Preview: After the Garden by Michelle Browne (P-1)

SSV is happy to present a preview of Michelle Browne’s newest book, After the Garden. It will be published in 2014. We’re happy to release a series of the upcoming novel and give our readers a taste of what’s to come! A segment will be released on Saturday. Keep an eye out and read along with us.

~ After the Garden ~

A young woman is experiencing memories of The Time Before. She and some other Bearers are trying to solve the riddle of their past and stay under the radar, but a certain fanatical cult may have other ideas. There’s a chance that love might complicate things, but in a world of ruin, poverty, and decadence, it might also be her undoing…

o-o-o-o

Prologue

The high towers of shining glass were broken: the seemingly eternal chorus of a thousand clickings and whirrings, the chimes of devices, were now silent. Grass had grown over the tombstones, twisted and covered the markers: the garden slowly returning.

The girl paused on the hill, a hand shading her eyes from the sun.  It had been a long journey, and she was getting tired of it—especially with the sun blazing down. Too exposed.

She watched for movement. It was lonely here, but loud—all the grass sighing, the woolcattle lowing, the insects singing; a cacophony, and not the forest’s familiar song, either. Shaking her head, she set off again.

The night was closing in. It had been a long day, but her respite was in sight. These satellite towns were becoming more common. The hills were tamer, here, rolling green hills that made for good grazing. The spring air was scented with distant gardens. Woolcattle abounded, though she didn’t see any of the spiders. That made sense enough; spiders were easier to raise in the city.

Still, woolcattle and a town meant wildcats, and wildcats meant…she shuddered. Better to focus on the positive. Patchwork walls were better than none, and a town meant farmers, too. Farmers meant guns. She’d been able to make a few arrows, but she was running short.

She remembered something Harpinder had said about making arrows. No, almost remembered. It was gone again. She should have expected it, but it still hurt. Being away from them was hard. She was used to the chatter, the warmth. Even the months away from home hadn’t faded the loneliness.

Buck up, she told herself. Loneliness was nothing compared to the winters they’d warned her about. If she could make it to the city before winter was over, she’d be all right. Following the ancient road’s remnants had helped, but there were so many lost sections, so many overgrown areas. The forest was easier to navigate in.

Her cheeks burned at the memory of the circle she’d gone in, a week back. The pull of the city was urgent, indisputable. The price to follow it—no, no time to think about that. She would find her way back someday, but the city called now, and people in the city.

Her absent-minded ruminations as she hunted were forced aside by a sudden feeling of dizziness. She scanned for predators before sitting down. Vertigo washed over her. A fragment was coming.

She sipped the ice-wine in her glass. It cost a fortune, now, but oh, it was worth it. The sweetness and density of the wine was overwhelming, numbing her tongue and warming her throat. She examined the glass in her hand. The hollow stem was filled with minute crystals. The glass itself was very thin, fragile enough to shatter in an incautious grasp.

She glanced down at her dress, a retro silk-and-velvet confection with sleek lines. Expensive simplicity. His gift, one might say, and also a way of legitimising her presence. She knew she was basking in a reflected glow, and so did everyone else. She was still in the light of the reflection, and that counted for something.

She could feel their eyes on her, and was still adjusting herself to the sensation. The crystals on her dress glittered in the low light. Had the dress been purchased to match the glasses, or was it the other way around? Either would have been…typical.

“Well, I have to play the part,” he’d said, shrugging. She wasn’t going to pick holes in his logic; there were appearances to keep up, and the quiet elegance of authority was part of that. Sometimes, when the conversation drifted off onto some lacklustre tangent, she would sit quietly, just devouring her surroundings with her eyes. Everything here sang of it, of power, money’s song.

She realised someone was addressing her, and—

And she was alone. The city flickered back into shape. She stood. The country stretched out before her, the skyline clean and pure; she walked again.

Ezeriah gazed through the curtain across the field of closely shorn heads, stubble like wheat after the harvest. As an angel, he knew better than anyone what they were capable of. Fatherly concern surged through him.

He let the memories wash over him for a moment. He remembered the uniform, wondrously fine of weave. The heavy taste of blood, smoke, and hot metal mixing in the air. Sometimes, the images of the machines the Untainted One had called upon returned to him: heavy beasts lumbering along, slow as elephants, dull grey, pitted with proud service. Metal vases filled with fire, guns beyond all reckoning, and the ferocity of battle. And finally, when the Untainted One brought him respite, the shattering of his own earthly bones. The splinters of his broken chest still returned in the form of twinges of pain.

The demons still roamed, he thought bitterly. They took many shapes. Men whispered stories of strange powers. He looked worriedly over his flock. The perfect rows of shown heads were still bent in prayer. Still safe. How long? He shifted his rich cloak and looked at the horizon. Wolves were coming, and there was nothing to do but wait.

Chapter 1

Kerrick crouched in the tight space between a wall and a bush, waiting for the signal. Finally, finally, he saw the flash of light, and he could breathe. The low light favoured his stealth, but it didn’t pay to rely on shadows alone. Green-gold eyes scanned the dark—was there someone else? He listened and watched.

No. Their pursuers had gone. His hand strayed past the short, neat goatee to the smooth scar on the left side of his face, on the jawline by the ear. He thought he could see Chris through the window, and perhaps that was Hamza stretching across the couch. He ignored them and focused on the basement window itself. Open.

He rushed across and slid through, somersaulting onto a pile of skins and padding.

“Hello!”

Chris was there after all, his blond hair sticking up as usual. Kerrick didn’t answer, but his mouth twitched.

“What’s up, Kerrick? Why so sneaky?”

“Sneaky? Pff. You know he likes to show off his reflexes.”

Kerrick smiled a little, but didn’t contradict him. He righted himself gracefully. “We were being followed. Had to get them off our trail.” Kerrick pulled off his dark leather coat and draped it carefully across the back of the couch.

“Which ‘we’ is this?”

“Callaghn and me.” His eyes flashed. “Somebody was using us for target practice.”

“Guns or arrows?” asked Hamza, suddenly alert. His skin was a matte brown in the light of the shaded bulb. Beneath the smooth line of his temple, a muscle tensed, flickering. His smoky brown eyes roved over the basement, settling on the window.

“Just arrows, luckily.” Kerrick wiped sweat and dust from his hands. In the light, his dark brown skin was the same colour as the earth.

Elsewhere in the house a door slammed, and Callaghn walked in.

“Luckily! Ha!” He shook his head, muddy russet hair flying left and right. Twiggy, pale hands twisted and flexed against each other like fighting spiders. “You say luckily. We could’ve been much worse off.”

“They were still just arrows.”

“Just. If I hadn’t been flipping every second one away from you and saving your sorry ass—”

Kerrick squinted, but didn’t take the bait. “Thank you. That said, if we hadn’t taken that shortcut—”

“Okay, so it wasn’t a particularly bright idea. But who forgot to check the latch on that one window?”

Hamza interrupted them. “Did you get all the spiders back?”

“Yeah,” said Callaghn moodily. He walked over to the stove. “They got out, but we chased them all back here. They’re all up there in their pens, where they should be. Is anything cooking? I’m starving.”

“Yeah, I was on market shift today. Managed to get some woolbeef and vegetables for a deal from one of the farming guilds. Carrots, lettuce, potatoes—you know,” Hamza answered. Callaghn couldn’t help grinning.

“How? Trading, money, or charm?”

“Yes,” said Hamza, returning a grin. “Hey, where are Eva and Karine and Arthur? It’s not wise to be out alone after dark.”

“Karine’s at her lab,” said Chris. “Eva turned in early. Arthur was with Karine, last I knew.”

“Actually, I’m right here,” said Karine, walking in. She swept dark, shoulder-length hair away from her forehead efficiently and turned to them. “Arthur will be along shortly. You’ll pardon me for interrupting the tale, Kerrick—the last batch of blood samples just confirmed that the stimulants are down to less than half of the guild’s recommended percentage.” The others spontaneously applauded. “I know,” she said. “Still, it’s one less thing to worry about—double-checking latches taken aside.”

Kerrick bowed his head. “I’m sorry.” He didn’t make excuses, but they could tell he was preoccupied. he wouldn’t have forgotten the latch otherwise.

“Now, then. What else is troubling you? Every one of you looks uneasy.”

“Assholes went shooting at us,” Callaghn said. “Arrows, not guns. Probably drunk.”

“Drunk and still sober enough to shoot?” Karine’s gaze cut through him.

“I guess,” he muttered. “They missed a lot.”

“People still don’t trust us,” Hamza stated bluntly. “We offer the best silk in town, and still…”

“Can you blame them?” asked Karine. There was an awkward silence. “So, what about something to eat?”

“I’ll finish supper,” Chris offered. “Let’s wait for Arthur. He’ll be as hungry as everyone else.”

“If not more,” said Karine. “He had to go down to the pens and catch the spiders for sampling. There was also the unlatched pen.”

“Poor bastard,” Callaghn remarked. “I hate being put on catching duty.”

“No wonder,” said Arthur as he slid through the window. “They seem to come up with new ways to escape every week. The young ones are the worst.” He landed easily, though without Kerrick’s grace.  “Next time—”

“We recaptured as many as we could, Arthur. There was an interruption.”

“Kerrick means, there was an attack,” growled Callaghn.

Arthur’s eyes met Karine’s, and then, Hamza’s. “Purifiers?” There was a silence.

“That didn’t exactly occur to us,” Kerrick admitted. “Though now you mention it…”

“Hey, Arthur,” Chris interrupted. “When are we gonna go check out those stories we’ve been hearing about, you know, the Purifiers?”

Arthur shot an impatient glance at him. “Soon, kiddo. But give me some time. We’ve gotta get everything together before anything happens.”

“Aw, come on. It wouldn’t take that long.”

“Chris, it’s dangerous. You wouldn’t be that eager to go—”

“—If I knew The Risks Involved. Okay, okay, but still.”

Karine broke in smoothy. “Are you going to call Eva in for supper?”

“Sure. And Chris, before you ask, no, we’re not going tomorrow.” Arthur managed a smile, but the pale green eyes he turned on his younger brother gleamed with anxiety. “But you can come, okay?”

“Okay,” muttered Chris, half-satisfied.

Karine waved a hand. “Debates later. Where did that girl get off to? Someone go look for her.”

“Eva? Eva!” Chris called.

She finally pattered in, wearing her usual bright smile and sounding slightly out of breath. “Sorry, I was just working on my—well, you know, my dyeing.”

“No problem, just come have a seat—dinner is ready,” Hamza said. He wandered from the living room to the kitchen and back again. “Chris and Arthur did the cooking.”

“Wow! So it’ll be edible tonight?” exclaimed Callaghn.

Hamza opened his mouth, a saucy retort prepared and ready to fire, but Arthur silenced him with a glance. Hamza shrugged and smiled again.

The septet seated themselves around the table. Hamza set it as lazily as he did everything else. Eva served, ladeling the portions of stew into each bowl. Kerrick ducked into the kitchen to wash his hands. He paused to run a hand through his close-cropped black hair. Some of it was sticking out at odd angles. Time to trim it again, but—he checked the mirror over the sink—it was presentable enough.

He returned and sat quietly between Hamza and Chris.

“Did you hear about our little adventure, Eva?” Callaghn asked as she doled stew into his bowl.

She raised her eyebrows at the self-deprecating tone in his voice. “No?”

“Callaghn and I were used for target practice,” Kerrick said quietly. Her pretty blue eyes widened, and she raised a hand to cover her mouth. Some of the stew lapped over the side of the serving pot. Callaghn shook his head reprovingly and stood, heading towards the kitchen for a wet cloth.

“You don’t think it was…”

“We’re not ruling anyone out,” said Karine, “but they used arrows, so it probably wasn’t him.”

Eva looked unconvinced. “Well, I hope not. But who do you suppose—?”

“Purifiers,” spat Hamza. Just the word made him simmer with fury. He blinked once, his long lashes shading angry eyes for a moment. Karine glanced at him, concerned, but he resumed his poise. “Don’t tell me you didn’t think of that,” he said. His voice was measured, but he clenched his chopsticks just a little too tight. Kerrick put a comforting hand on his arm, and he relaxed a little.

“It could be worse,” Karine pointedly reminded him. “The band could be larger. Anyway, this is a city! We’re safer from them here than we would be in a satellite town.”

“But not safe enough,” Hamza muttered back.

“I hate to take sides, Karine…”

“No you don’t, Callaghn.”

“…but he’s got a fucking good point.”

“Language,” Karine said stiffly. “Eva’s here.”

“I’m not a two-year old, Karine. It doesn’t bother me!” Karine gave her a condescending look, and she meekly retreated into herself. Chris put a hand on her leg and glared at Karine, who ignored him.

The table simmered with unease, and they were mostly silent as they finished their stews. Eva absently rose and cleared away the first of the plates.

“Let me,” said Kerrick. He jerked his head in the direction of the living room. “You guys go on. I haven’t done anything yet.” Technically, it was his night to wash, and the person who served was supposed to return the dishes to the kitchen—not the person who washed. She shot him an annoyed glance, but he ignored it.

The table quickly emptied. Eva and Chris went off to play a board game, Arthur grabbed a puzzle, and Hamza settled in with a law text, trying to refresh a fragment he’d had recently. Callaghn curled up next to Hamza, trying to get his attention as usual.

Kerrick considered joining them, but remembered his washing duties and retreated to the kitchen. Karine joined him at the sink. As he filled the sink with hot water, she clenched the drying cloth a lot harder than necessary. He silently handed her the first of the clean, wet bowls. Her shoulders relaxed as she dried it, and another. By the time they were done, she was chatting properly, her eyes crinkling with a smile.

“Canning season is coming,” she said, fussing with the glass jars on the shelves.

“Not for a few weeks,” he replied, “but I’m looking forward to the fresh fruit and jam.”

“Well, we do have the deep cellar,” she added.

“Yeah, but it doesn’t keep things that cool.” He opened the refrigerator. It wasn’t humming, of course, but its shelves held neat rows of dried fruit and vegetables.

There was a sudden burst of laughter, very raucous, and he jumped. Karine smirked to herself as his muscles untensed. He shot her an annoyed look and glanced around the half-wall, into the living room. Nothing to worry about, in spite of the noise. He eyed the scuffed, ancient leather chesterfields and chairs in the living room. Next to them, Chris and Eva lounged on pallets made from hemp and scrap silk. Callaghn got up, cursing, and bumped his leg on the plasteel table. The rest laughed at him again.

“Well, I guess we’re about done,” said Kerrick, glancing at the empty sink. “Let me know when you want to start prepping for the canning. I think I’ll head off.”

“All right. See you later?”

“Maybe. I’ll be in the tower.”

She nodded without turning around, and he slipped off.

The living room connected to a hallway. He walked past the scraps and decorations that lined the walls. The parallel rows of the bedrooms all had their doors tidily shut. He walked silently past the storage closet, the purifier tanks in the boiler room, and padded up the stairs.

He walked past the library and empty, echoing halls of the house proper. The place was old and creaky, even under his careful steps, but it was quiet. Kerrick liked the quiet. As he climbed the final set of stairs, he relished the chance just to think, and look. There were no Purifiers to worry about up there; no petty warlords or gangsters to disturb his view of the city. Later, if he was feeling brighter, he could go back down and socialise. For now, peace sounded like the best thing possible.

o-o-o-o

Check out Michelle Browne’s website for more information on the author and her work.

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