Today we have a sneak peek into Khantara, a new novel in Michelle Franklin's Haanta series! This one tells the story of the Den Asaan Rautu's mother and father. Khantara is a Haanta conqueror, meant to wage war and rule over the enemy nation of Thellis, but after vanquishing Thellis and occupying the construction of a Haanta outpost, he meets Anelta. Anelta though is a woman enslaved by her own people, baring a brand of servitude on her neck. Khantara saves her, falls in love with her, and contrives to make her his mate against the rules of his people, but when Thellis plans another uprising he must choose between protecting the woman he loves and saving his people from extinction.
Khantara could bear the sight of the woman standing before the dreadful home no longer. He must try to assist and console her, if she would accept his company, but as he separated from the shadows and walked toward her, he was stopped by the sight of a strange brand on the side of her neck. The Thellisian symbol for ‘marked’ was burned into her flesh, and though it could not answer for the exchange he had just witnessed, it could explain her bare feet and poor dress. He was aware of Thellisian slaves and thought her to be one, but her missing restraints, upright figure and elegant hands told him otherwise. He found, however, other features to excite his curiosity: a braid of thick hair so long as to sweep the backs of her thighs was his chief delight; blue-green eyes and a tinge of colour in her cheeks were his other concerns. He made a slow approach as she wiped her tears and bowed to her to gain her attention and convey his gentle civility.
In between her quiet sobs, the woman felt herself being overcome by a shadow. She looked up to discover an immense creature standing before her and inclining his head in her direction. She looked about her to see if there was someone behind her who deserved such propriety, but there was no one in the vicinity excepting herself and the giant. Astonished by such gallantry, she greeted him with the same forthcoming gesture and quickly dispatched all of her remaining tears. A Haanta, she thought, here. But what can he want with me? was the question that plagued her for some minutes when the giant remained in silence. She blushed first in a glow of animation to welcome so immense, so unspoken and so unexpected a creature, but all her happiness soon became embarrassment; he must have overheard her conversation and had now come to question the conflict. She lowered her head, touched the brand on her neck, and waited for a reproof with downcast eyes, but no such reproof came; he remarked her with a thoughtful expression and said nothing. She thought perhaps that Haanta custom called for her to speak first, though she knew not what was proprietous to say. She fidgeted with her hands, shifted in place, and began with, “Have you lost your way, sir?” in an expectant tone, hoping that the giant could understand the Thellisian langauge.
Khantara made a momentary smile and his eyes were aglow to see her features brighten. “No,” was his soft answer.
The woman stepped back, struck by the resonation of his low voice. He spoke to her: the creature of majesty, the dark mountain cloaked in shadow with nighthawks adorning his shoulders spoke to her. Her breath quickened, her mouth curled into a wider smile, her heart filled with the warmth of wonder, but soon fancies of her own inadequacy returned to her. He could not be here for her, for who was she but a marked woman. He must be here for someone else. His presence was too good of a mistake, and though she wished that he were here on her account by some means of providential intervention, she would not deceive herself only to be disappointed. “Have you come here on your way to town?” she said in a small voice. “If you are uncertain of the way there, I can show you, sir. But I can only lead you as far as the marketplace.”
Khantara only smiled.
Presently she added, “I’m not permitted to go to town, but I point out the way from the edge of the markets if you need a guide.”
The giant did not answer. He was observing her uneasy motions, long swaying braid, thin figure and scarred neck. He stepped closer to her to judge her reaction, and to his contentment, she did not retract. He hummed in deliberation and narrowed his gaze.
After some time of shared silence, Anelta began to feel as though she had stepped out of her place and thus began to excuse herself. “I don’t mean to disturb you if you were only meaning to pass by, sir. I apologize for my forwardness.” She lowered her eyes. “It was wrong of me to assume that you would want my help.” She smiled and made a timorous laugh. “I often mistake people addressing me for their wanting my company.”
Khantara perceived her growing anxious. “You have called me ‘sir’,” he said, turning the subject to calm her. “Is this a title your people give to others?”
Her knees weakened at the continual sound of his voice. “It’s a respectful title for a man used in place of a person’s name.” She turned her head and pointed to her brand. “I’m one of the Marked. I’m not permitted to call anyone by name unless given permission.”
Khantara’s brow bent in anguish to see such a delicate complexion ruined. “What are you called?” he said, gesturing toward her.
She placed a hand on her breast. “My name, sir?”
The giant hummed and nodded.
“Anelta is my name, sir.”
“And your mate calls you by this title?”
Anelta made a longing glance toward town. “He does,” said Anelta in a pained voice.
“And does this designation have meaning?”
She paused to consider and then said, “It might, but I cannot answer you, sir. I think it could be Old Thellisian for something, but I wasn’t permitted to attend the Academy so I was never able to learn.”
Khantara looked into the windows of the home behind her and saw no movement other than the flickering light of a dying fire within. “Your mate leaves you alone for the evening?” he said in mild condemnation.
Anelta looked away, and said with half a sigh, “He comes and goes, as he likes.”
“And you do the same?”
“No, sir. The Marked aren’t allowed to go into town.” He seemed to be growing concerned for her, and to reassure him, she added, “But I can go to the Church and to the marketplace, which is more than what I was allowed when living at the shelter.”
“Hmm,” was the giant’s rumbling reply. He had heard of Thellis’ self-oppression but had never conceived of its going this far. For a nation to refuse education to their own was to diminish the value of its people, and Khantara could not agree with the woman’s exclusion despite knowing little of her. To keep one so eager as ignorant, regardless of situation and consequence in society, was an attestation of Thellis’ unbidden malice. He could only hope the rest of the mainland did not maintain such a practice.
When the giant said nothing more, Anelta began to worry that she had misspoken or spoken too much. She was grateful for his attention and his making her happy again, but now he must go lest she begin to wish him to stay longer than was advisable. “Well, thank you for your conversation, sir,” she said with a bow.
This was a strange appreciation. He eyed her with misgiving and would enquire further if to sate his own curiosity then to also make her remain longer with him. “Are others prohibited from speaking to you?”
“Sometimes,” she shrugged. “It depends upon the person’s rank in society. Normally I cannot speak to anyone unless approached first.” And then, with a smile and a blush, “It’s kind of you to stay so long, sir.”
“You may call me by my Amghari designation of Khantara,” the giant purred, inclining his head to accompany the formal introduction.
“Khantara,” Anelta softly repeated. “Is this what your people call you?”
“Some do. Many call me Odaibha.”
“Is this a special rank?”
“My rank is Den Amhadhri,” the giant tenderly corrected her. “Odaibha is a term used for one who is skilled in many things.”
“Oh,” Anelta said, feeling a sense of awe prevail her. “Which title is acceptable for subordinates to use? I would feel strange to call you by name if you have other more respected titles I should be using.”
“You may use whatever title you wish,” he said smilingly. “Has your mate given you an honourable title?”
Anelta’s cheeks crimsoned in shame. “I don’ t think some of the words he has called me are honourable.”
Khantara gathered her meaning and regarded her with utmost consideration. “You are alone often?”
“He enjoys the food and music of the inns and the company of the women there,” she said, excusing his conduct rather than answering for herself. “He comes back once every few days.”
Such inattention was insufferable, and Khantara wondered at how this behavior was permitted to endure. Surely her mate must be aware of her inability to venture to town, and though the marketplace and Church was allowable, how could she be expected to be alone for days together. Should there be no food left or should something happen to their home, she should be stranded with no one to assist her. She did not seem incapable by any means, regardless of what the brand on her neck communicated, but being so confined and in such a manner was an inconceivable wrong. Khantara felt for her misfortune, for had she a Haanta mate, this situation would never have occurred: Haanta who made such a promise to one so carefully selected would not permit such neglect. Khantara now understood this confinement and abandonment, and in his growing dislike for her way of living, he was moved to ask, “Your mate does not provide for you?”
“He does,” she said, looking nervously about. “I have a home away from the shelter, which is more than most of the Marked receive. I have food when he is here. I was even allowed to purchase food for myself until recently, but I purchased a few items at the marketplace without asking if I could. I like to try different things just to see what I can make, and sometimes it gets the better of me.”
“It is natural that you would wish to challenge yourself,” Khantara said, acquitting her of any culpable feelings she might yet have.
“But,” she added, shrinking her voice, “he said I should have consulted him first. He was angry with me for buying items that he didn’t ask me to bring home.” Her cheeks flushed and she raised her hand to her brow. “I don’t think he will be happy with me again for some time,” she said in a timorous hush, and then chiding herself, “I should have asked for permission first.”
“Is this why he refused you?”
A gasp, a blush, and all her fears were realized: he had seen their exchange. “Well -” she muttered, but her speech was checked by her humiliation. She looked at her feet and bit her lower lip. “I don’t think . . . That is- I mean to say- I could hardly be considered appealing, I think.”
“Your mate would not chose you if he did not believe you to be inviting,” Khantara hoped.
“I wish I could look better than I do. I’m not so appealing as he would like.”
Khantara eyed her with grim confusion. “Your mate has told you this?”
“A few times.” Anelta wished to excuse herself here, but she could not. She believed that if she dressed in a certain manner, walked a certain way, and followed the example of those she had seen about the markets that she might be forgiven all her faults, but as she had no means of improvement, she could only lament and reproach herself. “I don’t really know how women should act or how they should look in the way that men like,” she murmured. “I always wanted to learn how to make myself look more like the women in town, but no one ever showed me. I have tried a few times on my own, but I have seen what he prefers and I don’t think I could compare. I have asked some of the other Marked in the marketplace but they don’t know either.”
“You are permitted to learn from no one else other than your own?”
“No,” Anelta said, sensing the giant’s censure. “Once, when my husband was away, I tried to find some work, one of the small jobs given to the Marked who are more capable, but I couldn’t read the charge I was given and I was turned away.”
“You cannot read or write your own language?” Khantara could not abide such a notion: the ignorant forced to glean what morsels of knowledge they could from their superiors only to tell one another of what the other had learned was a deplorable arrangement, and though he did not mean to show his indignation, he felt he could not hide it from her.
“I want to learn, sir,” Anelta pleaded. “I remember a few characters from when I was very young. I tried to teach myself to read a few times, but my husband caught me looking at his books one day and he wasn’t pleased. He told me not to touch his things ever again.” It seemed to her that the more she spoke, the more besieged the giant became. She thought she had said something wrong and thought now would be a prudent time to remove from his company before any more harm could be done. “I’m sorry. I’m detaining you when I should be on my way to the Church.”
Khantara moved in her path to impede her from leaving. “There is a service this evening you must attend?”
“The Marked aren’t allowed inside for services, but sometimes the Church gives out donations to those who need food. It’s not easy to convince them in my case. They say that help is meant for those who don’t have relations or a home, but sometimes the Sisters are kind to me and give me what is left of their meal.”
“You have nothing to eat while your mate is away?”
Anelta lowered her eyes and was silent.
Khantara paused and regarded the woman with a most dreadful countenance. “Your mate does not willingly share what is his with you?”
She wished to give an assenting reply but his look told her that no matter what answer she could deliver, he had formed his own opinions on the subject.
While Anelta was struck with the horror of having offended the giant by her candor, Khantara had resolved that caring for so forthcoming and deprived a woman would be his object until nightfall required him to return to his people. The commemoration made in his honour could wait where there was kindness to be done, and instead of returning to the celebration and rejoining his commanders, he sat beside one of the weeping ferns, gathered his long unkempt locks into lap, and bid Anelta to attend him. He motioned for her to take the space beside him, but she seemed hesitant to obey. He reached into his Dhanna to produce Phoraas, and he held the wrapped meal toward her to remake the invitation.
“Come,” he said with firm benevolence. “Share with me.”
And come she did.
She sat beside the giant and watched him intently as he opened the odd meal, peeling back the dried leaves on the surface to reveal a mix of grains and herbs billowing with steam. He used the leaves to divide the meal in half and gave her the larger of the two portions with the readiest compassion.