Into the Unreal - Carly Stevens - E-Book

Into the Unreal E-Book

Carly Stevens

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Beschreibung

Young and powerful, they finally have the chance to make peace… or war.


 


Firian Kess, now Head of the Tanyuin Academy, sets his sights on winning over the girl he once took hostage: Kiria Arioc, Keeper of the Western Kingdom. But power always takes its toll. Firian’s better impulses wage a losing war against his desire for control. Longing for more power, he uncovers a deadly ability in the Unreal that jeopardizes his alliances and his humanity.


Facing manipulation at home and war abroad, Kiria’s bold choice to work with the Tanyu, their former enemies, makes her a political target even as she fights her growing feelings for the handsome but selfish Firian.


With violent enemies threatening both their reigns, they struggle to maintain the fragile peace they find with each other. Despite their efforts, darkness threatens to consume them, putting everyone they care about in mortal danger.


Dark and surprising, this sequel asks how far you can go before you become the very monster you’re fighting.


 

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INTO THE UNREAL

CARLY STEVENS

Copyright © 2020 by Carly Stevens

All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.

For information about permission to reproduce selections from this book, write to [email protected]

https://www.carly-stevens.com

For Jamie

CONTENTS

1. Firian

2. Kiria

3. Firian

4. Kiria

5. Firian

6. Firian

7. Kiria

8. Firian

9. Kiria

10. Firian

11. Firian

12. Firian

13. Firian

14. Firian

15. Kiria

16. Firian

17. Kiria

18. Firian

19. Firian

20. Firian

21. Kiria

22. Kiria

23. Kiria

24. Firian

25. Kiria

26. Kiria

27. Firian

28. Kiria

29. Firian

30. Kiria

31. Firian

32. Firian

33. Kiria

34. Firian

35. Firian

36. Kiria

37. Kiria

38. Kiria

39. Firian

40. Firian

41. Kiria

42. Firian

43. Firian

44. Kiria

45. Firian

46. Kiria

47. Firian

48. Kiria

49. Kiria

50. Firian

51. Kiria

52. Firian

53. Kiria

54. Firian

55. Kiria

56. Firian

57. Kiria

58. Firian

59. Kiria

60. Firian

61. Kiria

62. Firian

63. Kiria

64. Firian

65. Kiria

Acknowledgments

Also by Carly Stevens

About the Author

1

FIRIAN

To Yanon and Lithia Kess,

I am the new Head of the Tanyuin Academy. Come with the bearer of this letter.

Firian Kess

That was all the message needed to say. Firian set down the pen, took a deep breath, and looked down at the curve of the letters. When Sias Jairon’s invitation arrived in his parents’ hands years ago, each lilt of the strong letters had spoken of promise, magic.

Did the last Head’s message look so short?

Firian sat back in his chair, running his thumb against the armrests. The Tanyuin Head’s office in the Academy was small and stark, but powerful. The blank stone walls, gray like every other room in the Academy, suited him. Scarcity, simplicity, cold—these all made Firian feel more alive. They called attention back to the hot blood coursing through his veins, his own strength, his own stamina. The superiority of the Unreal.

The Unreal. Its colors put reality to shame. And the possibilities… He was a god in that imaginary space. And now he was in charge of its best warriors, those who could take out generals and tacticians through mind warfare, spread fear through dreams, communicate with the farthest reaches of the world in an instant.

His eyes strayed over the page one more time. Stamped red at the top of the paper, the Tanyuin seal confirmed who he was. It left no room to doubt the position he now held, one of the greatest and most feared in the world.

This note would prove his father wrong. Firian had amounted to something.

Brett should come too. The realization flooded his mind like the forgotten answer to a question. His sister, at least, would be proud of him.

Recent memories crowded in and his stomach clenched uncomfortably. Will she be proud of me?

The last Head had steered the Academy into darkness, into war and confusion, clinging to fearful traditions, using its warriors like they were property. He had deserved to die.

Firian’s heart thumped as the image of the man’s face returned. The wide eyes, the ashy skin, the struggling legs kicking for breath, the one word uttered in disbelief— “Firian?” The memory moved as he blinked like the negative image of bright light, bright darkness.

Firian flexed his clammy hands and stood. He leaned over just to add Bring Brett.

Taking the letter to the door of the office, he fought the urge to look at it one more time. He couldn’t help feeling that the little piece of paper didn’t properly convey its own importance. A little note couldn’t express how hard he had worked every day to earn his skills, or the sacrifices he’d made on behalf of the Academy to get to this point.

Well, maybe his family had already heard about when he took Kiria hostage. It was news across the continent. Only his promise to work with her instead of against her, now that they were both in power, had created a tenuous truce.

Master Belik sat just outside in the stone hallway. He must have dragged a chair from a nearby room so his leg wouldn’t bother him.

I need to appoint a new guard. Firian didn’t want to think about what had happened to the last one.

Belik turned when he opened the door, his bull neck craning. Light from the hall torches reflected off his glasses, hiding his eyes. “Wrote a letter, did you?”

Firian handed it to him. “See that it gets to my family in Raewhith.”

The Master moved his head just enough that Firian could see Belik’s eyes rove around his face, evaluating where they both stood in this new relationship. Belik wouldn’t suffer himself to become an errand boy. But this was important to Firian.

The Master hummed deep in his throat, almost a growl. Then one side of his mouth lifted. “Telling them the good news?”

“Yes.”

After all they’d done, they couldn’t afford to mistrust each other now. If prodded, Firian still felt rage like a deep bruise from the lies Belik had told. But the Master was also one of the only people who had believed Firian could end up here, in this office.

After Firian moved out of their shared room to stay in the very place where he’d suffocated Sais Jairon in his bed, Bard had hardly spoken to him—as though Firian had done something wrong, when he had only taken drastic action for the good of the Academy. Bard’s cautions still echoed regularly in his mind, but the two of them spent no time together anymore. Strangely, he wished Bard would understand. Firian wouldn’t admit it, but he missed him.

Still seated, Belik stretched his jaw. “So, do you want me to send this”—he held up the letter, the bottom of it scrunched in his hand—“or wait for the scouts?”

“Send that. Right away. I’ll wait for the scouts.”

Belik had told Firian what to do thousands of times. Now it was Firian’s turn.

Clearly grumpy, Belik rose from the chair, cursing the stiffness in his leg as he walked away toward the inner courtyard.

His uneven footsteps overlapped with the patter of new ones getting louder down the hall. A border patroller marched three people bound in front of him. Bold of him to conduct all three scouts himself. Firian found himself liking the patroller.

The scouts from Brithnem wore brown and green and tan clothing. Firian scrutinized them from their heads to their dirty boots. No weapons.

Unlike scouts from other countries, people from Brithnem almost never matched. Too much Khelê blood. In fact, one of the scouts, the only woman, was definitely Khelê. She was stout but attractive, a few years older than Firian, with a milky white eye and tattoos on the side of her head that didn’t have a wave of blonde hair. The two men varied as well. One, the tallest of the group, had a beard and was muscled like a seasoned fighter, while the other reminded Firian of a deer, thin and graceful.

Firian waved them all into his office. The door clicked closed behind them.

“So these are the Kingdom scouts.” He strolled once again behind his desk, the one where all the leaders had sat since the Tanyu split from the Amir so long ago.

None of the scouts showed fear. Didn’t they know what he could do to them? What any other Tanyuin Head would do to them? But he had promised Kiria to send them back unharmed. She’d be waiting for them, for the end of the Tanyuin War, for proof that she could trust him. Firian took a deep breath.

The border patroller forced the three of them to their knees.

Firian’s face flushed. “You’ve come on secret land,” he said. “No one has come from outside and lived.”

The thin man leaned, almost imperceptibly, toward the woman in the center as though for protection or comfort. The woman’s white eye grew wider, but she bared her teeth, almost animal-like in defiance. Their sweaty stink began to fill the office.

Firian had to watch his words. The border patroller carried a large sword, unsheathed. Firian couldn’t let him misunderstand and stain the floor black-red.

“But today,” he continued, “we have the same goal. I am the new Tanyuin Head, and my plans are different from my predecessor.” His lip curled with the word different. “I want to end the war between us.” Already tired of the desk between them, Firian came back around it to stand directly over the scouts. His body cast a torchlight shadow across them. “As proof, I will let you live.”

The woman’s chest rose and fell, the only sign of her relief. The patroller’s hand didn’t relax its grip on the sword.

“Tomorrow, you’ll return to Brithnem with my terms, and the Academy’s location will no longer be secret.”

He felt the force of the patroller’s surprise. His mouth slackened and his knuckles burned white on the hilt. The hum of unsaid questions whirred through the air.

Firian stood taller, sure in his decision. The Academy would be exposed, but this decision would provide undeniable proof that Kiria could trust him. He could recruit soldiers from neighboring towns, fend off bands of curious mercenaries, or even whole armies with the Kingdom on his side. Open trade would bring more wealth and power to the Tanyu. Though he hated giving up a long-held secret, he would just hold tightly to the ones that remained about his famed warriors. “Bring my terms to the Second Keeper. When she accepts them, the war will end.” Kiria. He wouldn’t let the other Keepers make such a crucial decision. What did they matter? He ended this war for her. Together, they could use their power to do whatever they wanted. She probably still had that notebook of ideas of how to lead the Kingdom with justice, peace, order… Warmth, almost a caress, snuck up the back of his neck into his hairline.

He jerked his head. “Get them up.”

The patroller kicked the woman’s heels and the three of them trundled to their feet.

“You’ll stay with the border patrollers tonight. In the morning, I’ll give you the terms.” He caught the man’s eye as he turned the three of them away. Don’t hurt them. The patroller nodded, disappointment in his eyes.

2

KIRIA

Kiria adjusted her crown and swung around to check it in the glass. It seemed to be centered. She couldn’t help wanting every minute detail to be perfect. Today was her first official session as Keeper. Though she had been coronated, today she would take her throne.

“It looks perfect,” her mother crooned, touching one of its silver points with a finger. Kiria could see her and her Amiran advisor Chetana standing in the middle of the bedroom floor behind her.

The only one missing was her father, killed by Torithians a few months before. He would have been so proud of her. She fought back the memory of getting that news, when Firian had tried to comfort her, holding her as she wept, but nothing was enough. Her mother had been even more devastated by his death than she was.

After clearing her throat, Kiria turned to look at her mother. Not long ago, she had worn this crown. Kiria didn’t have any regrets about taking over the throne, but seeing only pride in her mother’s face made her smile.

“This is a big day for you,” her mother said, squeezing Kiria’s hand. “Why haven’t you changed?”

“I will in a second.” Kiria bit the inside of her cheek. While she got ready, putting on the trappings of a Keeper for the first time since the coronation, she didn’t want her Beauty yet. She wanted a moment for the title to seep into every part of her, to let its glow be beautiful enough. In the Main, she would appear with her official face, the one blessed by God with painfully complete Beauty, but for a second she was just Kiria. This part of her wore the crown too.

As though she’d been summoned, Candrae, one of her serving girls, rushed to check the fastening of Kiria’s dress. Kiria flinched as Candrae touched the buttons.

“Oh, My Keeper!” Candrae cried, laying a palm gently on Kiria’s bare back.

“The tattoo’s still a little tender. It’s not your fault.” Kiria’s design covered the upper part of her back and shoulder blades. She’d chosen a design similar to the one Mari Calthwaite had received in Carradoc. Artists kept a record of all the designs, and she’d always admired the beauty and ferocity of the founder’s. Delicate swirls ending in claw-like points adorned her upper back like jeweled armor. Kiria had added a subtle laird flower in the center to symbolize the peace of Brithnem. The final flourish, a graceful point, rose up the nape of her neck.

Since she’d had the procedure, she’d worn open-backed dresses. This one, all light blue, made her appear every inch a Keeper.

“I’m sure she won’t do it again,” said her mother, eyeing Candrae, who dropped her gaze.

Kiria squeezed Candrae’s hand gently to reassure her that she’d done nothing wrong, then turned her attention to Chetana. “Do you have a tattoo?” She’d never noticed one on her advisor’s dark skin, but her advisor was fiercely proud of being Khelê. Most Khelê had tattoos in recognition of their heritage. It was in solidarity with the mismatched race of Khelê that the tradition of royal tattoos had started all those years ago.

Chetana tapped the side of her head with an elegant finger. “Right there. Not all allegiances are obvious to the eye.” She pulled down the high-necked collar of her Amiran robe. Beneath her hairline of dark, rusty curls, the edge of a tattoo unfurled. Although impossible to see the whole design, it had the signature curls, dots, and points of most Khelê tattoos.

“You used to shave your head?”

Chetana smoothed the collar back up and patted the sides of her close-cut hair. “For a very short while.”

“I didn’t know that, Chetana,” her mother said, drawing her brows together.

“It’s not always best to give every detail of one’s past. The present is more important.”

Kiria was about to ask why when a voice cut in.

“You know, compared to Atty’s, yours is very nice.”

Kiria whirled around at the sound of Jori’s voice. True to form, Jori wore the finest clothes in the sloppiest ways. His embroidered vest was undone as though he were just arriving at home. How he could manage to seem at home no matter where he was remained a mystery to Kiria. “Atty’s is exactly like your father’s, though. That has to mean something.”

“And? I think it must be something about the skin,” he said thoughtfully. He sauntered up beside her. Blushing, Candrae backed up against the vanity.

Despite herself, Kiria smiled. “You’re ridiculous.”

“The Keeper is right,” Chetana agreed with no hint of levity.

“Of course,” he replied. Giving into his penchant for theatrics, he bowed his head.

“I’m surprised they let you in,” her mother said, with a little more amusement.

“I’m not.” Jori flashed a mischievous grin. “Well!” He turned again to Kiria. “I just wanted to wish you good luck. With those two, you’re going to need it.” Those two were Cúron and Jori’s brother Atty, the other Keepers.

“Hardly,” she said. “I can hold my own.”

He winked. “That’s my girl.”

“We need to finish getting ready for the session,” Chetana said pointedly.

Jori flourished a hand. “Point taken. You might start talking politics at any moment.” He headed toward the door. “All my best, darling,” he cried as it shut behind him.

Candrae returned to fiddle with the ties of Kiria’s dress. It felt secure back there. Maybe Candrae just wanted to feel like she had something to do.

“Speaking of politics,” her mother said, “have you done your research?”

Kiria fought not to roll her eyes. “Yes, I’ve done my research.” She’d dived into the issues until she could barely see by the candlelight. The past week had been packed with nothing but study punctuated by checking for the scouts Firian had promised to send.

She wouldn’t know if she could trust him until all three scouts came back unharmed, with peace terms and news of the Tanyuin Academy’s location. She prayed he was as good as his word. If her gut was right, and he was telling the truth, then the war against the Tanyu would be over, and they could potentially end their war with the pirates as well. What a victory that would be—peace on both fronts!

If her calculations were correct, it took about two weeks to travel between Brithnem and the Academy. One more week to wait.

She came back to the present and closed her eyes. A tingling covered her body as she put on her Beauty. When the change completed, her mother gasped softly behind her. No one quite got used to the Ability. Beauty revealed everything Kiria was, but more. She’d seen it over and over again in the glass. Her light brown eyes turned golden, her mousy brown hair rich and full, her skin flawless, her figure immaculate. It was everything she was meant to be.

Candrae stopped fussing over the back of her dress.

A satisfied smile curled the edges of Kiria’s lips. Despite the dangers of war, of wrong decisions, of future anxiety, she felt ready, eager to begin.

“Is it time?” her mother asked, smiling.

“Let’s go.”

Guards flanked them as they left for the Main, the enormous meeting room for the three Keepers of Brithnem. Kiria couldn’t count how many times she had snuck in there as a child, then sat in on sessions when she was older, but now… now she was a Keeper.

When they arrived, two guards opened the grandly carved double doors. Blood hummed through her veins as she saw a familiar sight, now glowing with possibility. The dais in the center of the room held three thrones: one for Cúron, one for Atty, and the center one for her.

From the ceiling hung the blue and purple flags of Brithnem. Movable walls portioned off part of the room so it didn’t look as cavernous as it had during her coronation. A collection of chairs ringed the bottom of the steps, spreading back onto the intricate floor mosaic. Daelon, her tutor, smiled encouragingly at her from the front row.

Her mother and Chetana took their place near him in the front row with the other Amir, nobles, and generals. Kiria climbed the steps to her throne between the other two. Surely this was a dream. Atty, dressed in a fur robe much too warm for the season, pursed his lips in a reassuring smile as she took her seat. Not too long ago, he’d had his first session too.

As soon as Kiria sat, Chetana rose to begin the session with a prayer. She quoted part of the passage from the Sacred Scroll carved along the edge of the ceiling.

With the session open, Kiria spoke. “Keepers, Amir, and dignitaries, I am so pleased to be here today to carry on the long tradition of the Second Keeper.” She looked at her mother. “I pray that I can bring honor to the position. I know that I’ll do everything in my power to better the Western Kingdom, and to protect it, as I swore at my coronation. I look forward to serving you all the best of my ability.”

The small crowd gave polite applause.

“We’re sure you will,” Cúron replied, smiling at her. “Now onto the matters at hand. Because of the Tanyuin threat to our citizens, I have discussed with our military strategist Petra Madola about allowing people to sleep during the day and work at night, since that is when all the nightmare attacks happen. Our normal economy will be temporarily disrupted, but it is important to keep the people of Brithnem feeling safe.”

“There haven’t been any attacks since the new Tanyuin Head took over,” Kiria pointed out.

“No one has reported an attack,” Cúron admitted, “but we assume that he’s just getting settled. Firian Kess is young and no doubt took the position by force. Once his crown is secure, he’ll turn our way again.”

When Kiria turned to Atty, he nodded almost apologetically.

“I don’t think he will,” she insisted.

“Don’t forget what he did, to you, to all of us.” Even as Cúron turned dramatically to the little crowd, there was a clear warning in his voice.

How could she forget? She was the one taken hostage, not him. She bit back a retort. Diplomacy, even when Cúron was condescending to her, was the best way. He wasn’t a bad man, she reminded herself, just ambitious.

“I think it works as a solution for now,” Atty said, referring back to the sleeping schedules. He raised an eyebrow at her, a friendly nudge to get her back on track.

“There!” said Cúron. The word was a warm reward to Atty for having said the right thing. Was this how Cúron spoke to Kiria’s mother when she was the Keeper? To leave everything to Cúron, the oldest and most experienced leader, must have been tempting, but Kiria had known since she was a child that she wanted to be a different kind of ruler than her mother.

Kiria’s brows twitched downward. Dimly, she noticed the attention shift to her. Every gesture she made was magnified with her Beauty.

“So, if no one has anything else to say…?” Cúron let the question hang in the air as he regarded the advisors, the generals, the other Keepers. He ran his hand once over his white beard.

“I have something to say.” Kiria’s own voice surprised her. She shouldn’t be rankled by something so small. But this was her first session. Everyone needed to take her seriously as their leader, not push aside her voice.

“I would like to announce that I have received hopeful news from the new Tanyuin Head that our war may be at an end.”

Surprised shuffling. Her mother stared at her with a warning in her eyes. Bold moves, according to her, often led to danger. Maybe that was the reason she never proposed any.

That look made Kiria falter, though she was no less sure of what she wanted to say. Surely her mother had to feel proud of her once she heard the plan.

Cúron turned to her with another admonishing expression. “When did you receive this news?” he demanded.

“The day before my coronation.”

“From what source?”

She hesitated, just for a moment. “The Tanyuin Head himself.” I stood here and he stood there. She glanced at the spot on the dais as though she could still see his shadow.

“And you trust this news?” Cúron began.

“What did he say?” The fact that Atty talked over Cúron proved his surprise.

Kiria turned to Atty. “He said he had our scouts, but that he would send them all back safely with terms to end the Tanyuin War. He also promised to help us in our efforts against the Torithians as well.”

Cúron’s eyes narrowed.

He was probably thinking that, mere months ago, Firian had double-crossed them. The Academy had ordered him to do it. Now that he was in charge, though, things would be different. Probably. Hopefully.

“What does he want in return?” Cúron asked.

“He doesn’t want a vote like the Amir. He just wants Torithian prisoners of war.” Anticipating their next question, she added, “The scouts should be here in a week to confirm if he’s telling the truth.”

“Until then,” said Cúron, his voice booming now, to include everyone in the small crowd, “we will refrain from negotiations with Tanyu.”

He said it as a parent would to a child. There was something final, non-negotiable, about it. Kiria bit her lip. It would be extraneous to add anything else, wouldn’t it?

Gathering her courage, she said, “I hope this will mean the end of both wars for us. If we don’t broadcast the alliance, then we’ll be able to surprise the Torithians. Though it’s unlikely, an alliance with the Tanyu could be the most advantageous move for us right now. A risky one, but if it pays off, well worth it.”

Obviously a little irritated that Kiria got the last word, Cúron smiled broadly. She met his gaze. Especially since the death of Atty’s father, Cúron was used to being right, to being the one to run these meetings. It was true that he did have more experience, but Kiria planned to contribute just as much as he did.

Parohim, Cúron’s advisor, stood, holding a piece of paper. “Next on our—”

With a huge crash, a window exploded into shards. Kiria’s arms shook once against the carved armrests as pieces of glass shattered across the floor.

Parohim ducked. She thought she caught the flash of an arrow and her heart turned to ice. But no. Just glass.

Everyone at the foot of the dais twisted to see the many-paned window. Two guards patrolling the door sprinted outside. Others ran protectively toward the Keepers on the dais.

Kiria’s spine stiffened with fear. She let out a shaky breath, fighting the urge to touch the wound on her shoulder. No other crash followed, but threat billowed like smoke through the room.

Shouting came through the empty window. Cúron and one of the generals stood. The distortion and height of the glass didn’t offer a good view of what was happening, especially now that the dais was surrounded by guards poised to fight. From her seat, Kiria could only look between them.

“What was that?” Atty asked.

Kiria looked at him but couldn’t answer.

After a few more seconds, one of the guards returned.

“What happened?” Cúron demanded.

“There’s no danger, My Keepers,” said the guard, bowing. “We apprehended two protesters throwing rocks at the window. They are being held outside, bound.”

Kiria’s brow furrowed. She stood to see around the guards, who parted respectfully and stepped halfway down the steps so she could get a clear view. “Protesters? What were they protesting?”

“Please forgive me, My Keepers. They were protesting your ascension to the throne.”

Something like guilt threaded through her. She’d heard a passing comment to that effect before she was coronated. Her mother Merian was well-loved by the people. But this disruption took Kiria completely by surprise.

Her mother stood angrily. “Tell them my daughter has my full support.” Her tone was strained, as though the anger wasn’t directed only at the protesters, but at her daughter too.

“Of course, My… lady.” The guard turned his full attention to Kiria. “What shall we do with them, My Keeper?”

All attention shifted to her. She felt herself pale. This is it. So soon, she had to make a hard decision on her own.

Why had these protesters snuck onto the palace grounds? Why couldn’t they have stayed home? She couldn’t let them go. To solidify her reign, she had to show that this threatening behavior wouldn’t be tolerated.

It would be easy to execute them. The thought made her still. What a horrible thought! It would be simpler than a just solution, but she wanted justice more than simplicity. The temptation snagged at her consciousness, but, finally, she stood. “Keep them in a cell for two nights. After that, bring them here to me. If they swear allegiance to me as their Keeper and beg forgiveness, I will show them mercy.” Swear allegiance, beg forgiveness… The solution sounded self-centered. But this wasn’t just about her, it was about the Second Line.

She glanced around quickly for affirmation—her mother, Chetana, Daelon, Cúron… To her relief, they all regarded her with a little pride. She looked at Atty last, who seemed like he wanted to clap her on the shoulder in congratulations. She let out a furtive sigh of relief.

“Of course, My Keeper,” said the guard. “Right away.”

3

FIRIAN

Blood coated Firian’s knuckles as he pounded the mattress leaning against a tree. He needed something to beat, some way to release the aggression welling up like oil under his skin. The mattress would do. At least he wouldn’t break his hands.

Today, the Unreal wasn’t enough.

His family was coming today.

The scouts wouldn’t arrive in Brithnem for a few days. Though there was plenty to occupy his time, this visit was the most urgent. Some of the older Masters grated against his authority, but he could deal with them after he confronted the monster lurking in his past. After that, he would rid himself of fear and put them all in their place.

Now, though, memories filled him like a disease. His father storming in, coiled as a wire. The sight of him made Firian taste salt in his mouth and scan the objects in the room so he’d know what he might have to prepare himself to face. The fury in those eyes looking for an outlet for his rage.

His sister Brett always sensed the danger immediately too. She touched Firian’s upper arm for him to back up, his little body shadowed behind hers. He stumbled back a step, wincing at the fumbling sound it made.

His mother leaned back, placing one palm on the table as Father approached. She looked empty, fragile, like a doll. Firian’s throat constricted until he was fighting to breathe. Mother had no power to fight, either for herself or for them.

Father sneered and violently grabbed her wrist. “Don’t act like you’re afraid of me, Lithia,” he spat, flinging her away. “God, it’s no wonder your son is such a coward.”

Though Father didn’t look at him, Firian tensed at every movement. He burned with shame at how thankful he was to have Brett standing in front of him. Father never hit Brett.

His mother, shaking, didn’t respond.

“Did you hear what I said?” Father snarled, bending to stare Mother in the eye. The motion made Mother seem like a little girl. “Or are you stupid?”

Mother dropped her eyes, shuffling her feet, maybe to start doing something else. The whole room began to smell sharp and sour. When Firian was very small, he had thought the smell came from the forge, maybe the coke burning, or the panes of glass before they were cool. He learned better eventually.

“Gore!” Father swore. “Look at me, Lithia! Look at me, you idiotic woman!” He squeezed her chin in his hand so hard it distorted her face.

Something touched Firian’s arm. He jumped. Brett again. He pressed her hand lightly enough that Father wouldn’t see the movement.

“I have to put up with this after working all day? I don’t know why I bother to feed you.”

“I’m sorry, Yanon,” she whimpered.

He struck her across the face. “You know why? It’s because nobody would buy you even if you offered.”

“I’m sorry…”

“Oh, are you?” He came at her like a man possessed.

Firian knew this part. He shut his eyes tight, trying not to listen, but every attempt just amplified the sounds. The half-strangled screams ripped through his little body. Every muffled thump bruised him in dark, dark places…

Firian swiped sweat off his forehead with the back of his hand, willing the memory away, but it was like sound. Trying not to notice just pushed it into sharper relief. Growling, he swung and hit, over and over, leaning into the pain, into the anger that fueled him. Anger, not fear. His knuckles ached and stung as they made contact.

The mattress ripped. Straw stuck out of the holes at crazy angles, slicing Firian’s hands. He pulled back and grunted with another hard swing. The punch made the mattress wobble and almost fall.

He swung lower, jabbing upward, bobbing up and down on the balls of his feet. A red smear appeared where his fists had touched, as though there had been a murder.

“So that’s where it went.”

Firian twisted violently around. Bard. He’d stolen the bottom bunk mattress from Bard’s room. Only Bard’s room, now that he had moved into the bedroom attached to the Head’s office. He didn’t answer.

“When are they coming?” Bard asked softly.

Firian bit back a curse. Bard always knew. He glanced at the sun, rubbing his hands on his pants. “Now.”

Bard turned around, preparing to walk back to the Academy with him. He preserved a wise silence for a moment before asking, “What are you going to do?”

Firian pursed his mouth and ran his sleeve across his face. What a time for Bard to talk to him!They hadn’t interacted much at all since Firian had killed Sias Jairon. Maybe even before, when Firian had tracked down some of the Sentries they’d freed together.

He still didn’t know what he was going to do with his family. He wanted to make his father pay. It would be the first time Firian saw his father since he’d taken the entrance test when he was eleven. The pit of his stomach tightened again.

Still breathing hard from boxing the mattress, he answered, “I don’t know.”

“You’re not going to…?”

“I don’t know.”

The breeze blew the shirt-sweat cold.

“You got what you wanted,” Bard said. “There’s no need to hurt them.”

Firian lifted his chin. He’d played versions of this meeting in his head for years, but now that the moment had come, he wasn’t sure what he would do.

“Fir?”

He gave Bard a pointed look. He would decide when his family stood in front of him.Should he invite them into his office? It wasn’t very grand. That was just Firian’s style, but at this moment, he wished it were covered in tapestries and heraldry and trophies from the defeated. At least he would wear his crown. He had brought it with him, tied to one of the straps of his black coat. Reaching back, he unknotted it. The hard metal felt cold against his forehead. Who was worthless now?

“You don’t want regrets, yeah? Firian, I’m serious.”

“I know you are. You’re always serious.” Releasing his thoughts even that much started to relax his tense muscles as well. He resettled the crown into a more comfortable position. Maybe he shouldn’t hurt him, but only threaten…

Maybe they were already here.

His throat started to close. Damn it, you’re the Tanyuin Head!They’ll do anything you say.

Bard looked up at him solemnly, black hair wild. “I’ll be just outside.”

Firian started to protest, but stopped. If Bard were outside, he might find the self-control not to order his father’s death. Brett and his mother would probably be horrified if he killed his father, even though the scut deserved it. They didn’t need to see that side of him.

A warm droplet leaked down his finger, pooled on his fingertip, and dropped into the pine needles.

“Okay.”

A black figure strode from the Academy toward them, darker than the fortress’s dark walls. As he got closer, his features materialized into Ryker, a Learner, about fourteen. More white than usual ringed his brown eyes as he approached Firian. He softened toward the boy. “Master Kess,” he said, “your visitors have arrived. They’re just outside your office.”

Even though he’d been expecting the message, his insides leapt. He nodded, his face uncomfortably hot. “Tell them I’m coming.”

“As you would have it, Master Kess.”

Ryker ran back to the Academy to deliver the message, and the two of them hiked back at a greater speed. Firian fought the urge to run the rest of the way.

Within minutes they had breached the enormous wooden doors and swept through the fountain courtyard with its chandelier. Learners made way for them.

Firian’s pulse beat in his throat as they turned down the hallway to the Head’s office. His office.

And there they were. Belik and the door guard flanked the three of them, who all looked soft by comparison. His father’s brown hair had grown peppery gray, his thin frame more like human gristle than muscle. His arms were so narrow. Those eyes, those accusing eyes, were exactly the same. They widened only a fraction to see Firian, grown and strong and crowned, coming toward them.

He remembered his mother from the trip to Raewhith with Kiria. Now, though still washed out, she was dressed in her best. The faded yellow dress hung limply on her body.

And then there was Brett. Her baby hadn’t come with her. He had almost forgotten his sister was coming. Despite all the anticipation for his father’s arrival, she was the one who caught and held his eye. She stood sturdy and vibrant compared to the others. The long, glossy hair he remembered was tied back in a braid. Her lined eyes regarded him with an unreadable expression. She could have been proud or wary or glad or condemning. He tried to find the words there that he’d tacked to his bedpost and then fastened to the Sacred Scroll. Now you’ll be a warrior—a Tanyu—one of the bravest and smartest people in the world! I love you. I won’t forget you. The memory of them made him swell with pride. Brett had believed in him when no one else did. And now he was the Tanyuin Head. He lifted his mouth in a half smile for her.

Though her ambiguous expression didn’t change, her eyes twinkled back.

Feeling bolstered, he turned to his father. “Come in,” he said, his tone turning cold as he passed them to enter his office.

His father shifted. “Firian—”

“Shut up!”

His mother jumped at the ferocity of his comeback. Firian almost did too. He was a dam about to break.

He would deal with the others later. His blood coursed hot as his father’s eyes strayed to his knuckles. Remembering the time Father had struck him for coming home from school with bloody knuckles, Firian could barely see through his rage. That had been one day—one day!—before he went to the Academy. The last insult he would suffer from that man. He couldn’t begin civilly. Now, he needed retribution, payment for all the years of torture he and his mother had endured at the hands of this monster.

“Come in,” he repeated more softly, burning with the pain of holding in the fury he felt.

Without a word, his father followed him inside. Both Belik and Bard stayed outside with the rest of his family. With a wave of his hand, Firian ushered in the new armor-clad guard, who closed the door behind them.

Now practically alone, he stepped heavily toward his father. They were the same height now. Snarling, he stopped less than a hand’s-span from his face. All of his practiced speeches disappeared. What were words anyway? They couldn’t make up for what was done, all the sleepless nights, the noises he heard from his mother in the quiet, his life-long fear that his father might have been right about him…

He paused just long enough for his father’s stare to flash up to the open iron square on his forehead. “Get on your knees,” he whispered.

“Firi—”

“On your knees!” Firian roared, stepping back. His chest rose and fell as though he had run for hours. He ground his teeth, staring down the man who had made his entire family feel like nothing.

Steadying himself, he took a deep breath. “I am the Head of the Tanyuin Academy. If I tell my people to kill you, they will. Without hesitation. So get on your knees.”

Hatred radiated from his father as he lowered himself down slowly, tentatively.

Kneeling before him, he looked so small, and Firian hated him more for it. “Now beg my forgiveness.”

“I didn’t do anything to you.”

Heat burst into Firian’s skull and he pulled his hand back only after he realized what he had done. Father’s temple was dark red, and a welt beaded up where Firian’s Master ring had struck him.

He blinked in horror. What had he done? For an irrational moment, he thought his father would retaliate, grow large as he was in his dreams, and beat him.

As Firian had just done to him.

Fresh disgust, this time at himself, flowed through his thoughts. He was a warrior getting justice, someone who’d learned violence as a force for power and respect and doing good. But for a sickening moment, he felt like he was looking in a glass at a distorted image of himself.

I didn’t do anything to you.

He refused to explain all the times his father had called him worthless, had beaten him and his mother, had talked down to him, had not believed in him. He would not itemize his pain. But he would have his revenge.

Collecting himself again, he remembered his purpose. “Beg.”

Silence from the head bent downward.

“Beg or I’ll kill you.” It was still probably true.

His father cleared his throat. “For whatever you think I did…”

“Start over,” he growled.

“I’m sorry.” The words wrung out of him, grating, quiet, forced.

Firian waited.

“I’m sorry for… hurting you in some way.” Even from this angle, his jaw clearly worked with agitation.

Firian cut a grim look at the guard and nodded once. The guard struck his father on the back of the head. The blow made him lean forward and catch himself on his hands.

Firian’s blood beat at the sight. Yes, beg.

“I’m sorry.” Now his voice had more of the right tone. Maybe he thought he was begging for his life. He was. “I’m sorry.”

The picture became disgusting. Repulsed, Firian kicked him lightly on the wrist. “Get up.”

His father did, coming back into himself like a second skin. Here he was again, the demon from his past, his hate-filled eyes rimmed unhealthily with red. His sallow cheeks paled like a fever victim’s.

Firian nodded again to the guard, who opened the door. Firian’s mother stood with her hands to her mouth. Brett glared through the opening, her forehead a mass of tight wrinkles. They must have heard the whole thing. Good. Now they knew this monster could be beaten.

His father didn’t spare them a glance, but his skin flushed pink with the knowledge that they were being watched.

“You can’t hurt me now,” Firian said, “but if I hear that you’ve hurt them, I’ll harm you in ways you’ve never heard of. I’ll torture your dreams, I’ll send Tanyu to fetch your fingers one by one…” He stopped because he was shaking.

Though his father didn’t quail, Firian noticed that he barely breathed as he stared back at his son. Firian would make good on every threat. He felt the complicated looks of all four watchers as he glared at his father: Brett, his mother, Master Belik, Bard.

He willed himself back to calm. His hands stilled. “Get out.”

When his father turned around, Firian knew that was the last time he’d ever see him. And he was glad.

The guard widened the door for him.

As his father stalked out, his mother’s eyes rounded, huge as a doe’s. Fear, not relief or thanks, radiated from her.

A wave of grief, surprising in its strength, assaulted him at the sight of her. As a child, he’d reserved some of his anger for her because she hadn’t stood up for him all those nights when his father came home and struck him and called him a scut and screamed that he never should have been born. But she was a victim too, even more than he was. How had he never seen it? Trapped in that cruel marriage, it was all she could do to be kind to them. She had never been strong enough to protect them. Firian’s eyes felt hot.

He turned to Brett. She stared back, disbelieving, her eyes full of angry shock. The total effect made her look almost like a Tanyu. Despite the accusation in her expression, the sight made him a little proud of her.

“Bring them in.” He wanted to be able to talk to them, reassure them, without Belik and Bard overhearing. The women came in and stood where his father had. When the door closed again, he met Brett’s glare. “He deserved worse.”

“Firian,” Brett began, her blue eyes mirroring his own. A dozen questions died on her lips. “Firian, how could you?” They must have overheard through the door.

“You can stay here if you think he’ll hurt you.”

“We can’t stay here.” She took a tentative step forward. “We can’t live at the Academy. I have a family.”

“Bring them.”

She took a small, exasperated breath. “We can’t.” Her eyes softened, a version of the look he’d been waiting for from her. “I was excited to see you. When we got the letter, it felt like the first one, but this time you wrote it.” She looked down in a sort of disbelief before continuing. “I knew you could do it. Even when kids made fun of you and you weren’t sure, I knew you could do this.” Her voice was soft and earnest, dropping now to a whisper. “But you don’t want to become like him.”

His insides curled as she reflected his own thoughts back to him. “I’m not like him.”

“You have power now, Firian. If you hurt people with it, you shouldn’t have it.” She shook her head.

He forced his twitching fingers not to reach for the crown to readjust it again. “I didn’t hurt him. And even if I’d killed him, he would have deserved worse. You grew up with him. You know the kind of man he is! He’s scum, trash.”

Brett lowered her voice even further. “Firian, he’ll hurt Mother.”

“He already does!” Anger flushed him. Why was she questioning him? Somebody finally put Father in his place, on his knees, begging forgiveness, where he belonged until his miserable life ended.

“No. We’re going back.”

“No, you aren’t.”

“Sabir is there.” The baby.

“Bring him too. Live in Tánuil. And if he comes back—”

“Listen to yourself. You can’t make everything better by controlling it. I can protect myself. Gaius can protect me.” The words made a soothing chant, as though she were putting a child to sleep.

Suddenly Firian was eleven again. “I’ll protect you,” he said, a low whisper through barely parted teeth. The purity of the words filled his body with light. There was something whole about it. Maybe this is why he had become the Head in the first place.

A tight smile passed over Brett’s features. “I know you want to.”

The idea struck him suddenly. “I’ll protect Raewhith.” He turned his attention to Belik and Bard in turn. All of them would approve. “It needs us. There’s no city wall.”

She didn’t protest.

“Brett.” Here was something she couldn’t argue against. He took her hand gently in his, and something inside him twisted with emotion. “I promise I’ll look after you and mother. My Tanyu will guard the city and check up on you. I meant all those things I said, so I’ll figure it out.”

She pursed her lips as she listened. “Okay,” she said, his sister again.

He dropped her hand, smiling grimly. “Okay.”

4

KIRIA

“I can’t believe you were communicating with that Tanyu!” Kiria’s mother muttered, setting down her coffee. The cup rattled in the dish. “It was entirely unsafe.” Light from the ceiling-high windows of her bedroom crowned her.

“But look what we got from it,” Kiria replied. Technically she’d gotten very little yet from talking with Firian, but she had a decent idea of the Academy’s location as well as his promise to end the wars.

Her mother shook her head, flinging the unpleasant thoughts away like water droplets.

The palace had buzzed with the news of Kiria’s first session, both the ill-planned attack and her announcement about an alliance. Sessions in the Main were usually guarded secrets, but people weren’t guarding their words as closely as they should. At least if quick silences and pointed glances were any indication.

Taking another drink of lukewarm coffee, Kiria eyed her mother. She had something on her mind, though Kiria couldn’t figure out what it was. An eager, abstracted look kept flitting across her mother’s face. It made a stark contrast to her usual demeanor of resigned grace.

“Now that you are the Keeper,” her mother began, as though she’d practiced.

Kiria took a protective sip.

“You need to think about marrying.”

Fighting not to cough, Kiria swallowed. “Now?” she asked. She was still eighteen. In all the excitement of the past year, she’d barely given marriage a passing thought. For a second, she envied Kader, Cúron’s son, who was too young to be pestered about such things.

“As soon as possible. It’s the best way to secure the Second Line.” Her mother folded her hands in her lap. “Is there anyone you have an eye on?”

The way she asked the question suggested she wanted to be in on the secret to make up for Kiria’s excluding her before.

A brief image of sitting with Firian on the night-dark wooden walkways of Shifra came back to her. He had leaned in, brushed back her hair, breathed against her mouth… She shook off the unwanted memory as a servant approached to refresh her coffee with some newly boiled. Firian had betrayed her almost immediately afterward. It didn’t matter that they’d shared a moment, had almost kissed. “No,” she replied.

Her mother’s face fell a little. “Well, there are plenty of men interested in getting to know you. You should invite some of them here, or even host a party to meet them.”

“I’m sure there are.” Kiria wasn’t using her Beauty now, but she knew how alluring it was.

“You don’t have to decide today or this week,” her mother said, “but it would help the Kingdom accept you as their leader if you showed a dedication to continue the family line.”

Would it, though? Would marriage prevent unrestlike they saw at the session? It seemed unlikely. A small part of her was insulted that her mother would play on her weaknesses like that. But maybe she was right. Marriage was a good idea. Before, Kiria was too young to consider it seriously, and then she was swept up in the danger of assassination when Firian had to be called in as a bodyguard.

Kiria tipped her mouth. Her mother never meant to hurt her. They were each other’s only family left. Kiria couldn’t let small things come between them.

“I’ll think about it,” she promised.

Her mother’s smile turned mischievous. “I have a couple young men in mind that you might like.”

Curious, Kiria struggled to think of who they might be. “Who?”

“Don’t look at me like that, Kiria,” her mother said lightly. “I know you’ve never been very interested in the guards or ambassadors’ sons.” Her face fell just long enough that Kiria could tell she was remembering her own husband, a general. The pause lasted long enough for memories to clog their throats before passing away again. “In fact,” she continued, “part of me is glad. A Beauty like yours can be dangerous if used the wrong way.”

Kiria nodded, waiting for the names of her mother’s suggested young men.

“Have you met General Madola’s son Warrick?”

She struggled to remember. The vague image of a tall, thin boy flitted across her memory. “Once, I think.”

“What about him?”

She considered. “I’d have to meet him again.” She accidentally allowed a slight grimace on her face as she spoke.

“Or what about Tierney Oscal?”

“I’d rather marry Jori!” Every time Kiria saw Tierney, he ogled her openly and she’d caught him more than once making bawdy comments to his friends.

“Don’t joke,” her mother said, frowning. “He comes from a noble family that has donated generously to help Brithnem through the years.”

“I know who he is,” Kiria said pointedly. “Have you met him? Aren’t Keepers supposed to stay pure until marriage? Stay true just to one person?”

Her mother blushed. “Yes! Is he…? If he’s like that, then of course I wouldn’t recommend him. But his family…”

“Not everyone is like their family.” A meaningful hush fell between them, and Kiria took a final swig of coffee.

A knock at the door interrupted her thoughts. A guard stepped inside. “Pardon me, my lady,” he said, addressing her mother before turning to Kiria. “My Keeper, the scouts have arrived.”

The cup clattered in the saucer as Kiria stood. “Where are they?” She could feel her mother’s gaze on her, scrutinizing her enthusiasm, but she didn’t care.

“They’re meeting with Keeper Cúron and one of the military strategists now.”

“Take me there.” How is Cúron always the first to know? She turned to her mother, who still sat. “I need to go.”

“Yes,” her mother replied, arching her eyebrows. But then she softened. “You’re right. You should go. I hope we all hear good news.”

With a nod, Kiria swept out the door, donning her Beauty as she went. The scouts were convening in the dining room, which sometimes doubled as a small meeting chamber. She arrived in a rush.

Three scouts, still dirty from travel, sat at the table. Two men and one woman. Cúron and Petra Madola sat opposite them. The scouts stopped talking when they saw Kiria, hastening to their feet.

“Ah, I’m glad you could join us!” Cúron exclaimed. He didn’t stand.

A guard emerged from his post by the door to pull out a seat for her. She sat and regarded the scouts who appeared weary but unhurt. The woman pushed a shock of white-blonde hair out of her face, revealing one empty-looking eye. Kiria inspected them for bruises, cuts, anything that would indicate that Firian was less than his word. A tinge of fear colored the smaller man’s face, but she was used to that look. It faded with time and exposure to her Beauty. A bearded man sat on the other side of the woman, his positively cheerful demeanor a marked contrast to the others.

Kiria addressed him. “Did you reach the Academy?”

“We did, My Keeper.” He reached into his travel-stained coat and pulled out a map, which he laid on the table. He jabbed a calloused finger at the forest just north of Raewhith, where Kiria had gone with Firian when they had been attacked.

Her stomach warmed and the corners of her mouth lifted. Just as she thought.

“We’ll have it added to all the official maps,” Cúron said, as the man kept jabbing with his finger.

Petra waved to see the paper more closely, and the bearded scout passed it to her.

“Did you see the new Tanyuin Head?” Kiria asked. She didn’t glance at Cúron, but knew that he’d have a reaction to her question. Firian’s conduct toward the scouts would either support or weaken her announcement of an alliance. Despite everything, she had acted like she trusted him.

For a second, she wondered where Atty was. Had he gotten the same message she had?

“We did,” the Khelê woman replied. Her words came out measured and slow, almost like a question.

“What did he say?” Kiria was getting impatient. She didn’t want to ask any leading questions, but rather to hear their version of events first, the true version.

“He wants to end the Tanyuin War,” said the bearded one with a smile.

Kiria realized how heavily her heart had been beating. Heat flushed her cheeks.

“He said,” the woman added, as though to clarify.

“He wrote out terms.” The thin man nodded, and another paper appeared from the bearded man’s jacket.

Kiria took it before the others, feeling almost greedy. The terms. What had Firian said? He wanted to end their war and help with their conflict against the Torithians, as long as he could keep the prisoners of war. That was it, right?

Her mind whirled. She tried to focus on the paper. It lacked the niceties that usually came with diplomatic documents, but cut straight to the point. As she read, she could practically hear Firian’s voice. There were no extra demands. All was exactly as he had promised. It looked as though, for now, it really was a new age for the Tanyu.

She fought to control her excitement. Her mother and the rest of Brithnem would have to respect her decision now. The gambit had paid off. One war was over, and she could engineer the end of the second with Firian’s help.

She wanted to laugh. She wanted to see Firian, but she couldn’t get ahead of herself. Instead, she beamed a huge smile and handed the paper deliberately to Cúron.

5

FIRIAN

Firian looked himself in the eye, and another, and another. His mind strained to keep all the copies of himself intact in the blank mindfield. It felt like a good stretch or a fall when adrenaline cushions most of the pain.

That copy didn’t act naturally. Its chest caved in and its knees bent slightly to the side. Stand up. Slowly, the version of him straightened, the broad shoulders brought to attention. Firian looked from face to face. Light skin grazed by the sun, dark eyebrows, dark brown hair just longer than his ears…

He tried to create a sixth. The whole construction wobbled. Five for now. Not too bad. Later, he would make them move separately. He had heard of Tanyu employing a decoy in a fight, but never more than one. Dizziness swirled around him as he animated the five Firians.

Gasping, he swam back to the Real. Cool air from his office drifted across his sweat-sheened face. He drummed his fingers once over the armrest of the chair.

The door opened with a tentative stutter that could only mean Bard was coming. He’d walked in on Firian before in compromising positions. “Fir, hey,” he said, his hesitancy falling away as he saw Firian was alone. “You okay?”

“Just practicing.”

“You’re always practicing.” His friend scratched his spiky black hair. Something else was on his mind.

Firian leaned back. “Is something wrong?”

“No.” The word trailed off into a forest of unsaid things. “I was just thinking. About the war on Torith. You know, the one we’re joining now, for Brithnem.” He looked up from the floor into Firian’s eyes. “I want to help, any way I can.”

One side of Firian’s mouth lifted. Bard sounded so earnest. “How?”

“So I’ve practiced katah for years now and I’ve never used those skills. People usually tell generals to watch out for a female presence”—his ears turned red—“and I’m not. I don’t… I wouldn’t do everything, of course. But that’s not what Master Gerand taught me. She knows I’d be terrible.”

Firian burst out laughing. “You want to seduce a general?” Calling katah on someone usually included seduction to speed up the victim’s belief in the Unreal, making them easier to kill.