September 23, 2019

#ChapterSample: @ninavarelas and Crier's War!

After the Automae won the War of Kinds, there was only the House of the Sovereign. Ayla, a human servant rising in its ranks, dreams of avenging her family’s death by killing the Sovereign's own daughter, Crier. But Crier is realizing that her world is not so perfect as she was Made to believe. Game of Thrones meets Westworld in this epic new story! 

Synopsis: After the War of Kinds ravaged the kingdom of Rabu, the Automae, designed to be the playthings of royals, usurped their owners’ estates and bent the human race to their will.

Now Ayla, a human servant rising in the ranks at the House of the Sovereign, dreams of avenging her family’s death…by killing the sovereign’s daughter, Lady Crier.

Crier was Made to be beautiful, flawless, and to carry on her father’s legacy. But that was before her betrothal to the enigmatic Scyre Kinok, before she discovered her father isn’t the benevolent king she once admired, and most importantly, before she met Ayla.

Now, with growing human unrest across the land, pressures from a foreign queen, and an evil new leader on the rise, Crier and Ayla find there may be only one path to love: war.

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About the Author:  Nina Varela is a nationally awarded writer of screenplays and short fiction. She was born in New Orleans and raised on a hippie commune in Durham, North Carolina, where she spent most of her childhood playing in the Eno River, building faerie houses from moss and bark, and running barefoot through the woods. These days, Nina lives in Los Angeles with her writing partner and their tiny ill-behaved dog. She tends to write stories about young people toppling the monarchy/patriarchy/whatever-archy. On a related note, she’s queer. On a less related note, she has strong feelings about hush puppies and loves a good jambalaya. Crier’s War is her first novel. You can find Nina at any given coffee shop in the greater Los Angeles area or at

When she was newbuilt and still fragile, and her fresh woven skin was soft and shiny from creation, Crier’s father told her, “Always check their eyes. That’s how you can tell if a creature is human. It’s in the eyes.”
Crier thought her father, Sovereign Hesod, was speaking in metaphor, that he meant humans possessed a special sort of power. Love, a glowing lantern in their hearts; hunger, a liquid heat in their bellies; souls, dark wells in their eyes.
Of course, she’d learned later that it was not a metaphor.
When light hit an Automa’s eyes head-on, the irises flashed gold. A split second of reflection, refraction, like a cat’s eyes at night. A flicker of gold, and you knew those eyes did not belong to a human.
Human eyes swallowed light whole. Crier counted four heartbeats: a doe and three kits.
The woods seemed to bend around her, trees converging overhead, while near her feet there was a rabbit’s den, a warm little burrow hidden underground from wolves and foxes . . . but not from her.
She stood impossibly still, listening to four tiny pulses radiating up through the dirt, beating so rapidly that they sounded like a hive of buzzing honeybees. Crier cocked her head, fascinated with the muffled hum of living organs. If she concentrated, she could hear the air moving through four sets of thumb-sized lungs. Like all Automae, she was Designed to pick up even the faintest, most faraway sounds.
This deep into the woods, dawn had barely touched the forest floor—the perfect time for a hunt. Not that Crier enjoyed hunting.
The Hunt was an old human ritual, so old that most humans did not use it anymore. But Hesod was a Traditionalist and historian at heart, and he fostered a unique appreciation for human traditions and mythology. When Crier was Made, he had anointed her forehead with wine and honey for good fortune. When she came of age at thirteen, he had gifted her a silver dress embroidered with the phases of the moon. When he decided that she would marry Kinok, a Scyre from the Western Mountains, he did not make arrangements for Crier to take part in the Automa tradition of traveling to a Maker’s workshop, designing and creating a symbolic gift for her future husband. He had planned for a Hunt.
So Crier was not actually alone in these woods. Somewhere out there, hidden by the cover of shadows and trees, her fiancé, Kinok, was hunting as well.
Kinok was considered a war hero of sorts. He’d been Made long after the War of Kinds, but there had been numerous rebellions, large and small, in the five decades since the War itself. One of the biggest, a series of coups called the Southern Up-risings, had been quelled almost single-handedly by Kinok and his ingenuity.
On top of that, he was the founder and head of the Anti-Reliance Movement—a very new political group that sought to distance Automakind and humankind even further. Literally. Most of their agenda centered on building a new Automa capital to the Far North, in a territory that was uninhabitable to humans, instead of continuing to use the current capital, Yanna, which had once been a human city. It was, frankly, ridiculous. You didn’t have to be the sovereign’s daughter to know that building an entirely new city would require ten thousand, a hundred thousand, a million kings’ coffers of gold, and why would such a vain effort ever be worth the time and cost? It was a fantasy.
Before Kinok had begun the Anti-Reliance Movement, about three years ago now, he’d been a Watcher of the Iron Heart. It was a sacred task, protecting the mine that made heartstone, and he was the first Watcher to ever leave his post. Which, of course, had caused much speculation among Automakind. That he’d been discharged, banished for some serious offense. But Kinok claimed it had been a simple difference of philosophy regarding the fate of their Kind, and no one had uncovered any reason more sinister than that.
The one time Crier had asked him about his past, he had been elusive. “Those were dark times,” he had said. “So few of us ever saw light.” She had no idea what that meant. Maybe she was overcomplicating it: he’d been living in a mine, after all.
Still, the secrets he held—about the Iron Heart, how it ran, its exact coordinates within the western mountains—made him inherently powerful, and different. Many of her father’s councilmembers—the sovereign’s “Red Hands,” as they were called—seemed drawn to Kinok. Like Hesod, Kinok had a certain gravity to him, a certain pull, though where he was serious, Hesod was jovial. Where Kinok was controlled and quiet, Hesod was loud, quick-tempered, often brash. And determined to marry off his daughter to Kinok, despite all the whispers, the speculations. Or perhaps because of them.
Months before Kinok’s arrival, Crier and her father had taken a walk along the sea cliffs. “Kinok’s followers are few and scattered, but he is gaining influence at a rate I hadn’t thought possible,” he’d explained.
She had listened carefully, trying to understand his point. She had heard of Kinok’s rallies, if “rallies” was even the right word—they were essentially just intellectual gatherings, where small groups of Automae could share their ideals, talk politics and advancement. “Scyre Kinok is a philosopher, Father, not a politician,” Crier had said. “He poses no threat to your rule.”
It had been late summer, the sky clear and delphinium blue. Crier used to treasure those long, slow walks with her father, hoarding moments like pieces of jewelry, pretty things to turn over and admire in the light. She looked forward to them every day. It was their time—away from the Red Council, away from her studies—when she could learn from him and him alone.
“Yes, but his philosophy is gaining traction among the Made, the protection and rule of which are my—and your— responsibility. We must convince him to join a family structure. To bridge the divide.”
Crier stopped short of the seaflowers that had just begun to bloom by the cliff ’s edge. “But surely if he does not agree with the tenets of Traditionalism, he will not agree to the kind of union you propose.” She couldn’t bring herself to say marriage yet.
“One might think so, but I have reason to believe he will accept the opportunity. To him, it will provide power and status. To us, it will provide stability and access. We will be able to track what the Anti-Reliance Movement is attempting to accomplish, and better rein it in.”
“So you disagree with ARM,” Crier said.
Hesod hedged. “Their views on humankind are too extreme for my taste. It is one thing to subjugate those who are inferior and another thing entirely to behave as if they don’t exist. We must build policy around the reality of where we came from. We were not created in a void, history-less. It is ignorant to think we cannot learn from humanity’s existing structures.”
“You find ARM too extreme. . . . Would you consider its leader dangerous, then?” Crier asked.
“No,” Hesod said coolly. Then he had added: “Not yet.”
And so she had understood. Crier was the bandage to a wound—one that was minor, for now, but had the potential to fester over time. A hairline fracture in Hesod’s otherwise ironclad rule, his control over all of Zulla, everything from the eastern sea to the western mountains—except the separate territory of Varn. Varn was part of Zulla but still ruled by a separate Automa monarchy. Queen Junn, the Child Queen. The Mad Queen. The Bone Eater.
Hesod didn’t need any more splintering. He wanted union.
He wanted to keep the same thing Crier knew Kinok wanted:
Now: the branches above Crier’s head were half naked with approaching winter, but the trees were so densely packed that they blocked out almost all the weak gray sunlight, shrouding the forest floor in shadow. Overhead, the leaves were like copper etchings, a thousand waving hands in shades of red and orange and burnished gold; underfoot, they were the pale brown of dead things. Crier could smell wet earth and woodsmoke, the musk of animals, the sharp scent of pine and wood sap. It was so different from what she usually experienced, living on the icy shores of the Steorran Sea: the tang of sea air. The taste of salt on her tongue. The heavy smells of fish and rotting seaweed.
It took half a day’s ride to reach these woods, and so Crier had been here only once before, nearly five years ago. Her father enjoyed hunting deer like the humans did. She remembered eating a few bites of hot, spiced venison that night, filling her belly with food she did not require. More ritual than meal. The core of her father’s Traditionalism: adopting human habits and customs into daily life. He said it created meaning, structure. Under most circumstances, Crier understood the merits of Hesod’s beliefs. It was why she called him “father” even though she’d never had a mother and had never been birthed. She had been commissioned, Made.
Unlike humans, all Automae really needed was heartstone. Where human bodies depended on meat and grain, Automa bodies depended on heartstone: a special red mineral imbued with alchemical energy; raw stone mined from deep within the western mountains and then transmuted by alchemists into a powerful, magickal substance. It was how Thomas Wren, the greatest of the human alchemists, had created them almost one hundred years ago when he’d Designed Kiera—the first. Automae were modeled this way still.
Crier crept through the underbrush, keeping to the darkest shadows. Her feet were silent even as she walked across twigs and dry leaves, a red carpet of pine needles. Nothing would be able to hear her coming. Not deer, not elk. Not even other Automae. She paused every few moments, listening to her surroundings: the sounds of small animals skittering through the brush, the whispers of wind, the back-and-forth calls of the noonbirds and the old crows. She was careful to keep her heart rate down. If it spiked too suddenly, the distress chime in the back of her neck would go off at a pithc only Automae could hear, and all her guards would come running.
The ceremonial bow was heavy in her hand. It was carved from a single piece of dark mahogany, polished to a perfect sheen and inlaid with veins of gold, precious stones, animal bone. The three arrows sheathed at her back were equally beautiful. One tipped with iron, one with silver, and one with bone. Iron for strength and power. Silver for prosperity. Bone for two bodies bound as one.
Snap. Crier whipped around, already nocking an arrow and ready to shoot—but instead coming face-to-face with Kinok himself. He was frozen midstep, partly hidden behind a massive oak, half his face obscured and the other half in watery sunlight. Every time she saw him, which was now about ten times per day since he had taken up residence in her father’s guest chambers, Crier was reminded of how handsome he was. Like all Automae, he was tall and strong, broad-shouldered, Designed to be more beautiful than the most beautiful human man. His face was a study in shadow and light: high cheekbones, knife-blade jawline, a thin, sharp nose. His skin was swarthy, a shade lighter than her own, his dark hair cropped close to his skull. His brown eyes were sharp and scrutinizing. The eyes of a scientist, a political leader. Her fiancé.
Her fiancé, who was aiming his iron-tipped arrow straight at Crier’s forehead.
There was a moment—so brief that when she thought about it later she was not sure it had actually happened—in which Crier lowered her bow and Kinok did not. A single moment in which they stared at each other and Crier felt the faintest edge of nerves.
Then Kinok lowered his bow, smiling, and she scolded herself for being so silly.
“Lady Crier,” he said, still smiling. “I do not think we’re supposed to interact with each other until the Hunt is over . . . but you’re a better conversationalist than the birds. Have you caught anything yet?”
“No, not yet,” she said. “I am hoping for a deer.”
His teeth flashed. “I’m hoping for a fox.”
“Why is that?”
“They’re quicker than deer, smaller than wolves, and cleverer than crows. I like the challenge.”
“I see.” She shifted, catching the faraway scuffle of a rabbit in the underbrush. The shadows dappled Kinok’s face and shoulders like a horse’s coloring. He was still looking at her, the last remnants of that smile still playing at the corners of his flawless mouth. “I wish you luck with your fox, Scyre,” she said, preparing to track down the rabbit. “Aim well.”
“Actually, I wanted to congratulate you, my lady,” he said suddenly. “While we are out here, away from—from the palace. I heard you convinced Sovereign Hesod to let you attend a meeting of the Red Council next week.”
Crier bit her tongue, trying to hide her excitement. After years of near-begging, her father had agreed to let her attend a council meeting. After years of studying history, philosophy, political theory, reading and rereading a dozen libraries’ worth of books, writing essays and letters and sometimes feverish little manifestos, she would finally, finally be allowed to take a seat among the Red Hands. Maybe even to share her proposals for council reform. As daughter of the sovereign, the Red Council was her birthright; it was as much a part of her as her Pillars. She was Made for this.
“I think you’re right, you know,” Kinok continued. “I read the open letter you sent to Councilmember Reyka. About your proposed redistribution of representation on the Red Council. You are correct that while there is a voice for every district in Zulla outside of Varn, there is not a voice for every system of value.”
“You read that?” Crier said, eyes snapping up to his face. “Nobody read that. I doubt even Councilmember Reyka did.”
She couldn’t help the note of bitterness in her voice. It was foolish, but she had thought Councilmember Reyka, of all people, would listen to her. Her argument had been that in places with higher-density human populations, the interests of those humans should be somehow accounted for in the Hands who sat on her father’s council. Though she had to wonder if when Kinok mentioned her phrase, “systems of value,” he was more interested in his own values—those he was attempting to spread through the land, via ARM—than those of the human citizens.
Still, it flattered her that he’d read it. It meant her words had more power, greater reach, than she’d realized.
She hoped Reyka had read it too, but with no reply, she’d been left to believe the worst. That Reyka thought her naive and foolish. Sometimes, Crier wondered if maybe her father thought that, too. He’d refused her for so long.
But Reyka had always shown something of a soft spot for Crier. As the longest-serving member of the Red Council, Reyka had always been a fixture in Crier’s life. She’d visited the sovereign’s estate quite frequently. When Crier was younger, Reyka would bring her little gifts from her travels: vials of sweet-smelling hair oil, a music box the size of a thumbnail, the strange dark delicacy that was candied heartstone.
Crier had come to think of her the way human children in storybooks thought of their godmothers. She couldn’t say that to Reyka, or to anyone. It was such a weak, soft-bellied idea. So she just thought it to herself, and it made her feel warm.
“Well . . .” Kinok stepped forward a little, light sliding across his face. His footsteps were silent amid the blanket of dried leaves. “I read it twice. And I agree with it. The Red Hands shouldn’t be based on district alone; it leads to imbalance and bias. Have you mentioned this issue to your father?”
“Yes,” Crier said quietly. “He was not incredibly receptive.”
“We can work on that.” At her look of surprise, Kinok shrugged one shoulder. “We are bound to be married, are we not? I am on your side, Lady Crier, as you are on mine. Right?”
“Right,” she found herself saying, staring at him in wonder. What new opportunities might come to her in this marriage? For months now she had thought of it as nothing more than a prolonged political maneuver, unpleasant but ultimately bearable, like the stench of rotting fish in the sea air.
It had not occurred to her that she might be gaining an advocate, as well as a husband.
“And if we are on the same side, there is something you should know,” said Kinok, lowering his voice even though they were entirely alone, no living things around but the rabbits and the birds. “There was a scandal in the capital recently. I know only because I was with Councilmember Reyka when she learned of it.”
Crier almost questioned that—it was no secret that Council-member Reyka hated everything about the Anti-Reliance Movement, including Kinok himself. But another word caught her attention. “A scandal?” she asked. “What kind of scandal?”
“Midwife sabotage.”
Crier’s eyes widened. “What do you mean, sabotage?” she asked. Midwives were an integral part of the Making process. They were created to be assistants to the Makers themselves, a bridge between Maker and Designer. They helped newly Made Automae adjust to the world. “What did the Midwife do?”
“Faked a set of Design blueprints for a nobleman’s child. It was a disaster. The child was Made wrong. More animal than Automa or even human. Their mind was wild, violent. They had to be disposed of for the safety of the nobleman’s family.”
“That’s horrible,” Crier breathed. “Why would the Midwife do such a thing? Was it madness?” She knew the condition plagued some humans.
“Nobody knows,” said Kinok. “But, Lady, there is something you should know.”
There was something strange in his voice. Warning? Trepidation?
“This was not her first Make,” Kinok continued, meeting Crier’s eyes. “She had been working with the nobles of Rabu for decades.”
A pit seemed to open in Crier’s belly, but she was not sure why.
“Who was she, Scyre?” she asked slowly. “The Midwife. What was her name?”
“Torras. Her name was Torras.”
Crier gripped her bow so tightly that the wood creaked in protest. Because she knew Midwife Torras.
She knew it, because that was the Midwife who had helped Make her.
As soon as the Hunt was complete—two rabbits and a fox ensnared—and their party had returned to the palace, Crier retired to her chambers, poring again over the Midwife’s Handbook, a thin, leather-bound booklet she’d come across in a bookseller’s stall in the market last year and bought with so much enthusiasm that the stall owner seemed a little alarmed. She reassured herself that an infraction of the kind Kinok had mentioned was nearly impossible.
There was no way her own Design had been tampered with, of course. She was far too important.
And besides, if there were something off, something Flawed, something different about her, she’d know it already . . . wouldn’t she?
Copyright © 2019 by Nina Varela

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