Under Skies of Silk: Historical Fiction Novel Excerpt

The following is a special holiday-edition excerpt from the novel, Under Skies of Silk, currently available on Amazon. Read the Prologue and Chapter 2 for free below.


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Prologue

Kashmir Empire, Karkota Dynasty 744 CE

Something dark was growing in the battlegrounds of her mind and spirit.

Adi was trembling as she followed the path to the Anantnaga district of Kashmir. She knew what she would find on the plateau ahead, sitting quietly before a range of snowy mountains. The path she’d travelled many times as a child led to the location of the glorious Martanda Sun Temple.

She wasn’t certain whether she was shaking out of anger or fear, or was it hunger? As she neared the crumbling outer walls, Adi realized that she had not eaten since the meal she’d shared with Kal and Sara. Her stomach was suddenly rebelling against each stride, clouding her thoughts. She needed to find something to eat. Under the thunderous grumbling, she could think of nothing else.

Adi spotted a citrus tree and beelined for the low-hanging fruit. She dug into the skin of an over-ripened grapefruit with her fingers, letting the bright red juices drip down her chin and stain her hands. Adi savoured the tangy sweetness, letting it fill her completely, sinking into every empty space. She felt the juice run between the channels of her body, making its way to her core, her limbs, and finally flowing down through her own imaginary roots, back into the earth.

As Adi peered at the bits of grapefruit peel under her nails and the red-stained flesh of her palms she thought again of the bandage at Kal’s ribs. She was aware that what lay ahead was not only her own fate but the choice between a peaceful life and execution for the man lying in that army camp infirmary.

Adi tucked the grapefruit skins into the tree’s roots, burying them gently beneath the moistened soil. She stood up and marched on toward the temple. With every step, her limbs seemed to deepen to a dark navy. Her tongue grew too large for her mouth, hanging down with fury. Her hair began to stand on end, curling in every which direction. Her shadow became large, giant, even. It followed behind her, looming above the grassy plateau and casting its darkness over the temple’s glittering gold walls. The spires, the gates, and the statues of the gods all knelt as Adi’s shadow approached, submitting to the goddess before them.

Then, all at once, Adi knew who she must pray to; what kind of power she must summon to face the emperor.



CHAPTER 2


Aditya Srinagara Palace


It smelled of too many flowers in the garden entrance of the Karkota palace.


Even in her state of fear, Adi couldn't help but gawk at the immaculate grounds. The gardens were neatly kept in rows of stone pathways and hedges with perfectly round flower bushes, pruned in a stately fashion. It didn't seem natural to Adi; nothing in nature could be this perfect. The smell was off too; an odour of overwhelming aromas all at once causing the gut to turn.


Adi also noticed that among all the greenery there were, surprisingly, no large trees for shade. There were no unruly banyans to doze under during the hot hours of the day. The roots of the trees, Adi realized, would interfere with the orderly state of the gardens. As she was led through the grounds by a guard, Adi thought of how odd it was that her mind was lost in the thought of shrubs and roots when she had been ripped so suddenly from the place she'd been planted.


Adi stepped through a double-gated door taller than any home in Parihasapura. The imposing structure of the main palace was built into a green and lush landscape, surrounded by a few smaller apartments and completed by the high wall on three sides, the fourth being closed off by the palace itself. The imperial family's main home was perched on a hill overlooking the valleys near the city of Srinagara. The name meant "City of Wealth" and Adi could see why. The front and main rooms of the palace boasted large towers and arched entranceways into the impressive homes of the royal families of the dynasty. As she was steered quickly through, every surface that Adi could see was covered in glimmering statues of the gods and shrines with abundant offerings.


Over the following days, as Adi was shown more of the palace grounds, she saw many women of the imperial family and their female servants going about their daily routines. There were also children of the palace who ran here and there, playing in the gardens or on the steps to the main buildings. The men, however, were nowhere to be seen.


Adi muddled through the days, quietly following orders. At night she would gratefully crawl onto her sleeping mat. She'd wrap her arms around herself and squeeze her eyes shut, trying not to think about her mother and the betrayal of her father. How could they let me be taken as a debt. How could they? She tried to shake away these thoughts, but they crept in with the darkness.


Adi was assigned to work at the atrium cooking hearth with a servant called Vadi. Despite Adi's domestic training from her mother, she turned out to be less than helpful with the cooking. Adi was distracted. Her mind often drifted into daydreams about her childhood in the city and her daily walks to the market. Adi fought the darkness from seeping into her waking hours, but everywhere she looked, there it was. She longed for the feeling of the clay at her fingers, working and smoothing the fine edges of her dishes.


One morning, as she was stirring a pot of boiling rice, Adi's thoughts fell to a day when she was a child. Adi had been more independent than most ten-year-old girls in the city. Varuna worked from sunup to sundown for the Brahmin family, and Adi was responsible for caring for the home and the shrines. That breezy day, young Adi became restless and wandered in the direction of the market. At her favourite stall, she ran her fingertips over a clay bowl, imagining what it would be like to create something so beautiful and useful.


By the time the older Adi realized that the rice pot was burning, the ruined grains were stuck to the bottom. As she was scolded and punished, she thought again of the market to distract herself from the real fear stuck to the bottom of her stomach.


After Adi had dropped several pots, Vadi sat back on her heels and sighed. Rubbing her hand over her closed eyes, she shook her head and shooed Adi away from the hearth. Adi was then given the task of caring for the palace children between meals and lessons. Her clouded disposition proved useless in caring for the spoiled imperial offspring who decidedly played their favourite game of Villagers. The pretend clan succeeded in roping their wild boar of a nurse by the ankles in a fit of war cries, causing her to trip and fall into a rounded shrub. Once again, Adi was cast out of the role.


At last, Adi was sent to the gardens. With her legs tucked under her skirt, prodding at a mound of dirt in the flower beds with her bare hands, she was determined to secure her usefulness. Still, darkness flooded her mind, throwing a sheet of indifferent haze across her vision.


As Adi absentmindedly rolled the damp soil between her fingers, head resting on her bent knees and eyes half-closed, she watched the leaves of the garden plants flutter, and tiny insects crawl away from her intruding hands. Once she was used to the many powerful smells, the garden didn’t bother her so much. The fresh air was flowing in from the mountains and allowing Adi to imagine she was out in the fields, far from this too-perfect garden. Just then, the queen, Kamaladevi, was walking by with her son, Kuvala, a skinny boy with a pretty face matching his mother. Kuvala was thirteen, yet he clung to his mother's skirt. Dalia, a servant of Adi’s age who had weaselled herself as the queen's favourite, was following close behind. The queen's fine robes cast a shadow over Adi's faded shawl.


"Mistress," Adi said, bowing her head and beginning to stand. Adi had never seen the queen this close. Although just out of her prime, Kamala was a beauty, to be sure, with her robes wrapped fashionably around her waist and generous hips.


"Sit," Kamala commanded as Dalia shaded her with a large palm leaf. Kuvala stood back, quietly watching his mother.


Adi noticed the intricate pattern of henna ink on the queen's hands and wrists. The dark brown paste had been drawn in delicately round swirls forming the leaves and vines of flowers, snaking up her fingers and wrapping around her palms.


Shielding her eyes from the sun, Kamala squinted at Adi and said, "How were you raised? A young woman without fear of the dirt beneath her fingernails?" Although it sounded malicious, the queen asked with genuine curiosity. She had never seen a beautiful girl so at ease with her hands plunged into the ground. "Do you not fear the inauspicious ground?" The queen continued.


Adi was embarrassed, unsure how to answer such a question. Adi thought of nights spent moulding clay while her mother spoke of remembered tales. As Adi had discovered secrets of the clay, she'd listened to stories of goddesses and forests. The myths of her childhood told of the magics of the earth. Through the journey of clay at her fingertips, Adi learned so much about the vital sources of the ground beneath her feet. Dirt was life, sustenance, beauty, and art.


Adi looked up now, afraid to meet the woman's eyes, "My queen." She said, "How can the earth be anything but auspicious? It is where the feet of Śiva danced barefoot in the forest of pines; from where his pillar rose, stretching into the heavens. The baby Kṛṣṇa was scolded for putting the dirt into his mouth, but it is then that his mother peered inside and saw all of the wonders of the cosmos and the celestial worlds of the gods."


The queen raised an eyebrow, "And it is where we gather the clay for plates and bowls, of course."


"Yes," Adi replied, unblinking.


For a moment, ne