A Taste of Rebellion (Exalted, 1)
He’s ready to fight for his people, but will he fight for love?
Since Rallis Yy’s homeland Adesa was invaded by rival nation Jev, he and his family have struggled to adapt. As a half Adesi, half Jevite, Rallis faces scorn from both sides and can only keep his head down and hope for the best. When Lieutenant Amun Taarq—a soldier in the occupying Jevite legion—approaches him, he expects the worst, but all Amun wants is a khas opponent. Rallis reluctantly agrees, and he finds more than he expected in the enemy soldier. Amun is intelligent, kindhearted . . . and handsome.
Even as their hearts soften to one another, conflict and oppression worsen in Adesa. Disaster soon strikes in the form of Rallis’s furious cousin, Naravi, and it’s not long before Rallis finds himself trapped in hostile territory, accused of rebellion, and defending not only himself but his people.
Amun is desperate to save Rallis, but the odds are stacked against them. If the Adesi are going to survive, and Rallis is going to have a future, then someone will have to stand up for them. And that someone will have to be Rallis.
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.
Heat Wave: 4 - On-screen and mildly explicit love scenes
Erotic Frequency: 2 - Not many
Genre: action / adventure, romance, sci-fi
Orientation: bisexual / pansexual, gay
Tone: exciting, intense, realistic
Themes: acceptance, adoption, angst, atonement, bullying, colonialism, duty, enemies to lovers, family, financial gap / class disparity, first love, fitting in, found family, gender roles, grief, heritage, history, interracial/multicultural, isolation, politics / power struggle, power imbalance, protection, racism, religion, self-confidence, trust issues
Settings: alternate dimension, Citadel, city, hospital / clinic / medical office, market, military base, off-planet, palace, Palace, small town, Temple
Careers: Army, assistant, criminal / outlaw, military, revolutionary, unemployed
Rallis was late picking up Miana’s medicine.
Though her supply had been running low for days, he’d been reluctant to go out. Another Jevite legionnaire had just been killed, and Jev was crushing down on Adesa: increased patrols, new regulations, a strict curfew. It was hard to take the risk.
But Miana’s illness was thriving as the sticky, wet summer air settled deep into her lungs, so he gritted his teeth and left the motherhouse for the physician’s shop. He spent half an hour waiting for Physician Gerr to see him, listening to the hum of Jevite fliers overhead, hoping there would be no trouble on his journey home.
Physician Gerr—a daughter of House Gerr—was an older woman, narrow, spindly, and brusque. She passed the bundle of Miana’s medicine to Rallis with no pleasantries. “It’s seven vol now.”
Rallis tucked the bundle into his pocket. “Seven?”
“Seven.” Physician Gerr’s gaze was sympathetic but uncompromising. She held out her hand. Rallis counted out seven coins and dropped them into her open palm.
“It’s more than it used to be.”
“Jevite law says ten percent to the Empire. My House needs to make a living, same as yours.” She deposited the coins into the metal lockbox she kept on her at all times. She hadn’t always been so cautious, but since the All Council massacre, when Jev had butchered most of the Adesi House Heads to break Adesa’s spirit, people were hardening their hearts. It was no longer wise to be generous with your money or your possessions. Miana, the Head of Rallis’s motherhouse, had recently ordered a new courtyard gate installed, made of reinforced iron.
“I’m not complaining. I’ll remember next time.”
“I know you weren’t. Tell your Head hello for me. If her cough sticks around, let me know.”
Once finished with his errand, he set out for home, a twenty-minute walk away using side streets. That hadn’t been dangerous before the war either, but now the alleyways seemed darker and stranger than they used to.
They were still safer than the risk of running into a Jevite legionnaire. He was seeing more and more of those lately. After the All Council massacre, the Jevite emissary to Kavck, Rallis’s home city, had assured the Adesi publicly that the Jevites would return to where they had come from, the citadels in the sky.
A year later, there were more Jevites in Adesa than ever. Not only legionnaires and their officers, but civilians too. Nearby, two men were speaking to one another in Jevite.
They never intended to leave.
He squinted up, finding the Jevite citadels floating above him. Even in the bright morning, they were visible against the pale-blue sky, dark shapes among the clouds. He had never been up there. Few Adesi had. Jev was proud and antisocial, rarely willing to collaborate with anyone below it.
Rallis trudged on, listening to the sound of a flier overhead grow louder—
Deep in his chest, something turned over. He increased his pace, jogging toward the mouth of the alley. Ahead, he could see a sliver of the avenue on which the motherhouse rested, and a flash of the wall surrounding its gardens. The flier noise rattled in his ears.
He burst from the alley just as a Jevite flier landed before the front gate.
Alarm rose in his throat as a legionnaire dismounted. Was he there for Naravi or Miana? Though Naravi was the likelier candidate, Miana was Head of House Yy, leader of the family. Rallis’s aunt had been one of those killed in the massacre, leaving Miana to take her place. Perhaps the legionnaire had come to finish the job. He would catch Miana ill, unguarded, and unaware.
Rallis intercepted the legionnaire as he reached for the front gate bell, barely keeping himself from seizing the man’s wrist. Don’t touch them. “What’s going on?” His voice cracked. He cleared his throat and tried again, more calmly. “Who are you looking for?”
The legionnaire inspected him. “What’s your name, citizen?” he asked in thickly accented Adesi.
“Rallis Yy.” He held out his hand, showing his House ring. The legionnaire stared blankly. “I’m a member of this House. What is this about?”
“Rallis Yy? Lieutenant Taarq has ordered me to bring you to the north garrison. Turn around.”
“Me?” said Rallis, disoriented. Expecting Naravi or Miana, the idea that he was the one in trouble threw him off. Had he done something to attract attention, or was it bad luck? He didn’t recall which one was Lieutenant Taarq. There had been so many officers on Treaty Day, all in identical white uniforms. “Why?”
“Lieutenant Taarq has ordered it. Turn around.”
“Fine.” Rallis turned around, barely suppressing a flinch when the legionnaire, without warning, yanked both arms behind his back and clapped a restraint into place. It probably was bad luck. He had looked at Lieutenant Taarq wrong in the street or said the wrong thing to the wrong person. Maybe Lieutenant Taarq just didn’t like his face.
“Am I under arrest?” he asked.
“This is procedure.” The legionnaire manhandled him into the little two-person flier waiting nearby.
There was hardly any room inside, and Rallis’s arms were already starting to ache. He focused on that, rather than the frantic pounding of his heart, or the torrent of thoughts running through his head.
The legionnaire flew erratically, dipping low enough to graze rooftops and then arching into the sky. They must be taking him to the Red Square, an ancient prison repurposed for Jevite use.
Though the flight took no more than a few minutes, by the time they landed in front of the north garrison—a squat, dark building that had once been a merchants’ hall—Rallis was nauseated, dizzy, and nursing a deep headache.
He stumbled out and nearly fell on his face; only the legionnaire’s firm grip on his upper arm kept him upright. “This way,” said the legionnaire tonelessly. Without waiting, he marched Rallis into the garrison, passing more legionnaires, clerks and assistants, and the occasional well-dressed Jevite civilian. Finally, they stopped in front of a small office.
The legionnaire rapped on the door. “Lieutenant Taarq, I’ve brought Rallis Yy as requested,” he said in Jevite, mispronouncing Rallis’s mothername.
The legionnaire opened the door and pushed Rallis none-too-gently inside. A man in a Jevite officer’s uniform was leaning over a paper-covered desk, writing something. He was young, tall, and lanky, with dark skin and close-cropped dark hair. Lieutenant Taarq, presumably.
The legionnaire cleared his throat. “Shall I remain, sir? In case he causes trouble?”
“Trouble?” Lieutenant Taarq repeated. He looked up from the desk and his eyes widened. “You restrained him?” he snapped. “He’s not a prisoner! I said invite him here, not arrest him.”
“Release him immediately and then go.”
“Yes, sir.” The legionnaire fumbled with the restraints; they sprang open with a click, and Rallis’s arms were free again, sore and tense, his shoulders and back aching. He stretched one arm and then the other as the legionnaire hurried out and Lieutenant Taarq looked on with what appeared to be sincere apology. Fantastic. At least he probably wouldn’t kill Rallis.
“Forgive me,” he said, his Adesi clear and practiced, displaying only a mild accent. “You’re not under arrest. I apologize for your poor treatment.”
“Why am I here?” It was too blunt, but Rallis, still airsick and disoriented, had no patience for tact. “If I’m not under arrest, why did you have me brought here?”
“Permit me to introduce myself. My name is Amun Taarq. You’re of House Yy, correct?”
“Yes,” said Rallis. These pointless pleasantries wasted his time. “Lieutenant Taarq, why am I here? Did I do something?”
“Do something?” Lieutenant Taarq’s eyes met his, straightforward and earnest. They were strange eyes, uncommonly pale and clear, and they pierced Rallis’s skin like needles. “No. I brought you here because . . .” He gave a short, self-conscious laugh, gathering the papers on the desk into a loose pile. “I heard you play khas.”
“Khas.” Rallis’s voice cracked a little on the word. “The game?”
So Lieutenant Taarq was a madman. Rallis wasn’t surprised—the surprising thing was that he hadn’t heard about it sooner. It seemed the kind of news that would make local gossip. Perhaps he was usually better at keeping it hidden.
“I know how to play khas,” said Rallis slowly. “Why?”
“I was hoping you would be interested in the occasional game.”
“You want to play khas. With me. Now?”
“It doesn’t have to be now,” said Lieutenant Taarq, though he brightened visibly at the suggestion. “If another time is better . . . Of course, there’s no obligation. If you don’t want to, that’s fine too. But if you’re willing, I’ve been looking for an opponent for ages. No one else seems to know how.”
Not true, of course, but he was right that khas players were scarce. A holdover from the ancient Empire of Uranya, the mother society of both Adesa and Jev, it was once the most-played game in Adesa and Jev—but had fallen out of popularity over the years. Now it was considered antiquated, a relic from a bygone era. There weren’t many left who could play a basic match.
Which meant Lieutenant Taarq had searched for and found Rallis. He must have asked around. The idea was repulsive—so, too, was the idea of actually playing games against Lieutenant Taarq.
“How did you . . .” Rallis began, and then stopped himself, thinking better of it.
But Lieutenant Taarq must have heard the unspoken question. “I was speaking to one of your House Heads. She saw my board. When I mentioned that I didn’t know anyone in the city who played, your name came up.”
He spoke as though it was an amusing story—a lucky coincidence.
It wasn’t. That House Head was probably patting herself on the back for landing Rallis in such trouble.
And yet, how could he refuse? Lieutenant Taarq held Rallis’s life in his hands. He wouldn’t execute Rallis for denying him, but he could make things extremely miserable if he chose. House Yy was subject to the Jevite Empire, same as every other House in Adesa. If they found themselves on a legion officer’s bad side, Jev would make them pay for it.
“Fine,” said Rallis, finding it difficult to speak. “I’ll play against you if you need an opponent. But not now. I have other obligations.”
Lieutenant Taarq bowed. “Of course. Please let me know what works for your schedule. It doesn’t have to be that often—once a week, perhaps? Starting . . . tomorrow?”
That was far too often for Rallis’s taste, but he summoned a blank expression. When he said, “Tomorrow. Yes,” his voice hardly sounded strange at all, and Lieutenant Taarq didn’t appear to notice anything wrong.
“Excellent.” Lieutenant Taarq smiled. “I look forward to it. And I apologize again for the legionnaire’s behavior. He’ll be reprimanded. I did specify that they should invite you here.”
“Of course. I understand. Is that all?”
“Yes,” said Lieutenant Taarq, and cheerfully escorted him out of the garrison.
Rallis returned to the motherhouse just as Naravi was leaving, accompanied by Faida Tlirr. They were talking in low voices to one another as they walked but paused when they saw Rallis. As he passed them, Naravi said, “Where were you?”
“I had business,” Rallis told him. “Why?”
“You were supposed to get Miana’s medicine.”
“I did. Are you going out?”
Naravi’s eyes narrowed. Beside him, Faida looked as languid and imperious as ever. He hardly ever deigned to speak to Rallis, which was fine, as Faida was opinionated and wildly arrogant and talking to him was trying. He saw himself as the angel of Nur sent down to bless Adesa; Naravi was fast becoming one of his loyal disciples. He would follow Faida into the fire.
“And if I am?” Naravi demanded, more defiant for Faida’s presence beside him. “You can’t tell me what to do. What business were you on?”
Rallis could lie, but the truth would come out eventually. “I was ordered to the north garrison by a Jevite officer. We spoke. That’s all.”
Faida made a contemptuous noise in the back of his throat. Naravi, probably sensing blood, went for the kill. “You were cooperating with a Jevve?” Using the slur in a Jevite’s hearing could get him imprisoned. “You’re even more disloyal to Adesa than I thought, half-breed.”
“If you say so,” said Rallis, starting toward the motherhouse again and ignoring the twinge in his chest. Part anger, part sorrow, it grew from the memories he had of Naravi, so different than the boy now sneering at him. “Don’t stay out too late. Miana told the servants to bar the doors after the twentieth hour.”
Naravi’s impotent fury burned against his back. Any response to the heckling only encouraged them, but Rallis was seven years older than them and better at controlling his temper. As an added benefit, it drove Naravi mad.
He entered the cool shade of the motherhouse entrance hall and shut the door firmly behind him. Iayan, one of the motherhouse servants, was just inside the door. That wasn’t unusual. What was unusual was the look of cold anger on his face—anger that disappeared as soon as he saw Rallis.
“Master Rallis.” He bowed. “Welcome back.”
“Thank you. Did something happen?” he added, curious as to the cause of Iayan’s ugly glower. He thought he could guess what had spawned it.
“Happen?” Iayan looked at him blankly. He was a relatively new arrival, a quiet southerner from House Sesseta, and Rallis didn’t know him very well. “No, sir. Why do you ask?”
“Did Naravi say something to you?”
Iayan hesitated. “No, sir.”
Naravi had probably said something. He liked ordering Iayan around—Iayan was handsome, and Rallis knew it pleased him to have an attractive servant at his beck and call. Sometimes he could be overwhelmingly demanding.
“If he’s causing you problems—”
“He’s not,” said Iayan, shortly, and then, “sir,” as an afterthought. He bowed. “I should return to work. Head Yy is looking for you. She’s in her study.”
Without waiting for a response, he turned on his heel and disappeared toward the back of the house.
That was also rude, Rallis supposed, but he had no desire at all in making anything of it. Let Iayan have his small moments of defiance. Instead, he went to find Miana.
As promised, she was in her study, resting on a couch with a book in her lap. She glanced up as Rallis entered, and smiled. “There you are. I was getting worried.”
He joined her on the couch. “I got caught up in other business.”
Briefly he relayed the story to her, watching the emotions play over her face: concern, and then thoughtfulness.
“He wants to play khas?”
“Yes.” Rallis fished the bundle of medicine out of his pocket and unwrapped it, passing her one paper-wrapped packet. “Here. Have you taken any today?” Her russet skin had a worrying flush, and her eyes a glassy sheen. Her hair, normally black and glossy, seemed dull and limp.
Miana carefully pulled back the paper’s edges. “Not yet.” She poured white powder into her tea and stirred. “Are you going to play him?”
“I don’t have a choice.”
“True.” She sipped her tea, grimacing. “I hate how bitter this is.” Setting it aside, she pinned him with a somber look. “Be careful, then. After what happened to the All Council, I don’t feel like I can predict them at all.”
The All Council massacre still weighed heavily on every Adesi’s mind, even after a year. Jev had called the All Council—the Heads of the sixty Houses in Adesa, including House Yy—to the capital city to speak with Jevite representatives, ostensibly in an attempt at a peaceful resolution to the war. Instead, legionnaires had herded them into the meeting hall, locked the doors, and killed them with strange alien weapons. Afterward, they had claimed it a victory in battle. It was a heinous, nightmarish thing to do, and apparently controversial even among Jevites, but it had worked. Already reeling from the differences in weapons and tactics, the loss of most of Adesa’s leaders had been a death blow for the war effort.
“I’ll be careful,” Rallis promised. “How are you feeling?”
“All right. I’ve had better days.” She rolled her shoulders and then stretched her legs. “Not too much pain, I suppose. You know, sometimes I feel like I’m not made for this.”
The words sent a shock through Rallis. “You are. Why do you say that?”
“Compared to mother—” she began, and then hesitated.
Rallis’s aunt Miia, the previous Head, had been among those slain. Miana had admired her, wanted to emulate her, but she had treated Rallis poorly. Not for anything he had done, but because his mother had failed House Yy by marrying a Jevite. Rallis had been a reminder of that disgrace.
“I sometimes worry if I have what it takes,” she finished. “Not because of the illness, really. I mean more . . . generally. I can’t tell if I’m too kind, or not kind enough.”
It was probably a worse day than she was letting on, if she was telling him all this. Miana usually kept her feelings close to her chest.
“You’re an excellent Head. The best in Kavck.”
“Not all of Adesa?” she asked playfully.
“The best in all of Adesa,” he assured her.
Miana took another sip of her tea. “Did you see Naravi? He was going out with Faida.”
“I ran into them in the courtyard.”
His tone must have given something away. She sighed. “He’s getting to be quite a handful. I meant to talk to him this morning, but he was snapping and storming around, and I didn’t have the patience. I’ll speak with him when he gets back.” She rubbed her temple, pushing locks of thick dark hair away from her face. “If Hesse were here . . .”
“If Hesse were here, he’d be encouraging Naravi,” said Rallis bluntly. Miana and Naravi’s brother had always been hot-blooded, volatile, and thirsty for revenge. His last days had been spent trying to bring Naravi into the fight—right up until he had tried to plant a bomb in a Jevite garrison. A Jevite officer had killed him as easily as swatting a fly. “He would be thrilled to see Naravi following in his footsteps. That’s part of the problem.”
“Oh? What’s the other part?”
“Faida.” Young and fierce and self-righteous, but somehow magnetic. If it were something as simple as young love, Rallis wouldn’t worry so much, but Naravi didn’t love Faida—he worshipped him. “Faida thinks he’s immortal. Naravi is starting to agree. Faida enjoys playing dangerous games, and he’s bringing Naravi along with him.”
“Do you think we should speak to the Tlirrs about arranging a marriage between them? They seem quite devoted to each other.”
She was almost certainly joking, but the idea terrified him nonetheless. “Definitely not.” Rallis grimaced. “You might as well put a stick of explosive drunn in your bed to see what would happen.”
Miana laughed. “Would it? On paper, they seem like a good match. The same age, the same status—”
“Not according to the Tlirrs.”
“Head Tlirr is growing desperate to marry her brothers off,” Miana said, waving her hand. “She’ll accept the suggestion if we make it. And other Houses are starting to send serious offers to Naravi. At least, we should consider what we’re looking for in his match.”
The news of serious matches didn’t surprise Rallis. In Adesi society, Naravi was considered strikingly beautiful. Between his deep mahogany skin and his wavy hair, black as onyx, and the perfect symmetry of his face, he looked like a little godling out of a legend. Eyes followed him wherever he went, and he had been receiving prospective courting gifts and marriage proposals since he was ten years old. His was the kind of beauty that could turn people frenzied and erratic with desire.
“Not Faida. They’re both eighteen and fanatic. They’re bound to have a falling out soon. I doubt they’ll be speaking to one another by the time they’re twenty.”
“I’m afraid you’re right.” She sighed, combing her fingers through her hair. “It’s a shame. I was hoping it might settle him down a little.”
“He’ll never settle.”
When he left Miana to her tea, he felt no less agitated than before. The earlier meeting took up his thoughts for the rest of the day, running through his head over and over again. It wasn’t what he should have been doing—Naravi was the pressing issue—but Rallis couldn’t concentrate on figuring out how to make him see reason. His mind was taken up by Lieutenant Taarq and the misery that was Rallis’s new future. Once a week. It felt like a lifetime sentence.
The following day, Rallis returned to the north garrison to meet Lieutenant Taarq. They had arranged to play in the evening, taking into consideration their schedules and Rallis’s need to be back before it grew too late. When he arrived, the legionnaire on desk duty gave him a suspicious look.
“I’m Lieutenant Taarq’s guest,” he told the guard. “I’m supposed to play khas with him.”
“What is khas?”
“A game,” said Rallis, carefully.
The guard narrowed his eyes, clearly disbelieving. Rallis licked his lips, focusing on keeping his breathing steady. Directionless anger bubbled inside him. Damn it, he didn’t even want to be here.
“Very well,” said the guard eventually, and signaled for another legionnaire to escort Rallis into the garrison.
At the office door, he knocked lightly, conscious of the legionnaire’s eyes on him as he waited. There was a pause, then the door swung open, framing the lieutenant. As before, he was dressed in an officer’s uniform, their everyday costume and not the elaborate thing they wore in formal ceremonies. Its high collar and green edgings accentuated Lieutenant Taarq’s sharp features, the health of his skin, his pale eyes. He was unexpectedly handsome, and his smile seemed sincerely kind. That made it worse, somehow.
“Please, come in.” Lieutenant Taarq stepped back to let him enter. Behind him, the khas board was already set up on his desk, along with a teapot and cups. Through a small window, the darkening sky was speckled with the first stars of evening. Light from lamps set into the north and south walls bathed everything in a warm orange glow. It wasn’t a large room, but it was clean and organized. As clean and organized as a prison cell.
Rallis obediently took the seat across the desk from Lieutenant Taarq and looked at the khas board. It was a cheap one, clumsily made by someone unfamiliar with the game. Rallis’s own board was polished hardwood, crafted by a master and passed down to him by his father, who had inherited it from his own father in Jev. This board was scuffed and battered, the tiles separating, the corners splintered. The pieces, too, were inferior, misshapen tokens like a child might make out of clay.
Lieutenant Taarq noticed his inspection, laughed, and said lightly, “It had a rough trip from Jev, I’m afraid.”
“It’s fine. Will you play first?”
“We can flip a coin.” Lieutenant Taarq produced a silver Jev coin from a desk drawer. One side was an image of the Jevite citadels; on the other side was the sign of the Exalted. He hesitated and then held it out to Rallis. “Do you want to?”
“Will you call?”
Lieutenant Taarq flicked the coin in the air with his thumb, caught it, and set it down on the tabletop, his gloved hand covering it. When he pulled away, the sign of the Exalted—a hand with Jevite runes around it—faced them.
“I’ll play first, then.” He glanced at Rallis. “Is that all right?”
“I called and lost. It’s fair.” Frustration seethed in Rallis’s stomach, and he struggled to keep it out of his voice. “We should start soon.” If he were too late returning to the motherhouse, he’d have to find somewhere to stay for the night.
“Of course.” Lieutenant Taarq picked up a piece and held it thoughtfully above the board. “Rhagen kel.”
“Rhagen lev,” said Rallis, setting his piece adjacent to Lieutenant Taarq’s.
So it began. Khas. He had loved the game when his father, Orun, had been alive. Their games had been a bonding experience. It had quickly become obvious Rallis was the far better player. When he’d won his first game against Orun, at ten, Orun had been delighted. After that, it had been a precious thing they shared.
Khas came from a time before Adesa or Jev, before the arrival of the Exalted and the creation of their grand citadels. The ancient people of Uranya had played khas a thousand years prior, and the rules had hardly changed in the time since. It was a strategy game, focused on collecting territory using small markers called unnae that were moved around the board. Different unnae could be used in different ways: combined, transformed, or eliminated as it suited the player.
Rallis’s play style was aggressive and forward. Lieutenant Taarq’s, it quickly became obvious, was much more prudent; he was cautious in his choices and slow to take action. Each of his turns lasted three times longer than Rallis’s, holding his piece above the board, exploring one spot and then another. He put far more consideration into his actions than Rallis ever bothered to do.
“I’m sorry,” Lieutenant Taarq said partway through the game. His expression was wry. “This must be extremely tedious for you.”
“It’s fine.” It wasn’t fine, but that had nothing to do with tediousness. In the small room, huddled together over a khas board, Lieutenant Taarq’s scent—pleasantly clean and soapy with a faint touch of some kind of spice—clung to the insides of his nostrils. Something dangerously close to desire pulsed through Rallis’s body whenever he caught the aroma, making his stomach churn. Anger and shame were vicious siblings inside him. He focused on the board, laying his unnae down hastily, almost erratically, desperate for the game to be over.
And despite everything, despite his haste and Lieutenant Taarq’s consideration, Rallis was significantly better. At half past nine, when they had counted up the score and cleared the board, Lieutenant Taarq laughed.
“That went poorly. Still, I enjoyed it.” He paused, and his uncanny eyes searched Rallis’s face. “I get the sense that it was much less enjoyable for you than me.”
Fear seized in Rallis’s chest. “I—”
“It’s all right. It’s perfectly understandable. Really, I shouldn’t have asked. I put obligation on you that wasn’t fair.” He ducked his head in a bow. “You don’t need to come back next week. Consider the obligation dismissed.”
Reflex made Rallis bow back. “Fine,” he said, uncaring of rudeness. He felt like a fish in a river current, pulled this way and that by forces beyond himself. It wasn’t exactly a nice feeling. “If you say so.”
“Thank you, though. I appreciate you doing this.”
“Fine,” said Rallis again, and then, coming to his senses, “You’re welcome.”
Other Jevite officers would probably have taken offense toward Rallis’s attitude, but Lieutenant Taarq was as pleasant as ever when he walked Rallis out of the garrison. Though it was hard to be sure, he seemed to have meant it when he dismissed the obligation, which made no sense. It wasn’t as though he needed to consider Rallis’s feelings, and Rallis couldn’t see what benefit there was for Lieutenant Taarq to release him—but there must have been some benefit, otherwise why do it?
The lack of answer was worse than anything. More unsettled than he had been in months, he hurried toward the motherhouse, looking forward to collapsing into bed and hiding himself from the world, at least for a while.
But partway home, he slowed, dragged to a stop by the sound of spoken Jevite. Down the street, a pair of legionnaires had their heads together. He had to pass them to get to his turn, but the subject of their conversation made him nervous to get too close to them.
“They arrested an Adesi with a bag full of drunn,” one of them was saying as Rallis drew near.
“Another rebel?” the second muttered. “The bomb at the temple might be part of a larger attack.”
“No one’s sure. They’ve locked him up in the Red Square—” he spoke the name in clumsy Adesi “—but he hasn’t talked yet.”
“I haven’t heard about that at all.”
“My brother told me. They might announce it tomorrow.”
They looked up at the sound of Rallis’s footsteps. Keeping his head low, he ducked past them, relying on the night to hide the more Jevite aspects of his face. If they thought he could understand them, he would be in trouble.
But he slipped away without incident. Physically, he was safe. Mentally—
Mentally, the night had gained teeth. Every shadow was a legionnaire, waiting to seize him. It wasn’t the first time he’d heard rumors of a rebellion, but it was the first time someone had spoken of it so openly, as though it were fact that rebels existed and not just something to be passed from one ear to another.
Rallis reached the motherhouse just as the bells were ringing twenty, slipping in through the gate before it was barred. His hands were trembling. He changed and was settled in bed by half past the hour, but sleep was a long time coming.
As a boy, the weekly visit to market had been one of Rallis’s favorite things. He would go with his parents: Rallis riding on his father’s shoulders, his mother walking placidly beside with her basket and purse. He had reveled in the excitement, the bright colors, the shouts of the vendors, the delicious smells from the cooking stalls, and the endless things to look at and touch and buy. Though his mother worried about money, his father always convinced her to get Rallis some small gift at market. After his parents were done shopping, they would walk home together and return to the motherhouse just in time for the midday meal. It had been a soothing, strengthening experience.
This time was different. The cheerful atmosphere had been replaced with a strained courtesy brought on by the presence of patrolling Jevite legionnaires. Rallis, older and more experienced, was painfully aware of his tenuous place in Adesi society. His parents were gone. And his companion was Naravi, who was neither soothing nor strengthening.
“It’s hot,” said Naravi, for the third time that morning.
They were near the edge of the market, taking shelter from the late-morning sun in the shade of a canopy. It was warm, but not warm enough to warrant so much complaining. Not that Naravi really needed cause to complain.
“You already said that.”
“Why did I have to come along? The servants could do this. Iayan would be—”
“They do, but you need the experience. If they have a problem at market, it becomes your problem. You need to know what it’s like to visit the market in case there’s trouble when you’re the Hand.”
Naravi made a rough noise in his throat. “That’s what the servants are for.”
“A year from now—”
“Oh, enough. If all you’re going to do is blabber about a year from now, I’m going home.”
From the look in his eyes, he was serious. He made the same threat every time someone mentioned his future position as Hand. Adesi society decreed that the eldest son was Hand, and Hesse’s death had passed that mantle onto Naravi. Though he wouldn’t fully take on the role until he came of age at nineteen, he was woefully unprepared for what it would entail and didn’t want to learn. Rallis, who had taken on many of the Hand’s duties after Hesse’s death, had just under a year to get him into shape.
“You have to face it.” Rallis shifted his bag on his shoulder. “Miana didn’t have any time to prepare for being Head, and she accepted the responsibility without hesitating. She stepped up to represent our House, even though I doubt she wanted to either. You have to do the same. Hesse—”
Naravi rounded on him, hands clenched and eyes blazing. “Don’t talk about Hesse.”
For a moment, they were suspended, as though they were alone in the world: Rallis on his back foot, heart pounding; Naravi’s face twisted with rage.
Then Naravi wrapped his arms around his chest, glaring at the ground. “I didn’t ask your opinion,” he muttered. “Besides, I know.”
Another day, another fight, and more distance between them. Lately, Naravi had been out with Faida Tlirr more often than not, and reclusive when he was actually at home. They could all see him pulling away from the motherhouse, too quickly and drastically. Miana was worried.
Rallis was growing desperate. He hadn’t always been like this. Before, he had been a sweet boy—a little languorous and distractible, a little caught up in himself, but gentle. Empathetic. His mother’s teachings had soured him, and Hesse’s death had twisted him, and now he was blade-sharp and venomous. Still, there had to be a way to bring him back.
“Do you want anything to eat?” he ventured, hoping despite himself that Naravi would bite.
“How am I supposed to eat in this heat?”
“Do you want to look at clothes?”
Naravi’s lip rose. “I want to get out of the sun. I still don’t understand why you’re making me do this. You know they don’t want you here, right?”
Of course they didn’t. Around them, merchants were giving him looks, wary and unwelcoming. Most of them were younger sons of other Houses, and many of them probably knew of him, even if they didn’t know him. The infamous half-Jevite member of House Yy. That was all it took to frighten them.
Compared to Miana’s compact grace, or slim, languid Naravi, Rallis was taller and stockier. His coloring leaned Jevite. His face, too, reflected the haphazard mingling of two kinds of blood: he had his mother’s high cheeks and straight, dark brow, but his father’s proud nose, his narrow, tilted eyes, and his thin mouth. He was composed of individual parts, stuck together by the hand of fate, none of the pieces quite fitting together.
As if proving Naravi’s point, nearby merchants gathered their wares closer when Rallis walked by, as though expecting to be robbed.
Naravi snorted. “You see? They’re scared of the half-breed.”
Rallis ground his teeth, not deigning to respond. Stubbornness alone kept him from marching them both back to the motherhouse and ending the ridiculous debacle, and even that was fading.
Around them, the market churned with activity, as Adesi and the occasional Jevite bartered and argued over the goods for sale. “It’s loud,” said Naravi eventually, drawing closer to Rallis to avoid two men shouting over a cut of meat. “I hate noise.”
“Things will clear up once we get across the square.”
“And when,” said Naravi, coolly, “are we going to do that?”
“When I’m finished buying what I need.”
He expected Naravi to continue complaining, but Naravi followed him quietly, staying nearby. Every now and then, someone would draw too close and he’d hiss or grumble, but Rallis completed his purchases without further complaints. Afterward, he led Naravi toward the edge of the market, relieved to be out of the crush.
They paused on the edge of the square. “Do you want to go to a tea shop?” Rallis asked. “We don’t have to walk back to the motherhouse right away if you’d rather take a break from the sun.”
“I don’t care,” said Naravi, though his eyes kept straying toward a shaded bench nearby, and when Rallis had suggested they go for tea, he’d perked up. He thought himself so cold and regal, but Rallis could read him like a book.
The market was in Merchants’ Square, close to the center of the city, and the tea shops lined an adjacent street. It was a short walk from the market and could usually be done in a few minutes, but Rallis and Naravi weren’t the only ones seeking relief from the heat, and the crowd around them moved slowly. Naravi was growing visibly impatient. On impulse, Rallis ducked left onto a small side path, pulling Naravi with him.
“What are you doing?” Naravi demanded.
“It’s a shortcut. It’ll take forever to get to the tea shops otherwise.”
Naravi sighed but didn’t protest, following him down the road, which was empty and pleasantly cool, lined on both sides by stocky buildings. At the corner, they rounded the curve—
And stopped short. Twenty paces away, a small group of Jevite legionnaires was loitering around a streetlamp, talking to one another in bright, loud voices.
Alarm thrummed in Rallis’s chest. Distracted, he’d taken a wrong turn. Instead of opening onto the larger road that held the tea shops, this pathway wound southward, disappearing around a corner. Halfway down the street, he could see the entrance to a garrison, which explained the legionnaires—he’d forgotten there was a garrison outpost so close to the market. One of the legionnaires had already noticed them, which meant they couldn’t go back the way they had come.
And he was with Naravi.
That was the real danger. Alone, Rallis could have walked by the Jevites without too much concern, as long as he kept his head down and his posture respectful, but Naravi complicated things.
The problem was twofold. First, Naravi was very provocative: it came as naturally to him as breathing, and he had no inclination to restrain himself. When he was angry or offended or feeling proud, it was clear to everyone around him.
Jevite legionnaires infuriated him. He would make sure they knew it.
That alone would have been troublesome, but Naravi’s beauty gave the situation a bloodthirsty edge. If he antagonized Jevite legionnaires who also wanted him, the reaction would be poisonous. Rageful men became far worse when lust was involved.
“Naravi,” Rallis whispered, “walk calmly and don’t look at them.”
Beside him, Naravi was tense. He hissed, “I know,” through his teeth. But he was already looking at the Jevites, disobeying the one order Rallis had given him. And they were looking at him, their gazes hungry. Nur’s heart, this was going to go badly, Rallis could already tell.
Just as they passed in front of the legionnaires, one of them said in broken Adesi, “You not allowed to be here.”
Rallis slowed to a halt, Naravi following his lead. The legionnaires had shifted positions, no longer casually clustered near one another but all facing forward, presenting a united front. They were all young men, none of them older than perhaps twenty-one, and most of them were focused on Naravi.
“Apologies,” said Rallis. “We didn’t realize. We’re just passing through.”
“You pass through,” said the Jevite. He indicated Naravi. “That one stays.”
Naravi took the bait. “I’d rather die than stay anywhere near you people.”
As he spoke, he stepped half-behind Rallis. For all his venom, he was terrified. Rallis shifted further in front of Naravi, blocking him from their line of sight.
“What did he say?” the legionnaire demanded of Rallis. “The words—what was he saying?”
“He doesn’t want to stay here. We’re just passing through. We don’t want trouble.”
“He claims they’re just passing through, but the little Adesi said something nasty,” said the legionnaire in Jevite. “I don’t know what. He spoke too fast.”
So only one of the legionnaires spoke any Adesi. No surprise—though most of the Jevite officers had at least a passable skill in the language, they didn’t seem to train their common soldiers the same way.
“Arrest him, then,” said another legionnaire, “and maybe he’ll be more friendly in prison.”
Rallis’s heart pounded in his chest. Behind him, Naravi was clutching at his sleeve with trembling fingers. Though he would be hand in less than a year, he was still acting like a younger son, hiding and turning his face away.
“My name is Rallis Yy of House Yy,” said Rallis. “This is Naravi Yy, future Hand of House Yy. We’re trying to go home. Unless we’ve done something illegal, you have no cause to detain us. Please let us pass.”
“He says that one’s Hand of their House,” the Adesi-speaking legionnaire reported.
“No, he’s not,” said another one scornfully. “Look at him. He’s one of their—what do they call them—the younger sons. Like geldings. Always doing whatever his sisters tell him. Might as well do what we tell him today.”
Laughter. The word gelding had sharpened their hunger. Jevites disliked younger sons most of everyone in Adesi. They saw them as vulnerable, submissive, and subordinate. Prey.
“What if you’re wrong?” said a different one, who was hanging back and not smiling. “If he is the Hand, his family could cause trouble. Do you want to explain to the captain why you harassed a citizen?”
That cut through their humor. Since the massacre, Jevite policy seemed to be to respect Adesi House statuses—perhaps wanting, in some grotesque way, to make up for what they had done. That was the decree from the Empress, anyway. Not that the legionnaires always followed it, any more than they followed any other mandate to treat the Adesi well.
Now, though, reason seemed to have regained control. By some unspoken communion, the Jevites moved out of the road. Perhaps the situation would pass without further trouble. He walked forward, Naravi at his side—
But as Naravi stepped in front of them, the legionnaire who spoke some Adesi reached out and touched his arm. It was a light brush, almost reverential, like that of a silk merchant admiring a fine bolt of cloth, but Naravi whirled to face him. “Touch me again, you worthless Jevve waste, and I’ll gut you.”
The legionnaire understood that. Perhaps not all of it, but he understood Naravi’s tone, and Rallis knew he understood Jevve.
He seized Naravi’s wrist and dragged him forward, Naravi crying out in fear and outrage. “What did you say to me?” the legionnaire demanded in hoarse, rapid Jevite as Naravi fought to free himself, and Rallis stepped forward despite the absolute futility of it all.
“He’s Hand of House Yy, you can’t—”
“What’s going on?”
The voice made the legionnaires jump and straighten where they stood. It made Rallis start too, for he recognized it, that unmistakable soft tenor. Lieutenant Taarq was framed in the doorway of the building behind them like a wrathful deity, wearing a cold, regal expression that Rallis had never seen before.
Without waiting for a response, he strode down the steps toward Naravi and the legionnaire, who released Naravi’s wrist immediately.
“I asked what was going on,” Lieutenant Taarq snapped. “Explain at once.”
“He—the Adesi called me Jevve, sir. He was disrespectful. So was the other one.”
Naravi, who had scurried behind Rallis as soon as he was free, seized Rallis’s arm in a bruising grip. “What are they saying?” he hissed in Rallis’s ear, but Rallis shook his head.
Lieutenant Taarq’s attention was locked on the legionnaire’s face. “What happened?”
“They spoke to me disrespectfully, sir.”
“Who spoke first?”
A pause. The legionnaire glanced quickly over his shoulder. Seeing that he would get no help from the others, he said, “I did, Lieutenant.”
“They were walking here, sir. It’s not allowed.”
Lieutenant Taarq glanced down the road. “I don’t see why not. It’s not a protected area.”
“But this is a garrison . . .”
“Adesi are allowed to walk by the garrisons. Or am I mistaken?”
He wasn’t, and they all knew it. “No, sir,” the legionnaire mumbled.
“What happened?” Lieutenant Taarq addressed Rallis and Naravi in Adesi, regal demeanor replaced by concern.
“He touched me.” Naravi bared his teeth, hand clapped around the place the Jevite had made contact. “He touched my arm.”
“He says you touched him. Is this true?”
The legionnaire was shifting back and forth as though preparing to sprint off. “I was just trying to keep him from leaving, Lieutenant, I didn’t mean—”
“You’re not permitted to touch Adesi citizens,” said Lieutenant Taarq. “And they won’t insult you if you don’t stop them needlessly when they’re trying to go about their lives. Your behavior disgraces your unit and your commanding officer. Consider this an infraction. All of you, go inside, now.”
The legionnaire winced. His comrades looked relieved. As they trickled away, Lieutenant Taarq turned to Rallis.
“Are you all right? I’m sorry about that.”
“We’re fine.” Fine wasn’t the word for it. A part of him seethed at the helplessness, at needing to be rescued like a child. Another part was brutally practical. If Lieutenant Taarq hadn’t stepped in—if it had been a different Jevite, or if no one else had appeared—Nur’s heart, it didn’t bear thinking of. Naravi could have been arrested. Or killed.
How strange, to once again be the subject of Lieutenant Taarq’s straightforward kindness. Each time it happened, the knot in his chest tightened. He wanted to unpick it—to understand—but didn’t even know where to start.
Lieutenant Taarq’s gaze went to Naravi, and Rallis waited for the desire that would flare hot in his eyes, the hunger, the consideration. But Lieutenant Taarq said only, “Are you all right? You said he grabbed you—do you need treatment?”
Naravi scoffed and turned away.
“He’s all right,” Rallis assured Lieutenant Taarq. “He wasn’t hurt. Just shaken.”
“Let’s go,” said Naravi. “I want to go home.”
“Would you like me to escort you back?”
“It’s all right.” In truth, Rallis wouldn’t have minded an escort, but Naravi’s posture made it clear that he was moments from breaking down completely. “We’ll be fine. Thank you.”
Lieutenant Taarq bowed. “I apologize again for that. There will be consequences for them.”
“I’m going.” Naravi strode down the street, leaving Rallis to hastily bid Lieutenant Taarq farewell and catch up to him.
At the motherhouse, Naravi retreated to the communal sleeping chamber, and Rallis let him go. After what had happened, he deserved time to himself—and Rallis knew it could have been much worse. If not for Lieutenant Taarq—
No. They were safe. That was what mattered. As for Lieutenant Taarq . . . Rallis needed to figure that out.
It took Rallis three days to gather the nerve to return to the north garrison, though he had decided what he was going to do by the end of the first day. It was inevitable. Lieutenant Taarq might have been Jevite, but he was one of the few people who treated Rallis as . . . normal. Not a freak of nature, or something lesser; not strange or dangerous. Just a person, with whom to play a game.
But resolution was different than courage, so it was Athaday before he managed to force his feet to take him there.
The legionnaire guarding the desk glanced up at him as he entered. “What do you need, citizen?” he asked in Adesi.
“I’m here to see Lieutenant Taarq.”
The legionnaire’s brow furrowed. He was dressed in a standard Jevite uniform with green edgings. Lieutenant Taarq’s uniform had green edgings too, which probably meant they were part of the same company. “Do you have an appointment?”
“No. I didn’t know I should make one.”
“He’s a busy man.” The legionnaire rose from his desk. “I can’t guarantee he’s available, but I’ll see. Wait here.”
So Rallis did, and after a few moments the legionnaire returned, looking more dubious than ever. “He says he’ll speak with you.” He indicated the hallway he had just returned from. “This way.”
At Lieutenant Taarq’s door, the legionnaire knocked. “The Adesi citizen is here, sir.”
“You can go in.” The legionnaire stepped back and watched intently as Rallis, antsy under the attention, turned the handle and opened the door, ignoring his sweating palms. Lieutenant Taarq was at his desk, surrounded by paper and busy tapping something on a calculator.
“Lieutenant Taarq,” said Rallis.
Lieutenant Taarq looked up, and true emotions flashed across his face: astonishment and confusion and, beneath that, a kind of tentative hope that made Rallis’s hair stand on end.
Then he regained his poise and rose, smiling pleasantly. “Citizen Yy. I wasn’t expecting you.”
“Should I have made an appointment?”
“Ah, no, it’s—it’s fine. Please come in. That will be all, thank you,” he added to the legionnaire, who left off his dubious squinting and departed.
Rallis entered the room and took the seat across the desk. “Are you busy? I can come back . . .”
“I’m not busy.” When Rallis’s eyes went to the calculator, Lieutenant Taarq quickly set it on the floor. “What’s this about? No trouble since the other day, I hope?”
“No. I . . . I wanted to thank you for what you did. My cousin—Naravi— Thank you for helping him. I appreciate it.”
“Of course.” Lieutenant Taarq sighed. “Their behavior was shameful. They should have been trained better. I’ve spoken to the captain in charge of that company.”
“Oh. Thank you.”
“You wanted a khas partner.” The words tumbled out, barely making it before his tongue lost its nerve. “I’ll play khas with you. If you still want.”
Nur’s heart, the expression on Lieutenant Taarq’s face was baffling. His joy was as sincere and unshadowed as a boy’s. Who was he? Where had he come from, to smile so easily at his enemy? Rallis couldn’t imagine it.
“Yes. I would—that would be wonderful. As long as it’s not an imposition. I’m not good at the game, but I enjoy it, and I don’t know anyone who can play. I’ve been looking for a partner since I arrived.”
“I can play it with you. It’s not an imposition.”
“Then yes, I would greatly like to have you as my partner. Do you have time for a game now? If not, perhaps an evening this week . . .?”
“I have time now if you do.”
Lieutenant Taarq laughed. “I can make time.” Rallis waited as he fetched the board and set it on the desk, laying the unnae beside it. “Though, if we’re to be partners, I’m afraid you’ll have to have a lot of patience with me. You’re really very remarkable.”
“It’s all right.” Rallis began to set up the board. The dread that had plagued him throughout the first game had vanished, but he didn’t have words to describe the emotions that had taken its place. “I can teach you.”
The flash in Lieutenant Taarq’s eyes was the bright hunger of someone anticipating a challenge. For the life of him, Rallis didn’t know how to respond.
Or, check your local library.
Word Count: 86,000
Page Count: 278
Cover By: Simone
Release Date: 03/13/2021
Release Date: 03/15/2021