2-The Armor of Light


Ember has been accepted into the mage academy, but not without cost. She has gained a new enemy, ancient and dark, whose entire purpose is to destroy all white magic and her along with it. After nearly losing her life in a brutal attack, DeMunth is assigned her guardian, and the keystone he wears, The Armor of Light, begins the transition that will make it a true power.

Kayla has lost most everything of importance to her—the people, the prestige, and all she fought for the past ten years. With nothing left to lose, she continues her search for the birthplace of The Sapphire Flute and the Wolfchild she believes to be its player. Her journey will take her to strange, foreign, and often dangerous places, and everything she had thought to be true will be proven wrong.

In a showdown full of betrayal and heroic loss, Ember and Kayla finally meet on the battlefield, fighting a war on two fronts—against C'Tan and her people, and the mysterious enemy bent on destroying all magic—the shadow weavers.

The story is full of power, betrayal, hope, and love. The elements of the universe are coming together, and none can know who will stand in the end.

Sample Chapters


The girl called Shadow crept into the glade, the magelights of Javak shining their unnatural blue glow over the city. Unlike a true fire, the magelights never flickered. They were unwavering, neither hot nor cold—and yet the glow seared into her eyes, leaving floating balls of blinding light impressed on her retina long after she turned away to hide in the shadows of the forest. The girl blended herself to the darkened lengths of shade cast by the tall pines in the moon’s glow. She faded into nothing, an extension of the natural balance of light and dark, unnoticed, unseen.
The teacher came next, the one called Dragon. Careless, the teacher was fully in the meadow before slipping on the dragonhead mask, features fully exposed to view. C’Tan would be furious if she knew. Shadow was stunned at Dragon’s true identity. Had she not seen the face, she would not have believed.
At the mage school, Dragon was the kind teacher, always willing to take time to help a student. But here in this glade, she heard only the harsh and bitter, fury and hate for the academy and for Ezeker in particular. Dragon at last pulled down the mask, covering the face, the dark contours of the black drake leaving all but the eyes hidden, then leaned against a tree to wait.
The guards came together, Magnet and Seer, male and female, their faces already covered by the plain helm that hid them—but Shadow knew them. She had known since the first meeting. There was no mistaking Seer’s terse alto tones and Magnet’s rich baritone. His voice was as familiar to Shadow as her own—a voice she both loved and despised.
The voice of her father.
The three masked figures watched each other warily, never trusting. Stillness descended over the glade with their presence, as if the very insects could feel their malice.
They stood in silence until the deep beat of wings coming from the east pulled all eyes up to watch the descent of the Mistress, current owner of their souls, by rule of their true master, S’Kotos.
C’Tan flew in on her dragon. Behind her sat a young boy, his arms wrapped around her torso. The black beast back-winged, stirring the pine needles and dust into a frenzy about the group, their hair whipping in the wind.
 No one moved. They stood as if frozen until C’Tan dismounted the dragon and leaped to the ground, leaving the boy to dismount the black beast on his own. He moved as if he were born on a dragon and came at her side, his stance too mature for his years.
“Who is the child?” Seer asked.
C’Tan did not answer, but instead threw her words to the darkness where Shadow hid.
“Show yourself, Shadow.”
“Yes, Mother,” the girl answered, fading from darkness to a semi-transparent gray that still left her face and figure a mystery.
C’Tan grimaced. “I have asked you not to call me that, girl. Do you wish to give away our plans with a slip of your tongue?”
“And who is there to hear, Mother? They already know that—” Shadow stopped with a grunt of pain. Her shadow cover wavered as she collapsed to her knees and looked at C’Tan in astonishment. The blonde woman’s arm was outstretched, her hand hooked, claw-like. Shadow’s insides felt as if they were about to burst. She fell to her side, the pain was so great, but she refused to give her mother any further satisfaction. The pain stopped immediately when C’Tan dropped her hand. Shadow sucked in a deep, sobbing breath and scrambled to her feet.
“Do not question me, child.” C’Tan spoke in a deadly whisper. “There is too much at stake. Do as you are told.”
“Yes, Moth . . . Mistress.” Shadow faded back into darkness.
There was silence for a long moment as C’Tan glanced at each person, then to the boy at her side. The child couldn’t have been more than eight or nine. He grinned up at C’Tan with cold eyes. Shadow felt a pang of envy for the boy who stood so close to her mother, but she squelched it quickly. There was no use in longing for that which would never be.
C’Tan finally spoke. “The Chosen One has come.”
She didn’t need to say anything more. Everyone stood a little sharper, the intensity in the glade increasing.
“Laerdish has failed us. His true nature has been discovered and he has fled with barely his life. But he has managed to get us some useful information. The Chosen One has been accepted to the academy.”
Now their voices leaped over one another, asking questions. C’Tan quieted them with a single motion.
“Her name is Ember Shandae and she will arrive with the next intake, but . . .” she paused, her eyes gleaming. “I have a plan. I believe you all know Ian Covainis?” She gestured to the boy and was greeted by stunned silence as the boy stepped forward and bowed.
“You must be joking,” Shadow’s father, Magnet, growled.
“Have you ever known me to joke?” C’Tan quirked an eyebrow in his direction.
Magnet scratched his nose beneath the helm. “Actually, no, I have not.”
“Nor do I joke now. Ian, tell them,” she demanded of the boy.
Shadow had to admit there were certain similarities between this child and the man she knew. The protruding ears, the shape of the nose, the smile that held no warmth —yes, it could be, though it seemed impossible.
“I found the girl, Ember, outside of Karsholm. I captured her and planned to bring her to the Mistress, but she shapeshifted into a wolf and escaped with a pack. I didn’t find her again until I got to Javak and discovered that she had shapeshifted into a boy. I alerted Laerdish, and he tried to make her look like a fraud, but it backfired on him. She can read all the colors of magic, people. Every one.” The silence around him spoke for itself. “The Mistress thought it might be good if an agent could be planted into her class—someone who can get close to her while she’s vulnerable. And since I’ve had the most experience with her, C’Tan age-regressed me so I could hide in plain sight.” Ian’s young voice was at odds with his tone and words. “Much as I might wish it, I cannot do this alone. The girl is smart and trusts very few. We’ll need to work together if we hope to succeed, and I can’t do that with your anonymity. It has served its place, but now is the time to let yourselves be known.”
Ian waited in silence. Nobody moved or spoke. He shook his head and ran a hand through his wavy hair. “All right then, if you won’t trust me with your identities, we need to have an alternate way to contact one another. Any ideas?”
Seer snorted. “And why should we help you?”
“Because I said so,” C’Tan answered for Ian. Seer glared from beneath her helmet, but said nothing more.
“Let’s use the sending stones and establish a password in case we need to meet in person,” Magnet said in his deep voice.
Shadow shivered.
“A password? Such as?” Ian asked.
“Wolfchild,” Dragon growled. “Make the code wolfchild.”
Ian smiled. “Wolfchild it is. Now, first we must gain the girl’s trust, bring her into our circle, and turn others against her as often as possible so she has nowhere else to go.”
“And what is that supposed to accomplish?” The woman sneered again.
“Why, it should be obvious,” the man-turned-boy leered, which looked strange on his nine-year-old face. “We get the Chosen One to trust us, chain her with her weakness, and lead her away from the light of Mahal to the darkness of S’Kotos. If we can’t defeat her, then she must join us—or die.”
Shadow shivered, but she did not leave. If good or evil were carried through the blood, she had no choice. With parents like these, who needs enemies, she thought as they pulled her into the circle and planned Ember’s demise.

Chapter One

There was still ash in the sky when it began to rain. Ember watched the fat droplets pound against her window, turning Javak a murky gray as the moon rose over the city of magic. He was still out there somewhere. She could feel him watching her from the darkness, could feel his ever-present spirit as aware of her as she was of him, now that she knew who he was—now that she knew her father was still alive.
With a sigh, Ember Shandae turned from the window and threw herself back on the bed. Three nights—three sleepless nights she’d spent in this room since the mage council had accepted her into the academy. Three nights of tossing and turning since Laerdish had made his betrayal known—and three nights since Ember had discovered that the white hawk who’d been watching her for so long was actually her father.
Ember sat up and surged off the bed once more to pace the small confines of the room, her thoughts and feelings a whirlwind of which she could make no sense. She had to find a way to get some rest. She’d never survive in the academy if she couldn’t sleep. “This is ridiculous,” she said to no one in particular.
Suddenly feeling claustrophobic and desperate to do anything to relax, Ember grabbed a towel, her weather charm, and a change of clothes and headed out the door. She walked quickly down the hall, her soft boots shuffling across the marble floor of the council house.
She’d been surprised at first when she’d been told to stay in the room Uncle Shad had arranged for her, but it made sense in a way. The people closest to her were nearby to protect her if necessary—Uncle Shad and DeMunth, Ezeker, Aldarin, and now her mother and Paeder. They’d all taken rooms near hers, though they didn’t seem to suffer the same trouble with sleeplessness that Ember did.
Ember left the council house and crossed the water bridge. She walked quickly through town. Only the pitter-patter of raindrops that didn’t touch her and the thundering waterfalls escorted her through what had been a bustling market the day before.
Everyone was gone now, with only crumpled paper and mounds of rotting food on the ground, and occasional feathers floating across the wet grass to show anyone had even been there.
Ember shook her head. Why can’t people pick up after themselves?
She arrived at the women’s bathing quarters and quickly checked herself in. The bath girl was asleep on a pad just inside the door. The girl who had nearly given Ember trouble at her trial didn’t stir as Ember tiptoed past to write her name in the book and leave a thumbprint.
Within five minutes, she had undressed and slid into the water. The edges were lukewarm and shallow, nowhere near what Ember needed to loosen the kinks that had settled in her shoulders. She waded slowly to the deep waters and swam toward the waterfall cascading from the cliff high above. Her toes found the sandy bottom once more as she neared the falls. Ember stepped directly into the stream and let the liquid begin its heated massage.
The tension immediately began to fade. The water was almost too hot—pleasurable to the point of pain.
It was perfect.
Ember closed her eyes and sat on a boulder sunk just beneath the waves. With her muscles beginning to relax, she could at last address the issues that had kept her sleepless these many nights.
First, her father was not only alive, but had become a messenger of the Guardian Mahal. She didn’t know how to feel. She was happy he was alive, disappointed he thought so little of her that he’d never told her he was there, angry that he’d been gone all these years, and elated that he had healed Paeder. She had to admit, she was also a little intimidated, knowing he worked for one of the creators of Rasann. She wanted to get to know him, wanted desperately for him to never have died, wanted to give him the tongue-lashing of his life and throw herself into his arms and never let go.
She felt like her insides were one giant pot of soup with opposing flavors—pineapple with hot peppers and potatoes and a handful of dirt for good measure. Her heart ached with the lack of a solution. More than anything, she wanted to sit down with her father and just talk and have a chance to resolve the conflict stirring within her.
That thought led Ember to the second, and probably more challenging, of her troubles.
She was the first white mage in three thousand years. She didn’t know how to use her magic, and there was no one around to train her. The weight of responsibility was overwhelming. A white mage was supposed to help heal their world, to mend the net of magic that surrounded Rasann. Ember had no idea where to begin, and neither did anyone else. What was she supposed to do? Teach herself? How could she mend a net she couldn’t even see?
Despite the fact they hadn’t yet left for the school, Ezeker had quizzed her endlessly since her acceptance into the academy, guiding her sight in what ways he could. He seemed to be a wonderful teacher, but Ember just didn’t see things the same way he did. She understood the concept clearly—she just couldn’t put it into practice.
“So there you are,” a relieved voice echoed across the waters. Ember jumped, her eyes snapping open as she scanned the room for the figure she knew she’d find on the other end of the voice. She wasn’t disappointed.
Feeling a little guilty for not telling anyone she was leaving, Ember sank her shoulders beneath the surface and swam slowly toward her mother, enjoying the slow transition from hot water, to warm, and almost chilled. Marda held up a large towel and stepped forward as Ember stood and climbed from the water. Her mother wrapped the towel around her without a word.
It was a sign of their changed relationship that her mother didn’t chastise her now, but instead put her arms around her daughter, as if Marda could feel the struggle within her—and also a change between them that Ember let her do it. When Marda let her go, they walked, mother’s arm around daughter as they went back to the dressing rooms.
Marda glanced down at the sleeping bath girl, her eyes flashing when she recognized her. She glanced at Ember, a wicked twinkle in her eye, then took the ink from the sign-in table and, using a corner of Ember’s towel, dabbed dark streaks across the girl’s cheeks and down the bridge of her nose.
Ember gasped. “What are you doing?” Marda put her finger to her lips and continued marking the girl. Ember clamped a hand over her own mouth and stifled an appalled giggle. She couldn’t believe her mother would do such a thing. It was a harmless prank, really. The ink would wash off—or so she hoped—and Ember enjoyed knowing her mother could let down her walls enough to let her daughter see her this way.
Putting a finger to her lips to remind Ember not to laugh, Marda put her thumb in the middle of the girl’s forehead, one last black oval, then set the ink pad on the floor next to the girl and stood. “Let’s get you dressed,” she whispered to her daughter before they moved on.
It was strange, being comfortable with her mother now, since their past relationship had been so challenging. Once the truth was out, Marda had become a different person. She was softer somehow, more full of purpose and compassion. And though she was still strict and kept close tabs on Ember, she’d finally given her daughter some of the freedom she’d craved for so long—being able to visit the baths so far from her rooms being an example of what she’d gained.
Mother and daughter went to the dressing room, Marda standing guard while Ember dried off and scrambled into her clean clothes, slipping the weather charm back around her neck last of all. Ember wasn’t going to step foot outside without it until the skies decided to stop spitting rain and mud.

The next morning, it was still raining and Ember had been forced to leave the weather charm behind, much to her consternation. No charms or talismans were allowed during practice, and today her new class had moved outside to the fields of Javak—the city that wasn’t looking so magical at the moment. She wiped dripping bangs from her face as she straightened and watched her soon-to-be classmates use their magic to clean the garbage left from the mage trials, and to make matters worse most of them were half her age. One couple had paired up, with the boy levitating the garbage off the ground and the girl incinerating it with a thought. Another girl made the wind blow everything in one direction, where a young boy circled it around him and then shot it outward to the garbage bin. Yet another girl made it disappear entirely.
And then there was Ember. She stabbed downward with a sharpened stick and picked up the trash the old-fashioned way. Things were supposed to have been different once she was accepted to the mage school. She was supposed to be able to use her magic just like anyone else. But for some strange reason, her magic wasn’t working. Her attempts at conjuring a fireball had summoned nothing but a plume of smoke. She couldn’t teleport the garbage, she couldn’t make the wind blow it away—she couldn’t even change it into something else. All she could do was bend over and pick it up or poke it with a stick.
“Worthless,” she muttered aloud. “What good is magic if I can’t make it work for me?” She stabbed hard at a sodden mass of paper. The stick penetrated something hard, the length vibrating like the handle of an axe when chopping hard wood. She pulled on the wood, but it wouldn’t budge. She got down on her knees and looked closer. The stick wasn’t wedged in a crack, as she’d thought. It was completely embedded in the rock. “How’d I do that?” she wondered aloud, standing and twisting the stick until a sharp snap freed it from the stone . . . minus the bottom three inches.
Frustrated, she threw the stick and yelled, the piece of wood tumbling end over end across the clearing. All the kids in the class stopped to stare for a moment before they went back to picking up their garbage, using their powers.
“Feel any better?” her stepbrother said from beside her. Ember jumped and turned in a single motion.
“Don’t do that,” she growled. She took a deep, shaky breath and let it out in one explosive blast before answering his question. “No. No, I don’t. Why can they use their powers and I can’t? What’s wrong with me?”
“Nothing,” Aldarin answered, putting an arm around her. “The whole point of this exercise is to learn how to use and control your powers in a safe environment. Sometimes it takes a little longer.”
“At least they had lessons,” Ember said, glaring at the group spread across the grass. “All I got was Ezeker telling me to do what feels best. I need a tutor! How am I supposed to learn without someone to teach me?” She snorted. “Do what seems right. Right now, doing what ‘feels best’ means poking somebody with a stick.”
Aldarin laughed. “I don’t think that’s what he meant.”
Ember turned her glare on him. “I know that, but it sure would get my frustration out. I don’t understand. I can’t even change the things I touch anymore. What am I doing wrong?”
Aldarin shook his head. “I’m not the person to ask, Sis. Only you would go and pick the one kind of magic nobody knows anything about. You’d think that being a white mage, you could use all the colors of magic.”
Ember snorted. “Yeah, that’s what I thought too. Evidently not. There’s got to be a textbook or some mage’s journal from the past. Surely they would have kept some kind of record. I’ll never get this without some help.”
“Wait until we get to the mage academy. The library is endless, and you never know what you might find in there. We can hope.”
“Right now that’s all I’ve got,” Ember said. She picked up another stick, pulled out her belt knife, and began whittling once more.
Ember had been unwillingly dragged before the mage council, her abilities and very identity thrown into question. She’d finally proven herself by reading the colors of magic for all seventy some-odd members of the Mage Council, and she could still see magic now. She could discern every shade and color of magic in all the people she saw . . . but she couldn’t tap into her own power.
Ember was grateful Aldarin stayed quiet while she whittled the stick to a point. The frustration inside of her bubbled and boiled like one of Ezeker’s potions, and there was no way to release it except to stab at the garbage. When she dreamed of being a mage, she’d never imagined how hard it could be.
Her new stick sharp, Ember went in search of more trash. Most of it was cleared after four hours of work in the large field, so Ember left Aldarin watching the class and went another direction, anxious to get away from her classmates and try some of her own magic in private, where she wouldn’t continue to embarrass herself with an audience.
She headed toward the permanent buildings on the west side of town, angling down the alleyways for trash that might have been blown about in the storm. Everything was wet. Muddy ash had collected against the buildings and window ledges.
The mage shields suddenly surged to life in a blue wave. Why it had taken so long to get the mage shields working again, she had no idea. Ezeker had his up in a matter of hours. Maybe he was just better at magic than the Magi in Karsholm. that made Ember jump, then Ember sighed with relief when the rain stopped pinging off her head. The field and paths would dry out soon and at long last the mud would be gone.
Ember came upon a U-shaped meeting of three buildings that had trash heaped against the walls. She sighed. People were such slobs. She took her stick and canvas bag and moved to the corner, still thinking over her problem.
How could she learn about white magic when there were no books, no teachers, and the only person who knew anything was one of the Guardians who had created the world? What was she supposed to do? Pray for a teacher? She was actually tempted to do just that. She stabbed downward, collecting a soggy mass of paper on the end of her stick, then paused. If her father would talk to her, maybe he could get a message back to Mahal to see if he really could help her find a teacher.
Ember heard shuffling footsteps behind her, but paid them no mind. It was most likely another student searching for more garbage, just like she had done. It wasn’t until sizzling heat and the crackle of flames were almost upon her that she instinctively dove for the mud, a fireball slamming into the stone wall just past where she’d stood. She rolled over and looked up, scrambling to find some place to hide, but she was cornered. Trapped on three sides, the only open space was filled with flittering shadows in the shape of people.
Her heart racing, Ember took her stick in her hands, wishing it were a sword, a polearm, a spear—anything but the wimpy wood she held. A flash of heat sparked across her palms and the weight in her hands suddenly increased, the wood shifting from warm and alive to cold, hard metal in an instant. She didn’t even question it, but took the gift for what it was and rushed forward, hoping to take the enemy by surprise. She raced into their midst, swinging the iron rod like a club and aiming for the empty space between them.
An arrow flew at her from out of nowhere, Ember never having seen the shooter. The shaft flicked through her hair, just inches from her neck. In an instant, Ember dropped the rod, and with a surge of overwhelming power, instantly became wolf without any of the slow changes she usually experienced. Her body flared with pain, but with the adrenaline pumping through her, she barely registered it. Suddenly, her sight and sense of smell heightened. The shadows still flickered, but they seemed to slow as her perception changed. And when she could not see them, she could certainly smell.
They moved in to surround her. Ember gathered herself and leaped directly at the man in front of her. He hesitated just long enough for her to bare her teeth and take him by the throat. Warm blood gushed into her mouth as she bit down, but her usual gag reflex was buried in her wolf survival instincts. The group of shadows rushed toward her. Ember let go of the man and he sank to the earth, clutching his throat and gurgling.
In an instant, she jumped over him and raced toward the field and the protection of Aldarin. She ran full tilt, running faster than she ever had, when she hit what felt like a brick wall. She yelped as her nose rammed into solid air and her body flipped up. She saw stars for a long moment, then shook her head and growled. They stalked toward her, more slowly now as they realized the danger she could be to them. The man whose throat she’d nearly torn out still lay on the ground, jerking spasmodically. The flickering shadows seemed to race from place to place, a zipping blur that put them here one moment, there the next, and Ember couldn’t focus on them long enough to defend against them.
Her mind raced. She couldn’t do this alone, but it appeared they had created a shield to hold her in, and she had no idea how to break through. She didn’t know how to fight. She didn’t know how to use her magic. She was alone, defenseless, but for her teeth and whatever magic would sporadically work for her. Terror began to build, and she backed slowly against the shield wall, wishing with all her heart that it would let her through. The shadowy people picked up their pace and raced toward her, though still in a zig-zagging blur.
She backed farther away, the pressure building behind her and seeming to crawl up her body as she stepped rearward, her tail between her legs, her lips pulled back in a snarl, blood from her victim and drool mixing to drop in rivulets to the ground. The closest person raced toward her and she jumped away, the growl rumbling in her throat.
Suddenly she was not alone. A figure in glowing yellow armor landed at her side, his shining sword cutting toward her attacker, slicing him neatly in half, top and bottom hitting the ground separately. The shadows stopped and held still for a moment. DeMunth didn’t give them a chance to attack again. He raced toward the figures as they turned to flee, his feet moving so fast, he seemed to have wings. Ember sat stunned for a brief moment, then raced after him. She couldn’t let him fight alone.
But her efforts were in vain, for by the time she reached DeMunth’s side, her attackers had reached the U-shaped building, leaped to the rooftop, then jumped skyward and disappeared.

Chapter Two

Kayla trailed her fingers through the water wall and stared into the depths of the sea. For some reason, the thin membrane that held the sea at bay glowed with an eerie blue light that drew the creatures that lived in the depths to investigate. In addition to the near-constant school of fish that seemed to follow Kayla wherever she went, tonight there was a family of sea turtles and a manta ray. The latter in particular fascinated Kayla, and she unconsciously found herself digging in her bag for her flute. Not The Sapphire Flute, not for this, but the flute Brant’s father had given her when she was eleven years old.
She pulled the instrument to her lips and let her fingers run up and down the keys, a quick stuttering of scales that made the school of fish dart away, then slowly collect just outside the wall again, their bodies tilted to the side much like a young child’s cocked head, listening to her tune.
Instead of falling back on her standards like Darthmoor’s Honor, Kayla tried something new—something she’d tried only with The Sapphire Flute before. She played from her soul a random sampling of notes that blended, became measures, and eventual songs written for the sea, written for the visitors who swept back and forth across her field of vision. She played for the fish and for the sea turtles, for the manta ray and for the sea itself. She played for the sand tunnel and the waterways that traveled across the floors of the oceans the world wide and felt a surge of majestic gratitude flow back toward her. It almost stopped her playing, so surprised was she, but instead she redirected her efforts high, up beyond the sea to the heavens, where the Guardians lived and had breathed life to the world. She played a question for them. Where should I go? Where should I go?
And finally the answer came, a whisper of thought that seemed to echo from the heavens and through the water. With relief she heard the words she’d wished for these last three nights. Go home, Kayla. Go to Brant. That stopped her playing abruptly, her heart suddenly pounding in her chest, a mixture of fear and joy. Go home to Brant? It was all she’d wanted these three nights full of nightmares. She’d seen him fall, released by the dragon high in the sky. She’d seen him plummeting to his death and had played to save him, but every night she awoke with his cry of pain as his body pounded the earth. Had he survived? She’d held him up as long as she could, but had he truly been safe? Was he injured?
The questions had kept her sleepless and indecisive. She knew she needed to go to the mountains behind Javak and find the birthplace of the flute. She knew she needed to find The Wolfchild, the chosen one, and find the true player of The Sapphire Flute, much as it pained her. But how could she do all that, knowing her fiancĂ©e could be injured, or worse—dead?
Kayla stared past the wall once more, her fingers reaching through the water membrane to touch the rubbery edges of the manta ray. It nudged closer, nearly caressing her hand before it jerked to the side and streamed away in a burst of speed. The school of fish and sea turtles followed immediately after, and it was only then Kayla saw the two bubbles of light swimming toward her. It wasn’t until they were nearly upon her that she realized it was two of Sarali’s people, the MerCats, coming by for a visit. Kayla stepped back, her palms suddenly clammy and nervous as they leaped through the water wall as if it were nothing more than air, tails swishing as they stared at her.
They crouched, looking part beaver and part jaguar, before they melted and pulled upward into human form. When the transformation was complete, they gave her a slight nod and strolled down the sandy walkway toward where Kayla had left Sarali and T’Kato sleeping. Unable to help herself, she followed the two beings, not sure whether it was to protect her friends, or listen in on whatever was important enough to bring the MerCats here.
Before the two reached Kayla’s friends, T’Kato rolled to his feet, knives in hands, and Sarali sat up and brought her knees to her chest.
“What do ye want, Niefusu?” Sarali asked, looking up at the taller one, who was a hair taller than Kayla.
“Father wishes ye to join him for an audience,” the shorter one said.
“I was not speaking to ye, Jihong,” Sarali nearly snarled. Kayla was surprised. Though she’d known Sarali only a short time, she had always been mild-mannered and polite.
The shorter one called Jihong bowed low, almost mockingly. “It matters not who answers, little sister. His reply would be the same.”
“But I want to hear it from his lips,” Sarali barked again, surging to her feet. T’Kato closed in, standing by her side and looking as if he’d jump in front of her, should the need arrive.
The tall one, Niefusu, finally deigned to answer. “Father wishes to see ye. Would ye please grace us with yer presence, princess?” He bowed, not full of anger or scorn like Kayla would have thought, but more a deep, deep sadness that sang through his voice.
Kayla startled. “Princess?” she asked, but Sarali ignored her. Kayla moved closer and stopped only when the short brother blocked her way. “Why didn’t you say anything?” she asked, stepping to the side so she could see the girl she thought was her maid.
Sarali exhaled sharply. “Because it wasn’t important. Now hush,” she said, looking at her brothers. She seemed undecided for a moment, but a glance at T’Kato hardened her. “Me marriage is sealed. He cannot break it now, and I am on an errand that cannot be delayed. Tell Father I most graciously decline his offer, though—” she paused for just a moment and glanced at her husband, then mumbled— “I would stay if I could.”
Niefusu bowed. Jihong snorted and turned his back on her, only to see Kayla watching. She still fumed at Sarali’s betrayal and dismissal. The girl outranked her, even though they came from differing kingdoms. She wasn’t sure how she felt about that. Jihong’s snarl turned into one of guarded pleasure as he saw her. “It was ye we heard playing?” he asked.
Kayla nodded.
“Ye are masterfully good. It is an honor to hear one such as ye. Thank ye for gracing me ears with yer music.” He nodded once more, then stormed past Kayla and dove into the wall of water.
Niefusu also bowed to Kayla. “It truly is an honor, me lady.” He nodded to his sister and T’Kato. “I am sorry, but Father insists.” At that, several more MerCats stepped through the waterwall, armed and in fully human form. Before T’Kato could draw his sword, he had been disarmed and thrown to the sandy earth. Sarali leaped toward her tall brother, a snarl on her face, and Kayla could see her animal nature shining through the polished exterior. Before she could reach Niefusu, one of the guards had taken her about the waist and thrown her through the water wall.
Niefusu leaned over T’Kato and, in his musical voice, asked the thrashing tattooed Ketahean, “Do ye wish to remain here, pinned to the sand, or would ye rather accompany yer wife into her father’s presence?”
T’Kato immediately stilled. He swallowed and answered, “I will accompany you, if you will return my weapons.”
Niefusu nodded to the guards, who immediately handed the knives back to the Ketahean. He came to his feet and swung at the guard, who remained just out of reach. The other two took a step toward T’Kato, but Niefusu raised a warning hand to hold them back. “Our argument is not with ye, discipled one. We wish only to converse with our sister in our father’s presence, and then ye may be free to go on yer way.”
T’Kato stopped and narrowed his eyes, confusion evident on his face, then nodded sharply before stepping past Niefusu into the water wall. The tall MerCat turned to Kayla. “And what of ye, me lady? Shall we accompany ye to the surface?”
Kayla nodded her head, packed her flute back in its rosewood case, and stuffed it in her satchel. Then, on a whim, she pulled The Sapphire Flute from her bag and raised it to her lips. “Do you know what this is?” she asked, her voice vibrating the instrument to life, a small echo sounding down the waterways. Niefusu’s eyes grew round as he nodded. Kayla played a single note and the air around them chilled until their teeth chattered. Then she pulled the instrument from her lips and put it away. “I am its guardian, and they are mine,” She said, nodding toward the wall where both T’Kato and Sarali had gone. “Where they go, I go.”
Niefusu met her eyes, then gave a sharp nod, much like the one T’Kato had given just moments before. He took Kayla by the hand and led her to the wall. Her heart raced as she stepped near the membrane that held the water into place, unsure what this man intended. He stepped through first, his hands still on her hips. Holding her in place on the sand, he swung around to meet her lips with his own, only the skin of the water separating them. Kayla was so surprised she forgot to breathe for a moment. Then Niefusu exhaled and the skin holding back the water wall grew around her head to form a huge void that let her inhale.
Her mouth tingled as he backed away, took her by the hand, and led her to a chariot pulled by what looked to be dolphins. This chariot was horizontal, with a sled-like surface, a handlebar for them to grip, and a ledge for her feet. He settled her on the sled, wrapped a cord around her waist, and showed her where to place her hands, then he stepped up beside her and hummed a note that set the dolphins to moving at a breakneck pace.
Kayla always felt a little claustrophobic with the bubble around her head, and her natural inclinication was to pant, but she didn’t want to drown on her way to meet the king of the MerCats, so she inhaled slowly. Kayla felt odd knowing that her serving girl was actually a princess. How had that happened? How had Brant not known? And why would Sarali settle for the life of a servant, when she had had so much more? She’d had the notoriety, the position that Kayla had sought for most of her life, and she had left it willingly to marry T’Kato?
Kayla didn’t understand and wasn’t sure she wanted to. Losing everything she’d gained after working so hard for so long was still a bitter taste to her. She knew in her head that it had no meaning, really—but the reality of everything was so far beyond the life she ever envisioned for herself that she still took comfort in her dreams of normalcy. She wanted to be the duchess of Driane. She wanted Brant to be her husband. She wanted lots of little children running about her feet and a nursemaid to care for them.
She was beginning to see that the life she’d imagined was really just a fantastic dream.
The carriage surged through the ocean at a breakneck pace and Kayla became aware of the beauty around her. From somewhere, purple magelights throbbed, setting the world around her to dancing in a strange wave of light. The seaweed, if that’s what it was, grew tall, like giant blades of grass undulating in the current. Schools of fish and sea serpents peeked from behind the fronds of fern-like growth. A manta ray, maybe even the one she’d played for earlier, surfed at their side, his movement strangely bird-like as he kept the dolphins company. She let go of the bar long enough to reach out a hand and touch his rubbery flesh once more and he let her, a slight tremor easing through his length before he looked at her with flattened eyes and nearly smiled.
When Kayla turned back to the sight in front of them, she looked beyond the surging backs of the dolphins to see a city, a sparkling gem of a palace, glittering before her. Two other sled-like chariots entered the massive front gates, and Kayla assumed they carried Sarali and T’Kato. She glanced behind her to see several more chariots with the guards who had attacked T’Kato following. She truly was a captive, whether she’d gone with them willingly or not. It scared her more than anything, aside from losing The Sapphire Flute. She set her eyes on the MerCat palace and steeled her nerves. Whatever lay ahead, she’d handle it with the best she had within her, be it with the power of The Sapphire Flute or the charm she’d gained in ten years at court.