The Call of Revolution (Exalted, 3)
He could never accept his fate, but it will take both of them to change it.
Iayan Yy-ren was born into servitude and has struggled his whole life to accept his fate. He spends his days tending to the needs of his wealthy “betters” and suppressing his own desires, but he chafes against a society that demands he knows his place.
His monotonous routine is interrupted by the arrival of a new servant, Dax: once an elite but now fallen from grace. Arrogant and contemptuous, Dax instantly gets under Iayan’s skin. The more Dax looks down on him, the greater the friction between them. At the same time, responsibility—and pity—keep drawing Iayan back to Dax despite himself.
When Iayan is given the chance to join an investigation into an extremist cult, he leaps at the opportunity, eager to prove his worth and find meaning in life. The cultists are dangerous, but their charismatic leader prophesizes change and seems to understand Iayan in a way no one else does.
Slowly, Iayan and Dax bond over their shared situation, but Iayan finds himself falling deeper into the cult’s sway. As predictions begin to be realized and strange beings from beyond the stars make their presence known, Iayan must decide who he is, and who he’s meant to be.
Reader discretion advised. This title contains the following sensitive themes:
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish. Click on a label to reveal its content.
Themes: abandonment, abduction/kidnapping/hostage (actual), abuse, acceptance, angst, child abuse / neglect, duty, enemies to lovers, family, financial gap / class disparity, first love, fitting in, found family, grief, hurt / comfort, isolation, legends, politics / power struggle, power imbalance, protection, trust issues, workplace romance
Iayan saw the stranger first, early in the morning while fetching the milk. The man was standing outside the motherhouse courtyard, squinting through the gate and tapping his foot against the ground. He straightened as his eyes landed on Iayan.
From the authoritative note in the man’s voice, he was probably a member of a House, though he wore no ring. It was hard to tell how old he was: his thick, dark hair was streaked with silver, and his narrow, canny eyes were heavy with shadows, but he held himself with the spryness of a younger man. His clothes were fine quality but old and patched, and his shoes were falling apart. Handsome, but his face had a leanness to it, almost a gauntness, as if he’d gone without for a long time. Like the feral dogs that skulked on the outskirts of Kavck, fighting over scraps, all teeth and bone and patient hunger.
“Does Nasir Harn live here?” the stranger demanded.
“Captain Harn?” Iayan fought down the annoyance that twinged inside him at the brusque tone. It was too early in the morning for this. The sun was barely up over the horizon. “No, sir. He doesn’t.”
The man frowned. “I was told . . . They said he lived here.”
“Who said it, sir?”
“A Jevite legionnaire.” The stranger waved vaguely. “He said that Captain Harn’s lover was from this House.”
“He is, sir, but Captain Harn has an apartment elsewhere in the city, I believe. My apologies.”
He bowed and reached through the bars of the gate for the milk, expecting that to be the end of it, but the stranger spoke again: “Do you know where he lives?”
“No, sir. I don’t.”
The man growled, low in his throat. A wasteland dog, indeed. “I need to talk to him. It’s urgent. Where can I find him?”
“I don’t know, sir.”
“His lover is from this House, isn’t he? Hand Yy?”
Iayan knew where the conversation was going, dreaded it, and found himself powerless to stop it. When the man said, “I want to speak with Hand Yy, then,” the words had a kind of inevitability. He was from a House, after all. If he wanted an audience, it was Iayan’s duty to let him in, at least until someone from House Yy directed otherwise.
“Hand Yy isn’t here, sir.”
“Head Yy, then.”
There was no getting around that. Iayan unlocked the gate. “Yes, sir. Please come in. I’ll inform Head Yy of your arrival. She’ll speak with you when she’s available.”
The man snorted but bent and picked up the milk and passed it to Iayan, an unusually gracious gesture toward an Adesi-ren. “Is she awake? What time is it?”
Head Yy was unlikely to be awake. It was, of course, a completely inappropriate hour for a social call, but Iayan sensed that the man wouldn’t care about that even if it were pointed out to him.
“Just after six, sir,” he said instead, keeping his voice level. At the door to the motherhouse, he stepped aside so the man could enter first. “I’ll check if she’s awake. Who should I say is requesting an audience?”
A peculiar expression crossed the man’s face. “Dax,” he said, after a pause. “Daxen Variyat, of House Variyat.”
Variyat wasn’t one of the Houses in Kavck. An outsider, then.
“Yes, sir.” Iayan indicated a low couch in the antechamber. The room was cool and shadowed, the only light coming from a small brazier. “Please wait here. I’ll have tea brought out shortly.”
Dax sat on the couch, eyes flickering around the room. Perhaps he was casing it to rob. If so, Iayan might be blamed for any stolen goods—again—though that would be unfair. After all, Adesi-ren had no authority over members of a House, and Iayan hadn’t been given orders to refuse anyone entry. There was nothing he could do except allow Dax in. Not that fairness ever really mattered.
But Dax didn’t seem like a thief. What thief would seek out a Jevite officer so insistently? More likely, Dax was someone from Captain Harn’s time in the war, here for reasons beyond Iayan’s understanding. Hopefully not as part of a vengeance quest. He would find out soon enough.
He stopped by the kitchen to let Ayla know to prepare tea, then headed to the sleeping chamber to see if Head Yy was awake. To his surprise, she was sitting by the window, reading a book in the pale dawn light. When he knocked gently against the wall, she graced him with a tired smile.
“You’re up early.” She set aside her book. “At least you have reason to be. I couldn’t sleep. What is it?”
Iayan hesitated, seeking the right words, but there was nothing available except blunt truth. “There’s a man requesting your audience, Head Yy. He’s looking for Captain Harn. Right now he’s in the antechamber, waiting to see you. I think he’s willing to wait quite a while. He doesn’t seem to realize the time.”
Head Yy frowned. “Did he say what he wanted?”
“He’s trying to speak to Hand Yy, and since he’s not here, he wants to speak to you.”
“Did he give his name?”
“Daxen Variyat, Head Yy.”
“Hmm.” She tapped her chin thoughtfully with one finger. “Adesi. I assumed he would be from Jev. Well, House Variyat is from Elonnual. I wonder what he wants with Nasir?”
From the way she hesitated, she was looking for his answer. “Perhaps something to do with the war, Head Yy.”
“I hope not.” She laughed. “In my opinion, we’ve had more than enough trouble.”
That wasn’t, in Iayan’s opinion, something to laugh about. Let it go, he admonished himself. “True.”
“It’s a little early, but I’m awake anyway. I’ll dress and see him.”
“Yes, Head Yy. I’ll let him know. Is Hand Yy . . .”
“He’s still at Captain Harn’s apartment. I don’t think he’ll be back for a while. In the meantime, see if you can get any information out of him while I’m dressing. I don’t know if I like him showing up like this unannounced. If he wanted to speak to Naravi, why didn’t House Variyat send a message first?”
A thought flitted through his mind. Perhaps it meant nothing, but . . . “He’s not wearing a House ring, Head Yy. Or any ring at all.”
Head Yy tilted her head, a waterfall of dark hair pouring over her shoulder. Her expression was as smooth as a still pond, but Iayan knew that her mind was turning like a wheel, theorizing about the situation. All she said, though, was, “Is that so? Interesting. Well, let me know what you find out.”
Iayan bowed. If she imagined him making subtle conversation with Dax, she was mistaken. The last thing he wanted was to expose himself to that arrogant attitude. “Yes, Head Yy.”
In the antechamber, Dax was lounging on the couch with his legs stretched in front of him like a bandit king on his throne. He righted himself hastily when Iayan entered. The instinctive way he switched into formal posture belied his ragged clothes: he was from a House, as he’d claimed. At least originally.
“Head Yy will be with you shortly. Is the tea to your liking?”
Dax glanced at the teapot and cups on the table. “It’s fine.” He clearly hadn’t tried it. “How soon is shortly?”
“I couldn’t presume to say, sir.”
“Fine.” Recrossing his arms, he settled deeper into the couch. Iayan took a spot in the corner, waiting for someone to need him or for Head Yy to arrive and dismiss him, whichever came first.
The words were loud in the stillness of the morning. Iayan nearly jumped out of his skin at the question. “Yes, sir.”
“I heard House Yy didn’t have those.”
Dax waved impatiently. “You know what I mean. I heard you Adesi-ren eat with Head and Hand Yy at the same table. Head Yy is infamously . . . political.”
The assumption was reasonable, but misguided. “No, we don’t, sir.”
Instead of being pleased by the news, Dax seemed unsettled. Suspicion welled in Iayan’s chest. To come all the way from Elonnual . . . without a ring . . .
Sound from the hallway made them both startle. Head Yy entered, wrapped in a robe, her hair still undone. For any other House Head, that would have been a pointed comment toward Dax—You’re so insignificant I didn’t bother to dress before meeting you—but most likely Head Yy had decided to forgo having a servant dress her. Probably letting Kirra sleep in. She was indulgent that way.
Dax rose to his feet and bowed. At least he had some courtesy. “Head Yy. Thank you for seeing me. My name is Daxen Variyat, of—of House Variyat. I know it’s early and I didn’t have an appointment. I need to speak to Captain Nasir Harn. If you know where I could find him, please tell me.”
Head Yy took a seat and indicated that Dax should do the same. Iayan moved behind the arm of her chair.
Head Yy tucked a lock of hair behind her ear, a sign that she was worried. “Why are you looking for Nasir?”
“He—” Dax began, and Iayan waited for killed my family, or threw me in prison, or ruined my life, but instead, Dax said, “Saved me.”
Head Yy raised a narrow eyebrow. “Saved you?” Her thin face gave nothing away.
“Yes. I was . . . I was imprisoned on Jevell citadel, two years ago. For . . .” Dax glanced down at his hands, twined around one another, his knuckles white. There was a conspicuous bare spot on his right middle finger where a House ring had likely once resided. “It was foolish. I was foolish. It shouldn’t ever have happened. But I was in the prison on Jevell when the citadel was attacked. Captain Harn . . .”
He sighed and pushed his hair off his forehead. Something about the gesture and the way an errant beam of pale sunlight illuminated his skin made him seem softer and more handsome. Iayan quickly reassessed his initial impression. Dax was probably only a year or two Iayan’s senior—it was weariness that aged him.
“When the citadel started to crack, the prison was on the broken piece. They—they knew it was going to fall. The warden did. He and the guards all evacuated, but they didn’t let any of us out. Captain Harn went to every cell and unlocked them so that we could escape. If not for him, we would have been killed. I wanted to—to find him. And thank him.”
“Ah,” said Head Yy. That was all, but in that word Iayan heard a thousand different thoughts, tumultuous and bittersweet and strange.
He understood completely. Reverberations from that incident continued to echo through House Yy a year later. The only reason Captain Harn had been at the prison was to save Naravi. Because he’d saved Naravi, they’d fallen in love and were likely going to wed soon. Because Naravi had softened toward Captain Harn, they had gone to Jevell together and encountered Captain Harn’s terrible family, who had then tried to frame Iayan for theft and seize control of Captain Harn’s life. Because Naravi had handled the situation poorly, Iayan’s hatred of him had gained a new cadence, a new intensity that Naravi had finally recognized. Because he’d recognized Iayan’s hatred, he was trying to be better, and Iayan hated him all the more for it.
Head Yy poured herself a cup of tea and took a sip. As she did, Dax looked curiously between her and Iayan.
“He doesn’t live here,” Head Yy said. “He lives in another part of the city. I can tell him that you want to speak to him, but I can’t give you his address.”
Dax flinched but nodded. “If you could let him know, I would appreciate it.”
“Of course. Would you like more tea? Something to eat?”
Dax’s eyes flashed. “I don’t want to impose.” He froze, as if realizing it was too late for that.
Head Yy smiled. “It wouldn’t be an imposition. We can seat one more at the table.”
“Thank you, Head Yy.”
“It won’t be much longer. Iayan, would you attend to him in the meantime?”
Iayan bowed, keeping his head lowered. “Yes, Head Yy.”
“I should probably dress,” Head Yy announced, rising. “I’ll see you at breakfast, Daxen.”
“Please, call me Dax.”
But as she reached the doorway, he spoke again: “If I . . . If I had my House ring, would you have given me his address?”
She glanced over her shoulder. Her eyes were as kind as ever, and as resolute. “No. It’s not about whether you have a House. His address is his personal business, and Nasir has had a lot of trouble lately. I don’t want to send any more to his doorstep, even inadvertently.”
“Yes, Head Yy.”
He was docile in her presence, but the moment she was gone, he rounded on Iayan again. “She asked you.”
“I’m sorry, sir?”
“She asked you to attend to me. It’s not—it’s not standard. At my House, you would have been ordered to attend to me. It’s not like you could refuse, anyway.”
The words held an echo of Naravi’s old arrogance. White rage spiked behind Iayan’s eyes before he found his control. When he answered, he was pleased to find that he didn’t show any emotion at all. “If you say so, sir.”
“Are you going to pour me tea, or should I pour it myself?”
At least that question sounded sincere. “I can pour you tea, sir, if you like, but perhaps you’ll want a new pot first.”
Dax blinked at the pot. “I . . . suppose so.”
“I’ll be back in a moment.”
Ayla was busy preparing breakfast, so Iayan made the tea, taking advantage of the reprieve and knowing that he would have to go back eventually. It was hard to feel safe around Dax. He seemed the exact kind of Adesi that Iayan liked least—self-satisfied and haughty, with a tendency to take his bad feelings out on others.
When the tea was finished, he returned to the salon and found Dax gazing blankly at a point on the far wall. He didn’t move when Iayan entered and set down the tea tray, but as Iayan reached for the pot, he said, conversationally, “That took you a while.”
Iayan was liking him less and less by the moment. “Apologies, sir. It took time for the water to heat.”
“When is breakfast?”
He poured Dax a cup of tea and then stepped back, ducking his head respectfully. It felt unnatural—not in the way that all obsequiousness toward his betters felt unnatural to him, but unnatural in that Dax didn’t seem like a better. Nobody had said it outright, but he obviously didn’t have a House anymore. And if he didn’t have a House, he was functionally an Adesi-ren; Iayan didn’t bow to his peers.
But because no one had said it outright, they were in a strange liminal state, and so he erred on the side of caution.
“How long have you worked here?”
“Five years, sir.”
Dax’s gaze flickered over him, head to toe. “Who was your previous House?”
“In Imady? Why did you come here?”
“A trade deal, sir.”
“That’s—” Whatever he’d intended to say was interrupted by the bell sounding for breakfast. He rose from his seat—tea still untouched—and veered toward the door, reaching the hallway before drawing to a halt. “Where is it?”
“This way, sir.”
In the dining room, Head Yy and Master Rallis were gathered at the table along with Master Rallis’s lover, Captain Taarq, all of them discussing something to do with Captain Harn and his family. Iayan expected it was more of the same trouble that they’d gone through last month, threats and blackmail from Captain Harn’s father and mother. They were the disciples of a religious leader who kept prophesying the end of the world. Their lies about Iayan had been part of some grand plan. Iayan despised them.
Iayan bowed reflexively as he entered; Dax was slower to follow, and his bow was shallower. He wasn’t used to his new status.
Head Yy indicated the table. “Please, sit.”
After a moment, Dax sat. He turned to Captain Taarq. “You’re Jevite.”
“Hello,” said Captain Taarq, notoriously unflappable. “I don’t think we’ve met. My name is Amun Taarq. I heard that you had arrived this morning.”
“Do you know Captain Harn?”
Captain Taarq blinked. “Ah, yes. Miana mentioned you were after him?”
The Miana made Dax still. He turned toward Iayan in confusion, then seemed to understand the reference. “Yes. He . . . I owe him a debt.”
“Ah.” Captain Taarq exchanged a glance with Master Rallis. “For what it’s worth, you really don’t need to worry about things like that. Nasir isn’t one to stand on obligation.”
“I don’t care.” Dax’s voice was fierce. His expression had twisted into something that was almost pained. “He saved my life. Even if it means nothing to him, it means something to me. I owe him a debt, and I’m going to repay it.”
Awkward silence followed.
“Well,” said Head Yy. “That’s very admirable. But before you do that, let’s eat.”
Breakfast was a subdued affair; it wasn’t entirely Dax’s fault, but Iayan blamed him anyway.
The heroic, uncomfortable declaration of gratitude, like something out of cheap theater, cast a pall that lingered over the dining room. No one knew quite what to say to Dax, who had come from nowhere to push his way into a family meal, but his presence was impossible to ignore. Impossible for Head Yy, Master Rallis, and Captain Taarq, but impossible for Iayan as well. Because he had spoken to Dax, had poured him tea, Dax seemed to find him familiar—and because Iayan was familiar, Dax talked to him.
“You’re not eating with us,” he said, when Iayan moved behind him to retrieve an empty platter. “I was sure you would.”
“No, sir.” I already told you this. He was probably going to have to repeat many things to Dax.
A few seats down the table, Head Yy, Master Rallis, and Captain Taarq had started talking about an upcoming wedding. None of them appeared to be paying much attention to Dax, but that could change at a moment’s time.
Dax frowned. Once again, he almost seemed disappointed. “I thought Head Yy was radical.”
On cue, Head Yy glanced over. “Did you have a question?” she asked pleasantly, giving no indication that she’d heard Dax.
Dax flushed. “I was just saying that the food is delicious.”
“I’m glad to hear it. Tell me, how is Head Variyat? I haven’t spoken to her in years.”
Head Yy was merciless. Dax was squirming like a rat in a trap. “I . . . I haven’t . . . spoken to her recently.”
Captain Taarq and Master Rallis exchanged another glance. They, too, had clearly noticed Dax’s lack of ring.
Head Yy was watching Dax with steady patience. “I see.”
“After what happened when I was imprisoned, she . . . My House felt . . .” Dax swallowed. Iayan thought he wouldn’t be able to continue, but he pressed on: “She was very displeased.”
The bare space on his finger seemed to glow in the morning sunlight. Head Yy tilted her head. “I see,” she said again. “Do you have somewhere to go now?”
In the silence that followed, Iayan could almost hear the pounding of Dax’s heart. “No,” said Dax eventually. Each word out of his mouth sounded like shards of glass. “I was expelled ves ratt. I agreed to it. Otherwise . . .”
He didn’t finish, but the rest of his sentence rang out over the table. Otherwise they would have expelled me ves vosye. Ves ratt—expulsion with memory—was terrible, especially for a true-born Adesi, but it was infinitely better than expulsion without memory. At least this way House Variyat would acknowledge that he’d once been part of them. He was Houseless now, but he could still find work in a new House as an Adesi-ren. He wasn’t a forgotten one, abandoned by society.
Head Yy nodded. “I’m sorry.” That was probably radical, in a way. What other House head would be so sympathetic to someone in his position? Most of them would have already laughed him out the door.
Dax bowed his head. “Thank you.”
The conversation moved on, and Iayan withdrew into the safety of the shadows to wait for further orders. When the meal was over and the table cleared, he lingered to one side of the foyer while Head Yy bid Dax farewell. He thought that would be it, but as he opened the front door, Head Yy said, “Iayan, would you see Dax out?”
Displeasure pressed on his chest like a stone. He ignored it. “Yes, Head Yy.”
The morning sunlight glittered against the damp cobblestones. Though the front gate was only thirty paces away, the distance felt insurmountable. They walked side by side in silence across the courtyard. Before Iayan could unlatch the gate, Dax seized his wrist.
“Don’t—” said Iayan, and then stopped. It wasn’t appropriate for him to protest the touch. But it’s not appropriate for Dax to touch me, either. He didn’t have that right.
“Are you happy working here?” Dax’s voice sounded soaked with emotions Iayan didn’t care to identify. “In House Yy. Are you happy?”
“Head Yy is fair and generous.” It wasn’t a lie, but the words felt like they belonged to someone else. “I have nothing to complain about.”
He wished Dax would stop staring at him. It was like he was trying to peel back Iayan’s skin and see inside him. The experience was as offensive as it was disconcerting, and sharp fangs of resentment sank deeper into Iayan’s heart.
“Fine.” Dax released him. “That’s good.”
“Is that all, sir?”
“Yes.” A hesitation. “Tell Head Yy . . .”
But instead of continuing, he shook his head and slipped through the gate. “Never mind. Thank her for breakfast instead,” he told Iayan over his shoulder, and then he disappeared down the road, leaving Iayan with only the ghost of Dax’s touch burning against his wrist.
He’d barely stepped back inside the motherhouse when Kirra, Head Yy’s maidservant, appeared in front of him. “Head Yy wants to see you in her office.”
Kirra gazed at him blankly. An old scar, brutal and jagged, streaked down the left side of her face. It cut across her eye and made the eyelid droop, but her eyes were pristine, as imperturbable as still water. It had healed long ago, but Iayan occasionally felt a flare of anger when he saw it, at the man who had hurt her and the world that had allowed her to be hurt.
Though he knew House Yy considered him the shifty one among the servants, the most mercurial and hardest to predict, he couldn’t hold a candle to Kirra. He’d been with House Yy five years, had met her when she was a girl of fifteen, but he couldn’t guess a single thought running through her head. And they were close—friends, even, at least from his perspective. He couldn’t imagine what she was like to deal with for strangers.
“She wants to talk to you” was all she said, and then she vanished down the hall, leaving Iayan alone in the antechamber. He started toward the office, stomach fluttering with nerves, ignoring how the ghost of Dax’s touch burned, warm and uncomfortable, around his wrist.
In the office, Head Yy was sitting cross-legged on a cushion, a teapot and two cups laid out on the low table in front of her. The window was open, cold autumn air carrying with it the scent of wet leaves and oncoming rain. Outside, small birds bathed in the garden pond, chittering wildly as they fought in the water.
She indicated that he should sit across from her. As soon as he did, she said, “What do you think of Dax?”
Damn it. Iayan knew where this was going and dreaded every second of the future that awaited him. House Yy’s gardener, Lenik, was old. He was no longer able to do much of the labor that was required of him, and his eyesight and hearing were failing. Dax—young, strong, healthy—could fill his shoes easily. And his situation was a benefit for him, not a problem. More than anything, Head Yy loved hopeless cases.
“If you feel he would be good to take on, Head Yy, I would support that.”
She blinked languidly at him. “I’ve always admired how politic you are. You would go far in the All Council. What do you think of him?”
Iayan tapped his chin with his finger. “I think he’ll struggle to get used to his new situation, Head Yy. I think he’s used to being an Adesi and won’t want to act as an Adesi-ren. I think he’ll be frightened and resentful of the change.” And I think he’ll take that resentment out on me.
“I agree. I don’t think he’ll acclimate naturally. At the same time, we do need someone to take over for Lenik. And—” she gave him a quick smile “—we don’t have to negotiate for him.”
Iayan bowed his head. “Understood, Head Yy.”
“He seems to have a bit of a . . . personality. Could you get along with him without trouble?”
What would she do if the answer was no? Would she abandon the idea entirely? Would she send one of them to the vineyard on the outskirts of Kavck, separating them to avoid the issue? Or would she make the decision to bring Dax on—not unkindly, never unkindly—and leave Iayan to . . . endure? Grit his teeth and bear it? Could he do that? What would happen if he couldn’t?
His tongue moved on its own. “Yes, Head Yy.”
She smiled at him. Iayan didn’t miss the relief in her expression. “I’m glad. Thank you. I appreciate all that you do for this House.”
More of Dax’s longed-for radicalness. No other House Head would ever thank an Adesi-ren for being a good servant. That was like thanking the ground for holding you up. It wasn’t anything of note; it was simply the natural order.
Yet her radicalness had its limit. Some part of her had to know he wasn’t happy. But he’d said what she wanted to hear, and it was easier for her to overlook his displeasure because it wasn’t serious displeasure, just . . . discomfort. So she thanked him, because that was an easy win, and ignored his desires, because they were an inconvenience. But at least, he supposed, she had asked him.
“Thank you, Head Yy.” Did he sound like he meant it? Did he mean it?
He didn’t know. He was a being of two halves. One, the submissive, supplicating half that bowed and scraped and endured Naravi’s condescension and Master Rallis’s uncomfortable sympathy and Head Yy’s gentle, impassive resolution. The other, the hateful, defiant half, was made of teeth and blood and violence. It wanted to tear through House Yy with a scythe and then do the same to every single House in Adesa. Most of the time—like now—the submissive half reigned. He feared what would happen if the other one seized control.
“You may go,” Head Yy said.
Like a good little Adesi-ren, Iayan went.
Five days later, Dax officially joined the Yy motherhouse. This time when he arrived, he came in through the back gate—the servant gate. Head Yy didn’t insist on that formality, but perhaps Dax felt it would help him adjust to his new situation. That was probably for the best.
He arrived with a single satchel slung over one shoulder, looking slightly more reputable than before. His clothes were better quality, and he’d shaved the scruff on his chin, taking years off his face. As Iayan unlocked the gate with the key Emerei, the head servant, had given him, Dax shifted nervously from foot to foot. Once the gate was open, he hesitated before stepping forward, exhaling sharply as he did.
He didn’t introduce himself, and Iayan didn’t greet him. For a hopeful moment, it seemed they would walk in silence, but halfway across the garden, Dax cleared his throat. “Your name is Iayan, right?”
“From House Sesseta?”
“Why did they trade you off?”
Rude. It was egregiously, breathtakingly rude, and Dax was oblivious to the fact. He was peering like Iayan was an interesting curiosity, an animal on display. You never asked other Adesi-ren the circumstances of their transfers, because those circumstances were usually so raw and painful that speaking about them was like being cut open with a knife. Iayan wasn’t related by blood to the Sesseta family, but he had been born and raised in the Sesseta motherhouse, was part of House Sesseta until . . . he wasn’t. Head Sesseta had sold his contract, unceremoniously, like selling off some unnecessary stock, and in doing so had ripped Iayan from everyone and everything he’d known. At least Head Yy had let Iayan negotiate his new terms, such as not working outside—not that he felt any gratitude for the small concession.
“Because they did,” he said tightly, and increased his pace. They went like that, one after the other, into the cool shadows of the motherhouse.
In the kitchen, Emerei and Ayla were talking in low voices. As he approached, Iayan caught snippets of Head Yy and Jevites. They didn’t notice Iayan and Dax at first, but sprang apart when Iayan cleared his throat.
“This is Dax.” He indicated Dax, who was lingering in the back hall as though afraid of crossing the threshold. Perhaps that would make it too real. “He’s taking over Lenik’s duties. Where is Lenik?”
“Running an errand.” Emerei crossed her arms over her chest, Ayla withdrawing behind her. “He should be back soon. Welcome, Dax. Where are you from?”
Dax swallowed. “Elonnual.” It was clearly taking everything he had not to explain his situation in more depth. That was always the way with Adesi who had lost their places. They needed to justify why they’d ended up as Adesi-ren. I’m not like you lot, born low. I was someone important.
Emerei nodded. “I have a cousin who works at House Bhreqa.”
Dax flinched—Emerei and Ayla probably didn’t notice it, but Iayan did. No doubt a thousand terrible scenarios were running through Dax’s head about whether someone would put two and two together.
“I didn’t— I didn’t work at House Bhreqa,” Dax mumbled.
“Hmm.” Emerei’s eyes flickered over him. She was a stern, harsh woman, but Iayan couldn’t fault her for it. Living with a Hand like Naravi had made all of them more brittle than they might otherwise have been. “Well, welcome.”
This time, Dax’s silence dragged on enough that Ayla and Emerei had to notice. When he dropped his head and mumbled, “Thank you,” his voice was thick with pain.
The whole scene was uncomfortably melodramatic. Ayla and Emerei exchanged a telling glance over Dax’s lowered head. “Well, it’s good to have you,” said Ayla, clapping her hands cheerfully. “We’re happy to help you settle in.”
“Let Lenik know we’re looking to speak with him when he gets back.” Iayan caught Dax’s eye. “I’ll take you around the rest of the motherhouse. This way.”
Dax was silent as Iayan showed him the laundry room and the supply closet, but as they continued toward the sleeping chamber, he said, “What do you do here?”
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t know,” said Iayan, startled into honesty. “I take care of things.” I clean up after Hand Yy, he thought, but bit his tongue. No sense getting into that mess, especially with a new arrival he didn’t really know and didn’t particularly like.
Dax gazed at his hands. They were broader than Iayan’s, with strong-looking fingers, but the skin of his palms was obviously soft. “You said that Lenik worked in the gardens. I’ve never . . . done that before. I don’t know how.”
“Lenik will show you.”
“What about you?”
“I don’t know the responsibilities. I don’t work in the gardens. I mostly tend to the household.”
Strangely, Dax’s eyes brightened. “Do you work closely with Hand Yy? What is he like? Do you know when he’ll be here?”
Ah. Perhaps Dax had transferred some of his fervent obsession with Captain Harn to Hand Yy. “No. He’s . . . He can be demanding.”
“Have you met Captain Harn?”
His teeth hurt from grinding them. “Yes.”
“This is the servants’ sleeping area.” Iayan strode into the room, leaving Dax and his questions behind. “We all share. You get a pallet and a pillow and a blanket. If you need anything else, speak to Emerei. Head Yy is generous with supplies. Breakfast is at the seventh hour, and supper is at the twentieth. We’re paid on the first of the month.”
Dax’s curiosity pressed against his back. If Iayan turned around, their eyes would meet, and Dax would take that as permission to renew his interrogation—so Iayan didn’t turn around. He made a show of walking to the window and staring into the gardens. On the far side of the courtyard, a figure was closing the latch on the side gate.
“Lenik is back. I’ll take you to him, and he can show you around the outside.”
“Iayan . . .”
It was strange to hear his name in Dax’s mouth. Uncomfortable. Iayan’s nature had always been uncommonly resentful, and he felt resentful now. He didn’t like Dax addressing him so familiarly. But how else would Dax do it?
“If I’ve offended you, I apologize.” Dax bowed his head. “I didn’t mean to.”
If. If. He’d offended Iayan five times in as many minutes, and he had the gall to stand there wondering whether he’d done something wrong. Iayan was rapidly developing a pounding headache.
“It doesn’t matter. This way.”
Thankfully, even Dax wasn’t so oblivious as to miss the note in Iayan’s voice. He kept his mouth shut until they reached Lenik in the garden. Iayan left the two of them introducing themselves and returned to the front of the motherhouse, where Naravi and Captain Harn had just arrived. They’d clearly spent the night together—Naravi looked somehow more self-satisfied than normal—and the sight of them wrapped around one another in the hallway sent a spear of anger through Iayan’s breast. He forced his face smooth when they noticed him.
“Oh, Iayan,” said Naravi, uncoiling from Captain Harn. “Is Miana home? I need to speak with her.”
“She’s here, Hand Yy.”
“Good.” He hesitated. Most likely, now that he was aware Iayan resented him, he was trying to account for that. “You seem . . . tense. Is something the matter?”
If Naravi could see his tension, he must have been near to shattering. He certainly felt like it: brittle as a frozen branch, taut as a strung wire. One wrong word from the wrong source would send him careening into that broiling hatred that always lurked inside.
“No, Hand Yy.”
“All right. Well, if you need anything, you can—you can tell me.”
That was the problem with Naravi: he’d been intolerable before, full of Adesi arrogance and pride, but he was intolerable now, too, overzealously respectful and accommodating in a way that made Iayan’s teeth grind.
“Thank you, Hand Yy,” said a voice that sounded like Iayan’s. Iayan’s mouth had formed the words, but his mind had nothing to do with it.
“Is Rallis here?”
“He’s with Captain Taarq and Head Yy in the parlor, Hand Yy.”
“Oh, good. I’ll be there in a moment, but I want to change my earrings. Wait here.”
He sailed off toward the back of the house. Iayan, unsure whom the command had been meant for, was stuck in the hallway, lingering awkwardly with Captain Harn. It wasn’t Iayan’s place to speak to him—and he had nothing to say—but the silence was oppressive.
Which meant the footsteps at the far end of the hall seemed uncannily loud. So did the voice that rang out, hoarse and a little desperate.
Dax was framed in the hallway, staring at Captain Harn with a look so intense it bordered on crazed.
Oh Nur. Of course. Of course. Of course Dax would find Captain Harn, because the gods saw all humans as their playthings and Iayan in particular, and of course once Dax saw Captain Harn, he would be compelled to speak to him.
“Yes?” said Captain Harn, visibly wary.
“I don’t know if you recognize me.” Dax’s approach was clumsy with haste. Uncoordinated, like a child. “But I wanted—I wanted to speak to you. I needed to speak to you.” He swallowed convulsively. “I was imprisoned on Jevell citadel last year. When it broke, you freed me so I could escape.”
Unbelievably, he knelt. He knelt. Like a warrior pledging her fealty to some ancient queen. Iayan wanted to gag.
“I owe you my life,” he continued. “I don’t know how to repay this debt, but if there’s anything I can do for you, tell me and I’ll do it.”
Captain Harn looked faintly bewildered. “I . . . You don’t owe me anything. Thank you, but there’s no debt to be repaid.”
“I want to make this right,” Dax insisted. “I would be dead if not for you.”
“What’s going on?” Naravi was back, in new earrings and a different shirt, peering curiously between Captain Harn and the still-kneeling Dax. “Who are you?”
“Dax Variyat.” He glanced up, blanched, and ducked his head. “Hand Yy. My apologies. I didn’t . . . I didn’t realize . . .”
“He’s a new servant, Hand Yy,” Iayan interjected, before Dax could keep babbling. “He’s replacing Lenik.”
“Oh. Well, that’s fine.”
Captain Harn was still watching Dax carefully. He was a noble type, extremely focused on honor, and probably felt obligated to resolve Dax’s proclamation. “You don’t owe a debt,” he repeated, slowly. “Thank you, but . . . it’s not necessary.”
He took Naravi’s arm and guided him toward the parlor, leaving Dax kneeling like an idiot in the hallway.
“You might as well get up,” Iayan said. “He’s not coming back.”
Dax rose. “Did I . . . do something wrong?”
Everything. “No, but you should be helping Lenik right now.”
“He told me . . . He told me to find a ladder. I don’t know where one is. I came inside to look for it.”
“Look in the storage shed.”
“Where is that?”
Iayan bit back a sigh. “This way.” But as he turned to lead Dax toward the back of the house, a figure caught his attention: the new boy, Viqqa, lurking in the shadows near the parlor door.
Eavesdropping, no doubt. Since his arrival, he’d made quite the habit of it.
He didn’t notice their approach until Iayan was nearly above him. When Iayan cleared his throat loudly, Viqqa flung himself away from the door, wide-eyed and cringing like a whipped dog.
It was hard not to feel contempt for him. Naravi had bought his contract a month back, rescuing him from a life of abuse at a lunn parlor. It had damaged him, and Iayan knew that all his mannerisms—the sneaking, the trembling, the tearful docility—had developed to protect himself, no different from Ayla’s cheerfulness or Iayan’s resentment. He knew that. And yet, the sight of Viqqa huddled in the corner made disgust rise in his chest.
He’s only twelve, Iayan reminded himself. He drew a breath, forcing back the anger that wanted to rise in his throat. “It’s ill-mannered to eavesdrop.”
Viqqa flushed. “I—I wasn’t.”
“Don’t you have work to do?”
Before Viqqa could answer, Captain Harn’s furious voice rang through the crack in the door. “And of course my parents are claiming not to know anything about it.”
Every nerve in Iayan’s body strained to listen. Viqqa’s eyes narrowed, probably judging him for hypocrisy, but the situations were completely different. Whereas Viqqa had been snooping for the sake of snooping, Iayan had just cause.
Because they were talking about Captain Harn’s Nur-cursed family and their attempt to frame Iayan for theft. That meant their conversation was Iayan’s business.
Dax was focused intently too, probably because it was Captain Harn speaking. Viqqa had snapped his mouth shut, creeping back toward the doorway to hear better. So there they were, all three of them, hardly breathing as Captain Taarq said, “But the engineer claims he met your father, yes?”
“That’s what he says.”
“Engineer?” Head Yy asked.
“We arrested an engineer on the citadels a week ago,” Captain Harn explained. “He worked on one of the engines—”
“In a minor capacity. Nothing serious. We don’t think he’s done anything to the engine itself, but he was collecting information that he shouldn’t have had access to. Kaskhuul is planning something extensive, and we think it involves Exalted technology. But no one involved is willing to speak. The engineer won’t, and my parents are feigning obliviousness, again.”
“What about your sisters?” Master Rallis asked.
“They don’t know anything.”
“You believe that?”
“I do.” Iayan could picture the determination on his face. “They’re not like my father and mother. The past month has shaken their devotion to Kaskhuul to its core. If they knew anything, they would tell us.”
“What a mess.” Head Yy’s tone meant she was mulling things over. “Amun, what are you and Rallis going to do? Will you postpone visiting House Liina?”
House Liina were family friends of House Yy, located in Anuanua, another city far to the south. Now that Rallis and Captain Taarq were engaged, they were going on an indulgent vacation to tell the Liinas the good news. It seemed like the kind of thing one should cancel in the face of an urgent problem, but Captain Taarq shook his head.
“No, we’ll keep it. Someone else is stepping in for me while I’m away. They’re sending him down from Jev tonight, I think.”
“I can’t help but feel a little nervous about all of this,” said Head Yy. “Has anyone mentioned anything about Naravi?”
Captain Harn grunted. “No, but I’ll keep you informed if they do. If you like, I can post a legionnaire as his guard—”
“I don’t need a guard!” Naravi exclaimed. “I can take care of myself. Besides, you’re my guard.”
Laughter. Iayan realized that he was grinding his teeth. They hadn’t mentioned him at all, even though Captain Harn’s family had tried to use his freedom as leverage to further their goals. But nothing had happened to him, and anyway, Adesi-ren lives mattered less. They weren’t worth thinking about.
The conversation moved on to the subject of Captain Taarq’s engagement to Master Rallis, a topic that Iayan didn’t care about and had nothing to do with. He stepped away from the door as Dax caught his eye.
“Do we— Should we leave?” Dax whispered.
“I’ll take you to the shed. You,” he added to Viqqa, “spend more time on your duties and less on snooping around.”
A spark of what might have been defiance flashed in Viqqa’s eyes. Perhaps, if given the opportunity, he would flourish into a creature made of something other than saltwater tears.
For now, he ducked his head. “Yes, enni.” Enni and essa were archaic terms for older brother and older sister; when used on a non-relative, they indicated a difference in status. Though the servants in House Yy didn’t speak that way, plenty of servants in neighboring Houses did. It wasn’t unusual.
But Iayan was no one’s brother. “Don’t call me that,” he instructed, and stalked down the hallway toward the back of the motherhouse where the shed was located.
Dax didn’t ask any questions on the way. That was good. If he had, Iayan would have fed him the ladder.
Word Count: 74,000
Page Count: 264
Cover By: Simone
Release Date: 03/07/2022
Release Date: 03/07/2022