A Glimpse of Redemption (Exalted, 2)
A hated enemy becomes a lover . . . and the only path to redemption.
It’s been a year since Naravi Yy barely escaped execution. Since then, the Jevite occupation of his homeland has eased, and Naravi is lost. His family is keen for him to start running the household properly, and to marry as well. But Naravi is still on edge from his time in a Jevite prison, and even the idea of such responsibilities is paralyzing.
As if he needs any more reminders, the very people who imprisoned him have now incorporated themselves into his country. Among them is Nasir Harn, the soldier who arrested Naravi. Now a friend to the family and an inescapable presence in House Yy, Nasir’s guilt makes him unbearably kind to Naravi, who is determined to never, ever stop hating Jevites. Especially Nasir.
When an unexpected encounter puts Naravi’s life in danger, he’s forced to escape to Jev with Nasir, and finds his hatred of the enemy soldier surprisingly challenged. But as his feelings begin to shift, events conspire and his fear puts another in danger.
In the shadows, however, greater plans are in motion, and Naravi and Nasir will have to work together to stop them. For if they fail, it won’t just be Naravi’s life on the line.
Reader discretion advised. This title contains the following sensitive themes:
Sexual Assault (Attempted)
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish. Click on a label to reveal its content.
Heat Wave: 2 - Kisses and touches without love scenes
Erotic Frequency: 2 - Not many
Genre: action / adventure, romance, sci-fi
Orientation: ace spectrum, demisexual, gay
Tone: exciting, intense, realistic
Themes: abandonment, abduction/kidnapping/hostage (actual), abuse, age gap, angst, atonement, bullying, child abuse / neglect, coming of age, commitment, duty, enemies to lovers, family, first love, grief, isolation, marriage, pining / UST, politics / power struggle, power imbalance, protection, self-discovery / self-reflection
Settings: different Earth, hospital / clinic / medical office, market, military base, small town, village
When Naravi got back to the motherhouse after his morning walk, Nasir was waiting in the parlor.
It was afternoon in autumn, chilly and damp. The turning of the season had brought heavy gray clouds and the scent of rain on the air. Though the storms hadn’t hit yet, the sky outside was slate, full of promise and warning. There was no sign of Rallis or Miana, and he hadn’t seen their shoes in the front hall. No surprise: Miana was busy with House politics and the vineyard, while Rallis was probably off with Amun, doing what lovers did.
So it was just Naravi there to greet him. To host him.
“Hand Yy.” Nasir always called Naravi that, though he used Rallis’s and Miana’s given names. Like he always rose and bowed to Naravi. Because he was respectful. A respectful murderer. How novel. “I wasn’t— Good afternoon.”
Naravi set his bag down, shrugged off his outer cloak, and draped it over a chair. One of the motherhouse servants could put it away later. “Are you looking for Rallis?”
“Amun, actually, but he mentioned he was planning on visiting Rallis today.”
“They’re not here.” Naravi prowled into the room, taking his time. Nasir’s eyes followed him intently. He was still standing. Perhaps he wanted to be on his feet to react if Naravi leapt at him, but if that were the case, he was delusional. Naravi hadn’t tried to kill him in years. A year. It didn’t matter. “How long have you been waiting?”
“I expect they’ll be gone for most of the afternoon. Perhaps they’re enjoying a tryst,” he added offhandedly, and reveled in the color that stained Nasir’s pale cheeks.
Nasir cleared his throat. “In that case, I’ll take my leave. I don’t want to—”
Naravi dropped languidly into the couch opposite him and indicated he should sit.
“You don’t need to leave. Do you have something else to do today?”
“No.” Cautiously, Nasir sat. “Nothing urgent.”
“Why are you looking for Amun?”
“I need to speak with him about an assignment.”
Naravi graced him with a thin smile. “Legion business?”
“How tedious.” He stretched and felt Nasir’s eyes on him. It was too easy. Poor, stupid, straightforward Nasir. His desire was as obvious as it was repulsive. The best part, the sugary crust on the sweet roll, was how ashamed he was of wanting Naravi. He loathed himself for it. “Are you going back to Jev?”
“Not in the near future.”
“Don’t be so serious. It’s only a joke.” He pinned Nasir with another smile, radiant except that he was showing too much tooth. Nasir didn’t smile back. “Do you think I don’t want you here?”
Nasir swallowed. “I have no idea what you want.”
Well, that was fair enough. “What is this business about?”
“It’s . . . confidential.”
“Are you going to tell Amun?”
Nasir blinked. “Yes. Of course. That’s—that’s why I’m here.”
“Then,” said Naravi, sprawling out to highlight his slender limbs and the elegant arch of his neck, “he’ll tell Rallis, and Rallis will tell me. You might as well just get it out now and save us all the trouble.”
Nasir looked bemused but apparently decided it wasn’t worth the fight. “There have been signs of scavenging in the citadel wreckage. We think someone is smuggling contraband between Adesa and Jev. My unit is investigating the situation.”
Naravi twined a lock of hair around one finger. “Did the Empress order you to?”
“Not me specifically, but the legion.”
“She didn’t speak to you herself? I thought you were a hero after you saved all those people last year.”
Including Naravi, who had been trapped on one of the floating citadels of Jev when it was damaged and began to fall. Nasir had gone out of his way to rescue him, and the memories of that incident still shadowed his thoughts.
Naravi shook it off. “What fleeting glory.”
Nasir’s mouth tightened. “Hand Yy . . .”
“You didn’t need to keep that a secret from me, you know. You can trust me.”
Every word out of his mouth dripped with poisoned honey. Nasir could sense the insincerity, of course—he was straightforward, not oblivious—but he didn’t know how to react. He never knew how to react to anything Naravi said or did. That was what made this whole dance fun. For a certain definition of fun.
“If I attacked you right now,” Naravi asked, “what would you do?”
Nasir tensed. “Are you going to attack me?”
“Don’t be absurd. This is a new jacket. I’m simply asking what you would do if it happened.”
“I would . . . subdue you.”
Subdue. Acid rolled in Naravi’s stomach. Two years ago, his brother Hesse had been subdued by Nasir too, and Naravi lived with that loss every day.
He adjusted the collar of his new jacket, which was azure silk and quite expensive. “Would you kill me?”
“Of course not.”
“Would you use a pulse?”
“Hand Yy, why are we discussing this?” Nasir leaned forward, clasping his hands together. His eyes on Naravi’s face were onyx-black and deadly serious. But he always treated everything seriously: Naravi himself, his legion duties, his friendship with Amun, his responsibilities toward his subordinates, and his personal life. Had he ever smiled before? Did he even know how?
“It’s just for fun.” Naravi stretched again to see if it would provoke the same reaction as before, but Nasir was probably too wrapped up in the conversation to notice Naravi’s body. “Don’t you ever do anything for fun?”
“I don’t find this very fun,” said Nasir hoarsely.
“Answer the question. Would you shoot me with a pulse to subdue me? If I leapt at you right now?”
“No.” To his credit, Nasir’s hand hadn’t so much as twitched toward his holster. “I wouldn’t.”
“Then how would you subdue me?”
Nasir was visibly wary. His mind wasn’t as twisted as Naravi’s, but he was strategic, forward-thinking. He probably had some sense of the trap that was being laid for him—not a clear picture but the prickling feeling on the back of his neck that he was going the wrong way.
“I don’t know.”
“It’s just for fun. How would you do it?”
“I would seize you—”
And there it was. “You would hold me down?” Naravi asked sweetly. “You would press me against something and use your body to keep me in place? Is that how you would do it? That might work—you’re larger than me, after all. Anyway, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. You would enjoy that, wouldn’t you?”
Nasir leapt to his feet. “Good day, Hand Yy,” he said, bowing mechanically. It was egregiously rude to leave without waiting for a response, but he did anyway, vanishing out the door.
As he went, he brushed past Iayan, arriving with the tea tray. Iayan blinked at the space he’d vacated, then turned to Naravi. “Should I leave the tea—”
“You’re late. Where is Rallis?”
“Out with Captain Taarq, Hand Yy.”
“Hmm.” Naravi plucked a sweet roll from the tray, turning it back and forth in his hand. He didn’t even like them—he had never favored sweets. “Well, tell me when they get back.”
“Yes, Hand Yy.”
“Take this away too. I’m not hungry.”
“Yes, Hand Yy.”
“And if Captain Harn returns, don’t let him in.”
Iayan hesitated. No doubt he was trying to figure out if that contradicted one of Miana’s orders. Apparently it didn’t, because he finally said, “Yes, Hand Yy,” and departed.
Alone, Naravi rearranged himself on silk cushions that were somehow hard and lumpy, despite their expensive price. “I would seize you.” What an idiot. Anyone with half a mind could have seen the trouble that comment would bring, but Nasir had said it anyway, going blindly forward because it was the truth and he was the kind to speak the truth regardless of the consequences.
It had been fun, though, to see how uncomfortable Naravi’s response had made him. A sick kind of fun, cloying and cold, coating the insides of his chest like tar and swallowing his heart in its sticky embrace. That kind of fun.
Just as Naravi had predicted, Rallis and Amun were gone most of the afternoon, returning as the sun was setting over Kavck to interrupt his nap with their loud voices in the front hallway. They weren’t alone—Nasir had joined them and was present when Naravi came to investigate the source of the noise. He didn’t meet Naravi’s eyes, which was satisfying.
Aleena grinned and bounded toward him, still in her uniform. Probably coming off patrol with Amun. As though remembering her duties, she stopped to give Amun a quick glance over her shoulder.
“You’re dismissed,” Amun told her, breaking from his conversation with Rallis and Nasir. “Good work, Legionnaire Saura.”
She saluted. “Thank you, sir. Naravi, I need to show you what I found today.”
He let her lead him into the center courtyard, a small, lush garden surrounded by a shaded veranda. They took seats on the closest couch, Naravi sleepy and a little hungry, Aleena nearly buzzing with energy.
“Take a look.” She produced something from her pocket with a flourish.
Naravi obligingly looked. “It’s a rock.”
“You see this part?” She turned it over, revealing a section made of a strange, glass-like material. “Isn’t it beautiful? It was glinting in the sun. That’s how I noticed it.”
“It looks like glass.”
“It is glass. The rock melted. I think that it happened when the Exalted landed last year.”
He took the rock from her hands and inspected it. “Couldn’t it have melted when a flier landed on it? Their engines get plenty hot. Why does it need to be the Exalted?”
She shook her head. “Because if it were from Jevite fliers, the same thing would be happening to rocks all over Lyr. We land our fliers all the time. But this is the first I’ve ever seen something like this, which means it’s not common. Which means it was the Exalted,” she concluded with a reverent air.
“You know that Rallis was probably imagining things, right?” A year ago, Rallis had claimed to see the Exalted at the citadel crash site. Claimed being the key word. “It was late. He was half-asleep. He dreamed it.”
Aleena’s eyes narrowed. She loved the Exalted more than anything and nursed a hope that one day they would come spirit her away. The moment she’d heard of Rallis’s experience, she’d made it her goal to find proof of their presence on Lyr.
Today’s proof was a half-melted rock. Naravi handed it back to her, giving a polite smile. Tact wasn’t his forte.
She snatched it out of his hand. “You don’t need to believe me. Just wait. I’ll find something that even you can’t deny.”
“At least that would be interesting. It’s so tediously boring around here. There’s never anything to do.”
“If you started working, you’d have more to do.”
“I’m the Hand of House Yy,” said Naravi primly. “We don’t work.”
The words were bitter in his mouth. It was a lie, of course, or at least a distortion of the truth. Oversee the servants, placate family squabbles, ensure everything runs smoothly. That was the Hand’s work. Not physical labor, like Aleena meant, but work nonetheless. Work that Naravi wasn’t—
He cut himself off. Those thoughts would make him gloomy, and gloom created wrinkles.
Beside him, Aleena rolled her eyes. “Then you have yourself to blame for being bored. Anyway, aren’t you supposed to be managing your vineyards or something?”
“Miana does that.”
“Well, today we went out to the wasteland, and it was extremely dry and dirty and I’m sure you would have complained the entire time—”
“I don’t complain—”
“—like you always do, so perhaps the problem is that you’re not satisfied with anything.”
She clearly meant it as a joke, but it stung. “I’m perfectly satisfied,” he muttered, rising and making for the door before she could notice the discomfort on his face. “I’m also hungry. Supper should be ready. Let’s eat.”
But the dining room was empty when he peered inside, which seemed odd. Only one of the servants was there, wiping down the table. “Where is Rallis?” he asked her.
She bowed. “He and the captains are having supper in the salon, Hand Yy. They requested that they not be disturbed.”
Well, they could request all they liked, but in the motherhouse Naravi outranked them. “Come on,” he told Aleena. “I want to know what they’re talking about.”
Her steps lagged behind him. “I think it’s legion business. We might not be meant to hear it.”
Naravi snorted. “They can’t keep me out.”
“I could get in trouble, though.”
“Amun wouldn’t get you in trouble. You’re his favorite subordinate.”
Aleena put on a dubious face, but Naravi knew she was preening inside. That she was such a poorly behaved legionnaire was one of the reasons he’d initially tolerated her. She was refreshingly different from the coldly obedient legionnaires he’d met during the invasion and while trapped on Jev as a prisoner. They would have shot him in the head on the barest pretense of an order. Aleena didn’t always listen to her superiors, but she was competent, brave, and fair, and that made up for a lot. Amun thought so too—he’d said as much—which was why he indulged her so often.
“I’m not,” she protested. “I saved his life once. That’s all.”
“That seems like plenty.”
She waved him off. “Not in the legion, it’s not. Anyway, can we not barge in? For my sake?”
Naravi scowled at her but hesitated, hand on the handle to the salon door. From the other side, he could hear voices: Amun’s pleasant murmur, Rallis’s dry tone, and Nasir’s deep, careful baritone.
He pushed it slightly open and put his ear by the crack; after a moment, she joined him, unable to resist the promise of intrigue. They were talking about smugglers, as Naravi had expected.
“—thought that Jev had already searched that whole area,” Rallis was saying. “Why would smugglers be looking there now?”
“Pieces were scattered all over during the impact.” This was Amun, as serious as usual. “And it’s miserable, navigating around the wasteland. Nothing ever works out there. I expect we missed plenty.”
“What are they looking for?”
A pause. It was Nasir who finally answered the question, clearly picking his words carefully. “In public, Jev is operating under the assumption that they’re looking for remaining parts of the citadel to resell. Unofficially, we think they’re probably also looking for signs of the Exalted.”
Aleena’s eyes lit up, and she moved her head closer.
In the parlor, Rallis sighed irritably. “I’m beginning to regret even mentioning that. It might have been a dream.”
“It’s too late,” said Amun lightly. “You can’t restopper that bottle. Now that people know someone might have seen the Exalted there, they won’t rest until they prove it.”
“Regardless,” Nasir cut in, “there have been signs of activity throughout the area. Not the Exalted,” he added, probably to keep Amun from making any clever comments at Rallis’s expense. “Sled tracks in the dirt, burned-out lanterns. From the things they’ve left behind, we think they’re Jevite, not Adesi. My guess is that they’re holed down somewhere near the crash site and can come and go quickly if they think they might be interrupted.”
Rallis hummed. “Why not just send more legionnaires to search for them?”
“We’re trying, but as Amun said, it’s hard to get around the wasteland. Even the fliers have trouble. There’s a limit to what numbers alone can accomplish.”
“You’re running out of time,” Rallis warned him. “It won’t be long before the storms start rolling in. Once they hit, the wasteland turns into a sea of mud. You won’t get anywhere.”
“That’s another concern.”
Naravi could imagine the troubled frown on Rallis’s face when he spoke again. “Why are the smugglers looking for Exalted items? To resell or to use?”
“I have no idea. If I had to guess, I would say they want the items to resell, but it’s possible they want to use them instead. It’s not as though smugglers are usually picky,” Nasir added blandly.
Amun laughed, and even Rallis snorted. “Well,” said Amun, “good luck. I’m glad it’s not my assignment.”
“There’s still time. They might pull in your unit.”
“Exalted, I hope not,” Amun muttered, and then the conversation moved on to other subjects, ones Naravi didn’t care about. He withdrew from the door—
And caught sight of Aleena’s face.
“Whatever you’re thinking,” he told her. “I refuse.”
“I wasn’t thinking anything!” But her eyes were glinting, and he could see the wheels turning in her head. “But . . . what if something is out there? A piece of Exalted technology? Maybe the only one remaining on the planet? If smugglers get it, it will disappear.”
“So? If you’re that worried, go investigate with your unit.”
“Captain Taarq didn’t get those orders.”
Doom waited on the horizon. He knew it, and found himself walking toward it anyway. “What exactly do you want to do, then?”
“Let’s go look. You know the wasteland better than any Jevite, and since we’re only two, we can be fast and flexible in a way that Captain Harn’s unit can’t. Imagine there’s a crucial piece of Exalted technology out there, waiting out there, and it gets picked up by smugglers and—and sold on Jev in the black market, and no one ever knows about it and it’s gone forever. Maybe it could change the world! It’s our responsibility to protect it.”
“You want the glory of finding it yourself.”
“I do not,” said Aleena, mock-outraged. “I’m thinking of the good of the world.”
Naravi sneered. “I refuse. The wasteland is filthy.”
“Go out with me for a while.”
“What if we’re caught by the legion patrols?”
“We won’t be. I can find out when they’ll be patrolling. We’ll go when they’re not around.”
“What if we’re caught by smugglers?” Naravi demanded. “What if they hold me for ransom? Then what?”
She tweaked his nose, ignoring his hiss of protest. “You worry too much. On Merinday, let’s look around for a while. Just for a while. You have my word.”
“I hate you,” Naravi told her, but he knew that Merinday would find him reluctantly trailing after her in a ridiculous search. It was easy to get swept up in Aleena’s passions.
Somehow, she became even more cheerful, until she was practically glowing. “I am glad we’ve become friends, Yy. I thought you were such a standoffish little cat at first, but you do have your good qualities.”
“You’re being extremely rude, considering I agreed to help you—”
The door handle rattled.
Aleena managed to jump away gracefully, because she was poised and athletic, but Naravi didn’t move fast enough. A firm body crashed against his own, and he reeled back, saved from an embarrassing spill by hands on his shoulders.
“Are you— Hand Yy. What are you doing here?” Nasir asked. Behind him, Rallis and Amun were looking on.
Naravi hunted for a deflection and found one. Conscious of Nasir’s hands still resting against him, uncomfortably warm and heavy, he struck: “What are you doing? Subduing me?”
Nasir drew back with a snarl, his eyes flashing. Anger, or frustration, or a mixture of both. It wasn’t the first time he’d turned such emotions toward Naravi, and it wouldn’t be the last. That was part of what made provoking him fun: the idea that one day his patience would snap. When that happened, Nur only knew what he would do. Shoot Naravi in the head, as he’d done to Hesse? Throttle him? Beat him to death?
But today he bowed. “Forgive me. I’ll take my leave. Amun, Rallis, I’ll see you later.”
As he moved stiffly past Naravi toward the front door, Naravi glared at the proud set of his receding shoulders. I’ll break you, he thought, nearly too angry to breathe. I’ll break you, and when I do, everyone will know what a monster you are.
Perfect, dutiful, devoted Nasir. Nobly conscientious, fair to his subordinates, respected among his peers, and always so fucking guilty for the wrongs he’d done to House Yy. He wore his guilt like chains around his shoulders, dragging him down.
Everyone believed in Nasir’s decency, but Naravi knew it wasn’t real, because a decent man would never have killed Hesse at the Jevite garrison. Nasir’s decency was a lie, a costume he put on. Naravi had made it his mission to unmask him.
Eventually, even Nasir would reach a breaking point. That day in the garrison courtyard had set them on a collision course, and Naravi intended to see it through to the end. He would prove to everyone—to Rallis, to Amun, to Aleena, to Miana, and to Nasir himself—the truth of who Nasir really was.
If Naravi died in the process, so be it: that was part of what made it fun. A sick, cold, cloying fun. That kind of fun.
The next morning, Naravi was torn from strange, uncomfortable dreams by the soft click of the sleeping chamber door opening. He sat up, hastily trying to pull himself together and shake off the lingering languor, but it was only Iayan.
“You woke me up,” Naravi snapped, embarrassed at his flustered state. “I didn’t tell you to do so.”
Iayan bowed. “Apologies, Hand Yy. Head Yy requested you if you were awake. I didn’t intend to disturb you.”
“What does Miana want?”
“She didn’t say, Hand Yy.”
“Fine.” Naravi threw back the covers and climbed out of bed, pulling on the outer robe Iayan passed him. Still no storms, but the air was getting colder and colder. His light shirt and cotton sleeping trousers did nothing to ward off the midautumn bite.
Safely covered, he followed Iayan to the study where Miana was waiting, bathed in pale daylight. Nearby, her maidservant Kirra was standing attendance. She never seemed to think very highly of Naravi, not that he cared about the opinion of an Adesi-ren.
“Don’t give me that look,” Miana said as he took the couch across from her. “It’s nearly ten.”
“I don’t have anywhere to be.”
She laughed. “No, but early hours are good for you. Anyway, I wanted to talk to you about this, and I’m busy all day.”
He accepted the item she passed him: an envelope with the sign of House Tlirr on it. “What do they want?” Naravi barely resisted the urge to tear it to pieces. Even after a year, Faida Tlirr’s betrayal still stung. He tossed it on the table between them instead.
“What do you think they want? It’s a marriage proposal, of course.”
“I’d die before I married Faida.” Not that it was a real concern—Miana would never insist on such a thing—but it felt good to say the words. He wished he could spit them in Faida’s smug face.
“They don’t want you to marry Faida. It’s Fennis Tlirr they’re looking to match.”
“He’s nearly as bad.” Not a nasty backstabber like Faida, as far as Naravi knew, but conniving and unkind. “Tell them that I refuse.”
“I will. But you understand what it means, don’t you? We’re getting more and more of these lately. Head Keshe is asking whether you’re interested in her brother Luval, and—”
He regretted getting out of bed. “I know.”
Miana sighed. “I’m not saying you need to do anything. But it’s becoming more and more significant, especially now that you’re Hand. Some of the Houses proposing marriage would be strong allies. Having a high-ranking spouse join us could be very . . . helpful. House Keshe, for instance. If we could get Rada Keshe on our side, I might actually make traction in the next All Council meeting.”
Which was months away, but of course she was already worrying about it. “What are you trying to pass now?”
“A law making it illegal to strike an Adesi-ren with anything other than an open palm. It’s not much, but it’s a start. The other Houses will hate it.”
“You know it won’t pass, right? It’s admirable, I suppose, but you’re not going to get anyone to agree to it.”
Adesi-ren weren’t like the slaves owned by ancient Lyrans—they were paid wages, if sparse ones, and you couldn’t torture them, and you certainly couldn’t kill them—but they weren’t full-blooded Adesi either, and the Houses that claimed their contracts were accustomed to treating them a certain way. To tell a House member that they couldn’t strike a servant with their fists, or use a cane if they were particularly displeased . . . He couldn’t imagine many people accepting that.
A strange prickling on the side of his face made him turn. Kirra was watching them from a spot near the wall, her entire body taut with the intensity of her focus. The white, harsh lines of the scar that cut across her cheek stood out sharply against her umber skin. When she noticed his gaze, she dropped her own, but he was sure she was still listening.
Miana was looking at Kirra too. “Maybe not,” she said softy, “but I’d rather do something than nothing. The All Council will be here before we know it. To have a chance at passing anything, I need all the help I can get.” She gave a self-deprecating smile.
That was where Naravi came in. As a younger son of House Yy, he’d been a decent marriage candidate for other Houses—Yy wasn’t as wealthy or influential as some, but they were decently prosperous, the vineyards respected, and Naravi himself was beautiful. Now that he was Hand, his desirability had increased further.
He rose. “I’m not going to marry Fennis Tlirr. There. I’ve considered my future enough for today.”
Miana said nothing, but he felt her eyes on his back as he left.
In the dining room, he found Iayan, listlessly poking about the plants lining the room. He bowed when he noticed Naravi. “Hand Yy.”
“What are you doing?”
“Tending the plants, Hand Yy. Do you require something?”
“Obviously. I’m hungry. Have breakfast brought to the courtyard. Isn’t that your responsibility?”
A pause. “Yes, Hand Yy,” Iayan murmured, bowing again.
A few minutes later, in the courtyard, he appeared with a tray of food, setting it down and arranging the dishes on the closest table. He worked in silence, eyes downcast. A servant at the motherhouse for nearly four years now, he was very obedient and quiet, but Naravi occasionally got the sense that there was something wrong with his obedience. A strangeness to it, lurking under the surface.
Only sometimes, though; most of the time, Iayan jumped to do as he was told. At least he was handsome, for an Adesi-ren. That was about all he had going for him.
“Are you going to marry Fennis Tlirr, then?” asked Rallis a half hour later.
They were eating breakfast in the inner courtyard. Well, Rallis was eating. He’d barged in out of nowhere and helped himself to Naravi’s food. There was practically nothing left, and most of what remained Naravi didn’t like.
Naravi scowled at him. “I’d rather marry a dog.”
“I suppose I can’t blame you.” Though only a cousin, and a half-Jev at that, Rallis seemed to feel that Naravi would fall apart without him. He was always getting involved in Naravi’s business, telling Naravi his opinions, even when Naravi didn’t particularly want—or need—to hear them. “Amun and I—”
“What is Amun to you?” Naravi asked, cutting off whatever rambling story he was about to launch into.
“What do you mean?” Rallis hesitated midbite. “He’s my lover. Why?”
Naravi picked the walnuts off the top of a breakfast cake. “Are you going to marry him?”
“What?” Rallis’s voice cracked. “Why do you ask?”
“I’m curious. You’ve been lovers for a year. He moved to a single flat, and right away you’re spending more nights there than the motherhouse. Half your things are over there now. It’s a reasonable question.”
It wasn’t easy to tell, but he was fairly sure Rallis had flushed. Even so, the idea obviously pleased him. “I don’t know. We haven’t really talked about it.”
“Would you give your dhaana if you did?” That was surprisingly painful to imagine: Rallis leaving House Yy for good, joining House . . . well, House Taarq. Moving out of the motherhouse, returning his ring.
“Only if Miana insisted on it.”
She wouldn’t. She wasn’t traditional in that way.
“Do you love him?”
Rallis hesitated. “I . . . Yes. I do.”
Of course he did. He and Amun were disgustingly in love: they slept together, ate together, played khas together, made honeyed eyes at one another whenever they were in the same room. That wasn’t the question Naravi had meant to ask, but he wasn’t sure how to put into words what he really wanted to know.
He opened his mouth to speak, paused, then tried again. “Do you . . . Who did you think you were going to marry, before you met him?”
Rallis tilted his head. His hair was growing too long; Naravi could tell him to get it cut, but that would inevitably segue into bickering, and he did want to hear the answer.
“I didn’t think too much about it,” said Rallis softly. “Honestly, I never expected to marry. I hadn’t gotten much interest from any Houses.” More like no interest—he was twenty-six and had never been courted by anyone. If a House had wanted him, they would have made it clear a long time ago. “If marriage was inevitable, I figured Miana would arrange it and I would . . . go along.”
“Because it would advantage our House?”
“And were you satisfied with that?” Naravi set the cake on his plate. Otherwise he would crumble it to bits, and he didn’t want crumbs all over his clothes. “With that future? It didn’t trouble you?”
Rallis’s eyes narrowed. “I wasn’t excited for it, but I didn’t dread it. What’s on your mind?”
“It’s not like you to be asking me so many personal questions.”
“I’m just curious to know what future you envisioned for yourself,” said Naravi tartly, “seeing as you’re a—”
He almost said half-breed, but cut himself off. That was a callous, cruel word, one he’d picked up from his ex-friend Faida Tlirr; he’d previously used it against Rallis, but after the events of last year, he’d sworn not to use it again. For some reason, it felt uglier than it had before.
“You’re half-Jevite,” he continued, and didn’t miss the brief . . . something that crossed Rallis’s face. It was too fast for Naravi to identify. “It’s not as though you have a great deal of status in Adesa. No offense.”
Rallis raised an eyebrow. “And if I’m offended, what then?”
Rallis shot him a scathing look but didn’t push the subject. Instead, he went right back to where Naravi had hoped he wouldn’t go. “Why are you asking me these questions, though?”
“Aren’t I allowed to ask about your life?”
“You’ve had nineteen years to do so and you never did before.”
“Well,” said Naravi, unexpectedly wounded, “perhaps I’m trying to do better now. I’m sorry that’s too strange for you to understand. Why don’t you go curl up with Amun?”
He rose, but Rallis’s voice stopped him before he could leave the room. “Sit down. Don’t be ridiculous.”
“I didn’t mind my future, but if you want to know whether it made me happy, it didn’t. Are you worried about marriage?”
Damn him. He was always doing that: looking past Naravi’s defenses and identifying exactly what was getting under his skin. Naravi sat back down. “Not worried, but . . . uncertain.”
“Because . . . I have to marry soon, don’t I? That’s what’s expected of me. But . . .” He focused on the low table in front of him, memorizing the way the light played off the dark lacquer and the patterns in the tea set. It was easier than meeting Rallis’s gaze. “What if I don’t love them?”
“Then don’t marry them.”
“That’s easy for you to say. I . . .” Have to, only he didn’t. Want to, only he didn’t. “Miana wants me to. Did she tell you about the upcoming vote?”
“Yes, and about her plans to lure Head Keshe to her side. That doesn’t mean you have to marry one of the Keshes. Or anyone else, for that matter.”
“That’s easy for you to say,” said Naravi again. “Do you want me to marry Luval Keshe?”
“What? No. Of course not.”
“Do you want Miana’s proposal to pass?”
Rallis tapped his spoon against his teacup. “Yes. I do. But that doesn’t mean that I want you to sacrifice yourself for it. Naravi, you’re taking on more of a burden than you need to. All Miana wants is for you to approach the idea of marriage with an open mind instead of writing off all your offers because they have birthmarks or are shorter than you or born under the wrong star. Nothing more than that.”
“If I don’t marry Luval Keshe, Head Keshe won’t support Miana and her proposal will fail.”
“And if that happens, it happens.”
“But isn’t that what I’m here for? To ensure House Yy’s success?”
“What you’re here for?” Rallis’s brow was deeply furrowed. It made him look like an ornery old man, but Naravi didn’t tell him that. “What do you mean?”
“I’m Hand Yy. I have obligations to fulfill.” So many obligations, they were like an overwhelming mountain that threatened to suffocate him. Most of them, Naravi wasn’t sure he would ever get a handle on. At least marriage was simple enough. Not easy, but simple.
“Well, this isn’t a drama. No one is forcing you to marry some tyrant for the good of our House. If you don’t like Luval Keshe, don’t marry him.”
But Miana’s vote would fail. Or some House would declare an imaaye—an irreparable House feud, announcing themselves as enemies of Yy because Naravi was too obstinate and had offended them with his constant refusals. Or something else would go wrong, because House Yy had no alliances and kept causing trouble. And Luval Keshe probably wasn’t awful. Probably none of the potential matches were, besides Fennis Tlirr. How did you decide what was enough in a partner? Where did you draw the line?
“Are you satisfied with your future now?” Naravi asked. “With Amun?”
“Yes,” Rallis said, immediately, unhesitatingly. The pure sincerity in his voice made something twist deep in Naravi’s chest. If that was the line, Naravi might as well give up on marriage because he knew he would never feel that way about any of his offers. But if the line was the good of House Yy . . . Miana’s happiness . . .
“Well then, I’m very happy for you.”
Naravi left him sitting among the half-finished breakfast, obviously trying to figure out if the comment had been sincere.
After breakfast, Naravi went for a walk to clear his head and to take advantage of the last of the nice weather before the rains hit. Once they started, they would pour near-ceaselessly until the rains turned to snow. That was how autumn went.
Emerei, the head servant, found him in the front hall as he was preparing to leave. “Hand Yy,” she began, “there are questions about the upcoming holidays. Iayan wants to know—”
He waved her off. “Ask Miana about that. I’m busy right now.”
Before she could answer, he was hurrying out the door. Technically it was the Hand’s role to take care of such things, but Miana could do it better than him, and he couldn’t stand another moment inside.
He headed north, avoiding both the overcrowded market in Merchants’ Square and the areas that the Jevites had made their own. The narrow, winding streets were empty, and Naravi felt pleasantly alone in the world, with no marriage weighing on him. Perhaps he could walk forever. As long as he didn’t get hungry or cold, it seemed a passable future.
So much for peace. He turned, taking his time, and looked Nasir up and down. He was in uniform, of course, but unaccompanied by the legionnaires that usually followed him around like ducklings. “Ah. You.”
“What are you doing here?” Nasir asked. Nur’s heart, he could be worse than Rallis. Even though he had no connection to Naravi—and Naravi hated him—he still acted responsible. It was irritating.
Naravi inspected his nails. “Walking.”
“Are you lost?”
“No. Don’t be ridiculous. I’ve lived in this city my whole life. I’m just taking a walk. It seems like a good morning for it.”
Nasir looked dubiously at the sky. “Does it?”
Heavy gray clouds were rolling in from the west, drawn by the sudden wind. Naravi eyed them, trying to judge whether he would have time to get back to the motherhouse before the shower hit. “It did when I left.”
“You should go back. You’ll get rained on.”
“What about you?” Naravi asked. “Why are you here?”
Nasir indicated one of the buildings behind him. “I had business at the station.”
Of course. Since the Jevite invasion a few years back, they had seeped into all corners of Kavck, transforming Naravi’s familiar city into something he didn’t recognize. Now there were Jevite temples, Jevite-style eating houses, stores selling wares from Jev, and of course, the endless legion, with their uniformed legionnaires going all over Kavck, speaking Jevite in their loud, thoughtless voices. Even though they claimed to be trying to withdraw from Adesa, it seemed remarkably slow going. They certainly hadn’t taken so long to settle in.
“Hm. How many of those things do you have around here?”
Nasir tilted his head. “Stations? There are seven in Kavck. Why?”
“That’s too many.”
“Go home, Hand Yy. You’ll get wet.”
“Fine.” But as Naravi started for home, he found he’d picked up a stray. “You don’t need to escort me.”
Nasir snorted. “I’m not. I have business this way.”
“Would you prefer I waited?” Absurdly, he seemed sincere. If Naravi demanded it, he really would stand there like a dog until Naravi was out of sight and it was safe to move. How sickening. “I will if you—”
“Just do whatever you like,” Naravi told him, unable to endure the intensity of his dark eyes. “I don’t care. If you’re going this way too, fine. It doesn’t matter to me.”
Nasir gave him a half bow, and together they continued in the general direction of the motherhouse. Apparently Nasir was lost in his own thoughts, for he didn’t strike up a conversation as Naravi had assumed he would.
“Have you ever been in love?” Naravi asked him.
He meant it lightly and his tone was only curious, but Nasir stopped short in the middle of the street, gaping at him. “What?”
Perhaps he’d miscalculated. This wasn’t the kind of subject to bring up with someone like Nasir—an enemy, of course, but also a near stranger. And Nasir desired Naravi too, so that complicated things further. But, gods, Naravi had been thinking about love for the last two days: weighing it, debating it, trying to understand if it actually meant anything, and if so what, and how much, and why.
And now that he’d raised the question, he was committed to getting an answer. To withdraw it would make it look like he was scared, and Naravi would rather die than show fear. “In love. With someone else. Are you just going to stand there?”
Though Nasir began walking again, it seemed to be reflexive. His gaze was far away, and the corners of his mouth were tight. “I’m not sure I want to answer.”
“Are you nervous?”
“Then why don’t you want to answer?”
Nasir sighed. “Your questions can be . . . perilous, Hand Yy.”
Perilous. Naravi considered that. “Really? Why?”
“Because there’s often a right answer, and I don’t know it. And when I give the wrong answer, you often . . . take it badly.”
Naravi slid him a look, sideways, through his eyelashes, enjoying the way Nasir noticed it and tried to ignore it. “So I intimidate you?”
“If you’d like to put it that way.”
“Well, either way, answer the question. Have you been in love?”
That was unexpected. He snuck a glance at Nasir, trying to picture what he would look like overcome with love and affection. Nothing presented itself. “With whom?”
“It’s not important.”
“Not important? How boring.”
Drops of water landed on Naravi’s head. There was the storm, the first of what would be months of endless cold storms. Damn it. His clothes were going to get wet, and they were still at least ten minutes away from the motherhouse.
He lifted his face to the sky, raindrops pattering against his forehead. “Why won’t you tell me? Do I know them? Are they Jevite or Adesi?”
“Because it’s private business. Why all the questions on the subject?”
“My sister wants me to get married.”
There was a long silence. Eventually Nasir said, “You’re quite young.”
“For marriage? Not really.”
“Who does she want you to marry?”
“No one in particular.” The rain was really starting to come down, a steady gray deluge that plastered Naravi’s hair to his scalp. Around them, the world seemed muted and dull, its colors leeched out by the relentless water and the dark sky above. Trees hung heavy with wet leaves and puddles gathered in the uneven cobblestones, soaking Naravi’s slippers when he misjudged their depths. “Just someone who could help our House. That’s my duty, after all. To make a good match.”
In fact, it had been his only duty until Hesse’s death had dropped him into the role of Hand. His death at the hands of the man currently walking at Naravi’s side. By all rights, Naravi should have been wild with anger at him—and he was, but things had become so much more complicated a year ago.
A year ago, when Nasir had saved Naravi from the citadel collapse.
A year ago, when Rallis had told Naravi that Hesse had only seen him as fodder in the fight against Jev. A warm body to throw under the relentless wheel of Jev’s so-called justice.
“More grist for the mill!”
Rallis had said that, capturing Hesse’s philosophy in a brutal one-sentence summary he’d levied at Naravi like a weapon. It was the kind of thing people said in fights, and normally Naravi would have brushed it off, except . . .
He believed it. That was how Hesse had seen things—including Naravi. So it was hard to feel uncompromising love for the brother he’d always admired. But that wasn’t fair, for Hesse wasn’t around to defend himself. So Naravi was torn between the memory of what he thought had been, and the reality of what was.
Beside him, Nasir looked thoughtful. “How do you identify a good match?”
“I don’t know.” He’d tried to do exactly that the previous night with a star reading, but the results had been muddied. The two moons, Lyyra and Lyyrei, were extremely low over the horizon, while the Desert Scorpion hung high above them. The Shepherd and the Eye of Mourning had both been in ascension as well. Each omen signified something on its own, but didn’t come together into a cohesive whole. It was like a troupe of musicians playing different songs. Though the individual melodies were correct, together they were nonsense.
Not that star readings were always helpful. He’d read his stars the night the citadel had crashed too. In the evening, with Nasir unconscious in his bed after he’d saved Naravi’s life and Naravi had saved his, he’d read them. They’d been clearer and more decisive than any reading he’d ever done before: that day, he’d met his destiny.
Sometimes, it was hard not to laugh.
They walked on.
“Do you want to get out of the rain?” Nasir asked.
“Why bother? I’m already wet.”
Nasir was too, his clothes sodden and his hair limp. The cold air pulled more color from his already pale face. He looked like a demon, bone-white and black-eyed. If he opened his mouth, he would have fangs. He would bite out Naravi’s throat and leave him to bleed to death in the street.
He did open his mouth, but not to bite out Naravi’s throat. “Do you want my jacket?”
Naravi clicked his tongue. “It’s wet too.”
“Would you marry someone if your family wanted you to?”
The corners of Nasir’s mouth tightened. “Absolutely not. I wouldn’t ever do that.”
“I’m not beholden to my family.”
That was an extremely Jevite response. They viewed families differently than the Adesi did; because, Naravi supposed, they didn’t have Houses. Families seemed to matter a lot less than the individual to them.
Still, Nasir’s response was strong, even for a Jevite. “Really? What if it would help them greatly?”
“Marriage is serious.” Nasir brushed rain from his eyes. “It’s a lifelong commitment. It has meaning. Why lock yourself into something if you’re not going to be happy?”
“It’s not about happiness. It’s about doing what’s best for your House. An alliance with another House could bring a great deal of things my House needs. Why shouldn’t I marry for that?”
Nasir hesitated. “Because you won’t be happy.”
“Do you have any sisters?”
“What if one of your sisters asked you to marry someone you didn’t love, because it would help her? Wouldn’t you want to do it then?”
Nasir pressed his lips together. Unlike the rest of him, they were a remarkably dark red. “I love my sisters,” he said, measuring out each word as he spoke. “But if they were to ask that of me, I wouldn’t do it.”
“It would make them happy. Don’t you want that?”
“Of course I do.”
“If you cared for your sister, you would marry someone if she requested it.”
“If my sister cared for me, she would want me to marry for love.”
Oh. That was a cleverer response than Naravi had anticipated. Ahead of them, the motherhouse beckoned. The walk had done nothing for him—it had done worse than nothing. Not only was he no less unsettled than before, now he was wet and miserable and had even more to think about. Dissatisfaction twisted inside him like a snake, seeking a place to strike.
Halfway down the street to the motherhouse gate, Naravi stopped. “Do you think I’m beautiful?”
“What?” Nasir demanded, turning sharply and stepping away as he did so. His face was cold, proud, and set, but because he was fair-skinned, the flush was visible on his cheeks. For all of Nasir’s strict conditioning, his desire to be the perfect soldier, he couldn’t hide his body’s reactions, or where his eyes went when he thought Naravi wasn’t looking.
Naravi lifted his head, rivulets of water running down his face to drip onto the ruined silk of his jacket. “You heard me.”
“Just answer the question.”
No, Hand Yy, said the Nasir in his mind, staid and dutiful. I don’t think of you in that way. My responsibilities keep me from considering that. You have many qualities to commend you.
That’s not a question I can answer.
And then, regardless of what he said, Naravi would have caught him in a lie. For he did think Naravi beautiful—thought him exceptionally beautiful—and anything other than admitting the fact would be deceit. But Nasir would never admit the fact, never in his life. So he could take his Nur-damned righteousness and choke on it.
“Answer the question,” he said, all sweetness. “Do you think I’m beautiful?”
Nasir rounded on him. “Yes. Exalted, yes, I think you’re beautiful. You’re the most beautiful person I’ve ever seen in my life. Is that enough?”
“I . . .” He’d miscalculated. It was Nasir who was supposed to be flustered and speechless, but instead Naravi was the one stammering like a child. He tried to gather himself, ignoring his burning cheeks and the sudden, uncomfortable pounding of his heart. “Then why . . .”
“But that has nothing to do with my opinion of marriage,” Nasir continued, ignoring him. “I think everyone should marry for love. If you’re not in love with your spouse, what’s the point of being married at all?”
“Well, it’s easy for you to say.” The drizzle had turned into a torrent of water, and he felt like a drowning rat, wet and scared. Vicious. “You’re not in my position. It’s harder for me to refuse.”
“You asked my opinion, Hand Yy. I gave it.” Nasir nodded toward the motherhouse. “Are you going inside?”
Naravi clenched his fists so hard, his nails bit into his palms. It kept his temper in check, but only barely. “Yes,” he hissed, and left Nasir there in the rain, where he belonged.
How dare he. Coming to Naravi’s house, invading Naravi’s space, imposing himself in Naravi’s life and then making all kinds of unwelcome comments to further disrupt Naravi’s happiness.
“If my sister cared for me, she would want me to marry for love.” The problem was, Naravi had no argument against that.
Or, check your local library.
Word Count: 81,500
Page Count: 278
Cover By: Simone
Release Date: 08/02/2021
Release Date: 08/02/2021