As I mentioned in a blog post earlier in the week, I had several false starts in writing the opening to my novella Ashes of the Ancestors. In fact, one of them got all the way to 1600 words before I realised that it didn’t work. So, for anyone who’s interested, here are those 1600 words – half a chapter that I completely abandoned, and two whole characters who got lost along the way…
“What’s taking you so long, girl? If I had a body, I could have had both those vents cleared an hour ago.”
“I’m sorry, Holy Father.”
My words came out louder than was needed. The spirits could reach me anywhere in the Eternal Abbey, all I needed to offer was a whisper, but I couldn’t help myself, I needed to make sure that I was heard. “The draft plate mechanism is caked with ash. I’m almost done cleaning, but it’s hard to get it all out from between the gear teeth, and that’s what really matters because when it gets compressed—”
“Do you think that your predecessors took this long about their tasks?”
I took a deep breath, forgetting that I had lowered my mask so that I could blow dust from the gears. Floating ash caught in my throat. I gasped, wheezed, rocked back against the wall of the chimney as I fought for breath. One foot slipped down the brickwork and I flung my hands against the walls, knocking ash into a billowing cloud, which made the rasping in my throat even worse. At least I had my goggles on, so could keep my eyes open while I found my footing again. By the time I steadied myself and pulled my mask up, I was coated in grey dust form the top of my headscarf down to the tips of my sandals, and it formed a grey slick of mud in the sweat running down my face.
Vetreas sighed, and the ash swirled.
“We will have to find someone more experienced, to teach you proper care of this place.”
“Yes please, Holy Father.”
I wished that he would, but it seemed unlikely. Even when I had first been led up to the Abbey, neither of the remaining attendants had understood its ancient mechanisms. Fifteen years later, what were the chances that anyone was left in the whole Empire who understood these machines?
“Visitors are coming, they need to be able to see me,” Vetreas said.
“Yes, Holy Father.” I returned to cleaning the mechanism.
“It is particularly important that they can see me in my own chambers, so that we can consult alone.”
“Surely visitors want an audience with all of the Holies?”
“There are many ignorant people in this fallen age, weak and frightened. They find it less intimidating to see the greatest of the Holies alone.”
I focused on brushing the last dust free, making my every movement busy, but Vetreas was the sort of man who could hear hesitation.
“Out with it, girl.”
I knew better than to hold back my answer, even though I wasn’t sure he would like it.
“Surely pilgrims seeking wisdom would want to see the Empress Chryssania.”
Now it was Vetreas who hesitated, while I untied the tools fastened by strings to my wrists, tied them back around my belt, and started climbing down the chimney.
“The Empress is the most venerable of us, but hers is a more worldly insight. Those coming to the Abbey for spiritual guidance will find more comfort in a priest.”
“Of course, Holy Father.”
I emerged from the vent in the ceiling of Vetreas’s chamber and scrambled down the knotted rope hanging there. The ladder from his chimney had broken decades ago, but one of my predecessors had bent its stub into a hook, allowing for the rope. I reached the floor, my sandals slapping against the wide grille, shook the rope loose, and caught it as it fell. Then I pulled a worn iron lever protruding from the wall, and gears rattled somewhere behind the ancient stones. A breeze blew from tubes into the fire pit beneath the grille, then up the chimney.
I tugged the goggles and mask from my face, concealing them in the folds of my headscarf, then bowed to the sandstone throne that sat against the back wall. Vetreas’s outline was just visible there, sketched in the light drift of ash the breeze had shaken loose.
“Might I put these away first, then return to light your fire?” I asked, gesturing to my tools. “I don’t want to risk misplacing any of them.”
“Very well, but be quick.” A movement in the dust showed that Vetreas was waving his hand. “And send Ilippa to me. I need her to take messages to the others.”
“Of course, Holy Father.” It wasn’t my place to send one of the Holies anywhere, but Ilippa was often in the servants’ halls, and if I told her that Archbishop Vetreas wanted to see her, she would surely come. I hoped that when I died I would continue in service as diligently as she did, though I doubted that I would be worthy of a place amid the Holies. Like most spirits, I would probably fade into forgetfulness.
I bowed once more, then hurried out of the room. My footsteps echoed ahead of me down corridors and stairwells, past windows that revealed a dizzying view of the plains hundreds of feet below. Sometimes, my footsteps would bounce back unexpectedly around twists of the corridor or turns of the ash vents, and for a moment I would think that I heard someone else. I would smile, even as the knot in my chest tightened, but then I would remember that it was an illusion. There were many other people in the Abbey, but none whose footsteps made a sound.
Sure enough, Ilippa was in the kitchen, standing in the chimney breast by the small corner of the room that I lived in. The previous night had been a cold one, and I’d stoked the fire high, leaving enough ash for her to make herself almost solid. I could make out the folds of simple robes just like mine, and the kindly smile on her wrinkled face.
“You’ve done a good job sharpening the knives,” she said, leaving a trail of ash across the blades as she ran her fingers over them.
“Thank you,” I said, bowing to her. “Your advice was helpful.”
“You pick up a few tricks, my dear, in seventy years of service and six centuries of watching.” She patted my arm, and I could almost feel her touch. “Now, the Empress sent me to tell you to prepare the grand hall. Our new companion is on her way.”
It was a thousand years since the first empress had sat on the Talaian throne, dozens of monarchs had followed in her wake, and now three candidates all laid claim to her fractured empire, yet we both still knew who Ilippa was talking about. Within the walls of the Eternal Abbey, Chrysannia was the only Empress.
“Vetreas is expecting me to light his fire.”
I wouldn’t have spoken so bluntly to any of the other Holies, but it was hard to maintain a tone of veneration around Ilippa. In my heart, I knew that she was as sacred as any of them, the monastic servant who had worked herself to death so that holy women and men could dedicate themselves to their faith, but her appearance was so like my grandmother and her demeanour so like my mother that it was hard to treat her like I did the rest. She didn’t seem to mind, but I cursed myself every time I forgot to bow in her presence or spoke to her as if she really was the other servant in this place.
“I can explain to Vetreas,” she said. “You go preparing the hall.”
“Are they really here so soon?” I took a handcart from an alcove, hurriedly loaded it with firewood, kindling, lamp oil, and incense. A smell of blood and perfume in that corner of the room made me realise that we weren’t alone, but I kept on as if I hadn’t noticed. I didn’t have time for distractions. “I thought the procession wasn’t due for three more days. I haven’t revised the rites of welcoming or prepared the funeral feast. I don’t know if we even have hangings that haven’t been eaten by moths.”
“Don’t worry, dear, we have everything we need.”
“But the funeral shroud…”
“She’s a powerful woman, she’ll come in one of her own.”
“And the ceremonies…”
“Zenovini can help with those.”
“I haven’t swept the corridors or checked the ropes on the cage or told the townspeople or anything. Oh gods, the townspeople, they’ll be expected to put on a parade, and Yiorgi doesn’t even know about it!”
My voice rose and my cheeks flushed with heat. I grabbed a cloth to wipe the ash and sweat from my face, then froze with it halfway to my forehead. What if I needed this cloth for the ceremonies?
“Zenovini will enjoy explaining the rituals, and I can talk you through the rest. As for a parade from the townspeople, expectations are lower than they used to be. No one will notice if they don’t do the full traditional welcome. This is a warlord, not an archbishop or an empress.”
Her tone seemed as even as ever, but her words hooked at my mind like a briar on a goat’s fleece.
“Do you not approve?” I asked.
“It’s not my place to approve or disapprove, my dear. General Eras is revered by her people. She has brought peace to her provinces, or parts of them at least, and her people revere her name. If she doesn’t deserve a place in the Eternal Abbey, then the flames won’t welcome her.”
“Has that happened before?” The thought that anyone unworthy might be brought for burial was so shocking that I’d never considered it, but now I couldn’t stop myself imagining what might happen. “Did they not burn, or did the spirit simply vanish?”
“Now, dear, you should focus on what’s in front of you. We have guests coming, remember.”
“Of course.” I added a flint and steel to my heaped handcart, then hurried for the door. “Thank you, Holy Ilippa.”
“Happy to help, my dear.” The ashes scattered as she released them and left the room.
There we go, the beginning that could have been. It’s far more blunt in its world building than the one I used in the end, and not as good at showing Magdalisa as a character. Even if I’d had space for Ilippa and Vetreas in the book, this would have needed some serious reworking.
Bu if you’d like to see how the story eventually started, and where all this talk of ashes and funerals is heading, you can buy my novella Ashes of the Ancestors here:
Luna Press for physical books