We’re thrilled to post an extract from chapter one of Karen Miller’s Empress, the first book in her new Godspeaker Trilogy, out in April from Orbit in the US and the UK. You can visit the author online at www.karenmiller.net.
From Chapter One
Despite its two burning lard-lamps the kitchen was dark, its air choked with the stink of rancid goat butter and spoiling goat-meat. Spiders festooned the corners with sickly webs, hoarding the husks of flies and suck-you-dries. A mud-brick oven swallowed half the space between the door and the solitary window. There were three wooden shelves, one rickety wooden stool and a scarred wooden table, almost unheard of in this land whose trees had ages since turned to stone.
Crouched in the shadows beneath the table, the child with no name listened to the man and the woman fight.
“But you promised,” the woman wailed. “You said I could keep this one.”
The man’s hard fist pounded the timber above the child’s head. “That was before another poor harvest, slut, before two more village wells dried up! All the coin it costs to feed it, am I made of money? Don’t you complain, when it was born I could’ve thrown it on the rocks, I could’ve left it on The Anvil!”
“But she can work, she –“
“Not like a son!” His voice cracked like lightning, rolled like thunder round the small smoky room. “If you’d whelped me more sons –“
“Not hard enough!” Another boom of fist on wood. “The she-brat goes. Only the god knows when Traders will come this way again.”
The woman was sobbing, harsh little sounds like a dying goat. “But she’s so young.”
“Young? Its blood-time is come. It can pay back what it’s cost me, like the other she-brats you spawned. This is my word, woman. Speak again I’ll smash your teeth and black your eyes.”
When the woman dared disobey him the child was so surprised she bit her fingers. She scarcely felt the small pain; her whole life was pain, vast like the barren wastes beyond the village’s godpost, and had been so since her first caterwauling cry. She was almost numb to it now.
“Please,” the woman whispered. “Let me keep her. I’ve spawned you six sons.”
“It should’ve been eleven!” Now the man sounded like one of his skin-and-bone dogs, slavering beasts who fought for scraps of offal in the stony yard behind their hovel.
The child flinched. She hated those dogs almost as much as she hated the man. It was a bright flame, her hatred, hidden deep and safe from the man’s sight. He would kill her if he saw it, would take her by one skinny scabbed ankle and smash her head-first into the nearest red and ochre rock. He’d done it to a dog once, which had dared to growl at him. The other dogs had lapped up its brains then fought over the bloody carcass all through the long unheated night. On her threadbare blanket beneath the kitchen table she’d fallen asleep to the sound of their teeth, and dreamed the bones they gnawed were her own.
But dangerous or not she refused to abandon her hate, the only thing she owned. It comforted and nourished her, filling her ache-empty belly on the nights she didn’t eat because the woman’s legs were spread, or her labours were unfinished, or the man was drunk on cactus blood and beating her.
He was beating her now, open-handed blows across the face, swearing and sweating, working himself into a frenzy. The woman knew better than to cry out. Listening to the man’s palm smack against the woman’s sunken cheeks, to his lusty breathing and her swallowed grunts, the child imagined plunging a knife in his throat. If she closed her eyes she could see the blood spurt scarlet, hear it splash on the floor as he gasped and bubbled and died. She was sure she could do it. Hadn’t she seen the men with their proud knives cut the throats of goats and even a horse, once, that had broken its leg and was no longer good for anything but meat and hide and bleached boiled bones?
There were knives in a box on the kitchen’s lowest shelf. She felt her fingers curl and cramp as though grasping a carved bone hilt, felt her heart rattle her ribs. The secret flame flickered, flared … then died.
No good. He’d catch her before she killed him. She would not defeat the man today, or tomorrow, or even next fat godmoon. She was too small, and he was too strong. But one day, many fat godmoons from now, she’d be big and he’d be old and shrunken. Then she’d do it and throw his body to the dogs after and laugh and laugh as they gobbled his buttocks and poked their questing tongues through the empty eye sockets of his skull.
The man hit the woman again, so hard she fell to the pounded dirt floor. “You poisoned my seed five times and whelped bitches, slut. Three sons you whelped lived less than a godmoon. I should curse you! Turn you out for the godspeaker to deal with!”
The woman was sobbing again, scarred arms crossed in front of her face. “I’m sorry – I’m sorry –"
Listening, the child felt contempt. Where was the woman’s flame? Did she even have one? Weeping. Begging. Didn’t she know this was what the man wanted, to see her broken and bleating in the dirt? The woman should die first.
But she wouldn’t. She was weak. All women were weak. Everywhere in the village the child saw it. Even the women who’d spawned only sons, who looked down on the ones who’d spawned she-brats as well, who helped the godspeaker stone the cursed witches whose bodies spewed forth nothing but female flesh … even those women were weak.
I not weak the child told herself fiercely as the man soaked the woman in venom and spite and the woman wept, believing him. I never beg.
© Karen Miller