiers. She heard doors being smashed as the invaders went house to house, checking for anyone hoping to avoid detection. The soft pff of a weapon firing, followed by the cutting off of a child’s sobbing followed her along the street. Had they captured her father? Dear Goddess, please let him have escaped. Kia kept moving, her fists clenched and her jaw aching from gritting her teeth too hard.
She thought of little Diago, worry shivering through her. She had to trust all the children had made it home. Why hadn’t they been warned? The entire population had known one day the emperor’s spaceships would appear in the pale lavender sky like a plague of dusky aljarads out of the desert. The insects appeared every few years and stripped the city’s trees and gardens. However, unlike the insects, these aggressors wouldn’t fly out over the ocean and disappear. The vast amount of accessible rich mineral deposits had guaranteed that, even with Emankora’s position at the far end of a galaxy arm, the world was too rich a plum not to be plucked. Accordingly, some of those in positions of power, including her father, had made plans for this eventuality, always with the hope they would never be needed.
Kia staggered as the realization hit her. A traitor in their midst must have uncovered the Elector's schemes and sold them out to their enemies. Her father had refused to disclose his plans to her, saying he’d bring her in after she started the Electoral training program the following year. Yet the invader's sudden appearance demonstrated their sleepers must have already been in position. She stumbled and would have fallen, but the woman next to her reached out and steadied her.
“Be strong. This is no more than the beginning.” The woman was lean and worn down with hard work, and her lined sun-browned face gave nothing away. “Life will get a lot worse before it gets better.” Her harsh expression softened for a moment before she strode ahead.
As the multitude reached the large tree-line square adjacent to the Main gates, they came to a standstill, the sheer mass of people making it impossible to move any farther.
Kia could see the elaborately decorated pink sandstone arch, but the enormous crowd filling the square milled in confusion with mothers clutching children’s hands, soothing their cries, huddling beside their husbands, and both old and young afraid of what was coming next. Most of these people had been among those who celebrated her triumph, as her success was their success. These were the citizens who had voted for Madaxa Xefe over the previous twenty years, first as councilor then as Head Elector, but today their gazes slid elsewhere, and they trembled, scared for themselves and their families.
Judging by the number and positioning of the troops, Kia estimated they’d first encircled the town and moved inward, sweeping everyone before them: another sign that no matter what defensive measures the resistance had organized, the empire’s agents had eliminated them. Her father and his cohorts had seriously underestimated the enemy’s ability to neutralize their strategy. Or they’d overestimated their people’s loyalty. If she had to choose, she’d favor the former. The sun had moved low toward the horizon by the time Kia, trapped in the midst of the thirsty hungry crowd, stumbled forward, at last able to see what was causing the blockage.
 A three-row-deep line of soldiers, with their weapons trained on those passing before them, stood on both sides of the short road leading to the gates, where two men, who looked more like officers than regular infantry, questioned everyone and tapped answers into their comunits.
If they’re here, they’ll target my family, her father had said, and here’s what you’ll do.
When her turn came, the black-visored man stared at her. “Name?”
She studied her red leather sandals. “Kia O’Afon.” O’Afon was her mother’s family name, and afon meant river. Her mother came from the remote south where the land was green and forested, unlike the central desert that stretched out and covered half the southern continent behind Sestris. The mineral rich desert, mined by the Sestrians for centuries, provided a living, trade, and was the reason for the port’s existence.
“Twenty-three.” At least Jared wasn’t here. Her older brother had gone north on a trading expedition with Keyon, his best friend. Brown eyed, serious Keyon, who last time they’d talked had told her if she didn’t say yes to his offer of partnership soon, he would always love her but would look elsewhere.
The questioner leaned in, snapped his fingers in her face. “I asked you your status?”
She flinched. “Single.” Focus, she told herself. This wasn’t the time to daydream about what ifs.
“I’m from the south, and I'm here for work.”
“Guess that explains your coloring.”
Kia took after her mother and with her pale blonde hair and irises so dark the pupil was barely discernible, her looks marked her out. Native Sestrians had darker hair, green or blue eyes, and paler skin. He held a scanner to her eyes and checked his comunit again.
Kia held her breath.
“That way. Go left.” He pointed through the gates.
Altering the civic records to give her a new identity had held up under inspection. She breathed out.
Outside the walls, another avenue of black-visored figures waited.
Kia subtly altered her posture, slumping her shoulders and scuffing her feet instead of striding. One-on-one in unarmed combat, she stood a chance. Her average height and slender build were deceptive because she was well-trained with lightning fast reflexes and hadn’t yet met an opponent whose body she couldn't read. As she walked, she sensed the hidden eyes assessing her. Tales of the Nadil-Kuradi Empire’s cruelty toward its new vassals were endless. Crush and crush again, until there was nothing left but blind obedience to the emperor.
Far too quickly she reached the end of the intimidating gauntlet, and a phaserifle directed her left. On the flat expanse of dun-colored sands beyond the town, she caught a brief glance of the fleet of spacecraft that had brought their vanquishers. Teaching in the hall, she hadn’t heard their arrival over the excited cries of the children practicing. Some looked bigger, most likely troop carriers, and nearby were a dozen or more fighter craft. As if Sestris possessed the capability to fight anything military, let alone an interstellar space fleet of any size. She hitched a breath at the thought of the same scenario happening all over Emankora.
Kia joined a large group of young men and women sitting on the ground guarded by yet more soldiers. They were separating people into groups. Where were her mother and sisters? She scanned the area, but it was several minutes before she spotted the women and younger children.
Kia looked up to find the barrel of a phaserifle about a handspan from her face. She swallowed.
“Look down and don’t talk. See him.” The soldier pointed his weapon over to the right.
Kia’s gaze alighted on the body of a young man who lay unmoving as blood pooled beneath his head.
“He did what you’re doing. Looking for his kinfolk. Don’t. From here on, you are nobody. You have no family or friends. You belong to the emperor body and soul.”
Kia looked down. Body, maybe, soul, never.
The sky darkened, the temperature dropped, Osupa rose in isolated splendor, and still they sat on the cooling earth as the invaders catalogued the townspeople. The youth’s lifeless body was eventually dragged away, and while they were all were aware of what was happening, they were powerless.
Kia passed the night in a frozen stupor listening to the faint intermittent wails of children or the barking of a command. If you needed to relieve yourself, a soldier escorted you past the outer line and trained his phaserifle on you as you did your business. Animals, Kia thought, raising a hand when her bladder was about to burst. Animals. That’s all we are to them.
Rumor had it the empire used neural implants to boost the speed of their reactions, physical strength, and endurance. The soldiers’ behavior, impervious and vigilant throughout the night, appeared to confirm the story.
As the predawn sky turned gray, then pink, she heard hammering in the distance. Sweet Goddess, what was happening?
With shouts of ‘Stand,’ and swift use of phaserifle butts to ensure compliance, the guards harried the cold, stiff prisoners to their feet. They soon found out what the noises meant. A raised platform had been thrown up, high enough that even those at the rear could witness whatever was about to take place.
Kia’s heart drummed faster, and she glanced at those standing near her, meeting the frustrated gaze of a tall young man. She blinked in acknowledgement, and he returned the signal, but any further communication stopped as a sleek dark airship flew low over the gathering.
“The Emperor Teyrn’s Heir,” one soldier hissed, “Lord Rialoir himself!” The guards nearby stood straighter as their eyes tracked the small fighter, but movement on the makeshift stage drew their attention away from the new arrival.
Kia watched, blinking hard, not wanting to believe what she was seeing as four men and four women were marched onto the platform.
A groan of collective sorrow rose from the townsfolk.
Kia’s heart stopped. Her legs trembled, and she locked her knees as she recognized the figure in the center. Her father. She couldn’t look away. He would want her to witness. To witness and remember.
“These people are all traitors. Their families have been executed.”
Kia gasped, the breath leaving her lungs in a rush as sobbing broke out in several places. She’d have fallen if a hand hadn’t gripped her upper arm, holding her upright. All she could see was her mother’s face: one minute chiding, cross with her rebellious daughter, the next, smiling and proud of that same daughter’s achievements—and always loving. But Lilia and Alsling, her curly-headed lively young sisters, always up to mischief, and the sweetheart twins of her parents’ later years, would have been with her mother. This wasn’t possible; it couldn’t be happening. They should have had enough warning to flee before the invaders arrived. What had gone wrong? No, no, no, her mind reiterated, refusing to accept reality.
“Hey!” A soldier thrust the butt of his weapon into the young man's chest, shoving him away from her. He staggered backward and quickly raised his arms high in the air.
The guard turned toward her, and her muscles shivered with the effort of controlling herself.
“These men will be executed.” The speaker announced.
Kia’s attention jerked back to the dais. Her father was too distant to be sure, but she would swear his gaze roved the silent tense citizens, and rested on her, before passing over his people.
A soldier walked out and stood at the edge of the platform facing the city’s Elected with his back to the captive Sestrians. He raised his phaserifle and eight soft pffs sighed through the air.
Kia burned the image of her father slumping to the platform with a small circular mark in the middle of his forehead into her mind, and her heart broke at the knowledge that his bright intelligence and the warmhearted gaze he turned on the world and its antics were gone forever.


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