Excerpt from soon-to-be released #fantasy novel Spark of Defiance!
I was going to post an article on writing …. but Spark of Defiance launches next week! And I’ve been answering questions on Goodreads and Facebook and Twitter and there will be a launch giveaway and tons of fun … so you really think I can focus on the mechanics of writing right now??? My brain is hyper mush!
So I’m going with an excerpt post. lol!
Forgive me if I am all Spark of Defiance right now, but, hey, I’m all Spark of Defiance right now. Love it (and it will be over soon, I promise!). And before we get into the excerpt, the first review from a reader who received an ARC is live! You can check out what James Reid thought of the book here.
And, well, I haven’t really mentioned it unless you happen to go the book page for Games of Fire, but, uhmmm… Spark of Defiance is actually live for preorder! The only way to make a simultaneous launch happen across multiple book platforms is to get it online early. So I did. So you can actually reserve a copy now and be one of the first to get my latest book, especially if I happen to launch it early. 😉
Reserve your copy of Spark of Defiance at:
So without much further ado – you can read the first 3 chapters of Spark of Defiance here – and read the next three below! 😀
BORN OF FIRE
“Most who sympathized with the magic wielders left to join the other Temples,” Garam told Sinika. “Despite what Misshal has suggested, Solaire is not full of Priests and Priestesses who are keen to see those with magic welcomed. More like the opposite.”
“High Priest Misshal, do not forget his title, Garam. He has earned it despite his age,” Sinika said.
“And that you gave it to him,” Garam said under his breath.
Sinika clasped his hands behind his back and walked to the open window. There were many ideas racing through his mind. He wanted to discuss them with Garam as he had once with Dominia. Or as he had with Elantha. But Garam was neither, and some things were hoped for too much to share with another soul. Sinika was too afraid of failure to voice dreams that felt preposterous.
“Tell me about the Sphere of Fire. Have you seen it?”
“Briefly, when they brought it back from Drufforth. Nahrhia carried it. I would have said it was nothing more than a ball of fire, but …”
“I could feel it call to the fire in me. I wanted to reach out to it. I’m sure you can feel it from here.” Garam stopped speaking abruptly as he realized what he said.
“No, I cannot feel it. I am not an Elemental anymore, Garam,” Sinika said. For now, he thought.
“What they did to you …” Garam said, the look of heat in his eye a more painful reminder to Sinika of his loss of power than the words acknowledging its absence that he’d learned to say. “No Elemental should have that done to them.”
“What of the others? I’m sure I wasn’t the only one that the Sword of Ranak was used against.”
“Most didn’t regain sanity,” Garam admitted. “They were sent to family to be cared for.”
The idea was enough to make Sinika happy he’d been locked in Solaire’s tower. “Do you know anything else about it or the powers of any of the other spheres?” he asked.
“No,” Garam admitted.
“See what you can learn. Tell me when you come back to exchange these for new books,” Sinika said, nodding toward the untidy pile on his desk. “Bring less next time, so you will have to come back sooner.”
Garam left Sinika to his thoughts. They turned to his time in his other prison, the one Niri had crafted for him. In the drowned Temple of Dust, he hadn’t been able to call fire either. It had taken time and concentration to be able to form even a flicker of light. This was the same. He needed time and focus. One way or another, his power was not gone forever. He’d been born with it and doubted the power twinned with his soul could truly be separated without killing him. Though if he were wrong, he could always step from the open window. Death was an available option, but one he hoped to avoid.
Garam’s description of being drawn to the Sphere of Fire echoed in Sinika’s mind as the sun set. The faint glow from where it sat in the Chapel of Hope set Sinika pacing. He felt no connection to its light. The spacious room for once felt too constrained. When he finally slept, it was to dream of being trapped in the cell in the drowned temple, locked under earth and water.
He woke in the morning knowing he had to get out. Garam’s news had him thinking that he could find enough support to retake Solaire. But ruling was not as important as freedom. Those that remained in Solaire might be against any with magic, but he doubted the Priests and Priestess would fight each other. And not for him. Not enough. But there might be a few. He needed to figure out who. Who would leave Solaire rather than be part of a Church that welcomed magic?
He didn’t solve that riddle until Misshal opened the door to his chamber and entered that night. Then Sinika knew exactly who had the information he needed. He just had to figure out how to get Misshal to tell him.
Misshal remained silent, brooding on thoughts he seemed reluctant to share. He poured the wine he’d brought and sat, sipping from his cup while staring out the window.
“Tell me more of those with magic – spirit is what Matylda called the gift?” Sinika asked.
“Why do you ask?” Misshal asked, choking on his wine. Wherever his thoughts had been, he appeared surprised by Sinika’s direct question.
“Because of Elantha, of course. It would have been something to have known her gifts were related to Elementals, were Elemental. There was much she did not know and sought answers to.”
Misshal eyed him uneasily. “Elantha’s gifts are still unique. She is not like any other, the others with abilities in spirit.” Misshal paused, setting his wine glass on the table as if it tasted sour. “You already know from the mock battles that you orchestrated here that those with magic, spirit, can control living things, causing plants to grow or move. Tohkef showed you they can transform into other creatures as well. They are connected to the world and to living things the same way I am to water and you are … were to fire. But we’d never thought of the gift this way before. There is much we are learning now.”
“And they can heal. Matylda was most impressed with that,” Sinika replied. “That must be a great help in the infirmary.”
Misshal shifted. “It will be, yes.”
“You don’t have any healers?”
“After the war on the Kith and the centuries of persecuting those with magic, no, there are no healers here. None with gifts in spirit at the moment, not since the Kith left after helping to rebuild,” Misshal said with a glare.
“Things will improve. Intentions do not change overnight,” Sinika told him.
“Such as yours?”
“I am locked in here with only time to ponder my actions. There are things I would change if I could.”
“I’m sure,” Misshal said, looking away.
“But I can see your point. Most of those who grew up in the archipelago, at least, were brought up to fear magic, and the Church has reinforced that. Other cultures are similar,” Sinika said. “It will take time, a generation perhaps, to alter what was wrought over centuries.”
Misshal shifted uncomfortably. “There are few who welcome magic, spirit, easily,” Misshal admitted. “The Valain and the southern cities are the greatest refuges as well as the Kith, of course. You are right, though. I should focus on the children here in the Temple while teaching the others to be tolerant, if I can hope for nothing more.” Misshal fell silent, frowning.
“Excuse me for speaking directly, High Priest, but you appear ill at ease tonight.”
Misshal picked up his wine glass again, shaking his head. “I admire your insight, Sinika. Did you know that? I don’t know how you handled the High Council for so long and rose so far. Other than that you are clever and patient. All of which worries me, of course.”
“Which is why you keep me here, where you can watch me … as well as protect me. I know I have few friends out there,” Sinika replied, nodding toward the Temple visible beyond his window. Misshal’s lips tightened a fraction. Sinika rejoiced. “You are having problems. With the new Council?”
“With … everything.”
Sinika laughed. Misshal tossed a heated look at him, reminding him more than ever of the contention between them before the war. “I mean no insult. You wish for help but do not wish to tell me of the problems. I understand, and I’m sure it is serious, but you must realize I have little here for entertainment. Your conundrum is refreshing compared to my long days.”
“You have the books I asked Matylda to give to you,” Misshal pointed out, glancing at the pile on Sinika’s desk.
“And I thank you. I fear you will need to expand Solaire’s library for the number of years ahead of me.” Misshal snorted as Sinika paused. “If you do need advice, I am here. There is nowhere I can go and, with no contact beyond these walls, no one I can influence. You will see that in time.”
“That is what I’m afraid of,” Misshal said, rising to leave.
“Remember, I had my allies: Dominia, Elantha, Timpada, and even you. Make use of those who would impede you. It gives them other things to do.”
“And hope they do not end up being like Rhinnault, who knew far more than even you imagined,” Misshal said as he closed the door.
Bitterness coated Sinika’s tongue until he suddenly laughed. Misshal was right. Rhinnault had played them all.
Sinika had purpose again. He would be free. Myrrah was large. He could find a place outside of Solaire. And if things went well, he would once again be an Elemental. At least if what he believed regarding the spheres was true. Impatience of confirmation from Garam kept Sinika restless. He was uncertain he’d try to leave if he faced the world as an ordinary man. Influencing Misshal might be his best lot remaining in life.
Success was measured in increments as small as his room compared to the vastness of the Temple: Matylda’s growing kindness, moments when the door to the room remained open longer than needed, quiet outside his door indicating the guard was gone or asleep. For a week, Sinika didn’t hear from Misshal or Garam. He found himself staring at the light illuminating the Chapel of Hope deep into the night. His dreams were of fire. Sinika would touch the orb even if it consumed him. It would be a pleasant way to die. Certainly better than a pitch from his tower window.
His impatience had grown deep enough that Sinika considered his chances if he rushed past Matylda when she opened the door in the morning, but it was Garam at last who stood in the doorway when it opened. Sinika changed his reckless desire for freedom into a move to hold the door for the burdened Fire Priest.
“Matylda is unwell this morning,” Garam said as he entered. “She sent me to exchange your books.” Garam glanced at Sinika as he placed the books on the desk. Sinika remained standing with his hand on the open door. It took an effort to close it. He joined Garam, schooling himself for patience with each step.
“It is good to see you again,” Sinika said once he was across the room, not wishing to alert the guard to how close he’d hovered to the door.
Garam glanced over his shoulder once more at the door before leaning toward Sinika. He handed him a thick book.
“They are emptying Gothark’s cell,” Garam said. Sinika froze. “It’s my fault. I asked questions on the spheres and it got back to Misshal. Not that you sitting in the window every night staring at the Sphere of Fire helped,” Garam continued, his spate of anger fading quickly into humility as Sinika stared at him.
Sinika wouldn’t admit the look was from shock and not irritation. The thought of never seeing the sun or even the light from the Sphere of Fire was enough to cause Sinika to consider leaping from the window that moment. Garam opened the book in Sinika’s hand. It wasn’t a book.
“Beyhal made it,” Garam said, pulling out the muted brown robe that sat nestled where pages should have been. “This is his robe. We thought you’d be too recognizable in the robes of a Fire Elemental, High Priest Sinika.”
“I am no longer any Priest, Garam. You needn’t call me that,” Sinika said, pulling the robe over his head to cover the pants and shirt he wore. His skin tingled at the feel of robes again, even if they were not his. “Beyhal … I know the name.”
“The Earth Priest who fought with you in Solaire’s Harbor. He speaks often of how you led the battle.” Garam stood back, eyeing Sinika. “It will work. Seeing you dressed as an Earth Priest is too unexpected. If we stay to the lesser corridors, you won’t be recognized.”
Doubt swayed Sinika as Garam walked to the door. The fear of a life spent in the dungeons finally overruled his desire to touch the sphere and regain control of fire. He hoped he wouldn’t regret that choice.
“You think we can walk to the docks without me being recognized?” Sinika asked as he approached the door, keeping his voice low as Garam paused with his hand on the handle.
“Hopefully, as it would make things easier. But once you reach the Sphere of Fire, I should think we’ll manage to leave one way or another.”
Garam swung open the door before Sinika could reply. The guard, an Air Priest based on his yellow robes, turned at the sudden movement. Garam placed a hand over his mouth before the Priest could react, hauling him into Sinika’s room.
“We need something to gag him,” Garam said as the younger Priest wrestled in his grip. Sinika grabbed a book and smacked the young man over the head, dazing him more than knocking him unconscious. But it did stop his struggling.
“That will buy us time,” Sinika said as he pulled the blankets from his bed.
They ripped strips of cloth to bind his hands and legs, another as a gag. They were out the door and down the hallway before Sinika remembered their destination.
“The sphere?” he asked Garam.
“It is as you thought. There was a girl, a northern Sarkethian who was born without Elemental ability. She touched the Sphere of Water and became a Water Elemental. There are rumors too of an Air Elemental, who gained the ability over earth when he helped steal the Sphere of Earth from Solaire’s dungeons,” Garam said as they quickly slipped down the tower stairs. “The Sphere of Fire will return your gift as well.”
They emerged into the main citadel of the oldest part of Solaire. Once it had been all there was to the Temple. Now it housed the rooms belonging to the High Council with the dungeons below. And high above soared the Chapel of Hope and the Sphere of Fire.
“Besides,” Garam said as he walked forward at an easy pace. “We are so close.”
Sinika joined him, walking at Garam’s side as if they were on an errand. Other Priests and Priestesses were visible down hallways and across the wide central room when they reached it, but no one close. Garam paused, waiting until their path would not place them near anyone before he started for the corridor leading to the Chapel of Hope. His pace quickened to cross the expanse.
Sinika felt helpless. Sweat prickling at the base of his skull, he feared too many failures to have any anticipation. One shout would expose him to a Temple of Elementals that he had no way to fight but with fists. The idea bubbled nervous laughter to his lips. They crossed the central room before Sinika lost hold of himself.
Beyond the first doorway, an Earth Priest waited. “No one has come this way,” he said.
“Beyhal will keep anyone from following for as long as he can,” Garam said as they walked past.
“The Kith could create illusions. Did you know that? It is a skill that would be useful today,” Sinika said, remembering the fight that had ended with his defeat.
Garam didn’t answer but to wave Sinika through the door. Sinika was halfway up the winding staircase leading to the Chapel of Hope before what he was doing stalled him. The chaos of thoughts on Air Elementals, magic, fear of the dungeons and Gothark’s cell he’d once implied he could imprison Elantha in, evaporated. Above him was his one chance to regain who he truly was. Feeling as if he were about to meet the Goddess Mhyrah, Sinika walked slowly up the staircase. His knees hurt with the climb though he couldn’t say if that were from the confinement or because fire did not sing in his blood, willing him to exertion beyond physical discomfort.
Around the last turn of the staircase, it was the pulsing light flickering down the corridor that led him upwards. Otherwise, memories of Elantha and the times he had ruled might have held him back. The light of the Sphere of Fire promised him a new future.
He emerged into its golden radiance, blinded by the brightness. The rebuilt room with its stone chairs around the outside, ten now he realized, came into slow focus. It was easy to ignore them. The sphere absorbed all thought.
Golden with red flames, it hovered above the center of the floor, higher than the backs of the chairs. As he approached, it dropped toward the floor as if drawn to him as he was to it. Without thought, hope, or fear, Sinika reached out to the sphere.
The shock of the burning dropped him to his knees. But it wasn’t pain. It was fire. It was his blood and breath. It was his birthright, and Sinika was reborn.
Yihn stood a few feet behind Phet with her head bowed, as silent and obedient as a captured spirit. The sight made Zhao angry. Gagee looked caught between tears of worry and an anger Zhao had never seen in his brother-by-marriage.
Gagee’s cousin, Baiyun, walked back and forth along the length of the boats. “I don’t know where Gagee is. All the boats are here. The fire is still warm.”
Phet watched the man with a cold stare.
“Maybe we missed them on the way here?” Yihn asked, voice faint like a broken reed. She took a step backward as Kattan turned toward her. “If he needed something from the house, he could have taken a different route,” she added on a hurried exhale.
“Yes, that must be it. Perhaps he needed something before leaving and we missed him. There are other routes than the main road. If we head back …” Baiyun took a step toward town.
“Or you are helping him,” Phet said firmly. “You know the punishment will be severe, but I will make it less if you help us now.”
Baiyun paled. “He should be here!”
“Yes, he should. So where are you hiding him!”
“Kattan, silence him,” Phet ordered.
Baiyun dropped to his knees, clawing at his throat.
“Kattan shouldn’t be able to do that. We can’t let this happen,” Zhao said to Laireag as Baiyun’s face grew red.
“I’ll take the Air Elemental,” Laireag said. “You handle Phet.” Then Laireag disappeared.
Gagee stumbled backward a step, banging into the porch they hid behind. Yihn glanced their way, but not Phet or Kattan. They were busy.
Zhao could appreciate seeing someone turn invisible was quite different from being told you were invisible. But he needed Gagee to focus.
“I need you to grab Yihn and Miyu and then go to your best boat and get it in the water,” Zhao told Gagee.
“You expect me to walk out there and take Yihn without them stopping me?”
“Yes.” Zhao’s simple reply drew Gagee’s anxious gaze from Yihn and Baiyun. “They will not see you. Do as I say … and don’t trust everything you are about to see. Not all of it will be real,” Zhao said before he too disappeared.
Zhao didn’t need to be invisible to do what he was about to. He simply hoped that if Gagee believed him, he would go and rescue Yihn without needing another explanation. They didn’t have time for that. As it was, Zhao wondered what Laireag was doing. Baiyun had fallen onto his elbows, his face more purple than red and eyes a little too big. If Baiyun tried to beg, Kattan’s power kept even that much air from him.
It was then that Zhao realized what Laireag was doing. “That isn’t Baiyun,” Zhao told Gagee. “Baiyun is fine, I promise. Go get Yihn!”
Nervously, Gagee stepped forward into an illusion of the open sandy shoreline. Zhao kept his brother-by-marriage unseen from Phet and Kattan, wishing Laireag hadn’t hidden the real Baiyun from him and Gagee.
“You can stop now,” Phet said as Baiyun fell at Phet’s feet.
“I … I can’t stop it!” Kattan said.
Kattan pulled his hands wide as if trying to part the air. The image of Baiyun frothed silent bubbles on indigo lips before falling face first into the sand. Kattan never stopped fighting with air that would not respond to his power.
Phet stared at the dead man prone before him. Zhao doubted either Phet or Kattan would have noticed Gagee taking Yihn’s hand and startling her so that she jumped, even if they had not been wrapped in an illusion. Gagee held a finger to her lips to keep her silent. Tears filled her eyes as she gazed at her husband. For Zhao, the look on his sister’s face made the journey and the danger worthwhile.
Gagee tugged Yihn forward as her gaze drifted toward Baiyun’s motionless form. He slipped an arm around her shoulders to block her sight and keep her moving. The air around them shimmered. Kattan’s desperate floundering pulled at Zhao’s illusion, threatening to collapse it and reveal Gagee and Yihn walking toward the boats. The image of Yihn Zhao had created flickered.
If Zhao fed much more power into stabilizing the illusion, he risked alerting Kattan. The young man was a gifted Air Elemental. Even if he didn’t know that crafting illusions was part of the abilities he possessed, Zhao guessed Kattan would recognize the power of another Air Elemental being used. Tension tightened his muscles.
Laireag took care of the problem for Zhao. Kattan started coughing, hiccuping on wayward strands of too thick or too thin air that wafted around him. Kattan gulped in one breath to find not enough for him to breathe and on the next choked on too much. It wasn’t enough to hurt Kattan, but it did cause him to panic.
Kattan fought the strange power wrapped around him. Laireag’s power expanded and contracted as Kattan struggled, mimicking the attempts Kattan made to push the bands of air away and disperse them. Each time, Laireag loosened his hold and let Kattan nearly win only to flood the young Air Elemental with a compounding problem the moment he stopped fighting.
As Kattan dropped to his knees in a halo of sandy dust stirred by the air swirling around him, Phet scrambled backward. Phet gave a startled scream as his last step ended in the stream. He jumped out of the water and raced by Kattan toward town.
Zhao let the illusion of Yihn fade, but he kept his sister and brother-by-marriage hidden as he joined them in helping Gagee overturn the largest of his boats.
Gagee glanced at Zhao as he appeared at the far end of the canoe, nodding toward a struggling Kattan. “Is that real?”
“Yes,” Zhao replied hesitantly, not knowing if the anger in Gagee’s eyes was for what Kattan had done to Baiyun or for what Laireag did to Kattan. “Laireag won’t hurt him. It is just to frighten him.”
Gagee paused, eyes dark. But before he could speak, Miyu woke and gurgled. Miyu, Gagee’s infant daughter who was also an Air Elemental like Zhao, Laireag, and Kattan. Gagee hesitated before taking his daughter from the satchel on Yihn’s back. Yihn, who’d been lifeless during the events flowing around her, reacted to feeling her daughter taken. She reached for Miyu frantically as if Gagee were a stranger. Gagee held Yihn back with one hand, but her fighting threatened to bump Miyu from his other arm.
“Zhao,” Gagee called for help. Zhao grabbed his sister as gently as he could. “Yihn, it’s me. Your husband. I won’t hurt our daughter,” Gagee said, soothing Yihn as if she were the child.
“What is happening?” Yihn asked as her struggles slowed. She looked at the gasping Kattan and collapsed figure of Baiyun. Tears spilled over her eyelids as she trembled in Zhao’s arms.
“We are leaving and taking you, Gagee, and Miyu somewhere safe, Yihn,” Zhao told her. “Trust me.”
Yihn was stiff as she climbed into the boat, stumbling into her seat. Gagee handed her Miyu before helping Zhao push the boat into the stream. He held it there, looking back to a crying and frantic Kattan. Laireag shimmered into visible next to him, a wide-eyed, and unharmed, Baiyun by his side.
“He still cannot see you,” Laireag assured Baiyun, who watched Kattan’s struggles with a mix of compassion and fear. “Go to the image of you in the sand and lie down. Pretend to come to and remember what they did to you. Remember what the Elder of your people ordered Kattan to do. He is just a boy and untrained. What you’ve seen could have happened.”
Baiyun nodded, looking too overwhelmed to talk. He glanced once at Gagee and Yihn before hurrying to his place in the sand. Laireag hopped into the boat before Zhao joined him. As Gagee poled them silently away from the bank, Laireag released his hold on the air around Kattan. The dust surrounding the young man fell to the ground like rain as he collapsed forward, drawing in lungfuls of air between sobs. Before the river took them out of sight, Zhao saw Kattan crawl forward, placing a shaking hand on Baiyun’s still shoulder. Baiyun groaned as he rolled onto his back.
The four in the boat were silent as Gagee guided them up the river until the last rooftop of Keifai was half an hour behind them. The river was wide and shallow as it twisted through the thin forest, gravel bottom clear below the rippling waves. It was completely unlike the Dhazoh River that Gagee had guided Zhao and his friends into its headwaters deep in the Alin Mountains so that they could find the ruins of the Temple of Winds.
This journey, which should be easier, felt more difficult. Then Zhao had the help of Niri and Darag, both experienced Elementals, as well as Ria’s companionship. He’d had hope of finding what had become of the Air Elementals who had once called the Temple of Winds home.
Now, they were running to protect Yihn and her child. Yihn held Miyu snug against her chest, rocking the baby, who seemed the least affected by what had happened on the beach. Gagee watched his wife and daughter as he poled the boat upriver, but Yihn did not glance toward him. Laireag kept watch behind though he tried not to be too obvious about his surveillance.
“You should take me back,” Yihn said so quietly that Zhao barely heard her over the sound of waves lapping the hull.
“We are trying to free you from Phet,” Zhao answered. “We came to Keifai to find Gagee, hoping he’d convince you that how Phet is treating you and Miyu is wrong. You don’t have to live like this.”
Yihn glanced away from him. Silently, Zhao pleaded with Gagee to say something. Gagee’s gaze jumped from Zhao to his wife, but he seemed unable to find any words.
“Why did Phet bring you to Keifai?” Laireag asked.
“Because he thought you’d do just as you said,” Yihn said to Zhao. “After you left the pagoda without Phet’s permission, he guessed you were not done causing trouble. He brought me to Keifai so I could tell Gagee that I accept what the Elders decided. It was wrong of me to marry. Miyu is proof of that. And I shouldn’t have tried to hide her abilities from Phet.”
Zhao sat back, too stunned by what his sister said to speak. He didn’t need to. Gagee finally found what he needed to say.
“You can’t mean that, Yihn,” Gagee said, dropping the pole to kneel in front of his wife and daughter. “I love you and Miyu. I know you love me. What have they done to you this last month, my starflower?” Gagee gently touched Yihn’s cheek.
“Look at what Kattan did to your cousin, Gagee,” Yihn argued in return. “Air Elementals are dangerous. There is a reason that there are rules for those born gifted.”
Gagee did not give up. “You didn’t feel this way before. We hid Miyu’s abilities from Phet and the other Elders. That wasn’t me alone.” Yihn looked away from her husband.
“Kattan was doing what Phet ordered him to do,” Zhao said, not wanting to admit how wounded he felt from his sister’s words. “Kattan is young and untrained, do not blame him or the abilities he was born with. Phet, an Elder, is the one who punished Baiyun for nothing.”
“And have you never hurt anyone with your gift?” Yihn asked him. Zhao didn’t answer. The battle against the Priests and Priestesses from the Temple of Solaire rose in his mind.
“He saved thousands of lives with his gift, far more than he has ever hurt,” Laireag answered.
Everyone fell silent. Laireag kept the boat moving upstream after Gagee stopped poling, his power pushing it against the current. But Zhao could feel how close they were to Keifai and so to Phet, who had so altered his sister’s thinking during the last month.
“We need to keep moving north,” Zhao said, prompting Gagee to rise to his feet and pick up the pole. “We are too close to Keifai. We aren’t taking you back, Yihn.”
Gagee watched Yihn, who bit her lip as she stared at the rippling waves. Zhao took comfort that her face held some doubt. Still she said little the remainder of the day, not until Laireag transformed into a bird to check behind them.
“I thought he was an Air Elemental?” Yihn asked as she watched the large raven that was Laireag fly along the corridor of trees lining the river.
“He is,” Zhao answered. “And more.”
Yihn looked like she wanted to ask something else, but Miyu’s gurgling pulled her attention. “Let me take her,” Gagee said as Yihn went to check the baby’s wraps. “I have not seen my daughter for a month.”
Yihn blushed as she handed over Miyu, her attention staying mostly on the two as Gagee teased his daughter into laughter within moments. “She missed him,” Yihn said at last.
“They missed each other,” Zhao answered. “And he missed you. He was worried when we came. He said the only reason he didn’t return to Xiazhing to find you was because the Elders threatened to harm you and Miyu if he did. He was watched in Keifai.”
Understanding touched Yihn’s eyes, and Zhao guessed he’d found part of the reason for her doubts that had allowed her to believe Phet and obey him.
The ruins of Karakastad had been cleared from the desert surrounding the restored Temple of Stone. Lavinia stood in the soft sand above the massive sinkhole that comprised the Temple along with her husband, Darag, and Kheten, who led the Temple. The three gazed into the vastness of the Great Desert of Ak’Ashanti. The dunes were tinged rose in the morning light, the air holding more coolness than heat for the moment.
“I still can’t believe the Ashanti managed to restore the Temple. Well,” Lavinia continued after Darag’s amused glance spurred her. “Not as well as they did. Even the scrolls and books in the library are in one piece. I would have thought Niri drowning the entire Temple in seawater would have destroyed everything!”
“I almost wish I could have seen the Temple filled like a saltwater lake,” Kheten said. “The steppes where I grew up were dry, but not like the desert. Maybe living in the Temple of Solaire between the Lake of Tears and the ocean for so long did change me.”
“The steppes might be dry,” Darag answered in his resonate voice. “But they have grass and we’ve been there during the rainy season. There is plenty of water compared to here.”
Lavinia snorted at his comment. “Yeah, there was plenty of water when we were there.”
Kheten’s smile spread her lips across her tan skin. Her short stature and broad shoulders, typical of everyone Lavinia had met on the steppes, made the woman appear an aged child. And the age was found only in the streaks of gray through the black braids of her hair and fine wrinkles on her skin. Lavinia soundly believed Kheten could beat her in a race up the thousands of steps linking the cavernous Temple of Stone with the desert above. Even after weeks spent visiting the restored Temple, Lavinia had a difficult time thinking of Kheten as the person in charge of it and the Sphere of Earth, though she had been a High Priestess in Solaire and remained on the High Council linking the new Five Orders.
As if reading her thoughts, Kheten turned to Lavinia and Darag. “I’ve enjoyed having you both here. As much as I want to meet the Ashanti, who restored the Temple and protected the sphere, I am sad to think of you leaving. The war and all that has happened since is still too recent.”
Lavinia took Kheten’s hands. “We will come back. Write to Niri and Khodan in the Temple of Mists and Benneth and Kiphart at the Temple in the Clouds. You aren’t alone.”
“Especially Niri,” Kheten mused. “She was a former Priestess too and the Temple of Mists is newly restored as well. And … talking to her is a good reminder that I, at least, don’t have to deal with a dragon!”
Even Darag chuckled at that, which was a sound that sent Lavinia’s heart soaring. Half a year since the war and the deaths of both his sister, Beite, and his mother, Suileag, Darag remained quieter than before. That didn’t bother her. What did was that he was still angry as well.
When Lavinia had met Darag in the forests of Lus na Sithchaine, she’d been immediately drawn to the laughter in his vivid green eyes. Hair a chestnut brown and skin patterned like bark, Lavinia had been fascinated by Darag in particular and the Kith in general. Beite had been her first host and friend among them. Lavinia missed the young woman every day. Well, young for a Kith. The girl had been over forty years old, but the Kith lived for centuries. With spirits bound at birth to a seedling in the forest, a Kith could live for over six hundred years. To them, Beite had been a teenager, too young to wed though not too young to love. And she had been the youngest of the Kith to die in the war.
Darag blamed Laith Lus, the Kith elder, and leader. Laith Lus had long been a substitute father for Darag and Beite after their father had died when his tree had caught an incurable disease while both were young. In Darag’s view, Laith Lus had led the Kith to war against the Church of Four Orders while Darag, Lavinia, Niri, Khodan, Ria, and Ci’erra had searched for the Spheres of Water and Fire in an effort to bring balance to the world and stop the war. They had succeeded, but not as they had expected. And not soon enough. At least not enough to save Beite. Darag had been away when Beite died, and Lavinia believed that was where Darag’s anger lay, with himself. She wasn’t sure she wanted Darag to realize that or to continue to blame Laith Lus.
So she said nothing as they traveled after the war from Lus na Sithchaine to Mirocyne to meet her family. Explaining that black-haired, blue-eyed Lavinia, barely old enough to marry by the standards of her people along the northern shore of the Sea of Sarketh, had married a man whose lifespan would comprise centuries had been difficult enough. But telling her parents that with the marriage she’d bound her soul to Darag and his tree so that she would live as long too had been a teary and nearly incomprehensible story. It made the fact that Lavinia had accidentally become a Water Elemental by touching, falling through really, the Sphere of Water easier, at least.
And now Lavinia was more than that. Standing on the crater rim, she felt the vastness of the desert and the loose sand piled over the deeper bedrock. Earth spread around her, its pulse threading with the fiery heat of the rising sun, the liquid cool of the ocean days away, and the lofty sky. Visiting the Temple of Stone had been the last stop on a journey to see, and touch, the other three spheres: fire, air, and now earth. Born with no Elemental abilities, Lavinia now controlled four out of the five. Well, she was learning control. For now, sensing them was sufficient.
“I know you’ve told me,” Kheten said, “but I still cannot imagine how you call the cities of the Ashanti … and that the cities will come to you? I am an Earth Elemental, but I cannot imagine entire cities moving across the desert like ships on the sea.”
Anger dimmed Darag’s eyes again. The air around him thickened as if he were the center of a storm. So much power it amazed Lavinia, more so now that she could feel it with the gifts of an Elemental. “It is easier to show you,” Darag said and reached down to touch the fine sand.
It was more than being able to control earth. Darag had told her that when he had called Ekhaba to them before. Lavinia felt a pulse of power travel outward through the sand. Distantly, she felt an answer. The air before them twisted, shimmering as it condensed on itself. But nothing appeared. Power hung in the air, thick in its becoming, but hesitant to materialize.
“They know my power. They will not come,” Darag said, voice strained with the balance of elements cascading between him and the Ashanti city.
“It isn’t you alone who calls,” Lavinia said and placed her hand on his arm.
Her power over earth was new to her. She barely understood how to control her accidental gift of water. At times, she’d thought her quest to touch the remaining three spheres a foolish journey, but they had needed a direction or the tragedy of the war might have overcome both of them. Besides, she had centuries for Darag to teach her. Today, she only needed to lend her strength to his, a feat that needed no further training than her love and trust in him.
Kheten too bent down and touched the golden sand. Her gift steadied the fluctuating power in the desert. The city walls of Ekhaba appeared from air hazed with power carrying a sigh of fulfilled potential. The lofty gate, however, remained closed.
It took a moment, but a figure appeared between the golden tipped turrets flanking the gate. Lavinia hesitated in her initial guess that she didn’t know who stood on the city walls. The Ashanti aged so quickly, living lives in the span of fewer than eight years, she could not say she didn’t know him. Instead of judging his face, she guessed his age. He looked a little younger than Jeif’taku had when she’d met him in the desert over a year ago. Which meant he would have been a child then. Keifa’kana, ruler now of Ekhaba, would have sent one of his chosen representatives of the six Ashanti clans.
“Greetings, Kefa’bey,” Lavinia said. “You look well.”
He touched his forehead, sweeping a hand toward her in greeting and thanks. “I am glad to see you lived,” Kefa’bey said to her. “There were doubts you could survive the pull of the Sphere of Water to join it in the spirit realm.”
“There is much to say on that,” Darag answered. “Too much for standing outside of Ekhaba’s gate.”
“I was asked to see why you called and who stood with you,” Kefa’bey answered, the formal words sounding like he was not entirely pleased with the nature of his chore.
“Keifa’kana knows it is not Jeif or Leifa who are with me,” Darag replied. “He knows the touch of their power as much as he knows mine.”
“I am Kheten, keeper of the Sphere of Earth and the Temple of Stone. I wanted to meet you and thank you for restoring the Temple. I would know who our neighbors in the desert are and would welcome you to visit in the hopes of friendship.”
“I will take your greeting to our ruler, Keifa’kana. I’m certain he will be pleased to hear of your appreciation.”
Kefa’bey hesitated, gaze returning to Darag and Lavinia. Though his words had been well spoken, it was clear he wasn’t certain what to do.
“I have a message for Keifa’kana,” Darag said. “He may not be curious about what else has happened in Myrrah since we brought the Sphere of Earth to the Ashanti and left Ekhaba, but I would, at least, tell him what we’ve been asked to say.”
“Who has asked you to deliver a message?” Kefa’bey asked.
“That is for Keifa’kana to hear. It was a promise I made to a friend.”
Kefa’bey froze. A year ago in the desert, Jeif’taku had called Darag a friend. Lavinia guessed Darag had used the word deliberately, remembering how the boy Kefa’bey had watched Jeif’taku’s every gesture. Kefa’bey nodded once before walking out of sight. A moment later the gate opened.
“Be safe,” Kheten said to them as Darag walked forward.
Kheten seemed to sense the tension Lavinia felt though she had not burdened the Earth Elemental with either their grief or her worry of the Ashanti’s reception. In many ways, Lavinia was surprised Ekhaba had come.
“Don’t worry if you do not see us. We’ll leave a different way, closer to Rah Hahsessah so we can see the Temple of Rains.”
“Come back, though. I would like to see you again and how you are progressing as an Earth Elemental,” Kheten said as Lavinia walked to join Darag where he waited before the gate.
Kefa’bey stepped before them as they walked under the gate. “I bid you welcome to Ekhaba,” he said before turning to lead the way.
Despite the greeting, as hurriedly given as it had been, Kefa’bey’s pace made conversation with the young Ashanti difficult. Uneasy, Lavinia took Darag’s hand as they rushed through Ekhaba’s beautiful and uncrowded streets of hued stone and crystal. The city was unchanged from Lavinia’s memories though its occupants aged years in the span of months. Gardens full of blooming plants wafted exotic scents through the city. Water flowed in fountains and along streets. But people, especially children, were scarce. For all of Ekhaba’s beauty and the power of the Ashanti, their world was fragile, and it was fading.
It was only after they had climbed the steps to the palace at Ekhaba’s center, the bulbous golden towers rising into the shimmering desert sky, that Kefa’bey paused. “You were not expected. I … will request an audience with Keifa’kana. Wait here,” he told them, leaving them in the airy antechamber.
Darag did not look nervous. He met the glances of curious Ashanti with a direct stare. Lavinia reminded herself that these were Jeif’taku and Leifa’den’s people. But on the heels of the thought was that both had been expelled from the city, unwelcome to return. The Ashanti were not the Kith though their powers were similar. They had rules that she and Darag barely knew, and they came with a message Lavinia wasn’t certain would be welcome. She stopped trying to fight her nerves and accepted that her instinct might be right. She gazed around the chamber, memorizing the exits and windows.
“Come,” Kefa’bey said, rejoining them. He led them through a vaulted door into the spacious audience chamber.
The room was empty as they crossed it but for two figures seated at the far end and four others who stood to the side of the gemstone thrones. Kefa’bey joined the four standing, taking his place beside his ruler.
“I did not think you would return to this city,” Keifa’kana said to them by way of greeting, not rising from his throne.
A woman sat next to him, her belly large with the child she carried. Lavinia’s first thought was that the woman was supposed to have been Leifa’den and how much she would have hated to be sitting there. Unlike Leifa, the woman looked typical of the Ashanti with their dark hair and eyes and with skin nearly the color of the desert sand. Though not unlike Leifa, she did not look overly happy.
“Rah’kana expressed that we would return,” Darag answered.
“He is not Kana here now,” a man standing to Keifa’kana’s right hissed.
“And greetings to you again, Behk’sah,” Darag said with a slight nod. “And you Tef’han.”
Tef’han, shorter than even the young Kefa’bey though stocky, nodded with a wary glint toward Keifa’kana. Lavinia’s gaze rested on the two others who stood by Keifa’kana’s throne, one nearly the same age as Kefa’bey while the other was younger than Kefa’bey had been when Lavinia had met the Ashanti boy in the desert.
“And greetings to those we have not yet met,” Darag finished after a pause.
Keifa’kana shifted on his throne, glance running over the last two members of his circle. “Representing the other two clans are Mahl’den,” Keifa’kana gestured to the older of the two young Ashanti, “and Shi’taku.”
Hearing the names of Leifa and Jeif’s clans represented by new faces caught Lavinia’s breath in a way she didn’t expect. “The replacements of your former court are rather young, Keifa’kana.”
“I am not a substitute,” Shi’taku answered with the haughty tone of youth mixed with the weight of one weary of the question. “I am heir.”
“Our ways are not yours to question,” Keifa’kana snapped. Silence mingled with the hazy air.
“It is not our way to insult outsiders,” the seated woman said after the silence had stretched. “You are the two Keifa’kana told me about. The man who speaks a language like our own and the woman who touched the Sphere of Water?”
“Yes,” Lavinia answered. “Greetings to you, wife of Keifa’kana.”
The woman huffed. “I am Kita’sah. And I will leave you to receiving them, my Kana. Our son grows heavy today.” She rose unsteadily to her feet. Behk’sah’s hand twitched as if a desire to support her was barely held at bay. The room fell into silence until the pregnant queen left.
“What is the message you were sent to give me?” Keifa’kana asked as soon as the side door boomed shut.
“That the Ashanti are still fighting a war they lost a thousand years ago,” Darag answered.
Keifa’kana grew rigid in his chair while Behk’sah vibrated with power. “Who told you to tell me this?” Keifa demanded.
“Leifa and Jeif.”
“Those names are not to be spoken here!” Behk’sah shouted. His power erupted around Darag and Lavinia but drew no closer than an arm’s length. Lavinia thought it was meant to frighten until she saw the look on Behk’sah’s face. He was surprised.
“I welcomed them to Ekhaba,” Kefa’bey said, stepping from his place next to Keifa’kana. “They are my guests in Ekhaba and cannot be harmed.”
“You did this?” Keifa’kana asked the boy. Tef’han shifted uneasily while Mahl’den glanced at the stone-faced Shi’taku.
“You have felt the change in Myrrah as I have,” Kefa’bey said, his voice and expression earnest as he addressed his ruler. “They could tell us what came to pass outside the borders of the desert. You did not think Lavinia would live, having touched the Sphere of Water while it rested in the spirit realm. Do you not want to know why she is well? Do you not want to know why Leifa and Jeif did not come but sent a message?”
Kefa’bey stepped backward under Behk’sah’s glare. Power formed around the boy like a halo as Behk’sah raised a hand.
Darag stepped next to the boy and placed a hand on his shoulder. “Do not harm him,” he warned. The room filled with challenging potential, the dust on the floor rising to hang suspended in the ominous air.
“And do not make threats in my city,” hissed Keifa’kana. “You are guests and cannot be harmed, but that does not mean you are welcome. Tef’han, Behk’sah, escort them to … rooms suitable of their reception.”