Rise of Ahrik is a story about love and fate in the face of violence and war. It has been thousands of years since The War, and civilization has endured a slow rebirth under the rule of women, but war threatens once again. Zharla, the young scioness of a powerful mining clan, must choose between two brothers to marry: Ahrik, a petulant military officer soon to be sent off to war, or Shahl, an aspiring scholar and the one she loves. She is forced to marry Ahrik, but when Shahl is accused of a vicious crime, the three begin to discover that the accusation, the war, and the secret clones that fight it are bound together in an awful triad that seeks to rob them of their agency and destroy women’s rule. Civilization once again hangs by a thread.
Nathan Toronto loves stories about war, and has been known to stay up until three o’clock in the morning reading military history and science fiction. His debut novel, Rise of Ahrik, tells of a love triangle in a matriarchal society thrust into a worldwide war. He is currently writing the sequel, Revenge of the Emerald Moon, as well as an academic book, How Militaries Learn. When he is not writing, he likes to run, play the piano, and eat waffles by pouring syrup in every hole then raising the waffle to let the excess drain off.
The first scene is always the hardest one to write. I wrote (and discarded) at least three other opening scenes before I got the one I liked, one that captured all the conflicts in the book. I also wanted to suppress the science element; it's there, but it's subtle. My hope is that readers from all genres will be drawn in by the story, by the characters and the choices they're faced with.
Rise of Ahrik
Zharla brushed a strand of hair from her face and paused to catch her breath, one hip resting on the counter. Her serving smock was splattered after ladling soup into bread bowls for over two hours. Shahl had asked her to come serve the poor and unemployed at the social hall, but it was only supposed to last an hour. Her feet ached. Her back stung.
Being with Shahl wiped this all away. She felt liberated, out from under her mother’s thumb. She relished mingling with people her mother disdained, the disadvantaged, but Zharla was wary. Her mother had a way of intruding on her life at the worst times.
Shahl seemed content to work in silence, but it drove her crazy. She needed something to fill the air between them. “The line just keeps coming, doesn’t it?” she asked. She pursed her lips. What a stupid thing to say. She really did want to be here, serving, with him.
Shahl stopped midcut, his knife stuck in the bread, which was now halfway between a loaf and a bowl. “That’s the thing about the disadvantaged, Zharla.” He looked at her with his tender eyes, eyes that looked at her like no others possibly could. “They never really go away.”
She reached for a newly carved bread bowl and continued her ladling. She smiled at the next man in line. She’d stopped cringing at their missing teeth and pale skin. It wasn’t their fault their lives were confined to in-mountain Meran. Two thousand years after The War, and too much of humanity was still trapped inside mountains. “Shahl, I didn’t mean—”
He stopped her with a raised eyebrow. “Zharla, most women of your station don’t even realize these people exist.” He smiled at her and she melted inside. “I’m absolutely thrilled you’re here.”
They kept carving and ladling, and Zharla got into a rhythm, keeping time with the ebb and flow of conversation and the clink of utensils on plates. The din reverberated off the social hall’s walls. Zharla glanced down the serving line at Renla, her faithful personal servant. She preserved propriety while Zharla was with Shahl, insurance against accusations that she’d damaged the family’s honor. Now, though, Renla served vegetables. Her smock wasn’t as spattered as Zharla’s, and her countenance was content as always. Her stubborn curls snuck out from under her servant’s cap.
The social hall was almost full, yet veterans, laborers, and the unemployed kept coming. The stone walls of the cavern had long ago been smoothed down, as had the stalactites on the ceiling. No evidence of stalagmites remained on the floor after thousands of years of feet passing through. They said that during The War humanity had fled to the mountains to escape the destruction scouring the planet’s surface, but now in-mountain Meran she-Bene, their fair city, housed the uneducated and hopeless.
Shahl worked hard to serve these people, his ideals a stronger guide to his actions than self-preservation. He had a singular soul, which was why she would choose him over his twin brother that day, at the decision ceremony. Zharla cared not a whit for the whispers and rumors she heard. The clan elders wanted her to choose Ahrik. Old hags. Let them wed his precious fame to some witless cousin of hers. Zharla would gladly give up the inheritance as well, if that’s what it took, but her mother forbade it. “The family will fall into ruin if you’re not leading it when I’m gone, Zharla,” her mother always said. Zharla enjoyed Shahl’s friendship, and his occasional, glancing touch electrified her.
By comparison, being in Ahrik’s presence was a chore that taxed sanity. His self-righteous commitment to women’s rule blinded him to its more insipid qualities, and his puckish devotion to himself made everyone around him feel less human. And he never looked at her like Shahl did.
The soup line began to dwindle, as did the supply of soup. She heaved a sigh after the last man left the line, then lifted the soup pan from the warmer and turned to Renla. “I’m taking this back to the kitchen.”
When she emerged once again from the clamor of the kitchen, she froze. “Mother,” said Zharla, “how nice of you to come by.”
Renla stood rigid, her gaze fixed on the spoon in her hand. The murmur in the hall had a new, nervous quality. Shahl was as taut as a bow string, and he exchanged pleasantries with her mother on the other side of the counter, his hands fidgeting behind his back. The discomfort in his voice wrenched Zharla’s heart, and she clenched her teeth.
Her mother was covered from neck to toe in white silk, her visage stony, hair pulled back in an austere bun. The old house guard, Ahjoz, stood back a pace, eyes seeing everything, his white stubble a testament to years of service to the Tameri clan.
Her mother leveled a fierce glare at her. “You will leave this den of sedition at once. No daughter of mine will consort with bandits and traitors.”
“Mother!” Zharla spoke loud enough for the patrons seated closest to them to hear, while she steadied herself on the counter, fingers pressed white against the cool, polished stone. The murmuring of those in the social hall died down, and heads turned toward the tension at the serving counter. Zharla reached for another pan, breathing out to calm herself. “Some of these men served in combat.”
Across the hall, Zharla noticed a veteran stand up. His old army uniform jangled with decorations. With military purpose, he moved toward the speaker’s niche carved into the cavern wall opposite, then turned to address those in the hall. Zharla groaned within herself.
Even though he stood on the other side of the hall, the acoustics of the cavern made his voice clear. “Friends, we must examine ourselves! I led a company in the War of Unification ten years ago. Did it end war on our planet, like it was supposed to? No.”
A smattering of applause went up, and Zharla flushed with embarrassment.
Her mother stared at her, arms folded across her chest. “Zharla,” she said, “just because they served doesn’t mean they’re loyal.”
The veteran coughed and held his side, wincing in pain. “Friends, we’re fighting another war over there now, but why?” More applause, and the veteran raised his voice. “Haven’t we left too many of our dead in the Kereu already?” Clusters of men shouted their assent, and the veteran raised his fist. “End this war!”
The social hall erupted in applause, curiosity with the conflict brewing between Zharla and her mother forgotten.
Zharla’s mother glided through an opening in the counter and brushed Renla aside to stand before Shahl, sizing him up with a cold stare. Before her mother could say anything, Zharla stepped between them.
Her mother’s nostrils flared. “Zharla, the clan council has chosen Ahrik. He will be your husband. Leave his brother and come with me.”
Zharla slammed the pan down and jabbed her finger into her own chest. “My husband. My life. My choice.”
Her mother’s smile conceded nothing. “Someday you’ll thank me for this, dear. The only reason you have a choice at all is because those boys are twins. Most women like you don’t even get to choose.”
“Like me?” Zharla asked. “That’s irony for you, isn’t it? I’m so powerful I don’t even know what’s best.” She looked over her shoulder to make sure Shahl was still close.
“We’re joining families today, dear. Shall I ask Ahjoz to escort you, or will you come quietly?” At an almost imperceptible nod from her mother, Ahjoz stepped around the counter.
Zharla held up her hand. Her insides churned with tension, and she fought to keep the tremor out of her voice. This was her moment of freedom. If a gaggle of crones from the clan council thought they could decide her fate, they had another think coming. “My place is here, Mother, with Shahl, not with Ahrik.”
Just then, Ahrik strode through the door to the social hall, superciliousness leaking from every step. His uniform gleamed, and his blade dangled from his hip; he also wore the smirk that Zharla had grown to hate.
Zharla pointed at Ahrik and glared at her mother. “I want nothing to do with him.”
“Yes, good morning to you, too, Zharla,” Ahrik said, sounding almost amused. He raised his hands in surrender, then motioned at Shahl. “I’m not here to fight. I’m here for him.”
“Zharla.” Her mother’s voice had a menacing quality. She reached out to place a hand on Zharla’s arm. Her touch was light, but Zharla felt her mother’s fingers coil, ready to spring and snatch like the fangs of a snake.
Zharla gripped her mother’s wrist and wrenched her arm free. Shooting her mother a defiant glance, she turned to Shahl. “I will choose Shahl for my husband today. He will be father to my children.”
Zharla sneered at Ahrik, then leaned toward Shahl, held his shoulders, and kissed him. The kiss was not salacious, a mere peck on the cheek, but Zharla had broken social norms, had shredded them apart, in fact. No unmarried woman could display affection toward a man in public, especially a woman of Zharla’s standing, heiress to the largest mining conglomerate in the western Eshel. But if this was to be her moment of truth, she would make it one to remember.
Zharla risked a scandal, and loved every second of it.
But then her mother’s hand closed on her arm in a vice grip and whipped her around. Zharla froze in shock as her mother’s hand sailed toward her face, and tears sprang to Zharla’s eyes as her mother’s palm met her cheek. Finely buffed nails raked across Zharla’s face. Too late, Zharla’s hand flew up to protect her reddened face. A wave of humiliation washed over her, and she recalled with blistering clarity the first time her mother had struck her, years ago, after her father disappeared. Zharla had asked where her father was, and her mother had backhanded her across the face, forbidding her to ask ever again.