Fantasy with a twist; akin to an alternate Assassin’s Creed, where tarot cards are the weapons.
Bronwyn, a woman scorned, loses her honour, status, and her leg, and now the time has come to exact retribution.
Zanderin, a sorcerer bound to her, waves his magic over the attention seeking cards, each with a name attached, and every card becomes a symbol of doom. This is a cosmic deck, dealing in fate. Via his swift carriage, hooded and cloaked, he is the harbinger and assassin.
Terra meets her betrothed, Rhodry, when Zanderin gifts his first card. Rhodry and Zanderin are connected, and everyone linked to them is on Bronwyn’s list of names.
TINSAL is about bloodlines, secrets, and a controlled society. As the cards are dealt, death follows, until the endgame moves to Castle Tinsal itself.
WAVE THE WAND
A decision is able to add magic to the unchanged way.
~ The Sine Handbook
NOCTURNAL RAINFALL SHROUDED the hills with morning mist. Small waterfalls snaked down hazy gullies. The sun was an insipid presence haunting the grey heavens. The season of change had arrived.
Terra pulled the drapes open and was entranced; she adored inclement weather. It was as if the gods studied great works in restful repose under giant oaks, while the cosmos was sprinkled by their thoughts. She laughed at herself; it was exactly this kind of poetic fantasy that had dumped her into trouble before. She had not learned to adequately guard her tongue in front of her father.
No such things as gods, girl!
He, unluckily for his dreamer daughter, dealt only in physically manifested reality.
She sighed. This was the morning where every practicality would reign supreme. This morning she met her betrothed for the first time, and only had minutes before her mother and the maids burst in to begin dressing her in the new blue gown - very tranquil, sweetheart - mere minutes before her father started roaring for updates.
Terra gave the hills a yearning look and wished fervently for a magical wand to wave over her mapped future. Had she such a device, and if it worked, she would wave everything known and established aside. She would create a setting for impulse, adventure, and the unknown. She would control her fate.
Footsteps resounded beyond her door.
Terra exhaled anew. Not even minutes then.
There was no wand. What there was, was inescapable parental pressure.
Turning from her window as her mother entered, she at least earned an approving glance for being out of bed. It was probably the last one she would get this day.
“Good, you’re awake. Bath first, and then hair. Come, come, get moving!”
Lily was a good mother, but she could also be impatient, especially with a daughter named Terra - a whimsical naming when Lily still thought about adventures herself, despite being newly into motherhood - a daughter who wanted nothing more than to escape marriage and take off on those adventures her name conjured.
It did not work like that, not in this society. Never in this society. They were made of writs and handshakes, and a deal became law. A handshake is a bond into eternity, said the Handbook.
The day of practicality commenced.
AT MIDDAY THE BELLS of the little chapel in the meadow beyond this lane of country manors tolled loudly.
Terra winced with every peal of the count, for they were akin to a beckoning to certain doom, and then the brass knocker on the front door sounded, almost as stridently. Terra grimaced. Her prison sentence was about to commence.
Mason, Terra’s father, rose from the dining table to answer the summons, smoothing his sparse hair as he walked. Their visitor was punctual, a trait which Mason approved of.
As he left the chamber, Lily hastily confirmed with swift frantic glances that the meal and its presentation met her high standards, and nodded satisfaction. In the kitchen the maids were in tears, but no matter, she had the results before her. She did not spare her daughter a glance.
Terra’s stomach was in knots and her hands clenched on her lap under the table. Her mother would have a fit if she noticed, telling her not to wrinkle her gown. Her face was pale; in fact, she felt ghostly. She almost hated her mother then and she wished the man at the front door away.
Away! Go! And don’t return!
She did not succeed.
There was no magic wand.
His name was Rhodry Fairweather and he was heir to Fairweather Mills. A right fortune, according to her father, hence an excellent match and therefore ensuring a stellar future for the Merripens of this here hill country. Mason Merripen would be granted a seat on Mills board, Lily Merripen would adorn his arm at functions, and Terra would pay the price.
Rhodry preceded her father into the dining chamber. He was younger than she expected, older than she was comfortable with, but at least he was not a troll. He passed muster as far as appearance went. Dark hair, dark eyes; tall, lean, attractively dressed, not overdone. Expensive, yet simple. It lent him presence. With a name like his she expected fairness and was thus pleasantly surprised.
She asked her mother about him days ago, but Lily was also now meeting him for the first time. Her father, of course, if she dared ask, would have said something about appearance having no bearing.
Rhodry nodded his appreciation at the fare on the table, much as her mother had, and bowed over Lily’s hand, murmuring something inane. Terra wished to strangle him with his fancy cravat. Bloody insincerity.
Only then did he look at his bride-to-be.
He smiled, his eyes revealing nothing.
Terra could only stare back, probably appearing uneducated and without decorum, but she did not care. She would not smile and she certainly would not deign to utter words. Her father spoke, but she heard not a word. Fate roared in her ears.
Rhodry did not address her or bend over her hand; he took a seat beside her and smiled at her parents.
Maybe she could plunge a fork into his arm?
The meal commenced.
Cutlery and crockery clinked and pinged in stilted silence.
The first course of shrimp, avocado and lemon relish on thin toast was just being whisked away when the brass knocker sounded once again. Softer this time, more insidious than earlier.
This was an interruption, an unexpected event in this important gathering, and Mason was instantly furious. Terra noticed the whiteness that developed immediately under his lower lip. He curbed any visible sign of it and gracefully excused himself, again smoothing his hair. Terra knew it as a nervous gesture.
The Merripens did not have a butler, but that would change after the wedding. Mason had promised his wife. She would also have the aid of a live-in gardener. Lily could not wait for this to come to pass. She had grand plans for her garden, her sanctuary.
The neighbours would fall over themselves in their envy.
In the lull, Lily rose to organise the soup - marrow and onion with croutons - and Rhodry turned in his seat to study Terra.
SHE WAS LOVELIER THAN he assumed, and not as young as he expected of a betrothed. An excellent combination, by his estimation. In his opinion this society passed women too young from their family homes to a stranger.
She was fair where he was dark, her hazel eyes surrounded with sweeping dark lashes.
There would be no problem with bearing children, as far as he could tell, and the children would be of sound appearance. She was demure and subdued, and that would endear Terra to his father. His father believed women should be seen and not heard. Personally, Rhodry enjoyed a spirited woman, but a mistress would see to that need. Perhaps he was more like to his father than suited him.
His mother, a pretty lady of excellent stock, was a quiet woman, one who never raised her voice, not to her staff, not even to this wayward son. She was also unhappy, but that he understood only after she passed on.
His father was at the root of her unhappiness, for she was seen and not heard, as was expected, and swallowed her heartache every time she heard of a new paramour seen with him in society’s halls.
Was he to become his father?
Was he to accept this wife because it pleased his father?
“Terra, sweet Terra, I am so pleased to meet you.”
He realised as he spoke that he did not mean the words. He could not. But a handshake was law, no matter if others did the shaking on his behalf - and hers. Terra had as little choice in this as he had, and none of it changed her future.
Perhaps he was his father. Perhaps this society had finally laid its claws into him. And perhaps, with time, they might at least be friends.
He hoped so. He did not desire the emptiness he witnessed in the years his mother was alive.
He smiled, attempting to insert sincerity into platitudes.
HE WAS WRONG ABOUT HER.
She had a backbone of pure steel; it was simply that she presently saw no subtle manner of bowing out of this situation. Now, with her mother and father out of the chamber, she revealed her nature to this man. In the back of her mind laid the hope it would drive him away. Perhaps a better move than stabbing a fork into him.
“You are not welcome,” Terra vehemently whispered. “I am not an acquisition.”
“Cared for?” Her eyebrows arched. “Lovely. How romantic.”
He stared at her. “Aren’t you the fiery one?” he murmured. “Do you prefer courtship, sweet Terra?”
She glared at him, hearing her father’s footsteps sound his return. Her gaze lowered to her plate once more and next to her Rhodry laughed softly. There was an element of absolute astonishment to his tone, as if he was suddenly enlightened by something. By her. She hated him then.
Ha, romance? He probably had no damn idea what it meant.
Her mother’s voice was strident, and Terra lifted her head. Her father was ashen, a film of sweat coated his face, and he shook as if with fever.
“Daddy?” she whispered.
But Mason looked only at Rhodry.
“Mr Merripen, what is the trouble?” Rhodry rose smoothly and went to her father. He placed a hand on the man’s shoulder as if to bolster him; Mr Merripen clearly required bolstering.
Mason stared at Rhodry. “A man at the door –”
Rhodry stepped back, his hand falling away. He was instantly as pallid as Mason. “Zanderin? Here?” He blinked and was for a moment faraway in mind. He cleared his throat. “For you?”
“For you.” And Mason held out a buff envelope in his trembling hand.
Rhodry looked at it as if it would bite him.
Perhaps it was able to.
Terra put a hand to her lips, her fingers quaking.
Terra watched his face. She might not have much experience, but even to her it was clear that something long expected in this man’s life was now coming to pass.
Mason took a step back and nudged his head significantly at his wife. Get the man out, it said, for he is no longer welcome in this house. He will not have our daughter.
Terra’s heart hammered.
What was happening?
She rose swiftly in a swirl of blue and retrieved the card from the floor before anyone else in the chamber had moved. She examined it, confounded. She lifted her head and met Rhodry’s dark eyes. Haunted eyes.
“It’s a card, a sceptre,” she said, knowing how inane she sounded. Her heart thumped hard.
“It’s a Sceptre, yes,” he whispered. “The Star of Sceptres.”
She thought back to her morning reverie about a wand to wave. A way to change fate. And here it was. A sceptre was a wand, was it not, if one looked at it a certain way, if one wished for it? It would take this man right out of the door as she hoped. Her heart lurched again.
She glanced at her father.
“Mr Fairweather, I think you should leave.” Mason’s voice was again firm. Resolute.
Rhodry reached for the card. His fingers were warm as they briefly touched hers. A shiver passed from him to her and from her to him. They stared at each other as he roughly smuggled the card into an inner pocket.
“Who is Zanderin?” Terra asked.
Her father groaned and her mother spoke up quickly. “Never mind that, Terra. Mr Fairweather is leaving. It is not our business.”
Terra planted her feet squarely. “It is in our house now.”
Rhodry touched her cheek, and again a frisson passed between them. “I am taking it out of your house, sweet Terra. Have no fear.”
His hand dropped away, and then he bowed to Mason and Lily, murmuring apologies, and headed for the front door.
Mason slumped in relief and Lily took his hand as if to comfort him. They were flustered. No, they were terrified.
Terra was more confused than ever and hurtled after Rhodry, reaching him as he stepped onto the flagged path.
He halted but did not turn.
“My father won’t tell me anything. Please tell me.”
He turned in staccato increments. “He will protect you.”
“No, he won’t. He did not try to stop us meeting despite my reluctance. I am an object in this house and refuse to be one. Tell me the truth, please.”
A maid pushed a side window open, and the aroma of roasting fowl floated out, tinged with a whiff of greens and sweet sauce. The main course. Terra wondered briefly if anyone would eat it now.
Rhodry stood before her looking down on her petite height, his dark eyes stormy. “Zanderin is a lynch-man, a messenger for and of another. He heralds wars, death, strife, disease, ruination, torture … take your pick. All at her will …”
“His mistress. I shall not say her name here.”
Terra paled. Something resonated within her, a tremor passing through her entire body. “And what does the card mean?”
Rhodry laughed dryly. “Buggered if I know, but she has targeted me. Now I have to figure out how.” He bowed and moved to leave.
“It’s just a playing card.”
He pinned her with his enigmatic gaze. “And you are isolated here in the country. It is more than a playing card. In the city they speak of decks that reveal the future, not that anyone is ruled by cards landing face up before them, but one delivered by Zanderin? Never mind. Sweet Terra, this is not your problem. I must go.”
“Wait. A wand, I mean, a sceptre, can change fate, Rhodry, for good or ill depending on how it is waved …”
He regarded her thoughtfully.
She soldiered on, knowing she sounded like a lunatic. “What was your fate until you received the card?”
Watching her, he cleared his throat. “Marriage, heirs, assuming responsibility for the business.”
She frowned. “Pretty normal.”
“A choice I made recently, to be normal. Before that I intended to … do something else. Be someone else.” He added the latter softly, as an afterthought.
“Maybe you are meant to return to that,” Terra responded, although she was unclear of her meaning.
He moved his hand to rest over the pocket where the card hid and smiled strangely.
“I think you are right. You have a lucky escape, sweet Terra, from me. Thank Zanderin, but don’t say it aloud or he will be at your doorstep next.”
Rhodry swung away and strode to the carriage waiting beyond the gate.
Terra lost all breath and saw the hills running with waterfalls. Gods in restful repose while their thoughts watered the cosmos. Perhaps they were not so restful after all. She chose then to pick her wand up. Wishful was now reality. This wand, different from the one she invited, came into her space, when it could have waited until Rhodry Fairweather was in his home alone, and she would now ignore it? Thus it was her wand also.
She ran after him, skirts lifted high. “Take me with you. Marry me if society demands it.”
He halted with his hand on the golden scrollwork of the carriage door. He turned slowly, and his eyes were afire. “Why?”
His eyes closed. “You don’t know me.”
“And you don’t know me.”
His eyes snapped open. He inhaled and there was something otherworldly about him in that moment. Rhodry intrigued her and she knew she wanted to discover who he was.
He pulled the carriage door wide, standing aside. “The choice is yours, but make it right now, for I am not coming back this way again.”
Terra clambered into the carriage without a second thought.
Clearly, she intrigued him also.
One could build a future on that.