Hi everyone. My name is August (Gus) Li, and I’m here to celebrate the release of Calling and Cull, the fifth book in my Blessed Epoch series. Thanks for joining me. Here’s an exclusive excerpt from the book.
About the Book
Publisher: DSP Publications
Series: Blessed Epoch (Book Five)
Length: 340 Pages
Release Date: 27 September 2016
Purchase Links: DSPP | Amazon | B&N | OmniLit | Kobo | iBooks
Blurb: Whose hand will orchestrate the change in the world?
The decade-long war with Johmatra is over, but peace hangs by a thread in Garith’s kingdom. Yarrow, isolated in his island realm, refuses to abide by the treaty or to follow the dictates of the priestesses. Others—Octavian Rose among them—are uneasy with the growing military power of the temples, and the mage island of Espero remains a tenuous ally. Garith knows his people cannot weather another conflict and that infighting will leave their lands vulnerable to further invasion. The arrival of a Johmatran ambassador with his own agenda calls everyone’s loyalties into question.
Sides will be chosen, and the consequences of those choices will have repercussions no one can foresee. Even among the turmoil, Yarrow is determined to have his vengeance against the thirteen goddesses and heal the world’s magic. But how far will he go, and what lines is he willing to cross? As unlikely alliances are forged and enemies are revealed, Prince Thane seems to be the key to forgotten knowledge that will shape the future—and some will do whatever it takes to control him.
And if you are new to the Blessed Epoch, the first four books are available in a special edition bundle. 582K words for only $9.99 at DSP Publications.
Everything within Jorian rebelled at what he had to do, and every new day marked a struggle to continue. As he stood before the filigree door to his master’s chambers, he closed his eyes and reminded himself he had volunteered for this assignment. He was doing a great service to Espero, with the possibility of finding some reparation for the Esperon blood wasted by the Johmatran heathens. And further, he had proved damned good at it. He ran a hand over the stubble on his scalp, his thick hair probably the least of what he had relinquished, yet still missed. As he had forced himself to do for almost five years, he pasted on a false smile and quietly opened a door that looked made from golden lace studded with tiny gems.
Jorian went to each of the three fireplaces and stoked the flames before adding more of the desiccated stalks harvested from the desert. He hated the cold that settled over the palace during the night, a dry cold that made his skin itch and his hair feel brittle. Having nothing to wear but gauzy crimson trousers and little gold slippers didn’t help. But he was complaining, even if only in his mind. He couldn’t afford to do that; there was always the danger that a hint of bitterness would show on his features. His master was very shrewd. As he had been taught before coming to this strange and savage land, Jorian cleared his mind. He permitted himself only thoughts relating to his tasks: heating water for tea, preparing the rough sponges to scrub his master’s skin, warming the oil to rub on him afterward, and laying out his clothes for the morning. His master would need a new ensemble by the midday meal, because his garments would be soaked with blood….
Everything was ready. It was time to wake him. Jorian went to the massive bed, the mat covered by a dome of delicate gold wires to match the door. He pushed the red curtains apart and looked down at the sleeping form of the one he served, wondering, for the thousandth time, if his ruse would be easier if the man was as ugly and deformed as most of the potentates of the Johmatran city-states. It would be easier to detest him, but feigned reverence had carried Jorian to the esteemed place he held in this great household. And that reverence came, in large part, because his lord was beautiful. Jorian was hardly shallow, but he had to cling to any sliver of positivity he could find in this awful place.
The man was five years younger than Jorian’s twenty-eight, and he was truly an anomaly among his kind. Centuries—no, millennia—of inbreeding among the ruling class, in an effort to maintain the purity of Fane’s blood, had resulted in a long list of physical and mental disfigurements. It had become accepted, almost a mark of prosperity and power. Through the intelligence he’d memorized before embarking on this mission, Jorian knew his sovereign had been produced through the union of his mother—ruler of this city-state—and a powerful noble from far to the southeast. It wasn’t unusual for reproduction to be viewed as mere breeding for favorable traits—the man’s mother was even married to a man not his sire—but no one could have predicted the result.
Behmarsan Kahladryia Sala N’hahseen was physical perfection, with long, elegant limbs covered by golden brown skin. Ebony hair so shiny it looked perpetually wet covered his jacquard pillows and draped off the edge of the bed. His oval face achieved the ideal balance between angular and soft, and his full lips, the color of red clay, were parted slightly in sleep. His birth had prompted all sorts of prophecies and interpretations, but the general consensus was one of hope: a symbol of Fane’s imminent return. It granted N’hahseen the adoration of the populace—as well as powerful enemies. As his personal and most valued servant, Jorian shared in both.
“Master,” Jorian said softly. “Do you want to wake up?”
N’hahseen grumbled, stretched his arms over his head, and slowly opened his eyes. The right one was almost as black as his hair, while the left was white tinged with the faintest hint of blue—and it was blind. That, along with deafness in his left ear, were the only limitations he suffered as a result of his lineage. He considered a moment. “Yes, I will wake up.”
Jorian peeled back the tissue-thin coverings in various hues of gold and crimson. Beneath them, N’hahseen was naked and partially erect. Jorian quickly looked away from the thin trail of dark hair on his belly and what waited beneath, hurrying to fetch N’hahseen’s slippers so he could step into them. Then he draped a robe over his master’s shoulders but left it open. He gestured toward the water, oil, and combs arranged on a low table next to the nearest hearth. “How can I be permitted to serve you first?” Jorian asked. “Shall I help you wash and dress? Or would you prefer to eat first? Perhaps you require the talents of one of your kahlka? Would you like me to fetch the one you would fancy?”
“No, no kahlka,” N’hahseen said. He pulled his robe shut and tied a sloppy knot at the waist. “Sex might settle my nerves somewhat, but I find myself loath to have any of them intrude on my thoughts. I’m irritated at just the idea of dealing with them.”
Though surprised, Jorian kept his features neutral. N’hahseen had thirty beautiful young men whose sole purpose was to satisfy his every physical desire. The Johmatrans considered sexual release necessary to health and contentment. “If you are tired of all your consorts, my lord, there is a long list of eager volunteers waiting to audition for a place in your retinue.”
“I do not wish to consider it at the moment.” N’hahseen looked at Jorian with an expression Jorian couldn’t interpret, but that raised gooseflesh along his bare arms.
“Breakfast, then?” Jorian was only too happy to change the subject. Watching his master fulfill what the Johmatrans considered a basic necessity with sometimes three or more young men twisted his emotions into a tangled mass he was only too happy to sequester at the edge of his thoughts. He hoped to leave this place—and this man—behind before he ever had need to tug at the ends of those threads.
N’hahseen pressed a palm to his belly and tapped two fingers against his forehead—the Johmatran version of a shake of the head. “I don’t think I’m hungry,” he said in a soft voice that belied the nerves he tried to hide. “I am scheduled for ornamentation this morning, am I not?”
Jorian knew he didn’t need to ask. He knew, had known and dreaded it for almost a moon now. Jorian had watched as his master’s appetite had tapered off and his sleep had become fitful and infrequent. Even as he told himself he felt no pity for the man, Jorian stepped closer and brushed a strand of hair out of N’hahseen’s eyes. He moved his hand down and squeezed the tense muscles at the back of N’hahseen’s neck, his only acknowledgment of his master’s anxiety. “It is scheduled for today. Before the midday meal.”
A press of his lips into a tight line was the only reaction N’hahseen offered, but Jorian noticed the way his spine straightened and his shoulders bunched up. He clasped the other man’s hand, carefully unfurled the fingers N’hahseen had curled into a tight fist, and led him to a mat on the floor by the fire. When N’hahseen sat on his heels, Jorian knelt behind him and slid the robe from his shoulders. Swirling scars covered his shoulders, his arms to the elbows, and his back to below his shoulder blades. They were deep and lined with thick, white keloids, the contrast stark against his dark skin. Over the years, Jorian had learned not only to ignore the markings, but almost not to see them. Today, with the addition of more looming, though, he could neither look away nor dismiss the pain he had felt—pain like nothing he had imagined in his worst nightmares—when his own small scars had been added across his cheekbones and down the center of his chest so he could pass himself off as a native.
“Rahsari?” N’hahseen called Jorian by his faux-Johmatran name. “Is anything wrong?”
Jorian hurried to pick up the golden comb and start working out the knots in his master’s long tresses. “Of course not, my lord. I was just going over your schedule in my mind to make sure you reach all of your obligations. Today will be busy, with the ornamentation and the dinner to honor the delegates tonight.”
N’hahseen leaned into Jorian’s touch. “Yes. The meeting of the delegates has occupied much of my attention lately. I wonder if the ornamentation could be scheduled for another day.”
Finished combing, Jorian gathered N’hahseen’s hair up and secured it at his crown with a jeweled clip. Using his fingertips, he rubbed circles across the miniature curls at N’hahseen’s nape. “Your mother will not like that. She personally designed a schedule to ensure your ornamentations will be complete by your twenty-fifth birthday. It will mean six more sessions, in closer proximity than is usually advisable, but she seems certain it will amplify your magic to fantastic degrees.”
“Yes, I know. Still, I would prefer not to attend the banquet tonight weak and distracted. Normally after a session, I drink Blue Oblivion and sleep until the pain becomes tolerable—usually for days.”
Without thinking, Jorian brushed the pad of his finger over an especially deep mass of scars. The hum of magic moved through his hand and into the bones of his wrist, producing a twinge and ache that, inexplicably, was also pleasant. “I know you do. I….” I watched you sleep, bleeding all over the sheets, whimpering. I made sure you at least took in water and held the pot while you pissed.
But I do not pity you. You are still my enemy, and the blood of Esperon babies is on your hands. Your barbaric customs are no business of mine, and neither is your suffering.
Jorian hurried to pick up a coarse sponge made from a carnivorous desert plant and soften its prickly tines with fragrant oil. As he lifted it to his master’s skin, he couldn’t still the trembling of his hand.
“Forgive me, my lord. I only meant to ask what I can do to ease your burdens. How can I help?”
N’hahseen turned to face Jorian and met his eyes. Not until he closed his fingers around Jorian’s wrist did Jorian realize he still held the dripping sponge. He needed to get a hold of himself. There was no reason this should be affecting him so deeply. What did he care if this spoiled Johmatran prince wanted to stretch out and have his flesh carved up until he sobbed like a baby and expelled everything in his stomach? If he didn’t want to do it, he should just refuse. Jorian had to maintain the persona he’d developed. Espero depended on him. His own life likely depended on his being convincing. As casually as he could, he set the sponge down and lowered his hand to his knee. N’hahseen never let go of his wrist.
With his free hand, N’hahseen stroked across the scars extending from Jorian’s temple to the side of his nose. He cupped Jorian’s cheek and asked, “Would you really help me?”