Web of Deceit weaves a story steeped in deception, murder, and betrayal and encompasses a cast of characters against the background of two empires on the verge of war.
Had Jedith Pen Saer not been so trusting of Helda Penim, she would not have found herself betrayed, abducted, and denied the position of High Uden over an elite troop of royal guards. Awaking aboard a nefarious ship and suffering a severe blow to the head, Jedith’s amnesia hinders her from remembering who she is, but when she kills a would-be rapist with her bare hands, she gets her first inkling of the warrior she truly is. Sold into slavery, Jedith is unwittingly caught up in the political ambitions of a warlord and his general and the domestic upheaval between a father and his daughter while bits and pieces of her memory reawaken her identity and plans for her escape take form.
With Jedith out of the way, Helda’s treachery has awarded her the coveted position of High Uden but not the trust of her queen. Fearing discovery, she kills her two accomplices, unaware the murderous act is witnessed by one soon to become her blackmailer. Tormented by this new threat, Helda schemes to kill again, but this time, the opportunity is beset with peril under the watchful eyes of a suspicious queen.
Her attention divided between preparations for an invasion and her search for the truth behind Helda’s involvement in Jedith’s disappearance, the queen’s faith in her son is sorely misplaced and could lead to her downfall. Sent on a mission to spy on the enemy, the prince has other intentions. Having no qualms in betraying his mother for the throne of his father, he has only to convince the enemy of his trustworthiness and that the strategic information of his mother’s fortifications is forthright.
Targeted Age Group:: New Adult 18-24 yrs. old
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
What inspired my book? Well, while sitting on the front porch one afternoon, mulling over different scenarios for another fantasy book, I came up with the idea about a warrior female betrayed by her nemesis who covets the highly esteemed position of High Uden, head guard over an elite troop of female warriors to the queen. As I let my imagination work its way, I built this story over the course of several days and ended up with three interconnected plots of treachery woven together against the background of two kingdoms on the verge of war. So, one could say,
my imagination inspired my book.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
After coming up with a warrior and her nemesis, I needed a queen. I wanted her to be upset and determined to discover the truth behind the sudden disappearance of her finest warrior as well as suspicious of the warrior's replacement.
I decided to interweave another plot by creating a smug and arrogant prince willing to betray his own mother by collaborating with the enemy for the throne of his father. I made the enemy a conquering warlord bent on the expansion of his empire whose trusted general is willing to sacrifice his own daughter's happiness for prestige.
Since the warlord's kingdom is across the high seas from the queen's, I needed a ship with a captain, first mate, and third shipmate willing to buy and sell slaves of which my female warrior is included. In fact, the story opens with the warrior waking up in the hold of the nefarious ship and coming to the realization of her captivity and the loss of her memory and identity.
Once I sold this female into the household of the general and his daughter and after some dithering, I built a friendship between the daughter and the female warrior to eventually result in the two collaborating their escape aboard the very ship which sold the female warrior into slavery.
Since I had the ship commandeered into the warlord's expanding fleet, I introduced a male slave who not only befriends my female warrior, but is instrumental in the plan to steal back the ship. And of course. for the plan to take shape, I needed a wharf rat, a young boy living by his wits and whose sleight of hand skills delivers messages between all parties concerned.
There are a few more characters with minor roles. After they served their purpose, I murdered three, killed off a few as bandits, and had the others go their merry way.
Like a wave, the sensation pulled and ebbed. Its rhythmic caress soothed; its touch calmed. The young woman floated upon its comfort, then a loud clank rudely bolted her awake.
Her eyes snapped open. Disoriented and disconnected, darkness enveloped her. Small cracks in the decking above allowed thin rays of sunlight swirling in dust to slice through the blackness. As her eyes adjusted to the faint light, she began to make out her surroundings.
Huge, wooden beams arched overhead and stretched side to side to disappear into the shadows. Large, crude crates, some stacked, others solitary, filled the cramped space. Bilge water lapped at her boots. The air smelled fetid with salt and brine, then a strong whiff of body odor assaulted her senses. Barely visible, several, lumpy forms lay like bundles of fabric or possibly bags of seed, may-be even sacks of feed. Whatever they were, she would have easily dismissed them as part of the cargo had not one moaned. She was not alone.
Alarmed, the young woman shuffled her body upright. The suddenness brought dizziness, pounding in her head. She grimaced and tentatively touched the source. It was warm and jagged, also puffy and sticky. She kept her eyes glued on the indistinguishable mounds, yet none stirred as she brought her hand away. She glanced down upon the stickiness and unable to see it clearly, licked it. As suspected. Blood.
Confusion was shoved away when a sudden flood of light jolted her from her exploration. Bathed in its brightness, she squinted and shielded her eyes. As the hatchway fell open and the loud bang rattled her skull, she saw a large hulk of a man framed within the square opening. She studied him, feeling a serious headache grow worse.
He was partially silhouetted, his face and chest hidden. Where she could see along his sides, he was deeply tanned, his skin bronze, the rich color of worn leather. It glistened with oil. He was muscular with close cropped hair. A round, metallic ring hung from one earlobe. It caught the light and gleamed silver. Like his size, the man’s presence demanded her total attention. An upper arm and its wrist were sheathed with a cuff of another metal; one plain, the other ornate. They were cast in gold, a rare possession among commoners. Beyond the apparent richness of his ornaments, everything else about the man spoke of the lower classes. His trunk was sheathed in a simple, leather skirt. Plain sandals bound his feet; thin straps laced his calves. He wore nothing else.
“Get on your feet, you, mangy bunch of stinking flesh,” growled the man as he stomped down the wooden steps. Stooped, he was allowed a bare inch to stand upright when he reached the young woman’s level.
Unwilling to draw attention, innately sensing it wise, she struggled to obey. The man scowled and spread his gaze but otherwise remained silent. The lumpy forms began to stir. The young woman gained her footing but leaned against a crate for support. She doubted she could to stay erect otherwise. The man kept his eyes directed towards the others. When they glanced her way, she averted hers.
“You are here under unfortunate yet fortunate circumstances. Unfortunate for you; fortunate for me. While you are on this vessel, you will work. For that, you will be fed and given water. Until we reach the port of Hegheth, you belong to this ship. Obey and live; disobey,” spreading a sneer to emphasize his next words, “and your lazy ass will feed the fish.”
The man looked up, gave a curt nod, and down came two others. Unlike their predecessor, these were young, far less muscular, but just as skimpily dressed. Both struggled to descend under the burden of four buckets each, two on each side dangling from a wooden yoke balanced across the shoulders. Lowering their burdens, the men stepped away, allowing the larger man ownership.
With a quick gesture, the apparent senior in command picked up and tossed the contents of one of the buckets at the five, scraggly band of prisoners. Without hesitating, he set the bucket down and picked up another. With a stern stare and a slight adjustment to his stance, he squarely intended his next toss at the young woman. She watched him rake his eyes up and down her frame. What he saw, she could only guess. What he was thinking was entirely obtuse. His face expressed no emotion. His eyes showed even less. Though when he raised them to hers and before he threw the contents, his last words were clear enough.
“You smell. Clean up.”
The woman felt the cold splash of saltwater. It brought goosebumps and a wave of nausea. By some means, whether it was from fear or the reluctance to draw more attention than was presently bestowed upon her, she managed to keep standing and suffered the assault. A lank strand of wet, auburn hair blinded her left eye. Salt stung and blurred her right. She did not see the man give another curt nod. Down was tossed a bar of soap. It hit with a thud, bounced, and landed in the brackish water.
Just as suddenly as he appeared, the man and his entourage of youthful cohorts along with the two yokes and empty buckets ascended the steps. All that was left of this sudden appearance of the world beyond were six pails of ocean water and one bar of soap. The trapdoor slammed shut, and the scraping of metal on metal was followed by a suppressed cough, a moan, darkness, and the soft sloshing of the bilge water.
As the young woman waited for her eyes to adjust, she was embraced by the harsh arms of reality. She was on a ship, a prisoner, and she didn’t know why. Her brow furrowed as she struggled to make sense of it all, to remember, but try as she might, nothing came to light. Truth be told and accompanied with a sickening realization, she didn’t know who she was, how she had gotten herself into this madness, or how she was going to get herself out of it. She felt a rude birth into a harsh circumstance, and the most shocking of all might as well have stripped her bare and tossed her out in the cold. She couldn’t even remember her name.
One Week Prior
Helda held her smile as Jedith turned and walked away. Her arm ached from her efforts, but as always, her efforts were never good enough. She never could beat Jedith; the woman was superior at everything: swords, knives, wrestling, even ka tet, a martial art of speed, stealth, force, and cunning. Jedith was the queen’s favorite, next in line to the position of High Uden. Everyone knew Shadrath would soon step aside. Her time was drawing to an end. No longer in her prime, she would join the instructors, prior guards to the Order of the Udet, female warriors trained from adolescence to become the queen’s personal guards. It was a high honor to be chosen; it was an even higher honor to become High Uden.
The moment Jedith left the room, Helda’s smile faded to be replaced by how she truly felt. Her smirk was safe. No one was around to see it. She hated Jedith, but the foolish, young woman trusted her smile, her praise, her humble acquiescence. It would be the stupid woman’s downfall. Helda tossed her sword on one of several divans butted up against the gymnasium walls and walked over to the fountain. With cupped hands, she bathed away the sweat on her face, her neck, but then decided it wasn’t enough. Ducking her head under the water, she allowed its cold spray to sooth her bitterness. She hid it well, but it was always just under the surface of her outward calm. She yanked her head up and out of the fountain, spewing an arch of water through the air. Just as abruptly, she grabbed a towel from a hook and busied herself drying her hair, neck, and face. Dark as her mood, her hair framed a face of beauty: full lips, high cheekbones, and eyes, a pale blue. With a toss of the towel, Helda left the gym and strode purposefully down the lengthy stone hall towards her room.
That night, after the bustle of the castle had died down to only a few servants left in attendance, Helda dressed appropriately. She was going into the town’s lower district. Clad in an all-black uniform of leather pants, matching tunic and blouse, and thigh high boots, she covered her raven hair with the hood of a dark cloak. Expertly, she sheathed a knife up the sleeve of her blouse and tucked another, shorter version down inside one of her boots. A small pouch of coins, she tied to her belt. She shouldered a cord of rope underneath her cloak. Ready, she blew out the candles and hurried to the door of her room. With an ear to its surface, she listened, and when no sound was heard, carefully opened the door and peeked up and down the hall before fleeing the room, the soft click of the latch the only testament to her departure.
Making it outside the castle without being detected turned out to be easy. As she ran down one hall and sprinted down another, she made for a large door recessed in an alcove at the end. Lifting her heels, the soft soles of her boots sounded muted against the stone tiles. Bolted from inside, she knew this door was rarely used. The chances of discovering it unbolted were slim. The possibility of finding herself locked out upon her return just as unlikely. Once outside, she ducked low and raced across the spacious lawn. A sentry walked the perimeter wall. Sconces of burning torches spaced every twenty feet lit the wall; otherwise, the night was dark, the moon new. She froze behind a tree and waited for the guard’s departure. When safe, she ran a short distance and stealthily clambered up one of two inner, stone staircases. Aloft and with the guard’s back receding, she didn’t hesitate. Silently, she bolted over the outer wall.
Helda dropped, tucked, and rolled down a slope into a stand of trees. Flat on her back, she waited for an outcry, a shout testifying to her discovery, but no cry came. Good, she had made it unnoticed. Quickly, she rose, removed the rope, and placed it at the base of a tree. She would need it later to scale the wall upon her return. With a careful scan of her surroundings, Helda sprinted through the trees and headed for the docks.
The lower district was a maze of narrow streets, dark alcoves, seedy bars, and disreputable taverns. It was pocked with hidden dangers and populated by the rift raft of the city: the panhandler, the thief, the cheat, the whore, and worse, the murderer. As she walked the streets strewn with trash and smeared with the spittle of a hundred desperate souls, Helda picked her way carefully over the cobbled stones and felt the confines of the foul streets narrow. She could feel the hidden dangers and smell the stench of discarded food. The acrid aroma of urine assaulted her senses. She covered her mouth and nose with her cloak and quickened her steps. This was no place to loiter.
Around one corner, she happened upon a pair: a man and a woman bathed under the glow of an outdoor lantern. The woman was painted for the night. Heavily rouged, thickly eye shadowed, the woman’s tinted lips smiled alluringly as she grasped the lapel of the man’s jacket and laughed up into his sodden face. A woman of the streets, Helda hurried past the two. They did not see her. The woman was preoccupied, the man, too drunk to notice.
Down another dark street, through a crooked alleyway, Helda circumvented a snoring male slouched against a stone wall reeking of his own vomit. She made her way, mindful of the squeaks of rats, their furry bodies darting along walls, behind barrels, and into dark alleyways, to the one tavern she knew should give her what she sought.
As she opened its door, the thick air of smoke, raucous laughter, body odor, and heat overwhelmed her. She found the atmosphere repelling. It was as if the rancid, unwashed flesh of the entire district had come together in this one room. It was loud, crude, and it stunk. She breathed through her mouth to lessen its effect. Lowering her head, she brought her hood forward, hiding her features. Helda saw few women; most worked the tavern. Shoulders bare, faces smiling, flesh glistening in sweat, they served the drinks and food while suffering the leering looks and dodging the brazen pinches and bold pats. This was a man’s world. Women survived as best they could.
Striding into the room, Helda ignored the casual glances as she wound her way through the tavern. Arms waved, goblets sloshed, faces reared up in laughter as her eyes darted about the crowded room, searching for a particular man. She found him sitting in the back of the tavern, his body slouched on a stool, his back to the room. He drank alone. On his right hand gleamed a red ruby. She had been told the man wearing a ruby ring was the man she would want to see. With determined steps, Helda approached the bar. She took a stool adjacent to the man. He did not stir but kept his eyes on the goblet cupped in his hands. Helda ordered a drink. The bartender hesitated. Women were rare customers in this tavern. Helda gave him a steely look to which he quickly recovered, and with a quick swipe of a dirty towel, cleaned off the rim of a nearby glass, filled it with an amber alcohol, and placed it on the bar in front of her. She paid with a ready coin. Several minutes were allowed to pass as Helda sipped the strong drink. It would make her light headed in little time, drunk, if she intended to finish it. She didn’t. She needed her wits about her. Casually, she broached the subject of her intent.
“I have forty denables; twenty now, twenty more when the job is done. Have I your attention?”
Helda kept her eyes straight ahead. The man kept his on his goblet. Both were intent on keeping their distance under such close proximity. Helda had no intentions of saying more; either he was interested or he wasn’t. Forty denables was a small fortune. It was a very good offer; the man would be stupid not to at least fish for more information.
“What’s the job?” said in a low tone, faintly audible midst the boisterous cackle of drunken patrons.
“I wish a woman to be kidnapped and sold to the ship, the Mirytt. It’s in the harbor but will depart three days hence. You can keep the price of the sale; consider it a bonus for a job well done. Are you interested?”
The man lifted his drink and took a long pull before setting it down and facing her.
Feeling his stare, Helda returned the look. Neither spoke, but Helda could feel the man assessing her. His eyes were heavy lidded, dull from alcohol, but she did not underestimate the man. He was alert enough, his expression, calculating.
He cocked his head and a lank strand of oily, black hair fell forward. Instead of flicking it out of the way, he ignored it and said, “Show me the money.”
Helda untied her pouch and poured its contents on the counter. To her surprise, the man reached for the money and to his surprise, Helda swiftly pulled her knife and stabbed between his fingers. It had its intent. He drew his hand slowly away, cupped his goblet, and returned his eyes to its contents.
“Tell me more, or I walk now.” He lifted his drink and casually took a sip.
Her name is Jedith of the Order of the Udet. I will bring her into town on the pretense of shopping the market at noon, two days hence. Her hair is auburn and she has a light scar that runs from her left eye down her cheek. I will give you twenty now. Once I know the task has been completed, I will hand the rest of the money over to Gundall, Master of the Horses. You know the man?”
“I know him.”
“Gundall will make the second payment. Do we have a deal?” Helda looked away and took a sip of her drink. It was paramount he consents to the job. Gundall had given her no other names.
With a smirk, the man turned his head and stared directly at her profile. “What keeps you from refusing the pay the rest? I’m a man who prefers full payment up front. Unsure of your noble nature,” emphasizing his sneer, “I could just as easily kidnap and sell both of you.”
The man didn’t see it coming. The knife pricked the flesh beneath his jaw as Helda leaned into the weapon. Lifting his chin with the blade, her words were meant to cut. “Try and you’ll be dead before you can lift a hand against me. Half now, half later. That’s the deal.” Helda saw the look in his eyes change. She had unnerved him. Who did he think he was dealing with? She was a trained warrior, not some simple woman, the likes he was used to.
Slowly, his eyes changed again. This time, she could see a shift towards resignation. “We have a deal. Now kindly, take the knife away. You’ve made your point.”
A smile spread her lips but did not reach her eyes as Helda gave a slight flick of the blade. It nicked his throat. A small rivulet of blood oozed from the wound. She sheathed the blade up her sleeve and casually rose from the stool after returning her money to its pouch minus twenty denables. “Take your drink and dab it on the wound. We wouldn’t want it to get infected, now would we?” Drawing the string to the pouch, she hung it back on her belt, turned, and walked away.
She ignored the patrons as she weaved her way towards the entrance. No one bothered her. Her actions had been seen by many. The thief, Harssen Drag, was a mean son of a bitch. Anyone who could best him, and best she did, was worth keeping a respectful distance.
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