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This week, Orbit Books launched The Call to Adventure, which will tell you which of seven new fantasy novels might be right for you via a quiz. To celebrate the launch, we're super excited to welcome Kate Elliott to Lady Business to share the old opening to her new novel, Black Wolves, which came out November 3. Black Wolves is one of Renay's favorite fantasy novels of 2015, and we're thrilled to get a glimpse at the formation of the story. Then, we're giving away a shiny copy of Black Wolves, courtesy of Orbit! Read on.

cover of Black Wolves

Back in Spring 2013 I was wrestling with the structure of Black Wolves. I always knew it would start with Kellas as a young man, and I tried out at least five different opening chapters as a way of introducing him. Ultimately (obviously) I settled on the version as it is published, with a later entry point, but before that I wrote out the entire story of how and why Kellas climbs Law Rock and thereby comes to the notice of the king.

Here is the original first chapter.


After the end of evening prayers, all the novices and envoys who lived at the temple were sent home to spend the three days of festival with their families. Kellas walked as far as the temple gate with the others and then his feet simply would not carry him any farther. He could not make himself go home to his family, but he did not want to stay at the temple either.

Caught under the threshold, he halted beside the western pillar and its stone guardian, which was carved in the shape of a woman holding an envoy's walking staff in one granite hand and a key in the other. The young novices and older envoys hurried past, many already humming the traditional melodies sung at the Festival of the Rain, held every year after the first rain of the season. Laughter and chatter spilled into the dusk as they dispersed. All down the street, people were setting out festival lanterns at the gates of their homes.

Kel shifted restlessly as he rubbed his eyes and then pulled his long braid through his fingers as he always did when his thoughts would not calm. The old, unwelcome discontent crawled through him. Its itch was worse than sleeping in a flea-ridden bed. There was no place he wanted to go that he was allowed to go and nothing he was allowed to do that he wanted to do.

The hells. He was twenty-one years old this year, no longer a boy, and yet he could not call himself a man. What had he ever done but go along with what other people told him to do even though he didn't want to do it?

"Kellas? Are you waiting for someone?"

The soft voice of the head priest startled him so badly he jumped back and slammed into the stone guardian. The man's kind smile made him want to scratch off all his skin and run bleeding into the night, and he could not even have said why.

"No. I'm not waiting for anything, holy one."

The head priest nodded without judgment. He was a good man, maybe the best man Kellas knew, and that just made it all so much worse. "I am ready to take some tea, if you wish to drink with me to welcome in the rains with jasmine."

"My thanks, holy one, it is kind of you to take pity on me."

"No pity is involved, Kellas. I always enjoy your company. You look . . . unsure. If you have no desire to go home, you may of course remain here for the feast, although I am sure your family's table will weigh more heavily with rich platters than our modest bowls of rice and fish and one or two sweet beancakes."

"I was just waiting for the first lanterns to be lit. I like to see the flames burning as I walk along the streets. May you have a sweet festival, holy one."

The man's keen gaze had a frightening gentleness, the mark of a patient heart. "May you find what you are seeking at festival time, Kellas. May Ilu the Herald walk with you, as he does with all his novice and envoys."

Thus released, Kellas bolted, for he could not have borne to stand there for one breath longer under that tolerant and understanding gaze. He strode along the twilight streets, barely noticing as children swarmed to sing at each compound gate while elderly women lit yellow festival lanterns.

Drink, the head priest had said.

Drinking sounded like a good plan.

Instead of turning down the street that would lead him to his clan's home, the compound where he had grown up with his mother, his aunts and uncles, his siblings and cousins and various distant relations and adopted clansmen, he headed for the river.

On the first night of festival, people stayed home for the big feast, so he passed few people out in the darkening city and most of them were hurrying home from late errands or bearing a last sack of rice for tomorrow's meals or an arm-load of straw to weave into decorations for their home. Even the docks and the warehouses sat quiet, deserted, except for the night watch clacking sticks together to announce that it was making its round and that all was calm.

In a city as big as Toskala, there were always people who had no home compound to go to and no clan with whom to feast and dance in celebration of the end of the dry season and the beginning of the rains. River Street ran right along the docks, and every inn door was open.

The Drunken Fish had seen better days and more respectable clientele, but the floors were clean and there was plenty of heated rice wine and last season’s flower cordial to drink and heaping bowls full of boiled rice or grilled fish to eat. The innkeeper made her own sweet beancakes, each one no larger than a child’s fist.

"Kel! Come sit down over here!"

Kellas spotted his friend Alon immediately. They had grown up on the same street, and as boys they had gotten into all kinds of trouble, most of it together. "Naven has just been telling us the story of how he almost got swept up by the Black Wolves last week when he was trying to smuggle in silk without paying the import tax."

Kellas went over to their table. Four groups of revelers were seated far apart from each other so their noise and conversation would not commingle too much, and seven random loners ate each at a separate table. It was really remarkable how many people didn't have a home to go to or didn't want to be home. The camaraderie of being outcast made their merriment all the louder in the lamplit inn.

Kellas found a space on the bench. "How did you get off, Nav? Pay a bribe?"

"No one can bribe the Black Wolves," said Alon with a laugh, answering for Naven in that annoying way he had of always speaking first. "Grab a drink and get that sour look off your face."

Kellas soon had two cups drunk, another in hand, and a pleasant buzz building in his head.

Naven was a heavy-set man about their age, far more clever than the lazy expression on his face revealed. His tale was convoluted and, best of all, filled with comic interludes each of which had to be toasted with yet another cup of rice wine.

When Naven was finished, Alon stood and slapped a hand on the table to draw everyone's attention. "I can top that!" he said, to shouts of laughter and demands that he pay up with the story.

He reached inside the sleeveless vest he wore, which was loosely laced to display a bit of chest. The folded piece of rice paper he pulled out had a wax seal on it. He waved it.

"This, my friends, is a pass that allows me and one companion to climb Law Rock tomorrow as part of the festival procession. I've got a woman who says she'll sleep with me if I can get her up the steps to see the actual rock on which the laws are carved. What do you think of that?"

"I think it must be forged," said Naven, shaking his head. "The council only gives festival passes to well-connected families who pay a tithe for the privilege of bragging to their friends and neighbors afterward."

Alon grinned but said nothing.

A doe-eyed young woman who had been eating alone had gotten up during Naven's tale to loiter at the edge of the group. She wore a taloos, a length of silk that wrapped her from shoulders to ankle in a very flattering way.

"I think you'd be a fool to want to sleep with a woman who demanded payment," she said, her soft accent and light brown skin marking her as someone from the north country.

"It's not payment!" said Alon indignantly, tucking the paper back into his vest. "She just wants to know if I'm man enough to take the risk."

"Risk?" Kellas laughed, glancing at the young woman. Her gaze shifted at once to him, as if she’d just been waiting for him to notice her. "When did it become a risk to ascend the Thousand Steps of Law Rock? It used to be anyone could climb to the top. I think it's a shame it's been closed off to the likes of us, ever since the outlander took over. That was only seven years ago. We've all climbed the steps as children, surely. Why should we need a pass now just because the commander built his palace up there?"

His words rang out more loudly than he had intended. The people around him fell silent, and several got up and moved away. In other parts of the common room, heads turned as men and women craned forward to listen.

"Shut your mouth and stop drinking," murmured Naven, grabbing Ke's cup, "or else get the hells out of here so you don't drag the rest of us into trouble."

"Trouble?" Kel snorted. "You're the one who just told a story about smuggling in silk. That's a crime."

The doe-eyed woman slid onto the bench next to Kel. The cloth of her taloos pulled so tightly across her breasts that he tried not to stare, for his mother and aunts and sisters would surely take him to task for any such rude behavior.

"He's right, though." She had a low, husky voice. Definitely she was not a local, not born and bred in Toskala as he and his friends were. "Isn't Law Rock and the council hall given to every person in the Hundred, not reserved for a few? That's what I heard before I came here. I was told the view from the top is magnificent, you can see all over the city and the rivers. And that people take flowers up to place as an honoring on the actual rock itself, the one with the words of the law carved into it. Is that true?"

“It used to be true,” said Kellas.

Naven examined her with narrowed eyes and not a flicker of interest in the shape of her breasts beneath the taloos. "Where do you come from? How is it you came to Toskala? What do you do here? Who are your people?"

"I belong to a rafter's clan out of Seven. We're in port for the festival. Wish I was home, though. Nothing as good as the feasting at festival time, at home." She shrugged and, without asking permission, grabbed the cup Naven had just taken from Kel and drained it in one long swallow. "Nice hair," she added, looking from the top of Kel's head down the length of his braid and then boldly grasping hold of the raggedly tied-off end. "I bet I could braid it nicer than this. If you want me to."

"You can braid mine," said Alon, tugging on his topknot, for like most young men he had taken to wearing his hair in the fancy style of the outlanders instead of an honest workingman’s braid. "Kel here is just a lowly envoy dedicated to serve at Ilu the Herald's temple for the rest of his cursed boring life. No one special. His family dedicated him to the temple because they couldn't figure out what else to do with him. He's not good for a cursed thing except sweeping porches and roofs."

"At least I can climb," said Kel, stung. "I've climbed all over the roofs of this city. Maybe you forgot, because you stopped climbing the day your parents betrothed you to that rice-seller's daughter, not that she's bothered to actually marry you yet."

"I have better things to do than climb around roofs like a cursed boy playing at adventure," said Alon. "I'm going to climb the stairs to Law Rock tomorrow like a man. And by the way, it's my betrothed who is going with me. We're to be married next month. Her father is taking me on in the business."

The woman let go of Kel's hair and scooted away from him. "Is that true? You're dedicated to the Herald as an envoy for all your days?"

Kel could barely get the word out, it chafed him so. "Yes."

Her eyes opened wide. After a moment, she smiled in a pitying way that made his cheeks burn. "My uncle always said there are two kinds of people who serve the gods for all the span of their years: the ones whose hearts are honestly turned to the gods' service, and the ones who never grow up."

Everyone laughed except Kel. The humiliation was like a bucket of water poured over his head.

"My apologies for disturbing you," she said to the group before going back to her solitary table.

"That must burn, Kel," said Naven with a smirk that wiped all the pretended laziness out of his eyes, "but your hair's still pretty. At least she couldn't take that from you."

"Just your manhood." Alon waved to the innkeeper, signaling for another pot of rice wine. "Better go home, Kel. Your mother is waiting for you."

The words came before he knew he meant to say them. "I'll beat you to the top of Law Rock."

Alon shook his head like a kindly teacher warning off a pupil who hasn't been paying attention before he tries to answer a question and instead makes a fool of himself. "Without a pass? You'll not get over Guardian Bridge, much less past the lower gate and the guards."

"Unlike you lot, I don't need to get over Guardian Bridge or past the gate. I don't need to go up the stairs. People have climbed Law Rock before. Up the rock itself, not on the stairs."

"You're crazy,” said Naven with a coarse laugh.

“That's against the law," said Alon. “They’ll kill you for attempting it.”

"It didn't used to be against the law. It's only against the law now, just like anyone used to be able to climb the stairs but now you need a pass."

"They won't need to kill you.” Naven’s amused smile turned to a sneer. "You'll fall and die."

Kel poured himself a cup of rice wine, lifted it to his lips, then set it down without drinking. "I'm dead anyway. Do you think I want to be an envoy of Ilu? Do you think I asked to be dedicated to the god for the rest of my days? My clan got rid of me because they didn't know what else to do with me. You aren't wrong about that. Call me a boy if you want. I'll show you that I'm a man."

He jumped up and shoved through the people who had gathered around to enjoy the shouting match. The doe-eyed girl was eating a bowl of rice and fish, ignoring him, and for that he was grateful. A demon had gotten into him and would not let go.

"Kel! What in the hells are you doing?" yelled Alon after him as Kel reached the door.

"He won't really do it," said Naven. "He's just pretending to save face. You can't anyway, Kel. It's night, and even if it was day, no one can climb the rock except by the stairs."

Kel halted at the door. Every person in the inn's common room had fallen silent and was now staring his way, even that cursed young woman.

"It’s full moon so there's enough light. I'm starting right now. I’ll see you at the top at dawn tomorrow, Alon."

Without waiting for an answer he stalked out. His hands were shaking from an anger he could not understand or control. Everything seemed meaningless. What did it matter if he fell? His life was worthless anyway. He respected the gods and did not begrudge them their worship and offerings. He admired the head priest of his temple, who served Ilu the Herald out of loyalty, duty, and love.

But he was not one of those people.

He was nothing.

This would make him something, the man who climbed Law Rock or died trying.

Kate Elliott has been writing stories since she was nine years old, which has led her to believe that writing, like breathing, keeps her alive. She is the author of over twenty science fiction and fantasy novels, including her YA debut Court of Fives, as well as Cold Magic, Spirit Gate, King’s Dragon, Jaran, and her short fiction collection, The Very Best of Kate Elliott. Her new epic fantasy, Black Wolves, is now available. She lives in Hawaii with her spouse, paddles with outrigger canoe club Ka Māmalahoe, and nurses along an aging schnauzer. Photo credit: April Quintanilla.

We're giving away one copy of Black Wolves to a US/Canadian fan. If you would like to enter the giveaway, please fill out our form by December 10, 2015. :D Check out The Call to Adventure for more epic fantasy recommendations.

Date: 2015-12-04 11:57 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
I'm in the process of reading Black Wolves! Thanks for sharing! <3 Kellas is a great character. I'm thrown off slightly by the time jumps (hopefully that isn't a spoiler?) But I am loving it so far!


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