A Holiday Gift – a Sneak Peak at Spark of Defiance!
I like the giving part of the holiday season. It just makes me happy to send happiness out into the world. And so, with that in heart and mind, I want to give you a gift: a sneak peak at the first few chapters in my next epic fantasy novel Spark of Defiance!
Spark of Defiance is book 1 in Games of Fire, which will be released in 2016 – all three books. At least that is the plan! For now, I hope you enjoy this preview. May it bring some excitement to your holidays and a bit more adventure to your new year!
A very warm happy holidays and happy new year to your and yours!
“You are not welcome here,” the guard told Zhao, pointing the tip of his stave at Zhao’s chest.
“I want to see my sister Yihn. And then I’ll leave.” Zhao stepped forward, which led to the wooden staff being pressed into his skin. He was very tempted to turn it into something else.
“You defied the Elders and led outsiders to the Temple of the Winds! What did you think the result of that would be? Your punishment will be decreed once the Elders come. Until then, you will be imprisoned in the pagoda.”
“Me too?” Laireag asked, flashing Zhao a glance. Power danced in his light gray eyes. Zhao shook his head slightly, ignoring that Laireag laughed at the guard’s poor threat. Zhao was not returning home to start a fight. At least not yet.
“If you insist,” the guard answered, bristling at Laireag’s laughter.
The guard would not look at Laireag directly, as if uncomfortable with his marked skin. Laireag ignored it. He could have altered his appearance with an illusion to appear black, smudging the lighter patterns of his skin which mimicked bark. But he’d given up on hiding himself during the six months he and Zhao had traveled together. Laireag was Kith and proud of it. More than that, he was still angry at the war and Beite’s death, even if he wouldn’t admit it.
“Well, let’s go then,” Zhao said, pushing aside the stave to walk ahead. “I know the way since its where you kept me my whole damn life anyway.”
“Its good to see you were missed,” Laireag said cheerfully to Zhao as they walked through the Tiak village of Xiazhing.
People stopped what they were doing to stare at the pair of them, some dropping baskets of harvested vegetables to run with news. Zhao snorted. Honestly, he’d met similar treatment as a child when it was discovered he was an Air Elemental, the first in many, many generations born to the strict and reclusive Tiak. Those memories were just one of the reasons he had taken so long to come home. It had been a year since he’d left. That really wasn’t long enough.
The slate roofed pagoda sat unchanged under its golden barked Yisha trees. He could have been gone a day. Wind flowed through the wide windows, sweeping across an austere interior. Not once had he missed the place that had been his forced home.
“The Elders will be notified that you have returned. Until they come, it has been ordered that you are to be held here and a sigil preventing the use of your Air Elemental ability will be placed on the door,” the guard said by rote.
Laireag started laughing again. Zhao did his best to remain serious, but he couldn’t stop his lip from twitching. Their escort glared from one to the other before slamming the door and scribbling something on the wooden surface.
“Tell Yihn I’m here!” Zhao yelled through the door.
“How … quaint,” Laireag said, still chuckling.
Zhao turned to his friend, laughter dying at the sight of the pagoda’s interior. Laireag sprawled on a low stone seat. The central fire pit held old coals, most likely from a sacred fire lit in observance of one day or another. Otherwise, the small octagon room held little visible other than neat rows of drawers set into the walls beneath the windows.
“We can leave,” Laireag said, reading Zhao’s expression.
“No. I want to see Yihn,” Zhao said, running fingers through his dark hair the same texture and color as the guard’s who had brought them there.
When he looked at the faces of the villagers, he saw a reflection of himself. They had the same dark hair and golden skin. Only his eyes were lighter. But those similarities were the false reflections of a mirror. Beyond skin tone and hair color, he was nothing like the tribe he’d been born to.
“Is it odd that I’ve been gone only a year and I don’t remember half the names of the villagers? I’ve known the man who escorted us here since we were kids … and I can’t remember his name. I think I could remember everyone in Lus na Sithchaine or the Temple in the Clouds, but I don’t remember the people I grew up with.”
Laireag leveled a sober stare at Zhao. “Maybe not. You said you were never happy here and a lot has happened to you since you left.” Insight like that reminded Zhao that his traveling companion was forty-five and not the mere eighteen years or so he appeared. By all rights, they looked to be nearly the same age.
“True. Well, lets see if they left any of my things here. If so, we can at least have some tea. I’ll let you start the fire.”
“What about the ban on the use of Elemental abilities?” Laireag asked with a wicked grin, which reminded Zhao that even at forty-five, Laireag was young for a Kith. They really were close in attitude if not in actual age. And very similar in abilities.
“Oh I think you’d enjoy the challenge if whatever sigil he scribbled did work,” Zhao answered, pulling open drawers.
Warmth erupted behind him along with a disappointed sigh. “Not even difficult,” Laireag muttered. Zhao grinned as he pulled a teapot from its cubby. Really, Zhao couldn’t think of anyone else he’d have wanted to return to Xiazhing beside.
The voice woke him from a light sleep. “Yihn?” he asked, rolling from his sleeping mat on the stone floor and hurrying to the pagoda’s window. A figure hesitated in the shadows of the Yisha trees, too much in shadow to see clearly.
“Why did you come back?” his sister asked, a sob stifled in the words.
He reached out the window toward her, surprised to feel a tingle on his arm. The sigil placed on the door to prevent his abilities as an Air Elemental was weak but contained power.
“I wanted to see you, had to see you. Where I’ve been … I was worried, Yihn. I shouldn’t have left like that, not without saying goodbye. I promised you’d see me again. Did you really think I wouldn’t come back?”
Yihn moved forward, shaking her head when she paused. “Don’t you see?” she asked hoarsely. “You’ve made everything more difficult for us.”
Zhao thought the saw the gleam of moisture in her eyes, highlight by reflected moonlight. But she’d backed in the deeper shadows and was gone before he could be certain. Guilt sat heavy on his conscious, keeping away sleep for the remainder of the night.
“Are you feeling better?” Laireag asked Zhao as he stretched awake from a woozy, mid-morning nap. “You didn’t look very good this morning.”
“Yihn came last night. She said … it doesn’t matter. I couldn’t sleep afterward.”
“I know. I heard. It is one room in a stone shrine. And I’m not that heavy of a sleeper!”
“Oh, I don’t know about that. I remember after we cast the illusions around Lus na Sithchaine. I thought you would sleep through the war,” Zhao answered with a grin, which folded. He rubbed his tired eyes. “I don’t know why I came back.”
“I thought the same thing when I brought the Erowok to Lus na Sithchaine. I thought they would kick me out along with them. But it got better. Don’t worry about what she said, Zhao. Remember that she came.”
Laireag’s words cleared the doubt smothering him. They stayed and he told Laireag about his life growing up amid the Tiak. By the time he heard the beat of ceremonial drums, Zhao was confident again in why he’d come home.
In the sunlight before Zhao’s once home, the Elder of Xiazhing stood with a crowd behind. Dressed in a richly brocaded cream, thigh-length shirt with draping sleeves, Phet gestured solemnly to a boy in yellow robes next to him. The saffron color of his clothes was a shade darker than the aura swirling around the boy. He was an Air Elemental and Tiak, like Zhao. Zhao pulled at his memory for the children who’d been born after him and had been gifted as well.
“Kattan?” Zhao asked, guessing this teenager was the oldest of the children he’d not seen in over a year.
The boy ignored him, erasing the sigil on the door before returning to Phet’s side.
“You may exit the sanctuary, Zhao, but not step from beneath its shade. I wish to speak to you,” Phet said.
Hot annoyance rose like a Fire Priest’s flames. Laireag glanced at Zhao and laughed quietly. The air hummed around his friend, though the amusement did not fade from Laireag’s silver eyes. “Not here for a fight?” Laireag teased.
Zhao held his power back. Though having Laireag next to him and ready was a good feeling. Zhao pushed open the door and walked into the sun with a smile.
Phet frowned, an expression which deepened when Laireag emerged from the pagoda as well. The three of them stared at each other.
“There are observances to be made to the Elder!” Kattan snapped.
“I am not here to return to Xiazhing or my role in this village, boy. I am here to see my sister.”
Phet tensed, custom keeping him from reacting spitefully. The same customs that Zhao flouted.
“So I had heard,” Phet hissed. “Despite your crimes and disrespect, I brought her to see you.”
Yihn stood behind Phet, visible as Phet stood aside. Her dark hair was pulled into a tight pony tail, strands escaping against her neck as he remembered. The knee length lavender wrap-around shirt and cream pants looked identical to the clothes he remember her wearing last. A few worn threads caught his eye. He looked again. They were the same clothes he had seen her in last a year ago. They were clean and well maintained, but wear showed in the softened edges of the brocade. Worry replaced defiance.
“Yihn, what has happened?” Zhao stepped toward his sister. Kattan hissed as he moved between them.
“You are forbidden to touch her,” Kattan said.
Surprise kept Zhao from laughing at the boy. The monsters he had faced in the war, not to mention the powerful Priests and Priestesses of the Church of Four Orders that had tried to kill him or even the carnivorous plants of the Coast of Storms, made the untrained boy blocking his way appear no more a worry than a wayward thistle. Zhao almost hugged him.
But the tiredness in Yihn’s face stopped him. She would not look at him.
There were no laws or customs that should have allowed Yihn to bare the punishment for his defiance. In all the years he had fought the Elders as a child, his sister had always been spared. The last few years, Gagee had protected her when he could not.
Gagee. Zhao did not see Yihn’s husband.
“Yihn, where is Gagee? Tell me what you did to him. Where is Yihn’s husband?” Zhao said, rounding on Phet when his sister continued to stare at the ground.
“Your sister is not married,” Phet answered.
Gagee had been a brother to him before he’d become a brother-by-marriage. Few Tiak gave more than superficial “honor” to the role Zhao played as the first Air Elemental born to his people in over a century. Gagee hadn’t cared. He had been the first one who had treated Zhao like a person. And Gagee had loved his sister. Of all the hurt Zhao had expected returning home would bring, he had not expected to find another friend dead.
“When did he die?” Zhao asked through a tight throat. “How?”
Yihn finally glanced up, eyes wide. “No, he—”
Phet cut her off with a quick move of his hand. “You do not speak. Their marriage was a mistake. It was your arguments to allow your sister to wed that convinced us to condone the union. We feared that she was tainted like you. We were right.”
Zhao stared at his sister. She had no aura, not even the shimmer of yellow or any color that would have denoted Elemental abilities. Laireag placed a hand on his arm.
“Behind her,” Laireag whispered to him.
The faintest golden flicker like the spark of a lantern bug shimmered in the air behind Yihn. Now Zhao saw the straps over Yihn shoulders. She wore a traditional pack for carrying a baby. His sister had a child. And the child already showed the gifts of an Air Elemental. For all of his control of air, Zhao couldn’t manage to find breath to speak.
Sinika stared out the bared window. The flared apex of the closest tower caught his wandering gaze as it shone in the golden light of dawn. Words surfaced. A name. It was the Chapel of Hope. For the first time, Sinika realized he was at the Temple of Solaire. He was home.
Only it wasn’t his home. Not any longer. Not just because he was a prisoner in one of Solaire’s towers and no longer the ruler of the High Council. But because he was no longer a Fire Priest. Sinika was not an Elemental at all.
He sat, watching the sun rise and felt no connection to its fire. His mind threatened to dissolve again. He swallowed the agony and fought to remain aware. He didn’t remember arriving in Solaire or having come to this room. There was nothing since the fight on Drufforth’s beach … months ago? The only judge of time besides scruff on his cheeks were Solaire’s towers, shining and undamaged. The repairs to the Temple hadn’t been completed when he’d sailed to bring war to the Kith in their forest. The war that had defeated him, claimed Elantha’s life, and stolen his power. Madness held an attraction compared to memories.
“How has he been today?” a gentle voice asked from outside the barred door.
“Quiet. Unusually so,” came the gruff reply.
The door lock clicked and an old woman walked in. The healer’s gaze scrutinized him before she entered fully. Behind her the door closed as she placed a tray on a stand.
“You are with us today,” Matylda said.
“I have not been?” Sinika asked, words and voice coming rough to his lips.
“No. Not for awhile.” She walked to where he sat, close enough that he could see the blue flecks in her brown eyes. She didn’t look older than he remembered. But then, the Priestess had always look timeless with her gray hair streaked with dark strands, smooth cheeks, and deeply wrinkled eyes.
“How long has it been?” The question left him along with all the air in his lungs. He so desperately needed to know the answer.
That was far better than he had imagined. If she’d said two years, he would have believed it. “What has happened since? Solaire looks whole again.”
“It is. More than before. The Kith came and helped rebuild as their way of apologizing for the attack that destroyed so much of the Temple. I wish I could say we repaid the gesture, but none in Solaire can regrow trees.”
To that reproach, Sinika said nothing. “What else?” he asked when she did not continue. Matylida shook her head, swaying the thick braid across her back.
“It is not for me to say. I will tell the High Council that you are awake.”
That stung. He had been on the High Council. Six months ago he had ruled the High Council, Solaire, and all of the Church of Four Orders. She would not even address him as High Priest. Of course, he was not. He wasn’t even fit to hold that title since he no longer controlled an element.
Matylda left him with the tray of food. The guard took it later. The day passed. Sinika watched the sunlight gleam on the towers until he could not stand only watching and not feeling. Frustration had always made him pace, but one turn around his large but hardly spacious room left him tired. Six months, Matylda had said. Six months he’d been lost to the world doing what? Sleeping, screaming? Whatever it had been, it hadn’t been walking.
By the time the sun began to set over Solaire and he heard the lock turn once again in the door, Sinika’s frustration had worn itself and him to weariness.
Behind him, he heard the door scrape open, but he didn’t turn to great this new visitor. He’d pondered who would come from the High Council, attempting to remember who had died in the battle or who would return to rule Solaire with him gone? The list was short: Rhinnault, Ci’erra, Niri. Then he realized who it would be and he laughed. Fate was not kind to him, not anymore.
Sinika glimpsed blue robes from the corner of his eye and knew he’d guessed correctly.
“Good evening, High Priest Misshal,” Sinika said, gaze unchanged from the shadows growing outside.
“Good evening, Sinika,” Misshal said, pulling up a chair and table to join Sinika before the window. Sinika ignored him as Misshal set glasses and a decanter down. Despite the conversation with Matylda and knowing that he held no power, not hearing a title before his name sent a buzzing under his skin. All he’d ever worked to be was gone. He’d woken to think the prison cell was not his home. The day ended with him realizing he had no other.
“I’m glad to see you have returned to us,” Misshal said as he poured wine, handing Sinika a glass like they were old friends enjoying an evening.
Misshal glanced at him as he sat, red-brown hair contrasting with the blue robes and eyes. “I do not wish you ill. Otherwise you would not be here.”
Laughter and anger threatened to break from him. He swallowed it with the wine. Control had come easier to him before. Now he fought to appear unruffled.
“It is a nicer prison than Gothark’s cell. Thank you for that. Of course, Gothark had still been an Elemental when he was sequestered in Solaire’s dungeons. At least you do not have that worry.”
Misshal gave Sinika his full attention for a moment before looking away. “I am sorry about that too. How are you?”
“Death would be easier. But since I am not, I will endeavor to find some … purpose. Who else of the Council lived?” Sinika asked, half curious but mostly wanting to change the topic.
“Kheten, Rhinnault, and Nahrhia as well as myself.”
“Then I am surprised I’m not dead … or down in the dungeons.”
Misshal gave him a half smile over his wine. “Well, you are in luck. Rhinnault has gone to the Temple in the Clouds to speak to the leaders there. Kheten has left for the restored Temple of Stone. Only Nahrhia and I are here now. She does not wish to see you.”
Misshal meant the information to tell him of the other High Priests, but it told Sinika so much more. “Temple in the Clouds? That is the ones who sent the other boats that blocked us in Drufforth’s harbor, was it not?”
“Yes. They hold the Sphere of Air. From what Rhinnault told me before he left, they are what remained of the Temple of Winds when the Church of Four Orders came to … claim the Order of Air as a part of itself back in the ancient War of Orders.”
“Which was after the Temple of Stone fell and became the Temple of Dust as you remember,” Sinika said, “when you came with Felya to rescue me from its depths.”
Sinika did not mention Nirine. Her fate intrigued him, but he did not want to appear too eager to learn of the former Water Priestess that had imprisoned him in the depths of the flooded Temple. His search for her and desire for vengeance had been part of what started the war. Misshal knew that. Sinika had recruited the young, though very powerful, Water Priest in an effort to fight Nirine. And really, would she care if he still burned to kill her? It wasn’t like he could cause her harm unless he carried a knife and learned to use it.
“It was restored, supposedly by a mysterious tribe that rules the Great Desert of Ak’Ashanti according to the Kith. But … however it was done, the Sphere of Earth was returned there and the Temple is whole again. As an Earth Priestess, Kheten wants to restore it and the library. We lost over half of the Earth Elementals from Solaire, as well as a few of Fire, to that cause.”
“With Solaire rebuilt, three of the ancient Temples are restored then,” Sinika mused.
“All four are. The Temple of Mists has returned and with it the Sphere of Water.”
“Nirine,” Sinika said, not meaning to speak the name aloud. He kept his gaze steady at Misshal’s quick glance. “Only she would be able to restore whatever had been done to alter the Temple to one of ice. You went there, I would assume?”
“Yes.” Misshal answered. “I went to see the Sphere of Water.”
“Your sphere. The Sphere of Air in the Temple in the Clouds. Kheten has the Sphere of Earth in the Temple of Stone.” Sinika stopped speaking with a realization that double beat his heart. “And the Sphere of Fire has been found and it is here.”
“You were always clever, Sinika. I would suggest not dwelling on that … possibility. You’ve had a long day and have much to come to terms with. I will leave you for tonight.”
Alone, Sinika approached the window that looked out on its multi-story drop. Carefully, for he’d found a hope that gave him a desire to cling to life, he leaned out and turned toward the east.
His window in the tower faced north, north-west. He could see Solaire’s harbor to his left, the harbor town, and the main part of the Temple before him. The old part, the one housing the High Council and where he’d once lived, was to the east. There, blazing against the faint moonlit shimmer of the Lake of Tears, one tower, higher than the rest, blazed like a star. Sinika knew where the Sphere of Fire sat.
The next morning, Matylda came again. From her words the day before, Sinika knew it would take time to win her trust. But he did have her concern.
“You are still with us then?” she asked after gazing at him from the door.
“I’m hoping to stay actually,” he answered, keeping his voice warm. “Was I that bad before that you stop at the door to see how I am?”
“Some days, yes,” Matylda answered with a a sniff.
“I am sorry. I was not myself,” Sinika said, meaning the words.
“Oh I don’t know. Raving mad and violent, or calm and violent, they are still a part of who you are.”
Yes. He would have a long journey ahead to win her trust. Each day he stayed nice, trying to get her to talk and stay a few minutes longer. For over a week, she rebuffed him. And Misshal did not come back.
Whenever he despaired, he looked east, especially at night. The name to the Chapel of Hope evoked laughter. It had never felt so fitting.
“You sit there a lot,” Misshal said from the doorway.
Dusk had just settled and Solaire’s light glowed into the night, competing with the rose light of the lesser moon. Sinika sat with his back to the west edge of the window, tucked into its curve with practiced ease as he gazed east.
“I didn’t hear you enter, High Priest. My apologies,” Sinika said, swinging his legs from the ledge. Misshal remained at the door watching him.
“The tower reminds me of Elantha. It makes no sense, I know. But … I have fond memories of the time we spent there while she spoke to her spirits.”
Sinika had no idea where the words came from, but the breath they rode on left his chest with a hollow ache. Of all the guilty reasons for him to stare at the Chapel, because he’d once ruled over the High Council there or because it now housed the Sphere of Fire, he’d never considered the moments he’d spent in it with Elantha when the rising sun would gild her into a statue fitting of the Goddess.
“You miss her … though you are more than a little the cause of her death,” Misshal said, crossing the room to set down the decanter of wine in his hand.
Whether he meant what he said or not, Sinika’s answer had been found acceptable by Misshal. But damn him, Sinika wondered if he hadn’t meant it. He’d dreamed of Elantha every night since he’d come to himself, often thinking of that last night in the boat while spirits drove her mad in the hold and he’d woken to find his bed empty of her. He could have protected her. Did, in a way, until the end when he used her to cause havoc.
“Aren’t I responsible for many deaths?” Sinika asked, dropping into the chair across from Misshal.
“Yes,” Misshal answered, pouring the wine. Sinika took a glass, sipping deeply to both savor the taste and to chase away memories. Misshal watched him. “You never consider I could have poisoned that?” he asked.
“You could kill me in so many ways. Have killed me before now. Really, why would you resort to poison?”
Misshal sat, picking up his glass. “Matylda said your mind was back. I see she is right.”
Sinika’s hand froze before he sipped again from his glass. Then he laughed. “You are still concerned I will cause you trouble? Locked up in here surrounded by a Temple full of Elementals, many of whom want me dead, and I defenseless as than any citizen of Myrrah? You worry too much. It shows you take your responsibilities seriously, but you worry too much, High Priest.”
Sinika kicked his heels onto the windowsill. “If you worry I think too much and watch things, send me some books or something to do. I will most likely be cooped up in here for a long time.”
“I’ll consider that,” Misshal said. “And there are quite a few we thought dead in the battle that survived. Most of those onshore that first night were taken captive by the Kith. Garam and those he led were released as part of the Kith’s offer of peace.”
The name caught Sinika’s ear though he ignored it while sitting in front of Misshal. “What of Tohkef? Was he with them as well?”
Misshal set his glass down with a sharp click. Anger snapped in his blue eyes as he glared at Sinika. “No. He died after killing a Kith girl. But thank you for asking after him. I’m pleased to know you are concerned … now.” Misshal stood. “I have other tasks to attend to. Good evening, Sinika.”
Sinika hadn’t meant to rile Misshal, but he wasn’t surprised. The young Priest, youngest on the High Council when Sinika had ruled, was prone to a quick temper. Sinika often thought Misshal would have made a good Fire Priest, but birth had given him the ability to control the lesser element of water. But his control was matched by none, except perhaps Nirine.
Alone again, Sinika returned his attention to the growing night, realizing there was one benefit from Misshal’s visit. He’d left the wine.
He wasn’t used to so much. When morning came and with it Matylda’s daily visit, Sinika was groggy. It took him a minute to realize that Matylda hadn’t stopped in the doorway, but entered and placed the tray of food by the window before bustling about straightening the room. Sinika watched her warily.
“They need to let in someone to clean in here. Are you comfortable? Do you need anything else?”
Matylda prattled on for a few minutes, more words than he’d gotten from her in the week since his mind had returned. After a decanter of wine, the change was disconcerting. A memory of Minna rose to the surface, though Matylda wore her age far better.
Sinika made his way to the table, downing a glass of water and pouring another in an effort to clear his head. Matylda fell silent, turning sorrowful eyes on him. “You need to eat something, Sinika. High Priest Misshal … he told me you grieve for Elantha. I didn’t realize.”
Sinika glanced away out of instinct. It brought Matylda to the chair opposite him. “Yes,” he answered hoarsely, pleased now for the wine and grogginess.
“She was very special. Even for one with magic. Of everyone that has come to Solaire since the war ended, none have her ability.”
Sinika’s heart jumped in his chest. This, at last, was news. “Really? Have there been many?” he asked.
“Not as many as to the other Temples. The history of the Church killing them is … difficult to overcome. But I have learned so much from the healers! If I weren’t so old, I’d ask to go to the Temple of Rain in Rah Hahsessah. They turned it into a place to learn healing in honor of Tohkef and … well, it made sense. The Fifth Order needs a home too.”
Sinika stared at her, unable to hide his consternation. “Fifth Order?”
“There is so much you’ve missed,” she sighed. “I would have thought Misshal would have told you. Magic is related to the elements. It is an element of life, of spirit. Elantha’s gift to speak to spirits was unique. Most control living things. We just never realized it before … all those centuries of persecution.” Matylda shook her head, tears in her blue flecked eyes. “But they are equal to us now: the Fifth Order of Spirit.”
Sinika looked unseeing out the window, too shocked to react and too groggy to know what to think.
“I’m sorry,” Matylda said, touching his arm with warm fingers. She pulled her hand back hurriedly when he turned to her. “Here you are missing Elantha, this morning more than most by the look of you, and I’m talking of Spirit Elementals. She would have had such a place here … if things had been different. If we’d seen the truth earlier.”
“I … I wish she had known,” he whispered, blinking away moisture. He cleared his throat, thoughts swirling out of order. He caught something benign that he could process. “You are not so old, Matylda. You could go learn more of healing. You’ve always been gifted.”
The old woman blushed a soft pink over her smooth cheeks, the lines around her eyes deepening. “Perhaps. But I am still needed here.”
“Patients? Still from the war? High Priest Misshal said that prisoners were returned.”
“Oh the prisoners were in good enough shape, I’m happy to say. No. I am needed here for other things,” she said. Sinika realized she meant to watch him.
“That is good. I know you spent a lot of time healing Garam from the damage caused by the vines the Erowok held him with. I’d hate to think all of that had been undone.”
“Huh, there were a few new marks on him, I would say. Whatever happened to him on the beach did not improve his disposition toward the Kith or Erowok. He does not speak of it. I’ve stayed long enough. There are other things to attend to today.”
Matylda bustled out. Sinika barely noticed. He’d learned more than he expected, some of which he could not sort out without more information. He needed someone he could ask questions of without games, someone he could trust. Sinika paced across the room, breakfast forgotten. He had endeavored not to be impatient but with so many unfilled hours left to his thoughts, the day passed in frustrating slowness. He’d set plans in motion, small ones, but it would take time for fruition.
In the mid-afternoon a knock preceded the door opening. Startled, Sinika glanced up from where he sat at the window. Besides Matylda and Misshal, no one came to his chamber. Framed by the open doorway stood Garam, arms full of books. Both plans had apparently hatched in record time.
“I brought you something,” Garam said, closing the door behind him.
“I can’t let them do this to her!” Zhao railed as he paced the narrow floor of the pagoda. “I cannot let my niece grow up thinking her gifts are a curse … And worse that she is a child born out of wedlock, Laireag. You cannot imagine the stain that carries with the Tiak.”
Laireag watched Zhao from the edge of a seat, gaze somber with thoughts. “What do you want to do?”
The question rooted Zhao to the floor. He wanted to hit something in his frustration of not knowing. The only reason he hadn’t yet was because Laireag had dragged him into the pagoda before the shock of seeing Yihn’s infant daughter had worn off. If Phet had thought learning Zhao had a niece who was an Air Elemental would make Zhao obey, he’d found the truth far different. Part of Zhao wanted to fling the tiny village if Xiazhing into the bay. Sanity and Laireag’s calm kept Zhao from actions he knew he’d regret later.
“I shouldn’t do any of the things I’m thinking of,” Zhao admitted. “What do you think?”
“We could leave and take Yihn. She and her child will be welcome among the Kith.”
“No,” Zhao answered, brushing his fingers through his long, dark hair. “You saw her. She is listening to everything they say and doing what they want. If she were going to leave or fight, you think she’d do it for her daughter.”
“You aren’t much alike then?” Laireag asked.
“No,” Zhao puffed, realizing Laireag was joking after he said the word. He sighed more than laughed. It helped. “Yihn never listened to me. After our parents died on the bay, she didn’t talk to me for weeks. When she did it was to say ‘What use is being an Air Elemental if you couldn’t save our parents?’ Our culture binds us more than love.” Zhao fell silent, staring at the interlocking stones of the floor.
“She came last night to speak to you without Phet’s approval. She is more like you than even she realizes. And she does care, Zhao.”
Zhao blinked away the swell of tears Laireag’s words brought. “We have to help her and … I don’t even know my niece’s name. Heck, I’m assuming the child is a girl because of the color of trim on the pack holding her.” He started pacing again.
“Who would she listen too? Other then your village Elder, of course.”
Zhao stopped again. “Gagee! We have to find her husband. She will listen to him.”
“Then what are we waiting for? Let’s go find him.”
“Tonight,” Zhao said. “They don’t know I, we, are more than Air Elementals. And they have that stupid seal on the door. The less they know about what we can really do, the happier I am.”
“I thought you came home to tell the Elder’s of your people that their ways are cruel,” Laireag said.
“I did and I told Phet. They have enough power over the Tiak. They don’t need to know what more can be done.”
The day passed slowly. No one walked near the pagoda, not even to bring them food. “Khodan once said I would be an outcast of my people if I stayed away too long. At the time I didn’t care,” Zhao said as the hours trickled by.
“Do you now?” Laireag asked from where he dozed, stretched on a stone bench.
“Not so much,” Zhao said and laughed.
As dusk finally settled, nervousness won in Zhao over impatience. He stopped his pacing to stare into the growing shadows beyond the window.
“Are you certain you do not want to see Yihn before we go?” Laireag asked. “She may know where they sent her husband.”
“She might, but she’ll also tell us not to go and that it won’t do any good. Plus, when Phet realizes we are gone and asks her where we went, she won’t be able to answer this way.”
“Good point,” Laireag said. “Well then, where do we start?”
“There are only six Tiak villages along the fjords. Gagee was the best fisherman in Xiazhing. He could go farther up the Dhazoh river than anyone to find freshwater fish.”
“Which of the other towns have rivers?”
“All of them.”
Laireag frowned at Zhao’s answer. “Well, maybe we’ll be lucky and he’ll be in the first one. So which way? East or west.”
“Well then, after you!” Laireag said with a sweep of his arm toward the open window.
The relief at leaving behind the prison, even if it was one he could have left at any time, flooded through Zhao. He stepped forward and then called on an elemental ability he hadn’t been born with and that the Tiak Elders would never have guessed was possible. Zhao transformed into a sea tern, his wings brushing the edges of the open window as he soared through. Laireag left as as a large raven.
Zhao couldn’t explain how he could control the powers of a Spirit Elemental such as Laireag and his good friend Ria. He was an Air Elemental by birth and that was it. But when he’d met Ria, Niri, and Darag, they had already discovered that abilities in one type of elemental power could mean latent gifts in another. Zhao had taught himself how to control air. Learning to control water and fire had been easy. But he hadn’t been able to touch the powers of earth without severe pain until he touched the Sphere of Earth. Once that had happened, and in a need to escape the dungeons of the Temple of Solaire, Laireag suggested Zhao try to transform. He’d figured why not. And he had.
Darag’s theory was that once an elemental not gifted in spirit gained abilities in fire, water, earth, and air that balance would open the possibility to abilities in spirit. Niri having learned to sense spirit and even grow plants a bit lent support to the idea. But she couldn’t transform, or at least hadn’t. While Zhao … after a few days of practice, abilities in spirit came as natural to him as any of the other elements.
The potential abilities of his niece and the future she might have, growing up without fear of her gifts and the options to go to learn in any of four Temples, filled Zhao’s head as he and Laireag winged westward. There was only one town to the west of Xiazhing. They landed in the small village of Benel where it perched on the edge of the forest of Yisha trees at dawn.
It only took a few hours for Zhao to determine Gagee wasn’t there. To be sure, they flew along the river winding northward, gazing at the few fishing boats navigating the small waterway. None held Zhao’s brother-by-marriage. By afternoon, they were heading eastward toward Xiazhing. They avoided the town, knowing their absence would have been noticed by now. Even if they couldn’t be recognized as birds, it was better not to risk running into unforeseen problems.
The next town east of Xiazhing offered no sign of Gagee. Zhao nearly skipped Himil, as it was where the Tiak Elders often met and spent time together. But Laireag insisted. They flew through the town on wings growing more tired. But there were worse things than exhaustion they could face. Staying transformed too long could make even a Spirit Elemental forget they were anything other than the creature they had become.
They flew north of Himil and camped, recovering from days spent flying and thoughts that belonged to birds.
“There are only two more towns to search,” Zhao said to Laireag as they sat before a fire along the banks of the river that flowed to Himil. The setting reminded him of the journey along the Dhazoh to reach the Temple of Winds. Gagee had been with him then, that first time he had left home, acting as a guide to take him, Ria, Niri, Darag, Lavinia, and Ty north.
“I wonder how everyone is doing,” Zhao said, missing the friends he hadn’t seen since they’d parted ways in Finndale after traveling together to the Coast of Storms and to the Temple in the Clouds hidden deep in the Mountains of Night. “I bet Ria has grown a house above Finndale by now.”
“Maybe, but she’ll have to make it bigger if Mina is going to stay with her and Ci’erra!” Laireag said, laughing. The fire reflected in his light gray eyes as he sobered. “Darag and Lavinia should have made it to the Temple of Stone by now. Maybe they’ve gone to find the Ashanti already.”
“I almost wish I’d gone with him. I’d love to see Ekhaba!” Only Darag and Lavinia had been to the desert city of the Ashanti. Besides them, only Niri and Khodan had met Jeif and Leifa before they had been trapped in the spirit realm. There were so many wonders and people Zhao had yet to see and meet. “I wonder how Niri and Khodan are doing with Isha in the Temple of Mists?”
Laireag didn’t reply for a minute. “Get some sleep. We have enough to deal with.”
Zhao laughed, stretching out in the warm sand by the fire. He fell asleep before he had a chance to ask Laireag if they should keep watch.
They arrived in Shofar by midmorning the next day, following the winding river that flowed from the foothills of the forested mountains into the village nestled deep within a fjord of the bay. By evening, Zhao was certain that Gagee was not there either. That left Keifai.
“I should have asked Yihn,” Zhao said, disheartened.
“Why? Are we in a hurry?” Laireag asked.
Zhao appreciated the support as much as it worried him. The Kith did not like to be separated from the tree to which their spirit was bonded. Laireag and Darag both chose to leave after the war ended. They hadn’t been home in six months. Eventually, Laireag would need to return home. Even if Zhao had to drag him. But not today. Or tomorrow, when they hopefully found Gagee.
They flew through the night to arrive tired in Kiefai at day break. Zhao cruised the rising thermals, searching for the long river boats used for fishing. When he found a set of three, he also found his brother-by-marriage.
Gagee sat by a small fire next to his overturned and banked boats, sipping from a steaming mug. Zhao landed outside of the circle of firelight and transformed. It took Gagee a moment to notice he was no longer alone.
“I saw Yihn and your daughter,” Zhao said as he approached.
Startled, Gagee sloshed the liquid in his cup. When he saw who was walking towards him, he dropped it.
“Zhao!” Gagee said as he leapt to his feet, embracing Zhao before he had a chance to react. “It has been so long. I was afraid of what had happened to you.”
“To me!” Zhao said. “You and Yihn have a child. And what the Elders have done … I wish I had known sooner.”
“How are they? Did they look well?” Gagee asked, drawing Zhao toward the fire.
“When was the last time you saw them?” Laireag asked. Gagee turned swiftly at the sound of another voice.
“This is my good friend, Laireag,” Zhao said hurriedly to calm Gagee. “He is Kith from the forests in the north of Myrrah. Laireag, meet my brother-in-marriage, Gagee.”
“Not since a month ago, when Miyu was three months old,” Gagee answered, waving Laireag forward to join them by the fire. Gagee’s gaze rested on Laireag’s patterned skin a moment before he turned to Zhao. “The forests to the north of Myrrah, you have been far, my brother.”
“Miyu,” Zhao said, trying out the name. It made him smile. “How did they discover she was an Air Elemental?”
“Three months is very young to show power for any Elemental, even Kith,” Laireag said.
“Miyu could call the breeze after her first month. Yihn noticed it, having grown up with you. We hoped it was a coincidence that the chimes would move when she was awake, but …”
“It wasn’t,” Zhao said. “She is going to be amazingly gifted.”
“We thought we’d kept it hidden, but Phet came a month ago along with the other Elders. They said my marriage to Yihn was a mistake and no longer sanctioned. Then they sent me here.”
“And you stayed?” Zhao asked.
“I’m watched and they threatened to harm Yihn and Miyu if I attempt to see them. I’ve been trying to figure out what to do. There are not many who will break with our traditions and go against the Elders,” Gagee said.
“Well, you have two with you now,” Laireag said with a grin.
“What do you plan to do?” Gagee asked.
“We need you to convince Yihn to leave. She is listening to Phet and doing as she is expected. From what I saw, she lives the life of a woman who had a child out of wedlock. Her clothes are worn, she is thin, but Miyu appeared well.”
The growing day reflected in the moisture filling Gagee’s eyes. He looked away, swallowing hard. “Where will we go?”
“Oh, there are so many places,” Zhao promised.
They waited an hour before heading into town, during which Zhao shared what had happened when he’d returned to Xiazhing. Gagee, it turned out, had not taken a house in Keifai but stayed with a cousin. The few things he kept that were important to him, a knife passed down through his family, a necklace he’d made for Miyu when he’d been forced to move to Keifai, were there.
The cousin was a weaver and his house was located in the center of Keifai, a city unlike most belonging to the Tiak. Though it sat nestled on a low shoulder of a fjord, there were few of the sacred Yisha trees in town and none outside of it except for along the river. Keifai belonged more to the steppes and vast wetland than to the forest. The marshy grasses were harvested to make fine cloth, and numerous vegetables were grown that survived poorly in the thin soil and turbulent winds further west along the bay. Once, Zhao would have thought Keifai a world apart from Xiazhing, but after his travels he saw still that the houses and people were the same as his village. He had no interest to explore this town unique to his people.
They stayed off the main road, walking between houses spaced so closely together Zhao’s shoulders brushed one on each side. Before they stepped into the sunlight, a voice caused Zhao to grab Gagee’s shoulder.
“Where is he?” Phet asked.
“He sleeps down by his boats on nights he plans to leave early. He is most likely on the river, Elder,” a man answered.
“Show us where he keeps his boats,” Phet said.
Gagee started to back up as shadows crossed the mouth of the narrow alley where they stood. “Don’t move,” Zhao whispered. “You are invisible.”
Gagee tensed under his hand, but listened. A man walked in front of the alley followed by Phet. Behind walked a slight figure, a bump on her back.
“Yihn,” Gagee whispered.
A final figure walked by. Kattan hesitated, glancing down the alley as if he sensed the use of Air Elemental skill. After a piercing look, he walked onwards. All three released held breaths.
“Why is Yihn here? Why would Phet have brought her?” Zhao asked.
“What do you mean we were invisible?” Gagee asked.
“I think we’d better get back to your boats,” Laireag interrupted.
“Why?” Gagee asked as they hurried into the deeper shadows, making their way along side streets.
“Because it is not in town and will be easier to grab Yihn,” Zhao said, guessing at his friend’s intentions.
“But we only have the boats and no sails. We don’t have your friends who controlled water, unless Laireag can? Otherwise, how will we get away?” Gagee asked.
“We both have a few tricks,” Zhao answered, grinning.