Salya’s life is made of simple things; a dance around a bonfire, the small blue flowers that grow by the road, a pledge to become a healer like her grandmother before her.
But then she finds the man, half dead, in the bushes by the stream.
“Bren,” he tells her before succumbing to blood poisoning, and his disease is not the only thing Salya and her small band of traders find they are fighting. Where before the nights were quiet, there are secret police. Where before the forests were filled with birds, now there is a dark figure following the wagon train as it wends through the cold mountain passes.
When Bren awakes, he has a story to tell. He is a spy with information about an assassination attempt on the queen of the white city, and now he is too injured to take the news across the mountains alone. Salya must choose: let Bren journey to the kingdom of Dregiol, alone, hunted, and wounded; or abandon her family in the scant hope that together they will be able to save the kingdom before the assassins strike.
Blue Gentian is my first novel – a 63,000-word, coming-of-age Young Adult Fantasy full of kings and queens, small wagons in an open field, and a subversive print shop. It is about juggling the weight of family expectation while learning to follow your own path. It’s still in progress, although it’s getting closer to finished every day.
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In the mean time, please enjoy the first chapter:
The boys built the bonfire where they always built it: west of camp, nearer to the creek that flowed thin in the summer heat, but still with room for the Travelers to dance around. Salya watched them prop the wood together from her stool in the booth of the marketplace. They stacked it in a triangle that reached higher than a human, and it stood on the blackened earth of a thousand fires that had come before. It shouldn’t have been any different than the other bonfires they always built, but it was. This one was for Salya. This one was for the first ceremony of her Handcalling.
Stretching away from her in a line were two rows of wooden booths with white canvas tops. Colored bits of cloth on string tied each booth to the other and the bits fluttered in the breeze. Inside each stall was a collection of rainbow goods. Punched tin creations in one, fur coats and gloves in another, glossy furniture, bolts of bright cloth, vibrant weavings, the herbs and bottles of medicine that stretched on the shelves behind Salya and her sister Vadie.
She offered a thin smile to the few trickles of shoppers who weren’t driven away by the heat, and kept pounding the pestle into the collection of herbs in the mortar. Vadie shifted beside her and sighed. It was hours since Mother had come and filled their water bucket a second time.
The day was old now, and the sun created mottled shadows from the broad, low trees that fell across the ring of wagons in the distance. Salya couldn’t see it from here, but she knew the wagons were dust covered and pitted from their many trips over the mountains between Dregiol and Nelinah. Still, there was something beautiful about even the marks as their shingled sides caught the afternoon light. Each wagon was a family, and each family was full of faces she had known her whole life. A crowd of dust swirled, and the tepid breeze flowed over her sweaty shoulders.
“What would you do if you could do anything in the whole wide world?” said Vadie, breaking the long silence between them.
It was an unfair question, and Salya could feel it hanging in the air between them as she pondered options that would never matter. The boys stacking wood in the distance wavered in the heat that rose from the ground as they moved to and fro. Someone fingered a bright blue cloth in the booth across from them.
Vadie sat on the small folding chair, her feet tucked beneath her, lazing backward. A tight bud of annoyance settled in Salya’s chest. She pounded the pestle harder into the herbs.
“So…?” said Vadie.
“It doesn’t matter,” said Salya. “You know it doesn’t, thinking like that. I’m being Handcalled as a healer. Tonight. And that is the end of the tale, three apples fall from the sky. Wants don’t feed in famine. I’ve made my choice.”
“Well, I’m going to marry a trader boy just as soon as someone asks me. And he’ll build me a new wagon all golden wood,” said Vadie.
“You know they hardly ever build new wagons,” said Salya.
“They’ll build a wagon for me.”
“Sure they will,” said Salya.
“You don’t have to be mean about it.”
“I wasn’t… Nevermind.”
Salya could just pick out tiny, white-haired Amma amongst the handful of people around the wagons. They all looked like flowers, blowing in the breeze, from this far away. But Amma’s tight silver bun marked her where she stood by the communal cook fire talking to Torreb. His giant, bearlike qualities made him a formidable caravan leader until you got to know him and realized he was more growl than swipe. Amma was the one with the iron will.
Salya wondered again if she wasn’t making a mistake, apprenticing herself to her grandmother.
In the silence that followed, Salya watched the gadgets the Nelinites pulled from their pockets; watches that chimed a song, or a geared purse that must spin open. One woman had a mouse with a key. When she placed it on the ground, it spun in circles in the dust in front of her little son. He clapped his hands and laughed, and tried to pick it up as it spiraled again, just out of his grasp.
The sun sank behind the brown hills in the distance. The earth turned to a gray twilight. Salya and Vadie pulled the hooks of herbs down from the booth, packed the glass bottles of salves back into their wooden crates, and piled it all with the cash box on a neat pile on the table.
Before they were done, Rusak, curly dark hair silhouetted by the setting sun, came rolling up the path with the wheelbarrow.
“Rusak!” said Salya. “I’m so glad you’re here.”
He smiled. “And let my best girls clean up alone? Never.”
“Now that you’re here, Vadie doesn’t have to help. I haven’t seen you all day. How were the goods this morning?”
“Hi Vadie,” he said. “Only one water clock broken on the trip over the mountains. I’m becoming an expert at packing those big supply wagons, and Torreb says if I continue like this I’ll be heading up the caravan instead of him soon. You’ll be pleased to know that the Armonica came through in perfect condition. Not a glass disc broken, and it’s going to be the talk of the market this time.”
“The Armonica?” said Vadie. “That’s the thing that looks like a piano, but instead of keys it has glass?”
“That’s right,” said Bren.
“Congratulations,” said Salya. “It’s a miracle it made it in one piece, especially after that rock fall we had to pull the wagons over after Careful Pass. Hurry off to Mother, Vadie. We’ll be fine at the booth now.”
“Just because your boyfriend’s here, you can’t just dismiss me,” said Vadie. She stuck out her tongue.
“I didn’t… I never said,” said Salya. “Ugh! Vadie.” But she had already run across the brown field, halfway to the wagon now. She and Rusak were friends, nothing more. And she wanted to keep it that way. She had enough to worry about without a boy in the equation.
Rusak cleared his throat. “I talked to Amma,” he said. “Are you ready for tonight?” They began to pack the wheelbarrow full of herbs and salves.
“We might as well announce, now that I’ve decided,” said Salya. “Choosing my profession and preparing is the first step to Handcalling ceremony, and to the rest of my life, I suppose.”
“No surprises? I know what profession you’ve picked?”
“You will have to show up at the bonfire to find out,” she grinned at him. “But you know, I think everyone must.”
“Amma must be thrilled,” he said.
“They all are,” said Salya. “That’s why we’re announcing tonight, she’s been so eager to tell people. You just went through it a few months ago, was it hard?”
“No,” he said. “The beginning part’s the thing to worry about. Torreb, Amma, and Restufus really tested me. I was so afraid that I would forget something during the ceremony part, like burn my tunic and drop the knife at the wrong time, thus incurring the immortal, holy wrath of Michegua. Dramatic, I know.”
“Very,” said Salya. “I would have liked to watch that, it would have made the ceremony more exciting. Next time you are Handcalled, you’ll have to make mistakes on purpose so He can strike you down for blasphemy. Here, aren’t we ready to go?”
“Ha,” said Rusak. “Yes. I’ve got the wheelbarrow if you have those baskets. There will never be a next time for a Handcalling, so I can promise you I’ll do whatever you like.”
He shoved her shoulder, and she shoved his shoulder back, laughing. Rusak picked up the handles of the wheelbarrow, and began to walk across the dry field, pushing it before him. Salya followed.
“Whatever you choose, it’s more fun than the learning and slaving you’re doing right now,” said Rusak. “You know that, right? It doesn’t seem like something as simple as a ceremony would change the way you are with people, but it does. They treat you different.”
“You know how I am,” said Salya. “I’d rather die than be responsible. I guess I’m afraid that becoming an adult means I won’t be me anymore. Handcalling is responsibility. Mother wouldn’t know what to do with me if I was on time to anything.”
“My father is generally unbearable in the mornings until Mother feeds him something. Being an adult didn’t fix that. I think you’re safely you regardless of how many ceremonies you take part in,” said Rusak.
“I hope you’re right,” said Salya. They were almost to the wagon now, and Salya slowed. If she went in, it meant she was that much closer to committing to it all.
“So, when can we look forward to the bigger party?” said Rusak.
“We’ll have the whole ceremony just as we pass to the Dregiol side of the Elum Mountains,” said Salya. “It will be close to Moonreturn then, and it’s double luck being in the Elums and in Dregiol both. That’s what Amma says.”
“Not sooner?” said Rusak.
“I need some time to learn the rituals,” she said. They were outside the wagon now. Rusak pulled the wheelbarrow around to the back of the wagon where Mother had dropped the set of stairs off the back deck that morning. Salya set her baskets down on the bottom step.
“Amma and Mother can help me from here,” she said. “Thanks for everything. And for the… It will be okay. I can see that, I think. Thanks.”
“Sure,” said Rusak. “Save me a dance tonight?”
Salya nodded. “The first one,” she said with a grin.