Hello, you all!
Everyone who’s found this because of my irregular Noblebright Spotlight series might be in for a little bit of a shock, though it might not be that much of one if you read the last part of the title (or have been following my musings and reviews for a while): Obsidian: Awakening is a grimdark historical fantasy epic of two sides of a war. (And it’s on 99cent sale – with a special deal on the paperback (which is gorgeous!!) as well – for a week starting this very August 21st.)
But if you’re wondering why or how I loved Obsidian, here’s the link to my full review.
Or you can just jump into this sample short story that highlights Sienna’s writing style and the themes of Obsidian (available only in the Paperback):
No Happy Ending
A glimpse into the life of one trueblood oracle
The first vision he had was of his mother leaving. In it, she wore a blue gown; blue like the sky that stretched beyond the furthest dune he’d ever visited, beyond the faint outline of that white rock shaped like a woman’s back, beyond places he couldn’t see or imagine or follow. Behind her, the desert stood still and quiet, save for the occasional wind that whistled as it tugged on the hem of her dress and messed up the braids in her hair. It was early morning, and the horizon was dancing on its toes in a dress of pink, purple, and blue––a complex blending of gentle shades that revealed much, and concealed more of what lay beyond where the sky touched the sand.It wasn’t too different from the way she’d smiled that morning. Not different at all from the way she’d always smiled at him, or Djari. There were things the kha’ari of Visarya would never say to her children––burdens she’d always kept as her own beneath the mildness of her tone and the mask she always wore.
Goodbye had been one of them. She’d never said that word, not once, no matter how many times she had to go away.
She hadn’t said it that morning, either. She’d left him words he didn’t understand, instructions he didn’t know how to follow.
“Hold on to this for me.” She took off an earring, one half of her favorite pair made of yellow sunstones with glitters in them––the same yellow as her eyes when she’d looked at
that foal she couldn’t save, or that time when she’d found him in her tent crying over something father had said.
He looked at the earring in her hand, and a strange chill he didn’t understand climbed up his back–made him hesitate. “But you will have only one.”
“If I ever lose this one…” She gestured at the one left hanging from her ear. “…then you will still have it, and we will remember it once existed.”
“But what if I lose it?”
She paused for a moment to look at him––sensing, as she always did,
the worry he’d failed to hide. “Then we will find something new. Something just as beautiful, just as precious.”
“And if I lose that, too?”
“Then you must find another, and another, and another.” Smiling, she reached out her hand to touch his face, her fingers cool against his skin. They were trembling, too, like her voice as she spoke, like the light in her eyes, like him as he sensed something wasn’t right. “Never be afraid to lose things, Nazir. Life is only precious when you learn to love something enough to cry when you lose it.” She leaned over and planted a kiss above his brow––not the kind she used to give after bedtime stories, or when he or Djari did something right. It felt more like a sword gripped before a fight, reassuring and unnerving at the same time. She said, “We must find the courage to love things and the strength to survive losing them, or else life holds very little meaning, and the world holds no joy.”
Nazir didn’t understand it; not truly, not at the time. He remembered taking the earring anyway. He remembered her smile before she turned away. He remembered the silhouette her gown made as it blended and disappeared into the blue sky when she left.
He remembered wondering why it felt like it was the last time he would ever see her.
The earring had gone missing when they brought her back–her favorite sunstone lost somewhere in the desert, buried in the sand. Blue gown, swallowed whole by blue sky.
He had seen that, too––how it happened, what they did to her, for how long, and how many times. He knew where those marks on her corpse had come from. He had seen it in his visions––first when he was twelve, several times more before their last conversation, on the day she was buried, and on nights like this: sitting here alone, far away from camp, running from responsibilities. Running from grief, from rage, and the hurt and disappointment in his father’s eyes when he asked why his son hadn’t seen it coming. He’d lied about that, of course. He had seen it coming. He just didn’t know when it would happen.
Lies and excuses. Nazir caught himself at that thought. You could have told someone. Something could have been done. You could have said something if you weren’t such a coward.
Too much of a coward, even now.
A gust of wind found its way into the cave and made the small fire in front of him leap and crackle. His eyesight flashed out of focus, returning with something foreign that revealed itself in the flame. A rock he’d seen too many times began to take shape. The screams that always came with it escalated. Nazir shut his eyes before the figure behind that rock came into view and scrambled back in panic, covering his ears as his back slammed into the wall. It didn’t stop. Never. Not once. Anything he tried never stopped these things from coming true. They followed him like shadows, like the blood from his first kill that never seemed to wash off his hands. In his head, the voice continued to shriek, and the images that should have gone away transferred themselves onto the blank canvas behind his eyes, revealing more and more of things he hadn’t seen but needed to forget, bringing them all closer, clearer, sharper––
––and then they were gone, snuffed out like a candle, like waking up from a nightmare into sunlight.
“Bad day, huh?”
The sword leapt into his hand by reflex, and with it Nazir jumped to
his feet, spinning around to face the intruder.
A figure stepped into view from the back end of the cave––a young
man in gray, braided in the Kamara’s fashion. His hands held no weapon, both of them raised high in the air to make a point. There must have been another entrance somewhere. He should have checked before deciding to spend the night here.
“Stay where you are.” Nazir raised the sword higher, keeping it pointed at the man who seemed to harbor no intention whatsoever of doing what he’d demanded.
Slow, steady steps brought the stranger into the light, close enough for more features to be revealed––features he shouldn’t recognize, but did. A strong, sharp nose he’d never seen that felt as familiar as his own. A jawline that reminded him of a cat, accommodating the high cheekbone his hands knew without having touched. Blue-green eyes that accelerated his pulse, a wide, upturned mouth that had spoken his name on so many occasions, in memories that never happened. Hadn’t happened.
“I’m not here to pick a fight,” said the man from his visions––the ones that kept on coming, showing different things from different places. “You’re a trueblood oracle.” Another step closer brought him right up against Nazir’s blade, its tip digging into the soft skin at his throat. “You know you’re not going to die tonight, not…”
It must have shown on his face––the shock of recollection, the recognition he hadn’t the thought to conceal as he stared at the man on the other end of his blade. The Kamara’s eyes widened as his words trailed off, replaced by an understanding that settled upon him like feathers falling from the sky. “You recognize me…” He paused, green eyes narrowing as if to read further into it. “You know who I am.”
Nazir shook his head and kept the blade in place, making sure the message was clear. Whether he knew that face or not, the man was still a Kamara, and he was a Visarya. “I recognize you from my visions. That doesn’t mean I know who you are.” Which brought him to the important question. “So, who are you? And why are you here?”
He had meant it as a threat, but there was only relief on the other man’s face, in his shoulders that relaxed despite the sword at his throat. “It’s Nazir, isn’t it? You’re Za’in izr Husari’s son?”
How… Nazir stopped himself before he voiced a stupid question. Of course he knows who you are. There is only one trueblood oracle around here. “Your name and rank, Kamara.”
He wasn’t going to get it, judging from how tightly those lips pressed together. The young Kamara in gray who looked to be roughly his own age took a step back and gestured at the blade he carried. “I’m going to put my sword down, and then you can do the same. This is my cave. I come here often. That blanket you’re using is mine. There is a burn mark on one corner. Do you see it?”
“Don’t move,” Nazir warned as the man’s hand moved out of place, pressing the blade closer against the exposed throat.
The man stopped, putting his hand back up. “Look.” He let out a heavy sigh as he shut his eyes for a moment. When they opened again, there was only calm. “I’m going to sleep here tonight. We can share, or we can fight. If you know you won’t die here, and we do fight, it means I will be dead. This is our territory. You cannot afford to kill or attack me here without consequences. I am, however, offering you an alternative. Will you let me put my sword down?”
He did know it––the territory issue, the consequences of their fight should it happen, and the fact that he wasn’t going to die here and now. His own death would come later, and not by this Kamara. This man, too, would live for a long time after this, and his visions had yet to be wrong. “Your blades. All of them.”
The blades came off one by one––all four of them––laid out carefully on the ground and out of arm’s reach. The axe he’d often seen in his visions wasn’t there for some reason. The scar under the man’s right eye, too, was missing.
Nazir put down his sword, but kept the dagger hidden in his boot. The dark-haired Kamara didn’t seem to notice––or if he had, he didn’t seem to mind. He sat down next to Nazir by the fire, made himself a cushion with the fur-lined robe he’d taken off, and lay down on his side, supporting his head with an anchored elbow.
“So,” said the man when he had settled comfortably, looking up at him, “how long have you had visions about me?”
Nazir’s breath hitched at the question. Three years, maybe five? But he didn’t have to know that, or what had been in them. He twisted the cap off his wineskin, took a sip, and handed it over. He didn’t really need a drink; he needed something to do, to keep his hands busy–something to distract him from memories too intimate to be holding onto while looking at the man responsible for them. “You said you come here often.” He changed the subject, doing his best to conceal how much the question was unnerving him. “Why?”
A playful smile––one slightly off to the left side, the same one he recognized from his visions. “Why are you here?”
Nazir took the drink back and turned away toward the fire, ignoring the question. If the man minded his refusal to reply, it didn’t show. He simply left it hanging, leaving room, allowing space for Nazir to pick his distance.
Silence tiptoed around the fire as they each pretended to ignore the other’s presence. Between them, unanswered questions hovered overhead like a bunch of fruits dangling from a tree, waiting for someone to pluck them off the branch. The air felt warmer and thicker now in the cave, making it more and more difficult to breathe. It might have been the wine, the extra company, or maybe the sense of time and space closing in around them as they stretched their patience closer to the limit. In the end, it was Nazir who reached for the moment, having gone through pages after pages of his visions, turning them over in his mind until curiosity filled itself to the brim and spilled over for having nowhere else to go. He turned to the young man from his vision, picked something out of a distant memory that hadn’t happened, and voiced it. “Do you always trust people so easily?”
The young Kamara turned, gave him the same shrug, the same grin on his lips, and the same answer he’d heard in his vision, word by familiar word. “People, no. I trust my instinct. Only that.”
It took his breath away every time, made the hair on the back of his neck stand on end, sent flashes of lightning down his spine whenever his premonitions turned into reality.
The young man, having paid close enough attention, grasped it immediately. “Did I say that?” He tilted his head to the side, a child brimming with excited curiosity. “In your vision?”
“I don’t remember,” Nazir lied. He remembered them all, right down to the last line of their conversations. But they came to him in flashes, in chaotic jumbles of disjointed images that required him to put together like puzzles. Puzzles that were about to come together now, after so many years of waiting for the man to appear.
“What do you remember, then?” the Kamara asked. “What did you see?”
Us. Things. Your hands in my hair. Mine… in yours. “I saw those bruises.
I wondered where they came from.” He’d touched one, too, at some point.
Tonight? Or would that happen some other time?
“This?” A hand flew to his face, rubbed the newly formed bruise near his right eye, as if he’d just remembered it was there. “Fathers can be pricks sometimes.” A shrug, masking a pitiful smile. “Most of the time, in my case.”
Fathers. Sons. Expectations. Same old stories that never seem to change, or end. “That’s who you run from.” He nodded, took another pull on the wineskin, and handed it over. “Your father.”
The man took the offered wine and looked away for a moment as he drank. “It takes a night in a cave to not knock his teeth out most days, believe me.”
A bitterness there, wrapped clumsily around a fresh wound, concealing it without great success. Nazir could understand it, he supposed. There were bound to be wounds for sons of powerful fathers. Only his own wounds ran much deeper than that, and from something else entirely. “At least it works.”
The Kamara paused to study his expression. He did that often, as a young man in his vision and a grown one when they made love, sometimes before, sometimes after. “It doesn’t work for you, though, does it?” he said. “You were running from your visions, weren’t you?”
It doesn’t, he almost said. Something stopped him just in time, a gentle tap on the shoulder, a whisper telling him to look. Nazir swept his eyes around the cave, at the surroundings that had become silent and peacefully still. No sound of her shrieking now––no rock of any shape or size behind which his mother had died screaming in the fire before him. Here and now, only the warm yellow light that danced delicately around the cave remained, revealing to him something he had failed to notice before. “It… did. Just now.” When you came in.
The other man’s curious eyebrow flew up almost on cue, as if he’d said it out loud. “Just now? When I came in?”
Nazir drew a sharp breath at the unexpected echo of his own thoughts.
Is it even possible? Or was it just a coincidence? “Just now.” He nodded, light- headed and overwhelmed by the new discovery and the future it might bring.
A chuckle, followed by a mischievous smile. “I have that effect on people sometimes. Didn’t know I could chase away even visions.”
Nazir wanted to laugh or smile in response, only both had become something foreign to him for some time. He wasn’t sure for how long or why. Perhaps since his mother had died, or maybe long before that.
“What else did you see?” asked the young man, casually, abruptly. “About me. What did you see in your vision?”
He is trying to distract me.
Nazir thought for a time, turning an idea over in his head, playing with new possibilities he could initiate, or not. The cave grew quieter as they looked at each other in silence, its walls holding their breaths, waiting for his decision. In his head, an image of himself standing behind a thick red line materialized, and his mother’s words hovered somewhere in the back of his mind, urging him to take the plunge.
‘You must always find the courage to love things and the strength to survive losing them,’ she had said.
“I saw a scar on the back of your hand. The right one,” Nazir said, “and another one on your back.”
The man listened attentively. A sliver of light quivered in the pair of blue-green eyes that pinned him in place, not wanting to miss a single twitch of his brow.
“There was also one right here.” He reached out to touch the man’s right cheek, under his eye where a line would one day mar that skin–– expecting, even before he did, for the other’s hand to brush it aside, or to raise a protest of some kind.
It didn’t happen.
The line in front of him pulsed, once, twice, like the persistent pressure that kept tapping at his back, pushing him to take another step forward.
Nazir traced along the line of the soon-to-be scar and felt a stirring underneath his fingertips where they touched. The man from his vision shifted his weight as he watched and waited, his breathing quickening to match that of Nazir’s. Next to them, the fire crackled, adding heat, rising toward the ceiling as if in anticipation.
“A long one,” he said, and felt himself take that necessary step, crossing over the line to the other side, “on the inside of your left thigh, running down toward your knee.”
A broken, ragged breath came from the man’s lips as he exhaled, accentuated and made ten times louder by the silence that pinned them in place and locked them together in an understanding that needed no explanation. Nazir waited for the shock, the disgust, the awkward display of embarrassment or some kind of reaction one might expect from intimacy attempted too early, too fast, without permission.
It, too, never came.
The familiar stranger stared at him, chest heaving up and down from breaths taken too desperately, too swiftly in succession. “What did I do?” he asked. “In your vision? What did I say?”
Nazir swallowed the lump in his throat, willing his voice to steady and his heart to slow. It would be all right, wouldn’t it, mother? I mustn’t be afraid to lose things. That was what you wanted, wasn’t it? He said, “You took my hand…”
The hand came up, wrapping tight around his fingers. “What else?”
It has to be alright. I am allowed to love, to trust, to have someone. “You turned it over––”
A kiss, planted on his upturned palm before he finished the sentence. “What else?” The man from his visions looked up, eyes bright in the light of the dancing fire.
There were a hundred things he could have said, a hundred more lies he could have told––only by then he knew he didn’t want to lie anymore; not tonight, not to this person. “I don’t know,” he said, and it was the truth. “That’s where it stopped.”
“But could there be more?”
Nazir bit his lip, holding himself in check before taking yet another
step forward. “Do you want there to be more?”
The man looked up at him, blue-green eyes tracing his face, seeking answers. “Do I?” he asked. “Do you?”
“I don’t even know who you are.”
“You do know who I am. You’ve seen me in your visions,” he said. “Is that not enough?”
It ought to have been enough––all those things he had done, the things he had said, and still… “There is no happy ending to this.” No place for us.
The man shook his head, brushing it off like loose sand on dried fingers. “I don’t back out from a fight I don’t think I can win. That is not what we do or who we are, is it?”
Is that who I am? Someone who would back out from a fight he thinks he can’t win?
‘Never be afraid to lose things, Nazir,’ his mother had said. Her last words, her last instruction for him.
“No, I suppose it’s not,” he replied. It was about time he stopped being a coward, or that scared little boy too afraid to lose things. “What do we do about it, then?”
Another crooked smile appeared as the man let go of his hand. “Sleep, for now,” he said, lying down on his arm, facing him. “You look like you could use some. I’ll chase them away, those damn visions.”
I’ll chase them away. Just like that. “Even those of us?”
The man whose name he still didn’t know yawned and closed his eyes. “Well, we don’t need them anymore now, do we?”
Nazir did sleep that night, and for the first time in a long time, he didn’t dream, and no visions came. And though the stranger who’d kissed his hand was already gone when he woke up, he did learn how to smile again that morning, and would remember it for a long time to come.